Observations on downloading a family tree from Ancestry

Like most things in life, downloading your family tree from Ancestry is not as simple as might be expected. For it to work well, you need to prepare your tree first and tidy up afterwards.

How to download your family tree

Open the family tree that you want to download, then open the Tree Settings. Under the heading Manage your tree there is a button labelled Export tree. Click on the button, wait until it creates the file and you can then download it and save it to your computer.

A few important points:

  • You can only download your own family tree and you can only download the entire tree.
  • The file type is a GEDCOM file. Although it is a text file and can be opened in Word or similar programs, it is really only useful if you import it into family history software. I cannot speak for all the software, but for Legacy Family Tree, I have to import the file, not open it.
  • The file you download is a copy. It does not delete or remove your tree from Ancestry.
  • The GEDCOM file does not include all the images that are attached to your tree, but it does include the source citations.

Alternatives to downloading your tree

  • If you have Family Tree Maker (FTM) software, you can sync your tree on Ancestry with your tree in FTM.
  • You can print profiles of individuals or parts of your family tree from Ancestry to a PDF.
  • You can print the entire family tree using MyCanvas to create a family history book or chart.

Issues that I observed when downloading a tree

These observations are only relevant for Legacy Family Tree software, but similar results may also occur with other software.

While I have not conducted a thorough review of the tree that I imported into my family history software from Ancestry, the process does appear to correctly include all the people in a tree, including those with multiple marriages.

The imported file does not automatically select the starting person in the family tree, so you need to reset that after importing it into your software.

In Legacy Family Tree there is a field below births on each person’s profile where you can enter christenings or baptisms. The imported file moved baptism information to the Events/Facts section. I assume this occurred because I have the label in Legacy set to christenings, even though I also place baptisms there. If that is an issue for you, you might need to check that you have this field labelled as baptisms before you import the tree.

The imported file placed AKA names as Notes instead of recording them as Alternative Names.

AKA from Ancestry tree added as a General Note in Legacy, as well as the other unwanted text that appears in each profile.

Where I had put notes in the Description field of a birth death or marriage fact on my Ancestry tree, the imported file appropriately added these as notes to the relevant BDM entry in Legacy.

Notes that I had attached to a birth fact in my Ancestry tree were appropriately placed as notes to the birth fact in Legacy family tree.

The imported file left extraneous text in the General notes of each person (see the AKA image above).

Place names in the imported file are only as good as the information in the Ancestry tree. Ancestry sometimes adds incorrect place names when sources are attached – for example, for Australian electoral rolls it adds the electoral district instead of the suburb. Place names in an Ancestry tree should be tidied up before downloading a copy of the tree.

Source citations are also only as good as the citation in Ancestry. Unfortunately, the quality of citations is variable. This is probably the bit that needs the most work before you download your tree, as downloading information without adequate source citations is not very useful.

My tips for fixing source citations

Make sure that all of your sources are attached to the relevant facts in your Ancestry tree, as sometimes the link does not happen. If you click on a source or a fact, there should be a line linking the two.

The imported citation will only include the text that Ancestry records on the Citation Details tab. It will not include the text from the Ancestry Record tab. The details on the Ancestry Record tab may be essential for tracking down the source, so the omission is quite significant. To overcome this problem, you should edit the source citation to add these details before downloading the tree.

Example citation details tab for an Australian birth record. Note that it does not contain the date or reference number, so the citation will be incomplete.
Same source, with the date and reference number appearing on the Ancestry Record tab.
Click on Edit Citation (not Edit Source!) and add the details from the Ancestry Record tab.
Same source, after editing it to add the details.

This problem with missing details is not always an issue. For example, citations for census records do tend to include the details on the Citation Details tab (see below).

Citation details tab for an English Census citation.

Some citations in my imported files had extraneous information and gobblygook (see below). This appears to occur when the citation has text under the heading Notes in the Ancestry citation tab. I was unable to find a way to remove that text in Ancestry before downloading the tree, so it will have to be deleted from the imported file in my family history software. It appears to be a rare occurrence, but something to look out for.

Example of where Ancestry added text on the Citation details tab under the heading Note. This ended up in my citation after importing the tree into my family history software (see below).
The resulting citation in my software.

Final tips

Downloading a copy of your Ancestry tree and saving it on your own computer is highly recommended. However, be aware of these types of issues and resolve them first, so that the resulting file is useful for your research.

Download copies of source images to your computer before downloading your tree. It is a good idea to do this each time you attach an image to your tree, so that it is not such a huge task later.


Analysing name variations

Name variations are common, even within families, and it is not unusual to find a name spelled differently in different sources. However, dismissing these variations too quickly may result in your family history becoming inaccurate. It is important to analyse name variations carefully and gather sufficient evidence for each conclusion.

Four main reasons for name variations

Lack of standardised spelling

The spelling of names has never really been standardised, by which I mean a common agreement to spell a name a certain way. Instead, we have common spellings, which may or may not be passed onto subsequent generations.

The spelling of names may vary between related family groups, between locations, change over time or even vary within a single family group.

For example, my maternal grandmother’s surname was Rusten, but the first arrival in Australia on that line spelled it as Rushton and different families have spelled it as Ruston and Rustin.

Nicknames, middle names and abbreviations

People may be known by names other than those given to them at birth. They may use this name all of the time, or just some of the time, or assume it at a certain point in their life. Or, they may be called different names by different people. Sources might record them by their given name or by their nickname, or by an abbreviation. If you are lucky, they will use abbreviations that are in common usage, but not always.

Accidental variations during source creation

Name variations commonly occur during the process of creating a source document. Errors can occur in all sources, including original sources. However, the likelihood of errors increases with derivative sources. Errors may involve minor spelling substitutions or more substantial alterations.

For example, my father’s 4x great grandfather, Patrick Dwyer, is often recorded in sources as Patrick Dyer and in an index to immigration records on Ancestry he is listed as Patrick Ayer.

These types of errors are particularly common when names of non-English origin are recorded by English speakers. (See Kate Bagnall’s article about Chinese names in Australia)

Deliberate changes

Deliberate changes are not as uncommon as you might expect. A person may change the spelling of a name, translate it or transform it, or adopt an entirely different name. Some cultures use different names in different circumstances, while others change the surname with each generation.

Some examples:

My maternal 4x great grandmother, Mary Ann Leonard, took on the surname of her stepfather Thomas Foran and became Mary Ann Foran.

My paternal great grandmother, Bertha Hawkins, took on the surname of her biological father and became Bertha Dixon.

My father’s name was changed from Barry Flanagan to Barry Hawkins when he was adopted.

My maternal great grandfather changed his name from James Hen to James Hend in the 1890s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was high in Australia.

Search strategies

There are many articles online about search strategies that deal with name variations, so I will just list the key strategies:

  • A Soundex search or wildcard search may pick up variations that are not found using an exact spelling search.
  • Try a surname-only search to avoid variations in first names.
  • Consult lists of common nicknames and abbreviations.
  • Use different repositories (indexes) and sources.
  • Search alphabetical lists to pick up variations you may not have considered, e.g. all surnames starting with Rus.
  • Try common variations, such as single letter, double letter, different vowels and misread letters. Consult spelling substitution lists.


Substantiating conclusions where name variations are involved can be quite a challenge, as they tend to be unpredictable and you will rarely a formal change of name document. I was lucky in two of the four examples I provided above, as the name changes were formally documented in government records.

So, how do you analyse name variations and reach reasonable conclusions that the person is the same or that two people are related, despite the variation?

It helps if you treat name variations as inconsistencies. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires that inconsistencies be resolved. Resolution in this case means establishing that the person is the same in each source and that the name variation is not evidence of a different identity.

Be careful of assumptions. Gather your evidence, rule out other explanations and verify your conclusions.

Record all variations in the name of the person that you are researching and record the name as it was spelled in each source. Of course, you will need to choose one name to be the primary name for your family tree. There is no rule guiding this choice. Perhaps the most common options are to use the name recorded on their birth record, their death record or the name the person used most often.

Analyse name variations using similar strategies that you would use to determine if two people with the same name were same person:

  • gather more sources and more evidence
  • identify the informant and consider how likely it was that their information was reliable
  • consider how the information was recorded
  • correlate the information using reliable sources
  • consider whether the person was in the right place at the right time, if they had the same occupation, were the same religion and so on
  • learn everything you can about the person, look for patterns and investigate any doubts you may have.

Most importantly, put the information into context and broaden your search. Use timelines, sources that record family groups (such as census documents) and apply the FFANs technique (Family, Friends, Associates and Neighbours).

If a name change is linked to an event or identifiable timeframe, find evidence of that event or sources from that time period to see if they explain the name change.

Finally, remember that source citations merely document where you obtained the information, such as how a name was spelled. They do not explain a name variation or provide evidence of identity. You will need additional documentation that sets out the evidence that you relied upon in reaching your conclusion that the person using the different name variations was indeed the same person.

More information

NSW State Archives Change of Name Guide

AIATSIS guide to indigenous names

Baxter, Carol, Help! Why Can’t I Find My Ancestor’s Surname, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Article on the Anglicisation of names

Sources and resources

Citing an archival source

One of the challenges when using archives is how to cite their materials as the source of your information. Archival materials are unpublished and come in a wide range of formats. In addition, each archive organises their collections differently, so you need to investigate their organisational system and the identifiers that they use in their catalogue.

Citation format

My usual method for citing sources is to use the following six questions and place the answers in that general order in a citation. This puts the author in first place, which is useful in a bibliography that is sorted alphabetically.

My six question model for source citations:

  1. Whose work is it (author)?      
  2. What is it?                      
  3. Who created it (if not the author)?
  4. Where was it created?
  5. When was it created?
  6. Are there any additional details required to find it again?    

This method does work for archival sources, as shown by the following examples:

An unpublished diary held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

A photograph held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

However, some archives suggest a different citation structure. They suggest that the name of the institution or repository be in first place in the citation, followed by descriptor information such as the record series and alphanumerical codes used in their catalogues.

Some, such as the NSW State Archives and the UK National Archives, omit the name of the creator of the source altogether or suggest that the information is optional in a citation. I do not agree with this. It is important in family history to understand who created a source and naming them in a citation should not be optional. It is also important to understand the nature of the source and a citation without the title of the item does not meet our needs.

Putting the repository in first place is not a problem if the creator of the source is clearly named, such as in this example from the NSW State Archives:

NSW State Archives: Supreme Court of NSW, Probate Division; NRS 13660, Probate packets. Series 4-152266 James Smith Hollisen – Date of Death 15/12/1927, Granted On 26/06/1928.

Further guidance

If you are using material from a family history archive, you may be able to gather information to help with your citation by examining other material that was donated with it, and looking for a record of who donated the material and whose family history it belongs to.

Some archives provide guidelines for citing their materials. You should use their guidelines, but bear in mind my suggestions in this article about providing more information about the creator of the materials and a clear description of the materials.

When creating a source citation for archival material, remember the reasons for source citations and include all the necessary information to achieve those purposes. You might like to read my earlier blog posts on this topic: Four good reasons, Part 1; Four good reasons, Part 2.

A few archival guidelines:

National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet No. 7, Citing archival records.

NSW State Archives

UK National Archives

Sources and resources

Explore the photographic collections of archives and libraries

Photographs make a wonderful contribution to a family history, but not all of us are lucky enough to have a large collection of family photos. Fortunately, we can use the collections of archives and libraries to supplement any photographs that we may have.

It is possible that an archive or library may hold photographs of your family, particularly if they are local to the areas in which they lived. The chances are fairly slim, but don’t let that stop you from trying!

Do not despair if you cannot find family photographs, as there are others that can be useful in your research. Photographs of places where your ancestors may have lived, for example, are a great way to get a feel for what their lives were like.

You should also look for photographs of unrelated people who lived around the same times and localities, as they can provide information about your ancestors’ lifestyle, such as the hairstyles and clothing styles that were in trend at the time or the types of homes they may have lived in. Examining photographs of people with similar occupations may also provide useful insights. Just be aware that there would be differences depending upon income and cultural group, and that a single photograph is not evidence of a lifestyle.

Many archives and libraries hold collections of photographs. Here a just a few Australian examples:

The Pictures collection of the National Library of Australia focuses on Australian people, places and events, from early European exploration of the South Pacific to contemporary events. Search their catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the format option to ‘picture’. Type in your search term and date range. If the image has been digitised you should be able to view it online.

It is difficult for me to choose a highlight from such a large collection, but perhaps you might be interested in their collection of photographs by John Mulligan, if you are researching Australia in the 1960s. For my own research, I found some great photographs about the early tobacco industry in Australia.

State Libraries also have large photographic collections. The NSW State Library, for example, holds over two million photographs documenting the lives of past and present Australians, their society and buildings and landscapes. They also have digital images of artwork, some of which cover the period before photography was available. Search their catalogue and limit the format option to ‘picture’. The catalogue contains information about whether you can view an image online or in person.

My favourite photographs in the NSW State Library are the Holtermann Collection of the goldfields in the 1870s, but you should also check out the First Fleet artists and their collections about the immigration experience.

Schoolboys and teachers, Hill End 1870s, Holtermann Collection, Mitchell Library (NSW State Library) (Identifier YOKBGLV1)

Archives also collect photographs, although their collections are often smaller than the libraries and they may not have as many available online. The NSW State Archives, for example, has thousands of photographs produced by government agencies. Some of their photographs are published on Flickr and some are available online through the NSW State Library catalogue.

My favourites in the NSW State Archives are photographs around Sydney Harbour (NSW), particularly the Industrial School ships, the Vernon and Sobraon.

Family history libraries and archives may also hold photographs. The archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists, for example, has over 40,000 photographs. Unlike the libraries mentioned above, their collection is not limited to Australia and you will find photographs of places such as England, Ireland and Scotland. You can search the catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the results by setting the classification to ‘photographs’. The society’s photographs are not available to view online, but you can order copies through the catalogue or make arrangements to view them in person.

My favourite photo in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists is this one (below), but other favourites can be viewed on the Highlights page.

Daguerreotype c1847, probably John Marsh, Harrison collection in the Society of Australian Genealogists (being accessioned)

Don’t forget to explore online archives too. The Internet Archive, for example, has over four million images. You can also extract copies of photographs from the digital books that they hold. This website will probably be of more use for generic photographs of places, or activities such as logging or carpentry.

Using the images

One of the benefits of using photographs from a library collection is that they have been catalogued by a professional librarian and the catalogue entry provides all the information you need for a decent source citation and caption. The quality of catalogue entries for archives is variable and may not provide you with sufficient details.

Libraries and archives usually do not provide specific copyright information for each photograph. It is up to you as the user to determine whether copyright applies and to comply with the applicable regulations. In Australia, photographs taken before 1955 are out of copyright. However, copyright is not an issue if you are just using the photograph for research purposes and do not publish it. Putting a photograph online is usually considered publishing.

Even if there are no copyright restrictions, a library or archive may still request that you acknowledge them if you use a photograph from their collection. See, for example, this page from the NSW State Library about copyright and acknowledgements.

Sources and resources

Going beyond online family trees

Most of us consult online family trees on sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, but there are other places to find family trees too – in family histories that have been deposited in libraries and archives.

Compiled family histories are a great resource, because they don’t just contain family trees. They may also have associated materials such as letters and original documents. This extra information provides context – the histories behind the trees. It may also provide extra evidence to support or refute your conclusions and extra details to enrich your stories.

Where do you find compiled family histories?

Libraries that specialise in family history tend to have the largest collections of compiled family histories. In Australia, for example, the Society of Australian Genealogists’ library contains close to 5000 published family histories and the Genealogical Society of Victoria holds over 2000. Local libraries and large generalist libraries may also contain some, but their family history collections tend to focus on ‘how-to’ books and registers, rather than the end result of research.  

Archives may also hold compiled family histories and family history collections that contain family trees, but it depends on the purpose of the archives. Again, the archives of family history organisations are your best bet for finding compiled family histories.

Online collections of books, such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust and Google Books, are also good places to search for family histories. The relevance of these books to your research will vary depending on which countries you are researching. For example, I haven’t found much relating to my Australian research but I have found some great resources for my Jamaican research.

FamilySearch has been digitising family histories in its own collection and collections of major libraries and research partners. They have over 375,000 digitised publications in their Digital Library.

The FamilySearch wiki also provides information about compiled family histories for some locations. See for example, United States Compiled Genealogies.

Accessing compiled family histories

The biggest challenge in accessing compiled family histories is identifying them in the catalogue. It is pointless searching for ‘family history’ or ‘genealogy’ as that search will bring up all books in the field, including guides and indexes.

Family history libraries do tend to make clearer distinctions in their catalogues between different types of family history books and may even give compiled family histories a separate classification to help you find them.

Archives tend to allow you to search their catalogues for your ancestors by name, which may help you find compiled family histories; and some libraries (such as the Genealogical Society of Victoria) have an online name index that achieves the same outcome.

Accessing digital copies of compiled family histories can present a challenge, due to copyright restrictions. Older publications are easier, as they are out of copyright. I find that visiting a family history library in person is usually the best way to access compiled family histories.

Family history indexes provide bibliographies of published family histories. Some countries have published indexes and some have online indexes. In Australia, for example, Family History Connections has an online index of over 10,000 titles. Indexes are great tools and may help you overcome the deficiencies in library catalogues.

Using compiled family histories

Compiled family histories are derivative sources and their contents need to be treated as research leads, not as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’.

If you use the stories in compiled family histories in your own work, don’t forget to include an appropriate source citation.