Discover Your Roots, Part #2: Building Stories and the Anatomy of an Record

My favorite photo of my great grandfather, Arthur B. Holmes.

So, you’ve decided to begin or continue building your family tree. Excellent! Future generations will thank you. (If you’re not sure how to get started, see Part 1 in this series, 7 Steps to Get Started With Ancestry.) Once you get a few people put into your family tree (which is free to do), you will probably begin spending a lot of time adding facts and details to the records on the tree. This post is devoted to pointing out many of the important features of each record, and then taking a close look at one of the newer features of records, the Lifestory.

Anatomy of a Record

Facts are connected to multiple sources.

At the top of an record is your ancestor’s full birth name, birth and death dates and locations, and their relation to you. There is also a profile photo spot that draws from the gallery of images you have for that person. You can set any of the images as the “main” one which will show in this location and in your family tree. There are also links to various tools, and editing and navigation options.

Below the header is a stripe with the same options that are listed under “Tools.” This stripe can be toggled on or off. One of the features here is the Notes section. Inevitably, you’ll end up with a lot of information that just doesn’t fit in any of the other record fields. That information can be put in the Notes field, and you can also store notes to yourself here to help with your research later.

Next is another stripe with four options: Lifestory, Facts, Gallery, and Hints. I’ll cover “Lifestory” in more detail below. Facts are simply the person’s life facts. Names, dates, locations of where they were born, lived, married, had children, traveled, and died show up here, as well as any other facts that you include (there are dozens of types). Click on each fact and the site shows the connection between that fact with the supporting sources in the Sources column. Obviously, the more connections the better here. These Sources can be found on, other places on the internet, or uploaded from your own documents and photos. Ancestry’s resources are vast, though; if you’re serious about researching your genealogy, their collection of resources makes research very easy, and I encourage you to give their 14-day free trial a whirl. You’re likely to be hooked.

Still on the Facts page, the Sources column allows you to both upload documents and add weblinks. To the right of the Sources is a column listing other members of the person’s family. Here, you can see names and birth/death dates of parents, spouses and children, and (if you toggle it on) the person’s siblings. These are helpful for navigation within your tree, and for seeing where you may be missing information.

Each person in your family tree has their own gallery.

The Gallery section of Ancestry records includes all photos and documents you have uploaded for the person, along with images from census reports, passenger lists, marriage listings, draft registration cards, and other sources you have attached to events for this person. Any of these can be used as that person’s profile photo.

With enough data to analyze, Ancestry provides many hints for helping you find primary sources and other connections for your ancestors.

The Hints page is one of Ancestry’s best features. Anyone with an Ancestry account can see these hints for their family tree members, but it does take a paid account (or the free trial) to be able to look closely at the documents and attach them to your tree. These primary sources and Ancestry Member Trees found here, though, are a treasure trove of information that can help you link your family members and ancestors to even more people, back in time and sideways, further than you thought possible. Currently, the oldest ancestor on my tree was born in the 1200s. Yeah. I know.

The Lifestory

A section of Arthur’s Lifestory.

Once a record has some facts with dates in it, the Lifestory tab starts filling in with interesting tidbits mixed among the Facts and life events, with pieces of history that happened in your ancestor’s lifetime and in the location in which they lived or visited. Some of my great grandfathers, for example, were the right age to register for the draft for World War I, so a photo referencing that event along with information about the draft shows up in their Lifestory timelines. Clicking on this item takes you to a page with many more photos and historical information about the institution of the draft at that time. Other historical events that show up in my great grandfathers’ Lifestory timelines include the end of Prohibition, the New Deal programs, and the Great Dayton (Ohio) Flood of 1913, since many of my maternal ancestors are from Ohio. These events mingle with birth, marriage, and death dates of the ancestor and their immediate family to create a fuller narrative of their life.

Arthur’s life map. It includes the locations I’ve added so far.

In addition, the Lifestory timeline includes a map of any known locations for the person, marked with place markers for birth, death, marriage, homes, trips, and more. Especially for ancestors too far back to have been known personally by anyone you know, this helps us see their history as full lives having been lived, building stories rather than just being a series of facts and figures, names and dates. It helps build them up as individual people with hopes, dreams, and unique experiences. Ancestry also seems to add more events to these Lifestory timelines as time goes on. You can toggle both the historical events and family facts on or off for this timeline.

The more documents and events you add to your Ancestry family records, the more complete of a story you make for each person. This will help you develop more complete family history narratives, if you wish to write and even publish overarching histories for your family branches. You can also choose to share your research on Ancestry with family members, or with the public, for informational or collaborative purposes.

Publishing hard copies of family histories used to be more common, especially for notable ancestor families, or for founding families for communities. People would pay to self-publish these books, usually printing a small run for those interested. These days, self-publishing is easier than ever, with no up-front costs, other than time and effort. Or, you can publish in digital form, from e-books to blog posts. Ancestry‘s extensive resources and primary sources can help with any research you’d need.

Check out Part 1 in this series, 7 Steps to Get Started With Ancestry, and stay tuned soon for the next post!

Note: Ancestry gave me access to some of their resources for the purpose of this series.

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