Need a family tree to attach to your DNA test results? Here are 3 (relatively) quick ways to get one—and the answer to a related question, “What the heck is a GEDCOM?”
Perhaps you have taken a DNA test, but you don’t consider yourself a genealogist. You haven’t built your family tree. But you are curious about your roots, and you’d like to explore your DNA matches and figure out how you’re related. To do that most effectively, you need to attach a family tree file, or GEDCOM, to your DNA test results.
What’s a GEDcom?
People who trace their family history organize their findings in family tree files. These files are basically digital diagrams showing the identities of your relatives and how they are related to each other. It’s possible to create family tree files online at genealogy websites or in software designed for that purpose.
Wherever these files are created, they can be exported or downloaded as GEDCOM files. Pronounced “jed-com,” these files have a .GED filename extension. This universal filetype can be shared across platforms—and with your DNA testing company.
Why do I need a family tree for my DNA test results?
Attaching a family tree to your DNA test results is crucial for helping you to figure out how you are related to your DNA matches. On some DNA testing company websites, when you add a family tree, you activate important tools that can expedite your research. These tools automatically compare your family tree with the trees of your matches to give you clues about your relationship.
Note: to work with your DNA matches, your family tree needs to reflect your genetic ancestry, to the best of your knowledge. If you have knowledge of one parent’s ancestry, that’s a great start. (These tips on searching for a birth parent’s ancestry can help, too.) If you don’t know your genetic ancestry at all, read these tips for adoptees and others with unknown parentage. Whatever your situation, eventually you’ll be working with family trees (your own or those of your DNA matches).
How do you get a family tree file or GEDCOM?
The gold-standard answer for this question: do genealogy research and enter your findings in your favorite platform or software.
But….This often takes time, some degree of knowledge, and access to subscription websites and archives. It’s worth taking the time to do it right. And to do it yourself, so you get to know your family history and you know it’s right. There’s an entire chapter on building a family tree in Your DNA Guide—the Book, just for DNA testers who are new to family trees.
MEANWHILE, what if you want a family tree NOW so you can start working with your DNA matches? We understand that kind of impatience. So, while we’re going to reiterate that eventually, you’ll want that well-researched, reliable family tree, you may be able to come up with a “good enough to get started with DNA matching” tree. Following are 3 ways to do that. But first, grab this free guide to helping you use your DNA to find missing ancestors on your family tree!
Ready to use your DNA to help find missing ancestors on your family tree? Check out our free guide, 4 Next Steps for Your DNA.
1. Get a family tree from someone else
If you’re lucky enough to have a relative who has researched your family tree in the past 20 years or so, that person likely has entered the information in a GEDCOM file. Ask around: your siblings, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles—has anyone created a family tree file? Will anyone share it with you? They can export it from their software or genealogy website (except for FamilySearch, which is a little more complicated—keep reading). Then they can email it to you.
Every once in a while, you’ll find a relative who’s less-eager to share their hard-won research (or who might be sitting on family secrets they haven’t shared). It may take patience and a little trust-building before they will share their tree file with you. Meanwhile, you have other options….
2. Download your family tree from FamilySearch, Geni.com or WikiTree
FamilySearch, Geni.com and WikiTree are all websites where users contribute to a public, crowd-sourced family tree of the world. Each site is a little different, but the basic gist of what you’ll need to do to harvest data from these global trees is to create a free login and build yourself (and your parents and probably your grandparents, maybe more) into the tree far enough that you connect with profiles already created for your more distant relatives.
Yes, this option means you’ll need to know something about your family tree, probably back at least a couple of generations. But many people do know something about their grandparents and maybe even the name or location of some of their great-grandparents. Depending on what others have already researched about your particular ancestors, you may be able to harvest information about the identities of more-distant grandparents and cousins, who could be key to identifying your relationships to your DNA matches.
We’ve written detailed instructions on how to download your family tree from FamilySearch (it will take some effort, but not as much as researching it yourself!). For your reference, here are links to exporting a GEDCOM from Geni.com or WikiTree (I’ve not done this myself so I’ll let them explain it).
3. Reconstruct a quick and easy tree using other family trees
This last idea comes from Diahan Southard in Your DNA Guide—the Book. She writes about this in the context of trying to build out a tree for one of your DNA matches, but the same concept applies to trying to construct your own tree.
“Building a quick and simple tree is all about finding an online tree that has more information [than you do]. You can often expand this tree by searching online trees created by other genealogists to see what they have already discovered about your match’s ancestor.”
The Book includes specific instructions and recommended websites to search. You may be able to cobble your findings from other trees together into just the tree file you need.
Again, this may take some time, but not nearly as much time as doing all the research yourself.
It’s worth repeating Diahan’s advice from the Book:
“Relying on other people’s trees is not good genealogy scholarship (that means it’s a big no-no). But it’s a common practice in genetic genealogy when you are just trying to see a connection between a group of people who share DNA. You should think of these as theories. If your grafted-together tree seems to blossom (meaning this larger tree allowed you to see common ancestors among your matches), then you can go ahead with additional research in traditional records to make sure you are right.”
Once you’ve got your family tree, follow these instructions for how to upload your family tree to your DNA test results at MyHeritage*, 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and Family Tree DNA.
AND to keep you moving forward, don’t forget to grab your free guide, 4 Next Steps for Your DNA!