Grow a Family Tree: An Ancestral Project You Can Begin Over the Holidays

Are you in close proximity to several family members at this very moment? Perhaps for the whole week? This is a great time to talk to relatives about where you all came from. Then take that info, work some homespun magic, and turn it into a beautiful, meaningful piece of art.

Inspiration via Martha Stewart

Inspiration via Martha Stewart

Family Tree Fan


You Will Need:
Family history resources – See below for ideas
This template
A nice pen
Hanging brackets
Hanging wire

In addition to the family members you can interrogate face-to-face, there are all kinds of family history resources on the Internet that can fill in the gaps. Here are a few I used:


I would recommend signing up for the two week free trial. Get the World Explorer because, unless your family is entirely indigenous, your family history goes beyond just U.S. records. If you’re worried about forgetting to cancel your trial subscription, just set an event with an alarm on your phone. If something weird happens and you get charged, call right away. I messed up so I called and was helped by the best customer service people ever who got my money back to be in 10 minutes. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that genealogy often appeals to older people who are more comfortable with the phone than with the computer.

How many Harry Potter words can you find in your family's history?

How many Harry Potter words can you find in your family’s history?

The great thing about is that is has access to censuses as well as birth, death, marriage, war, immigration, and all kinds of other records. It also gives you “hints” and  access to thousands of other family trees that people have made, so you have help figuring out who’s whose parents. The dark side is the temptation that other family trees provide. Some people claim to have traced their families back 2,000 years but have no records to prove their connections. I used these trees for help, but didn’t add any information I couldn’t corroborate with records.

Family Search is another genealogy website. While it has fewer records, it has some that don’t appear on Ancestry and makes most available for free. It’s owned by the Mormon Church, but you still may find something helpful.

Google Books

There are plenty of books on the histories of towns as well as certain family lines’ genealogies. I was able to confirm some details from my tree just by searching names (always in quotations) while others needed searched with birth, death, or marriage dates or names of other family members.

General Search

Just Googling (again, in quotation marks) names of family members can sometimes provide you with all kinds of knowledge. There are plenty of people who devote all kinds of time going to genealogy libraries and building their trees; maybe you share a common ancestor.

Region-, Ethnicity-, and Religion-specific Resources

The bad thing about many websites is that they’re very much catered to people with a western European background, especially families from the British Isles. There are plenty of great starter sites for families with different origins. Try:

Cyndi’s List – Cyndi’s list is great for searching by a specific category – everything from “female ancestors” to “African Americans” to “Handwriting and Translation.” Come here for hundreds of links to primary sources and websites and blogs that’ll help you find your family.

Cohen’s Genealogy Site – This is someone’s site on Rootsweb. It works really well as a directory for finding free census and city records.’s JewishAsia and Asian AmericanAfrican American collections – The collections have tip sheets as well as specific primary resources.

Family Search’s location collections (scroll to the bottom) – Most of these collections have been typed and are searchable, but some are still in photographs. It’s a great place to look for primary sources.

1. Whether or not you use ancestry’s other resources, the software they have for mapping your family is really easy to use. Despite being annoyingly everything-normative, it’s free, easily searchable, and allows you to attach birthday and death dates and places, records, and photos to each person. I use the “suffix” box to leave myself notes; “?” means “maybe” and “v” means verified. This way I don’t lose the name of a potential relative but also don’t forget that I may have the wrong person. I also prefer to use the “pedigree” view. It lets you see more people at once which makes it a little easier to keep track of where you are.

Mackalona Delp is my favorite ancestor

Mackalona Delp is my favorite ancestor

2. After you’re satisfied with the tree you’ve started, it’s time to get the template printed. Go to a copy shop and have them print it out as large as you want. The file is 28″x 22″ (the size of posterboard), but you can shrink or enlarge it.

3. Start filling in boxes. Get a good pen and work on a hard surface because the boxes get TINY near the 9th generation. I designed the template for a gift for my grandparents. The circle in the middle is where I wrote their last names. My grandma’s name goes in the first semi-circle box on the left and my grandpa’s goes on the right. Moving up, the rest of the family follows the same pattern of mothers on the left and fathers on the right. The little triangle at the bottom is for my grandparent’s family. The four boxes below the circle are for their four children (and spouses, if they have them), the boxes below those are for their children (my generation), and the last boxes are for my generation’s children.


I added tiny flags to show where families came from

4. Don’t worry if you’ve got empty boxes. We all do. In fact, I can’t get past my grandpa’s parents on one side. If your family doesn’t fit into this traditional tree, also don’t worry! Maybe you have one parent. Or more than two. Maybe you’re adopted. All of this is mega cool and would look rad as a family tree. All you’ve gotta do is alter the template to fit your tree.

5. When finished writing, it’s time to frame your tree. All you need is a frame and a mat. I got my mat cut by the people at Hobby Lobby and they showed me how to mount the picture and add brackets for hanging.

6. You’re done! If you want to be, that is. The awesome thing about giving a family tree is that the artwork can change as you learn more about your family. It’s easy to pull the tree out of the frame to add a family member or a birthday date if you find out more information. Who knows, the person you give the tree to might even be able to help you fill in a few boxes.

Making presents for people makes the world a better place. If you’ve got a little extra time and want to use your very own hands to show someone you love them, this is just the miniseries for you! See something you want to learn to make? Send me a picture to laura [at] autostraddle [dot] com and I’ll see what I can come up with.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing this template! I have a box file of bits and pieces I’ve gathered from various family members. Now and again return to a big database list thingy but I’ve been wanting a really nice visual representation of it. Plus, if I hurry up with a draft version, I can pass it around when all my aunts and uncles come over Christmas Day and get some help filling in the blanks! Thanks.

  2. Long-term lurker, first-time commenter. Just wanted to say that as someone who loves genealogical stuff- to the point of typing out family trees when I’m bored- this looks like a really fun project, so thanks!

  3. Also, have you got any advice, or links on how to lay out less traditional family situations? That is something I’ve always found standard family tree software isn’t great for.

    To use my situation- I have never been able to come up with an elegant way of including my half brother, his bio-mom (we have the same dad) and more importantly, the adoptive parents that raised him and really are his “parent-parents”
    As well as me and my other siblings, he also has one in his adoptive family, plus two more on his bio-mom’s side of the family. So, there’s that.

    I can see how I would bridge us using the parent we have in common, but I don’t know how to add an additional pair of parents to accurately represent his family.

    TL;DR Families often don’t look as nuclear as family tree templates. This is probably even more true for queer families.

    • Hmm I was thinking you could (for example) do a fan but also have a mini fan to note your brother’s family. But perhaps that might not look right.

      Maybe in this situation it would be best to ask your brother for his thoughts?

      • Hi, thanks for that! Mini-fan sounds like a good idea. I will probably have a few once I figure out some older generations too. I think my great grandmother was widowed very young so there is her remarriage and subsequent half siblings, so if I figure out a layout for that I can tweak it for my bro’s family and then it wouldn’t look like a weird add on. Thanks for the suggestion. :)

  4. Hey Laura, the fan template is such a great idea & including tiny flags is brilliant! I might have to tweek mine a little. But I know I can make this work. =^•^=

    Over time, I’ve collected documents, pictures, handwritten notes, bibles etc. I’ve sat & listened to so many stories. Even watched a movie (Salt of The Earth) to see about 2 minutes of my great grandfather. With all the information I have, I foresee a major project ahead of me. lol!

  5. That is a very beautiful template you designed! Thanks for sharing it.

    And thanks for this article. I’ve been contemplating getting into my genealogy and this is a great resource for getting started.

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