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  • The Computer Genealogist: Getting to Know Family Tree Maker

    Rhonda R. McClure

    Published Date : January 17, 2003

    Genealogy programs have come a long way since they were first unveiled almost twenty years ago. Those first programs were limited to simple data entry, almost more trouble than the three-by-five cards and family group sheets that most genealogists were using then. The programs have come a long way in the intervening decades, with each new version offering more bells and whistles.

    Genealogists tend to use a genealogy program such as Family Tree Maker only for recording the names, dates, and places they find while tracing their ancestry. However, today’s genealogy programs offer many powerful features designed to aid the researcher in more than just recording information.

    Easy to use

    When genealogy programs were first introduced, many researchers, although perhaps already using a computer, did not jump on the software bandwagon. They were dedicated to a certain way of recording information on their ancestors and were not thrilled with the idea of having to do it differently. While genealogy programs have changed over the years, some still require thinking like a computer rather than a genealogist.

    The easy-to-use interface of Family Tree Maker looks like the forms genealogists have been using for years. Entry of a family is completed in the Family View, in which there are fields for primary information about husband and wife, as well as the names, gender, and dates of birth of the children (see figure 1). A lot of information can be recorded on this single screen, and at times may include everything known about the family.


    Family Tree Maker Figure 1
    Figure 1

    Because the Family View is designed much like a family group sheet, the researcher need not change his or her way of thinking. Perhaps the only item missing in the Family View but available on the family group sheet is the space for recording the parents of both husband and wife. However, a click of the mouse on the appropriate tab for either the husband’s or wife’s name opens a new Family View, which affords a place for recording not only the parents’ names, but also any known birth and death information about them.

    In addition to clicking on the tabs to the right to move from person to person, the researcher can also use the index of individuals to select a specific person. This index can be arranged alphabetically by last name, in either ascending or descending order, or by birth date, also by ascending or descending order. Most users rely on the ascending alphabetical order so that they can input the first few letters of the surname and be instantly taken to that part of the index.

    While only four children are listed at a time, the program is not limited in the number of children or spouses the researcher can record. Each Family View page records the family unit of a given couple. As the researcher uses the Spouses button to change the husband or wife of one of the individuals, the list of children will also change, allowing the researcher a clear picture of which children belong to which marriage.

    Avoiding duplication and errors

    When using a genealogy program, the researcher no longer must write the same information on more than one form. Instead, data entry allows him to enter data about an individual once and then direct the program when to use it. For instance, when the researcher has entered the date of birth for a child and then clicks on the tab for that child, he does not need to type the date of birth a second time. It will be automatically completed on the next screen.

    Usually a genealogist will enter an individual’s detailed information as he or she is entering the family’s data. As the research progresses, the genealogist may uncover the marriages and offspring of the previously entered family. The researcher using Family Tree Maker simply selects the child for whom more information has been found and types in the newly-discovered data.

    If a place name has been previously entered, as the researcher begins to type the place name again, Family Tree Maker supplies possibilities from its list of previously  entered places. As the researcher types more letters, the place name option changes or disappears altogether if the letters no longer duplicate a previously entered place (see figure 2).



    Family Tree Maker Figure 2
    Figure 2

    Given that genealogists usually record the town, county, state or province, and country, the place name list is an invaluable timesaver. Because the researcher does not need to re-enter the entire place name each time, he or she is more likely to enter the entire place name correctly the first time. Also, by having such a list of places, Family Tree Maker ensures consistency.

    By avoiding duplication, the researcher not only saves time, but also decreases the potential for adding errors. The more times a researcher must retype or copy the same information by hand the more chance for transposing a number or skipping a line.

    Family Tree Maker includes a number of error correction features. When entering a date, there are times when the fingers slip and a person is recorded as dying before he was born. Family Tree Maker is designed to catch such mistakes, as well as to question marriages when the involved parties are too young or unlikely death dates. The researcher then has the opportunity to override the error. The pop-up warning box (see figure 3) not only calls the researcher’s attention to the problem; it also allows the researcher to enter the correct date without having to switch to another screen.



    Family Tree Maker Figure 3
    Figure 3

    Trees at the click of a button

    Most genealogists are familiar with the pedigree chart, known in Family Tree Maker as an Ancestor Tree. This road map of the immediate ancestry of a given individual is a popular chart to use when actively researching a line at a library, archive, or courthouse. Included on the chart is the data on someone’s full known ancestry for four or five generations (see figure 4). This tree is also the chart most frequently shared among researchers — often accompanied by family group sheets. In the days before genealogy programs, researchers had to complete pedigree charts  by hand or typewriter. Today, with the click of a button, a genealogist can create and print these forms and drop them in the mail to share with other researchers.



    Family Tree Maker Figure 4
    Figure 4

    More and more, genealogists are corresponding by email. They send information back and forth in a fraction of the time it took to correspond through postal mail. However, over the years these cyber-communicators have found that email programs reformat their work, often making it a jumble of words impossible to translate. Forget about sending photos.

    Family Tree Maker 10 attacks this last problem head-on and offers a method of saving paper using the Portable Document Format (PDF) now so popular on the Internet. While the receiver of such a file must have the Adobe Acrobat Reader software loaded on his or her system, it is a free program, available through the Adobe website ( This feature allows the researcher to create an elaborate family tree and save the file. Although the file was transferred by email, its receiver will see the same display on his or her computer.

    A particularly useful way to take advantage of this feature is to highlight specific relationships using colored lines (see figure 5). While the Ancestor Tree shows direct lineage, there are times when other trees with more information, such as the All-in-One, obscure the connection in question. By using the relationship feature and saving the tree as a PDF file, the person who receives the tree will understand the relationship just as you do.


    Family Tree Maker Figure 5

    Adding flair

    As was mentioned earlier, Family Tree Maker 10 offers design templates that change the formatting of boxes, background, font, and more, making a beautiful tree or chart suitable for framing when printed in color. Often a beautifully printed chart will grab the attention of family members not as enamored with the research but with information to share.

    Presently there are ten different themes available (see figure 6) and they can be applied to any of the charts except the new Standard Pedigree Tree. The Standard Pedigree Tree, a version of the Ancestor Tree, was added to the program at the request of those genealogists who have spent much time working with standard preprinted pedigree forms. This tree is especially useful when corresponding with fellow researchers. It supplies the recipient with four generations of data as presently known. When accompanied by family group sheets for each couple on the tree, the receiving researcher knows just where the research stands, especially if sources have been cited (source citations can be included on both the pedigree chart and the family group sheets).


    Family Tree Maker Figure 6
    Figure 6

    Tracking the research

    A genealogy program should do more than just keep track of names, dates, and places — genealogists have been tracking that data manually for years. Unfortunately, most researchers still use their genealogy program as nothing more than a glorified three-by-five card file — or limit themselves to just the information that would be included in preprinted forms. One of the major benefits of Family Tree Maker is the opportunity to record upcoming research tasks so they are not forgotten before they can be addressed and resolved.

    The Research Journal, as it is called in Family Tree Maker, is a place to record future research objectives and save a record of completed tasks. When used effectively, the Research Journal offers a record of past work that can prevent duplication, especially of negative results, when there is no documentation of the effort.

    The Research Journal allows you to record in free-text the item to be checked. It is good practice to take advantage of this free-form window, adding the full citation if known, with the names or at least surnames sought. It is also a good idea to note when the search is completed. While Figure 7 shows the Research Journal with all entered items, reports can also be filtered by tasks completed or those to be done.


    Family Tree Maker Figure 7
    Figure 7

    Building a book

    Many researchers hope at some point to publish the family histories on which they have worked so diligently for so long, giving their work a kind of immortality. The Family Tree Maker book feature allows researchers to combine many different reports and charts into a detailed family history, creating a substantial product to share with family and friends.

    The book feature saves both time and money. With a quality printer and some creativity, the researcher can produce an informative and entertaining book. In today’s desktop publishing world, many researchers already have this capability right in their own home. Once the first copy has been produced, an inexpensive local stationery or print shop can produce just the number of copies needed.

    The Family Tree Maker book feature is quite flexible. The researcher is not limited to reports of a given individual as displayed on the left of the Book window. After selecting the desired reports on that person, the researcher need only access the Index of Individuals to choose someone else, for whom additional reports can be generated. In Figure 8, a number of different individuals are highlighted in the book on the right. The author intended to show the various relationships between Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., his niece Eleanor, and his fifth cousin — her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    Family Tree Maker Figure 8
    Figure 8

    After a chart has been selected, additional formatting can be used to change either the individuals included or the chart’s final appearance. The book feature even offers placeholders for  special photographs or maps or other items that may not be easy to enter into the program. Placeholders keep the page numbers intact, while accommodating the missing item. Add a table of contents and an index, and the book is useful even to those relatives who may not yet understand their kinship to Theodore Roosevelt.

    Power at the fingertips

    Family Tree Maker is an easy-to-use but powerful program. Users often don’t take the time to investigate its many features, keeping instead to just simple data entry and standard reports. The addition in version 10 of the ability to save charts as PDF files now allows researchers to communicate more easily through email, as well as to upload documents to the Internet.

    From novice to experienced researchers, every genealogist will find that Family Tree Maker offers features and benefits that aid in family research. The trick is to take a little time to learn what is available. From data entry to publishing, most day-to-day tasks of genealogists are made simpler with this program. Family Tree Maker has embraced most of those tasks so that the genealogist can spend more time researching and less time fighting with computer data entry or altering the recording of genealogical information.

    To find out more about Family Tree Maker, visit

    Rhonda R. McClure is the author of The Genealogist’s Computer Companion and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy.

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