Sunday, June 30, 2019

Top Secret DNA Mission:
Creating Your Private Tree

Sometimes, a researcher just needs a sandbox to play around with those genealogical experiments. No, I'm not talking mad scientist here; just a tucked away spot where we can test our hypotheses about those DNA matches we never knew were part of our family tree.

Before I get into the specifics, let's look at a few reasons why a public tree is usually a good option. Prime purpose, of course, is to serve as cousin bait: to attract those distant cousins out there who might have inherited all the "goods" from great-great-grandma Smith. The idea is collaboration and sharing, something many avocational genealogists are delighted to do. Besides that, think of public trees as a way of sharing that contributes toward the greater genealogical good, whether as a trailblazer on an obscure line of your family, or to feature an overlooked document which supports your case about a certain ancestor.

It's no surprise that companies which serve the genealogical community are strong advocates for sharing trees publicly. After all, that's what likely inspired the start of their business. And it's the choice given to subscribers as a default on sites like

Public trees, however, are not always the best choice for the individual subscriber. I have heard fellow researchers mention that they have switched their tree from public to private, expressly for the purpose of luring those cousins they've baited into divulging their interest: if a tree is viewed publicly, who's to know it has been seen at all—or by whom? A private but searchable tree still can alert other researchers to the presence of a possible cousin, but doesn't show the goods without sending a message to contact the subscriber, requesting the tree to be shared.

Some trees include sensitive information that the researcher might not want to share with everyone. That reason can be behind the choice to make a tree private for a wide variety of reasons—everything from just preferring to be a private person to being someone needing to experiment by plugging in alternate choices for names and relationships, like an adoptee seeking birth parents. The thought that, in the midst of this experimentation, another researcher can come along, spot the (mis)information, and replicate it in her own tree may be alarming to a conscientious researcher.

In the case I discussed last week, I had a similar reason for wishing to create a tree and make it private—and unsearchable: I have a set of DNA matches in whose trees is shared one particular surname, one which I have never encountered in researching my paternal grandfather's own family history. Obviously, I want to build a tree so I can play around in that genealogical sandbox and experiment with relationships; I think so much more clearly about such things when I can draw diagrams and pedigree charts. But equally as obvious, I certainly don't want someone stumbling across my family history scribblings and lifting those notes as gospel truth. That would instigate replication of error, something I certainly wouldn't want to cause.

So, the question is: just how do we go about setting up such a tree? Here is a quick demonstration of how to do a private, unsearchable tree on for those who might want to do this someday. Keep in mind that any Ancestry subscriber can set up several trees—I certainly have done so, especially in my photo-rescuing projects—but just realize that the default questions asked along the way often point the subscriber to setting up a public and searchable tree. In this case, we want to do exactly the opposite.

First step in setting up a new private tree: sign in to your Ancestry account and head to the home page. There, look at the header bar across the top of your screen. It looks something like this:

Then, hover your cursor over the second choice on that header: "Trees."

Click on "Trees" and it will give you a drop-down menu. Scroll to the very bottom of that menu, looking for the choice, "Create & Manage Trees." That's the one you want to click.

Once again, that choice will give you a list of trees. If you have just one tree, that's fine—others like me might see a list of more than one tree in their list. The point is to once again look toward the bottom of that list, where you will find the choice, "Create a new tree."

Once you click that "Create a new tree" option, it will lead you to a box labeled "Start a new tree." Inside the box is the outline of a pedigree chart—only there aren't any names included in the chart yet. That's where you start entering the details.

When you click on the brown box on the left, it will open up another page where you can start entering information on your "home" person. If this were your own family tree, of course you might enter your own name and start working your way back to your parents, but remember this is a different tree; you are building a tree to answer a question about someone else. In my case, this is where I entered the name of my closest match's deceased mother's name, because hers was the surname which I then found replicated in the trees of my more distant matches.

Notice at the top of this page how a box is pre-selected, stating "I am starting with myself." Uncheck that box if you are starting with another home person. Also note the default choices for gender (set to unknown and needs to be updated) and whether that person is living.

Whether you know a lot or a little about this person you are adding, no matter. Just enter what you can for now. Then click the green button on the bottom left labeled "Continue." The idea is to set up this experimental tree as quickly as possible and get started working on the family constellation. In my case here, even if I hadn't had other matches with that surname, I could have taken what information I already had on this woman and done a search on Ancestry for other supporting documentation. The key is that this was my toe-hold; this is where I could begin my search.

From that point, you can add a second name. Depending on the purpose for your search, that second name could be a spouse or a parent. It really doesn't matter; once you enter only two names, that triggers Ancestry's next step to officially set up the tree.

Once again, in adding this second person to your tree, pay attention to required data, such as the status of the individual, living or deceased. Once you click the green "Save" button on the bottom left of the screen, you are ready to set up your tree.

At this point, Ancestry wants you to name your tree. You'll notice they suggest a name—generally the surname you've already entered—but this is not set in stone. You are certainly welcome to change it. In my case, since I had already entered two individuals with the surname Michalski, that was Ancestry's suggestion for a name, but I changed it to remind myself that this was my Michalski DNA project.

You'll also notice on this screen that, under the tree name, Ancestry has set the default to yes for the option, "Allow others to view this tree." If you are setting up a private tree, you must deselect this option. Just click the check and it will toggle off. Then click the orange "Save" button and voila! You now have a private tree.

But...but!!!...that does not mean your tree is invisible. Not just yet. You need to take one more step: you need to make your tree unsearchable. To do this, you need to return to that Ancestry header—the home landing page where we started all this—and click "Trees," then scroll down and find the tree you just named (you remember, of course, the brilliant label you created for your experiment, right?).

Once you find your tree name, look to the far right of that entry until you locate the phrase "Manage tree." Click on that.

Once you arrive on that new page, you can see the options to change your tree name—in case you didn't like your first brilliant choice—or add a description (for whom? This is for your eyes only), or even set the home person or identify who you are in this tree. You are always welcome to revisit those possibilities later, but for now, let's get to the point: we need to make this tree unsearchable. To do that, you need to look to the header on the top of the page, the place where it says, "Tree Settings."

You'll notice that, directly underneath that phrase, "Tree Settings," there are three clickable choices. You want to head for the middle ground: the choice labeled "Privacy Settings."

When you arrive on that "Privacy Settings" page, you are now able to confirm your wish to make the tree both private and unsearchable. Step one: notice the button labeled "Public Tree." You'll see the default is already selected to make the tree public.

In order to switch this tree from its public, searchable status to its top secret status—so you can build an exploratory tree regarding your DNA matches—to make the tree private, you must scroll down to the bottom of this "Privacy Settings" page, until you find this final important detail.

By clicking on "Private Tree," you will notice the "Public Tree" green circle (above on this page) vanishes. Your tree is now private. But don't forget this important second step: to make your tree unsearchable. Look for the check box on the bottom which states, "Also prevent your tree from being found in searches." This is where you need to add your final check mark. Then, once all is done, click the orange "Save Changes" button on the bottom left, and you are finally finished.

From this point on, you are free to build your exploratory tree without worrying that you will set off a spate of incorrect copied entries in multiplied trees around the genea-universe. If you wish to share your private, unsearchable tree with a DNA match, or want to discuss your conjectures with someone else, you can always go back to the "Manage Trees" page and invite specific individuals to view your tree. And, of course, if you want to scrap this top secret mission and make the tree public—warts and all—you can always repeat this process in the reverse. Or take the nuclear option and blow up the entire tree. It's all in your control.

Once you have your private, unsearchable tree set up, keep in mind that even though you may want to start working on hints immediately, with a brand-new tree, sometimes those hints might not show up immediately. I found myself just venturing out bravely and locating my own documentation among the digitized records at Ancestry. The hints will show up eventually, once the system picks up that you are researching this surname.

One last observation: I'm not one to copy other subscribers' trees, myself, but in a stage like this, I am not beyond using the reliable work of key others to serve as trailblazer while I work on this unfamiliar family. After all, while I know a lot about the surnames and geographic locations of my own family, these DNA match families are total strangers to me; it helps to test the waters by looking at well-sourced trees of researchers who are closely related to this family. To determine that, I often look at the pedigree chart of a tree, look for the home person, and see how closely related to my target individual that home person is—and how many documents that researcher has used to support those research contentions about their close relatives.

This is definitely an experimental process, a time for research caution and much testing. In this DNA match case, where I have six different trees linked to this same, previously unknown to me, surname, there is still quite a bit of work before I see my way clear to just how each of these DNA matches are related to each other. From that point, the even larger step will be determining where my tree intersects with theirs. Likely, I'll be following a paper trail leading me back to Poland—or perhaps another Baltic state. Time will tell. I just hope it will be sooner, rather than later.

Above: All images used in this tutorial are from with editorial red arrows and marks added to the original images by the author. 


  1. Thank you, big time, for this tutorial. I have several different "mystery groupings" in my list of matches - and can't wait to get started with some way to untangle the maze.

    1. Glad to hear that will get you started on facing down that challenge, Lisa. It's a lot of work, no matter how you look at it, but having good organizing tools is so important.

  2. ah yes, replication of error, sigh.
    Your reasoning for private research trees is good.

    1. Gayle, I've heard those reasons from many others over the years, and value their experience. For my own family's trees, I generally make everything public--it's just for the projects I've taken on involving families I'm not personally acquainted with that I feel the need to use the private, unsearchable designation.

      It's good to be able to articulate your own research reasons for how to configure your tree(s). And I hear that voice of experience through your sigh...


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