What Is the Difference Between a Pedigree Chart and a Family Tree?

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So it's finally caught up with you. You've caught the genealogy bug, or the desire to learn more about your family history. You may be vaguely aware that there are no shortage of online tools and apps to help guide your efforts. But like any project, it helps to define your objective first, before you get started.

Clarify Your Project

Start right at the beginning and decide how “deep” you wish to wade into your history, as well as how much time you think you may wish to spend studying it. (As projects go, this one, too, may end up being more time-consuming than you envision at the outset.) Answering these questions, at least to the best of your ability, will help you decide whether to create a pedigree chart or family tree.

A Pedigree Chart Spotlights Parents

Up until now, the only time you may have heard the word “pedigree” is among horse breeders, who prize and carefully trace the lineage of champion race horses. The same idea underscores a human pedigree chart, which begins with you and traces only your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and so on. Only direct blood lines are depicted on a pedigree chart, meaning that it doesn't include siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives, like a family tree would.

An example might help make clarify the difference: If your grandfather was married and divorced before marrying your grandmother and had children with his first wife, only your grandfather would be listed on your pedigree chart. Your grandfather shares a direct blood line with you; your grandfather's first wife does not. By contrast, a “branch” of your family tree might contain information about your grandfather's first wife and the children he had with her before marrying your grandmother.

It's up to you to decide how much information to include on a pedigree chart. In addition to each person's name, you might wish to include the person's birth date and location, marriage date and location and date of death and location.

Creating a pedigree chart might be appealing to you if you are trying to track a genetic disease or determine the probability of conceiving a child with a condition that runs in your family. In this case, you would want to clearly indicate which family members were afflicted with the condition. Also, because pedigree charts are generally far less detailed than family trees, some people treat them as a “warm-up” or a first draft of a family tree.

A Family Tree Is More Expansive

At some point, you may have already come across a family tree – an interconnected series of boxes that indicate familial relationships. A horizontal line between two boxes denotes a marriage while a bracket leading to another set of boxes depicts the children that were born into that marriage.

Some family trees “grow” vertically and are superimposed against the image of a tree. Others are devoid of graphic images and are drawn sideways. This is a matter of preference, as is the information the tree includes about each person and how many generations the tree includes.

Regardless of the complexity you prefer, you should not expect to create a family tree in a weekend or even a week. You probably will need the cooperation of your living relatives to fill in the branches. And, if you're really ambitious, you may find yourself researching birth and death certificates at county offices. Many modern family tree diagrams also include room for photos, which can add an entirely new dimension to what had previously been rather static documents.

Genealogy Is No Trivial Pursuit

For many people, the “genealogy bug” begins as a curiosity and then develops into a purposeful pursuit. Some of the reasons people create a pedigree chart or family tree include to:

  • Locate and reconnect with living relatives
  • Bring clarity to newly discovered heirlooms or family diaries
  • Develop historical perspective for a book
  • Find birth parents or prove paternity
  • Trace land ownership or family inheritance
  • Learn if they are related to a famous person* Develop a “living document” to pass on to future generations