Despite being a rich and important resource, constructing a family tree can appear a daunting and near-impossible task. We’ve put together a few guidelines to give you a boost as you get started.


Getting Started

When is the best time to start working on a family tree? Now. This is not merely to ward off procrastination. The longer you wait the less likely you are to have ample time with the people needed to craft this story.

If you have an upcoming general family event, this is the best time to start a project like this. It allows everybody in the family to unite around one thing and have more motivation to submit the required information for the tree. It is important to spend a lot of time reaching out to the right individuals to get contact information and clearly explaining to family members about the benefit of a family tree. Involving them in the creation process can make it fun for everybody and encourage participation and the collating of user data.


What’s in a Name?

Names have long been very important to Nigerians – referring to circumstance of birth, expectations and cultural and religious beliefs. However, the surname is a relatively new construct in Nigeria’s legal and cultural frameworks. Introduced by the British in the colonial era, this practice was later formally incorporated into our courts, schools and marriage registries. During the transition, some adopted their father’s first name as the surname, drew from local references or took on entirely new names.

The Oyenugas_1977-78_Source_Oyenuga Lanre Paul_via NNP

The Oyenugas 1977-78. Source: Oyenuga Lanre Paul via The Nigerian Nostalgia Project

Names can also be misleading in polygamous families that developed various ways of dealing with restrictions against multiple spousal registrations for documents such as passports. Another complication you may come across is that extra-marital relationships and offspring are not always distinguished from other family members. Moreover, with a traditionally stronger concept of the extended family still evident today, the use of relational titles such as “aunty”, “uncle” or “cousin” may not be evidence of bloodline family lineage nor accurately reflect relationships.


As a result, the links between surname and other familial titles to ancestry are not always straightforward. Consider how to navigate such sensitivities and avoid family politics. For example, the typical way around the extra-marital issue is to use dotted lines in graphical representations or leave such entries out altogether. However, this may offend or hurt respective parties so it is worth getting advice from the head of the family or a well-respected member.


 Early 1980s wedding, Lagos. Source: Nsibidi Archives

Tracking Down Details

External resources are hard to come by. Typically, public documents such as census records, marriage bonds, wills as well as birth and death certificates contain very useful information for family trees. However, gaining access to such documents in Nigeria can prove fairly difficult. Poor records and the relatively recent adoption of such registration processes also means you can only go back so far. Be creative. If any of your grand- or great-grand parents was a teacher, a civil servant, member of the armed forces, part of the royal family or even granted a chieftaincy, their records might be retained in existing institutions. Lawyers and clergymen may also be easier to trace.


In Nigeria, the most helpful resources here are likely to be your older relatives such as grandparents and their siblings, who may be able to provide information from their own generation and one or two before that. Memory fades and sometimes warps so make sure you keep a diligent record of your sources and corroborate the information received with others. But don’t limit yourselves to living members of the family. Old letters, newspaper clippings, diaries and photographs are also extremely useful if on hand. Search through your family archives. Often a photograph or old Bible will contain useful clues and may be even annotated on the back. Frame your questions around what you find. Photographs and other family memorabilia are great starting place for conversations and also trigger forgotten memories.



The Stem & the Branches

When choosing a layout, consider your own aesthetic preferences alongside what will be easiest to understand for the members of the family that will be using the tree. Aesthetics can matter in a project like this, especially if the family tree is going to be printed and mounted in homes, but when it comes to layout, the factors of greatest influence are the number of individuals and the relationships involved. Colours, shapes and even line quality can be used to define relationships, gender, offspring and so on. Some family trees do not use pictures, and only use names and others do the reverse.

Have a good sense of the scope of the project before you begin. Are you looking at only your maternal ancestry or researching both lineages? Are you looking to go back three generations or as far back as you possibly can? Where you start can drastically affect the overall layout. Typically it is best to start from the oldest relative from your selection, but it is possible to work backwards from current day.


There are a few formats for developing family trees. The easiest one being the standard “organogram” arrangement, but there are a few different formats available online. Review different layouts before you decide on the charting system to adopt. Some layouts, for example, are only suitable for smaller families without too many cousins and grand children. See below for links to templates and examples.


Keeping the Project Alive

Remember, the best family trees are the ones that are still growing. Families are continually getting larger and smaller as relatives (sadly) pass on and new members are introduced by births and marriages. If you have an annual family gathering, such as get-togethers during Christmas and Sallah, use these opportunities wisely.


Ethel Finecountry. Source: The Nigerian Nostalgia Project

You can also keep things dynamic by creating a group on instant messaging services such as BBM and WhatsApp or social networking sites such as Facebook. Photo-sharing platforms and group emails are also great ways to enrich your family tree and get more of your relatives on board. However, remember not every one is tech-saavy or has the time and Internet access to participate. Think about what works best for your family and keep it simple. Printed out and framed on a wall, family trees can be a very nice talking point at home and can lead to insightful conversations.


Always keep a digital copy so that there’s some insurance for all your hard work. It’s okay to have gaps, but mark these out clearly. You may be surprised that the family friend or relative you least expected to provide useful information. If you have a bit of knowledge in web-design, why not create a website that allows your family members to access and update in real-time?


Extra! Extra!

There are quite a few online resources available nowadays. You should not need a consultant to compile and create a family tree unless a genealogy is being traced further than a couple of generations or a particular style of artwork is required.

Here are a few examples of web services and offline software that offer an easy to set up family tree:

Family Tree Maker

Family History Software


Herman Street


Other useful resources:

Printable templates

How to draw a simple tree


Here are our Ten Top Tips:



One last thing: have fun! Genealogy projects may only takes a few weekends to draft or develop into a lifelong hobby. Serious research projects can take many years to complete. Your family tree is a living reflection of your family – one that is constantly changing and growing. Enjoy the quirky stories and amazing finds along the way!

family tree (2014) copy

Constructing a Family Tree