Private Ancestors: How to Prune Them From Your Ancestry Tree

by | Aug 12, 2017 | 4 comments

Oh Look, It’s Private

As I was working this morning, my cell phone chimed that I had a notification from We’re Related.

Oh look, Stephen Amell is my 9th cousin 1x removed!(For those of you who haven’t tried it, We’re Related is an app that combs through your tree attempting to match you to other Ancestry users, as well as celebrities and famous people. It’s kind of fun to see who pops up as a potential cousin. But these should always be viewed as clues, to be followed up with Actual Proof later.)

Anyway, I opened up the app to see who they’d found for me this time. Lookie: Canadian actor Stephen Amell is my 9th cousin 1x removed!

(Click any image to embiggen.)

Well gosh, I’ve got Canadian ancestors, so this could be interesting! I clicked through to see the relationship details.

Oh great. We’re related through the common ancestor known as Private.


Who Was Private?

Private is Private's mother. Wait, what?As you might have guessed from the name, there are few details to be found about Private.

But we do know one thing for sure: Private was prolific.

You see, I also share Private as a common ancestor with Winston Churchill, genealogy bloggers Michael John Neill and Diana Ritchie, and many others.

What complicates matters is that Private was not only a world/time traveler but also a gender-switcher!

In fact, I’ve seen Private pop up multiple times in the same tree in some kind of weird I’m-My-Own-Grandpa scenario.

And in one case, Private was her own mother. 

It’s complicated.


How an Ancestor Becomes Private

Of course, there is no ancestor named Private.

But s/he keeps popping up all over. 😬

According to a 2012 blog post, here’s what is happening:

So how does Ancestry determine who’s living and who’s not in your family tree? This happens a couple of ways: First, when you add or edit a person on you set whether the person is deceased or living—and we respect that setting. Secondly, if you add someone through a GEDCOM upload or link a tree from your Family Tree Maker software (where there’s not a living/deceased setting), then we calculate the living status based on the following rules:


  1. First we look for death information, anyone with death information (date, place, etc.) is dead—that one’s easy.
  2. If there’s not death information entered we look for a birth date, anyone younger than 100 is considered living.
  3. The tricky part is if we don’t have birth or death information. In this case we look at the birth dates of close relatives to estimate a birthdate; if the birthdate is less than 100 years ago, they are considered to be living.
  4. If all else fails and we can’t make a safe estimate, we assume the person is living to err on the safe side.

In other words, even if a person in your tree is long-dead, there is still a chance that s/he could be showing up as Private in your public tree.

Here’s how to fix that.


Step 1: View Your Tree as a Guest

Living family members and ancestors obviously need their privacy.

But there aren’t too many reasons why a deceased ancestor – especially one who has been dead for a few centuries – would need to be private.

You can fix that.

But, to find the private ancestors, you need to see what your tree looks like to everyone-who-isn’t-you. And to do that, you must view it as another user.

Now, to be honest, I searched and searched for an easy way to view my tree as a guest while I was still logged in, but couldn’t find one.

So I got creative.


Under the Trees menu, select Create & Manage Trees

I invited myself to view my own tree as a guest. To do this, go to the Trees menu and select Create & Manage Trees.


Click Invite Family to invite yourself to your tree

Select the tree you want to check (if you have more than one), and click Invite family.


Enter your alternate email to invite yourself as a guest to your tree

Select the option to send an invitation by email. Enter your email address in the box and click SEND INVITES.

NOTE: This needs to be a DIFFERENT email address than the one linked to your Ancestry account. If you only have one email address, you can always go to Gmail or any other free email service to create a new one.


Uncheck the box so you will not see living people

To keep your alternate self from seeing living people, be sure to leave that box unchecked. 

Once you have completed the invitation process, log out of Go to your new/other email account and accept the invitation.

Now, log into with your new account and track down those pesky private ancestors!


What I Found Surprised Me

I was HORRIFIED to discover that I had accidentally marked my own descendant as “deceased,” and her information had been publicly viewable.

Thankfully, I hadn’t posted much about her, so there wasn’t much to see. I wouldn’t have put her on my tree at all except for the fact that we’ve had her DNA tested. She is linked to my tree for that reason only.

NOTE: This method is also good for catching living relatives who may not have been properly privatized!


John Delaney's wife should not be private

I also found a few long-dead ancestors who were showing as private.

As you can see above, John Delaney, born c. 1840, has a wife who is apparently still living. Either she has found the Fountain of Youth, or she was very, very young when they got married! 😮

However, the more likely scenario is that I’ve simply neglected to mark her as deceased.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to fix these errors.


Step 2: Do a Quick Edit to Change Status

Do a Quick Edit to change an ancestor's status

Once you are logged back into your regular account, simply click on the person you want to edit and then click Quick Edit. Select the Deceased radio button under Status and click SAVE.

Or do the reverse, if a living ancestor wasn’t marked private.



FACT: Private ancestors are the leading cause of We’re Related-related rage. 😡

Ok, not really, but they definitely ARE frustrating.

Apps like We’re Related are fun — and often good for a laugh — but don’t completely discount them. They can provide CLUES to ancestors we may not have discovered yet.


So, make your cousins happy by keeping your tree pruned of private ancestors who don’t need to be private. 😊


My Descendant's Ancestors is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.


  1. Wanda


    I appreciate your suggestion for creating a separate guest account for the purpose of taking an “outside” view of my tree. I could have used this hint a few weeks ago when someone contacted me via Ancestry messenger complaining about information I had in my tree.

    Basically, this person wanted me to set a family segment to private because of concerns about revealing what this person considered sensitive information, e.g., maiden names for mothers of still-living and still-working persons who might have to provide this information in connection with sensitive government positions; this person also pointed out that mother’s maiden names are often used as identity verification for bank accounts, access to various on-line accounts, etc.

    I was unable to find an option to set a family group to private but I did set to private the facts I had that revealed the information about which this person was concerned. I let this person know the action I took, also pointing out that the information I had came from publically available information including records readily available on Ancestry, Family Search, etc., as well as newspaper accounts and subscriptions, general on-line searches, etc.

    I concurred with this person’s request because it did no harm to my own research (the privatized facts are still fully visible in Family Tree Maker), but since then I am at least sensitive to the effect of Ancestry’s living and deceased settings.


    • Elizabeth O'Neal

      I’m glad you found the post to be helpful, Wanda. I absolutely, fully, wholeheartedly believe that information about living persons should be kept private. In fact, I’ve found information about myself, as well as other living family members, in the public trees of others, and I was hoppin’ mad about it! The person who contacted you had some valid points, and I think you did the right thing in honoring his/her request.

  2. dvn ms kmz time travel

    We must be related! I’ve been chasing “private” down almost every rabbit hole imaginable! But, I am excited to try this app you spoke of- if you listen really carefully, youight be able to hear it downloading in the background!

    • Elizabeth O'Neal

      Lol, that Private ancestor is super annoying! I hope you enjoy the app, and if I do show up as one of your cousins, I hope it’s not through the common ancestor PRIVATE! 😉


What do you think? Share your thoughts!

Elizabeth O'Neal

Elizabeth O'Neal

Genealogist, Writer, Web Developer, Educator

Elizabeth O'Neal is passionate about helping others discover, preserve and share their family stories. She hopes her only descendant will someday develop an interest in her ancestry.


Hello, I'm Elizabeth! I'm a genealogist, writer, and educator, and I've been looking for my descendant's ancestors for 3x's longer than she's been alive. I tell some of their stories here, but I also share tech and blogging tips, news, and other stuff I like. I am the host of the Genealogy Blog Party, which I hope you will join! Find out more right here.

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