Monday, July 12, 2021

Anatomy of a Bite-Sized Ancestor Bio

For the past year, I've been writing bite-sized biographies of ancestors to share publicly on My Heritage, WikiTree, Find a Grave, Family Search, and other genealogy sites. Apart from listing basic facts (birth, marriage, death), I also like to provide context and family connections, making each ancestor three-dimensional. 

Above is an excerpt of a bite-sized bio I wrote for my paternal grandmother, Henrietta Mahler Burk (1881-1954), and posted on her Find a Grave memorial page. Previously, I had posted a photo of her gravestone, as well as a photo showing her in 1937 (not visible in this excerpt). Also, I linked Henrietta to her parents and siblings, her husband, and one of her children on Find a Grave.*

Headline summarizes the story

My preference is to add a headline summarizing the highlights of each bio. In the case of my paternal grandmother, the headline shows she was an immigrant ancestor, mother of four, grandmother of five. 

The bio mentions her work as a stenographer before her marriage, but I didn't list a career in the headline because she didn't hold that occupation for very long. If Henrietta had been known for a particular skill or talent (needlework, music, rocket science, etc.) I would have noted it in the story and the headline. 

Cradle to grave

My bite-sized bio includes the ancestor's birth date, place, and parents, plus siblings where it's natural to weave in that info. Exact dates are shown for key facts (BMD for instance).

Sometimes there are special circumstances to note. I can't prove Henrietta was born in Riga, even though her husband's naturalization petition lists that as her birth place. Knowing that many immigrants in my family took the easy way out when asked about home town and named a nearby city instead of the tiny town where they were actually born, I used the wording "in or near." 

Next, my bio follows the major moves in Henrietta's life--literally a number of moves between her birth place, her residences, and then back and forth to Canada with her husband and children. Covering the key instances in her husband's life that affected her life creates a bit of overlap between the two ancestor bios, but that's OK. 

Sources noted (briefly)

To avoid interrupting the narrative flow of the bio, I note sources briefly in brackets. This signals to readers that the bio is based on solid sources beyond "family lore." Now or in the future, people can retrace my research with the aid of these brief sources. 

I also posted a version of this bio on WikiTree, Family Search, and My Heritage. This keeps Henrietta "alive" in multiple places online, and it also serves as cousin bait! 


* Ancestry recently changed its terms of use (August, 2021). The changes mean that when we upload a photo or other content, we are giving Ancestry "a perpetual, sublicensable, worldwide, non-revocable, royalty-free license to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to, create derivative works of, and otherwise use such User Provided Content..." 

This applies across Ancestry-owned platforms, such as Find a Grave. Read more about the changes at Judy Russell's blog post here. I don't agree with what Ancestry is doing, and am currently deleting many (but not all) family photos from my public trees. Please consider carefully before posting to these sites.

There's more about bite-sized bios and other fun projects in my popular webinar or live presentation, "Bring Family History Alive in Bite-Sized Projects."


  1. This is a great idea. I can imagine a new challenge to create one bite-sized bio weekly. I could do about 4 generations of direct ancestors in a year, not bad. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Agree with Barb, this is a great concept. Will have to consider this for my own direct and collateral ancestors.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, ladies! Much appreciated. Have fun with bite-sized bios of your own ancestors.

  4. I’ve never contributed bios to Find A Grave. Bit size bios are a great idea. I’m going to start adding them. Thanks for the inspiration

  5. Great post! I love your method summary at the end - very helpful :) Thanks for sharing!

  6. I am going to do that, too. I already have lots of couple stories including their children so how hard can it be to summarize ;-)

  7. I love this idea! I have to finish the project I'm working on and then I'll get to work on this. Thank you!