Modern Software Experience


Family Historian

Calico Pie claims that Family Historian is 100 % GEDCOM compatible. I discovered that it does not really support GEDCOM at all!

targeting Americans

Family Historian is an English program. It is fairly popular in the United Kingdom, and used by the makers of the Who do You think You are? TV series.

Calico Pie recently decided to introduce the program on the American market through Target, an American retail chain, and can now be picked in some 1500 Target stores.

Family Historian is not very popular on the European mainland, and the simply reason for that is that it supports English only. For most Europeans, English is their second language, but to become popular, Family Historian would have to support their first language.
American use Amglish, the American dialect of English, and are unlikely to be very enthusiastic about Family Historian, because Calico did not localise their program at all, but is just selling it as is. There is no menu item to switch to the American dialect. Still, Calico Pie going international. I decided to have a look at the current program.

The program has an active user group, and their web site features upgrades, the full manual, additional reports, queries, frequently asked questions and more.
That is also where you can download Nick Walker’s GEDCOM Census, an oddly named companion program that makes it easier to add U.K., Ireland, U.S.A. and Canada census data into Family Historian.

Calico Pie claims that Family Historian is 100 % GEDCOM compatible. I discovered that it really does not really support GEDCOM at all!

download and install

You can download a demo. The demo version is a trial that remains fully functional for 30 days.

The download is about 10 MB. Installation is pleasantly simple and uneventful. You are allowed to change the installation directory.

starting up

Family Historian has a normal Windows user interface. The first thing I noticed browsing through the menus is that this program does not seem shy on features.
The program comes with a tutorial, but I decided to skip that, and go straight for the usual GEDCOM import tests.

GEDCOM import


As I created a file to import the GEDCOM into, I noticed something that worries me; Family Historian uses GEDCOM files as its only data format. Generally, programs that do so do not perform well. Moreover, many of these programs are prone to data loss during file save.

It is rather annoying to get to see a patronising GEDCOM is... dialog box every time you import a GEDCOM. I know what GEDCOM is, and if I did not, I could press F1 to get help. I don’t need to see an explanation every time I import a file.

This kind of user interface goof-up suggests that the user interface designers are not using this program themselves. The dialog box that follows after you select a file is equally annoying: This GEDCOM file was created by another genealogy application and may contain errors. Family Historian will correct some simple errors automatically. Would you like Family Historian to check the file for more complex GEDCOM errors and fix them where possible (recommended)?.
Please, just offer a Check for errors button…

Import of the 1 MB GEDCOM took about two seconds. The apparent import is three seconds because the awkward import design made me click more than once. The real import time is five seconds, as explained below. Five seconds is pretty fast, but no reason for joyous celebration yet. What really matters is the performance on a large file.


Some fifteen seconds into importing the 100k INDI GEDCOM, Family Historian put up a dialog box Check for word-wrapping errors. This is about some programs not handling CONT records correctly.

There are so many things wrong with that dialog box. First of all, don’t bother me with dialog boxes during the import. Do not pause the import to ask questions you could have asked beforehand. How many times do I have to complain about that before vendors get it? Ask all your questions before starting the import, thank you very much.

Secondly, I don’t care to hear that some programs do it wrong. Just import it right, and include a list of erroneous programs in your documentation. Alternatively, use that list of programs to correct their mistakes. don’t bother me with it, just import it.

When I select Each row contains 1 one word with a hyphen in the middle of it (e.g. the-atrical), the program responds with Word-wrapping has been handled correctly. Well, it is a PAF GEDCOM, so I hardly expected otherwise.

If you try this with a GEDCOM created by the Dutch program Pro-Gen and then choose Each row contains 2 words separated by a hyphen (e.g. the-animal), the program proudly responds with Word-wrapping has not been handled correctly, but Family Historian can now correct the problem..

If the Family Historian programmers had bothered to document the handling for the oh say ten most popular programs, most of us would never have to see this dialog box - and if they handled the dialog smartly, you’d have to see it just once for every other program.

The current user interface manages to annoy during import already, and the lack of smarts put into it does not build confidence for the program as a whole. All in all, Family Historian made a lousy first impression because of its import interface.

Import of the 100k INDI GEDCOM takes 15 seconds. That is impressively fast. Validation of the database took maybe two seconds, and the validation report found link errors. None of these was surprising, these are known errors in this particular PAF GEDCOM, but finding and reporting them in interactive time sure shows other programs how it’s done.

Exception Report

Before I got the validation report though, Family Historian produced an Exception Report. This is mostly a long list of tags it did not recognise. All of these are PAF-specific tags, such as _AKA, _AID, _MARNM, _PAREN and _ITALIC. Family Historian does not need to support any GEDCOM extension, and many of these tags can safely be ignored, but it would sure be nice if it recognised _AKA (also known as) and _MARNM (married name).

The exception report seemed to show that Family Historian’s GEDCOM support is incomplete. It did not recognise the CALN (call number) tag. This is a standard GEDCOM tag, yet Family Historian complains that it is uncategorised data (non-GEDCOM).

Perhaps Family Historian meant to issue another error message. You see, PAF does not treat call numbers for repositories correctly. The GEDCOM specification is crystal clear that the CALN tag should be subordinate to the REPO tag, yet PAF gives it the same level number as the REPO tag. The CALN tag is not a non-GEDCOM tag, but the PAF GEDCOM is wrong.

corrected PAF GEDCOM

I made a copy of the PAF GEDCOM, corrected PAF’s error by replacing every 1 CALN by 2 CALN and tried again - with identical results; Family Historian still considered the CALN tag to be uncategorised data (non-GEDCOM).

At this point, I initially concluded that Family Historian does not seem to support the CALN tag, but that was a premature conclusion.
Family Historian was still right to continue to reject the modified GEDCOM file, as I had only made a partial correction to the GEDCOM file. I had moved the CALN tag from level 1 to level 2. That made the CALN tag a level 2 tag below a level 1 one tag, but below the wrong one. The CALN tag still appeared after, and thus as subordinate to, the PUBL tag, while it should be subordinate to the REPO tag. Once I corrected that as well, Family Historian read the GEDCOM file just fine.

original PAF GEDCOM
0 @Source@ SOUR
1 PUBL Title
1 CALN call number
1 REPO @Repository@
partially corrected PAF GEDCOM
0 @Source@ SOUR
1 PUBL Title
2 CALN call number
1 REPO @Repository@
corrected PAF GEDCOM
0 @Source@ SOUR
1 PUBL Title
1 REPO @Repository@
2 CALN call number

import log

Family Historian does not produce an import log. The Exception Report it generates is a post-import report, not an import log.
Well, because Family Historian has not saved your file yet, so it is arguable a pre-import report. I still consider it a post-import report because you only get to see it once Family Historian is done loading the file.
If Family Historian were to crash during import, there would be no report to help you figure out where things went wrong at all. This is a serious shortcoming.

dangerous interface

The import user interface is not just messed up, but positively dangerous.

When you create a file and then import a GEDCOM into it, Family Historian does not import the GEDCOM into that file. Instead, it closes that file, and then loads the file you asked for. It does not save the file you loaded, but if you save the file yourself by just choosing File | Save, Family Historian will overwrite the file it just loaded. That is a very serious interface blunder.

actual import time

Saving the 100k INDI file took about five seconds, so the full import time is not fifteen seconds, but twenty seconds, plus a few seconds for re-choosing a file name to save to. Thus, the total import time is 22 seconds. Similarly, the import time for the 1 MB GEDCOM, which also needs to be saved to complete the import operation, becomes about five seconds.


If the import logic were improved, the import times would improve, but even these import times are pretty impressive. Only a few programs managed to import the 100k INDI GEDCOM in less than a minute. The only other genealogy editor that managed that feat is Relatives. The two programs with better import performance - Legacy Charting and GENViewer Lite - are both genealogy viewers that do not allow editing and do not even produce a post-import report. PAF takes 3m44 and RootsMagic takes 5m21.

full save

After all the complaining Family Historian does upon import, even about perfectly legal GEDCOM extensions, it is weird to notice that its own files are no better.

Family Historian may not recognise PAF’s extension, but it does include them. It seems to just copy the file and only replace the header with one that claims it is a Family Historian file. Yet when you import that file, Family Historian reports no problems whatsoever…
Something is wrong here.

GEDCOM header magic

I wondered what would happen if I manually replaced the PAF header with a Family Historian header, and then tried to import the otherwise identical file. There are some details you need to get right, like the header’s link the submitter, but the really important thing is that, with a header claiming the file was created by Family Historian in place, Family Historian did no longer warn that the GEDCOM file might be wrong, and did not produce an exception report.

So, I wondered what would happen if I placed a PAF header on the file that Family Historian writes. I imported the original, unmodified PAF file, and agreed to let it fix all the errors it could fix, and then asked Family Historian to write it to disc, to get a true Family Historian file. I then replaced its Family Historian header with a PAF header, and asked Family Historian to import the file again. Family Historian did not just once again warned against GEDCOM files made by other programs, this time round it also created a lengthy exception report about all That’s wrong with the ostensible PAF file - apparently about the same as the real PAF.

Family Historian deliberately pretends that its own files are flawless. If it encounters a Family Historian header, it will not produced any error or warning. Put a Family Historian header on another file, and Family Historian remains silent. Put another header on a Family Historian file, and Family Historian suddenly produces a lengthy exception report.

Family Historian is less than honest. It deliberately withholds errors and warnings for its own files.

less than honest

Family Historian is less than honest. It deliberately withholds errors and warnings for its own files.

This way, Family Historian hides its own errors from you, to create the misleading impression that its GEDCOM files are perfect.

You can force Family Historian to be honest about its own files by replacing the GEDCOM header. I have not bothered to find out how much you really need to change, perhaps changing one letter in the header is enough. The issue is not how different the header needs to be for Family Historian to be honest. The issue is that Family Historian cannot be trusted.

Family Historian does not use UTF-8, it does not even support UTF-8 import.

GEDCOM export

When I saved the 100k INDI database, the program did not ask any questions. Now, programs should not bother you with questions when you save your database, but Family Historian does not have a native file format.

Family Historian only saves to (ostensible) GEDCOM format, and genealogy programs usually ask what character encoding you’d like to use. Of course, Family Historian need only ask what you like when you choose to export, and does not need to do so not when you merely save your database. When you request a database save, it can simply use UTF-8. The only problem with that reasoning is that it isn’t what Family Historian does.
Family Historian does not use UTF-8 for its own files, it does not even support UTF-8 import.

ANSI only

Family Historian supports Windows ANSI only. All its ostensible GEDCOM files are ANSI files. Family Historian does not support export to any other encoding. In fact, it does not support GEDCOM export at all! When you select GEDCOM export, Family Historian throws up a dialog box that says

There is no need to export from Family Historian to a GEDCOM file as Family Historian uses GEDCOM as its native data format. This means that the file you save your data in already is a GEDCOM file.

You may wish to exclude some records from the exported file. In that case, make a copy of your family tree file (one way to do this is to use the Save As command on the File menu). Then open the copy in Family Historian and use Split Tree Helper (also available on the File menu) to delete records that you do not wish to be in the exported file.

If you wish to delete certain fields within records throughout the file, you can also use Split Tree Helper for this. For more fine-grained control on deleting fields using queries, see Chapter 12 of Getting the Most from Family Historian.

Be careful to ensure that you are editing the copy and not your original file when you do deletions. For greater security, take a backup before starting.

In plain honest English: the menu item you just selected is fake. Family Historian does not support GEDCOM export at all. You have to make do with the ANSI file we use as our native format.

export not necessary?

Calico Pie claims that GEDCOM export is not necessary because Family Historian uses GEDCOM as its native format. That is a half-truth at best.

A typical GEDCOM export will provide two major options; the ability to select a character encoding and the ability to excluding the living. Many programs offer finer control over what gets exported, but these are the major ones, and Family Historian does not even support these. That is a serious limitation.

Weirdly, the Wizard for creation of a web site does allow omitting living people.

GEDCOM quality

Apart from its usage of the Windows ANSI encoding, the GEDCOM files that Family Historian makes look fine. I was a bit surprised to note that Family Historian writes the submitter record at the end of the file. It typically follows immediately after the header, but placement at the end of the file is legal. The submission record, if present, must follow the GEDCOM header, the submitter record is just one of many records that follow.
There is a literally minor, yet serious complaint; the GEDCOM header list the Family Historian version as 3.1, while it is actually 3.1.2. One day, a small version difference may turn out to be important.

character encoding

Family Historian uses the rather limited Windows ANSI (Windows codepage 1252) encoding and does not even support export to ANSEL or UTF-8. In fact, neither ANSEL or UTF-8 is even mentioned in the help file. Calico Pie treats the major GEDCOM character encodings as if they do not exist.

A few quick test confirmed my worst suspicion; Family Historian does not support ANSEL or UTF-8 on import either. Worse, it pretends to be able to import these encodings, but bluntly imports these file as ANSI GEDCOM, thus mangling your data.

That’s bad already, but things are worse. Family Historian stores all your text as ANSI, irregardless of the code page you’ve configured. That will seem to work well - until you present that GEDCOM file to another program.

It is the proverbial button with a text next to it saying "don’t press this button".

Use ANSI character set

Family Historian has an option on one of the tabs of the Preferences dialog box, titled use ANSI character set. That is a rather weird option for a program that does not seem to support anything else. The help is not clear on what happens if you uncheck it either.

The help just says ANSI is the standard Windows character set. Unless you have good reason to do otherwise, you should leave this option checked.. First of all, what it says there is not true. The standard Windows character set is Unicode, and has been since the release of Windows NT in 1993. Secondly, it does not tell you what the option does either, neither in technical language, nor in non-technical language. It is the proverbial button with a text next to it saying don’t press this button. I cannot help but wonder whether Calico Pie themselves know what that button is for.

... the ostensible ASCII file contains non-ASCII characters.
Family Historian ASCII is not ASCII

A quick tests suggest that Family Historian will save its files as ASCII instead of ANSI when you uncheck it. If that is indeed what it does, why doesn’t the help file say so? And why does the program have one button kind-of labelled ANSI, but does it make you guess what the other option is, instead of using say two radio buttons that unequivocally identify each option?

More importantly, Family Historian does not save the file as ASCII. A quick test revealed that the ostensible ASCII file contains non-ASCII characters.

A look at the file seemed to confirm the suspicion that Family Historian had once again bluntly saved the file as Windows ANSI, and merely slapped an ASCII label on it. So it seems that all what happens when you uncheck use ANSI character set is that Family Historian deliberately mislabels the files as ASCII. It sure does not actually support ASCII.

safe save?

Family Historian is one of those programs that does not save the changes you make until you yourself explicitly choose to save the database. If the system or program crashes in the middle of an edit sessions, your changes will be lost.

When Family Historian saves your changes, however few and small they are, it doesn’t save just the changes you made, but instead always rewrites the entire database. I wondered what would happen if the system or program were to crash during that save. That is a serious concern with programs that rewrite the entire database. For example, It’s Our Tree Home Edition (IOTHE) deletes the current file before writing a new one, so if the system crashes during the save operation, your might lose a lot of data.

Family Historian saves pretty fast, so to perform this little experiment I used a large database, the ISIS database containing about half a million INDI records. I made some random changes, asked Family Historian to save my database and watched what happened.

I am happy to report that Family Historian does not start by deleting your existing database. It starts by building the new file under a temporary name. Only once it is finished building that file does Family Historian delete the old file and rename the new one to take its place. If the system were to crash right in between the delete and the rename, you’d still have your data, it would merely be named something like ~FH18.TMP.


The manual mentions that Family Historian reads GEDCOM 5.5 files, but Family Historian does not even issue a warning when you present it with a GEDCOM 5.0, 4.0 or 3.0 file, despite the fact that these different GEDCOM versions are not entirely compatible with other.
I get the impression that he creators did not even consider that there are other versions, and bluntly assumes that each GEDCOM file must be a GEDCOM 5.5 file.

user interface

Overall, the user interface seems normal, but I already indicated several annoyances. What bothers me about those is that they persist in a product that is up to version 3 already.

At first blush, the user interface seems to disappoint. There is a Records windows with four tabs. Each tab contains a tabular view. Most programs offer some kind of family view or a pedigree view, and if you did not look further, you might think that Family Historian supports neither.

There is a family view that Family Historian will display in an additional tab in that Records windows. It is a family view that has somehow been force-fitted into a table view, it is plain ugly, and there seems to be no way to navigate from the individual view to the family or the other way round. Nor do these two views seems all that different from each other.

a different view

The Family Historian user interface is different from other genealogy programs. The Individual and Family views may seem spreadsheet-like, but they are expandable not unlike a directory tree. For example, when you select yourself in the Individual view, it list your parents, but you cannot navigate to their records in that list nor to the Family View. That sounds limiting, but it is not, as you do not need to navigate away from yourself at all. You can drill down instead.

You can click the little box next to your parents name to get to see their family view - much like you click on the little box next to a directory icon to see the content of that directory. Once it shows the additional data, you can click to see or hide more details. You can drill down as far as you like, and the funny thing is that this view allows you to move up and down the family tree in any way you like. For example, you can drill down from yourself to a grandmother, and then from that grandmother to a nephew.

Family Historian Individual View

The Family Historian Individual View. The use of ALL-CAPS for family names is not a misfeature of Family Historian, but an error of the database loaded into it.

The Family View is really the same view as the Individual View, except that the top level list consists of families instead of Individuals.

This interface may take some getting used too, but it does have the obvious advantage that it allows you to follow some path through your tree without ever having to wonder how you got where you are, as this view always shows the path you followed.

The chart display is not just fast, but quite smart too.


Family Historian features a more graphical view of your data as well. You can ask for a chart view with ancestors, descendants or both. It defaults to displaying just few generations, but you can choose a different number of generations or just click on small circles to expand the tree with another one, and another one, as available data permits.

These diagrams have a plethora of options. These chart views are not just diagrams for navigating around your data, these are meant to be printed.
With many programs that try a graphical approach, performance really suffers when you try more than just a few generations, but Family Historian handles this well. A print preview for just five generations of ancestors showed immediately, so I decided to try a print preview of ten generations and that showed immediately too.

Linking Ribbon

The chart display is not just fast, but quite smart too. When I asked for an All Ancestors - Ahnentafel numbers chart, I noticed an wide arc going from one couple in the tree to another - it was automatically highlighting that the same couple occurred more than once. Family Historian calls this a Linking Ribbon. I found it to be rather ugly, but you can turn it off by either unchecking Check for duplicates or unchecking Link duplicates in the diagram and if you leave it, you can still customise the shape and colour. You have to specify these options through an a somewhat awkward dialog box reminiscent of Windows 3.1 programs, you cannot just interactively adjust the curve, but at least you can customise it.

The only question that remains is how to get the Museum Of Modern Art to pay for this unique snapshot of modern-day human-computer interaction.

chart types

Family Historians offers ancestor charts, descendants charts and bow tie chart, and all of them in various styles. I was sorry to note that it does not include a fan chart among the charting options.

Two chart types merit special mention. There is the Everyone report - something that many Family Tree Maker users have been missing in recent releases of that program. I decided to try this out with the 100k INDI database.

That is a serious test. GenoPro uses a diagram as it user interface and ran out of memory for a medium sized file of just some 30k INDI already, and Relatives also managed to confuse itself displaying the 100k INDI database.
Family Historian took 8 minutes and 50 seconds (530s), so its performance is less than 200 INDI per second, but it actually managed it, and used less than a quarter gigabyte of memory to do so. The only problems are that the resulting chart looks psychedelic because it has way too many vertical lines, that redrawing the visible window takes about five seconds, and that scrolling the window is as effortless as ploughing the tundra with a toothpick.

Family Historian 3.1 Everyone Diagram Redrawing for 100K database

This screen grab taken in the middle of the five-second redraw gives an accurate idea just how useful a diagram like this is for a large database. Still, it is impressive that Family Historian managed to do this at all. The only question that remains is how to get the Museum Of Modern Art to pay for this unique snapshot of modern-day human-computer interaction.

All Relatives

I never really understood why some people want an Everyone view, and I doubt that it is what they really want. I think that what most researchers really want is what Family Historian calls the All Relatives diagram. Your typical ancestral diagram is often incomplete because it does not show other marriages, the All Relatives diagram shows all in-laws, all marriages and all children. It defaults to showing three generations in both directions, and you can customise that to your liking. All blood relatives with the same relationship are shown on the same row, for easy reference. For me, the diagram shows my grandfather’s second wife, but it does not show her first husband, as he is neither a blood relative nor an in-law.

Smart Diagrams

home person

The diagrams are the central feature of this program. Family Historian defaults to displaying tables only. It should default to displaying the All Relatives chart for the home person.

The problem with that is that Family Historian allows you to set the home person, but does not automatically set the home person to the individual with record ID 1, as smarter programs do.
Family Historian does support record identifiers, but does not allow quick navigation to a record with a particular ID. Luckily, its search by name dialog is just as fast as the rest of the program.

By the way, Family Historian refers to the home person as the file root.

live diagrams

Family Historian is one of those programs that offer a visual chart as their main interface, yet it does not force the chart interface on you. You can use the tables if you prefer. It does not even force any particular chart on you. You can choose a chart and then customise its looks and adjust it as you see fit.

The interactive charts are not just for printing nor just for navigating. They are both your interact interface to your family data and for printed display.

The biggest complaints about the charts is that they rarely fit the window, so you have to scroll, and there are no zoom controls where you’d expect them. It is possible to zoom in and out, but the interface to do so is less than obvious and not very natural. There are zoom options on the diagram menu, but there are none on the window or the context menu.

moving around

At first it seemed impossible to move boxes, but then I discovered that the interface is modal. You need to switch to another mode to move things around.
When I enabled moving and and resizing, and then zoomed out to get a good overview, I found the behaviour of the diagram in response to my resizing efforts, rather confusing. Well, less than logical really. I try to move a box to the left while there is plenty of space but it won’t budge, I then move it to the right and it jumps down, taking half the diagram with it. It is weird.

ease of use

The interface is neither intuitive nor flexible. It seems so full of some many rigid assumption of what has to go where that it might just as well not allow you to move the boxes around.

Family Historian’s interface is far from the ease of use that drawing programs like Visio offer. It has a weird slapped-together feel. It does not really respect the object-action model, where you first select some objects, and then perform an action on it, like a Windows interface should. The interface for adjusting the diagram makes you switch back and forth between the boxes in the window and a pop-up dialog called the Movement Control Box. That dialog exists to let you keep switching between the program’s multiple drag-and-move modes, the Box and Bar mode, the Fixed Point mode, and the Tree mode, as if having multiple modes makes sense at all. A box will refuse to move, but give not visual feedback on why not. There is a context menu, but it is never any help, as it is only used to display menu options that do not depend on the context…

I can best summarise the entire frustrating experience by saying that to call this user interface a illogical mess is too much praise already. This user interface is in dire need of an overhaul. It is clumsy, even by the more than a decade old Windows 95 standards.


You can save diagrams to continue with them later. Although the user interface is clumsy, there does not seem anything wrong with the drawing capabilities. One quite remarkable feature is that each diagram can contain multiple charts. You can have the ancestors for one persons and the descendents of another in the same diagram, and there seems to be no set limit to the number of charts you can include in a single diagram.

The really fun part is that you cannot just include pictures or videos, but even OLE Objects, such as Word documents, PowerPoint presentations or an Adobe Flash object. I do not consider any of this particularly wise, but it is a capability worth noting.


Another remarkable feature is that Family Historian supports quite a few output formats. It supports major bitmap formats including PNG, BMP, TIFF, PCX and JPG. More interesting is that it support metafile formats including Windows MetaFile (*.wmf), Enhanced MetaFile (*.emf) and Adobe PhotoShop (*.psd).

Support for metafile formats is particularly significant. It is what you need for high-quality printing at some printing shop - and something that the otherwise excellent Legacy Charting lacks.

Family Historian does not have native support for export to document formats like Word or Adobe PDF.


The Getting the Most from Family Historian manual is aimed at readers who are beginners with regards to Windows, genealogy and this particular program. Anyone who knows Windows already or has experience using other genealogy program will probably want to ignore the manual and use the help file instead.


Automatic Source Citation

Automatic Source Citation is rather convenient feature; you set a source and it gets added to every new record you create. This is ideal for creating a tree while a distant relative enumerates all her siblings to you. You of course need to remember to turn it off again, but it turns off automatically when you exit the program.

LDS events

Family Historian aims to support the complete GEDCOM specification, and that includes the LDS-specific events, without suffering PAF’s major limitation; Family Historian does allow recording of same-sex marriages.


Family Historian lacks a consistency check and does not offer any way to check the spelling of place names either.


Family Historian’s support for pictures is very good. You can not just any number of pictures to a person, but also link any number of persons to a picture. You can even link to them to a particular face in a group photo. You can show just the face in diagrams without having to chop the group picture up into many individual pictures. The problem with this feature is the considerably less than intuitive user interface.


Family Historian comes with a large number of predefined-queries, but what really matters is that you can define your own. The only problem with it is that Family Historian features one of the least intuitive query editors I have ever seen, and you’ll have to come to terms with its awkward interface before you can start defining your own queries.

installable fact sets

Installable Fact Sets is Family Historian terminology for the ability to define your own event types. You can create custom event types and attributes, complete with support for narrative reports, and share these with others, or just add additional attributes to existing events. Thus, the easiest way to get to understand the Installable Fact Sets feature to download and install a few fact sets from the user group web site. Some of the fact sets you can download there are a military fact sets, a name change fact set, one for Jewish customs, and fact sets with additional attributes for birth, baptism, death and burial.


The Family Historian web site claims that Family Historian has no limits. That is nonsense. Every program has limits. What Calico Pie means to say it that it has no hardcoded limits.
I was recently given a flyer for Reunion 9, the latest version of a popular MacOS program. The flyer notes that Reunion has been completely rewritten in Cocoa, the programming interface for Mac OS X. That is nice, but the program is full of hard limits. A name can be no more than 255 characters, memos can be just 1 KB, notes are limited 64 KB, individuals can have no more than 150 partners and families can have no more than 150 children. Remember that I complained about Legacy Charting limiting fan charts to 12 generations? Well, Reunion limits them to ten generations.
Reunion is full of hardcoded limits. Family Historian is not. When I asked it to load married1200.ged, my test file with 1200 marriages for a single person, Family Historian did not complain, but loaded it in less than a second, and it took maybe five seconds to draw the Everyone diagram.

Everyone diagram for 1200 marriages

web site

Family Historian has a menu item to create a web site. Once you pick that, you get an 8-step Wizard, after which the program generates your site. I choose to create a web site for all people in the database and largely went with all the default options.

Web site creation is slow. Family Historian took 40 minutes to create a web for the 100k database. The resulting site consists of 61.396 files totalling 308.323.131 bytes of data, that takes up 412.483.584 bytes of disk space. That is more than dozen times the size of the GEDCOM file. The resulting pages look like regular reports, just hyperlinked.

The pages that Family Historian generates actually validate! It merely validates as HTML 4.01 Transitional, not XHTML, but most other genealogy programs produce nothing better than tag soup.
Sadly, although there is a small style sheet, the pages it generates do not really use style sheets. Instead, the pages are full of hardcoded inline styles, and even still abuse tables for layout. All in all, the mark-up code it generates is poor quality and practically impossible to customise.

compare and merge

Family Historian claims a powerful merge / compare facility, that lets you compare two GEDCOM files side by side. I tend to largely dismiss such claims when programs are slow performing basic tasks already, but Family Historian is fast. I decided to give this feature a whirl.

I wondered what it would make of my current database compared to 100k database, which is an old version of same. With both databases loaded, it has to handle more than quarter million individuals.

There are some warnings about makings backups and such. With both files loaded, Family Historian uses more than 400 MB. The two GEDCOM files are more than 100 MB already, so that is actually pretty good memory usage.

Family Historian’s CPU usage never wavered far from 50 %. Windows showed Family Historian to be unresponsive, but it was perfectly possible to run other programs without noticing the drag on the system. After more than 25 (!) hours, Family Historian still didn’t show any sign of of a dialog. It was still keeping steady using 50 % CPU and 400 MB of RAM.

I had high hopes because Family Historian is generally fast, but this feature is not as fast as the rest. I will have to try it with a medium sized or small database to see how it does then. The only conclusion I can draw so far is that this is Family Historian that wasn’t designed and tested for use with large databases.
The lack of a progress bar even suggests that Calico Pie has never tested this feature with anything but toy sized examples.


The About box acknowledges that Family Historian uses image handling code by Smaller Animals Software. Their ImgSource library is a C++ library. Family Historian also uses the free zlib compression library written by Jean-Loup Gailly and Mark Adler, a C library.

Family Historian appears to be a native Windows application written in Microsoft Visual C++. It is also a rather old-fashioned code-page-based 16-bit Windows application, perhaps originally written for Windows 95, that has been compiled as a 32-bits application, but has not really been upgraded to 32-bit Windows; the program generally uses the ANSI variant of Windows functions instead of the native Unicode functions. It does not even acknowledge that Windows supports many different code pages, but acts as if there is just one possible codepage.

Internally, Windows handles everything in Unicode, but offers the so-called ANSI functions for compatibility with legacy programs. These functions are implemented on top of the native Unicode function by converting back and forth to a code page.

I expect that when Family Historian is upgraded to a real 32-bit application that uses the native 32-bit Unicode functions, it will even faster than it is already, because it will no longer suffer the many small delays caused by these conversions.


previous millennium

Calico Pie calls Family Historian family tree software in the 21st century, but Family Historian is not modern 21st century software. It is not just the user interface that feels like Windows 95. The entire design is for a previous millennium. Family Historian is a 16-bit design targeted at Windows 95. Windows supports Unicode since 1993, but Family Historian still does not.

100 % GEDCOM

Calico Pie wants to claim 100 % GEDCOM support, but Family Historian does not even support ANSEL. Its support for ASCII is lacking and weirdly undocumented. All it really supports is Windows ANSI, an encoding the GEDCOM standard does not even mention.

data mangling

Worse, Family Historian is not only a code page-based design, it even makes the blunder of assuming that there is just one Windows code page. So it may seem to work right if you use another code page, but you will notice that your ANSI GEDCOM is messed up as soon you try to import it into a program that handles this right.

Worst of all it that it does not acknowledge its limitation. If you present Family Historian with an ANSEL or UTF-8 GEDCOM file, it will not admit that it cannot handle it, but bluntly import the file as if it were encoded as Windows ANSI, thus mangling your data on import.


The technological design of Family Historian is about as dated and incapable as The Master Genealogist 7 and Family Tree Maker 2008. It just looks better and works faster those those technological laggards.


Family Historian’s import is fast. It is faster than RootsMagic, faster than PAF, even faster than Relatives. It is the fastest import I have seen in a genealogy editor yet, but it is hardly a real import. It does not handle character encodings, and does not produce an import log. It seems to be a straightforward file copy that merely changes the file header. I prefer a slower but real import that does handle character encodings and creates an import log.

Strictly speaking, Family Historian does not support GEDCOM at all!


The makers of Family Historian seem to regard their GEDCOM import as a good place to make remarks about the GEDCOM support of other programs, but their own GEDCOM support is not 100% either.


Family Historian pretends to fix common GEDCOM problems, but could not handle a PAF GEDCOM with a CALN (call number) call number correctly, despite the fact that PAF GEDCOM are common. Once the PAF GEDCOM was corrected, Family Historian read it just fine.

So, although the claim that Family Historian fixes common GEDCOM problems might raise some expectations that the current version cannot meet, Family Historian does seem to accept every GEDCOM tag.

The most obvious problem with Family Historian’s GEDCOM support is the error handling. Family Historian refers to misplaced GEDCOM tags as non-GEDCOM instead of say unexpected tag, thus easily creating the impression that it consider the tag itself to be invalid, wherever it was placed.


Strictly speaking, Family Historian does not support GEDCOM at all! Family Historian always uses Windows ANSI as the character encoding for its ostensible GEDCOM 5.5 files, but that is not one of the encodings the GEDCOM 5.5 specification allows…
Thus, what Family Historian supports is not GEDCOM.

That argument may sound theoretical, but it is not. The complete lack of support for ANSEL and UTF-8 is a practical problem that seriously limits the program’s capabilities to deal with true GEDCOM files.


The Everyone and All Relatives charts make Family Historian of interest to Family Tree Maker users who have been missing its All-in-One tree in recent versions of that program. The ability to combine multiple charts and export to metafile sound great, but it is hard to feel any enthusiasm for the diagramming user interface. It would hardly be acceptable in a technology demo, and no one should have to suffer such awkward lack of user interface design.


The user interface is simultaneously the program’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. Calico Pie has the guts to be different, but no talent for user interfaces. Their live charts are a nice idea, but the execution of that idea leaves to be desired.

The import interface is broken by lack of design. Not only are there annoying and completely superfluous dialog boxes, the import is not really an import at all, and if you do not pay attention, you will overwrite the original GEDCOM. That is a serious design blunder. This blunder alone makes the program worthy of disrecommendation already.

The user interface seems to have been created with an there is a user interface so it's okay attitude. It seems okay a first glance, but when you start using it, there are many little and not so little things that are just a bit off, awkward or clumsy. That gets in the way of using the program’s unique features. Family Historian is in dire need of a make-over.


Family Historian does not support export to ANSEL or UTF-8, and cannot import ANSEL or UTF-8 files either, but does not even issue a warning about its limitation. Instead, it pretends to be able, and bluntly mangles your data.

import speed

Family Historian loads and saves faster than any other genealogy editor I’ve tried, but that is overshadowed by the fact that quality of its import leaves to be desired.

Family Historian imported the 1 MB GEDCOM, an ANSI GEDCOM file, just fine, but I consider the import of the 100k INDI file to have failed. Family Historian seemed to complete import of the 100k INDI file in 22 seconds, but it actually mangled the data in this ANSEL GEDCOM file. That is failure to import.


Family Historian’s speed and its live charts approach are attractive. Its lack of an import log and its dishonesty in reporting about its own files are worrisome. Its dated looks are not a serious issue, but its dangerous user interface blunders are reasons for avoiding it. The lack of Unicode support and its mangling of your data without even a warning make this program unrecommendable already, but with the vendor claiming 100 % GEDCOM compatibility, the complete lack of real GEDCOM support just has to be noted.

Family Historian’s speed, modest memory requirements, live charts and overall stability show programming skill; but it is a rickety decade-old Windows 95 design in more sense than one. The program has been updated, but not upgraded. Family Historian is in serious need of a technical redesign and a user interface make-over.


2008-11-26 free update to version 4

Calico Pie has announced that Family Historian 4 is due to be released in 2009 February, and that from today forward, buyers of version 3 will receive a free upgrade for version 4.
The press release mentions some of the new features. It does not mention an upgrade to a Unicode-based design, support for GEDCOM, or a user interface make-over, so it doesn’t seem likely that version 4 addresses these shortcomings of version 3.

2008-12-21 CALN correction

Family Historian’s exception listing misleadingly refers to CALN as non-GEDCOM, but I initially made just one change to the PAF GEDCOM file while I should have made two changes.
The level of the CALN tag should not just be 2 instead of 1, it should also be placed after 1 REPO instead of after 1 PUBL. I had not made that change. When both changes are made, Family Historian accepts the file.
Thanks to Michael Gaylard for alerting me.

import speed

time in seconds5 22
INDI per second972,4 4.548,50
bytes per second211.179,00 1.763.608,77

product details

productFamily Historian
organisationCalico Pie
websiteFamily Historian
price download € 44,95
boxed: about £ 35 (about €40)
requirementWindows 98 or better
noteEnglish only, no Amglish
VerdictWindows 95 application


2011-04-23: 4.0 press release

Calico Pie broke the link to their 2008 Nov 26 Family Historian 4 due out soon - upgrade offer now press release. The link has been removed.

2012-12-07 Tim Forsythe GEDCOM review

Tim Forsythe, has started a series reviewing GEDCOM support. He started this series with a review of Family Historian 5.07's GEDCOM support, and found several issues, quite different from those noted here for Family Historian version 3.1.2.



Family Historian


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