Plugging Into the Past: Finding Your Family History Online—For Free

This month, I published an article on genealogical research in my professional magazine. Here is that article in its entirety.

When I was in second grade, I was quite certain that the actress Elizabeth Taylor was my great-aunt. At the time, family dynamics somewhat eluded me. Although I had quite a few great-aunts, I thought this was just a description of what wonderful relations they were. As Elizabeth Taylor shared my surname and was indeed a “great” person, I just assumed she had to be related to me. Alas, she was not.

Ever since then, I have striven to understand family connections and absorb all I can about family history. I developed my love of genealogy at the knees of three great-grandmothers, a great-uncle, and several great-great-aunts. These individuals told such vivid stories about our ancestors that it felt as if I had known these people personally.

Now that my family’s storytellers have passed away, I have been charged to be the keeper of the family history: a daunting task, to say the least. How would I ever trace and document all our family lines? As a mother of young children, I rarely have spare time. When would I have the energy to trek to libraries, historical societies, churches, and courthouses across the country to dig through piles of moldering papers and crumbling books? I thought that I would never be able to devote the time and effort needed to pursue genealogical queries. I was wrong.

Gone are the days when family historians must dredge through documents in search of answers. Although digging through piles of papers and old photos is still necessary in some instances, the Internet has brought many of these materials to us. Now, anyone can travel across the world or read ancient tomes with a click of the cursor.

When I started delving into our families’ past, I only had the names of ancestors four generations back. Beyond that, I was clueless. So I began with Ancestry.com, as I had heard that this was the premier place to go for online genealogy. While Ancestry.com is the most comprehensive genealogical research site available currently, after the initial two weeks of free access, users must pay a rather hefty fee to retain access to the myriad records.

However, one may opt for a free guest membership, as I have. Guest memberships allow users unlimited, free access to the 1880 U.S. Census. Occasionally, the site offers free, limited time access to specific records at selected times; for example, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, all Union and Confederate records were accessible free-of-charge for one week. Guest accounts also allow users to view and edit their own trees; invite others to view their trees; export their trees (as a gedcom file); or add/remove photos, stories, audio recordings, and videos.

I have chosen to keep my tree private, although I do invite family members to join and participate in our family tree. Currently, nearly four dozen family members have logged onto my family tree, adding their own recollections and photos. After a decade of research, my tree has 8,747 people with 2,059 photos/images and 380 stories. Many of the individuals are well documented with source materials. So how did I find all of these source materials and make all these ancestral connections without spending a dime?

First, I take advantage of the connection service offered by Ancestry.com. Other members cannot view the information housed in private trees; however, tree owners may permit the names, birth dates, and birth places of deceased people in their trees to appear in the search index. (Information about living persons is automatically hidden and is never revealed in the search index.) Subscription members can contact other users through the website to correspond about common kin. Occasionally, I have exchanged e-mails with these distant cousins outside of the Ancestry.com forum. This connection service has proved invaluable to me in many ways. Besides furthering my own research, it has reconnected me with a first cousin with whom I had lost contact years ago and introduced me to my father’s first cousin, whom neither he nor I had ever met.

Over the years, I have discovered many other helpful (and often free) genealogical websites. The first is MyHeritage.com. Through this site, individuals can download Family Tree Builder, a free program that allows users to either create family trees from scratch or upload an existing gedcom (an acronym for genealogical data communication) to populate their trees. Considering all the work I had already done on my tree, I opted to upload that gedcom to this application. This easy-to-use program may be downloaded to the computer, so that all a person’s family is assessable offline.

In addition, users of this program may choose to post their trees online, giving them the opportunity to connect with others researching common ancestry. Many interesting features are included with this application. In addition to uploading photos and stories and inviting family members to participate, the program maps from where a user’s ancestors originated; uses Smart Matching™ technology to cross-reference a user’s tree to millions of others to discover new relatives; uses face recognition technology to automatically tag individuals and connect that photo to a record; allows users to create, customize and print beautiful charts and reports; and employs Smart Research™ to automatically research family trees through the world’s top 100 genealogy websites.

Another free site brimming with source materials is Rootsweb.com. This comprehensive site has it all: country, state, and county genealogical websites; cemetery records; military records; social security death index; message boards; and census records—a veritable one-stop shop! It just takes a little digging through hyperlinks to fully appreciate all that the Rootsweb site has to offer.

Another free site providing a plethora of genealogical records is Familysearch.org. I love this site, as scans of original source documents are often included with the search results. Thanks to the Family Search website, I have downloaded dozens of images of census records, marriage records, death registries, and draft cards to add to my family tree.

FindAGrave.com is another site that I highly recommend. This website documents the final resting place of more than 60 million people, with hundreds of new records added daily. Users can create memorials for their own family and friends, if profiles do not already exist for these individuals. If a headstone photo is not shown, users may request one. When a request is submitted, the site solicits volunteers near the cemetery. Once a headstone photo is posted, an e-mail is sent to the person making the appeal to let him or her know that the request has been fulfilled. Sometimes, obituaries, personal photos, death certificates, and other documentation are attached to the memorials. In addition, some people’s records are linked to those of their family members.

OliveTreeGenealogy.com is an stellar resource for searching ships’ passenger lists. As most Americans are the progeny of immigrants, this website might prove invaluable, as it covers many ports of call from the mid-1600s through the mid-1900s. EllisIsland.org also supplies immigration information and even images of the original ship’s registries, for all immigrants processed through New York City’s Ellis Island. Remember, when using either of these sites, allow for variance in spelling. In fact, many names were revised or Anglicized once immigrants entered America. I contend that if Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were to have immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island, they would have been renamed Rosen and Gulden or maybe Rose and Gold.

Do you have a Pennsylvanian ancestor who fought in the Revolution, the Civil War, or other conflicts? If so, then the Pennsylvania Archives, www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us, may have the information you need. In fact, many states have searchable online archives. Unfortunately, no two states offer the same materials in the same format, and some are vastly better than others. Pennsylvania’s digital archive is one of the better ones. The New Jersey, Missouri, and West Virginia online archives are also exceptional. Each year, more and more records are accessible to online searching; hopefully, soon most states will digitize and expand their online archive collections.

Want to ask other family historians for clarification or assistance with your genealogical research, then Genforum.com is the place to go. The surname forums and state forums are brimming with discussions. If you cannot find the information you need, you can begin a new discussion. Need images and/or transcriptions of the United States or Canada Census records, then check out Census-Online.com.

If, after pursuing the sites already mentioned in this article, you are still in search of online resources, I suggest checking out these genealogical website clearinghouses, USGenWeb.org and CyndisList.com. The U.S. GenWeb Project provides free genealogy websites for every county and every state of the United States, as well as many specialized projects that go beyond county and state lines. For almost 15 years, Cyndi’s List has been a clearinghouse for genealogical resources. Currently, Cyndi’s List boasts links to more than 291,330 genealogical websites.

I hope you enjoy unearthing your family’s roots. Perhaps you will find a famous relation or two hiding in the branches of your family tree—possibly even Elizabeth Taylor.

 

#ancestry     #familytree     #genealogy

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