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How to Find Your Ancestors for Free

By Family Tree Editors

Table of Contents


Totally Free Genealogy Websites

Finding your ancestors for free seems like an impossible task. Everywhere you turn, subscription-based access seems to be the only way to gain the family tree information you’re desperately seeking. But before you take out that second mortgage, take some time to do research on these totally free genealogy websites. We’ve included websites where you can build your family tree, search records, find genealogy books to borrow and reach out to volunteers who may help you with some of your genealogy research—all for free.

Access Genealogy

This grab-bag of free genealogy records keeps growing.

Allen County Public Library

Though based in Indiana, this library’s online reach extends much further—reflecting its status as the nation’s second-richest genealogy library.

Ancestral Findings

This site offers free lookups of marriage, birth, death, immigration, land, military and census records in dozens of different resources.

Ancestry Library Edition

Your local library may offer you access to Ancestry.com’s immigration, census, vital and other records through Ancestry Library Edition. The library has to pay, of course, but it’s free to you as a patron.

Books We Own

The next best thing to owning essential genealogy resources is finding someone who has what you need and will do a free lookup for you.

Facebook

The world’s biggest social networking site is a useful tool for finding cousins and getting help with research from volunteers. There are countless pages dedicated to helping beginner genealogists, specific states and heritages, surnames, projects and much more.

FamilySearch

More than 2,000 online collections make this the internet’s largest home to free genealogy data.

Genealogy Bargains

This site points frugal genealogists to deals across the web—from free records access promotions and webinars to discounts on subscriptions and resources.

Genealogy Gophers

Smart, intuitive searching is the hallmark of the partnership with Family­Search here, which quickly combs 80,000 digitized books.

Google Books

Has someone already written a local or family history book relevant to your genealogy? Use Google Books to find out.

HathiTrust

To get the most out of this digital library, you must log in with credentials from a participating institution (such as a university). But there’s plenty here accessible to the general public, too.

HeritageQuest Online

Free to your home computer courtesy of your library card via participating institutions, HeritageQuest is now “powered by” (but not owned by) Ancestry.com.

Internet Archive

The long list of collections here ranges from 2.4 million library items to specialized collections for California and Portugal. Plus the Wayback Machine can find vanished genealogy sites from the early internet.

Library of Congress

Though not specifically focused on genealogy, the nation’s library has plenty to offer online. The Library’s genealogy collection began as early as 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library.

Midwest Genealogy Center

This site from the Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Mo., taps one of the nation’s largest genealogy collections.

National Archives and Records Administration

Read all about the genealogical treasures stored at the National Archives, order military and other records, and browse historical maps and photos.

Olive Tree Genealogy

Since its launch in 1996, this modest website has grown into a useful collection of how-to help and databases.

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK)

For research tasks in a distant library or archive, turn to this directory of volunteers and locations where they can do research tasks. (Please note you may be asked to reimburse small expenses such as photocopying or postage.)

RootsWeb

This venerable free site still serves up how-to articles, databases of surnames and US locations, mailing lists, pedigree files and much more—making it an oldie but a goodie.

USGenWeb

This volunteer site, with its state and county pages and special projects, remain as vibrant as ever.

WeRelate

Contributors here collaborate to build a single, unified family tree, with pages for more than 2.8 million people and 400,000 places. Register to add your tree; upload your family tree as a GEDCOM; and share documents, photos and stories.

WikiTree

More than half a million genealogists have contributed to this unified family tree, which now boasts nearly 18 million ancestral profiles (including living people, though they’re private except for invited people). Uniquely, more than 4 million profiles include information about DNA tests at various sites, which may help you confirm or reject your relation to that profile.

WorldCat/ArchiveGrid

Find your family history in 2 billion items at 10,000 of the world’s libraries, then click to see holdings nearest you using WorldCat. (You may also be able to borrow the books you discover using interlibrary loan.)

Its offshoot ArchiveGrid searches more than 4 million descriptions of archival records from 1,000 different institutions. Learn about historical documents, personal papers, family histories and other materials that may mention your ancestors. A clickable map makes it easy to find archives near you.

David Fryxell and Sunny Jane Morton

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Ways to Use Ancestry.com for Free

Even outside of a free trial, the savvy researcher can take advantage of Ancestry.com without having a paid subscription. Check out these seven free features of Ancestry.com (and its sister sites):

  1. Search the free index collections, which include both US and international records
  2. Use the free Ancestry.com card catalog
  3. View record previews
  4. Take a peek at public member trees
  5. Learn from Ancestry Academy’s how-to videos
  6. Watch Ancestry on YouTube
  7. Test with AncestryDNA (You’ll need to pay for a test, but you won’t need a paid Ancestry.com subscription to view your results or contact matches.)
  8. Search free records on Ancestry.com’s sister sites

Nancy Hendrickson

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Four Features of FamilySearch

FamilySearch.org is the world’s biggest, all-free, all-genealogy website, with the most global record content. Here are four features you should know about if you want to research your ancestors for free.

Historical Records

At last count, FamilySearch is home to more than 4 billion historical, high-quality genealogical document record images, painstakingly gathered over the course of several decades from repositories around the world.

FamilySearch Wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki hosts nearly 100,000 articles to get you started (or help you break through a brick wall) with your current research question.

Family History Library Catalog

The catalog of the entire Family History Library is searchable on FamilySearch.org. Search the catalog by place to explore what resources are available for your locale of interest.

FamilySearch Digital Library

In addition to the shelves of the Family History Library, the Digital Library offers search results on about half a million titles made available through libraries, genealogy societies and university libraries.

Sunny Jane Morton

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Free Records on FindMyPast

Most of the giant genealogy websites, including Findmypast, allow users to create free guest logins and at least search their record collections for free. But viewing the actual record transcriptions and images you’ll find in search results generally requires the proper subscription. Findmypast’s free portal gives full access to the following to those who create their free registrations:

  1. 1940 United States Census and all Canadian censuses
  2. Parish registers, cemetery records and marriage indexes
  3. Passenger lists and travel records
  4. Irish Catholic parish records
  5. 1881 Census of England, Wales and Scotland

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Free Genealogy Records

Here are some websites for tracking down more free genealogy records. Also keep in mind many public libraries, state archives, historical societies and universities host free digitized records on their own websites—so if you want to find your ancestors for free, you may have to do some extra digging.

It’s also possible to find free genealogy records at subscription genealogy sites, if you know where to look. Plus, be on the lookout for temporary, free full access to record collections on subscription sites, usually available around a specific holiday or anniversary of a historic event. You can easily find these at GenealogyBargains.com.

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Free Genealogy Software

If your research has ranged much beyond one family, you’re probably scouting for a way to organize your family tree. Genealogy database software could be just the ticket—and you don’t have to spend and arm and a leg to get enough power to accomplish the task. Several great options are just a free download away.

Ancestral Quest Basics

This software has all the essential features for working with your family tree.

Gramps

Gramps is a free software and community project, created, developed and governed by genealogists. Features include family groups, charts, events, repositories list, and much more.

MyHeritage Family Tree Builder

Use this software to create your family tree offline or on a secure site at MyHeritage.com. You can print decorative family tree charts from your online tree (order larger copies for a fee). The program supports 36 languages and its SmartMatching technology searches for matches to your ancestors in other users’ trees.

Legacy Family Tree Standard Edition

This free version of the popular software includes family and pedigree views, a to-do list, research log, event reminders and more.

RootsMagic Essentials

You’ll get many of the core features of the award-winning RootsMagic software in this free version: the Source Wizard, loads of reports and charts, unlimited data capacity and more.

Lisa Louise Cooke

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