101 Best Family History Web Sites

By Melanie Rigney Premium

The Internet is overflowing with tens of thousands of sites with information about getting started with your family history research, finding your ancestors, sharing your discoveries and networking with others. But if you jump on the Web without preparing for your journey, you’ll be as frustrated as if you tried to find Space Mountain without a Disney World map.

Before you sign on:

The logic of doing as much spadework as possible before you start searching mega-databases is obvious: You’re a lot more likely to find information about your third-greatgrandfather Smith if you know his son Josiah was born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., in 1842 than if you start scouring all the online Smith surname databases when you’re not even sure of your own grandfather’s first name or where he grew up.

New genealogical sites go up every day, and new databases and queries are added to existing sites. Some information is free; you must pay for access to some. In either case, be sure to document your source. And don’t assume anything you get on the Internet or via e-mail is gospel — after all, how many copies have you received of the non-existent Good Times virus warning or of that dratted chocolate-chip-cookie recipe? But with a little prep work and searches that include these Web sites, we think you’ll find something valuable within the maze of Internet genealogy.

As with all Web sites in Family Tree Magazine, we’ve enclosed each address in < > brackets so you know where the address begins and ends (don’t type the < > in your browser!); not all Web addresses begin with “www.” so type exactly what appears between the < >. Or don’t type them at all — just go straight to our magazine Web site <>, where you’ll find all 101 top sites ready to click on and explore.

Getting started

<> Pardon our immodesty, but we’d be less than honest if we didn’t start by noting that Family Tree Magazine‘s own site is the single best starting point on the Web for genealogy how-to information and searches. You’ll find our essential toolkit of downloadable genealogy resources; free e-mail service (; links to all the sites listed here; and our powerful SuperSearch, which lets you find your living relatives, search the most useful how-to sites and search — with a single click! — most of the database sites listed here, more than a billion entries in all.

<> The genealogy how-to guide here is among the best, even if you’re not using Family Tree Maker software. Learn about collecting information, organizing what you’ve got and starting to look for the missing pieces. There’s also a dictionary of genealogy terms and a helpful research directory., which owns Family Tree Maker, presents similar information in a different format at <>.

<> The list of five steps to starting genealogical research is very helpful, and the deciphering old handwriting section should speed you on your way through aged wills, letters and other documents.

The big picture

<> The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shares access to its Ancestral File (35 million-plus names), the International Genealogical Index for nearly 20 regions (more than 600 million names) and Web site links, along with a center for collaborating with others working your names and more than 150 church publications.

<> Claims to be the Internet’s oldest and largest genealogy community. The site is home to the Roots Web surname list of more than 700,000 entries and offers two e-newsletters and online genealogical courses. Links extend to interests beyond genealogy, such as folklore, crafts and dancing. Roots Web will host your Web site if you contribute $50 per year or more.

<> The goal of this volunteer project is to create Web sites for genealogical research in every US state and county. The information’s free, but the quality and quantity varies widely from site to site. Still, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s worth a shot. Many of the sites have local histories, original county boundaries, query boards and more.

< > offers access to more than 1,800 databases and 500 million names to subscribers and significantly less access for free. These are the folks who publish Ancestry and Genealogical Computing magazines. The for-pay database includes the Periodical Source Index, or PERSI, the most widely used index of genealogical and historical articles.

<> In addition to Heritage Quest magazine, members of the Heritage Quest Research Club get discounted books, software, magazines, CD-ROMs and more. Heritage Quest’s products include what it says is the US’ largest private collection of family-history data on microfilm, more than 250,000 titles.

<> It’s again, this time offering access to 2,147 databases, including more than 200,000 census images.

<> Includes forums for 16,000 surnames, with more than 2.5 million messages archived. You can set up your own list of surname forums to follow (the display isn’t great). You can post to the forum, or get the e-mail address of the person whose post interests you. Part of the site.

<> The GENDEX server indexes nearly 4,000 online databases (including 390,000 surnames and nearly 13 million people) and lets you locate and view the data of interest. While some information is free, access to in-depth data requires a rather novel payment plan: You send the owner at least $ 10, and for each $10, you get 1,000 information credits. When you run out of credits, your account reverts from registered to unregistered mode until you send more money. A demonstration mode lets you try before you buy.

<> Lots of databases here, but you must know the author of the database to make the most efficient use of the site.

<> Just what it sounds like: loads of links to surname databases and more. The bad news is that the home page takes forever to load.

<> This spinoff hosts more than 65,000 message boards for surnames and other genealogy-related topics, plus offers a free newsletter and family site hosting.

<> With all these databases, where do you start? This site seeks to help you sort just how big each is, how much use costs and how fast the number of names present is growing.

<> Where to obtain vital records (such as birth, death and marriage certificates and divorce decrees) from each US state, territory and county. A great source of information, including the charge for records, the years they are available and the address to write. There also are links to non-US vital records sites.

<> The University of California-Irvine is working to assemble a database of kinship records, genealogies and ethnographic data. Among the 150-plus cases currently available is a partial genealogy of US presidents.

Portals and link indexes

<> They don’t come better than Cyndi Howells’ site. More than 50,000 categorized genealogy sites.

<> This site started out as Helm’s Genealogy Toolbox in 1995 and is part of a partnership with As of fall 1999, there were nearly 72,000 links. It’s a good site, but it feels more corporate than Cyndi’s List, and many of the links aren’t specific to genealogy (for example, PBS stations in each state).

<> John Fuller and Chris Gaunt provide the requisite volume of Web links, but go beyond many of the other portal sites with locals of Gopher, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Usenet newsgroup and Telnet connections.

<> One-stop shopping for places to find a wide variety of census data online.

<> The 4,300 links here are primarily for ships’ passenger lists, but there also are some nice links to church and cemetery records for the US, Canada, UK and elsewhere.

<> A bit more manageable than some of the larger portals, broken into 14 areas from adoption to software.

<> This portal is updated relatively regularly and contains some good links to general research and to individual histories.

Special Interest

<> The US Catholic Historical Society doesn’t share any diocesan records, but there’s good information for those looking to learn about the history of Catholicism, which in turn could be helpful in checking local church archives.

<> A significant number of Americans who had ancestors in the New World by 1800 will find Quakers in their past. The National Society of Descendants of Early Quakers promotes preservation and appreciation of early Society of Friends family records. There are links to good database searches for Quaker meetings and other information.

<> The Lutheran Roots Genealogy Exchange provides a place for those with Lutheran ancestors to register their families and share general genealogy research tips.

<> The Judaism and Jewish Resources site provides links to Jewish genealogy and history as well as information about today’s political and religious issues facing the nation of Israel and Jews elsewhere.

<> These folks are dedicated. If you’ve ever looked through the books of immigrant passenger ships, your eyes probably gave out before you exhausted the volumes and the spellings of your ancestors’ names. This volunteer group is patiently inputting ships’ passenger lists into a form that can be read online.

<> Christine Charity’s site is an especially helpful one for researching African-American ancestors. She’s got good links and information about the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau records, African genealogy and related articles and databases.

<> Several African-American researchers and organizations have teamed up to form the Millennium Project Coalition, which is working to expand this online database of African-American resources.

<> Finding data on African-Americans prior to the 1870 census (“The Wall,” as researchers call it) can be difficult, but this site proves it’s not impossible. Information within tax records, diaries, plantation records and data on runaway slaves that may be helpful is indexed by last name, state and year.

<> Native American genealogy is made somewhat easier by this site, which already features histories of the Cherokee, Lakota and Choctaw tribes. Besides tribal information and personal genealogies, there’s information about Native Americans in more recent times.

<> One of the most common US ancestries is German, and this site offers an exhaustive list of links, from databases to maps of Germany through the ages to antiquarian booksellers.

<> The 1840s potato famine fueled the migration of thousands of Irish to the US. The Ireland GenWeb Project shares the usual surname and map links along with links to tips specific to Irish research.

<> Don’t let this site about Poland’s Central Archives of Historical Records fool you: While the Polish titles appear first, there are English translations of nearly everything, including an explanation of what civil and church records are available in Poland and how to go about getting them. Forms help you prepare your requests.

<> From Finland to Iceland (and let’s not forget Sweden, Denmark and Norway), this attractive site provides plenty of history about the Nordic region as well as emigration patterns, places to visit in the US and surname searches.

<> Complete links for Canada, including listings for each province as well as sites with cemetery and military information.

<> Lorine McGinnis Schulze’s Olive Tree Genealogy site is particularly strong on information and links for the Dutch, both in the Netherlands and the US, but it’s also worth checking for information on Mennonites, Germany’s Palatines, ship lists and more.

<> The site’s focus is UK and Irish genealogy, with plenty of tips and links on those topics. There’s also good information on getting started on regional research from abroad and links to databases for Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

<> If you’ve got Russian roots to research, this is the place to start. There’s a good rundown of records available in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and helpful suggestions on how to start researching information from this part of the world.

<> The goal of the WorldGenWeb Project is to have every country represented by a Web site hosted by researchers based in that country or familiar with its resources. To date, there are 15 geographic regions that are then divided into individual countries. The not-for-profit group shares all data collected free of charge.

<> A good place to start if your roots go back to Italy. The FAQ for searching for Italian roots is great, plus there’s plenty of information on Italian heroes, the country’s history and more. PIE stands for POINTers In E-mail, named for the owner’s mailing list for those interested in Italian genealogy; POINT stands for Pursuing Our Italian Names Together.

Today’s families

<> This site has a genealogy bulletin board almost as an afterthought. The focus is much more on the here and now of family life (including a long-lost-family bulletin board), and does a nice job in that regard. Home page hosting is available.

<> Consider this an online version of a family reunion. This site will host your family’s page for free, and you can give access to anyone you want. You can put up photos, set up private message boards, keep track of birthdays and all sorts of other things to stay in touch.

<> Now that you’ve found all those third and fourth cousins, don’t you want to get together with them? This site shares great tips on how to round up all your long-lost relatives for a reunion, and what to do once you get together.

<> A great place to find supplies for your family reunion or genealogy group: T-shirts, coffee mugs and sweatshirts (e.g., “Genealogists don’t die, they just lose their census” and “So many ancestors, so little time”).

<>The Center for Life Stories Preservation shares free tips on how to get started keeping family and other stories and offers a sampling of others’ tales.

<> Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association’s site offers a national registry for adoptees and birth parents. Registrants place in a databank the sex, date of birth and place of birth for the child, which is the extent of common information known by the adoptee and natural parents.

<> Steve Knob-lock’s site is chock-full of helpful hints for the visual side of your family history. There are tips for building a family album online, including advice on using a scanner, identifying old photos and restoring photos.

Societies and associations

<> So you think you can prove your fifth-great-grandfather gave aid and comfort to the Patriots during the American Revolution? Family legend is that your mother’s side came over on the Mayflower. If you’re interested in hereditary, lineage or patriotic societies, the Hereditary Society Blue Book is a must-have. You can buy the book at the site, plus learn more about most of the organizations.

<> The Federation of Genealogical Societies site lists more than 500 member societies in the US and Canada. Beyond that, the focus is on helping those member societies rather than researchers, but it’s a quick way to find a group in your desired geographic area.

<> The General Society of Mayflower Descendants lists passengers on this famous ship as well as state Mayflower societies and information about how to apply for membership.

<> If your dream is to become a Daughter of the American Revolution, this should be one of your first stops. Find out what type of documentation you’ll need to qualify and get information on the 2,950 chapters worldwide.

<> The Sons of the American Revolution shares magazine articles, links to local chapters and a nice assortment of history links.

<> The International Internet Genealogical Society provides Internet Relay Chats, a monthly online newsletter and queries in up to 11 languages. There’s no charge to be a member, but you have to register to see much.

<> The US Genealogy Network provides links to genealogical and historical networks, societies and associations that serve and promote free access to genealogical and historical research on the Internet.

<> The National Genealogical Society encourages its 17,000 individual and group members to conduct their research professionally and ethically. The NGS offers an online course for those getting started in genealogy.

<> The Association of Professional Genealogists is a support organization for all professional genealogists, including amateurs wishing to turn pro. There’s information on what to look for if you need to hire a professional genealogist and an online listing of many APG members.

<> The Board for Certification of Genealogists tests those who wish for its certification. Those who pass are reevaluated every five years.

<> Gentech may be the group for you if you’re passionate about both genealogy and technology. The nonprofit, all-volunteer association organizes national conferences and publishes white papers of common interest to genealogists and technologists.

American History

<> The Library of Congress site has a wonderful American Memory page, with links to more than 60 collections, searchable by keyword or time period in a variety of media.

<> This site from Cowles History Group provides a nice assortment of articles about famous people and events in history.

<> Cornell University and the University of Michigan established the Making of America Project to provide online access to important 19th century US journals and books.

<> The National Archives and Records Administration doesn’t have a lot of actual records online, but does provide great explanations of what you’ll find at regional offices, how to get data, what you’re likely to find (including the burned 1890 census), and how to order microfilm of military records. Don’t miss the handy page that helps you figure the Soundex number for surnames you’re searching

<> Soundex assigns numbers to various vowels and vowel combinations, which means the resulting code should cover all likely surname spelling variations (Chatterton, Chaddcrton, Chatterdon and Chadderton all have the same code, for example) in more recent US Census indexes.

<> More than 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. All told, 12 million immigrants entered the US here between 1892 and 1954, the largest migration in modern history. No records to search here, but if you have an ancestor among the 12 million, it’s worth a look.

<> The non-profit Independence Hall Association offers a feel for life during the time of the American Revolution. The idea is to give students, teachers, libraries and other interested people an easy way to learn about the era’s people, ideas, places and events.

<> History Magazine, from the publishers of Family Chronicle, made its debut in late 1999. The magazine’s goal is to help researchers link social history with the lives of their ancestors.

<> The US Bureau of Land Management’s site includes access to more than 2 million federal land titles issued in the eastern US between 1820 and 1908. There’s also general current and historical information about land ownership and use.

<> This National Historic Landmark near San Francisco is known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” When Angel Island opened in 1910, it was expected to handle European immigrants headed for California via the Panama Canal. Instead, the facility handled about 250,000 immigrants from Asia, 70 percent of them Chinese. While records aren’t searchable here, you’ll get a good feeling for what those detained at Angel Island had to go through to enter the US.

<> The Independence Hall Association’s site is heavy on the Philadelphia area and its importance during the American Revolution, with links to learn more about that period of history.

<> Between 1853 and 1930, as many as 200,000 American children rode the Orphan Train. Often, they were immigrants recently arrived in New York whose parents died or were neglectful. The children were shipped to the West where many were in essence miniature indentured servants. Learn their stories from the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, and see if your ancestors were among the riders.

<> If your ancestors arrived in the US before Ellis Island opened in 1892, there’s a good chance they were among the 8 million-plus immigrants who entered at Castle Garden just off Manhattan Island (today, it’s Castle Clinton National Monument). The location began life as a military fort in 1811, then was an entertainment center before becoming an immigrant landing depot in 1855. It closed in 1890, reopened as the New York City Aquarium six years later and was closed in 1941. The Web site doesn’t provide databases for immigrants, but there’s a good deal of information about the monument’s history.

<> Don’t pass this site by simply because of its humble beginnings as a 10th-grade history class project. It’s probably the best single site around to explain the US migration experience. Broken down into periods from 1607 to the present, it presents an exhaustive amount of information about why immigrants came to this country, what they had to do to enter, where they went and how they were treated by other Americans.

FTP and your family tree

One of the oldest ways to move bits and bytes on the Internet — pre-datingthe Web — is File Transfer Protocol, FTP for short. Essentially, you log into a remote computer (typically, using your e-mail address for a password) and then copy files from it. You can FTP with your Web browser (substituting ftp:// for the ubiquitous http://), or use an FTP program. Basic FTP is built into Windows (go to Run and type “FTP”); Fetch is a free FTP program for Macs. Here’s one of our favorite FTP sites:

<> The GEDCOM format was developed so that files could be exchanged among the various genealogy software programs. The specifications have left something to be desired, but most programs will read each other’s GEDCOM files (but not files prepared or saved in other ways). This FTP site is one of the central locations for early GEDCOM files.

Military records

<> The US Army Center of Military History site is a good source of information about getting your own or an ancestor’s military records, unit records and more.

<> The Naval Historical Center provides interesting information about various facets of current and historical naval life, including help for writing your own naval memoir.

<> Home of the US Civil War Center, with more than 4,500 records to units, battlefields, lifestyles, cemeteries, historic parks and more.

Other genealogy pages

<> With a setup reminiscent of the Gen Web project, the US Biographies Project looks for volunteers to enter, edit and archive biographies for specific geographic areas. The biographies are taken from old local histories and newspaper accounts for which copyright protection has expired.

<> Who do you most want to find, living or dead? You might find them, or others searching them, at Genealogy’s Most Wanted site. Queries are listed in alphabetical order. When we looked, there were more than 21,000 listings and more than 4,800 adoption queries. There are followup stories with people who found each other (“captures”) via the site.

<> Many people were turned on to genealogy by the PBS series “Ancestors” in 1997. This link includes updates on a second series as well as free forms, good links and a guide to conducting an oral history.

<> So you know the birth date of an ancestor, and believe she was an only child. When were her parents likely born? Get some logical guidelines here for your search.

<> Is that relative you just met on the Internet your second cousin thrice removed or your third cousin twice removed? There are a lot of relationship charts out there. This site has one too, but it’s particularly valuable because of the clear narrative that precedes the chart.

<> Everything you ever wanted to know about cemeteries is here. Very complete listing of US cemeteries that have been cataloged as well as online cemetery catalogs from around the world.

<> Cities, counties and countries have changed their boundaries and names more often than you might think. While you ultimately will want to see a map from the period in question, the US Geological Survey gives a good overview of the challenges you’ll face in your search.

<> Links to everything you could possibly want to know about heraldry and coats of arms.

<> There are plenty of false claims and exaggerations made on the Internet by people who would like to separate genealogists from their money or data. These folks try to ride herd on the bad guys.

<> In her diary, one of your ancestors complains of milk leg. What was it? Find the answers to this and other medical term mysteries here.

<> What would you give for your great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate? Do you ache every time you see a lovely turn-of-the-century portrait being sold for $ 1 at a yard sale? Your Past Connections offers a free service to get people reconnected with memorabilia from their families’ past. If you’re looking for something, post it. If you’ve found something identifiable at a flea market, post it with the asking price. There’s no charge for the service, and the sponsors of the site say sometimes the only cost requested is postage.

<> Myrtle writes a daily column on genealogy, available via America Online or e-mail. The site’s primarily noteworthy for her Best of the Internet for Genealogists Awards; her columns also are archived.

Libraries and research facilities

<> Here’s a quick guide to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Centers worldwide, with street addresses and phone numhers.

<> The Newberry Library, one of the nation’s preeminent humanities research libraries, hasn’t put its special genealogical collections online. But you can learn about becoming one of the library’s Friends of Genealogy, check out its holdings for the next time you get to Chicago, and browse a dandy set of links.

<> The American Antiquarian Society research library’s collections focus on US life from the colonial era through the Cavil War and Reconstruction. The Worchester, Mass., library’s holdings — including genealogies, local histories, books and pamphlets — aren’t searchable online, but the site gives you a good idea of what you’ll find when you get there.

<> The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections is a Library of Congress cooperative cataloging program. NUCMC catalogers place the records in a national-level database available to researchers worldwide. To qualify, the repositories must admit researchers but lack the capability of entering the manuscripts themselves into a national database.

<> The Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind., was the birthplace of the Periodical Source Index, or PERS1, the world’s largest subject index for genealogical and historical periodical articles dating to the 18th century. While there are other places to access PERSI these days, the library’s Fred J. Reynolds Historical Genealogy Department still is an important locale for genealogists, with more than 220,000 printed volumes and 251,000 items of microfilm and microfiche.

<> This amazing site from Bucknell University links to more than 1,000 dictionaries in 200 languages. Helpful if you’re trying to decipher records from another country. (What does viuva mean on your Portuguese great-grand-mother’s ship records, for example?)

Genealogy software

<> Genealogy Software Springboard lets genealogists review the myriad software programs that are out there. Bear in mind that people’s opinions often reflect how much they paid for the software and their own research needs. Still, thousands of genealogists have weighed in here, and their opinions are worth a read before you buy.

<> One-stop shopping for genealogy software, antique maps, forms, charts and more, generally at competitive prices. There also are catalogs for other areas of interest to some genealogists, including religions, scrapbooks and keepsakes.

<> Brother’s Keeper is among the most popular genealogy programs today and one big reason why is its price. You can download this Windows shareware free; for a manual, you need to register and pay. The shareware is supposed to be updated every two weeks. Each database you create can hold up to 1 million names, and photos can be attached to people. One downside: You can print only four to six generations per page.

<> The Personal Ancestral File software from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most widely used programs, since church members are among the most dedicated genealogists. PAF may be downloaded free, or the church plans to sell the software on CD for a “nominal price.”

<> Sean Adams says he’s working to create a custom database format and the necessary tools to use the Web to interface with GEDCOM files, the universal exchange format for genealogy computer files. It’s a work in progress, but he’s posted a sample of one of his grandfather’s files.

From the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine