There’s no argument about which company leads the genealogy field when it comes to sheer numbers – it’s Ancestry.com. As of spring 2020, more than 16 million people have taken Ancesetry.com DNA tests, 100 million family trees have been built, more than six billion records have been published for the U.S. alone. and users conduct more than one billion searches monthly.
But is there a way to take advantage of this flood of genealogy goodness without buying a subscription? There is. If you have two weeks to devote to genealogy research, sign up for a free 14-day trial. (But don’t forget to go in and cancel your subscription, otherwise your card will show an automatic charge.)
But even before that, use these seven different techniques to glean as much as you can for free—not only from Ancestry.com but also its sister site, Fold3.com.
Once you’ve explored our seven picks, you’ll know whether a two-week free trial will help in your research. After that, you may decide paying for a one-month (or more) subscription is a good choice for your genealogy dollars.
1. How to Use the Ancestry.com Catalog
Finding your way into Ancestry.com without a trial subscription can be a challenge. Ancestry.com’s home page often changes, sometimes depending on whatever DNA special they’re running, sometimes depending on a ‘cookie’ they’ve set that shows you’ve been there before.
If the word ‘Genealogy’ is at the top of the page, click on it. If not, you’ll have to come in through the ‘back door’. Here’s how.
Scroll down to the bottom of the home page and among the menu items is: Site Map.
A site map is exactly what it sounds like – an index to all of the major categories on the site. The one you’re looking for is near the top under Family History Resources and is titled ‘Genealogy’. Click this to bypass the opening screen.
At the top of this screen you’ll see the same menu that you’d see if you were an Ancestry.com subscriber. Click Search and a dropdown box will show you all of your database search options, such as immigration, vital records, military records, etc.
You can actually search these databases (see below), but for now click on Card Catalog. The Catalog is probably one of the most under-utilized Ancestry.com features. It’s here that you can search (including using filters) to see if a database exists that might include an ancestor.
Here’s an example. Suppose you have an ancestor who you think might have died in Bergen County, New Jersey in the late 1800s. Go to the Card Catalog and put New Jersey in the Keyword box, click each of these filters:
- Birth, Marriage, Death
- New Jersey
You’ll see as you click various filters (like New Jersey) that it will then open a new box of options that show the county names.
Once you’ve opted for these filters, you’ll see that only two databases fit into all of your criterion:
- Bergen Records: Records of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Bergen in New Jersey, 1666 to 1788, Vol. I
- Bergen County, New Jersey marriage records
From this, it’s clear that you’re not going to find a death record for your late 1800s Bergen County ancestor. However, if you remove all of your filters except New Jersey as a Keyword and Birth, Marriage and Death as your collection of choice, you’ll now have 666 databases that might include your ancestor.
As you can see, adding and deleting filters will have a huge impact on your results. Play with various iterations of filters and you might just find a database that works for you.
Now That You’ve Found a Database
What happens if you find a database that you think includes your ancestor? In this example, I chose the All New Jersey, Death Index, 1901-2017, searching for John Stevenson. What do you know! Ancestry actually (partially) displayed the results:
However, if you try to click on anything, here’s where Ancestry.com will pop up a subscription box. Bad news is – you can’t go any further. Good news is – you know there’s a possibility that there’s a record for your ancestor.
Next, go over to FamilySearch.org and see if they have the same database. In checking, they don’t have the exact database, but they do have one titled New Jersey Deaths and Burials, 1720-1988. You may not get everything you want from this Ancestry.com search, but you can learn enough to check other free sites.
2. Peeking into Public Member Trees
Using the same ‘back door’ entry as above, you can search any of the categories of records, including Public Member Trees. With over than 100 million family trees (most of which are public) there’s a high likelihood of finding at least one ancestor. I searched for an ancestor and found him in 41 different trees.
The downside is that you can’t see the trees or contact the tree owner without a subscription, but you can glean at least a little information including places and name of spouse. If you do decide to opt for a trial subscription, you will have gathered a list of trees to search. After all, when you only have two weeks for a trial, you need to make the best use of your time.
3. How to Search Databases Without a Subscription
Now that you know how to access Ancestry.com for free, you can now carry out any search you want, in any of the database categories listed under Search in the main menu.
What’s really helpful is that you’ll be able to see if your ancestor is in any of the Ancestry.com databases, even though you can’t see the actual record. This, alone, can help you determine whether to invest the time in a subscription.
An exception to gaining only limited access is when a search result takes you to Ancestry’s free site, Find a Grave. When I searched for an ancestor, one of the results was for his burial.
Following the link, Ancestry.com served up the following information. And, if I clicked on yet another link, it took me to the FindaGrave.com website.
4. Back to School: Ancestry Academy
Another great free Ancestry.com offering is Ancestry Academy. If you return to the Main Menu at the top of the page, you’ll find the Academy under Extras. You can also access the Academy using the Ancestry Academy app (both iOS and Android) or go directly to this webpage.
The Academy was designed as a place for quick and easy overview, in video format, of multiple topics. When you first go to the Academy home page it looks like there are only a few videos, but once you tap the Browse button at the top of the page you’ll find dozens of videos, categorized by topics.
For example, in the Methodology and Skills section there are 16 videos just on the topic of African American research. Others in that group include 13 on Canadian censuses, 18 on Canadian records, and 11 on brick wall research.
Whether you’re brand new to research or have been doing it a lifetime, I think you’ll be surprised at the valuable tidbits found in the Academy videos. All are accessible from desktop, phone, or tablet.
5. How to Make Use of the Ancestry DNA Mobile App
If you purchased an Ancestry DNA kit, then you can center the site via the home page Login link. Once logged into your DNA account, you’ll still have access to the main Search menu. You will only have limited access to databases, as above, but as you’ve learned, that, alone, can be valuable.
If you’re an on-the-go genealogist, Ancestry.com has made it easy to turn all of your DNA information into a portable format. Download the free Ancestry DNA app for either iOS or Android. The app is another free Ancestry.com tool.
The app shows DNA Matches, your profile, health, and wellness survey questions, as well as your personal DNA story. The mobile DNA story has just as much information as you’ll find using your desktop. You can search for matches, or filter by new or close matches.
6. Watch Ancestry.com on YouTube
Did you know that Ancestry.com has its own YouTube channel and that it’s totally free? It does, and it’s well worth visiting.
Although you won’t find specific records, you will find dozens and dozens of helpful videos that include how-to’s, historic recipes, craft ideas, success stories, and historical diaries.
By default, Ancestry’s video page is organized by date (newest added), but you can use the Sort by function to re-order by oldest video added or most popular. Videos go back ten years.
Using the top menu, you can also sort by Playlists, which are videos of a similar topic. For example, if you select the Canada playlist, you’ll find 56 short videos.
If you’re looking for longer how-to videos, select the ones done by Ancestry’s Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowan. These videos are marked with a special icon and are most often about search techniques or tips on how to use new Ancestry.com features.
One last way to search the videos is to use the Search icon on the far right of the menu (it looks like a spy glass). For example, if you want a better understanding of how DNA Matches work, search for that phrase and you’ll find several videos, including ones on DNA Circles, Native American DNA, and genetic genealogy case studies.
7. How to Access Fold3.com’s Free Military Resources
Among Ancestry.com’s for-fee holdings are Newspapers.com, Archives.com, AncestryProGenealogists, and Fold3.com. Originally launched as Footnote, Fold3 focuses on military records, with its name reflecting the flag-folding ceremony in remembrance of veterans.
Fold3.com has more than 100 million free records but finding them without a subscription or a free trial can be a challenge. Free records span from Revolutionary War Navy and Marine Officers to War of 1812 pension files, to casualties from the Persian Gulf War.
Some of the free records are more informational such as papers from the Continental Congress and George Washington’s correspondence, while others do include names. Among them are records of those who died from the Civil War Sultana explosion or a Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Index.
Although it’s not immediately obvious, you can find these free records from Fold3.com’s Home Page. Scroll down the page until you see Browse Military Records by War. Underneath are icons representing the various military conflicts.
Click on any icon to go to a page listing all of the records (paid and free) from that conflict. For example, the Korean War contains 12 different databases, with the free ones clearly marked.
As you browse through all of the conflicts, you’ll see that some of the free databases span more than one conflict. For example, the American Battle Monuments Commission covers Korea, as well as WWI and WWII.
Here’s the catch, though. On some databases, such as the Brady Civil War Photos, you can view all of the photos without being asked to sign up for a free seven-day trial subscription. On others, though, such as the War of 1812 pension index, you can dig down into the database until you find your ancestor’s name. Then, at that point, you’ll have to sign up for a free trial to read the documents.
What’s the value if you can’t see the records? Once you find a database that includes your ancestor’s name (and possibly state of origin or regiment) you can then either opt-in for a trial subscription or try to find the database somewhere else on the web.
For example, go to Family Search and search for War of 1812. There, you’ll find a database titled ‘United States War of 1812 Index to Pension Application Files, 1812-1910’. Searching for Thomas Hendrickson, I found an image of the index, showing service in Captain Thomas Blair’s Co. Maryland Militia. Once I have the name of where Thomas served, I can then use Google to get more specific information.
Free or Fee?
After using our favorite seven techniques for free Ancestry.com information, you may decide to choose a trial or a monthly subscription. If you do opt for a trial on Ancestry.com or any of its associated sites, we recommend choosing a time when you can set aside dedicated time for searching.
Whichever direction you choose to go, we encourage you to start with our free Ancestry.com techniques—they could hold the clues that you’ve long been searching for.