On many occasions, I’ve hit brick walls in my family history research. I resign myself to the stark reality that I’ve exhausted every possible source and will add nothing more to that branch of my family tree. Then, out of the blue, comes someone with an old family Bible, letters or other documents that solve the mystery and reinvigorate my quest.
Thanks to the Internet, its easier than ever to make those out-of-the-blue connections. We can collaborate with other researchers at sites from message boards to heirloom auctions. But perhaps the best online tools for tapping fellow family historians’ discoveries are pedigree databases — compilations of family files from genealogists around the world. Typically, these family tree collections contain not only names, but also dates and places of birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial. Individuals are linked together in families, so once you make a connection, you might instantly extend your pedigree back several generations. You’ll also find the name and contact information for the submitter, who may be able to provide additional details.
Since Family Tree Magazine first looked at pedigree databases, they’ve skyrocketed in size, added more powerful search functions and become easier to use. Our original top 10 picks contained nearly 285 million names; this year, the 10 biggest and best have more than 944 million names — and they’re adding millions more every month.
Profiting from search options
You can search most pedigree databases for a name and year of birth. If its a common name, you might get thousands of matches. Another search might turn up nothing at all. Pedigree databases provide other options to help you broaden or narrow your search to find the right person. So take time to experiment with each site’s search options, which may include:
• Middle name or initial: Try searching on the first and last name, the first and last name with the middle initial, and the first and last name with the middle name.
• Soundex: A Soundex search finds alternate spellings of a last name, such as Smith and Smyth. It won’t find every possible spelling, though. So if a search produces no matches, it’s still worth trying other spellings.
• Optional last name: If you don’t find a woman’s maiden name by searching for her husband, try searching on just her first name and her date and place of birth.
• Year of birth or death: You may be able to search on a specific year or a range of years. Some databases also can be searched by year and place of marriage.
• Year of baptism or burial: If you search on a birth or death date or place, most pedigree databases won’t find records that contain information only about the person’s baptism and burial. But a few pedigree databases search baptism and burial information as alternatives to birth and death information.
• State or country: Search on the name of a state or Canadian province, its standard abbreviation and its two-letter postal abbreviation. Or try a country and common abbreviations (such as Eng for England).
• Town or County: Search on only a last name and a town or county to find possible relatives of your ancestor.
• Parents: Some pedigree databases, such as Ancestral file and the Pedigree Resource File, let you search on just the parents’ names to find their children. Search with and without the mother’s maiden name.
• Spouse: Try adding the spouse’s first and last names, first name alone or last name alone.
Using the payoff
Once you find matches, most pedigree databases let you print family group sheets, pedigree charts and other forms. Usually, you also can create a GEDCOM file — the universal exchange format for computerized genealogy data — to use in family tree software. This lets you import your results directly into your genealogy program with no tedious typing. You may be able to pick which individuals to include in the GEDCOM file you download, such as one person’s ancestors or descendants. Sometimes, you have to download the submitter’s entire file.
But don’t assume that everything you find in a pedigree database is accurate. Before adding the new information to your existing family file, create a new, separate file for it. Look over the new file to see if the details look plausible. Do the dates make sense? Do you find unlikely or impossible situations, such as parents having children at a really young or old age? Does the file provide documentation to show where the information was found? Citations to original records, such as birth certificates, census records and wills, bolster the file’s credibility. Information from published histories and family tradition is helpful, but these sources are more prone to error. If no sources are cited, you should use the details as clues until you find reliable evidence to back up each claim.
Your next step is to contact the submitter for more information, copies of records and the names of other researchers interested in the same families.
Sharing the wealth of data
Then it’s your turn. By submitting your family history information to a pedigree database, you’ll increase your chances of making contact with researchers interested in the same families. If disaster strikes and you lose computer data, the pedigree database may also serve as a backup.
The usual format for submitting data to a pedigree database is a GEDCOM file. First, you’ll need to use genealogy software to enter your family information. Then, save your file as a GEDCOM file and make note of the file’s location on your hard drive (such as C:datajones.ged). Most pedigree databases let you upload the file directly to the Web site or send it by e-mail.
When selecting information to submit, respect the privacy of living relatives and the work of other researchers. Don’t include information on living people unless you have their permission. And ask before you submit someone else’s research work. Genealogy success often depends on sharing findings with other researchers, but don’t infringe on someone’s copyright or right to privacy in the process.
Though people shouldn’t submit your research to a pedigree database or share it with other researchers without your permission, it does happen. But you can at least be sure your name stays with your work. GEDmark, a new free program from Progeny Software <www.progenysoftware.com/gedmark.html>, places your name, contact information and comments in every individual record in your GEDCOM file. Use GEDmark on your GEDCOM file before you submit it to a pedigree database. Then, if someone downloads the file and shares it, your name will always go with it. You also can use GEDmark to add author information to files you receive from someone else, helping you keep track of the source.
Holding your ownership
Not all compilers of pedigree databases assert the same rights when it comes to using data from submitters. Typically, however, the compilers claim copyright ownership of the whole database as a compilation, but not ownership of the individual files that make up the database. You retain ownership of the information you submit, and can do with it as you please. (Keep in mind, however, that facts themselves cannot be copyrighted; only a collective body of research. Some compilers will sell the database online or on CD-ROM, while others vow never to charge for access to the database. Before submitting your file, carefully read the compiler’s policies and be sure you’re comfortable with them.
You should reasonably expect that the database compiler, in exchange for the privilege of using your research work, will acknowledge your contribution wherever it’s published and make your contact information readily available to interested researchers. Ideally, the compiler will also let you update your contact information if it changes.
Tapping the top 10
Ready to start searching? Here and in the chart at right you’ll find profiles of the top 10 pedigree databases — among the largest family file conglomerations on the Web. Every one is worth a look. Most are free or offer some free access if you submit a GEDCOM file. Since new names are continually being added to these databases, you should recheck them periodically.
Introduced on CD-ROM in 1990, Ancestral File was the first widely available pedigree database. You can search the CD-ROM version for free at any of the Family History Library’s branch Family History Centers; the online version on FamilySearch also is free. New information is no longer accepted for Ancestral File; you can submit your data to FamilySearch’s Pedigree Resource File instead. Family Search is already user friendly, but look for significant changes ahead that will make it even easier to use.
HINT: Several pedigree databases search for alternate spellings of a last name, but Ancestral File (and the other FamilySearch databases) even finds spelling variations for the first name, such as Mary, Marie and Maria. If you want to search on a precise name spelling, check the “Use exact spelling” box on FamilySearch.
One of the largest pedigree databases, Ancestry Archive is the only one that groups multiple copies of records from different submitters together. That makes it easy to scan potential matches quickly and identify the ones with the best documentation. Submit a GEDCOM file with at least 15 families and 60 individuals, and you’ll get a free month of access to Ancestry Archive and various online records. Although you can include a location in your search, records that match on the location do not necessarily appear at the top of the list of matches.
HINT: The Ancestry Archive search form has a space for a middle initial, but ignores it. The search works if you include the middle name or middle initial in the First Name search box.
Ancestry World Tree & WorldConnect Project
After MyFamily.com, the parent company of Ancestry.com, acquired RootsWeb in 2001, it combined the Ancestry World Tree and Roots Web’s WorldConnect Project to create by far the Web’s largest pedigree database. You can search the contents of both databases from either Web site — all for free.
These two files have some of the most useful search options of any pedigree database. They’re also among only a few that let you search for any geographical location name — whether it be a state, county, township or other division — in the place of birth, marriage and death fields (see hint at right). To search on a middle name or initial, just include it in the First Name search box.
The Ancestry World Tree and the WorldConnect Project are almost identical, except for the way they display matches. The Ancestry World Tree shows matching records in a slick, easy-to-scan columnar format. The WorldConnect Project displays results less elegantly, but also includes date and place of death.
Both files let you display and print nice pedigree charts and other reports with source information. You also can add a “Post-em” — a note with comments, additional information or just your interest in the family — along with your name and e-mail address.
HINT: Search on the name of a town, county, state or country in the fields for place of birth, marriage and death. If you’re researching a common name, narrow your search by adding the name of a state. If you still get too many matches, try searching on a town or county. While your ancestor might not be in the file, this search might turn up relatives.
GenCircles Global Tree
The GenCircles Global Tree features the most extensive and useful set of search options of any pedigree database. It’s the only one that lets you search both on a town or county in any of the place fields, and on baptism or burial information. These options allow you to zero in on matches you’d miss in most other pedigree databases.
A unique feature called SmartMatching makes searching the GenCircles Global Tree even more accurate and thorough. When you do a search, SmartMatching examines the matches and automatically alerts you to individuals in other files who are believed to be the same person. Unlike other such search mechanisms, which may give you tons of hits on “potential” ancestors, SmartMatching compares other identifying details (spouse, children, locations and dates, for example) to return matches for your specific ancestor.
If you’re researching a common last name, try typing in the last name and putting the town or county where the family lived in either the Birth Place or Death Place search box. Even if you don’t find your ancestors, you might find their relatives and useful leads.
Global Tree results include notes and sources. You also can attach a message with comments, your name and e-mail address to anyone in the file.
The Global Tree is a product of Pearl Street Software, the makers of Family Tree Legends genealogy software. While you don’t need Family Tree Legends to use the Global Tree, users of the Legends program can easily publish their family history to the Global Tree and keep it up-to-date with their latest findings. Family Tree Legends uses SmartMatching to automatically compare the names in your family file with names in the GenCircles Global Tree — and continually searches for new matches.
The Global Tree’s large size, user-friendly search form and uncanny knack for finding matches makes it one of the best pedigree databases you’ll find.
HINT: To search on a middle name, include it in the First Name search box.
Gene Stark’s GENDEX indexes more than 22,000 World Wide Web databases containing genealogical data on almost 60 million people. Unlike the other pedigree databases listed here, which are collections of GEDCOM files, GENDEX lets you view data from many Web databases without having to visit each individual Web site.
HINT: Scroll to the right side of the screen and click on the link to view the submitter’s name and contact information.
Cliff Manis launched GenServ in 1991, and the database now contains more than 16,000 GEDCOM files from submitters in 50-plus countries. GenServ’s cumbersome old system required you to re-enter your user ID every time you did a search. The much-improved new interface makes it easier to search for a name, view reports and contact submitters. Although it’s the smallest of the major pedigree databases, GenServ seems to have many names you won’t find in the other files.
HINT: GenServ has one unusual and extremely useful feature: Include a middle initial in your search, and the database will find matches with the middle initial and with middle names beginning with that letter. You can include a middle name or middle initial in the First Name search box. If you search on Charles J. Hall, for example, it will find Charles J. Hall, Charles James Hall and Charles Joseph Hall.
Though it has few search options, OneGreatFamily makes your search more efficient by removing duplicate entries. On other services, you might have eight or 10 different entries for the same person (sometimes within the same database). You then have to view each hit to see which of diem has the best or most complete information. OneGreatFamily, on the other hand, matches and merges duplicates, which lets you see the most complete entry available for each person.
OneGreatFamily also lets you arrange your family data in groups. You can give certain family members and relatives access to certain groups and even allow them to make changes and updates visible to everyone. That way, you can use OneGreatFamily to collaborate with others on your research.
HINT: To send an e-mail message to a submitter, double-click on a name in the search results, click on Family Info and then on Collaborate. Then select a group and a leader and click on Send.
Pedigree Resource File
One of the largest pedigree databases, the Pedigree Resource File (PRF) contains family files submitted to Family-Search. It’s easy to use, yet has sophisticated searching capabilities. You can buy sets of five CDs or volumes of 25 CDs, and each set or volume comes with a master index. The first two volumes each have about 27 million names.
You can search the online version of the Pedigree Resource File for tree on either FamilySearch or Find Your Family Tree. The online version is an index to the CDs. It shows a person’s spouses and parents, bur not children. So you can follow a line backward, but not forward.
The CD version of PRF includes notes, sources and features not found in the online version. You can print entire family trees, fan charts, hourglass charts, full family group records and book-format reports. You also can export records for merging with your own genealogy file. Starting with PRF Set 10, you can publish the information to a Web site and e-mail charts and reports.
PAF Companion, a $13.50 add-on program for printing enhanced charts and reports with Personal Ancestral File (PAF) family tree software, has a special Compare feature that works with the PRF Master Index. Install both PAF Companion and the PRF Master Index on your computer, and the Companion can automatically search the Master Index for the names in your PAF database. That’s much faster than manually searching for each name.
HINT: When you find an online match in the Pedigree Resource File, click on the Submission Search number to find other names submitted by the same researcher.
World Family Tree
The makers of Family Tree Maker software introduced the World Family Tree (WFT) in 1995, and it has grown to become one of the largest pedigree databases. Today, the WFT CDs number 120 and counting. Family Finder Search <www.genealogy.com> will help you identify which WFT CD has details on a certain person. You also can buy a WFT online subscription; the Web version is much cheaper, but it doesn’t include notes or sources.
While the WFT is large, its limited search capabilities make it hard to find a specific person, especially if the name is common. You can’t do a Soundex search for variant name spellings or look for the name of a parent or spouse. Be sure to select the Advanced Search option, which lets you narrow your search by year and birth or death place. You can enter the name of a town, county, state or country in the Place Search box, which is helpful. But you can’t specify an exact year or range of years; matches may span a century or more.
Each match in the online version of the WFT shows a name, a range of years and a state or country. To view details, such as a specific year and place of birth, you have to open the tree and find the name all over again. If that doesn’t try your patience, the cumbersome system for getting a submitter’s name and contact information will. After filling out a form and answering a trivia question, you have to wait up to 24 hours for the name and address to be sent to you by e-mail.
MyFamily.com, owner of the outstanding (and free) Ancestry World Tree and WorldConnect Project, has acquired Genealogy.com and its World Family Tree. One can only hope that MyFamily.com will improve the World Family Tree and make it at least as good as its free counterparts.