Can you really find your family tree online? Yes, you can — especially if you know how to effectively use online sources and when to turn to traditional offline sources.
In recent years, genealogists, government agencies and private companies have created thousands of Web sites with indexes, abstracts and transcriptions of genealogical records. You even can access digital images of family tree sources such as census records and rare local history books. That’s right: You can view real family history records online. It’s like having your computer hardwired to the library.
Granted, all these electronic resources haven’t eliminated the need to conduct personal interviews, track down old family Bibles and visit courthouses or archives. But they’ve made the whole process of researching your roots more efficient than ever before.
And while zillions of digitized genealogy records reside on commercial Web sites such as Ancestry.com <www.ancestry.com >, you don’t always have to pay for the “good stuff.”You’ll find plenty of free online resources, too — if you know where to log on.
So to help you amp up your Web research, we’ve picked out the 40 best databases of gratis genealogical records, from censuses to cemetery inscriptions. We focused on no-cost compilations with national or regional coverage (you’ll find a directory of state-specific sites on page 26). And we stuck to sources for tracing your family tree on American soil, rather than highlighting online collections of immigration and foreign records (that’s another article!). Our selections include indexes, abstracts and transcriptions, as well as a few sites that serve up images of the actual records.
One reminder: All computer databases qualify as secondary sources, which means they’re prone to human error (just like printed compilations). So unless the Web site provides an image of the original document, go the extra mile to look it up on microfilm or get a copy from the repository that holds the original. You might find further family history clues — and give your search a bigger power boost.
The BMD Project
Site visitors submit birth, marriage and death records here. So far, the site has nearly 60,000 entries covering Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Other states have fewer records, but more are being added every day.
Genealogy Today — Online Records
Among the researcher-contributed indexes and transcriptions at Genealogy Today, you’ll find 19th-century marriage records for Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
International Genealogical Index
Click Search for Ancestors, then select International Genealogical Index in the left frame. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ genealogy Web site hosts this 725 million-name database, which includes more than 62 million US birth and marriage records. Many were abstracted from original records; the rest consist of information submitted by church members. Each record’s Messages section tells you if the information was contributed by a member or extracted from records.
Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
The SSDI lists more than 72 million people who had Social Security numbers and whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The database covers primarily deaths since 1962 — when the SSA started computerizing its records — but some date back to the 1935 passage of the Social Security Act. Most entries include an exact date of birth, the month or exact date of death, and the last place of residence. Family Tree Legends’ version of the SSDI offers the most search options.
US Gen Web Project State Pages
Researchers have contributed many vital-records indexes to USGenWeb’s state pages and the county pages linked to them. The records come from a variety of sources, including county records offices and books. Also check out the USGenWeb Archives Marriage Project at <www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/marriages>.
This massive set of databases indexes 80 million-plus vital records from nine states. More records are coming, including Alabama deaths from 1941 to 1949. You can access most databases for free. (Paying customers — $24.95 per quarter or $57.95 a year — avoid pop-up ads and can view extra indexes.)
Western States Marriage Records Index
If your ancestors got hitched out West, search this compilation of 270,000 marriage records from Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and selected California counties.
Technically, this is more of a portal site than a database, but it’s a handy tool for tracking down free census records — the site links to more than 10,000 of them. (Just be prepared to sift through numerous links to paid-access census records at Ancestry.com, too: The site is an Ancestry.com affiliate.)
Family Search: 1880 US Census and National Index
Click Search for Ancestors, then select Census in the left frame. The culmination of 11.5 million hours of work carried out over 17 years, this database includes not only an every-name national index, but also all the most important details from the census records. The 1880 census covers the country’s 38 states and eight territories as of June 1880. You also can search this index for free on Ancestry.com. Hints: To find your ancestors, try searching for alternate spellings and on just a first name. Once you find your family, look up the original record to check accuracy and get additional details.
Roots Web Census Indexes
The census has become a favorite target for volunteer transcribers — no surprise, since genealogists rely on it so heavily in their research. At RootsWeb, your fellow family historians have uploaded more than 456,000 records from federal and state censuses. If you find an ancestor, the index will tell you at least the census page where she appears; many records supply personal details and a list of the entire household. Hint: For this and all the RootsWeb databases featured here, you have to enter at least a surname — you can’t just peruse by location.
Sources2Go.com: Census Records
Browse a bevy of digitized census records, including the entire 1790 US census plus portions of the 1800 through 1860 enumerations. The record images are scans of National Archives microfilm, and the links to them are arranged by the microfilm roll number and frame. Unfortunately, you can’t search the record content, but the links do provide county names to point you in the right direction. And the site provides options for zooming, panning and viewing negative images of the records — much like the viewers on paid-access sites.
USGenWeb Census Project
These two separate projects aim to transcribe all US federal census schedules. (The sites have different coverage, so be sure to check both places.) To see digital images of census records for free, surf over to <www.rootsweb. com/~usgenweb/cen_img.htm>.
Cemeteries and Tombstone Inscriptions
The links at Cemetery Junction can help you unearth gravestone transcriptions from thousands of cemeteries in the United States, Canada and Australia. Although the site leads you to many records from the other databases listed here, it also points to some smaller-scale and individual transcription efforts, so it’s worth a look.
Find A Grave
Ever wonder where Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe is buried? You’ll find their final resting places on this site, along with 6.1 million other grave records from across the United States. Submit gravestone transcriptions and photos of your ancestors or their graves, along with your contact information. You can even “visit” a grave and leave virtual flowers and notes.
Genealogy.com Virtual Cemetery
Peruse tombstone details submitted by site visitors. The niftiest — and most useful — feature of Genealogy.com’s cemetery site: Many of the entries include photos of the actual tombstones, so you can virtually visit your ancestors’ final resting places (and see the stones for yourself).
This database contains nearly 3.7 million cemetery records from more than 7,000 cemeteries around the world. You can browse cemetery transcriptions by county. The site also links to gravestone transcriptions on other Web sites.
New genealogy databases are being published every day. You can stay abreast of the latest resources by subscribing to these e-newsletters:
Ancestry Daily News
Cyndi’s List Mailing List
Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter
Family Tree MagazineE-mail Update
Nationwide Gravesite Locator
This site from the Department of Veterans Affairs has 3.2 million records for veterans buried at most of the 120 national cemeteries since the Civil War, as well as records for some state veterans cemeteries and burials in Arlington National Cemetery since 1999. The database is updated daily.
RootsWeb Cemetery Records
Volunteers have submitted more than 700,000 gravestone transcriptions from graveyards nationwide, plus a few from Canada, England and Germany.
USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project
Gravestone transcriptions on this site cover cemeteries across the United States and a few American cemeteries abroad. You can browse through the listings, but you can’t search for a name.
Civil War Records
Andersonville Prisoner Lookup
Click on Andersonville National Cemetery and Historic Site. The Confederacy confined more than 32,000 Union soldiers at its Andersonville prison (also known as Camp Sumter) during the final 14 months of the Civil War. You can search a database of those prisoners at the Macon County, Ga., Chamber of Commerce’s Web site.
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System
Compiled from records in the National Archives, this database has information on more than 6 million soldiers who served on both sides in the Civil War. Sailor records are still to come, along with regimental histories, battle descriptions, prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records.
Making of America: Civil War Official Records
Cornell University has digitized two key Civil War research resources: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion. You can search for the name of a soldier, his regiment and the names of captains and colonels who commanded the soldier’s units, then view digital images of the books’ pages.
More Military Records
1840 Census of Pensioners, Revolutionary or Military Services
Prior to 1850, the federal census listed names and ages only for heads of household. But in 1840, the federal government charged census enumerators with collecting details about military pensioners (or their widows), too. Genealogist Kathy Leigh has created an online index to those pensioners; you can search it by name or browse it by state. (You’ll find free digital images of these records at <www.sources2go.com>.)
Archival Research Catalog
<www.archives.gov/research_room/arc> The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) online catalog lets you access document descriptions and, when available, digital images of its holdings. The cataloged military records include selected Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrant applications, case files for Spanish-American War “Rough Riders” and World War II casualty lists. These materials don’t even scratch the surface of NARA’s military materials, but if you find a record relevant to your research, you can view the document image online.
Birth Info in WWI Civilian Draft Registrations
If you have male ancestors who were eligible to serve the United States in World War I, you’ll want to check this database. Even though most of them didn’t ultimately serve, men born between 1873 and 1900 — even immigrants not yet naturalized — had to register for the draft in 1917 and 1918. So far, this site has data from more than 1.2 million of the 24 million draft registration cards. Entries include full name, birth date and birth place. You also can search this database at RootsWeb <userdb.rootsweb.com/ww1/draft/search.cgi>; Ancestry.com subscribers can find it in the US Records Collection.
Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, 1938-1946
Click on Search, then People. Part of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system, this resource consists of a searchable index to 9 million World War II enlistment punch cards. Those cards worked like modern election ballots, with coded holes for facts such as occupation; education; and places of birth, residence and enlistment. The system electronically translates the punch-outs so you can view the card data. AAD has other military databases, though most cover more-recent conflicts.
Military Research Room: 1820 Pension List
>This searchable index provides the name, rank and state of residence for veterans on the US government’s pension roll. Hint: The database returns a maximum of 50 results, so if you’re searching for a common surname, be sure to narrow your query with a first name or middle initial.
The On-line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies
Got Revolutionary War ancestors who remained loyal to the British crown? Be sure to check out this Web site. In addition to an index to loyalist muster rolls, you’ll find regimental documents, land petitions and postwar settlement documents.
RootsWeb Military Rosters
> RootsWeb’s data contributors have mustered up nearly 100,000 searchable records of Americans who served their country in both war and peace. (Most entries are for the American Revolution through World War II.) Each soldier’s “roster” tells you which war he served in, and most list details such as his home state; rank; company or division; and unit, regiment or flight.
Sources2Go.com: War of 1812 Military Bounty Land Warrants, 1815-1858
Until the 1850s, the federal government gave veterans land as a reward for military service. You can view digital images of the bounty-land warrants granted to War of 1812 veterans here. Like the microfilms, the scanned records aren’t indexed — you’ll have to browse.
Newspapers and Obituaries
This virtual newspaper “morgue” contains a database of extracted and abstracted articles from the United States, Canada and Ireland. The articles — contributed by the site’s webmasters, coordinators and visitors — come from papers published before 1923 (because of copyright restrictions, later articles may be only abstracted, not transcribed in their entirety). In line with its aim to be “your complete resource for family history research using newspapers,” the site also points you to resources for finding papers not covered here. Hint: Search both the current articles collection (accessible from the home page) and the archives (follow the advanced search link).
TheOldenTimes.com: Historic Newspapers Online
Get “genealogy clues from the news” at TheOldenTimes.com, where the webmaster has posted digital images of obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, news stories, advertisements, recipes and cartoons. All are scanned from her personal collection of old newspapers that date from 1788 to 1920. The database covers the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia. You can’t browse geographically, but the site has a cross-linked name index and search page (go to <theoldentimes.com/ sitesearch.html>).
RootsWeb Newspaper Indexes
Like the other RootsWeb user databases, this 300,000-entry index can give you leads for learning when and where your ancestors made the news. So far, the listings span a hodgepodge of papers from 15 states. For death notices, try the RootsWeb Obituaries Database <userdb.rootsweb.com/ obituaries>. The Obituary Daily Times archive <obits.rootsweb.com> indexes 9.2 million recent obits from hundreds of newspapers.
Don’t waste online research time with fruitless searches and aimless browsing. Maximize your efforts with these four tips for getting faster, better results from genealogical databases:
Check name variations. Even if a Web site offers Soundex searching, try looking for different — even outlandish — name spellings. You never know when a record’s been severely mistranscribed.
Change your scope. If you get too many hits, narrow your search by adding keywords such as places, dates or a spouse’s name. If you get too few results, search on fewer terms or just a surname (though we don’t recommend this for your Smith or Johnson ancestors).
Use specialized search forms. Some databases have their own search pages, which can narrow your query better than the host site’s global search. Try the specialized form to get more-targeted results.
Find words faster. What if the database doesn’t offer a search? How do you pluck your progenitors from the proverbial haystack of Web pages? Here’s a hint: Pick a promising page, then rather than perusing its entire contents, go to Edit>Find (shortcut: Control-F on a PC or Command-F on a Mac) and enter the name or keyword you’re looking for. If the word appears on the page, your browser will locate it in an instant — no need to scroll through the whole page.
For more Web-searching techniques, see page 6.
Bibles, Books and Manuscripts
The Library of Congress’ amazing digital preservation project features more than 7 million digitized items, including rare books, manuscripts and maps, as well as photographs and audio and video clips. While you probably won’t find anything mentioning your ancestors specifically, materials such as maps from the Revolutionary War era, Civil War photographs and slave narratives will help you understand and envision your ancestors’ world.
Bible Records Online
Tracy St. Claire rescues old Bibles, digitizes and transcribes the family-record pages, then posts the data online. Her collection covers more than 3,200 surnames from 1,000-plus Bibles, which span 1596 to 2003. Hint: The index page loads somewhat slowly, so try the search first.
DAR GRC Index
Click on DAR Library, then GRC National Index. The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Genealogical Records Committee Reports represent a gold mine of unpublished family history materials, including transcribed Bible records, personal papers and gravestone inscriptions. This Internet index covers more than 12 million names mentioned in those reports, and provides the details you need to order photocopies of the applicable pages from the report (see <www.dar.org/library/search.cfm>).
Making of America
This collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University features 3 million-plus page images from about 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles. Most date from 1850 to 1877. The two sites have different collections, including a few genealogy titles. Other works, such as Iowa As It Is in 1855 and History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky (1847), will help put your family’s past in historical context.
Wills and land records
Official Federal Land Patent Records Site
Were your ancestors homesteaders? Check out this database on the initial transfer of land titles from the federal government to individuals. You can view images of more than 2 million federal-land title records that were issued between 1820 and 1908.
RootsWeb Land Records Database
Visitors have contributed more than 1.3 million entries, including many homestead records. The more-modest RootsWeb Deed Records index at <userdb.rootsweb.com/ deeds> also is worth checking if your family lived in California, Connecticut, Missouri, New York, Tennessee or Virginia.
Databases here include indexes to 300,000 wills in 17 states: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. The webmasters are adding indexes to guardianship records in New York and naturalization records in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. You can request copies of most wills for $14, and guardianship and naturalization records for $5.