Mom always said there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Mom never surfed the Net. Every day my e-mail box is filled with messages about free Internet access or free software, but in my case those offers are like giving dog food samples to a cat owner. If you want to make my day, give me something I can actually use, like genealogy stuff. Free genealogy stuff.
It’s out there, if you know where to look — just like finding the free prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Whether you’re after facts about your ancestors, clip art for your family history album or even free software to organize your genealogy, you can get it gratis. With some bargain-conscious Net surfing — yes, most genealogy freebies require an Internet connection, in part because it’s so much cheaper to deliver bytes than non-digital goodies — I found enough free stuff to make Mom eat her words. Here’s a sampling.
A heaping helping of utilities
Utilities are those great little programs or charts that were created for all of us who’ve ever said, “gee, why doesn’t somebody invent ____” (fill in the blank). Guess what? Somebody has — and they’re giving it away free:
<www.ourtimelines.com>: I’ve always loved timelines — probably because I like to imagine how my ancestors might have reacted to the events that we know as “history.” This site will generate a timeline for any date from 1000 AD to the current year. Event types are color coded, so if you have a color printer, be sure to get a printout to add to your family history.
I took this site for a spin by creating a timeline for James Knox, my 2nd great-grandfather, who lived from 1839 to 1920. This is what I learned:
When he was 9, thousands of Americans rushed to the California Gold Rush. When he was 10, Zachary Taylor was president. By the time he was 20, Darwin had published The Origin of Species. Knox experienced the Civil War firsthand, and would have read about the Alaska Purchase and the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the papers. By the time he was 40, Edison had invented the electric light and when he was 64, the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. The Titanic sunk the year he turned 73, and in his last year of life, women got the vote. What history he witnessed!
<enws347.eas.asu.edu:8000/~buckner/bdform.html> or <www.longislandgenealogy.com/birth.html>: Have you ever stood in front of a tombstone and wished the carver had chiseled in the date of birth, instead of “lived 65 years, 9 months and 3 days”? I know I have. Fortunately, some programmer heard our silent pleas and wrote a utility that converts the information on the tombstone to a date of birth.
Just enter the death date and age at death, push the button and all the calculations are done for you. As a math-challenged genealogist, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that one of my grandmothers used to do this in her head.
<www.nara.gov/genealogy/soundex> or <www.familytreemagazine.com/soundex.html>: On one of my trips to the Family History Library I realized I didn’t know the Soundex code for one of the surnames I was researching and I couldn’t remember how to code it myself. (Soundex is the system for weeding out misspellings and covering spelling variations in genealogy records.) I finally found the code in a reference book, but when I got home I went straight to the Soundex Machine site and converted every surname in my notebook. Thank you, National Archives. (Hen-drickson=H536, by the way.)
<www.genealogy.com/bio>: I love reading stories about my ancestors, and collecting tales to include in my own family history. Biography Assistant helps put all that information together.
It’s divided into a series of questions about a person’s ancestors, life experiences (i.e., a parent dying while the person was young), medical history and military service. Although you can’t answer all of the questions about all of your ancestors, it’s an easy-to-follow plan for putting those tales on paper.
<www.westegg.com/inflation>: I remember reading an 1850 probate file that contained a list of household goods and the amount they brought at auction. For some reason the $7 price for a set of spoons caught my eye. It seemed like a lot of 1850 money, and I wondered what it would be worth in today’s currency.
Inflation Calculator to the rescue! Just enter the amount and the starting and ending dates for comparison. Whoever bought the spoons must have been rich, because his $7 was the equivalent of $136.12 in today’s money.
Geographic Names Information System
<mapping.usgs.gov/www/gnis/gnisform.html>: Several years ago I read a Revolutionary War ancestor’s account of his military service. Because of his advanced age, the only thing he could remember was the name Hanging Rock, SC. I’d never heard of a battle being fought there and finally gave up the hunt. One day, though, I discovered the US Geological Survey’s Web site, which includes historic places in its database. I typed in Hanging Rock, SC, and in seconds learned that the battlefield was located in Lancaster County, between Heath Springs and Kershaw. This site did in seconds what I hadn’t been able to do in months.
If your ancestor settled in a place that has changed names, no longer exists or is simply small and obscure, try searching here.
<www.rootscomputing.com/howto/cousin/cousin.htm>: Does it make you nuts trying to figure out what “third cousin twice removed” means? This handy chart makes it easy.
<www.raynorshyn.com/gedclean/Compare.html>: This free utility lets you remove information about living relatives from your GEDCOM file (the universal file format for family trees). This protects their privacy when your share your files online.
Three CEDCOM Utilities
Serving up data
With subscription-based sites such as Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > grabbing headlines, it’s easy to forget the wealth of free databases online. Here are nine of our favorites; you’ll find dozens more among our list of the 101 best family history Web sites <www.familytreemagazine.com/101sites/>.
Illinois State Archives
<www.sos.state.il.us/departments/archives/databases.html>: The State of Illinois deserves a big thanks from genealogists for uploading this treasure trove of historical databases. Searchable records of your Illinois ancestors include: public domain land tract sales; servitude and emancipation records; Illinois War of 1812 veterans; Winnebago War veterans; Blackhawk War veterans; Mexican War veterans; Civil War veterans; Civil War veterans serving in the US Navy; Civil War veterans of Mssouri units; Spanish-American War veterans; and the statewide marriage index, 1763-1900.
Each database includes detailed search instructions, as well as information on the cost of obtaining copies of the original records.
New York Emigrant Savings Bank Project
<www.genexchange.com/esb/>: The Emigrant Savings Bank opened in New York City in 1850 and was run by Irish immigrants for Irish immigrants. Although 70 percent of account holders lived in Manhattan, this searchable database also contains bank records for emigrants who lived in California, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Alabama and Missouri.
If your ancestor had an account, records can include date of birth, place of birth, military service and information about other relatives. Read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for best results.
US Military History Institute Digital Library
<carlisle-www.army.mil/usamhi/DL/>: Would you like to know where your Civil War ancestor saw action? Now you can, thanks to a scanned copy of Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. This classic work details the history of every federal regiment and lists a complete record of their engagements. You’ll find organizational dates, the brigades and divisions the unit fought with, and dates of every action they participated in.
The library also has a digital copy of Heitman’s Historical Registry of the United States Army, which lists every commissioned officer from September 29,1789, to March 2, 1903. Other holdings include books and documents from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf War. Click on “Chronological List” and then on any historical period you’re interested in.
Civil War Photo Database
<carlisle-www.army.mil/usamhi/PhotoDB.html>: This little-known site, also courtesy of the US Military History Institute, can produce big results if you’re hungry for photos of your Civil War ancestor. Search for photos of soldiers, battles and towns — if you’re lucky, you’ll find your Union private marching through these files. But even if your soldier isn’t here, the database may include a photo of his regiment or of one of the places he fought.
Search the database using keywords, then send e-mail with the photo ID number of any item you’re interested in. The MHI will mail you a photocopy of the picture without charge. (If you want an actual photographic print, there is a small fee.)
Bureau of Land Management — Federal Land Patent Records
<www.glorecords.blm.gov>: When you hit this site, you’ll know why it’s the mother lode of land records. Here, you’ll find records of land transferred from the federal government to your ancestor, including name, the date of original land transfer and a legal description of the land. You can even get an image of the actual land grant to your ancestor.
But don’t limit your search to your ancestors. Look for the names of people who owned land close to your ancestor — these adjacent parcels will often be owned by inlaws, relatives or allied families, and can hold clues to further research. (For a complete guide to getting the most from this site, see Family Tree Magazine, October 2000.)
Cemetery Records Online
<www.interment.net>: This site contains more than 1.9 million cemetery records from more than 3,000 cemeteries worldwide. A search by surname will return a list including the name and location of the cemetery, and in some instances the tombstone inscription. In addition to the free database, take advantage of the how-to articles on the genealogical use of cemeteries.
USGenWeb Census Project
<www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/census/>: Wouldn’t you love it if someone would transcribe the federal census so you wouldn’t have to squint into a microfilm reader? Well, that’s the goal of this project. As each census record is transcribed by volunteers, it’s posted online. To search for your ancestor in the census records, click on the Completed Transcriptions link.
<Ancestry.com >: Did you know this subscription service lets everyone search new databases for 10 days after they’re posted on the site? Recently, for example, the sample databases included Indiana marriages; Michigan biographies; Arkansas marriages; Shenandoah County, Va., births; California narratives; Baltimore Sun obituaries and Jackson, Mich., directories. Check this site every few days to make sure you don’t miss that one database you’ve been looking for.
<worldconnect.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi>: How does the thought of searching a database of more than 50 million names grab you? The WorldConnect Project of Roots Web contains free searchable GEDCOMs that have been uploaded by genealogists worldwide. In many instances you’ll find more than names and dates; many of the pedigree charts include source notes with clues for future research. (Download these files with a grain of salt, however — no one has double-checked this research.)
A plateful of free programs
Before you shell out for a commercial genealogy program or word-processing gizmo, consider starting with these freebies:
Personal Ancestral File (PAF)
<www.familysearch.org>, click on “Order/Download Products”: Much of the “free” genealogy software on the Internet is actually shareware, which means you can try it for free, but you have to pay if you like it and want to keep it. This is not the case with Personal Ancestral File (PAF), the full-featured genealogy software available from the LDS church.
PAF 5.0 is the latest version of the popular Windows-based program and can be downloaded for free. You can also download a free copy of the PAF User’s Manual (in Adobe PDF format). (See a review of PAF 5.0 on page 74.)
<www.jgsoft.com>: EditPad is one of my favorite programs, and one I use daily. It takes the place of the Windows Notepad, and is far more versatile. The only fee requested by the author is a postcard from where you live sent to him in Belgium.
EditPad lets you open an unlimited number of files simultaneously, with the name of each file displayed on tabs that run across the top of the screen. I use this program constantly when searching the Internet for family information because I can cut and paste URLs and other information into files for each of my surnames — and I can easily jump back and forth from family to family thanks to the file name tabs.
<www.palmgear.com>: If you have a Palm-compatible handheld gizmo, you’ll want this freeware program that converts surnames to their Soundex value. This little utility takes up only 10K of memory. Just write your surname in the Input Dialogue box and it’s instantly converted.
No one started life as a genealogy expert. If you’re like me, one day you stumbled into a library or Family History Center and poked around until you got the lay of the land. Thankfully, most of us never stop learning. Here’s where you can get a free continuing education:
RootsWeb’s Guide to Tracing Family Trees
<www.rootsweb.com/~rwguide/>: Genealogists Myra Vanderpool Gormley, Julia Case and Rhonda McClure have posted 30 lessons ranging from what you need to know about land and court records to solving the missing ancestor dilemma. My favorite is “Why U Can’t Find Your Ancestors: Misspeld Knames — A Commun Probblem for Reeserchors.”
Those of you whose research has crossed the ocean will find lessons on researching ethnic groups, including Scandinavians, Italians, Czechs, Russians, Germans and Australians. Check back often, as new lessons are uploaded on an ongoing basis.
<www.genealogy.com/university.html>: Here you’ll find a whopping 80-plus lessons in nine sections, including beginning genealogy, tracing immigrant origins and Internet genealogy. All the lessons are written by genealogy experts — so you’re getting the best for free.
Genealogy.com also has more than 200 how-to articles on topics such as organizing your research, life in early New England, guidelines for reading old documents, planning a genealogy trip and locating church records.
<www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/RC/frameset_rhelps.asp>: Everyone knows about the enormous amount of data available on the FamilySearch site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but did you know you can also learn how to do research there too? The free downloadable Research Outlines offer step-by-step guidance on virtually every genealogical subject. For example, if you’re getting started in Ohio research, the Ohio Research Outline tells you exactly what types of records are available and how to access them. Subjects include US states and foreign countries as well as military, church, land and immigration records.
Hot stuff for your Web site
Want to share your family history findings on the Web? Joining the online revolution doesn’t have to cost a dime. First you’ll want free software that helps you create Web pages:
• Netscape Communicator
<www.netscape.com/computing/download/index.html?cp=homo3X4>: PC or Mac versions available.
<www.arachnoid.com/arachnophilia/>: Powerful Windows HTML editor, even includes a 120,000-word dictionary.
• BBEdit Lite
<www.barebones.com/products/bbedit_lite.html>: Text editor for Mac users who want to crank out their own HTML.
<www.lesandchris.com/ged2www/>: Converts your GEDCOM pedigree files to HTML. Versions for both Windows and Mac.
Next you’ll need an “FTP” program that lets you upload your files from your computer to the Web:
<www.ftpx.com>: Easy FTP program for Windows 95/NT
<www.fetchsoftworks.com>: Popular Mac FTP shareware program.
Finally, you need space on a Web server, which turns out to be the easiest thing to find for free. You can compare dozens of free Web servers at Freeservers.com <www.freeweblist.freeservers.com>. Here are some options:
• Ancestry.com Online Family Tree
• RootsWeb Web Space
• Yahoo! GeoCities
Fattening up on forms
Every genealogist knows the most important step is the first one — filling in pedigree charts and family group sheets. You’ll find free forms for all your genealogy needs here:
• Genealogy Forms
<www.cs.williams.edu/~bailey/genealogy/>: Excellent correspondence log.
• Family Tree Magazine
<www.familytreemagazine.com/forms/download.html>: Our own extensive collection includes a research log, research worksheet, note-taking form, military checklist and all census forms.
• PBS “Ancestors”
<www.pbs.org/kbyu/ancestors/charts/>: PDF files include pedigree chart, family group sheet, research questions, research logs and source notes.
• Genealogy Forms
The latest dish
Want to keep up-to-date or read the latest tips and techniques? Subscribe to these free newsletters:
• Family Tree Magazine Update
<www.familytreemagazine.com/newsletter.asp>: Our own free weekly e-mail newsletter contains news, links and tips on genealogy and family history. Each issue includes a weekly tip, genealogy news bulletins, worthwhile Web sites and sneak peeks at new goodies on the Family Tree Magazine Web site.
• Along Those Lines
<www.ancestry.com/library/view/columns/george/george.asp>: Weekly Web-based column by George Morgan, spanning all experience levels and interests. Search the archives for his article on how to evaluate data found on the Internet — it’s an eye opener.
• Missing Links
<www.rootsweb.com/~mlnews>: Weekly e-mail newsletter by Myra Vanderpool Gormley and Julia Case. Includes new Web sites, book reviews and genealogy success stories, plus the latest on RootsWeb.
• Shaking Your Family Tree
<www.rootsweb.com/~rwguide/syft/>: A syndicated weekly newspaper column. Back issues are filed by subject.
• Dick Eastman Online
Photo and imaging treats
Genealogists love digital cameras and scanners because they’ve made sharing photos a breeze. These sites and their freebies will make your pictures more perfect:
<www.kodak.com>: Nobody knows photos like Kodak — and it has the Web site to prove it. Full of advice for both film and digital photographers, this site includes: Digital Learning Center <www.kodak.com/US/en/digital/dlc/>, with tips on getting printouts to match what’s displayed on your monitor, creating Web graphics, e-mailing digital photos and adding photos to documents; Top Ten Photo Techniques from Kodak <www.kodak.com/global/en/consumer/pictureTaking/toplo/ioTipsMain.shtml>; and Kodak’s Guide to Better Pictures <www.kodak.com/global/en/consumer/pictureTaking/>, for film-camera buffs.
• digitalFOTO Magazine
<digitalfoto.com>: Want to improve your digital photo skills? Send for a free sample issue. Or read the free tips on how to turn so-so shots into masterpieces.
• Digital Camera Magazine
<dcm.photopoint.com/dcm/>: If you haven’t decided on a digital camera, read the reviews in this free Web version of the print magazine.
Now that you’re a great photographer, you’ll want to share your pictures with the rest of the family. Here’s a sampling of free online digital photo albums — for more, see the Toolkit section in the April 2001 Family Tree Magazine:
Why free e-mail? After months of using an Internet Service Provider (ISP) with a crashing e-mail system, I went shopping for a new provider. Unfortunately, changing ISPs meant I had to let everybody know my new address, including all the genealogy sites I’d left queries on.
This time I got smart. Instead of using the new e-mail account from my ISP, I signed up for free Web-based e-mail. Now, no matter how often I change ISPs, my e-mail address will remain the same. If you want to make sure other researchers can always find you, here’s a sack of free e-mail providers:
<www.hotmail.com>: The original free e-mail provider.
My Own Email
Memory album menu
Tired of buying patterned paper and cute designs for your scrapbooks? Look no further because we’ve found the best free clip art and patterns. Crank up your color printer and let your imagination run free:
<www.computerscrapbooking.com>: It’s all free — clip art, page designs, patterns, fonts, how-to articles and great ideas. The Fun Stuff section contains Print&Clip Graphics, the computer equivalent of the plastic templates you’ll find in a scrapper store. You’ll also find 60 high-resolution background patterns for scrapbook pages.
<www.scrapeasy.com/layout/>: Free online magazine.
A clip-art feast for the eyes
Next you’ll need some clip art to jazz up those scrapbook pages and your family history. No need to pay for it:
Cemetery Clip Art
<alsirat.com/cemart/>: All things funereal.
Graphics by Shawna
<www.geocities.com/SoHo/Coffeehouse/5922/genbars.html>: Collection of banners and bars.
<members.aye.net/~autumn/gengraphics.html>: Old-fashioned-looking newspaper clippings, census records and pedigree charts.
Timberlake Family Genealogy Graphics
<www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/7906/themes.htm>: Great backgrounds for your personal genealogy Web page.
Age of Sail