Since 2000, we’ve pointed you to the Net’s mightiest roots resources through our annual 101 Best Web Sites list. For this special fifth-anniversary issue, we turned the tables and asked you, our readers, to vote for the genealogy Web sites you can’t live without. You spoke and we listened: So here they are, the cream of the crop — your picks for the 25 absolute best family history Web sites.
For help unraveling your African-American heritage, click over to this frequently updated site. AfriGeneas has an excellent tutorial for beginners, as well as a section just for kids. Start by signing up for a few mailing lists and browsing the forums, which cover Reconstruction, various record types, slave research and regional topics. The surname database (under the Records heading) contains more than 41,000 names, and the death-records collection holds nearly 6,000 documents. Be sure to explore the online library (also under Records), where you’ll find research guides, how-to articles, and transcriptions of city directories and slave records.
Ancestry.com tops the list of the most popular online subscription services. And with thousands of databases, it’s sure to hold some answers about your ancestors. As reader Cindy Willman notes, “It’s well worth the money spent to be able to find information you may not find in any other way.” Choose from a US or World membership. Not sure about committing to a subscription? Ancestry.com
offers a free two-week trial of most collections.
Think of AncientFaces as a virtual family treasure trove. Begun in 2000 with 225 photographs and the goal of sharing family history through those images, the site now contains almost 30,000 pictures, along with an eclectic assortment of stories, recipes and memorabilia. Join AncientFaces for free, then upload pictures or documents to share with others. You can search the entire site or browse by type (recipe, place, military, family name). Connect with fellow genealogists by posting messages in the Family Forum (under the Family tab). Click Special Collections to view user-submitted wedding, transportation, Civil War and school pictures. To learn about the latest uploads, join the free mailing list.
Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
If the federal government granted land to your ancestors, you’re likely to find records of those transactions here. This site contains more than 2 million federal land titles issued between 1820 and 1908. Once you enter your ZIP code (the “cost” of free access), type in a surname and select a state, then let the system go to work. From the results page, you can view all the pertinent transfer information, including date, county, acreage, a legal land description and an image of the patent itself.
At last count, Census Online linked to more than 40,000 free census records from the United States and Canada. To access a census, just click on your state of interest, then the county. You’ll see a list of records that have been transcribed or digitized. Some counties even have transcriptions of tax lists and the 1883 Pensioners Roll. Every genealogist who’s squinted over census microfilm will appreciate the ease of accessing these important records at the click of a mouse.
Civil War Rosters
The creators of this site call it “the most complete list of Civil War roster links on the Web” — and that’s no exaggeration. Categorized by state and then unit, Civil War Rosters links to virtually every online muster roll. Click on your state, and follow the dozens of links to rosters and resources such as Ohio Soldiers/Prisoners of War at Savannah, Ga., and Civil War Newspapers.
Just getting started on a new research topic? Use Cyndi’s List as a jumping-off point. This categorized and cross-referenced resource contains more than 240,000 links in 150-plus categories. If, for example, you’ve just discovered you have Quaker ancestors, scroll to the Religion & Churches category, then click on Quaker. There, you’ll find links to Quaker histories, research how-tos, mailing lists, societies, libraries and family associations. “If I have a question that I need a quick answer for,” says reader Teresa Brewer Delikat, “Cyndi’s List is the place to go.”
Here, old pictures discovered in antiques shops, flea markets and high school yearbooks are reunited with their rightful owners. If you’ve found an old photo, you can upload the image to DeadFred’s online repository in hopes that a family member will claim it. Or search for your own family’s surnames, and you could uncover a long-lost portrait of Great-aunt Edna. The site’s archive contains 45,000 pictures representing 11,300 surnames. All the photos on the site belong to DeadFred founder Joe Bott and donors willing to share them for the cost of postae. Sign up for the free newsletter to learn about the archive’s most-recent additions.
Did your ancestors come through the “golden door” between 1892 and 1924? Search for them in this free database, then view their physical descriptions, passenger manifests and images of the ships they traveled on. If you find errors in the records, you even can add an annotation to help other researchers. This monumental project opened the door to one of the most valuable immigration resources in US history.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is responsible for this mammoth site, with hundreds of millions of names in free databases. Search the transcribed 1880 US census (linked to paid-access images from Ancestry.com), 1881 British census and 1881 Canadian census; the Pedigree Resource File and Ancestral File of user-submitted family trees; the International Genealogical Index of vital-records data; vital-records indexes for Mexico and Scandinavia; and the US Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Visitors submit a large portion of the records at FamilySearch, so you shouldn’t take them as gospel. Even so, they “can be used for great leads and for making contact with other researchers,” says reader Robert Akin.
For tracking down a final resting place, Find a Grave is our readers’ top choice. Search this site’s 6.3 million records by name, location or “claim to fame” (if you seek a celebrity’s plot). You can add burial records (one visitor has added more than 113,000 interments), upload photos and even leave bouquets of virtual flowers — all for free. The site also sports a discussion forum, with topics ranging from cemetery preservation to help with Hebrew inscriptions.
It’s no wonder GenCircles is such a hit with online genealogists. With more than 90 million ancestors in user-submitted databases, the site is a networker’s paradise. From the creator of GenForum (now part of Genealogy.com) and Family Tree Legends software, GenCircles aims to help genealogists quickly and efficiently find and trade information. Its “SmartMatching” technology links ancestors in your family file with individuals in other researchers’ files. If you find a match, you can download another person’s file (if she’s given permission), or contact that person via e-mail.
Genealogy.com — owned by MyFamily.com, the same company that runs Ancestry.com
— combines valuable subscription databases with an extensive free Learning Center. Record groups include the US Census Collection, covering 1790 to 1930; Family & Local Histories, comprising more than 20,000 books; International and Passenger Records, with information on 20 million people; Genealogy Library, containing 300 million US records; and World Family Tree pedigree files. The Learning Center’s articles cover source documentation, organization and other topics.
Maintained by volunteers, this sprawling site has loads of resources for UK and Ireland roots research. It’s organized geographically, with links relating to the British Isles as a whole, as well as to individual countries and regions. You’ll find church, medical, military, census and court records, plus telephone directories, maps, local histories and immigration/emigration information.
Although this site’s available only through subscribing libraries (but free to library patrons), it’s well worth seeking out. ProQuest recently added the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), the number-one periodical search tool, to its online offerings. The PERSI database contains 1.6 million citations to articles in 6,300-plus English-and French-language (Canadian) publications dating back to 1800. The index will contain about 70,000 new citations within the next few months. In addition to PERSI, HeritageQuest Online boasts images of all US censuses from 1790 to 1930 (with head-of-household indexes) and a collection of 25,000 plus family and local history books.
It’s easy to see how this site earned your accolades — it was one of the first to post public records on the Internet, and it continues to lead the pack in ongoing digitization projects. If you have Illinois ancestors, you’re in for a treat. Its searchable databases include the Statewide Marriage Index, 1763-1900 and the Statewide Death Indexes, spanning pre 1916 to 1950. In addition, you can search public-domain land sales, emancipation records, 10 separate military-records databases, and several county-level probate and circuit court indexes and criminal case files.
Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild
This is one of the most comprehensive sites for locating immigration-related materials. Formed in 1998, the guild relies on a team of volunteers who decipher and transcribe ships’ passenger lists, then make them available to anyone with Internet access. Read the excellent search tutorial, then scour the site for your immigrant ancestors. Take time to mine the bounty of resources on this site, including ship images, maritime routes, maps and dozens of links to other immigration sites.
Trying to track down Jewish ancestors? There’s no better site to start your search than JewishGen, which boasts the JewishGen Family Finder, a database of 350,000 surnames and towns. Before delving into this extensive site, be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions, which cover the basics of Jewish genealogy. Next, work your way through the InfoFiles, an assortment of how-to articles and other reference materials. Finally, explore JewishGen’s many databases, among them the Online Worldwide Burial Registry; the Holocaust Database; and the Family Tree of the Jewish People, a collection of 3 million people submitted by researchers worldwide. And we encourage anyone tracing Eastern European roots — Jewish or not — to take advantage of the site’s ShetlSeeker, an enormously useful tool for locating ancestral towns.
Dubbed “America’s Library,” the Library of Congress (LOC) contains more than 127 million items, and is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. Although only a small portion of its holdings have been digitized, it has enough online offerings to keep genealogists busy for weeks. The LOC’s greatest online asset is the American Memory Project <memory.loc.gov
> — a collection of maps, photographs, music, books, newspapers and first-person narratives. The map collections span 1500 to the present, including Civil War battle maps and panoramic maps of American cities dating from 1847 to 1929. If you’re searching for a historical place, don’t miss the collection of 19th-century railroad maps.
Click on Research Room & Online Resources to access the Birth & Death Records Database of pre-1909 documents; the Civil War Provost Marshal Index Database; the Coroner’s Inquest Database; World War I service cards; and the St. Louis Probate Court Digitization Project. You also can search the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project for cases involving Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the fur trade, American Indians, and petitions for freedom brought between 1814 and 1860.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
The nation’s record-keeper recently made World War II enlistment documents for more than 9 million Army soldiers available online. That’s one reason we suspect reader Cindy Knight-Palazzo says NARA’s Web site is “the place to go if you are searching for information about a US veteran.” Through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system <www.archives.gov/aad
>, you can search nearly 50 million records — including those WWII records — created by more than 20 federal agencies. The Archival Research Catalog <www.archives.gov/research_room/arc
> includes some 58,000 digitized images and 15,000 documents. At the NARA home page, choose Genealogy from the pull-down menu for an overview of how best to use this site.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society’s (NEHGS) Web site just got a facelift, and it’s more user-friendly than ever. With more than 90 million names in 2,000 databases, you can see why reader Betty Malesky raves, “NEHGS is the best!” This members-only site ($75 a year) runs the genealogy gamut: It offers not only databases of records, but also how-to articles and discussion groups. NEHGS membership perks also include borrowing rights to the circulating library and subscriptions to New England Ancestors magazine and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
One of the oldest genealogy sites, RootsWeb hosts USGenWeb, Cyndi’s List, FreeBMD <freebmd.rootsweb.com
> and more than 28,000 genealogy mailing lists. Called “one of online genealogy’s great bargains” by reader Gretchen Flynn, this free network (owned by Ancestry.com) maintains loads of searchable databases, including the RootsWeb Surname List (RSL), WorldConnect and the SSDI. Thanks to its mailing lists and bulletin boards, which facilitate networking between genealogists, this site continues to rank among our readers’ favorites.
Texas State Library and Archives Commission
This site scored big among Lone Star State researchers because of its free searchable databases, which include Confederate pension applications, vital records, claims documents, maps and military service records. If you’re a little fuzzy on Texas history, click on the Catalogs & Searches tab and scroll down to About Texas (Texas FAQs). You’ll find plenty of goodies tucked deep in this site, so spend some time exploring.
If American genealogy were a swanky hotel, USGenWeb surely would occupy the presidential suite. The free, all-volunteer Web site houses marriage, obituary and tombstone transcriptions; church records; census images; and much more. You can search all these resources by clicking the links under Search Engines on the home page. In 2000, the Special Collections Project (click on Projects) started, with scanned images of out-of-print books, journals, family letters and photographs. The heart of USGenWeb, though, is the network of state-and county-level pages that allow researchers to post queries and connect with anyone climbing the same family tree or prowling the same locales. As reader Phyllis Stehm explains, “You can’t beat the USGenWeb for finding people in an area who really know it and can help you with possible sources to check.”
From the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine