“Can you give me a copy of my family tree?” Librarians often receive requests like this from beginning genealogists — as if everyone’s family history has already been recorded and filed away, and all you have to do is ask for it. Family research still isn’t quite that simple, but the Internet has made the whole process easier than ever before.
In fact, the Web abounds with sites that can help you trace your family tree. You’ll find everything from how-to guides and message boards to vital-records indexes and images of actual census records. But that expanse of Internet sites can overwhelm genealogy newbies: You’re not sure where to start, or which sites hold the information you need. So to point your mouse in the right direction, we’ll highlight 10 online tools that no family historian should research without — and give you tips to surf the Web successfully.
1. FamilySearch Guides
Researching your family history is a continual learning process. You’ll have to find out how to set research goals, locate records for the places your ancestors lived and organize your findings. For handy guides and reference materials, check out these three resources on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) FamilySearch Web site <www.familysearch.org>:
• How to Start Your Family History: You can access this six-step tutorial by clicking on “Learn how to start your family history,” under the Search for Ancestors heading on the FamilySearch home page.
• Research Guidance: Click on the Search tab, then on Research Guidance to determine what records exist for the places your ancestors lived and where you can find those documents.
• Research Helps: Click on the Search tab, then on Research Helps to find detailed Research Outlines for places all over the world, plus genealogical word lists and letter-writing guides.
2. Pedigree Databases
Family history is the ultimate collaborative endeavor. A distant relative may have researched one of your ancestral lines already, and there’s no need for you to do the same work all over again. Pedigree databases — giant collections of computerized family trees — make it possible for researchers to pool their findings. Some databases contain millions of names submitted by thousands of genealogists. The data typically includes names plus dates and places of birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial. Individuals are linked by family, so once you make a connection, you might instantly extend your pedigree back several generations (but don’t assume the facts are 100 percent correct — no one verifies this information). You’ll also find the name of the submitter, who may be able to provide additional details.
You can search several of the largest pedigree databases for free:
•Ancestral File <www.familysearch.org>: This FamilySearch database includes the names and vita! statistics of 35 million people throughout the world. You’ll find it under the Search tab. Note that the database is now closed to new submissions.
• Pedigree Resource File <www.familysearch.org>: Another FamilySearch database, Pedigree Resource File contains more than 80 million records linked by family. But it’s just an index; you can find the full records (including notes and sources) on CD-ROM at your local Family History Center (FHC), a branch of the Family History Library (to find one near you, visit <www.familysearch.org/eng/library/fhc/frameset_fhc.asp>). You also can purchase the CD-ROMs directly from Family-Search for $22.50 for a set of five or $59 for a volume of 25 (click on Order/Download Products, then Family History Research Products and Software & Databases).
• Ancestry World Tree <Ancestry.com >: A huge database with 300 million-plus names, Ancestry World Tree (under the Family Trees tab) offers many search options and includes notes and sources.
• WorldConnect Project <worldconnect.rootsweb.com>: This file is identical to Ancestry World Tree. Data submitted to each Web site also appears on the other one.
• GenCircles Global Tree <www.gencircIes.com>: SmartMatching technology makes searching this 85 million-name database especially fruitful. If you use Family Tree Legends software, you can upload your family files to GenCirdes, then let the software intelligently fill the holes in your research.
Pedigree databases available by subscription include Ancestry Archive <www.mytrees.com>, GenSery <www.genserv.com>, World Family Tree <www.geneaiogy.com/wft.html> and OneGreatFamily <www.onegreatfamily.com>. For pedigree-database search hints and strategies, read the December 2003 Family Tree Magazine.
3. VITAL-RECORDS INDEXES
Your ancestors’ biographical information, such as education, occupation and religious affiliation, makes your family history more interesting. But an accurate record of births, marriages and deaths forms the framework of any trustworthy family tree.
You’ll find many vital-records indexes online — plus complete transcriptions and images of original records. Just remember that some indexes actually were compiled from secondary sources, such as books, and may not be reliable. Transcriptions, too, are prone to error, so it’s always a good idea to get copies of original records.
Here’s a look at two of the largest online vital-records indexes:
• International Genealogical Index (IGI): This huge database has 285 million birth and marriage records for people all over the world. Some entries were abstracted from original records; others were submitted by LDS church members. You can search the IGI — as well as the Vital Records Index for Mexico and the Scandinavian countries — at FamilySearch.
• Social Security Death Index (SSDI): The SSDI includes people who had Social Security numbers and whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration after 1936. (Most entries are from 1962 or later, though.) Records include birth and death dates, plus last place of residence. You can search the SSDI for free on four Web sires: FamilySearch, Genealogy.com <www.genealogy.com/ifftop.htmI>, Family Tree Legends <www.familytreelegends.com/ssdi> and RootsWeb <ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com>.
An original Social Security application includes the applicant’s date and place of birth, father’s name and mother’s maiden name. You can request a copy for $27 from the Social Security Administration <www.ssa.gov>; Family Tree Legends and RootsWeb automatically generate request letters for you. You also can use information from the SSDI to request a death certificate, which usually gives the parents’ names and costs less than a copy of the Social Security application.
4. Surname Message Boards and Mailing Lists
The Internet offers many opportunities to connect with fellow genealogists. You’ll find message boards and mailing lists devoted to surnames, places and every family history topic imaginable. Be sure to take full advantage of these four free vehicles for genealogical give-and-take:
• Ancestry.com Message Boards <www ancestry.com/share>: Ancestry.com offers a variety of boards, and lets you search all the messages at once. Here, you’ll also find a Research Registry, which enables you to locate other genealogists researching the same surnames you are.
• GenForum <genforum.genealogy.com>: This Genealogy.com resource also offers boards on a wide variety of topics — search a single forum or all the forums at once.
• RootsWeb mailing lists <lists.rootsweb.com>: More than 28,000 e-mail lists cover surnames, places and other topics. Post a message to a list, and all the subscribers will receive a copy. You can search only one year of archived messages for a single list at a time, hut the potential payoff makes it worth the effort.
• RootsWeb Surname List <rsl.rootsweb.com>: Search the 1.1 million surname entries to find other researchers interested in the same names you are. And be sure to submit your own surname interests.
When posting a query for information on a family, always remember to include a name, place and time period in the subject line, so a reader can see at a glance what your query’s about. For tips on getting the most out of mailing lists, read the August 2004 Family Tree Magazine.
One of the most impressive genealogical efforts on the internet, this project comprises a network of US county and state sites with transcribed records. Maintained by volunteers, USGenWeb <www.usgenweb.org> includes gravestone transcriptions, church records, will indexes, local histories, Civil War rosters, photos, maps, record guides and more. Most county sites also have surname registries and places to post queries. If your ancestors’ county has a sitewide search engine, be sure to check for their names. And don’t forget to join in the effort by contributing your own research.
6. Census Records
I had no idea where Viola Myers lived as a young woman, but a quick search of the 1880 US census index on the FamilySearch site located her in Coney Island, NY. At age 25, she worked as an “exhibitor” and lived with showmen and actors. Forty years later, she turned up in the 1920 census: A 65-year-old widow, she lived with her sister-in-law in western Pennsylvania. Viola’s occupation is recorded as “Planet Reading.” Was she a fortune teller? Federal census indexes have revealed tantalizing tidbits about her life, and now 1 can’t wait to learn more.
Conducted every 10 years since 1790, the federal census is a key tool for researching US ancestors. Censuses from 1790 to 1840 list only the names of heads of household and the number of males and females by age group. Beginning in 1850, censuses list each person’s name, age, and state or country of birth. Only a fraction of the 1890 census records survive, but other years are nearly complete. The government keeps census records confidential for 72 years, so the 1930 records are the most recent ones open to the public.
Luckily, you no longer have to order micro-filmed census records and go through them page by page to find your ancestors. Now FamilySearch has transcriptions of the 1880 US census and the 1881 British and Canadian censuses. Three commercial Web sites — Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and HeritageQuest Online (HQO) <www.heritagequestonline.com> — provide paid access to digital images of most federal census records from 1790 to 1930. Sitting at your home computer, you can search for an ancestor’s name, view the corresponding census image, and print the record or save the image to your hard drive. The census images download fairly quickly with a dial-up connection, but you can really zip through them if you have broadband access at home or at a library. Here’s what those three sites have to offer:
• Ancestry.com: Well on the way to providing a complete index to all federal census records, Ancestry.com already has created indexes to every person — not just heads of household — for the census. Another plus: You can search the census not only by name, but also by age and place of birth. That makes finding someone with a common name much easier. Subscriptions cost $155.40 per year. Or ask if your public library subscribes to Ancestry Library Edition. If so, as a cardholder, you can access the census records for free.
• Genealogy.com: The first nationwide index to the 1900 census was a big draw, but limited search capabilities, the lack of every-name indexes and high prices diminish this collection’s appeal. Genealogy.com offers images of 1790 through 1930 census pages, but head-of-household indexes for only the years 1790 to 1820, 1860,1870 and 1890 to 1920. You can subscribe for $19.99 a month or $99.99 a year.
• HeritageQuest Online: Ease of use, fast downloads and indexes to names, ages and places of birth make this an attractive service. Another handy timesaver: You can search by a range of years, insread of just an exact year of birth. HeritageQuest Online has head-of-household indexes for 1790 to 1820,1860, 1870 and 1890 to 1930.
HeritageQuest Online is available for use only at subscribing libraries. Some let you access the service for free from home; check with your librarian for details. A few genealogical societies also offer special rates for members.
7. Internet Directories and Search Engines
Your ancestors most likely are mentioned somewhere in online genealogies, family and local histories, and transcribed records — if only you could find the right sites. A great place to start is Cyndi’s List <www.cyndislist.com>, a collection of more than 232,000 links arranged in 150-plus categories, such as Germany, Ships & Passenger Lists and City Directories, You’ll find links to everything associated with genealogy, including how-to guides and reference materials, as well as indexes, transcriptions and actual records.
Google <www.google.com>, a search engine with a knack for finding just what you want, indexes every word in more than 4.2 billion Web pages. That makes it a great too! for finding someone’s name, whether the person is the focus of a Web site or just mentioned in passing. Google also lets you search news, discussion groups and images. This search tool’s certainly impressive, but it’s still worth trying other engines, such as AlltheWeb <www.alltheweb.com> and Yahoo! <www.yahoo.com>.
8. Digitized Books and Online Library Catalogs
Published genealogies typically relate the story of an immigrant family and trace their descendants for several generations. Town, county and church histories often include biographical sketches with details on occupations, religious affiliations, residences, accomplishments and personality traits — information you won’t find anywhere else. You don’t have to live near a major genealogy library to access these books; many have been digitized and published on HeritageQuest Online, and you can borrow others through a Family History Center or your local public library.
• HeritageQuest Online: This virtual library has digital images of 25,000-plus family and local history books — even more than you’d find in most libraries with large genealogy collections. The ability to search for a word anywhere in the collection means you might find information you’d overlook even if you had the books right in front of you. HeritageQuest Online also has just introduced an enhanced version of PERSI (the Periodical Source Index), a huge index to genealogical journals and newsletters, with links to the original articles (for details, see the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine). You can access all of the site’s databases for free through many public libraries, and subscribe to the book collection through Ancestry.com’s Family & Local Histories database.
• Family History Library (FHL) catalog: The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is the largest genealogy library in the world. It has not only family and local history books, but also microfilmed records from around the globe. You can search the FHL catalog at the FamilySearch site (click on Search, then on Family History Library Catalog). Through an FHC, you can borrow most microfilm for about $3.25 per reel, and microfiche for about 15 cents each.
• Other library catalogs: The FHL doesn’t have every genealogy book and record, so it’s worth checking the holdings of other libraries, too. The Library of Congress <loc.gov>; the Allen County Public Library <www.acpl.lib.in.us> in Fort Wayne, Ind.; and the New York Public Library <nypl.org> have some of the best genealogy collections. Once you find a book or microfilm in a library’s online catalog, print out the reference, take it to your public library and request the item on interlibrary loan. Many state libraries, archives and historical societies make microfilmed newspapers and some books available on loan for a small fee.
9. Online Directories
At a family reunion several years ago, one of my mom’s cousins gave me some old papers she’d found at the bottom of a drawer. “I thought these might interest you,” she said. Indeed, they did. In 1880, a relative took it upon himself to transcribe old documents belonging to our ancestors Edward Robertson and Mary McGregor and their children, who had emigrated from Scotland in 1804. The papers include character references from the church elders in Scotland; a receipt from the ship’s master; naturalization papers; and a register of the family’s births, marriages and deaths. There’s even a poem that reveals a slightly risque message when you read the first word of each line.
Tracking down long-lost relatives can yield a bonanza of old pictures, letters, documents and family Bibles. If you find a relative in the 1930 census — the most recent census open to the public — check for the name in the Social Security Death Index. If the person still could be living or have children who are living, look for him or her in one of these directories:
• Anybirthday.com <www.anybirthday.com>
• AnyWho <www.anywho.com>
• lnfbSpace <www.infospace.com>
• Intelius <find.intelius.com>
• Switchboard.com <www.swrtchboard.com>
• US Search.com <www.ussearch.com>
Sometimes you can do a nationwide search of Anybirthday.com to find the person’s ZIP code, and then search for the name and ZIP code on AnyWho to find the mailing address. Another site, Infobel <www.infobel.com/tetdir>, links to telephone directories, business directories, and e-mail and fax listings from more than 180 countries.
10. Subscription Databases
Although you’ll find an abundance of free online genealogy resources, tee-based sites — such as the four below — give you access to valuable material you can’t find anywhere else on the Net.
• Ancestry.com: This mammoth site’s US Immigration Collection, US Federal Census Collection, US Records Collection, Historical Newspapers Collection and UK & lreland Records Collection contain upwards of 2 billion names. Subscribe to one or more of these databases, or access them for free at a Family History Center or local library with a subscription to Ancestry Library Edition.
• Genealogy.com: Owned by the same company as Ancestry.com, this site also offers a number of subscription options, including Genealogy Library, a collection of 300 million records and genealogies; International & Passenger Records; and the US Census Collection.
• HeritageQuest Online: Visit any library that subscribes to HeritageQuest Online, and you can access US census records and more than 25,000 family and local history hooks for free — and sometimes even from home. You also can get an individual subscription to the book collection through Genealogy.com’s Family & Local Histories subscription.
• NewEnglandAncestors.org: Buy a $75 Research Membership to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) <www.newenglanrfancestors.org>, and you’ll get access to the many databases on this Web site. Membership also includes a subscription to the society’s journal, which began publication in 1847, and unlimited access to the NEHGS research library in Boston as well as the circulating library.