Studying your genealogy can be so fun and rewarding. It an also be pretty expensive, especially if you hire someone to do it. Even a membership on Ancestry.com is not cheap. But there are quite a lot of sites that can help you learn a lot about your family without spending a dime. Armed with all that info, you may not need to spend a dime, or you may be able to cut your expenses down significantly with your free head start.
Genealogy How Tos
First of all, if you want to trace your family history, there are a few things you need to know. Sometimes records lead very simply from child to parent to grandparent and so on. But most of the time, they don’t. For example, in the United States, many people will have trouble getting past the late 1800s, because records weren’t so meticulous.
- Names in official records get misspelled.
- Dates aren’t exact and don’t match from one record to the next. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if all the “Joe Smith” records you’re finding from the 1860s belong to your great-great-grandfather, or if there was more than one Joe Smith of about the same age living in that region.
- Some records disappeared forever when a county clerk’s office burned down or something – there were no backups.
- Names got changed at immigration points of entry.
- Sometimes you’ll find someone else has done all your work for you… wrong. They’ve taken a wrong turn on a bad name or date somewhere and got your family hooked into some other family.
It’s not possible to write a single article that will give you, personally, the best advice for tracing your family (check out some general tips from the National Archives). Methods and resources vary depending where your family lives or where they used to live. Search online for articles specific to your situation (like “how to trace Irish ancestors” or “how to trace Middle Eastern genealogy”) for the best tips. In general, be aware of the above stumbling blocks and remember to critically evaluate your sources. Not every source is golden, so look for corroborating evidence before drawing conclusions.
Some of your best research may come from looking at family bibles or gravestones in cemeteries. These can provide terrific clues. In general, gravestones are reliable indicators of birth and death dates, and name spellings, since they were typically ordered by family members (as opposed to, say, census takers more interested in getting a head count than in actual dates or spellings). While family bibles can be wrong, like anything else put together by human beings, they too are put together with more care by people who were motivated to get the information down accurately. Both of these sources should be considered reliable unless you have reason to doubt them.
In your search, you’re likely to meet other people, online or off, who are tracing some of the same relatives. You may find forums where you can gather with others and pool resources, or you may get into email relationships with them. These people can be an invaluable source of information, because they may have family bibles or access to gravestones or information your wing of the family doesn’t have. Plus, you may end up forming relationships with these people, which is a whole other exciting side effect of tracing your genealogy.
Free genealogy resources
- If you’re in the US, someone in the state or county where your ancestors came from may already have traced your genealogy. The US GenWeb Project maintains a well-organized collection of links to local contacts, websites and email addresses divided by state and county. These links vary widely in how helpful they are, because it’s not a commercial project. But as a free resource, it’s definitely worth checking out.
- Cyndi’s List is similar, but it goes beyond the US. It’s a collection of links to help you study your genealogy in various countries or under various ethnicities. It also has a nice collection of websites for orphans and adoptees tracing their genealogy.
- FamilySearch.org is maintained by the Latter Day Saints. I found some helpful records there that I did not find anywhere else, and I was able to corroborate them as accurate and belonging to my ancestors.
- Here’s another interesting genealogy site that’s a little different from all the rest. The Genealogy Blog Finder lets you search for posts or for blogs of interest. For example, a search for “Marshall” will bring up blog posts about Marshall families, about towns called Marshall, and by people named Marshall. You could refine your search with a longer phrase, like “marshall family kentucky” to get results that might further your own trace.
Most of the other free resources I’ve found just end up delivering you to Ancestry.com so they can collect a commission if you end up paying for a membership there.
Using paid sites for free
The good thing about Ancestry.com is that they have a two-week free trial. I used it for less than two weeks, and was able to confirm a family rumor about some of our ancestors. The trick to making progress during that free trial is to do your free research ahead of time and narrow things down. Then Ancestry.com can help with the specific questions and stumbling blocks.
Ancestry’s big strength is their tool that allows you to make a family tree (which you can choose to share publicly or keep private) and search other public family trees for more information. These trees allow authors to attach records, photographs and other evidence they’ve found to the people they believe they were descended from. Using that evidence, you can check their work before accepting their conclusions. If you do accept them, you can import their findings into your family tree.
My family tree spiraled all over the place in no time using this method. But it’s easy to get carried away: at one point, I’d traced part of my family all the way back to some Highland lords of the 12th century when I finally got that funny “too good to be true” feeling. I started over again with what I knew for sure about my ancestors, worked more carefully, looked harder at other people’s research and discovered I couldn’t actually trace them even to the earliest American ancestor. But hey – I discovered some really cool stuff that I was able to verify – all within a week on Ancestry.
If you’re going to go with a paid service, I think Ancestry.com would be my choice. The link to them above is not an affiliate link. I’ve just been a fan of them for a lot of years, and find their tools keep improving.
Genealogy and DNA
DNA is an exciting new tool in tracing genealogy. There are a number of DNA services that process your genetic information and return a map showing where your genes traveled over the centuries. This obviously won’t help you figure out exactly who your ancestors are, but it can confirm or deny family rumors. For example, you may have always heard your father’s line came from France, but get the DNA results back that show no history in that part of Europe.
Be aware there are limitations to this research: maybe your father’s line came from a French woman, and your DNA test won’t show that because it can’t simultaneously trace every limb of the family tree (it follows father to father or mother to mother – even if you get both versions, it’ll skip any father-to mother or mother-to-father branches of interest). Still, if you’re a white North American trying to confirm the family rumor of a Cherokee in your history, and you know she was your mother’s mother’s mother, the DNA test might be helpful, since her people will have come from Asia rather than Europe and the map would reflect that (or not).