Studying your genealogy can be so fun and rewarding. It can 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 To
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 fail to 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 the same man or several men.
- Some records disappeared forever in courthouse fires or floods.
- Names got changed at immigration points of entry.
- Sometimes you find someone else has started tracing your family… except, they made a small mistake and veered off into some other family altogether.
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 give you reliable birth and death dates, and name spellings. Family bibles also tend to be accurate. Like gravestones, they were made by people motivated to get the details right, unlike some clerks and census takers. Both of these sources should be considered reliable unless you have reason to doubt them.
Networking with Other People
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
- Maybe a relative of yours has already 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Liberty Ellis Island Foundation offers online record search. If your ancestors came through Ellis Island when they immigrated, it’ll give you some useful information about their trip. (H/t to reader Carol for this awesome tip!) This a free site and service, though they are donation supported.
- 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.”
- Sometimes old newspapers are a help, too.
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 their two-week free trial. With that trial, I confirmed 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 of the free trial.
If you’re going to go with a paid service, I think Ancestry.com would be my choice. I have actually paid for the service a few times, as needed, and it was always helpful.
Read the privacy statements from these sites carefully. Companies are paying a lot of money to get information about us. They do it through Facebook quizzes, through monitoring web searches, and through any company willing to sell information about its members. And the law doesn’t require them to warn you beforehand, if you live in the US. If you’re in Europe, they are supposed to be more up front, but many companies don’t comply.
Genealogy and DNA
DNA is an exciting new tool in tracing genealogy. There are several DNA services that process your genetic information and return a map showing where your genes traveled over the centuries. I have some privacy concerns about turning my DNA over to companies who aren’t accountable to anybody, but your mileage may vary.
These services won’t trace your exact ancestors, but they can confirm or deny family rumors. For example, you may have always heard your father’s line came from France, but find the DNA show no history in that part of Europe.
Be aware there are limitations to this research. You can only trace your male ancestors or female ancestors. That means you can’t trace, for example, your dad’s mother’s family.