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Genealogy: The Ins and Outs of The Free, The Cheap, and/or The Useful

Updated on August 28, 2014
Source

Many people start their genealogical hunt for their ancestors on Ancestry.com. This website is often an incredible resource for finding many documents quickly and easily, and it can also provide access to other trees, some thorough, some dubious, that may cross your own path. Though this website is a valuable resource, there may be times when it might be a little hard to justify the cost, especially during those months that you will not have the time nor energy to take full advantage of the site. When you are sorely feeling the shortage of pennies in your bank account, yet still have the yen for your genealogical kin, there are other resources that might provide you with worlds of information, as long as you have some luck, a little hard work, a reservoir of perseverance, and/or, some disregard for the value of your spare time. These alternative avenues are also a great way to supplement your investigation, even when you are paying for a subscription-based genealogical website. They can often provide you with information and documents that, from your fee-based website, otherwise might be missing, digitally muddled, or incomplete.

Draft Record Differences

Harry Houdini's Draft Record
Harry Houdini's Draft Record | Source
Harry Houdini's Draft Record
Harry Houdini's Draft Record | Source

FamilySearch.org

FamilySearch.org is the poor man's (meaning free) Ancestry.com. With the help of contributing volunteers, it is made available by the LDS Church which has a long history in genealogical research. Though there are some differences, both sites are trying to provide about the same information, with varying qualities of execution. One can find many documents, such as draft records, birth certificates, marriage documents, military records, etc., on both sites.

There are many documents found on FamilySearch.org that one might not expect to find on a free site, and some of these unexpected documents can be, in some instances, of a clearer quality (see photos to the right) than those found on other subscription based websites. Using FamilySearch.org, one might not be able to comfortably relegate, with the same amount of ease, the exacting search criteria one is allowed to utilize at Ancestry.com, but with a little coaxing and finessing, one can find a wealth of information.

Browsing Records on FamilySearch to Find WWI Draft Registrations or Other Specific Records

Browsing records can be beneficial to an investigator. There are times when a regular search may not yield the results that one knows should be there. This may be because names may be incorrectly indexed or one's ancestor may have been recorded with a different first name (found often in the case of naturalized citizens who may have had an uncommon name/spelling). Browsing collections can also lead to discoveries that might have gone unnoticed before, such as finding draft records for an ancestor's male family members (father/brothers/uncles/cousins).

(Side note: It would always be advisable, even with the use of a regular search with any type of document, to skim the information that lies near your own hit. One can find in-laws that lived nearby, in the case of census records, or what other families were passengers on the same ship on which an ancestor traveled, in the case of ship manifests).

  • From the homepage of FamilySearch, find "Search" along the top the screen. Skip the search form and scroll down to the bottom of the screen to find a section for browsing records. There, you will see a list of countries and continents. Above that, you will see the link for "Browse All Published Collections". Click on this.
  • On the next screen, you will see a list of the site's different collections which can be filtered by choosing options on the left side of the screen (such as by selecting "Military" and "United States"). Scroll down, with or without using the filter, and click on "United States World War I Draft Cards Registration Cards, 1917-1918".
  • Skip the search form and click on "Browse through 49,498,601 images" (of course, the number of images may be different by the time that you get there), found just under "View Images in this Collection" near the bottom of the screen.
  • Now, you will have the ability to filter what state you want to search and what county. Fortunately, the images in this particular collection is recorded alphabetically and some of the counties are subdivided by surname. Once you have opened the collection you want to browse, you can either use the arrow to the right or left of the image number (that is on the toolbar above the image) to scroll through the images or you can type a random image number to look at, narrowing down your search for a particular record.


Cons

  • Search function may be less intuitive, thorough, or exhaustive compared to subscription-based sites.
  • Does not have the unique search-and-attach system of record keeping that has made Ancestry.com a go-to for many researchers.

Pros

  • A free site comparable to fee-based subscription sites.
  • Some digitized documents can be clearer on this site than other fee-based sites.
  • Negotiable interface, searchable/browsable collections, and access to millions of transcripted and digitized images.

FindAGrave Photo

Altered photo that shows a FindAGrave submission that includes a photo of a headstone consistent with the transcribed birth and death dates, with the inclusion of additional information, in this case, census data.
Altered photo that shows a FindAGrave submission that includes a photo of a headstone consistent with the transcribed birth and death dates, with the inclusion of additional information, in this case, census data. | Source

FindAGrave.Com

FindAGrave.com is a website created by Jim Tipton in 1995 that was originally created to indulge people's curiosity of celebrity gravestones. The website expanded to include individual cemetery plots that volunteers have added from various cemeteries, in many communities, in every state across the country. Many amateur genealogists, among others, have been benefiting from and contributing to this site for years and years. It is because of this dedication and volunteer work that it is possible to find an ancestor's gravestone photo without actually personally traveling to another state to find the cemetery plot.

  • Pro: Fantastic place to find, gather, and cite relevant family history. Photographs, important locations, relevant dates, full names, relatives, obituaries, and family stories may be found at this website. It is a great starting off point and resource for any researcher, but be sure to do your own leg-work to weed out misleading, though well-intentioned, trails.
  • Con: Because it is a volunteer-based, free resource, mistakes can, and often do, happen. Example: one of my ancestors has at least two entries in FindAGrave.com. This particular ancestor does not have a gravestone to cite, but his descendants and their extended families have tried to fill in the blanks. This can, at times, be a good thing. It might be able to provide information or a lead, someone might even find an expected obituary. In this particular case, however, it has led many investigators to the wrong conclusions. Two relatives with similar names have been conflated, wrong birth and death dates have been attributed, and all the subsequent misinformation and faulty leaps has since led to the dissemination of inaccurate facts across many family trees across websites.
  • Things to look for: Does the admission have an actual image of the headstone? If not, what information does it have and how has the contributor cited it? A supplied Obit could lead you to tons of information, if you can verify it later. Is there a photo of the individual? How did this person get this photo? This information could lead you to finding relatives that have a well of information to gather about your family history and you may even find a likeable distant cousin along the way.
  • Things to look out for: No images of a headstone, no citations, and no verifiable information of birth and death dates could mean that someone just volunteered information that might be faulty from another source. Always do your own research and always check the sources.

Obtaining Free Census Records

Though FamilySearch has access to a lot of Census records, there are times when they redirect you to Ancestry.com to see the actual image. You can see the Census records for free with Archive.org (see below), but it will take you forever to search those images if you do not know where to start. Though FamilySearch may not give you the image, look closely at the information they do give you, such as cities, wards, roll numbers, etc., and this may give you all the information you need to find the image elsewhere. Another way to narrow down your census search is to look at some websites that provide indexed names found in census records, such as Censusfinder.com.

(Tip: If you have exhausted all other avenues and are using the indices from Censusfinder.com to find a name, use your browser toolbar and select "Find" under the "Edit" option and type in the name you are searching to save some time.)

  • Archive.Org: At times, there are transcription errors or census images that have yet to be indexed. If you know where a person should be, but have not found the evidence that they are there from other sites, you can use the site Archive.org. It has non-indexed census records that, though painstakingly slow to maneuver, should satisfy all of your census needs.

Public Records and Libraries

Public documents can be very cheap or, even, free to obtain.

  • Vital Records: For birth and death records, you may only need to contact your local health department, depending on how long ago the event occurred. In my state, all records prior to 1987 must be obtained by contacting the State Vital Record's office and they charge only $5 for the search and copy. Of course, if you give them faulty information, you will rack up a a bit of a bill with each subsequent search. Check your own city and state's policy on vital records and locate the office you need for your family. It may be much cheaper than you might have thought to get the information you need to move another step ahead.

Side Note: If you can not readily find the the state's vital record's website or contact information easily online, some state offices use VitalChek.com to process their online payments and VitalChek seems to have all of the contact information for every state.

An example of a public record document, with identifying information removed,  that I was able to obtain through clerk of courts
An example of a public record document, with identifying information removed, that I was able to obtain through clerk of courts
  • Clerk of Courts: The clerk of courts office of the county of your interest may have digitized records relevant to your ancestors. Perusing such official records (which may include anything from wills, property deeds, lawsuits, or criminal run-ins, etc.), might allow one to fill in the story of his or her ancestors or their extended family, for better or worse. My local clerk of courts office has a website where one can search official documents from the year 1987 to the present or browse the scanned non-indexed images for the years prior to 1987. Though browsing the images has taken a bit of my time, it has been very rewarding, as I have been able to find, not only an ancestor's last will and testament from the 1940s, but I have also found many deeds which has provided the information I needed to find the residences and businesses that my ancestors (and extended family) had resided or owned throughout the early 1900s. These early deeds may be confusing because they often use "legal definition" lingo, such as "Lot Fifteen in Block Thirteen in the Southwest Quarter of Section Thirty Five, Township Three South, Range Fifteen West", but once you familiarize yourself with the lingo, it may be possible to cross-reference with an available property appraiser website to determine the exact location of these residences/businesses (I will try to write up an article on deciphering these descriptions at a later date, which I will link here). Every county in every state will likely be very different from the next, but it is worth checking out the area where your ancestors lived to discover what information these offices have available online. Just type the county, the state, and "clerk of courts" in your search engine and try to find any official record search.

(Side Note on Public Records: While researching a friend's family line that extended to Italy, I was ecstatic to find that by simply emailing the record's office, in that particular part of Italy, they sent me digitized images, at no charge, of the original documents that dated back more than 150 years ago within a few hours. Contacting county/city offices might give you much more than you could expect.)

  • Libraries: Microfilm and the genealogical/historical section of your local county or city library may provide tons of information for an ancestor who lived in your specific area. Your local librarian may even be able to direct you to a genealogical society that can help you along your investigation. If your ancestor lived outside your specific area, the library might have online sources that may be beneficial for national/international research. These library online sources might not be available to the general public, otherwise, or they may come at a hefty subscription cost to the general public. At my local library, I can access NewspapersArchive.com (only from a computer in the library), which has allowed me to find obituaries and news articles I might not have ever found, (without paying a bit of money).

Genealogy is not for everyone. To do it right, it takes a mind which loves to solve nearly impossible puzzles, a persistence that borders on obsessive behavior, the meticulous record keeping/newspaper clipping habit of an insane person, and the ability to see through the dissemination of flawed data run rampant; but, for those of us that love it, we love it. Others may not understand, but it is as simple as that. I hope I have shed some light on some of the unseen corners of the internet that the next couch-genealogist might find useful and, maybe, saved you a little money in the end. Happy hunting.

Links, Sources, Useful Stuff ....

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    • SamusAran profile image
      Author

      SamusAran 3 years ago

      Thank you so much! Yes, I was surprised at how helpful the archive office was. I do not know if you are looking for Italian ancestors but, if you are and you know what province he or she comes from (which can usually be gleaned from a ship manifest), you can search for "Archivio di Stato di [ancestor's province]" to possibly hunt down a website. I just found a section at FamilySearch that might be useful, http://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Italy_Archiv...

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      I'm one of those who love it. I love this phrase : "yen for your genealogical kin" it describes me perfectly! Great list of resources here. I haven't tried to email overseas agencies, but now based on your experience I think I should.