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How To Use Ancestry Websites
Free Family Tree Makers
If you are new to the world of genealogy, the single most important piece of advice I, or any experienced ancestry researcher, can offer is to be organized right from the get-go. There are dozens of excellent, informative, and highly useful ancestry sites out there, but if you don't have a system in place to keep that information organized, they aren't going to do you much good. Consider a free, user-friendly online family tree like Mundia or TribalPages to keep your names and dates straight.
The Basic Search
Now that you're organized and have a free family tree ready to go, you'll want to start with some basic searches. All ancestry sites allow you to search by name, obviously, but what if your ancestor has a really common name, like John Smith or Elizabeth Jones? Try adding dates of birth, death, or marriage to narrow down your results. Most sites will even offer the option of approximate dates, so even if you don't know exactly when your great-grandfather was born, you can search for anyone with his name born between, for example, 1880 and 1900. Similarly, if you don't know any dates, but have a good idea of where they were born or died, you can add a country or even specific city to your search.
The Search by Association
Ancestry sites are great for obtaining census, parish, birth, death, and marriage records that we as individuals would otherwise have to pay for or spend hours in libraries and archives searching by hand for. This is handy for obvious reasons, but also for some not so obvious ones. As you get deeper into your research, it is almost guaranteed that you will run into a situation in which you can find tons of information on, say, a great-great-great aunt, but not her sibling, your direct ancestor. Consider using ancestry sites to search by association - if you can locate the census records of your great-great-great aunt, there's an excellent chance your own ancestor will turn up on one of them. Likewise with marriage records and parish records - even if your ancestor's name doesn't show up in a search, it may very well show up on the records of their siblings or parents as witnesses to baptisms or marriages, or in wills and obituaries.
The Photo Search
Ancestry sites aren't all just names and dates. Websites like Ancient Faces offer up a much more personal and interesting side of genealogy - the photographs and portraits of our ancestors. There's nothing quite like looking into the eyes of your great-great-great-grandfather, or seeing your great-grandmother as an infant. And, beyond the sentimental appeal, photos can also connect you to a plethora of information. Finding, or posting, the right photograph can lead to interactions with distant relatives, or trigger memories of your living relatives. One particular photo I found reminded my grandmother of all sorts of stories we'd never heard before, and the above portrait connected me to a distant relative that had thousands of names in a family line I'd had little luck researching. Try searching photo archives for surnames relevant to you, or posting photos you already have to see who bites.
The Graveyard Search
As morbid as it may seem at first glance, searching graveyards is actually among the most productive of genealogical tactics. Because most headstones include a full name, dates of birth and death, and often the names of spouses, children, or parents, they are a rich source of information - and the fact that said info is quite literally carved in stone makes it a solid and long-lasting source. Websites like FindAGrave are dedicated to ancestral research by way of gravestones, and are an indispensable resource. Try searching by surname, or by location - if you're unsure of a relative's full name, or want to see if any other relatives are buried nearby, you can search every graveyard in a particular city, or every grave in a particular cemetery. Not only will this lead you to numerous names, it is likely to connect you to living relatives doing similar research!