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How to Find Free Genealogical Information Online
Finding the origins of a family can be a difficult task. Locating information related to a specific person or a family unit sometimes means paying money for an online genealogical database service, such as Ancestry.com, or visiting a library to view historical records. Thanks to numerous personal and US Government-sponsored online projects, free genealogical information is now much easier to locate. While there are many websites that distribute quality genealogical information, there are a few authoritative, reliable resources for looking into your family’s past.
RootsWeb Family Tree Projects
One common source of genealogical information online is through personal family tree projects. Perhaps a distant cousin has already completed much of the research for a specific branch of the family, tracing back the ancestral roots for several centuries. Often these projects are published through RootsWeb, the largest free genealogy community online. Type the name of the ancestor you want to find out more about into the search utility. Birth, death, and marriage dates and locations for multiple generations of many families are available through this service. Additional documents, including photographs, are provided if available.
The National Archives Online
Some of the most interesting genealogical documents are housed by the Federal Government. The National Archives provides free access to digital copies of files related to immigration, ship passengers, military enlistment and service, and other official government forms through its Access to Archival Databases utility. Additional information on genealogical topics relevant to American researchers can be found in the Archival Research Catalog. These tools are of particular interest if an ancestor immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century through the 20th century, or if an ancestor served in World War I, World War II, The Korean War, or The Vietnam War.
The US Census
The most vital genealogical record collected by the US Government is The Census. The importance of collecting a census of the American people at the start of each decade is twofold: to determine who, specifically, lives in a certain area, and to determine the personal and educational standards of these individuals. Prior to developing the American Community Survey, The Census was the primary means of collecting demographic information. Its relevance to the genealogical community is as a primary document source that aids in determining the migration patterns of a family.
The enumerated manuscript version of The Census is released approximately 70 years after it is compiled. The most recent version made publicly available is the 1940 Census. Unlike records from previous decades, which were released through proprietary database projects and print volumes, the 1940 Census is in the process of being indexed by volunteers (as of April 2012) and has been made publicly available through The National Archives at http://1940census.archives.gov/. Census maps, digital images of the enumeration sheets, and a searchable index are available through this resource.
The Ellis Island Foundation
If your ancestor emigrated from Europe between 1892 and 1954, it is quite likely that he or she passed through the inspection station at Ellis Island. The Ellis Island Foundation provides a free database of primary documents related to immigrants that passed through this gateway. Registered users are able to view ship manifests, passenger records, and images of the vessel the ancestor traveled on. Free tools for charting genealogical research are also available.
State-Collected Vital Statistics
Information on recent ancestors is often published by state-level vital statistics offices. If you know the state that your ancestor was born in, or what state they died in, these websites can provide a wealth of digitized primary sources. Depending on what the individual state offers on its vital statistics website, dates of birth and death, death certificates, and some health information may be found. Search for the state name, followed by the term “office of vital statistics” to locate the website for your state of interest.
Other Possible Free Resources
The resources described above only scratch the surface of the free information available for genealogical researchers. Try searching for specific ancestors on the web, or for your surname. You may find that there is an active genealogical community dedicated to researching the origins of your family. Members of these groups will often willingly share information they have already collected with other researchers. You may even meet distant relatives you never knew you had! Sharing stories, pictures, and documents can be a wonderful way to make a rich and meaningful connection to your ancestors.