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Researching Family Genealogy Online

Updated on April 23, 2011
Find pictures of your ancestors by connecting with distant relatives.
Find pictures of your ancestors by connecting with distant relatives. | Source

Researching family history can be an addicting and fascinating hobby.  We are all influenced by our histories, whether we realize it our not, and by better understanding our histories, we can better understand ourselves.

Researching family history can be a very complicated process.  Most people, at least in the United States, have families who have come from several places from all over the country and the world.  That makes researching a difficult process.  Often, the best way to find valuable information, especially specific stories related to our families, is to go to the places they lived; however, for most people, that is not an option.  The internet, though, is a great source of information from a wide variety of sources, and each day more and more information is added to various sites online.  Online genealogy research is an amazingly easy way to get started uncovering your family history.

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is by far the best place for genealogy research.  Anyone can create an online family tree on the site, but the downside is you do have to pay to access the records.  However, I’ve found that the cost is definitely worth it (just cancel the subscription when you’re not using it—I don’t have time to research during the school year, so I only pay for it in the summer).  The wide variety of records at your fingertips allows you to make a lot of progress quickly.  What’s really great is Ancestry.com does a lot of work for you by searching records for possible connections, which will result in a leaf associated with any person with a record attached.  Ancestry.com gives you access to census records, birth records, marriage records, death records, military records, city directories, old newspapers, and so much more!  One of the most useful tools, I’ve found, is the family trees posted by other people; you can use it to connect to distant relatives, and they can provide information that goes well beyond records.

Other Great Sources

While Ancestry.com is the best place for research in terms of quantity of research available, there are still an abundant number of sources out there, and best of all, most are free!  You can use these instead of Ancestry (though you likely won’t find as much), or, as I’ve done, use them to supplement Ancestry.com.

FamilySearch.org

The Mormon church (LDS) is known for their amazing family records.  While you’ll have to go to Salt Lake City to fully benefit from their records, their website familysearch.org does have quite a few records that their members have submitted.  The main records you’ll find are family connections, typically spouses and sometimes children and/or spouses, birth, marriage, and death records.

Using FamilySearch.org

Message Boards

Message boards are a great way to connect to other researchers.  Message boards are typically set up based on location (this is what I typically use) or last name.  When you get onto a message board, I suggest that you start by searching the existing posts for information about your family.  If you find a connection or possible connection, you can post a response and/or email the author of the post. If you don’t find anything, post a new comment.  When using message boards, it’s important to be patient!  You might get a response right away; other times it might take years.  Some people you connect with are distant family members who are, like you, trying to find connections and information.  Other people you connect with are just extremely nice researchers who are willing to go to libraries, historical societies, and funeral homes to find records for you. 

Historical Society Websites

Many historical societies, both state and local, have online databases where you can do research.  Their records vary based on what they’ve digitized; you’ll typically find things ranging from old newspaper articles to birth, marriage, and death records.  Oftentimes these don’t give you complete records, but just the bare bones.  For example, I was able to find the marriage date of an ancestor, but not who he married.  With another search, I was able to find a list of women who married on that day (two).  By searching census records on Ancestry.com, I was quickly able to determine who an ancestor married. 

Sometimes you’ll find excerpts from local biographies; these were especially popular at major anniversaries for communities.  For example, at the fiftieth anniversary of the town, people would submit biographies of the major players of the town.  If you’re lucky enough to have been a descendant of one of those people, you can get a wealth of information. 

In addition to their online records, you can often ask people at the historical society to do additional research for you; some do this for free, depending on the type of research, and others will charge you, but it’s certainly worth looking into.

To find a historical society website, your best bet is to just search the state or city with “historical society”.  For example, if you’re looking for records from Wisconsin, search “Wisconsin Historical Society”.

Order Vital Records

Vital records are birth, marriage, and death records.  These can be incredibly helpful.  Some websites will give dates for births, marriages, and deaths prior to 1907, but entire documents for both pre- and post-1907 must be ordered for a fee.  Some orders can be instantly accessed online, while others will be sent to your home address.  What’s great about vital records is that it gives information on parents.  This is especially helpful when it comes to women, as it’s significantly more difficult to trace them than men because women’s last names changed; if you don’t know a maiden name, it can be almost impossible to trace a female ancestor; this is one of the most common brick walls researchers face.  Birth records typically provide the baby’s parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name.  Marriage records certainly include the bride’s maiden name, and usually include her father’s name; her mother’s name may or may not be included.  Death certificates often include the father’s and sometimes the mother’s name as well.

There are several sites out there looking to make a profit off you ordering records.  The best place to get these records is generally through the state or county, not through a middleman.

Genealogy Websites and Societies

Many cities, towns, counties, and states have genealogy societies.  The websites for these societies can be incredibly helpful.  The often provide much of the information discussed above, but they also provide links to area-specific information that you may not be able to find elsewhere.  They can also connect you to knowledgeable researchers, who, if you’re willing to pay, can do the research you aren’t able to do because of location.

Basic Web Search

Sometimes you can find good information just searching your ancestor’s name on Google, especially if your ancestor has a more unusual name.  This usually works best if you put the name in quotation marks and add in a location or some other specific piece of information to help narrow results, like “Samuel Lockhart” AND Armagh.  This will help limit results to Samuel Lockharts associated with County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

You can also try searching for information on others with a certain last name.  It may or may not bring up people you are related to.  See the video below for more information on this.

Church Records

While I haven’t had great luck with church records from the United States, I have had success searching records from England and Ireland.  While not all churches have digitized birth, baptism, marriage, and death records, many have; some go back several hundred years, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to find your ancestors in these records, you can get some great information.  The government didn’t’ always track everyone, so church records can help you locate people you might otherwise not be able to find.

Researching Your Family

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    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Hi. I enjoyed your article. Voted up.

      One thing though, you don't have to go to Salt Lake City anymore to fully benefit from the vast (largest in the world) repository of genealogical records the LDS Church has been accumulating since the late 1930's. Almost everything can be accessed from your armchair at home and what isn't digitized yet -- can be ordered on microfilm to be sent to the nearest LDS Family History Library. There are 4000 FH Centers at which usually at least 50 percent of the patrons are non-members. Aloha.

    • LeisureLife profile image

      LeisureLife 7 years ago from USA

      Great hub, thanks for sharing! The internet can be very helpful in learning about previous family members...

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