How To Do Your Family History Research For Free
Getting started with your family tree: free search sites make it easy!
If you want to start or build on your family tree, free research tools are the perfect way to begin. It is amazing what you can find out when you give your family tree a metaphorical shake and start to delve into the past.
Let me share with you some ways to go about tracing your ancestors with free family history search sites. I began researching my own family history many years ago, but with the explosion of information on the Internet it has suddenly become a whole lot easier to catch the ghosts of the past. In fact, not only can you do your family history research for free or very little cost online, you can connect easily with others who share your ancestry by doing a free online family tree search, and even build a digital family tree to share with relatives in faraway places.
Why not join me and - with the help of these family tree free search resources - begin to uncover the mystery of your own family's past.
Tree image courtesy of morgueFile.
How to Begin your Online Family Tree Search
Easy Ways to Build Your Family Tree
There are many places you can do a free family history search. Some will require a subscription but others need only a little time and persistence.
The best places to look can depend on where you are located in the world and where your ancestors originally hailed from. Some suggestions follow below.
Don't forget that your own family, especially the eldest members, can be a fantastic source of information that can set your research off to a flying start. Once you start making connections with more distant relatives, chances are you will find out much more. I struck gold when I contacted a potential relative whose email address I found on an old forum during an online family tree search. It turned out he had been researching the family for 40 years and shared details on my great x5 grandparents that I probably would never have discovered alone.
If the name you are researching is not common, you have a better chance of finding these valuable contacts. Put the surname into search engines and family tree free search resources, trying different spellings if it is especially uncommon. Trawl through message boards on genealogy forums. Check out family tree sites to see if any of your more unusual ancestor names seem to be appearing in the trees of other users.
On the other hand, don't despair if you have Smiths, Browns, or other popular surnames cropping up. Most of us do - myself included. Use first names to your advantage, especially the rare or recurring ones. For instance, I have a John Brown who has an unusual middle name. Where the records such as the census show this name, it's a great help in keeping track of him.
Dig up your family history with free research sites - Some great links to get you going
These free online resources can take you back into the 1800s with your family history research - and can point you in the right direction for going back even further.
- Cyndi's List
An amazing collection of genealogy-related resources. Browse the extensive content for FREE, although some externally-linked sites may require a subscription.
- Latter Day Saints family history search facility
FREE Research your ancestors using this helpful resource.
FREE Find British births, marriages and deaths from 1837 on.
- Ancestry (UK)
Subscription service. If you are not in the UK, there's probably an ancestry for where you are. If in doubt, start by visiting www.ancestry.com.
Free Web-based Resources
Start your free family history search here
Cyndi's List is THE genealogy website. This fantastic resource covers just about any genealogy-related topic you can think of.
The Latter Day Saints host a useful 'family search' resource which can be searched for free by anyone.
For those with UK ancestry, FreeBMD is a great starting place to look up births, marriages and deaths from 1837 up to 1983.
Here are some other FREE sites to try:
- RootsChat.com - 'an easy to use messaging forum for everyone researching their family history or local history. The focus is on Ireland and the British Isles.'
- Brtish Genealogy - Resource pages and forums, both completely free to use.
- Census Online - A starting place for finding out about online census records in USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Please note, the site will tell you where to find these records, however the census records themselves often cannot be viewed for free.
- However...FreeCEN will let you view selected UK census records free of charge. These have been transcribed by volunteers and records are principally from the 1891 census, and do not cover the whole of the UK. Worth a try nonetheless as new records are being added all the time!
- GenForum Message Boards on Genealogy.com - connect with others by finding out who is researching your family name.
Genealogy Subscription Services
These family history subscription services are helpful but can get expensive!
Ancestry is perhaps the best known subscription service which has sites in a number of countries. There are also many alternatives which are worth checking out. Take care to work out what you get for your money - sometimes there can be different subscription levels and you will need to pay a premium to get access to everything.
The advantage of a subscription over a free family history search site is that it opens up many new sources to you. The disadvantage is that it can become costly and, when your subscription ends, difficult to do without.
TOP TIP FOR BRITS. If you are in the UK, you can gain library access to ancestry.co.uk if you are happy to do your research from a terminal in your local library.
The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy - Helping you with your online family history search
This book is a useful companion to your online family history research. It aims to be the complete guide to researching your family tree online and includes a host of tips for free family history searches.
Amazon reviewer Paula Wilson-Case commented:
This was my first purchased book on genealogy. It was great. There is so much I didn't know. I've been doing genealogy for 12 years, here and there. I definitely recommend this book to beginners and advanced genealogist.
Creating an electronic family tree
You have a whole range of choices when it comes to going digital with your family tree.
One option is to create it using either a subscription or free online family tree service. Ancestry will let you do this, but you will need to subscribe. Myheritage.com will let you build and share your tree (if you wish - you decide how private you want it to be) for free, but you'll need to register with them. Findmypast offers similar services to Ancestry, and there are a number of other sites that will offer to host your family tree for you.
If you use a well-known site, not only do you get to share your own tree, but you may be able to find and view the trees of people who share your ancestors - allowing you to fill in gaps and add whole new branches to your family tree!
The alternative is to use a software application which you can install on your own computer. This has the advantage of offering privacy and security, since you and other users of your computer are the only ones with immediate access to this data. The downside is that it may need more effort to share your tree, such as creating reports or uploading data to a website.
There are a number of commercially available packages which are likely to offer a whole variety of features. Or you can obtain free family history software, and while this may be a little less sophisticated you might find it does everything you want it to do. I've found GRAMPS Genealogy System (see image) to meet my needs, but there are several alternatives.
Roots Magic - Family Tree software - A genealogy program for all your family history records
Forget scattered pieces of paper and never be lost for a family history fact again! With Roots Magic you can keep all your family history research in one place - on your computer! Create custom reports and share your family tree too!
Amazon reviewer Blaine S. Nay commented:
I've tried 'em all. This is clearly the best genealogy software I've used. RootsMagic is the most intuitive software on the market. My database has over 50,000 names in it and this software handles the load effortlessly and quickly. It can create very nice charts and web pages. The publisher listens to the users and continually upgrades the software to meet their needs. He stays on top of the changes being made by the LDS church's Family History library system and updates the software to work seamlessly with the library's systems.
A valuable family history research tool
Birth, marriage and death certificates are likely to be the building blocks of every family historian's research. However, for tracking an entire family across the decades, the census is a wonderful resource.
My own experience is with the UK census, which was taken every 10 years from 1841 and is currently available to 1911. A subscription service will allow you to view entries up to 1901. Unfortunately you will need to make additional payments to view the 1911 census pages. You can do this through Findmypast.com. (Note: it requires a separate subscription, just for this census, and is not included in the regular Findmypast services which will give you access to other census years.)
The one thing you can check for free in the 1911 census is whether an ancestor or address is listed at all. This is worth doing, as you won't want to pay for access only to find the record you want does not exist. At 1911census.co.uk, you can enter the name of your English or Welsh ancestor, plus the place name and their date of birth if known. The drawback of this is that you will need to guess exactly the details that your ancestor provided. For example, my ancestor Deborah Ann went by the name Annie, and only appears when I enter 'Annie' on the form.
Moving back in time, the 1861 census through to the 1901 census are treasure troves of information which will provide:
- Road, Street and No. or Name of House
- Name and Surname of each Person
- Relation to Head of Family
- Condition as to Marriage
- Age Last Birthday (also indicates whether male or female)
- Profession or Occupation
- Employer, Worker or Own account
- If Working at Home (1901)
- Where Born
- Deaf and Dumb; Blind; Lunatic; Imbecile, feeble-minded
As you can see, this information can give you many clues and might also turn up a few scandals, as with an ancestor of mine who was listed as 'single', but shared a home with a married man and who had 10 children (presumably his). A note on the final category on physical and mental disabilities - you won't find this catetory in the 1911 census, which has been released ahead of the 100 year deadline and therefore decided to hide this 'sensitive' information.
Have family tree free search tools on the Internet helped you find out more about your ancestors? Do you have interesting family history stories to share? Or just curious about how to get started?