Back in the mid 1990s I had my first exposure to the Internet. I connected using a 14.4 kbs (kilobits) dial-up modem to the Buffalo, New York Public Library. I used Lynx, a text-based browser, and was dazzled. For the first time, I could find useless information from inside my house. It was a wonderful thing.
We’ve obviously come a long way since and the Internet now gives us unprecedented access to pretty much everything. For a family historian, it’s a great tool for finding ancestors without having to fly to France or Germany or Guam. What we save in airline tickets, however, is often applied to sites like Ancestry.com. For the beginner or casual user, Ancestry.com may be a bit too pricy. Fortunately there are sources that are free and provide similar data. I’d like to talk about a few of these because I use them all the time.
FamilySearch.org is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and can be found at http://familysearch.org. You do not need to sign up to search the records. However, if you want to download any copies of source documents, you’ll need to give them your username and password (but it’s free and they don’t spam!). FamilySearch is loosely linked to a few of the pay sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com (containing military records) so some source copies would need an associated service plan. While you may not get to see the actual census record, for instance, you will get the full transcription of the data itself. FamilySearch also contains many birth and death records (including death certificates) from various states. Death records are not always available on Ancestry.com so using FamilySearch as part of your records review is recommended. FamilySearch also provides some family tree information that may connect with your family. To be safe, don’t assume they are correct. If you want to depend on their provided family trees, make sure you confirm their work.
Old Fulton New York Post is run by Tom Tryniski and can be found at FultonHistory.com. If you have New York State roots, this site is for you. You can find millions of New York newspapers scanned to PDF format and fully searchable. Newspapers are extremely valuable in family history because they often contain obituaries and marriages that help link your family to other families. Additionally, you can place your ancestors in context with time. There is nothing more interesting to find that your great grandparents married the same day the Titanic sank.
Find a Grave, at Findagrave.com, holds millions of grave records that are captured by folks interested in cemeteries. Many have photographs of gravesites that may otherwise be difficult to see in person. Gravesites are important to family historians because they usually contain the specific date a person died. Some may also contain their birth information, too. Find a Grave may also contain additional genealogical information submitted by their users. Like FamilySearch, it’s always a good idea to confirm the information before applying to your family history.
Google Books, books.google.com, is a superior way of finding family information without having to order books from the library. Many of the books in its vast collection are no longer in print or were privately printed making them nearly impossible to obtain. Fortunately they are all scanned to PDF and fully searchable. I find Google Books to be of significant benefit when looking up family members before 1900. In the late nineteenth century, there was a rush of genealogists who captured many family genealogies and had them printed. Note that material found in older books is not considered primary sources since they are not the record themselves but collections based on other research. Still, for someone like me, they are perfect and fill in family gaps nicely.
Wikipedia, believe it or not, is also a great genealogical tool. If you are lucky enough to have a celebrity or famous person in your tree, Wikipedia.com may be able to provide some family connections. If anything, you’ll get a short (or long) biography of a person to place that person in historical context. Many Wikipedia articles are well written and well sourced. Some are not. Use it like you would any secondary source. Wikipedia can be found at http://wikipedia.com.
CastleGarden.org “is an educational project of The Battery Conservancy. This free site offers access to an extraordinary database of information on 11 million immigrants from 1820 through 1892, the year Ellis Island opened. More than 100 million Americans can trace their ancestors to this early immigration period.” I think the site sums up its purpose rather well. Not all results will provide facsimiles of actual source documents but many do. Either way, it will tell you when an ancestor arrived in American and usually include the name of the ship. Visit http://castlegarden.org. You may need to provide a username and password.
These represent a few of my most frequently visited sites for genealogical information. There are many more. When looking up ancestor names, use all the tools at your disposal. Don’t be afraid to simply “Google” your family members. You may be surprised at what you find. My best example is a happenstance Google search for one of my distant shirttail cousins Clayton Gouyd. I knew that he was a boxer because I came across some of his wins and losses in the Los Angeles area. I took a gamble, Googled him, and was extremely pleased to find his picture at BoxingTreasures.com. From what I can tell, it’s the only picture of him in existence – a real gem of a find.