Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beginning Your Online Search for Ancestors for Free

I am in the third week of teaching my 8 week family history class. The lesson today is about online research opportunities. We started out with collecting family information from available resources, such as relatives and family records the first week. The second week was about entering your data into a program such as PAF. This week we discuss where to go to find records to develop the story of these individuals after you have begun to compile information for your family tree.

In the past, most researchers would travel to the regions where the family lived, search through libraries and courthouses and hike through local cemeteries. Today much of this information is available online. Online resources allow you to begin your research from the comfort of your own home. Many databases on the internet require subscriptions but if you are willing to spend the time searching them out, there are many sites that you can access for free that provide comparable information. The following sites are all free and include a wide variety of information that will allow you to fill in that dash between the birth and death of your ancestors.

FamilySearch Records Pilot – ( – This site is being developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It consists of records that have been indexed through their volunteer FamilySearch Indexing ( The site includes millions of indexed records from around the world with more records being added monthly. There are a variety of records such as death certificates, marriage licenses, birth certificates, US and state census records, land records and others available. This site will eventually include records come from most of the Church’s 36 million rolls of microfilm. I recommend that you come back to this site regularly to see if your records have been added.

Cemetery Records - Find-A-Grave ( is a volunteer site working to index cemeteries in the US and around the world. The volunteers take pictures or provide written indexes of graves within the cemeteries and post them on the website. I have found this site to be very useful in areas where volunteers are actively recording information. Try the site occasionally to see if new cemeteries have been indexed. Also consider volunteering for cemeteries in your local area by taking pictures and posting them to the site. Another potentially useful listing for cemeteries is Interment ( Many states also have similar records sites. For example, Ohio has a county by county collection of cemetery photos at the Ohio Gravestone Project (

US GenWeb – ( – US GenWeb is a site that includes state sites managed by volunteers. Each state site contains county sites which are also managed by volunteers. I recommend that you begin at the county sites, search their records and post queries concerning the research you are working on. Many of these sites have indexed census, cemetery, birth, marriage and death records as well as a variety of other helpful links.

Immigration Records – There are a couple websites that provide great immigration records. The first one that most people go to is the Ellis Island site ( Most people mistakenly think that this is where most of the immigrants came ashore. However, Ellis Island was not a major entry point until the 1890s. The website includes information on all the ships that came to New York from 1892-1924. Another useful site is Castle Garden ( This site offers information on 12 million immigrants who entered the US in Manhattan from 1820-1892. Another site that I have found to be useful is The Ships List ( There were many other ports of entry including Philadelphia, New Orleans as well as smaller ones between the US and Canada and Mexico. A full list of these ports of entry can be found at

Land Records – The Bureau of Land Management ( has an online database which includes the images of early land patents from across the US. These records allow you to see when lands were transferred from the federal government to private land owners. The records include boundaries, descriptions of the land and the acreage transferred. Some states have early land grants online also. For example, Florida includes the early Spanish Land Grants online at the Florida Memory Project website

Books – There are many books that have been digitized and posted online. A few of the major collections include Google Books ( and the BYU Digital Books Collection (, as well as some lesser known collections at Scribd ( and the Internet Archives (

Message Boards – There are a variety of message boards on the internet. Message boards allow you to post queries and discuss evidence with people researching the same names. One of the largest message boards is RootsWeb ( Other sites also have message boards. Be sure to post queries with detailed headers so people can find them easily.

Social Security Death Index – The SSDI provides the Social Security numbers, birth dates and death dates for people who have died since about the 1950’s onward. This database is updated weekly with new deaths. There are several sites that host these records. RootsWeb ( and FamilySearch ( both have these records online.

Civil War Records – The National Park Service hosts the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System, an online collection of Civil War indexes at These indexes include rolls and unit histories. It provides a good starting place to find out what unit your ancestor fought in, when they enrolled, what rank they achieved and a list of the battles that unit was part of. Once you have this basic information you can research the unit in more detail on a variety of websites. The state of Florida has their Civil War Pension Records online at the Florida Memory Project (

Court Records – Some states and counties have begun posting court records online. These records usually only include more recent records but in some cases there are older records for some areas. One example is the Jacksonville, Florida records at To see if your locality has their records online search Google for *** court records (replace the *** with your locality).

Death Indexes – Several sites have death indexes and records available. One site which provides links to a variety of such records is the Online Searchable Death Indexes Guide ( This site provides a list of sites by state. Another site which I have found to be useful is Tributes ( This site allows you to build a profile page of deceased individuals. Many pages have obituaries and stories about the person’s life. The pages generally start out with information from the Social Security Death Index and rely on contributions by individuals to fill out the rest of the information.

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