Genealogy Websites


You can research your family tree using a number of genealogy Web sites.

The Internet contains thousands of Web pages covering every conceivable subject, making it easier than ever to follow the historic path of your ancestors. There are many Web sites devoted to genealogy. Some of them lead you to other sites, and some hold the information you seek. Some are genealogically specific -- created with genealogists in mind -- while others are general Web sites that can be used for genealogical research.

The Internet is a publishing avenue available to anyone with computer access. Its pages are varied in subject matter, organization, and information. There are many ways to use the Internet -- both to identify useful Web sites and to search directly for your ancestors. These include:

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  • General search engines
  • Directories
  • Compiled genealogy databases
  • Transcribed records
  • Compiled family history pages
  • Library indexes and catalogs

Let's start our discussion with general search engines. Continue to the next page for a list of search engines and helpful advice on how to use them for your genealogy.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Using General Search Engines to Research a Genealogy

If the Internet can be considered a giant library, then search engines are your card catalog to the Internet. Without using the card catalog at your library, it's almost impossible to find the books that will help you. By the same token, if you don't know how to use it effectively, you'll have trouble locating the information you had hoped to discover.

General search engines help people find things on the Internet when they either don't have the Web address or don't know if a site exists for a specific subject. At this time there is no one general search engine that catalogs the entire World Wide Web. There are a number of general search engines, and you may quickly pick a favorite.

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Different methods of cataloguing the Web result in different results from each search engine. Try these general search engines:

Making General Search Engines More Effective

Most genealogists try general search engines for basic research and then dismiss them as their research gets more detailed. This can be a mistake.

No search engine is going to dig up only the information you seek. False hits are links that lead you to unrelated sites. One way to eliminate possible false hits is to add the word genealogy to the search field. Keep in mind, however, that Web sites that don't use the word "genealogy" on the site or encoded in their site will be eliminated from the search results. Be careful that you don't accidentally block useful family history sites with this approach.

Another method is to search for the places where your ancestors lived. For instance, if you're looking for Stephen Webster who lived in Haverhill, Middlesex, Massachusetts, you might try searching for "Stephen Webster" Haverhill. This narrows down the number of hits you get and increases the likelihood that they pertain to your ancestor.

Of course, the more common the name, the less effective a general search engine may be. It will take some practice to figure out how to narrow the search without blocking potentially useful sites.

General search engines are also great for digging into the history of an event or locality. For instance, perhaps you've heard a family story about one of your ancestors being buried in Potter's Field in New York City. A general search for "Potter's Field" New York City should reveal some sites that detail the history of that particular Potter's Field.

What general search engines cannot do is show you what is contained within the compiled genealogy databases. This is because of the way the data is stored. You must usually use a search tool within the site to view the information.

Never presume that no one else would be interested in the subject you have questions about. The Internet offers the world a place to create pages about their various interests.

Directories are quite different than general search engines, but can be just as valuable to your genealogy project. Learn about these on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Using Internet Directories to Research Genealogies

Directories offer a different view of the Internet. A directory on the Internet is like an index to a book. A book index tells you the pages on which to find a specific person or subject; an Internet directory tells you the Web sites for a given subject. Whereas general search engines look for terms found either on the Web page or in the coding (which you don't see but your Internet browser software can interpret), a directory is based on information found on the Web site's home page and is organized with human intervention. Directories are arranged by subject headings, with the list of sites generally organized alphabetically under the subject heading.

Directories can be great time-savers. It's always a good feeling to put the name of an ancestor into a directory and have the name come up. When that happens, viewing the original record is as easy as clicking on the name.

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Because of the human involvement, directories may actually give you a better chance of finding pages with genealogical information. There are a number of directories on the Web devoted solely to genealogy Web sites.

Try these genealogy directories:

Each directory is arranged differently. The largest is Cyndi's List, with more than two hundred thousand links. She has organized the list into headings and subheadings. For instance, you may select the Newspaper heading, then the History subheading, which contains a number of links to sites on the Internet pertaining to this subject. The organization of the links is up to the people who have compiled the directory. As such, links may not always be under the heading you expect. Some directory sites offer a search function so you can be sure you don't miss any links.

When looking for specific types of data, use general search engines and directories. They help you find databases based on locality, ethnic or religious beliefs, surname, and record type. They may give you an idea of what is out there on the Internet and help you find transcribed records and compiled family history pages.

Sometimes all you need to complete your family history is raw information, like a name, date, or place. Complied genealogy databases that store this data are becoming more popular, and some of them are free.  Learn more about these databases next.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Using Compiled Genealogy Databases

Raw data is what genealogists hope to find on the Internet. To genealogists, raw data is any name, date, place, or index that will lead a researcher to more records or information. This is why compiled genealogy databases are quickly gaining in popularity.

Some indexes and databases are free of charge, while others are accessible only with a paid subscription. You may be able to jump-start your research by visiting a few of the free databases, and then you may decide to join one or more of the subscription sites later. The free sites allow you to experiment with searches or entering information in search forms. Because these sites are free, you may not feel too frustrated if the search doesn't work right away. Each ancestry is different; the records and resources that offer the most information differ from researcher to researcher. Using the free sites is a good way to get an idea of whether your particular lineage or the region in which your ancestors lived is one that has been well researched.

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Free genealogy sites include:

  • FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org), the Web site of the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For anyone who wishes to search for ancestors, this free site includes entries that reveal births, deaths, marriages, family units, pedigrees, ancestors and descendants, and a few indexes to vital (birth, marriage, and death) and census records.
  • Olive Tree Genealogy (www.olivetreegenealogy.com) offers free databases of ships' passenger lists, some specialty sites for immigrant ancestry, how-to guides, tutorials, and much more.
  • RootsWeb (www.rootsweb.com), owned by Ancestry.com, is free and has many unique databases that include births, deaths, marriages, military indexes, and databases to keep you in contact with possible relatives.

All of these databases have been donated by fellow researchers.

Commercial database sites, such as Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, offer a large collection of data including indexes, transcribed records, digitized images, and much more. The big question is: Are they worth the price of admission? Most genealogists believe they are if you find what you're looking for, but of course there is no guarantee. A rule of thumb with commercial sites is to subscribe for a year, and if during that year you don't find anything, even with the new content added to the collection, reconsider when your subscription is up for renewal. Some subscription sites are available at public libraries, so you may be able to try them there.

Free sites may not be as complete as subscription sites, but their main advantage is, of course, that they are free.

On the next page, we'll explain what a transcript is and how you can use it to research your family tree.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Using Transcribed Records to Research Family Genealogies

A transcript is a typed or handwritten copy of an original document with exactly the same wording, spelling, and punctuation. Records may be transcribed from many sources: You'll find indexes and other compiled lists that include vital records, census records, cemetery inscriptions, military records, and more.

Transcribed records were one of the first things to make it onto the Internet, especially with the creation and growth of the USGenWeb (www.usgenweb.org) and the WorldGenWeb (www.worldgenweb.org) Projects. These and a number of other Web sites exist solely as a way to share the wonderful volunteer efforts of genealogists around the world. These genealogists transcribe records and put them online, bringing information about a given state, county, town, shire, province, or parish to researchers who may never get the opportunity to visit the courthouses, cemeteries, or other repositories in which the original documents are housed.

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Arranged from largest to smallest jurisdiction, these projects include information shared by volunteer managers of the sites. A site may include transcripts of biographies found in county history in the late 1800s as well as indexes to birth, death, or marriage records. You may find that a site offers its members a place to post tombstone inscriptions with or without corresponding photographs of the tombstones in question. These sites are also useful for learning the location of original records for a given county or township. Eventually you'll need to use the Internet for more than just looking up names. You'll find that much of its true genealogical wealth lies in helping you uncover what is not available online.

Family history Web pages compiled by others can be another good resource for your genealogy project. Learn the pros and cons of using them in the next section.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Using Compiled Family Histories to Research Family Genealogies

Many researchers have used the Web page creation feature in their genealogy program to create a compiled family history page. This refers to narrative-style pages and sites that showcase pedigree charts and family group information on a Web page. You may find that the compiler includes actual pedigree charts and family group sheets in addition to the "story" of the family. Many people who use their genealogy programs to create these pages also have an index, with hotlinks that take you to specific sections of pedigree charts, family group sheets, or narratives.

While you read through various charts and narrative reports, making notes and adding information to your own charts, keep in mind that, as with all compiled research, it's possible not all the information is correct. Just as published family histories found on the shelves in many libraries may contain errors, these online versions may also have faults. However, this possibility doesn't mean you shouldn't use the library books or the compiled family histories you find online. In fact, you should use them. They point you toward other records that may verify facts or show you errors or discrepancies. They may also provide names of other family members you never knew existed. And every new name you find is one more name for the tree.

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Finding these sites requires the use of either general search engines or directories. There are many compiled family history sites containing hundreds of surnames and families. Some sites are devoted to a specific surname; others are the culmination of a genealogist's entire research and include many surnames.

Citing sources is never more important than with sites that contain compiled family histories. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes researchers make when working with family history pages on the Internet is not going beyond those pages in their research. When you use a compiled family history site, you are viewing someone else's conclusions. In order to understand how accurate these conclusions are, you need to know what records and resources were used. While the information may indeed be accurate, it's important to determine where it came from. Even longtime genealogists make mistakes and, when transferring data to a Web page, may inadvertently mix something up.

If a family Web site doesn't indicate where its information came from, don't hesitate to send an e-mail asking for a source citation. It's not a good idea to ask the Web page manager to share all their records with you, but it is perfectly acceptable to contact them and ask where they discovered their information.

Next, we'll cover the many types of original genealogy records -- some free, some subscription-only -- that are available online.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Finding Original Genealogy Records Online

Recent years have brought online images of certain records frequently used by genealogists. In most instances these records are available only by purchasing a subscription to the company supplying them.

Census records were one of the first offerings of online original records. The census has been taken in the United States every ten years since 1790. Beginning in 1850, everyone in a household was listed by name, along with information regarding sex, age, and place of birth. From 1880 on, relationships of those listed in each household were also included. In subsequent census years, additional information was gathered offering insight into family structure, date of marriage, number of children, occupation, and more.

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Because the census lists everyone in a household and in some cases identifies family relationships, it is one of the more popular original records consulted by family historians. You will find many digitized graphics of original records through subscription and free sites.

Subscription Genealogy Sites:

Free Genealogy Sites:

  • HeritageQuest Online (www.heritagequest.com), available through many public libraries and genealogy societies

Before looking more deeply into images, one record type needs to be addressed, as it is becoming increasingly digitized: manuscript.

Finding Genealogy Manuscripts

The term manuscript, as it applies to records sought in genealogy, refers to any unpublished collection of papers. This could be letters or diaries from someone who traveled the Oregon Trail, for example. It could be the rosters or account books of a general store. It could even be a compiled family history never formally published. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) (www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/nucmc.html), is one of the best places to look for manuscript resources. NUCMC's online catalog allows you to search catalog entries from 1986 to the present. Pre-1986 entries must be searched in published volumes, which your local public library may have. NUCMC entries include the author (or originator of the collection), the title by which the collection is catalogued, the number of items the collection includes, notes or other important information about the collection, subjects under which it may be catalogued, and the repository housing the manuscript. NUCMC can also point genealogists to repositories with manuscripts available for viewing online.

Digitizing Genealogy Records: The Power of the Image

Until recently, most of what genealogists found online and used was not original in nature: Indexes, abstracts, transcripts, and compiled family history pages are all the result of human intervention in one form or another. These were either re-keyed from a printed source, run through an optical character recognition program (a program that allows the computer to read and translate into a text the graphic typed letters of a scanned page), or were the result of individuals' conclusions based on their own research.

Original records, such as the census, diaries, rosters, and ledgers, have long been available via microfilm, but until recently were most often located only in the manuscript collections of a single repository. The limited accessibility usually required you to travel to the source or hire a professional researcher to access the records. Today, some of these records are undergoing digitization.

Digitization of records is similar to taking a photocopy or picture of the original document. It means that you are looking at the original page, written in authentic handwriting. For an online record to be considered original, it must be a digitized copy of the record. When working with such a record, you need only worry about the mistakes or shortcomings in the original record, rather than human error during transcription or abstraction.

A census page found online may be considered an original if it is a digitized copy. A digitized copy is the computer equivalent to viewing the census on microfilm. As such, printing a census page from the Internet is just like going to a library, finding that page on microfilm, and making a photocopy.

Of course, digitized files are actually graphics, not text, and they must be downloaded before you can view them. If you don't have a speedy Internet connection, you may find it frustrating to wait for the image to load.

In addition to census records, other items are also being digitized. Complete issues of newspapers, including announcements of births, marriages, deaths, court proceedings, and news items, are a valuable resource in genealogy research.

Genealogists also use passenger lists in an effort to identify their ancestors' native countries and the year or time frame of their arrival in the United States. While only the later passenger lists (those created after 1906) include the actual place of birth, from the 1890s on, records also contain information about relatives left behind, including their addresses. Obviously, this information can be helpful in isolating a possible place of birth for an immigrant. Perhaps only the head of the family was included in some earlier indexes. Newer indexes of the same records may include everyone in the family unit. Passenger lists are available on microfilm, but not all of them have been indexed. Recent digitization efforts have made some passenger lists available online in index form, so check them out.

Other records that have been digitized include World War I draft registration cards and Civil War pension index cards. Every month brings family historians new resources on the Internet.

Visiting subscription sites and search engines will help you find out what is available. Subscription sites in particular keep subscribers up-to-date on new additions to their sites, usually by posting a message on the front page of the site. They continue to add more records because they want to keep your business.

Many libraries -- for example, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., some state archives, and individual Presidential libraries -- have digitized their collections to make them available online. The next page has the details on this fountain of information.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.

Researching Genealogies With Online Libraries

Some state and national libraries and archives are going a step beyond simply posting their library catalogs online: They are also digitizing some of their more popular collections and making them available online.

The National Archives (NARA) in Washington, D.C., has begun an impressive program called the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) System (www.archives.gov/aad/index.html). This system lets people search and view electronic records. It includes some interesting searchable databases. The National Archives also offers a powerful online inventory of some of the holdings of the main archives in Washington, D.C., as well as their network of 13 regional archives and additional record facilities, through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) (www.archives.gov/research/arc/). This is far from complete and should not be considered a definitive answer as to whether or not a specific resource is available through the National Archives network.

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Many of the regional branch archives have their own Web sites, as do the Presidential libraries. Some of these have their own searchable online catalogs. You can find out more about these repositories by checking out the Locations and Hours link in the Research Room section of the NARA Web site (www.archives.gov).

The Florida State Archives, another repository embracing the current technology, has digitized a number of its collections, including World War I service cards, Florida Confederate pension application files, and Spanish land grants (some of the earliest records identifying residents in what eventually became Florida).

The online availability of such records is a dream for genealogists. To have such a convenient (and often free!) way to research obscure records is an incredible time-saver. It may save you a trip to the actual repository, but even if it doesn't, it will almost certainly help you accomplish a large portion of your research from home. You can postpone the visit until you have managed to identify other individuals and records needed, in order to make your trip to the archives a truly useful one.

Although not all libraries and archives are fully entrenched on the Internet, they remain an excellent resource. Even if you are unable to view original records online, researching a library's archives or card catalog online can be an extremely valuable time-saver. The first step is to use the Internet to uncover existing libraries, especially if the only information you have is the state or county in which your ancestors lived. One way to do this is through a directory of online library catalogs.

LibDex, The Library Index (www.libdex.com), is a great resource because it shares lists of public libraries, state libraries, law and medical libraries, academic libraries, and more. It allows you to search for libraries using a keyword, such as the city, or a phrase. You can also browse for libraries by county or by state.

LibDex is a list of only those libraries that offer an online site. Not all of these sites will offer online library catalogs, but at the very least the Web site should provide helpful contact information.

Another directory for library catalogs is the Gateway to Library Catalogs (www.loc.gov/z3950/). In addition to allowing you to search the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., this site provides a number of links to other catalogs all over the world.

How to Use an Online Genealogy Index

Indexes that are accessible online require a little different thinking than a printed index. When searching the index to a book, it's easy to evaluate the variant spellings of a surname. For instance, while looking for the surname Johnson you may also spot entries for Johnsen and Jonson and consider checking those out. However, when you type Johnson into a computerized index, you will get hits only for this spelling, not for any variations.

Search engines are not designed to guess what might be considered a variant spelling. With the exception of the databases at FamilySearch.org (www.familysearch.org), which group variations together, there are only a few databases that offer an option for alternative spellings.

Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com) allows you to request a Soundex search, which tells the search engine to include some variant spellings. All of the variations for the Johnson surname have the same Soundex code, which means that an online index using a Soundex search would explore these variations and more.

While you don't need to know how to code a surname using the Soundex system when working in online indexes, there are other records for which you will need to figure out the code. Most genealogy programs include a Soundex converter tool, and there are plenty of Web sites that convert names into code for you. Here are a few:

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist who began the search for her personal family tree 20 years ago through genealogy courses and conferences. Today she is an author and national lecturer guiding other newcomers through this exciting hobby.