How to Use the Internet to Research Your Genealogy

by JoHarrington

Thousands of websites exist to help you trace your family history on-line. Soon your family tree will be bursting with new leaves.

There has never been a better time for delving into your family tree.

With the advent of the internet, so much information is digitized, that revelations about your ancestors may be waiting at the click of a button. The major family history databases all have search engines now.

It's a far cry from when I began, sitting in the physical archives themselves, reading the original manuscripts for hours on end.

These days, I'd simply call up the same documents online!

Starting Your Online Quest Into Your Family History

Beware! This way lies hours lost in the fascination of the archives and glimpses of the living past.

A century is a shining figure in historical studies. Go back 100 years ago and suddenly doors start to open.

If you know the name of an ancestor who was alive then, you deserve to give  yourself a pat on the back. Things are about to become much easier, as long as they kept on top of their paperwork.

At regular intervals in our lives, records are kept about us. When we are born, get married or die, a registrar completes a certificate. Every ten years, a census form notes all kinds of information about our household. If we are religious, then our places of worship have their own books to update too. They are registers of our rites of passage.

Each year, businesses and their owners get listed in directories. Deliveries and collections result in names being signed to receipts.  Tax documents scrutinize it all.

If we do anything particularly newsworthy, a reporter might nip around to capture our stories in print. They could well be accompanied by photographers. But who ever needed to rely on newspapers to produce a picture. Professional galleries used to offer that for a fee. Of course, these days there are cameras everywhere.

The trouble with accessing this wealth of information about our ancestors is that it's usually hidden away. That is until 100 years has passed. Then the assumption is that all people listed have passed away and the data is free for public viewing.

In the old days, that meant several trips to the local archives or into the national collections held in capital cities. Today, we have the internet.

Books about On-line Genealogy

Buy these guides and directories to discover more about researching your family tree on the internet.

Using Databases to Find Your Ancestors On-Line

From censuses to migrant records, many sources of information are searchable and on the internet.

I have fond memories of sitting in a musty room, where the only sounds were the twitching of microfiche dials and the scratching of pens on paper.

The bound books before me were those actually used to record information. This was real paper and real ink, fading now with age.

They were tangible links with the past, because my own family members would have stood here, watching their details being entered. I could see their signatures or, more often, their crosses - the mark because they couldn't write their own names. But for the intervening centuries, I sat where they must have sat, contemplating the same cursive script.

I have even fonder memories of the day this all went on-line. I no longer had to painstakingly trawl through endless tomes, trying to guess which church my great-great grandparents attended; or if they'd even gone into one at all.

Today we simply enter a name into a database form and the website's search engine finds every bit of information for us. It's so much quicker. Ok! Some of the romance may be gone, but the thrill of the hunt is still there. It's just happening where we can't accidentally spill tea over 17th century documents.

But more to the point, these databases are not restricted by location. From my computer chair in Britain, I could just as easily research a family tree in Germany or America, as I could in my local city. This was a wonderful innovation for me, as 90% of my family history eventually led back to Wales. The rest were canal bargees, i.e. water gypsies. By their very nature, they did not stick around in one place for too long.

Links to Major Genealogy Databases
This site is by far the largest of all websites devoted to family history. Their databases are unparalleled across the internet. However there is only so much that you can do without buying a subscription. Please note that the link is to the American site. There are sister sites devoted to other countries too, though the information crosses all national boundaries.

World Vital Records
Second only to for the sheer volume of international records, this site is huge! It's a much cheaper option than Ancestry, but it's still not free. You can't even get into the three day free trial without entering your credit card details.
All genealogists love the Mormons. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has a religious obligation for its adherents to retrospectively baptise their ancestors. That means they need to find them. This database is a free resource, which has been plundered by non-Mormons too, since it first went on-line.

Genealogy Bank
This website is an up and coming one, but it's linked to the more famous Find a Grave. As people submit monumental information, it's added here too. It might be worth a look for those elusive ancestors.

Find a Grave
And while you're about it, you might as well check out the main event itself. People write down information from gravestones, then add it to the database here.

Kindle eBooks about your Family Tree on the Internet

Using Forums to Find Amateur Detectives and Relatives

One person's gold dust is another person's scribbling a couple of notes, while en route to buy their bread and milk.

A tree with no branches on it is called a plank. Nothing actually grows like that and this includes family trees. You can practically guarantee bumping into another researcher somewhere along the trunk.

The majority of my extremely distant relatives have been found in family history forums. This is the haunt of genealogy geeks, where every poster has a signature filled with dozens of names and locations.

Instant niche experts are born out of people watching certain categories for too long. I'm personally the go-to person for several surnames within a few square miles of the British Black Country. I'm not alone in that. Everyone has their area.

Before the advent of the mega-database sites, when family history became quicker, broader and far more expensive, forums were the resource. The archives of old threads are still there and they are treasure troves of member submitted data.

I could stroll down the road to the cenotaph and write down all the names displayed upon it. It would take me all of ten minutes. Across the world, someone in, say, Philadelphia was anxiously waiting for proof that her grandad had lived here and died in the Great War. I typed up my notes and she pounced on them. Now she knew for certain. She had the data to add to her tree.

That sort of thing happened all of the time. I had people searching all over the Welsh valleys and deepest Powys for clues to my own ancestors. It was a wonderful spirit of co-operation and the free sharing of information.

In truth, I keep coming across things in, which I know that I transcribed in the first place, or else I knew the person who did. It was the early forum family historians who volunteered to type up the records for FreeBMD. I know, because I was one of them. We gave our time freely and now sells it back to us for £159 a year. (We were all on RootsWeb, which got sold to them in 2000.)

If you can't afford that, then going back to the start in more ways than one is the answer. Search RootsWeb and Yahoo groups for those first forums. Companies may profiteer all they like, but historical primary sources remain exactly the same.

There's Also eBay...

What happens when local historians realise that they have precious data? Some of them head straight into on-line marketplaces.

Using Search Engines to Locate Lost Ancestors

It is one of the most overlooked resources in genealogy, yet it's our first port of call for every other query!

Everyone has Googled their own name. We've probably also used search engines to look for our friends and living family. I defy anyone to tell me that they've never typed a celebrity's name in there!  But so many historians never think to check for any mention of their ancestors.

Forum niche experts frequently turned into web-masters too. Their invaluable knowledge became stored on tiny websites buried in the depths of the internet. But the search bots are still scanning them. That information will still turn up in the results.

I'd lost my great-great-great grandparents. Careless of me, I know. They were in their home, where they were supposed to be, in 1861 and 1881. But in between, they were mysteriously missing. Their adult children were minding both the store and the younger ones, but no database was telling me where the parents were in 1871.

After fruitlessly rooting through and, I nearly had to admit defeat. But there was one last avenue to try. I put their names into Google and I was presented with thousands of links. There were a lot of living people with the same names, ranking much higher. I have patience. I started scrolling.

Somewhere back on about page 32 of the search engine results, I found my errant family. A local genealogist had found them in Matlock, where they were partaking of the spa. He had transcribed their names himself from the census records before him. He'd written their names correctly, which was more than the big database sites had done.

Moreover, because he was local, he had included a great deal of information about why people holidayed in Matlock in the 19th century. It painted a beautifully vivid picture, which brought everything to life for me. These were the nuggets of knowledge that makes researching your family history worth the hassle. For a moment, you can almost glimpse the past, and the people stop becoming merely names on the paper.

That isn't the only time that I've struck gold in search engines, while working on my family tree. It takes a lot of stamina to keep trailing through endless pages (almost like going back to the real world archives), but the gems, when they're found, really do shine.

More Kindle eBooks about Family History On-line

Download these guides to learn more about tracing your genealogy on-line.

Other Wizzley Articles in my Genealogy Series

These pages are designed to guide you every step of the way through researching your own family history.
The International Genealogical Index is a great, free resource for exploring your family history. LDS records go back to the 16th century.
A century ago the majority of people could not read or write. Your surname changed often, as clerks wrote phonetically what they thought they heard.
You don't have to be a professional to begin adding leaves to your family tree. You begin very close to home.
When exploring your family tree, censuses can act like a fast-track through the 19th century. Understanding them is vital for your genealogy.
Updated: 05/04/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/13/2013

I hope it was useful too!

cmoneyspinner on 08/13/2013

Fascinating and fabulous!

JoHarrington on 01/21/2012

Wow Angel, that is interesting! Go you!

It is lovely to have someone famous in the background there, because so many artefacts etc will have been kept on them. Best of all, it's highly likely that a genealogist has already done the family tree for them. Have you looked to see if anyone has previously traced the descendants of Pocahantas? It might save you some work.

Angel on 01/21/2012

Just saw your question ..what did I find so interesting? We found a line to Pocahantas - 12 or so generations back as a grandmother. My husband wants to double check some things and make sure everything matches up and is in check.. but that is what it looks like now. I just went on a field trip to Jamestown VA (1 hr South of us) and it was neat to see all of the historical items there on Pocahantas with my daughter. I explained to her what we had found etc. All very neat.

JoHarrington on 01/20/2012

*high fives* I was there! I didn't have a computer at home at first, so it was sneaked IGI searches at dinnertime or hiring time on the library PC. You got half an hour to get as much printed out as you could for 10p a sheet.

It feels like we're showing our age here, but all of this was only a decade ago!

lovewriting on 01/20/2012

I really enjoyed reading this article! I too remember the dusty old archives in the bleak days prior to the internet. There is nothing as amazing as seeing an original document signed by a 18th century ancestor and touching (carefully) that same piece of paper. However, I was so excited when the IGI first went online that I spent every lunch time at work frantically writing data down to analyse when I got home ... my "real" work really slowed down for a fortnight but the boss never knew why!

JoHarrington on 01/19/2012

It's great fun, isn't it? I've been doing this for decades now and I'm still not bored.

What did you find out that was so interesting?

Angel on 01/19/2012

Great stuff. My husband and I just did our family trees and found some interesting ancestors. Something I would suggest everyone do. Great article.

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