I’ve been interested in genealogy ever since a childhood 4-H project, where I carefully wrote each person’s names with colored rhinestones on a poster.
Even now, I enjoy exploring historic records and helping others find out more about their families. But genealogy can appear expensive — so this piece looks at how to start searching, and ways to do so affordably.
1) Start by asking questions.
Before you search online, figure out who your family was, including names, places, and birth / death / marriage dates back to about 1940, if you can. Once you get that far back, records are widely shared and it’s easier to find links between people.
You may not have all that, so start asking questions to your older family members. What do they know about Aunt Belle? Uncle Bud? Write down any details they remember, and ask about other people that lived near them. If you can’t find Belle directly, sometimes you can look around and find her friend or family member hiding nearby.
Also, ask if any uncles or cousins are already doing your family history. They may not have all the details right, but you can ask for their records and pictures, and help them explore any roadblocks.
2) Try a free trial — and then cancel.
You’re seen ads for flashy websites like Ancestry.com, but they’re expensive. Sometimes you can view a few records for the holidays (Irish censuses for St. Patrick’s Day?), but that’s just a teaser. But when I’ve subscribed for months, I find I run out of things to search for pretty quickly.
That’s why I recommend you line up your information first, then use a free trial or sale to search intensively for a week or two. When you stop finding useful things, cancel the trial. Go back to free or library sources and to asking family for more. You can always buy a membership later if you’ve gotten new leads.
3) Use the free sites.
- Look for your ancestors in the census or immigration records in the Mormons’ FamilySearch databases or their books at Genealogy Gophers. (They have even more free stuff at their physical libraries too, if you live nearby).
- Search for a town name among the photos, land ownership maps, and town histories in the free DPLA (Digital Public Library of America).
- Look for your ancestor’s name in the in the Chronicling America newspapers.
- Look for free immigration records from Ellis Island (New York in the 1900s), or from many other ports and times in the National Archives and other sources.
- Find your family members’ gravestones in Find a Grave.
4) Get a library card. Or several.
If you’re looking for your great-grandfather’s job, his wife’s will, or his cousin’s newspaper scandal, see what your library already subscribes to. Below are sources I use (the links are for my library only, and too specific; just look for the research section of your library website to hopefully find similar ones):
- AncestryLibrary has the best variety, and is usable from home until April 30, 2020 because of coronavirus (otherwise, use HeritageQuest from home, which they also own).
- America’s Obituaries & Death Notices collects obituaries from the 1980s to the present.
- Fold3 has military records, duplicating what’s in Ancestry.
- African American Heritage is important for many folks.
- Early American Newspapers covers the 1700s and 1800s; other papers include the Columbus Dispatch, California Historical Newspapers, Newspaper Archive, and News Bank.
5) Pay for the good stuff.
As I’ve written before, good information is never free. Someone has to find it, scan it, check it, label it, organize it, and maintain it (like this blog–free to you, but a lot of unpaid work for me!).
Because of this, the best information often either costs you in tax money (library databases) or through fees for website access and DNA tests (but see Michael’s explanation of how ethnicity tests actually work).
An even better move to cut your time and improve the quality of your results is to hire a genealogist. I once needed documents from a distant courthouse, and it helped a lot to hire someone skilled at genealogy. For less than $40, she quickly navigated local records, copied the will I needed, and used the information in that document to copy two more wills while she was in the office. Everything checked out, and it was rewarding to both pay a professional for their skills, and to add something to my family’s records that wasn’t available online.
So there’s my advice: ask questions, search online, and pay for the things you can’t find online.
And support your libraries and archives. They preserve and digitize the records we need, often with funds from the Institute of Library and Museum Studies (IMLS) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). State and federal funds for archives are often cut… but that just hurts our ability to make sense of the past.
And in my mind, that’s unfortunate. Sharing our history is what libraries do best–and it’s something that benefits us all.