Working on your family history may be easier in the digital age, but actually getting starting can be rather daunting with the plethora of information out there. This is my top five list of FREE websites you can access from your home computer that I find the most useful in research and refer back to time and again along with some tips for each:
1. Family Search https://www.familysearch.org/en/
Family Search is the largest collection of free genealogical records in the world. Many records I used to have to drive to Salt Lake City for, are now digitized and available on the website. Depending on where the records are from, there may be restrictions agreements that prevent them from being digitized online or are only available online through a Family History library provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But this site is so much more than records: (1) the research WIKI is a great place to start when trying to find out where records are available for the State, County, City where you are looking https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Main_Page and (2) there are many “how to: videos that take you step by step for learning how to use records. Example: there are tutorials on how start your Irish family history research. (3) Family Search offers monthly classes online which give you the opportunity to ask questions of the instructors – the list of monthly online FREE classes are available here: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Family_History_Library#Online_Classes – you can also view past webinars.
2. Cyndi’s List https://www.cyndislist.com/
Listing genealogical resources on the world wide web for over 20 years, whether you are looking for general information or more specific information, Cyndi’s list is a great place to get you rolling. Example: you heard you had a relative who was on an orphan train, you select O from the index, then orphans, then orphan trains. https://www.cyndislist.com/orphans/orphan-trains/
3. Ellis Island https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger
A great place to start if you are looking for immigration records and you believe your ancestor came through Ellis Island. You’ll need to create a free account to use the databases. Three tips to remember: (1) Ellis Island was open 1892-1954. Your relatives may have arrived before 1892 (if so, see Castle Garden and other ports). (2) There are many other ports of entry and border crossings; if you don’t find your ancestor in the Ellis Island database, search other ports (see Cyndi’s List.com/immigration for resources). (3) Search using partial names to help overcome human errors in transcribing the records for the database and variant spellings. For example: searching for Lisa Vogele, I might simply search on last name only “Vog*” to yield broader results (such as Vogel, Vogle, and Vogele).
4. Find a Grave https://www.findagrave.com/
A useful resource when looking for individuals or whole families who may have been interred together or nearby, in the same cemetery. Tips to remember when using Find a Grave: (1) volunteers enter the information and it is subject to human error. (2) Once you find the individual you are looking for, browse through the same cemetery looking for relatives. (3) Always use it as a source of clues and gravestone photos, but continue to look for the original records pertaining to the subject person.
5. Chronicling America https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
Newspapers contain announcements, social happenings, and potentially newsworthy life moments of your ancestors. The Library of Congress maintains a very large archived database of US Newspapers. The project was funded by the national Endowment for the Humanities. I recommend starting with this wonderful “how to” video before you begin searching https://vimeo.com/368029301 . It was created by the University of Delaware and can save you some frustration if you watch it before jumping in.
Honorable Mention: Ancestry Library Edition
I know what it’s like to have that free two-week subscription to Ancestry and get as much as you can done. As a professional, I have a full subscription to Ancestry.com, it’s something I cannot live without. However, I understand if you are just starting out or it’s a hobby you pursue from time-to-time, forking over hundreds of dollars may not be something you are willing to do. Luckily, many public libraries offer the library edition of Ancestry and it’s free, you simply need to travel to the library to use it. [Note: at the time of this writing some local libraries are starting to open during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, many are not.]