[Editor’s Note: Tami Osmer Glatz, WikiTree’s Cousin Connector & Community Assistant, shares free genealogy and family history resources. For the first article in her series, see Getting Started with Your Family Tree ... for Free.]
Flipping through old registers in dusty, dirty, rodent-infested courthouse basements. Searching through overgrown cemeteries while dodging snakes and mosquitoes. Mailing off hand-written inquiries and waiting weeks, months, or longer, for a response. Brick walls built on a lack of available information. As you might know, genealogical research has not, historically, been an easy proposition.
The Digital Age and Why Validity Matters
Welcome to the Digital Age! Hurray for the Internet! Type in a name, click on a ‘leaf’, and discover your relationship all the way back to Joan of Arc in mere seconds! What more could you ask for? Well, validity, for one thing, and affordability, for another. And, as always, free is even better.
WikiTree is a great place to build your family tree, and connect and collaborate with others on your research, but where can you research online to find good, solid, valid, information to help continue building your tree? Again, hurray for the Internet!
Still, most people should be aware that just because somebody posts information on the Internet, that doesn’t make it true or valid. So how can you be sure to find good information easily while not having to pay an arm and a leg for it? The answer is still the Internet. Many free websites provide original images of vital records, and others list sources for their data so you can always verify the validity of information.
FamilySearch: A Genealogy Destination on the Web
One of the best completely free websites for genealogy is FamilySearch at familysearch.org. Sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), FamilySearch contains hundreds of thousands of digitized and indexed images from their vast collection of over 2.5 million rolls of microfilm. The LDS church has been capturing records on film all over the world since 1935, and in the past decade has been making those records available online, and for free.
While you may have spent hours cranking through a roll of film in a Family History Center (and you still can, by the way, if you so choose), make sure you search the FamilySearch website to see if the information is online before you order that microfilm. You’ll find birth, death and marriage certificates and registers, civil registrations, parish registers, thousands of family genealogy books and more. The online collection is vast and varied and growing rapidly day by day, thanks to an army of volunteer indexers. FamilySearch is one of the first websites you should consult when starting a new family hisotry research project.
Along with collections of both imaged and transcribed records, FamilySearch also has free courses in basic genealogy topics, as well as the FamilySearch Research Wiki, a user-built database of information on topics and locations, describing available records, resources and information for each. Consult the wiki to learn how to research a new record set or a topic in which you lack experience. For example, if you need to learn how to do Native American research, or want to know what records are available for a particular foreign country, do a quick search for that topic at the FamilySearch Wiki page.
HeritageQuest: Your Library Resource for Genealogy
My next favorite free website for genealogy research is HeritageQuest. HeritageQuest is available through most public library websites. Although completely free, you may need to have a library card to access a library’s website. And HeritageQuest is definitely worth the trip to your local library to sign up for a card!
Databases include US Census records from 1790 to 1930; a genealogy book collection of over 28,000 family and local histories; searchable Revolutionary War Era Pension & Bounty-Land Warrant Application files; and records of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company 1865-1874 established for the benefit of freed slaves. In addition, you’ll find an underused resource, PERSI, which is the Periodical Source Index of over 2.3 million genealogy and local history articles. While PERSI is only an an index, copies of articles found there can be requested at your local library for a very small fee.
Another favorite free genealogy resource is Linkpendium, “The Definitive Directory” which boasts over 10 million genealogical links, organized by Localities (mostly USA), and by Surnames (worldwide).
Linkpendium is easy to navigate from the State level down to the County level, to review available websites and record. You might be surprised to find that more and more local government agencies are digitizing and making records available online; Linkpendium is a great way to find them!
Find A Grave
This article would not be complete without mentioning one more free website, FindAGrave. Available online for well over a decade, Find A Grave’s database of over 86 million names taken from tombstone photographs and transcriptions, has been created entirely by volunteers. Search for your ancestor’s name, but don’t get discouraged if it can’t be found. You can submit a request to the Find A Grave volunteers to record specific grave site information if you know the cemetery where your ancestor is located. Volunteers are always welcome and encouraged to participate at Find A Grave.
Remember to Cite Your Sources
As always, when you find information on a website and add it to your own data files, be certain to make a notation of where you found the information which means cite your sources! On WikiTree, you can include your source citation information under Sources in the Biography section.
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These websites barely scratch the surface of what is available for free to genealogists, but they should keep you busy if you are just starting out researching your family history. And even if you’ve been at it for years, you may still want to visit these sites, since they all are constantly adding to their databases. You never know when that document or image that will solve YOUR brickwall, will be added!