Affordable Genealogy Research

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.

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):

I’ve also heard good things about UK records at FindMyPast and news articles at Newspapers.com, but I don’t have access. If you know where to get those, let me know!

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.

2 Comments

  1. Valerie Hankiewicz

    This DNA is so confusing. My ancestors are French and Dutch, my test puts that the 3rd on my list. It says I’m 51% English, but I can’t find anyone born there.

    I did find and in contact with my 3rd cousin I believe that’s right ? We also share the name Perrin.

    As I stated before we share the name Perrin, but they are from France. My Great Great Grandpa moved to Georgia, and here we are today. The Perrins in that area are from England, I’m going to keep looking, if nothing else it’s fun to read and learn about others who share the if I can find a connection or not.

    Anyways enjoy your website, thank you.

    Valerie

  2. Cee

    Hi Valerie,

    Yes, it is confusing, isn’t it! The ethnicities that get assigned with genetic genealogy are only estimates, I think, based on analyzing some parts of genes from a sample of people in that country. Different companies use different measures, and they might change how they estimate genes over time.

    Two other factors that I think are at play:

    1) people in any ethnic group do cross-marry over time, so defining who is ‘in’ a group genetically is messy and maybe even impossible! When I learned about genealogy in Central Asia, I found that people will say they’re fully Kazakh as long as their dad and his dad are Kazakh, where in European-descended American ethnicities, we often divide ourselves into quarters and eighths.

    2) We often draw our strongest identities from recent immigrant ancestors. E.g. my most recent immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. in the mid 1800s from Ireland, Germany, and Sweden, so these are the backgrounds that mean the most to my family.

    But if you look at our ‘stray’ lines, especially women who married into a patriarchal family and their birth name was lost (hard to research!), they actually go back to early British immigrants in the 1600s and 1700s. So in 1600, most of my ancestors may have been in England. Yet in recent years, our ethnic appreciation focuses on other countries.

    As Michael notes in the essay I linked above, once you’re a few generations back, you don’t share genes with those people–it’s more about the emotional and historical connection than any percentage of your genes at that point.

    So for all of these reasons, my nationality is American, but my ethnic identity is what I make of the choices available to me. I’m curious about genetic tests because they can uncover cousin relationships or (with Y DNA and mt-DNA) whether families really line up with the ancestors they claim, but I don’t put too much stock in autosomal DNA tests. (I say that, but have a close friend being tested and of course am immensely curious what they find!).

    Would love to know more about the Perrins. Some puzzles there, esp. my ancestor Elizabeth Petticrew (1825-1899) who married Jackson Perrin (1816-1891) in Missouri. Claims she was born in Ohio, but can’t figure out who her family was!

    Cee

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