I’ve been interested in genealogy ever since a childhood 4-H project, where I carefully wrote each ancestor’s name above a colored rhinestone on a poster.
And even now, I enjoy exploring the details of historical records, asking for stories, and helping others find out more about their families.
But some of the best resources cost quite a bit. Below are places to start searching, and ways to do so affordably.
Start by asking questions.
Before searching online, you’ll want to map out your family, including the names, locations, and important dates of people living before 1940. Once you get that far back, it’s easier to find public records that could help you link people together.
So start by asking questions. What do you know about Aunt Belle? Uncle Bud? Write down their stories, and when and where it happened. And ask about other people in their families. Usually, if you can’t find one person, you can look around and find a friend or family member–and often, they’ll be hiding nearby.
Also, make sure to ask if there’s someone in your family doing genealogy. It’s always easiest to start by asking others for their records and pictures, and to explore from there.
Try a sale or free trial.
You’re seen ads for flashy websites like Ancestry.com, but they often cost a lot. You can sometimes view part of their website during the holidays (Irish censuses for St. Patrick’s Day?), but that’s only part.
So take time to line up your information first, then use a free trial or sale to search intensively for a week or two. When you aren’t seeing as much useful new information, cancel the trial. Go back to free sources and asking around. You can always come back and purchase later once you’ve gotten some new leads, and if you’re still into this.
Check out some free sites.
There’s also a lot of good American genealogy resources available online for free. The Mormons mine the world’s family records at FamilySearch, and one of them created a way to search genealogy books at Genealogy Gophers. (Their physical libraries have thousands more resources that aren’t yet online).
Next, look at government and library projects like the photos, old books, and small-town histories in the IMLS-funded Digital Public Library of America, and the digitized old newspapers in the NEH-funded Chronicling America.
For immigration records, Ellis Island only includes immigrants to one port in New York from 1892-1957. You likely have ancestors at other major ports like Castle Garden; see the National Archives for more.
Get a library card. Or several.
If you’re looking for your great-grandfather’s job on the census, his wife’s will, or his son’s newspaper gossip, you might want to see what your local public library already subscribes to. Sometimes, you can just use their public computers.
Other times, you need a card. Show proof that you live in that city (or sometimes, state). If you’re lucky, you can then use your card to search some of these databases from home. (I’m including links where I have access, purely for my own reference!)
- HeritageQuest (SF, Columbus)
- America’s Obituaries (Columbus)
- Fold3 military records (Columbus, Cleveland)
- World Vital Records (Akron)
- Newspaper Archive (Akron)
- Early American Newspapers (Bloomington)
- 19th century US Newspapers (Kent)
Many libraries also subscribe to AncestryLibrary, but you have to search this one in person. That’s because Ancestry sells access to libraries… but is really hoping you’ll pay for the convenience of a personal membership.
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 keep sharing and maintaining it. And all of those things take people, money and time.
Because of this, sometimes you do want to pay for the good stuff. I’m thinking here of website subscriptions. And DNA tests (although see Michael Hancock-Parmer’s explanation of how genes and ethnicity actually work).
But I’m also thinking of hiring a genealogist. I once needed documents from a courthouse far away, and it was actually quite easy and pleasurable to hire someone skilled at genealogy. For less than $40, she knew how to get access and what to look for. She copied the will I asked for, and found two related ones, which she also sent. Everything checked out, and it was rewarding and fun to reach out and find something not easily available online.
So there’s my advice: start by asking questions. Search free sites. Look at what libraries you can access, and what they have. And pay when you need something more.
But I’ll also put in a quick plug for libraries and archives here. They preserve and digitize old records, often using funds from the Institute of Library and Museum Studies (IMLS) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). If these get cut in the current federal budget, it slows down what libraries can do to get this material to you.
And in my mind, that’s unfortunate. Securing and sharing culture and history is what libraries do best–and it’s something that benefits us all.