I talk to a lot of people about starting the process of researching their family history. When I ask the people I am speaking with why they haven’t started their research, I receive the same two answers 90% of the time. I don’t have the time, or I don’t have the money. I can sympathize with both of these responses. As the father of three children ranging in age from five to newborn, I understand that free time and spending cash are luxuries that are hard to come by. I typically get my research done on my iPad while my wife and I wind down by watching television after my kids go to bed. As for the cost of doing genealogy research, I have found that my most treasured discoveries have come from sites that don’t charge a subscription fee. For those of you who want to get started discovering your family’s story, I have created a list of 5 free sites for genealogy research to help you get started.
1.) Family Search
If you don’t want to pay a subscription fee to one of “The Big 3” genealogy companies (Ancestry, My Heritage, and Find My Past), you won’t find a better site than familysearch.org. Family Search will give you access to the major record collections (census data, birth, marriage, and death records etc…). Another benefit of using Family Search is that you will be able to see research that has already been done on your ancestors. I found the picture below that has my great-grandmother, 2nd great-grandmother and grandfather, and 3rd great-grandmother on Family Search.
The Digital Public Library of America has built a great free repository of documents over the last 5 – 10 years. They currently have over 16 million items (books, pictures, journals etc…) from over 2,000 contributing institutions. I stumbled upon this site while doing research on the brick wall in my genealogy; the search for my 2nd great-grandfather’s parents. While the site did not help me solve that mystery, it did help me find one of my all time favorite family history discoveries. When I entered Springville, Utah in the search field, I was presented with results from all of the contributing institutions that had items from Springville, Utah in their databases. One of the results was the George Edward Anderson Photographs Collection held at BYU’s Harold B. Lee library. As I reviewed the photos in the collection, I came across a photo of a little girl under the name A. G. Curtis. Alpheus Gardner Curtis was my 2nd great-grandfather, so I clicked on the A. G. Curtis link out of curiosity. When the image loaded, I had a picture of my great-grandmother Cristobel Curtis at the age of 3 years old (1895) staring back at me. What made this discovery even more exciting was the fact that the contributing institution (Brigham Young University) had the original glass negative at their library and I was able to have an original print made for $7 (you can see the picture below). This site is definitely worth taking the time to check out.
Digitally archived newspapers are my favorite tool to use when researching my family or a client’s family history. You will learn facts from newspaper clippings that you cannot find anywhere else. Just yesterday, I came across an ad that my 2nd great-grandfather placed in the newspaper offering a reward for the return of a green tricycle (my grandfather’s tricycle). I also recently came across an article about a clients ancestor who was being held in jail awaiting the fate of the man he shot to determine whether he would be charged with murder or aggravated assault. My favorite find from the Chronicling America site is a photograph of my 2nd great-grandfather William H. Bernard. The only pictures that my family had of William were from when he was an old man. The photo I found on the Chronicling America site is of William in his late 50’s (you can see the image below). The newspapers on Chronicling America cover dates from 1789 – 1949. You definitely want to take the time to search this collection!
The design of digitalstatearchives.com definitely leaves something to be desired. However, don’t let the lack of modern design fool you. This not a site that is left over from the dawn of the Internet. The creators of this site have taken the time to research and link to the best digital records archive for every state. This site is a MUST for individuals that are trying to procure vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) without paying a subscription fee. In fact, I found three new death certificates for my ancestors while preparing this blog post. Each state links to various other types of digitized documents that have been scanned an indexed for their state. I just found this “Indian War Affidavit” for my 3rd great-grandfather on the page that is linked to for Utah (you can see an image of the document below).
5.) Google Books
Google Books is a great tool for searching the full text of digitized books. If you are lucky, you can find biographical write-ups about your ancestors lives in the histories of the states and towns they were from. A team member of ours just found a 700+ page book about the family of one of our clients. Our client was able to download 700+ pages of history about her family for free! I wish all of us had that kind of luck. That being said, for those of us who aren’t as lucky, Google Books is a great place to use when researching the areas that your ancestors lived in. I was able to get more insights into my 2nd great grandfather’s life by downloading free e-books on Salina Kansas. I also was able to download the official court case of my ancestor that sued Samuel Colt for the patent on the first six-shooter pistol. Unfortunately for me, my ancestor lost the case. That being said, reading the case that my ancestor presented against Samuel Colt was fascinating.
I hope that this list gives individuals who are hesitant to start researching their genealogy and family history because of the cost of monthly subscriptions a great place to start doing their research for free.
What are your favorite free websites for researching your family history?