Genealogy for Beginners

Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of tracing your family line. It’s fascinating to learn more about where and how your ancestors lived, helping to paint a more complete picture of the journey that brought your clan to the here-and-now.

For many prospective researchers, the complexity implied by genealogical research creates a perceived barrier to entry. It’s hard to miss ads for DNA testing services, which sell the promise of simplifying access to your ethnic background and living relatives, but not everyone is ready to shell out the required cost to get started. These tests also don’t generally offer access to the kind of genealogical records that are most helpful in creating an accurate family tree, so they’re only a piece of the puzzle – albeit a very important one.

Where does this leave the amateur genealogist who’d prefer to keep their project low-cost?

The truth is, while paysites like Ancestry can offer up a lot of helpful information, they’re not the only way to build your family tree. There are tons of free, easy-to-use resources available that are helpful to both amateur and professional researchers, and learning to read, interpret, and organize the data is often much simpler than you’d think. We’ve worked with our genealogists to put together a practical, battle-tested guide to genealogy that may just help you nurture your sapling into a robust family tree.

2 Minute Essentials

  1. Start with what you know. Chances are good that you already know a fair amount about your immediate background, which includes yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and close aunts and uncles. Begin by putting pen to paper and jotting down as much starting info as possible.
  2. Make contact with other family members. Branching out and contacting more distant family members may connect you with valuable information and documentation that can benefit your quest. In fact, it’s entirely possible that one of those family members is already working on a genealogy project — they may already be tracing your line through a family tree, which can offer tons of valuable insight. When contacting them, be sure to request copies of family photos. Make sure to inquire about old family bibles, which often contain lineage records. Finally, ask what they know about family burials, including where ancestors were buried and if the location is the same as where they died.
  3. Learn as much as possible about your parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors. By establishing a solid base of information about the relatives closest to you, you’ll be better able to determine the veracity of future findings about extended family members. Make sure that you’re keeping track of information on paper, so that no details are lost. Keep in mind that grandma didn’t become Mrs. Smith until she married grandpa — maiden names are hugely important in your quest for information, so make sure to record them for female relatives where available. It’s also helpful to keep track of birth dates and locations, places your ancestors lived, and their locations and dates of death and burial.
  4. Create records based on your findings. Creating formal records of your findings makes them easier to organize and share with others. You can record information on forms called family group sheets and pedigree charts for you and others to reference handily. Always indicate a source for the facts you’re providing in order to back up the veracity of your claim. Finally, keep the information organized alphabetically or by surname so that it’s easy for you to find data on a specific individual within your records.

1. Getting Started

How much information do I need to get started?

The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to get started. That said, surprisingly little information is actually required to begin tracing your background. Knowing your parents’ names, your mother’s maiden name, and their birth locations can help connect you to records related to their parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. This offers further points of research. While a solid, accurate birth date and location are helpful in searching accurately, especially for relatives with common names, it’s not always necessary to have.

Will I need to invest money to start my research?

Although a lot of amateur researchers begin by turning to a pay site, it’s not actually necessary to rely on them to get started. Instead, check out helpful free websites like findagrave.com and familysearch.org, which allow you to search through their records for information related to your background.

Some researchers may be given pause by the fact that Family Search is run by the LDS church; from a professional standpoint, we can reassure you that there is no reason for concern. The site is completely free and does not exist as a means of solicitation of membership, so you’ll never be contacted by the church or about the church.

Using sites like Find a Grave and Family Search may give you some insight into how easy your search will be. If you’re finding a proliferation of info, great! This means that tracing your roots may be fairly straightforward. If you’re running into dead ends, you may have to dig a bit deeper, but don’t despair — you’re just getting started.

If you’re having a lot of success and finding yourself with a lot of written records, you may find yourself looking for a digital organization solution. Legacy is a free software designed to help users keep track of the data they obtain during their research. Installation is simple; we’ll go through the process step-by-step later in this guide, but this simple video can also be helpful for establishing a knowledge of the software.

Creating a family tree is a common way to establish a referential document which allows you and others to easily visualize your genetic line. If you’d like to create one for free, Family Search allows you to do so, even facilitating the addition of search results to your existing records with the click of a button.

You may also choose to build your tree through Ancestry.com, though this will require a paid monthly or yearly subscription. The advantage here is that Ancestry greatly simplifies the search process, handily linking you to census, military, immigration, birth, and death records for the relatives you’re searching. They’ll also prompt you with suggestions of possible relations based on the documents in their records, which you can review and add in only a few clicks.

What are some practical tips and tricks to keep in mind?

  • Getting started is straightforward — you’re at the base of the family tree you’re building, so gather your knowledge about your parents, grandparents, and their siblings to create a handy starting point.
  • Take notes, even when you think you don’t need to! Don’t rely on committing information to memory, as it’s too easy to gloss over important details. Write everything down, and you won’t be left with regret over lost data later.
  • Identify the maiden name. Whenever you come across a female ancestor, try to identify her maiden name in addition to her married name if she had a spouse. All records tied to your ancestor will be under her maiden name until the date of her marriage, so you may be missing out on documentation without this information.
  • Just like history class, dates matter here. Establishing birth dates and locations for your ancestors can help to link them to existing records, as can death and burial dates and locations.
  • Be consistent and use standard date formatting. The standard date format in genealogical record keeping is continental dating, which is written as DD MMM YYYY. That means that February 27th, 2020 would be written as 27 Feb 2020. It’s best to write your dates in this fashion for the sake of keeping records you create congruent with the standard.
  • Likewise with place names. Just as dates have a standard format in genealogical record keeping, so too do place names. The standard city and state combination isn’t typically listed; instead, records list places as a town or city, a county, and a state. As an example, if your grandmother was born in Durant, OK, the place of birth listed on her record should be Durant, Bryan County, Oklahoma. If you know the name of a city but not the county it’s in, the query is resolvable with a simple Google search. If you know the county but not the city, it’s standard to list county and state only.

What are the best sources of information?

At Home

  • Family records and documents. Some of the most valuable documents for providing genealogical insight may well be right under your nose. Old family legal documents like birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and divorce decrees, bibles with family records, newspaper clippings, journals, and correspondence may all hold concealed clues, so look around or ask about the location of these items.
  • Other family members. Reaching out to your extended family isn’t just a nice way to reconnect, it’s also a chance to access knowledge and documentation to which you may never have been able to access otherwise. In fact, it’s entirely possible that an extended family member is already tackling a similar project! If so, their research may save you a great deal of time.

Online Resources

Local and State Government Offices / Federal Records

  • Bureau of Vital Statistics. This agency issues copies of birth and death certificates for a fee.
  • County Courthouse. This is the place to seek out records of marriages and divorces as well as records regarding land, deed, and wills/probate.
  • Social Security Records. These records generally include birth and death records, and may be helpful in providing specific birth and death dates when they are not known.
  • Draft Records. These military records can help to establish a serviceperson’s date of service, country of origin, date of separation from their service, as well as where they lived before and after they served. Sometimes, this paperwork may also include the name of a spouse.
  • Naturalization Records. These records may be tougher to find, but they can establish when an immigrant arrived in the United States, when they were naturalized, and their country of origin.

Other Facilities

  • Libraries. If your family has been living in one place for a long period of time, it’s likely that you’ll be able to use books at your local library to research the history of the area, including potential ties to your family line. If you’re living in a larger city, you may be privy to a dedicated genealogy area in your public library. Often, university libraries also offer dedicated genealogical tools and historical collections. Some libraries even offer use of professional-caliber research databases on-site for no cost, so it’s definitely worth investigating in the name of mitigating cost.
  • Genealogical and Historical Societies. Groups devoted to establishing genealogical and historical records are likely to have documentation that can help you. Often, they have copies of county school records, detailed family histories, local census information, access to old periodicals, and death and burial records.
  • Family History Centers. The LDS church has taken on the mission of providing free access to genealogical information on the public record with no church ties required. Aside from Family Search, you may also be able to make use of Family History Centers, which are physical locations of the LDS Family History Library tied to local facilities. These facilities exist throughout the United States, not just in areas where Mormonism is dominant. Like Family Search, there’s no requirement or expectation that you be a church member to join, nor will you be solicited without showing interest.
  • National Archives. Located in Washington, D.C., the National Archive houses the federal census records commonly spotted in genealogical research as well as record of special censuses performed in tribal areas, military service records, and manifests listing the names of immigrants who arrived by ship. The National Archives can be physically visited at no cost, but their documents can also be accessed at archives.gov.

Using DNA Testing

How does taking a DNA test work?

You’ve no doubt seen advertisements and heard discussions about home DNA test kits, which provide a breakdown of your genetic ethnicity and may help you connect with living relatives. These tests can’t provide all the research and documentation needed to trace your entire family line, but they can be a helpful component of your research.

These tests are designed to be used by people of all skill levels, and you won’t need any scientific knowledge to test. Home DNA tests are minimally invasive, using saliva rather than hair or blood to trace your genetics, so there’s no pain involved. They’re available both online and in stores, so you can purchase a kit right away or try and wait for one to go on sale online. These companies offer the best DNA test kits.

The testing process is very straightforward. Sample collection entails either filling a tube with saliva or using swabs to painlessly collect a DNA sample from the cells lining your cheeks. You’ll need to register your sample on the testing service’s website to link your results to you, which your kit will walk you through. Once you’ve collected your sample, you’ll place it in the postage-paid return box or envelope and drop it into any mailbox to send it on its way to be processed.

You’ll receive an email when your testing service of choice receives your sample and begins the testing process. In approximately six to eight weeks, you’ll receive another email letting you know that your results are available online. In order to access them, head to your computer and log onto the service’s website through your browser.

What are the best DNA tests on the market?

  • AncestryDNA: One of the most popular tests available, AncestryDNA (reviewed here) can only be purchased online. It offers an interactive breakdown of your genetic ethnicity, access to a database of your living relatives, and it allows you to message your matches for free. Users willing to shell out for a monthly or yearly subscription will gain access to perhaps the most intuitive and beginner-friendly family tree building tool available online as well as a massive records database that includes documents pulled from other pay sites like newspapers.com and Fold3.
  • 23andMe: This kit (reviewed here) was one of the first available on the market, and was the first to offer health and wellness insights. Their price point is slightly higher than competitors, but they offer one of the most detailed ethnicity breakdowns available, and the vast number of users increases the likelihood of connecting with living relatives who may have research that’s pertinent to your search.
  • Family Tree DNA: If you’re looking for more detailed information about your maternal line and paternal line, FTDNA (reviewed here) is likely the place for you. In addition to standard autosomal DNA tests that measure your aggregate parental line DNA through the past five generations, FTDNA also offers mtDNA and Y-DNA tests which allow you to specifically test your motherline and fatherline. These tests can be purchased as a bundle, but users should note that only those with a Y chromosome can trace their fatherline through a Y-DNA test. Women will need to test their father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal cousin in order to trace their fatherline DNA.

2. Getting Organized

Now that you’ve engaged with the basics of tracing your genealogy, you’re no doubt finding yourself with stacks of information; you may, however, be lost about how to proceed with it in terms of organization and interpretation. Here’s a FAQ that can help:

Should I be organizing my information digitally or manually?

In the name of saving space and making your documents easy to reference, going digital is typically your best bet. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean shelling out cash, as free software like Legacy makes digitizing and organizing your records a concise process.

Of course, if you’re someone who finds technology to be frustrating, you may decide that you’d have more success keeping your records on paper. Nothing wrong with that, of course — it’s paper records that are allowing you to trace your history in the first place! When you’re keeping physical copies of everything, the biggest favor you can do yourself is creating a functional organizational system that includes storing your records and documents by family member in alphabetical order. This can save you a tremendous headache when you need to refer to something or someone specific during your work.

What are important things to keep in mind at this stage of the game?

  • Verify your information. If a connection or piece of information seems dubious, it’s important that you do as much work as possible to determine its veracity. Putting incorrect information in your research can derail your process and misinform future users accessing your records, so if you’re not sure about a record in your digital or physical collection, make sure to notate that it’s unverified until you can research it further.
  • Back up your research. Data loss can be catastrophic and heartbreaking, especially when you’re investing time and energy into a complex hobby like genealogy. That means it’s very important that you back up your research both on your own computer and in the cloud. This will allow you to access your data remotely, which can sometimes be useful, but it will also protect your hours of hard work in the event that your device is stolen or destroyed.

If I’m organizing my records digitally, what’s the best software to use?

If you decide that digitizing your records is your best bet, you’re in luck. Genealogy software Legacy Family Tree is free for all users, and will allow you to store and organize your research into a functional family tree without using a website.

To access Legacy, take the following steps:

  1. Open your browser and navigate to legacyfamilytree.com
  2. Locate the word download in the heading menu, hover over it, and click ‘Download Legacy’
  3. Click on the link that says Download Legacy 9.0 Standard Edition (free), which will take you to the bottom of the page; there, input your name, email address, and complete the captcha before clicking ‘Next Step
  4. Open your email website or application on your computer, and check the account you signed up with to locate the download link in your inbox
  5. Click the link in the email Legacy sent you, which will take you back to their website; once the page loads, click on the button that says ‘Click Here to Download’
  6. When the setup file has finished downloading, navigate to your downloads folder and double-click it, or access it through your browser’s downloads component
  7. If Windows prompts you to agree, allow Legacy to make changes to your computer. Then, follow the simple setup utility by clicking ‘Next‘ when prompted
  8. When the installation has finished, click ‘Finish’ where prompted. The program will then prompt you to select your language of choice and click ‘OK
  9. As the program finishes opening, you’ll see a popup asking you whether you purchased Legacy’s deluxe edition or whether you’ll be using the free edition. Select the radio button for ‘I want to use the free, Standard Edition of Legacy‘ and then click ‘Next Step‘ to proceed; you can also open a link in a new window to a handy video detailing what Legacy can do and how to use it by clicking ‘Watch Legacy Tour‘ (you can also view the video here)
  10. If you’ve used and are familiar with Family Search and LDS Family Learning Centers, you can integrate your research on the next screen. You can also change the formatting of your dates and surnames, but the program automatically follows genealogical record standards, so we don’t recommend it. Finally, you can choose to allow or disallow Legacy to connect to the Internet in order to search for updates before hitting ‘Next Step
  11. Next, you’ll be able to choose a color scheme for your software. To switch between them, click the up and down arrows on your scrollbar. When you’re satisfied with what you see, click ‘Next Step
  12. Click on ‘Start a New Family File‘ to begin creating your records!

Don’t miss out on watching the Legacy video if you’re new to genealogical record keeping, as it can really help you understand how to get the most out of this powerful software.

Legacy is a great free option and is perfectly adequate for most genealogists. That said, there are other great options available. It is possible that another will fit your working style or goals better. These are the best genealogy software options for building your family tree.

What’s the best service for building a family tree online?

There are advantages to building your family tree online rather than through a software program. Doing so doesn’t require a desktop or laptop computer, and you’ll be able to easily access and resume your research regardless of what device you’re using.

Wondering what sites are best? If you’re looking to get started for free, Family Search has a family tree building tool that won’t cost you a dime and links handily to their search. It won’t offer suggestions or prompts, however, so converting your research to tree form may feel a bit tedious.

If you’re willing to shell out for a monthly subscription, Ancestry.com has arguably the best family tree building tool available online. Inputting your data is simple and intuitive, and Ancestry automatically searches their massive records database to offer hints and prompts about documents connected to your relatives and other members of your family. Although it’s not cheap to maintain an ongoing subscription, you’ll still be able to view your family tree itself if you later decide to cancel, including the hints you’ve added to each family member’s profile. However, you’ll no longer be able to view real scans of these documents as pulled from sites like newspapers.com and Fold3, as this is a portion of what your subscription covers.

3. How To Understand the Records You Have Found

At this point in your quest, you’ve no doubt interacted with several different kinds of records relevant to tracing your genealogy. Knowing a bit more about how to interpret these records can help you get the most out of the data they reveal.

Census Records

One of the most informative types of record you’ll use in your research, United States census records offer insight into households, their locations, ages, birthplaces, and more.

As you may know, the United States conducts a decennial census — this means that the census occurs every ten years. The first of these censuses took place in 1790, when the American population was only 3.9 million. It has occurred without interruption every decade since, with the most recent census upcoming throughout 2020. In a census, respondents are asked to reveal information about their household including who lives there, their ages, occupations, birthplaces, and other queries that vary by year.

The most recent census data available for use in your research is the 1940 US census. The reason for this is the 72-year rule, a federal law passed in 1978 as a result of an agreement between Washington, D.C.’s National Archives and the United States Census Bureau. This law exists to protect the privacy of living people by waiting to publicly release this data until it’s likely that the majority of respondents are deceased or the shared data is no longer a relevant privacy concern. The next set of census data to be released will be the 1950 census, which will take place in April of 2022.

As we’ve established, the data available on census forms does vary from year to year. While both age and penmanship can make these documents difficult to read in their original form, both Family Search and Ancestry have digitized the results so that you can view both an overview of the relevant information about your ancestor and the original document itself.

These are some questions that were common to the United States Census dating back through 1890. Results beyond that tend to encompass more simplified versions of these questions. We’ve also noted how, if applicable, they may be able to help you in your search.

  • Home address. If you were unsure about where your ancestor was living and when, an address, city, county, and state can give you information about where to start searching public records for more information.
  • Renter or homeowner, home’s value or monthly rent. If a property was owned, you may be able to find records of the deed.
  • Whether or not respondent’s home is a farm
  • Full name. When examining censuses from 1920 and beyond, this data can be considered an accurate source of surname spelling if there’s question about your original family name. However, 1920 was the first census in which innumerators were permitted to ask respondents to spell their name, so the accuracy of name data pulled from censuses previous to 1920 should not be assumed.
  • If head of household, or relationship to HOH. If you’re not familiar with an ancestor who seems to be listed as part of one of your ancestral households on the census form, this can give you a better idea of who they were to your family.
  • Sex, race, age, and marital status. Although the latter two are likely known, having a record of age and marital status in a given year can help you to establish a birth year estimate for your ancestor. It can also narrow the date window in your search for marriage records.
  • Student status
  • Level of education
  • Place of birth. If you weren’t sure where your ancestor was born, this can be very helpful in establishing where to look for further family birth, death, deed, and probate records.
  • Citizenship status if born abroad
  • Place resided five years ago and if it was a farm
  • Employment status, hours worked per week, most recent work, whether job seeking if unemployed
  • Industry, job, and worker class
  • Number of weeks worked in the previous year
  • Total wage and salary income of the previous year
  • Disability status

Depending on the data you’re looking for, any and all of the information provided by the census can be helpful. However, names, addresses, places of birth, household relationships, and marital status tend to stand out as useful when doing genealogical research.

Cemetery Markers

If you’re not sure about when an ancestor died or where they’re buried, you may be able to find a record of their death on Find a Grave. This may lead to the discovery of the year or exact date of their death. If there’s a photograph attached to your ancestor’s listing, you can be reasonably sure that the dates engraved on the stone are accurate. However, if the listing contains no photo, it’s best to contact the person who created it to verify the source of the dates.

Marriage Records

Finding marriage records can tell you the place and date where your ancestor was married, and the name of their spouse if it is unknown. In the case of female ancestors, it may also reveal a maiden name, which is a valuable piece of information when doing further research.

It’s possible to search for marriage records on Family Search using their search tool. You can do this by inputting one or both of the names of the spouses you’re searching for into the search tool. For a more refined search, you can choose to limit the query by type and select marriage records. If know or think you know where the marriage took place and/or in what year, you can also add those details to your search.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all marriage records are available online! Just because you can’t find it in a digital collection doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It may be held in a state or local archive, and you may also be able to purchase a copy from Vital Records if necessary.

Birth and Death Certificates

Birth and death records have the obvious benefit of giving you concrete verification of the date your ancestors’ lives began and ended. Recording of births and deaths by certificate became commonplace in 1913, though some southern states like South Carolina and Louisiana didn’t begin keeping formal records of birth and death until the 1940’s.

As such, if your ancestor lived and died before 1913, there is likely not a point in searching for these records. There’s one caveat though — if they lived in Virginia and New England, which were early adopters of this record keeping system, you may be able to find some record of their birth or death.

Like marriage records, birth and death records can be found on Family Search. Again, you’ll have the opportunity to search by the name of the person whose record you’re looking for, and can refine the search by the type of record you’re seeking and any available dates or places related to the event. You can also look at the records page for the county in which your ancestor was born or died, which may have information even if the record isn’t found in one of the site’s collections.

Not all birth records are available online, though those who’ve died in the United States will generally have their date of death officiated via documentation from the Social Security Death Index. Typically, actual marriage and death certificates will not be found through Family Search, as these are legal documents. They are available for purchase through both the Division of Vital Records and your state’s archives department.

Military Records

Many among us have ancestors and loved ones who’ve valorously served, which can find us in search of military records to pin down the dates and locations of their time enlisted as well as the capacity in which they served. Family Search allows you to look for these records, but you should keep in mind that a fire destroyed almost all of the records from World War II and the Korean conflict. You may be able to find your ancestor’s draft registry, application for VA benefits, transport record, or grave marker, but that’s about it.

Beyond that, a fair amount of records for other conflicts are available on Family Search, so there’s really no need to pay to access a research tool in order to obtain this information.

Wills, Deeds, and Miscellaneous Court Records

Finding a will, a deed, or a court record can help establish dates and locations in your ancestor’s journey. If you’re looking for a specific record and can’t find one, check out Family Search — you may have more luck checking out individual county books on the site for digitized records, as there are a great deal of these records which have been put online but not actually indexed in a database.

Church Minutes

The detailed records kept by many local churches over the years may be able to help you find out information about your family that’s otherwise been lost to time. You may find records of births, marriages, and deaths in these minutes, but it’s not likely you’ll just stumble upon them in your search.

If you have no idea where to get started, use the information you DO have. If your ancestor was Methodist, for example, you’re not likely to see their records in minutes from a Catholic church. After you’ve narrowed down their faith, check to see which churches of that denomination in the given geographical area are the oldest. The records may not be kept in book form, but the oldest church in the area is likely to have access to church minutes from years past.

Keep in mind that in some counties, where a courthouse has been destroyed by a fire, flood, or earthquake, church minutes may be the only way you can verify a family link.

Immigration Records

For many of us, our ancestors’ history in America began with immigration. Finding these records can tell you a bit more about where your ancestors immigrated from. Ellis Island is perhaps the most frequently discussed port of entry to the United States, but it’s not the only one. In other words, if you’re searching Ellis Island’s records and coming up empty handed, it may be because your ancestor didn’t immigrate through the famous port. Whether you’re certain or just curious, you can peruse Ellis Island’s passenger records.

A fair amount of immigration records are also available on Family Search, including both Ellis Island passenger lists and other ports of entry — in this sense, it’s most efficient to do your search here if you’re not sure where your ancestor arrived. Once you’ve searched for your ancestor’s name, scroll down to the heading ‘Filter your results by’ and click ‘Collections’. There, look for the heading ‘Migration & Naturalization to filter your search results by collections of passenger lists.

A fun fact for amateur researchers: There’s a pervasive myth that agents at Ellis Island took it upon themselves to shorten or alter the surnames of immigrants, or simply did not translate more difficult names correctly. This is not true — rather, name variations seen in immigration records were more frequently caused by immigrants being illiterate and unable to offer a correct spelling or by their name being improperly detailed in the manifest offered by the shipping company.

4. Researching Ancestors Who’ve Immigrated

Tracing American genealogical records back to the point of your ancestor’s immigration can offer a lot of valuable insight, but the trail doesn’t begin until they’ve arrived in this country. It’s possible to use other sites and tools to locate genealogical details about ancestors based on their records in other countries. Check out this helpful list of resources to get started:

England

  • National Archive at Kew Gardens: The official archive and publisher of the UK government, this agency’s website houses digitized collections of military, court, and political records as well as some types of wills and Cabinet papers. Birth, death, and marriage records are not included in these collections, as they must be purchased from GOV.UK. The only records of these types available here are maritime births, deaths, and marriages, “nonconfirmist and non-parish” births, marriages, and deaths, and a collection of British Army casualty lists from the second world war.
  • Census Records: As you may have already seen, census records can offer a fair amount of information about your ancestor’s place of residence, age, family members, and other points of genealogical interest. The United Kingdom began performing decennial censuses in 1801, and digitized records are available at Find My Past. Users should note that this site isn’t free to use, but a generous two-week free trial should give you some time to research these helpful records. Start here to learn more about Find My Past.
  • Freebmd.org.uk: For those trying to minimize the cost of their research, FreeBMD is an invaluable tool. The project is ongoing, and is an attempt being made by charity UK Genealogy CIO to digitize birth, marriage, and death records from England and Wales as part of a larger set of free genealogy research assistance. The volunteer-driven team is making their way through records from 1837 all the way to 1992, but they’re not finished yet! However, there are over 276 million records in their growing database, so it’s absolutely worth a look.
  • Find a Grave: Just as Find a Grave can be handy for finding death and burial records for American relatives, the site comes in handy when tracing relatives buried internationally. Their collection includes data and images from all over the world, so you may well be able to see your ancestor’s gravestone from all the way across the pond.

Scotland

  • Scotlandspeople.gov.uk: If part or all of your family hails from Scotland, you may be able to find public records through this handy government site. Included in their collections are church records, census records, legal records, valuation rolls, civil registers, poverty relief records, and migration records organized by name. You’ll be able to view some statutory records, which include births, deaths, and marriages, but there’s a caveat — to guarantee privacy, these documents aren’t released on public record until they’re unlikely to be a concern. Birth certificates are released after 100 years, marriage records after 75 years, and death certificates after 50 years.
  • Scottish Genealogical Society: Where better to get started on your international research than with a group of like-minded experts who’ve already cut a wide path through Scotland’s genealogical records? This site offers a tremendous resource called The Black Book, which is their compilation of all their research related to Scottish deaths and burial records. They’ve also listed all of the family history records they have available in their library by family name and type, but you won’t be able to access the data online. Rather, you can visit the library in person in Edinburgh to perform your research or pay a flat fee of £5.00 as well as the charge for photocopying, packing, and mailing your requested documents to the U.S. If you’re fortunate enough to make a physical visit, you should note that of their library requires membership, but the fee is only a one-time charge of £20.
  • Findagrave.com Ireland / Scotland: We don’t need to tell you again why it’s helpful, but simply offer a reminder that Find a Grave has a robust database of Irish and Scottish burial records in addition to their American collection.

Ireland

  • Irishgenealogy.ie: If your family finds its roots in beautiful Ireland, you’ll be able to peruse both church and civil records including birth, marriage, and death records on this free website. For a copy of a birth, death, or marriage certificate, you’ll need to head to certificates.ie to purchase. The site also contains a handy list of links of interest, including the registry of deeds, Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, Ireland’s national archive, and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
  • Registers.nli.ie: Catholicism is historically and currently one of Ireland’s most dominant religions, and the country’s Catholic parish records are seen here as digitized microfiche. You’ll be able to use the site to search by parish name, or view a map of the country by county and diocese to see all the records connected to the location. Births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths are detailed among these records.
  • Emeraldancestors.com: If you find the features of Ancestry.com appealing but wish it offered more access to your family’s Irish genealogical records, you’ll find a lot to love about Emerald Ancestors. It’s a pay site, but the price of membership is only £9.99 per month ans allows you access to more than 1.5 million Irish birth, death, marriage, and census records among others. It also features a family tree building tool that lets you create, save, and share your tree with family members.

Germany

  • Germangenealogygroup.com: It can be particularly tough to trace records from non-English-speaking nations if you aren’t a speaker yourself, so German Genealogy Group may come in handy if you’re looking for birth, marriage, death, church, military, federal, or immigration records from the country. There’s more than 22 million entries in the site’s database, but accessing the member’s area requires a paid membership. The good news is that joining only costs $15 per year, a rather small price to pay compared to the access costs of some genealogical research sites.
  • Familysearch.org: Family Search isn’t just helpful when it comes to researching your American roots, they also have plenty of international records as well, including a shared family tree that may well include some of your German ancestors. Filter your results by country to make sure you’re only getting results from international collections.
  • Jewishgen.org: An affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage Heritage and Ancestry.com, this free, information-packed site has over 30 million Jewish genealogical records, including over 2.75 million records related to Holocaust victims and survivors. This tragedy robbed many Jewish people of their rightful opportunity to connect with their family’s ancestral roots, but over 1,000 volunteers and over 10,000 supporters have come together to bring this data to public record.

France

  • French-genealogy.typepad.com: Searching for information on French genealogy? This expert-run blog by France-based professional genealogist Anne Morddel features fascinating historical entries, links to France’s Departmental Archives, a glossary of useful terms to know, and the option to purchase French genealogy courses as offered by the Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research.

Expanding Your Genealogy Skills

If you’re interested in expanding your genealogy skills even when you’re not actively researching, trade publications like magazines and books can offer new ideas and insights that may guide your research, inspire you, or put you on the right track toward finding key information.

Magazines like Family Tree, The American Genealogist, and Ancestry Magazine feature articles about research tips, points of interest, and successful tales of genealogical discovery. Although Ancestry Magazine is no longer in publication, all of the back issues are available for FREE on Google books, which means reading through their archives won’t cost you a dime and can be done with your phone, computer, or e-reader.

There are many books on the subject of genealogical research, so seeking out those more specific to your personal needs can help you to be sure that you’ll learn something that’s helpful to you. A few of our general favorites are Nancy Hendrickson’s Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger, and The Family Tree Guidebook To Europe by Allison Dolan and the editors of Family Tree Magazine.

Hiring an Expert

Of course, genealogical research isn’t something everyone will find enjoyable. If you’re someone who finds the act of doing and organizing research tedious or you simply don’t have the time needed to devote to a genealogy project, hiring a professional researcher is always an option.

Hiring a researcher generally is not cheap, but they’re more likely to know the tips, tricks, sites, and collections that can expedite your specific search. Keep in mind that there’s a good chance they’re working on more than one genealogy project at a time, so you might not receive instant gratification by working with a researcher, but the likelihood of receiving accurate genealogical research is high(as long as you’ve vetted your researcher, of course).

Wrapping Up

There’s a lot to learn if you’re new at genealogical research, but it’s certainly not impossible. Now, perhaps more than ever, there are robust collections of online records that can help most people establish a basic family tree without spending a dime. Though you may find yourself turning to this guide again and again throughout the journey, that’s quite all right — that’s what it’s here for, and the resources we’ve listed herein are the best around. If you’ve made it all the way to the end of our ultimate guide, congratulations, and happy researching to you!

Hannah H.

Hannah H.

Hannah is both a parent and a freelance journalist and author. You go, girl! She is an impeccable wordsmith and her warm and witty outlook on life makes her pieces a joy to read.

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