Online Family Tree

Searching for Your Family Tree Online

It might be wonderful if everyone could find their family tree online! The reality is, though, that while some people may be able to do that, most of us will not. There are a number of places we can search to reconstruct our family trees, and that takes time. For most of us family historians, the thrill is not in simply looking at a ready-made pedigree but in the search for our ancestors, in getting to know them and in placing them in historical context.

To find information on your family tree online (and this includes email), you should start with what you already know - yourself or the last documented person someone else has found. When looking for information on someone who died within the last 50 years or so, talk with living relatives who remember that person. Verify information with what is called "home sources" - items you can usually find in the home or, more often than not, the attic. These sources could include family Bibles, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings, photos, military papers, diaries or journals, deeds and other legal papers. Visit nearby cemeteries and libraries. It seems that, because of privacy laws, the more recent people are the hardest to document.

Only when you have exhausted readily-available local sources should you turn to online family tree sites. An ever-increasing number of entities are putting more and more information about family trees online. County and local historical societies are indexing their holdings for your use. You may need to obtain the original item from them (in person or via mail) but at least the indexes will let you know whether your ancestor is mentioned in their holdings. Genealogical societies are accomplishing much good by indexing and transcribing cemetery headstones. I have mentioned the Ontario (Canada) Genealogical Society in another article but I cannot praise them and others like them who have contributed so much to the research of others. Genealogical societies often also make other types of family tree information available online, sponsor workshops and publish papers and research guidelines. Some government agencies are also putting indexes online. You will still to order and pay for certificates but searching an online index saves a lot of time. I once had a student who, for his Boy Scout Eagle project, took charge of organizing others to transcribe an entire cemetery in a medium-sized city in New York and put it online.

Be aware though that, whenever data is indexed, there is the possibility of typing errors or errors that result from the inability to read the written handwriting. Broaden your search if you cannot immediately find what you are looking for, but make sure first that the source you are searching covers the right time period for your ancestor. Think about the different ways a name could be spelled (not everyone uses the Soundex approach), or try to imagine how an indexer might have misread the handwriting. If you are working with a site that does use the Soundex approach ("name sounds like") it usually applied to the surname only. Try leaving the given name blank. If using the name fails, some sites will allow you to search for everyone with a given birth year in a given place - very broad but I have picked up some people that way that I certainly wondered how they could have indexed their names so badly. I would never have found them otherwise.

There are a growing number of online family tree web sites to assist in your search. Many are subscription sites and some are free. specializes in original records (which can be searched for a fee) and also allows users to contribute comments and their own genealogy (which is free). Ancestry and its affiliates (known collectively as The Generations Network) offer similar services. does not provide research sources but specializes in completed family trees which are submitted by its subscribers. Others offer only national data while others offer international sources. WorldVitalRecords offers both plus links to many other family history search sites.

So, if you want to find your family tree online, you may have to be the one to put it there after you have done the research.

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