Updated by Ryan Dube on June 22, 2017.
A few years ago, during a family reunion, I learned for the first time that my granduncle on my father’s side had fought and died in World War II. The story of his demise sparked a personal interest toward my own family history.
So, I did what I always do when I have something to research – I first turned to the Internet. I quickly discovered that while there are certainly free genealogy websites out there, the truly valuable or unique ones where you can do a free ancestry search are few and far between.
During this research, I learned two things about people interested in genealogy. First, many of them are clearly not web page designers. Second, they really, really love links.
10 Free Genealogy Websites for a Free Ancestry Search
Without exaggerating, there are thousands of genealogy websites out there. MakeUseOf has touched on genealogy resources before – such as Mackenzie’s review of the GRAMPS software that lets you track your research. When it comes to genealogy websites, they mostly all seem to be nothing more than lists of links to other resources.
Occasionally you’ll find a truly useful website with a free ancestry search feature that accesses real data. For the purpose of this article, I will provide a list of the top 10 free genealogy websites that would be most valuable to anyone first entering into the hobby. These sites provide valuable tools, guides and access to databases that are overflowing with historic data.
There are two things that mark KindredTrails as a “typical” genealogy website. The first is that there are links to Ancestry.com on almost every page. This seems like a sort of pandemic with genealogy sites.
Secondly, like most other ancestry sites, KindredTrails is very much a link-oriented site. However, it does make it onto the top ten list because the site is well designed, the links are well organized. Additionally, the links provided on this site are very useful and valuable.
Access Genealogy is up a notch from the typical ancestry website. Its main page is pleasantly clean and well organized. Along the left side you’ll find links to some of the most unique research sources including charts, links to old letters, military records, native american records and much more.
One of the more fascinating resources here are the transcribed cemetery records. There are researchers in every State around the U.S. that walk through the oldest cemeteries and actually transcribe names along with birthdates, date of death and family members. This resource alone will hold your interest for hours.
Olive Tree Genealogy is another private researcher’s website holding a collection of links and resources for historical data. One thing that sets this site apart from others is that it’s apparent a great deal of research went into the provided links. The website creator, Lorine McGinnis Schulze, writes that she started the site in 1996 in order to provide free resources to other researchers.
The truth is, she delivers well on that promise. One of the more impressive links on the site are the ship passenger lists where you can search through the names of your ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. decades ago. Another very useful resource for anyone first starting out in genealogy is the “guide for beginners” that walks you through each step of finding your ancestors, and gives you the specific resources you should check out first in order to conduct that research.
One of the most well-known names in the genealogy research world is FamilySearch. This is the famous genealogy website provided and supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Church of Mormonism.
This is one service where you will be absolutely amazed by the sheer volume of information available. With a single search for my paternal grandmother, I found her record first on the list, with the correct date of birth and death, and the town where she lived her whole life. I also found the name of her spouse and most of her children. Birth and death records seem to be very accurate, even though relationship records seem incomplete.
The historic gems you can discover here are truly remarkable. For example, as a result of the search above, I discovered an actual scan of the 1940 Census conducted by the Department of Commerce.
This is a 15 page hand-written list of every member of the town that I grew up in, in 1940. If you’re a genealogy researcher, that kind of document is a gold mine.
The family tree searcher is another website created by a private researcher. This site is unique in that some of the resources are actually interactive quizzes that allow you to customize your research method.
One very useful quiz in particular is the “free advice” quiz, which asks you a series of questions about what you’re looking for, and at the end it provides you with a customized “research plan” along with the free resources that are most likely to help.
Of all privately created websites, this one is probably one of those that you could bookmark and use for all of your research needs. This site provides links to the usual resources like census data or death records.
What makes this site stand above the rest are the more creative sources offered, such as funeral cards, ration books, criminal records and even business cards. As many researchers know, the most successful results usually come from the more unorthodox methods.
If you’re in the U.S. and you’re a historical researcher, the National Archives should be at the very top of your resource list. Eventually, most other websites end up linking to these resources anyway, so why not just start at the source?
This is where you’ll find census information, military records, immigration records, and even bankruptcy records. There are even articles and information on historical researching techniques.
The UK also has a valuable resource for history buffs in the form of its own National Archives website. The main page of this website offers links to data such as births, marriage and deaths, census records, passenger lists and much more. European history is long, and these resources are unbelievably thorough and archived all the way back a thousand years.
On this website, you’ll also find valuable guides and articles on researching family and military history.
One of the largest and most valuable resources for historic information available to U.S. genealogy researchers is the USGenWeb project.
This project is made of up historical enthusiasts who actively volunteer their time and energy to provide free information for other researchers throughout the country. Just click on the State where you’re looking for information, and you’ll go directly to the State’s GenWeb site where the free resources for your community and local history are provided.
Once you get involved in genealogical research, the fastest thing that becomes apparent is that the hobby knows no borders. You’ll find expert researchers in just about every country from all around the world, and the best research available that brings all of these global enthusiasts together is the WorldGenWeb Project.
This resource provides researchers with a safe place where they can focus on valuable and useful resources to conduct their research. Click on the country of your choice and eventually you can drill down to the specific community, and related free genealogy websites where you can find other free ancestry search tools to hunt for more ancestral information.
The sites we have covered above are great if you’re a history or genealogy enthusiast or if you just want track down family members past and present. Remember, someone else could be using them to trace you, and it’s easy to find out who’s looking for you online.
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