How to Find Out Your Family’s Story Online
Sites that keep travel records, documents and names can help anyone looking for more information about their family tree.
For those looking to find the roots of their family, find an ancestor in an old microfilmed newspaper and read contemporary accounts of their time in the school play or in the bowling league in all cities, it offers a glimpse of the past that has much more texture than than a chart of names and dates.
Taking a more narrative approach to family history can be a lengthy research project with no guaranteed results. However, once you have a name and know when and where the person lived, you can begin your search to find out how they lived. Here’s how to get started – and how technology can help you.
If you’re just starting to “climb” a family tree and need branch names, a subscription service like Ancestry or MyHeritage can be an easy source to start collecting information. In addition to billions of digitized records (such as census data, electoral and religious records), these services include tutorials, articles, message boards and other tools to help you learn how to find your people.
When you put some names in your tree, you can also start receiving tips from possible relatives – hitherto unknown – from the website’s algorithms or from other website participants to help you. If you’re not sure you want to commit to a regular subscription fee, try a free trial period.
In the US, you can visit the National Archives website and its “Resources for Genealogists” page for information on how to find land records, immigration and naturalization documents, census data, military service documents, and more. While not all government records can be free or digitized, National Archives hosts a page of links from other genealogy sites where you can look for information.
Some ancestors are more difficult to track than others. For families separated by slavery or neglected by the government, the site has an “ethnic heritage” section with tips for finding African American ancestors, as well as for those looking for Chinese, Hispanic, Latino, Japanese or Native American ancestors.
FamilySearch, administered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requires only a free account to search billions of historical records. Geni.com (owned by MyHeritage) has free basic family tree creation services and a large social community that encourages participants to work together.
After finding your ancestors in specific places and years, look for collections from newspapers from that same time. Business negotiations, city government activities, social gatherings and obituaries were often reported in newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries. But be warned: in addition to the sometimes flowery writing, articles from certain eras and areas may be filled with misogyny, racism and xenophobia today.
If you have foreign ancestors, the Ancestor Hunt genealogy website has a section dedicated to searching for historical newspapers online, and the Elephind website allows you to search a growing collection of digitized international newspapers. Some files are free, others charge to view microfilmed images, and search capabilities vary.
Newspapers.com is an archive of more than 17,000 digitized publications dated from the 1700s. After the free trial, subscriptions start at about $ 8 a month, but you can search, cut, save and print the articles found.
As settlements grew, local historians used to write books that described this development and their founding families. Many of these volumes are now digitized in the public domain; search Google Books or the online Archive for the city or municipality in question.
Your relatives may also appear on vital records services in the states where they lived. The RootsWeb site offers tips on how to search your collection of official documents from US state and municipal resources.
And finally, if the burial was a family tradition, try the Find a Grave website, a database where you can do cemetery searches, like Newspapers.com, also owned by Ancestry. The site is still growing and usually includes published obituaries and tomb photos, so you can visit remotely