Free online resources for genealogical research
Folks coming new to the field of genealogy are more likely to do their research online. A popular TV show, while showing celebrities going to repositories to see original documents, also features the use of the fee-based genealogy program Ancestry.com as a starting point for the celebrities’ research. This program can be accessed for free at several public libraries in the Midcoast. Free trial periods are offered as well. Ancestry.com also offers free access to educational material and forms that can be downloaded. That said, there are numerous free online resources for genealogical research offering as much or more than fee based sites.
Heritage Quest, a source for Revolutionary War pension records, PERSI (Periodic Source Index) and censuses, can be accessed for free at the Maine State Library and also from your home computer if you have a Maine State Library card. Several public libraries in the state also have on-site and at-home access. A side note: if you find a Revolutionary War pension file for your ancestor it may be worthwhile to subscribe to Fold3.com as that site offers digitized copies of entire pension files, not the selected copies available on Heritage Quest. For example, the pension file for Joshua Morgan was 17 pages on Heritage Quest, but 43 pages on Fold3 to include a page listing all the children’s names, the name of one daughter’s husband, and noting one daughter was a widow, along with a statement that the list comprised all children born to Joshua Morgan and his wife Welthy.
FamilySearch.org is the site for the Mormon Church’s tremendous collection of genealogical data from around the world. Many of the records are indexed (with digital images), but in the past year millions of digitized images of original documents have been added to the site which must be searched the old fashioned way — browsing through images of indexes or simply pageby-page. This task may seem daunting, but it can save time and money spent on traveling to a site or hiring someone to look at the records. Familysearch.org also offers educational material and forms for download.
Finding the unindexed files is not quickly apparent on the website. On the home page click on “Search” – this brings up the page in which you can type a name and other information into a search box, but instead scroll to the bottom of the page where you will see a list of countries. Click on the country where you want to do research. If you chose United States you will then see a list of states; click on the state of choice. This will give you a list of the records for that state that can be browsed; click on your choice. For broad categories of records (for example “New York Probate files”) you will be given a list of counties to chose from and then a list of records for each.
Findagrave.com is one of several sites where people can post information on cemeteries and people buried in them. Information varies, but often includes a photo of a gravestone and the inscription. One can expand the search to include all persons of a particular name in a specific cemetery, all persons of that name in a specific town, and all persons of that name in the county.
Loc.gov is the Library of Congress website which has digital images of historic documents and maps and provides access to NUCMUC, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. This latter resource allows you to locate documents in libraries & historical collections across the US. Due to the sheer number of documents out there, NUCMUC does not include all of them or all libraries. [NOTE: This site is not available during the government shutdown.]
Archives.gov is the National Archives website. This site has digital images of historic documents as well as some databases related to soldiers in various wars. There are also catalogs for their extensive document and microfilm collections. [NOTE: This site is open during the government shutdown. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “genealogists” or another topic of your choice.]
blm.gov and glorecords.blm.gov are two sites for the Bureau of Land Management. If your ancestor settled in a public lands state these are sites you need to visit. You will find maps for counties and townships and the names of people who bought land. There is information on public lands and the laws affecting them. [NOTE: These sites appear to be unavailable during the government shutdown.]
Cyndislist.com is a sort of card catalog of websites for all types of genealogical and historical research. It will lead you to web sites on specific topics, geographical locations, and ethnic groups.
USgenweb.org is a collection of sites for each of the United States. Within each state are web pages for each county. All sites are run by volunteers so the level of information varies widely. This is a good place to check before visiting a town or county to do on-site research. Some local records or indexes to them might also be available. Worldgenweb.org is a collection of sites for countries around the world. Like the USgenweb it is run by volunteers and the level of information varies widely.
State and local websites: Each state has a website which usually contains, buried within it, genealogical information. Often such material is accessed through the website of the state library, state archives, or state museum, but not always. It is helpful to know what agency in a particular state has, or had in the past, control over the type or records you are looking for. For example, vital records may be under the Secretary of State or the State Department of Health.
State libraries are particularly useful and often have a link where you can ask for help from a reference librarian. They cannot do the research for you, but they can point you in the right direction. There may also be a (paid) service to make a copy of articles in journals that do not widely circulate. The state law library can usually answer questions about a specific law during specific time period.
You should look at websites for towns and or counties where you ancestors lived and web sites for historical societies and genealogy societies in areas where your ancestors lived. Wikipedia can give you an historic overview of a town or area which can be helpful in determining boundary and jurisdictional changes, something you need to know to find original records.
Colleges and universities: If your ancestor attended college, the college’s web site may include historical information about those who attended (both graduates & non-graduates) and may lead you to more information in their special collections and archives. They may also have documents relating to the community in which they are situated. Some of these collections are indexed in NUCMUC.
Websites for faith based colleges may lead you to their collections of church histories, records, and reports of annual meetings as well as original documents for ministers and church members. Again, some of these collections are indexed in NUCMUC.
Military service: If you ancestor served in the military there are web sites for veterans groups and lineage societies based on service in a particular war. There are often web sites for a particular regiment or ship with which your ancestor or relative was associated.
Search engines: Simply searching on your family name with your choice of search engine may reveal articles, books, and other material on your family or famous members of the family. Likewise county and town histories may be on-line and available for download at no or little cost.
There are many ways to find genealogical information on the Internet and you can do much of your research for free. Good hunting!