How to Find Your Family History for Free – Getting Started

Free Family History has a nice ring to it!

Did you know you don’t have to pay for a subscription to anything to be able to start learning more about your family history?

Start to find your family history for free by asking the four questions listed below.

1. What do you already know?

Chances are that you know something about your family already. The most important facts we start with are our relatives’ names and their dates and places of birth, marriage(s) and death. These facts can help you later to distinguish between records about our relatives and others with the same name.

Write down what you know about your “direct ancestors”–your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.–on a family tree chart like this free fill-in pdf format (these are also called pedigree charts).  Then use family group sheets like this one to organize facts about each individual couple (this is where you can list all the children your grandparents had, for example).

2. What do your relatives know?

After filling out what you can, show your family tree chart and family group sheets to other relatives. Ask them if they can fill in some blanks. Remember these tips:

  • Try to include a little note about who tells you each piece of information.
  • Someone may dispute what you find. Everyone’s memory of an event is different. Don’t argue. Treat their information with respect:. Write it down. Then ask politely if they have any documentation you could see, or why they believe something to be true (who told them, etc).
  • Ask whether anything is missing from your charts: a grandparent’s second marriage, a stillborn child or even whether someone’s name is accurate. You or others might know someone by a nickname or middle name.
  • Be sensitive to information that might be confidential or not generally well-known, like a birth date that doesn’t appear more than 9 months after a wedding, or a first marriage. Consider asking living relatives if it’s okay for you to share certain facts. Consider only showing part of your charts to a relative.

3. What’s in the attic (or anywhere else)?

We can often find family documents in our own homes and those of our relatives. Look in attics, basements, storage units, safe deposit boxes and safes, filing cabinets, photo albums, scrapbooks, shoeboxes and other places where papers and memorabilia may be tucked. You’re looking for things like:

  • certificates of birth, baptism, marriage or death;
  • obituaries or other news articles, like anniversaries;
  • funeral programs, wedding and birth announcements;
  • photos with names or other notes on the backs;
  • insurance, pension, military or other paperwork that may mention births or deaths or beneficiary information;
  • wills and home ownership paperwork–even outdated ones;
  • a family Bible.

When you find family names, relationships, dates and places in these documents, add them to your charts.

4. What’s available online for free?

There are two major types of family history information online: records and trees. Records are documents created about specific people, like obituaries, birth certificates and all those other examples I just mentioned. Trees are a computerized form of other people’s family tree charts and group sheets. It can be tempting to just look for someone else’s version of your family tree. Eventually you will want to consult those. But other people’s trees are notoriously full of mistakes! Instead, start by looking for records about the relatives you already have identified.

I suggest that you start your search at FamilySearch.org because it’s totally free. At most other sites, you’ll have to subscribe or pay to see all the search results. At FamilySearch, you just need to create a free user login to get the most access to their records.

After logging in, click Search. Choose a relative you don’t know a lot about. Search for that name. Use the different search options to add more information–even a range of dates and a state/province or country–so you don’t have to wade through thousands of near-matches.

The most common records to find on FamilySearch for many countries are census and vital records.

  • A census is a tally of residents, voters or another target population. Entries often include details about a household: who lived there, how they were related, how old they were, where they were born, etc. You can often extract family information from census listings, though some things (like ages or name spellings) may not be totally accurate.
  • Vital records are official records of someone’s birth, marriage or death. In these, you’ll often find important dates and places as well as names of parents, spouses or others important to the family. They aren’t always totally accurate, and you may only be able to see an index of the record (not the actual document).

As you find search results, compare what they say to what you’ve already learned. How likely is it that this record belongs to your family? Consider how many people seem to have the same name in that location and time period (for example, how many are mentioned in the 1880 U.S. census in that state?). Don’t just look at the search results list: click through to look at the full summary of the entry and, if you can, the original record itself. You may find additional details in these that can confirm whether this record belongs to your relative. You may even find out about new people: your great-grandparents’ parents, for example. Write it all down or begin building a family tree right there on the FamilySearch website (because it’s totally free: learn more about that here.) And one of the greatest keys to long term success is citing your sources. It’s imperative that you make careful note of where you got the resource so that you can find and refer to it again later, and back up your research if it is ever called into question.

People who research their family history often describe it as a puzzle with lots of different pieces. You will need to assemble a lot of puzzle pieces–information about each relative–to begin to see the “bigger picture” of your family history. You’ll start to sense which pieces may belong to a different family puzzle. You may put together a picture that is unexpected, or has some shadows and sadness. There will likely also emerge heroic, beautiful and touching images.

Ready to learn more?

Up next, read:

7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History

How to Find Your Family Tree Online

Best Genealogy Software

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

 

 

Genealogy Tips: Find Ancestors in Tax Records

It’s time to pay taxes in the United States! Tax RecordsIs it any consolation that our ancestors paid them, too? Here’s a brief history of U.S. federal taxation and tips on where to find tax records for the U.S. and the U.K.

History of Tax Records

According to the National Archives (U.S.), the Civil War prompted the first national income tax, a flat 3% on incomes over $800. (See an image of the 16th Amendment and the first 1040 form here.)

The Supreme Court halted a later attempt by Congress to levy another income tax, saying it was unconstitutional.

In 1913 the 16th Amendment granted that power. Even then, only 1% of the population paid income taxes because most folks met the exemptions and deductions. Tax rates varied from 1% to 6%–wouldn’t we love to see those rates now!

Where to Find Tax Records

Ancestry.com has indexed images of U.S. federal tax assessment lists from the Civil War period (and beyond, for some territories).

Here’s a sample image from Arkansas:

Arkansas tax record 1867

Of course, the U.S. federal income tax is just one type. Taxes have been levied on real estate, personal property and income by local, regional and national governments throughout the world.

Some tax records can be found online at the largest genealogy websites. 

Here are examples of tax records that can be found at Ancestry:

  • tax records from London (1692-1932);
  • the U.S. states of Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Texas;
  • and many from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Russia (there’s more: see a full list and descriptions here).

FamilySearch.org hosts over a million records each of U.S. state tax records from Ohio and Texas.

FindMyPast hosts a wealth of U.K. tax records, from local rate books to Cheshire land taxes and even the Northamptonshire Hearth Tax of 1674.

In addition to genealogy websites, here in the U.S., look for original real estate and personal property taxpayer lists in county courthouses or state archives.

It’s also a good idea to consult genealogical or historical organizations and guides. A Google search for “tax records genealogy Virginia” brings up great results from the Library of Virginia and Binns Genealogy. And here’s a search tip: Use the keyword “genealogy” so historical records will pop up. Without that term, you’re going to get results that talk about paying taxes today.

If you still haven’t found the tax records you are looking for, there are two more excellent resources available for finding out what else might be available within a particular jurisdiction.

The first is the FamilySearch Wiki. From the home page you can drill down using the map, or try a search in the search box. Search for the jurisdiction and the keyword tax. Click through to the page for that jurisdiction. Typically you will find a table of contents that includes links to the section of the page covering various topics. Look for a link to tax, taxes, tax records, or taxation. They will list known sources for tax records in that area. 

tax records at the familysearch wiki

Tax records at the familysearch wiki

The second resource for finding out what else might be available is the free USGenWeb site. Like the FamilySearch Wiki, it’s organized by location / jurisdiction. Drill down to the place and then look for the section listing the known records for that area and look for tax related links. 

find tax records at usgenweb

Find information about tax records at USGenWeb

Why It’s Worth Finding Tax Records

I’ll leave you with this tantalizing list of data gathered in the Calhoun County, Georgia tax list of 1873. It enumerates whites, children, the blind/deaf/dumb, dentists, auctioneers, and those who have ten-pin alleys, pool tables and skating rinks. Then, real estate is assessed in detail. Finally, each person’s amount of money, investments, merchandise, household furniture, and investment in manufacturing is assessed.

As you can see, it can pay you big to invest time in looking for your ancestor’s tax records! Just make sure that if you’re here in the U.S., you’ve got your own taxes out of the way before you go searching for someone else’s.

New Records at the Genealogy Giants Websites

Enjoy millions of new records from the ‘Genealogy Giants’ websites this week: Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast, and MyHeritage! New collections are now available for England, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Also new are two collections of WWII Holocaust records. 

Genealogy Giants new records

England Records at Findmypast & Ancestry

A massive amount of new records at the ‘Genealogy Giants’ websites were published this week. First up are millions of new English records collections. We’ll start with Findmypast’s new databases:

Surrey, England

  • Lay Subsidies 1524-1645: early taxation records from the Tudor and Jacobean periods.
  • Court Cases 1391-1835: The records contain cases from four courts and will give you the necessary references for accessing the original records in The National Archives.
  • Wills & Probate Index, 1470-1856: The area covered includes the old county of Surrey in the southeast of England, which contains parts of South London.

British Army Records

Next, we head to Ancestry for even more new English record collections.

Lastly, FamilySearch has a new collection of Essex Parish Registers, 1538-1997. This collection contains christening, marriage, and burial entries.

Ireland – Findmypast

New at Findmypast for Ireland are British Army, Irish Regimental Enlistment Registers 1877-1924. This collection has enlistment registers from five Irish regiments serving in the British Army. The regiments included in these records are Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Dunlin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, and Royal Munster Fusiliers.

A new Irish newspaper title has also been added at Findmypast: the Carrickfergus Advertiser 1884 – 1919. The collection currently contains over 1,300 issues and will be updated further in the future.

Netherlands Public Records at FamilySearch

New at FamilySearch: Netherlands Archival Indexes, Public Records. This collection contains nearly 3 million records that cover events like population registration, emigration and immigration, military enrollment and more.

Denmark – 1930 Census Free at FamilySearch

The Denmark Census, 1930 is now available for free at FamilySearch! “Commonly indexed fields include principle name, locality data, gender, marital status, and relationship to head of household.” The images and index were provided in partnership with MyHeritage.

World War II Holocaust Records and MyHeritage and Ancestry

New at MyHeritage are Auschwitz Death Certificates, 1941-1943. Information listed includes name, birth date, death date, birthplace, residence, and religion. The information originates from the Auschwitz Sterbebücher (Death Books).

Ancestry also has a new collection of Romania select Holocaust Records 1940-1945 (USHMM). This collection is primarily in Romanian, but may also be in Hungarian. It was indexed by World Memory Project contributors from the digitized holdings of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Get the most out of the top genealogy records websites

genealogy giants quick reference guide cheat sheet“Which genealogy records membership website should I use?” It’s one of the most-asked questions in genealogy. There are so many features on each site–and an apples-to-apples comparison is laden with challenges. But Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton has the answers for you in the jammed-packed Genealogy Giants cheat sheet. Use it to quickly and easily compare all of the most important features of the four biggest international genealogy records membership websites: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, and MyHeritage.com. Then consult it every time your research budget, needs or goals change. Tables, bulleted lists, and graphics make this guide as easy to use as it is informative. Click here to learn more and grab your copy.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting the free Genealogy Gems podcast and blog!

Archdiocese of Boston and American Ancestors Expand Historic Project

A project that began in 2017 to digitize important sacramental records in the history of Boston’s Catholic Church has just been expanded. Here’s the latest on this important project from American Ancestors and the Archdiocese of Boston. 
  
 
catholic church records
 

Historic Catholic Records Online Project Expansion
Announced by
American Ancestors and the Archdiocese of Boston

20 Additional Years of Records—from 1901 through 1920—and more than 60 Additional Greater Boston Catholic Parishes Are To Be Added to the Historic Digital Genealogy Project at AmericanAncestors.org
 
August 7, 2019—Boston, Massachusetts—American Ancestors and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston (RCAB) today announced an expansion of its ongoing program to digitize important sacramental records in the history of Boston’s Catholic Church. This expansion of a project collaboration announced in early 2017 will effectively double the original 11 million names of parishioners to be included when the project is completed to encompass a total of approximately 21 million names—a treasure in research terms for historians, genealogists, scholars, and the public at large. Images are available to browse now. Name-searchable records will be available in an expanded database from American Ancestors on their award-winning website AmericanAncestors.org

These historic records document several sacraments of the Catholic Church in Boston and surrounding towns including baptism, confirmation, holy communion, marriage, and the anointing of the sick. They are valued for research because they contain detailed information about the Catholic parishioners of greater Boston, their relationships with each other, the church, and often the community.

When announced in January 2017, the Historic Catholic Records Online Project—the first of its type in the U.S. to digitize a significant number of sacramental records from any U.S.-based Catholic archdiocese—encompassed 154 parishes in 84 towns within the Boston Archdiocese, covering the years 1789 to 1900. 

Today’s announcement extends the project’s reach to cover records through the year 1920—adding 20 additional years of sacramental records to the project and eventually bringing more than 60 new parishes within it—all formed within the Boston Archdiocese after 1900.

Catholic parishes in the towns of

  • Billerica,
  • Danvers,
  • Dracut,
  • Forest Hills,
  • Groton,
  • Mattapan,
  • Methuen,
  • North Andover,
  • Saugus,
  • Sharon,
  • Shirley,
  • Swampscott,
  • Wakefield,
  • Wilmington,
  • and Winthrop

will now be included—covering important phases of greater Boston’s early 20th-century history and stories of immigration, social, and cultural change.

Boston

Boston

Brenton Simons, President and CEO of American Ancestors, also known as New England Historic Genealogical Society, celebrated the amplification of the project, noting “Throughout our 175-year history, New England Historic Genealogical Society has collected and shared countless manuscripts, artifacts, data, and other resources that tell the inspiring story of the American family. The expansion  of this historic collaboration between the Boston Archdiocese and American Ancestors will enrich the research of family historians in America and beyond and be especially informative in Irish, Italian, and French Canadian genealogy. Newer parishes from the 1900s add Lithuanian, Polish, and Portuguese genealogical data of interest.

“I offer our deep gratitude to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for recognizing the historical value of this data—especially Thomas Lester, the Archivist and Records Manager of the Archdiocese, whose forward-thinking vision toward preservation and collaboration inspired this important project and its expansion we are announcing today,” Simons said.

Lester, as the Boston Archdiocese’s leading advocate for records preservation, stated “We recognize the value of this collection to many groups, foremost among them historians and genealogists. This second, expanded phase of our project with American Ancestors, is a result of the overwhelming positive feedback received during the initial phase announced with them in January 2017.

“Use of the records by researchers around the world has exceeded our original expectations and we are excited to offer additional content, with more insights, and deeper glimpses into the history of the Roman Catholic people and parishes in greater Boston.  Of equal importance is that we are continuing to create a digital backup to help preserve these irreplaceable records.”   

“The completion of the expanded project, covering all records through the year 1920 is now anticipated to be by the year 2029,” stated Molly Rogers, Database Coordinator for American Ancestors, “with all browsable (non-indexed) and indexed names from all parish archives expected to be online by that time.” 

The project is enormous in scope, with a large amount of data to be digitized and then laboriously, manually indexed, transcribed, and, in most cases, translated to English for name-searching capabilities. 

Some of the first records from this expanded time period—browsable images of pages from parish archives—are available and may be viewed at AmericanAncestors.org/image-example by members of American Ancestors and by non-members alike, with a free online registration as a Guest Member at AmericanAncestors.org/membership/guest-users. Searchable records (indexed by name) are available only to subscribing members of American Ancestors—visit AmericanAncestors.org/Join. 

Volunteers coordinated by the staff of American Ancestors undertake the greater portion of the work of scanning and indexing the Historic Catholic Records Online Project documents.

 
Much of this effort is carried out at the American Ancestors headquarters in Boston’s Back Bay. In 2017, American Ancestors launched a Historic Catholic Records Fund to enable philanthropy to support the project. Information about contributing to this fund can be found at AmericanAncestors.org/catholic-records-fund.
 
# # #
About American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society
American Ancestors, also known as New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), with its national headquarters located in Boston’s Back Bay, is the oldest and largest genealogical organization in America. It serves more than 260,000 members and millions of online users engaged in family history nationally and around the world. It is home to a world-class research library and archive, and an expert staff.
 
American Ancestors offers an award-winning genealogical research website at AmericanAncestors.org with more than 1.4 billion records and maintains a publishing division which produces original genealogical research, scholarship, and educational materials, including Mayflower Descendant, a quarterly journal of Pilgrim genealogy and history. 
 

Resources for Using Church Records for Genealogy

Former Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Jane Morton’s new book, along with Harold A. Henderson, CG is How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide. It includes hundreds of links to church research resources, as well as chapters devoted to specific resource for the major Christian denominations before 1900. 
church records book cover
 
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

Here’s our weekly roundup of new genealogy records online. Should you search for your ancestors in any of these databases?

BRITAIN, MERCHANT SEAMAN. Findmypast.com has added nearly a quarter million records to its 1918-1941 database of British Merchant Seaman.

IDAHO VITAL RECORDS. New indexes of Idaho births (1861-1911) and deaths (1938-1961) are now searchable for free at FamilySearch.org.

ILLINOIS DEATHS. Over 3.7 million records have been added to a free index of Cook County, Illinois deaths at FamilySearch.org. Cook County is home to the city of Chicago.

INDIANA CHURCH RECORDS. A new database of Indiana United Methodist Church Records(1837-1970) is available at Ancestry.com. According to the collection description, “The registers may contain baptisms, marriages, burials, memberships, and lists of clergy.”

IRISH BIRTHS, BAPTISMS AND MARRIAGES. Complementing recent online Irish parish records collections are two databases of Non-conformist church records (meaning those not in alliance with the Church of Ireland) now at Findmypast: births/baptisms and marriages.

ONTARIO BIRTHS. FamilySearch has added over 125,000 indexed records to its collection of Ontario, Canada birth records.

UNITED STATES and NEW ZEALAND ARTICLES. Findmypast.com has updated its PERSI database with over 45,000 new indexed entries and images. Ten publications spanning 1883-1984 include articles covering several New Zealand and several U.S. states, including Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

VARIOUS MARRIAGE RECORDS. FamilySearch.org has published or updated several new free marriage records collections. Click here to see the full list, which includes British Columbia, Durham (England), Indiana, Kansas, Liberia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

Try These Two Powerful Tools for Finding Genealogy Records OnlineDon’t see the records you hoped to among these new genealogy records online? Click here to read a blog post on two powerful tools to help you search for elusive records.

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU