As you may have already noticed, a lot of websites these days host millions of family trees: MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Geni.com, FindMyPast.com, Archives.com and more. There are virtual forests and forests of family trees out there! How can you find a tree that includes your family? How can you be sure it’s yours? How do you know that what you see is accurate?
Get started with these 7 Steps: How to Find Your Family Tree Online:
1. Choose a site from the list above and create a free log in.
Which should you choose?
- FamilySearch.org is the only one that offers totally free access to all user-submitted family trees as well as the historical records that can help you with your research. However, the other sites offer a variety of free access options, especially to user-submitted trees.
- MyHeritage is known for its international user base (check out its user map here) and multi-language access.
- Some sites have different portals that specialize in records from different countries. For example, Ancestry.com (with a U.S. focus) owns Ancestry.ca for Canadian genealogy, Ancestry.co.uk for the United Kingdom and Ancestry.com.au for Australian records. Similarly, FindMyPast.co.uk (U.K. focus) also hosts FindMyPast.com (U.S.), FindMyPast.ie (Ireland) and FindMyPast.com.au (Australia). Check out additional sites for specific countries (including non-English-speaking) here. If your family recently immigrated, look for a site about “the old country.’ If you have pretty deep roots in your current country, or you’re not sure, pick a site that specializes in your current home.
2. Enter the name of one of your relatives in the Search bar.
Each site files its family trees a little differently: some with historical records and some separately. Search trees at FamilySearch here. On Ancestry.com, look under the Search option for Public Member Trees. Enter names of your relatives, along with any other details you know (like a birth date and place or a spouse’s name). Try different combinations, sometimes using the person’s first and middle name, trying a maiden name, entering a nickname, etc. Increase your odds of finding people by entering a range of years (like 1880-1890) for a date and a more general place, like a state, rather than the name of a little town. If you get too many results, enter more specific information.
Which relative(s) should you choose?
- One who is deceased, if possible. Records about living people may be restricted for some places (but not all).
- If possible, one with a relatively unusual name. They may be easier to spot.
- One you know several things about: a full name (including maiden for women), dates and places of birth, marriage and death; burial place; where they lived during their lifetime; names of their spouse(s), sibling(s) and/or child(ren).
- One who lived as long ago as possible, to increase the chance that someone has posted a tree. But a grandparent is a great starting point, if that’s as far back as you know. If your grandparent is still alive, ask them their parents’ names, and start with your great-grandparent.
- Need to learn more about your relatives first? Read this article on how to gather information about your family.
3. Click on results labeled as “family trees.” Are they “yours?”
Browse the search results. Do any of these names and details look familiar? Everything doesn’t have to be a perfect match for a tree to include your roots. Sometimes different information is handed down through different branches of a family. Sometimes people get their information from sources that don’t match yours. Sometimes people just guess or patch together parts of different family trees without looking closely to see if they’re right.
Tech tutorial: What exactly are you looking at when you look at a family tree online? Before the days of internet genealogy, researchers organized family history findings on their home computers in one of several specially-designed software programs. These programs could generate .GED files (often referred to as GEDCOMs) that would allow researchers using different software to share their findings. Many people have now uploaded their GED files to genealogy sites like the ones we’re talking about–or they’ve just built a family tree from scratch right on the site.
4. Evaluate the accuracy of what you find.
The best way to judge the accuracy of a family tree without researching it yourself is to see what proof is offered. Do you see any records mentioned (like footnotes) or attached to the tree? Common records include tombstone images; government or church vital records (birth, marriage or death records) and census listings. Do you see photos attached? Photos may indicate the submitter has access to family records or albums (bonus!).
If a tree mentions lots of sources, it’s more likely to be accurate–at least for the pieces of information that are sourced. If a tree doesn’t have sources, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means you don’t know if it’s right.
Sometimes you’ll find a “branch” on a tree that goes back many generations without a single source mentioned. Beware! Sometimes these branches are just copied from other trees. This may particularly be true if a branch is connected to a royal line. Royal lines are well-documented in history and some people have created family trees with the hope of running into royal relatives. These connections may not have been thoroughly researched–they might just represent “wishful thinking.” Again, look for sources.
5. Optional step: reach out to the submitter of promising-looking family trees.
Some sites allow you to contact them through confidential email routed through the site (you may have to purchase a subscription first). You might contact a submitter to meet a possible cousin, share information you have or ask for more details about what they posted. If you contact them, be polite–don’t open with “you got my grandfather’s birthday wrong” or you may never hear back. You may not hear back anyway, if the submitter is no longer researching, their email changed or they have passed away.
6. Google your surname along with the phrase “family tree” or “genealogy.”
See if any personal websites pop up with your family tree (or other family history information) in them. Evaluate the information by looking for accurate details (as far as you know) and lots of sources mentioned. Look for an “About” or “Contact” page to learn more about the submitter of this information.
7. Verify it yourself.
Wandering through forests of online family trees may give you the urge to create your own tree. An accurate, and sourced tree! If so, good for you. Keep reading the articles suggested below to learn how to get started!
Up next, read:
Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free. Perfect for the beginner!
Explore the Genealogy Gems website for more tools, tips and resources that can help you put together your family’s “bigger picture.”
Sign up for our free e-newsletter and receive my FREE ebook on using Google to find your family history.
Check out my step-by-step Family History podcast for beginning genealogists.
Post an Online Family Tree. Listen to a podcast episode (or just read the show notes) on how to post your own family tree online.
New records at genealogy websites can come in all shapes and sizes. They may include new or updated indexes, digitized records, or improvements to the search function. It all adds up to new opportunities for you to find more information on your family history. Here’s the latest from some of the most popular genealogy records sites.
New at MyHeritage
Here’s the latest on new records from MyHeritage:
1801 Norway Census Index
“The 1801 census was carried out on Sunday, February 1, 1801, and is based on complete lists of individuals.
The census contains the names of farms (in rural areas), the full names of inhabitants, the familial ties between household members, their age, marital status, and occupation.
For married and previously married people, it was recorded how many times they had been married or widowed.
The age listed was the age on the next birthday.
The names of smallholdings are typically not included. People were registered in the regions where they belonged. Those who were absent, e.g. sailors, should be listed in their hometowns.
The department of statistics of the Exchequer in Copenhagen prepared the census and processed its results. In the rural districts, the census was carried out by parsons with the assistance of precentors and school teachers. In the towns the efforts were supervised by the Town Administration and carried out by the Subdivision Heads of each conscription district. The town lists are arranged by building numbers. This collection is provided through cooperation with the National Archives of Norway.”
1865 Norway Census Index
“This collection of over 1.68 million records is the first national census to list a place of birth for all persons recorded. This census contains the person’s name, residence, status in the family, occupation, sex, marital status, age, place of birth, religion if not a member of the state church, and other miscellaneous information.
Censuses have been taken by the Norwegian government and by ecclesiastical officials for population studies and taxation purposes.
Census and census-like records are found from the 1500s to 2000. After 1900, a national census was taken every 10 years until 2000. Access to the national census records is restricted for a period of 100 years after the date of enumeration.
Generally, you will find more detailed family information in more recent censuses.
Some known deficiencies in the 1865 original census material include records from Gol parish in Buskerud county, Holtålen Parish in Sør-Trøndelag county, Bjerke parish in the Nannestad dioceses in Akershus county, and at least 106 special lists in Kristiania (Old name for Oslo). This collection is provided through cooperation with the National Archives of Norway.”
United Kingdom, War Memorials, 1914–1949 Index
“This free collection of 1.1 million records provides details on soldiers from the United Kingdom that died during the wars in the early to mid 20th century.
During the first World War, alone, there was an average of over 450 British casualties per day. Information listed on these records may include: name, date of death or burial, burial place, and age at death. These records might also include rank, service and unit of the military as well as any honors earned during service.
The records primarily consist of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars with a few records from different wars. The number of British casualties was smaller in wars following World War II, and the number of records from other conflicts is consequently low.
This collection content is copyright of the Imperial War Museums and the index is provided by MyHeritage free of charge as a beneficial service to the genealogy community.”
Estonia, Gravestones, 1812–2019 Index
“This collection includes information from Estonia cemeteries and consists of records from 1812-2019. These include the name of the deceased, birth date when available, death date when available, date of burial when available, and the name of the cemetery.
Cemeteries can help you trace the burial and or death place of an Estonian relative. Cemetery records may also help identify ancestors when access to church records and census records is limited, or the death was not recorded in other records.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Birth Index, 1913–2019 Index
“This collection is an index of birth records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the first name, middle name, last name, gender, and date of birth of the individual. Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Marriage Index, 1884–2019 Index
“This free collection is an index of marriage records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the following searchable information: first name, middle name, and last name of the bride and groom, and the marriage date of the couple. Records may also contain the marriage license number and the date of the application.
Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.
Most records in this collection are from the 20th century or later, with just three percent from before the year 1900. However, there is a select amount of records dated from before 1884, with approximately one percent of the collection falling under this category.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Death Index, 1916–2019 Index
“This free collection is an index of death records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the following searchable information: first name, middle name, last name, gender, and death date of the individual. Records may also contain the certificate number for the death. Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.
In some cases, the gender is given as unknown along with a missing given name. This usually means the record is for a still-born baby. All records in this collection are from the 20th century or later. However, there is a select amount of records dated before 1916, with the earliest from 1908.”
Pennsylvania, Lawrence County Index of Obituaries, 1871–2016 Index
“This collection includes an index of obituaries and death records from Lawrence County Pennsylvania for the years 1871-2016. A record may include the first and last name of the deceased, death date, date of death announcement, name of spouse, name of parent(s), and the name of the newspaper that published the information.
Obituaries can be a good source of information about a person and may also include information about the deceased’s family members. Often an obituary will include information such as the birth date, marriage date, children, occupation, education, and the location of living family members at the time the obituary was written.”
Pennsylvania, Lawrence County Index of Marriage Announcement, 1858–2006 Index
“This collection includes marriage announcements from Lawrence County, Pennsylvania for the years 1858-2006. Records may include the first and last name of the bride and groom, the names of parent(s), the title of the newspaper that published the announcement, the page on which the announcement is located, the date of the marriage announcement, and the year of the marriage.
Marriage records are a valuable source of information. Marriage records found in newspapers are not limited to a specific form, like most government marriage records, therefore newspapers may contain details about a marriage not found elsewhere, such as names of siblings or other relatives.
Newspapers can report marriages of people who no longer live in the area but who still have friends or family there.”
Chile, Electoral Rolls, 2013 Index
“This collection of over 12 million records contains information about Chilean voters during the November 17, 2013 elections. Records include the names of voters and the location of the vote. The collection also includes records about canceled voters, mostly because of the death of the voter, and disqualified voters.
Search these collections at MyHeritage here.
All of the above newly updated collections are now available through MyHeritage SuperSearch™. Searching these records is free, but a Data or Complete subscription is required to view the records, save them to your family tree, and access Record Matches. Our Record Matching technology will get to work and notify you automatically if any of these records mention a member of your family tree. You’ll then have the ability to review the record and decide if you’d like to add the new information to your family tree.”
New Newspaper Content at GenealogyBank
GenealogyBank is one of the leading providers of digitized newspapers, and they’ve recently added new content for 152 newspaper titles from across 35 states including:
- District of Columbia
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Puerto Rico
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Search GenealogyBank here.
Here’s a short video about another historic newspaper resource (click for sound):
More New Newspaper Content at the British Newspaper Archive
One of my favorite websites, the British Newspaper Archive celebrated its 8th birthday this week (the Archive was launched on 29th November 2011) and also reached the milestone of 35 million searchable pages. Here’s ta brief overview of the 128,362 new pages recently added.
New title added:
- Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser (Scotland, 1863-1905)
- The Reading Evening Post
- Wells Journal and the Bristol Times and Mirror (West country area)
Search or start a free trial here.
New at Ancestry
Here’s the latest from Ancestry:
“Pre-Confirmation books, otherwise known as Childrens’ Books, were used to record the names of children who had not yet been confirmed into the Lutheran church. These records are extremely valuable as they record family groups and provide dates of birth and sometimes a place of birth as well. Death dates may also occasionally be included. Once the child became eligible for Communion, they were then recorded in the Communion books.
Pre-Confirmation books were organised by villages and then by farm and household.
Users may find the following details for individuals found in the communion books (where available):
- Relation to Head
- Birth Date
- Birth Place
- Burial Date
- Death Date
Search the collection here.
UPDATED: U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014
On November 14, 2019 changes were made to improve the performance of this collection, so if you’ve ever searched it and not found what you were looking for, it might be worth another try. Note: no new records were added.
Search the collection here.
Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013
On May 20 Ancestry added 1,388,625 new records to this collection.
“This database contains both images of and indexes extracted from various records of marriages in Washington.
Marriage records can offer a wide range of details. While the indexes in this database may provide the basic facts surrounding a wedding—bride, groom, date, and place—images of marriage certificates may also include additional information such as
- marital status (single, divorced)
- whether a first marriage
- fathers’ names and birthplaces
- mothers’ names, maiden names, and birthplaces
This database does not contain an image for every document included in the index.”
Search the newly update collection here.
U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947
On Nov 7 Ancestry added 4,651,830 new records from the following states to the U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 collection:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- New Hampshire
Search the updated collection here.
What Did You Find in the New Online Records?
We’ve got our fingers crossed that you are able to unearth some new genealogy gems from these new updates. If you do, please leave a comment and let us know, and then share this post with your friends.
Recently a group of 100 residents from Wellington, New Zealand assembled together to determine what exactly it was they had in common. Their host? Dr. Spencer Wells, Director of the National Genographic project. Their admittance fee to this party? A cheek swab.
What they learned about themselves that evening, has a direct impact on YOU, a genealogist interested in identifying your ancestors.
You see, 800 years ago the first inhabitants of New Zealand were just beginning to explore their new territory. They had arrived from the eastern islands of Polynesia and lived in relative isolation for over 500 years.
While first discovered by the Dutch in 1642, New Zealand wasn’t regularly visited by Europeans until the late 18th century. For Spencer Wells and the National Genographic Project, sampling people of New Zealand would provide a rare opportunity to study the genetic effect of a recent collision of indigenous and outside population groups.
We can think of mixing populations like adding a tablespoon of salt to a glass of water. At first it is easy to see the two different substances co-existing in the same location. But soon the salt becomes part of the water- creating a new substance, with only a small portion of the original substances remaining. This is what happened throughout history as outside groups arrived and intermarried with indigenous populations.
The goal of population genetics as a field of study, and specifically of the National Genographic project, is to look at the modern day population (in our example the salt water), and be able to identify which ancestral populations are present (in our example, determine which parts are salt, and which parts are water. This of course, without knowing beforehand that you were dealing with salt water!).
The National Geneographic project has identified 9 ancestral regions from which they believe all modern populations descend. These nine would be like our salt, and our water. They have then described how 43 reference population groups (our salt water) are comprised of their own unique mix of these 9 groups. They can also describe the origins of your direct maternal line, and if you are male, your direct paternal line.
This information was gathered for the Wellington residents. It was determined that the original Polynesian population and a small East Asian population are certainly the minority among a predominately Western European population group. This information will help groups like the National Genographic Project to determine the possible migration patterns of other peoples and cultures.
What does this mean for genealogy? This kind of research helps fuel the admixture results (the pie charts and percentages) reported to you by a genetic genealogy testing company when you take an autosomal DNA test. It is this research that helps genetic genealogists look at your DNA and pick out the essential, ancestral elements–your salt and your water–and determine how your unique mix reveals information about the origins and migration patterns of your ancestors.
Check out an article on this topic here.
Common surnames can make genealogy research more challenging. But learning more about your last name (including how common it is) can also enrich your family history. Check out 4 free online tools for learning more about your family’s surnames. Then share what you learn the next time your relatives get together!
If you have common surnames on your family tree, you may have become frustrated at times trying to determine whether the “John Williams” or “Elizabeth Smith” you’re looking at in a record belongs to your John or Elizabeth. Would it make a difference if you discovered they lived in an area where there very few folks by those names during that time period? It would. Furthermore, it would probably also be nice to know things like where else in the world–or within England, for example–that surname is found now (or was in the past).
The enormous amount of census, vital records, and family tree data now online is making it easier to answer questions like these. Below, find free online tools for mapping common surnames (and less-common ones, too) across time. They include surname search tools hosted by a couple of our Genealogy Giants, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. What can you learn from the following sites? Do they agree with one another? Check them out!
Your surname in the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses
The US Census Bureau has created databases of last names that appear in recent censuses. You can look at the results a couple of ways:
- Click here to search for your surname among the most common 150,000 surnames from the 1990 and 2000 censuses. These surnames cover about 90% of those who participated in the census.
- Click here to view a list of all surnames that appear 100 or more times in the 2000 census. (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller and Davis all top a million occurrences!) According to this webpage, the top 15 surnames have remained fairly steady in the most recent three censuses with one exceptional trend: Spanish-origin surnames are starting to make the lists.
Common surnames of England and Wales
Find out how common your surname is today in England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. The Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS List has a searchable database of almost 270,000 surnames shared by 54.4 million people (it excludes surnames occurring fewer than 5 times in the total database of nearly 60 million people). The list compiled between 1998-2002 does have some duplication and misspellings: “experience suggests that multiplying the result for your surname by 0.93 will give a good idea of the living population for your surname.”
What’s in a name? Ancestry.com answers
Ancestry.com hosts this fun and free tool for those with roots in the U.S., England, Scotland, and Wales:
Remember, it’s not a precise genealogy research tool. But it can prove interesting. When I ran this search for the married surname of our Genealogy Gems DNA expert, Diahan Southard, I was shown (among other things) this interesting map illustrating how the Southard family was spread across the United States in 1920:
Surname directory at MyHeritage
MyHeritage.com hosts a searchable surname directory taken from data found on its site. To search the surname directory, choose the first letter of the last name from the alphabet shown below the search screen. (If you enter a name in the blue search boxes, you’ll be taken into their record-searching area, which isn’t the same):
You won’t find all names surnames here, though you may find variant spellings of yours. (I never knew McClellan could be spelled in so many different ways!) Here’s a map of how they find my husband’s surname, Morton, scattered across the globe:
Looking for more surname distribution maps? Click here to find a list organized by country.
Next Steps: Try this with your common surnames
If you’ve taken a DNA test…Thousands of people are compiling their same-surname DNA test results into surname projects. Click here to learn more about how to “social network” your yDNA test results in a surname project.
If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium subscriber…you can watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s fabulous video tutorial, Common Surname Google Search Strategies. Use her tips to find even your most commonly-named relatives online! (Not a Premium member? Click here to learn more–for one low price, you’ll get a year’s access to hundreds of Premium videos and podcast episodes!)