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
I gave a presentation at RootsTech on using YouTube for family history. I got tons of excited feedback from people who didn’t realize a) how much internet users rely on YouTube as a source of information and b) how creatively we can share our family history there.
Katelyn Guderian, a reporter with the Deseret News (Utah), sent me an email afterward: “I genuinely enjoyed your presentation and the suggestions you offered. YouTube can seem overwhelming to users who aren’t familiar with how it works, and I think you did a nice job at making it seem manageable.” Even better, she shared a lot of my comments on using YouTube in this news article. Here are my 6 tips for using YouTube for family history as she shared them in her article:
1. Identify your target audience: Who are you trying to reach? What do they specifically want to know?
2. Create usable content: Create videos that answer questions and bring insight to families.
3. Be authentic: Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Let your personality guide your posts, and people who like it will keep coming back.
4. Keep it short: Limit most videos to 3–5 minutes, with the longest posts being around 10. Leave your audience wanting more.
5. Keep it simple: Make your content direct and easy to understand. Leave your audience with a call to action.
6. Use proper lighting: If you are filming a new video, make sure to have light on your face to eliminate shadows. Audiences won’t watch something they can’t see. Try not to combine natural light with artificial light while on camera.
Thanks for the coverage and the positive comments, Katelyn!
Everyone can learn more about using YouTube for family history in a full chapter dedicated to the topic in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, fully revised and updated for 2015. There’s an entire chapter on YouTube, not just on using it to share your family history, but on researching your family history. Yep, that’s right–it’s possible to find some real gems on your family on YouTube, like historical video footage that tells you their story and may even include your relative.
YouTube for Family History! More Genealogy Gems for Making and Sharing Your Own Videos Online
Bring Your Family History to the Big Screen: How to Use Chromecast
How to Make a Family History Video
InstaGrandma: How One Woman is Leaving Her Legacy Online
Recently I heard from Jane, a Genealogy Gems Premium subscriber in Canada, who needs a genealogy research plan! She’s researched on Ancestry.ca, Scotland’s People, the Free English BMD Index, FamilySearch and joined her local society. But she’s not sure where to go next with her research–there just are SO many options! If this sounds familiar, check out her question and the advice I gave her:
“I often end up wandering around in circles and mazes as one thing leads to another, and another, and … I am sure you know what I am talking about. I seem to be jumping back and forth between my Dad’s family, my Mom’s family, their families, etc. until there are times that I find myself at a certain point, only to wonder ‘Where was I going with this?’ I’m now wondering if I would be best to take it one person at a time – to find out as much as I can about that person in that point of time, before going on to another. I have started trying to make notes…but find that I end up hopelessly out of order and lost. Any advice would be appreciated! Help!!!”
My Answer: A Genealogy Research Plan to Deal with the Chaos
“You are not along in this genealogical dilemma! It’s easy to let the records start to take over and lead you around. Set a goal or a genealogy research plan – define what it is you want to know. It might be something very specific about a particular ancestor, or it might just be to fill in the blanks on one particular family. Early in my research I focused on one grandparent, and working backwards, I would strive to fill in all the blanks on that person, then their parents, then their siblings. I wouldn’t “leave” that family until I felt that I had filled in as much of the family group sheet as possible. (We have sort of lost track of the “family group sheet“ in this technological age. But it is an excellent tool for keeping you on track and focused on the blanks that need to be filled.)
An additional strategy is to have a process for dealing with information that is a bit off your current track. Often we feel like we have to pursue it or we’ll lose it. I like to use Evernote (free at Evernote.com) to capture data that I’m not ready to deal with right now, but definitely want to pursue later. I create an Evernote “notebook” for that family surname, and a note book called “future research.” Drag and drop “Future Research” onto the family surname notebook which will create a “stack.” Now you can create notes and drop them into the “Future Research” notebook which is inside the applicable family. Add tags to your note like “newspaper,” “death record,” etc. and some good searchable keywords so that the note will be easy to find when you need it. Now you can capture the item, file it away, and stay focused on the task at hand. Whenever you’re ready to ask a new question, open that Future Research notebook. Use what’s there to inspire the next phase of your genealogy research plan.”
How to Get Started in Evernote, and the Ultimate Evernote Education
Should Evernote be my Digital Archive?
If you would like to learn more about using Evernote for genealogy, I have a quick reference guide in my store that will work wonders in keeping you organized. It’s available for both Windows and Mac, and in both PDF and laminated print format.
Your questions are always welcome! Contact me by email, or leave a voice mail at (925) 272-4021 and you may just hear yourself on the show.
Have you ever experienced “genealogy serendipity?” Here’s a great book about it!
Recently, I came across an old blog post by my friend Geoff Rasmussen, in which he talks about discovering family gravestones while on a cruise.
A cruise doesn’t seem like the most likely place to discover ancestral grave markers. But his cruise ship stopped at Bar Harbor, Maine, near where several generations of his family lived.
Geoff stepped off and followed his instincts, his GPS device and–he believes–his ancestors themselves. In the short time he had for a shore excursion, he found the long-elusive graves of several relatives in several cemeteries, including distant great-grandparents.
Sooner or later, many of us experience “genealogy serendipity” moments like these. It’s that moment when an ancestor seems to be sitting on your shoulder, leading you to information about her. Or when an uncanny number of coincidences put you in the right place and time to make an important family connection. It can be downright eerie sometimes!
I’ve had my fair share of those types of experiences. I’ve talked about them before on the podcast, like in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 106, when I recounted the numerous buy medicine online paypal unusual happenings during my recent trip to England! And before that, in Episode 39, about how my great-grandmother Lenora Herring’s crazy quilt came into my possession. The story really wasn’t about the quilt. It was about listening to and following the guidance of my ancestors, even though in the moment the path wasn’t clear.
We all need a little inspiration now and then to stay on the genealogical journey. That’s why I am so happy that Geoff took the time to write more of his fabulous stories down. His new book, Kindred Voices: Listening for our Ancestors, is chicken soup for the genealogical soul indeed. This is a gem of a book! Geoff writes that his purpose is to “further energize” us as genealogists, and “give new meaning to the experiences” we have with genealogy serendipity. These are his true stories of feeling the presence of his ancestors as he looks for them.
We love passing along book suggestions! Have you seen the ones we’ve recommended for the Genealogy Gems Book Club? Check them out! And thank you for sharing this book recommendation with others you think will enjoy it. You’re a gem!
Celebrate your stories with video–whether it’s your family history, the story of your business, or an event or pastime you want to share. Check out 5 weeks of great video ideas from Animoto, including my own family history video on an ancestor’s immigration story.
This year marks a big milestone for Genealogy Gems: we turned 10 years old! My favorite video creation tool, Animoto, also marks a decade this summer. We’re celebrating with them–and what better way than with video?
Last week Animoto celebrated relationships with Facebook expert and author of Relationship Marketing, Mari Smith. She inspired everyone to create a video celebrating relationships — whether it’s a video about your family or friends, a video showing appreciation for a client, or a video celebrating another bond that’s important to you.
This week, I’m honored to have been invited by the good folks at Animoto to share why our histories are so important and offer up the video I created that I hope will inspire others. Click here to watch that short can you buy medication online video (it’s the first one). Of course they also asked me to share a celebratory video of my own! On the same page, check out a short video I created about the Cooke family coming to Canada. You’ll also find other videos celebrating the story of a business, birth of a child, history of a product and a photographer’s love of his craft. It’s amazing how many topics we can celebrate powerfully with a short video!
Click here to get inspired with five weeks of great video celebration ideas, whether you want to use video for family history storytelling, work, every day life, or all of the above.
Show off your family history video!
Which family history story will you tell with video and Animoto? Join the party and show your Genealogy Gems pride by sharing them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter using the hashtags #CelebrateWithVideo and #GenealogyGemsPodcast.
Let us help you make a family history video with these detailed how-tos:
How to video record a fantastic family history interview
How to create a family history video with Animoto
Thanks for clicking here to check out Animoto’s subscription service for creating professional-quality videos. When you use this affiliate link and make a purchase, I will be compensated. I appreciate you using these links because that compensation helps make the Genealogy Gems blog possible.