Land records are some of the most underutilized, yet most useful, records available in genealogy. Often, they are the only records which state a direct relationship between family members. They can also be used to prove relationships indirectly by studying the land laws in force at the time. Sometimes they can even be used to locate an ancestor’s farm or original house, so that we can walk today where our family walked long ago.
Land records exist in the United States in abundance for most locations. Read on to learn how to find land records and how they can help you scale seemingly impossible brick walls in your genealogy research. Our guest blogger is Jaye Drummond, a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists.
The History of Land Records
The search for new land is one of the main themes of American history, so it makes sense that land records would be an important part of researching that history.
The right to own real estate was not universal in most of the countries from which the majority of American immigrants came. And even when it was possible to own land legally, it was often too expensive and thus out of reach for most people.
As a result, the lure of vast expanses of relatively cheap and plentiful land has proved irresistible to millions of immigrants to American shores over the course of the past 400 years.
The land records created throughout those years to document ownership of all that real estate have accumulated in seemingly limitless amounts. Even in the face of catastrophic record loss in some locations, land records are generally plentiful. They usually exist from the date of formation of colonial, state, and county governments, where the records still exist.
Information Contained in Land Records
Due to the paramount importance of land ownership in what would become the United States, land records often are the only records in which you will find your ancestors mentioned in some areas.
And there’s good news! Land records often state relationships or provide other, indirect, evidence of family relationships. This makes them an invaluable resource for genealogists.
Understanding what kinds of land records exist, where to find them, and how to use them is often critical to solving genealogical mysteries.
4 Types of Land Records and How to Use Them
There are four different types of land records that can play a vital role in your family history research. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how to use them.
1. Land Deeds
The most essential land record is the deed. Deeds document the transfer or sale of title, or ownership, of a piece of land or other property from one party to another.
Deeds usually concern land, or “real” property, but they also often mention moveable or “chattel” property, such as household goods and even enslaved persons.
Example of deed index, courtesy of FamilySearch
They sometimes, but not always, contain explicit, direct statements of relationship between family members. Sometimes this can be a parent-child relationship, but deeds can also include a list of people who are children or heirs of a particular deceased person who owned the land being sold.
Sometimes the language in deeds involving heirs makes it clear that the heirs are children, sometimes not, so some care must be taken not to assume that all heirs are children. Research in other records sets such as probate, census, and church records may make the relationships of the heirs to the deceased land owner clearer.
In the early years of a settlement, and sometimes later, deeds books also often contained other types of transactions, including the sale of enslaved persons and sometimes even wills. These are often records for which no other copies survive. Thus, surviving deed books should always be checked for ancestors and their family members in every jurisdiction in which you do genealogy research.
Also, remember to check published abstracts of deeds if they exist, as witnesses to deeds were not included in most indexes to the original deed books. Witnessing a deed was one of many ways relatives assisted one another, and thus the presence of one of your ancestors as a witness for someone else suggests they had some kind of relationship, which might lead to the discovery of previously unknown ancestors.
Also keep in mind that not all states required the recording of deeds throughout their history, or did not require them to be recorded in a timely fashion.
Pennsylvania is an example of this lackadaisical attitude to record keeping that now seems foreign. When researching land records in Pennsylvania it is important to remember that deeds for an ancestor might have been recorded years, even decades, after the actual transaction took place. Therefore, always remember to check the indexes for deeds and other transactions many years after the person in question died or left the area.
In other states, such as New Jersey, land was sold at the colony and state level for longer than is typical in other areas and thus land records must be sought at the state or colony level up to that time.
In the case of New Jersey, deeds only began to be recorded in the various counties around 1785. Therefore, New Jersey real property research must be done at both the county and state or colonial level.
In the case of colonies and states with massive record loss, such as Virginia, land records recorded on the state level are often the only records that survive for some counties, and thus are critical for success in navigating such “burned” counties.
2. Land Grants and Patents
Land grants and patents issued by the various colonial, state and federal governments are also an important resource, including land lotteries in states like Georgia.
In many states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the original applications, warrants, surveys, and patents or grants still exist and can be searched at the state archives or online.
While these documents do not often state relationships, they sometimes do. That was the case with one of my ancestors whose father had applied for a land patent in Pennsylvania in 1787. He died before the patent was issued in 1800, and thus it was granted to his son by the same name. However, the land patent spelled out that the original applicant had died and his son was the person actually receiving the patent.
Land patents and grants, as well as deeds in general, can also document the dates in which an ancestor resided or at least owned land in a given location. This can assist the researcher in establishing timelines for ancestors. It can also help when it comes to differentiating between two or more individuals residing in a given area with the same name. Anyone dreading research on their Smith and Jones ancestors might just find the solution they seek in those old, musty deed books!
Other land records that might prove essential in solving genealogy puzzles are mortgages.
In some states like New Jersey, mortgages were recorded locally earlier than deeds and sometimes survive for earlier years than do deeds.
A mortgage is a promise by a borrower to repay a loan using real estate as collateral—in effect deeding title to the real estate to the creditor if the loan is not repaid.
A similar instrument called a deed of trust, or trust deed, performs the same function with the exception that a third-party trustee takes title if the loan is not paid back in full. In the early years, mortgages and trust deeds were usually contracted with private individuals, but as the banking industry grew in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they began to be taken out with banks instead of private persons.
The two parties involved in a mortgage are the “mortgagor” and the “mortgagee.” Indexes can often be found for mortgages using those terms.
However, sometimes early mortgages and trust deeds were recorded in the same books as deeds, so keep an eye out for them.
And remember: the mortgagor is the borrower, while the mortgagee is the creditor.
Don’t be put off by their sometimes-confusing terminology. Old mortgages and trust deeds are some of the most underused land records in existence—yet they can sometimes be the key that unlocks the door to that next ancestor. Don’t overlook them!
4. Tax Records
One other land record that could crack the case is land tax records. Everyone who owned land had to pay taxes on it, at least in theory. Sometimes, land tax books include notations about one person inheriting land from another, or more commonly, the change in owner’s name from one year to the next can indicate inheritance of the land. The absence of a deed or will showing the transfer might be explained by checking the land tax books.
“14th Dec. 1786 Received of Mr. James Brooks Six pounds, Eighteen Shillings and four pence in full for the balance of Samuel Wood Estate Land Tax for 1784 & Half tax for 85.” John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.
The Law of the Land: Primogeniture and Genealogy
In some cases, the inheritance and real estate laws of the time might allow you to make a determination of parentage even without a will or deed stating the suspected relationship.
The legal concept of primogeniture, or inheritance of land by the first-born son, was in force in many parts of the Thirteen Colonies until soon after independence, especially in the southern and middle colonies. Thus, when a land owner died, his first-born son would often inherit all or most of his land if he died intestate, or without a will.
The emergence of one man as the owner of a given piece of land in place of the previous owner, either as the seller, or “grantor,” in a deed or in the land tax records, could indicate that the previous owner died and the land was inherited by his “heir-at-law,” the first-born son. There might not be any record of this transfer, so knowing the “law of the land” can prove to be instrumental in cracking the case.
In these and many other ways, land records can be used to find direct and indirect evidence of family and other types of relationships, often when no other record does—or even survives. It is for this reason that land records research must be part of any reasonably exhaustive genealogical investigation.
Where to Find Land Records
In some areas, land records are the only records that survive which state relationships or can be used to provide indirect evidence of them.
They also are useful in establishing biographical timelines for ancestors, and to learn more about their lives. They can sometimes also be used to identify the location of ancestor’s farms and sometimes even their original homes, so that today’s genealogists can often literally walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. But where are those records now?
It used to be that if you wanted to do genealogy the right way, one of your first stops had to be at the county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is still a good practice, as many treasures held within the walls of the hundreds of courthouses scattered across this land are not microfilmed, digitized, or abstracted, and likely never will be.
The Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk are therefore often the genealogist’s best friends. So, planning a trip to the courthouse or archive where land records are held is still a good idea.
Smyth County, VA courthouse records (Image credit: Margaret Linford.)
But many of us live far away from where our ancestors owned land and lived out their lives. How can we access these records if we don’t have the time or budget to travel to the areas in question?
Thankfully, the digital revolution has made researching land records and other types of documents much easier, but often still time consuming and at times overwhelming.
The land records held at the state level for “state land” states (the original thirteen colonies and the states formed from them such as Maine and Kentucky) are usually indexed. They can often be accessed digitally at the website for the state archives, commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, or can be ordered via correspondence with the archive.
In states that were part of the old Northwest Territory, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as the other public land states (any state formed under the Constitution that was not carved out of one of the original colonies), grants from the federal government to the first recorded owner of that land can be found at the Government Land Office site created by the Bureau of Land Management. Their website (available here) allows searches for names of individuals who purchased federal land in public land states. You can even view the digital images of the land grants, including the signature of the President of the United States at the time.
Example of a land patent image.
Other types of records associated with federal land, include:
- applications for public domain land grants,
- Homestead Act applications,
- Freedman’s Bureau land records,
- and bounty land warrants and applications for veterans.
These are all held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Many of these records also state relationships and add rich detail about the lives of ancestors. However, most of these records have never been digitized and must be searched in person or requested via the National Archives’ online order service.
(Editor’s note: Learn more about land records at the National Archives here.)
Land records at the county or town level are still held at the local county courthouse or archive, if they survive. Many jurisdictions have digitized their land records and made them available online, in many cases for free. This can sometimes include the entire run of a county’s land records, back to the formation of the county. County clerks and recorders will also sometimes do research via correspondence, though most are unable to do so due to time constraints.
Land Records at FamilySearch
Most importantly in the field of land records research from a genealogical perspective is the massive digitization project undertaken by FamilySearch, the website for the genealogical Society of Utah.
Millions of land records from all across the United States, and even some from other countries, are available at their website free of charge—and viewable either from the comfort of your own home or at a Family History Center or the Family History Library itself, depending on the license agreement FamilySearch has with the original repository.
This vast trove of land records is almost completely unindexed by FamilySearch and will thus not appear in results using their “Records” search page. They must instead be searched in the “Catalog” search page. (Editor’s note: learn how to search unindexed records at FamilySearch by reading our article: Browse-Only Databases at FamilySearch are Easy to Use.)
Despite not being indexed by FamilySearch, the digitized microfilms themselves usually have indexes, either in separate volumes or at the beginnings or ends of the digitized individual deed books.
Most of the digitized land records made available by FamilySearch date from 1900 or before, so a trip to the courthouse might still be warranted for most twentieth-century deeds and more recent land records research. If all else fails, don’t forget to ask the recorder or clerk for help if you have a limited research goal, such as one deed copy—you just might be surprised how eager and willing they are to help.
If the land records you need are unavailable online or are held in a remote location, consider hiring a professional genealogist to go to the courthouse in person on your behalf. Legacy Tree Genealogists has a worldwide network of onsite researchers who can obtain nearly any record that still exists in most areas. Learn more here about how we can assist you in the search for your ancestors and the records of their sometimes only tangible piece of the American dream—land!
(Editor’s note: Our links to Legacy Tree Genealogists are affiliate links and we’ll be compensated – at no cost to you – if you use it when you visit their website. This page includes a discount code for full service projects, or scroll to the bottom of the page for information about their 45-minute genealogy consultations. Thank you for helping to keep our articles and the Genealogy Gems Podcast free. )
Indeed, land ownership was more widespread in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States than most any other nation on earth. So the good news is that there’s a good chance that some of your ancestors were land owners. However you access them, land records are absolutely critical for success in genealogy and should be thoroughly examined whenever possible. You’ll be glad you did.
Jaye Drummond is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit their website here.
Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 209
with Lisa Louise Cooke
In today’s episode:
- David Ouimette of FamilySearch is known to his colleagues as “the Indiana Jones of genealogy” because of his globe-trotting adventures in curating record treasures. He joins us to talk about the millions of records being digitized around the world right now.
- Lots of excited emails from you!
- Compiled military service records from Military Minutes expert Michael Strauss
GENEALOGY GEMS EVENTS
Thanks for a great seminar, Texas Czech Genealogical Society! (shown right: the beautiful items you see in the foreground are Czech crystal and other traditional items)
Jake’s Texas Tea House, Waco, TX
Bill at Jakes
Magnolia Market at the Silos
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Develop your search superpowers to uncover information about your family history on the web with Google at lightning speed! Explore tools like Image search, facial recognition, finding specific types of files, how to find the answers you need, and more. Click here to watch a class preview; click here to become a Genealogy Gems Premium member.
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INTERVIEW: DAVID OUIMETTE OF FAMILYSEARCH
David Ouimette, CG, manages Content Strategy at FamilySearch. He has conducted research and analyzed archival materials in dozens of countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. David lectures regularly and has written for genealogists, including Finding Your Irish Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide.
Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton is the author of “Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites.” (discontinued) Use this jammed-packed cheat sheet to quickly and easily compare the most important features of the four biggest international genealogy records membership websites: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. Consult it every time your research budget, needs or goals change!
Start creating fabulous, irresistible videos about your family history with Animoto.com. You don’t need special video-editing skills: just drag and drop your photos and videos, pick a layout and music, add a little text and voila! You’ve got an awesome video! Try this out for yourself at Animoto.com. Use coupon code YEAR15 for 15% off annual plans through 12/31/17.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.
MILITARY MINUTES: COMPILED MILITARY SERVICE RECORDS
If a clue found in your ancestor’s US draft registration records listed military service you will want next to search for his Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR).
The Compiled Military Service Records (often abbreviated at CMSR or CSR) record the name, unit, and period of service of the veteran along with information related to military service from the Revolutionary War to the end of the hostilities of the Philippine Insurrection after the turn of the 20th century.
The information varies greatly from each of the war periods that recorded this information. Besides the identifying features listed above, they typically contain muster in/out information, rank in/out details and further highlight the soldier career by recording promotions, prisoner of war memorandums, casualties, and a number of personnel papers which may include enlistment papers and other related documents. Several of the war periods also provide physical descriptions of the soldiers including; name, age, nativity, occupation, height, hair, eyes, and complexion information. This set of records represents the volunteer Army and doesn’t include regular Army enlistments. Except for limited records of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 for the Navy, the other branches of the military (including Navy, Marines, and Revenue Cutter Service) all have their equivalent set of records.
Your ancestor may have multiple entries in the CMSR. This could occur if a soldier served in more than one unit, or in the case of John LeMaster, who enlisted in two different armies. The Civil War divided our nation, testing the loyalty of all persons who lived during this time. Lemaster chose the Confederacy (as least initially) when in 1861 in Charlestown, VA he enlisted with the 2nd VA Infantry fighting alongside of his Brigade commander Thomas J. Jackson who later would be known as “Stonewall Jackson.” (Photos: John H. Lemaster and his family in Martinsburg, WV. Photos courtesy of Michael Strauss.)
After the Confederate loss at the battle of Gettysburg he deserted and lived in Martinsburg in what was now West Virginia where on his Draft Registration he was listed as a deserter from the Rebel Army. In 1864 he enlisted in the United States Army with the 3rd WV Cavalry, serving out the duration of the war until 1865. After the war he was granted a federal pension, with no mention of his former service in the Confederacy.
Shown on following pages: his military service records for both the Confederate and Union armies.
Access various CMSR indexes and images online at the following:
Revolutionary War. Compiled Military Service Record images are online for CT, DE, GA, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, NC, PA, RI, SC, VT, VA, and Continental Troops. Genealogists should also search the local state where their ancestors were from as some Militia isn’t included in these records.
During the Revolutionary War additional Compiled Service Records were completed for the Navy, which was broken down to include Naval Personnel, Quartermaster General, and Commissary General Departments.
One additional set of CMSR images covered Revolutionary War service along with Imprisonment Cards. Click here
Old Wars (1784-1811). After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States government sought to maintain a regular Army. However, volunteer soldiers who served from 1784-1811 were recorded. (One of the reasons for volunteers to be called up would have included the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793.) Their Compiled Military Service Record full images are available online here.
War of 1812. Compiled Military Service Records Indexes are online for CT, DE, DC, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MD, MA, MI, MS, MO, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VT, VA and also the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Shawanoe Indians along with United States Volunteers. Full copies of CMSR are online for the Chickasaw and Creek Indians, along with the men from Lake Erie and Mississippi.
Indian Wars. Compiled Military Service Records Indexes are online for the various Indians wars from 1815-1858.
Mexican War. Compiled Military Service Record indexes are online for AL, AR, CA, FL, GA, IL, IN, IA, KY, LA, MD, DC, MA, MI, MS, MO, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, WI, and the Mormon Battalion and the United States Volunteers. Full copies of the CMSR are online for AR, MS, PA, TN, TX, and the Mormon Battalion.
Civil War. Click here to search:
- Union: Indexes are online for AZ, CA, CO, CT, IL, IN, IA, KS, ME, MA, MI, MN, MO, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, VT, WA, WI, United States Veteran Volunteers, and Veteran Reserve Corps. Full copies of CMSR for AL, AR, CA, CO, Dakota Territory, DE, DC, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MA, MS, MO, NE, NV, NM, NC, OR, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WV, United States Colored Troops, United States Volunteers, and 1st NY Engineers.
- Confederate: indexes are online for AL, and VA. Full copies of CMSR are online for AL, AZ, AK, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MO, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, VA, Miscellaneous, Volunteers, Indians, and Officers.
Spanish American War. Compiled Military Service Record Indexes are online for AL, AR, CA, CO, CT, Dakota Territory, DE, DC, FL, GA, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, PR, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY, and United States Volunteers.
Full copies of CMSR are online for FL.
Revolutionary War. Full copies of the Compiled Military Service Records for CT, DE, GA, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, NC, PA, RI, SC, VT, VA, and Continental Troops. This database often doesn’t list the local militia as most of the men listed were part of the continental line. Researchers can access this group of records and search by keyword or location. Search here
Old Wars. This database is an index and full images of the Compiled Military Service Records of those men who served after the Revolutionary War and before the War of 1812, covering the years of 1784-1811.
War of 1812. Abstracted lists of names, state, and military units from the Compiled Service Records (no images). Search here
Indian Wars: Database with images for Florida: includes the Florida Wars, Second Creek War, and the Third Seminole War from 1835-1858
Mexican War. Full copies of the CMSR are online for MS, PA, TN, TX, and the Mormon Battalion. Search here
- Union:Compiled Military Service Records are searchable, with a link to the collection on Fold3 here
- Confederate: Compiled Military Service Records are searchable, with a link to Fold3 to view original images here. An additional set of Service Records comes from units that were raised by the Confederate Government and not from any of the states that comprised the Confederacy. The CMSR are available online to view the images and searchable by military unit here.
Spanish American War. Compiled Military Service Record Indexes are online that cover the same geographical areas as on Fold3 here. Full copies of CMSR are online on Ancestry for Florida here.
Free at FamilySearch.org:
Family Search has fewer Compiled Military Service Records available online that include images. One of the major collections includes the Revolutionary War CMSR’s that when searched here, the images provide a direct link to Fold3.
Most of the other major war periods are microfilmed and available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. With online access through both Fold3 and Ancestry provided on the computers in the library, accessing the film is less desirable.
Free video helps you visualize where historic newspapers are located in the US
Suzanne’s comment: “Did you realize that this site from the Georgia Tech Research Institute is actually a wonderful search engine for Chronicling America.loc.gov. website? I have used the LOC site often, but found it cumbersome sometimes. This is a real time saver. Thanks for the Genealogy Gem.”
Lisa’s tip: In the timeline you can specify a date, like 1860 (date and month too!), then press play and it will play back and reveal the locations on mentions of your search query coming forward in time. It would be really interesting to take a word or phrase and see when it first occurred. This is a very feature-rich website!
A short YouTube video documentary on Leavittown: it’s a great example of the do-it-yourself video narratives you can make to tell your own family’s stories!
KEEP UP WITH GENEALOGY GEMS
Listen to the Genealogy Gems Podcast twice a month! Check in on or after October 26, 2017 for Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 210. What’s coming? Paul Woodbury of Legacy Tree Genealogists will share some great tips for beginning Swedish genealogy?and much more!
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Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager
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When it comes to digitized newspapers on genealogy websites, Findmypast is a clear headliner. The site already hosts millions of U.S., British, and Irish newspaper pages–and their British collection is about to DOUBLE. Extra, extra, read all about it!
Here at Genealogy Gems, we regularly compare features of leading genealogy websites, or as we refer to them, the “Genealogy Giants:” Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Today’s topic: digitized newspapers.
It may surprise you to hear that digitized historical newspapers aren’t a big part of the collections at all four giant genealogy websites. In fact, only one site–Findmypast–offers access to millions of exclusive British and Irish newspaper pages and a major U.S. newspaper database (which is usually just available at libraries).
Why mention it now? Because a good thing just got better: Findmypast plans to double its British newspaper content over the next two years.
Digitized Newspaper Treasures at Findmypast.com
Findmypast’s enormous genealogy collections focus on the countries of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Findmypast and The British Library have been working together for several years on The British Newspaper Archive, now home to more than 22.5 million newspaper pages dating from the 1700s. But what many people might not realize is that these same newspaper pages are also available to Findmypast subscribers.
You can search newspaper pages on Findmypast by name (first and last) and by other keywords, such as an occupation, street address, event or another word that might be associated with your family in newspaper articles. You can narrow the date range of papers searched and even target specific newspapers:
Original bound newspaper volumes at the British Library. Image from The British Newspaper Archive.
And it gets better. Findmypast just announced that over the next two years, it will nearly double its digitized newspaper collections! It is scanning over 12 million pages from the largest private newspaper collection in the UK: the Trinity Mirror archives. Over 150 local papers from across the U.K. are included. These pages have never been made available online, but will be on both The British Newspaper Archive and Findmypast. The project is already underway and moving along rapidly: up to 100,000 pages per week.
According to a press release, “The program builds on an existing partnership that has already resulted in the digitization and online publication of upwards of 160 Trinity Mirror titles, including significant coverage of both World Wars. Published online for the very first time, these war-time publications also included the Archive’s first national titles, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Herald.”
TIP: If you are interested in accessing British newspapers, but not needing the full range of genealogy resources offered at Findmypast, consider purchasing PayAsYouGo credits from Findmypast. You can purchase 60-900 at a time and “spend” them to view individual search results, including newspapers. You can also subscribe separately to The British Newspaper Archive.
More Digitized Newspapers on Genealogy Websites
The other giant genealogy websites do offer some newspaper content–indexed, imaged, or both. Here’s a short summary of what you’ll find on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, and MyHeritage:
Ancestry.com’s subscription options.
Ancestry.com: This giant site does offer some digitized newspaper content, including images connected to indexed names in Historical [U.S.] Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements, 1851-2003, Australia’s New South Wales Government Gazettes, 1853-1899 and Canada’s Ottawa Journal (Birth, Marriage and Death Notices), 1885-1980. But Ancestry.com’s biggest newspaper collections are mostly indexed obituaries (not images of the actual newspaper pages). Ancestry.com subscribers who want major access to digitized newspapers should consider upping their subscription to “All Access,” which includes Basic access to Newspapers.com.
FamilySearch: Millions of indexed obituaries are searchable by name on its free website, but it doesn’t generally offer any digitized newspaper pages. Of its billion+ historical record images, FamilySearch prioritizes more “core” genealogical records, such as vital records, censuses, and passenger lists.
MyHeritage.com: This site used to have access to NewspaperARCHIVE, the same U.S. newspaper database Findmypast currently offers, but it doesn’t now. It’s got new collections of Ohio (4.5 million pages from 88 sources) and New York (1.9 million pages from 56 sources) newspapers and access to the Jewish Chronicle [England]. But the bulk of its newspaper search results come from searching two other websites: Chronicling America and Trove, run by the national libraries of the United States and Australia, respectively. While it’s convenient to search them from MyHeritage if you are already using it, it’s not a reason to subscribe, as you can use those sites for free.
More Inside Tips on the Genealogy Giants
Genealogy Gems is your home for ongoing coverage and insight into the four ‘genealogy giants’ websites. Click here to learn more and to watch the RootsTech 2017 world premiere of my popular lecture that puts these big sites head-to-head. Genealogy Gems has published my ultimate quick reference guide, “Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites.” It distills that hour-long lecture (and I was talking fast!) into a concise, easy-to-read format that will help you know which websites are best for you to use right now.
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!
In this post I’m going to answer common questions about the best strategy for creating and maintaining your family tree data.
Should I build my family tree online?
This is a question I get in various forms quite often from Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners. But there’s really more to this question than meets the eye. Today’s family historian needs a master game plan for how they will not only build their family tree, but where they will build it, and where they will share it.
On the podcast I describe it this way:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
I’m going to explain what I mean by this by starting at the beginning.
When You Start Your Family Tree
If you’re new to researching your family’s history, you probably started out with one of the big genealogy websites, such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, or FamilySearch. I refer to them as the Genealogy Giants because they have millions of genealogical records, and they offer you the tools to build your family tree on their website. (Learn more about what each of the Genealogy Giants websites have to offer here in this handy comparison guide.)
These sites make it easy to start entering information about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents either on their website or through their mobile app. But should you do that?
My answer is, “not so fast!” Let’s think through the long-term game plan for this important information that is your family’s legacy.
Family is Forever
Genealogy is a hobby that lasts a lifetime. It’s nearly impossible to run out of ancestors or stories to explore.
But have you noticed that websites don’t last forever? And even if they do, their services and tools will undoubtedly change over time.
And there are many, many genealogy websites out there. A large number of them will encourage you or even require you to start creating an online family tree on their site in order to get the most value from the tools that they offer for your research.
As you work with these different genealogy websites, you may start to feel like your tree is getting scattered across the web. It’s easy to find yourself with different versions of your tree, unsure of which one is the most accurate and complete version.
It’s this inevitable situation that leads to my conclusion that you build and protect a master version of your family tree. I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t use an online tree. In fact, regardless of whether you do, you need a “Master Family Tree.”
Plant Your “Master Family Tree” in Your Own Backyard
What do I mean when I say that you should plant your “master family tree” in your own backyard? I’m talking about using a genealogy database software program that resides on your own computer. Let’s explore that further.
A master family tree has three important characteristics:
- It is owned and controlled by you.
- It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
- It is protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
Your Master Family Tree
1. Your master family tree is owned and controlled by you.
If you create an online family tree on a genealogy website (or in the case of FamilySearch’s global online tree, you add your information to it) you have given final control of that information to the company who owns the website.
In order to own and control your tree, you will need a genealogy database software program installed on your own computer. I use RootsMagic (and I’m proud to have them as a sponsor of the Genealogy Gems Podcast) but there are other programs as well.
A genealogy database software program is installed on your computer. The program and the data you enter into it belongs to you and is under your personal control.
Genealogy databases allow you to not only easily enter data, but also to export it. If you wish to use a different program later, or add your existing data to an online tree, you can export your family tree data as a universally accepted GEDCOM file. (Learn more about GEDCOM files in this article.)
2. It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
As you research your family tree, you will come to important conclusions, such as an ancestor’s birthdate or the village in which they were born. It can take a while to prove your findings are accurate, but once you do, you need one location in which to keep those findings. And most importantly, you must be able to cite the sources for that information. That one location for all this activity is your genealogy database.
However, the nature of genealogy research is that it can take some digging to prove the information is correct. During the process of that research you may find information that you aren’t sure about, and it can be helpful to attach it to the online tree that you have at the same website where you found the information. That gives you a way to hang on to it and keep researching. You can always remove it later. We’ll talk more about strategies for using online family trees a little bit later.
Once you are convinced that the information is correct, then its final resting place is your Master Family Tree. You enter the information and add source citations. This way, whenever you need an accurate view of where you are in your completed family tree research, you can turn to one location: your genealogy database software and the Master Family Tree it contains.
3. It’s protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
Your family tree isn’t safe unless the database file is backed up to the cloud.
Who among us hasn’t had a computer malfunction or die?
It isn’t good enough to simply back up your computer files to an external hard drive, because that external hard drive is still in your house. If your house is damaged or burglarized, chances are both will be affected.
Another problem with backing up to an external hard drive is that they can malfunction and break. And of course, there is the problem of remembering to back it up on a regular basis.
Cloud backup solves all these problems by backing up your files automatically and storing them safely in an offsite location.
Cloud backup is actually very simple to install and requires no work on your part once it’s up and running. (We’ve got an article here that will walk you through the process.)
There are many cloud backup services available. I use Backblaze (which you can learn more about here). As a genealogist I have a checklist of features that are important to me, and Backblaze checked all the boxes.
Regardless of which service you choose the important thing is to not wait another day to set it up. This protection is a critical part of your Master Family Tree plan.
Using Online Family Trees
Now that you have your own database on your own computer that is backed up to the cloud for protection, let’s talk about strategic ways that you can use online family trees.
First, it’s important to realize that you don’t have to create a tree on a genealogy website just because they prompt you to do so. While there are benefits for you to doing so, the company who owns that website actually benefits tremendously as well.
In today’s world, data is very valuable. I encourage you to read the terms of service and other fine print (I know, it’s boring!) because it will explain the ownership and potential use of that data.
While it’s not the focus of this article, it’s important to understand that other industries are interested in family history data, and data may be shared or sold (with or without identifying information, depending on the terms).
But as I say, there are benefits to using online family trees. These benefits include:
- Hints – Online family trees generate research hints on the Genealogy Giants websites and some of the other websites that offer trees.
- Cousin Connection – Online family trees offer you an opportunity to possibly connect with other relatives who find your tree.
- DNA – Online family trees can now dovetail with your DNA test results (if you took a test with the company where your tree resides). This can offer you additional research avenues.
These benefits can be helpful indeed. However, problems can arise too. They include:
- Copying – When you tree is public other users of the website can copy and redistribute your information including family photos.
- Errors – If you discover an error in your tree, you may fix it, but chances are it has already been widely copied and distributed by other users.
- Email – If you have your entire tree online and your email notifications are active, you may receive an onslaught of hints for people in your tree. Often these are very distant cousins that you are not actively researching. And let’s face it, the emails can be annoying and distract your focus from your targeted research. For example, as of this writing at Ancestry.com you can’t select which ancestors you want to receive email hint notifications for. You can only select hints for the entire tree.
So, let’s review my strategy:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
Now that you’ve planted your tree in your own backed up software, let’s explore the ways in which you can share branches online.
Targeted Online Family Trees
Many people don’t realize that you don’t have to add your entire tree to a website. You can just add parts of your tree.
For example, I may just put my direct ancestors in my tree (grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth). This can still be a fairly larger number of people. I may want to include their siblings because they grew up in the same household. But I can leave out the far-reaching branches and relatives that really don’t have a direct impact on that line of research.
You can also have multiple trees that focus on specific areas of your research that are important to you.
Exploratory Online Family Trees
Some genealogists also create trees that represent a working theory that they have. This type of tree can help expose where the problems or inaccuracies lie. As you research the theory and as hints arise it can become very clear that a relationship does not exist after all.
An exploratory tree is an excellent reminder that we can’t and shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s intent or purpose with their online tree. I’ve heard from many people who are angry about inaccuracies they find in other people’s trees. But we can’t know their purpose, and therefore, it really isn’t our place to judge.
However, it is a fair argument that a good practice would be to clearly mark these exploratory trees accordingly to deter other users from blindly copying and replicating the inaccurate information. An easy way to do this is in the title or name of the tree. For example, a tree could be titled “Jonas Smith Tree UNPROVEN”.
Creating multiple, limited trees can be an effective strategy for conducting targeted online research that only generates hints and connections for those ancestors that you are interested in at the current time.
And remember, you can remove any of your trees at any time. For example, you can delete an exploratory tree that has served its purpose and helped you prove or disprove a relationship.
Plan Now for Success
A family tree can seem like a simple thing, but as you can see there’s more to it than meets the eye. A bit of planning now can ensure that your family tree stays healthy and growing.
About the Author
Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
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