It wasn't until last January that I discovered that the Internet contains much more historical information than one might think, and best of all, it's free! This guide is targeted at anybody that wants to start researching their own family and has a few hours to kill.
Note: I live in the United States and many of my ancestors have lived here as well. If your family has more recent immigrants or is not from the US, you may have a more difficult time.
Things you need
- A basic knowledge of your immediate family history
This means at least your grandparents, and in some cases, your great grandparents. I already knew much of this information when I started, but if you don't know, your parents can probably help you out.
- A free Ancestry.com account
Ancestry.com is more than an ad campaign; it's actually a very useful website. That said, their registration process is very confusing. To create a free account, you can either sign up through the mobile application (see the next point) or visit trees.ancestry.com. You're going to be using the Ancestry.com Family Tree tools, so you might as well enter accurate information to your initial tree.
- Access to the Ancestry.com mobile app (for iOS or Android)
This isn't strictly required, but it is extremely helpful. When you use Ancestry's family tree tools, it automatically searches the Ancestry database for more information about the people you add. Possible matches appear as "hints," and without a paid subscription you cannot view these hints on their website. The mobile app, however, will allow you to view much more of the hint information even though it won't be automatically added to your tree - you have to add it yourself.
Starting Your Family Tree
To begin, enter as much information as you can. If you're concerned about privacy, you do not have to enter birth dates or full names of you, your siblings, your parents, or anybody else within two generations. It is probably a good idea to start entering full information for your grandparents. The reason for this is that US Censuses, a large source of information for the amateur genealogist, have a "72 year rule," which prevents past censuses newer than 72 years from being released to the public for security reasons. Therefore, the older the person, the more information about their parents, siblings, and children there will be.
Once you have a reasonably accurate starter tree, switch to the Ancestry mobile app (if you have it) and start looking at hints. You won't be able to "accept" hints into your tree, but if you find new information, you can add it manually to a person in your tree. Oftentimes, adding a full name, birth date, or death date will allow Ancestry to find more hints on the person, adding even more information. I was able to increase my initial family tree by about 50% on hints alone.
Filling in the Gaps (Useful Tools)
FamilySearch.org - Say what you will about the Church of Latter-day Saints, but their efforts are what make online genealogy possible. FamilySearch is just one site of many (including Ancestry.com) associated with the Church. Many of the same collections of records used by Ancestry are available for free on FamilySearch, which is useful if you want a closer look at a record or if Ancestry isn't finding any hints.
FindAGrave.com - Graves of family members are especially useful if you don't know full names or birth and death dates. If you can't or don't want to physically visit the grave site, Find A Grave may have the information you're looking for. Most of the information is submitted by volunteers, so you may be out of luck if nobody has catalogued the cemeteries you need.
Obituaries - Obituaries provide a wealth of information about the deceased, many times including the names of parents and children. Most obituaries that you will find online will be of recently (last ~10 years) deceased relatives. If your parents or grandparents keep obituaries from funerals long past, you might want to ask to borrow them and then type them up for future use.
Old Books - I am constantly surprised by the sheer tonnage of old, written material available on any given subject. I was lucky enough to find information about a few of my ancestors in an old book about the history of the Minnesota county that they lived in. Many of these books are digitized and free on Archive.org. This might not work for you, but it is worth a search.
Historical Society Websites - Many local historical societies have physical copies of census records and other genealogy information available, but often you cannot search it for free. Their websites may provide you other resources for local information, however. I was directed to dalbydata.com, which is an incredible, volunteer-run database of transcribed obituaries, city directories, and cemetery information for southeast Minnesota. With luck, perhaps there is a volunteer-run website for your area, too.
Google (or other search engine) - If you're stuck on an ancestor with a relatively uncommon name, it can't hurt to Google it. If you're lucky, another descendent of that person has out up information about them on a personal website or something similar. Be sure to verify that it is indeed the person you're looking for, though.
Less Useful Tools
EllisIsland.org - I list this as "less useful" because I was never able to find any of my ancestors on it, even though I'm fairly certain some of them came though Ellis Island. Interestingly enough, much of the information on this website is available thanks to the LDS Church.
RootsWeb - Although it is now owned by Ancestry, RootsWeb is a genealogy website dating back to the 90's. Information is entirely user-submitted, and I was lucky enough to find a bit of information, but you might not be.
Ancestry.com Forums - The Ancestry message boards are over a decade old and might contain information (and sometimes stories) from members. They are not easily searchable and did not contain a lot of information for me, but again, you may have better luck.
Expanding Your Tree
When you feel confident that you have gotten as much information as possible from free sources, I recommend starting an Ancestry.com free trial. This will allow you to "accept" hints into your tree, view other public trees from other members, and possibly see old photographs of common ancestors that other members have put up on Ancestry. I would recommend signing up for a free trial of the World Explorer membership, but BE SURE TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION BEFORE THE FREE TRIAL ENDS. Memberships are very expensive and if you're not careful, you could be charged. I had no trouble canceling my trial a few days in advance.
Through this free membership, I approximately doubled the information in my family tree thanks to other member trees that I was able to connect with.
I was extremely surprised to find out that so much information is public. To share my information, I set up a wiki (with MediaWiki) on our home server, so I could upload pictures and categorize people by cemetery, military involvement, etc. Of course, no amount of online searching can compare to primary sources, so be sure to include your other interested relatives in your research, too!