I have been doing a lot of Family History work over the last few months, and while I won’t bore you with who I’ve found or what I have found out, I did want to share some useful tips with you that I have learned while searching.
First, the main website I have been using is FamilySearch.org. It has lots of records from all around the world and it’s all FREE to use and access. Ancestry.com is far superior to FamilySearch, but it isn’t free and I am hesitant to make the monthly payments of $24.95/month(World Access) for a 1-year subscription (there’s different prices depending on your needs and length of payments), although they do a free 14-day trial.
Anyways, on FamilySearch I have learned a lot about Census Records. They are very helpful in many ways as you search for your family. If you know the parents names, using a census can help you find their kids. This is especially useful when you look at all the census records for one family (1850, 60, 70, 80, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 US Census records are all on family search as well as some state censuses). You may find a child/sibling on one but not on the next. This might help you find a lost child, because they died young or whatnot. Also, you might even find the mother-in-law or mother living with the family which will help you go back another generation, or you might find a brother/sister/cousin/aunt or some other relation living with the family.
Census records can also help you determine if a man or woman ever married or if they were a spinster, bachelor, single, or widowed. Some of the census records list where their parents were born. This can be very helpful as you try to identify if a record is really YOUR ancestor, however, I have noticed that from census to census it might not read the same, especially if they were foreign born or out-of-state. This probably has more to do with the person recording/writing down the census, so just be careful and use your best judgment.
I really enjoy the census records that have both the month and year for the people on the record. This can help you find death dates for example if they ever registered for Social Security. But, without the month and year, most of the birth year are estimates and could easily be off depending on when in the year the Census was taken since they only wrote down the ages. Some records also have the immigration year which can assist you in determining if the family is your ancestor as well.
I have learned a lot too about how to use the search engine on FamilySearch. If you are looking up a woman, for example, use her maiden name to find her parents, and maybe even a marriage certificate, but if you want to find records of her after she’s married, it’s often helpful to enter her married name as her last name, if you know it. If you know someone’s exact year they were born, you can enter +/- zero to only see records for that year, which cuts down the amounts of records shown by a large amount! This can be very helpful if they had a SSN, since SS Death Records are available on Family Search.
Another website I use that is not guaranteed accurate is Findagrave.com. It’s not always helpful as they certainly do not have every grave marker in the world in it, or even close to that, but it can be helpful finding death dates, birth dates, and infant children. For me it has been very helpful in locating several Mississippi ancestors (Josh’s side) that were difficult for me to find using FamilySearch since it does not have Mississippi marriage, birth, or death certificates yet available on-line, just the US Census. So, using birth dates and names I have been able to look up many of these people and find their spouses and children, since on many grave pages they have family links. However, be careful about the family links. They are not always true or correct. I saw a child link for a parent who was younger than the child they supposedly had! Obviously not correct. The fun thing about the findagrave website is that more recently deceased individuals may have obituaries or family remembrances on their grave page! This helps bring these people to life! Sometimes there are even pictures of the deceased! Most pages have at least a picture of the cemetery (knowing where a person is buried can help you search), and the grave marker. If there is no grave marker picture, you can request one! The website is run by volunteers! In fact you could volunteer to go to your local cemeteries and take pictures for someone else. Many graves also record military service as well.
When searching for a woman on findagrave, make sure to click the Maiden name box or look up their married name as their last name (since maiden names weren’t always know). Also, if you know of a family cemetery or a cemetery many relatives were buried in, you can look up the cemetery itself and all the people buried there. You can also narrow down a search by a country (outside the US there aren’t too many graves listed) or state. Also, try different spellings of the first names or last names or even nicknames. Or, if you know their name began with a certain letter you can just enter that letter and it will search for any name that starts with that letter, same for the last names. And if you know what year they were born/died you can enter that which can greatly limit the number of returns you get on a search especially for common names, but don’t forget to plus or minus a year if nothing comes up, just to check if yours or their dates are wrong.
Also, to better keep track of everything, you can download a PAF, Personal Ancestry File- for free here and/or you can use the FamilySearch tool here. Or you can simply use a GEDCOM file at this website (if you’re non-LDS you might like this better). There’s lots of sites out there where you can start your family tree.
These are the tricks and things I have learned over the last few months that I have found successful. I know of other things to do (like request documents from county courthouses) but I’ve been trying to do all my searching for free. If you have any useful hints or secrets to your Family History searching let me know! Or if you have any questions, ask!