Genealogy on the Internet
By Jim Rice
The first question to address is, “what kinds of records exist that may be useful in our genealogical research?” What we generally want are records that at least identify our ancestors or relatives in the right times and places and hopefully give us information that link us to them. Trying to categorize all the records that might exist and be of interest would be very hard to do, and I won’t even try. However, I have found that a good way of trying to envision the records that might exist and be of interest to us is to think of the timeline of a person’s life. We are born, we may go to school, be recorded in census records, be orphaned and have guardianship records, get married, serve in the military, own land, pay taxes, belong to a church or a professional or fraternal organization. And lastly, it is for sure that we will all eventually die, possibly having a will or estate administration and maybe a death record, an obituary or an inscribed tombstone. Also, if our parents or we were foreign born, we may have immigration and naturalization records.
The question then is, “where to find the records that may be available online and what will it cost us to access them?” Whereas online genealogies are, for the most part, accessible without having to pay a subscription charge, that is not as much the case with online records. In the following, I will identify the major records sources I have found and routinely use and will, later in the article, try to show other ways to do broader searches for records.
1. Broad Searches for Online Records Source
Before I get into the details of major resource sites, I want to suggest a couple of ways of doing broad searches for sources of online records, namely searching in Cyndi’s List and doing advanced Google searches.
a. Cyndi’s List
You may already be familiar with Cyndi’s List. It is a site that currently has links to over 264,000 web pages with information of value in genealogical research. If you go to http://www.cyndislist.com/, look to the right and do a Google search for the various records categories outlined above (birth records, marriage records, census records, etc.), you should, in each case, get one or more pages of links to Cyndi's List pages with links to sites having those types of records. A search for Death Records yielded several useful Cyndi’s List hits.
b. Google Search
You are probably already using Google for other things, but it works well for genealogy too. If you go to http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en, Google’s Advanced Search entry page, you can do web-wide searches for genealogical records for specific locations. If you do a search for the exact phrase “probate records” (without the quotes) and with the word Georgia in the All the Words box, you will get a page showing the first ten of some 95,100 sites. You can try exploring those sites, but you can also narrow the search by adding a county name in the All the Words box. If you add Coweta as the county, you will get the first ten of 1260 page hits. If you have not yet been using Google’s Advanced Searches, you owe it to yourself to begin to learn how. It is an amazingly powerful Internet search tool.
2. Online records from the Mormon Church
I probably don’t have to tell you about the Mormon Church’s interest in genealogical research, and most of you have probably been using their records already. If you go to http://www.familysearch.org/ and then look for the Advance Search fine print heading, go to there and look to the left-hand panel, you will see the headings for the various databases they have that are searchable and available online. The Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, as noted previously, are valuable compilations of contributed genealogies. The Census, International Genealogical Index (IGI), Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and Vital Records Index databases are valuable sources of records.
a. Census Records
The Census records are limited to 1880 U.S., 1881 Canada and 1881 Britain, but they can be handy if you are searching in those locations in those time periods, and there is no charge to use them. Using these records is typical census research. You look for particular names and families, including variant spellings, in given locations. Fortunately, these 1880 and 1881 census records have everyname indexes, allowing you to search for wives and children as well as heads of household.
The IGI (International Genealogical Index) includes several hundred million entries of mostly birth, marriage, death and census records. It is an extremely valuable source and should not be overlooked. Although heavy on American records, the IGI has records from all over the world, including a very valuable collection of early parish record extractions in the United Kingdom. You may want to start in the Mormon records by doing an All Resources search for your person of interest, possibly filling in a spouse’s name or an approximate date of birth, marriage or death and then identifying the country and maybe the state or province where they were. As always, it’s better to start with a broad search and then narrow it as needed. Your All Resources search will likely yield hits in multiple databases, including the IGI, and you will need to explore them all to see which ones are of real value to you. If your person of interest was in another country and records on them exist in the databases for that country, hits there should be reported in your All Resources search.
The SSDI is a searchable database of claims filed for the U.S. Social Security Death Benefit. Although the online SSDI only goes back to about 1962, it can be of value and give you more complete names, as well as dates and places of death. With the date and place of death, you may then be able to look for a death certificate (mostly offline) and get even more information on the person. Also, hits in the SSDI will give you the person’s Social Security Number, and you may be able to order a copy of their application and get further information on them, possibly including who their parents were.
d. Vital Records Index
The Vital Records Index is a collection vital records that is currently limited to Denmark, Finland, Mexico, Norway and Sweden. It’s hard to say how complete this database is, but if you have people of interest in these five countries, you will certainly want to search for anything on them. Again, an All Resources search should pick up hits in this Vital Records Index too.
3. Online Records from GenWeb pages
Well over a decade ago, computer literate genealogists began seeing the possibility of using the Internet as a means of making research information readily available online. The idea originated in the State of Kentucky but spread rapidly to include the whole of the United States and then the world. There are now two main opening GenWeb pages, namely the U.S. GenWeb page (http://www.usgenweb.org/) and the World GenWeb page (http://worldgenweb.org/). From these two main pages, you can click your way through to various locality specific pages to see what is available. Bear in mind that these pages are the product of volunteer work and vary significantly in content. You just have to look for the ones covering the locations where records on your people of interest may exist and see if they are actually in these online databases. Also, there is no broad standard for the structure of these web pages, and you will need to explore them carefully to find your way to the records they may have for you. The big plus for all GenWeb pages research is that they are free.
Go to the above-listed U.S. GenWeb main page, and look to the left to see the list of States. If you click on Georgia, you will be taken to the Georgia GenWeb main page. Whereas there may be some things of interest on state pages, most of the records of interest will be found at the county level. From the Georgia GenWeb main page, you can click on County List to get a list of all the counties in GA, including some historical ones that no longer exist. When you click on your county of interest, you will be taken to that county’s GenWeb page and be able to explore and see what records they may have for you.
Note however, that searching the county GenWeb pages for records is often complicated by the fact that many of the counties make most of their records primarily available in a companion Archives page. Sometimes the county GenWeb page will have a link to its Archives page but not always.
If you go to https://sites.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/, you should find a listing of the various U.S. states and be able to access their archived records. If you go to Georgia, you will be able click through to a particular county and see what categories of records they have. You will, on most GA county archives pages, also be able to do various searches, including surname ones, in all or portions of a county’s records. Again, the number of records available is highly variable from county to county, but some are very good and include marriage, cemetery, military and some land and probate records. For example, if you are researching in Coweta or Oglethorpe Counties, you may be able to find a wealth of information of interest to you. One caution though. Currently, there may be sites with no provision for Soundex searches. In those cases, you will have to search variant surname spellings separately.
If you go to the previously mentioned World GenWeb page (http://worldgenweb.org/) and scroll down a bit, you should see a world map and be able to click on the various continents and subcontinents of the world. Depending on the numbers of records that have been found, the continent/subcontinent links will be broken down into regions or countries. For example, if you click on Europe, you can, on the resultant page, go to the British Isles, Central Europe, Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean GenWeb pages and, from there, to various countries and on to the included counties or provinces. What you find when you get to a county page will be highly variable but almost certainly well worth exploring. Again, delving into these pages won’t cost you anything but your time.
4. Online Records from American History and Genealogy Project pages
In April of 2000, a group of people decided to organize the American History and Genealogy Project. It is essentially a duplication of the U.S. GenWeb project, and I’m not quite sure why it got started. However, on the chance that one of their pages may have something for you that is not available from corresponding GenWeb pages, you may want to go to http://www.ahgp.org/ and click through to the state and county where your people of interest may have lived and see what you can find.
5. Online Records from Ancestry.com
Ancestry.com has emerged as one of the largest and most versatile collections of online genealogical records available today, but, with the exception of their version of the SSDI, searching their records databases generally calls for payment of a subscription fee or a trip to your local Georgia Public Library to use their subscription. A full subscription to Ancestry.com’s records currently costs about $300 per year. However, all public libraries in Georgia provide no-cost-to-you access to Ancestry.com’s records through the Ancestry Library link that is part of Georgia’s Galileo service.
It’s almost impossible to describe the full range of records available through Ancestry.com, but their collections of U.S., England and Wales census records are certainly some of their more valuable and widely used data sets. However, they have a wide range of other records databases, including many marriages, newspaper records, immigration records and military records, to mention a few.
The Ancestry Library database is not accessible from computers outside of Georgia public libraries, but I will try to describe it using my home subscription to Ancestry.com. If I go to http://www.ancestry.com/, I first get a page with their basic version of a “global” or “all resources” search entry form, and it is often worth using, especially at the outset of your search. You can enter the name of your person of interest and a location and time range and do a broad-brush search. Depending on the degree of commonality of the surname you are researching, you may get tons of hits or a selected few. You can elect to do an Advanced Search and that may be a bit more selective.
Another approach to searching Ancestry.com’s records for entries on your people of interest is to look for them in a particular U.S. state or in a foreign county. If, from my Ancestry.com main page, I look to the top and click on Search, I get a resultant page where I can scroll down to see the maps of the various world regions and of states within the U.S. I believe the Ancestry Library opening page also has the Search link and will show you the same maps. If you click on the State of Georgia in the U.S. map, you will be taken to a page listing all of Ancestry.com’s databases that may contain records on people who were in Georgia. In several categories, the databases are listed in an abbreviated form, and, to see them all, you have to click on “View all the databases” in that category. In theory, a global search on your person of interest in Georgia should reveal hits in all of the relevant Georgia databases, but, if the global search overwhelms you with hits, you may find it helpful to search the databases separately. The databases for Georgia cover many types of records, including census, military, marriage, and death, although they won’t all be really complete. For research in more recent times, the online index to GA death records can be very helpful, as can the World War I draft registration, with the latter often giving you the man’s complete name, his date of birth, his occupation and next of kin, as well as a description of his height, weight, color of hair and eyes and often an example of his signature.
Looking outside the U.S., you can, from Ancestry.com’s Search page, click on the UK & Ireland to get a map of that area of the world and then be able to click on England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, etc. to see what they have for those countries and related islands. Again, their census records for 1841-1901 in England and Wales are extremely valuable research tools if you have people who were still there in the 19th Century. However, they also have many early parish records, and each database will let you do at least a name search and maybe a location search using the Keyword box.
6. Online Records from Genealogy.com
As you may already know, one company, namely MyFamily.com, now dominates the world of commercial genealogy in the U.S. They own Ancestry.com, RootsWeb.com and Genealogy.com, with the latter being one of their more recent purchases. I’m told that Genealogy.com has some databases that Ancestry.com does not have, and I had hoped MyFamily.com would merge everything into Ancestry.com, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Also, they continue to support Genealogy.com’s World Family Tree, which is the database where you give them your genealogy and they offer to sell it back to you on a $20 or higher CD.
I have never subscribed to Genealogy.com or tried to use its services much at all, but you may want to take a look at it. If you find something that looks interesting, you could try one of their monthly subscriptions, which seem to range from about $10-$15, depending on the database.
If you go to http://www.genealogy.com/ifftop.html, you can do what they call a Family Finder Search. The search entry form requires that you enter at least a surname, but also allows you to enter given names and dates and places of birth and death. My experience has been that the search doesn’t seem to take the dates and places of birth very seriously, and, with a common name, you are going to get a results page listing hundreds, maybe thousands, of hits. Nevertheless, you may want to give it a try. Hits in their Family Home Pages, Genforum Message Board and Genealogy Web Sites can be accessed for free, but pretty much everything else is going to call for a subscription. As much as I dislike the way Genealogy.com has handled the World Family Tree and the way MyFamily.com has handled their purchase of Genealogy.com, you may find something of vital help to you in Genealogy.com’s resources and be more than willing to pay at least for a short-term subscription to gain access to it. Take a look at it.
7. Online Records from Heritage Quest
Heritage Quest (HQ) is part of Pro-Quest, another major commercial genealogy company. Through their Heritage Quest Online service, they provide for searches in their (1) U.S. Census records, (2) database of full text of over 20,000 family and local history books, (3) Periodical Search Index (Persi), (4) Revolutionary War records (5) the Freedman’s Bank records, and (6) the U.S. Serial Set in Lexis-Nexis.
HQ has a somewhat unusual setup in that individuals cannot subscribe to their services directly. However, individuals can access their services based on membership in a few genealogical societies or by being a patron of certain libraries around the country. The good news is that that public libraries in Georgia, including those in the Athens Area, are now subscribers to HQ, and patrons logon to their local library’s web page (http://www.clarke.public.lib.ga.us for the Athens Library), go to Internet Resources, then to Online Databases and then click through to the Galileo service, enter the password they have gotten from their library and the go to Databases A-Z, select the H’s and click through the HeritageQuest Online service in order to do research in this database from home.
a. Census records
In my opinion, HQ does not have quite as good a collection of census records as Ancestry.com, and they have been missing some of the indexes. In some cases, HQ’s census page images may be more readable than Ancestry.com’s, but that situation seems to be changing as Ancestry.com improves its images. Other limitations to searching HQ census records are that they have no provision for a Soundex search and that their indexes are for heads of household only. Also, note that hits take you to a two-page result, and you may need to change pages to find the entry you are actually looking for. Otherwise, this is another good source of census records and all that they can mean to your research.
b. Family and Local Histories
This is an extremely interesting and valuable HQ resource. You can search these books by people names, place names or publication names. When you get hits, you can explore them individually by clicking to View Hits or View Image. If you click on View Hits, you get a summary of the book’s table of contents with the numbers of occurrences of your surname listed in the left margin. From any of these, you can click to see the actual page images, and, in my experience, they are quite good and very readable. If you click on View Image, you normally get an image of the first page of the book and can, from there, your can browse or read the whole book or selected pages. Also, if you select View Hits and find occurrences of your name of interest in the Index, you can, from View Image, jump to the right page or pages and see what is there. These books can be valuable sources of information, especially the older ones that were written in the 19th and early 20th Centuries when family members, knowledgeable of the earlier generations, were still living. However, as with all findings, you need to look for their proofs. If you don’t find them in the book, then you need to look for them elsewhere.
Persi stands for Periodical Source Index and is the genealogy counterpart to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature that you may remember from school days. In HQ’s Persi, you can do People, Places or Periodicals searches.
When you get hits, you can see the bibliographic details on the article (when, where and by whom published as well as volume, issue and page numbers, etc.). Unfortunately, that’s as far as you can go online. To see the actual article, you will have to contact one of the libraries or societies holding the periodical and request a copy.
One thing to remember is that a lot of actual records have been transcribed and published in various periodicals, especially those from local and regional genealogical societies. For example, a Place search for the County of Clarke in Georgia yields 205 hits with most being on data published in our COGS Newsletter. Aren’t you proud of your Society!
The Periodicals search is helpful in identifying genealogical publications covering a given geographical locality. For example, a search for Tennessee identified 18 titles relating to genealogical research in Tennessee. You may even find periodicals relating to locations outside the U.S. A search for Yorkshire yielded four hits for periodicals relating to research in the county of Yorkshire in England.
Since Persi was developed by the Allen County Public Library of Ft. Wayne, IN, you will most often find that they are one of the depositories holding issues of periodicals reported as hits in Persi searches.
d. Revolutionary War Records
HQ has a large collection of Revolutionary War pension record images. You can do a search for a surname, given name and location of service and then view images of the original pages of the pension applications for any hits you get. These applications will normally include the dates of application, the soldier’s age or year of birth, his place of birth and a record of his service (units, commanders, battles, etc.). They will also often mention his wife and children. These pension records can be like voices from the other side of the grave with men and women telling about themselves and their families. If you are doing research in the U.S in the time period before good census records, i.e. before 1850, these Revolutionary War Pension records may be especially valuable.
e. Freedman’s Bank Records
I must confess that am not as familiar with this database as I should be. The Company was incorporated by an act of Congress approved March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 510), as a banking institution established in the city of Washington, District of Columbia, for the benefit of freed slaves. Thus, it can be a valuable database for people researching their African-American ancestors. The bank failed in 1874 and was under various trustee managers up until their final report in 1920. You can search for particular names with accounts in particular Freedman’s Bank locations, and, when you get a hit, you can view an image of the actual application form, and there is often a transcription of it also available. The applications can provide a lot of information on the applicant and his or her family. For example, the 22 Jul 1871 application for Harriett Easely in the Augusta, GA bank says that she was 27 years old, of black complexion, had been born in Walton Co., GA, was employed in washing and ironing, was the wife of Andy, deceased, was the daughter of John Billups, deceased, and Martha, who had been sold to Butts Co. It also names her three children and four siblings and mentions where they were living. All in all, that is quite a bit of information on Harriet’s family
8. Records from Surname, Locality and Ethnically Specific Message Boards and E-mail Lists
The subject of message boards and email lists was covered in Part 1 of this article, since they are primarily a source of what I was calling online genealogies, i.e. summaries of research findings on particular people and families. However, they can also include records. I refer you back to Part 1: Online Genealogies for details on locating and searching these boards and lists.
9. Land Records from the Bureau of Land Management
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is the agency that was created to handle the granting and sale of lands outside the 13 original colonies/states. Its records cover some 32 states and the District of Columbia, including AL, AR, FL, IL, IN, LA, OH and TX, to mention a few. If you go to the below-listed web site, you can enter a name and a state and do a search. Go to the following web page and proceed as subsequently outlined.
If you enter a surname, a given name and a state and then do a search, you will get a page showing any hits found. I did a search for the surname McArthur in Ohio and got 190 hits on a Duncan McArthur. It turns out that he is a 3g grandfather to our COGS member W.C. “Mac” McArthur and, at one time, Duncan was one of the largest landowner in the State of Ohio.
When you get a hit on a Land Patent, you can usually download and save or print an image of the original document in GIF, TIFF or PDF format. If you have people who were in the BLM states and haven’t already looked to see what lands they may have acquired, you owe it to yourself to do that.
10. The Free BMD’s Online Indexing of Vital Records for England and Wales
The Free BMD is a volunteer operation whose objective is to make available free access to the indexing of birth, marriage and death records in England and Wales. The years covered vary depending on the county and location. Some cover dates as early as 1837 (the year civil registration of vital records began there), and some go up through fairly recent years. The database is not yet complete, but emphasis has been on the earlier records, since they are the ones researchers are generally most interested in. If you go to http://freebmd.rootsweb.com/cgi/search.pl, you should get the search entry form and be able to do a search. Bear in mind that this is an index only database. In order to see the actual records, you will probably need to order a copy from the General Registry Office (GRO) in London, but that can now be done online by credit card for about $13 per document with better turn around times than with most U.S. records offices. For marriage records, the Free BMD listings can be of more immediate help. When a search reports a bride or groom, it will have a link to the page in the register book where the name occurred, and the name of the person they were marrying is usually on that same page. This is no substitute for having a copy of the actual marriage record, but it can give you greater confidence that you are on track to the right couple. One of the beauties of marriage records in England and Wales is that they almost always record the name and occupation of the father for both the groom and the bride.
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