Tracing your ancestry back to the dawn of time can be one of the most interesting and mind-boggling experiences — and the Internet has only made it easier. Long gone are the days of trekking down to your local library or records vault to find any data regarding your family’s lineage. No longer must you rummage through old family letters or listen to your parents ramble on about old war tales or just how great the Summer of Love was. Historical documents are publicly accessible online, providing everything from brief glimpses to all-encompassing accounts of your family’s legacy. Whether you’re looking to trace your heritage back to the early 1800s or just want to glance at the newly released 1940 census data (genealogist continue to drool over it), the Internet is your go-to historical catalog.
There are literally thousands upon thousands of genealogy sites out there, the problem is, most of them do little more than relay you to other sites or provide you with bunk links. Luckily, there are a few worthwhile sites mixed in with all the nonsense that provide valuable historical data.
To quote the late great Bob Marley: “If you know your history, then you know where you’re coming from.”
Here our picks for the best free ancestry websites out there so you can figure it out.
A word to the wise before you start
No matter how you do it, researching your ancestry can be a daunting and utterly confusing task. That’s why we’ve put together a brief list of tips and suggestions you should think about before you become inevitably consumed in the wormhole that is discovering your family’s roots.
- Do some background research: Compile all the easily-accessible information before you delve too deep into your research. Speak with your immediate family, relatives, and maybe even family friends to figure out a basic understanding of your family’s history and overarching genealogy. Chances are someone knows a thing or two about where you come from.
- Crosscheck your information: It should go without saying, but the Internet is notorious for spreading misleading or just plain false information. Not all documents and records you find online are going to be verifiable or reliable. Crosscheck and double check your data with different databases to ensure its accuracy.
- Accept that not all information is available: The information you’ll find depends on what’s available. Record keeping was not always mandatory like it is today and many historical records have been destroyed as a result of conflict and war. Public records also vary depending on location and will only take you back so far in some cases.
Ancestry.com is probably the most renowned website for discovering your family history — it’s also the most expensive, but its fully-fledged 14-day free trial is well worth your time. Although you will still have to supply Ancestry.com with your credit card information before you can really dig into the nitty-gritty, you won’t be billed until the two-week tryout comes to a close, thus giving you ample time to do some thorough background research on your family. In addition to immigration records and census data, the site lets you scour records for births, marriages, deaths, and military service in the U.S. and around the globe. The interface and navigation tools are a bit confusing, but the overall design is rather minimalist and clean. The popup hints, a feature that suggests personal links to public records for individuals on your tree, is a welcome touch that will help you build your family tree from scratch. If the genealogy records and data you’re looking for exist, there’s a pretty good chance you will find them on Ancestry.com with a little ingenuity and time.
FamilySearch.org, a free service brought to you by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is another great option for carrying out your own family research. It may not be as capable and accessible as Ancestry.com, but the site is incredibly resourceful when it comes to tracing your roots and delving into genealogy research. The cost-free site doesn’t require you to sign up for an account, but doing so will open up a wealth of features not available otherwise — such as the ability save and share records. Start by entering your name and various background information such as your birthplace, residence and anything else that may better identify you and your history. Afterward, search for your ancestors in a similar fashion. You can also refine your results by relationship, specified ID number, and a few other simple options. Although results will always vary depending on what records are available, Family Search hosts one of the most robust catalogs of digitized records and family history databases available. The newly redesigned interface and expanded archives are only a plus.
Launched in 2009, Archive.com works in the same vein as Ancestry.com and Family Search, but only offers a week-long free trial of its subscription-based service. The site boasts more than 2 billion records — from U.S. vital records and newspaper clippings to obituaries and other assorted documents — and is equipped with a variety of notable features capable of shedding a little light on your family’s past. Aside from the standard ability to build a family tree, the site also features Facebook integration and a laudable search engine that fishes around for any relevant information or potential matches. Although the site is relatively good at searching through historical documents, it doesn’t offer the number of documents its premium cousin Ancestry.com does, especially when it comes to more recent generations. Still, the site’s ease of use and clean design make it yet another standout among the rest of the genealogy sites out there.
Roots Web is one of the oldest and most useful free genealogy sites on the Web. Not only does it help researchers connect and collaborate on projects online, but it also serves as one of the most extensive learning communities dedicated to genealogy, complete with a family tree builder and a robust forum selection. The search utility isn’t the most inclusive or thorough when it comes to filtering through public records, but it does a decent job finding some of the most basic types of records, including births and deaths. The interface and navigational features, though useful, could use an overhaul. However, the forums and help guides are where the heart of the site thrives.
The USGen Web Project is quite the genealogical undertaking. A vast network of historical junkies and volunteers curate and maintain the free-to-use site, providing an abundance of information to researchers across the country. Although the site is more of a resource than a database — it serves as a gateway to state-level GenWeb sites — it is still in excellent tool to begin your search if you want to know information about a particular region in which your family lived. Simply click the state link on the left-hand side or select one from the drop-down menu to access the state-level GenWeb. From there, use the tabs to navigate the additional information and database links. The site is relatively organized and up-to-date despite being entirely volunteer-based, but it is only provides historical information for the United States.
A few others
Discovering your ancestry is a puzzle, one that often requires more than just one resource. We can’t include every single site on our best-of list, but there are a few other notable free sites that are worth your time. Have a look, take a glance, and give them a shot.
We know there are an absolute ton of genealogy websites out there. What are some of your favorite ancestry search sites and why? Let us know in the comments below.