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10 Steps for Finding Your Family Tree Online

A Blueprint for Genealogy Research on the Internet


How to research your family tree online. Photo: Getty/Tom Merton/OJO Images

Yes, you can research your family tree online!

Getty/Tom Merton/OJO Images

From cemetery transcriptions to census records, millions of genealogy resources have been posted online in recent years, making the Internet a popular first stop in researching family roots. And with good reason. No matter what you want to learn about your family tree, there is a pretty good chance you can dig up at least some of it on the Internet. It's not quite as simple as finding a database that contains all of the information on your ancestors and downloading it, however. Ancestor hunting is actually much more exciting than that! The trick is learning how to use the myriad of tools and databases that the Internet provides to find facts and dates on your ancestors, and then going beyond that to fill in the stories of the lives they lived.

While each family search is different, I often find myself following the same basic steps when beginning to research a new family tree online. As I search, I also keep a research log noting the places I've searched, the information I find (or didn't find), and a source citation for each piece of information that I find. The search is fun, but less so the second time if you forget where you've looked and end up having to do it all over again!

Step 1: Begin with Obituaries

Since family tree searches generally work their way back in time from the present, searching out information on recently deceased relatives is a good place to start your family tree quest. Obituaries can be a gold mine for information on family units, including siblings, parents, spouses, and even cousins, as well as the date of birth and death and place of burial. Obituary notices may also help lead you to living relatives who can provide further information on your family tree. There are several large obituary search engines online which can make the search a bit easier, but if you know the town where your relatives lived you will often have better luck searching the obituary archive (when available online) of the local paper. If you aren't sure of the name of the local paper for that community, a search for newspaper and the city, town or county name in your favorite search engine will often get you there. Be sure to search out obituaries for sibilings and cousins as well as your direct ancestors.

Step 2: Dig Into Death Indexes

Since death records are usually the most recent record created for a deceased individual, they are often the easiest place to begin your search. Death records are also less restricted than most records by privacy laws. While monetary restrictions and privacy concerns mean that the majority of death records are not yet available online, many online death indexes are available through both official and volunteer sources. Try one of these major databases and indexes of online death records, or do a Google search for death records plus the name of the county or state in which your ancestors lived. If you're researching American ancestors, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) contains details of more than 77 million deaths reported to the SSA since about 1962. You can search the SSDI for free through several online sources. Details listed in the SSDI generally include the name, date of birth and death, zip code of last residence, and social security number for each listed individual. Further information can be obtained by requesting a copy of the individual's Social Security Application.

Step 3: Check Out the Cemetery

Continuing the search for death records, online cemetery transcriptions are another huge resource for information on your ancestors. Volunteers from around the world have traipsed through thousands of cemeteries, posting names, dates, and even photos. Some larger public cemeteries provide their own online index to burials. Here are a number of free cemetery search databases online which compile links to online cemetery transcriptions. RootsWeb's country, state, and county sites are another great source for links to online cemetery transcriptions, or you can try a search for your family's surname plus cemetery plus location in your favorite Internet search engine.

Step 4: Locate Clues in the Census

Once you've used your personal knowledge and online death records to trace your family tree back to people who lived around the beginning of the twentieth century, census records can provide a treasure trove of information on the family. Census records in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and many other countries are available online -- some for free and some through subscription access. In the United States, for example, you can often find living and recently deceased family members listed with their parents in the 1940 federal census, the most recent census year open to the public. From there, you can trace the family back through previous censuses, often adding a generation or more to the family tree. Census takers weren't very good at spelling and families aren't always listed where you expect them, so you may want to try some of these search tips for census success.

Continued > 10 Steps for Finding Your Family Tree Online

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