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Top 10 U.S. Databases for Tracing Your Family Tree

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There are literally thousands of Web sites and databases available on the Internet with the records and information you need to help you trace your family tree. So many, that genealogy novices are often quickly overwhelmed. Every source of information, obviously, is useful to someone, but some sites really shine at providing the best return on your investment, whether it's an investment of money or time. These sites are the ones that professional genealogists end up visiting over and over.

1. Ancestry.com

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Not everyone would rank Ancestry.com at the top due to its relatively high subscription price, but most genealogists will tell you that this is the one research site that they use the most. If you're doing a lot of research in the United States (or Great Britain) then the sheer number of databases and records available at Ancestry.com offers the greatest return on your investment. There are thousands of digitized original records, from the entire U.S. census (1790-1930) to passenger arrivals at major U.S. ports up to about 1950. Plus, a wide variety of military records, city directories, vital records and family histories. Before you plunk down money for a subscription, however, see if free access is available at your local library.

2. FamilySearch

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long been involved in preserving family history, and their online Web site continues to open up the world of genealogy to everyone - for free! The library's vast holdings of microfilmed records are currently being indexed and digitized; collections ranging from Texas Death Certificates to Vermont Probate Files can already be viewed online through FamilySearch Record Search. There is also free access to transcriptions of the 1880 U.S. Census (as well as the 1881 British and Canadian census), and the Pedigree Resource File for researched family histories. If your research takes you "across the pond," to Europe, the International Genealogical Index is a must for transcribed parish records.

3. U.S. GenWeb

Many U.S. genealogy records are maintained at the local (county) level, and here is where U.S. GenWeb really shines. This free, all-volunteer project hosts free data and research for virtually every U.S. county, from cemetery surveys to marriage indexes. Plus, historical information on the county and its geographical boundaries and links to additional online resources for research in the locality.

4. RootsWeb

The massive RootsWeb Web site sometimes overwhelms novice genealogists because there is just so much there to see and do. User contributed databases provide access to transcribed records put online through the efforts of volunteer researchers. The World Connect Project allows you to search a database of user-contributed family trees, containing more than more than 372 million ancestor names. RootsWeb also hosts many major online sources of free genealogy data, including the Obituary Daily Times, a daily index to published obituaries going back to about 1997; and FreeBMD (birth, marriage and death indexes) and FreeReg (transcribed parish records) for England and Wales.

5. Footnote

While still a relative newcomer to online genealogy, Footnote.com deserves high praise for its dedication to providing access to digitized copies of important genealogical records that aren't available elsewhere online. This includes valuable records such as naturalizations from states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and California; service and pension records from the Civil and Revolutionary wars; and city directories from many New England states. The document viewer is top-notch, and allows you to mark up, add comments, print, and save any document. Records are being added continuously and, as a result, I'm finding myself visiting Footnote more and more.

6. WorldVitalRecords

World Vital Records is growing quickly and offers relatively inexpensive access to a wide variety of genealogical records from around the world, including everything from birth and marriage records, to historic newspapers. They've also recently added digitized images of the US Census (no index yet), offering an inexpensive alternative to the census records at Ancestry.com. It would be ranked higher, but currently too many of its largest databases, such as the Social Security Death Index and World War II Army Enlistment Records, are already available for free elsewhere online. The price is right, however, with frequent subscription specials making this growing site a good value for genealogists.

7. GenealogyBank

This is one site I visit over and over when researching 20th century American families. Over 24 million obituaries appearing in American newspapers from 1977 to the present make it a good place to start learning about your ancestors when there aren't any living family members to help you fill in the facts. From there, the large collection of historical newspapers -- including such titles as the Philadelphia Inquirer -- offers access to even more death notices, as well as marriage announcements and news items. Once you get back into the 1800s, the Historical Books collection offers access to a variety of published family and local histories.

8. Godfrey Scholars

The Godfrey Memorial Library in Middletown, Connecticut, may seem an unlikely source for information on your family tree. Yet their online Godfrey Scholars program offers online access to many premium databases at a reasonable rate. It's an especially good resource for historic newspapers, including the London Times, 19th century US newspapers, and early American newspapers. (If you're interested in subscribing to NewspaperArchive or WorldVitalRecords (see above), you can also get a combined subscription rate that includes either or both of these resources along with the Godfrey databases, although World Vital Records is generally less expensive on its own when they are running a special.

9. The National Archives

It can take a bit of digging, but there are actually many genealogical records of interest available for free on the Web site of the U.S. National Archives. Available records cover a wide variety of topics, from WWII Army Enlistment Records found under the Access to Archival Databases system to Native American census rolls in the Archival Research Catalog. You can also use the site to easily order records online, from naturalizations to military service records.

10. Family Tree Connections

It started out small, but it's growing rapidly. It's also not a good first stop for most genealogy research, but it provides access to unique historical content that isn't available elsewhere online - perfect for filling in gaps or adding more historical context to your family tree. Family Tree Connection focuses on providing transcribed information from high school and college yearbooks, city directories, local club member lists, church records and similar sources, for a reasonable annual subscription fee.

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