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11 Free Ways to Research Your Family History

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11 Free Ways to Research Your Family History


11 Free Ways to Research Your Family History Photo by BluOltreMare / Shutterstock.com

“Where are you from?” It’s a simple question for most people.

But when you’re researching family history, answering becomes a long and sometimes arduous adventure. After talking with second cousins and great-grandparents, you may find yourself searching databases to fill in the gaps and going further back in time.

Before you spend money on your research, check into these free genealogy resources. Each offers a wealth of information free of charge. From birth certificates and wills to census records and photographs, you’ll find everything you need to finish your family tree.

1. Public libraries

This may come as a surprise, but your quest for family history may be as simple as visiting your local library.

Libraries across the country offer card-holding residents free access to popular genealogy websites. The Boca Raton Public Library, for example, subscribes to Ancestry.com. Residents with a library account can use the service by visiting the library in person.

Other libraries may be more flexible, allowing you to sign in and search remotely from home.

Look for genealogy research options on your local library’s website or call the library and ask.

2. Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center

The Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, deserves its own mention because of its robust databases for researchers.

The many offerings include:

  • Resources for Allen County, Indiana.
  • Resource collections for military veterans, Native Americans and African Americans.
  • Databases for other states that include cemetery records, church records, census data.

And, here’s the best part: You do not need a library card. You can access the genealogy center’s free databases online.

3. National Archives

Most Americans know the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as the caretaker of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The National Archives also holds a host of civilian records. Among public research resources at archives.gov:

  • Census data (the most recent records available are from the 1940 census)
  • Records on military service, immigration, naturalization and land ownership
  • The Access to Archival Databases (AAD), housing lists of immigrants from Germany, Russia, Ireland and Italy
  • Records related to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese-American Internments
  • Casualties and prisoners of war from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War as well as other war records
  • Passenger lists of people entering the Port of New York in 1846-1851
  • A collection of online videos, including some telling how to use NARA records

You can broaden your search with an in-person visit to the archives in Washington, D.C., or another National Archives facility. There you’ll enjoy free access to genealogy websites including Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.

4. Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation

The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation uses NARA records for its searchable online database of immigration information. Among the resources are scanned images of passengers who arrived at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 and an archive of almost 65 million passengers, immigrants and crew members who came through Ellis Island and the Port of New York from 1820-1957.

Visit in person or go online to libertyellisfoundation.org and enter a relative’s name in the search box beneath the main image for a free passenger search.

5. Castle Garden

If you’re looking for immigration information before Ellis Island opened (in 1892), your best resource is Castle Garden.

The free searchable online database was named after the first official immigration center in the United States, now known as Castle Clinton or Fort Clinton. The nonprofit Battery Conservancy used NARA records to compile the database of 10 million immigrants who arrived at the NYC site from 1830 to 1892.

You can search a relative’s name, even if you are unsure of the exact spelling. The database is searchable by age, sex, literacy, occupation, country of origin, port of embarkation, date of arrival to New York City and ship’s name.

6. USGenWeb

State libraries, archives and historical societies are rich sources of genealogical information. They house vital records, wills, land deeds, newspaper articles, maps and much more.

But it can be a burden to search each individual state archives when you have family from various parts of the country. That’s why volunteers formed the USGenWeb Project.

When you click a state on the USGenWeb map, the type and amount of information you see will vary by region. The content on USGenWeb.org is user-generated, meaning that volunteers supply the state and county records. This can produce interesting bits of history you may not find elsewhere.

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