FREE Ancestry Search is a Bunch of Hooey--Or Is it?

Every search for ancestors, every attempt to establish your ancestry line,
begins with free information.


Picture yourself with a group–maybe you’re in college
and it’s a frat or sorority–or you’re middle adult and it’s
a bridge club or a church women’s group or a bunch of
fishing buddies–or you are a senior citizen and it’s the
Golden Years Club or the Keenagers religious group–whatever
age, there’s a group you can be in.

Picture yourself in the group showing them your own

“Wow!” says the group leader. “I’ll bet you paid big
bucks for this.”

Others in the group are nodding their agreement, showing
a tinge of envious green around the ears.

“Nope,” you say. “I did it all myself.”

They stare in disbelief. “No!” “Never” “Not possible.”

What are they talking about?

A well prepared organization of your search results.
It’s your ancestral line, a record of your ancestry. You did
it yourself. And it didn’t cost you a cent. It was free!
Free ancestry search.

Not possible you say? There’s no such thing as free
ancestry search? Genealogists charge you so much you have to
sell one of your kidneys on the black market to pay their
outrageous fees?

That’s one route, but if you observe the following easy
steps on how to do your own free ancestry search, you will
be the envy of your friends and family, and it won’t cost you a cent.

Organizing for Ancestry Search

There are some basic tools you need to begin, but you
likely already possess them–a pad of paper and a pen. If you
want to get into computers and genealogy programs and the
like, I can tell you how–but it will no longer be free
ancestry search.

If you follow the research principles listed below you
can create a record of your family tree that will be the
envy of friends and relatives alike.

Principle One

Write one and only one datum on a sheet of
. For example, picture this. You are creating a
family tree. You are filing data to make information readily
available for creation of the family tree. You have as a
beginning of your ancestry search your grandmother’s birth
date on a sheet of paper. Your parent’s marriage date is on
the back. You record the birth date from the scrap of paper
and set it aside. Later you are ready to record your
parent’s marriage date. You scramble around, looking through
all the pieces of paper for the date. You may or may not
remember to look on the back side of each piece of paper. In
any case, the task is frustrating and time

Principle Two

Do not write on the back of the sheet. Even
when the data is about the same person, notes on the reverse
side of your notes can easily be overlooked when you record
the material. Once again, imagine the incident above, but
with Grandmother’s birth date on one side and her
marriage date on the other. Same consequence.

Principle Three

Write legibly. If you scribble a word that
may not be recognized or remembered later, print it
carefully above the scribble. Frequently, badly scribbled
notes are not recognized even minutes after writing them.
Have you ever taken rapid, sloppy notes at a lecture and
looked at them later to organize them only to find words you
don’t recognize or remember? If not, just ignore this step–
to your own peril! “

Principle Four Carefully note the source of the
If it is a living person, get their name, address and telephone
number. If they have an email address, get that, too. Place
the source on every note you take.

[Tip: if you have several pieces of
information from the same source, label the first notation
and use just the notation in subsequent bits of information.
For example, if the source of your data is your grandmother,
make sure you have her complete personal information written
down and label it “gm.” On subsequent pages of information
from her put “Source: gm” or “GM–May 2004" if you have more
than one conversation or “gmd” for Grandmother Dunn
and “gmm” for Grandmother Martin.

If the source is a book, magazine, or public record,
list such things as publisher, address, date of issue, etc.
Be as complete as possible. You will never need this
information until the day you neglect to record it. Just as
surely as wind will blow spit back into your face, you will
need a vital piece of information from the one source you
failed to document.

Principle Five Keep good records. Noting your sources won’t
do you any good if you can’t find them. You will find more
detail about this at


Your Records on another page on this site.

However, you don’t need a file cabinet and a bunch of file
folders as suggested on that site. You can pick up empty
boxes from the liquor store [don’t ask me how I know!] that
are sturdy and just the right size for regular typing paper,
group sheets and the like.

Sort your records first by surname, then by geography, then by
family. The important thing is to keep them up to date. File
everything as you receive it. Little slips of paper and
relative’s letters have a way of quickly getting lost.

Where to Look First in
Your Ancestry Search

Like charity, ancestry search begins at home. Start with the
current generation. You should have fairly complete
information on your generation’s
birth date
baptismal date
wedding date(s)
       with spouse(s) name(s) and, where applicable,
death date and
burial place.

If you collect all the data on your own family–siblings, your
parents, your spouse, your children to the extent all these
exist, you will set a pattern of data collection that will
stand you in good stead throughout your ancestry search.

Frequently your parents can give you information on their
parents and siblings. Grandparents, if living, can give you
theirs. If you have one child and fully record information
up through your parents and grandparents, you will have a
database on 15 individuals, not counting any siblings.

[You can skip this paragraph if you like. It is an
example of what your ancestral line might look like if not
too different from mine–at least when you get back to my
generation and go from there.] I have
       5 married children (one thrice married) [12 records],
       12 grandchildren [12 more records–a total of 24]
       a brother twice married,
       a sister thrice married (1 child) ,
       a married step-brother (2 children) and
       a deceased step-brother (unmarried with 1 child) [15
more records–a total of 39],
       mother with 5 brothers and 4 sisters [10 more + spouses & children],
       a father with 7 sisters and a brother [9 + spouses and
children–a total of 58 not counting spouses and children of
my parent’s generation, and
       4 grandparents and their siblings [62 plus siblings and
siblings children by the time we reach my grandparents’
generation.]. This is what is meant by exponential growth!

The point of that little exercise is not to flaunt numbers so
much as to show the richness of research sources. The aunt
who can’t remember her mother’s marriage date may have half
a dozen counterparts who do. Even that aunt can say, “I
don’t remember Mama’s birthday, but she belonged to a circle
at the church and I’ll bet Miss Francis knows.” Now you have
another lead, even if your aunt is the last living relative
of that generation.

You have to be careful with oral sources. Very often memories,
especially of older people, are faulty, but the validity of
oral reports may be more valid than some think. The whole
matter of

Oral History is examined on another web page on this
site. You may want to view it for additional information.
Still, what people say can lead you in the right direction
even when it is not particularly accurate, e.g., Miss
Frances mentioned above plus church records, a very rich
source indeed.

One aspect of oral history that can prove fruitful is the
stories family members tell. Even Uncle Willis’ “We had more
than a hundred attending that reunion,” may be more valid
than Aunt Marie’s lengthy description of how Robert ate so
many boiled peanuts at the reunion that he couldn’t eat his
favorite lemon meringue pie when it was served. Still, both
can not only provide links to sources [Who was Robert? How
many of those 100 can you name?], but certainly add interest
when writing the family history.

So, listen to each story carefully. Get all the details you can.
Ask questions. Story-tellers love for people to ask
questions. It shows they are listening. Record the time and
place the story is told and who else, if anyone, is present.

Search for clues. Ask for details. The seemingly most
insignificant point in the whole story might open doors you
never knew existed.

Say Uncle Billy is telling for the umpteenth time of how he
fought and licked a bully. He says, “When I got home and Ma
saw how torn and dirty my clothes were, she was about to
whup me. I said, ‘But Ma. Bruce was pickin’ on Johnny. I had
to take up for him.’ So I missed the second whuppin’I was
threatened with that day.”

Without thinking, you ask, “Who was Johnny?” You just had not
heard that name before. You figure it was a buddy.

Uncle Billy says, “He was Uncle Cyrus’ oldest boy.”

“I didn’t know Grandmother had a brother named Cyrus,” you tell
him, getting ready to take notes.

“She don’t. He’s Pa’s uncle. I guess he’s really a great
, but we all just called him uncle. He had eight
kids. Johnny was the oldest. Then there was Eliza....”

And away you go gathering more information because of a
seemingly insignificant individual in Uncle Billy’s story.

Where to Look Next in
Your Ancestry Search

Even before you gather all the information you can from your
personal contacts with the family, you can begin to verify
data you’ve recorded. And uncover more data.

If your family lived in a town, or a community in a city, you
can often find fruitful results by visiting the
church there. Even though the city may be large, like
Boston or Philadelphia or New York or Chicago, there are
communities in those cities as homogenous as the smallest
Midwestern town. Even fairly young cities like Los Angeles,
Houston, and Miami have their enclaves.

Churches frequently have
baptism records with information about the child’s birth,
wedding records,
an archive of church bulletins or newsletters with
announcements of vial events,
death records,
and cemeteries.

Cemeteries have records written in stone. Most are quite
accurate, but on occasion the stone cutter makes a mistake
or has received the wrong information. Once chiseled in
stone, who wants to pay to change it? So be aware of that

In addition to the church you will find the library very
useful. Many libraries, especially in larger cities. Have
census records on microfilm and machines you can use to
read, and sometimes print out, information. Census records
are very helpful, but sometimes errors are found there, too.

You must understand that census takers were very human. They
were paid to enumerate an area. I he were 95% finished and
didn’t have the names of certain families that lived back up
in the hills in a house protected by vicious dogs, he might
ask local folks about those living “up there.” Births,
deaths, and even migrations may have taken place without the
town folks knowledge, but the census taker took the word of
the locals and recorded it. After all, he didn’t get paid
until he turned in his records.

There are records of county historical development. It is
frustrating to search vainly for local records in the town
courthouse. Then you find out the records are in another
courthouse. They re there because that courthouse served the
local region before the current county was carved out of
that one. Check out county development in the library.

Also check county histories, both the current county’s
history and the histories of the county or counties from
which it was carved. Even some early West Virginian records
must be accessed across the state line in Virginia.

Biographies of local people serve as a resource in many
cases. And don’t forget histories of local businesses and
local fraternal orders, volunteer firemen, and the like.

Courthouses can present a challenge many times, but if
you go to the Clerk of Court’s office and ask where to look
for particular records they can be and usually are very
helpful. One clerk, for example, told me that in addition to
the records I was searching, I might want to look in plat
books which listed the names and locations of dwellings and
their occupants.

Wills, marriage records, death records, and land records are
very helpful in providing documentary evidence of
information, But even here you may find errors. I was
reading a will from 1760 in the courthouse in York PA and
found a woman’s surname spelled five different ways!

Using the Computer in
Your Ancestry Search

The computer has provided great assistance in ancestry search.
Records that once available only by travel, mail, and
diligent rummaging through dusty records are now available
by the touch of a button.

But the computer is not all it cracked up to be. Often there is
too much information through which to search. Sometimes the
availability of records are costly. has over 2 billion names available to search, but there is a fee
for using their resources. Many find it worth the fee, but
we’re talking about free search in this article.

Sometimes there is a way to utilize and others like
it for free. On occasion they will permit you to use their
database for a period, usually 2 weeks, to “try it out” and
see if it is for you. You know and I know that once hooked a
person is likely to say, “Hey. It’s worth a few bucks to
get all this information.” If you are truly disciplined, you
can make a list of everything you need to know before
you accept their free trial. Then accept it. Work every
waking hour during that trial period to find the answers you
need. Then cancel the membership.

Databases like are not the only path open for use
of the computer. There are forums, message boards, genealogy
letters [like Family Search Secrets Newsletter],
newsgroups, and search engines, all of which provide free

Sites like those placed up by the Church of the Latter Day
Saints [LDS] are free and very helpful. Incidentally, LDS
has libraries across the nation which access tons of
material from their collection in Salt Lake City–the largest
collection of genealogical materials in the world. Check to
see if there is one near you. You don’t have to be a LDS
member to use the service.

A very basic use of the computer is to trade information via the
Internet and Email. Exchange of materials used to be slow,
expensive, and chancy. You would offer to pay an exchanger
for copying and postage. When the material arrived a week
[or weeks] later, you might find that
(1) the material duplicated what you had, or
(2) the information was inaccurate. [I received information
about my grandfather, born in Eckert MD and hardly ever out
of MD his whole life, listing his place of birth as SC.]

Warm friendships and lost cousins are found via Email as well as
the information you share.

If you do not have a computer, you don’t have to buy one.
Libraries, senior centers, high schools and colleges that
provide adult education, and even churches frequently have
free use of computers that are connected to the Internet.

The final step in collecting genealogical materials is putting
it together. There is another web page on this site that
deals specifically with writing and publishing your family
history, so I won’t pursue that.

I’ll simply say, happy free ancestry search!

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