Web Sources for Genealogy Research

When I first began to trace my family back in the very early 1980s, the Internet was certainly not a factor.  In fact, computers were just barely beginning to be  used by some of the more adventurous researchers.  The World Wide Web didn’t even exist yet.  (Many people don’t realize that the WWW and the Internet are not synonymous terms.)

By around the late ’80s or early ’90s, however, and with much trepidation, I had installed a modem into my office computer.  For the first couple days, the secretary down the hall would only hear a high-pitched whistle-like noise when she would ring my office, until we could work out the bugs.

I connected to Prodigy, one of the several early online services that were around then, and also managed to subscribe via UNIX to an early Listserv, a service that mailed email messages to everyone on a list. Both Prodigy and the genealogy listserv I subscribed to put me in contact with other researchers, but those working on my family were very few and far between.

Over the next 15 to 20 years, the wealth of resources grew exponentially.  For both genealogical research and other forms of historical research, I eventually found myself spending vast amounts of time in what some call the “deep web,” also known as the “invisible web” or the “hidden web.”  This is that part of the Internet that contains countless zillions of documents that, by and large, are not indexed by search engines like Google.

I’m talking about databases.  Most researchers know by now that there are two types of online databases, subscription or fee-based and those that can be freely accessed by anyone.  Of those that are subscription-based, many are accessible through libraries – public, college, or university.  In most cases, these can be accessed from home via a password or your library card number.

I am glad, however, to see the number of free databases – and the information they contain – greatly proliferating.  One of my favorites is the “pilot” version of Family Search.  The “regular” version of Family Search has been around seemingly forever, but its quality keeps getting better.

The regular Family Search has always contained a huge number of genealogical records, including pedigrees submitted by patrons and various extracted records.  In the 1980s, I had a microfilm reader and a microfiche reader in my bedroom.  I used the microfiche reader primarily to read about 700 sheets of the IGI (International Genealogical Index) that I owned.  Now all that’s online, at Family Search.

Family Search is also a good way to access the LDS Family History Library catalog.  (I can order their microfilm through my local public library.)  In addition, it’s a great source for blank charts and for free downloads of the genealogical software that I am still using after all these years, Personal Ancestral File (PAF).

The “pilot” version of Family Search is accessible through a link in Family Search, or by going to a separate web address (URL), pilot.familysearch.org . There you can access a variety of data collections, including the U.S. census for some years.

“Big deal,” you may be saying, since you can also access the census through other sources.  I am finding, however, that the way in which the Family Search pilot census searches are structured has been allowing me to make great strides in my research.  I have been finding lots of individuals and families that have eluded me before.

That’s because of the great search options available through F.S. pilot.  I can, for example, search for, say, Ebenezer McKenzie, born about 1803 in Kentucky (a fictional person as an example), even if he’s living in another state.  The database will then automatically look for similar spellings, such as “MacKenzie” or “McKinzey.”  You can also search a range of dates.

I can quickly find everyone with an uncommon surname, with various spelling variations, in a particular state – or in the country.  I can find everyone with a particular surname in a particular state over a range of years.  It is these sorts of options that has enabled me to find lots of people I was never able to find any other way.

Another advantage of using this database for census research is that not every database indexes the same data in the same way.  I read somewhere in the F.S. website that there might be a way in the future to allow users to suggest alternate readings for some of the data.  I hope that this will become the case.

I have already found mistakes that I am certain are mistakes, but you find them anywhere that handwritten census listings are indexed.  By combining two or more censuses databases that cover the same year, one can often find that elusive ancestor.  Maybe he or she doesn’t show up in one database in that year, but will in another, just because of differences in how those who index the records decipher the handwriting.

Another source that I’ve been using heavily will only be of help to those who are researching Missouri individuals:  the Missouri State Archives’ great online database of Missouri Death Certificates, 1910-1958.  I’ve used this extremely extensively for both genealogical and non-genealogical historical research.

Maybe the individuals you’re hunting were never in Missouri, but if they did happen to die there you’ll typically find a wealth of data.  Users have access to pdf copies of the original form-based records.   Of course, family members might be better equipped to decipher unusual handwritten names, so being able to check the originals rather than just a transcription is a great (and often necessary) option.

Again, with any indexing of old handwritten materials, some errors will occur simply because the indexer was unfamiliar with the name.  I have pointed out a couple obvious errors in the Missouri State Archives’ index to death certificates, and was happy to see that after they re-examined the records, Archives staff made corrections.

Of course, some of the blanks in the death certificate forms might contain simply the notation “unknown,” or a cryptic scribble, but a typical death certificate will contain the following sorts of information: Place and date of birth, place and date of death, late residence, occupation, parents’ names and places of birth, cause of death, when and where buried, name and location of informant, name of the funeral home, whether married, single, widowed, or divorced, and sometimes the name of the spouse.

A bit of medical history is often included, and sometimes the cause of death can get rather detailed.  Occasionally you’ll come across reference to a coroner’s inquest.  If so, records might be found in a separate Coroner’s Inquest Database for the state of Missouri, also maintained by the Missouri State Archives.

Missouri’s Union Provost Marshal Papers, 1861-1866, is yet another Missouri State Archives acting as a gateway steering users to a wealth of data in Civil War-era having to do with oaths of allegiance, compensation for property loss, and lots of similar matters.  I found one of my ancestors listed here, and used the listing to access records detailing his oath of allegiance to the Union, evidently forced against his will.

Back to the subject of death certificates:  Another research tool I’ve used frequently is the California Death Records database in Rootsweb. Unlike the Missouri database, no copies of the actual records are provided, so if the person doing the transcription misread an entry there’s no direct access to the original form.  Still, it’s a great tool for historical and genealogical research, covering the period 1940-1997.

Another worthwhile tool is Brigham Young University’s Family History Archives, an online collection that includes a huge number of complete family history books in pdf form.  I’ve found some great old out of print books here about various branches of my family.

Here’s another source that should be of interest to probably most American genealogical researchers, as well as those conducting other forms of historical research:  It’s the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (GLO) Records site.

Click on the “Search Land Patents” tab near the top of the page, then choose a state and a surname.  The state has to be one of the “public land states” for which patents were issued.  Typing the name “Westover” (just an unrelated name that popped into my mind) in conjunction with Missouri reveals, for example, nearly 60 listings for individuals with that surname, telling where they lived and where they acquired land.

Finally, there are newspapers.  I conduct a lot of research that is not genealogical in nature, but sometimes I trace my ancestry or that of others.  In both types of research I’ve found newspapers absolutely invaluable.  Much of my published historical research is based largely on the use of newspapers.

The Internet now abounds in newspaper databases.  Some of them charge a fee, while others are free.  Those that are free might only include the newspaper from one small town, but if your ancestor just happened to have lived there, you might find a wealth of personal data absolutely unobtainable anywhere else.

Other databases might contain a huge number of newspaper titles from cities all over the country and perhaps in other countries.  Some colleges and universities subscribe to such databases as the Historic New York Times, the Historic Los Angeles Times, etc.

My absolute favorite newspaper database, however, is something called Newspaper Archive (AKA Access Newspaper Archive).  My local public library subscribes to this great database, and through a reciprocal arrangement, I can also access it through my account with the public library in an adjacent county.

Newspaper Archive certainly doesn’t include all cities and all newspapers.  Enough papers are included, however, that it’s highly likely that some of the individuals or families you’re researching just might be extensively covered in their own hometown papers.

Newspaper Archive’s database contains newspapers from 1753 to the present.  This means there are, as they put it, “tens of millions” of pages accessible via full-page pdfs.  You might even find a photo of the person you’re looking for.  (You can also get happily sidetracked for extended periods of time reading old ads and comics.)

I suggest finding which reciprocal arrangements (if any) your local public library might have with other local libraries.  By holding library cards for more than one library, you increase the number and range of subscription databases you have access to.  Again, many of these can be accessed at home via a password or your library card number.

Happy hunting!


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