(Originally published at Suite101: Sleuthing Family History Online: Tips and Resources | Suite101 http://suite101.com/article/sleuthing-family-history-online-tips-and-resources-a409801#ixzz2NrPjPwXt)
So you want to trace your family tree? If your ancestors lived in the U.S. there are many online resources, though as you search further into the past you may find the resources available vary according to whether the person you are searching for was a free and settled, an itinerant worker, a native American, or a slave, and also whether the person was male or female. (Prior to 1850 only heads of household's names were listed on the census; family histories of slave ancestors prior to 1850 can sometimes however be traced through wills and other documents while marriage records sometimes help to trace free ancestors of both sexes).
If you trace your roots to places outside the U.S., several sites, including ancestry.com, and familysearch.org provide not only U.S. but English and Irish or even in the case of Family Search worldwide records. (Note that for most records at ancestry.com you must have a subscription, which requires a monthly fee; your library may have a subscription however; Family Search is a free site provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).
Reasons for Researching
In researching my own ancestry, I've learned a bit about the schism between the primitive and the missionary baptists, have found the loyalty oaths of ancestors who fought for the south, and learned about the "Poor School," where, in the nineteenth century, many boys (without money to pay school fees) were taught. (Some of these went on to become teachers themselves.)
Online genealogy discussion boards have introduced me to several fourth and fitth cousins online, too. So it's a chance to connect with distant and not-so-distant relatives you have yet to meet (alas, one I thought was a cousin broke off when I asked her about a missing family bible). Genealogical research also provides a great opportunity for children to connect with and talk to grand parents and great grand parents, and makes a great "family literacy" project.
So where should you start? Online resources for persons in the U.S. include of course ancestry (which has all census images from the U.S. dating to 1940, with indexing, state censuses, and more, but is as noted not free), rootsweb (a free site connected with ancestry), and familysearch.org. The latter has selected census images and church (often marriage) records from countries around the world, while ancestry hosts some records from Ireland and England. There's also of course the National Archives with military records as well as indexes to the Guion Miller and Dawes enrollment for the "Five civilized tribes," plus various other sites, including some specializing in African or Native American Genealogy.
This article provides an overview of some of the resources available with a focus on the U.S. It does not go into DNA which cannot yet at least be processed online anyway. DNA provides information about genetics of human groups in a general way, and might help to determine if you have a genetic marker peculiar to say Polynesia, but as with paternity tests, in most cases it can only establish a likeliness of a relationship and not a definite link.
DNA tests are expensive too, but sometimes so is doing your genealogy the traditional way, traveling to courthouses and cemetaries, ordering copies of censuses, wills, and marriage certificates (all of these, and even death certificates, have generally been available as records prior to birth certificates). However, if you are traveling through an area where you had ancestors, you might as well check out the courthouse and local cemetaries on the way, of course!
Databases of Note
There are several databases that are especially interesting because of both the historical context they add to history lessons as well as the genealogical data they provide.
The Louisiana Slave Database (Louisiana)
One interesting resource is the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy database, which includes records of sales of slaves in Louisiana. These records, in French (but the French is simple), include the slave's first name, the buyer's and seller's names, as well as a description of the slave's "racial" type (mulatto, creole, colored, mestizo).This database was created thanks to the research of Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (now professor emerita of history at Rutgers).
This site is relatively easy to search. Go to the search page (from the main page go to the [Introduction] then to [Search the Database]; you may also want to check out [How to Search], and fill out the form as completely as you can; feel free to leave some blanks. As noted, if you opt to [View Original Documents], these are in French, sometimes with elements of "Middle French" (French as spoken in the past). Click on the documents to enlarge them.
Afrigeneas; the Rodney Rolls (African American, Caribbean)
For persons tracing their ancestry to slaves who lived in the English colonies, some wills mentioning slaves are available through the Afrigeneas site. Rootsweb hosts the Rodney Rolls, which list the late eighteenth century population of the Caribbean island St. Eustatius.
Among the Creeks at Rootsweb: Native American (Creek)
Among the Creeks, hosted at Rootsweb, was compiled by Carol Middleton, with Native American (Creek) documents and records. This site includes wills and letters of Creeks of note including the letters of Alexander McGillivray (in these, the well-educated McGillivray, of Scottish and Creek parentage, Chief of one faction of Creeks, seeks the protection of the Spanish crown shortly after the establishment of the United States; in this same year he also refuses New Spain's Governor's O'Neil's request to procure for New Spain Negroes who have lodged in McGillivray's part of the country apparently; though perhaps the Negroes living among the Creeks by then had all pretty much been taken for slaves, as McGillivray claims).
Documents (which are transcriptions only) are indexed on a single page. The claim of Michael Elbert or Ehlert or Ehlart or Elliot, a Creek loyal to the U.S., is a case where you'd want to see the original document to know what Michael's last name was. (If his last name turns out to be "Elbert," Michael is of interest to me, since Elbert is the name of one ancestor).
Cyndi's List (A Bit of Everything)
Cyndi's List is a well-indexed miscellany of various free online databases, lists, and more. You can search under various categories for various information. Under Poland, for example, you find a free ancestry.com database listing death notices a published in a particular newspaper, Nasz Przeglad.There's also a category called "railroads" with census data for an "Orpan Train," a train with children who lived in New York's "juvenile asylum," and articles about train wrecks. You can also find in the ship passenger lists a U.S. genweb list of passengers who sailed from Great Britain to Charleston in 1768: what a surprise to learn that so many had French surnames! Under the category "Poor Houses and Poverty" (under the subcategory, "Poor Farms") you can find a rootsweb list of residents of the Platte County, Nebraska Poor Farm in the early 20th century. Alas some links need updating.
Need for an Oral History
In the online resources are census images, images of marriage records, enlistment records for various wars, passenger lists, transcriptions of grave markers, and even information about slaves, by the thousands. To know where to begin searching, you should first try to get as complete as possible an oral history from a parent, grand parent, or great grand parent. Things to ask include the names and ages of siblings, information about cousins and grandparents who lived nearby, names of towns lived in and approximate dates, and information about ancestors who served in the military (there are of course online records for World War Two, World War One, and the Civil War).
U.S. Social Security Death Index
If the ancestor you are trying to get information about died post 1962 the best place to start may be the social security death index, where many post-1962 (and a few pre-1962) deaths are indexed. It's available through ancestry.com. From this death index you can order an SS-5 card. This provides the person's birth date, and place of birth, as well as the death date and place of death, so you end up knowing at least two places your ancestor lived and might have been censused. In some cases, the names of parents are provided too.
U.S. Census Data
Armed with this information you can go to the census. Alternately, you can begin a search with the census, particularly if you are researching an ancestor who died earlier in the twentieth or even in the nineteenth century. The 1880 census images, with indexing, are provided online, free of charge, by ancestry.com. (For more on using census data see my article, "Using U.S. Census Data in Genealogical Research.")
Early Colonial U.S.: Tax Records
Prior to 1790, there was no U.S. census. Of course, many states and, within many Eastern states, many counties, did not come into the U.S. until much later dates (all counties in Georgia were not censused till 1850). Thus the only way to get evidence that an ancestor lived in a particular area may be tax records listing the ancestor's name. Only the landholder or taxpayer is listed of course, and a single person could of course pay taxes in several counties and be listed on several tax rosters. Some tax records are provided by the genealogical sites. Some state archives also now provide these online. Georgia has county tax digests contained in its online archives. (Note: Georgia's "Virtual Vault also archives, in addition to the county tax digests dating to pre-1800 [pre-Georgia census], county maps and survey plats particularly for lottery or bounty land -- you can see exactly where land boundaries fell, confederate loyalty oaths (after the Civil War confederates had to affirm their allegiance to the U.S.), confederate pension applications, militia enrollment lists pre-civil war round up of males sixteen to sixty available for conscription, Spanish American War service records for Georgia's three regiments,colonial wills, death certificates, marriage records, Wilkes County court records, plus a list compiled by Georgia's archivists of personal names found in state records.)
Maps can help you to determine what county an ancestor would have been censused in. For example, an ancestor whose land is located in Barrow county, Georgia today may have been censused in Walton or Gwinnett County, or, prior to the formation of those counties, in Jackson or Franklin County. Both roots web's U.S. Gen Web and Genealogy Incorporated provide maps showing Indian land cessions and county formation. To find county formation maps at Genealogy Incorporated, go to the URL www.genealogyinc.com/STATE/maps but instead of typing "STATE" type the name of the state in lower case.
War and Military Records
For World War Two, only draft registrations of men who were aged 42 to 64 in 1942 are available. Numerous Civil War and World War One records are available at places like rootsweb and ancestry.com as well as in the National Archives. Draft records for both World War One and Two can help you to find out not only where an ancestor was living at the time, but where (and when) he was born.
There are places online to search for information posted on tombstones. For the U.S. these include rootsweb, Find a Grave, and Interment. The latter seem to be mostly Civil War and post-Civil War burials.
Some Eastern States started requiring that states record births as early as the nineteenth century but state registration of births did not become law in most states until the early twentieth century, and according to Elizabeth Nichols of Progenealogists, the majority of the population did not become listed for at least two more decades after this.
City Directories and Other Records
Don't discount city directories either, which thrived in the nineteenth century. City directories may indicate where people worked on a year-by-year basis. Some are available online. Court records, which can include naturalizations and name changes are also sometimes online.