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Let Your Fingers do the Walking

Donna Murray Allen reports that online databases are just a few keystrokes away.

Rooters by nature are something of a masochistic lot. You pore over faded microfilm until your eyes cross, spend hours sifting through musty old documents in dank courthouses while your joints freeze up and tramp through overgrown cemeteries where potential encounters with snakes spike your adrenaline.

Far be it from me to deprive you of such thrills. However, there is something to be said for gleaning pieces of your family’s jigsaw-puzzle past from cyberspace. Computers will never replace those exhilarating on-site visits where you can engage in power struggles with haughty bureaucrats and cranky microfilm readers. But they do place a considerable amount of information right at your fingertips.

Overseas Research

One of the best places to learn what records are available in foreign countries and how to obtain them is to log on to that country’s embassy website. The Italian (, Slovak ( and German ( embassies in Washington, DC, are good examples. If nothing else, you can e-mail embassy staff and ask to be pointed in the right direction.
You’ll also want to find a website for the country’s national archives. Do this by putting the name of the country and national archives in your search box — “Belgium National Archives” for example.

The Mormon Church owns the world’s largest collection of genealogical records. It’s a distinct possibility that the Church’s library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed copies of the foreign records you want. If so, you can borrow and view the microfilm at any of the church’s 3,500 Family History Centers (FHCs) located around the world. Log on to FamilySearch ( for a list of locations.

Feeling lucky? In a hurry? Genealogical websites exist for nearly every country. Just put the country and genealogy in your search box like this: “Poland + Genealogy”. You may be surprised at what you get.
It’s also smart to try different search engines. Google, Dogpile and AltaVista are among the best for genealogical pursuits. Basic translations are free from Babel Fish (

The following are a sampling of what’s available.

Norwegian: You’ll find a selection of birth and baptismal records and immigration records at

German: One of the best sites for researchers of German extraction is, which offers everything from a research outline to online searchable databases to a directory of best resources. At
you’ll find research tips, gazetteers and maps and links to many other sites like those for historical and genealogical societies. Can’t find your ancestors’ old home town? Check out
for a short list of German villages that time forgot. For emigration information, go to
Get advice from the German Embassy at Click on Culture and Life and then on German ancestors.

Italian: The Italian Genealogy Home Page at gives a database of surnames, information about Italy’s history and geographical regions, naming traditions and translation tips. POINT (Pursuing Our Italian Names Together) hosts a site at Research tips include the data found on an Italian marriage certificate and common American ports of arrival for Italian immigrants. The Italian Embassy at tells how to obtain documents from Italy.

Irish: The General Register Office at is a good place to learn what records are available and what aren’t. The National Library of Ireland site at provides background information and a list of researchers. The Genealogy Society of Ireland’s site at is another stop you’ll want to make. The Irish Times has an online genealogy section at Some information is free. You’ll have to pay for the rest of it.

Scottish: The Scottish National Archives site is at The site at features information on England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The authors suggest checking out your local Family History Center before traipsing across the pond. The Scottish Genealogy Society site at is another good resource.

African: One of the most popular sites for individuals tracing their roots back to Africa is It offers basic information, online searchable databases and message boards. South Africans, particularly those who descend from European settlers will want to log on to Another good site is the African Atlantic Genealogy Society at

Newbies and experienced rooters should start their online research at sites that offer lessons, research guides, query boards and e-mail lists. We all have something to learn. Three of the top sites are RootsWeb (, GenForum ( and the LDS site FamilySearch ( All include national and international resources. Both RootsWeb and FamilySearch furnish free access to the Social Security Death Index, a searchable database containing information about people who died in the United States after 1961. FamilySearch also offers several searchable databases including the US 1880 federal census and the 1881 British Isles and Canadian censuses.

Don’t ignore the e-mail lists at RootsWeb. More than 28,000 different lists cover everything from surnames to states to countries to topics of interest. E-mail lists enable you to exchange information with others conducting similar research, to request research help and to connect with long-lost kin. The lists are free and you can subscribe and unsubscribe in seconds.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) site (
) should be next on your list. It’s terrific for boning up on background information. You’ll discover what records NARA owns and how to access them. Topics range from Revolutionary War records to American Indian tribal rolls to census records.

Each state has an archive. Many have a state library. Some states have both. Whatever the repository is called, it contains a wealth of information and you can learn more about its holdings by logging on to its website. A list of individual state archives and Canadian archives is at

Some state sites include searchable databases. The Pennsylvania State Archives ( features ARIAS, a military records index, and the Maryland State Archives ( has a death index spanning 1898-1944.

Getting to the right spot for Illinois rooters requires a bit of patience, but once you’re there you’ll soon find a number of searchable databases. Go to, click on departments, then state archives and finally genealogical research. You can choose from land sale records, state census records, death records and more. Good advice on researching in Illinois, too.

Independent sites like Kentucky’s searchable vital statistics database ( also provide state-oriented data. And you don’t have to be from Indiana to take advantage of the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne. The facility does sponsor a searchable database abstracted from obituaries published from 1841-1900 in Indiana. But it also offers one-stop shopping for state and international genealogical contact information. Log on to and click on genealogy gateway, then choose a state or country.

County governments have wised up and many are now capitalizing on the popularity of genealogy by hosting their own sites. The sites of Berks County, Pennsylvania ( and Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania ( are examples.

Sometimes you’ll find vital information online that you would not get elsewhere. I logged onto USGenWeb (
), clicked on PA and entered “Samuel Murray” in the search box using quote marks. One result was “selected small cemeteries in Fayette County”. I was amazed to find my third-great-grandfather buried in the Bigham Family Cemetery. Since there are no Bighams in my family tree, that’s about the last place I would have looked. The cemetery is apparently the site of the old Murray farm which was later bought by the Bigham family.

You can track down railroad retirement records at the Railroad Retirement Board site ( and locate vital records offices at Vital Records Information ( Individuals of African descent should check out AfriGeneas ( Nearly every ethnic group sponsors websites.

Every researcher must eventually tackle immigration and naturalization. The Ellis Island site ( is great for rooters whose kin arrived in America from 1892 to 1924. Those whose ancestors became American citizens beginning in 1906 should visit US Citizenship and Immigration Services ( for information.

Everybody should check out all-purpose sites like Cyndi’s List (, where you’ll find links to hundreds of topics, and Progenealogists (
), which contains a list of searchable databases ranging from St. Louis, Missouri Catholic burials, Utah state burial records and African-American cemeteries. Death records for more than a half-dozen different states, passenger ship lists and immigration records are also there. Most of the databases are free.

Should the database not indicate a timeframe, enter a very common surname like Smith into the search box. The results will give you a good idea of the time span the records cover.

Another site worthy of note because it is representative of similar sites is Mennobits (http://freepages.genealogy
). Intended for those with Mennonite or Amish roots, the site features an index of 74,624 obituaries printed since 1864 in the Herald of Truth, Gospel Witness or the Gospel Herald. Decedents were primarily members of the main Mennonite or Amish religious groups.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve got a bunch of old pictures that you can’t identify. Although the site is in its infancy, there are enough old photographs posted at FamilyOldPhotos ( to pique your interest. Consider contributing some of your own. Then learn how to preserve these old pictures as well as other family heirlooms at the Library of Congress website (

Cyberspace sleuthing is often trial and error. Take the time to experiment. Unless you’ve got someone looking over your shoulder, no one is going to know if you mess up. Try entering “genealogy + Vermont” or “genealogy + Spanish-American War” to see what pops up. Use quote marks to make your search more specific. Reversing word order often yields different results. Putting “Genealogy + Ohio” in the search box may bring up other sites than “Ohio + genealogy.” When you find a site you really like, add it to your bookmarks or list of favorite sites so you can easily return to it.

Volunteers will do look-ups
Need a helping hand? It may be as close as your keyboard. Volunteers at the Genealogy Help List ( conduct free look-ups at nearby government facilities or in printed resources that they own. It doesn’t matter whether you’re researching in Argentina, America, Canada or Zimbabwe.
There’s also help at Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness ( for those who need a quick look-up or a copy of an obituary from a newspaper 1,000 miles away. The 4,000 volunteers at Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness have agreed to do at least one good deed a month. These favors primarily include pulling and duplicating public records, finding and copying obits and photographing tombstones.

Services are free. But you are expected to reimburse volunteers for duplicating and postage fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. Don’t overwhelm them with requests. And remember to say “thank you”.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Family Chronicle.


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