Your Fingers do the Walking
Murray Allen reports that online databases are just a few
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.
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
and German (www.germany-info.org)
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
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
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
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 (http://world.altavista.com).
The following are a sampling of what’s available.
You’ll find a selection of birth and baptismal
records and immigration records at http://digitalarkivet.no/index-eng.htm.
One of the best sites for researchers of German extraction
which offers everything from a research outline to
online searchable databases to a directory of best
resources. At www.genealogienetz.de/
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 www.rootsweb.com/~kyjeffer/
heritage/forgottenvillages.html for a short list
of German villages that time forgot. For emigration
information, go to www.emigration-research.de.vu.
Get advice from the German Embassy at
Click on Culture and Life and then on German ancestors.
The Italian Genealogy Home Page at www.italgen.com
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 www.cimorelli.com/pie.
Research tips include the data found on an Italian
marriage certificate and common American ports of
arrival for Italian immigrants. The Italian Embassy
tells how to obtain documents from Italy.
The General Register Office at www.groireland.ie is
a good place to learn what records are available and
what aren’t. The National Library of Ireland
site at www.nli.ie
provides background information and a list of researchers.
The Genealogy Society of Ireland’s site at www.welcome.to/genealogyireland
is another stop you’ll want to make. The Irish
Times has an online genealogy section at www.ireland.com.
Some information is free. You’ll have to pay
for the rest of it.
The Scottish National Archives site is at www.nas.gov.uk.
The site at www.genuki.org.uk
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
is another good resource.
One of the most popular sites for individuals tracing
their roots back to Africa is www.afrigeneas.com.
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 www.rupert.net/~lkool.
Another good site is the African Atlantic Genealogy
Society at www.africantic.com.
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 (www.rootsweb.com),
and the LDS site FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org).
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
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)
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 (www.phmc.state.pa.us)
features ARIAS, a military records index, and the Maryland
State Archives (www.mdarchives.state.md.us)
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 www.cyberdriveillinois.com,
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 (http://ukcc.uky.edu/~vitalrec/)
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 www.acpl.lib.in.us 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 (www.berksregofwills.com)
and Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania (www.co.westmoreland.pa.us)
Sometimes you’ll find vital information online that
you would not get elsewhere. I logged onto USGenWeb (www.rootsweb.com/
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 (www.rrb.gov)
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 (www.ellisisland.org)
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 (www.uscis.gov) for information.
Everybody should check out all-purpose sites like Cyndi’s
where you’ll find links to hundreds of topics, and
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 (www.familyoldphotos.com)
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.
will do look-ups
Need a helping hand? It may be as close as your keyboard.
Volunteers at the Genealogy Help List (http://helplist.org)
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
(www.raogk.com) 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”.
article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of