In case you’ve missed out on pop culture the past few years, genealogy is currently in vogue. Crafty marketing attempts spearheaded by Ancestry.com dug out a nice corner of the short American attention span, with big TV commercial and Internet advertising pushes and a TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? that digs into the family histories of celebrities. It’s became part of the reality show landscape, and millions of people try their hand at family research every year. Casual genealogists can be forgiven for thinking at Ancestry.com is the entirety of the field, considering how Ancestry has made itself the go-to brand name. But the family history giant is not free, and luckily is not the be-all and end-all to family history.
Why Does Ancestry Charge?
The reality is that Ancestry is undertaking a very costly endeavor by digitizing historical documents. I once interviewed for a position as part of the project chain that brings these documents to the website so the average user can find them. Ancestry.com works out exclusivity deals, where they partner with government and private institutions to scan the documents. This takes a lot of time and manpower. So the deals protect their investment. Essentially, Ancestry.com does the grunt work and they’re granted X number of years to be the exclusive home to the documents. Hence why you have to pay to access the 1940 U.S. Census. It can be frustrating if you’re broke or can’t justify a monthly fee for a hobby, but it’s understandable why Ancestry.com works out these deals.
The other big perk is obvious. Ancestry.com can be a one-stop shop for casual genealogists. They do host a ton of information and images that help researchers, and boast a fairly active community of researchers. There are limits to what Ancestry knows, and finding relevant information can be a pain sometimes. Fear not, there are alternatives out there!
Free Alternatives to Ancestry.com
My personal favorite is Familysearch.org. Run by the Mormon Church, it’s a really breathtaking attempt to corral all of the family history in the world in one place. And it’s entirely free. The only problem you might run into is the fact that access to some documents is restricted to pay sites. Usually the information is still there, but you won’t be able to see the actual copy of an image to verify.
If you’re looking for transcripts or data, but not the original images, Familysearch.org is fantastic. I’ve been using it for years and it’s helped me start new research into branches of the family tree. I still use it to do quick searches to see if anything new has been digitized relating to my ancestors. This is, without a doubt in my mind, the best free source for genealogy information.
There are other websites, of course. Mostly narrow in interest. If you type in a Google search, you should be able to find a database, even if it’s small, of information relating to military ancestors, literary accomplishments, government documents, etc. This is where the field of “big” history can often cross paths with genealogy. For instance, there are a plethora of sites that list rosters of military units. Websites like SpanAmWar.com list rosters of Spanish-American War units, for instance. They are not always complete or accurate, but they’re a great place to start.
USGenWeb.org is another great site for county and town histories, though the content is very hit and miss. Some areas will have a lot of information, other counties or towns won’t. It all depends, and very little of it seems to be complete, but again, it’s a great place to run a quick search and see what pops up.
Library and Archival Research
This is the least feasible for most researchers, but I feel I still need to include it. Local libraries usually have a genealogy section, with family history books, government documents, cemetery lists, church histories and newspaper on microfilm. Get familiar with the microfilm machine, it will be your friend.
But most people don’t live where their ancestors lived, and local libraries have limited resources. They simply don’t have everything. Regional archives and university libraries can be huge helps in this regard. They often have digitized collections, if you can’t visit them, and they’re usually very helpful and friendly.
This is probably the most rewarding way for an traditionalist like me to dig up information. The Internet makes research easy, but there’s still something wonderful about holding a 150 year old book in your hand and seeing the name of an ancestor written down. Consult with libraries and archives in the regions where your ancestors lived. They usually have an online catalog or a page where you can see what they have in their holdings. Identify things of interest, feel free to email the librarians and archivists for advice or questions, and then plan a trip. You’ll be glad you did.
Find Genealogy Help
You can always find the help of a professional genealogist at ProGenealogists.com, but you’ll have to pay. They’ll conduct long-distance research for you, or you can always shoot me requests for research in the Mid-Michigan area. I’m familiar with the resources around there and would be more than happy to work something out to help you go further back in your family tree.