A Beginner's Guide to Using the Internet to Find Your Ancestors

Updated on December 3, 2018
Rhosynwen profile image

I have been researching my family's history for over 15 years, as well as occasionally assisting others in their ancestry research.

Your Family Tree

Family history is a subject that interests most people, and with the advent of the internet, discovering that history is more achievable than it has ever been before. The posting of records and family trees online allows you to search for your ancestors and connect with distant cousins with relative ease. Records that used to require a long drive or hours of digging through dusty folios can now be found from the comfort of your living room. With a few simple steps, you can begin the adventure of uncovering your family background today. In this article, I will mainly be dealing with finding ancestors who lived here in the United States; overseas records are a separate, albeit related, subject that requires a separate article to do them justice.


Free vs. Subscription

Before you start, you may want to stop and consider how much effort you want to put into your search. If you have time and a keen interest in the subject, you may want to subscribe to one or more historical record databases, as these will be a tremendous aid due to the great number of records they contain. If you are only wanting to search a little bit here and there, you would be better off starting with websites that offer free records. In time, if you find yourself wanting to know more than you can find for free, you can move on to a subscription site. I will say, though, that even if you start out by signing up for a subscription database, please also visit the free websites. I have found many records on those sites that were very helpful and unavailable on the paid service. I would also see if any other members of your family are interested in the research. If they are, then suggest splitting the cost of a subscription with them. That way no one will have to bear the entire cost, and you will all benefit in the end when you are able to build your family tree more easily.

Most major genealogy websites will host your family tree for free. I would suggest creating a tree on the website you plan to use as your primary source of information. That way it will be easier to save records that you find on the service directly to the tree. If you do find a record elsewhere, you can normally enter it into your tree manually.

First Steps for Online Research

  1. Decide what kind of online databases you will primarily be using (free or paid).
  2. Create an account on the site you will mainly be using so you can have your tree set up before you start your research.
  3. Assemble all information you already have concerning your family. Talk to relatives who may know some extra things that will be helpful to you.
  4. Start with your grandparents and work backwards in time. Focus on one grandparent's family at a time to avoid confusion.

Getting Started

After you have decided what kind of service you will use, the next step is to gather as many details as you already know and write them down in one place. If you have questions that a relative can answer, especially an older relative, ask them. The more information you have concerning at least your grandparents, the easier it will be to trace back from there. Do not hold every little detail you are given as concrete, however. In my own searching I have found a few things to be different from what I was told by relatives. Most of the time this is due to fading memories, or a story becoming altered (either intentionally or unintentionally) as it was passed down through the generations. Other times there are statements made that can be interpreted differently depending on the situation. Someone saying "Grandpa Joe was a WWI hero" can be taken two ways: he was a hero because he performed a special deed for which he was officially recognized, or he was a hero simply because he participated in the defense of his country. Hold lightly statements such as "great-great-grandpa was an Indian chief", "we are related to President so-and-so", or "we have royalty in our family" until you have found unquestionable records to back up these claims. We as humans have a tendency to want the limelight, or be connected to someone who was famous. I will admit, it is interesting to find someone prominent or heroic in your family background, but don't overlook the everyday sort of folks that form most of your tree. They all had stories of their own, full of the good things, bad things, joys, and sorrows that affect every person's life. I would encourage you not to merely gather facts such as birth and death dates because of this, but to also search for details that will give you a picture of each person's character, appearance, and the things they did while on earth. Your research will be much more interesting to the other members of your family if you include such details whenever possible.

On the Trail

Now that you have a starting point, go to your information and pick a branch on which you want to work. If you have information on all of your grandparents, this will give you four branches from which to choose. I would suggest starting with the one for which you have the most details to make it easier on yourself! If you are missing a name of a grandparent, don't worry. There are ways to find that information. Just lay that branch aside for the time being and focus on the ones you do have.

There are a few different scenarios you may encounter as you begin. I will break these down into categories to make starting out less confusing:

  1. Your grandparents are not still living, and were born after mid-1930. You have names but do not know where or when they were born or died. Start by searching the Social Security Death Index, obituaries, and find-a-grave.com. Once you find potential matches, make good use of message boards that are under a forum for their surnames or the location where they lived before they died. Sometimes all it takes is an obituary with a good mini-biography to help you find out many details, such as whether they were natives of the area where they died
  2. You have never had contact with your grandparents, and do not know if they are living. You can use the same strategy as above, but be sensitive about inquiries concerning them, as you may find that they are still living.
  3. Your grandparents are not living, but were born before mid-1930. This is when a subscription to a site that has census records comes in handy. Run a search on their name for the 1940 census (images of federal censuses taken after 1940 have not been released to the public). If you know what year they were born and where, this will make it even easier. Alternatives are to use the records and forums mentioned in paragraph #1.
  4. Your grandparents are still living and told you the name of their parents. Follow the directions under #3 to find out more concerning your great-grandparents, and track backwards from that point.


Some Words of Caution

Once you have collected as much information as you can concerning your grandparents, you can now move on to your great-grandparents. This is not to say that you must have every little detail about your grandparents before you move on to their parents, but it is wiser to build carefully, one generation on another, to ensure that you have established the proper links between generations. You can waste a great deal of time researching the wrong people if you do not make sure you have well-documented links; I know this from experience. If you lack good documentation to establish a connection, write down what you think to be true, and set it aside for now. You may eventually come across information that confirms your speculation, or proves it to be incorrect. But, please, avoid publishing extremely speculative information in an online family tree unless you state the information to be undocumented. Trees that family researchers post online can be extremely helpful when they are well-documented and thoroughly researched. If you come across a distant cousin who has already done considerable research on a branch of your family, thank them! They have saved you hours of searching. They may also have records to which you do not have access. Trees that are poorly-documented, however, can lead people who are just starting their research into erroneous assumptions. My advice is document everything you find yourself, and make sure those from whom you receive information have records to confirm what they are telling you. (Side note: when I mention "records" and "documentation" I normally mean primary sources of information, such as census records, county marriage records, parish records, death certificates, and so forth, as these are considered to be the most reliable sources. Be aware, though, that even these sources can contain errors.)


Other Places to Look for Records

Aside from the websites specifically set up for genealogy research, there are a few other ways to find information online. One is typing in your ancestor's full name and county/state of residence into a search engine. This can yield results for references to the person in books that have put into digital format, records repositories at universities, original record abstracts individuals have posted online, and so forth. Some of these things may be free; others may require payment to be viewed. Some results may be for indexes for records in which the person's name can be found, which means you would most likely have to travel to the place that holds the records to view them.

A second way to gain information is through state or county archives that have digitized some of their records and made them available to the public online. Check the website for a state or county to see if they have digital copies of records available. Be aware that sometimes these records will only be available to you if you are a resident of that state or county. Often the records will be searchable by name, which will save you time. Sometimes the information put online will be an abstract only, but you can request that the full record be sent to you for a nominal fee.

Finally, there are some county genealogy websites which have volunteers who will do free look-ups in paper records for that county. If you have hit a "brick wall" in your online research, but think the record you need may exist on paper, accept these kind folks' offer and ask. Just follow their rules and be polite, though—they are doing you a huge favor!

A Final Note

There are many tricks to finding the records you need, and making sure they are the right ones. I will be covering these in more detail in later articles, as I feel they need their own space to be covered thoroughly. It is my hope, however, that you will be inspired to at least get started through what you have learned here. Family history is a fascinating subject, because it is something that has a direct affect on whom a person is. Enjoy finding your history!


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • Rhosynwen profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Glad I could inspire you to start researching again. Whenever I hit a major roadblock while researching a particular branch of my family, I just shift to a different branch for the time being. Sooner or later I seem to run across a clue or a strategy that helps me to start clearing the roadblock.

    • profile image

      Duchess OBlunt 

      8 years ago

      This makes me want to get right back in there. I have started some searches for different people, hit a road block and tend to let it slide. Online research, I'll be following some of your tips here.


    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      Excellent tips! You've inspired me to do a bit of online digging- I'm excited about it!


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