There are so many genealogy web sites on the Internet these days, that it can be somewhat overwhelming to a beginner in genealogy. Someone starting to build their family tree and wanting answers to questions about their history, can find it very difficult to decide where to look for what! Here are a few ideas to help beginners feel more confident on the Internet.
You need to remember that not all information on the Internet is correct or proven. Sometimes you will find that a web site is simply a collection of other people’s information. Unless the details have a high-quality source to support the details on an individual or family group, you need to assume the details are “interesting” but not proven. What is “high-quality”? = any document which originated at the time of an event: a birth registration, a parish register of a wedding or burial, a residence listed in a city directory or on a census, a pension application.
Another quick important point: names were frequently spelled many different ways until into the middle 1800s, so it is best to assume wild and wonderful spelling. Once into the 1850s, more people were literate and spelling became standardized. For example, I have one specific line of my Buell family spelling their surname Buel; another Vineyard line which spells their surname Vinyard, and Terwilliger – every spelling you could think of! So be creative when searching for ancestors in old registers and documents.
Think about what specific information you are looking for in your family tree. Take a piece of paper and write down an individual’s name, and what it is you want to know about him or her. Once you have identified details, you can begin to brainstorm the various databases of documents or registers you might research next.
When searching, you are looking for when a document or record may have been made which automatically would include your missing details and information. For instance, if you need confirmation of a birth date, obviously a birth registration would be the best original source since it was generated at the time of the event. But failing to find a birth registration form, a birth date may also show up on a marriage registration form, or a pension application form, or a naturalization form, or specific census year forms, or military attestation or draft papers, etc. Obviously those additional forms are not the very best sources, but if they all match, that would certainly confirm the date! Use the Contact button to email me for a free copy of a form for research ideas, on RootsBasic (link below).
Databases are a collection of transcribed records, and because they are transcribed, they are subject to error by transcription. The handwriting of the original record may be very difficult to read, or splotched, or folded over and worn, or spelled so weirdly it was challenging to make sense of it. Whenever you find details transcribed, always try to see the original document as well. Since you know exactly who you are looking for (and their family), you may see that this is the correct family but with an oddly-spelled surname, and phonetic spellings of most of their first names! Without that original document to pore over, you might never have found your family!
There are many commercial genealogy web sites with various databases of documents you can search through, and the fees range from pay-per-view to yearly membership fees. On many such sites, however, you can still find some free databases. For instance, Ancestry.com, one of the larger sites, provides free access to the 1880 USA census and others. When you go to any of the fee-based sites, look immediately for free databases which may be useful to your particular searches. Many sites have a toll-free phone line you can call to verify which databases are free for you. Of course, they may try to talk you into joining their business, but you need to take time to decide this. It could be that another web site has more of the specific databases that you need to search. In the meantime, you are able to use these free records to help in your research. Eventually you will find one or two companies whose combination of databases are exactly what you need to use!
Each country usually has some form of free access to various government records, either by country or by smaller regions (provinces, states, towns). Governments are digitizing their records at an amazing rate, which makes your searches so much quicker, and more is being uploaded to the Internet each day. Remember that you will want to look at original records if at all possible, since sometimes only a small part of the record is digitized for searching. For example, I could find my grandfather-in-law death registration online, but only the date and government form numbers. However, a trip to the central library downtown and I searched a microfilm of his entire original death registration, with many more details allowing me to confirm family story details including his parents’ full names and birthplaces.
As a beginner, you know that an original record is a treasure chest of details which will help you build your family tree. Look for more than one record to confirm various ancestors’ life events, and the puzzle pieces will fall together! Enjoy your searches.