Saturday, October 5, 2013

Getting Started: Free Stuff

So maybe by this point, you've gotten some stuff down on paper. Maybe you've even started a tree on a website like, or in a software like RootsMagic. Give yourself a high five for being awesome!

So hopefully you have enough information down that you can start forming questions about stuff you want to know.

There are two types of questions you're going to be asking: the interesting kind, and the uninteresting kind. The uninteresting kind are pretty much like, Who is Uncle Fester and when is his birthday? The interesting kind are like, Was Uncle Fester a gangster and did he ever kill anyone? Keep in mind that you're going to have to ask both kinds of questions. The uninteresting stuff leads you to the interesting stuff, or at least gives you what you need to start asking more interesting questions.

And write your questions down! When you write your questions down, you think of more questions, or better ways to ask the same question.

I is frum Irelands! Lookit mah hat!

When you don't write down your questions, you end up looking at cat gifs on Tumblr.

But records cost money and I am broke!

So when I started out doing genealogy, I didn't have money to spend on it. Actually, let me rephrase that. I didn't have money, period. So unless it was free, I wasn't going to use it. And because I spent so many of my formative researching years as a broke teenager, I learned how to work the system like a boss.

DO NOT SPEND MONEY ON ANYTHING IN GENEALOGY UNLESS YOU HAVE TO. Why did I put that in all caps? Because this misconception, that genealogy costs money, is what keeps a lot of young people from even trying to research their heritage. And I'm here to tell you, genealogy can be one of the cheapest hobbies in the world if you do it right.

If this happens to you, you're doing it wrong!

So let me tell you about some of my favorite tricks. Note that I'm an American/Canadian researcher. Many of my hints can be universally applied, but I can't vouch that all of my suggestions will work for researchers from other places. The principles are still the same, so find a way to apply them in your situation and let us know how it turned out!

Yes, we all know you have to pay to see the records on But that doesn't mean you have to pay to use the site. If you put your information in a tree on, your information will get something called Hints. Hints are the little shaky leaves that appear over the names in your tree, and they point you to records that could be about your ancestors.

When you open up the hint for Ethel, it looks like this:

If I click on the green Review button, I get the Give-Us-Your-Money splash screen. But because I've been doing this for a long time, I know I have options.

Because of this hint, I know her information may show up on the 1911 Canadian census. And now I have a choice. I can pay for the super deluxe and expensive world edition of to see this record. Or I can try and find this information myself for free in another place.

A basic Google search for "1911 Canadian census" or some variant of it will show you that Library and Archives Canada has a website. Their site allows you to search and download copies of the census records FOR FREE.

Don't get me wrong, paying for a subscription to can be a great thing. But not if the records they're going to give you are records you can find for free in other places. And you would be surprised how often that happens. Let the ones you CAN'T find build up for awhile. When you've got enough to keep you busy for awhile, sign up for the free trial. Cancel it before it costs you a dime.

FamilySearch is a website published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church I've been a part of since I was 16. They give away information for free because they're cool like that, and because in their minds the information doesn't belong to them. They're your ancestors, you have a right to see that information. And if you have ancestors that come strange, exotic places like I do (Jamaica, Barbados, and Grenada) FamilySearch has some of the only records available on the internet. In some cases, they have the only copies in existence.

They continue to add more records to their site all the time, so be sure to check back often to see if records for your ancestors have been added.


The fastest way to build your tree is with census records. They are records that include parents, children, years or dates of birth, birth places, sometimes even grandparents living in the household. When you are able to trace a family on the census over time, it can clue you in one what they went through in life. The places they lived reveals a lot about who they were and will focus your research to some very specific areas. So finding free census records is always going to be your goal.

HeritageQuest is a great resource for census records. I have always really loved the way their search feature works on their website. It doesn't have tons of boxes and options on it like does, and many times that makes it easier to find stuff. And if you live in the US, your public library system will usually have a subscription to HeritageQuest that you can use for free. I have library cards from two different states, and they both offer HeritageQuest.

If you go to your city/county/state library page, one of them should have a real website with databases on it. Find where they keep the genealogy databases, and see if they offer HeritageQuest. Click the link, enter your library card number, and it will take you right through to their site. Bookmark the portal page where you enter your card number so you don't always have to dig through the library's site again.

Google Books

Google Books has copies of many genealogies that have already been written by those who came before us. You don't want to waste precious time and energy doing work that has already been done. I've found a book which picks up my family at my great great grandmother at about 1877, and carries her lineage all the way back to 1654 with the Lundy family of England. They were Quakers who settled in the New World, and whose lineage is well documented throughout that time period. And while not everything published in a book is accurate, verifying someone else's claims can be a huge help to your research. If their information is accurate, you just saved yourself years of work.

What are some free tricks you use to have success in your genealogy?