Genealogy websites
June 12, 2011 2:06 PM   Subscribe

I just saw a commercial for that sold me on finding out interesting things about my family that I wouldn't even think to look for or ask about. What are my options in terms of services (are there better genealogy sites than, and what will this cost me? Have you had a good experience with a genealogy service?
posted by rastapasta to Human Relations (19 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I think is pretty good. You will probably hear mixed opinions. But if you are trying to find out about relatives who lived in the United States, you can get a one-year subscription to their basic service (not the international version) and probably dig up a lot of information. They have good census records and in some cases draft cards from WWI and II, and for my relatives, I've found ship manifests from when they immigrated. Personally I haven't found any useful birth or marriage records there.

If you are Jewish, African-American, Irish, etc. you might do some googling first and see about special resources that are available.

The only other significant cost, assuming you have a computer and internet connection, is in genealogy software to store all the information you find. You can keep it on the web site but ultimately you'll probably want to download the information and any documents you find to your hard drive.
posted by bchaplin at 2:21 PM on June 12, 2011

Depending on how obscure the stuff is that you're looking for, I've had decent luck with HeritageQuest which is a website that your public library might have access to. It's got searchable census data, some family history books and access to a large index called PERSI which will only give you citations, but it's pretty handy. I take a lot of screenshots of stuff and manage it using a site that I like called You may want to try out some websites first or see what sort of things your local and state libraries have for you before investing in anything. I'm just a lightweight hobbyist for this sort of thing and this works for me. I'll be interested to know what more hardcore genealogy people like to use.
posted by jessamyn at 2:23 PM on June 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I am very active in genealogy, and only subscribe to for one or two months a year. There are some databases at you won't find anywhere else, but I can usually fill the gaps using free resources elsewhere on the web. When I do subscribe, I make sure I have a research plan beforehand and enough free time during the month to meet my goals.

Your first stop should be the new FamilySearch website, which is free and expanding weekly. They have U.S. census indexes from 1850 to 1930, with free images for 1850, 1870 and 1900. Also lots of state and county vital records. Their family tree feature has been seeded with a lot of bad information, but will get better in time.

HeritageQuest Online has images for all available censuses, and indexes for many, but is available only through subscribing institutions. I got a free library card from a library across the state years ago, and have had home access to HeritageQuest ever since.

Internet Archive has images of all the U.S. censuses, but no indexes. I'm often able to use free indexes elsewhere and find the images here.
posted by Knappster at 2:26 PM on June 12, 2011 [14 favorites]

If you happen to be located in San Diego County, our libraries subscribe to You have to use it in the branch, though.
posted by exceptinsects at 2:38 PM on June 12, 2011

I tried the "free month" offer from Ancestry. I unsubscribed well within my deadline. I did it online. Of course my deactivation didn't take. They dinged me for a monthly charge the next month. Then they tried to do it again the following month even though I actually phoned and talked to one of their reps about cancelling the service.

That ticked me off enough that I put in a dispute with my credit card company. Visa didn't even blink. The refund came through quickly and easily. Oh, and the next month Ancestry tried again to debit the card. Of course there was nothing to get because I was smart enough to use a prepaid card with a low balance that I quickly wiped out. I did that precisely because I didn't trust the company in the first place.

The information I pulled from Ancestry was interesting, but not entirely new to me. Finding the information took a lot of searching with lots of wildcards. Essentially I ended up looking for entries that matched the formula lastname = s* or lastname =o* because even though I knew how to spell the names and other key details (year of birth, year of entry, etc.) using that data was useless. The people who transcribed the records (and sometimes the people who originally created the records) really had no clue when it came to non-English immigrants.

There still are marriage and birth and death certificate records that I never could find. There were other gaps as well -- border crossing records showing people leaving on a trip but never returning (even when I know darned well that they returned).

It was a interesting way to spend a couple of weeks of freetime online, but despite what the ads say, you really are better off if you know exactly what you're looking for and you have the patience to search manually through dozens (or hundreds) or records.
posted by sardonyx at 3:13 PM on June 12, 2011

If you do subscribe, be careful to check what geographic areas are included. A friend's husband bought her a yearlong subscription, only for them to realise that it only included Canadian databases (where they live) and they had no access to British data (what they needed for the genealogy research).

If you live in the same city/state as your recent ancestors, I would begin with local archives rather than online. The staff may be able to help you get started, and you will learn more about the nature of the sources that are the basis for the online information; also, the archive may have its own subscription, as do many libraries. In the UK, most local archives are very well set up to help geneologists, as is the Public Record Office.
posted by jb at 3:58 PM on June 12, 2011

A lot of public libraries in the US have Ancestry, and in many areas you will find reference librarians who can help you use it. Some libraries even offer free workshops.
posted by mareli at 4:57 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spent 20 years looking into my dad's ancestry via databases and the like, including (started when I was 10, FYI). In the end, what finally broke the roadblock in 1880 was when I tracked down the descendents of my grandfather's older brother and contacted them. They were just as stumbled as I was, but knew a few things I didn't. In the end what worked was being organized, getting records from counties directly,, and interviewing relatives. Ancestry made it easier, but I just want to point out it's not as simple as that, not necessarily for you but anyone else who reads this thread at least.
posted by jwells at 5:01 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite] is good, but it allows you to publish your own research... and the world is FULL of careless, sloppy (even lying) genealogists. NEVER take someone's information as gospel until you check out their research.
posted by brownrd at 5:05 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've subscribed to the US databases; I may or may not at some future date add on the European databases, but I'm doing as thorough a job as I can on the US stuff first.

It's not perfect, of course, but I have gotten a great deal out of it. If you decide to track your family, the first step is to take pen & paper and write down EVERYTHING you have or can get out of your relatives: names, dates, occupations, siblings, locations, anything. THEN go online, doublecheck what you already have, and build from there.

Whichever site you chose, verify EVERYTHING, don't just accept what your elders told you or what someone else online has put together for their own family trees. And just because you find someone with the exact right name & dates doesn't mean they're YOUR relative! (In one case in my own tree, I uncovered four guys with the exact same name born 1806-1807, married to four women with the same names born 1812-1814, and ALL FOUR couples gave their sons born 1850-1851 the exact same name.....sheesh. Let me tell ya, figuring out the right set was a real pain!)
posted by easily confused at 5:06 PM on June 12, 2011

Before you start with Ancestry, or any other service, start with people you know. Get your birth certificate, your parents' marriage certificate, your parents' birth (and death, if applicable) certificates, then rinse and repeat for each succeeding generation. Mother's maiden names are often on marriage certificates and always on birth certificates.

Once you've figured out who you're looking for in 1930 or earlier (if you're 30 years old, that's probably your grandparents as children or your great-grandparents as adults,) and you know where they live, look for Census records. Once you know who first came to America, or alternatively once you've hit a dead end on physical documentation that you can order from existing agencies, then look at Ancestry, etc.

To get aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., whose certificates you probably can't order unless you gain the cooperation of their heirs, you will need to actually talk to human beings. Start with the oldest, sickest, and most cooperative relatives you have. Record everything, even the nonsense.

Record everything in a program like PAF - something that lets you track birth years, parentage, marriages, all kinds of stuff, in a sensible fashion. Don't start in Word and think you'll move everything over when you've got a lot of data already. Make sure it lets you export (and preferably import) GEDCOM data.

Chances are, by the time you get to second cousins, that you will find someone who is a genealogy buff and has done a lot of the legwork themselves. If you're very fortunate, there's someone at JewishGen or wherever who's devoted to your family story. I have an uncle working on the Pakelchiks who's in contact with a second cousin, my mom has a few connections working on her surnames, and a ton of work was done back in the 1960s by an aunt of some kind.

My mother is a long-time genealogy buff (as in, former professional consultant, longtime stake-level genealogy worker at the church, etc.) and only periodically renews her Ancestry subscription. She's used it to get things like the passenger manifests of the ships my great-uncle took back and forth between the US and Ireland as a tourist between 1920 and 1950, that sort of thing. She spends and has spent far more man-hours doing rubbings in cemeteries and staring at newspaper and Census microfiche in dusty libraries.

And be ready for disappointments and confusion and finding out new answers five years after you thought you had the answers already. Turns out the family name is Pakelchik, not Parkelchick. Brooklyn accent plus eighty years plus a game of multi-generational "Telephone" equals... chaos, in my case.
posted by SMPA at 6:02 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

For my degree, I've used a good bit. It is easy to use and a really good resource for census data. Ideally, I would go to your local library and try it out for free first to make sure that information you are looking for is there. Census data is awesome for tracking people if they have unique names and were alive before 1930. The 1940 census data will be released in April of 2012, so there's that to look forward to.

If your family has remained in the same area for a few generations, it may be really helpful to speak to your local historical society (either at the county or city level) and see what resources they have to help you out.

If you are African American, a really interesting resource, if you are very, very lucky are the Slave Narratives done by the WPA in the 1930s. These are amazing resources and provide a ton of information about the daily life of African Americans and how they remembered slave life.

Feel free to memail me if you want further tips.
posted by teleri025 at 6:11 PM on June 12, 2011

I did the ancestry free-month trial, and didn't have any problems canceling my subscription before the trial ended. YMMV, of course. I didn't find the information I was looking for (obits and family information). I did eventually find what I wanted using a search of Google News Archives, which are a wealth of information, although there are lots of missing years in the collected records.
posted by ajarbaday at 6:26 PM on June 12, 2011

This previous question is tangentially related; you might want to look into the existence of a 'do-not-baptize' option.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 6:33 PM on June 12, 2011 is a free site where you can collaborate with other researchers. I can't recommend it high enough.

Most genealogists have an account at and they have a good forum (which is free). So that is a good place to start to see who has already looked into your family.

And then is a good place to keep your notes.

More sites for gathering information not mentioned above:
*Library of Congress search US newspapers
*Google Books
*Findagrave (this is becoming a really great resource for genealogists)
posted by cda at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I too have been surprised by a charge from Ancestry after giving my credit card number to access a trial offer. You need to be careful with them. After several years of thinking great stores of information were available at Ancestry that I found I didn't search long there after the service became available at my local library. There just wasn't that much new to find there for anybody in my searches. Family Search seems good, and is always growing.

I think the tree metaphor now used by most genealogy sites is limited. It can really only support one person at its stem. Only siblings share the exact ancestries, and once they marry and have children they each acquire new interest in their spouse's ancestry which has no relevance to the siblings. Now that the Internet gives us such greater access to information and improved ease of collaboration, a more nodal approach is required. I've given up on what now seems available for genealogy sites (after having spent time on WeRelate and Geni and others), because it seems to me everyone is still repeating everyone else's work. But maybe for someone new to searching, Ancestry and Family Search will be productive and quickly expand your knowledge of your heritage.
posted by TimTypeZed at 7:42 PM on June 12, 2011

Just thought I'd drop in a quick note that my mum, who is big into genealogy does not like Ancestry at all. Some of the information is incorrect, and they are making you pay for information that can be found elsewhere, for free (or for pay, but that's via the official websites)

Also, if you upload your family tree to Ancestry, apparently you can't share it elsewhere. They encourage you to share your tree, but are trying to kill the sharing that has been happening for free via the internet in the past.

Your library may have a subscription to Ancestry and other resources, if you are getting into genealogy.

Nthing: start with what you know.

(sorry, I have a very "" thing drilled into me all the time.)
posted by titanium_geek at 12:13 AM on June 13, 2011

My experience with Ancestry was terrible, actually. I was trying to find some information on my Great-grandparents (my mother's grandparents) whom my mother had lived with in the '30's and '40's and about whom we already had a ton of information. My search came up entirely blank, despite only really needing some fairly easy questions answered. The experience of using has turned me off genealogy entirely, actually.
posted by anastasiav at 9:55 AM on June 13, 2011

My fiance found some really interesting information about his family via
posted by radioamy at 10:51 AM on June 13, 2011

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