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HomepageSearching for Your Ancestors Online
A friendly guide provided by the Cullen Genealogy Homepage

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· Introduction

I receive so many e-mail requests on this subject that I finally decided to write a page specifically on searching for your ancestors on the Internet. I've found that, though there are plenty of excellent resources, they can be hard to find and/or use. Trying to locate good genealogy resources on the Internet with one of the search engines can be just as difficult. With so many online resources available and ranging in quality from excellent to something below terrible, I thought it would be helpful to gather together for you some of my favorite and most useful links. More importantly, I've tried to provide useful tips for getting the most out of these resources as quickly and easily as possible. Though these resources may not be all-encompassing, they represent a fair portion of the family data available online. Many items of interest are to be found on some of the genealogical indexes and search engines which may better provide some of these more specific types of information. My focus here will be in the general search for specific ancestors prior to about the turn of the century so my descriptions of the sites will concentrate on that area. Note that any online information pertaining to family history is susceptible to error or outright fabrication. Double checking the sources of information cannot be stressed enough to one engaged in online genealogical research.

As you know, the Internet is a constantly changing place and so this page will have to be flexible enough to keep up with the latest resource developments. Watch for updates to this page as new or changing websites are discovered.

· A Survey of Page Contents

  1. Surname Organizations: You may find that there is a surname organization already established within the online community. No better help exists since they are tailor-made for your surname and will often point you to the specific resources you need. These links will help you to find them.
  2. The Mega Sites: Truly massive and comprehensive genealogical organizations, with websites, that have been around long enough to carry some clout and be able to offer very useful resources and facilities free of charge to the public. Most of these sites would be listed as "highly recommended" for nearly every category on this page. Online and offline resource listings abound. Here you will find the big hitters with names like FamilyTreeMaker, Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Rootsweb.
  3. Surname Forums: Covers bulletin boards, message boards, query postings, and the like. These resources may locate individuals who are researching your family but who are just starting out and so are often drawn to the message boards. The information found in this way can vary widely in both content and accuracy.
  4. Genealogical Indexes & Search Engines: Genealogical websites and personal homepages with online family trees number in the tens of thousands. I sometimes think the number of genealogical indexes and search engines is almost as large! Expect the quality to vary widely and the list results at times to be cumbersome and impractical. There are a choice few with features that are actually very good.
  5. Internet Search Engines: As a last resort, you may try searching for ancestors or references to your family on the Internet search engines. This can be a tricky proposal and so I've provided some tips that seem to produce the best results. The new parallel search engines will submit your query on up to 30 separate Internet search engines (which is nice) but you pay for this ability by losing some of the advanced search options available with the standard engines.
  6. The Newsgroups: My least favorite way to find contacts but every once in a while I get lucky here. Usefulness of this resource has declined somewhat due to the increasing popularity of the megasites and "instant family" resources but I still check the newsgroups occasionally for new postings.

(1) Surname Organizations

Surname Web: This site, The Genealogy Web Project of Surname Resource Centers, is the largest and, in my opinion, the best for locating surname resources. Easy to use. Features are: choice of language, break-from-frames link (always a plus in my book), minimal graphics, and a useful site search engine. Scroll down and watch for the major area links on the left-hand side. Always use the surname search engine at the top to locate your surname, NOT the clickable alphabet (it leads to huge pages)! Once you locate your surname and click the link, you'll end up at the resources page. I like the fact that these folks have requirements to be met in order for your site to be listed as a resource center. This helps to maintain the quality of the sites listed as Resource Centers. Not all surnames have a resource center though useful sites not qualified as resource centers may be listed. The rest of the links on the main page are self-explanatory and just as easy to use. They are: surname web rings, general site search page, genealogy resource centers, and a homepage construction kit.

Irish Clans & Families: I like this site for the simplicity of it. If you're looking for links to websites concerning Irish families, then this is a great stop to make. All on one page you will find links directly to the family pages you may be looking for. There are also links, on the same page, for other surname indexes that are very good for locating Irish surname websites. This site has brought together some of my favorite Irish surname resources and really needs no further explanation... enjoy!

(2) The Mega Sites

Rootsweb: "The Internet's Oldest and Largest FREE Genealogy Community". This site is another favorite of mine. Two of the most useful features of Rootsweb are the extensive mailing lists (the Cullen list is located here) and the connections to the US and World GenWeb. There is also a large and continuously expanding collection of online source documents. Lately, Rootsweb has really pulled together its resources and provided very effective search services for hundreds of gigabytes of genealogical material worldwide. For starters, scroll down and watch on the left for a blue bar labelled "Genealogy Community". Under this heading, click on the link "Research By Most Common Surnames". You will be taken to a clickable alphabet where you must click the appropriate letter. You arrive at a page full of surnames and you simply click the surname you're looking for. You will then be taken to the Resource Page for that surname. From your Resource Page you have access to many search facilities already configured for the surname you chose. You can search record transcriptions, the Internet, archives, mailing lists, and more. This is a relatively new and VERY useful feature. Be sure to bookmark your Resource Page! Back at the main Rootsweb page, look for the "Search Engines" heading right below the "Research By" heading. These search engines are invaluable for searching endless volumes of mailing list postings. This list-search feature is also available on all the Surname Resource Pages. You must register with a user name and password to access the listings in full or you may just copy the e-mail address from the visible portion of the search results to e-mail the person who made the post.

FamilySearch: The FamilySearch Internet Genealogy Service is brought to you by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You may best know them for their genealogical collection, the largest in the world. Their International Genealogical Index (the IGI) is now online, a much anticipated event and very much appreciated. For now, only the IGI for the British Isles, North America, and Finland are available online. The plan is to eventually make all geographic areas available for online searching. The search itself is fast and easy. You must enter at least the surname of your ancestor in the boxes with the bold print, labelled "First Name" and "Last Name". There are also boxes for names of the spouse and parents of the ancestor, if known, to narrow your search. Click the Search button. The results you get will be somewhat limited so, when the search results appear, look for a box off to the right labelled "Sources Searched". Select the appropriate region and you will get another list of search results, only this time much larger. If you get too many results (over a couple hundred), they are incompletely listed and there is no way at present to see the rest of the search results. I avoid this by using always a first and last name for the ancestor in the initial search. Watch the search results; some are IGI entries and some are results linked to the Ancestral File. If you're lucky, you may stumble upon a family tree containing the ancestor you're searching for. These are also available for searching. Just go to the homepage, where you made your initial search (by default an Ancestor Search). Look at the tabs up top. There is also a Keyword Search and a Custom Search available for other kinds of records and all is explained clearly. Check the What's new section now and again; the site is changing all the time!

Family Tree Maker: "The largest and most complete online genealogy resource", is their claim. They may be right. Currently, you can search a database of 325 million names on their Internet FamilyFinder, my favorite resource here. FTM has also taken over operation of Genforum, my favorite surname posting board. You can link there directly from FTM's homepage. About using the FamilyFinder, which is right there on the opening page. Don't fill in your search there. Click the link that says "Choose Search Locations", under the boxes. You can choose to search information available on the Internet, on FTM user homepages, or the FTM CD's (which are NOT available online). Here you will also find SSN, e-mail, and phone number searches. This narrows your search to information you may have immediate access to. Hint: If you like, you may search the World Family Tree Volumes and then go to an online look-up resource. There are a few out there! Besides the FamilyFinder, there are endless articles and links too numerous to discuss here.

Ancestry: This site is interesting in that you may freely access GEDCOMS submitted by the general public. This collection of GEDCOM material is known as the Ancestry World Tree and is searchable from the Ancestry home page. Enter a first and a last name and click the "Search" button. You also have free access to the Social Security death index though it will not be too helpful in many cases since the Social Security system was instituted at a time later than many researchers are interested in. When viewing the World Tree search results, you are provided with a brief summary on each individual. Clicking an name or the link provided for the person's marriage info will take you to a page containing a clickable family tree. You may also download the GEDCOM or contact its author. Watch the upper right corner of the home page. You will find there links to databases, in many cases searchable, that are free for ten days. You can also link to another page that contains a longer list of free databases. Ancestry has been very gracious to provide these free resources; all databases are free to the general public for the first ten days. Members have access to all databases at all times. New databases are added daily! Take a look at the other information in the categories at the lower portion of the home page - tons of good stuff there as well.

(3) Surname Forums

Genforum: My favorite surname posting board. Each surname forum may be several pages of links to complete message postings. Given the number of surnames available, the total collection of postings must be enormous. On the opening page you may link to posting boards arranged by surname, geographic area, or other topics. A search facility is provided to search for the surname forum you're looking for. Once you arrive at your specific forum pages, you may search that forum for keywords (this is located at the bottom of the page). You may also jump to another forum or do a global search, meaning that you are able to search for keywords or surnames in ANY forum. Good keywords to use are surnames, simple geographic location names, and other words you know will be associated with the family you're seeking. Genforum is an excellent way to locate contacts for your research. You must provide your e-mail address to make a post but Genforum protects you with a unique approach - your e-mail address appears as a graphic image (not text) so that it is quite impossible for robots to steal your e-mail address. When making a post, include time frame and geographic location for your surname interests; this will attract the attention of those who may be able to help you.

Local Names: This is also a good posting board for surnames though it may not be as active as Genforum for some names. I recommend that you do NOT use the clickable alphabet to locate your surname forum. Scroll down just a touch and you'll find the "Family Names Search" box. The results will be a list of links to the posting pages for the surname you entered, plus the pages for any obvious variations of the name. When you reach the posting page, I suggest you bookmark your page so that you won't have to repeat the search process each time you visit. On your posting page, notice the links at the top of the listings for Origins, Mailing List, Announcements, Resources, and Related Names. At the bottom of the page are the links for posting a message to the forum or for going to the next page of messages.

Family History: This site is part of Ancestry and you'll find links back to that site from FamilyHistory's opening page. FamilyHistory's surname forums are off to a good start and should grow quite large with time. Use the search box right there at the top of the page to find the message board for your surname, or search all the forums for the keywords that you specify! Again, bookmark your forum when you find it. You will be linked to the listing for the most recent messages. To see all the messages, click the "Start" link at the top of the message listings. You will also find the link for posting a message to your forum.

(4) Genealogical Indexes & Search Engines

GENDEX: Gendex is an enormous site maintained by Gene Stark, who has written a GEDCOM to HTML conversion program which is very popular with online genealogists. His index covers hundreds of databases containing information on over twelve million individuals. Registered users have links at Gendex which point to their HTML family trees. Access to the index of links is free to everyone though members are first in line to access the server. Despite this, I've rarely if ever had a problem getting through. When you arrive, click the second link which is "GENDEX WWW genealogical index". When the next page comes up, click the first link which is "Access the Index". When the next page comes up, click the first link which is "surname index". When the next page comes up, enter your surname of interest in the SECOND text box which is labelled "enter a surname and search for soundex-equivalents". Click the Submit button next to the box. You will arrive at your surname page. I don't think I need to remind you to bookmark your page! Note that your surname soundex equivalents are arranged in groups, ordered by numerical prominence. Click the surname you are interested in. Now you arrive at the actual index which is ordered alphabetically by forename. You may have to click down a layer or two of alphabetical ranges to find the forename you want. When you do finally come to the list of individuals, note that there is a column of basic vital data down the middle of the page regarding that person. Use this information to select a link. When you click a link (the person's name, at the far left), you will be taken to the webpage, somewhere on the Internet, where the GED2HTML is posted. You may also click on the author's name at the far right to get more information on the author.

Cyndi's List: With currently over ten million visitors, Cyndi's List is perhaps the largest useful genealogical site index on the Internet today. You will find over 55,000 links fully indexed and up to date. There is no search capability; you simply narrow your search down by selecting pages of indexed links. Everything is arranged in categories so the site is easily navigated. You may find the lists bewildering at times but not bad for the amount of material covered. Ten million visitors can't all be wrong.

(5) Internet Search Engines

HotBot: "The Internet's #1 rated search engine" and my personal favorite. I've used their service to provide a search facility for my own site (see Site Map). For simple and complex searches, HotBot is always my first stop. With a few twists in the search terms, I find that HotBot also works very well as a genealogical search engine. Look right below the search entry box on the home page and you will see an Advanced Search link where many data type options and boolean operators are available. Search results are provided with summaries and a percentage rating for relevance. Percentage ratings from 100% to 98% are nearly always relevant; below about 96% however the usefulness of the search results begin to really drop off. There are links on the left-hand side of the HotBot home page that go to pages for searching the Newsgroups and other sources. I've provided below some examples of simple searches (not on the Advanced Search page though the same tactics may be used there as well). I've used these search methods and they seem to return very good hits:

Notice that I haven't described the use of dates in any of the above examples. This is due to the frequency of appearance of numbers on webpages and due to the fact that HotBot will often not perform a search when the terms contain a number. Besides the above hints, the best advice is to experiment and see what kinds of searches provide the best returns for you. Below are links to some of the Metasearch Engines on the Internet.

Inference Find: "The intelligent and fast parallel web search".

Webcrawler: "It's that Simple".

C4: "Total search technology". Formerly known as Cyber411.

ixquick: "The world's most powerful metasearch engine!"

SavvySearch: "Search once, find everything!".

(6) The Newsgroups

deja.com: Formerly known as DejaNews. This search engine is self-explanatory in most cases and very easy to use. For the purpose of genealogical searching, I would suggest clicking on the "Power Search" link at the upper right. If you scroll down, you will find a list of option boxes. They are fine as they are except for the box labelled "forum". In this box you want to type *genealogy* so that the search engine will only search newsgroups that have the word genealogy as part of their names. In the top box you will put your keywords, the same kinds of keywords that I suggested for the Internet search engines. Since we've already limited ourselves to genealogical newsgroups, you may just enter a surname, maybe a variation on the spelling, and perhaps a location if the list of search results is too large.

HotBot Newsgroups: You may also search the Newsgroups at HotBot. Deja.com is the search facility in use here as well. From HotBot's home page, look for the link to the "Discussion Groups" at the upper right. When you arrive at the Discussion Groups search page, click on the link "Power Search", right below the text entry box. You will be taken to a power search page similiar to the one at Deja.com. The list of option boxes are fine as they are except for the one labelled "Group(s)". Type *genealogy* in that box. Now enter your keywords in the topmost box, labelled "Search for:". Click the find button. Although HotBot uses a search facility provided by Deja.com, I find that searching from the HotBot site seems to actually work faster than performing the same search at Deja.com.

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