Looking for totally free genealogy websites so that you can actually afford to conduct genealogy research? I've got you covered, with lots of ways to find your ancestors for free.
As mentioned previously, I have been working on a genealogy project with my Hungarian grandmother since the fall of last year. To say that this project has been a satisfying, worthy undertaking of my time is a vast understatement. Not only have we produced a family heirloom to pass down for generations to come, but several pieces of interesting information has surfaced that never would have without the proper research. On top of all of this, I got to spend a significant amount of time with my grandmother as we had discussions, sifted through photographs and records, and cooked a few recipes over Easter.
The great news for anyone interested in genealogy is that while it can be an expensive hobby, it actually doesn’t need to be.
There are a huge number of free resources available to you online as well as in person. I’d like to take the time to share some of these free resources with you, as well as a few tidbits from my own research.Great news for anyone interested in genealogy is that while it can be an expensive hobby, it actually doesn’t need to be. Click To Tweet
How to Do Genealogy Research for Free
Once I chose to pursue the Hungarian side of my family tree, the first stop on my journey — truly the most important one — was my grandmother. She is literally the only living link between me and our ancestors. The key information that I received from my grandmother included the following:
- Her last name Adorjan was changed to Adorian because people in the US could not pronounce it
- She found a letter from the 1950s/60s addressed to János Supek (a relative) in Marczaltő, Veszprém, Hungary
- János is Hungarian for John
- She gave me her mother/father’s names/birth dates/death dates, and her mother’s father and mother’s mother names/birth dates/date of citizenship/approximate date they arrived
- She let me know that her maternal side of the family was Catholic
In an event that cannot be brushed aside as mere coincidence, I met a woman named Agnes at a financial conference I attended in February. This is the same name as my grandmother, so I approached her and asked if she was Hungarian. It turns out that not only is she Hungarian, but she is first generation and still speaks the language! She offered to translate anything that we needed, as well as mentioned that I would have to get an old map of Hungary for my project. I had never really thought much about this, but Hungary has had quite the history. There was the Kingdom of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and various border changes that at times included parts of Austria, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Serbia / Yugoslavia.
Free US Record Resources
Records that you may stumble upon as primary resources include deeds, vitals (birth/death/marriage), census, tax records, military records, wills, court records, ship passenger lists, etc. The following is a list of several free websites to start your research for these types of records, all of which I have visited in my own research:
- USGenweb: This website is all about “keeping internet genealogy free.” Volunteers keep up the state and county pages, so each one will look unique.
- Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records Automation: This website gives access to Federal land conveyance records for the Public Land States with images of over five million Federal land title records issued between 1820 and the present.
- Ellis Island Ship Passenger Lists: Ellis Island operated between 1892 and 1954, so if your ancestors potentially entered the country during these years then you should conduct a free search. Remember that there were also ports of entries in Galveston and in Canada.
Free Global Resources
Finding information in the US through Census, passenger ship records, etc. was not too difficult once I knew where to look. However, I had no clue as to where to look for Hungarian records. Here are a few free resources to get you started on your global genealogical research:
- RootsWeb: This website offers individual guides for genealogical research in various countries.
- Cyndi’s List: While Cyndi’s List provides numerous links to US genealogical information, it also provides links to worldwide censuses. For Hungary, I was able to find a census from 1869!
- FamilySearch Genealogy: The LDS Church operates the largest genealogy organization in the world. Here you can gain free access to digital images, as well as to the card catalogue of the Family History Library in Salt Lake Utah. This Library houses genealogical records for over 110 countries, territories, and possessions.
Free Forms and Software
All of this information has to be organized or categorized in some way; otherwise you might drive yourself crazy. These are some free forms and software to help you with that process:
- Census Extraction Form: These forms help you to see the format and column headings for various census years.
- Family Tree Builder Software: My Heritage offers a free, downloadable Family Tree Builder.
- Martha Stewart’s Fan Pedigree Chart
- Pedigree Chart you can edit on your computer
While Conducting your Free Ancestry Records Research, Remember This
Sometimes, you need to decide if something is a fact by using the preponderance of the evidence.
I'll give you my own genealogy case study on this.
While I was not able to confirm some of the more colorful stories of our past — an opera singer who dropped dead while singing on stage, a woman on her wedding day dressed in white with a severe toothache who had to be taken to the dentist and died on his chair, etc. — I did have what I consider to be “big wins” as far as research goes.
Maria Supek’s sister’s (Nancy Ellis) funeral newspaper article said that she was born in Budapest, Hungary and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15. The newspaper article also said that her parents were Mr. and Mrs. John Supek. From this, you would gather that Maria, my great-great-grandmother, was probably born in Budapest as well. But I dug deeper.
My grandmother found a letter that her mother had written to relatives in the 1950s. She said that her mother always sent them letters, but that one day a letter was returned. After that, any letter she sent was returned. The letter was addressed to János Supek in Marczaltő, Veszprém. I was able to find online that the county of Marczaltő is Veszprém, and that Marczaltő is a town.
From talking with my grandmother, I knew that Maria Supek was Catholic. From her funeral announcement that my grandmother found in a shoe box, I now knew that her birthday was September 24, 1891. Miraculously, I tracked down “Hungary Catholic Church Records, 1636-1895” as well as Roman Catholic Parish of Marczaltő, Veszprém Megye, Hungary Baptismal Records. There were several Maria Supeks in this town who were baptized around the same time. Fortunately, I had all of this other information (including her father’s name of John/ János), and was able to find her particular baptismal record. Her baptism was on September 24, 1891, the day she was born. But better than that, I was able to confirm that she was born in Marczaltő, Veszprém, Hungary and not Budapest. Also, the baptismal record gave me her parents’ names…a full generation back of information! This was a great treasure hunt with a happy ending.
Pictured from left to right: Great-great-grandmother Maria Supek; Great-Grandmother Agnes Adorian (Adorjan), Grandmother Agnes, and my mother Deborah
How Do I Find My Ancestors for Free?
Sometimes, you need to actually get on the road to find your ancestors.
But taking trips to research genealogy is not always doable, especially when you're working on a tight budget.
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit family and friends for Easter in PA — which is where my ancestors all lived.
Over the extended stay, I conducted a lot of the types of genealogical research that is easier to do in person. My grandmother and I spent several afternoons going through boxes of photographs, documents, and passing on family stories. We also had the opportunity to cook several recipes together in her kitchen — one of my favorite genealogy project ideas I've ever had! — a memory I will cherish for life. My Aunt Molly and I spent a few hours rummaging through the attic at our farm (my father’s side of the family), a resting place for over 150+ years of Grossman belongings. Afterwards I was able to scan in hundreds of documents to preserve and use back at home in Houston.
My trip home provided lots of opportunities for genealogy research, which started me thinking: what if a research trip is out of the question for you? Are you bound to limit the scope of your research, not to mention more prone to feeling frustrated once you hit a wall?
I am happy to say that a genealogy research trip is not necessary. Fortunately for all of us, there are many inexpensive and free resources available in our genealogical pursuits that do not require a car trip, airplane ride, or gobs of money.Many inexpensive & free resources are available in our genealogical pursuits that don't require travel or huge expenses. Click To Tweet
Submit for Copies of Documents
It turns out that you can actually contact depositories around the world and request copies of records (you pay the fee for the copies and mail). Having these copies can really help boost your research, start your research, and/or provide solid proof.
- US Military Records: The National Archives holds Federal military service records from the Revolutionary War to 1912 in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Military records from WWI to the present are held in the National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC), in St. Louis, Missouri. Standard Form 180 needs to be filled out in order to request most military records. Here is the current schedule of fees associated with military records as well as any records from the National Archives.
- Ship Passenger Arrival Records: You can also search the National Archives for ship passenger lists, and submit for copies of anything that you find. Records include foreign ports arrivals between approximately 1820 and 1982.
Visit Regionally-Located National Archives and Genealogy Centers
The National Archives has regional locations all across the United States. On top of requesting copies of records and conducting research onsite, you can also use their free online databases (such as their free online subscription to Ancestry.com).
There are also 4,500 FamilySearch.org centers worldwide that house genealogy records. You might want to search for a Family History Center located near you (there are five located in and around Houston).
Take a Google Earth Genealogy Tour
If you have addresses or locations of where your ancestors came from/used to live, then take a fun, worldwide genealogy tour on Google Earth. This may be the closest you can get to the actual location where your relatives used to live. Note that addresses have probably changed over the years, so you might just want to put a street or town in as the location and explore from there.
Solicit Free Genealogical Research Help
Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness web site, run by volunteers, allows you to ask one free question a month. You choose a volunteer from a list of people in each state, fill out a form describing your genealogical needs and as much information as you have, and let them take it from there. You are expected to reimburse for things like film, video, copies/printing, postage, parking fees. But there is no charge for the service! FamilySearch.org also offers free, live help with your genealogy research.
Finally, do you have relatives that live in the area where you are gathering information? Perhaps you can solicit their help in picking up documents, researching something specific, and scanning.
Use Email and Mail Extensively
Even though I was able to take a genealogy road trip, I still conducted a lot of the research over email and mail. I had specific questions ready to ask my grandmother, and after each deluge of questions I received a package of letters, photos, documents, etc. in the mail. Ask your relatives and see if anyone has completed genealogy research that they wouldn’t mind photocopying/scanning and sending to you. My grandmother has since contacted a cousin who has conducted extensive genealogy research on her father’s side of the family. She is going to send me what her cousin sends her. You never know what you might find!
One day it might be nice to take a trip and visit where parts of your family originated from or lived. But for now, rest assured that you can use the resources above to dig deeper into your family’s history without the added cost of a trip.
The Online Genealogy Handbook, Brad and Debra Schepp, 2008