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With so much information on the Internet these days, it seems easier than ever to do family history research without ever leaving the comfort of home.
There are free sites, such as FamilySearch.org (operated by the Latter Day Saints) and FindAGrave.com, which depends on the contributions of volunteers. Both sites offer a wealth of information. On Find A Grave, you might find great-great-Aunt Sarah’s tombstone in Massachusetts. Most posts include a photo of the tombstone; if you’re really lucky, there may be an obituary and possibly a photo of Aunt Sarah, too.
There are also a lot of subscription sites such as Ancestry.com, and new sites are coming online all the time. Check the Carroll County Public Library, which offers many of those subscription sites for free to its card-carrying patrons.
When you do a search on Ancestry.com, you will find all sorts of materials from various sources – many of these are digitalized copies of original documents. On your computer, you can view reliable records that offer information about your ancestors to add to your tree. All existing U.S. censuses have been indexed and digitized on Ancestry and FamilySearch, including the 1940 census, which was released just last year. With the click of a mouse, these records can open a window directly into your family’s past.
Many states have repositories that have digitized their collections so that you can find images of original death certificates and other vital records documents. One great place to find resources such as these – and literally thousands of other genealogy-related websites – is CyndisList.com.
Searchable online resources make doing research a lot less costly – even if you pay for the subscription sites – because you may not have to get in the car to drive to the far-away locations where your ancestors lived and died.
Additional benefits to these sites include the ability to connect with others who are researching your family name, many of whom have uploaded their family trees online.
I’ve used these to connect with cousins I never knew existed. In fact, I have many cousins whom I’ve never met in person, but have gotten to know well on Facebook. That’s been very rewarding and a lot of fun.
A few words of caution
So, how reliable is the information you find on the Internet?
That’s the catch.
While a lot of folks have uploaded family trees that contain reliable documentation and sourcing, there are others who post anything and everything they find – or think they know – without first determining the quality of their information or noting their sources.
I have run across many trees that have my father’s family included, but much of the information is just plain wrong. They may have the names right, but the birth dates are wrong. Sometimes, they misspell or misinterpret names, or worse, leave a family member out altogether.
Abstracts of any records found online can be considered as primary sources, but whenever possible, do what you can to find the original document. Abstracts and indexes were created by humans, and humans are known to make mistakes – even those who are really careful. Original handwritten records can be very difficult to read, and indexers often are forced to make their best guesses.
The U.S. census, taken every 10 years since 1790, is a great source that will help you find out how your ancestors lived. But, a good researcher also will take this information with a grain of salt.
Early censuses – up to 1850 – don’t include family members’ names, only the name of the head of household. Hash marks are used to denote the number of people in each household, broken down by gender and age as well as “free whites” and slaves. Later censuses include the names of each individual in the household, including boarders, along with their occupations, marital status, education and other tidbits.
But the accuracy of the information depends on three things: the knowledge of the family member who provided the information to the enumerator (census taker) and the competence of the census taker who collected the information.
For example, say the head of the household and his wife were not home when the census taker came calling. Instead of talking to the husband or wife, the census taker gets the information from the mother-in-law. While she probably knows the answers to most of the questions, perhaps she is off on someone’s age by a couple of years or forgets how to spell one of her grandchildren’s names. The incorrect information is recorded, and that can cause confusion for researchers.
When you are using an online database like Ancestry, you also have to factor in the possibility of mistakes made by indexers.
So, when using these online sites, it’s best not to search for “exact” matches to a name you are hoping to find and allow the database to retrieve everything that seems close. Your odds of finding that person will be much greater.
Clearly, it’s always best to find as many sources for any piece of information as possible. When you find conflicting information, consider which document is most likely to be correct and use that as your primary source.
Phyllis McLaughin is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and the author of “Images of America: Carroll County,” by Arcadia Publishing. Have questions? Send them to TwistedRootsGenealogy@gmail.com, and indicate if your information can be included in a future column.