Genealogy is a fun hobby with a wealth of online resources for discovering and documenting your family history. Try using a free account on MyHeritage.com to document your findings, generate free charts and books, or purchase printed copies as keepsakes. Put on your detective hat with free sites like FamilySearch.org, EllisIsland.org, and CastleGarden.org to help dig up your roots.
Relatives here and there have tried to piece together our family genealogy, but there wasn’t really anything written down. My husband’s family was better documented; he had a stack of papers from research his aunt had done in the (pre-Internet) 1980’s. The pile sat buried somewhere in his office, and no one looked at it.
So I decided to poke around at some of the free tools online for documenting family history. You can quickly become overwhelmed at all the available resources; so here I offer up the handful of websites I found most helpful.
Plant Your Family Tree with MyHeritage.com
Plant the seeds of your tree with a free membership to MyHeritage.com. The site is easy to use and I quickly entered four generations. You can add photos, details like birth/death dates, immigration, occupation, and more.
Your tree is private. Invite other family members by email to join, and watch the tree grow! Remember that mothers’ maiden names are valuable, so use a strong password to protect your account. If you want to expand beyond 250 relatives, annual membership is $75. MyHeritage makes it easy to invite other members to share in the cost of maintaining the family tree, if you like.
This site also offers “Smart Matches” – a neat feature that uses computing power to search through the entire MyHeritage database and look for matching relatives on other members’ trees. You can review and confirm a Smart Match, and potentially add entire branches to your tree with one click.
Dig Back in Time with FamilySearch.com
Once you’ve documented all known relatives and ancestors, try digging back in time a bit. Here is where things get interesting! In less than an hour on the free site FamilySearch.org, I discovered my great-great-great grandfather John Faunce by searching on last name and city of interest. (Admittedly, it helps if you have a less common surname.) This site has a huge collection of records from around the world including census, birth, baptism, marriage, death, military and more.
You can also learn some interesting factoids about your family history. No living relative of mine knew that our ancestor Samuel Faunce was a wharf builder, but we do now.
Immigration Records Help Extend Your Reach
Most US citizens know about Ellis Island. You may have ancestors who arrived here through this immigration center between 1892-1924. Visit Ellis Island online for a free passenger search.
For those whose ancestors arrived earlier, try Castle Garden. Also located in New York City, this immigration center predates Ellis Island, processing new arrivals from 1820-1892. Here is where I found the exact date of arrival of my great-great grandfather.
Tying It All Together
Once you’ve filled out your tree as best you can, take advantage of MyHeritage’s free charts and books to pull it all together. You can even order a printed copy for a beautiful family keepsake. They offer various chart types to highlight the family branch of your choice, or even the whole big ol’ tree.
- Descendants (top down)
- Ancestors (bottom up)
- Fan chart
- Family Book
Apply one of 18 styles to pretty it up, and then download the resulting PDF chart or book for free. For printed keepsakes, grandparents might enjoy a copy of their “Hourglass” chart as it includes their ancestors as well as their descendants. Married couples with young children might like the “Bowtie” chart as it centers on one marriage, with children below and their respective ancestors fanning out on either side. If you’ve managed to collect a lot of detail on your tree, I’d consider the family book. It includes individual narratives and photos of all your relatives.
Have Fun With It
Have fun and I hope you discover something new too!
Have you used these or other genealogy sites? Do you think you or your children might like a chart or family book with their ancestry documented?