Certain expensive, pay-to-use genealogy corporations are using mass media in an attempt to convince us that we need their services in order to research our personal family histories. TAINT TRUE! You don’t need shaking leaves to point you in the right direction, or to perform genealogical research. People (including myself) were effectively researching our genealogies long before the internet, and those corporations existed.
Here is a list of some of the FREE and EASY ways to research your family tree. Most of these apply to people everywhere, not just in New Hampshire.
1. Talk with your family. No joke–the best information and leads are absolutely free if you take the time to interview your parents, grand-parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, starting with the oldest relatives first. Go through your and your parent’s address books to root out distant relations. Look at family photographs to spark your memory about potential other cousins. If you contact a relative, ask them if they know of anyone else who might have the information and be willing to share. Even if you have lost touch with a relative for a long time, reconnect with extended family. Caveat: Most people won’t part with treasured family photographs and documents, so if possible buy a portable scannner that saves to a flash drive (like Doxie which costs about $150). Bring that with you on your visits. Yes this part is not free but only needed if you want on the spot copies of precious paper documents. Another option is to take photographs of these items, and also to use your camera and/or smartphone to actually save a video of an in-person interview.
2. Keeping It Neat. Organize from the start, as your tree will quickly turn from a snow ball into a giant avalanche of information and paper. There are many free online resources on how to organize your family tree. You don’t have to buy expensive software (honestly I can count on two hands the number of times my computer crashed and I lost my stuff). You can stay with paper documentation for a while. Cyndi’s List has an entire page of free charts and worksheets. Family Tree Magazine has the perfect forms as both TXT and PDF files.
3. FamilySearch. The best source of primary evidence (documents to prove an ancestors existence and relationships) is FamilySearch. You can easily narrow your search to State-level if you click on SEARCH, scroll down to the Browse All Published Collections > select United States > then the State (such as New Hampshire). Now, unlike the searches of the other genealogy service companies, you have effectively narrowed your hunt to only those you really want to, or need to, see. You won’t get a zillion hits but the ones you will see are probably useful to you. Many original documents can be found here. Once in a while you see a link to Ancestry.com, which you really don’t need to visit as I will explain in #4. If you want to search all records, instead of just a particular region, just go back to the original search page and leave the location blank.
4. ProQuest/HeritageQuest. If you live in New Hampshire, you are one step ahead. HeritageQuest is provided FREE of charge to New Hampshire residents FROM HOME if you have a current library card for any New Hampshire library. This is pretty darn amazing I think! Kudo’s to the State of New Hampshire for providing this option. Several other states offer the same deal, as do certain memberships [read this article for details on who does] ProQuest’s HeritageQuest gives you instant access to several essential genealogy tools: The United States Census Records (and honestly their indexing is much better than other places), their library of online books in PDF (searchable by People Place and Publications), the PERSI Archive (searchable periodicals), Revolutionary War Era Pension and Bounty Warrant Applications Files, Freedmans Bank (African Americans), and U.S. Serial Set (for information about people and places in the Memorials, Petitions and Private Relief Actions of the U.S. Congress). Check with your local library to see if they have this option either from home, or at the library.
5. Online newspapers. Yes there are lots of pay per view web sites for newspapers, but locally if you have a newspaper subscription you can usually view their archives at no cost. Most local libraries offer free viewing of newspapers, so look at their list of available online databases. In New Hampshire, NewsBank offers several newspapers remotely online from the 1980s to the present online. The Google News Archive offers access to over 2500 newspapers. The Library of Congress, Chronicling America lets you search through over 1,000 newspapers with articles dating 1836-1922. Elephind.com is a free world historical newspaper archive, with 2,405 newspaper titles. The New York Times Article Archive is an option when researching people of some importance or living in New York City. If you want at home access to older newspapers and it is not available through your library or membership, I highly recommend GenealogyBank which has pay monthly subscription options for a reasonable rate. Miriam Robbins web page details a list and links to free online newspapers. New Hampshire-specific newspapers are lean here.
6. Internet Archives. This is an amazing gem that is often overlooked when it comes to genealogy. These are free books online, mostly in a searchable non-PDF format. Family Name genealogies, local histories and United States Census records are the highlights of this collection. You can search by the exact item, or go to their Welcome to Genealogy Section and browse.
7. New Hampshire Town Reports. What many people do not realize is that many New Hampshire towns have been reporting vital statistics for many years. Births, marriages and deaths are often at the back of the reports or stuck in the middle, so be sure to read entirely through the booklet. Search the Internet Archives for “Annual Report …. (town name)” to collect all of the records for that location.
8. History and Genealogy of New Hampshire at Searchroots. Okay so a little bit of self promotion is in order. This is my web site, but guess what, it is ENTIRELY FREE. Be sure to read the important section on how to research here. My thanks to Family Tree Magazine for honoring me with a “Best State Web Site for Genealogy” [for New Hampshire] for the past 3 years. The web site is entirely searchable.
10. Google Search. Someone else put together a series of lessons on using Google for genealogical research, so just watch them! [The Google Genealogist, Part 1]. Additional lessons are in the right sidebar when you view the video.
11. Alternative Search engines & Search Tools. Here is my favorite list of other options for family history research.
12. Social Media. Don’t discount the use of Social Media, especially FaceBook, which is still going strong for people wanting to network and connect with people searching the same surname, location or family. Even the “I remember when in (location)” type groups are very helpful and the members welcome questions.
13. New Online Options. A superb alternative to the bloated, overrated online genealogy companies include MOCAVO which has a free membership option (I am a member and for the low price, and so far it is well worth it). FamilySearch has an option to create your tree also, but I don’t like the way others can change or edit your information.
14. Your local library. Please do not rule out the wonderful tools you will find at your own local library. Most have a section on genealogy, local, regional and sometimes national resources. The largest online genealogy service is offered free of charge at many libraries (to remain unnamed here, but you know who I mean), and American Ancestors that is the database of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Visit your closest library soon, and ask questions. In New Hampshire, for example, the Manchester City Library has an amazing “New Hampshire Room” upstairs in the library devoted to primarily New Hampshire and New England research, that I have used for over 35 years.
15. Membership benefits. Many genealogists belong to history, museum, or family surname organizations. Whatever groups you belong to, ask if there is a unique online database that they offer, or through your membership if you have access to remote newspapers or archives. The New England Historic Genealogy Society, for example, offers a free guest account that gives you access to 14 of their popular databases including Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 and New England Ancestors Magazine. [see the list here]. If you join, the databases available to search increase to 3,000 mostly focused on New England and includes newspaper archives. I am a member and find it well worth my annual subscription of $79.95.
16. USGenWeb. Sometimes a visit to a USGenWeb state, county or local site may help you out. The quality of the web sites range from excellent to poor, depending on the how knowledgeable the volunteer host is, and if they added some meat to the bones of their local research site. I don’t greatly recommend New Hampshire’s page so I won’t link to it here but you can visit the national page and proceed from there.
I will be adding to this story from time to time, as there are really more than sixteen free ways, so keep checking back!