Navigating the twists and turns of online genealogical research.

online genealogical researchMary sat back from her computer in frustration. Her grandfather didn’t just die; he disappeared. Her family had always been so secretive about their past. When she was a little girl and had asked for family stories, or where her ancestors had come from, the subject was quickly changed, or she was informed that it was impolite to ask such questions. She had the impression that someone in her past had been less than perfect. Now, she was finding that her ancestors seemed to be hiding from her as well. .

The wunderkind of family history today is the Internet. Or is it? Rumor has it that there are “all encompassing” databases on the web that you can access for free that will give you your complete family tree – just like a pedigreed registered dog. Or so the myth goes about online family tree research. .

Unfortunately, there is more fiction present on the Internet than documented fact. And the genealogy consumer must beware and be prepared to learn in-depth research skills for himself, hire a professional genealogist, or go down the primrose path. But, from a professional point of view, it is a most valuable tool that if you know how to use it and understand its limitations. Then you can get the most out of what we call Happy Hunting on the Imperfect Road of Internet Genealogy. .

Recently my wife, Mary, had the following research experience while helping a frustrated novice inquirer who wanted to find “some names for temple work” and thought she could just pop on the “net” and find her family tree. Much to her chagrin, no such database existed, so Mary decided to spend some time with her to see what could be found. .

During an online free research session that turned out to be a very technical 40-hour-online search, they gleaned some truth from the rocky road’s chips and gems and some new names and historical data have been added to the inquirer’s pedigree. To do so meant knowing about reputable research websites to search, how to use their database resources, understanding their limitations and interpreting the discoveries. .

We have provided here a report of our findings and how we did the research – for those who want to see what we used to hike the family tree via the Internet. For the reader’s convenience we have blended Mary’s experience with the inquirer’s and called the inquiring researcher “Mary.”

But, before we start, please keep in mind the following. These tips will make the journey more pleasurable and profitable.

Professional Genealogy Insider Tips for Internet Family Tree Research

• Buyer Beware! Genealogical and historically relevant material is available on the Internet but does not come with the Good Housekeeping Seal of guaranteed documented truth.

• The beginning researcher should stick with record-based sites for doing online research. These include sites such as; Heritage; and Family But remember their records and indexes are only as accurate as the competency of those providing the information on the records and their indexers.

• Genealogical database indexing is done by imperfect people. Remember that what you know will shape how you view and search for information. You have to be willing to think in terms of all the mistaken ways something can get put onto a record and then be indexed when you are ready to search for and find those elusive lost relatives.

• Internet research can easily fill all the hours you have to spare and then some, as you hunt for the answers to the mysteries of your family tree. You must be a real good detective to make sense of what you uncover and you must be willing to endure many, many, many unsuccessful searches. Family tree research is about spending lots of time in the records, a willingness to develop technical research skills and having a mind that loves solving puzzles.

• Leave the 21st century behind when you are looking at records of the past.

• Be sure to make copies, and document everything you discover, so you can keep track of what you find. Make a paper copy of every record you search that contains your family – you will refer to it over and over again in your Internet searches. Be sure to make a copy of where you found it! And attach this tracking information to the record so you can find it again.

• If you have a jump drive, you can save your copies there for later printing.

• Make copies of the record template where available – especially on for such records as census and military records – so you will know what questions they had to answer, noting that the questions and answers can often vary due to the record, the census year, the census taker, the responder, and the data indexer’s ability to read, decipher and interpret the information.

• Information included on a record can vary and conflict with what you know and what you learn about a person or a family.

• Records created about an individual over the course of his or her lifetime can radically vary from record to record.

• Ages can vary and conflict.

• Spellings can vary and conflict.

• Sex can change from record to record.

• Note military service or lack of.

• Race can be an issue and it can be wrong.

• Family traditions and stories need to be proven with documentation.

• Do collateral searches for other family members to find your lost ancestor.

• Occupations are valuable for tracking people through time in the records that have conflicting information.

• Keep track of where your family lived, noting what street they lived on as they can often stay in the same area for years or even pass the family home onto new generations. As inevitable conflicting information will show up on other records pertaining to the family, this may help you find someone whose name or age, etc., has been lost in the database indexing or even in the original creation of the record, or through marriage.

• is free through your local Family History Center or the Salt Lake Family History Library. But a year’s subscription to access their website will be cheaper in gas and time and a whole lot more fun!!!!

• Study how to use Ancestry – wild card searches really can open up your potential for success.

• Learn the differences between Ancestry’s Ranked, Exact, Soundex and Advanced searches.

• Remember there is more to Ancestry than census records.

• After you spend hours in, go to and see what resources are available from the Family History Library for you to use at your local Family        History Center or available online.

• is the best free genealogy site out there on the Internet – even though much of its database has been created by family tradition submission.

• The Family History Library has made a tremendous contribution to helping everyone who comes to their website and to their library system through          their vast online and onsite genealogical, historical, and educational resources.

• If you have trouble finding something on or, see if your local library can give you free access to Heritage This is an excellent      genealogy subscription site that is only available through libraries and societies.

• Googling in all its variations is a great way to find interesting tidbits about your family on the Internet.

By James W. Petty, AG, CG

(Part 2 of this article will be published tomorrow.)

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