How to get started in genealogy for free

I am an amateur genealogist. I’m frugal. I’m internet savvy. And in 10 years, I’ve amassed about 20,000 ancestors and descendants in my family tree; conducting most of this research for free.

Researching your family history is done in five basic steps:

  1. Free: Gather informal history from family and online strangers
  2. Free: Input and merge information into a genealogy database using software
  3. Free: Verify informal research via vital resources, citing your source
  4. Free: Share research online and exchange information with distant cousins
  5. Cost: Verify research via DNA and genetic testing

Informal History

Your objective is to research and document the facts of your ancestors and their descendants as accurately as possible. Asking family members and other genealogist to remember names and dates accurately for you is not evidence, but it’s a start. By gathering and organizing information from others, you will have a good foundation from which to start your research.

Living Family (free)

Pedigree Chart The absolute best way to get started is to contact living family members. Ask them fill out both a Pedigree Chart and a Family Group Record. If you think they have a good memory, ask them to fill out some of this information on behalf of their parents and grandparents. The more information the better. (free) Purchased by (a paid service) years ago, the database may not look pretty, but it contains a vast amount of family history that has already been organized by others. Best of all, most of this information may be exported and downloaded for free as .GED (GEDCOM) files, which are commonly used by genealogy software. Visit RootsWeb WorldConnect Project, find your ancestors, and download both their Pedigrees and Descendants.

Genealogy Database / Software

Organizing the information you gather is essential. In the case of RootsWeb exports, much of your history might already be found in a database format. I like to work on my database offline, but I’ll also present an online option.

Personal Ancestral File (free)

Personal Ancestral File I am so efficient at entering data into the free Personal Ancestral File application that it is my top choice. It is capable of importing and exporting .ged (GEDCOM) files, which makes it easy to share data with genealogist. It has many great reporting features, which makes it easy to share your research with family members. And it is capable of finding and merging duplicate records, which is helpful if you import family history from different sources. (cost)

I only mention because it not only lets you build your own tree online, it lets others build your tree for you. By linking your ancestors to a common ancestor on someone else’s tree, you essentially add all of their research to your family tree. They call it World Family Tree. Neat concept, but you have to be a paid member to take full advantage of their services, which is why I’m contempt with PAF.

Vital Resources

Now it’s time to get serious. Everything you have gathered up to this point is hearsay and speculation. You now need to find one or more reputable sources to back up your research. There are many sources genealogist consider to be vital resources, but here are the most useful:

  • United States Census (1790 to 1930, with 1850 to 1930 being the most useful)
  • Birth, Marriage, and Death records
  • Social Security records
  • Tombstones

Thankfully, there are some excellent resources and databases online that reference this information. (free) In my opinion, is the best source of vital information online. Best of all, it’s free. In the U.S. along, they have more than 300 collections of vital records, many of which are already cross-lined with relationships such as parents, spouse, and children. In many cases, the site provides an image of the original source; giving you the opportunity to see your ancestor’s name written by the census enumerator. You may search for individuals by name, date, location, and more. I like to also search by just the parents’ last names, while will help you find the birth, marriage, and death records of their children. If I had only one resource online to look up vitial information, I would select; it’s that good. (free) This is another site that would benefit from a new design and better search, but it’s still useful. My logic is that if someone is going to carve a name and date in stone, they’ll try to get the information correct. Families also tend to be buried near each other. So if you find one ancestor in a cemetery, you will likely find some more (most likely the spouse). This database is built by users, so might not consider the information a “vital record.” But many of the entries include a photo of the tombstone, which often contains the full name, date of birth, and date of death.

Share research online

Sharing your information online is important for two reasons: 1) it preserves your research so that others may find it and 2) it connects you with other genealogist who are likely researching common ancestors.

There are many places to post your information online. Most of the paid services will also accept your data at no cost because it strengthens their databases. Here’s where I like to upload my research:

Please remember to protect the privacy of living members by hiding their information online, a common feature these websites offer when you upload your .ged (GEDCOM) database.

DNA and genetic testing (cost)

Word of mouth, paper trails, and vital records can only go so far. Thanks to modern science, it is now possible for consumers to use DNA and genetic evidence in their genealogy research. This type of research is not free, since each test ranges from $100 to $500 depending on the complexity and detail. But it can help you validate family lines and find new cousins who share a common ancestor with you.

Y-DNA Testing is the most common means of validating your paternal line (your father, your father’s father, etc.). The Y chromosome is passed down from father to son virtual unchanged. Often, 12 generations might pass before a noticeable mutation in the DNA occurs.

I use Y-DNA testing to verify that descendants do in fact share a common ancestor and that my paper-trail research is accurate. By finding two living males of the same surname, whom I suspect share a common ancestor, I’m able to use DNA to prove that they are in fact related. (cost) is the best site for genealogist. It has the largest database of users, which is essential if you want to find others who share common DNA patterns and likely common ancestors. It also has a wide variety of tests to meet both your budget and objectives. When I find someone whom I’d like to have the DNA tested, I often have to offer to sponsor a portion or all of their expenses. But the information received is valuable and lets you strongly confirm with real evidence that your research is accurate and valid.

Get Started

So there you have it. Some nice tips on how to get started in researching your own genealogy using mostly free resources. Before too long, you too will have a large understanding of your family’s history.