Free Genealogy Websites Everyone Should Be Using

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We’re excited to have remote access to Ancestry.com right now, but it’s not the only site out there for online genealogy research. Here’s a roundup of several sites the Pennsylvania Department routinely recommends.

FamilySearch.org

If you’re not familiar with FamilySearch, and you’re serious about genealogy research, please stop reading right now and go make a free account! This site is completely free to use from anywhere, and it’s a gold mine for anyone researching Allegheny County. There are so many local records here (such as Allegheny County marriage dockets, birth & death records, and deeds) that I lean toward telling people it’s a better source for Pittsburgh research than Ancestry. The trick is that most of those local records are not indexed, meaning they will not show up in a general search. Instead, you’ll have to use the Catalog under the Search menu, then search by place to see the list of Allegheny County data sets. Once you’re in the catalog record, you can scroll through the digitized microfilm frame by frame.

FamilySearch is also a great source for European records, so if you’ve been digging for ancestors from across the pond, you can’t skip this site. New records are added every week, so it’s also worth checking back periodically, and searching the catalog, even if you don’t find the right record today.

FamilySearch Wiki

As you might guess from the title, the FamilySearch Wiki is connected to FamilySearch, but you don’t need an account to use it. Before you spin your wheels searching for a record that doesn’t exist, check this site. There’s a breakdown of records for every US state, and most foreign countries, that tells you what government records are available based on when each one started keeping vital records — births, deaths and marriages. The site also outlines which records you can get based on privacy laws that vary by state and how to get them. If you’re researching outside of the US, each country has helpful step-by-step guides to getting started. The site itself is very user-friendly: each map is clickable to quickly get you to the information and guides you need and the guides explain the research steps clearly so that even beginners can make sense of it.

Historic Pittsburgh

There are so many great things on Historic Pittsburgh! Because it’s a collection of digitized resources from all of the major archives and libraries in the city, you have free access to material from many institutions through one search.

The reason we point genealogists to this site most often, though, are the digitized city directories. City directories are, basically, the predecessor of the phone book, and they listed every head of household in the city. Unlike the census, which was only done every 10 years, the city directories were published every year. They’re a great way to track your ancestor’s movements between censuses because they’ll tell you where the person lived, and often an occupation. The directories on Historic Pittsburgh focus on Pittsburgh, Allegheny City, and Homestead, but if you don’t see the city you need, don’t despair. Ancestry and FamilySearch also have digitized city directories from across the country.

Historic Pittsburgh also has maps, finding aids for the records of local businesses and organizations, and digitized books and newspapers.

Chronicling America

In addition to the library’s newspaper databases, we always recommend Chronicling America to researchers who are looking for local newspapers outside of Pittsburgh. (Inside Pittsburgh, we refer them to our extensive microfilm collection.) This website, hosted by the Library of Congress, features digitized newspapers from across the country, and it focuses on small-town papers that might not make it into other databases like Newspapers.com. Dates range from 1789-1963. Small-town papers are fantastic resources because so many things we wouldn’t consider news today made it into the local papers. Aunt Sally had visitors from out of town who happened to be cousins? Check the Society page. Two local farmers disputed a land border? Front-page news. Have an infamous ancestor? Check the court news.

Newspapers can also supplement official documents you find, like birth and death certificates. Obituaries can be a valuable source of information about your ancestor, telling you names of siblings or parents, their occupations, or their religion (based on funeral arrangements). You might also learn whether your ancestor was a member of any social or fraternal organizations, or where they went to school. All of these things help you understand your ancestor as a person, not just a name and dates on the family tree.

Everyone should definitely be taking advantage of Ancestry.com right now, so if you’re busy there, tuck this list away for later when you’ve exhausted your searches there. Happy searching!

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