Genealogy – Searching for free

Jan Gow explains how to find valuable information on the huge free family history sites.

Jan Gow explains how to find valuable information on the huge free family history sites.

Click here to go to our download page to get a PDF Ancestry Chart which you can use to map your family tree.

Those researching their family history have access to millions of Web sites offering information – sometimes pay-to-view, but mostly freely available. Just because we don't have to pay to view, does not mean that we should not do our homework and try to spend our time wisely, on worthwhile sites.

One of the oldest, largest, most used and reliable free sites is FamilySearch ( The oldest because the creation of this database started long before the Internet became a tool for family history researchers, and has been accessible online since 1999. The largest because it launched with over 300 million names and has been growing ever since (c. 800 million). Most used because it is the largest that contains actual names, events, families, links, etc. and is free to access. Most reliable because, although it is a compiled index and does contain errors, much of the data has been created using a double-entry method by English-speaking genealogists. consists of a number of databases: Firstly, those not so useful to UK researchers (though still should be checked for your people if you have an uncommon surname) – Social Security Death Indexes and Military Records.

Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource Files consist of previous research – anyone can submit their genealogical data (living people should not be included) and anyone can look to see if any of their names are there.

Sources and up-to-date submitter information are not always available, but it can be a great contact if you are able to phone or write. Nonetheless, you treat this information as a clue, and follow through on new places or names. I like to search with if I find a new couple – "Henry Vye" +"Elizabeth Bonfield" – and quickly run through the 30+ search engines there just in case they can find a Web site mentioning these two. More common names? Try "Roderick Macdonald" NEAR "Helen Forbes". This will ensure that these two names are close to each other – rather than Roderick Macdonald on the first page and Helen Forbes on the last page. Or try a search for a new surname and place on a Web page: Macdonald +Drumnamarg +Scotland. Remember the ~ (tilde) too – ~macdonald would give you surnames similar to Macdonald.

You may find you can download a gedcom file from Ancestral File – make sure you start a new family file to do this – you can then check on the accuracy of the information and try to make contact with the submitter. You will need to visit a Family History Centre near you – (, middle of screen, Find a Family History Center near you) to follow through on information in the Pedigree Resource Files.

The two areas of most interest to UK researchers are the International Genealogical Index and the Census Records. The first consists of some previous research and, the real gem, information transcribed from Parish Registers. The second covers a census in the US (1880), Canada (1880) and England and Wales – the 1881 census.

It took about 10 million hours to transcribe, double-key and index the information for the 1881 census, but even with the best of intentions, there are still errors.

And words can appear, so clearly, as one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another. For instance, the word Gunner – with a 'flyspot' looking like a dot for an i, looked exactly like Farrier. Truly! I was shown a marriage registration where the bride and groom were both born in the same place, but no one could recognise the place name. To me, it was very clear – they were both born 'at sea'. Others looking at this were just trying to recognise a place, rather than actually looking at what was written. Transcribers, with a task to complete, are not going to spend time trying to find every possible interpretation; so there are errors.

Back to search engines again: more homework! Study just how you can access the information on the census. You will see you can enter a name, and the name of the head of the household. So if you have a child and known father, you can enter this information – especially helpful if searching for a common name. Of course, the father may have died by 1881, so try for the mother as head too. Remember, less is best, so try entering the least amount of information. No search engine can take the place of your eye, searching a list for mention of your (possibly misspelt) family. You can search on just the surname, forename or both names of the Head of Household too. Try just your family surname and county of birth, then Ctrl F and type your place name. As you find each entry, tick in the square to the left of the name. When finished, click on Prepare Selected Records for Download. You will now have a list of all with your surname, born in a particular place; much easier to check through than the full list.

Click on the links to see the personal information, and click on Household to see just who was there on census night. Remember to make a note of the reference too, as you may want to check the original record on film. You can download this file as a .ged file too and take into your database, if you know this is your family.

You may need to enter birth country and/or county to reduce the number of hits for common names, but still enter as little as possible to begin with. Make sure you record just how you search, the number of hits received, and how you narrow that search in your diary (Treepad is good for this).

You can search without a surname too – great if you have the forename, date and place of birth. You just may find a married daughter this way – if the forenames of her children are family names. If you find a likely match, go to to look for her marriage. Firstly, look for the husband's (as per census record) marriage, click on the page number link, then see if you can find a female with the correct forename – and if her surname is the one you want -a good chance you have found a married daughter. These marriage indexes are available on and on, (pay-to-view) and – you may need to check these as freebmd is still being transcribed. Look at, then Births, Marriages or Deaths to see which years are fully transcribed. If there’s no page number link, search for your known female's marriage to see if any match the possible family you have found on the census.

Remember to check the other 1881 census indexes too – such as (the free ranked search) and You can use these censuses too, as an aid to searching other censuses on pay-to-view sites, eg: you find a possible entry on Before you pay to look at the original image, go back to the 1881 census on to check for the family you found in the 1901 index. If they are not your family in 1881, they will not be your family in 1901 and so you need not spend money on looking at the original.

So often we forget about positive-negative research – proving that a family can't be yours because they are in the wrong place at the right time. If your family left England in 1885 and you think you have found them in the 1881 census, check the free index on If that family is still there, then it is not yours. If you need to see the original image to be sure, than check with your local library ( or genealogy branch ( to see if they have a subscription to Remember, if you subscribe outside the UK, the VAT (GST) is deducted, so the cost is about 17% less than shown. At click on subscribe (upper left) or order the film into your local Family History Centre.

There is a neighbour search too – click on this in case you may find other family members in the same building. There can be dozens of families in the same building. Lots of Irish in the area? It may be a clue that your family came from there.

Not sure if you have found your family because some of the information does not match? It is important to remember that human nature has not changed, and there could be a very good reason why there is misinformation. For example, have you ever left a form to be filled in until the last minute, then written the information in haste with little regard to the accuracy? I have seen a family where in all but one census, the places of birth (different for each child) are filled in with great patience and accuracy. But one year, everyone is born in the same place – so quick and easy just to 'ditto' each line! Perhaps your husband has left home, but you have let it be assumed that he has died – so now you are a widow in the census, but your husband is alive and well, perhaps with a new family, in a nearby village!. Also, the information has been copied from one form to another at census time – and mistakes and 'corrections' are made then. Then we have transcription errors ….!

You can see why we need to prepare and study to find out just how to make the best use of this wonderful site!

Next time – the IGI – the International Genealogical Index. Just an index, but great potential to really further your family history research.

Jottings Family from London – you might find this site interesting!

Ancestors from Northern Ireland? Visit Click on the Townland Database to search for hard-to-find places. Click on Free Pages for an amazing list of available information. Scroll down to the end of the page to find Search this Site. Go to to see and search The Primary Valuation of Ireland (Northern counties).

Ancestry has started to add British Phone Books from 1880-1984 to its site. Around 430 phone books, mostly around London, are available so far. Go to and click on British Phone Books.

Click here to go to our download page to get a PDF Ancestry Chart which you can use to map your family tree.