Unofficial Guide to How to Find Your Family History on the #1 Genealogy Website

Unofficial Guide to How to Find Your Family History on the #1 Genealogy Website

by Nancy Hendrickson

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Discover the secrets to success! This book will help you get the most out of your subscription by showing you how to take advantage of what the world's biggest genealogy website has to offer--and how to find answers to your family tree questions within its billions of records and massive network of family trees. This newly updated guide reflects the site's many changes, with screenshots that demonstrate how to create family trees, navigate the site, and use's search engines. A new section on AncestryDNA will also help you dive deeper into your research, with detailed guides to interpreting test results and applying them to research.

What you'll learn:
  • Step-by-step strategies for structuring your searches to find what you're looking for faster
  • Details on each of's historical record categories, including what you can expect to find in them
  • Tips for creating and managing your family tree on, as well as connecting your tree to others on the site
  • Timesaving tricks to maximize your experience, including Hints (the "shaky leaf"), AncestryDNA, and the mobile app
Whether you've just begun dabbling in family history or you're a longtime subscriber, this book will turn you into an power user!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440353284
Publisher: F+W Media
Publication date: 07/02/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 97,698
File size: 28 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Nancy Hendrickson (San Diego, CA) is an author and instructor who has written several books about online genealogy, including two bestsellers on

Read an Excerpt



Everyone has his or her own reasons for climbing the family tree. For some, it may provide the proof needed to join a lineage society like the Daughters of the American Revolution. But for others, it may be a case of simple curiosity: Who came before me?

What did they do? And how am I like them?

Back in the day, learning anything about your family's place in history required a visit to a national archive, state or local government office, or family history library. You'd spend hours cranking through reels and reels of microfilm, all with the hope (but not the promise) of locating someone in your family tree. Thanks to the Internet — and one website in particular — all of that has changed.

The evolution of digital genealogy is nothing less than miraculous. Over the last several years, there's been an explosion of genealogy records online, thanks in part to individuals, organizations, state agencies, societies, and countless volunteers. However, no one has amassed as large of a collection as . With fourteen billion records, it's now the world's largest online family history resource. If you want the hope (and, by some measures, the promise) of finding your ancestors' records, is the place to start — and this book will show you how.

This chapter will introduce you to's many services, membership options, and the basics of's family trees and records system. Even if you already have an subscription, I encourage you to start with chapter 1. You never know what tip might take you onto unexplored paths. In later chapters, I'll cover how to maximize your membership and dig deep into the many types of records available on the site.


One thing that makes so valuable to genealogists is its exceptionally large network of genealogy-related websites. Some are linked into's site via the main navigation menu while others are stand-alone entities.'s holdings as of print time are:

• AncestryDNA


• Find A Grave

• Fold3



• ProGenealogists

• RootsWeb

We'll discuss AncestryDNA in chapters 12 through 14, and and Fold3 in chapter 16.

MEMBERSHIPS Membership to provides access to numerous collections and databases where you can find census, vital, military, and immigration records, as well as other members' online family trees.

If you don't yet have an membership, you can join at four different membership levels:

1. Ancestry Member: free registration that allows you to build a family tree, use message boards, search, and access free records

2. U.S. Discovery: includes all US records

3. World Explorer: includes all US and international records

4. All Access: includes both US and international records in addition to Newspapers. com (150 million pages of newspaper archives) and Fold3 (450 million military records).

Your choice of membership depends on the type of research in which you're primarily interested. If you haven't yet traced your ancestors back to their immigration to the United States, the US membership is a good starting place for you.

For researchers whose family were fairly recent immigrants to America (i.e., they came to America in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries), the World Explorer membership can help pinpoint your family's country of origin via international records such as censuses, church, birth, death, and marriage records. The number of international records on is growing, with more added as they become available. Remember, some countries have no central depository (like the United States' National Archives ), so those records have to be digitized by local archives.

Lastly, for researchers primarily interested in discovering military records or family information in old newspapers, the expanded All Access membership may be just the ticket. With some records (including military records), you'll find a link to Fold3's digitized version of the original record alongside its indexed information on For example, I found a Revolutionary War ancestor in an index but needed to go to Fold3 to read the entire pension file. (Note: If the only thing you're interested in is your family's military history, you can subscribe to Fold3 without an membership.)

Before we detail the many features of, remember that some portions of the site are available to anyone, whether or not you have a subscription. If you want to join as a free user, surf the site all you'd like. Any time you come to a record that's subscription-only, you'll see a pop-up box inviting you to join on a trial basis.


If your only acquaintance with climbing the family tree is watching programs like Who Do You Think You Are? or Genealogy Roadshow, you may not know that genealogy research begins with you!

If your family lore is built around a distant relationship to Queen Elizabeth I, Jesse James, or Pocahontas, it's tempting to start research with your famous ancestor and then work your way backward to yourself. This approach can be disastrous, not to mention a waste of time. Your family legend might be based more on fiction than fact. The good news is that, if you are related to a famous person, you'll eventually find the connection based on research and evidence.

Although starting with yourself may seem counterintuitive, it's the best way to establish relationships from one generation to the next. Here are five simple steps to jump-starting your genealogy research.

Begin With You

When you climbed trees as a kid (unless you had super powers), you started on the ground and worked your way up the trunk, then out onto the branches. Genealogy works the same way.

Start on the ground (with you), climb up the trunk (your parents and grandparents), and venture out onto the branches (past generations). The higher you go in the tree, the less stable the branches. The farther you go back in genealogy, the more challenging the journey.

I know it's tempting to jump onto and start searching for cool ancestors. In fact, why not take thirty minutes and do just that! Then come back and indulge me as I explain exactly why you need to take a little time to gather documents and get yourself organized. I'll wait right here.

Collect Documentation

Did you know that genealogists love telling you to "begin your search at home"? That's because you probably have more family tree "stuff" around the house than you realize, such as your birth certificate. Have you ever really looked at it? Did you know that most modern birth certificates tell the time of birth, the name of the attending physician, mom's maiden name, parents' ages, and possibly parents' places of birth? It's pretty neat to have all of that data on a single document.

Once you start amassing records about yourself (including official records such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc.), do the same for your parents. You've now created a solid foundation from which to build back to earlier generations. What type of documents might you have at home?

• birth certificates for you and your parents, children, and siblings

• newspaper clippings

• military documents

• school photos

• death certificates for immediate family members

• marriage certificates


Carry your family tree on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device. The app on your device syncs with your account online, making it easy to keep all of your research records up-to-date. Displays are customizable, allowing you to view your tree, photos, stories, and research hints.

If you're luckier than me, you may have journals, letters, or diaries from past generations or family bibles, awards, photographs, and wills. Do a sweep through the house and gather what you have. Then reach out to your relatives to learn even more.

To get started on your documentation, download free forms from Family Tree Magazine. You won't need all of them right now — and there may be some you never use — but at the least, grab the FiveGeneration Ancestor Chart and the Family Group Sheet. (You'll find them under Basic Charts and Worksheets. Fill out the family group sheet for you and your family (i.e., spouse, children, and grandchildren). You also can do this in your computer software if you've digitized your research.

Put on Your Barbara Walters Hat

Thanks to the Internet, many of your cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are online. That makes doing interviews or gathering family stories so much easier than traveling to where they lived or waiting weeks for back-and-forth snail mail. If you decide to interview via e-mail, make sure the person you're interviewing wants to respond in the same way; some people don't like to type that much. If they'd rather do a phone interview, send the questions in advance so they'll have time to think about it, then record the phone interview. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you don't even need a digital recorder to record a phone interview; you can use your device's built-in recorder or pick up one of the many recording apps on the market (most are under two dollars). One of the apps, Dragon Dictation , will even transcribe your notes, up to one minute at a time. There are also recorder apps that will record your smartphone call (just be sure you let the person on the other end of the call know you're recording).

Can't decide which family members to interview? A rule of thumb is to begin with the oldest. Countless genealogy folks lament the fact they never interviewed an elderly relative before it was "too late." Your oldest relatives are the keepers of the family's furthest back memories. Amazingly, one of my aunts could remember her great-grandmother — a woman who was a Civil War bride!

Your oldest relative also may remember stories and weird little tidbits that you'll never find in a book or a database, such as "Grandma always wore black," or "Your dad's favorite meal was pork loin." Use the clues in these interviews to dig back further in your history and add personality to your family book or a scrapbook.

Something to keep in mind, though: Whatever stories you hear during the interviews are just stories until proven. In my experience, most family lore is actually based in fact, though the accuracy of the facts, like the telephone game, may degrade over time.

Depending on your interviewee's memory, it's possible you'll discover a fabulous clue that opens whole new research vistas. Or, you may hear a tiny bit of a story that leads you to another clue and then another. I can guarantee one thing: You'll always learn more than you expected, particularly from elderly relatives.

If you're doing the interview in person, be sure to ask if your relative has documents or photographs of the family. Most people are reluctant to let these treasures out of their hands, so be sure to bring along a portable scanner or digital camera. Again, many smartphone and tablet apps can turn your device into a scanner. Depending on the app, scans are saved in JPG (image) or PDF (document) format.

The most important thing I've learned about interviews is that a story that has absolutely no relevance to you today may be a breakthrough clue five years from now. So be sure to transcribe those interviews so you can go back to your notes in the future.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list of relatives you want to interview and the questions you want to ask them. Set up at least one interview. If applicable, download a recording app for your smartphone or tablet.

Look for More Than Just Names and Dates As you do interviews (don't forget to interview yourself!), remember that family history is about far more than just names and dates. Just like you, your ancestors were fresh and blood "real people." They argued, had political and religious differences, brought rituals and celebrations from their country of origin, went to school, hated homework, battled illness, and witnessed great change.

The more you can uncover about the time and place of your ancestors' lives, or the more stories you can gather about them, the more likely you are to see aspects of their lives reflected in your own.

A caveat, though: Just because something is online doesn't mean it's true, and you should always check information for sources. There's a tremendous amount of erroneous genealogy information floating around the Web, and (like cute cat videos) they just keep getting passed around from person to person. Use what you find online as a jumping-off place for further investigation — not as the destination.

Get Organized

Whether you keep paper records or digital ones, find a fliling system that works for you. If you continue your genealogy research over several years, trust me ... you don't want five years to get past you and all you have to show for it are boxes of paper.

It's really common in this hobby to jump in, print records, toss them in a pile, and then years later bemoan the fact that you can't find anything. With computers, this is less likely, as you can always do a system-wide search for something you saved. However, the success of the search depends on how well you named a record when you first downloaded and saved it. Which brings me to a point about file naming: Whatever system you use to name a digital file, be consistent. Begin the file name with either the Surname or Placename, or whatever makes sense to you. Give the file name enough information (e.g., birth, death, marriage, Ohio) that it will be rounded up in a system-wide search.

Before you begin collecting and organizing documents and photos into folders or files, consider whether you have documents that need special handling, such as the following:

Photographs: If you store photos in boxes, use ones made of acid-free materials and acid-free dividers. If you write on the back of photos (which is not recommended), use a photo-safe pen. Photos should be stored at room temperature, preferably between 65 to 70 degrees, with a relative humidity of about 50 percent.

Documents: Again, store these in an acid-free environment, protected from light, heat, and high humidity. The best storage containers are acid-free boxes or archival plastic sleeves. Because of dampness issues, avoid storing documents in the attic or the basement. Try to avoid using PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic page-protector sheets, because they release damaging acids over time. If you store documents together, slip a piece of acid-free paper between each one. As much as you might think it's a good idea, don't laminate your documents. If fragile, they can be damaged by the high heat used in the lamination process.

Newspapers: Newspapers are made of highly acidic paper, causing them to deteriorate quickly. Like other documents, store newspapers in an acid-free box or archival scrapbook, interspersed with acid-free paper.

Books: Keep books out of direct sunlight as sun will bleach dust jackets and dry out leather covers. Books do best when stored upright on a shelf rather than stacked one on top of another. If stored on wooden shelves, seal the wood as unsealed wood can release acidic vapors. If a book is especially valuable, store it in an archival box.


See the Family Tree Magazine article at for good ideas on how to develop an organizational system. Organize Your Genealogy (Family Tree Books, 2016) also has some great tips and strategies.

Six Genealogy Myths

1. You can buy your family crest. Cups, mugs, wall hangings, and other family crest doodads are available online everywhere. But "families" don't have crests — rather, individuals do. Coats of arms must be granted, and to claim the right to arms, you must prove descent through a male line of someone to whom arms were granted. Learn the truth about family crests at .

2. The 1890 census burned to a crisp. Actually, it didn't — it was waterlogged and lay around rotting until some unknown person authorized its disposal. But fractions survived, as well as about half of a Civil War Union veterans census. These records are available on sites such as


Excerpted from "Unofficial Guide to"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nancy Hendrickson.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 6

Part 1 Getting Started With

Chapter 1 Learning the Basics 9

Chapter 2 Using Family Trees 24

Chapter 3 Mastering Search and the Card Catalog 40

Part 2 Digging Into Records On

Chapter 4 Making The Most of Census Records and Voter Lists 67

Chapter 5 Delving Into Birth, Marriage, And Death Records 84

Chapter 6 Working With Military Records 97

Chapter 7 Using Immigration and Travel Records 113

Chapter 8 Digging Into Newspapers, Publications, and Maps 128

Chapter 9 Searching Stories, Memories, Histories, and Pictures 142

Chapter 10 Making The Most of Schools, Directories, and Church Histories 164

Chapter 11 Using The Wills, Probates, Land, Tax & Criminal Category 180

Part 3 Uncovering Ancestors with Ancestry DNA

Chapter 12 Interpreting Your DNA Results 197

Chapter 13 Connecting with Others 213

Chapter 14 Applying DNA to Your Research 223

Part 4 Diving Deeper Into

Chapter 15 Collaborating with Other Users 235

Chapter 16 Branching out With and Fold3 249

Appendix: Quick Links and Shortcut Keys 263

Index 265

Customer Reviews

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Unofficial Guide to How to Find Your Family History on the #1 Genealogy Website 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent and handy guide to this software. It is well organized and takes you through all the steps to get started on a genealogy project.
oldwarden More than 1 year ago
A great reference book for research. Starts out with the basics, then delves deep into the mysteries of researching your ancestors. I have been using Ancestry for over ten years now, and I still found so many new ideas and techniques to use. I especially appreciated the chapters on DNA. I took a DNA test through Ancestry, and now I have a whole slate of new possibilities to research and explore. A definite addition to my library that I will refer to again and again!
TheThoughtSpot More than 1 year ago
Thanks to NetGalley and Family Tree Books (F+W Media) for the opportunity to read and review the Unofficial Guide to by Nancy Hendrickson. Informative guide showing the basics plus so much more on how to use the website. Instructions and information of layout, memberships, searching tips and all the different ways to find information on records, census records, primary sources, wills, tax information, school directories and church histories are included. Getting DNA results and interpreting them and other websites to connect to for even more information and research, each discussed within their own chapters and are also a large part of this book. Insets, photos and helpful images show what can be found on this website, full of historical and genealogical information, to bring fruition to your family history work. 5 stars for a book that will guide you every step of the way during your family history research and more! * I received a complimentary copy of this book for voluntary review consideration.