Three ways to research your family tree

The do-it-yourself approach to getting the lowdown on your ancestors may lead you down a series of blind alleys. An alternative to the high-end genealogical resources offered by Ancestry.com is the personal and affordable services of a mom-and-pop operation.

The April 2, 2012, release by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration of the 1940 U.S. census data has genealogists all aquiver. If you were hoping to plumb the records for details on your family, keep in mind that the initial release of the data will be a challenge to search.

As the National Archives' 1940 census FAQ indicates, until professional and amateur genealogists have indexed the names and other data collected by that census, the only way to find specific entries will be by the "enumeration district" where a given person lived at the time.

The National Archives offers tips for researching the census data, but what if you don't know much about your family's past?

Anyone who has dug into their family history online knows how frustrating and time-consuming the process can be. Sites such as the popular Ancestry.com provide searchable databases for hunting down your ancestors, but you may be better served by hiring an experienced genealogical researcher to get the lowdown on your ancestors.

Ancestry.com's self-service approach to digging into your family's past
The big name in genealogy research on the Internet is Ancestry.com. In addition to census data, the service lets you search records for births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and baptisms in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and other countries. Also searchable are immigration records, military records, and government archives.

But keep in mind you can't do much searching until you sign up for a 14-day trial of the paid service, which entails supplying your credit card information.

Start by entering your name and age and choosing which family to search: your father's, your mother's, or someone else's. When you click the Get Started button, you open a form for entering information about the first limb of your family tree, probably your mother or father. The first two branches of your family tree appear on the right side of the window.

After you enter the information and click "Search the records" you're prompted to provide an e-mail address before viewing the search results. A username and password are sent to that address. Sign in to the account to view the new branch of the family tree. Hover over an entry on the tree to see options for viewing the person's profile, editing the information, or searching the records.

Ancestry.com family tree
When you create a family tree on Ancestry.com, you have very limited access to the site's resources until you sign up for a paid account. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

If you choose the record-search option, you'll see the search results, but you won't be able to view the record itself. When you click a result, you're prompted to sign up for a 14-day free trial to one of its paid accounts: $23 a month or $155.40 a year for U.S. Discovery and $35 a month or $299.40 a year for International Discovery.

So before you can drill below the first level of Ancestry.com's databases, you have to sign up. Even with the 14-day free trial, you can't be sure of finding the information you're looking for until you've given the site your credit card information.

Ancestry.com search-results upgrade teaser
Searching Ancestry.com's records using a free account leads to a teaser that withholds results until you pony up for a paid account. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

There's a solid chance that Ancestry.com's extensive databases contain information about your family history, but you're still left to do the searching yourself. The site's Learning Center offers FAQs and other tips for getting started with your research, or click the Hire an Expert button on the main menu bar to be directed to ProGenealogists.com, where you can get a free estimate for a search by professional researchers.

ProGenealogists.com's rates start at $115 per hour, and the site states that "[s]tandard genealogical and historical research starts at $1,900." It can take four to six months for the service to conclude its research, though rush options are available for an additional $15 an hour.

Low-cost ancestor research with the personal touch
Not many of us are curious enough about our family roots to spend hours digging through historical databases or to lay out $2,000 for someone else to ferret out the information. A new service called AncesStory offers to scour genealogical resources for a very reasonable fee and, as their name implies, give you a bit more of the story behind your ancestors. You won't have to wait months for the results, either.

The couple behind the service are my cousin Bill O'Reilly and his wife Becky Layne O'Reilly. Together they have more than five decades of experience delving into family histories as far back as 30 generations and 1,200 years. They are also among the small army of genealogist volunteers ready to delve through the 1940 census data to make it more accessible to the rest of us in the coming months and years .Because of our family connection you may believe I have an ulterior motive in writing about the service, but I would never recommend any product or service if I didn't firmly believe it was worthwhile, regardless of who was behind it.

Rather than linking to searchable genealogical resources, AncesStory offers to do the researching for you. To get a free consultation about the services Bill and Becky can offer you, fill out a simple online form with your name, an e-mail address, and a brief comment on the information you're looking for.

The kicker is that AncesStory's research packages start at $175 for six hours of research. That's a fraction of the rate charged by ProGenealogists.com. Their results are in your hands in a matter of a week or two rather than months. You're provided with a full family-tree PDF in chart and book form, a detailed ancestral report, and a list of all the resources the researchers discovered.

For $325 AncesStory provides 12 hours of research, printed copies of the reports (with index), and printed copies of the marriage, birth, death, census, and other records found during the research (note that there may be extra printing and postage costs). The $475 plan offers 18 hours of research and adds genealogical files in FTM and GEDCOM format.

To give you an idea of the type of research AncesStory offers, here's a typical project, as recounted by Bill:

Recently one of my out-of-state sisters-in-law indicated she knew nothing more than the names and rough birth dates of her grandparents. In the course of a single evening (four-plus hours) I built her a family tree going back 10 generations on one side and a tree of nearly 100 names over all sides. It is exciting and daunting at the same time to see the wealth of information available beyond Ancestry.com's resources.

Bill and Becky may even travel to local courthouses and cemeteries in their quest for your lost ancestors. During a 2010 trip to Faribault, Minnesota, the researchers found the grave of our mutual great-great-grandparents, who had sailed from Ireland. Local court records dated December 20, 1889, described the small plot of land left to our great-grandfather and the remaining sum of $4.77.

Contact AncesStory quickly before their itinerary fills up.

A place to get your feet wet in family sleuthing -- and then some
If you prefer to roll your own ancestral research, you'll find that much of the genealogical information offered for a price by Ancestry.com is available for free at FamilySearch.org, a service of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You don't even have to create an account at the site, though there are plenty of benefits for doing so.

FamilySearch.org makes it easy to get started on your family research project, whether you're working on your own or with a pro. Like Ancestry.com, you start by entering a name and information on such life events as birth, marriage, residence, and death. You can also search by relationship (spouse or parent), or by "batch number."

Unlike Ancestry.com, you can search information from billions of historical records at FamilySearch.org without having to create an account. The site's search-results page shows the source of the record and a subset of the information it contains. Clicking an entry opens the complete version of the record.

FamilySearch.org search results page
The FamilySearch.org site lets you search U.S. census data, birth, marriage, and death records, and other historic databases from dozens of countries. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In addition to the 1790-1930 U.S. census results (also the most recent searchable census data available from Ancestry.com and every other online resource), FamilySearch.org lets you search a multitude of public records from countries around the world and dating back several centuries.

There's no better place to receive an introduction to the field of genealogy. The video library and other learning resources on FamilySearch.org cover such topics as migration and citizenship, newspaper research, and town records.

If you catch the genealogy bug, you can volunteer to become an indexer of the organization's mountains of paper records. You can also sign up to get free, personal help with your family research at one of the thousands of FamilySearch centers located around the globe. Click "Advanced search" on the FamilySearch Centers page to view the center locations on a click-and-zoom map.

When I think about my great-grandfather becoming a railroad engineer in Nevada just two short decades after escaping famine in Ireland as a young boy, I appreciate even more the gift of family. There's no better way for the past to come to life than to discover the secrets of our own ancestors. Whether we do our own delving or team up with a family-research pro, the revelations never cease.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

    Join the discussion

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Don't Miss
    Hot Products
    Trending on CNET

    HOT ON CNET

    Point-and-shoot quality with your phone?

    Upgrade your camera photo game with these great additions.