Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dear Randy: How Can I Find Free Records About My Family?

I recently received an email from Christine that said (edited a bit below):

"I found your blog post somehow while looking for ... I was thinking you might be able to help me.  You know when people ask "where are you from?" And I reply with 'originally?  Or currently?'  Which in turn causes me to say well I was born in Michigan, grew up in Texas but came to California at 17.

"Then they say 'no, your last's Italian. ..'  'Yes,' I reply...'I married into that Italian can you get? Right?'  Well,  lucky for my ex husband and my sons,  he and his family know a lot about their ancestors.  

"So then the polite response is usually 'so what is your maiden name?'  'PALMITER' I reply... and they ask'hmmm where is that from? Is that German? French?'

"There lies my reason for contacting you....I don't know.   I don't have anyone to ask.  I know the names of my father and grandfather.  What else would be useful to get the best representation of my Heinz 57 recipe? 

"Anything you can do to lead me in the right direction would be great.  Every site I go to requires me to spend upwards of $100 for each inquiry. ..and I'm not sure if I'm even at the right place.  Thanks for your time!!"

Well, Christine, I have some help for you:

1) has a free page about the surname Palmiter at

2)  There is a webpage for the meaning of Palmiter (and most other surnames) at

It links to the Palmenter name page which says:

"English (mainly Essex): occupational name for a maker of facings and trimmings, Middle English, Old French par(e)mentier (from parement ‘fitting’, ‘finishing’, Late Latin paramentum, a derivative of parare ‘to prepare or adorn’)."

3)  You can access databases for FREE at LDS Family History Centers around the world (4,600 of them) or at some public and private libraries that have a subscription to Ancestry Library Edition.  If you go, take a flash drive to save documents that you find.

4)  A FREE genealogy website is  You can search for records and family tree information there at

5)  You may find online family trees with the Palmiter name in some free family tree sites, one of the best is WorldConnect at  Enter a name of a historical person (not living) into the search fields and look for trees that may have useful information.

6)  The FamilySearch Family Tree may have information about your ancestral families contributed by many researchers in one large shared tree - see  You will have to register to see information - it's free.

7)  Look for graves for your ancestral families at Find A Grave -  This is a free site.

8)  There are several large FREE genealogy message boards for surnames and localities - see and  These may have information about your families, and may lead you to distant cousins who can help you.

9)  In addition, there is a large genealogy mailing list archive for surnames and localities at  You can search the entire archive or specific lists for your families. 

10)  There are many other genealogy based websites that are free, and some are commercial.  almost all of the commercial websites are available to search for free at the LDS Family History Centers - you can find a list at

11)  You may find very helpful information about your ancestral families in published books and periodicals available at local, regional or national libraries.  Many books published before 1923 are available online at Google Books ( and the Internet Archive (  

12) As you can see, there are many websites with useful family tree and record information, and you can access commercial websites for free by visiting a local library or center. 

What else would you recommend for Christine to use online or offline to find more information about her ancestry?

I hope that helps you, Christine.

Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Ernie said...

Christine should learn that the items she is finding at the top of her search results are paid advertising. She needs to distinguish between the advertised sites and the sites that got near the top on their merit. Then she might have found FamilySearch, FindAGrave, etc.

Geolover said...

Christine should start with a system.

There are free online tree-hosting sites, such as (must register, can start a tree but not link to most records unless a subscriber). And you already mentioned the FamilySearch Tree, which is not very amenable to doing personal research.

There are tree programs that can be downloaded free to one's home computer, and they can be very useful for organizing research. But there can be a steep learning curve, and I would not suggest beginning research and trying to learn using a new program at the same time.

Most useful to begin with might be printed-out paper forms: family group sheets and multi-generation ancestral charts are the bare-bones basics, plus various formats of research logs to keep track of where you've looked for what.

On Rootsweb's home page

under Other Tools is a link to several blank forms you can download and print out to use.

Another place to look for links to useful forms is -- a huge site -- search using keyword genealogy forms.

Above all, keep detailed notes on exactly where you find what information, whether a book, website, online tree, or internet-site database. The backs of printed-out forms are useful for this. Doing this will save you a lot of trouble later. There are just too many possible sources to try to keep them in your head.

Bear in mind that much of what is on the internet is not accurate. Critical thinking is an indispensable genealogical tool: is a source or evidence given for this or that genealogical statement (such as date of death)?

Good hunting!

bgwiehle said...

Other sites could be added to the following categories, but it's a start:

Finding aids, or how to find where to look
* Cyndi's List,
* Linkpendium,
* Mocavo,

Genealogy news and educational resources
* Geneabloggers blog roll,
* Google+ genealogy communities,
* Legacy webinars,

Also a reminder: surname spelling can be variable, changing over time, and mis-spelled on records and mis-transcribed on indexes.

Diane Gould Hall said...

Excellent answers Randy. And also from the two who have left comments. Researching our families takes time, it takes education and it doesn't happen quickly. We live in a world of instant gratification. I think many people expect to find information both free and easily located. As experienced researchers we know that's not always the case. Fortunately, someone can get a very good start using all the methods recommended in your post and the follow up comments.

Matthew and Elyse said...

If you're accessing at a library, you can also email an image home. All of the records you send get saved to a website only you can access, and all your stuff is there.

SearchShack said...

Newspapers! Free at the premium sites at Family History Centers. Also lots of probate records at FamilySearch.