Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Dear Randy: What Are the Most Useful Online Record Collections For Your Research?

 My friend Ray asked me this several weeks ago in email, and I want to share my answers because it may help other researchers.

1)  The correct answer is (as always):  It Depends!  It depends on what you are doing in your research.  For the past several years I have been adding descendants of my 3rd and 4th great-grandparents to my RootsMagic family tree (and from there to my Ancestry Member Tree, my MyHeritage Family Tree, and FamilySearch Family Tree).  This information is used to find common ancestors for my DNA matches.  I have also been adding profiles to my surname studies - primarily Seaver/Sever/Sevier/etc., Carringer, Vaux, and Auble.  My focus has been on adding vital record information - birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial, along with parental, spousal and children relationships, with source citations.  My focus has not been on a complete biography of each person, at least those who are not my own ancestors.      

For the descendancy and surname studies, the emphasis has been on the 1800 to present time frame, and mainly in the United States.  That means working with and around the state laws for vital records - some states have fairly open vital records since the mid-1800s - for instance, Massachusetts.  Other states have no open vital records at all.  But there are work-arounds.  

Here is a partial list of my go-to record collections that feed my research (other than the available vital records for each state or country):

*  Social Security Applications and Claims -- $$ (only on Ancestry and MyHeritage).  This is an index for persons who filed for Social Security after 1936.  They always include a birth date and birth place, usually include a death date, and sometimes include parents' names, plus a list of names that they filed under or made claims with dates.  This is different from the Social Security Death Index, but some names appear in both indexes.  

*  Find A Grave -- free (index on FamilySearch ) and $$ (index on Ancestry).  This is ostensibly a burial index, but memorial entries often have much more information besides a grave location and gravestone photo.  Birth date and place, death date and place, and burial place are usually included for a person, along with names of relatives - parents, siblings, spouses, and children.  Some memorials include obituaries or record summaries.  Since this is user-submitted content, there can be errors, but for late 20th century and early 21st century research, this site is invaluable.

* -- $$ (using the Obituaries Index and Marriages Index on - $$).  This is my favorite obituary and marriage resource for late 20th and early 21st century research, especially for DNA match research and my surname studies.  

*  GenealogyBank -- $$ (with obituary index on FamilySearch -- free).  In addition to the online newspaper collection - many of which are not on - they have an Obituaries collection that is searchable right up to the present.  

*  U.S. Public Records Index -- (free on FamilyTreeNow and FamilySearch, $$ on Ancestry and MyHeritage).  This database is from public records (registrations, licenses, utilities, court, etc.) and often includes adults in a family with birth dates, addresses and telephone numbers.  FamilyTreeNow and MyHeritage group them into families but Ancestry and FamilySearch do not.

*  U.S. World War I and World War II Draft Registrations (free on FamilySearch, $$ on Ancestry, Fold3, MyHeritage).  The registration card images have information on both sides, and usually have complete names, birth date, residence, employment, next-of-kin and physical description for males born between 1873 and 1927.  

*  England and Wales Parish Registers (free on FamilySearch, $$ on Findmypast and Ancestry).  These are still incomplete on all sites, but are very useful for 19th and early 20th century research.  

*  England and Wales Civil Registry (birth, marriage, death, 1837 to present) (free on FamilySearch, $$ on Findmypast and Ancestry).  These are incomplete on all sites, but are very useful for 20th century research.

*  Census Records (free on FamilySearch, $$ on Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast).  Easily find family groups (and after 1880 they list relationships to the head of household), with approximate dates and birthplaces, residence, occupation and more.  However, the last U.S. census available is 1940 (1950 will be available in 2022), Canada is 1921, and England/Wales is 1911 (but 1921 will be released soon).  

*  Google -- free!  Doing a name search with a place and/or year often finds family tree entries for deceased persons, and occasional entries from web pages (e.g., blog posts, or

Using these, I am usually able to find birth, marriage, death and spouse information for a deceased person.  Living persons are a bigger problem because the Public Records do not include birth places or relationships, but I can often find a birth date and marriage record.  Of course almost all of my DNA matches are still living.

What online resources have you found for finding information on 20th and 21st century persons?  Please tell me in the Comments!


Copyright (c) 2021, Randall J. Seaver

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mbm1311 said...

I appreciate these posts where you tell us where you look or how you research. Thank you

Bill said...


Great advice as always. Your list are also the key sources I use for most research, but especially tracing common ancestors DNA matches. For those I am researching forward in time from the Common Ancestor down to the match to confirm Ancestry's hypothesis. Most are correct, but 10-20% of the time I find them to be incorrect.

An additional source is Ancestry's "Evaluate" function on ThruLine Common Ancestors, which shows information in the DNA match's tree if available and if not other trees on the hypothetical ancestral person. Often one of those trees will have a substantial number of records that can be viewed to determine the quality and accuracy of the research. That same source data but from a different Ancestry view is what comes up as "Ancestry Trees" in a normal hints/search on a person. As you've often pointed out, caution has to be applied with using these to confirm the records assembled by the other researcher are sound. I find them to be particularly helpful for finding next generation children in 1700/early 1800 families as well as surnames for females prior to 1850, where birth and marriage records are often scanty.

One 'quick and dirty' trick that I use in tracing from the hypothetical common ancestor to a match is to look at 40 year increments in each generation. So if I've already got the match's 3rd great grandparent and the birth year in my tree e.g. 1820 I next look for the 1860 census record, which often has the fully expanded family containing the next generation hypothetical ancestor of the match. This usually works, but I sometimes have to move to 30 years in the case of early births/deaths or to 50 years for later born children. This trick plus the other sources can trace and confirm a 4 or 5 generation ancestral line in a fairly short time frame.

Bill Greggs

Seeds to Tree said...

This is a great list with excellent descriptions. I would add that even the $$ sites can be used for free. Check what is available at your local library, even ancestry is free from home through the end of the month through many public libraries. Look at other libraries websites that are located near you and see if there is a genealogical subscription website you'd like to use, and check it out by a visit. Either bring your laptop and use their wifi, or find out if they are allowing the public to use their computers as many are opening up. Again, wonderful list, Randy!

nycmckee said...

Thank you again, Randy, for your in-depth tips and willingness to share.