Major Databases for Beginning United States Research
Value of databases, strategies for using them, and a list of significant U.S. genealogical databases on the Internet with brief descriptions of each.
Definition. A database is a collection of information organized for rapid search and retrieval. This implies the use computer technology, but in a way, even a paper family group record collection could be called a database. Databases can be online, off line, or a combination of both. Some databases are associated with user fees; most are free. Sometimes separate databases partially overlap and contain near duplicate information from the same sources. Most indexes used by genealogists are databases. Search engines like Google, and lists like Cyndi’s List are not considered databases for this discussion. Various types of American genealogical databases in various media include for example:
• Family Group Record Collection—Archive Section (microfilm)
• American Genealogical Biographical Index (books and online)
• Pedigree Resource File (compact disc and DVD)
• FamilySearch.org (online)
• Periodical Source Index (PERSI) (book, microfiche, and online)
• Freedman’s Bank Records (compact disc, and online)
• Vital Records Index—North America (compact disc)
• New England Historical Genealogical Society Register (periodical, and online)
Value of Databases. Genealogists use databases to quickly find compiled genealogies and original records. The primary advantage of using databases early in the research process is their ease of use. As a result of the rapid growth of the Internet and genealogical databases, it is likely that the majority of our American ancestors in the 1800s and earlier will be found in at least one database.
Usually genealogists build a wider search for further non-database original sources on the foundation of information found in compiled-genealogy databases, plus the easy pickings from databases showing images of original sources.
User Beware. Genealogical databases must be used with caution, especially those consisting of compiled genealogies. Compiled genealogy databases are often poorly documented. Also, almost all compiled-genealogy databases contain many data errors. Nevertheless, such databases are one of the first places to search for ancestors, provided the user understands the risk that compiled information probably contains numerous annoying inaccuracies. Always verify information downloaded from a database before you add it to your “good” genealogical files. Wise genealogists will always strive to see the original sources with their own eyes.
Jurisdictions. Many of the larger databases such as FamilySearch and Ancestry combine material from many different sources, jurisdictions, and time periods. Worldwide, national, state or provincial, county, town, and individual family databases exist. Since there are more records from the 1500s to the present, most databases cover all or part of this era. But a few reach back into Biblical times and genealogies.
How to Use Databases
Search databases early. Search worldwide, multiple-source databases like FamilySearch and Ancestry.com when you begin research on a family. Also search databases for the states and counties where the family lived.
At first enter with only a little search information. When searching computerized databases, enter only a little search information to start. If this results in too many matches, add another piece of search information and repeat the search. Slowly add more information one-piece-at-a-time until the number of matches is reasonable.
When the first search doesn’t find data . . . If the original search results in no matches, remove most of the details in the search request. Alternatively, try variant name spellings in the search request. Wild card name searches may also be supported in some computerized databases.
Here is a list of some of the best free databases on the Internet (or partly free at Family History Centers, or Family History Library)—good sites to begin research on a family that lived in the United States.
FamilySearch.org Largest free online collection of genealogical databases including Ancestral File, International Genealogical Index, 1880 U.S. federal census index, Pedigree Resource File, U.S. Social Security Death Index, and the Vital Records Index—North America.
Ancestry.com Partly free at Family History Centers, (a personal paid subscription has even more databases) it includes indexes for all U.S. censuses 1790-1920, passenger arrival list indexes 1820-1957, and World War I draft registration card indexes 1917-1918.
FreeSurnameSearch.com WorldVitalRecords.com, RootsWeb Surname List, Find a Grave, MyTrees.com, Ellis Island, Newspapers, Everton Pedigrees and Family Group, and many others.
BYU Family History Archives Digital family histories from the Family History Library, Allen County Public Library, and Brigham Young University. Rapidly adding more titles.
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors 1861-1865 service records of Union and Confederate veterans giving the regiment, company, rank, and film number.
Ellis Island.org 1892-1924 New York City passenger arrival index showing ethnicity, arrival date, residence, age, ship, port of departure, passenger manifest image, and ship’s image. The best index for this site is at Ellis Island in One Step.
Footnote.com Free at Family History Library. Digital original sources such as naturalizations, Revolutionary War papers, Civil War papers, Mormon Battalion pensions, newspapers, Southern Claims Commission, and Texas births and deaths.
GenCircles.com Indexes individual pedigrees, and databases like IGI and World Family Tree.
Gendex Surname Finder Searches free databases like RootsWeb, OneGreatFamily, and obituaries; fee sites include Ancestry, Family Tree Connection, GenealogyBank, and Footnote.com
HeritageQuestOnline.com Free at Family History Centers. Indexes to U.S. federal censuses 1790-1820, 1860-1880, and 1900-1930, over 22,000 family and local histories, 2 million genealogical periodical articles, Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrants, Freedman’s Bank records, and U.S. congressional records.
Linkpendium.com 5 million surnames and 715,000 locality links.
NewEnglandAncestor.org Free at Family History Library. Births, marriages, deaths, tax lists, church records, wills, family histories, diaries, The Great Migration Begins, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society Register.
OneGreatFamily.com Free at Family History Library. 80 million name family tree created from shared submissions by individuals. Also includes Social Security Death Index 1962-present.
RootsWeb Surname List 1.2 million surname links to submitter contact data via this file.
RootsWeb WorldConnect 820 million names on family trees including births, marriages, deaths, parents, children, sources, pedigrees, family groups, and submitter contact data.
USGenWeb Project Free websites for genealogy research in every county and state.