Regina Lewis
Regina Lewis
AOL Online Advisor

Studies indicate that more than 60 percent of Americans are interested in tracing their roots, but the price tag of anywhere between $30 to more than $100 an hour to hire an accredited genealogist can be prohibitive. Millions are turning to the Internet for help.

Can the Internet really help me?
Absolutely! Online genealogy is one of the fastest growing activities on the Internet because it is empowering so many people to find information that used to take years to compile. There are more than one billion records posted online. Each day, more and more information is taken from microfilm and paper records and digitized online.

Whatever your reason for tracing your family history—a child's school paper, a genetic disease, a death in the family, pure curiosity—if you don't know a lot about computers, it's a great activity to try with a young person who may know more about computers than you do. You'll both learn something along the way!

From uncovering lost relatives to making life-saving discoveries, the success stories are amazing!

How do I get started?
It starts offline. Gather as much information as you have about your family: names, places, and dates (even if you have to estimate). A lot of online search tools allow estimations. For example, you'll type in a birth date, and it will ask you if that's plus or minus a year or two.

Next, decide what you want to learn about your family. It's easiest to begin by selecting a specific ancestor. Try to make it someone born before 1900. Then work backwards. For instance, start with when and where he or she died. From there you can trace marriage(s), then births. All of this gets plugged into a family history model, and eventually you build a tree.
How do I know the information is accurate?
There are two kinds of information sources: Information from government sources (like birth and military records, immigration records and the social security death index) and information from books, newspaper articles and the community.

One of the types of resources you may find helpful online are the thousands of message board postings surrounding surnames with people looking for and providing information. If you have a common last name, like Lewis or Smith, be prepared to be inundated with possible information. There's a lot of sharing that goes on and a real sense of community surrounding these efforts.

Wherever you get information from, it's important to remember to make sure it's relevant to your family, and not just a family with your last name. For example, if the government record indicates your great, great grandfather was born in Ohio, and you have several other pieces of information you know to be true, then you have confirmed a piece of your family tree. If you get information from a message board, "yes, I once knew your grandmother," the onus is on you to contact the person providing the information to verify its accuracy.

Are resources free? What kind of investment is required?
Some of the basic information is free. As you get deeper, there are annual subscription fees for access to information such as Census Bureau forms, usually about $40 per year. By far the biggest investment you'll make is time. Most people chip away at this over weeks and months.

Where should I go online? What are the best sites?
Helpful sites include:
  • FamilySearch Internet Genealogy is another terrific free site from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If your ancestors were slaves, FamilySearch has databases such as The Freedman's Bank Records for sale that contain records of hundreds of thousands of family names. The Freedman's Bank Records CD costs $6.50. It can be ordered over the Internet or call 1-800-537-5971 and ask for item
  • The Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. This free site has immigration records from 1892–1924: you can purchase pictures of your ancestor's ship and the ship's manifest.
  •, one of the most popular sites, has many different levels of subscriptions and tools ranging from $99 per year to $24 per quarter (depending on how long you'll want access to their files or census records).
  • offers free tools, but as you get deeper into your search the tools you will need (such as census records) will cost money.
  • is "the oldest and largest free genealogy site"—its purpose is to connect people and give them a forum for sharing their research.
  • Genealogy Forum, hosted by Rootsweb, is another of the free older genealogy sites that is primarily a community resource.
  • ICAPGen will help you find an accredited genealogist if you want to go the offline route.

Start Your Family Tree Today!
A family tree is really a Pedigree Chart. Click here for a printable version of a Pedigree Chart. Start by filling in as much information about your family as you currently know, and as you conduct your research watch it grow!

To learn more about finding your family history, download research forms, and search genealogical databases, all at no charge, visit

Success Stories 
These are just a few amazing stories of how the Internet helped people reconnect with a part of their family's past.   

The Aunt She Never Knew She Had
Katherine Wandersee had never given much thought to her family history, but after her mother passed away, some of the notations her mother had made in the family Bible caught her attention.

"As I was leafing through the Bible, I noticed that there were passages underlined," Katherine says. "All of the passages had to do with telling the truth and wanting the truth to be known. That night I went to bed and [thought], 'I can't believe I didn't know anything about my mother.' That finally made up my mind that I [was] going to try to find her family."

Katherine began her search the old-fashioned way, by writing letters to the government. She also turned to the Internet—which she credits for leading her to the truth her mother wanted her to find. Katherine learned that her mother, her brothers and her sister were placed in an orphanage, and when her mother was 11, she ran away. Katherine also found out that her mother had taken the name of her older sister, Betty, and with this information came the discovery of an aunt she never knew she had!

A Forgotten Relative Remembered
(Discovered on the Ellis Island Foundation Web site: Mr. Martin Napoli, Jr. called the Ellis Island Foundation to express his thanks because he had discovered in his search the record of his father's sister, Maria, who died at the age of eight during the journey to America. This discovery brought him to tears, realizing that no one had spoken about or knew about his Aunt Maria until he found her on the ship's manifest along with the rest of his father's family. He was so moved that he went to church and lit a perpetual candle in her name. He said, "You have no idea what that site has done to our family. I promise you that Maria will never be forgotten."

A Lifesaving Discovery
Another woman we know (who asked to remain anonymous) found out her family had a genetic blood disorder that was being passed down from generation to generation. She did some research online to identify her extended family. They all went to be screened; some even had some life-saving preventive surgery.  


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