I’ll bet many of us (most of us?) go to a genealogical website and plug our ancestors’ names into the first search box we see and hope for the best. At least at first. In the past, this was exactly how I conducted my research. Rather haphazardly, with varying success.
In my experience, I think there are two phase in the life cycle of the genealogist (there may be three or more, but I haven’t gotten there yet). First, there is the collection phase. We’ve just gotten started, we know a few details from our parents or grandparents, and we just start collecting records and filling in the pedigree chart as fast as we can. In this phase we find the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of records. And that is fine, but eventually, you get to the second phase. In the second phase, you’ve run into some trouble. You’ve found some conflicting records or some brick walls and have some harder work ahead of you.
Each of the major genealogical websites has a front page with that ever-tempting search box in it. That is their way to get quick engagement with website users and potential subscribers. This blog series is going to assume that we are all subscribers. If you try to do some of the things I’ll discuss, it will likely ask you to subscribe to see the documents or the search results anyway. Just be aware. This is not meant to be a blog series that discusses only FREE websites or databases. FamilySearch is the only free site I’ll be discussing.
The main front page search box is going to be great for that collection phase, but not so great for the phase where you work on more difficult problems. This series is going to help you learn some other facets of these websites to make your searching more targeted and efficient. That front page search may also be a hindrance if you are working with common names or don’t have much information to help narrow down your search results. When working with general search results, we have to pay extra attention to details so we don’t end up “adopting” the wrong family into our family tree.
Last time we went “shopping” at Cyndi’s List with the topic of fur trading in mind. Let’s go about this a different way. My ancestors did not stay in one place forever. Eventually as you research, you will find that they came from somewhere. Once you figure out where that somewhere was, you’ll eventually encounter a place you know very little about. Let’s go to Cyndi’s List with a place in mind.
When you scroll through the categories on Cyndi’s list you will find places among the list. Here are a few screen captures of some of them:
So, if you are looking for a particular state in the United States, you will find it under “U” fur “United States.” There’s also many other countries in the list, for example “United Kingdom & Ireland,” “Germany / Deutschland,” “Sweden/Sverige,” and “Switzerland/Suisse/Schweiz” just to name a few. When you encounter a new location in your research, head over to Cyndi’s List categories to find that location and see what you can learn.
I recently had some new work in Mexico. I have a very small amount of experience in Mexican records, primarily those that are near the Texas border. I wanted to know more and find resources that I probably didn’t know existed, so I headed over to Cyndi’s List.
If you look at the Birth, Marriage, Death category, you will find that Cyndi has links directly to databases at Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other major websites. But there will also be other links in there as well. For this example, let’s look at the Newspapers sub-category.
From looking at this subcategory I found a wonderful collection of digital newspapers at the National Digital Library of Mexico.
Let’s look at another place example. I have a lot of my personal research that is in northwestern Ohio, primarily Wood, Hancock, Lucas, and other counties in the area. Under each state there is a sub-category for Counties:
Let’s take a look at Hancock County.
You may notice that the subcategories are very similar if not the same across multiple categories. Let’s look at the Libraries, Archives & Museums category:
I have been to the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library. My dad used to live in Findlay for many years. His mother’s maternal side, the Urbans, were from Findlay. So I’ve visited that library many times to do research. However, I have never visited neither the Kaubisch Memorial Library nor the McComb Public Library and will have to do so on a future visit. I honestly did not know they existed and do not know if they might have additional information than I have been able to obtain from Findlay. If it weren’t for Cyndi’s List, I may have never known to look there.
So, think of the locations you are researching. It is very possible if not likely that Cyndi’s List has some hidden gems waiting for you in those categories and sub-categories. Go take a look.
First of all, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Cyndi! Next… let’s continue the series.
Let’s look at using Cyndi’s List with a plan. The analogy: you walk into Costco with your shopping list. Let’s say you have some topics in mind. Perhaps you are just starting to work in a new state or country and you know very little about that area. Or you just discovered that an ancestor was involved in an event or activity you don’t know much about. In these scenarios, using Cyndi’s List is a good way to learn what is out there that is genealogically-related.
Let’s say you learned that an ancestor was a fur trader and may have been involved in the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Let’s see what we can find about fur trading and HBC on Cyndi’s List. Let’s head to the categories page:
Scrolling down the page looking for a fur trade category:
We can see from the link that there are 63 links in this category and it was last updated on 29 June 2022.
You can see the sub-categories above. Let’s take a look at General Resources.
There are several links to Geni for these topics, a link to the Museum in Chadron, Nebraska, several Wikipedia pages to give you general information on the topic. I clicked on the “History of the Fur Trade – White Oak Society” and found a broken link. Let’s ask again as I did last time…should I despair? NO! Click on the “Report a Broken Link” button on the left and help Cyndi out! I found the new URL for that page and reported it to Cyndi using the button on the page.
Let’s take a look at some Hudson’s Bay Company specific links.
As a demonstration, let’s look at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA).
The HBCA has biographical sheets on employees. How cool is that? Let’s look at George Adams (1815-1823).
You can see that you get information about George Adams regarding his employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Now, that was an example regarding fur traders. What other topics are there are on Cyndi’s List? The answer is many. AND you are not going to find that all of the links work. PLEASE report them and if you can find a new one, let Cyndi know. Next time we will do a similar exercise but with a location or two in mind.
There’s two ways you can use Cyndi’s List (ok, maybe there’s more than two, but I’m going to demonstrate two in the next couple of posts). This week let’s talk about how you can use Cyndi’s List if you don’t have a plan, or a Costco shopping list if we stick with that metaphor.
When you walk into the big warehouse store with no list, what do you do? You start walking up and down the aisles and see the items with no plan. This is a fine way to do things on Cyndi’s list and a very viable way to learn about what you don’t know. Let’s walk down the “aisles” of Cyndi’s List.
To find the “aisles,” go to the Categories tab at the top of the screen, or the first purple button on the left:
What you will first see is probably an ad. Remember from last post, all you have to do is click the close button to move on. (Also remember that this is a completely free resource and Cyndi funds it through ads and donations. Running a website of this size is not cheap.)
Once you’ve found the “aisles” (the categories), you can start browsing. Along the top is an alphabet so you can jump to that letter in the categories list. Or you can just scroll down the page to see what you find. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. So this kind of browsing reveals some of those things to you.
You can see from the list above, it is two columns. and from these you can see some of the categories: “Acadian, Cajun & Creole,” “Adoption,” “Africa,” “African-American,” etc. There is a number in parentheses after the title of the category that indicates how many links are in each. So, Adoption, for example, has 195 links in the category at the time of this blog post. Below each category, there is a date that the category was last updated So, adoption was updated in May of this year, whereas, Novelties & Gifts (on the right hand column) has not been updated since November 2020. As I said last time, Cyndi’s List is a one-woman operation. She fixes broken links nearly every day (I asked).
Let’s look at the African-American category. It was last updated very recently, on 12 August 2022. It contains 916 links. When you click on the African-American category, you will find all of the subcategories and related topics.
The sub-categories in each is listed in alphabetical order. She is constantly working on these categories and massaging them to keep them updated. Some of the sub-categories in this section include: “Birth, Marriage, Death,” “Blogs, Podcasts, and Video,” “Cemeteries & Funeral Homes,” “Freedmens’ Bureau,” “Laws & Statutes,” “Occupations,” “Slavery,” “Social Networking,” “Societies & Groups,” and “Wills & Probate,” to name several (but not all).
Let’s look at the “Birth, Marriage, Death” category.
There is a link count at the top that tells you that there are 14 links in this sub-category. Each recently added link gets a “New!” icon so you can see some of the newest resources added.
As I was browsing the items in this category, I found that the first link, that to an article by Ruby Coleman at American Ancestors, is broken. It points to this:
Should you immediately think “Aw, Cyndi’s List is so out of date. All of these broken links makes the site unusable!”? NO! The answer is no. And in case you tend to do that, please don’t. And here’s why. If there is an item on Cyndi’s List that you really want to see, that means it exists somewhere. And do you know who can and will help you find it (especially if you are polite and patient, and maybe send brownies)? Cyndi. She is a WHIZ at finding things that have moved online. So there is at least one thing you should do next when you encounter this: Report a Broken Link!
Ok, so the above is the page you get when you report a broken link. At minimum, put your email address in there. If Cyndi finds a replacement link, she will let you know. She will! It’s happened to me! Seriously. She tries to help everyone and keep the site up-to-date. IF you can find the new home of that broken item, let her know. It will save her a bit of time. I did a quick search for that article at AmericanAncestors and didn’t find it (to be fair, I didn’t put a ton of time into it). So I just submitted it without comment. At some point, when Cyndi finds where they put it, she’ll send me an email telling me that the link has been updated.
So, that was us walking up and down the African-American aisle of Cyndi’s List. There are 229 categories (aisles) at Cyndi’s List. Get walking! We will discuss “shopping” at Cyndi’s List WITH a plan (shopping list) next time.
After the first post in this series, it made its way around Facebook on various walls and pages. In many of them someone invariably commented that they become overwhelmed trying to use the site because it is so huge. That is one of the number one things Cyndi says she hears as well in her 26+ years of running the site.
I want to ask those of you who feel overwhelmed by Cyndi’s List, how you deal with walking into a library or a big warehouse store or utilize Wikipedia? Generally we start with a plan of some kind. I mean we CAN go to a library or Costco or Wikipedia and just browse (I do love to see what new things are at Costco and there is the featured article at Wikipedia). Usually, we show up to Costco with a shopping list, we show up to the library with some topics in mind, and we should do the same with Cyndi’s List.
Just like at Costco, you cannot be totally sure about what you’ll find on the shelf. You can’t know for sure what you will find at Cyndi’s List. She is trying to curate the ever-changing world that is the internet. Websites come and go, or they change their URLs for whatever reason. Cyndi (or her minions) find new sites to add. Because of this, the site is itself ever-changing. And just like Costco that stops carrying my favorite frozen pizza, Cyndi’s list will have broken links or links that get removed because the website no longer exists.
The other thing both Cyndi and I see are folks saying in comments on posts, “there are too many broken links” and that makes the whole site somehow unusable. I want everyone to know that the entire site is run by one woman. Cyndi does all of the site maintenance manually and all by herself. She depends on users to report broken links. If you report a broken link, she will try to track that site down and find a new link, if the site simply moved, or find a link to it in the Wayback Machine if it exists.
THERE ARE BUTTONS ON THE SITE TO REPORT BROKEN LINKS.
Sorry for yelling, but it is quite easy to do and it does bother me when people complain about broken links but don’t report them. Be a pal and help out. Seriously. Cyndi will try to find a replacement for you. What other website does that?
Keep in mind that Cyndi maintains this massive resource at no charge to anyone in the community. There are no subscription fees despite some jokes that go around about having “lifetime subscriptions” to Cyndi’s List. She earns the money to keep it all going through the ads on the page. So maybe click on one once in a while. Use her Amazon link to do your usual shopping. And she also has a donation button if you’d just rather show your appreciation in the form of cold, hard cash.
Speaking of the ads, they will pop up on your screen and you have to click “close” to get them to let you continue.
So thinking about how you handle other “overwhelming” situations, use those methods to use Cyndi’s List. Next time we will start digging into the specifics about formulating a plan on how to use Cyndi’s List.
When I first started genealogy, there were a decent number of online sources, but most everything was still in a library or archive somewhere. I wrote a lot of letters and filled out a lot of vital records applications when I first started. I began on the cusp of what the internet has become (and still becoming) in terms of online genealogy.
If you are a beginner today, I just wanted to share my top genealogical websites for starting your genealogical journey. Some are free, some are subscription. I hear a lot of complaining about the subscription prices, but when I think about how much I spent on mail and application fees, or gas or plane tickets and hotels to conduct this research “back in the day,” it doesn’t compare in my mind. Having access to millions of records at home, in the middle of the night (or early hours of the morning if you are more like me), is worth the fee to me.
My top genealogy sites for getting started (and in no particular order, only as they come to mind):
FamilySearch (free) – Hosts millions of digitized records and books that is constantly growing with new digitized microfilms every day, has an invaluable research wiki, and has a public-generated and edited family tree.
Ancestry (subscription, though you may access a library edition through a local library) – Also has millions of digitized records, databases, books, newspapers, and more. Also has a DNA database and public member trees.
Find A Grave (free) – Public-sourced cemetery and gravestone database full of millions of memorial pages for individuals from all over the world.
Do you have a question of a more specialized nature? Perhaps you want to find some charts and forms to get you started, or find out more about railroad records, or are not even sure what you want to know more about? Another fantastic source I recommend to beginners and advanced researchers alike is Cyndi’s List.
Cyndi’s List has categories for you to browse. Don’t search the site, browse it. Find a category that fits your research question. This site is a list of links to other websites. But they are sites you may not have known to search for on Google or even know that those records and resources even existed.
Genealogy on the internet has exploded in the 20 years I’ve been involved. So much more is accessible at our fingertips than ever before! Get out there and find your ancestors.
Let me just start by saying this one may not be for everyone. This option may take a little more technical skill than some are capable of or interested in. It requires you to be able to edit and maintain a website. This blog post is not going to go into the technical aspects of how to do this. If you already know how, great. If you are interested in doing it but don’t know how, there are plenty of online tutorials you can locate and maybe even some local classes to get you going. I will be highlighting a couple of projects that could use you. (Also, this is another one of those volunteering projects that can be done in your jammies!)
Actually … you can still help out if you don’t have the technical skills necessary; keep reading.
Many researchers know about the GenWeb project. There are two GenWeb options:
The US GenWeb covers all 50 states, at the state level and then with sites specific to most counties. The World GenWeb is similar in that it is broken down by region, country and then county, providence or other civil district type. Another website that is similar in structure is called Genealogy Trails and is dedicated to “keeping genealogy free.” It too is broken down by state and county. Both of these are run completely by volunteers and they are all constantly in need of people willing to maintain them.
These sites are only as good as those who contribute to and maintain them. You can elicit contributions from users as well as develop your own content. This doesn’t have to be a project where you provide all of the information posted on the site. The idea of these sites is that the information that is gathered is free for all to use. With that in mind, you have to be aware of copyright and don’t post things that aren’t in the public domain or of your own making (or that of another volunteer.)
Perhaps you don’t have the technical skills to be the website editor, YOU CAN STILL HELP! If you can type, you can contribute by transcribing records such as those found in a local courthouse, church, cemetery, library, etc. Things that are helpful are obituaries, death records, birth records, marriage announcements, baptisms, and so on. You can contact the manager of a county site and discuss project specifics such as what format to submit your transcriptions in and so forth.
Many of us started by searching some of these free sites, hosted by volunteers who have contributed countless hours for our benefit. If you have the skill, consider giving back by hosting, editing, maintaining or contributing to a genealogy website.