Adventures in Family Tree Research Online — Tips for Doing Genealogy

Your ancestors may be online, waiting for you to find them.   I found mine, sailing to America, settling the west, fighting wars, and having babies — oh did they have babies!

The internet has revolutionized genealogical research for  common folk.   You can find exciting, interesting things.  Here are examples of what may be waiting out there for you, taken from my experience:

  •  I found two whole books written about branches of my family.   They were obscure, out-of-print, books written by obscure amateur authors,  but chock full of information.  One recounted the story of my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s family fleeing Missouri by horse and wagon during the Civil War.  Their house had been burned and their life savings was hidden in a bucket of tar.  The other told the story of my  father’s, father’s, father’s (say this 8 times) father   coming to Maryland in the 1600’s, and of the next several generations of that line including a multi-great grandfather who fought in the revolution.
  • I found photographs of ancestors and distant relatives that had been posted online by others.   I found a picture of my grandmother’s grandfather, taken around 1850.   The photo is of him and his brother.  

Photo from the 1850s of an ancestor the author found online

  • I found pictures of graves — tombstones of ancestors several generations back in various places around the country.
  • I found the Revolutionary War veteran’s pension application of one ancestor, in which he lists every thing he owns —  every pig, chicken, hoe, rake, shovel, plate, fork and spoon — to show how needy he is.
  • I found the Civil War records of several ancestors and relatives and saw up close and in detail how devastating that war was on a personal level for so many people.
  • I traced the migrations of a great many ancestors from place to place and decade to decade using the census data.  I could see the children being added, and sometimes disappearing before they had grown.  I could see old people being cared for by their offspring.   I could see the frontier pushing ever westward down through the generations.

Try Just Googling Some Family Names

In later paragraphs, we’ll get into doing systematic ancestry research using census data and other resources like and  But let’s start casual:  You can start your online family-tree adventure in a haphazard manner as I did.    I just started putting  names of parents and grandparents into Google and wandering through the results.   It helps if people in your family have unusual names, of course.   I put in the maiden name of my maternal grandmother, “Arleigh Jarrell,”   (quotes can be helpful, so try it with and without) and came upon a newspaper article in a small-town paper about her going on a camping trip with her church youth group about 100 years ago.    How did that get there?  Well, it seems that someone named “Nannie” kept a scrapbook.  And Nannie lived for a time in the same small Texas town as my grandmother.  And decades later someone found Nannie’s scrapbook, transcribed it, and put it on the internet.   Why?  I don’t know.   But there it is.  

That first “hit” in Nannie’s scrapbook led me on a search for more.   By truncating the URL (the web address) of the first hit about the camping trip, I found my way to the home page for  Nannie’s Scrapbook.   The website was quite voluminous, consisting of many long pages.   Fortunately, you can search through a page on the internet using control-F (apple-F for apple computers) in most browsers.   So, I did control-F repeatedly on “Jarrell” and found many more articles about my grandmother and her siblings.   There they were:  In school plays, giving little speeches at church groups and at the junior red cross, having weddings

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