Looking for the best genealogy websites? In this article, we’ll help get you started depending on your specific questions and needs.
Shouldn’t a simple question such as “What is the best genealogy website?” have a simple, straightforward answer? Clearly, it will depend on your genealogy question and your research goals. What are your needs, goals, and budget? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
• Do you prefer to use free websites?
• Are you willing to spring for a subscription? Or pay for individual records you view?
• In what country are you starting your research?
• To what country do you expect your research journey to take you?
• Are you looking for sites with indexes? Sites with digitized records? Sites with family trees?
• Do you want to perform DNA testing to make sure you’re climbing the right branch?
We’ve already talked about how to get started with your family history research. Now let’s find the best genealogy website for you.
Genealogy Websites: Clearinghouses
The most all-encompassing genealogy-specific launchpad is Cyndi’s List, which is a free, ad-supported website. It’s easy-to-understand interface allows you to search for helpful websites by category. The number in parentheses after each category title tells you how many sites are linked. For example, you can peruse more than 100 links for Acadian, Cajun & Creole research.
Screenshot of Cyndi’s List website interface.
Similarly, the Library of Congress offers research guides in 84 subjects, although not limited to those primarily considered genealogically useful.
The National Archives provides a genealogy dashboard with resources ranging from how-to videos and workshop calendars to record links.
The Federal Deposit Library Program has compiled U.S. government websites that can be helpful for genealogical research, including immigration, land, and military records.
Of course, your search engine of choice can lead you to all sorts of great resources. For example, during a recent project in Australia, we searched for the name of a cattle station owned by a client’s ancestors. We discovered helpful biographical information in a publication on Google Books that bridged the gap between available public records and newspaper articles.
ArchiveGrid allows you to search more than 1,400 archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies holding millions of online or on-site records. They may be run by government agencies, public or private universities or non-profit organizations. Archives generally offer “finding aids” outlining their holdings. The Society of American Archivists provide some additional suggestions for finding materials in archives.
FamilySearch is a free service offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It hosts more than five billion historical documents microfilmed or digitally scanned from governments, courts, churches, and other institutions and organizations around the world. Most are freely available to researchers at home, but some must be accessed from within a FamilySearch center or affiliate location due to contractual obligations. (Hint: your local genealogy library may be an affiliate!) In addition to images of original records, FamilySearch’s collection of nearly 600,000 genealogical books can be accessed online as can its single, shared family tree.
Ancestry is a subscription-based service providing digitized records, the world’s largest autosomal DNA testing database, and millions of user-created family trees. Leveraging all three together on a particular research question can become a powerful battering ram with which to attack your proverbial brick walls. Although viewing documents usually requires a subscription, Ancestry does offer an extensive free indexes collection (which has more than just indexes) and periodically provides access to record sets that are normally behind the pay wall. These tend to be theme-based events centered around a holiday weekend.
MyHeritage serves a similar function, offering historical records, DNA testing and match analysis, and family trees. Although its DNA database is smaller, it accepts transferred DNA data from other testing companies. Its popularity overseas means its DNA database is not quite as America-centric, which could be extremely helpful. Plus, it has made a huge splash among family historians by offering several tools for enhancing old family photographs.
Have you found a promising book that’s still in copyright and therefore unavailable at FamilySearch or Google Books?
Use WorldCat to search for the nearest library holding a physical copy. Consider performing several modified searches as there may be multiple entries for the same title. For example, results show “BYRD HISTORY AND RELATED FAMILIES” by Tera Byrd Averett can be found in four libraries in Alabama, but “Byrd history and related families of Averett, Callaway, Chancey and Goff” can be found in 98 libraries around the country.
State and Local Resources
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming if one of the big genealogy websites doesn’t have something, it doesn’t exist—or at least not in digital form. While the providers and offerings in every state will vary, spending time looking for other online archives will often pay off.
City libraries and governments
Since it went online, The NYC Historical Vital Records Project by the New York City Municipal Archives has become a genealogical game-changer in terms of accessing birth, marriage, and death records in the boroughs of New York City. As of the writing of this blog, 76 percent of the 13.3 million records intended to be made available have been digitized, so if the document you’re looking for isn’t there now, check again soon!
- Florida Memory by the State Library and Archives of Florida
- Municipal Archives in Savannah, Georgia
- Atlas of Historical County Boundaries by The Newberry Library in Chicago
Public and private colleges and universities may offer materials specific to the institution, the city where it is located, or wide-ranging collections reflecting the entire state. For example:
- The Tulane University Digital Library in New Orleans, Louisiana
- The Portal to Texas History by the University of North Texas
One of our researchers found more than 300 mentions of his grandmother in digitized journals held by the Stewart Library at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
Secretaries of State are often great sources for vital records that are publicly available. But they—and other agencies— can also offer a variety of other collections about the citizens of that state.
One of our researchers obtained a fascinating array of court cases concerning her ancestors after discovering them in County Circuit Court File Indexes at the Illinois Secretary of State website. These included two colorful divorce cases, a conservatorship case, and a case where children were suing each other over their mother’s estate after she died — the kinds of documents that help us understand our ancestors’ lives far better than mere dates and places do.
A few others:
- Missouri Digital Heritage by the Missouri Secretary of State
- Rhode Island State Digital Archives by the Rhode Island Secretary of State
For a client project, we obtained an ancestor’s exact birthdate and location from the Texas General Land Office in a digitized application for a Bounty Land Grant he received for fighting in the Texas Revolution. No vital or church records were available.
Historical and Genealogical Organizations
Regional, state, and even city-level genealogy or history groups can provide records unavailable elsewhere.
- American Ancestors by the New England Historic Genealogical Society
- Minnesota People Records Search from the Minnesota Historical Society
- The Gateway to Oklahoma History by the Oklahoma Historical Society
- Seattle Genealogical Society in Washington
Their record collections may be members-only, but you can often join no matter where you live.
Don’t limit your browsing on these websites to headers or menu items like “digital collections” or “virtual archives” or even “research.”
At the Ohio History Connection, the goldmine is in the “Store.” Under “Other Products” you can order death certificates or choose from “Select Ohio Incarceration Records.”
It’s impossible to list all the possibilities here, but the FamilySearch Wiki for United States Archives and Libraries is another great springboard to unique collections of records.
They say journalism is the first rough draft of history, which makes it an extremely valuable resource. Some favorite newspaper sites:
Many states also have their own newspaper sites. The Ancestor Hunt blog has created a comprehensive state-by-state set of newspaper links.
But what if you’re looking outside the United States? Australia has a Trove of newspaper resources. There are digitized newspapers from Mexico going back more than 200 years. Check out Providence College’s list of Historical International Digital Newspapers to find more.
When it comes to DNA research, whether to find a tester’s biological parent or grandparent or to identify a more distant ancestor, we tend to be fans of the “fishing in all ponds” philosophy, to the extent possible.
FamilyTreeDNA is the go-to place for Y-DNA testing of a man’s paternal line or mitochondrial testing and we love the option to perform autosomal testing there or transfer results from other sites.
Fun fact: search for your ancestor of interest at WikiTree and you can see whether any descendants who are registered users have done DNA testing!
Third-party websites like DNA Painter and GEDmatch provide invaluable tools for DNA analysis. Tap into myriad blogs and Facebook groups and webinars to learn how to make the most of your match results.
Although Findmypast no longer has a DNA partner, it is a great central location to start searching for British records.
Across The Pond
We’ve barely scratched the surface for United States records, but here are a few places that come to mind in the British Isles:
The Workhouse has great information on workhouse inmates and links to records in other places.
One of our researchers managed to prove the long-held view that the family was illegitimately descended from a Glasgow policeman using the fabulous Paternity Court Indexes on Old Scottish.
Families in British India Society can help you learn more about ancestors who may have lived in India during more than 300 years when it was part of the British Empire.
So, what is the best genealogy website? Haven’t we made it abundantly clear?
It’s the one you dove into and then lost track of time and you realize it’s gotten dark outside, and you forgot to make dinner and everyone in your house went to bed already.
It’s the one that just made you jump out of your chair and do the genealogical happy dance!
It’s that one where you found that elusive information you were seeking today!
Tomorrow you may be digging into a different ancestor in a different region in a different time period with a whole different set of research challenges. So, there’s a good chance tomorrow’s best genealogy website may be a completely different story!
Legacy Tree Genealogists has affiliate relationships with some of the websites mentioned in this blog.
If you’d like more help knowing which website will be best for your research, you can schedule a consultation with one of our team members here.