hen I was growing up, my father’s favorite party trick was to unfurl a nearly five-foot-long scroll on which he’d mapped his family tree. As a child—not yet as tall as the chart—I was awestruck that each little box represented someone who had a part in creating me.
That fascination with my family history has followed me throughout my life. While attending the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, I dabbled in genealogy, but never got further than finding a few obituaries and copying some census records. At that time, genealogy research was frustrating and time-consuming. You either traveled to the archives to thumb through crumbling old records or you sent queries—containing a few dollars to cover copying and postage costs—and hoped someone at the courthouse or church would take pity and dig around for you. Facing those obstacles, paired with the usual distractions and obligations of life, my “research” soon ended up in a bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.
But times have changed and while trips to city-county buildings and other archives are still a necessity for those who want to dig deep into their family history, it is now possible to grow a decent family tree using only free online resources.
Mt. Lebanon Public Library offers free access to Ancestry.com, which touts itself as “The World’s Largest Online Family Tree Resource” with “billions of records.” This includes, among others, census records, birth, marriage, and death certificates, and military and immigration documents. Some of these records are available remotely, but for the others you will need to go to the library.
Of course, they don’t have all the records, but if you don’t find what you seek, keep checking back as Ancestry is always adding new collections. In the summer of 2022, they added (among others) Virginian U.S. Birth Registers 1853-1911, Norway Emigration Records 1867-1960 (in Norwegian), and—here’s a fun one for those seeking the skeletons in their family’s closets—the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Identification Books, 1878-1896. If you want to post your family tree and search the trees of other members, however, you’ll need to pay for your own account. The free library version of Ancestry.com allowed me to verify information I already had, fill in some blanks, and add several new leaves to the family tree.
HistoricPittsburgh.org, another free website, has great resources for people whose ancestors lived here. I was able to search Pittsburgh city directories back to 1815 to discover my ancestors’ addresses and professions. I could then look at the site’s collection of old maps to pinpoint exactly where my ancestors lived (many Pittsburgh street names have changed since the late 1800s). Those directories also revealed that in 1868 the family of my great-great-grandmother moved into a house on Carson Street just a few doors away from the house where my great-great-grandfather’s family lived. I imagined my great-greats meeting cute while strolling down to the local market.
I love Familysearch.org, a free website where people upload their trees. Type in a name and a little info (birth or death date, hometown, or spouse’s name) and there’s a very good chance you’ll get a hit, taking you back anywhere from a couple of generations to well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The trees appear fairly accurate with links to source materials. Start your search here as someone may have already done all the work for you.
For cemetery records, try the free FindAGrave.com and BillionGraves.com. Once again, type in a name, a death date (or approximation), and the state or town in which the person is likely buried and then cross your fingers. It’s a thrill seeing the headstone of a great-great-grandparent, and, if you’re lucky, there will be links to the graves of other family members buried nearby. If you love traipsing through old cemeteries, you can download these apps to your phone and add photos to the database as you wander through the headstones.
A census record may tell you how many kids your great-grandparents had, but an old newspaper article will tell you which ones went to jail. So, if you want the dirt, try Newspapers.com. This site, unfortunately, will cost you—the basic level with 219 million+ pages from 22,468 newspapers dating back to 1690 is $7.95 a month. However, they do offer a free seven-day trial.
Here are three wonderfully bizarre headlines I found for my family:
Tried Suicide Hoax to Make Wife Sad (my granddad’s uncle)
Woman Eludes Knife Wielder (my grandmother)
Fired Shot at Daughter as His Wife Fled (a great-great uncle … who tried to kill a wife who was divorcing him but accidentally shot his daughter instead. She lived; he went to jail for seven years.)
Using just the online resources listed here and a tiny bit of information I had about a great-grandmother I was able to trace my father’s family from Pittsburgh in 1911 to England in the 1500s in just a few hours. Among the many surprises I received was to discover I’m descended from nine Mayflower passengers. With an estimated 35 million Mayflower descendants out there, that’s not that special, but the discovery was … I’d been told a lot of stories, many apocryphal, about my grandfather’s family, but Plymouth Rock never figured into any of them.
I do not consider myself a genealogy expert by any means. There are so many more databases and records to uncover and explore. I have taken classes and webinars that have left my head spinning with the myriad avenues I could travel down to flesh out my family history. But I’m definitely going to keep going. It is an incredible feeling when you uncover that missing name or date that leads you to another generation, a lost-to-time story, or a blow-your-mind weird coincidence.
I thought the Mayflower connection would be the most stunning discovery I could ever make, until I expanded my research to my husband’s family and discovered we are related. Twice. His mother is not only my mother’s eighth cousin once removed, she is also my father’s 10th cousin once removed.
Well, thank goodness we never had children.
For those who are interested in their genealogy but have no time (or WiFi/computer access), Jim Stuber, a co-director of the Mt. Lebanon Genealogy Society, will do a basic search for $100; he donates that fee to the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few local non-virtual resources
- The Mt. Lebanon Genealogy Society meets for free at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, 1 p.m., the third Monday of every month, September through November and January through May. It’s a great place to pick the brains of others who are working on their trees and get great tips and advice from the speakers who have expertise in a wide range of topics—from what you can uncover with your DNA results and caring for old photos to finding ancestors on ship passenger lists. Give them your email address and they will send you information about upcoming local workshops and webinars.
- The Latter Day Saints’ Pittsburgh Pennsylvania West Family History Center, 46 School Street, Green Tree. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has the largest genealogical library in the world. At the center you can get help navigating their copious records in addition to accessing some websites you’d otherwise have to pay for, including Newspapers.com. Current hours are Sundays, 12:15 to 1:30, and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 412-690-0683 for information.
- The Carnegie Library’s Pittsburgh Family History Center, Forbes Avenue, Oakland. The library’s extensive genealogy resources and historical clipping files relating to Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania history can be daunting, so stop by to get in-person help. The center is currently not open to the public; call 412-622-3114 for information. Its website, however, has videos by a “virtual genealogist,” who provides tips and suggestions, including additional ways to search some of the websites I’ve mentioned in this article, including FamilySearch. I strongly suggest viewing these videos.
- Heinz History Center, Strip District. Their library and research facility contains an extensive archive related to Pittsburgh and you can access Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com for free while in the library. Fill out an online appointment form before going. It was here that I found photos of my great-great- and great-great-great grandfathers, which were taken by their employer, Sligo Iron Works, in the 1860s.