Free Tools for Family Historians, by Juliana Smith

Google Map St James.bmpMost of the records we utilize in our research weren’t really created with family historians in mind. Similarly many tools are available online now that weren’t specifically created for us, but they sure can be helpful as we seek information about our ancestors. Today I thought I’d share a list of some of my favorite non-genealogy tools.

Having trouble interpreting a record for one of your non-English speaking ancestors? AltaVista’s Babelfish translator will translate text or entire Web pages for you in many languages.

Looking for more information about a battle in which your ancestor fought during the Civil War? Or perhaps your ancestor was a Philadelphia policeman and you’d like to learn more about the history of that police force. What were the working conditions of the industry in which your ancestors were engaged? The answers to these and many other questions can often be found in publications not found in your local bookstore. WorldCat will not only alert you to their existence, but when you enter your zip code it will give you a list of libraries that have those publications in their collection.

Census Enumerator Instructions (IPUMS)
Census enumerators were given very specific instructions when it came to recording the answers your ancestors gave. Reading these instructions can be very helpful in more fully understanding the records. This site includes the original instructions for the years 1850-1950.

Ever wondered whether a historic event prompted your ancestors to pick up and leave the country they had called home for generations? Wikipedia can give you some ideas. Search for a year and you’ll get a chronology of world events from that year. This free online encyclopedia is a great first step, but you should verify your findings with more authoritative sources. Although much of what you see will be correct, I have found numerous errors such as events listed under the wrong year.

Census Abbreviations
Have you ever found a census record written by a guy who clearly had writers’ cramp? Beyond really messy handwriting, you may find that enumerators used confusing abbreviations. This website will help you sort out some of the more common abbreviations you’ll find.

Soundex Converter
Many databases allow you the option of Soundex searches so that you can grab more phonetically similar variations of the surnames you are researching. Use the Soundex converter to find out the Soundex codes for your family surname variations. That way if one of the variations you have found in your research has a different Soundex code, you’ll know you need to search it separately.

Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)
Ever wondered in what county a town was located? Or what cemeteries were in the county in which your ancestors lived? The Geographic Names Information System can help. Enter a town name and its state and you’ll be presented with a list of features associated with that town—and the name of the county it falls within. Click on a name for geographic coordinates and links to various maps and satellite views of the area.

Google Maps
Another cool mapping site, Google Maps allows you to view a standard map view, a satellite view, or a view of the terrain. How tall was that mountain that great-grandpa had to traverse to visit the nearest town? Zoom in on the terrain view and it will tell you. Going to visit a library or courthouse for the first time? Google Maps has “street view” available for a growing number of cities. You can zoom in on an address and see the actual building. Using the rotation arrows you can turn around and look at the other side of the street, move down the street and see landmarks you will be able to use as you navigate your way to the repository. Street view can also enable you to see buildings in your ancestors’ neighborhoods that are still standing. In the image accompanying this post, you’ll see St. James Cathedral, the Brooklyn church that several of my ancestors attended. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Early Medical Terms & Diseases
OK, this one really was created with us in mind, but it’s still handy for finding out what disease Great-grandma Sue died from–in today’s terms.

Epidemic Timeline
Here’s another one created for us, but just the same, it’s helpful to see what epidemics may have impacted our ancestors and their families. Often you’ll find that people moved away–sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily–when severe epidemics struck in their area.

What Are Your Favorites?
Is there something I missed? Please share your favorites with us in the Comments section of this article.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

15 thoughts on “Free Tools for Family Historians, by Juliana Smith

  1. Re: WorldCat. If you have a library card from your local library you can quite often get the book(s) you’ve located on WorldCat through Inter-Library Loan. Your library borrows the book from the holding library and you check it out just like any other book. Check with your library for more information. I do this frequently. In fact, I have one right now.

  2. States Immigration officer at Port of Arrival. How can I get them to print larger and clearer? Real problem. Thank you.

  3. Good calendar site for figuring out dates for burials, ages, etc.–

  4. One website that the Genealogy Guys podcast ( made me aware of, and has turned out to be a life save more than once:

    The Wayback Machine

    If a website you once visited is no longer active, you can plug its URL into the Wayback Machine area at the above website. It will allow you to look at what the last view of the now-extinct website was, and possibly to find what you were looking for.

  5. On the Williamson County TNGenWeb site, Attorney T. Vance Little has contributed a very informative and entertaining list of “101 Legal Terms That Every Genealogist Should Know.” It’s been a great help when deciphering old legal documents.–

  6. I have a utility which is freeware called Keywords downloaded from: Seeker

    The main idea is very simple: Within KeyWords Seeker you create a file of keywords that are interesting for you (keywords can be divided to several groups called vocabularies).

    When you enter a web page or open an e-mail and want to know if it is worthy to read just drag the KeyWords Seeker icon from the system tray and drop it on the document you have open on the screen.

    The KeyWords Seeker will “read” the document and searches it through for defined keywords. If some keywords are found then they are listed in a window for you. I have entered all my family names, ships they emmigrated on and towns they lived in into it. It searches for all these in one go. Very handy if you received a lot of newsgroup emails and run out of time to read them all.

  7. Yahoo “Maps” is really helpful. I use the “Hybrid” selection as it is a combination of the Satellite and Map views; the roads and streets are identified.

  8. I read somewhere that one way to remove photographs from a magnetic album was to put the pages in the freezer for a couple of hours and that then they would sort of pop off. I have not tried this because I never used that kind of album.

  9. This is totally new information for me; thank you very much. I always read your column and find it very helpful. Marianne

  10. The following site
    is extremely helpful researching ancestors, for me in the 1800’s,possible routes of transportation to get to their port of embarkation.
    There are also maps of territories, canals, and railroads for various years.

  11. I’ve found that the Oxford English Dictionary is a great source for finding out what words meant in the time frame that they’re presented. Specifically for old probates where a ‘looking glass’ may not be what you think it is. (It was a term used for a chamber pot.) There is a subscription required, but you may be able to access it free from your local library.

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