My Five Favorite Ancestry Databases, by George G. Morgan

Ancestry continues to be my very favorite online genealogy website. With more than 26,000 databases, it is chock full of materials that have helped me with my research over the years. I’ve just finished the second edition of “The Official Guide to” and it should be released for sale very soon. As I worked on the new edition, I kept finding new and exciting databases I’d never before seen. This was a problem for my writing schedule because I kept getting distracted by wanting to do more and more research. I do seem to turn most often to a few tried and true databases that give me the most help. I’d like to share a list of my favorites with you.

Census Databases
The most-used research materials for genealogists are census records. There are no better records for establishing the location of a family or individual than census records. The U.S. federal census population schedules from 1790 to 1930 have been a boon to my personal research. However, with ancestors and collateral family from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, I’ve been using the England censuses (1841-1901), the Wales censuses (1841-91), the Scotland censuses (1841-1901), and various available censuses and abstracts for Ireland. More recently, I have been looking through the census records for Canada, even though I am unaware of any Canadian ancestry in my family. There is no better census collection anywhere on the Web and I find myself in these great databases at Ancestry many times each week.

World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918
America’s involvement in World War I was critical to the defeat of the Germans. The federal government called for the registration of American men for military conscription. There were three registrations and the draft registration cards were thankfully preserved. They provide a wealth of information about each registrant, including name, date of birth, current place of residence, occupation and employer, next of kin, and physical characteristics. Some but not all of this information may be available elsewhere. This is my one of my favorite databases because the information included on the card for my great-uncle, Brisco Washington Holder, helped me locate his whereabouts in 1918, thirteen years after he left his home. (Those of you who have been reading this newsletter for a while, doubtless remember my excitement when I finally located him.) Before Ancestry completed the indexing and digitization of these records, no index existed, and a trip to the NARA branch outside Atlanta, Georgia, where the original cards are held was not possible. Since I found Brisco, I have used this database many times to locate records for grandfathers, great-uncles, and many cousins. The information is invaluable.

Historic Image Collections
Context is important to my research, and I am interested in what the places my ancestors and their families lived looked like. Vintage postcards and historical photographs provide an excellent way to see images of the places and ways of life at the time and possibly in the same place. My favorite databases for great contextual photos are the Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000 and the Historical Postcards Collection, ca. 1893-1963. The Library of Congress collection consists of a whopping 340,000 public domain photographs, searchable in many ways. Also included are stereographic cards, and these provide a wealth of location photographs. (I search for locations using the Keyword field first, and then search using the location field second so that I catch all of the images.) The postcards collection includes 50,000 picture postcards and these also give me a glimpse into the historical context of my ancestors’ lives.

England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Indexes, 1837-1983
(births, marriages, and deaths)
Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths was instituted at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. The records have been indexed by event, and then by year and quarter. The registers include the surname and forename of each individual, the District, the volume and page number of the actual registration document. In the case of marriages, there also is the surname of the spouse. These registers/indexes are essential to determine the exact original document that you wish to obtain. The General Register Office (GRO) holds the original records. Once you have identified the correct volume and page number, you can order a copy of the record online through the GRO. I have done this numerous times but the database of these indexes and the images of the pages are a tremendous tool for locating and obtaining the documents.

Social Security Death Index
The SSDI remains one of my favorite database resources of all times. It can be used to obtain an exact birth date or the approximate (or exact) date of death and location. The latter has repeatedly helped me locate obituaries, death certificates, locations of interments, copies of wills and probate packets, land and property records, and other documents. The SSDI is one of my favorite databases because it provides the keys to locating many additional documentary resources. It also helps me locate the SS# in order to order the least expensive copy of SS-5 applications from the Social Security Administration.

Your list of favorite Ancestry databases and mine will probably differ. It certainly depends on the type of research and the geographical area that you are conducting. One thing is sure, however, and that’s the fact that there are literally thousands of databases representing almost every record type imaginable. If you haven’t explored what is available, start checking the Card Catalog. Browse the lists of databases and explore inside them. You may just find a new set of tools to extend your research.

Happy Hunting!

Juliana’s two cents: Had to weigh in and share my favorite Ancestry database—

The New York Emigrant Savings Bank, 1850-1883
Though not one of the largest databases on Ancestry, if your ancestors lived or stayed for a time in New York before moving on after immigration, check this database out. Although most of the data is on Irish immigrants, you will find other nationalities in it as well. And the richness of the information if you find someone in the “Transfer, Signature, and Test Books” is fantastic. For years I had worked on my New York City Kelly family and really had resigned myself that this was one nut that might not crack. When this database rolled, I found the patriarch James Kelly, and in one fell swoop, learned the name of the town and county in Ireland where he was from, his wife’s maiden name and that she had pre-deceased him, the name of the street in New York City on which he lived, and that he had come to the U.S. through Halifax–and when! Sweet! Yes, while George has named some good ones, this one will always hold a special place in my heart.

So what’s your favorite Ancestry database? We’d like to hear about it. Please let us know about your favorites in the comments section below.

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13 thoughts on “My Five Favorite Ancestry Databases, by George G. Morgan

  1. I find the Ontario Births, Marriages and Deaths to be absolutely invaluable in my research. Most of my family lines, whether from England, Ireland, or Scotland, settled at least for a time in Ontario. These detailed records, with original images, have frequently broken down brick walls for me.

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  3. I have used the Missouri Marriage Records 1805-1902 extensively and found many, many of my family members in these records. I also use the Kentucky Death Records 1852-1953 a lot as well. These are my favorites in addition to the WWI Draft Registration Cards and the census records.

    I know they are not databases, but the Family Trees tab has helped me tremendously in finding info on different branches of my family. In fact, I have found a picture of a half sister of my great great grandfather and her family and a picture of a half sister of my great grandfather that I never would have known existed if I didn’t subscribe to Ancestry and if these sisters’ descendants had not chosen to post the pictures on their tree.

  4. I also find the census databases invaluable for tracing my families through the years. I am especially enjoying the Kansas state censuses–a lot can happen to a family in 10 years, and especially 20 years, in the case of jumping from 1880 to 1900. The Kansas state censuses fill in a lot of those empty years and makes tracing my Kansas families a lot easier.

  5. Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956. I could not find my grandfather in anything before 1911. When this came online, I found he was living in Winnipeg for over 5 years before 1911. Without this database I would have never found him in Canada. If anyone knows how I can obtain more information on Polish immigrants in Winnipeg at the turn of the last century, I would appreciate the information.

  6. The most used databases in my research are:
    WWI Registration
    Birth, Death, Marriage Index

    With all my known ancestors arriving in America between 1650-1750 , primarily in VA and NC, and arriving in KY and TN before 1810, these seem to be the most productive.

  7. A site that has provided me with much information is the West Virgnia Vital Statistics site. It has many birth, marriage and death records, including actual copies of death certificates. The death certificates often give the maiden name of the mother, as well as where the mother and father were born. Of course, cause of death is also enumerated.

  8. My favorite website is which was created to help those studying their ancestral Donauschwaben roots. Donauschwabens are those people who went to Hungary in the early 1700s as settlers in the areas of: Banat, Batschka, Hungarian Highlands, Sathmar, Swabian Turkey, Syrmia, and Slavonia. The site is chock full of information on topics such as: cultural heritage, lookups in books owned by volunteers, information on the villages of the areas, food, research aids, history of the various areas, and other topics too numerous to mention. The site is maintained by a large corps of volunteers who are ready and willing to come to the aid of those searching for ancestral information. The site lives up to its name DVHH (Donauschwaben Villages Helping Hands).

  9. Regarding SSDI, WHEN will digitize and index the equally important Railroad Retirement Act (“RRA”) records? My family for several generations were “railroad people” who registered with Social Security in the 1930s but, because the RRA benefits were better, they opted for RRA benefits – thus the SSDI records show NOTHING past their initial registration! I find it very difficult communicating with RRA, and I keep hoping will include RRA records in its archives. I would appreciate your comments and estimate of the situation.

  10. With most of my family from Quebec and New Brunswick, my absolute favourite database is the Drouin Collection. I have used it extensively since the indexes have been published a few short months ago. Granted, the transcription of names is terrible, but I’ve learned to use the wildcard (*) and very broad searches without the names but narrowing down dates, events, and locations to find what I need. If everything else fails, you can open the book for a parish and scroll through the pages – they are in date order, so while it takes a bit of time, I can almost always find that “one” that is not indexed properly. I’ve also learned that the Acadian records are not necessarily Catholic, so anyone looking for records in New Brunswick should take a peek at the Drouin collection.

  11. I find the Census databases invaluable, although many times frustrating. It is incredible how many misspellings there are, making searching difficult, yet fascinating at the same time. I would love to see the Nevada Marriages and Divorces expanded. So many people went there to marry and divorce. Can’t figure out why I can’t find some of my family that actually lived and were from Nevada in these records, including myself!

  12. I am so discouraged with the new search features- now I cannot even go back and find records I found earlier- even though it said use the “old” search format….it would not et me, and just required re-entering things over and over. The results are too spaced out..takes forever to look through them especially on the census. I tried to put in birth location as Holland…..[the country] and it would not take it. Having done research for a long time, I want to be able to be specific
    about which record, which time, and which area- and even just a first name or occupation………….this may not be the forum to write this message on- but perhaps you are making your searches too generic. For those of us who know who are ancestors are and are trying to document sources, and find details it seems all too difficult.

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