Unlock Your Ancestors’ Stories: 25 Free Websites for Exploring American Ancestry

by | 3 Jan 2024

Exploring your family history doesn’t have to come with a price tag. Our list of 25 top free U.S. websites offers you the tools to dive deep into your American ancestry and uncover your family’s unique story, all without opening your wallet.

  1. FamilySearch
    This indispensable free family history research source offers vast, global collections, including birth, marriage, death, census, military, and immigration records. Some records are indexed; many are browse-only, accessed through Search > Catalog or Search > Images. Don’t miss the free classes and videos in the Learning Center and the FamilySearch Research Wiki for “how-to” information on a wide range of genealogy topics. A free account is required for access.
  2. Library of Congress
    The Library of Congress is home to extensive genealogy and historical resources, some of which can be used to research your family history online for free. Search historical American newspapers through the Chronicling America database, browse their comprehensive newspaper directory to identify newspapers by location and time period and where they can be found today, discover your ancestor’s name on a land ownership map, and check out their genealogy research guides on over fifty different topics.
  3. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
    A must-visit resource for federal genealogy records, NARA offers free, searchable access to the 1950 U.S. census. Record holdings and some digitized images, including select military and pension files, naturalization records, and homestead files, can be accessed through the National Archives Catalog. See the Catalog Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians for search tips and Resources for Genealogists for educational resources.
  4. The USGenWeb Project
    Established in 1996, this volunteer-driven network of over 3,000 linked websites organizes free online historical and genealogical resources—including documents, transcriptions, photos, and maps—by state and county. Also, see the companion WorldGenWeb project.
  5. Find A Grave
    Billed as the largest cemetery database online, this website boasts over 200 million grave records and memorials worldwide. Users can search by name, location, or cemetery or contribute photos and information. Caution: Some memorials contain user-contributed information only and are not linked to an actual gravestone. This is an ad-supported site.
  6. Billion Graves
    This modern cemetery database focuses on U.S. cemeteries, with searchable cemetery transcriptions and images contributed by volunteers. Click on the map image to show the location of the GPS-tagged gravestone photos on a modern map. This is an ad-supported site.
  7. The Freedmen’s Bureau Search Portal
    Officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to assist in the reconstruction of the post-war South and to provide aid to formerly enslaved individuals and impoverished Southern white residents. This online portal from the National Museum of African American History & Culture offers free access to records generated by the Bureau, including labor contracts, marriage records, letters, hospital registers, and more.
  8. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation
    Search for free in this database of passenger lists and ship manifests for over twelve million immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. A free account is required to access results; scroll down below the shopping cart to view the manifest image for free online. Also, see this free collection of New York Passenger Lists, 1820–1891, on FamilySearch for free access to records of eleven million immigrants who arrived at New York’s Castle Garden immigration station before Ellis Island opened.
  9. Bureau of Land Management – General Land Office (GLO)
    This free government-hosted website provides free, searchable access and images for more than five million Federal land patents issued since 1820, plus survey plats, field notes, and some tract books. Click on Search Documents to search the records, or view the Reference Center to learn more about federal land records and their value for family history research.
  10. Cyndi’s List
    This comprehensive genealogy research directory boasts more than 315,000 links to genealogical resources across hundreds of categories, facilitating access to free genealogy databases, family tree websites, and transcription projects. Cyndi Ingle began this curated collection in 1999 and has been growing and nurturing it ever since.
  11. U.S. Census Bureau: Through the Decades
    Squeeze more information from federal census records, 1790–1950, by understanding the authorizing legislation and the instructions that enumerators were to follow. Access reports and statistics to add context to your family history.
  12. Digital Public Library of America
    Search or browse a wide array of digitized records, books, manuscripts, and photographs relevant to genealogical and historical research held by hundreds of libraries, archives, and museums across the United States. Search not only for names but also localities, occupations, churches, events, and organizations.
  13. Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS)
    This site, hosted by the National Park Service, offers a free, searchable genealogy database of information about the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. You can also explore histories of Union and Confederate regiments, descriptions of significant battles, selected lists of prisoners, and some cemetery records.
  14. JewishGen
    Access specialized databases for Jewish genealogy in the U.S., including the free JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), with over 600,000 entries for surnames and town names, and the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). Learn more about topics relevant to Jewish genealogy research in the JewishGen InfoFile Index.
  15. Digital Library on American Slavery
    This ever-expanding resource hosted by UNC Greensboro facilitates the search of several independent collections focused on race and slavery in the American South. The Race & Slavery Petitions collection includes information about more than 150,000 individuals, including enslaved individuals, free people of color, and whites, extracted from legislative petitions, county court petitions, and related documents. Other free searchable collections include People Not Property (a database of bills of sale from more than a dozen North Carolina counties) and NC Runaway Slave Notices, 1750–1865, court proceedings, and amended petitions, among others.
  16. Fulton History
    This quirky but wonderfully free genealogy website hosts an archive of over 51 million images scanned from historical newspapers, primarily from New York but also from other U.S. states and Canada. Read the “Tips & Solutions” on the Help & FAQ page to improve your chances of getting useful results.
  17. Internet Archive
    The Internet Archive offers a wealth of free information that can be invaluable for genealogical research, including historical books and texts, city directories, local histories, the American State Papers, and genealogical records uploaded by participating institutions. Use the Wayback Machine to access archived content from websites that no longer exist and URLs that no longer work. For additional online book repositories, see Google Books and HathiTrust.
  18. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation
    This collection on the Library of Congress’s American Memory site provides free access to statutes, published debates, journals, and some documents generated by the Continental, Confederation, and U.S. Congresses through 1875. See the Law Library Index from The Advancing Genealogist for links to state laws.
  19. Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade
    This online portal consolidates research on the transatlantic slave trade by helping users locate information across various datasets and digital projects, including slave manifests, ship logs, and biographies of individuals involved in the slave trade. The free site is designed to facilitate the discovery and study of the forced migrations of enslaved people worldwide, serving as a vital tool for genealogists and historians.
  20. Federation of East European Family History Societies
    The Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS) offers resources and databases for individuals researching Eastern European ancestry. It provides free access to a library of historic maps to help you identify ancestral villages and towns and a free resource directory with links to country-specific databases and archives useful for tracing Eastern European families.
  21. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
    The Newberry Library’s Atlas is an indispensable tool for genealogists. It offers detailed maps and chronological data on the creation and all modifications to U.S. county borders and names through history, sourced authoritatively from colonial, territorial, and state session laws. This free resource aids in accurately pinpointing ancestral locations over time, which is crucial for identifying where records can be found today.
  22. Access Genealogy
    Established in 1999, this site links to a wealth of free U.S. genealogical and paid resources. However, its free collection of unique Native American databases and information shines brightest.
  23. Linkpendium
    This collection of links to over 10 million genealogy and family surname websites from the US and UK is the brainchild of experienced RootsWeb founders Brian and Karen Leverich. It features a specialized search engine, allowing users to conduct targeted searches for ancestors across its extensive range of listed genealogy resources.
  24. Periodical Source Index
    The Periodical Source Index (PERSI), created and hosted by the staff of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library, is a free, comprehensive index to articles and document transcriptions and abstracts found in genealogy and local history periodicals from across the U.S., Canada, and the British Isles. Search by surname, location, or title keyword to locate article details. Copies can be ordered from the library.
  25. State Archives, Libraries, & Historical Societies
    Don’t miss the free offerings of the state library, state archive, or state historical society—whichever is your state’s primary repository for historical records. Many offer unique online collections and information relevant to the state’s history and the individuals who lived there, including vital records, military records, land records, and more.
©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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