How to Trace Your Ancestors for Free

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Genealogy is among America’s most popular hobbies, but locating your ancestors on the many commercial websites available can prove expensive. There are various ways you can achieve success while tracing your ancestors that will cost you nothing. Conversations with people and visits to public sources of information may give you some pleasant and unexpected surprises.

Elderly relatives are your best source of information about your family history. Many grew up with ancestors you never knew and are likely to remember family details that will be lost unless you ask specific questions and write down the answers. Relatives you haven’t seen for a while will probably welcome a visit. Rather than relying on your memory, bring a notebook and pen to take notes. Also bring old family photographs of individuals you don’t recognize. Photos prompt once-forgotten memories.

Using a variety of Internet search engines, experiment online to see how much information you can find on your family. Many family historians have created their own websites to share information with long-lost family members. Simply entering a specific name into the search engine can turn up generations of information on your family once you find a common ancestor. This kind of search can help you uncover not only names but dates, birthplaces, and earlier generations of the family.

Visit one of the 4,500 Family History centers run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their extensive resources put genealogy records from around the world at your fingertips, giving you access to genealogy websites, reference sources, published family biographies, and other assorted records. The vast majority of their resources are free except for photocopies and computer printouts.

Check out local historical society libraries for help identifying your ancestors. Whether you visit a state or county facility, you’re likely to find vital statistics indexes that can help trace births, deaths, and marriages within your family. You'll also find published family biographies with information about relatives.

Visit your public library. If your ancestors lived close by, the local library will have information that can help you identify and locate ancestors. Often city directories dating back to the late 1800s are available to track the movement of the family over time. The reference sections of public libraries often contain yearbooks from the region, allowing you to learn information and even find pictures of 20th century ancestors. Researching the town's history is helpful for those whose ancestors lived in the local area for any length of time.

Things You'll Need

  • Notebook
  • Pen
  • Tape recorder
  • Computer with Internet access


  • Always keep accurate written records of your findings about your ancestors. This will help you avoid contradictory information. If your notes are on the computer, back them up with a printed copy.