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Genealogy on a Budget: 4 Lesser-Sought (and Cheaper) Sources

By and large, we genealogists start out using free resources. And we make a lot of progress on our family trees at no cost or low cost. After we exhaust the obvious records, we sometimes hit a little bump in the road because we just don’t really know where else to look without spending money. To take full advantage of all that is freely available, let’s consider some other, lesser-realized genealogical resources that won't dent your wallet. Read on for four places to look for even more hidden family history.

1. Cemetery Records:

You may be thinking, “that’s not a lesser known resource.” And yes, well-known platforms like FindAGrave and BillionGraves provide access to cemetery records for FREE. They are rich in information and include (usually) burial dates, relationships, and sometimes even photographs of headstones. But when it comes to tracing our ancestors, not all cemetery records are available that easily. We often don’t thoroughly pursue these silent storytellers etched in stone once we realize the grave we seek is not online. And that is the mistake we make.

Many genealogists don’t go the extra mile beyond online databases to find headstones, but we can conduct an in-depth search at little to no cost. Here’s how to take advantage of these resources to piece together your family's narrative without spending a dime:

-Check the vertical files and self-published books at local libraries.
I once conducted a LOT of work to find the location of a grave and could have saved myself hours by just going to the library. I knew the grave was on private property, but I did not know which modern land owner had it on their property. I searched and searched online to no avail.

I learned during this project (and this is the trick that solved a brick wall!): While at the library, I decided to check the vertical files. I found they contained a collection of small, self-published books and hand written notebooks contributed by genealogy researchers over the years. One was written by a researcher who surveyed the area’s out-of-the-way cemeteries years back and wrote her survey notes into a book, preserving the data for future seekers like me. This and similar books are full of grave listings that are NOT ONLINE and not even still “findable” by walking the cemeteries!

For example, I found out that the grave I needed was on private property and even though that cemetery is on FindAGrave, the specific grave is not listed at all. I would have missed it entirely had I not found this self-published notebook. One other discovery I made was that some of the headstones that were in the book (published well over 50 years ago) are no longer visible. They sank under the surface of the ground since the time of the survey. If not for that book, no one would know where those sunken stones are.

-Local genealogy and historical societies are valuable in the pursuit of finding cemeteries and graves that are not online. Contact them to see if they will search their books and vertical files for you. Ask if they have a newsletter to members that you can submit queries to be included. Ask if they have members who may know.

-Search online trees for the deceased person and take that to the next level. When you find that a user includes the otherwise unknown burial info in their tree, message them to find out if they know where that grave is. I have tracked down many graves this way because the people who posted the burial location are using handed-down family information that I do not have access to. Every time I thought, "ugh. This is probably junk... they have a date/location that NO ONE ELSE has, so it's probably not right, but I am going to ask anyway." And what I find out is that their grandfather wrote it in a Bible they inherited or they found the grave themselves one day or they remember the burial taking place. This type of knowledge is often not cited or published anywhere else. It is passed down oral tradition type information that they “just know.”

2. Community Newspapers:

While major newspapers often require subscriptions or pay-per-view access, don't overlook the power of community newspapers available for free. These local publications capture the everyday lives of our ancestors, from birth announcements to obituaries and everything in between.

Many libraries archive old newspapers, offering free access to their collections. Genealogy societies often provide microfilm or hard copies of newspaper you can access at no cost. If the newspaper is still in existence, it may have old copies archived at the newspaper office. Often, I find old newspapers stored in courthouses at the clerks’ offices.

Dive into the pages of yesteryear and uncover fascinating details about your family's past without emptying your wallet. Even if your ancestor was not documented individually in the local papers, reading them will provide you with a snapshot of daily life at that time. Knowing the environment in which your ancestor lived is invaluable in research. You will learn a lot about them even if their name never appears in the paper. Even if they are not listed, you may glean enough information to deepen your understanding of their life and that can lead to big discoveries!

3. Family Bibles and Manuscripts:

Family Bibles and other handwritten records seem an obvious place to look. But WHERE are they?!? In the digital age, it's easy to overlook these handwritten gems passed down through generations. Beyond family Bibles, there are other handwritten documents like letters, diaries, and manuscripts that are priceless repositories of genealogical information that are often not found in online databases. When you take the time to dig into these resources, you may be surprised by the wealth of information waiting to be discovered through the archives and through other family members’ home collections. Embrace these tangible connections to the past and glean valuable insights into your family's lineage at no cost. So where to look?

-Reach out to older relatives to see if they have anything. Even old Christmas cards and letters can hold clues because those cards were sent by people who knew your ancestor. They may have some small note that is a big clue. It may be that they will lead you to a long lost cousin or branch of the family.

-Don’t forget to explore your own attic to uncover these hidden gems, too. I have my grandmother’s old canceled checks and bank statements. (Why she kept those from the 1950s and 60s, I will never know, but I am so glad she did.) I can see the the church she tithed to, the employers who paid her, etc. It’s a wealth of hints and clues that can lead me to find more.

-Archives hold manuscripts, and you never know what that type of collection will include. It is a hodge-podge of random documents. I have found old business ledgers for stores and my ancestor’s charge accounts detailed along with other family members' names, where they lived, clues to their occupation, etc. My state archives has copies of three family Bibles that I had no idea even existed that help provide evidence to solve a brick wall. One distant cousin wrote several book manuscripts about our family that were never published but were donated to the archives.

4. Local Archives and Historical Societies:

While the thought of delving into archives may conjure images of dusty tomes and scholarly pursuits, local archives and historical societies are invaluable resources for genealogists on a budget. We touched on a couple of record types already that the archives may hold, but they have such a wide variety of holdings, they warrant thinking about a little more.

These institutions often house a wealth of original documents, including birth, marriage, and death records, as well as property deeds, probate records, and more. Many archives offer free or low-cost access to their collections, welcoming genealogists of all backgrounds to explore their holdings. Often, they provide free or affordable look up services for those who can’t go in person.

They also often have online records for no cost. For example, my state archives offers tax records, state censuses, historical photos, and manuscripts online (or in person) for free that are not easily found elsewhere.

It is well worth calling the archivists to see if they can help you access the wealth of information waiting to be discovered within the walls of your local archive or historical society. They know their collections much better than I, so I try to utilize their knowledge as much as possible - it saves me time!

Exploring these four lesser-sought genealogical sources should provide many hours of searching without breaking the bank. Each discovery, no matter how small, brings us closer to understanding our roots. By harnessing the power of these inexpensive resources, you can unlock the secrets of your family's past while conserving your resources for future research endeavors. And don’t forget that even if you delve into these resources and never stumble over your ancestor’s name, you will still learn an unbelievable amount of information about their life and things that happened around them.


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