How Can I Get the Most Out of Online Genealogy Sites?

Tracing Your Roots: You’d be surprised how much you can find out about your forebears without leaving home.

Generic image
Generic image Thinkstock

Dear Professor Gates:

I believe I have discovered that I come from free black mulattoes who lived in Tyrrell County, N.C., in the 1700s to 1800s. Their last name is Hill. The last people I have confirmed in my family tree on that side are Charles Hill (born circa 1827), Joyce Bryant (born circa 1831) and her father, Moses Bryant (born circa 1790). I believe that Charles’ father was named either Charn or Augustus Hill.

I have heard that they were actually Native Americans or descendants of them. If I am not able to travel to North Carolina to gather information, how can I learn more about the Hills and Bryants of Tyrrell County, other than using sites like —Shontae Woodard

Sometimes it is difficult to travel to the places where your ancestors lived, and your research is restricted to what you can find online or in other local resources. Fortunately, genealogy websites are adding more records and making more documents available all the time. Here are a few tips for researching from a distance and going beyond the basic search boxes.

Getting the Most Out of Online Genealogy Websites

Websites that specialize in genealogy, such as the subscription site and free site FamilySearch, do have a wealth of information to aid your research. You mentioned that you had already started with, but here are a few tips for getting more out of such websites.

Although there is some overlap in the major collections, these two aforementioned websites have different collections and documents available. Using advanced settings, we restricted our search for records to Tyrrell County and used several spelling variations of your ancestors’ names to find more records of the Hill family. In our search, we found that a “Charm” Hill was listed as a free mulatto in the 1850 U.S. census. We also found that he married Gracy Bryant on June 20, 1825, in Tyrrell County. You will want to search for more records of the Bryant family. Be sure to search using different spelling variations and using advanced features to narrow your search by criteria, such as race and gender.

The information you can get from ancestry research sites comes in a variety of forms. There are digital images of original documents, as well as collections that are just indexes or transcriptions of records. The search results that link directly to original documents are useful because they show you exactly what an original document looked like at the time it was made. These documents are posted online, along with an index, which is a transcription of the records. This helps you search for the documents available in the databases.

The original record can give you more information that might not be included in a basic index. Also, you can see the actual writing on the document, so you can look at writing that is hard to read and determine for yourself if the index transcription is correct or if the name was really spelled differently. Indexes and transcriptions of records are great starting points, but if possible, you want to look at the original record to verify the information for yourself and to see if there are any additional details that were left out of the transcriptions.

In our search of both and, we found an index entry for the marriage of Charn Hill and Gracy Bryant. Note the spelling of “Charn.” You shared with us an 1860 U.S. census return, which showed that Charn and Gracy Hill lived next door to your ancestors Charles and Joyce Hill, and you think that Charn may be the father of Charles.