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This article originally appeared in The Official Guide to by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG and Tana Pedersen Lord.


RootsWeb is like a forest that has grown up without much pruning or thinning. It has been and continues to be created by a worldwide community of online and mostly amateur genealogists. It contains huge and tiny databases (including more than 465 million names in family trees), libraries, articles, how-to tips, personal websites (more than 30,000 independently authored websites containing about 9 million pages), archives, and all sorts of surprising treasures and tools tucked into its nooks and crannies. RootsWeb also provides numerous vehicles for the free exchange of information pertaining to family research—such as 30,000 mailing lists—and it sponsors many of the largest volunteer genealogy projects on the Web. Many genealogical and historical societies call RootsWeb home, as do various family associations, special-interest groups, and projects you might never have heard about. Most of the different areas of RootsWeb are built and maintained by dedicated volunteers who are avid, friendly genealogists often willing to go out of their way to help you.

Tracing your ancestors back through the past is mostly a do-it-yourself endeavor. However, RootsWeb contains tips and guides and links to information that will help you in your quest to discover your family’s past. By making use of the incredible RootsWeb sources, you might find:

  • Your family tree or part of it (but don’t expect to find a complete one—or one that is 100 percent accurate).
  • Historical and genealogical information about your ancestors, including extracts and abstracts of records such as censuses, wills, deeds, tax lists, local histories, family Bibles, old photographs, compiled works, and ship passenger lists.
  • Websites dedicated to your surname (family name), a county your ancestors lived in, or research concerning a specific country.
  • Cousins by the dozen via the mailing lists and message boards.
  • Fellow researchers and friends who share your enthusiasm.

Now that you’ve learned a little about what you might find on RootsWeb, you should also know what you won’t find; your experience with RootsWeb will be much more enjoyable if you start off with realistic goals and expectations of what information you can locate at RootsWeb. And keep in mind, RootsWeb does not have a staff to locate your ancestors or find relatives for you. Here are some examples of things you probably won’t find:

  • Your entire family tree, complete with photos, stories, and all relevant records.
  • Information about living relatives, friends, and old loves (family history is about the past, not the present, although you probably will make connections with cousins and

other relatives who will exchange information privately with you).

  • Access to every record related to your family members.
  • Someone who will “do” your genealogy for you and has the answer to all your questions.

History of RootsWeb

RootsWeb traces its beginnings to the early days of the Internet. In the mid-eighties, net.roots, a genealogy newsgroup, attracted two young, recently graduated students, Brian Leverich and Karen Isaacson of California. In another part of the world, Alf Christophersen of Norway and Marty Hoag of North Dakota State University, created the first genealogy mailing list, ROOTS-L. The proverbial ball got rolling and within a few years a database of surnames (the RootsWeb Surname List) was created, and members of the ROOTS-L mailing list started making their own genealogy files available to each other over a network. Over the next decade, the World Wide Web was created and everyday people, not just computer-savvy experts, were online. In 1996, Karen and Brian officially registered the name of, and within the year they began accepting monetary contributions to keep the site going.

Then in June of 2000,, Inc. (now, acquired RootsWeb; its support and funding has allowed the site to remain free to this day. From this original forum for genealogists to exchange e-mail via mailing lists, RootsWeb has grown into the largest grassroots genealogy community in the world with millions of family trees, mailing lists, databases, message boards, and Web pages—all submitted, maintained, and organized by family historians like you.

RootsWeb Today

Today, millions of family history enthusiasts all over the globe use RootsWeb to expand their research, share their accomplishments, contribute their genealogy files, and request help from fellow researchers. RootsWeb serves family historians of all interests—from those just starting their family search to professionals with years of experience. RootsWeb currently hosts the largest and most comprehensive collection of free genealogical resources available on the Internet. It provides interactive how-to guides, discussion lists, databases such as the Social Security Death Index, and numerous tools and search engines to help you learn more about your ancestors. Additionally, resources such as free Web space and message boards enable millions of researchers to find others who have similar interests or family connections. And, its weekly e-mail newsletter, the RootsWeb Review, is sent to subscribers around the world.

Guide to Tracing Family Trees

You can also take advantage of the free, interactive guides available at RootsWeb. [ RootsWeb’s Guide to Tracing Family Trees was created by three professional genealogists who have diverse research backgrounds and expertise; the thirty-one guides within are designed to give you a central place to learn about a variety of topics related to genealogical research. Not just dull how-to instructions, they also contain links to websites and mailing lists that might be what you need to jump-start your family history project.

The guides are divided into three subject areas: general subjects, sources and record types, and countries and ethnic groups. The general subject guides such as “Where to Begin?” and “What’s in a Name?” teach the fundamentals of research and provide you with a foundation on the records you need to compile your family tree. In the sources and record type guides, you’ll find lessons on various types of records and documents (e.g., tax records, census records, church records, military records, and ship passenger records); this section also contains guides on such topics as fraternal organizations, newspapers and directories, and genealogy software. Finally, the third group of guides teaches you how to look for your ancestors based on location such as Canada, South Africa, Germany, Wales, and more. It also gives information on a variety of ethnic groups—African American, Native American, Jewish, among others. These guides can all be accessed from the homepage. Find the “Getting Started” section and click the “RootsWeb’s Guide To Tracing Family Trees” link.

External Links