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I started out using the LDS website a couple of years ago when I made the decision to start digging into my family tree. They provide so much information for free including the 1880 census, Social Security death records and ancestral pedigrees submitted by the church and other contributors. When I wanted to get more information beyond what was there, I simply started googling to see what would happen. Some names popped up on rootsweb (free) and some state and county historical websites (free). I also joined some online genealogy communites. Yahoo, MSN, and many other providers have web groups for individual states and volunteers who will personally research the state and county courthouse for records. I also joined findagrave.com because you can not only find head stones and cemeteries where your relatives are buried, but very often there will be photos and obituaries provided where you can get names of other family members.
I eventually joined ancestry.com. I did some homework about what they could provide for me to justify the cost of being a member. There is access to not just the 1880 census, but to all census information up to 1930 so I could get information on living relatives. They also have supplemental individual state and territorial censuses. They have marriage, birth and divorce records, military service records and draft cards, immigration records, family connections with other members and very often photographs of living relatives. You can also contact people who have relatives in common with you to fill in some blanks. For me, the cost was worth it since so much of my research involves long distances. The expense of one years' membership is cheaper than paying for the gas to travel to and from the other states my family settled in.
It's been worth it for me because I have been able to expand my family tree from about 100 members to over 1500 and trace the tree back to the early 1600's.
I agree with you about Ancestry.com. I have been a subscriber for about 3 years now, and have been able to view some birth, marriage, and death records from Canada as well as the US. They also have some census records from England now, and they are getting more and more information from other places in Europe. I was able to learn about and read a book on their website on the Doane family that led me to the DFA and learning where my great-great-grandfather came from.
I, too, debated for a while about getting the full membership, but I cannot afford either the money or the time involved in all that travel to visit all the places I would need to.
I have 'met' two cousins through ancestry, that I am in touch with every day now. One lives in Oregon, and the other in Arkansas. We have exchanged pictures, old and recent, as well as emails and snail mail. I haven't seen either one in person, yet, but we are talking about getting together. I 'met' another who lives in England, but we don't keep in as close a contact.
I do use other sites also. I have found some death records through the MiGenWeb Project that do not show up on any other site. GenWeb sites are sketchy about what information is available depending on the state and county you are searching. I like to google a name just to see what, if anything shows up. I have been on rootsweb.com and genealogy.com and various family sites.
I have about 1100 people that I have documentation on, and another 4000 names from my cousins based on their research that I have not seen documents for yet. It continues to be fun and interesting. I have learned some things that I am not sure that my grandparents knew about their parents and grandparents. and I keep learning new things every day.
Happy hunting for the rest of your ancestors.