Any basic how-to book, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy (Alpha Books, 2006) or Genealogy Online for Dummies (Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, 2008), can show you how to find these documents.
Ancestry.com—the Bigfoot of genealogical search engines—lets you troll millions of records at once. Searching is free, as is viewing some results. Other results are available by subscription ($155.40-$359.40 a year). Other sites include www.afrigeneas.com, www.rootsweb.com, www.vitalrec.com, and familysearch.org.
If the Internet is a library, then portals are its card catalog, says Cyndi Howells, creator of the genealogy portal cyndislist.com and author of Planting Your Family Tree Online (Thomas Nelson, 2003). Such sites present organized links to scads of databases. Some of the other biggies: www.usgenweb.org, www.worldgenweb.org, and www.genealogyhomepage.com.
Are you sure you're the first historian in the family? The Library of Congress has more than 40,000 family histories. The Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has an extensive genealogical collection. Also explore state archives and historical societies. One caveat: you must check your ancestor's work by locating the primary sources yourself.
Every 10 years, the feds make a record of the country's inhabitants by name. You can now see those records through 1930 (there's a 72-year privacy cutoff), as well as some state and special censuses. For an index, visit www.census-online.com or www.us-census.org. Images of census pages are available to ancestry.com subscribers, or for sale on CD-ROM. You can also view pages on microfilm at the National Archives and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library, both of which have branches around the country.
Passenger lists spanning six centuries are available in reference books, on CD-ROM, and on fee-based genealogy sites; many are also searchable for free, thanks to sites like www.immigrantships.net and www.olivetreegenealogy.com. The Ellis Island site offers a searchable database of passenger manifests. The U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Service site also offers extensive tips and databases.
Look to the U.S. armed forces for vital records, a physical description, and much more. Try the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System for battles, prisoners, and medals of honor. Look for a pension file (maybe under a widow's name) and bounty land warrant application files (land was sometimes awarded to vets). The National Archives and Records Administration should have both. Thanks to the 2007 partnership between Footnote.com and the National Archives, millions of historic documents are now available online.
There's help out there for you, if you need it. Ask for interlibrary loans, instead of traveling. If you beg, some librarians may even photocopy and mail the pages you need. Or you can hire help via the Association of Professional Genealogists. Hourly fees typically range from $30 to $60.