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Readers Digest Magazine

The following article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Reader's Digest (USA Edition).

Click here for details on the "Acadian-Cajun Family Genealogy" CD-ROMs, now available

Click Here For Your Roots

By Margot Hornblower (from Time)


Tracing your family lineage is easier than ever, thanks to the Internet.

"Please, will somebody help me? I'm new at this, and I have no idea what I'm doing." The words were posted on America Online's genealogy site, by G. Marie Leaner, a Chicago communications consultant looking for her family roots.

Her plaintive cry was heard by a volunteer researcher, who told Leaner about the Social Security Death Index, which draws on more than six billion death-benefit-recipient records starting in 1937. This was the breakthrough Leaner needed, allowing her to move onto the Internet and into libraries, gathering snippets about her heritage.

Now, with the aid of scores of Web sites and chat groups, she's been able to trace her great-great-grandparents back to Mississippi, locate the cemetery where they are both buried, and even obtain a copy of their 1874 marriage license. In the process, she's discovered the thrill of what's called cyber-rooting. According to Leaner, "It's kind of spooky. Whenever I'm about to make a breakthrough, my heart starts racing."

Once the hobby of blue bloods tracing their families back to the Mayflower, genealogy is fast becoming a national obsession--- for new parents basking in the glow of family life, baby boomers wrestling with mortality, and ethnic groups exploring their place in a multicultural society. Powering the phenomenon are the new tools of the digital age: "tree making" computer programs, Web sites that make it easy to find information, and chat rooms filled with folks swapping leads. "The Internet has helped democratize genealogy," says Stephen Kyner, editor of Computer Genealogists magazine.

Indeed, "root-seeking" ranks with sex, finance and sports as a leading Internet subject. Over 160 million messages flowed last March through Rootsweb (www.rootsweb.com), a vast electronic trading post for genealogical information. And the Mormon Church began testing a new Web site (www.familysearch.org) last April, that has become a repository of 360 million names.

If you're willing to commit to a search that's bound to be both labor-intensive and exhilarating, here's how;


Starting Up:

Whether you read a book, click on a Web site, take a course or join a genealogical club, you must first decide on a data-collection system. You can use cards, three-ring binders or software but each new twig on the family tree must be documented.

That's why computers, with their ability to organize massive amounts of data, are ideal. Remember that for each generation back, the number of parents doubles; by the time you get 20 generations, it's up to more than a million. In 15 years, Acadians genealogist Yvon Cyr has collected data on 110,000 relatives and in-laws-- going back to 17th century France-- and stored it on his computer.


Connections- Yvon Cyr and his wife Judy, have identified relatives in 17th-century France

(Photo by Peter Sibbald)

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Once you have a system, record everything you know about your family. Then interview relatives, oldest ones first, videotaping of tape-recording them if possible. Ask for exact names, dates and places, and as many details of your ancestors' lives as they can remember. Copy all documents: birth, christening, marriage and death certificates, school and medical records, Bible inscriptions, military papers.

"Everyone has a little piece of the puzzle," says Estelle Guzik, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society in New York.


Roots Surfing:

The Internet is invaluable for trading information. Dave Distler, who works at an electronics firm in Cleveland, Ohio, lost track of a great-great-great-grandfather, Friedrich Jakob Distler, born in 1814 in Germany, Prussia, Rhineland or Northern Bavaria. Surfing the Net, he found an organization, Palatines to America, which referred him to a German genealogist who located his grandfathers hometown, Hinterweidenthal.

When Distler entered the village name in a search engine, he found a private e-mail address. Just three weeks after e-mailing, he got a response from a local resident with the telephone numbers of two Distler families. In May 1996 three New World and 14 Old World Distlers met at a German inn to celebrate.

"Old uncle Fritz had told me about the mysterious Distlers who journeyed to the other side of the Atlantic," says Brigitte Schubert, a newfound German cousin. "I was so glad to sit beside Dave, I didn't want to let go of his hand."

When it comes to the Net, however, be forewarned. Much of what is on the Web is akin to signposts-- lists of documents but rarely the documents themselves. The National Archives (www.nara.gov) provides a description of its material on-line-- but only 120,000 of its four billion records have been digitized. And much of the Net's information is posted by volunteers who transcribe cemetery headstones or newspaper obituaries-- with predictable error.


Digging for Documents:

Think of yourself as historian, part detective. Federal records-- rich troves for census, military and immigration information-- can be researched at the National Archives and its 13 regional branches, as well as at major libraries. To protect citizens' privacy, the U.S. Census is only made public 72 years after it's taken. (The 1930 census will be available in 2002.) Early censuses, beginning in 1790, are sketchy but by 1850 they provide rich detail.

Other good sources for documents? Try a well-stocked genealogical library, such as the Newberry in Chicago, the Clayton in Houston, or the closest Mormon Family History Center, with 3400 branches in 65 counties.

Aficionados also besiege county historical societies, newspaper offices for microfilm, and rural courthouses for land deeds, wills and tax rolls. "There's nothing like the smell of musty records, the feel of heavy deed books, the irritated look on the clerk's face when you say you're a genealogist," writes Sharon De-Bartolo Carmack in The Genealogy Sourcebook.

The rewards are worth it, though. Dennis Rawlings of Fort Meyers, Fla., unearthed a newspaper account of his great-grandparents' wedding in Cedar Bluffs, Neb. The guests were named, the bride's dress described and the presence listed, including five pickle casters. "Pickle casters must have been the late 1800's equivalent of can opener's," Rawlings jokes.


Learning to be Stubborn:

Genealogists' obstacle courses sometimes read like scripts for a whodunit. Joseph Silinonte of Brooklyn, New York, had scoured U.S. Census Naturalization and Board of Election documents for the birthplace of his great-great-great-grandfather, to no avail. Then he remembered that a record of his ancestor's son's marriage in 1872 had indicated an exemption from banns-- the public announcement, on three successive Sundays, of intention to wed. Silinonte asked a diocesan official to take him to the Roman Catholic archives in Queens, New York where he found the 19th-century ledgers. On the page was the great-great-great-grandfather's place of birth: County Leitrim, Ireland. "You have to be stubborn," says Silinonte.

Names can be tricky-- even without adoptions, divorces and illegitimate children. Likewise, immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island found their names arbitrarily Anglicized. And some families wanting to assimilate, did so later on their own.

Contrary to myth, blacks don't always carry the names of their family's last slaveholder. Slaves could change hands numerous times without changing their surnames. Traditionally, Jews did not have surnames; they were called, for instance, Isaac, son of Jacob. Only beginning in the late 18th-century were surnames imposed in Europe and Russia.

Be aware, too, that the information you discover might not be exactly what you had hoped for. Former Dallas high school principal Robert Stokes taught his family might be related to Robert E. Lee, as several generations had a family member with the middle name Lee of Lea. It turned out that his great-grandfather had been an admirer, not a relative, of Lee's. In fact, Stokes found out that his first American ancestors were actually indentured servants.


Uniting People:

In today's mobile society as nuclear families splinter, the sense of lost roots has fired a thirst for connection that genealogy seems to satisfy. What's more, there is an unexpected and happy byproduct of these searches: they're likely to open avenues of communication.

"In the past," says Carl Davidson, a Chicago computer consultant, "you didn't talk much with older folks at family reunions, except maybe 'Pass the potato salad' . Now they take you home, get out these old Bibles and dig out ancient maps, and you get to know them in a whole new way."


Click here to view article in MacLean's Magazine on September 20, 1999

Click here to view article in Time Magazine on April 19, 1999


Click here to view article in Kitchener-Waterloo Record Newspaper


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