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Spurred by new resources on the Internet, the ranks of amateur genealogists are growing, and millions of family trees are flourishing. BY MARGOT HORNBLOWER
"Please, will somebody help me? I'm new at this, and I have no idea what I'm doing." Those words were not some perverse message smeared in lipstick across a rest-room mirror. They were posted on the volunteers' bulletin board of America Online's genealogy site, typed by G. Marie Leaner, a comunications consultant in Chicago, looking for her family roots.
Leaner's plaintive cry was heard by a volunteer researcher, who told Leaner about the Social Security Death Index. That was the breakthrough Leaner needed, allowing her to move out onto the Internet and into libraries, gathering snippets about her heritage. Now, thanks to scores of websites and chat groups, she has traced her great-great-grandparents back to Mississippi, found the cemetery in Hines County where they are buried, obtained a copy of their 1874 marriage license--along with the World War I draft card of a great-grandfather--and in the process, discovered the thrill of cyberrooting. "It's kind of spooky," she says. "Whenever I come upon something, my heart starts racing."
Once the hobby of self-satisfied 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 their first intimations of mortality, and various ethnic groups exploring their pride and place in a multicultural society. Powering the phenomenon are the new tools of the digital age: computer programs that turn the search for family trees into an addiction; websites that make it easy to find and share information; and chat rooms filled with folks seeking advice and swapping leads. "The Internet has helped democratize genealogy," says Stephen Kyner, editor of The Computer Genealogist magazine.
Root seeking ranks with sex, finance and sports as a leading subject on the Internet. More than 160 million messages flowed last month through RootsWeb http://www.rootsweb.com, a vast electronic trading post for genealogical information. There are at least seven treemaking computer programs currently selling well, and according to Nielsen/NetRatings, the three top genealogy websites in March had an audience of 1.3 million individual devotees.
This month, in what will be a major contribution to the field, the Mormon Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has begun testing a new website http://www.familysearch.org that eventually will be a repository of 600 million names, extracted from vital records worldwide. The Mormons consider genealogy part of their mission and have the world'smost extensive records. "I think it is a wonderful site," says Michael Leclerc, reference librarian at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. "It is giving the most widespread access ever to the world's largest genealogical repository."
But genealogy, as any veteran will tell you, is no cushy computer-desk job. Its aficionados are besieging National Archives branches and county historical societies, rummaging through newspapers' microfilm, tramping through rural courthouses and overgrown cemeteries. Each year 800,000 people visit the Mormons' Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
Click here for details on the "Acadian-Cajun Family Genealogy" CD-ROM, now available
Americans of all ethnic backgrounds were inspired by Alex Haley's 1977 mini-series Roots, eventually watched by hundreds of millions worldwide. Today a quarter of the 300,000 amateur genealogists who visit the Denver Public Library each year are Hispanic. Ukrainian Americans register inquiries at http://www.carpatho-rusyn.org, and Cajuns can search for their ancestors on a CD-ROM of half a million names, compiled by Acadian genealogist Yvon Cyr.
Yvon & Judy Cyr
(Photo by Peter Sibbald)
Click here for details on the CYR/SIRE Family Genealogy CD-ROM, now available
WE'VE GOT MAIL! Yvon Cyr takes pride in his Acadian Heritage, and his wife Judy treasures her family keepsakes. After tracing his roots, CYR is busy sharing information with the 500+ people on his Acadian Website's mailing list. Says he: "It's uniting people from all over the world who have a common interest".
In San Francisco, educator Albert Cheng, who has traced 2,800 years of his family history, leads a program for the Chinese Culture Foundation, which takes groups of Chinese-American youths back to their ancestral villages each summer after they have researched family and archival records in the U.S. "Now I feel proud of who I am," said 25-year-old Julia Fong, who met her great-grandmother, now 99, in Guangdong province. "She was feisty; she had no teeth and a wonderful smile."
No single group, however, is as involved as the Mormons. Believing that ancestors can be saved through retroactive baptism, they have sent missionaries around the globe, setting up 3,200 library branches in 64 countries and filming massive amounts of documents, touching on 2 billion people. With the promise that the church's vast trove of well-checked data will eventually be available online comes the potential for another burst in genealogical activity.
The Internet has already made the task easier. Cyndi Howells, 35, a Puyallup, Wash., housewife, got interested as a teenager when she read some old family letters and records for a high school genealogy project. "It was fascinating to see all these names and places and think this was all connected to me," she said. In 1992 she quit her job at a bank, bought a computer and began collecting website addresses. In 1996 she posted her list on the Internet. Today http://cyndislist.com has grown to 300 pages with links to 41,700 genealogical sites worldwide--from ships' passenger lists to prison rolls. Howells travels the country, giving speeches. "Everyone wants to know where they came from," she says. "I don't even have time to do my own research anymore."
Be forewarned: Much of what is on the Web now is akin to signposts--lists of documents but rarely the documents themselves. The National Archives provides a description of its material online--but only 120,000 of its 4 billion records have been digitized. Much of the Net's information is posted by volunteers who transcribe cemetery headstones or newspaper obituaries--with predictable human error. "People think because it's on the computer, it's the gospel truth. But it's only as good as the person doing it," says Cliff Collier of the Ontario Genealogical Society. His view, shared by most serious researchers, is that only an exact copy of an original marriage certificate or immigration visa can be trusted. "The true aficionado," adds Boston genealogist Eileen O'Duill, "wants to feel the paper that his great-grandfather's birth was registered on."
Starting to get interested? If you are willing to forgo leisurely weekends for a search that is bound to be alternately tedious and exhilarating, here's how:
Whether you read a how-to book, click on a website with beginner's tips, take a course on family-history research or join a genealogical club, you must first decide on a collection system. You can use notecards, three-ring binders or software, but each new twig on the family tree must be documented, with notes on its source. That's why computers, which can organize massive amounts of data, are ideal.
Remember that for each generation back, the number of parents doubles; by the time you hit 20 generations, it's up to more than a million. In two decades, genealogolist Cyr has collected data on 88,000 relatives and in-laws--going back to 17th century France--and stored the information on his desktop, using Family Tree Maker software.
Yvon & Judy Cyr
(Photo by Peter Sibbald)
If you're computer phobic, rest assured: you can do without. Working with a vintage Smith-Corona, Ida Quintana Foraci, 70, explored her family, discovered a French-speaking Pawnee grandmother and traced her ancestors through families intertwined since New Mexico was part of Spain. She delved into archdiocesan records, statistical abstracts and old Spanish histories at the Denver Public Library. On a monthly pension of $400, she sold most of her furniture so she could publish her findings: 22 volumes documented back to the arrival of conquistador Don Juan Onate in 1598. It is now a valuable resource for Hispanic genealogists. "I spent the past seven years looking," she says, "and I found me."
The first step is to write down everything you know about your family. Then interview relatives, oldest ones first. Videotape or tape-record 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, family-Bible inscriptions, military papers, old letters. "Everyone has a little piece of the puzzle," says Estelle Guzik, director of the New York Jewish Genealogical Society, who set out to trace relatives killed in the Holocaust. In one family a cousin had saved a 20-year-old invitation list to a son's bar mitzvah. An elderly invitee from Israel still lived at the same address and referred Guzik to her son, a rabbi, who provided a family tree stretching from Australia to France.
One happy by-product of your search is that it's likely to open new avenues of communication. Says Carl Davidson, a Chicago computer consultant: "You didn't use to 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."
Genealogists disagree on whether to begin by searching the many rich websites devoted to genealogy or by traveling directly to a source for documents, whether it's the local branch of the National Archives, a well-stocked genealogical library such as the Newberry in Chicago or the Clayton in Houston, or the closest Mormon Family History Center. In some cases, the Web is a clear time saver. George Warholic, a Rockville, Md., economic consultant, set out in 1983 to trace his Ukrainian relatives. "It was a chore," he remembers. "I spent weeks at the Library of Congress, searching hundreds of telephone books for people with the same name.
Now this information can be got in a few hours on the Internet." Like the Internet as a whole, online genealogy information is a chaotic hodgepodge. The scope can be as broad as the U.S. Social Security Death Index, which draws on some 60 million records of those for whom a lump-sum death benefit was paid, mostly between 1963 and 1997; and as specific as the street maps of Eastern Europe on the Shtetlseeker page of the JewishGen website. Click onto Historical Records of Dukes County, Mass., to see who lived on Martha's Vineyard in 1790. Survey the resources of the Trinidad and Tobago National Library on its website. Contact the Newfoundland and Labrador Genealogical Society, which has a database of more than 500,000 names, including headstone inscriptions from 300 cemeteries in the Canadian province, and for a small fee the group will do a search and mail back the results.
A Salt Lake City entrepreneur offers wills from nine states for $7 each. Beyond research, the Web is a genealogists' agora, invaluable for trading information and connecting with living relatives. Dave Distler, who works at an electronics firm in Greenwood, Ind., lost track of a great-great-great-grandfather, Friedrich Jakob Distler, who was born in 1814 in Germany, Prussia, Rhineland or Northern Bavaria, according to vague records. Surfing the Net, he found an organization, Palatines to America, which referred him to a German genealogist who found his grandfather's hometown, Hinterweidenthal.
When he entered the village name in a search engine, he found a private e-mail address. Three weeks after e-mailing, he got a response from a local resident with the phone numbers of two Distler families in the town. In May 1996, three New World and 14 Old World Distlers met at a cozy 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."
Digging for Documents:
As you embark on your search, think of yourself as part historian, part detective. Federal records, vast and varied, can be researched at the National Archives and its 13 regional branches as well as at major libraries--and not necessarily online. Because of privacy laws, the U.S. Census is made public only after 72 years have passed since the time it was taken. Next to be opened is the 1930 census, which will become available in 2002. Early censuses, beginning in 1790, are sketchy, but by the mid-19th century they begin to provide rich detail, listing everyone in the family by name, age, occupation and place of birth. Starting with 1900, one can find out the year of immigration, whether English was spoken and whether a home was owned or rented.
Robert Stokes, a retired Dallas high school principal, has traced his family from 17th century Maryland through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Mississippi to Texas. "It is such a thrill when you find a census about an old relative that shows he owned 26 pigs and a wagon," he says. "Then you have to go to the next census to see how he made out. If he had horses, and more pigs, he was doing well."
Federal records are rich troves for census, immigration and military records. Prison logs can be helpful too: "Pray that there were sinners in your family," says Denver Public Library genealogy specialist James Jeffrey. They root around local historical societies and county courthouses for land deeds, wills and probate, 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 DeBartolo Carmack in The Genealogy Sourcebook. But the rewards are worth it: Alice Wilkinson, a retired Houston schoolteacher, found an inventory of a relative's 18th century will listing 12 fur buttons, an ax handle and a three-legged stool. "Back then, people had fewer possessions and more land," she says. Another souvenir from the hunt: four bricks from her great-grandparents' house in Tennessee. Local newspaper archives can tell you more than you want to know. Dennis Rawlings, a Fort Myers, Fla., real estate broker, unearthed an account of his great-grandparents' wedding in Cedar Bluffs, Neb. The guests were named, the bride's dress described and the presents listed, including five pickle casters. "Pickle casters must have been the late 1800s equivalent of can openers," Rawlings jokes.
Root seeking inevitably demands patience--and ingenuity. Joseph Silinonte, 42, from Brooklyn, N.Y., had scoured U.S. Census, Naturalization and Board of Election documents for the birthplace of his great-great-great-grandfather, saloon owner Charles O'Neil, to no avail. Even an 1887 obituary in the Brooklyn Eagle was no help. Then he remembered that the record of O'Neil's son's marriage in 1872 had contained a little mark indicating a dispensation of banns--forgoing the public announcement, on three successive Sundays, of intention to wed. Silinonte persuaded a diocesan official to take him to the Roman Catholic archives in Queens, where he found the 19th century ledgers stored in a corner. On the page was the elder O'Neil's place of birth: County Leitrim, Ireland. "You have to be stubborn," says Silinonte.
Root seekers haunt cemeteries:
Dennis Rawlings had almost given up searching for a set of great-grandparents in a Port Hope, Ont., graveyard when, on a hunch, he took a pen from his pocket and poked it into the ground, hitting something hard. Tearing up the sod, he found an old stone reading MARY ANN RAWLINGS--DIED 1869. "We picked up 'Grandma' and cleaned her up for the next 100 years, until somebody else comes to visit," he recalls. "It felt like an episode from The Twilight Zone."
Genealogists' obstacle courses sometimes read like scripts for a whodunit. Wars and natural disasters wreak havoc: the U.S. 1890 Census was almost completely wiped out in a fire, and Southern courthouses were burned in the Civil War. The public records office in Dublin, Ireland, was destroyed in a fire in 1922. And in China's Cultural Revolution, the centuries-old ancestor records compiled by villages were declared "feudal garbage." In India, where most vital statistics are still unrecorded, rare documents are at Hindu holy spots where priests, known as pundits, write down births, deaths and marriages. But the documents, narrow sheaves of paper tied in cloth, are crumbling from rot, and the pundits themselves are dying out.
Names, one discovers, can be tricky--even without adoptions, divorces and illegitimate children. "Drunk census takers and bad penmanship can drive you insane!" says Rawlings, the Florida real estate broker. Lorraine St-Louis-Harrison, a Canadian genealogist, had a hard time tracing her French-speaking grandfather until she realized that an English census taker had transcribed St Louis as "Salway." 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 surname, points out Tony Burroughs, who teaches genealogy at Chicago State University. In the case of biracial children born to slaves, it is often impossible to tell if the father was the slave owner, the overseer or a relative of the slave owner given liberties with the slave. Jewish researchers run into complications too: 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 by edicts passed in Europe and Russia.
Dealing with Surprises:
In a celebrity-obsessed culture, it is no wonder that some root seekers hope to uncover an aristocratic connection. Stokes, the former Dallas principal, thought his family might be related to Robert E. Lee, as several generations had a family member with the middle name Lee or Lea in honor of the general. It turned out that his great-great-great-grandfather had been an admirer, not a relative, of Lee's. In fact, as he went back, Stokes found his first American ancestors were indentured servants. "We came to America basically as white slaves," he says, with a laugh. Lately, Harold Brooks-Baker--head of Burke's Peerage, the British company that does genealogical searches--sees a change.
People are less obsessed with nobility and more with the dramatic. "If their ancestor was a horse thief, all the better," he says. Care to chat about family skeletons? The International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists has set up a website and an electronic mailing list for "those who have a dastardly, infamous individual of public knowledge and ill repute in their family."
In Australia, once a penal colony, Valerie Garton, 61, warns that "one must never start family history unless you're willing to accept everything you find." Garton's great-grandfather was transported to Tasmania for stealing sheep. Only a few decades ago, it was considered a taboo Down Under to admit to convict ancestry, and early census records were destroyed by politicians and others who did not want their origins revealed. But lately it has become fashionable to be a first-fleet Australian.
Likewise, in the new South Africa, nonwhite ancestry for an Afrikaner is not only politically correct but socially advantageous. Former President Frederik Willem de Klerk, once a defender of apartheid, now admits to a Bengali-slave forebear. In the U.S., blacks and whites are cooperating in joint genealogy searches. Says Colorado land appraiser James Rogers, a Caucasian who unearthed a slave ancestor: "It certainly brought home to me that we are all related."
For Asian Americans, immigration records have yielded a wealth of surprises. From 1882 until 1965, a series of laws severely restricted Chinese immigration. Only a few exempt groups--diplomats, merchants, students and teachers, for example--were allowed in. Byron Yee, a San Francisco actor, had always known his father had changed his surname to Yee from Seto when he emigrated from China, but it wasn't until years later, when he was researching his family for a one-man show, that Yee discovered why. His father had been a "paper son," entering the U.S. with false documents that identified him as the son of a citizen--a common ruse of many Chinese immigrants. Now that he has reviewed his father's interrogation records, he says, "I've recovered some of my lost relationship."
If genealogy is an entertaining hobby, it can also be a matter of life and death. Two years after Washington public affairs specialist Carol Krause graduated from college, her mother died of ovarian cancer. But she and her three sisters did not feel any personal threat--until comedian Gilda Radner's death, when they learned that ovarian cancer can be hereditary. Shortly after that, Carol's sister Susan also came down with ovarian cancer. Interviewing relatives and ferreting out death certificates, the sisters found more than a dozen family members who had died of different cancers. Carol and her other sisters, Peggy and Kathy, were tested for several cancers. Kathy had a microscopic tumor, which was ultimately fatal. Carol and Peggy had preventive hysterectomies. Carol also discovered and was successfully treated for colon and breast cancer. "There's a lot of denial out there," says Krause, who has written a book, How Healthy Is Your Family Tree? "When I go and speak to groups and ask, 'How many of you know what all four of your grandparents died of?', they don't know."
In the days when your relatives mostly stayed put, they knew more about one another's lives and deaths. But in today's mobile society, as nuclear families splinter, loneliness and alienation are the order of the day. "We are witnessing the atomization of the family," says David Altshuler, director of Manhattan's Museum of Jewish Heritage. "The coming of the millennium focuses people's attention on the disappearance of an era." That nostalgia, the sense of lost roots, has fired a thirst for connection that genealogy seems to satisfy.
Middle-aged and older people, who form the majority of root seekers, talk about leaving a legacy for their children--a guide to their children's identity, a family deeper and broader than ever imagined. With genealogy, says Hank Jones, a San Diego character actor who writes and lectures on the subject, "you have a feeling of belonging again when, in daily life, sometimes you don't."
Story reported by Melissa August (Washington), Greg Aunapu (Miami), Curtis Black (Chicago), Moira Daly (Toronto), Megan Rutherford (New York) and Richard Woodbury (Denver), with other Bureaus.
If you're one of the millions who have received an offer of a personalized family history that will help locate ancestral "namesakes," remember the old warning, "Buyer beware." Various companies have sold such books over the years, but the enduring master is Ohio-based Numa Corporation, parent company of Halbert's. Though their pitch carries a disclaimer--"no direct genealogical connection...implied or intended"--the actual product is a glorified, and often inaccurate, phone listing of everyone sharing your surname, culled from public sources like auto registries and phone books, padded with general information easily found in history textbooks, plus advice freely given by many genealogical societies. Coats of arms, emblazoned on everything from plaques to shot glasses, are another huge moneymaker for Numa. Since heraldry was awarded to only a few families and typically passed on to male descendants, chances are slim you deserve a crest at all. That hasn't stopped Numa from filling customer requests; it's legal and, as a Numa spokeswoman argues, the company has millions of satisfied customers. Quips Victor Wlaszyn, head of the Akron Better Business Bureau, which has been fielding Numa complaints for decades: "They'd send me one with two kielbasas crossed with some sauerkraut sprinkled over the top."
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