It took Ron Wild about 10 years of visiting genealogical
libraries around the country, perusing microfilm and searching through
dusty archives, to trace the family line of his wife, Eva Mary, six
generations to her great-great-grandfather, Joel Calvin Taylor, a farmer,
born in Constable, N.Y., in 1824.
It took Mr. Wild just a few hours recently to uncover the 44 previous
All he had to do this time was log on to MyTrees.com, and after
plugging in a set of family names he had accumulated over the last decade,
he learned about Mrs. Wild's colonial ancestors in New England, most
notably Jeremiah Whitney, a distinguished Englishman who landed in
Plymouth, Mass., in 1635. Then he took those names, with others obtained
from databases at FamilySearch.org, and further traced her family to
10th-century France, with ties to royalty.
"You want to search the hard way, it can take 20 hours just to find one
event, one birth," said Mr. Wild, 61, of Toronto, a marketing director at
Family Chronicle, a genealogical magazine. "The information was there all
the time. I just didn't know how to find it."
The Internet — with its scores of databases, easy access and relatively
quick response time — is helping many armchair historians gain glimpses
into their pasts.
But novice researchers need to be careful. While genealogical Web sites
are springing up all the time, most of their information is very limited.
Researchers may have to visit several other sites, and some of the
information they uncover may not always be accurate. And several sites
charge for services that consumers can find free elsewhere.
Even a wildly popular Internet site, www.ellisisland.org, which offers
free information on some 22 million immigrants entering New York's Ellis
Island from 1892 to 1924, has its limitations.
Seasoned genealogists say the information, while useful and accurate,
is basic and serves only to prompt additional searches. And users may wait
a long time for access to the information. Although the site's server has
tripled its capacity since its April debut, Peg Zitko, a spokeswoman for
the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the nonprofit group that
runs the site, still advises would-be users "to set your alarm clock for 2
a.m." The site couldn't handle the eight million hits it received on the
first day, and the server crashed.
Site visitors can view manifests from the ship companies that
transported the immigrants and learn a little bit about the passengers'
plans, based on questionnaires they were required to fill out. (During my
visit to the site, I learned that my grandfather, Owen Kilgannon, who
arrived in this country from Liverpool, England, in 1920, had $60 in his
pocket and planned on staying in America "always.")
Other sites can take you back even further — back to the family
homeland — or trace family members who did not come to this country
through New York Harbor.
Much online information can be obtained free, like the data provided by
the sites that Mr. Wild used. After all, cooperation is considered a
hallmark among genealogists.
An increasing number of commercial sites, however, are charging for
access to databases that they say are exclusive and will surely contain
your relatives. But that is not always the case. Genealogists like to
chuckle at companies that sell mass-produced coats of arms, supposedly
based on a surname history; they say the lists of names provided rarely
share common ancestry.
Some sites dazzle first-time users by turning up a few names and dates,
only to dangle further information available by subscribing to the site,
which in some cases could cost $100 or so for an annual membership.
Eugene W. Olson, who runs a consumer watchdog group (www.compuright.org) that warns Internet users about questionable sites,
says some of the genealogy sites that charge fees are linked to other
companies' free Web sites.
Before buying a subscription to a site, he recommends checking its
domain name with a service like Register.com or Network Solutions Inc.
"If you can't find at least a phone number for the owner of a site,
don't bother buying anything from them," he said.
Consumers have many sites, however, from which to choose. Typing the
word "genealogy" on the Excite.com search engine recently yielded
1,685,507 results. Genealogy Web sites can be broad-based, with extensive
databases, or very small, with more specific databases.
Three of the largest sites — FamilySearch.org,
Genealogy.com — offer large databases of names and birth dates from
sources like the Census Bureau and Social Security Administration.
FamilySearch is run by the Mormon Church, which encourages its members to
trace ancestors as a religious obligation and volunteered its services for
the Ellis Island site.
The Mayflower Web Page (members.aol.com/calebj/mayflower.html) has
lists with a few select ship passengers who happen to predate Ellis Island
by a few centuries. And there are niche sites from just about every region
and country that can provide more specifics on ethnic origins.
The more family information you already have, the more narrow and
successful your online search is likely to be. When it comes to
differentiating your Aunt Myrtle from someone else's Aunt Myrtle, specific
information, like a date of birth, hometown and middle initial, can be
"Talk to your relatives and get all the information you can," said Rahn
Rampton, a spokesman for MyFamily, another large online genealogy company.
"After you get your basic information from the broad sites, then you can
start hitting those Norwegian message boards."
Genealogists say it is wise to begin by entering family names at the
largest genealogy sites, all of which use those vast databases with
billions of names from government sources. Much of the data is repetitive;
nevertheless, it can provide essential starter information.
Genealogy software can also help, by organizing the information you
will gather into a family-tree format. Many sites present search results
imbedded in large lists; the software programs are intended to sort
through them. Family Tree Maker is among the simplest and most popular.
Developed by Genealogy.com, it is available for $39.99. FamilySearch.org
offers a free program called Personal Ancestral File. Another, more
advanced program, the Master Genealogist, issued by Wholly Genes Software
of Columbia, Md., starts at $59. Some sites, like MyFamily.com, also offer
family-tree programs that can be used at the site and printed out.
Online researchers learn quickly that in the world of genealogy, there
is no such thing as one-stop shopping. So once you have used the larger
genealogy sites, you can move on to more specific searches. Genealogists,
however, stress knowing the source of the information: Does it come from
the Ellis Island rolls, for example, from the 1880 census or from
something less authoritative? Most sites disclose where they obtained
their data — say, from church records or census reports.
Most of the general sites offer easy access to beginners. But that is
not always the case with sites that offer more specific information. Many
of them presuppose a working knowledge of genealogy.
HeritageQuest.com, for example, a unit of SierraHome, offers only
indexes for sale but few details about their contents. Still, anyone
looking for a CD-ROM containing 1910 census information for Big Horn
County, Wyo., can buy it there for $19.95.
There are also free bulletin boards and sites with collaborative family
trees, where other clan members — or strangers — chip in whatever
information they have found. FamilyHistory.com allows users to work on
their family trees in a chat room setting, where others may collaborate or
initiate a discussion. RootsWeb.com, which has links to many search
engines, online publications and other resources, also lets people share
"The most important thing about using the Internet is forming
relationships with other people who have already compiled information you
need," said Roland C. Carson, 70, a retired public relations executive
from Baton Rouge, La.
Mr. Carson spent years at local libraries researching his mother's
family line back to the 1600's. Using a RootsWeb.com mailing list, he met
a Swedish man who found that Mr. Carson's grandfather, Charles Carlsson,
emigrated from Sweden at the age of 13.
Extensive links can also be found at MyTrees.com. Many names are
already organized in family trees. And the site simultaneously searches
FamilySearch.org and Origins.net for your entries. It has customized
search engines that scour the Internet for name matches and deliver them
in alphabetical order. Memberships cost $100 a year, or $15 a month. The
site permits users to barter for a few free months, however, by submitting
their own personal family data to the site.
Even the larger sites have some specialties. FamilySearch.org offers
vast indexes of medieval family data, while Origins.net has exclusive
access to certain databases in the British Isles and Europe, including
government records dating to 1553, and Scottish birth, marriage and death
Among smaller sites, accessgenealogy.com offers the 1835 Cherokee
census, listing Cherokees who lived east of the Mississippi during that
year. USGenWeb.com has information gathered from tombstones. And
Christine's Genealogy Website (www.ccharity.com) contains more than 100
wills of New World slave owners in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Seasoned genealogists, however, suggest that amateurs try to confirm
the information they find on the Web with outside sources — church or
cemetery records, for example.
"Just because it's online doesn't mean it's gospel," said Loretto D.
Szucs, author of "The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,"
(Ancestry, 1997) with Sandra H. Luebking.
Of course, there are still many traditionalists who live in Winnebagos
and travel to distant places to do their genealogical research the
Ms. Szucs recommends several offline activities, like joining a
genealogical society in the area where you are searching, taking classes
or subscribing to publications on the subject.
But most of all, she suggests talking to as many people as
"If your husband doesn't want to get in a Winnebago and vacation in
Salt Lake City, you need people to talk with this about," she said.
"Networking is priceless." Copyright 2001 The
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