Archived Copy from NYTimes.com

July 1, 2001

The Search for the Family Tree Moves to the Web

BY COREY KILGANNON

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 generations.

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, Ancestry.com and 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 crucial.

"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 information.

"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 registers.

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 old-fashioned way.

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 possible.

"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." 

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