Use the Web to solve your identity crisis
January 24, 1997
Web posted at: 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT)
From Interactive Staff Writer Liza Kaufman Hogan
Researching one's family history was once a
painstaking, exhausting and often fruitless search
through dusty courthouse records and tattered family
Bibles. Even with the advent of the Internet, in many
ways, it still is.
While the Internet can help you focus your search and
put you in touch with others researching distant
branches of your family tree, it probably won't save
you a trip to the county clerk's office or your local
archives. Instead, the Internet may help you focus
your search and determine where these records might
Where to begin?
You may begin your search with little more than the
name of your great, great, great grandfather and a
family story of how he saved 100 men at the Battle of
Gettysburg. Then again, your Aunt Clara says he was a
worthless horse thief. Where do you start?
For quick overview of what's available online, check
out Michael Helm's Geneaology Toolbox. Helm's site is a well-honed, well-organized list of useful genealogical links, a vital resource considering there
are more than 15,000 sites on the topic -- some more
useful than others.
Inside the toolbox you'll find an Introduction to
Genealogy section; links to sites devoted to
particular surnames, ethnic groups and geographic
locations; and information on genealogy software to
help you organize and document your research.
The CyberTree Genealogy Database is a cleverly written site that provides good general
information for newbies with pointers to get you
started and help you decide when to stop.
'Come to your Census' explains how to read American
census records between 1790 and 1920. Other unusual
bits of information include a list of archaic names
and terms. (Did you know the name Sadie is short for
The Genealogy and Family History primer is a site for tracing
ancestors from the British Isles, but also contains
useful information for all beginners, including those
with no ties to Britain.
Once you're ready to begin your research, you can jump
right in by using one of the popular search engines
like Yahoo or Alta Vista to search for information by
surname, location or historical period. Simply type in
the family name and a word like "genealogy" or "Irish"
and see what you come up with.
Unfortunately, you're not likely to find a lot of
specific information about your ancestors online. For
the most part, material archived by private companies
is only available for a fee, and most public
institutions lack resources to put their records
online. There are however, some exceptions to the
Most notable is Ancestry Search, which boasts the largest collection of free records on the
Net. Its indexes let you search through American
marriage records before 1800, U.S. immigration
records before 1674 and the Social Security Death
Using the index, you can find the birth and death
dates and place of death for anyone who died after
1937 for whom a lump-sum Social Security benefit was
claimed. While some sites on the Web charge as much as
$8 per search for such information, Ancestry provides
it for free. The hitch is that you may have trouble
accessing the site during peak times.
Building a network
It's likely you won't be able to delve too deep into
your family history without developing a network of
contacts. Here is where the Web shines. If you can
trace your roots back to the Spanish-American War, you
may find that someone else has already gathered
research carrying the line back to the Revolutionary
War. Newsgroups and mailing lists devoted to
genealogy are two great sources for this type of
The two most widely used genealogical mailing lists
are ROOTS-L and GENNAM-L. Both allow you to send
queries to assist you in your research, ask questions
and get in touch with other people whose ancestral
lines may cross your own.
Ancestry Search provides a searchable archive for both lists and the
Going online to get off-line
As much genealogical information as there is available
on the Web, eventually you'll want to venture off-line
in your pursuit of records.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one
of the best sources for genealogical information.
Everton's Genealogical Helper maintains a
state-by-state directory of Mormon church family
history centers for further research.
Louisiana State University's U.S. Civil War Center provides a state-by-state listing of archival resources .
If your local archive office does not have an index of
the records you're seeking or you can't get to the
archive, you may want to purchase an index of records
on CD-ROM. Several publishing houses offer indexes to
help you locate birth, death, marriage, census, land
and military records.
Broderbund's Family TreeMaker Online, a companion site
for Family Tree Maker software, lists dozens of CDs
available for purchase from the publishing company.
By now, you should be ready to begin digging for those
family roots. Happy hunting!
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