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Use the Web to solve your identity crisis

helms.genealogytoolbox 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 be.

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 Sarah?)

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.

Online records

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 rule.

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 Index.

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 networking.

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 Soc.Geneaology.Surnames newsgroup.

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!


Related sites:

Cyndi's List of Genealogical Sites on the Internet -- 13,500 links and counting. Organized into 60 categories and updated almost daily.

Worldwide Genealogical Resources -- From IRLGEN, a site for Irish genealogy, but links apply to numerous regions and nationalities.

Genealogist's Guide to the Internet from NetGuide -- Comprehensive list those sites are not hyperlinked.
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