- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

Julanne Myers has been putting together a puzzle for more than 20 years.

The branches of her family tree start in England and stretch to Virginia. It has taken hundreds of hours of research, but Mrs. Myers, of Alexandria, has found grandparents and great-grandparents, ordinary and infamous, settlers at Jamestown and Pilgrims from the Mayflower. She says genealogy has enabled her to touch her ancestors across time.

"Genealogy is geometric," Mrs. Myers says. "You start with two parents and four grandparents, then you have eight great-grandparents, and pretty soon you find there are 20,000 people you are related to. This hobby is all a big puzzle and a great mystery. But you can't do the edges of the puzzle first. It takes time to get there."

Genealogy is appealing, enthusiasts say, because it is your family at any moment of history. Here in America, we all came from somewhere else. Whether from 17th-century Scotland or the Ivory Coast or a Polish village, ancestors have a story to tell.

For those trying to find out exactly when Grandma came through Ellis Island or where Great-Grandpa was married, access to information has never been easier, thanks to the Internet. Genealogical Web sites can give novices pointers on how to get started and maps to show the towns from which relatives came. They even enable researchers to call up vital records and share information with other genealogists.

"In the past, when a genealogist was searching for information on a given ancestor, it would take years to exhaust all the records," says Rhonda R. McClure, a Florida genealogist and the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy." "Using the Internet means genealogists can search out leads to their ancestors in a much easier and faster fashion. Genealogists are in communication with each other like never before."

Still, Ms. McClure says that to do thorough research, a genealogist still needs to visit libraries and historical societies as well. Records typically found online are abstracts, summaries and databases rather than images of the original documents. Accurate records need that documentation, Ms. McClure says.

"It is still important that primary documents are investigated, which can only be done by viewing microfilm," she says.

The Washington area is a popular spot for genealogy enthusiasts, says Chuck Mason, president of the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society. The Library of Congress, the National Archives and the extensive library at the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution provide a wealth of information for those seeking their roots.

Some 120 million Americans have expressed interest in finding out more about their roots in the past five years, according to Maritz Marketing, a research firm. Whether that means punching your surname into a search engine or spending hours in the stacks at the Library of Congress, genealogical interest has grown by a third since 1995.

"Part of the appeal is that connection is very important," Mrs. Myers says. "We all want to believe we are part of something, especially since September 11. We are all Americans. We all came from someplace else. That doesn't make you any less American."

Getting started

The best place to begin searching for family members is by noting what you already know and then talking to living family members before it is too late, says Kory Meyerink, a professional genealogist in Salt Lake City. It may be helpful to tape or videotape your interview.

When talking to relatives, ask questions such as:

•When and where were you born?

•Where did you grow up?

•When and where were you married?

•Whom did you marry? What was his or her full name?

•How many children did you have? What were their full names?

•What were your parents' full names? When and where were they born?

•What do you know about your grandparents?

•Do you have any family Bibles, papers or photographs?

Even if some people have forgotten exact details, asking more specific questions may get relatives, particularly elderly relatives, talking about family memories. Instead of asking general questions such as, "Tell me about your childhood," ask what Christmas was like the year of the big blizzard or what Grandma made for Sunday dinner. Specifics like that may jog memories of people they have not thought of in years, Ms. McClure says.

The next step is to fill out a genealogical chart, using as many exact names and dates as you know. Start filling in the blanks with documentation in the generations closest to yours. The documentation birth certificates; marriage certificates; the Social Security Death Index, a database that confirms the date and place in which someone died; and U.S. census information, for instance will verify that the relatives you find are, indeed, your relatives. This will prevent you from spending time chasing down the wrong branches, Mr. Meyerink says.

Getting official documentation usually will cost money. All states charge for copies, usually between $10 and $30.

"Genealogy is as expensive or as inexpensive as you want it to be," says Bonnie Ferguson Butler, an Alexandria woman who has traced her roots and those of her husband back several centuries. She counts 550 ancestors for her young son, Jasper.

Mrs. Butler also suggests writing down all the family stories, most of which likely will be part truth and part fable.

"See what elements of the story you can seek to verify in the future," Mrs. Butler says. "My great-grandmother always said she had one grandfather who fought for the South in the Civil War and the other fought for the North. We can try and verify this story with military service records for them, plus attempt to figure out why a man from North Carolina might wind up in the Union Army. In this case, genealogy combines history, sociology, psychology and geography."

Going to the sources

The world's largest database of genealogical information has been compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City contains more than 2 million rolls of microfilmed records and 300,000 books about people of many faiths and nationalities.

Some information is available online at the Family History Library's Web site (www.familysearch.org). Library materials also may be searched at one of the Family History Library's 3,400 local Family History Centers.

Some of the most helpful documents can be found in public records, Mr. Meyerink says. Many of them are available through the Family History Centers, but also in local libraries and historical societies. One of the comprehensive genealogy Web sites such as Genealogy.com, Rootsweb.com, CyndisList.com or Ancestry.com can offer guidance on more individual challenges, such as finding records in foreign countries.

Some items that offer information:

•Vital records. Many states and counties have birth, death and marriage certificates that still exist, either in original form or on microfilm. They are excellent sources for confirming names and dates. Outside the United States, these records are called civil registration records.

•Religious records. In Early American communities and in Europe, church records began long before government registration.

•Cemetery records. Searching these, genealogists often can find confirmation of dates, marriages and military service.

•Census records. Professional genealogists call the census invaluable. Each one contains names, ages, birthplaces and relationships of relatives. Depending on the questions asked by the census taker, the entry could reveal other clues to the past, such as when they arrived in this country, how they made a living and where they resided.

•Military records. Because millions of Americans have served in the armed forces, the chances usually are good that there is some record of your relatives, Ms. McClure says.

•Newspapers. Newspapers are living historical records, she says. Not only do they contain obituaries, which offer great details about the past, but your relatives may have been mentioned in any number of ways, from winning the county spelling bee to being tried as an accused spy.

•Probate records and land records. These records can help you find how your ancestors lived and to whom they passed their possessions when they died.

•Immigration records. Immigration records can be the first link to clues such as the names of the towns and countries the people came from and how old they were when they arrived. At the official Web site for Ellis Island (www.ellisislandrecords.org), where millions of immigrants first entered this country, you even can find out the name of the ship on which your ancestors sailed.

•Family mementos. For many families, some of the best documents are already in their possession. Family Bibles might have details of births and marriages. Photos may have notes jotted on the back that describe who is in the picture and what year it was taken. That sort of documentation is important to do even now, Mr. Meyerink says. He says scrapbooks and photos should be kept in a manner so that all the details will be available generations from now.

"Keeping records now is the most valuable thing you can do for future generations who want to know their family history," he says.

Special challenges

Tracing the roots of some ethnic groups may be more difficult, but certainly not impossible. For blacks, for instance, genealogy becomes complicated because marriages of slaves were not legally recognized, nor were surnames. For Jews, there often is an assumption that the records of ancestors were destroyed during the Holocaust, says Gary Mokotoff, an author and lecturer on Jewish genealogy who has traced his family to Poland in the 1700s.

"So many people say, 'Sure, I could trace my roots in the United States, but once I get to Poland or the Ukraine, I am not going to find anything,'" Mr. Mokotoff says. "That is an absolute myth. Most Jewish things were destroyed, but the civil records of that town are still there. One of the most remarkable aspects of our history is that archivists have managed to keep records intact."

Joining a local genealogy organization particular to the geographical area one wants to search can be a valuable asset for any amateur genealogist, Mr. Mokotoff says. For those in an ethnic group, it is essential, he adds.

"There are more than 80 highly organized Jewish genealogy societies throughout the world," he says. "When you find a local genealogy society, join it. You can find incredible support by talking to others who are looking for the same thing as you."

Mr. Mokotoff advises those searching for records in foreign countries not to be daunted by language barriers. By learning the spelling of a few key phrases the spelling of the family name, along with mother, father, birth and death dates a person can find what he or she needs.

It also is not necessary, in most cases, to travel to those countries, Mr. Mokotoff says. He found the death records of his four Polish grandfathers at one of the LDS Family History Centers in New York City.

Sometimes it does make sense to call in an expert, however. Professional genealogists paid, experienced researchers who have passed a professional standards exam can help when your own research has hit a dead end. When you need to do research in another state or country, a professional genealogist familiar with the area can be helpful.

"It is like anything else," Mr. Mokotoff says. "If you are building an addition to your house, you might be able to do some of it, but at some point, you may need a carpenter."

There also may be some point when uncovering family history leads to excavating skeletons from the closet. Unfortunately, it's all part of the puzzle.

"No one wants their grandfather to be a horse thief," Mr. Mokotoff says. "Everyone wants their great-grandfather to be one. The further away stories like that are, they add color. The closer they are, they might be painful. I say if no one living will be personally affected by that information, go ahead and use it."

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