Digging down to family roots
Internet's easy access has pumped new life into ancestor research.
My ancestor Lambert Van Valkenburg came to the New World from Holland sometime between 1642 and 1644. He settled in New Amsterdam, where he bought about 50 acres, roughly where the Empire State Building sits today.Skip to next paragraph
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But Lambert apparently was a restless sort. A couple of years later, he sold off that prime real estate and headed up the Hudson River to try out life in Fort Orange, near where present-day Albany sits. His Manhattan land, meanwhile, went to a fellow by the name of Claes Martensen van Rosenvelt, ancestor of the Roosevelt family.
While many of the Van Valkenburgs spent the next seven or eight generations quietly living in the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains, the Roosevelts made a bigger splash. And now I'm wondering if Lambert could take the blame for the worst land deal since the Indians sold Manhattan for $24.
What's amazing was that I found all these details with a few clicks of the mouse, and now I've developed a fascination with genealogical research. Apparently, I'm not alone.
Recent television shows like NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" and the growing sophistication of digitization, search engines, and DNA research mean that Americans are embracing their families' pasts more than ever.
In addition, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates has done genealogical research through two TV programs tracing the history of notable African-Americans and a second program last year called "Faces of America," tracing the genealogy of prominent Americans. Professor Gates learned, for instance, that he has more than 50 percent European ancestry, far more than he ever thought.
Where to surf for ancestors
The amount of genealogical material available grows daily. Some sites provide limited or short-term memberships. Warning: It's hard to ignore that great-grandfather once you get started!
• The Library of Congress's local history and genealogy reading room has extensive bibliographies, maps, and other material available on site and also a link to online databases that are free for those who do their research at the library (www.loc.gov/rr/genealogy/).
•The National Archives is a wealth of federal records, including census, immigration, and land deeds. The site also offers online research tools and help for those who visit the archives or one of its branches (www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/index).
•Footnote.com provides more than 30 million historical documents in partnership with the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Some archives offer free access.
•Geneasearch offers some free databases and fun details like "lost female ancestors." Be careful, though: To sign up for a seven-day "free trial," you have to type in a credit-card number and will be billed if you don't cancel after seven days (geneasearch.com).
•The service provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes all its records available free of charge. It's described as the largest family-search organization in the world (familysearch.org).
•The USGenWeb Project describes itself as volunteers providing free genealogical research through states and counties (usgenweb.org).
•Ancestry.com is becoming the granddaddy of all research sites, with links to rootsweb, a free online community and message board (www.rootsweb.ancestry.com), family tree maker, and DNA research. A 12-month subscription is $159, although some services are free.