Digging down to family roots
Internet's easy access has pumped new life into ancestor research.
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The National Archives in Washington, D.C., recently hosted its seventh annual genealogy fair. Seven years ago, says Diane Dimkoff, director of customer services for the archives, 700 people attended the first fair. This year, nearly 5,400 visitors came.Skip to next paragraph
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Ancestry.com, a company that allows visitors to create a family tree free of charge, now has 24 million family trees on its website. "Literally billions of records have been put online in the last couple of years," says Josh Hanna, executive vice president and general manager of Ancestry.com.
Much of the credit for the current interest in genealogy harks back to 1976, when author Alex Haley published his groundbreaking book "Roots," followed by the 1977 TV miniseries. But, says Mr. Hanna, "the trouble with 'Roots' was that you couldn't do much about [research] other than stumble through archives."
Then along came the Internet, affording users the ability to conduct searches anytime and dig up documents, photos, and more. As the sophistication of Web searches grows along with the mountains of documents available, so does the fascination.
I'm certainly captured. As for Lambert, I've already discovered some compelling details. After he, his wife, and possibly a child or two moved to Fort Orange, Lambert was appointed to the "rattle guard," the policemen of the day who walked the streets of Fort Orange with wooden rattles as they looked for fire, thieves, and "all forms of unruly nighttime activities and breaches of the peace," according to the book "The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America," by Jaap Jacobs.
Part of that tidbit came from a search on Google Books, an ambitious project that seeks to digitize and make available all of the world's books no longer protected by copyright laws and those a publisher has given them the right to scan. Google announced last October that it had already scanned 15 million books out of the estimated 150 million books in the world, although a court ruling in March might put a damper on how many copyrighted books will be available this way.
At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., history professor Daniel Carpenter is painstakingly digitizing millions of signatures to the multitude of petitions Americans have made since the nation's founding. Inside the walls of the National Archives, he says, there are probably 100 million to 300 million signatures on petitions that called for the end to slavery, suffrage for women, the regulation of alcohol, and religious freedom.
And, Professor Carpenter says, finding an ancestor's name on a petition "gives more of a context and meaning to the birth, death, and marriage records, the usual family history searches." After all, if Great-Aunt Martha was leading petition drives in the antislavery movement, suddenly her descendants can imagine her as a living, breathing person.
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.