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Digging down to family roots

Internet's easy access has pumped new life into ancestor research.

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While Carpenter's work is in the early stages, the Library of Congress has embraced genealogy for a long time. Tucked away on the basement level of the Thomas Jefferson building is the local history and genealogy reading room, where 6,000 books note everything from land sales to doctoral dissertations and family histories. The rise in the ability to search on the Internet has cut back on the number of readers perusing the shelves, says Mr. Sweany, but people are missing the wealth of material available only in book form. For example, the reading room offers actual evidence of Lambert's land holdings – a listing showing a land patent granted to him in 1647.

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For those who prefer to dig from home, the task grows easier by the day. With my own family, I've been helped by the National Association of the Van Valkenburg Family, since it turns out that just about every Van Valkenburg in this country descended from Lambert's son Jochem, who had 10 children.

Conducting a fairly easy search on the website Rootsweb.com, I discovered that Jochem's great-great-grandson (my great-great-great-grandfather Jacob) married a woman who was also a Van Valkenburg. But Permilla Van Valkenburg descended from Jochem's son Johannes, so the two were distant cousins. Sadly, an 1860 Census showed that Jacob, 53 at the time, listed a wife, Catherine. Permilla had died in 1855 at age 42, but not before bearing four children, including my great-great-grandfather Amasa Mattoon.

The National Association of the Van Valkenburg Family, founded in 1970, had a website as early as 1996. The group began when Robert Van Valkenburg, who traveled a great deal, would "grab a phone book" in a new city, look up the Van Valkenburgs listed, and introduce himself, says board member Rick van Valkenburg. Today, the NAVVF's Facebook site has expanded the reach of the group even more, he says.

My ancestors have been easy to find. African-Americans have a far more difficult task. Reginald Washington, a specialist in African-American genealogy at the National Archives, offers some creative techniques. For instance, former slave owners applied to the federal government for compensation for their ex-slaves. Freed slaves registered with the Freedmen's Bureau, which was set up to help them transition to an independent life. "They provided a good deal of information about themselves," says Mr. Washington, including naming their former owner.

One of the leaders in genealogical research is Ancestry.com. Type the names of your grandparents into its family tree maker, and all kinds of data pop up, from census material to ship passenger lists. With a click, I learned that my great-grandparents Omar and Leilah May were just 22 and listed 1899 as their year of marriage, the same year my grandfather was born – in April.

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.

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