Joe Felt hadn't seen his sister since they had been separated during the Great Depression, in 1932. With no definite name or birth date to search for, he had, at 70, almost given up hope of finding his long-lost sibling. Until he logged on to rootsweb.com, one of the leading genealogy sites on the Internet.
"Before the Internet," Mr. Felt explains, "there was no place where other people would know of your search." A newly found niece recognized Joe's entry on a surname list, and within months, he was able to trace his sister. Joe flew from his home in Seattle to Florida, and after 66 years, the two siblings met in a tearful but joyous reunion.
Across the country, other families are linking up, thanks to the increasing number of genealogical resources available on the Internet. With more than 2,000 sites, genealogy is one of the fastest-growing fields on the Web. When the largest repository of genealogical information in the world, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints launched a Web site in May, the demand was so high that excessive traffic brought the site down. But it now has over 200,000 registered users and gets between 8 and 10 million hits a day.
Genealogy has always been a popular hobby, but it may have found the perfect partner in the Internet. "The Internet is almost as if it was designed for the genealogist," says Paul Nauta, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based church.
When Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, made his invention public, he said it would be "a way of proliferating business, commerce, and family."
"The Web may finally be achieving this through genealogy," Mr. Nauta says.
Online genealogy research has already changed many lives across the country. "It gave me a family I never had," says Felt. "All these years I had that big hole. Now, I have a sister again and three new nieces and nephews. It has made my life much more complete."
Online roots-seeking is also bringing families together in many different ways. Older people, who form the majority of genealogy buffs, are not always prone to using computers and Internet technology. That's where the younger generation can help.
When Rhonda Williams, a financial adviser, asked her father about his plans for the following year, he said he wanted a family. Now 69, he had been adopted in 1930, and all he had to start his quest was a handwritten letter from his grandfather. He thought his situation was hopeless, but his daughter was able to find his birth mother's husband on the Social Security Death Index at ancestry.com
"I found my dad's family in the span of three very short months," says Mrs. Williams. But beyond the mere technical support she supplied, she says she feels closer to her father, who now has a half-brother whom he has gotten to know.
"It has been great watching the transformation of my father. He had always been on the outside of the family, never really accepted, but since this connection, he can feel loved and wanted. It means a lot to me, too," she says.
Williams now takes notes and records the details of her research with a Dictaphone, as she looks deeper into her family tree, "to give to my kids, so they can see the importance of family," she says.
It may be among the offspring of such reunited family members that online genealogy is having its greatest impact. The discovery of a new cousin, sibling, or branch of the family nearly always gives birth to correspondence and the desire to learn more about one's relatives.
Meeting a long-lost brother or sister after half a century of separation is an emotional experience, but it isn't the average Internet user's story. "Cyber-rooting" is simply reviving people's family awareness.
"Everyone can be interested in genealogy; we all want to know where we come from," says Elizabeth Crowe, the author of the bestselling book "Genealogy Online."
"As the new millennium approaches, people look back and think: 'Wow! All these centuries of human beings and events led to me,'" she explains.
Ms. Crowe thinks the positive effects this growing phenomenon can have on the family are huge. "It's a good thing," she says. "Finding out about the family stories makes us feel more connected and grounded. It gives perspective to our lives and an understanding of the forces of history."
There can also be surprises in genealogical research, as Gerry Anderson of the New England Historical Genealogical Society warns. "The most accessible records are usually very silent about what really happened to your ancestors," he says.
You may learn your great-grandfather was a convict and that all the wonderful success stories of the family that you heard in your childhood were only legends, for example.
Often carefully concealed in the records, and protected by privacy laws, adoption can be a challenging discovery. When you think you know where you come from, finding out your grandfather was illegitimate, or that your family doesn't have the ethnic background you thought can change your perspective.
Internet genealogy is giving meaning to the interaction between family and history. Why did your ancestors move west 200 years ago? Was there a row in the family? Did your great-great-great grandmother have an affair, or was it the Gold Rush?
For Gaylene Bordeaux of Natick, Mass., researching her family tree is like following the history of the US. She sees online genealogy more as a hobby than an identity quest: "It's good for people who like history, solving puzzles, and mysteries," she says, "but also if you just like chatting with people you have something in common with."
She devotes several hours a week to her research on the Web, but it has also put family back at the top of her agenda. "I discovered six cousins I didn't know about on the Web," she says, "and now we correspond regularly. They are like pen pals."
When Ms.Williams, who lives in Chicago, discovered a new branch of her family from Alabama, she thought there might be a cultural difference to bridge.
However, she found that "e-mail is so easy to use, it was faster than I thought. It's been neat to see my kids be interested in someone who is not a Yankee," she says. "The two sides of the family have very much adopted each other."
Genealogy Web resources
The Internet offers millions of records, from the Social Security index to Army and wedding registers. Here are some of the genealogy Web sites that will help you know where to start:
Other useful sites:
Because only one record in a thousand available appears on the Web, you can't do all your research online. There is some information you will find only by doing your own investigation where your ancestors lived, but here are a few places you might want to check:
*The local public library
*The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston (www.nehgs.org)
*The National Archives and Records Administration in Washington (www.nara.gov)
*The Family History Library in Salt Lake City or any Family History Center near you (www.lds.org)
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society