Digging down to family roots

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

Ashley Judd appeared with history professor Anthony Milton on the NBC television show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ earlier this season. Versions of the show, originally from Britain, air in a dozen countries.

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.

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.

The NBC show features celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell, who discovered a long-lost branch of her family, or Steve Buscemi, who learned of an ancestor who was a deserter in the Civil War.

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.

"Genealogy has exploded," says James Sweany, head of the local history and genealogy reading room at the Library of Congress.

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.

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.

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.

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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