Going online to mine wealth of genealogy data

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Tracing one's family background is becoming an even more popular -- and somewhat less arduous -- pastime.

The widespread desire to dig up information that goes back generations has spawned more than 250,000 genealogy Web sites, according to cyndislist.com, an index of Web-based genealogical resources. Offline, the publisher of Family Chronicle and History Magazine launched in March Internet Genealogy magazine, a six-times-a-year publication that racked up 10,000 subscribers by July, nine months sooner than expected, according to publisher and editor Halver Moorshead.

"Genealogy is very suitable for the Internet," Mr. Moorshead says. "Not only are you getting information, but also contacting people from all over the world."

Genealogy is also big business. Most genealogy Web sites grant access for a price, some costing as much as $360 a year. This means a roots-research hobby can quickly turn into an expensive habit. Before clicking onto the Internet and paying for access to a world's worth of records, first go local, experts recommend. Hit up any living relatives for dates, names, birth towns, occupations, and historical details such as time spent in military service. Then reach out to the hometown library or historical society for more background information. Once armed with all that can be gathered locally, you'll be better equipped to navigate all that is online.

Before opening our wallets to one of the fee-based Web sites, we tried four free sites to research our husband's genealogy. Armed with only his paternal grandfather's name, James Jewel, his date of birth, 1910, and the first name of his spouse, Evelyn, we started our search. With these sites, we got what we paid for -- just a smidgen more though we pulled up many a James Jewels and James Jewells. Ultimately, we turned to one of the many fee-based Web sites, ancestry.com, in order to easily search invaluable databases like the U.S. census from 1790 to 1930. Membership may seem pricey but what we were able to access was eye-opening -- and time-consuming. Finding the right James Jewel required weeks, not just the five hours we had set aside that day. Genealogy is not for the time-pressed.

We first checked out the free Familysearch.org, maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which encourages members to maintain a family tree. When we typed in James Jewel, many James Jewels and James Jewells came up organized by databases like the 1880 U.S. Census and the U.S. Social Security Death Index. However, it wasn't until we added the name of his spouse, Evelyn, that we located the correct ancestor.

Even then, the information was very basic. We learned our ancestor was born in New York in 1910, died in 1985 (which no one in the family could remember) and the names of his parents, Lena Cane and Martin Daus Jewel. However, it incorrectly pronounced that he had no children. We struck out with the expanded search options (searching the church's Family History library for written family histories, and searching other Web sites); still, it was a good jumping-off point.

For many Americans, Ellis Island was the entry point to the American Dream. So we turned to Ellisisland.org and its database of ship manifests to learn more about ourselves. Although registration is required, the information is free.

After providing the site with our name, email address, a user name and a password, we plugged in James Jewel and obtained 24 possibilities with the exact surname and 374 with similar spellings. (If you're not sure about the spelling, you can search the Web site's entire collection of 25 million records with the "sounds like" function.) While we didn't locate any more details about James or parents Lena and Martin, we were still thrilled to read about the history of other Jewels (and possible relatives), garnering little details like where they came from and how old they were when they arrived in the U.S. We could also view (and for $10 to $25, buy in most cases) a copy of the actual ship's manifest and a photo of the transporting ship.

Jewishgen.org is a free, no-registration-required site. But be prepared to be patient. When we typed in Evelyn Jewel, our spouse's Jewish grandmother, we pulled up a mixed bag of information, culled from records from the Holocaust, shtetls, cemeteries, and genealogists from JewishGen, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. Still, the breadth of data from the 171 matches impressive. We pulled up references to Evelyn Jewels of Polish, South African, even Belarusian descents. A brief conversation with our in-laws unearthed the fact that she was Danish. If we had the time, we would have reached out to the Jewishgen community to do more digging.

With databases that total three billion names, Ancestry.com is the granddaddy of genealogy Web sites. But before shelling out the nearly $200 membership fee, it's good to first check out the free sister Web site Rootsweb.com, which allows users to call up research already done by other genealogists and post what they've discovered. Plugging in James Jewel brought up 126 dead and living matches from 45 databases. While information from some sources, like RootsWeb's own "World Connect Project," are very barebones, others, like Cemetery Listings, are rich in detail.

Still, after sifting through all the matches, we didn't locate the right James Jewel on Rootsweb.com so we turned to Ancestry.com. Despite the hefty fee (the basic package of $12.95 a month works out to be $155.40 a year), we obtained more than 200 matches from the site's Historical Records category alone (although some entries had the wrong first names). Unwilling to slog through all that, we contacted our father-in-law to narrow our search parameters with any details he could remember, like his father's middle name and the state he was born in -- details we also learned from familysearch.org.

When we also clicked on "exact matches" (or five stars), we pulled up the more manageable number of one. But when we still located the wrong ancestor, we sifted through possibilities that were four stars or less, which still took some work. Some four hours later and after no success, we decided to search other databases like the the newspaper and periodical holdings, but were overwhelmed to discover 15,058 James Jewel references. The site is so easy to use that it's tempting to type in a minimal amount of information. But unless you have weeks of free time and a superfast Internet connection, you'll want to refine your search. And don't be afraid to hit up the help desk. Ancestry.com called us within 24 hours of signing up to give us advice on how to begin our search.


WEB SITE: Familysearch.org
COST: Free. Registration or affiliation to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not required.
KEY FEATURES: Search databases like the 1881 British Census and the International Genealogy Index and other Web sites as well as connect with other researchers.
COMMENT: This easy-to-navigate site is a smart starting point. And the price can't be beat.

WEB SITE: Ellisisland.org
COST: Free upon registration.
KEY FEATURES: Read and purchase 25 million ship manifests. Photos of vessels are also available for purchase.
COMMENT: For Ellis Island descendants, this is an important, and easy- to-use, research tool.

WEB SITE: Jewishgen.org
COST: Free
KEY FEATURES: Access to research already done by professional genealogists as well as information dating back to the 1800s.
COMMENT: Documents and research from a variety of sources are just a click away at a steal.

WEB SITE: Rootsweb.com
COST: Free
KEY FEATURES: Connect with other genealogists by uploading your information, posting on message boards, even building a Web site.
COMMENT: An interesting mix of information that is worth the free membership.

WEB SITE: Ancestry.com
COST: $12.95 to $29.95 a month after a 14-day free trial. A call to 800-558-0078 is required to cancel.
KEY FEATURES: Entree to databases like the U.S. census records from 1790 to 1930 and newspaper articles as far back as 1700s. Also connect with other members and have new information (like obits) emailed to you.
COMMENT: For those serious about building their family trees.



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