The New York Times (nytimes.com)
August 18, 2007
Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know
By ELLEN ROSEN
Katherine Holden’s family had long kept what she called “a deep dark secret.” When the family discussed its roots, there were hints, but no outright discussion, of a great-grandmother who had lived in South Dakota and was the equivalent of native royalty: the putative daughter of an American Indian chief.
But her family never spoke in detail of their heritage, and it was only when Dr. Holden, a Connecticut physician, became interested in her family tree that she verified her lineage.
“I was fairly surprised to find her name in the 1900 U.S. Census in an American Indian orphanage under her childhood name,” she said.
Armed with that knowledge and “bits and pieces of information” she and her sister had gleaned as children, she tried to confirm her hunch. A simple $250 DNA test this year, the latest in the arsenal of ancestry tools, confirmed that she was, in fact, “12 percent American Indian.”
Researching their roots has become a passion for many Americans like Dr. Holden. As Web sites and genealogical societies proliferate and DNA testing becomes more widely available, the tools for tracing a family tree are becoming more accessible — and the hunt is often intriguing. A bit of online detective work can yield a significant amount of information for little or nothing. But for extensive or difficult searches, the cost in money and time can mount.
Robert Kraus, a retired New Jersey businessman who began to research his family’s past in 1985, said, “You can dip your toe in the water for $100 and stop there or you can spend a couple of thousand dollars.”
Genealogy specialists recommend that novices begin by gathering information from relatives. That initial data can be entered on one of several sites that let users create family trees.
Ancestry.com — the most widely used — is the flagship site of Generations Network in Provo, Utah, which also owns Genealogy.com, a rival site, and Myfamily.com, which is essentially a family networking site. According to its chief executive, Tim Sullivan, Ancestry.com has 800,000 paying subscribers and 14 million registered users.
The site has free content, including a family tree maker, but also lets users search immigration, census and military records for fees that depend on the level of records sought. Family Tree Maker, a software program for use in personal computers, is part of the company as well, Mr. Sullivan said.
Another company, Onegreatfamily.com, also lets users create family trees and aims to share work with other genealogists, according to its chief executive, Dale H. Munk. “In genealogy, there is a tremendous amount of duplicated effort,” he said. “You and I could be working on the same family without knowing it.”
Mr. Munk’s company’s site, which charges a range of subscription fees, will automatically merge family trees once it finds a common ancestor.
The proliferation of sites did not deter David O. Sacks, the former chief operating officer of PayPal, from creating a new entrant this year. His interest in his family history inspired him to design a site combining genealogy software with the ability to network with relatives — essentially a Facebook for families.
The site, www.geni.com, allows users to create a family tree and to post photos, send messages and write free profiles. Mr. Sacks says that his site’s success depends on what is known in the online industry as viral growth, as users invite others to join by sending links to the site. Since its January introduction, Mr. Sacks says the site has attracted approximately 500,000 users.
While the Web sites are very popular, they have their limits; some documents, like marriage records or baptism records, are not easily found online if at all. Many of these records have not been digitized or even microfilmed.
To tap all the resources, “you may need to travel and go to where the records are,” like the towns where the original documents exist, says Thomas W. Jones, a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, who edits The National Genealogical Quarterly.
Sometimes, online resources are not enough. In that instance, dedicated amateur genealogists and professionals alike are likely to turn to the millions of records housed in Salt Lake City at the Family History Library, which has extensive genealogical records from all over the world on microfilm.
The center, run by the Mormon Church, is nondenominational, and has records for many religions and nationalities. It has outposts in other cities as well, where research can be done.
Several firms and genealogical societies sponsor fact-finding trips to Salt Lake City. Avotaynu, an organization based in New Jersey that specializes in Jewish genealogy, has published a host of books on research. Its director, Gary Mokotoff, and his associate, Eileen Polakoff, accompany about 40 people to Utah each year to do research. The trips, apart from airfare, meals and incidental expenses, cost $770 to $985, including hotel accommodations, lectures and research assistance.
Susan Berkson of Minneapolis recently returned from a five-day trip to the library, sponsored by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The trip, excluding hotel and travel expenses, cost $275.
Ms. Berkson said that there were “instructive seminars on how to do general and specialized searches and how to use the library; and the library has staff genealogists and missionary volunteers help you as well at no charge.”
As a result of her trip, Ms. Berkson learned the ancestral town of one branch of her family tree. “I found the ship that brought over my father’s family, how long it took and when it arrived. And I learned that my great-great-great grandfather and his son were in the cigar business in Pittsburgh.”
For those who have neither the time nor the patience to undertake the research themselves, another option is to hire a professional genealogist. Rates range from $25 an hour in small towns to well in excess of $100 an hour in major metropolitan centers.
Finding a professional can be tricky. Experts advise contacting local genealogical societies that often can provide referrals. (A complete list can be found at the site run by the Federation of Genealogical Societies, www.fgs.org.) Additionally, the Board for Certification of Genealogists certifies genealogists who complete a qualification process that includes testing on their ability to research records.
Another source, the Association of Professional Genealogists, at www.apgen.org, does not vet its members, but those who join must agree to a code of ethics and accept mediation of any disputes with a client, says its executive director, Kathleen W. Hinckley.
Before getting started, Mr. Jones, the genealogy quarterly editor, said “clients should collect what they can from the family, like family bibles or oral history.”
Ms. Hinckley added: “Just knowing you’re from Germany or Ireland won’t work. You need a city or province or something specific.”
Family names can be misleading, she said, adding that a common misconception is that families changed their names at Ellis Island. Family names, she said, were changed either before emigration or after families arrived in the United States.
Whether the research is do-it-yourself or done by a professional, expenses can mount because of the time involved. Mr. Jones said that the hours add up because every discovery of a relative leads to two more questions — the ancestor’s parents.
Dr. Holden said she had spent hundreds of hours since she became serious about genealogy. “I do it in fits and spurts,” she explained. For a time, she “spoke on a daily basis to a cousin I had never met.”
“We were consumed by finding our story,” she said. “I felt like Nancy Drew, it was exciting.”
Adds Mr. Kraus: “if you’re successful in the early stages, it’s like salted peanuts. Once you start, you won’t stop.”