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Family Trees

Baby Boomers, Fascinated by Tales of Their Famous and Infamous Ancestors, Have Made Genealogy One of America's Hottest Hobbies
Daren Fonda
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

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Demographics may also have a lot to do with it. With older baby boomers approaching retirement age, the roots quest has taken on fresh urgency for millions. "As we get older we get more interested in reflecting on our own life experiences and placing them in historical context," says Ralph Crandall, executive director of the 153-year-old New England Historic Genealogical Society. In the last decade, membership in the society, the world's largest and oldest, has risen 65 percent, to 17,500. Crandall speculates that restless boomers are seeking ways to form closer bonds with the past. "It's a way of resisting the rootlessness in our society," he says. "It's a struggle against anonymity. For many people, it's become important to establish their place in their family, and they want to pass down that knowledge."

Thanks to the digital revolution, genealogical research is easier to do. New computer software has simplified the sometimes daunting task of keeping track of relatives separated by time and geography. Broderbund's Family Tree Maker, a best-selling program, enables users to organize kin on graphically intuitive trees; its deluxe edition includes a CD-ROM packed with genealogical databases. With more than 2 million copies sold, it's become one of the company's most popular items. The software's online component has won fans, too, allowing users to set up a home page and search the Web for other amateur genealogists who may be tracing the same surnames.

The Internet has also become a genealogical mecca. With thousands of sites added daily, it offers family historians an array of valuable resources. Many researchers use it to find records and make contacts that would otherwise require lengthy letter writing campaigns or trips to remote archives. At one site (, researchers can access the Social Security Death Index, an archive of more than 60 million death-benefit payment records from 1937 on. Privately operated sites offer even more help. Cyndi's List (, one of the Web's largest genealogy portals, links more than 41,700 sites (and counting)--from societies of Huguenots to Mennonites and Native Americans.

Beginners have been known to abandon their searches at the first sign of so-called brick walls: family branches that lead nowhere or relatives who apparently vanish without leaving behind a scrap of evidence. To avoid getting discouraged, experts recommend planning a strategy and sticking with it. They also issue a mantra for the chronically discombobulated: stay organized. Genealogical research can easily degenerate into a morass of hand-scrawled notes needing a cryptographer to decode.

Even if you have only a few names or dates, plot them on a pedigree chart. Ideally, start by locating primary documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death records. Make copies of the originals and keep them in separate folders for each relative. Then mark your progress on a master chart. Interview relatives; ask them when and where their ancestors were born, married and died; who may have owned land or a business. Look for scraps of memorabilia, anything from old family Bibles to baseball cards, diaries, monogrammed dishes, military citations and immigration papers. An online directory called Switchboard ( carries telephone numbers and addresses of more than 120 million U.S residents; if you're looking for an uncommon name, it's a good place to start.

Another treasure trove is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The library, whose records can be accessed at 3,200 centers around the world, contains a staggering 2 billion names, with millions more added each year by 75 research teams microfilming records from more than 100 countries. The church compiles records of previously conducted research and keeps copies of birth and death certificates, church registers, census schedules, military files and immigration lists. Some documents date back to the sixteenth century. To request a record, visit any family history center (listed on the church's Web site, and fill out a form; within a few weeks, a microfiche or microform will be sent to that center, where you can examine it for free.

Once you've focused on a particular branch to research, genealogists recommend working backwards in time. Searching for the last vital event in a person's life--his or her death--often reveals clues to earlier events. Even divorce records are sometimes classified as vital and may be tracked down in church archives, though more often you'll find them in courthouse records. On the Web, the USGenweb Project ( a noncommercial, volunteer site, provides links to state and county archives and resources. It provides names, addresses and phone numbers of local societies, libraries and county registries that can help you avoid considerable legwork. The site also offers advice on how to locate vital records.

Another good starting place is the Web site (, which contains a large collection of free records, live chat rooms organized by state and country, message boards, and subscription-based access to more than 750 databases. Among the offerings are indexes of pre-1850 U.S. marriage records, immigration records that date to the early seventeenth century, and the Social Security Death Index.

Working on the Internet does pose certain problems. Information exchanged online is often notoriously unreliable. A cyberspace name and date may be a poor replica of its paper-and-ink version. Facts can be distorted quite easily. Another drawback to Internet research is the lack of substantive content on the Web. Unless someone has traced your family's roots and placed a history online, you're unlikely to find much specific information about your ancestors. Some private companies archive information and post it on the Web, charging a fee for access. Unfortunately, most public institutions lack the funds to place their records online. That means a trip to the county clerk's office, library or local archive will still be necessary to examine and authenticate primary documents.

Where should you go? If you live near Washington, D.C., or one of the 12 branches of the National Archives and Records Administration, you can look through broad categories of documents such as federal census records through 1920, military service records, passenger and immigration arrival lists, federal court records, and documents relating to Native Americans and African-Americans. Once you've narrowed a family branch to a particular state and county, contact the regional historical society, which probably has a collection of old county maps and a written local history where your ancestor might show up. Town courthouses maintain marriage, divorce and probate records. Some public libraries keep county and state censuses. A church or synagogue may archive notices of baptisms or bar mitzvahs, respectively. State libraries generally house old newspapers, vital records and county information. You may find yourself rummaging through documents in all these locations.

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