Baby Boomers, Fascinated by Tales of Their Famous and Infamous Ancestors, Have Made Genealogy One of America's Hottest Hobbies
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99
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Old-fashioned letter writing gets results, too. That's how Cyndi Howells became addicted to genealogy. Though she's now one of the nation's experts in online family research--she runs the Cyndi's List Web site and wrote Netting Your Ancestors: Genealogical Research on the Internet--it was a mailing campaign that helped her piece together the story of her third great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran named Xerxes Knox. Starting with just a few names and dates, she connected the strands of his tale by sending for his pension application, war records, company muster rolls and other military documents.
The story she discovered amazed her. She found out that Knox was captured in Arkansas by the Confederate army, forced to march to Texas and incarcerated in a POW camp. He then made a daring escape, eluded bloodhounds, and survived a two-hundred-mile-plus journey before eventually returning to Union lines.
What the Web is good for, explains Howells, is developing a network of contacts. Since going online, she's discovered 19 new cousins. "If you can trace your roots back to the War of 1812, you may find that someone else has already researched the line back to the Revolutionary War," she says. As for doing research on the Internet, says Howells, "checking primary documents is the only way to be absolutely certain you're not making errors." She recommends planning family vacations with a research goal in mind. Last year, while vacationing with her husband, she found herself on her hands and knees in a Mennonite cemetery in Rockingham County, Virginia, researching her grandmother's family. It was the best way to find new relatives, she says. Plus it was a good excuse to visit the state.
"I spent over three hours there. I discovered that the cemetery was filled with my ancestors," she recalls. "It was very emotional. I knew some names, but to actually be there was quite moving."
It's unlikely you'll make such an emotional connection online, says Howells. But the Internet can still get you started. As a key research tool for any genealogist, she recommends the Internet's newsgroups and mailing lists. Many are devoted to specific historical events or family lines. Mailing lists and newsgroups generally archive messages, enabling users to search them with keywords. The oldest and most popular list, ROOTS-L, allows subscribers to post queries for assistance and search archived messages for any text mentioned in any message. The lists can also help you learn about genealogical research methods and contact others who are researching your family line.
Suffice it to say, all this work can wear down even the most dogged detective. If you find yourself stumped or decide you've had enough, a professional genealogist may be worth hiring. Professionals tend to specialize. Some research medical and family health histories. Others offer expertise in legal or military records, geographic areas, ethnic groups or time periods. They can help you evaluate evidence from different sources, analyze your lineage and plan research strategies.
Roger Joslyn, a certified genealogist in New Windsor, New York, says clients hire him when they feel overwhelmed by the research. "A lot of clients have unusual requests," says Joslyn. "One client knew a revolver belonged to a great-uncle and he wanted me to find the story behind it. I had a name and an approximate time period around the 1700s and was able to trace the gun to the Isle of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast."
Professionals can also help you gather materials for membership in one of the nation's more than 100 hereditary societies. Such groups range from the esoteric (like the Flagon and Trencher's, which admits only descendants of Colonial tavern keepers) to more accessible organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The American Society of Genealogists' Timothy Beard has helped hundreds gain entrance to some of the nation's strictest societies. As the so-called gatekeeper and president for the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America, a group that can trace back its members' lineage to the eighth-century Frankish emperor Charlemagne, he's authenticated several hundred family histories for aspiring members.
"Many people have a name that wouldn't sound like royalty but really is," he says. "It may sound Italian or Jewish or French. Then you discover that through that person's grandmother he goes back to the Colonial period and then to kings or queens."
Beard has traced his own lineage to Clovis, the fifth-century king of Cologne. He's become so adept at chronicling family trees (he's been doing it since he was four, he says) that a glance is sometimes all it takes for him to validate certain lines. "There are certain gateway ancestors when you get back into the seventeenth century," he explains. "I can look at these lines immediately and say, yes, that line goes back to Charlemagne or further."
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