Friday May 19, 9:07 pm ET
By Ronaleen R. Roha
Jackie Dennington is a family-history sleuth. Earlier this year she traveled from her home in Houston to the home of her husband's 82-year-old great-aunt, Henrietta Ricciuti, in Erie, Pa., to explore branches on the family tree. She identified "a wealth of family information," including faces in old photos, and she clarified who is related to whom.
Dennington got more than memories. Ricciuti has some original documents, such as the one from the Italian minister of the exterior, dated March 31, 1892, that granted Remigio Antonio Angelotti, Ricciuti's father, the right to emigrate to New York State. That simple yellowed paper is priceless to that branch of the Angelotti family. Dennington's goal is to find out where everyone in the family came from, but she says she's also "doing this for my daughters so they will know where they come from."
Family histories have become a national obsession, in part because the resources now available on the Internet have fanned mere curiosity into a passion for millions. According to Maritz Marketing, interest in genealogy has grown 33% in the past five years, with about 120 million people at least somewhat interested in their roots.
As with any hobby, there are costs involved, such as those for copies of birth and death certificates and for genealogy software that makes managing the whole task easier. And wherever there's that much demand, there are likely to be rip-offs. So don't think a postcard you receive in the mail offering your complete family history for $40 is anything more than a scam. It's likely nothing but a list of people with your surname gathered from phone books.
But you don't have to spend the family fortune to uncover your family history. By following some simple steps and knowing what resources are available, you can flesh out your family tree inexpensively. Dennington has spent only about $400 out-of-pocket in two years of digging.
Where do I start?
To begin, it's your family history and you already know a lot. A few basic guidelines should keep you on track. First, figure out what interests you. For example, says Kory Meyerink, senior researcher at ProGenealogists, a research firm in Salt Lake City, if you want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, focus on the branch of the family that was here during the Revolutionary War.
Always work backward in time, from the known to the unknown, starting with yourself and your siblings. Then start filling in the blanks by contacting relatives, and don't take anything for granted--try to prove that each person is really related to the others before you move on. If you don't, warns Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, you could spend time chasing a family line that isn't yours. "In genealogy we all have 'former' relatives," she says ruefully.
Next, go to government-created people finders. Dennington found the Angelotti family in U.S. Census data. She used the Social Security Death index--a list of those whose deaths (mostly after 1962) were reported to the Social Security Administration--and sent for social security card applications ($7 each).
Then, start exploring the civil records in places where your family members lived. This took Dennington to the courthouse and library in Erie.
Bless the Internet
Even professional genealogists bless the Internet. At many sites you can enter a name and automatically search several databases simultaneously.
But most of the genealogical data on the Internet is made up of abstracts--information extracted and summarized from original documents rather than the exact image of the original. Therefore, "use everything that you get on the Internet as clues to lead you to the original record," says Marcia Yannizze Melnyk, a genealogist and president of the Italian Genealogical Society of America.
Sometimes you can even use such clues to save money, she says. For example, although some sites, such as the excellent Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com;
$60 for an annual subscription), make the actual information in their databases available only by subscription, you can search the site free to find out which databases might have information useful to you. Once you see the list of databases that turns up in the search, she says, try to track them to other places where you can use them free, such as genealogical and public libraries. It may turn out to be more economical (and will certainly be more convenient) to pay a subscription site.
The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) houses the world's largest database of genealogical information, including more than two million rolls of scanned original documents. You can use the library free in Salt Lake City, or you can search its catalog online (www.familysearch.org
) or at an LDS Family History Center (there are more than 1,800 in the U.S.). Then you can have copies of microfilm sent to a local center for $3.25 per roll (call 800-346-6044 to find the nearest center).
Beyond the paper trail The newest way to find pieces of the genealogy puzzle is DNA testing. But this costly test shouldn't be first on your list. Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, a Houston company that offers such genealogical testing, says "genetics allows you to go beyond where the paper trail ends." For example, if two men who believe they are related match exactly on all 12 genetic markers on the Y chromosome in one of Family Tree DNA's tests, there is a 50% chance that they have a common ancestor somewhere in the past 14.5 generations, and a 90% chance that they have one within the past 48 generations. Since Family Tree DNA began testing last year, hundreds have used its do-it-yourself kits. The kits include two soft, brushlike swabs you use to rub the inside of your cheek to collect cells and sealed collection vials in which you return the swabs by mail. You get the results in six to eight weeks. The cost ranges from $219 to $319 per test.
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