April 15, 2007, 12:39PM
HIGH-TECH HELP FOR GENEALOGISTS
Online sites help family trees branch out
By ALEXIS GRANT
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Kenneth Higginbotham has been searching for his ancestors for more than 20 years, slowly learning about one branch after another of his family tree. And at Houston's genealogy library recently, he made a new discovery.
Using online resources, he found the name of a woman he believed to be his great-great-grandmother in just a few hours.
For amateur genealogists, cyberspace has added a new dimension, one that helps them accomplish more in less time. As the number of online genealogy Web sites grows, so does the community that practices the hobby and so do the family trees they uncover.
"You make your most gains online," said Higginbotham, 58, an east Harris County resident who has organized 18 generations of his family into a computer program. "It's a lot easier."
Researching a family tree used to be painfully slow and tedious. Amateurs could dig for months for paper records that promised to offer crucial facts about a relative's life, sometimes finding nothing at all.
But with Web sites dedicated to genealogy, some free and others for a fee, novices can share techniques and connect with distant relatives they likely wouldn't have found otherwise.
"It gives people instant gratification," said Jan Alpert, president of the National Genealogical Society. "So it's much more fun."
The hobby is still time-consuming, which likely is why it's most popular with retirees. But more college students and working folks, as well as newly retired baby boomers, also can search for their lineage because of the new resources available online.
Reason to travel
The pursuit has widespread appeal because everyone has the fundamental tool: a family history. It's easy to pick up the hobby for the first time, and researchers can abandon it, even for years, and seamlessly resume later. And tracking down records or cemetery plots is a good excuse to travel.
"When I was a little girl, I wanted to search for treasures," said Mary Ann Tantillo, a recently retired nurse from Sharpstown who fell in love with genealogy in the mid-1970s. "This is the closest thing there is."
Tantillo pays for a subscription to Ancestry.com, one of the most popular genealogy Web sites, which makes 4 billion birth, immigration, census and other records available with the click of a mouse.
Some genealogy sites allow researchers to link their family tree to those put together by others across the country or the globe, creating huge databases of intertwined families. Others are driven by message boards, where distant relatives connect with one another.
"We can find things by going online today that we wouldn't have had a hope of finding 10 years ago," said Lesley Douthwaite, a librarian at Houston's Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, a city-owned library and one of the largest family history centers in the country.
But while online resources can offer instant hits, Douthwaite cautioned that researchers who search only electronically may be missing out since many records still exist only in paper form or on microfilm.
"Really what is available online is just the very tip of the iceberg," she said.
Higginbotham warned of another pitfall: Online information can be wrong. So he worked in the library to verify the name of his great-great-grandmother the old-fashioned way, by combing through a thick book of Texas records.
Some ethnic or geographical backgrounds are more difficult to nail down on the Internet than others. African-Americans, for example, often hit a wall once they find a relative who was brought into slavery since it's sometimes impossible to figure out where they came from.
That's why some turn to sophisticated DNA testing instead. For several hundred dollars and a cheek-scraping sample, several companies will trace an individual's ancestry using the high-tech tool.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boasts the largest free collection of family-history records in the world at FamilySearch.org. The Mormon genealogy database, which includes physical records in Salt Lake City and other locations across the country, traces back to various parts of the world but has the most data for British ancestry, spokesman Paul Nauta said.
Other sites help researchers with a particular religious or ethnic background — Jewishgen.org, for example.
Finding distant cousins can offer more benefits than simply satisfying a hunger for knowledge. Victoria Harrison, a therapist who practices out of her home in the Heights, says it helps her clients shed light on personal issues such as marital or anxiety problems. She encourages patients to develop a family tree as part of their therapy.
"Making contact with relatives is grounding for people," said Harrison, 62. "It's a reference point on one's life."
Harrison practices what she preaches.
She has been tracking down her own relatives since the mid-1970s and sometimes travels great distances to meet them. In her office she displays a wall-sized poster of her family tree that makes it easy to add newly discovered cousins.
"It helps me understand aspects of myself and my own family that are difficult to explain or understand otherwise," she firstname.lastname@example.org
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