Ever wondered where you came from?
We're not talking the stork here; but rather, who your ancestors were, where they were born, and how your family got from wherever it started to where it is now.
Ancestry.com is the pre-eminent site for finding out. It's got resources worthy of the attention of serious genealogists, but it's not so daunting as to be out of reach for that junior-high family-tree project.
It's hard to find a better tool for delving into the past. Unfortunately, it's not hard to imagine one. Ancestry's greatness is obscured by its interface and by some annoying problems that made it hard to get at the data during my testing.
• Click here for FOXNews.com's Personal Technology Center.
The backbone of Ancestry.com is its vast collection of digitized public records — there are over 5 billion names in the company's 23,000 searchable databases. It recently completed the digitization of the entire U.S. federal census collection from 1790 to 1930.
That's just the tip of the iceberg — you'll find a vast array of state, local, and federal birth, marriage, death, immigration, court, land, probate, and military-service records as well.
And Ancestry's constantly expanding. New collections include the serious, such as the African-American ancestry collection, packed full of slave narratives, Freedmen's Bureau and Freedman's Bank records, Army colored-troop regiment records from the Civil War, and much more.
There's also the more light-hearted (but useful) side of the coin, with a new collection of Nevada state marriage and divorce records. Not everything that happens in Vegas stays there, it seems.
The records don't just stop within U.S. borders, either. Most of us here came from somewhere else, and the company is actively expanding its collection to include the same sorts of records from abroad, with recent additions such as British Army World War I pension records and a ton of new German records (you'll need to read some German to get much out of these, however).
That's the excellent news.
Sadly, the interface, though not terrible, simply doesn't live up to the richness of the data. With a genealogy app, I want the data to be old and (virtually) musty, but I want the interface to be brand-new and positively packed with Web 2.0 goodness, the kind of goodness that lets you navigate through complex sets of data with out endless painful redraws.
Ancestry.com just doesn't have that yet, and with such vast amounts of data to get through, it needs it.
You can create a site for free and share it with any family member or friend you choose to invite. To get access to all the site's records, however, you need a U.S. Deluxe membership, which will cost you $29.95 per month.
For $5 a month more, you get access to everything in the U.S. database, plus tons of additional documents, records, and historical newspapers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and many other countries.
That's a lot of money per month, but it's worth it, if you're seriously dedicated to finding your roots. It's also a hell of a lot less expensive than traveling to wherever the actual physical records are located, most likely.
My Own Family Tree
I worked on my family tree in two different ways. My mother has a book that someone put together that traces the family back to the 1600s, but it's just dates and anecdotes, with no historical records to document it — I'm sure the author has them, but I don't.
My father, on the other hand, has a huge file of records and notes and pictures that I don't have access to.
With my father's side, I decided to just start from scratch, and see what someone who didn't know anything about their family would be able to find; with my mother's records, I input the whole damned thing and then tried to see what documents I could find to prove the dates.
The basic interface is reasonably good — when you're just entering info and before you've built up many people in your tree. You enter a person and whatever information you know about him or her, and the record shows up.
Once that person's saved into your family tree, Ancestry.com automatically runs a search on its vast records, and if it finds any likely matches, it shows you a "shaky leaf" on that person's entry.
The leaf can represent either possible source records, or possible matches in the World Family Tree, Ancestry's vast collection from all members who've agreed to share — data that may or may not be backed up by fact.
The most common record you'll find suggested is a census record (at least for the U.S.); click on it and you can see both the actual scanned record and a transcribed version.
As anyone who's ever worked with handwritten historical records knows, this is a huge benefit. No more ruining your eyes trying to puzzle things out. You can click to attach the record to the person in question, and you can also save the records to a "shoebox" for later attachment to various people in your tree. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the original records.
It's worth the time, because you can find all kinds of cool things in the records, such as who lived next door in the census of 1930. Was it your grandfather's soon-to-be wife?
You should also check for mistakes; not every transcription is perfect, and sometimes you'll know something that the graphologist didn't, such as that the person in question's middle initial was "I" and not "T." The transcriptions are excellent, but not perfect.
So troll through all the records that look close, for sure. If you find any mistakes, you can report them to Ancestry.com.
I got good results for both family trees; clearly, however, it's much easier to simply try to find documentation for a family tree whose members you already know. If you've got no documentation, it's much harder going.
You discover all kinds of things you might not have known. For example, I found out that my paternal grandmother's name was Anna, and not Anne, as she always maintained (a quick call to my father confirmed this).
For one worrying moment, I was also afraid that my grandfather and my great-grandfather might be the same person, but I eventually got that sorted out, by combing through census records.
The documents are well organized, easy to use, and addictive. I spent far more time on this than I planned to, and really came to see why people make a hobby of it.
All Kneel Before King Sean of Troy
The other very common kind of record, the World Tree Record, can be a mixed blessing. People put in all kinds of nonsense, so you need to vet the records carefully.
A shaky leaf that leads to someone else's record of a person in your tree will allow you to examine the dates for that person and his or her pedigree (a chart of up to five generations).
If it looks good, you can accept up to the whole five generations. If you're reasonably lucky, you'll find a person who ties into some well-researched trees that go back to say, England, and then you're off and running, adding five generations at a shot.
The problem is, none of it's proven. You still have to go back and find documents that prove that your new additions aren't just the product of some nut who wants to prove he's, let's say, descended from the Merovingians, and that the whole "Da Vinci Code" thing is actually talking about him. Documentation is incredibly important for serious genealogists.
My own particular sprint backwards through history led me to the conclusion that I'm descended from Charlemagne, and, through him from Priam, the ill-fated king of Troy.
Oh, and of course, I'm also a descendent of Merovaeus Merovee, the first Merovingian, so, you know, I'm probably a descendent of Jesus, if you believe what Dan Brown has to say.
Just as the whole "Priory of Sion" thing probably turned out to be a hoax, there's also a tiny chance that my own august and royal (and maybe even semi-divine) heritage might be less than historical.
I'll say it again: having the records is important; and that's why it's worth paying to subscribe to the site.
Another problem I had in my jaunt through tenuous history was that I couldn't figure out how many "greats" to put before the grandfather for Priam.
There's no relationship calculator on the site, which is a ridiculous oversight. I know, because I asked the live chat help, which was excellent, apart from not being able to tell me what I wanted to hear.
When I was in the 1600s, looking at the record of a relative for whom I did have some proof of my relationship, I couldn't even find a way to figure out how many generations back I was. I had to count the five generations on the screen and then slowly and painfully page back through the family tree.
You have to page back one generation at a time, and each generation you page back toward yourself on your tree requires multiple clicks, as you choose which child of the forebear in question to follow back toward the present. And, given the sometime quite poor performance of the site, these endless, slow redraws had me pulling my hair out.
Why isn't there something like a big green arrow that, if you click on it, will take you a generation (or however many you click and drag to on a pulldown menu linked to the arrow) back through the most direct path toward yourself? I lost count twice, and eventually gave up.
You can't print out your whole tree either, just your five-generation pedigree. To do the entire tree, you'll need to export your data to a GEDCOM file (the standard format for genealogy files) and import it into a genealogy app.
You ought to be able to slide the tree to the right or left, and to collapse or expand the listings in between yourself and a target person, to mouse over a person and get more info about him, such as "what's his relationship to me?" or "do I have any documents attached to this person?"
You ought to be able to toggle the display based on what info is available for a given person, too, making, say, the list for everyone whose death is proved turn red or get a little grave icon, or have the listing for everyone for whom you have a photo turn green, or even get a little thumbnail of the photo next to the listing.
My list could go on and on. There are so many cool things that Ancestry could do with its interface, and it's really too bad that it hasn't taken the initiative.
That's really a shame, because this is one of the best public reference sites on the entire Net, as far as resources go. Ancestry's collection is nothing short of fantastic.
But the site's so firmly ensconced in the Web 1.0 world that I can't give it as high a score as it would otherwise deserve. The company has done vast amount of work gathering data; now it needs to do more to make that data accessible and fun to use.
BOTTOM LINE: Ancestry.com has all the data it needs to be a great genealogy site, but a Web 1.0 interface keeps it from achieving the stratospheric ratings it would otherwise deserve.
PROS: Vast amounts of data; scans of original historical documents (such as census records); most records also digitized so you don't have decipher the handwriting; excellent live help via chat.
CONS: Outdated Web 1.0 interface; site too often slow to respond or (or even unavailable) during testing.
COMPANY: The Generations Network, Inc.
PRICE: $29.95 per month for U.S. Deluxe membership; 34.95 per month for World Deluxe membership
EDITOR RATING: Four and a half out of five stars
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.