WASHINGTON – For every generation in this country there has been a war. And with wars come millions of records that can shed light on family history, detailing everything from the color of soldiers' eyes to what their neighbors may have said about them.
On Thursday, Ancestry.com unveils more than 90 million U.S. war records from the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 through the Vietnam War's end in 1975. The site also has the names of 3.5 million U.S. soldiers killed in action, including 2,000 who died in Iraq.
"The history of our families is intertwined with the history of our country," Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Ancestry.com, said in a telephone interview. "Almost every family has a family member or a loved one that has served their country in the military."
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The records, which can be accessed free until the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, came from the National Archives and Records Administration and include 37 million images, draft registration cards from both world wars, military yearbooks, prisoner-of-war records from four wars, unit rosters from the Marine Corps from 1893 through 1958, and Civil War pension records, among others.
The popularity of genealogy in the U.S. has increased steadily alongside the Internet's growth. Specialized search engines on sites like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and FamilySearch.com, along with general search portals like Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) and Google Inc. (GOOG ), have helped fuel interest.
"The Internet has created this massive democratization in the whole family history world," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Ancestry.com. "It's like a global game of tag."
Ancestry.com, part of parent company MyFamily.com Inc., spent $3 million to digitize the military records. It took nearly a year, including some 1,500 handwriting specialists racking up 270,000 hours to review the oldest records.
The 10-year-old Provo, Utah-based company doesn't have every U.S. military record. Over the past four centuries, some have been lost or destroyed. Some records remain classified.
However, this is the first time a for-profit Web site is featuring this many military records as part of a $100 million investment in what Sullivan says is the largest genealogy Web site with 900,000 paying subscribers. He joined Ancestry.com 18 months ago after leaving the CEO post at online dating giant Match.com.
After June 6, users can pay $155.40 a year for unlimited access to thousands of U.S. record databases, Sullivan said.
Budget constraints and a long list of unfinished priorities have limited federal efforts to make roughly 9 billion public documents available online, said National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper.
"In a perfect world, we would do all this ourselves and it would up there for free," she said. "While we continue to work to make our materials accessible as widely as possible, we can't do everything."
Subscribers can set up their own family tree pages on the Ancestry.com site and combine personal information with public records from the site. If they want to restrict access to their pages, privacy controls are available. And information posted about people who were born after 1922, or people born earlier but who are still alive, is automatically blocked from public view.
As for public records that contain what family members might not want the rest of the world to see, there's little recourse involving records on the deceased. Privacy laws don't cover public records of the dead.
Most novice genealogists, however, seem to be more interested in finding out whether they're related to battlefield heroes than they are worried about embarrassing revelations.
Loren Whitney, 30, a software engineer at the company since 2002, has been tracking his family's military history for seven years and discovered a relative going back seven generations from the newest records.
Whitney, an Arkansas native, learned that his mother's third-great-grandfather Thomas Bingham served in the Mormon Battalion to help the U.S. Army in the Mexican War around 1846. That discovery led to Bingham's great-grandfather, Capt. David Perry, who had published chronicles of the French and Indian War in 1819.
"It's exhilarating to find these connections and to see how other people's lives have connected with yours in the way they put you in the situation and circumstances that you are in," Whitney said.
Professional historian Curt Witcher recommends that people have fun and maintain realistic expectations when it comes to genealogy.
A small percentage of amateurs "have this hope, this aspiration, this belief, they've arrived at Mecca and in a few minutes we'll bring the golden tablets out," Witcher said. Most of the time they find out relatives weren't historical celebrities.
Professional researchers, like Witcher, though praise Ancestry.com and other sites that have put vast collections of public data online.
"Bureaucracies generate paper and for researchers that is golden," said Witcher, manager of the historical genealogy department at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. He oversees the second-largest genealogical library in the world, and his library helps more than 82,000 people a year authenticate family trees.
As fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, there seems to be a natural draw to tales of military ancestry, a desire to preserve history.
William Endicott, an 81-year-old veteran who served in the 33rd Infantry division of Illinois in World War II, researched his family tree for two decades and found out that his great-grandparents traveled across the Oregon Trail during the 1870s to settle in Eastern Oregon.
Endicott said he tells his veteran buddies all the time: "Our memories are dimming at the ages that we are. Get your history down."