Web Spawns Growth in Tracing Family Trees

At 62, Dolores Farley Mason recently tracked down a sister she never knew she had — along with about 100 other family members.

Farley Mason, who was adopted at age 2, is one of the many people trolling the Internet in search of family roots these days.

"I am so excited!" the Maryland woman wrote in an e-mail to Ancestry.com, where she found her genealogy in part through the 1930 Census accessible to paid subscribers. "Even this late in my life, I am ecstatic!"

Family roots and genealogy (search) have always piqued people's interest — especially around the holiday season, when some give family trees to relatives as gifts.

"People want to have something new to share with the others," said Ann Fleming, president of the National Genealogical Society. "If you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you're going?"

But before the days of the Web, most weren't quite curious enough to go to the local town of their ancestors and sift through dusty old records, which is what the search used to involve before the electronic age. Now, genealogy experts say the Internet has created a boom in family history research. In fact, tracing family roots has become the No. 2 hobby in the United States, after gardening, according to the National Genealogical Society.

"[The Internet] has had a profound effect on the popularity of family history," said Craig Sherman, chief marketing and revenue officer of MyFamily.com, which runs the paid subscription site Ancestry.com. "It's big and it's getting bigger fast, simply because of the Internet."

Farley Mason, who had a reunion with nearly 80 of her newly-found family members for her birthday in September, said the Web was an integral part of her success in locating her sister, Jennie Flynn, and the rest of the clan.

"I highly recommend going through a service," she said. "I’ve been looking off and on since 1963 ... Now that they have these services, you can go into old censuses, phone books, it’s terrific."

Sites like Ancestry.com cost between $7.95 a month and $239 a year depending on how much information subscribers want to access. Ancestry, which bills itself as the largest collection of family history records on the Web, catalogues voluminous original records — including all available U.S. Census (search) records, historical newspapers and marriage, birth and death certificates.

But for those who don't want to dole out money for a paid service, free Internet searches can lead them to at least some of the information they're looking for and help them get started.

"I've been doing genealogy for many, many years," said Elizabeth Greiner, 58, of Rohnert Park, Calif. "I tell [people] to go straight to Google and put a name in they're looking for, and they might be amazed at what comes up."

Greiner said she has tracked down cousins and other relatives all over the country and the world — and even unearthed some family dirty laundry, like the secret second wife and family her great aunts' grandfather had.

"There had been this rumor, but there had been no way to prove it. Nobody talked about it," she said. "Family secrets can get out before they're welcome."

Greiner's genealogy research, which began in 1973, has made history relevant for her and she said it can be a great way to interest young people in the past as well.

"Studying history can be so removed for a lot of children, but genealogy really brought history alive," she said. "I can picture my relatives living in that time."

But Web surfers, beware: Some of the family roots information that pops up on Google or other search engines might be bogus, and amateur genealogists won't be able to know for sure unless they check it against original records.

"Unfortunately, not everything on the Internet is accurate," said Fleming. "If you use the Internet, you should be very cautious and make sure things are documented if they're not original work."

Wherever the family history comes from, it's a popular conversation topic during the holidays, which are all about family reunions and togetherness. Sherman confirmed that interest in genealogy "definitely spikes" during this season.

"When people get together with their family, they inevitably start talking and thinking about their family history," he said. "Family history is a great connection."

And for those who want to give the gift of history, MyFamily.com offers gift subscriptions to Ancestry.com, in addition to the family tree software.

But no matter what time of year people choose to trace their lineage, Fleming said the greatest appeal of finding one's roots is that it awakens the detective and the love of mystery in all of us.

"It's just a giant jigsaw puzzle and one piece at a time, you're putting it all together," Fleming said. "You're never finished. Every answer leads to another question."