Trace Your Family Roots With Online Tools


Trace Your Family Roots With Online Tools

Online tools can help you grow your family tree.

By Jeff Bertolucci

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1995, Carol Skydell was reading the newspaper when she spotted an announcement for a meeting of a local Jewish genealogical society in Laguna Beach, Calif. Armed with some "very rudimentary information" about her family, she showed the president of the organization an undated page torn from a Buenos Aires phone book that listed "Skidelsky," her late husband's family name. The president suggested that the two of them post a query on, a Web site for researchers of Jewish genealogy.

A few hours after Skydell's post went on the site's message board, she heard from an Argentina-based JewishGen member, who found 18 Skidelsky listings in the Buenos Aires phone book. Since then, Skydell, now 81, has used JewishGen to contact far-flung relatives-including one living in Harbing, China-who are also researching the Skidelsky name. Skydell has been able to trace her husband's family back to Russia in the mid 1700s. "I'm still working on my own family," says Skydell, a former TV writer and special-education teacher who spends winters in Laguna Hills and summers on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

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Thanks to the Internet, digging up your roots has never been easier. Dozens of archive-rich Web sites, such as and, enable you to scour U.S. Census, Social Security, and state birth, marriage and death records from your home computer. These sites also provide message boards where you can chat and exchange messages with a worldwide community of fellow genealogists, some of whom may be your distant relatives.

"People don't want to spend so much time learning the ins and outs of genealogy because it is quite arcane," says Dale Munk, president of (, a nine-year-old company based in Springfield, Utah.


In the past, even the most basic genealogy research-checking Census records, for instance-was tedious, labor intensive and time consuming. It often required costly treks to national, state or local archives and libraries. This isn't to say that researching your family history is now quick and easy. On the contrary, genealogy still requires plenty of detective work, particularly if you plan to track your family back to a time before your ancestors arrived in North America. Still, says Loretto Szucs, a vice-president of, online genealogy is ideal for "people who are stuck at home and can't travel a lot."

A high-speed Internet connection is useful if you plan to download historical photos and other visual records that many sites offer. Before going online, talk to your relatives, including your elders, if they're still around. Write down what you know about your family's genealogy, including names and the dates of important events such as births, marriages and deaths. "Start with the names you know best-your father, grandfather, older relatives," says Szucs.

Find Your Ancestors

Here are some other Website and software: A free sire sponsored ut the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can search for your ancestors' names and add your family tree to its database. You can download Personal Ancestry File, a free program for building your family tree.

RootsWeb (, ). A free site operated by, the parent compant of RootsWeb offers lessons for beginers and message boards for reaching out to other genealogists.


Family Tree Maker ( ). A software program from MyFamily.comthat you through the process of building a family tree. It costs $32.

1930 U.S. Census ( This government-run site doesn't allow you to search for specific names. However, it can point you to the location og microfilm that count contain information about your ancestors..

Susan King, founder and managing director of JewishGen, says reunions and other family gatherings are a good time to share old photos and identify when they were taken, what the occasion was and who's in each shot. "We always tell people to start at the present and work backward," she says.

Where to Begin


A great online starting point is, one of the most popular sites, with 725,000 subscribers. The site boasts the world's largest Web-based collection of U.S. immigration records dating from 1820 to 1960. For $30 a month, or a discounted $155 annual fee, you can search the 1930 Census, historical passenger lists from ships entering more than 100 American ports, World War I draft registration cards and the Social Security Death Index. For $40 a month, or $347 annually, you also gain access to records outside the U.S., including 19th- and 20th-century census data from the United Kingdom.

It's common for genealogy researchers to use more than one Web site. Once you find basic immigration, Census and other records of a relative on, you may want to visit, which bills itself as the "world's largest online family tree." subscribers pay $75 annually (monthly and quarterly plans are also available). The site provides a shortcut that allows genealogists to benefit from the work done by others.

Let's say you trace your grandfather to his birth in 1909, but you reach a dead end. You enter his name and year of birth on OneGreatFamily, which compares the information with facts already in its database. Perhaps a distant relative has discovered Grandpa and has already traced your family back before his birth. Your family is automatically linked to earlier ancestors-and your family tree has grown new branches. Munk says the service gets about 500,000 new name entries each week.

Ellie Eaton, 69, of Mapleton, Utah, who says she always loved genealogy, began using OneGreatFamily several years ago when she learned how to use a computer. "I had an aunt who gave me a bunch of information and copies of old letters that I was able to put into OneGreatFamily," she says. As a result, Eaton could "hook into another 15 generations" of relatives. Eaton likes the site's viewer, which displays your family tree graphically. When you move the cursor over a box on the tree, a pop-up window displays information about that person.


In searching for her forebears, JewishGen founder King first used's U.S. Census records to chart her family tree back to the 1840s. "But once I got to the 1840s, I had to jump the pond," says King, 56, who has traced her roots to Lithuania and other regions of Eastern Europe.

That's where JewishGen's worldwide network of more than 2,000 volunteers comes into play. Members document Jewish cemeteries around the globe and help translate historical records, many of which are written in Hebrew or Yiddish. They also arrange trips called "ShtetlSchleppers" that take people to their ancestral villages, where members can search cemetery records-if they're available.

"The cemeteries have some of the best records, if they're still standing," says King, who once traveled with 40 genealogists, including ten members of her family, to the village of Simnas, Lithuania. "Lo and behold, the cemetery was a gorgeous flower field," she says. "It was gone, nothing left. I saw the old synagogue, which is now a high school. There were no records from the period." Luckily, King found other archives that enabled her to track her ancestry back to 1763. And despite the difficulty of locating hard-to-find and often poorly maintained archives, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry has catalogued some 800,000 tombstones, most with photographs.

Even the vast resources of the Internet can't overcome one incontestable fact of genealogy: The further back in time you search, the harder it is to trace your lineage. "If you go back far enough, there were no surnames," says King, who points out that names such as "Samuel, son of Issac" were the norm in European villages in the 1700s.

Also, many sites focus on the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Munk notes, for instance, that his site does not provide much help for people with ancestors from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. There are, however, other sites that assist genealogy researchers of these ancestries. A great starting point is Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet , which has links to hundreds of genealogical sites.