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INTERNET GENEALOGY -- SOMETHING GAINED, BUT SOMETHING LOST

Searching for ancestors has led genealogists to courthouse basements, through muddy cemeteries, into library stacks.

Now they're venturing into new sites -- on the World Wide Web.

Some of the searchers are genealogists who have gone online. Others are computer buffs whose latent interest in doing a family search surged while they were surfing the Internet.

Newsweek magazine reports that an estimated 42 million Americans are on an ancestor search, and it appears many are trying the high-tech route.

For example, when Katie Couric of the "Today" show did a piece that mentioned www.ancestry.com earlier this month, Web site hits went from a typical 60,000 or so a day to 300,000.

Jake Gehring, of the Ancestry Web site that started less than a year ago, said visiting the site has various appeals.

On a first visit, he said, people tend to search the Ancestry World Tree, a database that's made up of the contributions of anyone who cares to add to his family tree.

"It takes in families from around the country, around the world," said Gehring, who is based in Provo, Utah. "It's nearing 5 million names and growing at a rapid clip.

"It's a great place to start, especially if you are new to this and not familiar with what a probate record is or you've never heard of a land patent."

Also popular is the Social Security Death Index, where the names of 55 million people are recorded.

"There are a lot of people doing 20th century research who don't even know the basics of when their grandparents died," said Gehring.

That site also has dozens of other databases that can be accessed only by subscribers ($6.95 a month or $59.40 a year). Information is added daily, Gehring said. Earlier this week, for example, they posted 1 million newspaper obituaries going back to 1990.

But can a few well-chosen keystrokes eliminate the traditionally tedious detective work?

Not really, say the professionals.

"You can't think that you'll be getting back to Charlemagne in two easy clicks," said professional genealogist Glenn Atwell of Buffalo.

Adds Chris Andrle, who maintains the Erie County portion of www.
usgenweb.net: "I call it 'shot-in-the-dark research.' Traditionally, you move from the known to the unknown."

Always, veteran genealogists say, there should be an attitude of "browser beware."

The sticking point is that information garnered from the Internet isn't the actual primary document, leaving room for error, whether it's inaccurate spelling or a wrong date.

"Any serious genealogist will check the original source, and that's something you'll never get on the Internet," said June Zintz, founder of the Western New York Genealogical Society. She cited her maiden name, Partridge, as an example of ways that information goes astray.

"I've seen it spelled 17 different ways," she said.

Such variations must be checked by matching the surname against wills, birth and death certificates, military records, cemetery tombstones or other documents.

There's something else, too.

An Internet searcher misses the emotional response of handling an original record.

"There is a certain magic that takes place when someone can hold the very document on which an ancestor has signed his or her name or sees the photograph of a never-before-known grandfather affixed to a naturalization document," writes Ancestry magazine editor Loretto Dennis Szucz.

Still, nothing beats the Internet for gathering some information.

"Between Social Security for the dead ones and phone books for the live ones, you've got fairly good coverage," said Atwell.

With that, a caveat.

"If you type somebody in (to the Social Security records) and they don't appear, it doesn't mean they are still alive," he said. "I ran a number of names and I know there are holes in the records because my grandfather doesn't show up.

"If a name does come up (in the index), chances are the information is accurate, but I'd still confirm it. A good genealogist doesn't take just one piece of information. I like to triangulate from different sources."

Because some sites are maintained by mostly volunteers and it's a relatively new endeavor, information can be spotty.

In some places, individuals are transcribing cemetery records and Civil War veterans whose files are in the National Archives are also being added in, Atwell said. Among the Civil War records, about one-quarter of New York's have been entered and all of Pennsylvania is done, he said.

Also, under the auspices of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, information about people who came into the country through New York City between 1892 and 1924 is being recorded.

Besides checking the official data, a lot of people send queries into cyberspace, hoping to contact someone who is researching the same family line.

Atwell, in fact, found a distant relative in England that way.

"It was very exciting for both of us he," he said. "I had family papers going back 200 years that she didn't have. I've been working on this for well over 30 years and you'd think we would have made contact somewhere, but it only happened because of the Internet."

He recommends GenWeb and www.familytreemaker.com as good starting points. On treemaker it's possible to enter a surname to see if any information exists already.

There's even a site (Juliana's Links) that describes thousands of genealogy Web sites.

Also, the Internet is valuable if there are relatives or helpful volunteers in a distant place who might be willing to look up local records, experts say.

Andrle said he has answered such questions from as far away as Australia, from someone asking for information on a Western New York cemetery.

"You really can find good information on the Internet," said Atwell, "but you still have to do digging the old-fashioned way. In the process it's amazing what else you can run into if you keep your eyes wide open."

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