Julanne Myers has been putting together a puzzle for more than 20 years. The branches of her family tree start in England and stretch to Virginia. It has taken hundreds of hours of research, but Myers has found grandparents and great-grandparents, ordinary and infamous, settlers at Jamestown and pilgrims from the Mayflower.
"Genealogy is geometric," Myers says. "You start with two parents and four grandparents, then you have eight great-grandparents and pretty soon you find there are 20,000 people you are related to. This hobby is all a big puzzle and a great mystery. But you can't do the edges of the puzzle first. It takes time to get there."
Most Americans are immigrants, whether from 17th-century Scotland or the Ivory Coast or a Polish village. For those trying to find out exactly when Grandma came through Ellis Island, or where Great-Grandpa was married, access to information never has been easier, thanks to the Internet. Genealogical Websites give novices pointers on how to get started and maps to show the towns from which relatives came. They even enable researchers to call up vital records and share information with other genealogists.
"In the past, when a genealogist was searching for information on a given ancestor, it would take years to exhaust all the records," says Rhonda R. McClure, a Florida genealogist and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy. "Using the Internet means genealogists can search out leads to their ancestors in a much easier and faster fashion. Genealogists are in communication with each other like never before."
Genealogists still need to visit libraries and historical societies. Records typically found online are abstracts, summaries and databases rather than images of the original documents. Accurate records need documentation, McClure notes. "It is still important that primary documents are investigated, which can only be done by viewing microfilm."
Some 120 million Americans have expressed interest in finding out more about their roots in the last five years, according to Maritz Marketing, a research firm. Whether that means punching your surname into a search engine or spending hours in the stacks at the Library of Congress, genealogical interest has grown by one-third since 1995.
"Part of the appeal is that connection is very important," Myers says. "We all want to believe we are part of something, especially since September 11. We are all Americans. We all came from someplace else. That doesn't make you any less American."
The best way to begin is to talk to living family members, says Kory Meyerink, a professional genealogist in Salt Lake City. It may be helpful to tape or videotape your interview. Even if some people have forgotten exact details, asking more specific questions may get relatives, particularly elderly relatives, talking about family memories. Instead of asking general questions such as, "Tell me about your childhood," ask what Christmas was like the year of the big blizzard or what Grandma made for Sunday dinner. Specifics like that may jog memories of people they have not thought of in years, McClure says.
The next step is to fill out a genealogical chart, using as many names and dates as possible. Start with the generations closest to yours. Documentation will verify that the relatives you find are, indeed, your relatives -- birth certificates, for instance, and marriage certificates. Obtaining official documentation usually will cost money. All states charge for copies, usually between $10 and $30.
"Genealogy is as expensive or as inexpensive as you want it to be," says Bonnie Ferguson Butler, a Virginia woman who has traced her roots and those of her husband back several centuries. She counts 550 ancestors for her young son, Jasper.
"My great-grandmother always said she had one grandfather who fought for the South in the Civil War and the other fought for the North," Butler recalls. …