Back to the Future

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Five years ago, when Family Tree Magazine first appeared on newsstands across America, we were still worried about Y2K and hadn’t heard of hanging chads. We didn’t need middle initials to differentiate between two presidents named George Bush. The only way to find your Ellis Island ancestor was on microfilm – and the nearly three-year closing of the Statue of Liberty was still to come, after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. The human genome was not yet decoded, and researchers hardly considered their DNA a genealogical tool. Cyndi’s List <>, featured in Family Tree Magazine‘s second issue along with our inaugural 101 Best Web Sites list, totaled a mere 56,000 links; when last we checked, it boasted more than 240,000.

In the past half-decade, genealogy has changed as much as the world at large. Research tools we take for granted today — digitized census images, Ellis Island’s online immigration database, genealogy software that does everything but fix you a snack while you input data — were either startlingly new in early 2000, or brainstorms not yet realized. FamilySearch <>, the breakthrough Web site that put some of the genealogical treasures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) Family History Library (FHL) just a click away, had debuted only the previous May. Response to this development — on the first day, 400,000 logons and 600,000 who couldn’t get through – caused one of the worst traffic jams in the Internet’s history. Time magazine had recently proclaimed an epidemic of “Roots Mania” in a breathless cover story on the genealogy boom, giving rock-star treatment to Cyndi Howells of the eponymous List. “Ancestors,” a PBS series that helped spark the boom in 1997, was about to air a second set of episodes. Like the prehistoric discoverers of fire eyeing a modern jet engine, those year-2000 “roots maniacs” would barely recognize genealogy in 2005.

As we prepared for this special anniversary issue by looking back over the five-year history of Family Tree Magazine — our own “pedigree chart” of issues, if you will — we were struck by all the intervening transformations, trends and other dramatic advancements in genealogy. In particular, these 22 important developments in family history research show how much this business of exploring yesterdays has changed as the past five years’ worth of tomorrows have turned into today’s.

The census gets digital.

You have to pay for access (with a few exceptions), but cranking microfilm to see actual census records can now be a thing of the past. Digitizing the US census has happened in fits and starts — and the all-important indexing hasn’t been quick – but we’ll probably look back on posting the census online as the most significant genealogical development in this decade. Now you can access this priceless primary source material from the comfort of your home computer, and search the records in ways never before possible. Not surprisingly, mammoth site < > offers the most information, with images of every extant census plus 1890 fragments and indexes to all but 1900. Its sister site <> has census images and indexes for 1790 to 1820, 1860, 1870 and 1890 (fragments) to 1910. You can view the transcribed 1880 census for free on FamilySearch.

Ellis Island opens on the Web.

A close second for genealogy’s biggest development — and certainly the most newsworthy single event — of the past five years is the unveiling of the Ellis Island Web site <>. The result of five years of painstaking work and a $22.5 million investment, the American Family Immigration History Center provides online access to the passenger records of 22 million people who passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. That includes 17 million immigrants, the ancestors of 40 percent of the American people. Not only did the site make these records searchable for the first time, but it also let users click from the results of their database search to actual images of their ancestors’ passenger manifests. No wonder a whopping 8 million visitors logged on during the first eight hours, and NBC’s “Today” show covered the center’s opening live. dominates.

In early 2000,’s subscription site < > was just one of several putting data online for a fee — or planning to. Since then, however, the company has gobbled up’s competitor (and with it the popular Family Tree Maker software) and acquired the all-volunteer, all-free RootsWeb site <> (with few of the dire consequences predicted at the time, though the and RootsWeb message boards were merged, as were databases of users’ family tree files). also has forged marketing partnerships with two major genealogy players: Former competitor ProQuest, maker of the site HeritageQuest Online <>, is distributing’s Ancestry Library Edition; and the FHL now links Family Search’s 1880 census database to’s paid-access census images. (LDS church members and those researching at FHL branch Family History Centers can view the images for free; others must pay $9.95 for 30 days of access.)’s original database offerings have been joined by a parade of other collections, including census images, immigration records, digitized newspapers and UK and Ireland records. The site even introduced its own free genealogy software called Ancestry Family Tree, which automatically searches’s databases for ancestors. says its fee-based services total more than 1.5 million subscriptions.

DNA joins the genealogy toolkit.

Though the practical application of genetics technology to genealogy is in its infancy, services promising to use DNA testing to break through your family tree brick walls have proliferated. It’s not just the commercial side that’s made strides: Scientific researchers have used DNA evidence to learn more about the Jewish Diaspora, African-American ancestry and the isolated population of Iceland. When we write a retrospective on Family Tree Magazine‘s 10th anniversary, we suspect DNA technology will be near the top of the list of developments over the next five years.

FamilySearch grows.

Refusing to rest on its laurels as the first genealogy site to really rock the Internet, FamilySearch has continued to add new features. Thrilled as we were to get online access to the site’s pedigree files and International Genealogical Index, the addition of indexes to primary source material is ultimately a bigger breakthrough. You can search the 1881 British and Canadian censuses, the US Social Security Death Index, vital records indexes for Scandinavia and Mexico, and most remarkable, the full 1880 US census — which, as mentioned before, is linked to digital images at Plus, the FHL’s online catalog is now updated daily, and FamilySearch has added a virtual Research Assistant that walks beginners through the roots-tracing process.

Genealogy software choices collapse … and re-expand.

Family Tree Maker (FTM) still rules the roost (its owner,, claims a 92 percent market share), but its competitors have changed almost completely since our first review of genealogy software in June 2000. The most notable dropout is Generations, which seemed poised to seriously challenge FTM’s dominance until being swept away when the tech bubble went bust. Other titles that have dropped off the radar or been subsumed include Family Ties, Family Origins and Ultimate Family Tree. Noteworthy newcomers, including Heredis, RootsMagic, Family Tree Legends, Genbox and Parentèle, have sprung up to fill the void. Mac users now have more choices, too, with a Mac version of Heredis joining Reunion.

Real data debuts.

The US census, Ellis Island and Family Search’s expanded offerings are part of a welcome trend toward putting primary source material (or at least indexes and abstracts of it) online. Where “online genealogy” once meant exchanging GEDCOMs and using the Internet to learn when the library or county courthouse is open, now you can do real research with just a few mouse clicks. Besides the other data-driven sites mentioned herein, notable such databases now include:

• Canadian Genealogy Centre <>, a joint effort of the National Library of Canada and the National Archives of Canada that includes the 1901 census

• Genline’s <> fee-based bounty of digitized Swedish church records (more than 10 million to date)

• The slowly growing German passenger database Hamburg Link to Your Roots

•’s <> assortment of records, indexes and books (requires membership in the New England Historic Genealogical Society)

• The Digital Archives <> of Norway’s censuses and emigrant lists

• Western States Historical Marriage Records Index <>

The 1930 census goes public.

It took 72 years, but for anyone searching for 20th-century ancestors, the unveiling of the 1930 census was worth the wait. When the mandatory federal privacy period elapsed on April 1, 2002, we were at last able to learn about our 1930 ancestors — everything from their military service and ability to read, to their mortgage payment and radio ownership. Because of questions such as year of immigration and parents’ birthplaces, the 1930 enumeration can help genealogists answer mysteries about ancestors who lived far back into the 1800s. Initially released on a whopping 2,667 microfilm rolls, the 1930 schedules are now online.

States serve up Web data.

You could see this trend in our August 2004 roundup of the 101 Best Web Sites: Suddenly, states from coast to coast are posting genealogical treasures on the Internet. Examples include Delaware probate indexes <>, a statewide marriage index plus other goodies from Illinois <>, Minnesota death certificates <>, Missouri vital records and WWI service cards < resources.asp>, and all the federal census records for Nevada <>. We hope this trend continues.

Privacy backlash restricts records access.

We didn’t say all the developments in this list were necessarily good news, did we? As states and localities were rushing to put genealogy records online, privacy advocates began battling to shut down sites and restrict access. In 2002, after a California state senator raised concerns that online records might pave the way for identify theft, RootsWeb restricted access to databases of Golden State birth records; Texas birth, marriage and divorce records; and Maine marriage records. California and Texas officials later yanked the records permanently. Similar concerns led Oklahoma county clerks to restrict access to veterans’ records, and caused a flurry when the Ohio state health department tried to recall microfilmed birth and death records from libraries. Canada also has weighed privacy curbs for its census data.

Genealogy societies dwindle.

Even as genealogy has enjoyed a boom, some of its traditional pillars have become wobbly. The National Genealogical Society’s (NGS) 20,000-volume library moved to St. Louis in 2001, where it became a special collection of the county library. Late in 2003, financial struggles led to the resignation of NGS officers and the eventual sale of its historic headquarters. GENTECH, a national society devoted to genealogical computing, was absorbed by NGS, which canceled the 2003 GENTECH conference at the last minute. Amazingly, the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ (FGS) 2001 conference happened despite the Sept. 11 terror attacks grounding air travel just as the Quad Cities confab was set to start. Overall, though, national conference attendance has sagged due to lingering travel worries and other factors; so has membership in the sponsoring associations. State and local groups also have struggled as family historians turn to the Web for resources and networking.

Civil War records march online.

Almost unheralded, perhaps because it’s been such a huge and therefore slow undertaking, the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System <> has put online the names and other basic information from more than 5 million General Index Cards from the Compiled Military Service Records of the National Archives. This project, under the National Park Service umbrella with help from the Genealogical Society of Utah and FGS, now encompasses the 6.3 million soldiers from all Union and Confederate states. Future phases of this ambitious undertaking will include regimental histories and more information about sailors, prisoners of war and veterans cemeteries.

The Family History Library gets a makeover.

This Salt Lake City mecca for genealogists has undergone a sweeping remodel, with work on the final phase – the main floor – finally wrapping up last fall. Floor plans changed and access to many resources was eased. Conveniences such as debit-card-style dispensers for photocopy payments, new workstations with comfier chairs, and access to e-mail and the Web make the library more user-friendly.

Everybody puts up a Web site (or two).

As evidenced by the Cyndi’s List numbers, the production of genealogy-related Web sites has exploded. Zillions of them are devoted to particular family trees — you can use your genealogy software to create such sites without knowing a whit of HTML coding. As a result, Google <> and other search engines have become important genealogy tools — how else are you going to find that site your fifth cousin posted with the ancestor answers you need?

Land records hit the Web.

Though lawsuits against the Department of the Interior kicked it offline for a long stretch, the Web site for the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records <> nonetheless has been a genealogy gold mine. The first site to really bring land records – an underutilized but valuable tool for family tree researchers — out of the dusty archives, it provided access to federal-land conveyance documents for public-land states. The site has since added images of more than 2 million federal-land title records issued between 1820 and 1908 for eastern public-land states. Images of land titles issued between 1908 and the mid-1960s are in the works.

Old photos are a snap to see.

Even as data-rich sites have proliferated on the Internet, genealogists also have enjoyed a wealth of old-photo sites. Besides sharing old pictures and finding homes for orphaned portraits at places such as AncientFaces <> and DeadFred <>, you now can picture the past by perusing the 100,000-image Western History Photography Collection <> or the National Archives’ 124,000-image catalog <>, among others. Many state historical societies have uploaded images, and a few libraries – following the notable lead of the Library of Congress’ American Memory Collection <> — have gotten into the act, too.

The National Archives makes research easier.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) underwent a facelift, moving things around in its Research Center in Washington, DC. Resources such as the Archival Library Information Center, military service records and Freedmen’s Bureau records are now more centrally located and easier to access. NARA also began two online efforts to bring its riches to the public: the Archival Research Catalog <>, which includes a wealth of images and Indian censuses (among other treasures), and Access to Archival Databases <>, launched in 2003 with 350 databases of electronically generated records.

UK and Irish researchers enjoy an online bonanza.

Seems hardly a month went by over the past five years without the debut of some new Web site to give English, Scottish or Irish researchers a boost. Many of these are fee-based sites, such as the Origins Network <> for all three ancestries, for Irish records, ScotlandsPeople <> and’s UK and Ireland Collection. But others don’t cost a nickel: FamilySearch offers free access to the 1881 British census, and the Scottish Archive Network has passenger lists at <> and wills from 1500 to 1901 at <>.

Gizmos give genealogists a hand.

It’s not just the Internet and PCs that have turned research high-tech. Personal digital assistants (PDAs) let you take your family files with you everywhere you go. Global Positioning System (GPS) devices pinpoint the exact location of Great-great-grandpa’s grave. Scanners and digital cameras capture records, which you then can store on a CD or DVD for posterity (assuming posterity has CD and DVD drives, that is). Battery life has become almost as important as birth certificates to plugged-in genealogists.

Freedman’s Bank records get deposited on disc.

African-American researchers stumped by the period immediately after the Civil War — vital to making family connections back to slavery days — rejoiced at the release of the Freedman’s Bank Records CD. Congress established the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co. in March 1865 for freed slaves and African-American former military personnel. Depositors frequently named nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents and in-laws, sometimes adding the locations of relatives and whether they were living or dead. Early forms also requested the former slave owner’s name and the plantation where the person lived. This database from the Family History Library contains more than 480,000 names from the Freedman’s Bank records, making this cornerstone of African-American history readily searchable for the first time.

Scrapbooking soars.

A sort of second cousin to genealogy, scrapbooking has given the old family album an artsy-craftsy new look. A hobby that’s growing even faster than family history while generating megabucks for the crafts industry, scrapbooking may add to the popularity of genealogy. After all, you have to find those ancestors before you can craft memory book pages about them. At the very least, our grand-kids will have lovely keepsakes about us.

Family Tree Magazine takes off.

Finally, modest as we are, we still couldn’t forget the biggest development in genealogy periodical publishing. But it’s not just us tooting our own horn: University of Mississippi journalism professor Samir Husni, aka “Mr. Magazine,” picked Family Tree Magazine as one of the 30 most notable launches of its inaugural year. And – ahem -unlike some of the other titles on that list (Tina Brown’s Talk, Starbucks’ Joe), we’re still around. “Family Tree treats genealogy as a process that anyone can do,” Husni wrote. “History comes alive in Family Tree.” We intend to keep bringing history — and your family history – to life for many years to come.
From the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine