Out on a Limb: Caught in the Web

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Last night, using the latest whiz-bang 21st-century technology, I found a piece of the past. That’s what the Web sites featured in this issue’s annual “101 Best” let you do: open a window into yesterday. Maybe it’s an old photo, or a map of where your ancestors lived, or just a name flickering on your screen. Ironically, this signature technology of our era lets you look backward as never before.

And more pieces of the past are coming to the Web every day. Since our first “101 Best,” two years ago, the Web has exploded with new databases and digitized images of documents. In 2000, the Web was a great place to get genealogy help and connect with distant kin. In 2002, you can do real research online.

Last year, we spotlighted 101 new and improved sites. This year, we decided it was time to revisit our original list. With tens of thousands of genealogy Web sites, where do you start? We modestly suggest you begin on page 20. (As always, type exactly what’s between the <> brackets for each Web address — don’t type the brackets, which we use to make clear where URLs begin and end. Or skip the typing: You’ll find clickable links to all 101, plus our 2000 and 2001 lists, on our site, <>.)

Who knows what pieces of your past you’ll find? I was clicking back and forth between several of our 101 best sites, when I came upon the 1860 census record of my great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Robert Robinson Dickinson.

It struck me, reading it, what a remarkable instant in time this census record — taken in June 1860 — represented. Robert’s father, a rough-and-tumble pioneer known for knife fights and speaking a dozen Indian languages, had died the previous month. He was the last link to the family’s North Carolina origins, born in the revolutionary year of 1776. By year’s end, Robert himself would be dead of pneumonia at age 45. (Very different from his father, he was described in a Methodist record as “meek, guileless and full of tenderness … in all respects a Christian gentleman.”)

There was Robert’s wife, Cornelia — listed as “Carrie,” a good reminder to check every imaginable variation on your ancestors’ names! What would life soon be like for her, with her husband gone and — I could count them on the census — six children to raise?

Among them was my great-grandfather, William Francis “Frank” Dickinson, who’d soon lie about his age and go off to fight for the Confederacy. (I’d recently used another of our 101 sites, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <>, to confirm his military service.) For my ancestor, the horrors of Lookout Mountain were just around the bend of history. (The American Memory Web site, reviewed on page 72, let me quickly find photos of the battle — including one of Confederate prisoners, perhaps Frank Dickinson’s comrades.)

My great-grandfather Frank would survive the Civil War, which in later years he preferred not to talk about, and so I’d find him again in other records online. In 1860, frozen in time and brought to his great-grandson’s computer screen by technology he could never have imagined, he’s still just a boy. His father’s alive, his mother not yet a widow.

A piece of the past, just a few clicks away. Is it any wonder I’ll keep looking for more?

From the August 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine