Out on a Limb: Virtual Genealogy

By David A. Fryxell Premium

I’m fond of reminding anyone who’ll listen that genealogy is the second-most-popular subject on the Internet, after sex. But, despite the booming online interest in genealogy, until recently, researching your family tree on the Web was a lot like sex on the Web — stimulating, perhaps, but ultimately not very satisfying.

You could connect with distant cousins, explore a bazillion links and search library catalogs. You could even download whole branches of your family tree — but nobody verifies these posted pedigrees, and most don’t include sources. After a few downloads, these online GEDCOM files start to seem like, well, online pornography: You know they’re not the real thing, so why bother?

As this issue’s cover story shows, however, Internet genealogy is becoming a lot more like the real thing. While still hit or miss, you can now find real records online — the sort of thing you used to have to trek to a library or Family History Center to research. No microfilm cranking required. Best of all, you can now access records that were impossible or impractical to comb before the Internet.

Increasingly, these databases bring the real thing right to your desktop, as digitized images of census enumerations, passenger lists or even family Bible pages. Others represent transcriptions or abstracts of real records — introducing a risk of human error, yes, but still enabling you to make long-distance strides with your family tree that you can later double-check.

These databases can be particularly powerful in tandem with traditional methods. For example, whenever I make a breakthrough with my Swedish ancestors by squinting at microfilmed church records at the local Family History Center, I run home and turn on my computer. There, I have a huge Excel spreadsheet that I downloaded from the Web site of my family’s ancestral province of Örebro < htm>. Amazingly, this database contains an index — with just enough salient details — of the province’s estate inventories. I can quickly search and sort it for my newly found ancestor, confirming relationships in the list of his or her heirs and pinpointing a date of death. That downloaded database then often sends me back to the microfilm, armed with new family connections or additional ancestors to seek.

In this case, I’m just lucky. These ancestors happened to come from what’s today among the most digitally savvy provinces of Sweden; other Swedish branches of the family have been online dead ends — so far. I’m also fortunate that my father’s Swedish ancestors settled in Illinois, where I can search indexes of marriage and death records at <>. I also used images of census pages at <> and <> to help unravel their mysteries here in America. If only they’d immigrated recently enough that I could view their names on a digitized passenger list at <>!

Research on my mother’s side — the Southerners — has enjoyed an electronic boost as well. I’ve hunted Virginia kin at the Library of Virginia’s Digital Library <> (sadly, curtailed recently by state budget cuts — Virginians, please write your legislators!). I found my great-grandfather’s Confederate service record, transcribed from original cards, at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <>.

Internet genealogy isn’t likely to replace scrolling microfilm and thumbing through dusty records just yet. But if those triple-X Web sites that keep spamming me had made the kind of technological strides toward the real thing that online family history has … well, let’s not go there, shall we? For now, being able to view my great-grandfather’s 1880 census record from the comfort of my home is excitement enough.

From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.