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Tracking Your Family Through Time And Technology

June 2024
11min read

Genealogy is vastly different today from just a generation ago. Here’s what the changes mean to you.

The most intimate of history is connected to the grandest. When you think of genealogy and your own family’s history, you can’t help but think of the events that shaped the lives of all our ancestors: war, religion, and, above all, technological change. Technology fueled the endless migrations of the last centuries, atomizing communities and even families. And now technology is bringing rhem, living and dead, back together again.

During the last several decades the popularity of genealogical research has grown with the rise of new tools. Through this growth many who became separated from their families, and thus their family histories, have discovered that they can find themselves reunited with long-lost cousins and long-forgotten lore. These reunions tend to foster pride in who we are and who we once were—which is, at bottom, why people become interested in tracing their family histories in the first place. But in the beginning genealogy belonged to a relative few, most of them rich.


Genealogy B.C. (Before Computers)

Some of the earliest and most ardent devotees of genealogical research in the old days were people interested in joining lineage or hereditary societies, organizations whose members had a common denominator in their ancestry. Some of the better known include the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (“To perpetuate to a remote posterity the memory of our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers”), Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (“Preserving the Memory of the Grand Army of the Republic and Our Ancestors Who Fought to Preserve the Union”), and, perhaps most famous of them all, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (“Historic Preservation, Promotion of Education, Patriotic Endeavor”). In order to join a lineage society, you must carefully document your ancestry back to the person in your family who fits the particular pattern and clearly illustrate your ancestor’s position.

The popularity of lineage and hereditary societies rose steadily on the patriotic tide that followed the 1876 centennial, but even so, few people had the luxury of looking into their family trees. In the words of the prominent genealogist Milton Rubincam, “At one time interest in ancestors was considered almost exclusively the prerogative of social climbers and snobs, of sweet little old ladies running around to boast of their royal forebears, and of elderly gentlemen who delighted in telling of their descent from Revolutionary War generals (who were probably buck privates, if they served at all).”

Then, as now, there was considerable detail work involved. It customarily begins today, as it did then, with your creating what is called a family group sheet, complete with names, dates, and places for each event (birth, marriage, death) in the lives of each of your close relatives. As you work back through time, you create a new group sheet for each immediate family; for the direct ancestry of four generations this means making fifteen sheets. Each sibling in each family also requires a separate sheet. Moreover, each event in each person’s life demands documentation. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, land records, tax records, military records, pensions, death certificates, funeral or cemetery records, obituaries, wills, probate records: The paperwork soon becomes mountainous.


Until recently anyone who had the necessary time, money, and resources spent hundreds of hours painstakingly recording such data by hand. It meant reading book after book, writing letter after letter, filling out innumerable index cards, and traveling from courthouse to cemetery, thumbing through files and ledgers and reading weather-worn tombstones, seeking a date or a name or an initial. Many researchers spent a lifetime compiling data for a single book or manuscript they hoped would be preserved among the collections of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or perhaps the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Genealogical Technology Begins

After the National Archives was established, in the 1930s, thousands of records became readily available to the public. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—the Mormons—embarked on the immense project of gathering its record collections as early as 1894. Microfilm was developed during World War I, and by 1938 both the National Archives and the LDS Church were using it for record preservation. Easily copied and distributed, microfilm offered the genealogist infinitely greater access to a growing number of records. Today the LDS Church has more than three million records on microfilm, available through any of the church’s Family History Centers.

During the 1940s and 1950s genealogy societies and magazines began to spring up. Everton’s Genealogical Helper was first published as a fourpage quarterly in 1947; today each bimonthly issue runs to about 270 pages. Subscribing to such magazines and joining societies, budding genealogists formed networks across the country.

This new generation of family historians not only was looking to join lineage societies or turn up dukes in their families but also wanted to memorialize impoverished immigrants who had come to the United States at the beginning of the century and were now starting to die. All genealogists share a universal regret: that they didn’t talk with some relative when they had the chance. They wish they had asked Grandma about her grandparents, about where she was born and her family’s life. Instead she took that knowledge with her when she died.

An interesting thing often happens to us as we approach middle age. We begin to feel the fragility of life, and it makes us want to find and hold on to some knowledge of past generations. This happened to thousands of people in the years after World War II, and they had new tools to make the quest a bit easier.

There are now tens of thousands of genealogy Web sites. The volume of on-line resources grows daily.

Membership in the National Genealogical Society (NGS) grew from 600 in 1953 to more than 4,000 by 1978. At the same time, the restless 1960s and early 1970s was a period of unrest that in its own way increased many people’s need to feel a bond with their past, to find a sense of purpose and of family. During this era Alex Haley made perhaps the single biggest contribution to the popularity of genealogy when his transatlantic search for his own family led first to his famous book Roots , a bestseller in 1976, and then to the immensely popular miniseries based on it. Genealogy would never be the same. The oft-cited inaccuracies and fabrications in Haley’s work do not diminish the feelings that it inspired in tens of thousands of Americans.

The Personal Computer

Looking back, I can see a convergence of big forces at this point forever changing genealogy—and with it, my own life. But none of us knew it while it was happening. By the early 1980s baby boomers were sensing their own mortality. The immigrant generation was gone. Alex Haley had inspired us. Most important of all, the personal computer was becoming commonplace. Genealogists quickly embraced this amazing tool for how it could help us organize our research and spend our time more effectively. But no one could have predicted its full impact over the next two decades.

During the 1980s shareware developers began turning out genealogy software, most of it database programs designed to help people track the individuals, names, dates, and places they had previously recorded by hand on paper. By the early 1990s a few commercial software companies had begun to market such programs. Family Tree Maker, Reunion, The Master Genealogist, Ancestral Quest, Ultimate Family Tree, and Generations are among the most popular ones today.

The Family History Department of the LDS Church, pioneers in the field of genealogical record gathering and microfilming, also pioneered the use of computers in the field, and thousands of LDS Family History Centers around the world now offer searchable computerized indexes on CD-ROM. The church created one of the first and most widely recognized genealogy database programs, Personal Ancestral File; it also developed the GEDCOM standard ( Ge nealogical D ata Com munication), officially released in 1987, which made it easy for newly reunited cousins to share their research data regardless of whether or not they used the same software program. As the personal computer took the drudgery out of record keeping, many people who had long wanted to become involved in genealogy found themselves jumping in.

My Journey

My own research began in 1980 with a high school assignment that had me creating a chart on poster board and depicting my ancestry. I received an A for my efforts and discovered I had been bitten by the bug. Many people refer to it as an addiction, a sickness, or a passion, depending on where they are in their research. For me it has been all of the above.

During college I bought a genealogy book for beginners and began to learn what methods to use. I visited the library and started filling out family group sheets, but when I saw what a daunting task that would become, I set aside my research in favor of focusing on my college courses. This didn’t mean that the ancestors had quit calling to me; they were just biding their time. Our departed can be very patient while they wait for us to find them.

After college I picked up my binders and again began organizing data. My father purchased a software genealogy program for me to use on his new computer. That summer, just before a family wedding in California, I entered hundreds of names and printed out reams of paper reports, and I put them in colored folders along with copies of old family photos. I still remember the thrill I felt sharing these folders with my cousins on that trip. You can get a great sense of accomplishment seeing your work on your family in type, even if your research is still in its infancy.

Just as college had gotten in the way of my passion, so did earning a living. A full-time job didn’t leave many hours to spend visiting libraries or archives. Being newly married and living on a fixed budget also meant I couldn’t do any extensive traveling. So I did what I could to talk to my aunts and uncles and interview my husband’s relatives as well. I faithfully entered the data I got into the genealogy software program on my dad’s computer. More in-depth research would have to wait until time and money became more plentiful.

Networking With Fellow Researchers

Meanwhile, as personal computers became part of everyday life, computer interest groups sprang -up. Genealogists were quick to form special-interest groups within these organizations. Networking with other genealogists is an important part of research, and it was only natural that genealogists would make use of computer bulletin-board systems (BBS). In 1987 there were more than 4,000 bulletin boards around the world. Through a BBS genealogists could meet others doing research on the same family or in the same area. They could trade advice, tips, and help; they could access data files and shareware programs. The sometime prowler of far-flung cemeteries now needed only a computer and a modem to reach out to the world.

In the mid-1980s, as commercial on-line services, such as CompuServe and GEnie, came into being, they provided new resources. In 1986 GEnie established the Genealogy RoundTable, which at the height of its popularity managed 2,000 messages from 200 users a day. Next came graphicalbased services like Prodigy and America Online. In 1988 AOL established the Genealogy Forum. It consisted at first of a chat room, a message board, and a library of computer files; it received barely ten hours of use a month. Today more than 200,000 people use it each month to access surname centers, articles, scheduled chats, and an events center. The ability of on-line services like AOL to effortlessly connect so many people has done a lot to fuel the rise in interest in genealogy.

The Internet

While thousands were jumping on the BBS and on-line service bandwagon, a handful of pioneers were looking ahead to the Internet. From 1,000 host computers in 1984, the Internet grew to 1.5 million in 1993 and more than 20 million today. The Web was popularly launched in 1991. Genealogists have been, as usual, in the thick of things. The LDS Church estimates that genealogy is the second most popular subject on the Internet today.

The first major genealogical resources on the Internet, beginning in the late eighties, were the soc.roots Usenet newsgroup and the ROOTS-L e-mail mailing list—two ways of accessing the same forum—and the Roots Surname List database. By 1994, when ROOTS-L and soc.roots split, they had 2,000 participants. The mailing list continued to grow, and now it has more than 10,000 subscribers and carries more than 200 messages daily. The Roots Surname List is a database of more than 450,000 surnames, submitted by some 60,000 Internet users since 1988. As modems and Internet software became standard on new computers, more and more people began to explore their roots on-line. Genealogy Web sites appeared, and coordinated efforts to put genealogical research materials on-line took off.

When I first went on the Internet, I began to share what I found with my local genealogy society. Many of the people there grumbled that Cyberspace was a waste of time, hard to use and hard to find things on. I thought they were right—and wrong. The Internet is not the final answer for genealogical research, and many people first stepping out onto it have unreal expectations. But then, most of these people are new to genealogy and haven’t yet explored the methodology behind it.

Research requires many different tools, and you must familiarize yourself with each of them before you can get the most from your research time. You always begin with yourself and work back. You talk with each of your oldest living relatives and glean as much as you can from family stories, photos, letters, and the family Bible, if there is one. Then you visit your local LDS Family History Center to explore its vast resources. Attend a genealogy society meeting, and seek out nearby libraries with genealogical or historical collections. Each of these is a traditional essential in the genealogist’s toolbox.

With the Internet we have added to that box the most powerful tool yet. There are now more than 4,000 e-mail lists for genealogy, and you can subscribe to any of them free. They cover specific ethnic groups, surnames, localities, religions, and software programs. There are also tens of thousands of genealogy Web sites. You can find historical reference works, maps, and gazetteers; hundreds of helpful how-to articles on various genealogical topics; Web sites for countries, states, provinces, counties, and parishes; the personal Web sites of thousands of genealogists around the globe, containing everything from genealogy databases, complete with names and dates, to census indexes, ships’ passenger lists, cemetery transcriptions, wills, and tax records. The volume of resources grows daily. Cooperative group efforts, such as those at RootsWeb, and recordspreservation projects, such as that of Heritage Quest, make it increasingly possible to access scanned images of records and reliable indexes of those records.

Cyndi’s List

When I began creating my own personal Web site, I had a small list of organized bookmarks. I asked my husband, Mark, if I should place them on the site as well. He said, “Sure, why not?” Famous last words. That was two and a half years ago, when Cyndi’s List ( started out with 1,025 links on one Web page. Today it is a vast index to genealogical Web sites, containing more than 38,000 links on more than 270 individual Web pages. It isn’t anywhere near complete, and it never will be, because the Internet is dynamic and ever-changing. When I first started working on the list, I just wanted to show people what useful research tools the Internet had—to help others find the sorts of gems I had found when I first started to explore. I still add to the list each day in a continuing effort to catalogue on-line resources and make order out of the chaos that clutters the information superhighway.

When I first put the site on-line, I had grandiose ideas about how I would expand my family’s personal Web site. That was before Cyndi’s List took on an unruly life of its own. I haven’t been able to work on my own research since then. Despite that, just by putting.up the site, I have added to my family tree in ways that would have been impossible prior to the Internet. I have eighteen newly discovered cousins who found me on-line. We have begun a small, private mailing list on which we talk about our mutual research on the family. It isn’t often that you meet your third or fourth cousins—and surprising indeed that they should turn out to be genealogists too. Since these cousins found me, I have acquired information on two more sets of fourth great-grandparents and a set each of fifth and sixth great-grandparents. I have a copy of a Civil War diary written by my third great-grandfather, Isaac Spears Sanderlin. I have his father’s portrait, taken in his own Civil War uniform shortly before he died at the beginning of the conflict. I have shared my research and family photos with each of these cousins—all of this made possible merely by placing my research on the Web and interacting with the genealogical community on-line. Fifty years ago it would have taken me a lifetime to track down these people.

Several of the new cousins I met on-line happen to live near me in Washington State. (One of my less pleasing discoveries was to learn that after spending an entire summer at the National Archives branch in Seattle, digging through hundreds of pages of census records, I had a cousin just ten minutes up the road who had the same information already completed.) Last year I met with a small group of these cousins; it was a very moving experience. We were all there because of a common ancestor, my fourth great-grandfather. It was about then that it struck me what the Internet was really doing. It was bringing us all back together.


At the beginning of this century, my family, like millions of others, was moving apart. Spurred by necessity, people left their ancestral homes; many headed west. Some never returned; many never saw their parents or siblings again. As time passed, it got easier to keep in touch with one another. But by then the people they wanted to keep in touch with were gone. The century waned, and a new technology burgeoned. Now, through that technology, I am being reunited with my family. These cousins are spread across the United States and Canada. We share a distant ancestor, but the intimacy of talking daily over the Internet makes us close. It had to be unimaginably hard for our forebears to leave everyone they knew and loved behind as they moved toward a better life. I like to think that my ancestors might be pleased to know that we have finally come back home together in Cyberspace.

Especially Useful Genealogical Resources on and off the Net

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