Discover Your Roots

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Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jill Groce always knew that her father's family had a long history in America, but it wasn't until she started researching her genealogy that she discovered exactly how far those roots stretched. Groce, a 62-year-old copy editor from Montgomery Village, traced her family tree back nearly four centuries; a 17th-century court transcript details one cousin's appearance before a Maryland magistrate on charges that Groce says sounds suspiciously like cow tipping. (For the record, Groce also learned that she is the "fourth cousin, seven times removed" to George Washington.)

It seems Groce isn't the only one interested in learning out more about her lineage. Seventy-three percent of Americans have an interest in their family history, according to a 2005 study conducted by Market Strategies, Inc., a syndicated research firm based in Livonia, Mich., and MyFamily.com, an online network of genealogical tools based in Provo, Utah. "The United States [is] a nation of immigrants," says Diane O'Connor, marketing director of the National Genealogical Society, based in Arlington. "Most of us are filled with a sense of wondering who we are and where we came from."

Before you cannonball into the family gene pool, O'Connor suggests deciding what you want to accomplish. Are you interested in joining the Daughters of the American Revolution? Tracking down the great-great-uncle who moved to California, never to be heard from again? Consider focusing your research on the side of the family that will help you get to the bottom of your mystery. (Groce limited her research to her father's side, because it was better documented than her mother's.)

Though genealogy concentrates on opening the door to the past, Lee Douglas, a reference librarian in the Library of Congress's Local History & Genealogy Reading Room, recommends beginning in the present. "Start with yourself and go back one generation at a time," he says. "That way, you don't wind up doing someone else's family history for him."

Interview your relatives to ask them for birth dates, death dates and old diaries -- whatever details or documents will help you construct a record of the lives that came before you. But remember, memories fade, and sometimes truth gets sacrificed in an effort to conceal "blemishes" in the family history. (One genealogical joke has a relative recording a family member's public hanging as "death during a public ceremony, when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed beneath him.")

Rather than pinning the entire family tree on decades-old memories, Douglas and O'Connor recommend using witness accounts and official records to validate family stories. "You have to button down everything [with primary sources] or you can't say it's true," says Douglas.

This means tracking down birth and death certificates, military papers, land records and census counts. Though many vital records are held only at the state or county level, you may find some documents pertaining to your ancestors at the Library of Congress and National Archives. The Library of Congress has more than 40,000 genealogies, as well as searchable databases with New York passenger ship immigration records for 1820-1938, a Civil War Pension Index and the Social Security Death Index. If you find your kin in one of these databases, you can head over to the National Archives, which houses these records as well as more than 10 million land-transfer records, to verify your findings.

Scouring such documents can be surprisingly thrilling; Groce says she was hooked on genealogy the moment she saw her grandfather's name written in "spidery handwriting" on the 1880 census in the National Archives: "I was looking -- on microfilm, but still -- at the exact words the census taker wrote, standing at my grandfather's door when he was just a young man."

Advances in record-keeping and technology have made genealogical data available to anybody with an Internet connection, but both O'Connor and Douglas warn against relying solely on Internet resources. "Nobody edits the Internet," says O'Connor. While subscription sites like http://www.ancestry.com and http://www.heritagequest.com (both available for free in the Library of Congress reading room) offer databases of public records, family genealogies posted on message boards can be generated by anyone.

And what if the great-great-uncle who hopped a freight train west 80 years ago didn't leave a paper trail behind? Disappearing relatives, also known as "brick walls," are a constant source of frustration to family researchers. When the paper trail ends, modern genealogists often turn to CSI-style methods in their quest for answers.

Bennett Greenspan, the CEO of Family Tree DNA in Houston, wondered if he was related to a family living in Buenos Aires who shared a family name and who had emigrated from the Ukrainian town of Yalta around the same time as his mother's ancestors. With no documents to rely upon, Greenspan decided to ask the Argentine family to send him a cheek swab for DNA testing. The result? The Argentines were indeed part of the same family line.

DNA testing is also used to confirm ethnic heritage, though the degree to which your geographic roots can be specified is a matter of debate. Greenspan says his company's test can determine if the person is descended from Native American, Western European, Scandinavian, Semitic or African ancestry. Other DNA testing companies, such as the DC-based African Ancestry, go one step further, attempting to match an individual's DNA to a present-day country of Africa that shares a common lineage.


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