Searching for roots

By Amy Moulden


16 Pine
The roots of genealogy Genealogy meets the Internet The two sides of discovery Dialing long distance Getting started Resources

The roots of genealogy

The dark green house number - 16 - was easy to spot against the white paint. After about 10 minutes of slowly driving and stopping through old-time residential streets, I had started to wonder if the city had changed its street address or if it had been demolished to make room for a more modern home. Of course, many of the houses along the uneven edges of paved road looked as if they easily could have won historic home designations. The pastel homes of modern Central Florida have not invaded Fort Meade, nor are they likely to.

As the street numbers had started to decrease from the 100s, I had wondered if I would instantly recognize the home. I knew I had been there, but I couldn't remember what the house looked like. I had a fuzzy image of the house in my mind. Or was it an image of what I expected?

I pulled into a parking spot at a day care just across the street from the tidy white wood-frame home with its dark green trim. I pushed the button for the car's automatic window to lower and then reached for my camera.

I felt awkward taking a picture of the home, so I took a couple of shots from the car - an overall shot and then a close-up with the zoom feature, making sure the house number was visible. A grapevine wreath hung above a pair of plastic chairs to the left of the front door, and a wooden swing hung empty on the open porch to the right. A large oak tree - or maybe it was two trees - forked into large trunks a foot or two from the ground.

Somehow, it didn't seem like much had changed.

My great-grandmother, Mrs. Bertha Carlton Marsh Lilly, better known to me as Memaw, died when I was 4 . I knew I had been to her house on Pine Street. But whether I knew it from my memories or from stories I was told growing up, I did not know. I used to get carsick on the way because, for a small child used to flat Florida roads, the path my mom drove to Fort Meade was like riding a roller coaster - UP, down, UP down, UP, down. There also were stories about Memaw's second husband, J.P., who used to give me Pringles potato chips when I visited. Memories of what they looked like, however, come from photographs taken of them holding their great-grandchild - me.

I had driven the hour from my parent's home in Lakeland to find the house and the grave sites of my great-grandmother and grandmother, who died five years before I was born. This was the first excursion outside of the Polk County Courthouse that I had taken to discover my family's past.

My interest in genealogy isn't new, but I have only recently begun to actively trace it. My interest has always been my paternal grandfather's line - the Mouldens - because it is the side that I am the most familiar with. My mother's side of the family is interesting: She's a several-generation Floridian, a rarity, and there's an emmigration from Eastern Europe.

My paternal grandmother, Camilla "Millie" Harrell Moulden, however, is the one who spurred me to join the ever-increasing number of Americans searching for their family roots when she enlisted my father's help, and, thus, my help, to publish the "Harrell Family History and Favorite Recipes." Her family research and connections now are maintained with the help of a computer and the Internet, which she first logged onto in 1998, at the age of 81.

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Genealogy meets the Internet

The Internet has caused many people to dust off old photo albums and family Bibles. One report list genealogists as the second largest user group on the Internet. The reason is simple for those who stay up late at night following links through ship passenger lists and cemetery records - the possibility that you might learn a little something about an ancestor or living relative.

The Internet can't replace old-fashioned digging through courthouse and library archives, but it is allowing greater access to public records and the pooling of resources. Some state and county agencies maintain online records, but much of the information now available is transcribed and maintained by volunteers. And even if the needed information isn't online, many genealogy sites list volunteers who will look up - sometimes for free - the desired records that can be found near their homes.

One of the more popular genealogy sites is Cyndi's List, which now boasts more than 41,700 links to genealogy sites. According to the site's Frequently Asked Questions page, Cyndi Howells' main index has more than 15,000 visitors a day, with the entire site having more than 64,000 hits a day. Since the site began in 1996, more than 7 million hits have been logged.

Some genealogy sites offer free database searches, while others charge for access. Ancestry.com, which a November 1998 Knight-Ridder article lists as the 65th most popular Internet site, offers a few free databases, such as the Social Security Death Index. For full database access, however, charges run up to $60 for an annual subscription. Ancestry.com says it is on target to contain 1 billion names by 2001.

In January 1999, RootsWeb said it logged 85 million hits and 154 million e-mails to its listservs, which includes one for Harrells. It also hosted 3,802 independently authored Web sites.

Ancestry.com and RootsWeb made the Media Metrix 500 list in December 1998 for the sites with the most "unique" visits, meaning multiple visits by a user count only once. The popularity of the two sites isn't surprising since a 1995 Maritz Marketing Research study found that 45 percent of adults in the United States said they were somewhat interested in genealogy. In a self-reported online CNN poll from March 8, 1999, 80 percent, or 3,677 people, said they used the Internet to conduct family research. Twenty percent, or 900 people, said they didn't.

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Two sides of discovery

For Dorothy "Dot" Sorrells Cox, access to the Internet has been one of the greatest things to happen in her search for family roots. Her interest in that quest, however, couldn't have had a more humble beginning: It all started when Cox said hello to her Uncle Joe.

Those two simple words said at the right time - at a Gainesville, Fla., farmer's market while in the company of Uncle Joe and Myra Harrell Taylor - led Cox to a wealth of information about her family.

On that day at the farmer's market, the women who had been friends for about two years discovered that they were more than that - they were cousins. Cox is a descendant of Virginia Ella Harrell Crews. Taylor traces her roots to Crews' brother Joseph Willard Harrell.

After the two women discovered the connection, they talked genealogy during an afternoon of boiling sugar cane at Taylor's farm near Alachua, Fla. Cox spent that day asking questions and getting bits and pieces of information about her family from Taylor, who had known Cox's grandparents.

"She knew all the family history from living right there," Cox said.

Taylor then introduced Cox to others, and a passion for genealogy soon was born.

Cox started her adventure the old-fashioned way - lots and lots of legwork. She still does the legwork, but she's most likely to track down a relative not at the downtown courthouse, but at one of the thousands of World Wide Web sites geared toward genealogists.

Cox used to have friends put out queries on genealogy sites, and when she started seeing the response, it made her think, "I need to get out there."

"It's the best thing that ever happened since I got into genealogy. I had a lot of friends that passed along the Web sites," Cox said. "I have so many cousins now you would not believe it."

Cox has found many of her "Internet cousins," as she calls them, solely through the use of the Web. She's put queries on sites such as RootsWeb and the US GenWeb, checked census records online, and found others interested in the same families who have helped to fill out the branches of the family tree.

One query led to a woman in Columbia, S.C., who discovered a spelling error that was hindering Cox's research. Not only did the contact provide the correction, but she had copies of land grants, deeds and other information that she shared.

"It was like Christmas around here," Cox said of the atmosphere after the historical items arrived.

Cox uses the Web to find new information, but she also backs up her online discoveries with hard-copy evidence. Cox and her husband, Paul, usually combine pleasure with genealogy research on their vacations.

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Dialing long distance

After self-publishing the "Harrell Family History and Favorite Recipes," Camilla "Millie" Harrell Moulden decided to join the online world. Friends have helped Moulden, who is a descendant of Joseph Willard Harrell, to learn her way around in the Worldwide Genealogy Web. While Moulden checks out some of the free databases, she's found success by looking at queries posted on genealogy sites and by using online telephone directories.

While Moulden has made online contact with a Harrell in Ohio, she has spent more time seeking her husband's relatives - the Mouldens. She found one Moulden branch in Kansas after finding queries posted on several Web sites. And she used an old obituary listing Kansas relatives and AOL's phone directory to find the survivors who were listed.

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Getting started

Before jumping onto that Genealogy Superhighway, however, you might want to compile a list of what you do know and visit some sites that provide tips on how to make the most of your family searches via the Internet.

First, talk to relatives. Find out names, dates and places where the family has been and take notes. Be sure to document who provided the information and when the information was written down. It also helps to make photocopies of any family documents. Now is also the time to start a filing system so you can find things easily, complete with source documentation.

Most genealogy sites offer research tips and links. Many also are commercial sites, advertising genealogy software and books.

Several companies have taken notice of the increase in genealogists and have created areas for them. AT&T has a Genealogy Page, as does the Mining Co.

The Mining Co.'s genealogy guide offers information for beginners as well as tips that experienced researchers might find helpful, including tips on how to use listservs for family research. The site also has forms researchers can download to keep their work in order.

The National Archives and Records Administration also recommends that genealogists check out what records are available and join genealogical societies for up-to-date information and help. NARA also suggests that researchers begin their searches with census records. The agency's Web site offers research tips and guides to using national archives.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the world's largest collection of genealogical information, with some 2.1 million rolls of microfilm and 280,000 books. Those starting their research can find much information from the LDS site. While not all of the church's information is online, it released a beta version in March 1999 of its new Web site that allows researchers to search for specific people, collaborate with others, preserve their family tree and add a Web site. The official site is expected in late spring or early summer in 1999.

But as more and more information becomes available online, genealogists must use all the more caution in building their family trees. Just because information can be found, doesn't mean it is accurate. Always back up the information found via the Internet with something credible, such as census records or court records. Some Web sites may continue to spread false information. And, as with anything, don't expect to find everything or to find information quickly via the Internet. It's simply a tool for the genealogist to use in climbing the family tree.

For a list of resources used in "Genealogy online," please see the Resources page.

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e-mail Amy Moulden
Created April 1999