From the Wall Street Journal -- June 15,
Genealogy Gone Haywire
As Searchers Take to Web
By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL
Bonnie Carriles always wanted to know more about her ancestors.
But recently, her genealogical search has made her wish she belonged
to someone else's family.
After scouring the Internet and cemetery documents, she discovered
one relative had two families, found out her great-grandparents'
bodies might have been removed from their graves and was berated
by a relative who thinks she is sticking her nose where it doesn't
belong. Sometimes, just thinking about it all can be upsetting:
"One problem just seems to lead to another," the Chesapeake,
Va., woman says.
Aren't families complicated enough without digging skeletons
out of the closet? Many Americans are learning this the hard
way, thanks to soaring interest in genealogy during the past
decade. This urge to connect with the past has spawned an estimated
$200-million-a-year industry of Web sites and research outfits.
It also has amateur genealogists uncovering everything from minor
embarrassments (ancestors who were horse thieves) to long-concealed
scandals (grandpa had a mistress). And the potential for genealogy
to go haywire is only growing, now that new technology, including
do-it-yourself DNA screening, can fill practically every twig
of the family tree.
If the news is bad -- one Tennessee man discovered he wasn't
even descended from the family he spent decades researching --
it also can come at a high price. While a year of basic document
searches costs about $700, according to Everton's Genealogical
Helper, a more detailed effort can easily run $20,000 or more.
What's more, all this has created unexpected privacy and harassment
issues. A Congressional hearing last year, for example, questioned
whether genealogy sites post too much personal information. One
mounting concern: that family names, often used as bank and credit-card
passwords, will get into the wrong hands. These sites are "a
gold mine for identity thieves," says Joel Reidenberg, a
professor at Fordham Law School.
Certainly, not all genealogy searches turn into disasters,
and plenty of people love the search. But for Jim Reynolds, researching
the dead has caused serious strains among the living. He learned
that his late parents never actually divorced when they separated.
While he was glad to know the truth, his step-siblings won't
speak to him anymore. Mr. Reynolds, a retired engineer in Santee,
Calif., says he regrets hurting his relatives, but "the
facts are the facts are the facts."
Even less-dramatic findings can get in the way of cherished
family lore. Katherine Cole says her late grandfather long prided
himself on family ties to a Revolutionary War colonel who fought
alongside George Washington. Then military records revealed the
colonel's true claim to fame: his weight. At 320 pounds, he couldn't
find a horse that could carry him fast enough. "That's when
Grampie's interest in genealogy sort of petered out," says
Ms. Cole, a writer in Portland, Ore.
The number of these searches started growing about a decade
ago, as Baby Boomers, seeing their elders pass away, began wondering
about their place in history. That's accelerated now that so
many once-remote archives are on the Internet. Today, there are
at least 100,000 such sites, according to Cyndi's List, a service
that catalogs genealogy links. On Ancestry.com, which offers everything from
Census data to message boards where long-lost relatives can connect,
membership has doubled to 400,000 in the past year. Another site,
seeks to find "all 57 children" of the late Blues singer
Screamin' Jay Hawkins. In all, a recent poll by Maritz Marketing
Research found that interest in genealogy has risen 33% since
Not to leave any stone unturned, there are now kits that enable
the most compulsive researchers to compare their genetic makeup
to that of others. (You use a cotton swab to scrape cells from
inside your cheek, and send it off for a $220 lab analysis.)
Justin Howery, a Denver law student who has been corresponding
online with about 30 other Howerys, recently persuaded one of
them to take a DNA test. The two men believe they have a common
ancestor from the 1400s but wanted to prove it. The result: a
match. "It's wild," he says, "to think we have
the same DNA."
Climbing Up the Wrong Tree
But this technology can also open the door to problems. Jack
Stidham discovered he was actually climbing up the wrong tree.
He spent 30 years tracking his roots, including three years traveling
the country in a motor home. He traced his lineage back to a
17th-century Scandinavian doctor. But, when he and 10 other presumed
descendants took a DNA test recently, the results were quite
a surprise. Almost everyone showed a genetic match -- but not
Mr. Stidham, the man who had launched the genealogy effort.
The Morristown, Tenn., retiree, says he regrets that the DNA
test "opened a can of worms." His son David believes
that somewhere in the line there was an adoption or birth outside
marriage: "Who knows what happened behind bedroom doors?"
Web of Relations
Here are Web sites and organizations that help with genealogy
searches -- and what novices should watch out for.
||What services offered
|Everything from birth records to slave histories.
Message boards and newsletter.
||$60 a year
|Comment: If great-grandma
filled out a Census form, you can look at it here -- maybe. Users
say information is hit-or-miss.
|Manifests from ships arriving with immigrants
from 1892 to 1924.
|Comment: It's fun to see
where relatives came from and where they were going. But you
won't find much more than that.
|Search databases, download free software to
manage family tree.
|Comment: Run by Mormon church,
which has the world's largest store of geneaology records --
2 billion names.
|Family Tree DNA
|Sells DNA test kit with swabs that collect cells
from your mouth.
|Comment: Though company disagrees,
some geneticists say margin of error is too high.
|Fed. of Genealogical Societies
|Umbrella organization of 600 local genealogical
groups. Lists events around the country.
||No fee for individuals
|Comment: Geared toward genealogical
clubs, which can be valuable sources of local information.
|Similar to Ancestry.com -- except their Census
data have an easy-to-use index.
||$20 per month or $80 per year
|Comment: Some call its data
unreliable (records are scanned in, but not proofread). Company
says it's working on accuracy.
|Sells some 250,000 items, from books to newspapers
||$4 to $40 per item
|Comment: Customers told us
that these are good resources, especially for tough problems.
|National Genealogy Society
|Lectures, how-to courses and tours to the motherland.
||$50 a year membership
|Comment: A good starting
place, with $35 online course for beginners.
Ms. Carriles, the woman who is looking for her great-grandparents'
bodies, was totally unprepared for what her research turned up.
This spring, she posted a query on FamilySearch.org, a site that offers birth,
marriage and other records. She asked visitors to the site for
information about a relative and got a response from his immediate
family. Actually, two responses, she says -- from two daughters
who appeared to know nothing of each other. Ms. Carriles says
she isn't about to tell. "I'm just doing this for me and
my children," she says. "I don't want to offend anyone."
For some, the shock comes in the form of the bill. Besides
the sea of genealogy tchotchkes from book bags ("Genealogists
Never Die, They Just Lose Their Census") to baby bibs ("I'm
the Newest Sprout in Our Family Tree"), the Internet is
loaded with fee-based services that experts say sometimes promise
more than they deliver. "There's a certain amount of fiction
and fairy tales in all of these databases," says Dick Eastman,
author of a popular online genealogy newsletter. Even the DNA
testing is controversial; some geneticists say it errs about
one in 100 times.
Royal Lineages to Adam, of Farmington, Utah, sells a CD-ROM
for $59.99 that traces lineages all the way back "to Adam
and Eve," assuming you already have mapped your roots to
a figure such as George Washington, Charlemagne or Francus, King
of the West Franks. Julia Schacht, who compiled the CD, says
others have questioned how it's possible to trace roots to the
Garden of Eden but that she's done "the best I possibly
could with the records I had."
Another service, the now-defunct publisher Halbert's, sold
book-style lists of surnames as well as such memorabilia as keychains
imprinted with family "coats of arms." But, according
to numerous complaints to the local Better Business Bureau, the
lists really were little more than telephone directories.
Risk of Identity Theft
There also are privacy issues, including the worry that criminals
or marketers will get names or birthdates of living people that
are posted in online family trees. At the request of the House
Judiciary Committee, the Federal Trade Commission last year reviewed
genealogy sites and concluded that some fail to filter such data
or warn users about the risks of posting it online. Another concern:
Web sites that sell data that members provide. One site, Genealogy.com,
packages some of those details into CD-ROMs. Genealogy.com says
only one part of the site collects information for resale and
that users are clearly warned about that.
"When you put stuff on a genealogy database, you're putting
it in the public domain," says Fordham's Prof. Reidenberg,
who testified in the Congressional hearing last year.
Still, the genealogy business continues to grow because so
many love the hobby. For many families, these searches have led
to happy reunions and turned up proud tales that can be passed
on to future generations. Some don't even mind the surprises.
there's a Black Sheep message board, where people boast about
notorious ancestors like Jesse James and John Wilkes Booth. There
are always going to be a few people "you wouldn't necessarily
have wanted to go to dinner with," says Bijan Bayne, a Cincinnati
author who has been researching the slaves in his family and
the people who owned them.
David Gumpert, a marketing executive, wishes he could be so
unruffled about his findings. He became interested in his roots
after an aunt died, prompting an eight year, $20,000 search during
which he learned that another now-deceased relative neglected
to help his late aunt escape the Nazis in occupied Belgium. Now,
he is having trouble finishing the book he has been writing on
his family, worried about how other relatives will take the news.
"Every time you turn over a rock, more bugs crawl out,"
says Mr. Gumpert, of Needham, Mass.
And beware: You may not be so glad to meet every long-lost
relative who appears in your e-mail "in" box. Dennice
Goudie, who has traced her family back to 17th century France,
recently began getting e-mail from a distant step-cousin she
had never met. At first, the woman was polite, agreeing to share
information about the family. The exchange soon turned into a
family feud, as the cousin blasted Ms. Goudie for posting information
online without her permission. Says Ms. Goudie: "Ever since
then, I've been really careful about checking out my relatives."
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at email@example.com