Climbing the Family Tree

Larry Benedict hadn't been interested in his family history at all until he ran across an 1844 Bible. Inserted was a page with a family tree listing names he'd never heard of. The search was on. "Most people think it's dumber than dirt to search for a bunch of dead people. But this is your history - it's almost addictive." The No. 3 hobby behind stamp and coin collecting, genealogy, the study of ancestry, has been rising in the ranks ever since the 1977 TV miniseries "Roots," says Drake sociology professor Dean Wright. "There's a real quest for a civic culture in the United States today. People feel alienated and think they have no control over their lives. Finding their history gives a sense of the past that grounds them into a tradition and a culture."(Even Wright has played with it, tracing a line back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.) Wright mentions the highly profitable sales of coats of arms and books of family trees as a sign of people craving a piece of history. "It's not just a search for the past - it's a search for who you are." Genealogical consultant Robert Marlin agrees: "Knowing what you have in the past helps you face the future."In addition to emotional security, knowing the past can save lives, Marlin says. "The first question asked by doctors is about the medical history of your family. Every year they're finding more diseases that are connected. So knowing that your great-grandfather died of gangrene could link diabetes to you and eliminate dozens of tests. This isn't just an idle hobby anymore." Marlin is the author of "My Sixteen: A Self-Help Guide to Finding Your 16 Great-Great Grandparents." The book offers guidelines for getting started with your own family tree: talking with living relatives, visiting your local historical or genealogical society and getting on the Internet. The Net's ability to bring the world to a laptop is revolutionizing genealogical research. "I've been doing it the hard way for years. Things are easier now that so much information is on the Web," says former certified researcher Margaret Foster.Foster, a volunteer at Iowa Genealogical Society (IGS), warns against Internet information. "Every source needs to be checked with the original certificate or record. Just because it's on a computer screen doesn't mean it's accurate."USGenWeb is a nationwide project linking genealogical databases online. Each state has a Website with names, addresses and phone numbers of local archives. Since it debuted last April, 2,065 counties out of 3,109 have Web pages.Even PBS is surfing the family crest. A 10-part series, "Ancestors," debuted Jan. 4. Each half-hour episode tells of a family search and offers guidelines for starting your own exploration.The granddaddy of ancestral info is the Family History Center in Salt Lake City. It has become the largest genealogical library in the world; Mormons believe that current members can baptize ancestors into the church to "seal" them to their family forever. IGS has received much of its microfilm directly from that library, says IGS volunteer Carol Evans. IGS has become a repository for 150 years of Iowa's history. With nearly 3,000 members from all over the world, it's the place to begin any family search. "Thirty years ago it was all old ladies researching. No men. Now we get all kinds of people coming in for help."Evans comes in every week. "I've always considered this place my senior citizens' center."Larry Benedict has been climbing his family tree for five years. After tracing a line back to the mid-1500s in England, he can't stop searching. "To me this is worse than drinking. You never want to put it down."

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