Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Building a Family Tree Using an Upgraded Site

Drawing up a family tree has long been the job of the family member with the most patience and the steadiest hand. So it makes sense to look to technology as a means of helping to alleviate the work. For years, there have been software programs that helped with the job, such as Family Tree Maker for Windows and Reunion for the Macintosh. But the technology of genealogy has been moving to the Web, and now those Web-based tools have taken another step forward.

This week, we tested a recently revamped Web site, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com), which helps you build a family tree and can integrate your tree’s data with 500,000 other family trees and records containing five billion names. The site has been around for 10 years, but an overhauled version that intends to be more complete and intuitive was launched in a prerelease version six weeks ago.

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Ancestry.com helps you create and enrich your family tree using records like draft-registration cards (above) and census records, as well as family trees of other users.

The new Ancestry.com offers numerous features, the most important of which is much better integration of the site’s data with your own information. These data include census records, military draft-registration cards, marriage certificates and immigration records. Some of this information has been available before, on CDs and on the Web, but digging it up has largely been a separate process from creating a family tree.

You can build a family tree right on the Web site, without the need for stand-alone software, and you can share that tree with others. As names are added to the tree, icons that look like green leaves appear beside those of your family members to whom data on Ancestry.com might be linked. You can “grow” your tree by attaching those data if they’re relevant, further enriching your finished product.

The site has some limitations, and it’s expensive. But we really liked it and were excited to discover things like handwritten census entries from the early 1900s mentioning our forebears, or draft-registration cards for our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Ancestry.com can be used free — as long as you’re just using data that you provide, such as names, dates and geographic details. But the teasing leaves of information can be opened only if you pay. A U.S. Deluxe membership costs $30 a month or $150 a year. And a more expensive $40 a month or $347 a year World Deluxe membership lets you see family-history records from outside the U.S. as well.

These prices are hefty, but the information’s value can be huge. And, the prices look smaller if you only need the research capability for a month or two. A more-limited version of the service, without the family-tree building features, is available free at some libraries.

Not everyone we typed into our trees had associated records. When we did get lucky, however, we grabbed the phone to share our findings with relatives, or emailed them images of the records. Your tree and all records attached to those in your tree can be shared via email with anyone else.

Ancestry.com is broken down into four major tabs for searching: Historical Records, Family Trees, Stories & Publications and Photos & Maps. We found it best to get started by creating a family tree, which helped us to get organized and to find other data using the green-leaf indicators. If you start out searching for data with only sketchy information, you might get frustrated.

If you’ve already created a family tree in a stand-alone program, you can upload it to Ancestry.com, as long as it’s in the industry standard “GEDCOM” format. Walt successfully did so using a tree that he made five years ago.

It didn’t take long for us to create a very basic tree with just a few generations, adding names, birth and death dates and locations (if we knew them). We named our trees and made them public, allowing others to use our data and vice versa. Even if you don’t make your tree public, other Ancestry.com users can still learn the name, birth year and birthplace of a deceased person in your tree. They can also anonymously contact you for more information using the Ancestry Connection Service, if you opt to let them do so.

Things got exciting when we saw shaking green leaves appear beside the names of certain members of our family. Mousing over these leaves showed us the number of source records found on each person, and in some cases showed the number of other users’ family trees that could match with ours. You can browse through these other trees, and if someone else lists your relative in their tree, you can automatically fill in blanks in your family timeline and merge those new facts into your tree.

In many cases, we could see digital images of a family member’s source records including, in the case of our relatives’ draft cards, an actual signature. If you like, you can share just the images of these documents with others via email. You can print a copy of any document, or save it to your computer’s hard drive. You can also order large, high-quality copies of some documents; prices for these range from $8 to $25.

Each person on a family tree has his or her own page with a life-events timeline and the records that you attach to the profile. This page also has room for an uploaded digital photo of the person.

You can also search for family information using the other tabs. If you know what type of document you’re looking for, you can start searching with that type of record, such as the data on immigration records.

As you continue to research your relatives, interesting facts show up on the side of the screen every so often. In Katie’s case, one fact about her mother’s family said, “Most Chapman immigrants to the US (1120) came from Liverpool, England, and Queenstown, Ireland.” A corresponding link showed her a pie chart of the six areas from which Chapmans immigrated.

There are some important downsides to Ancestry.com. Its display of family trees and options for laying them out on the screen is far more rudimentary and limited than in the stand-alone genealogy programs. Its printing options are crude. The company is working on better display and output options, including books that contain your trees and related document images. Also, immigration records are limited because Ancestry’s database currently omits Ellis Island in New York. The company says the Ellis Island data are coming within months. Foreign data also are severely limited.

Still, Ancestry.com is a rich site that uses a sensible layout and encourages learning.

Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com.


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