June 15, 2001

Genealogy Gone Haywire
As Searchers Take to Web


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."

[Your Family Tree]

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, JaysKids.com, 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 1995.

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.

Site What services offered Cost
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.
Ellis Island
Manifests from ships arriving with immigrants from 1892 to 1924. Free
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. Free
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. $219-$319
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.
Heritage Quest
Sells some 250,000 items, from books to newspapers on microfilm. $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. On RootsWeb.com, 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 elizabeth.bernstein@wsj.com

Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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