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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

[May 2, 2001]

Finding Great-Grandparents In Cyberspace

Take one of the largest online databases created in recent memory and add 10 million curious wannabe users. What do you get? A backlog, almost certainly. A personal look at an ancestor, if you're lucky.

On April 17th, the society that oversees Ellis Island introduced, in conjunction with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Family Tree Magazine, a database of some 70 percent of passengers that arrived in the United States on Ellis Island from the years 1892 to 1924some 22 million immigrants. This was not a project to combine existing databases, or scan in existing files of lists. The site, www.ellisislandrecords.org, was compiled by some 12,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who worked for upwards of seven years on a volunteer basis to painstakingly decipher and enter the hand-written records of Ellis Island officials recorded during the great wave periods of European immigration to the U.S. The material, which was formerly available only by taking a trip down to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. or in Ellis Island's archives, is now contained in a user-friendly, searchable Web site that allows users to search for name spelling variations, passenger's sex, dates of arrival, ship's names and points of origin.

The Internet has given a boost to filling in the blanks in family trees like no other tool ever imagined. As more and more archives go online, mysteries can be solved in past generations by finding birth, baptism, death and marriage certificates online, not to mention social security records, immigrant passenger ship manifests, information about ancestors' home towns and old newspaper stories and obituaries. Offices holding old information have begun to discover that though they probably still need to put the data on microfilm, having it accessible by the Web cuts down, in the long run, on the amount of requests they receive for photocopies to be mailed and faxed to curious parties -- not to mention having to deal with ardent roots-seekers prowling through microfilm caches or old and possibly fragile documents in the town hall basement.

Additionally, putting genealogical information into Web-accessible databases helps breach the distance barrier. Many Americans today do not speak the languages of their ancestors' home countries, making hunting down documentation that much more difficult. Add to that the frequent occurrences of breathtakingly painful bureaucracy, particularly in some of the former Soviet bloc countries, and it makes ancestor-hunting the old-fashioned way painful, if not near-impossible. Web sites of enterprising companies overseas that advertise genealogical research services have popped up across the Internet and are capitalizing on Americans' hunger for information on their roots. Those investigators will happily research old church and village records, take photographs and provide information seekers with portfolios of family history, for a price.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been compiling family records for generations: The church encourages members to baptize ancestors into the faith posthumously, and therefore works to make it easier for individuals to find information on family members. What the Ellis Island group may not have banked on (technically, it is their sitethe church acted as a partner in supplying the information) is the national hunger for information about ancestorsa quest for a feeling of connection to generations earlier than grandparents or great-grandparents. What they got was 10 million hits in 24 hours. At some moments, the site's 13 servers were attempting to handle 27,000 page requests per second. Tech partners Compaq and Hostcentric became a bit more subdued in issuing volumes of press releases broadcasting their involvement when news of the high-tech traffic jam hit the wires.

The very first day, I attempted to get to the site myself, only to find a "thank you, but the server is busy" message. Subsequent attempts for many days after the launch were met with the same message. Many in the media were critical of the site for being "unprepared," and "problematic." I'm going easy on themwhat organization would EVER imagine that its newly-launched Web site would draw 10 million visitors on the first day? Even the Victoria's Secret free-for-all lingerie gawk-fest of two years ago didn't get anything close to that number of visitors. (Nice to know that great-grandma holds more fascination than supermodels in thongs.) Still, in response to the bottleneck, the consortium rushed to supplement its existing 13 servers with 10 more, helping ease the traffic a bit. The site doesn't even sell anything (except memberships to Ellis Island's various non-profit programs), so critical would-be users should remember they are more or less getting "something for nothing," and quit complaining. Building in many more servers to handle traffic would seem slightly foolish, as interest in the site will probably quite naturally settle down to reasonable levels after the average user has found the information he or she is seeking.

Does the site work? Two weeks after its implementation, I was finally able to log in late one night after Law & Order reruns and before bed. I began to hunt for my great-grandfather, who passed away shortly after his arrival in the U.S. from Hungary and about whom, as a result, there remain some gaps in information. After playing with a few variations on the spelling of his last name (of which Schelmetic is an Americanized derivative), I got a hit. There he wasnumber one on the search results list: Andras Selmeczi, arrived in 1906 with his wife Anna, my great-grandmother. This part we knew. What we discovered were their exact ages at their time of arrival, the name of their home town, their port of origin and the name of the ship that brought them to Ellis Island. The site even provided me with a photo, description and history of the ship (scrapped in 1923 after World War I). Some further Web crawling will presumably bring us information on their home town, its history and its exact location on a map of Eastern Europe (frequent twentieth-century border changes, particularly in Eastern Europe, may mean that their village is no longer in the same country it was in 1906). Previous research on another great-grandparent's home village has already brought us specific historical information and photographs that would not have been possible, at least not without a great deal of effort, before the advent of the Internet.

Talk of servers, hits, databases and networks seems superfluous when it's brought down to such a personal level. The Ellis Island database helps shed light on the experiences of the immigrant generation at the turn of the century in a personal way, and gives us a taste of what they slogged through to get to the shores of the U.S. It may help bring ancestors "home" in a way never before realized. My cable modem has just paid for itself.

Tracey E. Schelmetic welcomes your comments at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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