Internet Helps Families Discover Genealogical, Personal Ties
It is a windy, crowded little graveyard, sandwiched between a car dealership and a hamburger joint west of Cleveland. Under a white marble stone worn by 153 winters lies a man named James Shearman Anthony.
He was a farmer, a hard-shell Baptist who wanted to be a poet, who was convinced that slipping morals were plaguing America and, as he wrote, “cankering her piety.” He came from New England with his neighbors, cleared these Ohio woods, started a life. He was my great-great-great-grandfather.
I used to come here when I was younger. I’d sit at the edge of his grave and wonder who he was, what he meant to me. In our small family, my father, my two sisters and I are the last people born with the name Anthony.
Unlike most of this nation’s Anthonys, originally from England, our history was more shadowy: It started with a mysterious 18th-century merchant seaman named Manoel Antonio, “said to be a Portuguese by birth,” according to sketchy family records passed down to me.
After 15 years of hunting, researching, obsessing, I have found only a few tantalizing clues. He married in Newport, R.I., in 1760. Lived in Hispaniola, in the part that is now Haiti, in the 1770s. Moved to Charleston, S.C. In the 1790 census, America’s first, he owned a slave.
I have been to Rhode Island, New York, South Carolina, to muddy cemeteries, colonial courthouses and stone libraries, following footprints he left behind.
Then a footprint found me. Suddenly we were no longer entirely alone.
All it took was an e-mail.
Look on the Internet and, it’s true, you’ll find almost anything: advertisements, odes to Pez and Kool-Aid, naked women and men in a variety of poses.
Odds are you can find your family too.
Genealogy, at its best, is a way of connecting people. To know your history is important; to share it--to realize that you are not alone--is fulfilling beyond compare. And now, in little more than five years, a forum has arisen that is uniting two entities crucial to family history: people and data, and people and people.
“All of it--the Internet, e-mail--is stimulating interest. It’s helping people make connections,” says Tom Downard, director of membership and marketing at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, America’s oldest such organization.
Computer-assisted genealogy has been around since PCs entered the home in the mid-1970s. But with the Internet, “it’s like having every major library in the world in your den,” says Ralph Roberts, author of “Genealogy via the Internet.”
And today, few producers of genealogical software are ignoring the Net.
One leading piece of software, Broderbund’s Family Tree Maker, not only includes the tools for Internet access in its package but also operates a comprehensive Web site that allows its users to create home pages, post their entire family histories for others to see, and view classified ads and message boards.
As of March, the company’s site had more than 34,000 family trees available online.
“It makes it easier to get that first thrill of discovery,” says Charles Merrin, senior product manager for Family Tree Maker Online. “And because of that, it’s become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you start getting people’s research up there, you have more people doing research because of it.”
One, Loren Toomsen of Clear Lake, Iowa, made contact over the Internet with another researcher who shared her links to a woman born in 1700. They exchanged e-mails and Family Tree Maker data and pushed their lines back two more generations.
“Total time, less than three minutes,” Toomsen says.
Such stories hold true all over cyberspace--from Usenet, where a newsgroup (message board) called soc.genealogy has been a popular information-exchange forum for years, to the World Wide Web, where the Yahoo! search engine returns more than 1,450 Web sites from the keyword “genealogy.”
“I’ll say this: With just a little digging around, you will find someone who is related to you,” says Lauramaery Gold, author of “Mormons on the Internet.”
Mormons have long been a centerpiece of genealogical research; it is a pivotal part of their religion. For them, tracing family history is a holy pursuit because it allows church members to discover unknown relatives and “seal” them in the Mormon faith.
For years, Mormon church libraries and the central Mormon archive in Salt Lake City have been must-go places for genealogists, both Mormon and non-Mormon. But now, though the Mormon Church itself has not yet put its records online, the Internet is making all sorts of other genealogical records available to anyone with a modem.
“I hear stories from everyone--people telling me they found cousins they didn’t know just because of Internet contacts. I feel that I have this extended family that I was never linked into before,” Gold says.
“I think it has tremendous theological implications,” she says. “God expects us to build the kingdom through sealing our families--to pull this whole planet together and make us one big family. And the Internet is a tool in that mission.”
That principle, pursued on a religious or a secular level, guides many genealogists. The Internet is now simply allowing researchers to do the same thing in a different way: unite people with relatives, those long dead and those still very much alive.
“That’s been one of our objectives,” says Merrin of Family Tree Maker Online. “To create a real sense of community, a place where people come together to share their heritage and share their history.”
“It was one of the riveting moments of my life,” says George Michael Anthony.
He’s talking about finding me--or, at least, what I represented to him. Because, although neither of us knew it until March 16, 1995, we are fourth cousins. Our common ancestor: that Baptist in the Ohio cemetery.
“Call me Mike,” my newfound relative told me when, after a volley of e-mails, we finally talked on the phone.
Like me, Mike Anthony, a business consultant from Lake Oswego, Ore., had been trying for years to find out just who this Manoel Antonio was. He’d found his own tantalizing clues of the man he knew mostly as “Munvel Antonie.”
Then, researching some Mormon records, he came across a search request I’d filed in 1982, when I was only 14. I was looking for Manoel Antonio. And I’d included my address.
Of course, it was an old address. So he decided to search e-mail directories. There I was, listed on America Online: Edward Mason Anthony IV. He risked a missive.
I remember the day it appeared. And I remember the thought, the one I echo today: Suddenly we are no longer alone. Because of an electronic connection, two families with shared history are now part of one larger family--talking, cooperating and finding out about each other.
These days, when we talk and e-mail, Mike Anthony and I do it in shorthand:
“Do you think the Captain ever visited Costa Rica?”
“James died before Lydia.”
“I have no idea why Clemence changed her name to Charlotte.”
And still we both search--for others who share our history, who might be interested in knowing just a little bit more.
“What it’s led me to thinking,” my cousin says, “is this: Who else out there am I related to?”
Who else indeed? Who else of the hundreds of millions of names on the Internet can we connect with?
Caution is warranted; the capacity for error increases with the amount of data out there, and just because the World Wide Web says you’re related to someone doesn’t mean you are.
And there is little reason to worry that a desktop computer-and-modem experience will replace the thrill of trudging through graveyards or scouring dusty documents, the experts say.
“You cannot replace the experience of being in a cemetery or looking at real church records. It’s a very visceral thing,” says Downard of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. “I think that it will just stimulate interest in areas that probably wouldn’t have been visited.”
I still go back to the graveyard west of Cleveland. And I wonder sometimes what James Shearman Anthony would think of America in 1998. Of the erosion of values he held dear. Of the fast-paced society that his descendants helped create. Of the machines that have supplanted men and women.
He’d probably be annoyed, this staunchly religious Protestant--appalled at all the “cankered piety” that his nation begat.
But then I think again. Of Mike Anthony, of how I found him. Of the packet-switching, bit-and-byte, Pentium-pro world that allowed my fourth cousin to locate me in a modern sea of data and humanity.
And I realize that my ancestor, who fancied himself a poet, might appreciate the poetry in two of his great-great-great-grandsons finding each other through a network he never could have predicted, in a world he never could have imagined.
Ted Anthony’s genealogy home page is on the Web at