TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- With the stroke of a keyboard and the click of a mouse, John Cox brought up whole generations of research.
"Who's an ancestor you'd like me to search?" he asked, sitting at a computer desk in his Twin Falls home.
I thought about it a moment, then gave him a name. A few minutes later we found my ancestor - and his parents. We traced the line back to the early 1800s within 45 minutes.
"That's the thing I love about genealogy, finding out about our ancestors," said Cox, director of the Family History Center in Twin Falls. "It's fun, because it becomes a sort of mystery; you become a detective."
It would have taken much longer for us to trace my grandfather's line if it weren't for new online resources.
Years ago, people searching their family trees had to scour musty newspaper records, property deeds, wills and probate records. While some folks still do that work today, most lay genealogists can do much of the research while reclining in their office chairs.
A number of websites and computer software programs are available to help - and the neat thing is, Cox said, so much of the groundwork already has been done by others.
A recent boon: the 1942 census, which the government released digitally on April 2.
"It's a chance to find out about more recent relatives," Cox said. "They had just come out of the Depression, so the census asked things like what they did for a living and how much they made. It was a fairly extensive census."
The lay genealogists he knows greeted its release with excitement. The census is conducted every 10 years, but the government doesn't release detailed data to the public for 72 years afterward. Census information will appear on genealogy websites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. But it will be a while before all 132 million names are indexed on the sites.
"This is the first census the government has sent out in digital format," Cox said. "Its release has been greeted with such gusto that I wouldn't be surprised if it was completed within a few months."
A good way to get started on a genealogy search is by visiting FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, Cox said. The latter is a subscriber-pay site, but you can access it for free at the Family History Center.
The center, which is closed through mid-July for remodeling, is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it's not just for LDS church members. There is no proselyting at the center, which has about 20 computers and hundreds of books and file records; the volunteers are there only to help people as they search their family trees.
"We want the community to use the library," Cox said.
And it does. About 50 patrons use the library each week for research, he said; about a third of those are non-LDS.
People's interest in genealogy is nothing new. The Bible, for instance, records the genealogy of many of its prominent characters, including Jesus Christ.
Genealogy today is not strictly an LDS thing, though the church is one of its biggest promoters because of its belief in linking generations of families together. Faithful members search out their ancestors and take those names to the church's temples to perform proxy baptisms and other religious rites.
Some members such as Twin Falls resident LaRue Horting believe genealogy was the very reason providence allowed the Internet to be created.
Horting does a little research just about every day and has been able to trace branches of her family back to the 1700s. And in some cases further, she said. The 1840 census records have helped, she said, because they started naming all members in families instead of just the heads of households.
"From 1840 I found a will of my husband's great-great-grandfather," Horting said. "It listed his wife and children and even the children of the daughters."
Besides general curiosity about heritage, Cox said, a person might want to search out ancestors for medical reasons. What did ancestors die from? Is there a disease common in the biological line? And an adoptee might want to know the biological family's medical history.
If you've never done genealogy, a good place to start is at the Family History Library, with its free volunteer help. Also, websites such as FamilySearch.org offer instructional videos that walk you through the basics. The websites also often link to important records such as military draft cards and property deeds.
The further back in time you go, the more difficult it is to find pertinent information about families; not so much if the ancestors were of nobility, Cox said. But there weren't many records kept on the average Joe - except maybe in old church records. And those are difficult to come by. In those cases, visiting old churches and county courthouses likely is your best bet.
Other places to search include newspaper archives, obituaries, census records and, in some instances, medical records.
But state laws vary on what medical records are available to the public, Cox said. If accessed they can be helpful, especially if an adopted child is seeking out the lineage of his or her birth parents.
Another tool that has become popular recently: social media. Not only do some of the more popular genealogy websites have social media presences, but lay genealogists often post tips on Facebook or other sites.
"There's a lot of communication that goes on with people who use social media,"Cox said.
Using social media to further research is "a matter of awareness," he said. "It helps get you in touch with people who are working on the same thing as you. ... A lot of times people will upload their own research to help others."
Searching her ancestors has become a bit of a passion for Horting, she said. Others said much the same thing, including Cox and Twin Falls resident Carl Edgar.
Edgar and his wife, Mary, have been tracing their ancestors for years and have file cabinets filled with research.
"I have traced some of mine to the 1600s," he said. "I have some lines in the 1880s or so, but some lines get stuck. Some records aren't very accurate to begin with or there weren't any records."
He's having trouble in the 1500s. "There were good records kept of the rich," he said, "but lousy records for the poor people."
That's a barrier, he said. In some cases, so is the ocean. He'd like to visit some of Europe's old churches and cemeteries to see what he can find. But he currently has no plans to travel that far.
But Edgar will keep searching at home. "It's become a bit of a passion, yes, I guess you could say that."
)2012 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)
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