August 14, 2013

On Internet, Mainers can trace family roots this weekend

Ancestry.com is offering free access this week to a new batch of 220 million historical records.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

People who are curious about their ancestry might do well to set aside some Internet time this weekend.

The genealogy website Ancestry.com plans to release more than 220 million historical records from New England free to the public from Thursday to Sunday.

Ancestry.com has been compiling birth, death and marriage records – as well as images, diaries and articles – dating back to Colonial times, and digitizing and indexing them to make them easily accessible.

"Many Americans have roots in New England, and with the addition of these records to our site, Ancestry.com offers an unprecedented amount of information for those who want to search and discover their New England history," said Daniel Jones, vice president of content for Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com is a member-based site that charges $22.95 per month for access to all U.S. records on file. Members who sign up for six-month subscriptions pay slightly less. From Thursday until Sunday,  visitors will have free access only to the new additions.

The new records include Norman Rockwell's death record, Benjamin Franklin's birth record and Ralph Waldo Emerson's obituary, Ancestry.com said in a media release.

Websites like Ancestry.com have revolutionized historic research for professionals and amateurs, said Earle Shettleworth Jr., Maine's state historian.

"I think one of the most worthwhile things a person can do is learn about their family history, and you can do that basically from one place," he said.

In the days before the Internet, Shettleworth would have to consult old books or make requests through local historical societies to find specific biological information.

"Now, I can just Google a name and usually find something," he said.

Shettleworth said he has a subscription to Ancestry.com, and many historical societies have subscriptions that members can use.

"There has been for a long time an intense focus on tracing these large, traditional New England families that came from England in the 17th century," he said. "But as interest has progressed, everything is now wide open. We can access Franco-American records, Irish family histories, Scandinavian heritage and so on."

The searches are relatively easy. If you search for, say, Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War hero and former Maine governor, you can learn within seconds that he was born in 1828 and was the oldest of five children; that he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick and later Bangor Theological Seminary before leading the 20th Maine regiment during the Civil War, even though he had no real military background; that he had a wife, Frances, and five children; and that he died in 1914.

Much of that information can be found elsewhere online, but Ancestry.com has real estate records for Joshua and Frances Chamberlain revealing that in 1870 they owned land valued at $5,000 and personal property valued at $16,000, and that they employed four domestic servants.

Roland Rhodes Jr., a member of the Greater Portland chapter of the Maine Genealogical Society, said the best feature on Ancestry.com, from his perspective, is census records dating back to 1790. The records are indexed, which makes searching easy.

"Genealogy has always been a niche," he said. "People either love it or they're like my wife, who says, 'They're dead. Who cares?' "

Although the Internet has made records easier for researchers and genealogists to find, there is always the question of whether the information can be trusted.

"As with any source, you have to question it and decide for yourself," Shettleworth said.

Rhodes said there are free sites that provide information, but Ancestry.com has been worth the money.

"You watch some of these shows like TLC's 'Who Do You Think You Are?' and they make searching ancestry sound so simple," he said. "But it can be a lot of work. Certainly, these sites make it easier."

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

CORRECTION: This story was corrected July 19 to reflect that the temporary free access applies only to the new New England records.

 

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