Up until the past few years, if you wanted to find out if you were a descendant, say, of the first settlers to arrive on the Mayflower, you had to have two things: lots of time and the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes.
But that has all changed. Now, millions of people are using computer software and the Internet to open windows to the past. AOL's online advisor and author of Wired in a Week Regina Lewis appeared on The Saturday Early Show to discuss the trend in online genealogy.
It used to be that you needed to locate and then sort through mountains of paper records to compile your genealogy.
The online process is very much the same, but like so many other things the Internet has made it faster, easier and more accessible. What used to take years and dozens of trips to government agencies and local libraries, can now take weeks or months and be done from the comfort of your home.
With a few basic pieces of information, a little determination and an Internet connection, the roots to your family tree just might be waiting for you online.
Here are some Web sites for people looking to trace their roots online:
All of these sites work pretty much the same way. You'll need names of ancestors, places and dates of birth, marriages, Social Security numbers and any other information you can gather.
You will probably be deluged with information. Experts caution that you need to verify the information and data you collect to make sure it really pertains to your family, not another family that might have the same last name.
There are two kinds of information - facts and data from government sources like the Social Security Death Index and information from other people in message boards. In the latter case, the onus is on you to contact the person who posted it to verify where they got it from or to independently verify it by crosschecking it with another source or something you know to be true.
On average, compiling a comprehensive online family history will run about $40. That compares to $40 per hour for hiring a professional genealogist. Major Internet service providers like America Online and CompuServe have responded to the demand for this type of service by pulling together a lot of the best free content into a special genealogy area with genealogy message boards and groups sorted by last name.
But, by far, the biggest investment you'll make is time. You won't go online and get instant ancestors. And doing a thorougsearch and properly crosschecking the facts is a significant - albeit extremely rewarding - undertaking. It may even be life saving.
While doing research for this segment, AOL spoke with one woman who began looking into her husband's family history about a year ago. She discovered the family had a potentially fatal blood vessel disorder that was being passed down through generations. She identified, contacted and informed her extended family members of this. Many have since been tested, and at least one has undergone corrective surgery that her doctors believe probably saved her life.