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Ancestral research booming on the Internet

Web sites that bind

Thursday, May 11, 2000

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The telephone rang about 10 the morning of Feb. 7. Caller ID indicated it was someone named Fedden from Arizona. "Is this Tom Fouch?" the woman at the Arizona end of the line asked. "Yes, it is," the Morningside man answered.

 
  (Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette)
"Is Walter your father?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

Then, the woman burst into tears.

Fouch's long-distance caller turned out to be a cousin he never knew he had. The night before Joanne Fedden called, Fouch had come across a posting she'd left on an Ancestry.com message board Dec. 7, 1999, and he sent her an e-mail reply.

"If it hadn't been for the Internet, our families would never have been united," says Fedden, 61, of Spring Valley, Ariz.

The Internet has made genealogical research easier than ever, says Andre Brummer, general manager of www.Ancestry.com. Internet genealogy Web sites and data bases have vastly improved people's ability to trace their family trees and find long-lost relatives.

"Before, you could spend years looking through microfilm," Brummer says. "Today, 550 million records can be searched in seconds on the site."

No need to visit courthouses and libraries across the country or around the globe. The Internet can provide easy access to some records that were difficult to obtain because of their location.

Most importantly, the Internet has helped connect people, like Fedden and Fouch, who unknowingly were researching the same family, says Kimberly Powell of McDonald, the About.com genealogy guide whose Web page is http://genealogy.about.com. About.com is an international network of more than 700 Web sites, each maintained by a professional guide.

Powell searched for people in her family for years through old-fashioned methods. "Once I put up my Web page, somebody called me."

It's easy to reach millions of people quickly by placing information on the World Wide Web. Like Fedden, people can post inquiries to surname message boards, Powell says.

Fouch, 52, saw his wife's relatives at her family reunion use the Internet to track their ancestors to the Civil War.

"I thought, I'll look up my family," says Fouch, a Pittsburgh fire captain. "I typed in my grandfather, Albert Fouch."

Up popped the Fouch Surname Message Board at Ancestry.com with a message from a J. Fedden.

 
    Launching into the search

Here are some how-to-get-started tips from Internet genealogy research experts Andre Brummer and Kimberly Powell:

Start with the known and move to the unknown. Fill out an online/offline family tree. Start with yourself and write down what you know. Talk to everyone in your family and find out what they know. Start with your parents/grandparents.

Go to the Internet surname communities and message boards and look at the surnames being researched. Someone might be looking for/have information about the same family you're researching.

Don't forget to check alternate spellings of your surname, even a name like Smith, when you're researching.

When you find information online, verify it. Just because it's on the Internet and in print doesn't mean that it's true.

As things progress, don't automatically mix your research with research done by someone else. Double check information before you merge it with your own. Always keep a separate file of the research you've conducted yourself and verified.

Keep track of sites you visit on the Internet so you know where you've posted inquiries and where you've found information. You might even want to print out useful information you find, since some Web sites disappear.

Don't be discouraged if you don't find completed branches or your whole family tree waiting for you online. Today's as good a day as any to start one.

 
 
"Looking for relatives of Walter, Jess, Florence, and Minnie," the message read.

Fouch was shocked. The people listed were his father, uncle and aunts. He replied to the then mysterious J. Fedden the evening of Feb. 6 via e-mail. He wrote that he was Tom Fouch, Walter Fouch was his father, and his father's parents were Albert and Cora Fouch. He told her he even had Cora's birth certificate to prove it.

Fedden was overwhelmed when she received her cousin's e-mail.

"I bawled like a baby," she says. "I just screamed and cried and I just couldn't believe it."

Fedden immediately sent Fouch two urgent e-mail replies, but he didn't respond. That's when she decided to look him up in an on-line White Pages directory.

"I usually don't have my number listed, but this year, I did," Fouch says.

The cousins, who've discovered they both like Caesar salads and chicken strips, talked for more than an hour that first day and have e-mailed each other almost every day since.

"It's terrific," Fouch says. "I tell her stories about me. She wants to know everything because she has 61 years of catching up to do."

After that first phone conversation with Fedden, Fouch immediately called his mother, Betty, in Florida.

"Hey, Mum, did Dad have a baby sister named Hazel?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"How come I never knew about this?" he asked.

His mother told him she and his father, who died in 1995, just never thought to tell him about Hazel.

Fouch's father, Walter Fouch, and Fedden's mother, Jean Raleigh whose birth name was Hazel Fouch, were placed in an orphanage along with the other Fouch children when Albert and Cora Fouch broke up in 1922.

After Cora remarried, she went to the orphanage to reclaim her children. Five of them were there, but the youngest, Hazel, already had been adopted by a wealthy family by the name of Raleigh in Akron, Ohio. The Raleighs renamed the 23-month-old baby Jean.

"They lived one mile from my dad's father," Fouch says. "They lived a mile apart in Akron and never knew it."

Many times, Fouch's father went to Ohio trying to find his long-lost baby sister, but he never did.

Fedden's grandparents, the Raleighs, never told her mother much about her adoption. Fedden's mother always sensed she might have brothers and sisters out there somewhere.

"She always knew there was something that was missing," Fedden says.

Before her mother died in a car accident in 1985, Fedden had promised to try to find her mother's family someday.

In 1942, Fedden's mother had tried to find her birth parents through the Ohio vital statistics department, but those records were sealed in those days. Some 57 years later, Fedden succeeded in obtaining her mother's adoption papers, receiving them in October 1999.

Fedden took the information from the adoption papers and went looking for the name Fouch in 1920 U.S. Census data.

"There, I found a list of siblings and one of them was a Walter Fouch and one was Jesse," she explains. "I contacted the public library and I got Jesse's obituary and his wife's obituary, which told me who was alive at that time."

From there, she went to the Internet and posted an inquiry at Ancestry.com looking for any remaining siblings. That's the posting Fouch found the night of Feb. 6.

"It was absolutely a miracle," Fedden says. "I had prayed for so long that somehow I could find them."

Almost on a daily basis, Ancestry.com receives reports from people like Fedden and Fouch who have discovered living relatives, links to past relatives or links to people who have done a lot of research on their lines through the Web page, Brummer says.

"On our site we have two areas, a free area and a paid area," Brummer explains. "All information that people submit themselves goes into a free area."

People can fill out family trees in the free area or go to iFamily.com if they want to do it privately.

"That way, people can invite family members from all over the country to fill out this tree," Brummer says. "They don't have to go out and buy any expensive software."

Both www.Ancestry.com and http://genealogy.about.com have tips for every level of genealogical researcher from the novice to the expert.

As part of her job as About.com's genealogy guide, Powell also checks out as many as she can of the estimated 7 million genealogy pages on the Internet.

"What I try to do is get people to where they're really going to find information, instead of going through search engines and going to page after page after page that doesn't really have anything on it," she says.

Perseverance is key in trying to track down long lost or unknown loved ones.

"Don't give up, because it is possible to find them," Fedden says. "People say there's a lot of trash on the Internet, and there is, but there's so much important information."

Remember, miracles do happen. Tom Fouch just happened to search Ancestry.com for information about his family almost two months to the day after his cousin had posted her inquiry. If he had looked a year, or even three months earlier, it wouldn't have been there.

"By the stroke of luck, by the grace of God, I got on-line that day and saw that message," he says. "And the rest is history."



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