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Genealogy, too, getting big assist from Net on searches

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jill Schrecongost's father teased her when she started researching their family tree.

"Maybe you're a Daughter of the American Revolution," John Schrecongost joked as his daughter, a 39-year-old office manager from Salisbury, Md., surfed http://ancestry.com/ and other genealogy Web sites.

But Jill Schrecongost may have the last chuckle.

While surfing a Pennsylvania Web site, she learned that Johann Schreckengast soldiered in the American Revolution.

From earlier research, Schrecongost knew that her ancestor had sailed from Rotterdam, Holland, on a ship called Polly in 1764 and was her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

But she did not know he had served his country.

"When I hit on that, it was like a great starting point. I was grateful that they had posted that information," Schrecongost said, adding that the site is easy to navigate.

Like Schrecongost, many genealogists are delighted that about 200,000 military records of Pennsylvania soldiers, dating to the Revolutionary War, became available this month at http://www.phmc.state.pa.us, a Web site for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

While the site itself is not new, the online offering of archival records has been two years in the making.

"We've launched a new feature on our Web site where we're making images of historic records available on the Web site," said Frank Suran, the state archivist.

Eventually, about 500,000 records of Civil War soldiers will be available online, too. The records are listed alphabetically by last name. The database took two years to compile, cost $49,000 and uses customized software designed by Perfect Order, a Harrisburg-based company.

"If the researcher is searching for a person, they would plug in that person's name," said John Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

Eventually, 19th-century registers of births, deaths and marriages will be available, too.

"This is the hors d'oeuvre. The plate will be full, but that's going to take a long time. The real customers, I think, will be genealogists," Robinson said.

One of those customers is Schrecongost, who said she was far more interested in learning about her ancestors than joining the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Rod Snyder, Web master for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission site, has received some enthusiastic e-mails from researchers, including one from Virginia Shimp Rigby of Brooklyn, Miss.

"Hi. Tell Governor Ridge I will vote for him in the next election even if it can't be counted. I think this is a wonderful idea of his, and I thank him for the opportunity to explore these important records," Rigby wrote.

Rigby is researching her father's name, which was Schimpf before it was Americanized.

"I am an amateur. I have been working at doing this for all of the branches of my family for 15 or 20 years. My father was born in Iowa. His brothers and sisters were born in West Virginia."

On Pennsylvania's Web site, Rigby said: "I found some of my ancestors in the Revolutionary War. I was able to view the actual records. That is just wonderful because you don't have to take somebody else's interpretation for it. You can interpret it for yourself."

Putting the state's archives online is a good start, according to James M. Beidler, executive director of the Genealogy Society of Philadelphia, which has 1,400 members of all skill levels.

"I look at it as a good public service. They're putting the right things up there."

Pennsylvania is an important state for genealogists because it was one of the original 13 colonies and, until 1850, Philadelphia was the country's number one port of entry, Beidler said.

"Everybody thinks New York and Ellis Island. All through Colonial times and the first half of the 19th century, it was Philly first. At least a quarter of the country has at least one Pennsylvania ancestor," Beidler said.

A full-time research coordinator at Beidler's office fields 100 to 200 genealogical queries each week and most arrive via electronic mail.

Genealogical research is booming, Beidler said.

The Internet, the pervasiveness of home computers and early retirement by some baby boomers all serve to fuel the quest for ancestors.

"That has just rocketed the popularity of genealogy. It's this ability to do so much from home and having the time to do it, rather than working those 60 hours a week," Beidler said.

There are deeper reasons, too.

"It's a quest for identity, pure and simple. You're trying to put flesh on the bones of a pedigree through researching these records and, as you're learning about your ancestors, you feel to some degree, you're learning about yourself. ... There's a sense of discovery and cherishing each one who made you what you are."

The online images of historic records will save many people a trip to Harrisburg, where the state's archives of 220 million images and records are stored.

Genealogists, Beidler said, often trek to the state library in Harrisburg, the Genealogical Society of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Room or local historical societies.

Not all of the information on the Pennsylvania Web site consists of primary sources. The Revolutionary War certificates do not show family relationships but refer researchers to other sources.

"It's all part of compiling an ancestor's biography. This is what we encourage genealogists to do today, not to be ancestor collectors but to compile biographies of your ancestors, take it another step," Beidler said.

The Revolutionary War certificates, Beidler said, are secondary sources because they were compiled after the conflict.

"They weren't contemporaneous with the event. But they do list a primary source for each piece of data on them."

Using the Web site allows genealogists to access some primary sources, the best records for proving lineage.

"Good genealogists always try to prove their pedigrees only through primary sources. ... In the case of the Spanish American war cards, that was a card created at that date," Beidler said.

The Civil War cards are "extremely valuable" sources of information. "So many people served in the Civil War. Pennsylvania furnished an awful lot of men for the union," Beidler said.

The Civil War cards list a soldier's birth place and most indicate a man's height and hair color.

"What's mundane to you may be the exciting find of my life. That my great-great-grandfather had brown hair may mean nothing to you. Genealogy is very definitely an eye-of-the-beholder type of thing," Beidler said.

"To someone who's not involved in it, you might as well be speaking Greek. There's nobody quite as interesting as your own ancestors," Beidler said.



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