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San Diego Union-Tribune, September

Book, software can help you clamber up your family tree

Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1999 -- Page 8

By Kelly Murphy

Sometimes it all comes together.

I came across a big envelope this year while going through the garage. The envelope contained bits and pieces of family history collected over the years from interviews with grandparents, research provided by distant relatives and notes from family reunions.

A few weeks later I stumbled upon "Finding Your Roots: How to Trace Your Ancestors at Home and Abroad," a wonderful how-to paperback by Jeane Eddy Westin (Tarcher/Putnam, $16.95) that tells where to look for information, how to retrieve it and what to do with it when you are ready to share your findings.

And then I met Reunion for Macintosh, in a Mac Warehouse catalog ad.

The raw material, simple directions to mold and develop it, and the tool to make it come to life. They were all there. It was clearly time to put it together.

To spur my efforts, I promised my wife that if I were successful in tracing Granddad Murphy back to a specific county in Ireland, we would go.

Research quickly determined that Reunion was the right tool -- the only genealogy software designed for Macs. Family TreeMaker came in second, but it was designed for PCs, and the Mac version of Family TreeMaker was a release or two behind the PC version.

A few quick clicks

The day Reunion arrived I quickly loaded the CD and plunged into data entry, turning those dusty files and scraps of paper into the trunk and branches of the Murphy clan.

I started with me and branched out quickly.

CLICK: Spouse.
CLICK: Male child.
CLICK: Male child.
CLICK: Father.
CLICK: Mother.

Soon I had more than 500 names. Pull down the index menu and you can see them listed alphabetically, each with an ID number.

But, as with most Mac software, it is the visual display that engages the user, that brings the application to life -- each screen displays the individual at hand and his or her spouse, with father and mother of each across the top, and any children across the bottom.

Click off in either direction and you can quickly clamber about the family tree to visit your relatives.

Click on an individual, and the following files open up:

  • Name, including any prefix or suffix.
  • Events: time and place of birth, death and burial.
  • Facts: occupation, education and religion.
  • Notes: This is a good place to insert a biography, or, if research is incomplete, a record of sources searched and areas to be explored.
  • Flags: boxes to check for clergy, military, earliest ancestor, private (for the black sheep), and history complete. These flags alert the user that the individual is someone special, to be screened for special treatment in any published history or Web page.

A multimedia menu for each individual provides for audio and video clips and still photos. I haven't explored the audio and video features, but right now I'm scanning stills into the system like crazy, and the results are stunning: separate mug shots of Grandmother and Granddad Powell as I remember them, and a wedding photo from 1907 for perspective -- all open at a click to bring them alive.

Other useful menus include Find (for locating individuals in the tree), Overview (a quick glance at the whole tree) and an address book.

The Age menu automatically calculates ages at the time of events, and can project life expectancies based on built-in data from The Society of Actuaries.

Abundance of features

While Reunion is loaded with technical features, it is still user-friendly. Prompts and warnings assist in navigation and data entry. For example, the program automatically calculates feasibility of dates and warns you if Uncle John's birth date puts him at age 8 on his marriage day. Oops, wrong Uncle John.

The Help menu and the Manual, which is opened with a Web browser, can take you deeper into the program and answer most of your questions. For additional information, Leister Productions has a Web page that includes answers to frequently asked questions, a user bulletin board and a customer service rep who will respond to e-mail queries from registered users.

(Warning: Reunion doesn't have an online registration option, so don't lose the registration card.)

It was through the bulletin board that I discovered how to handle double-cousins. One ancestor's sister married his wife's brother, a common occurrence in isolated farming communities at the turn of the century. This resulted in dual entries for their offspring in Reunion.

User postings on the bulletin board indicated Reunion didn't have a solution, but users offered their own Band-Aid fixes.

The manual also shows you how to create your own Web page, how to import and export files from other genealogy software using standard Gedcom format, how to produce a variety of standard genealogy reports, charts, blank forms, birthday calendars and mailing lists, and how to define them to your taste, including color, photos and graphics (such as a family crest).

The one thing that Reunion doesn't come with is a bunch of CDs listing millions of names that have already been researched. These, critics say, are mostly useless. The information is available on the Internet, and genealogists are adding to that online information daily.

Online records

Indeed, the Internet has become invaluable to genealogists. Libraries are rapidly putting their collections online, and amateur historians are using chat rooms, e-mail and bulletin boards to exchange information and link their family trees.

There is a chance that others have already done your work for you, and this is where you will find their efforts.

My favorite chapter in Westin's paperback is "Finding Your Roots in Cyberspace." The chapter is loaded with Web addresses, starting with http://www.cyndislist.com, a good place for beginners. Other addresses lead to government agencies, libraries and sources of specialized information.

I haven't struck gold on the Internet yet. But I hit pay dirt at the Mormon Church's Family History Center (http://www.genhomepage.com/FHC/fhc.html). The friendly volunteer staff at the Mission Valley branch showed me around and led me to a complete collection of U.S. Census records on microfilm from 1790 to 1920.

There, in the 1910 census, I found Granddad Murphy and uncovered a wealth of information and promising leads.

I hope to see Ireland next year.

Kelly Murphy is the news copy desk chief for the Union-Tribune.

© Union-Tribune Publishing Co.