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Generation Maps

Family Trees Can Help Sort Complicated Roots

November 23, 2000|HUGO MARTIN | hugo.martin@latimes.com

For years, my brothers and sisters have talked about chronicling our family history in a concise genealogical report that will finally identify all those strange people who show up for Thanksgiving dinner.

No one has ever completed the task, and for good reason. You see, I come from a large family: eight brothers and sisters, 11 nieces and nephews and more uncles, aunts and cousins than I can count.

My family is so big we hold our reunions in places such as Yosemite National Park. We use aerial photography for our family pictures. My mother once considered giving us numbers instead of names.

I figure this makes my family the perfect subject on which to test family tree software.

My primary goals were to create a genealogy report, which I could print out and distribute at reunions, and to launch a family Web page so that far-flung kin can be just as embarrassed about their roots as I am.

Using computer software is by far a much better way to organize a family tree than, say, using a three-ring binder, stuffed with scraps of faded documents and dogeared photographs.

A computer can store vast amounts of information in a small space and can categorize and present the data in a variety of ways. Plus, you can update the information with a few keystrokes if, for example, Uncle Melvin gets married for the fifth time. And unlike those old photographs, your digitally stored photos and documents won't fade with time.

I tried two of the top-selling family tree software packages, Generations and Family Tree Maker. I also tested a few of the shareware versions available on the Internet, such as Kindred Connections and Cumberland Family Tree. But I found that most of the shareware programs don't have all the bells and whistles of the store-bought programs.

In the end, I found Family Tree Maker to be the easiest to use. I was most impressed by the Publishing Center feature, which consolidates the tools to create and edit a family home page and create a family book. I was able to perform most of the tasks by clicking icons on the screen. This made it easy to create an Internet home page that includes a family tree, a genealogy report and photographs of all my relatives. (Well, OK, I didn't include that cousin doing a long stretch in a men's colony near Bakersfield.)

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As you open the packaging, the first thing you notice is a truckload of CDs, most of which include historical data that might or might not be useful, depending on your ancestry. The $69.95 Generations package comes with 21 CDs, whereas the $79.99 Family Tree Maker includes 35 CDs.

In both packages, though, only one CD was needed to install the family tree program. The remaining CDs contain such historical information as New York immigration lists from the early 1880s, 200 years of Virginia land, marriage and probate records and a list of Civil War rolls from Massachusetts. The Generations package even includes the passenger list from the ill-fated Titanic.

This could be helpful if your ancestors happened to have landed on Ellis Island, purchased land in Virginia, fought in the Civil War in Massachusetts and then drowned in the icy North Atlantic like Leonardo DiCaprio.

But if you are like me and millions of other first- or second-generation Americans, your U.S. family history doesn't go back to the 1800s. My family history in this country goes back to the British invasion. (I mean the 1960s invasion of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who.)

My family came from Mexico in the 1960s, so I thought I might find some useful information in the World Immigration Series CD included in the Generations package. But all I found there were articles, maps and images about immigration--generic stuff available in most high school textbooks.

Still, the research components of both packages were not a complete waste of time. The Generations and the Family Tree Maker software each have search programs that look for possible family information in all the CDs in the packages and on the Internet. If the Family Tree Maker search locates information on a CD not included in your package, you will be asked whether you want to order the missing CD at a cost of $19.99 or more. Ouch.

Using the Family Tree Maker search, I located a Martin family that posted a home page on the Family Tree Maker Web site. It turns out that this Martin family lived in my grandfather's tiny hometown in Mexico at about the same time he lived there. Chances are pretty good that we are related.

Still, the tips provided by the search programs are not always reliable. Another search pointed me toward what was supposed to be information about my 6-month-old niece, Olivia. According to the search, my niece might be married to some guy named Elmer who has a daughter named Marlo. I don't think so.

The Generations program includes a glossary that gives you the origins of your name. It says Martin is derived from the Latin word that means "of Mars." (That explains a lot.)

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