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June 25, 1995

Genealogists find the
Internet a powerful tool

By Timothy C. Barmann

June Zintz of New York is looking for her great-great grandmother, who once lived in Rhode Island. Faye Costarell of Ohio is trying to find out why her ancestors buried in Newport have skulls on their tombstones. And Nancy Bainter of New Jersey just learned the unusual story of how one of her Portsmouth-born relatives rescued his bride-to-be from an icy fate.

Zintz, Costarell and Bainter are among thousands of amateur genealogists who have found a powerful new research tool in the Internet, the global network of computer networks. They have discovered that modern information technology provides a new way to peek into the past.

"I can honestly say I would not have nearly all the data that I've gotten on my ancestors without the Internet," said Nancy Bainter of Delran, N. J., who recently discovered via the Internet that she is a descendant of a Rhode Islander.

Though the Internet cannot yet be used for direct retrieval of most vital documents - birth and death certificates, county history books, and census records - which are still the backbone of genealogical research, it can provide a simple but powerful service.

Its power comes by linking amateurs and experts from around the world who are interested in genealogy and willing to share their knowledge and resources.

Bainter has been gleaning information about her family for the past 2 1/2 years from other 'Netters, primarily through Internet genealogy discussion groups and an Internet mailing list called "ROOTS-L."

The ROOTS list is a popular meeting place for genealogists. Here, members of the list can send messages and queries to each other by e-mailing them to a central address, where a computer collects them. At the end of the day, the computer relays all the messages back to each member of the list by e-mail, so everyone can read all the messages posted by other members.

(Anyone with an e-mail address can participate in the ROOTS list or any of the thousands of other mailing lists on the Internet. See related story for online genealogical resources.)

Help on the 'Net

Bainter posted a query on the ROOTS list in early June asking if anyone had heard of one of her ancestors, Giles Slocum, who died in 1683 in Portsmouth. Over the next week, she received a half-dozen responses by e-mail, several of them from people who had done research on the Slocum family line. Many confirmed the information she already had about the Slocums, and pointed her to library reference material she hadn't seen before.

One respondent even sent Bainter a story he found in a book that recounted how Giles Slocum's son, Eliezer, met his wife, Elephel Fitzgerald in the late 1600s.

The story has it that Elephel, a native of Ireland, came to America with her sister, who was eloping with her fiancee. She worked as a maid in the Slocum household in Portsmouth and fell in love with Eliezer.

Locating the living

But since she was Catholic and the Slocums where Quakers, his parents would have nothing of it. So they locked Elephel in an ice house and Eliezer later rescued her by climbing down a chimney. The two were eventually married, with his parents' blessing.

"A week ago, I didn't know any of this," said Bainter, an engineer, who uses the Internet as part of her job.

The Internet has not only proved helpful in finding deceased relatives, but also for locating living ones.

Linda Easterbrook of Warwick stumbled upon a distant cousin, Don Estabrook, of Peabody, Mass., on the Internet.

She and Don were members of the ROOTS mailing list, and Don happened to see Linda's name while scanning the list. Don knew that his surname had been changed from Easterbrook generations ago. He contacted Linda by e-mail and after some additional research, they determined they were indeed related.

Last fall, the two arranged a meeting in person at an appropriate place - the Rhode Island Historical Library.

For Deby Nunes of North Kingstown, the best part of genealogical research on the Internet is the generosity of the people she "meets" there.

"People are willing to share the resources they have at their disposal with those who don't, and can count on their kindness to be repaid in assistance from someone else."

A place to turn

She said such cooperation allows for research "in other parts of the country or even the world without ever having to go there in person."

She told of how a library curator at the University of Rolla in southeast Missouri took the time to transcribe some rare documents she was looking for and sent them to her by e-mail.

For others, the Internet is a new place to turn when other leads have been exhausted.

Faye Costarell of Poland, Ohio, discovered through conventional research that two of her Rhode Island ancestors, Peter Treby Jr. (1638-1713) and his mother-in-law, Anstis Wilkins (1639-1711) have skulls on their tombstones at their grave sites in the Newport Common Burial Ground. Why? She is now looking to the Internet for answers.

And so is June Zintz, 68, of Hamburg, N.Y., a retired electrical draftsman and designer, who's been compiling her family tree data for the past 28 years.

Zintz discovered the Internet last fall and she's now using it to try to get more information on her great-great grandmother, Rhoda Pierce, born in Rhode Island about 1800. She knows few details about her life, except that she moved to New York state as a teenager and married.

So far, she hasn't had much luck, but she's determined to press on with her newly found resource in the Internet. "I keep trying everywhere I can to find my Rhoda."

Computer calendar

Thursday: The Ocean State Internet Society will meet at Brown University this month, in the second-floor boardroom of the CIT Building, at the corner of Brook and Waterman Streets at 7 p.m. Greg Kazarian, computing coordinator for the Watson Institute of International Studies, will show how the Institute uses the Internet and the World Wide Web for research and information dissemination. Free.

July 13-15: The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston is celebrating its 150th birthday with a series of lectures at the Westin Copley Place in Boston. About a quarter of the 118 talks feature using computers to trace and catalog your family history, including one called "Access genealogy resources on the Internet." A computer lounge will have on-going genealogy software demonstrations.

Cost is $225 for non-members and $200 for members. One-day passes are available for $110 for non-members and $85 for members. For more information, call the society at (617) 536-5740, ext. 150., or see its forum on CompuServe (GO GENSUP, then choose 1, NEHGS). Its e-mail address is 74777.3612@compuserve.com.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.