On Thursday, Ancestry.com unveiled more than 90 million U.S. war
records, from the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607
through the Vietnam War's end in 1975. The site also has the names
of 3.5 million U.S. soldiers killed in action, including 2,000 who
died in Iraq.
"The history of our families is intertwined with the
history of our country," Tim Sullivan, chief executive of
Ancestry.com, said in a telephone interview. "Almost every family
has a family member or a loved one that has served their country in
The records, which can be accessed free until the anniversary of
D-Day on June 6, came from the National Archives and Records
Administration and include 37 million images, draft registration
cards from both world wars, military yearbooks, prisoner-of-war
records from four wars, unit rosters from the Marine Corps from 1893
through 1958, and Civil War pension records, among others.
The popularity of genealogy in the U.S. has increased steadily
alongside the Internet's growth. Specialized search engines on sites
FamilySearch.com, along with
general search portals like Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., have helped
"The Internet has created this massive democratization in the
whole family history world," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family
historian for Ancestry.com. "It's like a global game of tag."
Ancestry.com, part of parent company
MyFamily.com Inc., spent $3
million to digitize the military records. It took nearly a year,
including some 1,500 handwriting specialists racking up 270,000
hours to review the oldest records.
The 10-year-old Provo, Utah-based company doesn't have every U.S.
military record. Over the past four centuries, some have been lost
or destroyed. Some records remain classified.
However, this is the first time a for-profit online site is
featuring this many military records, as part of a $100 million
investment in what Sullivan says is the largest genealogy online
site, with 900,000 paying subscribers. He joined Ancestry.com 18
months ago after leaving the CEO post at online dating giant
After June 6, users can pay $155.40 a year for unlimited access
to thousands of U.S. record databases, Sullivan said.
Budget constraints and a long list of unfinished priorities have
limited federal efforts to make roughly 9 billion public documents
available online, said National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper.
"In a perfect world, we would do all this ourselves and it would
up there for free," she said. "While we continue to work to make our
materials accessible as widely as possible, we can't do everything."
Subscribers can set up their own family tree pages on the
Ancestry.com site and combine personal information with public
records from the site. If they want to restrict access to their
pages, privacy controls are available. And information posted about
people who were born after 1922, or people born earlier but who are
still alive, is automatically blocked from public view.
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As for public records that contain what family members might not
want the rest of the world to see, there's little recourse involving
records on the deceased. Privacy laws don't cover public records of
Most novice genealogists, however, seem to be more interested in
finding out whether they're related to battlefield heroes than they
are worried about embarrassing revelations.
Loren Whitney, 30, a software engineer at the company since 2002,
has been tracking his family's military history for seven years and
discovered a relative going back seven generations from the newest
Whitney, an Arkansas native, learned that his mother's
third-great-grandfather Thomas Bingham served in the Mormon
Battalion to help the U.S. Army in the Mexican War around 1846. That
discovery led to Bingham's great-grandfather, Capt. David Perry, who
had published chronicles of the French and Indian War in 1819.
"It's exhilarating to find these connections and to see how other
people's lives have connected with yours in the way they put you in
the situation and circumstances that you are in," Whitney said.
Professional historian Curt Witcher recommends that people have
fun and maintain realistic expectations when it comes to genealogy.
A small percentage of amateurs "have this hope, this aspiration,
this belief, they've arrived at Mecca and in a few minutes we'll
bring the golden tablets out," Witcher said. Most of the time they
find out relatives weren't historical celebrities.
Professional researchers like Witcher, though, praise Ancestry.com and other sites that have put vast collections of
public data online.
"Bureaucracies generate paper, and for researchers that is
golden," said Witcher, manager of the historical genealogy
department at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. He
oversees the second-largest genealogical library in the world, and
his library helps more than 82,000 people a year authenticate family
As fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, there seems to be
a natural draw to tales of military ancestry, a desire to preserve
William Endicott, an 81-year-old veteran who served in the 33rd
Infantry division of Illinois in World War II, researched his family
tree for two decades and found out that his great-grandparents
traveled across the Oregon Trail during the 1870s to settle in
Endicott said he tells his veteran buddies all the time: "Our
memories are dimming at the ages that we are. Get your history
from file received from AP
Digital; Article by Donna Borak, AP business writer]