Genealogist Answers Your Questions

While they were not available when I began my family history searching, message boards and family trees at Ancestry.com and RootsWeb.com can be invaluable in finding relatives who may have just the kind of information you need to fill in the stories of your ancestors' lives.

There are thousands of success stories about people who have received fascinating accounts of their ancestors' lives, photographs, old letters, diaries, scrapbooks and family heirlooms as a result of finding distant living relatives using the Internet.

Q: What are the best Web sites to use, for the beginner? And are they free? -- Edna

A: Not only does Ancestry.com have the largest online collection of family history records to help you begin your family tree, it also has a number of free tools to help you organize the information you find and connect with other people also searching for their roots.

You can build and save your family tree directly on Ancestry.com. You can also connect with other Ancestry members on the message boards.

RootsWeb.com is the oldest genealogy community on the Web. This site offers tips and guides on getting starting, and plenty of other resources. And the best part, it's all free! Need help getting started, just click here.

If you know where in the United States your ancestors lived, try the USGenWeb pages (arranged by states and then counties). There's lots of free information and help on these pages to help you grow your tree.

For more guidance and ideas, you might want to check out the "How To" section of Roots Television.

You'll find a selection of free, online programming on a variety of topics such as the research process and oral history.

Finally, you can search the FamilySearch.org Web site of the Family History Library, as well as its library catalog for an amazing variety of microfilms that can be ordered and searched at your closest Family History Center. Everything on this site is free.

Q: Can you tell us more about the DNA test that Robin Roberts took to help her locate her ancestry? -- Deanna Ramsey, Tallahassee, Fla.

A: Robin took a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test from African Ancestry (www.africanancestry.com). MtDNA follows your direct maternal line -- your mother's mother's mother's mother. … You get the idea.

At African Ancestry, they take the results of this test and compare them against a database of DNA samples gathered from around Africa.

Consequently, they can usually reveal where you have genetic cousins residing in Africa today.

Of course, since Africa is the cradle of mankind, we have longer to migrate around this continent than any other, so it's not unusual for those tested to discover several locations or possible tribal affiliations in Africa. I hope that sheds a little light for you.

Incidentally, this is just one of a handful of tests that are available today for investigating your roots. If you're interested in learning more, you might want to look here.

Q: How can you trace family from Europe when they changed most names at Ellis Island? --Caryn Amster, Elk Grove, Ill.

A: Believe it or not, this is one of the biggest family history myths out there. The reality is that immigrant name changes were quite uncommon at Ellis Island. Here are a few reasons why:

I. Proof of Identity

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