Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Uncover your familys military roots

Researching a family's military history used to be a real challenge, but as more and more paper archives go digital and are transferred to the internet, it's becoming possible for anyone to leaf out a family tree in surprising detail by using a few tricks and knowing where to look.
"The biggest thing that's changed is the ability to find digitized documents through simple things like Google and search tools specific to military family histories," says Alex Herd, lead researcher for the Historica-Dominion Institute Memory Project in Toronto that aims to increase the public's knowledge of Canadian history.
"There almost seems to be some prestige involved with finding an ancestor who served in the military and particularly in any wars, and a lot of information that was difficult to get before has become available," adds Jeannine Powell of Duncan, B.C. Her day job is with a secretarial company, but an "18-year obsession" with genealogy has made her an expert (her nickname is GenQueen, a play on her name), and she's involved with groups ranging from Genealogy Helplist Canada, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' Family History Centre, to an array of historical websites.
"Two of the highest things people use the internet [to search] for are pornography and family ancestry. One will tear a family apart, the other will build it up," she says with a laugh.

There's a growing collection of personal military minutiae available through paid websites that cater to people researching their family trees.
One of the biggest subscription sites is Ancestry.com, which has been adding databases and buying up other genealogy portals such as Footnote.com (which it renamed Fold3.com and gave an even stronger military focus). The monthly charge for Ancestry.ca, its Canadian portal, starts at $10 and the archival collections for Canada and other countries include burial and war grave registers, records of war dead, copies of attestation papers, and lists of deserters, dischargees and POWs.
"Ancestry.ca is the first and No. 1 thing that a lot of people have been using for this kind of research," says Herd.
Paid sites generally have extensive records that are slickly organized and easy to use.
"Ancestry.ca does much of the searching for you and will automatically use what you enter in your tree to search the billions of historical records in its database for likely matches," says Ancestry.ca genealogist Lesley Anderson.
"We have a number of [types of] military content available to users at ancestry.ca/remember," she said, adding that the online records are available to the public for free until Nov. 13 in honour of Remembrance Day.
Besides their centralized search capabilities, subscription-based sites also offer access to some material that isn't readily available elsewhere.
"In terms of World War II, for example, it's just recently that more records have started to become available, and many of those are on the big commercial websites," Powell says.
But paid sites aren't the only research option, and they only contain a portion of the information that's available. There's an enormous amount of information published free through government and educational sites, and shared by genealogy hobbyists.
Library and Archives Canada and other government and educational agencies are steadily digitizing their free paper records, Herd says, and they date back to conflicts such as the War of 1812 and the rebellions of 1837 and 1885. "In the last few years they've become an important link for family members interested in finding veterans in their broader family tree."



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