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The Buffalo News : World & Nation

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Soldier data since 1607 available to kin online

Updated: 05/25/07 6:46 AM

 WASHINGTON — For every generation in this country, there has been a war. And with wars come millions of records that can shed light on family history, detailing everything from the color of soldiers’ eyes to what their neighbors might have said about them.

Thursday, Ancestry.com unveiled more than 90 million U.S. war records that ranged from the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 through the Vietnam War’s end in 1975. The collection includes the names and gravestone details of 3.5 million deceased U.S. soldiers.

“The history of our families is intertwined with the history of our country,” said Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Ancestry. com. “Almost every family has a family member or a loved one that has served their country in the military.”

The records, which can be accessed free until the anniver-

sary 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.

Ancestry.com, which is owned by the Generations Network, spent $3 million to digitize the military records. The project took nearly a year, including 1,500 handwriting specialists racking up 270,000 hours to review the oldest records.

The 10-year-old company based in Provo, Utah, does not have every U.S. military record. Over the last four centuries, some have been lost or destroyed. Some records remain classified.

But this is the first time a for-profit Web site is featuring this many military records as part of a $100 million investment in what Sullivan says is the largest genealogy Web site, with 900,000 paying subscribers.

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 [be] 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.

Privacy laws do not cover public records of the dead.

Professional historian Curt Witcher recommends that people maintain realistic expectations about 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 that relatives were not historical celebrities.