When Rome-based journalist and author Judith Harris set out on her roller coaster ride deep into the past, she had barely a handful of names, and nothing more. She ended up discovering pirates and Puritans, steamy sex exposed in a l7th century court in New England and even a close family connection to Abraham Lincoln.
Settlers who arrived from England on a Winthrop ship in 1630, the Harrises were among the founders of Boston, where they ran the first ferryboat service. In the early l8th century a descendant became a successful Manhattan manufacturer before setting out for the prairies of Illinois. Thanks to land grant purchases he was a founder of Tremont, a town near Peoria. This prairie pioneers young grandson built his own airplane and became a barnstormer at county fairs. A pioneer in American aviation, he was a pluri-decorated major who fought the worlds first air war in World War One France. In civil life he was a prestigious architect in the steel-rich Cleveland of the Van Sweringen brothers, and helped to build one of Americas most handsome suburbs, Shaker Heights.
Very little of this fascinating detail was known to anyone in the authors family. But the Age of the Internet has made the search for family roots possible as never before. Volunteers everywhere are scanning distant church records and the minutes of town meetings held centuries ago. Magazines of genealogy churn out advice. Websites introduce complete strangers across continents who may turn out to be distant cousins. Professionals are there to keep the amateur on track. Todays post-pedigree genealogy, which is among the worlds top hobbies and the second most popular among all Internet searches, goes beyond the personal. While providing an exciting and personalized gateway into history, the electronic portal has sweep that extends beyond the personal into the shared past.