Out of America: Making hay out of the family roots

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - What Cornwell worth his salt could resist? The letter arrived at home a week ago. The Cornwells Since The Civil War, read the logo on an envelope adorned with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Inside was a letter from one Wendy M Cornwell, identified as 'Director' of the project. Dear Rupert, it began, 'Good News] Our new book is finally complete, and You, Rupert Cornwell, are in it.'

For a mere dollars 10 ( pounds 7) now and a further dollars 19.50 upon receipt, I was entitled to order a volume listing 2,361 earlier Cornwells born and dead in the US since General Robert E Lee threw in the towel at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, plus the names and addresses of 4,070 contemporary American Cornwells. The letter urged me to 'make full use of these clues so you can trace your family's history back to the first American settlers'. Rounding out the package was a photo of a joyful family (presumably Cornwells) poring through what the blurb described as 'this attractive addition to your living-room or library'.

Since I'm a British citizen who arrived here just three years ago, my lineage is unlikely to have much to do with the Founding Fathers. Clearly though, this had to be investigated.

It's easy to see why genealogy is arguably the most popular indoor hobby here, right up there with stamp and coin collecting. Practically every American is an immigrant, with roots across the oceans.

Tracking these roots can be a veritable obsession. Hardly a family doesn't have an elderly member who is officially designated keeper of the family tree. And for condescending Englishmen, there are sobering surprises.

My wife is American, by ancestry half-German and half-English. The English trail leads back to Igtham Mote in Kent, dating from the 14th century and rated one of the finest surviving half- timbered manor houses in the country. No Cornwell I know can match that.

And for such weighty endeavours, there are tools to match. The most astounding of them comes from an unexpected quarter - the Mormon Church. Its Family History Library is reputed to be the world's largest collection of genealogical records, with a central repository of some 2 billion names stored in vaults under a mountain near Salt Lake City.

At any given time, around 100 Mormon agents are scouring the world for census records, parish registers and sundry other demographic data, to microfilm and send back to Utah. Even if you're not a Mormon, you can hook into the system free of charge from any of 1,000 Mormon libraries in the US.

Here in Washington, there are the National Archives, with 3 billion documents including compendious immigration records right down to ships' passenger manifests from the 1820s. For dollars 1.50, you can buy an official guidebook on how to use it and other federal and state agencies to further your quest. Scattered across the US are other smaller libraries and research centres.

And for the countries whence the original immigrants came, ancestor-hunting is a tried and lucrative lure for American visitors. Like several of its European counterparts, the British Tourist Authority offers a free booklet called 'tracing your ancestors'. Finally, there are the likes of The Cornwells Since The Civil War. Charitably, Wendy M Corn well's venture is to the Mormon library as a greasy diner is to Maxims. Less charitably, it could be a rip-off.

The letter gave an impressive-sounding Pennsylvania Avenue address, a few blocks beyond Capitol Hill. I imagined a veritable Cornwell Institute, where toiling researchers tracked Cornwells past and present. What I got was Mail Boxes Etc, a tiny office equipment and postal address shop. I asked the manager to give me the real address of Wendy M. He said he could not. Could he confirm that the 1015 on the address was in fact a mailbox number? He could not. So how was I to get in touch? The only way, he said, was to write to his shop. Hmmm.

But let us assume the lady is bona fide. People who know about these things tell me 'Cornwells-Since-The-Civil- War' operations are common. They have captive markets, and a dollars 30 price-tag can produce a tidy profit. They amount to little more than compilations from phone directories, car registrations and property records.

Well if so, Wendy M Cornwell has not done a thorough job. There happen to be four direct members of this particular family of English Cornwells in the US right now. But her investigations unearthed only two of us - myself and a nephew in Los Angeles. She missed another listed in the Washington phonebook, plus my half- brother, a US resident for 40 years, who's now an American citizen. The Cornwells Since The Civil War is one special offer I won't be taking up.