Genealogy: Navigate the Net with an expert


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2002

If you've had better luck locating ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island by using a home-grown auxiliary site -- -- than the original one, you'll be pleased to know that Steve Morse, the site's creator, already has a companion site to help researchers navigate the newly released 1930 census rolls. (Access both at

Curious about what prompted Morse to create these sites, I phoned him at his home in San Francisco. Morse, 61, has a doctorate in electrical engineering from New York University and enjoys a successful career in the computer science field.

"Twenty years ago, I received my 15 minutes of fame as the architect of the Intel 8086 processor, which is the grandfather of today's Pentium processors," he said. The following is a result of our exchange:

Question: What sparked the creation of these Web sites?

Answer: When the Ellis Island database went online (last April), I shared the frustrations of many other amateur genealogists who could access the Web site only in the wee hours of the morning. Conducting a single search involved visiting numerous Web pages, each with what seemed like an interminable delay. I quickly realized that I could be much more productive by developing my own search form, which would enable me to get results with a single access of the database. The few hours that I invested in developing that form have paid off immensely. (Morse's site went online in May). After my initial successes, I told a few friends about it, and they told a few friends, and so on. Next thing I knew, it was written up in numerous newspapers and magazines (the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post, for example) and I started receiving e-mails from total strangers around the world.

Question: How did the census Web site originate?

Answer: The census Web site had slightly different origins. Dave Kehs, a former colleague and a volunteer at the National Archives was grappling with problems he knew would occur when the 1930 census went public. He located another NARA volunteer, Joel Weintraub, who had been amassing tables to help people access the census. They knew the Web was the best way to give people access to these tables. Dave was aware of my Ellis Island Web site and knew that I had the experience that they needed for making their tables available to all. So Dave contacted me, the three of us collaborated, and 10 days later our 1930 census Web site went live.

Question: Any tips for using your Web sites?

Answer: Read the FAQ page on each site. It contains all the tips that I've developed while trying to help the many users who have written to me over the past year.

Question: What are some common user problems?

Answer: My Web site users vary in levels of sophistication. People have written to say they've entered the data but nothing happens. I had to write back and tell them to press the search button. On the other extreme, some very experienced users have sent me suggestions and ways to implement them.

Question: When did you become interested in genealogy?

Answer: It's ironic that you should ask this question as the 1930 census is making its debut. My interest in genealogy got piqued exactly 10 years ago with the release of the 1920 census. I realized that there were many public documents, which I had never seen, that pertained to my family. After locating my ancestors on the 1920 census, I went on to the 1910 and 1900 ones, graduated to ship records and vital records, and from then on I was hopelessly hooked.

Question: What surnames are you personally researching?

Answer: My father's surname was Mostensky (which he shortened to Morse), from Minsk in Belarus. Other Belarus names include Blacher from Antipolya (Antopol), my mother's maiden name; Bulkovshtein (anglicized to Bucalstein) from Brest; and Michalinsky (first anglicized to Mekalinsky and then to Michel, Mitchel, and Mitchell) from Bereza.

Question: Any plans to create future sites?

Answer: I'm open to suggestions.

-- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at You can read her column online at Type Donna Murray Allen in the search box.