In 1976, when Alex Haley published "Roots," his ancestral account through six generations of slaves, free men and professionals, he didn't have help from genealogical or DNA databases.
Enter nephew Chris Haley, whose DNA test revealed that a branch of the family extends to a white European man.
He provided a cheek swab and was one of the first to use DNA Ancestry, a Web site that combines DNA analysis and historical records. Ancestry.com, the Internet's largest family-history archive, rolled out the service Tuesday.
"It's fascinating," said Haley, 40, research director for the Legacy of Slavery Project at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, Md.
His family had long suspected that the paternal line descends from an Irishman. Now there's some proof, and Haley hopes to fill the gaps left by his late uncle, whose historical novel traced a maternal line to Africa.
"It will be a shortcut for many people," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Provo-based Ancestry.com< and author of "Trace Your Roots with DNA."
For less than $200 and a cheek-swiped cotton swab, customers can add DNA results to a family tree and contact others with DNA matches to compare family histories.
DNA tests help when the paper trail fades, but it still has limits. It can't reveal names, precise dates or locations of ancestors, said Dick Eastman, who writes an online genealogy newsletter.
People will find it useful to discover their ethnic origins, he said.
Haley said many people assume his family knows everything about its history, but "Roots" mixed fiction with history of one branch of the family.
Alex Haley was inspired after discovering the names of his maternal great-grandparents in post-Civil War records at the National Archives in Washington.
The book and a TV miniseries inspired a new generation of black Americans to discover their own family stories.
Chris Haley readily agreed to give a cheek swab after striking up a conversation with Smolenyak at a genealogy conference in Fort Wayne, Ind., in August.
She walked him through the results in a Web conference on Monday, when Haley discovered he shared a DNA match with two other Ancestry.com users, including a Canadian.
Haley likened the results to a pregnancy test in reverse: "You find out who came before you."
He added, "Aside from oral history, you really want to put your hands on something."
Ancestry DNA's database is on track to capture the genetic profiles of 50,000 people within six months, a relatively small number. The more people use it, the more valuable it will become, Smolenyak said.
Ancestry.comis using the Utah labs of Sorenson Genomics, a privately owned research firm, for DNA analysis.
Next week, The Sorenson Cos. plans to roll out a separate DNA-based Web site called jeantree.com. Chief executive James L. Sorenson declined to discuss details Tuesday, although it will rely on a larger DNA database.