Children wonder, "Where do babies come from?" Teens often ask, "Are you my real mom?" Adults grow curious about their ancestry.
Inquisitiveness about the people and places from which we originate is very human. It's so human, in fact, an entire industry exists to help people connect to DNA relatives far and wide and uncover family relationships and genetic traits.
Even before it became relatively easy to map a genome, people all over the world collected photos, census records, court filings, newspaper stories, obituaries and more to create pictures of the past that can inform the present and future—because it's also very human to want to be remembered by those we love.
What's more, learning about your ancestors, your culture and your country of origin can help you develop a strong sense of who you are and strengthens your legacy.
Ancestry got its start helping people create detailed family trees well before we were all online. Today the subscription-based service holds 27 billion records, including a vast Holocaust database and the world's largest digital archive of searchable obituaries and death announcements. When you can see a photo of your great-grandmother as a little girl, you know you've come to the right place.
Those just getting started will appreciate this be-all and end-all of free genealogy research tools. The site isn't slick, but what it lacks in design it more than makes up for in comprehensive, categorized and cross-referenced links broken down by categories such as "Acadian, Cajun & Creole," "Cowboys, Ranchers and the Wild West," and "Googling for Your Grandma."
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Originally created for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, FamilySearch grew into a nonprofit resource to help people from around the world discover their heritage and connect with family members. It's free to all and offers a lot of neat activities that help families build their stories.
In 2012, Ancestry launched autosomal analysis, offering subscribers insight into their ethnicity, letting them trace their ancestry, informing them about interesting physical traits and connecting them with people in new ways. By 2018, more than 10 million people were in its DNA network.
The name is a nod to the fact that human DNA is organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes, and the company was founded on the mission of helping people access, understand and benefit from their own human genome. You can connect with DNA relatives and there is a family tree function, but the true emphasis here is on health traits and scientific research.
By bringing together sophisticated matching technologies, billions of international historical records and at-home DNA testing, MyHeritage makes it easy to build a family tree. You can even use a DNA test from another company to tap into the power of its matching system. MyHeritage owns Geni, a genealogy-driven social media site bent on creating a family tree for all the world.
The work of millions of volunteers from around the world has yielded photos or gravesites, transcriptions of headstones and other burial records that can be accessed through BillionGraves and Find a Grave. With as little as a last name, users can search more than 500,000 cemeteries in more than 240 countries. The sites are free—and fascinating.
If you want to explore the many options for discovering your ancestry and history, FamilyTree is an amazing place to start. The digital version of the magazine of the same name, the site breaks down hundreds of resources, projects, courses, test kits and much more, so you can do your homework, find out what to expect and engage the whole family in what can be a wonderfully rewarding experience.