The best genealogy apps to connect to your roots
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We would be just a ferry ride away – how not to explore our previously unknown Welsh heritage on my mum’s birthday trip to England? That’s how I sold the idea to my mother, who had always been interested in genealogy. On a driving tour of Ireland years earlier, we had connected with each other and our Irish roots.
This milestone birthday trip is on hold indefinitely in the time of COVID, but in the face of a long pandemic winter, I wondered if we could explore those roots virtually, using its Ancestry.com DNA test results and apps for genealogy. We could take a research trip through our phones.
His genetic test only indicated Welsh heritage, but by tracing the roots we may be able to find where these ancestors migrated from, ultimately enjoying a richer travel experience in a post-COVID world. while visiting the ancestral village. I picked up a handful of genealogy apps — including Ancestry.com, since she’d used the popular website for her DNA test — to learn more about our family history.
I started with Ancestry.com specifically because my mother had already made a family tree there – it’s arguably the most popular and accessible heritage research tool. Public libraries often have subscriptions to Ancestry.com, so you may be able to use it for free at your local library to do some of your own family history research.
Ancestry.com takes a flexible approach to data collection and privacy, which I liked. Users can choose to make a family tree public or share their DNA information, or keep the information private, including an option to request that biological samples be destroyed or not used in scientific research. (Here’s How Other DNA Testing Companies Compare on this front).
Ancestry.com’s search was quite robust, allowing me to connect relatives (parent and child, for example); however, the app’s functionality was more limited than the website’s when it comes to filtering. I found myself switching between screens to make connections.
Recordings were pretty well optimized for mobile viewing; the transcription of the text, when available, was random. While I laughed at the limitations of auto-recognition (Sarah became Larah in one instance), these sorts of inaccuracies can lead to dead ends – when records contradicted each other, I could either assume there was a typo or a transcription error in an “inaccurate” detail or assumed ancestor was not entirely accurate when they were counted, for example.
More than other genealogy apps, Ancestry.com has gamified the genealogy process
More than other genealogy apps, Ancestry.com has gamified the genealogy process with its guidance. These genetic clues offer novice researchers an easy starting point and keep users hooked, like a social media notification, with pop-ups that interrupt further research. These clues held me back longer than I might have otherwise, but they got boring and they weren’t always accurate, like when they pointed me to someone with the namesake of ‘an ancestor.
What it costs: $39.99 for 1 month/$99.99 for 6 months; 14 day free trial
2. my legacy: Ideal for small budgets
MyHeritage offers “the most affordable DNA test on the market”. Membership in the app is about half the price of Ancestry.com. Curious to see how a budget option differs from the popular database, I gave it a spin. Privacy fans might appreciate the company’s tough stance on data privacy: They have never sold or licensed user data (including genetic and health data) and promise never to.
Although I was able to trace my heritage further in Ancestry.com, I still made discoveries in MyHeritage. Most disappointingly, the individual records didn’t seem to be linked: clicking on a census record for a great-grandfather, I couldn’t click on his wife’s records to see his inheritance. Instead, I needed to do a separate search for his name. On Ancestry.com, I could switch between parents with just one click. I would still recommend MyHeritage to budget users, although I prefer Ancestry.com’s interface and search filter options.
What it costs: Starting at $89.99 per year; 14 day free trial
3. findmypast: Best for researching British and Irish roots
Findmypast advertises itself as the go-to platform for British-Irish Americans, so I thought it might help me find my Welsh connections (spoiler alert: I’ve never done this). The UK-based genealogy tool partners with the British Newspaper Archives and the National Archives of Ireland, among other major sources of historical records. While all the sites I tried offered “hire an expert” help, I liked the idea of hiring a UK-based researcher who might be more intimately familiar with domestic records.
I liked the limited focus and monthly fee structure of this app, but search limitations meant it wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. I could limit the search results by variables such as location or time period, but there was no middle name field – thus, a search for “Hugh Masterson”, the great-great- father who sailed East, returned over 1,000 results.
I couldn’t limit the search results by adding a spouse or child to the query, like I could on Ancestry.com. Sometimes the search results seemed completely irrelevant – neither the first name nor the last name matched my search query. Adding the county where my Irish parents lived, according to family lore, gave four results for Masterson, but not for Hughs. Frustrating.
I had better luck finding a paternal great-grandfather who had emigrated from Ireland to work in a woolen mill in Maine. I could search immigration records specifically for people leaving Ireland for the US, with additional options for date or port of destination. I was able to find the same immigration records on Findmypast as on Ancestry.com; its attribution to a collection of New England naturalizations gave me confidence in the source.
I also liked that FindmyPast tracks records viewed. The ability to tell at a glance that I had already checked out a recording made searches easier.
What it costs: From $10.75 per month; 14 day free trial
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Since I first tried Ancestry.com, this was my baseline. If I preferred it, maybe I got used to its features and found myself missing features when I couldn’t find them in MyHeritage or Findmypast. Its interface was the most user-friendly; I recoiled imagining my technology-struggling mother browsing through Findmypast’s inaccuracies or MyHeritage’s folder silos.
Still, Ancestry.com wasn’t perfect. The genealogy app was more limited than the website, and every search had to be cleared manually – zero time.
There is also an uncomfortable amount of whitewashing. Through Out of slave hours from its searchable archives, for example, the platform undermines black genealogical research and prevents white people from reckoning with slavery ancestry or generational wealth rooted in slavery.
The Dark Side of Genealogy and DNA Research
DNA testing can be fun, but there are the disadvantages to know before spitting into a tube, including the data privacy considerations mentioned above.
In truth, these tools don’t always tell you what you want to know.
These platforms tend to be white and Eurocentric, to begin with. DNA testing is very popular among European Americans (leading to a better data set), and there is less reliance on oral history than, say, native hawaiian culture. Then there are the historical traumas from slavery to anti-Semitism that make it difficult for some people to trace their roots. The collection of the National Archives of ethnic heritage resources, which highlights research tools for Asian, Black, Latino, and Native ancestry, may be helpful for those whose stories are underrepresented in subscription genealogy databases.
DNA testing and genealogical resources market their services as inherently personal and meaningful, but in truth, these tools don’t always tell you what you want to know, like where More precisely where does an ancestor come from? And unless there is an obvious historical time marker (Irish emigration following the Great Famine, for example), you won’t know why they left.
I felt a little doomed: the personal angle inherent in marketing didn’t show up in the records, at least for me. Genealogy can be a complex hobby, where the more time you spend decorating a family tree (uploading photos, etc.), the more you enjoy it.
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I dove into amateur genealogy looking for a way to connect with my mother and with the travel experience I won’t have until who knows when. Was it fun? In moments, like when I discovered an Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, a wheelwright and former farm laborer in the area where I now live. Imagining one’s life was in a way a substitute for escape travel and a portal to another life.
But no DNA testing or genealogy website can answer the big questions that, as a writer, I can’t help but ask: who were these people and what binds us through time? ? Nor does it come close to my impression of Ireland at twenty: in a bar with my mother, drunk on Guinness, surrounded by faces that resembled those of almost everyone I loved, a brief moment of homecoming that I never forgot.