Writer AJ Jacobs, the self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” best known for stunts like the time he tried to live exactly as the Bible prescribes for a whole year, more recently hosted the world’s largest family reunion. The event was his attempt to trace his roots back to a shared ancestor experts believe may have lived as (relatively) recently as 5,000 years ago, and to do that he leveraged all kinds of cutting edge genealogical tools that are only available to … pretty much everyone.
There are services for armchair genealogists who just want to identify great grand aunts, ones for wannabe family genetics investigators who want to trace their roots to Africa and even a crowd-sourced attempt at building the entire world’s family tree. So, we spoke to renowned genealogist Thomas MacEntee for an explanation of each, plus a few pro tips on how to get the most out of them and a way to figure out if you’re related to Jacobs.
Online Family Tree Builders
– Pros: Access to nearly 13 billion public records; clean, easy-to-use user interface that looks like an actual tree.
– Cons: Most expensive service out of the three.
– Cost: $20 per month for access to 10 billion public records in all 50 states, $35 per month for international databases, $45 per month for newspaper and military-specific databases.
My HeritageMy Heritage
– Pros: Specializes in international databases and is a good option for families that are relatively new to the U.S.
– Cons: Bills annually.
– Cost: $75 per year for up 2,500 family members per tree and 1,000 MB of family photo storage, $120 per year for unlimited family members and family photo storage, plus better search tools.
Find My Past
Find My Past
– Pros: Specializes in British databases, including passenger manifests of ships leaving the U.K. in the 1800s and a British newspaper archive – perfect for people who understand cricket or take afternoon tea.
– Cons: Smaller user base than Ancestry or My Heritage.
– Cost: $10 per month for U.S. databases, $20 per month for global databases, $14 for 100 pay-as-you-go credits (5 credits per document view).
DNA Testing Services
The highest rated service according to the International Society Of Genetic Genealogy, 23andME charges $99 for a report that includes a geographic explanation of where your ancestors came from plus any genetic matches in a database of 700,000 people.
Family Tree DNA
Offers a service similar to 23andMe for $99, as well as significantly more in-depth explorations of both maternal and paternal genetic lines for between $50 and $279.
Genealogy Tips And Tricks
For the most productive database searches, you need a family member’s name, birth location, year of birth and year of death. The more of these you can arm yourself with before building an online tree, the more matches the tree-building services will be able to find.
Dig Up The Dead:
The further back you go when entering your initial tree, the easier it will be for the databases to find matches, so focusing on the family members whose portraits predate color photography (or, even better, predate photography) is more efficient than listing all your nieces and nephews.
Facebook Is Your Friend:
Facebook has become home to multiple “ One Place Studies,” in which pages are established for small European towns that sent large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. Their descendants work on these pages with people still living in the town, who often drag the town’s senior citizens to the computer in order to identify old photos posted by grandkids or even great grandkids. If you can trace your family history back to a particular town, see if it has a Facebook page and then send them a status update: “I exist.”
Identity thieves are known to pull info off genealogy sites to gain access to individual bank accounts, so get familiar with the default settings of any service you use. They’ll all allow you to hide full last names, birth locations and photos for any living people from public view. You can’t steal a dead person’s identity, so don’t sweat the hilarious photos of Great Grandpa George’s 85th birthday.