We all have a desire to be connected to the people around us in some way. We often look to our past history to help us understand who we are and where we came from. But when it comes to family, how far back can most of us go? I was surprised to learn that in the US, 56% of Americans can’t name all four of their grandparents. Yet, 93% of people express interest in learning more about their family history.* That’s why Ancestry, the popular genealogy site, exists. They help people on their personal journey of discovery and to build out their family tree.
We’ve all heard of AncestryDNA:
…and have seen the commercials in the past. This service combines advanced DNA science with the world’s largest online family history resource to predict your genetic ethnicity. It also help you find new family connections. It maps ethnicity going back multiple generations and provides insight into such possibilities as: what region of Europe are my ancestors from, or am I likely to have East Asian heritage? AncestryDNA can also help identify relationships. The simple at-home DNA test kit (saliva test) is straightforward to use. It’s also good starting point for those who are interested in learning more about themselves and piecing together their family history.
It’s been a few years since I did mine and I continue to get messages from connections. But if you’re interested in going beyond the surface, what more you can do?
Family Tree Building:
Aside from the DNA testing, Ancestry also has a Family Tree building platform. This was actually what the company started with back in 2004. The DNA testing was introduced in 2012. The two components work well together to help users make discoveries.
According to Crista Cowan, Corporate Geneolgist at Ancestry, the popular platform has about 40 billion historical records from 80 countries around the world. Data is drawn from birth, marriage and death records as well as Civil Registrars and church records for example. All publicly accessible. “As soon as you start building your family tree we start searching the records for you,”said Cowan. “We deliver up these leaf hints that explain what records we’ve been able to find. So, for those who are building and discovering their family tree, this information will help you to make more discoveries.”
But it also depends on what your goals are and what you’d like to achieve with Ancestry. “A lot of people take the Ancestry DNA test to explore their ethnicity to see what percentage of what they are and they may not be in a position to go forward,” said Cowan. “In the last few years, Ancestry has done some amazing things within the genetic communities. Your ethnicity estimate is looking at where your DNA was 500 to 1000 years ago, where in the world that genetic signature was.
Ancestry has 22 million people around the world who have taken the DNA test. One of the things we’ve been able to do with that amount of data is look for networks or clusters of people who all match each other in some way. Not because they are genetically related but because within the last 200 years their families have all been from the same place. So, we can start to trace migration patterns. We can also start to connect people to more specific communities.”
That was interesting for me to discover! My test results had shown family history in Polynesia. But how many of us actually know much about our lineage beyond two generations. How far back can we go?
The Sweet Spot:
Most of us kind of know who are our first cousins. But then our kids and their children are cousins to each other and that’s when people start losing touch with who everyone is. “By the time you hit that third cousin level, chances are you won’t even know who they are even if you pass them on the street,” said Cowan. “And yet, in different branches in the family tree there are photographs that get passed down and usually to one child of the family. Or the stories. Or one child gets the family tree that gets put together so pieces end up in just a few hands.”
“We all have thousands of fifth and sixth connections but it’s that third and fourth range where we can connect our memories, stories, artifacts of people that we have heard stories of as well. That’s the sweet spot. And that connection becomes more significant to people.”
My husband’s family has kept a really impressive record of his family tree for many generations. Some of his family members have taken to Ancestry in efforts to connect with others and to help pull the family’s history together.
During the pandemic we discovered a whole other important branch that was revealed in the most unusual way. It turns out someone I had gone to high school with was related to my husband by a mutual great, great, great grandfather. We had heard throughout the years that the relative had another marriage but we had no concrete connections until recently. That discovery helped to fill the missing branch and opened a whole other world full of curiousity and the connections continue to grow.
We’ve also learned that Ancestry not only helps with connecting with distant relatives but there are a few new additional features that are useful for those who are interested in building out the stories.
Ancestry recently introduced the Storymaker Studio. It allows users to create bite-sized stories from their family history. While users are building their family tree this information can be added into each individual family member profiles. Users can also add in photos, voice overs, to help tell their stories.
Currently, various members of my husband’s living relatives have a plethora of stories, photos, journals, newspaper clippings on several family members in their safe keeping. However, we’ve discovered that many of these findings haven’t been shared to the larger family network. While we have a private Facebook group where everyone can chat and share, it’s not so easy to return and scroll through to find the information.
Home for Family History:
One of the benefits of Ancestry is that it is designed to be a home for family history. It is where all the information can be pulled together in a format where most people can connect the dots at a glance.
The family tree can also be shared amongst family members. We know how much work goes into building a family tree. And there’s no surprise that there’s always one or two keepers of the records.
With Ancestry, there are different levels of controls within the platform to help manage how the information is shared and collaborated. Cowan explained that the family tree building platform on Ancestry can be shared with any number of people. You can be the keeper of the family tree but can also share it with several other family members. For example, you can grant parents to have access with Editor roles which means they can do anything to the family tree that you, the main person, can do. Then, you can also share with siblings and cousins but give them guest access for viewing.
Ancestry Mobile App:
She also tells us there’s also an Ancestry Mobile app, “that means they can pull up the family tree anytime and anywhere. And here our family can consume the information or share it out with other people.”
That’s pretty neat. Especially when my husband and son visit Scotland and meet up with long distant relatives.
I was really curious about what she had learned from speaking with Ancestry users. “There are always surprises especially when you start to see patterns in choices people make, you start to see why people leave and migrate or disassociate with the family. It can become healing and understand why the people were and how those choices affected us,” said Cowan.
She also tells us, “when you combine the family tree platform with DNA, we now also can tell you which of your matches come from your dad’s side and which from your mom’s side. We can now split out the matches between the two sides of the family tree. We found this really interesting. So, if you get a new match that you’ve never heard of before we determine which side it’s from. That way, you know where to start looking in your family tree for that connection.”
What a great milestone birthday gift idea too! (FYI there’s a promo happening right now for Father’s Day. Link here)