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We’d only be only a ferry ride away — how could we not explore our previously unknown Welsh heritage on my mother’s milestone birthday trip to England? That’s how I sold the idea to my mother, who’d always been interested in genealogy. On a driving tour of Ireland, years earlier, we’d connected with one another and our Irish roots.
That milestone birthday trip is on indefinite hold in COVID times, but facing a long pandemic winter, I wondered if we could explore those roots virtually, using her Ancestry.com DNA test results and genealogy apps. We could take a research trip through our phones.
Her genetic test only indicated Welsh heritage, but by tracing the roots, we might be able to find where those ancestors emigrated from, ultimately enjoying a richer travel experience in a post-COVID world by visiting the ancestral village. I picked a handful of genealogy apps — including Ancestry.com, since she’d used the popular website for her DNA test — to find out more about our family story.
1. Ancestry.com: Best overall
I started with Ancestry.com specifically because my mom had already made a family tree there — it’s arguably the most popular and accessible heritage research tool. Public libraries often have Ancestry.com subscriptions, so you might 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 appreciated. Users can choose to make a family tree public or share their DNA information, or to keep information private, including an option to ask that biological samples be destroyed or not used in scientific research. (Here’s how other DNA testing companies compare on that front).
Ancestry.com’s search was fairly robust, allowing me to connect relatives (parent and child, say); however, the app’s functionality was more limited than the website when it came to filtering. I found myself flipping back and forth between screens to make connections.
Records were fairly well optimized for mobile viewing; text transcription, when available, was hit-or-miss. While I laughed at the limitations of machine recognition (Sarah became Larah in one instance), these sorts of inaccuracies can lead to dead ends — when records contradicted one another, I could either assume there was a typo or transcription error in an “inaccurate” detail or assume an ancestor wasn’t entirely accurate on their Census, for example.
More so than other genealogy apps, Ancestry.com has gamified the genealogy process
More so than other genealogy apps, Ancestry.com has gamified the genealogy process through its hints. These genetic clues give novice seekers an easy starting point and keep users hooked, social media notification style, with pop-ups that interrupt subsequent searches. These hints kept me engaged longer than I might have otherwise been, but they grew annoying and they weren’t always accurate, like when they directed me to someone with a homonymous name to an ancestor.
What it costs: US$39.99 for a 1-month membership/US$99.99 for 6 months; 14-day free trial
2. MyHeritage: Best for the budget-conscious
MyHeritage boasts “the most affordable DNA test on the market.” App membership costs roughly half as much as Ancestry.com. Curious to see how a budget option differs from the popular database, I gave it a spin. Privacy fans might enjoy the company’s firm stance on data privacy: They’ve never sold or licensed user data (including genetic and health data) and promise never to do so.
Although I was able to trace my heritage further in Ancestry.com, I still made discoveries in MyHeritage. Most disappointingly, individual records didn’t appear to be linked: Clicking into a Census record for a great-grandfather, I couldn’t then click into his wife’s records to see her heritage. Instead, I needed to do a separate search for her name. In Ancestry.com, I could hop from one relative to another with a single click. I’d still recommend MyHeritage to users on a budget, though I preferred Ancestry.com’s interface and search filtering options.
What it costs: From US$89.99 per year; 14-day free trial
3. Findmypast: Best for seeking British and Irish roots
Findmypast markets itself as the platform of choice for Americans with British and Irish heritage, so I thought it might help me find my Welsh connections (spoiler alert: I never did). The UK-based genealogy tool partners with the British Newspaper Archive and the National Archives of Ireland, among others primary sources for 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 national records.
I liked the limited focus and monthly fee structure for this app, but search limitations meant that it wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. I could limit search results by variables like location or time frame, but there was no middle name field — thus a search for “Hugh Masterson,” the great-great-grandfather who sailed East, returned over 1,000 results.
I wasn’t able to limit search results by appending a spouse or child to the query, the way I could in Ancestry.com. At times, search results seemed completely irrelevant — neither the first or last name matched my search query. Adding the county where my Irish relatives lived, per family lore, returned four results for Masterson, but no Hughs. Frustrating.
I had better luck when searching for a paternal great-grandfather who’d emigrated from Ireland to work in a Maine wool factory. I could specifically search in immigration records for people leaving Ireland for the U.S., with additional options of date or destination port. I was able to find the same immigration paperwork in Findmypast as in Ancestry.com; its attribution to a collection of New England naturalizations gave me confidence in the source.
I also liked that FindmyPast tracked records viewed. The ability to tell at a glance that I’d already checked a record simplified searches.
What it costs: From US$10.75 per month; 14-day free trial
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Since I tried Ancestry.com first, it was my baseline. If I liked it best, it may be that I’d gotten used to its functionalities and found myself missing features when I didn’t find them in MyHeritage or Findmypast. Its interface was the most user-friendly; I cringed at imagining my tech-challenged mother navigating Findmypast’s inaccuracies or MyHeritage’s record siloing.
Still, Ancestry.com wasn’t perfect. The genealogy app was more limited than the website, and every search needed to be manually cleared — a time suck.
There’s also an uncomfortable amount of whitewashing. By excluding slave schedules from its searchable records, for instance, the platform undercuts Black genealogical research and prevents white people from reckoning with slaveholding ancestors or generational wealth rooted in slavery.
The dark side of genealogy research and DNA
DNA tests can be fun, but there are some important downsides to know before you spit in 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, for one. DNA testing is very popular among Americans of European descent (leading to a better data set), and there’s less of a reliance on oral history than among, say, native Hawaiian culture. Then there are historical traumas from slavery to anti-Semitism that make it hard for some people to trace roots. The National Archives’ collection of ethnic heritage resources, which spotlights Asian, Black, Latinx and Indigenous ancestry research tools, can be useful for those whose histories are underrepresented in subscription genealogy databases.
Both DNA tests and genealogy resources market their services as inherently personal and meaningful, but in truth, these tools don’t always tell you what you want to know, such as where specifically an ancestor came from. And unless there’s an obvious historical time peg (Irish emigration in the wake of the Great Famine, for one), you won’t know why they left.
I felt a bit set up to fail: the personal angle inherent in the marketing didn’t come through in the records, at least for me. Genealogy may be a compounding hobby, where the more time you spend decking out a family tree (uploading photos, etc), the more enjoyment you experience.
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 — as when I discovered an Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, a wheelwright and onetime farm laborer in the region where I now live. Imagining his life was something of a substitute for travel-escape, and a portal into another life.
But no DNA test or genealogy website can answer the big questions that, as a writer, I can’t help but ask: Who were these people, and what bonds us across time? Nor does it come close to my impression of Ireland, at age twenty: in a bar with my mother, tipsy on Guinness, surrounded by faces that looked just like the faces of almost everyone I loved, a brief moment of homecoming I’ve never forgotten.
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