Companies are making billions of dollars from families searching for long-lost ancestors by charging them to search public records.
Business analysts reckon the global market is worth more than $5 billion annually and will grow to around $16 billion by the end of 2033.
Our fascination with the past and our ancestors has opened the door to personal DNA testing, personal medicines and heritage tourism.
FamilySearch and Ancestry are the market leaders pulling in the cash – but behind the flashy home pages, the business is different from what it seems.
Signing up and searching the records is easy enough, but tracing a family tree is inextricably linked to the Mormon Church of the Latter-Day Saints.
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Baptism Of The Dead
The Mormon-owned website FamilySearch aims to help church members find their relatives who died without a baptism into the church.
One of the fundamental beliefs of the Mormons is the baptism of the dead, as they believe the ceremony allows their ancestors to find salvation after death.
To the Mormons, genealogy is a way to widen the family unit and save more souls.
This provokes much controversy as Mormons baptise the dead without telling their non-Mormon families. This has led to many conflicts between families and the Church, especially families of faith outside the Mormon church.
The Mormons have a vast storeroom for filing millions of personal records deep under Granite Mountain, about 20 miles from the Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The mountain is reputedly strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack.
Billions Of Family Records
The records hold more than 2.4 million rolls of microfilm containing about 2 billion names gathered across history.
The records are both a boon and a dilemma for families.
Most of the information is online through the FamilySearch website. However, many genealogists are wary that their public searches and the family trees they construct from their detective work are assimilated as public knowledge by the Mormons.
Sometimes, when church members can link the data to their families, they baptise the dead.
The Big Five Family Tree Websites
Family tree detectives have thousands of websites worldwide holding data, but the big aggregators and most popular sites for millions of users are:
Owned by the Mormon Church of the Latter-Day Saints, FamilySearch is the biggest genealogy website with the most extensive records. The archives include British, US, Irish, Australian and Canadian records of births, marriages, deaths, military service and censuses.
Often considered a Mormon-owned website, Ancestry is owned by a US equity funding group and has no link with the Mormons despite having offices in Salt Lake City. However, like many genealogical websites, Ancestry data is sourced from the same records that power FamilySearch.
The largest British-based genealogical website. A link with the Church of Latter-day Saints means Mormons are given free accounts to search the data. Researchers for the British TV programme Who Do You Think You Are access the data as a resource.
MyHeritage started in Israel in 2003 and owns the US website Geni.com. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints has affiliations with the Mormons, like rival website Ancestry. Mormons have free accounts as a swap for accessing church genealogy data.
A UK genealogy site owned by FindMyPast, which also owns the British Newspaper Archive. Many researchers regard the site as the best British resource.
Most genealogy websites have tools and explainer guides to help families trace their past and save their records.
Family Tree FAQ
Who are the Mormons?
Mormons are a Christian-related sect belonging to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. The church has around 16 million members worldwide and is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
The church mixes Christian belief with a doctrine laid down by founder Joseph Smith.
How old is the Church of the Latter-Day Saints?
Joseph Smith, the founder, first began preaching about Mormonism in the early 1820s in New York. When Smith died in 1847, Brigham Young succeeded him and moved the church headquarters to Salt Lake City.
Do I have to pay to search my family tree?
Don’t let the free offer invitations catch you out. Investigating family trees means paying between £69 and £229 a year in subscriptions or pay-as-you-go searches to genealogy websites.
Several companies run professional family tree tracing services. The most well-known is Legacy Tree Genealogists, which MyHeritage took over several years ago. The service has a global network of family detectives. Legacy Tree charges for the tracing service.
Can I search old newspapers for stories about my family?
Newspaper libraries go back to the early 1800s and, in some cases, even earlier. Many are indexed and searchable by date, name, place or event. The most popular and extensive UK library is the British Newspaper Archive.
Will I find I am related to someone famous?
Maybe you’ll get lucky and find you are related to a blueblood or a celebrity. Who you are related to depends on your bloodline.
How do I start tracing my family tree?
The best place to start is by drafting a tree based on the reminiscences of your living residents, starting with the oldest first. Putting together a photographic record of people and places mentioned on the tree is a good idea, too.
DIY family investigators can manage the information using the free MyHeritage Family Tree Builder.