Katherine Boehret

Digging Deeper Into Roots With Spruced-Up Ancestry.com

When my great grandfather signed his World War I draft registration card in 1917, I’m pretty sure he never imagined I’d be examining it 95 years later with a touch screen sitting on my lap.

This week, I took a fresh look at this and several other gems from my family history with help from a company that has led the charge in online genealogy for 15 years: Ancestry.com. Thanks to mobile apps, other users and a new ability to synchronize content between the Web and desktop software, Ancestry has grown into a robust tool.


The World War I draft card for the author’s great grandfather.

Since I last tested Ancestry in 2006, the company has revamped its desktop software program, Family Tree Maker, so the program can synchronize with Web-based data on Ancestry.com. It’s now available as a mobile app for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones. And the site holds over eight billion records, including content from a partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The addition of mobile apps plus the syncing feature make Ancestry.com more useful and will bring me back to the site more often. I found several new things on Ancestry this time around, including more census data, ship manifests for two cruises an aunt took, and more suggested family-tree data from other users.

I tested Ancestry.com, its iPhone and iPad apps and the Family Tree Maker desktop software on a Mac. I found a computer to be the best tool for inputting family information like names, birth dates, death dates and locations using Ancestry.com and the Family Tree Maker software. The iPad app was the most enjoyable way of exploring my family-tree records. The site’s pricing can be confusing given the various membership and access levels.

A simple right-to-left swipe on the iPad screen shifted my view of the tree from one branch to the next. In four swipes, I dove back in time to read about my mother’s father’s mother’s mother, Florence Antonia Ford, and her family in the 1910 Census record. Using the iPad on my lap, related records from Ancestry felt more personal than seeing them on a computer. A pinch-to-zoom gesture let me clearly read names and details in each record. (Records can be magnified on a computer screen as well, which is helpful when studying small cursive writing or type, like a 1935 passenger list for a cruise to Bermuda that included my Great Aunt Romayne’s name.)

I was delighted to find data I entered on Ancestry.com six years ago was still in my account, which saved me the trouble of inputting everything again. A new feature called TreeSync let me synchronize all of my family-tree information over to my Family Tree Maker desktop software, and vice versa. After using the Ancestry app on my iPad and adding records to my family tree, I easily synced that data with my desktop software by clicking a top-right button when I next opened the Family Tree Maker.

Users who have spent years on Family Tree Maker software, which has been around for 23 years, will be able to sync data from their PCs to the Web version of their family trees. They can now opt to make their trees public for all Ancestry users to access, thus growing the online database.

I found the desktop software to be more heavy-duty than the website and mobile apps, but its interface is a bit antiquated in comparison.


Winston Churchill’s family tree seen via Ancestry.com’s app on the iPad.

Whenever Ancestry.com has a “hint” to show you about a name you entered on your tree, a green leaf appears beside that name. Selecting that leaf lets you see anything in the Ancestry database that may be associated with that name. These could include paper records scanned in by Ancestry.com or content entered by other people. You can view these hints and, if applicable, merge that data with your own after viewing a side-by-side comparison of your information and the new information.

You can share your findings with friends via Facebook, Twitter or email. When I saw my grandfather’s signature on his World War I draft card, I clicked one button and shared this digitized memento from 1917 with friends and family on Facebook. Content shared from Ancestry.com can be seen by other people, even if they don’t have an account, for up to 14 days. You also can keep everything private.

I know quite a bit about my family history, thanks to work my grandfather did years ago, and this helped me with entering names and knowing which hints were relevant or not. For example, an Ancestry-suggested hint that a record for Florence Ladley was for Florence Antonia Ford in my tree wasn’t accurate. I made the most progress when I called my parents for more names and dates.

Ancestry.com offers a free 14-day trial, after which fees range from $13 to $35 a month, depending on six-month or monthly memberships and whether a person is paying for U.S. Discovery (all records in the U.S.) or World Explorer (unlimited access, including records from other countries) access. The Family Tree Maker software, which starts at around $32, can be downloaded to Macs or Windows PCs or bought in stores. Combined pricing for the desktop software and access to the website starts around $40.

Email katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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