Why Are Americans Obsessed with Genealogy?

How we became a nation invested in understanding our family histories.

Posted Oct 13, 2020

 Ann Martin/CC by 2.0
A family tree.
Source: Ann Martin/CC by 2.0

October is National Family History Month, a good time to consider why we’ve become a nation consumed by genealogy. A hobby that not so long ago was associated with Colonial Dames and retirees, with courthouse clerks and dusty microfilm reels, has become a cultural phenomenon — fueled by sophisticated technologies and driven by a relentless fascination with who we are.

Genealogical subscription services are big business, and 20 years into the creation of recreational DNA testing for ancestry, 35 million people have taken a DNA test to match them to genetic relatives and predict where in the world their genes come from. The majority of these testers are American. Recent financial news underscores the rising value of both family history research and consumer genomics — the investment giant Blackstone Group announced it is acquiring a majority stake in Ancestry.com in a deal worth a hefty $4.7 billion.

So, why are Americans so into the past right now? How did the lives of the dead become our national obsession?

As I discovered in researching my book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, the American impulse toward genealogical inquiry has long been in tension with itself. Historian François Weil has written that in the early days of the new American republic, genealogy was linked with the British aristocracy’s obsession with social rank, rendering the endeavor suspicious to many citizens. But, in time, we warmed to it.

Over the next 200 years, lineage research has at times been seen as a worthy middle-class endeavor, a tool to celebrate families even when they boasted humble origins. At other times, it has been used to divide people into a hierarchy of stations based on race and class. Those descended from elite Colonial families used lineage research to justify and enforce higher social rank. In the wake of the Civil War, in Weil’s words, genealogy became a vehicle for many whites to bind “ancestor worship, nationalism, and racism” into one big ugly package.

But during the second half of the 20th century, he writes, the hobby began to shed some of that racism and nativism, and the pursuit of family history became the means by which a broader, multicultural swath of Americans could understand themselves and their ancestors. With the rise of the personal computer, the Internet, genealogical subscription services and DNA testing — and with shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots” popularizing genealogical research — we’ve become a nation of archeologists, excavating the past to better understand ourselves. I think of these Americans as seekers, and I count myself among them.

But what exactly fuels our desire to look backward? What are we are looking for, and what do we do with what we find? Exactly 400 years after the British ship Mayflower landed in modern-day Massachusetts, many of America’s seekers embark on their research not to prove a connection to lofty or historic forebears, not to prove themselves Mayflower descendants or Daughters of the American Revolution… but out of curiosity. They search out of a sense of rootlessness. Time and assimilation have stripped their families of the customs, language and foods of the past, and they may not know exactly where their ancestors emigrated from. African Americans, meanwhile, may be blocked from knowledge of the past by the paucity of records about their enslaved ancestors. Even people who never much wondered about their family histories can stumble into an interest through the back door of recreational genetic testing, perhaps after purchasing a kit on a whim during a sale, or being gifted one for Thanksgiving.

We look because human beings are natural born storytellers, and we want to know how our “once upon a time” fits into the narratives of our lives. We look because genealogy has a way of making abstract history real, and we want to know if the past has guidance for us — hapless denizens of a chaotic present whose future we can’t yet see. (Ancestors’ stories of crisis can be reassuring; we already know that it’s going to work out and can learn lessons that sustain us.)

We look, too, because we want to see if there is precedent for our proclivities and talents, an explanation for this nose or that auburn hair, a story behind a family’s idiosyncrasies — those unusual holiday customs, that missing grandfather, this intergenerational habit of secrecy. We look for patterns and explanations. We hope the past can elucidate the present.

And at this very moment, we also look because of a fear of present circumstances. The Washington Post reports that the pandemic may be fueling even more desire to search, pointing to an upsurge in adoptees and others seeking their genetic kin, and to reports from Ancestry about a significant increase in subscribers to its genealogical archives compared to the same period last year. “Tomorrow isn’t promised,” one woman realized in the midst of a Covid-19 fever, committing herself to find her biological father.

This is the time to ask questions. This is the age of reckoning. And of course, in the seeking, sometimes we find that the truth about a family’s history collides with family narratives. Sometimes, from a DNA test, a woman discovers at the age of 51 that she is adopted. Or a man discovers that he is not of Sicilian descent, but sub-Saharan African — and then begins a journey into the past and into identity that may never end. Having written about these stories and many others in The Lost Family, I hear more with every email from someone whose life has been touched by this technology.

With these stories, the truth is only the beginning of the journey. In an era that spells the end of family secrets, many of us are faced with profound surprises about ourselves and our families, answers to questions we never even realized we were asking.