Finding Your United Nations Family Tree

By Andrew Koch

The United Nations celebrates its birthday on October 24 each year, marking the day in 1948 when nations across the world signed the United Nations charter. But you, as a genealogist, have chartered your own intercontinental organization—the United Nations of your family tree.

Each of us have ancestors from multiple countries, sometimes from far-flung places. My ancestors, for example, came from Germany, Romania, England, Ireland and the Netherlands. (And those are just the ones I know about!) Those countries make up the United Nations that is my family tree, complete with “ambassadors” from each.

Identifying member nations

Family stories might be your first source for discovering which countries your ancestors came from. Even if your family doesn’t practice customs from the homeland, your family has probably passed down an immigrant story. Likewise, surnames can often communicate ancestral heritage.

DNA results can help you identify potential member countries and regions. The major testing companies provide ethnicity estimates, which show what parts of the world your DNA originated from. While these results can’t perfectly predict your ancestry, they can give you hints about where to start. My ethnicity estimates from AncestryDNA reflect my known ancestry, with a third of my DNA coming from Europe West (France, Germany, Austria, etc.) and another 27 percent from Great Britain.

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Take these ethnicity estimates with a grain of salt, however. Because you don’t inherit DNA from all of your ancestors, DNA results may over- or under-state certain lines of your family. For example, my 15-percent Irish DNA estimate is likely too high—I only know of one third great-grandparent who came from Ireland.

Likewise, limitations in sample size and region classification can limit how your results are reported. Most testing companies haven’t collected as many samples from Africa, Asia and South America as they have from Europe and North America, so your results may be less accurate if you have ancestors from those continents. Or perhaps the way the testing company breaks countries into regions obscures where your ancestors truly came from. For example, I register as having 6-percent Italy/Greece DNA, even though I’ve found no ancestors who have either heritage. Instead, perhaps my ancestors from nearby western Romania have “tricked” the system into believing I have Italian or Greek heritage.

More resources

To learn about the European members of your United Nations family tree, check out The Family Tree Guidebook to Europe, which contains tips on how to find your ancestors in a host of countries in the Old World. We also have books on researching ancestry in specific countries, including Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland, and Italy.

What countries are members of your ancestral United Nations? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.