For every generation in the United States there has been a war. And with wars come millions of records that can shed light on family history.
On Thursday, Ancestry.com unveils more than 90 million U.S. war records from the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 through the Vietnam War's end in 1975. The site also has the names of 3.5 million U.S. soldiers killed in action, including 2,000 who died in Iraq.
"The history of our families is intertwined with the history of our country," Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Ancestry.com, said in a telephone interview. "Almost every family has a family member or a loved one that has served their country in the military."
The records, which can be accessed free until the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, came from the National Archives and Records Administration and include 37 million images, draft registration cards from both world wars, military yearbooks, prisoner-of-war records from four wars, unit rosters from the Marine Corps from 1893 through 1958, and Civil War pension records, among others.
The popularity of genealogy in the U.S. has increased steadily alongside the Internet's growth. Specialized search engines on sites like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and FamilySearch.com, along with general search portals like Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., have helped fuel interest.
"The Internet has created this massive democratization in the whole family history world," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Ancestry.com. "It's like a global game of tag."
Ancestry.com, which is owned by Generations Network, spent $3 million (EUR2.23 million) to digitize the military records. It took nearly a year, including some 1,500 handwriting specialists racking up 270,000 hours to review the oldest records.
The 10-year-old Provo, Utah-based company doesn't have every U.S. military record. Over the past four centuries, some have been lost or destroyed. Some records remain classified.
However, this is the first time a for-profit Web site is featuring this many military records as part of a $100 million (EUR74 million) investment in what Sullivan says is the largest genealogy Web site with 900,000 paying subscribers. He joined Ancestry.com 18 months ago after leaving the CEO post at online dating giant Match.com.
After June 6, users can pay $155.40 (EUR115.20) a year for unlimited access to thousands of U.S. record databases, Sullivan said.
Budget constraints and a long list of unfinished priorities have limited federal efforts to make roughly 9 billion public documents available online, said National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper.
"In a perfect world, we would do all this ourselves and it would up there for free," she said. "While we continue to work to make our materials accessible as widely as possible, we can't do everything."