The questions of who we are and where we came from can often be answered, not by looking inward, but by looking backward. While nature and nurture certainly play the primary roles in our development as individuals, it's only through the study of one's ancestry that we develop a more complete view of ourselves as how we fit into the larger scope of human history. Luckily, tracing one's roots is easier than ever thanks to the Internet.
Family Search is a free service, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, that focuses on the more social aspects of genealogical research. In addition to mapping your own family tree, searching the site's record archives, and uploading old family photos, Family Search allows you to share and collaborate all of these features with other users. Who knows, you might just find a long lost 5th cousin.
The USGenWeb project is a free service for genealogical researchers that collects and disseminates historical information on both the state and county level. The group's volunteer admins manage the site's expansive collection of birth, death, and marriage records. In addition, the group also provides specialized information resources for researching your African American roots as well as for finding more about specific people in history. The site and its services are both completely free to use.
If you prefer to ease into your genealogical research with a more interactive resource and don't mind paying for the convenience, give Ancestry a shot. The service costs $20 a month to start but does offer access to more than 12 billion family record—significantly more resources than what you'd find on other, freer sites. There are also a litany of other resources available for an extra charge. For instance, Ancestry offers DNA ethnicity testing (for an added $100 charge), access to US and worldwide genealogy databases (for $35/month), and access to historical newspaper archives and military records as well (for $45/month). Just make sure you're really serious about uncovering your family's past before dropping significant amounts of cash on the venture because the only thing worse than discovering that your family comes from a long line of lowly Iowa slop farmers than paying $45 a month to discover that your family comes from a long line of lowly Iowa slop farmers.
World Vital Records contains a massive collection of browsable census data spanning back to 1790 as well as expansive collections of newspaper archives, Social Security death indexes, and a number of resources from 39 other countries throughout Europe, in addition to the user-managed personal family tree. It costs a fraction of what Ancestry does, just $8 a month or $90 annually.
DistantCousin is one of the most versatile free genealogical resources on the Internet. It offers more than 10 million records—from newspaper obituaries and census records to school yearbooks and passenger lists—from more than 4,000 online sources, all for free. While it won't build your family tree for you, as most costly sites will, it does offer a huge amount of information if you're willing to sort through census data for it.
These sites are just a few of the available online resources providing hints into your family history but the Internet is practically bursting with historical records, all you need to do is uncover the connections.