Dangers of DNA Testing

Dangers of DNA Testing

Early in my research efforts, as I started digging through County Vital Records, I realized there were parts of my family’s past I will likely unearth that they might have fought to keep hidden. My first time in a courthouse was in Langlade County, Wisconsin, and I had gone through the Birth Registers to research my known ancestors and was just about to wrap up. My Great Grandparents (Elmer A Morse and Myra (Tradewell) Morse) were married in 1897 and had a single daughter in 1911, my Grandmother Catherine. I had always found it interesting that they had only one child, and dawned on me that there could have been other children throughout the years that were stillborn or otherwise didn’t survive. I reviewed the entire register from about 10 years before they were married through when my Grandmother was born, and I only found an interesting entry.

Apparently, an “E.J. Morse”, who was a farmer from Racine County, Wisconsin, had a child 15 Feb 1907 that was unnamed, that didn’t have sex indicated, and didn’t list the Mother’s name…only that she too was born in Racine County. My first reaction was that this was a close match. I can see that E.A. could be mistaken for E.J., and the fact that they had both been born in Racine County was a huge clue, as well as the fact that E.A. had originally been a farmer. However, E.A. was a U.S. Congressman at the time of this child’s birth so I would have expected that to be listed as his occupation, and it was highly unusual to not have the Mother’s name listed on the birth record. I searched for death records that might have matched, and I found none. To this day I’m left wondering what it means, and what it would mean if there was a child born to my Great Grandfather out of wedlock, or if perhaps they had another child before my Grandmother who was stillborn. Depending on how this information played out, it could have either been a good hint towards why they only had one child, or it could have destroyed the historical reputation of one of the scions of our family.

imag0722-1-1In this case the paper trail went cold, and it’s likely we’ll never know the full story. However, with DNA there’s no need for paper, and not all of the stories it will unearth will be happy.

The blessing of DNA is certainty; there can be no doubt you’re related to someone who’s a match. However, it’s also a curse when that certain link establishes proof that someone’s family line isn’t as it’s always been understood. Not only do you need to be prepared to uncover uncomfortable truths about your family lines, you need to be understanding that you’re likely going to deliver distressing news to fellow researchers.

Recently we established an DNA connection between my wife Felice and a 2nd Cousin 2x Removed, through her Father-Mother-Mother’s line. We knew nothing beyond the name of the parents of Felice’s Great Grandmother until the DNA match reached out to us, and we established that her Great Grandmother was the illegitimate child of Henry Aldridge, born about 5 years before he married to a different woman. This researcher had never heard of the child, but the evidence is pretty clear that there is a proven match. Given Henry’s history, it wasn’t a huge surprise that there was an illegitimate child, and the players were all long dead, so it was just a historical curiosity, as well as a brick wall torn down!

Until I reached out to a shared match between Felice and the new researcher.

Using GEDmatch I reached out to the highest common match, and the response floored me. The gentleman who responded apologized for being so upset, but my email had confirmed to him that his maternal Grandfather was not the man the family had always known was his Grandfather, but a brother of Henry Aldridge. This man was the namesake of the presumed Grandfather, so not only was this information shocking, it also meant he had lived his whole life named after someone who was not his relative. To complicate matters even more, his mother is still alive and is devastated that her father is not really her father. She asked him to keep this secret, and that she never wants her family to know the truth. As a family history researcher, this man is both devastated, regretful that he has turned his mother’s life upside down, and also is facing the need to stop further research on his mother’s side.

I’ve kept it pretty light with him, and let him know that I will maintain his privacy as well as understanding the struggle he’s going through, but I honestly don’t. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have my hobby turn into such a source of pain for my mother. As it is, I feel very conflicted about the role I’ve played in this man’s life. I neither brought this possibility to his attention first, nor did I force him to participate in this process, but I did play a role and it’s having an impact on him and his family.

I will continue to pursue my family history, and my DNA matches, just as I always have, but I’m much more aware of how DNA can have serious consequences, in ways that traditional ancestral research can’t. I’ve talked to my living relatives, including my mother, since to let them know that this work with DNA might pose more risk than we thought, and so far everyone’s agreed to continue.

What to expect from your genealogical DNA results

What to expect from your genealogical DNA results

You’ve sat patiently (barely) while Ancestry.com has processed your DNA test, and like Christmas morning it’s FINALLY time to open the mysterious gift of your DNA results…and about 10 minutes later you’re going to be asking yourself “what do I do with this?” Let’s go over my experiences with this process, and hopefully set your expectations properly, so you’re not discouraged from what is a much more complicated process than you’d ever expected. I’ll also be posting subsequent “How-to” guides on how to show how I made the most of my DNA results, but for today, let’s look at what to expect.

Before we start, however, there are two things I want to make clear: 1. I’m still very supportive of this process, and have no hesitation recommending it to others! It can be tough, confusing, frustrating and still totally worth it and  rewarding (just like traditional genealogy btw!); 2. This is written in 2017 and we are just scratching the surface. This is likely to get better as the years go on, and more tests are tested, and more money is made on the process, so more is invested to make it even easier.

With the disclaimers out of the way, here’s what I’ve learned to expect:

The DNA test will only show you other people you’re most likely related to, but it does not show you HOW you’re related.

There’s a misconception that after you receive your DNA results, that Ancestry will map the connection between you and your match for you. The truth is you will receive a list of people who share a common ancestor, however the connection is up to you and them to determine. For example, these two people match my mother-in-law, and I can see no more than that there’s a match:


Without trees to compare, there’s no way to establish the link. Also, conversely, one you establish a link between your trees, there is no way in Ancestry.com to prove that link. You will only be able to show the most likely path between you and your match.

You will need a solid, well researched, and as far reaching family tree to make the most of the results.

Everyone listed as a DNA match shares a common ancestor(s) with you, and the goal is to identify that relative. So obviously, the further back and more accurate your tree is, the more likely to have the ancestor that matches someone else’s! What I found was that as well as I thought I had my tree traced, as soon as I tried to match my ancestors I found how many holes I had!

Here’s an example (which I will follow through this post), from my wife’s tree:

tree-example-1This is her mother’s ancestors, and we faced some challenges building this line. There was little family history to rely on, and two realities of African-American genealogy played heavily into our work: especially in the South, it was often the culturally unacceptable to ask questions about family history, and, it’s amazingly challenging to firmly establish relatives born before 1870.

So this tree is quite an accomplishment, but since most of our matches are going to be 3x or 4x Great Grandparents, this tree demonstrates just how limiting an incomplete tree can be. In this case, of her 3x Great Grandparents I can identify 3 possible last names out of 32…so I only know 9% of the names in that generation.

Your tree will likely be way better than 90% of the trees attached to your matches, and thus you will spend most of your time building THEIR trees to find you common ancestors.

This is largest challenge I’ve found in DNA research: most people don’t even associate their results with a tree, or if they do it’s a very incomplete tree. Following the above example, here is a typical tree that is a DNA match:


Luckily, the match I’m working with does have a good tree to work with:


But, as you can see, the tree is not complete, and from it we’ll only be able to guess at 1 of 32 last names of the match’s 3x Great Grandparents. That’s only 3% of the last names of that generation, and combined we are starting with a less than 1% of matching 3x Grand Parents.

The best solution is to start building out your match’s tree, to see if you can find ancestors they haven’t identified in the hopes you will find your common ancestor. I currently have 9 trees of matches that I’m working on, and I’ve identified most recent common ancestors (MCRA) for 2 more using this technique. The downside is that building out trees to identify 64 3x Great Grandparents can be very time consuming.

The best researched lines of your tree will result in the majority of your matches, while the brick walls will likely remain.

This is a corollary to my last point, but I still want to bring it up. I went into DNA testing hoping it would breakdown some of the brick walls in my research, but it’s usually true that they are brick walls because there’s not enough data for anyone to make the connections in the first place!

My mother’s mother’s side of the family is well documented with many lines going back into the 1600’s (including our Mayflower line), and so it’s not surprising that 17 out of 27 DNA lines I’ve identified are on my Mother’s side of the family. Additionally, I have half a dozen 8th cousins identified on her side, but only 1 on my Father’s side…and that’s due to the work of a long-time Genealogy Society which has worked to establish a line he’s in back to the 1630’s (http://www.morsesociety.org/). Most of your DNA “wins” are going to be in areas you’ve already “won”.

Private trees will be the bane of your existence!

I won’t get into the debate of why someone should/shouldn’t keep their trees public, however you are going to find that some of your best matches will have private trees, but I’d estimate that 50% of our matches are Private trees, which effectively shuts down research on those lines. On my wife’s side the result has been that we can’t identify her closest DNA match on Ancestry.com, which has a 50/50 chance of solving a large hole in her family history. We have reached out to the match using Ancestry.com’s messaging tool, but…

Many people who took a DNA test will likely not respond to your emails.

I have sent over 20 messages to people who are our DNA match, and I have yet to receive a reply. For 2 of them, I sent them messages explaining how I’d done the research necessary to expand/correct their line, and link us together, and still no reply. I’ve had some better results with GEDmatch (which has you use your real email address), but even then the results are less than 50% response. There are few things more maddening than having a close match, who might be a good lead to a new discovery, and they have either no tree or a private tree, and they don’t reply to messages, but it’s going to be a common challenge you face.

These DNA test results are very powerful in ways that traditional genealogy isn’t, and it’s likely that some of the results are going to be deeply troubling.

DNA is going to enable you to prove relationships in a way that traditional genealogy can’t really accomplish, and it’s only a matter of time before you discover that you’re exposing a family secret. I’ll be posting about this separately, but know that you’re likely going to discover/prove information that not everyone is going to be comfortable with you discovering/proving.

More info on the risks of DNA testing: http://anamericangenealogy.com/2017/01/23/dangers-of-dna-testing

The amount of work to make use of your DNA tests means you’re going to spend less time on traditional genealogy.

After my first week of receiving my first DNA results I realized that I could spend the rest of my time doing genealogy research on nothing but my DNA results. It’s been a struggle to balance the time I have to research between traditional research and DNA research, but knowing that both are necessary to make the other useful has helped me consciously maintain balance between my work. Enjoy getting sucked into the black hole of new data, but after awhile, remember to come back to the work you’ve been doing!

When you finally do find that match through a brick wall, there’s nothing like it…and it’s likely you wouldn’t have gotten through it without DNA testing.

I will be writing about this more shortly, but I was recently reached out to by a DNA match who identified my wife’s 2x Great Grandfather’s name from our tree. My wife’s Grandmother is still with us, and she knew nothing about her Grandparents, but we’d found the name on her Mother’s death certificate. That was all we knew was that name, and despite the usual research nothing more had surfaced. This person who reached out to us has researched this line for 30 years, and has the most amazing documentation, but he’d never heard of the existence of my wife’s 2x Great Grandmother. Further research has linked us conclusively, and allowed us to sit down with my wife’s Grandmother and explain the very detailed history of a Grandfather she never knew. We would have NEVER found each other without DNA (and Public trees, and answering my emails!) and I can tell you that this one discovery makes all of the frustrations worth it!

Happy hunting!


My dad’s fifth birthday party

This is a 16mm home movie that was likely taken on or around on my dad’s fifth birthday on 1 Jan 1949. The three boys pictured as the movie opens are Peter (my dad), John (age 10), and Jerry Leonard (age 8) and a group of (currently) unidentified kids at the kitchen table about to blow out the candles on a cake with 5 candles on it. The second part of the move has just the three boys playing with balloons that were above the kitchen table in the first part, standing in front of a Christmas tree and playing with toys they likely got that year. My grandmother Catherine (Morse) Leonard makes her first appearance at about :57 seconds in, and we see an older woman at about :35 seconds that would likely be my Great-Grandmother Emma (Kupps) Leonard. This footage was likely shot in their home on Langlade Road in Antigo, WI.

I found this footage in the items that were given to me by the daughters of John Leonard after his passing. It’s on a 5 min. reel of 16mm Kodak film, and it looks like it was developed soon after it was shot by my Grandfather Jerry Leonard. The rubber band on the outside of the film was very old and cracked, and I’d guess that this film hasn’t been screened since around the time it was developed.

There are a couple of great lessons to be learned from this movie. First, I’m deeply indebted to my cousins Denise, Diane and Susan for entrusting me with some many great family artifacts. That trust, I think, comes from a few places. They know that I’m deeply interested and that I make sure to share what I find with everyone in the family. I’ve increasingly become the family historian, and I’ve always viewed my role as a conduit to take what information various family members have collected, protect that information so that it will be available for future generations, and to share the information to everyone. I think that helps family members feel comfortable sharing valuable objects, and it makes them feel a part of this collective family history project we’re all participating in. Additionally, I think many times people have these types of artifacts in boxes and they know they are too valuable to just throw away, but they also don’t know what to do with them. Build these relationships as soon as you start researching your family, and over time you’re going to collect more valuable objects than you would have guessed.

Another great lesson is get these objects when you can, because you likely won’t get another chance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been close to getting some old box of photos, or miscellaneous documents, and we’ve decided I’ll get them later, and I’ve never seen them again. This movie ended up in my possession because my cousin called me about 24 hours before the closing on my late Uncle’s house and told me that there were boxes of family history set aside for me in a bedroom. I left work that afternoon, and my mother and I drove 8 hours round trip that night to take everything left for me. It was a treasure trove, and it would have been gone the next day.

The transfer to digital video was done by digmypics.com and it was both easy and economical. I shipped the film to them via FedEx and it took about 2 weeks before I had the digital download, as well as several DVD’s. The total cost was under $50, and while it was scary sending off something so valuable, their process and constant communication put me at ease.