It’s one of the things that slaps you in the face when you jump into DNA Genealogy: Finding a genetic match will rely mostly on other people’s trees being built out to 3x and 4x great grandparents. Since most people who take an Ancestry DNA test don’t have their trees completed to that level, we spend 90% of our time building other people’s trees in order to make matches.
This is amplified when doing African American genealogy, since there are even fewer complete trees available. It is not surprising, given that this country didn’t treat African people as humans for most of its existence, and then we spent the next 100 years or so denying those of African heritage basic rights and access to government across large parts of the US. It resulted in not only devastating impacts, but also simple things like Vital Records not existing, cemeteries segregated and at risk of being destroyed without a thought, etc. Combine that with the cultural hesitance in good parts of the older African American community to either ask or discuss their history with their elders and children (it can be a damn painful story!), and it’s no wonder this fun hobby the European American side of our family has enjoyed for over 100 years wasn’t as nearly matched by our African relatives.
We came up with a strategy on how to break this wall down: cast as big a net as we can, catalog every match-of-a-match that we can identify, and build out all of the trees we can as far as we can to see if we can start building a tree that gives us hints as to where our family might flow through
But, as we build our American Genealogy, we are working to build that side of our tree out and to use DNA as a tool as much as possible. It’s not like we’ll quit just because it’s much harder!
With that, as we went through the DNA matches on Michael’s maternal grandmother’s lines, there are no matches that aren’t from the tests we manage, or from close relatives that tested independently and let us know their results. But as we browsed through her results, we kept coming across two surnames in a bunch of matches: Woodley/Woodson.
We have no Woodley/Woodson in our tree, and none of the trees we looked at provided any hint as to the path that might link these matches and the maternal grandmother in question. So, after mulling this for a couple of months, we came up with a strategy on how to break this wall down: cast as big a net as we can, catalog every match-of-a-match that we can identify, and build out all of the trees we can as far as we can to see if we can start building a tree that gives us hints as to where our family might flow through. Once we had the best tree we had, we hoped that using the strength of each match mapped to that tree would give us hints on where to dig in a build the links between our target (“Mary”) and her matches.
We knew this would be further complicated by not entirely knowing/trusting that the man listed on her Birth Certificate is her father. Going into this there was a 50% chance that all of these matches might link to a side of the family where we know only a man’s name…and it might not even be the right name. Again, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we weren’t going to do it, and the hope was that even if the matches are all from Mary’s father’s line, that will just help us learn more about that brickwall.
We’re going to cover this in a series of posts, and next we’ll talk about how we cast that net over 288 DNA matches and very little other supporting data!