Family History is a hobby…but DNA is serious business

The news is blowing up today about how the “Golden State Killer” was tracked down, at least partially, due to the authorities using publicly available genealogy DNA sites to identify the relatives of whomever left DNA evidence behind at crime scenes. Assuming that the DNA was left by the suspected criminal, they were able to create a DNA profile, upload it, and narrow down a suspect that matched the criminal’s age and location.

My first reaction was not at all shock or fear that the authorities had somehow overstepped some boundary. My first reaction was that any serious genealogist and/or serious family historian that’s using DNA should know this is a risk, and that lives can be changed/destroyed by these tests. My second reaction was that I’d be fine with any of the DNA kits we manage leading to a close relative being arrested for a serious crime.

We published a post about some of the risks of DNA testing a while back (Dangers of DNA Testing), to highlight that this tool isn’t just about nice charts and cool stories about the geographic location of your ancestors 1000 years ago. And while we didn’t raise criminal charges of relatives as one of the risks (but I thought about adding that, honestly) DNA hobbyists need to understand this: Testing your relatives could lead to very serious, negative consequences to your loved ones…and the more successful you are in using these tests, the higher the risk becomes.

About two years ago Felice’s test led to our first brick wall broken down by DNA. Her great-grandmother was Ella Aldridge, born in 1911 in Arkansas, and that she died young of cancer in 1958. Through GEDmatch, we met a shared relative that connected through Ella, and he was descended from Henry Washington “Wash” Aldridge, Sr. He was related to Wash’s daughter Charlotte, and it looks very much like Ella was the daughter of Henry Washington “Cap” Aldridge, Jr. This researcher had evidence of another out-of-wedlock birth for Cap in 1910 by a different woman, and with evidence listing Cap as Ella’s father, we were pretty confident we had a match. We received a trove of great information on this wing of the family, and confirmed with Ella’s granddaughter (Felice’s grandmother) some of the details matched some of the speculation over the years.

Excited for this new breakthrough, we went to the next match on the list, and explained our findings and the strength of our DNA matches. The response shook us, but not nearly as much as our original email had shook him and his family. Frederick Smith (all names have been changed on this line, for obvious reasons) is in college and had picked up family history as his hobby. He is the son of Sarah (Jones) Smith, who was the daughter of Mary and Frederick Jones. The Frederick we’d reached out to was named after his grandfather.

Frederick took an AncestryDNA test, and at first the results were straight forward. He was able to identify some close cousins, and it largely matched his know family history going back a couple of generations. Past that, however, things got strange on his mother’s side. There were a series of matches that he could not build lines to, and that didn’t match his known tree. He had talked to his mother about how it seemed strange that the matches on her father’s side didn’t make much sense, and she didn’t seem overly concerned but did ask him to keep his research private. They had a suspicion that something might be up, but 5 days later, they received our email, and it confirmed a truth they hadn’t full considered: Frederick Jones was not Sarah’s biological father.

Frederick had considered that Aldridge was a name appearing enough in his mom’s results that there might be a link, so when we laid out what we knew and why it was likely that his mother was a child of Cap Aldridge it had a strong ring of truth. Frederick didn’t reply for about 2 weeks after we reached out, and when we followed up he explained the impact of that first email. He was named after his grandfather, who he now knew was not his grandfather. His mother had never suspected that her parents had any secrets, and was completely devastated. Her father was not her father, and her mother had lied and kept this secret her entire life.

Sarah asked Frederick to delete the test information, stop digging into family history, and to never talk to anyone about this ever. He was torn, but for as long as she’s alive he decided to dropped everything and stop working on his family history. We exchanged a couple of emails, and he’s since gone completely quiet.

The joy and rush of breaking down our first brick wall using DNA was replaced by regret and sorrow in just a few short weeks. There are two people out there that had their lives changed forever, who’ve had their birthright taken away in many ways, because of this hobby, and because my wife took a test. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and Sarah will never think of her mother, or father, the same way again.

DNA is a wonderful tool, and it’s literally changing the notion of genealogical research forever, but do not think that these tests are either simple or easy. You can change lives with your research, you can do damage with your research, and once you start you largely will lose control of how your research affects your relatives.

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 4 – Looks like we’re back at the brick wall…

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 4 – Looks like we’re back at the brick wall…

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of this experiment of live-blogging a search to break down a brick wall. It was kind of exciting starting this series not knowing if we’d be successful, even though it felt like we might be able to link this DNA match.

We’ve gone through every quick trick we know to try and find Excell before 1910, and so far, we’re striking out. We’ve searched for Excell (and XL and Ex and X) in both the 1900 and 1880 U.S. Census. We’ve used Stanford/Standford/Sanford/Stanfor and we’ve looked in the counties we expected him in, surrounding counties, and the entire state. We’ve even looked for him as “White”. Theres nothing so far, although there are a surprising number of people with the first name “Excell” in Mississippi in 1900! We’ve also tried to push through to 1880 using his uncle James, but to no avail. We now know James’s wife’s maiden name, but we can’t find either of them in the 1880 U.S. Census.

So, after a day of searching, we have another set of data points which will someday help us break down this wall, but we didn’t get through it today. When we’re on the ground in Mississippi doing physical research, we’re confident we can put this puzzle together…just not today. Not yet.

But hopefully sharing this day of searching illustrates how we go after these leads, and we’ll follow this up with a more detailed explanation of our approach on these DNA matches, and of course we’ll follow up when there’s a break through!!

Last screen shot 2
Correcting the tree from Episode 3…THIS properly reflects James as Excell’s Uncle. Thanks for one of our readers pointing it out!!

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 3 – Now we’re in the thick of it…

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 3 – Now we’re in the thick of it…

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

Progress was good this morning…until we got out of Illinois, and started researching the history of Excell Stanford in Mississippi. It’s just disheartening on how little information is available for Mississippi post-Civil War, especially for African Americans.

We know that Excell and Carrie were married in Mississippi around 1917. Of course there is no marriage record, so we still don’t have a maiden name for Carrie confirmed, but we do have her children’s birth records showing it as Boling/Boiden. We found Excell’s 1910 U.S. Census entry, and he was living with his uncle James in Coahoma Co., Mississippi. Interestingly, his name is listed as “XL” which gives us another name to search (we confirmed that his son Edward’s middle name was legally “Excell” so that’s likely how our Excell spelled it). We’ve been able to take uncle James and his wife/children back to the 1900 U.S. Census, but not yet to the 1880 U.S. Census…which might give us a lead on Excell’s father.

We also haven’t been able to find Excell in the 1900 U.S. Census yet…which is going to put up a pretty serious barrier to tying our DNA match to the known Stanford line. Let’s hope we can get past this. There are some un-indexed records like the Mississippi List of Educatable Children which can be helpful, but records for the early 1900’s can be spotty, and since they are un-indexed it will take review of each of hundreds of pages to find a match.

We’ll keep digging in on Excell, and see where we are in a few hours!

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Tree growth has slowed…and we’re using “Unknown” to link the two brothers.

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 2 – Building out our match’s tree starting with her grandparents and their children

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

It was the biggest shock we had when we started trying to use DNA results in our research: We spend most of our time working DNA building other people’s trees.

So, step one was re-create their tree in our Ancestry account using the information they had posted. They don’t have much up on this line, but the good news is that the match’s grandparents died in Cook County, IL and grandfather had a VERY unique name: Excell. It’s also positive that Excell was born around 1895, so we miss the gap of the 1890 Census, we have a good shot at him being on the very helpful 1900 Census, and he’s born after the 1870 slavery gap.

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Our match’s tree

As of right now we have expanded Irma’s family to identify her mother’s maiden name, some brothers/sisters, as well as a step-family. We’ve gone through Excell’s Cook County records, and the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census. We’re working backwards to build out the tree in chronological order, and so far so good! As much as we’d love to rush to 1900 U.S. Census, to see what we can find, we’re trying to be patient and let it unfold for us!

The process we’re following is how to build a good skeleton tree: review online sources, attach them to facts as Primary or Alternate, starting with “Shakey Leaf” hints (which are the top 10% of Ancestry matches), then using “Search” to look for the other 90% of Ancestry records. Notice we’re stay away from Ancestry User Trees at this point. They aren’t sources! Here’s how we brokedown this process in an earlier set of posts: Building a good Public tree – Part Three: Attaching online records to your tree

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Our tree…so far!

More to follow!!

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery

We’re going to try something different today…we’re going to live blog the process of taking an AncestryDNA match and using it to break down a brick wall, without knowing the outcome before we start the posts. We’re not sure it’s going to go as we hope, but we thought it might be interesting to try.

What’s going on

Last night, after finishing up a few genealogy emails after 10 days of near-obsessive research on ANOTHER brick wall (which is crumbling nicely, and we’ll post on that later) I was killing time before our youngest was going to need us to put him to bed and hadn’t gone through my wife’s mother’s DNA results in awhile. As I was puttering around, I literally gasped when I clicked a match…the match was 98cm (close cousin, 3rd or better most likely), had a small tree to the grandparents, and the match’s maternal grandfather’s last name matched Felice’s mother’s grandfather’s surname. We’re going to call Felice’s mom “Sue” in this post, since we haven’t gotten her approval to use her real name. Only needing to match the parent of both “Stanford” men in these two trees to make a match might be doable, and this will be a huge brick wall broken down.

Why is this a brick wall

This is part of the darkside of genealogy in-general, and DNA genealogy specifically: when you ask questions, and collect proof, you expose not just the best parts of your family. Sue’s mother Delia had 3 children, by a man named Robert Holmes in Mississippi, before she migrated to Milwaukee in the 1960’s. But, it’s widely assumed, and Delia told Sue as much, that Robert Holmes was not Sue’s actual father. He had just agreed to sign the birth certificate, although he might have actually been the father of Delia’s first child. Robert was married this entire time, and 30+ years older than Delia, and no one has any information on him in the family. He died in 1968, and Delia died in 1999, so we can’t ask them. Talking to Delia’s sister about her history, and as much as she could remember about Delia, she said they were party girls back in these times and that the sister had actually gotten married once just so she had someone to watch the kids while she went out and partied with Delia. I love this woman, and I would have loved to meet Delia when she was here, and I love that she giggled and with a gleam in her eye at 85 years old gave me the best quote of all of our family interviews: “We were whores back then”.

Further complicating this search, is that getting past Sue’s great grandparents is difficult because before the 1870 they were all owned property (the “S” in the image above symbolizes a person born into slavery), and for the 100 years that followed they lived in Mississippi which sought to de-humanize them in every way they could…including reducing the official records their names might appear. Since these official records are the lifeblood of genealogy, and since Mississippi is behind just about every state in digitizing/sharing the records they do have for African Americans, it’s very challenging finding black ancestors in that state.

Additionally, African Americans tend not to participate in the hobby of genealogy as much as, say my family, which was DAR in 1904, and which I have several lines that have books published about. The combination of not wanting to talk about a painful linage, generations of economic challenges which doesn’t lend itself to time consuming hobbies, systematic suppression of official records, lack of work from older generations to build upon, and of course the 1870 wall, finding good genealogical matches is hard. For my wife’s family, we have only identified 12 of 32 3xGGP vs. my side where we’ve identified 29. (More about this: Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…)

What’s next

The good news is that our match is in Illinois now, with at least her father passing away in the same state. This means we should have better records to start our search, and since I work in Cook County, it will not be hard getting access to original birth/records for their first generation.

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 9.59.17 AMWe’re going to start building out our match’s tree, and hope that we find a Standford father that has her great grandfather, and Sue’s great grandfather, as children, and we’ll proven the DNA link. In doing so, we’d not only better understand that line, push back her known ancestors back at least one more generation, but we’ll also be able to prove that Sue’s father is the man listed on her birth certificate.

More to follow in a few hours!!

Genetic Communities: A quick glance at’s latest feature

Genetic Communities: A quick glance at’s latest feature

The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to just standard genealogy, and this is a successful part of that effort.

I noticed this morning that my DNA Homepage had been updated…and a new feature had been added (in Beta): Genetic Communities.



Under what’s now termed Genetic Ancestry and in addition the Ethnicity Estimate, there’s now a section called Genetic Communities. 


When you click through to Genetic Communities you’re presented with the communities that Ancestry has calculated that you, and member matches that share ancestors with you, belong to. The information presented can be a bit general, but it does provide pretty accurate/helpful historical context. For me, I was presented with 2 “Possible” communities that I could belong to:


In clicking through the Settlers of Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island & Connecticut community, I saw some pretty cool graphics:


The migration lines are animated, and you can see some of the stories that support the idea of a community on the left side pane. If you click a time frame in the left pane, you’ll get a small write-up on what that time encompassed as well as showing how many of your relatives are potentially covered in that description. Additionally, you’re shown graphically where your connected Member Trees have ancestors during that time.


If you click on the list of users from your family tree, you’ll see the list of your ancestors who lived in the covered area, during the covered time.


As you scroll through each time span, you’ll be able to see a representation of how your ancestors, and some of your connected relatives, migrated as time went on. You’ll also get more information about the events and context surround those time periods, as well as a complete list of your relatives who match this classification.


If you go back to the main page for your community, there’s an option to show “Connection” and clicking that will give you more information on your family tree:


I clicked Connection and it details how sure is that I fit an identified community:


On the lower part of the screen, you can see they have grouped your DNA matches between you and the broader community, as well as the last names associated with your lineage.


There is definitely a LOT to click through and enjoy. For instance, each time period has a listing of “Historical Insights” at the bottom that will help give you broader information about what was occurring during that period.

The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to standard genealogy, this is a part of that effort.

My family line is heavy on English settlers to Massachusetts in the early-to-mid 1650’s, and Genetic Communities identified that successfully, but since I know this era relatively well it was easy picking out some less than accurate facts that were attributed to my family. Ironically, the tests from Felice’s Grandmother were much more accurate and helpful.


It’s not the case usually that any area of African American genealogy is more complete than white genealogy, however Felice’s grandmother quickly showed a “Very Likely” match to the African Americans in North Carolina community.


As you can see, her community is pretty well established and is Very Likely to return matching records. Reviewing the notes that go along with this community was fascinating, and will likely help my work to further her line. I didn’t understand the prevalence of the West Africa/North Carolina flow of slaves, and it helps explain why so many references to North Carolina appear when tracing her various relatives, even though her family has very few ancestors in the state from 1850 onward.

Just like with my line, however, the general nature of the historical notes is pretty clear as the migration patterns and experiences of this group in general gives way to what we know about her family in fact.

So, my first impressions are that this is major new feature that delivers very interesting information, and helpful context and general information about both my lines and the lines of those related to us, but it likely will need further refining to bring it’s true value into clearer focus.

Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

There’s a saying that goes back to the original dot com boom: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. In modern Genealogical research, it’s important to know that not only are you (and your data) the product, you are usually also paying for the product!

In many ways genealogy hasn’t changed much since the explosion of family history research in the late 1800’s. When my Great Grandmother Myra (Tradewell) Morse completed her application for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1904 she leveraged many of the same resources I use today: vital records from various courthouses, cemetery research, family heirlooms (like bibles), and Federal military service records. Those sources are largely still available to me today, and I can pursue them just like she did, largely without the involvement of any other group.

However, modern genealogical research makes MANY more sources available to you, and you can do more research in a short period than Myra Morse could have done in her entire lifetime. But most of these new sources come with a catch: to use them, you are often serving someone else’s agenda, for better or worse.

Some of the tradeoffs are common and obvious. needs more subscribers to have the content necessary to attract more subscribers, so your $19.99/month is not as valuable to them than your contributions to the community. Some of the links however, aren’t as obvious.

Newcomers to genealogy are often struck by the high level of involvement by the Mormon church. Many of the documents that have been microfilmed/digitized over the last century were sponsored by the Mormons, who also have both the largest family history library on the planet (FHL) and the worlds largest network of branch libraries lending many of those collected materials.

I have at least 10 Family History Centers within an hour of my house. Thanks Church of Latter Day Saints!

It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s further Mormon involvement in this journey, however, that’s not because the church supports this hobby per se, or that one of the founders was interested in genealogy so the church picked up that interest. The Mormon’s are heavily involved in tracing family roots due to their doctrine of “Proxy Baptism” which holds that souls that have passed continue to have the ability to make choices, but those souls cannot choose to be Mormon if they died before being baptized into the faith. The Latter Day Saints have built massive, detailed, and accurate family trees in an attempt to identify every person ever born, and have set out to baptize a living church member today as a proxy for identified ancestors who’ve passed away previous to hearing the Mormon gospel. That proxy baptism will grant the ancestor the choice to accept the teachings of the Mormon church, and enter heaven, posthumously.

So, while you have access to a literal treasure of information about your family history (and I mean that…who else would have ever cared about the Mississippi Enumeration of Educable Children, 1850-1892; 1908-1957 and microfilmed it for me so I could solve huge mysteries about one branch of Michael’s family tree!!!) you have to understand that the work you do with that information will eventually, if all goes to plan, result in your ancestors being baptized into the Mormon faith. For some that’s an issue (A Twist on Posthumous Baptisms Leaves Jews Miffed at Mormon Rite), while for others there’s no concern about their ancestors potentially having another choice of savior after death. Either way though, it’s probably best to understand the motivations behind the groups “helping” you in this process, to make sure that you’re comfortable with the direction they’re helping you pull.

Another tradeoff you’ll likely face is related to DNA testing. DNA testing is an amazingly powerful tool that will only continue to revolutionize genealogical research. While DNA testing comes with it’s own challenges (Dangers of DNA Testing), the testing companies add another level of concern when it comes to these home testing kits.

AncestryDNA has become the major revenue generator for, and 23and Me’s entire business model is based on the money made from genealogical DNA testing. However, that revenue isn’t generated by the $99/test you pay to have the get your results since that $99 doesn’t even cover the cost of the test. These companies make money selling access to your DNA by various drug, health, and research organizations. The bigger their database, the more valuable that database is, so all efforts are geared towards growing the number of samples they have access to.

Here’s an article from Wired that highlights the true value of the DNA that you paid to have gathered:

The logic behind these partnerships is clear: Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA have spent years getting people to swab the inside of their cheeks and spit into vials, and all of those samples are valuable.

The tradeoff for you as a researcher is that while you gain access to an amazingly powerful tool, while at the same time you agree to expose you and your family’s DNA to 3rd party entities that help generate huge profits for AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Additionally, it explains why all of these companies efforts are focused on the flashy “benefits” you get (Ethnicity Estimates and Health Screens), but much less effort is invested in helping you understand the results or how to leverage the results once you’ve given them the DNA data the need.

I have personally done as much opting out of allowing my DNA samples to participate  in these for-profit 3rd party research efforts as possible, but we need to understand that they still can sell our data in aggregate and that they can change the terms of the terms and conditions of your sample to ignore your consent in the future. I have seen reports that they have have already completed full genetic sequences (vs. the normal, limited genealogical sequencing) on our samples to specifically provide data for Parkinson’s research. Ironically while AncestryDNA has done the work on the samples we paid to have collected, and have sold that data to big pharma, you can’t even gain access to your own full genomic data! The Terms and Conditions limit what you’ll receive, and you have no rights beyond that.

It’s possible to remove your physical sample from AncestryDNA’s labs, and scrub the information from their database, but then the tradeoff is you’ll have to re-test if new technologies/strategies become available. You will also lose the benefit of your DNA linking you to future tests since you will no longer be in the database. Combine that with the fact that over time you are going to have samples of relatives that have passed away, so samples can’t be re-gathered, and these companies know you’re probably not going to remove your data once it’s in the system.

Just because you’re serving someone else’s agenda, it doesn’t mean that there is malicious intent or that you should avoid those compromises. However, just like it’s important to understand the source of a fact before you accept it and apply it to your ancestors, it’s important to understand the motivations behind those providing some of our modern genealogical records as those records become more and more integral to your family tree.