How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 4 – How to quickly, and effectively, use GEDmatch

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 4 – How to quickly, and effectively, use GEDmatch

dna 4 - featured image(A quick note, we’re using the newer version of GEDmatch called “Genesis” for this walkthrough. It’s soon to be the only GEDmatch, but if you’re not familiar with it, please use GEDmatch Genesis for this example.)

Back in our 1st installment of this series (Link), we suggested that you upload your AncestryDNA results to GEDmatch. We’re hoping you’ve done that, and we’re going to walk you through why this site is so powerful.

GEDmatch is a private site that is run out of Florida, for the purpose of allowing genealogists to upload their tests from all commercial DNA providers, with a complete set of tools to help us make matches between different tests. The key to GEDmatch is both its great tools, as well as it being open and public with all of the tests that are uploaded, but that’s also the warning that goes with GEDmatch: your tests are searchable by anyone. Your raw data is never shared, but your match information is openly shared to anyone that joins, including law enforcement. There have been a lot of stories shared about how GEDmatch was used to solve nearly 30 cold cases (so far), and reunited 10,000 adopted children with their birth families. There is a real chance your uploading of your DNA data is going to unearth secrets that your family doesn’t want unearthed.

At first GEDmatch was bewildering and confusing to us…and most of the walk-throughs we saw online were so detailed, it only further confused us.

We’ll be honest, at first GEDmatch was bewildering and confusing to us…and most of the walk-throughs we saw online were so detailed, it only further confused us. So, we’re going to focus more on the functionality GEDmatch than the technical details. This is still rather advanced, but when you practice with your matches, and then search for the more the technical details, you’ll find it makes a lot more sense.

Each test uploaded to GEDmatch is assigned a kit number, and most of the tools will dna 4 - kitsrequire you to enter either your or your target match’s kit number. Especially when you have multiple kits you’re working with, it will be helpful to have your main page with all of your kit #’s open while you work in other tabs. It’s easier to cut and paste.

One-to Many Comparison

On your home screen you will see all of your kits, and if you click a kit # you’ll be taken to the first tool: One-to-Many Comparison. When the first box comes up, to start with we suggest you filter on only those matches that are 20cM and up. A whole list of names and numbers will pop up, and this is the list of everyone who’s uploaded a kit to GEDmatch that matches your kit. Let’s walk through what each of the boxes mean:

dna 4 - one to many 1

Select – You can pick at least 3 kits here and shortcut several of the tools by clicking on the “Visualization Options” button on the top header.

Kit #, Name (Alias), Email – This the information for you match, including a REAL email address! No more sending an Ancestry message, never hearing anything, and wondering if they ever log into Ancestry. Some people (and we recommend this for everyone managing someone else’s kit) use an alias for their testers name.

dna 4 - one to many 2

GED/Wiki Tree – You can enter a GEDcom-format family tree, or a link to your WikiTree, to help your matches find that MCRA. We’ll walk through this later.

Age – How long has the kit been on GEDmatch

Type – The chip version your test was from. Ignore this, it won’t matter for what we’re doing

Sex – If the GEDmatch uploader didn’t select a Sex for their tester, this will be U

Haplogroup – Shows which group you’re line is in if you took a mtDNA (mothers) or YDNA (fathers) DNA test. Ancestry doesn’t offer these tests, and if there are values in this for your matches, ignore them for now.

dna 4 - one to many 3

Autosomal – This is the type of DNA test Ancestry offers, and it’s what you think of when you think of DNA tests (ie: 50/50 inheritance from mom and dad). This is the area we’ll most care about, and it lists the total cM’s you share with the match and the largest piece of match in your samples. The “Gen” value gives you an estimate of how many generations separate you and this match.

X-DNA – We won’t cover this much, although it will get at least a mention in later post. X-DNA won’t be of much value, except in one very specific way.

You can click the header of each column to sort the results, but in this case let’s take a look at one of the higher cM matches on my list that I don’t yet know who they are.

One-to-One Autosomal DNA Comparison

dna 4 - kit match

For our example we’re going to select kit #M717701, especially since they have a family tree shared for this match. Clicking on the “GED Wiki” link in the GED column opens a link to their public tree on wikitree.com, but reviewing all of the surnames there, I don’t see any that jump out at me. I’m going to copy the kit # and go back to the home screen, to check out our next tool: One-to-One Autosomal DNA Comparison

Here’s where you actually confirm your matches to other kits, and start to get a view into the actual DNA segments that all of these matches are built off of. In the Ancestry tool, you take their word for it that you match someone, but this tool will actually prove you’re related.

dna 4 - onetoone match
The blue indicates that I match the target match on Chromosome 14, and it indicates the position of the start of the match and the end. Above the blue, the yellow show that it’s a match to half my chromosome, which would be expected if I inherited that bit from just my mother or just my father.

Entering our kit # first box, and pasting in M717701 in the second, we get a picture of exactly where we match, or if we actually share no significant DNA (it happens!). In this case, we match the sample on Chromosome 14, and the exact start/stop positions of the match are listed. (We’ll come back to that in our next post, about DNApainter).

If you scroll all the way down to the bottom there’s more detail about this match, the most important info showing the estimated number of hops to our Most Common Recent Ancestor (MCRA). In this example it shows as 4.4 between us and the GGP that we share, dna 4 - onetoone detailbut it’s best to double that number and use it to estimate the number of people between you and your match. 4.4×2 is 8.8, so we’ll round up to 9, and when it comes time to build out the link between us we’ll expect that it’s likely 4 or 5 ancestors up to the MCRA, and 5 or 4 ancestors back down to the match. Without even going to the “Shared cM Project” graph, we can guess that it’s most likely the MCRA we’re looking for will be a 3xGGP (4 ancestors from me) or 4xGGP (5 ancestors from me). But, we need to narrow down which side of the family this match is on, which brings us to our next tool: People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits.

People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits

This tool is very powerful, and where we do most of our work, and make most our matches. This is especially true if you have more than one kit in GEDmatch, because you can quickly narrow down target matches to either being on your mother’s or father’s side of the family. For example, I have my mother’s and a paternal uncle’s kits uploaded, so if I use GEDmatch to show me all of the kits match my test and my target test, I can pretty quickly see if it’s on my mother’s side, or my father’s. Plus, I have many known matches that we don’t manage, so we can usually get pretty lucky on narrowing it down further.

dna 4 - matching 2 resultsFor our example, we ran this test on our target user from above and we see that they match my mom’s test also, so we’re looking at a MCRA on her side. We just cut our search in half! Looking more closely, her cousins on her father’s side have maybe a dozen tests in GEDmatch, but none of them are listed here. It’s very likely then, given the volume and closeness of the paternal cousins’ tests that if this was on my mom’s father’s side, they would show up in this list…so we’re going to assume this match is on my mom’s mother’s side. We just took the total number of potential MCRA’s down in half again, so we’re really narrowing in! Given that we already have 21 of 32 5xGGP’s identified in that branch of the tree, odds are pretty good we’re going to find a common surname.

dna 4 - matching 2 ancestry tree, narrowed
5 minutes on GEDmatch and we’ve narrowed the search for our MCRA down to this narrow section of our tree!

In this case, we’re going to have to do what we did in our last post (Link), which corresponds to DNA secret #2: we’ll spend most of our time building out other people’s trees! Looking at the GED Wiki tree they have up, there’s a decent 4 generation tree on the match’s father’s side, but only a mother’s name and birth/death. Since nothing on the father’s side jumps out, we’ll build out their mother’s side first.

The other huge advantage at this point with GEDmatch is that we have the direct email address of our relative immediately, and so, once we’ve validated we’re a match with the 1:1 tool, we can reach out to what’s likely their regular email account and see if they have more information.

DNA Triangulation

Triangulation is confirming that not only does your test match the target’s kit, but that another known ancestor’s kit matches as well. In the above example we confirmed I matched with the “One-to-One” tool, and we linked my mom with the “People who match both” tool, but technically we’re just guessing my mom’s kit also matches the target kit. I’ve never had it be wrong, but to really prove the match it would be best to confirm the matching segment for myself, my mom, and the target all match. There’s a GEDmatch “Tier1” tool for Triangulation (and we find it VERY worth it to donate $10/month to get the Tier1 tools!), but it’s just about as easy to do a One-to-One test between my mom and the target to do a full triangulation.

Going forward

Once we prove out the family tree link to our “Cake” ancestor, and we have our MCRA, we will have really narrowed down how we’re linked to everyone else on the “People who match both” list. There’s nearly 50 matches on that list that we now have very solid evidence on who the MCRA is. Even if we have to build out most of those trees manually, it’s likely we already have pieces of those trees built out when we made the first match.

That being said, it’s one of the reasons it’s so frustrating that Ancestry has such weak tools. If we could combine Ancestry’s strong base of Public Trees with GEDmatch’s tool set, our effectiveness when making DNA matches would be extraordinary! It’s also why it’s so important to upload/link a GEDCOM file to your GEDmatch tree. It doesn’t have a great interface, but even ugly tree’s make this search much, much easier!

Using just these 3 simple tools you can build out many matches using GEDmatch. Just keep practicing, and quickly it’s like you’ve been using it for years. And, as your skill in the tool grows, those overly technical online walk-throughs will help further unlock the power of AncestryDNA tests!

In our next installment, we’re going to use DNApainter to narrow down those matches were we have no data on how we’re connected to a verified match, so we know where to focus our traditional genealogical research, and we’ll talk about some of the more advanced topics we won’t dive into too deeply in this series.

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 2 – Leveraging your strongest matches to make quicker work of your more challenging matches!

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 2 – Leveraging your strongest matches to make quicker work of your more challenging matches!

Last week we discussed the (very!) basics of DNA testing, and we’re going to take that jumping off point and walk you through how we identify our AncestryDNA matches.

So, congratulations you got your test results back! Now what?

Check out our Ethnicity, and then move on

We wrote extensively why Ethnicity is not a valid part of genealogy and it often does more have than good (It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture), but everyone wants to look at it first (including us!), so give it a read through…and then be done with it. You can go back when you’re bored, but for now let’s get to some real work!

Export your results to GEDmatch

AncestryDNA has the largest DNA database, and the largest set of trees to help establish DNA matches, but their toolset isn’t even basic. Their tools are essentially non-existent. GEDmatch is a free site that provides a great tool set, and results there are used for some of the most important tools you’ll use as you progress deeper in mining your DNA matches. Plus, tests from all of the major sites can be compared on GEDmatch, so you will find 23andMe and Family Tree DNA kits matched to your AncestryDNA there. You’ll also get direct email addresses to your match!

Fair warning however, this is a publicly accessible database that’s specifically used to allow strangers to find your DNA and match it to theirs. This is the tool that’s being used by law enforcement to close cold murder and rape cases, and some people are worried about how publicly accessible their data may be. We don’t share those concerns, and we’re comfortable with their privacy policy and we know we can permanently take our data down if we want to (they do NOT share your raw DNA data, only provide matching segments), so the work we can do there is worth the trade-offs. We wrote about this when the Golden State Killer was ID’d off of GENmatch (Family History is a hobby…but DNA is serious business).

Assuming you want to move forward, we suggest that you start the transfer process first thing since it will take a few days for GEDmatch to full analyze your Raw DNA data.

To download your data from AncestryDNA, follow the instructions here: Download your DNA results

To upload your data to GEDmatch, follow the instructions here: Upload your AncestryDNA results to GEDmatch

We’ll come back to GEDmatch in a future post in this series, as we dive deeper into some of the great tools available there.

Evaluating your matches

Now, let’s get to the first matches! That first look at what’s likely to be 2000-3000 DNA matches is overwhelming, but we’re going to break everything into smaller and smaller bits until we can really start to leverage these matches.

If you followed our Part 1 advice of building our your tree to your 4xGGP, with any luck you’ll now have matches with “Hints” (indicated by the little shaky leaf next to the “Match” button). In the “Filter’s” section, click on Hints, and it should show you only your matches with the shaky leaf. When you click “View Match” button, the path of connection between you and your match should come up.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 8.25.49 PMIn the example to the left, our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) is our Great Grandparents, and Ancestry has mapped out each of the steps between us. Given AncestryDNA’s limited tool set, we only have a few ways to successfully build out our matches. The first of these was Hints, the next one we’ll use is “Notes”

How to use “Notes” to quickly identify your matches

There are literally a million ways of using the Notes fields in AncestryDNA, and we don’t claim this to be the best way…or even a good way. It’s just the way we’ve found most helpful.

For each MRCA we assign a Line #, and in this example Charles and Rhoda Smith are Line 11. This is the note we’ll use:

Rick-MMF (Not Researched, Charles Henry Smith and Rhoda Upper) – Line 11

Which breaks down as:

  • Rick-MMF – We do our genealogy from the standpoint of our son, Michael, and so this helps quickly identify that the match on Michael’s Father’s Mother’s Mother’s Father’s line.
  • Not Researched – Ancestry, or other quick research like a “Notes” entry has said this is a match, but we haven’t gone through yet and confirmed the genealogy nor have we added this match to our tree yet.
  • Charles Henry Smith and Rhoda Upper – The Most Recent Common Ancestor (MCRA) between us and our match.
  • Line 11 – The line # for these MCRA’s.

These notes help us quickly identify the MCRA for unmatched DNA matches, they quickly identify the matches we need to work to make official, and they give us line numbers we can use later to search for all matches with the same MCRA.

An example of how we use these Notes

After we’re done identifying and validating all of the DNA matches with Hints, and we start trying to identify how other matches tie into us, and what we can learn from those ties, we’re going to start with some very limited ways to identify the MCRA and/or the path to that MCRA. In this example we have a DNA match that has an unlinked Public tree, but with a strong 48 cM of shared DNA.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 8.58.50 PMWhen we click through to the test page, and select the unlinked tree, we find a dead-end: everyone is Private.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 8.54.50 PM.pngIn GEDmatch we’d have a series of tools we could use to narrow down this match, but in AncestryDNA we can’t tell if this match is even Paternal vs. Maternal. But, if we go into the “Shared Matched” and look for any kits listed there that have a Note, we can click the note and see who they match. In this case, they match our Lila Miller match, which has the note we made before attached, so we know this match also is likely to be on Rick’s MMF’s line, and that they are also on Line 11. We will make the same note in this match, and return to our searching.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 9.03.21 PM

These notes will be invaluable as we get into the next installment of “Making the Most of your AncestryDNA Matches”, and use Ancestry as deeply as we can to build out/prove our family trees.

Until next week, update all of your Hints with the proper Notes, and we’ll start blazing new trails!

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 1 – Getting started

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 1 – Getting started

As we approach Christmas 2018, and given the massive push to have cheap DNA tests given out as gifts this season, it seems natural to finally write a series on how to make genealogical use of a DNA test you, or your loved one, may have just taken.

We’re going to start with the very basics on how DNA testing works, and walk through both how to leverage AncestryDNA to track down ancestors as well as using GEDmatch and other advanced tools to go even deeper.

Assuming you have a few weeks before the test results are in, here are a couple of things to learn and prepare before you dive into the matches.

  • First, understand that while the commercials like to highlight the joys of learning your ethnicity, DNA testing raises serious issues that will likely come up as your journey progresses. You may uncover family relationships, both inside and outside of your family, that could have serious negative impacts on people. We’ve uncovered children born outside of marriages that were never known to the family, and we know of adopted children who were outed by tests where their parents had never told them. We wrote about an example of this last year (Dangers of DNA Testing).
  • Second, they key to effectively making matches will be a good, solid family tree through the test subject’s 4x Great Grandparents. Most of your matches made will be through 3x or 4x GGP, and in a perfect world the match will also have a good tree so the link will be obvious. We can’t over state this, or stress it enough: your success/failure of matching DNA tests from unknown relatives will rely on the quality and depth of your tree. We’ve walked through how to build a good “quick and dirty” Public tree on Ancestry (Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part One: sources, citations, facts, and proof), and the process would be about the same on other sites, many of which are free.
  • It’s also important you have the tree available publicly…many of your interactions are going to be about exchanging trees to build a match. It’s ok if you have just a skeleton tree with basic information(names, date of birth/death, locations, children, etc.), but it will be key that you have something available publicly. 

Basics of DNA

The main new term/concept you’ll need for effective Genealogical DNA research is a measure of distance: centimorgan (cM). Now, it’s not technically distance…but for all intents and purposes, it’s used as a measure of distance.

What does cM measure?

Centimorgan measures length of DNA strands. More specifically, it will be used to measure the length of matching DNA segments between your test and a test that is a genetic match. For example, you have roughly 6800 cM if you take all 22 chromosomes and strung them out end-to-end, and your matches will have varying levels of matching DNA, measured by centimorgans.

How do we use centimorgans to identify matches?

Since you get about 50% of your DNA from each parent, your DNA tests will match a test from your parents with about 3400 cM. You will match a Grandparent with about 1700 cM (50% of your parent’s 50%). The more cM you match someone, the closer a relative they are, and the more likely that you will confirm a match with them. 

We’ll use both charts from ISOSG (The Shared cM Project table) and an interactive version of that chart from the DNA Painter site (Shared cM Interactive Tool), which both break down the average cM to expect with various relatives, and helps us identify where to look to establish a match. For example, if a match is 311cM then we can guess they match the person with the DNA test at around a 1st or 2nd cousin…which means our common ancestor is likely a Grandparent or Great Grandparent, which narrows down our search!

What’s next?

So, there’s the first part of this DNA journey. There’s a little homework while you wait for the test results, a basic understanding about how we’ll actually leverage the DNA to make matches, and why your basicGenealogy and a solid family tree will be key to this process. Next week, we’ll go over what to do when you first get your DNA results!

Next installment: How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 2 – Leveraging your strongest matches to make quicker work of your more challenging matches!

It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture

It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture

[One quick note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.]

Ancestry has made a lot of noise recently when they updated their Ethnicity estimates, and the now intensified debate about the “accuracy of DNA tests” and the confusion among the general public makes it clear: as a community of serious researchers, we need to be the voice of reason when it comes genetic admixture and call it out for dubiously valuable, largely inaccurate parlor trick that it is. Here’s why:

Ethnicity cannot be tested for. Ever.

Ethnicity is a social construct. Period. If we look at any test, any genealogical tree or other determination it will not build a social link to ones ancestral background. Michael hasn’t been to Ireland, but I have, and despite being able to trace 12.5% of my 3x great grandparents to Ireland, and Ancestry’s admixture pointing to an Irish background, I am not Irish. I visited Ireland as an American…a very obvious American. As will Michael when he visits. Nor will he be mistaken for Beninian when we visit Benin. We are Americans, some with European ancestors some with African ancestors as well, but even with a perfect admixture that could pinpoint our ethnic ancestors exactly…we’re still not German, or Cameroonian, or English/Irish, etc. You can’t test for it, and DNA gives you no indication of how someone identifies ethnically. And that’s important, because Ethnicity is only about how someone identifies themselves and/or how others identify them…it’s not based on a gene. Neither is race, but that’s another rant for another day.

We need to voice a supportable, honest, accurate narrative to drive continued testing…one that will continue after the “Ethnicity” emperor is shown to have no clothes.

It’s not honest

All DNA testing companies, especially 23andMe and Ancestry, are for-profit enterprises that have a strong incentive to grow their number of DNA tests. The larger the test database, the more money the companies charge to sell access to your data. This isn’t to say they are selling personally identifiable data, the data is largely de-identified and aggregated, but it’s YOUR data…and it’s very, very valuable. 23andMe survives almost entirely on the revenue generated from your data, and it’s likely Ancestry is generating a large amount of their revenue from your DNA data as well. And no one’s advertising “come test with us, we are selling to great causes like Michael J. Fox Foundation” [23andMe], they are basing their sales pitch on the shiny bauble that gets the tests in the door: Ethnicity and pretty graphs. The more we play into the Ethnicity debate

It’s not our tool

Ethnicity (as determined by genetic admixture), has almost no genealogical or family history value, and the results will never break a brick wall or significantly add to your family’s stories. First, all of the major providers target who your genetic ancestors were 800-1000 years ago. Even those of us with great trees rarely go back to 1000-1200 AD…and we doubt there would be much value in anyone researching our 28th great grandparents. We have over 1 million 18th GGP’s. Admixture doesn’t rank even among the top 20 tools we use to build our trees, and it doesn’t deliver us any value.

It’s not accurate, and it’s not scientific

16kEthnicityThe biggest red flag from Ancestry’s last update was this: they increased the reference samples from 3,000 tests to 16,000. They have literally spent the last 4 years selling “Ethnicity” to the general public as a great reason to build Ancestry’s test database, even though the entire house of cards was built on 3,000 reference samples. There is no statistically valid data that be gleaned from 3,000 total samples as they relate to our genetic ancestors 1000 years ago. Again, we each had MILLIONS of ancestors 30 generations ago…and to use 3kEthnicity3,000 for all genetic admixture just demonstrates the shoddy science that underpins this process. Even 16,000 is a ridiculously small sample…even if they were each perfectly tied to a region 1000 years ago. “Ethnicity” is just enough science to seem valid enough to be scientific…and just scientific enough to justify the pretty graphs that facilitate the selling of more tests.

It’s hurting genealogy, and it will ultimately turn the public off of genetic DNA testing

Youtube is rife with videos of the general public discussing their “inaccurate” DNA tests, with the testee going into great detail about how they know their Ethnicity and they see something they don’t expect, the test is wrong. There are now new discussions everywhere with people questioning the entire testing process when the “results” can be changed so dramatically by a change by Ancestry. Ancestry is aware of the strain this update is having on the general public, and we can see the efforts they’re making to try and calm people as they go through the update. There are explanations, surveys, etc. to try and make sure the public doesn’t freak out about this change. It’s all just adding more weight to the idea that these tests aren’t accurate/reliable. Since the entire business case for the public taking these tests has been “Ethnicity”, once that’s being exposed as the subjective “art” that it is, the only reason for people to test is being questioned. We will hit a tipping point where our relatives are going to think of DNA testing as a “scam” that’s of no value/dangerous, and it’s going to make the process of getting tests that much harder.

So, what can we do? What impact can we have? Honestly, not much…at least not immediately. But, as the people serious about genealogy we can start being the voice of reason and begin to lay out a better justification for why the public should test, even if the focus of the commercial testing companies is only on adding more samples to their databases. If the thought-leaders and respected voices in the communities turn their back on genetic admixture, that will eventually drive the discussion.

To that end, here’s our suggestions:

  • Stop discussing “Ethnicity” as a testable value – Push back on this basic premise and start to educate the public on why DNA tests have no value as it relates to how they identify ethnically.
  • Don’t give genetic admixture a place at the table – We should no more engage in admixture as a point of genealogical value as we phrenology. They both sound scientific, and their proponents would like them to be seen as science, but neither are science. Even making an anti-admixture discussion elevates it to a “con” in a pro vs. con debate. We need to stop engaging in a debate of equal positions with admixture.
  • Develop other reasons the general public, and our relatives, should submit tests – The tens of millions of tests in various databases have a HUGE value to the genealogical community, and we all benefit as more tests are added. We need to voice a supportable, honest, accurate narrative to drive continued testing…one that will continue after the “Ethnicity” emperor is shown to have no clothes.
  • Be honest with our relatives as they test and help them, and the general public, understand how these tests play into the for-profit world – Those who take tests aren’t purchasing a product, they are the product. 23andMe and Ancestry needs those tests to make a profit, and it’s the only reason why they offer these tests. Let’s discuss that, and what we get in return, to level set everyone’s expectations. If we don’t set these expectations, some scandal will do it for us, and when negative public opinion sets in, we likely will lose the value of having non-experts testing.

Bottom line is that we can see how the reality of DNA testing doesn’t match the perception of the testing public, and all eggs are in the “Ethnicity” basket. As that basket starts to fray, we can either be a part of the rational message that keeps this testing world moving forward, or we can be reactive and wish we could go back to the “good old days” when people were testing without us having to fight for each one.

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea

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.

Marie's Tree
It’s nearly impossible to build a 3rd Cousin DNA match when you have solid info on only 3 of 16 2xGGP

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!

Next in the series: Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 2 – Identifying all “Matches of Matches” as a Group

 

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. Ancestry.com 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.

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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 Ancestry.com, 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.