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!!

Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…

Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…

During this recent Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we received one of those messages on that you dream of. Through Felice’s paternal grandmother’s DNA, we had a 5-8th cousin reaching out to help try and draw the line between the tests, and while their theory probably doesn’t match up as she thought it might, it did highlight 3x great-grandparents we hadn’t yet identified. From that, we’re starting to piece together a theory that’s looking pretty strong about siblings of the 3x GGP’s, and with that a good lead on new direct relatives for my wife.

Genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.

These new relatives were all born as slaves in the South before the civil war, and so very little is known about them, very little was recorded, and even less survived. Good theories may be all we can ever piece together to explain the DNA connection we now know we share…and it seemed appropriate that this excitement, and struggle, should happen during the weekend we put aside to honor the struggle of our ancestors to be allowed to be human and citizens in the United States.

But like many lessons taught by Dr. King, there is a level even deeper than that which became apparent only after we thought about it and discussed it more.

By contrast, my genealogical line is much better defined, as most northern European/British lines are. In addition to being a Mayflower descendent, I have several lines that go back to the early 1630’s in the new world, and all of my relatives had arrived in the United States by 1850. This means I have a great deal of documentation on my ancestors, and it means I only have questions about the identity of 3 of my 32 3x GGP.

Felice’s line has only about 12 of 32 3x GGP’s identified, and since both of our relatives in that generation would have been born between 1800 and 1850, it’s surprising we have as many of her line identified as we do. It’s an obvious truth: genealogy for European

Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 3.06.18 PM
There is more to the “1870 wall” than slavery

families is much easier pre-civil war because they were considered humans, even if they were largely disdained at times; genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.

While we were both excited and troubled (as you are when you discover new relatives who were born as property) by this new finding, there was another emotion: we have so much information about Felice’s father’s side of the family, and not nearly as much as her mother’s…and here’s another breakthrough on her father’s side.

As we talked, and thought about it, we narrowed in on why this was: the relatives on her mother’s side were subjected to the worst of the Jim Crow post-war South, and suffered for generations under economic conditions that not only led to very few records being created, it meant that there were no family historians that had the luxury of gathering stories, documents, and proof of their ancestors to pass down. They were just further victims of the social apartheid they were subjected to for another 150 years after gaining their “freedom”.

In contrast, her father’s side of the family had several relatives that broke that cycle in the late 1800’s. A few relatives owned property by 1880 and were able to work it independently and keep the profits/proceeds. Another owned a cotton gin in 1875 and used that buy property, and spread the wealth to his children so they could be above the lowest social rungs. Felice’s paternal grandmother’s parents owned their land in Arkansas, and so the descendent of the original slaveholder in the neighborhood, who now managed a massive sharecrop (read exploitation/subjugation) organization in Ashley County would come to her father at harvest time and ask if he would help harvest his crop. He would refer to her father as sir, and ask please. He would take “no” for an answer, and pay him market price for what he helped harvest…the same as his white help.

It’s not just chance that we have more information on this side of her family. They were not as impoverished, they had the luxury of history and time to collect the information we now have. Just as my great-grandmother on my father’s side was completing her DAR application, and gathering so much of the amazing material I have today in the early 1900’s, so too were parts of Felice’s family. Today, there are multi-state bi-annual family reunions on some lines, and books published, and for others there’s a network of researchers who capture new DNA matches and connect the historical dots for us.

But her mother’s side heartbreakingly illustrates the subtle effects of the brutal oppression they suffered, and the echoes of which linger for generations after…even after many of the children escaped North during the Great Migration. Her mother’s family was largely sharecroppers, at best, and we regularly see 50% child mortality in these lines. The mothers often had more than 10 children, and we can only imagine how they struggled to make ends meet. They were living in the worst of the deep south, in the parts of Mississippi that were still stringing up African Americans regularly well into the 1960’s.

Mose Wright testifying against the white men who murdered of Emmett Till in 1955. In doing so he “crossed a line that no one could remember a black man ever crossing in Mississippi”, and that was only 10 years before Felice’s mother was born in the same county.

For example, Felice’s mother was born in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi only 10 years after a young Emmett Louis Till was tortured and murdered in that county. At the time of her birth, no one had been convicted of that horrific murder, and it was still known as the “Free State of Tallahatchie County” since the white residents knew they could, and would, do whatever they wanted and damn what anyone else said.

This black hole of genealogy just so clearly demonstrated the devastating conditions her family survived through, that we both were speechless as it because clear to us the answer why one side was more documented than the other. While both her parents’ families survived horrible oppression in the Jim Crow South, one side had slight means and a slightly less aggressive apartheid to allow them a sliver of advancement out of Arkansas.

The other side was in Mississippi, which freely and deeply continued to destroy the identities and lives of black families to the point of there being few official records, and those records are still very inaccessible. The official policy continued to be to deny the humanity of African Americans even after the world tried to force them to accept these people as people. That side of the family could barely feed itself, and couldn’t even accuse white people of a crime for most of their existence. Family history couldn’t be less important in those circumstances, and we see that today by the complete lack of their history beyond a basic census every 10 years.

It’s another example of how what isn’t in your family history can be as valuable as what is, and it’s another way that we learn what our ancestors faced on their journey leading to our birth. And on this MLK day, it helped our family feel more acutely the struggle and fight of those who put everything on the line to free African Americans from the oppression of the American government and culture…which is exactly what we should do on this holiday.


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.

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 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 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 ( 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, which has a 50/50 chance of solving a large hole in her family history. We have reached out to the match using’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:

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!