Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Opening the Ancestry DNA Toolbox

It's always exciting when a DNA testing service rolls out a new tool to help us connect our DNA cousins to our family tree. However, there may already be so many additional tools out there that we can lose track of some of them.

A comment yesterday by reader Kat got me wondering if there are more good things to come from Ancestry DNA, or whether I am taking for granted all the genetic genealogy toys I availed myself of when I signed up for Ancestry's beta tests of MyTreeTags and other options. Just in case it's the latter, I thought it might help to review what we can access among Ancestry's tools already in place.

Today, let's talk about one of the options on Ancestry's MyTreeTags product that I find useful. Ancestry released this particular product back during RootsTech 2019. The launch included an option to sign up for a "test drive" along with the beta version of their "new and improved" DNA matches system (which we'll review tomorrow), although now, I believe both options are mainstreamed so all customers can use them.

Ancestry's MyTreeTags is useful for a variety of labeling options. Of course, I don't use them all, but I find a few are particularly handy for identifying my DNA connections.

Here's what I use. First, let me take you to one of my trees on Ancestry, where I've clipped a portion of the pedigree chart for my great-grandfather.

I've highlighted one person—William David Davis—in that chart, in yellow. Notice his tile not only provides his name and dates of birth and death, but in the upper right corner, Ancestry has added an icon. It's a blue circle with three heads inside. I've circled it in red, just to help you spot it.

Now, if you click on that blue icon, you will get a pop-up box with an entry like this.

The enlarged pop-up box shows the ancestor's name, dates, and locations. However, below the bar offering the choices to access Profile, Search, or Quick Edit, there is a down-pointing carrot. Clicking on that, for any ancestor having that blue icon (such as I have for Will Davis), will reveal the note about the availability of some ThruLines suggestions for that particular ancestor. Clicking the green bar below that note will show you the possible family connections for this ancestor, found in other trees at Ancestry.

For instance, here is what I see when I click through for Will Davis:

Of course, I've cut off the portion which reaches down to living people, but the diagram (or the list option) will provide you with other possible connections.

In my own experience, I've found this portion of the "new and improved" Ancestry to be rather pedestrian, but I'll never refuse a chance to gain a hint from someone else when I'm stumped on a particular connection. I just keep in mind the possibility that those other trees Ancestry relies on to provide their data for ThruLines may contain flaws.

Clicking through to the actual profile page for this ancestor allows me to demonstrate the meat of those new developments. Here's a snip from Will Davis' profile page. You'll notice those same dates and places we've already seen elsewhere, but with the details comes another icon, a blue oval with a plus sign and a drawing of a little tag. (I threw in the red arrow for free.)

If you click on that tag icon, it will open up a sidebar to the right of your screen. This provides the menu for the options on the MyTreeTags service. There are several choices for how to label any particular ancestor—far more than I'd use, but you may find some handy.

First of all, notice that the sidebar has three options: MyTreeTags, Notes, and Comments. I've got the bar open to the first choice right now, but I do also use the Notes option while I'm working on a particular research issue with that individual ancestor, to help me keep track of what I'm doing, what I've already ruled out, and what I still need to complete.

On this first column, notice I've got the carrot for the label "DNA Tags" open, to reveal the three choices involving DNA testing: Common DNA Ancestor, DNA Connection, and DNA Match. Next to each label is a question mark icon; simply clicking on each one will pop up a reminder about what that label can be used for.

Of course, for any ancestor who died in 1911, there won't be any chance to ask him or her to test, but for those in my tree who are already on my DNA match list, this is the tag—"DNA Match"—I click to label that person's profile page in my tree. That signifies to me that that person has taken a DNA test at, and that that name is on my match list.

Now you realize why I am so persistent to add collateral lines for all my ancestors, and then bring those lines down to the present time, filling in all their descendants: I can label and diagram where my matches fit into my family tree.

From that point, I click over to the notes section of that same side bar and enter which branch of my family tree includes this person (based on the color coded labels we'll discuss tomorrow). Then, I'll also provide a shorthand confirmation of the relationship between me and that particular DNA match—for instance, 2C1R for second cousin once removed. Finally, if I have sent that Ancestry subscriber a message to connect with my fellow DNA match, I will note the date when I sent the message. After completing all the notes I need to preserve there, I click back over to the DNA match page, where I can color code and label my DNA matches yet another way—but we'll talk about that tomorrow.

For a much clearer explanation and demonstration of MyTreeTags you can watch Crista Cowan's demo or read the actual explanation on Ancestry's website...or just jump in and play with these toys on your own. Learning by doing is a great way to jump start a project.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Picking That Low-Hanging Fruit

If time has been hanging heavy on your hands as it has on mine, perhaps you'd be up for the genealogical spring cleaning project I've picked for myself this week: harvesting those too-long-ignored DNA matches.

Isn't it funny that, though we've had these DNA matches handed to us, courtesy of an amazing science, I find myself having one of two reactions. One is the overwhelmed dismay of, "Who are all these people and how are they related to me?" The other is, "Yeah, I already knew that."

Funny how I spend hours upon hours trying to sort out the possible answers to the first question, while never getting around to filing those second answers on the right branches on my family tree. And yet, it's that second kind of answer that would be so easy to put to good use. All it takes is opening up that genealogy database program and double-checking the lines of descent outlined by my matches in their own tree, then adding whatever is missing from my own tree.

That's what I call picking the low-hanging fruit. Without much effort, I glean useful information. After all, isn't that what we paid those test fees to get? Perhaps it isn't so wise to be quite that cavalier about what I "already know."

It's the elusive second- to fourth-cousin matches which have me puzzling for hours—and finally walking away from, without any more clue than when I started—which have that mesmerizing effect on me. Perhaps it's that fruit just out of reach which creates the temptation, but this week, I'll need to put on blinders to that siren call. I need to harvest the information I already have at hand.

There are many ways to glean those details about the clearest matches. Adding names to my own family tree—my research plan already includes completing the line of descent for the siblings of all my ancestors—is the first step, and I do take pains to insure I've included documentation for each relative suggested through DNA matches.

But with each of the DNA testing services I use are provided other tools to sort out matches. Prime among those tools are the labeling, grouping, and note-making devices at, for instance. I like to make note of how I've traced my steps back to that Most Recent Common Ancestor, and how that DNA match connects both to me and to that MRCA.

Color coding is handy—not to mention, pleasing to the eye—but if I can't remember the significance of lavender in my color-coding scheme, for instance, I've got to make a note of my designations in a place where I can find them again. Furthermore, I like to use a shorthand label in my notes—for instance, 3C1R for third cousin, once removed—and list the date when I first attempted contact with my DNA match. All this goes in my "notes" category, toward the top so that the first words showing are one which are the most important to me.

These are the types of spring cleaning tasks I need to do again this season for my latest arrivals in that DNA low-hanging fruit. It's surprising how many matches of people I "already know" are related are somehow not yet plugged into my tree's branches. These are "easy pickin'" requiring not much effort—as long as I can keep all these connections in my mind. But what if I forget? May as well put every match in his or her place, duly labeled and linked, while this nationwide isolation ward has got us stuck in place. It never hurts to find ways to be productive, even with our own research.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Spring Cleaning So Soon?

For some of us, snow is still lingering on the frozen ground, so the thought of spring cleaning may seem premature. But with time hanging heavy on our hands as we shelter-in-place, it helps to turn our thoughts to taking action. What better way to get something done than jump into spring cleaning?

I recently stumbled upon a link I had saved from a genealogist (and suspected shirttail relative to my mother-in-law) which seems timely for those of us antsy to get something done around this house we're trapped in. Though it was a post and podcast from last fall, it still applies aptly to our current situation.

The topic Amy Johnson Crow was discussing was actually focused on downsizing and decluttering, but the same principles apply any time we are reorganizing for space and sanity, especially concerning those ever-burgeoning family history files.

In Amy's podcast interview with professional organizer Janine Adams—herself a family history enthusiast—she brought up some key thoughts. The prime consideration is to realize our task—whether downsizing, decluttering, or routine spring cleaning—is not just about regaining space; it's "a matter of preservation."

"You can't keep everything," Amy Johnson Crow reminds her audience, which means the process involves thinking out those inevitable decisions. You don't have to plow through this project alone, though, as her podcast guest Janine Adams points out, providing examples of how she approached these decisions along with other family members.

There are a number of resources for gaining guidance on preservation of family treasures, including another of my favorite genealogy bloggers, Houston County, Tennessee, archivist Melissa Barker.

If you're up for delving into the problem-solving process of decluttering in time for this year's spring cleaning, you'll find each of these three family-history-friendly women full of advice on how to proceed with your project.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Hurry up and Wait Meets Genealogy

This quarantine season has turned out to be a time of rushing and waiting—rushing, mostly, to get everything ready and in place in preparation to lay low and wait this disease out. Perhaps it is no surprise then, in looking at my research progress these past two weeks, to see some areas hit the skids. At a time like this, when so many businesses are closing (hopefully temporarily), there are few people for whom DNA tests are foremost in mind. Still, it was thanks to some key DNA matches that trickled in to our family's accounts this week that I've made some progress on the lines I've mostly neglected for the first part of this year.

Here's how the numbers stacked up for the past two weeks. On the trees which had seen no action—namely, my dad's tree and my father-in-law's tree—I got the most work done. For my dad, I added forty five names to bring his tree's total up to 713. And for my father-in-law, the addition of twenty five names put his tree at 1,713—and I know I have several more people yet to add there.

On the other hand, I didn't do so well with my mother's tree. Although her line is usually the one which generates the most DNA matches (something I attribute to her far-reaching roots in colonial America), no promising connections spurred me on this time. I only added a puny four names to her tree, which now stands at 20,661. However, on my mother-in-law's tree, I was able to add a whopping 341 individuals, so her tree now totals 18,368.

I was surprised to see how many I had added to those trees in the last two weeks, but I really shouldn't have been. In the doldrums of this coronavirus quarantine, things have been simultaneously crazily active and mind-numbingly dull. The creativity of keeping a training business afloat while not including any personal contact may have kept us tap dancing through our days, but the nervous energy generated the unquenchable need to fiddle with quick and mindless activities in the down time, thus becoming the perfect incentive to clean up my family trees. And we all know how spring cleaning of any type goes—you always find yet another thing that needs cleaning up while you are working on something else.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Rosie Returns

The current crisis—what? you haven't heard of the coronavirus?—has brought back some timely reminders from our history. It seems those history replays come mostly from war times, and for good reason: we've got an invisible enemy, and people have taken to seeing the confrontation as a battle for their very lives.

An aptly-put post by DNA blogger (and also consummate quilter) Roberta Estes of DNA Explained fashioned it this way about how she chose to use her sewing skills to face this threat from the enemy:
Suddenly, you’re not sewing, you’re driving your tank through the night to create the defenses our medical warriors need.... 

Comments from those like-minded individuals who chafe at merely sitting still in the face of threatening danger are lately invoking iconic reminders from past war times. Rosie the Riveter is making a comeback—only now, she is manning a sewing machine.

While my own family history seemed to squeak by those past war times—my dad was born less than ten years before the start of World War One—I can understand why those battle cries from the past can inspire others. Alas, I am not much use at a sewing machine any more, but can still draw inspiration from other lessons learned about surviving times of crisis in our history.

In our case, with the weather finally warming up, I'll opt for ditching the stitching and head outdoors to work on a "victory garden." A practical idea put to good use in many countries during both the first and second world wars, the Victory Garden not only can help feed a family during possible food shortages, but can also produce enough food to share with others. Anyone who has planted "just a few" zucchini plants can vouch for that; the entire neighborhood gets to eat zucchini before long.

The best part about taking action to sew masks or plant gardens is precisely that: taking action in the face of uncertainty. Having something positive to do not only helps mitigate the situation, it helps provide a therapeutic outlet for those of us who, like our ancestors from the wars before us, just can't take this uncertainty sitting down.

Above: Color lithograph issued in 1918 to promote the campaign of the United States National War Garden Commission; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Best Friends in the World (Wide Web)

You may think that it's FamilySearch or Ancestry or some other online organization which is the genealogist's best friend in the world, but in some cases, the more generic and readily available websites (think: free) can be a real help.

Case in point: thanks to yet another DNA match I've been working on during this stay-at-home marathon, I found a branch of my father-in-law's tree which needed some sprucing up. Perhaps it was a guilty conscience prompting me to pursue that discovery further. After all, it's been a long time since I last did any work on his tree; it's time to do penance.

I wandered down the branch extending from his Kelly ancestor who settled in western Indiana, prompted by the discovery of the nexus between my husband's DNA and the test results of a fourth cousin. Yep, they are both Kelly descendants.

Along the way, I noticed on my tree how many hints had been languishing on those Kelly branches. I needed to dispatch them immediately, so I started chipping away at the work. Down the eldest child's branch for as many generations as I could go toward the present I went, adding documentation for each step of the way. And then, on to the next oldest child.

Somewhere in that process, I ran across a missing detail on another Kelly fourth cousin, and decided I needed to find an actual obituary for that person's parents to clarify my records. The mom had left the family home in Indiana years before, with stars in her eyes, heading straight for the Big Apple. Decades later, her life ended at a place called Rye. And yet, the state I had entered was New Hampshire, not the Rye in New York I know.

Thinking that strange—the possibility that I got that entry wrong was real—I went scrambling for the actual obituary. And found none for Rye, New York. Could there actually be a Rye in New Hampshire? Wondering, I went checking on Wikipedia. Answer: yes, there is a Rye in New Hampshire.

Confirming that, I abandoned my two newspaper subscription services and moved my search from Wikipedia to Google. There, I entered the exact search terms for the woman I was seeking, plus the year of death and the place name in New Hampshire, not New York.

Success. There were a few hits to choose from—but with an odd twist. The descriptions kept mentioning a second name for this woman, and not just her maiden name. Apparently, when she moved from Indiana to New York, she did get to see some stage lights and hear some applause. That other name was her stage name, and my husband's relative known back home as Helen Marie Fulk turned out to be radio vocalist Helen Carroll.

Hmmm...if that was so, would Wikipedia have anything more to say about this woman? With a click of a mouse, I raced back to that go-to site to see—and yes, Helen Carroll and The Satisfiers were indeed an item during the post-war years in New York City. Another trip to Google showed me the way to find her entry on IMDb.

More than that, the man she married, known as Carl Kress, turned out to be a musician, boasting his own Wikipedia entry, as well. Naturally, that fourth cousin I was curious about turned out to be a musician, too, at least from what I could find on Google.

For those who are not used to jumping on the computer to find answers to the stuff they're wondering about, this may not seem a natural process. Admittedly, I had to learn to develop the habit, myself. But the more I delve into the breadth of the history of the individuals in my family trees, the more I want to fill in those blanks with information.

Online resources like the many newspapers which can be accessed for free or public domain books from the previous century are great ways to gain both specific details as well as background information on the time period or locale of the ancestors we are researching. But don't forget the most obvious resource of all: the world of information that can be at our fingertips, if we use Google as the key to open that door.

Above: Photograph of the group, Helen Carroll and The Satisfiers, from the 1948 cover to sheet music for "Toolie Oolie Doolie" published by Charles K. Harris Music Publishing Company; copyright not renewed; in the public domain; courtesy Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

One Bright Spot in a Dull Month

If there was anything of interest to come out of the dreary month that March had become, it was the just-in-time announcement of the newly updated Shared cM Project. That useful genetic genealogy tool, a crowdsourced project spearheaded by Blaine Bettinger with usefulness further enhanced by Jonny Perl of DNA Painter, has now been revised, thanks to the input of data from more than sixty thousand avocational genetic genealogists.

The announcement came out in a blog post at DNA Painter on March 27, concurrent with the word about the new version 4.0 at Blaine's own blog, The Genetic Genealogist. For the nerdiest among us, Blaine also provided a fifty-six page .pdf explanation of what exactly is new and updated, the method used to cull the data, and explanation of analysis of the data.

Of course, the update married to the DNA Painter site means new toys to play with, for those of us addicted to color coding our DNA matches. For the curious, you can take the new clickable chart out for a test drive here, but hopefully, you will be more than just a lookie-loo.

Since one side effect of the current quarantine situation, at least for me, is that I find it hard to settle down to tackle a long slog of a research project, I've discovered untangling and reconnecting DNA matches combines just the right amount of reserve mental energy with the need to "get something done." With just enough energy to grab a moment here or there to research, I've managed to tie up quite a few loose ends in the past month on those frustratingly anonymous DNA matches.

Furthermore, connecting the dots between the kits I administer and the DNA matches that had kept me puzzled has led to another serendipitous opportunity: starved for human interaction, I've resorted to actually reaching out to my DNA matches, even if I already know their connection, just to chat about our mutual lines of research. Just the other day, one of my matches—and in that pesky paternal line of my name-changing grandfather—happened to mention one family "secret" she had heard from her own branch of the family. Imagine this: it involved another relative on that paternal side who also thought it would be a great idea to change that Polish-sounding surname during a World War.

I begin to sense a pattern here....
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