If you’ve been an avid genealogy researcher for any amount of time, you’ve no doubt at least wondered about how available DNA tests could boost your research efforts—if not actually tried them, yourself.
For me, living within a six hour drive from a primo genetic genealogy conference—and better yet, only an hour’s drive from one of the founders of ISOGG and one of her annual seminar locations—it’s no problem to avail myself of ample learning opportunities.
Even so, when I had a surprise email visit from someone who announced an exact match to my mtDNA results, I still found it hard to put that head knowledge to use.
The goal, of course, is to take test results for both parties and then examine how we connect on our family trees. That may sound like a relatively straightforward proposition. But it isn’t. At least not for a family like ours. On the one side, there’s the handicap of the closed adoption process—granted, alleviated to a small extent by the capable help and support of the many members of ALMA.
On the other side, there’s that difficult issue of not being able to determine the parents of one of my direct female line—specifically, the Georgia-born Mary who married Thomas Taliaferro Broyles, brother of the Charles Broyles we’ve been learning more about lately. That’s why I’ve been pursuing whatever information I can find on her: unless I uncover more of her identity, she will remain my brick wall ancestor who keeps me and my new mystery cousin match from discovering our ancestral nexus.
You may remember when I first met this mystery cousin online. (If you don’t, you can pick up on that brief story here.) Since then, we’ve both been doing some work, lots of emailing back and forth, and discussing ideas for breaking out of this tight loop. And, thanks to a sale going on at Family Tree DNA, I took a different kind of DNA test, to help us see how closely we might be related.
You see, between us and whatever common female ancestor we both share, we have an exact match—meaning no mutations from that generation down to ours. That could be three or four generations. Or three or four hundred years. Or maybe a thousand years. It’s hard to tell—especially without both parties’ family tree paper trails to assist us.
Even so, there is another way to test for relationships up to the distance of sixth cousin. At Family Tree DNA, that test is dubbed the “Family Finder” test. I took it. And just before Christmas, I got my results back.
Though we were both hoping the results would shed some more light—especially for someone who is an adoptee wishing to discover more about birth parents—but unfortunately, in this case, the test didn’t lead us closer to any truth on our connection. We did not show up as matches—even at sixth cousin to remote level—on each other’s pages at the testing company.
Of course, that doesn’t negate the results from my previous mtDNA test. I firmly believe those still stand. It’s just that our relationship likely is more remote than the level of sixth cousin. And think about it—with my brick wall firmly ensconced at the second great grandmother level, I can’t even begin to document anything beyond the point of third cousins. So either I have to break through my research brick wall, or we need to find a way to examine the data below the seven centiMorgan cutoff level set by the testing company for their listing of matches. (If all this is Greek to you, you may find ISOGG’s explanation of autosomal testing results and their definition of centiMorgans helpful to review.)
While those recent DNA test results proved disappointing for my newly-found adopted cousin and me, the experience called me back to not only review all my own matches, but those of the other family members I had tested as well. It turns out I am finding several other cousin matches between the three individuals whose test results I am currently overseeing.
The process of DNA testing is just that, a process—not just a swab-the-cheek-and-that’s-it approach, but a sequence in which test results are determined, then matched up to other individuals who have also tested. More results get added to the person’s database as more individuals test and show up as matches. From that point, the information does little without our input and follow-through to seek out and confirm known matches, and puzzle over the others indicated.
For the most part, in the past, I couldn’t find any connections. But with perseverance and hard work, bit by bit, I’m seeing some connections and working to confirm relationships. With every connection I find, I also find that nebulous “head knowledge” transformed into a real working knowledge of what is being documented before my eyes. The terms seem to make more sense. The puzzle pieces seem to fit together in a way that I can get my hands on. That head knowledge becomes a working knowledge, and the science begins to work for me.
With each relationship confirmed by both parties in agreement, our feedback helps science hone in more carefully to fine-tune their predictions about genetic matches. This is where citizen scientists and crowdsourcing can once again aid scientific progress. While it means a steep learning curve for those unaccustomed to the statistics—or even the definitions—of the field of genetics, genealogists are demonstrating that we are capable of grasping enough to at least step on the field as players who can make a difference in confirming a body of knowledge for the common good.
Better yet, I’m getting my hands on a way to confirm my genealogical paper trail that I’m learning to make work for me in interesting ways. Hopefully, at some point, that will include helping a mystery cousin find those roots as well.