Sunday, August 16, 2015

Helping Those Who Help Themselves

That DNA testing stuff can be a pricey proposition. Why anyone would delve into an inquiry with that kind of price tag, and yet not bother to follow through and use it as the tool it was meant to be, is beyond me.

It's stats time again around here, and I'm noticing one thing: of the four major family trees I'm tracking—my husband's paternal and maternal lines and those of my own—the two with mushrooming numbers are the two with DNA matches who actually answer inquiries and emails.

While I don't want to ascribe any supernatural powers to the practical aspects of real-world DNA, this experience puts me in mind of that old saying, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Only, in this case, it's more like, "DNA test results help those who help themselves."

In my camp, the proof is in two of our four family trees. The ones without much headway—the paternal lines for both my husband and myself—are the ones without much follow through with matches.

My paternal tree is virtually flatlined; I haven't received any new DNA matches since April 7. Thus, the tree itself still stands at 150 names. While one person did contact me—quite the anomaly from my usual experience over the last two years of working with DNA testing—we were snared by that undocumented name change orchestrated by my paternal grandfather back in the early 1900s. Though I appreciated the contact, the connection—wherever it might have been—couldn't possibly have sprung through that paternal line.

My husband's Stevens tree, while edging up oh-so-slowly to a total of 910 names (besting the count two weeks ago by 28), has only gained three more DNA matches to reach a total of 504. Actually, he hasn't even received any further matches since over a week ago.

On the other hand, I keep waiting for one test result in particular to come in: that of a presumed third cousin on my husband's Tully side. Oh, when will that result come in? Two families are waiting with baited breath, wondering whether the science will confirm or reject our hypothesis that our respective Tully forebears belong in the same family tree.

And then, there is the matter of one Ann Kelly of Lafayette, Indiana, who may—or may not—belong to my husband's second great grandmother's family there. Finding out whether Catherine Kelly and Ann Kelly were sisters seems to be easier based on DNA testing than it has been by old-fashioned paper trail, in this case.

Other than those two possibilities, there have been no emails in or out, seeking verified connections. Those DNA matches just sit on the sidelines, idling, until the grunt work kicks in to line up confirming paper trails.

On each of our maternal sides, though, there is much more action to be seen. There is something motivating about finding potential matches via DNA testing: it encourages researchers to pull out their paperwork and see if they can mutually put the puzzle pieces together. There's synergy in teamwork.

Take my husband's maternal side, for instance. With our recent foray into War of 1812 pension papers and the questions about the Ijams family and their connection to both Captain John Whistler and a much younger John Jay Jackson stationed at Fort Belle Fontaine near Saint Louis, there is much motivation to round out that family tree—and bring it forward through all lines of descendants. That exercise is designed to help reach out to others whose DNA match is telling them more than their genealogical paper trail is equipped to reveal.

Small wonder, then, that our Flowers tree now includes 1,452 names, an increase over the last two weeks of 97 names.

Likewise, with the ongoing motivation on my own maternal tree of finding that elusive nexus with my mystery cousins of the "exact match" mtDNA test status, I've been busy with the Davis tree as well. That tree now stands at 4,930 names, up 87 since the last count. It's no surprise, with all those endogamous colonial roots, to see that I am now up to 901 DNA matches, including seven more which arrived in my in-box through this Friday. One of those results promises to lead us to a connection as close as second cousin—another researcher and I are in the process of comparing research notes on that possibility, right now.

With every confirmed DNA match comes the built-in tool of being able to manipulate all the other results. A handy device—at least at Family Tree DNA—is that of being able to sort results based on commonality. Once I can confirm that someone matching my maternal side is specific to a certain branch of that tree, I can sort through the rest of my results to see if any others match up. Even if those people hadn't provided trees—or even cursory lists of surnames—with a common third party's match, I can still tell where he or she lines up in the universe of our respective families.

But only, of course, if I've already confirmed someone else has matched that surname, as well.

That's the importance of finding matches in the midst of those hundreds of DNA test results. It's not so much whether a person lines up as a second—or third, or fifth—cousin, but where in the family constellation I should place them. Each clue confirmed leads me to yet another clue. But I can't really confirm a clue without some teamwork from those others who match me. Those who believe in that teamwork help themselves by helping each other. It's as simple as that. 


  1. Maybe they had the test but are too busy to follow up, I run into that with the Forgottens...frustrating for sure:(

    1. I've heard that, with some of the testing companies, the motivation to test wasn't always to make genealogical connections. Not sure whether that holds for the company I'm using. Don't know why it feels "too pushy" to send a second, reminder email. I need to get over that and re-connect.

      Hadn't thought of that being your experience with the Forgottens. You'd think people would be excited to get one of those photos!!!

  2. I suspect with you father's line - DNA is the only thing that is going to connect - and get around the mystery names.

    1. That's been my hope, Iggy. And yet, the very thing hampering me from finding out more about his line is also keeping me from finding potential matches via DNA testing. Either that family had very few descendants for each generation, or no one from that line has been inclined to try out DNA testing. Time and patience...and maybe things will someday turn out differently.


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