There are certain points, in researching our family history, when ancestors just seem to fall in the gaps. They immigrated to this country before passenger records were carefully kept. Or they were born and died in between the 1880 census and the subsequent existing enumeration in 1900.
In the case of my father-in-law's great-grandmother, Catherine Kelly, she must have arrived in Indiana after the 1850 census—and died before the next one was recorded. Worse, I can find no existing record of her marriage to John Stevens, and even her burial record is spotty. Granted, even with these challenges, her three motherless boys were taken in by her Kelly siblings, providing one solid clue to point us to the right one of several Kelly families. But even diligently studying each of those Kelly siblings' lines has not turned up the paperwork I was hoping to find.
There is, of course, another way to confirm familial connections: DNA. Granted, the concept of "matches" means it takes at least two to confirm a connection—my willing subject (my husband) needing someone out there with just the right genetic makeup to take the notion to test at the same company.
The next step isn't quite as easy as that statement makes it sound. Once a DNA match shows up in our account, we need a way to compare notes and confirm that the match is owing to that specific family relationship. That confirmation process requires trees—two of them would be optimal. But not just a pedigree chart reaching back in time only to direct line ancestors; this tree needs collateral lines and lines of descent.
That has been my primary motivation, over the past seven years since taking my first DNA test, for building out my trees. As Diahan Southard of Your DNA Guide says, "A wide tree is usually better than a tall tree."
It takes lots of work over time to adequately document a "wide" tree. Despite that challenge, though, some DNA testing companies provide tools to help manage the flood of DNA matches and sort through the many unknowns.
For instance, at Ancestry.com, I've been careful to maximize the option of creating custom groups. You can be sure I've worked my way back through the generations, setting up a custom, color-coded group for each of the great-grandparent couples. In the case of Catherine Kelly, because she is one of two separate ancestral couples bearing that same surname, I clarify by using her parents' names, James and Mary Kelly.
Once I've set up that color-coded custom group, I work my way through all new DNA matches to add those I recognize to the correct custom group. In that way, I'm now set up to benefit from the system and sort all matches by surname. All I need do is select the "Filter by" option and select "Groups," which gives me the drop-down menu to identify the group I want displayed.
Right away, I can see that the James and Mary Kelly descendants group only has four matches currently attached to that group—but that is plenty for our purposes right now. The point here is to see that, by regularly maintaining the categorization of matches by this system, when I have a question about a specific ancestral line, I can go directly to this sorting mechanism and pull up the matches in question.
It is encouraging to see that there are some DNA matches which link back to this specific Kelly line in my father-in-law's tree. They all link back to that same sibling of Catherine Kelly Stevens—her youngest sister Ann—but they inform me that I am pursuing the right Kelly family. With a name as common as Kelly, that is an important first step to confirm.