Saturday, January 3, 2015

Five Afterthoughts on DNA Testing

So, you missed the latest sale for DNA testing? Don’t despair. Here are a few thoughts to review—and, if you’re keen on being prepared, to get done before the next sale descends upon us.

One thing you probably have realized, if you’ve followed along here at A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, is that I haven’t missed that DNA sale. In fact, I had a specific reason for catching this last round of sales: I now have a mystery cousin, adopted, who was delivered to my digital doorstep by this very method (the mother’s line mtDNA test), and with whom we hope to discover a closer connection via autosomal DNA testing.

Now that I’m mulling over the nearly seven hundred matches I’ve received from this most recent test, I’m discovering a few pointers. Not that I’m a keen observer of the obvious or anything. It’s just that reconciling the multiple surnames of seven hundred other genealogy enthusiasts with my own database of fourteen thousand individuals can do that to a person.

In less than a month of data sifting, here’s what I’ve decided.

It’s the work that comes afterwards that makes the test worth the price.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the type who feels the need to study a thing to death. Then I take Step One. Don’t do this. When it comes to doing the DNA test, jump in, feet first. You will learn as you go. The worst thing you can do is take the test, get the results, and then just sit on them. (Actually, I’d say that’s worse than not taking the test at all.)

I started off, in this DNA testing world, using the Y-DNA test for both my brother and my husband. For each one, I was hoping to discover what had been eluding me about their respective paternal lines. While the results are intriguing, they didn’t bring me any closer to my genealogical goals. I found using the autosomal test to be better aligned with my genealogical goals, and I’d strongly recommend you start at that point as well, if you are seeking a method to confirm your family history research.

That said, let me warn you: there is work involved in receiving DNA test results. The “results” are not the answer. They are only the key. If you want to know anything more than the vague “Where My People Come From” readout that gets included with DNA test results, you will need to have your family charts in hand, and your email fired up and ready to roll. You’ll find yourself sifting through endless lists of other people’s genealogy, looking for that needle in the haystack of humanity that makes you and your “match” relatives. You may be asked to confirm proposed results with the company from whom you purchased your DNA test. That will entail reaching out and comparing notes with other researchers. You will also need to be prepared to give to others what you are asking them to reveal to you: as complete an ancestral chart, GEDCOM or surname listing as you can provide, to help others determine whether they have a match with you.

Bottom line: if you are not willing or able to pay the “price” of the work, it certainly will not be worth the cost of any DNA test—even at the sale price.

If you don’t do the work yourself, no one else is likely to do it for you.

Genealogists must all be very nice people. At least they are polite—demurely waiting on the sidelines, just hoping some dashing leader will come along and sweep them off their feet with an invitation to do the Relative Rumba. Don’t wait. Take the lead and make the contacts with your prospective matches. Be the one who reaches out.

Of course, there are those lucky participants who have a Fairy Godmother, ready to wave a wand and get all that grunt work done for them. Those Fairy Godmothers are called professional genealogists. Sometimes, it is they—or, at the least, a “proxy” or results administrator—who will oversee the exchanges with prospective matches. If you don’t have one of those, you are the one who will need to attend to all the details of making connections with your matches.

Be prepared to make a lot of email contacts with people you never heard of before. Those people are your prospective cousins. Yeah, they may turn out to be seventh cousins, twice removed, but hey—they’re the family you paid those big bucks to find, right? Some of those connections may help you break through intractable research brick walls. But you’ll never know until you take the initiative and connect with those strangers on your match list.

Take those relationship ranges with a supersized grain of salt.

Family Tree DNA likes to offer its customers a suggested range of relationships. “Suggested” is my euphemism for their disclaimer, “your actual relationship is highly likely to fall within these…limits.”

What I actually discovered is that some of those ranges are more hopeful than pragmatic. I don’t know; perhaps it is the result of coming from a small family, none of which has jumped on the DNA testing bandwagon unbidden. Besides my own brother, whom I cajoled into doing the Y-DNA test because he is our father’s sole surviving male descendant, I show no first or second cousins in my test results. Mostly, that “second to fourth cousin” category leans heavy on the fourth cousin.

Fifth or sixth cousins? Oh, yeah. I’ve got plenty of those. But do you realize what finding connections with a fifth cousin—or sixth cousin, or beyond—entails? Think about it. I have. Like, seven hundred times I’ve thought about it.

Realize the impact of those numbers you’re seeking.

Entering the DNA testing arena with the starry-eyed notion of finding one’s roots makes great advertising copy. But when it comes right down to it, relationships are translated into numbers. Like, “sixth cousin.”

Have you ever given any thought to what it takes, research-wise, to come up with documentation to secure that rank of sixth cousin? If you don’t have a genealogy database complete to seven generations of your ancestry, you will not be equipped to determine if anyone is your sixth cousin.

Worse than that, if you don’t have the slots filled in on all those fifth-great-grandparents, how will you be equipped to determine whether your “match” really matches you? In case you’re wondering, that would be the names, dates and places of the vital statistics for sixty four individuals you could potentially have in common with your match (assuming your match is either from your paternal side or your maternal side), just at the level of fifth-great-grandparents. If you’re not quite prepared to rattle off those details just now, that’s what you need to focus on while you’re awaiting the next DNA test sale.

Connections come in all shapes and sizes.

Sure, filling in those sixty four slots will give you a listing of all your fifth great grandparents which could potentially be held in common with your match. But only after you added all thirty two of your fourth great grandparents. And your sixteen third great grandparents. You do, incidentally, already have the complete picture for your second and first great grandparents, too, don’t you? That’s another twelve people.

And that’s only presuming you and your match come from that one side of the family. What if the connection is from the other side? Make all those numbers times two: you will get DNA matches for both the paternal and maternal sides of your family.

Getting that completed will give you a nice ancestral chart to work with, once you start pondering those multiplied DNA matches. But that won’t be all you’ll need.

Doing this DNA dance has made me grateful that, a long time ago, I decided I would not only research my direct line of ancestors, but include the data on all their siblings, up each generation—and as many of their descendants as I could find. Not only does that sound unwieldy—believe me, it is—but I sure took the heat for that plan several times over during the decades I’ve been doing this.

Now, though, it is paying off. Collateral, as Amy Johnson Crow likes to call it. The details on all the siblings of your multiplied great-grandparents. The kind of relationships that yields you, ultimately, your sixth cousins. You know: the ones you’re trying to match up with, now.

Believe me, in this quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day when I wanted to huddle in a quiet corner and get all my ducks in a row for the upcoming year’s research, what I’ve actually done was spend some time each day, ferreting out possible matches—not only for my own DNA test results, but as administrator for both my husband’s and my brother’s matches. When I’ve taken the time to scour a match’s surname readout—or, better yet, his or her family’s GEDCOM—I find I have better results when I match someone whose family line is an old, well-established line settled in this country since the 1700s or earlier. Why? It’s those Broyles and Taliaferro lines that are so well documented that I can snag their descendants’ surnames as well. Yeah, that’s why I have upwards of fourteen thousand individuals in my database. But it doesn’t bog me down now. It’s handy to be able to put my finger on a match’s surnames and know they are part of these long-standing lines.

I’ve said all that to make one point: if you are thinking about doing your DNA testing, while you are waiting for the next big sale, do yourself a favor and work on these things. Push your ancestral chart back as many generations as possible. Fill in the blanks for all the missing “greats” in your lines. Consider adding information on all the siblings of your direct ancestors, including married names for the women. And see if you can bring those siblings’ lines forward a generation or two.

Your DNA matches will come in all shapes and sizes. They will come hidden in surname labels you don’t recognize. They will come with incomplete documentation that doesn’t quite reach back as many generations as you need to make that distant connection—and sometimes you will have to fill in the blanks for others as well as for your own data.

The more you get your own paperwork in order, the more help you can be to your fellow DNA seekers. And, once you make the big decision to spring for it, the more value you will get out of the DNA testing process.


  1. Oh you make me feel guilty...I should do that research. Some has been done for me already. I have so many irons in the fire already...if only I were two or three people!
    You have quite a project before you!! :)

    1. No guilty feelings, Far will find a way to do what needs to be done. Like your slow and steady posts on your one blog about family memories, bit by bit, these things get done.

  2. I'm one of those just sitting on the results, sorry to say. I've contacted people on my dad's DNA results but the mtDNA results are just so OUT THERE that I haven't bothered. Maybe I need to reconsider them but so far they seem so remote that I can't make myself believe we're related.

    1. Wendy, that is exactly what happened to me when I first started out. My first attempt was the Y-DNA test for my husband's Stevens line. I didn't feel as if I had found anything meaningful in the results. At first, I thought it was just me--but then I stopped beating myself up when I realized how long a span of history this test can reveal.

      Same for my own mtDNA test--even on the cousin with whom we have an "exact match," the timeline may exceed 750 years. Who has that kind of genealogical paper trail?!

      Even though the results may lead you to relatives as distant as sixth cousin or beyond, I find the autosomal DNA test to be the most useful. It reveals more "recent" history--at least recent enough to register on our family tree paper trails.

      If you are game to give it another try, I'd heartily recommend you take a look at the autosomal test--the one called "Family Finder" at Family Tree DNA, for instance--or the same type of test at whichever company you prefer.

      The results I am discovering from this test are much more meaningful and usable, as far as our own genealogy research results go. As long as I keep plugging away at the data, I'm verifying matches on a regular basis. Keep in mind, I'm plowing my way through nearly 700 matches, so this will take time to do all the comparisons, but at least when I look at the results, I can feel, "This is do-able!"

  3. I've not seriously considered the idea. My mom's family tree, with its many years in the USA might prove most interesting.

    1. There are people all across the board on this one, Iggy. Some think it's helpful, some don't see the value. It probably has to do with a mix of your research goals, combined with the results you'd get back, if you tested.

      If you do decide to experiment with DNA testing, I'd recommend going the route of the autosomal testing, first, mainly for the points I mentioned above, following Wendy's comment.

      Your observation about your mom's multi-generational history in the United States is a good point. I seem to find more matches on those lines I have more thoroughly researched, and all of those happen to be from families with long-standing residencies in this country.


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