Monday, June 17, 2019

Can't Lose Sight of the Purpose

With the avalanche of DNA matches pouring in to a test-taker's account, it's not hard to lose track of the real value of genetic genealogy. We look at those hundreds of DNA matches we've supposedly just received in our account, and cheer when we recognize, among all the names, those of familiar cousins or aunts or uncles—totally ignoring those mystery names we've never heard of. It all takes on the aura of a toddler unwrapping a Christmas package—who, amidst squeals of joy, takes more interest in the bright, shiny wrapping paper than the expensive gift just bestowed by her doting parents.

I certainly can admit to falling into that trap, myself. I'm a sucker for Bright Shiny, I confess. And being task oriented, I set to work to classify all those matches—starting with the closest, easiest targets to handle—so I could get the right names in the right family slots. Getting those DNA matches organized made me feel so efficient.

But after a long while, it dawned on me: it's the ones we don't know about who are the keys to breaking through our family history brick walls.

That insight didn't come to me freely. I had a little help. The nudge came just after this year's RootsTech, when MyHeritage launched their Theory of Family Relativity and, along with that announcement, introduced this nifty tool they dubbed AutoClusters. (If you have not yet seen this tool in action, the best explanation I've found was a session with MyHeritage's Ran Snir at Legacy Family Tree Webinars.)

I requested my AutoClusters from MyHeritage, and within a short while, received an email with a zip file including a matrix of my matches, clustering them into inter-related groups. All that was left for me was to examine the groups to see what ancestral names each cluster might have in common.

Some groups were large, while others much smaller. The large ones, predictably, were from my maternal side, where our colonial heritage has had plenty of time to percolate descendants through multiple generations. But among the smaller clusters, I spotted one which contained very few names of matches, in which all of them had one thing in common: they seemed to come from eastern European roots, but had no connection to my paternal grandmother's Laskowski line. Could they actually point me to my mystery grandfather, the orphan teenager who once used the name Puchalski or Puhalski, who supposedly arrived on American shores AWOL from his duties as a sailor on a Polish ship?

It was then that I snapped back to attention about the strength of this fun toy we dabble with in our genealogy. It's the power of this DNA that can help us isolate the disparate descendant lines of a particular ancestral root—specifically, the family line cut short which has otherwise left us without any clues.

While the tool at MyHeritage is at the disposal of their subscribers—and, I presume, those who transfer in their raw DNA data from other testing companies, as well—the AutoClusters program is not original with them. Thanks to Evert-Jan Blom, the program was first offered at Genetic Affairs. Besides the version available at MyHeritage, it is now newly accessible for Tier 1 subscribers at GEDmatch. The plus to those other versions is that the user can define the upper and lower limits to the parameters, whereas they are pre-determined at MyHeritage.

Regardless of which version you decide to use, I believe the best starting point, for me, was at MyHeritage. I am already a subscriber there, and my DNA matches there far outnumber the count at any of the other testing companies—including some family trees with very Polish-sounding surnames I've not encountered elsewhere.

Perhaps it was a good omen that the group in question for my purposes was cluster number thirteen—my aunt always claimed that was her lucky number—but regardless of the dynamics, in checking out the four people named in that one cluster, it was easy to click through and gather the details on how we all match. That, in turn, is providing my research assignment for this upcoming week: to trace those trees and see if I can construct a proposed family tree that points me to my paternal grandfather's origin.


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