Sunday, July 7, 2019

D N A :
Getting Tactical

Sometime last week, far too long after the great neighborhood blackout to go back and make amends, I realized I hadn't posted my traditional biweekly research progress report. If you heard that big "oops"—yes, that was my outside voice—you now know why it didn't show as planned on June 30. After spending six hours at a local cafe so I could glom on to their wifi and get some work done, I had written a brief post and headed home for the night. The whole difficult weekend had blown the thought of a missed post entirely out of mind.

What to do now? Two choices: post the tally now (and blow the entire yearlong sequence out of kilter), or wait another week, getting back on track so I don't have to rework my entire spreadsheet setup. I opted for the latter and, barring any unexpected upheavals in the week to come, will get back in sequence with next Sunday's post.

In the meantime, I've been getting tactical with the DNA albatross hanging around my neck. I've been working my way through a routine which has turned out to brighten the light at the end of the DNA tunnel. If you are like me, looking at all those thousands of DNA matches and wondering "Who are these people?" then you may benefit from this simple tactic to cut a clear path through your matches, as well.

First, a caveat. If you are one of those fortunate people who turn me green with envy, bragging about all your first- and second-cousin matches on your DNA readouts, you will not relate to my research agony. (Did I say I envy you?) This technique may not work for you because, of course, you are perfect already know who all your DNA matches are. You have this perfectly organized family tree with slots just waiting to be filled—the kind that already boasts a bronzed name plate above each waiting spot on the pedigree chart.

Uh uh. Not me. With a dad whose father boasted that he was an orphan—alone, with not a relative in the world—matches on my paternal side are few. So naturally, there aren't that many chances for random distant relatives out there to decide to take a DNA test. Hence, matches who mostly are fourth cousins or beyond—if any on that bereft side of the family.

Every now and then, a third cousin will pop up in my results at the five DNA companies where I've tested. But not often. Still, it helps to work with data which is organized, and that is what I set out to do this week.

Starting with, where out of nearly fifty thousand DNA matches, I have only 1,657 who are fourth cousin or closer, I started sorting each of those "close" matches into four categories. Each color-coded category stands for matches who connect through a specific grandparent. That way, not only did I separate my maternal matches into my grandfather's Davis line versus my grandmother's McClellan line, but I also tried my best to split apart the few Laskowski matches I have from those of my mystery grandfather on my paternal—maybe Puchalski?—side.

I chose one confirmed close match from my mother's side to get started. It helps to have a little encouragement to get the ball rolling, and I already have a solid paper trail for that maternal side. I had this one McClellan relative who is a second cousin, once removed—someone I already knew about from family reports.

On my DNA Matches page at Ancestry, I clicked on "Add/Edit Groups" and chose the option, "Create custom group." I gave the new group a name and assigned a color to code the future members of the group. Then, because the option doesn't provide any place to actually label what the group is, I clicked on the individual match's page and added a note there so I could see right away what I had named that group.

After setting up that color-coded surname group for my maternal grandmother's line, I clicked through to that specific cousin's DNA entry, the one which shows a sketch of the match's family tree. My purpose now was to click on the choice labeled "Shared Matches."

Clicking on that choice, "Shared Matches," shows me all the matches I have in common with this close McClellan cousin. Since I don't have any pedigree collapse in this line for several generations, I can fairly safely assume that anyone who matches me and this known McClellan cousin will also be related to us through the McClellan line.

Thus, I work my way through all those DNA matches who show up as matches to this cousin, labeling each one just as I did this first one: with a color code, followed by entering a note stating the name of the group.

From that point, I am ready to start looking more closely at all these matches, divided out by each of four grandparents' lines, and see where I need to fill in my own tree. Of course, with 1,657 matches at the level of fourth cousin or closer, I still have a lot of work yet to do. But this way, that pile of 1,657 is now whittled down to four groups of much easier size, making the task a much less daunting challenge.


  1. Great minds think alike! I've done the same thing. Also marked a few that are Maternal or Paternal only as I have a paternal aunt and two maternal first cousins. A few of my matches just match them. Good luck!

    1. It's a wonderful feeling when all these puzzle pieces finally fall into place, Kat. And that doesn't happen easily, or right away. I had to wait quite a while before another test taker finally lined up with enough of my DNA to make a clear match. Then I worked from there. It's been over six years since I ordered my first DNA kit, but finally, I can work beyond just two buckets: paternal side or maternal side. I'm sure you're seeing the same thing.

      Funny to think something as science-based as DNA could require luck, but you are actually spot on, there: it's the luck of the draw whether a third or fourth cousin we don't even know actually decides to test.

  2. I started a (much less-organized) version of this method when I joined Ancestry. But I have made some messes that are going to need work to untangle. I have 63.5K DNA matches, and only 1,300 close matches. "Who are these people?" has become my mantra. One problem that confuses things for me is the unbelievable number of cross-overs. I think South Carolina was a small world up until just a couple of generations ago. The frequency of cousin marriage and of one set of siblings marrying another set of siblings is huge. Thus it is frequent that a match will himself have matches from a several other "colors." I keep writing to Ancestry support asking if they have any advice - they just send me links to their articles (which I have already read), and the advice to keep a list. Well, sorry - that is my rant for the day. I actually find it all very fun, like solving a puzzle :-)

    1. That's what I mean by pedigree collapse, Lisa. Situations like cousins marrying--or one pair of siblings marrying another family's pair of siblings is another example--will make using genetic genealogy more challenging.

      In my case, that instance is far removed from current generations. My South Carolina couple, Ozey Broyles and his wife Sarah Taliaferro, are five generations removed from me--and even they weren't born in South Carolina, but in Virginia.

      However, when you reach back further in time from that point--Ozey was born in 1798--you will find many colonial families of European descent will have quite a bit of pedigree collapse. On my Broyles line, for instance, I have some matches who are cousins with me two or three different ways, amplifying the amount of centiMorgans we have in common and making the relationship seem closer than it really is.

      Glad you find it all fun, though. It is like solving a puzzle, and sometimes takes building out your matches' trees to reach the nexus between families. After a while, those lines will all become familiar territory to you, as you trace and retrace your intermarried ancestors' lines.

    2. My pedigree collapse was happening in almost all the branches of my family right up until, even beyond, my grandparents' generation. When I look on 23andMe, my double-first cousins once-removed (I'm not kidding) share more segments with me than my own children. I can figure out the braided lines with people I know - second cousins and and some third cousins - but further away, where the names begin to get unfamiliar, the matches are usually full of multiple colored dots.


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