Monday, July 6, 2020

Connecting With Distant DNA Cousins

Most people are death on the wholesale copying of online family trees—and I get that. There is no sense perpetuating erroneous material. As we use DNA to fill in those stubborn blanks in our pedigree charts, though, there can be much to learn by partnering with distant cousins through their trees to discover more about our family's past.

Lately, I've been writing a different sort of letter than the ones I've been hoping to discover from ancestors. I've been reaching out to contact DNA matches and others with Ancestry subscriptions whose trees show possible family connections. My goal, right now, is to find others interested in tracing their Falvey ancestors back to the specific townlands where they originated in County Kerry, Ireland.

Connecting with DNA matches can have its drawbacks, as many researchers have shared with me. When the topic comes up in conversation, it is often accompanied with groans. How many of us have sent out introductory inquiries, only to wait...and wait...and wait. How to get around that impasse?

Thankfully, there are a lot of tips available from the world of genealogy blogging. If you want generic guidance on contacting DNA matches, you can't go wrong with the crystal-clear advice of "Your DNA Guide" Diahan Southard, who compares composing that introductory letter to setting up a first date. Legacy Tree Genealogists offers thirteen "secrets" to improving the odds of getting a response from a DNA match. For those who have tested specifically at AncestryDNA, going right to the source with their blog and Crista Cowan's video on this topic provides some product-specific direction, like sending your message straight from your AncestryDNA match page, so the message will link the recipient directly back to your own kit.

There are still pitfalls in the process, as witnessed by the opposite approach taken by Amy Johnson Crow—considering possible reasons why a DNA match might not be responding to your email. But for as many deep and complex reasons as Amy may have mentioned, some reasons are so simple, they are simply overlooked. Kitty Munson Cooper discovered that for a while, Ancestry subscribers relying mostly on the app had no way to see that they had received a message. Thankfully, that glitch has been fixed, but who knows what other tiny tech details derail our attempts to get connected.

For quite a while, I had given up on contacting my DNA matches. I tend to go overboard with the word count when getting enthusiastic about a match discovery, but perhaps the avalanche of information, for a newbie, was like taking a drink from the genetic genealogy fire hose. I seldom received responses to my inquiries. With this new Falvey project, though, I'm noting specific research approaches, and communicating them in my decidedly more succinct emails to matches.

This project is not just limited to directly finding DNA matches, though. Somehow, I realized that the "Shared Matches" choice on AncestryDNA's readout doesn't necessarily include any "distant" cousins. And yet, my premise in building these connections back in County Kerry is that the matches include two vital details: a Falvey surname in other people's pedigree chart, plus at least a very small but still possibly useful ten centiMorgan segment shared with my husband.

That means, for one thing, that if I utilize the ThruLines option at Ancestry, the two distant matches who do show up include little if any "Shared Match" listings. However, if I go back to my husband's general match listings and search there for any matches containing Falvey in their tree, I will get "Distant Cousin" matches, once I check their DNA results—and yet they, once I click on their "Shared Matches" button, will show none. It seems, for these low-ranking connections, that there is no way to get "there" from "here."

Despite the small connection, I have reached out to these matches anyhow—and, delightfully, am receiving responses from people willing to contribute what little information they have on their distant Falvey ancestor, as well. I'm quite convinced the answer, for all of us, will come much like crowdsourcing efforts do: if we all work on this together, we may more quickly arrive at an answer that none of us, on our own, might have uncovered.

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