Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Not Looking for Great Grandma

I don't know what might have enticed you to spit in a tube and mail it to AncestryDNA, but I can tell you one thing: most genealogists didn't do it merely to find out about their great grandmother. They already know who she was.

In fact, except for those DNA matches at Ancestry for whom there is no tree posted, many DNA customers are in the same position I am: we already know who our great grandparents are. In other words, that's not why we tested. We need a tool which can extend our reach beyond the limitations of the messiness of life.

The farther back in time our genealogical puzzle leads us, the less information we may have to go on. Courthouses burn, wars happen, people run for their lives—or get captured and stripped of their identity and transported great distances from their point of origin. And people keep secrets.

My original reason for turning to DNA for genealogical answers was to uncover the secret my paternal grandfather had taken to his grave. It wasn't a horrible secret, I was sure; he had hidden his Polish identity in his newly-adopted homeland on account of prejudice against his ethnic origin, combined with the politically-correct enemy alien nationality designation the government forced his people to assume in war time.

Still, though I could guess who his mother was, I wanted to learn where she came from, and who her parents were. Though it took years, comparing three different close family members' tests, the breakthrough came on account of those small segment connections some people say are of no use.

Thanks to MyHeritage's AutoClusters tool, provided there through arrangement with Evert-Jan Blom of Genetic Affairs, a tiny cluster of matches spotlighted the way. The nexus reached back far beyond that great grandmother to her grandparents before I could connect the dots to a hypothesis on how we connect. But now I know.

If it weren't for tools which help evaluate those small connections, I still wouldn't know. And I wouldn't have gained the insight to know how to proceed with other such research challenges—such as this current one seeking my husband's Falvey family through his as-yet-unknown third great-grandparents in County Kerry, Ireland. Those, however, are much more distant matches than the quest to find second cousins via a great-grandparent.

Yet another research puzzle calls for DNA encounters of a distant kind. While my grandfather hid his identity to escape his people's past, there are others for whom that past has never been known. As descendants of formerly enslaved people, many African-origin Americans can only trace their family lines to a brick wall of 1870, or perhaps a few years before that. They, too, are not searching for their great-grandmother. What they need to unlock that closed research door are matches with whom they share common ancestors from, in some cases, more than 160 years past. Sometimes, this means finding fifth cousins, fourth cousins, or in some cases, even third cousins, before a theory can be put together.

I realized the other day, after the AncestryDNA announcement was made, that I have some connections which may help a few people make that connection—I actually am related, very distantly, to King Stockton whom I've written about before. Those connections, though, are slim, sometimes bordering on the tiny centiMorgan count which will soon be deleted from AncestryDNA matches. I've been rushing to preserve those matches by color coding them, making notes, and in some cases, sending out messages. I don't want to lose those connections. They are so small, but still viable.

When you are seeking third cousins—or beyond—something unhelpful can happen: you can share zero centiMorgans with such a relative. In other words, they can be invisible to you, genetically, even though you actually share a family relationship. Likewise, you can share an amount anywhere on a range of possible measurements, like zero to 234 for a third cousin. Or zero to 139 for a fourth cousin, according to the Shared cM Project at DNA Painter.

It's when that match amount approaches zero that we run into trouble. Some of them, granted, can be false matches. But many of them are not. Those which are not can, with care taken, actually be of use to a researcher with little else to rely on.

This is the realm where any serious genealogist is looking for answers. We already have figured out who our great-grandparents are, remember? It's those relationships in the generations beyond which have us searching. For some of us, DNA may be the only way to guide us to answers.

Yet, despite all the tools we have at hand—well, those still remaining after legal challenges—these are the very ones which I've nearly been shamed into relinquishing, on account of recent assertions made in support of AncestryDNA's decision to remove matches under a true threshold of eight centiMorgans. Fifty percent "poison candies," Blaine Bettinger warns. "Not important at all," Judy Russell argues, reaching out with a bottle of chill pills.

Tell that to someone for whom there is no alternative. Those of us who need to are taking great care to learn how to circumvent the pitfalls. Because that is all we have.

That's why, in the midst of this furor, I was so grateful to stumble across Roberta Estes' encouraging "Plea to Ancestry" post. While particularly pertinent to those struggling to research their pre-Civil War African-American ancestors, the message applies to all of us. We are all impacted by this recent decision, if we are seriously pursuing our family history beyond the basics of the generations we knew from our own personal memory.

Our own test results can help others solve their genealogy challenges, even through a distant relationship, only if we can still see that match. And for some, that is the only key at hand to help them progress toward opening up doors to their family's history.


  1. You took the words right out of my mouth, Jacqi. These matches were good enough for Ancestry.com to sell us last month, but now they're shouting false, false, false. Except, they're not all false, and when used cautiously, they can add another snippet of evidence in cases where there are incomplete records.

    1. You should know, Dara. Your recent work described on your blog shows how carefully one needs to proceed in applying those snippets of evidence. But it certainly is possible--if we have the tools with which to proceed!

  2. So many of my small matches have traced to accurate lines - through using ThruLines or using names in their trees. Makes me want to keep them all in order to work on ferreting out the useful ones as I have time...which would take years.

    1. That is the temptation, Lisa, but you are right: it would take years to filter through all those small matches, with all the secondary comparisons that would have to be made. This, perhaps, is the crux of what is so maddening about the decision.


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