Sunday, July 12, 2020

Progress in the Face
of Diminishing Returns

One of the prime reasons I committed to expanding my family trees, several years ago, was to help identify the distant cousins sure to appear, once my husband and I took our DNA tests. The struggle of looking at all those unrecognizable names of distant cousins in our test results was too frustrating for me. I set about to develop a system to find that needle in the genealogical haystack.

Bit by bit, every two weeks, I checked progress on four trees—one for each of our daughter's grandparents. Some trees grew rapidly, such as my mother-in-law's Catholic family which migrated west to Ohio from their original landing places in Pennsylvania and Maryland. My mother's tree, which dates back to colonial times in North America, likewise grew exponentially over the centuries. My father-in-law's tree, converging in the midwest from two vastly different immigration routes—one through Canada, the other up the Mississippi from New Orleans—grew in fits and starts, and currently  has me stymied with one branch of the Irish ancestry in County Kerry.

The numbers today, for my biweekly count, tell the story of the widely divergent results. My mother's tree stands at 22,676 individuals after having added 247 more documented individuals over the past two weeks. My mother-in-law's tree of 19,094 only grew by eighteen in the same period, mainly following an addition of a few people after a DNA match's emailed contact last week. Neither my dad's tree, stuck at 715 names, or my father-in-law's tree, now at 1,812, saw any action this time.

The main concern over this strategy is that it only helps when I have DNA matches to compare with my tree data. No addition to the trees, no additional help in connecting with matches. On the flip side of that, no additional DNA test customers, no additional DNA connections—and those numbers have slowed to a trickle. In the past two weeks, for instance, my account gained only one new DNA match at and two at 23andMe. My account at Family Tree DNA did somewhat better at twenty new matches in the past two weeks, but who's to say those aren't submissions from law enforcement agencies, desperate to solve cold cases, a la "The Genetic Detective." I doubt I'd be exchanging emails with the admins for cases like that.

And yet, I keep on adding the records, working one at a time through the branches of each descendant of my ancestors. Working consistently, a little at a time, day by day, is the most reasonable way to make research progress. Sometimes, that progress is more obvious, such as adding individuals in my mother's tree via documentation. Sometimes, that progress seems stalled, in cases such as my floundering attempt to break through that brick wall ancestor in my father-in-law's Falvey line in County Kerry. But I've learned to have confidence that the consistently-applied effort will eventually lead to an answer. Bit by bit. Day after day. Record by record. Resource by resource.

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