Friday, January 8, 2021

Don't Forget DNA


Recently, one of the bloggers I read had put a quaint spin on what has become of the popularity of DNA testing: that the bloom has come off the rose of genetic genealogy. While that may be the case—after all, news reporting the identity of the long-mysterious Golden State Killer put a chill factor on this very technique—DNA matches have been the key to unlocking the identity of several of my own brick wall ancestors.

Despite the downturn in testing, I'll still look to matches for my research in the coming year. I couldn't possibly leave this month's topic of goal setting for genealogy without touching on the benefits of this tool.

When I first began using DNA as a tool to build my family trees—this June will mark eight years since I asked my brother to participate in testing his Y-DNA to trace our father's mystery patriline—the results received from the five companies I used for various family members more often prompted a puzzled "Who are these people?"

The frustration of receiving DNA matches without the corresponding aha! moments of names connected to specific spots on the pedigree chart can certainly be a disincentive to applying this tool. But what a powerful tool it has demonstrated itself to be, for those who apply it with perseverance. Sometimes, it has been a matter of needing to sit back and wait until a match actually appears on a specific family line—after all, it takes two to tango. Other times, the benefit only shows when we get smart about using additional tools to mine the information buried in the avalanche of those hundreds of matches that eventually do arrive in our account.

Sorting and categorizing those matches becomes the task that helps delineate which cousin belongs to which part of the family. It can seem a daunting task at the first—but the more matches which are correctly connected to your tree, the more matches will get clarified with that same organizing effort. It's as if finding the proper place for one match makes way for others to follow suit. I've used the "shared matches" tool at AncestryDNA, the "in common with" tool at Family Tree DNA, and—my favorite—the AutoClusters tool featured at MyHeritage, which was developed by Evert-Jan Blom of Genetic Affairs. All of these have helped sort the jumble into a manageable process.

You can be sure that the very DNA tools which led me to deduce who my paternal grandfather's parents might be are not going to be set aside just because I made this one discovery. That's all the more reason to keep using these techniques and tools in the coming year. As these tools assist me in visualizing where in that ever-expanding family tree those DNA matches belong, I am using each company's system to identify and flag each match and format the results so they can power me through further discoveries. At Ancestry, for instance, I'm tagging each DNA match and using their icon system to mark where each one belongs in the big picture. The more matches tied to the right line in the pedigree chart, the easier it is to link others to the right place.

That, in fact, is precisely what I have targeted to continue in 2021: going through the nearly two thousand DNA-matching cousins remaining—through fourth cousin, that is—and sorting them into the right pedigree lines. Along with that, I'll continue reaching out to matches to discuss our connection and share information, if I have a tidbit to share. That has become a research habit over the years, not something which needs to be written up as a "goal" for the new year.

With that, I've outlined my research goals and processes to maintain in the upcoming year. We'll take a look again in December to see how the big plan has fared in weathering the journey of the next eleven months. As we've learned from the past, it's not always easy to predict what a November will bring us—let alone a March. Perhaps the most practical new year's goal is to remain flexible as we navigate the unknowns in the year ahead.  


  1. Jacqi, I agree about flexibility. Everyone is so excited that 2020 is over, but seem to forget that 1 January is just the day after 31 December. The vaccine will help restore life to whatever the new normal is, but it will take months before enough people around the world have gotten it to really put the pandemic behind us. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy!

    1. That's exactly it, Linda! January 1 was just another day--and only one day removed from the year that we all wish had never happened. "Pivot" has become the new operative, ever since last March hit--and boy, how we never predicted we'd have experiences like those of the last nine months.

      Yes, stay safe and healthy is a handy mantra, but to that, I'd like to include the idea of finding a way to snatch a moment of daily encouragement, too. No matter how hard things get, find a touchstone to bring a spark of joy. Sometimes, I found that just getting out in the sunshine or seeing a bit of blue sky was the antidote needed to get through another day.

  2. As much as I wish we could go back to "normal", I have to admit that all the zoom webinars I have been able to view have been very nice.

    1. I totally agree, Miss Merry! Especially earlier in the year, when there were so many free offers, some of our genealogical society members talked about getting Zoomed out, they were watching so many online sessions. Others talked about visiting sessions at societies across the country, and even some international ones. One woman talked about watching a meeting in Devon (England) and I attended one webinar in Ontario, Canada. We've had people from as far away as Alaska and Pennsylvania attend our own society meetings, as well. Talk about opening doors!

  3. DNA did unlock the mysteries behind one of my brick wall ancestors, and that has been very exciting to follow. But it still hasn't solved the mystery around my own half brother. I keep hoping that someone from his lineage will end up as one of my matches.


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