Sunday, March 21, 2021

Spring Cleaning the Family Tree


Family history research seems to take on an ebb and flow. Right now, taking a cue from signs of approaching spring, it seems the task is mostly about managing growth, as all branches of that family tree are sprouting new buds. Keeping in mind that my tree is different than most—I'm growing it from the roots to the shoots, tracing all the descendants of my ancestors to use as a guide in sorting my DNA matches—that makes for an expansive tree. There is always some detail needing a family tree arborist's intervention.

And so I work on, moving from one ancestral line to another, until I've gone as far as an autosomal DNA test could reasonably be expected to reach—to about the sixth cousin level, I've decided, on each line. From the point of the last two week's work, that means my own family tree has grown by 138 names to its current size of 25,441 individuals. That's a lot of cousins—plus enough iterations of great-grandparents to reach back to the early 1800s.

It's pretty much the same story for my in-laws' lines. Despite my husband's tree only growing by thirty five documented names during that same time period, his family tree now has 20,210 individuals. 

I find myself alternating between trees, so the next two weeks will see me concentrate again on my husband's tree, focusing on the branches there which will help determine just how his DNA matches connect to the rest of his family.

Sometimes, those more distant DNA cousins seem to be the greater challenge. That was my primary motivation to begin this research process when I first delved into DNA testing. It seems most results came back as fourth cousins—or even more distant. "Who are these people?" I'd keep asking myself.

And yet, despite the greater challenge to fit each match into the right branch on that family tree, when I can figure out the right connection, that small victory comes with some helpful realizations. Sometimes, I've missed an entire branch of the tree, owing to an overlooked sibling in a distant generation. Or I've been short-sighted about the possibility of more than one marriage, leading to children of a different surname that I didn't realize belonged to my family line. Some of these family lines seem to have been invisible, until I checked the documentation more clearly.

The real challenge of spring cleaning the family tree, though, comes in sorting out the DNA matches. While the rate has slowed markedly at which new matches get added to our accounts—we've tested at all five DNA companies, and have seen that trend across the board—there still are thousands of names to sort. Working to organize those mystery matches by "buckets"—first separating the paternal matches from the maternal ones, then trying to split them into groups by grandparents' surnames, then even further—can seem as tedious as spring cleaning, but the end result is a clearer vision of at least where some of the matches belong.  

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