Saturday, April 16, 2022

Finding a Place for Every DNA Cousin


It seems so rewarding to be able to look at the DNA matches of distant cousins and almost immediately plug them into my family history database. I wasn't just joking or trying to be clever when I mentioned last week that working on DNA matches reminds me of business consultant Jim Collins' analogy of pushing a flywheel

Fortunately, I've moved from the impossible grunt work of wondering "Who are all these people?!" When I first sent in my family's DNA tests in 2014, it seemed the best matches I got were no better than fourth cousins. Now, no matter how distant, I'm better equipped to find a place for each match in my family tree.

That is not surprising, though, when you consider all the collateral lines I've added to each tree. I have one combined tree for my parents, and another tree blending the lines of my in-laws. Just in the past two weeks, I've added 115 documented individuals to my parents' tree, and—now that I'm back to researching my mother-in-law's Catholic families—402 have been added to my in-laws' tree. That means my parents' tree is up to 28,280 individuals, and my in-laws' tree at 26,835 is not too far behind.

Although the bulk of our DNA matches are still distant cousins at best, there is plenty of work yet to do. I have, for example, 2,199 matches at fourth cousin level or closer but 35,317 distant matches in total at While I will likely never scratch the surface of that larger category, the group of first through fourth cousins is gradually getting sorted into a manageable collection of relatives.

The secret—if you can call it that—has been unfolding over the past seven years. Over those years since we first tested, for each generation of my direct line ancestors, I added their siblings. Then I added their spouses and children. Eventually I worked my way back down to the present in each line of descent. "Simple" as that.

Now, when a DNA match at Ancestry provides a "common ancestor" hint that I can confirm through my own research, I add it to my tree. Often, though, I find that matching cousin is already listed in my tree—or at least a parent's name is there. Even unlinked trees—at least the ones containing more than simply buttons labeled "private"—can give enough information to guide me to a hook dangling in my own tree.

With my research goal this month—working on my mother-in-law's Schneider line from Pennsylvania through Maryland and on into Perry County, Ohio—this will be the opportunity to complete work on the Thru-Lines for Nicholas and Anna Elizabeth and all their descendants. After all, with 208 DNA matches from that couple alone, that information will lead me to a fuller family history story, as well.

The goal is certainly to keep working on this same process. There are so many more lines to add than just the Schneiders and their related Snider and Snyder lines. While that may seem like a great deal of work up front, in the end it makes the overall DNA process much easier. I can see that already. That backlog of mystery cousins is dwindling. Even more encouraging: since these trees are public at, perhaps others will find that the information contained there will help them connect some DNA cousins to their own lines, as well. 


  1. Your posts are so useful to me, whether you are showing new (to me) techniques, or whether what you show confirms what I already do. But I still feel swamped by all those DNA matches that have no tree and "No Matches." Do you have those, also?

    1. Lisa, you are reminding me that it would be a good idea to write something on this dilemma. Yes, it is frustrating to find DNA matches--especially the promising ones--who have posted no tree at all. And there is likely an explanation for the result "no matches," as well.

      For now, let me just encourage you to keep working on as many matches as you can--as well as building out your tree's collateral lines and their descendants.

      It has taken me seven years to do so, but sliver by sliver, rather than just searching for the needle, I've sorted the hay in this haystack into manageable piles. The end result: it is now far easier to see my way to some answers than it was at the overwhelming beginning.


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