‘ThruLines’ and ‘Theory of Family Relativity’

For DNA testers who have attached a decent sized family tree to their test results, Ancestry and MyHeritage have tools that trawl through your matches to find common ancestors.

On Ancestry this tool is called ThruLines and it’s one of the three options on the main page when you enter the DNA part of your Ancestry site.  Click the green ‘Explore ThruLines’ tab, and you’ll find all your known direct ancestors up to and including 5xG grandparent.  Hover your curser over the ancestor to see if there are any matches and click on the ancestor to review the matches and decide for yourself if they are valid.

On MyHeritage the equivalent tool is called Theory of Family Relativity.  You’ll find them as they occur on your DNA match list, alongside those matches for whom ‘theories’ have been generated.  Just click the ‘Theory’ alert and review what’s being suggested.  Alternatively, you can use the filter bar at the top of your match list to see only matches for whom there is a ‘Theory’.  You’ll find it in the menu if you click on ‘All tree details’.

My Heritage filter bar for DNA matches

All you need to make use of these two tools is a well padded-out tree, and to have that tree linked to your DNA results.  You can have several sets of DNA results linked to the one tree and they will all work with ThruLines and Theories of Family Relativity.

In both cases – Ancestry and MyHeritage – the suggestions are based on your tree and your match’s tree.  They draw upon these and on other trees and records in their database to suggest how you may be related to your DNA matches through common ancestors. Hence although they will only show up if you and the other person are a DNA match, they are based on the genealogy, not the genetics.

These suggestions can be really helpful.  They are, however, ‘theories’, ‘suggestions’, ‘hints’.  We must review them and confirm (or otherwise) for ourselves. In this sense they are not dissimilar to the hints that pop up on our trees.

A ThruLines success!
Here’s a very recent (yesterday!) example from ThruLines that enabled me to break down a long-standing brick wall.  George Gamble is my 4xG grandfather.  He married my 4xG grandmother (Hannah) in 1790, when she was 20 years old.  I assumed he would be about the same age and was looking for a baptism between around 1760 and 1770.  When this ThruLine suggestion first popped up on my screen each of the two columns was headed by a different George Gamble – mine with an estimated birth year of 1765 and the one on the left with a birth year of 1749.  It didn’t make any sense, but I thought maybe the two Georges might be cousins, and this might lead me to my George’s father, so I clicked on the ‘other’ George.

That George was married to Susanna, but I noticed that they stopped having children in 1789 – the year before my George married Hannah.  Might Susanna have died in that year, perhaps in childbirth?  I checked for a burial for a Susanna Gamble, and there it was – about 14 weeks after the last birth – possibly milk fever?  I then checked all the occupation references for this other George.  He was a clothier – the same as my George.  The 1790 marriage entry for my 4xG grandparents refers to ‘George Gamble of this parish, clothier, and Hannah Brook of this parish, spinster’, but makes no reference to George’s own widowed marital status.  This was, however, undoubtedly the same person.  My 3xG grandmother Betty was from George’s second family, with Hannah; Phebe was from his first marriage to Susanna.  I amended George’s birth year to 1749, added in his first wife and children, and was able to take his line back another two generations.  Thrulines updates every 24 hours, and so today this new version of the chart has appeared: one George at the top of both lines, with a birth year of 1749.

Chart showing an example from Ancestry's ThruLines

The green entries on this ThruLines chart are significant.  My DNA match here has only fifteen people in her tree, and Ancestry’s system drew upon other trees to insert the connecting generations.

In the example above you’ll note that I didn’t just accept the suggestion.  I dug around, clarified, verified and decided for myself that this was a genuine connection.  In fact, being a ‘half 4th cousin 2x removed’, this match and I share very little DNA – only 8 centiMorgans.  With such a low match I would never have explored our connection without this nudge from Thrulines, and yet this chart enabled me to break down a decade-long brick wall.

Having said all that, in the interests of balance I will also say that the suggestions offered up by Thrulines and the Theory of Family Relativity are not always correct.

There are several reasons why this might be so.

‘Potential ancestors’ based on others’ trees may be wrong
As we have seen in the above example, if you or your match have a gap in your tree – for example if your line ends at a brick wall, or if your line goes back several generations further than your match’s, ThruLines actually fills in gaps. If these suggested ancestors are correct this can be a huge help, but they are not always correct.

One of my early posts on this blog was about the advantages and pitfalls of using public online trees.  A key point in that post was that just because it’s on someone else’s tree doesn’t make it right.  However, the way the algorithms work is that they go with the majority.  Your tree may be beautifully researched and documented and may be absolutely correct, but if six people have copied the wrong research it is that which will show up as the way to go.

Here’s an example.
In every census, my 3xG grandfather Joseph Groves gives an age consistent with a birth year of 1816 together with a birthplace of ‘London, Middlesex’. On his marriage certificate he gives his father’s name and occupation as ‘William Groves, gunsmith’.  However, there are no local ties to help me to navigate back to William, because as a young man Joseph leaves London, spends twenty years in the West Midlands and then relocates to Yorkshire.

An 1817 baptism record in Lambeth looked promising, and although the father’s name is Joseph rather than William it was worth following through.  However, this Joseph (the son) is still in London in 1841, by which time my Joseph has moved on to Staffordshire.  In any case, this part of London, south of the river, was referred to as ‘London, Surrey’, rather than Middlesex.  This is not my ancestor.

Despite this, and even though I have named my Joseph’s father as William, ThruLines persists in offering up Lambeth Joseph’s mother (Susannah) as my 4xG grandmother.  Note again, that because it’s a suggestion, Susannah’s thumbnail is green.  Clicking through and looking at the trees on which this suggestion is based I see a completely different family for Susannah and her son, Lambeth Joseph.  There is no doubt that this is not my Joseph and Susanna is not my 4xG grandmother.

Ancestry's ThruLines thumbnail example

You and your match may be distant cousins on more than one line
One of my DNA matches and I have two fairly close ancestral connections.  We are 4th cousins along my paternal grandmother’s line and 3rd cousins once removed along my paternal grandfather’s line.  I found the second link by accident when I was working on a third person we both link to.  There is no way ThruLines could have worked this out.  Its job is to trawl until it finds a match – one match.

This matters because we might look at other fairly close shared matches and assume that our match is along the same line.  It’s also particularly important if you start to use a chromosome browser – which I will cover in a future post.  Chromosome browsers enable you to use known segments as a basis for placing other unknown segments, so it really matters that you have attributed a segment to the right ancestors.  In this case, working with the chromosome browser, I have since been able to work out which segments shared with my double cousin belong to which line.

In case you think this is a rare scenario – it isn’t.  I have at least three more examples just like this in my tree.

You or your match may have made a mistake in your research We all make mistakes, and it’s important to be open to that possibility and to review if things aren’t looking right.

There may be an unknown misattributed parentage in one of your lines
Since the hints are based on trees rather than on analysis of segments the fact that two testers share DNA does nevertheless mean they are related elsewhere.

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I hope this little run through ThruLines and Theory of Family Relativity has demonstrated to you their obvious benefits.  All we have to remember is to use them as suggestions and to work through it and decide for ourselves if it’s real.

This video from Devon Noel Lee at Family History Fanatics might help to consolidate some of the above information for you.

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My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

So your DNA results are in! What now?

I first took a DNA test to help with my family research about eight years ago.  Although I’d done a little reading and understood the basics, I had no idea how to make practical use of the DNA.  In the absence of knowledge, tools and even significant tester databases my modus operandi was to contact my matches and ask if they would be prepared to work with me at trying to locate where, on our trees, we matched.  Some never replied but even with the ones who did it wasn’t a success, resulting in zero confirmed matches.  None of us really had any idea how to actually use the new information the DNA itself provided.  Now, when I look back at the people I contacted I can ‘read’ the DNA info regarding our match better and I can see why we never found / in some cases never will find our common ancestors.

Since then, there have been lots of developments:

  • Many more people have tested
  • People have emerged as ‘authorities’, writing books, blogs, and producing helpful videos
  • Facebook groups have formed where people help each other and again, some have emerged as leaders and experts
  • Ancestry and MyHeritage have developed their own tests aimed specifically at genealogists, and working increasingly seamlessly with the tree-building functions of their websites
  • Other people and companies have created tools for us to use alongside our DNA results to help us get the most from them

Eventually I decided to get on top of this DNA thing, challenging myself to see how far I could progress within one year.  I tested again, this time with Ancestry (so I could access their large database), I read books, watched videos, learned how to use some of the new tools, and I joined Facebook groups, asking questions when stuck.  More than two years have passed and I’m still learning, but these days I can usually work on a match without ever needing to contact the other person, just using information on the database.  Of course there remains much to learn.  I still read, seek out videos on specific learning points, and if I’m stuck on something specific there is always someone on the Facebook groups with apparently encyclopaedic knowledge on matters DNA.

Earlier this year I published five blogposts (starting here) about how we can use DNA to develop our trees.  They were aimed at the complete beginner with no knowledge, and in particular at readers who hadn’t tested and didn’t trust or understand that DNA can provide a very useful additional string to your bow.  I tried to cover a number of common objections and misunderstandings I see regularly in online discussions

I’ve now put together another little series of posts.  This time the focus is more practical: how can we put the theory covered in those earlier posts into practice?  These posts have grown out of many email exchanges with some of my own DNA matches in which I’ve tried to answer their questions or explain to them how we might be able to progress together.  Again, this series focuses on known sticking points – often discovered in working with my own DNA matches.  So if you’re reading this because we’re DNA cousins (Hello!) then this post, the next two, and others that will follow in spring 2021 are dedicated to you.  My hope is that by writing it here instead of (repeatedly!) in emails, it will help other new – or even not-so-new – testers, who are still finding out how to make the DNA work.

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Getting started: Looking at your results
I’m going to concentrate here on the two DNA testing providers mostly used by amateur genealogists: Ancestry and MyHeritage.  These companies are increasingly integrating their DNA service with their online tree function.  However, other testing companies will present the essential information in a similar way.

When you open up the DNA page on Ancestry or MyHeritage the options you’re presented with are pretty similar.

On Ancestry you’ll see:

  • Your DNA Story, including ethnicities, and breaking these down further into regions, counties and smaller areas.
  • DNA Matches
  • Thrulines

On MyHeritage you’ll see:

  • An Overview, where you can scroll down to access all the other options but where you can also see your ethnicities at a glance
  • Ethnicity estimate – the areas are broader (less focused) than Ancestry’s
  • DNA Matches
  • Tools

EVERYONE looks at the ethnicities first!
Many people take a DNA test purely out of curiosity for the ethnicities.  They have no knowledge of and no interest in their family tree.  Often, the people listed as your DNA matches who have no tree attached will fall into this category.  (The other possibility is that they have no tree because they don’t know who their parents are and have taken the test to try to find out.)  Whatever your reason for taking the test, this is almost sure to be the place you look first, and on the surface it’s the easiest part to understand.

Ethnicities are, however, the least ‘accurate’ part of the whole DNA testing journey.  They are based on a comparison of your DNA to that of selected people with deep regional roots and well-documented family trees from around the world.  These people are referred to as the ‘reference panel’.  Different testing companies arrange their panels in different geographical groupings.  They also use different algorithms.  What this means is that your ethnicities are only an estimate; and although of course your DNA doesn’t change, from time to time, based on all of the above, the testing companies will update their estimate of your ethnicities.  It also means that the estimate of your ethnicity will differ according to which company provides it.  Hence at the time of writing this my own ethnicity is estimated as follows (the largest area is first in each case):

Ancestry: England & NW Europe, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Germanic Europe, Wales
FTDNA: Scandinavia, West and Central Europe, British Isles and a dash of Siberia
MyHeritage: (The DNA data I put on here was uploaded from my original FTDNA test): Mostly North and West Europe with some East Europe and a little South Europe

That’s quite a range, although taken as a whole they are all European and all centre on the north and north-west of Europe if not actually the British Isles.  (And of course like many people I cling to the hope of deep down, being a Viking. 🙂 )  It’s advised that tiny percentages (like my Siberia) be taken with a pinch of salt, but certainly as more people test, ethnicities are becoming more accurate.  If something unexpected shows up at a high percentage it’s likely to be a reasonable guide.

Ancestry have taken ethnicities a step further with the integration of ‘Genetic Communities’ into their ‘DNA Story’.  The smaller (regional, county, locality) groupings referred to above are in fact a combination of genetics and genealogy: they draw upon the family trees of your DNA matches.  These are generally found to be very accurate and in my case have homed in on two very important areas of my ancestry.

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The important bit: DNA matches
For genealogy and family history enthusiasts, this is the most important information.  Whichever company you tested with, your DNA matches will be listed in descending order starting with those with whom you share the highest amount of DNA at the top, right down to the tiniest matches.  You will have a LOT of matches but you should start at the top.

Your matches will be placed into categories.  At MyHeritage matches are placed into ‘Close Family’, ‘Extended Family’ and ‘Distant Relatives’ with an ‘estimated relationship’ for each person.  At Ancestry the divide is at ‘4th cousins or Closer’ and ‘All Matches’, with matches arranged as e.g. ‘Full Siblings’, ‘3rd cousins’, ‘4th cousins’, and a more specific estimate for each person.

For each individual match you’re given additional information.

Ancestry provide:

  • the person’s name (or pseudonym) and maybe a photo
  • the amount of shared DNA, expressed as centiMorgans (cM)
  • the number of individual segments these cM are arranged in, and the largest segment
  • whether they have a tree, and whether it’s public or private
  • whether you have already added any notes

Click on the person’s name for more information:

  • links to your match’s tree(s) – there may be more than one tree, but only one can be linked to their DNA
  • whether Ancestry’s algorithms have identified any common ancestors in your trees
  • a link where you can compare your own ethnicity with your match’s
  • a link to a list of shared matches – people who match both of you
  • You will also see where you can add the notes mentioned above and where you can add the person to a group, using a coloured dot of your choice

MyHeritage provide:

  • the person’s name (or pseudonym) and maybe a photo
  • the amount of shared DNA, expressed as cM and also as a percentage of your total DNA
  • the number of individual segments and the largest segment
  • whether they have a tree and how many people are on it
  • A ‘notepad’ icon where you can make notes (icon is red if you have already made notes for this match)

Click on ‘Review DNA Match’ for more information:

  • lists of ancestral surnames in your trees, with any shared surnames highlighted
  • lists of people who match both of you (shared matches)
  • a comparison of your ethnicities
  • and right at the bottom something called a chromosome browser, in which you can see exactly where, on your 22 chromosomes, you and this person match.  (I’ll be looking at this in detail in a mini-series of posts about chromosome mapping early in 2021.)

For an explanation of centiMorgans see my earlier post on Using DNA to develop your family research.  See also the Shared centiMorgan Project chart that sets out the possible relationships for any specific cM range.  As a general rule, don’t spend too much time working on matches below 30 centiMorgans.

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This is what you can do straight away
My advice is to take a while getting to know how the information is laid out, and to take note of anything that leaps out at you. I say this for two reasons.  Firstly, there’s a huge amount of information there and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.  But secondly, it takes a while for the powerful computers to find all your matches and include them on your match list, along with their trees and lists of shared matches.  The following action plan focuses on what you can do straight away while you find your way around the system.

  • Look at your list of matches.
  • For the closer matches (at the top of your list) do you already recognise them? Are they known cousins, second cousins, etc?
  • For any closer matches (such as 2nd or 3rd cousin) that you don’t recognise but who have trees, can you compare your trees and find a common ancestor?  Bear in mind that second cousins are descended from the same great grandparents; third cousins from the same great great grandparents.  But be prepared to look a generation or so either side.
  • When you can confirm your first match and have worked out your Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) you can assign this match to a specific part of your tree.  You now know your documentary research to this point is correct and there were no adoptions or unexpected paternity events along the way.  Making immediate use of the notes box means you won’t waste time looking again for your match.
  • If you’re using Ancestry you can assign this reasonably close match a coloured dot.  How you organise your coloured dots is up to you.  I have eight colours – one for each great grandparent.  Whenever I can confirm a new match I give them the appropriate colour dot for the part of my tree they slot into.
  • You now have the beginning of a guide for other matches for this part of your tree.  For example, a first cousin match may help you to place any shared matches to your maternal or your paternal side; a second cousin may help you to home in on a specific grandparent.  See my previous post on Asking other family members to test for more guidance on this.
  • With this in mind, look now at the shared matches for you and your confirmed cousin match.  Again, perhaps you already know some of these people.  Perhaps you recognise their surname from your tree.  If not, perhaps their own tree will guide you to the place where your trees merge: your MRCA.
  • Join an online group.  There are several groups on Facebook, but DNA Help for Genealogy run by Donna Rutherford is a good place to start. Gradually you’ll understand more and be able to make better use of more of this information.

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My next DNA post, on 15th November, will look at Ancestry’s Thrulines and MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity.

I’m deliberately releasing this information in manageable, bite-size chunks.  However, if I’m going too slow for you, have a look at Donna Rutherford’s blogpost on Frequently Asked Questions about DNA.

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Note
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links.

Thomas and Lucy: a Removal Order

Historic church photographed from inside modern building

If you know Norwich you may recognise this scene, captured from The Forum.  The 15th century church opposite is St Peter Mancroft.  The significance of this scene for me was not only the reflections of the super-modern structure juxtaposed with the historic church, but also in the fact that here I was with my son, inside the modern structure in the year 2019, looking out on that ancient church inside which, 230 years earlier, my 4x great grandparents were married, and six years after that my 3x great grandfather Thomas was baptised.

All of this is relevant to the tale that follows. It follows on from my last post about the operation of ‘settlement’ as the key concept in dealing with the poor.

I was in Norwich visiting my son, spending each evening with him and passing the days while he was studying, at the county archives or walking around the churches and parishes of significance to my Norwich ancestors.  Amongst others, I was on the trail of the aforementioned Thomas and his wife Lucy: my 3x great grandparents.  After marriage they settled in another Norwich parish: St Martin at Oak.  Yet the baptism records of their children were puzzling: five children born in St Martin at Oak between 1819 and 1828, then a daughter born two hundred miles away in Fewston, Yorkshire in 1830, another son back in St Martin at Oak in 1832 and then seven more children in Fewston and Leeds between 1834 and 1846.

I understood why they had moved to Yorkshire.  Thomas was a weaver: the very trade upon which Norwich’s wealth had been built; and yet even by the time of Thomas’s apprenticeship weaving was on the decline in Norwich, and with that the city itself.  Quite simply, Norwich was unable to compete with the new spinning and weaving mills located in other parts of the country alongside fast flowing water and ready coal supplies.  And so Thomas traded in his cottage industry lifestyle, working long hours at his loom beside the trademark long weavers’ window on the upper floor of the family home, for a position spinning flax at West House Mill at Blubberhouses within the parish of Fewston, about eight miles from Harrogate.

Long window in Norwich typical of traditional weavers' houses

Typical Norwich weavers’ window

It’s known that the owners of West House Mill toured workhouses and charitable institutions in London and other large towns in search of hundreds of apprentice children, just as Thomas’s orphaned contemporary Robert Blincoe (‘The Real Oliver Twist’) had been ‘recruited’ around 1800.  In fact, they hold the dubious honour of being amongst the first to do that.  It’s reasonable to suppose, then, that Thomas might have been persuaded to relocate to the mill as an ‘engine minder’ while the owners were on a recruitment drive in Norwich.  Reasonable, too, to imagine that all the benefits of this new life were highlighted, and little of the reality.  The fact is that West House Mill was a huge, noisy, five-storeyed mill in a remote position in the Washburn Valley on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  The working day, starting at 5am and ending sixteen hours later with perhaps just an hour’s break for rest and a midday meal, was hard-going and repetitive.  The mill depended on the slave labour of the pauper children, effectively imprisoned there until they reached the age of twenty-one: it was a place of misery.  While workers’ cottages were provided and the beauty of the countryside undisputed, the culture shock for Lucy and Thomas, used to the milder climate, the facilities of Norwich, the tranquillity of detailed work at the handloom and family nearby would be immense.

There was very little risk for the mill owners in employing Thomas.  In accordance with the law, it’s almost certain that he left Norwich with a Settlement Certificate.  Ever since the 1662 Settlement Act these certificates had facilitated migration by serving as a guarantee from the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the ‘home’ parish to those of the intended ‘host’ parish that, in the event of difficulties resulting in an application for poor relief, the home parish would pay the costs of ‘Removal’.

Early 19th century engraving of large flax mill

West House Mill at Blubberhouses, Fewston, Yorkshire

Two days after taking my ‘ancient and modern’ photo I was back in The Forum.  Alongside several restaurants, the building is home to the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library which includes the Norfolk Heritage Centre.  Here, I came across a reference to Thomas, Lucy and their first four children: a Removal Order dated 1826.  This surprised me on two counts.  First, based on the baptism records I had believed their initial migration took place between 1828 and 1830; and second, if my family had been removed from Fewston back to St Martin at Oak in Norwich, what was the reason for this, and why had they returned there in time for the 1830 baptism of their sixth child?

The detail of the Removal Order was even more unexpected.  In 1826 Thomas, Lucy and their four named children (6 years to 3 months) were removed from St Martin at Oak, where they had ‘lately intruded themselves contrary to the law relating to the settlement of the poor, and that they had there become chargeable’.  By decision of two Justices of the Peace they were to be returned to the last legal place of settlement, and that was Fewston in Yorkshire.

I confess that until this point I had misunderstood the full draconian extent of the application of ‘settlement’ in the operation of relief of the poor.  While fully understanding the rules for acquisition of settlement rights in a new parish, my understanding had been that an individual would always retain rights acquired by birthright.  In other words, that the granting of new settlement rights was a privilege and an additional set of rights.  Raising my eyes from the index, my eyes lighted once again on St Peter Mancroft, right outside the huge modern windows of The Forum.  Here Thomas had been baptised.  Here his existence had first been recorded.  In trying to do his best to provide for his family Thomas had lost his right to live in his home town and was henceforth banished to a noisy, remote mill two hundred miles distant.  My ‘ancient and modern’ photograph now assumed a new significance: loss and injustice.  Injustice because the empty promises made to him cost the mill owners nothing, while believing them had cost Thomas and Lucy a great deal.

Sadly the Settlement Examination papers (I referred to this stage of the process in my last post) have not survivied, nor have the equivalent papers for the other end of the process in Fewston.  These would have given me a lot more information about dates of migration.  However, thanks to this Removal document I now know that Thomas and Lucy first moved to Fewston earlier than previously thought – probably around 1825.  I now understand that the Certificates of Settlement were time-limited.  As soon as Thomas had acquired legal rights of settlement in Fewston – presumably by being hired continually for more than a year and a day – the certificate ceased to have value.  Hiring Thomas may have been risk-free for the owners of the West House Mill, but for Thomas and Lucy it was a one-way ticket.  We might imagine that they tried to make it work, but finally were so unhappy that they decided to return to Norwich; and by then it was too late.  All previous settlement rights had been erased.  On 29th April, 1826, just three months after the Norwich birth of their fourth child, the Removal Order was signed for their forced return to Fewston.

Thomas and Lucy did not go quietly.  They were back in St Martin at Oak for the baptism of a fifth child by 1828; in Fewston for the sixth in 1830; possibly (according to a note on the parish accounts) back again briefly in 1831; and in 1832 a final child was baptised in St Martin at Oak. Between 1834 and 1843 six more children were baptised, all at Fewston, and the 1841 census shows them here, living in workers’ accommodation.  Thomas, formerly a skilled handloom weaver, is now an ‘engine minder’.  The six oldest children, aged twenty to eleven are all ’employed at the flax mill’.  I strongly suspect that it was through realisation that this would be the inevitable fate of all their children, and a desire to avoid this, that Lucy and Thomas were so desperate to escape.  It is notable, however, that the eventual ‘acceptance of their fate’ coincides with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, with its central focus on the workhouse in dealing with the poor.  Faced with trying to make a go of it in Norwich but the likelihood of the workhouse for the entire family if they failed to do so, Thomas and Lucy seem, reluctantly, to have chosen Fewston.  They would now live out their days in Yorkshire, relocating to Leeds by 1846, but my guess is that their hearts remained in Norwich.

Relief of the poor: Settlement

The threat of ‘the workhouse’ loomed large over our nineteenth century ancestors.  Even if they worked hard and were able to provide well for their families, there was always the possibility of accidents (even fatal ones), disability, sickness, failure of harvests… and therefore no longer being able to work.  The workhouse regime began with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and was formally abolished only in 1930, yet it wasn’t the first legislative arrangement for dealing with ‘paupers’ and ‘vagrants’.  Prior to 1834, relief of the poor was based on the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the Act of Settlement of 1662.

There are two important issues at the heart of all this.  The first is that relief of the poor was a parish matter.  This had less to do with any sense of ‘Christian duty towards those less fortunate’ than with the fact that alongside the spiritual role we associate today with the local church, the parish was also the local administrative unit, responsible for collecting monies and ensuring the smooth-running of the local area.

The next important issue follows on from this.  Since local people had to cough up the money to provide for the poor, the parish was at pains to ensure that only genuinely local poor people were eligible.  This led to the concept of ‘settlement’.

Even if we say that essentially, a person had the right of settlement in the parish in which he or she was born, there still had to be some acknowledgement of migration, and a system for allowing the acquisition of settlement for those genuinely moving into a new parish for sound reasons.  It was the 1662 Act (and later amending Acts) that introduced the rules under which a newcomer acquired such legal rights.  These were:

  • holding parish office
  • paying the parish rate
  • renting property worth more than £10 p.a. or paying taxes on a property worth more than £10 p.a.
  • being resident in the parish for 40 days, after having given the authorities 40 days’ notice before moving into the parish
  • being currently apprenticed to a master in the parish
  • having served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident
  • being hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day
  • having previously received poor relief in that parish

However, the above rules applied only to men and unmarried women, and there were different rules for children born within wedlock and those born illegitimately:

Much as the need to restrict relief of the poor to genuinely local people was real, suffice to say there was plenty of scope in all of the above for trickery, twisting the rules, cruel, draconian decisions and absurd outcomes. It became common practice, for example, to look for masters outside the parish when placing a child as a parish apprentice… so that in case of problems the child would have ceased to be a burden on the home parish.  Over time, this extended to sending children as young as seven years old to growing industrial towns in the north, often many miles from home.  Robert Blincoe, for example, believed to have been the real-life inspiration for Dickens’s Olver Twist (see above link), was sent from London to Nottingham.  Later, he was transferred to a parish in Derbyshire, where the unscrupulous mill owner built the apprentice living quarters just across a stream in the adjacent parish. In other words, the profits and benefits of the mill and the children’s labour went to the owner in one parish, while the burden of providing for their burials and other disablement expenses fell to another.  Another ploy was the avoidance of settlement rights after employment for a year and a day by employing migrant workers only on short term contracts.  And the different arrangements for men, women, and legitimate / illegitimate children could mean that in times of genuine hardship the man’s settlement was deemed to be where he had worked; his cohabiting but unmarried ‘wife’s’ settlement was where she had been born – or even in the parish of another, estranged, husband; while their illegitimate children would have settlement in their own place of birth and those aged over seven then apprenticed to masters throughout the country.

The means by which such decisions were made was the Settlement Examination, a legal document drawn up pursuant to those rules outlined above.  Generally, the trigger for a Settlement Examination was the application for poor relief by the person who had fallen on hard times.  The examination focused on the personal, employment and ownership histories of the individual, or if a married woman, of her husband, late husband or absconded husband.  You can read more about Settlement on the London Lives website – a general overview; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have London roots – and there is also a separate page about Settlement Examinations.  On both pages there are links to examples of Settlement Examination documents, or you might like to follow the case of one person’s experience:

Susanna Flood:
Settlement Examination 1
Removal Order 1
Petition and Appeal
Settlement Examination 2
Removal Order 2

If you come across Settlement Examination documentation in your own ancestry it will give you valuable information about family members and any migration history.  In the pre-census era this can help you add detail to your ancestors’ lives.

Explore my links!

I’m taking a break during September, and will be back here on 1st October.

Before I go, I’d like to invite you to explore my Links, which I’ve been working on over the last couple of months.  You’ll find them at the top of this page, on the top menu bar.

Click on Links (either right here or at any time from the top menu bar) and you’ll find a page of categories.  Each category has a dedicated page with more information that I hope you’ll find useful.  I’m adding to these pages all the time and I do use them myself as a library of the sort of information that always comes in handy.  The categories are:

Essential general websites for genealogists includes sites like GENUKI and A Vision of Britain through time, which are invaluable for homing in on a locality and getting essential information.

Websites with free access to transcripts and databases of essential genealogical records includes sites like FreeBMD, FreeCen, FreeReg, FamilySearch and GRO, where you can look up transcripts or use indexes to records free of charge.

Online dictionaries, glossaries of useful terms, etc includes lists of old medical terms, occupational names, Latin phrases and a useful timeline of Victorian legislation.

Websites providing online maps includes links to lots of different types of map that I find useful when exploring my ancestors’ lives and I think you will too.

Social and political history includes links to various websites specialising in a particular historical period that will be of use when researching and understanding ancestors’ lives.

DNA includes a list of my own blogs about DNA for genealogy, together with other websites and online resources I’ve referred to within them.  It’s a work in progress.  I’ll be adding more to this in the autumn as I publish more posts on this subject.

There is also a page for each of several cities of particular interest to me: Leeds, York, Norwich, London, and a page with links to regional Family History Societies, again just for the areas of interest to me, but an Internet search will lead you to something suited to your own needs.

I hope you’ll find the information in these pages useful.  It’s intended as a general resource so please do feel free to refer whenever you need to.  If you spot a gap do let me know.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ll be starting work on a two-year Advanced Genealogy and Family History course in September.  To enable me to focus fully on that, when I return to blogging in October, I’ll be reducing my output from three posts per month to two: on the 1st and 15th of each month.

I do occasionally post little extras and share articles via my Facebook page.  So if you’re on Facebook please click to follow the link below, and like/follow English Ancestors.

Wishing you a good September.

A Secretary Hand survival guide

Handwriting dated 1678

Unless we limit ourselves to transcripts of documents, sooner or later every genealogist has to confront the challenge of archaic handwriting styles.  Later eighteenth and nineteenth century handwriting styles generally pose no difficulty for me (although I’m aware from online genealogy groups that this is not universal) but earlier than that it’s a whole new ball game.

Developments in handwriting were not an accidental process.  Different styles of writing were devised to meet changing needs.  Hence ‘Textura’, the beautiful calligraphic script we know from illuminated manuscripts, was very formal and tidy, but the clearly separated letters were themselves composed of separate strokes, the pen being lifted from the page after each stroke.  Beautiful it may have been, but the process was very slow and painstaking.

The evolution of cursive handwriting in the middle ages was a significant development, making the process of writing quicker and more efficient.  Formed with as few strokes of the pen as possible, the whole purpose of the new cursive texts was the speedy copying of official documents or records.  The earliest cursive script we’re likely to see in parish registers is ‘Secretary Hand’.  Imported to England from France and Italy in the fourteenth century, its use became widespread in the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – exactly the period when the keeping of registers of baptisms, marriages and burials became mandatory.

The handwriting example above is definitely one of the easier examples I’ve seen.  It was written by my 8xG grandfather in 1678.

The difficulties of reading Secretary hand can include:

  • It was popular at the same time as other cursive scripts, including ‘Italic’ (which I find easier to read) although the two hands were used for different purposes.  By the mid seventeenth century a hybrid style developed incorporating aspects of these two and what was to become the (much easier to read) eighteenth century ‘running’ hand.  We’re likely to see examples of all of this as we look at parish registers and other documents of the period and on occasion we will need to try to decipher them all.
  • There were of course unique individual handwriting styles and idiosyncrasies, just as we have today
  • The formation of certain letters can actually look like other letters to our modern eyes
  • Writers still used the now obsolete Anglo-Saxon letter y, or þ (known as ‘thorn’) to represent a ‘th’ sound, the long s, which we can easily confuse with an f, and sometimes the Middle English letter ȝ, easily confused with a z but in fact known as yogh, and used where modern English has gh or y.
  • Words may be abbreviated or contracted
  • Some syllables or letter combinations were replaced with hieroglyphs
  • Writers were not consistent in the use of the above, even in the same document or the same sentence
  • Spellings were not uniform, and certainly were not the same as today’s
  • In the case of surnames and placenames, the scribe may have written down what he ‘heard’

However, there is lots of help available online.  I’ve put together a list of resources from respected bodies you might find useful when trying to decipher Secretary and other sixteenth and seventeenth century scripts:
Basic guidance, abbreviations and editorial conventions for reading Secretary Hand from Folger Shakespeare Library
Recognising different letter forms of medieval scripts from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections
Secretary Hand alphabet examples from FamilySearch

Or if you’re really determined, and have the time to devote to it, here are a few online courses, made freely available:
English Handwriting Online 1500-1700 from University of Cambridge
Palaeography tutorial & exercises from University of Oxford
Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800: A practical online tutorial from The National Archives
And finally:
Early Modern Scottish Paleaography: a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I’ve just completed in preparation for commencing the Advanced Genealogy Diploma.  The benefit of this course is that the basics of paleography are introduced via a series of mini ‘programmes’ (videos) by Dr Lionel Glassey.  These are excellent and perfectly targetted for the general interest audience – although I’m still finding the older Secretary Hand difficult to read.  (I’m hoping this will improve with practise, since this is a major part of the first year of my forthcoming course.)  The MOOC is provided via futurelearn by the University of Glasgow.  The paleography is intertwined with Scottish history, and is therefore doubly useful for those with Scottish roots.  However, these sections can be speed-read if you wish.  If you do have Scottish roots you might be interested in using your new skills to help in transcribing the kirk session records of Govan Old.  There is a link to learn more about this right at the end of the course.

My Ahnentafel based filing system

In my last post we looked at the Ahnentafel system.  I outlined how it works and how I use it sometimes in printed family histories.

However, my main use of this system is purely administrative.  I use it to organise information on my computer – and I find it invaluable.

This is how it works:

  • I have a folder for Family History.  Within that folder there are some miscellaneous files.
  • However, most of the information is attributed to the appropriate direct ancestor and stored in a filing system based on the Ahnentafel system.
  • Each folder has the ancestor’s Ahnentafel number followed by name and birth/death years.
  • To make it easier to home in quickly on the correct folder I include the generational prefix.  So I am 01_001, my Dad is 02_002, my Mum is 02_003, my grandparents are 03_004 to 03_007.  My great grandparents are all within the prefix 04, GG grandparents within the prefix 05, and so on.
  • Putting all of the above into practice, a typical folder will have a title like 09_368 William Wade 1702-1783.
  • The folder is created when the ancestor is found.  Inclusion of dates is advantageous for distant ancestors, partly because naming patterns often mean there are ancestors over consecutive generations of the same name, and partly because I don’t remember the name of every distant ancestor and which generation they fit into.
  • Whenever I have a new piece of evidence (downloads, photos, etc), I store it in the appropriate file for that direct ancestor.  Remember that you won’t be able to see any evidence linked to your online tree on Ancestry, etc, if you let your paid subscription lapse.  You may also have downloaded evidence from other online sources, or you may have family tree software on your computer.
  • Some of the info I have relates to siblings / other children of the family who are not my direct ancestors.  For these, I store them with one or other of their parents.  If one of these people has an interesting history with a lot of additional documents I create a sub file for them within the parent’s file.

So here’s a snippet of what it looks like when I have xplorer open on my desktop.  On the left you see some of the folders for my 8th generation (5xG grandparents) and on the right I have opened one of the folders so you can see the kind of information I store in there.

Screen grab of computer filing system based on the Ahnentafel numbering system

You may wonder why I did this.  It’s true that it involved an initial investment of time.  However, it has paid dividends ever since.  I can now quickly store and retrieve any digital file connected with any of my ancestors or their close family members.

I find this better than just having a handful of surname files, such as one for the Wades, one for the Thompsons, and so on.  In part this is because it’s so much easier to retrieve information from a smaller folder – there could be a LOT of information to plough through to find the right file amongst all the others in a general ‘Wade’ file.  This also worked better for me in keeping consistency with women who have changed names upon marriage.  A filing system focusing on group surnames could ‘lose’ married women who started out with their father’s surname and changed to their husband’s.  My system means that every woman has her own file in her birth name, and any changes upon marriage can be accommodated by simply including the correct files in her folder, regardless of what name is used and indeed however many times she changes her name.

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I haven’t mentioned Lockdown for a while, but just a quick note to say I hope you are all well, and if any of you are in areas that have gone into localised Lockdown, keep safe.

The Ahnentafel system

Have you come across the Ahnentafel genealogical numbering system?

‘Ahnentafel’, meaning ‘ancestor table’ in German, is an ascending numbering system for ordering and identifying ancestors.  Starting with the Subject of the tree (i.e. you, or the person/ descendant whose ancestry is being shown) and working backwards, every direct ancestor is given a number.  The Subject is number 1, his/her father is 2, mother is 3, paternal grandfather 4, paternal grandmother 5, maternal grandparents 6 and 7, and so on.

A quick Internet search will return many examples of Ahnentafel templates and charts, some circular, some with colours, some completed, for example with the royal family’s details, some looking very much like a regular pedigree chart but with the addition of numbers….  This one from Lost Cousins is the one that introduced me to Ahnentafel in the first place.

The features of the Ahnentafel chart are:

  • It starts with a Subject / descendant and works backwards through the generations
  • It shows only the direct line – no siblings, no other children
  • Apart from the Subject – number 1 on the chart, who may be male or female – the direct male ancestors are always even numbers and the direct female ancestors are always odd numbers

Calculating each ancestor’s number
Thanks to the elegance of mathematics, the correct number can easily be allocated to an ancestor, even if they are many generations in the past, simply by following this simple formula:

  • To obtain any person’s father’s number, anywhere on your ancestry, double that younger person’s number.
  • To obtain any person’s mother’s number, double their own number as above, then add 1 to that figure.  The mother will therefore always be one number higher than the father.

Hence:
You are number 1
Your mother is number 3   [1×2 =2 +1 =3]
Her father (your grandfather) is 3×2 =6 and her mother (your maternal grandmother) is 3×2 =6 +1 =7
Your maternal grandmother’s mother (your mother’s mother’s mother) is therefore 7×2 =14 +1 =15
Your mother’s mother’s mother’s father is therefore 15×2 =30.
His father is 60.  His father is 120 and the mother is 121, and so on.

This arrangement of numbers of course applies to everyone’s tree in the same way.  But be aware if you’re working on your cousin’s tree that the arrangement of numbers will not necessarily be the same.  If your cousin is the child of your mother’s brother, your maternal grandparents will be your cousin’s paternal grandparents.  In other words, although half of your trees will be identical, the arrangement on the Ahnentafel will be completely different.

As you see, using this system, provided you have already calculated the Ahnentafel number of the closer generation (which you will, since we always work back through time), then you can always work out very easily the Ahnentafel number of that ancestor’s parents.

Generation numbers
We have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 GG grandparents, and so on.  The number of direct ancestors doubles with each generation.  To make it easier to see at a glance in which generation an ancestor is located we can choose to include a prefix to the Ahnentafel number.  In the worked example above, my mother’s mother’s mother’s father is 30.  As my GG grandfather he comes within the fifth generation, and I could therefore indicate him with the reference number 5: 30 instead of just with the A-number 30.

Table showing organisation of generations by Ahnentafel numbers

Why would you use this system?
It is undoubtedly easier to pinpoint an ancestor at A-number 418 or 9: 418 than to describe him as the subject’s mother’s father’s mother’s father’s father’s father’s mother’s father – or even to use the shorthand of that: MFMFFFMF.  But of course it will only be easier if we’re using it in communication with someone else who understands the system!  You may, like me, be familiar with the glazing over of the eyes of pretty much any family member if you stray too far into the detail of a fascinating (obviously!) ancestral tale.  I know that if I started to refer to my ancestors using numerical code or possibly worse, using long strings of M’s and F’s, those glazed expressions would quickly transform into something questioning my sanity.  Generally speaking, ‘my 6x great grandfather’ will more than suffice!

Even on paper, because of the doubling of ancestors that must be squeezed onto the page with every new generation, there’s a limit to how many generations can be included on one page.  Even if you’re able to print out on A3 paper, the sheer numbers of ancestors to fit in the additional columns will mean only a couple of extra generations at most can be added.  The Lost Cousins example linked to above includes 3xG grandparents (six generations total), requiring space for 32 names in the final column.  Two more generations would require space for 128 5xG grandparents in that final column – and I have identified several 10x and 12x great grandparents!

The above problems can of course be overcome by effectively starting a new table, appropriately re-numbered, at each 3xG grandparent.  This would get you back to eleven generations, or your 8xG grandparents and would be less unwieldy.  In this way, I find Ahnentafel a useful system to include in a printed family history, making it easy to pinpoint certain ancestors when interesting stories emerge.  However, I have also adapted Ahnentafel in my own information organisation system.  I’ll write about that in my next post.

DNA for genealogy: Where to test?

IMPORTANT: This is not a post about testing for paternity issues, etc.  The courts have very specific requirements for DNA testing to be used in legal hearings.  You can find out about that on the Get a DNA Test page of the government’s own website.

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Which companies offer autosomal DNA testing for genealogy?
Having spent the last few weeks introducing the topic of DNA testing for genealogy, the purpose of this post is to signpost you to the five main companies used for genetic genealogy testing by genealogists and family historians in the UK.  Other companies are available and if you come across them you can research and assess their benefits for yourself.  However from my knowledge, gained through personal experience and through membership of online discussion groups, these are the companies most genealogists currently use.  I have no connection with any of these companies other than as a user, and am receiving no benefit whatsoever for including any of them in this review.

If you’d like to take a DNA test to help with your family tree building, follow the links to each company, look at their websites including privacy statements and terms & conditions, and then make your decision.

You might also like to look at the following DNA Weekly Best Ancestry DNA Tests review, which is updated regularly.

I would also recommend joining an online discussion group, such as DNA Help for Genealogy on Facebook.  There, you’ll find people of all levels of understanding from complete beginner to advanced.  You can ask questions, including recommendations and preferences for the various testing companies as well as practical questions when your results are in.  Somewhere down the line you’ll find you can actually start to answer other people’s questions too. 🙂

Here are the five testing companies, linked to their websites:
Ancestry DNA
Family Tree DNA
Living DNA – UK based, partnered with FindMyPast
My Heritage DNA – my experience is that more European testers use this company
23 and Me

How do they differ?
I’ve put together this table showing features of each testing company that are considered important by genealogists.

Table showing features of five different DNA testing companies used by genealogists

Notes
When considering the differences between these five testing companies and the advantages or disadvantages of each it’s perhaps useful to bear in mind that two of the companies (Ancestry and MyHeritage) are primarily genealogy websites, providing tree-building, a huge number of record sets, and a DNA testing service that is increasingly dove-tailed into that.  One of the companies (Living DNA) has partnered exclusively with FindMyPast.  Together, these UK-focused companies have the potential to provide a similar ‘seamless’ service as for the previous two, with a lot of new developments in the pipeline.  The final two companies (Family Tree DNA or ‘FTDNA’ and 23andMe) are primarily DNA research and testing companies.  They have the facility for uploading or linking to family trees but have no record sets, etc that will help you to develop your trees.  However, their DNA features and tools are often more sophisticated.

Uploading to other sites: You will see that Ancestry and 23andMe do not permit uploads to their site, but the remaining three companies do.  Uploading will enable you to access the tester database but will not provide use of enhanced features of the test (e.g. Living’s 21 UK-based geographical origin locations feature).  Although uploading is free there will be a charge if you want to access additional tools.  If you’re looking for biological parents it will help you to have your data on all of these sites.

AutoCluster tool: This is a tool available on MyHeritage.  It groups together your DNA matches in colour-coded groups likely to be descended from the same common ancestor.

Ethnicities: A lot of people take a DNA test purely for the fun of seeing their ethnic origins breakdown.  Learning about your ethnicities is exciting but it’s only an estimate and still a work in progress.  From time to time as more people test or as algorithms are amended, your ethnicities estimate will change.

Chromosome browsers: This is a visual tool that enables you to see precisely where you and another person match.  You will be able to see which chromosomes, whereabouts on that chromosome, the length of segments and their start and end points.  It is really useful to have this information and once you’ve been able to allocate a segment to a specific common ancestor it will help with identifying whereabouts on your family tree new matches will connect.  I will do a post about this in autumn 2020.

Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial testing: This is covered in my previous blogpost on deep ancestral DNA testing.  You will see that of the companies included on the above table, only Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) offers testing for these types of DNA.  However, 23andMe and Living DNA provide Y-chromosome and mitochondrial haplogroups as part of the autosomal test.

Note about 23 and Me tests: Ancestry + Traits is the basic test, providing an insight into which of your traits (e.g. aversion to coriander, curly hair) can be traced to your ancestry.  Health + Ancestry test is more expensive, providing insights into your predisposition of developing certain health conditions.  It is not necessary for our family research purposes, but is there as an option should you want it.

GEDmatch: This is not a testing company, but a very useful website where you can upload your DNA test results regardless of which company you tested with.  It therefore provides you with a much wider pool of testers and potential DNA matches.  It is free to use although payment is required to access certain more advanced tools.  I will do a post about this in autumn 2020.

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This concludes my series of ‘introduction to DNA testing for genealogy’ posts.  I hope they have helped you to decide if DNA testing is for you and if so, what are the next steps you need to take to make it happen. Please note that every effort has been taken to ensure all the details provided are correct, but you should refer to the different companies’ websites before making any decisions.

We’ll now take a break from DNA testing but I do have more posts planned for the future that will help you to make practical use of your DNA results.  As mentioned above, these will include Chromosome browsers and GEDmatch, but a number of other DNA topics too.

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Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

DNA: Asking other family members to test

So far in this introduction to DNA for genealogy we’ve looked at what autosomal DNA is and how we use it in genealogical research, and we’ve looked at the very important issue of potentially unexpected results and the ethical considerations flowing from that. It was essential to cover the latter two issues before progressing to today’s topic: asking our nearest and dearest if they would be prepared to take a DNA test to help with our research.

A quick review of how we use autosomal DNA for genealogy
As previously discussed, the point of establishing how much of your autosomal DNA you share with a second cousin, fourth cousin, third cousin once removed, etc is not the joy of knowing how much DNA you share with this former stranger.  The point is that by finding someone you match at this estimated level you are being guided to the number of generations you need to go back to find your Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA). If the amount of shared autosomal DNA, expressed as ‘centiMorgans’ (cM) suggests you are roughly 3rd cousins, then you would expect to find your MRCA at roughly great great grandparent level.  As mentioned in previous posts, it may be one generation closer or one generation further back, but it will be thereabouts.  Armed with that information, you look at both your family trees to locate the common ancestor.  Then, having found your MRCA, and ensured all research is correct to that point on both trees:

  • you know your tree is correct to that point
  • you know you have a biological link to these ancestors (there are no events which would cause a break in the biological link)
  • should you come across another DNA cousin who matches the two of you, you have a pretty good idea where to look for this new match.

It isn’t always as straightforward as this.  You or your new cousins might not have got as far back as that in your tree building.  As mentioned in my previous post on unexpected results, one of you might have no tree at all, as a result of adoption or unknown paternity.  There are also other issues that might complicate this which I’ll cover in a later post.  But for now, at this introductory level, we’ll stick with a basic scenario with everything going smoothly.  The important point is that, knowing where you and your new cousins share common ancestry, you can start to allocate them to a particular branch of your tree, and work on the basis that other testers who also match the three of you will also link to you on that branch.  Bearing in mind that we each have sixteen great great grandparents and 32 GGG grandparents, this will save you a lot of unneccesary work.

Why would we ask another family member to test?
When we ask a specific, known family member to test, we use their results in the same way: It helps us to sort more distant common matches into specific lines on our own tree.  However, since these are our close family members, and since every one of them will have inherited some DNA from our common ancestors that we didn’t, their test results will extend our ‘reach’.  Exactly how they will do this depends on their precise relationship to us.

Essentially the rule is:

  • Your direct line (parents, grandparents, etc) will produce stronger, better, DNA matches but limiting to an increasingly specific part of your tree with each older generation.
  • Your own siblings will have inherited much of the same DNA as you, but also a lot of different DNA.  Although their results will be of no use at all in guiding you to a specific part of your tree (because you have the same parents, grandparents, etc), the parts of their DNA you didn’t inherit will effectively provide you with more DNA matches.
  • Sibling of previous generations (your mother’s brother, your grandfather’s sister, etc) will combine the benefits of the first two categories, but the results will be a bit weaker than testing your direct line – which of course is often no longer possible.

Let’s look at each type of relationship in more detail.

Sibling
If you have one or more full siblings, you know that all of your DNA and all of their DNA comes from the same two people: your mother and father.  However although like you, your sibling will have received half their DNA from your mother and half from your father, unless you are identical twins they will not have received exactly the same DNA as you did.  (Key point: don’t bother asking your identical twin to test)

I can illustrate all this with reference to my own brother.

In my first post about autosomal DNA we looked at the Shared centiMorgan Project.  Click the image below to see it full size on Blaine T Bettinger’s website.

This shows that the average shared DNA with a full sibling is 2613cM, but it could be anything between 1613 and 3488.  My brother and I share 2616cM.  This is what proves we are full siblings.  What interests me, though, is all the bits of his DNA that I don’t share: they are the reason I asked him to take a test.  Since we are clearly full siblings, anyone who shares DNA with him is also my blood relative even if we haven’t inherited any of the same DNA.  Therefore I can use my brother’s DNA results and the trees of his matches as an extension of my own, to confirm and develop my own tree.  Their Most Recent Common Ancestors are my Most Recent Common Ancestors too.  It’s just that we haven’t inherited the same DNA from those ancestors.

If this is new to you you’ll be surprised at how many people can share a decent amount of DNA with one sibling and none at all with another.  After each other, the top matches for both my brother and me on Ancestry are:
A with whom I share 189cM but my brother shares only 102cM
B with whom I share 144cM but my brother shares 153cM
After them our next highest matches are completely different.
C with whom I share 51cM doesn’t show as a match to my brother.  In fact C is our 4th cousin two times over – we share two sets of 3xG grandparents.
Looking at our matches on MyHeritage, four of my brother’s top ten matches (all of them cM matches in the 50s) do not match me at all.

You can see how my brother’s results give me more information and more clues about my own ancestry.  If you have more than one sibling and they are all happy to take a DNA test to help with your research, so much the better!

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While full siblings give you extra ‘horizontal’ reach, every other close family member will help you in a different way: they help narrow down to one part of your tree where you and any DNA cousin you share actually match.  Siblings won’t do this because in terms of your direct lineage, everything is identical.

Parent
There are two advantages to having a parent’s DNA results:

  • First, since we inherit 50% of our DNA from each parent, it follows that we have only 50% of the DNA of each one.  This means that your parents’ DNA is closer to previous generations and will include the other 50% that didn’t pass to you.  You might show as a second cousin once removed to a match but your parent will be a full second cousin.  Because of all this, they will have more and better matches, with more shared centiMorgans.  As an example, one of my DNA cousins currently has 321 matches on Ancestry at 4th cousin or closer, whereas her mother has 511.  If her father were also still alive and willing to test, and supposing he had a similar number of matches, that would effectively transform their daughter’s 321 matches into about 1000 better ones.
  • Second, even if only one parent tests this will help you to narrow down any future match by 50%.  If you have your mother’s test results and your new DNA cousin doesn’t match your mother then your shared common ancestors are on your father’s side.  This will help save you a lot of time searching for your connection.

Grandparent
If you’re lucky enough to have a grandparent who is able and willing to take a DNA test for you the same applies as for your parents.  Not only will their results narrow down any matches to a specific quarter of your tree, but their DNA will be even closer to previous generations.  You may match another tester at fourth cousin level, but your grandparent will be a second cousin twice removed – a much stronger and clearer DNA match.

Key point: it always makes sense to test the oldest generation

Aunt or uncle
If you’re able to test a sibling of either parent this will enable you to narrow down any shared matches to one side of your tree or the other, just as your own parent’s test results would.  However, bearing in mind that siblings don’t inherit exactly the same DNA, your aunt or uncle would also extend the reach of your parent’s results horizontally, in the same way that your own sibling would for you.

Your aunt or uncle who is the half-sibling of your parent
This will have the same effect as a grandparent.  Since only one of your grandparents is the parent of your half-aunt or half-uncle, anyone matching the two of you has to be from that specific grandparent’s line.  However, for reasons outlined above, if you had the option to test your half-aunt/uncle or the actual grandparent who is that person’s parent, you should choose the grandparent.  This would provide the same information to help you narrow down matches to a specific quarter of your tree, but their match would be closer to past generations and therefore better.

Half sibling 
Your own half sibling’s test results will help in the same way as your shared parent’s results.  They will help you to narrow down a match to either your maternal or your paternal line.  However, for reasons outlined above, if a parent is still available and willing to test, their results will be better for you.

Cousin
Your cousin, being the child of your parent’s full sibling, will help you to narrow down shared matches to one side of your tree. On the one hand, your own parent will give you better information.  On the other hand, since your cousin’s parent’s DNA will not be identical to your own parent’s, they might extend your reach horizontally on this line, just as your own sibling would.  Even better, though, to test your actual aunt or uncle.

Slightly more distant relations, e.g. second cousin
In reality, unless you have a very close extended family, you are unlikely to pay for your second cousin to take a DNA test.  However, they might have tested of their own volition, and in the absence of any of the above family members, a second cousin’s results can be very helpful in narrowing a match down to a specific quarter of your tree.  You and they are the great grandchildren of the same couple, therefore any other tester who matches the two of you will probably be further back along that same line. 

Key point: Your own son or daughter’s test results will not help you
Your own child’s test results will not add anything to your DNA research, since they have inherited only 50% of your DNA and are obviously one generation further removed from all your ancestors.  On the other hand if they are interested in their ancestry, your own test results will help them to narrow down to one or other side of their tree, just as your own parents would help you.

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If all this was new to you I hope, by now, you have a basic understanding of how DNA testing can enhance your family research.  If you’re interested in taking a test, my next post will provide an overview of the five main testing companies.  After that, there will be more to say, but we’ll take a break from DNA for a while.

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Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links