Will the real Edward Robinson please stand up?

When I started researching my tree my Mum told me what she knew about her family.  It wasn’t much, but enough to get me started.  Regarding her mother’s grandparents she could name only one, and even then only his surname: Robinson.  However, for the next 25 years, my GG grandfather Robinson – Edward, as I discovered – kept his origins a closely guarded secret.  The problem was that there were no documents to evidence his birth family.  He didn’t actually marry either of his ‘wives’, and if there was a baptism, I have never been able to find it.  Any of these records would have evidenced Edward’s father’s name, location and occupation. From 1851 onwards I collected a great deal of information about Edward, right up until his death in 1898. All censuses and other documentation are absolutely consistent with a birth year of 1826 – and with one exception, even consistent with a birthdate between 18th March and 3rd April 1826, but there was nothing at all to enable me to place him with a family.

Even before knowing Edward’s name, I grew up hearing stories about him.  He had a stall in Leeds market. My Grandma told me he paid a shilling for her mother, Jane, to go to school one day a week, and Jane used to play with gold sovereigns on the floor.  After Edward’s first wife, my GG grandmother Margaret died, he turned to drink and lost all his money.  There is truth in this: I unearthed drunk and disorderly reports and short spells in the slammer, but I rather suspect there was never that much money to lose.  Finally, my Mum told me that after losing all said money ‘he went back to The Crooked Billet where he was born, and threw himself in the river’.  This too is true.  I have the Coroner’s Report made the day after his death in 1898, although Edward actually drowned himself a couple of miles along from that spot.

It’s fair to say that Edward had a colourful life, and from 1851 I think I have the measure of him.  I even suspect that withholding information was a reflection of his personality: he probably didn’t trust the authorities, and maybe it has taken him all this time to trust me too!  Nevertheless, in amongst all of the above there were several clues:

  • Edward was born in 1826, or at the latest in 1827
  • In all records he gives his birthplace as Leeds
  • My mother’s story suggests a birthplace of Hunslet – not part of Leeds township at that time, but just across the river, and within the large ancient parish of Leeds.
  • There was a hint that he might actually have been born at the Crooked Billet inn in Hunslet.
  • Edward had two daughters: the younger, Margaret, was named after her mother.  Might the older, my great grandmother Jane, have been named after Edward’s own mother?

Two of these clues turned out to be red herrings, but they had me hooked for a while.  At the time of Edward’s birth the innkeeper at the Crooked Billet was John Robson.  Could that name somehow have morphed into Robinson?  No, it hadn’t: it seemed Edward could have been born *near* the Crooked Billet, but not *in* it.

As for Jane, there was an Edward of the right age living with a Jane old enough to be his mother in Hunslet at the time of the 1841 census.  However, searching the parish registers for a Robinson marrying a Jane in the parish in the years before 1826 returned only two records, both traceable in the 1841 and 1851 censuses living away from Leeds. 

Searching the parish registers for Edward’s baptism proved equally fruitless.  Ten Edward Robinsons were baptised in Leeds between 1825 and 1831.  There were also two marriage records in 1847 and 1867 that might possibly have been him.  I had long ago realised that the reason Edward and my GG grandmother Margaret didn’t marry was that she was already married to someone else.  Perhaps Edward too, had married another woman before meeting Margaret?  But no: the couples in these two records were still together in subsequent censuses when I knew Edward was with Margaret or, after Margaret’s death, I knew where he was.

It troubled me not being able to break down Edward’s brick wall, so a couple of weeks ago I decided to give him another opportunity to reveal his identity.  Using Ancestry, FindMyPast, TheGenealogist, FreeReg and FamilySearch, I listed every possible baptism for every Edward Robinson baptised in Leeds from 1824 to 1831.  I was able to discount a couple on the basis of location or father’s occupation; another died in infancy; and the rest I worked forwards through the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  I knew where my Edward was in 1851, so if any of these Edwards could be located elsewhere, they were not my Edward.  I was left with about three baptisms, and no way of choosing between them.  I then searched the 1841 census for any additional possibilities, and found two not accounted for in the baptisms.  One of these was my long-preferred Edward with Jane in Hunslet.  The other was Edward and sister Elizabeth, living in Hunslet with their parents Edward and Elizabeth.

At this point I did something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do on previous attempts to break through Edward’s brick wall: I turned to DNA.  Using the filters on the Ancestry website I searched amongst all my DNA matches for anyone with the surname Robinson and birthplace of Leeds in their trees.  I didn’t expect to find anyone.  I needed someone who had already traced their ancestry back to Edward’s parents, who had young Edward in their tree, who had taken the DNA test, and shared DNA with me – not guaranteed at 3rd or 4th cousin level.  It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. But unbelievably I found someone: just one person, estimated at 5th to 8th cousin.  He had my Edward in his tree, born c.1826, living in 1841 with sister Elizabeth and parents Edward and Elizabeth.  This was, in other words, one of the families I had already identified as a possibility.  Unlike Edward, sister Elizabeth had a marriage certificate and a baptism record and had therefore been traceable quite easily back to her birth family. My DNA match, Elizabeth’s descendant, already had another bit of information on his tree too: a marriage record for Edward’s parents, and with that a maiden name for the mother: Clarebrough.  But could this just be coincidence? My match and I didn’t share very much DNA; this could be a case of confirmation bias. The next step was to do the same filtered search on Ancestry, but this time for the unusual surname Clarebrough and a birthplace of Leeds.  If I could find anyone amongst my DNA matches just one generation further back from Elizabeth Clarebrough but descended from a different sibling, then there was no doubt that this was my Edward…  Bingo!  A DNA match, and three more on MyHeritage.  Finally, after 25 years of trying, I have my Edward!

I hope there’s something in this account and the methodology to interest you. In those pre-census/ pre-Civil BMD days, listing all possible baptisms and then working each one forward to discount as many as possible can often solve the puzzle. In Edward’s case it didn’t, and without bringing in the DNA cavalry at this point I would never have been able to break through this brick wall.

DNA: GEDmatch

This is the last post in my 3-part mini-series about using chromosome browsers in genetic genealogy.  You’ll find links to all my previous DNA posts [here].

Today we’re talking about GEDmatch: an online service that allows you to upload your autosomal DNA data files from any of the testing companies and compare with people who have tested with different companies.  In other words, you’re not restricted to just comparing your Ancestry results with other Ancestry matches or your MyHeritage results with others who tested there: you can compare common matches with all the testing companies in one go.

Alongside this they also have a number of tools to help with analysis of these comparisons. The basic package of tools is free to use.  These include a chromosome browser, which is particularly useful if you tested with Ancestry, since they don’t provide one.  There are more advanced tools (called ‘Tier 1’), but there is a monthly fee to use them, currently US$10 per month.  You can subscribe just for one month at a time when you know you’ll have plenty of time to explore. 

GEDmatch doesn’t itself offer DNA tests.  They state that when you upload your data, the information is encoded, and the raw file deleted.  Even so, we should all always check Terms & Conditions when we upload our DNA data to any site, and be sure we’re happy.

Often people who upload to GEDmatch don’t know what to do next; and I know both from personal experience, and from discussion with my own DNA cousins, that at first sight it all seems pretty daunting.  So in this post I’ll talk you through what I consider to be the essential basic tools.  Once you’ve uploaded your DNA files you’ll find links to all these on your home page at GEDmatch, in the right hand sidebar:

Screen grab of GEDmatch sidebar showing package of free basic tools

All you need to make use of these tools is the kit number you’ll see on the left hand side under ‘Your DNA Resources’.  It starts with one or more letters followed by some numbers.  Copy that and then follow these links:

One-to-many DNA comparison
Click on the second ‘One-To-Many’ option, and on the new page that appears, paste your kit number in the box and click to display your results.  What you’ll get is a list of everyone on GEDmatch who matches you.  They are arranged in descending order of the size of your match.

Looking from left to right you’ll see your matches’ kit number, name or pseudonym, email, largest segment and total cM (this is the field by which the matches are arranged in decending order), likely number of generations to Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) and some other information.  You might already recognise some of these people and be able to place them on your tree, together with your MRCA.

Screen grab of GEDmatch One to Many list, showing detail of matches to a number of other testers

Now we’ll move onto finding out more about some of these matches.  So pick the top one or another one near the top, and copy their kit number.  Then back at your GEDmatch home page, click on:

One-to-one Autosomal Comparison
Paste your own kit number in box 1 and your selected match’s kit number in box 2.  (Hint: after you’ve pasted your own number once you can bring it up again by double clicking on box 1, so on subsequent searches you’ll only need to input your match’s kit number.)

For these early searches leave the rest of this form in the default settings.  You can play around with them and learn more later.  Click compare.

What you’ll get on the next page is a chromosome browser showing exactly where you and this person match.  For every chromosome with a matching segment you’ll also see a little box, showing start and end position of the segment and number of centimorgans (cM).  The image below shows just part of one of my match comparisons – Chromosomes 11 to 15.  As you can see, this person and I have a matching segment on Chromosome 14.

Screen grab from GEDmatch showing part of a One to One comparison in the chromosome browser

If you’re painting to DNA Painter, as described in my last post, this text in the little box is the information you need to paste to ‘paint’ the segments.  If you match on more than one chromosome you can go back to the input form and change ‘Graphics and Positions’ to ‘Position’ only.  This will remove the chromosome browser from the results and simply provide you with several little boxes of information that you can then copy all in one go.

Now, keeping those same two kit numbers, return to the home page and click on:

People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits
Again, enter your own number for kit 1 and your match’s for kit 2.
What you get this time is three lists:

  • people who match BOTH of you
  • people who match just you
  • people who match just kit 2, and not you.

It’s the list of people matching both of you that’s most obviously helpful.  If you can already place any of these shared matches this may help you to narrow down the part of your tree where you and this person have common ancestors.  However, thinking back to my previous post on chromosome browsers, matching a third person does not necessarily mean you all ‘triangulate’.  Certainly you share a common ancestor with each one, but it’s possible that the common ancestor they share with each other might be on a different line, not related to you at all.

If you’ve read my previous DNA posts or if you’ve already been using MyHeritage, you’ll see that this basic package of tools on GEDmatch is not dissimilar to the tools on there.  The One-to Many comparison equates to the MyHeritage DNA match list; The One-to-One autosomal comparison equates to MyHeritage’s chromosome browser; and the People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits roughly equates to the shared matches you see when you click to Review any of your matches.  The advantage of GEDmatch is that there is no fee to use these tools.  There is also the availability of the more powerful ‘Tier 1′ tools when you want to make use of them.  MyHeritage, on the other hand, combines all of their tools with availability of matches’ trees that you can compare with your own.  Plus they have the triangulation tool discussed two posts back.  In terms of enjoyment of use I would have to say I prefer MyHeritage’s DNA offering above all others, but GEDmatch is a powerful additional tool in your DNA toolkit, not least because not everyone has tested with/ uploaded their data to MyHeritage, and because of the availability of the Tier 1 when you feel ready to move on.

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My DNA posts are intended as a beginners’ guide, building up the information in order, in bite-sized chunks.  Click [here] to see them all in the order of publication.

DNA Painter

This is the second in my 3-part mini-series about using chromosome browsers in genetic genealogy.  You’ll find links to all my previous DNA posts [here].

My last post introduced chromosome browsers.  We looked at how to interpret the data revealed in the browser, how to use it for One-to-One or One-to-Many comparisons, and the importance of using this information in conjunction with documented trees.  We talked about the weakness of chromosome browsers, being that they are unable to distinguish between DNA from your maternal line and that from your paternal line.  MyHeritage have partly got round this by introducing a ‘Triangulation Tool’ which operates when using the chromosome browser in One-to-Many mode, highlighting when the matches being compared ‘triangulate’ – that is, when you and all the matches being compared are all descended from a common ancestor. 

What MyHeritage cannot tell you is which of your lines – maternal or paternal – this match is on.  You have to work that out yourself.  One other obvious issue – and this is by no means a weakness on the part of MyHeritage, but it is a drawback anyway – you can only use the Triangulation Tool on MyHeritage to compare segment data with people whose autosomal DNA was either tested with or has since been uploaded to MyHeritage.

DNA Painter is a third-party tool that helps you overcome these two difficulties.  It was created by Jonny Perl in 2017 and has gone from strength to strength.  It’s free to use provided you create only one profile.  If you want more than one profile, or if you want to use the advanced tools there is a charge.  I have seven profiles.

I cannot express enough how fantastic DNA Painter is.  For me, it’s right up there with seeing the Aurora Borealis.  I know that may sound excessive, but it’s true.

Briefly, the way DNA Painter works is this: when you’re comparing your DNA with another person’s using a chromosome browser you can download the segment data.  This data – whether it be from MyHeritage, FTDNA, 23andMe or GEDmatch – can then be uploaded to DNA Painter and ‘painted’ on your profile. Unlike a chromosome browser, DNA Painter has two lines for every chromosome – a paternal line and a maternal line so you can start to separate out your matches.  If you know which of your lines these segments are on – say, if you are painting a match with your maternal first cousin so you know this is on your maternal line – you can include this information, and these segments will be painted to your maternal copy of those chromosomes.

Blaine T Bettinger’s excellent video showing how to use DNA Painter was all I needed to get me started.  He covers how to paint segments, how to edit them, and other features (although there are more now than when this video was made in 2017).  I watched it through once, then again in short bursts alongside ‘painting’ my first segments, and after that it was all plain sailing.

So without further ado I’m going to suggest you watch this video. (The automatic start point is not right at the beginning – you’ll need to wind it back.)

Blaine T Bettinger: Mapping your Chromosomes with DNA Painter:

Just to be clear – you can’t use DNA Painter if your results are just on Ancestry.  You have to be able to see your results in a chromosome browser.  So if you tested with Ancestry you need to upload your data from there to MyHeritage or FTDNA or GEDmatch before you can use DNA Painter.

This is how my main profile on DNA Painter looks right now.  Click it to see a larger image:

Chromosome map from DNA Painter

The pale blue lines in the background represent the copy of each chromosome that I got from my father and the pale pink lines are for the copy I got from my mother.  By the time I found DNA Painter I had already confirmed a number of my matches on GEDmatch and MyHeritage. These were the ones I painted straight away. As these were known and confirmed matches I already knew our Most Recent Common Ancestor couple (MRCA) and I knew if the match sat on my maternal line or my paternal line so was able to paste them accordingly.  These known matches set the scene for anything else I paint.

More recently I allocated specific colours to each of my grandparents.  My paternal grandfather is shades of blue and my paternal grandmother yellow.  My maternal grandfather is green and my maternal grandmother red. You can see this on my profile: the blue and yellow shades are always on my paternal line, the green and red shades always on my maternal line.

Apart from my brother (he’s not on here; I made a separate profile for him) I have no matches at all closer than second cousin, so the nearest MRCAs for whom I have confirmed matches are at great grandparent level.  In my colour scheme the closer ancestors have a pale version of their allotted colour, and the further back generations have increasingly darker shades of that colour.  Again on my profile, look at the maternal line on chromosome 13.  You’ll see two long lines representing my great grandparents, and within them several shorter segments of darker green.  These darker segments are ancestors further back along these great grandparents’ lines whose DNA I’ve discovered because of matches with more distant cousins.  In fact these more distant matches have evidenced that the first long green segment on chromosome 13 is from my great grandfather, while the second long green segment is from his wife, my great grandmother. 

In every case I record the MRCA couple when I ‘paint’ the match, and these are shown in the table at the bottom right of the profile. 

If I have a segment already attributed to one of my copies of a chromosome – let’s say to my Dad’s paternal great grandparents and another match on that same segment comes along that seems to be from my Dad’s maternal line, then something is wrong.  While both of these relationships are consistent with my own paternal copy of that particular chromosome, it is not consistent with my Dad’s chromosome inheritance: one of these would be on his maternal copy and the other on his paternal.  He could not have passed on both of these copies to me on the same segment.

So – possibilities include:

  • I’ve made a mistake
  • My tree, or my match’s tree is wrong
  • There is a case of misattributed parentage (often referred to as an NPE – ‘non-paternity event’) somewhere along one of these lines in my own tree or my match’s tree
  • All of the above is absolutely in order but this person and I also match on my maternal line and that is where the segment is from
  • The segment is a piece of DNA belonging to a shared population group, such as Jewish or Irish

You make mistakes as you go but you can edit and change them very easily as new info comes in.

Here’s an example of a DNA match with a surprise and how I used DNA Painter to record it, changing my initial conclusions:

A and I matched at around 3rd to 4th cousin.  He was adopted but had found his birth mother and had an idea of who his father was.  Using my own tree and working back the tree of his suspected father I was able to confirm that we had MRCAs at 3xG grandparent level, making us 4th cousins.  The man A thought might be his father definitely was.  I added A to my list of confirmed matches and painted our segments to my profile.  Our match was on my paternal line, and painted yellow for my paternal grandmother’s ancestry.

After so many years of searching, A found it quite difficult to accept so easily that we had found his father, so I offered to work on three other close matches that triangulated with the two of us.  When A could see that other matches led to the same conclusion I thought he would be convinced.  The first two matches did indeed lead back to the same MRCA, and both of them were closer matches to A than they were to me – they are all descended from one of our 3xG grandparents’ sons, and I am descended from another.  A was happy: something shifted for him, and for the first time he really believed he knew his roots.  Then I moved on to the third of our common matches.  Starting with a small amount of information on this person’s online tree, I worked back until I found an overlap with A’s tree.  But it was confusing: A’s match with this person led up another of A’s lines – one that didn’t end with our confirmed 3xG grandparents.  It took a bit of working out (there was a lot of false information on census and marriage records and a nasty divorce) but eventually I was able to follow their common line… back to another set of my 2xG grandparents still on my paternal line, but this time my paternal grandfather.  A and I are cousins twice over: on both sides of my paternal line, both of these connections confirming different parts of A’s father’s line.  DNA Painter actually allowed me to record this information by keeping two of the segments yellow and changing the third segment we share to blue – it’s the pale blue segment you see on my paternal line towards the end of chromosome 12.  How amazing is that!

My main profile on DNA Painter is for confirmed matches only.  However, there are still a number of decent matches on MyHeritage, FTDNA and GEDmatch that I can’t place.  I didn’t want to lose sight of them, so I created a new profile for my mystery matches.  By comparing my mystery profile matches to other confirmed new matches from time to time, I’m able to narrow down our match, at the very least allocating some of them to either my paternal or maternal line or even moving them into my main profile.  More recently I decided to set up an Irish mystery matches profile which I hope in time will enable me to home in on distinct parishes or areas.

In the “Segment/Match Notes” I list how the match descends from the common ancestral couple, any relevant ID numbers, and anything else pertinent including other potential ancestral lines in common. This means that I list every generation beginning with the common ancestral couple and ending with the tester.

It occurs to me that chromosome mapping kind of turns it around so that it’s about mapping your DNA segments just as much as it is about proving your family tree.  I do know, though, that my chromosome map will never be complete.  My close family is too small.

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It’s perfectly possible to make great DNA discoveries without even looking at a chromosome browser.  However, working with chromosome browsers and DNA Painter has done more than simply help me to sort out my matches.  It has helped me to visualise and better understand complex abstract information.  By viewing my matches in a chromosome browser I saw, for example, that the twenty-two chromosomes are all different lengths and numbered 1 to 22 broadly in that order of length.  I also saw and understood that the longer the segments, the closer the family connection.  Hence a lot of short segments indicates either that you are more distantly related, or you may simply share a lot of DNA as a result of being from an endogamous or close-knit community, going back centuries. I knew that the segments I was looking at came either from my mother or from my father, but it wasn’t until I started to use DNA Painter that I understand the maternal copy and paternal copy of each chromosome covers the full length of the chromosome.  Originally (because of the single grey line on the regular chromosome browser) I thought 50% of that line was from one parent and the other 50% from the other parent.

If you’re a visual person you too may find it easier and more enjoyable to work this way.  It is definitely more fun!

There is a DNA Painter User Group on Facebook with, at the time of writing, approaching 12,000 members, and there are very knowledgeable group members who will help with any questions. Jonny and Blaine are also on there.

*****

My DNA posts are intended as a beginners’ guide, building up the information in order, in bite-sized chunks.  Click [here] to see them all in the order of publication.

DNA: Chromosome mapping and chromosome browsers

This is the first part in the third and final ‘mini-series’ in my beginners’ guide to genetic genealogy.  You’ll find links to all the previous posts [here].

In this mini-series we’re moving on to something called ‘chromosome mapping’ and as an essential part of that we’ll be looking at my favourite tool: the chromosome browser.  We’ll focus on:

  • a definition of chromosome mapping
  • what a chromosome browser is
  • what it tells you about your match with another person
  • how we can use it to identify multiple matches who are descended from the same common ancestors
  • amount of shared DNA and length of segments as a guide to the closeness or remoteness of a match
  • ‘triangulation’
  • a case study illustrating how this can all work together

What do we mean by chromosome mapping?
When you have a number of confirmed DNA matches and you’ve identified Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) for each of them, you have already started to allocate matches to different branches of your tree.  A second cousin, for example, becomes a ‘benchmark’ for more distant DNA matches along the same great grandparent line.  We can do this far more accurately if we can actually see the specific segments we share with that second cousin.  All these segments, we know, came to us (and to this second cousin) from that known set of great grandparents. If we now find a more distant match (say, a 4th cousin) on one or more of the same segments we can trace those specific segments back even further. Not only will this help to verify our documentary research going back to the next MRCA – likely to be around 3xG grandparents – but also we now know *which* of those previously identified great grandparents this specific segment of our DNA actually came from.  I find that very exciting.  However, before we can do any of this we need to be able to ‘see’ those segments, and for that we need a chromosome browser.

What is a chromosome browser?
Essentially, a chromosome browser is a visual representation of the parts of your DNA that you share with one or more other people.  It looks like a series of ‘stripes’ – one stripe for each of your twenty-two autosomal chromosomes.  If you tested with FTDNA or 23andMe there will be an additional stripe for the X chromosome.

The following is an example of one of my matches from MyHeritage.  I have removed name and contact details, but we’ll call this person A. 

Screen grab of DNA match information on My Heritage

The essential information provided here about my match with A on the general listing of all my matches is:

  • we share 155.4cM across eight segments
  • this equates to 2.2% of our autosomal DNA
  • the longest segment is 45.5cM
  • our estimated connection is ‘1st cousin twice removed – 2nd cousin once removed’

If I click on the pink ‘Review DNA Match’ button, I also see

  • a list of all the other people on the MyHeritage site who also match A and me
  • if A has a tree on MyHeritage I can look at that
  • lists of any surnames we have in common
  • a comparison of our ethnicities estimates
  • a chromosome browser representing our match

That’s a lot of information.

At its most basic level, the chromosome browser provides a graphical view of some of that information.  It doesn’t provide any surname or ethnicity data, but it does show exactly where, on your chromosomes, those shared segments are.

Below is that match with A as viewed in the chromosome browser.  The 22 grey lines represent me: my 22 autosomal chromosomes.  The segments where A and I match are those pink lines (segments) on chromosomes 1, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 and 21.  Although you can’t see it on this screen grab image, if I hover my cursor over any of the pink segments while I’m on the MyHeritage website I can see exact locational information (start and end points).  I can also download all that information.

These segments are where A and I have inherited exactly the same DNA from the same ancestors.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to one)

Using the chromosome browser ‘One to Many’ function
A and I now have a lot of information about our match but although we know we’re fairly closely related we still can’t say which of our ancestors we both share. For that we need to look at our documented trees.  However, in this case, by a process of elimination of A’s close family members who have tested but don’t match me we have been able to conclude that we are connected on the one part of A’s tree about which nothing is known: a missing grandparent.  The chromosome browser may be able to help.

Using the ‘One to Many’ tool, we can use the chromosome browser to compare overlaps between our own DNA and that of several other people – up to seven matches all in one go at MyHeritage.  In the example below I’m looking at just two of my matches, comparing exactly where each of them matches me, and looking for any segments where all three of us match.  Again, the grey lines represent my 22 autosomal chromosomes.  The red segments show my match with A (you can see they are in exactly the same positions as in the above chart, although now they are coloured red).  The mustard segments are another person with whom we both match at a close level.  We’ll call that person B.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to many)

The chromosome browser here shows that I share more DNA with B (mustard) than I do with A (red), and the segments tend to be longer.  It also shows that I share lots of DNA with each of them that I don’t share with the other. However, there is one more very important piece of information: A, B and I all share exactly the same DNA in two positions: on chromosomes 7 and 13.  Taken as a whole this tells us:

  • All three of us are descended from the same fairly recent common ancestors.
  • Between the three of us, we have inherited different parts of the DNA of these common ancestors.  What we inherited has come down the line from them to us via our own parents and grandparents – and just to recap a key point from my post earlier this year (Asking other family members to test) siblings (in this instance our respective grandparents) inherit a lot of the same DNA but not exactly the same – which explains why A, B and I don’t all have exactly the same autosomal DNA from those ancestors
  • I am more closely related to B than I am to A
  • Since I have previously placed B as my second cousin I already know which set of great grandparents are our Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA).  Those two 3-way shared segments are proof that A is also descended from these same common ancestors.  As a result A now has a name for that missing grandparent
  • Also as a result, I now know that all those segments coloured red and mustard on my maternal line have come to me from that particular set of great grandparents

Triangulation
What we have just seen at chromsomes 7 and 13 is an example of triangulation.  To fully understand what this means, we need to understand a key point about chromosome browsers.  The chromosome browser represents each chromosome as a single grey line, but that one grey line belies that fact that we get two copies of each chromosome: one from our mother and one from our father.  The chromosome browser cannot tell these maternal and paternal lines apart.  Therefore when you look at a match on a chromosome browser the segments on those grey lines could be maternal or paternal.  They could even (more unusually) be a mix of both if your match is related to you via your maternal and your paternal lines.  We have to find some way of working out which.

If you’re working on MyHeritage the Triangulation tool helps with this.  It tells you if two or more people match with you at a given segment on the same copy of the same chromosome.  In other words – either on your maternal side or on your paternal side.  It still doesn’t tell you which side that is, but if you can work it out for at least one of the matches using your documented tree, then you know that this is also where the other ‘triangulated’ person matches you.

You can see how the triangulation tool works in the example above: there is a little box around the overlapping segments at chromosomes 7 and 13.  This is MyHeritage’s way of saying that these two segments of DNA shared by A, B and me are indeed on the same copy, and we are therefore descended from the same line.  A, B and I triangulate.

Segment length and amount of shared DNA as a guide to remoteness of the match
Obviously, these great grandparents from whom A, B and I inherited all these DNA segments, they too inherited their DNA from their own parents, and those parents from their parents, and back through time. Since we all inherit 50% of our autosomal DNA from our mother and the other 50% from our father, when my mother was born she recombined all of this DNA from the line we share with A and B with a whole new set of DNA from her other parent, and then I did the same.  This means that DNA shared with closer matches (and inherited from closer ancestors) tends to have longer segments: there have been fewer recombinations.  By contrast, shared segments with more distant matches have undergone more recombinations  – the DNA is mixed up with that of far more other ancestors – and so segments tend to be shorter.  Hence, alongside the total amount of shared DNA, we can also use segment length as a guide to closeness or remoteness of a match.

Once we have identified the MRCA (or MRCA couple) from whom we inherited a decent amount of autosomal DNA (as I did above with A and B) we can use that information to try to place other people who match us more remotely on any of the same segments.

Consequently, attributing a segment to one ancestral couple is not the end of the story because they got it from someone else – or rather one of them did.  Therefore when we use new, more distant, DNA cousin matches to take that segment (or part of it) back further, we can work out which of the closer ancestral couple it came from, and which of their ancestors they (and we!) got it from.

A more remote example – a work in progress!
The final image, below, shows another One-to-Many chromosome browser example.  This time the red lines are B (who was mustard in the last example) and the new person (mustard segments) is C.  You can see here that I share far fewer segments with C, and that the segments are shorter.  We actually share 31.9cM, and the longest segment is 17.4cM.  Using all the information outlined above, we can say that my match with C is more remote than my match with B.  Our estimated relationship is given as ‘3rd to 5th cousin’, suggesting MRCAs at 2xG grandparent to 4xG grandparent.  Importantly though, MyHeritage’s triangulation tool (the box on chromosome 11) tells me that this match with C is further back along that same line that I share with B.  If I can find where C and I connect I will know exactly which more distant ancestors these mustard-coloured segments of my DNA come from.  But of course, beyond that set of great grandparents that I share with B there are four GG grandparents, eight 3xG grandparents, sixteen 4xG grandparents, and so on.  Our MRCA could be any one of them.

So this one is still a work in progress.  By making contact with C, I was able to use the same triangulation process (with one of his closer cousins) to determine which of C’s great grandparent lines we match on.  So we know which of *his* great grandparents and also which of *my* great grandparents, but so far analysis and further building of his tree has drawn a blank.

Example of a chromosome browser (one to many)

I have reason to suspect that these short segments have come to me from an Irish 3xG grandmother along this line, precise origins unknown, but this is not my common ancestor with C.  If I can find an Irish connection along the relevant part of C’s tree, or indeed if I can find a definite Irish lineage for one or more additional people who triangulate with B, C and me along this line, then I may even be able to place this Irish 3xG grandmother’s origins in a specific part of Ireland.  I have some ideas for how to progress this, and if they work I’ll write about them in a future post.

In my next post I’ll be continuing this theme by looking at DNA Painter, a third-party tool that helps with the organisation of segment information.

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My DNA posts are intended as a beginners’ guide, building up the information in order, in bite-sized chunks.  Click [here] to see them all in the order of publication.

DNA: Proactive strategies for engaging with your match list

Today’s post is the last in my three-part mini-series on practical ways to make the most of your DNA results.  The first post, concentrating on what you can do right away, aimed to encourage you to get to know the layout of your testing company’s site and what resources there are attached to your DNA results.  The second looked at ThruLines (Ancestry) and Theory of Family Relativity (MyHeritage).  Throughout, the importance of constant reference to your family trees is emphasised.  DNA works alongside the genealogy; it doesn’t replace it.

Those first two posts focused on using the information being offered to you on a plate and trying to relate it to your own research.  In this third post it’s time to get more proactive.  Perhaps there’s a gap in your tree or a brick wall, and you want to see if you can use DNA to solve it.  Or perhaps there’s a mystery match of a decent size and you want to find where this person connects with you on your tree.  In other words, you’re now coming to the DNA with a question.

Before going any further I’m going to tell you about the limitations of my own DNA testing capability.  I have no surviving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, and only one brother.  Already this means I’m depending on second cousins testing.  Now as it happens I do have an unusually large number of second cousins.  One great aunt alone was the matriarch of eleven children and about 48 grandchildren.  But although I’ve had contact with some, I’ve never met any of them and certainly couldn’t approach any to ask if they would oblige by spitting into a tube for DNA testing purposes to serve my whim.  You’d think that out of so many second cousins some of them might have taken a DNA test anyway.  Well yes, I know of three.  I make good use of the results of two of them, but the other’s results are private.

Whenever I read books or blogposts from respected DNA authorities I’m in awe of the number of family members for whom they have DNA results.  It’s plain that some buy DNA tests in bulk when they’re on offer and simply dole them out to family members, all of whom willingly oblige.  Add into this mix the fact that DNA testing is far more popular in the US than it is in Europe, and you might start to get an idea of the gap between the kind of results these DNA gurus work with and the paltry results available to me.  Apart from my brother and the two second cousins, my closest matches are at 3rd cousin once removed distance and then we’re down to 4th cousins and a lot of matches in the 30-40cM range.

What all of the above means is that I have to work a lot harder to get answers from my DNA.  It also means that with perseverence, it is possible.  This genuinely is a case where if I can do it, so can you.  In fact chances are your matchlist will be stronger than mine.

So with all that in mind, here are some proactive ways you can engage with the information available on your match list and in the attached trees, and use this to confirm your research and/or break down brick walls.

Filtering
You can use the filter bar at the top of your match list to home in on focused information.

At Ancestry you can home in on unviewed matches; matches with common ancestors; matches with public / private / linked / unlinked trees; people you have already messaged, added to a group or made notes for; you can filter by relationship or shared cM; by date of test; and you can search for matches by name or with specific surnames or specific birthplaces in their trees:

Ancestry's DNA matchlist filter bar

MyHeritage allows you to filter by tree details (Theory of Family Relativity; Smart Matches; shared surname or birthplace; has a tree); by proximity of relationship; by country and ethnicity.  You can also sort by segment information, full name, and in recent order of testing.  And you can search by name or ancestral surname:

My Heritage filter bar for DNA matches

I’ve had some success using surname filters to find a common ancestral line, and also using birthplace filters to try to home in on a likely geographical area within Northern Ireland for an ancestral line with records suggesting two conflicting places of origin

Building trees
If you have a decent match that you don’t recognise and they have the beginnings of a tree attached to their results, you can try working their tree back yourself.  What you consider a ‘decent’ match will very much depend on how many close or extended family members you have on your matchlist.  You may, for example, consider that anything less than 80cM isn’t worth your time.  I will do it for much lower matches.

By way of example of what is possible.  I’ve done this, and found my connection with:

  • A 73cM match with only seven surnames (no first names) on the tree.  Our connection is 3C1R
  • A 55cM match with only the name of my match and the name of the person managing the DNA test, who was her son to, work with. Our connection is 4C1R.
  • A 53cM match with six entries on a tree – two of them private, one ‘unknown’, one with only a first name (which was not entirely correct), and two who were known by names other than the ones given at birth (!)  Our connection is 4C.

It isn’t always possible, but it often is.

If you want more ideas on how to progress these ‘Quick & Dirty’ trees, the following video (18:58 mins) might help get you started: Blaine Bettinger: Building Quick & Dirty Trees to Identify Genetic Matches

Remember that if you have close matches and both your trees are well-developed but you can’t find your common ancestors, then either your tree or your match’s tree is wrong, doesn’t go back far enough or sufficiently wide (siblings, half siblings, etc) OR you have uncovered a misattributed parentage in one of your trees. See my previous post about unexpected test results.  I have also started to look wider in my own tree building, bringing more lines forward in the hope of ‘meeting’ ancestors of distant cousins who haven’t yet been able to find their way further back.

Clustering
‘Clustering’ is the term used for grouping your DNA matches into groups using the ‘Shared Matches’ tool.  The idea is that the resulting ‘clusters’ will represent the distinct lines of your own family tree.  Clustering was developed  in 2018 by Dana Leeds.  Her technique, which became known as ‘The Leeds Method‘ uses a spreadsheet and you can read all about it on her website.

In 2019 MyHeritage introduced an Autocluster tool, based on the same principles, but saving a lot of time by generating the clusters for you at the click of a button.

Since then Ancestry have introduced a colour grouping facility to their match list and a system has been developed for using these as a clustering tool.  You can see this in operation in the following video: Larry Jones: How to Cluster your DNA matches With Ancestry’s New DNA Matches

The idea is that, by pointing to a common ancestral line, clustering narrows down where you have to look for your connection to these matches.  You can then focus on each of these family ‘clusters’ as a whole – look for connections in trees, perhaps even build one ‘Quick and Dirty’ tree for each cluster rather than a separate one for each mystery match you want to explore.

A problem I have with all of these clustering techniques is that I don’t have enough close matches to be able to set the systems up.  Dana Leeds bases her method on first cousin matches.  Larry Jones’s system on Ancestry is based on second cousin matches.  I don’t even really get going until 3rd and 4th cousin matches.  Nevertheless, I do run the Autoclusters report on MyHeritage from time to time, and I do make use of the colour groupings on Ancestry.  I have eight colours: one for each great grandparent, and I add matches to these groups either when I have a confirmed match or when, based on shared matches, a connection looks likely.

Asking family members to test
Back in July I wrote about how our family members’ test results can help us in our research. In that post I wrote about the different ways our various family members’ DNA can help us to isolate the branches of our tree.  If you’re lucky enough to have relatives who will take a test for you, that post will help you work out who to ask.

Chromosome mapping
If you tested with 23andMe or if you tested / uploaded your DNA results to MyHeritage, FTDNA or GEDmatch, you’ll be able to view your matches in a chromosome browser.  This takes us into a whole new range of possibilities for working with our DNA, and I have another little mini-series of posts about this planned for the spring of 2021.

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My aim for this mini-series of posts about practical application of your DNA results has been to provide sufficient basic information to enable you to start to work with your DNA and then to be able to ask informed, focused questions as you need to.  And trust me – you WILL need to!  I hope you’ve found it helpful.

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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, useful links and book recommendations.

‘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.

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

DNA testing: Ethical considerations

In my last post we looked at the possibility of unexpected information when we receive the results of our autosomal DNA test, and the importance of being fully aware of this as a possibility before we consent or ask others to consent to the test.  We noted that ‘unexpected results’ might take the form of finding our own parentage or descent from recent generations is not supported by the DNA.  Alternatively, the results might show that we are most definitely biologically linked to our parents and grandparents, but that someone else is too – someone of whom we had no knowledge.

Both findings can be upsetting at least and devastating at worst.  As a member of online genealogy groups, I occasionally see posts from distressed group members, formerly so excited to receive their DNA results but now trying to come to terms with the fact that ‘Dad’ is not really father, or ‘Granddad’ is not really grandfather.  What I say is this: the man you knew as your Dad is still your Dad.  The Granddad who loved you is still your Granddad.  You were meant to have this connection, even if biologically he’s not part of you.  But now you have another ancestral line to research too – one that might reveal other fascinating stories and might help you feel ‘complete’, even answer some questions you had about yourself, like where your dimples or your violet-blue eyes came from.  We might even call it your ‘nature’ tree and your ‘nurture’ tree: both have made you who you are.

Again, through online genealogy groups, I know of group members experiencing conflict within their own families regarding digging up the past and poking about in people’s lives.  My view is that if this is a hobby you love and from which you derive much pleasure and mental stimulation, then you should do it, but it’s important to do so in a way that respects the feelings and sensitivities of those who wish you wouldn’t.  Although no skeletons have been revealed in my own DNA testing, my documentary research has uncovered stories that I simply couldn’t have shared with my parents and grandparents.  In some cases the difference in sensitivities might be a generational thing: certain things were not discussed, were considered shameful and kept secret.  In other cases it might simply be a question of proximity to the subject of the story: the great grandfather who died long before we were born was our own parent’s grandfather, and may have been much loved and best left that way.  How much more sensitive, then, if the story relates to an extra-marital affair, the proof of which is now before you in the form of a match at second cousin.  It’s simply a matter of being sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of others.

On the other hand, in the case of an extra-marital affair – an illegitimate or adopted child – there are the needs of that person to consider too.  I said in my last post that I will always do what I can to help a good DNA match to track down their parents.  In one case the biological father turned out to be a (deceased) cousin of one of my parents – although there were several brothers in the family and without further DNA testing I can’t say which one.  In those circumstances I had no qualms about making available the name of the family to my ‘new’ second cousin.  It would in any case be available via other online trees.  It’s true that in those ‘Long Lost Family’ programmes on TV there is generally a happy ending of sorts.  Indeed, an acquaintance of mine was so happy to learn that a long-ago pre-marital relationship of her late father had produced a child, now to be welcomed into the family as a long-lost half-brother, that she circulated an email to everyone on her contacts list, with photographs of the new family group, highlighting the very strong family resemblance.

However, the reality isn’t always like that.  A biological mother who put her child up for adoption might have spent fifty years thinking of her lost child but it may be a secret she fully intends to take to her grave.  She may be ashamed to admit the truth to her family.  I know someone who, a few days after his mother’s death, discovered the birth certificate of his long-ago adopted half-sister in his mother’s handbag.  In life, she had never had the courage to tell her children, yet clearly that firstborn child had never been far from her thoughts, and she wanted her remaining children to know.

I’m aware that I’m writing about all this from the perspective of someone who has not experienced it.  For someone who is that child or perhaps their half-sibling, the reality is very different.  No one should feel like a ‘dirty little secret’.  This article, although US-based, deals with the issue from the viewpoint of test-takers who have learned they are the result of an affair, rape or sperm donation, and provides some information about secret groups on Facebook where those affected can gather and speak to others in their position.

You and I may not agree on the best way forward in these sensitive situations.  There is, indeed, no agreed ‘Code of Practice’ for how to proceed from this point forwards.  Since 2015 a set of Genetic Genealogy Standards have been in place, but these are intended to provide ethical and usage standards for the genealogical community to follow when purchasing, recommending, sharing, or writing about the results of DNA testing for ancestry.  They don’t specifically relate to how, or whether, to tell Aunt Maggie her late husband fathered a child ten years into their marriage.

Clearly, then, the implications of DNA testing are wide.  Whether we test only ourselves or a handful of other consenting family members too, the fact remains that the results – in terms of what is revealed through the people we match with – will reveal information not only about ourselves but could impact on other close family members who have not tested – who possibly would not have consented to a test even if we had asked them.  Nevertheless, the genie is now out of the bottle: as of 2018, more than 26 million worldwide had taken such a test and it is estimated that by the end of next year the figure may be approaching 100 million.

Our responsibility is to recognise all of the above, and to proceed with integrity and discretion.  It’s likely that we will all have different approaches to these ethical issues.  Yours may not be the same as mine, and in any case it makes sense to adjust our approach depending on the people involved.  But with all this in mind, I’ve put together this checkpoint of ethical considerations:

  • We must respect privacy and confidentiality.
  • We must recognise that not everyone will respond to stories with the same outlook as our own, and we must be sensitive to the specific needs and feelings of each.
  • Before asking another family member to test for us, we must ensure they are fully aware of the possibility of unexpected results.  (I’ll explain in my next post why it can be useful to ask family members to test.)  At the time of asking them to do so we should clarify if they would want to be informed of any unexpected results, and undertake to respect their wishes.
  • Even if the key players in this scenario are now deceased, their actions may have an impact on others who are still living.  Their needs must be taken into consideration too.
  • If we decide to tell others of unexpected findings – such as the discovery of a child or half-sibling, we must be discrete, operate on a need-to-know basis, and leave it to the person or people involved to decide if this new information is to be shared more widely.
  • We should let sleeping dogs lie: If I see evidence of misattributed parentage in another person’s tree (and there is definitely one who matches a person whose DNA I manage) I would never tell that person unless they got in touch to investigate the connection.

If you have never considered DNA testing to help with your family research, I hope this post and the previous two have helped you to think through the issues and decide if you want to do so.  The final two posts in this ‘whirlwind introduction’ to DNA testing will look at the benefits of asking other family members to test, and finally at which companies provide DNA testing for genealogy.

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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