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.
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:
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:
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
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.