The 1 Million Mark and Effective Matches

one million

Last week, Ancestry.com announced the millionth customer in their autosomal data base.  On January 18th, 23andMe did the same.  I don’t have exact numbers from Family Tree DNA, but they can’t be terribly far behind.  So, let’s look at the effectiveness of these matches at the roughly 1 million mark between the various vendors.

comparison chart

Black bold highlights the vendor’s positive aspects and red bold notes the drawbacks and places where each vendor could stand improvement.  I’ve underlined the two red issues I feel are the most serious.

*1 – Both 23andMe and Ancestry provide communications with others whom you match through internal message systems.  However, you have to request permission at 23andMe with anyone you match to communicate with them, and then additionally to share their DNA.  The 23andMe the 1404 number is how many people I match and the 162 number is the number of people that have accepted communications from me.  Not all of those 162 are sharing DNA.

*2 – At 23andMe, this would be the number of people sharing DNA results with me.  Ancestry has no tools that allow comparison of DNA segments.  At Family Tree DNA this would be all of my matches.

*3 – 23andMe cuts your matches off at 1000 unless you are communicating with your matches or you have an outstanding “introduction sent” request.  Of the 1404 people I match, 138 are sharing genomes, 24 have accepted communications but have not shared genomes, and 12 have declined.  The balance of my 1404 are either those to whom I’ve requested an introduction and they haven’t replied at all or some that I haven’t gotten around to inviting yet.  Ironically, my last of 1404 matches (in percentage of shared DNA order) is my known cousin who would have been purged had we not been sharing genomes.  You don’t have to send introductory invitations to those you match at either Family Tree DNA nor Ancestry and neither of those companies have an arbitrary cutoff, although Ancestry.com did a massive match purge when they implemented phasing.

*4 – At 23andMe, I can request to communicate with all 1404 people I match.  Of those, 162 have agreed to communicate or share genomes.  I can only communicate with those 162 people.  That doesn’t compare very well to either 1040 nor 5481 – and it shows how much genealogical benefit I’ve derived from 23andMe as compared to both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA.

*5 – At Ancestry, a minimum level subscription is required at $49 per year to see matching trees.  Not all participants have trees uploaded, and many trees aren’t public, so are not available for tree matching.  Otherwise, all trees connected to DNA results are included in matching function.

*6 – At Family Tree DNA, testers are encouraged to upload GEDCOM files or create trees in their account, and matching surname hints are given, but no actual ancestor matching in trees is performed.  Each participant must look at the tree of their matches, if provided.

*7 – 23andMe no longer hosts family trees on their site.  They have entered into collaboration with subscription service, MyHeritage.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of the vendors who hosts their own trees and does not require an additional subscription for that service, or for tree matching.

*8 – I have fewer matches at Family Tree DNA now than I did in November of 2014 when I had 1875 matches.  I have submitted a query to Family Tree DNA and they assure me this match number is accurate.

Commentary

The disparity between the 23andMe and Ancestry match numbers, since both vendors have 1 million autosomal results in their data bases, is suggestive of how many matches may have been pared from my match list at 23andMe.

The number of effective matches that can be usefully utilized, and how they can be utilized, are quite a bit different than the total number of matches implies without further analysis.

Both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry have unique strong points that make them stand out as vendors.

23andMe, since I can only work with or communicate with about 10% of my matches, is the least useful, for me, for genealogy.  I found their health services, which 23andMe is no longer allowed to offer following a dust-up with the FDA, very beneficial.

The tree matches and DNA Circles at Ancestry are very useful, but the fact that Ancestry provides absolutely no tools such as a chromosome browser or the other comparison tools that both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA provide makes Ancestry’s tree matches terribly frustrating eye candy in the candy shop behind a hermetically sealed window we can’t get through.  Tree matches and Circles are suggestive of an ancestral connection, but without comparison and triangulation tools, your match to an individual could be through a different, potentially unknown, line, and you have no tools at Ancestry to confirm or deny.  People are left to assume that the tree matches and Circles are proof, and unfortunately, they do in droves.

Thankfully, Family Tree DNA accepts transfers from Ancestry, V3 chip transfers from 23andMe (not the V4 chip since Dec. 2013) and GedMatch accepts files from all 3 vendors.  Those are the only avenues to actually compare the DNA of those who tested at Ancestry to triangulate and prove ancestral matches.

The great news in all of this is that more than 1 million people have tested, and probably more than two million in total – although there is clearly some overlap between vendors.  With every person that tests and that we match in one place or another, it increases our odds as genealogists to confirm our genealogy or break through those pesky brick walls.

Footnote:  The prices for the tests are the same, at $99, unless a sale is taking place at one of the vendors.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry also sell the aggregated anonymized DNA data for other purposes.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry will request that you sign (digitally authorize by clicking a box) an informed consent agreement for your non-anonymized (or less anonymized) data to be utilized or sold as well.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of these three firms that does not sell your DNA data in any form.

DNA Testing Strategy for Adoptees and People with Uncertain Parentage

Adoptees aren’t the only people who don’t know who their parents are.  There are many people who don’t know the identity of one of their two parents…and it’s not always the father.  Just this week, I had someone who needed to determine which of two sisters was her mother.  Still, the “who’s your Daddy” crowd, aside from adoptees, is by far the largest.

The DNA testing strategy for both of these groups of people is the same, with slight modifications for male or female. Let’s take a look.

Males have three kinds of DNA that can be tested and then compared to other participants’ results.  The tests for these three kinds of DNA provide different kinds of information which is useful in different ways.  For example, Y DNA testing may give you a surname, if you’re a male, but the other two types of tests can’t do that, at least not directly.

Females only have two of those kinds of DNA that can be tested.  Females don’t have a Y chromosome, which is what makes males male genetically.

adopted pedigree

If you look at this pedigree chart, you can see that the Y chromosome, in blue, is passed from the father to the son, but not to daughters.  It’s passed intact, meaning there is no admixture from the mother, who doesn’t have a Y chromosome, because she is female.  The Y chromosome is what makes males male.

The second type of DNA testing is mitochondrial, represented by the red circles.  It is passed from the mother to all of her children, of both genders, intact – meaning her mitochondrial DNA is not admixed with the mtDNA of the father.  Woman pass their mtDNA on to their children, men don’t.

Therefore when you test either the Y or the mtDNA, you get a direct line view right down that branch of the family tree – and only that direct line on that branch of the tree.  Since there is no admixture from spouses in any generation, you will match someone exactly or closely (allowing for an occasional mutation or two) from generations ago.  Now, that’s the good and the bad news – and where genealogical sleuthing comes into play.

On the chart above, the third kind of DNA testing, autosomal DNA, tests your DNA from all of your ancestors, meaning all of those boxes with no color, not just the blue and red ones, but it does include the blue and red ancestors too.  However, autosomal DNA (unlike Y and mtDNA) is diluted by half in each generation, because you get half of your autosomal DNA from each parent, so only half of the parents DNA gets passed on to each child.

Let’s look at how these three kinds of DNA can help you identify your family members.

Y DNA

Since the Y DNA typically follows the paternal surname, it can be extremely helpful for males who are searching for their genetic surname.  For example, if your biological father’s surname is Estes, assuming he is not himself adopted or the product of a nonpaternal event (NPE) which I like to refer to as undocumented adoptions, his DNA will match that of the Estes ancestral line.  So, if you’re a male, an extremely important test will be the Y DNA test from Family Tree DNA, the only testing company to offer this test.

Let’s say that you have no idea who your bio-father is, but when your results come back you see a preponderance of Estes men whom you match, as well as your highest and closest matches being Estes.

By highest, I mean on the highest panel you tested – in this case 111 markers.  And by closest, I mean with the smallest genetic distance, or number of mutations difference.  On the chart below, this person matches only Estes males at 111 markers, and one with only 1 mutation difference (Genetic Distance.)  Please noted that I’ve redacted first names.

Hint for Mr. Hilbert, below – there is a really good chance that you’re genetically Estes on the direct paternal side – that blue line.

Estes match ex

The next step will be to see which Estes line you match the most closely and begin to work from there genealogically.  In this case, that would be the first match with only one difference.  Does your match have a tree online?  In this case, they do – as noted by the pedigree chart icon.  Contact this person.  Where did their ancestors live?  Where did their descendants move to?  Where were you born?  How do the dots connect?

The good news is, looking at their DNA results, you can see that your closest match has also tested autosomally, indicated by the FF icon, so you can check to see if you also match them on the Family Finder test utilizing the Advanced Matching Tool.  That will help determine how close or distantly related you are to the tester themselves.  This gives you an idea how far back in their tree you would have to look for a common ancestor.

Another benefit is that your haplogroup identifies your deep ancestral clan, for lack of a better word.  In other words, you’ll know if your paternal ancestor was European, Asian, Native American or African – and that can be a hugely important piece of information.  Contrary to what seems intuitive, the ethnicity of your paternal (or any) ancestor is not always what seems evident by looking in the mirror today.

Y DNA – What to order:  From Family Tree DNA, the 111 marker Y DNA test.  This is for males only.  Family Tree DNA is the only testing company to provide this testing.  Can you order fewer markers, like 37 or 67?  Yes, but it won’t provide you with as much information or resolution as ordering 111 markers.  You can upgrade later, but you’ll curse yourself for that second wait.

FTDNA Y

Mitochondrial DNA

Males and females both can test for mitochondrial DNA.  Matches point to a common ancestor directly up the matrilineal side of your family – your mother, her mother, her mother – those red circles on the chart.  These matches are more difficult to work with genealogically, because the surnames change in every generation.  Occasionally, you’ll see a common “most distant ancestor” between mitochondrial DNA matches.

Your mitochondrial DNA is compared at three levels, but the most accurate and detailed is the full sequence level which tests all 16,569 locations on your mitochondria.  The series of mutations that you have forms a genetic signature, which is then compared to others.  The people you match the most closely at the full sequence level are the people with whom you are most likely to be genealogically related to a relevant timeframe.

You also receive your haplogroup designation with mitochondrial DNA testing which will place you within an ethnic group, and may also provide more assistance in terms of where your ancestors may have come from.  For example, if your haplogroup is European and you match only people from Norway….that’s a really big hint.

Using the Advanced Matching Tool, you can also compare your results to mitochondrial matches who have taken the autosomal Family Finder test to see if you happen to match on both tests.  Again, that’s not a guarantee you’re a close relative on the mitochondrial side, but it’s a darned good hint and a place to begin your research.

Mitochondrial DNA – What to Order:  From Family Tree DNA, the mitochondrial full sequence test.  This is for males and females both.  Family Tree DNA is the only company that provides this testing.

FTDNA mtDNA

Autosomal DNA

Y and mitochondrial DNA tests one line, and only one line – and shoots like a laser beam right down that line, telling you about the recent and deep history of that particular lineage.  In other words, those tests are deep and not wide.  They can tell you nothing about any of your other ancestors – the ones with no color on the pedigree chart diagram – because you don’t inherit either Y or mtDNA from those ancestors.

Autosomal DNA, on the other hand tends to be wide but not deep.  By this I mean that autosomal DNA shows you matches to ancestors on all of your lines – but only detects relationships back a few generations.  Since each child in each generation received half of their DNA from each parent – in essence, the DNA of each ancestor is cut in half (roughly) in each generation.  Therefore, you carry 50% of the DNA of your parents, approximately 25% of each grandparent, 12.5% of the DNA of each great-grandparent, and so forth.  By the time you’re back to the 4th great-grandparents, you carry only about 1% of the DNA or each of your 64 direct ancestors in that generation.

What this means is that the DNA testing can locate common segments between you and your genetic cousins that are the same, and if you share the same ancestors,  you can prove that this DNA in fact comes from a specific ancestor.  The more closely you are related, the more DNA you will share.

Another benefit that autosomal testing provides is an ethnicity prediction.  Are these predictions 100% accurate?  Absolutely not!  Are they generally good in terms of identifying the four major ethnic groups; African, European, Asian and Native American?  Yes, so long at the DNA amounts you carry of those groups aren’t tiny.  So you’ll learn your major ethnicity groups.  You never know, there may be a surprise waiting for you.

FTDNA myOrigins

The three vendors who provide autosomal DNA testing and matching all provide ethnicity estimates as well, and they aren’t going to agree 100%.  That’s the good news and often makes things even more interesting.  The screen shot below is the same person at Ancestry as the person above at Family Tree DNA.

Ancestry ethnicity

If you’re very lucky, you’ll test and find an immediate close match – maybe even a parent, sibling or half-sibling.  It does happen, but don’t count on it.  I don’t want you to be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.  Just remember, after you test, your DNA is fishing for you 24X7, every single hour of every single day.

If you’re lucky, you may find a close relative, like an uncle or first cousin.  You share a common grandparent with a first cousin, and that’s pretty easy to narrow down.  Here’s an example of matching from Family Tree DNA.

FTDNA close match

If you’re less lucky, you’ll match distantly with many people, but by using their trees, you’ll be able to find common ancestors and then work your way forward, based on how closely you match these individuals, to the current.

Is that a sometimes long process?  Yes.  Can it be done?  Absolutely.

If you are one of the “lottery winner” lucky ones, you’ll have a close match and you won’t need to do the in-depth genealogy sleuthing.  If you are aren’t quite as lucky, there are people and resources to help you, along with educational resources.  www.dnaadoption.com provides tools and education to teach you how to utilize autosomal DNA tools and results.

Of course, you won’t know how lucky or unlucky you are unless you test.  Your answer, or pieces of your answer, may be waiting for you.

Unlike Y and mtDNA testing, Family Tree DNA is not the only company to provide autosomal of testing, although they do provide autosomal DNA testing through their Family Finder test.

There are two additional companies that provide this type of testing as well, 23andMe and Ancestry.com.  You should absolutely test with all three companies, or make sure your results are in all three data bases.  That way you are fishing in all of the available ponds directly.

If you have to choose between testing companies and only utilize one, it would be a very difficult choice.  All three have pros and cons.  I wrote about that here.  The only thing I would add to what I had to say in the comparison article is that Family Tree DNA is the only one of the three that is not trying to obtain your consent to sell your DNA out the back door to other entities.  They don’t sell your DNA, period.  You don’t have to grant that consent to either Ancestry or 23andMe, but be careful not to click on anything you don’t fully understand.

Family Tree DNA accepts transfers of autosomal data into their data base from Ancestry.  They also accept transfers from 23andMe if you tested before December of 2013 when 23andMe reduced the number of locations they test on their V4 chip

Autosomal DNA:  What to Order

Ancestry.com’s DNA product at http://www.ancestry.com – they only have one and it’s an autosomal DNA test

23andMe’s DNA product at http://www.23andMe.com – they only have one and it’s an autosomal DNA test

Family Tree DNA – either transfer your data from Ancestry or 23andMe (if you tested before December 2013), or order the Family Finder test. My personal preference is to simply test at Family Tree DNA to eliminate any possibility of a file transfer issue.

FTDNA FF

Third Party Autosomal Tools

The last part of your testing strategy will be to utilize various third party tools to help you find matches, evaluate and analyze results.

GedMatch

At GedMatch, the first thing you’ll need to do is to download your raw autosomal data file from either Ancestry or Family Tree DNA and upload the file to www.gedmatch.com.  You can also download your results from 23andMe, but I prefer to utilize the files from either of the other two vendors, given a choice, because they cover about 200,000 additional DNA locations that 23andMe does not.

Ancestry.com provides you with no tools to do comparisons between your DNA and your matches.  In other words, no chromosome browser or even information like how much DNA you share.  I wrote about that extensively in this article, and I don’t want to belabor the point here, other than to say that GedMatch levels the playing field and allows you to eliminate any of the artificial barriers put in place by the vendors.  Jim Bartlett just wrote a great article about the various reasons why you’d want to upload your data to Gedmatch.

GedMatch provides you with many tools to show to whom you are related, and how.  Used in conjunction with pedigree charts, it is an invaluable tool.  Now, if we could just convince everyone to upload their files.  Obviously, not everyone does, so you’ll still need to work with your matches individually at each of the vendors and at GedMatch.

GedMatch is funded by donations or an inexpensive monthly subscription for the more advanced tools.

DNAGEDCOM.com

Another donation based site is http://www.dnagedcom.com which offers you a wide range of analytical tools to assist with making sense of your matches and their trees.  DNAGEDCOM works closely with the adoption community and focuses on the types of solutions they need to solve their unique types of genealogy puzzles.  While everyone else is starting in the present and working their way back, adoptees are starting with the older generations and piecing them together to come forward to present.  Their tools aren’t just for adoptees though.  Tools such as the Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer are great for anyone.  Visit the site and take a look.

Third Party Y and Mitochondrial Tools – YSearch and MitoSearch

Both www.ysearch.org and www.mitosearch.org are free data bases maintained separately from Family Tree DNA, but as a courtesy by Family Tree DNA.  Ysearch shows only a maximum of 100 markers for Y DNA and Mitosearch doesn’t show the coding region of the mitochondrial DNA, but they do allow users to provide their actual marker values for direct comparison, in addition to other tools.

Furthermore, some people who tested at other firms, when other companies were doing Y and mtDNA testing, have entered their results here, so you may match with people who aren’t matches at Family Tree DNA.  Those other data bases no longer exist, so Ysearch or Mitosearch is the only place you have a prayer of matching anyone who tested elsewhere.

You can also adjust the match threshold so that you can see more distant matches than at Family Tree DNA.  You can download your results to Ysearch and Mitosearch from the bottom of your Family Tree DNA matches page.

Mitosearch upload

Answer the questions at Mito or Ysearch, and then click “Save Information.”  When you receive the “500” message that an error has occurred at the end of the process, simply close the window.  Your data has been added to the data base and you can obtain your ID number by simply going back to your match page at Family Tree DNA and clicking on the “Upload to Ysearch” or Mitosearch link again on the bottom of your matches page.  At that point, your Y or mitosearch ID will be displayed.  Just click on “Search for Genetic Matches” to continue matching.

Get Going!

Now that you have a plan, place your orders and in another 6 to 8 weeks, you’ll either solve the quandry or at least begin to answer your questions.  Twenty years ago you couldn’t have begun to unravel your parentage using DNA.  Now, it’s commonplace.  Your adventure starts today.

Oh, and congratulations, you’ve just become a DNA detective!

I wish you success on your journey – answers, cousins, siblings and most importantly, your genetic family.  Hopefully, one day it will be you writing to me telling me how wonderful it was to meet your genetic family for the first time, and what an amazing experience it was to look across the dinner table and see someone who looks like you.

Ancestry Reinvents my Ancestors, Again

Remember, right after April Fool’s Day, when Ancestry gave me two ancestors who weren’t?  I check my account every day, and every day for the past two months, they have been there, looking back at me, making me wonder if somehow I’ve missed something – but with no tools to figure out what, where or how.

Diedamia Lyon and John David Curnutte.

Yes, I was getting fond of John and Diedamia who I was beginning to refer to as my adopted NADs.

new ancestor discoveries

But today, today is different.  Yep, I have the same number of matches, the same number of hints, the same Circles….but my bad NADs are gone.  Bye bye John and Diedamia!

So my New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs) have apparently been undiscovered and have disappeared, or maybe got reburied, just like they never existed.  Poof.  Gone.  Never happened!

Of course, these ancestors didn’t exist in reality, but according to Ancestry they did.  But not anymore.  No explanation.  Just got up one morning and they were gone…slunk off in the night.  Not even a goodbye note.  After two months together.  I’m crushed.

disappeared nad

And look what else I found today.  Why, Ancestry reinvented my family story it seems.  The timing of this announcement is extremely ironic.  But maybe it’s the explanation I was looking for.  Reinvented.  That must be it.

Is this a joke?

reinvented story

So, Ancestry….which time were you wrong?  Two months ago or now?  Were John and Diedamia ancestors, or not?  Just how, exactly, is one supposed to know?

Which “story” is the true one?  Were you “just kidding” when you gave me those ancestors, or now that you’ve taken them away?  Not funny.

You said DNA would confuse people…and by golly…you’re right.  Only it’s not the DNA itself that’s confusing, it’s your conferring and then unconferring of ancestors – with no documentation or tools.  Without tools, we’re forced to believe you…but which version do we believe?

How are we supposed to have any confidence in these hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t ancestor discoveries?  Did I somehow miraculously stop matching all 5 of the people who descended from John and Diedamia?  Did you, ahem, make a mistake?  Crystal ball broken maybe?  If so, an explanation and maybe an apology would be nice.  You can’t just rip my purported ancestors away from me like that with no explanation.  What if I had really believed you in the first place…that John and Diedamia were my ancestors?

Thankfully, I didn’t believe you because based on 30+ years of genealogy research and chromosome browsers and similar tools provided by other vendors, I’ve confirmed my tree.  But a lot of people will believe you….what about them?

And that lovely story that came along with John and Diedamia.  You mean that story you told me about my ancestors wasn’t true?  But it was MY story…you said so.  It has all those names and dates and places and pictures. How could it be wrong?  It seemed so real.  What happened?  Oh yea, I forgot, you reinvented it.

You know, I’d check on the solidity of those matches myself, but I can’t because, well, you don’t give me any tools…you know….like a chromosome browser…because you’ve implemented a superior methodology for matching.  Instead, you’d much prefer, in fact, you require that I simply trust you based upon the excellent track record and credibility you’ve established.  You’ve suggested that I might not understand how a chromosome browser works and I might make mistakes, and that, of course, would be just awful.  Why, I might even give myself incorrect ancestors.  Thank you so much for protecting me from those grievous errors.

But hey, maybe I’ll get a new NAD soon and we can do this all over again.  Won’t that be fun!  Or maybe John and Diedemia will be back to visit.  One never knows!

Say what Ancestry….how about you don’t give me any more bad NADs or any more NADs at all, because there appears to be no way to tell the difference between authentic ancestor discoveries and bogus ones.  For that matter, don’t gift me with any more re-reinvented stories either based on cumulative bad trees.  I’ll just settle for a chromosome browser instead.  What do you think?  I don’t much care for this new  methodology of incorrect ancestor gifting, retracting and reinventing.  I’d prefer to make my own mistakes…thank you.

rabbit in hat

RIP Sorenson – A Crushing Loss

The genetic genealogy community suffered a crushing loss this week.

The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation data base of Y and mitochondrial results, complete with pedigree charts, owned by Ancestry.com, has been removed.  Here is the statement by Ancestry currently appearing on the www.smgf.org website.

smgf rip

This is a grievous loss for the genetic genealogy community.  The site was rich with information and since Ancestry took their own Y and mtDNA data base offline in the fall of 2014, was one of only two remaining Y and mitochondrial comparison sources.

YSearch and MitoSearch remain, today, funded by Family Tree DNA.  Outside of Family Tree DNA itself, these are now the only publicly available comparison data base.

Sorenson held over 100,000 samples of DNA and was linked to pedigree charts of those who contributed their DNA for processing.  One of the earliest data bases, many contributors to Sorenson have passed away today, and their Y and mtDNA information was only available at Sorenson.

While Ancestry did not say specifically, the public relations nightmare surrounding a police case recently has obviously spurred Ancestry to take this action.

Unfortunately, the tabloid reporting in this horribly biased and intentionally inflammatory article was posted and repeated within the genealogy community, even by some well-known individuals, without vetting for facts.  The sky was not falling, until this happened, and well….now we know that the sky falling actually does look like…because it has.

For the truth of the matter, please see Judy Russell’s articles here and here.  Judy Russell, who writes as The Legal Genealogist, is a genealogist with a law degree.  I can’t add anything to what Judy had to say about the facts and circumstances in this case.

What I can say is that the combination of shoddy journalism and rumor-mongering, for lack of any other term, has put Ancestry in a no-win position.  The only way for them to make this situation “go away” is to do exactly what they have done.  Now there is no data base, no way to compare DNA, for anyone, and therefore, nothing to talk about.  This will never happen to them again.  There will be no more negative publicity, at least not about this.  Their problem is solved.  Ours is not.

We are the losers in all of this.  And it’s a grievous loss.  One that cannot be replaced.

And as angry as I was, and still am, at Ancestry for destroying their own data base in October of 2014, I can hardly blame them for this move – as much as I don’t like it.  They don’t sell the Y and mitochondrial DNA testing products anymore – and there is no upside to them as a corporation to continue to support a philanthropic data base that was at the root of the public relations nightmare they have recently endured.

Having said that, I am hopeful that other arrangements can be made.  There is a group of individuals speaking with the folks at Ancestry this week to determine if there are any other options available and to discuss alternatives.

Proving Your Tree

With all the recent discussion about Ancestry’s new “New Ancestor Discovery” feature rollout, and some wrong individuals being assigned as my ancestors, some people have been asking the question, “How do you know your tree is right?”  In other words, how do I know those ancestors are not my genetic ancestors?  As they correctly pointed out, NPEs and adoptions do occur.

And they are right, absolutely right.  It’s a legitimate question, one that every one of us needs to answer for our own trees.

I answered their question briefly by saying that I have a combination of both paper genealogy and DNA for all ancestors through the 6th generation, which is true, but I want to share more than that.  Plus, I wanted to take the time to really evaluate every single line individually to be absolutely positive of what I was saying, and to weigh the evidence.  All too often, it’s not a handy-dandy yes or no, it’s shades of grey.

It’s important for all of us to treat this, the study of our ancestors, like a big mystery with clues for us to find and decipher.

In some cases, there isn’t much mystery.  For example, unless you’re an adoptee, you probably know your grandparents and their birth and death information is relatively easy to obtain.  First, you’re a family member, and second, relatively complete records exist in the past century.  There are lots of sources – birth and death certificates, obituaries, tombstones still remain, hopefully houses with Bibles haven’t all burned, etc.

But as you move back in time, there are fewer sources available, fewer records, if any, exist and eventually, you’re so far back that there is no “institutional memory” in the form of Aunt Marybelle’s or Uncle Jehosiphat’s stories.

Before DNA, we spent a lot of time compiling information about our families, fitting the pieces together, assembling old wills and estate distributions to figure out who the children were, and so forth.  But we had no avenue to verify for example, that William Jr. was really the biological son of William Sr.  Nor did we have the tools to figure out that William Sr. and his wife had taken a child to raise on a wagon train whose parents had died, and that child really wasn’t the biological child of either William or his wife.  None of that existed before, but does now, at least in certain circumstances.

One of the things people, for some reason, believe is that they are going to take a DNA test and somehow, with the wave of a magic wand, or maybe the click of a leaf, their ancestry is going to be revealed to them.  Needless to say, that’s not how it works.

What we do is continue to use a variety of types of DNA testing to prove various lines of our ancestry – and sometimes disprove them – in conjunction with other types of traditional records.  By now, you’ve probably all heard the story of my brother, who I searched for, for years, only to discover he was not my biological brother.  For me, there is peace in knowing and I love my brother regardless.  I’m so glad I found him before he passed away – regardless of the DNA results.  But before DNA, we would never have been able to know, for sure.  What we believed with all of our hearts was not the truth.  The DNA results were undeniable.

When I started working with DNA for genealogy, I was simply curious.  I did not set forth a goal to “prove my lines,” nor, for a long time, did I really think about that.  I was always just excited when someone from one of my ancestral lines would test, because their mitochondrial or Y results were relevant to my ancestors too – assuming we connected in the correct fashion.  I cherished the ability to discover that my ancestors in that line were from the British Isles, Africa, Scandinavia or were Native American, for example.  Mitochondrial and Y results allow us to extend what we know about that ancestral line back in time, beyond the time of surnames.  These tests help us to answer the question, for each ancestral line, “where did I come from?”  Because, after all, “I” am the combination of all of my ancestors.

In my article, The DNA Pedigree Chart – Mining for Ancestors, I talk about how to create pedigree charts that include Y and mtDNA for each ancestral line.  Obviously, I can’t test for all of these myself.

DNA Pedigree

This is part of the answer to how I know that some parts of my tree are correct.

For example, let’s say my Estes cousin, Buster, tests to represent my Estes Y line, and he matches many Estes men, all the way back to Abraham Estes, the immigrant into Virginia.  That unquestionably proves the Estes line he carries is the ancestral Estes line.  However, since I don’t carry the Estes Y chromosome, I have to utilize autosomal DNA to prove that I am related to Buster and other Estes descendants on the Estes side.  Those two pieces of information combined prove that my Estes line is confirmed back beyond the 6th generation – even though I don’t carry the Estes Y chromosome and I have no one  in my immediate family to “sit proxy” for me.

Why am I focused on the 6th generation?

When Ancestry rolled their new feature that gives people “New Ancestors,” they graciously gave me two that were not only wrong – I can’t figure out any connection at all.

I wrote about this in the article, “Ancestry DNA Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong.”

In order for Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, spouses, to be my ancestors, they would have been born in about the 6th generation, given their birth dates, and reproduced in the 5th generation.  The problem is that I have my tree documented solidly back through both of those generations, and John and Diedamia are not my ancestors.

This caused someone to ask how I knew that an NPE hadn’t happened and that one of my ancestral couples, who I believe are my ancestors, aren’t really – and Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are instead – or at least John.  Like, perhaps a baby swap, or a wagon train parental death/child adoption or some other form of NPE (nonparental event.)

Good questions.  I want to know the answer too, for my own benefit.

In order to begin to address this, I looked at the years John and Diedamia were born and the locations where they are found.  Diedamia Lyon was born in Wilkes County in 1804 and she and John Curnutte married in 1822 in Lawrence County, KY, according to the Ancestry story attached to this couple, and she died there in 1866.  I can’t vouch for any of this, because it’s taken from Ancestry’s compiled trees.  What I can tell you is that I have no family at all in or near Lawrence County Kentucky, not in this or any other timeframe.

I do have family in Wilkes County, however, which is where I began the comparative search.  Both John Curnutte and Diedamia’s parents came from Virginia and I have lots of ancestry there, including several unknown lines – but not in any generation where John and Diedamia could be my ancestors.  However, these common locations would be the most likely places for an adoption, in whatever form, to have occurred – if one did.

So, let’s take this one parent’s side at a time and look at the proofs I have and how I know, beyond a doubt, that these two people are not my ancestors.

new ancestor mother tree

I’ve divided my ancestors into my mother’s side and my father’s side and created a proof table for each one in the 6th generation.  The Proof column, in this case, means proof that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte cannot replace these ancestors in my tree, confirming that these are my ancestors and John and Diedamia are not.

Let’s look at my mother’s side first.  It’s easy.  Hendrick Jans Ferverda, born in the Netherlands about 1806, so about the same time as John and Diedamia, was not in this country at that time.  We have documentary proof from the Netherlands.  We have further evidence of when his son did immigrate in the 1860s.  So, Diedamia and John cannot be clandestine ancestors, replacing Hendrick Jans Ferverda and his wife, Lijsbert Baukes Camstra in my tree.  They weren’t even on the same continent when the begetting would have occurred.

As we assemble the proof for each ancestor, we consider birth and death years and locations, whatever documentation we have, and DNA evidence.

Ancestor Birth/Death Location Facts Proof
Hendrick Jans Ferverda 1806-1874 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents in Leeuwarden and Blija, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Lijsbert Baukes Camstra 1806-1856 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents in Leeuwarden and Blija, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Harmen Gerrits de Jong 1803-1866 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents from Oosterlittens and Leeuwarden, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Angenietje Houtsma 1802-1866 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents from Leeuwarden, Netherlands Not in the US at this time
David Miller 1781-1851 Born Washington Co., MD, died Elkhart Co., Indiana Marriage documents in Warren Co., Ohio, estate in  Elkhart Co., Indiana Miller Y DNA from this line matches to other sons’ descendants of Johann Michael Miller b 1692, autosomal matches to several Miller descendants including mother’s first and second cousins.
Catharina Schaeffer Circa 1775 – 1826 Born Berks Co, PA, died Montgomery Co., PA Marriage document 1799 Berks Co., Marriage document 1805 Warren Co., Ohio Schaeffer males have tested Y and autosomal.  They match the Schaeffer Y upstream of Catharina’s father and match cousins autosomally.
Jacob Lentz 1783-1870 Born in Germany, died in Montgomery Co., Ohio Citizenship papers and census show birth, tombstone and estate papers show death Multiple males have tested Y DNA and they match each other.  They also match other Lentz men, but we can’t figure the common ancestor in Germany.  The Y testers and other cousins match mother autosomally.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Frederica Moselman 1788-1863 Born in Wurttemburg, Germany, died Montgomery Co., Indiana Was married before immigration Born in Germany, not in US at the time.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Honore Lore 1766 – 1834 Born in New England during Acadian removal, died Quebec, Canada in Acadian community Church records Y DNA of descendant matches Y DNA of other Lore males upstream of Honore, autosomal DNA matches mother.
Marie Lafaille 1767-1836 Born in New England during Acadian removal, died in Quebec Canada in Acadian community Church records including marriage to Honore Lore in 1789 in Canada Not in right place, married to Honore, autosomal DNA of descendants matches both Lafaille and Lore family members.
Joseph Hill 1790-1871 Born Barrington, NH, died 1871, Lake Co., Ill Hill family from NH and Vermont where he is first found in records, death records in Illinois Autosomal DNA matches with other descendant of Joseph and his parents.  His father is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nabby Hall 1792-1874 Birth record in Mansfield City, CT town records, death record in Lake Co., Illinois Family moved to Addison Co., VT where children were born and where they are in the records, ancestor daughter’s birth Autosomal DNA matches with other descendants of Nabby and her parents, Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson.
Phillip Jacob Kirsch 1806-1880 Born Fussgoenheim, Germany died Ripley Co., Indiana Church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
Katharina Lemmert 1807-1889 Born Mutterstadt, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana Church birth records and death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
George Drechsel 1823-1908 Born Speichersdorf, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana German church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
Barbara Mehlheimer 1823-1906 Born Goppmansbuhl, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana Germany church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time

I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever in any of my mother’s lines that Diedamia Lyons and John Curnutte whose families were from from VA, NC and KY can possibly be substituted for any of these ancestors.

Now let’s move to my father’s side of the family, who were indeed from VA and NC.

new ancestor father tree

In the chart below, I’ve starred the ancestors who I feel have a weak or unknown parental connection, meaning with their parents, based on the facts.  In many cases, this is an unknown mother or unknown mother’s surname or lack of solid DNA proof.  My goal for each ancestor is to have both the genealogical and the DNA proof, supporting each other.

For example, let’s look at Nancy Ann Moore.  Nancy is starred because her mother’s surname is unknown.  This means I can’t prove or disprove any ancestral line through her mother, Lucy.  In other words, while it’s clear that John and Diedamia cannot replace John R. Estes and Nancy Ann Moore as ancestors, one of them might be related to Nancy’s mother.  Therefore, based on the evidence, we do have proof that John and Diedamia are not clandestine ancestors in place of John and Nancy, but what we can’t know is if they are related upstream to Nancy’s mother.

Ancestor Birth/Death Location Facts Proof
John R. Estes 1787-1885 Born Halifax Co., Va, died Claiborne Co., TN Birth and death from War of 1812 pension app Estes Y DNA proven beyond John R. Estes, autosomal DNA from descendants and other Estes descendants triangulate.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nancy Ann Moore* Circs 1785-1860/1870 Born Halifax Co., VA, died Claiborne Co. TN Marriage doc in Halifax Co in 1811, husband’s War of 1812 pension app Moore DNA tested to Nancy’s grandfather’s generation, descendants match other Moore testers autosomally, Nancy’s mother’s surname unknown.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lazarus Dodson* 1795-1861 Parents living in Hawkins Co in 1795, Pulaski Co., KY death records Father-in-law John Campbell estate records for marriage to Elizabeth Dodson Y DNA beyond Lazarus, many Dodson autosomal matches, Lazarus’s mother’s surname unknown.
Elizabeth Campbell C1802-1827/1830 Parents living in Claiborne County TN per tax and court records, death in Claiborne per her children’s guardian records Her father, John Campbell’s estate records regarding her children, guardianship settlement Campbell DNA from this line matches Campbell clan DNA, autosomal matches to many Campbell cousins.  Her parents are Ancestry DNA Circles.
Elijah Vannoy 1784-c1850 Parents lives Wilkes Co at that time, death from Hancock Co. TN census Elijah found in Wilkes Co deed records in 1807, in Claiborne court records by 1812 Vannoy Y DNA from his line matches lines earlier than Elijah, autosomal DNA matches cousins.  Son is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lois McNiel c1786-c1839 Parents living in Wilkes at time of her birth per tax and deed records, died before census in Claiborne Co., TN Parents also moved to Claiborne Co., TN, family history records Elijah’s wife as Lois McNiel Y DNA matches back to Rev. George, 2 generations beyond Lois, autosomal matches Lois’ descendants as well.  Son is Ancestry DNA Circle.
William Crumley III* 1785/1789 – 1852/1860 Born where parents lived Frederick Co., VA proven by 1789 tax list, death in Appanoose Co., Iowa by census Was in Lee Co by 1820 census, marriage documents in 1807 in Greene Co., TN Crumley DNA from this line proves back to James, 3 gen earlier, autosomal matches to cousins, William’s mother unknown.  Daughter is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lydia Brown* 1787/1790-1830/1849 Born where parents lived in Montgomery Co., VA, death by census in Lee Co., VA and husband’s remarriage Married in 1807 in Greene Co., TN, in Lee Co. Va by 1820, in 1830 census, 1850 census shows husband has been married within the year to new wife Brown Y DNA confirms Jotham and matches other Browns without common ancestor identified, autosomal DNA matches to cousins, Lydia’s mother surname unknown.
Henry Bolton* 1759-1846 Born England, died Giles Co., VA Birth location unproven except by family stories, marriage records, death by local documents and census Bolton DNA confirms Henry and there are other matches but common ancestor unproven.  No Y matches to Curnutte or Lyons. Many descendants autosomal match but cannot go beyond Henry with proofs.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nancy Mann* c 1780/1783 – 1841 Born where family lived, Botetourt Co., VA, died Giles Co, VA Birth from census and inferred from marriage document 1799, death from family Bible Parents are unconfirmed but believed to be James Mann and Mary Cantrell.  Not Y DNA confirmed to Mann line.  No known Manns from this direct line have tested.  Autosomal matches to James Mann’s brother Moses.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
William Herrell* 1789/1790 – 1859 Born in NC, probably Wilkes Co, died in Hancock Co., TN Birth from War of 1812 pension and bounty land apps, death from his wife on pension app Herrell confirmed back to John, William’s father on Y, match Y cousins autosomally, mother’s surname unknown.
Mary McDowell* 1785- after 1872 Born where in Wilkes Co., NC where parents lived at the time per tax records, died Hancock Co., TN Marriage in 1809 in Wilkes Co., lived in Claiborne & Hancock, death per pension docs and census McDowell Y DNA proven to Michael, her father, via multiple lines, autosomal matches to cousins, mother’s surname unknown.
Fairwick Claxton 1799/1800 – 1874 Birth in Russell Co., VA by census in location where parents lived, death Hancock Co., TN according to his mother’s War of 1812 pension app after his father’s death, death by chancery suit Born in Russell Co., VA, lived in Claiborne which became Hancock Co., TN entire life, chancery suit provides significant info, plus census. Claxton/Clarkson DNA proven to James via Y with additional matches from NC with earlier unidentified common ancestor, autosomal matches between entire group of cousins.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Agnes Muncy* 1803 – after 1880 Born where Lee Co., VA parents lived according to tax and deed records, dead via census Hancock Co., TN Census and chancery suit show family in Hancock Co., TN Muncy Y DNA confirmed beyond Agnes, cousins matching autosomally.  Would like additional triangulated matches.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Charles Speak 1804 – 1840/1850 Born Washington Co., VA where parents lived according to tax and deed records, death by census Lee Co., VA Marriage in 1823 in Washington Co., VA, later records in Lee Co., VA having to do with Speaks church Speak Y DNA confirmed back to Gisburn, England, many autosomal matches in this line.  Parents are Ancestry DNA Circles.
Ann McKee* 1804/1805 – 1840/1850 Birth in Washington Co., VA where parents lived according to father’s will, death from census Lee Co., VA Married in 1823 Montgomery Co., VA, moved to Lee Co., VA, her father’s will names her as daughter Have not found McKee Y to test, but match several McKee descendants on autosomal.  Ann’s mother’s surname is unknown.  Father Andrew was Ancestry DNA Circle, but disappeared.

As you can clearly see, there is no question that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte aren’t my ancestors.  There is no place for them to be born in 1801/1804, replacing two people here.  Plus there is no Canutte Y DNA matching downstream anyplace, nor any Lyon or Canutte matching at all that I can discover at Family Tree DNA where I can search for ancestral surnames among my matches.  At Ancestry, the only Curnutte surname DNA matches I have are the two individuals that are in the Curnutte “New Ancestor” circle.  Lyon is a more common surname, but nothing connecting matching people, the Lyon surname and any common ancestor or location – other than the two people who also match Curnutte.

I am 100% positive, bet on it and take it to the bank positive, that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are not my ancestors.  And anyone who knows me knows that I never, ever, bet unless I know it’s a sure thing.  So, if I ever say to you, “wanna bet,” think twice.  I wound up with a nice piece of jewelry because my husband hadn’t learned that yet.  Not once, but twice.  Unfortunately, he has learned now:)

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t share DNA with the descendants of Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte.  One of two scenarios can be happening.

1. I do share DNA with two of the Lyon/Canutte descendants, but that DNA could be from two different, unidentified, lines, neither of which are John Curnutte and Diedamia Lyon. It just so happens that the two people I share DNA with happen to share the Lyon/Curnutte line between them. Therefore, the leap of faith has been made that I too share those ancestors. A triangulation tool would answer this question, because if I don’t match my two matches on the same segment, there is no proof of the same ancestor.  Lack of a triangulated match doesn’t mean that I don’t share those ancestors either. In other words, it’s not negative proof.  Lack of a triangulated match wouldn’t mean I don’t want to see this information.  I do. I just want to know how strong the evidence is, or isn’t. Without analysis tools, we’re left to flop around in the dark.

2. I share DNA with two of the Lyon/Canutte descendants because there is a common ancestor upstream of EITHER John Canutte or Diedamia Lyon whose DNA comes through that couple to their children who match me. If this is the case, then the common ancestor is most likely in one of the lines that are starred above where the parents are unknown.  If Ancestry provided chromosome matching and triangulation tools, I could see who else I match on that segment and perhaps find some common genealogy between others who match me (and my matches) on that same segment.

Summary

So, the answer to the question, “How do you know your tree is right?” is threefold.

First, genealogically, I’m a terribly anal, er, I mean thorough, researcher.  If you have any doubt, please feel free to read my 52 ancestor series and you can see for yourself the kind of in-depth research I do.

This isn’t to say everything is perfect or that I can’t make mistakes.  I clearly can, do and have.  But for the most part, my trees are solid and I know when they aren’t, where and why.  Plus, I’ve been doing this now for 37 years.  Experience is a wonderful teacher, so long as you learn and don’t just make the same mistakes over and over again.

And, yes, thank you, I did start when I was quite young – barely of age.

Secondly, I have been triangulating my autosomal DNA for several years now, proving segments through both known and previously unknown cousins to specific ancestral lines, and specific common ancestors.  But, I have to be able to see where we match to utilize those tools, and we can’t do that at Ancestry where it’s genetic genealogy wearing blinders.  I’m very thankful for GedMatch so I can compare DNA with the Ancestry cousins who will download their results.  If my two matches who descend from John and Diedamia downloaded their results to GedMatch, then I could see WHERE I match them and I might have that segment already mapped to a specific family line.  That would help immensely tracking backwards and finding the common link with my matches.

Third, I have been utilizing Y and mtDNA where possible and appropriate to learn about, prove and confirm various lines for nearly 15 years.

Often, I use combinations of these tools, like in my Buster example where Buster proved the Estes Y in my line, and I proved my relationship to Buster through autosomal DNA.

These combinations are powerful tools to prove, or disprove, family lines.

And now that you know how to do this, you can prove each one of your ancestral lines too!

Dissecting AncestryDNA Circles and New Ancestors

First of all, let me say that I like AncestryDNA Circles.  Yes there are problems and still things to work out, but all said, I think they have the potential to be beneficial – so long as they are interpreted correctly.

Much of the grumbling about Circles comes from the fact that Ancestry promised the community a “better mousetrap,” and instead, released DNA Circles.  DNA Circles is just fine for what it is, but it’s a far cry from a better mousetrap – meaning it’s not a replacement for, nor better than, a chromosome browser.  It’s like being promised a “better car” and getting a bicycle while the “gifter” is trying to convince you it’s a Mercedes bicycle and you should love it, plus you don’t need a car anyway – you only think you do.

The biggest problem with DNA Circles is that people perceive Circles to be proof, when they aren’t – partly because of how the DNA is paired with no matching segment proof (chromosome browser) available – and partly because of inaccurate trees.  That said, twice now I’ve found a really good hint through Circles, even if one did subsequently disappear.  For that very reason, I check every single day.

But hear that word – HINT.

What is a DNA Circle and How Does It Work?

Just to be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a quick look at what a DNA Circle is.

Circle Henry Bolton

Circles are created around a specific ancestor.  To be included in a DNA Circle, you must match at least one other person’s DNA who shows that same ancestor in their tree, plus there must be at least another person who matches your DNA or that of the person’s DNA you match, and also has the same ancestor in their tree.  So, a minimum of three people.

Now, we don’t know if these people match on the same segment, or if they also share other ancestors that might cause DNA matching, but the more people who match each other (and you) in the Circle, the better chance there is that there is a connection through that ancestor.

Let’s take a quick look at segment matching and how it’s done from Ancestry’s document titled, “Do all members of a DNA Circle have the same matching segment?”  This paper along with others is available on your DNA results page by clicking on the question marks on the right hand side beside your DNA Circles header.  So, no DNA Circles, no help information about DNA Circles.

circle papers

In the segment matching example, below, you can see that the DNA of these three people shown do share DNA segments, but they are not triangulated.  A matches with B and C on different segments, and B matches with C and A – but again, not on the same segments.  A triangulated match that proves a connection through a common ancestor requires 3 individuals to share the same DNA segment.

If these three segments below were triangulated, you would see the same segment colored in blue (for example) on the chromosomes of all 3 individuals, not just two of the three.

circle segment matching

So, what’s wrong with matching?  Not a thing.  Not one single thing.  But a match to someone is not proof of this specific common ancestor.  You could match these two people on different common ancestors, because none of the DNA is shared by all 3 individuals and matches on the same segment.

The bottom line to this is that if Ancestry were showing you only matches that were triangulated to this ancestor, you might not have any at all.  Using Circles rather than triangulation gives you many more matches and many more individuals in your Circle – and Circles where you wouldn’t have Circles otherwise – and it’s much less accurate.  It’s a group of cumulative hints that together are really compelling – but they are not proof.  Proof does not exist in the Ancestry system with the current set of tools.

Proof is triangulation of at least three people who share the same ancestor that also share exactly the same DNA on the same segment.

This however, does not mean Circles are bad – it means they need to be used with full understanding and care.

Now, this does not HAVE to be the case, because every Circle could have an option to “see only triangulated matches.”  That would be the best of both worlds.

Henry Bolton is one of my most robust Circles, so let’s look at that.  You can see that I match the DNA of 5 individuals in the Circle who also show Henry Bolton in their tree.  These are not triangulated matches, because we don’t know if any of us match on the same segments (at least not through Ancestry’s system) – but we do know THAT we match and THAT we share common paper genealogy with the same ancestor.

circle henry bolton matches2

You can see the greyed out individuals and the greyed out connection network.  These greyed out people don’t match my DNA, but they do match the DNA of at least one person that I match, and also share Henry Bolton as a common ancestor, so they too are in the Henry Bolton DNA Circle.

By clicking on one of the other Circles, you can see who they match.  So, for example, by clicking on my first match clockwise, below, you can see that they match 2 of the people that I do, plus four people that I don’t.  These matching networks, while not proof that this is how you are genetically connected to these people, do serve as great research connections.  Hopefully, at least some of them will be willing to download to GedMatch or transfer to Family Tree DNA, or both, where you can utilize a chromosome browser.

circle henry match matches2

Regarding reliability, I’m much more likely to place confidence in a robust Circle like the Henry Bolton Circle with multiple DNA matches between me and other members than the Diedamia Lyon Circle shown below.  Diedamia is one of the “ancestors” identified and assigned to me as my “new ancestor” that isn’t.

circle diedamia lyon

Keep in mind that the Diedemia new ancestor match is WITHOUT the common tree match required to create a Circle – so just utilizing the DNA.  So what this “new ancestor” Circle is telling you is that I match both of these individuals and THEY have a common ancestor between them, so I have been assigned to that same common ancestor – which is incorrect.  Diedamia Lyon is not my ancestor.  We have no idea if I share any common segments between these two matches, which would at least increase the chances that I share a common ancestor with both of these people, because Ancestry does not do segment matching, and they don’t give us any tools to do it either.

Circles are not predictable and often come like the tooth fairy, at night, so every morning I check to see if I have a new DNA Circle, a new “New Ancestor” or any new shakey leaf DNA matches.

How Did I Get My DNA Circles and Matches?

I decided I wanted to see if I can make sense of how Ancestry’s Circles and New Ancestors are actually assigned or created, based on my matches.

As you know, I did the little experiment where I recreated myself as a newbie, so I can compare my results with my regular robust tree and a mini-tree with only me and my parents.  Through that experiment, we discovered that of my 16 DNA Circles, 2 got “assigned” as new ancestors when using a bare bones tree.  In addition, the son of that ancestor was also assigned, correctly as an ancestor, even though he didn’t have a prior Circle.  Of course, there are still the two incorrect ancestors assigned in both circumstances, the robust and the mini tree scenarios.

Let’s see if we can figure out some logic behind how this actually works.

I have been keeping a spreadsheet of my shakey leaf AncestryDNA matches with whom I share an identifiable ancestor on paper.  Why?  Because both matches and Circles tend to come and go.

I’ve assembled the chart below based on my DNA matches with shakey leaves, meaning we have both a DNA match and a tree match.  The column titled “Number of DNA+Tree Matches” is the number of DNA matches to someone who also shares that ancestor in a tree.  Of course, the DNA match could be from another line entirely, but this is based on what Ancestry has provided.

“Gen from Me” means the number of generations removed from me, according to Ancestry’s calculations shown with the match.

“Circle Member Robust Tree” means that I either do or do not have a Circle for that ancestor using the robust tree.

“Assigned as New Ancestor” indicates whether this ancestor was assigned as a “New Ancestor” using only the mini-tree.

Please note that some shakey leaf matches were lost when phasing was introduced.

Let’s see how this works.

For example, in the first row, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann had 8 DNA matches total, but lost 3 with phasing.  Currently, only 5 are shown as matches.  Henry is also shown twice as a match to just him and not Nancy Mann.  This makes sense, as he was married twice and I can clearly match Henry through a child of his first marriage.  Henry and Nancy are 5 generations removed from me and both Henry and Nancy are shown as Circles with my robust tree.  Both Henry and Nancy are also shown as “New Ancestors” in the mini-tree “recreate myself as a newbie” version.  My only other accurate “New Ancestor” is Henry’s son, Joseph Preston Bolton, who is not a Circle.

I sorted this first table by “Number of DNA+Tree Matches.”  Let’s see how that looks.  To begin with, my second highest match is George Dodson and Margaret Dagord with 7 matches, but they don’t form either a Circle or get assigned as a new ancestor.  However, I have lots of Circles with fewer matches.  Go figure.

Ancestor(s) Number of DNA+Tree Matches Gen from Me Circle Member (Robust Tree) Assigned as New Ancestor (Mini Tree) Comment
Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann 8 5 Yes, both Yes, both 3 matches gone with phasing, also shown by himself, 2 marriages
George Dodson, Margaret Dagord 7 8 No No Margaret also listed separately with 1 match
Johann Michael Miller, Suzanne Berchtol 7 8 No No
Jotham Brown 7 7 No No 3 matches gone with phasing
Joel Vannoy, Phoebe Crumley 6 4 Yes, both No
Abraham Estes and Barbara 5 9 No No
George McNiel, Sarah Coates 5 7 No No
John R. Estes, Ann Moore 4 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
Elizabeth Shepherd 4 6 No No Wife of William McNiel, not shown
John Francis Vannoy, Susannah Anderson 4 7 No No 2 matches gone with phasing
Philip Jacob Miller, Magdalena 4 7 No No
Robert Shepherd, Sarah Rash 4 7 No No
John Campbell, Jenny Dobkins 3 6 Yes, both No
Joseph Preston Bolton 3 4 No, but his parents have Circle, Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann Yes Two wives, my wife Margaret Herrell has 1 match, but she is not listed
Daniel Miller, Elizabeth Ulrich 3 6 No No
Stephen Ulrich 3 7 No No Married to Elizabeth Greib, Cripe, shown separately
Thomas Dodson, Dorothy Durham 3 8 No No
Andrew McKee 3 7 Circle disappeared No Had Circle, then gone
Fairwick Claxton, Agnes Muncy 2 5 Yes, both No
Jacob Lentz, Fredericka Moselman 2 5 Yes, both No
Nicholas Speak, Sarah Faires 2 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
Henry Bolton 2 5 Yes Yes He was twice married
Charles Dugas,  Francoise Bourgeois 2 9 No No
Cornelius Anderson,  Annetje Opdyke 2 8 No No
Francois Broussard, Catherine Richard 2 9 No No
Gershom Hall 2 7 No No Son of below
James Lee Claxton, Sarah Cook 2 6 No No Gone with phasing
Joseph Rash, Mary Warren 2 9 No No
Joseph Workman, Phoebe McMahon 2 7 No No
Thomas Dodson 2 9 No No
Francois Lafaille 2 2 Matches both gone with phasing
John Hill, Catherine Mitchell 1 6 Yes, John Hill only No
Charles Speak, Ann McKee 1 5 No No
Edward Mercer 1 7 No No
Elisha Eldredge, Dorcas Mulford 1 8 No No
Elizabeth Greib (also Cripe) 1 7 No No Wife of Stephen Ulrich, shown separately
Elizabeth Mary Angelica Daye 1 8 No No
Francois Dugas 1 8 No No
George Shepherd, Elizabeth Mary Angelique Daye 1 8 No No
Gershom Hall, Dorcas Richardson 1 8 No No Father of above
Gideon Faires, Sarah McSpadden 1 6 No No
Honore Lore, Marie Lafaille 1 5 No No
Jacob Dobkins 1 7 No No
Jacque Bonnevie, Francoise Mius 1 8 No No
James Hall, Mehitable 1 7 No No
Jan Derik Woertman, Anna Marie Andries 1 9 No No
Johann Nicholas Schaeffer, Mary Catherine Suder 1 8 No No
Lazarus Estes, Elizabeth Vannoy 1 3 No No
Margaret Dagord 1 8 No No Wife of George Dodson, also listed with him
Michael de Foret, Marie Hebert 1 9 No No
Moses Estes Sr. 1 8 No No Wife Elizabeth, LNU
Pierre Doucet, Henriette Pelletret 1 9 No No
Rachel Levina Hill 1 4 No No Wife of Antoine Hill
Raleigh Dodson, Elizabeth 1 7 No No
Suzanna Berchtol 1 8 No No
William Herrell, Mary McDowell 1 5 No No
Charles Hickerson, Mary Lytle 1 7 Circle disappeared for both No Had Circle, then gone
Francis Vannoy, Catherine Anderson 1 8 Match gone with phasing
John Vannoy 1 Match gone with phasing
Lois McNiel 1 6 Match gone with phasing

This comparison of matches to the Circles created is actually very surprising, because Circle creation seems to have very little correlation to number of DNA matches.  Circles require 2 people to match each other’s DNA, plus a third person that matches at least one of the other two – minimally.  There are very obviously behind the scenes criteria too, or I would have at least 36 Circles based on my matches to 3 or more people and 26 additional Circles if you could matches to only 2 people.  That’s a total of 62 Circles, not 16.

Of the 7 ancestral couples with 5 or more matches, which give us the potential for 14 individual Circles, only two couples, or 4 Circles exist.

The chart below is sorted by “Circle Member (Robust Tree),” so only the ancestors who are in Circles are shown.  The number of DNA matches range from 1 to 8.

Ancestor Number of DNA+Tree Matches Gen from Me Circle Member (Robust Tree) Assigned as New Ancestor (Mini Tree) Comment
Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann 8 5 Yes, both Yes, both 3 matches gone with phasing, also shown by himself, 2 marriages
Joel Vannoy, Phoebe Crumley 6 4 Yes, both No
John R. Estes, Ann Moore 4 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
John Campbell, Jenny Dobkins 3 6 Yes, both No
Joseph Preston Bolton 3 4 No, his parents have Circle, Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann Yes Two wives, my wife Margaret Herrell has 1 match, but she is not listed
Andrew McKee 3 7 Circle disappeared No Had Circle, then gone
Fairwick Claxton, Agnes Muncy 2 5 Yes, both No
Jacob Lentz, Fredericka Moselman 2 5 Yes, both No
Nicholas Speak, Sarah Faires 2 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
Henry Bolton 2 5 Yes Yes He was twice married
John Hill, Catherine Mitchell 1 6 Yes, John Hill only No
Charles Hickerson, Mary Lytle 1 7 Circle disappeared for both No Had Circles, then gone

Next, let’s take a look at the ancestors who have Circles created for them.

Surprisingly, I do have a DNA Circle based on only 1 DNA match.  The entire Circle is made up of three people.

circle john hill

I’m confused as to why this ancestor, John Hill, with one DNA match and one additional person in the Circle would have a Circle, but an ancestor like George Dodson and Margaret Dagord with 7 and 8 matches, respectively, wouldn’t.  Both of the two Circle matches also show the same wife as I do for John Hill, Catherine Mitchell, but there is no Circle for her.  Why not?

There is a line in the sand at which point Ancestry no longer creates Circles because they feel they are too far back in time to be reliable, but George Dodson/Margaret Dagord are at 8 generations, as are Henry Bolton/Nancy Mann who both have Circles, so that can’t be the problem.

Now, let’s look at who, from the matches and Circles was assigned as a “New Ancestor” when switching out my robust tree for the mini-tree.

Other than the two incorrect ancestors assigned, there were only three ancestors assigned from the more than 60 possibilities from ancestors who have 2 or more matches.  Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann both have a large number of matches, so I can clearly see why they were assigned as an ancestor.

What I’m unclearly about is how their son, Joseph Preston Bolton, was assigned as an ancestor.  He is not assigned as a Circle, or maybe that’s intentional because he’s downstream of Henry Bolton.  In any case, this a correct ancestor assignment.  I do have to wonder how Joseph Preston Bolton was assigned as a “New Ancestor” with only 3 matches and other ancestors with far more weren’t.

I thought perhaps it was because Joseph isn’t really that far upstream from me, at 4 generations, but then Joel Vannoy and Phoebe Crumley are also at 4 generations and have 6 matches and a Circle, but weren’t assigned as a “New Ancestor” using the mini-tree.  I can find no consistent theme here.

The following chart is sorted by “Assigned as New Ancestor (Mini Tree).”

Ancestor Number of DNA+Tree Matches Gen from Me Circle Member (Robust Tree) Assigned as New Ancestor (Mini Tree) Comment
Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann 8 5 Yes, both Yes, both 3 matches gone with phasing, also shown by himself, 2 marriages
Joseph Preston Bolton 3 4 No, his parents have Circle, Henry Bolton, Nancy Mann Yes Two wives, my wife Margaret Herrell has 1 match, but she is not listed
Henry Bolton 2 5 Yes Yes He was twice married
George Dodson, Margaret Dagord 7 8 No No Margaret also listed separately
Johann Michael Miller, Suzanne Berchtol 7 8 No No
Jotham Brown 7 7 No No 3 matches gone with phasing
Joel Vannoy, Phoebe Crumley 6 4 Yes, both No
Abraham Estes and Barbara 5 9 No No
George McNiel, Sarah Coates 5 7 No No
John R. Estes, Ann Moore 4 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
Elizabeth Shepherd 4 6 No No Wife of William McNiel, not shown
John Francis Vannoy, Susannah Anderson 4 7 No No 2 matches gone with phasing
Philip Jacob Miller, Magdalena 4 7 No No
Robert Shepherd, Sarah Rash 4 7 No No
John Campbell, Jenny Dobkins 3 6 Yes, both No
Daniel Miller, Elizabeth Ulrich 3 6 No No
Stephen Ulrich 3 7 No No Married to Elizabeth Greib, Cripe, shown separately
Thomas Dodson, Dorothy Durham 3 8 No No
Andrew McKee 3 7 Circle disappeared No Had Circle, then gone
Fairwick Claxton, Agnes Muncy 2 5 Yes, both No
Jacob Lentz, Fredericka Moselman 2 5 Yes, both No
Nicholas Speak, Sarah Faires 2 6 Yes, both No 1 match gone with phasing
Charles Dugas,  Francoise Bourgeois 2 9 No No
Cornelius Anderson,  Annetje Opdyke 2 8 No No
Francois Broussard, Catherine Richard 2 9 No No
Gershom Hall 2 7 No No Son of below
James Lee Claxton, Sarah Cook 2 6 No No Gone with phasing
Joseph Rash, Mary Warren 2 9 No No
Joseph Workman, Phoebe McMahon 2 7 No No
Thomas Dodson 2 9 No No
John Hill, Catherine Mitchell 1 6 Yes, John Hill only No
Charles Speak, Ann McKee 1 5 No No
Edward Mercer 1 7 No No
Elisha Eldredge, Dorcas Mulford 1 8 No No
Elizabeth Greib (also Cripe) 1 7 No No Wife of Stephen Ulrich, shown separately
Elizabeth Mary Angelica Daye 1 8 No No
Francois Dugas 1 8 No No
George Shepherd, Elizabeth Mary Angelique Daye 1 8 No No
Gershom Hall, Dorcas Richardson 1 8 No No Father of above
Gideon Faires, Sarah McSpadden 1 6 No No
Honore Lore, Marie Lafaille 1 5 No No
Jacob Dobkins 1 7 No No
Jacque Bonnevie, Francoise Mius 1 8 No No
James Hall, Mehitable 1 7 No No
Jan Derik Woertman, Anna Marie Andries 1 9 No No
Johann Nicholas Schaeffer, Mary Catherine Suder 1 8 No No
Lazarus Estes, Elizabeth Vannoy 1 3 No No
Margaret Dagord 1 8 No No Wife of George Dodson, also listed with him
Michael de Foret, Marie Hebert 1 9 No No
Moses Estes Sr. 1 8 No No Wife Elizabeth, LNU
Pierre Doucet, Henriette Pelletret 1 9 No No
Rachel Levina Hill 1 4 No No Wife of Antoine Hill
Raleigh Dodson, Elizabeth 1 7 No No
Suzanna Berchtol 1 8 No No
William Herrell, Mary McDowell 1 5 No No
Charles Hickerson, Mary Lytle 1 7 Circle disappeared for both No Had Circle, then gone
Francois Lafaille 2 2 Matches both gone with phasing
Francis Vannoy, Catherine Anderson 1 8 Match gone with phasing
John Vannoy 1 Match gone with phasing
Lois McNiel 1 6 Match gone with phasing

If you’re looking for answers to this mystery, you won’t find them here.  I don’t know.  All things considered, here is my collective wisdom on this subject.

  1. Enjoy your DNA Circles. Communicate with your matches. Ask them to download to Family Tree DNA and/or GedMatch where you have tools to work with. Watch for secondary lines through which you might match. I have found several where the DNA match is not to the ancestor in the Circle, but to a different, common line entirely. Of course, we still share the ancestor whose Circle we are in, assuming the trees are correct – it’s just that the DNA match is not from that ancestor.
  2. Understand that DNA Circles do not prove descent from that ancestor. The more people you match, the more strongly it implies a connection, but keep in mind that the DNA connection and the tree may not be connected either. Circles provide a “wider net” but also increases the potential for inaccuracy.
  3. Enjoy your “New Ancestors” but be extremely skeptical. Some of them will be ancestors. Some may be related but not ancestors. Some not only won’t be ancestors, you may not be able to figure out if or how they are related, no matter how large and robust your tree.
  4. Use all of this as a shakey leaf hint – which we all knows means that there’s something to check out – not gospel being dispensed.
  5. Make a spreadsheet to keep track of shakey leaf DNA matches, Circles and other people in the circle whose DNA you don’t match.  Just because your Circle or match is present today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow.
  6. New Ancestors and Circles are both beta software. There is a feedback button at the top of every DNA Circle, at the far right. Please submit courteous suggestions and comments.  Oh yes, and don’t forget to mention that we need a chromosome browser:)

circle feedback

Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim

ancestry new ancestor intro

On April 2, 2015, Ancestry rolled out its new ”New Ancestor Discoveries” feature.  The graphic above is now what greets me when I sign into Ancestry.com.

I wrote about my incorrect “new ancestor,” both of them actually, the day after the rollout. Contrary to what some people thought, this was not an April Fool joke – neither their release nor my article.

The software rollout was accompanied by a press release, in which Dr. Ken Chahine is quoted, among others, about Ancestry’s “New Ancestor” feature which claims to identify new ancestors for you by utilizing only your DNA, and not matching trees.  Their already implemented DNA Circles feature uses a combination of DNA matching and common ancestors found in trees between those matches – but this new feature uses only DNA.

“It is effectively a shortcut through time – you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree – AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA.

Needless to say, if this is true, it holds unparalleled promised for genetic genealogists.  After all, that’s what we all want – that elusive brick wall ancestor delivered to us – and our DNA has the potential to do just that.  In fact, for those of us brick walled in colonial America, especially in counties with no records, our DNA is the only hope we have of ever solving that mystery.

However, I find the claim that “you don’t need to research records or build a family tree” quite astounding – bordering on the incredulous.  An amazing claim for a genealogy company to make.  In fact, I reread that several times in disbelief, actually, and it has been bothering me ever since.  Ken Chahine is by no means an unintelligent man.  He’s a lawyer and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, among other things – so fully aware of the weight of his words.  I sincerely doubt, however, that he is a genealogist.

The video in this Ancestry blog by Kenny Freestone provides additional information and says that about three fourths of the “new ancestors” given to people are actually ancestors and the other one fourth are people who lived at the “same time and place as your ancestors so could be helpful as clues to point you in the right direction.”  That’s a bit of a different statement than the claim in both the e-mail and on my Ancestry DNA home page, shown below, that “we found you new ancestors.”

new ancestors hype

new ancestor e-mail 2

Ignoring Ancestry’s obvious hype, and the fact that both of my new ancestors aren’t, maybe things aren’t as bad as they appear at first glance.  I’m trying to be generous here.  Maybe if you don’t have a large, developed tree, this new feature is more helpful. Maybe it’s a fluke that I received two new ancestors and they were both unquestionably wrong.

Clearly, I realize that I’m one of the outliers – I have decades worth of experience in genealogy research and 15 years in genetic genealogy spent confirming paper genealogy.  So, I have an advantage that newcomers don’t have in that I know my ancestry back several generations and it has been proven with traditional genealogy records and confirmed with genetics through the 6th generation in most cases, and further back in some.

I’m also Ancestry’s worst nightmare – I’ve already spent my money for the test.  I know what DNA can do, what’s not being done and, along with others in my boat, am constantly clamoring for more – usually a chromosome browser, but in this case, just accurate representation.  I’m also far from alone.

Ancestry, on the other hand, fully knows that the rabid genealogists have already spent their $99 for their DNA test, so there is no incremental revenue to be had from us, aside from our subscriptions which we’re going to renew anyway.  Ancestry is focused on making DNA (and genealogy) easy and on recruiting new people.  That’s certainly not a bad thing – until it crosses the line between fact and wishful thinking.

Because of the investment in time, money and DNA that I’ve made personally over the years, I was able to very quickly discount the two “new ancestors” that Ancestry “found” for me.  Yep, Ancestry’s worst nightmare.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

But Ken Chahine’s claim really made me wonder.  What if I was a new person?  That’s clearly who Ancestry is targeting – someone who has never worked with a tree.  Ancestry wants them to test as the doorway, the entry, to genealogy.  How effective would this test be for them?  Is there a way, short of testing a second time, to find out?

Indeed, there is.  So let’s see if Ancestry really can do what Ken Chahine said.  Let’s try to prove Ken right.

We’re going to do something called regression testing.  In the technology world, this is where you already know the answer, but you set the system up to see if it can find the correct answer through the software only.  Think of new calculator software and testing to make sure when you add 2 and 2 you don’t get anything other than 4.  We’re going to use what we know about my matches, trees and DNA Circles through my normal tree and then we’re going to start over from scratch with a bare-bones tree and see what Ancestry finds.

My Proven Tree

First, let’s look at where we stand today, with my regular tree at Ancestry.  I’ve been a well-behaved genealogist and have done everything I can to help myself find connections.  I’ve entered my ancestor information and attached relevant hints, discarding others.  I have entered my full direct line tree at Ancestry, so all of my ancestors are available, with appropriate source information attached.  My tree is public.  I’m not holding out.  You notice there are no shakey leaves on my tree – that’s because I follow up on every single one of them.

ancestry claim full tree

Based on that information, here is what my DNA landscape at Ancestry looks like, utilizing my full tree, today.  I am a member of 16 DNA circles,  have 135 shared ancestor hints .

ancestry claim matches

And, oh yes, those two “new ancestors” gifted to me by Ancestry who aren’t my ancestors.

ancestry claim wrong ancestors

Of my 16 DNA Circles, several are relatively robust with 14, 15, 17 and 18 members.  These would be the best candidates for “New Ancestors” because there are so many matches.  Those four are Henry Bolton and wife Nancy Mann along with Nicholas Speaks and wife Sarah Faires.  You can see the number of members in the Circle at the bottom of each Circle below.

ancestry claim circlesancestry claim circles 2

Recreating Myself as a Newbie

In order to become a newbie again, I created a new mini-tree showing only my parents.  That’s where many people start.  I made my robust tree “private” and my new tree “public,” which means that Ancestry will not use the private tree for DNA comparisons, and will instead use the public tree.  Then I linked my DNA to my new mini-tree (under the settings gear under the DNA tab.)

ancestry claim mini tree

Given that with the robust tree, I have 16 DNA Circles and my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all, I should receive at least a subset of those circles and probably those erroneous “new ancestors” with the new mini-tree.

Ancestry told us previously that they refresh their database every 4 hours or so.  Sure enough, in just a few minutes, my circles and shakey leaf hints had all disappeared, which they should because those ancestors don’t exist in the new mini-tree.  However, my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all both remained.

So, I waited, because I’m sure that some of the Circles I was a member of with my robust tree will be shown now as “New Ancestors” with my mini-tree.

Be aware that Ancestry does have some hiccups in this beta version of the software.  It took overnight for the “switch” to the new tree to be completely effective, and in the meantime, it seemed to have been reading from both the new and old trees.  I know this because, at one point, it gave me back my 16 circles, which, of course is impossible because my mini-tree doesn’t include any ancestors other than my parents.  So, if you’re going to try this experiment, give it at least 24 hours to completely switch.

By the next day this had sorted itself out and I showed the following “New Ancestors.”

ancestry claim new ancestors

In addition to the same two “New Ancestors” who aren’t, Ancestry also gave me three correct ancestors, based on DNA alone, two of which, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, were DNA Circles previously, and the other new ancestor is their son.

I wonder where the other 14 Circle ancestors are and why they weren’t discovered?  Perhaps I didn’t match enough DNA or enough people, but that’s odd, because in many of the circles I DNA match far more people, as many as 7, than the two matches used to “give me” Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, incorrectly, as ancestors.

For a newbie who has no way to differentiate – meaning they don’t know who their ancestors are – this would be very exciting – and partially accurate.  However, there is no way to tell the difference between the accurate and inaccurate.  In fact, as a newbie, you have no way of knowing that some ARE or even might be inaccurate.  After all, Ancestry told you they are ancestors.  Why would you disbelieve them?  If someone finds that one of these ancestors is correct, they are likely to assume they are all correct, and probably vice versa.

I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was to receive two new ancestors, hoping they were brick wall ancestors, and then how horribly disappointed I was to discover that they weren’t.

Remember, for me to receive two new ancestors would mean a 30+ year brick wall would be falling that I have never been able to budge any other way.  Had these matches not been represented as “new ancestors,” I would have had an entirely different set of expectations.  Not only are they not ancestors, I can’t figure out how they are connected at all.  The best I can figure is that I match the two individuals who make up the New Ancestor “circle” on two different, unrelated, unidentified lines.  But let’s skip that for now and look at the three accurate ancestors as if I were a newbie.

Working With Results

Looking at my newbie results, Joseph Preston Bolton would be the easiest ancestor to find, as he shares a common surname with my grandmother and is her grandfather.  If I were an adoptee, of course, I wouldn’t know that, but if I know my grandmother’s surname, I would pick up on that commonality right away, as well as the locations shown in the story displayed for each new ancestor by clicking on the little leaf provided in the upper right hand corner.  Joseph’s is partially shown below.

ancestry claim joseph bolton

While the stories provided by Ancestry are all at least partially incorrect, because they are created from compiled trees – there are useful hints therein – if you know that’s how to interpret this information.  A warning, discussion or disclaimer about accuracy in the verbiage would be a nice touch – before the newbies make all of those novice mistakes and create even more incorrect trees by just accepting everything at face value.  We were all newbies once and did this – only to have to unravel it later.

The Good

The best part of this new feature is actually the new compiled “Facts” tab.

ancestry facts tab

It is a great tool to have the combined possible sources, possible facts and possible family members in one place.  I do really like this.  And Ancestry did the right thing and labeled them “possible.”  In this case, for Joseph Preston Bolton, these are from 188 combined family trees and I know beyond a doubt some of the information is wrong (like Joseph’s second wife’s Martin children from her first marriage are listed as Joseph’s children), but when I was sorting through Joseph initially, I would have loved to have had this repository of “possible facts” available in one place to sort through.

So, yes, I do think this tool could be very useful.  And I do think one day we will be able to tell people who their ancestors are, reliably, utilizing DNA alone.  But that day is not today.  So let’s say something more accurate, like “Your DNA suggests these people may be your ancestors or may be otherwise related to you.”

The Bad

My problem with this new feature isn’t what it does or doesn’t do, or even how well – it’s how it has been portrayed and the extremely inflated marketing hype that came along with it.

I applaud what Ancestry is trying to do.  I have a huge issue with how they are portraying DNA results – both directly and by inference.

It’s fine to give us “hints,” although what we really need is a chromosome browser.  But don’t give us a “hint” under the guise of something it isn’t – a new ancestor.  Call it what it is.  Don’t misset expectations.  This leads either to people who believe the hype and are wrong, seeding incorrect genealogies and trees, or people who discover they’ve been misled and then become disenchanted with both genealogy and genetic genealogy.

And Ken is right about not needing to build a family tree in order to take the test – even though that’s not exactly what he said.  However, receiving disarticulated ancestors, both correct and incorrect, means you absolutely must build a tree in order to figure out which ones actually ARE ancestors.  And then you’re disappointed to discover that some of your ancestors, aren’t, because they were represented as your “new ancestors.”  Of course, by the time you figure this out, you’ve already paid your DNA test money and you’re, hopefully, excited and motivated to find more.  I’m sure that’s the entire point, but saying that, “You don’t need to research records or build a family tree,” is a tad misleading.  Receiving 2 or 3 ancestors is not at all the same thing as knowing how you connect to them – and the only way to make that discovery is through research and by creating a tree.

So, in a way it’s better if you’re a newbie, because you’re more likely to receive a “new ancestor,” but it’s also worse because you have no tools or experience to judge whether your new ancestor actually is your ancestor – or how to connect to them.

Unfortunately, the newer or more naïve the tester, the more apt they are to accept Ancestry’s pronouncement of “new ancestor” at face value.  After all, Ancestry is a big genealogy company who deals with ancestors all of the time, and they are supposed to know what they are doing.  One would also presume they would not represent someone as an ancestor who isn’t, or who might not be, especially since Ancestry very clearly knows that some of these “new ancestors” aren’t.  I’m OK with them not being ancestors – just represent them appropriately.  “These MAY be your ancestors or you MAY be related to these people in another way,” might be a better way to present these results.

The Ugly

Playing fast and loose with the wording and over-representing what the product can do is going to give the entire industry a reputation for DNA being unreliable and testing companies as being smarmy.  Here’s an extract from a comment yesterday, “…the dna industry generally is not reliable.  So, while it may be fun to play with, none of this can be taken or should be taken seriously.”

Ouch, ouch, ouch.  While we know that’s not over-archingly true, it’s certainly the kind of commentary that Ancestry is inviting with its over-reaching and inaccurate marketing hype.  And that hurts all of us.

The Bottom Line

So I wouldn’t exactly say Ken is redeemed, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either – because by remaking myself as a newbie, I did receive three accurate ancestors along with the same two inaccurate ones.

By using my newbie results, Ken Chahine is 3/5th redeemed because 3 of my 5 new ancestors are in fact, ancestors, although we have no idea where my missing 14 ancestors who are circles with my robust tree have gone.  I have as many as 7 DNA matches to some of those circle ancestors who are absent, but only 2 DNA matches to the descendants of John Curnutte and Diedemia Lyons who are my incorrectly assigned “New Ancestors.”  So maybe Ken is really only 3/19th redeemed, depending on how you count.  Or, if you’re looking at my original results, my two “new ancestors” are still 100% wrong – so Ken is only partially redeemed if I’m a newbie with no prior info and no way to know my results are wrong.  So, I’m probably a very happy newbie camper (Wow – I got 5 new ancestors!) and a very unhappy experienced camper (I got 2 new ancestors and they are both wrong!)  Perception – it’s an amazing thing.

Regardless of how you count, If I were Ken, I’d still be going incognito to genealogy conferences where those experienced campers hang out wearing a wig and sunglasses for awhile.  Being 3/5th right about something as serious to genealogists as giving them incorrect ancestors is no saving grace, because it is still 2/5th wrong, especially when we know that given the tools we need, those of us who are so inclined could quickly eliminate the confusion.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

As a community we are beyond frustrated and exasperated, and exaggerated marketing claims are overshadowing the positive aspects of this new feature and making an already difficult situation worse.

What difficult situation, you ask?  The fact that people who don’t understand about genetic genealogy already claim that Circle membership “proves” ancestral descent (it doesn’t) and Ancestry consistently has refused to provide us with the chromosome browser tools we need to prove or disprove an ancestral connection.  Instead, we been given new ancestors who aren’t.  This is not a better mousetrap.  The only recourse we have is to beg our matches at Ancestry to download their results to either or both Family Tree DNA and www.gedmatch.com where we have tools.  That or blindly believe.

My Opinion

I hate hype, in particular untrue or misleading hype.  Out the gate, that colors my perspective of everything else and calls into question the credibility of the entity making the statements.

Setting that aside, I like the forward movement with technology and appreciate what Ancestry is trying to do.

This is indeed, the Holy Grail they are reaching for – being able to identify our ancestors based solely upon our DNA.  I said reaching for, because it’s certainly not here yet.  However, it’s not beyond reach either.  And I certainly want to encourage innovation – because, selfishly, I want to know who those elusive brick-wall ancestors are. I want new ancestors – real ones.

I am grateful for the information.  Ok, I would be grateful for the information were it accurate, or at least portrayed accurately – and it’s the portrayal that is really my issue here.

In my “real me” self, using the robust tree, I’m very irritated about receiving two incorrect ancestors, represented as my “new ancestors,” with no caveats, and no tools.  I am too wizened and seasoned to be a “trust me” kind of person.  I am not a blind believer.  I know better.  That combination of misrepresented and incorrect data is inexcusable because Ancestry knows better.  Not only that, they have the opportunity to provide the types of comparisons and tools that do represent proof, but have chosen not to.

In my “newbie” self that I recreated, I would have been excited to receive 5 new ancestors – and had no idea of what to do next – including no idea that two of them were entirely bogus.

The “real me” wants the novices to be successful – to come to love genealogy as many of us have over the decades.  To have the wonderful experiences we have had.  But to do that, they can’t be disenchanted by discovering that their ancestors gifted upon them aren’t true – after they’ve built that incorrect tree that is being copied.

The technology could be improved.  No doubt about that.  But first steps first and you have to crawl before you can walk.  I actually want to compliment the behind the scenes people for the work they have done.  Unfortunately, that effort is being overshadowed by the “in your face” marketing BS.

However, it takes no development effort to modify the way this test and results are portrayed to the consuming public.  And right now, that is what is needed most.

So, I’m happy that Ancestry is making this technology effort.  I’ll be excited when the methodology is perfected, a few years down the pike.  I’m glad to see Ancestry pushing the edge of the frontier.

I’m extremely unhappy with the combination of Ancestry’s overzealous marketing of this often incorrect new feature with the lack of the tools Ancestry clearly knows we need.

The most frustrating aspect is that the lack of tools holds our ancestors hostage just beyond our reach.  They could do so much.  Did Ancestry really think we would be appeased by Circles and “New Ancestors” that aren’t?

The Back Fence

You can see what others in the genetic genealogy community have to say about “New Ancestors,” below, and you can read the comments on my original article  and Ancestry’s blog postings as well.  Like I said, I’m far from alone.

Dr. David Dowell – Does Ancestry Think We are NOT OK?

Elizabeth Ballard – Ancestry DNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind

Kathleen Carrow Ingram – New Ancestors You Tell Me?  No proof?  Is this an April fool trick?

Annette Kapple – New AncestryDNA Circles: You Need A Big Tree

Judy Russell – Still Waiting for the Holy Grail

John D. Reid – “New Ancestor Discoveries” through AncestryDNA and beyond