Phasing Yourself

Do you ever have one of those “lightbulb” moments?

I do.

I was wishing there was a way at GedMatch to compare everyone against me and my mother at the same time – to see who we both match.  And then I realized….there is….but not in the way I had been thinking.

Both of my parents are deceased now, but my mother swabbed before she passed over…a gift I thank her for daily.

GedMatch provides a Phasing program, under Analyze Your Data.

GedMatch phasing

I used the Phasing program to recreate my father whose DNA hasn’t been available from him since 1963.  I had my DNA and my mother’s autosomal DNA results, so the phasing program compared those two files and split my DNA in half and created a “half” file that is my mother and the remainder “half” file that is my father – or at least the half of him that I received.

I looked at the Mom half file and thought to myself that I should delete it to make space since I have the whole Mom file.

I’m glad I didn’t, although I could certainly have recreated the file, because it’s that phased half Mom file that is the equivalent of running my matches against me and Mom together to see which of my matches match us both.

And the clear benefit, of course, is that I know immediately which side of the family my matches are from.  Plus, if anyone doesn’t match me and a parent, then the results are not IBD, identical by descent.  Phasing against a parent is the gold standard in determining IBD vs IBC or identical by chance.

Let’s take a look at the match results.  Please note that 1500 is the GedMatch display limit, so when you see 1500, it means more than 1500, but you have no idea how many more than 1500.  By running your two (maternal and paternal) half phased kits, you can obtain up to 3000 instead of being constrained by the 1500 limit.  In order to see more than 1500, you can sort several columns in highest to lowest and lowest to highest order, and often you can obtain the entire list by sorting the columns and copy/pasting to Excel, so long as the entire list isn’t over 3000.

10 cM 7 cM 5 cM
Full Kit 825 1500 1500
Mother Half 145 495 1500
Father Half 583 1143 1500
Total 2 Halves 728 1638 3000
Not IBD 97 >138 unknown

Truthfully, I was surprised to lose 97 matches at 10cM by having them match neither parent.  That’s about 12%.

The other tidbit you may find interesting is that I have so many more matches on my father’s side than on my mothers.  My mother’s four grandparents were Dutch (the immigrant off the boat), Brethren (endogamous, German), German (immigrant off the boat) and Acadian/English (here since very early 1600s, endogamous).  My father’s ancestors have been in this country for hundreds of years – all of them.  The German, Dutch and French aren’t nearly as well represented in the DNA data bases as are the traditional colonial Americans who had lots of children and moved west, into Appalachia leaving lots of descendants today trying to sort through their ancestry.

So, if you have one or both of your parents’ DNA, phase yourself at GedMatch.

For those of you who don’t have parents available, but do have other relatives, try the Lazarus tool to reconstruct part of an ancestor’s genome.

Ethnicity Testing and Results

I have written repeatedly about ethnicity results as part of the autosomal test offerings of the major DNA testing companies, but I still receive lots of questions about which ethnicity test is best, which is the most accurate, etc.  Take a look at “Ethnicity Percentages – Second Generation Report Card” for a detailed analysis and comparison.

First, let’s clarify which testing companies we are talking about.  They are:

Let’s make this answer unmistakable.

  1. Some of the companies are somewhat better than others relative to ethnicity – but not a lot.
  2. These tests are reasonably reliable when it comes to a continent level test – meaning African, European, Asian and sometimes, Native American.
  3. These tests are great at detecting ancestry over 25% – but if you know who your grandparents are – you already have that information.
  4. The usefulness of these tests for accurately providing ethnicity information diminishes as the percentage of that minority admixture declines.  Said another way – as your percentage of a particular ethnicity decreases, so does the testing companies’ ability to find it.
  5. Intra-continental results, meaning within Europe, for example, are speculative, at best.  Do not expect them to align with your known genealogy.  They likely won’t – and if they do at one vendor – they won’t at others.  Which one is “right”?  Who knows – maybe all of them when you consider population movement, migration and assimilation.
  6. As the vendors add to and improve their data bases, reference populations and analysis tools, your results change. I discussed how vendors determine your ethnicity percentages in the article, “Determining Ethnicity Percentages.”
  7. Sometimes unexpected results, especially continent level results, are a factor of ancient population mixing and migrations, not recent admixture – and it’s impossible to tell the difference. For example, the Celts, from the Germanic area of Europe also settled in the British Isles. Attila the Hun and his army, from Asia, invaded and settled in what is today, Germany, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe.
  8. Ethnicity tests are unreliable in consistently detecting minority admixture. Minority in this context means a small amount, generally less than 5%.  It does not refer to any specific ethnicity. Having said that, there are very few reference data base entries for Native American populations.  Most are from from Canada and South America.

In the context of ethnicity, what does unreliable mean?

Unreliable means that the results are not consistent and often not reproducible across platforms, especially in terms of minority admixture.  For example, a German/Hungarian family member shows Native American admixture at low percentages, around 3%, at some, but not all, vendors.  His European family history does not reflect Native heritage and in fact, precludes it.  However, his results likely reflect Native American from a common underlying ancestral population, the Yamnaya, between the Asian people who settled Hungary and parts of Germany and also contributed to the Native American population.

Unreliable can also mean that different vendors, measuring different parts of your DNA, can assign results to different regions.  For example, if you carry Celtic ancestry, would you be surprised to see Germanic results and think they are “wrong?”  Speaking of Celts, they didn’t just stay put in one region within Europe either.  And who were the Celts and where did they ‘come from’ before they were Celts.  All of this current and ancient admixture is carried in your DNA.  Teasing it out and the meaning it carries is the challenge.

Unreliable may also mean that the tests often do not reflect what is “known” in terms of family history.  I put the word “known” in quotes here, because oral history does not constitute “known” and it’s certainly not proof.  For the most part, documented genealogy does constitute “known” but you can never “know” about an undocumented adoption, also referred to as a “nonparental event” or NPE.  Yes, that’s when one or both parents are not who you think they are based on traditional information.  With the advent of DNA testing, NPEs can, in some instances, be discovered.

So, the end result is that you receive very interesting information about your genetic history that often does not correlate with what you expected – and you are left scratching your head.

However, in some cases, if you’re looking for something specific – like a small amount of Native American or African ancestry, you, indeed, can confirm it through your DNA – and can confirm your family history.  One thing is for sure, if you don’t test, you will never know.

Minority Admixture

Let’s take a look at how ethnicity estimates work relative to minority admixture.

In terms of minority admixture, I’m referring to admixture that is several generations back in your tree.  It’s often revealed in oral history, but unproven, and people turn to genetic genealogy to prove those stories.

In my case, I have several documented Native American lines and a few that are not documented.  All of these results are too far back in time, the 1600s and 1700s, to realistically be “found” in autosomal admixture tests consistently.  I also have a small amount of African admixture.  I know which line this comes from, but I don’t know which ancestor, exactly.  I have worked through these small percentages systematically and documented the process in the series titled, “The Autosomal Me.”  This is not an easy or quick process – and if quick and easy is the type of answer you’re seeking – then working further, beyond what the testing companies give you, with small amounts of admixture, is probably not for you.

Let’s look at what you can expect in terms of inheritance admixture.  You receive 50% of your DNA from each parent, and so forth, until eventually you receive very little DNA (or none) from your ancestors from many generations back in your tree.

Ethnicity DNA table

Let’s put this in perspective.  The first US census was taken in 1790, so your ancestors born in 1770 should be included in the 1790 census, probably as a child, and in following censuses as an adult.  You carry less than 1% of this ancestor’s DNA.

The first detailed census listing all family members was taken in 1850, so most of your ancestors that contributed more than 1% of your DNA would be found on that or subsequent detailed census forms.

These are often not the “mysterious” ancestors that we seek.  These ancestors, whose DNA we receive in amounts over 1%, are the ones we can more easily track through traditional means.

The reason the column of DNA percentages is labeled “approximate” is because, other than your parents, you don’t receive exactly half of your ancestor’s DNA.  DNA is not divided exactly in half and passed on to subsequence generations, except for what you receive from your parents.  Therefore, you can have more or less of any one ancestor’s individual DNA that would be predicted by the chart, above.  Eventually, as you continue to move further out in your tree, you may carry none of a specific ancestor’s DNA or it is in such small pieces that it is not detected by autosomal DNA testing.

The Vendors

At least two of the three major vendors have made changes of some sort this year in their calculations or underlying data bases.  Generally, they don’t tell us, and we discover the change by noticing a difference when we look at our results.

Historically, Ancestry has been the worst, with widely diverging estimates, especially within continents.  However, their current version is picking up both my Native and African.  However, with their history of inconsistency and wildly inaccurate results, it’s hard to have much confidence, even when the current results seem more reasonable and in line with other vendors.  I’ve adopted a reserved “wait and see” position with Ancestry relative to ethnicity.

Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder product is in the middle with consistent results, but they don’t report less than 1% admixture which is often where those distant ancestors’ minority ethnicity would be found, if at all.  However, Family Tree DNA does provide Y and mitochondrial mapping comparisons, and ethnicity comparisons to your matches that are not provided by other vendors.

Ethnicity DNA matches

In this view, you can see the matching ethnicity percentages for those whom you match autosomally.

23andMe is currently best in terms of minority ethnicity detection, in part, because they report amounts less than 1%, have a speculative view, which is preferred by most genetic genealogists and because they paint your ethnicity on your chromosomes, shown below.  You can see that both chromosome 1 and 2 show Native segments.

Ethnicity 23andMe chromosome

So, looking at minority admixture only – let’s take a look at today’s vendor results as compared to the same vendors in May 2014.

Ethnicity 2014-2015 compare

The Rest of the Story

Keep in mind, we’re only discussing ethnicity here – and there is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than ethnicity – for example – matching to cousins, tools, such as a chromosome browser (or lack thereof), trees, ease of use and ability to contact your matches.  Please see “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?”  Unless ethnicity is absolutely the ONLY reason you are DNA testing, then you need to consider the rest of the story.

And speaking of the rest of the story, National Geographic has been pretty much omitted from this discussion because they have just announced a new upgrade, “Geno 2.0: Next Generation,” to their offering, which promises to be a better biogeographical tool.  I hope so – as National Geographic is in a unique position to evaluate populations with their focus on sample collection from what is left of unique and sometimes isolated populations.  We don’t have much information on the new product yet, and of course, no results because the new test won’t be released until in September, 2015.  So the jury is out on this one.  Stay tuned.

GedMatch – Not A Vendor, But a Great Toolbox

Finally, most people who are interested in ethnicity test at one (or all) of the companies, utilize the rest of the tools offered by that company, then download their results to www.gedmatch.com, a donation based site, and make use of the numerous contributed admixture tools there.

Ethnicity GedMatch

GedMatch offers lots of options and several tools that provide a wide range of focus.  For example, some tools are specifically written for European, African, Asian or even comparison against ancient DNA results.

Ethnicity ancient admixture

Conclusion

So what is the net-net of this discussion?

  1. There is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than just ethnicity – so take everything into consideration.
  2. Ethnicity determination is still an infant and emerging field – with all vendors making relatively regular updates and changes. You cannot take minority results to the bank without additional and confirming research, often outside of genetic genealogy. However, mitochondrial or Y DNA testing, available only through Family Tree DNA, can positively confirm Native or minority ancestry in the lines available for testing. You can create a DNA Pedigree Chart to help identify or eliminate Native lines.
  3. If the ancestors you seek are more than a few generations removed, you may not carry enough of their ethnic DNA to be identified.
  4. Your “100% Cherokee” ancestor was likely already admixed – and so their descendants may carry even less Native DNA than anticipated.
  5. You cannot prove a negative using autosomal DNA (but you can with both Y and mitochondrial DNA). In other words, a negative autosomal ethnicity result alone, meaning no Native heritage, does NOT mean your ancestors were not Native. It MIGHT mean they weren’t Native. It also might mean that they were either very admixed or the Native ancestry is too far back in your tree to be found with today’s technology. Again, mitochondrial and Y DNA testing provide confirmed ancestry identification for the lines they represent. Y is the male paternal (surname) line and mitochondrial is the matrilineal line of both males and females – the mother’s, mother’s, mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.
  6. It is very unlikely that you will be able to find your tribe, although it is occasionally possible. If a company says they can do this, take that claim with a very big grain of salt. Your internal neon warning sign should be flashing about now.
  7. If you’re considering purchasing an ethnicity test from a company other than the four I mentioned – well, just don’t.  Many use very obsolete technology and oversell what they can reliably provide.  They don’t have any better reference populations available to them than the major companies and Nat Geo, and let’s just say there are ways to “suggest” people are Native when they aren’t. Here are two examples of accidental ways people think they are Native or related – so just imagine what kind of damage could be done by a company that was intentionally providing “marginal” or misleading information to people who don’t have the experience to know that because they “match” someone who has a Native ancestor doesn’t mean they share that same Native ancestor – or any connection to that tribe. So, stay with the known companies if you’re going to engage in ethnicity testing. We may not like everything about the products offered by these companies, but we know and understand them.

My Recommendation

By all means, test.

Test with all three companies, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry – then download your results from either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry (who test more markers than 23andMe) to GedMatch and utilize their ethnicity tools.  When I’m looking for minority admixture, I tend to look for consistent trends – not just at results from any one vendor or source.

If you have already tested at Ancestry, or you tested at 23andMe on the V3 chip, prior to December 2013, you can download your raw data file to Family Tree DNA and pay just $39.  Family Tree DNA will process your raw data within a couple days and you will then see your myOrigins ethnicity results as interpreted by their software.  Of course, that’s in addition to having access to Family Tree DNA’s other autosomal features, functions and tools.  The transfer price of $39 is significantly less expensive than retesting.

Just understand that what you receive from these companies in terms of ethnicity is reflective of both contemporary and ancient admixture – from all of your ancestral lines.  This field is in its infancy – your results will change from time to time as we learn – and the only part of ethnicity that is cast in concrete is probably your majority ancestry which you can likely discern by looking in the mirror.  The rest – well – it’s a mystery and an adventure.  Welcome aboard to the miraculous mysterious journey of you, as viewed through the DNA of your ancestors!

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

contact

In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?, we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe.  There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:

  1. I want to meet people I’m related to.
  2. I want to confirm my genealogy is correct.
  3. I want to find new ancestors.
  4. I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors.

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what is possible – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

Because of the different ways the various vendors have implemented their DNA matching software, there are different reasons why you might want to contact your matches.

23andMe

At 23andMe, you cannot send messages to your matches or share your matching DNA segments unless you obtain permission from each match to first communicate with them and then to share matching DNA segments, which can be one or two separate permissions.  23andMe has an internal messaging system that facilitates you sending a permission request to your matches.  Personalized messages work best.  If permission is granted, you can then begin a dialogue about common ancestors and how you might match that person.

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, you are provided with the e-mail address of everyone that you match within each person’s privacy selections.  Participants can upload their GEDCOM files, create family trees and enter a list of ancestral surnames.  You can search by current or ancestral surname.  The most common reason to contact someone you match at Family Tree DNA is if you are a match to them and they have not uploaded or created a family tree.

Ancestry

Ancestry also uses an internal messaging system.  The most common reason to contact a DNA match at Ancestry is if you match someone, and especially if you share a shakey leaf hint with them, meaning you have a common ancestor in your trees – but your match’s tree is private and you can’t see who that common ancestor might be.

GedMatch

If you upload your results to www.gedmatch.com, a free (donation based) site, you can then match your results to people who tested at all 3 companies – if they also have uploaded their results.  People provide their e-mails when uploading and configuring their accounts at GedMatch.  People who use GedMatch are often the most excited and “into” autosomal DNA matching and therefore, the most likely to contact matches.

Regardless of where you are matching, it’s important to make that first communication attempt count.  At 23andMe, if your match declines contact, you can’t communicate with them.  If they don’t reply, you can delete that first contact attempt and try again, but your attempts are limited – so you really do have to make them count.

Here are some helpful hints and approaches that do and don’t work well.  Your goal is to obtain a helpful response, so you want to position yourself in the best possible light to get that response.

A faux pas may kill your chances, so let’s start out with what not to do, and why, then we’ll look at how to make your communications a winner!

Don’t!

  • Don’t send group e-mails to everyone you match saying, “Hi, we all match. Can you tell me how?” Guess what? You won’t get many or any replies and you’ll have irritated all of your matches in one fell swoop. This is considered DNA spamming. Think about what you are writing before you press that send button.
  • Don’t say things like this to people: “Hi, I’m guessing (or hoping) that you’ve mapped your (or your cousin’s) chromosomes and you can just tell me how we are related.” When I told this person I have not mapped my cousin’s chromosomes – they had the bad judgment to ask me when I might get around to it.
  • Don’t provide just a few surnames and ask if they are related. Most of your matches will be more than 2 or 3 generations back in the tree, so the answer is likely going to be “no,” or no answer at all.
  • Don’t offer to send them an ancestry invite. That means they have to sort through your entire tree to find a match, AND Ancestry will attach your tree to their list forever. Give the e-mail recipient something to work with in the e-mail itself. Don’t make your problem their problem or they won’t reply. The more work they have to do to reply, the less chance they will.
  • Don’t send multiple e-mails with dribs and drabs of information in each one. If you have something to share, put it together logically and concisely in an e-mail and send one.
  • Don’t assume that someone of a different ethnicity isn’t related to you.
  • Don’t assume a particular surname is indicative of a person’s entire genealogical background.
  • Don’t convey an entitlement attitude. Remember, you are asking them to take a few minutes of their time to help you.
  • Don’t assume that all of your matches are from the US, or that English is their primary language – so use full state names and locations. The good news is that more and more people are testing from around the world.
  • Don’t send messages in all caps.
  • Don’t send messages with misspellings, incorrect grammar or abbreviated texting language. Translated, this means your phone or i-pad with autocorrect is probably not a good idea.
  • Don’t send the entire request in the title of the message. Yes, people do this.
  • Don’t send a message with a title like “hi there.”  It’s likely to go to the spam folder or be over looked or ignored.  Instead, title each message with the name of the test, the testing company and whose DNA you are writing about.  In other words, something like this: “Autosomal DNA Match at Family Tree DNA to John Doe”
  • Don’t just send the “canned” request message at 23andMe. Send a personal note. If you have an online tree, include that link. If you notice you have ancestors from the same part of the world, or country, tell them. If you match their DNA, tell them. Some people send match requests because they notice a common surname. In other words, try to find some common ground to start a conversation.
  • Don’t dash off a hurried, half-baked, partially complete message.  It shows and will be reflected in the responses you do, and don’t, receive.
  • Don’t expect others to do your work for you.  Recently, I received a match contact and when I asked the sender for the name of the person they matched, they told me they couldn’t remember, they had sent out a “mass mailing,” and asked me to check my kits and see if there were matches to them.  Seriously?  They also didn’t tell me the testing company name, nor the test type.  Three e-mails later, I still don’t know the name of the person they matched.  Guess what.  Delete!  Make it easy for your matches to help you and don’t waste their time by only providing partial information.

Do!

  • Read your matches profiles if they have provided one. It shows you took the time to read what they provided, and may give you some common ground out the door. “I see we both have ancestors from the Netherlands,” is a good icebreaker, for example.
  • Address the e-mail to the person using their name if it’s available. In other words, begin, “Hi Joe” not just “Hi.” Do not assume a gender. Names can be deceiving. My name is not deceiving, Roberta, but I can’t tell you how many e-mails I receive to Robert or “Mr. Estes.” This tells me they didn’t pay attention.
  • Do use capital letters and punctuation.  Otherwise, you’re telling the person on the receiving end they aren’t important enough to bother with – and they will likely treat your request in kind.
  • Enter information about yourself in your profile at the vendors, including your country of origin.
  • Upload a photo of yourself into your profile at the vendor so that people can see you. This makes you seem more like a real person and they may look at you for family resemblance. Probably shouldn’t upload a photo that might be controversial or off-putting if your goal is to maximize response.
  • Link your tree to your DNA results (Ancestry) or upload a Gedcom file (Family Tree DNA.) 23andMe is more challenging since their collaboration with My Heritage which is a subscription service. Most people simply put a link to their public tree someplace in their profile information at 23andMe.
  • Provide your name and kit number or other identifying information in all correspondence – including the first e-mail.
  • Include kit numbers (GedMatch) and/or names (Family Tree DNA) that you’re matching. Many people manage multiple kits for family members and if they have to go and look for you in their kits’ matches, they won’t.  Don’t make the recipient have to guess at any part of the equation.  Say something like this, “Hi, I match John Smith’s autosomal DNA test at Family Tree DNA and you are his e-mail contact…”
  • Tell them where you tested and where you are matching them. “Hi, I tested at Ancestry and downloaded by kit to GedMatch where I’m kit number A100007. I’m matching kit F9141, Jane Doe, where you are listed as the contact.”  Be sure to get the name of the testing company right.  Today, someone told me the test was through “Family Search,” who, of course, does not do DNA testing.
  • If you are matching on a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, tell them at what level you’re matching.  Otherwise, they have to search through each level to find you.  On mitochondrial DNA, if you and they both tested to the full sequence level, but you’re only matching on the HVR1 level, it’s not nearly as compelling or interesting as if you match at the full sequence level with no mutations difference.  So, tell them, “I’m a match to John Doe at Family Tree DNA at the full mitochondrial level, with no mutations difference.  Maybe we can find our common ancestor.  My direct mitochondrial line is….”
  • If you are matching at GedMatch and you lowered the match threshold from the default, tell them. Better yet, don’t lower the threshold, at least not for initial comparisons.
  • Make replying to your query as easy as possible. You stand a much better chance of getting a reply. The more work you make them do, the less chance you’ll get a reply.
  • Include your full name and e-mail address if you are using Ancestry’s or 23andMe’s message systems.
  • Get your facts straight. I recently received an e-mail from someone who told me that we matched on 21% of our DNA and one segment. I knew that was impossible because 21% is in the half sibling range and if you’re a half sibling – you will match on a whole lot more than one segment. If you don’t pay attention and get your facts straight, it’s less likely that the person you are contacting will take you seriously.
  • Accept contact requests if you tested at 23andMe and receive a contact or sharing request, and be sure to share genomes so that you can see how you match and use their comparison tools like their Family Inheritance: Advanced.
  • Include a very brief, maybe two sentence summary about yourself in contact requests. Something like. “It appears we may match on my father’s side which is primarily from Appalachia, which means they were Scotch-Irish and British before that” or “My maternal heritage is from Scandinavia, so the names may not look familiar to you. My mother’s family is from the area near Stockholm.” Do not tell them your life story or ramble. You’ll lose them.
  • Send a pedigree chart (preferably with an index) in pdf format if you’re using e-mail or a link to a tree. I have a pedigree chart for my mother’s side and my father’s side. I can tell which side they match because my mother has tested as well. One of the best tools I have ever received with a query is shown below. It was sent as a spreadsheet, which made it incredibly easy for me to sort, but wouldn’t work for everyone. It could be sent as a pdf file as well, and is very easy to scan for surnames and locations. I immediately liked this person and absolutely knew they were serious and we stood a chance of making a genealogy connection.  (Click on the image to make larger in a separate window.)

ancestor spreadsheet

  • Take the time to learn about autosomal DNA, matching and what it means. Aside from the many articles on this blog which you can find by using the key search word “autosomal,” here are four additional resources for you:

Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond by Emily Aulicino
NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection by David Dowell
DNA Adoption’s classes
Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy by Kelly Wheaton

  • If you’re adopted or searching for an unknown parents or grandparent, visit www.dnaadoption.com.
  • If you have a blog or genealogy webpage, include that information, maybe below your signature.
  • If you’re serious about maximizing your opportunities for success with genetic genealogy, you’ll want to test at all 3 companies, Family Tree DNA (Y, mtDNA and autosomal), Ancestry and 23andMe. Family Tree DNA facilitates reduced cost file transfers from Ancestry and from 23andMe if you tested before Dec. 2013 (when 23andMe changed their chip.) They all have their strong and weak points – but the bottom line is that you’ll want to fish in all three ponds. You’ll also want to download your results from one of those companies, preferably Family Tree DNA or Ancestry, to www.gedmatch.com, a site that facilitates comparison of data from the various companies and provides some great tools. GedMatch is a contribution site, so don’t forget to donate. Some of their Tier 1 tools require a minimal subscription of $10 a month, which is well worth it if you are serious. Ask your matches if they have downloaded their data to GedMatch and provide your kit number there.
  • Be courteous and gracious. Say please and thank you. You’d be amazed how many people say neither.
  • Share this article with eager newbies who need a little direction. Most newbies aren’t going to find this article before shooting off that e-mail in their initial excitement to an entire group of matches. By helping them to better focus their efforts, you’ll be helping yourself too. Most newbies have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into!

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to contributors in the ISOGG Facebook group for helping to flesh out these tips for success.

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?

When I first started this blog, my goal was to provide explanations and examples of genetic genealogy topics so that there would be fewer questions and easier answers.

That sounded like a great idea, but the reality of the situation is that the consumer market for autosomal DNA testing has exploded – meaning more and more consumers with more and more questions.  Compounding that situation, the consumers who purchase these tests today, especially on impulse, and mostly I’m referring to Ancestry.com here, often have absolutely no idea what to expect or even what they want except that Ancestry will find their ancestors for them.  That’s because that’s what Ancestry tells them in their advertising.

So, in the big picture, the questions and inquiries that experienced people are currently receiving are becoming less specific and more general and often exhibit a lack of understanding of what DNA testing can do.  It’s frustrating to parties on both sides of the fence, but I’m glad people are asking because it means they are interested and willing to learn.

Rather than approach this topic from a technical perspective of how to work with autosomal DNA, I’d like to talk about what can be done with autosomal DNA testing from a newbie perspective.  The person who just got their results back and are saying to themselves, “OK, now what can I do with this?”

However, there is lots “how to” information in this article for everyone if you click on the links.  If nothing else, this gives you a tool to send to those overly excited newbies who are starry eyed but have no clue how to proceed.  Remember, you were once new too!

This is part 1 of a two part series.  The second part will focus on how to make contact with your matches successfully.  But now, let’s pretend it’s day 1 and you just got your autosomal test results back.

Why Did You Test?

The first question to ask yourself is why did you test in the first place?  If your answer is “because Ancestry had a sale,” that’s fine, but then you’ll need to read all four options to know what you can do with autosomal DNA.

1.  I want to meet other people I’m related to.

Ok, but the first thing here you’re going to have to define is the word “related.”  You are likely related to everyone on your match list.  I said likely, because there may be some people there whose DNA simply matches yours by chance.  For the most part, and especially for those people who are your closest matches, you’re related somehow. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how – meaning through which ancestor.  This is the genealogy jigsaw puzzle of you!

All three of the major vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe show you your closest matches first on your match list.

autosomal 101 FTDNA

Do you want to meet your DNA cousins only if you can identify a common ancestor?  Do you want to work with them on genealogy? The answers to these questions will help sort through the rest of what to do and how.

If your goal is to contact your matches, then Family Tree DNA is the easiest, as they provide you with the e-mail addresses of your matches by clicking on the little envelope for each match on your match page, shown above.

Ancestry is second easiest, but forces you to use their internal message system which often doesn’t deliver the messages.  (Do not send more than 30 in one day or Ancestry will blacklist your messages and block your communications, thinking you are a spammer.)

23andMe is the most difficult as you have to request permission to communicate with each match and also to share DNA and if your match authorizes communication, then you can communicate through 23andMe’s message system.  Sound cumbersome?  It is and the response rate is low.

Confirming Genealogy

Let’s look at another reason for testing.

2.  I want to confirm my genealogy is correct – meaning that my great-grandfather really is my great-grandfather and so forth on up the line.

Well, you’re in luck, especially if some of your cousins, known or otherwise, have tested.  Confirming your genealogy is easier done in closer generations than more distant ones and the more cousins from various lines that have tested, the better.  That’s because you will share more of your DNA with relatives when you have a close common ancestor.

Autosomal DNA is divided approximately in half in each generation, when the child receives half of their DNA from each parent – so the closer your cousin, the more likely you are to share more DNA with them.  The more DNA you share, the more likely you are to be able to identify which ancestor it comes from.  And if a match matches you and your proven cousin both on the same segment, that identifies positively which line that match comes from.  That three way matching is called triangulation.

Let’s talk about the word “confirm.”  Herein lies a challenge, because DNA does have the absolute ability to confirm ancestors, as noted above.  DNA also has the ability to give you hints that go towards a “preponderance of evidence.”  DNA, can also lead you astray if you draw erroneous conclusions – and one vendor provides a tool (or tools) that encourages overstepping conclusions.  Let’s look at each circumstance.

Proof Positive through Triangulation

Just what it says – absolutely unquestionable proof that a particular ancestor is your ancestor.  If you match two other people who also descend from your common ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, on the same segment of DNA, that is confirmation that you share that ancestor and that segment of your DNA is considered proven to that ancestral line.  This requires two things.  First, that your DNA matches on the same segment AND that you have identified the same ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, genealogically in your trees.

Now, you probably can’t tell which side of the couple, Jane or Joe, the DNA is from unless you also match two people on just Jane’s side of the family or just Joe’s on that same segment.

One caveat here – counting you and your parent as two of the three people doesn’t work because you and your parents are too close in the tree.  By three people, that would preferably be three people who descend from that couple through three different children.

Here’s an example.

JohnDoe

It would also ideally be more than three people, but three is the minimum to form a triangulation group.  In the real world, these matches might not start and end of the same segments as in the example above, but the overlapping portion should be significant

The example above is proof positive, because the three people descend from the same ancestor, through different children, and match on the same chromosome in the same locations.

This technique is called triangulation.

Now for the bad news – you can’t do this at Ancestry.com, because they don’t provide you with any of the segment information in the last 5 columns.  Ancestry has no chromosome browser, which is the tool that shows you where on your DNA you match your cousins.

Family Tree DNA’s chromosome display tool that is part of their chromosome browser is shown below.

Two cousins browser

On the example above, you can see that Barbara Jean Long, the black background person on the chromosome graphic, is being compared to her two first cousins, the blue and orange on the chromosome graphic.

You can download the information from Family Tree DNA or 23andMe in spreadsheet format, or you can display the information graphically, like in the example above.  You can see the “stacked” locations where both the cousins match the black background person they are being compared to.  You can also see that there are some locations where only one of the cousins matches the background person, like on chromosome 20.  And of course, some locations where neither cousin matches the background person, like on chromosome 21.

If you download that data, the information gives you the locations where the people being compared match the person they are being compared against.

Two cousins combined

The chart above is the download of part of chromosome 1 for Barbara, Cheryl and Donald, siblings who are Barbara’s first cousins.

The areas where the 3 people overlap, or triangulate, are colored in green on the spreadsheet, while the rows entirely in pink or blue do not triangulate – meaning Barbara matches either one cousin or the other, but not both.  Keep in mind that this example only proves their common ancestral couple, which in this case are common grandparents – but the technique is the same no matter which common ancestor you are trying to prove.

This bring us to our next topic, that of close relatives.

Close Relative Matches

I previously said that you can’t use you and a close relative to prove a distant ancestor.  But that’s not necessarily true when the relationship you are trying to prove is closer in time.  The chart below shows the relationships of the example above.

Miller Ferverda chart

In the case shown above, two first cousins who are siblings, Cheryl and Don, are being compared to their common first cousin, Barbara.  Their fathers were siblings and their common ancestors were their grandparents.  This is not 6 generations up a tree where matching is iffy.  You can be expected to match closely with your first cousins where you may not match with more distant cousins, because you simply didn’t inherit any of the same DNA from your distant common ancestor.  You should be sharing about 12.5% of your DNA with first cousins, and if you have first cousins that you’re not matching, that might signal that an undocumented adoption has occurred in one line or the other.

In a case like this, if you and a first cousin match, that suffices to prove a close connection.  If you don’t match, it suffices to raise questions.  A lot of questions.  Big ugly questions.  The next thing to do is to see if any other known cousins have tested and who they match – or don’t match.

For example, if Barbara Ferverda was not the child of John Ferverda, she would not match either Cheryl nor Don, and we’d know there was a problem.  If Cheryl and Don match other Ferverda or Miller relatives and Barbara didn’t, then we’d know the genetic break in the line was on Barbara’s side and not on Cheryl/Don’s side.

This same technique is also how we know which “side” matches are on.  If an unknown match matches both Barbara and Cheryl, for example, it’s a good bet that their common ancestor is someplace in the Miller/Ferverda line.  If they also match another Miller on the same segment, then the common ancestor has been narrowed to the Miller side of the Miller/Ferverda couple.

Unfortunately, not all DNA results are as definitive or easy to prove as these.  Let’s look at some of the more “squishy” results.

Preponderance of Evidence through Aggregated Data

In regular genealogy, there are a range of proofs.  There is direct evidence that someone is the child of an ancestor.  That would be a will, for example, that names a daughter and her husband and maybe even tells where they moved to.  This would be your lucky day!

Think of that will as equivalent to triangulated proof of a common ancestor.  There is just no arguing with the evidence.

If you’re not that lucky, you have to piece the shreds of indirect evidence together to make a story.  In the genealogy world, this is called preponderance of evidence, and I am always, always much less comfortable with this type of evidence than I am with solid proof.

There are various flavors of pieces of evidence in the DNA world. Sometimes we have hints of relationships without proof.

The most common is when you have matches with a group of people who share the same surname, but you can’t get back far enough to find a common ancestor.  Is this a probable match?  Yes?  Guaranteed?  No.  Have I seen them fall apart and the actual match be on another entirely unrelated line?  Yes.  See why I call these squishy?

Ancestry takes this one step further with their DNA Circles.  For a DNA Circle to be created, you must match DNA with someone in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must match DNA with someone else in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must have a common ancestor in their tree.  Circles begin with a minimum of three people.  Generally, the more people who match AND have the same ancestor, the stronger the likelihood that you would be able to confirmation the common ancestor of the group as your ancestor too – if you had a chromosome browser type of tool.  Still, Circles alone are not and never will be, proof.  Circles are great hints and along with other research, can confirm genealogical research.  For example, my paper genealogy says I descend from Henry Bolton, and I find myself in Henry Bolton’s tree, matching several other Bolton descendants through Henry’s other children.  Those multiple connections pretty well confirms the paper trail is accurate and no undocumented adoptions have occurred in my line.

Now, the bad news….Circles is predicated upon matching of trees.  If there is a common misconception out there that is replicated in these trees, then people who match will be shown in a Circle predicated on bad information.  And, there is no way to know.  However, people interpret the existence of a DNA Circle as proof positive and that it confirms the tree.  Membership in a DNA Circle is absolutely NOT proof of any kind, let alone proof positive – except that your DNA matches the people who you are connected to by lines and their DNA matches the people they are connected to by lines.  You can see my connections in orange below, and the background connections in light grey.

circle henry bolton matches2

This is an example of my Henry Bolton Circle.  I match 5 different people’s DNA (the orange lines) who also show Henry Bolton as their ancestor.  This does NOT mean the match is on the same segment, so it is NOT triangulated.  This is a grouping of data where multiple people match each other, not a genetic triangulation group where everyone matches on the same segment.  In fact there are cases that I have found where the person I match in a circle is through a different line entirely, so in that case, the presumption of which common ancestor our common DNA is from is incorrect.

I want to be very clear, there is nothing wrong with DNA Circles, so far as they go.  The consumer needs to understand what Circles are really saying – and what they can’t and don’t say.  DNA Circles are another important tool in our arsenal.  We just have to be careful not to assume, or presume, more than is there.  Presuming that we match someone in the Circle because we share Henry Bolton’s DNA may in fact be inaccurate.  We may match on a completely unrelated line – but because we do match and share a common ancestor in our tree – we both find ourselves in the Henry Bolton Circle.

Are you reading those squishy words?  Presume – it’s related to the word assume…right???  And keep in mind that Circles are created based in part on those wonderfully accurate Ancestry trees.  Are you feeling good about this preponderance of evidence yet?

However, in my case, I’ve done due diligence with the genealogy and I have all of my proof ducks in a row.  The fact that I do match so many Bolton descendants confirms my work, along with the fact that at the other vendors and at GedMatch, I  have triangulated my matches and proven the Bolton DNA.  So, this circle is valid but the only proof I have is not found at Ancestry or because I’m a Circle member, but by triangulation and aggregated data using other vendor’s tools.

This next screen shot is of an exact triangulated match using GedMatch’s triangulation tool.  Each line shows me matching two cousins, along with the start and stop segments.  This just happens to be the Ferverda example.  So, I match six people, all on the same segment, all with a known common ancestor.  This is proof positive.  Not all “matching” is nearly so definitive.

Gedmatch triangulation

Sometimes the matches aren’t so neat and tidy. That’s when we move to using aggregated data.

Aggregated Data – What’s That?

Aggregated data is a term I’ve come up with because there isn’t any term to fit in today’s genetic genealogy vocabulary.  In essence, aggregated data is when a group of people (who may or may not know who their common ancestor is) match on common segments of data, but not necessarily on the same segments, or not all of the same segments.  When you have an entire group of these people, they form a stair step “right shift” kind of graph.

The interesting part of this is that by utilizing aggregated data and looking not only at who we match, but who our matches match that share a common ancestor, we can gain insight and hints.  Finding a common ancestor is of course a huge benefit in this type of situation because then you’ve identified at least a DNA “line” for the entire group.

If we were to utilize the triangulation tools at Gedmatch and look at my closest triangulated matches, they would look something like this, where the segments that I match with each person (or in this case, two people) shift some to the right.  What you are seeing is the start and stop match locations, with graphing.  Therefore, I match all of these people that have a common ancestor.

Each match overlaps the one above and below to come extent – and often by a lot.  These are known as triangulation groups (TG).

However, the top match and the bottom match do not overlap, so they don’t triangulate with each other.  They are still valid triangulated matches to me and you can expect to see this kind of matching when using aggregated data.

Understand that when you see your triangulation groups at GedMatch, your mother’s side and your father’s side will be intermixed. In this case, I know the common ancestor and I know many of these testers, so I’m positive that this is a valid grouping (plus, they all match my Mom too – the best test of all.)

gedmatch triang group

Here’s another example only showing three matches.  All three are triangulated to me through the same ancestor, but the locations of the top and bottom matches don’t overlap with each other.  Both overlap the one in the middle in part.

gedmatch overlap

New Ancestor Discoveries – Not Evidence at All

Let’s look at the third reason for DNA testing.

3.  I want to find new ancestors.

Discovering brand new ancestors is a bit tougher.

There are two ways to discover new ancestors.  The first is through triangulation combined with traditional genealogy.  I have done this, but in these cases, I did have a clue as to what I was looking for.  In other words, the new ancestor I discovered was actually confirming a wife’s surname or identifying the parents of an ancestor from several potential candidate couples.

The second way to potentially discover a new ancestor is Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries, NADs, which is really a somewhat misleading name.  What Ancestry has determined is that you match a group of people who share a common ancestor – and Ancestry’s leap of faith is that you share that ancestor do too.  While that may not be correct, what IS very relevant is that you do match this group of people who DO share a common lineage and there is an important hint there for you someplace!  But don’t just accept Ancestry’s discovery as your new ancestor – because there is a good chance it isn’t.  Let’s take a look.

Ancestral Lines Through Triangulation

Let’s go back to the John Doe example.

JohnDoe

Let’s take the worst case scenario.  You’re an adopted and have no information.  But you match an entire group of people in a triangulated group who DO know the identity of their common ancestor.

Does this mean that John Doe is your ancestor?  No.  John Doe could be your ancestor, or he could be the brother of your ancestor, or the uncle of your ancestor.  What this does tell you is that either John Doe is your ancestor, some of John Doe’s ancestors are your ancestors, or you are extremely unlucky and you are matching this entire group by chance.  The larger the segment, the less likely your match will be by chance.  Over 10 cM you’re pretty safe on an individual match and I think you’re safe with triangulated groups well below 10 cM.

Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries

You can make this same type of discovery at Ancestry, but it’s not nearly as easy as Ancestry implies in their ads and you have no segment data to work with, just their match, shown below.

Larimer NAD

“Just take the test and we’ll find your ancestors,” the ad says.  Well, yes and no and “it depends.”

Ancestry went out on a limb a few months ago, right about April Fools Day, and frankly, they fell off the end of the branch by claiming that New Ancestor Discoveries are your missing ancestors found.  While that is clearly an overly optimistic marketing statement, the concept of matching you with people you match who all share a common ancestor is sound – it was the implementation and hyper-marketing that was flawed.

The premise here is that if you match people in a Circle that have a common ancestor, that you too might, please note the word might, share that ancestor – even if that person is not in your tree.  In other words, even if you don’t know who they are.  Just like the John Doe triangulation example above.

Here is my connection to the Larimer DNA Circle, even though I don’t know of a Larimer ancestor.

Larimer NAD circle

Now, the problem is that you might be related to an ancestor on one side upstream several generations, but it’s manifesting itself as a match to that particular couple because several people of that couple’s descendants have tested.  I’ve shown an example of how this might work below.

common unknown ancestor

In this example, you can see that your true common ancestor is unknown to both groups of people, but it’s not Mary Johnson and John Jones, or in my case, not John and Jane Larimer.

However, three descendants of Mary Johnson and John Jones tested, and you match all three.  If you also showed Mary Johnson and John Jones in your tree, then you’d be in a Circle with them at Ancestry.  However, since Mary Johnson and John Jones are NOT your ancestors, they are not in your tree.  Since you match three of their descendants, Ancestry concludes that indeed, Mary Johnson and John Jones must also be your ancestors.

While NADs are inaccurate about half the time, the fact that you do share DNA with the people in this group is important, because someplace, upstream, it’s likely that you share a common ancestor.  It’s also possible that you match these three people through unconnected ancestors upstream and it’s a fluke that they all three also descend from this couple.  And yes, that does happen, especially when all of the people involved have ancestors from the same region.

The first day that Ancestry rolled the New Ancestor Discoveries, I was assigned a couple that could not possibly be my ancestors.  I called them Bad NADs.

In my experience, there are more erroneous NADs out there than good ones.  I knew my original one was bad, as I had proof positive because I have triangulated my other lines.  Then, one day, my bad NAD was gone and now, a few weeks later, I have another assigned NAD couple that I have not been able to prove or disprove – the Larimers.  Truthfully, after the bad NAD fiasco, I haven’t spent a lot of time or effort because without tools, there is no place to go with this unless the people I match will download their results to GedMatch.  I’m hoping that a new tool to be released soon will help.

Here’s how NADs could be useful.  Let’s say that my Larimer matches download to GedMatch and I discover that they also match a triangulated group from my McDowell line.  Well, guess what – my Michael’s McDowell’s wife is unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  Michael’s mother is also unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  It gives me a line and a place to begin to work, especially if they share any common geography with my ancestors.

Even if the NADs aren’t my direct ancestors, this is still useful information, because somehow, I probably do connect to these people, even though my hands are somewhat tied.  However, labeling them New Ancestor Discoveries encourages people to jump to highly incorrect conclusions.  This isn’t even in the preponderance of evidence category, let alone proof.  It’s information that you can potentially use with other DNA tools (at GedMatch) and old fashioned genealogy to work on proving a connection to this line.  Nothing more.

So what is the net-net of this? Circles can count in the preponderance of evidence, especially in conjunction with other evidence, but NADs don’t.  Neither are proof.  If we were able to work with the segment data and compare it, we might very well be able to determine more, but Ancestry does not provide a chromosome browser, so we can’t.

Ancestor Chromosome Mapping

4.  I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors so that I know which of my DNA I inherited from each ancestor.

If this is your DNA testing goal, you certainly did not start by testing with Ancestry.com, because they don’t have any tools to help you do this.  This tends to be a goal that people develop after they really understand what autosomal DNA testing can do for them.  In order to map your genome, you have to have access to segment information and you have to triangulate, or prove, the segments to each ancestor.  So count Ancestry out unless you can talk your matches into downloading their raw data files to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  You’ll be testing with both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe and downloading your match information to a spreadsheet and utilizing the tools at www.gedmatch.com and www.dnagedcom.com.

Just so you get an idea of how much fun this can be, here’s my genome mapped to ancestors a few months ago.  I have more mapped now, but haven’t redone my map utilizing Kitty Cooper’s Tools.

Roberta's ancestor map2

Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what you can do – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

So join me in a few days for part two of Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.

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.

John Y. Estes (1818-1895), Civil War Soldier, Walked to Texas, Twice, 52 Ancestors #64

John Y Estes

John Y. Estes, whose photo we believe is shown above, started out years ago with a question, one that is probably answered now, but every time we think we answer one question about him, another dozen take its place.

Let’s start from the beginning.  When I first saw John’s name, I immediately noticed the Y.  Two things occurred to me…first, that’s someone’s last name and second, that’s shouldn’t be too difficult to find.  Y is not like S that would include something like Smith and takes up 10% of the alphabet.  Famous last words, or first thoughts, because assuredly, that second thought was NOT true.

Now don’t laugh, but one time I was at one of those fortune telling places.  The fortune teller asked me if I had any more questions.  I said yes, and asked her about John Y. Estes’s middle name.  She said something like Yarborough or maybe Yancy.  She wasn’t right about anything else either.

Nope, never let it be said that genealogists are a desperate group!

John Y. Estes was born on December 29, 1818, in Halifax County, Virginia to John R. Estes and his wife, Nancy Ann Moore.  Hmmmm, that middle initial R. might be someone’s last name….never mind….

We know that John R. Estes and his wife, Nancy Ann Moore, along with five if not six children made the long wagon journey from Halifax County, Virginia to Claiborne County, TN. sometime between 1818 and 1826 when John R. Estes had a land survey in Claiborne County.  The 1820 census doesn’t exist for Claiborne County and John appears to be gone from Halifax by then, so we’re out of luck knowing where John R. was in 1820.

In the 1830 census, John R. Estes was living in Claiborne County in the vicinity of Estes Holler, shown below.

Estes Holler 2

How do I know that?  Because these families have all become very familiar to me over my 30+ years of research.  John is living beside William Cunningham, who, in 1871 signed as a character witness for John R. Estes.  And six houses away we find John Campbell, the grandfather of Ruthy Dodson who likely raised her after her mother, Elizabeth Campbell died.  Rutha Dodson was the future wife of John Y. Estes.  And next door to John Campbell lived Mercurious Cook whose son’s widow John R. Estes would marry in another 40 years – but that is a story for a different day.

In the early 1830s, John R. Estes took his family to live in Grainger County for a short time.  Nancy Ann Moore’s two uncles, Rice and Mackness Moore lived there, Rice being a Methodist minister.  John R. Estes’s daughter, Lucy, married in Grainger County in 1833.  By 1835, John was back in Claiborne County when Temperance married Adam Clouse, so they didn’t stay long in Grainger County.

For the most part, John Y. Estes grew up in or near Estes Holler, below, from the cemetery, which, of course, is why it’s called Estes Holler today.

estes holler 5

By 1840, John Y. was probably courting the lovely Ruthy Dodson, likely at her grandfather’s house.  John Campbell had died in 1838, but his widow Jenny Dobkins Campbell didn’t die until between 1850 and 1860, so she would have still been living on the old home place, on Little Sycamore Road, below, when young John Y. Estes came to call.

Campbell house

We don’t find John R. Estes in the 1840 census, but by 1841, John R. Estes had to be living someplace in the vicinity because both his sons Jechonias and John Y. Estes married local gals.

On March 1, 1841, John Y. Estes married Ruthy Dodson, just a couple months after his 23rd birthday.

John Y Estes Rutha Dodson marriage

Ruthy Dodson’s mother, Elizabeth Campbell died before Elizabeth’s father, John Campbell, did in 1838.  After John’s death, a guardian was appointed for Elizabeth’s children to function on behalf of their financial interests in his estate.

In the 1830 census, the John Campbell household has small children, so it’s very likely that the grandparents, John and Jenny Dobkins Campbell were raising Elizabeth Campbell’s children she had with her husband, Lazarus Dodson.

On September 5th, 1842, John Y. Estes signed a receipt for receiving part of Ruthy’s inheritance.  This seems to have been paid yearly, at least until the children reached the age of majority.

“John Y. Estes rect. dated 5th Sept. 1842, $54.35. Ditto rents for the year 1841, $1.50. Ditto order for what ballence may be in my hands as guardean, amt. $56.61.”

By 1850, we find John Y. Estes living in Estes Holler along with the rest of the Estes clan.  John is listed as a laborer, age 30, Ruthy as age 25 and Lazarus as age 2.

Given that John and Ruthy were married in 1841 and their oldest child in 1850 is only 2, this suggests that John and Ruthy had already buried several children.  If they had one child per year and the child died at or shortly after birth, they could have buried as many as six children in this time.  The Upper Estes cemetery, as well as the Venable Cemetery at the end of the road have many, many unmarked graves.  The Upper Estes Cemetery was within view of the John Y. Estes home place.

Upper Estes Cemetery

Furthermore, we know that John Y. Estes was living on this land, even though we find very few records of John Y. Estes in official county documents.

This land was originally granted to William Devenport and would eventually, in part, become the property of Rutha Estes, John Y.’s wife – but that wouldn’t happen for another 30 years.

William Devenport, April 17, 1850 – James McNeil trustee to William S. McVey, Districts 6 and 8, 475 acres, Buzzard’s Rock Knob – corner of grant to James M. Patterson, from Devenport’s spring, grant to Drewry Gibson, 50 acres #14072, line of Drewry Gibson, crossing Gibson’s branch, S with John Dobkins grant owned at present by Leander and Greenberry Cloud near N.S. McNeil’s line crossing Gibson’s branch on top of Middle Ridge, Planks fence of old Wier place, John Mason’s corner and line, Cunningham’s line, Devenport-Lanham’s corner, Weatherman’s spring, middle ridge – all of above contained in grant 16628 from the St. of Tennessee to William Devenport.

Second tract – 130 acres of land on the S. Side of Wallen’ ridge, corner of D. Gibson’s 50 acres tract #14072, Houston’s line, NW of Devenport’s line, Harkins corner, large rock on top of knob called Buzzard’s Rock, Harkins corner, Abel Lanham’s corner, Henderson’s line, 100 acre tract of WH Jennings, Bise’s corner, top of Wallen Ridge at Bise’s stake corner of Hardy tract, Henderson’s corner, the above contained in grant 27438 St. of Tn. to Devenport.

Also a 25 acre tract known as the Weatherman place.

1851 – William Devenport tax sale to William McVey – bid July 7, 1851 at courthouse, land in the 8th district, but due to a change in the lines now in the 6th district living near the lines of the 6th and 8th, sold for the taxes of 1845 and 1846, $16.77, 200 acres.

Tract 1 – S side Wallen Ridge near Little Sycamore adjacent lands of William Houston, Mordica Cunningham on the South, Samuel Harkins on the North, on NE Cunningham, William Houston’s, the land commonly known as the Weatherman place where William Devenport and John Estes now live.  Census records show that this is John Y. Estes, not John R. Estes that lives beside William Devenport.

So, in 1851, William Devenport is losing his land and apparently, neither he nor John Estes can do anything about it.  John is not bidding on the land.  William S. McVey purchased this land and in 1852, William McVey also purchased a very large tract of land granted to William Estes, John’s brother, which John Y. Estes witnessed.

By 1876, this same land is being conveyed by Henry Sharp to W.H. Cunningham.  How do we know this is the same land that is where John Y. Estes lived?  Metes and bounds are included, it states that is was William Devenport’s and it says that is where David A. King lived when he died.  The Reverend David A. King, a Methodist minister fought for the Union in the Civil War, died in 1873 and is buried in the Upper Estes Cemetery.  His daughter, Elizabeth married the son of John Y. Estes, George Buchanan Estes, in 1878.  I wonder if the old Reverend rolled over in his grave to have his daughter marry the son of a Confederate.  Yes, the secret is out, John Y. Estes was a Confederate.

David King

1876, Mar 30 – Henry Sharp of Campbell Co., TN to W.H. Cunningham of Claiborne for $400, 2 tracts of land in Claiborne on the waters of Little Sycamore Creek on the South side of Wallen’s Ridge adj the land of William Houston, decd and constitute the farm on which David A. King lived at the time of his death, one part is an entry made by William Devenport and bounded as follows: Beginning at a hickory stump on a red bank in Houston’s line thence north 9 deg west with Hentins? Line 94 poles to the Buzzard Rock on the top of Wallen’s Ridge thence with the top of Wallen’s ridge 240 poles to a chestnut oak and when redused to a strait line is south 60 deg west 234 poles then south 75? Deg east on Houston’s line 34 poles to a stake in the other line of Houston’s then with the same north 70 deg east 93.75 poles to a double chestnut and gum on a spur at Houston’s corner thence with lines of Houston’s land south 390 deg east 43 poles to a maple at the branch then east 62 poles to a hickory stump then with lines of Houston’s land south 30 east 43 poles to a maple at a branch then east 62 poles to a hickory stump then north 62 poles to a large white oak corner then east 9 poles to the beginning containing 90 acres more or less.

This land would eventually be owned by Rutha Estes, the wife of John Y. Estes.

The second parcel bounded by…Houston’s line, Devenport’s grant line, 25 acres.  Witness JW Bois, WW Greer.

This was a very, very indirect “round the mountain” way to track John Y. Estes, but it worked.  However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s go back before the Civil War.

On March 8, 1856, in the court records, we show that John Y. Estes had an account in the estate of Thomas Baker – in other words, he owed Thomas money.

In the 1860 census, John and Rutha have four more children, although with a gap of 4 years between Lazarus and Elizabeth, it looks like they lost at least one more child.

John Y Estes 1860

Interestingly, John Y. Estes is a shoemaker.  John is shown as owning no land, but he does have a personal estate of $173, which isn’t exactly trivial.

I think in 1860 that John Y. Estes is not living in Estes Holler.  He is living beside carpenters, stage drivers, a wagon maker, a wagoner and a carriage maker who was quite wealthy.  That sounds suspiciously like he was living in town which would have been Tazewell.

The Civil War

Shortly after 1860, life would change dramatically for the Estes family.  Tensions were escalating towards the Civil War, and in 1861, they erupted when initially 4, then 7, then 11 states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederacy.  Tennessee did secede, but not initially.  Claiborne County was badly torn between the North and South, the blue and grey – and families were torn apart as different brothers and sons joined opposite sides.  Loyalties were divided and family members fought against one another.

In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Confederate troops occupied Tazewell as part of the greater struggle for the strategic Cumberland Gap. When the Confederates evacuated the town in November of that year, a fire followed, destroying much of Tazewell.  In essence, anyone who could leave, did, because Tazewell was a target of continuous raids for food and supplies.

We know by 1870, positively, from the census, that the John Y. Estes family is back in Estes Holler.  We also know from family stories about the Civil War that they spent the majority of the War in Estes Holler.

But what we didn’t know was something far, far more important.

Aunt Margaret told me that while the war was over, it was really never resolved in Claiborne County.  The Crazy Aunts used to tell stories of the men in Claiborne County wearing their Civil War uniforms once again, on Memorial Day, and head for town to “refight” the war, as long as there were any veterans left to do so.  I suspect that most of the fighting was verbal and in the form of relived memories, but assuredly, not all, especially if region’s notorious moonshine was involved….and you know it was!

The aunts, Margaret and Minnie, lived in Estes Holler as a child, and while I knew none of my direct Estes ancestors had served in the Civil War, obviously some people from that area had.  Just a couple years ago, I decided to look for Estes men in Claiborne County, TN to see if any of them had fought in the Civil War at www.fold3.com.  Was I ever in for the surprise of my life.

My great-great-grandfather, John Y. Estes served in the Civil War – but for which side?

John Y Estes reference slip

Look what that says.  Confederate.

John’s service records are confusing, to say the least.  There are documents in his file from both sides, it seems.  How can that be?  Let’s start with the basics.

The Civil War began in earnest in April, 1861 when confederate forces bombarded the Union controlled Fort Sumter, SC in Charleston Harbor.

Many people who lived in Claiborne County fought for the North and joined the Union troops, but not all.  The Civil War was a source of dissention within and between families in Claiborne County.  Few people there held slaves, so slavery was not a driving force.  By searching for his unit, I confirmed that John Y. Estes had joined the Confederate Army, but I was stunned.  All of my other family members in my various lines fought for the Union – including the families from that area.

The history of Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment F, formed in Claiborne County shows that it was formed on August 10, 1862 by Captain R. Frank Fulkerson who lived near John Y. Estes in the 1860 census.  There is no existing muster roll, although I recreated one as best I could from the various men’s service records in his unit.  Reading John’s record, along with the other men’s records in his unit, (along with regimental and other histories,)  is also how I reconstructed where that unit was, when, and what they were doing.

We don’t know when John enlisted, although it was likely when the unit was formed, nor do we know if he ever applied for a pension.  John would have been 44 years old in 1862, so no spring chicken.  His daughter, Nancy Jane has been born in November of 1861.  He had a wife and 6 children at home ranging in age from Lazarus born in 1848, so 13, to newborn.  His wife probably wanted to kill him for enlisting and save the Union Forces the trouble.

What we do know is that on March 20, 1865, in Louisville, KY, John Y. Estes signed the following allegiance document.  I later discovered that he had been captured and this was one way men obtained their freedom. This document tells us that he had dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes and was 5 feet 7 inches tall, just slightly taller than me. Information I didn’t have before.  If you look closely at John’s picture at the beginning of this article, he may have been mixed-race.

John Y. Estes allegiance

And look, we also have his signature.

So, how did John Y. Estes get to Louisville, KY in 1865 from Claiborne County?  To answer that question, I tracked the activities of his unit.  That was much easier said than done.

Here’s what we know about the activities of Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment.

Prior to the organization of the regiment, the battalion had been operating in the neighborhood of Cumberland Gap and Big Creek Gaps, at present day LaFollette, TN, about 33 miles distant from each other, along the line of the railroad.

When the regiment was organized it was assigned to Brigadier General John Pegram’s Cavalry Brigade in Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith’s Department. This brigade was composed of Howard’s Alabama Regiment, 2nd (Ashby’s), 4th (Starnes’), I. E. Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Marshall’s Battery.

Prior to the Battle of Murfreesboro, on December 29, 1862, Carter’s Regiment joined Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s Brigade, and participated in his raid around the Federal Army from Jefferson Springs to LaVergue, to Nolensville, to Murfreesboro, TN. The unit was engaged on December 31 along the Murfreesboro Pike.

Following this battle, the regiment returned to Pegram’s Brigade, in the Department of East Tennessee under Brigadier General D. S. Donelson.

With Pegram’s Brigade, the regiment took part in operations in Lincoln, Boyle and Garrard Counties of Kentucky, and was engaged March 30, 1863 at the junction of the Stanford and Crab Orchard Roads where it was under the command of Colonel Scott, of the 1st Louisiana Regiment. General Pegram’s comment on this operation is interesting: “For Colonel Scott’s operations, I refer you to the accompanying report. Touching this curious document I have only to say that I cannot but admire the ingenuity with which Colonel Scott has attempted to account for disobedience of orders and dilatoriness of action which it is my sincere belief lost us the fight.” Colonel Carter reported five officers and 32 men as casualties in this operation.

It was not a good day to be a Confederate soldier.  John saw his comrades die. It probably wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

On April 25, 1863, Colonel J. I. Morrison was reported in command of the brigade, now listed as composed of 1st Georgia, 1st and 2nd Tennessee Regiments, 12th and 16th Cavalry Battalions, and Huwald’s Battery. The brigade was at Albany, Kentucky on May 1; at Travisville, Fentress County, Kentucky on May 2.

On July 23, the Chief of Staff, at Knoxville, ordered Colonel Scott, then commanding the brigade, to send 300 horses of 1st (Carter’s) Regiment to Loudon, Tennessee.

On July 31, Pegram’s Brigade, consisting of 1st and 6th Georgia Regiments, 7th North Carolina Battalion, 1st Tennessee Regiment, Rucker’s Legion, and Huwald’s Battery was reported at Ebenezer.

From December of 1862 to August of 1863, John Y. Estes’s unit covered over 1000 miles and marched from East Tennessee, near the Cumberland Gap to central Tennessee to Kentucky, back to central Tennessee and then back to the Cumberland Gap.

John Y Estes civil war map

On August 15, Carter’s Regiment was reported as operating near Clinton and participated in the fighting around Cumberland Gap.  This fighting occurred on the land previously owned by John Y. Estes’s wife’s father, Lazarus Dodson.  The photo below is on Tipprell Road, on Lazarus’s land, looking North towards Cumberland Gap.

dodson land tipprell road

This is where Lazarus Dodson’s father, Lazarus Dodson’s Revolutionary War marker stands today, in the Cottrell Cemetery, below, now on land owned by Lincoln Memorial University.  This photo is standing in the cemetery, looking North towards the mountains and Cumberland Gap.

Cottrell cem looking north

This map shows LMU complex, the location of the cemetery with the upper red arrow and the location of the Dodson homestead with the lower arrow.  You can see the now abandoned road that used to connect the homestead with the cemetery.

Dodson homestead Cottrell Cem

The map below shows the larger area.  It’s probably a mile between the Dodson homestead and the LMU campus across the back way and maybe two and a half miles to Cumberland Gap, up Tipprell Road from the Dodson home.

Cumberland Gap Dodson homestead

This Civil War map shows where the troops camped, at Camp Cottrell, at Butcher Springs.  Lazarus Dodson had sold this land in 1861 to David Cottrell whose residence is marked on the map.  That was the old Lazarus Dodson homestead.  The main road, now called Tipprell Road, was called Gap Creek Road at the time.  It connects the valley, passes Butcher Springs and continues up to Cumberland Gap along the creek and now the railroad as well.  The road heading to the right above the Cottrell homestead used to go up to the cemetery, but is no longer a road today.

camp cottrell civil war map

This photo shows that area today.  It’s flat, so perfect for camping.  Butcher Springs is to the right in this photo, below, just out of sight.

DSCF9016

This is me standing in the Cottrell Cemetery.

Me in Cottrell Cemetery

Butcher springs would be behind me in the valley to the right.  On the Civil War map, Patterson’s Smith shop would be the cluster of buildings where you can see the church, to the left in the picture, in the distance, across the road.

Cumberland Gap was captured by the Federal troops on September 9, 1863, but the Confederate regiment had escaped up the valley before the surrender, and on September 11, Colonel Carter was reported in command of the brigade near Lee Courthouse.  Lee Courthouse is present day Jonesville, VA, about 35 miles from Cumberland Gap.  I’ve added Estes Holler here for context.

John Y Estes Cumberland Gap Lee Courthouse

On September 18, Carter’s Regiment was driven from the ford above Kingsport, TN after a severe fight.  This fight was only 7 days later and Kingsport was another 45 miles distant over rough, mountainous terrain.

John Y Estes Jonesville Kingsport

Somewhere about this time, the regiment was assigned to Brigadier General John S. Williams’ Cavalry Brigade, composed of the 16th Georgia Battalion, 4th Kentucky Regiment, 10th Kentucky Battalion, May’s Kentucky Regiment, 1st Tennessee and 64th Virginia Regiments, which on October 31, 1863 was reported at Saltville, Virginia, 60 miles northeast of Kingsport, TN.

The unit received orders to proceed to Dalton, GA, but despite these orders, Carter’s Regiment was reported near Rogersville on November 1, in Williams’ Brigade, with Colonel H. L. Gutner commanding.

Rogersville was back, through Kingsport, about 90 miles “down the valley,” so to speak.

John Y Estes Rogersville Saltville

In the meantime, Captain Van Dyke’s Company “C” had returned from Mississippi, and on November 24, 1863 was at Charleston, Tennessee with Colonel John C. Carter’s 38th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Charleston was 145 miles from Rogersville.

John Y Estes Rogersville Charleston

Colonel Carter highly commended Captain Van Dyke and his 44 men for the part they played in helping his forces to evacuate Charleston without being captured.  On April 16, 1864, the regiment was transferred to Vaughn’s Brigade, of Brigadier General J. C. Vaughn’s Division, and reported 248 men present. It remained in this brigade until the end of the war.

By May of 1864, the majority of the fighting had shifted to Virginia.  Between mid-April and May, John Y. Estes’s unit traveled almost 400 miles, from Charleston, TN to the Lynchburg, VA region.

John Y Estes Charleton Lynchburg

The Civil War was becoming a series of constant battles which were referenced as the Campaign in the Valley of Virginia which lasted from May-July of 1864 as shown on this map by Hal Jespersen.

Shenandoah Valley Campaign 1864

As part of Vaughn’s Brigade, the regiment moved into Virginia in early 1864, fought at the Battle of Piedmont, New Hope Church, and in the subsequent campaign in the Valley of Virginia under General Early.

Germanna Ford

This drawing from Harper’s Weekly shows the troops crossing at Germanna Ford during the Battle of New Hope Church, also called the Mine Run Campaign.

Mine-Run

This drawing shows the “Army of the Potomac at Mine-Run, General Warren’s Troops attacking.”

Battle of Piedmont

This is the location, today, of the Battle of Piedmont.  This battlefield looked very different when John Y. Estes stood here on June 5th, 1864.  There were men, horses and blood all over this battlefield.  After severe fighting, the Confederates lost, badly.

It was this point, nearing the end of this chapter of the war, that John Y. Estes entered the hospital on June 12th.  But, that doesn’t mean he was done…the worst, perhaps, was yet to follow.  What happened next?  There has to be more.

Hmmm, let’s check the 1890 Civil War veterans census.  Nope, nothing there.

Well, let’s look under Eastice.  His folder says that name was used as well.

John Y Estes private

Well, Glory Be, look what we’ve found.  His index packet, indeed, under Eastice.

John Y Estes absent

This regimental return of October 1864 says that he was an absent enlisted man accounted for, “Without Cane Valley of Va. Aug. 28.”  That’s odd phrasing.  Does it mean “without leave?”  But it says he is accounted for?

John Y Estes deserter

Uh-oh, this doesn’t look good.  Now he’s on the list of deserters as of March 18, 1865.  It says he was released north of the Ohio River.  That goes along with the “Oath of Allegiance” document that he signed on March the 20th.

John Y Estes POW

Wikipedia says that during the Civil War, prisoners of War were often released upon taking at “oath of allegiance.”  General Sherman was known to ship people to Louisville and those who signed were freed, north of the Ohio, and those who didn’t remained in prison.

This documents John Y’s oath of allegiance, and the faint writing says that his name also appears as John Y. Estus.  How many ways can you spell Estes?  I checked and there are no additional records under Estus – at least none that are indexed yet.

John Y Estes transfer

This document says that he was a Prisoner of War, but this kind of Prisoner of War was a Rebel Deserter.  He was apparently “caught” on March 6th, 1865, send to Chattanooga, then to Louisville apparently in late March where he was taken across the Ohio River.  I’m thinking John Y. considered this a very bad month.

John Y Estes desertion info

This page gives us a little more info.  Apparently he deserted at Staunton, Va. on June 30 of 1864, just days after his hospitalization and release.  Where was he between June 30, 1864 and March 6 of 1865?  And where was he captured?  The first document says that in October of 1864, he was accounted for which I would interpret to mean that they knew where he was and whatever the situation, was OK.  Nothing confusing about these records….

John Y Estes medical

Well here is at least part of the answer.  On June the 12, 1864 he was hospitalized and had a partial anchyloses of his knee.  On June the 19th he was sent to a convalescent camp.  The 30th of the same month, he was reported as having deserted at Staunton.

What they don’t say here is that Staunton was devastated by the Union in June of 1864 – everything was burned including shops, factories mills and miles of railroad tracks were destroyed.  If that is where he was convalescing, it’s no wonder he deserted, or simply left.

He was accounted for in October, but sometime between then and March 1865, he apparently deserted for real, or he already had in October.  I wonder if he simply went home, or attempted to go home.  Where was he when he was caught, or deserted?  If you are a Confederate deserter, and the Union forces “catch” you, do they still hold you prisoner?  Maybe the Confederates only thought he deserted and he was in fact captured?  But the Union paperwork indicates he was listed as a Rebel deserter.  So many questions.

Ankylosis or anchylosis is a stiffness of a joint due to abnormal adhesion and rigidity of the bones of the joint, which may be the result of injury or disease, sometimes resulting from malnutrition. The rigidity may be complete or partial and may be due to inflammation of the tendons or muscular structures outside the joint or of the tissues of the joint itself.  Sometimes the bones fuse together.  This disease is considered a severe functional limitation.

So here is what we know about John Y. Estes and the Civil War.  He probably joined when the regiment was formed on August 10, 1862, although he may have been participating in the unofficial unit since 1861.  The Fulkerson’s in Tazewell, his near neighbors, were instrumental in raising Confederate volunteers in Claiborne County.  John Y. Estes fought and served until he was either injured or a previous condition became so serious in 1864 that he could not function, although he participated in some of the worst fighting and most brutal battles of the war.  John is reported to have been admitted to the hospital in Charlottesville, VA on June the 12th, transferred to a convalescent camp on June 19th, and deserted at Staunton, Va. on June the  30th.  In October, 1864 records say he was accounted for, but absent.  By March 6th of 1865, he was in prison, captured as a deserter, transferred to Chattanooga, signed the allegiance oath and by the end of March, had been taken to Louisville before being deposited on the north side of the Ohio River, having agreed to stay there for the duration of the war.

He didn’t have long to wait.  General Lee surrendered at the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.  But then John probably had to walk home on that injured leg.

That leg apparently didn’t slow him down much.  John Y. Estes eventually walked to Texas, not once, but twice, according to the family, which means he walked back to Tennessee once too.  The family said one leg was shorter than the other and he walked with a cane or walking stick.  It’s about 950 miles from Estes Holler in Claiborne County, Tennessee to Montague County, Texas.  I surely want to know why he walked back from Texas to Tennessee.  After making the initial journey, on foot, taking months, what could be that important in Tennessee?  Was he hoping to convince his wife to relocate with him?  Even then, land and other legal transactions could be handled from afar, so it must have been an intensely personal reason.  Maybe he only decided to return to Texas, forever, after he had returned to Tennessee.

I have to wonder how John’s Civil War allegiance and subsequent desertion, if that is actually what it was, affected John himself and the way that the people in Claiborne County viewed him.  He went back home and lived for several years.  His neighbor in Estes Holler, David King, fought for the North.  So did his sister’s husbands and children.  I’m betting holidays were tough and there was no small talk at the table.  Maybe there were no family gatherings because of these polarized allegiances.  They would have been extremely awkward and difficult.  Maybe John was quietly ostracized.  Maybe that’s part of why he eventually left for Texas.

On October 5, 1865, just six months after being released on the north side of the Ohio River, John Y. Estes did a very unusual thing.  He deeded his property, mostly kitchen items and livestock, to his son Lazarus who was about 17 years old and lived in the family home.

Transcribed from book Y, pages 286 and 287, Claiborne County, Tennessee, by Roberta Estes.

Deed of Gift From John Eastis to Lazarus Eastis :

State of Tennessee, Claiborne County. Personally appeared before me J. I. Hollingsworth, clerk of the county court of the said county, J. R. Eastis and Sallie Bartlett, with whom I am personally aquainted, and after being duly sworn depose and say that they heard John Y. Eastis acknowledge the written deed of conveyance, for the purpose therein contained upon the day it being dated. Given under my hand at office in Taswell this 9th day of October, 1865. J. I. Hollingsworth, clerk. Know all men by these presents that I, John Eastis of the County of Claiborne, State of Tennessee in consideration of the natural love and affection which I feel for, my son, Lazarus and also for divers good cause and consideration, I the said John Eastis, hereunto moving, have given, granted and confirmed by these presents, do give, grant and confirm unto said Lazarus Eastis all and singularly, the six head of sheep, one horse, fourteen head of hogs, one cow and calf, two yearlings, the crop of corn that is on hand, and all the fodder, and all the household and kitchen furniture, to have and to hold and enjoy the same to the only proper use, benefit and behoof of the said Lazarus Eastis, his heirs and assigns, forever and I the said John Eastis for myself and my heirs, executors, and administrators all and singular the said goods unto the said Lazarus Eastis, his heirs and assigns, against myself and against all and every person, or persons, whatever shall and will warrant and forever defend by these presents in witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 5th day of October 1865.  John Y. Eastis.

ATTEST: John R. Eastis, Sallie Bartlett. I certify this deed of gift was filed in my office, October 9, 1865 at 12:00 and registered the 10th day of the same month. E. Goin, register for Claiborne County. [ stamped on page 58 ].

John R. Estes is the father of John Y. Estes who would have been close to 80 years old at that time.

Is this somehow in conjunction with or a result of the Civil War?  Did it take him that long to find his way back to Claiborne County?  Was he angry with his wife?  Lazarus was only a teenager and didn’t live in his own home, and wouldn’t for another 18 months.

The verbiage in this transaction, “hereunto moving” does not mean that John was literally moving, but refers to what motivated him or moved him to make this transaction.  So, in this context, love and affection for his son “moved” John to convey this property.  Of course, this begs the question, “what about your wife?”  Rutha would be the person to use all of that kitchen gear to prepare meals for the entire family.  What about Rutha?

In the 1870 census, John is shown with his wife and family, with another baby, Rutha, named after his wife, born in 1867. John and his wife, Ruthy Dodson, would have one more child, John Ragan (or Reagan or Regan) Estes, born in March of 1871.

We know that in 1879, John Y. Estes was in Claiborne County, but whether he was “back” from Texas or whether he had not yet left, we don’t know.  On June 20, 1879, John Y. Estes signs an agreement granting James Bolton and William Parks permission to make a road across his land in order to enable Bolton and Parks to have access to their own land that they had just purchased from Lazarus Estes, John Y’s son.  This is the last document that John Y. signs in Tennessee.  And actually, it’s the only deed, ever.

Deed records show no evidence of John Y. Estes ever owning land or a conveyance to or from John Y. Estes.  My suspicion is that John was buying this land “on time” and when he failed to pay, the transaction was simply null and void and the deed never filed.  It’s still odd that he would sign to grant access on land he did not officially own.  This is very likely the same land that Rutha would eventually own in her own name.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

We know that by June of 1880 when the census was taken, John Y. Estes is living in Texas and his wife Rutha, is shown in Claiborne County as divorced, although no divorce papers have been found.  Maybe divorce was less formal then.  Given the distance involved, about 900 miles, and give that John could probably not walk more than 8 or 10 miles a day, the walk to Texas likely took someplace between 95 and 120 days, or 3 to 4 months, if he walked consistently every day and didn’t hitch rides.  So John likely left Claiborne County not long after the signing of the 1879 deed.  In fact, that might have been the last bit of business he took care of before departing.

The family in Texas tells the story that John Y. was wounded in the leg as a young man, although they don’t say how, and that one leg was shorter than the other.  He walked with a stick.  It causes me to wonder if the injury was truly when he was a child or if it was a result of his time in the Civil War, or maybe some of each.  It’s a wonder they would have accepted him as a soldier if he was disabled and his military battle history certainly doesn’t suggest a disability.  Maybe they were desperate or maybe the old injury got much worse during his military service – or maybe the injury occurred during one of the Civil War battles.  John was hospitalized and I find it difficult to believe he would have been hospitalized for an old injury.

During John’s absence, Claiborne County was not immune to the effects of the war.  In fact, they were right in the middle of the war, time and time again, and without a man in the household, Rutha and the family weref even more vulnerable.

During the Civil War, soldiers from both sides came through Estes Holler and took everything they could find: food, animals, anything of value. They didn’t hurt anyone that we know about, but the people hid as best they could. Adults and children both were frightened, as renegade troops were very dangerous.  Elizabeth Estes, born in 1851, was the second oldest (living) child of John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson.  After the soldiers took all the family had, the 4 smaller children were hungry and crying. The baby had no milk. Elizabeth was angry, not only at what they had done, but the way they had been humiliated. She was a strong and determined young woman, about age 14 or 15, and she knew the soldiers were camping up on the hillside. She snuck into the camp of the soldiers that night, past the sentries, and stole their milk cow back. She took the cow’s bell off and the cow just followed her home. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but another story adds that she went back the second night and took their one horse back too. That one horse was all the family had to plow and earn their living.

Today, not one family member knew that John Y. Estes had served in the Civil War, not even the Crazy Aunts.  Given the way his service ended, it’s probably not something he talked about.  He would have been considered a traitor by both sides.  He didn’t claim his service on the 1890 veterans census either.  It seems a shame to have served for most of the war, in many battles, and survived, only to have had something go wrong in the end that seems to be medically related.  The term “deserter” is so harsh, and while I’m sure it technically applies, I have to wonder at the circumstances.  During the Revolutionary War, men “deserted” regularly to go home and tend the fields for a bit, showing back up a month or two later.  No one seemed to think much of it then.  That’s very likely what happened to John when he supposedly deserted in June of 1864, right after his injury.  He probably just left and went home.

I’m sure there is more to this story, much more, and we’ll never know those missing pieces.  And it’s a chapter, a very important chapter in the life of John Y. Estes and who he was.  It’s very ironic that none of his descendants alive today knew about his Civil War Service.

The Walk to Texas

Initially, I had no idea John Y. Estes ever left Claiborne County.

When I first visited Claiborne County, I did what all genealogists do – I went to the library.  I had called the library and the librarians seemed friendly enough, and they told me they had these wonderful things called “vertical files.”  I didn’t know what that was, so the nice lady sighed and said, “family files.”  Now, that I understood.

The first day I arrived in town, I went straight to the library.  I looked through the books and the family histories that had been contributed.  Most of those were for the “upstanding families” whose members had been judges and public officials.  That would not be my family.  In fact, there was very little for my family.  I was sorely disappointed.  Those promising vertical files either held little or there were none for my surnames.

I had packed up and was leaving, walking past the shelves that held so much disappointment, when one of the files literally fell off the shelf and about three feet onto the floor.  I was no place close to it, so it was prepared to fall with no help from a human, but the librarians looked up at me, and then down at the file on the floor, with great disdain and disgust.  They, obviously, felt I was careless and had knocked the file onto the floor.

I had no problem picking the file up, but I wished they hadn’t been so put out with me.  The file hit sideways and all of the papers fanned across the floor.  Most of them weren’t stapled together, so I was trying to make sure that I put them back in the file in order that they had come out, without mixing things up.  I have no idea the surname on the file.  I had already checked all of mine.  But as I was gathering those papers back into the file, a familiar name crossed my vision, Vannoy, then another, and then Estes.  I stopped and actually looked at the papers in the file.

I was holding a story about John Y. Estes, written by a Vannoy who had moved to Texas.  I put my bag and purse down, and sat down – on the floor – in the aisle way – oblivious to the librarians and their stares, now glares.  I read all three pages of the story and sat in stunned disbelief.  This had to be the wrong man. It was in the wrong family file.  Otherwise, someone would have told me….wouldn’t they?

My family didn’t go to Texas.  Did they?

This story says John Y. Estes walked to Texas, not once, but twice.  This man injured his leg somehow as a child and walked with a limp, one leg being shorter than the other. He walked with a cane or a stick, and still, he walked to Texas, twice, and back to Tennessee once.  This man had tenacity.  Of course, when I was reading this, I didn’t realize he had also fought through the Civil War with this lifelong challenge. I wouldn’t know that piece of the puzzle for another 30 years. I hesitate to call it a disability, because John Y. apparently didn’t treat it as such.  In fact, it just might have saved his life in the Civil War.

Fannie Ann Estes, John’s grand-daughter, said that John Y. brought a skin cancer medicine from Tennessee and sold it in Texas.  He traveled throughout north Texas selling his remedy and established a relationship with William Boren, a merchant that sold goods on both sides of the Red River throughout the Red River Valley.  This was also the location where the Chisolm Trail crossed from Texas into Oklahoma, so comparatively speaking, it received a lot of traffic.

So John Y. Estes was either a snake-oil salesman or a genius on top of being a shoemaker, according to the census, a Civil War veteran and a former Prisoner of War.  This man was certainly full of surprises.  What a great plot for a book!

His grandchildren said that as an old man, they remember him being short and fat.  Hardly a fitting legacy.  Thankfully, one person remembered more and wrote it down.

To the onlooker, it appears that John Y. Estes basically left his family in Claiborne County, TN and absconded to Texas.  But looking at what happened next, his children apparently did not seem to hold a grudge against him for leaving their mother….in fact, John Y. Estes seemed to be more leading the way than abandoning the family.

It’s clear from Rutha’s 1880 census designation as divorced that she viewed the relationship as over.  She never intended to leave Claiborne County, nor did she.  But that didn’t stop her relatives from going to Texas – and they all settled together, including her husband.  Many are buried in the same cemetery.

William Campbell, Ruthy’s uncle, and his family were in Texas by 1870. Barney J. Jennings married Emily Estes, daughter of Jechonias Estes, and they went to Montague Co., TX, as well.

Many of John Y’s children, in fact all of them except Lazarus, eventually moved to Texas, including brave Elizabeth who married William George Vannoy.  She left with William Buchanan Estes and Elizabeth King in 1893, in a wagon train.

Children

The following children were born to John Y. and Ruthy Dodson Estes:

  • Lazarus Estes, born in May 1848 in Claiborne Co., died in July of 1918 in Claiborne Co., married Elizabeth Ann Vannoy.  Both buried in the Pleasant View Cemetery.
  • Elizabeth Ann Estes, born July 11, 1851 in Claiborne Co., died July 7, 1946 at Nocona, Montague Co., Texas.  On September 11, 1870, she married William George Vannoy, brother to Lazarus’s wife and son of Joel Vannoy and Phebe Crumley.  They settled in Belcherville, TX in 1893 and her husband was buried in the Boren Cemetery in Nocona on Sept. 12, 1895, only seven days before her father died and was buried in the same cemetery.  I wonder what killed both men.  This must have been a devastating week for Elizabeth.  She spent most of her life in Texas as a widow – more than 50 years.

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy’s 95th birthday. She liked to sit on an old seat out under a tree.  Elizabeth is buried in the Nocona Cemetery, not with her husband.

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy stone

  • Margaret Melvina Estes, born July 19, 1854 in Claiborne Co., died April 7, 1888 in Claiborne Co., buried in Pleasant View Cemetery.  Never married and no children.
  • George Buchanan Estes, born December 17, 1855 in Claiborne Co., died July 1, 1948 at Nocona, Texas, buried at Temple, Cotton Co., Oklahoma. In 1878 he married Elizabeth King, daughter of David King, in Claiborne Co. She died in 1920 and is buried at Temple, Oklahoma.

George Buchanan Estes and Wanda Hibdon

George Buchanan Estes and granddaughter Wanda Hibdon Russell in 1945.

  • Martha Geneva J. Estes, born October 6, 1859 in Claiborne Co., died April 9, 1888, buried in Cook Cemetery on Estes Road. She married Thomas Daniel Ausban in Claiborne Co. April 17, 1884.  It’s not believed that she had any surviving children.
  • Nancy J. Estes, born November 1861 in Claiborne Co., died at Terral, Jefferson County, Oklahoma in 1951, married a Montgomery.  Buried in the Terral cemetery.  No children.

Nancy Jane Estes Montgomery

  • Rutha Estes, born January 7, 1868 in Claiborne Co., died at Terral, Jefferson Co., Oklahoma in 1957.  She married Thomas Vannoy in 1902 in Claiborne County, or at least she took the license to marry him.  They may have never actually married, as she never used the Vannoy surname, nor is she ever found living with him.  She married William H. Sweatman after 1920 in Texas or Oklahoma and is buried in the Terral Cemetery.  No children.

Ruthie Estes Sweatman

  • John Reagan Estes, born March 25, 1871 in Claiborne Co., died July 8, 1960 in Jefferson Co., Oklahoma. On April 10, 1891 he married Docia Neil Johnson, daughter of William Johnson and Jinsey Nervesta King in Claiborne Co., She was born November 7, 1872 in Claiborne Co. and died August 30, 1957 in Jefferson Co.  John and Docia are both buried at Terral, Oklahoma.

The Texas family provides this information about John Regan Estes.

John Regan Estes grew to manhood in Claiborne Co. Tennessee, he received his schooling on the old split log seats and was taught to the “tune of a hickory stick”. On April 9, 1891 he married Docia Neil Johnson in Tazewell, with Rev. Bill Cook, the old family preacher, reading the vows. John and Docia were wed on horseback. A daughter, Fannie Ann, was born to them on May 4, 1892 at Tazewell.

In 1893, John Regan Estes had the ambition to go west. On the first day of November 1893, he stepped off the train at Belcherville, Texas. He was accompanied by his brother, George Buchanan Estes and family, Clabe Bartlett, and Lewis Taylor Nunn. He worked on the Silverstein ranch until January 1894.

He saved his money and sent it back to Docia and on February 9, 1894, Docia and Fannie, aged 20 months, arrived at the train station in Belcherville. At this time, they went to Oscar, Indian Territory. He located on a farm in the Oscar area and lived there until moving to the Fleetwood community in 1901. John’s farm was located on the Red River across from Red River Crossing where the Chisholm Trail crossed into Oklahoma. He had a shop near his barn and shod horses, sharpened plows, and did other metal work for the community.

Cousin Gib’s grandmother, granddaughter of John Y. Estes through John Reagan Estes told of life in Texas when they first arrived:

Fannie wrote about the Estes family living conditions at the time that Lula was born. She said that they lived in an old log house at the end of Ketchum Bluff, this is the area where the road going south from Oscar, Oklahoma makes a turn along a high rock formation an goes to where, at a later time, there was a toll bridge built going into Texas.

Ketchum Bluff map

Courtesy Butch Bridges

Note that the old trestle of the toll bridge can still be seen on the shore of Ketchum Bluff in the aerial photo, below, about one fourth of the way from the right hand side, directly across from the sand bar.  The bend in the river at the turn is in the lower left hand corner of the photo.  The bluff, of course, lies along the river.

Ketchum Bluff aerial

Courtesy Butch Bridges

Lula was born January 29, 1899 and Fannie said that it was extremely cold and they had snow on the ground for about six weeks. The sun would come out about noon each day for a little while and then it would cloud up again and snow all night. She said that their father would cut wood all day and carry it into the house. He did not have any gloves and his hands would crack open and bleed and hurt so bad that at night he would sit by the fire and cry from the pain.

In 1901, John got the farm a little farther west of here, just east of Fleetwood, and that is where Lula grew up.

The Estes family had moved to Indian Territory in 1894 and Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907. During this time it was pretty much every man for himself and gunfights were common. John Reagan worked as a farmer, blacksmith, farrier and lawman. The family remembers him wearing a gun.

Once, a man named Joe Barnes sent word to John that he was coming to kill him. John only had a black powder shotgun and he told Barnes to stop and to not come any closer. Barnes kept coming and John blew him full of birdshot. John had a bullet hole in his stomach and would tell the grandchildren that he had two navels.

John Reagan Estes circa 1905

John Reagan Estes about 1905.

John Reagan Estes family 1905

John Reagan Estes and family in 1905.

John Reagan Estes

John Reagan Estes in 1943.

Uncle George said that John R. Estes came to visit in the 1940s in Claiborne County Tennessee and that he was extremely tall and had very long eyebrows.

John Reagan Estes stone

The Texas family members, tell another secret too, that John Y. Estes had another family in Texas, but a search of marriage records produced nothing.  However, when I visited, I realized that the location where John lived was on the Choctaw land.  Perhaps he did have a second family without benefit of a legal marriage.  Laws and customs on Indian lands on the Texas/Oklahoma border were quite different than back in “civilized, orderly” Tennessee.  Furthermore, Indian tribes were considered sovereign Nations.  We will probably never know the details unless another family member steps forward.

John Y. Estes died on September 19, 1895 and is buried in the Boren cemetery, northeast of Ringgold, Texas.

Old Time Texas

In 2005, I visited my cousin, Gib, in Texas.  Gib had come back to Claiborne County, TN the year before and had visited Estes Holler.  Now, I was visiting Texas to retrace the steps of my great-grandfather, John Y. Estes.

Gib gave me a great piece of advice before I set out on my great adventure to Texas.

We went to see the movie “Open Range” starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. The setting for the movie is 1882 and they are “free grazing” a herd of cattle on the open range as they are moving toward market. They pass through a little town, cross a river, and are tending their herd.

John Y. Estes was in Montague County Texas in 1880. The Chisholm Cattle trail came right through the little town of Red River Station which was two miles south of the Red River. From the information that I have, the movie town was exactly like what Red River Station was like in 1882. I really got intrigued with the movie by imagining John Y. being in a place just like that. This was where he would have been at that time because Nocona and Belcherville were not founded until 1887 when the MKT railroad came through going from east to west. Ringgold was not founded until 1892 when the Rock Island railroad was built going south to north and crossed the MKT at the site of Ringgold.

Of course no good western movie would be worth the price of admission without a good gun battle. They had one and people were killed. The next thing that grabbed me was the burial scene. They dug graves out on top of a hill and hauled the wooden caskets out in a wagon. This setting was just like what I found at Boren cemetery.

Another thing that caught my attention was the heavy rain storm that they experienced at the little town. Red River Station was pretty much wiped out by a Tornado in the late 1880’s and all the business moved to Belcherville and Nocona.

Anyway, go see the movie and imagine John Y. being one of the residents of the little town and then visualize all of our relatives crossing the Red River on horseback as they did in the movie. The River depth shown is also accurate of Red River. Later, John Reagan Estes owned the land on the Oklahoma side and the Campbells and Vannoys owned ranches on the Texas side.

Go see where John Y. lived in 1882, let your imagination run wild and enjoy it.

 I agree 100% with Gib’s recommendation.

The Chisolm Trail

The Chisolm Trail cut through the Estes land.

Chisholm Trail

Not far from Ryan is one of the cuts in a creek bank  worn by the pounding of thousands of hoofs when the Chisholm Trail was noted for its cattle drives from Texas to Wichita, Kansas.

This map shows Ryan and Terral, OK, and the ghost location of Fleetwood.  All that is left today is a store full of bullet holes and a cemetery.

Fleetwood OK

According to Gib, that cut is still visible on the Estes property. Although highway U.S. 81 mostly follows the route of the old Chisolm Trail, at times Engineers had to diverge from the trail itself in the interest of safety, mileage and economy. The original route crosses a cow lot owned by a man who probably knows more about that trail than anyone in this area. ( Note: the worn cattle trail rut up the hill was just west of the Estes cow lot. ) The location is about three miles east of Fleetwood.

The Chisolm Trail crossed the Red River at Red River Station.  On the Oklahoma side, or Indian Territory at that time, this was at Fleetwood and a marker has been placed today.  On the map below, you can see the balloon of the marker at Fleetwood and below the Red River, Red River Station Road.

Red River Station

Turning on the satellite image, here’s that part of the Red River near Station Road where the cattle would have crossed into Oklahoma.  Apparently, this is the area where the Estes land was located.  I thought sure I’d still be able to see the Chisolm trail today, but I can’t.

Red River Chisolm Crossing

There was a large dugout in the side of the hill where the Estes family lived while their house was being built.

dugout house

You really have to want to visit the Boren Cemetery.  It’s nearly impossible to find, to begin with, and after you to locate it, getting to it through 3 or 4 farm gates is another problem entirely.  And then there’s the issue of wild hogs – and they are not friendly.  In fact, they’re pretty testy – and they aren’t looking to you to feed them, but are looking at you as food.  I fully understand why people here carry guns – plural.

The Boren Cemetery

Boren cemetery crop

The Boren cemetery isn’t far from the Chisolm Trail and not far from where the Estes land was located.  On the map below, you can see the cemetery, marked by the red balloon, and you can also see the Red River Station Road to the right and Fleetwood on the Oklahoma side of the border.

Boren Cem near Red River Station

The Boren Cemetery is located in rolling Texas hill country – and sometimes those rolls are a bit steep.

Gib says to me, “It’s over there somewhere.”

Boren cemetery approach

Ok, Texas is a mighty big place and I don’t SEE anything that looks like a cemetery.

Gib had obtained directions and he and his wife had come out once already and scouted the area.  His wife opted not to come a second time.  That should have been a clue.

Gib had called the local farmer, so he had the lock combinations to the several gates we encountered.

Eventually, we entered a field and started driving across the field, then up the hill, then Gib’s 4 wheel drive vehicle bottomed out.  We were on foot from here on.

Gib forgot to mention about the snakes to me.  Those would be rattlesnakes.  Now, I have snake-boots at home, but those boots at home weren’t helping me one bit here.  I was not to be deterred.  Gib was wearing cowboy boots and walked in front of me.

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We found the path that led up to the cemetery,

We had to crawl under the barbed wire fence, or climb over it – because there was no gate.  By now, I could feel the rivulets of sweat running down my back.  Gib, the consummate Texas cowboy, was entirely unphased.  They make ’em tough down there – I’m telling ya!

Boren cemetery cactus

And if the barbed wire doesn’t get you, the cactus will.  Yes, that’s a bone.  I don’t know is the answer to your next question.  Just don’t ask.

Boren cemetery stones

It’s kind of rough country here, with the stones scattered in no order, graves dug where there were no rocks to interfere with the shovels.  At home on the Indiana farm where I grew up, we would have called this scrub, scratch or hard-scrabble.  Here, it is normal.  But that’s why they need a lot of it to make a living.

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This stone in front is the marker for John Y. Estes.  It’s beside a Campbell and Vannoy marker, in fact, John’s son-in-law who was buried just a week before John was.  Did John stand at his son-in-law’s grave just a week before he would be buried beside him?  John’s marker is actually very unique, as gravestones go – and the only one here like it.  In fact, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen like it.

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John’s stone was cast in concrete and then the information was drawn in the wet concrete with some kind of object – freestyle.  This tickled Gib a great deal because he had spent many years of his life working in the concrete business – so this somehow seemed fitting.

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Tracking John Y. Without GPS

So now we’ve followed John Y. Estes across half of the United States.  While his son, Lazarus likely never ranged further than Knoxville, John Y. Estes not only was very widely traveled, the biggest part was on foot – at least the Tennessee to Texas to Tennessee to Texas part – and probably much of the Civil War part too.

Let’s look at where John Y. Estes was and when.  I can’t keep track.

Location Date
Halifax Co., VA 1818 – birth location
Claiborne Co., TN 1820s, 1840-1870s
Grainger Co., TN 1830s
Tazewell, Claiborne Co., TN 1860
Claiborne County, TN Aug. 10, 1862 – Confederate Unit Formed
Murfeesboro, TN Dec. 29, 1862 – Civil War battle
Murfeesboro Pike, TN Dec 31, 1862 – Civil War battle
Stanford and Crab Orchard Road, KY March 30, 1863 – Civil War battle
Albany, KY May 1, 1863 – Civil War battle
Travisville, Fentress Co., KY May 2, 1863 – Civil War battle
Ebenezer, TN July 31, 1863 – Civil War activity
Clinton, TN August 15, 1863 – Civil War activity
Cumberland Gap, TN August 15, 1863 – Sept. 1863 – Civil War activity
Lee County, VA Courthouse Sept. 18, 1863 – the North took the Gap – Civil War battle
Kingsport, TN Sept. 18, 1863 – Civil War battle
Saltville, VA Oct. 31, 1863 – Civil War battle
Rogersville, TN Nov. 1, 1863 – Civil War battle
Charleston, TN Nov. 24, 1863 – Civil War battle
Battle of New Hope Church, Orange Co., VA Nov 27 – Dec. 2, 1863
Valley of Virginia Campaigns, Shenandoah Valley, VA May-July, 1864
Battle of Piedmont, Augusta Co., VA June 5, 1864
Charlottesville, VA June 12, 1864 – hospital
Stanton, VA June 30, 1864 – deserted
Chattanooga, TN March 6, 1865 – POW
Louisville, KY March 20, 1865 – POW signed oath of allegiance – released north of the Ohio
Claiborne Co., TN 1865-1879
Nocona, TX 1880-1895

I would have loved to sit for a day and talk to this man.  What stories he had to tell.

The John Y. Part of Me

I have to tell you, this man had hootspa.  He was tenacious.  He walked to Texas, twice, using a cane or stick to walk, more than 900 miles each way, when he was 61 years of age.  And it didn’t kill him.  I can’t even begin to imagine this trip, once, let alone once there, walking back to Tennessee and then back to Texas, again.  In essence, just one of those trips took 3-4 months.  Three of them probably took more than year of his life.

The concept of that just baffles me. What could be that alluring about Texas?  And why go back to Tennessee once you had arrived in Texas?

But then again, I’m not so terribly different in some ways.  And sometimes things I do baffle others.

In the 1980s, I decided to retrace the Trail of Tears, in honor of my Native American ancestors and in protest of the atrocities that befell them.  I walked part of the trail, but that’s a lot easier said than done for various reasons – not the least of which is that the trail isn’t (or wasn’t then) marked and segments are lost or missing in many places.  In the 1980s and 1990s, I had completed the segment through Tennessee and Kentucky, into Illinois.  In 2005, I completed the section between southern Illinois and Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the home of the western Cherokee nation today, where the Cherokee settled. Altogether, this trek took me over 20 years because I had to make it in segments.  In 2005, I picked up where I had left off in Illinois and within a couple days, found myself at the location where the Native people crossed the Mississippi..

Trail of Tears State Park

I walked part of that as well, on both sides of the river, but given that I was traveling alone, I had to walk back to my car and then drive to the next segment to walk.  Take my word for it, the state of Missouri goes on forever!

Trail of Tears Crossing

I was a lot younger then that John Y. was when he walked to Texas, and he walked the entire distance, not just a few miles or a day here and there.

One of the most unforgetable stops on that journey was the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri, just across the border from Illinois where the Cherokee spent a horrific winter, starving and freezing to death, and waiting for the ice to melt so they could cross the Mississippi.  It took eleven weeks to cover 60 miles and the Native people suffered terribly, horrifically – the local people refusing to help them with food.  Within days, there was no wildlife left to hunt.

Trail of Tears at Mississippi

This is on the Missouri side of the River, looking across the river at the land where more than 15,000 Native people camped, and waited, with no food and only light blankets in one of the worst winters recorded.  Weakened from starvation, people froze to death nightly.  The dead couldn’t even be buried, their bodies left in the snow.  There were no reports of cannibalism, but that level of desperation would not have surprised me.

The Trail of Tears as a whole, but in particular, this segment was a unfathomable act of inhumane genocide – torture, hour by hour, day by day, as you watched those you love starve and freeze, as you were doing so yourself.  One can feel their aching spirts as you stand on the land, even yet today.  Some were so devastated that they never spoke again in their lifetimes.  Their torture and grief is unfathomable and the depth of that black hole remains both tangible and palpable today.  There simply are no words.

My final destination in 2005, 125 years after John Y. Estes walked to Texas?  Texas.  Why?  To find John Y. Estes’s grave.  I never, at that time, realized the parallels.  But then, I didn’t really know the rest of the story.  Today, I find the parallels mind-boggling.

What of John Y. Estes do I have in me?  Do I carry his tenacity?  My mother would assuredly have voted in the affirmative, and she would not have meant that as a compliment!  I, on the other hand, am quite proud of that trait.

Sometimes it’s difficult to answer these kinds of questions – meaning how much of one particular ancestor’s DNA you carry.  One reason is that generational DNA is often measure in couples.  By this, I mean that if I compare myself to another individual who descends from John Y. Estes, like cousin Buster for example, the DNA that Buster and I share will not be just the DNA of John Y., but also the DNA of John Y’s wife, Rutha Dodson.

The only way to avoid this “spousal contamination,” and I mean that only in the nicest of ways, is by comparing the DNA of descendants of John Y. to someone who only descends from the Estes side, not the Dodson side.  What this really means is that the comparison has to be against someone who descended from John R. Estes, the father of John Y. Estes (or another Estes whose ancestor is upstream of John Y. Estes and who doesn’t share other family lines.)  Unfortunately, this means that it pushes the relationship back another generation, which means that less DNA will be shared between the cousins.

The cousins I have to work with are as follows, at least at Family Tree DNA.

Estes descent chart

In order for the closest descendants of John Y. Estes to be compared to a descendant of John R. Estes, I utilized the chromosome browser at Family Tree DNA.  Garmon is descended from John R. Estes, so carries none of Rutha’s DNA.  Therefore, any DNA that John Y’s descendants share with Garmon had to come from the Estes side of the house.

The chromosome browser graphic below shows the chromosome of Garmon, with the following individuals with matching DNA displayed as follows:

  • Me – Orange
  • Iona – Blue
  • David – Green
  • Buster – Magenta

On chromosome 1, Buster and Iona match Garmon, but I don’t and neither does David.  This is clearly John Y. Estes’s DNA, but I don’t carry it.

On chromosome 7 there is a small segment shared by everyone except David.

On chromosome 10, there is another small segment shared by me, David and Garmon.

Part of chromosome 13 is shared by Garmon, Iona and David.

To me, the most interesting part of this equation is that chromosome 19 holds a fairly large segment shared by everyone except Buster.

Garmon chromosome

So, let’s answer the question of how much of John Y’s DNA I carry.  I downloaded the segment chart that accompanies the chromosome browser and used that information to triangulate my matches – meaning that I noted when I matched two other cousins.  Not all matches are triangulated, proving a common Estes ancestor, but some are.  I then checked those cousin’s accounts to be sure they did, indeed, match each other on those segments – which is the criteria for triangulation.

This chart shows all of my matches to Garmon, which, precluding a second line or matches by chance, would all be John Y.’s DNA.

Garmon Roberta DNA matches

As we know, the only way to actually prove that these segments descend from John Y. is through triangulation but how can I triangulate more DNA to John Y. Estes?

The answer is the Lazarus tool at GedMatch, a tool built to reassemble or recreate our ancestors from their descendants – to reassemble their scattered DNA.

First, Lazarus allows you to enter up to 10 direct descendants and up to 100 “other relatives,” which means brothers, cousins, descendants of those people, but not someone who descends from the same spouse as John Y. Estes’s wife, Rutha Dodson.  If he had two wives and you were comparing children from both spouses against each other, then the criteria would be a bit different.

In other words, we’re only utilizing direct Estes line descendants, upstream of John Y. Estes.

I selected 4cM and 300 SNPs as my match criteria.

I have a total of 7 descendants and 4 other relatives, not all of whom have tested at Family Tree DNA.

I was pleased to note after running Lazarus at GedMatch that we had a total of 513.9 cM of John Y. Estes’s DNA reconstructed through his descendants and his other relatives.  In essence, that’s approximately 7.6% of John’s DNA that we’ve recovered.  Not bad for someone who was born 197 years ago.

The Lazarus tool matched my DNA with other Estes relatives, but NOT descendants of John Y. Estes.  I inherited the following segments directly from John Y. Estes.  Several of these segments were triangulated with 2 or more relatives.

John Y. Estes reconstruct DNA matches

Of these, only two, on chromosomes 9 and 19, are partial matches to the original list from Family Tree DNA. While, at first glance this looks unusual, it isn’t.  Both of the matches at Family Tree DNA over the threshold selected at GedMatch are included.  The lower segment matches were not “seen” at Gedmatch.  This is one reason why I utilize both tools when possible.  GedMatch allows you to utilize people’s results who tested at a different company, and Family Tree DNA allows you to easily pick up those common small segments.

If all of these segments are from John (and not from a secondary unknown shared line or identical by chance,) then I carry 156.6 cM of John Y. Estes’ DNA that I can map.  Given that John is my great-great-grandfather, I would be expected to carry about 6.25% of his DNA.  Of that amount, I’ve been able to tentatively identify about 2.3%, so if the right people were to test, I should be able to identify about another 3.95%.  So, in rough numbers, I’ve identified around one third of the DNA that I inherited from John Y. Estes utilizing 7 descendants and 4 other relatives.

So, now if I could just figure out which one of these genes is the “walk to Texas” and wanderlust gene, we’d be all set.  If I received that from any ancestor, it’s very likely to be from John Y. Estes, the only man I’ve ever know who walked to Texas, even once.

Red river aerial

Aerial view of the Red River, Texas on the right, Oklahoma on the left.

Acknowledgements:  A special thank you to cousin Gib, who supplied most of the Texas information and a lot of camaraderie over the years.

A Study Utilizing Small Segment Matching

There has been quite a bit of discussion in the last several weeks, both pro and con, about how to use small matching DNA segments in genetic genealogy.  A couple of people are even of the opinion that small segments can’t be used at all, ever.  Others are less certain and many of us are working our way through various scenarios.  Evidence certainly exists that these segments can be utilized.

I’ve been writing foundation articles, in preparation for this article, for several weeks now.  Recently, I wrote about how phasing works and determining IBD versus IBS matches and included guidelines for telling the difference between the different kinds of matches.  If you haven’t read that article, it’s essential to understanding this article, so now would be a good time to read or review that article.

I followed that with a step by step article, Demystifying Autosomal DNA Matching, on how to do phasing and matching in combination with the guidelines about how to determine IBD (identical by descent) versus IBS (identical by chance) and identical by population matches when evaluating your own matches.

Now that we understand IBS, IBD, Phasing and how matching actually works on a case by case basis, let’s look at applying those same matching and IBS vs IBD guidelines to small data segments as well.

A Little History

So those of you who haven’t been following the discussion on various blogs and social media don’t feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a conversation with no context, let me catch you up.

On Thanksgiving Day, I published an article about identifying one of my ancestors, after many years of trying, Sarah Hickerson.

That article spurred debate, which is just fine when the debate is about the science, but it subsequently devolved into something less pleasant.  There are some individuals with very strong opinions that utilizing small segments of DNA data can “never be done.”

I do not agree with that position.  In fact, I strongly disagree and there are multiple cases with evidence to support small segments being both accurate and useful in specific types of genealogical situations.  We’ll take a look at several.

I do agree that looking at small segment data out of context is useless.  To the best of my knowledge, no genealogist begins with their smallest segments and tries to assemble them, working from the bottom up.  We all begin with the largest segments, because they are the most useful and the closest connections in our tree, and work our way down.  Generally, we only work with small segments when we have to – and there are times that’s all we have.  So we need to establish guidelines and ways to know if those small segments are reliable or not.  In other words, how can we draw conclusions and how much confidence can we put in those conclusions?

Ultimately, whether you choose to use or work with small segment data will be your own decision, based on your own circumstances.  I simply wanted to understand what is possible and what is reasonable, both for my own genealogy and for my readers.

In my projects, I haven’t been using small segment data out of context, or randomly.  In other words, I don’t just pick any two small segment matches and infer or decide that they are valid matches.  Fortunately, by utilizing the IBD vs IBS guidelines, we have tools to differentiate IBD (Identical by Descent) segments from IBS (Identical by State) by chance segments and IBD/IBS by population for matching segments, both large and small.

Studying small segment data is the key to determining exactly how small segments can reasonably be utilized.  This topic probably isn’t black or white, but shades of gray – and assuming the position that something can’t be done simply assures that it won’t be.

I would strongly encourage those involved and interested in this type of research to retain those small segments, work with them and begin to look for patterns.  The only way we, as a community, are ever going to figure out how to work with small segments successfully and reliably is to, well, work with them.

Discussing the science and scenarios surrounding the usage of small data segments in various different situations is critical to seeing our way through the forest.  If the answers were cast in concrete about how to do this, we wouldn’t be working through this publicly today.

Negative personal comments and inferences have no place in the scientific community.  It discourages others from participating, and serves to stifle research and cooperation, not encourage it.  I hope that civil scientific discussions and comparisons involving small segment data can move forward, with decorum, because they are critically needed in order to enhance our understanding, under varying circumstances, of how to utilize small segment data.  As Judy Russell said, disagreeing doesn’t have to be disagreeable.

Two bloggers, Blaine Bettinger and CeCe Moore wrote articles following my Hickerson article.  Blaine subsequently wrote a second article here.  Felix Immanuel wrote articles here and here.

A few others have weighed in, in writing, as well although most commentary has been on Facebook.  Israel Pickholtz, a professional genealogist and genetic consultant, stated on his blog, All My Foreparents, the following:

It is my nature to distrust rules that put everything into a single category and that’s how I feel about small segments. Sometimes they are meaningful and useful, sometimes not.

When I reconstructed my father’s DNA using Lazerus (described last week in Genes From My Father), I happily accepted all small segments of whatever size because those small segments were in the DNA of at least one of his children and at least one of his brother/sister/first cousin. If I have a particular small segment, I must have received it from my parents. If my father’s brother (or sister) has it as well, then it is eminently clear to me that I got it from my father and that it came to him and his brother from my grandfather. And it is not reasonable to say that a sliver of that small segment might have come from my mother, because my father’s people share it.

After seeing Israel’s commentary about Lazarus, I reconstructed the genome of both Roscoe and John Ferverda, brothers, which includes both large and small segments.  Working with the Ferverda DNA further, I wrote an article, Just One Cousin, about matching between two siblings and a first cousin, which includes lots of small data segments, some of which were proven to triangulate, meaning they are genuine, and some which did not.  There are lots more examples in the demystifying article, as well.

What Not To Do 

Before we begin, I want to make it very clear that am not now, and never have, advocated that people utilize small data segments out of context of larger matching segments and/or at least suspected matching genealogy.  For example, I have never implied or even hinted that anyone should go to GedMatch, do a “one to many” compare at 1 cM and then contact people informing them that they are related.  Anyone who has extrapolated what I’ve written to mean that either simply did not understand or intentionally misinterpreted the articles.

Sarah Hickerson Revisited

If I thought Sarah Hickerson caused me a lot of heartburn in the decades before I found her, little did I know how much heartburn that discovery would cause.

Let’s go back to the Sarah Hickerson article that started the uproar over whether small data segments are useful at all.

In that article, I found I was a member of a new Ancestry DNA Circle for Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle, the parents of Sarah Hickerson.

Ancestry Hickerson match

Because there are no tools at Ancestry to prove DNA connections, I hurried over to Family Tree DNA looking for any matches to Hickersons for myself and for my Vannoy cousins who also (potentially) descended from this couple.  Much to my delight, I found  several matches to Hickersons, in fact, more than 20 – a total of 614 rows of spreadsheet matches when I included all of my Vannoy cousins who potentially descend from this couple to their Hickerson matches.  There were 64 matching clusters of segments, both small and large.  Some matches were as large as 20cM with 6000 SNPs and more than 20 were over 10cM with from 1500 to 6000 SNPs.  There were also hundreds of small segments that matched (and triangulated) as well.

By the time I added in a few more Vannoy cousins that we’ve since recruited, the spreadsheet is now up to 1093 rows and we have 52 Vannoy-Hickerson TRIANGULATED CLUSTERS utilizing only Family Tree DNA tools.

Triangulated DNA, found in 3 or more people at the same location who share a common ancestor is proven to be from that ancestor (or ancestral couple.)  This is the commonly accepted gold standard of autosomal DNA triangulation within the industry.

Here’s just one example of a cluster of three people.  Charlene and Buster are known (proven, triangulated) cousins and Barbara is a descendant of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.

example triang

What more could you want?

Yes, I called this a match.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a confirmed ancestor.  How much more confirmed can you get?

Some clusters have as many as 25 confirmed triangulated members.

chr 13 group

Others took issue with this conclusion because it included small segment data.  This seems like the perfect opportunity in which to take a look at how small segments do, or don’t stand up to scrutiny.  So, let’s do just that.  I also did the same type of matching comparison in a situation with 2 siblings and a known cousin, here.

To Trash…or Not To Trash

Some genetic genealogists discard small segments entirely, generally under either 5 or 7cM, which I find unfortunate for several reasons.

  1. If a person doesn’t work with small segments, they really can’t comment on the lack of results, and they’ll never have a success because the small segments will have been discarded.
  2. If a person doesn’t work with small segments, they will never notice any trends or matches that may have implications for their ancestry.
  3. If a person doesn’t work with small segments, they can’t contribute to the body of evidence for how to reasonably utilize these segments.
  4. If a person doesn’t work with small segments, they may well be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but they’ll never know.
  5. They encourage others to do the same.

The Sarah Hickerson article was not meant as a proof article for anything – it was meant to be an article encouraging people to utilize genetic genealogy for not only finding their ancestor and proving known connections, but breaking down brick walls.  It was pointing the way to how I found Sarah Hickerson.  It was one of my 52 Ancestors Series, documenting my ancestors, not one of the specifically educational articles.  This article is different.

If you are only interested in the low hanging fruit, meaning within the past 5 or 6 generations, and only proving your known pedigree, not finding new ancestors beyond that 5-6 generation level, then you can just stop reading now – and you can throw away your small segments.  But if you want more, then keep reading, because we as a community need to work with small segment data in order to establish guidelines that work relative to utilizing small segments and identifying the small segments that can be useful, versus the ones that aren’t.

I do not believe for one minute that small segments are universally useless.  As Israel said, if his family did not receive those segments from a common family member, then where did they all get those matching segments?

In fact, utilizing triangulated and proven DNA relationships within families is how adoptees piece together their family trees, piggybacking off of the work of people with known pedigrees that they match genetically.  My assumption had been that the adoptee community utilized only large DNA segments, because the larger the matching segments, generally the closer in time the genealogy match – and theoretically the easier to find.

However, I discovered that I was wrong, and the adoptee community does in fact utilize small segments as well.  Here’s one of the comments posted on my Chromosome Browser War blog article.

“Thanks for the well thought out article, Roberta, I have something to add from the folks at DNAadoption. Adoptees are not just interested in the large segments, the small segments also build the proof of the numerous lines involved. In addition, the accumulation of surnames from all the matches provides a way to evaluate new lines that join into the tree.”

Diane Harman-Hoog (on behalf of the 6 million adoptees in this country, many of who are looking for information on medical records and family heritage).

Diane isn’t the only person who is working with small segment data.  Tim Janzen works with small segments, in particular on his Mennonite project, and discusses small segments on the ISOGG WIKI Phasing page.  Here is what Tim has to say:

“One advantage of Family Finder is that FF has a 1 cM threshold for matching segments. If a parent and a child both have a matching segment that is in the 2 to 5 cM range and if the number of matching SNPs is 500 or more then there is a reasonably high likelihood that the matching segment is IBD (identical by descent) and not IBS (identical by state).”

The same rules for utilizing larger segment data need to be applied to small segment data to begin with.

Are more guidelines needed for small segments?  I don’t know, but we’ll never know if we don’t work with many individual situations and find the common methods for success and identify any problematic areas.

Why Do Small Segments Matter?

In some cases, especially as we work beyond the 6 generation level, small segments may be all we have left of a specific ancestor.  If we don’t learn to recognize and utilize the small segments available to us, those ancestors, genetically speaking, will be lost to us forever.

As we move back in time, the DNA from more distant ancestors will be divided into smaller and smaller segments, so if we ever want the ability to identify and track those segments back in time to a specific ancestor, we have to learn how to utilize small segment data – and if we have deleted that data, then we can’t use it.

In my case, I have identified all of my 5th generation ancestors except one, and I have a strong lead on her.  In my 6th generation, however, I have lots of walls that need to be broken through – and DNA may be the only way I’ll ever do that.

Let’s take a look at what I can expect when trying to match people who also descend from an ancestor 5 generations back in time.  If they are my same generation, they would be my fourth cousins.

Based on the autosomal statistics chart at ISOGG, 4th cousins, on the average, would expect to share about 13.28 cM of DNA from their common ancestor.  This would not be over the match threshold at FTDNA of approximately 20 cM total, and if those segments were broken into three pieces, for example, that cousin would not show as a match at either FTDNA or 23andMe, based on the vendors’ respective thresholds.

% Shared DNA Expected Shared cM Relationship
0.781% 53.13 Third cousins, common ancestor is 4 generations back in time
0.391% 26.56 Third cousins once removed
20 cm Family Tree DNA total cM Threshold
0.195% 13.28 Fourth cousins, common ancestor is 5 generations back in time
7 cM 23andMe individual segment cM match threshold
0.0977% 6.64 Fourth cousins once removed
0.0488% 3.32 Fifth cousins, common ancestor is 6 generations back in time
0.0244 1.66 Fifth cousins once removed

If you’re lucky, as I was with Hickerson, you’ll match at least some relative who carries that ancestral DNA line above the threshold, and then they’ll match other cousins above the threshold, and you can build a comparison network, linking people together, in that fashion.  And yes you may well have to utilize GedMatch for people testing at various different vendors and for those smaller segment comparisons.

For clarification, I have never “called” a genealogy match without supporting large segment data.  At the vendors, you can’t even see matches if they don’t have larger segments – so there is no way to even know you would match below the threshold.

I do think that we may be able to make calls based on small segments, at least in some instances, in the future.  In fact, we have to figure out how to do this or we will rarely be able to move past the 5th or 6th generation utilizing genetics.

At the 5th generation, or third cousins, one expects to see approximately 26 cM of matching DNA, still over the threshold (if divided correctly), but from that point further back in time, the expected shared amount of DNA is under the current day threshold.  For those who wonder why the vendors state that autosomal matches are reliable to about the 5th or 6th generation, this is the answer.

I do not discount small segments without cause.  In other words, I don’t discount small segments unless there is a reason.  Unless they are positively IBS by chance, meaning false, and I can prove it, I don’t disregard them.  I do label them and make appropriate notes.  You can’t learn from what’s not there.

Let me give you an example.  I have one area of my spreadsheet where I have a whole lot of segments, large and small, labeled Acadian.  Why?  Because the Acadians are so intermarried that I can’t begin to sort out the actual ancestor that DNA came from, at least not yet…so today, I just label them “Acadian.”

This example row is from my master spreadsheet.  I have my Mom’s results in my spreadsheet, so I can see easily if someone matches me and Mom both. My rows are pink.  The match is on Mom’s side, which I’ve color coded purple.  I don’t know which ancestor is the most recent common ancestor, but based on the surnames involved, I know they are Acadian.  In some cases, on Acadian matches, I can tell the MRCA and if so, that field is completed as well.

Me Mom acadian

As a note of interest, I inherited my mother’s segment intact, so there was no 50% division in this generation.

I also have segments labeled Mennonite and Brethren.  Perhaps in the future I’ll sort through these matches and actually be able to assign DNA segments to specific ancestors.  Those segments aren’t useless, they just aren’t yet fully analyzed.  As more people test, hopefully, patterns will emerge in many of these DNA groupings, both small and large.

In fact, I talked about DNA patterns and endogamous populations in my recent article, Just One Cousin.

For me, today, some small segment matches appear to be central European matches.  I say “appear to be,” because they are not triangulated.  For me this is rather boring and nondescript – but if this were my African American client who is trying to figure out which line her European ancestry came from, this could be very important.  Maybe she can map these segments to at least a specific ancestral line, which she would find very exciting.

Learning to use small segments effectively has the potential to benefit the following groups of people:

  • People with colonial ancestry, because all that may be left today of colonial ancestors is small segments.
  • People looking to break down brick walls, not just confirm currently known ancestors.
  • People looking for minority ancestors more than 5 or 6 generations back in their trees.
  • Adoptees – although very clearly, they want to work with the largest matches first.
  • People working with ethnic identification of ancestors, because you will eventually be able to track ethnicity identifying segments back in time to the originating ancestor(s).

Conversely, people from highly endogamous groups may not be helped much, if at all, by small segments because they are so likely to be widely shared within that population as a group from a common ancestor much further back in time.  In fact, the definition of a “small segment” for people with fully endogamous families might be much larger than for someone with no known endogamy.

However, if we can identify segments to specific populations, that may help the future accuracy of ethnicity testing.

Let’s go back and take a look at the Hickerson data using the same format we have been using for the comparisons so far.

Small Segment Examples

These Hickerson/Vannoy examples do not utilize random small segment matches, but are utilizing the same matching rules used for larger matches in conjunction with known, triangulated cousin groups from a known ancestor.  Many cousins, including 2 brothers and their uncle all carry this same DNA.  Like in Israel’s case, where did they get that same DNA if not from a common ancestor?

In the following examples, I want to stress that all of the people involved DO HAVE LARGER SEGMENT MATCHES on other chromosomes, which is how we knew they matched in the first place, so we aren’t trying to prove they are a match.  We know they are.  Our goal is to determine if small segments are useful in the same situation, proving matches, as with larger segments.  In other words, do the rules hold true?  And how do we work with the data?  Could we utilize these small segment matches if we didn’t have larger matching segments, and if so, how reliable would they be?

There is a difference between a single match and a triangulated group:

  • Matches between two people are suggestive of a common ancestor but could be IBS by chance or population..
  • Multiple matches, such as with the 6 different Hickersons who descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle, both in the Ancestry DNA Circle and at Family Tree DNA, are extremely suggestive of a specific common ancestor.
  • Only triangulated groups are proof of a common ancestor, unless the people are  closely related known relatives.

In our Hickerson/Vannoy study, all participants match at least to one other (but not to all other) group members at Family Tree DNA which means they match over the FTDNA threshold of approximately 20 cM total and at least one segment over 7.7cM and 500 SNPs or more.

In the example below, from the Hickerson article, the known Vannoy cousins are on the left side and the Hickerson matches to the Vannoy cousins are across the top.  We have several more now, but this gives you an idea of how the matching stacked up initially.  The two green individuals were proven descendants from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.

vannoy hickerson higginson matrix

The goal here is to see how small data segments stack up in a situation where the relationship is distant.  Can small segments be utilized to prove triangulation?  This is slightly different than in the Just One Cousin article, where the relationship between the individuals was close and previously known.  We can contrast the results of that close relationship and small segments with this more distant connection and small segments.

Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy

The Vannoy project has a group of about a dozen cousins who descend from Elijah Vannoy who have worked together to discover the identify of Elijah’s parents.  Elijah’s father is one of 4 Vannoy men, all sons of the same man, found in Wilkes County, NC. in the late 1700s.  Elijah Vannoy is 5 generations upstream from me.

What kind of evidence do we have?  In the paper genealogy world, I have ruled out one candidate via a Bible record, and probably a second via census and tax records, but we have little information about the third and fourth candidates – in spite of thoroughly perusing all existent records.  So, if we’re ever going to solve the mystery, short of that much-wished-for Vannoy Bible showing up on e-Bay, it’s going to have to be via genetic genealogy.

In addition to the dozen or so Vannoy cousins who have DNA tested, we found 6 individuals who descend from Sarah Hickerson’s parents, Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle who match various Vannoy cousins.  Additionally, those cousins match another 21 individuals who carry the Hickerson or derivative surnames, but since we have not proven their Hickerson lineage on paper, I have not utilized any of those additional matches in this analysis.  Of those 26 total matches, at Family Tree DNA, one Hickerson individual matches 3 Vannoy cousins, nine Hickerson descendants match 2 Vannoy cousins and sixteen Hickerson descendants match 1 Vannoy cousin.

Our group of Vannoy cousins matching to the 6 Charles Hickerson/Mary Lytle descendants contains over 60 different clusters of matching DNA data across the 22 chromosomes.  Those 6 individuals are included in 43 different triangulated groups, proving the entire triangulation group shares a common ancestor.  And that is BEFORE we add any GedMatch information.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s not.  Another recent article found 31 clusters among siblings and their first cousin, so 60 clusters among a dozen known Vannoy cousins and half a dozen potential Hickerson cousins isn’t unusual at all.

To be very clear, Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy were not “declared” to be the parents of Elijah Vannoy, born in 1784, based on small segment matches alone.  Larger segment matches were involved, which is how we saw the matches in the first place.  Furthermore, the matches triangulated.  However, small segments certainly are involved and are more prevalent, of course, than large segments.  Some cousins are only connected by small segments.  Are they valid, and how do we tell?  Sometimes it’s all we have.

Let me give you the classic example of when small segments are needed.

We have four people.  Person A and B are known Vannoy cousins and person C and D are potential Hickerson cousins.  Potential means, in this case, potential cousins to the Vannoys.  The Hickersons already know they both descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.

  • Person A matches person C on chromosome 1 over the matching threshold.
  • Person B matches person D on chromosome 2 over the matching threshold.

Both Vannoy cousins match Hickerson cousins, but not the same cousin and not on the same segments at the vendor.  If these were same segment matches, there would be no question because they would be triangulated, but they aren’t.

So, what do we do?  We don’t have access to see if person C and D match each other, and even if we did, they don’t match on the same segments where they match persons A and B, because if they did we’d see them as a match too when we view A and B.

If person A and B don’t match each other at the vendor, we’re flat out of luck and have to move this entire operation to GedMatch, assuming all 4 people have or are willing to download their data.

a and b nomatch

If person A and B match each other at the vendor, we can see their small segment data as compared to each other and to persons C and D, respectively which then gives us the ability to see if A matches C on the same small segment as B matches D.

a and b match

If we are lucky, they will all show a common match on a small segment – meaning that A will match B on a small segment of chromosome 3, for example, and A will match C on that same segment.  In a perfect world, B will also match D on that same segment, and you will have 4 way triangulation – but I’m happy with the required 3 way match to triangulate.

This is exactly what happened in the article, Be Still My H(e)art.  As you can see, three people match on chromosomes 1 and 8, below – two of whom are proven cousins and the third was the wife surname candidate line.

Younger Hart 1-8

The example I showed of chromosome 2 in the Hickerson article was where all participants of the 5 individuals shown on the chromosome browser were matching to the Vannoy participant.  I thought it was a good visual example.  It was just one example of the 60+ clusters of cousin matches between the dozen Vannoy cousins and 6 Hickerson descendants.

This example was criticized by some because it was a small segment match.  I should probably have utilized chromosome 15 or searched for a better long segment example, but the point in my article was only to show how people that match stack up together on the chromosome browser – nothing more.   Here’s the entire chromosome, for clarity.

hickerson vannoy chr 2

Certainly, I don’t want to mislead anyone, including myself.  Furthermore, I dislike being publicly characterized as “wrong” and worse yet, labeled “irresponsible,” so I decided to delve into the depths of the data and work through several different examples to see if small segment data matching holds in various situations.  Let’s see what we found.

Chromosome 15

I selected chromosome 15 to work with because it is a region where a lot of Vannoy descendants match – and because it is a relatively large segment.  If the Hickersons do match the Vannoys, there’s a fairly good change they might match on at least part of that segment.  In other words, it appears to be my best bet due to sheer size and the number of Elijah Vannoy’s descendants who carry this segment.  In addition to the 6 individuals above who matched on chromosome 15, here are an additional 4.  As you can see, chromosome 15 has a lot of potential.

Chrom 15 Vannoy

The spreadsheet below shows the sections of chromosome 15 where cousins match.  Green individuals in the Match column are descendants of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle, the parents of Sarah Hickerson.  The balance are Vannoys who match on chromosome 15.

chr 15 matches ftdna v4

As you can see, there are several segments that are quite large, shown in yellow, but there are also many that are under the threshold of 7cM, which are all  segments that would be deleted if you are deleting small segments.  Please also note that if you were deleting small segments, all of the Hickerson matches would be gone from chromosome 15.

Those of you with an eagle eye will already notice that we have two separate segments that have triangulated between the Vannoy cousins and the Hickerson descendants, noted in the left column by yellow and beige.  So really, we could stop right here, because we’ve proven the relationship, but there’s a lot more to learn, so let’s go on.

You Can’t Use What You Can’t See

I need to point something out at this point that is extremely important.

The only reason we see any segment data below the match threshold is because once you match someone on a larger segment at Family Tree DNA, over the threshold, you also get to view the small segment data down to 1cM for your match with that person. 

What this means is that if one person or two people match a Hickerson descendant, for example you will see the small segment data for their individual matches, but not for anyone that doesn’t match the participant over the matching threshold.

What that means in the spreadsheet above, is that the only Hickerson that matches more than one Vannoy (on this segment) is Barbara – so we can see her segment data (down to 1cM ) as compared to Polly and Buster, but not to anyone else.

If we could see the smaller segment data of the other participants as compared to the Hickerson participants, even though they don’t match on a larger segment over the matching threshold, there could potentially be a lot of small segment data that would match – and therefore triangulate on this segment.

This is the perfect example of why I’ve suggested to Family Tree DNA that within projects or in individuals situations, that we be allowed to reduce the match threshold – especially when a specific family line match is suspected.

This is also one of the reasons why people turn to GedMatch, and we’ll do that as well.

What this means, relative to the spreadsheet is that it is, unfortunately, woefully incomplete – and it’s not apples to apples because in some cases we have data under the match threshold, and in some, we don’t.  So, matches DO count, but nonmatches where small segment data is not available do NOT count as a non-match, or as disproof.  It’s only negative proof IF you have the data AND it doesn’t match.

The Vannoys match and triangulate on many segments, so those are irrelevant to this discussion other than when they match to Hickerson DNA.  William (H), descends from two sons of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.  Unfortunately, he only matches one Vannoy, so we can only see his small segments for that one Vannoy individual, William (V).  We don’t know what we are missing as compared to the rest of the Vannoy cousins.

To see William (H)’s and William (V)’s DNA as compared to the rest of the Vannoy cousins, we had to move to GedMatch.

Matching Options

Since we are working with segments that are proven to be Vannoy, and we are trying to prove/disprove if Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson are the parents of Elijah through multiple Hickerson matches, there are only a few matching options, which are:

  1. The Hickerson individuals will not triangulate with any of the Vannoy DNA, on chromosome 15 or on other chromosomes, meaning that Sarah Hickerson is probably not the mother of Elijah Vannoy, or the common ancestor is too far back in time to discern that match at vendor thresholds.
  2. The Hickerson individuals will not triangulate on this segment, but do triangulate on other segments, meaning that this segment came entirely from the Vannoy side of the family and not the Hickerson side of the family. Therefore, if chromosome 15 does not triangulate, we need to look at other chromosomes.
  3. The Hickerson individuals triangulate with the Vannoy individuals, confirming that Sarah Hickerson is the mother of Elijah Vannoy, or that there is a different common unknown ancestor someplace upstream of several Hickersons and Vannoys.

All of the Vannoy cousins descend from Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel, except one, William (V), who descends from the proven son of Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy, so he would be expected to match at least some Hickerson descendants.  The 6 Hickerson cousins descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle, Sarah’s parents.

hickerson vannoy pedigree

William (H), the Hickerson cousin who descends from David, brother to Sarah Hickerson, is descended through two of David Hickerson’s sons.

I decided to utilize the same segment “mapping comparison” technique with a spreadsheet that I utilized in the phasing article, because it’s easy to see and visualize.

I have created a matching spreadsheet and labeled the locations on the spreadsheet from 25-100 based on the beginning of the start location of the cluster of matches and the end location of the cluster.

Each individual being compared on the spreadsheet below has a column across the top.  On the chart below, all Hickerson individuals are to the right and are shown with their cells highlighted yellow in the top row.

Below, the entire colorized chart of chromosome 15 is shown, beginning with location 25 and ending with 100, in the left hand column, the area of the Vannoy overlap.  Remember, you can double click on the graphics to enlarge.  The columns in this spreadsheet are not fully expanded below, but they are in the individual examples.

entire chr 15 match ss v4

I am going to step through this spreadsheet, and point out several aspects.

First, I selected Buster, the individual in the group to begin the comparison, because he was one of the closest to the common ancestor, Elijah Vannoy, genealogically, at 4 generations.  So he is the person at Family Tree DNA that everyone is initially compared against.

Everyone who matches Buster has their matching segments shown in blue.  Buster is shown furthest left.

When participants match someone other than Buster, who they match on that segment is typed into their column.  You can tell who Buster matches because their columns are blue on matching locations.  Here’s an example.

Me Buster match

You can see that in my column, it’s blue on all segments which means I match Buster on this entire region.  In addition, there are names of Carl, Dean, William Gedmatch and Billie Gedmatch typed into the cell in the first row which means at that location, in addition to Buster, I also match Carl and Dean at Family Tree DNA and William (descended from the son of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson) at Gedmatch and Billie (a Hickerson) at Gedmatch.  Their name is typed into my column, and mine into theirs.  Please note that I did not run everyone against everyone at GedMatch.  I only needed enough data to prove the point and running many comparisons is a long, arduous process even when GedMatch isn’t experiencing problems.

On cells that aren’t colorized blue, the person doesn’t match Buster, but may still match other Vannoy cousin segments.  For example, Dean, below, matches Buster on location 25-29, along with some other cousins.  However, he does not match Buster on location 30 where he instead matches Harold and Carl who also don’t match Buster at that location. Harold, Carl and Dean do, however, all descend from the same son of Elijah so they may well be sharing DNA from a Vannoy wife at this location, especially since no one who doesn’t share that specific wife’s line matches those three at this location.

Me Buster Dean match

Remember, we are not working with random small data segments, but with a proven matching segment to a common Vannoy ancestor, with a group of descendants from a possible/probable Hickerson ancestor that we are trying to prove/disprove.  In other words, you would expect either a lot of Hickerson matches on the same segments, if Hickerson is indeed a Vannoy ancestral family, or virtually none of them to match, if not.

The next thing I’d like to point out is that these are small segments of people who also have larger matching segments, many of whom do triangulate on larger segments on other chromosomes.  What we are trying to discern is whether small segment matches can be utilized by employing the same matching criteria as large segment matching.  In other words, is small segment data valid and useful if it meets the criteria for an IBD match?

For example, let’s look at Daniel.  Daniel’s segments on chromosome 15, were it not for the fact that he matches on larger segments on other chromosomes, would not be shown as matches, because they are not individually over the match threshold.

Look at Daniel’s column for Polly and Warren.

Daniel matches 2

The segments in red show a triangulated group where Daniel and Warren, or Daniel, Warren and Polly match.  The segments where all 3 match are triangulated.

This proves, unquestionably, that small segments DO match utilizing the normal prescribed IBD matching criteria.  This spreadsheet, just for chromosome 15, is full of these examples.

Is there any reason to think that these triangulated matches are not identical by descent?  If they are not IBD, how do all of these people match the same DNA? Chance alone?  How would that be possible?  Two people, yes, maybe, but 3 or more?  In some cases, 5 or 6 on the same segment?  That is simply not possible, or we have disproven the entire foundation that autosomal DNA matching is based upon.

The question will soon be asked if small segments that triangulate can be useful when there are no larger matching segments to put the match over the initial vendor threshold.

Triangulated Groups

As you can see, most of the people and segments on the spreadsheet, certainly the Elijah descendants, are heavily triangulated, meaning that three or more people match each other on the same locations.  Most of this matching is over the vendor threshold at Family Tree DNA.

You can see that Buster, Me, Dean, Carl and Harold all match each other on the same segments, on the left half of the spreadsheet where our names are in each other’s columns.

triangulated groups

Remember when I said that the spreadsheet was incomplete?  This is an example.  David and Warren don’t match each other at a high enough total of segments to get them over the matching threshold when compared to each other, so we can’t see their small segment data as compared to each other.  David matches Buster, but Warren doesn’t, so I can’t even see them both in relationship to a common match.  There are several people who fall into this category.

Let’s select one individual to use as an example.

I’ve chosen the Vannoy cousin, William(V), because his kit has been uploaded to Gedmatch, he has Vannoy matches and because William is proven to descend from Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy through their son Joel – so we expect some Hickerson DNA to match William(V).

If William (V) matches the Hickersons on the same DNA locations as he matches to Elijah’s descendants, then that proves that Elijah’s descendant’s DNA in that location is Hickerson DNA.

At GedMatch, I compared William(V) with me and then with Dean using a “one to one” comparison at a low threshold, simply because I wanted as much data as I could get.  Family Tree DNA allows for 1 cM and I did the same, allowing 100 SNPs at GedMatch.  Family Tree DNA’s lowest SNP threshold is 500.

In case you were wondering, even though I did lower the GedMatch threshold below the FTDNA minimum, there were 45 segments that were above 1cM and above 500 SNPs when matching me to William(V), which would have been above the lowest match threshold at FTDNA (assuming we were over the initial match threshold.)  In other words, had we not been below the original match threshold (20cM total, one segment over 7.7cM), these segments would have been included at FTDNA as small segments.  As you can see in the chart below, many triangulated.

I colorized the GedMatch matches, where there were no FTDNA matches, in dark red text.  This illustrates graphically just how much is missed when the small segments are ignored in cases with known or probable cousins.  In the green area, the entry that says “Me GedMatch” could not be colorized red (because you can’t colorize only part of the text of a cell) so I added the Gedmatch designation to differentiate between a match through FTDNA and one from GedMatch.  I did the same with all Gedmatch matches, whether colorized or not.

Let’s take a look and see how small segments from GedMatch affect our Hickerson matching.  Note that in the green area, William (V) matches William (H), the Hickerson descendant, and William (V) matches to me and Dean as well.  This triangulates William (V)’s Hickerson DNA and proves that Elijah’s descendants DNA includes proven Hickerson segments.

William (V) gedmatch matches v2

In this next example, I matched William (H), the Hickerson cousin (with no Vannoy heritage) against both Buster and me.

William (H) gedmatch me buster

Without Gedmatch data, only two segments of chromosome 15 are triangulated between Vannoy and Hickerson cousins, because we can’t see the small data segments of the rest of the cousins who don’t match over the threshold.

You can see here that nearly the entire chromosome is triangulated using small segments.  In the chart below, you can see both William(V) and William (H) as they match various Vannoy cousins.  Both triangulate with me.

William V and William H

I did the same thing with the Hickerson descendant, Billie, as compared to both me and Dean, with the same type of results.

The next question would be if chromosome 15 is a pileup area where I have a lot of IBS matches that are really population based matches.  It does not appear to be.  I have identified an area of my chromosomes that may be a pileup area, but chromosome 15 does not carry any of those characteristics.

So by utilizing the small segments at GedMatch for chromosome 15 that we can’t otherwise see, we can triangulate at least some of the Hickerson matches.  I can’t complete this chart, because several individuals have not uploaded to GedMatch.

Why would the Hickerson descendant match so many of the Vannoy segments on chromosome 15?  Because this is not a random sample.  This is a proven Vannoy segment and we are trying to see which parts of this segment are from a potential Hickerson mother or the Vannoy father.  If from the Hickerson mother, then this level of matching is not unexpected.  In fact, it would be expected.  Since we cheated and saw that chromosome 15 was already triangulated at Family Tree DNA, we already knew what to expect.

In the spreadsheet below, I’ve added the 2 GedMatch comparisons, William (V) to me and Dean, and William (H) to me and Buster.  You can see the segments that triangulate, on the left.  We could also build “triangulated groups,” like GedMatch does.  I started to do this, but then stopped because I realized most cells would be colored and you’d have a hard time seeing the individual triangulated segments.  I shifted to triangulating only the individuals who triangulate directly with the Hickerson descendant, William(H), shown in green.  GedMatch data is shown in red.

chr 15 with gedmatch

I would like to make three points.

1.  This still is not a complete spreadsheet where everyone is compared to everyone.  This was selectively compared for two known Hickerson cousins, William (V) who descends from both Vannoys and Hickersos and William (H) who descends only from Hickersons.

2. There are 25 individually triangulated segments to the Hickerson descendant on just this chromosome to the various Vannoy cousins.  That’s proof times 25 to just one Hickerson cousin.

3.  I would NEVER suggest that you select one set of small segments and base a decision on that alone.  This entire exercise has assembled cumulative evidence.  By the same token, if the rules for segment matching hold up under the worst circumstances, where we have an unknown but suspected relationship and the small segments appear to continue to follow the triangulation rules, they could be expected to remain true in much more favorable circumstances.

Might any of these people have random DNA matches that are truly IBS by chance on chromosome 15?  Of course, but the matching rules, just like for larger segments, eliminates them.  According to triangulation rules, if they are IBS by chance, they won’t triangulate.  If they do triangulate, that would confirm that they received the same DNA from a common ancestor.

If this is not true, and they did not receive their common DNA from a common ancestor, then it disproves the fundamental matching rule upon which all autosomal DNA genetic genealogy is based and we all need to throw in the towel and just go and do something else.

Is there some grey area someplace?  I would presume so,  but at this point, I don’t know how to discern or define it, if there is.  I’ve done three in-depth studies on three different families over the past 6 weeks or so, and I’ve yet to find an area (except for endogamous populations that have matches by population) where the guidelines are problematic.  Other researchers may certainly make different discoveries as they do the same kind of studies.  There is always more to be discovered, so we need to keep an open mind.

In this situation, it helps a lot that the Hickerson/Vannoy descendants match and triangulate on larger segments on other chromosomes.  This study was specifically to see if smaller segments would triangulate and obey the rules. We were fortunate to have such a large, apparently “sticky” segment of Vannoy DNA on chromosome 15 to work with.

Does small segment matching matter in most cases, especially when you have larger segments to utilize?  Probably not. Use the largest segments first.  But in some cases, like where you are trying to prove an ancestor who was born in the 1700s, you may desperately need that small segment data in order to triangulate between three people.

Why is this important – critically important?  Because if small segments obey all of the triangulation rules when larger segments are available to “prove” the match, then there is no reason that they couldn’t be utilized, using the same rules of IBD/IBS, when larger segments are not available.  We saw this in Just One Cousin as well.

However, in terms of proof of concept, I don’t know what better proof could possibly be offered, within the standard genetic genealogy proofs where IBD/IBS guidelines are utilized as described in the Phasing article.  Additional examples of small segment proof by triangulation are offered in Just One Cousin, Lazarus – Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again, and in Demystifying Autosomal DNA Matching.

Raising Elijah Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson from the Dead

As I thought more about this situation, I realized that I was doing an awful lot of spreadsheet heavy lifting when a tool might already be available.  In fact, Israel’s mention of Lazarus made me wonder if there was a way to apply this tool to the situation at hand.

I decided to take a look at the Lazarus tool and here is what the intro said:

Generate ‘pseudo-DNA kits’ based on segments in common with your matches. These ‘pseudo-DNA kits’ can then be used as a surrogate for a common ancestor in other tests on this site. Segments are included for every combination where a match occurs between a kit in group1 and group2.

It’s obvious from further instructions that this is really meant for a parent or grandparent, but the technique should work just the same for more distant relatives.

I decided to try it first just with the descendants of Elijah Vannoy.  At first, I thought that recreated Elijah would include the following DNA:

  • DNA segments from Elijah Vannoy
  • DNA segments from Elijah Vannoy’s wife, Lois McNiel
  • DNA segments that match from Elijah’s descendants spouse’s lines when individuals come from the same descendant line. This means that if three people descend from Joel Vannoy and Phoebe Crumley, Elijah’s son and his wife, that they would match on some DNA from Phoebe, and that there was no way to subtract Phoebe’s DNA.

After working with the Lazarus tool, I realized this is not the case because Lazarus is designed to utilize a group of direct descendants and then compare the DNA of that group to a second group of know relatives, but not descendants.

In other words, if you have a grandson of a man, and his brother.  The DNA shared by the brother and the grandson HAS to be the DNA contributed to that grandson by his grandfather, from their common ancestor, the great grandfather.  So, in our situation above, Phoebe’s DNA is excluded.

The chart below shows the inheritance path for Lazarus matching.

Lazarus inheritance

Because Lazarus is comparing the DNA of Son Doe with Brother Doe – that eliminates any DNA from the brother’s wives, Sarah Spoon or Mary – because those lines are not shared between Brother Doe and Son Doe.  The only shared ancestors that can contribute DNA to both are Father Doe and Methusaleh Fisher.

The Lazarus instructions allow you to enter the direct descendants of the person/couple that you are reconstructing, then a second set of instructions asks for remaining relatives not directly descended, like siblings, parents, cousins, etc. In other words, those that should share DNA through the common ancestor of the person you are recreating.

To recreate Elijah, I entered all of the Vannoy cousins and then entered William (V) as a sibling since he is the proven son of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.

Here is what Lazarus produced.

lazarus elijah 1

Lazarus includes segments of 4cM and 500 SNPs.

The first thing I thought was, “Holy Moly, what happened to chromosome 15?”  I went back and looked, and sure enough, while almost all of the Elijah descendants do match on chromosome 15, William (V), kit 156020, does not match above the Lazarus threshold I selected.  So chromosome 15 is not included.  Finding additional people who are known to be from this Vannoy line and adding them to the “nondescendant” group would probably result in a more complete Elijah.

lazarus elijah 2

Next, to recreate Sarah Hickerson, I added all of the Vannoy cousins plus William (V) as descendants of Sarah Hickerson and then I added just the one Hickerson descendant, William, as a sibling.  William’s ancestor is proven to be the sibling of Sarah.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.

Clearly if the DNA from the Hickerson descendant didn’t match or triangulate with DNA from any of the Vannoy cousins at this higher level, then Sarah Hickerson wasn’t likely Elijah’s mother.  I wanted to see matching, but more, I wanted to see triangulation.

lazarus elijah 3

I was stunned.  Every kit except two had matches, some of significant size.

lazarus elijah 4

lazarus elijah 5 v2

Please note that locations on chromosomes 3, 4 and 13, above, are triangulated in addition to matching between two individuals, which constitutes proof of a common ancestor.  Please also note that if you were throwing away segments below 7cM, you would lose all of the triangulated matches and all but two matches altogether.

Clearly, comparing the Vannoy DNA with the Hickerson DNA produced a significant number of matches including three triangulated segments.

lazarus elijah 6

Where Are We?

I never have, and I never would recommend attempting to utilize random small match segments out of context.  By out of context, I mean simply looking at all of your 1cM segments and suggesting that they are all relevant to your genealogy.  Nope, never have.  Never would.

There is no question that many small segments are IBS by chance or identical by population.  Furthermore, working with small segments in endogamous populations may not be fruitful.

Those are the caveats.  Small segments in the right circumstances are useful.  And we’ve seen several examples of the right circumstances.

Over the past few weeks, we have identified guidelines and tools to work with small segments, and they are the same tools and guidelines we utilize to work with larger segments as well.  The difference is size.  When working with large segments, the fact that they are large serves an a filter for us and we don’t question their authenticity.  With all small segments, we must do the matching and analysis work to prove validity.  Probably not worthwhile if you have larger segments for the same group of people.

Working with the Vannoy data on chromosome 15 is not random, nor is the family from an endogamous population.  That segment was proven to be Vannoy prior to attempts to confirm or disprove the Hickerson connection.  And we’ve gone beyond just matching, we’ve proven the ancestral link by triangulation, including small segments.  We’ve now proven the Hickerson connection about 7 ways to Sunday.  Ok, maybe 7 is an exaggeration, but here is the evidence summed up for the Vannoy/Hickerson study from multiple vendors and tools:

  • Ancestry DNA Circle indicating that multiple Hickerson descendants match me and some that don’t match me, match each other. Not proof, but certainly suggestive of a common ancestor.
  • A total of 26 Hickerson or derivative family name matches to Vannoy cousins at Family Tree DNA. Not proof, but again, very suggestive.
  • 6 Charles Hickerson/Mary Lytle descendants match to Vannoy cousins at Family Tree DNA. Extremely suggestive, needs triangulation.
  • Triangulation of segments between Vannoy and Hickerson cousins at Family Tree DNA. Proof, but in this study we were only looking to determine whether small segment matches constituted proof.
  • Triangulation of multiple Hickerson/Vannoy cousins on chromosome 15 at GedMatch utilizing small segments and one to one matching. More proof.
  • Lazarus, at higher thresholds than the triangulation matching, when creating Sarah Hickerson, still matched 19 segments and triangulated three for a total of 73.2cM when comparing the Hickerson descendant against the Vannoy cousins. Further proof.

So, can small segment matching data be useful? Is there any reason NOT to accept this evidence as valid?

With proper usage, small segment data certainly looks to provide value by judiciously applying exactly the same rules that apply to all DNA matching.  The difference of course being that you don’t really have to think about utilizing those tools with large segment matches.  It’s pretty well a given that a 20cM match is valid, but you can never assume anything about those small segment matches without supporting evidence. So are larger segments easier to use?  Absolutely.

Does that automatically make small segments invalid?  Absolutely not.

In some cases, especially when attempting to break down brick walls more than 5 or 6 generations in the past, small segment data may be all we have available.  We must use it effectively.  How small is too small?  I don’t know.  It appears that size is really not a factor if you strictly adhere to the IBD/IBS guidelines, but at some point, I would think the segments would be so small that just about everyone would match everyone because we are all humans – so the ultimate identical by population scenario.

Segments that don’t match an individual and either or both parents, assuming you have both parents to test, can safely be disregarded unless they are large and then a look at the raw data is in order to see if there is a problem in that area.  These are IBS by chance.  IBS segments by chance also won’t triangulate further up the tree.  They can’t, because they don’t match your parents so they cannot come from an ancestor.  If they don’t come from an ancestor, they can’t possibly match two other people whose DNA comes from that ancestor on that segment.

If both parents aren’t available, or your small segments do match with your parents, I would suggest that you retain your small segments and map them.

You can’t recognize patterns if the data isn’t present and you won’t be able to find that proverbial needle in the haystack that we are all looking for.

Based on what we’ve seen in multiple case studies, I would conclude that small segment data is certainly valid and can play a valid role in a situation where there is a known or suspected relationship.

I would agree that attempting to utilize small segment data outside the context of a larger data match is not optimal, at least not today, although I wish the vendors would provide a way for us to selectively lower our thresholds.  A larger segment match can point the way to smaller segment matches between multiple people that can be triangulated.  In some situations, like the person A, B, C, D Hickerson-Vannoy situation I described earlier in this article, I would like to be able to drop the match threshold to reveal the small segment data when other matches are suggestive of a family relationship.

In the Hickerson situation, having the ability to drop the matching thresholds would have been the key to positively confirming this relationship within the vendor’s data base and not having to utilize third party tools like GedMatch – which require the cooperation of all parties involved to download their raw data files.  Not everyone transferred their data to Gedmatch in my Vannoy group, but enough did that we were able to do what we needed to do.  That isn’t always the case.  In fact, I have an nearly identical situation in another line but my two matches at Ancestry have declined to download their data to Gedmatch.

This not the first time that small segment data has played a successful role in finding genealogy solutions, or confirming what we thought we knew – although in all cases to date, larger segments matched as well – and those larger segment matches were key and what pointed me to the potential match that ultimately involved the usage of the small segments for triangulation.

Using larger data segments as pointers probably won’t be the case forever, especially if we can gain confidence that we can reliably utilize small segments, at least in certain situations.  Specifically, a small segment match may be nothing, but a small segment triangulated match in the context of a genealogical situation seems to abide by all of the genetic genealogy DNA rules.

In fact, a situation just arose in the past couple weeks that does not include larger segments matching at a vendor.

Let’s close this article by discussing this recent scenario.

The Adoptee

An adoptee approached me with matching data from GedMatch which included matches to me, Dean, Carl and Harold on chromosome 15, on segments that overlap, as follows.

adoptee chr 15

On the spreadsheet above, sent to me by the adoptee, we can see some matches but not all matches. I ran the balance of these 4 people at GedMatch and below is the matching chart for the segment of chromosome 15 where the adoptee matches the 4 Vannoy cousins plus William(H), the Hickerson cousin.

  Me Carl Dean Harold Adoptee
Me NA FTDNA FTDNA GedMatch GedMatch
Carl FTDNA NA FTDNA FTDNA GedMatch
Dean FTDNA FTDNA NA FTDNA GedMatch
Harold GedMatch FTDNA FTDNA NA GedMatch
Adoptee GedMatch GedMatch GedMatch GedMatch NA
William (H) GedMatch GedMatch GedMatch GedMatch GedMatch

I decided to take the easy route and just utilize Lazarus again, so I added all of the known Vannoy and Hickerson cousins I utilized in earlier Lazarus calculations at Gedmatch as siblings to our adoptee.  This means that each kit will be compared to the adoptees DNA and matching segments will be reported.  At a threshold of 300 SNPs and 4cM, our adoptee matches at 140cM of common DNA between the various cousins.

adoptee vannoy match

Please note that in addition to matching several of the cousins, our adoptee also triangulates on chromosomes 1, 11, 15, 18, 19 and 21.  The triangulation on chromosome 21 is to two proven Hickerson descendants, so he matches on this line as well.

I reduced the threshold to 4cM and 200 SNPs to see what kind of difference that would make.

adoptee vannoy match low threshold

Our adoptee picked up another triangulation on chromosome 1 and added additional cousins in the chromosome 15 “sticky Vannoy” cluster and the chromosome 18 cluster.

Given what we just showed about chromosome 15, and the discussions about IBD and IBS guidelines and small matching segments, what conclusions would you draw and what would you do?

  1. Tell the adoptee this is invalid because there are no qualifying large match segments that match at the vendors.
  2. Tell the adoptee to throw all of those small segments away, or at least all of the ones below 7cM because they are only small matching segments and utilizing small matching segments is only a folly and the adoptee is only seeing what he wants to see – even though the Vannoy cousins with whom he triangulates are proven, triangulated cousins.
  3. Check to see if the adoptee also matches the other cousins involved, although he does clearly already exceeds the triangulation criteria to declare a common ancestor of 3 proven cousins on a matching segment. This is actually what I did utilizing Lazarus and you just saw the outcome.

If this is a valid match, based on who he does and doesn’t match in terms of the rest of the family, you could very well narrow his line substantially – perhaps by utilizing the various Vannoy wives’ DNA, to an ancestral couple.  Given that our adoptee matches both the Vannoys and the Hickersons, I suspect he is somehow descended from Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.

In Conclusion

What is the acceptable level to utilize small segments in a known or suspected match situation?

Rather than look for a magic threshold number, we are much better served to look at reliable methods to determine the difference between DNA passed from our ancestors to us, IBD, and matches by chance.  This helps us to establish the reliability of DNA segments in individual situations we are likely to encounter in our genealogy.  In other words, rather that throw the entire pile of wheat away because there is some percentage of chaff in the wheat, let’s figure out how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Fortunately, both parental phasing and triangulation eliminate the identical by chance segments.

Clearly, the smaller the segments, even in a known match situation, the more likely they are identical by population, given that they triangulate.  In fact, this is exactly how the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes have been reconstructed.

Furthermore, given that the Anzick DNA sample is over 12,000 years old, Identical by population must be how Anzick is matching to contemporary humans, because at least some of these people do clearly share a common ancestor with Anzick at some point, long ago – more than 12,000 years ago.  In my case, at least some of the Anzick segments triangulate with my mother’s DNA, so they are not IBS by chance.  That only leaves identical by population or identical by descent, meaning within a genealogical timeframe, and we know that isn’t possible.

There are yet other situations where small segment matches are not IBS by chance nor identical by population.  For example, I have a very hard time believing that the adoptee situation is nothing but chance.  It’s not a folly.  It’s identical by descent as proven by triangulation with 10 different cousins – all on segments below the vendor matching thresholds.

In fact, it’s impossible to match the Vannoy cousins, who are already triangulated individually, by chance.  While the adoptee match is not over the vendor threshold, the segments are not terribly small and they do all triangulate with multiple individuals who also triangulate with larger segments, at the vendors and on different chromosomes.

This adoptee triangulated match, even without the Hickerson-Vannoy study disproves the blanket statement that small segments below 5cM cannot be used for genealogy.  All of these segments are 7.1cM or below and most are below 5.

This small segment match between my mother and her first cousins also disproves that segments under 5cM can never be used for genealogy.

Two cousins combined

This small segment passed from my mother to me disproves that statement too – clearly matching with our cousin, Cheryl.  If I did not receive this from my mother, and she from her parent, then how do we match a common cousin???

me mother small seg

More small segment proof, below, between my mother and her second cousin when Lazarus was reconstructing my mother’s father.

2nd cousin lazarus match

And this Vannoy Hickerson 4 cousin triangulated segment also disproves that 5cM and below cannot be used for genealogy.

vannoy hickerson triang

Where did these small segments come from if not a common ancestor, either one or several generations ago?  If you look at the small segment I inherited from my mother and say, “well, of course that’s valid, you got it from your mother” then the same logic has to apply that she inherited it from her parent.  The same logic then applies that the same small segment, when shared by my mother’s cousin, also came from the their common grandparents.  One cannot be true without the others being true.  It’s the same DNA. I got it from my mother.  And it’s only a 1.46cM segment, shown in the examples above.

Here are my observations and conclusions:

  • As proven with hundreds of examples in this and other articles cited, small segments can be and are inherited from our ancestors and can be utilized for genetic genealogy.
  • There is no line in the sand at 7cM or 5cM at which a segment is viable and useful at 5.1cM and not at 4.9cM.
  • All small segment matches need to be evaluated utilizing the guidelines set forth for IBD versus IBS by chance versus identical by population set forth in the articles titled How Phasing Works and Determining IBD Versus IBS Matches and Demystifying Autosomal DNA Matching.
  • When given a choice, large segment matches are always easier to use because they are seldom IBS by chance and most often IBD.
  • Small segment matches are more likely to be IBS by chance than larger matches, which is why we need to judiciously apply the IBD/IBS Guidelines when attempting to utilize small segment matches.
  • All DNA matches, not just small segments, must be triangulated to prove a common ancestor, unless they are known close relatives, like siblings, first cousins, etc.
  • When working in genetic genealogy, always glean the information from larger matches and assemble that information.  However, when the time comes that you need those small segments because you are working 5, 6 or 7 generations back in time, remember that tools and guidelines exist to use small segments reliably.
  • Do not attempt to use small segments out of context.  This means that if you were to look only at your 1cM matches to unknown people, and you have the ability to triangulate against your parents, most would prove to be IBS by chance.  This is the basis of the argument for why some people delete their small segments.  However, by utilizing parental phasing, phasing against known family members (like uncles, aunts and first cousins) and triangulation, you can identify and salvage the useable small segments – and these segments may be the only remnants of your ancestors more than 5 or 6 generations back that you’ll ever have to work with.  You do not have to throw all of them away simply because some or many small segments, out of context, are IBS by chance.  It doesn’t hurt anything to leave them just sit in your spreadsheet untouched until the day that you need them.

Ultimately, the decision is yours whether you will use small segments or not – and either decision is fine.  However, don’t make the decision based on the belief that small segments under some magic number, like 5cM or 7cM are universally useless.  They aren’t.

Whether small segments are too much work and effort in your individual situation depends on your personal goals for genetic genealogy and on factors like whether or not you descend from an endogamous population.  People’s individual goals and circumstances vary widely.  Some people test at Ancestry and are happy with inferential matching circles and nothing more.  Some people want to wring every tidbit possible out of genealogy, genetic or otherwise.

I hope everyone will begin to look at how they can use small segment data reliably instead of simply discarding all the small segments on the premise that all small segment data is useless because some small segments are not useful.  All unstudied and discarded data is indeed useless, so discarding becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But by far, the worst outcome of throwing perfectly good data away is that you’ll never know what genetic secrets it held for you about your ancestors.  Maybe the DNA of your own Sarah Hickerson is lurking there, just waiting for the right circumstances to be found.