Getting the Most Out of AncestryDNA

If you’re going to swim in the pool, then by all means, get the most out of the experience!

In the genetic genealogy community, we have beaten Ancestry to death about what they don’t do (chromosome browser), and what they have and haven’t done (deleted the Y and mtDNA data bases), but there are some things that Ancestry does really well.  Records, for example, are one of those things, and I love those.  And hints.  Shakey leaves.

If I’m going to be an Ancestry customer, I want to get the most out of the combination of those tools as possible, so I’m going to walk through some tricks I learned for how to do that with AncestryDNA

Before I even start, let me say I’m fully aware of the shortcomings, some caused by Ancestry themselves, and some by the actions of their customers – meaning faulty trees, no trees and locked trees.  I’m not happy about those as a consumer, but the sheer size and magnitude of the Ancestry data base overcomes part of those shortcomings.  In other cases, we’re just going to work around the situation as best we can.  One thing is for sure, throwing the baby out with the bath water doesn’t benefit us one bit.  And I’ve already spent the money for the DNA test, and my subscription, so I want as much as I can possibly squeeze out of the experience.

Trees Matter… and So Does Size

Before Ancestry DNA, I was a no-tree person. Yep, I’m coming out of the closet.  The reason doesn’t really matter, because different people have different reasons and the bottom line is that they get to make their own decision regardless of whether the rest of us like it or not.

In my case, my reluctance to put a tree on Ancestry was because I did not want to upload the tree I have.  My tree has been “under construction” for, literally, decades now and I know there are things that are incorrect.  I would like to go in and work on every branch and “fix it”, but let’s face it, that’s just not going to happen.

However, DNA testing at Ancestry without having a tree is analogous to flying blind.  The best thing about the Ancestry DNA and tree matching is that they do the heavy lifting for you by showing you which people match your DNA AND have a common ancestor showing in a tree.  Those are the shakey leaf DNA hints.  Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean that your shared DNA comes from that ancestor, but it’s a great research starting point.

shakey leaf

Of my 3800 DNA matches at Ancestry, today I have 112 shakey leaf matches, or about 3%.

Of course, this dual DNA match and pedigree match suggests a line that may be a genetic match, but as we saw in the article, Secondary Genealogical and Genetic Lines, there may be a second line contributing to the DNA match or even entirely responsible for the match.  So, while this is a great “shakey leaf” hint, as Ancestry says, that’s all it is – a hint.

However, that’s really not so terribly different than the rest of Ancestry’s tools.  They show you shakey leafs for possible matching documents and trees and it’s up to you to use common sense and your knowledge of your family to figure out which hints are relevant to your situation, and which are not.

With no tree at Ancestry, I obviously had no shakey leafs, because Ancestry had nothing to compare too.

I wasn’t about to upload my entire file, so instead, I decided to create a bare bones tree at Ancestry, just for the DNA data base.  That’s actually not a bad idea, because it allows you to “touch” and fine tune each entry and utilize Ancestry’s matching strengths and avoid any problem areas.

So, I clicked on “Family Trees” on the toolbar and started a new tree with me, the tester, I added 4 generations.  That’s only 30 people.  Not too much to type and I only added the birth and death dates and locations.

Ancestry most tree

That is the total number of ancestors shown on Ancestry’s first page when your tree is displayed pedigree style, and I figured it would “catch” most of the DNA matches which I figured would be in the first few generations, especially since Ancestry’s rather harsh tree pruning.

Just so you know, I was wrong.

When I completed this tree, I waited until the next day and I checked my shakey leaves.  Ancestry told us when we visited in October 2014 that they run a data base update every 4 hours, but waiting until the next day assured that I had given them ample time.

I had a total of 41 shakey leaves.  I was pretty happy.  For awhile.  Until I started thinking, “what if?”

Ancestry provides matching shakey leaves up to 10 generations, with you counted as generation one, so I began to wonder what adding another few generations would provide.

I didn’t expect much, actually, since I figured that I had gathered the majority of what was to be gleaned already.

Again, I was wrong.  This is beginning to sound like a chorus from a Country song isn’t it!

I added another 4 generations, or at least as much as I could.

ancestry most tree 2

My shakey leaves jumped to 48 immediately, so they had increased by 7.  I was happy and that’s about what I expected, so imagine my surprise when the next morning I checked and noticed that I had 95 shakey leaf matches.

95 – Wow!

That’s double what I had before.

At first that didn’t make sense, because I thought surely most of those matches would be caught in earlier generations, until I actually looked at one of the “older” matches.

For example, Moses Estes – my match with Moses descends from Moses through a different child than my line – so there was no “common ancestor” in our trees before Moses.  And the further back you go in time, the longer they have had to have more descendants to test – so while the DNA segments become smaller as they are divided in each generation – there are also more people testing, so the odds of finding someone whom you match increases, up to a point.

So….you know what I did then….right???

I added two more generations where I had the information, and sure enough, the next day, I had 112 shakey leaves.

So, by going from 4 generations (plus me) to 10 generations (plus me) I also went from 41 shakey leaf matches to 112.  Granted, some of these are private trees and one has no tree, but 99 of the matches are visible to me.

Tree Hints

When creating your bare bones DNA tree, don’t overdo the bare bones part.  In order to actually help Ancestry help you, which is the goal here – you have to give them something to work with.

Ancestry uses a combination of matching factors, but here are a few dos and don’ts based on my experience and some experimenting.  Remember, this is not your life work….this is about making the tree most likely to catch fish – so don’t be terribly fussy.


  • Don’t use words in names other than names. Don’t say John “the Miller” Jones. The extraneous characters don’t allow matching. Same for parenthesis. In this case, just say John Jones. Ancestry will use other criteria to determine if it’s a match, like location, dates, spouse, etc.
  • Don’t add a string of pseudo names like “Sarah Sally Sary” Jones. That tends to confuse the software too, as do commas and other punctuation.
  • Don’t add two surname spellings like “Muncey or Munsey” or anything with a slash like “Muncey/Munsey”.
  • Don’t be too wordy with locations, like “Estes Holler, Claiborne County, TN” as a birth location. Stick with just “Claiborne County, TN.”


  • Provide locations, even if they are general, like a state. That helps in terms of matching and also helping people see if an alternate lineage might also match.
  • Provide dates as estimates, even if you’re not exactly sure. In cases where you have a date range, like 1840-1850, you can either enter that as a range or you can just use a date like 1845. The absolute date won’t disqualify the match, but I know Ancestry uses a variety of factors to see if it’s a viable match. In other words, you won’t be matched with Sarah Jones married to Jeff Smith born in the 1900s if yours was born in the 1600s.
  • Use the most common surname spelling. You can easily do a quick edit and change this from time to time to see if it makes a difference in who you “catch” in the net.

If you already have a tree at Ancestry that you are using, you might want to take a look at the first few generations with DNA matching in mind and perhaps groom it a bit.

DNA Circles

Ironically, nothing I did affected my circles or the number of circles I have.  DNA Circles and how they come and go mystifies me.  I have some circles that have been added since circles began, but I also have some circles that were present that are now gone.  Of course, it takes a minimum of 3 people to create a circle, and if one person in the group of 3 makes their tree private – poof – the entire Circle is gone.  The hint here is to check your Ancestry DNA page daily for new circles and new matches – because they may not be there tomorrow!

Ancestry creates DNA Circles back to 7 generations (with you counted as generation one1), not the 10 generations of tree matching, which may be why the addition of common ancestors, in my case, did not cause new circles to be created.  Ancestry does plan to expand the circles to 10 generation in the future.

Today, I have 13 circles.  Circles are a combination of people who match you on DNA and share an ancestor, and people who match each other, but not your DNA, and share that same ancestor creating a sort of human/pedigree/DNA chain to that ancestor, at least theoretically.

Even though DNA Circles aren’t proof of a genetic connection to that ancestor in question, they certainly provide some amount of evidence of common DNA and ancestry, especially if you and the other Circle members descend from different children from the same ancestor.

My circles have from 3 to 12 members, only some of which are shown below.

ancestry most circles

However, how I do or don’t match to people within the circles is vastly different.

ancestry most circle membersFor example, in the Jacob Lentz circle, I match the DNA of two individuals.  I do not match the DNA of the other two individuals, but they match the DNA of other circle members. Of course, we all share the same ancestor in our pedigree chart.

Again, without a chromosome browser this does not constitute proof, but it does constitute evidence.

When I look at the trees of my DNA matches, I noticed that we also descend through three different children of Jacob Lentz.  This is an important piece of evidence, because it means that we aren’t all three working from the same bad tree.

What I mean by this is that if one person published a bad tree that included my ancestral link to Jacob Lentz, and everyone copied it, then all of our trees would be “bad” in the same way and it could well appear like the DNA match confirms a “bad tree.”  Garbage in, garbage out.

So, descent from different children of a common ancestor is one of the things I look for in matches trees and DNA Circles to suggest that it might be a valid piece of evidence.

In one of my trees, Joel Vannoy, I am a DNA and tree match to every individual in the circle. In a different tree, Nicholas Speaks, I am only a DNA match directly to one person.  So, hopefully that one person doesn’t make their tree private or my link to that circle will be gone.

Ok, now that we’ve reviewed trees, matches and circles, let’s look at strategies to make Ancestry work harder for us.

Experimental Branches

I have to tell you, I’m just sure lightning is going to strike me for this one.  But darn, it works.

One of the main reasons I didn’t want to publish a tree on Ancestry originally was that I was concerned about the quality and accuracy of what was in my tree, especially since cut and paste seems to be a favorite mode of operation which makes wrong information “forever information” after it’s cut and pasted from the source tree.

So what I’m about to suggest runs against every fiber of my being.  And if it didn’t work so well, I wouldn’t even be telling you about it….but it does.  So the purist in me is just having to get over herself because the curious genealogist is winning out over the purist.

I have several situations where I’m just not positive about something in my tree, so let me tell you what I’ve done to help solve the mystery.

Sarah Hickerson

Let’s start with Sarah Hickerson.  I’ve written about this several times in various ways, but to summarize, we didn’t know the identity of the parents of Elijah Vannoy, born in 1786.  We did know they were one of 4 men in Wilkes County, all 4 the sons of one John Vannoy.  We also knew who all 4 sons married.

I decided to try an experiment and enter the most likely parents of Elijah Vannoy and see what happened.  I knew that the key to this mystery would be to prove the wife’s DNA, because the 4 Vannoy men were brothers.

Elijah’s most likely parents were Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.  Furthermore, I knew the parents of Sarah Hickerson to be Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle (Little.)   I entered this information, not expecting much, when to my surprise, a DNA Circle appeared linking me with descendants of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.  There was no DNA circle for Francis Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.

I made contact with the people I matched at Ancestry and then found additional Hickerson matches at Family Tree DNA.  The rest, as they say, is history, but we proved the connection through triangulation techniques.

Without having entered the experimental couple of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson, plus Sarah’s parents, we would never have been able to do this.  It wasn’t Sarah herself in the tree that made the difference, but the addition of her parents.

Nabby Hall

After that success, I noticed another “maybe” on my tree where I had the names of the potential ancestor’s parents as well.

I had Joseph Hill and his wife Nabby, with Nabby’s parents probably being Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson.  I entered Hall as Nabby’s surname, then entered her parents, and voila, next day, I had two matches to descendants of Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson through two different siblings.  So, between the three of us, we have matches through their 2 proven siblings and my suspected sibling.

There is no DNA Circle, so these are direct matches.  Unfortunately, my two matches have not downloaded their information to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  I looked in the trees at Family Tree DNA, but I have been unable to find descendants of Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson, so I can’t prove this genetic connection just yet.

However, I know that it’s just a matter of time now until enough people test that someone will match and download their results to GedMatch or people from that family line will test at Family Tree DNA.

So, if you descend from this Hall line out of Tolland County, CT, please test at Family Tree DNA (where we have chromosome browser tools) or if you have tested at Ancestry, please transfer your results!!!  But mostly, please contact me!

Nancy Mann

I’ve been working with a cousin, Pam, for several months now to solve the mystery of the parents of Nancy Mann.  Our common ancestor is Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, through different sons.

Through paper genealogy and mitochondrial DNA, we had narrowed Nancy’s line of descent to the Irish Mann family instead of the German Mann family in Botetourt County, VA.  However, the paper trail ran out for us, and I thought we were done.

Between Pam and I, we have more than 20 cousins who have tested.  Pam, noticed repeated matches in the cousins to specific surnames and she set about using those repeated names to reconstruct a tree.

She did, amazingly, and sent me an e-mail suggesting that I enter the tree as an experiment and see what happens.  Here is the experimental tree that Pam reconstructed which connects to Nancy Mann.

ancestry most experimental tree

I entered this tree as Nancy’s ancestors, feeling very guilty as it was unproven, and was utterly amazed at the results.

I have 9 shakey leaf matches within the group of potential ancestors: 1 to John Cantrell, 4 to John Cantrell and Hannah Brittain, 1 to Joseph Cantrell and Catherine Heath and 3 to Joseph Carpenter and Frances Dames.  You’ll notice that these are Nancy’s mother’s and father’s lines, both.  All but 2 are through different children.

I don’t match my cousin Pam, nor many of our other cousins, especially in her line, but when she looked at my matches compared to theirs, every match was in both of our lists except one.  Why don’t we have DNA Circles?  I have no idea.  We should have at least one even with the 7 generation limit.  Like I said, Circles and how they are created mystify me.

We are still in the process of confirming this at Family Tree DNA and/or Gedmatch.  Convincing this many people to download results is no trivial matter.

This possible tree growth spurt also needs to be worked backwards genealogically, via old-fashioned paper, if possible, to prove that Nancy Mann did in fact descend from James Mann and Mary Cantrell.  Sometimes if you know where to work “from to current” it’s much easier than trying to work backwards blindly.

Have I mentioned that my cousin is an amazing genealogist with an incredible eye for detail???

The Campbells

Encouraged by this apparent success, I decided to try another possible couple.  This one didn’t work nearly so well.

Based on deeds, we believe John and George Campbell of Claiborne County, TN to be the sons of Charles Campbell who died in 1825 in Hawkins County, TN.  Unfortunately, the Hawkins County records are incomplete and the proof documents we need are nonexistent or missing.  Oh, and there are no other known children so there is no one out there to match that knows they connect to Charles.

Family lore tells us a different story, that John and George are the sons of James Campbell, son of Robert Campbell and Letitia Crocket that also lived and died in Hawkins County, TN, albeit on the other end of the county in a different mountain range.  I have found no records to support that story, but also none to outright refute it.

I noticed that a couple of my matches on other surnames also had matches to this line, so I decided to remove Charles and enter James and his wife and parents.  No luck at all, not one match.  Now, I don’t know if this means that not enough people have tested or if I’m barking up the wrong tree.  We are not beyond the 10 generation matching limit.

It’s not like we can see how many other people have this individual in their tree AND have DNA tested that we don’t match.

Success Strategy

First, create a tree with the idea of making it useful for catching DNA matches.  This is not a masterpiece, but a tool for you.  You don’t need siblings or collateral lines.  The only thing Ancestry is going to look for are direct ancestors.

Think differently about experimenting with your tree than you did in the past. Allow yourself to experiment with different surname spellings, possible parents, reconstructing segments of trees based on multiple matches and anything else that might lead to a breakthrough.  Think outside the box.  Actually, throw the box away.

Keep in mind the 10 generation matching limit and the (current) 7 generation DNA Circles limit.  In both cases, you count as the first generation.

If you find information you think is useful to pursue genetically, then move, in whatever way you can, to a platform that has tools for you to use to triangulate your match, either at Family Tree DNA or at Gedmatch, or preferably both.

This “new tree strategy” is about finding evidence that you can use to further your paper genealogy or prove a genetic match.  It’s about utilizing Ancestry’s system to gather information in a bit of a different way to build an evidential case.  You may not be able to do everything at Ancestry, but utilize their strong points combined with your tree to increase the odds of finding your ancestors.

Those shakey leaves really are useful!  Make them dance for you.

Happy Hunting!!!



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93 thoughts on “Getting the Most Out of AncestryDNA

  1. Roberta,

    Your article is very informative but there is one huge glaring omission.
    AncestryDNA is the most expensive DNA test on the marktet in the long run.

    AncestryDNA demands either an ongoing subscription or a $49 per year AncestryDNA Insights fee per a year for the Circles feature or pedigree charts to be visible. I think the money is better spent transferring your DNA to FTDNA for $39 (less $15 using coupon code 15FOR15).

    • Hey Roberta, forgive me if you’ve already covered the AncestryDNA Helper extension for the Chrome browser… couldn’t find mention of it in your recent blogs – maybe I skipped over it. In any case a definite “biggie” for getting the most out of AncestryDNA!

      • Ancestry just made changes to their DNA page and . . . those changes disables the Chrome extension so it no longer works. I posted a comment on Ancestry’s Facebook page and their response was: it’s a third party app and we don’t know why it works. Another user then posted she was having the same problem. The worst thing: it had almost finished so I could download my matches.

  2. I have a tree just for AncestryDNA which is actually labeled named “JustForAncestryDNA” and which is public, but because of this very informative article, I have cleaned up names, dates, and locations. You’re telling me I have to wait at least 4 hours to see the results? 🙂

  3. Roberta,
    While you may be right that the DNA hints only look for Most Recent Common Ancestors (direct ancestors), many of the people you match genetically may not have gone as far back as you have in their research. That’s one good reason for publishing your collateral research in a public tree on Ancestry – people will find it and use it to extend their trees. My wife and I have done extensive research on the Bishir family throughout the United States and have published our findings on a one name study website and in a public Ancestry tree. That information has made its way into a lot of people’s trees. So I was very surprised and pleased when we ended up with several Bishir hints when we tested on AncestryDNA. With a name like Bishir, you don’t often run into distant cousins – but we were getting as many hits for that family as we were for some of the ones who had well-known published genealogies during the last century. And that’s saying something! Putting your information up on an Ancestry page (or any other public tree) can lead to “smash and grabbers” taking it and possibly misusing it, but it can also help you find DNA matches too!

  4. Thanks for all the information. I only have FTDNA, but I really liked the suggestion about the (..) and added naming, ie: Mary Polly Sarah. I am guilty and now time to go change lots of names. I even have a John “the Miller” Cantrell. LOL. Out goes the Miller – his profession and to keep all of those Johns straight. Will now add under comments.

  5. I would also like to mention, adding siblings can be VERY important. Some trees are beginners. They have not all reached their branches to the “common ancestor”. By adding and following sibling lineages down, you will “meet” their connection and break their barrier.

    • I Would even expand on that as I add cousins as well. Note using a cousin can and often does bring out different matches. I have 27 matches with Brinsley Barns b 1715 and my cousin has 11 matches with him. as at least 30 of these matches have distinctly different descendantcy chains, I’m reasonably that my cousin and I are descended from Brinsley Barns. The paper trail is also reasonably good. Note, My Ancestry tree goes back for a decade and has over 78,000 names.

      Using What Roberta calls “Experimental Branches,” I call “data mining.” It flat out works.

  6. I don’t make my trees public because most of them were created only to follow potential related lines based on hints (usually) from FTDNA and Y Search. So I have LOTS of trees that have resulted in dead ends for now.

    For FTDNA Family Finder I used Family Tree Maker to make a streamlined file, going back maybe 5 generations, and then converted it to a Gedcom and then uploaded the Gedcom to FTDNA.

    If anyone wants to see my main Ancestry tree which is marked private, all they have to do is tell me what they are looking for and ask for access. I just want them to be aware that I have not scrubbed the data on several of the lines, much less physically verified it myself, so the requester does not blindly incorporate what may be “folklore” into their very labor intensive tree files..

    As far as Family Tree files go, what works OK for me at is to download good record hints only (that seem to fit my people) and to use their online Tree files only in cases where I have absolutely nothing else to go on. I still screw up, but not as often that way.

  7. Another possible strategy to maximize your results is to have your close relatives tested at Ancestry also. Of course only do this with the plan of exporting them to GEDmatch and FTDNA.

    I had my maternal grandparents test with Ancestry and the immediate result was that I could see which of my existing matches were maternal and which ones were likely paternal. Obviously without a chromosome browser, this is not proof as you state, but a helpful hint as to where to begin looking.

    In addition, the DNA Circles take the tests of close family into account. After my grandparent’s tests were finished, my circle count increased dramatically. I now have 43 circles. Their DNA matches have “bought” my admission into a number of circles that I wasn’t a member of previously.

    Also if you use the Chrome web browser, you can download the Ancestry DNA helper extension. It allows expanded search capabilities of your DNA matches and downloading of your matches and their surnames. Also if you administer other tests, when you look at those other tests, it puts a small family icon next to matches that in common between the other test and your test.

  8. I tested at all 3 big companies, but even without chromo tools at ancestrydna, it is still my #1 choice (since I use Gedmatch and the Tier 1 tool). The trees have been invaluable in educating me…….and I have come to the conclusion that most of us with colonial America heritage are all related, even if only at 3-4 cMs (in the weeds) since there was such a small population base at that time.

    It is amazing how the ancestral lines weave in and out, here and there, near and far – like the threads of a huge tapestry.

    We live in exciting times; and thank you, Roberta, for making it even more exciting for us.

  9. This experimental strategy is what helped me find an adoptee’s parents. He had several 2nd-3rd cousin matches. I built their trees with as many spouses as possible and attached him as a child to various couples until I started getting hints. It is a strategy that works very well as long as you can build the trees back a good number of generations.

  10. Roberta,
    Thank you for writing what you have today. I have also thought of the comparison of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I have been criticized before for even considering the use of Ancestry by another researcher. She has told me how she would never use Ancestry.
    Even though, I, too, believe there are problems there- I also think each person is able to decide for themselves whether to blindly accept what others put there ..or..use some common sense and investigate whether it is acceptable.
    I know I have some mistakes on my tree, too- editing and merging family lines that have multiple connections gets very confusing. I feel sorry for anyone that looks up individuals in my tree just by the list of names- there are many that are on the list more than once because of being related more than one way- its confusing even trying to explain it to someone that wants an invitation to my tree- I give warnings each time I send an invitation. My Appalachian families are very intermingled as they traveled west.
    I also wanted to thank you for a blog you wrote about the poverty and misfortunes of some of your family that may have gave the whiskey to their children to lessen their hunger pains- it was a sobering reminder to me to not over romanticize my ancestors. I tend to think of them with rose colored glasses even though they were nearly identical in situation as your ancestors. I do have some of the same bootlegging and poverty in my legacy. It helped me to be realistic. It also helped me to appreciate those that did survive though those difficult times.
    Thank you for the permission to play a little to see what might result. Also thank you for having a sense of humor and not taking everything overly serious.

    • That brought tears to my eyes. The fate of survival was sometimes a matter of where they were born and lived. E.g., my maternal grandmother died at age 23 in an area of Kentucky rampant with TB. Whereas, my paternal grandmother lived to be 103, in a different area of Kentucky.

  11. Hi Roberta, I have often clicked longingly on the DNA button on my Ancestry home page, only to be told that the product isn’t sold outside of the US (I’m in Canada). There is a long standing promise that they will contact me when it is available. As a result I don’t know much about it. I have my DNA on the Family Tree DNA data base and wondered how this compares? Do the two work together or would another DNA sample be required for

    • They do not work together and a different sample would be required. Ancestry has recently introduced their DNA test in the British Isles, so I wonder if Canada will be on the list shortly.

    • They do not work together and a different sample would be required. Ancestry has recently introduced their DNA test in the British Isles, so I wonder if Canada will be on the list shortly.

    • Hi Pat Lee et al.,
      Two of my Australian children and 1 grandchild are listed with combinations of all three companies, as required by us.

      I purchased their various kit(s), then forwarded them overseas at my own expense. Return postage back to each of the big 3 in the USA then has to be arranged, but not prohibitive, and it’s way better than waiting years for to extend their boundaries. A friend or reliable contact living in the States could possibly facilitate this for you.

      Start with Ancestry (if you’re not interested in yDNA or health reports). The company now permits transfer of DNA results to another administrator in “Settings”, so there are 2 ways to proceed from there. 1. My Australian daughter “owns” her DNA results in her Australian tree and has shared them with me (editor), vs. 2. my Aussie son who prefers me to be his administrator however I’ve added him as an editor to his results so he can “see” them if he wishes.

      When the desired Ancestry DNA analysis is complete, use FTDNA to transfer those results. Males then can use that new FTDNA account to test their Y chromosome. 23andMe does provide some yDNA information, but I don’t think it’s possible to transfer that particular data to FTDNA via Family Finder at this point in time.

      Good luck!

  12. As always, Roberta, I read every word. *I will now create a direct-line tree going back as far as I know, for use with DNA. (And I will “groom” my complete tree!)
    I have always considered my tree a work in progress, and frequently use it to test out people as possibles. I usually write TRIAL beside the name, both for myself and for others who might come across it. (Now I see that could skew the DNA results!) I have a little “disclaimer” in my profile stating that, but it’s true that it’s everyone’s responsibility to not take information they see as gospel.

    *Question: Do the results of the Ancestry test create matches from both the trees? (So far, I have only had one tree.)

    • I “think” that it’s only the tree you designate your public tree or your current tree, but since I only have one, I don’t know. You could probably do a little experimenting and find the answer as you build a new one. If you do, let us know.

      • I *think* it’s only the one that you link your results to – you have to pick a person in a tree who is the person whose test results it is. So it depends on which tree you link up to. That’s what my experience is.

      • Correct. One tree is all you’re allowed to link to a set of DNA results. However, in “Settings” (in the Tree Pages or possibly in DNA Home page, can’t recall exactly right now), you can “reset” those DNA results to another the same person in another tree, back-and-forth, as many times as you like.

  13. Sigh. I have an extensive public tree and only four tree hints. Three are for one very well-researched line and my single circle. One is for, well I don’t know as the match profile and tree are private. Ancestry hasn’t been as good to me as others. I’m from New Orleans and my ancestors are from everywhere. Have been so frustrated with the lack of response and private trees that it’s time for a break from Ancestry for awhile.

    • I don’t know for sure think that it means that they have only a few people and the group is just beginning. There is an accompanying white paper that can be viewed as well that provides more information. The only emerging circles I have are ones that are small.

      • That’s actually very interesting Jason. Thank you for sharing. When we were there, Ancestry told us that they were specifically not including individuals who were closely related as separate match members because otherwise you could very easily have erroneous circles that were a result of heavy weighting with one particularly heavily tested family line. Does this circle still exist in this manner? In other words, has anything changed since you wrote this article?

      • I just wrote this post this morning. All of the information is less than 24 hours old. As I understand it, each Circle must include at least 3 members who are all more distant than 1st cousins. This Circle meets that criterion.

  14. thank you so much for this post! after reading it, I took your experimental approach, and added my 3rd great-grandmother’s probable parents to my Ancestry tree. That was not more than 3 hours ago, and I have a new leaf and my very first DNA circles. And some new leads. Woo-hoo!

  15. Thank you Roberta. Hopefully this will encourage others to add a tree or make their existing one public. I’ve had my full tree on Ancestry since I took the DNA test there and have 23 circles.
    Now to go through and look for places I’ve added multiple names, etc. This was really good advice

  16. Great article, Roberta! I’m trying to determine where an NPE occurred and using your idea of putting in possible ancestors, I may be closer to resolving it.

  17. Thank you Roberta for sharing this. I haven’t done AncestryDNA but now plan to do so. I keep several branches of my and my husbands’ trees on Ancestry Private. I just want to address the private trees.

    You’ve probably heard this before, but don’t be afraid to use Ancestry’s contact service to send a message to an owner of a private tree requesting their help. Many are willing to share when asked. I haven’t turned down anyone yet who has come knocking. But rather enjoy hearing from them and sharing ideas. Of course there are a few owners who won’t answer back but nothing is lost. It’s their loss. I actually want to hear from others as my feelings are this is a researcher who is taking the extra step on their own and not just copying everything and all that pops up. At least I know they are going the extra mile and really interested in doing the work. I also want to warn them of possible problems with my work and explain some of my findings.

    • I have contacted all of the people with private trees and so far only 4 have replied. They have told me the common ancestor. Most people don’t reply and it’s very discouraging. About one fifth of my matches have private trees.

      • That is a shame. My trees are also private and I have given access to everyone who has asked, providing there is a real connection. I now have 85 people I share with. I am considering adding the Ancestry DNA test and have seen thanks to you Roberta, I may need to change my mind about that.

      • I’ve discovered a problem with Ancestry that affects the number of responses from people I try to contact. It seems they blacklist some addresses, or even possibly domains, and so the people I try to contact never get the message. I used to get lots of messages from Ancestry when they found new matches for me or when someone tried to contact me. Then a couple of years ago I noticed I was no longer receiving regular messages from Ancestry. I believe what happened is that some messages they sent to me were erroneously bounced by my e-mail provider, so they somehow marked my e-mail address as one to not send messages to. I recently provided a different e-mail address to Ancestry and now am getting more messages from them. However, a cousin who contacted me recently pointed out another problem. She says she contacted Ancestry by phone when she noticed invitations to share a tree were not being received. She says they told her the messaging seems to work better with Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail addresses. I sent her an invitation to be a guest on my main tree using my regular e-mail address, and she never received it. When I sent the invitation again, using a Gmail address I rarely use for correspondence, she did receive it. I believe this is a serious issue with Ancestry, since I never know when I send a message to someone whether or not they receive it. I recently was able to contact a cousin when I discovered he has a Facebook account. I had tried contacting him previously via the Ancestry messaging system and had gotten no response. He replied back right away via FB and is interested in sharing information.

      • I spoke to soon, now I can not send invitations to anyone. I am sending, they are not receiving. I have even tried gmail. Maybe once more. Thank you D Simoneaux.

  18. Always thoughtful and worth reading, thank you. I think we have to give Ancestry some credit for improving the matching algorithm and introducing Circles etc. Indeed there is junk in the trees, but also some real treasures, it’s kind of like hunting in an old antique mall…

  19. I have a private tree because it is a work in progress, and I would not be comfortable putting it out there just now, although I send invites to anyone who asks. The huge problem is that Ancestry’s invite link most often does not work – sending invites, or trying to receive them. I have spoken to others who have had the same problem. Until last week – and then I used Chrome, instead of Internet Explorer to access the link to view another’s tree, and it worked.

    I have made the Chrome suggestion to others………but most often they are not able to access my tree. I do not necessarily think it is Ancestry’s fault, but just a glitch that has not been smoothed out.

    Anyone with any ideas would be appreciated. I went through all the machinations ancestry advised. I am not computer savvy.

    • I had that issue, the only way to solve it…. send invitations only to the persons email address. No problems since I have done it that way.

      • Thank you. I tried the email invite, instead of username, today. Hope it works. As of today, ancestry is not sending me an email to alert me to a message, nor is the message alert reflected at the top of the page. The actual message format has changed and for the better. They told me they had a problem with Yahoo and invites because Yahoo sometimes does recognize the site as safe. They advise to put in our address book.

  20. Thank you for this information! I would not have thought about thing like adding alternate names confusing the matching algorithms. (It would be handy if Ancestry had a visible “note” field beside the names to add an alternate name or spelling, or a clarifying note like “the miller” or a military rank! It would also be handy if, for instance, weren’t completely separate from

    If you don’t mind my asking (and I understand if you don’t want to share publicly), where is your family predominately FROM? I’m wondering if that makes a significant difference in the matching pool. I have a fairly extensive tree and VERY few shaky leaf matches. Like, four, I think. (I’m not certain. Definitely single digits.) And I have two circles.

    But I have two branches on my mom’s side who came from Slovenia & Lithuania respectively as recently as 1900 (and a great-grandmother on my father’s side that we have no idea who her father was). I have a number of matches that I strongly suspect are through these lines, but I simply can’t get far enough back to hit the common ancestors yet. (‘Cause certainly no one in Slovenia or Lithuania is testing here — they can’t! The other ancestor in question may have been American, but may also have been Canadian.) My ENGLISH ancestors seem to be the easiest ones to match through, and I’m curious if that’s fairly typical.

    • Yes, you’re going to have more challenges matching with groups who don’t test heavily, for whatever reason.

      My lines are – Mother – German, Dutch, Brethren and Acadian. The German and Dutch lines immigrated in the 1850s and I have no or almost no matches to those lines. The other two much earlier and I have a lot more matches.
      Father – from Appalachia – a lot of Scotch/Irish and colonial English, plus a bit of African and Native – typical southern mix. All in the US since the 1600s where the lines are known. Lots of matches, many of which I can’t figure out.

      • You have a lineage with the Cantrell’s. I do too. Isaac 1760-1826. 2nd wife Charlotte Forrest. Their daughter Malinda married my 2nd GG Elijah Campbell.

        I did see Nancy’s tree above, and found there maybe issues with the maiden names Heath and Brittain. If interested there is a FaceBook page for Cantrell/Cantrill families, hosted by Susan Cole Wainwright. “Richard Cantrill, Derbyshire”. Susan has been researching for over 20years and has some of Warren G Cantrell’s research at her disposal.

        Donna Campbell Goodwin

        I read all of your blogs, one day I hope to fully understand it all. Very new at the DNA stuff.

      • My reply is to lddg2015 below – I have both Cantrell and Forrest in my family tree. My Cantrell line goes from John Miller & Hannah (Brittaiin) Cantrell, to their son Issac (1744 – 1804) and his 2nd wife Mary Leonard. Their daughter Jane Cantrell married Leonard Adcock. This line ended up in Warren County, TN. When DeKalb County was formed from part of Warren County, that’s where most of the Adcock line was located. On the Forrest line, I have DNA confirmation to Jane Cantrell (4th Great Grandmother).

        On the Forrest line, James Forrest (1751-1838) married Catherine Mary Tyler – 4th Great Grandparents. Their son Richard Albert Forrest married Sarah Matlock. Their daughter Martha Jane Forrest married William C. Mitchell. Their son Charles A. Mitchell married Martha Ann Tate. Their son John Francis Mitchell married Osie Lee Smith – these were my grandparents. Osie descends from the Cantrell line. Her father was John Leonard Smith, daughter of Rebecca Adcock-Smith, daughter of William Adock and Francis Bellinger. William was the son of Leonard Adcock and Jane Cantrell. Whew!

        I’ll do some digging and see if I can connect both my Cantrell and Forrest line to your Isaac Cantrell and Charlotte Forrest.

        Scott Mitchell

  21. Roberta, It is working. Thank you for experimenting with this and sharing it. Since you posted this, I have made modifications and added hypothetical/theoretical ancestors and increased my “shaky leaves” by 12 (from 35 to 47). Particularly exciting is my RADABAUGH line where not only are matches with that surname showing up in my list with hints, but also matches with the RADABAUGH wives. This is very exciting, and my brick wall on this line, which has been around for a very long time, may be broken this year!

      • Definitely! In at least two situations with other lines, the spellings of the spouses did not match, but the wives did. So Ancestry brought the lines up as matching anyway, even though I spelled Joseph Würgler that way and my match spelled it Wvurgler, but we both spelled the wife Marie Abresol. It showed as only matching on Marie, the wife. I haven’t determined how close the matching has to be. I wonder if it is similar to the check box for “Find Similar Spellings” in the search. Regardless, I’m going to keep experimenting! This is interfering with my 52 Ancestors for the week, but it is quite fun. 🙂

  22. Hi Roberta

    Another great post as usual.

    I was wondering, if its worthwhile joining this ancestry tree and not the DNA part, …..interested for only surname matchings.
    I have 1100 names in geni and also geneanet and familysearch. And familysearch is also ATM in union with

    Plus in australia , I doubt I can get DNA test ( I am already in ftdna, 23andme and gedmatch )

    any thoughts would be helpful.

  23. Great post. You’ve given me a lot of ideas.

    I agree with you that we might as well make the best out of a bad situation. AncestryDNA’s database has reached 700,000 users, so for many of us that means our best odds for matching are there. We’ll have to convince our matches to transfer their results off site, of course, but we need to play the numbers game, too. And while we’re there, let’s take advantage of the genealogical tools (which are generally good) to make finding those matches easier. We can’t triangulate if there’s no one to triangulate with.

    I have many complaints about AncestryDNA, but genetic genealogy – and genealogy more broadly – is about putting your information out there and waiting. We’d all be missing out on a valuable opportunity to find matches if we just boycotted this very large database because the company doesn’t take the right approach regarding DNA tools.

  24. I wonder what the main reluctance is to ancestry’s adding a chromosome browser? Is it because that would open up a can of worms, i.e., meaning ancestry would then have to educated people how to use it, which would then flood their human resources (call center) having to “splain” the tool. Most probably, they would have to add a whole new department for that. Guess it is all about money, and the bottom line…………

  25. Roberta,

    I thought I might share an example of how I’ve used this strategy since you posted this.

    I have a set of 4th great grandparents named James and Margaret (JACKSON) RENFRO. Margaret’s parents are said to be Joshua and Elizabeth (OFFILL) JACKSON from other researchers. I have one FTDNA match who in his tree shows that he is a descendant also of Joshua and Elizabeth (OFFILL) JACKSON via not Margaret but a son, Drury, so I suspected that the JACKSON/OFFILL line may be where our genetic relationship is.

    I searched for OFFILL rather than JACKSON on FTDNA simply because it is not a common surname. I do have many more JACKSON matches than that.

    On Ancestry, today actually, I searched public family trees (yes, I admit it, and yes, I do smell the smoke and feel the flames at my feet), to see who these trees claim as ancestors of the Joshua JACKSON (1740-1797) I mention above. I found a common thread among these trees, which I put into my experimental tree to see what would happen. The names were Thomas JACKSON and Margaret TAYLOR as the parents of Joshua JACKSON, and James TAYLOR (1674-1729) as the father of Margaret TAYLOR.

    An hour or so later, there were seven more “shaky leaves” in my AncestryDNA list, and four of them were matching a James TAYLOR of approximately the same time period. I noted them as follows:

    “James TAYLOR, experimental ancestor of Absalom RENFRO through JACKSON line, but there are things to resolve. I don’t know these lines.”

    What this *does* mean is that I now have four matches who I would not have looked at otherwise, because the TAYLOR surname was not on my radar. There is no other way without a Chromosome Browser or triangulation. I now also have the surname TAYLOR that I can use back on FTDNA and 23andMe to see who I find as matches.

    What this *does not* mean is that I am a descendant of a James TAYLOR. It does not mean that Margaret TAYLOR’s ancestry is what I put in my experimental tree or what my matches have in their public trees. It does not mean that I have found another branch of my family tree.

    All it means is that I have another direction to go, and a surname to check out.

    This is just one example of several I have found this week.


  26. Hi Roberta,

    Great post. Thank you. I was looking for some confirmation on Elizabeth Webb being the wife of Moses. I tend to follow your lead with the Estes line 🙂 I was also wondering if you’ve shared your GedMatch kit number. Mine is A103003.

  27. Close family relations appear in my circles. Both of my brothers and my Uncle are in in the only 3 Circles I have Estes/Speaks/Lee. Roberta, you don’t show up in any of my circles. It’s odd, I used to have a lot more circles and then I uploaded a new tree a week ago and I still only have 3.

  28. Not sure if this is the right spot for this question, but since I’m a novice at all of this . . . in my circle for my 3 x Great Grandfather Richard Albert Forrest there are some people that are a DNA match to me, and some just to the circle. I clicked on a DNA Match to Circle person and discovered that he and I share 2 x Great Grandparents: Martha Jane Forrest (daughter of Richard Albert Forrest) and William C. Mitchell. The question: why isn’t this person showing as a DNA Match to me a) through Richard Albert Forrest and b) through our common 2 x Great Grandparents? I know DNA disbursement will sometimes make people not a genetic match, but since I do have matches to other descendants of Richard Albert Forrest, this just seemed strange. Again, sorry if this is not the spot for this question.

    • Different people inherit different portions of an ancestor’s DNA. You do match to some people in the circle, but you didn’t get a big enough piece of the same ancestral DNA to match to others. Think of it as a card shuffle in ever generation and you only get part of the deck, and so do the rest of the descenants.

  29. Scott, If you are interested , on Facebook, Richard Cantrill, Derbyshire page is for all people working on Cantrells. We have set up an ancestry tree for everyone to work on. I do know that Sandy has a great deal of information on our family, and most of it disproves or should say corrects many errors passed on through the years. You are aware that John (M, miller is a name for his occupation and not a middle name , yes?).

    • Donna – thanks so much. I have spent very little time on the Cantrell line. It’s on my list to research further. I’ll check out the Facebook page.


      • Think you will find it very informative. Once you are on the list, you can request an invitation to the joint Ancestry .com tree. as an editor.

  30. Pingback: Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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  32. I’ve got shaky leaves past 16 generations on one line.! they seem to go on forever. I certainly like ancestry, it really jump started my searching.
    I use a range of ways but keep the tree there.

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  36. Enjoyed this post. One more thing I would highly recommend. It is very important to add your DNA matches to your own DNA tree. It will help the circles form. If you have a match that you are not sure how they connect to your tree, add them anyway as an unrelated person and work that area of your tree. It is important to do this because not everyone has researched their trees fully. I use DNA icons as the primary photo too in order to help myself keep track of the person’s status. If you are really uncomfortable with adding someone to your tree you can use a primary photo icon to indicate that for that individual.

    • Hi Sharlene. That’s interesting, because your having your matches in your tree should not affect the circles one bit at all. Based on discussions with Ancestry, and what they have published, the Circles are formed based on the fact that your DNA matches someone and both of you have a common ancestor listed in your trees. I’m not saying you shouldn’t add your matches, but that person in your tree should not affect the Circles in any manner – because by the time you have added them, they are already in the circle. Now, if you find someone with whom you share a common ancestor and they or you don’t have that common ancestor if your trees, then by all means add them and that will help the Circles form.

  37. Happy to have your blog sent to me by a cousin and cohort in our mutual Mann family (yours included 😉 We have several involved in a DNA project but only one has used Ancestry for the test. Looking forward to more useful info here on interpreting our results and hopefully, how to share such detail with interested family members. Thanks for your time and effort!

  38. Pingback: Ancestry Refines New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs) | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  39. Rather than “perhaps groom” your existing tree “a bit” at Ancestry, is there any reason you can’t do a new, simpler tree and change the tree associated with your Ancestry DNA account to the new, simpler tree? (I just spent the afternoon creating a new, simpler tree, and then noticed your advice to groom the existing tree. I’d rather not lose the details (nicknames, etc.) that are included in my existing tree.

  40. Thanks – yes, now I remember that you said you had started a new tree (I had to read your post in two or three sittings in between other priorities – it’s been a busy day…).

  41. My experience with AncestryDNA does not seem to be like anyone else’s at all! I did create a new tree just for AncestryDNA in the hopes of getting some/any matches after I found a second cousin. The shaky leaf didn’t even appear until we confirmed our shared ancestor and shared our trees. That’s it – one match – no shaky leaves to be seen eleswhere. So, I had no better luck with the new tree and the original tree. No shaky leaves on my tree either. Apparently I have exhausted all of the available records (I won’t use records that I cannot actually look at, and that is a LOT). I’ve not been able to get beyond ggrandmother or gggrandfather for a few years now but have filled in the tree extensively with what relatives I know of. Before the new DNA kicked in I had 6 people they said ‘could’ be related – I didn’t find any evidence of that. Since the new DNA started I had 42 possible ancestors and that changed to 11 the other day. Again, I cannot find any connection between our trees. I look at the DNA Circles and wonder who these people are and how they connect. I look at trees, people in circles, in the map and location area – nada. The map and location feature most often shows 0 shared anything! Yes, a lot of ‘no trees’, ‘locked trees’ – but can’t do anything about that.
    The upshot is, and I look on a lot of genealogy pages and belong to a lot of FB groups, and I am hearing success stories and about all of the matches they have and frankly I really have to wonder.
    Any feedback?

    • I wish Ancestry had made a more clear difference between Circles and NADs. Circles are people whose DNA you match AND you share a common ancestor in your trees. NADs are people whose DNA you match and they match other people in a Circles, but that common ancestor is not in your tree – so it’s presented to you as a NAD. People who live in England, for example, have very few matches and most have no Circles. People overseas are not keen on testing and most of their matches are quite far back in time, so they don’t find themselves in Circles.

      • Hi,
        I’m not sure what NADS are but apparently all of my DNA matches are NADS. When I look in the ‘circles’ I cannot make a connection between me and any of them. Same with just regular DNA hints, not even a common surname. I don’t know what to think about it but I am certainly glad to have found a cousin and that opened up an area of my tree. btw, I’m only dealing with people in the US in my tree. I guess that people that I am related to have not tested except one.

    • Other than the trees with shaky leaves Ancestry has provided you, have you also been through EVERY tree with which you have been matched and presented, those which are available? I have, and found 200 more tree matches, other than the 234 shaky leaf matches Ancestry gave me. Obviously, these are TREE matches, not TG matches done with chromo/segment matching. My cut-off is ~1675, because my Colonial America matches are awesome in numbers.

      When I quit logging the numbers, I had 100 tree matches with Stephen Hopkins b 1581, and 60 with Augustine Warner b 1642. I now just focus on those ancestors b1675 downstream.

      • Hi,
        What are TG matches? Yes, I look at the DNA matches presented if they have a tree. I find no common surnames and often there is no commonality on the ‘mapping and locations’ feature. There are a LOT of DNA matches, that is why I find this so puzzling that I’m coming up with nothing. I have contacted a few people and some have kindly responded but again we cannot find the common ancestor. I’m not actually going that far back in time either. If I find someone that matches my great grandmother b. 1866 the other persons matches are for someone born in 1709. Since I cannot get beyond my great grandmother in my tree there is no way I can connect up to someone that does not even has I recognizable surname.
        Like I said, everyone is always writing about matches in their trees, their DNA, just like you.
        Maybe my spit was defective 😉

  42. I have a private tree, so I have no circles, and most probably many of us with Colonial Ancestry will link back to Stephen Hopkins. For me, the circles are just circles, perhaps for guidance, but not proof without overlapping segments and TG, and a one-to-one.

    Ancestry’s algorithym does not always pick up the MRCA, nor ALL of the common ancestors, and last week I got a shaky leaf with my Corbin surname which the algorithm matched with the surname, Corn. Sometimes the algorithym will not give us a shaky leaf if the spellings are not exact, and sometimes it will. Sometimes it will give me a shaky leaf on only the husband and not the wife because of the difference of spelling. And sometimes it gets confused and gives you the MRCA AND the generation right behind it.

    Roberta, we love you. Thank you for helping us keep our heads clear. So happy you are feeling better.

  43. Pingback: My First True New Ancestry Discovery (NAD) on AncestryDNA | Diggin' Up Graves

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