A Match List Does Not an Ancestor Make

wish list

I can’t tell you how many people write to me and tell me that we must be related because they share a match with several people at the testing companies that have the surname Estes, either today or in their family history.  And, they’d like to know what I think about that list.

What they are really hoping, or wishing for, is that I’d wave my magic Estes wand and say, “well, yes, of course, I know exactly who all of those people are and how they are related.”  If I could do that, I would not have any dead ends on my own tree, believe me.  My magic wand is broken!

A name, alone, does not a match make.  And a list of names doesn’t make an ancestral connection either.

That list of Estes people is interesting, but it really doesn’t mean much of anything, at least, not alone.  These people could be related to the tester through different ancestral lines – although many people find that hard to believe.  But it’s true, and it’s most often the answer.  Let’s take a look at why.

In 10 generations, every person has 1024 direct ancestors.  For someone born in the year 1950, and assuming 4 generations a century, 10 generations take them back to about 1700.

Given that 2 people do have a DNA match – the odds that the match is from any specific one of those 1024 people is 1 in 1024, or if from a couple, 1 in 512.

Given that there are 42,000+ people in the US who carry the Estes surname today, there are many more who don’t, but have an Estes in their tree someplace.  It’s not unlikely that someone would match people who have Estes ancestors – just by chance.  We’ve been here since the mid-1600s – and our early Estes ancestors were prolific.

I ran a little experiment,  just for fun.  I selected a group of people who do NOT have Estes ancestors, and I checked their matches at Family Tree DNA to see how many Estes matches they show.

I am quite familiar with the trees of each of these individuals.  Except for me, none of these people have Estes ancestors.  The Estes surname column is who carries that surname today that they match.  The Estes Ancestor column is the Estes ancestral surname, minus the people who appeared in the Estes surname column if they are duplicated.

I have divided these into two groups – people who came from areas where Estes family members are found, and those who did not.  For comparison, I’m the last entry at the end.

Name Geography Total Matches Estes Surname Estes Ancestor
GB Hatteras Island, NC – not where Estes lived 880 0 1
JC Tennessee – not where Estes lived 1500 3 5
PB Not where Estes lived 340 0 1
CF European ancestry, not where Estes lived 400 1 4
JK Hungarian, German 250 0 1
DL Acadian – not where Estes lived 590 1 2
RG Germanic, not where Estes lived 620 2 1
DB Tennessee – where Estes lived 1440 2 6
JG Tennessee – where Estes lived 1570 4 14
DM Where Estes lived 1090 1 4
GM Where Estes lived 1530 1 5
JZ Where Estes lived 1370 4 6
TM Where Estes lived 1430 1 16
JC Where Estes lived 1380 1 7
KH Where Estes lived 530 1 1
WH Where Estes lived 1910 2 12
WH2 Where Estes lived 1640 2 10
Me An Estes 960 4 4

As you can see, I have a very low number of matches as compared to other people who don’t have any Estes ancestry.  Clearly, those who both descend from areas where Estes families lived for long periods of time stand a better chance of matching people who have Estes in their trees.  They don’t share an Estes ancestor, but they share a common ancestor someplace.

So, while I feel for these people who write me these notes, and wish I had the answer they want – I don’t.  Their list of Estes matches means nothing without finding a common ancestor and matching on a common segment between at least 3 known Estes descendants.  If the person matching those people also matches them on that same common Estes segment, then, we’re beginning to cook.

That evaluation process is called triangulation, of course.  Family Tree DNA and 23andMe both provide tools for triangulation and segment matching, but Ancestry does not.  You can download your Ancestry results to both Family Tree DNA and to GedMatch, fish in multiple ancestor pools, and triangulate from there.

So, get busy triangulating.  No one is going to do the work for you, no matter how hard you wish!

Happy Ancestor Hunting!!!

17 thoughts on “A Match List Does Not an Ancestor Make

  1. Thank you for this interesting information about triangulation of information so that one can actually locate possible matches. This idea helps narrow down some of the masses of names. I’m interested in and puzzled by my husband’s Tatum heritage from Virginia. In the Family Tree DNA results for his Y-DNA, there are several Estes surnames that crop up as matches, but I do not understand why. There are Porters as well, in Jamestown, that seem to be Y-DNA matches for the Tatum line that my husband is part of. This also is not clear to me. Can you explain please?

    • Why they show up as a match is because the DNA had a matching segment. Why they share common surnames can be a matter of chance or because they share a common ancestor by that surname. The only way to differentiate is to do the triangulation technique. That is the only way to know why you match each person on your list – in the why in this case meaning which ancestor you share with them in common.

  2. I’ve just told my cousin Diana that she shares dna with you because she descends from Abraham, Moses, William Isaac, and Drucilla Estes. We’re testing on Ancestry but we have uploaded to Gedmatch so I guess I’ll go over there and see if she matches/triangulates with you there?

  3. So if I and a known 2nd cousin match on several segments I still need to find a few more cousins matching that segment with confirmed ancestors on their tree to prove that piece of DNA came from that particular line?

    • Yes, for proof that those segments are from that ancestor. With close matches, it gets less important to triangulate because the relationship is close and known. But there is the outside chance that you could be sharing some segments by chance (IBC) and some segments from a second ancestor – so the only way to positively identify segment to ancestors is through triangulation. Cousins are good because if they share ancestors further back in time, you can then separate out the DNA in that segment to which ancestor upstream it came from. For example, you may know it’s on your Dad’s side, and on your Dad’s mother’s side – but triangulating with cousins will help you know which of your Dad’s mother’s ancestors contributed that DNA to you.

  4. I’m super new at this, so forgive me in advance…I”m trying to figure out how to triangulate using my DNA on FamilyTree. I have identified 4 other people who match a long segment of chromosome 7. So somewhere we have a common ancestor. That’s where I’m stuck. If they don’t have trees on Family Tree DNA (and sometimes even if they do), there’s no way for me to find how we overlap.

    Is there another way to find the overlapping part of their trees?

    Difficulty: I can only use their trees not my own, since they match on my unknown birth father’s side of the family.

      • Roberta, there were a lot fewer people to choose a mate from then, also. There were many brothers and sisters to marry sisters and brothers from neighboring families. If they really wanted to marry, they sure could not be to picky.

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