Plea to Ancestry – Rethink Match Purge Due to Deleterious Effect on African American Genealogists

I know this article is not going to be popular with some people and probably not with Ancestry, but this is something I absolutely must say. Those of us in the position of influencers with a public voice bear responsibility for doing such.

Let me also add that if you are of European heritage and you think this topic doesn’t apply to you – if you have any unidentified ancestors – it does. Don’t discount and skip over. Please read. Our voices need to be heard in unison.

Ancestry Lewis.jpg

The Bottom Line

Here’s the bottom line. Ancestry’s planned purge of smaller segments, 6-8 cM, is the exact place that African Americans (and mixed Native Americans too) find their ancestral connections. This community has few other options.

I’m sure, given the Ancestry blog post by Margo Georgiadis, Ancestry’s President and CEO on June 3rd that this detrimental effect is not understood nor intentional.

Ancestry Margo

Margo goes on to say, “At Ancestry, our products seek to democratize access to everyone’s family story and to bring people together.”

Yet, this planned match purge at the beginning of August does exactly the opposite. The outpouring of anguish from African American researchers has been palpable as they’ve described repeatedly how they use these segments to identify their genetic ancestors.

Additionally, my own experiences with discovering several African American cousins over the past few days as I’ve been working to preserve these smaller segment matches has been pronounced. I can even tell them which family they connect through. A gift them simply cannot receive in any other way – other than genetic connections

These two factors, combined, the community outcry and my own recent experiences are what have led me to write this article. In other words, I simply can’t NOT write it.

I trust and have faith that Ancestry will rethink their decision and utilize this opportunity for good and take positive action. Accordingly, I’ve provided suggestions for how Ancestry can make changes that will allow people on both sides of this equation, meaning those who want to keep those smaller segment matches and those glad to be rid of them, to benefit – and how to do this before it’s too late.

I don’t know if Ancestry has African American genealogists who are both passionate and active, or mixed-race genealogists, on their management decision-making team or in their influencer group, but they should.

I don’t think Ancestry realizes the impact of what they are doing. African American research is different. Here’s why.

African American History and Genetic Genealogy

Slavery ended in the US in the 1860s. Formerly enslaved persons who had no agency and control over their own lives or bodies then adopted surnames.

We find them in the 1870 census carrying a surname of unknown origin. Some adopted their former owner’s surname, some adopted others. Generally today, their descendants don’t know why or how their surnames came to be.

Almost all descendants of freed slaves are admixed today, a combination of African, European and sometimes Native Americans who were enslaved alongside Africans.

Closer DNA matches reflect known and unknown family in the 3 or 4 generations since 1870, generally falling in the 2nd to 4th cousin range, depending on the ages of the people at the time of emancipation and also the distance between births in subsequent generations.

Ancestry freed ancestors.png

The three red generations are the potential testers today. The cM values, the amount of potential matching DNA at those relationship levels are taken from DNAPainter, here, which is an interactive representation of Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project.

Assuming we’re not dealing with an adoption or unknown parent situation, most people either know or can fairly easily piece together their family through first or second cousins.

You can see that it’s not until we get to the third and fourth cousin level that genealogists potentially encounter small segment matches. However, at that level, the average match is still significantly above the Ancestry purge threshold of 6-8 cM. In other words, we might lose some of those matches, but the closer the match, the higher the probability that we will match them (at all) and that we will match them above the purge threshold.

Looking again at the DNAPainter charts, we see that it’s not until we move further out in terms of relationships that the average drops to those lower ranges.

Ancestry DNAPainter

Here’s the challenge – relationships that occurred before the time of emancipation are only going to be reflected in relationships more distant than fourth cousins – and that is the exact range where smaller segment matches can and do come into play most often.

The more distant the relationship, the smaller the average amount of shared DNA, which means the more likely you are ONLY to be able to identify the relationship through repeated matching of other people who share that same ancestor.

Let me give you an example. If you match repeatedly to a group of people who descend from Thomas Dodson in colonial Virginia, through multiple children, especially on the same segment, you need to focus on the Dodson family in your research. If you’re a male and your Y DNA matches the Dodson line closely, that’s a huge hint. This holds for any researcher, especially for females without surnames, but it applies to all ancestral lines for African American researchers.

If an African American researcher is trying to identify their genetic ancestors, that likely includes ancestors of European origin. Yes, this is an uncomfortable topic, but it’s the unvarnished truth.

Full stop.

How Can African Americans Identify European Ancestors?

While enslaved people did not have surnames from the beginning of their history on these shores until emancipation, European families did. Male lines carried the same surname generation to generation, and female surnames changes in a predictable pattern, allowing genealogists to track them backward in time (hopefully.)

Given that African American researchers are literally “flying blind,” attempting to identify people with whom to reconnect, with no knowledge of which families or surnames, they must be able to use both DNA matches and the combined ancestral trees of their matches in order to make meaningful connections.

For more information on how this is accomplished, please read the articles here and here.

Tool or Method How it Works Available at Ancestry?
Y DNA for males Identifies the direct paternal line by surnames and also the haplogroup provides information as to the ancestral source such as European, African, Asian or Native American. No, only available at FamilyTreeDNA.
Mitochondrial DNA Identifies the direct matrilineal line. The haplogroup shows the ancestral source such as European, Native American, Asian or African. You can read about the different kinds of DNA, here. No, only available at FamilyTreeDNA
Clustering Identifies people all matching the tester and also matching to each other. No, available through Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom before Ancestry issued a cease and desist letter to them in June.
Genetic Trees Tools to combine the trees of your matches to each other to identify common ancestors of your matches. You do not need a known tree for this to work. No, available at Genetic Affairs before Ancestry issued a cease and desist letter to them.
Downloading Match Information Including the direct ancestors for your matches. No, Ancestry does not allow this, and tools like Pedigree Thief and DNAGedcom that did provide this functionality were served with cease-and-desist orders.
Painting Segments Painting segments at DNAPainter allows the tester to identify the ancestral source of their segments. Multiple matches to people with the same ancestor indicates descent from that line. This is how I identify which line my matches are related to me through – and how I can tell my African American cousins how they are related and which family they descend from. No. Ancestry does not provide segment location information, so painting is not possible with Ancestry matches unless both people transfer to companies that provide matching segment information and a chromosome browser (MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA)
ThruLines at Ancestry Matches your tree to same ancestor in other people’s trees. ThruLines is available to all testers, but the tester MUST have a tree and some connection to an ancestor in their tree before this works. Potential ancestors are sometimes suggested predicated on people already in the tester’s tree connected to ancestors in their matches trees. For ThruLines to work, a connection must be in someone’s tree so a connection can be made. There are no tree links for pre-emancipation owned families. Those connections must be made by DNA.
DNA Matching Matching shows who you match genetically. Testers must validate that the match is identical by descent and not identical by chance by identifying the segment’s ancestry and confirming through either a parental match or matching to multiple cousins descending from the same ancestor at that same location. Segments of 7 cM have about a 50-50 chance of being legitimate and not false matches. Of course, that means that 50% are valid and tools can be utilized to determine which matches are and are not valid. All matches are hints, one way or another. You can read more, here. Ancestry performs matching, but does not provide segment information. Testers can, however, look for multiple matches with the same ancestors in their trees. Automated tools such as Genetic Affairs cannot be used, so this needs to be done one match at a time. The removal of smaller segment matches will remove many false matches, but will also remove many valid matches and with them, the possibility of using those matches to identify genetic ancestors several generations ago, before 1870.
Shared Matching Shows tester the people who match in common with them and another match. Ancestry only shows shared matches of “fourth cousins and closer,” meaning only 20 cM and above. This immediately eliminates many if not most relevant shared matches from before emancipation – along with any possibility of recovering that information.

The Perfect, or Imperfect, Storm

As you can see from the chart above, African American genealogists are caught in the perfect, or imperfect, storm. Many tools are not available at Ancestry at all, and some that were have been served with cease-and-desist letters.

The segments this community most desperately needs to make family connections are the very ones most in jeopardy of being removed. They need the ability to look at those matches, not just alone, but in conjunction with people they match in clusters, plus trees of those clustered matches to identify their common ancestors.

Ancestry has the largest database but provides very few tools to benefit people who are searching for unknown ancestors, especially before 1850 – meaning people who don’t have surnames to work with.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to African American researchers, but any genealogist who is searching for women whose surnames they don’t know. This also applies to people with unknown parentage that occurred a few generations back in time.

However, the difference is that African American genealogists don’t have ANY surnames to begin with. They literally hit their brick wall at 1870 and need automated tools to breach those walls. Removing their smaller segment matches literally removes the only tool they have to work with – the small scraps and tidbits available to them.

Yes, false matches will be removed, but all of their valid matches in that range will be removed too – nullifying any possibility of discovery.

A Plan Forward

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m no longer invited to the Ancestry group calls. I’m fine with that because I’m not in any way constrained by embargoes or expectations. I only mention this for those of you who wonder why I’m saying this now, publicly, and why I didn’t say it earlier, privately, to Ancestry. I would have, had the opportunity arisen.

That said, I want to focus on finding a way forward.

Some options are clearly off the table. I’m sure Ancestry is not going to add Y or mitochondrial DNA testing, since they did that once and destroyed that database, along with the Sorenson database later. I’m equally as sure that they are not going to provide segment location information or a chromosome browser. I know that horse is dead, but still, chromosome browser…

My goal is to identify some changes Ancestry can make quickly that will result in a win-win for all researchers. It goes without saying that if researchers are happy, they buy more kits, and eventually, Ancestry will be happier too.

Right now, there are a lot, LOT, of unhappy researchers, but not everyone. So what can we do to make everyone happier?

Immediate Solutions

  • Remove the cease and desist orders from the third-party tools like Genetic Affairs, DNAGedcom, Pedigree Thief and other third-party tools that researchers use for clustering, automated tree construction, downloading and managing matches.

This action could be implemented immediately and will provide HUGE benefits for the African American research community along with anyone who is searching for ancestors with no surnames. Who among us doesn’t have those?

  • Instead of purging small segment matches, implement a setting where people can define the threshold where they no longer see matches. The match would still appear to the other person. If I don’t want to see matches under 8 cM, I can select that level. If someone else wants to see all matches to 6 cM, they simply do nothing and see everything.
  • Continue to provide new matches to the 6 cM level. In other words, don’t just preserve what’s there today, but continue to provide this match level to genealogists.
  • Add shared matches under 20 cM so that genealogists know they do form clusters with multiple matches.

Longer-Term Solutions

  • Partner with companies like Genetic Affairs and DNAgedcom, tools that provided not just match data, but automated solutions. These wouldn’t have been so popular if they weren’t so effective.
  • Implement some form of genetic networks, like clustering. Alternatively, form alliances with and embrace the tools that already exist.

The Message Customers Hear

By serving the third-parts tools that serious genealogists used daily with cease-and-desist orders, then deleting many of our matches that can be especially useful when combined with automated tools, the message to genealogists is that our needs aren’t important and aren’t being heard.

For African American genealogists, these tools and smaller matches are the breadcrumbs, the final breadcrumb trail when there is nothing else at all that has the potential to connect them with their ancestors and connect us all together.

Let me say this again – many African Americans have nothing else.

To remove these small matches, rays of hope, is nothing short of immeasurably cruel, and should I say it, just one more instance of institutionalized racism, perpetrated without thinking. One more example of things the African American community cannot have today because of what happened to them and their ancestors in their past.

Plea

I will close this plea to Ancestry with another quote from Margaret Georgiadis from Ancestry’s blog.

Ancestry Margo 2.png

Businesses don’t get to claim commitment when convenient and then act otherwise. I hope this article has helped Ancestry to see a different perspective that they had not previously understood. Everyone makes mistakes and has to learn, companies included.

Ancestry, this ball’s in your court.

Feedback to Ancestry

I encourage you to provide feedback to Ancestry, immediately, before it’s too late.

You can do this by any or all of the following methods:

Ancestry support

Ancestry BLM.png

Speak out on social media, in groups where you are a member, or anyplace else that you can. Let’s find a solution, quickly, before it’s too late in another 10 days or so.

As John Lewis said, #goodtrouble.

Make a difference.

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121 thoughts on “Plea to Ancestry – Rethink Match Purge Due to Deleterious Effect on African American Genealogists

  1. Yes- I totally agree with your article. I also suggust that it AncestryDNA is plaaning on making such major changes, like this deleting 6-8 cM DNA matches, that they should DELAY & GIVE people 2-3 months to review & save those matches.
    Interestingly, I got on Ancestry.com Users group on Facbook, and I couldn’t Post, so they may have disabled that (while all of this is going on) — not good!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. Here’s the email that I sent to Ancestry on June 5.

    Dear Ancestry Management,
    I am greatly disappointed by your decision to send Genetic Affairs a cease and desist letter, causing them to discontinue providing their AutoCluster Analyses that uses Ancestry data. This decision has a significant deleterious effect on the ability of African Americans to trace their heritage and develop family trees.

    I am doing genetic genealogy research to help people with African American ancestors establish their descent. The people I help have uploaded their DNA to GEDmatch, MyHeritage, 23&me and FTDNA. Ancestry.com is the only site that has enough matches to produce both clusters and trees to generate anything usable. There are too few people with African American ancestors on any of the other sites to be of value. The loss of this tool to African Americans who seek to know their genetic history is one more thoughtless, insensitive, take-away from a genealogically-marginalized group of Americans who must struggle to know their origins. Has Ancestry not contemplated the effect that this will have on Africa American genetic genealogy?

    This research is terribly challenging to do and Genetic Affairs produced a tool that significantly improves the ability to predict ancestral relationships. Ancestry, by virtue of being the most widely recognized site, has attracted the largest number of African American users. It is unquestionably clear that they long to know their ancestral history and your site is by far the likeliest place that it may be discovered.

    Without the use of clusters, all that a researcher can do is set up their own scheme to try and cross-match all of the likely candidates in the same tree. African Americans are often deprived of a anything more than marginal, poorly documented trees from which to begin. The great benefit of Clusters is that it automatically presents you with people who are related to you along the same ancestral lines. If there are twenty people in one of those clusters, five of them may have trees and two of them may be fairly complete. That is a wonderful thing to have generated for a researcher. It greatly improves the likelihood of success.

    There would never be a right time to take away this tool for African American research but there could never be a worse time. I am really struggling to develop this one particular tree. It has taken me back to the sale of slaves by the Jesuit priests in Maryland and their shipment to Louisiana; to the enslavement by African Americans by other African Americans with large holdings in Louisiana; through numerous illegitimate and unacknowledged fathering of black children by white slave-masters; through surnames with spellings that change with each generation or within the generation itself but with no documentation; with people unable to identify their birthplace through illiteracy or having been sold and not knowing their location; and through families formed and reformed as they seek to find happiness and stability.

    Ancestry has got the greatest number of African American clients and that gives your customers their best hope of finding their origins. Please don’t take away this tool from people who want to do African American research.

    Thank you for your consideration.

      • Roberta (and others), the contact email address is:

        ancestrysupport@ancestry.com

        I was told today (23rd July) by the support team that they will at least delay the planned purging by the end of the month. I told them that this is only a minor help for any future research and was told that they may rethink their decision due to the massive user feedback.

          • Uh oh. Got this reply when I emailed ancestrysupport@ancestry.com
            Thank you for your interest in contacting Ancestry. Unfortunately, you have reached a non-working email address. Please visit our Ancestry Support site at the following link, where you will find helpful articles and information as well as our updated contact information for further support.
            https://support.ancestry.com/s/
            This is an automated email, please do not respond.

  3. Thank you! I am the parent of an African American son. My wife has been working for years on his genealogy -so that he will know his family history. The announcement from Ancestry that they would do away with the smaller DNA matches was crushing. It isn’t right to expect one group to be satisfied with stopping at the 1870 census.

  4. Please reconsider the move to delete smaller dna matches. The community is just getting excited about DNA. I

  5. “Some People” will never care or understand the hole we have in our souls. To put the information out there and then little by little pull back is incredulous.

  6. Ancestry.com, please do not complete the match purge that will hurt African-American chances of tracing their heritage.

  7. I agree with your sentiments, unfortunately I don’t believe Ancestry will listen.
    They’ve been making a lot of bad decisions over the years and I think it stems from them acting based on what share holders want rather than customers. Add to that many of their corporate execs are from other industries and well you get what you see. Hopefully a lot of people who tested at Ancestry move to somewhere like MyHeritage or maybe someone out there will create a kind of “Open Source” Genetic Genealogy site or something.

  8. I spoke up on Ancestry’s FB wall. They doubled down and provided a link to Blaine’s article. I’m going to guess you have seen it. If not, I’ll find and post. May I ask your response to Blaine?

    • Unfortunately Blaine has been very unkind and unprofessional and I will not engage in a personal war or that type of behavior. I do realize some of these matches are IBC and have said so many times. However, many matches are not and the matches people need beyond that date of 1870 or so often fall into this range. There are tools to figure out which matches are more likely valid and we need to use those. For people who don’t want them, they can ignore them. But people who need them can’t use them if they don’t have them.

      • Thank you for having the courage to speak up on this issue, knowing it would bring pushback. It saddens me to see some others’ responses to your position (now some of our position, also).

        The argumentative tone, vitriol and bullying I’ve seen have no place in our genealogy community. Please know, Roberta, that many of us stand with you and support you. <3 Keep up the great work!

      • Thank you, Roberta. It’s all very unfortunate. The lack of support from influential members of the research community is appalling. I can’t help but think their lack of meaningful connection with Black researchers is at the root of it. I’ll even go so far as to call it racism. Passive and unintentional, perhaps, but it is what it is.

      • I’ve belatedly seen this group of comments. Just want to say that I was sickened by the level of “ad hominem” attacks in that thread, as well as by the way it was posted. Certainly unprofessional. And disturbing 😥

  9. Pingback: Ancestry's Changes Affect Those with Enslaved Ancestors: A Guest Post - Dana Leeds

  10. Hi Roberta,

    Thanks for all your efforts with Ancestry. Do you have any tips on how to prioritise which matches to save? I manage 4 kits and have worked out they have 165,000 total matches between them!

    The thing that is really bugging me as well is how shared matches work. If I match Bob with 100cm and Jane with 10cm then Jane’s page tells me she matches Bob but Bob’s doesn’t tell me he matches Jane. Surely it would be far easier to see all of Bob’s matches in one place and add them all to a coloured dot group rather than having to wade through all the small matches individually (and also less work for Ancestry’s server).

    I also really wish they had a filter or sort for number of shared matches. I am guessIn that those with no or low shared matches are more likely to be IBS.

    Best Wishes

    Gareth Nelson

  11. In addition to working the ThruLines (and Crista Cowan just said yesterday on FB if someone is in the TL they will not be deleted!), I go into the Shared Matches and do a search for the surname, and then mark them all as Unk (for now) with the colored dots and if there aren’t a ton, I add the surname to the notes.

    • That must be a change then, because originally she said that was not the case. I hate the thought that I spent days marking them. They are safe regardless.

  12. Thanks, Roberta, for posting this crucial analysis. If God is in the details, some of our most interesting connections, those that leap boundaries,are in those small segments.

  13. Roberta, Did you see that 23 and Me has just published a study on slavery and African genetics? Very interesting.

  14. Thanks for the compelling article. When I was still working, a couple of my African-American co-workers were interested in their genealogy, and I helped both of quite a bit. I can attest to the dearth of finding records that would tie families together prior to emancipation. I would add to that my experience has also been that poor whites are also very difficult to trace. If they owned no land, left no estates, etc., then the scarcity of records is also problematic. The removal of matches with 6-7 cM also damages the ability to trace those families. Hopefully Ancestry will reconsider their plan, but I am still taking the necessary step to “save” my DNA Matches. I have ten tests that I am working, have saved about 12,000 matches in eight of them, but saved the two most difficult for last.

  15. Trust is an important component in a business relationship. If Ancestry continues down this path in the “interest” of efficiency, they risk alienating other groups as well (certain Asian, Middle Eastern or Native Americans. Is this the business model going forward? If so, it might be good to remember that other companies may be waiting to fill the void. Individuals made Ancestry what it is and Individuals that feel slighted have may have many paying friends that will take offense. Quite easy to download the gedcom and move on.

    • This is the last straw for me, if they do this, it is over, I will cancel my subscription and focus my research at the other three companies I tested with. They have become hostile to their members at this point, they do not even qualify as indifferent anymore concerning our needs as customers.

      • Read the information paper on matching at the top of your DNA matches. It explains why. One if the people on the call said as many as 2/3 of your matches will be gone.

        • I spoke to a woman last night, she said of her 21k matches, 18k will be deleted. Of my 23k total matches, I will lose 44%.

      • I agree, I have been using Family Search as a backup and they have gone back farther than Ancestry did. I’m still searching for the site that will give me my slave history. I may soon be an x Ancestry account user.

  16. I have four mixed grandchildren, two of whose ancestors on their father’s side were slaves. One branch hails from very early slave holding Virginia that has been traced to the Pee Dee Valley of North Carolina, and then to South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi. Anyone who researches in those areas also knows there are Native American ties, too.

    The other, their father’s father, was adopted. And if anyone researches those areas, they know the European names of early Virginia slaveholding families of Carter and Shepherd (among others) that have roots that go way back to the early 1600’s.

    A double whammy for trying to find any thing even under the best of circumstances. Without those smaller matches, I’ll be dead in the water in my research. There are no where near the amount of matches on MyHeritage or any other site.

    If Ancestry follows through with this change because of their bottom line and shareholders (upgrading their servers is what is needed), they will definitely lose my business.

    I also found 2 years ago out that my mother’s father is not who we thought he was and there are very few people on one side of her new paternal branch within 20 cm that have tested. You know what I’ve been going through in that regard!

    I will lose all of those more distant dna matches for both of these situations. It’s disheartening to say the least. I can’t believe that Ancestry would choose such a short sighted approach for making their shareholders happy. I’ve been paying full monthly price for their services for over 4 years. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to stop paying that because of losing all the matches I need to make my research there viable.

    Ancestry is proving themselves to be lazy and without vision.

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