Identifying Unknown African American Lineages Using DNA

My article asking Ancestry to reconsider purging 6-8 cM matches due to the effects on African American genealogy raised questions about how one could identify a lineage for an African American (or anyone really) who has no knowledge of their tree beyond a certain point in time.

That’s actually a really good question, so let me explain by using examples from my own family that illustrate how the science and matching techniques work together.

African American DNA isn’t any different than other DNA. What is different is that African Americans have absolutely no records, no surname and no context before emancipation in the 1860s and the first census in 1870. Many, and especially new researchers, have no idea where to look and without records, DNA is their only way to make connections back in time.

Unfortunately, this is also the threshold in time where the DNA of ancestors prior to 1870 is now chopped into segments the size of 6-8 cM.

Accidental Discovery

This week, while I was working on evaluating my smaller segment matches at Ancestry, I noticed that one was to an African American man, based on his profile picture, with whom I shared 7 cM.

AA Frank.png

I clicked on the match and then on Shared Matches. Even though this match is only 7cM, Shared Matches of 20 cM or above will show. The only shared matches that won’t show are shared matches below 20 cM, because they are presumed to be further back in time than 4 generations. I do wish Ancestry would show all shared matches.

We had 12 shared matches, ranging from 20 to 57 cM. some that I had previously identified as descending from the same couple.

I thought I recognized two or three of these people as having tested at other vendors.

I reached out to my match, we’ll call him Frank. He said that his mother, aunt and another relative had all tested at Ancestry too. I told Frank that I didn’t see their names in our Shared Matches, when I realized that could be because I shared less than 20 cM with them.

Sure enough, when I searched for the surname of the testers in question, they are all 4 on my match list.

AA Frank's family

Based on who we match in common at Ancestry, I *thought* I knew which ancestral couple we share in common. We all only match on one segment, but I can’t tell if it’s the same segment of course without a chromosome brower. And I can’t tell if these people also match each other at Ancestry on a common segment, although I would certainly presume so since he told me that they are closely related.

I asked Frank to transfer their results to either FamilyTreeDNA or MyHeritage, the other two vendors that accept transfers, where we can obtain segment information. Frank and two of his relatives transferred from Ancestry to FamilyTreeDNA where I’ve tested many family members over the years.

When I can identify a common ancestor with a match at any vendor that provides segment information, I paint those segments at DNAPainter.

Indeed, I did match Frank and his family members on the same segment, as do many of my cousins who are confirmed to have descended from a common ancestor.

The graphic below from DNAPainter shows all of my matches to this segment from all vendors identified to the purple couple.

AA Frank paint.png

I went to DNAPainter and painted these three smaller segment matches from Frank and his relatives, assigning them to the same ancestral couple. As you can see, they fit right in.

Can you tell which three of the people above are these three new cousins that I matched initially on 7 and 8 cM at Ancestry? No, of course not, because this is the exact same segment where I match all of my other cousins who are all assigned to the purple couple.

Given that these matches shown in purple are all descended from a specific line, my three newly-found cousins match them and must be related to that line in some way.

This match isn’t identical by chance, because their segment phases within their family, through Frank’s mother and another close relative.

We all share the same DNA, it’s phased in Frank’s family through three generations, so the conclusion must be that we share a common ancestor. This is an example of classic triangulation with many proof points.

Frank and his relatives then searched for the surname in question and found more people in their match lists from this same couple. They just didn’t know where to look before, but now they do.

If we accept that shared DNA between all of the purple people who are identified as descendants of the same ancestors share that ancestral couple’s lineage because they share the same DNA segments, and because they all match each other, then we must also accept that our three new cousins share the same genealogical line, because they share the same DNA as the previously proven cousins.

Now, of course, we need to work on geography and proximity, meaning figuring out exactly how our new cousins might descend from this line. We can also work on identifying matches to the wives lines’, if the wives are known, which may help place the most recent common ancestor. It’s also possible that we match because of an ancestor upstream of the purple couple.

In this case, there is no male in our match list that is descended from the appropriate surname line, so Y DNA testing is not an option. They are currently looking to see if they can find a qualifying male to test.

However, in another case, from some months back, we were able to identify an appropriately descended male.

The Smith Case

In this case, Smith is the fictitious biological surname. The tester, we’ll call him Joe, was an African American male who didn’t know who his family was before emancipation.

Joe and I initially discovered several random, mostly relatively small, common autosomal DNA matches that are part of an identified triangulation group. This was enough to identify the family in general and provide us with a working theory about who might have been his ancestor, but we needed more information.

Eventually, Joe found a male that descended from his ancestor who we’ll call Harold, a male emancipated when slavery ended. That man Y DNA tested, and indeed, his Y DNA matches my Smith family paternal line exactly.

Several of my proven Smith ancestor’s known relatives’ autosomal DNA matches the DNA of Harold’s family. Joe asked several family members from various children of Harold to test, and they too match various Smith descendants on many of the exact same segments of DNA.

AA Smith paint

I don’t match all of Joe’s relatives, but I do match some. On this common smaller segment of 7.7 cM, Joe’s family is painted in green and purple. My oldest progenitor, the Smith Father is painted in blue. Descendant generation matches are painted in other colors. However, since I now know that the blue portion is progenitor Smith, all of these segments can be tracked back to him on that side of the family – along with the segments carried by Joes family members who descend from multiple children of his progenitor. In reality, we now know that all these segments are actually blue – because it’s the exact same DNA.

That’s not all. There’s more evidence.

My Smith ancestor owned a female slave, and there were only two males of the right age that could have impregnated the mother of Harold who was emancipated. His mother had died before emancipation. The male child, Harold, listed as a mulatto was found in the 1870 census living in the household of the widow of father Smith. Did she, or did she not know that Harold was either her deceased husband’s son or her grandson?

In this Smith case, we have several pieces of evidence:

  • Some paper-trail records including the census and Harold’s death certificate listing his mother carrying the Smith surname. However, it was not uncommon for slaves to be identified by their master’s surnames as an identifier of ownership, not of marriage or descent. Harold’s father was listed as unknown, also not uncommon.
  • Geography – we know where both families lived which was both remote and mountainous.
  • Opportunity – two Smith males of an age to father a child, the Smith father and son, and no other Smith males.
  • Y DNA exact match of Harold’s descendant to the Smith family males at 111 markers.
  • Autosomal DNA evidence on a triangulated segment in an identified triangulation group to me, shown above, and other triangulated segments to other Smith family members.
  • Triangulated DNA in my family of people that descend from father Smith
  • Triangulated segments of DNA in Joe’s family that descend from multiple children, tracking those segments back to Harold, eliminating the possibility that they are identical by chance in the current generation

The smaller segment DNA evidence led us here. How much evidence do we need to draw at least a preliminary conclusion that Joe is a cousin? And, given that Joe’s family’s DNA matches the Smith family DNA exactly, and in descendants of multiple children in both lines, what other possible explanation is there? Add to that the Y DNA evidence.

Can I tell Joe whether Harold’s father was the Smith father or the Smith son? If Joe and his family autosomally match the ancestors of the Smith widow, then Joe’s ancestor is (probably) the child of the Smith son. So far, they don’t, so it’s most likely that the Smith father is our common ancestor, not the Smith son.

Joe then added Harold as a child of my Smith ancestor on Ancestry, using Harold’s biological surname, Smith, in an attempt to cause a ThruLine to form. Of course, had Joe used a different surname, one that Harold adopted at emancipation, assuming it was different from Smith, the ThruLine would not have formed. Another challenge for African American researchers or anyone whose biological surname is not the same as their surname used.

When I checked my ThruLines this week, I found three people descended from our common ancestor, Joe plus two more family members that I didn’t know had tested at Ancestry.

AA Smith match.png

These matches are now safely “saved” and won’t disappear when the purge occurs in early August, but the two 6 cM matches would clearly have disappeared otherwise and the 8 cM segment at Ancestry was a 7.7 segment at the other testing company, so it would likely have disappeared too. Ancestry rounds.

Joe’s segment match to me was the key to being able to reconnect our families initially. Without this critical clue, we would never have been able to reunite our family. Yes, we are a family. We’ve met and had a reunion. We’ve shared meals. I am watching his beautiful children grown up. And we would never have found each other without DNA.

All thanks to those segments between 6 and 8 cM that some opine aren’t real and aren’t relevant.

Some matches aren’t relevant which is why we need more evidence than one match, but some are very valid and therein lies the gold.

pexels-photo-1371168

Those matches are the gateway to research – clues to be evaluated just like any other clue. All evidence must be evaluated, genetic or otherwise.

We don’t discard census records out of hand because they might not be our ancestor without evaluating the evidence presented. DNA matches that stand a 50% chance of being accurate (at 7 cMs) and not false positive shouldn’t be categorically dismissed either.

A starving person doesn’t discard a basket of produce because only half of it is edible. Yet, that’s what’s about to happen.

African American Testing

African Americans who test have a blank slate, with no surnames, to work with before emancipation. Segment matches, and often segments between 6 and 8 cM because the passage of time has whittled them to this size, are the clues that allow African American researchers to begin reassembling their ancestral family.

In many cases, genealogists more fortunate don’t need smaller segment matches to piece together our family puzzles, but those working with little or no information on any line before 1870 need every clue they can get. The rest of us can simply ignore what we don’t want – but they can’t recover something taken from them.

Had it not been for that 8 cM match with Joe (actually 7.7 at the other vendor), I wouldn’t have found those cousins, and I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the line through which we are related. Without my work with known family, it’s very unlikely that Joe and his family would have been able to figure this out with no context. For them, it was a needle in the haystack. For me, I had already identified those ancestors and assigned relevant DNA segments to those ancestors. For me, there were records outside of DNA and DNA only confirmed my genealogy. For them, DNA is all they have – just a genetic  prayer.

These are just two examples of how DNA connections reassemble families for African Americans specifically and other researchers whose more distant family members are unknown.

Please Share

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

Please also share this and my original article with your genealogy friends and organizations. This topic is not welcome in some places. We don’t have long, so it’s up to you to spread the word.

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

I’m still hopeful that Ancestry will reconsider. It benefits them, and us, to do so.

Ancestry’s email is ancestrysupport@ancestry.com and phone is 1-800-958-9124.

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48 thoughts on “Identifying Unknown African American Lineages Using DNA

  1. Your comments about Y DNA testing are interesting. But what to do when you are a -1 Y DNA match with someone and they tell you that they can see your match but also five other surname matches that are -1 to him that I cannot see? According to what I understand I should be a match to each of those 5 others at at least some level, perhaps 0, perhaps -2 or something.

    • Everything has to be evaluated together. Closer is generally better. The -1 differences are probably at 12 markers and because he is in a project with them.

      • I understand that but my problem is that none of those matches show up on my results page AND, when I searched for one of the names in my family finder matches they didn’t show up at all. Why?

        • For the Y you’re probably not in the same projects. They allow matching within projects with -1 at 12. On FF, they don’t match you. Probably too far back to a common ancestor.

          • But that still leaves the question of why someone that I am a mutual -1 YDNA match can see 5 other YDNA matches (including me) who are at a -1 distance from him and I cannot see them? Sounds to me that those matches are close enough to be seen by me.

          • Bill, ask him what projects he’s in. Join those same projects and you will see them.

  2. Roberta, I really appreciate this guidance. I just want to say that it’s not completely accurate to say that “ … African Americans have absolutely no records, no surname and no context before emancipation in the 1860s and the first census in 1870”. Yes, it is very difficult, and sources are scarce, but there there were “free colored” who were enumerated in all the censuses, databases of free people of color (compiled by Paul Heinegg and others), and slaves mentioned in wills, tax records, emancipation records, family histories, slave narratives, and elsewhere. I just want people to be aware of these other sources, which may not be found in the standard census and database searches of the major genealogy websites.

    • I am aware of them and thank you. But most people don’t have that and if they connect to a white family, that’s unlikely in any record at all.

    • mizmdk, thank you for pointing that out . There were many ‘free colored’ in the 1600’s and later who were never slaves. That’s important to know because so much of the populace think all African Americans descended from slavery which isn’t true. I have 3% African from several testing companies and I know where it came from and can follow this lineage back to the late 1600’s in Virginia. It is documented. I have many cousins who descend from this line (black and white) and they know their lineage too.

      • That’s absolutely true, but those people have more opportunity to use traditional genealogy methods.

          • Regardless of when they were freed or how, the vast majority were brought for that intention.

  3. Thanks for ringing the bell on this issue. I’ve posted a comment on Ancestry’s Facebook page. Have you (or can you) reach out to the media to highlight the hypocrisy here?

  4. Well, you did light a fire under me. I had been ‘planning’ to label Ancestry matches with the colored dots. But I was ‘planning’ to figure out the perfect color combinations for labeling, and hadn’t done that yet. Well, on Monday I just began with all my ThruLines (& made a few discoveries along the way!), and every time I created a new label name, I just took whatever color came up, and worked as fast as I could.

    I was particularly interested in seeing the results in one line. I had noticed earlier that my father had a beautiful African American girl as a comparatively close match, and that she shared the surname of his great-grandmother. I had spent a whole day tracing the connection, finding info in online wills, legal records, and other resources, as well as census records. I remember how sad I was that day, that my ancestor had NOT been a ‘good’ slave owner, something I had wanted to believe. Two mulatto girls appeared in his household, after the death of his wife; and then his children got together and signed a document declaring him incompetent – perhaps to prevent him from including their two new half-sisters in his will. I felt heart-sick.

    But – what I found on Monday was that many further matches at ancestry show up on ThruLines, with descendants from both daughters. And, it all fits together. But, the other descendants might not have known the connection to my family if I hadn’t been willing to add it to my tree, with lots of documentation and notes in the Facts columns on their profiles; and one would not have showed up on my ThruLines after the first of August.

    I have five DNA matches from one half 2nd great aunt – 39 cM, 16 cM, 6 cM, & 18 cM from three children of one of her sons; and a 21 cM from her other son.
    I have two DNA matches from the other half 2nd great aunt – both at 22 cM.

    I’m guessing I will make a few more discoveries – thank you for motivating me to make this a priority – with a little less perfectionism! 🙂

      • What is being purged and by whom? How does a newbie like me “save” things now (when I am really just learning about all the technical stuff)?

        • There are links in that article to an earlier one with instructions for how to preserve the matches. Or just go to the main blog page and look down the articles on the right or enter the word Ancestry in the search box.

  5. Thank you Roberta for another very thoughtful article. I still can’t see what Ancestry stand to gain from removing these small segment matches from the database. Perhaps they hope to monetise them as an “enhancement” to the standard DNA results at some point.

  6. Roberta,

    Fascinating! Do I see a new career for you in this genre?

    Do I see Opra Winfrey funding a big educational venture for you?

    When you teach, and they learn, they can teach others.

    You are the Best of the Best!

  7. I only take out a subscription to Ancestry to help with the small matches.
    Without them – no reason to stay.
    Cancelled my subscription last night; and this morning – when I had cooled down – I told them that and of SOME of the other straws weighing down this particular camel.
    I am not alone. There are other places to find records and many have better search facilities for me. I spend a lot of time advising others: frustratingly much is how to get around various deficiencies at AncestryDNA rather than in more directly helping them find family.
    I understand that Ancestry needs to survive as a business.
    As one who has seen that side of things, I wonder if their decision is based on a very short-sighted view, with current action that may make their longer-term existence more fragile.
    If they need a small, ongoing subscription to provide ongoing DNA services, why do they not ask for one?
    Oh wait, 23andMe used to do that and AncestryDNA used that against them.
    Chickens currently roosting on that one!

    • Roberta,
      Awesome article…definitely. I myself have been going through my small amounts of DNA on Ancestry too in order to save my matches at that small range. I have even found connections to common ancestors from it. I have been color coding and leaving notes especially so now I can go back and research later on. Also noted that I have seen lot of crossover between my Paternal, Maternal and my Paternal Biological Grandfather lines within each other. It is amazing to see this it definitely speaks volumes about how we are all related in one way or another.
      I do know that I may not capture them all but it will definitely give me a lot of work to do in discovery of my roots.
      Thanks again for this article…maybe I will reconsider my point of view on GEDMATCH now…again thanks the read

      Respectfully

      Cindy Carrasco

  8. Great explanation and analysis of this somewhat urgent situation Roberta.

    Thanks too for clarifying something that had puzzled me ie that a match under 20cM will not match my smaller segment matches. I (and my other kits) have many matches, who when I click on it says there are no shared matches with that person.
    Do I have that correct? And is it my matches under 20cM or their matches under 20cM?

    I wish Ancestry would leave this be. I suspect they want/need to free up data space.

    • They may match. Ancestry just doesn’t show you that. You see no common matches with another person under 20 cM so many many matches are missing.

  9. Thank you for this well written article supporting those of us that are skilled enough to work with small segments. I come from 4 generations of adoptees and solved century old brick walls exactly the way you have described. I have also found priceless information using small segments for relatives with African American Ancestry. I have even used small segments to solve some adoptees cases, using them to guide me in the correct direction and then later verifying this by testing close relatives. I wish others would take the time to listen to these examples and not be so negitive and judgemental. Wish all were wise enough to see the potential some of these small segments have.

  10. What beautiful illustrations in how these segments can help African American genealogists. I hope this will be eye-opening for some of the prominent folks who are still blinded by science.

    I agree with Rick Lipsey — the media idea is a good one.
    The New York Times and Buzzfeed have done some good articles in the past …

  11. I descend from a Cuban father and a Nicaraguan mother. I have both parents tested at Ancestry, and uploaded elsewhere, including GEDmatch. On Ancestry, my mother and I match a man at 8 cM who – before the ethnicity update – showed 100% Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu Peoples (he now shows 99% that and 1% Eastern Bantu Peoples).

    We show no shared matches with him. Because he is on GEDmatch, I ran a “People who match both, or 1 of 2 kits” between him and my mom and came up with ten other kits not counting duplicates. I traced some of these back to Ancestry and found one Nicaraguan match, and the rest appear to be African Americans (including a mother and daughter who appear to live in Oklahoma).

    I have been in communication with this man for over a year. His tree shows everyone on both sides coming from the same region in the Congo. He is of Luba ethnic origin and lives in Montreal where he is married to someone of French-Canadian descent and has children. He is supportive of an idea I have to get these matches together to try and work on finding the common ancestor. I have grouped the matches on Ancestry. I have checked the matching segment on GEDmatch using the “paint” function and it is one segment on chromosome 16 that paints African, and shares the general start and end locations.

    I shared Roberta’s original article on Ancestry’s move to eliminate lower end matches, and he let me know that he has already grouped many of them.

    What is somewhat unique about this scenario is that instead of locating the common ancestry by way of a mutual European-descended ancestor, we have someone born in Africa whose ethnicity is quite consistent to one region. Based on the current geographical spread of the matches as well as this man’s statement to me that the region where his ancestry is situated for the last five or six generations was relatively unaffected by the slave trade until the 18th and 19th centuries, I can only imagine one or more common African ancestors who were brought as slaves to the Americas within the last 300 or so years are the common ancestor, and their DNA has spread out in the years following emancipation in one or more regions.

  12. Roberta, you didn’t identify a SINGLE lineage that was African American in this post. You only tied your allegedly Black DNA matches to your existing European ancestors. That is not the same thing.

    I won’t even get to how problematic it is to identify a DNA match is Black based on a profile picture.

    Then, yoy only did the real digging and revealing of the backstory of one of your lines connections to allegedly Black DNA matches by pinning all the aspects of the story on the woman who was likely brutalized through rape yet didn’t actually name your own ancestor who committed the crime.

    This is misleading, performative, and doesn’t illustrate the points being made by several people in the community about their concerns. It only illuminated what’s wrong with a lot of genealogy. We are Black people in a white space.

  13. Roberta, thank you so much again, I’m so appreciative of what your’re doing to impress upon the larger population something I’ve preached for years. Because I like most African Americans have fewer DNA matches I go DNA diving everyday into my new matches even the lowest 6 and 7 cM’s hoping for tiny piece of gold. It’s are that I do but it’s well worth it.

    This is the way I’ve found some bio-geographical African matches. I know these matches are by state or chance but the sheer pride and fulfillment I fell is indescribable. Just knowing I’ve connected to someone and someplace on an individual level that before I only had an abstract and historical connection to it makes my personal history more complete.

  14. As an African American who has been researching my family’s ancestry for over 10 years now, I wanted to comment on your statement that African Americans have absolutely no records, no surname, no context before emancipation, and that DNA is our only way to make connections. I have been able to trace my linage back to late 1700s in Arkansas, and yes my ancestors were enslaved. Their surname was Hatchett which differenced from their slave holder whose name was Pickett. I have been able to find my enslaved ancestors in wills, newspapers, the Freedman’s Bureau Records just to name a few documents. Since I have been able to trace my family lineage to US slavery, I was accepted into a lineage society dedicated to honoring the legacy of enslaved people in the United States, The Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (https://sdusmp.org/).

    Is researching African American genealogy difficult, yes it is. This country’s history of slavery and segregation makes our research plan different but not impossible. You have to be knowledgeable of this country’s history and the history of the area your ancestor and their slave holder lived in, including the laws of the time such as slave laws to know where to look for records. My family has lived in Arkansas, a southern state, since the late 1700s, and I have been able to find records of their life here in Arkansas. This is my story, and my story isn’t the exception when comes to researching African American genealogy…it’s the rule. There are thousands of other African American genealogy stories including Free People of Color because not all African Americans descend from enslaved ancestors. There were thousands of Free People of Color throughout the US including the south during slavery.

    My ancestors have records. My ancestors had a surname. My ancestors had context and lived a life before emancipation. I found my ancestors without using genetic DNA testing. Feel free to read about some of my ancestors on my blog.

    https://journeythroughgenerationsblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/dont-be-intimidated-just-start-researching/

    https://journeythroughgenerationsblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/30/my-membership-in-the-sons-and-daughters-of-the-united-states-middle-passage/

    https://journeythroughgenerationsblog.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/my-first-genealogy-conference-of-2018-aahgs/

    • Trisha, I’m glad to see your research. My point though, is that not everyone is in your shoes. And to remove the links that can connect people who haven’t done years of research, or can’t, or have hit immovable brick walls is very damaging. That’s my point. It’s burning records.

      • I started my research in the third grade. Using documentation and oral history. DNA testing enhanced and confirmed connections I already had. I think it is exceptionally presumptive to conclude that DNA is the only way to research the history of enslaved African descendants. I follow Dr. Henry Louis Gates and he uses records then DNA to illuminate ancestral ties for people. Other genealogists tout records first.
        I understand how important small matches are. But for me as a descendant of enslaved Africans ( among other things ) connecting back to my white slave owner isn’t a pleasant thing. It evokes anger and disgust. I prefer to comb through my small cm matches for DNA cousins fully of African descent. It is liberating and an elating connection I can’t explain.

        Please be conscious that our Blackness and Americanness isn’t defined through our European connections and while that is a bitter more than sweet part of us, it’s not the most important part of who we are as members of the Pan African Diaspora.

      • My point is that you are giving incorrect information as well as a false narrative of African American genealogy in that there are no records, surnames, or context prior to emancipation to your readers. DNA tests are simply an additional tool to use during your research just like, vital records, oral history, and other documents. DNA shouldn’t be used as a substitute for traditional genealogy research.

    • Thank you for your reply. The records that I need are out there and just as I make use of the records I can get online, like census records, there are other records that can be located and are accessible to me. I have African American ancestors so it will require me to learn and put in the work it takes to find them. I am an avid Black ProGen Live fan because I am able to learn what records and methods will help my search. I am learning about DNA from blogs like this and books from Blaine Bettinger and others. I believe the Genealogy community is just that: a community. It is important to hear and learn from one another. It is a fact that it is possible for me to use DNA to learn about genetic connections with my matches. But make no mistake: African American genealogical research is a specific method of research. Those who have learned how to get through the brick walls have much to teach and offer this community. So yes, it may be difficult and Ancestry’s decision to remove those smaller matches will be such a waste; but it won’t stop the research from continuing. I pray they will reconsider but if they choose not to; African Americans will be able to continue the research because our ancestors are named in documents before the 1870
      U.S. Federal Census and we will find their names.

      • Thank for our response. Although I am not a genetic DNA expert, I too feel that Ancestry’s decision to remove small cM matches is not good for anyone who wants to use genetic DNA as a tool for their genealogy research. I just want people to know that there are records and names for African Americans prior to the emancipation. And our ancestors did have context and have stories about the lives they lived. There are records of people of African descent living in American dating back to 1619, so we definitely have records prior to the emancipation. I wish you all the best in your research. I’m no expert, but if you need any assistance let me know.

  15. In a nutshell. Keeping small cm matches is not just good for Black people to find connections to european Americans . It’s just good for people to find connections, period. Whether it’s that random 2% ethnicity that popped up on your test, or to connect to living cousins from your tribe, ethnic groups and sadly yes your slave owner.

  16. Discussion is welcome. Racism is not. Name calling is not. Casting aspersions on me or my motives is not. Character assassination is not. Full stop.

    My FOCUS in this article is that the deletion of 6-8 cM segments damages and removes the ability for people who cannot connect otherwise to connect at all. Let’s not lose sight of that.

    The people in this country most likely to be affected by that are African Americans – whether they are connecting to white ancestors, black ancestors or Native American ancestors. I can only give what I have and to these cousins, it was a connection to a white ancestor. I have loving relationships with these people today even though I abhor the situation that caused us to be cousins in the first place.

    My point was to illustrate HOW DNA matches at 6-8 cM does successfully connect families. Many African American genealogists are decryign the anticipated purge because it removes in some cases their only option for them to connect with others, black or white, from that era.

    Yes, I realize that some people are fortunate and earlier records exist. Yes, I realize that people who have researched for decades did it without DNA. I did too, but DNA has broken through walls that had no possibility of falling any other way. I would never have found my cousins otherwise. My cousins were entirely brickwalled before 1870. My goal is and remains to help them and genealogists in this same situation. My assumption has been that if sometakes a DNA test for genealogy, they want as many results as possible.

    I will continue to speak out. Anyone who doesn’t care for that is free to not read my articles.

    This discussion’s focus is on the planned Ancestry match purge. Either you are in favor of that purge, or you aren’t, and that’s the discussion that needs to occur. Providing examples of how using matches at this level to solve problems and reunite families is one of the best ways to encourage Ancestry to retain those matches.

    The bottom line is that without DNA many people who do wish to connect and unravel their complex genealogy will never be able to make those connections. Those who don’t want to make those connections are free not to, but that should not deprive those who do of moving forward.

    • I have no problem with you as a DNA person, well respected, etc. But as a teacher/presenter and being African American I cannot let this go, you said:” What is different is that African Americans have absolutely no records, no surname and no context before emancipation in the 1860s and the first census in 1870. Many, and especially new researchers, have no idea where to look and without records, DNA is their only way to make connections back in time.”

      That I would not say and can’t, because it is not true. It does not help to get your point across regarding the cMs. I get what you are trying to say, regarding the cMs and I agree with you. I do not want them to go away either. But consider what you said at the beginning of your blog. We do have records, we do have surnames, we do have context before emancipation in the 1860s. There are a lot of folks that are trying to educate on where to look for these records and who is the holder of these records.

      • Records can lie, paper can lie, documents can lie and people can lie. DNA NEVER LIES!

        My grandmother was listed as a BOY in one of the census records because her name was Jemmie.

        I have two NPEs back in time proven by Y Dna in that line. So, my ggg grandfather, eWillis, was actually a Burford.

        IMHO, paper meants little to me until proven with DNA, either Y testing or triangulation with autosomal Dna.

        And again, DNA NEVER LIES!.

    • I am glad I read your blog because I wasn’t aware of what Ancestry was actually doing. The responses to your statement about how African Americans are unnamed before 1870 is significant for those who want to stand with you and simply want information to reflect the amazing wealth of documentation that IS available to help us find our ancestors. I am African American and the significance of the large amounts of records, beside the census, is what helped me know that there is hope for my research. Throw in DNA and this can be an amazing combination. I personally appreciate you and all the others that are addressing Ancestry on the value of these smaller segments of DNA and how they are being used for research. I hope, as one of the Genealogists that I read and learn from, that you are open to hearing from those who are expressing a standard of Genealogy that is being taught to those who want to research or help others through research of African American family history with records and historical documents. It is important and not meant to insinuate or express racism. Your point about what Ancestry is doing is well taken and we are all here because of it. Thank you for sharing and listening.

  17. Mine isn’t an African American search but it is similar in that I’m searching for an unknown great grandfather born between 1820-1850 most likely and all I have to work with are distant cousins with small segments because our most recent common ancestor lived 200 years ago or more. What is for me a great grandfather is someone else’s 3rd or 4th great grandparent or if that great grandfather had no other children than our most MRCA was born in the 1700s so my matches are usually in the 6 cM range. Since both my maternal and paternal lines are completely from New Mexico since 1598 with the only exceptions being a Frenchman in 1700 and a ‘recent’ Spanish immigrant couple in 1800 having distant cousins that are completely anglo and not from New Mexico is a huge waving flag and those are my only hints to my great grandfather.

    My grandmother was born in 1872 in Albuquerque New Mexico to my mostly Indian great grandmother who was working as a servant in someone’s household and got pregnant from someone there. And that is the only information that my grandmother ever gave anyone about her birth, not one hint on who her father was. My great grandmother shows up as a servant to a dentist in Santa Fe in 1850 but the dentist is in California in the 1870 census and my great grandmother can’t be found anywhere in the 1870 census so that is a dead end. She was born in approx. 1835 so I’m guessing my great grandfather was born sometime between 1820-1850 and given that many of my anglo cousins have trees with ancestors from Virginia he probably moved to New Mexico after the Civil War but did he stay or was he just visiting?

    Unfortunately my mother never tested so all I have is a Lazarus kit for her on Gedmatch where she has quite a few 3rd and 4th cousins who are Anglo but few have trees so all I can do is log their names and the surnames from their trees on a spreadsheet and see which surnames pop up repeatedly as possible guides to whom I’m looking for as I know some of those people are probably IBC. I have one Anglo cousin on Ancestry who has a great tree going back to the 1700s which isn’t very common but she’s only a 6 cM match so I checked her tree for some of the recurring names from my spreadsheet and found a couple in the 1700s on her maternal line and put them on my tree hoping for ThruLine matches but no luck so I did the same on her paternal line and I did get Thruline matches on that couple from the 1700s. I am thrilled! There aren’t many but there were 4 from the original cousin’s family but from different lines so that helped plus there were a handful to other couples from that line and I am frantically changing people on my tree to get more Thruline matches hoping I can get more matches before all my small segment cousins disappear and I have no one to work with. If I had waited to do this another month I would have made no progress at all as these are all segment matches that will disappear as soon as Ancestry implements their changes.

    I’ve thought about posting about this on Blaine Bettinger’s genealogy Facebook page but thought better of it as I know all that will happen will be having my opinion and problem shot down with negative comments. I don’t think Ancestry will change their mind but I wish they would because they are slamming the door shut in many people’s faces.

  18. While the Irish actually do have many records before 1850 or so, there are large gaps.
    And it can be hard locating exactly where some people found away from home are actually from. DNA provides one way. My Eliza Kavanaugh who turned up in London from Ireland around 1820 appears entirely untraceable from the records available there. Her existence as my ancestor only emerged recently from records only fairly recently available online: Poor House records on her son, my ancestor, who was previously completely unknown before his marriage in Australia in 1864.
    DNA is my one hope. And it will be in tiny matches.
    And the same for a further 50% of my lines – in Europe where the records have been repeatedly destroyed by wars. DNA is the one chance to link to those others who left.
    I may not have black ancestry, but I also feel loss if these 6-8cM matches go.

  19. Thank you for this article. I’ve been so frustrated by this decision for this same reason. I’m not the expert you are, but I have made substantial progress in identifying dozens of cousins, my “North Carolina cousins” who we know share segments on two separate chromosomes, likely from the same mixed race ancestor. We just can’t find the paper to tie our two families together back in the mid 1700’s. We have the surname, just not “the person”. Many of these NC cousins are in the 6-7 cM range. Many of us are Gedmatch users, so know where we triangulate. But we may lose the opportunity to find that one person with the information that puts a bow on our ancestry, but only matches at 7cMs. I don’t want to lose that chance.

    I posted an impassioned plea on Ancestry’s FaceBook page. I’ll get the standard response, but maybe someone will listen.

    • Mike,

      No, they are not interested in you, or your impassioned plea. They are a business, a BIG business.

      They are only interested in the almighty dollar, making a profit, their bottom line.

      Altruism does not figure into their calculations and their business plan.

      It is, what it is.

  20. Thank you for your warning and for your terrific article. As always, so informative! I too often have great success from my 6-8cM matches. Granted not all of them, but my biggest breakthroughs have come from using them. I’ve got an adopted grandfather on one side and an unknown father of my great grandfather on the other side. I have absolutely no 2nd cousins on either side. Ancestry has found only 6 people in the “3rd cousin range” ( I knew 2 of them.) So I NEED my 4th and 5th cousins matches! Many of the “5th” are actually Half 4th cousins (they all married twice on my PEI side). And then the generations are off because our line had all older-mother births compared to the other lines. My 2nd Gr grandparents were born in 1808 and 1814!! (I’m 59y). So people in the 6-12 range are very common for me to be from my 2nd great grandparents as CA couple!
    My usage of 6-9 cm range: I do searches of surnames, or of specific towns (as opposed to cities). Sometimes I’ll combine a surname and a place. I look through each tree in list found and write down all surnames and places, especially the ones at the generations that correspond with my dna amount. I often find big, helpful trees. I message most that interest me and always get a handful of good, informative responses. I sometimes also get a list of shared matches with much higher cm amounts, as you stated, which is really helpful. I also administer 7 other kits of close family members and have access to 3 more. We cousins/ siblings/aunt do not share all the same matches or same amounts. I may share 6 cMs with someone but my sibs May share 24! Or I may share more than my aunt. (I like to gauge the supposed generation by kind of averaging all of the cousins’ cm amounts.) But the VERY useful step is that, for each match one of us has, I will check It against every other sib/cousin to note and compare the cm amounts for each of us individually to that unknown match. I do this by clicking on the match’s name, go to their profile page, choose one of my 10 family members’ kits in the drop-down list (of kits I either administer or have permission to access). I then momentarily am switched over to my family member’s shared match list with same unknown person. I love how you can go back and forth between family members’ match list so quickly. I get a much more complete picture this way. And some great breakthroughs have happened with only one of us matching a particular group of people. This is also why I am going insane since your warning about the 6-8 cMs—-I have all these people’s matches to try to save !!! It feels impossible and I’m sick about it. They have often been my best matches, that offer the glue that fits all the closer ones together. Not everyone’s tree situation is the same and we don’t all use all the tools available— but it should be OUR choice— not theirs! Please! Please! Please, Reconsider!

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