You probably see this all the time on social media:
“I just got my DNA results. Now what?”
No further information is given.
The answer is, “What is your goal?”
Why did they test and what are they hoping to learn?
DNA Tidbit Challenge: Define goals for answering genealogy questions, allowing you to focus your efforts.
Your DNA testing goal depends on a number of factors including:
- What test you took, meaning Y DNA, mitochondrial or autosomal.
- Where you tested and the tools they offer.
- What you’re hoping to achieve. In other words, why did you test in the first place?
For a short article about the difference between Y, mitochondrial, and autosomal DNA, please click here.
For more seasoned genealogists, we may have taken all the tests and answered many questions already, but still, our research needs to be guided by goals.
I regularly check my matches. I still think I may have had a half-sibling that is yet to be located. After I confirm that no, I don’t have any new close matches, I then look at the rest, making notes where appropriate.
Recently, late one night, I thought to myself, “why am I doing this?” Endlessly scrolling through new matches and randomly seeing if I can figure out where they fit or which ancestor we share.
Originally, I had two broad goals.
- I wanted to find Y line males in each line and other males from the same supposed line to confirm that indeed the ancestral line is what the paper trail had identified.
- To confirm that I am indeed descended from the ancestral lines I think I am, meaning no NPEs. As a genealogist, the only thing I’d hate worse than discovering that I’ve been researching the wrong line for all these years is to keep doing so.
Given that I’ve confirmed my connection to ancestors on most lines back several generations now, what are my goals?
Broad and Deep
I’ve realized over the years that goals are both broad and deep.
Broad goals are as I described above, in essence, spanning the entire tree.
My broad goals have changed a bit over time. I’ve located and tested descendants of many Y lines, but I’m still working on a few. I’ve confirmed most of my lineage back several generations by matching the DNA from other children of the same ancestor and using tools like triangulation and DNAPainter to confirm the segment is actually from the ancestral couple I think it is.
I’ve added the goal of breaking down brick walls.
This means that I need to look deep instead of broad.
Deep means that I need to focus on and formulate a plan for each line.
I’ve identified three specific deep goals and put together a plan with action steps to achieve those goals.
- Deep Goal #1 – Collecting and Using Y and Mitochondrial DNA
I like to “collect” the Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA results/haplogroups of my ancestors for different reasons. First, I’ve discovered surprises in where their DNA originated. For both Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, you can identify their continent of origin as well as confirm ancestors or break down brick walls for that one specific line through matches and other tools at Family Tree DNA.
Looking at my tree, my closest ancestor whose Y DNA or mtDNA I don’t have is my great-grandmother, Evaline Miller (1857-1939) who had 4 daughters who all had daughters. You wouldn’t think it would be this difficult to find someone who descends to current through all daughters.
How do I go about achieving this goal? What are some alternatives?
- Track and ask family members, if possible.
- Find descendants using MyHeritage, Ancestry and Geneanet (especially in Europe) trees. Bonus – they may also have photos or information that I don’t, especially since this isn’t a distant ancestor.
Ancestry’s ThruLines shows your matches by ancestor, so long as the connection can be made through trees. Unfortunately, in this case, no one descends correctly for mitochondrial DNA, meaning through all females to the current generation which can be male. BUT, they might have an aunt or uncle who does, so it’s certainly worth making a contact attempt.
- I can also use WikiTree to see if someone has already tested in her line. Unfortunately, no.
However, I don’t know the profile manager so maybe I should click and see how we might be related. You never know and the answer is no if you don’t ask😊
Deep Goal #2 – Confirming a Specific Ancestor
I want to confirm that a specific ancestor is my ancestor, or as close as I can get.
What do I mean by that?
In the first couple of close generations, using autosomal DNA, we can confirm ancestral lines and parentage. We can confirm our parents and our grandparents, but further back in that, we have to use a combination of our tree and other tools to confirm our paper genealogy.
For example, as we move further back in time, we can’t confirm that one particular son was the father as opposed to his brother. In closer generations, autosomal DNA might help, but not beyond the first couple of generations. Second cousins always match autosomally, but beyond that, not so much.
Using Y DNA, if we can find a suitable candidate, I can confirm that my Estes ancestor actually does descend through the Estes line indicated by my paper trail.
I need to find someone in my line either to test or who has already tested, of course.
If they do test and share their match information with me, and others from that same line have tested, I can see their earliest known ancestors on their Y DNA match page.
If someone from that line has already tested and has joined a surname project, you can see their results on the public project page if they have authorized public project display.
This is also one way of determining whether or not your line has already tested, especially if you have no Y DNA matches to the expected surname and ancestor. If others have tested from that ancestor, and you don’t match them, there’s a mystery to be unraveled.
To see if projects exist for your surnames, you can click here and scroll down to the search box, below.
Please note that if someone else in your family takes the Y DNA test, that doesn’t guarantee that you descend from that ancestor too unless that person is a reasonably close relative and you match them autosomally in the expected way.
Confirmation of a specific ancestor requires two things without Y DNA testing:
- Sharing autosomal matches, and preferably triangulated segments, with others who descend from that ancestor (or ancestral couple) through another child.
- Eliminating other common ancestors.
My favorite tool for ancestor confirmation is DNAPainter where you can paint your segments from FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage and GEDmatch, either individually or in bulk. You can’t use Ancestry DNA information for this purpose, but you can transfer your Ancestry DNA file to those other vendors (except 23andMe) for free, and search for matches without retesting. (Step-by-step transfer instructions are found here.)
Here’s an example of a group of my matches from various companies painted on one of my chromosomes at DNAPainter. You can read all about how to use DNAPainter, here.
I identify every match that I can and paint those segments to that ancestor. Ancestors are identified by color that I’ve assigned.
In this case, I have identified several people who descend from ancestors through my paternal grandmother’s side going back four generations. We have a total of 12 descendants of the couple Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann (burgundy), even though initially I can only identify some people back to either my grandparents (mustard color) or my grandmother’s parents (grey) or her grandparents (blue). The fact that several people descend from Henry and Nancy, through multiple children, confirms this segment back to that couple. Of course, we don’t know which person of that couple until we find people matching from upstream ancestors.
What about that purple person? I don’t know how they match to me – meaning through which ancestor based on genealogy. However, I know for sure at least part of that matching segment, the burgundy portion, is through Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, or their ancestors.
Deep Goal #3 – Breaking Down a Brick Wall
Of course, the nature of your brick wall may vary, but I’ll use the example of not being able to find the parents of an ancestral couple.
In the above example, I mentioned that each segment goes back to a couple. Clearly, in the next generation, that segment either comes from either the father or mother, or parts from both perhaps. In this case, that oldest burgundy segment originated with either Henry Bolton or Nancy Mann.
In other words, in the next generation upstream, that segment can be assigned to another couple.
Even if we don’t know who that couple is, it’s still their DNA and other people may have inherited that very same segment.
What we need to know is if the people who share that segment with us and each other also have people in their trees in common with each other that we don’t have in our trees.
Does that make sense? I’m looking for commonality between other testers in their trees that might allow me to connect back another generation.
That common couple in their trees may be the key to unlocking the next generation.
Caveat – please note that people they have in common that we don’t may also be wives of their ancestors downstream of our common ancestor. Just keep that in mind.
Let’s shift away from that Bolton example and look at another way to identify clusters of people and common ancestors.
In order to identify clusters of people who match me and each other, I utilize Genetic Affairs autocluster, or the AutoCluster features incorporated into MyHeritage or the Tier 1 “Clusters” option at GEDmatch.
Based on the ancestors of people in this red cluster that I CAN identify, I know it’s a Crumley cluster. The wife of my William Crumley (1767/8 – 1837/40) has never been identified. I looked at the trees of the people in this cluster that I don’t know and can’t identify a common ancestor, and I discovered at least two people have a Babb family in their tree.
Babb was a near neighbor to William Crumley’s family, but I’ve also noticed that Babb married into this line downstream another 3 generations in Iowa. These families migrated from Frederick County, VA to Greene County, TN and on, together – so I’ll need to be very careful. However, I can’t help but wonder if my William’s wife was a Babb.
I need to see if any of my other matches have Babb as a common name. Now, I can search for Babb at any of the testing vendors to see what, if anything, I can discover.
Genetic Affairs has a combined AutoCluster and AutoTree/AutoPedigree function that compares and combines the trees of cluster members for you, here.
Now, it’s your turn.
- What are your genealogy goals that DNA can assist with?
- Are those goals broad or deep?
- What kind of DNA test can answer or help answer those questions?
- What tools and research techniques fit the quandary at hand?
I suggest that you look at each ancestor, and in particular each end-of-line ancestor thinking about where you can focus to obtain answers and reveal new ancestors.
Happy ancestor hunting!
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DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- FamilyTreeDNA – Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing
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- 23andMe Ancestry – autosomal DNA only, no Health
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
Genealogy Products and Services
- MyHeritage FREE Tree Builder – genealogy software for your computer
- MyHeritage Subscription with Free Trial
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars – genealogy and DNA classes, subscription-based, some free
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- Legacy Tree Genealogists – professional genealogy research
- Genealogical.com – lots of wonderful genealogy research books