Genetic Genealogy at 20 Years: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going and What’s Important?

Not only have we put 2020 in the rear-view mirror, thankfully, we’re at the 20-year, two-decade milestone. The point at which genetics was first added to the toolbox of genealogists.

It seems both like yesterday and forever ago. And yes, I’ve been here the whole time,  as a spectator, researcher, and active participant.

Let’s put this in perspective. On New Year’s Eve, right at midnight, in 2005, I was able to score kit number 50,000 at Family Tree DNA. I remember this because it seemed like such a bizarre thing to be doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve. But hey, we genealogists are what we are.

I knew that momentous kit number which seemed just HUGE at the time was on the threshold of being sold, because I had inadvertently purchased kit 49,997 a few minutes earlier.

Somehow kit 50,000 seemed like such a huge milestone, a landmark – so I quickly bought kits, 49,998, 49,999, and then…would I get it…YES…kit 50,000. Score!

That meant that in the 5 years FamilyTreeDNA had been in business, they had sold on an average of 10,000 kits per year, or 27 kits a day. Today, that’s a rounding error. Then it was momentous!

In reality, the sales were ramping up quickly, because very few kits were sold in 2000, and roughly 20,000 kits had been sold in 2005 alone. I know this because I purchased kit 28,429 during the holiday sale a year earlier.

Of course, I had no idea who I’d test with that momentous New Year’s Eve Y DNA kit, but I assuredly would find someone. A few months later, I embarked on a road trip to visit an elderly family member with that kit in tow. Thank goodness I did, and they agreed and swabbed on the spot, because they are gone today and with them, the story of the Y line and autosomal DNA of their branch.

In the past two decades, almost an entire generation has slipped away, and with them, an entire genealogical library held in their DNA.

Today, more than 40 million people have tested with the four major DNA testing companies, although we don’t know exactly how many.

Lots of people have had more time to focus on genealogy in 2020, so let’s take a look at what’s important? What’s going on and what matters beyond this month or year?

How has this industry changed in the last two decades, and where it is going?

Reflection

This seems like a good point to reflect a bit.

Professor Dan Bradley reflecting on early genetic research techniques in his lab at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College in Dublin. Photo by Roberta Estes

In the beginning – twenty years ago, there were two companies who stuck their toes in the consumer DNA testing water – Oxford Ancestors and Family Tree DNA. About the same time, Sorenson Genomics and GeneTree were also entering that space, although Sorenson was a nonprofit. Today, of those, only FamilyTreeDNA remains, having adapted with the changing times – adding more products, testing, and sophistication.

Bryan Sykes who founded Oxford Ancestors announced in 2018 that he was retiring to live abroad and subsequently passed away in 2020. The website still exists, but the company has announced that they have ceased sales and the database will remain open until Sept 30, 2021.

James Sorenson died in 2008 and the assets of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, including the Sorenson database, were sold to Ancestry in 2012. Eventually, Ancestry removed the public database in 2015.

Ancestry dabbled in Y and mtDNA for a while, too, destroying that database in 2014.

Other companies, too many to remember or mention, have come and gone as well. Some of the various company names have been recycled or purchased, but aren’t the same companies today.

In the DNA space, it was keep up, change, die or be sold. Of course, there was the small matter of being able to sell enough DNA kits to make enough money to stay in business at all. DNA processing equipment and a lab are expensive. Not just the equipment, but also the expertise.

The Next Wave

As time moved forward, new players entered the landscape, comprising the “Big 4” testing companies that constitute the ponds where genealogists fish today.

23andMe was the first to introduce autosomal DNA testing and matching. Their goal and focus was always medical genetics, but they recognized the potential in genealogists before anyone else, and we flocked to purchase tests.

Ancestry settled on autosomal only and relies on the size of their database, a large body of genealogy subscribers, and a widespread “feel-good” marketing campaign to sell DNA kits as the gateway to “discover who you are.”

FamilyTreeDNA did and still does offer all 3 kinds of tests. Over the years, they have enhanced both the Y DNA and mitochondrial product offerings significantly and are still known as “the science company.” They are the only company to offer the full range of Y DNA tests, including their flagship Big Y-700, full sequence mitochondrial testing along with matching for both products. Their autosomal product is called Family Finder.

MyHeritage entered the DNA testing space a few years after the others as the dark horse that few expected to be successful – but they fooled everyone. They have acquired companies and partnered along the way which allowed them to add customers (Promethease) and tools (such as AutoCluster by Genetic Affairs), boosting their number of users. Of course, MyHeritage also offers users a records research subscription service that you can try for free.

In summary:

One of the wonderful things that happened was that some vendors began to accept compatible raw DNA autosomal data transfer files from other vendors. Today, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, and GEDmatch DO accept transfer files, while Ancestry and 23andMe do not.

The transfers and matching are free, but there are either minimal unlock or subscription plans for advanced features.

There are other testing companies, some with niche markets and others not so reputable. For this article, I’m focusing on the primary DNA testing companies that are useful for genealogy and mainstream companion third-party tools that complement and enhance those services.

The Single Biggest Change

As I look back, the single biggest change is that genetic genealogy evolved from the pariah of genealogy where DNA discussion was banned from the (now defunct) Rootsweb lists and summarily deleted for the first few years after introduction. I know, that’s hard to believe today.

Why, you ask?

Reasons varied from “just because” to “DNA is cheating” and then morphed into “because DNA might do terrible things like, maybe, suggest that a person really wasn’t related to an ancestor in a lineage society.”

Bottom line – fear and misunderstanding. Change is exceedingly difficult for humans, and DNA definitely moved the genealogy cheese.

From that awkward beginning, genetic genealogy organically became a “thing,” a specific application of genealogy. There was paper-trail traditional genealogy and then the genetic aspect. Today, for almost everyone, genealogy is “just another tool” in the genealogist’s toolbox, although it does require focused learning, just like any other tool.

DNA isn’t separate anymore, but is now an integral part of the genealogical whole. Having said that, DNA can’t solve all problems or answer all questions, but neither can traditional paper-trail genealogy. Together, each makes the other stronger and solves mysteries that neither can resolve alone.

Synergy.

I fully believe that we have still only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Inheritance

As we talk about the various types of DNA testing and tools, here’s a quick graphic to remind you of how the different types of DNA are inherited.

  • Y DNA is inherited paternally for males only and informs us of the direct patrilineal (surname) line.
  • Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by everyone from their mothers and informs us of the mother’s matrilineal (mother’s mother’s mother’s) line.
  • Autosomal DNA can be inherited from potentially any ancestor in random but somewhat predictable amounts through both parents. The further back in time, the less identifiable DNA you’ll inherit from any specific ancestor. I wrote about that, here.

What’s Hot and What’s Not

Where should we be focused today and where is this industry going? What tools and articles popped up in 2020 to help further our genealogy addiction? I already published the most popular articles of 2020, here.

This industry started two decades ago with testing a few Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA markers, and we were utterly thrilled at the time. Both tests have advanced significantly and the prices have dropped like a stone. My first mitochondrial DNA test that tested only 400 locations cost more than $800 – back then.

Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA are still critically important to genetic genealogy. Both play unique roles and provide information that cannot be obtained through autosomal DNA testing. Today, relative to Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, the biggest challenge, ironically, is educating newer genealogists about their potential who have never heard about anything other than autosomal, often ethnicity, testing.

We have to educate in order to overcome the cacophony of “don’t bother because you don’t get as many matches.”

That’s like saying “don’t use the right size wrench because the last one didn’t fit and it’s a bother to reach into the toolbox.” Not to mention that if everyone tested, there would be a lot more matches, but I digress.

If you don’t use the right tool, and all of the tools at your disposal, you’re not going to get the best result possible.

The genealogical proof standard, the gold standard for genealogy research, calls for “a reasonably exhaustive search,” and if you haven’t at least considered if or how Y
DNA
and mitochondrial DNA along with autosomal testing can or might help, then your search is not yet exhaustive.

I attempt to obtain the Y and mitochondrial DNA of every ancestral line. In the article, Search Techniques for Y and Mitochondrial DNA Test Candidates, I described several methodologies to find appropriate testing candidates.

Y DNA – 20 Years and Still Critically Important

Y DNA tracks the Y chromosome for males via the patrilineal (surname) line, providing matching and historical migration information.

We started 20 years ago testing 10 STR markers. Today, we begin at 37 markers, can upgrade to 67 or 111, but the preferred test is the Big Y which provides results for 700+ STR markers plus results from the entire gold standard region of the Y chromosome in order to provide the most refined results. This allows genealogists to use STR markers and SNP results together for various aspects of genealogy.

I created a Y DNA resource page, here, in order to provide a repository for Y DNA information and updates in one place. I would encourage anyone who can to order or upgrade to the Big Y-700 test which provides critical lineage information in addition to and beyond traditional STR testing. Additionally, the Big Y-700 test helps build the Y DNA haplotree which is growing by leaps and bounds.

More new SNPs are found and named EVERY SINGLE DAY today at FamilyTreeDNA than were named in the first several years combined. The 2006 SNP tree listed a grand total of 459 SNPs that defined the Y DNA tree at that time, according to the ISOGG Y DNA SNP tree. Goran Rundfeldt, head of R&D at FamilyTreeDNA posted this today:

2020 was an awful year in so many ways, but it was an unprecedented year for human paternal phylogenetic tree reconstruction. The FTDNA Haplotree or Great Tree of Mankind now includes:

37,534 branches with 12,696 added since 2019 – 51% growth!
defined by
349,097 SNPs with 131,820 added since 2019 – 61% growth!

In just one year, 207,536 SNPs were discovered and assigned FT SNP names. These SNPs will help define new branches and refine existing ones in the future.

The tree is constructed based on high coverage chromosome Y sequences from:
– More than 52,500 Big Y results
– Almost 4,000 NGS results from present-day anonymous men that participated in academic studies

Plus an additional 3,000 ancient DNA results from archaeological remains, of mixed quality and Y chromosome coverage at FamilyTreeDNA.

Wow, just wow.

These three new articles in 2020 will get you started on your Y DNA journey!

Mitochondrial DNA – Matrilineal Line of Humankind is Being Rewritten

The original Oxford Ancestor’s mitochondrial DNA test tested 400 locations. The original Family Tree DNA test tested around 1000 locations. Today, the full sequence mitochondrial DNA test is standard, testing the entire 16,569 locations of the mitochondria.

Mitochondrial DNA tracks your mother’s direct maternal, or matrilineal line. I’ve created a mitochondrial DNA resource page, here that includes easy step-by-step instructions for after you receive your results.

New articles in 2020 included the introduction of The Million Mito Project. 2021 should see the first results – including a paper currently in the works.

The Million Mito Project is rewriting the haplotree of womankind. The current haplotree has expanded substantially since the first handful of haplogroups thanks to thousands upon thousands of testers, but there is so much more information that can be extracted today.

Y and Mitochondrial Resources

If you don’t know of someone in your family to test for Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA for a specific ancestral line, you can always turn to the Y DNA projects at Family Tree DNA by searching here.

The search provides you with a list of projects available for a specific surname along with how many customers with that surname have tested. Looking at the individual Y DNA projects will show the earliest known ancestor of the surname line.

Another resource, WikiTree lists people who have tested for the Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA lines of specific ancestors.

Click on images to enlarge

On the left side, my maternal great-grandmother’s profile card, and on the right, my paternal great-great-grandfather. You can see that someone has tested for the mitochondrial DNA of Nora (OK, so it’s me) and the Y DNA of John Estes (definitely not me.)

MitoYDNA, a nonprofit volunteer organization created a comparison tool to replace Ysearch and Mitosearch when they bit the dust thanks to GDPR.

MitoYDNA accepts uploads from different sources and allows uploaders to not only match to each other, but to view the STR values for Y DNA and the mutation locations for the HVR1 and HVR2 regions of mitochondrial DNA. Mags Gaulden, one of the founders, explains in her article, What sets mitoYDNA apart from other DNA Databases?.

If you’ve tested at nonstandard companies, not realizing that they didn’t provide matching, or if you’ve tested at a company like Sorenson, Ancestry, and now Oxford Ancestors that is going out of business, uploading your results to mitoYDNA is a way to preserve your investment. PS – I still recommend testing at FamilyTreeDNA in order to receive detailed results and compare in their large database.

CentiMorgans – The Word of Two Decades

The world of autosomal DNA turns on the centimorgan (cM) measure. What is a centimorgan, exactly? I wrote about that unit of measure in the article Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’ Crab.

Fortunately, new tools and techniques make using cMs much easier. The Shared cM Project was updated this year, and the results incorporated into a wonderfully easy tool used to determine potential relationships at DNAPainter based on the number of shared centiMorgans.

Match quality and potential relationships are determined by the number of shared cMs, and the chromosome browser is the best tool to use for those comparisons.

Chromosome Browser – Genetics Tool to View Chromosome Matches

Chromosome browsers allow testers to view their matching cMs of DNA with other testers positioned on their own chromosomes.

My two cousins’ DNA where they match me on chromosomes 1-4, is shown above in blue and red at Family Tree DNA. It’s important to know where you match cousins, because if you match multiple cousins on the same segment, from the same side of your family (maternal or paternal), that’s suggestive of a common ancestor, with a few caveats.

Some people feel that a chromosome browser is an advanced tool, but I think it’s simply standard fare – kind of like driving a car. You need to learn how to drive initially, but after that, you don’t even think about it – you just get in and go. Here’s help learning how to drive that chromosome browser.

Triangulation – Science Plus Group DNA Matching Confirms Genealogy

The next logical step after learning to use a chromosome browser is triangulation. If fact, you’re seeing triangulation above, but don’t even realize it.

The purpose of genetic genealogy is to gather evidence to “prove” ancestral connections to either people or specific ancestors. In autosomal DNA, triangulation occurs when:

  • You match at least two other people (not close relatives)
  • On the same reasonably sized segment of DNA (generally 7 cM or greater)
  • And you can assign that segment to a common ancestor

The same two cousins are shown above, with triangulated segments bracketed at MyHeritage. I’ve identified the common ancestor with those cousins that those matching DNA segments descend from.

MyHeritage’s triangulation tool confirms by bracketing that these cousins also match each other on the same segment, which is the definition of triangulation.

I’ve written a lot about triangulation recently.

If you’d prefer a video, I recorded a “Top Tips” Facebook LIVE with MyHeritage.

Why is Ancestry missing from this list of triangulation articles? Ancestry does not offer a chromosome browser or segment information. Therefore, you can’t triangulate at Ancestry. You can, however, transfer your Ancestry DNA raw data file to either FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, or GEDmatch, all three of which offer triangulation.

Step by step download/upload transfer instructions are found in this article:

Clustering Matches and Correlating Trees

Based on what we’ve seen over the past few years, we can no longer depend on the major vendors to provide all of the tools that genealogists want and need.

Of course, I would encourage you to stay with mainstream products being used by a significant number of community power users. As with anything, there is always someone out there that’s less than honorable.

2020 saw a lot of innovation and new tools introduced. Maybe that’s one good thing resulting from people being cooped up at home.

Third-party tools are making a huge difference in the world of genetic genealogy. My favorites are Genetic Affairs, their AutoCluster tool shown above, DNAPainter and DNAGedcom.

These articles should get you started with clustering.

If you like video resources, here’s a MyHeritage Facebook LIVE that I recorded about how to use AutoClusters:

I created a compiled resource article for your convenience, here:

I have not tried a newer tool, YourDNAFamily, that focuses only on 23andMe results although the creator has been a member of the genetic genealogy community for a long time.

Painting DNA Makes Chromosome Browsers and Triangulation Easy

DNAPainter takes the next step, providing a repository for all of your painted segments. In other words, DNAPainter is both a solution and a methodology for mass triangulation across all of your chromosomes.

Here’s a small group of people who match me on the same maternal segment of chromosome 1, including those two cousins in the chromosome browser and triangulation sections, above. We know that this segment descends from Philip Jacob Miller and his wife because we’ve been able to identify that couple as the most distant ancestor intersection in all of our trees.

It’s very helpful that DNAPainter has added the functionality of painting all of the maternal and paternal bucketed matches from Family Tree DNA.

All you need to do is to link your known matches to your tree in the proper place at FamilyTreeDNA, then they do the rest by using those DNA matches to indicate which of the rest of your matches are maternal and paternal. Instructions, here. You can then export the file and use it at DNAPainter to paint all of those matches on the correct maternal or paternal chromosomes.

Here’s an article providing all of the DNAPainter Instructions and Resources.

DNA Matches Plus Trees Enhance Genealogy

Of course, utilizing DNA matching plus finding common ancestors in trees is one of the primary purposes of genetic genealogy – right?

Vendors have linked the steps of matching DNA with matching ancestors in trees.

Genetic Affairs take this a step further. If you don’t have an ancestor in your tree, but your matches have common ancestors with each other, Genetic Affairs assembles those trees to provide you with those hints. Of course, that common ancestor might not be relevant to your genealogy, but it just might be too!

click to enlarge

This tree does not include me, but two of my matches descend from a common ancestor and that common ancestor between them might be a clue as to why I match both of them.

Ethnicity Continues to be Popular – But Is No Shortcut to Genealogy

Ethnicity is always popular. People want to “do their DNA” and find out where they come from. I understand. I really do. Who doesn’t just want an answer?

Of course, it’s not that simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to people who test for that purpose with high expectations. Hopefully, ethnicity will pique their curiosity and encourage engagement.

All four major vendors rolled out updated ethnicity results or related tools in 2020.

The future for ethnicity, I believe, will be held in integrated tools that allow us to use ethnicity results for genealogy, including being able to paint our ethnicity on our chromosomes as well as perform segment matching by ethnicity.

For example, if I carry an African segment on chromosome 1 from my father, and I match one person from my mother’s side and one from my father’s side on that same segment – one or the other of those people should also have that segment identified as African. That information would inform me as to which match is paternal and which is maternal

Not only that, this feature would help immensely tracking ancestors back in time and identifying their origins.

Will we ever get there? I don’t know. I’m not sure ethnicity is or can be accurate enough. We’ll see.

Transition to Digital and Online

Sometimes the future drags us kicking and screaming from the present.

With the imposed isolation of 2020, conferences quickly moved to an online presence. The genealogy community has all pulled together to make this work. The joke is that 2020’s most used phrase is “can you hear me?” I can vouch for that.

Of course while the year 2020 is over, the problem isn’t and is extending at least through the first half of 2021 and possibly longer. Conferences are planned months, up to a year, in advance and they can’t turn on a dime, so don’t even begin to expect in-person conferences until either late in 2021 or more likely, 2022 if all goes well this year.

I expect the future will eventually return to in-person conferences, but not entirely.

Finding ways to be more inclusive allows people who don’t want to or can’t travel or join in-person to participate.

I’ve recorded several sessions this year, mostly for 2021. Trust me, these could be a comedy, mostly of errors😊

I participated in four MyHeritage Facebook LIVE sessions in 2020 along with some other amazing speakers. This is what “live” events look like today!

Screenshot courtesy MyHeritage

A few days ago, I asked MyHeritage for a list of their LIVE sessions in 2020 and was shocked to learn that there were more than 90 in English, all free, and you can watch them anytime. Here’s the MyHeritage list.

By the way, every single one of the speakers is a volunteer, so say a big thank you to the speakers who make this possible, and to MyHeritage for the resources to make this free for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to coordinate anything like this, it’s anything but easy.

Additonally, I’ve created two Webinars this year for Legacy Family Tree Webinars.

Geoff Rasmussen put together the list of their top webinars for 2020, and I was pleased to see that I made the top 10! I’m sure there are MANY MORE you’d be interested in watching. Personally, I’m going to watch #6 yet today! Also, #9 and #22. You can always watch new webinars for free for a few days, and you can subscribe to watch all webinars, here.

The 2021 list of webinar speakers has been announced here, and while I’m not allowed to talk about something really fun that’s upcoming, let’s just say you definitely have something to look forward to in the springtime!

Also, don’t forget to register for RootsTech Connect which is entirely online and completely free, February 25-27, here.

Thank you to Penny Walters for creating this lovely graphic.

There are literally hundreds of speakers providing sessions in many languages for viewers around the world. I’ve heard the stats, but we can’t share them yet. Let me just say that you will be SHOCKED at the magnitude and reach of this conference. I’m talking dumbstruck!

During one of our zoom calls, one of the organizers says it feels like we’re constructing the plane as we’re flying, and I can confirm his observation – but we are getting it done – together! All hands on deck.

I’ll be presenting an advanced session about triangulation as well as a mini-session in the FamilySearch DNA Resource Center about finding your mother’s ancestors. I’ll share more information as it’s released and I can.

Companies and Owners Come & Go

You probably didn’t even notice some of these 2020 changes. Aside from the death of Bryan Sykes (RIP Bryan,) the big news and the even bigger unknown is the acquisition of Ancestry by Blackstone. Recently the CEO, Margo Georgiadis announced that she was stepping down. The Ancestry Board of Directors has announced an external search for a new CEO. All I can say is that very high on the priority list should be someone who IS a genealogist and who understands how DNA applies to genealogy.

Other changes included:

In the future, as genealogy and DNA testing becomes ever more popular and even more of a commodity, company sales and acquisitions will become more commonplace.

Some Companies Reduced Services and Cut Staff

I understand this too, but it’s painful. The layoffs occurred before Covid, so they didn’t result from Covid-related sales reductions. Let’s hope we see renewed investment after the Covid mess is over.

In a move that may or may not be related to an attempt to cut costs, Ancestry removed 6 and 7 cM matches from their users, freeing up processing resources, hardware, and storage requirements and thereby reducing costs.

I’m not going to beat this dead horse, because Ancestry is clearly not going to move on this issue, nor on that of the much-requested chromosome browser.

Later in the year, 23andMe also removed matches and other features, although, to their credit, they have restored at least part of this functionality and have provided ethnicity updates to V3 and V4 kits which wasn’t initially planned.

It’s also worth noting that early in 2020, 23andMe laid off 100 people as sales declined. Since that time, 23andMe has increasingly pushed consumers to pay to retest on their V5 chip.

About the same time, Ancestry also cut their workforce by about 6%, or about 100 people, also citing a slowdown in the consumer testing market. Ancestry also added a health product.

I’m not sure if we’ve reached market saturation or are simply seeing a leveling off. I wrote about that in DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons.

Of course, the pandemic economy where many people are either unemployed or insecure about their future isn’t helping.

The various companies need some product diversity to survive downturns. 23andMe is focused on medical research with partners who pay 23andMe for the DNA data of customers who opt-in, as does Ancestry.

Both Ancestry and MyHeritage provide subscription services for genealogy records.

FamilyTreeDNA is part of a larger company, GenebyGene whose genetics labs do processing for other companies and medical facilities.

A huge thank you to both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA for NOT reducing services to customers in 2020.

Scientific Research Still Critical & Pushes Frontiers

Now that DNA testing has become a commodity, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that DNA testing is still a scientific endeavor that requires research to continue to move forward.

I’m still passionate about research after 20 years – maybe even more so now because there’s so much promise.

Research bleeds over into the consumer marketplace where products are improved and new features created allowing us to better track and understand our ancestors through their DNA that we and our family members inherit.

Here are a few of the research articles I published in 2020. You might notice a theme here – ancient DNA. What we can learn now due to new processing techniques is absolutely amazing. Labs can share files and information, providing the ability to “reprocess” the data, not the DNA itself, as more information and expertise becomes available.

Of course, in addition to this research, the Million Mito Project team is hard at work rewriting the tree of womankind.

If you’d like to participate, all you need to do is to either purchase a full sequence mitochondrial DNA kit at FamilyTreeDNA, or upgrade to the full sequence if you tested at a lower level previously.

Predictions

Predictions are risky business, but let me give it a shot.

Looking back a year, Covid wasn’t on the radar.

Looking back 5 years, neither Genetic Affairs nor DNAPainter were yet on the scene. DNAAdoption had just been formed in 2014 and DNAGedcom which was born out of DNAAdoption didn’t yet exist.

In other words, the most popular tools today didn’t exist yet.

GEDmatch, founded in 2010 by genealogists for genealogists was 5 years old, but was sold in December 2019 to Verogen.

We were begging Ancestry for a chromosome browser, and while we’ve pretty much given up beating them, because the horse is dead and they can sell DNA kits through ads focused elsewhere, that doesn’t mean genealogists still don’t need/want chromosome and segment based tools. Why, you’d think that Ancestry really doesn’t want us to break through those brick walls. That would be very bizarre, because every brick wall that falls reveals two more ancestors that need to be researched and spurs a frantic flurry of midnight searching. If you’re laughing right now, you know exactly what I mean!

Of course, if Ancestry provided a chromosome browser, it would cost development money for no additional revenue and their customer service reps would have to be able to support it. So from Ancestry’s perspective, there’s no good reason to provide us with that tool when they can sell kits without it. (Sigh.)

I’m not surprised by the management shift at Ancestry, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see several big players go public in the next decade, if not the next five years.

As companies increase in value, the number of private individuals who could afford to purchase the company decreases quickly, leaving private corporations as the only potential buyers, or becoming publicly held. Sometimes, that’s a good thing because investment dollars are infused into new product development.

What we desperately need, and I predict will happen one way or another is a marriage of individual tools and functions that exist separately today, with a dash of innovation. We need tools that will move beyond confirming existing ancestors – and will be able to identify ancestors through our DNA – out beyond each and every brick wall.

If a tester’s DNA matches to multiple people in a group descended from a particular previously unknown couple, and the timing and geography fits as well, that provides genealogical researchers with the hint they need to begin excavating the traditional records, looking for a connection.

In fact, this is exactly what happened with mitochondrial DNA – twice now. A match and a great deal of digging by one extremely persistent cousin resulting in identifying potential parents for a brick-wall ancestor. Autosomal DNA then confirmed that my DNA matched with 59 other individuals who descend from that couple through multiple children.

BUT, we couldn’t confirm those ancestors using autosomal DNA UNTIL WE HAD THE NAMES of the couple. DNA has the potential to reveal those names!

I wrote about that in Mitochondrial DNA Bulldozes Brick Wall and will be discussing it further in my RootsTech presentation.

The Challenge

We have most of the individual technology pieces today to get this done. Of course, the combined technological solution would require significant computing resources and processing power – just at the same time that vendors are desperately trying to pare costs to a minimum.

Some vendors simply aren’t interested, as I’ve already noted.

However, the winner, other than us genealogists, of course, will be the vendor who can either devise solutions or partner with others to create the right mix of tools that will combine matching, triangulation, and trees of your matches to each other, even if you don’t’ share a common ancestor.

We need to follow the DNA past the current end of the branch of our tree.

Each triangulated segment has an individual history that will lead not just to known ancestors, but to their unknown ancestors as well. We have reached critical mass in terms of how many people have tested – and more success would encourage more and more people to test.

There is a genetic path over every single brick wall in our genealogy.

Yes, I know that’s a bold statement. It’s not future Jetson’s flying-cars stuff. It’s doable – but it’s a matter of commitment, investment money, and finding a way to recoup that investment.

I don’t think it’s possible for the one-time purchase of a $39-$99 DNA test, especially when it’s not a loss-leader for something else like a records or data subscription (MyHeritage and Ancestry) or a medical research partnership (Ancestry and 23andMe.)

We’re performing these analysis processes manually and piecemeal today. It’s extremely inefficient and labor-intensive – which is why it often fails. People give up. And the process is painful, even when it does succeed.

This process has also been made increasingly difficult when some vendors block tools that help genealogists by downloading match and ancestral tree information. Before Ancestry closed access, I was creating theories based on common ancestors in my matches trees that weren’t in mine – then testing those theories both genetically (clusters, AutoTrees and ThruLines) and also by digging into traditional records to search for the genetic connection.

For example, I’m desperate to identify the parents of my James Lee Clarkson/Claxton, so I sorted my spreadsheet by surname and began evaluating everyone who had a Clarkson/Claxton in their tree in the 1700s in Virginia or North Carolina. But I can’t do that anymore now, either with a third-party tool or directly at Ancestry. Twenty million DNA kits sold for a minimum of $79 equals more than 1.5 billion dollars. Obviously, the issue here is not a lack of funds.

Including Y and mitochondrial DNA resources in our genetic toolbox not only confirms accuracy but also provides additional hints and clues.

Sometimes we start with Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA, and wind up using autosomal and sometimes the reverse. These are not competing products. It’s not either/or – it’s *and*.

Personally, I don’t expect the vendors to provide this game-changing complex functionality for free. I would be glad to pay for a subscription for top-of-the-line innovation and tools. In what other industry do consumers expect to pay for an item once and receive constant life-long innovations and upgrades? That doesn’t happen with software, phones nor with automobiles. I want vendors to be profitable so that they can invest in new tools that leverage the power of computing for genealogists to solve currently unsolvable problems.

Every single end-of-line ancestor in your tree represents a brick wall you need to overcome.

If you compare the cost of books, library visits, courthouse trips, and other research endeavors that often produce exactly nothing, these types of genetic tools would be both a godsend and an incredible value.

That’s it.

That’s the challenge, a gauntlet of sorts.

Who’s going to pick it up?

I can’t answer that question, but I can say that 23andMe can’t do this without supporting extensive trees, and Ancestry has shown absolutely no inclination to support segment data. You can’t achieve this goal without segment information or without trees.

Among the current players, that leaves two DNA testing companies and a few top-notch third parties as candidates – although – as the past has proven, the future is uncertain, fluid, and everchanging.

It will be interesting to see what I’m writing at the end of 2025, or maybe even at the end of 2021.

Stay tuned.

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Books

Y DNA Resources and Repository

I’ve created a Y DNA resource page with the information in this article, here, as a permanent location where you can find Y DNA information in one place – including:

  • Step-by-step guides about how to utilize Y DNA for your genealogy
  • Educational articles and links to the latest webinars
  • Articles about the science behind Y DNA
  • Ancient DNA
  • Success stories

Please feel free to share this resource or any of the links to individual articles with friends, genealogy groups, or on social media.

If you haven’t already taken a Y DNA test, and you’re a male (only males have a Y chromosome,) you can order one here. If you also purchase the Family Finder, autosomal test, those results can be used to search together.

What is Y DNA?

Y DNA is passed directly from fathers to their sons, as illustrated by the blue arrow, above. Daughters do not inherit the Y chromosome. The Y chromosome is what makes males, male.

Every son receives a Y chromosome from his father, who received it from his father, and so forth, on up the direct patrilineal line.

Comparatively, mitochondrial DNA, the pink arrow, is received by both sexes of children from the mother through the direct matrilineal line.

Autosomal DNA, the green arrow, is a combination of randomly inherited DNA from many ancestors that is inherited by both sexes of children from both parents. This article explains a bit more.

Y DNA has Unique Properties

The Y chromosome is never admixed with DNA from the mother, so the Y chromosome that the son receives is identical to the father’s Y chromosome except for occasional minor mutations that take place every few generations.

This lack of mixture with the mother’s DNA plus the occasional mutation is what makes the Y chromosome similar enough to match against other men from the same ancestors for hundreds or thousands of years back in time, and different enough to be useful for genealogy. The mutations can be tracked within extended families.

In western cultures, the Y chromosome path of inheritance is usually the same as the surname, which means that the Y chromosome is uniquely positioned to identify the direct biological patrilineal lineage of males.

Two different types of Y DNA tests can be ordered that work together to refine Y DNA results and connect testers to other men with common ancestors.

FamilyTreeDNA provides STR tests with their 37, 67 and 111 marker test panels, and comprehensive STR plus SNP testing with their Big Y-700 test.

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STR markers are used for genealogy matching, while SNP markers work with STR markers to refine genealogy further, plus provide a detailed haplogroup.

Think of a haplogroup as a genetic clan that tells you which genetic family group you belong to – both today and historically, before the advent of surnames.

This article, What is a Haplogroup? explains the basic concept of how haplogroups are determined.

In addition to the Y DNA test itself, Family Tree DNA provides matching to other testers in their database plus a group of comprehensive tools, shown on the dashboard above, to help testers utilize their results to their fullest potential.

You can order or upgrade a Y DNA test, here. If you also purchase the Family Finder, autosomal test, those results can be used to search together.

Step-by-Step – Using Your Y DNA Results

Let’s take a look at all of the features, functions, and tools that are available on your FamilyTreeDNA personal page.

What do those words mean? Here you go!

Come along while I step through evaluating Big Y test results.

Big Y Testing and Results

Why would you want to take a Big Y test and how can it help you?

While the Big Y-500 has been superseded by the Big Y-700 test today, you will still be interested in some of the underlying technology. STR matching still works the same way.

The Big Y-500 provided more than 500 STR markers and the Big Y-700 provides more than 700 – both significantly more than the 111 panel. The only way to receive these additional markers is by purchasing the Big Y test.

I have to tell you – I was skeptical when the Big Y-700 was introduced as the next step above the Big Y-500. I almost didn’t upgrade any kits – but I’m so very glad that I did. I’m not skeptical anymore.

This Y DNA tree rocks. A new visual format with your matches listed on their branches. Take a look!

Educational Articles

I’ve been writing about DNA for years and have selected several articles that you may find useful.

What kinds of information are available if you take a Y DNA test, and how can you use it for genealogy?

What if your father isn’t available to take a DNA test? How can you determine who else to test that will reveal your father’s Y DNA information?

Family Tree DNA shows the difference in the number of mutations between two men as “genetic distance.” Learn what that means and how it’s figured in this article.

Of course, there were changes right after I published the original Genetic Distance article. The only guarantees in life are death, taxes, and that something will change immediately after you publish.

Sometimes when we take DNA tests, or others do, we discover the unexpected. That’s always a possibility. Here’s the story of my brother who wasn’t my biological brother. If you’d like to read more about Dave’s story, type “Dear Dave” into the search box on my blog. Read the articles in publication order, and not without a box of Kleenex.

Often, what surprise matches mean is that you need to dig further.

The words paternal and patrilineal aren’t the same thing. Paternal refers to the paternal half of your family, where patrilineal is the direct father to father line.

Just because you don’t have any surname matches doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because of what you’re thinking.

Short tandem repeats (STRs) and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) aren’t the same thing and are used differently in genealogy.

Piecing together your ancestor’s Y DNA from descendants.

Haplogroups are something like our pedigree charts.

What does it mean when you have a zero for a marker value?

There’s more than one way to break down that brick wall. Here’s how I figured out which of 4 sons was my ancestor.

Just because you match the right line autosomally doesn’t mean it’s because you descend from the male child you think is your ancestor. Females gave their surnames to children born outside of a legal marriage which can lead to massive confusion. This is absolutely why you need to test the Y DNA of every single ancestral line.

When the direct patrilineal line isn’t the line you’re expecting.

You can now tell by looking at the flags on the haplotree where other people’s ancestral lines on your branch are from. This is especially useful if you’ve taken the Big Y test and can tell you if you’re hunting in the right location.

If you’re just now testing or tested in 2018 or after, you don’t need to read this article unless you’re interested in the improvements to the Big Y test over the years.

2019 was a banner year for discovery. 2020 was even more so, keeping up an amazing pace. I need to write a 2020 update article.

What is a terminal SNP? Hint – it’s not fatal😊

How the TIP calculator works and how to best interpret the results. Note that this tool is due for an update that incorporates more markers and SNP results too.

You can view the location of the Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA ancestors of people whose ethnicity you match.

Tools and Techniques

This free public tree is amazing, showing locations of each haplogroup and totals by haplogroup and country, including downstream branches.

Need to search for and find Y DNA candidates when you don’t know anyone from that line? Here’s how.

Yes, it’s still possible to resolve this issue using autosomal DNA. Non-matching Y DNA isn’t the end of the road, just a fork.

Science Meets Genealogy – Including Ancient DNA

Haplogroup C was an unexpected find in the Americas and reaches into South America.

Haplogroup C is found in several North American tribes.

Haplogroup C is found as far east as Nova Scotia.

Test by test, we made progress.

New testers, new branches. The research continues.

The discovery of haplogroup A00 was truly amazing when it occurred – the base of the phylotree in Africa.

The press release about the discovery of haplogroup A00.

In 2018, a living branch of A00 was discovered in Africa, and in 2020, an ancient DNA branch.

Did you know that haplogroups weren’t always known by their SNP names?

This brought the total of SNPs discovered by Family Tree DNA in mid-2018 to 153,000. I should contact the Research Center to see how many they have named at the end of 2020.

An academic paper split ancient haplogroup D, but then the phylogenetic research team at FamilyTreeDNA split it twice more! This might not sound exciting until you realize this redefines what we know about early man, in Africa and as he emerged from Africa.

Ancient DNA splits haplogroup P after analyzing the remains of two Jehai people from West Malaysia.

For years I doubted Kennewick Man’s DNA would ever be sequenced, but it finally was. Kennewick Man’s mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is X2a and his Y DNA was confirmed to Q-M3 in 2015.

Compare your own DNA to Vikings!

Twenty-seven Icelandic Viking skeletons tell a very interesting story.

Irish ancestors? Check your DNA and see if you match.

Ancestors from Hungary or Italy? Take a look. These remains have matches to people in various places throughout Europe.

The Y DNA story is no place near finished. Dr. Miguel Vilar, former Lead Scientist for National Geographic’s Genographic Project provides additional analysis and adds a theory.

Webinars

Y DNA Webinar at Legacy Family Tree Webinars – a 90-minute webinar for those who prefer watching to learn! It’s not free, but you can subscribe here.

Success Stories and Genealogy Discoveries

Almost everyone has their own Y DNA story of discovery. Because the Y DNA follows the surname line, Y DNA testing often helps push those lines back a generation, or two, or four. When STR markers fail to be enough, we can turn to the Big Y-700 test which provides SNP markers down to the very tip of the leaves in the Y DNA tree. Often, but not always, family-defining SNP branches will occur which are much more stable and reliable than STR mutations – although SNPs and STRs should be used together.

Methodologies to find ancestral lines to test, or maybe descendants who have already tested.

DNA testing reveals an unexpected mystery several hundred years old.

When I write each of my “52 Ancestor” stories, I include genetic information, for the ancestor and their descendants, when I can. Jacob was special because, in addition to being able to identify his autosomal DNA, his Y DNA matches the ancient DNA of the Yamnaya people. You can read about his Y DNA story in Jakob Lenz (1748-1821), Vinedresser.

Please feel free to add your success stories in the comments.

What About You?

You never know what you’re going to discover when you test your Y DNA. If you’re a female, you’ll need to find a male that descends from the line you want to test via all males to take the Y DNA test on your behalf. Of course, if you want to test your father’s line, your father, or a brother through that father, or your uncle, your father’s brother, would be good candidates.

What will you be able to discover? Who will the earliest known ancestor with that same surname be among your matches? Will you be able to break down a long-standing brick wall? You’ll never know if you don’t test.

You can click here to upgrade an existing test or order a Y DNA test.

Share the Love

You can always forward these articles to friends or share by posting links on social media. Who do you know that might be interested?

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Books

Holiday DNA Sales Have Started Early

Wow – the sales started early this year! I understand that Black Friday has morphed into the month of November. I’m good with that!

I’m not really surprised because many people are spending more time at home and let’s face it, genealogy is a great at-home activity. I’m glad the sales are starting earlier and running longer because it encourages more people to become engaged.

Genealogy can even help you produce holiday gifts for others in a myriad of ways. Not just purchasing DNA kits for yourself and family members but creating stories or giving them a book you’ve created with photos of grandma and grandpa’s life, perchance.

Of course, DNA is a HUGE part of genealogy. Even if you’re not going to be able to see Uncle Joe this Thanksgiving, you can certainly have a fun Zoom session and document him swabbing or spitting for his DNA test! Make memories, one way or another

Let’s see what the vendors are offering. Then, be sure to read to the end for a surprise.

FamilyTreeDNA – Early Bird Holiday Sale

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FamilyTreeDNA has more products to offer than any of the other vendors with autosomal, Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA tests, each offering something unique.

Y DNA focuses only on your direct patrilineal (surname) line if you are a male. Mitochondrial DNA follows your matrilineal (mother’s mother’s mother’s) line for both sexes. The Family Finder autosomal test traces all ancestral lines. You can read a quick article about these different tests and how they work in this article:

The Family Finder test uses matches to known family members like parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to assign other matches who match both you and your family member to either maternal or paternal sides of your tree.

You can also use Genetic Affairs AutoCluster, AutoTree and AutoPedigree tools at FamilyTreeDNA to get even more mileage out of your DNA tests.

If you were an early tester with Y and mitochondrial DNA, you can upgrade now to a more robust test to receive more granular results.

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Have you noticed the ancient DNA articles I’ve been writing recently?

Your most refined haplogroup revealed only in the Big Y-700 or mitochondrial mtFull Sequence test allows you to compare your haplogroup with ancient samples most effectively. I promise you, there will be more articles upcoming! These are just pure joy, connecting back in time.

The FamilyTreeDNA sale ends November 24th. Please click here to order or upgrade.

MyHeritage

MyHeritageDNA includes lots of features that other vendors don’t have, such as integrated AutoClusters and Theories of Family Relativity (TOFR) which connects you and your matches through a network of common records and trees. TOFR is surprisingly accurate, either pointing the way to or identifying common ancestors.

I wrote about how to use these and other included tools to unravel your genealogy in this recent article, with a free companion webinar:

Additionally, MyHeritage has a strong focus in Europe that includes lots of European testers – perfect for people whose ancestors are emigrants from another country.

MyHeritageDNA is on sale now for $49, a $30 savings, plus free shipping if you purchase two or more kits. Please click here to order.

This sale ends November 25th.

Ancestry

Best known for their large database, AncestryDNA offers ThruLines which takes advantage of their database size to suggest common ancestors for you and your matches based on multiple trees. I wrote about ThruLines in this article:

The AncestryDNA test is on sale now for $59, a $40 savings, with free US shipping. Please click here to order.

Sale ends November 23rd.

23andMe

23andMe is best known in the genealogy community for the accuracy of their Ancestry Composition, known as ethnicity results, which they paint on your chromosomes.

23andMe also creates a “genetic tree” between you and your closest matches based on who does and who does not match each other, and how they match each other. I wrote about genetic trees and subsequently, how they solved one mystery in these two articles.

While the genetic tree technology isn’t perfected yet, it’s certainly the direction of the future and can provide insight into how you and others are related and where to look for them in your actual genealogy tree.

The 23andMe Ancestry only test is available for a 10% reduction in price at $88.95. Please click here to order.

Of course, 23andMe also offers a health product that includes the ancestry product.

The 23andMe Health + Ancestry test is available for $99, a saving of 50%. Please click here to order.

These sale prices end November 26th.

Surprise!!!

I have an early holiday gift for you too.

Beginning later this week, I’m publishing the first article in a new interactive series aptly named…drum roll…“DNA Tidbits.”

Indeed, there is fruit-of-the-vine to be harvested and that’s exactly what we are going to do – in small steps! Tidbits.

Just like everything else on this blog, it’s completely free of course and we are going to have lots of FUN!

Let me give you a hint – you’ll probably want to have test results at all of these companies because the Tidbits will be bouncing around a bit – so if you need to buy something, please click on the links below.

Thank you and I can’t wait to get started!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Books

23andMe Genetic Tree Provides Critical Clue to Solve 137-Year-Old Disappearance Mystery

DNA can convey messages from the great beyond – from times past and people that died long before we were born.

I had the most surprising experience this week. It began with receiving an email with the sender name of my long-time research buddy, cousin Garmon Estes.

It’s all the more surprising because not only did Garmon never own a computer, despite my ceaseless encouragement, he passed over in 2013 at the age of 85. So, imagine my shock to open my email to see a message from Garmon. Queue up spooky music😊

As it turned out, Garmon’s nephew is also Garmon. I had communicated with the family off and on over the years since the death of Garmon the elder. Garmon, the younger, had written to tell me that the second “great brick wall” that haunted his Uncle Garmon had fallen – and how that happened, thanks to DNA.

Garmon, the Elder

Estes Garmon

Garmon Estes, the elder

I first met Garmon the elder, via letter, back in the 1970s or maybe early 80s. He was an experienced genealogist and I was beginning.

At that time, Garmon had been chasing the identity of the father of our common ancestor, John R. Estes, for decades, and I was just embarking on what would become a lifelong adventure, or perhaps it could better be called an obsession.

John R. Estes had moved from some unknown location to Claiborne County, Tennessee with his wife and family about 1820. That’s pretty much all we knew at that time. Garmon had spent decades before the age of online records researching every John Estes he could find. I can’t even begin to tell you how many John Esteses existed that needed to be eliminated as candidates.

Garmon lived in California, far from Tennessee. I lived in Indiana, then Michigan – significantly closer. He began caring for his ill spouse, and I began traveling to dusty courthouses, sometimes reading musty books page by yellowed page, extracting everything Estes. Garmon worked from his local Family History Center when he could and wrote letters.

Between our joint sleuthing and many theories that we both composed and subsequently shot down, we narrowed John R. Estes’s location of origin to Halifax County, Virginia. However, there were multiple John Esteses living there at the same time, about the same age, none using middle initials reliably, and some not at all. How inconsiderate!

I began perusing every possible record. I had eliminated some Johns as candidates, most often because they clearly remained in the community after our John had moved to Claiborne County. Late one night, in our local family history center, I found that fateful clue – John R. Estes noted as (S.G.) short for “son of George,” on just one tax list. All it takes is that one gold-nugget record.

It was after 10 PM when I left the Family History Center and even later when I got home. I debated whether I should call Garmon or not, but I decided that indeed, he would want to know immediately, even if I did call at an inconvenient time or wake him up.

The discovery of John’s father, of course, opened the door for much more research, and it solved one of Garmon’s two brick walls that had haunted his genealogy life.

He never solved the second one, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

What Happened to Willis Alexander Garmon Estes?

Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was born on December 21, 1854, in Lenoir, Roane County, TN. His nickname was Willie.

Willie married Martha Lee Mathis in 1874 and they had 4 children beginning with the first child born the next year in Roane County. Sometime between 1875 and the birth of the second child in 1877, they migrated to Greenwood, Wise County, Texas where their next two children were born in 1877 and 1881.

Martha was pregnant for their fourth child in 1883 when something very strange happened. Willie disappeared, and I do mean literally and completely. Just poof, gone.

Not sure what to do, Martha’s father, who lived in Missouri, went to Texas to retrieve his pregnant daughter and her children and took her and the children home to Missouri where their last child was born that September.

Willie was only 28 when he vanished. The family, of course, had many stories about what happened. Texas at that time was pretty much the “wild west” and the stories about Willie reflected exactly that.

Texas was sometimes the refuge of outlaws and shady characters. One story revealed that Willie had shot a man back in Tennessee and the family fled to Louisiana, then Texas. Of course, that doesn’t tell us why he disappeared in Texas, but it opens the door to speculation and casts doubt on his character, perhaps.

Another story was that he was shot by Indians.

A third story stated that Willie settled in Indian Territory north of the Red River, now Oklahoma, and that he had an altercation with an Indian over the supposed theft of firewood, although who was accusing who was unclear. Willie shot the Indian, then had to flee for his life, leaving his pregnant wife and children as a posse of Indian Police surrounded his house. Willie supposedly promised Martha that he would return, but never did. It was reported that he was shot in Mexico, but no further details emerged.

Aren’t these just maddeningly vague???

Yet another story was that Willie headed for the goldfields of California, struck it rich, and was murdered on the way back home. The details varied, but one version had him murdered by a traveling companion on the trail. Another had him becoming ill and dying in a hospital in St. Louis where his wife went to search for him, to no avail. That might explain why she went back to Missouri, Garmon postulated. And yet a third version was some hybrid of the two where “someone” tried to find Willie’s family for years to reveal what had happened, and where, but was never successful. Of course, how did the family know about this if the mystery person was unable to find the family? But I digress.

Garmon desperately wanted to solve that mystery. He wanted closure.

I didn’t realize that the genealogy bug had bitten Garmon’s nephew too, but it clearly has. Garmon would be so proud.

With Garmon the younger’s permission, I’m publishing “the rest of the story,” Connecting the Dots, as written by Garmon the younger, with a few technical interjections from me involving DNA from time to time.

Connecting the Dots

In 2015, My dad Richard Estes, my brother Corey Estes, and I took a trip to Texas and Oklahoma to see if we could find out more about Willis Alexander Garmon Estes’ disappearance.

Estes greenwood

We visited Greenwood, Texas and nearby Decatur where we looked at historical records at the Wise County Clerk Office. We also went up to Oklahoma City to see the state archives and to Tishomingo to look at any records that might be available.

Estes Oklahoma history.png

Interestingly enough, we did not find any clues as to the disappearance of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. There were no newspaper articles or criminal records concerning any incidents with Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. The only new information that we found was a couple of land deeds showing that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes’ brother Fielding had bought and sold land in Wise County during the time that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was living in Greenwood.

We left empty-handed on our trip but our curiosity remained strong and we began talking to each other about going on another trip to Tennessee to speak with Estes family members in Loudon County to see if they might know something about Willis Alexander Garmon’s disappearance.

DNA Testing

In December of 2018, my wife, children, and I had our DNA tested using the service 23andMe. We received test results within a month of sending in saliva samples. The results did not reveal anything unusual.

Fast forward to October 2019. 23andMe introduced a new Family Tree feature that automatically creates a family tree based on the DNA results that you share with relatives in 23andMe. This was a fascinating feature and I noticed that all of my family members were automatically placed into the correct position on the family tree without me having to do anything.

[Roberta’s note – this is not always the case, so don’t necessarily expect the same level of accuracy. The tree is a wonderful innovative feature, just treat family placement as hints and not facts.]

Every few weeks as more and more people had their DNA tested on 23andMe, new relatives were added to the family tree.

In February 2020, I noticed something interesting under the location of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes on the family tree. A woman by the name of Edna appeared as a descendent of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. The first thing I did was to try and get in contact with her on 23andMe. No luck. Next, I thought maybe she was the descendent of one of Willis Alexander Garmon’s sons (James, John, or George). However, after researching the descendants of each of those lines, Edna’s name did not appear.

The next step I took was to look up as many Ednas by that last name on ancestry.com as I could find and trace their ancestry back to see where it led.

There were two Ednas by that last name in the United States whose age matched the one on 23andMe. I traced both of their ancestry lines back to the 1800’s. Neither one had Willis Alexander Garmon Estes as an ancestor.

Breakthrough

During the middle of March 2020, when I was quarantined at home from work due to the COVID-19 virus, I took another look at Edna’s family lines. I noticed there was a gentleman by the name of James Henry Houston mentioned as an ancestor.

The interesting thing about James was that he was born on the same day, same year, and in the same county as Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. James Henry Houston was born on December 26, 1854 in Loudon County, Tennessee. This seemed like possibly more than a coincidence, so I dived into the data a little bit more.

I looked at federal census records to find out more about James Henry Houston’s past. Strangely there were no official records of him until May 12, 1889 when he married Allie Ona Taylor in Erath, Texas. Normally, if someone is born in 1854, they would show up in one of the federal census records of 1860, 1870, or 1880. James Henry Houston does not show up in any official federal census records until 1900.

According to ancestry records, James Henry Houston married Allie Ona Taylor in 1889 and resided in the Hood County region of Texas until 1910. During this time, he raised 8 children with his wife Allie.

In 1920, the federal census placed him and Allie in Whitehall, Montana. The last federal census he appears in is 1930. He lived in Pomona, California where he died in 1933 at the age of 78.

At this point, I thought it was highly likely that James Henry Houston and Willis Alexander Garmon Estes were the same person. If my hunch was correct then a photo of James Henry Houston would most likely show a resemblance to his son, my great grandfather John Alexander Estes.

Estes James Henry Houston

The photos above show a remarkable similarity in the eyes, nose, mouth, and facial structure between the two men. To me, the photo and historical evidence is enough to conclude that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes is James Henry Houston.

Garmon’s Concluding Thoughts

As I reflect on the fact that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes renamed himself James Henry Houston and moved from Wise County down to Hood County, Texas – approximately 60 miles distance to marry and raise a new family, many more questions come to mind.

What exactly happened to cause Willis Alexander Garmon Estes to leave his wife and children behind? Was it simply a marital dispute or did it involve a criminal offense and running from the law as was mentioned in the family lore?

Did my great grandfather know that his father lived in Pomona in 1930, which was only 6 miles away from where he was living in Rancho Cucamonga? Were there other family members that knew what happened but promised not to tell anyone else? We may never know.

Finally, I want to add one more piece to the story that I found fascinating. On ancestry.com, many of the family trees for James Henry Houston state that the mother and father of James Henry Houston was Jennie Bray and Henry Houston. No information is given for their birthdates or where they came from. The mother and father of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was Jennie McVey and William Estes. The names Jennie Bray and Jennie McVey are very similar. In order to hide his true identity, James Henry Houston would have to make up a surname for his father since he called himself Houston, not Estes. Willis Alexander Garmon Estes had a brother named John Houston Estes. This might explain why James Henry Houston chose to use the surname Houston rather than another name.

Congratulations Garmon

I know this made Garmon the elder puff up with pride for Garmon the younger’s sleuthing skills and leap for joy at the solve. Garmon, the elder, had two main genealogy goals throughout his entire life. One was solved while he was living, but it took another generation to solve this one.

Great job, Garmon!

About the 23andMe Genetic Tree

23andMe is the only vendor to construct a “trial balloon” genetic tree based only on how the tester matches people and how they do, or don’t, match each other. This occurs with no input from testers in the form of genealogical trees of identifying how people are related to the tester.

Family Tree DNA has Phased Family Matching, MyHeritage has Theories of Family Relativity, and Ancestry has ThruLines which all do some sort of DNA+tree+relationship connectivity, but since 23andMe does not support user-created or uploaded trees, anything they produce has to be using DNA alone.

On one hand, it’s frustrating for genealogists, but on the other hand, there is sometimes a benefit to a different “all genetic” approach.

Of course, the only information that 23andMe has to utilize unless your parents have tested is how closely you match your matches and how closely your matches match each other. This allows 23andMe to place your matches at least in a “neighborhood” on your tree, at least approximately accurate, unless your parents are related to each other and that shared DNA causes things to get dicey quickly.

I wrote about 23andMe’s new relationship triangulation tree when it was first introduced in September 2019, nearly a year ago, here. The launch was rocky for a number of reasons, and if you’ve done genealogy for a long time, your research goals are likely to be further back in time than this 4 generation relationship tree will reveal.

23andMe tree

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This is what my relationship tree looked like at the time the function was launched. You’ll note that 23andMe places relationships back in time 4 generations, to your great-great-grandparents, meaning that you might have 3rd or even 4th cousins showing up on your genetic tree.

I initially had a total of 18 people placed on my tree, with 3 being close family, 4 being accurate, 4 unknown, 1 uncertain and 6, or one third, inaccurate.

Keep in mind that 23andMe doesn’t make any provision to accommodate or take into account half-relationships, like half-brother or half-sister, either currently or historically. Therefore, descendant placement predictions can be “off” because half-siblings only carry the DNA from one common parent, instead of two, making those relationships appear more distant than they really are.

In Garmon’s case, his great-great-grandfather is the ancestor who was MIA, so the genetic tree has the potential to work well for this purpose.

Estes 23andme tree today

click to enlarge

Today, my tree looks somewhat different, with only 14 people displayed instead of 18, and 6 waiting in the wings to see if I can help 23andMe figure out how and where to place them.

Since the initial launch, customers have been given the opportunity to add their ancestors’ names to their nodes. This works just fine so long as nobody married more than once and had children from both marriages.

Estes Willie Alexander today

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Here’s a closer image of the left-hand side of my tree where I’ve super-imposed the location of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes and Edna, as they are related to Garmon the Younger, at bottom right. Ignore the other names – I only utilized my own tree for an example tree structure.

One more generation and it’s unlikely that 23andMe would have made the connection between Edna and Garmon the younger.

Not only does this illustrate the perfect reason to test the oldest generations in your family, but also never to ignore an unknown match that seems to be within the past 3 or 4 generations. You never know what mysteries you might unravel.

Four generations actually reaches back in time quite substantially. In my case, my great-great-grandparents were born in 1805, 1810, 1812, 1813, 1815, 1816, 1818 (2), 1820, 1822, 1827, 1829, 1830, 1832, 1841 and 1848.

If you have mysteries within your closest 4 generations to unravel, the genetic tree at 23andMe might provide valuable clues, but only if you’re willing to do the requisite work to figure out HOW these people match you.

You can’t transfer your DNA file TO 23andMe, so if you want to have your results in the 23andMe database, you’ll need to test there.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Garmon Estes, the younger, for generously sharing this story and allowing publication. My heart was warmed to see your generational research trip.

Thank you to Garmon Estes, the elder, for being my research partner for so many years. You can finally RIP now, although somehow I suspect you already have these answers.

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