Concepts: Chromosome Browser – What Is It, How Do I Use It, and Why Do I Care?

The goal of genetic genealogy is to utilize DNA matches to verify known ancestors and identify unknown ancestors.

A chromosome browser is a tool that allows testers to visualize and compare their DNA on each chromosome with that of their genetic matches. How to utilize and interpret that information becomes a little more tricky.

I’ve had requests for one article with all the information in one place about chromosome browsers:

  • What they are
  • How and when to use them
  • Why you’d want to

I’ve included a feature comparison chart and educational resource list at the end.

I would suggest just reading through this article the first time, then following along with your own DNA results after you understand the basic landscape. Using your own results is the best way to learn anything.

What Does a Chromosome Browser Look Like?

Here’s an example of a match to my DNA at FamilyTreeDNA viewed on their chromosome browser.

browser example.png

On my first 16 chromosomes, shown above, my 1C1R (first cousin once removed,) Cheryl, matches me where the chromosomes are painted blue. My chromosome is represented by the grey background, and her matching portion by the blue overlay.

Cheryl matches me on some portion of all chromosomes except 2, 6, and 13, where we don’t match at all.

You can select any one person, like Cheryl, from your match list to view on a chromosome browser to see where they match you on your chromosomes, or you can choose multiple matches, as shown below.

browser multiple example.png

I selected my 7 closest matches that are not my immediate family, meaning not my parents or children. I’m the background grey chromosome, and each person’s match is painted on top of “my chromosome” in the location where they match me. You see 7 images of my grey chromosome 1, for example, because each of the 7 people being compared to me are shown stacked below one another.

Everyplace that Cheryl matches me is shown on the top image of each chromosome, and our matching segment is shown in blue. The same for the second red copy of the chromosome, representing Don’s match to me. Each person I’ve selected to match against is shown by their own respective color.

You’ll note that in some cases, two people match me in the same location. Those are the essential hints we are looking for. We’ll be discussing how to unravel, interpret, and use matches in the rest of this article.

browser MyHeritage example.png

The chromosome browser at MyHeritage looks quite similar. However, I have a different “top 7” matches because each vendor has people who test on their platform who don’t test or transfer elsewhere.

Each vendor that supports chromosome browsers (FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, and GedMatch) provides their own implementation, of course, but the fundamentals of chromosome browsers, how they work and what they are telling us is universal.

Why Do I Need a Chromosome Browser?

“But,” you might say, “I don’t need to compare my DNA with my matches because the vendors already tell me that I match someone, which confirms that we are related and share a common ancestor.”

Well, not exactly. It’s not quite that straightforward.

Let’s take a look at:

  • How and why people match
  • What matches do and don’t tell you
  • Both with and without a chromosome browser

In part, whether you utilize a chromosome browser or not depends on which of the following you seek:

  • A broad-brush general answer; yes or no, I match someone, but either I don’t know how are related, or have to assume why. There’s that assume word again.
  • To actually confirm and prove your ancestry, getting every ounce of value out of your DNA test.

Not everyone’s goals are the same. Fortunately, we have an entire toolbox with a wide range of tools. Different tools are better suited for different tasks.

People seeking unknown parents should read the article, Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching because the methodology for identifying unknown parents is somewhat different than working with genealogy. This article focuses on genealogy, although the foundation genetic principles are the same.

If you’re just opening your DNA results for the first time, the article, First Steps When Your DNA Results are Ready – Sticking Your Toe in the Genealogy Water would be a great place to start.

Before we discuss chromosome browsers further, we need to talk about DNA inheritance.

Your Parents

Every person has 2 copies of each of their 22 chromosomes – one copy contributed by their mother and one copy contributed by their father. A child receives exactly half of the autosomal DNA of each parent. The DNA of each parent combines somewhat randomly so that you receive one chromosome’s worth of DNA from each of your parents, which is half of each parent’s total.

On each chromosome, you receive some portion of the DNA that each parent received from their ancestors, but not exactly half of the DNA from each individual ancestor. In other words, it’s not sliced precisely in half, but served up in chunks called segments.

Sometimes you receive an entire segment of an ancestor’s DNA, sometimes none, and sometimes a portion that isn’t equal to half of your parent’s segment.

browser inheritance.png

This means that you don’t receive exactly half of the DNA of each of your grandparents, which would be 25% each. You might receive more like 22% from one maternal grandparent and 28% from the other maternal grandparent for a total of 50% of the DNA you inherit from your parents. The other 50% of your DNA comes from the other parent, of course. I wrote about that here.

There’s one tiny confounding detail. The DNA of your Mom and Dad is scrambled in you, meaning that the lab can’t discern scientifically which side is which and can’t tell which pieces of DNA came from Mom and which from Dad. Think of a genetic blender.

Our job, using genetic genealogy, is to figure out which side of our family people who match us descend from – which leads us to our common ancestor(s).

Parallel Roads

For the purposes of this discussion, you’ll need to understand that the two copies you receive of each chromosome, one from each parent, have the exact same “addresses.” Think of these as parallel streets or roads with identical addresses on each road.

browser street.png

In the example above, you can see Dad’s blue chromosome and Mom’s red chromosome as compared to me. Of course, children and parents match on the full length of each chromosome.

I’ve divided this chromosome into 6 blocks, for purposes of illustration, plus the centromere where we generally find no addresses used for genetic genealogy.

In the 500 block, we see that the address of 510 Main (red bar) could occur on either Dad’s chromosome, or Mom’s. With only an address and nothing more, you have no way to know whether your match with someone at 510 Main is on Mom’s or Dad’s side, because both streets have exactly the same addresses.

Therefore, if two people match you, at the same address on that chromosome, like 510 Main Street, they could be:

  • Both maternal matches, meaning both descended from your mother’s ancestors, and those two people will also match each other
  • Both paternal matches, meaning both descended from your father’s ancestors, and those two people will also match each other
  • One maternal and one paternal match, and those two people will not match each other

Well then, how do we know which side of the family a match descends from, and how do we know if we share a common ancestor?

Good question!

Identical by Descent

If you and another person match on a reasonably sized DNA segment, generally about 7 cM or above, your match is probably “identical by descent,” meaning not “identical by chance.” In this case, then yes, a match does confirm that you share a common ancestor.

Identical by descent (IBD) means you inherited the piece of DNA from a common ancestor, inherited through the relevant parent.

Identical by chance (IBC) means that your mom’s and dad’s DNA just happens to have been inherited by you randomly in a way that creates a sequence of DNA that matches that other person. I wrote about both IBD and IBC here.

MMB stats by cM 2

This chart, courtesy of statistician Philip Gammon, from the article Introducing the Match-Maker-Breaker Tool for Parental Phasing shows the percentage of time we expect matches of specific segment sizes to be valid, or identical by descent.

Identical by Chance

How does this work?

How is a match NOT identical by descent, meaning that it is identical by chance and therefore not a “real” or valid match, a situation also known as a false positive?

browser inheritance grid.png

The answer involves how DNA is inherited.

You receive a chromosome with a piece of DNA at every address from both parents. Of course, this means you have two pieces of DNA at each address. Therefore people will match you on either piece of DNA. People from your Dad’s side will match you on the pieces you inherited from him, and people from your Mom’s side will match you on the pieces you inherited from her.

However, both of those matches have the same address on their parallel streets as shown in the illustration, above. Your matches from your mom’s side will have all As, and those from your dad’s side will have all Ts.

The problem is that you have no way to know which pieces you inherited from Mom and from Dad – at least not without additional information.

You can see that for 10 contiguous locations (addresses), which create an example “segment” of your DNA, you inherited all As from your Mom and all Ts from your Dad. In order to match you, someone would either need to have an A or a T in one of their two inherited locations, because you have an A and a T, both. If the other person has a C or a G, there’s no match.

Your match inherited a specific sequence from their mother and father, just like you did. As you can see, even though they do match you because they have either an A or a T in all 10 locations – the As and Ts did not all descend from either their mother or father. Their random inheritance of Ts and As just happens to match you.

If your match’s parents have tested, you won’t match either of their parents nor will they match either of your parents, which tells you immediately that this match is by chance (IBC) and not by descent (IBD), meaning this segment did not come from a common ancestor. It’s identical by chance and, therefore, a false positive.

If We Match Someone Else In Common, Doesn’t That Prove Identical by Descent?

Nope, but I sure wish it did!

The vendors show you who else you and your match both match in common, which provides a SUGGESTION as to your common ancestor – assuming you know which common ancestor any of these people share with you.

browser icw.png

However, shared matches are absolutely NOT a guarantee that you, your match, and your common matches all share the same ancestor, unless you’re close family. Your shared match could match you or your match through different ancestors – or could be identical by chance.

How can we be more confident of what matching is actually telling us?

How can we sort this out?

Uncertainties and Remedies

Here’s are 9 things you DON’T know, based on matching alone, along with tips and techniques to learn more.

  1. If your match to Person A is below about 20cM, you’ll need to verify that it’s a legitimate IBD match (not IBC). You can achieve this by determining if Person A also matches one of your parents and if you match one of Person A’s parents, if parents have tested.

Not enough parents have tested? An alternative method is by determining if you and Person A both match known descendants of the candidate ancestors ON THE SAME SEGMENT. This is where the chromosome browser enters the picture.

In other words, at least three people who are confirmed to descend from your presumptive common ancestor, preferably through at least two different children, must match on a significant portion of the same segment.

Why is that? Because every segment has its own unique genealogical history. Each segment can and often does lead to different ancestors as you move further back in time.

In this example, I’m viewing Buster, David, and E., three cousins descended from the same ancestral couple, compared to me on my chromosome browser. I’m the background grey, and they show in color. You can see that all three of them match me on at least some significant portion of the same segment of chromosome 15.

browser 3 cousins.png

If those people also match each other, that’s called triangulation. Triangulation confirms descent from a common ancestral source.

In this case, I already know that these people are related on my paternal side. The fact that they all match my father’s DNA and are therefore all automatically assigned to my paternal matching tab at Family Tree DNA confirms my paper-trail genealogy.

I wrote detailed steps for triangulation at Family Tree DNA, here. In a nutshell, matching on the same segment to people who are bucketed to the same parent is an automated method of triangulation.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of having their parents tested, so testing other family members, finding common segments, and assigning people to their proper location in your tree facilitates confirmation of your genealogy (and automating triangulation.)

The ONLY way you can determine if people match you on the same segment, and match each other, is having segment information available to you and utilizing a chromosome browser.

browser MyHeritage triangulation.png

In the example above, the MyHeritage triangulation tool brackets matches that match you (the background grey) and who are all triangulated, meaning they all also match each other. In this case, the portion where all three people match me AND each other is bracketed. I wrote about triangulation at MyHeritage here.

  1. If you match several people who descend from the same ancestor, John Doe, for example, on paper, you CANNOT presume that your match to all of those people is due to a segment of DNA descended from John Doe or his wife. You may not match any of those people BECAUSE OF or through segments inherited from John Doe or his wife. You need segment information and a chromosome browser to view the location of those matches.

Assuming these are legitimate IBD matches, you may share another common line, known or unknown, with some or all of those matches.

It’s easy to assume that because you match and share matches in common with other people who believe they are descended from that same ancestor:

  • That you’re all matching because of that ancestor.
  • Even on the same segments.

Neither of those presumptions can be made without additional information.

Trust me, you’ll get yourself in a heap o’ trouble if you assume. Been there, done that. T-shirt was ugly.

Let’s look at how this works.

browser venn.png

Here’s a Venn diagram showing me, in the middle, surrounded by three of my matches:

  • Match 1 – Periwinkle, descends from Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy
  • Match 2 – Teal, descends from Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton
  • Match 3 – Mustard, descends from John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson

Utilizing a chromosome browser, autocluster software, and other tools, we can determine if those matches also match each other on a common segment, which means they triangulate and confirm common ancestral descent.

Of course, those people could match each other due to a different ancestor, not necessarily the one I share with them nor the ancestors I think we match through.

If they/we do all match because they descend from a common ancestor, they can still match each other on different segments that don’t match me.

I’m in the center. All three people match me, and they also match each other, shown in the overlap intersections.

Note that the intersection between the periwinkle (Match 1) and teal (Match 2) people, who match each other, is due to the wives of the children of two of my ancestors. In other words, their match to each other has absolutely nothing to do with their match to me. This was an “aha’ moment for me when I first realized this was a possibility and happens far more than I ever suspected.

The intersection of the periwinkle (Match 1) and mustard (Match 3) matches is due to the Dodson line, but on a different segment than they both share with me. If they had matched each other and me on the same segment, we would be all triangulated, but we aren’t.

The source of the teal (Match 2) to mustard (Match 3) is unknown, but then again, Match 3’s tree is relatively incomplete.

Let’s take a look at autocluster software which assists greatly with automating the process of determining who matches each other, in addition to who matches you.

  1. Clustering technology, meaning the Leeds method as automated by Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom help, but don’t, by themselves, resolve the quandary of HOW people match you and each other.

People in a colored cluster all match you and each other – but not necessarily on the same segment, AND, they can match each other because they are related through different ancestors not related to your ancestor. The benefit of autocluster software is that this process is automated. However, not all of your matches will qualify to be placed in clusters.

browser autocluster.png

My mustard cluster above includes the three people shown in the chromosome browser examples – and 12 more matches that can be now be researched because we know that they are all part of a group of people who all match me, and several of whom match each other too.

My matches may not match each other for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They are too far removed in time/generations and didn’t inherit any common ancestral DNA.
  • This cluster is comprised of some people matching me on different (perhaps intermarried) lines.
  • Some may be IBC matches.

Darker grey boxes indicate that those people should be in both clusters, meaning the red and mustard clusters, because they match people in two clusters. That’s another hint. Because of the grid nature of clusters, one person cannot be associated with more than 2 clusters, maximum. Therefore, people like first cousins who are closely related to the tester and could potentially be in many clusters are not as useful in clusters as they are when utilizing other tools.

  1. Clusters and chromosome browsers are much less complex than pedigree charts, especially when dealing with many people. I charted out the relationships of the three example matches from the Venn diagram. You can see that this gets messy quickly, and it’s much more challenging to visualize and understand than either the chromosome browser or autoclusters.

Having said that, the ultimate GOAL is to identify how each person is related to you and place them in their proper place in your tree. This, cumulatively with your matches, is what identifies and confirms ancestors – the overarching purpose of genealogy and genetic genealogy.

Let’s take a look at this particular colorized pedigree chart.

Browser pedigree.png

click to enlarge

The pedigree chart above shows the genetic relationship between me and the three matches shown in the Venn diagram.

Four descendants of 2 ancestral couples are shown, above; Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton, and John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson. DNA tells me that all 3 people match me and also match each other.

The color of the square (above) is the color of DNA that represents the DNA segment that I received and match with these particular testers. This chart is NOT illustrating how much DNA is passed in each generation – we already know that every child inherits half of the DNA of each parent. This chart shows match/inheritance coloring for ONE MATCHING SEGMENT with each match, ONLY.

Let’s look at Joseph Bolton (blue) and Margaret Claxton (pink). I descend through their daughter, Ollie Bolton, who married William George Estes, my grandfather. The DNA segment that I share with blue Match 2 (bottom left) is a segment that I inherited from Joseph Bolton (blue). I also carry inherited DNA from Margaret Claxton too, but that’s not the segment that I share with Match 2, which is why the path from Joseph Bolton to me, in this case, is blue – and why Match 2 is blue. (Just so you are aware, I know this segment descends from Joseph Bolton, because I also match descendants of Joseph’s father on this segment – but that generation/mtach is not shown on this pedigree chart.)

If I were comparing to someone else who I match through Margaret Claxton, I would color the DNA from Margaret Claxton to me pink in that illustration. You don’t have to DO this with your pedigree chart, so don’t worry. I created this example to help you understand.

The colored dots shown on the squares indicate that various ancestors and living people do indeed carry DNA from specific ancestors, even though that’s not the segment that matches a particular person. In other words, the daughter, Ollie, of Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton carries 50% pink DNA, represented by the pink dot on blue Ollie Bolton, married to purple William George Estes.

Ollie Bolton and William George Estes had my father, who I’ve shown as half purple (Estes) and half blue (Bolton) because I share Bolton DNA with Match 2, and Estes DNA with Match 1. Obviously, everyone receives half of each parent’s DNA, but in this case, I’m showing the path DNA descended for a specific segment shared with a particular match.

I’ve represented myself with the 5 colors of DNA that I carry from these particular ancestors shown on the pedigree chart. I assuredly will match other people with DNA that we’ve both inherited from these ancestors. I may match these same matches shown with DNA that we both inherited from other ancestors – for example, I might match Match 2 on a different segment that we both inherited from Margaret Claxton. Match 2 is my second cousin, so it’s quite likely that we do indeed share multiple segments of DNA.

Looking at Match 3, who knows very little about their genealogy, I can tell, based on other matches, that we share Dodson DNA inherited through Rutha Dodson.

I need to check every person in my cluster, and that I share DNA with on these same segment addresses to see if they match on my paternal side and if they match each other.

  1. At Family Tree DNA, I will be able to garner more information about whether or not my matches match each other by using the Matrix tool as well as by utilizing Phased Family Matching.

At Family Tree DNA, I determined that these people all match in common with me and Match 1 by using the “In Common With” tool. You can read more about how to use “In Common With” matching, here.

browser paternal.png

Family Matching phases the matches, assigning or bucketed them maternally or paternally (blue and red icons above), indicating, when possible, if these matches occur on the same side of your family. I wrote about the concept of phasing, here, and Phased Family Matching here and here.

Please note that there is no longer a limit on how distantly related a match can be in order to be utilized in Phased Family Matching, so long as it’s over the phase-matching threshold and connected correctly in your tree.

browser family tree dna link tree.png

Bottom line, if you can figure out how you’re related to someone, just add them into your tree by creating a profile card and link their DNA match to them by simply dragging and dropping, as illustrated above.

Linking your matches allows Family Matching to maternally or paternally assign other matches that match both you and your tree-linked matches.

If your matches match you on the same segment on the same parental side, that’s segment triangulation, assuming the matches are IBD. Phased Family Matching does this automatically for you, where possible, based on who you have linked in your tree.

For matches that aren’t automatically bucketed, there’s another tool, the Matrix.

browser matrix.png

In situations where your matches aren’t “bucketed” either maternally or paternally, the Matrix tool allows you to select matches to determine whether your matches also match each other. It’s another way of clustering where you can select specific people to compare. Note that because they also match each other (blue square) does NOT mean it’s on the same segment(s) where they match you. Remember our Venn diagram.

browser matrix grid.png

  1. Just because you and your matches all match each other doesn’t mean that they are matching each other because of the same ancestor. In other words, your matches may match each other due to another or unknown ancestor. In our pedigree example, you can see that the three matches match each other in various ways.
browser pedigree match.png

click to enlarge

  • Match 1 and Match 2 match each other because they are related through the green Jones family, who is not related to me.
  • Match 2 and Match 3 don’t know why they match. They both match me, but not on the same segment they share with each other.
  • Match 1 and Match 3 match through the mustard Dodson line, but not on the same segment that matches me. If we all did match on the same segment, we would be triangulated, but we wouldn’t know why Match 3 was in this triangulation group.
  1. Looking at a downloaded segment file of your matches, available at all testing vendors who support segment information and a chromosome browser, you can’t determine without additional information whether your matches also match each other.

browser chr 15.png

Here’s a group of people, above, that we’ve been working with on chromosome 15.

My entire match-list shows many more matches on that segment of chromosome 15. Below are just a few.

browser chr 15 all

Looking at seven of these people in the chromosome browser, we can see visually that they all overlap on part of a segment on chromosome 15. It’s a lot easier to see the amount of overlap using a browser as opposed to the list. But you can only view 7 at a time in the browser, so the combination of both tools is quite useful. The downloaded spreadsheet shows you who to select to view for any particular segment.

browser chr 15 compare.png

The critical thing to remember is that some matches will be from tyour mother’s side and some from your father’s side.

Without additional information and advanced tools, there’s no way to tell the difference – unless they are bucketed using Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA or bracketed with a triangulation bracket at MyHeritage.

At MyHeritage, this assumes you know the shared ancestor of at least one person in the triangulation group which effectively assigns the match to the maternal or paternal side.

Looking at known relatives on either side, and seeing who they also match, is how to determine whether these people match paternally or maternally. In this example below, the blue people are bucketed paternally through Phased Family Matching, the pink maternally, and the white rows aren’t bucketed and therefore require additional evaluation.

browser chr 15 maternal paternal.png

Additional research shows that Jonathan is a maternal match, but Robert and Adam are identical by chance because they don’t match either of my parents on this segment. They might be valid matches on other segments, but not this one.

browser chr 15 compare maternal paternal.png

  1. Utilizing relatives who have tested is a huge benefit, and why we suggest that everyone test their closest upstream relatives (meaning not children or grandchildren.) Testing all siblings is recommended if both parents aren’t available to test, because every child received different parts of their parents’ DNA, so they will match different relatives.

After deleting segments under 7 cM, I combine the segment match download files of multiple family members (who agree to allow me to aggregate their matches into one file for analysis) so that I can create a master match file for a particular family group. Sorting by match name, I can identify people that several of my cousins’ match.

browser 4 groups.png

This example is from a spreadsheet where I’ve combined the results of about 10 collaborating cousins to determine if we can break through a collective brick wall. Sorted by match name, this table shows the first 4 common matches that appear on multiple cousin’s match lists. Remember that how these people match may have nothing to do with our brick wall – or it might.

Note that while the 4 matches, AB, AG, ag, and A. Wayne, appear in different cousins’ match lists, only one shares a common segment of DNA: AB triangulates with Buster and Iona. This is precisely WHY you need segment information, and a chromosome browser, to visualize these matches, and to confirm that they do share a common DNA segment descended from a specific ancestor.

These same people will probably appear in autocluster groups together as well. It’s worth noting, as illustrated in the download example, that it’s much more typical for “in common with” matches to match on different segments than on the same segment. 

  1. Keep in mind that you will match both your mother and father on every single chromosome for the entire length of each chromosome.

browser parent matching.png

Here’s my kit matching with my father, in blue, and mother, in red on chromosomes 1 and 2.

Given that I match both of my parents on the full chromosome, inheriting one copy of my chromosome from each parent, it’s impossible to tell by adding any person at random to the chromosome browser whether they match me maternally or paternally. Furthermore, many people aren’t fortunate enough to have parents available for testing.

To overcome that obstacle, you can compare to known or close relatives. In fact, your close relatives are genetic genealogy gold and serve as your match anchor. A match that matches you and your close relatives can be assigned either maternally or paternally. I wrote about that here.

browser parent plus buster.png

You can see that my cousin Buster matches me on chromosome 15, as do both of my parents, of course. At this point, I can’t tell from this information alone whether Buster matches on my mother’s or father’s side.

I can tell you that indeed, Buster does match my father on this same segment, but what if I don’t have the benefit of my father’s DNA test?

Genealogy tells me that Buster matches me on my paternal side, through Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy. Given that Buster is a relatively close family member, I already know how Buster and I are related and that our DNA matches. That knowledge will help me identify and place other relatives in my tree who match us both on the same segment of DNA.

To trigger Phased Family Matching, I placed Buster in the proper place in my tree at Family Tree DNA and linked his DNA. His Y DNA also matches the Estes males, so no adoptions or misattributed parental events have occurred in the direct Estes patrilineal line.

browser family tree dna tree.png

I can confirm this relationship by checking to see if Buster matches known relatives on my father’s side of the family, including my father using the “in common with” tool.

Buster matches my father as well as several other known family members on that side of the family on the same segments of DNA.

browser paternal bucket.png

Note that I have a total of 397 matches in common with Buster, 140 of which have been paternally bucketed, 4 of which are both (my children and grandchildren), and 7 of which are maternal.

Those maternal matches represent an issue. It’s possible that those people are either identical by chance or that we share both a maternal and paternal ancestor. All 7 are relatively low matches, with longest blocks from 9 to 14 cM.

Clearly, with a total of 397 shared matches with Buster, not everyone that I match in common with Buster is assigned to a bucket. In fact, 246 are not. I will need to take a look at this group of people and evaluate them individually, their genealogy, clusters, the matrix, and through the chromosome browser to confirm individual matching segments.

There is no single perfect tool.

Every Segment Tells a Unique History

I need to check each of the 14 segments that I match with Buster because each segment has its own inheritance path and may well track back to different ancestors.

browser buster segments.png

It’s also possible that we have unknown common ancestors due to either adoptions, NPEs, or incorrect genealogy, not in the direct Estes patrilineal line, but someplace in our trees.

browser buster paint.png

The best way to investigate the history and genesis of each segment is by painting matching segments at DNAPainter. My matching segments with Buster are shown painted at DNAPainter, above. I wrote about DNAPainter, here.

browser overlap.png

By expanding each segment to show overlapping segments with other matches that I’ve painted and viewing who we match, we can visually see which ancestors that segment descends from and through.

browser dnapainter walk back.png

These roughly 30 individuals all descend from either Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy (grey), Elizabeth’s parents (dark blue), or her grandparents (burgundy) on chromosome 15.

As more people match me (and Buster) on this segment, on my father’s side, perhaps we’ll push this segment back further in time to more distant ancestors. Eventually, we may well be able to break through our end-of-line brick wall using these same segments by looking for common upstream ancestors in our matches’ trees.

Arsenal of Tools

This combined arsenal of tools is incredibly exciting, but they all depend on having segment information available and understanding how to use and interpret segment and chromosome browser match information.

One of mine and Buster’s common segments tracks back to end-of-line James Moore, born about 1720, probably in Virginia, and another to Charles Hickerson born about 1724. It’s rewarding and exciting to be able to confirm these DNA segments to specific ancestors. These discoveries may lead to breaking through those brick walls eventually as more people match who share common ancestors with each other that aren’t in my tree.

This is exactly why we need and utilize segment information in a chromosome browser.

We can infer common ancestors from matches, but we can’t confirm segment descent without specific segment information and a chromosome browser. The best we can do, otherwise, is to presume that a preponderance of evidence and numerous matches equates to confirmation. True or not, we can’t push further back in time without knowing who else matches us on those same segments, and the identity of their common ancestors.

The more evidence we can amass for each ancestor and ancestral couple, the better, including:

  • Matches
  • Shared “In Common With” Matches, available at all vendors.
  • Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA assigns matches to maternal or paternal sides based on shared, linked DNA from known relatives.
  • The Matrix, a Family Tree DNA tool to determine if matches also match each other. Tester can select who to compare.
  • ThruLines from Ancestry is based on a DNA match and shared ancestors in trees, but no specific segment information or chromosome browser. I wrote about ThruLines here and here.
  • Theories of Family Relativity, aka TOFR, at MyHeritage, based on shared DNA matches, shared ancestors in trees and trees constructed between matches from various genealogical records and sources. MyHeritage includes a chromosome browser and triangulation tool. I wrote about TOFR here and here.
  • Triangulation available through Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA and the integrated triangulation tool at MyHeritage. Triangulation between only 3 people at a time is available at 23andMe, although 23andMe does not support trees. See triangulation article links in the Resource Articles section below.
  • AutoClusters at MyHeritage (cluster functionality included), at Genetic Affairs (autoclusters plus tree reconstruction) and at DNAGedcom (including triangulation).
  • Genealogical information. Please upload your trees to every vendor site.
  • Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA confirmation, when available, through Family Tree DNA. I wrote about the 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy, here and the importance of Y DNA confirmation here, and how not having that information can trip you up.
  • Compiled segment information at DNAPainter allows you to combine segment information from various vendors, paint your maternal and paternal chromosomes, and visually walk segments back in time. Article with DNAPainter instructions is found here.

Autosomal Tool Summary Table

In order to help you determine which tool you need to use, and when, I’ve compiled a summary table of the types of tools and when they are most advantageous. Of course, you’ll need to read and understand about each tool in the sections above. This table serves as a reminder checklist to be sure you’ve actually utilized each relevant tool where and how it’s appropriate.

Family Tree DNA MyHeritage Ancestry 23andMe GedMatch
DNA Matches Yes Yes Yes Yes, but only highest 2000 minus whoever does not opt -in Yes, limited matches for free, more with subscription (Tier 1)
Download DNA Segment Match Spreadsheet Yes Yes No, must use DNAGedcom for any download, and no chromosome segment information Yes Tier 1 required, can only download 1000 through visualization options
Segment Spreadsheet Benefits View all matches and sort by segment, target all people who match on specific segments for chromosome browser View all matches and sort by segment, target all people who match on specific segments for chromosome browser No segment information but matches might transfer elsewhere where segment information is available View up to 2000 matches if matches have opted in. If you have initiated contact with a match, they will not drop off match list. Can download highest 1000 matches, target people who match on specific segments
Spreadsheet Challenges Includes small segments, I delete less than 7cM segments before using No X chromosome included No spreadsheet and no segment information Maximum of 2000 matches, minus those not opted in Download limited to 1000 with Tier 1, download not available without subscription
Chromosome Segment Information Yes Yes No, only total and longest segment, no segment address Yes Yes
Chromosome Browser Yes, requires $19 unlock if transfer Yes, requires $29 unlock or subscription if transfer No Yes Yes, some features require Tier 1 subscription
X Chromosome Included Yes No No Yes Yes, separate
Chromosome Browser Benefit Visual view of 7 or fewer matches Visual view of 7 or fewer matches, triangulation included if ALL people match on same portion of common segment No browser Visual view of 5 or fewer matches Unlimited view of matches, multiple options through comparison tools
Chromosome Browser Challenges Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal matches without additional info if don’t select bucketed matches Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without additional info if don’t triangulate or you don’t know your common ancestor with at least one person in triangulation group No browser Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without other information Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without other information
Shared “In Common With” Matches Yes Yes Yes Yes, if everyone opts in Yes
Triangulation Yes, Phased Family Matching, plus chromosome browser Yes, included in chromosome browser if all people being compared match on that segment No, and no browser Yes, but only for 3 people if “Shared DNA” = Yes on Relatives in Common Yes, through multiple comparison tools
Ability to Know if Matches Match Each Other (also see autoclusters) Yes, through Matrix tool or if match on common bucketed segment through Family Matching Yes, through triangulation tool if all match on common segment No Yes, can compare any person to any other person on your match list Yes, through comparison tool selections
Autoclusters Can select up to 10 people for Matrix grid, also available for entire match list through Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom which work well Genetic Affairs clustering included free, DNAGedcom has difficulty due to timeouts No, but Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom work well No, but Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom work well Yes, Genetic Affairs included in Tier 1 for selected kits, DNAGedcom is in beta
Trees Can upload or create tree. Linking you and relatives who match to tree triggers Phased Family Matching Can upload or create tree. Link yourself and kits you manage assists Theories of Family Relativity Can upload or create tree. Link your DNA to your tree to generate ThruLines. Recent new feature allows linking of DNA matches to tree. No tree support but can provide a link to a tree elsewhere Upload your tree so your matches can view
Matching and Automated Tree Construction of DNA Matches who Share Common Ancestors with You Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with you Not available Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with you No tree support Not available
Matching and Automated Tree Construction for DNA Matches with Common Ancestors with Each Other, But Not With You Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with each other, but not with you Not available Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with each other, but not with you No tree support Not available
DNAPainter Segment Compilation and Painting Yes, bucketed Family Match file can be uploaded which benefits tester immensely. Will be able to paint ethnicity segments soon. Yes No segment info available, encourage your matches to upload elsewhere Yes, and can paint ethnicity segments from 23andMe, Yes, but only for individually copied matches or highest 1000.
Y DNA and Mitochondrial Matching Yes, both, includes multiple tools, deep testing and detailed matching No No No, base haplogroup only, no matching No, haplogroup only if field manually completed by tester when uploading autosomal DNA file

Transfer Your DNA

Transferring your DNA results to each vendor who supports segment information and accepts transfers is not only important, it’s also a great way to extend your testing collar. Every vendor has strengths along with people who are found there and in no other database.

Ancestry does not provide segment information nor a chromosome browser, nor accept uploads, but you have several options to transfer your DNA file for free to other vendors who offer tools.

23andMe does provide a chromosome browser but does not accept uploads. You can download your DNA file and transfer free to other vendors.

I wrote detailed upload/download and transfer instructions for each vendor, here.

Two vendors and one third party support transfers into their systems. The transfers include matching. Basic tools are free, but all vendors charge a minimal fee for unlocking advanced tools, which is significantly less expensive than retesting:

Third-party tools that work with your DNA results include:

All vendors provide different tools and have unique strengths. Be sure that your DNA is working as hard as possible for you by fishing in every pond and utilizing third party tools to their highest potential.

Resource Articles

Explanations and step by step explanations of what you will see and what to do, when you open your DNA results for the first time.

Original article about chromosomes having 2 sides and how they affect genetic genealogy.

This article explains what triangulation is for autosomal DNA.

Why some matches may not be valid, and how to tell the difference.

This article explains the difference between a match group, meaning a group of people who match you, and triangulation, where that group also matches each other. The concepts are sound, but this article relies heavily on spreadsheets, before autocluster tools were available.

Parental phasing means assigning segment matches to either your paternal or maternal side.

Updated, introductory article about triangulation, providing the foundation for a series of articles about how to utilize triangulation at each vendor (FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, GEDmatch, DNAPainter) that supports triangulation.

These articles step you through triangulation at each vendor.

DNAPainter facilitates painting maternally and paternally phased, bucketed matches from FamilyTreeDNA, a method of triangulation.

Compiled articles with instructions and ideas for using DNAPainter.

Autoclustering tool instructions.

How and why The Leeds Method works.

Step by step instructions for when and how to use FamilyTreeDNA’s chromosome browser.

Close family members are the key to verifying matches and identifying common ancestors.

This article details how much DNA specific relationships between people can expect to share.

Overview of transfer information and links to instruction articles for each vendor, below.



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

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags, and other items

Triangulation in Action at Family Tree DNA

Recently, I published the article, Hitting a Genealogy Home Run Using Your Double-Sided Two-Faced Chromosomes While Avoiding Imposters. The “Home Run” article explains why you want to use a chromosome browser, what you’re seeing and what it means to you.

This article, and the rest in the “Triangulation in Action” series introduces triangulation at Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter, explaining how to use triangulation to confirm descent from a common ancestor. You may want to read the introductory article first.

What is Triangulation?

Think of triangulation as a three-legged stool – a triangle. Triangulation requires three things:

  1. At least three (not closely related) people must match
  2. On the same reasonably sized segment of DNA and
  3. Descend from a common ancestor

Triangulation is the foundation of confirming descent from a common ancestor, and thereby assigning a specific segment to that ancestor. Without triangulation, you might just have a match to someone else by chance. You can confirm mathematical triangulation, numbers 1 and 2, above, without knowing the identity of the common ancestor.


Triangulation means that all three, or more, people much match on a common segment. However, what you’re likely to see is that some people don’t match on the entire segment, meaning more or less than others as demonstrated in the following examples.

FTDNA Triangulation boundaries.png

You can see that I match 5 different cousins who I know descend from my father’s side on chromosome 15 above. As always, I’m the background grey and these matches are all being compared against me.

I triangulate with them in different ways, forming multiple triangulation groups that I’ve discussed individually, below.

Triangulation Group 1

FTDNA triangulation 1.png

Group 1 – On the left group of matches, above, I triangulate with the blue, red and orange person on the amount of DNA that is common between all of them, shown in the black box. This is triangulation group 1.

I’ve overlayed additional triangulation groups below, so you can compare the groups.

Triangulation Group 2

FTDNA triangulation 2.png

Group 2 – However, if you look just at the blue and orange triangulated matches bracketed in green, I triangulate on slightly more, extending to the left. This group excludes the red person because their beginning point is not the same, or even close. This is triangulation group 2.

Triangulation Group 3 and 4

FTDNA triang 3.png

Group 3 – At right, we see two large triangulation groups. Triangulation group 3 includes the common portions of blue, red, teal and orange matches.

Group 4 – Triangulation group 4 is the skinny group at far right and includes the common portion of the blue, teal and dark blue matches.

Triangulation Groups 5 and 6

FTDNA triang 5.png

Group 5 – There are also two more triangulation groups. The larger green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal people because their end locations are to the right of the end locations of the red and orange matches. The start location varies as well. This is triangulation group 5.

Group 6 – The smaller green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal person because their start locations are before the dark blue person. This is triangulation group 6.

There’s actually one more triangulation group. Can you spot it?

Triangulation Group 7

FTDNA triang 7.png

Group 7 – The tan group includes the red, teal and orange matches but only the areas where they all overlap. This excludes the top blue match because their start location is different. Triangulation group 7 only extends to the end of the red and orange matches, because those are the same locations, while the teal match extends further to the right. That extension is excluded in this group, of course.

Slight Variations

Matches with only slight start and end differences are probably descended from the same ancestor, but we can’t say that for sure (at this point) so we only include actual mathematically matching segments in a triangulation group.

You can see that triangulation groups often overlap because group members share more or less DNA with each other. Normally we don’t bother to number the groups – we just look at the alignment. I numbered them for illustration purposes.

Shared or In-Common-With Matching

Triangulation is not the same thing as a 3-way shared “in-common-with” match. You may share DNA with those two people, but on entirely different segments from entirely different ancestors. If those other two people match each other, it can be on a segment where you don’t match either of them, and thanks to an ancestor that they share who isn’t in your line at all. Shared matches are a great hint, especially in addition to other information such as Phased Family Matching which we’ll talk about in a minute, but shared matches don’t necessarily mean triangulation has occurred, although it’s a great place to start looking.

I have shared matches where I match one person on my maternal side, one on my paternal side, and they match each other through a completely different ancestor on an entirely different segment. However, we don’t triangulate because we don’t all match each other on the SAME segment of DNA. Yes, it can be confusing.

Just remember, each of your segments, and matches, has its own individual history.

Imputation Can Affect Matching

Over the years the chips on which our DNA is processed at the vendors have changed. Each new generation of chips tests a different number of markers, and sometimes different markers – with the overlaps between the entire suite of chips being less than optimal.

I can verify that most vendors use imputation to level the playing field, and even though two vendors have never verified that fact, I’m relatively certain that they all do. That’s the only way they could match to their own prior “only somewhat compatible” chip versions.

The net-net of this is that you may see some differences in matching segments at different vendors, even when you’re comparing the same people. Imputation generally “fills in the blanks,” but doesn’t create large swatches of non-existent DNA. I wrote about the concept of imputation here.

What I’d like for you to take away from this discussion is to be focused on the big picture – if and how people triangulate which is the function important to genealogy. Not if the start and end segments are exactly the same.

Triangulation Solutions

Each of the major vendors, except Ancestry who does not have a chromosome browser, offers some type of triangulation solution, so let’s look at what each vendor offers. If your Ancestry matches have uploaded to GedMatch, Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage, you can triangulate with them there. Otherwise, you can’t triangulate Ancestry results, so encourage your Ancestry matches to transfer.

You can find step-by-step transfer instructions to and from each vendor, here.

I wrote more specifically about triangulation here and here.

Let’s start by looking at triangulation at Family Tree DNA.

Triangulation at Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA has two different tools that can be used separately in different circumstances to determine whether or not your segments triangulate.

Phased Family Matching can be used for triangulation.

The Matrix tool can be utilized for people who aren’t designated through Phased Family Matching as maternal or paternal matches to suggest or eliminate triangulation.

First, go to the Family Finder section of your personal page.

We’ll be working with Matches, the Chromosome Browser, and the Matrix.

FTDNA triangulation page.png

Phased Family Matching

At Family Tree DNA, I’ve tested my cousins:

  • Cheryl, my mother’s first cousin (1C)
  • Charlene, my first cousin once removed (1C1R) on my father’s side
  • David, my second cousin (2C) on my father’s side.

I’ve linked the test results of those cousins to my tree in their proper location, which allows Family Tree DNA to do something called Phased Family Matching.

If you don’t have a tree and don’t link your DNA results and those of your family members, Family Tree DNA can’t perform Phased Family Matching.

I explained phasing in the introductory article.

Testing your parents is wonderful if that’s possible, but parents aren’t always available to test. At Family Tree DNA, you don’t need to have tested your parents in order to have phased matches.

In essence, Family Tree DNA uses the DNA of known cousins, third cousins or closer, to assign matches to maternal or paternal tabs, or sides, also sometimes referred to as buckets. I wrote about Phased Family Matching here and here.

FTDNA triang buckets.png

You can see that of my 4806 matches, 1101 are assigned to my paternal side, 884 to my maternal side and 4 are assigned to both.

FTDNA triang header.pngFTDNA triang Charlene.png

My cousin Charlene is assigned to my paternal side, as shown by the blue icon, because I linked her to the correct position in my tree, as is my cousin, David, below.

FTDNA triang David.png

Conversely, my cousin Cheryl is assigned maternally because I linked her as well.

FTDNA triang Cheryl.png

These specific people are assigned maternally and paternally because I linked them to their proper place in my tree. These matches will allows Family Tree DNA to link other testers to the proper side of my tree too, because they match me and my cousin on the same segments – in essence phasing a large number of my matches for me which facilitates triangulation.

Linking Matches on Your Tree

In order to cause Phased Family Matching, aka, “bucketing” to occur, I linked my own test and that of my known 3rd cousins or closer to their proper places in my tree at Family Tree DNA.

If you don’t create a tree or upload a GEDCOM file and link yourself and your known matches, your matches can’t be assigned to maternal and paternal sides.

FTDNA triang tree.png

By utilizing the matching DNA between you and known close relatives on your maternal and paternal sides, Family Tree DNA assigns other people who match both of you on those same segments to the same side of your tree.

If you select matches from the same side of your tree and they match on the same segments, they triangulate.

Of course, that’s assuming the person doesn’t match you on both sides of your tree.

You can also download your matching segments in a file and sort to see who matches on the same locations, but the parental side designation (bucketing) is not reflected in the segment download file. Bucketing is reflected in the match download file which is a different file.

There are two separate download files, but they can be merged.

Two Download Files

The first file, your match download file, provides information about your matches such as their haplogroups, surnames and contact information, including bucketing assignment, but not the actual matching segment data.

The match file tells you a great deal and is both sortable and searchable. You can search for any surname, for example, or you can sort for everyone in the Paternal or Maternal matching bucket. You can creatively combine parts of this file with the matching segments file in order to quickly flag the people on your paternal side. Knowledge about how to work with spreadsheets is a plus.

FTDNA triang match file

Click to enlarge

This download is available at the bottom of the Family Finder match page.

FTDNA triang match.png

You can download all of your matches, or just those in a filtered view, such as in-common-with or as the result of a surname search.

FTDNA triang download.png

The second file, your matching segments file, is available on the chromosome browser page.

The matching segments file includes the match name along with the matching chromosome segments and number of matching SNPs.

FTDNA triang segment file.png

If you click through to the chromosome browser from your main page, as shown below, with NO MATCHES SELECTED, you will be able to download ALL matching segments.

FTDNA triang browser.png

You’ll see “Download All Segments” in the upper right-hand corner.

FTDNA triang download all seg.png

From that Chromosome Browser page, you will also have the ability to select matches to show on the browser.

FTDNA triang browser select

If you select people on the match page before clicking on the chromosome browser or select matches on the chromosome browser page, then clicking on “Download Segments,” will only download the matching segments of the people that you have currently selected to match against in the browser.

FTDNA triang download seg.png

Combinations of Tools and Filters

  • The chromosome browser tells you if people match you on the same segment.
  • The in-common-with filter on the match page tells you who you match in common with a specific person, but not if those two people match each other.

Of course, if both people are assigned to your same parental side bucket, and they both only match you on one large segment – and it’s the same segment, then you must triangulate.

If they aren’t both assigned to a parental bucket, then you can’t make that determination using parental side designations.

Is there a tool that allows you to compare people against each other at the same time to see if your matches also match each other?

Glad you asked.

Yes, there is.

The Matrix

Let’s say that you want to see if a group of people who you match also match each other.

FTDNA triang matrix.png

Family Tree DNA provides a Matrix tool that allows you to select 10 (or fewer) matches in order to determine if your matches also match each other.

FTDNA triang matrix match.png

I’ve entered Cheryl, Charlene and David. You can see that David and Charlene match each other, and Cheryl doesn’t match either Charlene or David.

Of course, we know that’s accurate because:

  • I already know these people and their relationship to me and each other
  • These three people are already assigned to maternal and paternal sides or buckets, so the matrix is verifying what we already know
  • I know where they match on the same segment on the chromosome browser

FTDNA triang 3 browser.png

Even though they match on the same segment on the chromosome browser, the fact that they are bucketed to different parental sides, and that the matrix shows that Cheryl doesn’t match either Charlene and David, confirms that David and Charlene triangulate with me, while Cheryl is not a member of that triangulation group.

This is exactly why triangulation is important. Looking at the image above, the only thing you know is that they all 3 match you – but with the additional information about bucketing and the matrix, we know that only the two bottom people, Charlene and David triangulate with me. Note that I’ve added the maternal and paternal icons for clarity.

FTDNA triang match group browser.png

However, if I didn’t have this knowledge, or not everyone was bucketed, the Matrix tool would be extremely useful. The matrix tool uses the matching threshold of approximately 7.69 cM.

The matrix doesn’t tell you if these people match each other on the same segment where they match you,

However, there’s a good probability that they do, especially if only one matching segment is involved.

You can check the chromosome browser to see if they both match you on the same segment. It’s possible if they don’t match you on the same segment that they match each other on different segments, and possibly through a different ancestor. You may need to reach out to them to ask if they match each other, and if they have known genealogy if they aren’t bucketed.

By utilizing the Matrix tool, you can isolate people to maternal and paternal sides of your tree.

Other Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

Be sure to check other clues at Family Tree DNA such as:

Shared surnames, shown on your matches page, with common surnames that you share bolded

FTDNA triang surnames.png

Trees, indicated by the blue pedigree icon on the match page.

FTDNA triang pedigree.png

Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and matching. You can view your matches haplogroup and other information by clicking on their profile picture on your matches page.

FTDNA triang profile.png

Advanced Matching can be utilized to see if you match on combined tests, or in common projects.

FTDNA triang advanced match.png

This article discusses the 9 different autosomal tools available at Family Tree DNA.

What About You?

Do you have a tree at Family Tree DNA?

Have you connected your test and any family members to your tree?

Can you test a family member, third cousins or closer, or have them transfer a kit from another vendor?

Here’s how to transfer:

How many people do you have on your paternal and maternal tabs on your Family Finder matches page?

You can paint every single one of the people who are designated as maternal or paternal at DNAPainter to your grandparents on the respective maternal or paternal side. DNAPainter Instructions and Resources will explain how, and why.

Join me soon for similar articles about how to work with triangulation at MyHeritage, 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter.

Most of all – have fun!



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 Services

Genealogy Research

First Steps When Your DNA Results are Ready – Sticking Your Toe in the Genealogy Water

First steps helix

Recently someone asked me what the first steps would be for a person who wasn’t terribly familiar with genealogy and had just received their DNA test results.

I wrote an article called DNA Results – First Glances at Ethnicity and Matching which was meant to show new folks what the various vendor interfaces look like. I was hoping this might whet their appetites for more, meaning that the tester might, just might, stick their toe into the genealogy waters😊

I’m hoping this article will help them get hooked! Maybe that’s you!

A Guide

This article can be read in one of two ways – as an overview, or, if you click the links, as a pretty thorough lesson. If you’re new, I strongly suggest reading it as an overview first, then a second time as a deeper dive. Use it as a guide to navigate your results as you get your feet wet.

I’ll be hotlinking to various articles I’ve written on lots of topics, so please take a look at details (eventually) by clicking on those links!

This article is meant as a guideline for what to do, and how to get started with your DNA matching results!

If you’re looking for ethnicity information, check out the First Glances article, plus here and here and here.

Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages provides you with guidelines for how to estimate your own ethnicity percentages based on your known genealogy and Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum explains how ethnicity testing is done.

OK, let’s get started. Fun awaits!

The Goal

The goal for using DNA matching in genealogy depends on your interests.

  1. To discover cousins and family members that you don’t know. Some people are interested in finding and meeting relatives who might have known their grandparents or great-grandparents in the hope of discovering new family information or photos they didn’t know existed previously. I’ve been gifted with my great-grandparent’s pictures, so this strategy definitely works!
  2. To confirm ancestors. This approach presumes that you’ve done at least a little genealogy, enough to construct at least a rudimentary tree. Ancestors are “confirmed” when you DNA match multiple other people who descend from the same ancestor through multiple children. I wrote an article, Ancestors: What Constitutes Proof?, discussing how much evidence is enough to actually confirm an ancestor. Confirmation is based on a combination of both genealogical records and DNA matching and it varies depending on the circumstances.
  3. Adoptees and people with unknown parents seeking to discover the identities of those people aren’t initially looking at their own family tree – because they don’t have one yet. The genealogy of others can help them figure out the identity of those mystery people. I wrote about that technique in the article, Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching.

DNAAdoption for Everyone

Educational resources for adoptees and non-adoptees alike can be found at DNAAdoption is not just for adoptees and provides first rate education for everyone. They also provide trained and mentored search angels for adoptees who understand the search process along with the intricacies of navigating the emotional minefield of adoption and unknown parent searches.

First Look” classes for each vendor are free for everyone at DNAAdoption and are self-paced, downloadable onto your computer as a pdf file. Intro to DNA, Applied Autosomal DNA and Y DNA Basics classes are nominally priced at between $29 and $49 and I strongly recommend these. DNAAdoption is entirely non-profit, so your class fee or contribution supports their work. Additional resources can be found here and their 12 adoptee search steps here.

Ok, now let’s look at your results.

Matches are the Key

Regardless of your goal, your DNA matches are the key to finding answers, whether you want to make contact with close relatives, prove your more distant ancestors or you’re involved in an adoptee or unknown parent search.

Your DNA matches that of other people because each of you inherited a piece of DNA, called a segment, where many locations are identical. The length of that DNA segment is measured in centiMorgans and those locations are called SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms. You can read about the definition of a centimorgan and how they are used in the article Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’Crab.

While the scientific details are great, they aren’t important initially. What is important is to understand that the more closely you match someone, the more closely you are related to them. You share more DNA with close relatives than more distant relatives.

For example, I share exactly half of my mother’s DNA, but only about 25% of each of my grandparents’ DNA. As the relationships move further back in time, I share less and less DNA with other people who descend from those same ancestors.

Informational Tools

Every vendor’s match page looks different, as was illustrated in the First Glances article, but regardless, you are looking for four basic pieces of information:

  • Who you match
  • How much DNA you share with your match
  • Who else you and your match share that DNA with, which suggests that you all share a common ancestor
  • Family trees to reveal the common ancestor between people who match each other

Every vendor has different ways of displaying this information, and not all vendors provide everything. For example, 23andMe does not support trees, although they allow you to link to one elsewhere. Ancestry does not provide a tool called a chromosome browser which allows you to see if you and others match on the same segment of DNA. Ancestry only tells you THAT you match, not HOW you match.

Each vendor has their strengths and shortcomings. As genealogists, we simply need to understand how to utilize the information available.

I’ll be using examples from all 4 major vendors:

Your matches are the most important information and everything else is based on those matches.

Family Tree DNA

I have tested many family members from both sides of my family at Family Tree DNA using the Family Finder autosomal test which makes my matches there incredibly useful because I can see which family members, in addition to me, my matches match.

Family Tree DNA assigns matches to maternal and paternal sides in a unique way, even if your parents haven’t tested, so long as some close relatives have tested. Let’s take a look.

First Steps Family Tree DNA matches.png

Sign on to your account and click to see your matches.

At the top of your Family Finder matches page, you’ll see three groups of things, shown below.

First Steps Family Tree DNA bucketing

Click to enlarge

A row of tools at the top titled Chromosome Browser, In Common With and Not in Common With.

A second row of tabs that include All, Paternal, Maternal and Both. These are the maternal and paternal tabs I mentioned, meaning that I have a total of 4645 matches, 988 of which are from my paternal side and 847 of which are from my maternal side.

Family Tree DNA assigns people to these “buckets” based on matches with third cousins or closer if you have them attached in your tree. This is why it’s critical to have a tree and test close relatives, especially people from earlier generations like aunts, uncles, great-aunts/uncles and their children if they are no longer living.

If you have one or both parents that can test, that’s a wonderful boon because anyone who matches you and one of your parents is automatically bucketed, or phased (scientific term) to that parent’s side of the tree. However, at Family Tree DNA, it’s not required to have a parent test to have some matches assigned to maternal or paternal sides. You just need to test third cousins or closer and attach them to the proper place in your tree.

How does bucketing work?

Maternal or Paternal “Side” Assignment, aka Bucketing

If I match a maternal first cousin, Cheryl, for example, and we both match John Doe on the same segment, John Doe is automatically assigned to my maternal bucket with a little maternal icon placed beside the match.

First Steps Family Tree DNA match info

Click to enlarge

Every vendor provides an estimated or predicted relationship based on a combination of total centiMorgans and the longest contiguous matching segment. The actual “linked relationship” is calculated based on where this person resides in your tree.

The common surnames at far right are a very nice features, but not every tester provides that information. When the testers do include surnames at Family Tree DNA, common surnames are bolded. Other vendors have similar features.

People with trees are shown near their profile picture with a blue pedigree icon. Clicking on the pedigree icon will show you their ancestors. Your matches estimated relationship to you indicates how far back you should expect to share an ancestor.

For example, first cousins share grandparents. Second cousins share great-grandparents. In general, the further back in time your common ancestor, the less DNA you can be expected to share.

You can view relationship information in chart form in my article here or utilize DNAPainter tools, here, to see the various possibilities for the different match levels.

Clicking on the pedigree chart of your match will show you their tree. In my tree, I’ve connected my parents in their proper places, along with Cheryl and Don, mother’s first cousins. (Yes, they’ve given permission for me to utilize their results, so they aren’t always blurred in images.)

Cheryl and Don are my first cousins once removed, meaning my mother is their first cousin and I’m one generation further down the tree. I’m showing the amount of DNA that I share with each of them in red in the format of total DNA shared and longest unbroken segment, taken from the match list. So 382-53 means I share a total of 382 cM and 53 cM is the longest matching block.

First Steps Family Tree DNA tree.png

The Chromosome Browser

Utilizing the chromosome browser, I can see exactly where I match both Don and Cheryl. It’s obvious that I match them on at least some different pieces of my DNA, because the total and longest segment amounts are different.

The reason it’s important to test lots of close relatives is because even siblings inherit different pieces of DNA from their parents, and they don’t pass the same DNA to their offspring either – so in each generation the amount of shared DNA is probably reduced. I say probably because sometimes segments are passed entirely and sometimes not at all, which is how we “lose” our ancestors’ DNA over the generations.

Here’s a matching example utilizing a chromosome browser.

First Steps Family Tree DNA chromosome browser.png

I clicked the checkboxes to the left of both Cheryl and Don on the match page, then the Chromosome Browser button, and now you can see, above, on chromosomes 1-16 where I match Cheryl (blue) and Don (red.)

In this view, both Don and Cheryl are being compared to me, since I’m the one signed in to my account and viewing my DNA matches. Therefore, one of the bars at each chromosome represents Don’s DNA match to me and one represents Cheryl’s. Cheryl is the first person and Don is the second. Person match colors (red and blue) are assigned arbitrarily by the system.

My grandfather and Cheryl/Don’s father, Roscoe, were siblings.

You can see that on some segments, my grandfather and Roscoe inherited the same segment of DNA from their parents, because today, my mother gave me that exact same segment that I share with both Don and Cheryl. Those segments are exactly identical and shown in the black boxes.

The only way for us to share this DNA today is for us to have shared a common ancestor who gave it to two of their children who passed it on to their descendants who DNA tested today.

On other segments, in red boxes, I share part of the same segments of DNA with Cheryl and Don, but someone along the line didn’t inherit all of that segment. For example on chromosome 3, in the red box, you can see that I share more with Cheryl (blue) than Don (red.)

In other cases, I share with either Don or Cheryl, but Don and Cheryl didn’t inherit that same segment of DNA from their father, so I don’t share with both of them. Those are the areas where you see only blue or only red.

On chromosome 12, you can see where it looks like Don’s and Cheryl’s segments butt up against each other. The DNA was clearly divided there. Don received one piece and Cheryl got the other. That’s known as a crossover and you can read about crossovers here, if you’d like.

It’s important to be able to view segment information to be able to see how others match in order to identify which common ancestor that DNA came from.

In Common With

You can use the “In Common With” tool to see who you match in common with any match. My first 6 matches in common with Cheryl are shown below. Note that they are already all bucketed to my maternal side.

First Steps Family Tree DNA in common with

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You can click on up to 7 individuals in the check box at left to show them on the chromosome browser at once to see if they match you on common segments.

Each matching segment has its own history and may descend from a different ancestor in your common tree.

First Steps 7 match chromosome browser

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If combinations of people do match me on a common segment, because these matches are all on my maternal side, they are triangulated and we know they have to descend from a common ancestor, assuming the segment is large enough. You can read about the concept of triangulation here. Triangulation occurs when 3 or more people (who aren’t extremely closely related like parents or siblings) all match each other on the same reasonably sized segment of DNA.

If you want to download your matches and work through this process in a spreadsheet, that’s an option too.

Size Matters

Small segments can be identical by chance instead of identical by descent.

  • “Identical by chance” means that you accidentally match someone because your DNA on that segment has been combined from both parents and causes it to match another person, making the segment “looks like” it comes from a common ancestor, when it really doesn’t. When DNA is sequenced, both your mother and father’s strands are sequenced, meaning that there’s no way to determine which came from whom. Think of a street with Mom’s side and Dad’s side with identical addresses on the houses on both sides. I wrote about that here.
  • “Identical by descent” means that the DNA is identical because it actually descends from a common ancestor. I discussed that concept in the article, We Match, But Are We Related.

Generally, we only utilize 7cM (centiMorgan) segments and above because at that level, about half of the segments are identical by descent and about half are identical by chance, known as false positives. By the time we move above 15 cM, most, but not all, matches are legitimate. You can read about segment size and accuracy here.

Using “In Common With” and the Matrix

“In Common With” is about who shares DNA. You can select someone you match to see who else you BOTH match. Just because you match two other people doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s on the same segment of DNA. In fact, you could match one person from your mother’s side and the other person from your father’s side.

First Steps match matrix.png

In this example, you match Person B due to ancestor John Doe and Person C due to ancestor Susie Smith. However, Person B also matches person C, but due to ancestor William West that they share and you don’t.

This example shows you THAT they match, but not HOW they match.

The only way to assure that the matches between the three people above are due to the same ancestor is to look at the segments with a chromosome browser and compare all 3 people to each other. Finding 3 people who match on the same segment, from the same side of your tree means that (assuming a reasonably large segment) you share a common ancestor.

Family Tree DNA has a nice matrix function that allows you to see which of your matches also match each other.

First steps matrix link

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The important distinction between the matrix and the chromosome browser is that the chromosome browser shows you where your matches match you, but those matches could be from both sides of your tree, unless they are bucketed. The matrix shows you if your matches also match each other, which is a huge clue that they are probably from the same side of your tree.

First Steps Family Tree DNA matrix.png

A matrix match is a significant clue in terms of who descends from which ancestors. For example, I know, based on who Amy matches, and who she doesn’t match, that she descends from the Ferverda side and that Charles, Rex and Maxine descend from ancestors on the Miller side.

Looking in the chromosome browser, I can tell that Cheryl, Don, Amy and I match on some common segments.

Matching multiple people on the same segment that descends from a common ancestor is called triangulation.

Let’s take a look at the MyHeritage triangulation tool.


Moving now to MyHeritage who provides us with an easy to use triangulation tool, we see the following when clicking on DNA matches on the DNA tab on the toolbar.

First Steps MyHeritage matches

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Cousin Cheryl is at MyHeritage too. By clicking on Review DNA Match, the purple button on the right, I can see who else I match in common with Cheryl, plus triangulation.

The list of people Cheryl and I both match is shown below, along with our relationships to each person.

First Steps MyHeritage triangulation

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I’ve selected 2 matches to illustrate.

The first match has a little purple icon to the right which means that Amy triangulates with me and Cheryl.

The second match, Rex, means that while we both match Rex, it’s not on the same segment. I know that without looking further because there is no triangulation button. We both match Rex, but Cheryl matches Rex on a different segment than I do.

Without additional genealogy work, using DNA alone, I can’t say whether or not Cheryl, Rex and I all share a common ancestor. As it turns out, we do. Rex is a known cousin who I tested. However, in an unknown situation, I would have to view the trees of those matches to make that determination.


Clicking on the purple triangulation icon for Amy shows me the segments that all 3 of us, me, Amy and Cheryl share in common as compared to me.

First Steps MyHeritage triangulation chromosome browser.png

Cheryl is red and Amy is yellow. The one segment bracketed with the rounded rectangle is the segment shared by all 3 of us.

Do we have a common ancestor? I know Cheryl and I do, but maybe I don’t know who Amy is. Let’s look at Amy’s tree which is also shown if I scroll down.

First Steps MyHeritage common ancestor.png

Amy didn’t have her tree built out far enough to show our common ancestor, but I immediately recognized the surname Ferveda found in her tree a couple of generations back. Darlene was the daughter of Donald Ferverda who was the son of Hiram Ferverda, my great-grandfather.

Hiram was the father of Cheryl’s father, Roscoe and my grandfather, John Ferverda.

First Steps Hiram Ferverda pedigree.png

Amy is my first cousin twice removed and that segment of DNA that I share with her is from either Hiram Ferverda or his wife Eva Miller.

Now, based on who else Amy matches, I can probably tell whether that segment descends from Hiram or Eva.

Viva triangulation!

Theory of Family Relativity

MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity provides theories to people whose DNA matches regarding their common ancestor if MyHeritage can calculate how the 2 people are potentially related.

MyHeritage uses a combination of tools to make that connection, including:

  • DNA matches
  • Your tree
  • Your match’s tree
  • Other people’s trees at MyHeritage, FamilySearch and Geni if the common ancestor cannot be found in your tree compared against your DNA match’s MyHeritage
  • Documents in the MyHeritage data collection, such as census records, for example.

MyHeritage theory update

To view the Theories, click on the purple “View Theories” banner or “View theory” under the DNA match.

First Steps MyHeritage theory of relativity

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The theory is displayed in summary format first.

MyHeritage view full theory

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You can click on the “View Full Theory” to see the detail and sources about how MyHeritage calculated various paths. I have up to 5 different theories that utilize separate resources.

MyHeritage review match

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A wonderful aspect of this feature is that MyHeritage shows you exactly the information they utilized and calculates a confidence factor as well.

All theories should be viewed as exactly that and should be evaluated critically for accuracy, taking into consideration sources and documentation.

I wrote about using Theories of Relativity, with instructions, here and here.

I love this tool and find the Theories mostly accurate.


Ancestry doesn’t offer a chromosome browser or triangulation but does offer a tree view for people that you match, so long as you have a subscription. In the past, a special “Light” subscription for DNA only was available for approximately $49 per year that provided access to the trees of your DNA matches and other DNA-related features. You could not order online and had to call support, sometimes asking for a supervisor in order to purchase that reduced-cost subscription. The “Light” subscription did not provide access to anything outside of DNA results, meaning documents, etc. I don’t know if this is still available.

After signing on, click on DNA matches on the DNA tab on the toolbar.

You’ll see the following match list.

First Steps Ancestry matches

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I’ve tested twice at Ancestry, the second time when they moved to their new chip, so I’m my own highest match. Click on any match name to view more.

First Steps Ancestry shared matches

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You’ll see information about common ancestors if you have some in your trees, plus the amount of shared DNA along with a link to Shared Matches.

I found one of the same cousins at Ancestry whose match we were viewing at MyHeritage, so let’s see what her match to me at Ancestry looks like.

Below are my shared matches with that cousin. The notes to the right are mine, not provided by Ancestry. I make extensive use of the notes fields provided by the vendors.

First Steps Ancestry shared matches with cousin

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On your match list, you can click on any match, then on Shared Matches to see who you both match in common. While Ancestry provides no chromosome browser, you can see the amount of DNA that you share and trees, if any exist.

Let’s look at a tree comparison when a common ancestor can be detected in a tree within the past 7 generations.

First Steps Ancestry view ThruLines.png

What’s missing of course is that I can’t see how we match because there’s no chromosome browser, nor can I see if my matches match each other.

Stitched Trees

What I can see, if I click on “View ThruLines” above or ThruLines on the DNA Summary page on the main DNA tab is all of the people I match who Ancestry THINKS we descend from a common ancestor. This ancestor information isn’t always taken from either person’s tree.

For example, if my match hadn’t included Hiram Ferverda in her tree, Ancestry would use other people’s trees to “stitch them together” such that the tester is shown to be descended from a common ancestor with me. Sometimes these stitched trees are accurate and sometimes they are not, although they have improved since they were first released. I wrote about ThruLines here.

First Steps Ancestry ThruLines tree

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In closer generations, especially if you are looking to connect with cousins, tree matching is a very valuable tool. In the graphic above, you can see all of the cousins who descend from Hiram Ferverda who have tested and DNA match to me. These DNA matches to me either descend from Hiram according to their trees, or Ancestry believes they descend from Hiram based on other people’s trees.

With more distant ancestors, other people’s trees are increasingly likely to be copied with no sources, so take them with a very large grain of salt (perchance the entire salt lick.) I use ThruLines as hints, not gospel, especially the further back in time the common ancestor. I wish they reached back another couple of generations. They are great hints and they end with the 7th generation where my brick walls tend to begin!


I haven’t mentioned 23andMe yet in this article. Genealogists do test there, especially adoptees who need to fish in every pond.

23andMe is often the 4th choice of the major 4 vendors for genealogy due to the following challenges:

  • No tree support, other than allowing you to link to a tree at FamilySearch or elsewhere. This means no tree matching.
  • Less than 2000 matches, meaning that every person is limited to a maximum of 2000 matches, minus however many of those 2000 don’t opt-in for genealogical matching. Given that 23andMe’s focus is increasingly health, my number of matches continues to decrease and is currently just over 1500. The good news is that those 1500 are my highest, meaning closest matches. The bad news is the genealogy is not 23andMe’s focus.

If you are an adoptee, a die-hard genealogist or specifically interested in ethnicity, then test at 23andMe. Otherwise all three of the other vendors would be better choices.

However, like the other vendors, 23andMe does have some features that are unique.

Their ethnicity predictions are acknowledged to be excellent. Ethnicity at 23andMe is called Ancestry Composition, and you’ll see that immediately when you sign in to your account.

First Steps 23andMe DNA Relatives.png

Your matches at 23andMe are found under DNA Relatives.

First Steps 23andMe tools

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At left, you’ll find filters and the search box.

Mom’s and Dad’s side filter matches if you’ve tested your parents, but it’s not like the Family Tree DNA bucketing that provides maternal and paternal side bucketing by utilizing through third cousins if your parents aren’t available for testing.

Family names aren’t your family names, but the top family names that match to you. Guess what my highest name is? Smith.

However, Ancestor Birthplaces are quite useful because you can sort by country. For example, my mother’s grandfather Ferverda was born in the Netherlands.

First Steps 23andMe country.png

If I click on Netherlands, I can see my 5 matches with ancestors born in the Netherlands. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I match because of my match’s Dutch ancestors, but it does provide me with a place to look for a common ancestor and I can proceed by seeing who I match in common with those matches. Unfortunately, without trees we’re left to rely on ancestor birthplaces and family surnames, if my matches have entered that information.

One of my Dutch matches also matches my Ferverda cousin. Given that connection, and that the Ferverda family immigrated from Holland in 1868, that’s a starting point.

MyHeritage has a similar features and they are much more prevalent in Europe.

By clicking on my Ferverda cousin, I can view the DNA we share, who we match in common, our common ethnicity and more. I have the option of comparing multiple people in the chromosome browser by clicking on “View DNA Comparison” and then selecting who I wish to compare.

First Steps 23andMe view DNA Comparison.png

By scrolling down instead of clicking on View DNA Comparison, I can view where my Ferverda cousin matches me on my chromosomes, shown below.

First STeps 23andMe chromosome browser.png

23andMe identifies completely identical segments which would be painted in dark purple, the legend at bottom left.

Adoptees love this feature because it would immediately differentiate between half and full siblings. Full siblings share approximately 25% of the exact DNA on both their maternal and paternal strands of DNA, while half siblings only share the DNA from one parent – assuming their parents aren’t closely related. I share no completely identical DNA with my Ferverda cousin, so no segments are painted dark purple.

23andMe and Ancestry Maps Show Where Your Matches Live

Another reason that adoptees and people searching for birth parents or unknown relatives like 23andMe is because of the map function.

After clicking on DNA Relatives, click on the Map function at the top of the page which displays the following map.

First Steps 23andMe map

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This isn’t a map of where your matches ancestors lived, but is where your matches THEMSELVES live. Furthermore, you can zoom in, click on the button and it displays the name of the individual and the city where they live or whatever they entered in the location field.

First Steps 23andMe your location on map.png

I entered a location in my profile and confirmed that the location indeed displays on my match’s maps by signing on to another family member’s account. What I saw is the display above. I’d wager that most testers don’t realize that their home location and photo, if entered, is being displayed to their matches.

I think sharing my ancestors’ locations is a wonderful, helpful, idea, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for anyone to know where I live and I feel it’s stalker-creepy and a safety risk.

First Steps 23andMe questions.png

If you enter a location in this field in your profile, it displays on the map.

If you test with 23andMe and you don’t want your location to display on this map to your matches, don’t answer any question that asks you where you call home or anything similar. I never answer any questions at 23andMe. They are known for asking you the same question repeatedly, in multiple locations and ways, until you relent and answer.

Ancestry has a similar map feature and they’ve also begun to ask you questions that are unrelated to genealogy.

Ancestry Map Shows Where Your Matches Live

At Ancestry, when you click to see your DNA matches, look to the right at the map link.

First Steps Ancestry map link.png

By clicking on this link, you can see the locations that people have entered into their profile.

First Steps Ancestry match map.png

As you can see, above, I don’t have a location entered and I am prompted for one. Note that Ancestry does specifically say that this location will be shown to your matches.

You can click on the Ancestry Profile link here, or go to your Personal Profile by click the dropdown under your user name in the upper right hand corner of any page.

This is important because if you DON’T want your location to show, you need to be sure there is nothing entered in the location field.

First Steps Ancestry profile.png

Under your profile, click “Edit.”

First Steps Ancestry edit profile.png

After clicking edit, complete the information you wish to have public or remove the information you do not.

First Steps Ancestry location in profile.png

Sometimes Your Answer is a Little More Complicated

This is a First Steps article. Sometimes the answer you seek might be a little more complicated. That’s why there are specialists who deal with this all day, everyday.

What issues might be more complex?

If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about these things for now. Just know when you run into something more complex or that doesn’t make sense, I’m here and so are others. Here’s a link to my Help page.

Getting Started

What do you need to get started?

  • You need to take a DNA test, or more specifically, multiple DNA tests. You can test at Ancestry or 23andMe and transfer your results to both Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, or you can test directly at all vendors.

Neither Ancestry nor 23andMe accept uploads, meaning other vendors tests, but both MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA accept most file versions. Instructions for how to download and upload your DNA results are found below, by vendor:

Both MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA charge a minimal fee to unlock their advanced features such as chromosome browsers and ethnicity if you upload transfer files, but it’s less costly in both cases than testing directly. However, if you want the MyHeritage DNA plus Health or the Family Tree DNA Y DNA or Mitochondrial DNA tests, you must test directly at those companies for those tests.

  • It’s not required, but it would be in your best interest to build as much of a tree at all three vendors as you can. Every little bit helps.

Your first tree-building step should be to record what your family knows about your grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles. Here’s what my first step attempt looked like. It’s cringe-worthy now, but everyone has to start someplace. Just do it!

You can build a tree at either Ancestry or MyHeritage and download your tree for uploading at the other vendors. Or, you can build the tree using genealogy software on your computer and upload to all 3 places. I maintain my primary tree on my computer using RootsMagic. There are many options. MyHeritage even provides free tree builder software.

Both Ancestry and MyHeritage offer research/data subscriptions that provide you with hints to historical documents that increase what you know about your ancestors. The MyHeritage subscription can be tried for free. I have full subscriptions to both Ancestry and MyHeritage because they both include documents in their collections that the other does not.

Please be aware that document suggestions are hints and each one needs to be evaluated in the context of what you know and what’s reasonable. For example, if your ancestor was born in 1750, they are not included in the 1900 census, nor do women have children at age 70. People do have exactly the same names. FindAGrave information is entered by humans and is not always accurate. Just sayin’…

Evaluate critically and skeptically.

Ok, Let’s Go!

When your DNA results are ready, sign on to each vendor, look at your matches and use this article to begin to feel your way around. It’s exciting and the promise is immense. Feel free to share the link to this article on social media or with anyone else who might need help.

You are the cumulative product of your ancestors. What better way to get to know them than through their DNA that’s shared between you and your cousins!

What can you discover today?



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.

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Genealogy Research

AutoClustering by Genetic Affairs

The company Genetic Affairs launched a few weeks ago with an offer to regularly visit your vendor accounts at Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe, and compile a spreadsheet of your matches, download it, and send it to you in an e-mail. They then update your match list at regular intervals of your choosing.

I didn’t take advantage of this, mostly because Ancestry doesn’t provide me with segment information and while 23andMe and Family Tree DNA both do, I maintain a master spreadsheet that the new matches wouldn’t integrate with. Granted, I could sort by match date and add only the new ones to my master spreadsheet, but it was never a priority. That was yesterday.


That changed this week. Genetic Affairs introduced a new AutoClustering tool that provides users with clustered matches. I’m salivating and couldn’t get signed up quickly enough.

Please note that I’ve cropped the names for this article – the Genetic Affairs display shows you the entire name.

In short, each tiny square node represents a three-way match, between you and both of the people in the intersection of the grid. This does NOT mean they are triangulated, but it does mean there’s a really good chance they would triangulate. Think of this as the Family Tree DNA matrix on steroids and automated.

This tool allows me by using my mother’s test as well to actually triangulate my matches. If they are on my mother’s side of the tree, match me and mother both, and are in the match matrix, they must triangulate on my mother’s side of my tree if they both match me on the same segment.

With this information, I can check the chromosome browser, comparing my chromosomes to those other two individuals in the matrix to see if we share a common segment – or I can simply sort the spreadsheet provided with the AutoCluster results. Suddenly that delivery service is extremely convenient!

No, this service is not free, but it’s quite reasonable. I’m going to step through the process. Note that at times, the website seemed to be unresponsive especially when moving from one step to another. Refreshing the page remedied the problem.

Account Setup

Go to Click on Register to set up your account, which is very easy.

After registering, move to step 2, “Add website.”

Add websites where you have accounts. All of your own profiles plus the other people’s that you manage at both Ancestry and 23andMe are included when you register that site in your profile.

You’ll need your signon information and password for each site.

At Family Tree DNA, you’ll need to add a new website for each account since every account has its own kit number and password.

I added my own account and my mother’s account since mother’s DNA is every bit as relevant to my genealogy as my own, AND, I only received half of her DNA which means she will have many matches that I don’t.

When you’re finished adding accounts, click on “Websites and Profiles” at the top to open the website tab of your choosing and click on the blue circular arrows AutoCluster link. You are telling the system to go out and gather your matches from the vendor and then cluster your matches together, generating an AutoCluster graphic file.

There are several more advanced options, but I’m going to run initially with Approach A, the default level. This will exclude my closest matches. Your closest matches will fall into multiple cluster groups, and the software is not set up to accommodate that – so they will wind up as a grey nonclustered square. That’s not all bad, but you’ll want to experiment to see which parameters are best for you.

If you have half-siblings, you may want to work with alternate settings because that half-sibling is important in terms of phasing your matches to maternal or paternal sides.

Asking me if “I’m sure” always causes me to really sit back and think about what I’ve done. Like, do I want to delete my account. In this case, it’s “overworry” because the system is just asking if you want to spend 25 credits, which is less than a dollar and probably less than a quarter. Right now, you’re using your free initial credits anyway.

The first time you set up an account, Genetic Affairs signs in to your account to assure that your login information is accurate.

I selected my profile and my mother’s profile at Family Tree DNA, plus one profile each at 23andMe and Ancestry. I have two profiles at both 23andMe (V3 and V4) and Ancestry (V1 and V2).

When making my selections, I wasn’t clear about the meaning of “minimum DNA match” initially, but it means fourth cousin and closer, NOT fourth and more distant.

My recommendation until you get the hang of things is to use the first default option, at least initially, then experiment.


While I was busy ordering AutoClusters, Genetic Affairs was sending me a welcome e-mail.

Hello Roberta Estes,

Thank you for joining Genetic Affairs! We hope you will enjoy our services.

We have a manual available as well as a frequently asked questions section that both provide background information how to use our website.

You currently have 200 credits which can be supplemented using single payments and/or monthly subscriptions. Check out our prices page for more information concerning our rates.

Please let us know if anything is unclear, we can be reached using the contact form.

The great news is that everyone begins with 200 free credits which may last you for quite some time.  Or not. Consider them introductory crack from your new pusher.


Genetic affairs will sign on your account at either Ancestry, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA, or all 3, periodically and provide you with match information about your new matches at each website. You select the interval when you configure your account. After each update, you can order a new AutoCluster if you wish.

Each update, and each AutoCluster request has a cost in points, sold as credits, associated with the service.

To purchase credits after you use your initial 200, you will need to enter your credit card information in the Settings Page, which is found in the dropdown (down arrow) right beside your profile photo.

You can select from and enroll in several plans.

Prices which varies by how often you want updates to be performed and for how many accounts. To see the various service offerings and cost, click here.

Here’s an example calculation for weekly updates:

This is exactly what I need, so it looks like this service will cost me $2.16 per month, plus any Autoclustering which is 25 credits each time I AutoCluster. Therefore, I’ll add another 100 credits for a total of $3.16 per month.

It looks like the $5 per month package will do for me. But don’t worry about that right now, because you’re enjoying your free crack, um, er, credits.

Ok, the e-mail with my results has just arrived after the longest 10 minutes on earth, so let’s take a look!

The Results E-mail

In a few minutes (or longer) after you order, an e-mail with the autoclustering results will arrive. Check your spam filter. Some of my e-mails were there, and some reports simply had to be reordered. One report never arrived after being ordered 3 times.

The e-mail when it arrives states the following:

Hello Roberta Estes,

For profile Roberta Estes: An AutoCluster analysis has been performed (access it through the attached HTML file).

As requested, cM thresholds of 250 cM and 50 cM were used. A total number of 176 matches were identified that were used for a AutoCluster analysis. There should be two CSV files attached to this email and if enough matches can be clustered, an additional HTML file. The first CSV file contains all matches that were identified. The second CSV file contains a spreadsheet version of the AutoCluster analysis. The HTML file will contain a visual representation of the AutoCluster analysis if enough matches were present for the clustering analysis. Please note that some files might be displayed incorrectly when directly opened from this email. Instead, save them to your local drive and open the files from there.

Attached I found 3 files:

  • Matches list
  • Autocluster grid csv file
  • Autocluster html file that shows the cluster itself

The Match Spreadsheet

The first thing that will arrive in your e-mail is a spreadsheet of your matches for the account you configured and ordered an AutoCluster for.

In the e-mail, your top 20 matches are listed, which initially confused me, because I wondered if that means they are not in the spreadsheet. They are.

At 23andMe, I initially selected 5th cousins and closer, which was the most distant match option provided. I had a total of 1233 matches.

23andMe caps your account at 2000 (unless you have communicated with people who are further than 2000 away, in which case they remain on your list), but you can’t modify the Genetic Affairs profile to include any people more distant than 5th cousins

Note that the 23andMe download shows you information about your match, but NOT the actual matching segment information☹

At Ancestry, I selected 4th cousin and closer and I received a total of 2698 matches. I could select “distant cousin” which would result in additional matches being downloaded and a different autoclustering diagram. I may experiment with this with my V2 account and compare them side by side.

This Ancestry information provides an important clue for me, because the matches I work with are generally only my Shared Ancestor Hints matches. If the Viewed field equals false, this tells  me immediately that I didn’t have a shared ancestor hint – but now because of the clustering, I know where they might fit.

At Family Tree DNA, I selected 4th cousin, but I could have selected 5th cousins. I have a total of 1500 matches.

This report does include the segment information (Yay!) and my only wish here would be to merge the two downloads available at Family Tree DNA, meaning the segment information and the match information. I’d like to know which of these are assigned to maternal or paternal buckets, or both.


The Autocluster csv file is interesting in that it shows who matches whom. It’s the raw data used to construct the colored grid.

My matches are numbered in their column. For example, person M.B. is person 1. Every person that matches person 1 is noted at left with a 1 in that column.  Look at the second person under the Name column, C. W., who matches person 1 (M.B.), 2 (C.W.), 3 (T.F.), 4 (purple) and 5 (A.D.).

All of these people are in the same cluster, number 3, which you’ll see below.

The AutoCluster Graph

Finally, we get to the meat of the matter, the cluster graph.

Caveat – I experienced a significant amount of difficulty with both my account and my graph. If your graph does not display correctly, save the file to your system and click to open the file from your hard drive. Try Edge or Internet explorer if Chrome doesn’t work correctly. If it still doesn’t display accurately, notify GeneticAffairs at Consider this software release late alpha or early beta. Personally, I’m just grateful for the tool.

When you first open the html file, you’ll be able to see your matches “fly” into place. That’s pretty cool. Actually, that’s a metaphor for what I want all of my genealogy to do.

This grid shows the people who match me and each other as well, so a trio – although this does NOT mean the three of us match on the same segment.

The first person is Debbie, a known cousin on my father’s side. She and all of the other 12 people match me and each other as well and are shown in the orange cluster at the top left.

I know that my common ancestor couple with Debbie is Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy, so it’s very likely that all of these same people share the same ancestral line, although perhaps not the same ancestral couple. For example, they could descend from anyone upstream of Lazarus and Elizabeth. Some may have known ancestors on either the Estes or Vannoy side, which will help determine who the actual oldest common ancestors are.

You’ll notice people in grey squares that aren’t in the cluster, but match me and Debbie both. This means that they would fall into two different clusters and the software can’t accommodate that. You may find your closest relatives in this grey never-never-land. Don’t ignore the grey squares because they are important too.

The second green cluster is also on my father’s side and represents the Vannoy line. My common ancestor with several matches is Joel Vannoy and Phoebe Crumley.

Working my way through each cluster, I can discern which common ancestor I match by recognizing my cousins or people who I’ve already shared genealogy with.

The third red cluster is on my mother’s side and I know that it’s my Jacob Lentz and Fredericka Ruhle line. I can verify this by looking at my mother’s AutoCluster file to see if the same people appear in her cluster.

You can also view this grid by name, # of shared matches and the # of shared cMs with the tester. Those displays are nice but not nearly as informative at the AutoClusters.

Scroll for More Match Information

Be sure to scroll down below the grid (yes, there is something below the grid!) and read the text where you’re provided a list of people who qualify to be included in the clusters, but don’t match anyone else at the criteria selection level you chose – so they aren’t included in the grid. This too is informative.  For example, my cousin Christine is there which tells me that our mutual line may not be represented by a cluster. This isn’t surprising, since our common ancestor immigrated in the 1850s – so not a lot of descendants today.

You’re also provided with AutoCluster match information, including whether or not your match has a tree. I do have notes on my matches at Family Tree DNA for several of these people, but unfortunately, the file download did not pick those notes up.

However, the fact that these matches are displayed “by cluster” is invaluable.

You can bet your socks that I’m clicking on the “tree” hotlink and signing on to FTDNA right now to see if any of these people have recognizable ancestors (or surnames) of either Elizabeth Vannoy or Lazarus Estes, or upstream. Some DO! Glory be!

Better yet, their DNA may descend from one of my dead-ends in this line, so I’ll be carefully recording any genealogical information that I can obtain to either confirm the known ancestors or break through those stubborn walls.

Dead ends would become evident by multiple people in the cluster sharing a different ancestor than one you’re already familiar with. Look carefully for patterns. Could this be the key to solving the mystery of who the mother of Nancy Ann Moore is? Or several other brick walls that I’d love to fall, just in time for Christmas. Who doesn’t have brick walls?

By signing on to Family Tree DNA and looking carefully at the trees and surnames of the people in each group, I was able to quickly identify the common line and assign an ancestor to most of the matching groups.

This also means I’ll now be able to make notes on these matches at Family Tree DNA paint these in DNAPainter! (I’ve written several articles about using DNAPainter which you can read by entering DNAPainter into the search box on this blog.)

Mom’s Acadian Cluster

Endogamy is always tough and this tool isn’t any different. Lots of grey squares which mean people would fit into multiple clusters. That’s the hallmark of endogamy.

My Mom’s largest clustered group is Acadian, which is endogamous, and her orange cluster has a very interesting subgroup structure.

If you look, the larger loosely connected orange group extends quite some way down the page, but within that group, there seems to be a large, almost solid orange group in the lower right. I’m betting that almost solid group to the right lower part of the orange region represents a particular ancestral line within the endogamous Acadian grouping.

Also of interest, my Mom’s green cluster is the same as my red Jacob Lentz/Frederica Ruhle cluster group, with many of the same individuals. This confirms that these people match me and that other person on Mom’s side, so whoever in this group matches me and any other person on the same segment is triangulated to my Mom’s side of my genealogy.

You can also use this information in conjunction with your parental bucketing at Family Tree DNA.

In Summary

I’m still learning about this tool, it’s limitations and possibilities. The software is new and not bug-free, but the developer is working to get things straightened out. I don’t think he expected such a deluge of desperate genealogists right away and we’ve probably swamped his servers and his inbox.

I haven’t yet experimented with changing the parameters to see who is included and who isn’t in various runs. I’ll be doing that over the next several days, and I’ll be applying the confirmed ancestral segments I discover in DNAPainter!

This is going to be a lot of fun. I may not surface again until 2019😊



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