Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum

Ethnicity results from DNA testing.  Fascinating.  Intriguing.  Frustrating.  Exciting.  Fun. Challenging.  Mysterious.  Enlightening.  And sometimes wrong.  These descriptions all fit.  Welcome to your personal conundrum!  The riddle of you!  If you’d like to understand why your ethnicity results might not have been what you expected, read on!

Today, about 50% of the people taking autosomal DNA tests purchase them for the ethnicity results. Ironically, that’s the least reliable aspect of DNA testing – but apparently somebody’s ad campaigns have been very effective.  After all, humans are curious creatures and inquiring minds want to know.  Who am I anyway?

I think a lot of people who aren’t necessarily interested in genealogy per se are interested in discovering their ethnic mix – and maybe for some it will be a doorway to more traditional genealogy because it will fan the flame of curiosity.

Given the increase in testing for ethnicity alone, I’m seeing a huge increase in people who are both confused by and disappointed in their results. And of course, there are a few who are thrilled, trading their lederhosen for a kilt because of their new discovery.  To put it gently, they might be a little premature in their celebration.

A lot of whether you’re happy or unhappy has to do with why you tested, your experience level and your expectations.

So, for all of you who could write an e-mail similar to this one that I received – this article is for you:

“I received my ethnicity results and I’m surprised and confused. I’m half German yet my ethnicity shows I’m from the British Isles and Scandinavia.  Then I tested my parents and their results don’t even resemble mine, nor are they accurate.  I should be roughly half of what they are, and based on the ethnicity report, it looks like I’m totally unrelated.  I realize my ethnicity is not just a matter of dividing my parents results by half, but we’re not even in the same countries.  How can I be from where they aren’t? How can I have significantly more, almost double, the Scandinavian DNA that they do combined?  And yes, I match them autosomally as a child so there is no question of paternity.”

Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, trade in your lederhosen for a kilt just yet.

lederhosen kilt

Lederhosen – By The original uploader was Aquajazz at German Wikipedia – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.0 de, Kilt – By Jongleur100 – Own work, Public Domain,

This technology is not really ripe yet for that level of confidence except perhaps at the continent level and for people with Jewish heritage.

  1. In determining majority ethnicity at the continent level, these tests are quite accurate, but then you can determine the same thing by looking in the mirror.  I’m primarily of European heritage.  I can see that easily and don’t need a DNA test for that information.
  2. When comparing between continental ethnicity, meaning sorting African from European from Asian from Native American, these tests are relatively accurate, meaning there is sometimes a little bit of overlap, but not much.  I’m between 4 and 5% Native American and African – which I can’t see in the mirror – but some of these tests can.
  3. When dealing with intra-continent ethnicity – meaning Europe in particular, comparing one country or region to another, these tests are not reliable and in some cases, appear to be outright wrong. The exception here is Ashkenazi Jewish results which are generally quite accurate, especially at higher levels.

There are times when you seem to have too much of a particular ethnicity, and times when you seem to have too little.

Aside from the obvious adoption, misattributed parent or the oral history simply being wrong, the next question is why.

Ok, Why?

So glad you asked!

Part of why has to do with actual population mixing. Think about the history of Europe.  In fact, let’s just look at Germany.  Wiki provides a nice summary timeline.  Take a look, because you’ll see that the overarching theme is warfare and instability.  The borders changed, the rulers changed, invasions happened, and most importantly, the population changed.

Let’s just look at one event. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated the population, wiped out large portions of the countryside entirely, to the point that after its conclusion, parts of Germany were entirely depopulated for years.  The rulers invited people from other parts of Europe to come, settle and farm.  And they did just that.  Hear those words, other parts of Europe.

My ancestors found in the later 1600s along the Rhine near Speyer and Mannheim were some of those settlers, from Switzerland. Where were they from before Switzerland, before records?  We don’t know and we wouldn’t even know that much were it not for the early church records.

So, who are the Germans?

Who or where is the reference population that you would use to represent Germans?

If you match against a “German” population today, what does that mean, exactly? Who are you really matching?

Now think about who settled the British Isles.

Where did those people come from and who were they?

Well, the Anglo-Saxon people were comprised of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons.  Is it any wonder that if your heritage is German you’re going to be matching some people from the British Isles and vice versa?

Anglo-Saxons weren’t the only people who settled in the British Isles. There were Vikings from Scandinavia and the Normans from France who were themselves “Norsemen” aka from the same stock as the Vikings.

See the swirl and the admixture? Is there any wonder that European intracontinental admixture is so confusing and perplexing today?

Reference Populations

The second challenge is obtaining valid and adequate reference populations.

Each company that offers ethnicity tests assembles a group of reference populations against which they compare your results to put you into a bucket or buckets.

Except, it’s not quite that easy.

When comparing highly disparate populations, meaning those whose common ancestor was tens of thousands of years ago, you can find significant differences in their DNA. Think the four major continental areas here – Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas.

Major, unquestionable differences are much easier to discern and interpret.

However, within population groups, think Europe here, it is much more difficult.

To begin with, we don’t have much (if any) ancient DNA to compare to. So we don’t know what the Germanic, French, Norwegian, Scottish or Italian populations looked like in, let’s say, the year 1000.

We don’t know what they looked like in the year 500, or 2000BC either and based on what we do know about warfare and the movement of people within Europe, those populations in the same location could genetically look entirely different at different points in history. Think before and after The 30 Years War.

population admixture

By User:MapMaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

As an example, consider the population of Hungary and the Slavic portion of Germany before and after the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century and Hun invasions that occurred between the 1st and 5th centuries.  The invaders DNA didn’t go away, it became part of the local population and we find it in descendants today.  But how do we know it’s Hunnic and not “German,” whatever German used to be, or Hungarian, or Norse?

That’s what we do know.

Now, think about how much we don’t know. There is no reason to believe the admixture and intermixing of populations on any other continent that was inhabited was any different.  People will be people.  They have wars, they migrate, they fight with each other and they produce offspring.

We are one big mixing bowl.


A third challenge faced in determining ethnicity is how to calculate and interpret matching.

Population based matching is what is known as “best fit.”  This means that with few exceptions, such as some D9S919 values (Native American), the Duffy Null Allele (African) and Neanderthal not being found in African populations, all of the DNA sequences used for ethnicity matching are found in almost all populations worldwide, just at differing frequencies.

So assigning a specific “ethnicity” to you is a matter of finding the best fit – in other words which population you match at the highest frequency for the combined segments being measured.

Let’s say that the company you’re using has 50 people from each “grouping” that they are using for buckets.

A bucket is something you’ll be assigned to. Buckets sometimes resemble modern-day countries, but most often the testing companies try to be less boundary aligned and more population group aligned – like British Isles, or Eastern European, for example.

Ethnic regions

How does one decide which “country” goes where? That’s up to the company involved.  As a consumer, you need to read what the company publishes about their reference populations and their bucket assignment methodology.

ethnic country

For example, one company groups the Czech Republic and Poland in with Western Europe and another groups them primarily with Eastern Europe but partly in Western Europe and a third puts Poland in Eastern Europe and doesn’t say where they group The Czech Republic. None of these are inherently right are wrong – just understand that they are different and you’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples.

Two Strands of DNA

In the past, we’ve discussed the fact that you have two strands of DNA and they don’t come with a Mom side, a Dad side, no zipper and no instructions that tell you which is Mom’s and which is Dad’s.  Not fair – but it’s what we have to work with.

When you match someone because your DNA is zigzagging back and forth between Mom’s and Dad’s DNA sides, that’s called identical by chance.

It’s certainly possible that the same thing can happen in population genetics – where two strands when combined “look like” and match to a population reference sample, by chance.

pop ref 3

In the example above, you can see that you received all As from Mom and all Cs from Dad, and the reference population matches the As and Cs by zigzagging back and forth between your parents.  In this case, your DNA would match that particular reference population, but your parents would not.  The matching is technically accurate, it’s just that the results aren’t relevant because you match by chance and not because you have an ancestor from that reference population.

Finding The Right Bucket

Our DNA, as humans, is more than 99.% the same.  The differences are where mutations have occurred that allow population groups and individuals to look different from one another and other minor differences.  Understanding the degree of similarity makes the concept of “race” a bit outdated.

For genetic genealogy, it’s those differences we seek, both on a population level for ethnicity testing and on a personal level for identifying our ancestors based on who else our autosomal DNA matches who also has those same ancestors.

Let’s look at those differences that have occurred within population groups.

Let’s say that one particular sequence of your DNA is found in the following “bucket” groups in the following percentages:

  • Germany – 50%
  • British Isles – 25%
  • Scandinavian – 10%

What do you do with that? It’s the same DNA segment found in all of the populations.  As a company, do you assume German because it’s where the largest reference population is found?

And who are the Germans anyway?

Does all German DNA look alike? We already know the answer to that.

Are multiple ancestors contributing German ancestry from long ago, or are they German today or just a generation or two back in time?

And do you put this person in just the German bucket, or in the other buckets too, just at lower frequencies.  After all, buckets are cumulative in terms of figuring out your ethnicity.

If there isn’t a reference population, then the software of course can’t match to that population and moves to find the “next best fit.”  Keep in mind too that some of these reference populations are very small and may not represent the range of genetic diversity found within the entire region they represent.

If your ancestors are Hungarian today, they may find themselves in a bucket entirely unrelated to Hungary if a Hungarian reference population isn’t available AND/OR if a reference population is available but it’s not relevant to your ancestry from your part of Hungary.

If you’d like a contemporary example to equate to this, just think of a major American city today and the ethnic neighborhoods. In Detroit, if someone went to the ethnic Polish neighborhood and took 50 samples, would that be reflective of all of Detroit?  How about the Italian neighborhood?  The German neighborhood?  You get the drift.  None of those are reflective of Detroit, or of Michigan or even of the US.  And if you don’t KNOW that you have a biased sample, the only “matches” you’ll receive are Polish matches and you’ll have no way to understand the results in context.

Furthermore, that ethnic neighborhood 50 or 100 years earlier or later in time might not be comprised of that ethnic group at all.

Based on this example, you might be trading in your lederhosen for a pierogi or a Paczki, which are both wonderful, but entirely irrelevant to you.


Real Life Examples

Probably the best example I can think of to illustrate this phenomenon is that at least a portion of the Germanic population and the Native American population both originated in a common population in central northern Asia.  That Asiatic population migrated both to Europe to the west and eventually, to the Americas via an eastern route through Beringia.  Today, as a result of that common population foundation, some Germanic people show trace amounts of “Native American” DNA.  Is it actually from a Native American?  Clearly not, based on the fact that these people nor their ancestors have ever set foot in the Americas nor are they coastal.  However, the common genetic “signature” remains today and is occasionally detected in Germanic and eastern European people.

If you’re saying, “no, not possible,” remember for a minute that everyone in Europe carries some Neanderthal DNA from a population believed to be “extinct” now for between 25,000 and 40,000 years, depending on whose estimates you use and how you measure “extinct.”  Neanderthal aren’t extinct, they have evolved into us.  They assimilated, whether by choice or force is unknown, but the fact remains that they did because they are a forever part of Europeans, most Asians and yes, Native Americans today.

Back to You

So how can you judge the relevance or accuracy of this information aside from looking in the mirror?

Because I have been a genealogist for decades now, I have an extensive pedigree chart that I can use to judge the ethnicity predictions relatively accurately. I created an “expected” set of percentages here and then compared them to my real results from the testing companies.  This paper details the process I used.  You can easily do the same thing.

Part of how happy or unhappy you will be is based on your goals and expectations for ethnicity testing. If you want a definitive black and white, 100% accurate answer, you’re probably going to be unhappy, or you’ll be happy only because you don’t know enough about the topic to know you should be unhappy.  If you test with only one company, accept their results as gospel and go merrily on your way, you’ll never know that had you tested elsewhere, you’d probably have received a somewhat different answer.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering which one is right, join the party.  Perhaps, except for obvious outliers, they are all right.

If you know your pedigree pretty well and you’re testing for general interest, then you’ll be fine because you have a measuring stick against which to evaluate the results.

I found it fun to test with all 4 vendors, meaning Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry along with the Genographic project and compare their results.

In my case, I was specifically interesting in ascertaining minority admixture and determining which line or lines it descended from. This means both Native American and African.

You can do this too and then download your results to and utilize their admixture utilities.

GedMatch admix menu

At GedMatch, there are several versions of various contributed admixture/ethnicity tools for you to use. The authors of these tools have in essence done the same thing the testing companies have done – compiled reference populations of their choosing and compare your results in a specific manner as determined by the software written by that author.  They all vary.  They are free.  Your mileage can and will vary too!

By comparing the results, you can clearly see the effects of including or omitting specific populations. You’ll come away wondering how they could all be measuring the same you, but it’s an incredibly eye-opening experience.

The Exceptions and Minority Ancestry

You know, there is always an exception to every rule and this is no exception to the exception rule. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

By and large, the majority continental ancestry will be the most accurate, but it’s the minority ancestry many testers are seeking.  That which we cannot see in the mirror and may be obscured in written records as well, if any records existed at all.

Let me say very clearly that when you are looking for minority ancestry, the lack of that ancestry appearing in these tests does NOT prove that it doesn’t exist. You can’t prove a negative.  It may mean that it’s just too far back in time to show, or that the DNA in that bucket has “washed out” of your line, or that we just don’t recognize enough of that kind of DNA today because we need a larger reference population.  These tests will improve with time and all 3 major vendors update the results of those who tested with them when they have new releases of their ethnicity software.

Think about it – who is 100% Native American today that we can use as a reference population?  Are Native people from North and South American the same genetically?  And let’s not forget the tribes in the US do not view DNA testing favorably.  To say we have challenges understanding the genetic makeup and migrations of the Native population is an understatement – yet those are the answers so many people seek.

Aside from obtaining more reference samples, what are the challenges?

There are two factors at play.

Recombination – the “Washing Out” Factor

First, your DNA is divided in half with every generation, meaning that you will, on the average, inherit roughly half of the DNA of your ancestors.  Now in reality, half is an average and it doesn’t always work that way.  You may inherit an entire segment of an ancestor’s DNA, or none at all, instead of half.

I’ve graphed the “washing out factor” below and you can see that within a few generations, if you have only one Native or African ancestor, their DNA is found in such small percentages, assuming a 50% inheritance or recombination rate, that it won’t be found above 1% which is the threshold used by most testing companies.

Wash out factor 2

Therefore, the ethnicity of any ancestor born 7 generations ago, or before about 1780 may not be detectable.  This is why the testing companies say these tests are effective to about the rough threshold of 5 or 6 generations.  In reality, there is no line in the sand.  If you have received more than 50% of that ancestor’s DNA, or a particularly large segment, it may be detectable at further distances.  If you received less, it may be undetectable at closer distances.  It’s the roll of the DNA dice in every generation between them and you.  This is also why it’s important to test parents and other family members – they may well have received DNA that you didn’t that helps to illuminate your ancestry.

Recombination – Population Admixture – the “Keeping In” Factor

The second factor at play here is population admixture which works exactly the opposite of the “washing out” factor. It’s the “keeping in” factor.  While recombination, the “washing out” factor, removes DNA in every generation, the population admixture “keeping in” factor makes sure that ancestral DNA stays in the mix. So yes, those two natural factors are kind of working at cross purposes and you can rest assured that both are at play in your DNA at some level.  Kind of a mean trick of nature isn’t it!

The population admixture factor, known as IBP, or identical by population, happens when identical DNA is found in an entire or a large population segment – which is exactly what ethnicity software is looking for – but the problem is that when you’re measuring the expected amount of DNA in your pedigree chart, you have no idea how to allow for endogamy and population based admixture from the past.

Endogamy IBP

This example shows that both Mom and Dad have the exact same DNA, because at these locations, that’s what this endogamous population carries.  Therefore the child carries this DNA too, because there isn’t any other DNA to inherit.  The ethnicity software looks for this matching string and equates it to this particular population.

Like Neanderthal DNA, population based admixture doesn’t really divide or wash out, because it’s found in the majority of that particular population and as long as that population is marrying within itself, those segments are preserved forever and just get passed around and around – because it’s the same DNA segment and most of the population carries it.

This is why Ashkenazi Jewish people have so many autosomal matches – they all descend from a common founding population and did not marry outside of the Jewish community.  This is also why a few contemporary living people with Native American heritage match the ancient Anzick Child at levels we would expect to see in genealogically related people within a few generations.

Small amounts of admixture, especially unexpected admixture, should be taken with a grain of salt. It could be noise or in the case of someone with both Native American and Germanic or Eastern European heritage, “Native American” could actually be Germanic in terms of who you inherited that segment from.

Have unexpected small percentages of Middle Eastern ethnic results?  Remember, the Mesolithic and Neolithic farmer expansion arrived in Europe from the Middle East some 7,000 – 12,000 years ago.  If Europeans and Asians can carry Neanderthal DNA from 25,000-45,000 years ago, there is no reason why you couldn’t match a Middle Eastern population in small amounts from 3,000, 7,000 or 12,000 years ago for the same historic reasons.

The Middle East is the supreme continental mixing bowl as well, the only location worldwide where historically we see Asian, European and African DNA intermixed in the same location.

Best stated, we just don’t know why you might carry small amounts of unexplained regional ethnic DNA.  There are several possibilities that include an inadequate population reference base, an inadequate understanding of population migration, quirks in matching software, identical segments by chance, noise, or real ancient or more modern DNA from a population group of your ancestors.

Using Minority Admixture to Your Advantage

Having said that, in my case and in the cases of others who have been willing to do the work, you can sometimes track specific admixture to specific ancestors using a combination of ethnicity testing and triangulation.

You cannot do this at Ancestry because they don’t give you ANY segment information.

Family Tree DNA and 23andMe both provide you with segment information, but not for ethnicity ranges without utilizing additional tools.

The easiest approach, by far, is to download your autosomal results to GedMatch and utilize their tools to determine the segment ranges of your minority admixture segments, then utilize that information to see which of your matches on that segment also have the same minority admixture on that same chromosome segment.

I wrote a several-part series detailing how I did this, called The Autosomal Me.

Let me sum the process up thus. I expected my largest Native segments to be on my father’s side.  They weren’t.  In fact, they were from my mother’s Acadian lines, probably because endogamy maintained (“kept in”) those Native segments in that population group for generations.  Thank you endogamy, aka, IBP, identical by population.

I made this discovery by discerning that my specifically identified Native segments matched my mother’s segments, also identified as Native, in exactly the same location, so I had obviously received those Native segments from her. Continuing to compare those segments and looking at GedMatch to see which of our cousins also had a match (to us) in that region pointed me to which ancestral line the Native segment had descended from.  Mitochondrial and Y DNA testing of those Acadian lines confirmed the Native ancestors.

That’s A Lot of Work!!!

Yes, it was, but well, well worth it.

This would be a good time to mention that I couldn’t have proven those connections without the cooperation of several cousins who agreed to test along with cousins I found because they tested, combined with the Mothers of Acadia and the AmerIndian Ancestry out of Acadia projects hosted by Family Tree DNA and the tools at GedMatch.  I am forever grateful to all those people because without the sharing and cooperation that occurs, we couldn’t do genetic genealogy at all.

If you want to be amused and perhaps trade your lederhosen for a kilt, then you can just take ethnicity results at face value.  If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you’re already questioning “face value” or have noticed “discrepancies.”

Ethnicity results do make good cocktail party conversation, especially if you’re wearing either lederhosen or a kilt.  I’m thinking you could even wear lederhosen under your kilt……

If you want to be a bit more of an educated consumer, you can compare your known genealogy to ethnicity results to judge for yourself how close to reality they might be. However, you can never really know the effects of early population movements – except you can pretty well say that if you have 25% Scandinavian – you had better have a Scandinavian grandparent.  3% Scandinavian is another matter entirely.

If you’re saying to yourself, “this is part interpretive art and part science,” you’d be right.

If you want to take a really deep dive, and you carry significantly mixed ethnicity, such that it’s quite distinct from your other ancestry – meaning the four continents once again, you can work a little harder to track your ethnic segments back in time. So, if you have a European grandparent, an Asian grandparent, an African grandparent and a Native American grandparent – not only do you have an amazing and rich genealogy – you are the most lucky genetic genealogist I know, because you’ll pretty well know if your ethnicity results are accurate and your matches will easily fall into the correct family lines!

For some of us, utilizing the results of ethnicity testing for minority admixture combined with other tools is the only prayer we will ever have of finding our non-European ancestors.  If you fall into this group, that is an extremely powerful and compelling statement and represents the holy grail of both genealogy and genetic genealogy.

Let’s Talk About Scandinavia

We’ve talked about minority admixture and cases when we have too little DNA or unexpected small segments of DNA, but sometimes we have what appears to be too much.  Often, that happens in Scandinavia, although far more often with one company than the other two.  However, in my case, we have the perfect example of an unsolvable mystery introduced by ethnicity testing and of course, it involves Scandinavia.

23andMe, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA show me at 8%, 10% and 12% Scandinavian, respectively, which is simply mystifying. That’s a lot to be “just noise.”  That amount is in the great-grandparent or third generation range at 12.5%, but I don’t have anyone that qualifies, anyplace in my pedigree chart, as far back as I can go.  I have all of my ancestors identified and three-quarters (yellow) confirmed via DNA through the 6th generation, shown below.

The unconfirmed groups (uncolored) are genealogically confirmed via church and other records, just not genetically confirmed.  They are Dutch and German, respectively, and people in those countries have not embraced genetic genealogy to the degree Americans have.

Genetically confirmed means that through triangulation, I know that I match other descendants of these ancestors on common segments.  In other words, on the yellow ancestors, here is no possibility of misattributed parentage or an adoption in that line between me and that ancestor.

Six gen both

Barbara Mehlheimer, my mitochondrial line, does have Scandinavian mitochondrial DNA matches, but even if she were 100% Scandinavian, which she isn’t because I have her birth record in Germany, that would only account for approximately 3.12% of my DNA, not 8-12%.

In order for me to carry 8-12% Scandinavian legitimately from an ancestral line, four of these ancestors would need to be 100% Scandinavian to contribute 12.5% to me today assuming a 50% recombination rate, and my mother’s percentage of Scandinavian should be about twice mine, or 24%.

My mother is only in one of the testing company data bases, because she passed away before autosomal DNA testing was widely available.  I was fortunate that her DNA had been archived at Family Tree DNA and was available for a Family Finder upgrade.

Mom’s Scandinavian results are 7%, or 8% if you add in Finland and Northern Siberia.  Clearly not twice mine, in fact, it’s less. If I received half of hers, that would be roughly 4%, leaving 8% of mine unaccounted for.  If I didn’t receive all of my “Scandinavian” from her, then the balance would have had to come from my father whose Estes side of the tree is Appalachian/Colonial American.  Even less likely that he would have carried 16% Scandinavian, assuming again, that I inherited half.  Even if I inherited all 8% of Mom’s, that still leaves me 4% short and means my father would have had approximately 8%, which is still between the great and great-great-grandfather level.  By that time, his ancestors had been in America for generations and none were Scandinavian.  Clearly, something else is going on.  Is there a Scandinavian line in the woodpile someplace?  If so, which lines are the likely candidates?

In mother’s Ferverda/Camstra/deJong/Houtsma line, which is not DNA confirmed, we have several additional generations of records procured by a professional genealogist in the Netherlands from Leeuwarden, so we know where these ancestors originated and lived for generations, and it wasn’t Scandinavia.

The Kirsch/Lemmert line also reaches back in church records several generations in Mutterstadt and Fussgoenheim, Germany.  The Drechsel line reaches back several generations in Wirbenz, Germany and the Mehlheimer line reaches back one more generation in Speichersdorf before ending in an unmarried mother giving birth and not listing the father.  Aha, you say…there he is…that rogue Scandinavian.  And yes, it could be, but in that generation, he would account for only 1.56% of my DNA, not 8-12%.

So, what can we conclude about this conundrum.

  • The Scandinavian results are NOT a function of specific Scandinavian genealogical ancestors – meaning ones in the tree who would individually contribute that level of Scandinavian heritage.  There is no Scandinavian great-grandpa or Scandinavian heritage at all, in any line, tracking back more than 6 generations.  The first “available” spot with an unknown ancestor for a Scandinavian is in the 7th generation where they would contribute 1.56% of my DNA and 3.12% of mothers.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of a huge amount of population intermixing in several lines, but 8-12% is an awfully high number to attribute to unknown population admixture from many generations ago.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of a problematic reference population being utilized by multiple companies.
  • The Scandinavian results could be identical by chance matching, possibly in addition to population admixture in ancient lines.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of something we don’t yet understand.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a combination of several of the above.

It’s a mystery.  It may be unraveled as the tools improve and as an industry, additional population reference samples become available or better understood.  Or, it may never be unraveled.  But one thing is for sure, it is very, very interesting!  However, I’m not trading lederhosen for anything based on this.

The Companies

I wrote a comparison of the testing companies when they introduced their second generation tools.  Not a lot has changed.  Hopefully we will see a third software generation soon.

I do recommend selecting between the main three testing companies plus National Geographic’s Genographic 2.0 products if you’re going to test for ethnicity.  Stay safe.  There are less than ethical people and companies out there looking to take advantage of people’s curiosity to learn about their heritage.

Today, 23andMe is double the price of either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry and they are having other issues as well.  However, they do sometimes pick up the smallest amounts of minority admixture.

Ancestry continues to have “a Scandinavian problem” where many/most of their clients have a significant amount (some as high as the 30% range) of Scandinavian ancestry assigned to them that is not reflected by other testing companies or tools, or the tester’s known heritage – and is apparently incorrect.

However, Ancestry did pick up my minority Ancestry of both Native and African. How much credibility should I give that in light of the known Scandinavian issue?  In other words, if they can’t get 30% right, how could they ever get 4 or 5% right?

Remember what I said about companies doing pretty well on a comparative continental basis but sorting through ethnicity within a continent being much more difficult. This is the perfect example.  Ancestry also is not alone in reporting small amounts of my minority admixture.  The other companies do as well, although their amounts and descriptions don’t match each other exactly.

However, I can download any or all three of these raw data files to GedMatch and utilize their various ethnicity, triangulation and chromosome by chromosome comparison utilities. Both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry test more SNP locations than does 23andMe, and cost half as much, if you’re planning to test in order to upload your raw data file to GedMatch.

If you are considering ordering from either 23andMe or Ancestry, be sure you understand their privacy policy before ordering.

In Summary

I hate to steal Judy Russell’s line, but she’s right – it’s not soup yet if ethnicity testing is the only tool you’re going to use and if you’re expecting answers, not estimates.  View today’s ethnicity results from any of the major testing companies as interesting, because that’s what they are, unless you have a very specific research agenda, know what you are doing and plan to take a deeper dive.

I’m not discouraging anyone from ethnicity testing. I think it’s fun and for me, it was extremely informative.  But at the same time, it’s important to set expectations accurately to avoid disappointment, anxiety, misinformation or over-reliance on the results.

You can’t just discount these results because you don’t like them, and neither can you simply accept them.

If you think your grandfather was 100% Native America and you have no Native American heritage on the ethnicity test, the problem is likely not the test or the reference populations.  You should have 25% and carry zero.  The problem is likely that the oral history is incorrect.  There is virtually no one, and certainly not in the Eastern tribes, who was not admixed by two generations ago.  It’s also possible that he is not your grandfather.  View ethnicity results as a call to action to set forth and verify or refute their accuracy, especially if they vary dramatically from what you expected.  If it’s the truth you seek, this is your personal doorway to Delphi.

Just don’t trade in your lederhosen, or anything else just yet based on ethnicity results alone, because this technology it still in it’s infancy, especially within Europe.  I mean, after all, it’s embarrassing to have to go and try to retrieve your lederhosen from the pawn shop.  They’re going to laugh at you.

I find it ironic that Y DNA and mtDNA, much less popular, can be very, very specific and yield definitive answers about individual ancestors, reaching far beyond the 5th or 6th generation – yet the broad brush ethnicity painting which is much less reliable is much more popular.  This is due, in part, I’m sure, to the fact that everyone can take the ethnicity tests, which represent all lines.  You aren’t limited to testing one or two of your own lines and you don’t need to understand anything about genetic genealogy or how it works.  All you have to do is spit or swab and wait for results.

You can take a look at how Y and mtDNA testing versus autosomal tests work here.  Maybe Y or mitochondrial should be next on your list, as they reach much further back in time on specific lines, and you can use these results to create a DNA pedigree chart that tells you very specifically about the ancestry of those particular lines.

Ethnicity testing is like any other tool – it’s just one of many available to you.  You’ll need to gather different kinds of DNA and other evidence from various sources and assemble the pieces of your ancestral story like a big puzzle.  Ethnicity testing isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.  There is so much more!

My real hope is that ethnicity testing will kindle the fires and that some of the folks that enter the genetic genealogy space via ethnicity testing will be become both curious and encouraged and will continue to pursue other aspects of genealogy and genetic genealogy.  Maybe they will ask the question of “who” in their tree wore kilts or lederhosen and catch the genealogy bug.  Maybe they will find out more about grandpa’s Native American heritage, or lack thereof.  Maybe they will meet a match that has more information than they do and who will help them.  After all, ALL of genetic genealogy is founded upon sharing – matches, trees and information.  The more the merrier!

So, if you tested for ethnicity and would like to learn more, come on in, the water’s fine and we welcome both lederhosen and kilts, whatever you’re wearing today!  Jump right in!!!



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The Ancestry 200

Sounds like a race doesn’t it, but it isn’t. It’s a milestone checkpoint of sorts, so I thought I’d take a few minutes and take a look at where my Ancestry DNA shakey leaf tree matches are, and how they are performing.

On January 13th, 2016 I reached 200 shakey leaf DNA matches at Ancestry.  In case you don’t know, a shakey left hint with someone means that our DNA matches AND our trees indicate that we have a common ancestor.  As far as I’m concerned this is the low hanging fruit at Ancestry, and pretty much all I bother with except in rare circumstances.  But those shakey leaf matches are just plain fun.  It’s like getting a bite of genealogist-crack-candy when I get a new shakey leaf.

200 leaf

Where Are We Today?

I have a total of 150 pages at 50 matches each for a total of 7500 matches today at Ancestry. That’s roughly half of the number of matches I had pre-Timber phasing introduced in November of 2014 and double the number I had after Timber.  I wrote about the introductory Timber/phasing rollout here.

Pre-Timber After Timber Intro Nov 2014 January 2016
Total Matches 13,100 3,350 7,500
Shakey Leaf Matches 36 18 200

Today, my 200 shakey leaf matches represent 2.67% of my total matches. Not a terribly good return, but again, the tree matching makes seeing the (potential) connection with these matches much easier.  The other 97%…not so easy.

New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs)

Let’s look at the first thing you see on your page. New Ancestor Discoveries, or what I (not so) affectionately call Bad NADs, because these are not my ancestors.

200 NAD

And since April 2015, Ancestry, bless their hearts, has given be 6 bad NADs, New Ancestor Discoveries that aren’t. In one case, Robert Shiflet is the husband of my ancestor’s sister.

Shiflet NAD chart

So, while I share DNA with Robert’s children, it’s not Robert’s DNA that I share, but his wife’s. Actually, Ancestry has given me 8 bad NADS, but they also take them away from time to time. But then, some come back again! Kind of like a light bulb flickering off and on, trying to burn out.

In all fairness, there is some DNA connection somehow, but not necessarily through the individual portrayed. Unfortunately, this leads many, MANY people far astray as they take these projections as gospel, and they are far from gospel.  They are much more like a leap of ill-placed faith.  I wish NADs had been labeled “hints” with the explanation that you share some DNA with people who descend from this individual.  And I wish they were someplace at the bottom of the page, hidden away – not the first thing you see.  It’s deceiving – and just plain wrong to say that I’m a “Descendant of Robert Shiflet.”  I’m not.  He was married to my ancestor’s sister.  I’m not only not his descendant, I don’t share ANY blood connection with Robert Shiflet.

200 shiflet

Today, these NADs are labeled such that it flat out says you are a “descendant of” this person, which is in my case, unequivocally untrue for all of these NADs.

On to more useful topics.

DNA Circles

Ancestry has also put me into 19 DNA Circles. Actually, they have put me into 21 DNA Circles, but two of those circles have disappeared as well.  I suspect this is due to a change in Ancestry’s ranking algorithm because they disappeared at the same time.

A DNA Circle means that you have DNA matches with at least two other people who share a common ancestor with you in their tree. That’s the claim.  However, I have two cases where I only match one other person and I’m in a Circle, and many cases where I match many people and I’m not in the circle.

A match or being included in a Circle does NOT mean you match on the same segment, or that anyone in the tree matches on the same segments – only that you match and show a common ancestor in your trees. In other words, you could be matching as a result of a different ancestor entirely on entirely different segments, and there are no tools available (like a chromosome browser or triangulation tools) to verify this connection.

200 circle 1

However, DNA Circles are useful. For example, it’s unlikely, if you are matching an ancestor through different children, and there are many matches, that your connection isn’t through this ancestral couple, or someone who contributed to the DNA of this ancestral couple.  Yes, the language here gets wishy washy.

200 circle 2

I view Circles as a way to generally confirm that my genealogy is most likely accurate. Yea, I know, more wishy washy words – but that’s because the tools we have don’t provide us with a path to clarity.

200 circle 3

Shakey Leaf Matches

I have 200 shakey leaf matches with people, meaning that we share DNA and a common ancestor in our trees. We may or may not be in a Circle together, because Circles aren’t created unless you match at least two(?) other individuals from this common ancestor, plus some other proprietary weighting factors.

I particularly like that we can see how the other people we match descend from this same ancestor. This suggests that the match really can’t be due to a NPE (nonparental event, also known as an undocumented adoption) downstream of this ancestor. If that were the case, you would only match people through the same child.

200 shakey match

Non-Shakey Leaf Matches

Let’s take a look at my best, meaning my closest, matches. Unfortunately, my highest matches don’t have trees with a common ancestor with me – so no shakey leaves.  The second closest match has no tree at all.  This lack of trees or private trees is one of the most frustrating aspects of genetic genealogy – and particularly at Ancestry because their usefulness depends so heavily on the trees.  Regardless, given that these are my closest matches, let’s see if we can’t determine our common ancestor.

200 closest

So, using deductive reasoning, let’s see what we can discover about my three highest matches. In August, Ancestry introduced the feature called “Shared Matches” meaning Ancestry shows you who you both match in common for any match that is 4th cousin or closer, meaning 6 generations or closer.  So keep in mind, you both will have matches further back in time or predicted to be more distant matches, but they won’t show in the shared matches.

So let’s look at my closest match, PR, estimated to be a second to third cousin.

Clicking on Shared Matches with PR, I have a total of 13. That’s hopeful.  Of those 13:

  • 3 have no tree
  • 1 tree is unavailable
  • 1 shakey leaf match that’s private – who never answered the inquiry message I sent them and hasn’t signed in since February 2015

200 closest shared matches

Ugh, this isn’t hopeful anymore, it’s frustrating. I was very much hoping to be able to deduce the common ancestor by seeing who else I matched – and hoping that there were some shakey leaf people with common ancestor’s already identified in the match list, but that is not to be.

Let’s move to my second closest match and try to find my common ancestor with MH who has no family tree. I can’t imagine how they are using this tool without a family tree.  However, judging from the fact that they haven’t signed in since September 3rd, maybe they aren’t doing anything with these results.  With MH, I have 12 matches, of which:

  • 3 have no tree
  • 4 have shakey leaf hints

Now those shakey leaf hints are very hopeful, so let’s see if they all point to the same ancestor!

  • 2 point to Andrew McKee
  • 1 points to Samuel Claxton and Elizabeth Speaks
  • 1 points to Fairwick Claxton and Agnes Muncy, but not through son Samuel

Uh, that would be a no, they don’t all point to the same ancestor. But three of these people are in the same line, and the fourth, well, not really.

Andrew McKee is the father of Ann McKee who married Charles Speaks who had Elizabeth Speaks who married Samuel Claxton. So the three people who descend from these ancestors are legitimately from the same line.

200 McKee

However, there is no DNA pathway from Andrew McKee to Fairwick Claxton and his wife, Agnes Muncy, but Fairwick is in both people’s trees. In this case, MH must be matching the last person through a different line, and not through Andrew McKee.  The only way Fairwick could even be insinuated is if the person descends through Samuel Claxton, Fairwick’s son who married Agnes Muncy, but that isn’t shown in their tree.  Their descend from Fairwick is through a different child.

200 Claxton

So, this trip into deductive reasoning should have worked, but didn’t exactly work quite as planned due to what I’ll call “inferential tree assumptions.” That assumption would be that if your DNA matches, and you have a common ancestor in a tree, that your DNA link is THROUGH that common ancestor.  Sometimes, in fact many times, that’s true, but there are cases where the link is through a different common ancestor. In this case, it’s likely that one way I match MH is through Andrew McKee, but I may well have a second line through Fairwick Claxton and Agnes Muncy.  These people do live in the same geography.

200 multiple leafs

I see secondary and multiple lineages far more than I would have expected. When Ancestry can see that there are multiple ancestors in your trees that match, they show that you have “Shared Ancestor Hint 1 of X”, but they can only note what’s recorded and matches in both your trees.

Moving on to my third closest match, that’s a lost cause too because it’s the same line as the first match.

Indeed, working with shakey leaf matches are indeed your best bet at Ancestry.

However, let’s take a look at this matching data in a different way.

Matches and Circles by Ancestor

There may be 200 shakey leaf matches today, but there have been a total of 263 shakey leaf matches, of which 63 have either disappeared through the magic of Timber or for some other, unknown reason. A few were adoptees trying to work with various experimental trees, so I’ve eliminated them from the totals.  I’ve kept track of my matches by ancestor though, so let’s see how many of my matches are in circles and how many of my ancestral lines are represented.

The generations column is the number removed from me to that ancestor counting my parent as generation 1.  Remember, Ancestry does not report shakey leaf matches beyond 9 generations. Total matches is how many people whose DNA match mine also show this ancestor in their tree. Circle is yes or no, there is a Circle or there isn’t for one or both of the ancestral couple.  How many of my matches are in the circle and how many total individuals are in that circle.  Note that the Total Matches (to me) should be one less than the Matches in the Circle which includes me.

Ancestor Generations Total Matches Circle Matches in Circle incl Me Total in Circle incl Me
Abraham Estes & Barbara 9 8
Andrew McKee & Elizabeth 5 5 Andrew Andrew 6 Andrew 15
Antoine Lore & Rachel Levina Hill 4 1
Catherine Heath 8 1
Charles Hickerson & Mary Lytle 7 1
Charles Speak & Ann McKee 5 1
Charlotte Ann Girouard 8 1
Claude Dugas & Francoise Bourgeois 9 3
Cornelius Anderson & Annetje Opdyke 9 4
Daniel Garceau and Anne Doucet 7 1
Daniel Miller & Elizabeth Ulrich 6 8
David Miller & Catherine Schaeffer 5 3 David David 4 David 6
Edward Mercer 8 2
Elisha Eldredge and Doras Mulford 8 1
Elizabeth Greib (m Stephen Ulrich) 7 1
Elizabeth Mary Algenica Daye 8 1
Elizabeth Shepherd (m William McNiel) 6 6
Fairwick Claxton & Agnes Muncy 5 2 Fairwick


Fairwick 4

Agnes 4

Fairwick 7

Agnes 7

Frances Carpenter 5 1
Francois Broussard & Catherine Richard 9 3
Francoise Dugas 8 3
Francois Lafaille 6 2
George Dodson & Margaret Dagord 8 12
George Estes & Mary Younger 6 2
George McNiel & Sarah 7 7
George Shepherd & Elizabeth Angelica Daye 8 3
Gershom Hall 7 3
Gershom Hall & Dorcas Richardson 6 1
Gideon Faires & Sarah McSpadden 7 2
Henry Bolton & Nancy Mann (Henry had 2 wives) 5 12 Nancy


Nancy 7

Henry 8

Nancy 20, Henry 22
Henry Bowen & Jane Carter 9 2
Honore Lore & Marie Lafaille 5 1
Jacob Dobkins 7 1
Jacob Lentz & Frederica Moselman 5 2 Frederica Jacob Frederica 3 Jacob 3 Frederica 12, Jacob 12
Jacque Bonnevie & Francoise Mius 8 1
James Crumley & Catherine 8 1
James Hall & Mehitable Wood 7 2
James Lee Claxton 6 2
Jan Derik Woertman & Anna Marie Andries 9 1
Jeanne Aucoin 9 1
Joel Vannoy & Phoebe Crumley 4 8 Joel


Joel 8

Phoebe 8

Joel 8

Phoebe 8

Johann Michael Miller & Suzanna Berchtol 8 11
Johann Nicholas Schaeffer & Mary Catherine Suder 8 2
John Campbell & Jane Dobkins* 6 5 Jane


Jane 6

John 3

Jane 10 John 5
John Cantrell & Hannah Britton 7 7
John Francis Vannoy & Susannah Anderson 7 7
John Hill & Catherine Mitchell 6 1 John John 2 John 3
John R. Estes & Nancy Moore* 5 5 John


John 2

Nancy 3

John 6

Nancy 6

Joseph Cantrell & Catherine Heath 8 4
Joseph Carpenter & Frances Dames 8 4
Joseph Preston Bolton (multiple wives) 4 3 Joseph Joseph 5 Joseph 9
Joseph Rash & Mary Warren 9 3
Joseph Workman & Phoebe McMahon 7 2
Jotham Brown & Phoebe 7 11
Lazarus Estes & Elizabeth Vannoy 3 1
Michael DeForet & Marie Hebert 9 2
Moses Estes Jr 7 1
Moses Estes Sr 8 1
Nicholas Speaks & Sarah Faires 6 3 Nicholas Sarah Nicholas 5 Sarah 5 Nicholas 25, Sarah 24
Peter Johnson 8 2
Philip Jacob Miller & Magdalena 7 8
Pierre Doucet & Henriette Pelletret 9 1
Rachel Levina Hill (husband Anthony Lore not shown) 4 4 Rachel Rachel 4 Rachel 4
Raleigh Dodson & Elizabeth 7 1
Robert Shepherd & Sarah Rash 7 6
Rudolph Hoch 9 1
Samuel Claxton & Elizabeth Speaks 4 1
Stephen Ulrich 7 6
Thomas Dodson & Dorothy Durham 9 6
William Crumley (2nd) 5 1
William Crumley (1st) 7 1
William Hall & Hester Matthews 9 1
William Herrell & Mary McDowell 5 1

This chart is actually very interesting. Two couples have different tallies for the mother and father.  In these cases, bolded* above, the couple was not married more than once, so the matches should equal.  This has to be a tree matching issue. Remember, these tree matches are based on the information in the trees of the people who DNA test – and we all know about tree quality at Ancestry.  GIGO

Initially tree matches were going to be restricted to 7 generations or below, but have now been extended to 9 generations. Circles are apparently still restricted to 7 generations.

I also noticed that when counting the matches by looking at them individually, the count does not always equal the Matches in the Circle, even after allowing for one difference in the Matches in Circles. So, apparently not all matches are “strong enough” to be shown in Circles.

Relationships and Matches

This is all very nice, but what does it really mean on my pedigree chart?

I’ve divided my pedigree into half, one for each parent.

On the chart below, my father’s ancestor tree matches are blue, and the circles are green. You can click on the image to see a larger version.

200 father pedigree blue

Please note that the first 6 generations (beginning with my parent) are complete, but generations 7-9, I’ve only listed ancestors that are matches to someone through a shakey leaf.

On the chart below, the same information for my mother’s side of the house.

200 mother pedigree blue

This visual demonstration is actually quite interesting in that the circles all fall in the 4th, 5th and 6th generations, meaning we’ve had enough time in the US to have enough children to produce enough descendants for there to be some who are interested enough in genealogy to test today.

Remember, Ancestry does not create circles further back in the tree, so this clustering in these generations is to be expected. In my case, some of the matches in earlier generations are every bit as significant as the ones that created Circles.

Proven Connections

In the charts below, all of the proven connections and ancestors are in red. Yes, I said red, as in RED.

200 father inferred blue

What, you don’t see any red?  That’s because there isn’t any.  That’s right, not one single one of these matches is proven.

Why not?  How can that be?

Because Ancestry doesn’t give us a chromosome browser or equivalent tools to be able to show that we indeed match other testers from the same lineage on the same segments, proving the match to that ancestor. That, of course, is called triangulation and is the backbone of autosomal genetic genealogy.

If you’re lucky, you can get the people you need most to download to GedMatch, but most people don’t, and furthermore don’t understand (or don’t care) that these matches are all inferred. Yes, I said inferred.  Fuzzy.  As in might not be accurate.

Granted, a great number of them will be legitimate, but we have hundreds of examples where the matches are NOT from the same line as the Circle indicates. Or much worse, the NADs.  NADs are almost always bad.

And you can’t prove that a match is or isn’t legitimate unless you either download to GedMatch or transfer your results to Family Tree DNA, or preferably both.

Ok, so there’s no red, but let’s look at the inferred lineage confirmations.

If, and that’s a very BIG IF, all of these matches and Circles pan out to be accurate, the chart above, on my father’s side shows ancestors with Circles in green. Yellow infers the lineages that could potentially be proven if we had a chromosome browser to triangulate the matches both within and outside of the circles.  Remember, a match and a name does not an ancestor make. It’s a hint, nothing more.

This next chart is my mother’s side of the tree.

200 mother inferred blue

I have far fewer inferred lineage confirmations in mother’s tree because two of her grandparents were recent immigrants, in the mid-1800s, and there aren’t enough descendants who have tested. Neither are there people in the old country who have tested, so mother’s inferred confirmed lineages are confined to two grandparents’ lines.

I have confirmed some of these lines at GedMatch and at Family Tree DNA, but not all. The ones I’m desperate for, of course, haven’t even answered an inquiry.  That’s how Murphy’s Law works in genetic genealogy.

We really do need that chromosome browser at Ancestry so we can begin to confirm these instead of having to infer these connections. Infer, in this case is another way of saying assume, and you all know about assume I’m sure.

As I evaluate these matches and try to figure out which ones might be more reliable than others, I refer back to two documents. First, the chart I showed earlier in the article which is derived from a spreadsheet I maintain of all of my Ancestry matches that shows me which child of the identified common ancestor my match descends from.  Ancestors with a high number of matches through different children of a common ancestor stand a better chance of being legitimate lineage matches.

Secondly, I refer to an article I wrote last fall, Autosomal DNA Matching Confidence Spectrum, in which I discuss the various type of matches and how much weight to give each type of match. Let’s face it, Ancestry is likely to provide a chromosome browser about the time that we inhabit the moon and most of your matches are unlikely to be willing to go to the time and effort to transfer anyplace, and that’s assuming that they answer a contact request, and that’s assuming that contact request gets delivered to them in the first place.  So, you will likely have to do the best you can with the situation at hand.

In my own case, because I was heavily involved in testing before Ancestry entered the autosomal testing market, I had recruited heavily, often utilizing Y DNA projects, and have had many cousins test at Family Tree DNA. Those who tested at 23andMe have transferred their tests, or in the case of V2 tests, retested at Family Tree DNA.

Because of this very fortunate grouping outside of Ancestry, I know that most of the lines above do triangulate on my personal triangulation spreadsheet. Therefore, many, but not all, of these matches on these two pedigree charts are indeed proven and triangulated at Family Tree DNA and GedMatch. But until and unless Ancestry gives us a chromosome browser type tool, they will never, ever be proven at or through Ancestry.  Come on Ancestry, where’s the meat?

In Summary

I know that the holiday season brings in a lot of sales for Ancestry and we should start seeing the results of that testing shortly. I wonder how long it will be until I have 500 shakey leaf matches, if we will have a chromosome browser by then so I can turn some of those ancestors red (stop snorting), and if any more of my missing lines will have tested.



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.

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Autosomal DNA Matching Confidence Spectrum

Are you confused about DNA matches and what they mean…different kinds of matches…from different vendors and combined results between vendors.  Do you feel like lions and tigers and bears…oh my?  You’re not alone.

As the vendors add more tools, I’ve noticed recently that along with those tools has come a significant amount of confusion surrounding matches and what they mean.  Add to this issue confusion about the terminology being used within the industry to describe various kinds of matches.  Combined, we now have a verbiage or terminology issue and we have confusion regarding the actual matches and what they mean.  So, as people talk, what they mean, what they are trying to communicate and what they do say can be interpreted quite widely.  Is it any wonder so many people are confused?

I reached out within the community to others who I know are working with autosomal results on a daily basis and often engaged in pioneering research to see how they are categorizing these results and how they are referring to them.

I want to thank Jim Bartlett, Blaine Bettinger, Tim Janzen and David Pike (in surname alphabetical order) for their input and discussion about these topics.  I hope that this article goes a long way towards sorting through the various kinds of matches and what they can and do mean to genetic genealogists – and what they are being called.  To be clear, the article is mine and I have quoted them specifically when applicable.

But first, let’s talk about goals.


One thing that has become apparent over the past few months is that your goals may well affect how you interpret data.  For example, if you are an adoptee, you’re going to be looking first at your closest matches and your largest segments.  Distant matches and small segments are irrelevant at least until you work with the big pieces.  The theory of low hanging fruit, of course.

If your goal is to verify and generally validate your existing genealogy, you may be perfectly happy with Ancestry’s Circles.  Ancestry Circles aren’t proof, as many people think, but if you’re looking for low hanging fruit and “probably” versus “positively,” Ancestry Circles may be the answer for you.

If you didn’t stop reading after the last sentence, then I’m guessing that “probably” isn’t your style.

If your goal is to prove each ancestor and/or map their segments to your DNA, you’re not going to be at all happy with Ancestry’s lack of segment data – so your confidence and happiness level is going to be greatly different than someone who is just looking to find themselves in circles with other descendants of the same ancestor and go merrily on their way.

If you have already connected the dots on most of your ancestry for the past 4 or 5 generations, and you’re working primarily with colonial ancestors and those born before 1700, you may be profoundly interested in small segment data, while someone else decides to eliminate that same data on their spreadsheet to eliminate clutter.  One person’s clutter is another’s goldmine.

While, technically, the different types of tests and matches carry a different technical confidence level, your personal confidence ranking will be influenced by your own goals and by some secondary factors like how many other people match on a particular segment.

Let’s start by talking about the different kinds of matching.  I’ve been working with my Crumley line, so I’ll be utilizing examples from that project.

Individual Matching, Group Matching and Triangulation

There is a difference between individual matching, group matching and triangulation.  In fact, there is a whole spectrum of matching to be considered.

Individual Matching

Individual matching is when someone matches you.

confidence individual match

That’s great, but one match out of context generally isn’t worth much.  There’s that word, generally, because if there is one thing that is almost always true, it’s that there is an exception to every rule and that exception often has to do with context.  For example, if you’re looking for parents and siblings, then one match is all you need.

If this match happens to be to my first cousin, that alone confirms several things for me, assuming there is not a secondary relationship.  First, it confirms my relationship with my parent and my parent’s descent from their parents, since I couldn’t be matching my first cousin (at first cousin level) if all of the lines between me and the cousin weren’t intact.

confidence cousins

However, if the match is to someone I don’t know, and it’s not a close relative, like the 2nd to 4th cousins shown in the match above, then it’s meaningless without additional information.  Most of your matches will be more distant.  Let’s face it, you have a lot more distant cousins than close cousins.  Many ancestors, especially before about 1900, were indeed, prolific, at least by today’s standards.

So, at this point, your match list looks like this:

confidence match list

Bridget looks pretty lonely.  Let’s see what we can do about that.

Matching Additional People

The first question is “do you share a common ancestor with that individual?”  If yes, then that is a really big hint – but it’s not proof of anything – unless they are a close relative match like we discussed above.

Why isn’t a single match enough for proof?

You could be related to this person through more than one ancestral line – and that happens far more than I initially thought.  I did an analysis some time back and discovered that about 15% of the time, I can confirm a secondary genealogical line that is not related to the first line in my tree.  There were another 7% that were probable – meaning that I can’t identify a second common ancestor with certainty, but the surname and location is the same and a connection is likely.  Another 8% were from endogamous lines, like Acadians, so I’m sure there are multiple lines involved.  And of those matches (minus the Acadians), about 10% look to have 3 genealogical lines, not just two.  The message here – never assume.

When you find one match and identify one common genealogical line, you can’t assume that is how you are genetically related on the segment in question.

Ideally, at this point, you will find a third person who shares the common ancestor and their DNA matches, or triangulates, between you and your original match to prove the connection.  But, circumstances are not always ideal.

What is Triangualtion?

Triangulation on the continuum of confidence is the highest confidence level achievable, outside of close relative matching which is evident by itself without triangulation.

Triangulation is when you match two people who share a common ancestor and all three of you match each other on that same segment.  This means that segment descended to all three of you from that common ancestor.

This is what a match group would look like if Jerry matches both John and Bridget.

confidence example 1 match group

Example 1 – Match Group

The classic definition of triangulation is when three people, A, B and C all match each other on the same segment and share a known, identifiable common ancestor.  Above, we only have two.  We don’t know yet if John matches Bridget.

A matches B
A matches C
B matches C

This is what an exact triangulation group would look like between Jerry, John and Bridget.  Most triangulation matches aren’t exact, meaning the start and/or end segment might be different, but some are exact.

confidence example 2 triangulation group

Example 2 – Triangulation Group

It’s not always possible to prove all three.  Sometimes you can see that Jerry matches Bridget and Jerry matches John, but you have no access to John or Bridget’s kits to verify that they also match each other.  If you are at Family Tree DNA, you can run the ICW (in common with) tool to see if John and Bridget do match each other – but that tool does not confirm that they match on the same segment.

If the individuals involved have uploaded their kits to GedMatch, you have the ability to triangulate because you can see the kit numbers of your matches and you can then run them against each other to verify that they do indeed match each other as well.  Not everyone uploads their kits to GedMatch, so you may wind up with a hybrid combination of triangulated groups (like example 2, above) and matching groups (like example 1, above) on your own personal spreadsheet.

Matching groups (that are not triangulated) are referred to by different names within the community.  Tim Janzen refers to them as clusters of cousins, Blaine as pseudo triangulation and I have called them triangulation groups in the past if any three within the group are proven to be triangulated. Be careful when you’re discussing this, because matching groups are often misstated as triangulated groups.  You’ll want to clarify.

Creating a Match List

Sometimes triangulation options aren’t available to us.  For example, at Family Tree DNA, we can see who matches us, and we can see if they match each other utilizing the ICW tool, but we can’t see specifically where they match each other.  This is considered a match group.  This type of matching is also where a great deal of confusion is introduced because these people do match each other, but they are NOT (yet) triangulated.

What we know is that all of these people are on YOUR match list, but we don’t know that they are on each other’s match lists.  They could be matching you on different sides of your DNA or, if smaller segments, they might be IBC (identical by chance.)

You can run the ICW (in common with) tool at Family Tree DNA for every match you have.  The ICW tool is a good way to see who matches both people in question.  Hopefully, some of your matches will have uploaded trees and you can peruse for common ancestors.

The ICW tool is the little crossed arrows and it shows you who you and that person also match in common.

confidence match list ftdna

You can run the ICW tool in conjunction with the ancestral surname in question, showing only individuals who you have matches in common with who have the Crumley surname (for example) in their ancestral surname list.  This is a huge timesaver and narrows your scope of search immediately.  By clicking on the ICW tool for Ms. Bridget,  you see the list, below of those who match both the person whose account we are signed into and Ms. Bridget, below.

confidence icw ftdna

Another way to find common matches to any individual is to search by either the current surname or ancestral surnames.  The ancestral surname search checks the surnames entered by other participants and shows them in the results box.

In the example above, all of these individuals have Crumley listed in their surnames.  You can see that I’ve sorted by ancestral surname – as Crumley is in that search box.

Now, your match lists looks like this relative to the Crumley line.  Some people included trees and you can find your common ancestor on their tree, or through communications with them directly.  In other cases, no tree but the common surname appears in the surname match list.  You may want to note those results on your match list as well.

confidence match list 2

Of course, the next step is to compare these individuals in a matrix to see who matches who and the chromosome browser to see where they match you, which we’ll discuss momentarily.

Group Matching

The next type of matching is when you have a group of people who match each other, but not necessarily on the same segment of DNA.  These matching groups are very important, especially when you know there is a shared ancestor involved – but they don’t indicate that the people share the same segment, nor that all (or any) of their shared segments are from this particular ancestor.  Triangulation is the only thing that accomplishes proof positive.

This ICW matrix shows some of the Crumley participants who have tested and who matches whom.

confidence icw grid

You can display this grid by matching total cM or by known relationship (assuming the individuals have entered this information) or by predicted relationship range.  The total cMs shared is more important for me in evaluating how closely this person might be related to the other individual.

The Chromosome Browser

The chromosome browser at Family Tree DNA shows matches from the perspective of any one individual.  This means that the background display of the 22 Chromosomes (plus X) is the person all of the matches are comparing against. If you’re signed in to your account, then you are the black background chromosomes, and everyone is being compared against your DNA.  I’m only showing the first 6 chromosomes below.

confidence chromosome browser

You can see where up to 5 individuals match the person you’re comparing them to.  In this case, it looks like they may share a common segment on chromosome 2 among several descendants.  Of course, you’d need to check each of these individuals to insure that they match each other on this same segment to confirm that indeed, it did come from a common ancestor.  That’s triangulation.

When you see a grouping of matches of individuals known to descend from a common ancestor on the same chromosome, it’s very likely that you have a match group (cluster of cousins, pseudo triangulation group) and they will all match each other on that same segment if you have the opportunity to triangulate them, but it’s not absolute.

For example, below we have a reconstructed chromosome 8 of James Crumley, the common ancestor of a large group of people shown based on matches.  In other words, each colored segment represents a match between two people.  I have a lot more confidence in the matches shown with the arrows than the single or less frequent matches.

confidence chromosome 8 match group'

This pseudo triangulation is really very important, because it’s not just a match, and it’s not triangulation.  The more people you have that match you on this segment and that have the same ancestor, the more likely that this segment will triangulate.  This is also where much of the confusion is coming from, because matching groups of multiple descendants on the same segments almost always do triangulate so they have been being called triangulation groups, even when they have not all been triangulated to each other.  Very occasionally, you will find a group of several people with a common ancestor who triangulate to each other on this common segment, except one of a group doesn’t triangulate to one other, but otherwise, they all triangulate to others.

confidence triangulation issue

This situation has to be an error of some sort, because if all of these people match each other, including B, then B really must match D.  Our group discussed this, and Jim Bartlett pointed out that these problem matches are often near the vendor matching threshold (or your threshold if you’re using GedMatch) and if the threshold is lowered a bit, they continue to match.  They may also be a marginal match on the edge, so to speak or they may have a read error at a critical location in their kit.

What “in common with” matching does is to increase your confidence that these are indeed ancestral matches, a cousin cluster, but it’s not yet triangulation.

Ancestry Matches

Ancestry has added another level of matching into the mix.  The difference is, of course, that you can’t see any segment data at all, at Ancestry, so you don’t have anything other than the fact that you do match the other person and if you have a shakey leaf hint, you also share a common ancestor in your trees.

confidence ancestry matches

When three people match each other on any segment (meaning this does not infer a common segment match) and also share a common ancestor in a tree, they qualify to be a DNA Circle.  However, there is other criteria that is weighted and not every group of 3 individuals who match and share an ancestor becomes a DNA Circle.  However, many do and many Circles have significantly more than three individuals.

confidence Phoebe Crumley circle

This DNA Circle is for Phebe Crumley, one of my Crumley ancestors.  In this grouping, I match one close family group of 5 people, and one individual, Alyssa, all of whom share Phebe Crumley in their trees.  As luck would have it, the family group has also tested at Family Tree DNA and has downloaded their results to GedMatch, but as it stands here at Ancestry, with DNA Circle data only…the only thing I can do is to add them to my match list.

confidence match list 3

In case you’re wondering, the reason I only added three of the 5 family members of the Abija group to my match list is because two are children of one of the members and their Crumley DNA is represented through their parent.

While a small DNA Circle like Phebe Crumley’s can be incorrect, because the individuals can indeed be sharing the DNA of a different ancestor, a larger group gives you more confidence that the relationship to that group of people is actually through the common ancestor whose circle you are a member of.  In the example Circle shown below, I match 6 individuals out of a total of 21 individuals who are all interrelated and share Henry Bolton in their tree.

Confidence Henry Bolton circle

New Ancestor Discoveries

Ancestry introduced New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs) a few months ago.  This tool is, unfortunately, misnamed – and although this is a good concept for finding people whose DNA you share, but whose tree you don’t – it’s not mature yet.

The name causes people to misinterpret the “ancestors” given to them as genuinely theirs.  So far, I’ve had a total of 11 NADS and most have been easily proven false.

Here’s how NADs work.  Let’s say there is a DNA Circle, John Doe, of 3 people and you match two of them.  The assumption is that John Doe is also your ancestor because you share the DNA of his descendants.  This is a critically flawed assumption.  For example, in one case, my ancestors sister’s husband is shown as my “new ancestor discovery” because I share DNA with his descendants (through his wife, my ancestor’s sister.)  Like I said, not mature yet.

I have discussed this repeatedly, so let’s just suffice it to say for this discussion, that there is absolutely no confidence in NADs and they aren’t relevant.

Shared Matches

Ancestry recently added a Shared Matches function.

For each person that you match at Ancestry, that is a 4th cousin or closer and who has a high confidence match ranking, you can click on shared matches to see who you and they both match in common.

confidence ancestry shared matches

This does NOT mean you match these people through the same ancestor.  This does NOT mean you match them on the same segment.  I wrote about how I’ve used this tool, but without additional data, like segment data, you can’t do much more with this.

What I have done is to build a grid similar to the Family Tree DNA matrix where I’ve attempted to see who matches whom and if there is someone(s) within that group that I can identify as specifically descending from the same ancestor.  This is, unfortunately, extremely high maintenance for a very low return.  I might add someone to my match list if they matched a group (or circle) or people that match me, whose common ancestor I can clearly identify.

Shared Matches are the lowest item on the confidence chart – which is not to say they are useless.  They can provide hints that you can follow up on with more precise tools.

Let’s move to the highest confidence tool, triangulation groups.

Triangulation Groups

Of course, the next step, either at 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, through GedMatch, or some combination of each, is to compare the actual segments of the individuals involved.  This means, especially at Ancestry where you have no tools, that you need to develop a successful begging technique to convince your matches to download their data to GedMatch or Family Tree DNA, or both.  Most people don’t, but some will and that may be the someone you need.

You have three triangulation options:

  1. If you are working with the Family Inheritance Advanced at 23andMe, you can compare each of your matches with each other. I would still invite my matches to download to GedMatch so you can compare them with people who did not test at 23andMe.
  2. If you are working with a group of people at Family Tree DNA, you can ask them to run themselves against each other to see if they also match on the same segment that they both match you on. If you are a project administrator on a project where they are all members, you can do this cross-check matching yourself. You can also ask them to download their results to GedMatch.
  3. If your matches will download their results to GedMatch, you can run each individual against any other individual to confirm their common segment matches with you and with each other.

In reality, you will likely wind up with a mixture of matches on your match list and not everyone will upload to GedMatch.

Confirming that segments create a three way match when you share a common ancestor constitutes proof that you share that common ancestor and that particular DNA has been passed down from that ancestor to you.

confidence match list 4

I’ve built this confidence table relative to matches first found at Family Tree DNA, adding matches from Ancestry and following them to GedMatch.  Fortunately, the Abija group has tested at all 3 companies and also uploaded their results to GedMatch.  Some of my favorite cousins!

Spectrum of Confidence

Blaine Bettinger built this slide that sums up the tools and where they fall on the confidence range alone, without considerations of your goals and technical factors such as segment size.  Thanks Blaine for allowing me to share it here.

confidence level Blaine

These tools and techniques fall onto a spectrum of confidence, which I’ve tried to put into perspective, below.

confidence level highest to lowest

I really debated how to best show these.  Unfortunately, there is almost always some level of judgment involved. In some cases, like triangulation at the 3 vendors, the highest level is equivalent, but in other cases, like the medium range, it really is a spectrum from lowest to highest within that grouping.

Now, let’s take a look at our matches that we’ve added to our match list in confidence order.

confidence match list 5

As you would expect, those who triangulated with each other using some chromosome browser and share a common ancestor are the highest confidence matches – those 5 with a red Y.  These are followed by matches who match me and each other but not on the same segment (or at least we don’t know that), so they don’t triangulate, at least not yet.

I didn’t include any low confidence matches in this table, but of the lowest ones that are included, the shakey leaf matches at Ancestry that won’t answer inquiries and the matches at FTDNA who do share a common surname but didn’t download their information to be triangulated are the least confident of the group.  However, even those lower confidence matches on this chart are medium, meaning at Ancestry they are in a Circle and at FTDNA, they do match and share a common surname.  At Family Tree DNA, they may eventually fall into a triangulation group of other descendants who triangulate.


As always, there are some gotchas.  As someone said in something I read recently, “autosomal DNA is messy.”


Endogamous populations are just a mess.  The problem is that literally, everyone is related to everyone, because the founder population DNA has just been passed around and around for generations with little or no new DNA being introduced.

Therefore, people who descend from endogamous populations often show to be much more closely related than they are in a genealogical timeframe.

Secondly, we have the issue pointed out by David Pike, and that is when you really don’t know where a particular segment came from, because the segment matches both the parents, or in some cases, multiple grandparents.  So, which grandparent did that actual segment that descended to the grandchild descend from?

For people who are from the same core population on both parent’s side, close matches are often your only “sure thing” and beyond that, hopefully you have your parents (at least one parent) available to match against, because that’s the only way of even beginning to sort into family groups.  This is known as phasing against your parents and while it’s a great tool for everyone to use – it’s essential to people who descend from endogamous groups. Endogamy makes genetic genealogy difficult.

In other cases, where you do have endogamy in your line, but only in one of your lines, endogamy can actually help you, because you will immediately know based on who those people match in addition to you (preferably on the same segment) which group they descend from.  I can’t tell you how many rows I have on my spreadsheet that are labeled with the word “Acadian,” “Brethren” and “Mennonite.”  I note the common ancestor we can find, but in reality, who knows which upstream ancestor in the endogamous population the DNA originated with.

Now, the bad news is that Ancestry runs a routine that removes DNA that they feel is too matchy in your results, and most of my Acadian matches disappeared when Ancestry implemented their form of population based phasing.

Identical by Population

There is sometimes a fine line between a match that’s from an ancestor one generation further back than you can go, and a match from generations ago via DNA found at a comparatively high percentage in a particular population.  You can’t tell the difference.  All you know is that you can’t assign that segment to an ancestor, and you may know it does phase against a parent, so it’s valid, meaning not IBC or identical by chance.

Yes, identical by population segment matching is a distinct problem with endogamy, but it can also be problematic with people from the same region of the world but not members of endogamous populations.  Endogamy is a term for the timeframe we’re familiar with.  We don’t know what happened before we know what happened.

From time to time, you’ll begin to see something “odd” happened where a group of segments that you already have triangulated to one ancestor will then begin to triangulate to a second ancestor.  I’m not talking about the normal two groups for every address – one from your Mom’s side and one from your Dad’s.  I’m talking, for example, when my Mom’s DNA in a particular area begins to triangulate to one ancestral group from Germany and one from France.  These clearly aren’t the same ancestors, and we know that one particular “spot” or segment range that I received from her DNA can only come from one ancestor.  But these segment matches look to be breaking that rule.

I created the example below to illustrate this phenomenon.  Notice that the top and bottom 3 all match nicely to me and to each other and share a common ancestor, although not the same common ancestor for the two groups.  However, the range significantly overlaps.  And then there is the match to Mary Ann in the middle whose common ancestor to me is unknown.

confidence IBP example

Generally, we see these on smaller segment groups, and this is indicative that you may be seeing an identical by population group.  Many people lump these IBP (identical by population) groups in with IBC, identical by chance, but they aren’t.  The difference is that the DNA in an IBP group truly is coming from your ancestors – it’s just that two distinct groups of ancestors have the same DNA because at some point, they shared a common ancestor.  This is the issue that “academic phasing” (as opposed to parental phasing) is trying to address.  This is what Ancestry calls “pileup areas” and attempts to weed out of your results.  It’s difficult to determine where the legitimate mathematical line is relative to genealogically useful matches versus ones that aren’t.  And as far as I’m concerned, knowing that my match is “European” or “Native” or “African” even if I can’t go any further is still useful.

Think about this, if every European has between 1 and 4% Neanderthal DNA from just a few Neanderthal individuals that lived more than 20,000 years ago in Europe – why wouldn’t we occasionally trip over some common DNA from long ago that found its way into two different family lines.

When I find these multiple groupings, which is actually relatively rare, I note them and just keep on matching and triangulating, although I don’t use these segments to draw any conclusions until a much larger triangulated segment match with an identified ancestor comes into play.  Confidence increases with larger segments.

This multiple grouping phenomenon is a hint of a story I don’t know – and may never know.  Just because I don’t quite know how to interpret it today doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.  In time, maybe its full story will be revealed.

ROH – Runs of Homozygosity

Autosomal DNA tests test someplace over 500,000 locations, depending on the vendor you select.  At each of those locations, you find a value of either T, A, C or G, representing a specific nucleotide.  Sometimes, you find runs of the same nucleotide, so you will find an entire group of all T, for example.  If either of your parents have all Ts in the same location, then you will match anyone with any combination of T and anything else.

confidence homozygosity example

In the example above, you can see that you inherited T from both your Mom and Dad.  Endogamy maybe?

Sally, although she will technically show as a match, doesn’t really “match” you.  It’s just a fluke that her DNA matches your DNA by hopping back and forth between her Mom’s and Dad’s DNA.  This is not a match my descent, but by chance, or IBC (identical by chance.)  There is no way for you to know this, except by also comparing your results to Sally’s parents – another example of parental phasing.  You won’t match Sally’s parents on this segment, so the segment is IBC.

Now let’s look at Joe.  Joe matches you legitimately, but you can’t tell by just looking at this whether Joe matches you on your Mom’s or Dad’s side.  Unfortunately, because no one’s DNA comes with a zipper or two sides of the street labeled Mom and Dad – the only way to determine how Joe matches you is to either phase against Joe’s parents or see who else Joe matches that you match, preferable on the same segment – in other words – create either a match or ICW group, or triangulation.

Segment Size

Everyone is in agreement about one thing.  Large segments are never IBC, identical by chance.  And I hate to use words like never, so today, interpret never to mean “not yet found.”  I’ve seen that large segment number be defined both 13cM and 15cM and “almost never” over 10cM.  There is currently discussion surrounding the X chromosome and false positives at about this threshold, but the jury is still out on this one.

Most medium segments hold true too.  Medium segment matches to multiple people with the same ancestors almost always hold true.  In fact, I don’t personally know of one that didn’t, but that isn’t to say it hasn’t happened.

By medium segments, most people say 7cM and above.  Some say 5cM and above with multiple matching individuals.

As the segment size decreases, the confidence level decreases too, but can be increased by either multiple matches on that segment from a common proven ancestor or, of course, triangulation.  Phasing against your parent also assures that the match is not IBD.  As you can see, there are tools and techniques to increase your confidence when dealing with small segments, and to eliminate IBC segments.

The issue of small segments, how and when they can be utilized is still unresolved.  Some people simply delete them.  I feel that is throwing the baby away with the bathwater and small segments that triangulate from a common ancestor and that don’t find themselves in the middle of a pileup region that is identical by population or that is known to be overly matchy (near the center of chromosome 6, for example) can be utilized.  In some cases, these segments are proven because that same small segment section is also proven against matches that are much larger in a few descendants.

Tim Janzen says that he is more inclined to look at the number of SNPs instead of the segment size, and his comfort number is 500 SNPs or above.

The flip side of this is, as David Pike mentioned, that the fewer locations you have in a row, the greater the chance that you can randomly match, or that you can have runs of heterozygosity.

No one in our discussion group felt that all small segments were useless, although the jury is still out in terms of consensus about what exactly defines a small segment and when they are legitimate and/or useful.  Everyone of us wants to work towards answers, because for those of us who are dealing with colonial ancestors and have already picked the available low hanging fruit, those tantalizing small segments may be all that is left of the ancestor we so desperately need to identify.

For example, I put together this chart detailing my matching DNA by generation. Interesting, I did a similar chart originally almost exactly three years ago and although it has seemed slow day by day, I made a lot of progress when a couple of brick walls fell, in particular, my Dutch wall thanks to Yvette Hoitink.

If you look at the green group of numbers, that is the amount of shared DNA to be expected at each level.  The number of shared cMs drops dramatically between the 5th and 6th generation from 13 cM which would be considered a reasonable matching level (according to the above discussion) at the 5th generation, and 3.32 cM at the 6th generation level, which is a small segment by anyone’s definition.

confidence segment size vs generation

The 6th generation was born roughly in 1760, and if you look to the white grouping to the right of the green group, you can see that my percentage of known ancestors is 84% in the 5th generation, 80% in the 6th generation, but drops quickly after that to 39, 22 and 3%, respectively.  So, the exact place where I need the most help is also the exact place where the expected amount of DNA drops from 13 to 3.32 cM.  This means, that if anyone ever wants to solve those genealogical puzzles in that timeframe utilizing genetic genealogy, we had better figure out how to utilize those small segments effectively – because it may well be all we have except for the occasional larger sticky segment that is passed intact from an ancestor many generations past.

From my perspective, it’s a crying shame that Ancestry gives us no segment data and it’s sad that 23andMe only gives us 5cM and above.  It’s a blessing that we can select our own threshold at GedMatch.  I’m extremely grateful that FTDNA shows us the small segment matches to 1cM and 500 SNPs if we also match on 20cM total and at least one segment over 7cM.  That’s a good compromise, because small segments are more likely to be legitimate if we have a legitimate match on a larger segment and a known ancestor.  We already discussed that the larger the matching segment, the more likely it is to be valid. I would like to see Family Tree DNA lower the matching threshold within projects.  Surname projects imply that a group of people will be expected to match, so I’d really like to be able to see those lower threshold matches.

I’m hopeful that Family Tree DNA will continue to provide small segment information to us.  People who don’t want to learn how to use or be bothered with small segments don’t have to.  Delete is perfectly legitimate option, but without the data, those of us who are interested in researching how to best utilize these segments, can’t.  And when we don’t have data to use, we all lose.  So, thank you Family Tree DNA.

Coming Full Circle

This discussion brings us full circle once again to goals.

Goals change over time.

My initial reason for testing, the first day an autosomal test could be ordered, was to see if my half-brother was my half-brother.  Obviously for that, I didn’t need matching to other people or triangulation.  The answer was either yes or no, we do match at the half-sibling level, or we don’t.

He wasn’t.  But by then, he was terminally ill, and I never told him.  It certainly explained why I wasn’t a transplant match for him.

My next goal, almost immediately, was to determine which if either my brother or I were the child of my father.  For that, we did need matching to other people, and preferably close cousins – the closer the better.  Autosomal DNA testing was new at that time, and I had to recruit cousins.  Bless those who took pity on me and tested, because I was truly desperate to know.

Suffice it to say that the wait was a roller coaster ride of emotion.

If I was not my father’s child, I had just done 30+ years of someone else’s genealogy – not a revelation I relished, at all.

I was my father’s child.  My brother wasn’t.  I was glad I never told him the first part, because I didn’t have to tell him this part either.

My goal at that point changed to more of a general interest nature as more cousins tested and we matched, verifying different lineages that has been unable to be verified by Y or mtDNA testing.

Then one day, something magical happened.

One of my Y lines, Marcus Younger, whose Y line is a result of a NPE, nonparental event, or said differently, an undocumented adoption, received amazing information.  The paternal Younger family line we believed Marcus descended from, he didn’t.  However, autosomal DNA confirmed that even though he is not the paternal child of that line, he is still autosomally related to that line, sharing a common ancestor – suggesting that he may have been born of a Younger female and given that surname, while carrying the Y DNA of his biological father, who remains unidentified.

Amazingly, the next day, a match popped up that matched me and another Younger relative.  This match descended not from the Younger line, but from Marcus Younger’s wife’s alleged surname family.  I suddenly realized that not only was autosomal DNA interesting for confirming your tree – it could also be used to break down long-standing brick walls.  That’s where I’ve been focused ever since.

That’s a very different goal from where I began, and my current goal utilizes the tools in a very different way than my earlier goals.  Confidence levels matter now, a great deal, where that first day, all I wanted was a yes or no.

Today, my goal, other than breaking down brick walls, is for genetic genealogy to become automated and much easier but without taking away our options or keeping us so “safe” that we have no tools (Ancestry).

The process that will allow us to refine genetic genealogy and group individuals and matches utilizing trees on our desktops will ultimately be the key to unraveling those distant connections.  The data is there, we just have to learn how to use it most effectively, and the key, other than software, is collaboration with many cousins.

Aside from science and technology, the other wonderful aspect of autosomal DNA testing is that is has the potential to unite and often, reunite families who didn’t even know they were families.  I’ve seen this over and over now and I still marvel at this miracle given to us by our ancestors – their DNA.

So, regardless of where you fall on the goals and matching confidence spectrum in terms of genetic genealogy, keep encouraging others to test and keep reaching out and sharing – because it takes a village to recreate an ancestor!  No one can do it alone, and the more people who test and share, the better all of our chances become to achieve whatever genetic genealogy goals we have.



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The Logic and Birth of a Bad NAD (New Ancestor Discovery)

Ancestry gave me another bad NAD today, or a New Ancestor Discovery, who is absolutely, positively, unquestionably, not my ancestor.  But this time, they did me the huge favor of assigning someone that was immediately familiar to me, and I can share with you the “logic” of how this erroneous connection happened.  You can then use this same process to work on unraveling your own New Ancestor Discoveries – now that you know what to look for.

Let me first say that genetic genealogy based on inferences has the ability to give you hints you would not otherwise have, like with DNA Circles and NADs, but these inferences that Ancestry arrives at by a process they call “network theory” can also lead you badly astray – like the logic that says your ancestor’s sister’s husband is your ancestor.  Of course, I am assuming here that you are not double descended – and I know positively that I’m not.  I went through the proof process with the first bad NAD that Ancestry gave me, although I never figured out the logic of how I was assigned that original Bad NAD couple, who is now gone.

Blaine Bettinger recently explained Ancestry’s network theory quite well in his blog, “Creating DNA Circles – Exploring the Use of Genetic Networks in Genetic Genealogy”.

Ancestry has consistently refused to provide us with the triangulation tools we need, via a chromosome browser, and we are left to do the best we can with genetic networks and other inference methods.  Triangulation confirms descent from a common ancestor, while network theory connects people who are related to each other, suggesting common ancestors – like my new bad NAD.

My new bad NAD is Robert Shiflet, the husband of Sarah Clarkson/Claxton, the sister of my ancestor Samuel Claxton.  Both Samuel and Sarah share parents, Fairwick Claxton and Agnes Muncy.  However, Robert Shiflet is not related to me by blood, but of course, his children are – through his wife.

This chart, below, shows how all of the people we’ll be discussing in the bad NAD group descend from common ancestors, Fairwick Claxton/Clarkson and Agnes Muncy.  You can see that three groups descend from Sarah Clarkson and Robert Shiflet through son Fairwick Shiflet and daughters Elizabeth and Rhoda.  I descend through Samuel Clarkson, brother to Sarah.

Shiflet NAD chart

Here’s Robert Shiflet, my newly arrived bad NAD, at Ancestry.

Robert Shiflet NAD

By clicking on the New Ancestor, you can see how I connect to the people that Ancestry has used to determine that Robert Shiflet may be my ancestor.

NAD Circle

The NAD circle is made up of three family groups, where several closely related individuals have tested, so they are counted as “one” and not as separate matches.

There are two individuals in each of the three family groups.

All of these people descend from Sarah Clarkson/Claxton and Robert Shiflet.  Ironically, Sarah, who is not listed as a NAD, is the daughter of my ancestor.

In fact, as irony would have it, two of these same groups ARE in the Fairwick Clarkson/Claxton DNA Circle and along with me, these are the only two other members of that circle that I match.

Fairwick circle

So, if you’re judging from the number of connections only, the NAD circle, with 3 groups totaling six people looks stronger than my Fairwick Clarkson Circle with only 2 groups totaling 4 people.  I checked each tree of each individual within the Shiflet Circle and have summarized the results below.

Participant Family Group Sarah Listed? Fairwick Listed Fairwick Circle
CT Martha Patsy Yes, as Sarah “Sallie” Clarkson Yes, Fairwick Claxton Group is in circle
Charlene Martha Patsy Yes, as Sarha Clarkson Shiflet No Group is in circle
DL DL Yes, as Sarah A. Claxton No No
JL DL Yes, as Sarah A. Claxton No No
DB Barbara Yes, as Sarah “Sallie” Clarkson Yes, as Fairwick Claxton Group is in circle
DJ Barbara Yes, Sarah H. Clarkson Yes, as Fairwick Clarkson Group is in circle

Please note that in this case, the spelling of Sarah’s name was quite different.  It was spelled Clarkson, Claxton and in one tree, she was listed as Sarah Clarkson Shiflet, with Shiflet as her surname.  Her first name was misspelled in one tree.  This could be why Sarah was not listed as a NAD along with Robert, whose name was consistently spelled the same way.

Still, because two of these family groups are members of the Fairwick Claxton/Clarkson Circle, one would think that it would be immediately evident that since we DO share an upstream ancestor, when utilizing our trees, that the husband of my ancestor’s sister is not my ancestor – but I am related to his descendants by virtue of his wife’s parents – so of course I match the DNA of his descendants.  That does NOT mean I descend from him.

The linchpin that may have triggered Ancestry to create a NAD may have been that I match one set (family group) of Robert Shiflet’s descendants that aren’t in the Fairwick group.  The reason the DL group is not in Fairwick’s circle, if you look at the trees, is because the DL group does not list any parent for Sarah – so they can’t be in Fairwick’s circle because Fairwick isn’t listed in their tree.  It would make a lot more sense for Ancestry to give the DL group Fairwick as a NAD than to give me Robert Shiflet as a NAD.

So, take all NADs with an extremely large grain of salt – in fact – the whole shaker would be appropriate here or maybe something the size of rock salt.

Keeping Score

So far, the NAD score, out of 5 that have been assigned to me, 3 are proven to be incorrect.  Two, the Larimers, the jury is still out – well, sortof.

Larimer NAD

The jury isn’t entirely out on the Larimer’s actually, because when I look at the group of people in the Larimer NAD circle, I discovered all 5 people who I match on my Andrew McKee line. Hmmm….

These people ALSO connect to John and Jane Larimer – on a completely separate line from Andrew McKee.  In another group, I find another ancestral surname where I connect with the entire group.  So, I’m guessing that it’s circumstantial that all of these people descend from John and Jane Larimer – and that John and Jane have nothing to do with me just because I match their descendants through two of my other known lines.  I don’t actually match anyone else in that group – although a lot of them match each other.  As it turns out, all of this “network theory” matching is a red herring this time – because of intermixed multiple family lines.

Can I prove positively that I don’t share any ancestor upstream with John and Jean Larimer?  Nope, I can’t, but given the trend that I do see, it looks like the NAD was based on other family connections that circumstantially are connected to the Larimers as well.  And I can tell you, from what I do know about my genealogy, that I don’t descend from Jean and John Larimer.  There is no vacancy in my tree that fits their ages, so they are not my ancestors.

So, I guess that really makes the score:

  • Ancestry – 0
  • Bad NADs – 5

The sad part is that it also makes my score 0 – and leaves me begging for the chromosome browser that we so desperately need and would eliminate all of this tail-chasing.  A chromosome browser wouldn’t leave us guessing about whether the Larimer segments were the same segments as the McKee segments.  We would know positively whether they were or not – no guessing, tail chasing or network theory needed.

dog chasing tail



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Mother’s Day – Tracking the Mitochondrial DNA Line

Just for fun, for Mother’s Day, here is the visual history of my mitochondrial DNA line.  It’s fun, quick to do and a great way to share DNA information with your family!


My daughter.


My son.

me at 5


mom toddler

My mother – Barbara Jean Ferverda (1922-2006)

Edith as a child cropped

My grandmother – Edith Barbara Lore (1888-1960) married John Whitney Ferverda

Nora Kirsch wedding

My great-grandmother – Ellenore “Nora” Kirsch (1866-1949) married Curtis Benjamin Lore

barbara drechsel cropped

Barbara Drechsel – German immigrant – (1848-1930) married Jacob Kirsch

I wish we had photos of Barbara’s mother, Barbara Mehlheimer (1823-1906) who married George Drechsel and immigrated to Aurora, Indiana.  Her mother was Elisabetha Mehlheimer.

Thank you to all of the mothers who came before and contributed their mitochondrial DNA, along with everything else, to their children…and ultimately to my children!



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Proving Your Tree

With all the recent discussion about Ancestry’s new “New Ancestor Discovery” feature rollout, and some wrong individuals being assigned as my ancestors, some people have been asking the question, “How do you know your tree is right?”  In other words, how do I know those ancestors are not my genetic ancestors?  As they correctly pointed out, NPEs and adoptions do occur.

And they are right, absolutely right.  It’s a legitimate question, one that every one of us needs to answer for our own trees.

I answered their question briefly by saying that I have a combination of both paper genealogy and DNA for all ancestors through the 6th generation, which is true, but I want to share more than that.  Plus, I wanted to take the time to really evaluate every single line individually to be absolutely positive of what I was saying, and to weigh the evidence.  All too often, it’s not a handy-dandy yes or no, it’s shades of grey.

It’s important for all of us to treat this, the study of our ancestors, like a big mystery with clues for us to find and decipher.

In some cases, there isn’t much mystery.  For example, unless you’re an adoptee, you probably know your grandparents and their birth and death information is relatively easy to obtain.  First, you’re a family member, and second, relatively complete records exist in the past century.  There are lots of sources – birth and death certificates, obituaries, tombstones still remain, hopefully houses with Bibles haven’t all burned, etc.

But as you move back in time, there are fewer sources available, fewer records, if any, exist and eventually, you’re so far back that there is no “institutional memory” in the form of Aunt Marybelle’s or Uncle Jehosiphat’s stories.

Before DNA, we spent a lot of time compiling information about our families, fitting the pieces together, assembling old wills and estate distributions to figure out who the children were, and so forth.  But we had no avenue to verify for example, that William Jr. was really the biological son of William Sr.  Nor did we have the tools to figure out that William Sr. and his wife had taken a child to raise on a wagon train whose parents had died, and that child really wasn’t the biological child of either William or his wife.  None of that existed before, but does now, at least in certain circumstances.

One of the things people, for some reason, believe is that they are going to take a DNA test and somehow, with the wave of a magic wand, or maybe the click of a leaf, their ancestry is going to be revealed to them.  Needless to say, that’s not how it works.

What we do is continue to use a variety of types of DNA testing to prove various lines of our ancestry – and sometimes disprove them – in conjunction with other types of traditional records.  By now, you’ve probably all heard the story of my brother, who I searched for, for years, only to discover he was not my biological brother.  For me, there is peace in knowing and I love my brother regardless.  I’m so glad I found him before he passed away – regardless of the DNA results.  But before DNA, we would never have been able to know, for sure.  What we believed with all of our hearts was not the truth.  The DNA results were undeniable.

When I started working with DNA for genealogy, I was simply curious.  I did not set forth a goal to “prove my lines,” nor, for a long time, did I really think about that.  I was always just excited when someone from one of my ancestral lines would test, because their mitochondrial or Y results were relevant to my ancestors too – assuming we connected in the correct fashion.  I cherished the ability to discover that my ancestors in that line were from the British Isles, Africa, Scandinavia or were Native American, for example.  Mitochondrial and Y results allow us to extend what we know about that ancestral line back in time, beyond the time of surnames.  These tests help us to answer the question, for each ancestral line, “where did I come from?”  Because, after all, “I” am the combination of all of my ancestors.

In my article, The DNA Pedigree Chart – Mining for Ancestors, I talk about how to create pedigree charts that include Y and mtDNA for each ancestral line.  Obviously, I can’t test for all of these myself.

DNA Pedigree

This is part of the answer to how I know that some parts of my tree are correct.

For example, let’s say my Estes cousin, Buster, tests to represent my Estes Y line, and he matches many Estes men, all the way back to Abraham Estes, the immigrant into Virginia.  That unquestionably proves the Estes line he carries is the ancestral Estes line.  However, since I don’t carry the Estes Y chromosome, I have to utilize autosomal DNA to prove that I am related to Buster and other Estes descendants on the Estes side.  Those two pieces of information combined prove that my Estes line is confirmed back beyond the 6th generation – even though I don’t carry the Estes Y chromosome and I have no one  in my immediate family to “sit proxy” for me.

Why am I focused on the 6th generation?

When Ancestry rolled their new feature that gives people “New Ancestors,” they graciously gave me two that were not only wrong – I can’t figure out any connection at all.

I wrote about this in the article, “Ancestry DNA Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong.”

In order for Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, spouses, to be my ancestors, they would have been born in about the 6th generation, given their birth dates, and reproduced in the 5th generation.  The problem is that I have my tree documented solidly back through both of those generations, and John and Diedamia are not my ancestors.

This caused someone to ask how I knew that an NPE hadn’t happened and that one of my ancestral couples, who I believe are my ancestors, aren’t really – and Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are instead – or at least John.  Like, perhaps a baby swap, or a wagon train parental death/child adoption or some other form of NPE (nonparental event.)

Good questions.  I want to know the answer too, for my own benefit.

In order to begin to address this, I looked at the years John and Diedamia were born and the locations where they are found.  Diedamia Lyon was born in Wilkes County in 1804 and she and John Curnutte married in 1822 in Lawrence County, KY, according to the Ancestry story attached to this couple, and she died there in 1866.  I can’t vouch for any of this, because it’s taken from Ancestry’s compiled trees.  What I can tell you is that I have no family at all in or near Lawrence County Kentucky, not in this or any other timeframe.

I do have family in Wilkes County, however, which is where I began the comparative search.  Both John Curnutte and Diedamia’s parents came from Virginia and I have lots of ancestry there, including several unknown lines – but not in any generation where John and Diedamia could be my ancestors.  However, these common locations would be the most likely places for an adoption, in whatever form, to have occurred – if one did.

So, let’s take this one parent’s side at a time and look at the proofs I have and how I know, beyond a doubt, that these two people are not my ancestors.

new ancestor mother tree

I’ve divided my ancestors into my mother’s side and my father’s side and created a proof table for each one in the 6th generation.  The Proof column, in this case, means proof that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte cannot replace these ancestors in my tree, confirming that these are my ancestors and John and Diedamia are not.

Let’s look at my mother’s side first.  It’s easy.  Hendrick Jans Ferverda, born in the Netherlands about 1806, so about the same time as John and Diedamia, was not in this country at that time.  We have documentary proof from the Netherlands.  We have further evidence of when his son did immigrate in the 1860s.  So, Diedamia and John cannot be clandestine ancestors, replacing Hendrick Jans Ferverda and his wife, Lijsbert Baukes Camstra in my tree.  They weren’t even on the same continent when the begetting would have occurred.

As we assemble the proof for each ancestor, we consider birth and death years and locations, whatever documentation we have, and DNA evidence.

Ancestor Birth/Death Location Facts Proof
Hendrick Jans Ferverda 1806-1874 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents in Leeuwarden and Blija, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Lijsbert Baukes Camstra 1806-1856 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents in Leeuwarden and Blija, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Harmen Gerrits de Jong 1803-1866 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents from Oosterlittens and Leeuwarden, Netherlands Not in the US at the time
Angenietje Houtsma 1802-1866 Born and died in the Netherlands Proof from documents from Leeuwarden, Netherlands Not in the US at this time
David Miller 1781-1851 Born Washington Co., MD, died Elkhart Co., Indiana Marriage documents in Warren Co., Ohio, estate in  Elkhart Co., Indiana Miller Y DNA from this line matches to other sons’ descendants of Johann Michael Miller b 1692, autosomal matches to several Miller descendants including mother’s first and second cousins.
Catharina Schaeffer Circa 1775 – 1826 Born Berks Co, PA, died Montgomery Co., PA Marriage document 1799 Berks Co., Marriage document 1805 Warren Co., Ohio Schaeffer males have tested Y and autosomal.  They match the Schaeffer Y upstream of Catharina’s father and match cousins autosomally.
Jacob Lentz 1783-1870 Born in Germany, died in Montgomery Co., Ohio Citizenship papers and census show birth, tombstone and estate papers show death Multiple males have tested Y DNA and they match each other.  They also match other Lentz men, but we can’t figure the common ancestor in Germany.  The Y testers and other cousins match mother autosomally.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Frederica Moselman 1788-1863 Born in Wurttemburg, Germany, died Montgomery Co., Indiana Was married before immigration Born in Germany, not in US at the time.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Honore Lore 1766 – 1834 Born in New England during Acadian removal, died Quebec, Canada in Acadian community Church records Y DNA of descendant matches Y DNA of other Lore males upstream of Honore, autosomal DNA matches mother.
Marie Lafaille 1767-1836 Born in New England during Acadian removal, died in Quebec Canada in Acadian community Church records including marriage to Honore Lore in 1789 in Canada Not in right place, married to Honore, autosomal DNA of descendants matches both Lafaille and Lore family members.
Joseph Hill 1790-1871 Born Barrington, NH, died 1871, Lake Co., Ill Hill family from NH and Vermont where he is first found in records, death records in Illinois Autosomal DNA matches with other descendant of Joseph and his parents.  His father is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nabby Hall 1792-1874 Birth record in Mansfield City, CT town records, death record in Lake Co., Illinois Family moved to Addison Co., VT where children were born and where they are in the records, ancestor daughter’s birth Autosomal DNA matches with other descendants of Nabby and her parents, Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson.
Phillip Jacob Kirsch 1806-1880 Born Fussgoenheim, Germany died Ripley Co., Indiana Church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
Katharina Lemmert 1807-1889 Born Mutterstadt, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana Church birth records and death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
George Drechsel 1823-1908 Born Speichersdorf, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana German church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time
Barbara Mehlheimer 1823-1906 Born Goppmansbuhl, Germany, died Aurora, Indiana Germany church birth records, death recorded in cemetery records Not in US at the time

I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever in any of my mother’s lines that Diedamia Lyons and John Curnutte whose families were from from VA, NC and KY can possibly be substituted for any of these ancestors.

Now let’s move to my father’s side of the family, who were indeed from VA and NC.

new ancestor father tree

In the chart below, I’ve starred the ancestors who I feel have a weak or unknown parental connection, meaning with their parents, based on the facts.  In many cases, this is an unknown mother or unknown mother’s surname or lack of solid DNA proof.  My goal for each ancestor is to have both the genealogical and the DNA proof, supporting each other.

For example, let’s look at Nancy Ann Moore.  Nancy is starred because her mother’s surname is unknown.  This means I can’t prove or disprove any ancestral line through her mother, Lucy.  In other words, while it’s clear that John and Diedamia cannot replace John R. Estes and Nancy Ann Moore as ancestors, one of them might be related to Nancy’s mother.  Therefore, based on the evidence, we do have proof that John and Diedamia are not clandestine ancestors in place of John and Nancy, but what we can’t know is if they are related upstream to Nancy’s mother.

Ancestor Birth/Death Location Facts Proof
John R. Estes 1787-1885 Born Halifax Co., Va, died Claiborne Co., TN Birth and death from War of 1812 pension app Estes Y DNA proven beyond John R. Estes, autosomal DNA from descendants and other Estes descendants triangulate.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nancy Ann Moore* Circs 1785-1860/1870 Born Halifax Co., VA, died Claiborne Co. TN Marriage doc in Halifax Co in 1811, husband’s War of 1812 pension app Moore DNA tested to Nancy’s grandfather’s generation, descendants match other Moore testers autosomally, Nancy’s mother’s surname unknown.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lazarus Dodson* 1795-1861 Parents living in Hawkins Co in 1795, Pulaski Co., KY death records Father-in-law John Campbell estate records for marriage to Elizabeth Dodson Y DNA beyond Lazarus, many Dodson autosomal matches, Lazarus’s mother’s surname unknown.
Elizabeth Campbell C1802-1827/1830 Parents living in Claiborne County TN per tax and court records, death in Claiborne per her children’s guardian records Her father, John Campbell’s estate records regarding her children, guardianship settlement Campbell DNA from this line matches Campbell clan DNA, autosomal matches to many Campbell cousins.  Her parents are Ancestry DNA Circles.
Elijah Vannoy 1784-c1850 Parents lives Wilkes Co at that time, death from Hancock Co. TN census Elijah found in Wilkes Co deed records in 1807, in Claiborne court records by 1812 Vannoy Y DNA from his line matches lines earlier than Elijah, autosomal DNA matches cousins.  Son is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lois McNiel c1786-c1839 Parents living in Wilkes at time of her birth per tax and deed records, died before census in Claiborne Co., TN Parents also moved to Claiborne Co., TN, family history records Elijah’s wife as Lois McNiel Y DNA matches back to Rev. George, 2 generations beyond Lois, autosomal matches Lois’ descendants as well.  Son is Ancestry DNA Circle.
William Crumley III* 1785/1789 – 1852/1860 Born where parents lived Frederick Co., VA proven by 1789 tax list, death in Appanoose Co., Iowa by census Was in Lee Co by 1820 census, marriage documents in 1807 in Greene Co., TN Crumley DNA from this line proves back to James, 3 gen earlier, autosomal matches to cousins, William’s mother unknown.  Daughter is Ancestry DNA Circle.
Lydia Brown* 1787/1790-1830/1849 Born where parents lived in Montgomery Co., VA, death by census in Lee Co., VA and husband’s remarriage Married in 1807 in Greene Co., TN, in Lee Co. Va by 1820, in 1830 census, 1850 census shows husband has been married within the year to new wife Brown Y DNA confirms Jotham and matches other Browns without common ancestor identified, autosomal DNA matches to cousins, Lydia’s mother surname unknown.
Henry Bolton* 1759-1846 Born England, died Giles Co., VA Birth location unproven except by family stories, marriage records, death by local documents and census Bolton DNA confirms Henry and there are other matches but common ancestor unproven.  No Y matches to Curnutte or Lyons. Many descendants autosomal match but cannot go beyond Henry with proofs.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Nancy Mann* c 1780/1783 – 1841 Born where family lived, Botetourt Co., VA, died Giles Co, VA Birth from census and inferred from marriage document 1799, death from family Bible Parents are unconfirmed but believed to be James Mann and Mary Cantrell.  Not Y DNA confirmed to Mann line.  No known Manns from this direct line have tested.  Autosomal matches to James Mann’s brother Moses.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
William Herrell* 1789/1790 – 1859 Born in NC, probably Wilkes Co, died in Hancock Co., TN Birth from War of 1812 pension and bounty land apps, death from his wife on pension app Herrell confirmed back to John, William’s father on Y, match Y cousins autosomally, mother’s surname unknown.
Mary McDowell* 1785- after 1872 Born where in Wilkes Co., NC where parents lived at the time per tax records, died Hancock Co., TN Marriage in 1809 in Wilkes Co., lived in Claiborne & Hancock, death per pension docs and census McDowell Y DNA proven to Michael, her father, via multiple lines, autosomal matches to cousins, mother’s surname unknown.
Fairwick Claxton 1799/1800 – 1874 Birth in Russell Co., VA by census in location where parents lived, death Hancock Co., TN according to his mother’s War of 1812 pension app after his father’s death, death by chancery suit Born in Russell Co., VA, lived in Claiborne which became Hancock Co., TN entire life, chancery suit provides significant info, plus census. Claxton/Clarkson DNA proven to James via Y with additional matches from NC with earlier unidentified common ancestor, autosomal matches between entire group of cousins.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Agnes Muncy* 1803 – after 1880 Born where Lee Co., VA parents lived according to tax and deed records, dead via census Hancock Co., TN Census and chancery suit show family in Hancock Co., TN Muncy Y DNA confirmed beyond Agnes, cousins matching autosomally.  Would like additional triangulated matches.  Ancestry DNA Circle.
Charles Speak 1804 – 1840/1850 Born Washington Co., VA where parents lived according to tax and deed records, death by census Lee Co., VA Marriage in 1823 in Washington Co., VA, later records in Lee Co., VA having to do with Speaks church Speak Y DNA confirmed back to Gisburn, England, many autosomal matches in this line.  Parents are Ancestry DNA Circles.
Ann McKee* 1804/1805 – 1840/1850 Birth in Washington Co., VA where parents lived according to father’s will, death from census Lee Co., VA Married in 1823 Montgomery Co., VA, moved to Lee Co., VA, her father’s will names her as daughter Have not found McKee Y to test, but match several McKee descendants on autosomal.  Ann’s mother’s surname is unknown.  Father Andrew was Ancestry DNA Circle, but disappeared.

As you can clearly see, there is no question that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte aren’t my ancestors.  There is no place for them to be born in 1801/1804, replacing two people here.  Plus there is no Canutte Y DNA matching downstream anyplace, nor any Lyon or Canutte matching at all that I can discover at Family Tree DNA where I can search for ancestral surnames among my matches.  At Ancestry, the only Curnutte surname DNA matches I have are the two individuals that are in the Curnutte “New Ancestor” circle.  Lyon is a more common surname, but nothing connecting matching people, the Lyon surname and any common ancestor or location – other than the two people who also match Curnutte.

I am 100% positive, bet on it and take it to the bank positive, that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are not my ancestors.  And anyone who knows me knows that I never, ever, bet unless I know it’s a sure thing.  So, if I ever say to you, “wanna bet,” think twice.  I wound up with a nice piece of jewelry because my husband hadn’t learned that yet.  Not once, but twice.  Unfortunately, he has learned now:)

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t share DNA with the descendants of Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte.  One of two scenarios can be happening.

1. I do share DNA with two of the Lyon/Canutte descendants, but that DNA could be from two different, unidentified, lines, neither of which are John Curnutte and Diedamia Lyon. It just so happens that the two people I share DNA with happen to share the Lyon/Curnutte line between them. Therefore, the leap of faith has been made that I too share those ancestors. A triangulation tool would answer this question, because if I don’t match my two matches on the same segment, there is no proof of the same ancestor.  Lack of a triangulated match doesn’t mean that I don’t share those ancestors either. In other words, it’s not negative proof.  Lack of a triangulated match wouldn’t mean I don’t want to see this information.  I do. I just want to know how strong the evidence is, or isn’t. Without analysis tools, we’re left to flop around in the dark.

2. I share DNA with two of the Lyon/Canutte descendants because there is a common ancestor upstream of EITHER John Canutte or Diedamia Lyon whose DNA comes through that couple to their children who match me. If this is the case, then the common ancestor is most likely in one of the lines that are starred above where the parents are unknown.  If Ancestry provided chromosome matching and triangulation tools, I could see who else I match on that segment and perhaps find some common genealogy between others who match me (and my matches) on that same segment.


So, the answer to the question, “How do you know your tree is right?” is threefold.

First, genealogically, I’m a terribly anal, er, I mean thorough, researcher.  If you have any doubt, please feel free to read my 52 ancestor series and you can see for yourself the kind of in-depth research I do.

This isn’t to say everything is perfect or that I can’t make mistakes.  I clearly can, do and have.  But for the most part, my trees are solid and I know when they aren’t, where and why.  Plus, I’ve been doing this now for 37 years.  Experience is a wonderful teacher, so long as you learn and don’t just make the same mistakes over and over again.

And, yes, thank you, I did start when I was quite young – barely of age.

Secondly, I have been triangulating my autosomal DNA for several years now, proving segments through both known and previously unknown cousins to specific ancestral lines, and specific common ancestors.  But, I have to be able to see where we match to utilize those tools, and we can’t do that at Ancestry where it’s genetic genealogy wearing blinders.  I’m very thankful for GedMatch so I can compare DNA with the Ancestry cousins who will download their results.  If my two matches who descend from John and Diedamia downloaded their results to GedMatch, then I could see WHERE I match them and I might have that segment already mapped to a specific family line.  That would help immensely tracking backwards and finding the common link with my matches.

Third, I have been utilizing Y and mtDNA where possible and appropriate to learn about, prove and confirm various lines for nearly 15 years.

Often, I use combinations of these tools, like in my Buster example where Buster proved the Estes Y in my line, and I proved my relationship to Buster through autosomal DNA.

These combinations are powerful tools to prove, or disprove, family lines.

And now that you know how to do this, you can prove each one of your ancestral lines too!



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Help System at Family Tree DNA Updated Today

family tree dna logoGroup Administrators received this e-mail on April 1st. Presuming it’s not an April Fools Joke (it’s not), the new system is being implemented today, April 2, 2015 and it looks like it should help a lot with timely responses.

Family Tree DNA writes:

After reviewing several options to speed up e-mail response times and improve overall Customer Support efficiency, we are are putting a new system in place as of 10 am Central Time tomorrow, 2 April, 2015.

You’ll want to pay close attention because this is radically different from what you’re used to doing, but it’s for a good reason.

Until now, many of the emails would come to the general email boxes info@ or, uncategorized, adding the extra step of having to sort and triage emails, which takes a lot of time since they can vary from something as simple as changing a SNP order to more detailed analysis. Long emails with no kit number and an uninformative subject line complicate the process and require time to determine what the real question is.

With the new system, the above email addresses will be deactivated. Incoming emails will receive an automated, but politely worded reply directing the customer – or you – to the re-vamped Contact Us form. This form will require a kit number, unless you’re a new customer, and will require the submitter to choose a subject category.

All questions will be directed through a “Contact Us” form so that they are already categorized and can be routed to the appropriate customer service representatives.

ftdna support page

Again, please note: and will no longer be monitored. Emails sent to either of those addresses will get an auto-response directing the sender to the “Contact Us” form here:

For future reference, a link to the Contact Us form is conveniently located at the bottom of the home page under the “About” column.

ftdna support page 2

There will still be a “Group Projects” category, and for administrators, the email address will still be active, so if you’re writing with questions or situations regarding your project, or if you’re writing on behalf of project members, please use either of those options. The address is a priority category and is monitored regularly.

Please reserve messages to for those that are time-sensitive, urgent, or simply cannot be answered by a CSR. Over the past few months so many routine – though still important – emails have been going to that email address that your Group Project Manager/Liaison cannot answer them all and still perform other duties such as advocating for you with management on important issues regarding group administration.

Important information for you to know and to share with your group members:

  • It’s important to choose the category closest to the topic of your email.
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Finding Your American Indian Tribe Using DNA

If I had a dollar for every time I get asked a flavor of this question, I’d be on a cruise someplace warm instead of writing this in the still-blustery cold winter weather of the northlands!

So, I’m going to write the recipe of how to do this.  The process is basically the same whether you’re utilizing Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA, but the details differ just a bit.

So, to answer the first question.  Can you find your Indian tribe utilizing DNA?  Yes, it can sometimes be done – but not for everyone, not all the time and not even for most people.  And it takes work on your part.  Furthermore, you may wind up disproving the Indian heritage in a particular line, not proving it.  If you’re still in, keep reading.

I want you to think of this as a scavenger hunt.  No one is going to give you the prize.  You have to hunt and search for it, but I’m going to give you the treasure map.

Treasure mapI’m going to tell you, up front, I’m cheating and using an example case that I know works.  Most people aren’t this lucky.  Just so you know.  I don’t want to misset your expectations.  But you’ll never know if you don’t do the footwork to find out, so you’ve got nothing to lose and knowledge to gain, one way or another.  If you aren’t interested in the truth, regardless of what it is, then just stop reading here.

DNA testing isn’t the be-all and end-all.  I know, you’re shocked to hear me say this.  But, it’s not.  In fact, it’s generally just a beginning.  Your DNA test is not a surefire answer to much of anything.  It’s more like a door opening or closing.  If you’re looking for tribal membership or benefits of any kind, it’s extremely unlikely that DNA testing is going to help you.  All tribes have different rules, including blood quantum and often other insurmountable rules to join, so you’ll need to contact the tribe in question. Furthermore, you’ll need to utilize other types of records in addition to any DNA test results.

You’re going to have some homework from time to time in this article, and to understand the next portion, it’s really critical that you read the link to an article that explains about the 4 kinds of DNA that can be utilized in DNA testing for genealogy and how they work for Native testing.  It’s essential that you understand the difference between Y DNA, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing, who can take each kind of test, and why.

Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA

For this article, I’m utilizing a mitochondrial DNA example, mostly because everyone has mitochondrial DNA and secondly, because it’s often more difficult to use genealogically, because the surnames change.  Plus, I have a great case study to use.  For those who think mito DNA is useless, well all I can say is keep reading.

Y and mito

You’ll know from the article you just read that mitochondrial DNA is contributed to you, intact, from your direct line maternal ancestors, ONLY.  In other words, from your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother and on up that line.

In the above chart, you can see that this test only provides information about that one red line, and nothing at all about any of your other 15 great-great grandparents, or anyone else on that pedigree chart other than the red circles.  But oh what a story it can tell about the ancestors of those people in the red circles.

If this example was using Y DNA, then the process would be the same, but only for males – the blue squares.  If you’re a male, the Y DNA is passed unrecombined from your direct paternal, or surname, ancestor, only and does not tell you anything at all about any of your other ancestors except the line represented by the little blue squares.  Females don’t have a Y chromosome, which is what makes males male, so this doesn’t apply to females.

First, you’ll need to test your DNA at Family Tree DNA.  This is the only testing company that offers either the Y (blue line) marker panel tests (37, 67 or 111), or the (red line) mitochondrial DNA full sequence tests.

For Y DNA testing, order minimally the 37 marker test, but more is always better, so 67 or 111 is best.  For mitochondrial DNA, order the full sequence.  You’ll need your full mitochondrial haplogroup designation and this is the only way to obtain it.

I’m also going to be talking about how to incorporate your autosomal results into your search.  If you remember from the article, autosomal results give you a list of cousins that you are related to, and they can be from any and all of your ancestral lines.  In addition, you will receive your ethnicity result estimate expressed as a percentage.  It’s important to know that you are 25% Native, for example.  So, you also need to order the Family Finder test while you’re ordering.

You can click here to order your tests.

After you order, you’ll receive a kit number and password and you’ll have your own user page to display your results.

Fast forward a month or so now…and you have your results back.


I hope you’ve been using that time to document as much about your ancestors as you can in a software program of some sort.  If so, upload your GEDCOM file to your personal page.  The program at Family Tree DNA utilizes your ancestral surnames to assist you in identifying matches to people in Family Finder.

It’s easy to upload, just click on the Family Tree icon in the middle of your personal page.

Family Tree icon

Don’t have a Gedcom file?  You can build your tree online. Just click on the myFamilyTree to start.

Having a file online is an important tool for you and others for ancestor matching.

Your Personal Page

Take a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with how your personal page works.  For example, all of your options we’re going to be discussing are found under the “My DNA” link at the top left hand side of the page.

My dna tab

If you want to join projects, click on “My Projects,” to the right of “My DNA” on the top left bar, then click on “join.”  If you want to familiarize yourself with your security or other options, click on the orange “Manage Personal Information” on the left side of the page to the right of your image.

Personal info

Preparing Your Account

You need to be sure your account is prepared to give you the best return on your research efforts and investment.  You are going to be utilizing three tabs, Ancestral Origins, Haplogroup Origins and various projects, and you need to be sure your results are displayed accurately.  You need to do two things.

The first thing you need to do is to update your most distant ancestor information on your Matches Map page.  You’ll find this page under either the mtDNA or the Y DNA tabs and if you’ve tested for both, you need to update both.

matches map

Here’s my page, for example. At the bottom, click on “Update Ancestor’s Location” and follow the prompts to the end.  When you are finished, your page should like mine – except of course, your balloon will be where your last know matrilineal ancestor lived – and that means for mitochondrial DNA, your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.  I can’t tell you how many men’s names I see in this field…and I know immediately someone is confused.  Remember, men can’t contribute mtDNA.

For men, if this is for your paternal Y line, this is your paternal surname line – because the Y DNA is passed in the same way that surnames are typically passed in the US – father to son.

It’s important to have your balloon in the correct location, because you’re going to see where your matches ancestors are found in relationship to your ancestor.  Your most distant ancestor’s location is represented by the white balloon.  However, you will only see your matches balloons that have entered the geographic information for their most distant ancestor. Now do you see why entering this information is important?  The more balloons, the more informative for everyone.

The second thing is that you need to make sure that the information about the location of your most distant ancestor is accurate.  Most Distant Ancestor information is NOT taken from the matches map page, but from the Most Distant Ancestors tab in your orange “Manage Personal Information” link on your main page.  Then click on to the Genealogy tab and then Most Distant Ancestors, shown below.

genealogy tab

If your ancestral brick wall in in the US, you can select 2 options, “United States” and “United States (Native American).”  Please Note – Please do not, let me repeat, DO NOT, enter the Native American option unless you have documented proof that your ancestor in this specific line is positively Native American.  Why?  Because people who match you will ASSUME you have proof and will then deduce they are Native because you are.

This is particularly problematic when someone sees they are a member of a haplogroup that includes a Native subgroup.  Haplogroup X1, which is not Native, is a prime example.  Haplogroup X2 is Native, but people in X1 see that X is Native, don’t look further or don’t understand that ALL of X is not Native – so they list their ancestry as United States (Native American) based on an erroneous assumption.  Then when other people see they match people who are X1 who are Native, they assume they are Native as well.  It’s like those horrible copied and copied again incorrect Ancestry trees.

distant ancestor US optionsIt’s important to update both the location and your most distant ancestors name. This is the information that will show in the various projects that you might join in both the “Ancestor Name” and the “Country” field.  As an example, the Estes Y project page is shown below.  You can see for yourself how useless those blank fields are under “Paternal Ancestor Name” and “Unknown Origin” under Country when no one has entered their information.

estes project tab

While you are working on these housekeeping tasks, this would be a good time to enter your ancestral surnames as well.  You can find this, also under the Genealogy Tab, under Surnames.  Surnames are used to show you other people who have taken the Family Finder test and who share the same surname, so this is really quite important.  These are surnames from both sides of your tree, from all of your direct ancestors.

surnames tab

Working With Results

Working with mitochondrial DNA genetic results is much easier than Y DNA.  To begin with, the full sequence test reads all of your mitochondrial DNA, and your haplogroup is fully determined by this test.  So once you receive those results, that’s all you need to purchase.

When working with Y DNA, there are the normal STR panels of 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 markers which is where everyone interested in genealogy begins.  Then there are individual SNP tests you can take to confirm a specific haplogroup, panels of SNPs you can purchase and the Big Y test that reads the entire relevant portion of the Y chromosome.  You receive a haplogroup estimate that tends to be quite accurate with STR panel tests, but to confirm your actual haplogroup, or delve deeper, which is often necessary, you’ll need to work with project administrators to figure out which of the additional tests to purchase.  Your haplogroup estimate will reflect your main haplogroup of Q or C, if you are Native on that line, but to refine Q or C enough to confirm whether it is Native, European or Asian will require additional SNP testing  unless you can tell based on close or exact STR panel matches to others who are proven Native or who have taken those SNP tests.. 

Y Native DNA

In the Y DNA lines, both haplogroups Q and C have specific SNP mutations that confirm Native heritage.  SNPs are the special mutations that define haplogroups and their branches.   With the new in-depth SNP testing available with the introduction of the Big Y test in 2013, new discoveries abound, but suffice it to say that by joining the appropriate haplogroup project, and the American Indian project, which I co-administer, you can work with the project administrators to determine whether your version of Q or C is Native or not.

Haplogroups Q and C are not evenly distributed.  For example, we often see haplogroup C in the Algonquian people of Eastern Canada and seldom in South America, where we see Q throughout the Americas.  This wiki page does a relatively good job of breaking this down by tribe.  Please note that haplogroup R1 has NEVER been proven to be Native – meaning that it has never been found in a pre-contact burial – and is not considered Native, although speculation abounds.

This page discusses haplogroup Q and this page, haplogroup C.

Haplogroup C in the Native population is defined by SNP C-P39 and now C-M217 as well.

Haplogroup Q is not as straightforward.  It was believed for some time that SNP Q-M3 defined the Native American population, but advanced testing has shown that is not entirely correct.  Not all Native Q men carry M3.  Some do not.  Therefore, Native people include those with SNPs M3, M346, L54, Z780 and one ancient burial with MEH2.  Recently, a newly defined SNP, Y4273 has been identified in haplogroup Q as possibly defining a group of Algonquian speakers.  Little by little, we are beginning to more clearly define the Native American genetic landscape although there is a very long way to go.

With or without the SNP tests, you can still tell a great deal based on who you match.

For Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA (not autosomal), at the highest levels of testing, if you are matching only or primarily Jewish individuals, you’re not Native.  If you’re matching people in Scandinavia, or Asia, or Russia, nope, not Native.  If you’re matching individuals with known (proven) Native heritage in Oklahoma or New Mexico, then yep….you’re probably Native

We’ll look at tools to do this in just a few minutes.                              

Mitochondrial Native DNA

There are several Native founder mitochondrial DNA lineages meaning those that are believed to have developed during the time about 15,000 years ago (plus or minus) that the Native people spent living on Beringia, after leaving continental Asia and before dispersing in the Americas.

Those haplogroups (along with the Native Y haplogroups) are shown in this graphic from a paper by Tamm, et al, 2007, titled “Beringian Standstill and the Spread of Native American Founders.”

beringia map

The founder mitochondrial haplogroups and latecomers, based on this paper, are:

  • A2
  • B2
  • C1b
  • C1c
  • C1d
  • C4c
  • C1
  • D2
  • D2a
  • D4h3
  • X2a

Subsequent subgroups have been found, and another haplogroup, M, may also be Native.  I compiled a comprehensive list of all suspects.  This list is meant as a research tool, which is why it gives links to where you can find additional information and the source of each reference.  In some cases, you’ll discover that the haplogroup is found in both Asia and the Americas.  Oh boy, fun fun….just like the Y.

Be aware that because of the desire to “be Native” that some individuals have “identified” European haplogroups as Native.  I’ll be writing about this soon, but for now, suffice it to say that if you “self-identify” yourself as Native (like my family did) and then you turn up with a European haplogroup – that does NOT make that European haplogroup Native.  So, when the next person in that haplogroup tests, and you tell them they match “Native” people with European haplogroups – it’s misleading to say the least.

When working to identify your Native heritage, some of your best tools will be the offerings of Family Tree DNA on your personal page.  The same tools exist for both Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA results, so let’s take a look.

Your Results

If your ancestor was Native on your direct matrilineal line, then her haplogroup will fall within one of 5 or 6 haplogroups.  The confirmed Native American mitochondrial haplogroups fall into major haplogroups A, B, C, D and X, with haplogroup M a possibility, but extremely rare and as yet, unconfirmed.  Known Y DNA haplogroups are C and Q with O as an additional possibility.

Now, just because you find yourself with one of these haplogroups doesn’t mean automatically that it’s Native, or that your ancestors in this line were Native.  If your haplogroup isn’t one of these, then you aren’t Native on this line.  For example, we find male haplogroup C around the world, including in Europe.

Here is the list of known and possible Native mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and subgroups.

If your results don’t fall into these haplogroups, then your matrilineal ancestor was not Native on this particular line.  If your ancestor does fall into these base groups, then you need to look at the subgroup to confirm that they are indeed Native and not in one of the non-Native sister clades.  Does this happen often?  Yes, it does, and there are a whole lot of people who see Q or C for the Y DNA and immediately assume they are Native, as they do when they see A, B, C, D or X for mitochondrial.  Just remember about assume.

Scenario 1: 

Oh No! My Haplogroup is NOT Native???

Let’s say your mitochondrial ancestor is not in haplogroup A, B, C, D, X or M.

About now, many people choke, because they are just sure that their matrilineal ancestor was Native, for a variety of reasons, so let’s talk about that.

  1. Family history says so. Mine did too. It was wrong. Or more precisely, wrong about which line.  Test other contributing lineages to the ancestor who was identified as Native.
  2. The Native ancestor is on the maternal line, but not in the direct matrilineal line. There’s a difference. Remember, mitochondrial DNA only tests the direct matrilineal line. What this means is that, for example, if your grandmother’s father was Native, your grandmother is still Native, or half Native, but not through her mother’s side so IT WON’T SHOW ON A MITOCHONDRIAL DNA TEST. In times past, stories like “grandma was Indian” was what was passed down. Not, grandmother’s father’s father’s mother was Waccamaw. Any Indian heritage got conveyed in the message about that ancestor, without giving the source, which leads to a lot of incorrect assumptions – and a lot of DNA tests that don’t produce the expected results. This is exactly what happened in my family line.
  3. Your ancestor is “Native” but her genetic ancestor was not – meaning she may have been adopted into the tribe, or kidnapped or was for some other reason a tribal member, but not originally genetically Native on the direct matrilineal line.  Mary Jemison is the perfect example.
  4. My ancestor’s picture looks Native. Great! That could have come from any of her other ancestors on her pedigree chart. Let’s see what other eividence we can find.

At this point, you’re disappointed, but you are not dead in the water and there are ways to move forward to search for your Native heritage on other lines.  What I would suggest are the following three action items.

1. Look at your family pedigree chart and see who else can be tested to determine a haplogroup for other lineages. For example, let’s say, your grandmother’s father. He would not have passed on any of his mother’s mitochondrial DNA, but his sisters would have passed their mother’s mitochondrial DNA to their children, and their daughters would pass it on as well. So dig your pedigree chart out. and see who is alive today that can test to represent other contributing ancestral lines.

2. Take a look at your Family Finder ethnicity chart under myOrigins and see how much Native DNA you have.

FF no Native

If your ethnicity chart looks like this one, with no New World showing, it means that if you have Native heritage, it’s probably more than 5 or 6 generations back in time and the current technology can’t measurably read those small amounts.  However, this is only measuring admixed or recombined DNA, meaning the DNA you received from both your mother and father.  Recombination in essence halves the DNA of each of your ancestors in each generation, so it’s not long until it’s so small that it’s unmeasurable today.

You can also download your raw autosomal data file to and utilize their admixture tools to look for small amounts of Native heritage.  However, beware that small amounts of Native admixture can also be found in people with Asian ancestors, like Slavic Europeans.

The person whose results are shown above does have proven Native Ancestry, both via paper documentation and mitochondrial DNA results – but her Native ancestor is back in French Canada in the 1600s.  Too much admixture has occurred between then and now for the Native to be found on the autosomal test, but mtDNA is forever.

If your Y or mtDNA haplogroup is Native, there is no division in each generation, so nothing washes out. If Y or mtDNA is Native, it stays fully Native forever, even if the rest of your autosomal Native DNA has washed out with succeeding generations.  That is the blessing of both Y and mtDNA testing!

FF native

If your myOrigins ethnicity chart looks like this one, which shows a significant amount of New World and other areas that typically, in conjunction with New World, are interpreted as additional Native contribution, such as the Asian groups, and your Y and/or mtDNA is not Native, then you’re looking at the wrong ancestor in your tree.  Your mtDNA or Y DNA test has just eliminated this specific line – but none of the lines that “married in.”

You can do a couple of things – find more people to test for Y and mtDNA in other lines.  In this case, 18% Native is significant.  In this person’s case, she could eliminate her father’s line, because he was known not to be Native.  Her mother was Hispanic – a prime candidate for Native ancestry.  The next thing for this person to do is to test her mother’s brother’s Y DNA to determine her mother’s father’s Y haplogroup.  He could be the source of the Native heritage in her family.

3. The third thing to do is to utilize Family Finder matching to see who you match that also carries Native heritage. In the chart below, you can see which of your Family Finder matches also carry a percentage of Native ancestry. This only shows their Native match percent if you have Native. In other words, it doesn’t’ show a category for your matches that you don’t also have.

ff native matches

Please note – just because you match someone who also carries Native American heritage does NOT mean that your Native line is how you match.

For example, in one person’s case, their Native heritage is on their mother’s side.  They also match their father’s cousin, who also carries Native heritage but he got his Native heritage from his mother’s line.  So they both carry Native heritage, but their matching DNA and ancestry are on their non-Native lines.

Lots of people send me e-mails that say things like this, “I match many people with Cherokee heritage.”  But what they don’t realize is that unless you share common proven ancestors, that doesn’t matter.  It’s circumstantial.  Think about it this way.

When measuring back 6 generations, which is generally (but not always) the last generation at which autosomal can reliably find matches between people, you have 64 ancestors.  So does the other person.  You match on at least one of those ancestors (or ancestral lines), and maybe more.  If one of your ancestors and one of your match’s ancestors are both Native, then the chances of you randomly matching that ancestor is 1 in 64.  So you’re actually much more likely to share a different ancestor.  Occasionally, you will actually match the same Native ancestor.  Just don’t assume, because you know what assume does – and you’ll be wrong 63 out of 64 times.

Sharing Native ancestry with one or several of your matches is a possible clue, but nothing more.

Scenario 2:

Yippee!!  My Haplogroup IS Native!!!

Ok, take a few minutes to do the happy dance – because when you’re done – we still have work to do!!!

happy dance frog

Many people actually find out about their Native American heritage by a surprise Native American haplogroup result.  But now, it’s time to figure out if your haplogroup really IS Native.

As I mentioned before, many of the major haplogroups have some members who are from Europe, Asia and the America.  Fortunately, the New World lines have been separated from the Old World lines long enough to develop specific and separate mutations, that enable us to tell the difference – most of the time.  If you’re interested, I recently wrote a paper about the various European, Jewish, Asian and Native American groups within subgroups of haplogroup A4.  If you’re curious about how haplogroups can have subgroups on different continents, then read this article about Haplogroups and The Three Brothers.  This is also an article that is helpful when trying to understand what your matches do, and don’t, mean.

So, before going any further, check your haplogroup subgroup and make sure your results really do fall into the Native subgroups.  If they don’t, then go back to the “Not Native” section.  If you aren’t sure, which typically means you’re a male with an estimated haplogroup of C or Q, then keep reading because we have some tools available that may help clarify the situation.

Utilizing Personal Page Y and Mito Tools to Find Your Tribe

Much of Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA genetic genealogy matching is “guilt by genetic association,” to quote Bennett Greenspan.  In other words we can tell a great deal about your heritage by who you match – and who you don’t match.

Let’s say you are haplogroup B2a2 – that’s a really nice Native American haplogroup, a subgroup of B2a, a known Beringian founder.  B2a2 developed in the Americas and has never been found outside of the Native population in the Americas.  In other words, there is no controversy or drama surrounding this haplogroup.

It just so happens that our “finding your tribe” example is a haplogroup B2a2 individual, Cindy, so let’s take a look at how we work through this process.

Taking a look at Cindy’s Matches Map tab, which shows the location of Cindy’s matches most distant ancestor on their matrilineal line (hopefully that’s what they entered.)  Only one of Cindy’s full sequence matches has entered their ancestor’s geographic information.  However, it’s not far from Cindy’s ancestor which is shown by the white balloon.

Cindy full seq match

Please note that Cindy, who is haplogroup B2a2, has NO European matching individuals.  In fact, no matches outside of North and South America.  Being Native, we would not expect her to have matches elsewhere, but since the match location field is self-entered and depends on the understanding of the person entering the information, sometimes information provided seems confusing.  Occasionally information found here has to be taken with a grain of salt, or confirmed with the individual who entered the information.

For example, I have one instance of someone with all Native matches having one Spanish match.  When asked about this, the person entering the information said, “Oh, our family was Spanish.”  And of course, if you see a male name entered in the most distant ancestor field for mtDNA, or a female for Y DNA, you know there is a problem.

While the full sequence test is by far the best, don’t neglect to look at the HVR1 and HVR2 results, because not everyone tests at higher levels and there may be hints waiting there for you.  There certainly was for Cindy.

Cindy HVR1 match

Look at Cindy’s cluster of HVR1 matches.  Let’s look at the New Mexico group more closely.

Cindy HVR1 NM matches

Look how tightly these are clustered.  One is so close to Cindy’s ancestor that the red balloon almost obscures her white balloon.  By clicking on the red balloons, that person’s information pops up.

You will also want to utilize the Haplogroup and Ancestral Origins tabs.  The Haplogroup Origins provides you with academic and research data with some participant data included.  The Ancestral Origins tab provides you with the locations where your matches say their most distant ancestor is from.

Cindy’s Haplogroup Origins page looks like this.

Cindy haplogroup origins

Keep  in mind that your closest matches are generally the most precise – for mitochondrial DNA meaning the group at the bottom titled “HVR1, HVR2 and Coding Region Matches.”  In Cindy’s case, above, at both the HVR1 and HVR2 levels, she also matches individuals in haplogroup B4’5, but at the highest level, she will only match her own haplogroup.

Next Cindy’s Ancestral Origins tab shows us the locations where her matches indicate their most distant ancestor is found.

Cindy ancestral origins

These people, at least some of them, identified themselves as Native American and their DNA along with genealogy research confirmed their accuracy.

Now, it’s time to look at your matches.

Cindy fs matches

If you’re lucky, now that you know positively that your results are Native (because you carry an exclusive Native haplogroup), and so do your matches, one of them will not only list their most distant ancestor, they will also put a nice little heartwarming note like (Apache) or (Navajo) or (Pueblo).  Now that one word would just make your day.

Another word of caution.  Even though that would make your day, that’s not always YOUR answer.  Why not?  Because Native people intermarried with other tribes, sometimes willingly, and sometimes not by choice.  Willingly or not, their DNA went along with them and sometimes you will find someone among the Apache that is really a Plains Indian, for example.  So you can get excited, but don’t get too excited until you find a few matches who know positively what tribe their ancestor was from.


So let’s talk about what positive means.  When someone tells me they are a member of the Cherokee Tribe for example, I ask which Cherokee tribe, because there are many that are not the federally recognized tribes and accept a wide variety of people based on their family stories and little more except an enrollment fee.  I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m saying you don’t want to base the identity of your ancestor’s tribe, unwittingly, on a situation like that.

If the answer is the official Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, for example, whose enrollment criteria I understand, then I ask them based on which ancestral line.  It could well be that they are a tribal member based on one relative and their mitochondrial DNA goes to an entirely different tribe.  In fact, I had this exact situation recently.  Their mitochondrial DNA was Seminole and they were a member of a different tribe based on a different lineage.

If the match is not a tribal member or descended from a tribal member, then I try, tactfully, to ask what proof they have that they are descended from that particular tribe.  It’s important to ask this in a nonconfrontional way, but you do need to know because if their claim to Native heritage is based on a family story, that’s entirely different than if it is based on the fact that their direct mitochondrial ancestor was listed on one of the government rolls on which tribal citizenship was predicated.

So, in essence, by your matches proving their mitochondrial lineage as Native and affiliated with a particular tribe, they are, in part, proving yours, or at least giving you a really big hint, because at some point you do share a common matrilineal ancestor.

You may find that two of your matches track their lineage to different tribes.  At that point, fall back to languages.  Are the tribes from the same language group?  If so, then your ancestor may be further back in time.  If not, then most likely someone married, was kidnapped, adopted or sold into slavery from one tribe to the other.  Take a look at the history and geography of the two tribes involved

Advanced Matching

It’s difficult to tell with any reasonable accuracy how long ago you share a common ancestor with someone that you match on either Y or mtDNA.  Family Tree DNA does provide guidelines, but those are based on statistical probabilities, and while they are certainly better than nothing, one size does not fit all and doesn’t tend to fit anyone very well.  I don’t mean this to be a criticism of Family Tree DNA – it’s just the nature of the beast.

For Y DNA, you can utilize the TIP tool, shown as the orange icon on your match bar, and the learning center provides information about mitochondrial time estimates to a common ancestor.  Let me say that I find the 5 generation estimate at the 50th percentile for a full sequence match extremely optimistic.  This version is a bit older but more detailed.

mtdna mrca chart

However, you can utilize another tool to see if you match anyone autosomally that you also match on your mitochondrial or Y DNA.  Before you do this, take a look at your closest matches and make note of whether they took the Family Finder test.  That will be listed by their name on the match table, by the FF, at right, below.

mtdna matches plus ff

If they didn’t take the Family Finder test, then you obviously won’t match them on that test.

On your mtDNA or Y DNA options panel, select Advanced Matching.

advanced matching

You’ll see the following screen.  Select both Family Finder and ONE Of the mtDNA selections  Why just one?  Because you’re going to select “show only people I match on selected tests” which means all the tests that you select.  Not everyone takes all the tests or matches on all three levels, so search one level of mtDNA plus Family Finder, at a time.  This means if you have matches on all 3 mitochondrial levels, you’ll run this query 3 times.  If you’re working with Y DNA, then you’ll do the same thing, selecting the 12-111 panels one at a time in combination with Family Finder.

The results show you who matches you on BOTH the Family Finder and the mtDNA test, one level at a time.  Here are the results for Cindy comparing her B2a2 HVR1 region mitochondrial DNA (where she had the most matches) and Family Finder.

advanced matches results

Remember those clusters of people that we saw near Cindy’s oldest ancestor on the map?  It’s Cindy’s lucky day.  She is extremely lucky to match three of her HVR1 matches on Family Finder.  And yes, that red balloon overlapping her own balloon is one of the matches here as well.  Cindy just won the Native American “find my tribe” lottery!!!!  Before testing, Cindy had no idea and now she has 3 new autosomal cousins AND she know that her ancestor was Native and has a very good idea of which tribe.  Several of the people Cindy matches knew their ancestor’s tribal affiliation.

So, now we know that not only does Cindy share a direct matrilineal ancestor with these people, but that ancestor is likely to be within 5 or 6 generations, which is the typical reach for the Family Finder matching, with one caveat…and that’s endogamous populations.  And yes, Native American people are an endogamous group.  They didn’t have anyone else to marry except for other Native people for thousands of years.  In recent times, and especially east of the Mississippi, significant admixture has occurred, but not so much in New Mexico at least not across the board.  The message here is that with endogamous populations, autosomal relationships can look closer than they really are because there is so much common DNA within the population as a whole.  That said, Cindy did find a common ancestor with some of her matches – and because they matched on their mitochondrial DNA, they knew exactly where in their trees to look.

Identifying your Tribe

Being able to utilize DNA to find your tribe is much like a puzzle.  It’s a little bit science, meaning the DNA testing itself, a dose of elbow grease, meaning the genealogy and research work, and a dash of luck mixed with some magic to match someone (or ones) who actually know their tribal affiliation.  And if you’re really REALLY lucky, you’ll find your common ancestor while you’re at it!  Cindy did!

In essence, all of these pieces of information are evidence in your story.  In the end, you have to evaluate all of the cumulative pieces of evidence as to quality, accuracy and relevance.  These pieces of evidence are also breadcrumbs and clues for you to follow – to find your own personal answer.  After all, your story and that of your ancestors isn’t exactly like anyone else’s.  Yes, it’s work, but it’s possible and it happens.

In case you think Cindy’s case is a one time occurrence, it’s not.  Lenny Trujillo did the same thing and wrote about his experience.  Here’s hoping you’re the next person to make the same kind of breakthrough.



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Haplogroups and The Three Brothers

3 brothers group

Do you remember when you first started working with genealogy and you encountered your first “three brothers” story?

For those of you who don’t have one, it goes like this:

There were three brothers who came to <fill in the location.>  They had an argument about <a woman, religion, where to settle, other> and they all three went in different directions, never to see each other or speak again.

Well, of course, that might have happened and it probably did from time to time, but not nearly as often as the story would have you believe.

In my case, I had several “three brother” stories and even a “seven brother” story.  Even as a novice genealogist, I began to get suspicious when I heard the third or fourth story and they all seemed eerily similar.  Too similar.  Too convenient.

Enter the age of DNA testing.  Many of the three brothers stories seem to stem from three men with the same surname found in different or sometimes not-so-distant locations whose ancestries could not be tied nearly together, so surely someone said, “well they must have been three brothers who went different ways” and from that the “three brothers “ myth was born, to take on an entire life of its own.

But then, there are the stories that are real.  In some cases, the DNA testing does prove that those men descended from a common ancestor.  Of course, we can’t ever prove that they were brothers by their descendants DNA testing today.  We can only prove that they weren’t, if their Y DNA doesn’t match.

Recently, someone asked me a very basic DNA question, and the answer that came to mind was, “well, there were three brothers, you see…..”

The question was: “How can one haplogroup have descendants on different continents?

For example, how can a specific haplogroup include people who are Asian, European and Native American.

Let’s take a look at how that works.  It’s a lot like a pedigree chart.  In fact, it’s exactly the same.

There isn’t a haplogroup Z Y-DNA haplogroup, so let’s use that as a hypothetical example.  This example is equally applicable to mitochondrial DNA as well.

3 brothers

In our example, haplogroup Z was born a very long time ago, let’s say 30,000 or 40,000 years ago in Eurasia – we don’t know where and it doesn’t matter.

Haplogroup Z had two sons, and each one had a mutation different from the father, haplogroup Z, so the sons were named haplogroups Z1 and Z2.  One liked the hill to the west and one liked the river to the east, so they settled in opposite directions from their father.

Over time, the families and descendants of these two sons expanded until they had to move to new ground in order to have enough game to hunt.

Haplogroup Z1’s descendants had had two mutations as well.  One group, Z1a, went to Siberia and one group, Z1b went to China – or what is today China.

On the other hand, haplogroup Z2’s descendants also had two mutations that set their lines apart from each other.  One of these, Z2c went to what is now Europe and one, Z2d, went north to Scandinavia.

You can see as you look on out to the fourth generation that haplogroup Z1a, in Siberia had two sons with mutations.  Z1a1 went to Russia and Z1a2 crossed into Beringia, following game, and eventually would settle in North America.

Z1a2 then had two sons as well, both with mutations.  One of those, Z1a2a, traveled across the north and today his descendants are found primarily in eastern Canada and the US.

Now here’s the important part.  Z1a2a is known ONLY as Native American, because that mutation happened here, in the New World, and is not found in either Europe or Asia.  Z1a2b is also only Native American, found primarily in South America because that son followed the western coastline instead of traveling east cross country.

On the other hand, haplogroup Z1a2 might be found in BOTH Asia and the New World if it was born in Siberia but then migrated to the New World.  Some carriers might be found in both places, so if found in the New World, it likely indicates Native American, and yet it is also found in Siberia.  It is not found in other parts of the world though.

You can see that while the base haplogroup Z is today found worldwide, as defined by its subgroups, the subgroups themselves tend to be localized to specific regions.  You can also begin to see why determining locations of the birth of haplogroups is so difficult.  Europe is one big melting pot, and so is the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

We, as the genetic genealogy community, are still trying to sort through this, which is why you see new haplogroup subgroup designations on nearly a daily basis.  The Y tree changes almost hourly (thanks to advanced tests like the Big Y at Family Tree DNA) and the mitochondrial tree has had many additions in the past months and years, with more yet to come shortly as a result of ongoing research.

In the mitochondrial DNA world, haplogroups are still named in the pedigree type fashion.  For example, I’m J1c2f.  However, in the Y tree, the names became so unwieldy, some up to about 20 characters long, that the pedigree type name has been replaced by the defining mutation (SNP) for that haplogroup.  So, R1b1a2, the most common male haplogroup in Europe, is now referred to as R-M269.  Not as easy to tell the pedigree by looking, but much more meaningful, especially as branches are added and rearranged.  The SNP name assigned to the branch will never change, no matter where the branch is moved on the tree as more discoveries are made.

If a DNA participant only tests to the most basic of levels, they are only going to receive a rather basic haplogroup designation.  Let’s say, in our example, Z or Z1 or Z2.  Clearly, additional testing would be in order to figure out whether that individual is Native American or from Scandinavia.  And yes, we have exactly this situation in many of the Native American haplogroups – because all the Native American base haplogroups for Y DNA: C and Q, and for mitochondrial DNA: A, B, C, D, X and possibly M, were founded and born in Asia, thousands of years ago.

And yes, it seems they all had three siblings…..



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Why Autosomal Response Rate REALLY DOES Matter

In my recent article “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?,” one of the comparison items between vendors I mentioned is response rate.  Specifically, I said, in reference to 23andMe, “Very low match response rate to inquiries.  Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.”

This has generated some commentary, but based on the nature of the comments, both in terms of blog comments and private e-mails, I can tell that many people don’t understand why response rate matters at 23andMe.  On the other hand, some regular users of all 3 vendors felt I didn’t go far enough in explaining the difference and why response rate at 23andMe matters so much.

I’m going to see if I can make this issue a bit more clear.  Response rate really does matter and it’s not just whining!

apples oranges

At 23andMe YOU CAN’T SEE MATCH INFORMATION OR DO ANY DNA COMPARISON WITHOUT A POSITIVE RESPONSE FROM THOSE YOU MATCH.  In other words, they must reply in the affirmative – that they want to communicate with you AND that they want to share DNA results.  Otherwise, you can do nothing.

This is a process not required by either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.  So, out the door, there is a very big difference.

At Family Tree DNA, you can see everything available WITHOUT additional correspondence, so while a response from a match would be nice, it’s not essential to being able to compare their DNA, see who you match in common, see their tree, if posted, find your common surnames, or perform any other function provided by the vendor.

At, WITH a subscription, you can see your matches, their trees (if not private) and DNA Circles with no additional correspondence.  The only time you need to correspond with someone is if their tree is private or they don’t post a tree.

The operative words here are want and need.  At 23andMe, you absolutely positively NEED a positive response from each and every match (both authorization to communicate AND authorization to share DNA results) BEFORE you can DO anything.

So, comparatively speaking, a low response rate at 23andMe means that you’re only going to see a small fraction of your matches that are showing, while a low response rate at the other vendors is an irritant and comes after you’ve utilized the vendor’s tools and then asked your match for additional information.  In other words, no response at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry is not a barrier to playing.  At 23andMe, you’re dead in the water if your matches don’t respond.

In essence, 23andMe requires three authorizations to be able to see your matches DNA information: the original authorization to test, authorization to communicate and authorization to “share” DNA results.

With both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, one authorization, when you initially test, is all you need – although the tools and approach of these two vendors are very different as pointed out in the original article.

So, as you can see, the response rate at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry really isn’t essential to utilizing the tools, but it’s another matter entirely at 23andMe – so we’re not comparing apples to apples.

So, let’s look at the real effects of 23andMe’s authorization policy.

At 23andMe

At 23andMe, this is what you get, out of the box.  The person’s account I’m using for this first graphic tested for two purposes and is not interested in genealogical contact, so this is an “untouched” account, except that I’ve redacted the names, if showing, in blue to the left.  Looks good – all those matches, until you realize you can’t DO anything without contacting each and every single match.

23andme untouched

What isn’t obvious is that you can’t COMPARE your DNA or information with any of these people WITHOUT sending an introduction request.  In addition, they ALSO must authorizing DNA sharing.  And by the way, an introduction request and DNA sharing are NOT one and the same thing.  You can see the names of public matches, who have pre-authorized communications, but you cannot compare DNA with them.  You can’t even see the names of other (nonpublic) matches until you send an introduction request to them and they reply in the affirmative.  Those are the accounts above that just say “male” with no blue partially redacted name above them.

If you click on “Send an introduction,” here are your options.

23andMe intro request

You can request an intro and genome sharing in one message, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept both nor does it mean that someone will send you a request for both.

This is what an introduction request looks like to the receiver.

23andMe contact request

Now, an introduction request only allows you to talk to your match.  If they do not ask for, or authorize genome sharing, next, you have to request to share your DNA results – and they also have to reply in the affirmative to that request too.

Not intuitively obvious you say?  Right!

Here’s the process to request to share genomes.

23andme dna share request

And here’s the reply step to authorize genome sharing.

23andme dna share authorization crop

Is it any wonder the response rate is low?

So, as you can see, just being able to see that you have a match is not the same thing as being able to utilize the information.  With Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, you can immediately utilize the information from all of your matches to the full extent of that vendor’s offerings.

At Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, here is what you see out the gate (full names redacted.)

Family Tree DNA out the gate

No contact request needed, no separate authorization to share DNA and no subscription required to see your matches, to compare DNA, to see who you match in common, to see their trees (if provided) or to see your matching surnames.  The little dropdown box under each person provides additional options.

You don’t NEED to contact your matches for anything.  You may WANT to contact them for genealogy information, especially if they have not uploaded or created trees.

At Ancestry – WITH Subscription

At, to see all three available DNA related features, your matches, their trees (if provided and if public) and DNA Circles, you must have a subscription.  Ancestry offers a minimal subscription for $49, per year, for this purpose or a standard subscription covers DNA functionality as well.  You must have a subscription to see your matches trees and your DNA Circles.

Here is what your Ancestry match page looks like.

Ancestry with subscription

You don’t NEED to contact your matches to view results.  You may WANT to contact those you match and if their tree is private, you will have to contact them to request to see the tree or for the identity of your common ancestor if you have a shakey leaf.

Comparative Numbers

So, let’s look at this comparatively, for my accounts at the three vendors.

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry (with subscription)
Total Number of Matches 1373 2100 3950
Number of Matches I can see without special approvals (meaning a match response required) 0 (0%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, number of effective matches 137 (10%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, DNA accounts available to compare DNA 10% or 137  accounts 100% or 2100 accounts 0% (no chromosome browser)

This shows, in black and white, why a low response rate at 23andMe is so devastating.  The percent of people whose DNA you can see equals the response rate at 23andMe.  So if you have 1000 matches at 23andMe, but you only have a 10% response rate, it’s the same as having only 100 functional matches – because the rest are entirely unavailable to you – well except for the fact that they sit there and stare at you mockingly.

If one has a 10% response rate at 23andMe, and all of those responses are positive, and all authorize BOTH communication and DNA sharing, you are still only seeing 10% of the matches listed.  So, 1000 matches at 23andMe is not at all the same as 1000 matches at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.

At Family Tree DNA, all of your match accounts are immediately available to you for viewing, communicating and comparison.

At Ancestry, you can see all of your matches (with a subscription), but you can’t compare the matching DNA because Ancestry offers no chromosome browser.

The Meat

The meat of genetic genealogy is comparing your actual segments to your matches.  So, let’s look at some real numbers.

I send a custom request to each of my matches at 23andMe and have been doing so since the product was introduced.

Looking at my top 100 matches, let’s see how many authorized sharing.

In a way, this is skewing the results, just so you know, because many of these matches are relatives who I recruited to test initially.  Plus I’ve worked on my closest matches at 23andMe much harder than my more distant matches, so this is an absolute BEST CASE scenario for the 23andMe numbers.  My actual response rate is about 10% for all matches.

At 23andMe, of my closest 100 matches, several of which are close family, 22 of my matches are sharing, one has declined and the rest are in limbo where I’ve sent an invitation and they have not responded. It’s interesting to note that of those 100, 23 are “public” which means that the intro step can be skipped, but they still have to be invited to share genomes.

Number of my 100 closest matches I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of 100 closest matches I can see 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 100 (100%)
Extrapolated by % to entire match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 3950 of 3950

23andMe said that existing trees would be available until May 1, 2015, but I can find no trees attached to any of my matching 23andMe accounts now, although there never were many.

Number of trees I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of trees I can see 0 (0%) 33 (33%) 66 (66%)*
Extrapolated by % to match total 0 of 1373 693 of 2100 2607 of 3950

*The balance of Ancestry trees are 20 matches that have no trees and 14 that have private trees.  Twenty of the 66 have common ancestors, but of those, 6 are private trees.

Number of people with whom I can compare DNA segments in chromosome browser:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of people I can compare DNA 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 0 (0%) (no chromosome browser tool)
Extrapolated by % to match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 0 of 3950

I hope these examples help make it clear why response rate really is an important factor – unfortunately – and why a response rate discussion about Family Tree DNA and Ancestry does not have the same meaning as a response rate discussion about 23andMe.

One of the best things 23andMe could do would be to get rid of the convoluted DNA authorization courtship Macarena dance.  There is no dance instructor, people don’t discover that they need to do it until after they test, and many people simply don’t understand, don’t bother or give up.  If 23andMe isn’t going to get rid of it, the LEAST they could do is to make it easy and step you through the process.  I don’t know who benefits from this, but I guarantee you, it’s not the genealogy consumer.




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