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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

Dna: Back To Basics – Organization Is Key

      As in all genealogical research, organization and methodology is key to transforming Data into Information. This month your author will try to set out a few more tidbits of knowledge gleaned through study, research, and our first toddling steps toward bending DNA facts into Family Tree Knowledge – breaking down those Brick Walls, hopefully! Bear with me, DNA is a complex, scientific study – the very basis of all life and life forms, animal, vegetable or mineral in our galaxy! It is both simple (you match a sufficient number of cMs or centimorgans across “x” number of segments and VOILA! you are related) and complex (the higher number of cMs across a broader range of segments indicates a closer match), and here is where it gets more complex because that RELATIONSHIP can equate to a variety of possible kinships. We shall explore those possibilities this month.

      Periodically, I receive an email that advises I have New DNA Matches. These are always greeted with expectations of new discoveries. My sisters and I and our offspring are very lucky. Our mother, her sister and mother (my maternal grandmother), and my paternal grandmother all had above average interest in our family histories. They collected letters, Bibles containing lists of births and deaths, marriages and sometimes even divorces. They documented conversations in numerous notebooks. They wrote on backs of photographs or notated the space beneath them in photo albums. They visited libraries and other relatives and either hand-copied family information or used the closest copy machines to capture the knowledge. My Grandmother Joslin routinely visited cemeteries and made hand-rubbed copies of headstones, carefully fixing the chalk or graphite pencil to prevent blurring and shared with genealogy groups at home. We inherited photocopied family history books for several of our major lines: Joslin, Bullard, Hopper, and Godwin compiled by a variety of family researchers. And, let us not forget, the age-old oral history method whereby oft-told tales were handed down generation to generation. By these methods, we had a huge advantage over so many others in creating our Family Tree. These formed the basis for our initial efforts at transferring all these arcane items from the cachepot into the very first of our digitized Family Trees.

      Our initial transfer of all this data took the form of mere profile sheets with the barest of vital statistics: birth dates and places, marriage dates and places, children’s names along with dates and places of birth, (in far too many instances also the too early deaths of those children), and of course the dates of death and places of burial. We kept the initial input to direct family lines and the barest of information. We forced ourselves to refrain from getting too far afield reading the “extras” in those documents. We would mark the page and kept to our avowed process of merely marking the page for later review. (Of course, some of these pages were simply too interesting not to dally and read and discuss, you know.) After entering this skeleton of a tree, we then went back through the material to those pages we had marked that contained the real treasures – the STORIES that made these ancestors come to life and become known to us! These stories were then painstakingly entered to capture the history for later generations.

      Later, we discovered the infant Ancestry site. Your author subscribed initially some 30 or so years ago (?) when the available documents were rather scarce, actually. However, the demand for the vast amounts of knowledge to be had pushed Ancestry to send more into the archives of NARA, local libraries, church repositories, county clerk’s offices, and around the world to photocopy or scan documents with dates reaching back into the ages! Ancestry now has millions and millions of documents that can be perused from the comfort of one’s own home – documents that provide intimate details about our ancestors, granting us the opportunity to get to know them, the hardships they faced and overcame, and the tragedies that befell them.

      More recently, scientific research has advanced to the point that the very web of human creation has, largely, been dissected. Scientists first began to isolate strands of DNA and begin the excruciating and decades long study to identify which strands or segments contribute to what formation of the human creature. The work is ongoing, but such incredible advances have been made that DNA is a topic of discussion worldwide, in every form of communication – on air, in print, by word of mouth, by law enforcement and, of course, by those of us hungry to know our own origins. Numerous firms offer testing and a variety of analyses to convey the information thus gained. Ancestry’s DNA testing offers the advantage of tying your DNA tests to a family tree that has been documented and carefully researched to contain names and dates as nearly accurate as possible.

      Early on, after my very first DNA test (my own, in this case) results came back, I was eager to discover HOW these folks were related to me. I discovered the most practical application offered by Ancestry – the NOTE. When you see the name of a Match, click on the name. A screen pulls up that now reads You and “John Doe” at the top. Beneath that: Predicted Relationship: 4th to 6th cousin (or whatever as shown below), depending upon the next bit of information on the next line down which reads Shared DNA: (Example) 72 cMs across 4 segments. Beneath that is a Plus sign Add to group and finally, at the bottom of this heading appears an icon that looks like a page with a corner turned down and the words Add note. (See sample below)


You and henry saldana

Predicted relationship: 4th–6th Cousin
Shared DNA: 72 cM across 4 segments

(+) Add to group
(Note icon) Add note

      This icon for the note (unfortunately, Ancestry does not permit me to copy that icon) should be stored in your memory for this will provide valuable information from this point forward about this DNA Match. In a listing of your matches, those names with the Note icon can be examined by clicking on the icon to bring up a dialog box showing whatever you’ve entered. I always try to enter the Shared Ancestors info if it is available. Otherwise, I examine the tree data to see if I recognize names (which may not have shown up as a Shared Ancestor if either you or your match has entered differing dates for birth and death). For instance, one of my Notes is for a close cousin and reads as follows:

      Marsha Mouck Dearinger, daughter of Billy Mouck and Opal Horton Mouck. SHARED: William Henry Bullard, Great-Grandfather and wife Malinda Ellen Hopper, Great-Grandmother, parents of both our grandmother, Carrie Bullard and her sister Lilvia Acenith BULLARD, our Grand aunt. Many common surnames, of course.

This information appears when I click on the name shown on the revealed Match (there may be initials, a full name, a fanciful name, or a number depending upon how that person chose to have their DNA test show up in a public forum). In this instance, Ancestry clarifies their choice of proposed relationship as shown below:

When two people have a DNA match, it means they inherited DNA from one or more recent common ancestors. The length of DNA they have in common is estimated in centimorgans (cM). The higher the number, the closer the relationship.

DNA Relationship

You and (Test Name) share 255 cM. This table shows the percentage of the time people sharing 255 cM have the following relationships:

Percent & Relationship

69% Relationship
2nd cousin
1st cousin 2x removed
Half 1st cousin 1x removed
Half 2nd great-aunt/uncle
Half 2nd great-niece/nephew

17% Relationship
1st cousin 1x removed
Half 1st cousin
2nd great-grandparent
2nd great-grandchild
2nd great aunt/uncle
2nd great-niece/nephew
Half great-aunt/uncle
Half grand-niece/nephew

13% Relationship
2nd cousin 1x removed
Half 2nd cousin
1st cousin 3x removed
Half 1st cousin 2x removed

<1% Relationship
3rd cousin
2nd cousin 2x removed
Half 2nd cousin 1x removed
Half 1st cousin 3x removed

Evaluating DNA Evidence

DNA evidence may support or contradict other forms of evidence and may point to different sources of evidence. Other possible relationships between people should also be considered.

      This section, advising the POSSIBLE relationship shared with your DNA match is the most confusing for most folks. The table above shows HOW OFTEN two people sharing the number of centiMorgans shown actually share the relationship POSSIBILITIES shown after the percentage. In other words, this person is most probably my 2nd cousin, 1st cousin 2x removed, my Half 1st cousin 1x removed, and so on. If I do not recognize the name (typical case since I have nearly 100,000 cousin matches now!!), my next step is to see if Ancestry has supplied Shared Surnames. Click on each Shared Surname and a new dialog box pops up. Look at the names for your match and for your own tree. Any look really close, with maybe dates varying? May be the same ancestor, entered with differing dates of birth and/or death. If I am unable to discern our possible relationship from this review, I move next to Shared Matches.

      Shared Matches shows where you and this particular DNA Match have ALSO matched to other test results. Many of mine now have those helpful NOTES attached. Ancestry displays the DNA Match lists differently on the phone versus on the computer. Either way, to read the entire text of the NOTE, you will need to click the Note icon. On the computer, Ancestry now lists the DNA Matches in a handy table format and to the far right appears the first two lines of text of any Note you have entered for that Match. I can go down the list, clicking on the Note icon where it shows up and try to find a common piece of information. For instance, on the first Match I examined today, I found it highly probable this person with NO PUBLIC TREE (or linked tree) matched to a lot of DNA test results proven to link back to George Hempleman Alexander, my 2nd Great Grandfather and his wife. Now I used the NOTE dialog box to enter that valuable clue. “Shared Matches indicate we are related through George Hempleman Alexander and wife…” From now on, when I see that name all I have to do to refresh my memory is click on the Note Icon to see what information I’ve stored. Unfortunately, since this person chose not to link to a tree shared with the public, I am unable to enter the name, parents, and back through his line to link to our shared ancestors. However, since Ancestry added that neat little sorting mechanism, the customized GROUP with a colored dot, I can add this cousin to my Hempleman Family Line Group with its Blue dot icon.

      Occasionally, the Match is managed by another who does have a tree that is public. Your author will try to find a tree for the Match, either a tree not linked but that appears when the profile of the Match is examined, or the Manager of the DNA test for that Match may have a tree. Take a peek at the tree. Try to find familiar surnames. Make notes if anything causes you to believe you may be on the trail of the relationship. Those notes can always be changed – just make sure the note you leave for yourself makes it clear nothing was set in stone.

      In some instances, Ancestry compares trees to provide suggested common ancestors. In one such instance today, one of my most recent Matches provided this:

Common Ancestors

According to Ancestry member trees, these are the common ancestors that connect you and fre_fas.
View a common ancestor to see the relationship path that connects you.

fre_fas could be your 5th cousin 1x removed through:

James Rutledge or Matthew (?) Russell
4th great-grandfather

View Relationship

Ann (Annie) Bryant
4th great-grandmother

View Relationship

Clicking on the View Relationship link opens up a dual path revealing how my Match and I descend from what Ancestry believes to be our Common Ancestor. A very helpful clue, indeed.

      This sums up my hints for this issue concerning translating the DNA Match list for maximum assistance in confirming your ancestral line, and, possibly being able to break down a few brick walls. All this possible from the comfort of your own Armchair!

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