Is DNA a genealogical miracle?

DNA imageIs DNA a genealogical miracle?  Is DNA the answer to all your genealogical problems?  No. And no.  So, why send your DNA sample off and pay someone to work-up your profile?  Because DNA is solid science and fast becoming an invaluable option in the genealogist/family historian’s toolbox.

I sent my DNA samples off last January.  I did some research first.  I decided on an autosomal test and chose two companies.  One sample went to Ancestry.com.  The other went to Family Tree DNA.  The results reached my inbox about eight weeks later within a few days of one another.  Here are some benefits I experienced in the first week of having the results:

  • Confirmed the family identity of the male DNA contributor to my grandfather and therefore confirmed my suspicion of who did not contribute DNA to him.
  • Confirmed we have yet to identify a family surname in another line of our pedigree chart. (Some researchers think they know but the DNA says it isn’t so.)
  • Confronted (and for me settled) the family lore of having Cherokee descendants in our specific family lines.
  • Confirmed my connections to cousins I met in “the old fashion way” of doing genealogy AND connected me to new cousins across America.

Sound like a miracle?  Maybe, but it’s not.

Here are some things DNA cannot do for you.

  • Build a family tree. (At least not yet!)  If you’re hoping to use DNA to breakdown your genealogical brick walls, you had better get to work on your tree!  Your DNA results may tell you you’re related by DNA to another contributor but good luck on knowing who, how, when and where without doing the hard work of genealogy.  I’m amazed at the number of people I match and they have no tree uploaded.  I can see some applications of DNA which would not need a tree but not if you’re doing genealogical/family history work.
  • Go to the library, research center or courthouse for you. Your DNA results can’t travel on your behalf and make the connections that help tell your story.  Where did the people with my DNA live?  Who were their neighbors?  When and where did these DNAs “marry”?  How did somebody with my DNA get where I am geographically?
  • Fill in the gaps and make your family history rich. Your DNA results cannot interview family members.  They cannot take you to a home place and fire your imagination.  They cannot show you a picture to put a face on that contributor.  They can’t tell you the stories of a 95-year-old great-aunt.
  • They can’t do the footwork of emailing, messaging or calling the other matches to compare notes. And if the two of you don’t have well-built trees, you may not accomplish much when you do visit.
  • They can’t interpret themselves. You or somebody else must interpret your results if you’re going to get the most out of them.  For me, this has been a steep learning curve.  I’m in my 8th month and some days feel as if I haven’t learned a thing!  DNA results 100.  Gary 0.  I like learning new things.  I like a challenge. But, honestly, I’ve got my hands full with this one.

And so you ask, would I do it all over again?  Would I spend about $100 per sample to have my DNA tested?  Absolutely!  As I write this post, I can’t wait for my sister’s mtDNA test results to come back!  It’ll be a wonderful addition to our research.  I just have to do the hard work of understanding and using the depth of knowledge and insight it provides to better tell our family’s full and fascinating story.

Here are some steps you can take if you are serious about using DNA.

  • Go online and do a search using the terms “Genealogy” AND “DNA”. Do it just like I typed it with the quotation marks.
  • Go to the YouTube site and plug in the same terms. Watch a couple of videos on the basics.  (BTW, if you’re not using YouTube in your genealogy “how to” learning, you’re missing a great tool.)
  • Now, spend some time. Do some research.  Don’t be discouraged by the complexity.  Visit with someone who loves the science and technology of it.
  • Find and read blogs specific to the subject of DNA testing. Most of the people on my Blogroll (to your right probably) have written on this subject.  Go to their blog and plug the letters “DNA” into their site search box.

Once you get your tree built, gedcom file ready to upload and DNA results available, use these two other wonderful free online tools:  Gedmatch and Genome Mate Pro.  The future is here.

Here’s how I could use your help.

  • If you have family with the surname “Roberts” who’s ancestors have lived in Lunenburg, Charlotte or Mecklenburg Counties, Virginia since the 1760s please put us in contact with one another. I’m laughing as I write this.  It sounds so crazy and presumptuous!
  • If you know a family with the surnames “Wray”, “Ray”, “Rhea”, “Whitson” or “Eagan” and they had relatives in or around Wilson County, Tennessee ca 1799 – 1840, please put us in contact with one another. (Use the comment section.)
  • And, if you have old family photos, please do not destroy them before some family member can identify them and get them up on the internet to bring joy and context to some future researcher. You may possess the only “bread crumbs” leading to your family’s past.  Treat them as treasure.

Happy Hunting!

Now, where is that Genome Mate Pro instructional video…?

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A Peek at My DNA Results

I sent my DNA samples off to Ancestry and Family Tree for autosomal testing in January.  While waiting for my results I hastily built a “cousin catching” online tree at Ancestry.  I received my results in March and enjoy the benefits to this day!

I plan to write a couple of full posts on DNA in the near future.  For now I want to highlight one benefit.

Autosomal DNA testing is a “family connections” type of testing.  That’s one way I think of it.  I’m told it allows you to find accurate connections to a maximum of 5 to 6 generations.  It allows you to connect on both your male and female sides.  The larger the test pool (total number of DNA contributors in any database), the more accurate the results.  I chose the two services with the largest and fastest growing databases.

My results give me a range or approximate amount of DNA compared to the known samples.  Both companies’ results were similar as you would hope they would be.  Here’s a broad overview.

I’m 99% European.  It breaks down with these approximate ranges:

  • Great Britain – Range 33% – 95% estimated at 65%
  • Scandinavia – Range 0% – 37% estimated at 16%
  • Ireland – Range 0% – 21% estimated at 9%
  • Europe West – Range 0% – 19% estimated at 6%
  • Italy/Greece – Range 0% – 4% estimated at 1%
  • Europe East – Range 0% – 5% estimated at 1%
  • European Jewish – Range 0% – 2% estimated at less than 1%
  • Caucasus Region – Range 0% – 3% estimated at less than 1%

Meaning

There’s nothing exciting here.  I’m about as white and European as you can get.  For generations now my ancestors have found and married others with genetic links to the same general part of the world.  Boring?  Those are the DNA facts and as you know in genealogy facts are good.

My DNA test results answers questions.

  • Who was my grandfather’s father?
  • Do I have Native American blood?
  • Am I related to a particular group of families?

My DNA test results help me make connections.

Some of the best fun and most productive genealogical results from DNA testing has been “meeting” so many wonderful new cousins.  They continue to add to my tree and my life.

One thing I would do different.

If I were doing it over, I would build a “cousin catching” tree on Family Tree like I did on Ancestry.  I encourage you to build a tree online and then order your DNA test.

A pleasant surprise

I wondered where my western European DNA originated and I think I found it!  I knew by the “paper trail” I’m related to the Nichols of Williamson County, Tennessee and Kerr County, Texas.   My Grandmother Emma Lee Ingram Roberts’ mother was a Nichols by birth.   I did not know until last week that through them I’m kin to the Schaffer family of South Carolina.  I found my newest and so far only sets of 5th generation great grandparents!  The paper trail clearly leads to:

Frederick Schaffer (1720 – 1786) and Maria E. Schaffer (1734 – 1787)

Johan G. Eichelberger (1729 – 1805) and Elizabeth C. Eichelberger 1740 – 1784)

The pleasant surprise?  All four were born in Germany.  Why is this pleasant to me?  Dee and I have two wonderful daughter-in-laws with clear and close German heritages (Katie and Katy).  In August we’ll add our third (Elizabeth)!  Well ladies, your husbands have always had the DNA in them.  And, by the way, 5 x great grandmother Eichelberger’s full name was Elizabeth Catherine Eichelberger!  I’m a proud great grandson and a proud father-in-law.

Thinking about DNA testing?  Build that simple pedigree tree.  Research your options.  Stay tuned.  Consider following this blog and signing up for updates.  I’ll post more on DNA in the future.

Happy hunting.

Ten Genealogical Lessons I Learned the Hard Way – New FREE webinar available for a LIMITED TIME

Here’s another great Legacy Family Tree seminar.  It’s FREE for a limited time.  Genealogist Warren Bittner shares his years of experience by sharing some of his mistakes as a researcher and how you can avoid them.  Humorous and Helpful.

Click on the link and press the “Watch Video” button.  Enjoy!

http://www.familytreewebinars.com/download.php?webinar_id=284

Tip #6: Decide to find the facts and not just fill in the blanks.

The internet enables incredible research and collaboration with others on your family’s history.  It’s also fraught with potential traps and misdirection.  A research mistake by you or others is multiplied.  In the past, a person took a blank family tree chart or family group sheet and filled in the blanks on paper as they researched their family.  It was a simple way to keep track of the “facts” they uncovered in their research.  If they were wrong, if they made a mistake in their research, very few people knew or were affected.  That’s not true today.

Family history is not a competition.  We may use games to teach our family history but the research we do is not a game.  When we fail in our due diligence and rush to fill in as many blanks as possible on an online family tree, we confuse and potentially misdirect others.  We may leave behind lies rather than facts for our families to follow.

This is NOT a call to abandon or stop posting online family trees.  I would never do that.  The collaborative aspect is much too valuable.  I’m appealing for accuracy in our research before we post and when we’re not sure about our conclusion to be very clear about our uncertainty.  And there lies the problem with family trees.  They are made up of names, dates and lines connecting those names and dates.  They create blanks for us to fill in and discourage uncertainty.  Family trees are not theses or dissertations.  They’re a simplified expression of that kind of research and thought.

It’s OK to leave blanks on family trees when we’re not reasonably certain what should go in those blanks.  It’s OK for others to question what we have put in our blanks.  We should welcome this.  It’s OK to change the information in our blanks.  It’s OK to use “abt” or “ca” or “unknown”.  Doing so may be better for you and others.

Here’s the bottom line.  You have to decide.  As the genealogist/family historian are you going to focus on finding the facts or filling in the blanks as fast as you can?  Will it be a competition or competent research?  If it’s competent research, you’ll be able to fill in the blanks with confidence.