Is 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.
Now, where is that Genome Mate Pro instructional video…?
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.
I wrote in an earlier post about the importance of skepticism when doing genealogy/family history research. Here’s a good example. This is a death certificate I found yesterday while doing some research for a new cousin. What do you see recorded as the full name for the subject of this official death certificate? How would you transcribe this name?
The indexer for this collection saw this name as “Edith Van Connie Drury”. What did you see? Here’s what the indexer should have seen and recorded: Edith Victoria Drury.
Be cautious and tenacious when doing your research. A future fellow researcher will rise up and call you “blessed!”
- you enjoy a good mystery
- solving difficult research problems
- the thrill of the chase
- history, or
- unraveling puzzles
You’ll probably be a sucker for the hobby (obsession) of genealogy. If you don’t want to be trapped, back away. Leave now and don’t ever look back!
Genealogy is like filling in the blanks I didn’t know I had.
I wish I could remember who said that. I would love to give them credit.
There are many reasons we enjoy genealogy and family history. Each family historian or would be genealogist will have their own explanation or perhaps not be able to explain it at all. I recently came across one person’s take on genealogy and I wanted to share it with you.
Kris Williams has loved history since her childhood. She “blames” her father. She was a sucker for genealogy and was hooked by a school class assignment when she was 11 years old. Her love for family history and background in research helped her land a job as the historical researcher for Syfy’s Ghost Hunters. She’s also served as a contributor to Ancestry.com for over a year. You can follow Kris and gain from her knowledge at The Key to You Tree. The link is in our blog favorites list to the right.
I’ve asked Kim’s permission to link to a recent blog post she wrote on the “why” of genealogy. I like her “take”. Check it out. Genealogy: What’s the Point? Thanks Kris!
How do you get the most out of your “on the ground” research time?
I previously blogged about a trip Dee and I took to North Texas backtracking my Roberts, Byrd, Horn, Laningham and Ingram family lines. This was an aggressive agenda of five counties in five days. If you haven’t seen the post, you may want to read about the scope of our discoveries.
How does the genealogist/family historian get the most done in the least amount of time? In a word, it takes PREPARATION.
I love being able to research our family in my pajamas. The internet has made this possible. There’s nothing like the comfort of my easy chair and laptop for making new discoveries. But then, there’s nothing like walking the ground on which our ancestors walked. The fact is it takes both for us to do our “due diligence” in documenting our family histories. To do it right, you’ll have to get out of the house.
We’ll eventually have to (and want to) take to field in order to backtrack our family’s trail. Here are some tips to make this time more productive.
- Goals, Goals, Goals
- Have goals for your research trip. Review your work and know what information you’re missing.
- Know what you want to do on your trip. Be specific.
- Write it down. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.
- Plan, Plan, Plan
- Now that you know what you want to do, how will you accomplish these goals?
- What will be done and when will it be done in order to reach your goals?
- Where, at what physical location, can you complete each goal?
- What has to be done before I leave?
- If you’re not a planner, please invite someone to help you plan. Tell them what you want to accomplish in your research and let them help you.
- Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
- Research the resources. What family members need to be contacted? What interview questions do I want to ask? What courthouses will be visited? Cemeteries? Libraries? Research Centers? Have I made my appointments? Have I checked the open and closed hours? Will they be closed during lunch?
- If I’m going to a library, why? Do I know what’s available? Have I searched the online catalogs? What about their microfilm holdings? Have I written down the titles and call numbers of those resources?
- Have I planned my schedule? Do I know when I’m going where? Prepared my maps or GPS coordinates?
- Do I have my notebooks, maps, and cameras, contact information, etc? (I once prepared my camera equipment, had all of my batteries charged, extra memory cards and then left it all! Dee bailed me out with her IPhone.)
- Do I know what I want to accomplish at each stop? If I have a research partner, do we know what each other will do at each venue?
- Be flexible.
- Things rarely go exactly as you plan them. This is not a reason not to plan. It’s simply a realistic expectation.
- Plan and prepare. Work hard at making the things happen that you want to happen. When it doesn’t, go with it. It helps to have a partner to remind you of this outlook.
- Enjoy your time and space and especially the people in that space!
You can go on a trip and enjoy it without doing all of these things. But if you want to have a great family research trip, have goals, plan and prepare.
Beginning genealogists – family historians – are truth seekers. They are fact finders. The stories they tell may be wonderfully crafted (Some do this better than others and that’s okay.) but, these stories are always shaped and supported by the facts. Aunt Sally’s story may enhance the family’s prominence or save the family’s “face”, but the historian in you must always discover the facts. Once those facts are known you may tell them in your unique voice and by doing so bless your family, community and world. What would have been lost history is now recorded history. Thanks!
Decide now beginning genealogist, family historian – fact or fiction?