Genealogy testing companies have been hard at work recalibrating your ethnicity calculations based on new and better data. Here’s the latest from Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard.
Family History DNA Pie Charts and Percentages
Remember that the pretty pie charts and percentages are based on fancy math and reference populations. The initial reference populations released by our testing companies were a great start, but many categories lacked sufficiently high numbers of people to represent all of the facets of a population. In the 10+ years since their release, many updates have been made. But the fancy math that is used to produce our percentages can only be as fancy as the numbers you give it. The numbers have been hard at work at Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA and 23andMe in the past couple of months with the result being a major overhaul in the way our ethnicity results are reported.
We recently reported about the update at 23andMe and their increase from 31 reference populations to 150. However, for me, the totally 100% European me, there wasn’t much excitement. As you can see in the 23andMe chart, I had a couple of numbers move up or down slightly, but not anything to write home about. However, I am certain those with South American, or Eastern European ancestry have a much different story. 23andMe added many new reference populations to better represent these underrepresented areas of the world, a move which has likely made a big difference for the ever diversifying pool of individuals who have taken a DNA test.
AncestryDNA also released their latest Ethnicity update in September, boasting an additional 13,000 reference samples to their database. They not only upgraded their numbers, but also shifted some of their categories around based on this new data. They seem to not be quite sure what to do with Ireland, as in early 2017 it was its own category, later moving in with Wales and Scotland, and now appears in this latest update as simply Ireland and Scotland. My previous numbers from AncestryDNA seemed to at least loosely reflect my heritage (meaning that I do actually have people in my genealogy chart from a few of these places).
But the new DNA numbers? Big Changes.
I have one set of great grandparents from Germany, but it looks like nearly all my German was sucked into England, but miraculously, they seemed to have precisely found my Swedish 2X great grandmother, with the 7% that I should have from that area.
With the new update, though I am sad to see my German go, AncestryDNA is now more fully in line with the results I have received from 23andMe, LivingDNA, and MyHeritage, all of which put my England/British Isles count up around 90%. If I compare my results from various companies and combine any subcategories into one England/British Isles category, indicate Scandinavian, and then lump everything else together, the results from the four companies are actually quite similar (I don’t have my own results at Family Tree DNA, only my parents).
My Family History DNA Results
Here’s how my results currently stack up at each of these websites. (Image 3)
Which DNA Testing Company to Choose
So which company is the best at all of this? Well, I usually say that if you test everywhere, your “true” answer is likely somewhere in the middle. But really, you can determine which company is best for you by examining their reference populations, and determining which company is most likely able to meet your goals.
In the end, it is always good to remember two things:
Your DNA does not fully represent your family history, so your ethnicity results can’t possibly tell you everything about your heritage.
This technology is purposefully titled as an estimate. So be sure you treat it that way.
(Update 2020) When genealogists take an ancestry DNA test, they are looking for more than just their ethnicity results. They are also very interested in receiving information on other people who have tested who closely genetically match them. They want to know who the closest matches are, and if those matches have family tree information that they can share.
However, with all the people testing these days, (some being genealogists and some not) the volume of matches can become overwhelming very quickly.
Are you one of those people who have way too many genetic “4th cousins or closer” among your DNA matches? Have you ever wondered “What do I do with all these matches?!” If so, keep reading. We’re going to explore some of your options, and most importantly, how to determine how genetically close your cousins really are.
Doing the DNA Math on Your Cousins
Math can provide us with a degree of certainty in genetic genealogy. Each of us has two biological parents. We have four biological grandparents, and eight great-grandparents.
However, the farther back we go the less we can rely on math.
For example, on paper you should have sixty-four 3rd great grandparents. However, many of us find that the same person occupies more than one slot on our pedigree chart. While this significantly decreases the workload for traditional genealogy, it adversely impacts your genetic genealogy. Especially when it comes to that long long list of 4th cousins you have in your match list at any of the three major DNA testing companies.
Depending on how intermarried your lines are, you may be seeing individuals on your match list that genetically look like your fourth cousins, but they are genealogically your sixth cousins – EIGHT TIMES! So how can you tell the difference?
There are two parts to that answer: one you can control, and the other you can’t.
Distinguishing DNA Matches with Genetic Tools
While your fourth cousins and your eight-time-sixth cousins may look similar genetically, there are often small clues in the genetics that can help you tell the difference. This distinction can sometimes be detected by a testing company who, through research and validation, has been able to fine-tune their algorithms to detect these subtle differences.
Your Genetic 4th Cousins
You can participate in this double checking process by using some of the genetic tools that are available to you at Family Tree DNA, or at Gedmatch.com. But since you may not be an aspiring geneticist, let’s focus on the genealogical work you can do to determine if a match is truly a fourth cousin.
Use Google Earth to Plot Your DNA Matches
A fourth cousin designation just means that you and your match are separated by between six and twelve degrees (people). So that might be five back on your chart to your common ancestor, and five down to your match, which would make you true fourth cousins. It could also be some other permutation of that.
For our example, let’s assume true fourth cousins. That means that the two of you share one of thirty-two 3rd great grandparents (16 couples). In order to find out which set, you have two genealogical identifiers: surname and location.
Therefore, the first thing you should do is make a list of the surnames and locations of those thirty-two 3X great grandparents.
Now, most of us do not know all 16 of those couples, so you are going to have some holes. Feel free to fill in those holes with surnames on subsequent generations that will carry through to this fifth generation.
A great tool to plot your own list of ancestors geographically is the free downloadable Google Earth software.
Check to see if you have the latest version of Google Earth downloaded to your desktop or laptop computer. On your desktop, look for a grey and white globe. If you see a blue and white globe, you have the older original free version of Google Earth. However, a few years ago, Google made their Google Earth Pro version free to everyone, and it is now the standard.
If you do have Google Earth Pro (the grey globe software) then you’re ready to go.
The grey Google Earth globe on the desktop.
If you don’t have it, then you will need to download it.
If you agree to them, click the Agree and Download button
Follow the installation guide
When complete click Run Google Earth
Now that you have Google Earth, you can begin by creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth devoted to your 16 couples. Here’s how:
1. In the Places panel, right-click on MyPlaces and select Add > Folder:
Right-click on MyPlaces > Add > Folder
2. Name the folder and then click OK:
Creating a folder in Google Earth
3. Now you will see your new DNA folder for your 16 couples in the Places panel. If you don’t see it, look toward the bottom of the list. You can move the folder to any location within the list by dragging and dropping it.
Create a folder in Google Earth for DNA 16 couples
Once you have your DNA folder created fro your 16 couples, you can then easily plot your surnames and locations.
How to Plot Your Surnames and Locations in Google Earth:
1. Click your new DNA folder to select it. This will ensure that the placemark you are about to create will be stored in that folder.
2. In the search box (upper left corner of the Google Earth software) type in the first location and click Search. Google Earth will fly to that location on the map.
Type the locaton in the Search box and click Search.
3. In the toolbar along the top of the screen, click the placemark button to place a pushpin in that location:
Click the Placemark button in the Google Earth toolbar.
4. In the Placemark dialogue box, enter a title for hte pushpin placemark. Click the OK button to close the box and set your placemark.
5. Repeat the process for all the locations.
Then evaluate the fifth generation of your fourth cousin matches for genealogical information that lines up with any of the items on your list.
You can also plot the surnames and locations of your matches in Google Earth. This is where Google Earth really comes in handy. The free software makes it very easy to see when your ancestral home may be bordering the locations of your matches. Those with whom you find a similarity become your best matches, and your best chance of determining your connection. Those without an obvious connection cycle to the bottom of your pile for a genetic evaluation. You can perform these same kinds of searches for your second and third cousins as well.
As you begin to become more familiar with the fifth generations of your matches, you may also start to see patterns of surnames or locations emerge among your matches. These then become the surnames and locations that might be able to fill the missing spaces in your pedigree chart.
More Genetic Genealogy and Google Earth Gems
If you are new to using Google Earth, I have several suggested resources for you by Lisa Louise Cooke:
16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten. Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the WWII fallen. In this special Veteran’s Day episode of Elevenses with Lisa, Don Milne, founder of Stories Behind the Stars joins me to discuss the project, how to access the stories, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
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16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten.
Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the 421,000 US World War II fallen. I want to share with you how to find them, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
The Stories Behind the Stars founder Don Milne joins me in this video episode. He’s a lifelong history buff, and a few years ago he decided to write a daily story about one of the US World War II fallen for his blog called WW2 Fallen 100. His effort totaled more than 1,200 stories and has been read more than 1 ½ million times.
After his banking job was eliminated at the end of 2019, Don decided to devote his full time to create Stories Behind the Stars and find volunteers to write the stories of everyone of the 421,000 US World War II fallen.
The Story of a Fallen Hero of WWII
Lisa: I’d love to start by putting the fallen heroes of World War II front and center. Can you share with us one of the stories that has really touched you?
Don: Yes. It’s harder and harder to do that because so far we’ve already done about 13,000 stories. One of the more recent ones that we’ve done on our Pearl Harbor project was a fellow named Don Whitestone. He was on the USS Arizona, the battleship totally decimated at Pearl Harbor. More than 1000 people were killed on that ship, and he was one of those. If you go to the USS Arizona Memorial, you just see a name on the wall. And that’s basically all you know about him.
USS Arizona (public domain)
So, for our project that we’re focusing on right now, is to tell the story of all the men lost at Pearl Harbor, all 2335 of them. We’ve already finished the one for Don Boydston.
Just to give you a little bit of information about him. We know he was from Fort Worth, Texas. He was the youngest of six children. Almost every one of his brothers also enrolled in the military during World War Two. His eldest brother survived the war. His second oldest brother, he was actually in Hawaii the same time as his younger brother. Don was there while he was on shore. So, he would have probably been looking for his brother right after the attack, and wouldn’t have found him because he didn’t survive and they never found his body. He ended up continuing in the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. And he received the Silver Star for leading his men against the Germans in France in 1944. He died in 1945 while the war was still going on.
Another brother by the name of Robert served as a lieutenant. He was wounded, but he survived the war and lived to be age 90.
Another brother by the name of Ward, he joined the Army Air Forces. He was on a mission to Tripoli in 1943, in his B24 Liberator, and his plane went down.
So, here’s a family of five brothers. Two of them survived the war, and three of them didn’t. One of them died the very first day of the war, Pearl Harbor, and one of them died during the very last year of the war. It must have been devastating to have a family of five sons and lose three of them. But the father of the family, he did something really interesting. He decided that he was going to write stories, to write letters to the servicemen that may not be getting letters, because back then there wasn’t any social media. You couldn’t pick up a cell phone and talk to people. You had to write letters. And that was like, the thing that all of the servicemen looked forward to is they wanted to get letters from home. And so he made it a project in 1942. He was going to write stories to servicemen who didn’t have someone writing to them. He wasn’t going to be able to write to his son Don because he died at Pearl Harbor. But rather than feel sorry for himself and live with that loss, he decided to write the letters for a long period throughout the war.
He started with 137 different soldiers that he wrote to on a regular basis. So, I think that’s a wonderful thing that I didn’t know about. And all of these men and women who didn’t come home from World War II deserve to be remembered by more than just seeing a name on a memorial or gravesite. So, there’s a lot more Don Boydstuns out there. What we’re trying to do is find volunteers that can help us find those stories.
Lisa: That’s such a fitting story. That father was making sure that the soldiers weren’t being forgotten. You’re in a way, of course, carrying that on today, through your project. And, as you listen to that story, you realize that you think you’re hearing one person’s story. But I’m hearing the story of the parents. I’m thinking about the mom. I just can’t imagine all the sons going to war and losing one. And so really, you’re capturing the stories of many more than the 421,000 fallen.
Lisa: What’s the mission of the Stories Behind the Stars project?
Don: The name of the project kind of tells what we’re doing. It is what they still do today. During World War II when a family lost a serviceman or woman during the conflict, they were given a banner with a gold star on it that they could hang in the window. We want to tell the stories behind those stars.
We have the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Th Price of Freedom monument carries that same motif. It has more than 4,000 individual stars, each one representing 100 of the fallen.
Stories behind the stars, our mission is pretty ambitious. We want to make sure that all 421,000 servicemen and women Army, Air Force, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, every single one of them will have a story.
Part of the mission isn’t just to have it on some obscure website somewhere. But we want to have it available so anyone can read it at the memorial. It’s got to be super easy to find on a smartphone. That’s our mission. And the only way we can accomplish this is we need volunteers that are genealogy minded, that want to want to do this and do something more than just bring flowers to remember someone on Memorial Day. We’re looking for folks to create a permanent record that will go forward for decades to remember them.
WWII Fallen Resources
The National Archives hosts the following casualty lists on their website:
MyHeritage: Stories Behind the Stars volunteers often use MyHeritage’s photo enhancement and colorization tools on the photos included in the stories, in addition to their genealogy records. Visit MyHeritage.
Up until June 2021, all of the stories our volunteers have been writing were saved directly to Fold3. In the case of the Pearl Harbor project, it was decided to first save these stories to theTogether We Servedplatform because it allows for some extra features not part of using Fold3. However, all TWS content is also shared over to Fold3.
Fold3 recently updated its user interface and this change did not include the automatic transfer of the stories from Together We Serve to Fold3. This is scheduled to happen by December 1, 2021. Once the update is complete, you will also be able to find stories like Don Boydstun’s story on Fold3.
The best place to search for all the completed Stories Behind the Stars stories is at the Stories Behind the Stars page at Fold3. Currently, the search only works for stories saved with the new Fold3 format. As previously mentioned, there are about 10,000 stories saved in the old format and Fold3 is converting those over.
The Pearl Harbor project webpage is still a work-in-progress, and writers are still working on the stories that have been researched. They have about 500 unassigned stories and anticipate a completion date of December 7. Until then, you can find stories at the D-Day page where there is a link that will take you to a page that separates the D-Day fallen by state. You will then find links showing a list of all D-Day fallen from each state.
Volunteer for Stories Behind the Stars
You can help Stories Behind the Stars reach their goal of completing all the stories by the 80th anniversary of the end of WWII in September 2025 by writing one story a week. Visit Stories Behind the Stars and click the Volunteer button.
They occasionally share sample stories on their blog, as well as their podcast. This will help you get the idea of what these stories are like.
From Don: It does attract a lot of people with a genealogical background, but it’s not totally necessary. We’ve also got people with 40, 50 years of genealogy experience that they’re just wonderful at doing the research and stuff.
Basically, what we’re asking people to do is write a short story. We’re not writing a 40,000 word document. We’re basically writing short obituaries. Most obituaries are what 400 to 1000 words, and they just include basic information. And that’s what we’re basically trying to do.
The whole idea is we’re not creating stories that someone’s going to sit down and spend two hours reading. You’re going to go to a grave site, maybe you’re going to Normandy or Arlington, or your closest National Cemetery, where you see flags put out for all those that are in the military. The idea is you’re going to be able to take your smartphone and go up to that grave site and pull up a story and read it right there. Something that you can read in maybe five minutes or so. So pretty much everybody can write an obituary. Unfortunately, all of us probably will have to write an obituary sometime, right. That’s what we’re asking them to do.
We’ve created some training that gives people all the tools they need, so that they’ll feel really comfortable about writing these stories. And if they don’t consider themselves, writers, we have other ways that people can help. They can help with the database. Some people are better at editing than writing. So, we have people helping with that.
Top Tips for Researching WWII Fallen Soldiers and Sailors
When researching the stories of the World War II fallen, Don recommends the following:
Search Ancestry and MyHeritage. Look for all types, particularly the application for a headstone, muster rolls
Search Fold3– search by name and dates such as birth and death.
Organizations partnering with Stories Behind the Stars include Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, Arlington National Cemetery, Friends of the National World War II Memorial, The National D-Day Memorial, JustServe.org, BillionGraves, and Together We Served.
From Don Milne:
This project now involves more than 1,500 people from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Hundreds are people with a background or interest in genealogy.
We have completed more than 13,000 stories but we still have 408,000 to go.
We completed the stories of all the WWII fallen from one state (Utah).
We completed the stories of all the 2,502 Americans who died in Normandy on D-Day.
We are on pace to complete the stories of all 2,335 Pearl Harbor fallen by December 7.
Arlington National Cemetery gave us their list of WWII fallen buried there. Our plan is to do a story for each of these 7,700 by Memorial Day 2022.
By December 1 there will be an accompanying smartphone app people can use to read these stories at any gravesite or memorial.
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above. 2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat.
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As genealogists, we spend our time trying to ferret out the real story in our family’s oral history, or at least from the records they left behind. Record research is critical, but now we have an amazing new tool…DNA matching.
Genealogists constantly check family stories against the information on records, searching for what sounds plausible and what doesn’t. Even when we have total agreement in our records, more information often comes along…like DNA testing. In fact, DNA matching may shed light on even more apparent discrepancies.
Family Lore vs. DNA Findings
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a reporter, Cameron McWhirter, who shared finding that kind of discrepancy between his family lore and his DNA. He even goes so far as to say, “I am descended, at least partially, from liars.” He makes the point, “many immigrants reinvented themselves when they arrived here (the United States).” This could be a nice way of saying they had a chance to invent a new legacy, not just re-invent it. His assessments were certainly interesting and worth reviewing. It helps us see how DNA testing can affect the way we look at our family stories and traditional research results.
McWhirter may be like some folks today who have never set foot inside a courthouse or scanned through microfilm, but instead relies heavily on internet research. Some of these modern genealogists never gave their family history a second thought until, like McWhirter, the death of parents started to inspire them to dig deeper. Due to the large volume of information online, the budding genealogist is “quickly pulled into the obsessive world of modern genealogical research.”
Example of an ethnicity report from Ancestry.com.
McWhirter’s personal story was that while his dad was proudly and solidly a self-proclaimed Scot, the records and DNA matching revealed his heritage was actually from Ireland and eastern Europe. McWhirter says that his “father hated Notre Dame, but judging by my results he could have been one-quarter to one-half Irish. He spoke dismissively of people from Eastern Europe, but part of his genetic code likely came from that region.”
McWhirter’s evaluation of his genetic report includes only his ethnicity results, which as you can hear, were meaningful to him in the way that flew in the face of his father’s prejudices and assertions of his own identity.
However, the ethnicity results fall short of the point of testing for most genealogists.
He has the opportunity to more powerfully transform his sense of family identity by taking a look at his match list. Here, he may see an actual living cousin who was also descended from his German great-grandmother, who maybe never mentioned that she was also Jewish.
The Real Goal: DNA Connections to Living Family
Connecting with other cousins who also have paper trails to our ancestors serves to provide further confidence that we have put all the pieces together and honored the right ancestor with a spot on our pedigree chart. We multiply our own research efforts by finding more people like us—literally—who are descended from the same people. As long as they are as diligent in their research as we are, we can make these connections that could finally bust through those genealogy brick walls and more.
At a recent conference, I met a fifth-cousin. Even with a connection that distant, it was exciting and it encouraged us to want to look again at our connecting ancestors. To me, that is the bigger picture and the real goal—when the paper trail comes together with the DNA results and turns into real live cousins.
The Next Step: Using Your DNA Results to Find Living Family
Maybe you are like Cameron McWhirter: you’ve taken a DNA test, been intrigued or disappointed by the ethnicity results, but haven’t fully explored your matches on your list. You may be seriously missing some opportunities! If that is you, I have written my new DNA quick guide just for you. It’s called “Next Steps: Working with Your Autosomal DNA Matches.” This guide will teach you how to leverage the power of known relatives who have been tested. You will get an intro to chromosome browsers and their role in the search process and access to a freebonus template for evaluating genealogical relationship of a match to the predicted genetic relationship. This guide also gives you a methodology for converting unknown relatives on your match list into known relatives.
So check it out, either by itself or as part of my Advanced DNA bundle, which comes along with my new Gedmatch guide and a guide expressly for organizing your DNA matches.