Show Notes: A compiled history is kind of like standing on the shoulders of the giants of genealogy that came before you. OK, so maybe they weren’t giants, but they did document what they found and they published it so that you can benefit from it. This means that rather than having to start from scratch, you can look at the research that’s already been done. This provides you with clues and information that you can track down and verify for yourself to add to your family tree. In this week’s video, I’m going to show you one of my favorite collections of compiled family histories at Ancestry, and the search strategies you’ll need for success.
A compiled history is kind of like standing on the shoulders of the giants of genealogy that came before you. OK, so maybe they weren’t giants, but they did document what they found, and they published it so that you can benefit from it. This means that rather than having to start from scratch, you have the opportunity to take a look at the research and the work that’s already been done by somebody else before you. This provides you with clues and information that you can track down and verify for yourself to add to your family tree.
Just like online family trees, not every compiled family history is well documented or well sourced. However, they can still be a great help.
Compiled Family Histories at Ancestry
So, where do we find compiled histories? One of my favorite places to find them is at Ancestry.com. They have a particularly terrific record collection called North America Family Histories 1500 to 2000. It’s not going to pop up in your regular search results. You’ll find it through Ancestry’s Card Catalog. It contains nearly a thousand privately published family history books containing over 4 million records. They focus particularly on the 18th and 19th century families, especially with Revolutionary War and Colonial ties. But you’ll also find some European family histories included, and particularly those with some nobility connections, which can take families are way back in time.
Today I’d like to introduce you to this exciting collection. Whether you need a little rejuvenation of your own family history, or you’re just getting started, either way compiled histories are a tried-and-true record collection that all genealogists should use.
How to Find the Collection
On the Ancestry.com homepage on desktop, in the menu click SEARCH > Card Catalog. It’s important to understand that a small percentage of the total records at Ancestry are delivered to you through hints. Therefore, it’s important not to just rely on hints, and take advantage of the entire card catalog. It’s really the best place to go when you know the title of a collection, like this one. You can type in the entire title or just a few keywords, pull up the collection and then search only within that collection.
Record collections have different searchability. Some may have an index, some may not, and some are just browsable. When searching, keep in mind that any deviation from the actual words in the title can cause it not to appear in the results. If you don’t see what you expected to find, double check your keywords. Even something like whether a word is singular or plural and affect the results. If you don’t have a specific title in mind, but you just want to browse, try a variety of synonyms, or reduce the number of words.
On the results page, you can hover over the title to get a little overview description. Click the title and you’ll find two ways to search the collection: the Browse this Collection column and the Search form.
Browse this Collection Column
Have fun and explore the collection using the Browse this Collection column. Select the first letter of a family surname, and then under Subject you’ll see an alphabetical listing of books with surnames. Click the title of a book to view the entire digitized compiled family history.
This brings up an important point. the Browse feature is just for the titles themselves. So, when you look for a surname, don’t be discouraged. If you don’t see it listed. It’s very possible that a branch of your family by that surname could be included in a book that is focused on a different surname.
The Search Form
The search form allows you to get really specific in your search with a variety of search parameters. It can also find names within a book regardless of whether the name appears in the title or description. Try it out for yourself. Get a feel for home many people appear in the collection with a particular surname, or with a first and last name. From there you can narrow down further.
Each result includes a View Record and a View Image icon. View Record provides you with some details about that person to help you determine if it’s your relative. You’ll find a variety of details depending on the amount of information available in the book. Take a moment to learn a little more about the book by clicking the Source tab. Investing a few moments up front to get familiar with the source that you’re looking at can be extremely helpful. It’s going to give you some context about who wrote this book, what it covers and possibly where a physical copy can be found. Click Learn More and scroll down the page. There you’ll find more specific information about what you might be able to find within the pages of the compiled family history. In addition to names, compiled histories may include birth date and place, baptism date and place, marriage date and place, death date and place, burial date and place and name of parents and spouses.
It’s also very handy on the search form that Ancestry will auto-populate people from your family tree based on the surname you enter so that you can fill in their information and search with one click.
Navigating within a Compiled Family History at Ancestry.com
Click the View Image icon on any search result to gain access to the digitized book. The scanned page will be zoomed in to the place on the page where the person you searched for is located. Adjust your view with the Zoom in and out tool on the right side of the screen.
Example of a page from a compiled family history at Ancestry.
At the bottom of the screen, you’ll find the filmstrip. This displays all of the individual pages of the book in order. If you want to dedicate the entire screen to the book page, click the filmstrip X to close it. If you want to return to the filmstrip, click the filmstrip icon.
The current image number (not necessarily the same as the page number) will be displayed. Learn more about the book by going to the title page. The easiest way to do that is to type “1” in the image number box and click Go. The title page and the pages immediately following it can provide you with important source information. You may also find introductory pages including the background of the author, how the book is organized and instructions on how to interpret the content within the book.
Oftentimes, at the end of the book, you will find an index. Again, the easiest way to get there is to look at the total number of pages of the book listed in the film strip bar, and then enter that number into the image field and click Go. This will jump you to the end. Use the left and right arrow keys to navigate as needed.
Improving Ancestry Images
Depending on the condition of the book and the quality of the original scanning, some books may have pages that are a little unclear or muddy-looking. You can improve the look of these pages. Click the Tool Menu icon on the right side of the screen. Here you’ll find several options. For improving the way the image looks.
If a page has a horizontal image or photo turned vertically, use the Rotate Left and RotateRight tools.
To make the page easier to ready, try Invert Colors. Black type on a white page then becomes white type on a black page which often makes it much easier to read.
Tools Menu > Invert Colors
Downloading a Compiled Family History at Ancestry
You can print or download pages from the compiled family histories at Ancestry. Having a digital version means you can read it offline and even if you no longer have an Ancestry subscription. In the Tools menu, click Download to click the current page you are viewing as a JPEG.
To print the page on paper or save it as a PDF, select Print in the Tools menu. A big advantage of the Print option is that you can opt to Also print index and source data. This will give you the page, the information specific to the person you searched for that was indexed by Ancestry, and the source information.
Use the Print to PDF function so that you can include the indexed information and source details.
Explore More Compiled Family Histories
The North American Family Histories Collection 1500-2000 at Ancestry is such a wonderful goldmine of information. If you dig into this collection, it’s going to whet your appetite to track down more compiled family histories on other websites, in your library, and at the archives.
Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.
The good news is that FamilySearch is not alone in offering browse-only content. Ancestry.com also has browse-only collections of digitized records. (Not an Ancestry.com subscriber yet? Click here to learn more. This is an affiliate link and we are compensated if you make a purchase, which supports this free blog. Thank you!)
Knowing how to search and browse records effectively is critical because you shouldn’t just rely on hints. Ancestry, for example, only provides hints from about the top 10% of their most popular databases. That means if you only spend time on reviewing hints, you’re missing a massive amount of genealogical information available in all of the other records.
Typically you’ll be using the search feature to find those other records. However not all records are searchable. That’s because after the long process of acquiring the rights to digitize and publish a genealogy record collection, it takes even longer to get them indexed for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, Ancestry doesn’t always make us wait to gain access to them until the indexing is complete.
The digital images are published without an index. This means they are not searchable by names and other keywords. Therefore, it can take some time to locate a record within one of these collections. But I think you’ll agree it’s more convenient to look through them from the comfort of your own home rather than renting microfilm or traveling to a far off location!
Here’s your checklist for better browsing.
HOW TO FIND BROWSE-ONLY RECORDS AT ANCESTRY
While Ancestry.com doesn’t make it quite as easy as FamilySearch to find browse-only or partially-indexed databases, it’s still very much worth the effort.
1. Head to the Card Catalog
From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.
2. Search and Filter
In the upper left corner you can search the catalog by title and / or keyword. However, if you know the type of record you are looking for, such as military records, the best place to start is filtering by that category. If the list is long, you can then search within that category by keywords.
3. Determining if the Records are Searchable
If you don’t see a search box on the left side, then you can assume that this collection has not yet been indexed and therefore isn’t searchable by keywords and other data. Instead you will see typically see the source information box at the top.
HOW TO FILTER BROWSE-ONLY GENEALOGY RECORDS
1. Browse This Collection Box
On the right side of the screen you will see a Browse this Collection box. The filtering options presented will depend on the way the collection is organized.
In the case of the Nevada County Marriage database, a drop down menu allows you to filter by county.
2. Make a Selection
As you can see in my example, once I selected a county I can also filter down by record books. So even though you can’t search names, you can often zero in on the portion of the collection most relevant to your search.
Browse this Collection box
HOW TO BROWSE RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM
Once you have selected the available filters, you’ll find yourself in the digitized records. They are displayed in a filmstrip layout which will come in quite handy for navigation through the pages.
Navigation is crucial since we can’s search by names and keywords. Let’s take a closer look at the ways you can navigate:
Browsing a digitized genealogy record collection at Ancestry.com
Finding the Filmstrip
if you don’t see the filmstrip view, click the filmstrip icon:
Finding and Using the Original Index
WATCH THE BONUS VIDEObelow to see the next section in action. Click on the sound button to the right of the play button to turn on the sound.
Many records that were originally bound in books like this collection include index pages. In this book the index appears at the beginning. If you look closely at the filmstrip images it’s easy to spot where the index lists are and where the records begin.
So even though Ancestry hasn’t had the chance to index the records yet, they are indexed in the book. This will make the job of browsing for the records you need even easier.
The “About” box on the card catalog entry often includes important information about whether or not the collection has an index. One example of this is the Canada, Photographic Albums of Settlement, 1892-1917 record collection. It is a browse-only series of digitized photo albums by Canada’s Department of the Interior between 1892 and 1917. The collection description includes very useful instructions such as: “At the beginning of each album, you will find a table of contents with a brief description of each photograph and the photograph number. Use these tables to help you browse to the photograph of interest.” As you can see, taking a few extra moments to read about the collection can make browsing it much easier.
Save Time When Browsing Between Volumes
Remember that Browse this Collection box on the right hand side of the card catalog entry page? (See the Browse this Collection box image 6 images above.) This handy menu is also embedded in the record viewer. If you need to switch to a different book, album or other portion of the collection, you don’t have to hit the back button and start over. Instead, at the top of the viewing page, click the volume or collection you are currently viewing (this appears as a sub-title under the main title of the collection.) A browse structure menu will appear showing you all the other options within the collection. Just click the one you want and you will be instantly switched over. Think of it as pulling a different volume of a series of books off the shelf!
Switching volumes within the collection within the viewer.
Browsing Indexed Records
There will be times when even though a record collection is indexed, you may still want to browse it. Browsing isn’t just for unindexed records. Many genealogy gems can be found by browsing a database that you’ve already searched. You may spot neighbors of interest, other surnames from your family tree, and more. So even when you are working with a record collection that has a search box, look for the browsing option in the right column.
HOW TO FIND THE NEWEST RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM
The records most likely to not yet be indexed, and therefore browse-only, are the newest records added to Ancestry. If you’re looking to bust through a brick wall, here’s a great way to find the newest records that just might do it.
1. Go to the Card Catalog
From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.
2. Sort the Records
In the right hand corner you’ll find a Sort By menu. Select Date Added.
Select Date Added from the Sort by menu.
3. Newest Record View
The Card Catalog will now be presented in the order in which the records were added. The newest records will appear at the top of the list.
4. Filter the List
Use the filters along the left side of the page to filter the collections by record type, location, and date. Then use the search boxes to target keywords. This will give you results that include your keyword starting with the newest collections.
BONUS PDF AND MORE RESOURCES
Making a small investment of time in getting to know the search and browsing functions of a website can pay off big.
(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)
Lisa: AncestryDNA is one of the leading DNA testing companies that has added DNA science to our genealogy toolkit. If you’ve tested your DNA, those results have become one of the important records that you’re using to build your family tree. The interesting thing about these records is that they’re quite different from other types because they evolve and change over time. The results themselves aren’t changing, but our interpretation and the information that we’re able to glean from them is evolving and continues to do so as more people get tested. Here to give us insight into the latest innovations over at AncestryDNA is the corporate genealogist for Ancestry, better known as the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowen.
Crista: Thank you.
Why Have My DNA Ethnicity Results Changed?
Lisa: Hey, happy to have you here. We love to get together and chat about genealogy here at Elevenses with Lisa, and DNA is always on people’s minds. I know that one of the really common questions that I get a lot is around ethnicity, and about changes to the ethnicity percentages. Sometimes people see the results and they’re really excited about them. But then Ancestry publishes a new update and things look different. It can be a big surprise. Tell us a little bit about how often these updates happen and what causes them. Why do they change?
Crista: In order to answer that question, you kind of have to back up a little bit and understand the concept of reference panels.
Understanding DNA Reference Panels
When AncestryDNA started in 2012, we hadn’t sold any DNA kits yet. But we had purchased scientific reference panels from others who had been studying DNA for about a decade at that point. This was a group of people with deep roots in a particular place in the world that we can compare customer DNA to. So, as a customer takes their DNA test, the first process we run it through is this ethnicity estimate. We compare them to this reference panel. As our research team has expanded their reach, and then now we have 20 million people who’ve taken the ancestry DNA test, we’ve been able to identify candidates in our customer pool who are eligible to be part of that reference panel. Then the reference panel grows. And so statistically as it grows, those results are going to get more refined. They’re going to change a little bit. As the science advances, we also learn new ways to compare the data so that it’s more accurate.
Ancestry has been releasing an ethnicity update about once a year, usually in the fall. It’s just because we keep growing that reference panel, and because of the advances in science about how those algorithms work. And you get a lot of new people, obviously, on a regular basis for testing, so they’re adding to it.
Lisa: You started with that initial reference panel that you got somewhere else. Do you ever bring in other reference panels that become available to kind of speed up the process of the growth?
Crista: Yeah, we do. We’ve purchased a few different reference panels from research groups. But primarily, the growth now is coming not just from our own customer base. Also our team of genetic scientists are looking for individuals in places around the world that are underrepresented in our reference panel in order to increase the sample size. They’re excellent.
Lisa: Sometimes, the updates, they come out and people look at and they go, “that looks different! And now it’s saying this and not that.” Tell us a little bit about that because there’s some rhyme and reason behind why that happens.
Two Reasons Why DNA Ethnicity Results Change
Crista: There is. There are actually two challenges that our science team faces. One has to do with place, and one has to do with time.
What we may know as a place right now, likely didn’t exist 300, 500, or 1000 years ago. The boundaries have changed. The people that have migrated in and out of that place have changed. And so one of our challenges is to label those ethnicity estimate locations as something that people will recognize and be able to associate with, but fully recognizing that 1000 years ago that place may have had people there who were called something very different.
The second challenge we have is that time-based challenge. We use this reference panel of living people. But what we estimate is with this data, we’re showing you where your DNA came from 500 to 1000 years ago, and most of us don’t have trays that go back that far.
Lisa: Right, exactly. So how do you zero in on that? How do people make sense of when they see it, that they understand the context of the time frame?
Crista: We try to provide a lot of contextual data and a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there.
When you’re looking at your ethnicity estimate, you can click on any one of those – there’s usually two or even three drill-down screens – that give you some of that historical background, and some of that information about the time period that we’re covering, and what the names of some of the people who lived there were.
Why Do My DNA Results Now Say I’m from Scotland?
For example, Scotland was a big one, in this last (AncestryDNA) update. A lot of people ended up with Scotland as an ethnicity. But really what we’re looking at is who were the Britons? Who were the Celts? Who were the Gauls? And how to all those people, so many hundreds of years ago, how did they migrate in and out of those places? And what would that admixture look like, so that we can tell you. But if we said, “Oh, you’re Celt, Gall, or Britain, even some people wouldn’t understand what that meant. So we label it, Scotland, and then we expect people to drill down into that other information that we’ve provided by clicking through.
Encouraging AncestryDNA Users to Use the Website
Lisa: Do you find that people fully utilize this site? I’m thinking about how folks go to so much trouble and expense to get tested, and yet may not be taking full advantage of the results and the website. I imagine you see a lot of backend data. What kind of usage do you see? I think I’ve seen some recent updates that you guys have been doing to kind of help prompt people to get more involved and drill down.
Crista: Yeah, for sure. One of the things that we’ve done is we have a mobile app. What we’re discovering is that for a lot of people, their entry point, both to family history and through DNA is through mobile. So we’ve made some of the mobile prompts a little bit more prominent and a little bit easier to navigate. And then of course, we’re learning from some of that and applying it to the desktop version.
Another thing that we have that wasn’t introduced when AncestryDNA was first introduced, it took several years, is what we call our genetic communities. And that helps to give some additional context to some of those ethnicities as well.
What are Ancestry Genetic Communities?
Lisa: I’d love to have you talk more about genetic communities. It’s fascinating to see them and to see their evolution. They’ve really moved along quite quickly, haven’t they? Just knowing that there are many people who maybe have never looked at this, tell us what they’re missing and how to take advantage of it.
Crista: Yeah, so that first algorithm that we run against your DNA is comparing your DNA to that reference panel of people to give you those ethnicity estimates. Those are the ones with the percentages. There’s always going to be a percentage next to it. But the communities are a total evolution based on who’s testing and the family trees that are available.
Ancestry has 20 million people who’ve taken the DNA test, and 100 million family trees on our site. And here’s kind of how this works. As you test, you’re matched to other people who have taken the test. And I think the average AncestryDNA test taker has something like 75,000 matches. It’s kind of mind-blowing! But the idea is that the data underneath all of that means that we’re able to really clearly see networks of matches. So even if we didn’t know anything about your family tree, or anything about your ethnicity, just based on the matching data alone, we start to see these clusters or networks of people who all match each other. And so then because we have this rich family tree data, we can go into that network of 1000s of matches, and we can say what do they all have in common? And what we start to see is, the data very clearly points to specific birth locations within their tree within the last 200 years. So, your ethnicity estimate is looking at 1000 years ago, but those communities are where members of your family have lived within the last 200 years. And we’ve now got more than 1500 of those around the world.
Lisa: That’s amazing. And of course, if the person is in the tree they have timeframe associated with them as well, not just place, because like you said it’s just lurching the whole thing closer in time to us, which is really exciting. Right?
Crista: Yeah. And if you start to think about that time piece, right, so we’re looking at tree data 100 to 200 years ago because of this network effect. But what’s possible is as the network continues to grow, and as the science continues to get better, we may not only be able to connect you to specific genetic communities, but also show you migration paths from your original ethnic origins over time, which then allows people to have an entire complete family history story without ever starting a family tree themselves. Hopefully, that then leads them into it because they want to know “which branch of my family tree does this represent?”
My AncestryDNA match doesn’t have an online family tree!
Lisa: You’re talking about some people don’t have trees. Of course, that’s just the bane of every genealogist right? They go and they look, and they say “this person doesn’t have a tree, and they’re my best match!!” I know you get a lot of people who test – maybe they saw the commercials on TV – and they go, “Oh, that looks really cool. I’m gonna do that.” But they were not doing genealogy. How does that break down?
Crista: Yeah, so you know, it’s so funny that you say that, because anytime anybody complains about matches not having trees, I always send them to your RootsTech presentation that you did with Diahan Southard about No Tree, No Problem. Because, because the reality is like, you can figure out a lot from a match even if they don’t have a family tree.
There are probably about half of my matches that do not have any tree at all. And we see that that’s pretty consistent across the board, which means those are most likely people who this is their first foray into family history.
I actually was just on a call this morning with a woman who took the DNA test about four years ago. She had no idea there even was a match list. She didn’t think she could build a tree because she thought she needed a subscription. So, she just took the test to get the ethnicity estimate, and somehow ignored all the emails Ancestry sent her to telling her to check out her new matches or startup a tree. But once she was contacted by a match. One of the best things you can do for those matches who don’t have trees, is send them messages. She got this message from one of her close matches. It piqued her curiosity. She’s like, “how does this person know who I am?” She discovered the match list, and she started a tree. And she’s now had this whole family history journey where she’s figured out who her biological father is. Uncles and half sibling…and so for those of us who have trees and who are involved in family history, recognize those people taking a DNA test. That’s their first step in the door. And it’s up to us, I think, sometimes to nurture them through that door by engaging with them through messaging or sharing information that we might have discovered, in a non-threatening way, hopefully.
Lisa: So they’re testing, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I want to find out my ethnicity is” and not even realizing that there’s this whole matching thing going on. Do you find that a lot of those kinds of folks eventually get bitten by the bug? And I wanted to re-emphasize what you said, that you don’t have to have a subscription to add the tree. Tons of people don’t realize that.
What You Can Do for Free at AncestryDNA
Crista: Yeah, if you’ve taken a DNA test, and that’s the only thing you’ve paid for, you haven’t paid for an Ancestry subscription to access the 80 billion records on the site, then you can still start a family tree. That’s a free service on Ancestry. For anybody who has a free registered guest account, or anybody who used to have a subscription and cancelled it at some point, you can still work on your family tree. And yeah, that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize.
You can also and this is something else people don’t realize, respond to messages from other users. The Message Center is a free service. You can send messages, you can initiate contact with any of your DNA matches without a subscription as well.
Lisa: So you’re really getting to take full advantage of the whole DNA thing, even if you aren’t currently doing the subscription and doing the genealogical records and all of that.
Ancestry Website Interface Updates
I was watching your video recently, I guess it was the June update, and you were talking about how you got to see some of that backend data, and you saw that people weren’t really interacting with the website. I love the new buttons and the ability to add this is a son, this is a nephew, etc. Tell people a little bit about that. And how is that going? Is the rollout done yet? And are you seeing some great response?
Crista: Yeah, so we do continue to make innovations to the match list and how people interact with it. Of course, two years ago at RootsTech we introduced the custom groups with 24 different colors. And it was innovative for those of us who were deep into family history. We had this hypothesis, though, that new users would find that fun and interactive as well. Unfortunately, new users, especially those who’d never considered family history before, didn’t have the mental construct around a pedigree chart or sides of the family, and didn’t even have any idea how to group their matches. And so that had really low usage. The usage it had was among really core hardcore genealogists and people into genetic genealogy.
So, we’ve been doing a lot of testing over the last year trying to figure out how to solve the problem of new users coming to the match list and looking at it and going, “That’s great.” Now what we wanted was to give them something actionable to do. This has been released, and it’s been rolled out to all users, I think, as of last week. Every match has a little button on it that just says, Do you know this person? Yes. And if you don’t, you can click learn more to find out more about that experience. But as soon as you click Yes, it then asks you to assign a side of your family. So, you can say, “Oh, yes, I know this person, they’re on my mother’s side.” And then once you do that, it asks you if you know the specific relationship.
Here’s another little nuance that we’re helping train people into, in both in interaction, but also what family history really means. We give them a list of the possible relationships based on how much DNA they share. One of the things that DNA sometimes uncovers a surprises, and you might think this person is your full sibling that the DNA says otherwise. Or you might think, you know, whatever the relationship might be. So, we give you those options to assign that relationship. And then that fills another customer request, which is when you select the relationship, it updates from a predicted relationship on that match, which is usually a range of cousinship, to what the specific relationship is based on your assignment.
Lisa: I love it. I mean, you guys are in the driver’s seat in terms of knowing and understand the technology. It’s wonderful that you’re helping to guide people to get more out of it, and to get onboard quicker.
How Accurate are Ancestry’s DNA Tests?
I have to ask you this question, because I imagine you have gotten this question a lot and I’d love to know how you answer it. How accurate are the Ancestry DNA test results? I heard somebody asked that at a conference once and I wanted to sit by and listen and see what the person said. What do you tell people when they ask you that?
Crista: You know, it’s such an interesting question, because accuracy can be measured any number of ways. And we need to know what you’re talking about when you say accuracy.
When you ask, “is this person on the top of my match list listed as my parent or child, how accurate is that?” It’s like 100% accurate that that is how much DNA you share with this person. And that that is either the nature of the relationship, or you’ve got a parent with an identical twin. So accuracy, in that case, we’re super confident.
When you ask about accuracy of ethnicity results, we call it an estimate for a reason. One of the things you’ll discover when you click through to view it is that there’s actually a range. That top level percentage you’re seeing is an average of 1000 different times that the algorithm has been run against your DNA and that reference panel. That’s because of just the nature of the way that those results are analyzed. And compared to that reference panel means there’s going to be some swing around an average. And again, we release those updates every year. Because again, as the reference panel growth, there’s more refinement possible.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. Good answer. I like that answer.
The Most Popular DNA Question
What are some of the most common questions that you get about DNA? I imagine there might be some folks watching her going, “yes, yes. Yes, that’s what I was wondering! What do you hear?
Crista: I will tell you what our number one question is. And I bet a lot of your viewers have the same question, and a lot of people at conferences have the same question. We see it on social media all of the time. The most popular DNA question is “where is my Native American?”
Lisa: They still want the princess they’re looking for?
Crista: It’s amazing to me how prevalent and pervasive that narrative is in so many families. They take a DNA test with full confidence that it’s going to tell them that there’s 17 or 12 or 8%, indigenous North American, when the reality is if they do have a Native American ancestor, it is most likely that that person lived three or 400 years ago, and that they just didn’t inherit those bits of DNA. The inheritance of DNA is random, and a lot of new people in family history haven’t really wrap their brains around what that means yet. They think they get half of everything and haven’t done the math to calculate what that means. Or they were told that a parent or grandparent was full Native. I grew up with that narrative in my family, my grandfather boasted of the fact that he was a quarter of a quarter Native American. He was born in Indian Territory, and I think that’s probably partially where that started from. And everybody claims the features. But the reality is, he was not, there is no evidence of that in the family tree once the research has been dug into. But I still have cousins taking DNA tests and fully expecting it to show up and kind of freaking out when it doesn’t.
Native American DNA
Lisa: Is Native America a large reference panel that is well represented?
It was not in the beginning, but we have been collecting additional samples. It used to be, back in 2012 when we started doing DNA testing, if you had Native American DNA, we would just tell you, Native American, and that was all of the Americas: North, Central and South. We now have, I think, nine different regions of native indigenous American, so we can split it out across the two continents. We’re starting to see some communities around some of those as well. So, the reference panel is growing, and the number of testers are growing as well. Here’s what I tell people, and they don’t always like this answer. But if you have Native American DNA, it will show up on an AncestryDNA test.
Lisa: You made such an important point that you could have a Native American ancestor and not have Native American DNA, right?
Crista: Yeah, absolutely. It just depends on how many ancestors have Native American DNA and how far back they were, whether or not you actually inherited those.
How Many Generations Back Can DNA Go?
Lisa: Give people a sense of how many generations back that the DNA becomes minute, in terms of what you might be inheriting from someone.
Crista: I am not a math person, but DNA has changed my world! And it amuses my accountant dad that I can do this now in my head. Everybody inherits exactly 50% of DNA from their parents. Those parents inherited 50% of DNA from each of their parents, but what they pass down to you is going to be about 25% of your grandparents DNA. And then it just gets cut in half every generation back. So, you’re going to have about 12 and a half percent of your great grandparents DNA, and about 6% of your two times great grandparents, and about 3% of your three greats, and about a percent and a half of your four greats! And by the time you get to your fifth great grandparents, it is possible when you consider all the people in that generation, that you did not inherit any DNA from one of them. Because you got all of it from one of the others. So five times great grandparents is the generation where we start to see some of that fall off. But that means that you’re getting it from somewhere, so some of those lines of your family tree will go back to the seventh and eighth, and sometimes even ninth great grandparents.
Which DNA Matches Should I Work On?
Lisa: That makes the case why when it’s focus, focus on best matches right? You were talking about that some people might have 75,000 matches, but we’ve got to start with identifying who the closest were and work on these because they probably have the most potential to give you information, right?
Crista: Not only the most potential to give you information, but also to build a solid foundation, so that you can explore those more distant matches. Because unless you’ve built that solid foundation and validated the relationships all the way back to third or fourth or fifth grade grandparents, the hope of connecting with the eighth or ninth cousin on one of those other lines further back is going to be a lot more difficult and a lot more shaky of a conclusion.
How to Approach a DNA Match
Lisa: You know, when people get a best match, they want to reach out. You were talking about the messaging system is free. It’s part of what you have access to when you test. You’re on the phone, you talk to people, I’ve seen you at the conferences, you know, you’re talking firsthand to your customers and really hearing from them. What kind of coaching do you give people on how to approach somebody, particularly if they get resistance? Is there one more thing they might be able to say just to kind of keep the door open or somehow nudge the match to interact? What do you recommend?
Crista: Okay, so Lisa, I am single, I have never been married. And that might seem like a funny segue into this. But that means I have a whole lot of experiences. And I approach communicating with unknown or unpreviously connected to cousins a little bit like I approach it. You’re not going to spill all of your deepest, darkest secrets on the first date, or you’re going to send them screaming into the night. Or they may just entirely ghost you, right? That’s a new term for people who just ignore you after a date. And that happens. Sometimes people just go on for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs in that initial message they send a cousin. And my guess is those cousins are seeing some of those messages and just being like, “I don’t even know what to do with this information. It’s overwhelming,” right? So, you have to tone it down.
But by the same token, right, I’m not going to go on a first date, and just sit there and not answer his questions or not try to initiate a conversation. And so again, similarly, when you send out that first message, you’re gonna want to provide enough information that’s something they can respond to. I’ve seen people send messages that say something like, “Hi, we’re DNA matches, do you know how we’re related?” and they give them nothing to nothing to work with. You have to give them just enough that they will want to respond and that they have something to respond to, but not so much that you overwhelmed.
Lisa: And maybe something just a little intriguing. I know that when I’ve talked to people who we are sharing ancestors on my family tree, one of the things I’ll say is, “you know, I have some photos. I’d love to talk to you about that. Maybe you do too.”
I remember, in the old days, I would send them all my best pictures, and they would take them and they never respond. You don’t want to give away the kitchen sink, right? That’s what you’re saying. I think that’s a good strategy. And sometimes back then I would get a message from somebody, and they sounded like a scientist, and I felt intimidated, like, “I can’t keep up, I’m gonna say something and I’ll be wrong” and they’ll be able to say, “Oh, my gosh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, there’s also that intimidation factor. I guess even if we do know all that stuff, we don’t want to necessarily wipe people out with it.
Crista: I used to have a thing about intriguing, but intriguing, but not overwhelming. That’s kind of the mic that runs through my head when I craft those messages.
Lisa: I like that. Anything else when it comes to AncestryDNA that we should be keeping our eyes out for? Anything you want to tell us about? What’s coming in the future?
What’s Coming to AncestryDNA in the Future
Crista: There’s a few things. We can kind of divide them into two categories around the ethnicity estimates and the communities. Just to make sure this is clear, we update ethnicities about once a year in the fall. So, watch for that. We usually send out an email or put a banner on the site. But one of the things that we’ve learned is that a lot of people don’t know that. And so, they don’t know to come check and see what’s been updated. So just watch for those announcements or those emails.
Genetic communities can be updated at any time for two reasons.
One reason is, you may all of a sudden just have enough matches, that you’re pulled into an existing network that has been labeled as an existing community. So those communities could just pop up at any time.
The other reason is that about every six or eight weeks or so we’re releasing new communities. Our science team has been working fast and furious to identify new networked clusters and make sure that we’ve got them labeled correctly, and that we’ve worked with history professors and others to understand the cultural and historical implications because we want to be accurate and informative, but also sensitive to all the nuances around race and ethnicity and history. Because history is messy. And as people dive into it, those of us who’ve been doing family history, understand that. But again, a lot of people are new to family history, and DNA is their first foot in the door. And we want to make sure that we’re a little sensitive to how we present some of that information. So always new communities. That’s on the DNA side of the house.
And then we are working on some additional features for the DNA match list. We’ve previewed them with some customer experience groups. We’ve previewed them with influencers like yourself. And so just we can say that those are coming but can’t talk a whole lot about them. We’re listening to our customers and we’re really trying to make sure that that DNA match list experience works for more casual customers just taking their first steps into family history, and those of us who are hardcore into this and trying to break through 40-year brick walls using our DNA results.
How to Contact AncestryDNA
Lisa: Well, and you said, you listen to your customers. What is the best way for somebody to get in touch with you or just share feedback or a question?
Crista: There’s two primary channels for that, though, we listen in a lot of ways.
Ancestry has a Facebook page. If you go to the official Ancestry Facebook page, you can send a direct message to us with your feedback or post it just there on the wall. Our product managers do follow that and keep tracking and put that into our feedback system.
The other way to contact us is to just do a Google search for Ancestry feedback. It’ll bring up a feedback form that’s in our Help Center. It’s a little easier to find it that way.
Lisa: I think I was just talking to my show about sometimes googling for a page is easier. Ancestry’s website is so well organized, it will grab exactly whatever page you’re looking for probably even faster than navigating.
Well, how fun it has been to get a chance to catch up with you on the latest with AncestryDNA. I know we recently followed each other over on Instagram, and over there I see that we share another passion which is gardening. How is your garden going this summer?
I always had aspirations, but with all of the genealogical conferences and the traveling that I do for Ancestry I’ve never been home until this last summer. And so last summer, I tried it. And I failed miserably. I grew one tomato, and a little bit of basil. That was what I did, but I made it again. Yes. This year, I’ve got some zucchini going and some little herb garden and we’re trying tomatoes again. We’ll see how that goes.
Lisa: Good job. Are you planting in the ground? Or are you doing containers?
Crista: Both. So I have a little garden patch in my backyard. But then I also built some standing like garden racks for my herbs and stuff.
Lisa: Very cool. I’ve been in the same boat as you. It’s like after 14 years of constant traveling – which has been great, I’ve missed it – I started all this container gardening. I’m doing the self-wicking tubs. I saw a guy on YouTube doing it, and it looked awesome. We’ll see how it pans out here in the heat of Texas. But anyway, there’s never enough time to do all the wonderful things that we would enjoy doing and certainly genealogy is that way!
Thank you so much Crista Cowan! If somebody wanted to get in touch with you, where should they go check you out?
Crista: The best place is on Instagram and it’s just my Instagram handle which is just my name Crista Cowan.
Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet.
What Happened to the 1890 Census
The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890. And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)
Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)
Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.
In this video and article we’ll cover:
How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
What you can learn from the 1890 census records
Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.
Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules
A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.
List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:
Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)
District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street
Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)
Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)
Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)
New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)
New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)
North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)
Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)
South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)
Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)
Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census The following questions were asked by the census taker:
Number of families in the house
Number of persons in the house
Number of persons in the family
Relationship to head of family
Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
Whether married during the year
Total children born to mother
Number of children living
Birthplace of parents
If foreign born, how many years in the United States
Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
Profession, trade, or occupation
Months unemployed during census year
Able to read and write
Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
(if so, whether mortgaged)
Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner
2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows
According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.
Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.
Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”
The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.
One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.
The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.
The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:
Enumeration District (ED) Number
ED Description (locality and county)
5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.
These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.
Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.
How to find the records:
The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll). Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.
For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.
6. Statistical information for the entire United States
Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.
Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.
1885 & 1895 State Census Records:
The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.
How to find the records:
Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)
Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules
Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.
The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).
Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.
While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.
Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database
Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.
Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry
This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.
You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.
This is a mistake for two reasons.
only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.
FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes
While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
How to find the records: 1. Go to FamilySearch 2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog 4. Click Titles 5. Search for 1890 census substitute 6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.
City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute
Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.
How to find the records:
You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.
Google Books Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.
Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books