Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy PodcastNew to podcasts?  Read Frequently Asked Questions (about the podcasts, how to listen and how to subscribe for free.) Welcome to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast, a step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

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Episode 1: GettingStarted. Special Guest: Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the Oakland, California Family History Center. Her own family history journey started in her 20s with a visit to a relative’s house. She didn’t even know what to talk about! But it was a start. Years later, she visited the Northern Ireland home of her great-grandmother, and felt like she’d come home. Learn her tips for getting started and two inspiring stories of “genealogy serendipity.” Then you’ll learn why choosing a database for your family tree is your first essential step. Hear about some of my favorite databases—both free resources and products you can pay for. Don’t spend too much time fussing about software: I’ll tell you why you should just pick something and go with it.

Episode 2: Interviewing Skills. Special Guest: Cath Madden Trindle, a well-known family history instructor and certified genealogist. Cath talks about discovering dysfunction in her family (don’t we all have that?) and the new appreciation she gained for her family as a result. She also gives us some great tips on how to share what we find. Then we’ll talk about interviewing your relatives. That’s an important skill for any genealogist—beginner or more advanced—because you’ll need to interview people over and over again. Hear about you who you should interview, what to ask and how to ask it! You’ll also learn two important traps to avoid that will save you a lot of time and keep you from losing everything you learn.

Episode 3: Working Backwards, and Social Security Death Index. Special Guest: Miriam Robbins, a well-known genealogy blogger and teacher.  She shares her best research tips, what motivates her to delve into her family history and how that discovery has enriched her life. In our second segment we answer the question “Why do we work backwards in genealogy?” and then fire up the Internet and go after your first genealogical record.  We’re going to dig into the U.S. Social Security Death Index.

Episode 4: Conference and Vital Records. Special guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences. Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information:  delayed birth records, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.

Episode 5: Unlocking the Past and Home Sources. Special guest is genealogy author and publisher David Fryxell.  I’m going to be talking to him about locating valuable family resources and the importance of being tenacious in your research. Then in our second segment we’re going to help you along on your own genealogy journey by talking about the importance of scouring your home for family clues and creative and effective ways to get the words out to your relatives so that family history information finds you!

Episode 6: Sleuthing Techniques and Genealogical Records. A genealogy writer and educator talks to us about sleuthing Sherlock Holmes-style for our families. He says, “Stop looking for names and start looking for families!” Then I’ll give you an overview of the different kinds of historical records in which our ancestors may appear. Whenever a life event happened that involved the government or a church, paperwork was generated: vital records, land sales, wills and probates, baptisms and burials. There is often a ripple effect in which the event was reported in other sources, like newspapers. In future episodes, we’ll talk in depth about finding and using these different kinds of sources. But consider this episode your orientation to them!

Episode 7: Best Genealogy Websites Part 1. Special guest: Lisa Alzo, popular genealogy lecturer and writer (now the author of nine books and online genealogy instructor at Family Tree University and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. We talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned in her genealogical journeys (which include international travel in Eastern Europe). Then we tackle an essential topic: the best subscription websites for genealogical data. This is a two-part topic: in this episode I talk about sites that require payment to access their core content. In Episode 8, we’ll talk about the fantastic free websites that are out there.

Episode 8: Best Genealogy Websites Part 2. In a follow up to last week’s episode about subscription genealogy records website, in my first segment our guest is Yvette Arts, Director of Content Partnerships at World Vital Records. She tells us about exciting developments at the website that have helped make it a success. In our second segment we look at five organizations that provide free online access to genealogy records for those with North American roots: FamilySearch, the National Archives of the United States, Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Library and Archives Canada.

Episode 9: Using Census Records. Let’s talk about a group of records critical to U.S. family history research: U.S. Federal Census Records. You’ll learn not only what to find in the regular schedules, but about the enumerators, the instructions they followed, and special sections like the economic census. Then we go straight to the source: Bill Maury, Chief of History Staff at the U.S. Census Bureau. I’ll be talking to him about the History section of the Census Department’s website. Note the updated Genealogy tab on the site, as well as the Through the Decades tab, which is packed with historical information for each census.

Episode 10: Deeper into Census RecordsWe continue exploring U.S. Federal Census Records. Last episode we located relatives in the 1930 census, and today we’re going to push further back in time to follow the census bread crumb trail. We even explore some census enumerations that often go overlooked by family historians with Curt Witcher, the Manager of the nationally-recognized Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Curt has some great tips for tapping in to more obscure census resources. We’ll talk about nonpopulation schedules for the federal census, census substitutes for missing census data (like the 1890 census) and state censuses that may be available, too.

Episode 11: Census Wrap-Up: Decade-by-Decade to 1790We welcome back genealogy researcher, author and lecturer Lisa Alzo. The author of Three Slovak WomenBaba’s Kitchen and Finding Your Slovak Ancestors talks about discovering family traits and putting them in perspective. Then we wrap up our three-episode coverage of U.S. census records with a decade-by-decade overview of censuses from 1880 back to 1790. We talk about special schedules taken during one or more censuses: mortality, slave, social statistics and supplemental, agricultural, manufacturing and the DDD (Defective, Dependent and Delinquent) schedules.

Episode 12: Post an Online Family TreeIn this episode we focus on posting your family tree online. There’s no use in re-inventing the research wheel! By posting what you know about your family tree online you can easily connect with others who are researching people in your family tree. You can share information, collaborate and even get to know distant relatives.

Episode 13: Genetic Genealogy and Photo-Sharing. Episode 13 reviewed genetic genealogy and photo sharing products that are either now longer offered or are outdated. This episode is not being republished with the series. Click on the show page anyway to see some updated suggestions and links to some of the top services for genetic genealogy and photo sharing.

Episode 14: How to Contact Long-Lost RelativesConnecting with someone who knows about our ancestors can really boost our research results—and even create new relationships among living kin. But it’s not always easy to send that first email or make that first call. In this episode, we chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has mastered the art of “genealogical cold calling” by conducting hundreds of telephone interviews. She has a knack for quickly connecting with folks she doesn’t know over the telephone in ways that put them at ease and bring to light the information that she’s looking for.

Episode 15: More Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives. In today’s episode we talk more about “genealogical cold calling” with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted hundreds of telephone interviews. Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying.

Episode 16: The Family History Library Catalog. In this episode we get acquainted with the largest repository of genealogy materials in the world:  The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s free and available to the public and I’m going to get you ready to make good use of it through the online Family History Library catalog (and its companion collection of digital records). Podcast guest Don R. Anderson, Director of the Family History Library, describes the evolving direction of the Family History Library and its host site, FamilySearch.org.

Episode 17: Using Family History Centers, Part 1. This episode is the first of a series in which we answer questions about Family History Centers (now also known as FamilySearch Centers), the regional satellite facilities of the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. When I’m done with you, you won’t have a single excuse left for hesitating to use these wonderful family history research resources! My guest is Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the Oakland Family History Center in Oakland, California. In this episode she introduces us to the Family History Center, walks us through the process for ordering and using microfilm and discusses the wide range of resources at local Family History Centers. Even if you’ve already been to a Family History Center, you’re still going to learn some new things along the way!

Episode 18: Using Family History Centers, Part 2. Margery Bell returns to the show to keep talking about using Family History Centers. She preps us for our visit to a local center and reveals the subscription websites you can use for free while you’re there. Margery discusses making copies in all forms, the future of digitizing microfilm, and the future of Family History Centers. We also talk about tips for visiting the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Episode 19: Using Family History Centers, Part 3. In this final episode on Family History Centers, Margery Bell talks about the educational opportunities available through Family History Centers, including the new online Wiki. Margery gives us her Top 7 Tips for getting the most out of your visit to a Family History Center. Finally, she inspires us with some stories of genealogical serendipity that she has experienced over her many years working at Family History Centers.

Episode 20: The Genealogical Proof Standard. In this episode we talk about the Genealogical Proof Standard, or GPS. My guest is Mark Tucker, a software architect and avid genealogist. Mark gives us an overview of the GPS and tells us how he got started using it. Then he shares a cool mapping tool he created to help us use the GPS. We’ll wrap by talking about how the GPS map can be effectively used for breaking down your research brick walls.

Episode 21: RootsMagic and Irish Genealogy Research. Lacey Cooke guest-hosts this double-feature episode on two big topics in family history: RootsMagic genealogy software and how to get started in Irish research. Bruce Buzbee, president and founder of RootsMagic Genealogy Software, talks about his industry-leading software. We also welcome Irish genealogy expert Judith Wight to talk to us about how to find those elusive Irish ancestors! Listen for her tips on finding Church of Ireland records, civil registrations, estate records and how history helps us understand gaps in the records.

Episode 22: Legend Seekers. Did you ever catch the PBS documentary Legend Seekers? It aired in 2009 and is now classic genealogy TV. Executive producer Ken Marks joins us on this episode of the podcast. He talks about the unique approach of this show for its time: the family history stories he brought to life were from everyday folks (not movie stars or rock stars) who have some very extraordinary stories in their family tree. Then Ken talks about the genealogical serendipity that he has his crew found themselves tapping into throughout the production.

Episode 23: Using the Genealogical Proof Standard. We put the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS – see Episode 20) into practice with an example from my own research. Researching by these standards now saves us time and work, and also from making avoidable mistakes. Some downloadable free tools that will help you use the GPS. In this episode we also follow up with a listener question on how to export your family tree from Ancestry.com.

Episode 24: Using Marriage Records in Family History. Two types of marriage records are discussed in this episode: civil and church. Learn some great tips for finding and using U.S. marriage records, as well as the different types of government documents that might exist.

Episode 25: Using Civil Birth Records in Family History Research. In this first of a 2-part series on birth records, we explore government birth records with professional genealogist Arlene H. Eakle, PhD. She will helps us to see the challenges we face and the success we can have locating civil birth records.

Episode 26: Using Church Birth Records in Family History Research. We finish up this two part series by talking about church birth records. Helping us in the hunt again is Arlene Eakle, PhD. Check out the show notes  on the episode page for exciting updates to the original conversation–including how to chase down (online!) the original source of material in the International Genealogical Index.

Episode 27: Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 1 .Newspapers offer such a unique perspective on history in general, and our ancestors specifically. In this first in another 2-part series, Jane Knowles Lindsey at the California Genealogical Society shares top tips for finding historical newspapers.

Episode 28: Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 2. In this episode, Jane Knowles Lindsay shares inspiring stories about the kinds of family items she’s found in newspapers. She offers a dozen more fantastic tips on researching old newspapers. You can find everything from birth, marriage and death announcements, to school and club event, crime stories, land transactions, sports activities and just about any other activity that your ancestors were part of that made the news!

Episode 29: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 1. Genealogy lecturer and blogger Stephen Danko, PhD, begins a 3-part series on U.S. immigration and naturalization records. Learn about passenger arrival lists in the U.S., little-known certificates of arrival and naturalization records: how to find them and what’s in them.

Episode 30: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 2. Stephen Danko continues this series by focusing on passenger departure records created in European ports. He also talks more in-depth about U.S. naturalization records.

Episode 31: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 3. Stephen Danko talks in-depth about passenger list annotations and the immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island. You didn’t know what you were missing with those mysterious scribbles on 20th-century passenger manifests!

Episode 32: Organize Your Genealogy Files, Part 1. Learn from my tried-and-true system for organizing your genealogy materials on your hard drive. First we talk organization–anyone can do it! there’s no magical gene for it–and then we talk some specifics: creating surname file folders and other types of file folders you’ll want for genealogy purposes.

Episode 33: Organize Your Genealogy Files, Part 2. The second in a series on organizing your genealogy materials on your computer. This episode walks you through a system for organizing family history on your hard drive. Creating a series of genealogy file folders,  filenames you can find easily, where to file photos and other tips are here.

Episode 34: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 1. Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik talks to us about researching at public libraries. She shares what kinds of things may be at the library (including unique resources), how to prepare for a visit and lots of great tips for making the most of your research time there.

Episode 35: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 2. We go deeper into genealogy research at the public library. Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik is back to talk about how to search an online library card catalog including advanced search methods, the unique collections that may be at public libraries, how to ask for exactly what we want, and the obstacles librarians face when it comes to cataloguing large and unique collections that may interest genealogists.

Episode 36: Your Genealogy Questions Answered, Part 1. This episode is all about YOU!  It is made up completely of your emailed questions, comments and stories. I couldn’t do this podcast without you, and I definitely want it to be a two way conversation. Joining me on today’s episode to read your emails is my daughter, Lacey Cooke.

Episode 37: Your Genealogy Questions Answered, Part 2. More Q&A with you! Topics include: downloading all the podcasts at once; keeping old family group sheets; how to know when records and indexes are complete; Google Alerts; comment on FamilySearch digital books collection; how to pronounce “genealogy” and who plays the music on the podcast.

Episode 38: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 1. The Footnote Maven, author of two popular blogs, joins us to talk about the process of starting a genealogy blog. She gives great tips for thinking up your own approach, finding a unique niche, commenting on other people’s blogs and more. This is a fascinating inside look into the geneablogging community, whether you’re interested in starting your own or not!

Episode 39: How to Start a Genealogy Blog,  Part 2. This week we continue to explore of family history blogging. In this episode I interview TWO more successful genealogy bloggers, Denise Levenick (author of The Family Curator and alter ego of “Miss Penny Dreadful” on the Shades of the Departed blog) and  Schelly Tallalay Dardashti (author of the Tracing the Tribe blog).

Episode 40: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 3: Step by Step. In this episode, learn step-by-step how to create your own free family history blog on Blogger.com. Learn tricks for designing a simple, useful blog and how NOT to overdo it!

Episode 41: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 4: Blog readings. Get inspired by two seasoned bloggers who each read a great post for you. And hear a special announcement about an exciting project I’ve been working on.

Episode 42: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 5.  In this concluding episode to the 5-part blogging series, I talk about adding a few more gadgets and details, pre-planning your blog posts, publishing your first article, and how your readers will subscribe. You’ll also get great tips on how to create genealogy content that others looking for the same ancestors can find easily online.

Episode 43: The Julian Calendar and GenealogyIf you’re not familiar with how the calendar has changed through history, you might be recording incorrect dates in your family tree!  In this episode, Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the RegionalFamily History Center in Oakland, California helps us understand the “double-dating” we see in old documents and translate those dates from the Julian calendar to today’s Gregorian system.

Episode 44: Family Secrets in Genealogy. Today’s episode is unlike any other I’ve done on the podcast. We are going to tackle some difficult subject matter: family secrets in genealogy. None of us have a perfect family tree. In fact, at some point each one of us who are delving into our family’s past will likely come across some sad and painful stories. An ancestor abandoned at an asylum, incarcerated for acts of violence, or perhaps who committed suicide. Crystal Bell, my guest on today’s show shares her story of finding her mother.

Episode 45: Genealogy Blogs Started by YOU! The Podcast Listeners. In recent episodes of this podcast, we’ve been discussing how and why to create a genealogy blog. In this episode I’m going to share some of the family history blogs that YOU—the listeners—have created. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to blog by what others are doing, or that you’ll take note of any blogs that can help you or perhaps are relevant to your own family history. Being a community is what gives genealogists strengths and inspiration. Get your notepads out and get ready to jot down these terrific blogs!

 

Free Genealogy and DNA Video Presentations Now Available from MyHeritage

The second annual MyHeritage user conference, MyHeritage LIVE 2019, was held in Amsterdam. 

MyHeritage

Below you’ll find a list of lectures from the conference which are now online. These sessions, given by world-renowned experts and valued MyHeritage staff, are now available on MyHeritage Education.

If you missed the conference or the live stream, you can now take watch these video recordings for free, from the comfort of your own home, at any time, and at your own pace.

Pick from this List of MyHeritage Video Classes

Here is a list with a full description of each and links to watch them:

Opening Session: Keynote by MyHeritage Founder and CEO Gilad Japhet

In his keynote address at MyHeritage LIVE, MyHeritage Founder and CEO, Gilad Japhet, talks about recent MyHeritage achievements as well as upcoming features and projects

Watch

What’s New at MyHeritage

with Maya Lerner

Maya Lerner, VP of Product at MyHeritage, gives a summary of MyHeritage’s new features and a look ahead at future plans.

Watch

free genealogy video classes

Introducing the New Educational Resource Center for MyHeritage Users

with Daniel Horowitz

This presentation will give you an inside look at MyHeritage Education, a new online resource center for enhancing your understanding of the MyHeritage platform.

Watch

Hear my interview with Daniel Horowitz in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #221.

Daniel Horowitz MyHeritage

Searching and Browsing on MyHeritage to Get the Most Out of Your Research

with Cyndi Ingle

With 10 billion historical records, MyHeritage is able to provide the most extensive genealogy searches available on the Internet. Learn how to use them efficiently to find new and relevant information to incorporate into your research.

Watch

Discovering Immigration Stories with MyHeritage

with Lisa Alzo

Every immigrant has a story. Learn how to leverage the immigration records collection at MyHeritage to uncover key clues and make amazing discoveries about your immigrant ancestors from both sides of the pond.

Watch

Lisa Alzo has been a guest blogger here at Genealogy Gems. Her articles include Heritage Receipts – Aunties, Sprinkles and the Santa-in-his-cap cookie cutter and 4 Steps to Getting Started with Scrivener Software for Writing Family History.

Using MyHeritage to Find Ancestors from the Netherlands

with Yvette Hoitink

If you have ancestors from the Netherlands, this talk introduces you to the most important records and shows you what you can find online, even if you don’t know any Dutch. Learn how naming traditions and emigration patterns can help you find your Dutch ancestors.

Watch

PANEL: Researching Dutch Family History Around the World 

These experts give tips and advice on how to research your roots in Surinam and the former Dutch East Indies.

Watch

Evaluating Your Smart Matches™ and Record Matches on MyHeritage

with James Tanner

Smart Matches™ and Record Matches on MyHeritage supercharge your research. Learn how to review and evaluate these automatically generated matches and effectively use them to advance your genealogical research goals.

Watch

An Overview of Western European Record Collections on MyHeritage

with Mike Mansfield of MyHeritage

With over three billion records from thousands of collections of European origin and a vibrant user community, MyHeritage is an incredible resource for European research. This session will provide an overview of these collections and highlight how to best find access and utilize these sources.

Watch

Using Geni and How it is Different from Other Genealogy Platforms

with Mike Stangel

Learn more about the benefits of collaboration in a single-family tree, including adding sources to shared profiles, communicating with public discussions, understanding the revision history of profiles, and working with projects. Learn how Geni and MyHeritage work together to help improve the quality of the World Family Tree and connect you to new relatives.

Watch

Top Technology Tips for MyHeritage Users & Introduction to Family Tree Webinars

with Geoff Rasmussen

Watch

Developing Your Own Research Plan on MyHeritage

with James Tanner

MyHeritage provides an extremely valuable platform for conducting systematic and source-based research. A formal research plan can help you organize all the information presented in a coherent, useful way, and keep you moving towards your genealogical goals.

Watch

Using Census, Immigration, Newspaper, and Yearbook Records at MyHeritage to Explore the LIves of Your Ancestors

with Lisa Alzo

In genealogy, cluster and collateral research is a key strategy for solving complex brick wall problems. Learn how to use census, immigration, newspaper, and yearbook records at MyHeritage to explore the lives of your ancestors and their inner circles.

Watch

 

free genetic genealogy DNA video classes

Science for the Non-Scientist: How Does MyHeritage Produce their DNA Results?

with Diahan Southard

DNA test results are a companion to our other research methods. A better understanding of how it all works will lead to better use of the tools for your family history research.

Watch

Diahan has been a regular contributor here at Genealogy Gems. Read her article Adoption DNA Match Strategy: Combine DNA Test Types.

Click the video player below to watch my conversation with Diahan about common genetic genealogy misconceptions:

What Exactly is a Centimorgan? An Introduction to the Science of DNA Testing

with Ran Snir

Whether you have already taken a DNA test or this is the first time you’re hearing about it, in this session we will start from the very beginning. We’ll go over the basic terms of DNA testing and learn how DNA is passed down through generations, how and why individuals have shared DNA segments and how we’re able to estimate one’s ethnicity origins.

Watch

Ran Snir was featured in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #227. Click here to hear my interview with him on the Theory of Family Relativity™.

Mapping Your DNA Matches on MyHeritage

with Blaine Bettinger

Learn about useful tools to organize your list of DNA Matches, how to differentiate between them, and how to better utilize each tool.

Watch

Using the Theory of Family Relativity™ to Research Your DNA Matches

with Ran Snir

Learn about the revolutionary technology that saves you dozens of hours of research by synthesizing billions of data points to craft multiple theories about how you and your DNA Matches might be related.

Watch

PANEL: The Future of DNA Testing

Roberta Estes, Blaine Bettinger, Yaniv Erlich

This panel of DNA experts discusses the current state of DNA testing and what the future will bring.

Watch

Formulating a DNA Testing Plan

with Blaine Bettinger

DNA testing can be expensive, but DNA evidence is a component of exhaustive research when it is available. Identify some of the ways you can minimize costs while maximizing results by formulating a DNA testing plan early in your research.

Watch

Why You Should Complement Your DNA Data with Genealogy Research

with Diahan Southard

Building a family tree is free and adds a lot of value to your DNA test. Learn how it can help improve the accuracy of relationship estimates, trace common ancestors to uncover how exactly you are related, increase the chances DNA Matches will contact you, help you identify the family members whose DNA results would contribute the most value to your research, and more.

Watch

The World Wide DNA Web

with Alon Diament Carmel

Alon Diament Carmel, Ph.D., researcher for the MyHeritage science team, explains what we can learn from the vast web billions of DNA Matches about genetic groups and identity.

Watch

 Introducing the MyHeritage DNA Health+Ancestry Test

with Yaniv Erlich

Discover how your genes affect your health and explore the valuable insights you can gain from this latest addition to our DNA product line. The MyHeritage DNA Health+Ancestry test gives you dozens of personalized health reports that explain your genetic risk for developing certain conditions, and tell you whether you’re a carrier for hereditary conditions that can potentially be passed on to your children.

Watch

PANEL: DNA Testing for Health

with Yaniv Erlich, Diahan Southard, Roberta Estes

This panel of DNA experts discusses the advantages of taking a Health DNA test to learn more about how your genes may affect your health and empower you for the future. 

Watch

 

DNA Q&A with Crista Cowan of Ancestry.com

Get answers to the most commonly asked questions about DNA from Crista Cowan of Ancestry® / AncestryDNA®.

Answers to DNA ethnicity questions

Episode 62

In Elevenses with Lisa episode 62 Lisa Louise Cooke and Crista Cowan will discuss:

  • Why DNA ethnicity results change over time
  • What Genetic Communities can tell you about your family history
  • How often you should check your DNA results
  • Which DNA results you should focus on 
  • What to do if your best DNA match doesn’t have an online family tree
  • How to successfully reach out to your DNA matches
  • What you can do for free at Ancestry

Two Ways to Watch this “DNA Q&A” Episode

Watch the video replay in the video player above or click the watch on YouTube button to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel.  

Get Your DNA Test Kit or Subscription

Genealogy Gems link to purchase AncestryDNA or an Ancestry subscription.  (This is an affiliate link. We will be compensated if you make a purchase. Thank you for supporting this free show.)

Premium Member Exclusive Handout

Premium Members can download the exclusive ad-free show notes PDF (that includes a handy menu to jump to the topic you need when you need it) in the Resources section at the bottom of the page. Not a member yet? Learn more and join the Genealogy Gems and Elevenses with Lisa family here

Episode 62 Show Notes 

(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!

dna match with no tree no problem rootstech cooke southard

Video and exclusive handout is included in Premium Membership.

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.

(This video presentation is included in Genealogy Gems Premium Membership. Watch the video and download the handout. Subscription required. Learn more here.)

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.

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