How to Get Started with Using DNA for Family History
Anyone can Test DNA for Family History
From Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide here at Genealogy Gems: DNA testing is one of the most personal ways to get involved in your family history. You have DNA from your parents, who have DNA from their parents, and so it goes, back into your greats and great-greats. The technology of genetic genealogy is all about tapping into that DNA record and pulling out information that might be useful in your family history. DNA can do this for you in two ways:
- First, it connects you to places. These are places where your ancestors came from a hundred, a thousand, or tens of thousands of years ago.
- Second, it connects you to people. These people are your genetic cousins, other living people who have taken the same DNA test that you took. The similarities in your DNA tell you that you share a common ancestor. You can then examine the pedigree of your match and work with them to help verify your family history, or give you new ideas about who your ancestors might be.
Types of DNA Tests for Family History
You have three choices of DNA tests, each with its own unique purpose.
YDNA – Essentially, if you want to know about a male ancestor, you need to find a direct male descendant to be tested. So if I want to know about my 3X great grandfather Morris Mitchell, I need to find Morris’s son’s son’s son, etc. until I find a living male with the Mitchell surname who can be tested on the Y chromosome DNA (mtDNA) test at Family Tree DNA.
mtDNA – If I want to know about a female ancestor, let’s say Mary West, I need to find Mary’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s etc. child (male or female) to take the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from Family Tree DNA.
Autosomal DNA – For any ancestor, male or female, who is fewer than 5 generations from you, you can take the autosomal DNA test at either Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, 23andMe, or MyHeritage to find out more about that individual. Remember with the autosomal DNA that you always want to test the oldest generation first. So anyone who does not have both of their parents living should take the autosomal DNA test.
Companies that can Test DNA for Family History
There are several companies that test DNA for family history including:
Each of these companies is offering a very similar kind of test, but each has their own unique tools and databases. Decide which company you want to test with by evaluating things like:
- their website accessibility
- their company goals
- and especially the size of their database
You can see a table comparing these companies here. The MyHeritage test is new, and is not on the chart yet, but will be soon.
Great (DNA) Expectations
The best thing you can do when setting out on your genetic genealogy journey is set good expectations. You can expect that the test will document the personal genetics of the person who takes it. By so doing, you are creating another genealogy record that will last for generations. This test will link you to your ancestors via your cousins. That means that you may take the test looking for ancestors, but what you get are cousins. It will take traditional genealogy work to turn those cousin connections into ancestral connections. Above all, expect that this is a growing industry, and what we know today is different than what we will know tomorrow, so enjoy the journey!
There are several comprehensive books on Genetic Genealogy out there. However, for the layman who just wants to understand their DNA test results and get some additional value from them, an entire book full of scientific explanations can be overwhelming and daunting. The following email is one we receive regularly:
Could you direct me to an understandable publication which explains DNA results in layman’ terms?
Genetic Genealogy for the Layman
From Lisa Louise Cooke, host of The Genealogy Gems Podcast: I put myself in the category of “layman” when it comes to understanding DNA test results. And that’s why when I met DNA expert Diahan Southard at a genealogy conference, I immediately invited her to join Genealogy Gems. Diahan’s enthusiasm is contagious, and her ability to explain genetic genealogy to the layman is second to none!
Start Here to Jump into Using DNA for Genealogy
Here’s a link to our DNA videos on YouTube with the author of the guides, Diahan Southard. As you will see, she has a ton of enthusiasm for helping the layman understand and get the most out of their DNA!
For those who have tested with Ancestry DNA
- Autosomal DNA for the Genealogist
- Understanding Ancestry DNA
- Organizing Your DNA Matches
- Next Steps: Working with Your Autosomal Matches
Mix and Match for Genetic Genealogy
The beauty of the DNA quick reference guide series is that you can mix and match the guides to perfectly suit the testing you have done. We’ve published Diahan’s guides that delve into the testing companies FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe, as well as the other tests available such as Mitochondrial (for your maternal line – both men and women can take this test) and YDNA (for your paternal line – only men take this test.)
Take Your DNA Test Results to the Next Level
If you’ve already tested and feel like you have a good foundation, then I highly recommend Diahan’s Advanced DNA Bundle. It will take your DNA test results to the next level by instructing you on the heart of what matters in plain English.
Today Sept. 10 Only: Virtual Conference Giveaway
I always enjoy being a presenter at the cutting-edge Family Tree Magazine Virtual Genealogy Conference. This time around I’m teaching Best Apps for Genealogy! And today I am giving away one free virtual conference registration to a lucky Genealogy Gems reader. Read through the following article about the Virtual Genealogy Conference to learn how to enter. And do it today because you must be entered by midnight (Pacific) tonight Sept. 10:
8 Great Reasons to Attend a Virtual Genealogy Conference
Family Tree University’s Fall 2013 Virtual Conference Sept. 13-15 offers unique benefits
Have you ever missed a genealogy conference session you wanted to attend because the room was too full, or because the time conflicted with another session of interest? Or heard how great a session was after the fact, and lamented that you didn’t choose it?
That’s just one of the problems solved by Family Tree University’s Virtual Conferences. These three-day online workshops are the only genealogy conferences where attendees can completely customize the program to suit their schedule. Attendees can watch 16 pre-recorded 30-minute classes at any time, in any order they choose.
Attendees of the Winter 2013 Virtual Conference, Sept. 13-15, will enjoy the following unique benefits:
» All sessions can be downloaded for later viewing—allowing you to watch favorite sessions again or save certain classes to view after the conference ends, so you can make the most of the real-time interaction during the weekend.
» PDFs of the presentation slides from each class are available to download, too, eliminating the need to take copious notes or copy down website URLs.
» The conference takes place entirely online, allowing attendees ultimate flexibility for participating. It’s the only conference where you can show up at 2 a.m. in your pajamas if you want to! Log in anywhere you have a computer and an internet connection, from your favorite armchair to your favorite coffee shop. You can even squeeze in a live chat during Daughter’s soccer game.
» An FTU Virtual Conference also provides programming from nationally known genealogy presenters, including D. Joshua Taylor, Lisa Louise Cooke and many more. You don’t have to miss out if you can’t afford a hotel room or have physical limitations that make an in-person conference impractical.
The Virtual Conference also offers perks provided by in-person conferences:
» An exhibit hall with booths showcasing genealogy products and services
» A virtual swag bag of free downloadable genealogy goodies
» Daily contests for great genealogy prizes
» Opportunities to chat with and ask questions of experts, as well as make new friends of genealogy buffs just like you
To view the program and register for the Fall 2013 Virtual Conference, visit http://www.familytreeuniversity.com/virtual-conference (save 20% on registration with coupon code FTU0913 at checkout!). Enter my giveaway by sharing this blog post on Facebook or Twitter by midnight tonight with hashtag #GENEALOGYGEMS. You’ll find social media sharing buttons at the top of the post, or just copy and paste the URL address of this specific post (click the post title to be sure and grab the specific address) and include #GENEALOGYGEMS. The winner will be announced here on this blog on Wed. Sept. 11 and must email their contact information to me as instructed in the post. Good luck, and I hope to see you at the Virtual Conference!
No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Entries must be received by midnight Sept. 10, 2013 as directed.
West Virginia Genealogy Research and Working with Changing County Boundaries
As many American’s know, the state of West Virginia was formed in 1863 from the state of Virginia during the Civil War. Those researching their West Virginia roots prior to that year, may wonder which counties to search and what records are available. We have some tips to make your West Virginia research a little easier!
County level research is important when trying to find the vital records of our ancestors. Birth, marriage, and death records typically are found on the county level. This means you will need to obtain a copy of these types of certificates from the local courthouse or other county repository, such as a county archives.
But what happens when the state or county wasn’t around when your ancestor lived there? Such is the case with this Genealogy Gems reader. Here is her question regarding West Virginia research:
I have a 3rd great-grandfather I am trying to find with his parents who may have been born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. He was born in 1814. My question is that Greenbrier County was in Virginia at the time of his birth. Now it is in West Virginia which was made a state in the 1860s, so where do I look for his records? Finding his parents has been a brick wall! What would you suggest?
Birth Records in the 1800s
The first thing we want to address is the hope that this reader will find a birth record for 1814. Early birth records of this time-frame were typically kept by the churches in the form of christening or baptismal records. Civil registrations of births, which were created by the local or federal government, were not kept regularly for American states until much later. The earliest cities and states to require civil registration can be seen here, but a few examples include: New York in 1880, Virginia in 1853,and Florida in 1865. 
Because birth records can not always be located in church or civil registration for this early time period, we suggest using alternate records as your supporting evidence. Substitute birth records might be, but are not limited to: school records, censuses, pension records, marriage records, and biographical sketches. (Click these links to learn more about each type of record.)
West Virginia Genealogy Research: County Level
Next, let’s discuss the uniqueness of researching in West Virginia. West Virginia was created in 1863 out of the state of Virginia. Many of the counties that were once in Virginia, kept the same name and retained their records when they became part of West Virginia.
There is a wonderful resource in the book titled “Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources” which was edited by Alice Eichholz. This book has a chart for each U.S. state listing the year each county was formed and from what parent county. To find the chart, flip through to the West Virginia section. Each county is listed in alphabetical order. In this case, we would locate “Greenbrier” and take note that according to the chart, Greenbrier County, West Virginia was formed in 1778 by portions of both Montgomery and Botetourt County, Virginia. A chart like this is helpful for any genealogist in determining which counties should be researched.
Greenbrier County, West Virginia: A Timeline of Changing County Boundaries
I took the liberty of looking further into Greenbrier County, West Virginia by examining more closely the changing county boundaries of this county over time. I did this by using the chart I mentioned above found in the Red Book. First, I found Greenbrier county and it’s parent county, then, I searched the list for further instances when parts of Greenbrier county were used to form newer counties. You see, we want to see the changes of this county’s boundaries so that we know what possible places to look for records. Let me show you what I found. We are going to need a time line for this!
- 1778: Greenbrier county was originally formed in 1778 from two parent Virginia counties: Montgomery and Botetourt.
- 1788: part of Greenbrier County, Virginia became Kanawha County
- 1799: Greenbrier shrunk further when a portion of its boundaries became Monroe County, Virginia
- 1818: Nicholas County, Virginia formed from Greenbrier
- 1831: part of Greenbrier created the new county of Fayette, Virginia
- 1863: Greenbrier county, Virginia became part of the State of West Virginia
- 1871: Summers County, West Virginia was created by a small portion of Greenbrier
As you can see, our Genealogy Gems reader may need to visit and research several county repositories both within the state of Virginia and West Virginia.
Greenbrier county is rather unique, as it had boundary changes quite regularly. It may be difficult to visit each of these county courthouses, spanning many miles apart, in hopes of finding targeted records for their ancestor. For this reason, our reader may wish to begin at the West Virginia State Archives. At most state archive repositories, records for all the counties can be easily looked at via microfilm. This may save valuable travel time. (Note: Before visiting any state archives facility, call ahead to verify what information and records they have, so that you do not have a wasted trip.)
There is also a free guide at Family Tree Magazine for West Virginia genealogy research that we highly recommend.
More on Advanced Research Strategies
Changing county boundaries is just one area that must be mastered to ensure accurate genealogy research. Here are 3 more articles that will help you beef up your genealogy research skills:
The Genealogy FAN Club Principle Overcomes Genealogy Brick Walls
Missing Census or Missing Family: Legacy Tree Genealogists Answer
Resolving Three Common Conflicting Evidence Problems in Genealogy
ARTICLE REFERENCES Johni Cerny, “Births and Deaths in Public Records,” originally written in “The Source: A Genealogist’s Guidebook to American Genealogy,” online article, Ancestry Wiki, accessed 20 Feb 2017.