The Genealogy Gems Podcast helps you make the most of your family history research time by providing quick and easy-to-use research techniques. Producer and host Lisa Louise Cooke brings you the best websites, best practices, and best resources available. This podcast is 100% free! Just click an episode below to start listening right now.
Episode 243 One Family’s Story: Lessons Learned from History. My special guest is Daniel Horowitz, Genealogy Expert at MyHeritage.
The importance of genealogy research questions and plans. Plus how to avoid research distractions.
Update to Google Search, How to reunite found items to their families, and 10 strategies for finding school records.
In this episode you’ll hear from genealogy experts on genealogical evidence & Proof, DNA, and organization.
Episode 239 Award-winning journalist Libby Copeland, author of the new book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are discusses how DNA testing has changed our world.
Episode 238 Do you love genealogy, mysteries and puzzle solving? Well in this episode we have not one but two tales of mystery. The first has a Valentine’s theme centered around a mysterious love letter. Professional genealogist Kathleen Ackerman will be here to share how a love letter that was missing its last page took her on a genealogical journey full of surprises. Our second story is the mystery of a lost family scrapbook. It’s full of twists, turns and murder!
Interview with Andy McCarthy, Genealogy Reference Librarian on the New York Public Library’s Genealogy Collections. Also, David Fryxell, author of a new book on Scandinavian Genealogy.
Interview with David Lowe, Specialist for the Photography Collection at the New York Public Library on a free tool they provide that can help you identify your old photos. Also a discussion of how to find unindexed records at Ancestry.com.
Episode 235 Federal Court Records with professional forensic genealogists Michael Strauss. You’ll learn the history of federal records, where they are housed, and how you can search for them and access them. You’ll also hear about real examples of federal court records used for genealogical research. Don’t miss the show notes!
Episode 234 In this episode we take a look at a subject that is difficult, and yet ultimately faced by all genealogists: Downsizing. Whether you need to help a relative downsize, or it’s time for you to move into a smaller place or just carve out more room in your existing home, this episode is for you. You’ll hear specific action steps that you can follow to the make the job of downsizing easier and more productive. Also in this episode we’ll cover the latest genealogy news, and take a quick look at the 1830 census.
Episode 233 Professional genealogist Cari Taplin joins me for a conversation about the power lists and why careful examination is so important. Also: what I did on my summer vacation, the Gregorian Calendar, and the new MyHeritage Education Center (where you can also watch my presentation from the MyHeritage LIVE conference held in Oslo, Norway.)
Exploring what you can do to go deeper in your genealogy research for a more accurate family tree with Elissa Scalise Powell. Irish genealogy radio host Lorna Moloney, a professional genealogist with Merriman Research, discusses Irish genealogy.
We start off with tech news about Google Earth, FamilySearch and MyHeritage. Then we dig deep into the genealogical research Julianne Mangin did for “Alice’s Story.”
The story of Roy Thran and how his short life story is impacting lives today. Author Karen Dustman discusses writing your memoir. Lisa shares her adventures in England.
Two listeners shares an exciting find using Lisa’s research strategies. Lisa provides next steps on German research in response to a listener question. Your Master Family Tree, and Sharing Branches Online Explained. The unusual history of one of the earliest forms of the World Wide Web
More new feature enhancements announced by Ancestry.com; Listeners share their stories; Interview with Crista Cowan, The Barefoot Genealogist at Ancestry.com; 3 intriguing discoveries made while searching cemeteries; Women’s registration cards on the home front from 1917-1918 during World War I; RootsTech Film Festival semi-finalist Sydney Orton shares the touching story behind newly discovered precious audio and video tape, and how she and her sister honor their grandparent’s memories.
Episode 226 Research strategies and new resources, the history of your ancestors’ baby clothing, a tech tip that protects you, and the key to deciphering draft registration cards.
Episode 225 Get ready for a fun and inspiring start to your new genealogy year. In this episode, I’m going to bring you a talented lady who’s a sharp genealogist and just happens to be one of the hosts of the television series Genealogy Roadshow, Kenyatta Berry.
Episode 224 In this episode, we recap 2018, and explore additional ideas to help you organize your home movies. Whether you have 8MM film, VHS tapes, Mini DV tapes or DVDs, this episode has what you need to preserve and organize them.
We explore the notion that we are all just bit player’s in everyone else’s show, and how that could lead to video genealogical gold. David Haas MD shares his family’s history of filming home movies, and the tremendous impact they’ve had on countless other families. You’ll learn how to digitize and share your home movies too.
It’s family history month and who better to dedicate this episode to than you! You’ll hear from many of our wonderful listeners who share opinions, research strategies and more. Also, you’ll hear about the exciting new genealogy conference that will be held in Birmingham, England in 2019: THE Genealogy Show.
Lisa talks about vital records with Shannon Combs-Bennett and welcomes a drop-by guest, Daniel Horowitz of MyHeritage.com, a great new resource from Library & Archives Canada; an update from Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard on MyHeritage DNA tools; and the long-awaited conclusion of Project Lizzie.
Episode220 An exclusive tip from one of two major upcoming genealogy events; Fun travel suggestion from The Archive Lady Melissa Barker: “Archive in a backpack”; DNA specificity from Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard; Finding books about your ancestors’ experiences and Finding your German ancestor’s place of origin.
Episode 219: Lisa shares the stories of longtime researcher, librarian, and blogger Julianne Mangin, who has explored the tragic and twisted stories of her ancestors. The stories alone are worth the listen–but for Lisa, the real intrigue and inspiration comes from how Julianne shed light on confusing and contradictory records by finding news accounts that helped explain them.
Episode 218 Lisa Louise Cooke answers your questions and shares your comments. Hot topics on your minds that are covered in this episode include discovering new records online, best practices for working with other people’s online trees, hard-to-locate military records, and early Pennsylvania research with James Beidler.
Episode 217 Spend a thought-provoking hour with Lisa as she explores the Golden State Killer case and the investigator’s use of genetic genealogy websites, and the questions that it raises. Get ready for a deep dive into the questions we face, the reality of the current DNA environment, and what it all means for you.
Episode 216 Lisa shares her experiences at Rootstech and in Australia; an interview with Findmypast CEO Tamsin Todd and executive Ben Bennett; women who have served in the military, and how to use the new MyHeritage chromosome browser.
Episode 215 Blast from the Past: Family History and Silent Movies. An interview with Sam Gill former Archivist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Episode 214 Irish expert Donna Moughty joins Lisa to talk about Irish genealogy, helping you get a jump on yours before everyone starts talking about their Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day next month! Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard has DNA news. Also: Listeners write in with inspiring successes and Michael Strauss musters in with tips on finding your ancestors in the five branches of the U.S. military.
Episode 213 Lisa shares a moving family history video, inspired by a listener’s “Where I’m From” poem. Hear the latest RootsTech news and an excerpt from an interview with author Sylvia Brown. Military Minutes contributor Michael Strauss explains the difference between different kinds of military service: regulars, volunteers and militia in Military Minutes.
Episode 212 Lisa talks with Sunny Morton about turning your fleeting memories into meaningful stories. Diahan Southard takes a look back at DNA advances in 2017. Finding missing ancestors: tips and success stories from Genealogy Gems fans. Ancestor found in a patent using Google Books. And Lisa shares Margaret Linford’s reflections on her “Genealogy Origins.” App Bonus: The history of Mince Pie at Christmas. Yum!
Episode 211 Ellis Island historian Barry Moreno shares the stories of workers at the leading U.S. immigration station (1892-1954). Two listeners write in about rescuing old artifacts and returning them “home;” the National Archives Citizen Archivist and British Library map geo-tagging projects; and Official Military Personnel Files for 20th-century US servicemen and women (hear what Michael Strauss found in his grandfather’s file).
Episode 210 Researching in a “burned city” (Chicago); the latest buzz and opinions about DNA health reports you can get with your DNA tests for family history; news from the Genealogy Gems Book Club; get-started Swedish genealogy tips from Legacy Tree Genealogist Paul Woodbury; accessing unprocessed archival records; and, five years away from the release of the 1950 US census, Lisa has tips on preparing for its release and researching your family in the 1940s.
Episode 209 David Ouimette of FamilySearch is known to his colleagues as “the Indiana Jones of genealogy” because of his globe-trotting adventures in curating record treasures. He joins us to talk about the millions of records being digitized around the world right now. Plus ,lots of excited emails from you, compiled military service records from Military Minutes expert Michael Strauss, and an historic newspaper Gem!
Episode 208 Hear the inspiring story of a genealogy hero who saved a life story–and a community’s history. Lisa shares an inspiring Google Books success story; how one listener gets her shy husband talking about his life story; and a listener’s “Where I’m From” poem. Learn tips for getting started in Swedish genealogy, using historical scrapbooks at archives, watching Lisa and Diahan’s new free webinar and getting ready for RootsTech 2018.
Episode 207 Lisa welcomes Mary Tedesco, a co-host of PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow. Mary shares stories and tips about tracing Italian and Italian-American roots. Also: FamilySearch updates since the end of microfilm lending (and how YOU helped make the last days of lending more effective); A listener uses Google to find her mysterious great-grandmother, with a success story she calls a “game-changer” for her genealogy research. And the premiere of Military Minutes with Michael Strauss.
Episode 206 In this Blast from the Past episode Lisa reprises a favorite research detour into vehicle forensics to identify an old family car and shares tips for creating short family history books like those she given as holiday gifts to loved ones. Hear letters from listeners on a special adoption discovery and a 1940 census mystery that now makes more sense. Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard weighs in with 4 reasons to take a DNA test, if you haven’t taken the plunge yet. Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton spotlights the current Genealogy Gems Book Club title, Murder in Matera. The vehicle forensics and family book segments originally appeared in Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 18 and 13, respectively, and are being republished here for web audiences.
Episode 205 This double-header episode pairs two interviews and two huge pieces of industry news! Hear about the end of FamilySearch microfilm lending and how you can get the records you need. Get the scoop on the game-changing addition to RootsMagic: your Ancestry.com tree now syncs with the software! Melissa Barker shares tips on preserving heirlooms and visiting archives. Nicole Dyer shares a fun family history activity idea to do with kids—do you have a family gathering coming up that could use this inspiration?
Episode 204 Dave Obee returns with a poignant story about the Canadian Home Children and tips for newspaper research. Also: a new Catalog and improved DNA ethnicity analysis at MyHeritage (it’s free—upload your DNA!); an excerpt from the Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Fannie Flagg; a detailed get-started for British Isles research; and why so many weddings are traditionally held in June.
Episode 203 Renowned Canadian expert Dave Obee shares his favorite tips on researching the Canadian census—his insights are fascinating whether you have Canadian ancestors or not! Also: an inspiring adoption discovery, DNA testing news at 23andMe, the newly-updated Atlas for Historical County Boundaries, a tip for incorporating family history into a wedding, and a brand-new resource that can finally help you solve one of genealogy’s most perplexing questions.
Episode 202 Breaking news in this episode! Learn about AncestryDNA’s new Genetic Communities straight from Catherine Ball, Ancestry’s Chief Scientific Officer. This breakthrough helps us use DNA to follow family migration patterns. You’ll also Relative Race contestant Joe Greer and hear about the new Genealogy Gems Book Club featured title. Naming traditions tip from a listener can help you puzzle out ancestral pedigrees. And watch for a few great Google search strategies for genealogy.
Episode 201 Lisa chats with Angela Walton-Raji, expert in U.S. and African-American research, about tips for interviewing relatives and taking your African-American family tree back to the era of slavery; A RootsTech 2017 recap, with info on archived streaming sessions; Great news from Findmypast about its new Catholic Heritage Archive; A ground-breaking study from AncestryDNA that identifies specific migration patterns among genetically-related clusters of people; Follow-up mail from Lisa’s Episode 200 celebration; An expert Q&A on finding relatives who don’t appear in the census where you expect them to; A teaser clip from the upcoming Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us.
Episode 200 Our 200th episode and 10th anniversary episode!
Episode 199 A celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday with Lisa Louise Cooke’s interview with Claire Banton of Library and Archives Canada; DNA Testing with Kids; the announcement of the new title for the Genealogy Gems Book Club 1st quarter 2017; the awesome discovery made on YouTube by a listener; a new social networking platform for families called Famicity; Rootstech 2017.
Episode 198 Lisa Louise Cooke welcomes Genealogy Gems Book Club author and Victorian lifestyle expert Sarah Chrisman to the show to talk about Victorian holiday traditions, some of which may still live on in your own life. Following that conversation, Lisa shares a fun description of Victorian-era scrap-booking: how it’s different than today’s scrap-booking hobby but also how it reminds her of modern social media. Also: Three success stories from Genealogy Gems listeners: a Google search with great results, a brick-wall busting marriage record and yet another YouTube find for family history (people keep telling us about those!). Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard chimes in with what she likes so far about MyHeritage’s new DNA testing service. An internationally-themed German research conference and a makeover for the Scotland’s People website.
Episode 197 A chat between Lisa and Genealogy Gems editor and author of the book Story of Your LifeSunny Morton discuss the value and importance of telling your own story. A reading by Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author and Victorian lifestyle expert Sarah Chrisman. Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard discusses the next steps for your DNA results. Lisa walks a listener through several tips for learning more about her immigrant ancestors, and shows how to use today’s technology tools to help with traditional research skills. A spotlight on new marriage records online for the U.S. and around the world.
Episode 196 Professional genealogist Kate Eakman from Legacy Tree Genealogists shares tips and resources for those tracing their Irish ancestors into Ireland, and answers all your questions about how to hire a professional genealogist. Plus, we have an exclusive $100 discount code for you! Also in this episode: opinions on sharing gossip about our ancestors; new Genealogy Gems Book Club book announced and a past featured author has a new book out; big genealogy conferences in 2017; and organize your DNA test results and matches to help you get the most out of them.
Episode 195 This month, we’re celebrating the 100th episode of The Family Tree Magazine Podcast with one of my favorite segments on shaping up your research, and the 2 millionth download of the Genealogy Gems Podcast. Lisa Alzo gives us the back story on Czech records that have recently come online; and a YouTube search success story. You’ll also hear highlights of the Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Chris Cleave, author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and our DNA correspondent Diahan Southard will discuss Gedmatch, a free resource you might be ready for if you’ve done some DNA testing.
Episode 194 This blast from the past episode comes from the digitally remastered Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 11 and 12 (originally recorded in 2007). They are now interwoven with fresh narration and updated show notes. Topics include: Google Images; Top 10 Tips for finding Graduation Gems in your family history; Display your family history with an easy to create Decoupage plate.
Episode 193 Genealogy milestones, anniversaries, new records, upcoming conferences and new free video tutorials; Email response to episode #192: another tip on the U.S. Public Records Index, a family adoption story and his own research on the changing coastline of Sussex; More response to the “Where I’m From” poetry initiative; The NEW Genealogy Gems Book Club title is announced; A key principle in genetic genealogy.
Episode 192 Lisa shares a favorite new super easy-to-use tool for turning family photographs into captivating professional-looking videos and slideshows that you can share. Then you’ll meet the newest member of the Genealogy Gems team, Amie Bowser Tennant who shares insights into becoming a certified genealogist. A Gem shares a tip about a favorite genealogy database. An inspiring story of adoption and DNA, and a delightful excerpt from the Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Helen Simonson on The Summer Before the War.
Episode 191 Diahan gets us up to date on the changes at Ancestry DNA; Thom shares his success using Google Earth for Genealogy; Jim Beidler talks about new Germany records at FamilySearch, Amy Johnson Crow shares her favorite local history apps; Sunny shares her thoughts on our Book Club featured book.
Episode 190 Extreme Genes radio show Scott Fisher talks about his role in helping to solve a 30-year old missing persons case; Lisa advises a listener on a pesky Gmail problem; A whirlwind world tour of new genealogy records online; Searching out military service details with Google Books; One RootsTech attendee’s Google search success story; the newGenealogy Gems Book Clubtitle, a brand-new, much-anticipated second novel by a breakout British novelist.
Episode 189 Visit with the Wrights, a couple for Alaska, who star in the new genealogy TV series Relative Race. Plus: Irish research tips, 3 very good reasons for testing your DNA for genealogy, and an excerpt from our Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with the author ofOrchard House
Episode 188 RootsTech news and resources for everyone; New records online for Ireland and the United States; Two inspiring emails from listeners who unravel family mysteries with determination, skill and Google sleuthing; AGenealogy Gems Book Clubupdate with more thoughts on the featured titleOrchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Growby Tara Austen Weaver and book recommendations from RootsTech attendees; A critique of a recent NPR article on genetic genealogy by Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard; and a great conversation with Cindy Cochran and Sabrina Riley of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Genealogical Society Library at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Episode 187 Lisa welcomes the Legal Genealogist Judy Russell to the podcast. Judy takes on a Genealogy Gems listener’s fantastic question about the bounty land his War of 1812 ancestor never claimed. Also in this episode: Life after Family Tree Maker software, New strategies for using Google to answer your genealogical research questions, the new Genealogy Gems Book Club title,and all about the upcoming RootsTech 2016 genealogy conference.
Episode 186 Celebrate upcoming holiday family time with a special segment on interviewing relatives. Diahan Southard offers her thanks for DNA connections that are helping fill holes left by adoption. We’ll cover a new resource from MyHeritage for connecting with other researchers, family history poetry from two Gems listeners, letters from the Gems mailbox, and an excerpt from our new Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Lalita Tademy (which appears in full in Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 130..
Episode 185 Genealogy Gems is celebrating reaching a milestone: 1000 genealogy-filled blog posts on our website! But we’re not just celebrating our own genealogy writing. We’re celebrating YOURS! In this episode we celebrate what you have shared with us about your adventures in family history blogging. I also have a short, fun family history writing challenge to share with everyone, not just those who blog, a writing contest, and the poet laureate of Kentucky.
Episode 184 Listeners thoughts on saving your genealogy from theft and a tip on digital preservation. I share An Open Letter to Grandma, and Sunny will join me to announce our next Genealogy Gems Book Club pick—and we may or may not digress a little to talk about other fun things on our minds. And Diahan will discus “empty-handed genealogists” and their DNA.
Episode 183 A digital expert joins us to talk about digitizing and storing your old movies, videos, and pictures. You’ll hear a juicy clip from our exclusive Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of the new Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, Pioneer Girl. And Your DNA Guide is here with a story of DNA and President Harding.
Episode 181 Researching your family in the 1950s, introduction to the 3rd Quarter 2015 Genealogy Gems Book Club featured book, a new patent by Google for an innovative solution, two new record collections online that fill in a hole in American documentary history, and email from listeners about the new Ancestry site and family history blogging.
Episode 180 Changes at Ancestry, books at FamilySearch, Canadian research, Google’s new device, getting the most from a trip to the state archives, Military records for sailors, Integrating Genetics and Genealogical Tools, Interview with Nathan Dylan Goodwin author of The Lost Ancestor.
Episode 179 In this episode I’ll share inspirational story from listener Helen, and another amazing story about an adoption reunion. And we’ll check in with our Genealogy Gems Book Club Guru Sunny Morton about this quarter’s featured book, The Lost Ancestor by Nathan Dylan Goodwin. And of course all kinds of other genealogy news and tips for you.
Episode 178 Niche record collections that might just be what you are looking for. Interview with genetic genealogist CeCe Moore about using DNA for genealogy research, adoption, and the Finding Your Roots TV show. Announcement of the Genealogy Gems Book Club book for the 2nd quarter of 2015. A listener shares an update on adoption records in Ohio.
Episode 177 This episode features part of our interview with Christina Baker Kline, the author of our Genealogy Gems Book Club featured book Orphan Train. The book spent five weeks at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list as well as time at the top of The Bestsellers List in Canada, and by now after reading the book you know why. Christina will share how the book came in to being. And why she first hesitated to write it. And how, although this is a novel, in fact the details of Vivian’s story are true thanks to her extensive research. And Christina sheds light on the effect that being an orphan had on the children of yesterday and the children of today.
Episode 176 Get a Round Up of RootsTech Round, join Genealogy Gems Book Club Guru Sunny Morton for more on our featured bookOrphan Train, and some additional books you’ll want to add to your reading list that also provide insight in to how you can approach writing your own family’s history. Then Your DNA Guide here at Genealogy Gems, Diahan Southard, shares how to Social Network Your YDNA with Surname Projects.
Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton announces our new Book Club read for this first quarter of 2015. Then, professional genealogist Mary Tedesco from the Genealogy Roadshow television series will join Lisa to talk about her experience on the show and also about her specialty which is Italian research. Our Genealogy Gems DNA Guide will also be here. And we wrap with a very special announcement at the end of the show.
You’ll also love all the expert interviews that make the Genealogy Gems Podcast your own personal genealogy conference: Dick Eastman, DearMYRTLE, Curt Witcher, CeCe Moore, Arlene Eakle, the folks from Ancestry.com and celebrities such as Lisa Kudrow of Who Do You Think You Are?, Mary Tedesco of Genealogy Roadshow, Tukufu Zuberi of The History Detectives, Kathy Lennon of the Lennon Sisters, Tim Russell of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and Darby Hinton of the Daniel Boone TV series from the 1960s.
Season 1 – Episode 1 – 20 The originals shows are no longer available in the iTunes feed. Episodes are being remastered and are being rebroadcast in current episodes as follows:
(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.
Premium Podcast Episodes As a Genealogy Gems Premium Member you have access to the entire back catalog of Premium Episodes! Of course, things do change over time, so occasionally you’ll hear about something that is no longer around (like the Premium Message...
This episode celebrates the most recent family history there is: our own. A chat between host and producer Lisa Louise Cook and Gems editor Sunny Morton explores the meaning and memories behind heirlooms hanging in Lisa’s bedroom. They comment on the larger value, for self and others, of recording our own memories in honor of Sunny’s new book, Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy.
Also in this episode:
A spotlight on new marriage records online for the U.S. and around the world.
Lisa walks a listener through several tips for learning more about her immigrant ancestors (a mother and daughter). Lisa shows how to use today’s technology tools to help with traditional research skills such as locating passenger lists, immigrant society records and naturalization.
Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard talks about organizing your DNA matches so you can get the most out of them.
Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author and Victorian lifestyle expert Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like in her home–which doesn’t use electricity–as the days grow shorter and the darkness comes earlier.
NEW RECORDS ONLINE: Marriage Records
New York City Marriages: a new index to more than 3 million marriage licenses for recent New York City marriages (1950-1995)
Free FamilySearch marriage record collections recently added or updated include:
Question from Jo: “I have been fortunate to find information about most of my great-grandparents. I have hit a wall with my maternal great grandmother who immigrated from Switzerland to the US in the 1880s when she was 8 years old. I was hoping that by upgrading to International records on Ancestry that I could find the ship and where she and her mother came from. The curious thing for me is that she and her mother traveled solo to the US and went to Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve been to Cincinnati and have searched there and have found directories with addresses but no profession is listed like other people. I didn’t find any ship records either. Where might you suggest that I look or search to find more information?”
Tips for searching passenger arrival lists:
Consider what ports would have been the most logical point of arrival for an immigrant ancestor based on the time period and the U.S. location in which you find them. Cincinnati, Ohio, was reachable by rail by the 1880s from major ports, as well as by water via the Mississippi River for southern ports, so that doesn’t narrow things down much. According to an Ancestry.com article, more than 80% of immigrants arrived at the Port of New York by the 1890s, so Jo might scrutinize those New York passenger arrival lists for the 1880s again.
For “deeper” searching at Ancestry.com or other sites with powerful, flexible search interfaces: do a “nameless search” (without any name) for girls around age 8 for arrivals in particular years. Try additional searches with various combinations of name, place of origin (Switzerland) or “Swiss” in the keyword field, which will bring up that word in the ethnicity or nationality column. That column doesn’t have its own search field in Ancestry.com but it is indexed, so use the keyword field to search it.
Research Swiss immigration to Cincinnati during that time period. Who was coming, why they were coming and where they were coming from? Click here for free tips about researching historical questions such as these.
Tips for researching records of immigrant societies:
In the U.S., the time between an immigrant’s arrival and naturalization is often documented in records of ethnic organizations such as fraternal benefit societies, immigrant aid and colonization societies. These kinds of community groups often existed in cities and towns where specific immigrant groups had a strong presence.
Become an expert Google searcher (for genealogy and everything else you want to find online) with The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 2nd edition, by Lisa Louise Cooke. Or click here to get started with basic Google search strategies you can use now.
Tips for researching naturalizations:
Naturalization records from that time period won’t reliably tell you where an ancestor was from. But they’re still worth looking for, especially if census or other records indicated that the person naturalized.
When looking for women’s and children’s naturalization records, remember that during this time period, they automatically became naturalized if their husband or father did, so individual records for married women and minor children won’t exist under their own names. But a woman could apply on her own, too. Click here to read a free article on women’s naturalizations.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. In the works: RootsMagic will be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
INTERVIEW: Sunny Morton on recording your own life stories
Featured Genealogy Gems Book Club author Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like when the days get shorter and the darkness comes early?in a house without electricity.
Legacy Tree Genealogists provides expert genealogy research service that works with your research goals, budget and schedule. The Legacy Tree Discovery package offers 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations: a great choice if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance. Click here to learn more.
Parents spend a good portion of their parenting time ferreting out the real story from their children. One time when Henry was in Kindergarten he was playing outside with another little boy. I was in and out of the house watching him and checking on other things. Hours later I noticed that his bike had been spray-painted black. When confronted, he claimed he had no idea how such a thing could have happened. Unfortunately, I jumped to conclusions and blamed the other kid (you have to give me credit, at six Henry was such a good boy and had such an angelic face with his blue blue eyes and blonde blonde hair). But as I was on the phone with my husband telling him about the issue I looked over at Henry and I saw it- that guilty look and my stomach sank, recalling the things I had said to the other boy’s mom. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told my husband.
As genealogists, we spend our time trying to ferret out the real story from our ancestors, or at least from the records they left behind, because they’re not sitting in front of us with guilty looks on their faces. We are constantly checking family stories against, say, the information on a census record, then comparing it to the family will, then making sure it all agrees with what’s in the military records. And even if we have total agreement, which isn’t always, more information often comes along, like in the form of DNA testing, and we may find even more apparent discrepancies.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a reporter, Cameron McWhirter, who talks about finding just that kind of discrepancy between his family lore and his DNA. He even goes so far as to say, “I am descended, at least partially, from liars.” And he makes the point that “many immigrants reinvented themselves when they arrived here (the United States),” which could be a nice way of saying they had a chance to INVENT a new legacy, not just reinvent it. His assessments are certainly interesting, and worth reviewing, to help us see how DNA testing can affect the way we look at family stories and traditional research results.
McWhirter may be the classic modern genealogist, never having set foot inside a courthouse or scanned through microfiche, relying instead entirely, he reports, on internet research. Now before you roll your eyes, just stop for a minute and appreciate how exciting this is. Here is a man who never gave his family history a second thought, yet because of the death of his parents started to tinker around a bit, and then due to the large volume of information online “was quickly pulled into the obsessive world of modern genealogical research.” I say, score one for the genealogy world!
What he found was that while his dad was proudly and solidly a self-proclaimed Scot, the records and DNA revealed his heritage was actually from Ireland and eastern Europe. McWhirter says that his “father hated Notre Dame, but judging by my results he could have been one-quarter to one-half Irish. He spoke dismissively of people from Eastern Europe, but part of his genetic code likely came from that region.”
McWhirter’s evaluation of his genetic report includes only his ethnicity results, which as you can hear, were meaningful to him in the way they flew in the face of his father’s prejudices and assertions of his own identity. But the ethnicity results fall short of the point of testing for most genealogists. He might even more powerfully transform his sense of family identity if he took a look at his match list and saw an actual living cousin, for example, a third cousin perhaps who was also descended from his German great-grandmother, who maybe never mentioned that she was also Jewish.
Connecting with other cousins who also have paper trails to our ancestors serves to provide further confidence that we have put all of the pieces together and honored the right ancestor with a spot on our pedigree chart. It’s like we multiply our own research efforts by finding more people like us?literally?who are descended from the same people and interested in finding them. As long as they’re as diligent in their research as we are, of course.
At a recent conference I met a 5th cousin. Even with a connection that distant it was exciting, and it made we want to look again at our connecting ancestors and pause for just a minute to marvel how my DNA verified my paper trail back to them, and that part of them was around, in me, and in my new cousin. To me, THAT’s a bigger picture I want to see?when the paper trail comes together with the DNA trail and turns into real live cousins, even if they turn out to be a little different than the stories and sense of identity that were handed to us when we were young.
Maybe you’re something like Cameron McWhirter: you’ve taken a DNA test, been intrigued (or disappointed) by the ethnicity results, but haven’t yet fully explored all your matches on your list. I’m telling you, you may be seriously missing some opportunities. If that’s you, I may actually have written my new DNA quick guide just for you. It’s called “Next Steps: Working with Your Autosomal DNA Matches.” This guide will teach you how to leverage the power of known relatives who have tested. You’ll get an intro to chromosome browsers and their role in the search process, and access to a free bonus template for evaluating the genealogical relationship of a match in relationship to the predicted genetic relationship. This guide also gives you a methodology for converting UNknown relatives on your match list into known relatives, which is what we’re going for here.
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