Genealogical research quickly can become an obsession. Once it takes hold, the hunt for that ONE document connecting you to an ancestor – two or even six or more generations back – culminates with a feeling of euphoria when that document is found.
The result, in far-from-technical terms, is what we call “The Genealogy Happy Dance.” I have felt the “spirit” many times myself, and it never gets old. Ever.
When two or more genealogists gather (hobbyists and professionals, alike), stories about such finds flow like booze at an unsupervised teen party on a weekend when the parents aren’t home.
That said, I’ve been thrilled to discover that, like my fellow journalists in that past life, my genealogy colleagues enjoy raising a glass or two at get-togethers, especially at the end of a long day of study at events like the Salt Lake Institute for Genealogy. And the fact that this institute is being held this week – as I sit in my home office in Kentucky writing this – is bumming me out. Bigly.
But, I digress.
Commercial DNA testing, for me, adds multiple layers to my genealogical work – whether it’s my own or work I’m doing for a client.
Autosomal DNA testing, which is offered by 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, LivingDNA and others*, is the genetic material found in the nucleus of almost every cell in our bodies. Our 23-pairs of chromosomes are represented by the double-helix, a twisty-shaped ladder-like image, which is how it appears under a microscope.
Each company offers different tools to help analyze results, and help determine how you and someone who shares your DNA might match. In the upcoming weeks and months, I will walk through each of these websites to discuss the tools you may not know you should be using.
But, the technology can never replace the traditional work of finding and copying documents and the stories of our ancestors’ lives. So, we’ll also talk about online and brick-and-mortar locations where the records you might need can be found.
That said, I use AncestryDNA the most when I’m trying to determine unknown parentage cases or otherwise trying to determine the common ancestor of specific people who have tested for a project. The tree-building tools and the ability to search records are the main reason for this preference. While some genealogists eschew the “shaky leaf” hints, I find them very useful for gathering clues when building “quick and dirty” trees for clients who are trying to determine their biological parents.
Those Q&D trees are not as meticulously documented as they should be when compiling family history research, so I keep them private and unsearchable – great tools that Ancestry offers to all subscribers. This is really important for maintaining my clients’ privacy, and that of others revealed to be biological relatives. In many cases, those matches that lead to discovery may not know about an adoption or misattributed parent, or know and have spent their lives keeping the secret.
I can, however, share these Q&D trees with my clients – or, in the case of some other research project, other researchers – so they can see the work I’ve done and provide input.
What Ancestry doesn’t offer – but almost every other company does – is what we call a “chromosome browser.” These map the exact segments on a chromosome where you and a match share DNA. This is a wonderful tool because, if you know who the most recent common ancestral couple you share with a match, you can assign that DNA segment to that couple in an excellent (and fun!) program at DNApainter. As you get more information, you can actually assign specific segments to specific individuals, which means you can determine that the specific segment was inherited from a very distant ancestor, and on which line.
I’ll be getting into all of that as we continue on this DNA journey here on my Twisted Roots blog.
In upcoming posts, I will take a deep dive into how DNA is inherited, what that means when you are trying to determine how the heck you are related to those matches whose names you don’t recognize, and how to use the tools for your research.
I find it amazing that we lose track of relatives beyond first or second cousins so quickly. But, DNA testing and genealogical research is a great way to recapture this information and, if you are lucky, get to know these long-lost cousins.
Please feel free to leave comments, submit questions or suggest topics you would like to see discussed in future posts. Also, if you have tested, please list in the comments the companies you've tested with!
May the gods of genealogy bestow on you the opportunity to do the “Happy Dance” soon, and often!
* I'm not compensated by or a representative of any of the companies mentioned in this blog.