August 9, 2019
Like many genealogists nowadays, I’ve taken DNA tests at various companies such as My Heritage, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA. I admit I haven’t gotten terribly serious about my results (or those of my husband and sister which I manage). Partly that’s because I haven’t had much in the way of surprises when it comes to results.
Over the last twenty or so years, I’ve done a lot of traditional genealogical research. One of my favorite types of research is collateral research. I’ve always been interested in knowing as much as I can about my ancestors’ lives, more than just names and dates, and I’ve found that one of the best ways to do that is to learn about their siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins. I’ve even spent hours tracing families forward, finding the descendants of all of those siblings and cousins so that I could make contact with those distant cousins who might know more about our common ancestors than I did.
My initial justification for all of this research was to help break down brick walls. For example, by researching all of the siblings in a second great-grandfather’s family, I was able to find the one line who’d kept track of the origins of the family – something my line hadn’t known for several generations. Because of all this research, when DNA testing became popular and I took my first test, I was immediately able to figure out how my matches fit in the family tree. When a woman wrote me who said she thought she matched one of my Swedish lines, I took one look at her family tree and was able to write her that her Quarfoot ancestor descended from our mutual third great grandfather; our second great grandmothers were sisters. One of the sisters, whom she was descended from, had married a man named Quarfoot. It was a lot of fun to make the connections, but I felt that all my DNA was doing was giving me confirmation of what I had already learned through traditional research.
Since I descend from a big Mormon family, I have lots of cousins and nieces and nephews who have tested – from both sides of my family. This has meant that I can almost immediately determine whether a given match is related on my mother’s side or my father’s side. In the few cases where I have matches who match folks on both my mother’s and my father’s side, I’ve been able to determine exactly how due to all of that collateral research I’ve done. The process is helped by the fact that my parents’ families came from different parts of the world and have not been in the same area for very long so I have very few cousin intermarriages which can make figuring out which side a match might descend from difficult. I also have the benefit of having lots of unusual surnames among my lines which is a big help in identifying matches on trees.
So, my DNA experience has been fairly routine – no big surprises – at least until last week. That’s when I noticed that I had a very close match on Ancestry that I couldn’t immediately place. The user name was just initials which didn’t help me identify the person, but she was in the same cM range as my nieces and nephews. Suddenly, I knew how some testers feel when they find heretofore unknown relatives. Everything you thought you knew about your family is immediately called into question. Did one of my siblings have an unknown child, or could this possibly be an unknown half sibling? I do have one living aunt, but she’s nearly ninety years old and isn’t in the best of health. Could it be her? After a little looking, I was sure it was my aunt so I wrote to the person who manages her account, and it turned out that my aunt’s son-in-law had helped her to take a DNA test. So my big surprise wasn’t really such a surprise, but it has given me a little more empathy for those who find a life-changing match among their DNA results. From now on, I won’t be so smug about knowing who all of my matches are because this probably won’t be the last close, unknown match that shows up on my DNA results list.
Researcher/Director at Large