If you’ve taken an Ancestry DNA test with the idea of using it to further or enhance your genealogy research you might be wondering just how to get started. Looking at page after page of cousin matches can be overwhelming to say the least.
Maybe you’re feeling a little like the dog in the above photo!? Well, if you are, here are some tips which have helped me. Maybe some of you will find them useful as well.
I. Get Known Close Relatives To Test.
I am putting this first not because it is the first step in analyzing your matches if you are new to AncestryDNA, but I feel that it is the most important thing you can do to in order to gain better insight into your matches in the long run.
Who do you test? If you have living parents or grandparents they are the first priority. Remember, you only got half of your parent’s DNA. So they will have matches that you don’t – and they only got half from each of their parents. No living parents? Then get siblings to test. Unless you are identical twins, at least some of the DNA your sibling(s) got from each parent is different than what you got. Therefore, siblings will have some matches you have, but also have some matches that you don’t. No living siblings either? Then ask half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and/or first cousins if they would be willing to test. The more the merrier! Each person’s unique combination of DNA adds additional data and matches. (The exception being, of course, if both parents have tested, testing their children won’t add new information.)
I personally manage 11 kits for various relatives, These include myself, my brother, my mother, a maternal aunt and a maternal uncle for researching my ancestors. For research on my husband’s side, I manage kits for him, his mother and one of his sisters. One of his paternal uncles has tested as well.
I have found that there are at least three benefits to having close relatives (i.e. parents, siblings, aunts, uncles) test. First, they will have matches that you don’t. This expands your pool of matches for breaking through brick walls and testing theories. Second, having close relatives test could help you sort (or phase) your matches. For example, matches you have in common with a parent indicate a common ancestor on that side of your tree. And a third benefit is that you may gain a better perspective as to how closely a match is related. Because the combination of DNA that you and a sibling inherit from each parent is different, Ancestry may classify a match as as third cousin to your sibling but a fifth cousin to you. Knowing that your sibling has a closer genetic match may indicate you need to look for a closer genealogical connection than you would expect if you only had your own test to go by.
II. Using AncestryDNA Star and Notes
Ancestry does not provide much in terms of letting the user catalog, classify and annotate matches. Basically, you have the star and the notes field. The way I use these is to star the matches for whom I have found a genealogical connection. In the notes I first put the amount of shared DNA (so I don’t have to open the match to see it) and and then the common ancestors if known. If the common ancestor isn’t known, I sometimes add brief notes that will help me pick up the analysis later. As an example, if the shared matches I have with the unknown match include matches I that I know connect on my Dilliplane/Weidner line, I’ll add that to the notes as a possible connection. If I’ve found the match on gedmatch, I also try to add that information to the notes. It does get a little tricky, because the notes are of limited length.
I would love for Ancestry to implement a user-defined tagging system (similar to say gmail) or even user-defined color-coding. It would be great to have tags for various family lines, whether or not you’ve been in contact, etc. But for now this is all they have – stars and notes.
III. Incorporate Your DNA Matches into your Family Tree
Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m a little fanatic (i.e. obsessive) about finding the genealogical connection(s) to my close genetic matches! When I log on to check out my new matches, my process is to start with the closest unidentified match. The easiest case is that the match has a fairly well-developed, attached tree and our common ancestor(s) are readily apparent. In these situations, I add any missing generations between our common ancestor and my DNA match to my research database. (I use rootsmagic for that, but any desktop family tree software would work equally well. A private research tree on Ancestry is another option.) If I don’t know the match’s real name, I use an initial or the ancestry username in place of the first name.
Unfortunately, the more common case is that the match has a small tree or no tree. In this case I will often start researching and building the match’s tree within my rootsmagic research database with the hopes of being able to eventually connect it to my main tree. I obviously don’t do this for every match, but if there is a small tree or an unattached tree from which I can get some starting clues, I will give it a shot and see if I can make any progress. This is especially true if they are a close match — i.e. third cousin or high confidence fourth cousin match. I should note that if they are an active user, I will try messaging them to collaborate, but if they haven’t logged onto Ancestry for months (or years) I don’t feel it’s worth sending a message that probably won’t even be read, much less answered.
When I add a person who is DNA match to me or one of my close relatives to my database, I add a user-defined fact/event to them which I’ve called aDNA. This fact uses only the description field and the notes field – no date or place fields. Since I manage multiple kits on Ancestry for various close family members, the description field contains either my name or the name of one of my relatives whose kits I manage. The notes field contains the match’s ancestry username, the number of centimorgans and matching segments, the predicted cousin relationship and any other pertinent information. If the person also matches my brother (or any of the others for whom I manage kits) I add an additional aDNA facts to capture that information. (Much like you would add multiple census/residence facts for different years.) Recording autosomal DNA matches within my rootsmagic database is a system that works really well for me. I can use the features built into rootsmagic to search for matches, calculate relationships, etc.
I hope that some of you find these tips useful, but keep in mind that this is just for starters. I find the combination of GEDmatch and Genome Mate Pro essential, as well as creating descendancy charts. I will blog about these topics in the future.