Handed Down, a problem with DNA

52 Ancestors

DNA, as everyone knows, is handed down from generation to generation. The trick to using this handed down gift of life is to figure out how to use it and apply it to our genealogical research.

DNA testing is revolutionizing genealogical research. And Ancestry.com wants you to think you can magically get answers to your long lost ancestors by just buying their autosomal test kit. WRONG. Yes, DNA can help you break through that proverbial brick wall, but it still requires work on your part as well as analysis, not to mention cooperation with DNA matches. AAAANND you still have to support it with documentation – you know, good ole fashioned evidence. DNA is not magic, it’s science and evidence is not just for criminal investigators and reporters.

I digress…A fellow genealogist recently contacted me to share their handed down knowledge…see what I’m doing here? We’ll call this person “P”. P’s sibling was a DNA match to one of my FTDNA accounts. I am glad when someone reaches out to me, and I refuse to be the type of genealogist who ignores inquiries. So I looked over the information provided and drafted my response.

P is trying to conduct a single surname study, and this surname is nowhere in our known family tree (Isreal). I picked out the key parts of their message.

  1. The DNA match was made on FTDNA between the brother of the researcher and one of my accounts.
  2. The connection is a 3rd to 5th cousin.
  3. The only surnames mentioned are Isreal, Ziegler, and Madden. Some biographical information is provided on the ancestors of interest, and their Ancestry profile is provided.
The information provided is interesting; however, it is out of context. Until I review the tree, I do not know who these people’s parents, children, or siblings were. Also, I do not understand how P and their brother are related to these people.

1. Starting with FTDNA.com. P did not provide their FTDNA account ID, so I can’t compare the DNA results to either of my FTDNA accounts, and I don’t know which account P’s brother matched with. I have thousands of matches between the two accounts, hundreds at the 3rd to 5th cousins to sort through. The importance of knowing these things is to compare my two different results to a DNA match to help determine “a degree” of false-positive and hopefully narrow down how far or close we are related. Not necessary, but helpful.

P’s Ancestry tree is, as expected, predominantly Isreal’s. Since living people are shown as “private” I can’t tell who P or their brother is on this tree because the “home” person is P’s deceased ancestor who’s mother was an Isreal (a grandparent or great-grandparent to P). So, it’s plausible we are not a DNA match to the Isreal side of Ps family at all since P’s sibling is related to the “home” person and possibly five other branches who are not represented on Ps Ancestry tree. After reviewing the Isreal line in P’s tree, I saw no common surnames between us. Expanding to other branches of the “home” person also resulted in no common surname between our trees. Since online trees are difficult to view in their entirety, I looked at the index of names in P’s tree, which revealed just the one Madden (Elsie) along with Miller and Woods. Since P also told me that their Isreal ancestors lived in Virginia during the same timeframe as our Miller’s and Woods’, I ruled this as a possible connection. Due to the nature of Ancestry tree views, I don’t know how Miller and Woods trace back to them or their “home” person and there is a disconnect between the Isreal line and many people in the tree’s index.

This is the connection we are looking at with 3rd-5th Cousins. In the following images, I identified my DNA donors by my Ancestry username to illustrate the simplest possible relationship between our DNA and P’s DNA. An important puzzle peice missing is where P’s brother relates to the “home” person on their tree. I wasn’t sure if they were a child or grandchild to their “home” person, so I can’t finish the comparison chart.

2. Next, there is the “3rd-5th cousins” clue. The range is a broad targeted range and could include a once or twice removed cousin match (DNA matches are not linear; it all depends on the percent of “DNA-in-common” our ancestors handed down to each of us). This means that our common ancestor would be (at least) a 2nd to 4th x great grandparent. No Isreal surname found in these three generations of our ancestors (though I have gaps in surnames starting with the 3xgreat grandparent generation.) By my calculations, the connection could be anyone within a pool of 16 to over 100 individuals (depending on how large a family was). I throw in the low number of 16 because I was able to rule out some family lines based on year of immigration (i.e., the family line in our tree arrived after the generations targeted by the DNA matches.) Still, with what was left, there was no apparent connection to an Isreal surname.

3. Lastly, are the surnames-in-common. Ziegler’s have come to my attention in the Roth/Rhoads research in Pennsylvania, though it was not enough to warrant entry into my research tree. P mentioned an Eliza Madden and suggested a connection to our Elizabeth Madden (Rosetta’s mother), but the facts between the two don’t match up. There may be a relationship, but there is not enough data to determine what it could be. Besides, her Isreal relatives were not biologically related to Eliza Madden, she married into the family then divorced before having any children. Coincidentally, another branch of P’s family (that has not been connected to her Isreal tree but is entered into her tree as disconnected ancestors) names Woods and Millers. Circle back to two paragraphs above in regards to the Miller and Wood common surname – a happy coincidence, but unrelated people.

I shared my results with P and told them how to access my full Ancestry tree for their own review. I also requested additional information to fill in the gaps I needed to make a better assessment. No response in almost a month. This is understandable, P has moved on to leads that directly relate to their interests.

I am immensely appreciative of the fact that P reached out to me; however, this little exercise demonstrates how unmagical DNA genealogy actually is. And DNA research is not instantaneous. It requires review, analysis, and (still) an ability to show the paper trail or logical hypothesis to your conclusion. The more information you are willing to share, the better.

Please do not misunderstand, I am in no way criticizing P. I have been there myself. I was excited to hear from P. I see a match, a lead, a possibility…then I lose my logic and reason through excitement. I have reached out to people and provided similarly interesting but out of context information (because I was too excited to think straight.)

I am no expert and am still on the low end of the DNA learning curve. I use DNA as a lead, yes, but I prefer to compare the trees between myself and a DNA match before I reach out. The ability to review a tree before collaboration helps you save time and effort. Review and analysis can help to rule out undesired leads from already established ancestral line. Or it could sort out the leads you are not ready to pursue, and help to determine if a tree’s assertions are supported by logic and evidence (are the relationships plausible?)

So, please, if you do a DNA test – hand down your knowledge by publishing your tree. Include all the dates and places that you know. Identify yourself in the tree, not your details, just your place in the tree. Be prepared to share in order to receive.

Note: After completing this article, I tackled the assessment again and found P and their brother in FTDNA. The brother matched to M’s autosomal results but not to K’s Y-DNA and P didn’t match to either of them. The first match suggests the connection is not likely through the Rhoades male line. The second non-match suggests several possible things. These revelations eliminates one branch, but there are still numerous other branches to examine. Once I found their profiles on FTDNA I was able to recreate their full ancestral tree between the three different and varied trees (the 2 FTDNA accounts and Ps broken up Ancestry.com public tree). I am more confident that the DNA match is not through their Isreal ancestors, but through another branch of their family.

P’s Isreal surname family line indicated by the pink and blue dots. P’s brother is represented as the DNA match at the center. This is the line P thought we matched and shared information on this line only. We had no common surames along this line. As you can see from this chart, the probabilities of connection are greater than one family line. It jumps back and forth between male and female ancestors – something only Autosomal tests will match across. Third-fifth cousin relationships are found at the outer three layers of the fan.
P’s Woods surname family line indicated by the pink and blue dots. P’s brother is represented as the DNA match. I believe this to be the possible DNA connection between us as this was the only line that produced a common surname. Even this DNA connection jumps back and forth between male and female ancestors. I had to recreate P’s tree from several sources to identify this potential connection, though I did not conduct research to independently validate P’s findings..