in Family history

Genetic Genealogy – A Forest Full of Trees



Trees of all sorts – living, dead, standing, fallen, bushy, skeletal, rambling, well-defined.  What better metaphor could I find?

I have received four emails recently from four completely unconnected people, all of whom have said they are giving up work on their DNA test.  It’s too complicated, it’s too uncertain, it’s all just too ….  big.

I most certainly understand – I’m there too, for a few minutes at least each time I log in and see potential leads which go nowhere.  But a result is possible, and the last thing I want is for my newly discovered cousins to declare themselves defeated just when I am working on my own tree.

DNA testing has now entered mainstream genealogy.  When I first tested with FamilyTree DNA back in March 2014, I was getting a new cousin match every couple of weeks.  Now I’m getting about six new cousin matches every week.  Each week there’s a new hope that I might identify a connection, confirm an ancestor and know from whom I inherited a particular segment of DNA.  I don’t expect to know all my new cousins, but you would think I might get lucky with some!  After all, I have a big tree and I’m trying to be as accurate as I can.   The more tests there are, the more chance of a breakthrough.  But testing alone won’t achieve this.


Image from ‘A Text-Book of Inorganic Chemistry’ by G S Newth,Longmans Green and Co London, 1902 Figure 44 page 209

Genetics is a complicated business.  It really is an exact science but there are so many factors that the exactness seems to be hidden behind a random mess.  Genealogy is very similar, a complicated puzzle which resolves perfectly when that missing detail is finally located. Once the whole story is presented, we wonder why we didn’t see it before.

I’m going to give my tips for working with FamilyTree DNA tests, just in case they help someone.  People are different, maybe what works for my family won’t work for others. But it might.  If it does, the whole thing may seem less daunting.  This might take a few blog posts.


After hours of searching a neglected cemetery, we found enough pieces to obtain a death date and a birth year.  Genetic genealogy can give similarly useful clues.


Why are you testing?  Just to see who is out there? To meet new relatives, break down brick walls, confirm ‘best guesses’ in your tree?  Or are there more specific objectives?  To find an unknown parent or siblings? To confirm that a Y-DNA match shared an ancestor within the last six generations?  To ascertain which of your great grandfather’s two wives was your own great grandmother?

If you are testing for a very specific purpose, you may think you have made this clear to all matches by keeping your profile blank – but you haven’t.  Others will just assume you have not gotten around to adding the details.  It’s best to post a message on the test profile politely stating that the test was undertaken as part of a specific project and not for general genealogical purposes.  Or set the test to profile so it doesn’t drive us all mad with it’s potential to break down our brick wall!




Some events are remembered but not spoken of.

Having the management of ten DNA kits, there has so far been one complicated surprise, two slightly awkward revelations from the 1870s and one from the 1850s.

Some of us know our families well.  We might know, for instance, that a neighbour is rumoured to be the child of our uncle the family black sheep.  If we know this we won’t be very surprised to learn that he fathered another child a year earlier.  This might still be awkward but it won’t change our perception of that uncle of ours. But if the uncle was a loving and devoted husband it might be more difficult to accept.

What if there’s an unexpected sibling?  The past century has seen adoption, war babies, free love, communes, and both sperm and egg donors.   Someone is going to find relatives where they shouldn’t have any.  That someone might be you and it might take diplomacy and great discretion to pave a way through.  Some of those unresponsive DNA tests in our match lists are probably a result which shocked the test taker.

DNA testing will provide the truth with no regard for cherished illusions. I have no idea if there are statistics on this, but the odds are slightly in favour of uncovering secrets. Those of unknown or suspect parentage are very likely to DNA test.

Forewarned is forearmed. Many people find exactly what they expected all along, no rude shocks at all.



We all have our own ways of doing this part.

DNA testing matches us to our cousins but it’s up to us to find the common link.  My first cousins share a grandparent with me, probably two but not necessarily.  My second cousins share a great grandparent.

There is software that does this, but I made myself a table.  Manually constructing the table helped me think it through. This is my mother’s relations and the ancestors are listed from paternal down to maternal.  So to be my mother’s second cousin, you would need to descend from one of the four couples in the second column.

Cousin list

If FtDNA suggests that someone is a 2nd-4th cousin, they ought to have an ancestor who appears in the 4th cousin section at least of my list.

The more unknowns in this list, the less chance of identifying matches.  But the list still helps. Every few months I can update a name in here.



Location is everything.  Here is one branch of my ancestry, one with multiple records and confirmed DNA matches.


I might not have any matches who share an ancestor surnamed Wookey, but I might have several who have ancestors from West Harptree.  If I can’t find any common ancestor this is the next thing to look at.  West Harptree was a little village and after several generations most of the inhabitants were some degree of relation to each other.  This means they all shared DNA.  If a proposed 5th cousin has ancestry in West Harptree, we probably need to look in that location and go back a few more generations.

The same holds true for Fermoy, Cork, Ireland.  The Peards, Gumbletons, Woodleys, Conners and Leahys married into each other’s families for three centuries.  If someone has an ancestor from Fermoy – or more specifically Castlelyons or Mitchelstown – then we have a 75% chance of a match there, maybe higher.  Finding it may take us back more generations than expected because of the many cousin marriages, but it’s probably there.

It helps enormously to put the location on FtDNA with the test kit.  Names are good but locations are – as I said – EVERYTHING.  ‘Unknown’ from East Harptree finds a DNA match much faster than ‘Samuel Wookey’ from nowhere specific.


Genealogical research for most of us in ongoing.  We learn new facts all the time, we learn new name spellings, find more children, realise we took a wife’s name from an incorrect source, discover that the eldest son was born before the parents could possibly have met.  This is the way of research and not a problem.   As a result, people might have their trees wrong.  We might, our matches might.  That information just might get corrected as more records are digitized or the tree owner finally gets to make that trip to the ancestral home.  We might convince a cousin to test with spectacular results, or we might just have to sit for a year or two as remote matches trickle into our match list, waiting for the one. It’s a bit like the old idea of marriage, going through life trying to make oneself perfect so when we meet the one, we will be properly attractive to them.

What we do here is very similar, but the one is now that person with the right DNA who also holds the family bible/oral history/photo album that can confirm a connection which has eluded everyone else.  We all know they are out there – it keeps us going.  When their test shows up in our match list we’ll have that Eureka moment.

Maybe that person exists, maybe they don’t.  All we can do is work on our own trees and provide enough information to assist but not obfuscate.

We can do it!

ORderly trees

A nicely defined row of trees at Osterley Sept 2015

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  1. Yes I did the FTDNA test too – and at least we turned out to have the DNA corresponding to our surname though it hasn’t really helped pinpoint my ancestors in Ireland – only the hard slog of research is doing that. You’re right. Genealogy research is a risky business! They only told you the things about the family that they wanted you to know. Research is more likely to uncover the things our ancestors tried to hide 🙂

  2. The good thing is, most of those ‘secrets’ aren’t so shocking after all to the modern world. But some of them can make a huge difference to our family trees 🙂 .