Creating an Objective for a DNA Research Project
Are you wondering how to blend DNA and traditional genealogy research? Have you been thinking you’d like to try a DNA project to solve a brick wall or prove a conclusion in your research?
With my southern U.S. heritage, I have a lot of empty spaces on my pedigree chart. These brick wall ancestors are brick walls for a reason. Records connecting them to parents haven’t been discovered and may not exist. I’ve used indirect evidence to hypothesize parents for these ancestors and with the advent of DNA, I can make even more conclusions. But how to go about it?
I developed the Research Like a Pro process after completing my Accreditation through ICAPGen (The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists). I use the steps every day in my client work and with the current RLP study group, I decided it was time to do a project using DNA.
If you’ve been listening to The Research Like a Pro Genealogy Podcast, or have read our book or blog posts, you know that the first step in the process is to create an objective. Genetic genealogist, Robin Wirthlin, is also participating in our study group and guiding Nicole and me in our DNA research. Her recent post, What Do You Want to Know? 3 Steps to Focus Your DNA Research helped me formulate my research objective.
Assess and Organize your DNA Results
Robin explains that in order to use DNA, you have to first understand your results by assessing and organizing them. How did I do this?
Ever since I did my initial autosomal test on Ancestry, I have been organizing my cousin matches. What used to be a small number has grown astronomically. Now I have my DNA results on each of the major DNA testing websites and I can’t keep up! Thankfully tools are constantly improving to help us organize and assess – tools both on the websites and 3rd party tools.
I’m been using these tools to analyze my DNA matches. I’ve contacted several cousins and have a large pool of matches where I have determined our MRCA (most recent common ancestor). I also have tested my mother, so I can eliminate any matches on the maternal side. That will help to focus on my paternal side with the southern roots.
My mother’s ancestors immigrated in the mid 1800s from England and Denmark and came straight to Utah. In all of my DNA analysis, I’ve only found one instance of a cousin who received DNA from both sides of my family. This will greatly help in narrowing down matches.
Step 1: Examine your family tree and think about which brick wall could be overcome with DNA evidence
Since my southern paternal lines contain the brick walls, I looked over that half of my fan chart. Autosomal DNA can be used to identify and determine family relationships for about 6-8 generations. Four brick wall ancestral couples fell within that range, so I knew I could use any of them for a research project. The following screenshot of my fan chart on FamilySearch shows the 7th generation with four blanks where my ancestors should be!
Step 2: Choose an ancestor or ancestral couple to research using DNA evidence
I settled on a research question that provided the initial impetus to do autosomal DNA testing. Several years ago I was researching my 3rd great grandmother, Rachel Cox. She married Hickman Monroe Shults in 1848 in Navarro County, Texas. I had the marriage record and the couple in the 1850 census. What I didn’t have was any document stating her father. She died before the 1880 census enumeration, so no clues about parent birthplaces. No death certificate was required in Texas at the time so no listing of parent names.
Rachel’s oldest son is my direct line ancestor, William Henderson Shults. He died young, at the age of 36 and his descendants didn’t leave any hints as to his Cox ancestry. Several Cox men were present in Navarro County, Texas, in the 1840’s and I researched each of them. I finally settled on Benjamin Cox as the most likely candidate. I contacted another Cox researcher through online forums and she suggested I take an Autosomal DNA test to see if I matched with her and another proven Benjamin Cox descendant.
I took the test, uploaded to GEDMatch and discovered that we did match on two segments. Unfortunately, the other descendant chose not to upload to GEDMatch so we couldn’t see if we matched on the same segments. I moved on to other research projects, but occasionally thought about revisiting the case of Rachel and Benjamin Cox.
When Ancestry DNA introduced the new tool, Thrulines, I did some exploring and saw that there were multiple descendants of Benjamin and Rachel Cox who supposedly matched my DNA. I decided it was time to put the Research Like a Pro method to the test and use it along with DNA to finally prove or disprove my hypothesis.
Step 3: Write a research objective
A research objective serves to focus your research. It includes key identifiers for the individuals researched and guides the research. In this case, I’ve done a lot of traditional research and will be analyzing the evidence I’ve accumulated as well as the DNA evidence.
The objective of this research project is to prove Benjamin Cox as the father of Rachel Cox through DNA evidence and traditional genealogy research. Benjamin Cox was born about 1791 in Ohio and died between 1870 and 1880 in Bell County, Texas. Rachel Cox was born about 1828 in Indiana and died between 1870 and 1880 in Falls County, Texas. Rachel married Hickman Monroe Shults on 4 July 1848 in Navarro County, Texas.
I’m excited to move forward with this project. I’m not going to hop around in my DNA results anymore, instead I’m going to focus on this objective and see if I can make progress on this brick wall! Stay tuned as I write about each step in my project.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!