Research Like a Pro with DNA
How are you using the powerful new tool called DNA to further your genealogy research? Do you look at your matches and have no idea what to do next? What you might need is some order to your genetic genealogy research so you can make progress on your brick walls. Today I’ll show you how the Research Like a Pro process can be adapted to work with DNA.
When DNA was just beginning to be used for genealogy I had the good fortune to be contacted by a group of Royston researchers. They had found the family tree I had posted on Roots Web and wondered how I was related. Using Y-DNA testing through Sorenson Labs, they had begun a Royston surname Y-DNA project.
Wanting to know if I fit in with this group, I found an elderly cousin who agreed to swab his cheek. His results matched 100% with another member of the group and definitely proved that my Royston line belonged to the Gloucester County, Virginians. I had proven this on paper, but the DNA testing confirmed my paper trail.
Years later, I used the Royston research for my four generation accreditation project. Again, I put forth the documentary evidence and backed it up with the Y-DNA results. This time I created source citations, used a research log, and included the information in a formal research report. Unknowingly, I had performed each step of the Research Like a Pro process to come to a final conclusion using both DNA and traditional genealogy research.
You can do the same type of project. Let’s look at the Research Like a Pro process and applications to DNA research. I’ll use my Royston Y-DNA project to illustrate.
All research begins with a question that becomes an objective. What research question do you have that could be answered with DNA? Is there a brick wall ancestor where DNA could help identify parents? Does a suspected line need confirmation? As genealogists, we have many questions in our ancestry and the challenge is to identify one. Once a brick wall ancestor is chosen, form your research objective, using specific names, dates, and places.
Example: The objective of this research project is to confirm John Cary Royston as the father of Thomas Beverly Royston through Y-DNA testing. John Cary Royston was born about 1750 in Virginia and died after 1814 in Georgia. John married Mary “Polly” Baker Cessna 6 January 1803 in Green County, Georgia. Thomas Beverly Royston was born about 1806 in Greene County, Georgia and died 21 September 1867 in Chambers County, Alabama. Thomas married Cynthia Dillard about 1833 in Georgia or Alabama.
Analyze Your Sources
DNA is best used with traditional genealogy research. The more source documents you gather and analyze, the more success you’ll have with proving a connection through DNA. Once you’ve chosen the subject of your research project, put all the sources about the ancestor into a timeline and analyze each one for new clues. Having a clear picture of your ancestor’s records will help you make connections.
Remember DNA is a source as well. Methods of analyzing DNA matches continue to evolve, so you’ll want to keep current with the latest technology. Here are some ideas: Create a spreadsheet of surname matches. View your matches’ trees (if available) for close matches. Sort the matches into genetic networks and map them using a mind mapping tool. Keep in mind that each project may need a different way to analyze the DNA information. I’ll include a list of resources at the end of this post for learning how to analyze DNA results.
My analysis for the Royston Y-DNA project included a thorough revisiting of each document and online source I had found through the years. It also included analyzing the family tree of the other Royston test takers. They shared their research with me and I independently verified the links between generations. Because DNA research involves matching our DNA with that of a cousin, we need to verify their family tree as well. In many instances, we may need to build their family tree for them.
My Royston project involved Y-DNA so I knew that somewhere in the past, I shared a common ancestor with the Royston surname with the other testers. Analyzing our trees, we were able to come to a conclusion about our common ancestor.
Locality & DNA Research
Traditional genealogy research relies heavily on a knowledge of the locality where the ancestor lived. Discovering record collections, boundary changes, and jurisdictions makes all the difference in our research. Creating a locality guide is a very helpful exercise in learning about locality and in creating a reference to guide the research. You’ll want to do this for the traditional research part of the project, but what about DNA?
Creating a personal DNA reference guide would be a fabulous way to gather in one place the information that will help you understand and use DNA as evidence in your genealogy. Because this is a relatively new field, the majority of the information is online and can be scattered among various websites and blogs.
How to start? Invest in a good DNA book or two, watch some webinars, read blog posts. Get a good understanding of DNA then make your own guide. How will this benefit you? Gathering the information will force you to internalize the complicated inheritance patterns. You don’t need to be an expert in chromosome mapping, but you absolutely need a clear understanding of each type of DNA test and how it can be used in your research. I’ll include a few resources at the end of this post to get you started.
When I participated in the Royston Y-DNA project in 2004, there was not as much information available, but I was able to glean the basics of the Y chromosome inheritance pattern from father to son. I learned how it could be used to prove the connection of my Texas Royston family to the Virginia Royston’s. I internalized the concepts through explaining them to my father who had initially visualized exhuming a grave in Virginia. He was relieved to know it was a bit simpler than that!
Now I’m looking forward to creating my own DNA reference guide and putting the information into one document that can guide me in my client projects as well as my own brick walls.
Once you’ve gathered and analyzed your sources and learned about the locality and possibilities for DNA testing, it’s time to make a research plan. What DNA test or tests will be most helpful? What cousins could be tested? You might have decided that a Y-DNA test would be beneficial. Have you determined a direct male line ancestor? Should autosomal testing accompany Y-DNA testing? You may discover that you need to create what is known as a targeted testing plan. In this case, you would locate the known descendants of a suspected ancestor and ask them to test.
Perhaps you discovered additional traditional research you could perform as well. Add that to your research plan. Remember, although powerful, DNA is just one part of our genealogical journey and needs to be backed up with good documentary evidence. While waiting for test results to come back, shore up your hypothesis with additional research in the documents.
My research plan for the Royston project was to identify a male Royston descendant of Thomas Beverly Royston who could test. Through traditional research, I had discovered the connection between Thomas Beverly and Robert Cisney Royston, my great great grandfather. With the help of my father, I contacted one of his Royston cousins, a grandson of Robert Cisney Royston and he became my targeted tester. I was hopeful his Royston DNA would match that of the Virginia Royston’s.
As genealogists, we know that we must cite our sources to give our findings validity. If DNA is a source, then we also need to create source citations for the information generated through the testing websites as well as the family trees of matches. This can seem confusing, but creating a citation with the following elements will help us:
-Who created the source? This could be the author of a report detailing the DNA results or a website.
-What is the source? This could be the title of a DNA results report or the title of the tool or database.
-When was the source created? Include the date the website was accessed or the report created.
-Where is the source? Cite the URL or address of individual the report was prepared for – if publishing keep this private.
-Where within is the source? Since other individuals won’t be able to access the DNA information on a website without a login, specific details about the DNA results should be included such as specific chromosomes matched or kit numbers.
An excellent resource for creating source citations for DNA is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s “Quick Sheet Citing Genetic Sources for History Research Evidence Style.”
When I wrote my four-generation Royston report, I created the following citation:
Donald Robert Royston, “The Results of the 46 Marker DNA Male Y Chromosome Tests,” 24 October 2009 (revised 21 June 2010), report prepared for author [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] privately held by author, 2017.
In my report I also included background information on the Y-DNA test and cited a website and book.
International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, “Y chromosome DNA tests,” (http://isogg.org/wiki/Y_chromosome_DNA_tests: accessed 11 June 2016).
Blaine T. Bettinger and Debbie Parker Wayne, Genetic Genealogy in Practice, (Arlington, Virginia : National Genealogical Society), 23.
A research log is a genealogist’s workhorse. This is where you can track cousin matches, correspondence with possible DNA testers, reports, and more. If you’re working in a spreadsheet on Google Sheets or Excel, you could create multiple pages within the your research log. One could be for Ancestry DNA matches for the surname, another could be GEDMatch results of a one-to-one comparison report. Experiment with tracking your DNA research until you find a system that works well for you.
The section of my four generation report research log with the DNA information.
The important culminating step in your DNA research project is to write up your results. DNA is complicated and it is all too easy to forget the reasoning that went with proving a connection. Writing a proof summary, notes in your genealogy software, or a research report is the best way to make sense of the research. You’ll need to use source citations and be as clear as possible. Using a chart, diagram, or table to explain relationships is very helpful when it comes to DNA reporting.
My four-generation report included the following explanation, using the citations in the examples above.
DNA testing has become an important genealogical tool with the Y chromosome DNA test used to compare a direct paternal line ancestry. Genetic genealogists Blaine Bettinger and Debbie Wayne explain, “Because each man’s Y chromosome is nearly identical to the Y chromosome that his many-great-grandfather possessed, the Y-DNA line can be traced back very far.” Since only males carry the Y chromosome, Dora’s nephew was tested and his Y chromosome DNA matched that of other Royston men proven to have descended from Thomas Royston born 1610, of Virginia. The Y-DNA test results gave additional credence to the research linking the four generations of Royston’s.
If you haven’t yet begun to use DNA in your genealogy, there is no time but the present to get started. Here are some excellent resources that I use regularly. This is by no means a complete list, however, so start your own DNA reference guide and add to it as you find new information. I’ll be doing the same!
Recommended Learning Opportunities
Blaine T. Bettinger, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (Cincinnati, Oh: Family tree Books, 2016): An excellent book with the basics of DNA and how to use to use it.
Blaine T. Bettinger and Debbie Parker Wayne, Genetic Genealogy in Practice (Arlington, Va: National Genealogical Society, 2016): This workbook takes you through each type of DNA test giving you a chance to work out various problems then check your answers.
DNA Central (https://dna-central.com/): A subscription website by Blaine Bettinger bringing together webinars, courses, videos, and more.
The International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) Wiki (https://isogg.org/wiki/Wiki_Welcome_Page): Free webpage chock full of information.
Legacy Family Tree Webinars (https://familytreewebinars.com): With a subscription you can view all the webinars related to DNA.
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