Allison Kotter is sharing her experience with the Research Like a Pro with DNA online course. Here’s her first post! – Nicole
After doing traditional genealogy work as a hobby for years, I began learning the Research Like a Pro process to elevate my work to the professional level. As I started listening to the podcast, I noticed that research with DNA was mentioned a lot!
Like a lot of you, I found the whole idea of using DNA to do my genealogy work very overwhelming, because I had no idea how to even start with it. So, when I heard about the Research Like a Pro with DNA e-course, I thought it was a great way for me to learn how to use this new and useful tool!
Analyze Your Pedigree
Before starting the project with DNA, you want to look at your tree and decide what questions in your tree you could answer with DNA. Autosomal DNA has been found to help verify family relationships up to 6-8 generations back. Most of us have plenty of holes that far back, so almost each of us can find a subject for our project.
For my first project with DNA, I wanted to work with some of the families I am more familiar with in my tree and specifically focus on verifying relationships. I was a little more interested in learning the steps than making a major breakthrough with my first try. The e-course encourages you to write about 2-3 different brick walls you could overcome using DNA in your reflection journal for the course.
I came up with the following options based on my husband’s family tree:
- My husband’s 3rd great-grandmother is named Mary Ella (Parker) Sutton. I have been doing a lot of research on Mary since she is one of the subjects of my four-generation Level 1 report for accreditation through ICAPGen (The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists). Traditional genealogical research has lead me to believe that her parents are William Edward Parker and Zilla Beck, but after talking to some cousins, they have it noted that she is the daughter of Zilla Beck and Zilla’s first husband, Mr. Barnes. I thought I could use DNA to find the truth about Mary’s biological father.
- Zilla Beck, my husband’s 4th great-grandmother, is found to be the daughter of Jesse Beck and Sarah Woodcock, but an intriguing record found in Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Alabama showed Zilla listed with her siblings where their surnames changed from Lewis to Beck. This made me think that perhaps Zilla and her siblings were adopted by the Beck family? I thought perhaps DNA could help me determine whether or not Zilla is a biological Beck.
I thought these subjects were exciting challenges to overcome and decided to only list two options for the subject of this project.
Assess Close DNA Matches
The first step to starting a project with DNA is actually quite simple: just start looking at your DNA matches! When you log on to the website you tested with, you should find a list of DNA matches all with a different amount of shared DNA listed.
For my project for the e-course, I am using the autosomal DNA of my mother-in-law, Lesley Kotter, on Ancestry.com. She has permitted me to use her name and DNA in the project and these blog posts. Her matches will be privatized.
It is suggested to start by assessing your closest DNA matches, as they have the most DNA shared with you, and your most recent common ancestor (MRCA) should be only a few generations back.
First, I went through the close matches and looked at any names I recognized and could identify right away. There were only a few of these matches (e.g., my husband’s grandpa and great-aunt), but I noted them and which side of the family they were on in order to start organizing my matches, as the e-course suggests.
Then, I went to Ancestry ThruLines and started to see which matches ThruLines had auto-organized as descendants of the ancestors I was focusing on for my project
(I looked at both the Parker descendants and the Beck descendants). If you don’t know who you want to focus your project on at this stage of the project, you can just explore ThruLines (or your website’s equivalent) to get more familiar with the website and the DNA matches.
The way ThruLines works is it compares your family tree on Ancestry, and the family tree of your DNA matches, and finds common names to hypothesize relationships between you, the match, and the ancestor. As it is based on authored sources, such as other member’s compiled family trees, remember it can be incorrect and should not be taken as fact, but instead as a hint.
For William Edward Parker and Zilla Beck, 12 matches had been connected to that couple through Ancestry ThruLines, and for Jesse Beck and Sarah Woodcock, who are one more generation back, 84 matches had been connected to that couple. I viewed the hypothesized relationships with the DNA matches, made notes on their match page on Ancestry, and entered them in my Airtable chart for the project.
Cluster Your Matches
The next step in the process is to cluster your matches in order to group the names that probably have the same common ancestor. For this, I primarily used the Leeds Method and the colored dot system on Ancestry to get started with my clustering.
For the Leeds Method, my results showed up with five groups instead of the expected four: groups.
After looking through the matches family trees in these different groups, I found that four of the groups showed my mother-in-law’s four great-grandparents: the Suttons, Stones, Deeses, and Engers, and the fifth group was one of her great-great-grandparents: the Spences. According to Dana Leed’s website, this is most likely due to pedigree collapse in my mother-in-law’s tree where cousins are marrying cousins.
As I started the colored dot system, each ancestor couple was assigned a different color (William Edward Parker & Zilla Beck – orange, Jesse Beck & Sarah Woodcock – yellow, etc.). I went through the matches I found on ThruLines and the ones I had figured out through the Leeds Method and assigned them the correct color dot. I then looked at the shared matches between my mother-in-law and any match that had a colored dot for the Parker or Beck family. I logged all of these shared matches in my Airtable base. I probably went overboard with this, and if I were to go back, I would focus primarily on the matches that had trees on their profile, as many had almost no information for me to go off of.
As I was looking through the shared matches, with the colored dots next to names, I found that I knew which matches I had already discovered the MRCA with, and which ones I needed to do more work with. There were also quite a few matches with the Parker and Beck lines that also shared matches with people from the Deese line. This told me that the pedigree collapse was probably happening specifically with the Deese line and that I needed to watch that while analyzing these matches. I tried to note which cousins also had Deese relationships in my Airtable base.
I also had put my mother-in-law’s DNA on FamilyTree DNA, MyHeritage, and Gedmatch. I was less comfortable with these website’s interfaces, but I found some matches that I had identified on Ancestry who were also on the other websites. I would find a name I recognized from my work with the Ancestry matches and then I looked at their shared matches with me to find which matches I was interested in from the other websites. All of this was logged in my Airtable base.
Overall, after clustering my matches, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on which DNA matches I wanted to work with for this project.
Begin Correspondence Log
The last part of getting started with your DNA project is to reach out to the DNA matches you’re interested in to see if you can work together to figure out your MRCA! A lot of my messages were not responded to, but the responses I got were very exciting!
I found other cousins that were interested in the family lines and my research, which I was very eager to share. One cousin explained why our side of the family didn’t really inherit much in the forms of pictures and memorabilia (“Grandma Sutton lived with Aunt Verlia down south and we didn’t see her much”).
I found some cousins that did not have great relationships with that side of the family in later generations and were thrilled to learn some more about a side of themselves they had never met. I also found some that had great stories and rumors of the family that I want to do a future research project on (Are we related to Bonnie Parker from the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde?).
One of my favorite connections was with a cousin where we were trying to find out our MRCA and he knew a lot about 3 of his great-grandparents, but he didn’t know much about the last one. He sent me what he did know was, “My father’s mother’s maiden name was either Beck or Hitt. I do not know where she was born; I do know that she had ancestors in Florida. She had a relative in Center whose surname was ‘Dockings’.” I was so excited when he sent that because I knew one of the Beck sisters had moved to Center, Texas from Florida and married a Dockens! Through work together, we were able to confirm that was our common ancestor!
It’s been a few months since I sent out my initial string of messages, but I am still periodically getting replies and I have luckily had a very positive interaction with these new cousins!
Overall, after starting my DNA project, I realized that it was not as scary as I initially thought it would be. These first few steps of organizing my matches helped me learn how the websites worked and also made me a lot more comfortable with terms like “centimorgans” and “MRCA”. I’m excited to finish the e-course and find myself that much closer to Researching Like a Pro with DNA!
Some of the resources that helped me the most with this phase of the project were: