Are you like me and overwhelmed by DNA and this new wealth of information for genealogists? If so, I am going through my experience with the Research Like a Pro with DNA e-course to help those looking for a way to get started! This is the second post in the series.
The first step in the RLP with DNA process is discussed in Assess Your DNA Matches and Analyze Your Pedigree. In this step, I found two holes in my husband’s family tree I wanted to approach with DNA: the biological father of his 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Ella (Parker) Sutton, and the biological parents of his 4th great-grandmother, Zilla (Beck) Parker. To fill those holes, I needed to tackle the next step of the Research Like a Pro with DNA process which is to organize your DNA results and create a research objective.
Note: For my e-course project, I am using the autosomal DNA of my mother-in-law, Lesley Kotter. She has permitted me to use her name and DNA in the project and these blog posts. Her matches will be privatized.
Organize Your DNA Results – Make a Diagram
Before starting the RLP DNA e-course, I was keeping track of DNA matches in a google spreadsheet. It was working….. kind of. I felt like I had to re-figure out how each match was related every time I looked at the spreadsheet, and I also kept updating my data entry system, so the result was the entries for no two matches seemed to be the same.
I didn’t completely scratch my google spreadsheet because I had so many notes on it, but after going through the lesson provided in the RLP DNA e-course on organizing your DNA results, I decided it was time to make a diagram. To do this you can use a program like Lucidchart or Diagrams.net depending on your personal preferences. I chose to use Lucidchart to diagram the DNA matches I was working with based mostly on the look and feel of the interface.
As I approached making the chart, I thought specifically of the situation I was looking at with my potential projects:
– 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 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.
Below is part of the diagram for my mother-in-law’s DNA matches. I colored the matches and their connections to my mother-in-law based on which husband of Zilla Beck they came from. I would suggest doing something like a color-coding system for your specific project as it helps to visualize the information. You may also want to include specific details about each match, like the testing website or how many centimorgans (cM) you share with them.
This exercise helped me visualize where all these matches fit into the family tree. Looking at the chart helped me realize the power that DNA could have for my genealogy work. If I could confirm these relationships, here was DNA evidence that the traditional genealogy I had been working on was correct! I very much enjoyed this part of the process and it cleared my mind and got me excited to keep learning!
At this stage of the process, I also started a private tree on Ancestry where I began fitting my DNA matches into a pedigree. I really like this option because it offers the opportunity to look at the Ancestry hints and verify the relationships with documentation while you are figuring out the exact DNA relationship with a match. Make sure you keep this tree private as it contains information about living people. If you are working somewhere besides Ancestry, you can also make a tree like this on MyHeritage or WikiTree or a desktop software program like Legacy Family Tree or Family Tree Maker.
I focused on the matches where I had figured out the most recent common ancestor (MRCA), so mostly those found through Ancestry ThruLines. Charting the matches also helped me realize the vast amount of people I was dealing with. I had been thinking about working on either the Parker family (4 generations away) or the Beck family (5 generations away), but after just charting the Parkers, I was overwhelmed with how many names were on the page! This helped me realize why RLP emphasizes a focused objective because it would have been easy to get very lost at this step charting out the entire family tree.
Note: If you still don’t know what side of the family you want to work with as you chart your matches, I would suggest focusing mainly on your close matches to help you get used to diagramming and to help you visualize which side of the family you may want to do more work on.
Form a Research Objective
As I was finding myself dangerously close to a rabbit hole, it was time to officially decide my research objective for my first DNA project. As I only diagramed the matches that descended from Zilla Beck and her husbands, I thought that I should probably focus on verifying the husband that was Mary Ella Parker’s biological father. This project would use a research subject a generation closer than the other project I was considering and I thought I should probably work with the closest generation and verify that before I try moving past it.
Now it was time to practice writing an official research objective for my first DNA project. Like a traditional project, your research objective should include unique identifiers for your research subject, but it should also include a short discussion of the limitations of DNA. Given that information, I wrote the following objective for my project:
“The objective of this research project is to use DNA and genealogical records to determine the biological father of Mary Ella Parker born on 22 August 1877 in Baldwin County, Alabama. Mary Ella died on 28 December 1950 in Columbus, Muscogee, Georgia. The test taker is 3 generations from the research subject and atDNA will be applicable, however, 3rd-4th cousins may not share very much DNA which could make verifying the exact relationship difficult. The community of the research subject also experienced pedigree collapse, so there may be multiple MRCAs with the test taker. mtDNA is not useful in this case as it is not an unbroken maternal line and Y-DNA is not useful in this case as it is not an unbroken paternal line.”
Now I have a focused and specific objective that can help me from falling down rabbit holes or chasing after shiny objects as I learn to Research Like a Pro with DNA!
Some of the resources that helped me the most with this phase of the project were: