How can genealogists know if they are using DNA evidence correctly to prove conclusions? What is required to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard when incorporating DNA evidence? Since the 2nd Edition of Genealogy Standards was published last year, I have been studying the new standards relating to DNA evidence, Standards 51-57. Then at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) last month, I had the opportunity to learn from Karen Stanbary and her team of experienced instructors on this subject. The course was titled “Meeting Standards Using DNA Evidence — Research Strategies,” with the following description:
This all-new course is designed to deconstruct, and study researcher decisions, strategies, and methodologies employed in the correlation of documentary and genetic evidence to establish proven genealogical conclusions. Examples include case studies suitable for publication, research reports, and proof summaries/arguments useful in a Kinship Determination Project (KPD). The research problems are all long-standing genealogical brick walls that could not be solved without the skillful use of DNA and documentary sources. We will focus on a variety of strategies to meet the newly minted DNA-Related standards and the Genealogical Proof Standard.
This course was exactly what I needed. We studied practical application of the DNA standards to case studies, kinship determinations, and research reports. We discussed the decisions that researchers make when gathering documentary evidence and DNA evidence in order to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Each of the lecturers were Certified Genealogists. We heard from each of them separately, as they discussed challenging cases they are currently working on, or have solved in the past.
We heard from several of them again as a panel, in a session called “The School of Hard Knocks.”
This was a fun session at the end of the week where they shared some of the things they learned along the way as they have incorporated DNA evidence.
The instructors in the course included:
– Karen Stanbary, MA, LCSW, CG
– Catherine B. W. Desmarais, CG
– LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, JD, LLM, CG, CGL
– Melissa A. Johnson, CG
– Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS
– Angela Packer McGhie, CG
– David Ouimette, CG, CGL
– David Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA
– Richard G. Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA
Each presenter used different methods to correlate their DNA evidence with documentary evidence. I enjoyed learning from each of them and hearing their processes and decisions during research.
Research Phases: Documentary First, DNA Second
Tom Jones taught us about his research strategy to do all the documentary research he can first, then move into the next phase where he incorporates DNA evidence. In his presentation about Nathaniel Greenfield, he presented everything he had done in documentary sources to identify the father of Nathaniel. Then, he said, “Now that we’ve done exhaustive research with the documents, gone to courthouse, county historian’s office, etc., and there’s no other documents left, it’s time for autosomal DNA.”
He then went on to explain his targeted testing methodology and identification of descendants. During this discussion, Tom shared an important tip – don’t be afraid to ask people to test. He says the genealogical communication that comes from networking with other genealogists was one of the key ways genealogists made progress in their research before the internet, so why be afraid of it now? He had success identifying published online trees, contacting the owners, and asking them to help identify relatives who they were in touch with who could test.
When presenting another case, Tom Jones said, “The documentary research done first helps makes the DNA research more meaningful.” I learned from Tom Jones that documentary research is key in making sense of DNA results. Karen also surprised us by saying that although she loves DNA, she only uses it to help her find more records, because her true love is the stories of her ancestors. DNA evidence must go hand-in-hand with documentary research!
Catherine Desmarais talked about her research, analysis, correlation of documentary evidence, correlation of DNA evidence, and writing process as “interlocking gears.” She said they are circular and overlapping processes, and that we shouldn’t wait to finish one phase before working on the other phase. Use all the clues as you go. The research informs the writing and the writing informs the research. If you are doing a complex case study, waiting until the end to write will be overwhelming!
Catherine also talked about the importance of using the DNA data we have gathered now, because eventually, as time goes on, we will have to pass our research on to the next generation. If they don’t do anything with it, we will have lost a valuable genealogical information. We need to tackle our family mysteries now while we can!
DNA as a Clue in the Research Process
Melissa Johnson shared a case where she used DNA evidence as a clue to lead her across the Atlantic Ocean to the right town within Poland. She had found several DNA matches from the same town, then searched that town’s records to find a family that matched her family in the United States. We were surprised when she shared that she didn’t use the DNA evidence in her written case study. We discussed the possibility of using DNA just as a clue to help you find more documentary evidence, and not necessarily needing to add length and complexity to a case study by including it in the written conclusion. Some in the class thought it would be helpful for readers to hear how she got to that village, but one of the instructors commented from the back that we don’t need to detail our entire research process in case studies. It was an interesting discussion. It all comes down to decisions – as researchers, we get to decide how we will conduct our research, write our conclusions, and strive to meet standards.
Big Research Projects Require Phases
One of Karen’s lectures was about how she breaks up a big DNA research project into multiple phases, each with its own objective. For example, she shared a research project to identify the mother a friend’s third great-grandfather. Here are the basic phases/objectives she used:
– Confirm the traced ancestral line back to the ancestor with genetic evidence, generation by generation.
– Identify candidates for biological siblings of the ancestor.
– Identify the biological parents of the ancestor and his wife, one at a time.
One of the main points of this lecture was that the tortoise will win the race. These distant cases take time! She also taught us about using the results of visual phasing in order to verify that small segments are valid. This was a huge takeaway for me. I’d like to try doing visual phasing with my father-in-law’s results, since his two brothers have also tested.
Aha Moments and Takeaways
As you can see, I learned a lot. Each day, I started a new Google Doc in my SLIG 2020 folder called “Monday Notes” or “Tuesday Notes.” Karen wanted us to keep track of the “golden nuggets” to compile at the end. I added bold to my notes that were golden nuggets to me. At the end of the week, I had 58 pages of notes. I chose some of my favorite aha moments to share here. I’ve tried to group them into sections.
The Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS) and Standards
The GPS is not a process with steps. It is only for completed research.
Research reports are not usually considered “completed research.” In research reports, you should explain the limitations and when research is insufficient to reach a conclusion. Research reports don’t always have proved conclusions! They are research in progress.
Meeting the GPS neither requires nor ensures perfect certainty.
Genealogy Standards doesn’t tell you HOW to research and write. It’s your decision how to meet each standard. They are more like principles to guide your decision-making.
DNA Evidence and Reasonably Exhaustive Research
DNA evidence is not always relevant or usable. For research questions about relationships, we should usually consider DNA evidence and whether or not it is relevant. For research questions about biological or genetic relationships – DNA evidence is required. For research questions about identity, events, and situations – DNA is not required, but can sometimes be helpful.
Genetic evidence is not a shortcut for reasonably exhaustive research. Throughout the week, presenters shared their documentary research before sharing their DNA evidence, and it was definitely reasonably exhaustive. We talked about a case where a researcher had not done reasonably exhaustive research, and had assumed he had all the children of a couple because of who was listed in the obituary. The child who was not listed in the obituary was the child who was the right candidate for the parent of the person with unknown parentage. We can miss these things if we don’t do reasonably exhaustive research in documentary records.
We should try as hard to disprove our hypothesis as we do to prove it!
Genetic evidence is always indirect evidence if the question is about a specific relationship. DNA is direct evidence that there is a genetic relationship of some kind.
Rule out all the other hypotheses until only one remains!
Standard 50 says we must research until all evidence items are compatible with a single answer to the research question. This means that we should do pedigree evaluations for our matches to be sure we aren’t related to them in more than one way. Karen taught us that we can accommodate for pedigree gaps in our matches’ trees by using logic and reasoning. There is more than one way to meet the standard of evaluating the pedigree for accuracy, depth, and gaps (Standard 52). We can research and fill out their tree more, or try to use logic to eliminate parts of their tree. We can do this with x-DNA inheritance patterns, immigration dates, geographical information, admixture results, etc.
When you build a case with indirect evidence, there may be holes. However if you have done reasonably exhaustive research, there are no other likely scenarios. If you missed something, discovering it later will only add to the picture, not change it.
If you have been worried about incorporating DNA into your portfolio to submit to BCG (Board for Certification of Genealogists), don’t worry! Karen encouraged us, saying, “You can do DNA. Learn the language.” It was a pep talk! We just need to learn the proper interpretation of DNA test results. Just remember that the BCG Application Guide is not the same as Genealogy Standards. Be sure to read the BCG Application Guide and fully understand the differences.
The BCG Application Guide is a little stricter and allows for less interpretation of the standards. For example, the BCG Application Guide requires permission from all testers that you use evidence from, not just anonymizing matches, which is one way people have chosen to meet Standard 57, respect for privacy rights.
However, your portfolio probably won’t fail just because you decide to use some anonymized matches. You may get marked down to “partially meets standards,” but you can still pass without meeting each standard perfectly.
One of the unique aspects of our course was DNA Dreamers. Several volunteers presented their real life “stuck” cases, and class members volunteered ideas for next steps. I volunteered to present my Dyer case about finding the parents of John Robert Dyer (1813-1879). His parentage is unknown, but with autosomal DNA and clustering, I have found some clues leading to a couple with a different surname: Robert Daugherty and Sarah Taylor. Some of the suggestions from the class for next steps included:
– Identify more distant atDNA match clusters
– Research Daugherty candidates to test Y-DNA
– Join the Daugherty Y-DNA surname project
– Research Robert Daugherty and Sarah Taylor in documentary records
– Find the heirs of Robert Daugherty
– Locate additional tax records in Tennessee
– Research land/tax records for land adjoining John Robert Dyer’s land
– Separate atDNA cluster of Daugherty/Taylor DNA matches into more specific buckets
After the brainstorming session, Karen encouraged us to prioritize the research strategies that would be the best next steps. We prioritized Tom Jones’ suggestion to find the heirs of Robert Daugherty, along with joining the Daugherty surname project (because it only takes a couple minutes). I did join the Daugherty surname project with my father-in-law’s results, but found that he does not seem to fit in with any of the Daugherty groups as of yet. His line may be untested. Next, I will work on locating the heirs of Robert Daugherty! After that, I can reevaluate these suggestions and prioritize again what might be a good next step. I’m thinking I’d like to find descendants of Robert Daugherty and Sarah Taylor to test Y-DNA and separate the atDNA cluster of Daugherty/Taylor matches into more specific buckets.
I enjoyed hearing the other volunteers’ DNA Dreamer cases and brainstorming with them. It was a valuable learning experience!
Practice Applying DNA Standards
Genealogy Standards, 2nd ed. – affiliate link to Amazon
Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification Revised 15 May 2019 – BCG Website (This PDF is linked to from the BCG Rubrics page)
Genealogy Standards, 2nd ed. Cross-Reference of 2nd ed. (2019) Standard Numbers to 1st ed. (2014) Standard Numbers – BCG Website (This PDF is linked to from the BCG Rubrics page)
We didn’t evaluate the following case studies in our course, but here are several articles in the NGSQ that utilize DNA evidence. If you don’t subscribe to the NGS quarterly, Elizabeth Shown Mills article below is freely available on her website.
Anderson, Worth Shipley. “John Stanfield “as he is cald in this country”: An Illegitimate Descent in Eastern Tennessee.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 106 (June 2018) 85-101.
Fein, Mara. “A Family for Melville Adolphus Fawcett.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 104 (June 2016): 107–124.
Henningfield, Melinda Daffin. “A Family for Mary (Jones) Hobbs Clark of Carroll County, Arkansas.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (March 2019): 5-30.
Hobbs, Patricia Lee. “DNA Identifies a Father for Rachel, Wife of James Lee of Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 105 (March 2017): 43–56.
Jones, Thomas W. “Too Few Sources to Solve a Family Mystery? Some Greenfields in Central and Western New York.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (June 2015): 85–110.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. “Testing the FAN Principle Against DNA: Zilphy (Watts) Price Cooksey Cooksey of Georgia and Mississippi.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 129–152. Available online at Historic Pathways (https://www.historicpathways.com/) under the ‘articles’ menu item.
Morelli, Jill. “DNA Helps Identify “Molly” (Frisch/Lancour) Morelli’s Father.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 106 (December 2018): 293-306.
Posz, Darcie Hind. “Reexamining the Parentage of Anderson Boon of Lincoln, Marshall, and Obion Counties, Tennessee.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (September 2019): 201-17.
Stanbary, Karen. “Rafael Arriaga, a Mexican Father in Michigan: Autosomal DNA Helps Identify Paternity.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 104 (June 2016): 85–98.
Should You Take This Course?
Yes! I recommend it. It is being offered again at SLIG 2021. Learn more about the course at the SLIG website here: Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. Right now, the course description is still available from 2020. Soon, the website will be updated with the offerings for 2021.
Remember, as Karen taught, you can do DNA! (Thank you Karen!)