An interesting thing has happened over the last year or so, ancestry DNA testing has become a replacement for genealogical research in many people’s minds. Once a valuable add-on for hard core family history researchers, genetic testing has now become the go-to method for satisfying one’s curiosity about their heritage. Ask anyone what they think about family history these days and they will tell you about the DNA test they took – or plan to take.
And this, in some ways, is a good thing. Genetic testing has made family history a topic of interest to more people than ever before. But it can also be deceptive. While modern ancestry tests do share fascinating information about a person’s heritage, the results are only truly valuable, or accurate, within the context of family history research.
40% Scandinavian, 33% East European, 17% South Asian, 10% Sephardi Jew… interesting, yes, but what do these numbers really tell you? Are they even correct? Often, after the wow factor has worn off, testers are left wondering “What did I really learn?” and they have more questions than answers.
We recently published an article titled “Why You Might be Reading Your DNA Results All Wrong” to address this issue, and to highlight the confusion many people face when they first get their results back. We encourage you to read that article for a full explanation of how ethnicity estimates are created and how to best interpret them if you’ve taken a test and have questions about your results.
But even more importantly, if you have taken a DNA test, you should also take time to explore your family history to really get some value from your results.
Of course, there are those who do not have that option – such as those that were adopted – or for those who have one parent they never knew. For the many is this situation, DNA testing may be the only reasonable first step in uncovering their biological past.
But for those of you who do have some information about your family, or have people to get in touch with, you can start quite simply with conversations with family members, by building a tree, and exploring historical records. And it is in this way that you will begin to form an authentic view of your family’s past and really make sense of those percentages.
DNA testing cannot act as a shortcut to your family’s history – but it can help you begin an investigation that will help you truly understand where you come from.
Here is a simple plan for how to begin exploring your family’s past while putting your DNA test to good use.
1. Start contacting family members with questions.
Use the results of your DNA test (or your desire to take one) as an opening to get people sharing their memories. Ask about their lives, their childhoods, their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Request digital copies of old photos and documents and record everything. Your family is your absolute best source of genealogical information – and you might be surprised by what they know and have never shared.
2. Once you have somewhere to start, get a family tree going.
You do not have to be a genealogy fanatic to build out a story of your family’s past. Just begin by entering the information you have gathered into a family tree program and then go from there. We suggest RootsFinder as a great, free tree – or Ancestry.com or MyHeritage if you plan to explore records and don’t mind paying a monthly subscription price (trees are free, records are not). You can view additional tree options and comparisons in this guide. Once you’ve picked one, carefully enter everything you know (and plan to try to prove it with records next).
3. Now that you have a tree, and have entered the information your family shared with you, you can start exploring records.
You’ll want to start by verifying the information you gathered from your family since many details may be wrong or off in some way. Use the census, as well as birth, marriage and death records to get a fast start.
As mentioned, places like MyHeritage and Ancestry offer billions of records for a monthly price – or you can focus on only free records. For a list of places to find those look here.
For some help finding records to use explore the “hints” provided by family tree programs. For a list of trees that provide record hints when you add names see this article. Hints are perfect for beginners, but do make sure you are sure they match your ancestor before adding them to your tree. More hints are a bad match than a good one.
As you explore records you will begin to build out a tree more quickly than you probably thought possible. Always be extra cautious to have a solid, accurate source for every single fact in (especially those connecting generations) so that you don’t end up with an inaccurate tree.
Skip those people that prove extremely difficult at first (you can tackle them later) and just focus on adding ancestors that are easy to trace. Stop on each person long enough to add as many details as you can, and don’t forget to add siblings/aunts/uncles as well. Don’t make the direct-line mistake on your tree or your research will be stunted down the road.
4. Your DNA account should be your next stop after building out a family tree – but overlook the ethnicity report for now.
Instead head over to take a look at your matches. Just about every DNA test offers this and, if yours doesn’t, you can upload your raw DNA file to GEDmatch.
Once you have a list of people you match take the time to view the closest relatives and start trying to figure out how you are related. If you are using Ancestry or MyHeritage DNA and have a tree with them as well (see how to do that with MyHeritage here) you will find some great tools for helping to connect these matches with your family history research.
Connecting with your genetic cousins is one of the best ways to begin further exploration into your family’s past and to verify what you already know. Many people are willing to share their research, just remember to never copy another person’s family tree – just use it as a tool in your own research.
Once you have explored your matches in one system you might be tempted to see what you can find in others. Luckily there are many well-respected places to upload you DNA to that can help, some for free. Start with MyHeritage and GEDmatch and then read this article for more ideas. You will discover more matches and get additional ethnicity reports – as well as a broader view of your genetic past.
5. After you have connected with genetic cousins and built out some of your family tree you are ready to look again at the percentages in your ethnicity report.
Read this article first to better understand how these percentages are decided upon (and what to be careful of) and then begin to try to really make sense of your reports. Are you seeing some correlation between these numbers and what you are learning in your tree? Why or why not? Are their amounts that are confusing? Why? Can you do more paper research to try to understand them?
Read up on each population you match to truly understand it, and frequent genetic testing boards like this one from FTDNA for help understanding how different populations look on paper and to be aware of anomalies in genetic reporting. As you do this the percentages in your report will start to come alive and make sense. And if they do not, you will have more power to make sense of the information and discover why.
6. There are many additional advanced genetic analysis tools that you can use to explore your family’s past.
GEDmatch offers quite a few of these for free, as does FTDNA when you upload your raw DNA file (this article explains how). You will need to take the time to understand these tools in more depth to properly use them, but the effort will be well worth it. The most important thing is not to give up. You will face road blocks and challenges, but perseverance is the only path to an honest understanding of your family’s past.
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By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor