DNA testing tips: getting the most out of your genetic genealogy

photograph of tree in early spring

DNA Day is here and many have been snapping up DNA test kits on sale this week at FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.

Most probably test because they want to learn what the test will tell about their ethnic makeup. But for serious genealogists and family historians, testing opens the doors to exciting yet often bewildering territory.

Here are my top three tips for getting the most out of testing your autosomal DNA:

  • Tip 1  Once your results are in, upload your raw data to Gedmatch.
    Gedmatch is a site that provides free DNA analysis tools and allows one
    to match with others across four major testing companies.
  • Tip 2  Test others in your family, starting with the oldest members.
  • Tip 3 Make concrete goals rather than end goals for exploring your genetic genealogy.

When I first took the DNA plunge and entered the confusing new realm of genetic genealogical research, I felt a bit had.

But I’ve learned a lot over the past year. And I’m beginning to reap something of value from a bit of swabbed saliva and inner cheek tissue.

I quickly realized that in order to reap more reward from my foray into genetic genealogy, I needed to do two things:  revise my goals and test others in my family.

My original goals consisted of vague hopes to connect with matches in the second to third cousin range on my Jewish and Irish lines. However, I soon discovered that endogamy makes this a Herculean task.

Instead, I decided to focus my efforts on my one of my nearest brick wall ancestors. By doing this I not only had a concrete goal, but was also able to formulate a genetic genealogy plan o’ action.

My brick wall ancestor, Sarah E. Brown, is my third great-grandmother on my paternal grandmother’s branch of my family tree, through her mother’s side. Her maiden name is unknown, as are her origins. As many researchers well know, locating 19th century records in central Pennsylvania is often impossible. For Sarah, the paper trail has been cold for two decades.

So, I am turning to DNA testing in hopes of locating other descendants of her family line.

Experts strongly recommend testing the oldest generation of one’s family for good reason. We inherit exactly half our autosomal DNA from each parent, but each successive generation passes on just half of that half.  Simply put, the oldest generation carries significantly more of one’s ancestors’ DNA. (For a more in-depth explanation, please read Roberta Estes’ excellent article on the subject.)

Unfortunately, my Dad and Grandmom died years ago. This meant I needed to find other older family members who would be willing to test.

Right away, I was able to recruit my Aunt Lisa (my Dad’s only sibling and the oldest living member of his side of the family).  That helped me figure out better which matches came from my paternal line.

A few months later, my Grandmom’s first cousin through her maternal side, Shirley, also agreed to test. Her DNA test has proved to be of enormous value.

Testing two other family members has enabled me to triangulate the matches we have in common. In a short time, this has led to a few connections with more distant (second and third) cousins that have been further verified through good old-fashioned paper trail genealogical research. It also led to one heck of a discovery.

Through those matches, I am slowly figuring out which triangulated segments relate to particular branches of our family.

My great-grandmother, Lulu (née Reuter) Bender, just happened to be the eldest daughter in a tight-knit family of 14 children. I am very fortunate that some of my Grandmom’s youngest cousins are still living.

This week, two more of her maternal first cousins – Patti and Lowell – have decided to test.

We all share some DNA passed down from my grandmother’s maternal grandparents: her grandfather was of 100 percent German ancestry from mid-19th century Catholic immigrants. Her grandmother was half Pennsylvania-Dutch (so again, German… only Protestant and dating back to colonial America).

The other half is the mystery we are all trying to solve.

Initially, I thought Patti’s mother was of 100 percent Italian ancestry and got excited thinking that if she tested and had any matches that were not of German or Italian ancestry, then it would be easy to identify which matches connect to our brick wall ancestor.

However, her mother turned out to be half Irish descent… so it turns out each cousin’s non-Reuter parent and my own great-grandfather all have British Isles ancestry.

Identifying matches descended from our shared mystery ancestor will be more challenging than I hoped. But through triangulating all three cousins, plus my aunt and myself AND then seeing if those matches triangulate (or not) with the verified distant cousins on the Pennsylvania-Dutch and German branches – maybe we can figure out the probable connections to Sarah.

Because even if she is of British ancestry, as I suspect, my thinking is that it is unlikely that any of us will share matches in the second to fifth cousin range who are of British Isles descent (unless endogamy again comes into play, which I suppose is possible).

What might prove quite useful is a comparison of X chromosome matches. Since Lowell is male, he only inherited an X chromosome from his mother, who was my great-grandmother’s youngest sister. Being female, Patti will have inherited her X chromosomes from both parents. However, Patti ‘s father was my great-grandmother’s brother – so if her X chromosome matches triangulate with Lowell’s (and the rest of us), those matches will assuredly be from our Brown line as her father would have only inherited the X chromosome from his mother.

I can hardly wait for the test results to come in…

Secret scandal: truth hidden for generations exposed with DNA testing

photograph of snow-covered budding tree branches

Just wanted to share a recent stunning DNA test revelation.

First, I think it is important to note that this happened ONLY because both myself and my newly discovered cousin (Rick) uploaded our DNA test data (and those of the accounts we manage) to Gedmatch, a free DNA testing tools website that allows users to compare DNA results from four major DNA testing companies.

Rick and his father had tested through Ancestry and I had tested through FamilyTreeDNA (as did my aunt and my Grandmom’s first cousin) – without Gedmatch, we would not have learned what turned out to be a major revelation.

Rick’s father (Joseph) matched my Grandmom’s first cousin (Shirley) as a solid third cousin, and Rick matched as fourth cousin. My aunt and I also matched them and on the same chromosome segments, but one to two generations further back. So it was clear we are definitely related. And since the strongest match was through Cousin Shirley, it was clear that we connected through my Grandmom’s maternal line (half Pennsylvania Dutch dating back to colonial times, half recent German Catholic immigrants)

I figured it was a match on my Grandmom’s PA-Dutch line (Brown), but Rick noted that his father’s entire family were recent German immigrants and Catholic. This meant it was my Grandmom’s Reuter line.

Rick and I exchanged family trees.  We both had traced our lineage back enough to be able to find a common ancestor, but could not find anything.

Surnames did not match, nor did the regions in Germany from where our ancestors came.

But – and this is the second most important thing to note – I had shared a link to my ancestors on WikiTree. And it was in the biography I had written for my third great-grandfather where Rick found a vital clue to our connection.

He noted that my third great-grandfather, Peter Reuter, was enumerated with his third great-grandparents, Philip and Rosa Kemper in 1870.

Turns out, that Philip Kemper (who owned a bar) was enumerated not just once, but three times in 1870 – in June, July and November – Peter Reuter (a bartender) lived with him in June and July but was gone by November.

Furthermore, Philip Kemper was more than 30 years older than his bride, Rosa who just happened to be Peter’s age.

I think you might guess where this is heading…

Philip and Rosa were married a total of eight years before her early death and only ever had one child – a daughter, born 10 months after Peter Reuter was enumerated with the Kemper family.

So, it appears my ancestor likely had an affair with a married woman in his early 20s as a newly arrived immigrant.

Never thought DNA testing would unlock such a long-ago secret…

I find this discovery to be amazing not just because a clandestine relationship was finally exposed, but because the connection involved half-siblings.

Cousin Shirley is actually a half-second cousin to Joseph. Because they descend from half-siblings they match as third cousins.

My newly discovered cousin, Rick and I initially doubted anyone other than perhaps his third great-grandmother, Rosa (Kopponberg) Kemper knew that Peter Reuter was the biological father of her child.

Although… he was gone from the household soon after the conception, so who really knows for sure what went down and who knew what.

When Rick finally presented our findings to his father, however, Joseph shared that he had heard Peter’s name before. So there’s that.

As for Rick and his father, they have identified the correct biological family for their ancestor. And bonus: I have traced and sourced this family line and all its branches back into the 1600s for the past two decades, so they have all that info too.

There are warnings to heed when deciding to undergo DNA testing for genealogical purposes. Testing companies warn not to test unless prepared to accept potential unexpected outcomes that could shatter what you thought you knew to be true about your own family.

Obviously, these warnings are meant for surprise revelations concerning immediate relatives… finding out you have a half-sibling, thus learning of a parent’s infidelity, for example.  Or discovering a new cousin whose parent was the child your grandmother put up for adoption, as another such example.

These are tough truths for some to digest and can wreck havoc in certain families.

But what about generations further back?

This finding probably would have been devastating for all parties involved if it had come to light back then.  Today, it’s just a fascinatingly juicy detail that reveals more about a distant ancestor’s life.

COPYRIGHT (C) 2017 BY JANA SHEA. ALL MATERIALS PROTECTED UNDER THE LAWS OF COPYRIGHT. DO NOT COPY OR REPRODUCE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.

What I learned from my autosomal DNA test


imageMy autosomal DNA test results are in.

Some scraping of my inner cheek promised to give insight on my ethnic background and a chance to find folks somehow related to me.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises or revelations about my ethnic makeup. I’ve long known it’s roughly divided in quarters: Irish, Jewish, German and British. Genealogy has helped me figure just how for the latter two quarters.

The 50 percent I inherited from my grandfathers is easy enough to determine.

My maternal grandfather was an immigrant Jew, born in what was then Russia’s Pale Settlement (now Belarus).

My paternal grandfather was 100 percent Irish-American, his father’s parents having immigrated from County Kerry, Ireland and his mother’s parents immigrants from Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone.

I also have about a quarter each German and British ancestry from my grandmothers. But because they both have lines that date back to Colonial America as well recent immigrant ancestors, plus a few mysteries thrown in the mix, figuring out the distribution entailed much more research.

So, I was quite surprised to see my admixture results from FamilyTreeDNA reporting my ethnic makeup as follows:  67 percent European (45 percent British Isles and 22 percent Scandinavian), 31 percent Ashkenazi Diaspora and 3 percent Middle Eastern.

I was puzzled the most by the extra Jewish ancestry… I mean, shouldn’t I have only inherited a quarter of my DNA from my maternal Grandpa?  Was there an extra Jew (or line of Jews) way back in the family tree?

And where the heck were my German ancestors, whose lines I have had the most success in tracing back along the paper trail?

For nearly weeks now I’ve tried to learn more about this testing I had submitted to on a whim and discovered things I wish I had a better understanding of before I took the plunge into this new frontier of genealogical inquiry. It’s been an expensive lesson in buyer beware.

A few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Admixure results are only speculative. This I was actually pretty well aware of, but still found somewhat surprising in just how so.
  • While we absolutely inherit 50 percent of our DNA from each parent and should receive roughly 25 percent from each grandparent, things don’t always divide so evenly with each subsequent generation beyond our parents. Furthermore, one’s chromosomes don’t always inherit so equally, even in the most immediate (parent-child) relationship.
  • Endogamy will completely mess with your match results. Of this, too, I was already vaguely aware, but not at all prepared for just how skewed matches become with even just a fraction of ancestry from an endogamous population.

So even though I inherited none of my Grandpa’s swarthy looks (alas!), I apparently received quite a bit of his DNA when recombination occurred. To clarify, it seems I received chunks of unrecombined chromosomes (more on that below).

And as for my German ancestors, I was prepared to see something like 20-odd percent “Continental European” or similar broadly defined Western European group, but in the end those Scandinavian results and perhaps even some in the British Isles category could easily represent those lines thanks to migration.

Now, going into this misadventure I fully anticipated having to do a bit of work in order to figure out how I relate to any matches. I was also aware that trying to bust brick walls five generations back would be a difficult task, perhaps even impossible for those mystery ancestors much further back on my family tree.

But here’s the thing… though I have quite a number of matches within a second to fourth cousin (not close, but less-distant) range, none of them appear to be truly in that range thanks to endogamy. And that leaves me only with matches of fifth to (much more common) distant cousin range – almost all of whom appear to relate through our shared Jewish ancestry.

One of the hopes I had for atDNA testing was to match with less-distant (second to third) cousins who are related to me through my Jewish and Irish lines, as they are the branches of my family tree for which I have the least information. Some of the reason for that is just the difficult nature of Jewish and Irish genealogical research, due to lack of records.

But some of it is because both of my grandfathers left the tight-knit ethnic and religious fold of their families in order to both marry who they loved and broaden their horizons. That meant relatives, traditions and (most) stories were lost within one generation.

I’ve successfully gone back to my great-great grandparents on those sides of my pedigree, so I figured I had a decent shot at making the right ancestral connections between matching cousins. I really, really hoped to match with a second (or third) cousin who was better connected, whose immediate family had remained in the fold.

There are some intriguing longer segment matches between me and quite a number of folks who also have Ashkenazi ancestry, but its mostly on only one or two chromosomes which indicates the relationship is much further back than FTDNA predicts and what can be proven by the few (oh, so few) who have uploaded their GEDCOM family tree.

Because of FTDNA founder Bennett Greenspan’s interest in creating a census of the Jewish people and call to action through the Avotaynu project, it’s little wonder why the vast majority of my less-distant cousin FTDNA matches are Jews.

I don’t see this as necessarily a problem…  I think it’s great that Greenspan is getting the word out about the importance of testing the eldest generation while they are still here. And hopefully, the more folks get on board then the greater chance I have to someday make a connection. This applies to every genealogical DNA testing company.

I imagine it’s kind of like early home pregnancy tests. My Mom enjoys telling me how she tested twice when newly pregnant and twice got a negative result. Then one day she found herself at the GYN’s office for what she thought was a simple yeast infection and surprise, surprise… she was already a few months along with me. So maybe as the technology and public interest progress, the results will improve?

Still, a part of me wonders if I would’ve had more matches through my non-Jewish family lines had I gone with Ancestry or even 23andMe.

To remedy that, I uploaded my raw results to Gedmatch. I honestly don’t know why more folks don’t do so – it’s free. Yet, I constantly see recommendations to test with all three top genealogical DNA testing companies rather than choosing just one, then sharing and connecting through Gedmatch.

I went with FamilyTreeDNA because their terms of service and privacy policy are the best and the company is top ranked among serious genealogists – ones who have a fully documented/sourced family trees, which is a necessity if you’re going to make use of your DNA matches. Unlike Ancestry (whose TOS are frightening), there is no subscription required. But the drawback is FTDNA has the smallest database of the three top genealogical DNA testing companies.

In hindsight, I wish I had understood a little more about how extremely unlikely it would be to have matches that could be substantiated by an existing paper (or digital) trail.

So, some part of me feels seriously let down, perhaps even a bit duped, by the growing geneatology trend.

One has to remember that, while there may be a sincere passion for genealogy (which I do not doubt), Greenspan, and even Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are in the genetic testing biz… so, they’re making money off us with every cheek swab (or vial o’ spit). This part of me feels so damned disappointed that I just want to shake it all off as expensive lesson learned and only stick with the traditional genealogy tools.

But another part is doggedly determined to get somewhere, make some good use of this potential tool, holding out hope that somehow, someday closer matches that can actually be proven will be made – even though that diminishes as older generations die off. I mean, had autosomal testing been around when my grandparents were still alive how different might the results and this post have been?

It’s weird to think that my Mom, uncle and aunt are the oldest living generation for my family now – even crazier to realize that my younger brother is now the oldest male in our paternal line. In my fantasies, I would love to be able to somehow convince several distant cousins to test (the remaining few of my grandparent’s generation, some whom I only know of via research and have never contacted), as if that’s the key to success. But honestly, chances for matches with others that could lead to significant break-throughs would still be so slim it hardly justifies the cost.

Was the experience worth it? If it had been $50 or less, I’d say perhaps it was worth the wager on poor odds for a momentary thrill. But at the $89 price (or higher, depending on testing company), my answer is no.

I hope others have had more fruitful outcomes with their own testing. And, yes, I still do hope that one day that I may change my mind and consider this a wise expenditure.