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…

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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.