UPDATE 12/30/17: I’m now sold on AncestryDNA for autosomal DNA tests. Feel free to read the post below, but you may want to consider testing with AncestryDNA if you haven’t already. It’s much easier to work with the results. Learn more here.
If you took advantage of FamilyTreeDNA’s reduced pricing for their FamilyFinder test and waited with anticipation for your results, you might’ve felt at a loss for how to make the best use of those results since they arrived.
If you’re not yet a participant in FamilyFinder at FamilyTreeDNA.com, then you really should consider paying the $99 and getting tested.
The FamilyFinder (FF) test can be an incredible tool for breaking through those brick walls in your genealogical research. You have the ability to search through your matches by their own surname, or their ancestral surnames. You’re also given a likely range of how distant of a cousin someone is, such as “2nd to 4th,” “3 to 5th,” or “5th to remote.”
In addition, there is a tool called the Chromosome Browser in which you can pull in matches that you suspect you share on a particular branch of your tree, and see where there may be shared markers.
And in a really exciting development for genetic genealogists, in January 2014, DNAGedcom.com released its Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer (ADSA), developed by Don Worth. Although the name sounds long and scientific, don’t let it intimidate you. What the ADSA does is simply brilliant, providing an easy, very visual way, of looking at all of your FamilyFinder matches in one fell swoop and identifying blocks of shared DNA through color coding, helping you to take parsing your FamilyFinder results to a whole new level.
If you’d rather not upload your results to a third-party site, I hear that FTDNA will be offering some new tools in the coming months for sorting your FF matches similar to the ADSA.
Get lots of relatives tested
To really make the most of the FamilyFinder test, you need other relatives to test, ideally parents, grandparents, and known cousins.
There are adoptees using FF to try to learn about their genetic family history, and information certainly can be gleaned from even just that one person having an autosomal test done without having any other known biological relatives test. The adoptee will get far more information with even their first batch of test results than they would have ever known, short of having open adoption records.
That said, however, at $99/test, it’s worth it to get as many close relatives tested as possible so that you can compare matches between relatives to isolate where an individual might be matching you. Is it on your mother’s side? Or is it on your father’s side? Are you able to further narrow it down to whether someone is a match to your mother’s mother, or her father?
In my family’s case, I have tests for myself, my mother, my father, both of my maternal grandparents (my paternal grandparents are deceased, unfortunately), and two cousins from my Morris (Ledbetter) side of the family. An uncle by marriage on my dad’s side of the family has also tested, and although I know we share a common ancestor on the Witherington line, it’s quite far back and so he doesn’t show up as a match for me. I also have a second cousin on my dad’s side of the family whose tested, but I’m hoping to get more of my Whitford cousins to test. (If any of you are reading this, HINT, HINT!)
It really can make a difference in breaking through brick walls, or perhaps in making connections that might otherwise never be made on paper by having the right people test. The way DNA recombines from one generation to the next means that even siblings can have different FamilyFinder matches.
Search by Ancestral Surnames
When you’re in your FamilyFinder matches, I’ve found one of the most useful tools for me is to search by Ancestral Surnames. In so doing, your results will quickly be parsed for individuals who’ve listed their surnames with their kit and have the surname that you seek.
For example, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Elizabeth Morris WHITE, and her mother’s maiden name was Sarah Elizabeth MORRIS. If I wanted to see if any of her cousins on my father’s maternal grandmother’s side of the family have tested, I can search for “Morris” in the Ancestral Surnames, and FTDNA will return all of my matches (provided I have any) with MORRIS in their Ancestral Surnames. Great!
But wait… my mother’s maiden name is Teresa Antoinette MORRIS. How can I know if the MORRIS matches that are turning up are from my mother’s side of the family, or my father’s side?
Well, that’s where that whole testing relatives from as many of your family branches as possible really comes in handy. Since I have both my parents tested, I can actually first just find my “In common with” (ICW) matches with my dad, and then search within those results for the surname MORRIS.
That still doesn’t guarantee that those MORRIS matches are related to my paternal great-grandmother, but at least I’ve already limited the matches to those who also match my dad.
Using the FamilyFinder GEDCOMs
At that point, I can view the GEDCOM (family tree) for each match and search for the name MORRIS. (Granted, some folks don’t bother uploading a tree. I think many just haven’t yet figured out how to do it.) At that point, I can usually tell relatively quickly whether there’s a chance of the MORRIS match being connected to my paternal great-grandmother, or not. In some cases, the match is too far back to know either way, and in some cases, the match has a MORRIS family from a completely different set than mine, so what that means is that individual must match me on a different line.
HELPFUL TIP: When looking at someone’s family tree on FTDNA, it’s helpful to view ALL generations rather than just four generations. By default, when someone’s tree gets pulled up, it only shows the first four generations, but if you click on the drop down menu beside the search box on that person’s tree and select ALL, it will refresh the page by showing the whole tree. At that point, you can either scan the whole tree by scrolling side to side or up and down, or you can use Ctrl+F on your keyboard to find the surname you’re looking for.
Communicate with your matches and set your Known Relationships
When you do find a family tree intersection with one of your matches, and you most likely will, you can calculate your cousin relationship by using a chart like this. Then, you can click on the little “+” symbol under the Known Relationship column and set the relationship. You’ll want to contact the person to explain to them how you both descend from the common ancestor.
In some cases, you may not have found where you intersect with another person’s family tree yet, but you know you must intersect somewhere — especially if the Relationship Range is given as 2nd to 4th cousin, or 3rd to 5th cousin. (Anyone listed as 5th or Remote cousin might actually not share a common ancestor with you. You might just have a segment that is called “Identical by State” (IBS) rather than “Identical by Descent” (IBD) — which is basically just a fancy way of saying that there are some people with whom you will share miniscule segments of DNA, but it may just be a coincidence, or it may be that the connection is so distant in the past that it’s less likely you’ll find the connection.
There is a handy little speech bubble icon under each person’s name and avatar in your list of matches, and if you click on that little icon, it will let you jot down a note about that match. For instance, I have matched with one young man on a known family line, although we’ve not yet figured out which specific ancestor we share in common because he hasn’t gotten back that far yet. He’s also in graduate school, and therefore sorting out his family tree is currently low on his priority list. I have noted on his match that we connect on my Grady/Whitfield/Outlaw line, so that I’ll at least know when he turns up as a common match with another person, that it’s likely we share that same line, as well.
In some cases, you may be able to help another person get past a brick wall. Earlier this week, I was working with my dad’s kit and noticed he had a match with a man who descends from the Craven County WHITFORD family, and yet he didn’t know it. He had a brick wall with his WHITFORD line in Tennessee. It delighted me to contact him to tell him, “Your ancestor is the son of this family,” and I pointed him right to the website of the Whitford Family of Eastern North Carolina, which has been researched and maintained by our cousin, genealogist extraordinaire, Victor T. Jones.
Check your matches frequently and get those relatives tested!
FamilyTreeDNA processes new FamilyFinder kits every week, so check your matches frequently, especially if there are brick walls that have you stumped. Just yesterday, one of my Morris cousins on my mother’s side saw he had a new match with another individual who also descends from Rowland Ledbetter, thus strengthening the data we already have on a particular line in which we had what’s euphemistically referred to as a ‘non-paternal event.’
As more people get tested — and I encourage you to test if you haven’t already, and to encourage your cousins to test — we’ll all benefit from the shared genetic information.
The great genealogists of generations past would have loved to have had DNA testing tools to solve their family mysteries. They had to do their research by spending countless hours in courthouses, register of deeds offices and libraries poring over microfilm. We have so many more resources available to us today, it’d be a shame not to take advantage of them, particularly when it comes to getting family members tested.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about someone getting an older aunt or uncle or cousin tested a couple of years ago, and how glad they are now because that relative is now deceased. Once they go, they take their DNA with them and the secrets said DNA possesses. Even one generation can make a huge difference, so put some thought into your family. Do you have any older aunts, uncles, or cousins, maybe even your own parents or grandparents, who you think would be willing to test? If so, don’t delay! Go to FamilyTreeDNA and order a kit today.