Ancestry Blog » Site The official blog of Ancestry Wed, 17 Dec 2014 17:38:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ancestry Global Family History Report Mon, 08 Dec 2014 14:52:47 +0000 Read more]]> Since Ancestry was founded in 1983, we’ve helped more than 2 million people find out more about their family’s history, filling in the ‘whos’, ‘wheres’ and ‘whys’ behind who they are today. At the time of this post, we have digitized more than 15 billion historic records from 67 countries, containing everything from war medal recipients to criminal trials, censuses to passenger lists, and even a pub ‘blacklist’ from Victorian England.

Our members have used these records to populate more than 60 million family trees and the data helps demonstrate how family history can not only unearth things from our past, but also the present. Of those who have conducted genealogical research, almost half have found living relatives they didn’t know about, with a significant number actually meeting them face-to-face.

This is evidence of how online genealogy – and technology as a whole – is helping connect and shape the modern family, evolving it into something we haven’t seen before. The aim of this report is to show how knowledge of the past has impacted the present, and how a greater sense of ‘connectivity’ has changed the concept of the modern family within the six countries in which we conducted the study.

This document forms the first part of a multi-chapter report, the full findings of which will be published over the coming year.


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The House on Mulberry Street and Clues to Irish Roots Thu, 04 Dec 2014 14:15:34 +0000 Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Amy Johnson Crow, Family Historian for Ancestry

I’ve located my maternal great-grandparents, John and Margaret Ellen (Cunningham) Haffey in Wayne County, Ohio in the 1880 census. I’m trying to locate their births in Ireland. I have their death records, but they didn’t list a specific Irish birthplace. I have found a record in the New York Emigrant Savings Bank for a John Haffey and James Cunningham; either could access the account. —Sandra H.

Dear Sandra,

We’ve found that one of the strongest motivations for a person’s desire to reconstruct their family’s tree is the desire to discover where their ancestors once lived, especially before they migrated to the United States, whether that be in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia.  Finding the names of our ancestors, of course, is the necessary first step; but then finding where those ancestors hailed from can be just as exciting.

Why?  Because there’s something deeply reassuring about being able to point to a map and say, “This is where my people came from.” Geography “roots” or centers us in the world, just as surely as identifying the names of “our people” does.  But finding where our ancestors once lived can be quite a challenge, even when we know their names and birth or death dates.  And this is especially difficult with our Irish ancestors. We both have some personal experience with this since we both are descended from Irish ancestors.

Discovering an ancestor’s elusive Irish birthplace really is a big deal for genealogists.  On what we might think of as “the scale of genealogical difficulty,” tracing Irish roots is right there near the top of the list.  The search can be extraordinarily challenging, but the payoff can be so very exhilarating!  One key to solving this mystery is keeping people you are searching for in context.  What does that mean?  Well, who were your ancestor’s neighbors, and who—according to records—did they keep associating with? Whose names keep popping up near theirs?  Taking account of the names of your ancestor’s neighbors and friends can yield amazing results.

In 1880, John, Margaret, and their family were living in Pike Station, Wayne County, Ohio. The census shows that their daughter, Ella, was born in Ireland around 1860 and their son, Edward, was born in Ireland around 1862.  Daughter Maggie was born in New York around 1866, and children William, Mary A., John Jr., and Catherine were all born in Ohio.  Keeping the whole family in mind will be important as we move through the family’s paper trail.

Emigrant Savings Bank

The Emigrant Savings Bank was founded in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society and became a safe place for Irish immigrants to save their money. They invented an ingenious system of using biographical information to tell the difference between people with the same names, such as the various James Cunninghams or John Haffeys, who kept accounts at the bank. (We would cringe because of privacy issues if anyone did this today, but it sure makes it handy for researching Irish ancestors!)

You were definitely on the right track exploring the records of the Emigrant Savings Bank, which can be a gold mine of data for tracing Irish ancestry. And in your case, we are pleased to say, you’ve struck gold!   It turns out that the bank had four accounts that stood out for John Haffey, each of which offered us more clues about your family’s origins.

In 1862, a man named James Cunningham, “for John Haffey,” opened account number 32881.  The bank’s record for this account says that John was born in 1828 in County Donegal and was married to Margaret Cunningham, with two children Ella and Edward. (We should note that this birth year is off from the one recorded in the 1880 census, but it is consistent with that listed in the 1870 census. This often happens, so no worries about that!) Having John’s wife’s name and the name of their two children gives us confidence that this is the correct John Haffey; account 32881 was definitely opened by the John Haffey we’re looking for.

What else can we learn from this bank record?  Well, the person named James Cunningham, who opened the account on behalf of John Haffey, was living at 233 Mulberry Street. This turns out to be a key piece of information. (Mulberry Street is located in the section of Manhattan known as “Little Italy” today.)

Back in 1855, James Cunningham of 233 Mulberry Street had opened account number 8691 “in trust for John Haffey.”   Incredibly, this record is a treasure trove of information about John!  It states that John was from Minnarock [sic], in the parish of Killaghtee, County Donegal;  he arrived in the United States in September 1852 on a ship named [either?] “George Green” or “James Nesbith” from Liverpool; his father, Ned Haffey, is dead; his mother, Ellen Carr, is living in Ireland; and he’s single.

A detail from the Emigrant Savings Bank Test Books at showing biographical information about John Haffey.

A detail from the Emigrant Savings Bank Test Books at showing biographical information about John Haffey. 

James Cunningham of 233 Mulberry Street also opened account 10040 in 1855; it is noted that it is the same as account 8691. In 1857, John Haffey and P. Cunningham of 233 Mulberry Street opened account 15009; it, too, is the same as account 8691. So now we know that accounts 8691, 10040, and 15009 all pertain to the same people.

(Unfortunately, the record for account 32881 (the one where we’re sure it’s our John) doesn’t state that it is the same as account 8691 (the one where we learn John’s hometown and parents.) There’s just an incomplete note “Is same as.” (Would it have killed them to list the account number?!) But the fact that James Cunningham and/or John Haffey was living at 233 Mulberry Street in these four accounts is a strong indication that we are talking about the same people.

Other Places to Explore

Okay, now that you have this information, where do you search next?  It’s tempting to explore church records in “Minnarock” (probably Meenabrock) and grab onto any mention of John Haffey. You’ll definitely want to explore those records, but you should get a fuller idea of your John Haffey’s identify first, so you’ll know if you have found the information about the right person.  Remember, just because a name is the same doesn’t necessarily mean that the person whose records you’re examining is the person you are searching for!

HuffPo Ireland Map

There are several other places that should be checked before crossing the pond to Ireland.  Who are the Haffeys and Cunninghams living in the area around 233 Mulberry Street? City directories would give this information. Ancestry has several New York city directories for this time period. Search by surname, but also do a keyword search for “Mulberry,” to find people living on Mulberry Street to recreate the neighborhood. You will want to do this for the 1850s through the late 1860s, when John and Margaret moved to Ohio.

You should also keep an eye out for the other passengers who arrived in this country on the same ship with John. We didn’t find him in 1852, but we did find him in 1854 on the “James Nesmith” (not Nesbitt, as listed in the bank record), with an approximate birth year of 1829 (consistent with the bank record and the 1870 census).

nesbit arrival

Detail of the passenger list of the James Nesbit, arriving in New York 28 August 1854, showing John Haffy, age 25, a laborer from Ireland.

It’s a good idea to focus on the areas where you know your ancestors were living, but also where they died.  In this case, we know John and Margaret ended up in Ohio. According to Find A Grave, John, Margaret, and their daughter Catherine (Kathryn) are buried in St. Vincents Catholic Cemetery in Akron, Summit County, Ohio. The cemetery records could hold clues about John and Margaret’s origins. Further, you should explore the records of St. Vincent Catholic Church.  You should search for your ancestor’s obituaries, both in “regular” newspapers and religious newspapers.

Baptismal records can be another source of useful information.  People usually name relatives or close friends as their childrens’ godparents. The baptism records for John and Margaret’s children could hold clues. St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Wooster as well as St. Vincent in Akron would be good places to start looking.

It might come as a surprise to us today, but people “back in the day” typically didn’t move all by themselves. Neighbors often turn out to be related. Who are the Irish neighbors around John and Margaret in 1870 and 1880? Who else lived on Mulberry Street in New York when John lived there?

Learning as much as you can about John and Margaret in Ohio and New York will help you to establish a better context for them when looking at possible records back in Ireland. Whether you’re looking at records in Meenabrock or elsewhere in County Donegal, you will want to keep in mind the other people who you’ve identified as being associated with John and Margaret in the United States. Good luck!

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree?  Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at

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The Capone Brother You Might Not Know Wed, 03 Dec 2014 13:00:33 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> If you follow Boardwalk Empire, you’re probably aware that two of Al Capone’s brothers had appearances in seasons four and five. Both Raffaele (Ralph) and Salvatore (Frank) were indeed deeply involved in the Chicago mob scene, along with their infamous brother. Frank was gunned down in 1924 by Chicago undercover police who were sent to investigate reports of Election Day voter intimidation in Cicero, Illinois, where Capone’s gang was backing one of the mayoral candidates.

Ralph ran into trouble in in 1930, when he was convicted of tax evasion, and after serving a few months at Leavenworth, was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington.





Several other of the Capone brothers were involved in Al’s various enterprises, but none to the extent of Frank and Ralph. One brother went in an entirely different direction.

The eldest of the Capone children was Vincenzo James Capone. James left the Capone’s Brooklyn home at age 16 and reportedly joined a circus with which he traveled the Midwest. In 1920, he is enumerated as a boarder in the Dakota County, Nebraska home of his future wife’s family under his assumed name of Richard J. Hart with the occupation of garage mechanic. He has shed all links to his Italian roots and lists his birthplace as Iowa and parents’ birthplaces as Illinois.


During his travels, Richard had become proficient with a gun. While his brothers in Chicago were making huge sums of money providing beer and liquor to a thirsty city during Prohibition, Richard had chosen a different path. He signed on as a Prohibition agent and went after bootleggers. This clipping from documents some of his successes.

By 1930, he was living in Idaho with his wife and children and gaining some fame as Richard “Two-Gun” Hart, a U.S. Special officer in “Indian Service.” He was profiled in newspapers as far away as Sandusky, Ohio.


Sandusky Register, 22 Jan 1930, page 10, from

In 1940, Richard and his family were back in Dakota County, Nebraska, and his occupation was listed as “landscaper, Indian Agency.” He had apparently been through some tough financial times and had reached out to his Capone family for help. That outreach came with a cost. Richard was outed as a Capone in 1951 when he was called to testify in proceedings against Ralph, who was once again facing charges of tax evasion. The Mason City (Iowa) Globe was among the papers that picked up the story.

"The Mason City Globe-Gazette," 20 Sep 1951, Thurs., Page 1

“The Mason City Globe-Gazette,” 20 Sep 1951, Thurs., Page 1

Now that Boardwalk Empire has closed the books on its final season, maybe Al Capone’s lesser-known brother’s exploits could be the start of a new mini-series. The things you learn from old newspapers…

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Introducing Historical Insights Tue, 02 Dec 2014 14:25:54 +0000 Read more]]>

What was it like for your immigrant great-grandparents to pass through Ellis Island? Did your mother watch as the Great Mississippi flood destroyed her hometown? Have you ever wondered what your grandfather’s life was like when he served in the army in World War I?

We realize how much these types of historical events shaped your ancestors’ lives—and how much richer they make your family history experience. To help you discover some of these amazing stories behind your family tree, we’re launching a new feature called Historical Insights. You may find out that your relatives lived in North Carolina when pirates roamed the coastline or that they followed the Oregon Trail to make a new home in the West.

Historical Insights

Introducing Historical Insights

So how does it work? In some ways, insights are like hints. While we can’t be positive that your family member experienced a certain event like the San Francisco earthquake, we use information you’ve added to your tree and historical records to determine whether your relative might have been in the city in 1906 when it occurred. And like hints, you have the ability to accept an insight and keep it in a person’s profile or ignore it.

You’ll also be able to see at a glance all the family members we think experienced the same event. You may discover that ancestors who never knew each other were actually shaped by the same moment in history.Historical Insights 2

You can see insights for your own family using your iPhone or iPad, if you’re using the latest version of our mobile app. In coming months, Historical Insights will be added to the website. A preview of the insight will appear on a person’s timeline—just look for the leaf. To read about the historical event and see photos, simply tap the insight in the timeline.Historical Insights 3

While researching these insights our team enjoyed learning how history touched the lives of our ancestors again and again. We hope that you will too.

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DNA Matching Just Got Better Wed, 19 Nov 2014 18:44:33 +0000 Anna Swayne Read more]]> Matching_option1

We’re excited to tell you about some major improvements we’ve made to help you find your possible relatives with AncestryDNA.

AncestryDNA scientists have innovated new and better ways to identify family relationships by comparing DNA between AncestryDNA members. Now, AncestryDNA is almost 70x more likely to find distant relatives, and all existing AncestryDNA members will see improved results.

What this means for you:

  • More accurate — Each of your DNA matches will be more accurate and is more likely to be related to you. You can feel confident that you share a recent ancestor (up to 5–10 generations).
  • Less is more — Because DNA matching is more accurate, some people who you matched before will no longer be on your list. So you’ll see fewer matches, but each of the ones you have will be more likely to result in a new family discovery.
  • This innovative way of DNA matching lays a foundation for new DNA features.
  • Best part — you don’t need to provide a new sample. We simply compare your DNA results again to everyone in the database using our new matching algorithms and give you an improved, higher-confidence list of DNA matches.
  • Check out your matches and see more detail around the confidence levels for each match.

Here are a few of the ways we were able to improve DNA matching:

Separating What Makes Us Human from What Makes Us Related

Now that AncestryDNA has more than 500,000 DNA samples, the science team has been able to identify patterns in DNA matches that only become apparent with a unique data set like this. One of those patterns is something people call “pile-ups” for lack of a better term. The basic description of a “pile-up” is an area in DNA where there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people sharing the same genetic code. Ken Chahine describes this in a recent blog post where he says, “When you take a step back, matching isn’t as simple as it might first appear.  After all, we are all 99% identical. In other words, determining which parts of our genome make us ‘human’ and which make us ‘recent cousins’ is tricky…”

This tends to happen when people share an ethnicity or traits, but not a recent common ancestor. These kind of matches won’t appear in your results anymore because they aren’t relevant to family history research.


AncestryDNA not only uses sophisticated mathematical models to identify DNA matches, we are also one of the few autosomal DNA tests to apply a technology called “phasing” in order to better identify the strands of DNA you inherited from each of your parents. While this can’t necessarily separate your matches by which side of the family they come from, it does improve the ability to find possible relatives who share DNA by keeping the strands of DNA you inherited from each of your parents intact.


The AncestryDNA science team continues to validate the new matching algorithms and techniques and evolve the technology to help AncestryDNA customers make new and exciting  discoveries.

We’ve shared lots more details on how DNA matching at AncestryDNA works. Check out our white paper for the full details. To view the white paper, go to your DNA homepage, click View all DNA matches, and then click the help question mark in the upper-right corner. That will give you access to all the help content for matching and the white paper.


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Can DNA Help You Find Your Birth Parents? – Part II Wed, 19 Nov 2014 15:00:41 +0000 Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jake Byrnes, Ph.D., Population Genomics Technical Manager for AncestryDNA

“I am adopted and have NO clues about my birth except a sort of “fake” birth certificate from when I was born in Texas. No family name. No known blood relatives. Would the DNA test be a good option for me anyway? What will I learn about my family from taking a DNA test?” —Rita M

Dear Rita,

As we said in our last post, DNA testing can sometimes provide truly miraculous results for adoptees wishing to pursue information about their birthparents. Below we detail one such story kindly provided to us by an employee and his brother-in-law. Before jumping in to the story, we need to understand just how DNA analysis actually works to help us find out where did I come from and to whom am I related? Here’s how:

Consumer genetics tests provide an incredible genealogy entry-point for adoptees. Most tests on the market today provide two key results. The first is an estimate of where in the world your ancestors likely lived 10 to 20 generations in the past. Many of us have some idea of the countries from which our immigrant ancestors arrived in America, but if you are adopted, these tests provide an answer to the ubiquitous icebreaker question, “where are you from?” Even for individuals with a solid knowledge of their family history, these genetic ethnicity results can be enlightening and sometimes quite surprising. Most African Americans, for example, contain significant percentages of European ancestry, even if they don’t look like they do!

The second result is a list of individuals with whom you share long stretches of identical DNA. Your list of genetic matches constitutes the set of all your biological relatives who have also taken the same test. This list will include not only your closest relatives such as children and parents, but also more distant relatives such as fourth cousins (relatives with whom you share great-great-great-grandparents).

What never fails to surprise test takers (and us!) is the sheer number of genetic relatives these tests can reveal. A rough estimate from the AncestryDNA database of currently 500,000 customers shows that the average test taker is likely to find thousands of genetic relatives—with whom any genealogy buff (or novice) can connect to exchange stories, pictures, and insights about shared family.

And sometimes, among those thousands of relatives, is the one person who holds the key to discovering your biological family tree—as we share in the true story below.

In December 2012 an employee at gave his adopted brother-in-law Lehan, now in his 60s, our DNA test to help him learn more about his roots.

More recently, another employee was describing the test to a potential investor and suggested he take the test to experience it. He did, and when his test results came back he was surprised to discover he was related to Lehan through a grandfather or great-grandfather. He did not recognize Lehan and when he shared the results with his father Greg, Greg was inspired to take the test as well. Greg’s results indicated that Lehan was a possible first cousin, and so he sent him a message.

In May of 2014 (less than two years after taking his own test), Lehan received that letter from Greg. They eventually confirmed that they were half-brothers. While Greg’s father was Lehan’s father as well, Lehan’s birth mother was in her early 20s when she was pregnant with Lehan and had not informed Lehan’s father. Within days of Greg’s letter, Lehan discovered he had a half-brother and half-sister that he had never met.

Unfortunately, both Lehan’s biological parents have since passed away. But instead, Lehan has now connected with his half-siblings Greg and Carole, and their families—and has said that he’s had the most heartwarming embrace from his new brother, sister and their kids. According to Lehan, this has opened a new chapter in his life—and it is a most welcome “life interruption.” They will be meeting in person in December 2014.

For adopted individuals like Lehan, genetics often provides the only way to begin learning more about our biological families. But even for those of us who know more of our genealogy, DNA testing still has something to tell each of us about the fascinating story of our biological origins.

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at

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WWI Honour Roll – Guest post by Archivist Karyn Stuckey from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Mon, 17 Nov 2014 10:24:26 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> Authored by Karyn Stuckey, Archivist at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers


After the guns had fallen silent, thoughts turned to how to honour the dead. Faced with the dilemma of how to commemorate the dead, many organisations created Honour Rolls or memorials. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers created an ornate board, recording the names of its war dead, which is still hung on the first floor landing of One Birdcage Walk. 1,270 Institution members and 8 staff members went on active service: 7.1% of members died; and 12.5% of staff died.

All the membership records for the war period are available online – UK, Mechanical Engineer Records, 1847-1930. The Government requested members names to be put forward for the Engineering Unit of the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Garrison Artillery and then for munitions contracts. In 1916 the Institution’s Council decided that any man on active service who was approaching the age of, or over the age of 28 could apply for Associate Membership without having to sit an examination.

Our Headquarters building also did its bit: almost immediately, the top floor of the ‘new’ wing was taken over by the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund; then rooms on the third floor were occupied by the Office of Works for the Explosives Department (Ministry of Munitions), who soon spread to the fourth floor; next the meeting hall was occupied; and in June 1915 the whole of the building was given over to the Office of Works. It was not returned until 1919.

The honour roll has been fully researched and all the stories of those who died have been recorded. There were two others added who had been omitted because they were civilian casualties who had gone down with the Lusitania. Each is listed by name and date of death. Under each name are their membership dates, their professional post at time of joining, their service posting and any details of their death or medals awarded to them. Where they exist, a contemporaneous obituary can also be read. Stories to commemorate the men will be posted here. Membership information is taken from our application forms, service and death information from their official service records. Where contradictions exist for example, on date of death these have been left unless there is clear evidence as to which piece of information is correct.


guest blog1

Sir H. Frederick Donaldson (Image reproduced by courtesy of Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London)

Amongst those who died: were an ex-President, Sir Hay Frederick Donaldson, 5th June 1916, who went down on the HMS Hampshire with Lord Kitchener and another member; Leslie Stephen Robinson/Robertson when she was stuck en route to Russia; William Martin-Davey, 7th May 1915, who went down alongside member Colin Stanley Fenton on RMS Lusitania when she was torpedoed by a German submarine. There were those who died at home or on their way home including, Charles Lysaght Bruce Hewson, 12th April 1918, who fought in the Cameroons Campaign and died on the voyage home having been invalided with fever from Nigeria; and those from/working abroad including, Gordon Porter Cable, 2nd January 1918, an Indian national and Captain, Indian Army, Indian Army Reserve of Officers, Jaipur Transport Corps.



  • You can also learn more about collaborative exhibit between the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Civil Engineers and the Institution of Engineering and Technology on their dedicated portal.


  • Engineers’ records from ICE, IMechE and IET can be searched via Ancestry


Follow Ancestry on Facebook and  Twitter and share your thoughts with us.





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Can DNA Help You Find Your Birth Parents? – Part I Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:40 +0000 Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jake Byrnes, Ph.D., Population Genomics Technical Manager for AncestryDNA  

“I am adopted and have NO clues about my birth except a sort of ‘fake’ birth certificate from when I was born in Texas. No family name. No known blood relatives. Would the DNA test be a good option for me anyway? What will I learn about my family from taking a DNA test?” —Rita M

Dear Rita,

The short answer to your first question is “yes, absolutely:”  an adopted person can—sometimes—be fortunate enough to find the identity of their biological mother and father through one of the major commercial DNA tests available today. And the answer to your second question is “quite a lot.”

Let us explain what we mean by sometimes: if your biological parents or grandparents, brothers, sisters, or close cousins have already had their DNA tested, you will always be connected to them, and your relationship identified, by logging into your own privacy-protected account from the DNA company that tested you.  We have to say sometimes because not everyone has had their DNA tested.  But if every parent who put a child up for adoption had their DNA analyzed, that child would always show a connection to their biological parents in that same DNA database.  We are a long way from reaching that goal but it is a noble one to which to aspire.

And the best part of this process is that it is affordable:  generally these tests, which analyze your autosomal DNA and automatically connect your results with people in the database with whom you share long stretches of identical DNA, cost less than $100. Before we explain how this miraculous process works, and give you an example of one person who found their parents in this way, we want to pause for a moment to discuss this very normal human impulse to find one’s birthparents. This quest for clarity about the biological basis of our family’s lineage has been encoded in the myths and sacred scripts of human beings for thousands of years.

Establishing the names of our fathers has a long history in many cultures, notably in the West but also in civilizations like the Chinese, among many others. For members of the Navajo nation, an introduction begins with one’s first name, followed by one’s mother’s and father’s first clans, then one’s maternal and paternal grandfather’s first clans.  An example quite familiar to Christians, Jews, and Muslims is the Book of Genesis, which scholars believe was composed about 2,500 years or so ago. Chapter 5 of Genesis, which lists the male generations who connect Adam with Noah, surely must be the oldest family tree in Western civilization. We are all familiar with how this first human family tree begins: “And Adam…begat a son in his own likeness, after his own image.”

These key words— “in his own likeness, after his own image”—were the ancient world’s way of describing the fascinating process by which parents share their DNA with their biological children. Though texts like Genesis were explicitly concerned to name paternal lineages, the Bible is also careful to name the “foremothers,” great female figures in history. These are lines of descent, based on a biological connection, and they were quite important in establishing property rights and shares of inheritance when a patriarch died. Many scholars believe that one strong initial impulse for the creation of the science of genealogy was to insure the so-called “purity” of royal bloodlines, for just these reasons.

In the simplest terms, creating a child “in our own likeness, after our own image,” works like this: each child inherits 50% of the DNA that makes up our genome from each parent. That means that each of us has also inherited about 25% of our genomes from each of our four biological grandparents, etc. So, if a person takes a DNA test and is informed that she or he has a connection to a person in a DNA company’s database with whom they share about 50% of identical DNA, that person is almost certainly your mother or father, child, or full sibling. If the result is about 25%, that person is likely your grandparent/aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, or half sibling. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Let us make clear that we are describing the manner by which blood ties and bloodlines were traditionally defined in Western culture, and not placing a value judgment on the creation of biological families as opposed to families that are socially constructed through adoption or foster parenting. One’s “parent” can be legitimately defined in various ways, and adoptive bonds can often be much stronger and more meaningful to an adoptee than biological bonds discovered late in life. What DNA tests provide is the choice to pursue biological relationships if that is our desire.

Genealogy research is one of the most popular pursuits in America. Through genealogy, we can uncover the often tenuous or serendipitous circumstances that led to our own existence. Why is this so exciting? Because, in the end, the more we find out about our ancestors, the more we find out about ourselves. That’s right: the secret to the passion for genealogical research is that it’s all about you!

While technology and the increased availability of data have made this pursuit much easier, there are still numerous circumstances under which the discovery of the story of the origins and history of your ancestors continues to be exceedingly difficult. For adopted individuals, an origin story based on bloodline ancestors is often not available and is difficult if not impossible to find by standard genealogical methods. DNA is, slowly, making this process much easier, and will continue to do so the more individuals have their DNA tested.

Before we share with you an amazing example of how a person used the AncestryDNA database to identify his biological father, we want to list the steps any person can take to cast the widest possible net for gathering information of all sorts—both through records and through genetics—about their birth parents and relatives. To prepare this list, Professor Gates consulted with a leading genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, who specializes in the use of DNA to help adoptees find their biological relatives.

  • Check state laws. Many states are changing their laws and allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
  • Sign up for all applicable adoption registries (state focused, etc.) in case your birth family is looking for you, too.
  • Apply for non-identifying information from the agency or state that handled your adoption. “Non-identifying information,” as it is called, will not give you the name of your birth parent, but can tell an adoptee the age of their birth parent or parents at the time they were born. In addition, it sometimes provides a description of the birth parent and sometimes it includes clues about their parent’s family structure, occupations, health history, and circumstances surrounding the adoption.
  • If possible, test in all three major autosomal DNA databases, including AncestryDNA, since these databases don’t share their clients’ genetic information with each other. Males should consider taking a y-DNA test as well, and check their y-DNA matches for any repeating surnames.
  • Visit for additional search tips and education about using DNA analysis in adoption searching.

Once your test results arrive consider the following ways to use this data to learn more about your birthparents:

  • Check your genetic ethnicity results for any unique or rare ancestral origins that might aid in narrowing down your search.
  • When you are informed of your autosomal DNA matches, first check for close matches (predicted first or second cousins, or closer). Then check the family trees, such as those posted on, for branches that lead to the right place at the right time, fitting your non-identifying information (if available) and your ethnicity results. Your birth parent could very well be buried in the branches of one of these family trees.
  • Even if you only have more distant matches in the DNA database (beyond 2nd cousins), comparing the family trees of your matches collectively may help identify ancestral surnames or couples appearing in numerous trees suggesting these ancestors are relevant to you.
  • If you are able to identify a potential ancestral couple, build their tree forward looking for individuals who were in the right place at the right time to be your parent.
  • Finally, and most importantly, always use care and sensitivity in contacting potential birth relatives.

It takes a few weeks to get your DNA analysis back after submitting your sample. Working your way through the first half of this checklist will give you a good foundation while you wait for your results. In our next article, we will explain what you can expect from your results and share an amazing story from someone who received exciting results after taking a DNA test.

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree?  Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at

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Drumroll, Please…The Winner of the October Branch Out Contest Is… Mon, 10 Nov 2014 22:21:17 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> If you submitted an entry in the October round of our Branch Out contest, thank you! We received some truly amazing stories in thousands of entries from community members throughout the United States. We have randomly selected our October winner and that lucky person is… ACOM_BranchOut250x250_badge

Alison Marcoff of Boynton Beach, FL

Alison has successfully traced her ancestors back to early colonial days in America but she has a few “brick wall” ancestors that our ProGenealogist team will be helping her tackle. Since Alison has already taken the AncestryDNA test, she plans on giving the two AncestryDNA tests she won to her parents so she can see what their DNA can tell her about the family history.

We can’t wait to see what she discovers and we’ll be sure to provide a recap of her discoveries once the project is done.

Want a chance at winning a family history package? Stay tuned for details on our next contest that kicks off on December 1st!


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Adding 400 Years of Family to the Family Tree Sat, 08 Nov 2014 14:00:48 +0000 Read more]]> By Katie Ledbetter, ProGenealogist

Tina Davis recently won our Branch Out Sweepstakes, and received 25 hours of AncestryProGenealogists research time. Tina wanted to learn more about her mother’s side of the family tree, specifically her Rickwood line. She was hoping to verify some information she had been given and to extend that part of her family tree a few generations. We quickly traced the Rickwoods from London where they had been for four generations, to the town of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

The Rickwoods in Ely were millers by trade, including Tina’s fifth great-grandfather, Henry Rickwood. Henry’s wife, Margaret Nichols Rickwood, (Tina’s fifth great-grandmother) was attacked during the famous 1816 Ely riots when the poor, unable to afford bread, lashed out at the millers who ground the flour. A group of men came to the Rickwood mill and demanded £50 from Margaret because her husband, Henry, wasn’t home at the time. A newspaper account of the riot stated that the men showed up at her door threatening to destroy the mill unless she gave them the money. Their leader, John Dennis, brandished a gun and the others carried pitchforks and clubs. Margaret had her son, William, run to get the banker to bring the money.

The group grew restless so she went with them up Bond Street to fetch the banker, a Mr. Edwards. He met up with them and denied the mob the money. One of the men hit him on the head and drew blood. He then arranged for three of the men, including John Dennis, to meet him at the Rickwood’s house to receive the money.  Both Margaret and William Rickwood testified before the Commission against John Dennis who was hanged!

Copy of the verdict condemning John Dennis to death, June 1816

Copy of the verdict condemning John Dennis to death, June 1816

As we looked for Tina’s sixth great-grandfather, Philip Rickwood, we couldn’t find his baptism record in Ely. In fact, it seemed as if Philip had appeared in Ely from thin air for there were no Rickwoods in the area at that time.

However, when we discovered the record for his 1769 marriage to Ann Fiske, this mystery was solved. The parish priest at Trinity Church in Ely went the extra mile and wrote that Henry was from Mildenhall, Suffolk. This was a bit unusual for the time. We looked in the Mildenhall parish registers and found Philip’s baptism on 9 January 1743!

Marriage record for Philip Rickwood and Ann Fiske, 1769

Marriage record for Philip Rickwood and Ann Fiske, 1769

Parish registers offer a wealth of information because England didn’t start registering vital events with the government until 1837. Before that, the churches recorded baptisms, marriages, and burials in their parish registers. It all started when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. He sent out an order that the parishes keep all vital records.

In 1598, Queen Elizabeth decreed that two copies of every register be made; one copy for the parish and one for the diocese known as Bishop’s Transcripts or BTs. She also ordered the priests keep the records in parchment books instead of the flimsier paper scraps that they had been using.

Once Philip’s baptism was finally found, we were able to trace the Rickwood line in Suffolk back another five generations to Tina’s 11th great-grandparents, Richard Rickard and Grace Fflawner in 1612.

Marriage record for Richard Rickard and Grace Fflawner, 1612

Marriage record for Richard Rickard and Grace Fflawner, 1612 

From London to Cambridgeshire to Suffolk, over 400 years of family history was accounted for in this extremely successful block of research. We hope Tina is excited to finally be ‘introduced’ to these new branches of her Rickwood family tree.

Katie Ledbetter is part of the AncestryProGenealogists team.

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