It seems like only yesterday I was sitting listening to a great aunt tell me stories about our family from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. I grew up in New Zealand and having pioneers amongst my ancestors, I became interested in our family tree from an early age. While growing up, I learnt that all our family had come from the UK, and particularly, that my family name was Scottish. A lot of information was available and with the help of two uncles (one on each side of the family) – we set about ‘doing’ genealogy. I developed my own database to hold family tree information. It was nothing like the amazing software we see nowadays, but in the 90s this kept me busy.
In early 2015, I found myself staring at Ancestry’s DNA page asking myself, “Should I?” I’d built my tree out over many generations and had been fairly satisfied with my work on it over the years (I no longer use my own database, but ‘upgraded’ to Family Tree Maker some years ago). But would DNA give me more evidence, more information and perhaps a renewed interest in genealogy?
I’d heard of DNA testing a few years earlier and had seen some tests which gave very basic information about migration patterns over thousands of years. A bit of research on the Ancestry site made me realize that testing was very different now, and not only gives ethnicity estimates, but also cousin matches. Curiosity got the better of me. I placed my order and eagerly awaited the arrival of my DNA kit.
Receiving and understanding the results
When my kit arrived, I followed the instructions and quickly got it back in the mail. It didn’t seem like much of a wait before an email arrived to say the results were in! I was at a quiz night and all I wanted to do was look at Ancestry on my iPhone (but using a phone is a no-no at all the best quiz nights!)
Once I was able to login and review the results, I felt a bit bamboozled by what I was reading. While AncestryDNA provide you with what you need to know about your ethnicity and cousin matches, I wanted to know more about the science. I immediately turned to the Internet for help. I got involved in a few Facebook groups for DNA and genealogy, and I sourced some YouTube videos to watch. I also went out and bought a notebook to start writing down notes about genomes, centiMorgans, and chromosomes. I went over and over it trying to understand the science in a basic way. In those early days, I had to refer to my notebook all the time as I slowly started to make sense of what I needed to know.
Armed with some basic knowledge, such as the higher the shared cM (centiMorgan) number, the closer the common ancestor would be, I set about reviewing all my matches. Ancestry provided a few quick wins from their Shared Ancestor Hints. One of the shared matches was a lady I had been emailing over the years. I think this gave me some immediate comfort that Ancestry matches were accurate and that I could rely on the fact that my DNA matches were indeed related, even if I couldn’t yet figure out where they fitted into my tree.
Piecing together the DNA puzzle
Since that initial learning period, my own searching has been very successful. I realized early on in my research that it was going to be a lot better having more family members tested. My uncle, who had helped me with family tree research over the years, was more than happy to spit in the tube and for me to administer his DNA. This immediately gave me the ability to start splitting my matches into paternal/maternal. While I worked on getting my mother more interested, I was able to make some headway with my matches, working each match back to who our common ancestor was.
Rather than surnames, I began matching locations instead. This was how I honed in on a match that came from a small Yorkshire village where my great great great grandmother was from. She was born a Smith (Elizabeth Smith), so looking for Smiths in Yorkshire was like searching for a needle in a haystack. My match also had a Smith from the very same village in her tree, but while their birthdates were the same, their first names were different. With a bit more research I found their family in the census, and also a poor law removal notice, before a parish baptism record revealed that the two girls were twins! This was a real surprise as no one had ever mentioned my G-G-G grandmother being a twin. Turns out the family all separated later – my G-G-G grandmother emigrated to New Zealand as a settler and her twin moved to the USA. We would never have found this all out without DNA testing, and it was an exciting time for our family.
Fast forward a few more months and I now admin nine family kits and I’m slowly working through and confirming all our 4th cousin or closer matches. Some mysteries have been solved along the way, including confirming that my great grandmother’s stepfather was actually her biological father.
DNA meets social media
Having joined a few Facebook sites, I started testing my DNA knowledge with group messages – seeing if I could answer them just to myself and then checking what the real experts were replying with. Once I realized I was starting to catch-on, I started answering some comments and helping people where I could, frequently referring back to my notebook. One of the groups was quite new and was an offshoot of a particular genealogy group I was active in. The admins asked me if I would join them as they only had one admin with DNA knowledge and they wanted another admin to lighten the load and help the new members. The rest, as they say, is history. This group has become very successful – we currently have nearly 1500 members and we actively help everyone who starts a new thread. I’m able to help out with queries as much as possible and this has really helped me continue to learn more about DNA for my own genealogy purposes.
DNA testing has definitely provided new mysteries as well as solving some. I have learnt to be patient as confirming DNA matches is not necessarily a quick process – some matches can take a couple of hours to work out, and some take a couple of weeks. I love that DNA testing has not just given my genealogy a new lease of life, but has given me something new to learn and be part of. I can’t explain just how excited I feel when I can add another cousin to my tree.