Posted by Jake Fletcher on December 7, 2017 in AncestryDNA, ProGenealogists

Few journeys in the world of genealogy are as poignant and challenging as an individual searching for his or her biological family. While all people who pursue genealogy experience some sense of self-discovery and emotion, researchers solving “unknown parentage” questions produce even more passion. With the world of genetic genealogy exploding in popularity over the last four years, these genealogical mysteries are being solved almost daily thanks to consumer tests like AncestryDNA.

Testament to this is the fact that, to date, there are more than 6 million people in the AncestryDNA community, making it the largest database of personal genetic data. Because of this, many families are reconnecting and individuals are finding closure thanks to the vast AncestryDNA network. With the high level of interest in genetic genealogy, many people who were previously hesitant to take the plunge are wondering what is involved in this type of research. If one of your research goals is to solve an unknown parentage mystery, here are some tips to help you get started on your journey.

  • Once you receive your AncestryDNA results, catalog and assess your matches. This is one of the most important steps when you begin to do DNA research. You want to keep a personal record of DNA matches for posterity and also to help with analysis. Start by creating a spreadsheet or catalog for your DNA matches that includes the following information:
    • User name.
    • Amount of shared DNA (measured in centimorgans). This information can be obtained by clicking on the info icon on a match’s profile.
    • The predicted relationship between you and your match.
    • Note whether a tree is attached to your match’s DNA results. It is also worthwhile going to their Ancestry profile page to see if they have a private tree.
    • Make note of surnames included in the tree.
    • Shared matches, which can be found by clicking on the “Shared Matches” button. This will allow you to identify groups of matches, which will better organize your research.
  • Create a match tree. One of the most important steps in working with DNA is to visualize connections between the matches. Groups of matches are often related through a common ancestral couple, so it’s a good idea to chart these out. This will help you in your research as you envision theories for the identity of a biological relative. There are a number of programs that can do this, but I suggest Lucidchart, because it’s simple, intuitive, and cleanly presents your match tree.

  • Carefully weigh all the evidence (both DNA and non-DNA). Success in unknown parentage research does not rely solely on DNA analysis. Traditional genealogical research and documents can provide crucial evidence. Depending on the state, adoptees may be able to obtain an original birth certificate or non-identifying information about their parents from an adoption agency. Another example would be looking at a common ancestral couple. As you do so, you’ll want to obtain all the documents pertaining to that family and their children, because online trees can miss these crucial details.
  • Be prepared for contact. This can be the most difficult part of the journey. It’s exciting when research solves the mystery, but then what does the person do when they decide to make contact with a biological parent or other members of their biological family? More important than the method of establishing contact is the mindset going into it. We are all human and need to recognize that our contact may elicit diverse reactions.

AncestryProGenealogists works with hundreds of clients every year to solve these types of cases. These projects go to ProGen’s unknown parentage team, a group of expert genetic genealogists and researchers. We are just as passionate about finding biological family as our clients are. Over the next few months, members of the AncestryProGenealogists unknown parentage team will share some of our client journeys (and some of our own) to showcase the profound impact AncestryDNA has had on many test-takers’ lives.

Jake Fletcher

Jake Fletcher is an Associate Genealogist at Ancestry ProGenealogists. He specializes in a number of genealogical research areas, including the Northeastern U.S., Ireland, and unknown parentage. Prior to coming to Ancestry, Jake was a self-employed professional genealogist in Massachusetts and was active as a public speaker, blogger, and volunteer. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.


  1. Bonnie Chaney

    My one son gave me the dna kit for Christmas last year. My other son spent hours researching and following leads. Consequently, I was able to find my birth family. I now have a sister and two brothers in my life. I was able to get background information that has been life changing. Thank you.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Bonnie: That is truly lovely to hear how they were able to help you find your birth family! We can only imagine how you all must feel and we wish you all the best with everything. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, we really appreciate it!

  2. Mary Kay Radnich

    DNA turned up my half-brother this year, confirming the family rumor that my mother had a child long before she met my dad. Now we are preparing to search for his birth father. Its exciting! Thanks for this information!

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Mary: That’s fantastic to hear! We’re really happy for you both and we hope you will be able to find this information as well!

  3. Michael

    Could you please talk to Ancestry.DNA product management about this? It’s crazy that this has to be all manual when Ancestry could readily provide tools like XLS download to help automate the process.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Michael: We will definitely pass on your feedback in relation to this to the relevant department for consideration. We really appreciate you taking the time to provide this.

    • Joyce

      Michael ancestry USED to provide an xls download…they discontinued it when they did “NEW” ancestry and IMO it was a mistake. BUT

      You say make a list of family names in your spreadsheet for matches—that will make a spreadsheet quite cumbersome with all the names in many good trees…

      We STILL need at LEAST 4 different colored stars Ancestry, many more would be better…and a file to sort our matches into various files.

      WHY should we have to do all this manual labor when all we need is stars and filing cabinets to sort them, and make notes about what we see in matches trees? It would be better organization for US and face it, many of us are older and not as computer savvy as younger folks. Every time I touch a spreadsheet someone sends me I mess it up if I try to sort it or do anything to it…

      I know a LOT of people who have trouble even using your website to do trees. You are not taking into account the experience level of your average users Ancestry.

      I see a LOT of people having problems even finding their folks, and often help them…I don’t think you understand the scope of just how computer illiterate a lot of your users are…

      BUT if you give them a simple filing system, and different colored stars, they might be able to function with that…Tell them to go create a spreadsheet and you are talking WAY over their head. I even took a class in excel years ago, and I still get lost in them…

      It can be so much easier than that, if you just give us a filing system for DNA matches and different colored stars to help us sort out lines.

  4. Linda

    I agree that Ancestry should provide the ability to use XL without having to manually transfer the DNA match information.
    Additionally the ability to download the ‘last of all people’ and sort the list by its headers.

  5. Carmel McMullen

    I have been lucky to be a part of 2 occasions in past 12 months where people have found their missing family because they matches my tests. It has been an amazing experience to know they have missing part of their families because of my research. The first one came about because I already knew so much about the family and most potential candidates considering amount of shared DNA 3rd cousin range would not have been in the area where conception took place. Knowing family background was a big part of solving the puzzle there. The other one I had likely father in mind but that involved research into all shared matches to convince the match that I had the answer. I don’t think ancestry could provide the tools to create all that knowledge as it really does requure a lot of hours to gain the necessary information

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Carmel: That’s amazing to hear that you have been able to help them find their missing family and we can imagine how much they appreciate all the extensive research you have done. It’s really nice to see how our members can help each other solve these puzzles and family mysteries and we appreciate you sharing this.

  6. Janet Ahrens

    I echo what has been said before about being able to download info via XLS. Using screen shots and/or somehow making note of the information is a big waste of time. It generates bad feelings about Ancestry every time I have to do it.

  7. Debbi Barnes

    DNA turned up a cousin of mine on my maternal side. It was rumored that my grandmother had a child out of wedlock, and thanks to my DNA match, my cousin was able to confirm who her biological grandmother was. And, thanks to Ancestry’s record, she was able to find out who her biological grandfather was.

  8. Mrs. Davies

    Well written. However, not everyone would want to learn to do a spreadsheet and input surnames from other trees – many of my matches (4th-6th) on 4 persons all have 10,000 plus names. Too many that is just too much to deal with. I do however, use the Shared Matches extensively and that truly does help tell if the match is on the maternal or paternal side. For example – my husband’s mother is a Gallagher from Lanark County Ontario – and through shared matches I learned that a Wallace surname connected to the Morman church kept popping up and she was from Lanark County also. Now I do record all the shared matches from this and it will help connecting his mother to the Wallace line. But for my British born half sister – it is rather a dead end. No more DNA matches really appear and I know which ones are connected to our mother – all the others may be her birth father, had a couple replies but basically no one has family names listed or because it isn’t connected to Americans from 1600-1800 they aren’t interested in talking. Sharing, talking and learning will help but Lordy I sure do need many more DNA matches for my half sister. She will be 80 next year!

  9. margaret

    I’m not techy enough to do spread sheets. Can you simplify this for those of us who are old-fashioned pencil and paper users? Why can’t ancestry with the 6 million x $100.U.S. invest some $ to give us tools to help in organizing our info? Thanks.

    • Jake Fletcher


      It doesn’t have to be on a spreadsheet. I just prefer that because columns help me to organize and filter information. It’s more of the point that I recommend cataloging your matches in some form, just as any genealogist should keep notes on their research. Paper and pencil certainly works fine!

  10. Vicki

    I have discovered that I had a different Dad and I have a 1/2 brother by doing AncestryDNA. But, I am so frustrated when I send a message to a match and they don’t respond…don’t they want to know more. If they don’t care…why bother with the test.

  11. Stephen Schmideg

    Ancestry is probably the most expensive of the testing companies and the least user friendly with the worst analytical tools. Not surprisingly when I get a likely match, I don’t get replies, because 80% of the 6 million don’t know what to do on the DNA site.

  12. Tom Boyer

    Jake, you mention Lucidchart in your article. Is there some interface between DNA matches and Lucidchart? I looked at the Lucidchart link but it seems I would have to manually import names and relationships which could lead especially in my case to erroneous info even if it is displayed really well.

    • Jake Fletcher

      Hi Tom,

      Lucidchart does not import any data from Ancestry. Lucidchart is a diagram tool that assists with research and analysis of DNA matches. You will have to create a chart of your matches manually, but it’s very simple to use.

  13. David Sobel

    I bought the DNA package months ago and I have not heard from the DNA Lab. I just looked at my family tree and there’s a hint form someone who is not a family member. I am beginning to think that this is a scam.

  14. Brian Schuck

    I had to chuckle as I read this article.. First recommended step is to catalog your ancestors in a spreadsheet – and yet Ancestry makes this extremely cumbersome to do and I find when I do it, that it immediately becomes obsolete.
    Some recommendations – Give us a way to search the notes. Give us more options for marking matches other than with a star or without a star – far too limiting. Improve the search function for finding other users – Can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to find a username in a directory and can’t because of how picky the search parameters are – if you don’t spell the username perfectly, won’t show up. Give us options to decide on shared matches if we want lower thresholds for matches – like 15.0 cm. How can you get more people doing tests to actually build a tree and connect themselves to the tree? Can anything be done in the way you send e-mail messages – I get about a 10% response rate using the send a message feature. I use ancestry because it has the most people on it, not because it’s easy to use for hard core DNA research. It’s really cumbersome for that.

  15. Patti Pryer

    I’ve a close family match and somewhere on this site it suggested two other tests we could take to further check our connection. Now poof I cant find the page where those tests were suggested. Can you help, please.

  16. Darlene Silva

    With so many people taking the DNA tests and many of us have well over 1000 cousin matches, it would be extremely helpful to have additional flagging options, such as marking whether from Maternal or Paternal side, assigning a surname for the family line, etc. (all we can do now is ‘favorite’ a match and add notes–that’s fairly simple). Being able to sort by additional flags would be great as well. Since it doesn’t look like we will be getting a chromosome browser any time soon, additional tools really are needed by those of us that want to do the research on our own. In addition, the ability to download our matches into a spreadsheet for those that may want to would add so much to your product. As much as I love Ancestry, the addition of more versatile tools really is long over-due.

  17. Susanne E Laflin

    Thanks to DNA testing, I found a niece I didn’t know existed ( she was put up for adoption at birth), and within 4 days of my contacting her, she had not only found, but also talked with on the phone, both of her birth parents. Within 2 months she had met not only her birth parents, but also several half siblings! I finally was able to fly to CA to meet her last month. The Ancestry DNA test has been life changing for several of us!

  18. Melba Ann Barber

    In 1952 when I was adopted names were changed via amended birth certificates to reflect adoptive parents as birth parents. Closed adoptions were the norm for many years so undoubtedly, amended birth certificates reflecting erroneous family history apply to perhaps thousands of people. Original birth certificates have been opened in some states, but remain closed in others. Are there steps that can be taken to encourage all states to open original birth certificates? Besides providing accurate family history, original birth certificates might also be helpful in obtaining medical history.

  19. John Mercer

    Ancestry UK customer service is appalling. Anna who spoke to me was rude in her manner and refused to let me speak to her Manager. Whilst I live in Australia, I am a member of Ancestry UK and pay my annual membership for some years to UK now. I have ordered my own DNA kit through Ancestry Australia. I tried electronically to order a kit to be shipped from Ancestry UK to my cousin who lives in UK. I am told I must have a UK bank account or UK credit card in order to purchased a DNA as a present for my cousin.Anna twice initially said they could not ship across to Australia so wasn’t listening to what I was saying.
    I am appalled that an international company cannot ship within their own country and allow payment through visacredit card that is accepted everywhere including the UK.

    Seems you don’t want business Happy Christmas to you as you are not making mine happy not able to send a DNA kit to my cousin as a present
    John Mercer

  20. Sheryl Lynn Stone

    I joined to see what countries my family originated from and not only confirmed my origins but discovered I had a first cousin I never knew about. My uncle had a child long before marrying and creating the only family I had ever met. We got in touch and met on Thanksgiving day after she flew across the country to meet her only living relatives. Our lives have changed. Her search for family is over and we gained a family member we never knew existed. Thank you Ancestry!

  21. Linda Hindes

    Is this an expensive site? What is the cost to join? Mom passed away Aug. 2016. My birth certificate did not give me a first name and she did not state “father’s name”. I have no way of knowing if the man I knew was my bio father. He passed many years ago.

  22. Deb (Frost) Fischer

    I have just started my search on ancestry. It is so hard for me as I was adopted, my birth mother died when I was 4. The man she married was not my birth father but he is listed as my father in my orginal birth certificate. I know
    (I think) my birth Fathers name but… I am confused as how to put my name on my tree since I was adopted. I put my name that appears on my original before adoption and my my mother’s maiden name. I truly am confused as to how adoptees like myself proceed. I did the dna testing so am trying to work though that. I know I have a whole other family out there and I just want to know them and about my past life and , to fill in the missing pieces. I do not feel whole and at 62 I feel like something (someone’s) are missing in my life. Whew! Thanks for letting me vent as I am frustrated.

    • Joyce

      Deb…there are different schools of thought re what names to put on tree…I am of the opinion that only DNA related people should be on your tree…so in other words your adopted father should not be on the tree…to account for him you might want to do a story to explain…and perhaps give him his own tree, since you may know people related to him who may be interested.

      Until you are SURE of your birth father my personal recommendation is to enter his name on your tree (for now) and keep your tree private and attach your DNA to that tree…research everything you can about his lines, as far back as possible with extended families. Hopefully if you get enough info into your tree you many start seeing shared ancestor hints.

      It is imperative your tree stay private until you know 100% for sure as people WILL copy it…I know an adoptee that did a tree a=n everyone he “thought” was his father and many people copied the erroneous info…you do not want that to happen.

      I wish ancestry would post our user names here, as I would certainly be willing to take a little time to guide you. I hope what I have explained is enough to help you.

      If you are lucky enough to have closer matches…1st, 2nd cousins then make sure you do private trees on those folks and carry the lines out as far as you can, also follow them back a bit…Finding a birth father is not always easy, so keep everything private until you are 100% sure as you don’t want to add to the incorrect info that plagues genealogy these days due to people copying info will nilly

  23. Joyce

    BTW I cannot stress enough that doing extended trees is very necessary if you are to pin down DNA relations…Many researchers, esp if new to genealogy get stuck at points, so if you have not followed lines down several generations, you won’t find them.

    I see too many people essentially going in a straight pedigree line…that does you a BIG disservice. 1st info you need to get further might be found by doing siblings, cousins, etc and following the lines.

    I cannot tell you how many times people have contacted me to ask if I knew how they were related. Because I do very extended families, I am often able to tell them who, what, when where and help them get over their “speed bumps”.

    Today we have the added problem of people without any tree, or those who only put down a few names and then leave ancestry. If you don’t have extended trees, you will never figure out how they are related.

    I have done a lot of mirror trees on folks that give me just enough info to start a tree on their lines…it has been successful in many cases.

    That is what enabled me to find my adopted husbands birth father –I did a mirror tree on a 2nd cousin match and researched entire family. @nds cousin match had been missing quite a few of her grandmother’s (?) siblings…I found them all with a LOT of digging and one of those people turned out to be my husband’s birth father.

    And my favorite saying is “many DNA matches links are hiding behind women’s skirts”…It can be really difficult to discover maiden names of women, but you need to seriously dig for that info as that is key to about 50% of your matches.

    DNA can be rewarding but it can also be very frustrating. I am currently trying to help an adoptee with only 4th cousin matches. No matter what we do we cannot 100% determine the parents. We think we know who the mother is, but until we can get a closer match to test, we cannot prove it. The lady who we think is the mother did not have any other children.

    Using DNA is not for the faint of heart, but if you are to make any progress you need extended trees…VERY extended trees…getting as close to living people as you possibly can.

  24. Rafael Colon-Roles

    My daughter lost the code numbers to three DNA tests that I purchased for this daughter, her son and her mother. I reside in Florida, while they reside in Colorado. These tests were purchased for Mothers Day 2017 on my credit card. Can you help me recover this data?

  25. Mt572

    I would like to be able to query my matches for which surnames are most frequent among them? Which locations? And to prioritize the results based on how close the relation is.

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