DNA has been the big story in genealogy for some years now and rightly so, as it opens up so many possibilities. Seemingly intractable problems, especially those concerning the paternity of children born illegitimately, can be solved through the wonders of DNA, uncovering relationships that would be difficult to prove through traditional research alone. Nevertheless, with all the talk of centimorgans and segments, I find the scientific side challenging. I need to constantly educate myself, especially since there are constantly new developments and tools to use. Ever since I took a DNA test with Ancestry at the end of 2017, I have been attempting to make sense of my DNA matches and utilise the information fully. Sporadically, I’ll put some work into it but recently, I decided it was high time to really get to grips with my DNA results. Primarily, I needed to improve my organisation and analyse my matches more closely. I have decided to share how I went about it, my observations and tips on DNA research on Ancestry and my DNA goals for the future. Hopefully these will be useful to other Ancestry DNA members.
Currently, I have 296 close DNA matches on Ancestry who are stated to be 4th cousins or closer, (according to Ancestry), who share at least 20CM (centimorgans) with me. I have over 12,000 matches within the range of 6-20CM. From what I’ve read, I get the impression that less than 300 DNA matches over 20CM is a bit on the low side but at least it is a more manageable number to investigate. Obviously the number of matches one has can vary tremendously, as it depends on many factors. My strategy was to go through each of my close matches systematically to try to determine how we are related to each other, making notes for future reference. A relatively new feature with Ancestry is that many matches are now assigned automatically into parental groups, as a result of their SideView technology. This can be useful, as it helps you to hone in on the common ancestral line, even if your parents have not tested. If you parents were related to each other, it is possible that a match could be assigned to both parental groups. The feature can act as a short cut to figuring it out the relationship, though I still recommend investigating each match yourself to find the connection. Since Ancestry says SideView can have 95% precision for 90% of users it is not failproof and you may find yourself disagreeing with the assignment. Luckily, it is still possible to manually add whether the match is on the paternal or maternal side of your family and label them accordingly on your match list, using the “Edit Relationship” button. You can access this when you click on a match. You will also need to do this to select the relationship (such as 3rd cousin once removed), from a menu of potential relationships. It should also be noted that many matches remain unassigned, particular remoter matches where there is no family tree and no shared matches.
My 296 matches are further subdivided by Ancestry into categories: close family, extended family and distant family. Confusingly, some matches of 20CM fall into my distant matches of 12,000+ and the dividing line between the different groups is not clear. However, here is a simple table that I have drawn up to display the matches I have in each category with their span of shared CMs:
|Close Family||Extended Family||Distant Family|
|1618 – 216CM||180-34CM||34CM-20CM|
As you can see from the above table, I have four matches who are categorised as close family members. Three of the four are members of my family who I know well: my maternal aunt, Nan, my paternal first cousin, Heather, and her daughter, Amy, (my first cousin once removed). The remaining match, “L.M” is a second cousin once removed who lives in the States. He is a descendant of a younger brother of my great grandmother, who absconded from the Army in 1912 whilst in America. We have never met and I never knew of his existence before I had my DNA tested. We share 216CM, which is quite high for the relationship. The amount of CM you share with each match is displayed on the match list and when you click on this, possible DNA relationships are shown with an accompanying percentage of probability. According to Ancestry, only 20% of people sharing 216CM are second cousins once removed, along with half second cousins, 1st cousins 3 times removed, and half first cousins two times removed.
A few years ago, Ancestry came up with the brilliant idea of coloured buttons. These are a tool for categorising matches and there are twenty four altogether. Originally, I started out by creating a different coloured button for every couple in my family tree who were common ancestors with other matches. The only problem is that I soon ran out of coloured buttons to assign! One of the tasks on my list has been to redo my buttons. I have decided to have sixteen buttons based on my sixteen seize quartiers, my great great grandparents. These will be the common ancestors of many of my closer matches who will be at least 3rd cousins of some description. Since we all have thirty two great great great grandparents, ideally I would love to have thirty two coloured buttons to mark all my 4th cousins with whom I share common descent, (though since my maternal grandparents were second cousins, potentially, I could manage with a few less). I will explain later how I am using the eight buttons that I have remaining. This is my system of classification but of course, you may have other ideas on how to use your coloured buttons.
I started ploughing my way through my matches, starting with the highest, making notes on each one and allocating coloured buttons where I could. I also recorded the precise relationship where this could be discerned. Alongside the coloured buttons, there is also the facility to add a star to a match and I did this when I was able to determine a precise relationship. Altogether, I now have 182 Starred Matches. When matches have extensive well-researched family trees, it is often straightforward to find ancestors in common. However, many matches will have no tree at all or a tree with only a few branches and very little information. This makes the task of identifying the relationship much more difficult. At the bottom of the page when you view a match, “Shared Surnames” are listed. These are the surnames that appear in the tree of both you and your match. (You can also choose to look at the surnames that appear just in the tree of your match). By clicking on a surname, you will find a list of direct ancestors of that name who appear in the match’s family tree. This can be a useful shortcut to finding ancestors in common, especially for rarer names.
Sadly both my parents have died and it has not been possible to test their DNA. However, I’m fortunate that both my maternal aunt, Nan, and my paternal first cousin, Heather, have tested. When I look in detail at a specific match, my first step is to look at “Shared Matches”. If any match with Nan or Heather, it confirms immediately what side of the family a match is on. Similarly, with each match, their “Shared Matches”, will help you identify how others are likewise related to you. If there are no “Shared Matches” or none that you can identify, it is a big advantage if there is geographical separation between your family lines. Fortunately for me, there is little overlap geographically between my paternal and maternal family lines. My father’s family is mainly from Kent with some lines from Suffolk and Greater London. There is also one family whose origins are to be found on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. My mother’s family is mainly from Wiltshire but there are some lines from Worcestershire. When you view a match, below the “Surnames” section is the “Ancestor Birth Locations” section. This consists of a map with pins showing the location of particular ancestors. You can click on the pin to display information on them and filter by tree. This can be a useful tool. For example, my great grandmother, Lucy Nock, was born in Hagley, Worcestershire in 1858. If a match has an ancestor who was born in the same area, this could be an indication that we share common ancestors on this line.
Rather belatedly, I realised that it would be a good idea to look firstly at Ancestry’s Thrulines tool. This can be a shortcut in figuring out how a match might be related to you, as Ancestry looks at a range of family trees to find the missing connection. Importantly, it also includes Private trees to make the assessments. Of course, the usual caveats apply when the information is based on the research of other users. Some trees are well-researched whilst others leave a lot to desired. The results therefore have to be treated with caution but nevertheless, I was able to find common ancestors with a number of matches as a result. You can also check the Common Ancestors filter box on the DNA Matches home page, to identify matches. These are low hanging fruit.
I’ve found it satisfying to be able to categorise a large number of my matches, though it is not always possible to identify the specific relationship. To date, all matches over 30CM have been assigned as either paternal or maternal. In fact, nearly two thirds of my matches over 20CM have been thus labelled. Added to these are some more distant matches, making a total of 283 so far that I have categorised in this way. There is a fairly even spread between maternal and paternal matches. Inevitably, the remoter the match, the more difficult they become to identify but nevertheless, I have been able to identify some 5th and 6th cousins, even though we share less than 10 CM.
The most puzzling matches are those that have no family tree and no shared matches. Luckily, these are a small minority. I also have some matches in America whose ancestry is all firmly based in America so the links to England are unknown. I imagine that in some of these cases, a relative of mine must have emigrated to America at an early date. I also have a few significant clusters of unknown matches: they all share DNA with me and each other. These are tantalising, as I can be confident that there is a common ancestral relationship. Could they help to solve a mystery? For example, the parentage of my great great grandfather, George Thomas Powell, allegedly born in Chiswick Middlesex in 1838/9, and the subject of a previous blog post, Who was Thomas?, is unknown. Perhaps one of these unknown groups relate to his antecedents? I have used my spare coloured buttons to label these unknown clusters. It is worth seeing if these clusters of unknown matches have any surnames in common. This can help you identify the ancestral line you need to pursue back.
Working my way through my matches, I have some advice and observations that I hope you will find helpful:
Be cautious with probabilities
- Although I have 46 matches in the “Extended Family” range of 34-216 CM, many of these are 4th cousins or even remoter. It is easy to get into the mindset that a high number of CM must indicate a close relationship or a low number of CM must indicate a distant relationship but it is not necessarily the case within certain parameters. For example, a recent match, Kenneth, came in with 111CM across 5 segments. I was surprised to work out that we were in fact, 4th cousins. It is rare for a 4th cousin to share so many CMs but it is not impossible. Similarly, I have a 3rd cousin with only 12CM. Although there is a typical range of CM for a particular relationship, and Ancestry estimates a percentage of probability, it is still quite possible to share a much higher or lower amount than is typical.
- Be patient when a new match appears. I spent a long time figuring out how Kenneth was related to me. Although he had no family tree, his unusual name meant that I could work my way back using the GRO indexes and eventually, I found the connection. However, a few days later, Kenneth supplied a detailed family tree that provided the connection. Perhaps I should have waited. Matches may not attach a family tree immediately to their results. Similarly, when you send a message to a match, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back immediately. However, you may receive a response to your message many months later so don’t give up!
Use the Notes Section
- My top tip is to use the notes section to write down the information you have discovered or to record any hypotheses. This will help to ensure that you don’t repeat all your research again in the future. You can also do searches using this field. If you have a new match, you can immediately work out how they are likely to be related to you by looking at the notes you have made previously on shared matches.
Look for Names and Places in Common
- See if there are any names and places in common with your match to help you figure out the connections. Shared Surnames are listed below the family tree, as are Ancestral Birth Locations.
Be Alert to Variant Spellings
- Be alert to names spelt in a variety of ways in other people’s trees. One technique I have used to find common matches is to use the search box on the DNA match list page to search by surname. For example, if I search under “Batchelor”, I can find all matches where Batchelor appears as a surname in their family tree. However, alternative spellings can be recorded, even rather recently. Walter Maton, my great grandmother’s brother, who absconded from the Army in 1912 in America, used the spelling of Meaton and all his descendants are recorded under this variant. Similarly, another family name is Nock but I have found relatives recorded as Noke in other family trees. Check for variants either in the family tree or in the Surnames section, where you can list all the names that appear in the match’s tree.
Pay Attention to Geography
- When trying to determine how you might be related to a match, pay particular attention to geography. For example, if I have a match who has paternal Scottish ancestry but maternal ancestry from Wiltshire, I will focus on the maternal side, as I also have ancestry from Wiltshire but no known Scottish roots.
Use the Search Function to Search by Birth location
- Use the search function to search the trees of your matches by “Birth Location in Matches’ Trees”. For example, I can trace my Batchelor ancestry to the parish of West Farleigh in Kent, where William Batchelor married Mary Franks in 1777. I am unsure of their parentage but I have a number of intriguing matches on this branch who are all descendants of Thomas Fry and Sarah Furminger who married there in 1772. Could there be a connection between them?
Watch out for Cousin Intermarriage
- Be aware that any marriage of cousins can increase the amount of DNA you inherit from a particular line. My maternal grandparents were second cousins, their shared great grandparents were Angel Bullock and Ann Ponting. As a result, I have some matches on this line with whom I share a higher number of CMs than one would otherwise expect, given that we are not closely related.
Check unlinked family trees
- If a family tree is unlinked, it just means that it has not been linked to the DNA test. Nevertheless, it could contain the information you are seeking.
DNA tests don’t tell you everything
- Remember that there will be many Ancestry members who have not taken a DNA test but who nevertheless will share DNA with you. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine whether a member has not taken a test or alternatively, does not match with you. One should always bear it mind that there will also be members who will be related to you even if you do not have any DNA in common.
The number of matches on a particular line can vary considerably
- On some lines, there are many descendants, whilst on others, I have few matches. If a relative has emigrated, perhaps to America or Australia/New Zealand, I will often find many matches as in those countries, more people take DNA tests. However, there are few matches on some lines, perhaps because there were small families. Some lines largely die out if descendants die without issue.
You may need to proactively Seek out descendants
- If there is a mystery that could be solved with the help of DNA, it is often worth seeking out possible descendants who might be willing to take a test.
You will not always get a response to your message
- Although it can be very worthwhile to get in touch with matches, in some cases, you will never receive a response. I have found the chances of a reply are less than 50%. This may be because the match does not receive the message in the first place, perhaps because they are no longer Ancestry members. Sometimes, people are unwilling to enter into a correspondence or are not really interested in family history, even though they took a DNA test. If possible, consider providing your email address at the earliest opportunity for ease in communication. Also remain optimistic, as you may hear from them eventually.
That Dot in the Centre of the Country
- If a person puts an ancestor’s place of birth just as “England”, a dot on the map will appear in the centre of the country, around Leicester!
there are Limits to Relationship Labelling
- On Ancestry, one annoyance is that the list of possible relationships ends at 5th cousin. Any relationship remoter than this can only be marked as “Distant Relationship”. However, I use the notes section to record the correct relationship if this can be determined.
Much like traditional genealogical research, you can never say you are done when looking at DNA matches. New matches appear all the time that can unlock mysteries and there are always new developments and innovations. For the time being, I have the following goals, some of which I have already started to work on whilst others are more long-term:
- Contact all matches who are 3rd cousins or closer.
- Contact all unknown matches of 30 CM and above.
- Look at matches below 20CM who appear as shared matches.
- Discover the connection between myself and the matches that I have put in unknown groups.
- Find other descendants of my great great grandfather, George Thomas Powell, to see what matches may relate to his ancestry.
- Get more family members to take a DNA test.
- Explore the wonderful tools on DNA Painter, https://dnapainter.com, to make more progress.
- Subscribe to MyHeritage – https://www.myheritage.com. (I have already uploaded my DNA). They have some excellent DNA tools, including a chromosome browser.
- Upload my DNA to FamilyTreeDNA – https://www.familytreedna.com/ and take a DNA test with 23andMe – https://www.23andme.com/ to find new matches. (23andMe do not accept uploads).
- Add information to my own family tree from the family trees of my matches when I have verified the relationship.
- Use the DNA tagging features in MyTreeTags section to label ancestors – “Common Ancestor”, “DNA Connection” and “DNA Match”. Searches can then be made under these tags and it is easier to see how shared DNA has been inherited.
- Fully explore the matches of my maternal aunt to find more connections.
- Use traditional research to find connections where I know the shared family line from my DNA match though not the specific descent.
- Continue to educate myself about DNA.
Studying DNA matches in detail is a laborious process and it takes time to do the analysis, tagging and notes. However, there has already been a number of benefits. I certainly know much more about the descendants of collateral lines and in a few cases, where there is a well-researched family tree, I have been able to extend my research to earlier dates or learnt of additional record sources. I have a surprising number of relatives who emigrated, particularly to America or Australia. Without the aid of DNA, I would never have known about their descendants and found out about the new lives they made.
Though I cannot claim to be a DNA expert and there are others who have far more expertise in this area, I hope you find the information on my DNA journey helpful. Perhaps it will inspire you to explore and organise your own DNA matches. Sometimes the sheer number can seen overwhelming so perhaps set yourself some realistic goals – perhaps look at ten matches every week, working your way through them from the closest to those more distant. I would also love to hear how you have organised your own Ancestry DNA matches and any suggestions you can share. Please feel free to comment below and share on your social media.
© Judith Batchelor 2022
16 thoughts on “Jude’s Gen – Organising DNA Matches on Ancestry”
Great article, Jude! When I first got my 23andMe DNA results, I simply stared at each match asking the same question, “who’s your grandma?”. Months later I realized I could use DNAPainter as an intermediary to resolve family connections and flow cousin matches from 23andMe to my, admittedly mature, Ancestry tree. DNAPainter’s Chromosome Mapping groups can be color-categorized to complement the Ancestry colored-button system (I’ve relied on ROY G. BIV and Brown, top-to-bottom, in my tree pedigree view…easy to memorize great-grandparent colors). More cousins in the tree means more support for taking down those brick walls. Thanks for your article and inspiration.
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Thank you Tom! I have an account with DNA Painter but have yet to utilise all the tools and resources. Obviously the lack of chromosome browser on Ancestry is its biggest drawback so DNA Painter can help to fill the gap. I’m also wondering how many of my Ancestry DNA matches also appear on MyHeritage, which does have the chromosome browser.
I like that idea! It makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, I only have one 2nd cousin who has tested but maybe other people have more. I need to persuade more family members to test.
Hello Jude, a very interesting article with many good tips.
On the subject of uploading DNA results from Ancestry to other providers, whilst this can be done with My Heritage and FtDNA, I dont believe it is possible with 23AndMe unless something has changed recently. In order to “fish in as many ponds as possible”, it is has been necessary to buy a kit and test with both Ancestry and 23AndMe….
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Thanks Phil for picking this up. I do know that 23andMe don’t accept uploads but it slipped in. I will make the correction.
Absolutely spot-on in that yes, I’m quite sure most of us are floundering with what to make of our DNA results. Your published article is concise and valuable on the subject of organising your DNA matches. There will be some (such as myself) that are blown away by truths that surface from DNA testing. I was always prepared for surprises arising, but was completely unprepared for just how seismic the revelations would be. These were important truths and needed to be known and explain much about relationships within our family. And then arose a, ‘Do you know who my father is?’ scenario from a match. I had a lot to learn, and fast. Where to start? The answer wasn’t obvious.
My observations on your published article are:
* (Q) Question often in mind: who in a family should test? (A) everyone willing, especially older generations, as they are a window that looks further back in time than is possible with your DNA. But siblings too, as they hold important DNA of your family that you don’t carry (see note).
* It would be nice if Ancestry provided details of the strength of shared match interconnection (cMs) in addition to your own connection strength to the match, as is done on My Heritage.
* There’s some (perhaps small) risk involved in using the Ancestry’s DNA match note mechanism in that should a person remove or set ‘private’ their DNA test result in the future, any notes you have made will be lost. It’s not equivalent to placing notes against people in your family tree on Ancestry which are entirely within your control (see note). Possibly worth considering an alternative cloud-based note taking mechanism (e.g. OneDrive, etc.).
* If you should discover DNA match information you deem sensitive to living persons, documenting in a ‘public’ family tree probably ceases to be an option. Having a separate ‘private’ tree is also problematic. DNA gives another ‘truth layer’ to our history, the ‘biological truth’, which supplements the ‘documented truth’. Often (but not always) one confirms the other. Each is pertinent in the telling of our family history and one does not erode the value of the other. It’s unclear to me how best to document disparity in these layers of information.
* A big question surrounds what you do with matches that potentially show an illegitimate relationship with your known family. My current practise is to keep such matters to myself and not foist my findings (or suppositions) on either my family or my DNA matches. For every scenario there is a delicate balance between surfacing legitimate revelations and being mindful of the sensibility of others.
* Communicating and sharing information with DNA matches who are keen family historians can be beneficial (as in your ‘Have patience’ example) (see note). Occasionally (but not always) you’ll hit upon a contact who can really move a line of enquiry forward.
Note: marked observations above are raised in the book: ‘Tracing your ancestors using DNA’.
Might I suggest the follow-on subject to this article could be: ‘Analysing DNA matches on Ancestry’? Ultimately, I feel most of us require some expert advice in this field. A consultative support framework would be useful to many who have acquired their DNA test results. I do not think that at this time this is widely available.
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Thank you for your kind comments. Although the title of my article is about organising your DNA matches, I really cover analysing them too. However, DNA is a big subject so I may well do a follow-up article in the future. There are many related topics that I didn’t have the space to go into.
I appreciate your thoughts on DNA research. One always has to be prepared for a few surprises and it is important to be respectful of others and tread cautiously. A private tree might be a good idea for certain sensitive projects. If an explanation is necessary, I like to use the notes function.
As you point out, it is also not necessary to have all your research online. Many people have their own family tree software or use spreadsheets etc. If someone makes their tree private, your own notes will not be lost, which is another reason to make them in the first place.
Wishing you all the best with your DNA research,
Thanks, Judith, this is all a beautiful idea, except it doesn’t work, for several reasons.
Most of my 4th cousin matches are 7th to 14th cousins. In some cases that has meaning to me; I’m hardly only interested in actual 4th cousins.
50% of actual biological relatives at the 4th cousin level share no DNA at all, and the rest don’t necessarily share 20 cM or 50 cM or something. Quite a number of my 4th cousin matches share only 6 to 9 cM. That is more true of some lines than others, and it is especially true of my Smiths. If I couldn’t identify them I couldn’t have proven my Y DNA was carried by atleast my 2x great grandfather! (The oldest generation, autosomal DNA proves only the biological connection to one parent, the mother.)
Third, Ancestry 6 to 9 cM matches are really much larger segments that Ancestry pared down before reporting them.
And, finally, the most meaningful way to organize matches will always be in a spreadsheet by segment location, and Ancestry does not tell us that.
In fact, it isn’t even possible to conclude how you’re related to your matches in common on Ancestry. I just spent two days doing someone’s tree for her, exploring matches who share DNA in common with my Plucks and connect to them in Germany, some of which have ancestors with certain names or certain villages in Germany. My Dehaven 3x great grandmother was a Pluck, and her sister married a Cloward and had many Mormon descendants mostly in the Salt Lake City area, and that is most identifiable Pluck descendants. So, two days of work and the woman descends from Dehaven 3x great grandfather’s Dehaven ancestors. If I could have seen the segments I share with the woman I wouldn’t even have started.
Ancestry’s cousin labels are at best a guideline but it is easy to be misled, as the relationships can be both closer or more distant. It is important to educate yourself as much as possible so you can make your own determination. There are certainly limitations to what you can do on the Ancestry website and many people find that creating a spreadsheet of their DNA matches is helpful.
Thank you for this Jude.
One thing others have said, and I would like to reiterate, is that creating a tree for those tantalizing matches with no tree, or a tiny one, is not that difficult if the match helps you with details on their immediate family and their known ancestors.
I have created dozens of private and public Ancestry trees for my matches since I embarked on this adventure in 2015. They have in turn helped me to break down brick walls and extend my family tree back to The Mayflower passengers on a dozen branches. Who knew?
Offering such a benefit gives an extra little nudge to a match who might not otherwise respond.
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Yes, if you have got something to go on and hopefully some names that are not too common, it’s amazing what you can achieve. Preferably, the relationship is not that distant either. How exciting for you to find Mayflower ancestors!
Hi Jude, really enjoyed this, very useful information, thank you! Some of the techniques I already use, but must admit I’m having difficulty getting my head around how to assign the coloured buttons to 16 great great grandparents (which is a great idea) – do you assign the same coloured button to both people in the marriage? What if the link is to only one of those people (say when the father, for instance, might be unknown) – do you then use a different shade of the same colour, or what? I’m sure I am missing something obvious, my failing rather than yours, I’m certain! Any hints as to how you actually assign them would be really helpful. Sorry if I’m being a bit dim!
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Also… if you have a match to a 4th or 5th great grandparent (i seem to have a lot of those, far fewer to great great grandparents) on the same line, it makes sense to add them to an existing line…?
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Hi Elaine, I always assign a coloured button on a couple basis – it takes two to tango! Originally, I assigned them whenever I could trace direct descent from a couple, however many generations back. However, I soon ran out of coloured buttons! My system now is to use them for my sixteen great great grandparents, as all matches that I have identified are either descendants of them or our common remoter ancestors will filter through one of them. I use notes to explain the descent if it is further away. Any remaining buttons I then use for unknown matches that form a group so I can study them more easily.
It doesn’t really matter if you have an unknown great great grandparent. The couple will still have their own coloured button even if the name on the paternal side is blank. If you only know say fourteen of your great great grandparents, them you will have some extra spare buttons. I hope this makes sense and is helpful. Judith