DNA Testing Causes Grey Hair

DNA Testing Causes Grey Hair

by Kerry Scott on 20 April 2013

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Is it me, or is DNA testing for genealogy both awesome and a huge pain in the ass?

I’ve tested at both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Lately, I’ve been spending a bit of time trying to find the connection with some of my matches. This should be easy, because I have quite a few third and fourth cousins…but it isn’t. At all. I feel like I’m playing Go Fish. Do you have any Nelsons? Go fish. Do you have any Ericksons? Go fish. Do you have any Taylors? You’ve got to be kidding. We’ll never find the connection at this rate.

Part of the problem is precisely the Go Fish effect: Comparing surnames isn’t always efficient. It’s great if you have a relatively uncommon surname like Holthusen; I figured out my fifth-cousin Holthusen connection in about seven minutes flat. But when you’re talking about Nelsons and Ericksons and Taylors…forget it. We’d be far better off if everyone listed their locations, because those are often more telling than the surnames. If you tell me you have Ericksons, I don’t have a clue who you are. If you tell me you have roots in Luster, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, I can nail you down in no time,even without a surname (and if you’re Scandinavian, you know those patronyms are of limited use anyway). We need this Go Fish game to be more like Crazy Eights, where you can ask for either the number on the card or the suit. When we list our surnames, we need to list locations too.

Another tool I’ve been using is Ancestry trees. When I see a cousin listed, I look for that person’s tree on Ancestry (and there usually IS a tree on Ancestry). Then I painstakingly enter my own surnames into the list of people to see if any of them appear in that tree. This is still annoying, time-consuming and inefficient, but I haven’t figured out a way to search trees by location [UPDATE: Ancestry now has this function, although I've found a lot of false positives/negatives]. ┬áThat’s one function that would be a huge help as we all continue to figure out how to make DNA testing useful for genealogy.

What techniques have you used to successfully connect DNA cousins to your family tree?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosemary April 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

Yes and amen! I’m doing the same as you and have been working with the member trees on Ancestry. I’ve requested a search by location via the Feedback system at AncestryDNA although when it will get done is anyone’s guess.

And my hair is getting greyer by the day (still have hair, which is not to be sneezed at).


Jacqi Stevens April 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Not that I’m up to the DNA-hair-greying stage, myself (apparently, my hair has the ability to go grey all on its own), but one caution I’ve felt with the tests that offer to connect people to their distant relatives through family trees is just that: how reliable is any given online tree? I’ve seen some pretty sad cases out there, where I know I’ve already done my due diligence, obtained the documentation–and come up with very different results from what’s published on other trees related to my lines.

Your idea of including geographic locations might help–at least for those families not prone to wandering. For more common surnames, I tend to also prefer a short list of related surnames, such as surname + spouse’s surname + mother’s maiden name when searching for commonalities. Looking for a nexus of two or three related surnames. When searching for a relatively common name, I keep a list of unusual surnames in my back pocket to pull out as “tie breaker” too–for instance, when looking for my southern Broyles family–on the face of it, seems rare, but historically speaking, not so rare–I’ll pull out Taliaferro as a trump card. Or on my Polish side, pairing Laskowski with the much-rarer Gramlewicz or Aktabowski. That eliminates false leads, pronto.

On the other hand, maybe that eliminates too many possibilities. And where would that leave you?


Kerry Scott April 20, 2013 at 3:12 pm

You’re absolutely right about the reliability of online trees. I keep finding these cousins with complete trees going back to their fifth great-grandparents, and I’m like, really? REALLY? Because even the best genealogists I know don’t know every single one of their fifth great-grandparents. Something is rotten in Denmark (or in this case, in Norway). So I think that many times, we’re working with data that’s sketchy to begin with.


Greta Koehl April 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Member trees on Ancestry for me, too (though I have to nose around to find out if the information is reliable). I’ve done three tests (FTDNA, 23andMe). Using locations when possible. Since Ancestry does not have chromosome mapping, I keep a table of my Ancestry matches that shows which line and who the common ancestors are; this serves mainly to give me a general idea of where most of my matches are. I’m not sure where the cutoff line is for the number of matches that indicates significant results, but there are a number of lines where I have more than 20 matches. I am also keeping an eye on family names that married into a family group from which a brickwall great-great grandmother came in an effort to pinpoint her parents (21 hits on one line and 19 hits on another are pointing to a couple of brothers, and other information makes one of them a better candidate than the other). I am trying to contact matches on all three services and do the chromosome mapping thing for any who have tested on FTDNA or 23andMe. Laborious, but interesting and possibly useful.


Israel P. April 20, 2013 at 10:17 pm

I don’t know about the others, but on Family Tree DNA we list both ancestral names and locations.


Kerry Scott April 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

On FTDNA, I have maybe eight or nine matches out of hundreds who list locations.


Gaye Tannenbaum April 21, 2013 at 1:11 pm

LOL. It’s a full time job for me. I’m adopted. I’ve tested on all three and find AncestryDNA the most useful despite its MAJOR shortcomings.

I would love to find the secret to teasing out useful information from Ashkenazi matches. Endogamous population, prone to rapid location changes, scant existing translated available documents, 3 generation trees which list ancestral location as “Russia” and multiple name changes (surname and given name plus patronyms). What’s not to like? And this is the side I KNOW!

Having a much better time burning haystacks looking for an unknown father (in Washington DC during the summer of 1952, may have worked for the Army) who apparently has mostly US colonial ancestry.

I’m basically doing the same thing – looking for common surnames/locations among my matches – with the problem of not having a set of surnames and locations to begin with.

So my antennae went up when I saw BROYLES and TALIAFERRO in the same sentence. Got any WILHITES?


Lauren Mahieu April 21, 2013 at 2:48 pm

After having both the FTDNA and Ancestry.com autosomal tests done, I’m beginning to think I simply have a bunch of false positives for matches. I did identify one cousin who was listed as distant, and turned out to be something akin to a tenth cousin – our common ancestor was a Stanwood born in the 17th century. (This was a well documented line and no additional info gleaned.) The only thing DNA testing has accomplished for me so far is rule out my grandmother’s hypothesis that we are partly Native American.


Jennifer Zinck November 5, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Lauren, current DNA testing cannot rule out a hypothesis that you are partly Native American. Because autosomal DNA has a random inheritance pattern, it is possible that you have no representation of an ancestor more than five generations ago. What this simply means is that you don’t have any identifiable “Native American” DNA. Besides, there aren’t really any good control groups. There are many great uses for autosomal DNA but with current science, ethnicity determination is not one of the useful (or accurate) outcomes.


Nicholas Weerts April 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Well, you guys are all ahead of me… on my ’2013 Genealogy Must-Do List’ is #7- Get DNA tested. Still trying to educate myself on the whole process… what info will be available… and then what I do with results (as I’m not really seeking anything in particular at this point).
But I love reading about others DNA adventures! ;)


Kerry Scott April 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

Keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook this week. There’s some holiday (World DNA Day or something) that occurs in the end of April, and DNA sites often have sales on that day. FTDNA is already running a sale. While they’re the most expensive of the big three options, I do like their product. You can easily triangulate to see which cousins you have in common with a match, which is VERY helpful. Also, the people on there tend to be genealogists, which is not the case with the majority of 23andMe customers. On the flip side, I would have done 23andMe even if I had no interest in genealogy, because of the health info.


Karen Wyles April 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Ancestry really needs a search by location, I have a couple distant cousins with Rootweb trees so I search their trees by location. County genweb sites are useful too.


Shannon Christmas April 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Stop comparing surname lists, start comparing family trees. Surnames without context are useless. Employ Ancestry.com and Rootsweb.com to gather and organize as much pedigree data as possible. Identifying the ancestors connecting you with your genetic relatives will become far less challenging once everyone jettisons the surname lists and compares pedigrees.


Christine Blythe April 24, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I found your site when checking out the Top 40 Blogs list on the Family Tree Magazine site. Congratulations on making the list!

I will be back because I find your humor refreshing.


Kerry Scott April 24, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Thank you very much!!


Pam Strasser April 28, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I agree! I did Ancestry DNA, and felt that it was a complete waste of time and money. No surprises or even much information. Peiodically they send me an e-mail saying they’ve located cousins. Very distant cousins! Not one of these folks could possibly be related to me. Of course, when you’re working with names like Harrison, Smith (2 families of them,) Steele, Powell, Casey, and Fischer, you’re going to have trouble finding the right kin. DNA testing is going to have to assure me of more of a return before I try it again.


jo swearingen November 12, 2013 at 6:16 am

I did Ancestry DNA and have gotten the same results. I’ve got Smiths (origin-Denmark) and Powells (KY) too. Who knows, we might be related!


Katharine Ott June 11, 2013 at 10:55 am

Hello Kerry – I also picked up your feed after reading Family Tree magazine and am enjoying your approach. I agree that it is pretty frustrating to try to make DNA matches sometimes, but I’ve had some good luck and been led down some new avenues because of it. I just read the Genetic Genealogist’s post about FamilyTreeDNA offering an autosomal DNA transfer into their database from ancestry for just $49, so I’m hoping that will generate some new finds too.


Kerry Scott June 11, 2013 at 11:57 am

Thanks! $49 is a great deal for that. I love FTDNA’s analysis tools. They’re far better than any of the ones offered by their competitors.


Israel P. June 11, 2013 at 11:59 am

I so wish I knew how to use them!


Anne Morris June 18, 2013 at 8:01 am

I do agree with Shannon Christmas, above, re surnames. Wasted a lot of time jumping to conclusions based on unusual surnames, only to learn from the “old pro” genealogists that they weren’t really that unusual for my ethnicity (white colonial American) or regional/ethnic origins. Specific locations, especially within the past 150-200 years, are a much better indicator. Just my two cents’ worth…


Teresa Hall July 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I’ve done Ancestry and had my father do FTDNA. What I wish I could do with Ancestry is download the names in the trees of my potential kin into a spreadsheet or database. At first I saw very few matches… then I realized I was seeing some familiar names again and again. Since those names were ANCESTORS OF MY MOTHER IN LAW I was able to research further and find a possible intersection between her and my maternal grandmother. Then, a possible connection between my FIL and my maternal grandfather showed up. The more trees I see, the more names I realize are repeats, but it’s very difficult to recall where I saw them last.

Actually, Ancestry DNA does have searches by location. One it’s had for a while, one is (I think) new. With the new search, you can ask to filter trees for ones that have a specific location. With the older search, when you are in a tree that they have recommended as a potential match, there is a Map and Locations tab that will cross-reference your two trees by location markers. I haven’t gotten everything I’d hoped from the Ancestry DNA, but I have found some distant cousins. And, I got it on the opening offer, so I paid $5.00 for it. How could it be a waste for only $5.00??


Jennifer Baldwin November 5, 2013 at 8:49 am

You can search by location on Ancestry trees! And if you have a surname to go along with location it’s even better….


Tyrone Bowes November 5, 2013 at 8:56 am

If you have had a male relative take a Y-DNA test and you are asking yourself how can he match many people with different surnames then the answer is rather very simple; those surnames arose among a group of related males living in a particular area when paternally inherited surnames became common, plot where those surnames originate in early census data and you’ll reveal an area common to all (basically where your ancestor lived when he picked his surname, which was about 1000 years ago).


Addys Reilly November 5, 2013 at 9:25 am

MY husband, sister in law have had the 23andme test done. then it was suggested to upload the raw data to gedmatch. I had my husband do the FTDNA first, don’t know if its free to upload this data to gedmatch.
The trouble is that there is so much information on 23andme about cousins and chromosones and matches that it makes my head spin. I don’t know how read any of this and to make an educated guess as to who could be a better match.
any help for people like me that can not comprehend the whole raw data, chromosomes, names, locations???


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