Genetic Genealogy with DNA Testing

Savvy Researching with DNA

After you've checked every record you can think of and still can't find the clue that helps you break through the "brick wall" in your family tree, what do you do?

Once the only answer was to keep checking back to find out if new records had become available in the geographical target area, to review your previous notes and documents copies to see if there was a significant detail you'd missed, or to broaden your search to other individuals in the same line to see if you'd have more success there. When you'd done all that and still failed to come up with information on that elusive ancestor, your only choice was to research another line and hope a new avenue of information would open up in a few months or years.

Now, genetic genealogy -- DNA testing -- can help shed light on some of those mysteries that confound you. It can confirm or disprove your hypothesis that you have a family link with someone, as well as suggesting the geographic origins of your deep ancestry. It's not going to solve every research problem, however.

How do you participate in Genetic Genealogy?
You can purchase an autosomal DNA testing kit from Ancestry for $99 (with frequent sales, so it's worth waiting for one of those). No blood draws -- just follow the instructions and collect a saliva sample. Simple and easy!  The AncestryDNA test covers both maternal and paternal sides and is equally effective for men and women. It generally takes about 6 to 8 weeks to obtain results. You'll learn your estimated genetic ethnicity and find matches with unknown cousins. AncestryDNA has a feature called ThruLines® that shows presumptive matches with descendants of specific ancestors through your 5th great grandparents (and may suggest possible ancestor matches). Again, weigh these against research instead of blindly accepting "matches," as the matches are based on online trees which frequently contain errors and unwarranted assumptions. 

You can also try, 23 and Me, or some of the other companies offering similar testing. Prices vary, as does client satisfaction, so do your homework before making a commitment to one or the other. I've done FamilyTreeDNA (uses a cheek swab to gather DNA) and got lots of matches plus an ethnicity estimate that was a little different than the AncestryDNA estimate. I found the matches harder to map out on my online tree than the Ancestry matches, but maybe that's just my limitation.

WARNING: Some security officials in the FBI are warning against these kinds of tests because many of these companies partner with entities affiliated with the Chinese government which is building databases of personal DNA info as part of its mission to dominate bio-tech.
My Own Experience with DNA Testing
I got interested in DNA testing and its implications in genealogy research in the "olden days" before genetic genealogy was widely used. I knew my fourth great-grandfather on my father's side was a man named Jacob Arnett, who appeared in what became East Tennessee in 1783. I'd exhaustively investigated every man in colonial America whose name was anything close to that and was pretty sure that my Jacob was from a family that settled in Virginia. That family had a Jacob that disappeared from Loudoun County, Virginia records about the time of the Revolutionary War. As luck would have it, I was exchanging information with several Arnett researchers, including Wayne Charles Arnett, a Phoenix area attorney who is descended from that Loudoun County family. (Curiously, I'm an attorney as well. Maybe we have a gene for lawyering.)  One of the things I shared with Wayne was a wedding photo of my Arnett grandparents. He was astonished by the resemblance between my grandfather and his great-grandfather.. So -- long story short -- Wayne took a  37 marker Y-DNA test and so did my brother. And guess what! Though the common ancestor was 7 generations back, Wayne and Norm were a 100% match. Bingo! My hypothesis was confirmed. My brother has since taken the Y700 test and is a participant in the Arnett/Arnott Ydna project.

I also did an early mtDNA to trace my female lineage up the tree. It wasn't particularly helpful. More recent autosomal DNA testing through AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA proved much more fruitful (and entertaining). I did find a few surprises that were intriguing.