Autosomal DNA tests verifying conventional paper-based genealogical research

Some months ago I blogged about a major DNA breakthrough, confirming that I’d traced my Irish great granny properly. DNA testing was needed to be sure of the line, because we lack certain conventional key paperwork, and so it was enormously difficult to trace back.

That testing was with FamilyTreeDNA, using their FamilyFinder test, which finds chunks of DNA from all branches of the ancestral tree. This is called autosomal DNA testing.

I’ve since tested with AncestryDNA as well, which is a purely autosomal test, and have found that very useful too. It’s confirmed numerous ancestral lines, that I traced the conventional way through paperwork. So I thought it might be worth reflecting on that.

My ancestry is 1/2 Scottish (mainly Scottish Borders), 3/8 English (West Yorkshire and West Midlands) and 1/8 Irish (Dublin and County Cork). And I trace every single line, and have been doing so for 35 years.

Many people signing up for AncestryDNA do so for the approximate ethnicity measures, but as a genealogist I find the genealogical potential vastly more exciting, allowing me to make contact with cousins – near and far – who are tracing the same ancestral lines, uncovering more information about my ancestors, and letting us combine research efforts.

A big drawback with AncestryDNA is that people who are going just for the ethnicity angle don’t know their ancestral lines. So often they won’t respond to messages from possible cousins. And they would rarely have uploaded any summary of their family tree, which can be so useful for comparing trees automatically in the Ancestry system, identifying possible shared lines. I just have a skeletal ancestry tree entered into my Ancestry account, but find that invaluable for comparing potential matches, and helping people find me there too.

I find that out of about 150 AncestryDNA matches I can see from online trees in the system how about 30 of the people are probably linked. I contact those with particularly promising looking lines, perhaps those I’m struggling to trace, or am keen to make contact with a living cousin. Not even all people with online trees respond, but a fair number do.

Good contacts that I’ve made include:

  • finding a distant Hall cousin, proving that my ggg-grandfather in Hawick had a brother we didn’t know about born 1820, who emigrated to USA. The emigrant was a spinner in the woollen trade in Hawick before emigrating, and did the same thing in the USA!
  • matching a Broadhead cousin, which is great because I struggled to trace back past my gg-granddad, who was illegitimate, and wasn’t sure I’d traced him right. Now I can be.
  • matching a Senior cousin, my granny’s line, contacting someone whose ancestor was the older brother of my gg-grandfather, and who returned to help run the family farm near Barnsley. This opens up the possibility of finding out more personal family information about the family farm, which our branch knew nothing about today.
  • contacting a very eager genealogist who descends from the younger brother of my Fair gg-granny in Roxburghshire. We are now sharing family info, both actively tracing all lines back, and swapping and sharing notes.

All these connections through DNA confirm I’ve traced the relevant family lines properly through documentary records, including in tricky cases like my Irish great granny and the Broadhead example where the documentary record wasn’t clear, and so there was doubt. That’s been weird to experience, making me reassess lines, and know 100% they are right! I hadn’t expected DNA results to have an emotional effect like this, when it comes to confirming the accuracy of conventional documentary research. But for me it has done.

I also run a Cavers one-name study. My own Cavers link is quite far up my family tree, via mother’s father’s mother’s father’s mother. So that line can’t be Y-DNA tested, at least in my immediate family, and we haven’t been able so far to add it to the Cavers Y-DNA project I run, allowing its male-line DNA profile to be compared with other Cavers branches. But I seem to have autosomal DNA matches through AncestryDNA with other Cavers descendants. Some of the matching people descend from the Cavers ancestors I’ve traced back to, but others concern other Cavers lines, which may hint at a hitherto undiscovered link between my Cavers branch and others, that predates the paper records. That is potentially very exciting, and I’m considering widening my Cavers DNA project on FamilyTreeDNA to include autosomal DNA as well as the more conventional Y-DNA tests focused on by surname DNA projects which seek to match up paternal/surname lines.

Anyway those are just some thoughts. I expect to make more good autosomal DNA matches over the next year, as more people get tested and their results are added to the AncestryDNA database of test results. We have also bought an AncestryDNA test for my husband, having seen how useful it was for me. Fingers crossed he finds good links too!

About vivdunstan

Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan.
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7 Responses to Autosomal DNA tests verifying conventional paper-based genealogical research

  1. vivdunstan says:

    Reblogged this on Viv's Academic Blog and commented:

    Just blogged some thoughts about autosomal (all branches) DNA testing, and how those results have compared with my conventional paper-based research. Very much genealogical focused, but interesting from a wider perspective, viewed through the lens of general historical research, which frequently has to piece together stories from incomplete paper records, but can’t usually fall back on science to confirm things 100%.

  2. Pingback: Goals for my Cavers one-name study in 2018 | Cavers One-Name Study Blog

  3. Thanks for that, Viv. I found the blog really interesting, as much as anything because you have made so much progress and I haven’t! I have made very little with Family Finder and yet feel I should be making more. Most of my main lines are back 5 generations in paper trail terms in Ireland, Scotland and England. I have one connection (2nd to 3rd cousin) with my mother’s Matthews family line, with 190 shared centimorgans and 33 longest block, but can’t fit it into the paper trail. How does this data compare with your matches please? Can you give any guidance on what your matches were described as in FTDNA cousinly terms please?
    Happy New Year
    Rod O’Donoghue
    GOON 2383

    • vivdunstan says:

      Hi Rod, Thanks for your questions.
      My big successes have been with AncestryDNA not FamilyTreeDNA. I believe the latter has a bigger database of test results now, and seems to be growing rapidly. Its built-in surname and tree matching software on the site also makes it much easier to match up online trees than I find with FamilyTreeDNA. AncestryDNA doesn’t talk about sizes of matches in centimorgans etc. but more generations. I tested initially with FTDNA but more recently tested with AncestryDNA as well, and that has been a really good decision for me.
      My closest matches are 2nd cousins 1 generation removed. On FTDNA this includes my Irish cousins, who we deliberately tested to confirm my Dublin great-granny. Eg 68 shared centimorgans, 35 longest block. Oh and my Dad is in FTDNA too – oops forgot him! He matches hugely, unsurprisingly: 3384 shared centimorgans, 267 longest block.
      But most of my matches are on AncestryDNA, and these include the vast number I’ve been able to identify through the site software. The closest is the daughter of my 2nd cousin, but all the rest are 4th cousin or more distant. I’ve made good matches with 4th, 5th and 6th cousins. But I do have an extensive family tree, back many, many generations on all lines, apart from a few mysterious illegitimacy ones where I can’t trace one parent.
      Hope this helps! Happy to offer other comments/answers if you want. Email me directly at about this if you want.
      And best wishes to you for 2018 too 🙂

    • vivdunstan says:

      Oops trust me to spot a typo immediately after posting! It’s AncestryDNA which I think has the much larger database of results than FamilyTreeDNA now. Not the other way around 😉

      • Thanks, Viv. I must get myself up to speed with Ancestry DNA and Trees – am a worldwide subscriber. The trouble with running a one-study is that one short changes ones own research! Can one readily transfer ones profile from FTDNA? Your comments on 4, 5, 6th cousins are really interesting as I have been ignoring anyone greater than 2nd! I think that I have a way to go in all this.

      • vivdunstan says:

        No you can’t transfer from FTDNA to Ancestry, though the reverse is possible. You’d need to take a fresh test. Definitely look at the more distant cousins. If you test with AncestryDNA you should find it very easy to do for those people with trees online, where the Ancestry matching software will make things very easy for you. Good luck!

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