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Do THIS to Use DNA for Genealogy

You MUST do this if you want to use DNA for genealogy.

I feel like this is a click-bait title but it is 100% true.

It doesn't matter who you are, what your family looks like, what kind of DNA results you're working with.

If you want to use DNA for genealogy, and I mean if you want to find your ancestors (whether it's your parents or very distant ancestors), you must do this.


What is it?

Building trees.

I've written about this multiple times. The more I work with DNA results, the more important I find this "step."

Recently the importance of building trees, particularly the trees of your matches, was really driven home.

I've had a breakthrough automating my 4 Buckets Technique (4BT). This is my version of auto-clustering and it's designed to deal with the issues southerners (from the southeast U.S.) have.

I've been thinking about how to explain this new automation which always makes me focus on how my clustering works differently from other methods.

To get the "fast results" I get, you absolutely must start by "bucketing" the matches with a known shared ancestor. That means knowing who the shared ancestor is with a match/shared match. The more of these you start with, the better your results using the 4BT. This is also true with other auto-cluster tools.

You will most likely identify the majority of the shared ancestors by building the match's tree yourself.

The problem is, of course, if you're dealing with unknown parentage in recent generations.

Here's the thing, the solution there is still building trees for matches (you're looking for the shared ancestors between matches since you don't have your own tree to match to).

All of this comes down to, no matter what, you need to build trees for your matches in order to use DNA for genealogy.

Building Trees is the Easy Solution

I've been building trees consistently for about four years and I'm now making much faster progress because of all those trees I have as a reference. I've found the same thing when I'm working for a client. If I have access to trees for the matches, I can do so much more than if I've just got DNA data and tools.

Going from my own research, with a lot of matches' trees, to a client with little to no trees for matches, really highlights how important this is.

If you don't have this experience, it may seem like a lot of work to build trees.

It's a lot less work than just using tools and/or chromosome data.

How to Organize Quick and Dirty Trees


Here are my tips for making tree building work for you.

  • Keep one online, private tree where you build the trees of matches. You need to be able to connect the trees together when you find a connection (this means a connection between matches, not just a connection to your tree). This needs to be private because you will be adding info about living people. This tree is ONLY for you to work in. If you want to share what you find, copy it to a different tree. 
  • Literally keep one tree. Not one tree per testing company. It won't help to have AncestryDNA matches in a tree at Ancestry and MyHeritageDNA matches in a tree at MyHeritage. If you can easily sync to a single tree, you can create the trees at different sites/apps but if you don't know you can do this, or how to do it, or you won't routinely do this, only create one tree for the purpose of building DNA trees.
  • You don't have to create this tree with your favorite software or site. Remember, the purpose is to easily create trees for DNA matches. If you mainly work with AncestryDNA results, it's easy to copy a generation or two from the match's tree to an Ancestry tree. If you have a MyHeritage subscription, it might be easier to work with a tree there. There are multiple options and we're not talking about your primary tree. This is for a very specific purpose. Make it easy!
  • Enter the name of the match, in the format it is shown at the testing company, so you are positive which match's tree you are looking at. Remember, these are for future reference!
  • Make sure it is clear (with the match's name) which testing company they are from and which test taker they match. Because I have so much overlap with my southern ancestry, I literally have one tree where matches' trees are created, regardless of test taker. It is harder to work with multiple trees so only create a separate tree for very distinct test takers. If you don't do a lot of tree building due to lack of time, having one online tree is easier, even if the test takers are distinct. You'll know where your work is if there's just one tree.
  • Learn the basics of using the online tree. 
  • > > > This means knowing how to add a new person who isn't related (at Ancestry, I either add a new person from a record, including the match's tree, or add them as a parent of someone and immediately remove the relationship to make them unrelated to anyone in the tree). 
  • > > > Know how to merge the same person. You MUST be able to do this to connect trees of different matches when you (later) discover a relationship. 
  • > > > Know how to search to find if you've already added someone to the tree (the name and dates may not be identical so learn what your search options are).
  • BONUS: Using an app or software program with more features can be helpful. Because I started with an Ancestry tree that used to only sync to Family Tree Maker (it now has more sync options), I use that. MyHeritage's software has great additional features. You'll also find helpful features in Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic. Remember, this is a bonus, not a requirement.

About "Bonus" features. 

If just creating an online tree with correct relationships is a struggle, do NOT consider any of these bonus features. Pick the option that is easy and results in you creating a correct tree (no wives listed as their husband's mother or other mis-connected relationships). If on the other hand you're a power user of a particular software or online tree, you might need some of these bonus features to get the most from your quick and dirty trees.

For my Q&D DNA trees, I'm most concerned with the color coding options (as I said, I use Family Tree Maker for this but there are similar options with other programs, but I haven't used them so I can't recommend them). This allows me to see how many matches share an ancestor or see the ancestors of a match with colored highlights.

Other people rely very heavily on features like automated duplication checks (where the software alerts you if it looks like you're creating a second entry for the same person or you can run a check for duplicates).

Similarly, checks for reasonableness are popular (did you just enter someone born before their parents were born? I see that way too much in DNA matches' trees because the person isn't familiar with how to enter info in the tree).

I've found a lot of DNA features sound really great for both tree software and DNA apps but often don't work the way I need with my knotted family tree. That means I use the color coding a lot but almost nothing else. You may find more features helpful or not.

Remember, the core features of building trees are what will help you find new ancestors. These bonus features are literally a bonus. Don't go after them if the program they come with is too difficult for you to use for building trees.

If you're a power user of a software program, you may be able to follow totally different recommendations.


UPDATE: I've been trying to start using RootsMagic---I'm a former TMG user so I've just not used software for the last several years. I love RootsMagic and it has the color-coding I want BUT, it takes way too long to sync to my Ancestry tree to use it for my Q&D tree (I might need to sync hundreds, yes, 100s) of new people and merge a few dozen. 

I'll use it as my primary software but I'll stick with a more basic online tree (with color-coding) for the purpose of DNA tree building. I mention this because you need to recognize there is a specific purpose for building trees for DNA matches. That is different than the purpose of building your primary family tree/using genealogy software. Different purpose means a different tool might be better.
If you struggle with just creating a tree, focus on improving that skill because it will make a huge difference in using DNA. You can add these bonus features later through sync options or uploading a GEDcom file.

You need to build trees for matches (either from scratch or extend the tree provided). You need to be able to connect trees together when you find the same ancestor, regardless if that is the same ancestor as in your tree or in the trees of multiple matches.

As with all genealogy, you not only have to create and keep this info but FIND it again. The purpose of the trees is as a reference. You wouldn't buy a dictionary to use and then pack it away in a storage unit across town. Your DNA trees are the same. They need to be the digital equivalent of being an arms reach from your work area.

Build trees for DNA matches.
Know how to merge the same person together (to connect trees).
Know how to search for the info you need in the tree.

These simple steps can grow into what seems like a magic-wand for using DNA results.

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