I’ve been lucky to be able to participate in a couple virtual genealogy institutes, as well as some individual webinars. While I miss the face-to-face networking, there’s a lot to like in this virtual model: no travel costs, no lines for the restrooms…. ;D This past month, I also discovered firsthand how challenging it can be to deliver a remote presentation, when you aren’t able to see your audience and tell whether they are nodding in comprehension, or nodding off!
So, I’d like to offer huge thanks here to everyone who works so hard to continue keeping the genealogy community engaged and supported lately!
Sometimes, you find inspiration in the least expected places.
In 2015-2016, I participated in a peer-guided study program for genealogists called ProGen. Most months, I knew what I was getting into and looked forward to gaining expertise and practice and feedback as I advanced my genealogy skills. But I did have lower expectations for the usefulness of one particularly short assignment, and it ended up surprising me with its enduring value.
We were prompted to create a personal mission statement for our genealogy ‘business’ – even if we were only planning to work on our own genealogy and not take clients. After much thought, I decided on this:
I’ve gotten both my Covid vaccines, and I am so looking forward to gathering in person again this year. At the same time, though, I’m very grateful for all the opportunities we now have for remote learning. It’s certainly a perk to be able to attend presentations that aren’t local, and my education budget stretches a lot farther without travel expenses!
Here is a sampling of some upcoming genealogy events with DNA programming you may be interested in. (Many offer lots of awesome non-DNA tracks too.)
Many blogs offer valuable tips on how to understand DNA results or use DNA tools. It can be harder to find posts that provide a practical example demonstrating how to integrate DNA in our research process to answer a genealogy question.
Both Yvette and I like the idea of having a snapshot of seven generations of our genealogy at a glance. Last year, I blogged about my process here: https://dnasleuth.wordpress.com/2020/09/01/7-gen-1-sheet/, which uses a Word template to track whatever elements I want to focus on at a particular time, with room for names too.
Yvette goes a step further. She uses Excel, with an automated (conditional formatting) feature to color-code specifically the research status on each ancestor for ahnentafel numbers 1 through 127 (that’s back to 4x-great-grandparents). She’s defined various levels to indicate how complete her research is and then assigned a level to each of those direct ancestors. Now she can see at a glance—and quickly share with others if she wants—which lines show the most progress and which ones need attention. She has made her spreadsheet available for anyone to download too—see her blog in the first link, above.
I was intrigued to join her challenge! I’ll summarize Yvette’s levels here, with added notes about how I am trying to make those levels work best for me. And for those readers who are particularly interested in genetic genealogy, note that level 0 and level 1 are good candidates to consider for your DNA projects.
Image 1 shows my genealogy status, with corresponding ahnentafel numbers.
Here is how I understand Yvette’s levels. (But do check her blog to read her explanations yourself!)
Level 0: when we don’t know even the name of that ancestor. In Yvette’s chart, those are the rare “fathers of illegitimate children”. In my chart, my 4x-great-grandparents were all born before 1800. I don’t know even the names of any of my Irish Catholic ancestors in that generation; they are all level 0.
Level 1: when we have a name, but almost nothing more. Maybe it’s a name of parent on someone’s death record. In my spreadsheet, I may mark a profile as a level 1 if it’s just a hypothesis. (Even if I have vital events for that person named, which is normally level 2; if I haven’t sufficiently proven he/she is the parent of my ancestor, I think I’ll leave that name set at Level 1.)
Level 2: the profile has a name and birth/marriage/death dates and places. Sometimes my information is not very precise – maybe census records suggest only that my ancestor was born between 1781 and 1790 somewhere in Virginia. I still log that as level 2. (What if you know some facts, e.g., a death date but not their age or birth date? This spreadsheet is for you to use however best meets your needs – you decide!)
Level 3: this level is a simple bio. In addition to the level 2 data, we know their occupations, the names of their children, where they lived over time, other marriages….
Level 4: Yvette defines this as a level where she has obtained more biographical details, e.g., from courts—deeds, probate, criminal records, etc.— as well as military and church records. When I reach this stage, my goal is to begin to assemble content for a family history narrative, including photos, maps, social history context, too.
Level 5: For Yvette, this means her research on the individual meets the Genealogical Proof Standard. These are detailed standards for documenting (i.e., identifying our sources), researching, and writing, “to measure the credibility of conclusions about ancestral identities, relationships, and life events. The standard addresses completed research, not research in progress.” — Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C., Ancestry.com, 2019), p. 1. These are best practices for everyone working on our family trees, not just professionals.
Level 5 is such an important milestone that I will quote Yvette directly: “These are ancestors for whom I’ve finished reasonably exhaustive research and have proven who their parents are. I feel like I have gotten to know them. I have finished researching them in a wide range of records, such as newspapers, town records, and tax records. I’ve documented them according to current genealogical standards, analyzed everything properly, resolved conflicts, written up my conclusion, and met the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).”
My goal for Level 5 is perhaps a bit less comprehensive than Yvette’s. I have a minimum goal that for every direct ancestor possible I make the following information available to others, for example in a public online tree or certain lineage society archives:
birth, marriage, and death dates and places, with citations provided so that others can see my sources and judge how reliable they are
proof of parent-child connection, with citations provided so that others can see my sources and judge how reliable my conclusion is
This evidence may be a proof statement: one or preferably at least two citations that directly answer the question. Or it may occasionally be a PDF containing a proof summary or argument, if I needed to resolve conflicts or draw conclusions from indirect evidence. I may not have checked agricultural censuses yet to see if they grew potatoes, or checked for dog licenses, or looked for military pension papers for the siblings. I’ll probably get around to that later. For me, Level 5 covers the data that people put in pedigree charts, and my goal is knowing that if I unexpectedly get abducted by aliens one day, at least that vital information and kinship proof for Level 5 people in my tree is correct and has been made available to others. The GPS applies to completed research, and I wouldn’t necessarily say my research on these ancestors is complete, so my definition of Level 5 is not quite the same as Yvette’s.
Level 6: Biography. Yvette and I both aspire to tell our families stories. When we have completed the preceding levels, we can write it all up (“complete with historical context,” Yvette notes and I agree). This is such a huge goal of mine that I am tempted to split it into Level 6 and Level 7. Level 6 is when I have a draft-in-progress of this narrative. I have a template I have created for these family stories, and to-date I currently have drafts underway for nine different ancestral couples. Each draft runs about 15-30 pages. Like Yvette, I don’t enter this level until I’ve completed my research and believe that I’ve met the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Level 7 (just me): I’ll mark an ancestor Level 7 when I have finished Level 6 and ‘published’ the narrative somewhere where it can be available to anyone. Perhaps I’ll attach this family story to a public online tree as a PDF. Or maybe I’ll self-publish it. I suspect Yvette is more efficient and organized than I am and doesn’t need a separate step for this. But she invites us to define our own levels to best suit our goals and research methods, and this is how I plan to explore how I track my progress.
Yvette’s inspiration really resonated with me, when she wrote, “I have been working on my tree for thirty years, and not all of the work on my ancestors is up to my current standards.” Me too! I think the conclusions I make these days when I identify ancestors and their stories are pretty reliable, but I know some of the names and data I put in my tree decades ago may not be right. Especially data I may have gotten from other people’s research without vetting their sources myself.
I added country of origin to my chart, just to show at a glance where my challenges might be. (Those lines almost all emigrated in generation 5.)
What did I learn?
My Level 4 profiles could probably move to Level 5 with a just a little concentrated effort. I mostly have the data; I just haven’t created citations and put it online. This is a priority for me; now it’s easy to see who needs it.
My Level 2 profiles (where I have vital events but haven’t fleshed out the whole family unit) could probably easily move to Level 3; in some cases, it might even be low hanging fruit, the kind of quick research successes I sometimes crave.
And Level 0 and Level 1 ancestors are good candidates for DNA projects and research plans.
I’m glad Yvette shared this exercise with us! I hope you enjoy it too!
One aspect of working with DNA in genealogy can be equal parts rewarding and frustrating, and that is: connecting with total strangers. How can we be more successful at getting them to reply?
We probably all have different strategies that work for us. (Feel free to share yours in the comments.) This month, I’d like to share a tip that has been invaluable for me in my toughest cases.
There are two situations when I really need to communicate with a distant cousin.
1. He or she has taken a DNA test and is a known match. Maybe I want that person to share their tree, or explain how they know their lineage is correct. Or maybe I hope that cousin will give me access to see their DNA results or copy their raw data to another site.
2. He or she has not yet taken a DNA test (to my knowledge, anyway). I want to recruit a complete stranger to take an autosomal or Y DNA test (or even mtDNA).
In both situations, the person I am trying to contact may not be interested in family history. Maybe they’ve never tested, or they just took a DNA test because it was a gift or to learn their ‘ethnicity’ results. Or maybe they did explore genealogy at one time, but it’s been months or years since they logged in. So I message my DNA match on Ancestry, for example, and there’s no reply.
Has that ever happened to you?
When it’s a cousin I *really* want to hear from, and all else fails, here’s the path I try.
I use Ancestry tools to identify a fairly close relative of my target, someone who is active in genealogy. And then I try to engage that person to intercede or serve as a reference. Here’s how.
I routinely add my most compelling DNA matches to my master family tree—a private, unsearchable Ancestry tree that I use for research and sometimes speculation—and then I try to build out my match’s lineage there. I’ve written about that process here: https://dnasleuth.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/using-the-dna-match-tree-tag/. This work tree is separate from the public tree that I’ve attached my DNA data to. In this work tree, I key in parents and sometimes grandparents from my match’s skimpy online tree. And then I do a lot of new (and sometimes quick-n-dirty) research to take their lines farther back.
Let’s imagine that I have an intriguing but uncommunicative DNA match named Lola whose online tree stops with her parents, who were born before 1940. From her bare bones tree and the 1940 census and sometimes obituaries, I can start to construct her branches in my master tree.
Since Lola hasn’t replied to me, I want to find the genealogist in her family. I select one of the profiles I’ve added of Lola’s parents or grandparents and then choose the Search option in Ancestry. You can filter the search results with the Filter panel. See image 1. I am looking for artifacts provided by a close relative of Lola, so I’ll try Pictures first. If that doesn’t work, I may try Stories (scrolling through the results for Public Member Stories), and eventually I may try Family Trees if needed.
When I filter by Pictures, I get a list of hits, and I scroll down to find a Public photo that matches the person I’m searching on. Or in the Filter panel, I can filter all those Picture results further for just Public Member Photos. In either case, I’ll hopefully get a hit like that shown in image 2.
Whoever originally uploaded a photo of Lola’s parent or grandparent is likely a pretty close relative. I click on the Public Member Photo link, and I get something like Image 3:
Here, you can see that this photo was added by Joe Graham. If I click on Joe’s name, his Ancestry member profile comes up. See image 4. I can see Joe’s tree; and I’ll click that to see if I can determine how he is related to my target, Lola. Joe’s profile also tells me if he is on my DNA match list. It tells me when he last logged in, and gives me a way to message him.
Say I determine that Joe is a first cousin of Lola. Ideally, he’d have signed in more recently than 3-11 months ago. I’ll message him and explain how we’re related, offer to share genealogy, photos, etc. if he’s interested, and I provide my email address. And I’ll also explain briefly why I’m trying to contact Lola and ask if he can help.
If Joe isn’t a close relative of Lola, or hasn’t signed in for a year or more, or doesn’t reply to me either, I could click on some of the Ancestry member pics shown under ‘Saved By’ in image 3, and try them. They may be more distant relatives, but it might be worth a shot. More likely, I’ll go back to the Search results and try to find another photo or story added by a family genealogist. Or I’ll try a new Search on another parent or grandparent of Lola.
If I strike out looking for photos or stories, I may try Family Trees. The caveat is that some folks have thousands of people in their trees, taking their branches up, down, and sideways. In this example, Lola’s grandpa Harry Hammond appears in 54 different trees. Most of those trees are not managed by someone who might know Lola. But some may. To save time, I pick trees here that do NOT have thousands of people in them. (The smaller the tree with Harry in it, the more likely to be a close relative.) I pick one and click on their tree and it brings up the profile of Harry in that member’s tree. On the top right corner, I next click Tools and in the drop-down, select View in Tree, so I can see Harry in the pedigree view of their tree. But that doesn’t always show how Harry is related to the tree owner. So then I select the Home icon on the left, to see the pedigree starting with the tree owner. If I see Harry in the first 3 generations on the new home pedigree view, then this Ancestry member is a close relative of Harry, and I proceed to check when he/she last logged in, etc. But if I don’t see Harry on that home person pedigree view, I check the pedigree view for the spouse of the home person. If still no sign of Harry as a direct ancestor, then he is probably more distantly related to that Ancestry member, and less likely to know Lola personally. So, I’ll try someone else.
With luck, I’ll find someone who is recently active in genealogy and closely related to my intriguing but unresponsive DNA match. What to actually write in a message or letter—saying just enough and not too much, mentioning relevant places as well as surnames, etc.—is beyond the scope of this blog post. But I hope this tip—to try reaching someone through the genealogist in their close family—works for you as well as it has for me.
I don’t do this very often—only when I have a vital DNA match or potential match to connect to. And it doesn’t work every time. But I’ve certainly had some great success stories too!
Many times, the family genealogist has passed my message on to the silent cousin, and I’ve gotten a reply. One time, she wasn’t in touch with my target, but knew the city my target lived in. In the Cousin Joe and Lola example, suppose Joe told me that he was pretty sure Lola lived in Buffalo NY. I could go to the Erie Co NY website for Real Property Tax Services, plug in Lola’s name, and get her address. Then I might send her a letter via the US Mail, name-drop her cousin Joe and our mutual interest in family history or solving an intriguing genealogy puzzle, and ask her to help.
(Yes, there may be other ways to discover Lola’s address, but she may be more open to a dialogue if I mention that her Cousin Joe and I were in touch.)
This holiday season may be perfect timing to reach out to relatives near and far. So consider trying this on your next dead end—and good luck!
My genealogy research has been stalled a bit during this pandemic, with many libraries and archives closed to keep the public safe. So this month, I’ve been indulging in a fun little DNA challenge–have you tried this one?