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!
© Dec 2020 Ann Raymont, CG®