Tricks of the Trade

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Updated: December 13, 2017


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Working with your DNA Results

So, you’ve followed all the steps at, “Start your DNA Search Today!” and have some test results back and have begun to sort through your matches. All of below assumes you have followed the steps on that page to phase your matches if you have a known side.

Where’s The Magic?

There is a big misconception amongst some beginner adoption searchers that the DNA in itself will find their birthfamilies. This needs to be stated straight away. Unfortunately, the DNA of itself is not a magic trick. Think of the DNA data as simply the key to a map. All maps have keys and/or legends, right? The key/legend tells you how to interpret the map. The map is your Master Tree.

The initial stage of a search entails testing and uploading raw data to GedMatch and FTDNA and possibly more testing elsewhere. 

The second stage entails the technical DNA analysis; running triangulations, calculating possible relationships between yourself and your matches and looking at other aspects like X chromosome data and Y chromosome data if you did a Y test. 

Those two stages build the “key” or “legend” to your “map”. This is maybe only 25% of the job! That percentage is higher the closer your matches are and lower the more distant your matches are. This job was made much quicker than it used to be by better tools being developed to analyze your matches.

The most time consuming aspect of using DNA to find birthparents is building your Master Tree! This is 75% of the job you are about to undertake if you have 3rd cousin range or more distant matches. First, you must gather all the trees of your matches you triangulated. This in itself can be a massively time consuming job if they either do not have one or have a poor or locked tree. You either need to contact your matches for trees, build them yourself, or mount a major web sleuthing and detective mission to identify a matches identity and build a tree for them in your master tree. Most people have no idea just how time consuming that can be until they have actually done it themselves. It is a speciality skill in its own right! You will become better at this the more you do it.

Your biggest hurdle to clear.
Finding your first common ancestor is your first major hurdle you need to clear. Finding your first common ancestor between matches is a BIG deal! Your first common ancestor between matches gives you your reference point for your “map”. You now need to build your master tree from that reference point (the common ancestor couple). You extend this tree both upwards and downwards tying in more matches as you go. 

There is an incredible amount of tree building to be done if you have 3rd cousin range or more distant matches! My master tree ended up with 6000 people in it because I found many common ancestors that I was trying to work with. But, my ancestors are largely colonial American. If yours are recent immigrants, say Irish, French or Italian etc. you may find it might be impossible to build a tree more than 3 or 4 generations back if that countries records are hard to come by or non-existent. If that is the case your master tree cannot be built that large. You need to become proficient at some basic genealogy skills! This is a cross between good old fashioned genealogy work and many times a lot of research at various sources. Don’t worry, you don’t need to become an expert genealogist to figure this out. Just remember that you must always try and fact check all people you add to your tree so you do not end up straying from the beaten path in your research.

When you come to building the tree downwards to find your unknown parent or grandparent you will discover that this tree building business become MUCH more difficult and time consuming. Finding information on the recently deceased or living persons can be extraordinarily difficult! Sometimes it can be found easily with obituaries or other info found online but, generally, this is tough part of the job. 

This master tree you need to build is your map to finding your unknown parent and you use the “key” (your DNA analysis of your matches) to interpret that big “map” (your master tree) with your common ancestor couple being your reference point on that map.

D     N     A … a nutshell.

You have 23 pairs of chromosomes to make 46 chromosomes total. Half is from your father and the other half is from your mother. 22 of those pairs of chromosomes are called autosomes. The last 23rd pair are y sex chromosomes; males get an X chromosome from their mothers and a Y chromosome from their fathers while females get two X chromosomes, one from each parent.

Each parent passes 50% of their autosomal DNA down to their children. Each parent passes down a recombined version of each of their 22 autosomal chromosomes to their children. Meaning you share 25% of your grandparents DNA and 12.5% of your 1x great grandparents DNA and so on.

Shared Autosomal DNA and relationship chart
credit: ISOGG wiki
Shared Autosomal DNA and Kinship Chart
credit: DiMario (Wikimedia Commons)

DOWNLOAD both table above as PDF for printing for easy reference!

This means that autosomal DNA is passed down from every ancestral line in our family trees, so our DNA matches can fit into any one of our ancestral lines unlike our Y or X DNA (sex chromosomes) or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)sex chromosomes is our X Chromosome that only follows certain ancestral lines and the Y Chromosome which only males receive; is strictly patrilineal. Our mitochondrial DNA is matrilineal and is strictly only passed down through our mother that they received from their mother and so on.

Knowing that segments of our autosomal DNA can be inherited from any one of our ancestral lines you can now realize why it is so important to be able to sort our DNA matches into triangulated groups. Triangulated groups of matches must match you, match each other and all share a good sized overlapping segment of DNA on one of our chromosomes. When we find a group of matches that are triangulated like this we know that we share a common ancestor.

T   R   I   A   N   G   U   L   A   T   I   O   N.. a nutshell.

Note that FTDNA gives access to a chromosome browser which is what you need when trying to find common matches who share a common ancestor. At FTDNA, you would look at a match and then look at the matches “In Common With” that match. Then you would look at that group of common matches in the chromosome browser to see if the group have any matching overlapping segments of DNA. Then, to double check, you would run a matrix comparison in FTDNA’s advanced tools to check that all matches who share an overlapping segment of DNA all match each other as well as matching you. If this is true, then you know this group all share a common ancestor. Keep to segment sharing groups that share overlapping segments at very least 7 and preferably 10 centimorgans long or more. The longer the segment the more sure you can be that the segments are IBD (identical by descent) and not just IBS (identical by state). What we can’t do at FTDNA is make a one-to-one comparison between one of our matches to another of the matches in the group though to make sure that each match in that group share that segment with each other eventhough we know they match each other.

In An Ideal World…

In an ideal world, we would be able to compare every person that has ever taken an autosomal DNA test all in one place with ease. Basic tools such as chromosome browsers and triangulation utilities would be available, user friendly, open and everyone would post public trees. 

Unfortunately, we do not live in this DNA utopia just yet. DNA testing being relatively new and circumstances surrounding privacy and other implications is still unknown and developing which is one of the largest factors in the limitations of tools we have available to use. 

In essence, the irony is that these limited tools available at the DNA testing companies is facilitating a low tech examination of some very high tech data!

When it comes to comparing our DNA data for adoption search purposes there are two places online that offer a promising glimpse into what that ideal world might look like some day…

GEDmatch & DNAgedcom
GEDmatch is all about open sharing of DNA data between testers and members. It provides proper tools to make meaningful comparisons of our DNA. Gedcom’s can also be uploaded so members can scan family trees to find connections between them. All adoptees should upload their raw data to GEDmatch. 

One of my favourite tools and most useful to you in your search which can be used in conjunction with GEDmatch as well is available over at DNAGedcom. Rob Warthen is the founder of DNAgedcom. Rob and others there are talented programmers that work hard to bring genetic genealogists tools to get difficult things done easily and quickly. 


Don Worth developed a great tool called ADSA or “The Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer” which is hosted on the DNAgedcom site. When I first saw version 1 of Don’s tool when it first came out and I used it for the first time with my FTDNA matches, I definitely did the “happy dance” !  

What is ADSA used for?
ADSA complies information from your DNA matches at both FTDNA and GEDmatch and produces a printable output showing groups of your matches that share the same overlapping segments on each chromosome with you. Plus, it includes an ICW (In Common With) matrix showing you which of the segment sharers in the group match each other. This output can be used to identify your key groups of matches that you will be working with to try to find common ancestors between each group of matches to help build your master tree. It is similar to what you see at FTDNA using segment data and matrix comparisons however, greatly automizing the process.

After uploading your DNA to both GEDmatch and FTDNA, ADSA can be ran for both your FTDNA matches and GEDmatch matches.

How does ADSA work?
It is a server side utility. Meaning it isn’t a program you download to your computer to run. It works right at DNAGedcom. ADSA works with both FTDNA and GEDmatch. 

You need to sign up for a free account at DNAgedcom to use it.

Remember: it is currently not possible to triangulate your matches at Ancestry either! You have to either hope they will upload to GedMatch where you can do that if you ask them to or else you will have to rely solely on looking at shared matches of matches. Ancestry also only lets you see shared matches that are in the 4th cousin category or closer. Ancestry also does not have a chromosome browser. So, for now, we must work with what we got, which is the relatively new shared matches feature. As Ancestry does have the largest database and many times ones closest matches, the shared match feature along with trees either provided by the match or one you build yourself for the match can be used quite successfully in many cases to help you figure things out.

Triangulation & Incontrovertibility
A good rule to remember about triangulation is that triangulation method is used to conclusively ascertain whether a group of 3 or more matches (2 matches plus yourself) share a common ancestor. But, not all groups of matches will perfectly triangulate (match you, match each other and share an overlapping segment of at very least 7-10cM or more on a chromosome) eventhough we may know for certain they all share a common ancestor.

Sometimes the Big Clue is found in the Trees & not the Triangulations.
The random nature by which our autosomal DNA is recombined and passed down from generation to generation creates some issues that you need to be aware of. I discuss the difference between genetic cousins and paper cousins below. I also discuss in this article and elsewhere on this site why it is perfectly possible for a 4th cousin to match you and not your half sibling for example. Maybe by now you are starting to think that not everything is cut and dry in the autosomal DNA world. You would be correct! Because of the issue that not all DNA matches will triangulate to give us that incontrovertible evidence we all share a common ancestor, you sometimes will come across matches that all match each other yet, they do not share an overlapping segment on a chromosome for example. To take account for this situation, you must scour the trees of your matches, particularly the trees of your closest matches, whether they triangulate or not because you just never know what connections you may find despite the matches not triangulating! I found this out the hard way when I started out by concentrating only on groups I could triangulate then it turned out later I found a key group that didn’t triangulate but they did all share a common ancestor which helped to solve my own case.

In my story, All Roads Lead to Arkansas, below, you will see that Charlie and Sherry were my key matches that helped me solve my own case. Charlie, Sherry and myself all match each other as you can see in this autosomal matrix comparison done at GEDmatch. We also know for certainty that all three of us share a set of Great Grandparents. HOWEVER, when I compare the three of us in the chromosome browser at GEDmatch, all three of us do NOT triangulate. We do not share a matching overlapping segment on any chromosome... not even a tiny one. WHY? Because we happen to have just gotten different segments from our shared set of Great Grandparents. All of us just did not happen to share the same segment.

What exactly is this Master Tree or Mirror Tree we are going to build, how do you build it and why?

These are possibly some of the most commonly asked questions on adoption DNA forums and groups by beginner searchers. Particularly, when we start to use this tree on Ancestry for mirroring.

Think of this master tree you are going to build as your massively extended family tree. Seeing that as adoptees or others with unknown parentage, we do not yet know where we fit in the tree. We need to start to try to link the families of our triangulated DNA cousins together by patching their trees together like a puzzle.

Not your average family tree.
When one normally starts a family tree they start with themselves. However, in our case, the last person added to this master tree will likely be you! Once you have figured out where you fit in of course. This process of starting master trees with a more distant ancestor couple and working forward is what is known as “Reverse Genealogy”, working a family tree forward in time by identifying all descendents of the ancestor couple we know to be our own ancestor couple by finding common ancestors between our DNA matches. Sit back and buckle in because if there is one thing you need to become extremely proficient at in this search, it is tree building. You will be doing a lot of it!

Generally,  I like to look for my first common ancestor between matches before I even start a master tree. These days, as the databases get bigger and bigger, most people have some pretty decent 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins at Ancestry. I find that around 50% of the time upon looking at someones Ancestry match list for the first time, I can find a common ancestor between two or more matches within the first 30 minutes of looking! This is something one gets very good at when you have had a lot of practice and you will too. I then start a master tree with the first common ancestor couple I find. Sometimes a common ancestor can’t be found right away because our matches have poor trees or no trees or we just don’t have many closer matches. Be prepared to either build out your matches trees yourself if they have poor trees, no trees or locked trees. Many people do not realize how much of this they may have to do. Depending on how much family tree information is available for our closest matches will depend on how we start our tree.

How do I find those Common Ancestors so quick sometimes?

At Ancestry, I go to the top closest match with a decent enough family tree and first find out:

1. Number of shared centimorgans.

Shared centimorgans (cM) with Ancestry DNA match.
Shared centimorgans (cM) with Ancestry DNA match.

2. Determine rough age of match from their tree. (25-30 years = roughly 1 generation) I make a rough estimation from this and also, keep in mind other possibilities such as double cousins or significantly bigger or smaller generation gaps than the average.

3. Calculate your possible relationship using the chart above.

4. Make a note of your estimated possible relationship in the “notes” section for that match.

5. Check for shared matches. Shared matches are the matches your match you are checking and yourself have in common.

Shared matches tab
Shared matches tab on your Ancestry DNA matches profile page

6. If there is shared matches, first do a quick scan of your matches surnames and general locations for the first 4 or 5 generations then check shared matches for shared surnames using the surname search function within the shared matches tab. Also, take note of the locations of your roughly estimated likely common ancestors with that match (ie. If you estimate the match to likely be a 3rd Cousin, look at locations of their 2x Great Grandparents etc.).

7. If a common ancestor is found, search the entire match list using the surname search to look for more matches with that same surname.

If I find nothing on that quick scan, I move on to the next closest match and repeat the process for all 2nd and 3rd category cousins plus the first few 4th cousins.

Genetic Cousins & Paper Cousins
Do not always rely on the shared matches either. Remember that if a cousin is more distant than a 3rd cousin, the likelihood that that cousin shares any DNA with you starts dropping off, exponentially, the more distant the cousin is. It is true to say that there is a difference between genetic cousins and paper cousins. It is perfectly normal for 4th cousins to know for certainty that they are related on paper but, may not share any matching DNA at all! I have a group of 9 DNA matches who all descend from my Orcadian 2x great grandmother. My daughter and I are the only people out of this group of 9 that match a descendent of my 2x great grandmother’s own 1x great grandmother (my 5x great grandmother)! This is perfectly normal especially when it comes to 6th cousin matches. This can happen with 3rd cousin matches though just as easily. You should also be careful not to make assumptions about what side of a matches tree your ancestor came from by using 2nd cousin and more distant matches close relatives also in the database to phase. You might find you have a match who shares say 50cM with you and that match might have a half sibling or 1st cousin who also tested that you do not match. It isn’t safe to assume that because you do not match their half sibling or 1st cousin you must relate on the side of the family your match does not share with that close family member. Perfectly possible to match a 3rd cousin range match and not their sibling, half sibling or 1st cousin etc. DNA inheritance is just too random and too diluted at that distance to know for absolute certain. Sometimes you will match both a 3rd cousin range or more distant cousin and their half sibling or 1st cousin. If that is the case, then this is useful information you can utilize to narrow down which side of a family you relate to in that matches family tree.

Sometimes you find a common ancestor immediately, sometimes you don’t. You can also utilize Rob Warthen’s tool Gworks to search for common ancestors at Ancestry as well. Most times when we cannot find a common ancestor on an initial scan it’s because we have run into a poor tree, no tree, or locked tree situation.

Poor Trees, No Trees and Locked Trees.

You may find that your closest matches at Ancestry could be anything from 2nd – 4th cousin category matches. I think on average most people will have at least one or two 3rd cousin matches and anything from 30 – 600 4th cousin range matches. These are good matches that you can work with. However, many times you may find that your closest matches have either poor trees, no trees, or locked trees. Start with your top 5 – 10 closest matches on your list and see what family tree information is available for each match.

Warning: It is good practice to screenshot the first few generations of every tree of any 3rd cousin category or closer matches as soon as you get your results. The last thing you want to happen is your match all of a sudden makes their tree private or removes it and you can no longer see the information. Screenshot them to be safe!

Poor Trees.

The Poor Tree
The Poor Tree. Not a completely hopeless tree but, you will need to build trees like this out for any closer matches with poor trees.

There are a lot of poor trees on Ancestry unfortunately. These are trees where the match has listed maybe just a set of grandparents or two or maybe even less than that. If you are unlucky and your top match or top few matches have poor trees. Here is where you will start your master tree but, read on to learn how to do this properly.

No Trees.

The Hidden Tree
The Hidden Tree.

First, are you absolutely certain there is no tree? At Ancestry, many times matches have a tree but, just have not linked their DNA to their tree and therefore it says no tree. Sometimes, there is a hidden tree. If you click through to their DNA match profile page, scroll to the bottom and you may find a dropdown list of family trees they may have on their account. If there is no dropdown list of trees, all hope is not lost. You could try to message the match and ask for information. If you have shared matches with that match, also ask the match in any message if they know how they might relate to any shared matches. Read on about how to find trees and other information on your matches.

Locked Trees.

The Locked Tree
The Locked Tree.

You can message your match to see if they will send you an invite to view their tree. Always be super polite in any messages and always ask them if they know how they relate to any shared matches you may have. If you have found shared matches with a match with a locked tree, keep in mind that you can run a surname search in your match list and if that surname appears in a locked tree it will show the match in the search results.

How do I find family tree information for Ancestry matches with no trees or locked trees?

Good old fashioned detective work and web sleuthing!

First, is the match using a real name or a user name? Do they have a location listed on their DNA profile page? Go to not just their DNA profile page but, their Ancestry member profile. Is there further information there? Sometimes it shows you posts they have made on an Ancestry message board that can give clues to their identity. Sometimes they include first names, full names, email addresses or other family information in their postings on Ancestry boards. Is the match administrated by another user? Check the administrators profile and see if the administrator has trees listed or any other information on Ancestry.

TIP: If you come across a good match with no tree and they only use a username on their DNA accounts. First, search the username in Ancestry’s Member Directory. Then, do a boolean search on Google for the username and also their email address if they list one at either Gedmatch or FTDNA. For example, if their user name is “teddybear7654” search the user name at Google in quotation marks just like above. People tend to use the same username several places online from which you may be able to identify the person behind the username. Same with emails. Search the email in “quotation marks”. If the email search turns up nothing then search only the addressee part (the part before the @ sign) of the email as like usernames, some people repeatedly use the same addressee on various email accounts. Also, learn how to use operators in boolean searches. These come in extremely useful for all types of Google searches you may need to do during your search.

If you have managed to come up with a name behind a username. You must now figure out who their families are. Use Google, Facebook, various people databases like Spokeo, BeenVerified, Intelius, and etc. to find infomation on your match to start figuring out their tree. Google can be a great source for finding obituaries that contain lots of information you can use to get a start building that matches tree. This can all be extremely time consuming but, when our closest matches do not respond to info requests and have no info available we must use all the resources we can to attain that information.

Starting your Master Tree at Ancestry.

Rule #1. VERY IMPORTANT!! When you create your new tree. Make absolutely certain that you have set your new tree to both private AND unsearchable.

I actually realized just yesterday, that something has changed on Ancestrys site regarding privacy of trees. When you go to create tree, it asks if you would like to “allow others to view this tree” (public). No. We do not want others to be allowed to view our Master Tree. At the time of writing, it is set as public by default. You must uncheck the tick box to make it private!

Uncheck the box.
Uncheck the box to make your tree private

Furthermore, it used to also ask just below that tick box if you want to keep the tree unsearchable. It was not there at the time of writing! I had to go to Tree Settings after I created the tree where I found it was set to searchable by default. You must check this tickbox also in the Tree Settings page to make it unsearchable!

Check the box
Check the box in your tree settings to make your master tree unsearchable in Ancestry searches.

90% of the time I am using a mobile device when I am creating a new tree and in Ancestrys mobile app, the process for setting your tree private and unsearchable is more straightforward as those settings can be set before you hit the “create tree” button.

Why we keep our Master Trees private.
As you can see from this, Ancestry wants you to have your trees public by the way they have designed the settings for new tree creation and ALSO by how they do not allow you access to certain tools if your tree is not set to public. I will get to that in a bit here. Public trees are great and I keep my own completed tree with both my known sides public and have met a lot of nice people researching the same people I am. However, keeping a public master tree or mirror tree of a person with unknown parentage is a very bad idea for a few reasons which I shall explain. I recently viewed a video made by Ancestry on You Tube that was a “how-to” on building master trees and mirror trees. Of course, the woman in the video suggested the whole way through that this tree should be left public and you were to fill in your unknown side with “Unknown Parent”, Unknown Grandfather” and so on and so on. Um… NO. Do not do this. I am not going to post the link for this video because while some of its content is good, some of it is not in the interests of adoptees and those with unknown parentage looking for their families.

Unfortunately, the reality is that some people, not just DNA matches, run a mile as soon as they hear that you are an adoptee looking for your unknown birthparents and will point blank refuse to speak to you or give you information. Sometimes, they don’t just refuse information or ignore you, sometimes they are plain rude about it as well. Ouch! Thank goodness this is only a minority of people though. Hence, why we do not want to start off our search by announcing to our matches that we are adopted and are using DNA to find our families. Now, of course not all matches are like this. Many will go out of their way to help you with your search in fact.

Making contact with matches.
All of that said, I recommend that when you do contact matches that you are honest with them about your search. That is not to say you need to introduce yourself by saying you are adopted or have an unknown parent. I suggest that you start your contact being slightly guarded and just by explaining the line you are looking at in their tree and asking about any shared matches and connections or other relevant information. If they ask you questions back about your DNA work and ask who you are looking for or if you have a tree to share, then it is best to just tell them a bit about your story and search. I find that at FTDNA a good way to get a good response rate is to group email triangulated groups of matches in one email. I usually screenshot the shared segment in question from the .pdf created from the output of running the ADSA (Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer) tool or segment data from FTDNA etc. Then I ask if any of the matches know how they might connect to each other and if they do not know I ask if they are able to tell me which side of their tree I relate on if they have a way to phase their own matches. I also ask for links to trees online if thy have no trees listed. This approach has worked very well for me. You can do the same thing with Gedmatch matches that I suggested with FTDNA matches.

Further reasons to keep it private are also because if you start using this tree for mirroring (which Ancestry also discourages in the above mentioned video), your matches are going to start to wonder why you are doing what you are doing moving your DNA link around a tree seemingly randomly when you start mirroring. Another big reason, is you might get accused by matches of “stealing their tree”. How one can “steal” ancestors remains lost on me but, I can assure you that some matches are convinced you are “stealing” theirs.

All Roads Lead to Arkansas – My Master Tree.

Well, finally here we are. I thought long and hard about how to do this section to explain it the best I could and decided that a description of how I solved my own case might be the best way to start. We will use my own tree and also my first common ancestor I found in my search for my unknown father. Not just for ease either but, because it threw up some interesting quirks.

My first common ancestor couple.
My first common ancestors I found between a match at FTDNA and another match I had at Ancestry- Benjamin b.1829 and Sarah b.1837 from Arkansas.

Times were a bit different when I started my DNA search. There was only a fraction of the testers we now have in the databases and some of the tools we have now we did not have then and the methodology differed slightly because of this. My closest DNA match (besides my maternal half brother who tested for phasing purposes) when I got my results at FTDNA, was Sherrie, from Arkansas and she was in the 2nd-4th cousin category and shared 63 cM with me and no x-match. She was also a generation older than me. I knew that we must be 3rd cousins or 3rd cousins 1x removed. Luckily, she had a tree and surnames listed there. I had not tested at Ancestry yet so, I began my master tree by copying in Sherrie’s tree to a new tree to create the beginnings of my master tree. I had first tried working solely with my FTDNA matches, phasing my matches by looking at “Not In Common” matches I had with my maternal half brother. Even at this very early stage, I had realized there was a stark geographic difference between my paternal and maternal matches. Because I had built out a very large and extended maternal tree, I knew that I didn’t have a maternal ancestor that ever lived further south than Ohio. All of my paternal matches ancestors were from the deep south… particularily Arkansas! I could already see I had quite a clear North/South divide in my matches trees! Further on in my search, I could pretty much roughly phase matches just by looking at the locations their ancestors lived.

My Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry DNA.
My Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry DNA.
Ethnicity Results.

Now is a good time to pay attention to your ethnicity results. In my case, I truly am a mixed bag of European heritage. I have recent immigrant Hungarian, Orkney Islands and English heritage. However, on top of that my ancestors are also Danish, French, German, Jersey Islander, Irish, Swiss, Welsh, Dutch, Belgian and Native American. My ethnicity therefore shows quite a lot of Western European and British Isles/Irish and I only show 1% Eastern European at Ancestry despite being 1/8 Magyar/Hungarian. Why? Firstly, the Magyars origins are still a bit of a mystery and secondly, this is because the ethnicity results also can take into account ancient migrations, most of which happened before “genealogical time” which can be confusing. Also, it just is not an exact science yet although will likely improve over time. For example, my Scandinavian percentage may account for my Orcadian and Caithnessian heritage. Both these areas of Scotland were actually once territories of Norway and therefore there is much Norse blood in modern day Scots from these parts of Scotland. Also, the reality is that currently the ethnicity estimates should be treated with caution and a rather large pinch of salt. That being said, sometimes you will see that someone has a 1/2 and 1/2 situation. I had a foundling searcher I was consulting and he showed as 1/2 Italian/Greek and 1/2 Irish. This is a case where the ethnicity estimation may be a very good clue in your search. You might also find you have large proportions of a specific ethnicity like say Ashkenazi or Native American. These are good clues you should consider while searching.

After a month or two of studying and triangulating, studying matches trees and not finding very much between my handful of closest matches in the 2nd-4th cousin category at FTDNA, I tested at Ancestry.

My top match at Ancestry was Charlie, also from Arkansas. After examining his tree, I had found the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) he shared with Sherrie! Sherrie and Charlie both shared a set of 2x Great Grandparents. They were 3rd cousins 1x removed to each other. He was in my 3rd Cousin category but, I had no idea how many cM we shared as Ancestry did not give you that information back then. I also knew that Charlie was likely 2 generations older than me going by his rough age I determined from his tree. Charlie also “ranked” higher in my match list than my known and already confirmed maternal 2nd cousin 1x removed, Christy. Christy matched me on my Hungarian line. I knew how many cM I shared with Christy because she had uploaded to Gedmatch. At Gedmatch we shared 127 cM. At this stage I was quite stumped as to what Charlie and I’s relationship might be considering Ancestry showed I must share more cM with Charlie than Christy yet, Charlie was also, in the 3rd Cousin category. I started to wonder if maybe Charlie might be a 1st cousin 3x removed or was he a 2nd cousin only 1x removed, a 2nd cousin 2x removed(2C2R) or maybe even a 3rd cousin 1x removed(3C1R). Or.. maybe.. I would discover some potential half cousin relationships or some sort of double relationships even! At this time, with no numbers (cM) to work with, just categories, I became more uncertain of the rhyme and reason of Ancestrys categories as I had found confirmed maternal 2C1R’s in my 4th cousin category and 2C2R’s in my distant category! I knew 3rd cousin 1x removed had to be the most distant we could have been possibly related or else Charlie would have definitely been showing as a 4th cousin category match.

What I did know was that Charlie was definitely not a straight 3rd cousin. The age gap was just too large for that to be likely. Of course I had messaged Charlie straight away in the beginning although, 3 or 4 months went by and I still hadn’t gotten a response.

In the meantime….
Unsure of the relationship between Charlie and I, I went to work building up the tree from the MRCA I had found. When you build up you should include all direct ancestors and the direct ancestors siblings. In doing this, I found some more distant DNA matches now tying in. When I had finished building up the way, I began the downward journey.

The MRCA couple had 7 children and I knew that I obviously did not descend from the same child, Mary Carter, who was Sherries 1x great grandmother. The idea now was that I would figure out the spouses of the 6 remaining children that I potentially descended from and then also extend the ancestral lines of the spouses up the way several generations.

John Bradley
John Bradley
Again, including all direct ancestors of the spouses and the direct ancestors siblings to see if I found any more DNA matches tying in. I had managed to extend all the spouses lines up the way several generations EXCEPT for the spouse of Charlie’s 1x great grandmother Elizabeth, John Bradley. I had hit a roadblock after the father of John Bradley and could not find any further information.

Linking my DNA to a daughter-in-law of my MRCA.
Linking my DNA to a daughter-in-law of my MRCA.

Nevertheless, as I was still working my hypothesis that it may be possible I was Charlies 3rd cousin 1x removed(3C1R), I needed to find out if I had matches that tied into any of the spouse lines of the other 5 children of the MRCA.  So, one by one, I went into my DNA settings at Ancestry and linked my DNA to each spouse of the 5 children of the common ancestor couple.

This process of linking your DNA to potential ancestral lines in your master or mirror tree is what is called mirroring. It essentially tricks Ancestrys system into thinking you are someone else. Probably the best description of how to use mirroring at Ancestry is this fantastic PDF document entitled, “Ancestry DNA Mirroring Explainer” produced by Dan Edwards over at Once you have found that common ancestor between two matches the first place you should try mirroring from is by linking your DNA to any descendent of the MRCA couple. This will show you, if any, how many and which matches also tie into this ancestral line of your family tree but, only if that match has a good tree with a matching ancestor in it of course! You now must figure out which child of that couple you descend from and an easy way to do this is by linking your DNA either to the spouse of each child of the MRCA couple or a grandchild. (Child born to the son/daughter-in-law and the MRCA’s child.)

Once you have linked your DNA to a spouse or grandchild you then must wait anywhere from 2 minutes to 24 hours for the green leaf “shared ancestor hints” to populate. These days, it is normally very quick to populate. Usually within half an hour. If you find no shared ancestor hints, move on to the next son/daughter-in-law or grandchild of the MRCA couple seeing if you get any shared ancestor hints. If you do get a shared ancestor hint and it is time to investigate whether the “numbers” equate to the possible relationship with the match that is depicted by the shared ancestor hint to rule out any red herrings. For example: If you have a shared ancestor hint showing for a 3rd cousin match and the hint shows a shared ancestor for a common 6x great grandparent this is likely a red herring.

In my case, I got no shared ancestor hints when I linked my DNA to each spouse of each child except the one I was not able to link to because I met a brickwall with him but, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!

So, I now began to work the descendent lines of each of the 6 children to see what I could find. Well, my MRCA couple had 7 children and I knew it wasn’t the one Sherrie descended from leaving me with 6. Those 6 children left had bore 32 grandchildren of my MRCA couple! Luckily, I ruled out 2 of the children fairly quickly but, I was still left with 30 grandchildren and their spouses and decendent lines to contend with. I spent a month or two working these lines, mirroring and also finding more common ancestors between other more distant DNA matches and trying to patch those trees together.

IMPORTANT: Whenever you add either a new common ancestor you have found between matches or want to work with another tree of a match to either build it out more or try to connect it, ALL the trees should be in the same master tree. Albeit the trees are not connected but each tree should be added by using the “save as a new person” feature. There is a less intuitive way of adding a new separate person to a tree by attaching and then detaching the person from the tree. But, I will show you a way I find much easier.

Adding a new person to your tree.
1. Normally, you will be adding a new person either from another matches tree at Ancestry or if not there, likely it will be someone you can find through the search feature at Ancestry and finding the person you want to add in someone elses tree. Or just add anyone from any tree as I describe below and just go back and edit the details to the correct name and information. Go to the profile of the person you want to add and select “Save to Tree”.

Select Save to Tree
Select Save to Tree.

2. A second window will pop up. Choose your Master Tree from the dropdown box and click “Add a New Person”

Add a New Person
Select your Master Tree from the tree list and click Add a New Person.

All of your trees should go into the same Master Tree for a few reasons. It keeps things organized in one place but, also remember that you want start eventually patching some of these trees together as you build when you hit connections between trees of your matches. A good little feature in this case is you might find you have started to work and extend a new tree of a match to find a connection with another match and all of a sudden you think you recognize one of these names from another tree you were building! This is always an exciting moment after all of this tree building you’ve been doing. Well, if you think you’ve recognized a name from another tree in your master tree. Go to the person search in your tree and start typing that name in the search box. If it is the same person, you will of course now see the same person is listed twice in the tree! Then you will be able to merge those duplicate entries. Or, you can try using the merge tool in your tree to see if you have a duplicate elsewhere within your master tree.  If the same person is already in the tree somewhere else, Ancestry will tell you there is a matching person. You can now merge those two people into one and it now connects two of your trees within your master together. This means you also now have another common ancestor between two matches to work with!

Weeding out the tree.
I spent hours upon hours extending my MRCA’s trees upward and downward and triangulating more distant matches, finding a few more distant common amcestors, mirroring, researching and also messaging matches and convinced many to upload to Gedmatch etc. for quite a few more weeks. I maybe seemed like I was crazy to those around me at that point! Sun up to sun down, I was determined I was going to get to the bottom of this.

A likely candidate.
After now working the trees of 3 MRCA’s now, my initial one and 2 that were more distant, I went back again to my initial Carter/Meador MRCA couple. I researched some more of the now 25- 30 potential candidates who could be my father and came across a very likely candidate. All I knew from my non-id was that my birthfather was 20 at the time of my birth, had brown hair, 5’10”, 140 lbs. and he was in the Air Force… likely in Michigan at that time.

A word about non-identifying information.
It should be said here that you should never take the information in your non-id as gospel. Use your non-id as clues to consider. Some non-id documents are very detailed. Others are not. Also, different versions of your non-id that have been issued at different points in time over the years may vary wildly with the information they include. In my case, I wrote to my agency for an updated copy of my non-id and received a heavily redacted version of the non-id my adoptive parents received when I was first adopted. As it turned out, the original non-id my parents received was 1 and a half pages long rather than just 2 paragraphs long as the later issued non-id was. My original non-id contained my birth name (first and middle name only) amd also a photo of me as a newborn and the latter edition did not. My birth first name actually turned out to also my birthmothers first name!

Well, this likely candidate, Michael, was the correct age and after researching him online I discovered he was retired after a long career in the Air Force. He descended from the same child, Elizabeth, that Charlie did. He was also already an avid genealogist with a tree at Ancestry yet, he had not done the DNA testing. I used his public tree at Ancestry to rebuild his tree into my Master Tree. Guess what? I had 70 odd shared ancestor hints when I linked my DNA to a child of my match Michael. 70 odd!! That is a lot of shared ancestor hints! However, I noticed that many of the shared ancestor hints didn’really work out with the estimated relationships of the matches I had shared ancestor hints with. Hmmm. (Read about Beware of the Red Herrings below.) I messaged him and explained my story and how I arrived at him. He was certain he was not my father but, he happily agreed to test. He had been planning to anyways. I thought that the addition of his DNA data may provide more clues in my search.

Michael received his Ancestry results and uploaded right away to Gedmatch. We shared 43cM. I now was very certain that I must descend from Elizabeth Carter, the daughter of my original common ancestor couple. My hypothesis now was that Charlie was very likely a 2nd cousin 2x removed and Michael a 3rd cousin 1x removed. This still left me with quite a few possibilities as several descendents still fit the rough age of my father as Elizabeth Carter had 8 children who all bore her many grand and great-grandchildren!! However, I knew I could now rule out Elizabeths daughter that both Charlie and Michael descended from. That left me with 7 childrens descendency lines to still work with.

I was now struggling to come up with enough information on the men that were left that could be potential candidates until..

Charlies message.
He hadn’t noticed the message because he hadn’t logged in for awhile (months!) We chatted a bit and he agreed he would upload to Gedmatch! Here is where things got rather exciting!

Here’s what happened when Charlie uploaded his raw data to Gedmatch……

X match
Columns Left to Right: 100.6cM Total, 32cM Longest Segment, Estimated 3.6 generations to closest common ancestor, & 18cM on the X Chromosome!

With one fell swoop, Charlie and I’s rather good sized shared X chromosome segment knocked over 1/2 of the potential descendency lines of Elizabeth Carter out of the question as being MY line. I knew that the Carter/Meador family was going to be my paternal grandmothers family because my father only gets an X chromosome from his mother. My grandmother was going to be one of Elizabeth’s grandchildren.

I spent the rest of the afternoon concentrating on the lines of Elizabeths that I could possibly descend from by applying the X chromosome inheritance pattern to Elizabeth and her husband John Bradley and following the pattern to a female granddaughter descendent who bore a son of the same age as my father. In doing this, I realized I had missed out a granddaughter of Elizabeths. Once I researched that granddaughter I missed out and then extended that granddaughter’s husband’s tree upwards, many more of my closest matches began to fall into place into my master tree. I knew I had found my father!

My Father
My biological father in 1977.
By the evening, I was facebook messaging my new found aunt who lived in, you guessed it, Arkansas. My father was alive and well! I got in touch with him and he was very happy to hear from me. He also agreed to also test to confirm our parent/child relationship and he tested at FTDNA. Indeed, he was my father!

Success… finally!

Some lessons learned.
Looking back on my case we can pick out a few interesting things to consider that you might also consider while undertaking your search.

Many factors can influence the “numbers”.
Keep in mind that DNA is random and the numbers given at the table above are the averages and expect the shared DNA amounts to be slightly higher or lower than that average amount. Sometimes it can be on the extreme end of higher or lower than average too. My shared centimorgans was a bit high for 2C2R. This might just be a case where it is just on the extreme high end from average. Or, this may be because Charlie and I share a more distant ancester elsewhere in our trees as well I don’t know about yet Also, I told you that Charlie ranked higher in my match list than Christy, my 2C1R. He did at that time! When Ancestry revamped their DNA matching system, Charlie then fell below Christy but, he still remained in 3rd cousin category. Be careful making assumptions or conclusions on cM alone. Also, take into consideration that while Ancestry now finally shows us shared cM, Ancestrys shared cM amounts are usually always slightly lower than what you will see if you upload to Gedmatch!

A solid X match can be a gamechanger.
X Chromosome matching segments can be a game changer and can narrow your search down considerably as you saw in my case. It is important to study X chromosome inheritance patterns in order to apply it properly to your search strategy. Ancestry currently does not show you shared X segments. You will have to ask your matches at Ancestry to upload to Gedmatch in order to discover if you have an X match with that match or not. X-matches can be found at FTDNA by using your X-match filter button on top of your match list there.

Beware the Red Herring
So, you might have been working your master tree for awhile and you are excited because you think you may have nearly solved your case. You have found a “likely candidate” for your unknown parent. You have extended that candidates tree upward on every line and have linked your DNA to the likely candidate and lo and behold you have discovered a huge amount of “shared ancestor hints” at Ancestry while mirroring! You have matches tying in to almost every single ancestral line of that likely candidate! Exciting!! You are starting to think you have finally figured it out! Here is where you need to go through every shared ancestor hint with a fine tooth comb! Do the shared ancestor hints match up with the calculated relationship you likely share with the match? You really need to check this thoroughly and even this sometimes is not completely foolproof. Here’s why…

Michael from my story above, to this very day, I have more shared ancestor hints (LOTS more) when I link my DNA to Michael than when I link my DNA to my own father! I have more shared ancestor hints linked to Michael than I do from myself and account for maternal side as well. I even have a much more extensive tree for myself than I have for Michael in my old master tree!

The X Chromosome

The X chromosome or the “23rd Chromosome” as its known, is a sex chromosome. Males receive one X chromosome from their mother (and a Y chromosome from their father. Females receive an X from their mother and also an X from their father.

Kiss goodbye to the 50% rule we have been following for autosomal DNA inheritance. Our X chromosome has ideas of its own. It’s the hedonistic rebel child of our DNA when it comes to how it recombines (or doesn’t) when it passes down generation to generation. But, you will see below that the inheritance pattern of X chromosome is quite interesting indeed.

It is fair to say that even geneticists do not know very much just yet about the X chromosome and its inheritance behaviour. However, we do know that it does follow at least a few hard and fast rules. I will give you a breakdown of those rules and how you can apply the rules to your search strategy.

1. First of all, because males only receive an X from their mothers you can imagine that this limits quite considerably the number of ancestors you could have inherited X DNA segments from. Blaine Bettinger, a genetic genealogist and blogger who writes some wonderful articles here, created some very useful X chromosome inheritance charts. One for females and one for males. I encourage you to click on the relevant chart below to enlarge it and then print these off or save these to your computer to refer to when you look at your DNA X-matches. This will help you narrow which ancestral lines your x-matches share with you.

Male X Chromosome Inheritance Chart
Female X Chromosome Inheritance Chart

So one of the first things you notice in the charts is that Blaine has coloured in the boxes pink or blue, female or male respectively, that represent all the potential ancestors we may have received X DNA segments from. I say, may have received X DNA from because it is known that unlike autosomal DNA it does not recombine and pass down as reliably from generation to generation. From the chart you can see that if you are a male and have an X match amongst your DNA matches, you know that that match relates to you on your mothers side only. That of course works the other way in that if you are male or female and your X match is male then you know you relate to that match on his maternal side. When I say an X match, I mean a match that shares a continuous, longest segment 7 cM at the very least or larger. It is best to ignore any segments smaller than 7 cM with a match as being a true X match; same as it is for autosomal matches. Both females and males, can narrow down which lines they might possibly share with a X match by ruling out any ancestral lines in the chart that are not coloured pink or blue.

2. When a female receives an X from her father, the X chromosome is a copy of her fathers X chromosome because he only has one X and it has no other X to recombine with. So, a female and her father will share a full match on X if you look at it in a chromosome browser. From that info you know that half sisters who share the same father will always have an exact match on X across the entire segment.

3. When a female or male receives an X from their mothers they potentially can receive a recombined X that is a mixture of the two X’s their mother received from both her father and mother. Although the X chromosome has the potential to recombine in females, it does not always recombine! Why? Nobody has any idea why just yet. In fact, they are finding that the X chromosome in women recombines a lot less often than was previously thought!

The Locked Tree
My daughter received an unrecombined copy of X from myself. My daughter matches my father along the entire segment of the X Chromosome.

See Roberta Estes’ blog post, “That Unruly X… Chromosome that is.” for more information. Roberta has some other very good articles there that can help you.

4. You may find that at Gedmatch you may have matches that you share a considerably large segment on X with but, you share no DNA on the autosomal chromosomes. As you can see from the recombination discrepancies, the X chromosome segment you share may be from an ancestor so distantly related that you share no autosomal DNA with them. But, because it is possible to not share any autosomal DNA with a 3rd cousin range and more distant cousin you should check for shared matches between you. You may find that your x match shares some close matches with you. If that is the case it is worth some investigation if they have tree information available.

5. We cannot assume that an absence of a matching X Chromosome segment with an autosomal match must mean you share one of your matches ancestral lines that is outwith either their or your potential lines you may have inherited X DNA from.

Louise Coakley lays down some more great tips about X chromosome at her blog here. I encourage you to peruse her site for many more great articles about genetic genealogy that can apply to helping you solve your case.
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5 thoughts on “Tricks of the Trade

  1. I thought Dan Edwards document was fantastic. However, he talks about 3 elements being needed : my DNA results, a close match which I should mirror, and a third match. Never mentions the third match again. What do we do with that ? I have some other questions as well. Malcolm

  2. Wow. Fantastic post. Spent the last hour reading and re-reading your search. Thanks for doing what you did. I am in the same boat, but am looking for a father from 1957. I actually do not want to meet him (if he is even still alive), but do wonder about my heritage.

  3. Very Helpful! I was lucky enough to have a second cousin match, who was also an ‘X’ match. Through process of elimination (and since we are related through one specific ethnic region) I was able to identify who the great grandparents are who we share. Did you find it beneficial to take an mtdna test to determine which traits were specific to your mother’s side?

  4. My daughter in law has one third cousin match after testing at 23andme, Ancestry, FTDNA and GEDmatch. I have tried to build a tree and really have nothing to go on and just fool with it when bored.
    So I think the focus should be on how to exploit social media / Internet to find family. I recently tried to get Facebook to add my daughter in laws home town. My thinking is so that her name would be seen by anyone on Facebook from that town. But they declined to add it. I found a business located at the same address where her mother once lived. The name of the business is the same as the family name of the third cousin. I found this on Google maps. These are the things we need to figure out is how to find people. Just some thoughts.


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