Sunday, 25 September 2016

AncestryDNA for Newbies (Including Me)

So you have DNA tested with Ancestry. Now what?

My husband and I first had our DNA testing done in 2012 using an autosomal test offered by Ancestry. My two brothers and my 83-year-old mother tested the next year, which turned out to be the year before she died. Dad's dementia did not enable him to understand spitting into a vial. But earlier this year his 89-year-old brother tested. Currently, I administer the results of 11 DNA tests and another 6 are at the lab being processed. I still consider myself a DNA research rookie.

Several of the tests are first cousins on my maternal side. None of us know much about our grandfather, the family Gustav Lange (1888-1963), and more than half of my 11 Lange cousins are helping me in my research by agreeing to DNA test. I have uploaded Mom's raw DNA test results and a gedcom version of her tree to because there is a group of Society of German Genealogy in Eastern Europe (SGGEE) members who share DNA with Mom who understand chromosome matching. I do not. Therefore, this post is about how someone with a limited understanding of DNA can use Ancestry DNA-related tools to further their research.

And I will attest to the success I've had using DNA even with a limited understanding of the science. Some successes:
  1. Confirming my 4X great grandfather Samuel Beard, (1750-1814) was the brother of Capt. David Beard and the son of Adam Beard (1725-1777), which proved my previous research and enabled me to have him re-instated as a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) patriot.
  2. Identifying a new Beard cousin (descended through Capt. David Beard), whose uncle had written a book which described the family's wagon trip from Iowa to Colorado and California in the late 1890s.
  3. Learning about my previously unknown great great grandmother Barbara Ann Mitchell, who descended from Robert Mitchell "the Immigrant," who was alive and living in Londonderry, Northern Ireland during the Seige of Derry in 1688-1689.
  4. Having the opportunity to interview my first cousin once removed who was the son of Grandpa Lange's youngest brother about the family's experience during and between World War I and World War II
  5. Proving that I had correctly identified the siblings of my great grandmother, Caroline (Ludwig) Lange.
  6. Discovering a five times great grandfather was Robert Mitchell "the Elder" (1714-1799) and finding a book about one of his sons which included a personality profile about Robert Mitchell.
And more...

In order to take full advantage of what little I do understand about DNA, I needed to develop a process to follow when viewing, identifying, and managing the results of the tests as well as how I communicate with the people who have so graciously spit into the tube for me! I thought for my bi-monthly Worldwide Genealogy -- A Genealogical Collaboration, I would detail my DNA process. 

I maintain a master DNA spreadsheet in which I record matches, common shared ancestors, pedigree charts and ethnicity information. 

On the ethnicity worksheet, I have the people who have taken the test arrayed on rows and the global regions Ancestry uses to categorize ethnicity are arrayed in columns.

Column A = Name of person who DNA tested (not shown)
Column B = Relationship to me
Columns C through AB = Ancestry's 26 global regions (some are not shown)

Ethnicity worksheet in my Master DNA spreadsheet; created using
Microsoft Excel

I find that the people who have tested for me are most interested in their ethnicity. I can make their eyes glaze over when I talk genealogy. So I usually send them a copy of the information Ancestry includes about each region when I send them their ethnicity results.

The pedigree charts look like the example below. I include them as I know many of my relatives will be unfamiliar with the names of some of their direct ancestors.

Example of a pedigree chart I create for each person whose DNA test I
administer; created using Microsoft Excel

I annotate the chart to include whether the information was new to me based on DNA testing and which lines have been proven using DNA testing. My relatives enjoy seeing how their DNA tests have helped further my research into our shared family history.

The "meat" of my spreadsheet is the worksheet where I capture information about DNA matches. I organize the information in the following manner:
  • Column A = the name of the DNA match (not shown): Sometimes I cannot determine their name, but note them as Daughter [Surname] for example. Frequently, if one of their parents are deceased I can locate an obituary online and determine the name of the DNA match.
  • Column B = M/F (not shown): This is the sex of the person who took the DNA test
  • Column C = the name of the DNA test (not shown): This will be an Ancestry username unless it is a test of a third person administered by an Ancestry member. In that case, I enter the initials in this column.
  • Column D = the username of the test administrator (not shown): If the test was taken by an Ancestry member, it will be the Ancestry user name. In my case "sdagutis." Using my mother's test as an example, the name of which is D. J. (administered by sdagutis), I enter DJ in Column C and sdagutis in this column.
  • Column E = the surname of the common shared ancestor (not shown). This column was added for sorting purposes.
  • Column F = name of the common shared ancestor. This is the person from which the DNA match and the test I administer descend. I use the name of the male as frequently we descend from children of different wives. I've learned wives are complicated! ;)
  • Column G = birth year of common shared ancestor. I use red font if it is an estimate.
  • Column H = death year of common shared ancestor. I use red font if it is an estimate.
  • Column I = relationship of common shared ancestor to me. If this column is blank the row is related to a DNA test to a by-marriage relative who is not related to me by genetics or blood and this information is included in a different column for only those non-relatives.
  • Columns J through whatever = the names of the people whose DNA test I administer and their relationship to me. I have tested some by marriage ancestors who were curious about their family history so their columns are organized at the far right and are not shown.
A snippet from my DNA matches worksheet; created using Microsoft Excel

When I'm working with new DNA matches I usually sort the spreadsheet by the Test Administrator column. This enables me to insert a new row alphabetically by the Ancestry username. When I am analyzing the DNA matches I sort by the common shared ancestor columns. I have observed that while my brothers and I share many DNA matches there a few that unique to one sibling and those seem to fall into particular surnames. One brother has more matches where the common shared ancestor's surname was Beard for example.

I always research the ancestry of the DNA match. Occasionally, I find, especially when dealing with U.S. Colonial-era ancestors that the research can be incorrect. Often, I can make what I believe to be the correct amendments and I will note that on the DNA match itself. I also use this field to indicate who the person is and a link to their facts page in my tree.

An example of how I use the Note field on the DNA match page; courtesy
of Ancestry

As I complete my process for each match, I click the star to the left of the image so I know I have worked on this match and know who the common shared ancestor was even if Ancestry did not identify one. I also note the DNA match on the two relevant fact pages in my tree using the DNA Markers fact option.

The fact about Uncle Marvin's DNA match on my facts page; courtesy of
Corresponding fact about our match on Uncle Marvin's fact page;
courtesy of

I will mention that I am not generally a fan of using icons on my tree but have found it extraordinarily helpful when working with DNA. I create an icon for each person who has tested and as I resolve each match, I associate that person to the icon in my relative's gallery.

When I solve a match, especially one without a known shared common ancestor, I will click the Shared Matches button to see which other matches are shared between the person who took the DNA test for me and the match on which I am working. Usually, I can figure those out as well, using the research I just completed on the current match.

Buttons that appear on every DNA match detail pages; courtesy of

I'll talk about DNA Circles another day!


  1. Thank you for such detailed instructions about how you use your spreadsheet! This is very helpful.

  2. What a wonderful assortment of graphic assistance--thank you so very much!


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