Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Adventures in DNA - A Journey of Revelations and Caution

My Ethnic "Percentages" broken down from 23andMe

A recent article  by  Nicka Smith about DNA and a conversation with her about our experiences has prompted me to write an article about my own experiences with DNA testing as well.

Several years ago, I took the first of several DNA tests. I tested with the National Genographic Project and was delighted to learn about that my maternal line reflects HaploGroup L3. Over time that has morphed into L3e2b.

National Genographic Project illustration of L3 haplogroup

I then upgraded and took the FamilyTreeDNA test and was thrilled to find DNA "matches" both high and low resolution. (HVR1 and HVR2) Being naturally curious about ties to Africa, I decided to take the African Ancestry DNA test which would follow one single line and provide a glimpse into the origin of my maternal line, thus taking the mtDNA test. I was excited to learn about a line that possibly extends to the Yoruba/Fulani people of Nigeria and Niger. And yes, I also took the favorite test that would provide some percentages of one's ethnic makeup, so 23andMe was taken and over the past 2-3 years I have found a large number of "matches".

But when I am asked if DNA has helped me genealogically I answer the following questions:

With all of those tests taken, has the new information opened doors in a genealogical sense? No.

Have I had new breakthroughs in my genealogy because of DNA? No.

Have I been able to solve any puzzles by finding a common ancestor with a stranger? No.

Have a I found a common ancestor with any of the DNA matches? No.

Now, I belong to a number of communities some of which include DNA discussions, and I am always happy for those persons who have met an unknown 2nd or 3rd cousin and they have been able to determine who the common ancestor was. I am excited when I see that they find so many matches on multiple segments.

However, my matches are not close cousins, and a majority of my matches are described as "4th to distant" cousins. I have not found any "new cousins" that I can prove with any documentation and I feel that there are several critical reasons for this.

1) Many if not most of the "DNA Matches" fall outside of an easily solvable research range. A person who is 4th or 5th cousin or even higher means that we have a common ancestor--but pretty far back.  I have documented several of my lines fairly well, and of course am always looking for more data. But also note that researching ancestors who were enslaved, does bring challenges---many of the names are not always known and not easily found.

So far, I have identified:
2 of 2 parents
4 of 4 grandparents
6 of 8 gr. grandparents
8 of 16 gr. gr. grandparents
6 of 32 gr. gr. gr. grandparents.

And all of this has been done with pure research. DNA testing has not taken me back any further.

2) Many of the common ancestors I share with my DNA matches are also unknown to my DNA matches. Many of the individuals with whom I share a very slight overlap in DNA have not done much family history research. I know this because I have communicated with those who are interested. In addition, the most that has emerged has been speculative, and not definitive.

3) Many of the common ancestors that I share with my matches are possibly unknown white ancestors, never to be revealed.
It is understood that during the slavery era that existed for more than 240 years, there were many children fathered by Caucasian men. Some were slave holders, some were overseers, some were other laborers who had access. So this is no surprise to learn that I have almost 20% European ancestry. (see chart at the top of this post)

But often during conversations with DNA matches even with African American matches, the search often involves looking for the common black ancestor when in reality we could also share a common white ancestor, name unknown and unspoken for generations. And there are many DNA matches in my lists of matches who are Caucasian. They may or may not be aware that there are ancestors who had children with enslaved women, and therefore have black cousins. And--it must be remembered--they do have the same number of ancestors. Which of their 32 gr. gr. gr. grandparents might be the common ancestor that we share? Or which of their 64 gr. gr. gr. gr. grandparents might match one of my unknown 64 gr. gr. gr. gr. grandparents?

And with some my African American matches, there is a possibility that our common ancestor may also be white as well.  In my own case, I have close to 20% DNA that is European. There is a strong possibility that many of the matches on my list of 900+ could be through an unknown and unidentified white forbear. So when that person is unknown to two black people who descend from the same white person unknown to both, and never named, the discovery  of a common and unknown white ancestor is slim.

4)  Construction of one's pedigree is an ongoing process, so asking a stranger to hand it over because you are suddenly "cousins" is not going to take place.

Now, I do believe in having a dialogue and with sharing information. I have had several good interactions, emails, and conversations with persons with whom I have learned that we match. We have chatted and asked questions of each other, and once we realized that our own lines have little documented overlap with the data that is known, we have politely wished each other well and moved on.

But, there has been one DNA match who simply thinks that by handing over my carefully researched data that they will be able to "figure it out". But must all be wise---a new name on a chart is still a stranger. Having a new DNA match does not mean that you are going to be unlocking genealogy doors!

A year or two ago, when I did not eagerly hand over my pedigree chart to a stranger, one of my DNA matches went out of their way to even dig up some of my online writings in order to construct my pedigree for their own use, just to "figure it out", since I did not readily hand it over. (I refrained from pointing out some of the errors that were made in their construction, and I have maintained a polite distance from this person, preferring to stick to research. Part of my hesitancy was based on the fact that there was no seeming connection to their published profile of their ancestral history.) And, the assumption that having a match means that we are now "fast family"---well, it is simply not wise in my opinion and could, in fact be a dangerous practice. How ironic it was to learn that others in my genealogy circle have had the same experience with the same DNA match.

But giving it all much though, here are a few guidelines for behavior that I propose:

1) Understand that people take DNA tests for different reasons. Some don't want to find a new cousin.
2) Refrain from asking for detailed research data from  new "distant cousin" matches, at least until some kind of rapport has been established. A new contact is still a stranger.
3) If someone clearly wishes to share limited data accept their caution and do not pry.
4) Do not try to construct a DNA cousin match's family history without him/her giving you permission. Avoid being a DNA "stalker".

If there is a DNA match that appears to be close: (1st to 3rd cousins) I suggest the following:

1) By all means reach out and see if that person wishes to share genomes and data and more.
2) If there is a connection that one is seeking and the other party wishes to help, then proceed.
3) If there is a case of adoption where an adoptee is finding matches and reaching out, proceed with caution in case the birth parent has concerns or does not wish to be contacted. All parties should be respected.

This is a new world for many of us. I have enjoyed examining the data that I have received, however, nothing has been able to top old fashioned research, and documentation for me.  DNA is an interesting tool, but it has yet to take me back one generation further, or to connect me to an individual who has been able to take me to a new person on any line.

We should all tread with caution with DNA. I have enjoyed the journey and have enjoyed the data on my deep ancestral history that has emerged. But DNA does not provide shortcuts to the genealogical process. Have fun with DNA, but also continue full speed ahead with our research.

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davissmitchell said...

Well said Angela! I agree with everything you have said but I secretly (well not so secretly now)wish that you will get five or six unknown cousins that are in your second or third range who have their research in order. I wish that were me in that group.

Kristin said...

I agree. Even with cousins that are in the closer category, I've been unable to find a connection unless I already knew what it was.

As you said, not knowing who the ancestor even could be really limits what can be done.

Still find it interesting to see what's there and what I share with my known cousins.

True Lewis said...

A lot of good points. I'm always trying to be cautious and helpful. I hope you get some 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cousins soon! Great Post.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

I agree with you Kristin! And you and I are in fact DNA cousin matches and who knows where the common person is! But I agree with you that it is indeed fun to also share with the family what has been found.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks True! I hope I get some closer matches someday as well!

Delores said...

Angela...I really enjoyed your post. I just got my dad DNA tested and he helped clear up many of matches. Thanks.


Debra said...

Angela, this was a wonderfully informative post which confirmed some of my own beliefs about the ability to connect with close kin, and brought some wise advise to the table! I think that when doing African-American research, many of us (in the back of our minds) hope to have a "Roots" experience such as Alex Haley did when he located the tribal historian who held the key to his family's history. I have not yet dived into the DNA pond, but had hoped that my husband would have taken advantage of 23andMe testing. Now that I have read your conclusions, I am more apt to continue with the research and save DNA for another time. Thank you for your insights.

Albert Colbert said...

I know I'm going to be in the minority here, but I have to respectfully disagree that DNA results cannot aid in getting lines traced back further. I know in my case, I have been able to use multiple matches with the same surname to look at public trees and map back to a common ancestor. From there, it can admittedly be dicey, but before I started DNA-wise, I had all 8 of my great grandparents, all 16 of my 2nd great grandparents, 18 of my 32 3rd great grandparents, 13 of 64 4th great grandparents, and a handful beyond documented, all of African descent. Using location with triangulation, I have been able to reliably determine 9 European 4th great-grandfathers and expand my tree exponentially after that. The key to the usefulness is two fold: 1) Your tree has to be deep enough to know *who* you're looking for and the relevant timeframe, and 2) You have to be able to put location into context. I give an example of recently finding the Tarver name in my surname matches, and having no context for it, until I traced the lineage of the father down a couple of generations, and found that many of the Tarvers had moved to Amite County, MS. I have only one set of 3rd great grandparents from there, so it was easy to decipher that a Tarver male was the father of my 3rd great-grandmother Sylvia. Everything fit, including that she religiously indicated that she was born in Louisiana, she was married and lived post-slavery in Amite County, and her most reliable date of birth was 1833. One particular Tarver male lived in a Louisiana Parish that bordered Amite County, MS, had plantations in both counties, and in the 1850 and 1860 slave census, had a mulatto female born in 1833. All the dots matched perfectly. So it's not that the data is not helpful, it's that it takes a *lot* of work to make sense of it and apply it to an already well-researched tree to get any benefit. The biggest obstacle I have had to making headway with other black relatives is that the trees on their end have simply not been deep enough to establish a 3rd cousin match or beyond...not the fault of the DNA, nor a referendum on its usefulness, just that it cannot be applied in a less-than-optimal situation. Beyond that, I do agree with large portions of what you wrote, such as treading carefully...I tend to do my research solo, and if someone approaches me, I am happy to collaborate, but this way I don't trouble anyone else on my quest unless they also have the same level of interest.

LindaRe said...

Enjoyed your post and I am in total agreement. Good research is needed to confirm connections if the common ancestor is known. I've had the 23andMe kit on my desk for the last seven weeks or more. I need to send the kit off to see what is revealed in my DNA.

Jana Last said...


I want you to know that your blog is listed in today Fab Finds post at

Have a fantastic weekend!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Jana, thank you so much, I am honored that you have included my blog in your Fab Finds!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Actually you have said the same thing that I emphasized that you have to have done extensive research. I caution beginners against assuming that they have an instant shortcut with DNA testing--research is essential and cannot be replaced.

And there are many people who will not find that "missing cousin" simply because with both parties the common ancestor is unknown.

Unknown said...

Good points Angela. Do you think working on the 4th and 5th lines will not help?

Joseph Fontaine said...

Well said I will be patient and watch as things develop

Anonymous said...


I stumbled across your blog while trying to learn more about Mississippi's Enumeration of Educable Children and am hooked on your writing!

I have had success using's DNA testing simply because of their feature that gives you a 'shaky leaf' hint whenever you and a DNA cousin have a shared person entry in your family trees. I created an exploratory tree there for ancestor fishing expeditions and have had successes breaking through three brick walls. Of course ancestry's DNA program is limited by their not having a chromosome browser, though I understand they are to roll out something similar later this year.

The reason I'm commenting here though, is that I'm white and not only don't mind trying to find connections with black cousins, but would love to help if possible. I'm in Mississippi and most of my lines go back many generations to Virginia, NC, SC, what is now the Tennessee area, so I know I have black white connections whether shared bloodlines, or shared surnames because of slave ownership. I've found one farmer ancestor with seven slaves who listed the slaves by name in his will.

With all the technology available to us, it seems as though a way to coordinate research is doable (such as a database of slave owners and slaves names, dates and locations), but I'm not tech savvy enough to figure out how to set it up. If there is a place that I can post names, dates and locations that I find, I'd be glad to do it.

Thanks for your exceptionally well written blog! This budding genealogist is learning a lot!

Kind Regards,