03 December 2012

DNA Testing for my Family History

I am using a new tool for genealogy - DNA testing! It can show ethnic origins, confirm relationships (or prove that two people cannot be related), and put family historians in contact with others who share the same ancestry.

My 91-year-old uncle agreed to be tested, so I took advantage of the sale at Family Tree DNA, an established, respected company recommended by genealogists who are experts in this field. Family Tree DNA will match my uncle's test results against their database (the largest of its kind in the world) and let me contact anyone whose results show that they are somehow related to us. The database is growing rapidly as more people are tested, so I log in regularly to check for new matches.

I started by ordering the FamilyFinder test, which uses autosomal DNA inherited from mother, father, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. This has the potential to identify descendants of any ancestral lines within about the last six generations. Those descendants may have vital information, or photographs or letters from my direct ancestors.

Part of a document held by Joe Hudson
I am a great believer in researching all siblings. Some of my most exciting discoveries were a direct result of contacting distant cousins. The image above shows part of a family document held by Joe HUDSON. It confirmed that a baptism I'd found was for the right William HUDSON. (The baptism register for Bossall, North Yorkshire, gave a birth date and named the child's maternal grandparents!) Joe also sent me a copy of a letter written in 1879 by my great-great-grandfather.

The FamilyFinder autosomal DNA test is available to men and women, so I could have been tested myself. However it made more sense to test my uncle (my late father's only surviving sibling) because I am currently more interested in my father's ancestors than my mother's. The autosomal test may help me to confirm and expand the paper trail for various families including BUTLER, CAMPBELL, GIBLETT, HARLEY, NICHOLSON, PORTER and SHEPPARD (on the WEBSTER side) and AGAR, ASHTON, BARBER, BIRKS, CLARK, HUGILL, MATTHEW and PEACOCK (on the HUDSON side).

Our FamilyFinder test results arrived just before Christmas. My budget for genealogy is limited, so I am hoping that interested relatives will contribute a small sum towards the cost of ordering two additional tests. A mitochondrial DNA test could get us back beyond Mary PEACOCK nee HUGILL (born about 1813); and a Y-DNA test might help to confirm the story that our WEBSTER family in Surrey and Middlesex originally came from Aberdeen in Scotland.

If you want to know more about using DNA for genealogy, I recommend the series of four easy-to-read articles by CeCe Moore. The summary in part 4 explains how to decide which DNA test is right for you.

Postscript no.1:  Kerry Farmer has just reminded me of two important points that I forgot (thanks, Kerry!)  'Another good reason for testing your uncle's DNA is that it gets you a generation further back to looking for ancestors in common. And Family Tree DNA will hold DNA samples for 25 years, so your uncle's DNA will still be available for testing should a subsequent test become available in the future.'

Postscript no.2:  I have started contacting people who match with autosomal DNA, and I send them a list of all names (except living people), not just a pedigree chart - because the name they will recognise may not be my direct ancestor. As Gedmatch points out, "siblings (and descendants of siblings) of one family often turn up as 'spouses' (with no recorded ancestors) in another family." There is a diagram that illustrates this clearly.

Postscript no.3:  For good examples of what DNA tests do (and do not) tell you, see Combining Tools - Autosomal Plus Y-DNA, mtDNA and the X Chromosome.


  1. Thanks for your post informing us of the special. Think I'll have to get one as a Christmas present. Not sure whether I should test my brother or myself. I'll need to do some research to determine what I want to discover.

    1. Yes, it would be a great Christmas present to yourself! If you have a parent, uncle, aunt, etc, it may be better to have him/her tested (as Kerry Farmer pointed out). The series of articles I mentioned should help you to figure out who should give the sample, and for which test(s).

  2. Great post Judy! I wish you best of luck with your dive into DNA testing! Like you, I jumped into genetic genealogy about a year ago, to take my family research to the next level. I must warn you, that though I believe the testing is very important and will get you some results in the long run, one DNA test on one family members will most likely not result in any conclusive evidence. I've learned that this process takes a lot of patience. What you actually need is to be able to map your family genetically.The more known family members get tested, the more likely you will be able to work out relationships with suggested relatives. It's possible for example that if you test three known second or third cousins, one will not match his cousins, so imagine if your testing suggested cousins. You can get lots of false negatives. Also since the family finder test does not point you in which branch the relationship lies, it's quite difficult to map three of four generations back without more family members on both sides being tested. Saying all that, your correct to test the eldest members of your family and start creating a data base. The Y-DNA test and the Mitochondrial test are very specific test, and will only link to paternal-paternal lines and maternal-maternal lines (1/16th of you 2nd-great-grandparents) and so forth. I suggest if your going to draft your family fund testing, instead of doing the Y-DNA test and the mitochondrial test (which is even less specific), have them get tested themselves with the Family Finder test. Here is a blog post that explains the genetics of this much better than I can. http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog/2012/09/02/the-atdna-gamble/

    1. Thanks for your detailed comments. I will now try even harder to persuade known 'distant cousins' to do the FamilyFinder test in the hope of working out which DNA comes from which family line.

  3. Thanks Judy - I've been sidetracked from following mine up but will digest your thoughts and that of the commenters. Thanks for the link too. I really want to get Mr Cassmob tested and would love to "encourage" some McSherry relations.

    1. Good luck Pauleen. It will be interesting to swap stories about our experiences as things progress. FTDNA's database is growing rapidly, so now that we've had the samples taken our chances of genealogical success should increase with time.

  4. My uncle's FamilyFinder DNA results have just been posted. PopulationFinder currently says his origins are 100% European (Orcadian), but that is only a preliminary result and may be updated. There are already six matches in the '2nd-4th cousin' predicted range and ten matches for '3rd-5th cousin'. Now I need to contact those people to compare family trees! One match is 'shared cM 49.22, longest block 32.05', but I have not yet learned how to interpret all this. The results were not due until mid-January so I got caught short and hadn't done my homework in advance!


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