Friday, August 21, 2020

Major Breakthrough with DNA

I think I finally broke through the biggest brick wall on my tree. I had forever been stuck at my 3rd great grandmother, Emma Elizabeth Sherwood (left), who married William Henry Mills. Despite having found her maiden name, I could never find her parents or any record of her before her marriage. Born about 1838 in New York, there were a lot of girls with the same or similar name in New York around that time. I'd tried to research by elimination, but I was still left with too many options that could have been her. And DNA? I made some efforts but it was really difficult with a fairly common surname like Sherwood. I never got anywhere promising.

Until now. I decided to work on some closer DNA matches that I hadn't been able to identify before. I randomly picked one from my mom's side who had several shared matches with people confirmed from my Mills branch. This match, we'll call him 11B, had a small family tree added, enough that I could build on it. Although that is supposed to be ThruLines' job, it doesn't always catch everything. I started digging and before long, I found that 11B's 2nd great grandmother was Orannah Sherwood b. 1841 in New York.

I instantly thought she could be a sister of my Emma Elizabeth Sherwood. Right surname, born only about 3 years apart in the same state. Plus, I know this DNA match 11B is somehow connected to my Mills branch and Emma Sherwood married William Henry Mills. But I tried not to get my hopes up too high, because Sherwood is a common name, and lots of people lived in New York in the late 1830s/early 1840s. 11B could be connected to my Mills branch in some other undiscovered way entirely. More research was needed, so I researched the other branches of 11B's tree and found no other connection to my tree, let alone to my Mills branch.

I then found Orannah, fortunately not a super common given name, in NY in the 1850 census and guess what? She had a sister named Emily E Sherwood b. abt. 1837.

The 1850 census showing the Sherwood family with Emily/Emma

Things are looking much more promising. Granted, Emily was supposedly born in Indiana according to the 1850 census, not New York, but that could be wrong. Or it could be right and she never knew it. Her older sister Louisa also seems to have been born in Indiana in 1835, and then her younger brother Homer was born back in NY in 1839, so the family could have been in Indiana for only a few years and Emily/Emma may not have remembered it and just assumed since she grew up in NY that that's where she was born. It's strange for us today with all our documentation to think that someone didn't actually know where they were truly born, but it happened a lot in history.

Another smaller piece of evidence is the fact that the 1850 census tells us Emily's father, Nathan, was born in New York, which is consistent with later records of Emma saying her father was born in New York too. Unfortunately, it's not as consistent with her mother, which later records say she was born in either New York or New Jersey, while the 1850 census for Annis O, the presumed mother of Emily, says she was born in Vermont.

Here's the craziest bit, though, and is a real testament to why you shouldn't just outright dismiss family stories. Once upon a time, my grandmother was doing genealogy research and left behind a wealth of information, though rarely cited her sources. Much of what she wrote down was word-of-mouth info from cousins she tracked down and wrote to. In her handwritten info, she claimed that William Henry Mills (Emma Sherwood's husband) had a sister named Belinda who married a man with the surname Beals. Turns out, William did have a sister named Blendena, which was obviously misremembered as Belinda, but her only married name was Church, not Beals. None of William's other sisters or relatives married anyone named Beals either, so I was really scratching my head over where this name came from and considering that maybe it was totally fictitious, even though about 90% of my grandmother's info I've proven to be accurate, and the remaining 10% has turned out to hold some kernel of truth, with only some of the details being wrong.

Well, guess who did have a sister whose married name was Beals? Emily Sherwood! Her older sister Louisa married Silvanus Beals in 1855 in Indiana. And note how this is the same sister who was supposedly born in Indiana? The family probably had some kind of connection to Indiana.

I even managed to explain how Emma and Louisa wound up marrying in different states in the same year. Louisa's husband, Silvanus Beals, apparently was living in the same county that Emma married William Henry Mills in, Wyandot County, Ohio. That links Silvanus, and therefore potentially also Louisa, to the same place Emma was married. Additionally, Silvanus' obituary says he worked for a railroad company as a young men, the same industry that William Henry Mills spent his life in. Perhaps they worked together before they met their wives, maybe Louisa introduced Emma to William through her fiance or vice versa. There clearly appears to be a connection there.

The evidence is starting to really pile up, but is it all just a coincidence? How could I know for sure this was the right family, given the slight difference in the given name, Emma vs Emily, and the difference in her birth place as well as her mother's birth place? 

Firstly, I started researching Emily, not Emma, as though she was a different person. If I could find her on later records as having married someone else, not William Henry Mills, or never married at all, that would disprove the theory that they were the same person. I didn't find anything like that, but of course that doesn't confirm they were the same person, it only means that's still a possibility.

I also found Emily in the FamilySearch tree as Emma, which is apparently coming from a book "Descendants to the eight generation of Thomas Sherwood (1586-1655) of Fairfield, Connecticut Vol 2" which was published in 1985, so it's obviously very much a secondary source (and really doesn't contain much info), but it certainly suggests Emily's name could have actually been Emma. It's not a stretch.

But what I really wanted was to find more DNA matches descended from this family. I was hesitant to put this family into my tree because it meant putting a lot of speculative data in my tree, but I did it because I wanted to see if ThruLines would find more descendants. And after a few days, the matches came rolling in! 7 so far, and they will only continue to grow as my tree grows. Unfortunately, this family has been a little difficult to research, so it's been a struggle, but worth it. 

ThruLines showing 5 out of 7 DNA matches from the Sherwood family so far

It appears that Nathan probably died sometime in between 1853 and 1855, and Annis in either 1854 or 1855, because their last child was born 27 Mar 1854. As a result, the children were split up and scattered, sent to live with other families. In 1855, we know that Lousia got married in Indiana, and Emily/Emma, assuming they are the same person, was married in Wyandot County, Ohio. They may have been living with family in those areas. Also in 1855, Oreannah was sent to live with the family of her future husband, Charles C Baxter. Their brother, Homer, was an apprentice living with a seemingly unrelated family in a different part of NY on the 1855 NY State census. Another brother, Dwight, was adopted by another member of the Baxter family, who was fortunately neighbors with the ones who took Oreannah in, so at least these siblings got to be near one another. The youngest brother, Frank, was actually born in March 1854 and adopted as an infant by Franics Postel and Sarah Baxter (Sarah being the sister of Oreanna's husband, yet another connection to the Baxter family) before the 1855 NY census, supporting the theory that Nathan and Annis died around that time. 

I am still working on researching the other children, but I'm having difficulty and I think it's because they were all split up after their parent's deaths. If I'm having difficulty researching them, others probably are as well, and indeed, when I look for these people in other trees, there are usually dead ends. If no one has these people well researched in their trees, ThruLines doesn't have much to follow. So it's not necessarily because I'm on the wrong path, there's just no established path yet for ThruLines to pick up on, which is kind of exciting to be working on something no one else has done much work on yet. Of course, the downside to that is how difficult it is.

Additionally, when I look at my Shared Matches with the confirmed matches descended from Nathan and Annis, I find most of them don't have any tree added at all, and among those that do, most of them are tiny. Another hindrance of ThruLines. All I can do is build my own tree as much as possible down descendant lines and see if they eventually link up with more trees. For now, this is an excellent start, and I'm thrilled to finally have found Emma's family!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

MyHeritage's Photo Enhancements

Previously, I did an analysis of MyHeritage's photo colorizing tool. Since then, they have also added an enhancement tool, which identifies faces in photos and "enhances" them by making them sharper and clearer with more details. They also appear to have improved the colorizing. I noticed how the same photo I had colorized before, which left some areas like a hand here or there uncolored, are now magically colored (see bottom of article for example). It's still not perfect, but it's improving.

Normally, both tools are limited to 10 photos with a free account, so you have to subscribe with the Complete Plan (the most expensive one) to use unlimited photos with these tools. But right now, MyHeritage are trying to entice people to subscribe by making the tools unlimited for free for one month. They are obviously hoping people will be so impressed with the tools and get used to using them on unlimited photos that when the month is up, some will subscribe to continue having access to them. But personally, I'm not about to spend another $300 a year just for access to these fun little tools so I'm making the most of the free access while I can.

Much like the colorizing tool, the enhancement works best on images that don't have too much degradation or blurring. If you click the above photo of my Nan to enlarge it and see details, you'll see it had only some minimal blurring and the enhancement tool made it very sharp and clear, a much better picture of my Nan. You'll note that it does not remove scratches, spots, or other surface damage to the photo though, even when they appear on the face. And yes, you can enhance it and colorize it at the same time (see examples below), I just chose not to on this one of my Nan to show you the enhancement alone.

It also works best on faces that are closer to the camera - the smaller/further away the faces are, the less effective the enhancement is, and sometimes it's not effective at all. A few photos I've tested so far (see below), the faces were so far away and so blurry that the tool didn't even attempt to enhance it (though it did seem to identify it as a face since it colorized it correctly as skin colored). The ones that were enhanced were minimally done. 

The enhancement tool only worked on 3 out of 5 faces here, because they
were too small and blurry. The 3 enhancements were minimal too (see below).

A close up comparison of one of the small faces in the above photo with the minimal enhancements

Additionally, sometimes the enhancement leaves the face looking a little plastic and weird, like the person is wearing a mask (see below). This is more likely to happen the more blurring there is to the photo and faces, partly because it's difficult to enhance something so small and so unclear, but also because the tool only enhances faces and nothing else. A sharp, clear face next to blurry hair and clothing just looks weird. But in some cases, it's better than nothing, and it does give us somewhat of a better idea of what someone looked like.

Note how the one on the left looks fairly normal but the other two appear mask-like

Keep in mind though, that this tool is attempting to create data where it doesn't exist, so there comes a point on a heavily doctored photo where it may not be an accurate representation of someone's face. It's fun to explore, but for example, I would avoid using it while comparing people in two different photos to determine if they are the same person, or related. While it's tempting to use enhancements to do such comparisons because they seem clearer and sharper, making it easier to compare, it could actually be wrongly altering someone's appearance and leading you to the wrong conclusion about their identity.

So just like with the colorizing tool, the effectiveness of the enhancement tool can be a little hit and miss. It handles some images better than others, and there does come a point where certain photos and faces are too far gone to recover. Have fun with it, but don't expect too much from it with all your photos.

A comparison of the initial coloring of a photo (left) with the updated coloring of it (right), note
some of the hands that were previously uncolored are now a correct skin tone. There's also some
minor difference in the the darker skirts. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Changes at

Recently in the news, there's been more than one announcement about changes happening at and AncestryDNA. First, AncestryDNA announced they were raising the threshold for how much DNA you have to share with someone in order to match them, and then came the news that Ancestry's primary owner, Permira, are selling to another company called Blackstone.

Cue the freak outs.

But really, everyone, it's going to be okay. Here's why.

AncestryDNA are raising the threshold for matching from 6 cM segments to 8 cM. I know this seems extreme, but remember that the vast majority (thousands) of your matches under 8 cM are identical by state, which means they do not share a common ancestor, at least not within any kind of genealogical time frame. And even those matches which you can identify a most recent common ancestor with, at this level of DNA, it's so unreliable, you can't be sure the shared DNA is actually coming from that ancestor after all. Because of this, these low matches can actually be leading you astray, not breaking down the brick walls you thought they would. By raising the threshold to 8 cM, AncestryDNA are assuring that the majority of your matches will be identical by descent and therefore more likely to be most useful to your research.

In fact, in the past, AncestryDNA was often criticized for their threshold being as low as 6 cM, as at least 7 cM was considered more the standard. And if you think 8 cM is extreme, don't even bother testing at 23andMe, where rather than have the same cM cut off point for everyone, instead they cap your match list at 2,000 matches (or if you tested long enough ago, it may be 1,000). Whatever cM your matches share with you at that 2,000 cut off is where they draw the line. So, for example, let's say your 2,000th match shares 12 cM with you - they will include everyone that shares 12 cM with you even if it goes above 2,000, but that's it, that's your cut off point, you won't have any matches sharing less than 12 cM with you. Personally, I was unfortunate enough to test when the cut off was 1,000, and they didn't raise it. My cut off point at 23andMe? 20 cM. That would basically only be my estimated 4th cousins or closer at AncestryDNA. Imagine your match list being cut off at only estimated 4th cousins or closer.

Additionally, AncestryDNA have promised not to remove any matches that you have marked in any kind of way. If you starred them, put them in a group, left a note, or messaged the individual, those matches, even under 8 cM, will remain on your match list. So you're not going to lose any info that you've already established, only the ones that you haven't gotten anywhere with yet, which are the ones most likely to be identical by state anyway. 

So AncestryDNA are not being unreasonable by raising their cut off to 8 cM. It's more in line with what is considered standard, it's still way better than the crappy deal you get at 23andMe, and you won't lose any established data. What I recommend doing is going through all your ThruLines or matches under 8 cM with Common Ancestors and star or group them somehow, so you at least don't lose those. For me, at least, this is worthwhile because most of my ThruLines wind up being accurate. You may also want to star ones that have trees - the ones that don't, you probably wouldn't get very far with anyway. You can easily do all this by going to your match list, selecting "Common Ancestors" and then under "Shared DNA" select "custom centimorgan range" and put in 6 to 7. For those with trees, click "Trees" and alternately select each of the options. This will help prevent you from losing those low matches which have some chance of actually being useful.

Now let's look at the second news: a change in ownership. When the news first broke, there was a lot of shouting about how the company taking over is a private equity firm, as though this is some of dirty word that we should all be terrified of. Well, guess what? The main company that's selling, Permira, who have been the primary owners of Ancestry for the last 8 years, are a private equity company too. The company is merely changing hands from one private equity company to another. (For the record, there are a few other companies that also held shares in Ancestry. and two have also sold to Blackstone, one is retaining a minority ownership along with Blackstone. They are also private equity companies, but Permira was the primary share holder, as Blackstone will now be).

Of course, any time ownership changes, it could mean changes for the company. People mainly seem concerned with their DNA and who has access to it. Blackstone responded to this by making a statement reassuring users that they won't actually have access to DNA data:

"To be crystal clear, Blackstone will not have access to user data and we are deeply committed to ensuring strong consumer privacy protections at the company," a spokesperson for Blackstone told Motherboard in an email. "We will not be sharing user DNA and family tree records with our portfolio companies."

Of course, companies can lie or change their mind, but there's no reason to think that's going to be the case. Remember, Ancestry was in the hands of another private equity company for 8 years up to now and no one seemed to have a problem with that. 

But wait, I hear people saying, the concern is that Blackstone have their fingers in the health industry, which surely means they acquired AncestryDNA to mine genetic data for the health companies they own! Our DNA is going to be sold or given to other companies without our consent!

It's true that Blackstone also has investments in the healthcare industry, that's what private equity companies do - they invest in other companies and frequently have investments in multiple different industries. But guess what? So does Permira. Yep, Permira also has investments in healthcare, yet that was never a problem for the 8 years that Permira were the primary owners of and their massive DNA database.

Look, I'm not going to say nothing could ever happen to the security and privacy of your genetic data. Hacks happen. Illegal deals happen. Companies can violate their own TOS. But that's always going to be a risk, no matter the company you tested with, and no matter who owns it. This particular sale doesn't mean it's anymore likely than before or with any other company. If it really, deeply concerns you, then you shouldn't ever have your DNA tested anywhere, and if you already have, you should delete it immediately. If you understood the potential risks (which are low, in my opinion) and were okay with them before, there's no reason to suddenly be concerned now.

So before you buy into all this fear mongering, just do what genealogists always do: research! Before you freak out, do some research about these companies buying and selling Ancestry. Do some research about the validity of low DNA matches. You might come to the same conclusion I did. And if you don't, fair enough, at least you did your research and came to an informed decision, which is more than I can say about most of the fear mongering going on.