Sunday, September 19, 2021

How to Group Your DNA Matches to Help Break Down Brick Walls

How do you break down a brick wall with DNA? It's what everyone wants to know - after all, what is the point of getting a DNA test if the ethnicity report is unreliable? Everyone says the true value of the test is in your DNA matches, but how do you utilize them to actually be useful in your research? To break down brick walls? To do what paper research couldn't?

This sort of ties in with my instructions on how to find unknown biological ancestors with DNA, though that was targeted more at NPE or adoption situations. However, the same basic process and workflow can be applied to breaking down brick walls. In the past, I've detailed specific cases where I've used DNA to break down a brick wall, but some of them are a little unique - every situation might be a little different, and therefore might require a bit of a different process. But here's the basics. 

In my post about finding unknown biological ancestors, in Step 1, it says, "Look for your closest DNA match that you can't identify as being from another known branch of your tree."

But wait - how do we even get to the point of finding a match you can't identify? You do that by identifying and grouping as many matches as you can. This is how my workflow goes, it works best for me, your mileage may vary, but in my experience, this is how most people do it in some way or form. Some maybe use a spreadsheet and the "Leeds Method", but ultimately, it's just a matter of grouping your matches by what branch of your tree they belong to, and since AncestryDNA have a built in grouping tool, I find that works best for me.

Grouping your matches.

Step 1: Create a group for each "branch" of your tree. Which branches? I recommend a group for each of your sixteen 2nd great grandparents, unless any of those 2nd great grandparents were from the same specific location, or endogamous population, because they will be difficult to tell apart. For example, my 2nd great grandparents who both came from the same tiny town in Italy called Monteroduni got grouped together because I have no other branches from there, and since the town is so endogamous, it would be difficult to always tell them apart. So I just have one group for "Monteroduni". Don't group by broader locations, like country. I did that by grouping my other 2nd great grandparents together because they were both from Norway, but now I regret that because they came from totally different parts of Norway, so there's no endogamy between them. So although I recommend a group for each 2nd great grandparent, depending on your ancestry, you may want to sometimes group them differently. 

16 groups does mean that it will fill up a lot of your available groups, AncestryDNA only allows you a maximum of 24, so you will only have 8 groups left to do with whatever you want. So like I say, you may want to group them differently, but this is what worked best for me.

Step 2: Start at the top of your match list and work your way down. Do you recognize your top match? Or can you see from their tree (if they have one) what ancestor you share? Is there a ThruLines/common ancestor hint for them that you can verify? If you already know the match or can identify how you're related to them, mark the branch you share by adding them to a group you've created for that branch. Do not assume a shared surname alone is the source of your shared DNA, it must be an actual common ancestor.

You may also want to add a note of your common ancestors, so you can see who they are more easily, and also so you know there's identified common ancestors (though I also have a group for MRCA - matches that have identified a most recent common ancestor).

My top matches are all my Italian cousins, you can see how
I've grouped them and added our MRCA to notes

Step 3: Do the same for the next match, and the next - keep going until you can't identify a match. When that happens, look at your Shared Matches with that person. Are any of them the people you've already identified with a common ancestor? If so, they are likely also from the same branch (especially if there's more than one match they share from the same ancestor/branch), so add them to that same group. 

I don't know my MRCA with Bettye because she hasn't added a tree,
but I can tell she's from my Smith branch because she matches
several people who are confirmed Smith descendants

If they have a tree, even a tiny one, build on it until you can find the connection to the branch you know they are likely from (focus on lines that come from the same/nearby location). If you can't find a common ancestor, that's okay, leave them in that group and you can come back to them another time.

Step 4: Keep doing this, ideally for all your estimated 4th cousins and closer (20+ cM). That's a lot, I know (I currently have 1,048 matches that share 20+ cM with me). It takes time, it's a lot of work, but in the end you'll wind up with 3 types of matches: those with identified common ancestors, those who likely come from an identified branch, and those you have no clue how you're related, not even a potential branch.

What to do with these groups? 

This is where there will be some overlap in my instructions on finding an unknown biological ancestor. Look at the closest match that you haven't even been able to group into a certain likely branch (or a common ancestor). Even if they don't have a tree, that's okay - look at your Shared Matches with them and open any match that has a viable tree. Compare the trees - do any of them share an ancestor that you don't recognize? If so, research that ancestor and build a tree for them, you may find it links up with yours somehow, maybe even by breaking down a brick wall, or that it leads to an NPE - when someone's parent or parents are not their biological parent(s).

Additionally, you can look at your closest match that you haven't identified a common ancestor with, but you have grouped them into a likely branch. If they have a tree, again, build on it, and keep researching until you can find a connection. See my case example of Emma Elizabeth Sherwood.

This method of grouping your matches to single out the ones you can't identify at all can help lead you to some enlightening revelations, but they tend to be rather random. You don't know what you're going to find, you don't know which brick wall it might break down. Even the matches you can group into a likely branch but you're still searching for the common ancestor might surprise you - in my example of Emma Elizabeth Sherwood (above), I knew the match was related to my Mills branch (Emma's husband), but I had no idea it would finally break down the Sherwood brick wall that had been blocking me for 12 years.

Other methods.

There's other methods of breaking down a brick wall with DNA, ones that are more targeted for a specific brick wall, but they heavily rely on the surname you're looking for not being a very common one. You basically just search your matches trees for the surname you're looking for, and then compare the trees of the matches in the results, looking for a common ancestor among them. It can work well when the name isn't common, because it's likely most of the matches in the results will be the ones you're looking for. But the more common the name is, the more matches there will be in the results that aren't related to the branch you're looking for. That's why this never worked with Emma Elizabeth Sherwood (in my above example), because Sherwood was too common of a surname, I only found her family by using the more random grouping method and not knowing where an unknown match would lead me.

The surname search method would be much more effective if AncestryDNA would offer a very simple feature: the option to search for a surname within a specific location. At the moment, you can search for a surname or location, but not a surname in a location. So you can search for Smith OR Christian County, Kentucky, and you can search for them both at the same time, but it will include results for match's trees that have either the surname Smith, OR the location Christian County, Kentucky. And even if the tree includes both, it's not necessarily for the same branch or ancestor, it might be their Jones branch that's from Christian County, Kentucky, while their Smith branch is from Pennsylvania. For common surnames, we need a way to narrow it down, and the best way to do that is by looking for surnames within a specific location. At the moment, we can only do that manually by searching for a surname, and going through each match in the results to see for ourselves if that branch is from the right location. If so, then we can look for a specific common ancestor. It's very time consuming, and the more common the surname is, the less realistic it is to go through all those matches manually, yet there's a very simple way to make it easier, if AncestryDNA would just listen to their customers.

The surname search works a lot better if it's not a common surname. I successfully used this method with the surname Deaves, and also a suspected maiden name of Brannin.

You can also search by just location, but this only really works if your ancestors are from a very small, unique town, especially where there's endogamy. In my above example about my 2nd great grandparents who came from a tiny Italian town called Monteroduni, it's safe to say that the town is so small and endogamous that anyone who has ancestry from Monteroduni is probably related. Certainly, any DNA match of mine that has ancestry from Monteroduni, it's safe to say that's very probably how we are related. So I can very easily search my matches trees for the location of Monteroduni and even if I can't find a common ancestor between us, most likely that's probably where our common ancestors were from. Brick walls are difficult with endogamy though, so that might be the most I'll ever be able to determine. Searching by location may not break down any brick walls in your tree, but it doesn't help you identify and sort your matches into groups/branches, which can help you find other unknown matches that may lead to a brick wall.

Like I say, sometimes breaking down a brick wall with DNA can be unique to the situation. Sometimes you have to think about what you're looking for, and consider the best way to come at the problem. But this should give you the basics to get you started. Feel free to share your success stories!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

ThruLines is not the enemy

I see a lot of skepticism out there about ThruLines, and some of it is warranted, because it is based on family trees, which can have errors that get copied multiple times. But that doesn't mean you should dismiss ThruLines entirely, there are ways to get reliable use out of it, and not just by finding records than confirm them. There are ways to use DNA to find biological relatives or break down brick walls in your tree even when there's no written records of the lineage, and ThruLines is just one tool that can help you do this.

It's basically a matter of probabilities. The more people you match who are descended from multiple siblings of your ancestor, especially when all those descendants all or mostly match each other to form a cluster, the less likely it becomes that it's an error. When the matches mostly all match each other to form a cluster, you know they are all related and descended from the same branch/ancestor - you just need to identify which branch/ancestor, which is where trees and ThruLines come in. Each sibling that those matches descend from would have to be an error for trees/ThruLines to be wrong, so the more siblings you match descendants of, the more likely the trees are accurate. If you match 20 people (who mostly all match each other too) descended from 5 siblings of your ancestor, what are the chances there's been an error in the trees for each of those 5 siblings, plus your own ancestor? Extremely unlikely. In the example above (click to enlarge), there's 41 matches descended from 8 siblings of Elizabeth Mertz, so for this all to be wrong, there would have to be 9 different errors. This amount of evidence is really very conclusive, and I can probably confirm this family now.

Even assuming there's only one error and those siblings are indeed siblings to each other, but your ancestor is the lone error, and not actually their sibling, what are the chances you would match that many people from a certain family, if you weren't related to that family somehow? Using the example above again, what are the chances I match 41 people descended from those 8 siblings, if Elizabeth Mertz is not one of their siblings? Again, it's very unlikely - and the only way this would be possible is if there was a lot of endogamy involved, but even so, it would still be pointing you towards a specific population you're likely descended from (and matching surnames from the same endogamous population means you're probably related to that specific family somehow), so you don't want to dismiss it.

Granted, it doesn't confirm who exactly the parents of those siblings are, only that they are indeed siblings. For that, you'd have to go up another generation and do the same thing - look for people descended from siblings of the alleged father and mother. In the example above, it doesn't really confirm that Phillip Mertz is the father of Elizabeth and all her siblings, only that they are siblings from the same parent(s), whoever that may be. But for now, it's probably safe to add Phillip Mertz at least as a placeholder until more research can be done (it really is okay to add speculative data to your tree as long as you know it's speculative!).

In the example below, you can see how this ThruLines doesn't confirm descend from Benjamin Butler - the 6 DNA matches are descendants of children of David Butler, so this really doesn't confirm this potential ancestor at all.

And there's other limitations, mainly the fact that the Shared Matches tool (which is the only way to confirm if matches match each other and form a cluster) only includes estimated 4th cousins or closer (20+ cM). AncestryDNA really need to provide something more comprehensive. They say it's limited to 20+ cM because it would tax the server too much if they expanded it to include all matches. But at the very least, they could expand it to 15+ cM segments, which have a 100% chance of being identical by descent. That would still exclude most matches (8-15 cM) and therefore not be as taxing on the server, but include all matches that have a 100% chance of being IBD, which would make ThruLines so much more useful and reliable. At the moment, they are excluding hundreds, even thousands of IBD matches from the Shared Matches tool, which is extremely debilitating. Alternately, they could offer another tool that would be less taxing on the server - a simple one-to-one comparison. Pop in two match usernames, which would tell us whether those two matches match each other or not. Very simple, not very taxing, but it would get the job done.

Even so, it's still possible to get reliable usage out of ThruLines. Remember, ThruLines is only automating a process that people used to manually do (and still do when the relationship exceeds ThruLines' 5th great grandparent limit). If it weren't possible to use DNA to confirm relationships when there is no written record of it available, what use would DNA be, and how do you think all these NPEs are being discovered? While it's true that you do have to watch out for tree errors being replicated in ThruLines, if you understand how DNA and ThruLines work, there is useful data you can get out of it. To often, I see people who seem to completely dismiss ThruLines, as though it's not reliable at all, but you're only hindering your own research by thinking that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Finding Unknown Biological Ancestors with DNA

This is a topic that comes up regularly in genealogy circles, because DNA testing often reveals cases of unknown adoptions, or what we call "non-paternity events" (NPE), when someone's father is not their biological father. Once there's enough suggestion that something like this has happened, the question then becomes, how do I identify this unknown biological ancestor? It can be done, although the further back on your tree it occurred, the more difficult it will be (far enough back and it might not be possible). Whenever possible, it's best to have someone from the oldest generation descended from this event to test. Like if you're looking for Grandma's unknown biological father, have Grandma take the test, or if she is unable or unwilling, have your relevant parent take the test. At the same time, if the person you're looking for is actually still living (like if you're adopted and looking for living biological parents), it will be difficult to research since lots of records on living people are private (that's a whole different ballgame and you often have to rely more on information and communication from your DNA matches). Additionally, if you're working with an endogamous population, you may be out of luck. With all that in mind, here's how it works.

Step 1: Look for your closest DNA match that you can't identify as being from another known branch of your tree. If they don't have a family tree added, that's okay because first you want to look at their Shared Matches, and open any matches that do have family trees (the bigger, the better).

Step 2: Compare the family trees of those Shared Matches, looking for ancestors any two or more (the more, the better) of them have in common with each other (especially if those matches also match each other) - ancestors who are not found in your tree. Yes, this may take some time because you have to manually compare the trees - I find it best to start with the surname list on the match review page and find surnames they have in common with each other, then see if those surnames actually lead to a common ancestor among them. If the ancestor is found in your tree, then you know this group isn't from the branch you're looking for and you can label them and move on.

Step 3: Build a descendant tree for the ancestor you found. Make a note of any descendants who were in the right place at the right time at the right age, but we're not done yet.

Step 4: Repeat this process with the next closest match you can't identify.

Step 5: Look for a descendant who appears in both the trees you've built - so someone who descends from both the ancestors you've identified. This is probably either the person you're looking for, or a close ancestor of theirs, like a parent or grandparent. If you don't find one, keep repeating this process until you do.

Chart showing the two different DNA matches groups and their shared ancestors.
Click to enlarge.

For example (shown above - these names are made up but the situation is real and came from my tree): I was looking for my grandfather's unknown biological father, so I had my grandfather take the test before he died. I first found a group of his matches (who mostly all matched each other) who were all descended from a colonial ancestor named John Smith (I told you I changed the names, lol), so I built a descendant tree for John Smith. I then found another group of matches who all descended from another colonial ancestor called Christopher Jones, and built a descendant tree for him. By building those trees, I found a descendant of John Smith - named Isaac Smith - had married a descendant of Christopher Jones - her name was Carrie Jones. This suggested that the man I was looking for was probably a descendant of Isaac Smith and Carrie Jones, and based on the dates, it could only really be one of their sons, specifically one of their four oldest sons. Eventually, a close descendant of one of the four sons tested and confirmed which of the four sons was my grandfather's biological father (below).

Chart showing the closer matches that eventually showed up and allowed me to figure out
which of the 4 brothers was my grandfather's bio father.

Granted, there could have been another descendant of John Smith who married a different descendant of Christopher Jones, and that could have led me to the wrong family - this is why too much endogamy can throw you off. But as long as there's not too much of it, you can document each case of it and using your DNA matches and how much DNA you share with them, you should be able to figure out which descendants are the ones you're looking for. But a highly endogamous population might be too complex. If I was looking for an unknown bio ancestor on my mom's Mennonite branch, I'm not sure it would be possible. I can sometimes share up to about 5 ancestor couples with matches on my Mennonite branch. And the unknown father of my Italian ancestor who was from a tiny, highly endogamous town in Italy where everyone there is related to everyone else somehow? Forget it.

However, this is the same type of method that professional Genetic Genealogists like CeCe Moore employ to identify individuals from DNA left at crime scenes (either suspects or unidentified victims). It can be done (for the most part), it just takes work, and sometimes some patience for the right matches to come in.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Understanding Admixture and Genetic Overlap at MyHeritageDNA

MyHeritage is generally known for not having the most reliable ethnicity results. This is probably because they were latecomers to the DNA field, and they haven't yet updated their percentage reports. But of course, all ethnicity percentages are merely an interpretation of our DNA, and not necessarily very reliable anyway. And what MyHeritage does do a great job of (unlike AncestryDNA), is showing us lots of data on all the genetic overlap among neighboring regions, so we can understand how it works. Not only do they show us all available regions and the areas they cover (below), but they have a section called "Ethnicity Maps" that shows us "the most common ethnicities in each country and the top countries for each ethnicity, according to MyHeritage DNA users' data." Although this is all based on data from MyHeritage, it's still a valuable learning tool for understanding admixture in general.

The percentages in the Ethnicity Maps show us the portion of testers in each country who get results in each ethnicity, or the portion of testers with results in each ethnicity within each country.

For example, looking at the data by country, if you click on Germany, you'll see 55.7% of people living in Germany get results in the "North and West European" ethnicity (above). We don't know what average percentage they get for "North and West European" because the data doesn't include that, but it's probably pretty high. It then goes on to list another 19 ethnicities down to 1.2%, from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, and even Native America. That is not all due to genetic overlap, but simply because there may be, for example, a few Asians living in Germany who took the test. For genetic overlap, it's probably best to look at the top 5 ethnicities - which is likely why their default view is the top 5. What that shows us is that lots of people in Germany also get results in East European (48.9% of testers), Scandinavian (43.6%), Balkan (38.1%), and English (23.3%), illustrating the strong genetic overlap Germany has with those nearby areas. That means if you have known German ancestry, it would not be uncommon to get results in any of those neighboring regions, especially (though not exclusively) from MyHeritage's results.

On the flip side, when you look at the Ethnicity Maps by ethnicity, it shows us the most common countries each ethnicity is found in. This gives us a good understanding of two things: the top 5-10 countries show us the areas covered by that category (although our own Ethnicity Estimate already gives us that, this can give us an understanding of just how broad that area could really be), and the full list of countries shows us how much emigration there's been from each country around the rest of the world. For example, 36.7% of people in the USA get results in North and West European, which is not surprising, considering how many German immigrants there have been to the USA over history. This doesn't really show us genetic overlap, but it is very useful for understanding modern migration patterns.

Hopefully, as MyHeritage update their ethnicity reports, they will also update this very useful data and not retire it like AncestryDNA keep doing.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Understanding Admixture and Genetic Overlap at AncestryDNA

I talk a lot about the genetic overlap that exists among neighboring regions and how that influences ethnicity percentages, or admixture. Unfortunately, AncestryDNA keeps taking away valuable learning tools for understanding these relationships between various populations, making it harder to illustrate them. First, they removed the Average Admixture Chart, then they removed the Genetic Details page, and now they've even removed our ability to click on "see other regions tested" and explore the maps and details of any region to understand the overlap they have with neighboring regions. The only thing left is the PCA chart in the Ethnicity White Paper, but even that has always been limited to Europe. 

The Average Admixture Chart (below) used to show us what the results of a typical native of every region would expect to get. It showed how much or how little each population was admixed. So for example, if you were of 100% British descent, you could expect to actually only get about 60-70% in Great Britain (this was before they decided to attempt to split up Britain), and around 8-10% in Europe West, Ireland, and/or Scandinavia. This illustrated the common overlapping DNA among the British, Germanic people, and Scandinavians, and also the close relationship between the British and Irish (sorry, Ireland). Europe West was even more admixed, averaging less than 50% results in Europe West, and the rest coming from pretty much everywhere else in Europe except Finland/NW Russia. Scandinavia was less admixed, averaging between 80% to 90% in Scandinavia, and only small amounts from Europe West, Great Britain, Finland/NW Europe, Ireland, and a smidge from Europe East. The chart made it clear just how admixed Europeans themselves are, or can be, and to AncestryDNA, that is apparently a bad thing that they are now trying to hide, because it means ethnicity percentages, by nature, are always very reliable, and can't always be broken down into more specific regions. That's something customers are frustrated by, so one by one, they keep taking away the learning tools that would help customers understand this.

The loss of the Average Admixture chart wasn't too unfortunate, because the same/similar data could essentially be found on the Genetic Details page. Previously, when you clicked on a region, and then clicked "More info", there would be a page with two tabs - one which still remains with the detailed history of the population and their migrations, and the other had genetic details that helped us understand the genetic overlap that region had with nearby regions. That second page is now gone. It showed us two very important charts that basically replaced the data in the Average Admixture chart. The first one (below) showed us the average percentage that a native of that area would likely get for that region (same as you would find on the Average Admixture chart). 

The second chart (above) showed us "Other regions commonly seen in people native to [this region]". This wasn't exactly the same data from the Average Admixture chart - it rather detailed the amount of people native to that region who got any amount of results in which neighboring regions. So it didn't tell us the amount a native would expect to get in those other areas, but how common it was for a native to get results in those other areas. Not exactly the same data, but still valuable data for understanding common overlap.

With these two vitally important learning tools gone, I often turned to the simple map and details of each region to illustrate how each region often covers neighboring regions as well. If you click on "Read full history" for each region, you can find not only the areas "primarily found" in that region, but the areas "also found in" that region too (above). Unfortunately, AncestryDNA has neglected to add the "Read full history" link to some of the newer regions (like Scotland) they added recently! An oversight? Or an indication they may also be retiring this page altogether now too? And on top of that, a new revamp of the appearance of our ethnicity results (may not be available to everyone yet) seems purely aesthetic at first, until you notice the link to "See other regions tested" is now gone too (below). 

It's as though they don't want people to understand how much genetic overlap there is between certain regions, even though it would greatly help people to understand their results. And now, anytime people ask, "If I get results in X, is it coming from my Y ancestry?" and it's not a region I have results in, I can't answer them because I can't look up the map and details of regions I didn't personally get results in. This kind of question gets asked so frequently in social media, and frankly, people like me basically wind up fielding these questions for Ancestry's customer support, and they keep making it more and more difficult. I guess if they really want a huge increase in the load on their customer support, that's fine, but if that's the case, they really shouldn't have gotten rid of their support email (you can now only contact them by phone, or social media like Facebook). So, they're making it harder for customers to understand their results, and harder for customers to contact them about it. Epic fail on customer service, AncestryDNA.

The only remaining tool is the PCA chart (top), which is limited to Europe and therefore not much help in understanding results outside of Europe, or any relationships that might exist in the crossroads between Europe and other continents. And frankly, I have some concerns that voicing this will lead to them to remove the PCA chart too.

The percentage range included in our results is also useful for understanding that the percentages are very much an estimate, but not very useful for understanding the genetic overlap between regions. Still, hopefully they don't retire this feature either, but the ongoing trend doesn't bode well for it. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Add Specific Relationship, AncestryDNA's Latest Feature

It sounds like it hasn't been rolled out to everyone yet, but it should be coming soon - AncestryDNA is (finally) adding the ability to change the estimated relationship range with a DNA match to a specific, known relationship instead. They're a few years behind 23andMe and FTDNA (although 23andMe still don't have shareable family trees so 23andMe is no better overall), but better late than never.

In the process of adding the specific relationship, it asks you which side of your tree the match is from, your mother's side, father's side, or both. And for matches you're unsure of the specific relationship, but you know which side of your tree they come from, there's an option to select which side and then instead of choosing a specific relationship, you can click "I'm not sure". It will then display "Mother's Side" or "Father's Side" (or both) without a exact relationship (the original estimated range will remain). 

Unfortunately, it does have some limitations. The main one is that it only goes out to 5th cousins, and any more distant relationships only have an option for lumping them all into a general "Distant Relationship" label. Not only does this rather defeat the purpose of being able to add a specific relationship if it's not actually a specific relationship, but it's also inconsistent with ThruLines, which at least goes out to 6th cousins (though that too is arguably a little limited). So essentially, ThruLines is going to show us our exact relationship with many 5th cousins once removed and 6th cousins, yet the new feature offers no way to add those specific relationships. The least they could do is expand it to the 6th cousins so it's consistent with ThruLines.

The other limitation is that it doesn't let you select more than one relationship, which is a complete oversight when it comes to lots of people who have endogamous branches of their tree, and identifiable endogamy (more than one set of most recent common ancestors) with many matches. Even when you select "Both Sides", it doesn't give you the option for more than one relationship. If it's a close match, assumes you've selected both sides because the person is someone like a niece or nephew, or full sibling, etc. Someone who shares your whole ancestry. If they aren't a close match, it seems to assume that although you may have two different relationships, they must be more distant than 5th cousins and only gives you the option to select "Distant Relationship". I suppose they're trying not to over complicate it for newcomers, but for people who use this for heavy research and breaking down brick walls in their tree, noting multiple relationships is vital.

It should also be noted that if one or more of your parents have tested, the system will automatically assign a match to your mother's side or father side depending on who they match. If for some reason, the system got it wrong, or only selected one when they actually match both, you can edit this by simply clicked the back button in the upper left corner of the side window (highlighted in yellow in the screenshot below).

That pretty much sums it up. In general, it's great they finally added this option, I know lots of people have been asking for it for a while. And I have gone through and selected known relationships for all the matches I've identified. But you may notice I have, for a very long time now, always noted the relationship and shared ancestor(s) in the notes field (along with emojis I used before groups were available). Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the new feature, I will have to continue noting the relationship myself in the notes field instead of relying solely on Ancestry's tool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Augusta's Confederate Monument and My Family History

Sometimes, genealogy and modern politics have some overlap. 

In Augusta, Georgia, a giant, imposing obelisk stands as a memorial to Confederate soldiers. In particular, it hosts four life-sized statues of infamous Confederate military leaders, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, William H.T. Walker, and Thomas R.R. Cobb (shown left), the latter of which is my 2nd cousin 6 times removed. It's a distant relation, for sure, but a significant one, given why this monument was erected in 1878 by the Ladies Memorial Association of Augusta.

Let's be clear about one thing - statues, monuments, and memorials are built in honor, respect, and celebration of the people, places, or events they represent. Monuments like this one are made in memory and respect of men whose only or primary contribution to history was to lead armies in the name of slavery. And when monuments like this are inscribed with quotes like the following, that fact becomes impossible to deny:

"No nation rose so white and fair 

None fell so pure of crime."

I'm not sure how anyone could say this is anything but blatantly racist, and this is the inscription found emblazoned under the feet of my cousin. That makes this a little bit personal for me - southerners like to shout about how this is their history, and their heritage. But for me, it literally is. 

And I say, tear it down.

The removal of statues like this isn't the removal of history. History belongs in museums and history books, which there is no lack of. There are plenty of Civil War and Confederate artifacts and memorials to be found in museums, where people can study and learn from them, and this monument could be one of them instead of being revered in the middle of town. When a memorial is erected in honor and celebration of Confederate leaders, it's honoring and celebrating slavery and racism. By not only leaving such a monument standing, but actively refusing to remove it, the government is not-so-subtly condoning a symbol of racism. We would never tolerate a statue of Hitler standing proudly in the middle of a city, paying homage and reverence to him, so why do we allow it for Confederate leaders?

Even if we remove all the slavery and racism from such symbolism (which isn't really possible, but just for the sake of argument), you're still left with a monument honoring men who tried to tear our nation apart with war and violence. Are we now going to see statues of the leading faces among the rioters who broke into the Capitol Building? Because they too are talking about civil war, they too are waving the Confederate flag, and they too believe their violence to be "fair" and "pure of crime". In reality, they are traitors, and so were Confederate leaders. And actually, many (if not all) of the rioters are also proud racists, just like Confederate leaders, as proven by the presence of white supremacy groups and Neo Nazi symbolism during the Capitol riot. Confederate leaders were also unabashed racists. This direct quote from my own cousin, Thomas R.R. Cobb, a Confederate General, proves it:

"This inquiry into the physical, mental, and moral development of the negro [sic] race seems to point them clearly, as peculiarly fitted for a laborious class. The physical frame is capable of great and long-continued exertion. Their mental capacity renders them incapable of successful self-development, and yet adapts them for the direction of the wiser race. Their moral character renders them happy, peaceful, contented and cheerful in a status that would break the spirit and destroy the energies of the Caucasian or the native American."

None of this means that every statue of every historical figure who ever did anything unethical should be removed. Yes, I am aware of the fact that most of our founding fathers were slaveholders, and that's certainly something I don't think we should hide from - we should talk about it, and we should teach it in schools. Our founding fathers were flawed, and that's something we have to accept. But the difference is, statues of founding fathers were not constructed in honor of them being slaveholders, they were erected in honor of all their positive achievements. Statues of Confederate leaders are produced in honor of their fight for slavery, and supporting that in the name of "history" or "heritage" is, frankly, bullshit. It's not in the name of history, it's in the name of racism and hatred. 

And if your heritage is racist, it's not something you should celebrate. Read about it in a history book, or visit a museum, or find something else about your heritage to celebrate that's not based on slavery, but do not protect a symbol of hate standing proudly in the middle of a city. 

Shame on the Augusta, Georgia government, and shame on everyone who enables them.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Small but Significant Changes at

Ancestry is rolling out some new tweaks to their website that has everyone in a tizzy and I don't really know why, because in many ways they seem like an improvement to me. 

One of the changes was the removal of the clickable alphabet at the top of our List of All People. It allowed us to jump to surnames that start with any letter by clicking on the letter. I know the removal of this seems like a negative, but it's really not. What remains are two name search fields, one for first name, the other for last name. They were always there, and they always offered the ability to do what the alphabet list offered too, which I imagine is why the alphabet was removed - there is no point in having two different tools that do the exact same thing. You can still jump to surnames starting with any letter by simply putting that letter into the surname search field. But even better than that, the search fields offers way more versatility than the alphabet did, because you can also do the same for the first name field (shown above), and you can use more than one letter, so you can quickly bring up all "Mc" or "Mac" surnames, for example (shown below). I believe this was always an option, a lot of people just apparently didn't realize it.

The bigger change is in hints, clicking on a hint now brings up a side bar to preview the hint (shown below) instead of it loading a whole new page. People are complaining that it requires more clicks to confirm and attach the hint now, but that's just not true. In the past, you had to click on the hint, it loaded a new page where you could review the record, then you clicked "yes" to the hint being correct and it loaded the page that allowed you to edit the data you're adding, then you click "save to your tree" and you were done. That's 3 clicks.

It's the same now. You click on the hint, but instead of it loading a new page, the side bar pops up. Instantly, I felt this was an improvement because you haven't left the person's profile page, so you can still fully view and compare all their data, and sources, etc. You can click on Facts, Gallery, etc and the side bar remains up, allowing for a full comparison (shown below). In the past, the only way to do this was to right click the hint and open it in a new tab, which you can still do, but now there's no need. I always did this, because I generally want to refer back to the profile while checking a hint. Now, finally, I don't have to open a new tab, which is going to make my workflow much more efficient. 

Even if you didn't open the hint in a new tab in the past like me, the number of clicks is still the same. After clicking on the hint and the side bar popping up, you click "yes" to the hint being correct and it loads the page where you can edit the data you're adding, and then you click "save to your tree" just like before. That's 3 clicks.

So I'm really not sure what the fuss is all about. The changes either won't slow your workflow, or they will actually improve it. Give it a chance, you might find it works better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Shotgun Weddings

Ever pay attention to the dates a couple married followed by the birth date of their first born child? It's not always possible because we sometimes don't have exact dates for either the wedding or the child's birth, and I think because of that, I don't always pay close attention to them when I do have them. But at one point, I made an effort to go through my tree and identify all known "shotgun weddings" - that is, weddings that took place less than 9 months before the birth of their first child. *Nudge, nudge, wink, wink*

Above: Oh dear, there's no hiding this! Anna gave birth less than 2 months after her wedding, so she was likely about 7 months pregnant when they married and probably very visibly pregnant.

Granted, some of them could just be premature births. But in other cases, the length of time between the wedding and the birth is too short to have just been premature, especially in a time before modern medicine could help preemies survive, such as the example above.

Thanks to's custom tagging option, I now have all potential shotgun weddings labelled as such, and it's kind of amusing how many there were. 15 couples in my ancestry have been identified so far as having a child less than 9 months after their wedding. And again, that's not including the couples who I haven't yet found a marriage record for, and/or don't have an exact date for the first child's birth. There could be even more among those if I could just find the right dates. It's also not including those who simply had children out of wedlock. That's a whole different tag, and there's at least 6 cases of those. 

In this case, my ancestors Agostino and Rosaria had a child out of wedlock, then waited more than three years before getting married, which was then a shotgun wedding! Rosaria was about 3 months pregnant when they married.

It kind of makes you wonder how many of our ancestors actually waited until they were married to have sex, like they were "supposed to", or like the stereotype that is always taught to us about sex and marriage in history. Because there must have been even more ancestors who lost their virginity before getting married, but it didn't result in a pregnancy, so there was no evidence of it. In one case, I have love letters between ancestors which seem to suggest they may have been intimate before marriage, even though they did not have a shotgun wedding.

When you consider all those factors, it really seems plausible that just as many people didn't wait until marriage to have sex as those who did. Maybe even more. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Is it Okay to Feel Ashamed of Our Ancestors?

This is a topic that comes up a lot in genealogy, so I'm going to say my peace about it here. I'm probably going to say some things that will make some people uncomfortable (because when I say them in social media, there are always people who get very angry), so if exploring our feelings about immoral things our ancestors did, like for example, owning slaves, or accusing someone of witchcraft, makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you stop reading now.

Above: A photo of my once-slave owning relatives alongside their black servants who were probably once slaves if they were old enough - this photo is from the 1890s. I also have ancestors who were slave holders but no photos of them alongside former slaves. Is it okay to feel ashamed of this photo and the relatives in it?

I'm not going to beat around the bush, I'm just going to say it: don't let people tell you your feelings are wrong if you feel ashamed of something an ancestor did that was really heinous. 

I know what people will argue. "But it's not your fault! You had nothing to do with it! You're not responsible for your ancestors actions!"

And yeah, that's all true. But feeling ashamed of what someone else did doesn't mean you're responsible for it or had anything to do with it. Those things are not mutually inclusive. Feeling ashamed of an ancestor doesn't mean feeling ashamed of yourself.

Because let's flip things for a moment. Have you never once felt pride in something great, something positive that an ancestor did or accomplished? I'm pretty sure we all have - it's a large part of genealogy. We all feel some kind of ties or connections to our family history and our ancestors, because why else would we do this? Genealogy sort of loses all meaning if we don't feel some kind of connection to our ancestors. And if it's okay to feel pride in our ancestors through these ties we feel to them, why would we not also be allowed to feel ashamed of them when appropriate? Isn't it a little bit hypocritical to feel pride in our ancestors when they do something wonderful, but shrug it off with "nothing to do with me" when they do something terrible? Isn't it just a little too convenient to have the luxury to only claim a connection to the good stuff? And again, to be clear, that connection doesn't make you responsible.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to shame people. I'm not saying anyone should feel ashamed - certainly not of themselves. I just think people who do feel ashamed of an ancestor or relative shouldn't be insulted, mocked, told they are wrong, or given a hard time for it in any way, and yet this something I see a lot whenever the topic comes up. On the contrary, I think people who are able to explore those feelings, and understand they can feel ashamed of an ancestor without being personally responsible for their actions, are very emotionally mature and intelligent. It seems to me that people who can't accept that dual reality are uncomfortable with something their ancestors did and instead of processing that emotion, they just shut it down. The fact that other people are able to process it makes them doubly uncomfortable, and so they lash out. And if what I have to say about that makes some people angry, that kind of just proves my point. 

Just let people feel whatever they feel. It doesn't mean they're consumed with guilt, it doesn't mean they can't still enjoy genealogy. Ultimately, it's not anyone's place to tell anyone else how they should or shouldn't feel. 

So yes, it is okay to feel ashamed of something an ancestor did, just like it's okay to feel proud of something an ancestor did. It can even be the same ancestor you can feel both ashamed and proud of at the same time. Human beings have the emotional complexity for both those feelings to exist at the same time. That doesn't mean you should or have to feel ashamed of an ancestor, but it does mean when you come across someone who does, just respect their feelings because they're not wrong to feel that way.