Tuesday, September 6, 2016

8 Approaches to Researching your AncestryDNA Cousin Matches

The results are in!  The ethnicity estimate is about what you expected, with maybe a few small surprises.  But the research "money" is in the cousin matches!  Woohoo!  And you have 497 4th-6th cousins in the database!  Where do you even begin?  Do you feel a bit like you're wandering around a WalMart Superstore without a shopping list? 

This has been my experience.  I feel like I understand the science fairly well.  I've watched several DNA related videos.  I know I need to be in contact with the matches to get the true benefits.  But what do I actually do, besides wander?  This science is so extremely new I feel like there is a bit of a lack of direction on what step-by-step processes to take while you are researching your DNA matches. How do I decide what to do?  How do I make a plan?  What should be my goals?  How do I not get dizzy looking at all the new information?  In other words, I need some practical systems.

So, I've sat down to come up with some research approaches of my own.

8 Ways to Tackle the Cousin Matches

1.  Look if you have any close family (3rd cousin or closer) that you cannot identify, particularly those who do not have a public (unlocked) family tree for you to peruse.  Send them an enthusiastic message asking them if you could check out their private tree OR if they don't have a tree, if they recognize any of the names on YOUR tree.  Something along the lines of, "Could we figure this out together?"along with a specific question for them to respond to.  Keep it short and sweet.  And remember, they may not have enabled their email settings, so you may not be able to reach them, but it's definitely worth a shot.  Obviously this would also work for those who have a partial tree but whom you cannot place.

2.  Is your goal expanding knowledge about a known ancestor?  Choose your target and examine the cousin trees for additional information about your current favorite, especially photos, stories, etc.  Contact the cousins who include your target person for additional information.  If you aren't sure which trees would have your target, use the hint leaves OR the DNA circles if you are lucky enough to harbor some of those OR do a surname search.  Don't forget to add your new information to your own database and distribute to interested family.

3.  Where are your brick walls?  Choose one problem ancestor and surname search or placename search to find some possible connections.  Examine those trees particularly and contact the subject for more information.  You may choose to do some research on THEIR family tree in hopes that a connection will be made.  Don't forget to star these matches so you can keep an eye on them ad find them easily.  Check out their shared matches to confirm that they are up the branch that you want to be researching.  Can you do a side by side comparison here of their tree and your shared matches' trees?  Use a split screen.  Make notes about ideas, possibilities, successes and failures.  If you get stuck, make note of it and move on.

4.  Choose a "Shared Ancestor Hint" (green leaf) match that you are interested in.  Can you identify all of the Shared Matches with that person?  Make notes and use the tried and true research procedures, but on their family tree as well as your own in areas that may be lacking.  Contact the Mystery shared matches--perhaps they can identify a connection where you cannot.

5.  Choose a branch of your family tree, maybe one that you haven't looked at for a while.  Now pull up the cousin matches for that branch, using the DNA circles or the Hints.  Do a systematic side-by-side comparison of their trees and yours.  What are you missing?  Are there any conflicts?  Can you find evidence to support the information on the trees? Can you contribute information to their tree?  Get in contact--they might be thrilled. 

6.  Do some sorting!  I suspect there will be more and more tools available as Ancestry hones this whole process (starting with the DNA circles), but it would be useful for you to at least have a guess on which side of the family these cousins are connected to, and to be able to see this at a glance.  It will help you know who to narrow in on, and who to leave on the shelf for awhile.  Now, I've found that this can actually get super confusing when people have lived in the same place for a while because they show matches on multiple sides of the family, but you should be able to place many of the matches, even the "no tree" matches, just by checking out the shared matches with the cousins you do know.  Set your inner chart maker free!  Whatever works for you to keep it organized. ( I must confess I used a large piece of paper to start on this, and it felt great.)  Go ahead and leave a note on the match about which side you think they belong on.  You can always change it later.

7.  Maybe I'm not understanding fully how this works on the website yet, but it seems like the "matching surnames" comparisons are not comparing aunts and uncles, their married names, their children with their married names, etc. from my tree.  Is that correct?  Does the program only compare direct line surnames?  If so, I could be missing a lot of connections.  I think I am going to make a list of ALL the associated surnames from a targeted ancestor's descendants and compare it against an actual view of my matches' family trees.  Could also run surname searches for those names.  This will be extra useful as I am scrolling down someone's family tree and saying to myself, "THAT name sounds familiar, THAT name sounds familiar..." when it could very well be a totally different side of the family than my DNA subject--but it sure sounds familiar to me--and I just can't remember how.

8.  Once you feel that you have at least glanced at and added some notes for all/any of your 4th-6th cousin matches, don't forget to stay on top of checking any new matches that come in (shown by the blue dot.)  Can you sort them into the branches of your tree?

I am excited to try some of these out, and to not feel like I am spinning my wheels.  Let me know if any of these work for you or if you have tried some other processes and plans that are working well so we can all improve this new exciting field together.