Tuesday 27 November 2018

DNA? Don’t forget traditional genealogical research methods.

It seems that lately almost every genealogical newsletter, journal, magazine and blog post I read has a feature on DNA testing. And every email discussion list has daily comments about the use of DNA in finding ancestors or tracing ancestral lines.

That’s all well and good, I guess. DNA can be a valuable tool in determining familial relationships. I have found a few cousins myself through DNA databases. None that we have had contact with, or recognize as being part of our families, have been further distant than third cousins, though. I am not sure why that is. We have tried to contact them through the DNA websites and email but have had no responses. One wonders why they tested if they don’t want to hear from any potential family members.

I am trying to get basic data shared with all “DNA relatives” and get other family members, close and distant, to get a test done, but have just not found the time to really dedicate myself to the pursuit. There is a resistance, or perhaps non-interest, in doing so. But that’s a subject for another post.

What is, or might be a concern is that the idea of DNA testing is or will be the end-all and be-all of future genealogical research. More and more, especially during holiday seasons and special commemorative dates we are bombarded (and I use that term intentionally) with promotions and advertisements for DNA tests or upgrades. Blog posts and newsletters repeat these ads.

It almost seems as if the commercial database companies are intent on finding a new profit-centre as the numbers of new digitized collections of documents are falling and customers are no longer flocking to take out subscriptions. Family history societies, too, are trying to cash in on DNA, using it as a headline subject for seminars and conferences.

James Tanner, in his blog Genealogy’s Star, often laments the fact that the future of research is threatened by family historians (Ten Threats to the Future of Genealogical Research – 7 November 2018) who are increasingly focused on the Internet for their data. The shift to online sources, I believe, is also tied to the use of the tool of DNA tests. As James says, both are beneficial, but not attending to the vast storage of undigitized documents in record offices and archives will leave family stories and ancestral history lacking in fact and detail.

There is no substitute for well-documented genealogical research, based on real records that confirm relationships. Even DNA gurus like Blaine Bettinger say that any relationship indicated by DNA results still needs to be confirmed with actual BMD or other records showing how the people are related. Shared DNA can certainly bring people together and indicate they are part of the same familial line, but in order to put them into a family tree, more definitive information is required. And the only way to get that information is to look at historical records and documents.

As the editor of the journal of a family history society, I dedicated an entire issue to the subject of DNA back in 2012. The subject had just started to receive more attention. One result was that the society started up a Special Interest Group for those interested in DNA testing and analyses. That was exciting and I felt that I had some small contribution to the cause. In the intervening years the subject has exploded with opportunities to test and make contact with others who have tested.

There is the rub, of course. I still have a brick wall or two that I hope might be broken down by finding distant cousins through DNA testing. The lack of documents for these family members and the commonality of their names make a genetic connection probably the only way we might ever learn who that line of ancestors is.

In the meantime, don’t forget to follow the traditional genealogical research methods or let your attention to finding actual documents wane. They are still the most important part of demonstrating family relationships.