Monday 9 August 2021

Finding Cousins: About families, death, online trees and DNA


When people write and talk about DNA tests, they invariably mention that they are hoping to find cousins. They call online family trees and DNA tests “cousin bait” as they see that expanding their test exposure with different companies and publishing an online family pedigree as ways of connecting with others who may be related.

I think what most of these people are looking for are not necessarily cousins, but anyone, related or not, who might know more or different things about their ancestors.

All of us who are engaged in this hobby – and, other than those who make a living consulting with hobbyists – are generally doing this research for fun and to fill time. Yes, some people want or need to know more about ancestors with regard to possible health concerns – what diseases or other health matters might they be prone to because of their genes – but mostly it is just curiosity about who came before us and what might they have been like.

It was interesting to read a blog post by Gail Dever in March 2020 (Living your legacy – now) when she commented that, “As genealogists, we focus a lot on dead people. There’s no doubt we think about death more than the average person.” There is no way around it when you are researching ancestors because they are all gone. In truth, if they weren’t dead, they wouldn’t be ancestors.

For many people, it is a contest to see how far back they can find people to whom they were related. I have come across trees with tens of thousands of names in them and wondered how the originators of those trees know they are part of the same connected families. I know of several trees that have major errors which invalidate most of the connections with people predating those mistaken identities.

But who really cares whether you have a large number of people in your family tree?

I have never thought that having my family tree online was a great idea. But I am coming around to the idea that it may prove of value.

As I wrote in a blog post on 8 July 2014, “It did happen that my family tree ended up online by accident. . . After suffering a loss of files, including my latest family tree data, in a hard drive crash back in 2010, I decided I would look at online storage solutions to protect against loss of valuable genealogical information. I had heard about a system called BackUpMyTree which, when installed on my computer, automatically created a backup of all of my data on a secure site. . . MyHeritage acquired BackUpMyTree in late 2011 and my family tree suddenly appeared on the MyHeritage website.

I left the tree on MyHeritage and have had many messages from them over the years about possible matches. I use the search tools only occasionally. Right now (9 August 2021) there are 14,535 Record Matches and 39,606 Smart Matches. I never find the time, though, to look at many of them. I do use the site to enhance, colourize and animate photos. These tools have proved to be very useful.

In 2017 my wife and I had our atDNA tested with 23andme. It was our first foray into this way of finding cousins. I wrote a post here about that on 27 June 2017, DNA Matches, and again on 26 November 2019, DNA:Reviewing our tests. Over the years I have had contact with many cousins and learned much more about several family lines. Still some brick walls remain, though.

I did upload my DNA test results to MyHeritage from 23andme, along with those of my wife and children and am working through the 12,703 matches for these to try to break down some brick walls.

I also have Y-DNA and atDNA tests on FamilyTreeDNA along with similar tests for a brother-in-law and a first cousin (both now deceased). I am hoping, between all of us, to be able to extend what I know about direct lines ancestral of me and my wife. That means, of course, finding more cousins. I have 4,683 matches of atDNA at FamilyTreeDNA, but only three using 67 markers of Y-DNA.

For my cousin, there are 5,009 matches of atDNA and one using 67 markers of Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA. I wrote about the latter match in a blog post on 14 June 2021, Miller Y-DNA: A minor break-through. I asked that one individual who shared Y-DNA to also test for atDNA so we could see what matches the three of us have in common. The atDNA test for my wife’s brother has 6,138 matches and 12 people who match at the 67-marker level of Y-DNA.

Recently I decided to broaden my DNA testing with an autosomal test with Ancestry. We still have those brick walls to break down, so I thought putting a line in a different pool might result in some more fish (cousins). With that test, I also thought it worthwhile to put up a tree as well. I am keeping it private for now.

It’s a major slog through mountains of data to try to find cousins that will help with breaking down some of our brick walls using DNA. It seems many of the people who match do not know much about their ancestors, so finding common ancestors is that much more difficult. Over time there have been many more ways to use DNA on all of the test company sites, from health reports to maps showing where your ancestors originated to Neanderthal connections. These make the subject even more interesting.

All-in-all it is still worthwhile to keep my subscriptions live, but I am not updating my online trees. That’s just more work and there is enough information on them to attract cousins.