In not quite 12 years
It’s hard to believe, sometimes, how short a time it’s been that the genealogical community — The Legal Genealogist included — has had autosomal DNA in our genealogical bag of tricks.
It’s such a mainstay of our research efforts these days that we sometimes have to stop and think: it’s only been just about 12 years that the tests from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe first came on the market.1 And just 10 years since AncestryDNA was launched in the United States — and just six years in many other countries.2 Just six years since MyHeritage joined in as a major player.3
So… how far have we come?
That question hit me yesterday when I looked at my ThruLines on AncestryDNA — that set of suggested relationships based on a combination of matching autosomal DNA and then who’s who in family trees.4
I was honored to be one of the presenters yesterday in the all-day seminar of the Manatee Genealogical Society, presenting a case study on identifying a second great grandmother for whom no vital records exist — no birth, no marriage, no death records — and who was married before the 1850 census, so she was never enumerated by name in her father’s household.
It’s a case that was solved entirely by indirect paper-trail evidence and, of course, one that I was desperate to validate by DNA if possible.
And I remember sitting with Megan Smolenyak and going over all the options for DNA testing in the fall of 2009, and walking away discouraged. It wasn’t a case where either YDNA or mtDNA could help.
And then that year and in 2010 came the announcements, from 23andMe and from Family Tree DNA.
I remember standing in the exhibit hall at the National Genealogical Society conference in Salt Lake City and hearing Bennett Greenspan talk about Family Tree DNA’s brand new Family Finder test. I remember shaking my head. I remember asking him, almost in disbelief: “You mean, we don’t have to have the son of a son of a son, or a daughter of a daughter of a daughter? This thing works even if we have the son of a daughter of a son?”
When he smiled, I bought kits on the spot.
The very first targeted autosomal DNA tests I ever paid for were to try to validate my conclusion on that second great grandmother: that Isabella Robertson (1832-1908), wife of Gustavus B. Robertson (1827-1903), was the daughter of Rev. Elijah Gentry and his wife Wilmoth, of Mississippi.
One kit went to my oldest surviving uncle. Another to a man I believed would be a cousin in this Gentry line, living in Mississippi.
I was in an airport, literally in the process of boarding a flight to a family reunion in Indiana, when the results came in.
And we had our first match in that line: one match, and a whopping 70cM or so of shared autosomal DNA.
I was over the moon.
No, of course, at the time, I didn’t know exactly what that much shared DNA meant. Or exactly how to use it and build from it. But it gave me at least a hint that we were looking in the right direction. The first solid evidence that Isabella was in fact a Gentry.
So… how far have we come?
I wanted to be able to answer any questions any folks had yesterday about whether we had validated our conclusions about Isabella using DNA. So, yesterday morning, I logged into AncestryDNA to check my own ThruLines, looking for matches who may also descend from Elijah and Wilmoth Gentry.
And even though I’m a generation farther removed from Isabella than my uncle, as of now, I have 151 matches who may descend from Elijah and Wilmoth Gentry. Excluding those who also descend from Isabella herself, I have 80 matches through six of their other known children. When I go to my uncle’s results — that one generation closer — the number rises to 182 matches overall, and 98 matches through those six other known children.
Charting it out, looking at the amounts of shared DNA and the documents in the family trees, today there is no question but that Isabella was the daughter of Elijah and Wilmoth Gentry.
That’s how far we’ve come, in less than 12 years.
I can’t wait to see where we are 12 years from now.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “How far we’ve come,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 30 Jan 2022).
- For the history of testing at 23andMe, see ISOGG Wiki (https://www.isogg.org/wiki), “23andMe,” rev. 14 Aug 2021. For the history at Family Tree DNA, see ibid., “Family Finder,” rev. 19 Aug 2020. ↩
- See ibid., “AncestryDNA,” rev. 27 Nov 2021. ↩
- See “Introducing MyHeritage DNA,” MyHeritage Blog, posted 7 Nov 2016 (https://blog.myheritage.com/ : accessed 30 Jan 2022). ↩
- For an explanation of ThruLines, see “AncestryDNA® ThruLines®,” Ancestry Support (https://support.ancestry.com/ : accessed 30 Jan 2022). ↩
But. Ancestry.com users need to use great caution when trying to use ThruLines to extend their tree!
For example, in my own tree on one side (maternal) I can immediately spot no fewer than six ‘Potential Ancestors’ in the ThruLines that are based on claims that I have already shown to be incorrect. But there is no effective way to counter them on Ancestry.com, and with new users piling in all the time and slapping together ‘family trees’ by copying whatever they find in existing ones, it keeps getting worse and worse.
Ancestry really ought to provide features to empower its users who are actually doing research to push back against the tide of falsehoods. In the case of ThruLines, for instance, if you click a ‘Potential Ancestor’ they pop out a sidebar that says “[Person A] may be the [son/daughter] of [person B]…”. Well, how about a button there that lets me say “No, that is not correct!”?
I’d also like to see a “reject this proposed ancestor completely” button. But it is what it is. And, as I noted, I didn’t just use the number of matches but also “the amounts of shared DNA and the documents in the family trees” before concluding that “today there is no question but that Isabella was the daughter of Elijah and Wilmoth Gentry.” Whether it’s a hint or a ThruLine or even a document purporting to be historical fact, it’s always our job to verify.
This double blade also cuts in our favor. Once ThruLines(TM) arrived I noticed some people fixing up their trees. I now have fewer bad tree matches than before.
Most of those bad ones that remain are so obviously wrong that I can just ignore them.