07 July 2020

How to Sharpen Your DNA Detective Skills

How inspiring was "The Genetic Detective" TV series featuring CeCe Moore? It's fascinating to see her piece together an unknown person's family. In practically no time, she finds enough family tree evidence to identify the DNA donor.

While CeCe's detective work inspired me, it also confounded me. Why can't I get anywhere with the matches I find on GEDmatch?

Then I remembered…people upload their DNA to GEDmatch. That means they tested somewhere else. Maybe they're using the same name or handle on their original testing site. I found someone that way before. First I discovered him on GEDmatch, and then I realized he was my DNA match on Ancestry.

Over the long weekend I had fun identifying a couple of DNA matches who'd been a mystery for a long time. I solved each one by finding one familiar last name in their family tree. That last name was from one of my grandfather's hometowns in Italy. In the end, I pieced together their families to find a connection to myself.

I had another match I really wanted to crack. All I had was her photo and her handle, which I figured was some version of her name. She's one of those pesky DNA matches with a connection to both my parents.

Start with a Simple Search

A web search for her handle found her right away! There I saw the same photo of her and her full name. Returning to Ancestry.com, I discovered her last name might not be Italian. And, in fact, it was her married name. Thanks to New York City marriage indexes on Ancestry, I learned her maiden name, her birth date, and her place of birth.

Find Their Current Connections

I went to Facebook, as Cece Moore would do. Very little of my DNA match's page was public, but I made a big discovery. A photo of her and her mother had a comment from someone with a familiar last name. This person had a tree on Ancestry. I'd been looking at it a bit earlier.

Before long, I learned the names, birth dates, and birth places of this DNA match's parents and 2 older siblings. Then I learned the names of her father's parents. Finally, I could take this research back into Italian vital records.

That was the end of the Ancestry document trail. But I got what I needed. Her father's family comes from a town neighboring my ancestral hometowns. I needed to find her grandparents' birth records. Then I'd be able to build out their family trees until they connect to mine.

I had to marvel at what had happened so far. I went from knowing nothing about her to knowing very specific details. And it all happened in a few minutes.

Dig Into Their Ancestors' Past

With a kick-start from this match's relative's family tree, I found her great grandfather's birth record. The year before it, I found his parents' marriage records. And guess what? The 1857 bride was born in my grandfather's hometown. In fact, she and her whole family are in my family tree already.

I knew if I went back a generation or two, I'd find a connection to my family tree. And I did!
I knew if I went back a generation or two, I'd find a connection to my family tree. And I did!

I did it! I found this mystery DNA's connection to my mom's side of the family fast enough to please the likes of CeCe Moore. I may know more about her ancestry than my DNA match does.

I suppose some of you are freaking out about the lack of privacy. We all leave a digital footprint and a paper trail. As a genealogy fan, aren't you glad your ancestors left behind a paper trail for you to follow?

I have no intention of reaching out to this DNA match. Or to many of the very-distant matches I've identified. I only want to use their ancestral clues to beef up my family tree. How else would I have learned that a teenage girl from Baselice, whose father died before she was born, married a man in another town in 1857?

I'm no crime solver, but I'm pretty damned happy with my genealogy detective skills today. Isn't it time to revisit your unsolved DNA matches?


  1. Awesome detective work! I hadn't heard of the TV show but just recorded the entire series! Thank you! Lisa

  2. Great work Lisa! I am envious of your skills!

    1. Ha. You misread the comment above. I'm not Lisa. But thanks.