29 December 2020

Harvesting Clues from Your DNA Matches

My DNA matches continue to disappoint me. After ignoring them for a while, I decided to browse through my new matches. I filtered my Ancestry DNA results to show only unviewed matches with a family tree.

I quickly viewed and dismissed about a dozen of them. What good is your tree if it has 3 people? Or if you include only living, unnamed people?

At last I found someone I could latch onto and research. His family tree contains only 6 people including himself. But I knew I was looking at ancestors with ties to my mother's side. That set my expectations on what to look for.

This is why I always say you've got to learn the last names from your ancestral hometowns. I looked at this skimpy tree and saw only 2 last names: d'Onofrio and Ferro. I knew from experience that those names come from my maternal grandfather's hometown.

I searched the vital records I have on my computer for the town of Baselice. I was looking for Leonardo d'Onofrio born in 1913 and Maria Addolorata Ferro born in 1912. I found both their birth records! I felt lucky because the birth records end in 1915, and some years are missing.

If you can find one or two of your DNA match's ancestors, you're in! Do the #genealogy research your DNA match can't seem to do.
If you can find one or two of your DNA match's ancestors, you're in! Do the genealogy research your DNA match can't seem to do.

These are, without a doubt, the right people. Each one's birth record has a note in the margin saying they married the other in 1937. I have their marriage records, too.

With their documents open on one monitor, I launched Family Tree Maker on another. Would I be able to place them in my family tree? My DNA match is a 4th to 6th cousin. It may take some work to make the connection.

My first step was to check my family tree for the bride and groom—my DNA match's parents. They are not in my tree, but I can search the town's vital records for their parents. Hopefully I'll find a place where they fit.

I started with the groom's mother, Maria Teresa Pettorossi. I found her birth record in 1870. It named her parents and each of their fathers. That helped me positively ID her parents, who were already in my tree. Now I had a relationship to these people. But it wasn't a blood relationship.

I continued searching for each parent and seeing if they fit into my family tree. Because I spent 5 years piecing together the families of the town of Baselice, these new people all have a place. Unfortunately, their relationships to me are all through marriage. There was a lot of intermarrying in this somewhat isolated hill town. I'll bet I'm a 4th to 6th cousin of everyone from Baselice.

The best part of this exercise is how it's filling in missing marriages. There are tens of thousands of vital records available for this town. But the marriage records end in 1860 and pick up again in 1931. If I follow the children and grandchildren of the 1850s babies in my tree, I can figure out who they married.

I always intended to figure out missing marriages this way. This new DNA match is a good reason to start.

Because this is "my" town, i added several generations in a heartbeat.
Because this is "my" town, I added several generations in a heartbeat.

There is one person in this family group I can't positively identify. I need an Angelamaria Petruccelli born in about 1851. There were 2 babies with that name born a few months apart, and I can't be sure which is the right one.

Because of that uncertainty, I can't go any further. As of now, this DNA match has at least 6 different relationships to me. But each one involves a marriage somewhere up the line.

Don't be too disappointed if you can't find a meaningful relationship to a distant DNA match. Focus on your closer matches. Then use the more distant ones to fill in some gaps in your own family tree. Take the facts they know from oral history, and back them up with documents.


  1. I skip right over the trees with 1 or 3 or 10 people or whatever. Most of those are all marked private anyway and none are closer than 3rd-5th cousins. Those trees are really annoying.

    1. They must be people who were talked into testing, or who haven't figured out what to do.

  2. I encourage you to take another look at those DNA matches with only 1 or 2 names in their tree (or even no names). I've actually had some great success tracking those matches using Facebook and Google. You might be surprised at how often you can build a family tree this way.

    1. That's a good point. I did get ridiculously far with one match because her ID was her name. When she responded to my message, I think I freaked her out by knowing so much about her family. I haven't heard from her again!

    2. I agree with you suggestion about using Facebook and Google. I wrote a post (if you're interested - https://scrapalotshelley.wordpress.com/2020/12/31/using-facebook-and-google-to-track-dna-matches/ - about how I used Facebook to fill in missing info - it's surprising what you can find with just a little bit of digging.

  3. I understand the frustration with the small trees or trees filled with "private" people. I want to offer a different perspective on these trees. Maybe these matches are people that were adopted and are searching. Or, like me, they got a DNA surprise telling them that their daddy wasn't their actual father. They can't put names there because they just don't know who their birth families are yet.

    I have had a great deal of luck with small trees. It was a tree with only 3 people on it and two of those were "private". The one that wasn't had a unique name - Elvis (not Presley). Until I saw that, I'd only ever heard of one person named Elvis (Presley). So, I did my search on name in the tree. Thanks to little bitty, 2/3s private tree, I found my birth father's identity.

    Sometimes the trees that seem the least helpful can do wonders for our search!

    There are often painful things attached to those small, private-filled trees. We need to keep that in mind when we are getting frustrated with them. They can't add what they don't know, and maybe they don't respond because they are still in shock or feel they have no answers for you, especially when they don't even have them for themselves.

    Until it happened to me, I had no idea how painful this type of thing could be. It almost ended my passion for genealogy. It hurt too much to look at the tree I had spent 40 or so years building, and realizing that half of it was a lie. I was one click away from deleting it all.

    Have a blessed evening.

    1. Oh my, Suzanne. I hadn't thought of that, but I'm sure not knowing their real ancestors accounts for a portion of the tiny trees. I've been working with someone in this situation, too. But she's so very eager to learn more--no hesitation. Finally, we discovered we are 7th cousins.