18 June 2024

Which Numbers Help Solve a DNA Match?

Trying to solve a mystery DNA match? An extensive family tree is more important than the centiMorgans (cMs) you share. Often it's only when you place a match in your family tree that you see your true relationship.

When you look into the different values assigned to your DNA matches, which number do you think matters most? My answer isn't what you'd expect.
When you look at the different values assigned to your DNA matches, which number matters most? My answer isn't what you'd expect.

When I want to figure out a new DNA match, I consult the Shared cM Project tool created by Blaine T. Bettinger. You can find it on the DNA Painter website. The tool can suggest your likely relationship to a DNA match based on the number of cMs you share. The chart itself tells you:

  • the average number of cMs you might share with a type of relative
  • a likely range of cMs you can expect to see for each type of relative.

My family tree has tons of cousins with more than one relationship to me. Our roots are so deep in one little town that we're related to everyone who lived there. I want to see how all the intermarriage in my little towns might affect my DNA numbers.

Seeing How Your DNA Matches Score

For this exercise, I copied Bettinger's Shared cM chart into a spreadsheet so I can add cM values for my DNA matches. (This copy is available for you to download.) For each match that I added to the chart (in red ink), I included the hometown(s) of our shared ancestors. The town name showed that I have a higher number of shared cMs with cousins connected to Pastene, Italy.

One reason for this higher amount of DNA may be the small size of this hamlet. It's basically one street! Families were intermarrying there for hundreds of years. My great grandparents Giovanni and Maria Rosa came from Pastene. Some of their descendants and their siblings' descendants have tested with AncestryDNA.

I must say I expected to see lots of DNA matches with cMs that went far above the range in the Shared cM Project tool. Since I have multiple relationships with so many people, I thought the cMs would stack up higher. In reality, I found only one match who went above the cM range—a 6th cousin twice removed.

This DNA match (A.S.) shares 58 cM with me when the average for our relationship is 13 cM and the range is 0 to 45 cM. Here's why our shared cMs are high. A.S. and I share:

  • my 5th great grandparents Innocenzo and Anna (that's the 6C2R relationship)
  • my double 6th great grandparents Giuseppe and Maria (that makes A.S. my 7C1R)
  • my 7th great grandparents Pasquale and Maria (that makes A.S. my 8C1R)
  • my 7th great grandfather Giancamillo (that makes A.S. my 8C2R)

It seems shared cMs alone can't predict complex relationships every time.

This chart shows a higher concentration of shared DNA coming from one of my ancestral hometowns. What will yours show?
This chart shows a higher concentration of shared DNA coming from one of my ancestral hometowns. What will yours show?

Exploring Another Variable

"Unweighted shared DNA" is a factor when you have deep roots in the same place or ethnicity.

If you have an AncestryDNA account, you can view this value for any DNA match in your list. Click the blue, linked description beneath their relationship label. For instance, for my 3rd cousin, I see "82 cM | 1% shared DNA."

Looking at my DNA match A.S., I see that we:

  • share 58 cM across 3 segments
  • have a longest segment of 30 cM
  • have 60 cM of unweighted shared DNA—2 cM more than the 58 cM of shared DNA.

You may be as curious about the unweighted shared DNA as I am. Here's AncestryDNA's definition:

Unweighted shared DNA is the total amount of identical DNA two people share, including DNA that is shared for reasons other than a recent common ancestor, such as being from the same ethnicity or community. Because of that, unweighted shared DNA will almost always be larger than shared DNA for distant relationships that share 90 cM or less.

So that's why so many DNA matches appear to be closer than they are. I knew there was some extra DNA just from having deep roots in the same soil, but this puts a value on it.

To test this out, I looked at the DNA breakdown for lots of my identified DNA matches. In general, the unweighted shared DNA for my 3rd cousins or closer was exactly the same as their shared DNA. Many of my more-distant cousins had from 1 to 5 cM more unweighted shared DNA than shared DNA. But some of the distant cousins didn't have any extra unweighted shared DNA at all.

Searching for the Magic Number

Unweighted shared DNA isn't enough to help us understand our relationship to a DNA match. So I looked at the third value: longest segment length. DNA experts say you should be able to identify a match with a longest segment of 50 cM or more. But I have only 40 matches with numbers that high.

Here's a small sampling of the under-50 shared cM DNA matches I've identified and placed in my family tree. These are not people I know or grew up with. Most have a very small family tree online. But thanks to my family tree, I found their grandparents or great grandparents.

  • 5C1R, 48 cM, longest segment 10 cM
  • 9C, 27 cM, longest segment 12 cM
  • 5C2R, 41 cM, longest segment 13 cM
  • 7C, 30 cM, longest segment 14 cM
  • 6C, 26 cM, longest segment 15 cM
  • 3C1R, 39 cM, longest segment 16 cM
  • 5C1R, 24 cM, longest segment 18 cM
  • 5C, 26 cM, longest segment 20 cM

Notice we share from 24–48 cM, and our longest shared segments range from 10–20 cM. AncestryDNA categorizes these matches as 4th–6th cousins or 5th–8th cousins. I was able to get so much more specific despite those short longest segments.

Well would you look at that? Here I am, yet again, hyping the value of a gigantic family tree. I like to crack new DNA matches to see what happened after the Italian vital records end. Who came to America? Who went to Canada, England, or Australia? Do people with roots in my Italian towns live near me today?

In the end, the best way to crack DNA matches is with your extensive, full-blown family tree.


A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!
A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!

11 June 2024

5 Reasons to Search Beyond Your Direct Ancestors

Sometimes I dream I'm searching through old Italian vital records. I spend so much time knee-deep in vital records that it's only natural I would dream about them. The countless hours spent with these records have removed the foreign-language barrier completely.

You should explore all the vital records available from your ancestral hometowns, too. Here are 5 reasons why you should search for more than your direct ancestors in those records. Click each of the 5 titles to get the full story.

When you find your ancestor's birth record, don't overlook the other gems in those vital records.
When you find your ancestor's birth record, don't overlook the other gems in those vital records.

1. Don't Miss Out on Your Ancestors' Culture

I cringed when I learned my 2nd great grandmother Caterina was 23 years younger than her husband. Then I did a bit more digging. I found out Caterina was my 2nd great grandfather's second wife. And she was the same age as Nicola's eldest child from his 1st marriage!

Spending more time with this town's vital records, I realized a few things that hold true in all my towns:

  • A widow or widower usually remarried in a hurry. Sometimes as soon as 2 months after their spouse died.
  • A man's second wife was more likely to be much younger than him.
  • When a bride and groom came from different towns, they usually married in her town and lived in his town.
  • Each town registered a few abandoned babies each year. Someone might find a baby on a doorstep or on the side of the road. There was a special church window where you could leave a baby and no one would see you. These babies may have been born out of wedlock, but sometimes a woman chose to keep her baby.
  • It was the mayor's job to name these foundlings. Their last name might:
    • show the baby's status (Esposito, Abbandonato, etc.)
    • refer to a local place name, like that of a river
    • reflect their physical characteristic (Russo for a red-cheeked baby)
    • or it may be a last name already found in the town.

I didn't fully understand these abandoned babies until I read a lot of their birth records. At first I thought my 60-year-old 5th great grandfather had another baby in 1809. Actually, he was about to step outside his home when he found the baby girl on his doorstep. That exact detail is noted on the birth record.

2. Discovering Life and Death Trends in Your Ancestral Hometown

I discovered a sad fact about my great grandmother Maria Rosa's hometown. Vital records showed a higher than usual infant mortality rate. How did I know it was higher than usual? Because I'd already reviewed the records from neighboring towns. A typical mid-1800s family in this town had 10 babies, but only 2 lived to adulthood.

That bit of information made it obvious why Maria Rosa and her siblings came to America. They all made a better life for themselves in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

3. What Do the Records Say About Your Ancestor's Town?

My 2nd great grandmother Colomba's hometown records told a very different story. While reviewing vital records, I realized that most marriage records included one out-of-towner. Colomba's husband (my 2nd great grandfather) came from a neighboring town to marry her. Colomba's own mother came from yet another town.

This led me to a second discovery. In my other ancestral hometowns, most men were farmers or laborers. But in Colomba's hometown, most men were merchants, notaries, and doctors. While this town is notable for its vineyards, it seemed to attract a more educated population.

So why did my 2nd great grandparents leave? It's possible Colomba's brothers inherited the family's land and property. Or her husband had his own ambitions.

4. Why All Siblings Are Critical to Your Family Tree

If you know when and where your 2nd great grandparents were born, you need to find all their siblings. Those siblings and their descendants will help you connect to many of your DNA matches.

I've found that one sibling's vital record can hold more clues than the others. No matter where your ancestor came from, vital records will vary depending on the year.

In some of my ancestral hometowns, birth records from 1866 to 1874 hold extra hints. For each of the baby's parents, you can find their full name, age, and their father's first name. That extra detail can help take your family tree back another generation.

5. Searching for Family in a New Town Takes Practice

I'm so familiar with the last names in my ancestral hometowns that I can see past the worst handwriting. But when I discovered my 3rd great grandmother in a new-to-me town, it was like starting from scratch.

This town's early records (starting in 1809) feature incredibly bad handwriting. I had to do a few things to feel confident about how to spell these new names. I started a spreadsheet to keep track of the last names I was seeing, then, for each name in the list I:

  • Checked the Cognomix website for last name distribution in Italy. I made note of whether the name is still found in the town. If not, I noted the closest town that still has that name.
  • Used a green highlight to show which names have high confidence in their spelling.
  • Noted any alternative spellings. For example, sometimes a family uses the name Capua, but other times it's written as Capoa.

When I review this town's vital records, I check my spreadsheet to figure out what I'm looking at. Does that say Casassa? Oh, no, it's Casazza, and that's already in my list. Only by reviewing all the documents can I get comfortable with these new last names in my family tree.

Each of your ancestor's life stories depends in part on their family members. If you want to know your family history, be sure to broaden your search to the whole family and then some.

04 June 2024

8 Topics to Make You a Better Genealogist

Six months ago I thought of a way my weekly blog articles could do more for you. I wanted each article to give you the big picture on any single genealogy topic. Most of my articles since then give you several ways to:

  • solve a problem
  • improve your family tree
  • use new tools to your advantage
  • advance your research.

These articles are like one-stop shopping for genealogy best practices.

Here are the 8 articles that received the most attention so far. Have you missed any?

Get a comprehensive view of 8 topics designed to make you a better genealogist.
Get a comprehensive view of 8 topics designed to make you a better genealogist.

21 Genealogy Tools I Can't Live Without

Years ago I found out my husband's cousin was working on her family tree using only a spreadsheet. That meant it held nothing but names and dates. Any family tree software, whether it's on your desktop or online, offers you so much more than that.

Take advantage of the different tools available to you—many for free. When I took a look at my most important tools, I found that I'm using 21 of them on a regular basis. Find out what you may be missing.

7 Free Genealogy Map Projects

It seems anyone who's passionate about their family history has a fondness for maps. As a kid, I thought it was amazing that my parents grew up a block apart. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. All my branches have intersecting locations, both in New York City and in a small section of Italy.

Here are 7 different ways you can use maps to illustrate, understand, and enhance your family tree.

5 Free, Easy-to-Use Family Tree Charts

I rarely print anything out on paper. But certain forms are terrific to bring with you when visiting an archive or library. And when I research an unrelated family, my custom spreadsheet is exactly what I need.

Here are 5 different PDFs and spreadsheets that I created or adapted and want to share with you.

3 Key Signs a Family Tree is Wrong

If you think that family tree hints are the only way to build your family tree, I'm here to tell you you're doing it wrong. Hints alone can lead to countless errors. Besides, the joy is in the research and in knowing you've found your people.

Before you believe anyone's online family tree, find out how to tell when their tree is wrong.

These 3 key signs don't include a lack of source citations. And that's my own guilt showing. I've spent the last couple of weeks putting in tons of source citations I'd postponed creating. I have a long way to go, but I'm doing it because it will show that my family tree is based on facts.

4 Ways to Safeguard Your Digital Family Tree

How many hours have you put into your family tree? Countless hours, right? That's why your top priority needs to be safeguarding and securing your files.

It isn't hard to do, and you must make it a regular habit. I use:

  • cloud storage
  • backups on internal and external hard drives
  • online storage on family tree websites
  • and I always export a new GEDCOM file after a long day of genealogy research.

Find out your options, make your choices, and stick to a plan. If you work on your family tree every day like I do, daily backups are so important.

8 Tips for Researching Your Immigrant Ancestor

I'm lucky to have recent immigrants in my family tree. None of my people came to America before 1890, and the majority passed through Ellis Island. (Funny how 1890 is recent to a genealogist.) That means I have ship manifests with the ability to unlock generations of ancestors.

For many people ship manifests are our first look at our old-country origins. But it's up to you soak every bit of information out of that manifest. These 8 tips will help you get more mileage out of each ancestor's passage.

4 Keys to Italian Genealogy

Too many people think they can't build their family tree because they don't speak Italian. To them I say:

  • Can you learn a handful of words if they're shown to you?
  • Can you pick out a name among the words on a page?

These 4 keys will de-mystify Italian vital records and help your find your ancestors. I started reviewing these records without knowing anything. Now nothing about them slows me down.

Top 5 Uses for the Free Family Tree Analyzer

Any genealogy researcher can get carried away with the excitement of a new discovery. Those moments of excitement open the door for human error. No matter how careful we are, we're going to have mistakes in our family trees. That's a big part of the value of Family Tree Analyzer (FTA).

Years ago I struggled to improve my coding skills so I could write a program that did an ounce of what FTA can do. FTA's author, Alexander Bisset, has created something far beyond my imagination. The moment I found his software, I quit coding.

If you want your family tree to be your legacy, to be accurate and reflect your work, you need to use FTA. Here are 5 very important ways to use it to improve your family tree.


If you have a topic you'd like me to cover in this blog, let me know. There will be some topics outside my experience, but I'm eager to know what you'd like to know.