11 February 2020

Is This the End of DNA Matches?

The industry is reporting layoffs as the DNA kit surge reaches its peak.

Should genealogy fans worry about the future of DNA tests? Ancestry cut 6% of its staff. 23andMe cut 14%. MIT Technology Review says more than 26 million people submitted DNA ancestry kits, with a huge spike since 2017. There was such a rapid increase of kits in the last 2 years, it's surprising to read about these staff cuts.

Whoever is in your DNA match list today, you shouldn't expect a tremendous increase in the future. And the reason so many of your DNA matches have no tree or don't answer you is simple. They aren't interested. The kit was a gift, they went along with it, they saw their pie chart and said, "So what?"

This past weekend I worked on one of my 2020 Genealogy Goals. I tried to figure out my connection to someone in my DNA match list who had a family tree. I've figured out a lot of them already. I spent my time working on a 4th cousin who'd reached out to me on Facebook a while back.

I know the connection is there, but missing documents are keeping it secret.
I know the connection is there, but missing documents are keeping it secret.

I told her that her grandmother's maiden name was my grandmother's maiden name. She was Concetta Sarracino. I found Concetta's 1887 birth record in my vital record collection. I found her 2 siblings, her parents, her aunt and uncle, 3 grandparents, and 1 great grandparent.

Free to use.
Free to use.
But none of them tied into my family tree. The Sarracino family is from a town with records that don't go back before 1861. I tried to find any loose threads that might tie me to this loose branch. Concetta came to America with her husband and 3 children. I have their ship manifest. Her 1st cousin Angelo was already in New York City. I built out his part of the family, too.

Now I've got dozens of people in my tree, closely related to my DNA match. But their profile pictures are my "No Relationship Established" graphic. Once again, I had to put this branch aside and hope for a future breakthrough.

As I was about to quit playing with my family tree for the day, someone sent me a message on Ancestry. My family tree kept coming up in her search results over and over. She gave me a handful of names, and I went to her tree.

While her family names are clearly from my grandfather's hometown, she is not in my match list. But she is in my dad's match list. It's a distant relationship. Between the DNA and those last very familiar names, I wanted to know more.

In her family tree I saw 2 last names that are important in my family tree: Pozzuto and Zeolla.

These 2 names seem to hold the hidden DNA connection between my mother and father. I've been trying to find my parents' distant cousin connection by adding those names to my family tree. Last year I added every Pozzuto baby from my vital records collection to my family tree. This year's goal is to add every Zeolla baby.

This past weekend I found that I am connected to this DNA match's great grandmother. I can't see her 1875 birth record because that year is missing from the records collection. But I have her parents' and siblings' records. Filomena Zeolla, born in 1875, is my 3rd cousin 4 times removed.

That doesn't help me figure out my parents' DNA connection. But it does extend my family tree into an area I couldn't reach before. I had no way to know about Filomena because there are no 1875 birth records. I had no way to know she had married a Pozzuto who has a huge branch in my family tree.

Because of this DNA match, I realized I'd attached her grandfather to the wrong parents. Their names were almost identical. I had no way to know!

And this is the importance of DNA matches' trees to me. I don't expect to discover many close relatives. Years ago my family tree (not my DNA) attracted my 3rd cousin to me. I knew nothing about her ancestor—my great grandfather's sister. But now I've built out my 2nd great aunt's branch of the family and extended them into America.

I need my distant cousins' family trees to find out what happened to relatives who scattered across America—or stayed in Italy.

If you want to find long-lost family through DNA, don't despair about the DNA-test market. There are still millions of family trees online and other research that can connect you to 3rd and 4th cousins.

It's the people trying to find their birth parents' who have the most to lose as this DNA-kit fad winds down. On the flip side, more people are afraid to test because they might learn their mom and dad aren't their birth parents.

So, should genealogy fans worry about the future of DNA tests? For most of us, the answer is no. There are still 26 million DNA kits out there. And your DNA match list was never meant to replace genealogy research.

Still, you should reach out to those matches while they still have a shred of interest.

07 February 2020

Make Your Own 'Elder Scroll'

This fun project produces a list of your ancestors by Ahnentafel number.

I'm amazed by your response to my April 2019 article titled "3 Things to Do with Ahnentafel Numbers". As I'm writing this, you have read that article 6,019 times. It looks as if a carved-in-stone numbering system for your ancestors has wide appeal.

You see, there is a specific, unwavering pattern for numbering your ancestors. You are #1. After you, all male ancestors have an even number, all female ancestors have an odd number. Your father is #2. Each person's father is double their number. So your father's father is double his #2, or #4. And every male ancestor's wife is his number + 1. So your mother is #3, her father is #6, and her mother (his wife) is #7.

I created an Excel spreadsheet (free to download and use) with an Ahnentafel number as a placeholder for each of your ancestors up to your 10th great grandparents. I update my copy of the spreadsheet each time I discover a new ancestor. And because of the numbering system, I know exactly where to place the new ancestor in my spreadsheet.

Today I want to create a numbered list of all my direct ancestors. I want it sorted by their Ahnentafel number, and I want it to include each person's name and birth date.

This list (a 17-page PDF file) is my Elder Scroll. I'm calling it that as a joke and a nod to the video game of the same name.

Here's how I did it.

1. Make a Custom Ahnentafel Field

I use Family Tree Maker software to build my tree. On the main Person screen, you can customize what you see in the right column. For example, you can have Birth, Death, and Marriage Facts in that column. I also placed Baptism and Immigration there. My ancestors' Italian birth records usually have their baptism date. So I need to have that field handy. And I like to see at a glance which of my ancestors came to America.

I had room for another field, so I created a custom fact called Ahnentafel. (To do this, choose to add a fact to a person, but instead of choosing a fact type from the list, click to add a custom fact.) It has only a description field (no date or place field) that will hold only the person's number. Then I clicked Customize View on the main Person view to include the Ahnentafel fact. (Be sure to see my screen captures.)

After creating a custom fact type, add it to  your main person view.
After creating a custom fact type, add it to  your main person view.

2. Apply a Filter

Family Tree Maker has a new feature I haven't used until now. You can create a custom filter to narrow down the index of individuals to only those you want to see. I created a filter to show only my direct ancestors. I gave my direct ancestors a color code in the past. That color shows in my index list, so it's easy to see who is my direct ancestor.

This filter shows only my direct ancestors, color-coded by branch.
This filter shows only my direct ancestors, color-coded by branch.

3. Fill in All Ahnentafel Numbers

With this filter in place, I can use my down arrow key to look at each person in this filtered index. As I do so, my eyes are resting on the Ahnentafel field. If it's blank, I look up the person in my grandparent chart and fill in their Ahnentafel number in Family Tree Maker.

I continue doing this until every direct ancestor has a number. But I have a twist. My paternal grandparents were 3rd cousins, so they have shared ancestors. Those "double ancestors" have 2 Ahnentafel numbers:
  • one as Grandpa's ancestor
  • one as Grandma's ancestor
I chose to write those as "64 and 80", for example. That's my 4th great grandfather—twice.

4. Create a Custom Report

Finally, I create a custom report. In Family Tree Maker, this is in Person Reports, then Custom Report. My report includes:
  • only my direct ancestors and me (292 people)
  • everyone's Ahnentafel number
  • everyone's name
  • everyone's birth date
I set the report to sort people by their Ahnentafel number.

The result is a list of all my direct ancestors, in order. I can't wait to show it to my parents. We never knew anyone's names beyond my great grandparents. Now I've identified a handful of my 7th great grandparents.

You may think of other ways to create a custom report with a different custom fact.
You may think of other ways to create a custom report with a different custom fact.

Imagine you've printed out your elder scroll. You taped the pages together end to end, and rolled them up…like a scroll. Now, imagine you bring that scroll to the next family gathering. You unfurl it and amaze your relatives. Go on, give it a try!

04 February 2020

What to Do When Your Family Tree Is Stuck

See how working around your missing ancestors can lead to useful facts.

The sad truth of genealogy research is this: Sometimes the documents you need will not be there for you. A disaster destroyed the vital records for your town. Or they were never recorded. And there were no local newspapers when your townspeople were illiterate.

I'm facing this now as I try to help a client get further back in his family tree than his living ancestors can recall. I'm also facing it for myself. I have a branch from a town with missing records. I can't go as far back as I want to.

When the documents aren't there for you, what can you do?

Imagine you want to walk down a main path in New York's Central Park. But you can't go directly from where you are (the William Shakespeare statue) to your destination (the Bethesda Fountain). The path is blocked. What can you do? You can follow some of the other paths. It's a longer route, but eventually you'll get where you want to go.

When the straight path is not possible, take advantage of other avenues.
When the straight path is not possible, take advantage of other avenues.

And that's how you can make progress in your family tree. When the documents you want are blocked, go around.

I want to learn the name of my 2nd great grandmother Maria Luigia Muollo's mother. Maria Luigia was born in about 1843. Her birth record is not available. I even sent a professional researcher to the town church, but they didn't have a lot of records. The town just shrugged it off, or so it seems.

But I have a plan to get around this blockage. I'm examining available records for everyone in town with her last name. It might help to find someone around her age who had the same father's name. It would be fantastic to find her death record. But I've discovered she was still alive in 1902 when she reported the birth of her grandchild (my grandmother's 1st cousin Vincenzo). Now I know she died during the years when no death records are available.

I'm continuing to look at everyone named Muollo in this little town. I'm piecing together their families. I'm hoping to find the connection between separate family units. It's a roundabout path, and I may get lost. But much like Central Park, I know the views will be worth it.

I found his grave before I knew who he was. Now his birth record gives me a big clue.
I found his grave before I knew who he was. Now his birth record gives me a big clue.

At the same time, I've got this client in mind. I can't seem to find records for his direct ancestors. But I'm hunting down every document for people with the right last names. One death record may be all I need to add another generation to his family tree.

Keep this in mind when you're frustrated by your brick wall. You can't seem to get through it after all your trying. But have you tried to go around it? Have you investigated what's near it? Try to fill in some of the surrounding blanks. You may get lucky after all.