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What I learned from my first DNA experience, and what's next

I've been on an incredible genealogy high this week! And it has everything to do with my first DNA tests. If you missed it, the results of my DNA tests were unveiled, both to me and to a live webinar audience, this past Tuesday. Thousands of you have now tuned in and shared in the amazing discovery. I truly had no idea DNA testing could find what it did.

I'm finally starting to get the hype - this really is the hottest thing in genealogy. It's not that I've been in my own sheltered world trying to avoid DNA because I have been involved in it. In fact, I've now hosted nine full-length webinars ( teaching people about its value to our research. But it wasn't until I actually had my family tested that it has become so real. Finally.

Of those that attended the live webinar, 29% had not yet participated in a DNA test. To you I plead - find someone in your family - you, your parents, your grandparents - anyone! and get them tested yesterday! Another poll showed that most were still in the same boat as me:

  • 45% felt they were complete newbies to DNA genealogy
  • 44% have dabbled in DNA genealogy and know a little bit
  • 9% were pretty confident with DNA genealogy
  • 1% felt they were experts with DNA genealogy

So it seems that we still have a ways to go in this field, but it's incredible where we are now.

What I learned from my first test

Here's what I learned from my first test. To clarify, it was my mother's parents who were tested, and it was their autosomal DNA from AncestryDNA that was tested. The easiest part was getting them to spit into the container. The hardest part was waiting the one month and 14 days for the email that said the results were in, and then the additional 1 month and 9 days I waited to explore them with you.

I learned about Grandma's ethnicity - she was 100% from Europe.


I learned that I have 15 DNA circles. Circles are created around a particular ancestor and everyone in a circle has DNA evidence that links them to Grandma or to someone else in the group. Here's what the William McCall DNA Circle looks like:


I learned that I have 180 DNA Matches of 4th cousins or closer:


It was by reviewing these matches that the answer to one of my longest-standing genealogy brick walls was discovered! My 4th great-grandfather, Asa Brown, had four children with his first wife. The identities of children #1 and #3 have been elusive...


...yet I've always believed them to be John and Griffin:


My theory has been that if Grandma's DNA matched the DNA of a descendant of either John or Griffin, then at least I know for sure that they are indeed related.


Diahan, my on-air DNA consultant, suggested that I do a search in my DNA matches for any Brown surnames who were born in Pennsylvania.


Of the 60 results, I clicked on the first match, who happened to be in the "4th Cousin" section. Then my heart rate jumped. I looked closely at the details of this John Nelson Brown...


...and compared him with the details of my John Nelson Brown.


Their names, dates, and places all seemed to match. Then Diahan suggested that I click on the Shared Matches button. This shows DNA matches that Grandma and John have in common. One match appeared. Reviewing it, my heart seemed to beat right out of my body, and I literally began to be light-headed.


And here's my Griffin Brown in my Legacy family file:


If I understand correctly, here's what all of this means. John Nelson BROWN shares DNA with Griffin BROWN, both of whom also share DNA with my grandmother - Virginia BROWN. Therefore, somewhere, somehow, both John and Griffin fit into the family. And with all of the genealogy research I've already performed, it now looks more likely than ever before that they really are children #1 and #3 of Asa Brown's family. And I thought I'd never find the proof! While DNA will not tell me that "Griffin is the son of Asa" I'm now as excited and energized as ever to continue pursuing this family. I am on the right trail.

Why was this so successful?

Hundreds of you have personally written to me (thanks!) to congratulate me on these findings. Many of the messages have suggested that this discovery was somewhat unusual, even ideal. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but I feel there were some factors that contributed to this success.

  • First, I was fortunate to have my grandmother perform the DNA test. Had I only tested myself, and since I only have 25% of my grandmother's DNA, there's a 50% chance that the DNA which matched John and Griffin wouldn't have been passed to me, and I would not have made this discovery.
  • Second, not only did I have part of my tree at Ancestry, but both the descendant of John and the descendant of Griffin also had partial trees at Ancestry. With the combination of that and our DNA match, we discovered each other. I will continue to keep the master copy of my tree in Legacy for all of the advantages it gives me, but recognize the benefits of having parts of it online.
  • Third, my genealogical research of both John and Griffin was very thorough, which permitted me to recognize the potentially matching names, dates, places, and relationships. Never be satisfied with a partial family!
  • Fourth, not only did the descendant of John and Griffin have a tree at Ancestry, but they also participated in DNA testing.
  • Fifth, the guidance I received from Diahan was invaluable to understanding and filtering through the results. If you've tried interpreting your DNA results on your own, I'd strongly recommend that you visit with her through her consultation services or learn from her via her inexpensive DNA reference guides.
  • Sixth, I must have really good DNA. :)

Next steps

I'm still a little overwhelmed with the results, and this was just my first test! Here's what I plan to do next. If you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear from you.

  • I've ordered another DNA test, this time for my father's 93-year-old father. It should arrive in the next day or so, and then I've got another excuse to make the 3-hour drive to visit him.
  • I'll probably spend most of my time looking for more evidence of John and Griffin. I look forward to that day when I can, with full confidence, link them to their correct places in my tree.
  • I'm more confident with DNA testing now, but I will definitely review these two reference guides by Diahan: Autosomal DNA for the genealogist and Understanding AncestryDNA. I should probably also review Getting Started: Genetics for the Genealogist.
  • Re-watch the previous DNA webinars in the library (at
    • The Power of DNA in Unlocking Family Relationships
    • DNA Research for Genealogists: Beyond the Basics
    • The New Frontier in Genetic Genealogy: Autosomal DNA Testing
    • Genealogy and Technology - State of the Union
    • I Had My DNA Tested - Now What?
    • Organizing Your Genetic Genealogy
    • Making YDNA and mtDNA Part of Your Family History
    • Confirming Enslaved Ancestors Utilizing DNA
    • Watch Geoff Live: DNA
  • Import my AncestralDNA results into FamilyTreeDNA. Transferring costs about $39 and from what I hear there are additional benefits by having the results there too.
  • Import the results into GEDMatch. This is free, and provides additional tools such as comparing my results with others who may not have had their tests done with AncestryDNA.
  • Against others' recommendations, I'm going to have myself tested sometime. I've got to prove to my parents that they didn't find me under a rock. And who knows what else I'll find?
  • I'd also like to have my wife's parents tested. I've done a little bit of research on my father-in-law's line, and feel this could help with some of the challenges.

So if you've read this far, and you haven't yet joined this new world of DNA testing for genealogy, I hope I've inspired you a little bit. At the very least, I've now got a summary of what I did and a checklist of where I'm heading - both good practices for genealogy research of any kind.


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Congratulations Geoff and thanks for sharing it live with all of us at the webinar. We were excited for you. The webinar did make me finally jump in and order my AncestryDNA kit. I eagerly await it's arrival. Unfortunately, I am at the top of the family "food chain" i.e. my parents and grandparents are all deceased. So I'm it..... but I am hoping that I will still be able to break through some brick walls. We shall se....

Congratulation on your DNA find; I enjoyed watching the webinar on Wednesday, and learned a lot about DNA. Thanks for sharing your findings on your grandmother. What about your grandfather you had the DNA done when your grandmother's was done will you be sharing the result in another webinar?

I am one of the 29% that hasn't done the DNA, waiting for a good sale.

Thank you for all you do for the genealogy community.

Mary Lou Gravatt

Mary Lou - you're right, I haven't investigated my grandfather's test yet...I'll need to look at that also soon. There are DNA tests going around right now through April 26. At both Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA. Check them out soon.

It was a great webinar Geoff, and I am so happy for you! Enjoy the journey!

If you do your father's father's Y DNA we can learn about how that works too.

There's nothing bad about testing yourself.. It is just that people with 93 year old direct ancestors should test them first.

Thank you both - I finally understand how to interpret my circles. This is added to my collection of watch and repeat, repeat and repeat, until I get it down pat and made into a habit. Thanks again.

You are lucky that you have grand parents and parents to have the test. I was wondering would this type of DNA testing be able to tell which man my father's father was. His mother was having an affair at the time and this lead to most thinking dad was the product of the affair who his mother later married when his wife died. This has made tracing his father line hard as not sure who he was.

Congratulations! I started down this jouney 6 years ago and still feel like a neewbie! One site which has helped me incredibly is a blog called DNAeXplained by Roberta Estes.

Autosomal DNA testing is great if you have a lot of questions within the last 5-6 generations tops, because the inherited DNA becomes diluted over each generation so any farther back than that becomes inconclusive. For helping with brick walls in earlier generations which is my case, I recommend YDNA and MtDNA. YDNA must be submitted by a male only and will follow the male line. MtDNA can be submitted by both males or females and will follow the female line, i.e., your mother, her mother, her mother's mother, etc. You can take these tests with FTDNA and they have some very nice tools to help you analyze and compare results with matches. I started with YDNA because my brick wall in on my father's male line. Though I still haven't discovered my immigrant ancestor, I have discovered that we descend from a Highland Scottish clan. Now I need to bridge the gap in the middle. This was an incredibly exciting discovery!

And you do realize you are only finding tree matches? Dna matches have to be proven with chromo and overlapping segment matches with 2 others, at least. Otherwise, they are only tree matches.

I enjoyed the webinar.

DNA can also reveal some startling results. In my case, it helped identify my father and that I have 9 half brothers and sisters previously unknown to me. This is a remarkable capability getting better all the time...

Good Morning Geoff and the Legacy gang.
The Webinar on DNA of your family was fantastic. Great Going !!!! I learned just this past week that John Alden is certainly related to William Hilton born in Co. Durham, England in the mid to late 1400 (s). Family Tree DNA confirmed this fact. William Hilton is related to many of the Historic Figures that most of us have heard about for many years.
I have both YDNA and Family Finder results re my DNA. If any of you have IP37 Haplogroup links then you most likely are linked as well. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul

If memory serves me, I believe its your father's mother that is the grandparent that you no longer have with you (sorry for your loss). I'm thinking that you should have your father tested or, if he has a sister, get her tested. This way, you can get his mother's DNA line. If I understood the expert advice, this would give you all your grandparents lines and be less "diluted" than doing your DNA.
Just a thought....

What if you are the oldest one in the family? My 94-1/2 year-old father died 8 years ago, my mother years before and my maternal line has many brick walls. Will DNA testing still offer benefits?

With tests on sale last week I ordered two more tests from FTDNA. These are different tests than those at ancestry. All the types of tests offer different learning points. The most important thing about FTDNA is that you can later test from that same sample using the other types of tests that they offer. This is a fun ride and I think the timing is right for many of us who have been waiting in the wings. Doing the test transfer from ancestry to FTDNA is important as well.

When you accumulate several DNA tests of your family members, organizing your information becomes important. Spreadsheets are fine when you are beginning, with only one or two tests, but finding relationships becoming increasingly more difficult with dozens of spreadsheets resulting from each test. On the Internet, you can find Genome Mate Pro, which organizes your DNA information very nicely. GMP can import the records of matches from Ancestry (with DNAGedcom Client), FamilyTreeDNA, and Gedmatch, and it organizes the data by chromosome. You will benefit from a Tier 1 membership at Gedmatch.

Yes, definitely, DNA testing offers benefits for those whose parents are not surviving. In that case, testing siblings and 1st and 2nd cousins is almost essential. For everyone, collaborating successfully depends upon putting complete family trees online.

I picked up some good tips for anlayzing those shared hints that I hadn't been using, so thank you for that. I will certainly want to watch the webinar again to pick up (remind myself) of those other tidbits and the research method.

You are VERY fortunate to have that many circles. I only have 2 and they are for a married couple. My husband has 8 but again some are married couples. I currently use GEDMATCH and have a Mitochondrial test through FTDNA, but now I think I will pay the $39 to transer my Ancestry test to FTDNA too.

Thanks again for sharing with us and keep up the great webinars.

I haven't had any DNA done as I just can't get beyond this question:
How can DNA tell me who I'm related to when my ancestors never had a DNA done? It just doesn't make any sense. Thank you for clearing this up so I can understand..My brothers even say the same as I do and don't want me to waste my money on something that don't make any sense.

Thank you for the blog post -- I have been thinking about DNA for a few months now and this might just push me into trying it. I am curious about one thing in your blog: You said you have put "parts" of your family tree on Ancestry and other sites, and that helped you recognize some of the names in your DNA results. How did you decide which parts of your tree to share?

Barbara - I've only published the parts of my tree that I am actively researching.

I never understood a word that was said.

Hi Geoff - great webinar and congrats on finding your two matches. I had my YDNA done when Ancestry was doing it and again this year with Family Tree YDNA. Unfortunately I haven't make a match with my surname in either case. I was wondering if sometime you could have Diahan comment on how DNA and adoptions could work. Perhaps my greatgrandfather was not raised by his biological father and took the new family surname or maybe, like you he was found under a rock.

Thanks for a great webinar; I've recommended it to others. You explained the process and price of importing Ancestry DNA results into Family Tree DNA, but what about vice versa? How does one import from FTDNA to ADNA?

Response to Lorne Thompson. Recent TV shows have demonstrated instances of identifying biological relatives using DNA testing and genealogical resources (such as Ancestry) in cases of both known and unknown adoption. Check out these episodes: Long Lost Family on TLC, "Why Did You Leave Me?" and Finding Your Roots on PBS, "Family Reunions." Hope those help point you in the right direction.

I watched the webinar in its entirety & could not understand anything. I also just received my dna test results back & I would love to know how they actually work. Is there a simple solution? Am I the only one that can't get it?

How do I know the best people to have tested? My grandparents are all deceased, as is my father. I am female. I have a living mother, 1 brother, and 4 sisters, as well as half-siblings (through my father). Thanks for any advice, I know there are a lot of smart readers of this column, as well as Geoff, who might be able to help.

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