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  • Writer's pictureColleen Murray

Not just tall trees

Do you remember when you first started working on your family tree? Your goal was probably to enter immediate relatives, and then move back as quickly as possible to your grandparents, and great-grandparents. You proudly added each generation, hoping to push back to a famous ancestor, or maybe even royalty!

While there is no evidence of royalty in my family tree (or fame for that matter), my progression was similarly lineal, researching siblings, uncles and cousins when necessary to provide evidence of my direct ancestors, but always with the goal of getting back further- to immigrant ancestors, and then to ancestors in the old country.

The advent of genetic genealogy has impacted the direction of many of our trees. Sure, our ultimate goal may still be to move back further and break down those distant brick walls, but in order to meet that goal using genetic genealogy, we often need to build our tree wider, not just higher.

How do we figure out how we match that estimated 3rd to 5th cousin who contacted us on a DNA testing website? We have to build out our tree and their tree enough that we can find the common link. We share 2X great grandparents with our third cousins. If we identified each of our (and our match's) 2X great grandparents and all their descendants, we should be able to figure out our connection to a third cousin. If our DNA match is actually a fourth or fifth cousin, or third cousin once removed, then we would have more ancestors and descendants to identify. Using DNA tools such as common matches, we can often figure out what part of our tree the DNA probably connects through, and focus on researching those lines first. It isn't usually possible or efficient to research every single descendant of our ancestor, but the more we do add, the easier it is to quickly figure out our DNA matches.

So if we want to work to identify unknown DNA matches, our goal is to create a really good tree. Not just a tall tree, but also a wide tree, that allows us to add in our newly identified genetic cousins. A good tree also helps us know if we might be related to our match in multiple ways, through different ancestral lines.

How will identifying our relationship to these DNA cousins ultimately help push our tree backwards, if that is our overall goal? Our new-found cousin may have information on some of our ancestors that we don't have. They might match and connect us to other cousins who are related to us, but with whom we share no common DNA- those cousins may have information on our ancestors that we don't have. And if our genetic ancestry turns out to be different than on paper, collaborating with our genetic cousins may allow us to find the truth.

I used to only post a small portion of my family tree online, focusing only on my ancestors- and keeping my full tree only in my genealogy software, offline. That plan no longer serves me. It doesn't allow me to connect easily with my DNA matches. So, as I find the time, I've been adding more of my offline tree to my online one, especially spending more time adding marriages and children for deceased relatives who are not direct ancestors. This allows my DNA matches and I to spend more time collaborating, and less time wondering where our connection might be.

Height or breadth? Each are important, but It should go without saying- our first priority is always to produce an accurate tree. We should always look for multiple pieces of evidence , and carefully consider conflicts before coming to any conclusions, and risk adding someone to our online tree who might not belong there.


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