A picture containing company name

Description automatically generated

Newsletter – 17th March 2024



Hear Professor Probert speak about bigamy FREE

Did Professor Sprout get it right?

Born on an aeroplane


Masterclass: How to make the most of your DNA test UPDATED

Save on Hiding the Past ENDS MONDAY

The top of the milk

Peter’s Tips

Stop Press


The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 4th March) click here; to find earlier articles use the customised Google search between this paragraph and the next (it searches ALL of the newsletters since February 2009, so you don't need to keep copies):



To go to the main LostCousins website click the logo at the top of this newsletter. If you're not already a member, do join - it's FREE, and you'll get an email to alert you whenever there's a new edition of this newsletter available!



Hear Professor Probert speak about bigamy FREE

Between 6pm and 7.30pm (London time) on Monday 25th March Professor Rebecca Probert will be speaking about Bigamy in Nineteenth-century Nottinghamshire and Lancashire at the History of Law and Governance Centre at the University of Nottingham – and you are invited to attend online.


The talk will explore the changing legal framework governing bigamy in nineteenth-century England and Wales. Taking Nottinghamshire and Lancashire as case studies, it will analyse the characteristics of those prosecuted for bigamy and what this can tell us about the incidence of, and attitudes towards, bigamy.


To find out more please follow this link to the History of Law and Governance Centre website. Confusingly the link on their site described as Registration URL doesn't take you to a registration page - it is, in fact, the link for joining the Microsoft Teams meeting next Monday! I expect that, like me, you're more familiar with Zoom, but Teams isn't that different. I understand from Professor Probert that the talk will be recorded, and hopefully I will be able to publish a link in a future newsletter.



Did Professor Sprout get it right?

Miriam Margolyes is best known to readers of this newsletter for her prestigious role as a Vice-President of the Society of Genealogists, but during her long career she has also done a bit of acting, including playing the part of Professor Pomona Sprout in the Harry Potter film series.


As an avid reader of the Harry Potter books when I was in my early 50s I was a little surprised to read that in Ms Margolyes’s opinion the stories are purely for youngsters. In fact, the only reason I stopped reading Harry Potter was because the last three books in the series came out after LostCousins started in 2004 – so I simply couldn’t find the time (it didn’t help that each was longer than the one before).


What do you think?



Born on an aeroplane

You may well have noticed the recent news story about the baby born on flight from Jordan to London Luton Airport – if not you can read about this unusual delivery here.


Apparently the child is only the 75th baby to have been born on a commercial flight – and what you might not know is that all births and deaths on British-registered planes have been recorded since 1947, and are in a separate index maintained by the General Register Office (GRO). There is even a separate index for births on British-registered hovercraft since 1972 – that must surely be a very short list!


This page on the GOV.UK site lists all of the different indexes.



Save on Ancestry DNA ENDS SOON

Ancestry charge a little more for their tests but in my experience they’re ten times more useful than tests purchased from other companies – see the Masterclass below for a longer explanation.


The good news is that until Wednesday 20th March you can save 25% on DNA tests from Ancestry.co.uk – please use the link below so that you can support LostCousins when you make your purchase (if it doesn’t seem to work at first, log-out from Ancestry then click the link again)..


Save 25% on AncestryDNA®. Ends March 20th.


You can also make big savings in Australia and New Zealand - but the offer ends today (Monday 18th) so you'll have to be very, very quick.


DNA Sale! Save Up to $54 off AncestryDNA®



Masterclass: How to make the most of your DNA test UPDATED

Note: I've updated this Masterclass significantly since it was last published in July 2023



Introduction to DNA – why to test, who to test, and which test to choose

We all have 'brick walls' in our trees – perhaps because an ancestor was illegitimate or changed their name. Or maybe we are looking in the wrong geographical area – people migrated further and more often than most people expect. And then there are problems with records: they might be missing, deficient, or even wrong. Fortunately, because our DNA is inherited from our ancestors it's also a record of our ancestry – one that can not only overcome gaps and deficiencies in the archives but also provide us with a way of checking that our research is correct.


Note: DNA doesn't replace conventional research, it provides a second layer of links between members of the same family. It's a bit like overlaying a map onto a satellite image – they are different ways of looking at the same thing. In most cases each will corroborate the other, which provides us with reassurance that we are following the right line   but it’s when they tell different stories that we really appreciate the fact that DNA doesn’t lie.


You probably don’t have samples of your ancestors' DNA to compare yours against – though it's technically possible to extract DNA from hair or the gum on the back of a used postage stamp, it's not a service that mainstream companies offer. Nor are you likely to get permission to exhume your ancestors’ remains. But there are lots of other people who do have samples for comparison – your cousins, both the cousins you know and the cousins you have yet to find. They inherited their DNA from their ancestors, and whilst most of their ancestors will be different from yours, any segments of DNA that you share were almost certainly inherited from your common ancestor(s).


Tip: anyone who shares some of your ancestors is a cousin of yours, no matter how distant the relationship; in fact, distant cousins are particularly useful when it comes to knocking down 'brick walls', though closer cousins can also play a part.


We can’t all be DNA experts – and the good news is that provided you follow the advice in this Masterclass, you'll be able to get amazing results even if you don’t understand the first thing about the science behind DNA. Indeed there are plenty of people who do know quite a lot about DNA who would probably achieve more if only they stuck to the simple strategies in this Masterclass!


Here's all you really need to know:


·        Most of the DNA tests on offer to family historians, and the only ones you should be seriously considering, are autosomal DNA tests; they can taken by both males and females, and they have the potential to solve puzzles anywhere in your family tree within the last 6 or 7 generations (around 250 years). Sometimes they can reach back even further.

·        All of your DNA comes from your ancestors, but you inherit only half of your parents' autosomal DNA, they only inherited half of their parents' DNA, and so on. So always test the earliest generation – for example, if your parents are deceased, but they have siblings still living, ask your aunts and uncles to test. They also inherited 50% of your grandparents’ DNA, just not the same 50% as your parents.

·        Once you go back beyond your parents the amount of DNA you inherit from each ancestor varies. It is very unlikely that you inherited precisely 25% from each of your grandparents, and the further you go back the more the percentages fluctuate around the mean. Go back far enough – say 10 generations – and there will be some ancestors from whom you have inherited no DNA whatsoever.

·        Unlike personal traits and some hereditary diseases, DNA doesn’t skip a generation – you can't possibly inherit a segment of DNA from a grandparent unless your parent also inherited it and passed it on to you.

·        Just because you and your cousins share ancestors this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll share DNA - you could have inherited different bits of DNA from the ancestors you share; the closer the cousin, the more DNA you're likely to share, but despite this distant cousins are often more useful. This is partly because there are so many more of them, but also because a match you share with a distant cousin can be traced to a smaller section of your tree. By contrast, when you share a match with a 1st cousin all this tells you is which side of your tree the match is on.


Which test should you choose?

Don’t make your decision based on price; although all of the main DNA tests on offer are technically similar, what you're looking for is to get as many matches with genetic cousins as possible, and to make as much sense of those matches as you can. Ancestry win on both counts: not only do they have by far the biggest database, with around 25 million users, they integrate their vast collection of family trees with DNA so much more effectively than other sites that there is far less work for you to do.  


IMPORTANT: the ONLY way to get access to that enormous database is to buy the Ancestry test; you can transfer Ancestry DNA results to other sites, but you CANNOT go the other way.


Ancestry DNA tests are a little more expensive than the tests on offer at other sites, but they are well worth the extra: you’ll get more matches, knock down many more ‘brick walls’ and – if you are already an Ancestry subscriber, or are prepared to purchase the AncestryDNA Plus membership (£14.99 for 6 months in the UK, a little more in other countries) – Ancestry will do a lot of the basic work for you, saving you hours and hours of effort and making discoveries you couldn’t possibly make on your own.


The rewards and challenges of DNA

The reason I tested my own DNA, and persuaded some of my cousins to join in, was to knock down 'brick walls' that conventional research couldn't breach. The sad reality is that if our 'brick walls' have resisted our efforts for years (or even decades), it’s unlikely that they're ever going to come crashing down if all we have to go on are the historical records that have survived.


DNA can help by bridging gaps in the records and compensating for errors, but it means adopting new and unfamiliar strategies, and utilising somewhat different techniques to the ones that we're used to. Fortunately, if you follow the steps in this Masterclass, rather than struggling to find your own way, or following the well-meant (but often unhelpful) advice of genetic genealogy gurus, you’ll get the best results for the least effort.



What to do while you’re waiting for your results – the importance of documented cousins

DNA isn't a substitute for researching the records – you need both. So make sure that you do all the conventional, records-based, research you reasonably can while you’re waiting for your DNA results, so that when they come through you're ready to go. Don’t leave it until the last moment, because in my experience the results invariably arrive well ahead of schedule, typically 4 weeks or less rather than the 6-8 weeks that Ancestry quote.


There are two types of cousins

Genetic cousins are the cousins you find by testing your DNA. When your results come through you’ll have many thousands of matches – it’s rare to have fewer than 10,000 and some people have more than 20,000. You won't recognise more than a handful, and most will have surnames that don’t appear in your ancestral tree – so you won’t know what the connection is! And that's where documented cousins come in – they're the cousins you can fit onto your family tree because you know precisely how they're related to you. Documented cousins are the ones already in your family tree, as well the cousins you find using documentary evidence, including the ‘lost cousins’ you find by completing your My Ancestors page.


The most valuable cousins are both genetic and documented, and there are several ways to come up with them:


You can't do the first two until you get your DNA results through, and it might be hard to persuade your cousins to test if you're still waiting for your own results, even if you offer to pay. But the fourth option is open to you right now, because there is a great source of documented cousins who have already tested – amongst the LostCousins membership!


Connect with documented cousins

Complete your My Ancestors page at the LostCousins site, ensuring that you have entered ALL of the cousins that you can find on the 1881 Census. Because your living cousins are descended from the branches of your tree it's the relatives from the branches who are most likely to connect you to them. For example:



3rd, 4th, and 5th cousins are ideal when you’re working with DNA. If you’re younger than me and your grandparents weren't born until after 1881 you could look at it this way:



Completing your My Ancestors page might take you an hour or two, but it's easy to do and could save you money – if you don't find some 'lost cousins' who have already tested you're likely to end up persuading known cousins to test, and unless they’re as keen on family history as you are, you’re likely to be the one who pays for the test.


But it’s not just about money – connecting with documented cousins who have already tested could save you hundreds of hours you might otherwise spend fruitlessly analysing your DNA matches. DNA is like a jigsaw puzzle – the more pieces you can fit in place the easier it is to figure out how everything else fits in. DNA matches with documented cousins are the edge pieces of the jigsaw.


Tip: a good way to maximise the number of relatives you can enter from the 1881 Census, and thereby maximise the number of ‘lost cousins’ that you find, is to start with all the relatives you can identify in 1841, whether or not you can actually find them on that census, then trace each of your branches (sometimes referred to as collateral lines) through to 1881. Remember that ALL of your living cousins are descended from the branches of your tree, so every branch and every twig is a potential link to a 'lost cousin'.


On my own My Cousins page there are 17 cousins who have already tested (indicated by 'Y' in the DNA column), and 2 who are considering it (shown by an 'M'). If there is no entry in the column it's worth checking with your cousin in case they forgot to update their My Details page when they tested. And make sure you do the same!


Tip: DNA status isn't shown for relatives who may only be related by marriage, or for New Contacts; it is only shown for cousins who you have connected with (so it’s a good reason to connect with cousins you already know).


How your cousins can best help

Shared matches are the key – if you and a documented cousin match the same genetic cousin then it’s overwhelmingly likely that the genetic cousin is descended from one of the ancestral lines that you and your documented cousin share. When you view a DNA match with any cousin at Ancestry you can click Shared Matches to find out which other cousins you both match.


Note: Ancestry only show shared matches where both matches exceed 20cM.


If your cousins also tested with Ancestry, ask if they would be prepared to make you a Viewer of their DNA results – this enables you to see ALL of their matches, whether they share them with you or not, and allows you to check for shared matches where the 20cM threshold has not been reached.


Note: as a Viewer or Collaborator you can see another user's matches and their ethnicity results, but you don’t have access to their raw DNA results. As a Collaborator you can make notes against the other matches and allocate them to groups; as a Viewer you can’t.


Being able to see ALL of a documented cousin's matches enables you to benefit from the matches they've made with genetic cousins who share your ancestors but who don’t appear in your own list. Remember what I said earlier: just because you and a cousin share ancestors doesn’t mean that you'll share DNA. For example, the chance of two 5th cousins sharing detectable DNA is about 1 in 3, so most of your unknown 5th cousins won't appear in your list of matches even if they have tested – but they might be matches for some of the cousins you already know. This means that the more documented cousins you collaborate with, the greater your chances of knocking down your 'brick walls' using DNA matches – collaboration gives you access to a larger pool of clues.


Uploading a tree and attaching it to your DNA results

It’s crucially important to attach a tree to your DNA results, even if you decide to keep it private – otherwise the Common Ancestors and ThruLines features that make Ancestry DNA so simple can’t possibly work. If you have split your tree into separate parts – for example, I have separate trees for each of my parents – you’ll need to merge them together (most family tree programs will do this for you). Similarly, if you can and your partner have a single tree you’ll need to split it into two, to avoid confusing your DNA matches.


The tree I’ve attached to my own DNA results includes only my direct ancestors – this allows me to make it public without any risk of infringing the privacy of my extended family, but at the same time it provides my genetic cousins (ie my DNA matches) with all the information they need.


To upload a tree to Ancestry click Trees in the main menu, then choose Create & Manage Trees from the dropdown menu. Choose Upload a GEDCOM file to upload a tree exported from your family tree program. You don’t need to wait for your DNA results to upload your tree, but do remember to attach your tree to your DNA test.


Everything I've written about so far can be done before you get your DNA results, so that you can be ready to "hit the ground running" when they arrive. But if you've already had your DNA results it's not too late to go back and fill in the gaps – indeed, it would be foolish not to.




Why you should ignore your ethnicity estimates

That’s right – ignore them! Either the estimates will match what you know, in which case you’ll believe them, or they won’t in which case you’ll think they’re a load of rubbish.


Whichever it is, the chances of them helping you knock down any of your ‘brick walls’ is slim, and they’re more likely to lead you down blind alleys – so don’t waste your time puzzling over them.


Note: when I give presentations on DNA I often include slides which show how my own ethnicity estimates have varied over time, and how they differ from reality. There are a whole range of reasons why ethnicity estimates are unhelpful – an obvious one is the fact that we don’t inherit equal amounts of DNA from each ancestor, which is one reason why siblings can appear to have very different ethnic backgrounds even though they have the same ancestors.


Don’t believe what you’re told about your cousins

All DNA sites will give an estimate of how closely you’re related to each of your matches: this might be a single relationship like 2nd cousin once removed, a range such as 2nd – 4th cousin, or even a list of possibilities with percentages against each one.


These estimates are frequently wrong – IGNORE THEM! Instead use the chart at the end of this Masterclass in conjunction with other information (such as age difference).


What NOT to do with your DNA matches!

At Ancestry you'll typically have over 10000 matches with genetic cousins, and of those about 97% will be with 'distant' cousins, ie where the estimated relationship is 5th cousin or more distant. So you might think that the best strategy might be to focus on the top 3%, on the basis that if you can't make head or tail of those matches, your chance of resolving the more distant matches is negligible.


But you couldn't be more wrong – in practice your 'brick walls' are most likely to be solved by matches that Ancestry regards as distant! This is partly because nobody, not even Ancestry, can accurately determine precisely how close a DNA match is once you get beyond 1st cousins – for example, one of my 3rd cousins and closest collaborators is shown by Ancestry as a 5th to 8th cousin because the amount of DNA we share is much lower than the average for 3rd cousins (but still within the normal range).


Another reason distant DNA matches are often more useful is that it’s more likely you’ll be connected to them on the other side of a ‘brick wall’; for example, they might be descended from the parents or grandparents of your ‘brick wall’ ancestor. One of my oldest ‘brick walls’ came tumbling down as a result of DNA matches with cousins who were descended from my ancestor’s previously unknown siblings.


All this means that simply working your way through the list from the top isn’t a great strategy. Whilst you’re bound to be curious about names that you don’t recognise, trying to pinpoint them all on your family tree simply isn’t necessary – and it will inevitably lead to wasted time and frustration, not least because many of them won't have trees, and some won't reply to your messages (not everyone who takes a DNA test is a keen family historian).


Having worked with DNA for 12 years, during which I have taken just about every DNA test on the market, I’ve learned that not only is the Ancestry DNA test head-and-shoulders above the rest, the best way to make the most of your test is to let Ancestry do as much of the hard work as possible.


Note: most of the tools require a subscription, but the new AncestryDNA Plus membership is only £14.99 for 6 months in the UK (or a little more in other countries), and with Ancestry DNA you can achieve an awful lot in 6 months!


If you have a very recent unknown ancestor

If you have a very recent unknown ancestor, ie a parent or a grandfather, and you don’t know what surname you should be looking for, follow the approach described in this case study. Ancestry allow you to group relatives (see the next section) so you don’t need to create a spreadsheet as some genetic genealogy gurus have suggested – that would simply complicate matters.


Decide how you will use Groups

Ancestry allow you to group matches together – you can have up to 24 groups, and when you add one of your matches to a group a coloured circle will appear (each group has a different colour). A good way to make use of groups is to allocate one to each of your 16 great-great grandparents (or rather your 16 pairs of great-great-great grandparents) and reserve the remaining 8 groups for special projects.


I use blues and greens for my father's side of the tree and reds and yellows for my mother's side, but how you make use of the groups is entirely up to you.


Common Ancestors (subscription required)

The Common Ancestors feature utilises online trees to figure out how you and some of your matches are connected. It's something you might be able to do yourself if you had unlimited time and a brain like a computer, but having Ancestry do it for you will provide a real boost.


About 1.5% of my DNA matches are flagged as having common ancestors, but what really stands out is that more than half of them are distant matches, and some of them have very small trees, as in this example:

A white background with blue text

Description automatically generated


You might be wondering how Ancestry can figure out how one of my distant cousins is related to me when she has only 4 people in her tree – it’s because they're looking at ALL the tens of millions of online trees in their database, not just the ones that belong to my DNA matches. That's why you'd need unlimited time and a brain the size of a planet to do it yourself!


In this case clicking reveals that the common ancestors are our great-great grandparents William Pepperell and Mary Ann Burns – making her my 3rd cousin, though once again the amount of shared DNA is below average for a 3rd cousin, which is why the suggested relationship is 4th to 6th cousin.


When the common ancestor(s) are shown click the name of the ancestor to see how the two of you are descended from that person.


Always bear in mind that online trees often include errors – just because you have a DNA match with someone doesn't mean that their tree is correct, although it certainly improves the odds! However the information for each generation will usually be supported by multiple trees uploaded by different users, which is another encouraging factor.


When I've verified the connection I add a brief note against the DNA match at Ancestry, then add the new cousin to the relevant group or groups (4th cousins belong to one group, 3rd cousins to 2 groups, and 2nd cousins to 4 groups). Finally I add them to the family tree on my own computer, which often entails adding a new branch. At this point it oftens becomes apparent that there are relatives I can add to the My Ancestors page at the LostCousins site (to find further cousins), and doing it immediately ensures that it isn’t forgotten.


Note: the fact that Ancestry can only identify Common Ancestors far a small percentage of your matches doesn’t mean that the others don’t share your ancestors – only that there isn’t sufficient information in your cousin’s tree and/or other Ancestry trees to enable the link ro be found..


ThruLines(subscription required)

Ancestry's ThruLines feature uses Ancestry trees in an attempt to knock down 'brick walls'. It was introduced before Common Ancestors, which it overlaps to an extent, but it's still worth checking out.


When you access ThruLines it displays the direct ancestors on your tree, generation by generation, and as you move the mouse over each box it indicates matches with genetic cousins who share that ancestor. Even if you don’t have an Ancestry subscription you can see how you’re connected to those cousins, and as with Common Ancestors the algorithm utilises all Ancestry trees, public and private searchable, not just those that belong to your DNA matches.


Where ThruLines really pays off is when it knocks down 'brick walls', by suggesting possible ancestors who don't appear on your tree. These are usually highlighted in green (rather than pink or blue) - the screenshot below shows an example:


A screenshot of a website

Description automatically generated


Tip: any clues you get from ThruLines™ should be carefully checked, just as you would any other hints – don't assume that just because the other person is a DNA match their tree must be correct. And the chances of it being correct don’t improve just because there are multiple matches who have the same information in their tree – it could just be that they’ve all copied the same error.


Even if ThruLines doesn't break down any of your 'brick walls' immediately, bear in mind that it will be updated as other users test, and as those who have already tested add to their trees. It’s worth checking back now and again.


As you've worked your way through your Common Ancestors matches, and your ThruLines you'll have been able to make notes against many of your matches to indicate how you're connected to them. But still the vast majority of your matches, even your close matches, will have nothing against them. The next step is to fill in some of the gaps by making use of Shared Matches.


Shared Matches (subscription required)

There are two distinct ways to use Ancestry's Shared Matches feature, and they won't necessarily produce the same results – this is because Ancestry only shows shared matches of 20cM or more.


The first way is to work through your close matches (the ones who share 20cM or more with you); this will reveal which of your other close matches they also share, even if they don’t have trees of their own, or have minimal trees. Don’t jump to unjustified conclusions – for example, just because cousin A is a shared match with cousin B, who shares your Smith and Jones lines, doesn't mean that cousin A also shares those lines, because the connection could be further back.


The second way to make use of Shared Matches is to start with the cousins whose connection you already know, thanks to Common Ancestors and ThruLines. Many of them will be distant cousins of yours, ie they share less than 20cM with you, but that doesn’t stop them sharing more than 20cM with some of your close cousins. For example, I have 8 shared matches with the 3rd cousin I referred to previously, even though Ancestry tell me that we only share 10cM of DNA.


The latter approach has the potential to pick up more shared matches, so it’s well worth doing.


SideView (subscription required)

The enormous size of Ancestry’s DNA database allows them to deduce which side of your tree a match belongs to. It’s not a perfect science – there will be mistakes – but it will help prevent you wasting time trying to find connections where none exist. For example, if you find one of your ancestral surnames in the tree of one of your genetic cousins, but Ancestry are suggesting that the cousin is on the wrong side of your tree, the chances are that the surname only appears by chance.


Note that rather than referring to paternal and maternal, Ancestry refer to Parent 1 and Parent 2 – it’s up to you to figure out which is which, based on known relationships, and tell Ancestry..


What to do next….. key strategies

Making use of the simple tools that Ancestry provides is a great way to make some headway, but you're really only scratching the surface – the real discoveries will come when you follow the tried-and-tested strategies below. In most cases you’ll benefit from having an Ancestry subscription – without a subscription you can only see 5 generations of your matches’ trees.


The key thing is that these simple, straightforward strategies will lead you to the matches most likely to help you knock down your 'brick walls':


Strategy 1: search by surname


Ancestry allow you to search the trees of your matches by surname, so that you can identify cousins who have the same ancestral surname in their tree as one of your ancestors.


There are two factors that make this a particularly useful strategy: one is that the search only looks at ancestral surnames, so ignores names that only appear in branches of your match's tree; the other is that the search looks at private trees as well as public trees (provided those private trees are designated as searchable, which almost all are).


Here's how to go about it:




Strategy 2: search by birthplace


As you will have discovered when working through your list of surnames, most of the time the surname of the ancestors you share with a DNA cousin doesn't appear in both trees - indeed, it's quite possible that the surname of your common ancestor doesn't appear in either tree!


The problem is, when your female ancestors married they generally took their husband's surname. This makes it more difficult to research female ancestors whose children were born before the commencement of civil registration, since baptism registers don't usually give the mother's maiden surname - often the only solution is to find the marriage. By contrast you can continue researching your male ancestors even if you can't find their marriage.


Tip: it’s worth checking the baptisms of your ancestor’s siblings in case one of the register entries gives the mother’s maiden name.


Of course, this problem doesn't simply affect you and your research - it affects your cousins too; most researchers' trees become increasingly sparse with each generation. If you've only identified 10% of your 256 6G grandparents and your cousins have only identified 10% of theirs, the odds of finding out how you're related to a 7th cousin simply by comparing the names in your trees are pretty remote (a little more than 1% in this example, not great odds).


Another way to figure out the connections to your DNA cousins is to look for geographical overlaps - and here's how to go about it:




Strategy 3: look for overlaps with the more unusual components of your ethnicity

Most readers of this newsletter have mostly British, Irish, or western European ancestry. But some of you will have Jewish ancestors, ancestors from eastern Europe, or ancestors from outside Europe, and whilst ethnicity estimates can be quite misleading, they do provide another way of analysing your matches.


Here's what Ancestry show for one of my DNA cousins:


A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated


If Ancestry had detected a Jewish component of my own ethnicity this would be one of the matches I'd be looking at very closely.



Strategy 4: look for the 'elephant in the room'


We all have numerous 'brick walls' in our trees, so there are parts of our ancestry that are a closed book – and yet there will inevitably be clues amongst our matches, if we only look for them. For example, if you don't know of any Irish ancestors, but have lots of matches with cousins who do, you might begin to wonder whether one of your 'brick walls' is concealing a connection to Ireland – it certainly was in my case. I can't provide you with a step-by-step guide - it's all about awareness and open-mindedness.


But beware of the common situation in which you share a single DNA segment with lots of people who all match each other. This suggests that the people you’re matched with come from an endogamous population, one in which people generally marry within the same community - in this case you would probably do well to ignore the matches altogether as any connection is likely to be a long way back.



Always remember WHY you tested!

Unless you you or one of your parents were adopted, or had an unknown father, the chances are that you didn’t take a DNA test in order to find living cousins – you took it in order to knock down some of the ‘brick walls’ in your tree. Finding living cousins who share your DNA is a necessary step in the process, not the ultimate goal.


This is why earlier in the Masterclass I warned against working through your list of matches from the top. It would be a good strategy if your primary objective was to add more living cousins to your tree, but it’s a very poor strategy if your real objective is to knock down ‘brick walls’, and get further back on some of your ancestral lines.


Tip: the same applies to the LostCousins project to connect family historians around the world – although finding cousins and sharing information with them is a key part of the process, one that frequently adds detail to our knowledge of our family history, the greatest benefit comes from collaborating with our ‘lost cousins’ in order to knock down ‘brick walls’.




This is a very long Masterclass, so you could easily miss out one of the steps by accident. The checklist will help to ensure that you don’t omit any important parts of the process, because as with any recipe leaving out a single ingredient can make a big difference!




o  COMPLETED your My Ancestors page, entering not just your direct ancestors and their families but also the other relatives who share some of their DNA (in other words, their cousins – all of whom are also YOUR cousins)? Bear in mind that the 1881 Census is the one most likely by far to connect you to living cousins, even if your direct ancestors had emigrated long before

o  COMMUNICATED with the COUSINS you have been matched with, or already know, to find out whether they have already tested and are prepared to collaborate?

o  LISTED ALL of your ancestral SURNAMES, not just the ones you’re currently focused on?

o  UPLOADED your tree and LINKED it to your DNA test?

o  REVIEWED your THRULINES in case someone has already broken down one of your ‘brick walls’?

o  CHECKED your COMMON ANCESTORS matches and allocated them to the relevant groups?

o  REVIEWED your SHARED MATCHES in case they provide clues that will help you knock down a ‘brick wall’?

o  SEARCHED for every one of your ancestral SURNAMES in the trees of your matches and made relevant notes against those cousins?



Warning – traps for the unwary!


Keep it simple

There are lots of tools and techniques that have been developed or promoted by genetic genealogy gurus. I haven’t tried most of them, and do you know why? Because when people say to me “You really should recommend such-and-such” my response is invariably “In what way has it helped you, how many ‘brick walls’ has it knocked down for you?”. At that point the discussion normally goes very quiet….


Beware of making unwarranted assumptions

Let’s suppose that you look at shared matches for a genetic cousin who has no tree, and some – or maybe all of them – have the same coloured dot against them, indicating that they all descend from the same pair of ancestors. Can you assume that this mystery cousin is also descended from those particular ancestors?


It would certainly be convenient if that were the case, but it isn’t - the common ancestors could well be one or more generations further back. Here’s a simple example from my tree: my cousin Jane is a shared match with my 1st cousins, who are all on my mother’s side, which means they are descended from my maternal grandparents. Jane is also on my mother’s side, but our common ancestors are much further back -  since Jane is a 3rd cousin she and I share just one of the 4 pairs of great-great grandparents that I share with my 1st cousins.



Technical information

Most of the matches we make with DNA cousins will be many generations back, since we have many more distant cousins than we do close cousins. The final column of the table below indicates roughly how many cousins you might expect to find if you and they all took the Ancestry DNA test:


A table with numbers and a black border

Description automatically generated 


Based on Table 2 from: Henn BM, Hon L, Macpherson JM, Eriksson N, Saxonov S, Pe'er I, et al. (2012) Cryptic Distant Relatives Are Common in Both Isolated and Cosmopolitan Genetic Samples. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34267. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034267

Revised using Ancestry DNA estimates for the chances of detecting cousins and the expected number of 1st to 6th cousins for those of British ancestry; the numbers for 7th to 10th cousins are my own guesstimates


Of course, in practice only a small fraction of your cousins will have tested - even Ancestry, by far the biggest providers of autosomal tests, have sold only 25 million tests - but you can nevertheless reckon that the cousins you're matched with will be distributed roughly in proportion to the figures shown above. In other words, over 98% of your matches will be with relatives who are at best 5th cousins, and could well be 8th cousins or even more distant. This won't necessarily be apparent when you look at your list of matches because there's a tendency for matches to appear closer or more distant than they really are.


Tip: Ancestry won't show any of your DNA matches as more distant than '5th to 8th cousin', but it's very likely that amongst them there are many who are more distant. Once you get beyond 3rd cousins the length of the shared segment(s) is only a very rough guide to how closely you are related - you could share a 20cM segment with a 10th cousin, but no detectable DNA with a 3rd cousin. The same limitations apply at other sites too, of course.


This amazing chart from Blaine Bettinger's blog shows how variable the amounts can be, and how this affects the amount of DNA shared by more distant relatives. (See the blog for full details of how it was compiled.)


A diagram of a project

Description automatically generated


In each box there are three figures: the lowest and highest amounts shared between relatives of each order, together with the average.


What you will notice is that the average stabilises at around 12 or 13cM even for the most distant relationships shown. For example, you can see from the first table that the average DNA shared between 8th cousins is just 0.055cM, but the average in this chart is 200 times greater. How can this happen? It's because unless there's a matching segment of at least 6 to 10cM most companies won't report a match at all - and since the averages in the chart only includes matches which were actually detected, it bumps up the average quite considerably.


Very interesting, you might think - but what does it actually mean in practice? What it tells us is that neither you, nor I, nor any of the DNA companies can reliably predict how closely we are related to our more distant cousins. So don’t rely on any estimates of how closely you’re related to a cousin: look at the chart and figure out what's possible, then consider what's likely (this means, for example, taking into account your age and that of your cousin).



Save on Hiding the Past ENDS MONDAY

If you live in the UK or the USA there’s an opportunity to buy Hiding the Past, the first book in Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s wonderful Morton Farrier series of genealogical mysteries. I know that many people reading this newsletter will have read not only the first book, but most of the other 9 books in the series – but for those of you who  have missed out so far it’s a great opportunity to discover why I, and so many others, are great fans.


Sadly the offer ends tomorrow (Monday 18th March) but hopefully you’re reading this in the nick of time!


Amazon.co.uk               Amazon.com



The top of the milk

When I was a boy my mother only bought fresh cream at Christmas – the rest of the time we had evaporated milk or, occasionally, tinned cream – so the cream at the top of the milk was a much-prized treat. We used to take it in turns to have the cream on our cornflakes – provided the sparrows didn’t get to it first while it was waiting on the doorstep (in that case we all missed out).


I can’t remember when homogenized milk took over, but it certainly made breakfast less interesting. There was one benefit however – much as I enjoyed the ‘top of the milk’ on my breakfast cereal, it was the other way round when it came to ‘school milk’ – and I don’t think I was the only one who disliked it!



Peter’s Tips

Reading the story about the baby who was born on a plane reminded me of a rather cramped flight I took with a well-known Irish budget airline. It shouldn’t have been that way – my wife and I had paid extra for the additional legroom that comes with exit row seats – but at some point between booking and travelling the plane was changed to a shorter version of the Boeing 737, which meant that the over-wing exit rows were 16 and 17, rather than 17 and 18 as in the original configuration. We, of course, had innocently booked seats in row 18 – but at least we had allocated seats, unlike the people who had booked rows 34 and 35.


Can you imagine how difficult it was to get a refund of the modest sum we’d paid for extra legroom? It took about 6 emails, the last of which ended with the sentence “Please pass my query to a human being so that I can get a relevant reply, and not another dumb response from your AI.”


We’re supposed to shrink as we get older, but I’m still just over 6ft 4in, so I really do appreciate a little extra room. In future we’re going to choose row 17 – that should be a fairly safe bet, at least until Boeing come up with an even longer aircraft.



Stop Press

This is where any major updates and corrections will be highlighted - if you think you've spotted an error first reload the newsletter (press Ctrl-F5) then check again before writing to me, in case someone else has beaten you to it......



Description: Description: peter_signature


Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2024 Peter Calver


Please do NOT copy or republish any part of this newsletter without permission - which is only granted in the most exceptional circumstances. However, you MAY link to this newsletter or any article in it without asking for permission - though why not invite other family historians to join LostCousins instead, since standard membership (which includes the newsletter), is FREE?


Many of the links in this newsletter and elsewhere on the website are affiliate links – if you make a purchase after clicking a link you may be supporting LostCousins (though this depends on your choice of browser, the settings in your browser, and any browser extensions that are installed). Thanks for your support!