This article is about researching your DNA matches through your Ancestry family tree.
Do you look at your thousands of matches and wonder why you don’t recognize any surnames in their pedigree?
If you’re interested in finding your connection with DNA matches, then you need to follow a specific strategy when building your Ancestry tree.
Two Types Of Trees
There are two general types of family trees that people like to build:
- the narrow tree that focuses on direct ancestors
- a wide and deep tree that builds out through the siblings of your direct ancestors
You need the second type if you want to figure out your relationship with your DNA matches.
But let’s look at the other type first.
The Direct Line Tree
Your direct line is your parents, your grandparents, your greats and so on up. This is also known as your pedigree.
Ancestry displays the direct line of your matches on their tree tab if they have a linked tree.
The numbers of direct line ancestors do start adding up as you go back.
You can see from the chart that if you can document all your 32 great-great-greats, then you’d have a total of 63 people in your tree (including yourself).
A colloquial name for this is a “narrow” tree, and you’ll find that many Ancestry users keep to this format.
If you also stick to your direct line, then you will have great difficulty in identifying your family connection to your DNA matches. Why so?
The problem with narrow trees
Let’s take a hypothetical example of your 2nd great grandfather, John Ryan.
John has many sisters, one of whom marries a Byrne.
The Byrnes have a daughter who marries a Connolly. One of the Connolly girls marries a McKenna, and her daughter turns up as your DNA match on Ancestry.
She’s “K.W.” and shares 60 centimorgans with you.
If K.W.’s tree only goes back four generations, then you may be scratching your head at a whole lot of unfamiliar surnames.
Worse still, a male in your direct line may have married a Byrne, a Connolly, or a McKenna (these are common Irish names). That could send you off on many a wild goose chase.
So what’s the alternative? In the immortal words of Jim Morrison, go “deep and wide”
Wide Deep Trees
It’s probably more accurate to say “wide and deep”, but I’m too taken with how the Doors put it.
“Break on through [those brick walls] to the other side”Jim Morrison, The Doors
That’s how the song goes, right? So, let’s break this process down.
First, you work on each of the siblings of your direct ancestors. That means you’re going “wide”.
For each sibling, you identify the spouse(s) and all the children.
Then for each of the children, you identify their spouse(s) and children.
You work down to as recently as records are publically available. This is going “deep”.
Using our example, a combination of census, marriage, and birth records may get us to the grandparents of our matches.
It’s true that more recent records are likely to be unavailable to public inspection. But obituaries and news articles may lead us straight through the gate.
Benefits Of Wide Trees
Let’s go through the benefits of having a wide tree
Track surnames acquired through marriage
Our “Ryan” example illustrated the accumulation of surnames through the marriage of your female cousins. An extra challenge is that people may marry more than once.
If your ancestor’s sister married multiple times with children from each marriage – Murphy’s Law states that each child will be extraordinarily fertile.
A sister of my 3rd Great married a fellow called Gorman. Another sister married an O’Gorman from the same area.
The numerous children of each sister have remarkably similar first names, in roughly the same order.
I thought the census records were duplicates until I found an obituary that named Mrs Gorman and Mrs O’Gorman as sisters of the deceased.
Track the geographical dispersal of your ancestors
One son gets the farm, and the rest set off to make their fortunes.
Sisters follow each other to work in far flung places, and your ancestor may be the only one who returned home.
It’s easy to understand on a broad level why your DNA matches pop up in different places.
More subtly, the birth records of siblings may show to your surprise that there was more movement and upheaval in your ancestor’s lives than you had thought. The parents may have followed work from state to state over decades before circling home.
Show your connections to DNA matches
Your record search may not allow you to go deeper than your grandparents’ generation, so you may still be lacking the information to connect your Ancestry tree and DNA matches.
But if you have a public tree, your matches have a better chance to fill in the dots, recognize their own direct ancestor, and hopefully message you with the missing links.
Enrich your knowledge of your direct line
Records of the relatives of your ancestors may provide a wealth of knowledge on your direct line.
In one case, I’ve sourced baptismal records for four of six siblings in the mid-19th century.
Murphy’s Law means that my direct ancestor is one of the missing two. But the wider research has got me back one generation further.
Challenges Of Building Wide Trees
Building a wide tree does have bring its own set of challenges.
The main problem is feeling increasingly overwhelmed by one large set of siblings each having numerous children of their own.
This compounds when a first wife with many children is succeeded by a second wife with similar numbers of offspring.
When your stomach drops at the discovery of a census record with an enormous family, then your research has probably stopped being fun. This isn’t supposed to be a slog!
This is where the “how to eat an elephant” principle comes into play. How do you tackle the fourteen offspring of your 3rd great aunt? One evening at a time.
But if you’re feeling exhausted – it’s also okay to take a break, and park that branch for a while. Like this little fella:
Hopefully, you’re convinced of the need to build your tree up, out, and downwards.
Now let’s look at some specific strategies to achieve that deep and wide tree.
Census and BMD records
Census records are usually the fastest way to assemble the siblings of your ancestors. But be sure to research and source birth records to corroborate that you’ve identified the correct family.
Corroboration may also come from other BMD records (birth, marriage, and death). Look for the names of witnesses on marriages records, and sponsors on baptismal records. These are often a sibling or cousin.
The informant on a death record may be the adult child of the deceased living in the same household.
These additional details (e.g. marriage witnesses) on records may not be included in the Ancestry search indexes. In that case, you need to view the digital image associated with the record to see them.
Ancestry hints offer a time-saving feature of adding more people to your tree. Census hints in particular may offer the addition of “new” siblings.
Double-check with each suggestion that the person isn’t already in your tree under a slightly different first name. Otherwise you’ll just pollute your tree with duplicates.
Tips for using census records
The census collections let you take advantage of the historical trend of families migrating and settling in proximity. And it won’t necessarily be siblings following each other for work. You’ll also find cousins and wider connections within a community.
One trick is to scan for surnames through the prior and subsequent pages where you identified your ancestor’s household. In other words, you’re looking for near neighbors who may also be family.
But it’s easy to lose track of time and end up going round in a circle of households.
I recommend this Family Search Wiki on Census Techniques and Strategies for Finding Elusive Ancestors. It’s a highly structured guide to working through census collections.
There are almost too many tips in that Wiki, but don’t feel overwhelmed. Try researching one household, and you will settle on a smaller set of steps to follow for your own family history.
For example, one step recommends “If the family lived near a county or state line, study individuals of the same surname in the adjacent counties or states.”
I can do that quickly with Irish locations, but I would need to spend time looking up maps for my American branches.
I have higher priorities with my time, so it’s not in my checklist for the U.S. census collections. (This is where hiring a local genealogist could be fruitful).
Graveyard and memorial websites
Oh, the satisfaction of finding an obituary that names every sibling, every child, and their spouses and children.
Obituaries, death notices, and memorials are your most likely paths to more recent generations.
Before we look at going deep with these sources, let’s look at what they offer in going wide to connect your Ancestry tree and DNA matches.
Going wide with graveyard websites
Find A Grave is a volunteer-generated online resource of graveyards and memorials world-wide. Ancestry purchased the company in 2013, which is why you’ll see it pop up in your hints.
If you want more background, check out our article on Ancestry’s ownership of FindAGrave.
There are other similar large websites, such as the Billon Graves indexes on Family Search. There are also smaller targeted websites dedicated to specific cemeteries or regions.
To go wide, run searches on these websites that target a specific cemetery and surname. Use the FindAGrave website directly, instead of the Ancestry links.
You’re looking of course for potential members of a family who settled in the same area. Then you start correlating birth and death dates with BMD and census records on Ancestry.
The good people who upload photographs of headstones provide a wonderful service, as it allows verification that the transcriptions are correct.
Pay attention to transcriptions of birth places for immigrants. The transcriber may not be familiar with the country’s geography or language, and the spelling may be not quite right.
Going deep with graveyard websites and memorials
A strange phenomenon has arisen with websites like FindAGrave, where some users compete to upload or link large numbers of graves and memorials.
These hobbyists watch out for new death or funeral notices, and rush to create the web entry. This has led to some distress to mourners of the recently deceased.
Amy Johnson Crow recounts a bad experience and suggests improvements to the website which I hope come to pass.
That said, FindAGrave has grown into a massive database that connects the deceased to obituaries, death notices and other memorial articles.
If you can locate someone of your grandparents’ generation, you may find the names and residential areas of their children and grandchildren. Suddenly, some DNA matches start falling into place!
An important caveat is that the content on FindAGrave is user-generated. Here’s a recent comment from Amy Johnson Crow’s article:
Sometimes in creating a memorial so quickly they are not researching who is actually a descendent of a person, or if there is more than one person with the same name, which can result in incorrect information.R. Tremaine, 24 September 2019, Amy Johnson Crow’s Blog
The solution for us is to treat these graveyard entries like census records. Corroborate the dates and places with BMD research.
FindAGrave and Obituaries
FindAGrave can provide a wealth of links to death notices and obituaries that connect your Ancestry tree to DNA matches.
Users may also copy obituaries into the FindAGrave content itself. Another recent comment from Amy Johnson Crow’s article describes an unsettling situation:
Within 24 hours there was a memorial of my dad! Only this person decided to “edit” the obituary before posting it because it was rather lengthy, thus much of the information was wrong or incomplete.Beth, 25 Aug 2019, Amy Johnson Crow’s Blog
What’s going on here is that the editor has copied an obituary found elsewhere. And has then gone on to make arbitrary changes to the copy!
Now take a deep breath, there is a way to avoid having your research derailed.
A tip to verifying obituaries
Here’s the power tip: always try to find the original publication.
The trick is to take sentences from the text in the user-submitted content and throw them into a search engine enclosed in quotations. You’re looking for an exact match to the snippet of text.
Murphy’s law says that the original document will be behind a newspaper paywall. With luck, it’s the Poughkeepsie Express, and you haven’t exhausted your three free articles.
You may also find copies posted on the funeral director’s website, company websites, and family websites.
Just exercise some judgement as to the likelihood of copies being altered in some way.
Memorial comments and sympathy messages
Findagrave isn’t the only website that lets people leave comments and messages against an entry for the deceased.
Many funeral directors use website software that allows the “signing” of condolences. These messages will often let you determine the names and locations of a wider cast of contemporary relations.
You’ve just to work out in-laws and blood lines to connect your Ancestry tree and DNA matches!
Try a web search combining the name of your target, a place name, and the word “death”.
Change “death” to “funeral” and try again.
A bit of experimentation with the place name may also throw up possibilities.
I’ve come across some memorial websites where you must pay to retrieve old messages.
If you’re not keen to do so, try to get the link to come up on a Google search. Here’s an example. In this image below, if I clicked on the link I’d be taken to a payment page.
Instead, click on the little down arrow beside the link. If it gives you a “Cached” pop-up, then you may be able to get at the old contents.
Newspaper Obituaries And Other Articles
It’s fair to say that many Ancestry users are irked by the way newspaper subscription is managed.
The wording is partly to blame: the “All Access” subscription may lead you to obituaries, but you don’t actually get full access to the content without paying a further premium.
With that said, you’ll probably want to bite the bullet at some point. Either pay a temporary subscription to Ancestry or another company, or find a resource that allows you “in” to an archive.
Some libraries, universities, and other institutions may have free access to commercial newspaper archives from dedicated terminals.
If you’re on a budget, my advice is to draw up a target list of names and locations for research before you subscribe for a given period.
Newspapers.com is owned by Ancestry, but they maintain it as a separate archive and website.
This link gets you a free week trial to Newspapers.com (sponsored link). Remember to cancel if you don’t want to continue with a paid subscription.
If you’d like to know a bit more, we have a full review of Newspaper.com and getting full value from your subscription choices.
Searching may be time-consuming
You may find that the search experience is of a lower quality than with the usual Ancestry records.
Newspaper searches are usually based on OCR (optical character recognition). As the physical quality of aged paper deteriorates, the digital quality of searches also deteriorates.
This means you may need more time to work with (or wrestle with) the the search technology than you expected.
Local History Section In Libraries
I’ve had good success visiting the local library in small towns in the areas in which my family lines resided.
You can find all sorts of publications that simply aren’t available online.
For example, the local school may have published a book to celebrate a centenary anniversary. The local historical society may have compiled and published a list of graveyards and markers.
You may not be allowed to borrow these books or use the library’s flatbed scanner with them. However, they usually allow you to take pictures with your phone.
Check out our article on how to scan old books with your phone.
A larger library may have a specialist flatbed scanner for books. You can also enquire if they have an overhead scanner that is suitable for more fragile books.
Family Trees – Uploaded Media, Notes, And Comments
Using other family trees comes with a massive health warning: verify everything!
Of course, privacy constraints put limits on how deep you can research with the standard entries. Unless invited to a tree, you will not see details of people born within the last hundred years.
But you may get special value from the additional information that users upload to supplement their trees.
Check out the media, notes, and comments associated with the ancestral line of interest. I’ve found a note in which the user described her trip to Ireland to meet with elderly relatives and hear old family stories about the emigrants who were her direct lines.
Many Ancestry users annotate their uploaded photographs with precise descriptions of family lines. It takes a bit of browsing, but there’s great value to be found.
Looking for a full guide to building your Ancestry tree?
Check out our e-book on building your family tree with Ancestry.com. It’s available on Amazon now! Content includes:
- Setting up your DNA-linked tree
- Using your tree to find connections with DNA matches
- Best practices for entering names, dates, and locations
- Strategies for getting the most benefit from Hints
- Tips for using powerful Search features
If you would like to watch some short video tutorials that walk through using Ancestry features step-by-step, browse through the DataMiningDNA YouTube channel.