This is a step-by-step guide and case study on using the Leeds Method with mostly 4th Cousin DNA Matches on Ancestry.
What is the Leeds Method?
The Leeds Method is a way of color-coding your DNA matches into ancestral groups without needing family trees to do so. The aim is to discover four clusters of matches that correspond to the direct line of each grandparent.
It was developed in 2018 by Dana Leeds to help someone identify unknown biological family. Many people with solid family trees now use the Leeds Method to research their mystery branches.
Who Gets Most Benefit from the Leeds Method?
Like all techniques, the Leeds Method goes awry with endogamy. Apart from that, the general recommendation is that you get the best results when:
- You have many 2nd-3rd cousin DNA matches (Dana suggests 6 to 8)
- Your grandparents come from different areas (less chance of inter-marriage up the lines)
So, what about yours truly? Is it looking good for me? Heck, no!
- I have two 2nd-3rd cousin DNA matches on Ancestry (and none elsewhere).
- Both my maternal grandparents hail from the same area.
But I like a challenge, and I’m a sucker for analytical techniques. This article is my case study of an Ancestry tester who has far fewer DNA matches than the average American customer.
With only two 2nd-3rd cousins, I need to pull in my fourth cousins to get enough data i.e. enough DNA matches. Dana has warned about the limitations for someone with my profile. But my research goal is not ambitious: this will be successful for me if I derive some new insights.
Can the Leeds Method be used with 4th Cousin DNA Matches?
This article would be rather short if the Leeds Method couldn’t be used with 4th cousins, and I’m not the first person who has tried to do so.
Dana Leeds has a couple of articles that discuss extending her process down the DNA match list. But her articles are predicated on having an adequate number of 2nd-3rd cousins. And “adequate” is definitely more than what I have. So, I took a wander around the interwebs and ended up on Reddit (of all places) – where several people discussed using the Leeds Method with more distant matches.
One guy reported success with fourth cousins above 70 cM.
I think it’s fair to say that if you have to drop into fourth cousin territory, you’re best off having many of them in the upper end of shared centimorgans. Once again, I’m at a disadvantage: all of my 4th cousins are below 60 cM.
But another poster went down as far as 24 cM, with a total of about 50 matches. I’ve got over 60 matches in that range, so that raised my hopes. A third guy recommends 30 cM as a cut-off,.
One thing I gleaned is that the downside of the lower matches is ending up with far too many colors to achieve any form of clustering.
Jumping into the Facebook groups, I noticed that Australian and New Zealand testers had a similar profile to me. They also lack the pages of 2nd-3rd cousins that many of our American counterparts enjoy (or feel swamped by). One poster started by using only the higher matches. She commented about her clusters:
“it quickly became apparent mine didn’t look like examples she [Dana] had given. Extending it out further has worked much better for me.
Why Use the Leeds Method with Ancestry DNA Matches?
Ancestry lacks some of the more sophisticated tools provided by other DNA sites. MyHeritage provides an automated version of clustering shared matches, and other third-party tools do similar. Some tools used to work directly with Ancestry matches until the company applied strict rules on access. These tools, such as Genetic Affairs, continue to work with other test sites.
In contrast to the automated generation of clusters, the Leeds Method is done by hand. You don’t even need to use spreadsheets, graph paper and colored markers will suffice. But it does take your time.
So, why on earth would people work with Ancestry – and use a time-consuming manual method? Because Ancestry has the biggest DNA test database of all the main sites – by quite a margin. The more matches you have, the better the chances that some will fall across each of your grandparents’ lines.
What Could the Leeds Method Tell You?
It’s useful to see what a “perfect” outcome might look like. Let’s skip how we got there, for the moment. Here is a spreadsheet with my dream results (match names have been changed). What are we seeing here?
Shannon, my highest match, has two shared matches above the chosen cut-off point: Nicole and Susan. Scan your eye down column B. Shannon has been assigned the color of black, and each of her shared matches gets the same color.
In column C, Joseph and his three shared matches are orange. Carol is green in Column D, along with her three shared matches. And finally, Connie and her two shared matches in Column E.
There is no overlap across the shared matches: no match is on the shared match list of two of Shannon, Joseph, Carol, or Connie. Every match is accounted for within the four groups: we didn’t have to add an extra column to accommodate an outlier.
So, four distinct groups of shared matches. Our working assumption is that each grouping represents one of our grandparents. Which one? Well, now we go back to the traditional research of examining trees for connections.
A Less Perfect Outcome from the Leeds Method
Perfection is rarely attained. Even testers with a high volume of 2nd to 3rd cousins may get an outcome like this:
You see that Jean has been assigned two colors as she falls into two groups of shared matches. Mark J is on his own with no shared matches, and we had to start a new fifth group for Karen.
Our groups are lopsided, with one line getting the most shared matches – and we’re not sure what to do with the fourth and fifth groups of loners. Yet, there’s still a lot of insight to be gained.
Now, the question is: how do you get there?
How to Organize Ancestry Matches with the Leeds Method
You’ll find step by step instructions on Dana Leed’s website that apply to any DNA site of your choosing. I’m going to provide a walkthrough using Ancestry in this article. There are a few nuances and short-cuts that may help.
You can watch our video walkthrough or follow the illustrated steps in the rest of this article.
A Video Walkthrough of the Leeds Method with 4th Cousins on Ancestry
Step 1 – Prepare Your Ancestry DNA Match List
Open your DNA match list in Ancestry and use the Shared DNA filter to enter a custom centimorgan range. Set the top range to 400 centimorgans, as recommended by Dana Leeds. Remember – the method requires you to avoid including a match with whom you share two grandparents.
Ideally, your lower limit would be not below 40 cM or so. I’d only have seven matches with that cut-off, so I’ve lowered it right down to Ancestry’s fourth cousin threshold of 20 cM. Then I’ll grab the top fifty matches and see how I get on.
Step 2 – Copy Your Matches to a Spreadsheet
What, type them in one by one? Yes, it won’t take long. Use an alternative method if you have one. What’s that? You’d like an alternative method? You can download our Excel workbook and follow the steps in the walkthrough video – get the details at the end of this article.
So, my spreadsheet starts out with just a column of names like this (match names have been changed):
I’m making no assumptions about two pairs of grandparents: this is simply group 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The group colors have been assigned. Having them in the header means they are handily available to be copied quickly into a cell below. But it’s worth putting a bit of thought into your colors.
Step 3 – Select and Prepare your Colors
It’ll be a lot simpler if you think of your coloring scheme upfront. Because if you don’t, you’ll probably want to change it in the future. The basic grandparent split is maternal/paternal. So you may want two very contrasting shades of blue versus two shades of pink.
But think also about the possibility of extending your research up a generation (and downwards in terms of lower matches). Instead of looking for four grandparent lines, you may start thinking of clustering into eight great-grandparent lines. And although there are enough blue shades to differentiate between four groups, I personally don’t find that the pink shades are easily distinguishable.
Which reminds me of my gran’s joke: what’s the difference between a stoat and a weasel? One is weaselly distinguishable, while the other is stoatly different.
Now think of what you’ll do if you haven’t identified most of your higher matches as maternal or paternal. Starting off, you’ll need a set of colors that represent groups that are not yet identified.
Spreadsheet Tip – Keep an Area for Your Color Palette
In my example above, I have the colors laid out in the header of my list. Alternatively, stick them into empty cells in a spare area of your spreadsheet. This means that when you’re coloring in the DNA match cells, you don’t have to open the spreadsheet’s color palette and go looking for that particular shade of green (or was it the green next to that green?) You just copy-and-paste from the empty colored cells.
Ancestry Tip – Use the Ancestry Group Colors
We’re doing this exercise in a spreadsheet, but you may want to work with Ancestry’s group feature. These offer color-coding matches with 24 different colors. I suggest you pick from Ancestry colors (that you are not already using).
This pic is my best guess at representing the Ancestry colors in an Excel spreadsheet. Use this link to get a copy of the Excel workbook, and modify as needed.
Step 4 – Color Code your First Group
Start with your highest match, who is hopefully a 2nd-3rd cousin. If you already know if this match falls on the paternal or maternal side, then pick a color representing that divide. If you haven’t identified your connection, then pick one of the colors you set aside in the “haven’t a clue” block.
You simply plopping the color into the first cell beside the match i.e. Column B.
Now open the Match Profile page in Ancestry and go to the Shared Match tab. Work down your spreadsheet, assigning the same color to Column B for each of the shared matches. You’ll end up with something like this:
Step 5 – The Leeds Loop
You’re nearly finished the instructions, but not the work.
You now have a spreadsheet match-list where some have been assigned colors.
- Go to the highest match that has not been assigned a color.
- Pick a color from the palette and color the cell in the next unused column.
- Open the Shared Match tab in Ancestry for this match
- Assign the same color to each shared match in your spreadsheet.
- Loop back to (1) and repeat until there are no more matches.
That’s it! At some point, you’ll be done. And I don’t expect you’ll have the perfect four colored columns.
You will probably have matches that get assigned two colors, as we showed in an earlier example.
You will probably have more than four colored columns.
Discarding Matches from the List
I encountered two scenarios which prompted me to boot a match from the list.
The first were two match names with the same surname, similar centimorgans, and the same shared matches. I inferred they were brothers, and the second match had no value to add. Why exclude one of these guys? I ended up with 11 colors, with some having a smattering of matches. With those small numbers, an extra match gives undeserved weight – if only from a visual point of view.
The second scenario was a DNA match in splendid isolation – all our shared matches were below the threshold I’d picked. There’s little point having a single-match cluster, so this lot were kicked to the kerb.
My Case Study Results with Ancestry DNA 4th Cousins
I mentioned earlier that I have two barriers to a successful outcome with the Leeds Method.
- Only two 2nd-3rd cousin matches on Ancestry.
- Both maternal grandparents from a common region.
I omitted a third major issue: I don’t believe I have any paternal DNA matches within the threshold I chose. My paternal side is from a region where the population does not engage in consumer DNA testing. That means that my ideal outcome was two clusters!
With wild optimism, I started my spreadsheet with two two colors of varying pink. As I worked down my DNA match list, I watched my number of colors increase with weary resignation. I’m jesting a little – Dana Leeds has clearly flagged the limiting factors, so my less-than-ideal outcome was not unexpected.
So this is what I got with two second cousins and 24 fourth cousins (match names have been changed). My cut-off point was 30 centimorgan. I may dabble with going lower, but nine groups is not wildly useful.
Insights from using the Leeds Method with 4th Cousins?
I won’t say that there are no insights to be had from my particular case study.
I’ve long suspected inter-marriage across my maternal grandparent lines, but haven’t been able to track it down. One of the matches in the spreadsheet has been assigned four colors: and two of those groups contain a known match from the two different lines. If this match had a fantastic tree, I might be able to see the intersection. Of course, she doesn’t have a tree!
I’d already zeroed in on that particular match as a “person of interest” in this regard: but it’s a further visual clue towards where to pursue my research. My next steps are to continue building out my tree to connect with my 4th Cousin DNA matches.
Our Excel Workbook for Ancestry and the Leeds Method
Our Excel Workbook contains a macro which will format your selected Ancestry DNA matches for use with the Leeds Method. The download is a zip file that contains the workbook. You will need to enable macros to run the formatting.
We’ll email you a link to download the spreadshet when you submit your email address in the box below.
Watch the Video Walkthrough on using the Workbook
Tracking Your Ancestry Matches In Spreadsheets
This article looked specifically at using the Leeds Method with the help of a spreadsheet.
We also have a more general article on downloading your Ancestry matches to an Excel spreadsheet. The general article has a separate spreadsheet template that formats your matches with their tree size and other details. The results look like this: