The genetic genealogy community has a crush. A big one. Everyone is talking about it. “It has such great features,” says one. “It has a chromosome browser!” exclaims another. “It’s FREE!” they all shout. What’s all the hype about? GEDmatch.
GEDmatch is a mostly free online tool where anyone with autosomal DNA test results from 23andMe, FTDNA, and AncestryDNA can meet and share information. All you need to do is download your data from your testing company and upload it into your newly created GEDmatch account.
GEDmatch is set up just like your testing company and provides two kinds of reports: ethnicity results and a match list. Remember, ethnicity results, meaning those pie charts that report you are 15% Italian and 32% Irish, are based on two factors: a reference population and fancy math. GEDmatch has gathered data from multiple academic sources to provide you with several different iterations of ethnicity reports. This is like getting a second (and third and fourth, etc) opinion on a science that is still emerging. It is a fun exercise, but will likely not impact your genealogy research very much.
The more important match list does allow you to see genetic cousins who have tested at other companies. Of course, only those who have downloaded their results and entered them into GEDmatch will show up on your list. This means GEDmatch has the potential to expand your pool of genetic cousins, increasing your chances of finding someone to help you track down that missing ancestor.
Many also flock to GEDmatch because they were tested at AncestryDNA and so do not have access to a chromosome browser. A chromosome browser allows you to visualize the physical locations that you share with someone else (see below). Some find this a helpful tool when analyzing their DNA matches, though in my opinion, it is not essential.
GEDmatch also has some great genealogy features that let you analyze your pedigree against someone else’s, as well as the ability to search all the pedigree charts in their system so you can look specifically for a descendant of a particular relative. However, even with all of these great features, GEDmatch is still yet another website you have to navigate. With that, there will be a learning curve and certainly some frustration.
GEDMatch or Not?
So, is it worth it? If you are fairly comfortable with the website where you were tested, and you are feeling both curious and patient, I say go for it!
It’s too much to tell you right this minute how to download your data from your testing site and upload it to GEDmatch, but you’re in luck! I’ve put step-by-step instructions for getting started in a free tutorial on my website at www.yourDNAguide.com/transferring.
After you’ve done the upload, you may need a little bit more help to navigate the GEDmatch site because there are so many great tools on it. I recently published a GEDmatch Quick Guide, where I have condensed into four pages the most essential features of GEDmatch to get you started and help you make use of this tool for genetic genealogy. Using my guide is an inexpensive and easy way to get a lot more out of a free online resource. I will also be adding more GEDmatch tutorials to my online tutorial series later this fall. Genealogy Gems fans get a nice discount on these! (Click here for that discount).
By the way, have you tried GEDmatch? I would love to hear about your experiences. You can email me at guide@yourDNAguide.com.
Have you been wondering what’s up with the Y? After taking an autosomal DNA test, many genealogists want to know what next steps to take, and if YDNA can help further their research. YDNA, which can only be taken by males, may be able to bust additional brick walls in your family. DNA expert Diahan Southard is here to share 3 reasons to take a YDNA test–or have a male relative do so.
The Y chromosome DNA test, more affectionately referred to as the YDNA test, is the darling of the DNA testing industry. (At least, I think so.) In fact, of the three kinds of DNA tests, the YDNA is my favorite. Currently, the YDNA test is available at Family Tree DNA. Here’s their quick recap of what YDNA is:
“Y-DNA is what we call the sex chromosome “Y” that is passed from a father to his sons only, women do not receive a Y chromosome. Testing the Y chromosome allows for investigation into a male’s paternal family line and can help identify surname lines, living relatives whose Y chromosome is similar to yours, and ancient migration routes your paternal ancestors may have taken.”
At Family Tree DNA, there are four levels of YDNA testing available. 37 markers is the base level and a good place to start making connections. You can also increase your marker count to 67, 111, or if you’re a DNA expert, you can opt for the whopping 700 marker test. The good news is that you can start with the 37 marker test and have the option to upgrade to the larger test without needing to provide another sample.
YDNA has several excellent qualities that make it useful in many genealogical scenarios. Let’s look at three to give you a good start!
Use YDNA for Genealogy When…
1. You Have a Missing Father
All of us should be able to identify with this genealogical problem. Every line in your family history has this problem. Any ancestor whose father is currently unknown falls in this category. And YDNA can help.
The specific quality of YDNA that makes it so attractive in this case is its faithfulness in passing down its record generation after generation, without fail, without changing, from one man to the next. That means that any living male today has the same (or very similar) YDNA as every male in his direct paternal line, back 8, 10, 12+ generations.
Therefore every man’s YDNA is the clue that could lead you to discover that missing father. Usually what it takes is a match in the YDNA database with another descendant of your common ancestor. Ideally, this person knows something that you don’t about that missing father, and the two of you can work together to verify and extend your family history.
2. Your Relative is Worried About Privacy
While DNA testing has certainly entered a season of relative acceptance among genealogists, there are still many skeptics who wonder what the eventual ramifications of having your DNA tested might bring. While this is a subject that certainly deserves some attention, the YDNA is actually the easiest test to sell to a nervous relative.
The very qualities that make YDNA testing valuable, namely that every male descendant of a given ancestor will have the same YDNA, make it equally impossible to identify any particular individual uniquely. This means that the YDNA record that is created when a man takes a YDNA test cannot ever be traced back to him alone. That same record could have easily come from his brother, or 1st, or 5th cousin.
Similarly, the YDNA test results do not have a link to your health. The regions that are tested are generally parts that are not useful for determining any kind of personal health or trait information.
3. You Have a Surname Mix-up
One of the best applications of YDNA for genealogy comes when trying to disentangle the relationships of various men living in close proximity with other men of the same or similar surname. Having descendants of these men test their YDNA is like traveling back in time and conducting personal interviews of each of these men. It’s like saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Moffat? Is this neighbor of yours, Mr. Moffit, your uncle?” Wouldn’t you give anything for a chance to have that conversation? Well, YDNA testing gets you almost there. You might not be able to determine if they are uncle and nephew, but you will at least know if they are kin.
So what are you waiting for? If you have your own YDNA, go out and start the testing process. If you have been blessed instead with two X chromosomes, send this article over to your favorite male relative and let him know that he holds a very old, very valuable record in his DNA and you want to help him make use of it.
Learn More About DNA Test Options in This Free Video Class
Learn more about YDNA testing and the other types of DNA tests in this free video class, filmed live at RootsTech 2018! You’ll get answers to questions like:
Which DNA test should I take?
What will I get from the DNA test results?
Will DNA testing help with genealogy?
If you or the relative you want to test wants more information about what DNA testing is all about, this is the perfect recap. And best of all, it includes helpful slides, graphics, and it’s all in plain English!
About the Author: Diahan Southard has worked with the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, and has been in the genetic genealogy industry since it has been an industry. She holds a degree in Microbiology and her creative side helps her break the science up into delicious bite-sized pieces for you. She’s the author of a full series ofDNA guides for genealogists.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
This article was originally published on April 27, 2016 and updated on May 2, 2019.
Why test your DNA for genealogy without even having a specific research question in mind? Here are 3 reasons.
My youngest child, Eleanor, is nearly 8, so it was fun to have a 2 year old over the other day. She loved following Eleanor around, and Eleanor was equally thrilled to have someone to mentor in the ways of big girl play. I took special delight in listening to my daughter’s patient and surprisingly complete answers to our guest’s constant inquiries of “Why?” It got me thinking about the whys of genealogy, and especially of genetic genealogy.
I decided that there are three main reasons to test your DNA for genealogy:
1. DNA is primary information.
In genealogy, primary information is given by a source with firsthand knowledge of an event, with the best primary information being created at or around the time of the event. I think we can safely say that DNA falls into that category on both counts. Therefore, it is an excellent source of genealogical information and should be obtained as part of a thorough genealogical search.
2. DNA is a unique record.
DNA possesses several qualities that make this record type stand out from the rest. First and foremost, it cannot be falsified in any way. No name change, no deception, no miscommunication or misspelling can tarnish this record. Even if it is not a complete record of our family history, the story that it does tell is accurate.
3. DNA is a physical link to our past.
So much of genealogy work, especially in today’s digital world, is intangible. We add ancestors to our pedigree charts with a click of our mouse, having no idea of their physical characteristics, never once setting foot in the same places that they did, or if they preferred bread and butter or toast and jam.
But with the advent of DNA testing, I am able to see a physical connection between me and my ancestor. The first time I saw it seems unremarkable. It was just a blue line on top of a grey line, representing the location in the DNA where I had the same information as my cousin. But that line meant that we had both inherited a physical piece of DNA from our common ancestor, Lucy J. Claunch.
That realization didn’t add names or dates to my pedigree chart- Lucy had been on my chart since the beginning. But it did add a sense of purpose and reality to my genealogical work. In short, it inspired me to know more about Lucy and to tell her story because I felt inextricably tied to it. Perhaps many of you don’t need a DNA test to feel similarly motivated. Perhaps you already understand what I learned: her story is my story. But because I have her DNA in me, I am able to take that idea one step further. Because she lives on in me, my story is her story. So I better make it a good one.
In defense of DNA for family history, Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard takes on an NPR writer who says that “family is relationship, not DNA.”
Recently National Public Radio (U.S.) published an article by Alva Noë entitled “DNA, Genealogy, and the Search For Who We Are.” This sounds like exactly the kind of article that I would want to read, considering that I am, after all, Your DNA Guide.
However, after only the first two sentences of this article, I stopped reading. I could already tell this was one of those articles, you know, the kind meant to sensationalize and not to communicate accurate information. I closed the browser page. I just don’t have time to read information that is meant to incite, and not to inform.
But then I read some comments from some friends that had read it, and then Lisa Louise Cooke asked me to review it for you, so I read it in its entirety. It was difficult to get through, even though it wasn’t very long. There are just so many things that are wrong with the presentation of this material.
Let’s take three big ones.
First of all, the “facts” are taken out of context. Yes, it is true, your genetic pedigree is not the same as your genealogical pedigree. Your genetic pedigree can only contain a finite amount of information, while your paper pedigree can contain limitless amounts. In general, our personal set of genetics will only connect us to half of our fourth cousins, and it is true that if we go back far enough we will have zero DNA from some of our ancestors.
The author implies that this kind of incomplete information is unacceptable and should be discarded. What he is missing is that by genetically connecting me to my fourth cousin, that fourth cousin is genetically connected to another fourth cousin, who I might not share DNA with, but through the testing and the genealogical research, I can confidently identify as kin. One of the powers of DNA is that it allows you to create networks with living people who can work together to verify and expand our knowledge of our ancestors.
“DNA deserves a spot in your family history research.” Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide
Secondly, this author claims that DNA testing and traditional research are mutually exclusive. He claims, “…family and family history are one thing, and DNA-based ancestry is another.” I don’t think I even need to comment on that. That is just wrong. Genetic genealogy is just one more tool in our toolbox to help us answer family history questions.
Before I go on, I think we do need a little perspective about where this author is coming from. In the U.S., many of us have enjoyed the rapid growth and general acceptance of the genetic genealogy industry. The author of this article gained much of his content from sources in the U.K. Unfortunately, the U.K. has seen a stream of less-than-reputable companies hawking genetic genealogy-like products that are frankly a scam. So, from that perspective, caution when entering a genetic genealogy experience should be exercised.
That background knowledge, provided by my colleague Debbie Kennett in the U.K. made me feel a little sheepish about my initial hostile reaction to the article. But then I read again where the author states, “It is family that matters — and family is relationship, not DNA,” and I am back on my soapbox. Perhaps this author did not pay attention in 7th grade biology. DNA is family. That’s how this works.
I have heard so many stories from so many of you reporting how it was this very DNA stuff that led you to a discovery about your family. Just yesterday I received an email from a woman who recently reconnected with a relative she found through DNA testing. She said, “Spent a week with Carolyn and her husband out in Colorado this fall and the time spent together is beyond words. It is as if we had known each other our whole lives. But then again on a different level, I am sure we have known each other.”
To me, that is a story worth telling, a story that is every bit as real as one that is discovered using only paper research methods. DNA deserves a spot in your family history research. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Are you still a beginner when it comes to using DNA for family history? The free video below can get you started. So can my series of DNA quick guides: one on getting started; guides for yDNA, mtDNA and autosomal testing, and guides to help you navigate 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA. (Buy the whole bundle for the best deal.)
Two cousins recently chatted after learning that they share DNA. The first asked whether the second is white. “No,” she answered. The response: “Are you sure?”
In our modern society, families are defined in a myriad of different ways. Using DNA for genealogy is certainly contributing to these
A family and its female slave house servants in Brazil, c.1860. Wikimedia Commons image. Click to view full source citation.
changing definitions, as families find themselves genetically linked across social and cultural boundaries to kin they never expected.
Such is the case for a Bartow, Florida resident who submitted a DNA test out of curiosity and found more than she expected. Through a combination of DNA testing and social media, Mary McPherson, who is white, met one of her cousins, Dolores Washington-Fleming, who is black.
Peter Williams’ entry in 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, St Bartholomews Parish, Colleton, South Carolina. Image from Ancestry.com.
According to an article on The Ledger, the two women share a great-great-grandfather, Peter Edward Williams, who was born in South Carolina two centuries ago. Peter was a slaveholder. The 1850 census slave schedule shows that he held a female slave who was a few years younger than she was. Dolores believes that’s her grandmother’s grandmother.
The two finally met this past May for the first time and enjoyed this new definition of family. I think what I like most is what Dolores’ son said about the situation: “My mom and I are fascinated by history, and this is history. We represent what the times were like back then.” It still boggles my mind just a little that we are able to use the DNA of living people today to resurrect the past, and bring depth and meaning to the present, and possibly even prepare us for the future.
I find myself in a similar situation to Dolores and Mary. My mom was adopted, and even though we have had DNA testing completed for several years, we didn’t have any close matches, and honestly, we weren’t looking. Though she did have a passing interest in her health history, my mom did not feel the need to seek out her biological family. But then over the last few months various pieces of her puzzle have started to fall into place. This is much because of a key DNA match that popped up in March.
With that one match and subsequent correspondence, our interest in my mom’s biological family has skyrocketed. Why? I think it is because our DNA match, sisters from Texas, have shown us genuine kindness and interest. They have truly shown us what it means to be family. Even though we are unexpected, even though we aren’t sure yet how exactly we are connected, they have embraced us without reservation without hesitation.
To me, this is what family is. They accept you in whatever condition you come in and do their best to make you feel like you belong. Now, that kind of welcome isn’t felt by everyone who meets their genetic cousins, and people should carefully consider whether they’re ready for unforeseen results or unanticipated reactions from DNA matches before they get started.
But what about you? If you’ve started down the genetics path, how has DNA testing expanded or strengthened your definition of family?