For Best Results, Forget “The Story” and Follow the DNA

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When doing family tree research, it’s very easy to get distracted by the stories and narratives that we believe about our family’s history.  Many people decide to take a DNA test for their ethnicity results, and didn’t realize that other aspects of their results can cast doubt on the accuracy of their family tree as they have constructed it.  In this post, I will discuss the advantages of forgetting “the story”, and instead, following the facts put forth in our DNA results.

There are so many ways in which “the story” of our family’s origins can cause us to ignore information that could lead us to an interesting discovery, a new DNA relative, or a fascinating new branch of our family tree.  In my own family, I have encountered relatives who are resistant to believing information that contradicts what they were told growing up.

For example, I was recently contacted by a close cousin who was born overseas to a father who was in the military.  She had been told her dad’s first name, but everyone in my family resisted the idea that our relative, a married father and a veteran, could have conceived a child out of wedlock.  DNA is rarely “wrong”, however, and so it was necessary for my own extended family to take a step back, look at the facts, and figure out how this new person fits into our family tree.  And maybe change “the story” accordingly.

Do we have to forget our story?

No!  You are not required to forget your story, and I’m not here to judge you 🙂  But, if you want to give it a try, the following suggestions should help you take a fresh look at your DNA results, and learn how to follow the DNA.

Don’t ignore details, like DNA matches and ethnicity regions, that don’t make sense

You’ve taken a good look at your results and everything seems to be in order – except for a couple of second cousin DNA matches that just don’t seem to make sense.  Maybe they have a small family tree attached to their profile, but you don’t recognize any of the names.  If everything else seems to align with your family story, it could be tempting to question the reliability of DNA testing, or just ignore them.

A couple of mystery second cousin DNA matches might mean that you share a great-grandparent, and I know that I would be interested in finding out which great-grandparent we share.  More importantly (to me), I would want to know if it was the great-grandparent in my tree who was their great-grandparent, or if it was the great-grandparent in their tree who was my great-grandparent.  Basically, is my tree wrong?  And if it is, who should be there instead of the person who is there?

True story:  This happened on my dad’s side of the family.  It turns out that one of my ancestors also belongs to another family, but no one except me seems to know it.

Take a peek at every. single. DNA match

No matter how complete and accurate your family tree is, I am willing to bet that there is a point on your tree where you don’t feel 100% sure about the person who you put there.  Maybe it’s six generations back on your mom’s great-grandmother’s side of the family.  Or maybe your family tree is small and exceptionally accurate, but aren’t you wondering who the ancestors of your ancestors are?

Many of your DNA matches may have attached their DNA results to their family tree, or have included a family tree on their profile, or have one available somewhere else online.  The information that you can gleam from their combined family trees will be able to help you verify the accuracy of your own tree.  For example, if you feel pretty confident that you know who your paternal grandfather was, then you should be able to find a DNA match who descends from your paternal grandfather’s sibling, or someone further back in that family.  If you do, then you can consider that your connection to your grandfather’s father “verified”.

We don’t share DNA with all of our DNA relatives, but we do share DNA with all of our family related to us at a 2nd cousin distance or closer.  We will share DNA with most of our 3rd cousins (about 90% of them), and even about half of our 4th cousins.  Contained within all of these “cousin matches”, as I like to call them, most of us will be able to find more than enough information to help us verify most of our more recent ancestors, and even some of our more distant ones.

Forget what you know and start from scratch

If you have gone through your DNA results with a fine-toothed comb and have spotted some irregularities, you might want to consider temporarily setting your family tree aside and starting from scratch.  Don’t delete your tree, you’ve worked hard on it!  I just mean to sort of set it aside, in figurative way, and take a look at your results from a different perspective.

Imagine that you don’t know who your parents are, or your grandparents, or your great-grandparents.  Look at your DNA results through this new lens.  What do you see?  If your results belonged to a friend, what would you tell them?  Forget that your dad’s family is supposed to be German and Scottish, and that your mom’s family is Italian.  What do your ethnicity results say?

I never recommend coming to conclusions based only on one’s ethnicity results, but they can serve as a helpful guide to tell us what we might expect to find in our DNA match list.  For example, if your mom’s family is Italian, and you have 20% Europe South on your ethnicity results, you should expect to find DNA matches with similar ancestry on your DNA match list.

Even more importantly than our ethnicity results are our DNA matches.  If I completely forget everything that I know about my family tree, then I need to start with my DNA matches.  Who shows up as my closest matches?  Who are their recent ancestors?  Using the beginner’s guide to shared centimorgans, can I come to any conclusions about which common ancestor we share?  Do I see any patterns (i.e. surnames that show up repeatedly)?

Does this all mean that “the story” isn’t important?

“The story” is more important to some people than it is to others.   It’s okay if your story is important to you, I think it is normal.  For some of us, our story is an integral part of our sense of self, and it helps us understand who we are and how we fit into the world.  In fact, I bet everyone who is reading this would say that their story is important to them.   My only goal is to tell an accurate story, and of course, leave it to my descendants.


I sincerely hope that this post gave you some food for thought, and some ideas as to how to forget your story and view your DNA results with fresh eyes.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on how important you think it is to be accurate in family tree research, and how important your story is to you.  Hey, and I’d love to hear your story.

Thanks for stopping by!

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For Best Results, Forget "The Story" and Follow the DNA
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For Best Results, Forget "The Story" and Follow the DNA
Many people decide to take a DNA test for their ethnicity results, and don't realize that other aspects of their results can cast doubt on the accuracy of their family tree as they have constructed it. In this post, I will discuss the advantages of forgetting "the story", and instead, following the facts put forth in our DNA results.
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Who Are You Made Of
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