This post discusses exactly how DNA tests can reveal that family stories aren’t true. Plus, learn how to carefully examine your own DNA results to see how your family story stacks up.
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.
This is why it can be very shocking when DNA results reveal surprising information. Matters become more complicated when families struggle to accept newly discovered details.
For example, I was recently in touch with a DNA match who was born overseas to a father who was in the military. Her mother, abandoned by her father, gave her up for adoption.
It was fairly easy for me to determine a set of siblings who could be her biological father. Two brothers, in particular, were most likely suspects.
She had been told her supposed father’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. The other brother, everyone insisted, had never married or had any children, and so couldn’t be the father, either.
Clearly, someone was her father!
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. It turned out that the relative who we never knew had children had indeed had a child, my DNA match.
Now, our family “story” has been changed accordingly.
How can DNA uncover family secrets?
The way in which DNA results can reveal the truth about a family’s origins, or uncover family secrets is usually through DNA matches. Even though the ethnicity estimate can occasionally uncover surprises, it’s the DNA match that provides the hard cold facts that dispute family stories.
For example, many people have discovered that they are half-siblings to their brother and sisters by examining the amount of DNA they share with their siblings. Shared DNA can also reveal “half” genetic relationships to aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Sometimes, DNA surprises are further removed.
Occasionally, people find evidence that there might be an incorrect person in their family tree. This most commonly occurs when several DNA matches all descended from the same ancestor are found on the DNA match list, leading the person to wonder if they, too, are descended from that person.
Further investigation in the form of genealogical research combined with further DNA analysis often helps us come to a definitive conclusion.
Do we need to ignore family stories in the era of DNA testing?
If DNA often disputes long-held beliefs about a family, does it mean that we should always ignore them and never take them into account when doing genealogy research?
There are so many ways in which “the story” of our family’s origins can cause us to overlook 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.
Even so, this does not mean that the family story has no role in genealogy.
Plus, you shouldn’t be required to forget your story, and no one should judge you for it. In fact, our family story is an integral part of who we are.
However, 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.
How to find out if your DNA matches family stories
Fortunately, there are some easy ways to determine whether your DNA results line up with what you have known to be true about your family tree. Below, I have outlined some steps you can take.
When DNA results 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?
Each DNA match can help you determine if your family stories are true
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.
Start your family tree from scratch with your DNA results
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)?
I hope that this post gave you some insight as to how exactly DNA can reveal mysteries and secrets about our family, and how to closely examine to own DNA results.
I’d love to hear your own experiences about mysteries being uncovered by DNA results.
Thanks for stopping by!