Tips for Attaching Trees to Your DNA Results

Today AncestryDNA announced that they sold 1.4 million DNA test kits in the fourth quarter of 2016, setting a sales record for the quarter and bringing their DNA database over three million participants.1 Blogger Kerry Scott, whose acuity and sense of humor I love, commented on Facebook, “The Cousinpocalypse is coming. Tree up, everybody.”2

Since I spend considerable amounts of time working with the trees attached to my AncestryDNA matches, I thought I’d share some tree tips for new testers and those who haven’t yet attached trees to their test kits.
Tip 1: Attach a tree, if you can, even if it’s minimal. I understand that many people who test are searching for birth parents and don’t know their biological family. If you’re not one of these folks, attach a tree to your kit. Period. Just do it. No excuses. Go back at least three generations, to ancestors who are not living, so that your matches will see actual names, not Private labels. (The way Ancestry trees work, if you denote that an individual is living, those viewing the tree do not see the person’s name, just the label Private, unless you specifically give permission to view information on living individuals–which you must do on an individual basis. This restriction is a good thing–it respects the privacy of living people, but it’s also why you need to make your tree extensive enough so that your matches will see names they can use to investigate connections with their own tree.)
Tip 2: Be sure you attach your kit to the correct person in the tree. In recent weeks I’ve encountered some problems with this in my matches’ results. For some of my DNA matches, their match list entry shows that they are female, but the attached tree suggests that they’re male. A bigger problem is where the test results are attached to a person other than the tester, thus showing the other person’s ancestors to DNA matches! This seems to occur where one spouse is administering the other spouse’s test kit, and attaches the DNA results to themselves instead of their spouse in the tree (but I’ve seen it in other circumstances). Trust me, your matches will spin their wheels for hours trying to find the connection! Be nice, and be sure you are sending them up the right tree.
Tip 3: Make your tree public. I know that there is a lot of debate about public versus private trees, and lots of perfectly valid reasons to keep a tree private. If you fall on the private side of this debate, do create a skeleton tree for your DNA results, with at least three and preferably four or five generations showing the tester’s direct ancestral line. You don’t have to attach sources to the skeleton tree, but be sure to include dates and places so your matches can tell whether your John Smith is theirs too. If you’re not willing to create a public skeleton tree, commit to religiously and promptly answering queries from DNA matches. Your Ancestry home page has a little envelope icon on the right side of the black bar at the top, next to your name. If you have a number on the envelope, you have a message. Click the envelope to see the message, and be sure to answer it.
Tip 4: Be as specific as you can with dates and places in your tree. Lots of us don’t know birth or death dates to the day, month, or year, but even approximate birth and death dates can help your DNA matches figure out who your ancestors are. Include places with the dates, and be as specific as possible in your place names. This means, include counties for ancestors in the U.S. If you put Joel Gerhard in your tree, and indicate that he was born in Pennsylvania about 1811, good for you! I’ll be even happier if you indicate that your Joel Gerhard lived in Schuylkill County, because that tells me that he could be my Joel Gerhard too.

Thanks for testing, and doing all you can to help your matches figure out your connections! The more you help them, the more they will be able to help you.

  1. “Ancestry Sets AncestryDNA Sales Record Over Holiday Period and Fourth Quarter,” 10 January 2017, Ancestry Corporate, Newsroom, Press Releases (https://www.ancestry.com/corporate/newsroom/press-releases/ancestry-sets-ancestrydna-sales-record-over-holiday-period-and-fourth : accessed 10 January 2017).
  2. Kerry Scott, comment on Angie Bush’s link of the Ancestry press release in “International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG)” group, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/isogg/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED : accessed 10 January 2017).
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