Succeeding With Autosomal DNA

Jim not only teaches atDNA but has identified over 200 common ancestors through his atDNA matches.  Here are the steps he takes in order to make that happen. He has given me permission to post this. Thanks, Jim! 

I have added a few caveats specifically for adoptees, especially those who have no ancestral trees. These notes are in parentheses and bold.  ~Karin Corbeil

Succeeding with Autosomal DNA (atDNA) by Jim Bartlett

Autosomal DNA testing is a very powerful tool. It can be very complex but it can also be pretty simple:

Share with Matches – Determine Common Ancestors!

What could be easier than that? It’s what genealogists have been doing for years. So let’s at least start with a simple process, and work up from there.

Here are the steps I’ve developed over the past 3 years to insure success with autosomal DNA (atDNA).

1. Learn about atDNA
– Learn about your company (FTDNA, 23andMe, AncestryDNA) – noodle their site & FAQ
– Most Matches are probably your Cousins
– The cousinship could be from any of your ancestors – it’s random
– Closer cousins (up to 3rd) should match
– Not all real cousins will match you
– Most Matches will be 6th-10th cousins
– Some cousins will cooperate, some won’t, some have lots of ancestors and data, some don’t.

2. Create a Robust Tree – throw in the kitchen sink (for adoptees… out the trees of your matches and try to tie them to the possible common ancestor of other matches who may be “in common with” them. Most people that build family trees are only interested in their direct lines and often only go back 100 years at best. You need to work on filling in the blanks…parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all their kids and their spouses. Go backwards, forwards, up and down the lines, linearly and laterally. Then as you get into the area that fits with location or any non-identifying information, see if you can figure out where your unknown ancestor might fit.)
– Make a special Tree just for atDNA match – this is your “cousin bait” – you are fishing for Common Ancestors
– Extend it out as far as you can, as much to 12 or 13 generations as you can
– “Borrow” from Ancestry, DAR, Family Search, etc., etc.; but be reasonable – don’t copy junk.
– Your Match is only looking for one Ancestor: his/her own!
– Include alternatives, if either one might be correct
– Once you and a Match have found a Common Ancestor, you can discuss how valid it is – maybe your Match has records.
– Create a GEDCOM

3. Post your Tree – make it available to Matches. (This may be optional for adoptees and keeping a tree private may be the way to start until you have confirmed some of your ancestral lines.  If you know your maternal or paternal line, certainly a public tree may help you and others.)
Upload your GEDCOM to:
– Your company (FTDNA, 23andMe, Ancestry)
– WorldConnect (

4. Compile a Surname List (FTDNA does this from your GEDcom)
– Make an alphabetical list of all your surnames
(alphabetical is easier for your Matches)
– Many people add year(s) and/or places in parentheses after each surname
– Post these surnames at your company (FTDNA or 23andMe)

5. Expand Surnames to make a Patriarch (or Matriarch) List; and add this to initial emails…
– Put a comma after the surname and add the Patriarch’s given name and some info
– Bold the surname and keep the Patriarch info to one line
– Use Matriarchs if no Patriarch is known
– Most genealogists can’t resist scanning down this list

7. Draft a Standard Email/Message
– Email to FTDNA matches; send a tailored Message Invitation to 23andMe RF matches
– Include your name, email, hyperlink to your Tree, and an overview of your ancestry (for adoptees, this may not be possible, so just ask for a possible tree telling them you think you are related through “So and So”, if they don’t have a tree, ask for the names, dates and locations of their grandparents and start building your own tree from that information. Once you build up a little rapport with your match is when you may want to mention “adoption”, because there have been instances when this scares people away.)
– Do not elaborate on one particular part of your Tree, save it for later.
– Include a request to see their Tree and/or exchange emails (and to share DNA at 23andMe)

8. Contact every Match
– You can’t tell from their name who will be a key cousin or have info you need
– One email/message per Match is best (may send group email to bcc’s, but it’s less personal)
– Most companies list Matches in order of closeness – just go down that list.
– Check for new matches few weeks.
– Be persistent – follow up – reply to every communication.

9. Track your Communications
– Download a list of your match (or create one at Ancestry); note send and receive dates

10. Compile your Common Ancestors.
– Note the Common Ancestor in your Match list.
– Sometimes you need to do some research for your Match to determine Common Ancestor
– Look for common place/times, if no surname line is apparent; look at your brick walls.

These last two items (9 and 10) are good items for a master Spreadsheet – more on that later

Everyone will have their own about how to manage their atDNA results – this is intended to provide some ideas for those just starting out.

Most matches will be cousins – a way to say just that. In other words it’s worth your time/effort to contact each one. Or to indicate that each and every Match may not be related. Or that some of your matches are on IBS segments (Identical by State meaning your segment match my be just a coincidence and not IBD – Identical by Descent or definitely from a common ancestor. Sometimes a very small segment from your mother aligns with a small segment from your father and the computer reads it as a match with some other person. These are IBS, also know as “False positives”.) and are not necessarily related. But I try to keep the words easy to understand – this is not the place to introduce, and then go on a tangent to explain, the concept of IBS. If someone really wants to get into the biology and technical jargon, there is plenty of time for that. I’m trying to keep it as easy a read as I can, so the average genealogist can succeed without needing to understand the details.

I do think most matches are legit. I also think the main limiting factor is our scrawny Trees, with many brick walls (at the end of EVERY line). I’ve worked out over 200 Common Ancestors with my Matches – from a half first cousin to a dozen 10th cousins. The majority of these are at the 6-8th cousin level. Let’s use the 7th cousin level for example. We each have 256 6G-grandparents at that level. How many of yours do you know? Most people taking the atDNA test don’t have half of them documented in their Tree. But lets use half for you and your match. That means that most of the time you wouldn’t find the Common Ancestor. This is not a problem with too many IBS, it’s a problem with not enough ancestors in our Trees.

I admit that when I say most Matches are legit, I’m not thinking about the thousands of Ancestry Matches at to very low end. AncestryDNA uses a much different algorithm (to create the illusion of a better product/result?) and I’m not sure how accurate it is. However, I do have many hints (Common Ancestors) in that region. And some segments do travel through many generations (what percent Neanderthal are you? Most of us are 2-3 percent)

So anyway, my objective is to offer general, easy to understand and follow, guidance to folks just getting started.

Because atDNA is random you are going to get some DNA segments that survive for many segments. After all, most of us have some detectable Neanderthal DNA in us. So, understanding that all of our DNA adds up to 100% (seems trivial), we can understand that we have some DNA from very distant lines (beyond 12, even 24, generations), and we may have none from some closer ancestors (say 5 to 10 generations back). It’s all random, and each person will have a different chromosome map at the end. We don’t really know yet how the very low Matches at AncestryDNA will play out. But when our chromosome maps get to about 50% complete, we’ll start to see how the smaller segments fit in. It’s too early now – at least for me.

Comments and constructive improvements welcomed.

Jim Bartlett