Friday, May 19, 2017

A Fond Farewell

Ancestry Insider Portrait - OriginalDear friends,

I’m afraid the time has come for the Ancestry Insider to say goodbye. Over ten years ago I put virtual pen to virtual paper. Now it is time to put it down. I wonder if a couple of times a year you might still see something from me, but this may be it.

This newsletter has brought me lots of enjoyment. I’ve enjoyed trying to bring you news you didn’t get anywhere else. I’ve enjoyed teaching how to better utilize and Through my reports about national conferences, I’ve enjoyed promoting education. Through my series on serendipity, I’ve enjoyed sharing my belief about the miraculous nature of life and family history. Through my Monday mailbox series, I’ve enjoyed answering your questions. Through my series, “Records Say the Darnedest Things,” I’ve enjoyed teaching about records and methodology. I have enjoyed the opportunities to acknowledge FamilySearch’s sponsor—and my current employer—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This newsletter began at a time when Ancestry’s communication policy was to say nothing. FamilySearch didn’t do much better when I started reporting on the rollout of New FamilySearch. Today, both organizations have healthy, vibrant communication programs.

This newsletter has also consumed about six hours of my personal life each week and I think it is time for a change. But I put down this pen with a great measure of sadness.

This newsletter has given me the opportunity to rub shoulders with many wonderful people. Thank you. For that I am most grateful. Of myself, I am pretty insignificant and I am forever humbled that you would consider this newsletter worth a little of your time.

Before I say goodbye, I’d like to personally thank each and every single one of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…

Wow! This is going to take some time… Please feel free to go about your lives while I finish up. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …;  (inside joke), …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …, …

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Science Behind AncestryDNA -- #NGS2017GEN

Chromosome inheritance diagram credit Ancestry.comJulie Granka, of AncestryDNA, spoke about “Understanding the Science Behind Your DNA Results” at the 2017 National Genealogical Society Conference last week. I’m hardly qualified to report about this session, but I’ll give it a try. Julie started by defining several terms, utilizing lots of diagrams. I was hoping to link to some pages on that contain explanations as clear and simple as Julie’s. No luck. If I am going to provide links to basic information about DNA and genealogy, I will have to send you to someplace other than Ancestry. That is too bad. They should publish Julie’s presentation on their website.

Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, has provided a nice list of links to introductory information. See “DNA Basics for a Sound Foundation.”

Suffice it to say, there are basic building blocks of DNA that are represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. Our chromosomes are composed of long strings of these—3 billion, in fact. Almost all the letters are the same in every single person on the planet. Julie said that only about 10 million are different among different individuals and populations. A DNA test looks at about 700,000 of them. A location in the string of letters where the letters differ between individuals is called a SNP (pronounced “snip”). A group of inherited letters is called a haplotype.

Julie studies SNPs and haplotypes in the context of human populations. “Patterns of SNPs and haplotypes among human populations are driven by history,” she said. “As humans migrate, they bring their DNA with them.” She explained the founder effect: Not everyone in a population has the same SNPs and haplotypes. If a small number of people migrate somewhere, their most common SNPs and haplotypes are likely to be different than the parent population. They have founded a population with a different profile than the parent population. A related phenomena is isolation. If I understand correctly, newborns in an isolated population are statistically more likely to have the most common SNPs and haplotypes of their population. These effects make different populations look different genetically.

AncestryDNA uses the SNPs and haplotypes to determine three things. 

  • Tiny amounts of the haplotypes and SNPs associated with a population from the distant past (hundreds of thousands of years) survive in our DNA. AncestryDNA uses this information to provide your ethnicity estimates. To determine what SNPs and haplotypes are associated with distant populations, AncestryDNA uses reference panels. These are individuals whose haplotypes and SNPs are thought to be representative of the distant populations. AncestryDNA has 26 reference panels. Founder effect and isolation make ethnicity estimates easy. Migration makes ethnicity estimates difficult.
  • Large amounts of shared haplotypes between two persons indicate recent common ancestors. The more closely related, the more DNA is shared. AncestryDNA uses this information to provide your DNA matches. There are several challenges in determining DNA matches. Just sharing DNA doesn’t mean you are closely related. DNA you share for other reasons is called identical by state (IBS). DNA shared because of recent common ancestry is called identical by descent (IBD). AncestryDNA has to determine the difference. Another challenge arises from the way DNA is processed in the laboratory. For any given SNP, the data coming from the lab does not differentiate between the value contributed by your father and the value coming from your mother. AncestryDNA uses tools to estimate which came from which. She didn’t say this, but I would guess that if they ever get it wrong, you could be shown relatives who aren’t really your relatives.
  • In between the two extremes, AncestryDNA searches for groups of people who share large numbers of matches to others within a group. They use this information to provide your Genetic Communities.

It is possible to share no DNA at all with cousins. The closer the cousin, the higher the probability of shared DNA. Julie showed these numbers:

Cousin Probability of shared DNA
1st 100
2nd 100
3rd 98
4th 71
5th 32
6th 11
7th 3.2

She showed a chart that looked like the one below. I think it indicated the average amount of shared DNA between two close relatives. It went by so fast, I am not certain. However, Blaine T. Bettinger provides similar data, which I’ve charted below.

Blaine T. Bettinger, “The Shared CM Project – Version 2.0 (June 25, 2016),” PDF chart, _The Genetic Genealogist_ ( : updated 31 July 2016).
Source: Blaine T. Bettinger, “The Shared CM Project – Version 2.0 (June 25, 2016),” The Genetic Genealogist ( : updated 31 July 2016).

AncestryDNA uses these numbers to estimate your relationship to your DNA matches.

She covered more, but that’s about all I have time and space for here. I’m sorry that I’m not as clear as she was, but hopefully you learned something.



Chromosome inheritance diagram credit: Catherine A. Ball, et. al., “DNA Circles White Paper,” Ancestry ( : updated 18 November 2014), figure 2.1.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

FamilySearch: A Global Experience at #NGS2017GEN

The Ancestry Insider is a member of the NGS 2017 conference social media press.The 2017 National Genealogical Society conference wrapped up last Saturday, and after a couple of articles, so will I. Diane Loosely of FamilySearch spoke at the FamilySearch luncheon. Her title was “FamilySearch: A Global Experience.” She described three definitions of global for which FamilySearch is global.

One definitions of global refers to world-wide global reach. Diane showed us a FamilySearch booklet, My Family: Stories that Bring Us Together. It is available in 66 languages. FamilySearch has 5,000 family history centers located in 33 countries. They offer support to patrons in 13 languages.

FamilySearch operates cameras in countries across the globe. They have 5.6 billion names published online from many countries. They publish an additional 2 million names a day.

Diane showed a video, “Preserving and Accessing the Records of the World,” documenting record destruction in the Philippines resulting from super-Typhoon Yolanda. One town’s records, indeed all the town offices, were completely destroyed. All that was left was the cement floor of the building. Because FamilySearch had photographed their records, FamilySearch was able to restore all the records to them.

Diane said that FamilySearch is gathering the genealogies of villages in Africa that, today, are preserved only by “Rememberers.” Aging village elders have memorized the genealogies of the village. Many are old and their knowledge is perishing with them. In the case of 95-year old Opanin Kwame Nketia, FamilySearch interviewed him and documented 12 generations and 1,000 people. A couple of days later when they returned to thank him, they discovered he had passed way.

Diane said that 50 years ago FamilySearch canvassed Mexico, filming their records. It is thought that today 15 to 20% of those records have perished.

Another sense of the word global is the idea of operating on a whole set of things. To find and search all of FamilySearch’s records, you have to know a few ways of accessing the records. Diane showed a Kentucky probate collection containing 12,000 names and nearly a million images. Obviously, FamilySearch had not completely indexed the collection. To access all the records, you have to be prepared to browse through the images like you would microfilm. She also pointed out that some records are accessed only through the catalog.

Another sense of the word global is embracing the whole of something. “We feel a responsibility to help everyone discover their family history,” she said. She shared the quote from the Emory university study stating that the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem. FamilySearch recently remodeled the first floor of the Salt Lake Family History Library to appeal to a younger generation.

Diane shared the well-known quote of Alex Haley:

In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.

She then challenged us to choose a person we would like to introduce to family history. Prepare beforehand. Then go and give them a meaningful experience with family history.



Note: I was interested in where one might find Alex Haley’s original quote, as very few people cite the source. Barbara Renick in her book Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family's History and Heritage (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003) is the only source I could find who cited a source: “What Roots Means to Me,” Reader’s Digest (May 1977), 73-74.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Darned Page Order

imageTracy Reinhart is a long-time researcher who remembers way back when accessing the census meant scrolling through microfilm. Long ago she discovered her Braford ancestors’ family in Cannon, Kent, Michigan was one of those split across pages in a census. Online publishers like Ancestry and FamilySearch have to identify these split families and join them back together. That’s a fairly straightforward process unless you run into the situation Tracy ran into recently.

“Part of the 1870 census for Cannon, Kent Co. Mich.  was not filmed in page order,” she told me.  “As a result,  when a family list carries over from one page to the next,  you will find wrong family associations.” She found that for Cannon, Kent, Michigan:

I was interested to see how FamilySearch handled this situation. Researchers with access to both and universally advise using for census research and the 1870 census on is a good illustration of why.

  • If you search for Cannon, Kent, Michigan, you get everyone living in the entire state of Michigan!
  • If you don’t know where your person lived, but you somehow find them, FamilySearch doesn’t indicate where the person was!

The only advantage I see for searching FamilySearch’s 1870 census is that in a search you can specify another family member (in the “Other Person” field). That’s not possible on Ancestry.

But I digress…

As I compared with, I noticed several interesting things.

  • The image order on matches
  • FamilySearch didn’t erroneously combine the Wolaver and Braford families. But they also didn’t correctly join the the two parts of the Brayford/Braford family.
  • While Ancestry has 31 images for Cannon, Kent, Michigan, FamilySearch has 32. Ancestry has left out one of the pages from the microfilm! I’ve seen FamilySearch do the same thing. Neither company discloses the censure. The companies deem the image to have no genealogical value so they delete it. This is a very bad practice! There is no guarantee the decision maker understands advanced methodologies that may require a knowledge of the existence of that page, its contents, or the lack thereof. (A little looking showed this particular page is facing page 31 on folio 139. It has no names on it.)
  • The digital folder number (004271429) and image number (00268) for Emma Bradford on match the image URL on That’s kind of techie, but the takeaway is that Ancestry seems to be using FamilySearch images.
  • FamilySearch misindexed the name Braford on page 30 as Bradford. Ancestry did not. Ancestry doesn’t seem to be using FamilySearch’s index.

I see several lessons we should draw from this:

  • If you don’t find your ancestor on one website, check others.
  • Search several images forward and backward from your ancestor.
  • Your ancestor’s name can be spelled differently by the same person in the same record.
  • Look at and try to understand all the information on a page.
  • When the day comes that we no longer have access to microfilm, there will be errors that we can no longer detect or overcome.
  • Everybody makes mistakes. Ancestry. FamilySearch. Microfilm. Everybody.

”Just a heads up for something that I never expected to find on Ancestry,” Tracy said.


Thank you, Tracy. Image credit:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

NGS Announces Tom Jones Documentation Book at #NGS2017GEN

Mastering Genealogical Documentation by Thomas W. JonesToday marks the opening of the 2017 National Genealogical Society Conference. At the conference NGS is announcing Mastering Genealogical Documentation by Thomas W. Jones. Tom is considered one of the top educators in the genealogical community. He is a PhD, Certified Genealogist, Certified Genealogical Lecturer, Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, Fellow of the National Genealogical Society, and Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association. He is the author of Mastering Genealogical Proof, another in the NGS Special Topics Series.

According to NGS, “Mastering Genealogical Documentation teaches genealogists how to describe and cite their sources—including sources for which no model citation exists. … In this new step-by-step guidebook, Dr. Thomas W. Jones provides a foundation in the principles, logic, and decisions that underpin genealogical documentation. Exercises are provided at the end of each chapter (with answers at the back of the book) to reinforce concepts and provide opportunities for practice.”

You can order the book in the store on the NGS website.

It’s true that I’m prejudiced (I volunteer for the NGS), but I’m genuinely excited to get this book. I’ve attended Tom’s lectures on documentation at national institutes and they have been most helpful.

Speaking of the NGS Conference, it’s not too late to attend. You can register onsite. For more information, visit the National Genealogical Society Conference website.

Free Exhibit Hall at #NGS2017GEN

The Ancestry Insider is a member of the NGS 2017 conference social media press.The 2017 National Genealogical Society conference started today (10 May 2017) in Raleigh, North Carolina. The exhibit hall is free, so even if you don’t register for classes, come see mini-classes, product demos, product announcements, sell prices, and give-away prizes. If you are in the area, you should come down and check it out at the Raleigh Convention Center.

The exhibit hall opens at 9:00am each morning with the exception of 9:30 on Wednesday. It closes at 5:30pm each day, with the exception of 3:00pm Saturday.
The Ancestry booth presentation schedule for Wednesday, 10 May is:


Ancestry, Thursday, 11 May:


Ancestry, Friday, 12 May:


Ancestry, Saturday, 13 May:


Other vendors do product demos, either on a schedule or by request. Lisa Louise Cooke included the Genealogy Gems schedule in the conference bag:


Stop by the National Genealogical Society’s booth to enter daily drawings, buy their latest books, and get books signed by the authors. Judging from the advertising inserts in the conference bag, I imagine at the MyHeritage booth they would give you a coupon code for 30% off MyHeritage subscriptions. Likewise for a 15% coupon code from jigsaw genealogy. Genealogical Studies might give you a promo code for a free course and let you enter a drawing for additional free courses. Excelsior College has a drawing for an AncestryDNA kit.

It’s not too late to register for one or more days of the conference. Come on down and check it out.

Oh, and FamilySearch is offering free accounts in their booth. Winking smile