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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

What is my genetic genealogy workflow with my AncestryDNA Matches?

Genetic Genealogy Workflow with AncestryDNA matches

If you've taken an AncestryDNA test and are ready to move beyond your ethnicity estimates, it's time to dive into the best reason to take a DNA test. That is to find your Cousin Matches!

DNA matches provide essential clues to help you build a genetically based family tree, combined with genealogical evidence.

Regardless of how your relatives built your family tree, you can piece together your ancestral past using the tools on

Before You View Your DNA Matches

Assuming you have taken a DNA test, what should you do while waiting for the results to build a biological family tree on Ancestry.

  • Please enter as much detail as possible such as names, dates, and life event places for your direct ancestors and their children.

  • Make your tree public or private but searchable. By so doing, you can take advantage of the Common Ancestor tool mentioned later.

  • As soon as you're able, link your DNA kit to yourself in your family tree.

When our results come in, we should click on the DNA menu option at the top of the screen and click "DNA matches."

There are some other great features in that drop-down menu, but let's stay focused.

To see the process in action, watch this video.

1. Do You Recognize Anyone???

Scroll through the DNA Match webpage to see how many, or few, matches you have. Also, see if you recognize anyone.

You might be surprised that your cousin secretly took a test!

Or perhaps you recognize the person that invited you to take a DNA test.

If you don't recognize any names, that's okay. Skip to Step #2.

For Those You Recognize On Your DNA Match List

Scroll to the name of the person that you recognize.

To the right of the DNA match's name, you'll see the following options:

Ancestry DNA Match List "Do You Recognize Them?"

Follow the prompts that Ancestry provides to set whether the match belongs to your mother's side of your family tree or your father's. If you have a match from both, then choose that option.

Next, use the relationship assignment form to select how you are related to this known relative.

Instead of saying 1st-2nd cousin and no parental line designation, you will have something more specific that looks like this.

Ancestry DNA Match Specified Relationship

If you have tested either one or both of your parents, Ancestry will automatically suggest whether your DNA match belongs to your mother's or father's side. However, if you have endogamy or tree collapse in close generations, these automatic assignments might not always work with your matches, so be forewarned.

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2. Analyzing DNA Matches With Trees

After processing those you know, it's time to turn your attention to those you don't know but who have linked their DNA to an online tree.

First, filter all of your DNA matches using the "Filter By" option of "Common Ancestor."

Next, click on the name of the first DNA match with a common ancestor, which Ancestry found by comparing your family tree with your DNA matches.

AncestryDNA Match Comparison Page

1. Review the "Common Ancestor" Suggestion

Ancestry will compare your family tree (if you link your DNA to it) with the family trees which your DNA matches have linked their DNA. If the comparison finds similar ancestors, Ancestry will return a recommendation, like the one you see above. In addition, if you click on "View Relationship," Ancestry will draw a possible path between your and your DNA match.

Take time to review this simplified Ancestry ThruLine. In paths of relationship similar to the one shown above, you may be able to quickly validate if that relationship is accurate or not.

AncestryDNA ThruLine That Needs More Validation

You might have to evaluate more potential relatives with a more distant relationship before accepting the predicted relationship.

Recognize that any online tree may have errors, but people usually know the identity of their parents and grandparents. Of course, there are caveats, but we need to speak in terms of fundamental principles, and then later, we can talk about things that break 'the norm.'

Additionally, Ancestry might discover other potential common ancestors. This happens when you could be related in multiple ways to your ancestors, or your DNA match could be descended from different ancestors that you have, even if your lines don't cross on your branch. Investigate and validate the likely paths of relationship.

If you can validate the predicted Common Ancestor, click the "Add Relationship" button below your DNA Match's name.

AncestryDNA Add Relationship menu

Specify how this DNA match is related using the onscreen prompts.

Recognize when you reach the Relationship Assignment page. Sometimes you will have to click the "Show More Possible Relationships" to find the correct option. For 5th cousins and more distantly related relatives, you will choose the "Distant Relationship" option.

  • Do not be discouraged by the percentage that appears beside the relationship option.

  • If you are actually a Half 5th Cousin Once Removed, choose the "Distant Relationship" option even if only 1% "of people sharing 31 cM (< 1%) of DNA have this relationship."

2. Add a Note

Next, add notes to the DNA match to help you remember anything pertinent to your discovery.

  • Add the names of the shared common ancestor.

    • If you can recognize the couple by their surname combination only, use that (i.e., Peak/Townley).

    • If you have any instances of duplicate surnames, then make sure the common ancestor has the given names. For example, if you have several Nash relatives in your tree, perhaps you would use Thomas Clabaugh/Polly Nash or Richard Dickey/Rebecca Nash to identify the common ancestors.

  • If you use the Ancestry Table Maker, you may also want to add relationship abbreviations and other notes here, so they show up there when you download the data. That way, you can see your notes without opening up Ancestry.

  • If you have any other note that will help you remember how your DNA match fits into your family tree, add it here.

3. Add a Color Code

Ancestry offers us the ability to Color Code our DNA. However, many methods exist, and you have to find the one that fits the techniques you're implementing.

I'm fortunate to know the identifies of my eight great-grandparent couples. As such, I use the following color codes to represent them.

  • My paternal grandfather's lines are shades of green.

  • My paternal grandmother's lines are shades of blue.

  • My maternal grandfather's lines are shades of pink/purple.

  • My maternal grandmother's lines are shades of yellow/gold.

Based on the Common Ancestral Couple, I know which group to assign a match to. If a relative is a descendant of more than one couple, they will have more than one colored dot.

4. Send a Message

Once I have assigned a match to a group and added notes, I could then reach out to the DNA match using Ancestry's messaging system.

5. Repeat the Above Steps for the Next Match*

I don't tend to review the Shared Matches for my closest matches until I'm working on a specific research question.

Instead, I'll keep repeating the above steps until I reach my 2nd cousins or more distantly related DNA matches.

3. Analyzing 2nd-4th Cousin DNA Matches With Trees

Once I have processed my close DNA matches that have trees linked to their genes, I begin processing the more distantly related matches, but with one difference.

After adding the relationships, color codes, and notes, I click on the "Shared Matches" tab. This tab displays my DNA matches that also match the selected match that I'm evaluating.

Beginning with second cousins, many researchers will discover that these relatives only match one line. For my results, these relatives only descend from one of the eight great-grandparent couples.

So, I'm able to rapidly assign the DNA matches that match myself and an identified relative, who descends from a common ancestor, as one color code. I can do this, regardless of whether they added a family tree online or not.

If I have a DNA match that only descends from the Brown/Gordon line, then all other persons on the Shared Match page of this descendant will receive the dark purple colored dot.

Ancestry has now made it easy to color-code multiple names on the Shared Match list at one time. Be sure to watch the video to see how that's done.

I keep processing my DNA matches using the steps listed above until I reach matches that share 30 cMs. This isn't too small of shared centimorgans to necessarily be false matches. However, I still have a lot of research to figure out for those who share more than 30 cMs with me. Once I figure out how those folks relate to myself and my close relatives, I can tackle the distant relatives who share smaller segments of DNA.

If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced genetic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.

4. Begin Specific Ancestral Couple Research

After reviewing the DNA Comparison page for DNA matches with trees, I began a more targeted research approach. For example, I can start to research specific ancestor couples and their descendants.

Using the "Filter By" Bar on the DNA Match List, I ensure I have reset the filters. Then I apply the "Groups" option and select one of the ancestor couple color-coded groups.

We should see color-coded matches that have family trees and don't have family trees attached to our genetic relatives. We can now utilize several strategies to determine how those without family trees fit into our tree. These techniques may include:

  • Messaging the person through Ancestry's messaging system.

  • Complete descendancy research for common ancestors to find potential connections to the DNA matches.

  • Search for the match on another DNA website

  • Search for the DNA Matches family information using "Living Persons Strategies."

After that, it's a matter of rinse and repeat.

What is your workflow while doing Genetic Genealogy research?

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