Sunday, August 20, 2017

Which DNA Test Should I Buy? A Comprehensive DNA Buying Guide, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and now even MyHeritage all offer DNA tests related to genealogy. To determine which DNA test you should buy, you should first determine your motivation for doing so. There's generally one (or more) of four reasons to buy a genealogical DNA test:

1. You're a genealogist (hobbyist or professional) looking for new ways to explore more about your ancestry and possibly break down some brick walls in your tree
2. You're not a genealogist and just interested in your ethnic background
3. You're adopted or looking for an unknown biological parent
4. You are looking for a genetic health report

(A potential 5th reason would be if you want to determine if a known relative is actually a biological relative - for example, if you suspect your father is not your biological father and want to confirm or deny it. Or if you want to determine whether a sibling is a full or half sibling. As long as you both test with the same company, all 4 companies will provide this information).

(Note, it's okay if you want to skip to the final conclusion below, I won't be offended!)

The next important thing to understand is that there are three different types of DNA tests: Autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA, you may have heard of this if you've ever obsessively watched Forensic Files). Here's an explanation of each:

Autosomal DNA is typically the test that most people are looking for, as it's the only one that includes an ethnicity report, and it's also the only one capable of providing a health report (though not all companies include a health report, more on that later). It includes DNA from your autosome chromosomes 1-22, and from the 23rd chromosome, the sex chromosomes. That means it includes DNA from all branches of your tree (back to a certain variable point). It is gender neutral, which means both men and women can take it, and it will not exclude anything based on gender.

There's two main parts to the autosomal DNA test - your ethnicity report, which is largely an estimate and should not be taken very literally, and your match list, a list of other testers (from the same company) who you share DNA with. You will not share DNA with all your distant cousins though, and the more distantly related you are, the less likely you will share DNA. It also won't be able to tell you how you relate to any of your matches - it can only estimate a degree of relationship, not which side or branch they are from. You have to work with your matches and their trees to figure this out yourself. Despite this, the autosomal DNA test is an ideal option for adoptees because it's the only test that will provide matches from all your ancestors, not just one specific line.

Be aware that the ethnicity report often isn't able to narrow the results down as specifically as many people would like. Don't be misled by commercials - no DNA test can narrow it down as specifically as "German" or "Scottish", not with any accuracy at least.

The autosomal DNA test also includes data on the X chromosome, which is one of the sex chromosomes. Males are XY, females are XX. For males, the raw data will include some data on the Y chromosome, but most companies don't provide a Y haplogroup (explained below), and none of them provide matches on the Y chromosome. Most companies allow you to see matches on the X chromosome - more details on which companies provide what will be included further on.

Y-DNA is a test that can only be taken by males, because they have a Y chromosome. If you are female, you can have a male relative like your father or brother or paternal uncle or cousin take the Y-DNA test for you. What this means is that Y-DNA only follows the direct paternal lineage - ie, your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, etc (it does NOT include your entire father's side - ie, it does not include anything from your paternal grandmother's side). No females ancestors contribute to or pass along Y-DNA. Because surnames typically follow the direct paternal line as well, it means that surnames and Y-DNA can often be connected and so there are many Y-DNA projects you can join for your surname. For male adoptees or men looking for a unknown biological father (or paternal grandfather), it means the Y-DNA test may help you identify the surname of the man you're looking for. Be aware, this is often dependent on how many Y-DNA matches you have, and what their surnames are. For adoptees, I recommend taking both the Y-DNA test and the autosomal DNA test, if you can afford it. If your Y-DNA matches suggest a certain surname, go to your autosomal DNA matches and look for people who have that surname in their tree.

In addition to a match list, the Y-DNA test also provides your Y haplogroup. What is a haplogroup? It's a label given to a grouping of genetic markers which every so often mutates. The parent haplogroup goes back to prehistoric times. Every time there is a new mutation it narrows down a new group and there is a new identifier attached to the haplogroup name. What this means is that haplogroups aren't particularly useful for recent genealogy and only really tell you about the migration patterns of your prehistoric ancestors. Some haplogroups are specific to certain races or ethnicities - meaning it may be able to tell you whether your direct paternal lineage was European, African, Asian, Native American, etc. But it probably won't help you identify a recent ancestor by name.

The Y-DNA is more expensive than the autosomal DNA test and there are a few different options to buy, depending on how many markers you want to include. The more markers, the better quality of the results, but also the more expensive. The more markers, the more specific the haplogroup will be, and the more specific and reliable the genetic distant with your matches will be (see the genetic distance chart at FTDNA). Due to the fact that it's more expensive, I would not recommend the Y-DNA test unless you have a question on the specific paternal line.

mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) is a test that can be taken by both males and females, as we all have mtDNA, but similar to the Y-DNA test, it only provides results from the direct maternal lineage - ie, your mother, your mother's mother, your mother's mother's mother, etc (it does NOT include your entire maternal side - ie, it does not include anything from your maternal grandfather's side). Unfortunately, since surnames don't normally follow the maternal line, mtDNA tends to be less useful for recent genealogy than Y-DNA. If you are an adoptee, you may want to consider taking the mtDNA test in addition to the autosomal DNA test, but keep in mind is it more expensive and may not provide any useful matches or data.

Like the Y-DNA test, the mtDNA test also provides a haplogroup. They work the same as Y-DNA haplogroups, identifying groups of genetic markers that mutate every so often and date back to prehistoric times. For example, my mtDNA haplogroup is T2b. The parent group of markets is identified as 'T', the '2' represents one mutation, and the 'b' represents another. This does not mean I've only had 2 mutations, only that these are the only two identified so far as an existing, known new group. If enough people are found with the same additional mutations as myself, new groups and therefore more numbers and letters will be added to my haplogroup. Like Y-DNA, mtDNA haplogroups really only show you the prehistoric migration routes your ancestors took and while they may be able to identify the race or ethnicity of your direct maternal line, it likely won't help you identify a recent ancestor by name.

In my opinion, mtDNA is only really useful if you happen to get a very close match, which is unlikely since the database of mtDNA testers is relatively low. Even then, a "close" mtDNA match still may not be related within a genealogical time frame.

Now that you understand the different tests, I will go through and detail the pros and cons of each company, which types of test they provide, and give my advice on them depending on what you're looking for from the tests.

A screenshot of my ethnicity report from AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA from used to provide Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, but they no longer do so. Currently, they only provide the autosomal DNA test, which does not include any haplogroups. You will receive an estimated ethnicity report (called Genetic Ancestry) and you can see the 26 regions and categories available here. The info they provide about each category in your results are very detailed, but the accuracy of the ethnicity report is fairly average - some find it more accurate than others.

You'll also receive your list of DNA matches with other testers, in addition to a few other features and tools unique to like Genetic Communities (shown below), DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries. Genetic Communities finds groups of people who share DNA and have the same, known ancestry in a certain area. DNA Circles finds groups of people who share DNA and have the same ancestor in their tree - so this is not available if you don't have a tree attached to your DNA test. New Ancestor Discoveries are basically DNA Circles for people who are not in your tree (yet), so you will still get these if you don't have a tree.

A screenshot of my mom's Genetic Communities unique to
The major benefit to AncestryDNA is that they have the largest database of testers, which means you'll get the most DNA matches to work with. Their database is international, because the test is available in 35 different countries, the full list of which can be found here, however the majority of testers are in the US.

The major downside to AncestryDNA is there is no chromosome browser. A chromosome browser is important to identify matching segments among multiple people you match (triangulation). That doesn't mean you can't have success with AncestryDNA, but in some cases it may make things more difficult. In part, because of this, AncestryDNA does not identify matches on the X chromosome.

AncestryDNA does not provide a health report so it is not an option for people who want an integrated health report, however, there are affordable, third party sites that will accept Ancestry's raw DNA data to provide you with a health report. These will be detailed later. AncestryDNA also doesn't include any mtDNA or Y-DNA haplogroups, although as discussed previously, haplogroups aren't really very useful for recent genealogy anyway so there's nothing really lost here.

Another downside is the fact that Ancestry does not accept raw DNA uploads from other companies. This means unless you test with Ancestry, you can't get results from them and that actually means that in spite of being a con, it makes the most sense to test with AncestryDNA and then use your raw DNA data from them to upload to other companies that do accept them.

The method of collecting your DNA may be important since some older people have difficulty producing saliva - AncestryDNA's method is a spit tube. You have to fill it to a line. If you're struggling, you can cover it with plastic wrap and set it upright in your fridge and try to add to it later. Also try a little bit of sugar on the tip of your tongue to help stimulate saliva, and/or chew gently on your cheek.

AncestryDNA does not allow you to opt out of DNA matching.

Pricing is normally $99, however, there are often sales ranging from $69 to $89, typically for Mother's Day, Father's Day, Black Friday/Christmas run up, National DNA Day (yes, that's a thing, April 25), and sometimes other times of year like St Patrick's Day. They can also be somewhat spontaneous - this year they had a random "Summer DNA Sale" for half of August.

Conclusion: Apart from the lack of a chromosome browser, AncestryDNA is a good option for adoptees, people looking for an ethnicity report, or genealogists wanting to break down brick walls in their tree, especially if you are already a subscriber there and host your tree there. It just makes sense to have your tree, DNA, and major records resource all in the same place. Non-subscribers are not able to view the full trees of their DNA matches, which may be limiting. However, you can contact your DNA matches and ask them for an invite to their tree, which would allow you access. Trees are important to figuring out how you relate to someone. Particularly for adoptees, using trees to mirror them in your search for biological parents is essential. AncestryDNA is not an option for a integrated health report, but third party options to upload to are available.

A screenshot of my 23andMe ethnicity report


There are two autosomal DNA tests available from 23andMe - the "ancestry-only" test which does not include a health report, and the "ancestry+health" test which does includes the health report. Although they are both autosomal DNA tests, they both include an mtDNA haplogroup and, if you are male, a Y-DNA haplogroup. It may not be your most specific haplogroup since they are working with limited mtDNA and Y-DNA data, and they do not include any mt or Y matches with other testers. If you're looking for an mtDNA or Y-DNA test, this is not a shortcut, it is not a true mtDNA or Y-DNA test.

In my experience, most people seem to feel the accuracy of 23andMe's ethnicity report (called Ancestry Composition) is better than other companies. However, it is still an estimate and unlike other companies, they have these "Broadly" categories that can't be narrowed down further (see above or below for examples). The descriptions of each category are also rather short, not very detailed, and the map showing the areas covered is small and not very detailed (see above). They do provide some features that other companies don't, like chromosome painting (shown below) which shows you which portions of your chromosomes they placed into different regions, and a timeline that shows an estimate of how long ago your ancestor of a certain ethnicity lived. Their full list of 31 regions/populations can be found here.

Chromosome painting at 23andMe shows the portions of
my chromosomes they've associated with which groups
The major downside to 23andMe is that they no longer support any family trees. As discussed, trees are important to figuring out how you relate to your DNA matches, and essential for adoptees. Of course, you can host a tree on another website and post a link to it in your 23andMe profile, but most people don't do this, and even if they do have a tree hosted elsewhere, it is very cumbersome to try to work on two different platforms. Similarly, most people report that their matches at 23andMe are more likely to not respond to their attempts to communicate. This is probably because many people at 23andMe tested there for the health report, and may have no interest in the genealogical side of things.

23andMe does provide a chromosome browser but their interface isn't always intuitive and the chromosome browser can be found in two different places, with the harder one to find including more data.

A portion of the list of rare diseases carrier status,
a part of your health report at 23andMe
The health report is the feature that sets 23andMe apart from the other companies. However, although they are gradually adding more and more health reports, they are lacking many of the health issues most people want to know about, like tendency for cancer, heart failure, etc. These may get added as time goes on, but at the moment, many of the health reports are your carrier status for rare diseases that you may never have heard of and are probably negative for (see example right). There's also 4 genetic health risks that might be more common, but there's only four of them (Late-Onset Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, Hereditary Thrombophilia). There are a few other "wellness reports" and "traits" reported, but they are mostly things you probably already know about yourself, like whether you're likely or unlikely to be lactose intolerant, whether you're a deep sleeper or not, what color your eyes are, etc. You can actually get a more comprehensive health report from third party companies where you can upload your raw DNA data. As 23andMe add more and more reports though, this may change.

Like AncestryDNA, 23andMe does not accept raw DNA uploads from other companies so if you want results from them, you have to buy their test.

23andMe is able to ship to over 50 countries, listed here, though health reports will not be available for most of them (those are listed here).

23andMe's method of collecting your DNA sample is a spit tube. See details above for tips on collecting from a dry mouth.

You can opt out of DNA matching with 23andMe if you wish to.

Pricing is normally $99 for the ancestry-only test, and $199 for ancestry+health. 23andMe do not often have sales - the only time I've seen their tests on sale were actually through Amazon, and even that is not often.

Conclusion: 23andMe would be good for people who just want an ethnicity report, or health report, but because of the lack of trees and responses from matches, it would not be ideal for adoptees or genealogists wanting to break down brick walls in their tree. If you have the money and inclination, I would still encourage testing with them though, since they don't accept uploads from other companies. If you want a health report but can't afford 23andMe's health test, there are third party sites that will accept data from 23andMe (details below).


A screenshot of my mother's ethnicity report at
FamilyTreeDNA offers autosomal DNA (called "Family Finder"), Y-DNA, and mtDNA tests. They are really the only company to offer Y-DNA and mtDNA. Other companies (named lower down) may offer them, but typically don't provide a match list.

Just like the other companies, FamilyTreeDNA offers an ethnicity report (called myOrigins), and a DNA match list. It does not include a health report. It does support family trees, and offers a chromosome browser and other tools for working with your matches (like the matrix tool, for triangulation, see below).

They also accept raw DNA data from AncestryDNA and 23andMe (MyHeritage might get added soon, but currently not), for only $19 to unlock your full results.

FamilyTreeDNA's Matrix tools for seeing which of your
matches also match other select matches
The major downside to FamilyTreeDNA is that their ethnicity report probably ranks 3rd out of the 4 companies covered here. Granted, they are the only ones attempting to identify Sephardic Jewish ancestry, all other companies only include Ashkenazi. They also split Native American into North and South America, whereas 23andMe and AncestryDNA lump them together. But if you're not one of these groups, it's probably not important. A full list of their 24 regions included can be found here.

Since they offer full mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, their autosomal DNA test does not include haplogroups like 23andMe does, however, as discussed, haplogroups aren't particularly useful for recent genealogy anyway. They also do not provide a health report, but as discussed, there are third party sites that provide a health report and accept uploads from FamilyTreeDNA.

FamilyTreeDNA will ship to "most international locations" - the only countries they list as unable to ship to, due to customs restrictions, are Sudan and Iran. More details here.

The method of collecting your DNA sample is a cheek swab, some people with dry mouth may find this easier to use.

You can opt out of DNA matching with FamilyTreeDNA if you'd like to.

Pricing is normally $89 for the autosomal Family Finder test but can sometimes be found on sale for $59-$79.

Pricing for Y-DNA normally ranges from $169 to $359, depending on marker amounts (see above info on Y-DNA for details), but you can sometimes find them on sale for less.

Pricing on mtDNA is normally $79 for "mtDNA Plus" or $199 for Full Sequence, but you can sometimes find them on sale for less. The mtDNA Plus test might be tempting for only $79, but this will only be relevant to ancient/prehistory. If you want any chance of having results/matches from a genealogical time frame, you have to buy Full Sequence.

Conclusion: It's the go-to place for Y-DNA or mtDNA. While FamilyTreeDNA offers all the tools necessary for working with your autosomal matches, which is necessary for genealogists and adoptees, the ethnicity report isn't the best, and if you don't mind the $19 fee, it makes more sense to test with another company and upload to FamilyTreeDNA. If you're not interested in dealing with multiple companies, and you're not that bothered about the ethnicity report, then FamilyTreeDNA is the best option for a slightly lower cost. It is not an option for an integrated health report, but third party options to upload to are available.

A screenshot of my ethnicity report at MyHeritageDNA


MyHeritage are newcomers to autosomal DNA testing (they do not provide mtDNA or Y-DNA) and therefore their database of testers is very small - you will have few matches compared to other companies. Additionally, I've had an odd experience with their matches, where none of my matches can be found as matches to either my mother or my paternal grandfather (whose tests are both on MyHeritage too). However, they can't all be matches to my paternal grandmother, especially considering she was Italian and none of these matches are Italian. It's almost like they excluded these matches from my mom's and grandfather's tests because they are already a match to me and decided not to duplicate them. But that defeats the purpose of being able to see which of my matches are also a match to my mom's side or my dad's. Hopefully, this will be fixed in the future, and as their database grows, it will become more useful to genealogists and adoptees. They also do not offer a chromosome browser, or many tools for working with your matches, like a shared matches/in common with tool available from all 3 of the other big companies.

The other major downside is their ethnicity report is also very inaccurate for most people at the moment - I expect that will improve with time (all companies periodically update their ethnicity reports), and their database will grow with time as well. The maps are fairly detailed though, and one bonus to their ethnicity report is that they break Native American down into three regions, more than any of the other 3 big DNA companies, so if you are Native American, this may be a good option. MyHeritage don't like to name all their regions/populations available until you've taken the test, but there are 42 of them, and you can see a map of their coverage here.

MyHeritage does not offer mtDNA or Y-DNA tests, only autosomal DNA, and does not include any haplogroups like 23andMe's autosomal DNA test does, but again, haplogroups aren't very useful for recent genealogy. MyHeritage also does not offer a health report, and at this time I do not think third party health sites will accept raw data from MyHeritage (this may change with time).

Like, MyHeritage is also a genealogy website that offers a database of records and resources for genealogy research, for a fee. They also offer family trees and you can attach your tree to your DNA results, however their trees are limited to 200 people within them if you don't subscribe, which could be promblematic if you or your matches don't have complete trees to work with. If you subscribe to MyHeritage already, it would make sense for you to have your DNA test there. However, because MyHeritage current accept uploads from other companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA) for FREE, it doesn't make much sense to buy their test when you can get the same results for free by testing with another company and uploading your raw DNA to MyHeritage. I imagine they are currently only offering the uploads for free because their database of testers is so small and they are trying to build it up. Once they have a better established database, they may start charging for uploads. So I'd recommend getting your raw DNA data uploaded there as quickly as possible, while it's still free.

MyHeritage don't seem to detail what countries they are able to ship to, but they do offer the test to be purchased in different currencies, including USD, EUR, GBP, and ILS.

The method of collecting your DNA sample uses a cheek swab.

They do not allow you to opt out of DNA matching.

Pricing is normally $99, though they currently have a long running sale for $69, probably to entice people and more quickly build their database.

Conclusion: Due to the poor ethnicity report, small tester database, oddities with and lack of tools for your match list, the limitations of not having a subscription, no health report (and not supported by third parties who provide health reports), and the fact that they accept free uploads from other companies, I would not recommend buying a test from MyHeritageDNA, regardless of your reasons for testing. It makes more sense to buy with another company and upload to MyHeritage. If the current sale price appeals more to you, keep an eye out for sales from AncestryDNA.

Other Testing Companies

LivingDNA Europe break down
The above four companies are not the only ones to offer DNA tests, but they are the main (only?) ones which are geared towards genealogy and include both ethnicity and DNA matching with other testers, all for the most affordable cost.

LivingDNA offers the greatest break down of your ethnicity report - 80 worldwide regions, including 20 regions within Europe and an additional 21 regions just within Great Britain/Ireland, but this also makes it highly speculative and possibly not very accurate. They do not offer matching or a health report, but do include autosomal, mtDNA and Y-DNA. They do not accept uploads from other companies but are looking into adding it for autosomal only. Normally $159.

DNATribes offers a greater break down for Native American regions (seven), but regions for Europe are very broad (only 4), and they do not offer matching or health report. They do accept uploads from other companies for $50 (option for that is found here). They do not offer mtDNA or Y-DNA. Normally $119.

AncestryByDNA (not to be confused with AncestryDNA) uses an outdated method of determining your ethnicity report and is therefore very unreliable. Unsurprisingly, they are shutting down Sep 30, 2017. They do not offer matching, health reports, or allow uploads from other companies. Offers autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA. Pricing no longer available due to discontinuation.

National Geographic's Geno 2.0 (The Genographic Project) focuses on ancient DNA, not recent genealogy, and does not offer matching, health report, or allow uploads from other companies. Includes autosomal, mtDNA, and if male, Y-DNA. Normally $199.95.

Genos is a company that provides your full genome and is therefore extremely expensive at $499. It does not provide any ethnicity or matching. They do provided a health report of sorts but their FAQ is careful to say, "We provide information like population frequency and related health traits. We do not provide interpretation, and do not specialize in addressing conditions." Unless you need your full genome for a specific medical reason your doctor has requested, this is probably not worth the money.

African Ancestry is obviously a test for people of African descent. They provide Y-DNA, and/or mtDNA, not autosomal. They offer highly specific results of where in Africa your ancestry is from, but keep in mind it's only from one direct line, not your full ancestry. They do accept mtDNA or Y-DNA uploads from other companies for $210. They do not offer matching or health reports. Normally $299 for either Y-DNA or mtDNA (so $598 for both). That's pretty expensive, and I couldn't say whether the results are worth it as I'm not African.

Third Party Options

One of the many admixture calculators available at Gedmatch
One of the great things about DNA is that there are independent sites that provide further analysis on your raw DNA data, for small fees or even free. They do not sell DNA tests themselves, they only take the raw data from whatever company you tested with and analyze it.

Gedmatch is the go-to third party site for DNA analysis. It accepts uploads for free from 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritageDNA, and WeGene (below). It offers multiple different admixture (ethnicity) calculators, a list of your closest matches from people who have uploaded from all different companies regardless of which one you tested with, and a more detailed comparison with any one particular person/test. It does not include a health report and the main criticism is that it's not very user-friendly. For a guide on the admixture calculators, see my blog article on it.

WeGene is a site that focuses on Asian ancestry, it's not really ideal for others. They accept free uploads from 23andMe and AncestryDNA, but currently not FamilyTreeDNA or MyHeritage. Includes ethnicity report, mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups, and health report. Unclear on whether they provide matching?'s ethnicity report is similar to Gedmatch and is also free, they accept uploads from 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA, but not from MyHeritage (at this time). They only offer one ethnicity report (as opposed to Gedmatch's many), and their match lists are small, as they have a smaller database of uploaded tests. No health report but they do have a "trait prediction report" which may be a precursor to a health report. They also give you the option to participate in medical studies. It's a project run by the Columbia University and the New York Genome Center.

Promethease will provide a health report from data from 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA for only $5, and from Genos for $10. It is fairly comprehensive, but only really tells you what genes you have that are associated with what conditions. You should really consult a doctor for a medical opinion on it.

GENOtation if a free tool from Stanford University that analyzes your 23andMe or Lumigenix data for ancestry and health reports.

LiveWello will provide a health report for $19.95 from your 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or FamilyTreeDNA raw data.

Final Conclusion: 

If you're a genealogist or adoptee, to get the most out of your money, I recommend testing with AncestryDNA or 23andme, and then uploading your raw DNA data to MyHeritageDNA for free, and to FamilyTreeDNA for only $19 to unlock your full results. If you want health reports, you can upload to for only $5. That way, you wind up spending a max of about $125 for results from 3 companies and a health report (and any free third parties you choose to upload to). You'll get the most out of your money this way. If you have the money and inclination, buy from both AncestryDNA and 23andMe, as then you'll have access to and matches from every company. If you don't have the money or inclination, I would prioritize buying AncestryDNA over 23andMe, since 23andMe doesn't offer family trees, and AncestryDNA have the biggest database of testers. If you're really on a tight budget, and can't afford $120-125, then I would say test with FamilyTreeDNA, since it's less expensive and has all the tools you need.

If you're thinking "wow, I'm not that into this, I just want my ethnicity and/or health report and I'm good with it from just one company, I'm not interested in the rest," then I would recommend 23andMe or AncestryDNA. However, I would also remind you that the ethnicity report is only an estimate, the true value of the test is with the DNA matches.

If you're not inclined to upload to for a $5 health report which is arguably more comprehensive than 23andMe's $199 test right now, then 23andMe is your only option for a health report.

If you're just looking for ethnicity and no health report, 23andMe have the best ethnicity report in my experience, followed by AncestryDNA, then FamilyTreeDNA, and finally MyHeritage coming in last (this is based on my experience with all 4 companies, managing 3 kits, and on years of communicating with other testers who typically agree with this assessment, and additionally the opinion of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy). So although they are less expensive, but MyHeritage has terrible ethnicity reports at the moment, and although FamilyTreeDNA has improved their ethnicity report recently, it is still sub-par if you ask me. You get what you pay for. That said, given that Ancestry's DNA test is more commonly on sale than 23andMe, if you're not desperate for 23andMe's health report and there's no rush, I'd recommend waiting and snagging AncestryDNA when it's on sale. You'll be waiting much longer if you wait for 23andMe to go on sale. However, if not being able to opt out of DNA matching is a deal breaker, then go with 23andMe where you can opt out.

If the spit tube is a deal breaker, then FamilyTreeDNA is your best option.

Of course you are free to make your own decision based on the information provided! This is just my opinion, but it is based on years of experience with all 4 companies and some of the third parties.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How To Do Pre-1850 Research?

The will of Jonathan Gilbert, naming all his children (Charles
and Israel's names highlight)
It's one of the first questions people ask once they've been researching for a little while. Why do most branches seem to brick wall around 1850? How do I get back further?

So often, our main resources in genealogy are census records, and in the US, pre-1850 census records only list the head of household by name. This makes it difficult to identify families and find parents names of people who were adults and living independently from their parents by 1850. Additionally, most states in the US were not issuing birth and death records this early on, meaning we have to rely mostly on church records and obituaries. Many church records either haven't been digitized, making them hard to track down, especially if you don't know where to look because you don't know where specifically one was born or what church they attended, or they may have been lost or destroyed over time. Unlike civil records, churches have no obligation to archive their records, or even keep them in the first place. As for obituaries, often times they are only a brief death notice with nothing more than info on the individual's death and burial, and that's assuming they available online or you can find access to the right newspaper offline. Occasionally, you might see a burial record that name's the decease's father, but not always. So to say that records become more scarce before 1850 is putting it lightly.

It's frustrating, but the good news is, there are other sources. Records like probates, deeds, and tax lists are often some of the oldest records available, and recently, more and more of them are getting digitized. Now, I can't promise these records will always break down your brick walls but they are worth exploring, and here's my most recent example.

In search of the parents of my 4th great grandfather Charles Gilbert (1784-1861, Montgomery County, PA), I finally found them through probate and deed records alone. Firstly, I knew that Charles had a brother Israel Gilbert, because there is a local history book detailing one of Charles' sons, Seth, and stating he had an uncle Israel Gilbert (and yes, it also confirmed Seth as the son of Charles Gilbert and my 4th great grandmother Jane Sutch). Next, I was looking for deeds bought or sold by Charles, and one of them from 1811 mentioned Israel, so I knew I was looking at the right Charles Gilbert. It also mentioned several other Gilbert men, and indicated the estate of the deceased Jonathan Gilbert. My spidey-sense immediately tingled, as it sounded a lot like Jonathan was the father of all these men and his sons were taking care of his property after his death. But how do I confirm it?

Jonathan Gilbert's will confirming his wife's unique name,
shared with her granddaughter
I went looking for wills of a Jonathan or John Gilbert in the right area around 1811 and immediately found one dated 1808 and proved in 1809. It lists all his sons names, matching those in the deed, and his wife's name. The clincher? His wife's name was Dedemiah, a rather unique name shared by none other than Israel's daughter. Bingo! Mystery solved, with nothing more than a deed and a will.

Israel also had a son named Jonathan, probably named after his father, but given the popularity of this name, that alone wouldn't have been enough to convince me.

It doesn't always go this way, of course. Not everyone owned land, and not everyone had a will, and even when they did have a will, they did not always take the time to consider us future genealogists and list their children by name. Sometimes, later probate records regarding the execution of the will, can name children though, so be sure to read those to, no matter how boring they seem.

Montgomery County, PA Deeds 1784-1866 can be found online (but not indexed yet) at
Montgomery County, PA Probates can be found at both (indexed), and (not indexed)

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Secret" Hidden Collections on FamilySearch

So, FamilySearch are discontinuing their microfilm service soon. Everything will be digitized by the end of 2020, which is a bummer we have to wait so long for some films, but here's the good news: there are already a number of collections digitized but not yet indexed. That means they won't show up in the search engine when you're searching by someone's name. You have to find the collection in their list of collections and then manually browse the images. It's tedious, but if you're anxious to find something and don't want to wait for it to be indexed, it can be worth it. Additionally, there's some collections already digitized but not even found in their online collections list yet! The way to find them is to search for microfilm from the catalog and if the film has a camera icon on the right, you can click on it and be taken to the digital images. Of course, first check to make sure the collection hasn't been indexed, so you're not wasting time manually searching the images when you don't need to.

Above is an example of one such collection. The Montgomery County, PA Deed, 1784-1866 is not found in the online collection list (at least, not as I post this - it could get added any time), you can go to the list and narrow it down to Pennsylvania and see there is no mention of any records of deeds. Yet if you search for it in the microfilm catalog, you'll see the camera icons (circled in red in the screenshot above) you can click to view the digitized images.

What this means is that there may already be collections you need that have been digitized, you just need to do a little more digging to find them. So there may be more available now than you realize. Of course, if you'd rather wait till everything is indexed, you're welcome to do so. But the end of 2020 date is just for scanning everything, that doesn't even include indexing. You could be waiting much longer than 2020 if you wait for everything to be indexed. So I would advise regularly checked the catalog to see if there's any collections that have been scanned but not yet added to the collections list or indexed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The New Change in AncestryDNA's Test Activation Process

You may have heard the news that as of July 18, 2017 will be requiring that only one DNA test can be activated per account. Before you panic, let's get the facts straight.

1. This won't affect existing multiple kits on your account. Ancestry have made it clear that "If you are a customer who currently manages multiple DNA kits in your account you’ll continue to have access to those DNA results and there’s no action for you to take."

2. You will still be able to administer someone else's test on your account. The changes only effect the activation process. Once activated, you can still go into your test settings and transfer management of your test to another account. They are now calling it "making someone a manager" rather than "transferring administration", but the manager has pretty much all the same access and rights the administrator did, the only thing a manager can't do is remove the owner from access (see the chart above). You can read instructions on how to transfer management from Ancestry's help article found here (scroll down to "making someone a manager"). The changes to the activation process just mean that managing someone else's kit now requires several extra steps of first creating a new Ancestry account and activating it on the new account before management can be transferred to your account.

3. You do not need to subscribe to to take their DNA test. This means Ancestry are not trying to artificially inflate their subscription numbers. You can read more about the free guest registration here, and sign up for it (not the free trial), with no credit card necessary, here.

4. have always advertised the number of DNA tests in their database, not the number of accounts that have DNA tests. Therefore, Ancestry are not trying to artificially inflate these numbers either, as these new changes will not affect these numbers. Their company stats are available here.

5. What is their motivation for doing this then? If you read their response to this support topic, from back when they were trialing this, it is a little clearer: "It has been Ancestry policy that only those with legal authority (such as a legal guardian) can activate a test for another user. We are making changes to reflect that policy." My personal interpretation is that this is a legal issue, and their lawyers want the company to assure (as best they can from their side, within reason) that the person activating the test is the person supply the sample. It allows them more deniability if someone accuses someone else of activating their kit without their permission.

6. Other companies have similar policies. Not only does FamilyTreeDNA require a different account for each person, they do not even allow you to transfer management to another account after activation like Ancestry do. The only saving grace to this is that FTDNA allow you to register more than one account with the same email address, because their login details use kit numbers instead of email address. But it still forces you to constantly login and out of different tests if you manage more than one. Ancestry's changes may feel like a step backwards in their activation process, but when you consider the alternatives, Ancestry still has an advantage over some.

Understanding all this, of course the new changes are still an annoying inconvenience when someone wants you to administer their test on your account. But despite all the objections made by customers during the trial of these changes, they are clearly going ahead with it anyway. Personally, I would respect this change more if they stopped trying to make it sound like this is of some kind of benefit to customers, as though this system is easier for us, when we all know it's not.

If you recently took advantage of the AncestryDNA sale on Amazon Prime Day and this is not your first kit, I recommend you hurry up and activate as soon as it arrives so you don't have to deal with this come July 18th. Fortunately, Prime promises 2 day shipping, so you should have already received it, if not today than tomorrow. You can activate it before you supply the sample and send it into the lab, and there is no deadline on when you can send it in after activating, so don't delay on activating it!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Discontinuation of FamilySearch's Microfilm

So for those who haven't heard, FamilySearch is going to be discontinuing distributing of their microfilm come September 1, 2017. You can read their announcement of it here. This is because they are in the process of digitizing all their microfilm for online access and estimate they will be complete by the end of 2020. Of course, I hugely appreciate the massive undertaking of scanning so many records from microfilm and making them available for free, the contribution their organization has made to the genealogy community is outstanding, but it is still disappointing to know there is going to be an almost 3 year downtime in which many records won't be accessible at all. That's assuming their projection is correct and they complete everything by the end of 2020. Hopefully, it does not take longer than expected.

According to FamilySearch, they have 2.4 million microfilms at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and they have so far digitized 1.5 million of those. That means there is still almost a million more films (37.5%) which need to be scanned. Granted, they have prioritized those which are most frequently ordered and already digitized them, but there are probably thousands (millions?) of people out there who need access to those roughly 900,000 films still not scanned, who will no longer have it for the next 2-3 years. I am one of them, in the last 2 years I have order dozens of microfilm which not only was not digitized at the time, but remains still un-scanned today.

I am just surprised that they aren't waiting until everything, or at least close to everything is done before discontinuing it. They've only just passed the half way point of completion. I have seen arguments as to why they are discontinuing the microfilm service, and they all make sense for discontinuing it eventually, just not right now, before their scanning project is at least a little closer to being complete. It is certainly disappointing, but it's not like it's the first time I've been forced to wait years for access to certain records. Fingers crossed their timeline projection is accurate.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Newspaper Mentions of Incoming Ships

My ancestors were the few who stayed on board the Australia
in spite of the disabled engine
Here's a tip many people may not know about. Newspapers typically reported the arrivals of ships, so if you're looking for more information on your ancestor's immigration, check newspapers.

For example, I had the passenger list for my ancestors, Giovantomaso Scioli and Lorenza Palladino, arrival in New York City on March 10, 1880, but frustratingly, the passenger list didn't mention the departure port or date. Wanting to know when and where their ship left from to get the full picture of their journey, I found NYC newspaper articles on March 10th and 11th, 1880, which told me not told me the ships departure details, but also that the ship made the journey on a disabled engine and hit a storm just before arrival!

That's probably a unique situation, but at the very least you should find a listing of ship arrivals with the details of its departure (example below). Sometimes, passenger names are even listed so if you're struggling to find any passenger list to begin with, you might want to try newspapers too (example below.

Monday, June 5, 2017

How to get a Family Group Sheet on

A couple years ago when updated their website to the "new site design", the family group sheet feature disappeared. Staff promised it would return, but it never did. At least, not on the surface. There is a "backdoor" method to pull up a family group sheet of anyone in your tree. Here's how it works.

Use the following URL, replacing "TREEID" and "PERSONID" with the corresponding numbers from the URL of your tree/the profile of the person you want to make a family group sheet for:

How do you find the tree ID and person ID numbers from your tree? Just open the profile of the person you want, and they can be found in the URL. So, for example, this is the URL from someone my public tree:

The first number, 110310542 is the tree ID, and the second number, 340080162048 is this person's ID. So, taking the family group sheet URL and replacing the corresponding numbers, the URL is:

Here's a quick reference image, for future use:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

An Update on The Tragic Family of James Addison Smith

James Addison Smith
Previously, I talked about my 3rd great uncle James Addison Smith and how his family was plagued with tragedy. His wife, Margaret Catherine Peay, and his daughter Marjory both became morphine addicts, his daughter Mary was schizophrenic, his son Olif died in a train accident, and his daughter Madge (who was also in the same train accident but survived) eloped with a man who also later wound up in a mental institution. You may feel sorry for James, but family legend has it that he was very controlling of his daughters, forbidding them from having boyfriends or even leaving the house without their mother. When Madge eloped, he never spoke to or of her ever again.

But let's start with what information can be confirmed with records. I detailed Mary's schizophrenia in the previous post, so now I will detail the tragic and horrific train accident that took many loved ones from this family.

In the summer of 1894, five year old Olif and three year old Madge Smith had gone with their maternal aunts, Sallie and Daisy Peay, to visit their other maternal aunt, Nannie Maddox (nee Peay), and her husband, James P Maddox in Centertown, Kentucky. Back home in Russellville, a good 50 miles south, Olif and Madge's mother, Margaret, was caring for their 6 month old sister Marjory at the time. Caring for an infant with two young children constantly underfoot was likely stressful, so perhaps Margaret sent them off with her sisters to visit family for a brief break.

Headline from newspaper about the accident
On Saturday, the 23rd of June, they set off home with James P Maddox driving them in a two horse wagon to the nearest railroad station, which was likely in McHenry, Kentucky, about 7-8 miles from Centertown. At 12:30 PM, they came upon a railroad crossing just southwest of McHenry known as Frogtown Crossing. What happened next was the result of a combination of poor planning of the junction, and total disregard for public safety. The road leading up to the crossing was on a hill, making it hard to see the crossing until you were only a few feet from it. In addition, there was a sharp curve to the railroad just before the crossing, making it difficult to see if any train was coming. As if that weren't enough, the railroad tracks had no planks at the crossing of the dirt road, meaning wagon wheels had to be pulled up and over each rail. Perhaps the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway Company felt the area was so rural, the road was unlikely to see much traffic, making an accident unlikely. In any case, the Smith, Peay, and Maddox families would suffer for that negligence.

Maddox seemed to be aware of the dangers of the junction, as he came to a stop just before reaching the top of the hill and the railroad. After a moment's pause, the wagon lurched forward, attempting to cross as quickly as possible, though other reports say the horses were spooked and this is why the wagon jumped forward. Regardless, the wagon suddenly halted on the tracks, the wheels stuck on the rails protruding from the ground, just as the eastbound train No. 6 came roaring around the corner so fast the passengers of the wagon didn't have time to jump out.

The collision was a horrific scene. The wagon was obliterated to pieces while the broken and bleeding bodies of both the horses and the wagon's passengers were thrown to either sides of the tracks. Olif had been thrown so high in the air, it's believed he died upon impact with the ground. The Peay sisters, thrown far from the tracks, were killed almost instantly and gasping their last breaths as help arrived. Maddox was unconscious but alive, barely, and suffered for 33 and a half hours before finally succumbing to his fatal wounds. Little Madge, the sole survivor (even the horses perished), had a broken arm and back, and her injuries were severe enough that many feared she would follow her relatives in death. In fact, one newspaper even falsely reported that she had already died. But she defied all the odds and pulled through, attended by the physicians of McHenry.

Settlement of case
The Maddox, Peay, and Smith families filed a law suit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway Co., asking them for $5,000 for each of the passengers who died in the accident. Originally filed with the Circuit Court of Ohio County, the case was transferred to the Federal Court but dismissed in June of 1895 when the parties came to a settlement outside court. The Railway agreed to pay the families $2,500 for each of the deceased, and another $1,975 to the Smith family for the injured Madge. In 1895, $2,500 would have been the equivalent of about $72,800 today. Madge's share would have been worth about $57,500 today, and according to family legend, it was put into a trust which she didn't receive until she turned 21 in 1911. Assuming she gained interest on her trust fund, the amount she inherited might have been much greater.

In 1913, Madge eloped with Harry J Messmann, a 29 year old salesman from Manhattan, New York who came to her father's clothing store, taking her inheritance with her. According to family stories, her over-protective and controlling father was so infuriated by her elopement that he refused to ever speak to her again and the family was forbidden from even saying her name. She was dead to him, but she did write to her mother and sisters.

Married life was ultimately not to bring Madge any happiness though. Though she had at least one child with Harry, a daughter named after herself and her own mother, Margaret, family lore says that when her money from the accident ran out, her husband left her. However, census reports show that in 1930 and 1940, Harry was a resident in Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital - a mental institute. Just like her sister Mary, Madge's husband suffered from a mental illness severe enough to hospitalize him for the rest of his life. Whether he also left her because her money ran out, before he was hospitalized, is unclear. Maybe Madge, too embarrassed to admit the truth of where her husband disappeared to, put it about that he had left her instead. What became of Madge and her daughter after 1920 remains a mystery - I have not been able to find them in the 1930 or 1940 censuses.

I have also not been able to find any records that verify Madge's sister Marjory and mother Margaret were morphine addicts. It's certainly possible, knowing all that their family was put through (both this and not forgetting the story of Mary's schizophrenia), that they might have turned to a drug which would help them forget it all. However, Margaret's death certificate makes no mention of any drug addiction, and the censuses don't report that kind of thing. What the census does tell us is that Marjory was employed as a filing clerk during each census, and according to directory records, all through the 1940s as well. I am not sure how likely it is that one could hold a job with a morphine addiction, but perhaps she did not start until after 1950.

James Addison Smith's obituary notably does not name his
still living schizophrenic daughter, or the daughter who eloped
As for the rumor that James Addison Smith was so controlling that he never allowed his daughters to leave the house without their mother, it may be true. Madge had to elope, and Marjory, Ella, and Mona never married. While the legend goes that he didn't allow them to have boyfriends, it doesn't necessarily mean they weren't allowed to marry, but it does make marriage much more difficult. Only his youngest daughter, Laura Batsel Smith, was married with his approval in 1935 when she was 26. Her wedding announcement in the paper says her father walked her down the isle and gave her away, evening hosting the wedding at his home. One wonders if this wasn't something of an arranged marriage, since when would Laura ever have had the freedom to get to know her groom, Edwin Chamberlin? Assuming the story is true, of course. It's a nugget of information my grandmother had collected during her own genealogy research. I know she reached out to a lot of relatives and gathered information from them. The Smith sisters would have been my grandmother's 1st cousins once removed, and several of them would have still been alive when my grandmother was researching, so this information could have come straight from the horses mouth. I know as genealogists we are taught to take family stories with a grain of salt, but we are also told to collect as much first-hand information as we can. So far, all the data and stories my grandmother left behind have turned out to be at least partly true.

On a last note, I noticed that James Addison Smith's obituary in 1941 does not mention his daughter Mary even though she outlived him. I guess in spite of all those years of caring for her, he was still embarrassed by his schizophrenic daughter. Madge is also noticeable not mentioned, and although we don't know for sure she was still alive at the time, her husband is listed in 1940 as still married, not widowed. That is suggestive that she was still alive, which lends credit to the story that her father had disowned her, for her to not be mentioned in his obituary. Whatever his reasons, he obviously disapproved of her marriage and never forgave her for it. What a shame, that with all the tragedies in his life, he would add to it by never forgiving the daughter he nearly lost as a child.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Quaker Gibbs of Burlington County, NJ

My Gibbs branch has always been a brick wall for me. My grandmother had fairly extensively researched her and my grandfather's genealogies and over the years, I went about confirming most of it with records and expanding on several branches. But not the Gibbs branch. Here's what I know.

Hope's baptism confirms her parent's names but not
mother's maiden name
Hope Gibbs was born November 3, 1805 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Caleb and Isabella Gibbs. There is an adult Lutheran baptism record for her which confirms her birth date and parents names, and other records like her death record confirm her birth place. According to my grandmother, Isabella's maiden name was Peters but I haven't found any record of that and have only my grandmother's word to go on (and she is deceased so I can't ask her where she got it from). It's possible she got the name from her mother-in-law, or her grandmother-in-law and therefore the info is subject to the corruption of things being passed down the generations through word of mouth. Equally, I haven't been able to find any conclusive info on Caleb apart from the mention in Hope's baptism record.

What I did find was some Quaker records of a Caleb Gibbs in Upper Springfield, Burlington County, New Jersey and the timing is right that this could be my Caleb Gibbs, that he was originally in New Jersey and moved to Philadelphia before Hope was born. I can't find records of him in Upper Springfield after Hope's birth and to strengthen the ties between the two Calebs, I found a marriage record of Caleb Gibbs and Isabella Brannin (mis-transcribed as Browning) on April 29, 1799. has the record of the marriage in Philadelphia, but this has been incorrectly indexed. Family Search has a copy of the record from the true location in Burlington, New Jersey.

Caleb Gibb's marriage without Quaker consent - lack of mention
of wife's name suggests she was not a Quaker

The trouble is I have no idea if my Caleb was a Quaker or whether he came from Burlington, New Jersey. The only links I have between them is that the Caleb from Burlington obviously married an Isabella, which matches with my info, and that there's no more Quaker records of him in Burlington County after 1800 (before Hope's birth), or seemingly any records at all of him in Upper Springfield after 1800 (though there are some Caleb Gibbs in neighboring townships). In fact, the reason for the lack of his mention in Quaker records after 1800 seems to be because there was a conflict with him and his marriage. It appears he married without the consent of the Quaker elders and he wasn't sorry for it. If this is my Caleb, this could be the reason he left Burlington (and perhaps even the Quakers) and went to Philadelphia.

Isabella's excommunication from the Quakers following
the birth of her illegitimate child
Interestingly, searching for Isabella Brannin in the Quaker records turned up a woman by that name who had a child out of wedlock in 1795 with Levi Webster. They were both excommunicated from the Quakers for it. This could be why Caleb's marriage to a disgraced woman and ex-Quaker was not approved. Isabella does not appear to have married Levi, which would have left her available to marry Caleb in 1799. Then all records of Caleb in Upper Springfield Township cease after 1800 - is it because they moved to Philadelphia, where their daughter Hope was born in 1805?

Quakers seem to be pretty well documented so I'm hoping someone who is researching Quaker Gibbs in the Burlington, NJ area might be able to help me link my Caleb Gibbs to them. It seems likely the two were one in the same, but I feel like I'm missing an affirmative link.

Friday, April 28, 2017

When it all comes together

Mary Cath. Brady, Martha Washington House, William Henry
McBride, and Daniel H McBride are all children of the John
McBride in my DNA match's tree, mentioned here as the heirs
of Catherine McBride, the mother of "my" John McBride.
This is a great example of how a combination of DNA and paper research can break down a brick wall. And it's why you should read all pages of a multipage document, even if it doesn't seem like it has any useful information at first. Additionally, probates often seem to get overlooked, but this is also a great example of how important they can be. When you're stuck, always look for a probate record, of all relatives involved. Even if they are female (women sometimes had wills and probates too!).

I had a suspicion that one of my DNA match's ancestor was my 5th great uncle, John McBride. The DNA match had the same name in her tree, but she knew nothing about him apart from his name (which she found from orphan court records), his wife, and his children. I had his birth and death data, and obviously his parents names (and records to back it all up), but no records confirming his wife's name or any children. The only thing they had in common was both location and time period, but there was no proof they were definitely the same man. It was like I had half the story, and she had the other half, but we had no way to link them together.

I finally read ALL the pages of John's mother's probate records. Initially I'd only read her will, thinking if she names her grandchildren by her son John, and they match the names of John's children in my DNA match's tree, that obviously proves they are the same man. The will doesn't name them (only says "my grandchildren by my son John")... but upon further inspection of the follow up documents, such as the distribution of her estate, it does list several people whose names match perfectly with the children in my DNA match's tree! Although it doesn't specify they are her grandchildren, given the context (i.e., her estate is being distributed to her heirs, as specified in her will as her grandchildren), it would be too much of a coincidence for so many of them to be listed on this woman's probate records if they weren't her grandchildren.

So when you're struggling to find a connection to a DNA match, it pays to do some digging around on a hunch, even if it seems like a long shot or there's not enough info to say for sure. The only connection I had was a name, and an extremely common first name at that, with a surname that isn't unheard of either. Even my DNA match in question was skeptical when I first proposed the idea to her, but a little digging proved my hunch was right!