DNA Cousins - Your Genealogy Secret Weapon
DNA Cousins, or You Thought Your Family Was Big Before!
DNA cousins can help you break through genealogical brick walls in ways you never imagined. And you have TONS of them. In this article we'll talk about what DNA cousins are, how to find them and what to do when you do.
Who ARE all these people?
So let's assume you've had your DNA tested and your results are back. You've used Ancestry or FamilyTree DNA or 23&Me or what-have-you, and you've been thrilled/bored/stunned by your ethnicity results. And your DNA discovery might just end here, if that's all you wanted to know.
But if you're interested in genealogy, a big present also just dropped into your lap.
Along with your results, you find you have matches - DNA "cousins" - some distantly and some quite closely related. These are other folks who have sections of DNA that exactly overlap yours, meaning you are related, and somewhere along the line, you have a common ancestor.
Each DNA testing company has a messaging system in place so you can contact your DNA cousins without giving away your personal email. Depending on the company you've used, you may get information on these people such as ancestral regions/countries, actual chromosome matches, and even other DNA cousins that you both have in common, which can serve as a clue to which branch of the family you're related on.
This is all incredibly helpful to you as a researcher!
OK, I have some DNA matches - what now?
Personally, I tend to only contact the close matches - anyone who has a match probability of Good, High or Extremely High. I don't bother with the Moderate matches, or anything beyond 4th cousin probability, as it's almost never going to be worth my time, since the connection is so tenuous that there's no real likelihood of finding any information.
Worst case scenario - you reach out to someone and they ignore you. This has happened to me many times. The most likely reason for this is that the person really just wanted to know their ancestry and has no interest in family trees or shared ancestors or any of that stuff and they're certainly not interested in being contacted by some rando on the internet. Fair enough. Frustrating, but it will happen.
Better case scenario - the other person is happy to hear from you, but doesn't have a lot of information. Perhaps you share the names of your ancestral villages, or tell each other all the surnames in your family to see if there are any in common, but there are no matches. Disappointing, but it's part of the search. Write down the names in their family and set them aside for now (which is definitely something you'll want to do...more on that in a moment).
Best case scenario - you find someone with a common surname or who is from the same ancestral area and they have info you don't have. Jackpot!
This is rare, unfortunately, since Greek genealogy has generally not always been meticulously recorded in all places, and many documents have been lost to war, fire and earthquakes. But when you find a friendly cousin who can share information - or even photos or documents - that will make your whole week.
In case you heard the same misinformation I did growing up, let me assure you of one thing - there ARE such things as birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc., in Greece. Some of you may think that's painfully obvious, but I was raised to think that in the villages especially, people didn't bother with those, or were somehow too unsophisticated to keep records.
I was actually told a person's "birth certificate" was an icon of their patron saint with their name and date of birth carved into the back!
While this might have been some sort of village adjunct (I found one such icon in my attic), I can assure you there are written records in many, if not most, places. The local priest was often the keeper of this information, or the town hall in larger areas.
Many records are now digitized and can be found in the Greek National Archives, or GAK
An example of a record found in the Greek National Archives,
courtesy of Greek genealogist Gregory Kontos of Greek Ancestry.net.
I've been able to get tantalizingly close to a common ancestor on a couple of occasions. Once I even went to the Peloponnesian village of a DNA cousin from Detroit and saw his family's house, just a village or two over from where my paternal grandfather was born. We figured out that there was intermarriage between our two families, but haven't quite figured out who. The search goes on!
Another DNA cousin and I met for pizza. We had a surname hit and village hit and it was interesting to hear what she knew of her family history. We had an ancestor's maiden name in common (YES! This is why you try to find out the ladies' names!) and we were able to share information and some great old photos.
One thing I found helpful was starting a DNA surnames database. My "database" is actually just an ongoing list, continually updated as new info comes in, but if you have the interest and skills, you could make a proper spreadsheet.
As I've contacted DNA cousins, I list all the surnames associated with that person. If I know from which side of the family they connect, I add that in. My parents are both gone, but I have tested my half-sister (on my mother's side) and my dad's brother.
If the DNA cousin also matches either of them, I automatically know which side of the family - maternal or paternal - they connect on, which narrows things down a bit. With each new batch of names I get, I compare them to what I already have and see if there are any in common.
The names list is helpful because you may find another piece of information in a year or two or five that matches a heretofore meaningless name on your list. Click! And just like that, something falls into place, and a brick wall tumbles down.
Whether or not you decide to contact your DNA cousins (or respond when they contact you) is up to you, of course. Courtesy would dictate at least a short response if someone reaches out, but it's your call.
But if you're serious about digging into your genealogy, DNA cousins might just be the key to a door you didn't even know was available to open.
Coming soon - I will have an article about connecting in a very meaningful way with one of these DNA cousins, and how he found a whole family as a result. Stay tuned...
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