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Brick walls & DNA

Discussion in 'DNA Questions and Answers' started by Pauline, Feb 10, 2021.

  1. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    I am wondering how successful other people have been at breaking down brick walls with DNA. Although I have had some success, mostly I feel like I'm just banging my head on the wall and not getting anywhere.

    For example, I have two illegitimate gt gt grandmothers whose fathers are unknown, and a gt gt gt grandmother whose origins are a complete mystery to me. And nearly 4 years after getting my DNA results, I still feel I haven't made any useful progress with these.

    Using all the standard strategies, I have been trying to identify as many of my matches as possible and then investigating the unidentified matches who are apparently connected in the right line - looking initially at those who shared matches suggest could be relevant to the brick wall.

    Mostly, though, I am finding that these unidentified matches bear no apparent relationship to each other, and are not in either small or large clusters. Many of them are also fairly distant matches, and it's difficult to confirm anything from an isolated 10-15cM match.

    Where possible I have been comparing notes with cousins descended from the same brick wall, but sometimes our DNA offers what appears to be conflicting evidence in relation to an unidentified match we share.

    Am I just expecting too much?
  2. PeterM

    PeterM LostCousins Member

    I would agree that DNA hasn't helped clear any brick walls. It has helped me find cousins although I am careful not to accept common ancestors on Ancestry without confirming by records. DNA has probably thrown up more questions than answers.

    One of my lines is the family name Menah (Menagh, Meenah, Menaugh etc.) Originating in Northern Ireland, I have found several matches that I cannot find the connection but are almost certainly cousins. The name is extremely rare. DNA has helped to confirm cousins in this family which we had already found by records.

    As far as my Paternal family name, I have almost no matches. Just one to my GGF and one to my GGGF. A Y-DNA test hasn't helped. I have no matches to my family name but the majority are to a name which I have no record of. Has no-one of my paternal family tested or should I have a different name? I have traced my family name back to my 6xGGF through Baptism records. Can these Baptism records be trusted? Are the parents shown really the birth parents?

    So still a long way to go.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  3. canadianbeth

    canadianbeth LostCousins Member

    My father was illegitimate and the name my grandmother said was his father's was not correct. So I have no name to search. DNA has been no help at all. I have sent messages to some possible half-cousins with no reply. I have a known first cousin once removed on my mother's side and have been able to put anyone matched to her and to my mother's family into a probably not paternal group. My closest match is my niece, with no trees and few shared matches; those are the ones to whom I have sent messages. DNA has helped with my paternal grandmother's family, however; I have learned a lot about her, just not the name I want.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  4. jorghes

    jorghes LostCousins Superstar

    As I have previously shared, I have had a distinct question mark confirmed by DNA - my 3x great grandfather emigrated with a brother to Australia in 1850; his father lived and died in Lanarkshire, Scotland. But I had found evidence that suggested that my 5x great grandfather (and grandmother) had emigrated to Canada, and to be honest, this felt strange to me, but DNA was able to confirm that it was indeed correct that my 5x great grandparents emigrated to Canada with one of their younger children, my 4x great grandfather (their son) stayed in Scotland and his son emigrated to Australia.

    I do also have an illegitimate 2x great-grandfather - and I have yet to really connect him to a possible father. But I have, slowly, been investigating two DNA results for my mother, listed as possible 3rd cousins, who share 197cM and 186cM respectively with my mother. But checking their trees, there is nothing that I recognise - not places, not names. I contacted one of them and all they could give me was an approximate area where their ancestors came from... which was not a county that was connected to my mother's family.

    I have now identified how these two results are linked to each other, with a common surname. I have then traced that family, myself, back to the right area of the right county for a possible connection to my illegitimate 2x great grandfather, although I have yet to crack a possible parent for him, although I have a possible name.

    One of the reasons that I can suggest, with reasonable certainty, that this particular set of DNA results are most likely from my mother's grandfather, is because I have identified (without a doubt) DNA links to each my mother's other grandparents - i.e. my mother's results include links to 6 of her 2nd cousins, all of whom I know exactly where they fit. So with a process of elimination, DNA has helped me to locate possible links to the illegitimate section of my family tree, but in some ways only because of the results that I have been able to identify.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  5. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    I certainly don't regret having done a DNA test, and as mentioned above, I have had some brick wall success, most notably identifying the father of an illegitimate 3 x great grandmother soon after getting my results. (Why are they all women?) I've also been able to check out my suspicions where some of my ancestors were somewhat economical with the truth in official records.

    And like jorghes, I have been using a process of elimination to locate matches who may help in breaking down my brick walls, but it is moving forward from there which is proving so difficult.
  6. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    A lot depends on what you regard as a 'brick wall'. I had two ancestors whose baptisms were missing but who fitted neatly into families that were in the right place at the right time - DNA proved the connection. And the birth certificate for my illegitimate great grandmother gave the name of her father - an error by the registrar in the early days of registration - but I couldn't find anyone of that name and occupation (lime-burner) who fitted. DNA proved that her father was an apparently happily-married farmer who was had been described as a lime-burner when his sons were baptised.

    So my guesswork on those three lines turned out to be correct - it certainly felt that I was knocking down 'brick walls'. I've also been able to confirm my records-based research on many lines back to the 1700s, and in one case to the 1600s. Another win as far as I'm concerned.

    Several more illegitimate ancestors still to resolve, and only DNA can possibly provide the answers.
  7. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    I would regard a brick wall as any point in my tree beyond which I am unable to proceed. Sometimes I may be completely stumped while other times there may be possibilities that I can neither confirm nor disprove.

    On the whole, and depending on how far back it is in my tree, I have found that using DNA to clarify uncertainties is easier than trying to resolve complete dead ends, such as the unknown father of an illegitimate ancestor.

    That said, I still have several 'potential' 4 & 5 x great grandparents showing in my Thrulines, noted previously from documentary evidence as possible - but unproven - ancestors, that I have yet to resolve from DNA evidence. Mostly this is because of a lack of identifiable matches in the right part of my tree.
  8. Helen7

    Helen7 LostCousins Superstar

    I've had similar success involving missing baptisms, and I was able to help a cousin discover the origins of her illegitimate ancestor who'd been a brick wall for her.

    Also, in the case of my 2x great grandfather who was born 4 years before his mother married (with only his spinster mother named on the baptism record), my numerous DNA matches to her husband's family convinces me that he was actually the father and not just a stepfather.
  9. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    To crack specific 'brick walls' usually requires enlisting the help of distant cousins who share them - it's the reason I stock up on Ancestry kits when there's an unbeatable offer.
  10. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    How do you approach people when asking them to test for you, Peter? Presumably you also have to ask them to make you at least a Viewer of their results? Otherwise, since there is only a 71% chance of sharing detectable DNA with a 4th cousin and only 32% with a 5th, it would seem a bit hit and miss whether or not the extra cost proved worthwhile. You might not be a match with the person you ask, or be too distant a match to glean anything useful.

    Also, how well do you feel you have to know someone before asking? Will these be people you have been collaborating with for some time?

    Thinking about my own brick walls which might realistically be resolved with DNA, I can't really think of any distant cousins that I know well enough to offer a test kit to, and particularly not to ask if I can view their results. Plenty of people see their results as a very personal thing, and while they might be prepared to do a test at someone else's expense, sharing their results with a distant cousin they hardly know is another matter altogether.
  11. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    Pauline, the people I've asked to test have either been close relatives I've known all my life, or people I've found through my research but in most cases have never met (although I've spoken to some over the phone, and most are on my Christmas card list). Some are also researching, others aren't, but most are curious when I tell them about the 'brick wall'. It's difficult to predict who will say yes, and who will say no - I suspect a lot depends on what newspapers they read - but most say yes.

    When I have paid for a test there has never been any objection to making me Viewer, or Manager in the case of those who are not researching themselves. But do remember that anyone who tests will need to register with Ancestry whether they are researching or not.

    The important thing to stress is that as Viewer you don't have access to their raw DNA data, only to their matches and their ethnicity estimates.

    The most recent cousin to test on my behalf is someone I first found about 8 years ago, and have spoken to on the phone at least once. I discovered that he had tested at MyHeritage because we matched there, and he was quite happy to take the Ancestry test, which hopefully will prove much more useful.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  12. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    I guess maybe that's the difference between us. Were my parents still alive I know they would happily have tested and allowed me to manage their results, as my sister has done. There doesn't seem any point in asking anyone from a younger generation to test, and I'm not really in touch with any other relatives.

    There are more distant cousins that I've been in touch with through family history, including some I've collaborated with for many years, but the ones I'd feel comfortable about offering a test kit to have already done a DNA test anyway. I've only very rarely met up with any of research cousins or spoken to them on the phone.

    I do have one question about being a Viewer of another person's results, which the Ancestry support page didn't seem to answer. I know you can only view that person's results and can't add notes or change anything, but do you get to see things like their notes and colour coding on matches?
  13. Susan48

    Susan48 LostCousins Superstar

    Have the links with your DNA matches been that far back? My most frustrating brick wall lies with one pair of 6 x great-parents. I have found documents relating to them both individually and as a couple, but no baptism for either. I have constructed extended family trees going back several generations for both parties, based mostly on parish records and wills, and can argue a strong case for where each of them fits in the family tree, but without a baptism to name at least a father I can't be sure my reasoned hunches are correct. Would DNA really help that far back? Plodding through my matches looking for surnames and places hasn't thrown up anything useful so far.
  14. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    I don't think so, but I'm not currently a Viewer for any completed tests.

    As far as your connections with cousins are concerned it seems to me that either (1) you've imagined a problem that doesn't exist, or (2) if it does exist it's primarily because you haven't kept in touch with the cousins you've connected with in the past. It really doesn't cost a lot of money to send a Christmas card each year, and because I always include a 'round robin', even the cousins I've never met and never spoken to on the phone feel that they know me.

    But you don't have to wait until Christmas to contact them. Why not put together a summary of the discoveries you've made since you were last in touch, and take the opportunity to mention that there's a 'brick wall' that they might be able to help with. If they reply asking how they can help you're half-way to getting them to test.
  15. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    Yes, some of the links have been that far back, but you have to be very careful going beyond 5 or 6 generations, not least because we're all related if you go back far enough, and often through multiple lines.

    In the 1600s case the brother of my ancestor went to the US in the early 1700s so the chance of me being related to his descendants through another line was far smaller than if he had remained in Essex. Furthermore I had DNA matches with not one, but two of those descendants, from two branches that split around 1800.

    Unfortunately most of my cousins in the US have not traced their ancestry back so far, though on the other side of my tree I have multiple DNA matches in the US with descendants of my German ancestors which take me back to the early 1700s.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  16. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    It takes two to keep in touch, and there's a limit to how long you can - or should - keep contacting people when you get no response, particularly if there is nothing new to say. Plus people move, change their email address, lose interest and sometimes, unfortunately, die. I can't think of many - if any - occasions when correspondence with a research cousin has ceased because I haven't made the effort to keep in touch. Continuing correspondence and collaboration require the consent and input of both parties.
  17. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    Sending a Christmas card and a 'round robin' each year is all that's necessary - they'll almost certainly let you know when they move, just as my cousins do. Most will send you a card in return.

    You may not have postal addresses for some, but you've presumably got their email addresses or can contact them through your My Cousins page.

    Problem solved!
  18. Pauline

    Pauline LostCousins Superstar

    Sorry, but what works for you wouldn’t be my way of doing things, and I haven’t got the time, energy or inclination to discuss this further, so let’s just agree to disagree and move on.
  19. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    As I said in my latest newsletter, talking about JVT:

    "you'll notice that even though the answers he gives are clear, logical, and make perfect sense, the members of the public who asked the questions are all dissatisfied. Why? Because they didn't get the answers they wanted."
  20. Tim

    Tim Moderator Staff Member

    Yes you see the notes and the colour coding if they've added any.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1

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