When I first tested with 23andMe several years ago, I had not yet begun my genealogy work. I knew who all my grandparents were, and a few of my great-grandparents. I think I knew all of six surnames. Back then, I had a few hundred matches, and I didn’t know who anybody was. In fact, when I found the tree-building tool on FamilySearch and started figuring out the process, I didn’t think a whole lot about that DNA test I had taken a couple of years previously. When the subject came up on genealogy websites or at local society meetings, people were typically talking about Ancestry.
The “Eureka” moment came at a 2016 meeting of the Baldwin County Genealogical Society (BCGS). Our scheduled speaker didn’t show up, so it turned into a question-and-answer session. Someone asked about DNA, and someone else started describing GEDmatch. I mentioned that I had done 23andMe and asked if it would be of any use, and I don’t remember who responded, but I remember their answer: “That’s one of the good ones.”
This was exciting! When I went back and looked at my cousin matches now, I began to recognize a few names. Now, I don’t mean that I knew who the people were and exactly how we were related; that came much later. However, as I looked at my matches’ names and their surnames (when they listed them in their profiles), I began to see some names I recognized from my family tree, like Cooper and Givens. It was, at least, progress.
The real breakthrough, for me, came about a year after that BCGS meeting. Right after the meeting, I had reached out to a match named Brenda. She gave me her parents’ names and one other surname, Chandler, that was on my list. We determined Chandler was not our connection, but that’s all.
By 2017, I was starting to figure out the basics of DNA analysis, and I noticed that one of our common matches, named Sharon, had included on her profile page a long list of identified ancestors. It wasn’t easy to read; 23andMe doesn’t let you make paragraphs or lists, it’s just one long block of text. Still, I made my way through it, and one name stood out: Elizabeth Arnette Reid. I went back to my family tree and checked, and Elizabeth is my great-great grandmother Mary Reid Stevens Gilmore Muterspaugh‘s sister. I broke out into tears because here was proof I had done the work correctly. You see, I knew very little about Mary. I found a marriage record (just an index) for Mary Reid and William A. Stephens in Conecuh County, Alabama, the year before my great-grandfather Billie Stevens was born in Alabama, but I was just presuming this was the right couple. The names aren’t that unusual, and my mother had never heard mention that any of her family had been in Conecuh County.
In looking for other Reids in Conecuh County, I found a Mary listed as the daughter of James T. Reid and Nancy Russell, and while most of her siblings were listed with a spouse and children at FamilySearch, Mary was not. So, there wasn’t anything to prove my Mary and this Mary were different people.
Later, I found the actual digitized marriage record, which said that Mary and William were wed at “Mrs. Nancy Reid’s” – further documentary proof tying Mary to that family, but not to Billie Stevens. The DNA match with Sharon was my only evidence, until I recognized another name in the Reid family tree. Mary and Elizabeth had another sister, Fanny Abigail Reid, who married Giledus (or sometimes Giles) Augustus Johnson. Brenda’s mother’s last name was Johnson! So, I messaged Brenda, who confirmed that Gus and Fanny Johnson were her ancestors through her maternal grandfather.
Side note: I later found a second connection to Brenda, through my 3rd great-grandfather Timothy Ozier Duck. He is an ancestor of her maternal grandmother. I do not find any connection with other known Duck descendants to Sharon, so I am still confident in the Reid connection.
The biggest challenges to DNA research are:
(1) Sometimes it’s tough to make contact with DNA matches. They just don’t respond to messages. Most of the services require you to use their web-based messaging service, so it’s unclear if those matches ever get the messages. If they do, maybe they haven’t done a lot of research and don’t have answers or maybe they plan to respond later and forget.
(2) Many DNA matches don’t list family information. If it’s a site like MyHeritage or Ancestry that has a family tree function, they may not have filled in their tree or it may be private. 23andMe has a place to list surnames, but most people don’t fill it out.
I wish I’d known about consumer DNA testing and been able to get my dad tested before he passed away. I had one of his brothers tested at 23andMe, and one of his cousins tested on Ancestry, so I have ways of triangulating.
There are so many tools available now, like the ones available on DNA Painter, that if I only had the hours in the day, I feel like I could make more progress on breaking through brick walls.