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DNA: testing

August 3, 2021


DNA Testing Is A Valuable Tool In The Genealogy Toolbox


DNA testing has come a long way during the past 20 years.Initially Y-DNA testing was only available to men who were interested in learning more about their patrilineal line Ė that is, their fatherís fatherís fatherís line.But for more than ten years, autosomal DNA testing has been available as a tool for everyone to identify cousins and ancestors on every branch of their family trees.


One common question that people ask is why they should take a DNA test.After all, I already know my family tree and Iíve been researching these lines for years!What could a DNA test tell me that I donít already know?Thatís a fair question, but the truth is that you donít yet know what you donít know yet.DNA testing can reveal answers to questions that you never knew to ask!It can also help solve mysteries that have frustrated researchers for years due to a lack documentation caused by a courthouse fire, lost records, or simply a lack of written proof.


We all have branches of our family tree that end at a point where we donít know the maiden name of one of our maternal ancestors.In my tree, I descend from Joel Pruitt and his wife Polly.Joel was born in 1786 and died after 1870.They lived in Wilkes County along Little Sandy Creek near Round Hill Church south of Traphill.Polly is listed as Joelís wife in the 1850 census, and she likely died before the 1860 census.There arenít any written records that provide Pollyís maiden name, and, as far as I know, thereís no family story about what her maiden name was.Iím in the process of analyzing my grandmotherís DNA test results to determine which DNA segments are from the Pruitt branch of her family by comparing her test to those of her cousins.I donít have an answer yet, but weíll have a better chance of solving that mystery as more people submit their own DNA tests.


The Pruitt branch of my family tree is extra challenging because not only do we not know Joelís wifeís maiden name, but we also donít know his motherís maiden name.Joel was the son of Joseph Pruitt (born 1754).We donít know the first or last name of Josephís wife.Itís been speculated that she was a Holbrook, and thatís very possible.Joseph Pruitt and his wife had at least seven children, and the youngest was Ralph who was born in 1798.Ralph, or Randolph, was a common name in the Holbrook family at that time, and perhaps young Ralph Pruitt was a grandson of Randolph Holbrook (1733-1793).Several of my grandmotherís DNA cousins have Holbrooks in their family trees, and some of these particular DNA segments are also shared with other Pruitt cousins.Iím still working on this mystery.


My grandmother descends from Hardin Pruitt.

The full names of Hardinís mother and grandmother are unknown.


Another place where DNA has helped me with my Wilkes County ancestors is the Shew family.One of my lines goes back to Nathaniel Ingool who was born in the Dockery area in 1831.He was the son of Frederick Ingold and Susan Shew, and both of their families were from Guilford County.Susan was born in 1809, but thereís no documentation about who her parents were.I was fairly confident that she was a granddaughter of Phillip Shew who was first listed in Wilkes County in the 1810 census.But which of his many children was the parent of Susan?


My grandmother has several DNA matches who have Shew ancestors.The closest of these matches descend from Sally Shew who was born in 1808.The problem is that Sallyís parents are also undocumented!After studying Shew census records for 1810, 1820, and 1830, it looks like the best candidate is Jacob Shew (born 1780). In 1810, he and his wife had two young daughters who havenít been accounted for in other records, and I believe that Sally and Susan are his daughters.While this isnít proof, itís a good example of how DNA evidence can support written records to justify a working theory.


When you get your DNA test results back, it wonít immediately answer all your questions.What you get is a list of ďmatchesĒ.This is a list of people who have also taken a DNA test and who share at least a small piece of DNA with you.Generally, the people who share a lot of DNA with you are close relatives, and the people who share only a small amount are more distant cousins.Unless the DNA match is a known and very close relative, you might need to do some research to find where their family tree intersects with yours.But if you share DNA with someone, you share an ancestor with them.



Anyone who is closer than a second cousin is guaranteed to share DNA with you.As the relationship becomes more distant, thereís a possbility that you might not share DNA with them even though you are distantly related.After 5 or 6 generations, the inherited DNA segments have been chopped into smaller and smaller pieces to the point where they are usually no longer identifiable.For that reason, itís helpful for older generations to also take a DNA test.That means asking parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to take a test.They are one or two steps closer to those earlier generations.Below is a chart showing the approximate likelihood that relatives will share DNA.


The more distantly two people are related, the less likely they are to share DNA.


There are four major companies that offer DNA testing:Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, 23andme, and AncestryDNA.Each company has their own advantages and disadvantages, and different people have their opinions about which is best.In fact, my own opinions about each company have changed over the years as they make updates and improvements to their websites and to the way they present the results.Iíve used all four companies for my own research, and Iím convinced that they all provide a reliable and accurate DNA test.The question becomes which company provides me with the most information and is most likely to help me solve my genealogy mysteries.


The testing procedure is quick and easy and only takes a couple minutes.Depending on the test company, there are two ways the sample is collected.Some companies provide a cotton swab to rub the inside of your mouth.When youíre finished, that swab is put inside a tube and mailed back in the provided envelope.The other way is to spit into a tube, seal it up, and mail it in the provided box.


Before I get into the details of each DNA testing company, I need to talk about a chromosome browser.If you want to do a complete investigation about ďhowĒ youíre related to your DNA matches, the test company must provide a chromosome browser.This means they need to tell you which segments of DNA that you share with your matches.For instance, itís not enough to know that Iím related to John Smith of Boise, Idaho.I want to know how Iím related to him.That is, which piece of DNA do I share with him?If I can identify that segment as a piece of DNA that I inherited from the Pruitt branch of my family, then I have one more piece of evidence to go toward solving one of my Pruitt mysteries.Perhaps this piece of DNA came from one of the Pruitt wives whose maiden name I donít know.It takes a lot of investigating and research to determine this, but without paper evidence, DNA is the only place to find answers.Even if you donít have the time or patience to study your DNA results, your test might allow someone else to make those new discoveries.After all, not only do you have DNA matches with them, but they match you as well.You both benefit from having this new information to investigate.

The chromosome browser from Family Tree DNA shows the shared segments of DNA on all 23 chromosomes.The dark shaded areas are the shared segments between first cousins in this example.Fourth or fifth cousins might only share one or two small segments.


Below is a very brief summary of each testing company.They have sales and specials throughout the year, especially around holidays, but tests are usually between $60 and $100.The lowest Iíve ever seen is $39.


ē†††† Family Tree DNA ( is the company I use for all of my DNA testing.They were one of the first companies to begin offering consumer DNA testing 20 years ago.They provide a chromosome browser that allows me to see which pieces of DNA I share with my matches.Their test uses the cotton swab method which might be easier for people who have difficulty spitting into a tube.Their Family Finder test is for finding cousins on every branch of your family tree.They are also the only company to offer Y-DNA testing for men to trace their patrilineal line.The same sample can be used for both tests.


ē†††† MyHeritage ( has made a lot of improvements to their website since they entered the business.They have a great chomosome browser that allows you to see if matches share DNA with you AND with each other.They also accept uploads from one of the other companies.That is, you can buy a test from one of other three companies and upload it to MyHeritage for free.


ē†††† 23andme ( the four companies, 23andme probably has the smallest database.That is, fewer people have tested with them than with the other companies.That might be because theyíre usually the most expensive.Their basic test is $99.They have more of a focus on reporting health conditions related to DNA, and that test costs even more.They do have a good chromosome browser.


ē†††† AncestryDNA ( best feature of AncestryDNA is the size of their database.More people have tested with AncestryDNA than with any other company, so youíll likely have more matches than with the other companies.The big drawback is that they donít offer a chromosome browser.They are the only company not to do so, and without it, I feel like Iím being teased.They tell me I have a DNA cousin, but they donít provide enough information for me to determine how Iím related to that person.It doesnít allow me to solve a roadblock in my family tree, and this negates the benefit of having a large database of testers.


I manage several DNA tests for friends and family, and I always test through Family Tree DNA.After those results complete, I upload the raw data file to MyHeritage.This is usually free, but even when it costs $10 or so, itís still much less than buying another test.Even though I only bought one test, I can fish in two ponds for DNA matches Ė one ďpondĒ is Family Tree DNA, and the other is MyHeritage.Some people might want to fish in all four ponds for the best chance of getting answers to their questions.For instance, an adoptee who is looking for a close relative might want to have their DNA test at all four companies for the best chance of finding a parent or sibling who has also tested.If you buy a second test for this purpose, you might want to choose AncestryDNA since they have the largest database with the most users.


No matter which company you choose to buy your DNA test, after you get your results, youíll want to upload your raw data file to Gedmatch.


Gedmatch is a free site that letís you compare your DNA test results to people who tested at any of the four testing companies.Unless youíve already tested with all four companies, youíll find additional DNA cousins on gedmatch.They provide a great chromosome browser and many other comparison tools, and, again, itís completely free.††


If you have questions about DNA testing, Iíll be glad to help.Until youíve gone through the process and spent some time with your results, it might initially appear overwhelming.But donít let that be a deterrent because it could lead to some exciting discoveries. A great resource online is a blog by Roberta Estes, ďDNAeXplained Ė Genetic GenealogyĒ.


Sheís written hundreds of articles on everything related to DNA testing from the very basics to more advanced topics.She has Shepherd ancestors from Reddies River, and that makes her my distant cousin.Iíve learned a lot by reading her articles about how DNA inheritance works, the differences in the four testing companies, and how to use the information once your results have completed.


I like to think of DNA testing as the newest tool in the genealogy toolbox.It doesnít replace traditional research at courthouses and libraries, and itís still important to visit other family members to learn the stories that were passed down to them.But sometimes there arenít any stories and there isnít a paper trail that documents a particular part of your ancestry.For those situations, DNA testing is a valuable resource for finding answers to all kinds of genealogy questions Ė both the questions you have asked, and the ones you havenít.