Is DNA essential evidence for family historians?

Tonight I am participating in a panel discussion for the Society of Australian Genealogists about whether DNA is the 21st century tool for all family historians. I have been invited partly because of my experience using DNA in family history and partly because I specialise in the research process. I run the Society’s Family History Fundamentals course and I also lecture on a range of methodological topics such as research planning, proving your family history and source citations.

DNA is used by a lot of family historians. The question posed to me is, from a methodological viewpoint, should it be used by all family historians?

I first had my DNA tested with Family Tree DNA in 2017. At that time I was not fully aware of the potential that DNA had for my research, but I did have a question that I hoped it might answer. I had been researching my family history for over a decade but had still not been able to figure out who my paternal grandfather’s father was. His parents were unmarried and his father was not listed on his birth certificate. So I hoped that the results of DNA testing might provide some clues. When I received my results I realised that the process was not that simple. I had to learn how to analyse the results and incorporate them into my research. I also had to maximise the potential evidence from my DNA, so I tested with Ancestry DNA, uploaded to Gedmatch and MyHeritage, built up a large family tree on Ancestry and tested available family members.

When we research our family history, we are constructing a view of the past based on information that has been left behind. We obtain that information from sources. We interpret the information and use it as evidence to reach conclusions about the past. Traditional research primarily relies on documentary sources such as birth death and marriage records, but may also incorporate non-documentary sources such as oral history. DNA is another type of non-documentary source. Why might it be considered an essential source?

Our aim in family history is to make it as accurate as possible. If we do not, then we risk creating a family history that is not ours. Accuracy requires that our conclusions be reasonable and defensible. To achieve that we have to use the ‘best sources’ and conduct what is referred to as ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’. Can family history research be considered reasonably exhaustive if it has not utilised DNA evidence? To answer this we need to look at the power of DNA evidence.

Our family trees are based on establishing biological relationships between parents and their children. Documentary sources can provide evidence to support or refute these relationships, but it is rare that the strength of the support or refutation is definitive – usually, there is scope for further evidence to change the conclusion. However, DNA evidence is different. It can often provide definitive support or refutation, or at least something very close to definitive.

I have two examples in my own family history where the DNA evidence totally contradicts all the documentary evidence and in both cases I am convinced that the DNA evidence is correct.

The first is the identification of Gottlieb Malchow as the father of my great great grandmother Christina Malchow. Gottlieb was married to her mother, raised her and was listed as her father on her death certificate. Yet, the DNA evidence definitively refutes that he was her biological father. The DNA evidence also suggests who actually was her biological father. To me, it does not seem possible that there is another explanation for the evidence, so I think that I would argue that the evidence is also definitive about the identity of her biological father (though I am open to additional evidence to the contrary).

The second example where DNA has definitively disproven the documentary evidence is the discovery that my entire paternal line (except for my father) is not biological. Again, the DNA evidence is definitive. I have no DNA matches at all on that line and I do not match my cousin or uncle. It just is not possible for that line to be biological.

DNA evidence is also powerful evidence when the available documentary evidence is either lacking or is only circumstantial. The same great great grandmother I mentioned above, Christina, had six children. She was unmarried and her family were ashamed by her actions and the names of the fathers of her children were deliberately omitted from the records. The evidence that George Bassett was the father of her daughter, my great grandmother, was circumstantial – town rumour and the fact that one of his sisters brought up one of Christina’s other children. However, the DNA evidence is strong. Thirty DNA matches between myself and descendants of George’s siblings definitively support the conclusion that the father was from that family. A further match from a descendant of another child of George, together with the circumstantial evidence means that the conclusion that George was the father, while not definitive, is reasonable and defensible.

Extract of the summary of DNA matches to George’s family

So, DNA evidence can be essential in disproving documentary evidence and it can be essential where documentary evidence is insufficient. The final example of how DNA evidence is essential in family history is where there is no documentary evidence at all.

After discovering that my paternal line was not biological, I managed to identify my father’s biological mother by obtaining his adoption records. His mother was named in the records, but his father was not. It was only by analysing the DNA evidence that I was able to identify his biological father and use that information to build out my biological paternal line. While initially my conclusion about his identity was tentative, further analysis has built up a body of evidence that makes my conclusion reasonable and defensible.

When researching family history we are expected to use the best sources by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. Without using evidence from DNA testing my family history would contain substantial inaccuracies and I would never have been able to build my paternal biological family tree. DNA evidence is therefore arguably the best source, when used in combination with documentary sources. I do believe DNA evidence is essential evidence for family historians.

Your origins

Knowing your ethnicity and where your ancestors came from is more than just an advertising gimmick for DNA testing companies. It is vital context for your family history research. If you know where your ancestors came from, then you know where to search for documents that might contain information about them. And if you know when they arrived in the country where you live now, you know when to start looking for documents there.

Photo by Jamie Morrison on unsplash

Here are some suggestions of ways that you can take stock of your ancestral origins and their arrival dates.

If you have had your DNA tested, check what your ethnicity results tell you. They can only give you a broad picture of your origins, but they may still provide an insight. My DNA results confirmed what I knew about my Chinese, English, Scottish and European origins but the one third Irish was a surprise because, as far as I knew, the only Irish I had was about four generations back. Since then I have discovered that my father was adopted and his birth mother was Irish. Ethnicity results can support your documentary research, or suggest research leads to explore.

Australian genealogists are lucky to live on an island continent. All of our ancestors, with the exception of any indigenous ancestors, had to arrive here on ships or planes which usually recorded their arrival. The date of arrival and their country of origin from shipping or air travel records are a vital piece of information. You can record these in a spreadsheet.

Another handy research tool is a table or chart showing the surnames in your family tree and their country of origin.

Maps are also useful. In a recent webinar about Irish ancestry we were discussing which parts of Ireland our ancestors came from and I drew up this map. It is just a rough map, made by pasting an outline map into Paint and adding colours, but it does the job. Maps like this give you a good indication not just of the locations where you need to look for records, but also the time periods and historical events that may have impacted on your family.

If you use family history software, you can also print out a location report or create a tailored report using the search functions.

Extract from search tool in Legacy family tree software

Managing vital records

Vital records of events such as birth, marriage, divorce and death are essential to demonstrate who is in your family and the relationships between them. Depending on the time period and location, vital records may include church records such as baptisms, marriages and burials; and civil records such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, divorce records, wills and probate documents.

Since these records are so essential in family history, we need to take steps to manage them efficiently.

Step 1: Review your documentation and determine which vital records you already have for each person in your family tree, or for each person in family groups on your direct line.

Step 2: If you use family history software, scan the records and upload them as media to the relevant person(s). If you have a paper based system, place a printed copy in the folder of the relevant person(s). Keeping vital records with other records and information about a person makes further research much easier.

Step 3: Create a centralised master list of vital records, or update it if you already have one. A master list helps you keep track of which records you have already obtained and which you still need to obtain. This list can help you prioritise which ones you want to purchase next and reduce the likelihood that you will accidentally purchase records that you already have.

Step 4: Update your research plans by adding tasks of obtaining the vital records you are still missing.

Step 5: Consider donating a copy of your vital records to your family history society to assist other researchers.

What will happen to your family history after you die?

It’s never pleasant thinking about your own death, but if you have spent many years working on your family history you should make arrangements for what you want to happen with it after you die. If you don’t, then it will probably get thrown out – and that’s not a pleasant thought either. Even if your family knows you have been researching your family history and knows that you won’t want it destroyed, they will need specific instructions from you.

The first problem is that your family or executors will not recognise all the bits that make up your family history. Your folders and papers may be obvious, but would they know that you had family trees online in four different places? Would they recognise the research books, copies of certificates, maps, photos and so on that you collected? Would they know that you used family history software, kept images on your ipad, and had your DNA tested and uploaded to three different sites? Or know that you had drafts of books and articles you were writing?

No? Then your first task is to prepare an inventory of all the bits that make up your family history. And don’t forget to include website addresses and passwords.

While you are making your inventory, it’s probably a good idea to organise your materials a bit better – using a system that a non-genealogist would not have too much trouble understanding. And labelling – lots of labelling! That includes papers and folders, but also folders on your computer. And how about making a folder labelled ‘Save my family history. Read this for instructions’?

Next, prepare an overview of your family history so that anyone who is handling it later will have a better idea of how everything relates to different family members, and understand the labels you put on the folders, books and other items. Print out a family tree chart and a report from your family history software (if you use it) and put them in the ‘Save my family history’ folder. Don’t forget to find a safe and obvious spot for the folder, so someone will find it. Even better – leave it with the person who is the executor of your will.

Now you need to decide where you want your family history to go. Is there someone in the family who will accept it? If not, then investigate repositories who might accept family history research, such as your local library or family history society. Or, if you are in Australia, then you should consider donating it to the Society of Australian Genealogists ( After you make your decision and check that they will accept your family history, include instructions in your will. If you are donating to a repository, you should also consider including a financial donation, to help cover the costs of caring for your family history.

The final task is to check that any subscription or paid services associated with your family history are also assigned. The rules of inheritance differ with each one, so you will need to check each one. With some, you may be able to include information in your will but others may have a section on the website that you have to fill in.

Resolving place names

Getting the places right is fundamental to family history research. After all, everything your ancestors did, they did in a place, right? It is the places that things were done which help us figure out if we are looking at our ancestor and not an imposter with the same name. Place names also help us research the history and events that had an impact on our ancestors’ lives. And, getting the place right stops us from looking for records of our ancestors in the wrong place.

No matter how you record your family history – whether it be in family history software, an online tree, a book, an excel spreadsheet or pieces of paper – from time to time you need to sit, review and correct the place names in your family history. The exact process will vary depending on how you record your family history, but here are some general tips.

Review your place names and make them as specific and complete as possible. You cannot assume that everyone knows which Mount Pleasant you are referring to, or where Tomerong is. A complete place name should have at least three parts. In Australia, we have suburb/town/city, state or territory, and country. Record the place name starting with the smallest unit and ending with the largest. Use Wikipedia or a gazetteer to verify that you have recorded a place correctly.

Place names change and so do boundaries. Check that you have recorded place names as they were called at the time of the event. This helps you search in the right jurisdiction for other records and related people. Current names can be added as notes. Be wary of computer programs and online trees which attempt to standardise place names. If they don’t have the place name in their database, it can be tempting just to use the nearest place that they do contain.

If you use family history software, check if you can edit the master list of locations as well as correcting individual entries. Changes made to such lists are then applied to all individuals using that location. If you use an online tree, such as Ancestry, you can manually edit place names to apply any necessary corrections. In addition to the issues mentioned above, look for inconsistencies, such as the example below.