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.

Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 2

Reason No. 3: To acknowledge the work of others

If we use the work or ideas of another person in our family history research then we need to acknowledge their work, and source citations are a good way to do that.

If you present the work or ideas of others in a way that suggests that it is your own work then you are committing plagiarism. Failing to acknowledge the work of others is not a big deal if you do not present the results of your research to others. However, you do need to cite your sources if you put your research online, or include it in a book, essay, thesis or journal article. A source citation is needed when you quote from another work; include ideas or the work of another researcher; or if you include data, images or media produced by someone else.

Just because someone has researched the same family as you, it does not always mean that you have to acknowledge their research. If you extract information from their research, then verify it using original or reliable derivative sources, then it is those sources that you cite, not their research. This is because the information is not their creative property. However, if they wrote a story about their family based on the information, then that story is their creative property and needs to be acknowledged with a source citation. In such cases, copyright may also apply and you may need to seek their permission to reproduce it.

Reason No. 4: To help you analyse the source

One of the most important and often overlooked reasons to cite your sources is that doing so helps you analyse the source, and this improves the quality of your research.

Writing a source citation forces you to examine the source more closely. You have to consider the nature of the source and why it was created. You have to identify who created the source and where it was created. You also have to identify if there is anyone with creative property rights – such as an author or a photographer. And, if it is an unpublished source, you also have to think carefully about the details required to help someone find the source for themselves.

All of the information gathered for the purpose of citing a source helps us to understand the information in the source and increases the likelihood that we will interpret the source and the information accurately.

[The image used here is believed to be in the Public Domain, but a citation won’t hurt: Harrison Fisher, Fair Americans, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911]

Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 1

Putting more effort into citing your sources is one of the most important things that you can do to improve your family history research.

Reason No. 1: So that you can find the source again

You may well ask ‘Why would I need to find the source again? I have extracted all the information I need and I have a copy saved onto my computer.’

Even the best researcher may miss some information, copy information inaccurately, or misinterpret information in a source. Taking time with a source, reading it thoroughly and making good notes can reduce but not eliminate the risk of these things happening. Taking a copy is useful but it does not solve the problem, because the copy that we make is usually just part of the source. It usually does not have the contextual information that may affect how the source is interpreted – for example, we may not copy title page or the page with the abbreviations on it. Examining a source again is the only solution to these problems.

When we examine a source, we do it from the perspective of what we already know about a family or locality and with a specific research question in mind. That information and that question affect how we read and interpret the source, and they influence what information we record and the pages or sections of the source that we copy. Later, when we have learned more about the family or locality or we have a different research question, the source should be examined again from the new perspective.

So, not only will you want to look at a source again, you should look at it again. So make sure you cite it.

Reason No. 2: So that others can find the source that you used

You may well ask, ‘Why should I bother helping other people with their research?’

And I’d ask, ‘Do you use other people’s research? Or do you just rely entirely on original sources?’

I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in Australia it is extremely rare to have access to original sources for family history. We rely heavily on digital images of original sources and derivative sources, including the work of other researchers. So, if we expect others to provide source citations to help us then we should do the same.

Helping others also means that you are helping yourself, because collaborating on research provides substantial benefits. The people that want to use your research are probably related to you in some way or they have similar research interests. They may have information that you do not have, or access to sources that you cannot access. Or, when they use your source citation to find the source, you may find that they have different insights into the information that could also benefit your research. If you help them by providing a source citation, you may find that they will help you in return.

Collaboration is good research practice. Help others by citing your sources.

What is a source?

One of the fundamental rules of family history research is that we need to cite our sources. To cite our sources, we need to first understand what is a source and what is not.

A source is anything that provides information for your family history research.

The most common sources used by genealogists are birth death and marriage records, censuses and electoral rolls, cemetery records, wills and probate records, newspaper articles, criminal and court records, land records, directories, military records and shipping records. Other source types may include books, journal articles, pamphlets, theses, asylum and hospital records. All of these clearly need to be cited if we use information from them.

There are also other types of documents, and even objects, which could be sources for family history. For example, a photograph is a source if it provides information about what a person looked like; maps and plans are sources if they provide information about the location and size of a building; and objects such as military medals, clothing and jewellery are sources if they provide information about a family member. Your grandmother could even be a source, if she tells you stories about your family!

An object can be a source

What about an index? Some argue that an index is just a finding aid, not a source. However, it depends on the index and how you use it. In family history, an index typically provides a little bit of identifying information such as a surname and also some information which you then use to track down sources which provide more information. In such cases, the index is just a finding aid. However, sometimes an index provides additional information, such as a spouse’s name, parents’ names, localities or a death date. If you use that information, then the index is a source. Ideally, the information provided by an index should be treated as a research lead and verified by examining the source on which the index entry is based. Until you do that, however, treat it as a source and include a source citation.

The Ryerson Index https://www.ryersonindex.org/

The other ones that confuse people when they are new to family history are websites like Ancestry, Findmypast and FamilySearch. These sites are not sources, so citing information as coming from Ancestry or one of the others is not the correct practice. However, this only means that you do not have a source citation which literally just says ‘Ancestry’. It does not mean that you never cite anything from Ancestry. Ancestry and the other sites are repositories of sources, and those sources do need to be cited.

Book for my webinar about citing sources (30 March 2021) here.

Are the big genealogy sites making us lazy?

Don’t get me wrong – I love the big genealogy sites. Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast – just to name a few. These sites have given us easy access to an enormous volume of sources. Their collections are invaluable and they are constantly expanding their collections and introducing tools to help us use the collections. However, this ease of access and tools can also work against us as good genealogists.

Photo by Tomas Ryant from pexels.com

Take source citations, for example. To save us time and help us out, the big sites provide suggested source citations. If we have an online tree on that site, we copy the information across and a source citation is automatically added without us having to do anything much at all. If we prefer to store the information on our own computer, we either type the information into our family tree or download an extract of the source (or both). We can then cut and paste the suggested source citation and add that to the information on our computer.

It is great that they help us in this way, because it reduces the likelihood of family trees without source citations. However, the problem is that this assistance can stop us from examining the sources for ourselves. When we create a source citation, we have to take time and think about what the source really is, who created it and when, and consider the features which help us determine the reliability of the source.

Sources on the big sites are gathered into collections and given a generic name, without all the subtle details of information that tells us more about the features of the source which affect their reliability. Some of us may read the explanatory notes, or use the information provided to track down and examine the original sources. But I suspect that many don’t.

So … slow down and resist the urge to let websites do all your research for you.