Sometimes the solution to breaking through your own genealogical brick walls resides within the DNA of other people. You could wait around for that “other” person to test, or you could proactively search that person out. Constructing a research plan to find the living descendants of the family to whom you think you are connected and asking them to take a DNA test is called targeted testing.
I would like to share a success story about how I used targeted DNA testing to discover the identity of my 4x great grandparents. This two-part blog post will not only share the DNA results and analysis but also a four-step process for finding research collaborators to help with the targeted DNA testing.
The Research Context
The year was 2009. For nearly 10 years prior, I struggled to identify the parents of my 3x great grandfather, James H. Wilson (1815-1885). While I was seemingly at a dead end, I had noticed a pattern in the 1850 census in Meigs County, Ohio. In the same small town of 1,748 souls in rural Southeastern Ohio where my ancestor lived, there were three other male Wilsons about the same age – one was born in Pennsylvania like my ancestor and two who were born in Ohio.1 By 1860, a fourth male Wilson appeared in town, who was also born in Pennsylvania.2
Including my ancestor, the five Wilson men were:
- William B., born 1810 Pennsylvania
- James H., born 1815 Pennsylvania
- John B., born 1818 Pennsylvania
- Robert, born 1820 Ohio
- David, born 1825 Ohio
Could they be brothers? If I could prove they were, researching each of them might help me cast a wider genealogical net in the search for documents leading to the discovery of my elusive 4x great grandparents.
Y-DNA Tests as a Research Strategy
I had previously taken a Y-DNA test three years earlier, and so I was familiar with its ability to identify males as being part of the same patrilineal group. Y-DNA tests analyze the Y male chromosome for genetic markers passed down mostly unchanged from father to son. So, if I could find a living male descendant with an unbroken paternal connection from each of the above-mentioned lines, I might be able to prove they were all brothers. While this wouldn’t directly identify the parents of James H. Wilson, I hoped it could generate qualified leads.
Finding Research Collaborators for Targeted Testing
I thought the most difficult task would be finding a living male Wilson descendant to take the Y-DNA test. It actually wasn’t. As it turned out, it was relatively easy. The most difficult tasks were waiting for the results and then interpreting them. Below is a four-step process I developed to find the test takers that made the search task less difficult.
Step 1: Find Active Researchers
It is important to search for fellow genealogists who are actively researching your line of interest or who are simply actively researching in general. These researchers are the most likely to be receptive to the “ask” and respond to messages.
At the time, I relied on listservs and message boards (then Rootsweb and Genealogy.com) to find others who were posting information or queries about any of “my” Wilson men or their descendants. Today, I rely on Ancestry.com message boards, queries posted in local historical society publications, and member profile pages on genealogical websites indicating how active they are. For example, see the member profile page for my Ancestry.com account, which is viewable to all Ancestry members, and one of my matches on Living DNA. Both sites indicate how active researchers are (highlighted within the red circle). Ancestry.com and Living DNA readily indicate who active we are.
I also use posted family trees. Because I was looking for male Wilsons to take the Y-DNA test, I needed a male who is currently a Wilson descending patrilineally from one of my Wilson lines of interest. I start by entering the name for one of the other potential brothers into a family tree search engine like those at Ancestry.com. In the search, I concentrate on family trees where its owner had included Wilson in the title of their family tree (see red circle in the image below). I find most researchers posting family trees either title it with their birth surname or the surnames associated with their four grandparents.
The owners of these trees are likely the genealogist in their family and are likely more willing to take the test themselves or convince their family members to take the test, which works better than a cold call from me. I find it doesn’t matter whether the owner of the tree is male or female providing they are within one or possibly two generations of my Wilson surname of interest as they can likely find a brother or first cousin to take the test.
Step 2: Build Rapport
Often, we want to jump into the ask before establishing rapport. People are funny about DNA – even fellow genealogists. So, I never ask for their assistance in taking or finding someone to take a DNA test in the first communication. Over the course of several messages, I establish that I am actively researching the Wilson surname in that town, ask if they are aware of any connections of their line to the other Wilsons there, offer to share other research or documents I have accumulated, and ask their advice on researching in the locale.
Once the researcher responds to my message, I believe there’s both an art and a science to the timing of the reply. I find people are more responsive if you match their sense of urgency. If they respond in a couple of hours, I try to do so. If they take several days to respond, I take a couple of days to respond even though I am often biting my tongue while waiting! My experience has been that if I am too eager in responding and they are not, I might come across too impatient, obsessed, or even a scammer.
I have only one exception to the above strategy. When I’m replying to someone through an in-app messaging platform, such as Ancestry.com, that requires the user to login to see and reply to the message, I respond as quickly as I can. This is especially important if you know they’re not an active researcher as they may not return to the website to see my response for several months.
Step 3: Make the Ask
When it comes time for the ask, I take a soft-sell approach so as to not appear too aggressive. Over the course of several messages, I ask if they are familiar with DNA testing or had ever considered using it as part of their research strategy. This may take several messages. When I feel the time is right, I then ask if they are willing to participate in my research project as either a test taker or in finding someone.
I typical use some form of the following language indicating that “I would be willing to sponsor the test as it would be most helpful with my research”. I purposely use the word “sponsor” rather than saying I would “pay” for the DNA test. While the difference is subtle, I believe “sponsor” is more professional sounding and research-focused. I also find it less likely to offend or suggest that someone doesn’t have the money to pay for it themselves.
Lastly, I of course offer to share the results in whatever format they desire and respect whatever privacy wishes they have in managing the test and its results.
Step 4: Follow Up with Your Collaborator
As genealogists, we know it can often take considerable time to get the results back contingent on the company and/or type of test. Depending on your agreed upon communication schedule or rapport you established with your research collaborator, I recommend keeping them in the loop but don’t overburden them with messages. If you are to be the administrator for the test, at the minimum, I recommend letting them know when the kit is received by the testing lab, when the results are back, and when you complete your analysis.
I realize these four steps may sound overly strategic and void of emotion. It’s important to note that I don’t treat collaborators as transactions, but I do pay attention to the details. I actually think with my head but engage with my heart. The truth is the collaborators who helped in this research project actually turned out to be third cousins and after 10 years, we still remain in relatively close contact, and I have actually met several of them in person!
In Part 2 of the blog post, I present the results of the targeted Y-DNA testing and discuss how I used it to expand my research and break through my genealogical brick wall.
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1. 1850 U.S. census, Meigs County, Ohio, population schedule, Rutland, p. 89a-b, 98b, and 109b, image 1-2, 20, and 42 of 42, Robert Wilson, David Wilson, James Wilson, and John Wilson households; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 7 February 2022); NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 710.
2. 1860 U.S. census, Meigs County, Ohio, population schedule, Scipio, p. 187, image 34 of 45, William Wilson household; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 7 February 2022); NARA microfilm publication M653.