I have to be honest. I was on the fence about coming to the New York State Family History Conference. My own family history doesn’t have much in the way of New York, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money. Genealogy can be an expensive hobby at times with all the subscription sites, society memberships, record copy and microfilm orders, and DNA tests. There’s only so much in the way of vacation time I can take from the job that pays for all this as well, so I kind of have to prioritize where to spend the money and time.
But this conference had a full day of seminars scheduled on genetic genealogy. That’s something that I’ve been interested in since I first started hearing about it several years ago, and a full day of learning from the best was tugging at my heartstrings. So I decided to go for it. As I posted earlier, definitely no regrets with the non-genetic genealogy sessions, and genetic sessions were just as inspiring for me.
Five sessions, all about using DNA as a tool for genealogy, presented by Blaine Bettinger, Ph.D., JD, and Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. Blaine is arguably the leading expert in genetic genealogy—he is The Genetic Genealogist, after all. And I’ll admit that he was a key factor that drew me to this conference. DNA was the lure, but Blaine got me hook, line and sinker! If you’re going to learn something, learn from the best.
Blaine did three sessions: an general introduction to using DNA in genealogy, a session devoted to mitochondrial DNA and y-chromosome DNA testing and their applications in genealogy, and one devoted to autosomal DNA tests.
Judy did two sessions: one about the ethics of DNA testing, and the final course showing how DNA results are used in genealogical research.
I’m not even going to pretend to be able to summarize the vast amount of information they presented, let alone act like I fully understood it all. I came into it with a basic understanding of DNA, what it is, how it works. And I think I can say that I didn’t learn anything new about DNA itself, but then this wasn’t a science class. That wasn’t the point of these sessions.
The point is that DNA is no longer a curiosity or the latest trend in genealogy. DNA tests are an important tool in tracing family history, and the results are vital evidence. More and more, genealogical publications and associations are saying that DNA evidence is almost required as part of a solid proof argument, and a reasonably exhaustive search must include a DNA test.
And many times, one DNA match is not enough. I asked both Blaine, as a DNA expert, and Judy, as a board-certified genealogist, about the brick wall with my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Compton. Both said that the one mtDNA result is good evidence, but not enough to support the claim that Mary Compton is the daughter of Elias Compton and Sarah Long. They both suggested testing more people: Blaine recommended trying to find a descendant of Sarah Long’s mother and grandmother (through separate lines) to compare mtDNA with, and Judy recommended doing autosomal DNA tests for more of my cousins, aunts and uncles descended from Mary and comparing results with descendants of Elias Compton through his other children. Matching results would be a much clearer indication that I’m on the right track.
As a result of all this, I urgently made my way to the Family Tree DNA booth in the exhibit hall, and did a new mtDNA test on myself. My original test was with AncestryDNA, which doesn’t support it anymore. Also, the technology has advanced so much in the last six years that it was worth doing it over.
I’m also creating a list of family members I need to make sure to test. Judy really emphasized the need to preserve your DNA while you can, so older family members are in my target. My maternal grandparents both died before genetic genealogy was a thing, and I didn’t think to get my paternal grandparents tested before they passed away. But I have several aunts and uncles on both sides, as well as a couple siblings of some grandparents. Surely there are second and third cousins as well. I’ve met a few recently, so I know they’re out there.
Now I just have to add a DNA test line to my budget!