I have a love-hate relationship with Ancestry.com.
Let me rephrase that: I have a love-hate relationship with the public's perception of Ancestry.com.
The one ubiquitous question that is always thrown about at dinner parties and social gatherings is "What do you do for a living?" I have a whole litany of amusing responses to my standard reply of "veterinarian" that was in use for over two decades. It most aways involved a story regarding the questioner's long-deceased beloved pet and its unfortunate demise. Example:
"You're a veterinarian?!?! Oh my God, I had this tiny adorable Chihuahua when I was a kid named Pepe! When he turned sixteen, he got really, really sick. We took him to the vet, but we didn't want him to run any tests because, well, you know, he was sixteen. And can you believe the vet just let him die? Can you tell me what happened to him?"
Of course, responses to questions of this nature put you in a precarious situation. After all, this is usually a question presented at a social gathering surrounded by a handful of other inquisitive guests with widened eyes eagerly waiting for my scholarly and informative, yet kind and compassionate, response.
"If you actually let your veterinarian DO something for the dog when it became ill, you could have asked him then, instead of asking me now!"
No. No. Probably a wee bit too accusatory.
"I'm sorry. I consider myself an excellent practitioner, but I am regrettably bad at diagnosing a memory. Perhaps we could break out a Ouija board and ask Pepe his presenting complaints?"
"I'm so sorry to hear of anyone losing one of their dear fuzzy babies. Even many years later the grief is still tucked away in our memories. At sixteen, Pepe could have suffered from a dizzying array of many age-related conditions, but I am sure you comforted him through his final days. He was lucky to have lived so long."
Yep. That works.
Unfortunately, a similar thing occurs now after leaving behind decades in a medical field to chase my ancestors, as well as solve the historical mysteries of others.
"I'm a professional genealogist."
"Oh! My [aunt/uncle/cousin/grandmother/insert other relative here] is on Ancestry.com all the time! He/she has already done all my family tree. So you just sit on Ancestry.com all day? That's odd."
When I ask if it is a maternal or a paternal aunt who "did all their family tree," I am often greeted with a quizzical look and a cocked head, much like a bewildered spaniel. When the questioner tells me it was actually his father's sister who did the work, I ask why a paternal relative would work on the ancestry of his mother if they were not related. "Oh, no, that's just my dad's side." As if this somehow still is "all" the family tree. "Well, I guess half your lineage is unknown, correct?"
And the family tree was "done"? Can this endeavor ever be referred to in the past tense? My grandmother used to ask me that. "Aren't you done yet?" But of course, this was the same woman who asked, "why didn't you become a real doctor?" Sigh.
I think from now on my response will be "Walmart Greeter."
Plain and simple, Ancestry.com has become the face of genealogical research in the digital age. There is no escaping its enormous contribution to the field I have chosen, and thus I do love the site. Gone are the days I would have to drive two hours to the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to sit for hours cranking microfilm reels of unindexed census records reading them page-by-page to find a person of interest. If I went home with four or five new entries after a four-hour roundtrip drive and nearly twelve hours of research, I was a happy man. Ancestry.com has made that task a two-minute search in my jammies with a cat in my lap.
But Ancestry.com and sites like it have given researchers a reason to be lazy. By a fantastically huge margin, the enormous majority of records used by genealogists like me are still hiding in courthouse basements, neatly cataloged archival collections, local historical societies, private collections, and people's mothball-laden closets. Good research is hard. Really hard. And awfully damn fun.
And such are the mixed feeling I have for Ancestry.com's foray into the world of genetic genealogy. But this time it's not the perception of AncestryDNA that I dislike, it is truly the business forces behind this arm of the genealogical giant that irk me.
Those who have read this blog from its inception, especially since the hunt began for my biological grandfather via the powers of autosomal DNA, know that I use 23andMe as my tester of choice. I did so at the beginning because, as a doctor, I was intrigued by the medical report that accompanied the results and the identification of genetic markers of disease or propensity for disease that the company reported along with good links to scholarly medical articles. Unfortunately, the FDA shut down that component of the test after I had only tested myself, my mother, and my father. But I have become accustomed to 23andMe's format, and their chromosome browser, and their utilities to analyze genetic matches.
I have also mentioned that I had my autosomal DNA results, as well as my mother's results, from 23andMe added to the FamilyTreeDNA database. Again, this option is no longer available, as divergent technologies from both companies has made integrating 23andMe data into the FamilyTreeDNA database impossible, but I have tested through FamilyTreeDNA as well when I needed specific testing not available through 23andMe, or if I wanted to use the hundreds of thousands of profiles tested through that company, as there is never such a thing as too many matches.
But of the three big DNA companies in the game, I had yet to test with AncestryDNA.
The abbreviated reason I had not done so is that AncestryDNA offers no chromosome browser, no reporting of the amount of DNA matched with an individual in terms of segment length or percentages, no ability to triangulate results to see if three or more people share both DNA and a common ancestor to prove one's chromosomal heritage from a distant individual or couple. These factors are discussed in much, much greater detail on several Internet sites and blogs dedicated to genetic genealogy, so I will not tear them apart in detail here. But if I can't use my results through AncestryDNA, why should I drop a couple hundred more dollars to obtain them?
The sad reality is that the powers that be at Ancestry.com know that the greatest bulk of their users are the great-aunts of the people I meet at dinner parties. They want genealogy to be fun and fluffy and comforting and happy and a point-and-click experience.
Science is hard. And Ancestry.com knows it. They have a whole team of highly educated professionals tweaking their algorithms to calculate genetic matches as accurately as possible.
They just don't think the average genealogist can handle it.
But as I have already previously mentioned in other blog posts, anyone can take their raw data from any testing site and upload it to a free site called GEDmatch.com. If you are reading this, and you have been autosomal DNA tested at any of the three sites, and you have not yet uploaded your raw data to GEDmatch.com - do so now! This will help you, and it will immensely help others.
So again, why would I want to test again with a third company that won't offer me scientific support to find my grandfather? Why would I test with a company who will give me results I have to load into a third-party site, when my results from the other laboratories are already there?
Because of those people I meet in social situations and their great-aunts and cousins.
Ancestry.com has name recognition. After revealing my chosen profession as a genealogist does anyone ask me, "Hey, have you done the full-sequencing mitochondrial DNA test with FamilyTreeDNA? Do you think it's worth the money to do that over just their mtDNA-Plus?"
Usually within the first or second sentence of a person's response, the term "Ancestry.com" will be inexorably mentioned.
People test at AncestryDNA because it sounds fun. Because they want the warm fuzzy experience. The company gives you fun colorful graphs of what countries your ethnicity derives (which I have already stated is as accurate as measuring a doorway with a cat.) Further, if you find matches with others using AncestryDNA, the tool they use to show you how you are related is by comparing your family trees to each other. And if you are matched with someone with shoddy research or no family tree, the results are meaningless. Lastly, having matching DNA segments and knowing you have a common ancestor is great, but it is a dangerous assumption to think that they go hand in hand. That is why triangulation with another researcher with the same common ancestor is necessary to see if you all share the same strand of DNA at the same chromosomal location. This is something you cannot do at AncestryDNA.
But by the end of the first quarter of 2015, the company estimates that over one million people will have tested with their service.
One. Million. People.
Since I had hit a wall of resistance with my mother's presumed Schrader father, I needed a million more people to bolster my argument. Also, there were surprisingly many family trees posted on Ancestry.com by relatives of these three Schrader brothers (and my possible grandfather). Had they been tested through this company as well even though they were maintaining a wall of silence with me? One of these trees was posted by a son of one of the Schrader brother, one by a grandson, and one by a nephew. At this point, ANY Schrader DNA would guide me toward my missing grandfather, so I had hoped that some of these tree-posters had actually taken the AncestryDNA test. And who knew how many more distant relatives I might find here? Especially important were the Wisconsin Schroeders and associated families. Any connection with these German families might allow me to tie my mother to both LaVina Daugherty and her husband, Edward Emil Schroeder/Schrader.
And since discovering that Ed Schrader may not even be the father of my missing grandfather even though LaVina Daugherty was married to him during the births of her sons, I desperately needed the help of a million more people.
So on 10 September 2014 whilst mired stuck and flailing in the Schrader quicksand with no sense of progress, two autosomal DNA tests were shipped to me from AncestryDNA - one for me, and one for my mother. I had to feel like I was doing something with momentum while formulating a plan to test more living Schraders.
Like a Pavlov dog, I started salivating the moment the test kits arrived on my doorstep, and my kit was back at the post office (with spit) within hours of having been delivered on 13 September 2014. Coordinating schedules with my mother, even though she lives just over three miles away, meant her test kit didn't hit the mailbox until 26 September 2014. They were both on their way to the lab, and I waited to see if I might find an edge by utilizing this venue while also arranging for my new inside Schrader contact to come to fruition.
My mother's test gained a few days on mine, as they were received by the laboratories of AncestryDNA on 22 September and 1 October 2014, respectively. Since I had already done all the preliminary footwork on 23andMe, and because I was proactively dismayed at AncestryDNA's shunning of science, I was not chomping at the bit to see the results, but of course, I was eager to have fun with them. After all, I was chasing my grandfather's identity, but I also had many, many more known ancestors I might learn more about if I discovered viable matches on any of my other family lines. Also, October was a busy month for me. With six seminars in four weeks in various locations in Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, I was barely able to keep up with PowerPoint revisions and lecture building to fret a great deal over these impending results.
My AncestryDNA results were obviously the first to arrive as announced via email on the afternoon of 15 October 2014, although I was not able to sit down and access them on my computer until later that night. And much to my surprise, in addition to the thousands of matches and pages-and-pages of remotely distant relatives, I had one very close match.
A male identified by initials only, whose test results were administrated by a second party, and whose family tree was locked from view to me, was identified as my "Close Family to First Cousin." I frantically looked to see if the initials matched any of the known Schrader clan, but I came up empty handed. Of course, yes, I was curious, but I certainly wasn't insanely clawing at my computer screen. Although I do not have first cousins interested in genealogical research, nor do I know of anyone in the immediate family that might have been tested, I do know there are a handful of relatively close relatives on my father's side that are on a variety of DNA sites. And since I only had my test results in the AncestryDNA system, I had no references with which to compare to see if this was a maternal or paternal connection.
So at 10:31 p.m. in the night of 15 October 2014, I sent the following message:
"Hello. Although I have been working with DNA for quite some time via 23andMe and FTDNA, I have just gotten my results on Ancestry. I am wading through the ins and outs of the match features. Nonetheless, this says you are my first cousin. Now THAT is something I want to explore! Who are you?"
Unfortunately, I was also frantically preparing for a lecture I had to give in Dayton, Ohio, that I was driving to the following Friday morning. Anyone who knows me is aware of my profound level of procrastination. PowerPoints, laundry, packing, and all the preparations for leaving usually are frantically taken care of hours to minutes before I have to walk out the door. And on the morning of Friday, 17 October 2014, I had to be on the road no later than 10 a.m. because of a timed afternoon engagement the day before my lecture.
At 7:07 a.m. that Friday morning I got a response to my AncestryDNA query:
"Mike, I see you are located in Indiana which dovetails with my family history. Perhaps you are researching this connection for someone else who is older than you? [The] family tree is rather small so it's great to happen upon such a close connection. If we are in fact first cousins then we share grandparents which might be Daugherty..."
Holy Jesus Christ, Joseph, and Mary Mother of God and All the Angels and Saints on High... did I read that correctly?
Minutes before needing to hop into the car and drive to Ohio, I now had a pounding headache and the immediate need to vomit.