Saturday, June 6, 2020

Genetic Sleuthing: Getting Info from DNA Matches Without Public Family Trees

It's a problem that most of us who study genetic genealogy have run into: you have a close DNA match that is the key to the answers you are looking for, but that match either has a private family tree or no tree at all. Sometimes sending a message to the match yields results, and sometimes it doesn't. There is an appallingly high number of people who never answer messages on Ancestry, and an even higher number that do not build trees to go with their results. In this post, I'm going to use a specific case that I recently solved to demonstrate some techniques for working around matches that do not have public family trees.

Please note: all of the following information is based on Ancestry DNA's interface, but the skills are transferable to other DNA companies, such as 23andMe, MyHeritage DNA, and Family Tree DNA.

When you click on a treeless match on Ancestry, you'll see a message that says:
[This Match] hasn't built a searchable tree. 
[This match] hasn't built a searchable tree yet, but their DNA results show they are related to [You]. Comparing trees is one way to find out how. Invite [This Match] to build a tree and link it to their DNA results.
There will then be a green button that says "Contact [This Match]", where you can send them a message.

First of all, just because they haven't attached a tree to their DNA results does not mean that they don't have a tree on Ancestry. Click on the match's name at the top of the page to view their profile. Sometimes they have a family tree, but have not linked it to their DNA profile. When this occurs, their user profile will look like the image below. Sometimes you can get useful information from these trees and sometimes you can't, but it is always worth a look.

But more often than not, the match will not have any kind of tree on their account at all. When this happens, you have to really do your detective work.

The first thing to look for is, of course, the name of the match. Match names will be displayed either as a username, a full first and last name, a first name with a last initial, or as two initials only. For male DNA matches the full first and last name is of course the most ideal, and will give you the person's full name. If you're lucky and it's a somewhat unusual name, you might be able to find information on the name alone. For female DNA matches, even the full name could be misleading; is it her maiden name or her married name?

In the case that I recently solved, Diane K. was searching for her father's biological father. Her father and his mother had both passed away, and on her deathbed her grandmother made a final confession: the man who had raised Diane's father was not in fact his biological father. Diane's grandmother did not say what his father's name was, but she told her two key pieces of information: he was married with three sons when Diane's father was conceived, and he owned a farm.

Diane had one high match that was showing as a "1st Cousin" on Ancestry, with the display name of Cindy A*******. Cindy did not have any trees on Ancestry. But when I clicked on her profile, I found that she had two names listed as research interests, and fortunately they were two fairly uncommon names.

So I took Cindy's first and last name that was displayed on her profile, along with the two names listed as research interests, and searched them all together in Google like this:
"Cindy A******* S****** K********"
I was very, very fortunate to get a perfect hit as the very first search result. It was a transcription of a wedding announcement from 1964 that had been posted to a county historical society webpage in Wisconsin. The announcement was for the marriage of Cynthia K******** to a Mr. A*******, and listed Cynthia's parents' last names as K******** (father) and S****** (mother). I now had enough to start building a tree. (Note: if I hadn't gotten a good hit with a regular Google search, I would have searched for the names in the same way in next.)

Since Cindy was showing up as a first cousin match to Diane, I only built Cindy's tree back to grandparents. They had to share at least one set. I then entered the amount of cMs shared between Diane and Cindy into the Shared cM Project tool and found that based on the amount of shared DNA, it was just as possible that Cindy was Diane's half aunt as it was that she was her first cousin. Given the ages of both women, the half-aunt idea had a fair amount of merit.

I then searched all of Diane's DNA matches for people with the last name S****** in their trees, which was Cindy's mother's maiden name. Diane only had three matches with this name in their trees, and they were all very distant cousins who did not match Cindy at all - a coincidence. This indicated that Diane was closely related to Cindy's father, but not to Cindy's mother.

Finally, I searched all of Diane's DNA matches for people with the last name M***** in their trees, which was the maiden name of Cindy's father's mother. Diane had several 2nd-3rd cousin matches with this name in their trees, all descending from the same couple. This indicated that Diane's grandfather had to descend from both the K******* and M***** lines - and the only place in her matches where these two lines crossed was the marriage of Cindy's paternal grandparents.

I then turned my attention to the non-identifying information that Diane's grandmother had given on her death bed. She said that her son's father had been a married man with three children when her son was conceived, and that he owned a farm. Diane had also said that her father was born in 1934. After careful confirmation, I found that Cindy's father checked all the boxes: he had married Cindy's mother in 1929, and by 1934 they had three sons. According to the 1930 census, Cindy's father was a farmer.

All of this evidence pointed to only one conclusion: Cindy's father was also Diane's grandfather, making Cindy Diane's half-aunt.

I was so happy to be able to solve this long-standing family mystery, and give Diane the answers that she had been looking for since 1987. There has been so much turmoil and division in the world lately, and it felt really good to be able to do something that brings people together.

I fervently hope that this post will enable others to get as much information as possible from their close DNA matches, and find their own long-sought answers. If you need any help breaking down a DNA wall, please let me know! I will do my best to help.


  1. A tree or trees showing these lines might have been helpful for the reader.

  2. Hi Allison,
    I am a long time genealogist and fellow blogger. Your post was very informative. I have been diligently trying to solve two brick walls, using traditional research and DNA. I have attended a great many DNA seminars and classes. And yet, I am unable to solve these mysteries. I would be very interested in obtaining your assistance. I clicked on your profile but so t see a way to contact you other than here.

    1. Hi Diane! My email address is If you will send me the details of your brick walls, I will do my best to help. Yours, Allison



Welcome to Rooted Heritage Genealogy! This blog is dedicated to both telling my ancestors' stories and to helping others to do the sam...