Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A DNA Inspired Family Reunion - Part 1

Only recently, as a genealogist, have I come to terms with my evolving sense of family. Some grow up in large families woven together by patriarchs and matriarchs, stitched to one another through holidays and family reunions. Others, like me, grow up distant from extended family: more familiar with funerals than planned quality time with extended family.

But there's only so many funerals you can go to hearing the familiar refrain, "We really ought to get together for a happy occasion for a change!" before you decide something's just got to be done.

So, that's what I did! I planned a family reunion this year for the cousins and descendants of my great-grandparents Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge of Powhatan County, Virginia. But this reunion was more than a family reunion; it was a rediscovery of family, a meeting for the first time of cousins - from across the man-made divisions of race and ethnicity - who had never before had the honor of knowing one another.

And it's a reunion that would have never been possible, if not for the affordability of DNA testing and the accessibility of genealogical records. 

In this post, we'll look at the process I took to identify DNA cousins, confirm our common ancestors, and plan the event that brought us all together for the first time. In Part 2, we'll look at the evidence that proves that none of us are out of place, that we're family. And in Part 3, we'll see how the reunion went and how a house of worship became our place of discovery and reconnection as family.

Identifying DNA matches

Apart from my dad's siblings and first cousins, everyone else at our family reunion this year was found through DNA testing. So how exactly does this work and how can we be so sure we're actually related?

We first need to understand some of the basics of DNA. Take a look at my post about descendancy research and DNA for a primer. But the important concept to remember is that in every cell in our bodies, we have DNA that we inherited from each of our parents. And while half of our DNA came from each of our parents, we did *not* inherit the other half of their DNA. That means that half of what they inherited from their parents did not get passed on to us. Why does this matter? Because it affects how much DNA from any particular ancestor is passed on to their descendants. When that ancestor lived can then be deduced by comparing how much DNA two of their descendants share with one another. 

When you take an autosomal DNA test from AncestryDNA, they provide a list of DNA matches organized from the closest family members to the most distant. But how do they figure out the estimated relationship between you and a match? It's based on the amount of shared DNA, measured in centimorgans (cM). The higher the number of cM, the more DNA is shared, the higher the likelihood they share a more recent ancestor. Here's a fun shared cM tool you can use to see the possible relationships you could have with a given DNA match based on your shared cM of DNA.

Now that we can look at our DNA match lists and see how DNA testing companies - Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andme, FamilyTreeDNA, LivingDNA - organize our matches, let's see how I was able to confirm relationships with those I invited to our 2019 family reunion!

Confirming common ancestors

When it came to identifying my dad's DNA cousins on the Williams and Wooldridge sides, I had to start with his closest matches - those with the highest shared cM of DNA - and figure out how he's connected to each of them. It helps to begin with first cousin matches first since you can more easily determine which side of your family they connect to you through. Then it's a matter of finding who in your match list connects to both you and your first cousins, second cousins, etc.

This is where organization really matters. How am I going to keep track of these cousins? How can I keep all these names straight? I wrote a piece on organizing DNA matches, which I recommend you check out. Since the time I wrote it in December 2018, AncestryDNA has put out some new tools which have updated how I organize my matches within their system. Now, I can also organize my DNA matches with different colored dots that I have labeled with the names of different ancestors. For some matches, if I haven't proven the connection yet - I'll label them with a particular color that shows a suspected relationship so I can come back to the match later. 

In my dad's case, both he and one of his sisters have DNA tested with AncestryDNA. Additionally, three first cousins - who share Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge - have also tested at the same company. So I was able to quickly narrow down the large list of DNA matches to those who share the ancestors of my great-grandfather or my great-grandmother. 

Planning the reunion

Sometimes you just have to make something happen - or else it never will. When it comes to family reunions, it's a matter of finding a few dates that work with key players (family you know you can count on to come), finding a location, and reserving the space. I knew I wanted to do our reunion at Graceland Baptist Church, because it was the church my great-grandparents and grandparents attended and where they all are buried. 

After I had the date and the location reserved, I made a free flyer with postermywall and an online form that family could use to RSVP for the reunion. I used Google Forms this year, but I plan to use SignUpGenius next year because of the different ways you can adapt the form for your event's needs. You can see a cropped version of the flyer I made above (the full form includes a link to RSVP and my contact information).

I also made a Facebook event and invited as many of my family members whom I have as Facebook friends. I included the link to the sign up, I shared the flyer on the page, I posted regular reminders about the reunion, and I asked everyone to invite their sides of the family. I also sent the flyer out by e-mail to more distant family members that I had connected with online, and mailed the flyer to family whose mailing addresses my aunt already had. The event was planned as a potluck so we reserved plenty of time so we could relax and get to know one another. 

All that was left was to wait and hope people would come!


Planning a family reunion takes a lot of determination, stubbornness, and being completely comfortable with being (potentially) annoying to close and distant relatives in the process. Before this reunion, I thought it was just my generation (I'm a Millennial) that was bad at RSVPing and committing to events, but I've decided it's just a 21st century issue more generally. But none of this DNA inspired family reunion would have been possible without first identifying DNA matches and confirming our common ancestors. 

But how do lists of DNA matches, organized by dots and charts, lead to newfound family enough for a reunion? How does a group of strangers develop a sense of family just by taking a DNA test? 

Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out!

This post was inspired by the week 15 prompt "DNA" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for organizing the family reunion Sam, and for your work in finding so many of our cousins. The reunion was great fun for us all.


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