Why Family History is Like Fishing

I enjoy a day of fishing every so often.  Even if I don’t catch any fish, I can have a little peace and quiet, alone with my thoughts, in the beauty of nature.

Family history is very similar.  Genealogists all enjoy “catching” that vital piece of information that has eluded them for years, but even if we don’t make a major breakthrough, we still enjoy exploring the various tangents, blind alleys and other diversions that we encounter in our searches.  Exploring a cemetery is still fun (in the beauty of nature) even if we don’t find the headstone of that elusive ancestor.

But the similarity doesn’t end there….  A fisherman has to choose a likely spot to catch fish, and most importantly, he needs the best bait and to use as many hooks as possible (or allowed by law).  In the early days of my family history search, the best bait available was to publish your research interests in a genealogical directory, in the hope that someone else researching the same family would buy the directory & make contact – the more directories you were listed in, covering the appropriate area of the world, the more likely you were to find that distant cousin.  Today, we can post our family tree online, either on our own website, on free public websites such as Wikitree or Family Search, or the subscription services such as Ancestry or MyHeritage.  The more of these options that we embrace, the more “hooks” we are putting out there, and the more likely that our “bait” will be seen and will be attractive to a distant cousin.

In the past few years a new type of fishing has become popular with genealogists – autosomal DNA testing.  But many of those who take an autosomal DNA test, don’t bother baiting their hooks, so are cluttering up the pool for other fishermen, and only catching the “hungriest” of relatives.  The following steps will greatly increase your chance of hearing from your DNA matches and determining the relationship –

  1. Put more hooks in the water – My Heritage, Living DNA, Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch all accept uploads of autosomal DNA results from other testing companies, which increases your likelihood of finding a DNA match, at little or no cost.
  2. Improve the bait – If you have details of any of your direct line ancestors, create a tree or upload a GEDCOM file containing your known ancestors (not your entire family history database) to each site that you have uploaded your autosomal DNA result to.  Some sites allow filtering of DNA matches by the surnames in your associated tree / GEDCOM, which helps your DNA matches to narrow down which line you might connect on (especially on Ancestry which only allows you to view a match’s tree if you have a paid subscription to their site).
  3. Once hooked, don’t let them get away – If a DNA match makes contact with you, respond!  Even if only to say that you are crazy busy and will not be able to investigate the match for some time.  Your response sets the hook, telling your new relative that you are interested in determining how you are related.

Good fishing!

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