How to build a Mirror Tree

Mirror Tree Blog Post1

After exploring mirror trees with the main roadblock of my family tree (my foundling grandfather), I now have a better understanding  of what a mirror tree is, and how useful it can be  for revealing ancestors that left incomplete paper trails. Mirror trees offer a method for organizing genetic DNA matches to help those with unknown ancestors (adoptees, orphans and foundlings) identify biological ancestors.

Here are  five steps to create a mirror tree:

Step 1: Take an Ancestry DNA test

Currently a ‘mirror tree’ can only be created in Ancestry, since it is the only genetic DNA company that allows DNA to be linked to family trees.  When you take a DNA test through Ancestry you can connect your DNA to a family tree that you have saved (or can create) on your Ancestry account. Taking this test is easy. You simply spit in a tube, put the tube in an Ancestry provided envelope, and mail it back to Ancestry.  The most difficult part of this test is waiting for the results. It usually takes 6 to 8 weeks for the DNA to be processed, but if a lot of tests are returned at the same time, it could take 6 to 8 weeks before the DNA even makes it to the lab to begin the processing.  Ancestry has great deals around holidays where you can order the test for under $80 with shipping included.

Step 2: Identify close DNA cousins 

Once your DNA results are available, you can view your DNA Matches. These are other people that have taken the DNA test that share DNA with you, and are likely genetic relatives of yours.  Estimates of the relation of these DNA matches to you are categorized either as parent/child, close family, first cousin, second cousin, third cousin, fourth cousin, or distant cousin. To create a mirror tree, you need a DNA match that is a close relative to you (3rd cousin or closer). If you have a 3rd cousin match or closer, continue to step 3. If you only have 4th cousin to distant cousin DNA matches,  you can try to create a mirror tree with a 4th cousin match, but it will be much more work, and less likely lead you to close ancestors. Instead, I recommend that you wait until more people test with DNA and you match a closer cousin.

An example of DNA matches sorted by relationships.
An example of DNA matches sorted by relationships.

Step 3:  Select the closest DNA cousin with the best family tree

Of your closest DNA cousins, how do you choose which one to create a mirror tree off of? You select the closest cousin that has the most useful and available family tree.

First, you need a close DNA cousin that has a family tree attached to it. To identify the ones that have attached family trees, look for a green flow-chart (see image below) to the right of the user ID of the cousin.

Second, the family tree of the close cousin needs to have enough non-living people listed in it for it to be valuable. A number next to the family tree symbol (green flow-chart) will reveals how many people are in their family tree.  The higher the number, the less research you will need to do later on to fill in your mirror tree.  Trees with less then 20 people may or may not be useful.  If the 20 people in the tree are all living (cousins, siblings, children, and parents), then you will not see the names of these individuals or be able to identify their ancestors. If the 20 people listed in the tree are not living, and are the grand parents and great grandparents of the DNA cousin, then you will have enough information to create a valuable mirror tree.

Third, you need to be able to see the people listed in your DNA cousins family tree. When you create a family tree in Ancestry, you have the option to make it ‘private’ or ‘public’.  If it is private, then other Ancestry users can only see the family tree after requesting from you to see it. If it is a public family tree then any Ancestry user can see the tree.  If there is an image of a black lock next to the tree symbol (see image below), then your DNA cousin’s tree is ‘private’, and you will need to contact them to gain access to the tree.  If there is not a lock symbol next to the tree symbol, then DNA match’s tree is ‘public’, and you can view it by clicking the ‘view match’ button.

A DNA cousin with these symbols next to it means that they have their DNA linked to a private (black lock) family tree (green flow-chart) that has 1029 people in it.
A DNA cousin with these symbols next to it means that they have their DNA linked to a private (black lock) family tree (green flow-chart) that has 1032 people in it.

Step 4: Create a family tree that copies the close DNA cousin’s tree

Once you have identified a close DNA cousin that has a family tree linked to their DNA, you can build a mirror tree. A mirror tree is a copy of this cousin’s tree.  From the Ancestry Home page, you can create a tree from the ‘trees’ tab at the top of the page. It is recommended that in settings, you make this tree private.  If you choose not to make this tree private, then please clearly explain in the tree description that it is a mirror tree.  A explanatory name for the tree would be helpful too.  You can name it something like  “Mirror Tree for an Adoptee”.

The ‘home’ person of your mirror tree will be the close cousin DNA match that you chose in step 3. You can then type in their parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles and cousins. How close a DNA match the cousin is, will determine how many generations back to fill in the tree. If possible, fill in the tree with ancestors one generation further back from the generation you would expect to have a shared ancestor with the DNA cousin. For example, if you are estimated to be a first cousin to your DNA match, then you would likely share a grandparent, and should fill in all of your DNA cousins, grandparents AND great grandparents.  If you are a second cousin match, go back another generation and list all of your DNA matches great-great grandparents.

Step 5: Link your DNA in lieu of the DNA cousin in the mirror tree

Now that you have created your mirror tree, you need to link your DNA to the tree. You want to link your DNA to the home person of the mirror tree (your close DNA cousin). To get to your DNA reults , select the ‘DNA’ tab from the top of the Ancestry home page.  Now select the ‘Settings’ button which is located in the top right corner. Half way down the page there is a section titled, ‘Family Tree Linking’. You will want to edit the family tree linked to the test to be the mirror tree you just created.

Congratulations, you have created a mirror tree. Now you just need to wait for Ancestry’s matching algorithms to work their magic.  You should start to see DNA cousin matches who share ancestors to this mirror tree within a week or so. If you do not see any, use your research skills to fill in as many ancestors on your mirror tree as possible.

My next blog post will explain how to use a mirror tree to identify biological ancestors for someone with unknown parentage. This should be available within 2 weeks.

The biological father of my foundling ancestor?

I think I have found the biological father of my grandfather, Dwight Willard, who was abandoned as a newborn at a charitable orphanage organization in San Francisco in 1920. The man I believe to be my Great Grandfather is William Norsworthy Gordon, son of Robert Edward Gordon and Emma Norsworthy.  He was born in Texas which is where all of his siblings and ancestors remained, but uncanny circumstances brought him to California when he was a young boy. Continue reading The biological father of my foundling ancestor?

Are we related?

Family Search just released a new website, that allows you to see if people in your surrounding area are related to you.  I used it this past week at RootsTech, the world’s largest genealogy conference, and saw that there were distant cousins of mine in the same room as me, or  across the street, or down the hall.  It was really fun to see my family tree in action.  Not only can you see cousins in the area, but it will show you how you are related.

Continue reading Are we related?




“Roots” by Heidi Renee Mason

Deeply embedded

Inside the earth,

Twisting, turning

In every direction;

The source,

The beginning,

The origin of all;

Firmly established,

Gripping tightly,


Securing our existence;

A network of viability,

Our roots


The genesis of life.

Clues into Frank McCourtney’s Mysterious Past

Resting spot for Frank L McCourtney at Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Photo taken March 2016.
Resting spot for Frank L McCourtney at Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Photo taken March 2016.

Frank L McCourtney is one of the most mysterious ancestors that I have researched in a long time. His name came up at a dinner conversation last Christmas, when my Uncle in Law commented that he knew very little about his grandfather, Frank. My uncle had done his own genealogical research into his grandfather, but could not find who his parents were.  Further conversations with other family members about Frank McCourtney made him even more intriguing.  This man did not speak of his past much, at least with his grandchildren, and the varying stories that they had of his youth inspired me to want to find factual sources to get the story straight. Continue reading Clues into Frank McCourtney’s Mysterious Past

Giving back to Find A Grave

Tombstone of Verna May Smith (1895-1929). Photo taken in the Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon on March 1st, 2016.
Tombstone of Verna May Smith (1895-1929). Photo taken in the Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon on March 1st, 2016.

Almost all of my genealogical research has been for ancestors that live in other states than my current state. I recently began working on my husband’s lineage, and was happy to discover that he has a lot of roots in and near where we live in Vancouver, Washington. Since today is #TombstoneTuesday, I decided to visit his great grandparents burial site at the Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, snap a few photos, and make my first submission to the Find A Grave website. Continue reading Giving back to Find A Grave

The Great Scottish Slave

Robbins Buria Site from
Robbins Burial Site from

I recently began researching my husbands family tree, and discovered a very interesting individual, who’s life story has taught me new aspects of American and Scottish history.  I chose my most unconventional and unorganized method of research for the initial effort of discovering my husband’s roots.  This process begins with the grandparents where I dig up all the genealogical  information that I possibly can. Then, I choose which ever great grandparent intrigue’s me the most.   After discovering all that I can on the chosen great grandparent, I  decide which of that person’s parents intrigues me the most and research them to pieces. This process repeats until I either run out of time or hit a road block.

My husband’s grandmother, who just turned 90, was the grandparent I initially chose. Next was her father, Dean Oscar Broughton, then Dean’s mother, Ella Marie Hollingsworth, then eight more generations of intriguing grandparents later,  I discovered the Scottish warrior, Daniel Robins.  There has been a lot of previous research on  Daniel Robins so it was easy to grasp a quick picture of his adventurous life. Continue reading The Great Scottish Slave

A Y-DNA Revelation


My Mother’s brother took the Family Tree Y-DNA test so we could find clues on the paternal family of my adopted grandfather, Dwight Willard.  He has been the largest brick wall in my family tree since absolutely nothing is known of his biological parents.  The y chromosome is passed from father to son practically unchanged, so I thought the Y-DNA test would be the best chance for me to find my grandfather’s biological surname, and may even connect me to direct family members. Since only men have the y chromosome, I was unable to take the test myself, but am so fortunate that my mother has a brother, and that he was willing to take the test. Continue reading A Y-DNA Revelation

2016 Genealogy Resolutions

Picture from
Picture from

I am a life long fan New Year’s resolutions and think it is important to take the time to really ponder what you want from the year, as well as what you have accomplished. The past 5 to 10 years I have restricted my resolutions to one per year. These  have  been  mostly self-improvement related; listening more attentively to my talkative child, being honest with myself (tough one), being true to myself (very tough one), not use any paper towels for a year (yep, I did that), and write one letter of gratitude a month to someone that I did not personally know).  I was able to commit to these goals most of the time , but the addition of marriage and a larger family have challenged my commitment the past couple of years. Continue reading 2016 Genealogy Resolutions

Collecting Loos Puzzle Pieces

A section of the Alzey-Worms Map that includes Erbes-Budesheim.
A section of the Alzey-Worms Map that includes Erbes-Budesheim.

I have began a new Genealogy Research Project that  may be a bit too grand for my expertise. My ultimate goal is to determine the Loos Genealogy for the villages in the Alzey-Worms district  at or around my Loos ancestral village, Erbes-Budesheim in the 1700 to 1800s.  I would be happy though if all I discover is the familial connections between the Loos’ in Erbes Budesheim. Continue reading Collecting Loos Puzzle Pieces