Mirror Trees Really Do Work

I gave compelling evidence in The Biological Father of my Foundling Ancestor that William Norsworthy Gordon is my great grandfather.  A living direct descendant of  William N. Gordon agreed to take a DNA test, and the results have arrived. The descendant is a granddaughter of William Norsworthy, and if my theory is correct, her father would be my grandfather’s half-brother.  Her DNA matched 306 centiMorgans (cM) and 22 segments with my mother. According to Blaine Bettinger’s shared cM relationship chart (see below), this DNA match fits in the 1st to 2nd cousin range. This is the range that I expected, and proves that I really have found my biological great- grandfather, and that  mirror trees really do work.

Blaine Bettinger's Shared cM DNA Relationship Chart
Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM DNA Relationship Chart

This is great news, and has made all of the hard work of the mirror tree worth it!  My family had always thought that we would never find out who my grandfather’s parents were, but I have solved half of the mystery.  I could not have done it without the use of DNA.  I am so grateful for all of the technological and scientific advancements genetic science has made over the last 20 years, and  that genetic genealogy has become affordable. Identifying my great grandfather has filled in a whole branch on my family tree (see image below), which would have been impossible without DNA.

4th generation Pedigree chart for Treena Jensen before her great grandfather was identified.
My 4th generation pedigree chart before my great grandfather was added to it.

To learn more about mirror trees, check out How to Build a Mirror Tree.

I Have Created a Mirror Tree, Now What?

MirrorTree Part 2

The real work with mirror trees is not in creating them, but what you do with them once they are created. If you have created a mirror tree, and do not know how to use it to discover those hard-to-find family members, then you are at the right blog.

Here are 5 steps to use a mirror tree to find ancestors for those with unknown parentage:

Step 1. Create a mirror tree

Follow the 5 Steps to create a mirror tree from the last blog post.

Step 2. Explore shared ancestor hints 

Once your mirror tree has ancestors back several generations you should start to see shared ancestor hints from your AncestryDNA home page.  These hints highlight the people that share DNA with you that also have ancestor(s) in their tree that matches those in your mirror tree.  These shared ancestor hints will help you to identify which ancestor you and your DNA cousin share.

To see if you have any shared ancestor hints, look at the ‘DNA Matches’ section of your AncestryDNA home page (see image below). This section offers three summary statistics which count how many Shared Ancestor Hints, Starred matches, and 4th cousins or closer  are associated with your DNA.

An example of shared matched ancestors on a modified mirror tree. The green leafs show common ancestors between the mirror tree and the linked DNA. There are 10.
An example of DNA Matches from the AncestryDNA home page. In this example there are 11 shared ancestor hints.

If the DNA cousin you linked your DNA to has their DNA linked to a family tree, then you should at least see one shared ancestor hint on your AncestryDNA home page.  If you gathered the ancestors for your mirror tree from a source other than a linked tree of your DNA cousin, then you may initially see a ‘0’ next to these hints. Sometimes it takes time for Ancestry’s algorithm to identify these matches, but I found that they usually show up within 24 hours  from when a new ancestor is added to the mirror tree.

To explore the shared matches, click on the ‘View All DNA Matches’ button under the DNA match summary statistics. This will bring you to a list of the people that Ancestry thinks are genetically related to you (see image below). By default these are sorted from closest relatives to most distant relatives.  There are filter options near the top of this page that allows you to only show the DNA cousins that either have shared ancestor hints, are new, or are starred.

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

Select the ‘hints’ filter tab  to see which of these cousins have direct ancestors in their tree that match those of your mirror tree. To see the common ancestor a matched cousin has with your mirror tree,  click on the ‘View Match’ button.  The common ancestor will be revealed as well as a side-by side comparison of how your mirror-tree cousin and the matched DNA cousin relate to  this common ancestor (see image below).

An example of the shared ancestor hint from a DNA match .
An example of the shared ancestor hint from a DNA match .

If there are identical surnames in the DNA cousin’s tree to your mirror tree, they will be listed below the shared ancestor description.  Clicking on these surnames will give you a side-by-side comparison of the ancestors with the surname in the two trees. Look carefully at these ancestors, because sometimes they are the same and show other common ancestors.

An example of a summary of shared surnames.
An example of a summary of shared surnames.
An example of ancestors that share surnames between two trees of DNA cousins with shared matches. In this case, the two trees have the same ancestor, Mary Hardin Perkins.
An example of ancestors that share surnames between two trees of DNA cousins with shared matches. In this case, the two trees have the same ancestor, Mary Hardin Perkins.

Possible reasons your mirror tree may not have any shared DNA matches (or only the one from the DNA cousin the tree was derived from) is because:

  • The mirror tree is not filled out completely
  • The mirror tree is filled out incorrectly (identified wrong ancestors)
  • You do not have a lot of DNA Cousins to work with.
  • The mirror tree does not have enough generations of ancestors

If you find yourself in this situation, it could be a very frustrating, but I encourage you to keep trying.

To get more productivity from these more frustrating mirror trees try to:

  • review all of the people in your tree to identify and correct any errors
  • take the ancestors back another generation
  • wait for more people to DNA test with Ancestry.

If these actions do not get you more shared ancestor hints, then you may want to take a break from this mirror tree, and try to start a new one from a different close DNA cousin cousin.

Step 3. Identify the ancestor you share with the mirror tree cousin. 

Now that you have some shared match hints, and have identified potential common ancestors, you want to identify which ancestor you and the DNA cousin from the mirror tree have in common. If it is clear from your work in step 2 who this common ancestor is, then you can skip this step. Otherwise, it helps to create a visual aid of the shared ancestor hints that I call a Shared Ancestor Map.

To create this map, print or take a screen capture of your mirror tree, and mark all of the ancestors on the tree that are also listed in the trees of your DNA shared matches from step 2.  This will allow you to see a pattern of lineage. Usually it will be linear, and point you towards an ancestor that you most likely descend from.

Below is an image of an example of a shared ancestor map I created for a mirror tree based off of a 4th cousin DNA match to my mother.  This mirror tree had three shared DNA matches. One of the matches was the 4th DNA cousin that was used to create the mirror tree. The other two matches were estimated as 5th-8th DNA cousins and had two different ancestors in common with the mirror tree. I shaded these common ancestors on the mirror tree (see below), and was happy to see that they formed a line.

Example of a Shared Ancestor Map from 2 shared ancestry hints of a mirror tree.
Example of a Shared Ancestor Map from 2 shared ancestry hints of a mirror tree.

Since the mirror tree in the example above is derived from a 4th cousin match, I expect the common ancestor between the 4th cousin and my mother to be a 3rd great grandparent. This shared match map suggests that this common ancestor is a parent of Martha Elizabeth Holt. Through research, I was able to identify these parents whom both or one, my Mom likely descends from.

Step 4: Build the mirror tree from the identified common ancestor 

Now that an ancestor has been identified that both you and your mirror cousin descend from, you can use this ancestor as a new reference point for your mirror tree.  You are likely a descendant of one of the children of the ancestor identified in step 3, but may descend from one of their siblings.  First, build the mirror tree up by adding the parents and grandparents of the new reference ancestor. Then build the mirror tree down by adding all of the children of the common ancestor.  Make sure to add the spouses of these children to the mirror tree as well as the spouse’s parents and grandparents.

Choose one of the children that is not the child already identified as an ancestor of your mirror cousin, and link your DNA to that child.  Wait 24 hours or so and check your shared ancestor hints. They should differ from the hints you had before when your DNA was linked to the cousin you built the tree from. Create a new shared DNA map with these hints and see if any patterns lead to further clues to your direct parentage.

If you find matches on the spouses’ ancestors, then this child and spouse are your direct ancestors (grandparents).  If not, try linking your DNA to another child, and see if there are additional shared ancestor hints and if you match their spouses’ ancestors .  If you do not match any of the children’s spouses, then the child that gives you the most DNA hints when your DNA is linked to them, is most likely the one that you descend from.

Below is an example of a shared ancestor map for a child of the common ancestor that was identified from my 4th cousin mirror tree in the example from step 3. When I linked my Mom’s DNA to the child, Mary Madeline Holt, I received 7 shared DNA matches that allowed me to shade in almost all of the ancestors on the newly created shared ancestor map.  This confirmed to me that I was on the right trail, and my mother was very likely a descendant of William Holt and Martha Ridley.  Some of the shared matches listed Mary Holt as the common ancestor, which led me to believe that she was likely my Mom’s 2nd Great Grandmother.

An example of using shared ancestor map from Mary M Holt for a 4th cousin created mirror tree.
An example of using shared ancestor map from Mary M Holt for a 4th cousin created mirror tree. There were 7 shared ancestor hints for this tree.

Step 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4

Once you identify which child of the original identified common ancestor you descend from, you want to make them your new reference point in the mirror tree.  Their parents, grandparents, and possibly great grandparents are already in your mirror tree  so there is no need to build the tree up from this new reference point.  But you will need to build their tree down another generation by finding and adding their children, children’s spouses, and the spouses parents to the mirror tree.  Then link your DNA to one of these newly added children, check for new shared ancestor hints, create a shared ancestor map, and see which hints guide you to your next likely grandparent.

This process should be repeated until you get to the generation of the parent you are hoping to identify with the mirror tree. If you know the date and location of where your ancestor with unknown parentage was born, then use this information to guide you to whom to link your DNA to.

Continuing with the 4th cousin mirror tree example from above, I repeated steps 3 and 4 two times until I found the potential father (William Norsworthy Gordon) of my ancestor with unknown parentage (my maternal grandfather).  The real clues for this example is when I received shared match hints for the ancestors of the spouses of the reference ancestor (who the DNA was linked to). This was very helpful since these ancestors that the DNA was linked to had multiple spouses.

Congratulations, you now can use a mirror tree to help you identify potential biological ancestors for someone with unknown parentage. This is a complicated process that makes most sense when you apply it to your own genetic research.  The more mirror trees you create and are successful with, the easier and simpler the process becomes.

Once you have identified potential parents of an elusive ancestor, you can try to contact living descendants to see if they are willing to take a DNA test to confirm the genetic relationship.  I am currently waiting on DNA results of a direct descendant of William Norsworthy Gordon to see if he is indeed my great grandfather.

If you or anyone you know have questions about creating or analyzing mirror trees please leave a question or comment below, and I will help as much as I can.

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:

Continue reading How to build a Mirror Tree

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, www.RelativeFinder.org 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 www.findagrave.com
Robbins Burial Site from www.findagrave.com

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