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.
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.
Second, the family tree of the close cousin needs to have enough non-living people listed in it for it to be valuable. 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. 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.
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.
See my next blog post, I have created a mirror tree, now what? to learn how to use a mirror tree to identify biological ancestors for someone with unknown parentage .