Gaining Insights From DNA Painter

Like many of the genetic genealogists out there, I’ve come to love DNA Painter as a tool for getting the most out of my DNA test data. So, today I want to share how I use it to help me better understand my DNA matches.

In order to keep this post fairly short and sweet, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will have some familiarity with the basic concepts in genetic genealogy. If you don’t, you might want to read about using your match list at Ancestry, or check out some of my advice for beginners, relating to DNA testing, or visit one of the many other blogs or Facebook groups out there that are geared toward genetic genealogy.

DNA Painter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, but I especially love it because it gives me one place to keep all my segment data from the various test companies (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and 23&Me) or third-party applications (GEDmatch) that provide it, visually identifying which segments were inherited from which ancestors. Why is this helpful? Here’s an example.

Let’s say I have a match at 23&Me who is entirely unknown to me. We’ll call him K.C. (All initials of living individuals have been changed in this post.) He has no information in his profile on 23&Me regarding where he lives, when he was born, or any surnames he’s researching. Half his ancestry is Northwestern European, and the other half is Ashkenazi Jewish, so we’re almost certainly related on the Northwestern European side. His breakdown within that category isn’t especially helpful; we’re both a mix of British & Irish, French & German, and Broadly Northwestern European in varying proportions, which represents my paternal side. I don’t know where he lives or when he was born, and his name is sufficiently common that standard internet search techniques (e.g. searching for death notices in which he’s named as a surviving relative, or searches of databases such as Ancestry and Newspapers) don’t offer any clues. He’s pretty much a mystery.

An examination of Relatives in Common offers some insights, however. 23&Me reports that K.C. and I have relatives in common, which include E.T., E.S., and K.M., and that we all share DNA overlap, which is typically an indication that a particular segment of DNA was passed down to each of us from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the situation with the latter two matches is not much better than it is with K.C. There’s not much information to go on in their profiles, and I don’t know how I’m related to them. However, I do have one glimmer of hope that I can leverage: E.T. is my second cousin. In “View DNA Details” at the 23&Me site, I select, “Compare with More Relatives,” and take a closer look at Chromosome 7, where we all share DNA, using myself as the base comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and five DNA matches.

In the diagram above, the underlying gray represents my paternal Chromosome 7. The purple segments are where my second cousin, E.T., shares DNA with me on that chromosome. As per the key, the orange segment represents shared DNA that I share with K.C., the yellow is shared DNA with E.S., and the blue is shared DNA with K.M. The areas where the colored regions stack on top of each other are areas of triangulation, where we all match each other, presumably because we share a common ancestor. But which ancestor might that be?

While my match list at 23&Me doesn’t provide any clues in that regard, my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter does. My ancestral chromosome map represents a visual summary of all of my known DNA match data from any test company or third-party application which provides segment data. Each time I’m able to document a genealogical relationship between myself and a living relative whose DNA data are found at one of those websites, I can “paint” the segments of shared DNA onto my ancestral chromosome map, and assign those segments to the common ancestral couple from whom that DNA match and I both descend. The more complete I can make my map, the more useful it is at informing my understanding of unknown DNA matches.

Let’s take a look at my paternal Chromosome 7 on my map from DNA Painter (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map, courtesy of DNA Painter.

The map consists of a number of colored bars of varying lengths. Each bar represents a segment of DNA shared between me and a living DNA match. I’ve removed the names of the matches in most cases, although the colored bars that are relevant to this discussion are identified by black bars on the right, labelled with the pseudo-initials of the DNA match.

The key tells us that my ancestral map of my paternal Chromsosome 7 consists of DNA segments that can be traced to one of three ancestral couples: Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz (my great-great-grandparents), Katherine Walsh and John Frank Roberts (my great-grandparents), and Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson (my great-great-great-grandparents). Figure 2a shows a family tree, for reference.

Figure 2a: My family tree. Click image for larger view.

We know that my paternal copy of every autosome (Chromosomes 1-22) will contain DNA inherited from both my dad’s mother, Marie Boehringer, and my dad’s father, Harry Roberts. We can take this a step further. Any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Marie Boehringer, must have been given to her by either her father, John Boehringer, or her mother, Anna Meier. Similarly, any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandfather must have come from either his father, John Frank Roberts, or his mother, Katherine Walsh. So each and every one of my paternal autosomes could be said to be a mixture of Roberts, Walsh, Boehringer, and Meier DNA. Bear in mind that the same pattern would be true for the chromosomes I inherited from my mom; those chromosomes must represent the four surnames of her grandparents.)

Going back now to the chromosome map, the map gets further refined as I am able to identify DNA matches with whom I share more distant ancestry. As mentioned, there’s a green segment on the map that represents DNA inherited from my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. They were the grandparents of Katherine Walsh, so it makes sense that this green segment of DNA would necessarily overlap with the royal blue DNA segment that I share with a Walsh/Roberts descendant. If it somehow overlapped with the light blue of the Meier/Goetz line, it would be an indication that I’d made some errors in assigning segments to ancestors. That green segment now helps me refine my understanding of my DNA in that region. When I only have the royal blue segment to consider, I know only that either John Frank Roberts or Katherine Walsh contributed that DNA. However, thanks to the additional data—that green segment—I know that the portion of the royal blue “Roberts/Walsh DNA” that overlaps with the green “Walsh/Hodgkinson DNA” in Figure 2 must have come from Katherine Walsh and not John Frank Roberts.

Now let’s see how this map can give me a starting point for understanding how I’m related to those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. As mentioned, E.T. is the only one of these DNA matches shown in Figure 1 to whom I know how I’m related; she’s my second cousin. So let’s start by focusing only on the segments of Chromosome 7 where I match her (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and E.T. as depicted by 23&Me.

Since there’s a lot going on, visually, in the ancestral chromosome map shown in Figure 2, I’ve marked with stars those three segments where E.T. matches me, so it’s a little easier to focus on them (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter, highlighting segments shared with second cousin E.T.

As you can see in Figures 1 and 3, there’s a break between the segments of DNA that I share with E.T., represented as that gray region disrupting the purple regions, that runs from (approximately) position 32,356,335 to position 55,601,336. This represents DNA that E.T. and I do not share. This break is highlighted in the zoomed-in, side-by-side comparison of the chromosome map from 23&Me with the ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Side-by-side comparison of chromosome maps from 23&Me, highlighting gap in shared DNA between me and my second cousin, E.T., with ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter.

Notice that the first half of that gap corresponds to that 13 cM segment of DNA, colored in green, that I share with I.N., whose common ancestors with me were Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. So, this tells me that in the first part of the gap region where I don’t share DNA with E.T., I inherited my DNA from the Walsh line. That’s important, because when we go back to Figure 1, the first part of that gap is where I share DNA with those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. So this tells me that it’s very likely that the common ancestors from which all of us descend are from the Walsh/Hodgkinson line (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Conceptual representation of location of Walsh DNA (with segment data from DNA Painter) in comparison with unknown DNA matches from 23&Me.

Ta da!

At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares?!” But I think it’s incredibly cool and powerful that I can go from having no information at all about three of my DNA matches on 23&Me, to suddenly knowing that we must be related through some common ancestor of either Robert Walsh or Elizabeth Hodgkinson, even when I have no matches in the 23&Me database to cousins with whom Robert and Elizabeth are the most recent common ancestral couple. Thank you, DNA Painter!

Please note that DNA Painter also offers the option to paint segment data from unknown matches directly into one’s chromosome map, so I could have made this same observation about my relationship to K.C., E.S., and K.M. that way. However, my personal preference is to keep my chromosome map “clean” and not add segment data until I determine how the match is related to me. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how we make these observations; the point is that we have the tools that make the observations possible. Going forward, I can write to these matches to see if they’ll give me further information about their family trees, I can look for clues in the family trees of additional shared matches, and I can play the long game and see what other matches are added to the test company databases over time that might shed some light on the situation. Ultimately, DNA matches can offer fantastic clues to help answer genealogical questions and identify unknown ancestors, so it’s worth taking the time to explore those matches.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

You Can’t Take It With You

Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.

If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchildit was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menuscrayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.

It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.

Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.

As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.

Mom and Dad’s Cardinal phonograph, circa 1920.

Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentationinsurance records, building receiptsrelated to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.

As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.

Stock certificate from 1935 for 250 shares of stock in Lakeland Gold Limited, owned by my great-grandmother, Anna (née Meier) Boehringer.

Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.

Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:

Small change purse containing pocket watches and rings belonging to my great-grandfather, John Boehringer. I checked with my Aunt Carol, who’s pretty sure that the rings are costume jewelry, since Nana Boehringer’s real engagement and wedding bands were stolen in a burglary in the 1950s.
Undated photograph of my great-grandmother, Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki and her daughter, Antonette (née Zazycki) Topolski.
I’m pretty sure this is a photo of my grandmother’s brother, Roman Zazycki (1902-1926). Uncle Roman was the twin brother of Uncle Bolesław (“Ben”) Zazycki, but he died young, after injuring his leg in a factory accident and subsequently developing tuberculosis in the bone of that same leg. I’d never seen a photo of him before, but from this photo, I’d say that he and Uncle Ben were identical twins, rather than fraternal!
Undated photo (circa 1950s) of my mother, her cousin Fred Zazycki, and Uncle J (the “horse”).
Oldest known photo of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth (née Wagner) Roberts, circa 1880s. This photo wasn’t in my parents’ things, but was given to me by my Aunt Carol while we were in town. This version was downloaded from MyHeritage after being uploaded there for enhancement and cleanup.

It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2021