Overcoming Brick Walls in Your Family Tree with a Genealogy DNA Test

February 22, 2019  - by 

Today, many people are turning to DNA testing to overcome brick walls in their family history research. When you are unable to find information to go back any further in your family tree, DNA testing might help you break through these research barriers.

To get through a brick wall, successful genealogists often start by using traditional research methods and tried and true techniques. A genealogy DNA test can work alongside these methods and help break through a brick wall when nothing else can.

Three Types of DNA Testing You Might Use to Overcome Brick Walls

There are several DNA companies that provide opportunities to find relatives in what is generally called a “DNA match list.” DNA cousin matches are people whose DNA significantly matches your own. But with many types of DNA tests, how do you know which one to use? Below is a quick summary of three types of DNA testing that can help the most with brick walls.

  • An Autosomal DNA Test—This DNA test can be taken by males or females and will typically give you DNA matches within about 5 to 6 generations on both your mother and father’s sides of the family.
  • The YDNA Test—This DNA test can be taken only by a male, as it is used to track the Y chromosome passed from father to son over the generations. It extends back many generations. The YDNA test can provide relative matches and a paternal haplogroup. If a father’s family line is in question, this DNA test may help break down that brick wall.
  • The mtDNA Test—This DNA test can be taken by males or females, but it looks only at the genetic markers of your mother’s maternal line. It too extends back many generations. The mtDNA test will provide a maternal haplogroup and DNA matches for the maternal line. If your brick wall involves your mother’s maternal family line, this DNA test may be helpful (although an mtDNA test will naturally have a higher margin for error in the maternal line than a YDNA has in the paternal line).

A woman performs a dna test.

Strategies for Overcoming Brick Walls with DNA

After you’ve taken a DNA test, various strategies can help you break through your brick wall problem. Here are some common problems that DNA can help with and strategies for tackling these brick walls with your DNA test results.

Using DNA to Find an Unknown Parent or Grandparent

To find an unknown parent or grandparent, start by sorting your DNA matches into groups. Many companies help you do this sorting by using a shared or “in common with” feature to show you matches that share DNA with each other. When a whole group has matching DNA, it may mean they all share a common ancestor.

Compare trees with some of these matches to see which groups are connected to your known parents or grandparents, and set these aside. With these set aside, you can focus on matches that might lead you to your unknown relative. Compare trees with these matches, and try to find an ancestor who appears in more than one of the trees. This approach provides a starting point for traditional research, as this common ancestor is possibly related to you and your unknown relative.

As you research the descendants of this common ancestor, look for dates and places that match the information you know about yourself and your unknown relative. Confirm your relationship by asking other living descendants to take a DNA test.

a man researches his family on a laptop.

Using DNA to Find New Avenues for Research

If your research hits a brick wall due to immigration or migration, name changes, or missing records, DNA may suggest clues that can lead you to new relatives, surnames, or locations. To identify these clues, you’ll need to use information about your brick-wall ancestor (the ancestor whose family line ends or who you’re trying to find more information about).

First, identify other descendants of your brick-wall ancestor who have also taken a DNA test (or ask other descendants to take a DNA test). Use the shared or “in common with” feature provided by your DNA testing company to identify other DNA matches connected to the same brick-wall ancestor. Review those matches and their trees. Look for people, surnames, or locations that match the information you already know about your brick-wall ancestor. Next, use records to research these relatives and try to connect them to your brick-wall ancestor.

Using DNA to Confirm a Relationship

If records were burned or are missing or were never created, you can break brick walls by first hypothesizing and then using DNA to confirm a relationship. Start by researching your brick-wall ancestor and identifying possible relatives. Then locate and test living descendants of both your brick-wall ancestor and the possible relatives of this ancestor. Compare the DNA of the descendants of the brick-wall ancestor with the DNA of the descendants of the proposed relatives. If the DNA matches at an expected rate, the relationship probably existed.

Using DNA to Do Collaborative Research

Once you have identified DNA matches that may be related to your brick-wall ancestor, contact these matches to discover what they know about their family lines, especially if they have not uploaded a tree to the DNA testing site.

If your brick-wall ancestor is more recent, a DNA match may have living memory of the person or the person’s descendants who can help you track down relevant records and vital information. They may also have a family tree or other information that can help.

If your DNA match does not include a family tree or has limited information but you both want to learn more about your ancestors, you may want to work on the problem together. A family history site that allows you to upload and share family tree data can be a good way to learn from and collaborate with DNA matches. FamilySearch.org offers a shared family tree for free. 

Getting Help

Solving brick walls with DNA is not a simple or easy process, but many places offer DNA help. Consider asking an expert for help in setting up a strategy for you. Family history and DNA experts can also advise if DNA testing can help with your particular brick wall and can even help you with the research itself.

a man helps a couple with their family tree.

How Miles and Angela Overcame a Brick Wall with DNA Testing

For over 20 years, Miles and Angela had searched for the parents of Angela’s ancestor Willie Mae Harris (1864–1909). Willie Mae Harris had appeared in very few records, leaving Miles and Angela with few clues of her parentage.

Traditional research led Miles and Angela to find living descendants of Willie Mae and collect DNA samples from many of them. Using DNA match lists from these known descendants, they were able to find a previously unknown DNA cousin match. This newly discovered cousin had uploaded a family tree that included ancestors with the surname of Harris. Angela and Miles quickly sent an email to the cousin via the DNA testing website to compare their Harris family lines. It was determined their common ancestral link was William E. Harris and Fredonia Aust Harris. With this couple finally identified, further research led to the confirmation that William and Fredonia were the parents of Willie Mae Harris.

In addition to breaking through this 20-year brick wall, Angela found additional living cousins, one of whom sent pictures of William and Fredonia Harris, Willie Mae’s parents. DNA testing was the key to solving this family research problem and extended another generation on their family tree.

Have you had family history success using DNA testing? We would love to hear your story in the comments below.

More about DNA Testing

Compare options for DNA testing and find answers to DNA questions on FamilySearch.org.



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  1. Hi, why do you write to me about DNA, because I have given my DNA-test to you. What do I have to do? And a man called me and told me that my subscription has expired and I gave him my Visa cards number. Is it ok? You have sent me information about thath, but I am afraid about telefon callings when the case is about money. I pay of course next week when my daughter is coming back from Thailand. My home language is swedish, so I have some problems to understan english in the phone. Br. Sune

    1. Sune, FamilySearch is free and you should never have to pay for it. If anyone asks for a credit card number over the phone or tells you that you need to pay for FamilySearch access, they are trying to scam you–I apologize that that happened! Please let us know if there’s anything else you need.

  2. what if all you have found is a name ,no marriage and when you check marriage records they have married somebody else how do you go about it then as I have found so many with the same name and birth around the same time.

    1. So I’m guessing that they did marry but a different name of spouse? Depending when you’re talking many married women/ daughters would often be called by their middle names. Look at census records for before and after the marriage? This will be easy to do if the parents are listed on the marriage record. Most marriage record will give the age of the bride and groom – another tip. I have come across two marriage record for the same couple but the wife’s name was listed by her middle name on one and the first name with middle initial on the other. Also see if the husband married twice on the same day. Watch out however because one may be when the intention to marry was filed while the later date is when the marriage actually took place.

  3. What a great article! It gives in a concise manner the exact process that leads to one’s quickest success in traditional family research with the aid of DNA. In 1970 my family began researching our “Smith” ancestors (my maternal grandmother’s maternal line). Even with good records, Smith is such a common name it’s difficult to find provable sources. Our family’s brick wall was with Jesse Kirby Smith (b.1817 in GA – d. abt 1886 in AL). For almost 50 years we’ve been trying to find out who his father is. Several Smith descendants have written about his descendants. Recent yDNA testing has revealed his father was very likely George Washington Smith (1785-1859 GA). Paper documents proving this have yet to be found but the yDNA trail is undeniable.

  4. In the past 9 mos. have been able to solve a forever brick wall–a missing 2nd GGF–by having a male cousin Y-DNA tested. Our family name is Harper, but he matched no Harpers. However, he did match a group of men with the Buckner surname! And 2 very close matches at 111 markers. Once I learned that, I went back to my own and my aunt’s DNA results, and found that one of the “mystery” groups within our DNA matches, who matched us and each other, but had no familiar surnames in any of their trees, all had Buckner ancestors. So then I was able to start the journey to find out which Buckner man was our ancestor. Just used common sense, taking the strongest matches and researching them to bring the families forward. And doing the nitty gritty work. I’ve narrowed it down to one family, with 4 sons in the right age group. In researching each of them from birth to death, and charting the DNA matches to their descendants, I’ve now narrowed it down even further to one of two of the brothers. May never get closer than that, but that’s okay. I’m much closer than I’ve ever been–and I’m now working on their ancestors.