DNA Cousin Matches Can Lead to Family History Discoveries


DNA testing has become a big part of genealogy and family history. DNA matches, sometimes referred to as cousin matches, can be the link to overcoming brick walls in family history research, help adoptees find their birth families, and lead to exciting new family history discoveries.DNA testing companies that assist with family history generally offer DNA matches or cousin match lists in their DNA testing reports. These DNA cousin matches are a list of people whose DNA matches yours significantly. Depending on how much of your DNA matches, the report can give an estimate of how closely you are related.Each of the DNA matches on your list may possibly have a common ancestor or ancestral couple from which you both descend. Once you have a DNA match, you may be able to collaborate with your newfound cousin to find this common ancestor, work together on holes in your family tree, or share family history stories and pictures.

3 Steps for Using Your DNA Cousin Match List

    1. Review the family tree of each of your DNA cousin matches, if a family tree is available. DNA cousin matches who are familiar with family history will likely have an online family tree associated with their DNA test results. At the least, they may have included where their ancestors lived and a few of their most recent surnames.
DNA match list screenshot from myheritage.com. View family tree.

  1. Use the family trees, surnames, or other information to guess which DNA cousin matches are on your father’s side or your mother’s side of the family.
  2. Start contacting your DNA matches via your testing company’s internal message system.

Note: It’s important to remember before reaching out to your DNA cousin matches that not all people who participate in DNA testing are knowledgeable about their family history. In fact, many people send in their DNA just for fun or to learn about their ethnicity breakdown. For this reason, some of your DNA cousin matches may not be able to collaborate with you as easily regarding your shared ancestry.

Which DNA Cousin Matches Should I Contact?

Typically, a DNA cousin match list will begin with your closest DNA matches first. The list is usually categorized by immediate family, 1st to 2nd cousins, 3rd to 4th cousins, and distant cousins, although each testing company’s categories vary. It is important to learn exactly how your testing company categorizes their matches.

DNA match list screenshot from 23andme.com. How DNA cousins are categorized.

Contact your closest matches first. The easiest way to contact a DNA cousin match is via the testing company’s message system.

Screenshot showing how to message a DNA cousin match on ancestrydna.com.
Screenshot showing how to message a DNA cousin match on familytreedna.com.

Not sure what to say? Here’s a helpful example:

“Dear ____, It seems that you and I are close DNA matches. I noticed you did (or didn’t) have a family tree uploaded and wondered if you would feel comfortable sharing a little of your family history with me. I am the daughter of Jacob Smith and Ann Donnelly. I believe you are likely from the Smith side of my family. My father Jacob (b. 1941) is the son of Michael Smith (b. 1911) and Donna Mason (b. 1913) of Sandusky, Ohio. Do any of these names sound familiar to you? I am hoping to learn more about Michael and Donna Smith and hope you might have some information. Hope to hear from you soon.”

As you move down your list to 3rd, 4th, and even more distant cousins, it may become more difficult to determine how closely you are related or who the common ancestor is. But those matches shouldn’t be overlooked. Reaching out to these more distant DNA cousins may still be beneficial.

Collaborating on Family History with Cousin Matches

As you contact cousins, it may be helpful to offer your own information about shared relatives in exchange for what they have. This offer can help you and your newfound relatives build your family history together.If your DNA matches don’t yet have a family tree, helping them sketch out a small family tree may be a good way for them to share information they have about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Most cousins will remember parent and grandparent names and places.Lots of great tools are available for building a family tree for your cousins or yourself. When you create a free account on FamilySearch.org, you can use the shared FamilySearch Family Tree to build your tree, search for records, and work together with your cousins and other family.Whether you found the information you needed in your first contact with your cousin matches or didn’t learn as much as you had hoped, consider reaching out again, even regularly, to share new information and see if these relatives have learned more as well. Record what you know in your family tree so you and others can connect with your ancestors and preserve your family stories.

DNA Cousin Matches Can Lead to a Family History Discovery—Donna’s Story

DNA match sharing photos with family.

In 2018, Donna decided to participate in DNA testing in hopes of finding her relatives. With the help of a professional genealogist familiar with DNA testing, she was able to find a first cousin match. After reaching out to this newfound cousin via the testing company’s internal message system, Donna found family members willing to work on family history with her. Shared stories, family hobbies and interests, and pictures have just been the beginning of this amazing family history discovery.If you have taken a DNA test, be sure to upload your family tree to the testing website. You may discover DNA cousin matches for yourself, or you may be the DNA cousin that leads to a long awaited and much anticipated family history discovery!As you learn more about your family history using DNA cousin matches, we’d love to hear your story! You’re welcome to share in the comments below.

More about DNA Testing

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


About the Author