She took a DNA test looking for her Dutch ancestor—and got unexpected results! See how this researcher combined clues from genetics and genealogy to discover a new branch of her family tree.
As children, Sandy from Littleton, Massachusetts and her sisters were taught to embrace the English, Irish, Dutch and Scottish lines of their heritage–so much, in fact, that the three sisters eventually married English, Dutch, and Scottish men!
When Sandy began to research her family history as an adult, however, the Dutch line remained elusive. “My maternal grandmother told me the Nollans were Dutch and from Ohio. Someone in the family was even nicknamed ‘Dutch,’” says Sandy. The family proved difficult to find, however.
“Newspapers finally helped to reveal the ‘Dutch’ nickname,” reveals Sandy. “Ralph Nollan (1892-1974), 1C of my grandfather, Leroy Nollan, was a local baseball star, and was called ‘Dutch’ Nollan in multiple newspaper clippings and statistical tables. ‘Dutch Nollan saves the day!’ was fairly typical.”
Finding her ‘Dutch’ Ancestor: First 3 Steps
Finding and Organizing DNA Matches
As soon as DNA testing became widely available, Sandy dove into it. She is a cell biologist who understood the potential of genetic genealogy. She purchased test kits at 23andMe, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and AncestryDNA. To further her learning, she devoured essential manuals, such as Blaine Bettinger’s The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy.
Sandy recalls spending hours comparing her DNA matches with chromosome browsers at FTDNA and 23andMe. She loved doing this but recognized some limitations. As she puts it, “The paternal and maternal chromosomes are not separated. Even if segments…appear to be from the same individuals’ lines, they actually can be inherited from different parental sides.”
She needed a better way to distinguish her matches–and then sort them–by family line. “Shared DNA matches at both companies allowed me to start separating matches into family groups based on matches that I recognized,” she explains. For a while, she lacked a good way to organize and label these match groups. “Finally Ancestry offered ‘color dots.’ Using the Leeds method, I sorted the basic family groups into grandparent and eventually great grandparent lines.”
“By now I had my sisters’ and multiple paternal and maternal cousins’ results in various combinations at Ancestry, FTDNA, MyHeritage, GEDmatch and Living DNA,” Sandy says. Each site offered different match lists, tools and methods for DNA analysis. “So now there were several methods for pursuing matches: Ancestry’s color dots for DNA matches helped eventually with ThruLines; chromosome browsers (at 23&Me, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and Gedmatch); the Theory of Family Relativity at MyHeritage; and autoclustering at MyHeritage, GEDmatch and Genetic Affairs.” She also looked to tools outside of the testing companies, such as DNA Painter, the Shared cM Project chart and relationship calculator.
Y DNA Testing for the Nollan Paternal Line
Getting back to the Nollans, part of Sandy’s DNA testing plan was to have a genetic male Nollan cousin take a Y-DNA test at Family Tree DNA. This was “so we could explore the Dutch Nollan surname, going back along the father’s father’s father’s line.”
The YDNA test results were…unexpected. “Not a Nollan/Nolen/Nowlin/Nolan among them!!!” Sandy says. “It was startling at first, but then I noticed the names of my cousin’s closest matches: Farrell, Brogan, Kelly, McCormick, Riley, Conley. My Dutchman had become Irish! No wonder we’d had no luck chasing the Dutch.”
To explore this new cluster of DNA connections, she joined a surname project at Family Tree DNA for the Farrell family. (Surname projects analyze DNA connections among testers who share a surname.) “At the deepest level, the DNA revealed a cluster of 10 testers: various surnames including Farrells, Brogans, Kelleys, Ruth, McCormick and York—and our single Nollan sitting nearby on his own little twiglet. Most of these men had roots in County Longford, Ireland. Project administrator Maurice Gleeson explained that while there were many reasons for non-matching surnames, our connection was most likely way back, before consistent surnames were established. I then contacted the 10 men to ask about any Nollans—no luck.”
Back to Autosomal DNA—and Your DNA Guide
Sandy turned back to her autosomal DNA matches at Ancestry to see what they could tell her about the Nollans. While some of her other lines showed many shared matches, she only had six Nollan matches, apart from a known cousin. “It was underwhelming,” she admits. “I essentially was spinning my wheels and repeating a lot of research.”
“About this time, Diahan Southard published Your DNA Guide—the Book,” she says. “I’d followed her very creative and entertaining presentations over the years, and thought it would be a good addition to my library. But it was a very different, almost map-like book. If you answered yes to a particular question about your relative, she directed you to a specific page to continue. If the answer was no, you went to another page or to a section explaining the concepts about DNA testing and terminology.”
“Very clever and entertaining,” Sandy continues. “She very clearly explained and illustrated the concepts. What I realized was that she and I also differed in some key areas. She rarely uses chromosome browsers and autoclustering, whereas I love those techniques and tools. But she has several methods to organize and dissect family groups and I wasn’t sure I understood them. For example, she used Ancestry dots very differently than I did.”
When Diahan announced the Your DNA Guide—the Academy, Sandy signed up immediately for the DNA Skills Workshop pilot. “I wanted to find out more about her progressive match dissection methods and also why she didn’t care for chromosome browsers and autoclustering.” Sandy also wanted to learn more about the What Are The Odds or WATO tool (“I understood the interpretation for this tool but always had trouble setting it up initially”).
In the DNA Skills Workshop, “Diahan introduced us to her organizational and labeling methods plus various strategies to both isolate and home in on the branches of interest. In working with matches, she uses a progressive subtractive approach to eliminate the lines you DON’T want and leave you with those you wish to explore further. That is what I’m applying to my Nollans now.” Several intermarriages with Wagoners (perhaps related Wagoners!) complicate the process. “But at least,” she says, “I’m finally utilizing the WATO tool correctly!”
Get Started on Your DNA Education
Sandy has clearly learned A LOT about various DNA websites, tools and techniques. Now it’s your turn to tackle the DNA mystery that you’ve been facing. Don’t worry, we’re here with you every step of the way. Get started learning about your missing ancestors with our free downloadable guide.
Good work applying good genetic research.
I am just now grappling with DNA to help me find two missing lines- one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s side that actually only go back for Generations. I love reading stories about how people have torn up their brick walls. But when I started this story I was blown away that the genealogist is from my hometown of Littleton Massachusetts!
What a small world! It’s so fun to find those connections. Good luck with your research on your own brick walls!