Mitochondrial DNA for Ancestry? Yes!

Kelli Jo Bergheimer

Share with a friend: 

Can you use mitochondrial DNA for ancestry? Yes, mtDNA can be useful in genetic genealogy research, though it is a less commonly used type of DNA. Kelli shares mtDNA research tips and strategies.

How many times have you heard someone say that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) doesn’t help with genealogy? While there are limitations to mtDNA, it can still help with your research! 

I, for one, am feeling successful after analyzing my mtDNA matches from FamilyTreeDNA,* which is the only company that offers mtDNA testing. Here’s what my analysis looks like so far.

Mitochondrial DNA for Ancestry

Both men and women have mitochondrial DNA, but only women pass it on to their biological children. mtDNA is inherited from a person’s mom, who inherited it from her mom, who inherited it from her mom, and so on. This matrilineal line also corresponds to the bottom line of your pedigree chart. 

Let’s look at my mitochondrial inheritance line for my tree in Ancestry. From my autosomal third-cousin DNA matches, I was certain about my matrilineal line back to Ann Classpy. I was less certain about Debora Barger, with only a few fourth cousin matches who could be from the Barger line. Some of those cousins could also be related to me in multiple ways, I just wasn’t sure. I had used AncestryDNA’s ThruLines hints to add the proposed fourth-great-grandmother Mary Polly Bousman and proposed fifth-great-grandmother Sarah Elizabeth Gearhart, but I was stuck! 

mitochondrial dna for ancestry chart

I also used mitochondrial DNA filter at DNA Painter to filter for those who contributed to my mitochondrial DNA. In my pedigree chart below, it’s highlighted in green. 

Make a chart of those you share mtDNA with: Sometimes looking at our match lists at FamilyTreeDNA, we lose sight of who has the same mtDNA we do. I make a chart to remind myself. That also reminds me to think about sisters and descendants at every generational level if I decide to target test to prove my hypotheses. It’s a simple chart starting with me (or the tester) in the lower left corner. Each name moving up on the left is on my matrilineal line. Each row contains the female siblings of my matrilineal ancestors (in the center column) and male siblings (on the right). Each of the women in the center column may have children to add in later.

When I open FamilyTreeDNA to view my mtDNA matches, I have many matches with 0 GD (genetic distance). Genetic distance is how close, or distant, you are genetically from a match.

Two of my matches, Sandi L. and Victoria S., have Mary Elizabeth Gearheart (1771-1850) as their earliest known matrilineal ancestor. Using ThruLines, I have Sarah Elizabeth Gearhart (1771-1847) in my family tree as my proposed fifth-great-grandmother in my matrilineal line. Are Mary and Sarah the same person? Are they twins? Is my tree wrong? 

Look at matches’ family trees: Now that I’ve located two matches listing Mary Elizabeth Gearheart, I’m going to look for these two women in my Family Finder (FamilyTreeDNA’s autosomal DNA test) matches, look at their trees, and search for some surnames.

Neither Sandi nor Victoria are autosomal matches to me at FamilyTreeDNA. This means they don’t share enough autosomal DNA with me to register as recent relatives. (Remember, autosomal connections fade within a few generations. But because mtDNA mutates so slowly, mtDNA connections remain visible for hundreds of years.)

So, I look at their trees in Ancestry. Victoria doesn’t have a family tree attached to her DNA profile, but Sandi has a tree showing Mary Elizabeth Gearheart as her matrilineal fifth-great-grandmother. Also note that Sandi descends from Mary Elizabeth Gearheart’s daughter from a different marriage than I have in my tree for Sarah Elizabeth Gearheart. So we might be still be talking about two different women.

Use ThruLines for hints and create a spreadsheet with matches: Let’s then go to Ancestry’s ThruLines for hints. If I look at the tiles that correspond to my matrilineal line, I’m going to start with Mary Polly Bousman, my fourth-great-grandmother.

One thing I do to help me visualize these lineages is to build a spreadsheet of columns showing descendancy to each of my ThruLine matches. Remember, these are not yet proven relationships. You can read this blog post for ThruLines tips and strategies.

This is a partial look at my ThruLines tracking spreadsheet built first from Mary Polly Bousman’s tile and then adding information for the matches to Sarah Elizabeth Gearhart’s tile. Using this information, I want to see if any of these matches are descended from Sarah (or Mary) Elizabeth Gearhart in an all-female inheritance pattern (to check my mtDNA list). For these autosomal matches, I could potentially contact them, look for their family trees, or continue to research our connections to add proof to my hypothesis.

Keep in mind to look for all-female DNA lines descending from this particular woman or the matrilineal lines ending in a male tester, if you want to go look for these autosomal matches in your mtDNA match list.

So far, no one in this list would be a mtDNA match to me, but I have some good leads to work on to strengthen my proof that this Gearheart/Gearhart woman is my matrilineal ancestor.

Reach out to your matches: I could reach out to my two matches, Sandi and Victoria, to find out what they know about their ancestor. If you plan to contact your mtDNA matches, consider downloading our free guide to contacting DNA matches to help with this!

Get Free Guide for Contacting DNA Matches

For now, I am content to have some working hypotheses on a Gearheart/Gearhart fifth-great-grandmother. Whether it’s Sarah or Mary, I am not sure. DNA analysis goes like that sometimes—fits and starts. But I am always hopeful for a breakthrough!

What to read next: 3 Reasons to Take an mtDNA Test

Learn more about mtDNA

If you’re investing in mtDNA testing, get my inexpensive-yet-invaluable Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) for the Genealogist guide. It explains what this kind of test may tell you, what haplogroups really tell you, and how to understand and work with your matches, which is definitely a different experience than working with autosomal matches.

Get mtDNA Guide


Get More DNA Inspiration

Our free monthly newsletter delivers more great articles right to you.

<a href="" target="_self">Kelli Jo Bergheimer</a>

Kelli Jo Bergheimer

Kelli Bergheimer is a writer, teacher, editor, and national genealogical speaker. Kelli is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for Blue Kayak, a K-12 textbook company. Her passion for education reaches beyond the classroom to teach others how to use genetic genealogy to solve family history mysteries. Kelli also works as a DNA editor for Legacy Tree Genealogists.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend