5 Tips to Finding an Unknown Ancestor

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In the Information Era, it seems like people can type any question into a search engine and have the answer they are looking for delivered in a matter of seconds.

However, despite all the advances in technology, it is not so easy to track down unknown ancestors. If there is a notable missing entry in your family tree, what can you do?

Using a combination of genealogical DNA testing and nose-to-the-grindstone research, it is possible to track down an unknown ancestor.

Genealogical DNA testing will give you a percentage match that you can use to trace back to a known region or population subgroup, allowing you to focus your search efforts and find your ancestor.

Once the DNA results are delivered, researchers can link to possible matches within the testing platform they use or extend their search offline.

Whatever the case, the five tips we will cover below will be extremely useful in your efforts to find an unknown ancestor if DNA testing doesn’t provide the insight you’re looking for.

How Can DNA Be Used to Find Ancestors?

Genealogical DNA testing is used to help people find out information about their ancestry. It helps you compare patterns in your DNA sequencing to living people and people throughout history.

What Does Genealogical DNA Testing Do?

Genealogical DNA testing can help you find your paternal ancestors by analyzing specific genetic markers, which are the genes that code for specific characteristics.

Some tests also use mitochondrial markers to help you match characteristics to your maternal ancestors.

As genealogical DNA testing is not intended for medical use, blood collection is not necessary. The required specimen can be collected via a simple cheek swab and sent to the laboratory for analysis.

Once this data is analyzed, results will be revealed that link your DNA to any one of hundreds of historical populations.

It will also break your DNA down based on continental subgroups, which helps people who want to know what percentage of their ancestry is European, African, Asian, etc.

Finding the Right DNA Testing Service

With contemporary advances in DNA testing technology, there is no shortage of services that offer to help you find your missing ancestors. However, not all genealogical DNA testing platforms are created equally.

Before choosing a testing service, do your research and determine if the company operates under internationally recognized testing standards. This will help you ensure that you are getting the most accurate results.

As a starting point, any testing service should be AABB (American Association of Blood Banks) to help you get the most accurate results to compare across the largest population of potential matches.

5 Tips to Find an Unknown Ancestor

Having a genealogical DNA test performed is extremely helpful in getting you started in tracing your ancestors, but the results themselves are not going to produce a family tree for you.

Depending on the service you use, the results of your genealogical DNA test will likely reveal a couple of pieces of data:

  1. The percentage of your DNA that traces its ancestry back to continental or specific population subgroups
  2. The amount of shared DNA (measured in centigrams) between you and other members of the same testing platform

Using this information, you can use the following tips to help you narrow down who is and was part of your family.

1. Look at Naming Patterns

When potential ancestors share a high percentage of DNA, a great way to further narrow down a relationship is to look at naming patterns.

While the patronym is the obvious place to start, a lot can be gleaned from looking at people’s first names, as well.

It was extremely common in the 18th and 19th centuries to name children after their parents, grandparents, or other close relatives. This can help you confirm or deny whether a string of Jr., II, or III was part of your family.

It is also important to note similarities between male and female names. Pairs such as Henry and Henrietta or John and Johnna can indicate that a more recent family member was named for a favorite predecessor.

Finally, don’t overlook the power of the middle name when tracing ancestors. While it is sometimes viewed as an optional name for professional purposes, it can be a boon when tracing DNA matches back to ancestors.

In cases in which a person has more than one middle name, this is often an indication that the parents wanted to honor each side of the family, which can help fill in large chunks of a family tree.

2. Reach Out to the Family of Known Neighbors

In the days before the Internet, when transportation was difficult, it was extremely common for people to develop close relationships with their neighbors.

This often led to marriages and families among members of the same community.

If your DNA results come to a dead end at a certain region or specific subgroup, look up information about known families with the same characteristics and see if this family tree extends to modern times.

This family may be able to provide helpful hints as to your own family history, with a high likelihood that the two families were connected at some point along the way.

For some suggestions on questions to ask, check out these family interview questions.

3. Search Old Newspapers

Just like reaching out to known neighbors in the area, it can be helpful to examine old newspapers from the region in which your DNA match leads you.

Many larger newspapers will keep their archives online, making it possible for you to search old issues for any birth announcements, marriage announcements, or obituaries that can lend some helpful hints.

Obituaries are particularly useful, as they often provide extensive information about who preceded the deceased in death and who survives them.

If your DNA journey links you back to a rural area, check with the public library in the area.

While physical copies of old newspaper issues kept on microfilm can be painstaking to search, unearthing the right gem can provide a domino effect in completing your family tree, as other unknown relatives will likely be in closer proximity.

4. Create a Match Tree

When you get the information about your lineage and potential DNA matches, it is important to visualize a hypothetical family tree.

Match groups are often descended from a specific ancestral couple, so it is important to map this out and start filling in the blanks as you go.

A lot of this will be theoretical and require extensive trial and error, so be prepared to cross off and refill certain gaps in your tree as you go.

You can choose to draw your match tree freehand or use Internet-based software designed with ancestral tracing in mind.

5. Initiate Contact

If you are truly passionate about finding an unknown ancestor, the bottom line is that you will have to initiate contact with possible family matches.

While shared DNA and extensive research can help you narrow down your search, you will likely be unable to confirm your ancestral history without reaching out to those with whom you match and finding out their story.

While this can be uncomfortable for some people, it is necessary to make sure that your ancestral puzzle falls into place.


Finding an unknown ancestor may feel like finding a needle in a haystack. However, with advances in genealogical DNA testing, completing a family tree has become easier than ever before.

By choosing the right DNA testing platform and using the five tips listed above, it is possible that you can bring an unknown ancestor to light.


About GYAdmin

Hi, I’m Emma. I fell in love with genealogy the second I found out my ancestor fell off the Mayflower. I started GenealogyYou to help others on this fascinating journey (and to put my History degree to some use).