Part 6: Tracing Your 19th Century German Ancestors: Using DNA

In recent years DNA has become an amazing tool for helping solve our genealogical brick walls. For example in Part 5 of this series the fact that Burkhard Schlag’s descendants were fairly close DNA matches to his FAN club’s (i.e. nieces and nephews) descendant’s, provided important clues for tracing Burkhard’s parents. However using DNA with recent German ancestors may be more challenging than with some other communities. Germans may have an advantage with their church records and other documentary evidence, but may be somewhat at a disadvantage when it comes to using ethnicity and DNA.

What do we need to consider when researching recent (past 5-6 generations) German ancestors when it comes to using DNA?

 – Germany has strong privacy laws and Germans in general may not take DNA tests at the same rate as other communities.

 – Some Germans may have had smaller family sizes starting in the later half of the 1800’s, and therefore your total pool of German DNA cousins may be smaller.

 – You may find more German cousins on MyHeritage than other tests. Try filtering your matches by country of origin.

 – DNA from German speaking lands is hard to distinguish from its neighbors and UK ethnicities may be overrepresented.

 – I hypothesize that if communities that have been more genetically isolated (e.g. Irish) have more segments of DNA that are common to their population, that communities who are more admixed (e.g. Germans) may have more segments that a tester shares with a match because they actually share a recent common ancestor.

A word on the dangers of the concept of ethnicity

We as genealogists can use ethnicity results to help us identify which ancestor our unknown DNA match may connect to. However it is worth pausing to address how misleading ethnicity can be as a scientific concept, and how this has been and is being misused for devastating purposes. Humans have 99.9% the same DNA . The testing companies have only a very small portion of our DNA to examine that does seem to vary according to our ancestors’ geographical origins in the past 500 years.

Another way to put this is remembering that there is more genetic variation within an “ethnicity,” than between “ethnicities.” Think of all your traits seen and unseen: the length of your neck, the shape of your fingernails, or your susceptibility to diabetes. If you add up all of these millions of tiny aspects of who each of us is, you are more likely to share a greater portion with someone outside your ethnicity than within it. This is counterintuitive for us because we are so affected by visual cues and innate tribalism.

Genealogists want to use ethnicity and DNA segments to find their lost cousins. However in the wrong hands, this powerful technology could be used for terrible purposes. I would love to believe that we humans have learned our lesson after the horrors of the Holocaust, but the Chinese government seems to be using ethnicity determined with this technology against the Uighurs. As genealogists I hope we can keep informed of these darker uses of DNA testing, and hopefully do our part to prevent them. 

German DNA ethnicity results are complicated

German ethnicity results mirror the history and geography of “Germany,” as discussed in Part 1 of this series. German lands have been a crossroads in the center of a continent with ever changing borders for millenia. Trade routes (e.g. Hanseatic League, the Rhine river), invasions (e.g. Vikings, Huns, Swedes, Napoleon), wars (e.g. Romans, Thirty Years war, Napoleon), and religious differences just skim the surface of the endless examples of why the people of central Europe have moved around and not been genetically isolated.

The Ancestry graph below (Figure 1) depicts the ethnicity results of the average German in their reference panel (i.e. four grandparents born in the same part of Germany). The largest to the smallest signals are: Germanic Europe, England & NW Europe, Eastern Europe & Russia, Sweden, Norway, Baltics, Scotland, the Balkans, Wales, European Jewish, and France. Germany’s neighboring ethnicities commonly will be found on a “German’s” ethnicity results. It demonstrates that, unsurprisingly, Germans are not entirely ethnically “German.”

Figure 1: Figure 4.3A from “Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper” [Ancestry 2020] (Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper : accessed 22 May 2021).

The additional ethnicities you may see on your test may reflect the area of Germany your ancestor was from. For example my dad has a great-grandpa from the area on the Baltic Sea (that was previously a territory of Sweden) of the German Empire formerly known as Pomerania. My dad’s small percentages of Baltic and Swedish ethnicity results may reflect the DNA he got from this great-grandpa. Don’t be surprised if your German ethnicity results are not entirely “German.”


Figure 2: “Figure 2.2: PCA Analysis on European Panel Candidates” from Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper [Ancestry 2020] (Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper : accessed 22 May 2021). I placed the large black oval over the bulk of the Germany orange circles. I also labelled most of the other communities. The arrow was not added by me.

Figure 2 above is perhaps the best way to visualize why Germans are particularly hard to identify on ethnicity tests. The large oval depicts roughly the spread of the German reference panel (orange circles). The German reference panel is the most spread out, overlaps with the most other communities, and so gives us a picture of how German DNA is relatively non-distinct. Many on the German reference panel cannot be distinguished from Germany’s neighboring countries. 

Just like its geographical map, Germany’s genetic map shows close relationships with its neighbors. Some German reference panel members overlap with Poland, Hungary, Austria, while others overlap with Scandinavia and the UK. England (gray circles) and the Netherlands (green triangles) overlap entirely with some Germans. If you have a Greek parent and a German one, those ethnicities will likely be detected as different on an ethnicity test. If you have a German and a English parent, those may be much harder to separate.

Your German ethnicity may show up as overly British

My dad is seven-eighths mid-19th century German, one sixteenth Pennsylvania Dutch (18th century German) and one sixteenth colonial English. His Ancestry ethnicity results are 67% Germanic plus 8% associated ethnicities (e.g. Baltic), and 25% Scotland and England (he has zero recent Scottish ancestors). We saw in Figure 1 that England was the second most common ethnicity for the average German reference panel member.

Being another generation away, my Ancestry results seem further off than my dad’s. Of course it’s possible I inherited all of my parent’s British ethnicities, which would give me 56% Scotland & England, but unlikely. On paper I’m about two-thirds Germanic but come out with only 11% Germanic (plus 9% associated ethnicities), and 62% Scotland & England, when on average my results should be closer to the reverse of those percentages. Here is a good article explaining why this might be: Being Ethnically German: Understanding the DNA Tests. Here is a Dutch woman’s blog post discussing this UK problem.

To illustrate the difference between a genetically more isolated community (see Figure 3 below) and one that is not, I can look at the difference in how well Ancestry can identify my Irish versus my German great great grandparents. My mom has 6 Irish communities on her Ancestry ethnicity test and 5 are represented in mine. On the other hand I have none of my dad’s German ones and only a small fraction of his German (or my mom’s Dutch) ethnicity. Even though my Irish and German ancestors are all the same distance away from me (mostly great great grandparents), my Irish DNA is easier to identify.

Because German DNA may be less distinctive and easier to confuse with its neighbors, using ethnicity with German ancestors is less reliable. A better strategy is to focus on the localities of the ancestors of your likely German matches. If you have recent German ancestors, don’t focus too much on ethnicity, but instead look for matches that have similar locations to your German ancestors. Matching other Germans will be a better sign of your ancestor’s origins than relying on ethnicity tests.

Figure 3: Figure 2.3 from Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper [Ancestry 2020] (Ethnicity Estimate 2020 White Paper : accessed 22 May 2021).

Do some ethnicities have more IBS segments? 

Relative isolation has made Irish an easier ethnicity to identify on DNA tests (see Figure 3 above). For a good explanation of this see this post on tracing Irish ancestors with DNA. One reason might be that isolation has allowed for more IBS (identical by state) segments to accumulate in Irish populations. IBS or population segments mean that if you are Irish you will share more segments (even long ones) with matches who you do not share a recent (5-6 generations) ancestor with. Instead you and your match share a segment that is very common in that area of Ireland, and that segment is probably why Ancestry can pinpoint where in Ireland you had a recent ancestor. 

Are German matches more likely to be IBD?

So does the opposite follow? If you have ancestors from communities that were not isolated and instead were relatively admixed, will you have fewer IBS segments and more IBD segments? An IBD (identical by descent) segment is a segment you share with a match that you each received from the same recent ancestor. If you have a match with ancestors from the same area as your ancestor, is that match more likely to share a recent common ancestor with you if it is a German rather than an Irish match?

I hypothesize that the answer will more often be yes, and this is how I think of matches from isolated versus non-isolated populations. Each match you can find for a German ancestor will likely be important, whereas each Irish match may not be. Alternatively everyone could have a similar number of IBS segments, but the Irish ones have been mostly identified and the Germans have not. Please feel free to comment on this hypothesis, as I would like to know what you think.

There may be fewer Germans who test

Besides having relatively non-distinctive DNA, another challenge with German ancestors is that today Germany has strong privacy laws, which I don’t disagree with, but it can make genealogy harder. It appears that a smaller percentage of Germans get DNA tests than other countries. Also some Germans may have had smaller families since the late 1800’s, so you may have fewer DNA cousins than other other communities.

If you have 19th century Germans in your tree, you may have fewer useful matches because you may have fewer total distant relatives and that fewer of those are taking DNA tests. But I would still look! You are likely to find some interesting matches that help your research. You certainly want to look for matches who are descendants of your German’s siblings and cousins who may have also immigrated to the U.S.

How can DNA be used to discover German ancestors?

The DNA research process starts with grouping a tester’s matches into clusters by using the shared matching tools at the various testing companies: How to Create Genetic Clusters Manually. Assuming you have done that and identified the most recent common ancestor (by building out your match’s family tree) with as many matches as you can, the most useful advice I have for those using DNA to look for DNA cousins that connect to their 19th century Germans is to be sure to upload their test from another company (or to test) at MyHeritage. If possible, test your oldest living relative who descends from the German ancestor you are researching. Testing at Ancestry, 23andMe, and transferring to FamilyTree DNA will be good too because you never know where an important match may come from, but in my experience you will find more testers who live today in Germany at MyHeritage. 

Try testing at MyHeritage

You may find that you have the most matches from Germany at MyHeritage. Firstly make sure to try filtering for the largest segment on MyHeritage, as well as looking at those matches who share the most total DNA. The matches who share the longest segments with the tester are more likely to share a recent common ancestor. Additionally at MyHeritage you can filter your matches by the country the match lives in. Try filtering for Germany, but also Austria, Switzerland, France, Poland, the Czech Republic or the Netherlands depending on what part of Germany your ancestor was from.

For example, on his paternal side my dad has a great grandpa who came from Spremberg, Germany close to the Czech Republic, with the great grandma being from the opposite side of Germany near the Netherlands. My dad has a second cousin with the same great grandparents who tested at 23andMe. I transferred this second cousin’s and my dad’s shared segments to DNA Painter to try and identify segments from this ancestor from near the Czech Republic. 

Figure 4: DNAPainter, ( : accessed 28 May 2021).

When researching this great grandpa I check my dad’s MyHeritage matches from Germany, but I also look for matches from the Czech Republic. You would expect some Czechs to have ancestors from where Germany is today and vice-versa, especially along the border. In the early 19th century this area was known as Bohemia (in the Holy Roman Empire), and when nation states evolved, most of Bohemia became today’s Czech Republic.

My dad does have a few paternal Czech matches whose segments nearly overlap with this second cousin (Figure 4 above). This Czech match had all four grandparents from the border area between today’s Germany and the Czech Republic, and none of my dad’s ancestors are known to come from this area except the Spremberg one. Though it’s possible this Czech match is connected to other paternal great grandparents, this gives me a clue that these matches’ trees may help me identify ancestors of this “Bohemian” great grandpa. In this way MyHeritage’s feature of filtering for your match’s current country of residence can be used to focus on matches who are more likely to be connected to a particular ancestor.

If you have recent German ancestors you may find that using your DNA ethnicity results may be more complex than communities with more distinctive DNA. Instead try focusing on where your matches’ ancestors were from. I recommend looking for as many matches as you can of your oldest relative who descends from your German, especially at MyHeritage.

I hope this series has helped you understand some of the historical context of your 19th century German ancestors, plus some of the main strategies and tools available to research them. Despite the language and historical challenges, having 19th century German ancestors means you likely have rich record sets out there yet to be discovered!

Viel Glück mit deiner Recherche!







Source: Family Locket

Posted On: June 11, 2021 at 12:48PM