SC: A Simple Note Format

Purpose: Describe the simple format for AncestryDNA match
notes we use to support the Walking the Clusters Back
Level: Beginner
Format: Description with examples
Your get to design your own note format to fit how you work
and what you are working to accomplish. Our format may be
totally unsuited to your needs.

This section is written from the perspective of a proponent
of the Walking the Clusters Back approach. This iterative
process is described by Jim Bartlett in three blog posts:
Walking The Clusters Back (part I), part II, part III.

The note field of AncestryDNA matches, displayed and updated
in Shared Clustering, is used as the primary documentation
in our clustering analysis.

Alternate approaches exist, and may better suit your needs.
If so, this content may still be useful to help you develop
your own approach.

Note Content

As we study a Shared Clustering diagram, we need to document:

  • tags identifying clusters at each iteration of the Walking The Clusters Back approach, so we can track the origin and splitting of clusters
  • known or likely common ancestors for a match, or hypotheses for them
  • brickwalls and mystery clusters
  • clusters due to a DNA segment identical by state (IBS), so we can ignore them

We may also want to document:

  • matches with interesting trees, surnames, or places
  • additional actions we need to take for a match or cluster
  • progress indicators (e.g. where we last stopped in reviewing a diagram)
  • whatever floats our boat

The Note Format Must Fit Your Workflow

Our note format has evolved rapidly over the last few months—it has simplified dramatically. The reason it has changed is we have totally changed our workflow.

Previously we worked through the AncestryDNA website. We edited notes there, perhaps updating a few or a few 10’s of notes a week. Our notes were long, often as long as the note field would allow.

Now, Shared Clustering diagrams are our DNA dashboard, and the Shared Clustering application implements most of our workflow. AncestryDNA is merely our database. We look at and edit 100’s of notes a day from within the diagram—we have over 100,000 matches each for several DNA tests, so we will be at this a while.

We need the notes to be short, simple, and consistent so they are easy to see (like a picture) as we scroll down the diagram.

The Shared Clustering diagrams display some of the information we included in our prior note format (e.g. shared cM, shared segments, match has a big tree), allowing us to simplify our note format.

Your note format must fit your workflow, not ours.

Our Note Format—Today

In this section, we take the approach of just showing you what we do today with some examples. Our format is not rigid; we often modify the format on-the-fly to meet the needs of a particular match’s situation.

You can then get started—doing what we do, modifying what we do, or doing something else—and stop reading this. In a later [tbd] section, we’ll explain how we got to this template in case that might help you develop your own template.

Note for Match with known lineage

As we Walk the Clusters Back, we iterate our note for a match with known lineage like this:

  1. G2-3
  2. G2-3 / G6-7 3GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname
  3. [G6-7] 3GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname

Note for Match with unknown lineage

We iterate our note for a match with unknown lineage like this:

  1. G2-3
  2. G2-3 / G6-7
  3. G6-7

The 1., 2., and 3. are just numbering the note iterations for our discussion here; they are not part of the note. Note 1 is replaced by Note 2, which is then replaced by Note 3.

Note 1 (G2-3) is added at the first iteration we are able to associate one or more matches with one of the eight great-grandparents in our tree through evidence or by process-of-elimination. It has not been confirmed at this iteration.

G is one of eight letters: S=great-grandfather Spratlin, C=great-grandmother Christian, etc.

2-3 are the Ahnentafel numbers for that great-grandparents’ parents as the common ancestor is up the line of one of the two or both (multiple segments, possibly multiple common ancestors) parents.

We use the slash (/) as a visual end-of-paragraph. We avoid carriage returns (the return key) in notes to display more of the note in the spreadsheet.

Note 2 is added as the prior cluster (tagged G2-3) splits and we associate the match with ancestors G6-7. For those matches we likely know the lineage to the common ancestor(s), we also add the common ancestors’ relationship to our test and the common ancestors’ names, to make them easier to recognize, and as we are close to being done with this match. We retain any prior Ahnentafel numbers (e.g. G2-3 in this example) to document the history of the splitting of the cluster until we confirm the common ancestor.

Note 2 is simplified to Note 3 when we confirm the lineage of the match to the common ancestor, the square brackets “[ ]” indicating confirmed. This can occur after more research or after more iterations provide additional information, or time passes and ThruLines tells us the common ancestor.


Note for Match we are researching

If the common ancestor is higher up the tree, and perhaps requires more research, the note gets longer. For example, it may iterate like this:

  1. G2-3
  2. G2-3 / G6-7
  3. G2-3 / G6-7 / G24-25
  4. G2-3 / G6-7 / G24-25 / ?
  5. G2-3 / G6-7 / G24-25 / Surnames: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie (SC > OH)
  6. G25 5GGP Jane Bravo
  7. [G25] 5GGP Jane Bravo

In this example above, we associate the cluster with G24-25 (Note 3), but are then stumped by the matches, and add Note 4 with the ? at the end. With research, we keep bumping into the same few surnames (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie) in the few matches’ trees that exist, and many of them seem to have emigrated from South Carolina to Ohio, so we add Note 5. After months of staring at their trees, reading about circuit riders, and Indian reservations, and reading 100’s of pages of Canadian and US Census records across multiple decades, and waiting for more people to take DNA tests and join the cluster, we develop a hypothesis (Note 6) and then confirm it (Note 7). A brickwall is solved.

Note for Match with multiple common ancestors

The test and a match may share more than one common ancestor.

In this case, we include the Ahnentafel numbers for each common ancestor like this:

  • [G14-15][G46-47] / [G14-15] 4GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname / [P46-47] 6GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname

The Ahnentafel numbers are repeated so that we have a complete list at the beginning of the note to make them easy to see as we scroll down the diagram.


As matches are added to the diagram at lower and lower shared cM thresholds, clusters may appear without previously being associated with another cluster. In this case, the first Ahnentafel numbers added may be higher than 2-3. We have one cluster that first appears with the note G800-801!

If you manage multiple tests, and those tests are at different
generational levels in your family tree (e.g. you and an aunt),
and you want to be able to move notes between tests, then you
PROBABLY need to pick the most recent generation in your tree,
and compute Ahnentafel numbers relative to that generation. In
our case, we use a specific child in the tree to compute and
refer to all relationships.

More Note Examples

Here are a few more random notes from our matches to give a flavor of what we add to keep moving forward:

  • [G2-3] 2GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname > theirchildsfullname
    {listing some of the match’s lineage to help us find them again}
  • [G12] 4GGP husbandfullname (- wifefullname)
    {a half relationship through the husband; the match’s lineage is through the wife listed}
  • G6-7 / Alfa (KY)? Bravo (IN)?
    {some possible surnames and locations of interest in matches’ trees}
  • G6-7 / German surnames (KY)?
  • G6-7 / Alfa Mystery 1
  • G6-7 / Alfa Mystery 2 / Shared between 2 unknown clusters / Surnames: Bravo
    {this cluster is flustering me; if I give it a name instead of a number, maybe it will be nice to me}
  • [G46-47] 6GGP husbandfullnamewifefullname / GEDMatch username – 103.1 cM 5 segments
    {this match also has a test on GEDMatch}