Using DNA to Break Down Brick Walls: A Case in Progress

Can bricks walls really come tumbling down using DNA results and the paper trail created in tracing family trees?

I recently wrote about a couple of the bricks walls that I have on my plate, and how frustrating it was that I was unable to solve them, although I could solve others' very complicated situations. (See Brick Walls in Family History Research for more details.)






One of those brick walls is the identity of my grandfather's father. I have been looking for my grandfather’s birth records, and his mother's birth records, parents and residence, for at least 10 years.

Until genetic genealogy came on the scene, I don’t think anyone in our family thought it possible to determine who his father was. As I told you in my Brick Walls article, I recently found my grandfather’s christening record, but the other parts of the story remain a mystery.


Taking the Plunge

Within the past month or so, I decided that it was time to give DNA a try, to see if it could assist in any way in breaking down this brick wall. The Y-DNA test seemed a good place to start, in looking for a family name for my grandfather’s father, since it seemed that his mother had provided him with an incorrect name for his father – a surname which he used for the rest of his life.

Taking the Plunge. Wikimedia Commons
Song bird takes the plunge in bird bath

Out of my grandfather's five sons, only one is still living, although I have a number of male cousins descended from them, any one of whom could have been tested.

Since DNA can mutate slightly as it passes from generation to generation, I figured I should test the family member closest to my grandfather, if possible.

My uncle agreed to the test, after learning that it was a two-minute, painless procedure of scraping the inside of his cheeks.


The Results

He duly sent the kit back, and we waited - I, quite impatiently; he, not so much so - for the results. When they arrived, about four business days after they were received at the Ancestry.com test facility, there was a long string of numbers, and a list of the closest 250 matches in the database. None of the other results listed was a perfect match, or even considered 'very close'.

The best match had a surname beginning with M. It was off by two markers out of the 30 for which there were results, which the company considered a 'close' match. They said that this meant that my uncle and this man may have shared a common ancestor between 6 and 15 generations ago. Hmm ... not such a good result!


Here is an example of Jefferson family DNA, used when trying to settle the question of whether Thomas Jefferson had fathered any of Sally Hemings' children (see Y-Chromosome Testing for further information), after upgrading to an 18-marker test in 2007:



D
Y
S
3
9
3

D
Y
S
3
9
0

D
Y
S
1
9


D
Y
S
3
9


D
Y
S
3
8
8

D
Y
S
4
3
9

D
Y
S
3
8
9
i
D
Y
S
3
9
2

D
Y
S
3
8
9
i
i
D
Y
S
4
3
7

D
Y
S
4
6
0

D
Y
S
4
3
8

D
Y
S
4
6
1

D
Y
S
4
6
2

D
Y
S
4
3
6

D
Y
S
4
3
4

D
Y
S
4
3
5

D
Y
S
1
5
6
Y
13 24 15 10 12 12 12 15 27 14 10 9 11 13 12 11 11 12

(Results as recorded on Wikipedia.com)


These results are not that difficult to read, with only one line of numbers, and 18 markers tested. Standard tests today begin at 27 markers, and can go up to more than 100. When there is line after line of results to read, in comparing your results with possible matches, it can be a somewhat daunting task - although it would be an actuary's dream come true!

It occurred to me that other genetic genealogy results might shed further light on the subject. That is, there might be other people with the M surname who had been tested in other companies, who might have done more extensive testing. This would also apply to the other surnames on my list of potential matches. I went searching for DNA surname projects.

When I checked the surname project for the M surname, I found that, although the M surname results from my testing company were a fairly close match, there were no others with that surname in the database whose DNA results were even close.

Where the surname matches, but the DNA does not, there may have been an adoption; there may have been a legal name change somewhere along the way; or there may have been an illegitimacy at some point, as in my grandfather’s case. There were no matches at all under the surname he used all his life, in any of the databases!

It could also mean that there is another M line which is completely unrelated to the first, and only one individual from that line has been tested.

The contact person from the M line has just gotten back to me. He says that all of his ancestors came from Wales. My great-grandmother reportedly was Welsh, although whether that means she was born in Wales, or that she was born elsewhere in the United Kingdom of Welsh parents, is unknown.






Comparing Results with other DNA Databases

I then wondered if other companies’ DNA databases might include a closer match, or at least, further information, in the form of other family members who had been tested.

Sure enough, some of the companies with DNA databases have searching facilities which people who have been tested at other companies can use, although I had to search around for a while to find them. Here are a couple of the sites:

www.smgf.org

www.ysearch.org



On the y-search site (a free site offered by Family Tree DNA), I entered my uncle's information, and discovered that there was a fairly close match! I think my heart skipped several beats!

I clicked on those results, and although the surname was different (it started with a B), the results were very similar to the first match from Ancestry: they differed from my uncle’s on what I thought was two markers.

However, after adjusting for differences in the way one marker is reported between the two companies, only one marker was a mismatch - even closer!

I checked their surname project. To my delight, there was a group of about 10 individuals who had the same DNA markers, with some very slight variations here and there. The oldest known ancestor of this group was born in England, they think, in the 1630s, and migrated to the US in early adulthood.

Comparing Apples and Oranges.
Wikimedia Commons
Comparing Apples and Oranges

However, as I noted in my article on DNA Surname Projects, each company tests different markers, and comparisons between companies are incomplete, and therefore inconclusive.

That is precisely my situation: some of the markers usually tested by Family Tree DNA, the company with the majority of the B surname results, were not tested by Ancestry, and vice versa. It therefore is not clear whether the match is as close as it appears to be!





I have been researching the B family name, and with one particular family, what I have found seems to agree, to a very large extent, with what our family lines remember that my grandfather had said about the situation. (Although, of course, each line of cousins seems to recall a slightly different version of the story … which goes to illustrate how oral stories can become garbled within even two generations!)

I have also found a family with four or five sons bearing the B surname, alive during the right time frame and living in north London (where my great-grandmother reportedly was in the 1870s), one of whom was named Henry Joseph. My great-grandmother had my grandfather christened with the names Joseph Henry. Whether or not that was just a coincidence remains to be seen.



Your DNA is a time machine. It could reveal an interesting ancestor. Start your Journey Here!



Surname Project Message Boards

I also joined the B surname project message board. I have heard from a number of people, all of them offering helpful suggestions. This has led to contact with those in the surname project with close-matching DNA. Hopefully, we will be able to contact male descendants of the B line in England, who may be able to assist in resolving the matter.

Interestingly, I also discovered that, while the B sub-group that matches my uncle's DNA is included, there is also a larger group under the B surname, but with between 4 and 7 markers mismatched on a 33-marker test (and therefore they are likely not related to my uncle and me).

This group lived in the mountains in the US and surrounding areas, and were involved in a blood feud against another family for more than 50 years.

It was fascinating reading, although tragic in its outcomes. One man, who was active in his town and lobbied for educational reforms, and so on, and otherwise seemed to be making a positive contribution to his community, was known to have said that he wanted to shoot three or four more of the other family, and then he’d be willing to hang.

Kerelaw Castle, North Ayrshire
This 15th century castle was destroyed as a result of a feud between the Cunningham Earls of Glencairn and the Montgomeries of Eglinton. Nearby Eglinton Castle later was burned in retaliation.
Photo and commentary from Wikimedia Commons
Kerelaw Castle, Scotland

At his trial for one of the murders, when the court went on a break, this man went outside, surrounded by militiamen. Shots rang out from the second storey of the Sheriff’s house, next door to the courthouse, and the man on trial fell to the ground, dead. It appears that the Sheriff – the ‘neutral’ upholder of the law in the community - was a member of the allied families in the opposing group, as well as an excellent marksman!


Conclusions

In any event, it seems that my search for my grandfather’s father has been narrowed from a nameless, faceless crowd of millions, to two possible family names, one somewhat more likely than the other. And the search continues …

- June 2011



Go to 'Update No. 1"

Go to 'Update No. 2'







Go to "Brick Walls in Family History Research"

Go to "Genetic Genealogy: DNA Testing applied to Family History"

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