Drilling Down for DNA

    • "Jeff continues writing about brick wall research - this time explaining how you can use DNA and genetic genealogy to overcome tough research problems." Leland Meitzler, the Editor of Everton's

    • The emphasis of this article was to show how Y-DNA testing could be used as a way to verify research or to help to break thru a brickwall. The emphasis was on research to find candidates or to verify the lineage of someone who had already been tested.

    • A lot has occurred in seven years since the article was published and I will be writing about the progress made in both research and DNA testing on the Johnson Family in the near future. It looks like I might have to "unchop down" part of my family tree.

    • Warning: If you do not really want to know, do not bother with DNA testing.

    • Comments about changes since 2007 are shown as (2014 - comment)

Drilling Down for DNA

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Everton's Genealogical Helper September/October 2007, page 28.Every once in a while, something comes along that causes you to go back and look at or start researching some of your dormant family lines. It could be an answer to a long forgotten query, an email from a distant cousin who found a common ancestor posted on your website, an announcement that a new set of records was just published or made available online, or just guilt from neglecting that line of your family. DNA testing and the associated research projects are now a very good new reason to take a look at some of those lines where you have some questions, concerns or are just stuck.

Climbing Up, Branching Out, and Drilling Down the family tree have been the titles of countless articles and lectures over the years that told how to help solve brick wall research problems. People started out by searching for an ancestor’s siblings or their cousins hoping that one of them included more information about their parents or grandparents in a biographical sketch. Working down from a sibling was often done while trying to find a live cousin who might have an alleged family Bible or at least know of its hereabouts.

Drilling down to find new family members is now much easier thanks to the increased number of online records that are now available on the internet or through a library. Census records, the Social Security (SSDI) and other death indexes, various vital record indexes, and an ever increasing number of newspaper sites with searchable articles and obituaries can all help to expand the branches of a family tree. Telephone directories and internet searches by a person’s name that return corporate and personal websites make it easier than ever to locate and make contact with new cousins.

My largest brick wall has been the Johnson/Johnston family in Campbell County, Virginia back in the early 1800s. The Virginia branch of the family added the “T” between 1850 and 1860. There were numerous James Johnsons in the area and two of them married people named Rebecca Jones, but no record has ever been found of ours.

While reading the book Trace Your Roots with DNA by Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner I began to wonder if a Y-DNA test could tell me which family my Johnsons came from. Since Y-DNA is passed from father to son a living male who is a direct Johnston descendent would be needed.

Looking for Candidates

I knew that there were no males left on my branch of the family but I remembered that I had talked on the telephone with an elderly Johnston gentleman in 1997 when I was trying to locate the alleged Johnston family Bible. He was a direct descendant of William, a brother of Henry, my line's progenitor. I immediately put down the book and checked the SSDI. Unfortunately I found out that he had passed away. I seriously doubt that he would have agreed to a DNA test especially since he wasn't too happy when I previously questioned his lineage that had been published in Burke's Peerage. Some people are not very welcoming to folks that come carrying axes, especially near their family tree. That gentleman, as far as I knew, was the last living male descendant for the line of William's youngest son John.

William had another son, Thomas that I had not researched other than finding his family in the 1880 census. That record showed that he had three sons and two daughters.

Within the next four days I was able to add 3 generations and 54 descendants from Thomas’ three sons. I was very fortunate that they did not have extremely common names and that they consistently used their middle initial or middle name. It also helped that most of the descendants stayed in the Campbell County, Bedford County, and Roanoke areas of Virginia. Admittedly this was quick research using mostly secondary sources to find possible candidates. Before submitting a lineage with any DNA test results, the primary records or a preponderance of evidence would need to be obtained.

I found Thomas and his three sons in the 1900 census records. One helpful feature of the 1900 census is that it gives the month and year of birth for each individual. By following the four of them and their children through the 1930 census records I was able to add another generation and the first names of several of their spouses

{Outline Descent report for Thomas E. Johnson}

After adding them to a family tree program I printed out outline descent reports. I then highlighted all of the male Johnson family members. On the printouts I added a red “X” over the individuals where an obituary showed that they did not have any children. In the family tree program I added a child named “No Issue” to show that the line had ended. To keep track of where everyone was living and who they were living with I created a spreadsheet that started with an outline descent report and then I added columns to show which census record they appeared in for each census year. The names of the direct line males were bolded and those needing more research were highlighted.

{Tracking the Johnson Family and Census Records}

Searching the SSDI by name and knowing their middle initial or name and their birth month and year I was able to find out when and where several of them had died. Thanks to the fact that several of their wives lived very long lives, well into their 90s and one to over 100 years old, I was able to obtain their obituaries from an online newspaper archive for Roanoke, Virginia that only has records beginning in 1990. Their obituaries included the names of all of their children and grandchildren. Even though it appeared that there were no direct male lines, I continued. Using Google and various online telephone directories I was able to obtain the addresses and telephone numbers for a number of my new fourth or fourth once removed cousins. I also found business websites that included contact information and email addresses for several of them.

I thought that it might be easier to use email to try and contact one of them. In the email I said that I was researching the Johnston family and that if he was the son of Jane Doe, who was the daughter of John Johnston then I would like to talk to him. He wrote back and said that the family information that I had provided was correct and then he asked for my phone number. On the phone, my new fourth cousin once removed confirmed what I had found when he told me that he did not know of any direct male Johnston cousins. We had a nice talk and he proceeded to provide me with a lot of detailed information on many of his aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Theoretically there are still a few possible lines where I could find a test candidate but that is mainly because I have not been able to find any records or proof one way or the other. I thought that I had finally found direct male in the 1910 census. It showed a 38-year-old head of household, a 21-year-old wife that had had two children, one living, along with a four-year-old child with a Johnston surname. My excitement was tempered when I noticed that the column for the Number of Years Married showed “one.” He is probably not a great candidate for a DNA test. Maybe there is a reason that they are called brick walls.

Persistence or stubbornness can be a virtue. The cousin that I contacted said that he would pass my information on to another one of his cousins that had done some research but I had not heard anything further. Using the additional names that he had given me, I repeated the prior steps and found several more new cousins. An email to one of them brought a reply that was also copied to his two brothers. One of the brothers then wrote and told me that he had gone to college with his cousin, the son of the gentleman that I had talked with on the phone ten years ago. He said that the man’s son was alive and had two grown sons of his own. My information showed that the man only had one daughter. An internet search for the gentleman’s name found a church website that had his obituary showing that he had left a son and two daughters. Checking my original source, I found out that it had been printed in 1939. It turned out that he had had two more children after that date.

Thoroughness is also a virtue. I should have looked for an obituary after I found him in the death index. Fortunately I now have several more cousins to contact and three potential test candidates. Hopefully I will be able to get one of my new cousins to contribute test results to the Johnson/Johnston DNA Project at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~hjohnson/ and eventually find out where we all fit in. It is wise to contact a variety of the new cousins since, as we all know, everyone in a family is not always as knowledgeable about the family as others.

(2014 - A living relative was contacted and met and he eventually agreed to be tested and his results put him into the Olive Group. That did place our families in the same tree that my grandmother had claimed but we were still not sure exactly where our branch fit in.)

Why Y-DNA?

“Y” DNA is passed from father to son with only minor changes, known as mutations, occurring every few generations. This allows researchers to determine if two candidates are directly related and to provide an estimate about how far back the relationship might be, the genetic distance.

The first question that most people ask is how a Y-DNA test can help them since their ancestors did not have DNA tests done. If two males have identical Y-DNA test results then they have a common male ancestor that has the same or very similar Y-DNA.

Since surnames are also usually passed from father to son it makes tracking their common lineage much easier. Care must be taken though, since there are cases where the surname and Y-DNA do not follow the same path. The new politically correct term for a wife’s indiscretion is a “non-paternity event,” where the woman’s husband is not the father of the child. A child born to an unwed mother will often have her surname. A child born to a woman long after the departure or death of her husband will also not carry the surname of the biological father. Changes in the spelling of a surname or even a complete name change are also things to consider.

Are We Related?

The simplest form of a Y-DNA test is to determine if two individuals are closely related on the male line. I have been doing some research trying to prove if a Schmidt and a Schmitt family are related. Traditional research has found that both families came from the same area of Germany. A DNA test using male representatives from each family could save a lot of unnecessary research time and effort if it turned out that they were not closely related.

In the case of a father leaving his family and possibly starting another family using a different last name, a DNA test could show if the male children are in fact related.

Other Family Lines

On a person’s 5-generation ancestor chart there are eight male ancestors. The father's "Y" DNA only follows the topmost line. The person’s mother's father or brother, or one of their descendants, would be needed to trace her maiden surname. For the other six surnames male 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cousins of both of the individual’s parents or their male descendants would be needed to find participants. This keeps increasing for each additional generation and surname.

Locating a direct line male cousin that could participate in a test is a very good reason to start drilling down through the family tree again. Start with the female ancestor of the desired surname that married into your family. Then look to see if she had any brothers. If there were no males in that family the new terminology is that the line "daughtered out."

If that is the case, then go up one level and see if her father had any brothers. Once another male has been located then try to follow the line down ideally to a living male. It might be faster to locate new cousins if one of the females married someone with a very unique surname. Hopefully they could then tell you about any known male cousins or let you know of someone in the family that has been doing research or knows more about the extended family.

DNA Projects

A “Y” DNA project might already be underway that could help you jump over that brick wall ancestor and connect with an existing family. It could also tell if there is or is not a connection to a questionable line. The results of the ongoing DNA projects for various surnames that are of interest for your research can be very helpful.

As an example: Jane West is my mother’s father’s mother’s mother and her line of descent is from Jared the son of Jonathan, Christopher, Francis, Samuel, and Francis West of Duxbury, Massachusetts. In my Future Revisited article in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue I wrote that "DNA projects might help to eventually answer questions that genealogical research has not conclusively answered. This can only happen if the posted ancestry is of the highest quality and does not include any questionable claims. Two questions that are of interest to me: Was Frances West of Duxbury, Massachusetts a descendant of or related to the West/DeLaWarre family of Virginia? Was Richard Warren of the Mayflower related to the Earls of Surrey Warenne family?"

{WEST Family DNA Project Results Page}

There is a West Surname DNA Project at http://web.utk.edu/~corn/westdna/ that has posted the results from various participants. In the West Family Group 19 it shows two participants as descendants of the Francis West of Duxbury, Massachusetts who was born in England about 1606 and married Margery Reeves. Their common ancestor was Dr. Thomas West, who is often shown as a son of Francis and Margery.

{Individual markers for participants organized by group and common ancestor}

Since the two participants are descendants of two different sons of Dr. Thomas then this verifies the DNA markers for Dr. Thomas. To be certain that they also apply to Francis then other participants that can trace their ancestry to Francis via one of his other sons would be needed.

There have been claims that Francis West of Duxbury was a son of the Francis West born in 1586 as the second son of Thomas West, the 2nd Lord Delawarre, and his wife Anne Knollys. They are based upon a tombstone for a Samuel West the son of Sackville West in New Bedford, Massachusetts. On the back it has that “Sackville West was son of Thomas West, physician, the son of ____ West, the son of Cap. Francis West, brother of the third Lord De La Warr.”

To prove or disprove this connection, the results of Group 19 would need to be compared with any future participants that can trace their ancestry back to Thomas West (1670-1714) the son of Col. John West born in 1632 and his wife Unity Croshaw. They are descendants of Thomas and Anne’s third son John and supposedly the only family line that continued with any male heirs.

Some publications show another John West between the other two. DNA test results cannot help to answer the question of an extra or a missing generation. A wife’s indiscretion with a brother of her husband would also not usually be able to be detected with a Y-DNA test.

If the results from a single participant do not match your desired result you can always hope that there was a "non-paternity event" on the participant's line before it connected with your line. Once there are several matching results and they only share the common ancestor that is in question, then reality must be faced.

Project Management

Like many other genealogy projects that are done by volunteers the management of DNA projects can vary greatly. Everything from how an individual’s test results and pedigree are displayed, any grouping of the results, discussions about the test results, the search capabilities, and the format and acceptance of pedigrees will all vary by project.

The various testing companies post their test results and offer a variety of search and matching tools. Some surname projects are hosted by a testing company while others are independently hosted and run by a project manager.

{West Family Group Result Discussions}

Even if you cannot participate directly in a DNA study you can help to accelerate the process by drilling down family trees to locate the potential test participants that can help to prove or disprove a theoretical or questionable connection.

Test participants should only submit a well-documented and proven pedigree. Questionable connections that have not or can not be proven with research should not be submitted. They should be the reason for participating in or monitoring a study. Additional candidates and future testing should be done to determine those connections.

Compare or Review Results

The following companies allow searching of the test results by Surname or DNA markers. YSearch.org - sponsored by Family Tree DNA at www.ysearch.org/. It also allows searches by surname to locate projects. YBase.org - sponsored by DNA Heritage at www.ybase.org/; YHRD.org – to search geographically at www.yhrd.org/; and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation at www.smgf.org/.

Monitor Surname Projects

Many DNA Surname projects are hosted at individual sites. Use your favorite search site and look for the surname and “DNA Project.” Try searching by surname at World Families - http://worldfamilies.net/search/search.php. Some of the surname message boards and query sites now allow entries that tell of ongoing DNA projects.

Good & Lucky

On a Monday afternoon in March of this year, two of my first cousins, my mother, and I were wondering if there were any male cousins on our Stevenson line that could be tested to try and extend our family further back into Scotland. I had previously found out that one of my mother's two first cousins didn't have any children but I had not been able to locate an obituary for the other one. On the following Thursday I received an email from the son of the cousin in question. He had just found his grandfather's name on my website. Since then I have provided him with information on over 200, previously unknown to him, ancestors as well as the history behind his middle name that he had never really care for. Knowing that he was in his seventies and not wanting to scare him away, I carefully brought up the topic of genealogical DNA testing by saying that “he could take his time considering it, if he was in good health.” My new second cousin will be the recipient of the discounted test kit offered for my participation in the Sorensen Project.

This just goes to prove that passive genealogy done by posting family information and queries online can be successful. You can be lucky, but you have to help luck out a little bit by providing it with ample opportunities. Thanks to having outline descendant reports for several of my ancestral families posted on my website I have been contacted by numerous cousins.

Don't Wait

Even if there are not many results already posted or there is not already a project underway for your desired surname do not wait to obtain test samples, especially from any last known living males. There are probably many other people that are interested in the family but they are just waiting for someone else to post their results or to start a project.

The current test kits are very easy to use. They contain either a cheek swab or a mouthwash that is used and then sealed up and returned to the lab.

The cost of a test increases with the increased number of markers but so does the accuracy of the results. With additional markers the genetic distance can be determined much more accurately. The number of false positive matches is also reduced. The early 12 marker tests were not as accurate as a twenty-something marker test. The benefit vs. the additional expense begins to decline when thirty to sixty markers are used. You need to decide on the importance and accuracy of the test for your research situation.

One of the questions to keep in mind is “what do the testing companies do with the samples?” It would be nice to have the testing company store the sample, especially for a last known male relative in the event that a more accurate test becomes available in the future.

Y-DNA Testing Companies

• Family Tree DNA - http://www.familytreedna.com/

{2014 - two of the other companies that were listed are not longer in business

• Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation - http://www.smgf.org/ provides free testing but does not give the participant the detailed test results. The results can be matched and the pre-1900 pedigree viewed on their website. {2014 - they no longer provide testing but the prior project results are still available}

Drilling Down for DNA

The title describes the technique of extending the research down the lines of various cousins and not physically drilling into our ancestors at a cemetery. There are a large number of my deceased male ancestors, cousins, and even a potential half-uncle that are resting much more comfortably once I learned that Y-DNA cannot be extracted from human remains.

Getting To the Truth

Every day the television or newspapers carry a story about how DNA testing on an old piece of evidence has helped to clear a person previously convicted of a crime. Genealogical DNA testing can and should be used to reopen some of the questionable research cases and try to finally determine the truth.

Helpful Websites for Drilling Down

For easy access to all of the websites listed in this article and others, go to Jeff's Genealogy Links, and then select from the following topics: Birth, Census, Death, DNA, Newspapers, Vital Records, Search, and Telephone.