Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pruning the Family Tree with DNA Evidence

While I’ve been interested in all of my ancestral lines, over the past 30+ years I’ve concentrated on my paternal or surname lineage. One of the aspects of my research was to attempt to trace as many descendants from my third great grandparents who settled in Ontario during the 1820s.

William and Frances Owston were the parents of eight children who were born between 1804 and 1826. They were Thomas (1804-1874), William (1807-1892), James Wilson (1809-1858), Frances Janet (1815-1902), Charles (1818-1858), Mary Ann Margaret (1819-1909), Euphemia (1824-1892), and John Gillon (1826-1901).

Since 1978, I have amassed in the neighborhood of 400 individuals that can trace lineage either by blood or adoption to this couple who lived between the 1770s and 1850s. As you can imagine, researching these lines required a synthesis of a variety of records and interviews with a number of people.

One problem was that the progeny of our original couple matched their common ancestors’ proclivity to relocate. Two of William and Frances Owston’s children were born in Scotland, four were born in England, and two were born in Canada. All but one of the eight children left Ontario and lived elsewhere. These places included Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, Scotland, and Alberta.

Grandchildren could be found living in the previously mentioned locations as well as in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. Over the years, records were amassed from most if not all of these jurisdictions.

Even with success in tracing most of William and Frances Owston’s grandchildren (23 out of 29) and their descendants, I have been disturbed over the lack of documentation concerning two of this generation. For a number of years, I’ve wondered if their placement in our family tree was correct. This is where DNA testing has filled in the documentation gaps found for these two individuals.


Back spring 2010, my two brothers, my mother, and I tested our DNA with 23andMe. I was hoping to get a clearer picture of our ancestry through the testing. I had Y-DNA and mtDNA testing performed by in 2007 and while the Y-DNA was helpful in clarifying our suspected Norse roots, I was disappointed by the lack of information gathered with mtDNA testing.

I wanted a closer look at my heritage and began reading about autosomal and X chromosomal DNA testing. The more I read, the more the services at 23andMe seemed to fit my personal needs. In addition, 23andMe provided SNP Y-DNA testing, SNP mtDNA DNA testing, and health and trait information. All was needed was a sale to afford all of these amenities. Two sales in March and April made this possible and affordable for just about anyone.

As mentioned in a previous post, I suggested to a fourth cousin in Canada that she get tested during the sales period. Cousin L had only heard about her mystery great-grandfather a few years earlier and had begun researching her family and found me in the process. Her testing would help triangulate results with my brothers and me and allowed us to use her DNA as a comparison. This proved very important as she matched me and one of my brothers at fairly significant levels and another brother at a lower level.

Predicted as a third cousin for both me and my brother, Cousin L. matched me at .56% over four DNA segments and matched John at .50% over 3 segments. She shared less with my oldest brother being predicted as a fifth cousin and matched at .16% on one segment. It was fortunate that she shared so much with us as she would no doubt also share large amounts with others in our common lineage. We were very pleased with the results as there is only a 45% chance that fourth cousins would share any segments of DNA.

Scenario One – James Humphreys Owston

Back in 1978, I became aware of James Humphreys Owston through his granddaughter. While at first I could not confirm his relationship to our family immediately, it became apparent that he was a son of my second great-grandfather and appeared to be the half-brother of my great-grandfather, Newton French Owston.

Piecing together information from his and my side of the family, I became aware of anomalies in regard to his birth. His grandchildren believed that the issue with his birth was related to the identity of his mother. They suggested that he was actually the son of the younger sister of the woman identified as his mother.

James Humphreys Owston and his grandchildren

This sister was Mary Ann Smith Lourimore (called Aunt Mame by the family). She lived in the same household with her sister and brother-in-law from 1870 forward. Mary and Sarah were both executrices of John’s will and were the sole beneficiaries. None of John’s children shared in his estate.

In providing the death certificate information for his father, James Gant Owston named James’ mother as Mary M. Smith. So it was widely believed that Mary was the actual mother. This is powerful information, as James Gant Owston would have known both of his grandparents as they lived until he was a young man. Aunt Mame lived until the 1920s.

I have not found anything to corroborate Mary as James’ mother, and the 1900 census lists Sarah as birthing three children with one living (James) and Mary as having never given birth. Although anything is possible, something must have led his descendants to acknowledge the aunt and not the mother as the actual birth mother in this family. This question may never be satisfactorily answered.

My side of the family recognized Uncle Jim as being illegitimate, but still claimed a relationship. For the information at my disposal, I concluded that he was my second great-grandfather’s illegitimate son and was later legitimized when his father married his mother. This conclusion made sense in light of the lack of a birth record. Vital records were not kept in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania until 22 years after his 1860 birth.

While the scenario seemed plausible, there were two things that bothered me about the conclusion. The first was that his father, John Gillon Owston, was married to his first wife at the time of his conception. During 1860; John, his wife, son, daughter, and his wife’s aunt all were living in Detroit far away from the location of James’ birthplace across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh.

While John had previously lived in the Pittsburgh area from 1849 to at least 1854, there is no concrete record of when he left the Steel City. John is not listed in any of the city directories of the era. He is listed as a brewer in the 1850 census who was living in a hotel. This was prior to his first marriage.

His daughter Frances had Allegheny County's first registered birth in the ill-fated statewide vital records initiative that lasted from 1852-1854. Although not registered, John's son Newton was born in Allegheny City in 1854.

A September 1900 article about John in the The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal indicated that he left for Michigan in 1852 or 1853; however, Newton's birth in Allegheny City disputes this from occurring anytime earlier than 1854. There is no record of John G. Owston in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania from 1854 until he returned in 1868.

By 1857, a J.G. Owston was operating the Mill Saloon in St. Mary’s, Ontario. While he is not fully identified as being one and the same as John G. Owston, this is highly likely as St. Mary’s was the home of John’s father at the time of his death in 1857. John’s three sisters also lived in this town at this time.

Even though the issues regarding John’s marriage and location in 1860 were problematic in confirming him as James’ father, they did not render the incident impossible as family members still lived in the area; however, one additional piece of documentation was exceedingly problematic – and that was the 1870 census. As he was born in November 1860, the 1870 was the first census in which James was enumerated. In this record, James is listed under another surname as James Meyers.

Over the years, I tried every way of trying to rationalize this fact. Was it was a mistake? Did his mother name him after another man to protect the real father who was married at the time of his conception? Was he Aunt Mary’s son and perhaps the census taker misheard the information and assumed his last name was Meyers? In other words, was it stated that he was James, Mary's boy and misinterpreted as James, the Meyers boy?

While any of these were possible, only one seemed plausible and that is that it was a mistake. This was reasoned as such because there were three other mistakes found in this family’s census record. One is John’s age. He is listed as being 33 years of age; however, at the time of the 1870 census, he was 43.

Secondly, he and Sarah Smith are listed as being married and Sarah is listed with the Owston surname. While they were cohabiting in a common law situation, John and Sarah did not officially marry until three years later on February 12, 1873.

In a recent Google search, I discovered that John had another wife, Permilia Conden Owston living in Saginaw, Michigan. Until I found this reference, I was not previously aware of another wife, but this allowed for the timing of his marriage to Sarah to make sense.

As for Permelia, she married Lester S. Clough on November 29, 1873. While not having a divorce decree in hand, it would seem plausible that John and Permila were not divorced until late 1872 or early 1873 – this is based on the 1873 marriages by both parties. John and Permilia married in Detroit in the early 1860s following the death of his first wife, Martha Newton French Owston, on October 23, 1860 and before moving to Saginaw in 1863.

Having Sarah depicted as his wife may have been done to save face as John was a rail road engineer – one of skilled laborers on a locomotive. He also was very active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and was its division chief; therefore, John and Sarah may have allowed the illusion of marriage in an era when cohabitation was considered a grave social sin – that is until it became legally possible for matrimony.

A third error in the 1870 census concerned John’s nativity. John was born in Canada and not New York. Any of these errors of substance could be explained for a variety of reasons and the possibility of three errors might suggest that the census record of this family has other errors including James’ surname. In addition, other information seemed to indicate that James was John’s son, but these too can be refuted and explained.

Inferences Regarding James’ Paternity

Argument from Evidence: James is listed under the Owston surname in the 1880 census and is listed as John’s son. In my experience in researching census records, an adopted son and step-son are often identified as such; however, James is listed specifically as a son. On James’ death certificate, John (as John H. Owston) was listed as his father.

If John treated James as his son, the person providing the information to the census taker simply may have referenced him as such. The death certificate information was only good as James’ son knew it. While there is a very strong case for John fathering James, none of the evidence is conclusive. Documentation, such as the 1880 census and James’ death certificate, was far removed from the actual event to qualify as a reliable source of evidence.

Argument from Employment: James followed in John’s footsteps in the railroad industry starting as a brakeman and eventually becoming the station master at the Fort Wayne Station on Pittsburgh’s North Side. This is a weak argument; as If James were a step-son, he would have had similar opportunities regarding his vocation as did his brother Newton F. Owston who also followed John as a railroader and engineer.

A second argument of employment may be construed from circumstances that occurred in the next generation. James Humphreys Owston's son James Gant Owston worked for many years in the offices of Pittsburgh Plate Glass in downtown Pittsburgh. When opportunities occurred for James G. Owston's cousins to find work outside the region, John F. Leppzer, the husband of Martha May Owston, and Ovington French Owston moved from McKeesport, PA to Akron, Ohio to work for Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

It is within the realm of possibility that James G. Owston opened doors for John Leppzer and Ovington Owston to find work in Ohio. Contrariwise, these employment opportunities may have occurred independently of James G. Owston and his position with PPG Industries. Since the primary individuals and their children have long since died, it is impossible to judge whether James G. Owston had any influence on these positions or if the situation was one of mere coincidence. Even if James G. Owston exercised his influence in this regard, it does not conclusively prove relationship.

Argument from Cemetery Records: Ruth E. Sargent, James’ granddaughter, and Martha Gant Owston, James’ wife, were both buried in John’s cemetery lot (Martha was later moved to a new lot when James died). In reality, this does not prove his paternity from John. It does prove relationship to the family and, since Sarah E. Smith Owston is buried in this same lot, it would not be unusual for her son to have access and the deed to this same lot where his mother is buried.

Argument from Familiarity: Charlotte Smith, the granddaughter of Euphemia Owston Smith, wrote to a cousin in 1908 that she, her brother, and their mother were going to Avalon (James’ hometown) for Thanksgiving Dinner. While Charlotte Smith and her family could have been visiting another family in Avalon, their home in Pittsburgh’s East End was far removed from Avalon.

Since the family had moved to Pittsburgh from Bettsville, Ohio about a decade earlier and moved immediately to the East End, the chance of this family knowing anyone else in Avalon is quite remote. While another Owston family would eventually move to Avalon, they were not located in that borough in 1908, but rather living in nearby Emsworth.

The families of John G. Owston and his sister Euphemia were quite close. That relationship extended after Euphemia’s death in 1892 and her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren relocated to Pittsburgh after living in Ohio for 30 years.

Fostoria and Tiffen, Ohio newspapers have several references of John G. Owston visiting his sister. He and Sarah were present at the time of Euphemia’s death. As a youngster, James would have no doubt traveled with John and Sarah to Bettsville to see Edward and Euphemia Smith. This familial relationship could have extended beyond the bonds of blood. I know I have a closer relationship to my step-father’s family than I do with my own father’s family.

Argument from Testimony: There are two heads to this coin – one coming from his descendants and one coming from his brother’s descendants. His son and grandchildren had no issue with his paternity, but rather with his maternity. Finally, his great nieces that I interviewed in 1978 recognized him as an uncle and provided the key piece of information that he was illegitimate.

As unlikely as it may seem, James’ descendants may have had information regarding his maternity without having similar information regarding his paternity. It may be possible that the family confused the facts and the story regarding his birth anomaly may have switched from one parent to the other over time. In addition, my father’s first cousins may have not known the complete details of their great uncle’s paternity. While both situations indicate an issue with his origins, neither one agrees with the other.

Over time, family stories which have an element of truth can be ascribed to the wrong person. In a meeting with one of James’ grandchildren in 1989, she asked me if I had known that her great-grandfather Smith’s ancestors came to New Jersey with William Penn. While both Sarah and Mary were born in New Jersey, their father was from England and mother was from Massachusetts. This precludes the Smith family having emigrated at sometime earlier.

On the other hand, John G.’s first wife (Martha Newton French – my ancestress) had a long established Quaker ancestry that placed her French family ancestors as coming to the Province of West Jersey with Penn. This is documented by Howard Barclay French in his two volume work The Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas French from Nether Heyford, Northamptonshire, England, who settled in Burlington County, New Jersey. I use this illustration from the same family to illustrate that facts about one person may be wrongly ascribed to another.

Argument from Psychic Bond: While sensational and not in the realm of scientific or historical fact, a strange coincidence secured the feeling that a psychic bond existed between the supposed half-brothers Newton French Owston and James Humphreys Owston.

On September 11, 1928 in New Hampshire, French Owston died as result as a fall against an open stove door and the cracking of his ribs several days earlier. Within 24 hours of Newton French's death, James who had been suffering from pneumonia for 16 days slipped into a uremic coma and died on September 12, 1928. He passed away at his home located at that time in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bellvue.

The brothers, who probably had not seen each other in well over 30 years, had mysteriously died within hours of each other. Psychic bond? Perhaps. While I have tended to romanticize this occurrence as being some sort of familiar link between John’s sons, the truth is that a mere coincidence is more likely an explanation.

The Last Resort – DNA Testing

Although the evidence is scant, secondary, hearsay, and anachronistic; I tended to view James Humphreys Owston as one of John Gillon Owston’s three known children. Unfortunately, the fact that James was listed as James Meyers in the 1870 census has always bothered me. This led me to suggest to the only remaining paternal line descendant from James be tested. “Cousin One” agreed; and since 23andMe’s test was available at a discount, this was the vehicle of choice.

While a Y-DNA STR test would have been the preferred test of choice, 23andMe’s full spectrum test would suffice as the Y-DNA haplogroup determined through the Y-DNA SNP test would indicate if Cousin One's haplogroup matched ours. My brothers and I are assigned to the I1* (I1 for FTDNA & Ancestry) Y-DNA haplogroup. Although 23andMe’s SNP Y-DNA test could not indicate a close relationship as would an STR test, the autosomal test should indicate a relationship as a third cousin to me and my brothers and a fourth cousin to Cousin L.

The expected chance that an autosomal match would occur between Cousin One and me and my siblings would be at about 90% for a third cousin. Since the anticipated relationship was for one of half-third cousins, there would have been a 60 to 70% chance that he matched any one of us. At the fourth cousin level, there was a 45% chance that he and Cousin L would have matching DNA segments.

Drum Roll – The Results

None of the four previously tested individuals from our family matched any autosomal segments with Cousin One at a level recognized by 23andMe. In addition, his paternal haplogroup of I2b1 indicated that our paternal line of ancestry converges thousands of years in the past. This is much more distant than a third or fourth cousin would be and indicated that John Gillon Owston was not the natural father of James Humphreys Owston.

In all manners of relationship, however, John G. Owston performed the role as James’ father. In every other manifestation outside the realm of DNA and actual paternity, there was a definite bond between James and others bearing the Owston ancestry. Although it is impossible to know for sure, based on the 1870 census, it is assumed that James Humphreys Owston’s natural father was named Meyers as he is identified by this surname.

New Developments

Since this original post, further testing of Owston family members that included two additional third cousins, 5 fourth cousins, and a fourth cousin, once removed show no autosomal DNA connection to this family.  In addition, Y-DNA STR testing of 25 Owston males including Cousin One corroborate that the Owston haplotype is I1 - with 16 of the testers closely matching.  Besides Cousin One, the study also confirmed two known and five heretofore unknown non-paternity events among seven of the other Y-DNA test subjects.

On the autosomal front and since this post was originally written, additional testers with the names Meyers and Humphreys match Cousin One at fairly significant levels.  It is uncertain where the Humphreys' name fits into his ancestry.  On the surface, it appears to be a family name that was appropriated as a middle name.

While it is impossible that Cousin One is related to our family via the paternal (surname) line, additional information indicates that he and I are related via my mother’s ancestry. Through Leon Kull’s HIR Search site, his DNA is matching a segment on Chromosome 8 with me, my oldest brother, and my mother.

Although the match is at levels lower than the threshold used at 23andMe, we are at least fifth cousins and more likely sixth or seventh cousins. Since my mother has two Myers lines in her family, it is conceivable that we may be related to a common ancestor that connects his Meyers and our Myers families together.

In using David Pike's utilities, I was able to analyze our raw data and found additional matches on my father's side at a much lower level. In addition to matching me and my brothers, Cousin One also matched Cousin L. This indicates a more distant relationship (possibly a 9th or 10th cousin) to our paternal family - although his strict paternal line does not match our strict paternal line.

Time may tell on how we are related on both sides. I am glad once again that my cousin is truly my cousin both by relationship and by blood.

Scenario Two – John Conrad Owston

When doing research at Uniondale Cemetery in Pittsburgh for James Humphreys Owston’s family in 1978, I found an entirely distinct line of Owstons buried in this rather large cemetery. Further searches of city directories, census records, cemetery files, newspaper clippings, and property records exhumed a lineage whose source I struggled to identify for 12 years.

The line pointed to a progenitor named John Conrad Owston. His mother was Elizabeth Noss; however, his father’s identity was unknown. John C. Owston worked for his stepfather (Robert Campbell) as a bartender and hotel keeper. Later in life, he was a laborer. As his death certificate’s informant, his son John Owston listed John C.’s father as Robert Owston; however, this was thought to be a misidentification with Robert Campbell who died when the younger John was a boy.

During the next 12 years, I interviewed family members and searched additional cemetery and church records. Unlike other Owstons in Pittsburgh, this Owston family was religiously Lutheran – other Owstons in the area were members of a variety of sects including the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Disciples of Christ. The strong Germanic connection of John Conrad Owston’s mother (Elizabeth Noss) and wife (Elizabeth Schwer) influenced the religious persuasion of this family with whom I shared a surname. That religious link continues today.

Although the two remaining grandchildren of John Conrad Owston could only provide scant details, key information came to light via a great grandchild of John Conrad Owston. She was able to secure a family photo album from her aunt (one of the two remaining grandchildren of John C. Owston). This album provided a family record listing significant dates. John Conrad Owston was listed as being born on February 6, 1851.

Although a birth date was listed, unfortunately no parental information was available. Since his name was John, I originally assumed that he was an illegitimate son of John Gillon Owston; however, nothing pointed him to be a son of any of the three known Pittsburgh Owston brothers: Thomas, James Wilson, and John Gillon Owston.

Upon the death of her cousin (the other remaining grandchild of John C.) in 1990, my contact was named as the executrix of the estate. In the process of inventorying the deceased’s effects, she unearthed a photograph that provided significant information. The photo was of the decedent’s father, James Harry Owston, the son of John Conrad Owston. The photo depicted James Harry Owston perched on top of a tombstone. In the photo, it appeared as though the name on the stone was "Owston." She sent me the original and I had it copied and enlarged over the inscription. The identification of John Conrad Owston’s father was coming into focus.

James Harry Owston

While difficult to see, we ascertained that it listed the name as PvT C.J. Owston. Died on Western ? and a date that included the year of 1858. The least known of the children of William and Frances Owston, Charles J. Owston has remained as a mystery. He was listed in 1837 as C.J. Owston – a private in the Cobourg (Ontario) Rifles during a brief border skirmish between Canada and the US.  Records that surfaced in 2012 indicated that his name actually was Charles Paget Herbert Owston.  See

 Closeup of inscription

In a memoir about William Owston written by his grandson William C. Sutherland, his first name was identified as Charles. It is thought that he was living with Thomas Owston in Allegheny City in 1840 as his age falls within the parameters of the unknown male living within the household. Additionally, he was no longer was showing in the various census records with his parents in Canada.

The Problem

While the photo connects James Harry Owston with a grave marker for Pvt. C.? Owston, this is circumstantial evidence at best. While I have accepted this because no other solution makes sense for 19th century Pittsburgh, I have always wondered if this supposition was correct.

There were other Owston families in the US during the period; however, none of these could be effectively traced to my family going back to the 1560s; however, they did come from the same geographic region of the East Riding of Yorkshire. Was C. Owston the ancestor of James Harry Owston and the father of John Conrad Owston? Without any evidential documentation, this question loomed within my mind.

The Last Resort – DNA Testing

Like the previous scenario, there exists only one male remaining from this family group that has the Owston surname. As with Cousin One, “Cousin Two” agreed to test via 23andMe and we waited patiently for the results.

A match to the I1* haplogroup would enhance the probability of the assumed relationship. Autosomal matches with my brothers, me, and/or Cousin L at the fourth cousin level would indicate that John Conrad Owston was a grandson of William and Frances Owston and likely the supposition that he was C.J. Owston's son was correct.

Drum Roll – The Results

Unlike the scenario with Cousin One, Cousin Two had the I1* haplogroup indicating a relationship along the paternal line. As SNPs cannot determine whether this was recent relationship or one that is beyond the genealogical time frame of 500 years, a reliance on autosomal DNA would indicate a relationship within the fourth cousin range. 

While I didn’t match any autosomal segments with Cousin Two, both of my brothers did. My second cousin (also descended from John G. Owston) did not match Cousin 2 either. One brother shared 9cM or .12% of DNA and was predicated a fifth cousin with a possible range of 3rd through 10th cousins. The other brother shared 6cM or .08% and was predicted as a 10th cousin with a possible range of 4th through 10th cousins. The best match was with Cousin L who shared 25 cM or .33% and was solidly a 4th cousin with a range of 3rd through 6th cousin. One of the segments that Cousin L matches with Cousin 2 is the same as one of my brothers.

While some of these matches are a little low, I believe we share common ancestors at the 3rd great grandparent level. The photo of the grave of C.J. Owston along with this new DNA evidence places Cousin Two solidly within William and Frances Owston’s family and the supposition about relationship is most likely correct.

While the greater match is with a descendant of William Owston, Jr., John C. Owston could not have been the son of William, Jr., as he remained in Canada. Since the lesser matches came from John G. Owston, this brother was ruled out as the direct ancestor.

More conclusive testing of descendants of the two other brothers of Charles J. Owston (Thomas and James Wilson) would eliminate these brothers as the father of John Conrad Owston and would solidly point towards the lesser known brother as being his father.

New Developments

Since this original post, Cousin Two's sister has also tested  as well as a number of other descendants of William and Frances Wilson Owston.

Descendants of Thomas Owston:

Cousin Two matches one of the two tested descendants of Thomas Owston at 0.21% (16cM). His sister matches this same individual with 0.18% (14cM) and the other descendant of Thomas 0.17% (13cM).

Descendants of William Owston, Jr.:

Cousin Two's sister also matches Cousin L at a much lesser amount with 0.07% (5cM).

Descendants of John G. Owston:

Cousin Two matches one of the newly tested descendants of John G. Owston at 0.08% (6cM).  His sister matches this same individual on two segments totaling 0.35% (26cM) and an additional individual at 0.09% (7cM).  The sister matches Brother 2 at 0.15% (11cM) and Brother 3 at 0.07% (5cM).

At this point, the assumption that Cousin Two and his sister descend from Charles Owston appears to be correct. The matches with descendants of Thomas Owston and John G. Owston are consistently low for a third cousin match.  The third great-granddaughter of James Wilson Owston, while matching others in this study, have no matching segments to these two siblings. It is our hope to test an additional person from this line to triangulate these results.

Furthermore, a 2014 test of 37 Y-DNA STRs yielded a 100% match with me.  Unfortunately, others for whom a connection would span a number of centuries also match at 100% at 37 and 43 markers.  As it stands, the Y-DNA doesn't yield any new information We have extended the test to 67 markers and are awaiting the results which should be available by November 2014.  

For 30+ years, I have been searching for answers to these two questions. Now, I can move on to other pressing genealogical concerns as both issues appear to be settled.

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