Saturday, January 30, 2010

Turning Over A New Leaf On

This particular entry may seem to be, but that is far from the truth. I have been a loyal Ancestry user for nearly a decade and stand by their product. Ancestry is a business that has found a real niche in the world and they have saved individuals hundreds of dollars in travel costs and hundred hours in time. Yes, it can be pricey; but I can honestly say, it is worth a membership if you are serious about genealogical or historical research.

Not only have I used my Ancestry membership to unearth more information on my own family, but I also used it to do historical research for my doctoral dissertation and two forthcoming historical volumes. The numbers and types of records have grown exponentially in the last few years and I have used the site to prove some family traditions and to disprove others. It has helped me find lost relatives that could not be traced conventionally. While Ancestry is not the only service I have used, it remains my number one genealogical tool.

It’s variety of records rival the greatest genealogical library in the world – the LDS Family History Center. While it doesn’t have everything that is available through LDS branches, it is getting there and has added records that I wouldn’t have thought would have been available online. In fact, when I made the pilgrimage to Salt Lake City last year to receive an award, I stopped by the LDS Library – the Mecca for genealogists.

After staying a couple of hours, I discovered that the records I desired weren’t present, and records I considered accessing, I didn’t, as they were readily available via Ancestry. I actually had better luck at the Salt Lake City Public Library with their regional newspaper microfilm collection. There are still some gems you can only get via the LDS library; however, I am hoping that eventually many of these items will become Ancestry staples.

In the past 32 years, my research has taken me to over 40 different regional, local, and university libraries; two National Archives’ locations; the Library of Congress; various state archives; numerous county courthouses; the main LDS Library and a couple of branch libraries; a few churches; and an unfathomable number of cemeteries.

I’ve viewed records that hadn’t been seen by anyone since they were filed away in the late 19th century, and I’ve handled Civil War muster rolls that have had contact with so many individuals, that they were so badly damaged they were difficult to read from years of misuse.

Since Ancestry is a business, they have understood the market and have catered to it. Not only are seasoned genealogists comfortable with what is available, the armchair family historian can find his or her way around the site with little difficulty. The hook for many future Ancestry customers is a limited time free membership; once hooked, the appetite has only been whetted and membership is inevitable.


This brings me to Ancestry’s current design and corresponding marketing campaign – the leaf. From a marketer’s standpoint, this is a brilliant feature as it does the searching for you and helps you find long-lost ancestors and connect with distant cousins. Who wouldn’t be interested in clicking on a link and finding out more?

The leaves represent hints – I like that terminology, as it allows the family historian the ability to consider the hint, reject the hint, or to adopt the hint. The hints will only appear if you have family tree posted on Ancestry.

To Ancestry’s credit, they also give members the opportunity to choose from two different types of hints: “Historical” and “Ancestry Family Trees.” Now there are leaves and then there are leaves. The question is, “Can you trust the leaf?”

As in the image above, there are two types of leaves – leaves that are trustworthy and leaves that are not. Which set of leaves would you trust? On the left, there is the box elder. You can trust the leaves from this species of maple tree; however, on the right, you have the untrustworthy poison ivy – stay away. No, rather run away. There are a number of problems with just accepting or rejecting any leaf.



With’s hints, you can generally trust the historical hints; however, this is not failsafe. The hints are computer generated based on the criteria in your posted family tree. What you may find is that the hinted record is for someone else with the same name or someone in the same location that has a similar name.

If you know enough about your subject, you can adopt the source and pin it to the individual in question. If you have doubts, tread lightly. My name is unusual enough, but I know of another person with my first and last name who is also married to a woman that has the same first name as my wife. In addition, they have a daughter with the same name as our daughter.

To top it off, we both share the same birth month although he is five years older than me. If our data were in’s historical records, there would be a strong chance that we would be hints for each other and adopting the hint would be in error and send your research in the wrong direction.

Similar names are not that unusual of an occurrence; I am amazed at the number of people who share the names of my relatives, yet are unrelated. Be sure that you have the right person before accepting the hint.



Occasionally, you’ll find a person that appears to be your relative; however, there is a discrepancy with the information that is provided in the historical record and what you know from other sources is incorrect. These can run the gamut, but may be that the age, birth month and year, place of birth, middle initial, flipped middle and first names, or the spelling is different than what you have for the person.

On the surface, you may want to disregard this leaf; however, one must consider that a historical record can be wrong. There are a couple of reasons why this may be so. The person in the household providing the information may not know the correct information, the name that the person is called (a nickname or middle name) may be listed as the first name, census taker errors, and errors in transcription by Ancestry’s staff and hundreds of volunteers. I will deal with census errors in a future installment for this blog.

Ancestry is working on correcting the errors, as the volunteers who do a good job are not experts on the vicinity, the surname, or even the writing style of the census taker. Ancestry provides the public an opportunity to add a correction to their records – and these show as an alternate spelling or name from the transcribed records. There has to be a good reason why you know that the transcription or the original document is in error. Once the staff reviews your suggestion and compares it to the records, then they will add your suggested correction as an alternate. This allows a larger community of Ancestry users to search and find these records.



This is Ancestry’s greatest sales pitch – “. . . and another member’s tree that had my great grandparents and their parents and everything . . . and it all started with my first leaf.” From a marketing standpoint – it’s brilliant. In providing an easily accessible service, it fills a void.

Unfortunately, this is also the greatest problem for's users. For the most part, the public doesn’t care as long as the budding family historian can find his or her forebears without much difficulty. Accepting another person’s word on your family carte blanche, however, is dangerous.

Ancestry’s family trees are like everything else on the Internet that is supplied by the average, casual user – questionable and often unreliable. As an educator, I dissuade my students from using Wikipedia, which is written and supplied by any user. Although the Wikipedia editorial board tries to make sure that sources substantiate claims on their pages, inaccuracies are rampant. Since anyone can edit, a person providing information to Wikipedia doesn’t need to be an expert in field, doesn’t need to have a minimum educational level, and may not be easily traceable – making any contribution suspect. Does that make Wikipedia unusable, no - but it does devalue its reputation as a reliable source for research.

As I teach my students the skills of how to research on the Internet, if there is no reason to trust an author, don’t. In the past, a person who published a work was subject to strict scrutiny by a team of editors and research assistants. You had a reasonable expectation to view a source as reliable and trustworthy; however, in the world of self publication, there are no editors, no research assistants, and no reasonable expectation to believe what you read. Along with the tacit permission to publish anything online, the information age has also allowed the rest of us to lose our sense of judgment. This leads to the attitude, “It’s on the Internet, so it must be true.”

This same attitude has extended to Ancestry users’ self published genealogies. “If it’s on Ancestry, it must be correct.” While there is a reasonable expectation to believe the documents Ancestry has digitized, the same expectation should not be extended to self-published family trees. Why? There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of this information – whether it is ultimately correct or fallacious.

Imported Mistakes from GEDCOM files

Even the seasoned genealogist will occasionally make a mistake. These can be insignificant or they can be egregious. Some of the worst errors were propagated via Ancestry when bad data was imported from a family tree program’s GEDCOM file. If you are constructing a family tree on Ancestry, you have probably experienced and issue when you’ve mistyped a date and Ancestry won’t process it because of the incongruent date.

This is a great feature as sometimes I get a little sloppy with my typing. It prevents me from typing certain errors in my Ancestry tree. Although this feature is available when typing new info into Ancestry, it is not available for imported GEDCOM files. If the file contains an error that has a person dying before he or she was born, that error is carried over into his or her tree on Ancestry. If you click a leaf and accept this info, the error is passed onto you and to anyone else that pulls hints from your tree or the original tree.

Poor Genealogy Skills

Back in the 1990s, I connected with a distant relative from my mother’s family. He too was conducting research on his line – one of my great great grandfather’s brothers. I was able to supply him with some of my data. I sent him printed family group sheets. We had some contact over the years and one day, I found some of my family’s information on Ancestry. I didn’t know the tree owner, but I was a little upset that my personal information and those of other living relatives was being freely distributed via Ancestry.

I contacted Ancestry about it and they told me to contact the tree owner concerning this and some other information within my lineage that were absolutely incorrect. One of these errors had my grandfather having a full brother with the same name as his second cousin. Although my grandfather had an illegitimate half-brother with another surname and an adopted sister who was actually his first cousin, he had no full brother. Another error had my sister-in-law married to my great-grandfather; this was an obvious impossibility, since my great grandfather died even before my sister-in-law’s mother was born.

After contacting the tree manager, who was very pleasant and easy to work with, he made the corrections and hid the information concerning those still living. He explained that the source of the information came from the same fourth cousin with whom I provided the family group sheets some five years previous. I understand that this same cousin has published family history that contains these exact errors.

A while back on Ancestry, I saw another tree that identified my father as having a full brother that was two years his senior. While my grandmother had a son that died as toddler 16 years before my father’s birth, she only had one other son – my father. Just last week, I noticed a tree that had the same woman listed as one of my male ancestor’s wife and as well as being his mother. Be careful of bad information from any source.

Who Do You Believe?

Often when consulting a hint, there is information compiled from several trees that have conflicting information. All three trees have John Doe born on July 4, 1901 in Columbus, Ohio married to Mary Rowe, who was born on December 15, 1904 in Delaware, Ohio.

Tree A has John Doe’s parents as Richard Doe and Sophronia Smeltz. Tree B has John’s parents as Lindsey Doe and Grace Arthur who were both born in Dayton, Ohio. While the third tree agrees that John Doe’s father was Richard Doe, Tree C lists Alvina Meadows as John’s mother.

Which tree do you believe? Not counting for the possibility of John being adopted or having a stepmother, who are the correct parents of John Doe? This can not be determined by accessing these three trees.

Many Trees Are Unsourced

As you search for info on Ancestry, you will find a plethora of trees that do not cite their sources. While many times genealogical projects are a work in progress, the tree owner may have not added sources as of yet. When I imported my GEDCOM file to Ancestry last year, the majority of my sources were not accurately added to my Ancestry tree – so I am working to add my missing references and editing the few that were uploaded.

While sources will be added in good faith, other trees cite no source material and could not provide any justification for a relationship if asked. Be wary of family trees that are lacking documentation.

The Experience Level of The Tree Owner is Minimal at Best

Genealogy has been America’s number one hobby. A number of folks have done a little research on their family history; however, only a small percentage of genealogists could be considered experts.

Professional Qualifications: The pinnacle of genealogical success is to be a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. Acceptance as a fellow is limited, and is only available when a vacancy in one of the 50 seats occurs. A person accorded this honor must be published and be able to “demonstrate an ability to use primary source material; to evaluate and analyze data; to properly document evidence; and to reach sound, logical conclusions presented in a clear and proper manner.”

Some genealogists are certified or accredited. This means that the individual has provided a copy of a multigenerational family history that is properly sourced and descendants are numbered according to one of the standards for the field of genealogy. The genealogist must also be able to decipher period handwriting, have an expert knowledge of source material for a certain area, and be able analyze primary and secondary source material.

Finally, certification and/or accreditation may require the candidate to provide a solution or possible solutions to a genealogical anomaly. An example might be what I and another family historian sorted through about twenty years ago – two men with the same first and last names, living in the same community, and naming their respective children with the same names.

In addition, the mothers' names were omitted from the parish register. The problem here would be to determine which person was the father of each child. This is an example of the type of problem that the candidate might need to address.

The route to certification is through the Board for Certification of Genealogists® that offers two certification levels: Certified Genealogist (CG) and Certified Genealogy Lecturer (CGL). The board had previously offered a number of other certifications that have been discontinued.

Another route is accreditation. The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists accredits genealogists. The process for becoming an Accredited Genealogist (AG) is similar to the certification process and requires the candidate to identify a regional specialty. The candidate is also required to taken an eight hour written exam that is followed by an oral exam.

College/University Degrees: Some would consider having a higher educational degree necessary to be an expert. This experience would greatly aid a genealogist, as those with a college or university degree should have some research experience. A higher degree correlates to a greater potential to conduct research. While this assumption may be generally made, I will have to admit I know people with an eighth grade education that are far more brilliant than others who hold a PhD. Don't assume that just because a person holds a degree that they are better at genealogy than someone else.

Historians: Others may believe that only historians make the best genealogists. A person does not need to be a historian to be a genealogist; however, it probably would be an asset for a person studying his or her family if he or she had a general understanding of history. While a historian brings skills to the table, a mathematician who has lived, breathed, and slept family history for thirty years will probably be better prepared as a genealogist than a historian with a minimal amount genealogical research under his or her belt – no matter the breadth and depth of his or her historical skills.

Years of Experience: Since we all start as armchair genealogists, the number of years and varied experience are probably more valuable than any of the above. This needs to be qualified as well, as someone may have only accessed secondary material for forty years and may not be as adept as someone with two-years' experience in finding information and analyzing data.

Drive & Passion: Often it is not what certifications or degrees one holds or even his or her years of experience that defines the skill set. It is the individual's drive and passion. A case in point: I have a fourth cousin who has been tracing her families for about two years and I would stack her work along side of the finest in the field. She has a hunger for knowledge, can analyze resources, and has been successful in finding things that others couldn't. She has opened doors that most didn't know had existed. Her fresh eyes often are more successful than those blinded by a predisposition to certain practices. My cousin is a real detective in her own right and I have much to learn from her. Unfortunately, this greatest skill cannot be measured by years, degrees, and certifications; it is personal. It is a character trait that cannot be learned - it is a natural talent.

Analyzing a Tree Owner's Skill Level: Unfortunately, few of Ancestry’s users do not indicate their level of expertise and many, I am assuming, are neophytes. Because of this, those of us who would seek information concerning a person’s skill level remain in the dark. Personal contact with an individual will indicate whether you should trust someone's work or not.


Is there a solution? Yes, and here are six tips on how to handle another person’s information. 
  1. Don’t accept another’s information without checking it for accuracy and source citations.
  2. Be wary of conflicting information and accept nothing until you can verify which information is correct.
  3. Check out the submitter for his or her level of experience and make contact with the individual to see how much he or she knows about the family in question. If he or she cannot verify the source of the information, avoid adding the information to your tree. Often these are just people who have blindly accepted some other person's data.
  4. Use the information as a potential lead. Once you verify the relationship – then add the person in question to your tree.
  5. Create two identical trees. Use one as your real tree and the second as your “sandbox” tree – or play database. Hide the "sandbox" tree from the public, and use it to add others’ information to it. When you are satisfied that the added information is correct, then and only then, copy these individuals to your actual tree.
  6. Don't be blinded by your own level of experience, as we can learn from others who may have less experience than we do - yet they have the solution to a genealogical puzzle. They might just teach you something.
While provides a wealth of information, it affords all of us the opportunity to post and share our family information with others. Good luck in your family history research.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Genes That Fit Just Right: DNA Testing & Genealogy

This post was updated with new information on July 8, 2010

Since I have been dealing with genetics, I thought it might be helpful to discuss molecular genealogy as the next in this series.

A little over two years ago, I was at a luncheon meeting when the topic of DNA testing for genealogical purposes was introduced into the conversation. One lady at the table made the comment that she was thinking about having her DNA tested to discover all of her nationalities that she had in her ancestry. This was prior to the introduction of Autosomal and X Chromosomal DNA testing now offered by 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Her discussion centered around the two tests that had been offered for a number of years and centered around the testing of Y Chromosomal (Y-DNA) and Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).

My friend made the error of thinking that these genealogical DNA tests were going to be the Rosetta Stone for all of her queries and questions. Sadly, this is common misconception of what DNA testing is going to report. Unless you are prepared for the types of results that you will receive from Y-DNA and mtDNA, you may be singing that old Peggy Lee standard, “Is That All There Is?” In many cases, you may be very disappointed as there is not much bang for the buck for some types of genetic genealogical tests.

With what you may consider dismal results with Y-DNA & mtDNA, you may be expecting something that these two tests will not deliver. There are several misconceptions concerning this type of DNA testing which is offered by most companies selling genetic genealogical tests. These include the following:

  • I will learn my complete ethnic profile.
  • I will find out exactly where all my ancestors originated.
  • I will know all of the health issues that I can expect to have during my lifetime.
  • I will be able to go to a database and find my complete ancestry with connections to all my unknown cousins.
  • Someone else having access to my DNA makes me vulnerable.

Some of the above are inaccurate or partially accurate due to specifics. We’ll address these thoughts individually.

I Will Learn My Complete Ethnic Profile

DNA testing is not cheap. Outside of the initial sticker shock for price, I believe that discovering the tests' limitations after purchase is the biggest shock for most people. First of all, Y-DNA and mtDNA genetic testing will identify us with a group of people that share common genetic markers. In some cases, this is fairly broad.

Genetic anthropologists are able to map certain wide populations based on genetic mutations that naturally occur over time. Sometimes these mutations are so significant to descending populations that they are classed as a specific group.

These groups are called haplotypes, clades, or haplogroups. Other mutations that are less significant over time may produce a sub-haplogroup or sub-clade that shares many of the same markers as the larger group, but can be identified by a specific mutation. These groups are identified by letter and in some cases, nicknames for the various haplogroups.

Let’s get something straight about these mutations. These are not the same kind of mutations that were often portrayed on shows like the “X Files,” but rather changes in the genetic coding over time. Not being a geneticist, I am not sure whether these mutations create any distinct characteristics or not. Perhaps they do, but that is beside the point. Genetic anthropologists can, however, estimate the approximate time the mutation occurred and get a sense of the geographic region that this haplogroup or sub-haplogroup covers.

Second, we have to understand that there are two DNA tests that most companies make available and these are based on unique genetic material that is passed down from parent to offspring. Neither one of these tests will completely explain our entire ancestry. At most, we will have two lineages that can be tracked – a matrilineal ancestry and a patrilineal ancestry.

Recent advances in testing of the 22 autosomal chromosomes and the X chromosome will answer some of these questions - but certainly not all. They can reveal some of the markers that conform with markers of certain ethnic groups; however, because of the DNA we inherit from our parents, all of the possible ethnicities we may have in our ancestry may not be present in our DNA. For example, our full siblings on average share about 50% of the same DNA as us. Ancestral markers found in one sibling, may be missing in others.

I will deal with Autosomal DNA and X Chromosomal testing in future posts for the following reasons: they may be somewhat restrictive in establishing genealogical relationships - because every ancestor may not be represented (this is especially true with X Chromosomal tests); they are not offered by the majority of companies; the tests can be expensive; and although I have been tested, I am waiting for further results by members of my family to provide an adequate assessment of these two tests. For the purpose of this post, I am limiting the discussion to mtDNA and Y-DNA types of DNA testing.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

Both men and women can have an mtDNA test to trace their matrilineal lineage; however, if you are a woman, you can only trace your matrilineal line. With mtDNA, certain genetic markers are passed directly from mother to child; therefore, starting with yourself, you can track the DNA from you to your mother, to your mother’s mother, to your mother’s mother’s mother, and so forth. tested two regions that included four markers determined my mtDNA haplogroup. Other companies are now offering a more comprehensive test of mitochondrial genetic material.

Mitochondrial DNA can be used to determine relationship; however, there is no way to determine if you are recently related or if that relationship extends back centuries. With only four nucleotide markers tested, not much can told other than the haplogroup of the individual who is tested and whether someone else is conclusively related via their matrilineal line.

The only way to confirm a relationship is to compare your results to paper based genealogical records. My earliest fully known mtDNA ancestress is Anna Barbara Faber (b. circa 1680; Knittlingen, Neckarkreis, Württemberg). I actually can go back one more generation to her mother. While I know her mother's first and middle names of Anna Catherina, the maiden name of 8th great-grandmother who was born circa 1643 is unfortunately unknown.

Y Chromosome DNA

While men and women both can be tested for mtDNA, only men can be tested for Y Chromosomal DNA, as only men carry the Y chromosome. This type of DNA is passed from father to son and (in most cases) will follow the surname line. The only time it will not follow the surname is in cases where a name has been changed by a male ancestor or if an illegitimate child takes his mother’s surname. In both situations, the Y-DNA follows the patrilineal lineage via the father and will be carried forward despite different surnames. Y-DNA is more exact than mtDNA as more markers can be tested.

Different services offer different tests that include 8, 12, 33, 37, 43, 46, and 67 markers. With more markers, there is both good news and bad news. The good news, the greater number of markers increases the accuracy in guessing the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) that you and another person share. The bad news is that an increased number of markers has a corresponding increased price tag.

Personally, I purchased the largest number of markers available through and that was 46 markers. Since I waited for a publicized sale, I was able to get this large number of markers for a bargain price. I am now awaiting results from an upgrade to a 67 marker test through Family Tree DNA.

My advice is go with a middle level test of between 33 and 43 markers, as the price can be competitive and there are more chances that those with whom you compare tests will have a comparable number of markers. Eight or 12 markers will not nearly be enough to be accurate and 67, while more accurate, may be overkill if few others have this test.

If they do, you still will be able to compare enough markers to gauge the MRCA within a few generations – and this may be sufficient. Although it sounds somewhat hypocritical, I decided to upgrade as FTDNA had a special upgrade for Ancestry customers. In addition, the 67 marker test is the gold standard for DNA surname projects of which I plan to start for my surname of Owston and its variant Ouston.

Like the mtDNA, there are haplotypes, clades, or haplogroups for Y-DNA. These are also named by letter and may share the same letters as mtDNA haplogroups; however, mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups sharing the same designation are not the same groupings. Like mtDNA, geographical concentrations can determine the sources of these ancestors.

Since Y-DNA is more accurate than mtDNA and can indicate more recent relationships, there are ways females can gain this data. For women interested in having this information, a test must be run on the DNA of a male relative in their fathers’ lineage. This could include the following blood relatives:

  • Your father,
  • Your grandfather (i.e., father's father)
  • Your brothers,
  • Your half brothers that share the same father as you,
  • Your uncle – (i.e., father’s brother),
  • Your uncle (i.e., father’s half brother that both share the same father),
  • Your nephew (i.e., the son of your brother),
  • Your nephew (i.e., the son of your half brother that shares the same father as you).
  • Your male first cousin (i.e., the son of your father's brother).
  • Your male half cousin (i.e., the son of your father's half brother that shares the same father)


Finding exactly where all of your ancestors originated will not be possible with any type of DNA testing. You may be able to be somewhat successful in this endeavor with Autosomal and X Chromosomal testing; however, these tests find matches and if the person who shares your DNA would need to know more about your shared lineage than you do. Autosomal DNA can predict relationships usually no further than 11 generations and are more successful in connecting third, fourth, and fifth cousins who share common ancestors at the corresponding fifth, sixth, and seventh generations.

As far as Y-DNA and mtDNA are concerned, paper genealogy is of little use as the common ancestor for your haplogroup with be thousands of years in the past. With that said, by noticing population concentrations exist for your specific haplogroup, you may make reasonable inferences concerning family's origins. By comparing with others who share DNA matches, you may be able to determine more recent locations of your family roots.

In my case, my matrilineal line could be traced back to Würtemburg. My mtDNA haplogroup was originally identified by as H, which has been nicknamed Clan Helena.  It is assumed that haplogroup H originated in the Pyrenees Mountains in the border region of France, Spain, and Andorra. My wife’s mtDNA was also among haplogroup H, but her markers were dissimilar to mine - so our genetic connection probably goes back several thousand years.  In addition, Clan Helena is the most pervasive mtDNA haplogroups of European origin* with between 45 to 53% of all Europeans sharing this mtDNA grouping. In both cases, I was hoping to find something exotic; however, this was not the case.

Since my initial mtDNA test, 23andMe's testing of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs or snips) is more accurate at determining a person's haplotype. Due to mutations, 23andMe recorded my haplotype as being more distinct than H and is now listed as H23. This haplogroup, which appears to be found among central Europeans and specifically Germans, fits my known ancestry.

My patrilineal lineage can be traced back to the East Riding of Yorkshire in England. This was an area that had once been under Danish rule, and due to Viking conquests in the area, Old Norse words were introduced into Old English and are prevalent in this part of Britain.

The spelling of my surname also seems to have been influenced by Old Norse with a change from Æston to Owston. So there was no surprise that my Y-DNA haplogroup was I1, which has its greatest concentration in Scandinavia. This fulfilled my expectations of my ultimate paternal heritage. Since my initial test, 23andMe's analysis of my Y-DNA SNPs has further designated my haplogroup as I1*. By the way, my earliest known Y-DNA ancestor was Peter Owston who died in 1567 in Sherburn, North Yorkshire.

In either case, the exact migration of these ancestries cannot be ultimately mapped. As more people are tested and more matches are found, a comparison of family histories (where known) may provide some additional clues to a point. As for now, I have two exact matches with mtDNA and no close matches with my Y-DNA.


While autosomal genetic testing may be able to provide clues on the probability of certain diseases, mtDNA and Y Testing do not provide this information. At least one company bundles this testing with genealogical testing. 23andMe offers this service and it greatly affects the ultimate price you will have to pay for the combined tests.


Several companies provide a service where genealogies are posted in reference to DNA. Other sites that compare DNA for specific surnames also exist at the present. Even with these options, DNA will never provide your complete ancestry; however, you may be able to reconstruct relationships at least in your paternal lineage. As one goes back in time, the availability of records proving relationship lessens. There will be a brick wall you will eventually hit unless your paternal line is a royal line that is well documented. Autosomal and X Chromosomal DNA is better for connecting to more recent cousins than Y-DNA or mtDNA.


With the constant threat that our identity might be compromised, there is the paranoia that someone, big brother perhaps, will have direct access my DNA information. Not only do people fear a violation of their right to privacy, there is the sense that our DNA may be used to our disadvantage.

DNA testing is voluntary – if you decide to be tested, you may opt out having your information posted. The DNA information collected for genealogy, however, is an infinitesimal portion of your entire DNA profile. With mtDNA and Y-DNA, only ancestral markers are tested.

These markers are not unique to you but rather to you and other relatives - perhaps to many other relatives. There is that distinct possibility that all male relatives that share your paternal lineage with a relationship back numerous generations may share the same Y-DNA markers as you do. With mtDNA, there may be people sharing a common ancestor 20 generations or more in the past that also have the same mtDNA results as you.

Close relatives through the same descent will share the same markers. Those living with whom I am aware that have the exact mtDNA as me are the following: my mother; one first cousin; three first cousins, once removed; and three first cousins, twice removed. I am reasonably sure that the following living individuals share the same Y-DNA as me: my two brothers; my five nephews; one second cousin; and one second cousin, once removed. There may be many others as well.

One needs to realize that Y-DNA and mtDNA testing is not the same DNA tests that are used in crime scene investigation as seen on TV. That type of DNA testing chronicles your complete chromosomal makeup and will be unique to you. This is beyond the scope of the standard genealogically based DNA tests, so unique DNA information is neither tested nor is it publicized in any manner. Unfortunately, Autosomal DNA is the same test used for identification purposes and it is unique to you as an individual. X-Chromosomal tests can be used to show relationship among siblings.


We bought the DNA tests in late 2008 when a special offered was available through The results were returned within three weeks. I had also sent samples of DNA to be tested by Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. This additional test was to be free and it was to include genealogical data that could be compared with other subscribers. The results took 9 months and were not free; however, their testing partner significantly dropped the price when the first offer to purchase the unlock of the information was ignored. The mtDNA unlock was reduced to under $20.00 and their 8 marker test for Y-DNA was twice as much. I purchased the mtDNA unlock and my genealogical data was posted along with my DNA info. Since then 23andMe's SNP testing has further defined my haplogroups for both Y-DNA and mtDNA.


With the research in regards to my surname, there are some questions that I would like to have answered. First of all, there are two lines from my specific family that, although I have linked to the most common recent ancestor (MCRA), I am not 100% sure that a genetic relationship exists. I would like to have representatives of these two lines tested to positively verify or deny a relationship.

One of these two lines has an individual that may have been an adopted stepson rather than, as with the common family opinion, being an illegitimate son that was later legitimized. This identity question is raised because the subject is listed with a different last name in the 1870 census. Since he was born after the taking of 1860 census, there is no prior listing of the name and civil registration of births was not mandatory until the 1880s. Therefore, conclusive documented evidence of his paternity does not exist.

The second relationship is inferred due to photographic evidence of an old tombstone that carries the name of my ancestor’s brother. Since a member of the questionable line is sitting on the tombstone, it has been assumed that this person (who shares my surname) and his siblings were grandchildren of the man whose name is on the tombstone.

I am perfectly happy in making this leap of faith as the indication of relationship is supported by the photo. Since no direct evidence exists to prove or disprove the connection, a DNA test would confirm or deny the accuracy of the relationship.

There is one more area I would like checked. Two other groups of individuals share the same surname as our specific family. These other groups come from the same region of England as my family; however, there is no conclusive evidence that we are related. Y-DNA testing would be able to confirm or deny if any of these three groups are connected. If there is a connection, these connections are not verified by parish registers as the MCRA would have occurred before the keeping of such registers were mandated in the 16th century.

There is also the possibility of tracing my other family lines by having other individuals tested with the particular Y-DNA or mtDNA for these lineages. The problem I have with this is finding descendants that qualify for the test and who would be willing to be tested.

For example, my great-grandfather, Thomas Wesley Day only had daughters. He was the only surviving son of his father’s family, so I would have to find a male descendant of my third great grandfather. Finding such a fourth cousin may prove to be difficult with a common surname such as Day.

DNA testing is not for everyone and it may not be something that helps you in your genealogical quest. Even with the aforementioned shortcomings, some have been successful in finding ancestors and making a connections to their own lineage.  This alone would be an invaluable tool if all avenues of research to this point have led to dead ends.


In the following video, genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak discusses how she traced four lines that share the same surname in the Roots Web Television's DNA Story episode: "Did She Marry Her Cousin?"

*Besides, haplogroup H (Clan Helena), other European mtDNA haplogroups include: J (Clan Jasmine), K (Clan Katrine), T (Clan Tara), U ( Clan Ursala), X (Clan Xenia), and V (Clan Velda). The European mtDNA clans were named by Bryan Sykes in his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I'm My Own Grandpa

Back in 1948, country music duo Lorenzo and Oscar released a novelty record called “My Own Grandpa.” It is a humorous story about how a man through a series of marriages became his own grandfather. Outside of Woody Allen and Bill Wyman, this scenario is probably not likely to occur – although the possibility exists. While the marriages in the song were to non-blood relatives, there is a certain amount of shame that our society has associated with marriage between relatives.

Although this stigma exists, consanguineous marriages do happen and it has probably happened in your family – wait, let’s change that, it definitely occurred in your family, my family, and all of the families on earth. In some cases, these marriages occurred when families wanted to keep real estate or wealth within the bounds of families. In other cases there were distinct religious or cultural reasons to confine marriages to one group of people.  The impetus for cousins marrying could have been pragmatic because the availability of suitable mates was low. This was often the case in isolated rural areas. To recap, there may have been monetary, cultural, or convenience reasons for marrying a relative.

Even in our culture, the idea of marrying one's cousin was not uncommon - nor was it considered unusual.  When doing research on a Civil War unit (the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves), two of the officers were among those who married their first cousins. Neither case was because of a low availability of mates.  One was Dr. Joseph Augustus Phillips, the unit's surgeon who later served as the Surgeon General of Pennsylvania.  Another was First Lieutenant George Hamlin Bemus (who later commanded his own regiment as colonel). 

Following the war, both men held prominent positions in their respective communities of Pittsburgh and Meadville, Pennsylvania.  Neither were stigmatized because of these unions. In fact, the local histories that chronicled their biographies considered these unions as a mark of honor.

Pedigree Collapse

Although we may not be able to identify such marriages in our families, it had to happen at some point and it happened more than once.  When we think about the number of ancestors that double every generation, the chances of being related to ourselves increase. Think about it, we have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, and 16 great great grandparents. If were to exponentially calculate our ancestors back to the time of Alfred the Great during the mid to late 10th century, we would have at that time 68,719,476,736 living ancestors. When you consider that 68 billion is 10 times the number of the current population of the earth (estimated at 6.8 billion), this is an impossibility.

Therefore, we would have to be related to ourselves – everyone of us and in numerous ways. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy observed, “You might be a redneck if your family tree does not fork.” Genealogists call this phenomenon “pedigree collapse.” While it does not only mean that closely related cousins marry each other (although this probably did happen too), it can show that couples may share an ancestry dozens of generations in the past. Even over time and distance, this is possible.

One branch of my ancestry, the Maneval/Manewal family provides two examples. In the first instance, a daughter of the earliest known progenitor of this lineage married into the Ozias family in the early 18th century. In the late 20th century, Ozias and Maneval descendants in Missouri had an accidental connection that was not prompted by genealogical research and ended up marrying one another. 

In the last 10 years, a grandson of my cousin met a young lady in Germany who, when comparing notes, ended up being a descendant of one of my great-grandmother’s siblings. This was a purely chance encounter that was not prompted by families searching for one another.

Relationship and Genetics

In our last installment, I dealt with our unique genetic milkshake that determines our physical and personality characteristics. We will share exactly 50% of our genes with our parents and children; however, with other relatives it is variable depending on how much shared DNA we have with these relatives. The numbers are generally reported as being an average – meaning the possible ranges can be from 0% to twice the average rate. Generally, as averages go, the numbers will fall somewhere toward the middle of the continuum.

Degree of
Shared Genetic
0100% Exactly  Identical Twins
150% Exactly  Parents
150% Average  Full Siblings
225% Average  Half Siblings
  Full Aunts and Uncles
  Full Nieces and Nephews
  Double Cousins
312.5% Average  First cousins
  Half aunts and uncles
  Half nieces and nephews
  Great grandparents
  Great grandchildren
  Full great aunts and uncles
  Full great nieces and nephews
46.25% Average  Half first cousins
  Double second cousins
  Great great grandparents
  Great great grandchildren
  Great great aunts and uncles
  Great great nieces and nephews
  First cousin, once removed
  Half great aunts and uncles
  Half great nieces and nephews
53.13% Average  Full Second cousins
  Full First cousin, twice removed
  Half First cousin, once removed
  Half great great aunts and uncles
  Half great great nieces and nephews
  3rd great grandparents
  3rd great grandchildren
  Full 3rd great aunts and uncles
  Full 3rd great nieces and nephews

When looking at the above table, the amount of shared DNA between full first cousins is on average 12.5% - meaning that two first cousins may share anywhere between 0 and 25% of the same DNA. Is this enough to cause a problem? In most cases, no; however, where there have been genetic defects – these may be intensified. These run the gamut from the visible (syndactylism, polydactylism, dwarfism, albinism, and etc.) to the invisible (hemophilia and other health disorders).

Because of the interrelatedness of the crown heads of Europe, hemophilia plagued the royal houses into the twentieth century. With defective genes occurring in both parents, the chance of having genetic disorders increases. The textbook example of “pedigree collapse” causing health issues is the case of Charles II of Spain.

  Generations   Ancestors
  no pedigree collapse  
Charles II

Charles was plagued by poor health and was characterized as being short, frail, epileptic, senile, and completely bald by the age of 35. He also was sterile, and his inability to produce an heir provoked the War of Spanish Succession two years following his death in 1700. The problems that plagued Charles II and other European royals is the fact that the gene pool was stagnated by so many intermarriages.

While the gene pool was not as stagnated as in Charles II's case, I know of one community in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia where nearly all of the residents are genetically connected going back four or five generations.   In the West Virginia situation, there is a high incident rate of cancer and in the Pennsylvania example, a high rate of heart disease has plagued many of the residents.  

I guess the best example of this are the problems that occur with the selective breeding of animals.  A dog is a dog, but by selective breeding over generations and even centuries has produced a great variety of breeds where a collie, chow, borzoi, and Newfoundland are all different.  This is not unlike our ancestors who were isolated from others and certain characteristics were common to specific populations that led to physical differences that make full-blooded Swedes, Nigerians, Navajos, Chinese, Dravidians, Australian Aborigines, and Berbers all different in some manner or fashion.

Like with animal husbandry, certain populations may have a high rate of specific health issues that are endemic to a race or ethnicity.  Some of the more widely known include ethnic related health issues include the following:  Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews and Cajuns and Sickle Cell disease in descendants sub-Saharan Africans.

Although humans have self-selected mates over the centuries, good and bad genetic material has been passed down to descendants.  I am not saying that any specific race or ethnicity is better than others; I am saying that a stagnation of the gene pool due to isolation has produced not only distinct physical characteristics, but also has prolongated certain health issues.

So Marrying Your Cousin Is Bad

Early on in this discourse, I discussed the stigma associate with intermarriage of relatives. Much of this has been popularized by real stories of genetic disorders, but isolated consanguineous marriages may only carry a slight risk.

You may be able to go back several generations to find such marriages in your family. On my mother’s side, her grandparents were related. Both had mothers named Myers and we know that a family connection existed – the exact relationship has not been proven as of yet. We do know that they were not first cousins. I had been leaning toward the two being second cousins, however, after further research, I am supposing that they were actually second cousins, once removed. This would make the relationship of the sixth degree; on average, the two would have only shared 1.66% of their DNA.

My second great-grandmother Gardner on my father’s side was the daughter of second cousins who both had the same Gardner great grandparents. She married a half fifth cousin, once removed – who was descended from the first Gardner/Gardiner progenitor in the region. The shared DNA between her and her husband, however, was probably no more similar than a random sampled person in the general population.

A similar fifth cousin, once removed marriage occurred between our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, the niece of the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Although they shared surnames, the relationship was distant at best. Franklin's fourth great grandparents were Eleanor's fifth great grandparents.

That Was Then - What About Now

Does it happen in modern America? Certainly; in most jurisdictions there is no prohibition to cousins marrying. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, second cousins are permitted to marry. In fact, 20 states and the District of Columbia permit marriages between first cousins.

The number of states that prohibit first cousin marriages between blood relatives is 19. Three of these states will permit marriage between adopted first cousins, but not genetic first cousins. Of the remaining 11 states, one permits marriages between first cousins, once removed; four permit half cousin marriages; five allow first cousins to marry under certain conditions; and Arizona allows first cousin marriages under certain conditions and marriages between half cousins.

One thing that I thought was interesting is that the five states that are generally considered to be America’s poorest states do not permit first cousin marriages. Often Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia are the brunt of jokes concerning inbreeding; however, first cousin marriages are illegal in these states, whereas, it is legal in the more cosmopolitan states of New York, California, and Massachusetts.

Although I am not an advocate for marrying one’s cousin, the reality is that this has happened in the past, it is legal in a majority of the US, and the real danger comes when the available gene pool becomes diluted.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Genetic Milkshake

One of the things that I find interesting is the amount of genetic material each of us share with our relatives. In most cases the numbers are averages; however, they are absolute in the case of three relationships. We only share 50% of our genetic material with each parent. No more and no less. This is because half of our genetic material comes from our mother and half comes from our father. Our children will share half of our DNA – no more, no less. Lastly, identical twins share 100% of their DNA, as they are from the same fertilized egg that split into two.

Outside of these relationships, the amount of DNA we share with our other relatives will vary. This is because our DNA is a unique code that is partially from our mother and partially from our father. Since each sperm and each egg is genetically unique carrying half of the genetic code from each parent, the ultimate combination is like a genetic milkshake – unique at the moment to the ingredients that are available.
Likewise, our siblings will have a unique genetic code. This is why in one family you will have differing heights, eye color, hair color, blood types, and other physical characteristics. Let’s consider one of these – eye color. Geneticists tell us that there are two genes that control eye color. It is the combination of these genes that produce the actual hue of our eyes.

The first gene (the “bey2” gene) has two forms – one that produces either a great deal of melanin (B) or very little melanin (b). The second gene (the “gey” gene) can produce some melanin (G) or very little melanin (b). If you notice here, it becomes apparent that there are three basic colors that emerge – Brown, Green, and blue. Every other color is determined by the combination of the genes. At the present, this has not fully been explored. One real mystery is how hazel eyes are produced.

So if a person has the following genetic parameters, his or her eye color will be determined as follows:

bey2 Genegey GeneEye Color
BBGG    Brown Eyes
BBGb    Brown Eyes
BBbb    Brown Eyes
BbGG    Brown Eyes
BbGb    Brown Eyes
Bbbb    Brown Eyes
bbGG    Green Eyes
bbGb    Green Eyes
bbbb    blue eyes

For example, gray and violet eyes are just hues of blue eye color. Geneticists really are not sure how eye hue is determined, as the great variance in eye color needs to be studied further.

By using the basics, we can come up with the following rules: Brown trumps everything; green trumps blue; and blue is recessive – it trumps nothing. A brown eyed person (because dominant genes win) may also carry green and/or blue eye genetic material. A green eyed person can carry blue eyed genetic markers. This is how my mother and dad, who both had brown eyes, were able to produce three children with differing eye color: one brown eyed child, one gray eyed child, and one blue eyed child.

If I look back to my grandparents, the eye color mystery begins to make sense. I had one brown eyed grandfather, a hazel eyed grandfather, a blue eyed grandmother, and a gray eyed grandmother. My brother with the gray eyes really has a form of blue eyes and there is something passed from my gray eyed grandmother that gives him that particular hue. While I have blue eyes, they are not as blue as others I know and this is probably influenced by my maternal grandmother’s gray eyes as well.

Just as three siblings can carry different characteristics, the degree of genetic material we share with our siblings can vary greatly. When we consider the possibilities because all humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, it is estimated that over 10 trillion different combinations could occur.

While siblings are generally considered sharing 50% of our genetic material – it is possible that they could share 100% of the same DNA as us (highly unlikely – unless they are identical twins) and it is possible that two siblings could share 0% of the same genetic material (again, highly unlikely). The average is 50% - though it may be 65% shared with one sibling, only 30% shared with another, and 42% with a third. Just like our mileage, it will vary.

More on degrees of relationship and how this relates to genetics next time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Consanguinity – It’s All Relative

It’s called consanguinity or collateral relationships and includes all of our indirect blood relatives. Indirect relatives are those from whom we are not descended (parents, grandparents, etc.) or who are not descended from us (child, grandchild, etc.). This list includes aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. Today, we will focus on that ever present relationship – the cousin.

One of the things that I have noticed outside of the realm of genealogy is the great confusion on what constitutes a second cousin. I will have to admit, I used this terminology in error for the children of my first cousin, until I happened upon a consanguinity chart that was posted in the Sullivan County Courthouse in Claremont, New Hampshire.

I asked the clerk to copy the chart and she graciously obliged. It cleared up the matter of relationship once and for all. The year was 1988 and I had been working steadily on compiling my family data for over ten years, but still was confused on this issue as I had been calling people by the wrong relational title since childhood.

Talkin’ About My Generation

To understand it a little better, I have provided a custom consanguinity chart below and I’ll explain it. First, second, third, fourth, and so forth cousins all share the same distance in generations from a common ancestor as you do. If you have the same grandparents as me, then we are first cousins. If we share the same great-grandparents, we are second cousins. If my great-great grandfather was your great-great grandfather, then we are third cousins. As long as the relationship is of an equal distance to that ancestor, then we can refer to that person as our first, second, third, etc. cousin.

These cousins are in the same generation as us – or as I have it on the chart below the 0 generation. The term generation is used for a number of identifications such as the baby boom generation, generation X, the greatest generation, the Pepsi generation, and even in cultural anthropology to designate time with an average of 30 years. In genealogy, generation has nothing to do with age, when a person lived, or a span of years in this case – it is in reference to distance from the common ancestor.

For example, my oldest first cousin Fred (half first cousin to be exact) was my father’s contemporary. Being only four years younger than my dad, the two played together as children. This particular cousin was 38 years my senior and had children older than me. We grew up in different eras – he experienced the Great Depression and World War II, while I did not. He was born during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, while I was born during Eisenhower’s first term. To my knowledge, I never met him – but if I had, we would have had nothing in common.

My father with his nephew Fred Allen circa 1923

Although experientially we held no commonality, we were the same generationally as we shared the same grandmother. He was her oldest grandchild, while I was the youngest and was born two years after her death. Because we were of equal distance from the same grandmother, we are genealogically from the same generation. His mother and my father were two of my grandmother’s six children – they were of the same generation but had a 17 year age difference.

In 1978, I had the opportunity to meet five or six of my second cousins for the first time. Our common ancestor was our great grandfather. Their grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Since we are of equal distance and hence in the same generation, we are second cousins.

To calculate the relationship from a common ancestor, count the “greats” and add the number one to find the degree of consanguinity. For example, Pete and I share the same great-great grandfather. We are of equal distance in generations; therefore, if we count the greats as being two and add one, this gives us a relationship of 3rd cousins. Lorrie and I happen to share a 3rd great grandfather – we are fourth cousins. This even works with grandparents. No “greats,” so we assign the value of zero; 0 + 1 = 1 and the relationship would be that of a first cousin.

A Cousin Removed

But what about those cousins who are not equal distance from the same relative as us, but share a common ancestry? Earlier, I mentioned the children of my first cousin (two of which who are older than me). While I incorrectly identified these kinfolk as second cousins, they are actually my first cousins, once removed. Now, I am sure we all have a cousin that we would like to remove at times, but our feelings about that individual do not come into play in regard to terminology. The term removed is used to designate the difference in distance we have from a common ancestor.

For example, my cousin Kathy is my first cousin Joan’s daughter. Joan’s mother was my mother’s sister. Still following? Good. Our common ancestor would be my grandmother who was also Kathy’s great-grandmother. Since we are of an unequal distance from this ancestor, the relationship is removed. As my first cousin is her mother, this makes us first cousins, once removed. Kathy’s children and I are first cousins, twice removed and her grandchildren are my first cousins, thrice removed.

This also works backward up the chart. My mother’s first cousin Don was my first cousin, once removed as our common ancestor was his grandmother who was my great grandmother. Since Don was also Kathy’s grandmother’s first cousin, she was related to Don as a first cousin, twice removed. The removed is counted down from the closest equal generational distance.

You can figure this by counting the generational differences from our ancestor that has equal generational consanguinity with the person in question. For example, my great-grandfather's first cousin would be my first cousin plus three generations or thrice removed. My grandmother's second cousin would be my second cousin plus two generations or twice removed. My mother's third cousin would have a generational difference of one generation and would be my third cousin, once removed.

I realize that it sounds terribly difficult and confusing, but it is not. Getting in the practice of using the correct relational terminology will help you in understanding and correctly communicating relationships. Good luck.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Starting Point - Conducting Interviews

Due to my own genealogical interests, I have been of late getting some questions regarding basic genealogical research. While I don’t have all of the answers, frequently I can pull from my own experiences to help those with their own families. Many of these questions are answered online, but not always where you can easily find the answers. I am also a user of and have developed some practices that make finding ancestors particularly easy. I felt that by some short articles regarding American genealogical research may make your experience easier.

I became interested in genealogical research in 1968 when my eighth grade English teacher at Park Terrace Junior High gave us the assignment of creating a family tree. Since my father died six years previous to this, I did not have direct access to what he knew about his family and had to rely upon others to provide this information. My mother gave me what she could, but suggested I speak to her mother who was 83 at the time to flesh out some of the details of my maternal branch.

As was suggested by our teacher, Mr. George Ihnat, we were to ask relatives about our particular family, and this I did. This is the starting point for anyone interested in tracing their genealogical heritage. So I began to ask questions. As stated before, I had relatively no problem with my mother’s side as my mother and grandmother were great sources of information.

Finding the Impossible

My dad’s side was another issue. The oldest surviving relative at that time was my dad’s oldest half sister, my Aunt Nath. While I knew of her, I really didn’t know her despite the fact that we attended the same church. My mother encouraged me to approach her about the subject. She was a wealth of information about her relatives – particularly her mother’s family. This encouragement allowed me to form a relationship with my aunt and this continued until she died six years later in 1974. We spoke to each other nearly every week, as I considered her a link to the father that I hardly knew.

My aunt’s knowledge, however, was limited concerning my grandfather who was her stepfather. In fact the lineage of my surname was quite a blur. I knew of my grandfather’s siblings that all moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio – but only knew their names. There was the tradition that the Owstons (my surname) came from England and there was a Canadian connection. That was all I knew about them. Outside of our household, I never met anyone born with my surname and would not until 1978 when I resurrected my interest in searching out family information.

Shooting in the Dark

Living in suburban Pittsburgh, I was aware that there were four other Owstons in the phone book. I was curious about it and I proceeded to call them. The first was Clarence W. Owston and he told me what he could; however, like me he was young when his father died and knew very little. None of his line seemed to match what I had amassed. He also admitted that two of the others in the phone book were his sons and they knew less than he did about the subject. I finally was able to connect our families twenty years later – we shared the same lineage and he was my third cousin, once removed.

The second phone conversation was with a Mrs. J.G. Owston; she had been a widow for five years. Her late husband’s name was James and his father’s name was also James. Outside of this, she could provide no additional data and I thanked her. This too drew a blank – as there was no apparent connection between our lines. Years later when I renewed my search, I was able to piece together information from other interviews, wills, cemetery records, and death certificates. I had enough evidence to confirm that her late husband’s father and my great-grandfather were half-brothers.

Fleshing out the Truth

From what I was able to piece together from other interviews, a rift had occurred between our families when a disagreement arose at a funeral in 1928 concerning who should be the rightful owner of a family heirloom. My grandfather’s sister was the guilty party for even suggesting that she should have a certain rail road artifact that had once belonged to her grandfather.

This was apparently a model of a locomotive that had been awarded to her grandfather for his service as a rail road engineer. This had passed to his youngest son (her uncle) and had been owned by him for nearly 30 years. It should have passed to his children, which it ultimately did. Whatever happened to it or even its exact nature remains a mystery.

Her two aged daughters related this story to me in 1978 and the chance of this occurring seemed likely as she had done something similar when my grandfather had died four years earlier. He played a concert harp and, upon his death in 1924, she harangued my grandmother for it as it had come from her parent's family.  Eventually, my grandmother subjected to the pressure and acquiesced.

Perhaps, my great aunt was afraid that the harp would be passed on to one of my grandmother's children from her first marriage.  I hadn't thought about this before, but my great-grandparents' family bible passed to one of my dad's half-sisters and it did not return its rightful bloodline until December 1977 - a period of 53 years.  This was the turning point in reinvigorating my interest in family history as it opened up doors that were once closed.

Regarding the harp, I found out in 1978 that it eventually became a child’s plaything and was ruined because it was kept outside in the rain. This was a sad but unfortunate occurrence. At least, the mystery of the harp was solved. While it may sound that I am being overly critical of my great-aunt, I am not. I can understand why she felt deserving of these artifacts from her father’s family - as she had a deep sense of abandonment from her father and never forgave him.

When my great grandmother died in Connecticut, my great-grandfather sent the four children back to Pennsylvania to be raised by their maternal grandmother.  Like his father, my great grandfather was a rail road engineer and would be out on runs for days at a time.  Perhaps he felt that he could not take care of four children aged 19, 15, 13, and 8.

My great-grandfather later remarried and the children were apparently out of sight and out of mind. Since they had very little from their father’s family, I assume that she felt she was entitled to something.  While it doesn’t excuse her behavior, it does help to understand it. Still, I wish the harp had survived and was being used by a musician somewhere - even if it passed to someone out of the family.

Help from Non-Relatives

Nearly all of the above information came from interviews with four different individuals in 1978 and this is the starting point of most genealogical research. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to interview certain people that died before getting to hear their stories. My grandfather had two half-brothers that he never knew. While one died at the age of five, the younger one, Ralph, lived until 1976.

In 1989, I discovered that Ralph died in Louisiana and I requested a copy of his death certificate. On the certificate, there was a name of a lady who provided the information to the coroner. I was able to find her and made an initial contact. She was a friend of Ralph and his wife, who predeceased him, and was able to provide some limited information. The greatest prize, however, was his photo that she subsequently sent me following our phone conversation.

The information I gathered from the initial interviews in 1968 and in later years have provided a wealth of information that led me to find other records. The moral of the story – ask now while you have the opportunity. Tape record and transcribe the interviews. I took notes of my eighth grade interviews and taped the later interviews. Unfortunately, I never transcribed the tape recordings – and have relied upon memory to reconstruct some of the information as the tapes were lost over the years.

Good luck and good ancestral hunting.