Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fallen Branches from the Family Tree, Part Two

It was about 6:30 one hot summer evening and Annie Thorpe of Orchard Place in Dravosburg, Pennsylvania was cooling off by sitting in her porch swing. As she sat relaxing, she spied a body of a child lying on the hillside across from her home. Concerned about the boy, she ran and found the three year old asleep. Mrs. Thorpe picked up the boy and carried him to her swing where he slept a half hour until he awakened holding his head.

As he moved, Mrs. Thorpe noticed that he had vomited what appeared to be a half pint of tomatoes as the emesis was red in color. What Mrs. Thorpe hadn’t realized that it was likely not the contents of the child’s stomach, but rather it was probably blood and tissue that he had regurgitated.

Worried because he had not returned home by suppertime, his parents sent their six-year old daughter out with another little girl to scour the neighborhood. Since his older sister had been playing with him earlier in the afternoon, she might know his whereabouts. Locating him several blocks from their home on the Thorpe’s swing, the girls took their sick companion home where his condition worsened into the evening and the vomiting that continued was accompanied by the onset of diarrhea.

It was Friday, August 15, 1919 and the young boy, John Milford Brakeall, was stricken with an illness that was deemed as unknown in origin. In less than 36 hours, the youngster expired. Shortly before his death, his six-year old sister Louise began experiencing identical symptoms.

Cradle Roll Certificate for Johnny Brakeall from the M.E. Church Sunday School. His middle name is incorrectly listed as Wilford and his birth year was wrongly credited as 1918; however, the document was corrected to read 1916.

Although she nearly crossed the threshold of death, Louise would have a slow recovery. After a yearlong absence from school, it would be years before she could bear to eat anything that wasn’t prepared by her mother. In time, Louise returned to full health that culminated in a lifespan of 83 years and seven days.

Local physician, Dr. Albert H. Aber and Deputy Coroner George Liffert ruled the illness as toxemia of an unknown origin. David M. Kier, Allegheny County deputy coroner, reported to the Pittsburgh Press that the cause was “foremia, a poisonous condition of unknown origin.”

Since the children had not eaten anything that was different than other members of the family, no one had a clue to the cause of the sickness. Even the local media reported that the medical community was completely baffled. The headline of The Daily News from nearby McKeesport heralded “Strange Fatal Malady Puzzle to Physicians,” while the Pittsburgh Press echoed identical sentiments with “Doctors Puzzled by Children’s Malady.”

The two children were my mother’s siblings. Although, my mother was almost a year old when the tragedy struck – much of what we know about the episode was revealed by her own mother – a woman who lost a son and nursed a daughter back to health.

For two and perhaps three decades, the family of John Alva and Rose Brakeall were in the dark concerning the illness that resulted in the death of their young son and that nearly claimed the life of their oldest daughter. That is until a friend had revealed that another Euclid Avenue neighbor, Verda B. Harrison, had witnessed what had transpired with the Brakeall children and had remained silent for all these years.

Was it the burden of guilt that finally caused Mrs. Harrison to reveal this secret? We will never know; however, she was guilty of the sin of omission by failing to alert the family while young Johnny still was alive. With proper treatment, he may have lived as did his sister.

As relayed to my grandmother by another neighbor, it was thought that Verda Harrison saw the two children take pop bottles from Alice Worthington’s garbage bin and fill them with water from the outside faucet – which locally is known as a spicket or spigot. As the children were refreshing themselves from the cool water from the tap, little did they know that the bottles contained the residue of a dangerous poison – mercury bichloride.

Although highly toxic, mercury bichloride was dispensed by druggists for a variety of medicinal purposes. While it was used topically and as a vapor in a number of applications, ingesting a solution of mercury bichloride nearly always proved fatal if not treated immediately. Being a corrosive sublimate, the poison damaged the lining of the stomach, caused spasms, often resulted in kidney failure, and caused the patient to slip into a coma prior to death. As it was readily available, it often became the agent of choice for suicide; however, the result was a slow and agonizing death.

But what was Mrs. Worthington doing with such a dangerous poison and why was its residue found in pop bottles? The answer lies in the practice of the day, as a solution of mercury bichloride was used as primitive birth control method in the form of a douche after intercourse. From what can be gathered third hand, this was Alice Worthington’s reason for mixing such a deadly solution. While the practice was fairly common, a mistake in the ratio of mercury bichloride to water in the solution could prove as fatal as ingesting the poison.

Had the family or Dr. Aber known what manner of illness they were confronting, the doctor would have advised the boy's parents to feed him egg whites and then induce vomiting – a practice that often was successful with mercury bichloride poisoning. Unfortunately, the family administered two laxatives prior to summoning the physician.

According to their own testimony, my grandmother prepared a dose of milk of magnesia for Johnny. Later, my grandfather administered castor oil. By Saturday afternoon, Johnny appeared to be recovering.

The laxatives, however, had an adverse effect which only caused the poison to course through Johnny’s system resulting in convulsions. Dr. Aber was called to the home at 9:00 PM where he administered three different medications; however, the convulsions continued until 5:40 AM Sunday when John Milford Brakeall breathed his last.

At the height of Johnny’s pain at 3:00 AM Sunday, six-year old Louise Elizabeth Brakeall began to suffer from similar symptoms. She vomited her stomach lining, experienced diarrhea, and had a variety of spasms. During most of the day Sunday, she remained unconscious.

Dr. Aber and two other physicians tended to her during several days of treatment. By Monday, Louise had shown some improvement and she was considerably better by Tuesday. Dr. Aber didn’t repeat the treatment of a laxative that had been prepared for Johnny and that decision probably saved her life as much as it had hastened his death. It would take years, however, for her to fully recover from the damage.

After my Aunt Louise gave birth to her daughter Joan years later, mother and daughter met Dr. Aber on the streets of Dravosburg. He asked whose child she was. When Aunt Louise replied “mine,” Dr. Aber confessed that he never expected her to live long enough to even have children.

The family 70 years later in August 1989.
Left to right:  Joan, Aunt Louise, Uncle Jim, and Mom

Although my aunt’s health improved, my grandmother never recovered from the loss of her fourth child. It is said that she never smiled in a photograph after the experience.

The first known photo of my grandmother after the incident.  Likely taken on Easter Sunday 1920, it depicts Rose Brakeall with three of her children: Jim, Louise, & Genevieve.  The oldest son Walt was probably the photographer.

As Johnny only lived a short time, just two photos of him exist – one of these was taken perhaps a year or more before his death. He is with his sister Louise.

The stricken siblings: Louise and Johnny

Because this was not the best depiction of Johnny, my grandmother commissioned a professional photographer to take a postmortem photograph of her young son as he lie in state at his paternal grandparents’ home next door. She also cut a lock of his hair and kept it for safe keeping in a sachet box. I am the caretaker of these mementos.

While his grave is in McKeesport’s Fairview Cemetery, there is some confusion on his original burial location. My mother thought he was buried in a single grave in Dravosburg’s Richland Cemetery; however, The Daily News reported that the burial took place in Fairview Cemetery. A McKeesport undertaker, Thomas F. Wiley, handled the arrangements.

It is certain that the remains were later moved to Section D of Fairview Cemetery in a plot that Rose Brakeall and her mother, Marie Schad, purchased in 1921. If previously buried in the same cemetery, it is possible he was originally buried in his other grandparents’ plot in Section B. This is an inconclusive piece of information that I will have to sort out at some future juncture. While I have the coroner’s report, I do not possess his death certificate.

While Johnny was gone, my grandmother’s memory of him never ceased. It was rekindled in the birth of her first grandson. My oldest brother Chuck surprisingly resembled her little boy and quickly became her favorite grandchild.

At one point, my mother presented my grandmother with a birthstone ring adorned with four stones. Upon reception of the gift, my grandmother responded, “I gave birth to five children not just four – Johnny is still my child.” Mom took the ring and had a fifth birthstone added to the set.

Finally, my grandfather passed away 41 years to the day after his son John was born. They shared the same first name. Likewise, my grandmother died 29 years to the day that my brother John was born. He shares the same first and middle name of my grandfather. This is a strange twist of fate that happens more frequently than statistically possible in my own family. The truth can often be stranger than fiction.

My mother, who was almost one year old at the time of her older brother’s death, provided much of the information concerning this narrative. While she was not a primary source, she was able to get my grandmother to provide bits and pieces of the account. Since my grandmother would not directly speak of it, it took a period of years for my mother to gather enough info so that she could sort out the details of the story. Other sources include The Daily News, the Pittsburgh Press, the coroner’s report, cemetery records, and various mementos belonging to my grandmother.

It is a sad thing to lose a child and both my grandmothers suffered this kind of loss. As Johnny's cradle roll certificate stated, "Children are a heritage of the Lord." It is my desire that you or I never have to experience the pain that my grandmothers had to bear.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fallen Branches of the Family Tree, Part One

When my girls were younger, they used to travel to cemeteries with me as I documented the final resting places of Civil War soldiers. Invariably, we would stumble upon stones that depicted lambs or angels that were placed as memorials on the graves of children.
Angel guarding the grave of sisters 12-year old Maud Montague Mathews & 10-year old
Florence Vane Mathews at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

My daughters felt sympathy towards those youngsters whose lives had ended far ahead of their time – some of these young sons and daughters never made it past their first year of life.
Grave for my great-grandmother's first cousin
Willie Mandeville Myers at Independence Cemetery, Butler, Ohio
While I have been unable to find exact figures of child mortality rates from 100 to 150 years ago, I would feel safe in ascertaining that the rate has significantly dropped since that time. This can be attributed to advances in medical science, better nutrition, and the overall cleanliness of society. While childhood deaths still occur, they have become the exception rather than the rule. In the past, it was quite common for families to lose a number of children before they reached the age of majority.

Examples from my Family

In my own family, I’ve found a number of childhood deaths. My paternal grandmother lost two children from her first marriage. Her oldest, Roy Dalton, was almost 2 ½ years of age when he died of membranous croup in 1897. The fourth of her six children, Gertrude, lived only four months until she succumbed to cholera infantum – a disease that ravaged infants during the summer months. She died in August 1903.

My grandfather Owston had two siblings that did not survive childhood. His older sister, Essie Marcelli Owston, died of scarlet fever at the age of two years and ten months. A much younger half-brother, John Gillon Owston, was three months shy of his fifth birthday when his body was ravaged by measles and whooping cough.

While childhood diseases took their toll on many, another significant cause was an accidental demise. One example is the first cousin of my grandfather: 8 year-old Ovington Campbell. His death occurred four days before Christmas in 1901 and was the result of a winter sledding mishap. The Daily News reported,

“Ovington, with his older brother George, Jr., were on the same sled and were coming down the street [Whigham Street] at a rapid pace. Fred Jordan . . . was passing along Walnut Street on his delivery wagon. The boys were powerless to stop their sled and Jordan could not get out of the way. The sled dashed into the wagon. The wheels passed over Ovington, the younger boy, but George shot clear under the wagon. Both boys were carried to the office of Dr. C. A. Rankin, where Ovington died in a few minutes. George soon revived and it was discovered that he was not seriously hurt.”

Unmarked Graves and Missing Records

I am unaware if John Gillon Owston has a grave marker, as I have never been to his resting place in Massachusetts. None of the others, Roy and Gertrude Dalton, Essie Owston, and Ovington Campbell, have permanent markers to acknowledge their life . . . or memorialize them in death. Due to Pennsylvania’s lack of a mandatory vital records law until 1906, at least three of the four have no birth or death certificates. Only two, Essie and Ovington lived at a time when a census was being taken.

Gertrude was the first interment in a new family plot; however, her older brother Roy is buried in another cemetery where records are scant. Outside of family tradition and their obituaries, information on my father’s two siblings is nil. As we go back further in time, records of other fallen branches of our family trees tend to be non-existent.

Cemetery deed purchased by Gertrude's father the day after her death;
he would be buried in the same grave three months later

Relatives Found

Because records are not always available, the discovery of additional children can be exciting to a genealogist. I am reminded of a find I made for a friend in his 2nd great grandfather’s Civil War pension record – three heretofore unknown children who had born to this family between 1850 and 1860. Since their birth and death occurred between two censuses, his family had no previous knowledge that these three children ever existed. Their final resting places remain a mystery.

Sometimes these severed branches are complete surprises – as was the existence of John Gillon Owston. His birth and death records were found in a database of Massachusetts’ vital records, as I am prone to search my surname in any online database. Finding him also gave necessary clues to the middle name of my great-great grandfather.

I had always believed that my great-great grandfather's middle name was Gillon after his maternal uncle by marriage - John Gillon; however, there was nothing to confirm this hypothesis until the discovery of his namesake grandson. Knowing that his son (my great grandfather) would have never had any contact with the Gillons that remained in Scotland, the use of this surname as a middle name must have had precedent with as his father's middle name. There is no indication that even my great-great grandfather had any contact with the Gillon family as he was the youngest child of the family, was born in Canada, and had immigrated to the US as a young man.

Others I have found have been siblings of my great-grandparents. A number of years ago, I located the tombstone for my great-grandfather’s younger brother in a church yard in Fulton County, Pennsylvania. Alburtes Brakeall died at the age of 1 year, 2 months, and 16 days.

The almost illegible tombstone of Alburtes Brakeall;
the Tonoloway Primitive Baptist Church is in the background.
It must have been a trying time for the family as Lucinda Myers Brakeall mourned the loss of her child, while also caring for her two oldest children five year-old John and three year-old Martin. The misery was compounded by her husband John C. Brakeall being away from home serving in the 3rd Maryland Infantry of the Potomac Home Brigade in the Civil War.

Likewise, when researching my great-grandmother’s family, I became aware of two children that were unknown to our family. Their remains lie resting in a cemetery in Butler, Ohio – 140 miles from my hometown. I encountered the headstones for two heretofore unknown siblings of my great-grandmother in Independence Cemetery during the summer of 2007.

We had known of my great-grandmother’s brother and three sisters, however, the newly found brother and sister had never been spoken of by my great-grandmother to my mother who lived next door and spent much of her life in her home. The brother, named for his uncle Francis W. Myers, Francis W. Staley only lived 1 year, 11 months, and 19 days.

A sister, Mary L. Staley, has no dates associated with her short life of one year and thirteen days. Mary L. Staley's place in the family's birth order is a mystery. With six other children in the mix, I would believe that she was probably the youngest child and probably was born and died after 1870.

Why Bother?

While no cousins exist from these fallen branches, I think it is helpful in knowing about these tragic events and how a death of a little one impacted our ancestors’ lives. Knowing the pain and the sorrow suffered by the family via sublimation helps us in connecting to our past.

In our next installment, I will provide a case study of one of my relatives who succumbed to a tragic death by accidental poisoning at the age of three. This death not only changed the dynamics of this particular family, but was one that rocked the medical community as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hand-Me-Down-Genes: Best In Show

There are those diamond studded moments in life when your children make you proud beyond belief, and tonight was one of those nights. My youngest daughter Kristen took away the “Best in Show” award at Trinity Christian Academy’s science fair. The topic was genetics and her title was “Hand-Me-Down Genes.”

Last fall after my wife was tested through 23andMe,a genetic genealogy company in California, we were kicking around ideas about the school's science fair. Since a number of my family had tested with 23andMe, I thought perhaps the rest of our family could get tested and maybe Kristen could do something regarding genetics and our family.

She began thinking. Hmm, she just felt genetically she was more like her mother than she was like me. After all, her dad listens to bizarre old music; he tells corny jokes; he also wrote this very longgggg dissertation. She couldn’t be more different than me.

As for her mother, there just seemed to be more things in common. Both like to cook; they are artistic. Like her mother, she has green eyes and they like most of the same things including music, but most of all – the two look so much alike.

To show the similarities, we morphed photos of the two that were taken when both were almost two years of age. The resemblance is uncanny. My brother Chuck suggested, that we cue the “Twilight Zone” theme. See what you think.

Her question was “Are children are more genetically like one parent over the other?” Kristen's hypothesis was "I am more like my mother than my father."  We tested her sister as a control and utilized information from other family members that have also been tested with 23andMe for additional data. Using data retrieved from 23andMe, Kristen set out to prove or disprove her hypothesis.

When the data came back from 23andMe in February, she was surprised at the results. Children share 50% of their genetic material from each parent. Even though she seemed more like her mother, she was genetically equal to me and her mother. Her hypothesis was disproved.

In addition, she learned that the only chromosome that she received from a parent that was exactly the same as that parent's was the X chromosome that she received from me – her dad.

While they each received an X chromosome from their mother, it was a recombination of both of Pam’s two X chromosomes. The X chromosome that each received from Pam was not identical like their X chromosome from me. Each one had a unique combination of alleles.

How did the girls stack up to their other relatives? Here are the results for some of our relatives who have tested with 23andMe.

 Relative  Kristen’s
 Average Share
 for Relationship 
 Sister  48.67%  48.67%  50.00% 
 Grandmother  27.45%  28.16%  25.00% 
 Uncle Chuck  25.34%  25.29%  25.00% 
 Uncle John  20.24%  20.08%  25.00% 
 First Cousin
9.13%  7.38%  12.50% 
 Their Dad’s
 Half Cousin
2.80%  3.83%  3.13% 
 Their Dad’s
 Second Cousin
2.14%  2.47%  1.56% 
 Their Dad’s
 Fourth Cousin
0.17%  0.18%  .09% 

While there were other relatives that had tested, the girls didn’t share any DNA of note with the following: my third cousin on my dad’s side, two of my fourth cousins on my dad’s side, my fourth cousin once removed on my dad’s side, and a couple of my fifth cousins on my mom’s side.

The above results tell me that both of my girls share slightly more of my mother’s DNA than they do my dad’s. They are more like their grandmother than their first cousin is. Their shares with their Uncle John and his son Michael are on the low end – but this makes sense as I only share 40.99% of my DNA with my middle brother. When Kristen heard that she shared more with her Uncle Chuck than her sister does, she screamed “Oh no, I am like a weird old man!” Strangely enough, he took that as a complement.

My daughter Lora shares more than average with my cousin George. Coincidentally the grandmother that George and I share was named Lora and both of us have daughters with that name. I didn’t know this when we picked Lora’s name.

Both my daughters share more than average with my second cousin Dick who also has our surname. Even another Owston relative, our fourth cousin Lorrie and the girls share about twice the amount of DNA than average.

Although not included in the study, we learned other interesting things. In global similarity, Kristen was mostly French/German and Lora was mostly Norwegian. Pam and I both are at the crossroads of English, French, German, and Norwegian. She is more Norwegian on the scale and is at the exact same location as my brother Chuck on global similarity.

All of us are 100% European dispelling the story that one of Pam's recent ancestors on her birth mother’s side was Cherokee. It did not bear out in the genes. She had also heard that her birth mother had French ancestry, and this appears to be accurate as many of the individuals she shares genomes with on 23andMe are French Canadian.

It got a little scary when we ran a test on Kristen’s genome for homozygosity and it revealed that her mother and I have a pretty significant shared segment on Chromosome 6. It’s not large enough to matter, but it is there and probably indicates that we are 7th cousins – which is probably as close a relationship that we each have with a number of people we interact with on a daily basis. Our common ancestor would have lived 225 years ago. How we might be related, who knows? We probably never will know - but our marriage is legal in all 50 states in case anyone asks.

On a final note, thanks to the judges for their decision and thanks to Kristen for making her family proud once again. Great job – keep up the good work.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 8: Vanessa Williams

Last year, I began providing an analysis of the various episodes of the US version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” The US show is an adaptation of the British series that ran for seven seasons. Australia has its own version which just ended its third season. While I was fortunate enough to see all seven shows last year, I never got around to writing about the two final episodes that featured Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee. Perhaps, I’ll go back and do this, but as for now, I am going to attempt to chronicle each episode this season.

Well tonight the second season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” debuted and like last season, this year’s lineup appears to be every bit as good as the episodes last spring. Tonight’s show featured Vanessa L. Williams who made history as the first African-American Miss America in 1984. Her goal was to discover someone in her ancestry that made strides in their own right much like she has. If you watched the show, she discovered two men in her father’s ancestry that did just that – both beyond her wildest dreams. These two men had very accomplished lives in 19th century America.

A Soldier in Blue

Her first discovery came from not far from her childhood home in the town of Oyster Bay, Long Island. It was here in a family cemetery plot she paid attention to a headstone for her great-great grandfather David Carll. As she learned Carll was a private in Company I, 26th US Colored Infantry. Just nine days after the approval for men of African descent to enlist in the Union Army, Carll enlisted and received his bounty of $300.00.

While they didn’t specify this in the show, $300 was equivalent to 30 months salary for an unskilled laborer. In today’s equivalent, that would equate to about $34,800 in today’s purchasing power. While that was a high bounty compared to most, I have seen upwards of $600 in my research. In this one instance, the soldier was paid a third upon enlistment and the remainder was disbursed in two installments. Carll took his bounty and utilized $200 to buy property – a wise investment both then and now.

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, Williams was able to see this ancestor face-to-face as a tintype of the soldier in his uniform was sent to Bureau of Pensions along with his application for a Civil War pension in 1890. The researcher at NARA said she had never encountered a tintype in her search of pensions and I am wondering if she ever found any photographs.

In my perusal of around 480 Civil War pensions, I found three soldier’s photos. Two were from the war years and one was from much later. The two war photographs I discovered were carte-de-vistas while the later photo was a half-tone print of the aged soldier on his personal stationary. Three out of 480 pension records show how rare a find it really was. Williams admitted that this ancestor and her brother Chris had physical similarities.

In addition, Williams learned that the final detail of the 26th USCT was to liberate slaves in and around Beaufort, South Carolina. Her ancestor, who was born a free man of color, was provided the opportunity to liberate his enslaved brothers in the state where the Civil War began four years previous.

From Plantation to Politics

As the show moved to its second half-hour, Vanessa met with her father’s brother in Baltimore. Her uncle was able to shed light on her Williams’ lineage. She became aware that her grandfather’s mother had passed when he was about two years of age. An obituary led her to find another very interesting ancestor – William A. Field – another great-great grandfather.

As interesting or even more interesting is the story of this ancestor as Ms. Williams was going to discover. William Field, who was born into slavery and also used the spelling of “Feilds” for his surname, was elected to single term to the Tennessee legislature and twice as a magistrate in Shelby County, TN. Additionally, he was a public school teacher as well. The state capitol in Nashville provided her a photo of this great-great grandfather. Certainly, she attained a goldmine of information on her ancestry.

Following Field’s death, the Shelby County Court Quarter Session for October 1898 issued a resolution to memorialize their colleague, William A. Field. Vanessa had the opportunity to read this proclamation and one particular section brought tears to her eyes: “While he has not left large earthly riches to his afflicted family, he has bequeathed them a legacy more precious than gold, more imperishable than monumental brass, a spotless name.” The testimony of her great-great grandfather reminded her of her own late father, Milton A. Williams, Jr. Mr. Williams died in 2006.

Out of her 16 great-great grandparents, Vanessa Williams found two who changed the course of history and their legacy continued with their progeny. This should give us all hope that if we look far enough into our own history, we should be able to find greatness among those who have come before us. Because of the generations that passed, we may not be aware of our ancestors’ accomplishments.

Finding my Own Special Ancestor

In my own family, I found my very important ancestor: William Owston who was born into a farming family in Ganton, East Riding, Yorkshire, England in 1778. William left the farming life for more adventurous pursuits as a merchant sailor. Little did he realize what would transpire as his first entry into military service as he and his fellow crewmates were pressed into service while at sea. For the next several years, he served as a midshipman and a gunner’s mate on the HMS Driver.

Returning to merchant service in Scarborough, England, he would be hired by the Royal Navy to pilot vessels – one of which was the HMS Vanguard during the second Battle of Copenhagen. During his service as a contract employee for the navy, he was captured by the French and was imprisoned in Verdun, France. Escaping from prison, he traversed the fields of Belgium and Holland at night being safeguarded by his Masonic brethren.

After safe passage to England, he returned to the merchant service where he would apply to become a Master in the Royal Navy. Following the passing of the navigation exams which required him to pilot a ship in the treacherous waters around the Isle of Wight, William was assigned to the HMS Princess Charlotte (which would become the HMS Andromache).

In 1812, the Andromache sailed off the coast of San Sebastian, Spain where he and his crewmates disembarked and participated in hand-to-hand combat as they stormed the castle. Later assigned to the HMS Superb, a ship of the third rate, Owston traveled to North America to participate in the second conflict with the United States.

Although the Superb saw little action as the flagship of the North Atlantic fleet, its men participated in the blockade of Nantucket Island and the burning of Wareham, MA.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the Superb headed home where it became the flagship of the Channel Fleet in 1815.

During July of that year, Napoleon surrendered to the fleet and was presented aboard the Superb where he had brunch with the ward room officers which included William Owston. Although later attached to a larger ship, the HMS St. George, the ceasing of hostilities with France, required a downsizing of the Royal Navy. William was put on half-pay and was subject to recall if his King and country needed his service.

In 1820, he traveled to Canada where he and his eldest son, Thomas, received land grants for their service in the Royal Navy. In Canada, he participated in discussions on the assignment of the capital of the newly formed Province of Canada in 1842. He also served as a lighthouse commissioner overseeing operations of the Gull Island Lighthouse in Lake Ontario. As an act of the Crown, Owston was awarded the Naval General Service medal in 1847 for his participation at the Battle of San Sebastian.
In 1857, he left a legacy of eight children and their progeny who have distinguished themselves as artists, authors, soldiers, sailors, entrepreneurs, educators, musicians, and ministers. None of his exploits were known by me until I searched searching for his story in history. Let me challenge you to find your ancestor of renown and you may be fortunate as Vanessa Williams and find two.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: Trace Your Roots With DNA

As this is the first anniversary of this genealogy related blog, I pondered on what topic I would discuss on this auspicious occasion. Having just finished reading Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Dr. Ann Turner, I thought it would be fitting to do a book review at this juncture. Published in October 2004, the book is dated in some respects; however, most of its information is still valid six years after the fact.


I purchased this book back in November in anticipation of reading it during some downtime when I was getting my car serviced and later the same evening while on a business trip. The book is laid out into five sections with a total of 11 chapters and three appendices. This arrangement of sections and chapters is as follows:

Part I: The Fundamentals
Chapter 1: If you are new to Genealogy
Chapter 2: Genetic Essentials
Part II: Testing Options Explained
Chapter 3: Male Bonding: Y Chromosome
Chapter 4: Maternal Legacy: Mitochondrial DNA
Chapter 5: Around the World: Geographic Origins
Chapter 6: Next of Kin: Close Relationships
Part III: How to do it Yourself
Chapter 7: Joining or Running a Project
Chapter 8: Finding Prospects
Chapter 9: Contacting and Courting Participants
Chapter 10: Interpreting and Sharing Results
Part IV: The Future
Chapter 11: What’s Next?
Appendix A: Genealogical Resources
Appendix B: DNA Testing Companies
Appendix C: Glossary


Those familiar with genealogy and DNA testing will immediately recognize the names of the authors of this volume. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak has taken her passion and has made it a career.

I became familiar with her work when she was the Chief Family Historian at She has authored several books and has contributed to numerous television shows about genealogy and genetic testing including most recently “Who do you think you are?” series, which returns in a few weeks. She authored the companion book for this successful NBC show.

It is simply amazing to enumerate all of the genealogy projects to which Megan has contributed. One would have to be in a vacuum not to recognize her unusual double surname moniker and the work that she has done for over 30 years.

Ann Turner, a medical doctor, is no stranger to genetic genealogy having founded the RootsWeb GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list. In addition, she is a regular contributor to DNA-Forums and the discussion rooms at 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Dr. Turner has also authored software to aid in the understanding DNA results. Some of these tools are available on her web site.

When I ordered my copy of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree, I had already done some homework via extensive reading on the subject. Although a student of the social sciences and the humanities and not the hard sciences, I was confident in my knowledge of the basics of DNA testing and had a grasp on most things except perhaps the more scientific aspects of DNA.

Like many others who have had their DNA tested and done a little reading, I thought I was an expert in the field. Wrong, I am still very much a novice in this realm.

Genealogy in itself is replete with armchair experts and I began finding numerous folks with the same skill set I had (or less) self proclaiming their expertise in the various forums that I was reading. The Internet fosters such self proclaimed experts and one must weed out those who are from those who think they are.

One real expert, however, is Ann Turner. She always provided helpful information and gently corrected members of these forums when we were off base in regards to issues regarding DNA testing. Dr. Turner has also assisted me personally in understanding areas where I had some confusion, and she has shared some utilities to help me to better comprehend my family's test results.

Suggestions to the Reader

I began reading the book on November 16 and in that one day finished nearly half of it. I will admit that I skipped the first chapter, as I have been tracing my family since 1978. While it was fascinating reading from Chapter 2 onward, by the time I hit Chapter 5, I was suffering from information overload and put the book down for several weeks.

This respite was helpful, as I was able to finish the book and gain some practical knowledge in the process. I even went back and read the chapter I skipped and found it an excellent refresher that not only was relevant but necessary in a volume of this nature. I think the practical illustrations of managing DNA projects were the most helpful to me personally; however, I expect that every reader will take away something that is of particular value to his or her own genetic quest.

While the authors have refrained from overwhelming their audience with technical terminology and scientific mumbo-jumbo, the amount of information one must process in order to have a better understanding of the material can be overwhelming in itself. This is no fault of the authors – it is the nature of the beast of the subject matter. I would encourage folks to take it slow and consume the material in small bites rather than to wolf it down in one setting as I had attempted.

Suggestions to the Authors

The only thing I felt that was outdated was the information on autosomal and X-chromosomal testing as these had not yet become a reality in 2004. This book could be easily updated by removing the current Chapter 11 and replacing it with chapters regarding these two recent advances. This would be a welcome addition to an already fine book. In the wake of 23andMe’s and FTDNA’s autosomal and X chromosomal testing offerings, it would be a perfect time to update this work.

Not only would these additions be timely, they would be of help to those who jump into autosomal testing, but only have a grasp on Y-DNA and mtDNA testing. If there is any major problem I see on 23andMe and DNA-Forums, it is that some folks are confused about the scope of autosomal testing and that it encompasses all of their genetic lineages (to a point) and not just the strict paternal and strict maternal lines via Y-DNA and mtDNA. This seems to be a common point of confusion for newcomers.

Finally, I only have one criticism of the book and that is the attempt of the authors to coin a new term – “genetealogy” – a combination of genetics and genealogy. While this is really minor issue in the scheme of things, the term just fell flat with me and I personally feel that it was overused in the book.

If you perform a Google search of “genetealogy” it returns less than 4,700 returns. While I will agree that this is a large number of search returns, most of the references point to Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak’s website or to her specific work in the area of genetic genealogy.

A search on returns no hits, which shows that the name was not largely adopted by the genetic genealogy community. By comparison, a Google search of “genetic genealogy” returns about 237,000 hits. Again this is just a personal pet peeve I have and is based solely on language usage and not on the material that is presented in the book. Again, this is a insignificant point and does not detract from this well written and informative book.


All in all, I recommend Trace your Roots with DNA to anyone who wants to learn more about Y-DNA and mtDNA testing and how these tests can help you understand your family better. It is well written and, notwithstanding the advances in testing in the last several years, is still current in most regards. I hope the authors will consider updating this volume, as it should be recommended reading for anyone who is considering using DNA testing to better understand his or her own family.