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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

The Mysteries of DNA and How it May Aid our Research

      Recently, I decided to submit my DNA to in connection with their worldwide Ethnicity Research project. This decision was based, primarily, on curiosity but also upon the scope of the study itself. For the first time, the methodology would examine over 700,000 markers in each subject’s DNA submission. Utilizing those markers, the specimen would then be examined via advanced computerized technology against DNA samples from around the world. The results of this testing would then project a profile of my personal ethnicity based upon comparison with hundreds of thousands of samples gathered from around the world. The result is my personal Ethnicity Estimate.

The Ethnicity Estimate

      This entire worldwide study was based on a dream shared by James LeVoy Sorensen, who was inspired by his discussions with Professor Scott Woodward of Brigham Young University. Sorensen believed so firmly in his vision that he, personally, funded the entire project. It was their belief that a study of actual genetic ethnicity would confirm that the world community is far more alike than different and that our kinship should promote a better understanding of one another and greater tolerance and appreciation for our diversity.

      In order to build a computer model that could change the output of data into true information, it was necessary to envision a way in which the mere numerical evaluation of almost a million genomic markers could be interpreted so as to predict ethnic relationships with a fairly high degree of accuracy. To do this, it was essential that the tested subjects be representative of a specific geographic community and that their personal family history be well documented for a minimum of four generations back in time. This project was launched in 2000 and over the next dozen years volunteers from around the world produced both the documented family histories and the permission for the project to utilize their DNA test results in building the model. The resulting four-generation pedigrees tied to specific DNA samples, mapped to a geographic area of the world was the basis for what I call the “Genetic World Map of Ethnic Origins”. The team studied people native to more than 150 countries on six continents, carefully tracing each person’s personal four-generation family tree data and DNA markers along with a photographic record of the indigenous population. [per website]

      The computer model also utilized world history to accomplish tracing of the movements of peoples into and out of each geographic region. Epic conquests such as the overreach of the Roman Empire and its influence on the regions that came under its control along with the almost inevitable intermingling of the blood of the conqueror and the conquered.

      Thus: my DNA matches that of several people from a certain part of the world. Those people are confirmed as living in that area for at least four generations. Their family history is documented for four generations. The average geographic sampling shows a percentage of ethnic origin based on the indigenous population. Thus, my DNA percentages are projected as well.

      The resulting ethnicity estimate was, for me, only the beginning step in utilizing the information to both confirm my research assumptions and to expand that research. For once you see a chart depicting what all your pool of ancestors has contributed to your personal ethnic makeup that is like a snapshot. Nice to take out and look at from time to time, but more likely to be stored away in an album and not viewed for years.

Understanding Basic DNA Contributions by our Ancestors

      An important thing to remember with this type testing is that it differs absolutely and completely from the traditional methods of testing – mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) and yDNA (the male DNA study).

      In its most simplistic explanation, DNA is present in every cell of our body. It determines our sex, the color of our hair, our height, our eye color and every single descriptive fact that makes us US. Every human has DNA made up of 23 PAIRS of chromosomes, one-half of which is inherited from our mother and one-half from our father. The same is true for each of them and all their ancestors as well. The 23rd chromosome is what determines our sex and that is determined from the contribution by our father. If one side of that chromosome pairing were an X, the result would be an XX (X from mother and X from father) thus a female. If the father contributed instead a Y chromosome that 23rd pair would be an XY (X always from the mother, but Y in this case from the father), thus the child is determined to be a male. The core of each cell contains the male contribution; the nucleus surrounding that core contains the mother’s contribution or mitochondrial DNA. Strands of DNA are made up of four bases (Thymine – yellow or T; Adenine – blue or A; Guanine – green or G; and Cytosine – red or C). These bases join together always as T plus A (yellow and blue) and G plus C (green and red). The sequence in which these strands appear provide the matching elements by which all DNA is compared. (See Link: Family Tree DNA, Gene by Gene, Ltd

      For years, DNA testing has been used to track familial relationships by the comparison of the markers on each strand of DNA. It has been shown, for instance, that certain markers in a male subject’s DNA mutates over time. Y DNA is only transmitted by fathers to sons. Scientists study all DNA mutations to be able to predict the relationship of one male subject to his line based on the numerical deviation created by this mutation. Thus, father-son, or father-uncle, or grandfather-grandson relationships may be safely predicted by an examination of mutations on certain markers. Near relatives of the male sex can have their Most Recent Common Ancestor identified based on studies of those subject’s family trees.

      MtDNA, however, is transmitted by mothers to children of both sexes. The MtDNA has been shown to mutate on a much, much slower basis and in an established manner as migration of peoples from one geographic region to another took place over the centuries. Thus, the study of DNA has also been tied to geographic regions and to the cause of the migration. This study is based on anthropologic studies, which place us in what they term Haplogroups. These Haplogroups mirror human migration from our beginnings in Africa to other points around the globe and are tied to the causative factor for that migration and the basic manner of living each group engaged in: hunting versus gathering or farming, or a combination; earliest discoveries of cave drawings or statuary and so forth. Labels to define broad groups based on DNA samples combined with all other types of scientific studies into the Human Animal.

      It is not my goal to provide a complete and accurate examination of DNA for I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to do that. But, it is my goal to learn how to use the results of my DNA testing to support and expand my personal genealogical research.

DNA Analysis provided by Ancestry

      When I first received the email from Ancestry that my long awaited (5 weeks) results were in and that my initial analysis could be viewed, I was ecstatic. Upon signing into my website, I found a surprise! All my life I’d been told we were French-Indian-Irish, pretty much in that order. Of course, I had done some twenty years’ research and found we had a pretty solid Germanic population in our assortment of ancestors. Also, as could be expected, a large group from England. I had been able to see a pretty good representation of French Huguenots as well. I have not found any documented Native American ancestors in our direct line as of yet; although I have discovered both maternal and paternal lines lived among Indian groups and our 3rd Great Grandfather Jeremiah Milam Gilstrap wed not one, but two Cherokee women following the death of our line’s Rachael Copple.

      My surprise? Well, my ethnic makeup was derived from: 38% Ireland, 20% Great Britain, 17% Scandinavia, and 14% Western Europe (primarily France and Germany, but also inclusive of Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein). The remaining 11% was projected to be made up of the Iberian Peninsula (4%), Europe East (3%), Italy/Greece (2%), Finland/Northwest Russia (1%) and European Jewish (just under 1%). I was really surprised by the large percentage believed to have been from Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) but, as I considered this my mind turned to a photograph of one Charles Hopper, the trapper/hunter/guide who made history by leading the Bartleson-Bidwell party into what would become the Napa Valley of California. His was an astonishing visage: crisply white locks, fair skin, and penetratingly light eyes that seemed to be completely colorless. I had seen those eyes before! In my mother’s face!

Charles Napa Charley Hopper - about 1875

      I immediately began to research my Hopper line and was able to push that line back to one Andries Willemszen Hopper, born abt 1600-1629 in Breille-Amsterdam, Noord Holland, The Netherlands. He immigrated to New Netherland (New York) in about 1653, along with his wife and two or three small children. He acquired considerable property and was granted the privileges of a small burgher. His wife was Giertjie (Steinmets) Hendricks.

      Unbeknownst to me, at the same time I was submitting my DNA to Ancestry, my sister had her DNA examined as well. The two of us are the bookends of our sibling group, she the eldest, me the youngest. Our looks are most similar, though we are also furthest apart in height. Interestingly, her ethnic mix differed from mine slightly. Of course, no two individuals (except for identical twins) share identical DNA. Remember, each person obtains half from mom, half from pop. Sister happened to obtain a different mix than I. Interesting and fascinating.

      As I continue to use the DNA results in my research, I shall explore the ethnic groups and plan to attempt to make a sort of index of origins, documenting those direct ancestors who may have contributed to that mix. That should be fun!

DNA Circles

      Another helpful and intriguing facet of the computerized examination of my DNA is the report Ancestry provides linking DNA cousins into groups they term DNA Circles. Thus far, my personal report now reveals no less than 20 DNA Circles tied to my direct line ancestors. This is really interesting, for not all members of the Circle have DNA linked to EVERY member of the circle; however, each member is SOMEHOW linked to other members of the Circle and – most importantly – each member’s DNA is linked to a family tree that shows direct descent from a Shared Surname Ancestor.

      To attempt to make this more clear, here is an example from my own tree:

Descendants of Capt. Martin Thomas Davenport, my 4th Great Grandfather on my mother’s line. In order to create a Circle of relationships, Ancestry requires that three things occur: (1) Circle members share DNA with other members of the Circle; (2) family tree evidence exists that the Circle member is a documented descendant of the key figure; and (3) each member of the Circle MUST share DNA with at least one other member of the Circle.

In this particular DNA Circle, there are test results from 18 of his probable descendants. Some of these Circle members are represented as a group where more than one family member permitted their DNA results to be “administered” by one person. These 18 Circle members are represented in this particular DNA Circle as ten members (the 18 members are shown as five individual members including yours truly, one member group has five members, and four member groups are comprised of two each, thus 5+5+8=18.) My DNA has matched to six of the Circle representations BUT to all but three of the 18 DNA subjects. Those three are individual subjects and not part of a group but each of these three matches to other members of this DNA Circle.

By the names alone, I value the accuracy of this Circle designation, as several are either Hoppers or Bunch surnames. An examination of the trees of each of the members of this DNA Circle show exactly how each person descends from my illustrious and heroic Patriot Great Grandfather Martin Davenport. (I devoted a column to his participation in the Battle of King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War.)

Capt. Martin Thomas Davenport


4th Great-Grandfather

      I’ve devoted the least amount of time to these DNA Circles because they are not surprises. These are folks I’ve carefully documented via Bible, family history, Census, and other acknowledged gold-stamp verifiers of lineage. It is rather interesting to view the photographs some of the tree holders have submitted as their profile pics, and I will probably take time later to add into my tree those cousins and document their own lines from our common ancestor(s). Why do I say ancestors in the plural? Well, some of these same folks appear in the DNA Circle for the spouses of the named Circle, where both father and mother’s DNA has carried down from generation to generation.

DNA Matches

      This is the core of the study for me, a listing of those people whose DNA matches to my own and the projected relationship we share as a result. Many – far too many – subjects failed to tie their results to a Family Tree on Ancestry. This sort of defeats the purpose of tracking relationships since one cannot study the trees to determine where our lines cross. Many started a tree but have not progressed with their research far enough to provide ancient links to pursue. But, there is a large number of cousins (COUSINS – we have thousands of cousins!) who have trees on Ancestry and many of those are public and tied to their DNA tests. Thank you, thank you, thank you! For this is the value of the testing. Confirmation of some of our wildest guesses, perhaps, as to the maiden name of that dear 5th Great-Grandmother whose identity was obscured by the umbrella of her husband’s surname.

For me, that exact situation proved fruitful in one key line: Christiana Garrison, second wife of Colonel William Joslin (of Deerfield) (1701-1771). Many family researchers have assumed their lines descended from the Colonel’s first wife, Mary, whose maiden name has been lost to history. I now have genetic proof from other Garrison family members that Christiana (what a beautiful name) was indeed part of my direct line. Christiana Garrison was the granddaughter of Jacob Gerritszen de Haas "Old Jacob" and wife, Christina Cresson.

      Old Jacob was born in New York, his children were baptised in the New Amsterdam Reformed Dutch Church, and Governor Willem Kieft witnessed the baptism of his twin sons there as the family was prominent. Christiana's paternal grandmother, Christina Cresson, was the daughter of Pierre "le Jardiniere" Cresson (Royal Gardener to Prince William of Orange, early settler in New Amsterdam, whose gardens in the New World prompted naming of The Bowery when it was an area known for its profuse flowering bowers of trees and fragrant and colorful, well designed gardens and spacious lawns). Her mother was Rachel Clauss. Rachel was born in Picardie, France of Dutch parents. Rachel and Pierre were wed in Picardie, France, before immigrating to New Netherlands (New York). Rachel died on Staten Island, Brooklyn, NY at the age of 74 in 1692.

      Christiana's grandfather, Gerrit Jansen Van Oldenburg Gerritszen de Haes (Garrison) was christened 5 Feb 1612 in Arnhem, Gelderland, Nederland, the son of one Willem Jansen and wife Hilleken Claessen.

      Voila! Another piece of the puzzle of genetics falls into place!

      Ancestry has computerized their analysis to reveal Shared Surnames for both sides of the match where both trees are Public. For those that are Private, one can message the administrator of the test and request information or even a Guest invitation to view the tree (with no permission to add, delete, change or modify any of the tree info.) This provides clues and some surprises where both maternal and paternal line surnames populate the other person’s shared surnames. Where possible, Ancestry reveals the PROBABLE connection: linking each subject’s line back to the apparent shared ancestor.

      When my test results first came in, I had a total of some 400 plus matches. Today, there are 464 Shared Ancestor Hints and 1,129 DNA matches indicating we are 4th cousins or closer. I have attempted each day to analyze the matches and make a Note (handy little aid Ancestry offers) that provides a pop-up view of the assumed relationship or what needs to be researched.

New Ancestor Discoveries

      And that brings me to the newest treasure in Ancestry’s bag of gifts: the DNA match that seems to document a relationship to some distant ancestor whose identity has thus far been shrouded in the mists of time! As of today, I have three new ancestors to investigate: William S. Strawn (Straughan, Straughn) (1812-1870); John William England (1825-1911), and, as it turns out, his wife, Sarah Wilson Gold (1835-1908).

      For each of these mystery ancestors, Ancestry has provided links to the other matching DNA subjects’ trees for me to peruse. My early scrutiny of William S. Strawn seems to indicate he is related as a descendant of a Browning on my maternal line. I shall work on that supposition and attempt to confirm it as truth or not. For the England-Gold line, I have as yet discovered no clue, but intend to keep on searching.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

      For now, that is the extent of my comprehension of the valuable new tool supplied through DNA. As I become more assured of my understanding of the tool and the best way to utilize it, I may provide an update should it appear appropriate. In the meantime, I have received an email from a Joslyn cousin who hails from England (but most recently lived in China and is now moving to Australia) who has invited me to submit my DNA results to another venue where he has other Joslin-Joslyn cousins’ DNA entered. How exciting! You bet I will!

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