Putting it all together – Part 2: The brick wall starts to crumble

Putting it all together – Part 2: The brick wall starts to crumble

One of the all-time best family history interviews we’ve ever conducted was with Felice’s Great Aunt “Ann”. Ann and Felice’s Grandmother Delia were well known for being pretty crazy in their younger days. They were clearly free spirits who came of age about 20 years too early, and too deep in the bible belt. They would have fit well into the Summer of Love in 1967, or the singles bar scene of any major city in the 1970s. Neither was single, but that was never an issue for them.

By the time Super Bowl XV kicked off that night we knew we likely had identified Felice’s mystery Grandfather. We also knew that we were going to be changing a lot of family history.

Ann, who is now 82, has always been a kind, happy woman. Never out to hurt anyone, but never too concerned about what others thought about her ways. She told us stories about how she married her first husband, Luther White when she was pregnant at 13 years old. They only briefly lived together and she “made him stay in the streets because he was a whore”. Ann said he would come over from time-to-time and she’d “let him do what he had to do”, which resulted in them having a child every year or two. Luther’s parents supported her and the children, and they went on to have 9 children together.

Ann eventually moved out of the White household, and soon found a man to move in with. She explained that she needed a “babysitter” so she and Delia could go out and enjoy themselves, and this man fit the bill. Ann says that Delia might have been a little crazier than her, but they were clearly partners in crime.

 

Putting it all together - Transcript 2
Transcript of Ann’s family history interview

One of the more telling stories Ann told us was from when Delia was living next door to Ann’s close friend Lilymae. Lilymae’s husband Jack and Delia were having an affair, but Ann wasn’t going to get involved. She didn’t judge her sister. Despite being friends with Lilymae, when she got in a physical fight with Delia over the affair, Ann sided with her sister. Ann told her best friend she’d “beat her ass” if she touched Delia again.

That interview was playing through our head that Super Sunday as the theory that Luther was Mary’s father dawned on us. There’s no reason to doubt that Delia might sleep with her sister’s husband. And, if she had gotten pregnant by Luther it could explain why Delia wouldn’t put the father on Susan’s birth certificate. She said she didn’t know who the father was, but it’s likely Delia knew exactly who it was. Susan’s Grandfather didn’t want her to not have a listed father. He filled out the Birth Certificate, entered the name of the man who fathered Delia’s other two children, and life moved on.

Since Delia passed away in 1999, and Luther in 1994, there would be no first-hand confirmation of this theory. We had only DNA to go on.

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Purported photo of Roman and Mary (Stewart) Jones

From our interview with Ann, we knew only that Luther’s parents were Ira and Eula White, so we started there. The work we did in “Casting a Wide Net” pointed to Roman and Mary Jones as our target Most Recent Common Ancestor. We identified 17 DNA matches who shared the Jones’ as their MCRA. If the link between Roman and Mary and Susan was through Luther’s family, either Ira or Eula had to be a descendant.

We first mapped out that Ira White was the son of Pleasant and Cora (Gordon) White. The White family was in the Northeast Mississippi area around the same time as Roman and Mary Jones, but not in close proximity. Pleasant and Cora were both born enslaved, but we were able to establish both of their sets of parents. None of them lined up with what we knew about Roman and Mary.

We then shifted to Eula’s line and discovered her parents, Joseph and Sarah Moore, were living in the same County as the Roman and Mary at the same time. From our earlier research, we knew the Jones’ listed a daughter Sarah in the 1880 US Census, who was born about 1873. As we researched Sarah Moore we found her in the 1900 Census, with her birth date listed as November 1872.

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If we can prove Sarah Moore was born Sarah Jones, we can establish the match to the 17 DNA lines we’ve linked, and prove that Susan’s Father was Luther White.

We had a solid lead that only got more firm as we looked further. When we mapped out the 17 DNA matches using DNA Painter using the theory that Luther’s Grandmother Sarah Moore was born Sarah Jones, it all lined up as expected.

By the time Super Bowl XV kicked off that night we knew we likely had identified Felice’s mystery Grandfather. We also knew that we were going to be changing a lot of family history. Ann is still alive, and if we were right her children would learn their Father had an affair with their Aunt, and their cousin also their half-Sister. For Susan discovering her long lost Father was not going to bring the happy reunion, we’d hoped for.

But, our disruption of the family history would stretch further than we knew at the time.

Putting it all together Part 1 – Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday

Putting it all together Part 1 – Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl Sunday 2019 started like most of our Sundays. Felice got her breakfast in bed, the kids all got pancakes, and breakfast was complete. I sat down at the computer with a nice cup of coffee hoping to kick the mini-migraine that was resisting drugs and enjoy a few hours of genealogy.

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The Tweet that broke open our mystery

As I sat down that morning, for some reason a Twitter post we’d made 7 months earlier about Felice’s mother “Susan” popped in my mind. Susan matched her 1st Cousin “Charles” with 2122 cM…enough that he was almost a full sibling. It was a head-scratcher. We’d tweeted out our confusion, and a follower explained to us that it might mean he was a “3/4 siblings”. 3/4 siblings are where the same person parents children by two siblings, for example, when one man has children with two women who are sisters. But the tweet came during a busy time and it fell out of our minds…until this morning when it hit like a lightning bolt.

Susan’s paternity was THE big “brick wall” of our family history research. The man listed on her birth certificate, Roger Homes, was likely not her father. Family history held that Susan’s mom Dealia had at least 1 of her 2 other children with Roger, but Roger was on Susan’s birth certificate because Dealia’s father him on there. He didn’t want his Grand daughter’s Father left blank. Family interviews had given us a couple of leads on Susan’s father, but finding “Big Ed” from a neighboring town in Mississippi seemed like a significant long shot. DNA was always our best hope to solve this mystery.

Going into that Super Sunday we had recently finished our series about the tools we used to go from a handful of Ancestry DNA matches to connecting them in a tree. In the “Casting a Wide Net” series (Link) we took a group of over 5000 matches to Susan that were shared between themselves and built them into a mirror tree. Ultimately we mapped out 17 of those DNA kits to each other and identified the MRCA for them and Susa.

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Susan’s tree, as we had it originally

In of our research, we’d noted Susan’s maternal cousin Charles also matched the 17. This led us to focus on her mom’s side of the tree to find the link, but the evidence hadn’t lined up with that theory. We ended the series without being able to establish the direct link between the MCRA and Susan.

As the computer fired up that morning, the tweet, the MCRA, and the unknown father all slammed together at once: What if the maternal cousin wasn’t only a cousin? What if Charles’ father was also Susan’s, and what if the 17 matches were on their father’s line!

We’d never built out Charles’ father’s line because he was an Uncle who didn’t feed much information into our line. We’d added his parents, so knew their names and not much else. We’d interviewed Felice’s Aunt “Ann” and she explained about how she’d married Luther White at 13 years old and almost immediately kicked him out. Despite that, he would still go on to father each of her 10 children while Luther’s parents supported her and her children, including giving them a place to live.

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Susan’s tree as we imagined it as the Super Bowl kicked off

I was shaking a little as I opened up Ancestry and started to build out the Father’s line. This theory perfectly clicked together, but if we were right we were about to be swimming in deep waters. It was always our hope to breakdown the brick wall of Susan’s paternity and to help her fill out the picture of her life. We envisioned a happy moment where we put to bed a lifelong secret and expanded our family tree. Now, this was taking a very sudden turn and we were likely unearthing a painful family secret.

All of this before my first cup of coffee on a Sunday…and little did we know at the time how deep this would go.

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

In early 2018 we made a series of posts on how to use the multiple “Shared Matches” in AncestryDNA to narrow down the DNA line that connects you to them. The challenge was that often they have no trees, or small trees that don’t come anywhere close to matching your (much more complete!) tree.

This strategy was a way to use mirror trees to match them to themselves, which should indicate a Most Recent Common Ancestor for them, and in all likelihood to be your MCRA as well. For this series we broke down a large set of matches (5000+) to Felice’s mother, to try and establish her first DNA link outside of the immediate family.

There were all of the challenges we all face with African American genealogy (fewer family histories to draw off of, smaller trees, difficulty with 3x/4xGGP’s due to the “1870 Wall”, etc.), and in this series we found the MCRA…but we failed to find the link between them and our family. However, about a year later we broke through that wall, and we’ll be following up on that shortly. In the meantime, here’s the complete series in one page:

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 2 – Identifying all “Matches of Matches” as a Group

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 3 – Building a single tree using all of our DNA matches Public Trees

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 4 – Proving the matches, and establishing a theory of connection

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 6 – Our crazy attempt to leverage 288 DNA matches to expand our tree comes to it’s conclusion

 

 

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

It’s rare that we can spot trends emerging, but we’re going to take a quick victory lap this week because we saw Ancestry.com’s ThruLines coming. We called it out…twice! And now that it’s arrived it feels like the “killer app” for genealogical DNA.

One of our first posts in 2017 was a discussion on how the Ancestry “We’re Related” mobile app was not just a silly diversion (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears) because of how it leveraged predictive relationships:

If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Over a year later we bemoaned the fact that Ancestry’s first major use of these predictive algorithms was the “Potential Mother/Father” tool. It was poorly implemented and presented so much risk (Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…), but we saw the power in this tool, if used properly:

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor.

Ancestry has finally harnessed predictive technology in a very effect feature with the release of ThruLines.

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At it’s essence ThruLines a new graphical way to show HOW you’re related to your DNA matches. This is long overdue, and while the old way of clicking on a direct match and seeing the path from your kit to the most recent common ancestor (MCRA) worked, it was limited (we had to dig into each match with 3 clicks to see the path) and it was totally devoid of any context. Was there a brother of this tester that also matches? Did they have a 1st cousin that also tested that in-turn matches our tests? You just had to click through each test to find out.

 

But, the real power in ThruLines isn’t the graphical change, it’s that it’s using predictive algorithms to scour both Public AND Private trees, to greatly narrow down where another DNA match is likely to fall in your tree. That’s right, those close relatives we see in our “DNA Matches” screens that are just dead ends because they have Private trees and don’t reply to Ancestry messages are now likely to be mapped in ThruLines.

Our first discovery

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“Lynne” is solid 3-4th cousin match (67cM) to Michael’s father, and through all of the techniques we’ve discussed previously, we’ve narrowed down that our MCRA is likely to be Wesley and Jane Tradewell. This is the same Tradewell line that is one of our large brickwalls, and so the more data we have for this branch the better. Lynne entered a small tree at some point, but she left all of her named ancestors living, so they appear “Private” and we have almost nothing to go on when trying to link her to our tree.

 

When we opened ThruLines for the first time, we understood right away that each of the photos we were seeing were MCRA’s, and clicking on Wesley Tradewell, we immediately understood the power of this tool. There was Lynne, mapped for us, with some information still private but it greatly narrowed down the line through which we matched. Knowing that she likely matches through William Humphry Tradewell removed 2 generations of likely matches, and narrowed down our search to children from William’s daughters. Even more powerful however is that we’re in regular contact with family who is likely Lynne’s 1st Cousin, Once Removed. We sent a quick email to that person, they confirmed Lynne’s lineage, and we’d filled in another DNA match. Actually, it was two, because we had the same issue with “Jonas667” (2 relative tree, both living/Private), and it was resolved in the same way.

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ThruLines leveraged Private trees and DNA tests to map out our connections to a MCRA, even though we can’t make a direct match. 

All of our efforts to shrub out William Humphry Tradewell’s children had failed up to this point (no census, no obituaries, no Public Trees, etc.), so we had only one daughter tentatively identified. It would have taken significant work to break down the matches to Lynne/Jonas667 by building out each of those trees, and since we’d already tried diligently and failed, it might never have been done. But ThruLines broke through on the first click.

 

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We now know where to search, to validate how “lynne” links to us

Now, this is cannot be stated more clearly: ThruLines are at best speculative “hints” that can guide your work in very effective new ways, but they do not create evidence nor can we be sure they even contain proof of anything. They are like user trees in that manner…and for good reason, they are built entirely on user trees.

 

We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

But the way the tool narrowed down these matches makes it much easier to prove them out. We know exactly where to start now, where last week we were stumped.

African-American Research

ThruLines-7Half of our tree traces their roots to enslaved African ancestors, and the second discovery we made was that ThruLines would give us suggestions even if there were 2 generations separating supposed ancestors. In the example we saw as we clicked through Michael’s maternal grandmother’s MCRA’s showed us an African-American GGM that was born in 1879, and no evidence of who her parents were. This is very common…to get to/near the 1870 wall for those of African decent, but no good leads on the generation previous. In this case however, we have a new hint: two identified generations of European ancestors, and two unidentified generations after them, leading to a link to the known Fanny Johnson. This is a highly speculative connection, and it will take considerable work to prove/disprove it going forward, but it’s at least a lead and it’s based on at least a little bit of conjecture. It may not be anything, but it also could be one of those rare finds that links one of our African ancestors back a few generations closer to their enslavement, as well as identifying the slave owner that contributed to our genetic make up.

What’s next?

Going forward, this could literally revolutionize both genetic genealogy as well as standard genealogy. Artificial Intelligence and matching algorithms can not only see patterns much better than any human can, they can do it faster while analyzing more data than we can ever hope to review in our lifetimes. We can see that in the future, when a new AncestryDNA kit is processed and put online, the user will see a large tree of matches and MCRA’s as their first few of the results, instead of a list of 4000+ matches they have to map one at a time.

Also, imagine a day when they use these tools to validate evidence of each users’ Public tree for instance, looking for clearly incorrect data/relationships and flag it for users. At the very least they can rate that “source” tree as unreliable, and bring better sourced trees to the forefront. These tools could easily allow the power of individual trees, while also bring them all into line with known facts, and start matching them in ways we can’t imagine.

Going back to our Tradewell example, our brickwall is around Reuben Tradewell and the one piece of evidence that his father might be “Jakin” from Connecticut…but the trail goes cold. Tools like this, however, point to the power that’s coming where some other groups of genealogists and family historians have a mystery “Jakin/Jacob” from Connecticut that they have sourced generations back, but don’t know his disposition. We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 6 – A science-free walk through xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches:  Part 6 – A science-free walk through xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA

We promised to keep this series as science-free as possible, and instead focus on the practical use of AncestryDNA tests to identify your ancestors. We’re going to keep that promise here, but we want to say a few words about other types of DNA tests you can’t get from Ancestry, and how xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA can be useful! Just remember, we’re generalizing a bit here, and if you want the detailed science behind all of this, Google has many great reads.

yDNA and mtDNA

yDNA and mtDNA come only from your father and your mother, respectively, and change very little over the generations. These tests are often written off in the genealogical community, because they won’t, by themselves, lead you to how you are matched with someone, or how many generations back you might match them.

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mtDNA inheritance chart. From http://www.isogg.org.

For example, if our Michael has a yDNA test and he matches “Frank” who shares the same yDNA…it tells us next to nothing. From the test we know that on Michael’s paternal line we have proved he’s matched to Frank…but there’s no way to tell how. It could be 1000 years ago we all had a MRCA, or it could be that Frank’s 4xGGF was a brother to ours, but there’s no way that kind of range will narrow it down by itself.

There are two uses of yDNA and mtDNA, however, that makes these some of the most powerful tests you can take:

Geographical location

Unlike “ethnicity” estimates we see from all the major testers, yDNA and mtDNA can be very effective in pinpointing very accurately the location of your ancestors on the planet. The standard (Autosomal) DNA tests from Ancestry rely on a small global sample of historical DNA (16,000 samples currently), and human created Family Trees, to mathematically try and guess where our ancestors were 800-1000 years ago. They are looking for little shreds of DNA to trace back, and it’s very small amounts because Autosomal DNA gets cut in 1/2 for each side of a lin ever generation. However y/mtDNA doesn’t change over the generations and so we know very accurately where those ancestors were, based on where the bodies were found. This is especially important for African American genealogy, when there are nearly no records of origin before our ancestors were taken from Africa. These tests can be very accurate, and place your ancestral group in to very small physical and/or social (tribal) locations.

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yDNA groups, and how they migrated over the centuries. From FamilytreeDNA.com.
Brick wall research

In our example above, we know for a scientific fact that Michael and Frank share an MCRA along their paternal line. The same is true for women who have an mtDNA match. While that again doesn’t help us much if we have no information, it’s invaluable if we have a good guess on how we’re related. Let’s go back to our DNA Painter walkthrough to see how we wish we had yDNA and mtDNA tests.

To recap from last week’s post, we have two lines of DNA tests that we know are connected, and we have narrowed down the MCRA for both a cluster of AncestryDNA matches and on our line, but we don’t know how they connect. So, we have two couples (Jacob/Maria Kupsch, and Joseph/Dorothy Haasl) that we know match, most likely 2-3 generations above them. Each of them have 8 potential match relatives, and we have 4 known relatives, so we’re facing 32 ancestors that might be our MCRA.

But, if we can confirm the y/mtDNA from those 4 relatives, whom all died over 100 years ago, because that DNA doesn’t change between generations. That means a direct male relative from Jacob (say his son’s, son’s, son’s, son’s DNA) will confirm Jacob’s yDNA. Same for Maria, and a direct female relative. If we could yDNA test relatives of both Jacob and Joseph, and mtDNA for both Maria and Dorothy we would have about a 25% chance of finding an immediate match. And, if say Maria and Dorothy share the same mtDNA we just figured out we need to focus our research only on both of their maternal lines to make our match. If we don’t find that match, we just eliminated 25% of our potential match points, so now instead of building out 32 ancestors to find our match, we’re down to 24. But even better, if we can go one level up and do the same thing, we can eventually narrow this down to where we share an MCRA.

Here’s a great blog post that breaks this down a real-world example from Roberta Estes: (Mitochondrial DNA Bulldozes Brick Wall)

xDNA

dna 6-gendmatch xGoing back to the GEDmatch installment of this series (How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 4 – How to quickly, and effectively, use GEDmatch), there was a column in our DNA matches that showed the amount of xDNA that we matched other testers. The good news is that all of the major test kits include xDNA measurements in their most basic test. The bad news is, it’s unlike the other types we’ve talked about, and it’s almost useless. With one very valuable exception.

It would be highly unlikely we could ever build out a family match with xDNA, and the cM you share with someone tells you almost nothing about close of a match you are with them. The main value of xDNA is if you do match someone, it narrows down your link to that match in a very powerful way. xDNA is inherited in a unique pattern that going back several generations can eliminate more than 50% of your tree as a potential match.

Women will inherit an X chromosome from both their mother and their father, but men will inherit an X from only their mother. Going back to High School Biology, we quickly remembered that women have an XX chromosome, while men have XY!

But, the value for us comes in when we build out our potential ancestor’s chart, using that inheritance pattern. So, if we have a female test subject who has an unknown xDNA match, we know it’s not from her Father’s Father’s line because men only inherit their X from their mothers. Going back 2 generations, we just eliminated 25% of the potential matches. If you know, from other research, that this unknown match is on their father’s line, you just confirmed it’s on the father’s mother’s line.

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xDNA inheritance chart, from DNAeXplained

You won’t see a lot of xDNA matches, but when you do, Google one of the many xDNA inheritance fan charts, and start to see if you can eliminate suspects in how you match. It could bring you much closer to where to hunt for your MCRA.

Here’s a great break down of xDNA from DNA Explained, with more links to more detail as well: (Who Tests the X Chromosomes)

Just know that all of this work will have to be in GEDmatch however, since AncestryDNA doesn’t provide any information on the details of your genetic matches, and none of the tools needed to view/manage this information.