About 15 years ago, Bennett Greenspan, founder of FamilyTreeDNA, at one of the early conferences said that about 30% of men who take a Y DNA test find a strong surname match. That number has increased now to nearly 100%, or “almost everyone.”
Of course, there are exceptions that fall into a number of categories:
- Jewish families from regions where surnames weren’t adopted until in the 1800s.
- Jewish families whose direct paternal line suffered dramatic losses during the Holocaust.
- Dutch families who did not adopt surnames until Napoleon’s edict in 1811.
- Cultures who have or recently had patronymic surnames that change every generation.
- Men whose DNA is either extremely rare (and no relatives have tested) or are from under-sampled regions of the world.
- Males whose paternal line may be recent immigrants and people in the homeland don’t participate in genealogy or don’t DNA test.
- Males whose ancestors were enslaved. In the US, families adopted surnames after the Civil War ended slavery in the 1860s, so Y DNA testing plus autosomal is critically important to reunite these families. Please note that the Y DNA haplogroup, even an estimate provided with STR testing, will indicate whether the direct paternal lineage is European, African, Native American/Asian – all of which are found in the descendants of men who were enslaved. The Big Y-700 provides significantly more information along with placement on the haplotree.
I started writing Y DNA reports for clients in 2004 (although I no longer accept private clients) and at that time, often saw men with no matches. Today, a man with no matches is extremely unusual, and most have strong surname matches. As more men test, everyone will have more matches, of course, and the more we can learn about our ancestors.
What do matches reveal?
In essence, matches to other men with common surnames do one of two things:
- Confirm the surname lineage, at least to the common ancestor.
- Identify the surname where the tester is likely to find his ancestral roots.
- Provide perspective further back in time answering the question, “Where did I come from?”
Of course, this second point is crucial for males searching for the identity of their paternal lines.
While time has moved on, the number of testers in the database has dramatically increased, and almost everyone has relevant matches now – I still see the 30% metric oft-repeated. Let’s put this to the test and see what we find.
Setting Up the Experiment
I selected 20 men who have taken the Big Y test whose kits I manage or who were randomly selected from projects that I manage and who have given permission for their results to be published on public project pages.
I recorded results for the tester’s own or very similar surnames. Slightly different but recognizable spellings are counted as the same name.
I included matches at 12 markers, 111 markers, and the Big Y results. Men who purchase or upgrade to the Big Y-700 test will have all 111 STR panel markers included. Obviously, individual testers should check their results at every level.
Big Y testers actually receive 700+ STR markers, but can only easily filter for matches at 111 (or below), so that’s the number I used. Plus, males can purchase 37 and 111 panels without taking the Big Y test, so this comparative information will be valid for all Y DNA testers.
Additionally, I used the Advanced Matches feature to check for people who match someone on BOTH the Y DNA and their Family Finder autosomal test. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that the reason they match on both tests is because of their common surname line – but it’s a hint and may be very useful, especially with closer Family Finder matches.
I intentionally included some men with recent European heritage who are unlikely to have matches simply because their families have been in colonial America since the 1600s or 1700s and their ancestor had a dozen sons who each had a dozen sons.
Why Did I Include 12 Marker Results?
You may wonder why I included 12 marker matches since that test is no longer sold individually and is the least granular. Truthfully, it’s too often deemed useless and overlooked.
Hear me out on this one😊
Many of the men who originally took the 12 and 25 marker tests, before the higher panels (37, 67, 111, and Big Y) were available are deceased now. Twenty years is a generation, and FamilyTreeDNA began testing the Y chromosome in the year 2000.
While these low marker tests alone are not conclusive, with additional information, such as trees, common ancestors, and other testers who match, they form pieces of evidence that can be invaluable. Some have also taken an autosomal test which can be especially important, given that they are another generation or two (or three) further back in time than the people testing today.
You won’t see these men as matches at 37, 67 or 111 markers, because they are deceased and can’t upgrade, but they may provide the nugget of information you need by matching at 12 or 25 markers. You’ll need to evaluate that match in light of other information. I’ll review that in the next two sections.
If you’re a man or can find a male to test for each of your genealogy lines, the Y DNA is the fastest, most reliable way to identify an ancestral surname – not just in your father’s generation, but moving back in time.
Of the 20 men selected, all men had matches to their surname. However, one Smith man, #18, had a unique situation that might be very genealogically relevant.
I’ll discuss each match briefly with some commentary below the chart.
|Surname||Match Name||12 Marker||111 Marker||Big Y||Advanced – 12 + FF Both|
|1||Howery||Howery||9 of 20||2 of 2||0 (none tested)||1|
|2||Graves||Graves||8 of 51||2 of 8||1 Graves + others||1 – different surname|
|3||Perkins||Perkins/McDonald||16 of 1762||1 of 63, many McDonalds||0 Perkins (no testers) but several McD names||8 – 2 McDonald|
|4||Napier||Napier||19 of 19,217||2 of 13||2 Napier + others||1 + many others|
|5||Rice||Rice||45 of 58||14 of 19||7 of 10||1|
|6||Rader||Rader||13 of 18,576||7 of 7||7||3|
|7||Estes||Estes||69 of 502||21 of 24||9 of 10||2 + 4 different surname|
|8||Campbell||Campbell||178 of 369||61 of 103||7 of 10||4 of 5|
|9||Lentz||Lentz||1 of 1||0 of 1||1 different name, no other Lentz Big Y testers||0|
|10||Bonnevie||Bonnevie||1 of 1 (tested to 37)||0||0||no test|
|11||Vannoy||Vannoy||7 of 49||2 of 4||0 of 1||0|
|12||Lore/Lord||Lore/Lord||3 of 7||1 of 3||1 of 1||0|
|13||Clarkson/Claxton||Clarkson/Claxton||19 of 540||1 of 1||0 of 9 (No Big Y testers)||0 of 3|
|14||Muncey||Muncy/Muncey||9 of 155||7 of 16||1 of 4||1|
|15||Miller||Miller||5 of 6||2 at 67, no 111 testers||0 – no Miller match testers||1 of 2|
|16||Speak(s)||Speak(s)||9 of 9||21 of 51||4 of 17||0|
|17||Smith||Smith/Jennings||2 of 16, 9 Jennings||0 of 2 (Jennings)||1 Jennings of 3||1 Jennings|
|18||Bolton||Bolton||8 of 1750||2 of 2||0 of 28||0 of 12|
|19||Crumley||Crumley||10 of 79||7 of 93||3 of 127||0 of 2|
|20||Harrell||Harrell||81 of 17,638||3 of 7||2 of 2||0 of 119|
Messages Revealed in the Results
Let’s briefly review the information we’ve discovered and extrapolate from each of these 20 matches. Analysis is the key to success.
- The Howery surname is rather unusual. This man had only two 111 marker matches and both were to men of the same surname. Half of his 12 marker matches are the same surname. None of his matches had taken the Big Y test, so he has no same-surname or other surname matches there. He did match one of his Y DNA matches on the Family Finder test though. This is high-quality confirmation that Howery is indeed the biological ancestral surname and our tester can set about finding and confirming his common ancestors with his matches.
- The Graves male had several 12-marker matches, but many 12-marker matches have not tested at the 111 marker level. He matches one Graves male on the Big Y plus some men with other surnames. The Big Y reaches back further in time, so these matches may reflect common ancestors before the advent of surnames.
- Our Perkins male has very interesting matches. He does have both 12 and 111 Perkins matches, but he also had a LOT of McDonald matches. More McDonald matches than Perkins matches. This suggests that indeed, his ancestors were Perkins, at least back to the earliest known ancestor (EKA), but before that, he may well be a member of the McDonald Y DNA clan. There were no Perkins Big Y testers, but if I were him, I’d ask my Perkins matches to upgrade.
- I can tell by looking at the huge number of 12 marker matches for our Napier man that he is haplogroup R, the most common in Europe, with an EXTREMELY common 12 marker haplotype. Note how dramatically the number of 111 marker matches drops – from 19,000+ to 13 – a perfect example of why we suggest men upgrade to at least 111 markers to refine their matches. Both of his 111 marker Napier matches have upgraded to the Big Y, and he matches them there as well. He does match one Napier on both the 12 marker test and Family Finder Advanced Matching – but he also matches MANY other men. This is because of the extremely high number of 12 marker matches. In his case, I would only use Y DNA marker panels higher than 12 markers in the Advanced Matching.
- Lots of Rice testers from this line confirm a common ancestor. I wonder if there is a Rice male from someplace overseas who has tested. If so, this might be that “jump the pond” event that genealogists who have European ancestors who are found in colonial America seek.
- Our Rader tester also has many 12 marker matches, but his only matches at 111 and on the Big Y are his Rader kinsmen. No doubt about that surname whatsoever.
- My Estes line has several 12 marker matches, but that gets slimmed right down at 111 markers. Using the Big Y test, we further divided those branches of Estes men. I literally could not have sorted out who was descended from whom without the Big Y test results. Way too many Johns, Williams, and Elishas in burned counties in Virginia.
- Our Campbell tester is unquestionably confirmed to be descended from the Clan Campbell line from Inverary, Scotland. However, the challenge in this family is which Campbell male they descend from in Virginia. The Big Y-700 test has narrowed the possibilities significantly, and the tester is currently in the process of attempting to convince his three closest Y STR 111 matches to take the Big Y test. Yes, he has offered to pay as well. Hey, in genealogy, you do what you need to do. Y DNA is likely the only way this puzzle from the 1700s will ever be unraveled.
- The Lentz line is German with rare DNA, but they do have a confirming match to another Lentz male.
- Bonnievie spelled various ways is French and has one 12 marker match who only tested to 37 markers. He has no matches above that. Not only is his Y DNA quite rare, DNA testing is illegal in France which makes additional testers few and far between. Unfortunately, his one match has not taken a Family Finder test either.
- Several men from the Vannoy line have tested and a Big Y test match to another man confirmed that the ancestral line is Dutch – not French as was speculated for decades. The STR tests have revealed Vannoy lines, by similar spellings, from lines we didn’t know existed.
- Lore or Lord is a rare Acadian family surname. Our tester does have matches to other Lore/Lord men, which confirms the line to the ancestor who arrived in Acadia in the early 1600s, but future testers will be needed before we can confirm his origins to either France or as one of the English soldiers who served at the fort.
- The Clarkson/Claxton testers confirm two lines, one spelled each way, from Tennessee and North Carolina line to a common ancestor in either Virginia or North Carolina in the 1770s. However, the family is still working to further assemble that puzzle. Finding a Clarkson/Claxton match on STR markers or the Big Y who descends from a male not from the two known lines would help immensely. Our hope is that a Clarkson/Claxton from an earlier line or from the British Isles will test and provide that push over the brick wall. Any Clarkson/Clarkson men out there who haven’t taken the Y DNA test yet?
- The Muncy/Munsey line is confirmed to a common ancestor born in England in and died on Long Island in 1674. Based on both STR and SNP results from the Big Y, we can narrow the lineages of Muncy men who test and aren’t familiar with their Muncy genealogy. Of course, the Muncy line eventually migrated through Virginia and seemingly named every man in every generation either John, Samuel or Francis – but DNA testing helps immensely to sort this out.
- While Miller is a very common occupation surname, DNA testing has put to rest many incorrect myths about this particular Swiss Miller line. Men with the same surname in the same location, even in the same church, does not equate to the same genetic family line. Any male with a common surname absolutely needs to do Y DNA testing and at the highest level. There’s nothing worse than spending countless hours barking up the wrong tree – especially when Y DNA testing will save you.
- Our Speaks man matched another Speak male who knew where his ancestors were from in Lancashire. Testing additional men living in Lancashire at the 111 marker and Big Y levels allowed the Speak line to be divided into specific lineages beginning in the 1500s, piecing together the earlier ancestors into a descendant tree. Recently, an “orphan” line in the US has been connected to his ancestors, thanks to both STR values AND Big Y testing.
- Smith is quite interesting because we discover that something doesn’t add up. Our Smith man matches two Smith men who have the same ancestor born in 1810 but that son, John, does not match the descendants of his brothers. There seems to be an undocumented adoption of some sort at that point in time. John Smith’s Y DNA is not the same as his brothers whose descendants match each other. Given that our Smith tester, and his two matches, do not match the other descendants of the ancestor they are supposed to descend from, we can pinpoint the generation in which the adoption event occurred. However, we have a further clue, because these Smith men match the Jennings line closely- including one advanced match where the Smith man also matches autosomally in addition to the Y DNA. This is clearly a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know” and would never have known without Y DNA testing.
- Our Bolton tester matches several other Bolton men who descend from a common immigrant ancestor. If the Bolton matches upgrade to the Big Y-700 test, they might be able to determine separate genetic lines branching through the various sons of the immigrant ancestor. Evaluating the surnames that the tester matches at the Big Y level may assist with evaluating deeper ancestry in England and determining where the Bolton ancestors originated before the 1600s in London.
- Crumley is a difficult family to research, in part because several people with the same surname are found in close proximity, but Y DNA testing has shown that these men are not related. Big Y testing has disproved that the Crumley progenitor originated in Germany, although a different Crumley family did. The Big Y matches include many Mc… surnames along with Ferguson and Gillespie. The Big Y Block Tree shows the closest matches with ancestors born in Scotland, Ireland, and Northern Ireland – which is very likely where the Crumley progenitor originated too.
- Harrell is another difficult surname, spelled numerous ways with several Harrell/Herrell/Harrold/Herrald families moving westward in the 1600s and 1700s from the thirteen original colonies. This Harrell line has not been able to connect to a single progenitor in the colonies, yet, but Y DNA testing and the block tree confirm that this Harrell line originated in the British Isles, very likely England.
What Did These 20 Men Learn?
Every single one of these men benefitted from Y DNA testing, although exactly how depends to some extent on their testing goal. Other men also benefitted by matching.
One man, our Smith, #17, needs to look at the Jennings family prior to 1810. Is there a Jennings man living in close proximity, or do court records exist that might be illuminating?
If one of these 20 men had been an adoptee or otherwise searching for an unknown paternal line, they would have been able to identify a surname connection and perhaps a progenitor ancestor. I encourage everyone to either order a Family Finder autosomal test or transfer a DNA file (for free) from another vendor if they have taken an autosomal test elsewhere. Step-by-step transfer instructions are found here. Be sure that the Y DNA and autosomal tests are on the same kit/account at FamilyTreeDNA so that you can use the advanced matching tool.
With the Big Y-700 test, these men can discern or confirm lines descending from their direct paternal ancestors – sometimes within a generation or two of the tester. This test is so sensitive and granular and has such deep coverage (millions of bases) now that often we find small mutations between fathers and sons or brothers.
While STR markers, 12-111 are genealogically important, they do tend to mutate rapidly and sometimes back-mutate. SNPs, tested in the Big Y-700 test, don’t do that, and the power of STRs and SNPs together have the potential to break down brick walls and correct trees. In fact, it happens every single day.
If you’d like to watch a video about Y DNA, Y DNA-related genetic terms, and the benefits of Big Y-700 testing, you can watch a great educational video by Janine Cloud here. Be sure to note the part where she talks about why people who have previously taken the Big Y-500 might want to upgrade to the Big Y-700.
Also, check out my Y DNA Resource page, here.
What Don’t You Know?
There’s no better time to find missing pieces and discover information that you can’t find any other way.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- FamilyTreeDNA – Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing
- MyHeritage DNA – Autosomal DNA test
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload – Transfer your results from other vendors free
- AncestryDNA – Autosomal DNA test
- 23andMe Ancestry – Autosomal DNA only, no Health
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
Genealogy Products and Services
- MyHeritage FREE Tree Builder – Genealogy software for your computer
- MyHeritage Subscription with Free Trial
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars – Genealogy and DNA classes, subscription-based, some free
- Legacy Family Tree Software – Genealogy software for your computer
- Charting Companion – Charts and Reports to use with your genealogy software or FamilySearch
- RootsMagic Software – Genealogy software for your computer
- Newspapers.com – Search newspapers for your ancestors
- NewspaperArchive – Search different newspapers for your ancestors
- Genealogical.com – Lots of wonderful genealogy research books
- Legacy Tree Genealogists – Professional genealogy research