Ralph Dean Long (1922-1994), My Stepfather, 52 Ancestors #36


It was 20 years ago this weekend that he slipped away…this man I loved so much.  Well, slipped away isn’t exactly the right word for it.  He removed his own life support because the family was not united in their decision of what should be done.  So, he somehow rallied the strength and did it himself.  He was one of the bravest men I ever knew…in a very quiet, unassuming, homey type of way.  His final act of bravery only surprised me in that he was able to somehow find the physical strength to do it.

When I think of him, which is often, I think of him in his blue denim overalls.  He was a farmer, a Hoosier with a bit of a lisp and a definite Hoosier drawl, and a breathy, raspy laugh that was interjected between his words many times, like he got his own joke part way through and he just had to laugh before he could continue.  His sentences were full of laughter pauses and punctuations.  But when he was serious, he was dead serious and a man of very, very few words.  God help anyone who hurt someone, human or animal, that he loved.

Dean, as he was called, was born on December 26th, 1922 in Howard County, Indiana to Harley Clinton Long (1878-1949) and Lottie Bell Lee (1881-1962), the youngest of 12 or 13 children.  I never knew his parents.  I did, however, know several of his siblings.

Two of his siblings, Arnold and Wilma, never married.  They lived on the old family farmstead their entire lives.  Another sister, Verma, married but never had children.  She was the eternal sourpuss, and it was the family joke that her husband died to get away from her.  Wilma, on the other hand was the loving sweet aunt and Arnold, well, I’d describe him as a lecherous old man.  My Dad told him once that if he put his hands on me, or my mother, again, he’s kill him – and I do believe he meant it.  More importantly, Arnold believed it.

Dean was married initially to Martha Mae Alexander and they had two children, my step-brother, Gary, and a daughter, Linda who died as an infant.  Linda was born with what appeared from pictures to be Down’s syndrome.  When my daughter was born, Dean gave me Linda’s baby blanket.  I was extremely moved but I could never use it. It’s still safely tucked away.

Dean was grief-stricken when his daughter died at 18 months of age, the day after his birthday and two days after Christmas in 1959, but his heart-ache was only beginning.  His wife had a disease that was, at that time, impossible to diagnose. It was progressive, debilitating and fatal.  I don’t remember the name of the disease, but he carried a newspaper article in his billfold about it, and there were only a handful of known cases at the time.  It took her a decade to die, all while fighting an unknown foe to live and raise her son.

The aunts were Dean’s salvation during this time, because they stepped in and helped take care of Gary while Dean tended to his wife through her many hospitalizations.  This was before the days of handicapped accessibility, but he modified the house with all kinds of aids for her.  Many of which remained long after he and my mother were married simply because they were useful.

After Martha’s death, in 1968, Gary, by then a teenager, began manifesting symptoms of mental illness and was institutionalized episodically for many years.  We always wondered if Gary’s illness was in some way caused in utero by the beginnings of his mother’s horrible illness.

Through all of this, Dean continued to farm, because that was what he did – and if you’re a farmer, you have to farm whether you feel like it or not. He also developed chronic ulcers, had 7 or 8 surgeries to stop the bleeding over the years.  The family was “called in” more than once because he wasn’t expected to survive.  His abdomen looked like a railroad track.

But he did survive, because he had to – he had a family to take care of who needed him desperately.

By the time I met Dean, about 1969, he had joined Parents Without Partners and he was the “fix it” guy for all of the ladies in the group.  He would visit those who needed something fixed, in exchange for dinner or coffee and a doughnut maybe.  Everyone loved Dean.

For a man with so much grief and loss in his life, he was always warm, smiling, friendly and funny.  Nobody didn’t like Dean.  Well, except my Mom.

You see, Dean “took a shine” to her.  Yep, our stuff got fixed first, and he came “calling” complete with flowers wearing his only suit.  My Mom wasn’t interested in a farmer, because she grew up on a chicken farm, hated every minute, and swore she would never go back.  I recall vividly the day that Dean dropped in unexpectedly, carrying flowers and a box of Dunkin Doughnuts, in his ill-fitting too-big light blue suit.  He walked up the driveway hill, smiling and hopeful with a spring in his step carrying the box and flowers carefully, like the crown jewels.  He rang the doorbell.  Mom didn’t want company.  She had worked all day and was tired, plus, she wasn’t interested in a farmer.  I was happy to see Dean and headed to answer the door

Mother stopped me and told me not to answer the door.  He knocked and knocked, long after any hope of an answer disappeared.  Then he turned and walked slowly down the driveway hill, to his car, his shoulders slumped, head down and the flowers hanging forlornly from his hand.  He looked back at the house one more time and there was no smile.  He got in his car and drove away.  I cried and cried, not for myself, but for the oh-so-evident sadness, disappointment and terrible loneliness of that man in the ill-fitting blue suit.  Mother felt terrible and I told her she should.

Apparently something changed, because the door never went unanswered again and Dean became a regular part of our lives.

Then one day he asked me if he could marry my mother.  He and mother went to visit Gary and asked his blessing too.  We began planning a country wedding in a small white church.  Life was glorious for everyone.


The biggest challenge was introducing our cat to his dog.

I loved life on the farm and I became Dad’s shadow.  One of my biggest joys was to help Dad with the chores – driving the tractor, birthing hogs, whatever.  A few things I didn’t like and Dad was just grateful for any help he had.  Gary wasn’t there much and when he was, didn’t much care for farm work.  My mother fit right in, and was grateful Dad didn’t raise chickens.

I had been without a father since my own father’s death in 1963, so I was extremely grateful to have a father.  Dean became Dad someplace along the line and if you didn’t know I wasn’t his biological daughter, you would never have known.  I always joked with him.  Anything “bad” I told him was his fault and I inherited from him.

One day, he walked in from the barn, walked over to me sitting at the kitchen table, thunked me on the head with his thumb, which was his special gesture of affection, looked at me and said, “Hey, when I married your mother, I got my daughter back.”  His eyes welled up with tears, and then he just walked out of the room like he had told me nothing more important than that the soybeans were sprouting.  He was just that way, a man of very few words but deep commitment and undying love.

Now let’s just say I wasn’t the most well-behaved teenager in the world and I gave my mother multiple episodes of heartburn – and that’s probably putting it very mildly and quite understated.  She, however, got very even with me by wishing that awful mother curse upon me – “May your children be 10 times worse than you are.”  She removed said curse and apologized profusely many years later, but it was too late and the damage was already done.

But Dad, well, he was always the encouraging one.  He told me I could do anything I wanted to do, and that I could be anything I wanted to be…and growing up poor, on a farm, had nothing to do with it.  He looked at me one day, walking past the metal swing outside as we were snapping beans and said, “Bobbi, if anyone changes the world, it will be you,” and just continued walking.

I was dumbstruck, and remember looking at his back walking away after he dropped that bombshell on me.  I wondered what he meant.  But those rare words from Dad sunk in and hit home, and I’ve never forgotten them.

I remember vividly, oh so vividly, when Jim and I were at the National Geographic Society for a DNA Conference in 2005.  As we walked down the huge marble Explorer’s Hall – I looked at Jim and said, “Wouldn’t Dad he surprised?”  Jim said, “Not at all.”  I kind of laughed, because it’s a very long way from the hog farm in Indiana to the Explorer’s Hall in Washington DC.  Dad would have been proud.  However, little that I did ever surprised Dad.  He was the eternal optimist in spite of the horrible challenges he had weathered.

For some reason, possibly because he had lost his only daughter and I had lost my much-beloved father, we formed a special bond.  In fact, a bond so special it transcended his lifetime.  A year or so after his passing, I was sleeping, alone in my house.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night, someone woke me up.  I woke up with a start, sat straight upright, confused and terrified, because I was, supposedly, alone in the house.  I had just a few seconds to think about it, because a fireball suddenly exploded into the bedroom door from the hallway.  The house was on fire, and had I not been awake, I would have perished, trapped in that bedroom.  Yes, it was Dad who woke me up.

So, when I took this picture in my garden this weekend, I wondered where those rays came from.  I certainly didn’t see them when I was taking the photo. Then, I realized that it was indeed 20 years to the day since Dad’s passing.  Leave it up to Dad to say hello like this.  He was such a beautiful soul.


Mom has joined him now, as has Gary.

Losing Dad happened far too soon, and in large part due to his own choices regarding smoking.  That saddened me and to some extent, angered me, because neither Mom nor I, nor my kids, were ready for him to go.  Mom grieved his death horribly.  It’s also testimony however to how powerful nicotine addiction is – you’ll do it in the face of sure and certain death.  The fact that Dad wanted to, and couldn’t, overcome it saddens me even more.

While losing Dad was terrible, I have so many wonderful memories of him.  And he was such a kind, gentle and funny man.  His quiet demeanor belied his love of humor and a good prank, and I think he was always pondering one in the back of his mind

One of the favorite family stories was when, as a teenager, he stuffed the school heat ducts full of chicken feathers.  When the heat came on in the fall, not only did some of them manage to catch on fire and stink to high heavens, but the rest of them blew out all of the ducts into the classrooms. Of course, he “knew nothing about that,” (chuckle, chuckle) and neither did his brothers, but for some reason, that was a family favorite story for the duration of the lives of the brothers and sisters.  The sisters mostly rolled their eyes.

dad4Another time, Dad dressed up as a pregnant woman for some event – probably a fundraiser for something – likely on a dare.  I had to help him with his dress and bra and teach him how to walk pregnant, in high heels.


I don’t think he ever got the hang of that.  Mom strapped a pillow on him before he went to the event.  Good thing he didn’t get stopped in this truck.  The local cops would have been talking about that forever.

His baldness was also a topic of conversation and of eternal, unending jokes.  He was not sensitive about it, so it was never off limits.  One time, we bought him a hairbrush for bald men, with no bristles.  I have absolutely no idea when this photo was taken, but he was clearly wearing a wig.

dad6 crop

He loved to Rendezvous and he was a mountain man.


Those Rendezvous men were all the epitome of pranksters.  One time, when I went to visit, he was fictitiously being “tried” for molesting a ground hog.

To add to things, I got him a “doll” on a couch one year to take along with him.  The doll was wearing something red and black and she reclined on her fainting couch.  She was, perhaps slightly suggestive, a little risqué perhaps, nothing more. That doll on her 3 foot couch was kidnapped immediately and was held for ransom, passed around from camp to camp and tent to tent and appeared here and there, for years.  One time her stockings appeared tied to Dad’s top tent pole like a flag.


Dad’s Rendezvous nickname was “Hoot” and I don’t think it had to do entirely with an owl either, although clearly a double entendre.  He was, indeed, a hoot.


Even this younger picture, as a teenager, with Verma, reflects his sense of humor.  They were in Indianapolis and whatever was going on , she was not amused.  She was never amused.  He was always amused.


He always had stories to tell too, some true and some, well, in the flavor and honor of Rendezvousing.  I have no idea about the red eye in the skull, but I’m sure there was some wonderful story about that, perhaps tailored to the listener.  I do know that he had a very unique turtle shell with vulture feet and a vulture head with feathers for a tail and a variety of stories about how that happened, depending on the audience at hand.

In later years, Dad spent a lot of time with school kids showing them old timey ways to do things.  He would set up his “camp” at the schools in the yard someplace and the classes would come out one by one.

Dad was always making an outfit or something for his encampment out of castoffs.


He turned just about anything and everything into something useful for his encampment.  I made a lot of his Rendezvous clothes for him.  He made things like buttons out of wood and bone.  Mom and I used to go and visit him when he went “camping.”  He loved that.  Sometimes I would go in period costume too and generally caused some kind of ruckus, which was, of course, the entire point.

One time I announced to everyone that he had gotten my mother pregnant.  At the time, most of them didn’t know I wasn’t his biological child, so it was a tongue in cheek accusation, meant, of course, to give them something to “talk about” over the weekend.  He might have been tried for that too, for all I know.  Couldn’t be worse than molesting a groundhog.  I think he was sentenced to hang for that one, but was rescued by some Indian.  There was always some twist or subplot spontaneously evolving and all in great fun and joviality.  How he always looked forward to the next encampment, which was, of course, the next chapter in a continually unfolding drama with no script.

After Dad passed away, I went to the encampment the next summer in Burlington, his “home” Rendezvous location where they had a memorial, in Rendezvous tradition, to say goodbye to him.  His camp was set up “empty” and on Saturday night, the men all gathered around his campfire.  They all told stories about him and the good times they all shared, like that time he nearly got hung for molesting that groundhog.  I said to them that he could not have been a better father had he been mine biologically.  They got really quiet, then one of them said, “We didn’t know that he wasn’t your father.  We knew that one of you kids was a step-child, but based on how close you were to your Dad, we thought you were the biological child.”  To him, I was his child, pure and simple.

I miss Dad. He could have had another 10 or maybe even 20 years with us.

After his passing, I brought some of his phlox home from the farm and planted it here, along with some of his ferns that grew so thickly along the north side of the farmhouse.


The purple phlox grows tall here and thrives.  I moved it from my other house when I built this one, along with several ferns.


Today, I went outside to find the phlox blooming with, and shedding onto, the white Rose of Sharon.  I think of Dad every time I see the phlox blooming and that makes me feel good, just like seeing the ferns unfold their beautiful spikes in rebirth does every spring.  But today, this beautiful combination of the white flower and the purple bloom spoke to me of the purity of love and eternity, and how those that are gone are really still here – forever.  The phlox may have shed its bloom, but it is obviously still quite beautiful.


I will miss Dad forever, and I will grieve his passing forever, because I will love him forever.  But I will also honor his life by smiling and living with humor, honor and dignity.  I strive to cultivate the qualities in myself I so admired in him and found so inspirational and discovered were my bedrock, and hope to pass them on to my children, by example.  What better legacy could I leave him?

You may wonder why I included this story in my DNA blog.  Well, pure and simple, I inherited a wonderful legacy from Dad, my step-father, and my life was greatly enriched by his presence.  Sometimes, inheritance has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with DNA.  He was as much my Dad, and in some ways more so, than my biological father.  A hundred or two hundred years ago, everyone would have thought I was his daughter and today, we would somehow discover that now dissolved fact and it would be considered a NPE or an undocumented adoption.  It wasn’t a surprise to us, it was just life as we lived it day by day.  It was only a surprise to those who didn’t know, which, 100 years later, would have been everyone.  Think about the fact that in his lifetime, even many of his close friends didn’t realize.




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My Brother John and My Other Brother John

heart swirlMan, life can really throw you some twists and turns, especially if you’re a genealogist with genetics thrown into the mix.

You see, things don’t always go as planned, nor are they always as they appear to be.  Not every family is the American epitome of the little white house, the picket fence, the station wagon and the collie dog.  Ok, maybe I should update that to an SUV and an electronic fence, but you still get the idea.

In my case, I was born with one sibling…that I knew of.  That was my half-brother on my mother’s side, John.  I obviously knew this man from the literal day that I was born.  In one of the few surviving family pictures, and only one of two with John and I together, John is holding me in a Christmas photo at my grandparents with our first cousins, the year I was born.

john me as baby

John was 13 years older than me, so it’s not like we were ever close.  He was married when I was 5 and really not an active part of my life, so functionally, I grew up an only child.

But I actually had three more half siblings and maybe a fourth, who turned out not to be.  That fourth would be my brother Dave, who was my brother of heart but not my brother of DNA.  I loved him intensely although I only knew him for a few very short years.

So now we’re up to 5 total, with one being not genetic.  We know, for sure that John, my mother’s son is hers, and that my sister Edna is genetically my half-sister.  Lee, we’ll have to assume is accurate because he is gone and there are no children to test, and I have another alleged half-sister that has not been located.

Then, I acquired a step-brother, Gary, when my mother remarried who I also referred to as my brother and in actuality, I acquired a step-sister too, but she had already passed away.  I’ve never thought of her as my “sister Linda,” but technically, I think she was.  I don’t know for sure.  Is a step-sibling who died before your parent married your step-parent your step-sibling????

So, if you need a score sheet.

  • John – half-brother by mother
  • Dave – half-brother by father, who wasn’t genetically
  • Edna – half-sister by father, proven genetically
  • Lee – alleged half-brother by father, you decide based on the photo
  • Sister – alleged half-sister by father, not found
  • Gary – step-brother
  • Linda – step-sister deceased before becoming step-sister

So, my perception of being an only child wasn’t exactly right.

Now, let’s make this next part easy – they are all dead now, with my brother John being the last to go 22 months ago.  Yes, those wounds are still fresh – I lost both of my brothers in 2012, my sister Edna in 1990 and my brother Gary in 1999 tragically.

Yep, every last one of them is gone.  So, I am truly an only/orphan child now.

So, you ask, where did my other brother John come from?

Well, now that’s a story about southern families, and cousins, and love, and why we genealogists are always confused.

You see, I met John, my “other brother” John, several years ago – and yes, via DNA. No, he’s not genetically my brother, although I’m always prepared for a here-to-for unknown sibling to pop up at one of the testing companies.  My father was very much the “ladies man,” extremely handsome and a bit of a rogue and scoundrel.

My “other brother” John’s family and mine are from the same areas of NC – and John and I share a common bond in both the culture and our Native heritage.  And John and I are both Scots-Irish.  John and I both moved away from home for our career.  John and I are both genealogists.  John joined the Cumberland Gap group and became a regular contributor…making suggestions…helping with fundraising ideas for DNA testing…and more.  In fact, “other brother” John and I have way more in common than half-brother John and I did.

We e-mailed back and forth about our research adventures and I did a DNA report for John, so I know his DNA inside and out, pardon the pun.  My half-brother John declined to DNA test.  Over the months and years, my “other brother” John became a close friend, then my cousin, then my brother.

“Other brother” John has been very kind to me in many ways – a very giving soul.  He would take the photos of my ancestors published in my blog articles and “fix” them for me, remove scratches, colorize them, all without being asked.

One day I went to the mailbox.  Inside, there was a box from Japan with beautiful cotton and silk fabrics.  I’m a quilter, and I was just speechless about his generosity – partly because I know how much shipping costs from Japan – not to mention that these fabrics aren’t available here.  He hoped I could make quilts to raise money for DNA testing.  The fabrics were so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to cut them.


Then, one day John dropped out of the Cumberland Gap Yahoo group.

I was surprised and worried.  I missed John and e-mailed him and asked him why.

John, it seemed, was experiencing some issues, and those issues would eventually manifest themselves into a cancer diagnosis.

John’s cancer diagnosis was a personal blow, to a friend, to someone I had become very close to – my “cousin,” John.

Now Judy Russell talked the other day in her blog about collecting cousins.  I never realized it, but I’ve done the exact same thing over the years.  Since I was raised as an only child – not finding my half siblings by my father until I was an adult – I began researching my genealogy and collecting cousins when I was 22.  I don’t know that I meant to, but it was such a wonderful adventure for me to meet someone I was related to.  I was always in awe that I had relatives and some of them even looked like me, and like my father who had died when I was young.

When I was a child, I used to ask Santa for a baby brother or sister…every year.  That was, of course, before I understood the mechanics of such things, as my father was deceased.  Still, as a child who wanted a sibling, it didn’t matter and Santa of course, being who he was, could deliver anything.

My heart hurt for John, as my heart hurts for any of my cousin collection when they or their family is sick or hurting.  One of the things I do to express my love and concern are “care quilts,” because that’s what quilters do when we don’t know what else to do.

So, I made John a care quilt…and I cut the Japanese fabric to do it. What better person to use it for?

john quilt

John underwent multiple biopsies, flew from Japan to Massachusetts, underwent surgery, suffered an incorrect diagnosis, became even more ill, was finally diagnosed correctly, and began chemo.  John and his wife are gardeners at their home in Japan.  Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen this year.

I planted pots of plants for John and every day, I take pictures of John’s flowers and post them to Facebook for him.  I know it’s not the same, but it is all I can do.  His miscellaneous “mixed seed” packets have performed amazingly for him.

john flowers

And then, John’s mother died, right in the middle of John’s chemo.  Just when you think things couldn’t get worse.

One day, in the midst of all of this pain, the days and weeks of chemo torment and the emotional trauma, John became my brother.   I can’t tell you exactly what day, but I realized that I love him as a brother, and he, me as a sister – and we simply made it so.  It already was, we just acknowledged it.  Isn’t this was family does? Support one another, especially in times of need?

So yes, I now have my brother John and my other brother John.  Why, you ask, does this matter to you?

Well, because in another generation or so, my granddaughters will tell their kids, “Yes, my grandma had her brother John and her other brother John.”  And then they might chuckle to themselves.  They may not think to mention that one wasn’t my biological brother, and then to add which one wasn’t my biological brother?  And even if they did, they could get it backwards, especially since they are too young to have known my now deceased older brother John.  Aha, a family mystery in the making.  Not a mystery today, but in another couple generations, it may well be – and all the information may be garbled.

Recognize this pattern in any of your family stories?

But it gets worse, because I’m from a southern family on my Dad’s side.  Yes, indeed, I also have Uncle Buster who is not my uncle but my first cousin once removed, and his brother Uncle George.  However, his sister is not Aunt anyone.  No, I don’t know why except I was close to both George and Buster and not the sister.

In the south, any older relative and sometimes non-relatives are called “Aunt” and “Uncle” as a sign of respect, without respect to race.

Furthermore, I also have quilt sisters.  I have Mary who is my sister.  Here we are playing in a mud puddle after gardening in the rain.  Isn’t that what sisters do?

I’ll let you guess from the t-shirts which one is me!

mary puddle

Now Mary has other biological sisters who don’t live here so aren’t my Quilt Sisters.  She’s also from a southern family and has sistens, which are cousin/sisters – cousins who function as sisters.

So in essence, both sisterhood and cousinship are applied selectively and without consistency.  Furthermore cousin can mean anything from literally 1st cousins to “we’re kin but I have no idea how” to 14th cousins 3 times removed.  In other words, it implies some kind of real or fictive relationship – and you, the listener, have no idea what that relationship actually is and there is no standardized gauge to judge by.  Worse yet, the speaker may not either.  Does this make sense?

Ok, here’s a much better picture.  Mary and I have a wonderful time no matter what we are doing.  Here we are at Mary’s son’s house.  I introduced her son to my friend who became his wife about 15 years ago, so I think I have some kind of honorary relationship to them too. When my mother was alive, our family always had Christmas on Christmas Eve at her house, but now, we spend Christmas Eve with Mary and her family.

me mary quilt

Mary and I aren’t blood sisters, although Mary has not DNA tested (yet) so we might be cousins.  In this picture, we’re hemming my original brother John’s care quilt that I made for him when he received his cancer diagnosis in 2010.  This is what sisters do.

However, my other Quilt Sister, Kathy, is indeed my cousin. Yes, for real, genealogically and biologically and genetically, all three.  So she’s my cousin and my sister.  But you see, I didn’t know any of that when I first met her quite by happenstance through our careers.  Talk about serendipity!  We discovered that we shared Brethren ancestors, quite by accident, sitting at a conference room table waiting on late meeting attendees one day.  It was after that she became a Quilt Sister.  Here Kathy and I are holding Mary’s 50th anniversary quilt that we helped to make.  This too is what sisters do.

kathy mary quilt

Is it any wonder as genealogists that we are constantly trying to figure out why the DNA of family members doesn’t fit exactly as we think it should?  Maybe some of the “undocumented adoptions,” or NPEs, non-parental events, aren’t really.  Maybe they are just the much loved “other brother” John – the brother by choice, or the quilt sister, or maybe Uncle Buster or my other “Cousin George” (not to be confused with Uncle George) who isn’t my blood cousin at all but my good friend Anne’s cousin.  But since Anne is another sister of heart, then Cousin George is my cousin too, pictured with his quilt, below, given as a thank you for his supportive role in the Lost Colony Research Group and DNA projects.  This is how relatedness works in southern families.  Bless all our hearts!


And I haven’t given you the entire “family” list – there are more.  I am so fortunate to have many members of my family and family of heart.  I’ve gathered many to love.

Aren’t we lucky that love is the one commodity we can give as humans that is only limited by the size of our heart.  Giving more doesn’t diminish what others receive, and it enriches us.  Why, we can collect and add to our family our entire lives!!!

What a confusing legacy we’re leaving for future genealogists:)  Just thinking about that makes me laugh!

And as for my brothers John….all I have to say is that I’m so glad their names weren’t Derrell, because I already have my cousin Daryl and my other cousin Derrell, and they are both females.  Nope, not kidding!

Welcome to the family John.  Had no idea what you were getting into did you:)  All I can say is, well, bless your heart!

john 1



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Proving Men Whose Y-Lines Don’t Match Are Related

Younger Store cropped

The old “Younger Store” in Halifax County, Virginia


Yes, I’m shouting.  This is a 30 year BINGO – a wall that DNA just tore down!!!  WOOHOO

Good thing you can’t see my happy dance.  I wouldn’t care right this moment, but I’m POSITIVE I’d be embarrassed later.

Ok, so taking deep breath here – here’s the story.

The Younger Men

I descend from Marcus Younger of Halifax County, Virginia, through his daughter Mary who married George Estes in 1786.  Marcus was born probably somewhat before 1740 in either Essex County, Virginia.  Our first positive record of him is in 1780 when he gave to the Revolutionary War cause “1 gallon, 2 quarts and 1/2 pint brandy.”  We don’t know who Marcus’s wife was, but she may have been a Hart or a Ferguson.  Marcus moved to Halifax County, Virginia shortly after the war and subsequently died there in 1815 with a will listing his children.  There were also subsequent chancery suits relating to his estate, thankfully, that reveal a great amount of information about his children and their lives.  Marcus had only one son, John, born in 1760.  Mary was probably his second child as her husband, George Estes, was born in 1761.

Also living in close proximity to Marcus Younger in Essex County, near the border with Queen and King, was Thomas Younger who was significantly older than Marcus, but was not his father.  Thomas appears in deeds in Essex County, Virginia in the 1740s, but was in King and Queen County in 1752.  Thomas moved to Halifax County by 1765 when he is found on a tax list and died there in 1791, with a will that was witnessed by both Marcus Younger and Marcus’s son John.  This alone suggests strongly that Marcus was not the son of Thomas because heirs generally did not witness wills unless they were nuncupative wills taken orally just before the person died, and Thomas’s was not.  Furthermore, there were chancery suits following both Thomas and Marcus’s deaths that tell us exactly who their heirs were.  This will-witnessing also suggests an extremely close relationship between Thomas Younger and Marcus Younger.  But what, exactly, was that relationship?

Thomas’s parents were Alexander Younger and Rebecca Mills.  Alexander died in Essex County in 1727, with a will.  He had three sons, Thomas, above, James who married a Nash and is well accounted for, and a John who died between 1725 and 1727 when Alexander’s estate is settled.  Almost nothing is known about John.  In addition, there were 5 sisters, only two of which are even somewhat accounted for beyond 1732 or as adults.  This indeed may be a very important clue to the Marcus puzzle.

Who’s Your Daddy?

Descendants of Thomas Younger and of Marcus Younger both took the Y DNA test some years ago, and we were absolutely stunned to discover that their Y DNA did not match.  We have two descendants of John, only son of Marcus, and they do match each other, but no other Youngers.

The several descendants of Thomas Younger match each other and also the descendants of Alexander’s other son, James.  So Marcus seems to be related to the family, carries the surname, but does not share a direct paternal ancestor on his father’s side.

Our candidates for his parents are quite limited.

Barring a totally unknown Younger person, we have the following candidates.

John Younger, son of Alexander, brother to Thomas – but that would also mean that John was not the biological son of Alexander but did share a mother since Marcus’s descendants autosomally match this line today.  Since Alexander’s estate paid to register the death of John, that implies that John was not yet married at the time of his death and responsible for himself.  This pretty much eliminates John.

The other alternative is that Marcus is the illegitimate child of one of Alexander’s daughters.  His daughters were named Ann, Mary, Janet, Susannah and Elizabeth.  Unfortunately, three of those names are repeated in Marcus’s daughters, but it could effectively eliminate Janet and Ann, unless Marcus had a child with that name that died young and he did not reuse the name as so many people did at that time.  As it turns out, Ann and Janet married about 1732, but we have no information on the other 3 daughters other than they were minors at their father’s death in 1727 and Thomas was appointed their legal guardian in 1732.

This scenario, that Marcus was the child of one of Alexander’s daughters would fit what we do know about this family both genetically and genealogically.

The DNA Jackpot

This brings us to today.  And what a day it is.  Until now, none of the descendants of Marcus Younger autosomally matched the descendants of Thomas Younger, at least not that we could prove.       pot of gold                 

I manage the kit of one of the descendants of John Younger, Marcus’s son, we’ll call him Larry.

I received a query from someone about matching Larry autosomally.  I sent the note that I always do, with some basic genealogy info.  What I received back was a pedigree chart screen shot from the match, who we’ll call David, that included Thomas Younger as his ancestor.  He descended from Thomas via a daughter.

Once again, I was stunned, because here was the link we had sought for so many years…a genetic bond between Thomas and Marcus.

Of course, the first thing I did was to ask about other lines as well through which Larry and David might be related.  There were none.

Then I turned to DNA.  On the Family Tree DNA match list, Larry matches me and Larry matches David, but David is not on my match list.  This could well be because we don’t have any segment matches above the match threshold of approximately 7.7cM at Family Tree DNA, but since we both match Larry, I could look at Larry’s matches and then drop the comparison level to below the matching threshold to see all of our common matches between the three of us.

Here are our default 5cM matches.

I am orange.  David is blue.  Larry is who we are being compared against.

younger 5 cm

Dropping the cM level to 1 shows us that golden nugget we have searched for so diligently.

Look at chromosome 1.  All 3 of us match on a small segment of DNA.  That DNA is Younger DNA.  And that little orange and blue segment proves that indeed, Marcus and Thomas were related.

younger 1 cm

This also means that there will be others who fall into this “too small to be a match but hugely relevant small segment” scenario.  In order to take a look, I triangulated all of the matches for my cousin Larry and David, and there were a total of 15 individuals.

But here’s the amazing part.

There are 16 people in total, including Larry and David who match.

I compared them in the chromosome browser, and downloaded all of them.  I then sorted them by chromosome and start/end segment.  Here is that oh so beautiful “proof” match on chromosome 1.

younger match chart

There are a total of 191 individual segments across all chromosomes where these people match Larry.

Of those 191 segments,  there are also 94 segments on which one or more of us also match each other.  Those are shaded green above for chromosome 1.

Of those 94 segments, only 8 were large enough to be above the matching threshold.  That means that there were a total of 86 segments that were below the matching threshold but that were useful genealogically.  On chromosome 1 above, only Larry and I would have been over that threshold, and we were already shown as matches.

Looking at those 8 large segment matches, some were between known relatives on both sides, like me and Larry on chromosome 1, but until there was someone who connected the dots and matched someone on both sides, like David, on a segment large enough to be counted as a match, the connection wasn’t there and the other matches weren’t meaningful to the question and answer of whether Marcus and Thomas were related.

David matches Larry on a large enough segment to be counted as a match on chromosomes 4 and 10, neither of which is a match to me in that location.

The golden “proof” egg, in this case, for the three of us, was hidden in a very small golden egg croppedsegment on chromosome 1 that would otherwise have gone entirely unnoticed and unreported because it was not over the match threshold.

What’s next, you ask?  I’m sending e-mails to all 15 people, of course, asking how they connect to the Younger family.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be doubly lucky today and one of them will descend from one of the unknown wives families.  We have a couple of those surnames that are theorized but unproven.  That would be like hitting the lottery twice in one day!


This story already has a most wonderful PS.  The genealogy Gods are at work.

As soon as I finished composing this article, I had an e-mail from a match to Larry.  This lady is actually his closest match, but was not in the triangulation group I had been working with.  She told me that she is an adoptee and that she was seeking information.  On the off chance that she might fit into the group I had been working with, I downloaded her segments too and added it to the spreadsheet.  Not only does she fit in the group, she also matches me as well and other proven Younger descendants. not on chromosome 1, but on 3 other common locations.

She matches Larry most closely, so she likely descends from John Younger’s line through Larry’s ancestor.  I sent this woman some photos of the Younger descendants in my line, and she replied saying this is the first actual biological family line she has ever found.  She started actively looking in 1994 when she applied for her redacted adoption information and received a razored out paper that was full of holes and looked like Swiss cheese.  I can only imagine how she must have felt.

So, of course, I did what any other insanely addicted genealogist would have done.  I stayed up half the night, literally, putting together all of my “notes” in some semblance of order so she can see her family line, photos of my trip to fine the Marcus Younger cemetery, etc.  I asked her how she feels, and she said she is very excited and it’s also a tad bit scarry.  Yes, I imagine so…knowing you’re related to a crazy genealogist.  But you know, I bet she’s doing her happy dance too.

happy dance 2Note:  Photo of Younger Store taken by Brownie Mackie in 2002 in Halifax County, Va.



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DNA Testing for Genealogy 101

When I first began as a surname administrator for the Estes project, more than a decade ago, I wrote an “intro” basics document for anyone who might be interested in testing.  This saved me from having to repeat myself again and again.  I believe this is the 8th version of that document.  Genetic genealogy keeps changing, for the better, with more tests and tools available, so more to explain.

DNA testing for genealogy didn’t exist a few years ago.  In 1999, the first tests were performed for genetic genealogy and this wonderful tool which would revolutionize genealogy forever was born into the consumer marketplace from the halls of academia, thanks to one very persistent genealogist, Bennett Greenspan, now President of Family Tree DNA.

Initially we had more questions than answers.  If it’s true that we have some amount of DNA from all of our ancestors, how can we tell which pieces are from which ancestor?  How much can we learn from our DNA?  Where did we come from both individually and as population subgroups?  How can DNA help me knock down those genealogy brick walls?

In just a few short years, we have answers for most of these questions.  However, in this still infant science we continue to learn every day.  But before we discuss the answers, let’s talk for just a minute about how DNA works.

DNA – The Basics

Every human has 23 pairs of chromosomes (think of them as recipe books), which contain most of your DNA, functional units of which are known as genes (think of them as chapters).  One chromosome of each pair comes from a person’s mother and the other from their father.  Due to the mixing, called recombination, of DNA that occurs during meiosis prior to sperm and egg development, each chromosome in 22 of the 23 pairs, which are known as autosomes, has DNA (think of it as ingredients) from both the corresponding parent’s parents (and their ancestors before them).


Two portions of our DNA are not combined with that of the other parent.  The 23rd chromosome, in the box above, determines the sex of the individual.  Two X chromosomes produce a female and an X and a Y chromosome produce a male.  Women do not have a Y chromosome (otherwise they would be males) so they cannot contribute a Y chromosome to male offspring.  Given this scenario, males inherit their father’s Y chromosome unmixed with the mother’s DNA, and an X chromosome from their mother, unmixed with their father’s DNA.

This inheritance pattern is what makes it possible for us to use the Y chromosome to compare against other men of the same surname to see if they share a common ancestor, because if they do, their Y chromosome DNA will match, either exactly or nearly so, because it has been passed intact directly from those paternal ancestors.

Autosomal DNA, X chromosomal DNA and, in males, Y chromosomal DNA are all found in the nucleus of a cell.  A fourth type of DNA call mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA for short, resides within cells but outside the cell’s nucleus.  Mitochondrial DNA packets are the cell’s powerhouse as they provide the entire body with energy.

For both genders, mitochondria DNA is inherited only from the mother.  Men inherit their mother’s mtDNA, but do not pass it on to their offspring.  Women have their mother’s mtDNA and pass it to both their female and male offspring.  Given this scenario, women inherit their mother’s mtDNA unmixed with the father’s and pass it on generation to generation from female to female.  This inheritance pattern is what makes it possible for us to compare our mitochondrial DNA with that of others to determine whether we share a common maternal ancestor.


Autosomal DNA, the rest of your DNA, those other 22 chromosomes that are not the X/Y chromosome and not the mitochondrial DNA, tends to be transferred in groupings, which ultimately give us traits like Mother’s blue eyes, Grandpa’s chin or Dad’s stocky build.  Sometimes these inherited traits can be less positive, like deformities, diseases or tendencies like alcoholism.  How this occurs and what genes or combinations of genes are responsible for transferring particular traits is still being deciphered.

Sometimes we inherit conflicting genes from our parents and the resolution of which trait is exhibited is called gene expression.  For example, if you inherit a gene for blue eyes and brown eyes, you can’t have both, so the complex process of gene expression determines which color of eyes you will have.  However, this type of genetics along with medical genetics does not concern us when we are using genetics for genealogy.  Let’s focus initially on the unrecombined Y chromosomal DNA, called Y DNA for short, and mtDNA as genealogical tools.

How Can Unrecombined DNA Help Us With Genealogy?

I’m so glad you asked.

During normal cell combination, called meiosis, each ancestor’s autosomal DNA gets watered down or divided by roughly half with each generation, meaning each child gets half of the DNA carried by each parent.

However, that isn’t true of the Y DNA or mtDNA.  In the following example of just 4 generations, we see that the Y DNA, the blue box on the left, is passed down the paternal line intact and the son has the exact same Y DNA as his paternal great-grandfather.

Similarly, the round red doughnut shaped O represents the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and it is passed down the maternal side, so both the daughter and the son will have the exact same mtDNA as the maternal great-grandmother (but only the female child will pass it on).

yline mtdna

The good news is that you may well have noticed that the surname is passed down the same blue paternal path, so if this is a Jones family, the Y DNA travels right along with the surname.  How it can help us with genealogy now becomes obvious, because if we can test different male descendents who also bear the Jones surname, if they share a common ancestor somewhere in recent time (the last several hundred years), their DNA will match, or nearly so.  Surname projects have been created by volunteer administrators at Family Tree DNA to facilitate coordination and comparison of individuals carrying the same or similar surnames.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is useful as well, but not as easily for genealogical purposes since the maternal surname traditionally changes with each generation.

There have been several remarkable success stories using mitochondrial DNA, but they are typically more difficult to coordinate because of the challenges presented by the last name changes.  Sometimes joining regional projects is more useful for finding mtDNA matches than joining surname projects.  A case in point is the Cumberland Gap projects, both Y DNA and mtDNA, which have helped many people whose families lived in close proximity of the Cumberland Gap (at the intersection of Va., Tn. and Ky.) connect with their genetic cousins.  What mtDNA as well as Y DNA testing can easily do for us is to confirm, or put to bed forever, rumors of Native American, European, African or Asian ancestry in that direct line.

What About Mutations?

Another really good question.

Y DNA testing actually tests either 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111 locations on the Y chromosome, depending on which test you select.  What is actually reported at these locations is the number of exact repeats of that segment of DNA.  Occasionally, either a segment is dropped or one is added.  This is a normal process and typically affects nothing.  However, for genealogy, these changes or mutations are wonderful, as the number of segments in a particular location will typically be the same from generation to generation.  These mutations differentiate us and our families over time.  Without mutations, all of our DNA would look exactly alike and there would be no genetic genealogy.

For mitochondrial DNA, you can test at the entry level, the intermediate “plus” level and at the full sequence level.  If you think of the full sequence level, which tests the entire mitochondria, as a clock face, the entry level test tests from 5 till the hour to “noon” so from 11AM to 12 on the clock face.  The second intermediate level tests from “noon” to 5 after, or 1PM.  The full sequence level tests the entire clock face.  Ultimately, if it’s matches you’re looking for, you’ll want the full sequence test to provide you with the best matches and the ones closest to you in time, plus it provides you with your full haplogroup, or clan, designation.

When a change, called a mutation, does occur at a particular location, it is then passed from father to son (or mother to daughter) and on down that line.  That mutation, called a “line marker mutation” is then forever associated with that line of the family.  If you test different males with the same surname, and they match except for only a couple of minor differences, you can be assured that they do in fact share a common ancestor in a genealogically relevant timeframe.

A father can potentially sire several sons, some with no mutations, and others with different mutations, as shown by the red mutation bar in the following illustration.

accumulated genetic difference

In the above example, John Patrick Kenney had two sons, one with no mutation and Paul Edward Kenney who had one mutation.  All of the male descendents of Paul Edward Kenney have his mutation and a second mutation is added to this line at a new location in the generation above Stan Kenny.

John Patrick Kenney’s son who had no mutations sired a son Joseph Kenney, who had a mutation in yet a different location than either of the mutations in the Paul Edward Kenney line.

In the span of time between 1478 and 2004, this grouping of Kenney/Kenny families has accumulated 4 distinct lines as you can see across the bottom of the diagram, line 3 with no mutations, line 1 with 2 mutations, and two other lines with only one mutation each, but those mutations are not in the same location so they are easily differentiated in descendants testing today.  These are called “line marker” mutations and allow testers to quickly and easily see which line of the Kenny family they descend from.

What Do the Results Look Like?

Y DNA results are reported in the following format at Family Tree DNA where locus means the location number, the DYS# means the name of that marker location, and the number of alleles means the number of repeats of DNA found in that location.  This is a partial screen shot from the Family Tree DNA results page for a participant.

y results

This is interesting, but the power of DNA testing isn’t in what your numbers alone look like, but in how they compare with others of similar surnames.  So, you’re provided with a list of people that you match, along with access to their Gedcom file if they have uploaded one, most distant ancestor information, and most importantly, their e-mail address by clicking on the little envelope right after their name.

y matches

As a DNA Surname Project Administrator of several projects, I combine the groupings of participants into logical groupings based on their DNA patterns and their genealogy. Haplogroup projects are grouped by subgroup and mutations, and surname projects are grouped by matching family group.

The following table is an example from my Estes surname project which has very successfully identified the various sons of the immigrant ancestor, Abraham Estes born in 1647.  Based on his descendent lines’ DNA, we have even successfully reconstructed what Abraham’s DNA looked like, shown in green, through a process called triangulation, so we have a firm basis for comparison, and everyone is compared to Abraham.  Mutations are highlighted in yellow.

I have shown only an example of the full chart below.  Moses through John R’s line does have line marker mutations on markers that are not shown here.  Elisha’s line matches Abraham’s exactly.  We have had 4 descendents test from various sons of Elisha and so far we have found no mutations.

estes gridTo form a baseline within a family, we generally test two individuals from two separate lines of the common ancestor, just in case an undocumented adoption has occurred.  If these two individuals match, except for minor mutations, then we know basically what the DNA of your ancestor looks like and others can then test and compare results against that established line.

If you’re a female and can’t test for Y DNA markers, you’re not left out.  You’ll need to use traditional genealogy to find male lineal descendants of your ancestor that carry the family name.  Consider offering a scholarship for a descendent of that line to be tested and then advertise on Rootsweb lists and boards, on Yahoo groups, on Facebook and anyplace else that you think would be effective.

Mitochondrial results look slightly different from Y DNA, but the match information is in essence the same.

What Else Can We Tell?

The results of your tests not only tell you about your genealogy, they can also tell you about your deep ancestry and identify your deep ancestral clan.

Have you ever wondered where your ancestors came from before contemporary times?  We know that for the most part surnames did not exist before 1066, and in some places did not exist until much later.  The likelihood of us ever knowing where our ancestors were prior to 1066, unless we are extremely lucky, is very remote using conventional genealogical research methods.

However, now with the results of our DNA, we can peer through that keyhole and unlock that door.  Based on the results of our tests, and the relative rarity of the combined numbers, humans are grouped together in clans called haplogroups.  We know who was a member of which clan by both the tests shown above and a different kind of test, called a SNP (pronounced snip) test.

Population geneticists use this type of information to determine how groups of people migrated, and when.  We may well be able to tell if our clan is Celtic, or Viking, African, Native American or related to Genghis Khan, for example.  Based on our clan type, we may be able to tell where our group resided during the last ice age, and then trace their path from there to England or America over hundreds or thousands of years.  While this sounds farfetched, it certainly isn’t and many people are discovering their deep ancestry.  For example, we know that the Estes clan wintered the last ice age in Anatolia, and we know this because that is where other people who have this very rare combination of marker values are found in greater numbers than anyplace else on earth.

How Can I Test My Family?

It’s easy to get started.  For Y DNA testing, you only need one male volunteer that carries your surname who is descended from your oldest progenitor by the same surname.  To order a test kit, be sure to join a surname project for the best pricing.  You can check on various surname projects by going to www.familytreedna.com and entering the surname in the search box on the right hand side of the page where it says “Search Your Last Name.”

ftdna header

I searched for Estes and the information returned tells me how many people, both male and female, have tested with that surname, if an Estes project exists, and the link, and any other projects where the administrator has specifically entered the Estes surname.  So join the surname project and be sure to check out any others shown.

projects page

Anyone, males or females can test their mitochondrial DNA.  To test your own mitochondrial DNA, just order a test kit, and then follow the branch on your pedigree chart directly up your maternal line of the tree (your mother, her mother, her mother, etc.) to see whose mitochondrial DNA you carry.

Autosomal, the Third Kind of DNA Testing

In the past two or three years, autosomal DNA testing has really come into its own.  This type of testing does not focus on one line, like the Y-line DNA focuses only on the direct paternal surname line and the mitochondrial focuses only on the direct maternal line.  The Y DNA and mtDNA are wonderful tests and provide you with huge amounts of information, but they can’t tell you anything about your other lines…not unless you can find a cousin from that other surname line and beg to have his or her DNA tested.  This process (the testing, not the begging) is called building your DNA pedigree chart.

You can see an example of my DNA pedigree chart below.  Being a female, I obviously can’t test for any Y DNA lines, so I had to find cousins to test for those lines.  I can test for the direct mitochondrial line, but that still leaves most of the 14 great-great-grandparents with no information at all.  By mining surname projects and begging cousins to test, I have filled in a number of these slots, but certainly not all.

DNA Pedigree

But the time comes that you can’t complete the chart, or you have other genealogy questions to answer, and you’ll need to move to the third type of DNA testing, autosomal.

Autosomal testing provides you with two primary features.

First, autosomal testing provides you with percentages of ethnicity.  This may or may not excite you.  Understand that when you’re looking for that elusive Native American great-great-great-grandmother, that you may or may not carry enough or a large enough piece of her DNA to be identified.  But you’ll never know if you don’t test.


Second, you receive a list of cousin matches.  These are people who match you on your autosomal results.  This means that they are related to you on one line or another.  It’s up to you to figure out which line, but there are tools and techniques to utilize.  You probably won’t recognize the names of most of your matches, and you may or may not recognize a common ancestor.  In some cases, the genealogy isn’t far enough back or there are other challenges in identifying a common ancestor.  However, some huge brick walls have fallen for people and continue to fall daily by using autosomal tools to identify common ancestral families.

ff matches

I wrote a series on “The Autosomal Me” which describes in detail how to utilize your Autosomal results.

Ok, now you’re convinced.  You want to see who you match and meet those new cousins just waiting.

Summary – Who Can Test For What???

Just to be sure we all understand, here’s a handy chart that summarizes who can test for what at Family Tree DNA and what you discover!

who can test

What About The Test…

You may wonder why I recommend Family Tree DNA for testing.  It’s simple.  They are the only DNA testing company that offers the full range of tests and tools needed by genetic genealogists.  They are the oldest company and have the largest data base, in addition to tools that facilitate using multiple types of test results togetherFamily Tree DNA has been wonderful to work with, sponsors free surname, haplogroup, geographic and special interest projects and are infinitely patient and extremely helpful.  They are also a partner to the National Geographic Society and participants from the Genographic project can transfer results into the Family Tree DNA database for free.

Testing is done at Family Tree DNA using a cheek swab that looks like a Q-tip.

swab kit

A test kit is shown above.  Just swab the inside of your cheek, put the swab back in the vial and mail back to the lab.  It’s that easy.

To see someone collecting a sample from receiving the envelope in the mail to mailing it off again, click here http://www.davedorsey.com/dna.html.

Receiving your Results

After you receive your Y DNA or mitochondrial results at Family Tree DNA on your personal page, please consider our Y-Line or Mitochondrial DNA Personal DNA ReportsFamily Tree DNA customers who have minimally tested at 37 markers for the Y DNA or the mtDNA full sequence for mitochondrial can also order their reports directly through Family Tree DNA on their personal page.

What you discover from your own DNA will be priceless – and there is no other way to make these discoveries other than DNA testing.  Your DNA results are notes in bottles that have sailed over time from your ancestor to you.  Begin your adventure today, open that bottle and see what secrets your ancestors sent!

Be sure to sign up for the this blog to keep current with genetic genealogy.  There is great introductory and educational material there as well, and it’s free. You can sign up by clicking on the little grey “follow” button in the upper right hand corner of the main blog page.

Happy ancestor hunting!!!

Smith and Jones

I just love a good mystery – don’t you?  To be good, it has to have some romance of course, a villain, an interesting plot with a twist, a couple red herrings and an unexpected outcome.  Personally, I like happy endings too – I just don’t want them to be too predictable.

Well, welcome to the Smith and Jones mystery.  And no, those names have not been changed to protect anybody.  They are quite real.

When I receive an order for a Personalized DNA Report, I send the client a short questionnaire to complete.  They have the opportunity to tell me why they tested their DNA, their goals, ask any specific questions, and to provide their genealogy so I have something to work with.  In addition, I customize the cover of their report with their family photos if they so desire.

When Mr. Jones returned his questionnaire, in answer to the questions about why he tested, he gave this response:

“My paternal grandfather was the son of an unwed mother.  So my paternal line doesn’t go back very far.  I really hope the DNA can help me find out who my paternal ancestors were.  So far, the indicators are they are Smiths from Bladen County, North Carolina.”

I cringed when I saw this.  Here’s a Jones who thinks he’s a Smith.  How am I ever going to straighten this out with these extremely common surnames?

In the genealogy section, he gave me a little more information.

His paternal grandfather, William Hobson Jones, below, was born in 1902 in Bladenboro, NC to unwed mother Emma Elizabeth Jones.

Those are all the facts I had to work with, other than his DNA results themselves, of course.

To begin, I checked the haplogroup hoping for something exotic that will serve as a differentiator.  R1b1a2-U106 – so no luck there.  However, when I prepared his marker frequency chart, he did have 3 very rare marker values.  Great.  Now we are getting someplace.

I divide marker values into three categories.  Very rare marker values occur in 6% or less of the haplogroup population, rare markers in less than 25%, and the balance are just unremarkable.  It’s the rare and very rare markers that give me something to work with, because they form a very specific genetic family surname “fingerprint.”  In this case, Mr. Jones’ marker 458 carried a value of 15 which occurs in 2% of the haplogroup R1b population, 576 with a value of 16 which occurs 6% of the time and 444 with 14 that occurs only 1% of the time.  These are the litmus paper tests of a real match.  In addition to these very rare marker values, he had 9 additional rare markers that can be used to refine the match criteria.  We’re in good shape for matching.

Mr. Jones had tested at 67 markers, but he had no matches at that level.  However, at 37 markers, he had 3 matches, and they were all to Smith men, none of whom had tested at 67 markers.  Now there’s a good indicator that he was right, that his genetic line is indeed Smith.  His exact match listed his oldest ancestor as being from Germany, but gave no name.  His one mutation match showed his oldest ancestor as Jeremiah Smith born 1795 NC and his 2 mutation match showed no information at all.  None of these matches had uploaded GEDCOM files.  Disappointing. With more information, this would have been much easier, but it wouldn’t be a good mystery without some glitches!

At 25 markers, he only had 7 matches, but at 12 markers, he had a whopping 536.  Obviously his first panel was too vanilla to be very useful, but of course, I did check for additional Smith men.  None to be found.  Just the 3, but those 3 are all very solid.

Sometimes, at this point, projects are a saving grace.  Project administrators are amazing people and put forth a lot of work, sort families, collect genealogies, etc.  The Smith DNA project does not have a public website at Family Tree DNA, but they do have a private site.


At their site, I found a group of Smiths who match Mr. Jones, descended from one Moses Jones of Bladen County.  Huh?  This stopped me in my tracks for a minute, until I realized that this is my client’s kit number, and the Jones family, meaning Emma’s father’s line, indeed, does go back to a Moses Jones.  This would be irrelevant were it not incorrect, because Moses Jones’ male Y-line does not match the Smiths.  The only Jones line that matches a Smith is the one descended from his daughter Emma who had a child outside of wedlock, apparently by a Smith.

By this time, I was chomping at the bit to work with the genealogy records.  William Hobson Jones was born in 1902, so I was hopeful I could find his mother, Emma Jones, in the 1900 census.  The first rule in begetting is that the begetters must have physical proximity to each other – and the traveling salesman is the exception, not the rule.

Sure enough, in the 1900 census, there was Emma, right with her parents Nathan and Elizabeth Jones.  Emma was much older than I had expected, age 36.  She would have been considered a spinster in that time and place, and was probably considered a burden to her family.  Having a child would not have improved that situation any.

However, we have hit the proverbial jackpot here.  Take a closer look…..at the next door neighbor.

Claudius Smith is the neighbor….but wait….with his wife Glenora Smith.  Ok, let’s see if any of their sons are old enough to be the father of Emma’s child.  Nope, the oldest son is only 13, but Claudius himself is 38, just 2 years older than Emma.  Hmmm…..looks like maybe Claudius is the father, or at least he’s our best candidate right now.  Now Claudius might not be the father, but I’d wager that it is someone in his family, like a brother or uncle perhaps, if it is not him.  This Smith family is the best candidate due to the old begetters proximity rule.

This also might explain why Emma didn’t marry the father.  I wonder if she ever told anyone the identity of the father.  The family today certainly didn’t know.

Simple morbid curiosity got the best of me at this point.  I just had to look in the 1910 census to see if Claudius Smith and the Jones family were still neighbors. Was there a feud?  Did someone move?  Imagine my surprise to see Claudius married to Emma who had borne 4 children by this point.  What happened to Glenora?  And why did my client not tell me about this?  Surely he must have known.  Looking closer, this Emma is all of age 28 and her oldest child is 4….and flipping the census page, Emma Jones, along with her son Willie, age 6, indeed are still living next door, now in her brother’s household.  It seems that perhaps Claudius liked woman named Emma.  Maybe he was a widower when Emma Jones became pregnant.

I wondered if I could connect Claudius Smith with the Jeremiah Smith born in 1795 in NC shown as the oldest ancestor of one of Mr. Jones’ Smith matches.  I checked various sources, and Ancestry had a tree that pushed this particular Smith family back another generation, but not to Jeremiah.  This could probably be done, but not with the time alloted for genealogy in a DNA report.  I needed to look for other tools.  http://trees.ancestry.com/owt/person.aspx?pid=19139247

Chess Smith is shown as Claudius’s father and Elizabeth Ann Blackburn as his mother.  And yes, I’m fully aware that online trees should not be taken at face value, but they are good starting points and cannot be presumed to be incorrect either, especially if they confirm a suspected fact.  In this case, that didn’t happen – no Jeremiah.

Fortunately, Mr. Jones had also taken a Family Finder test.  He of course had Smith matches.  Who doesn’t?  But he also had three Blackburn matches.  The addition of this single female line surname gave me something concrete to look for.  I suggested that Mr. Jones contact his Blackburn autosomal matches to see if they can connect to the Chess Smith line.

So, at the end of the day that began with some level of apprehension that I might not be able to help Mr. Jones identify his genetic paternal line, we had a great research plan in hand.

We had discovered that the neighbor’s name was Smith, and he was married with 11 children in 1900, which might just explain why Emma never married the father of her child.  Of course, there might be other reasons too, like the father wasn’t Claudius, but another Smith relative.  It looks very promising, using autosomal tools to find Chess Smith’s wife’s surname, Blackburn, that this is indeed the correct Smith family.

Mr. Jones has some genealogy homework to do on the Chess Smith line, and some contact homework to do with his Blackburn matches, but now he does indeed have the information along with the tools he needs to solve the Jones-Smith mystery and break down that brick wall!

And thank you, Mr. Jones for permission to share your exciting family story!



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Surprise Y Matches – What do they Mean?

One of our blog followers, Tom, encountered the following situation, which, really isn’t so uncommon.

“I started up a Y-DNA surname project and recruited my only three living male 1st cousins who carry that name.

The first set of 67 results have recently been posted and within a day an exact match appeared with an individual who had only tested to 37 markers back in 2008.  Apparently the individual has had very few close matches and never a perfect match like my cousin’s.  But the individual has a different surname.

Is it possible to have an identical match as a random event?  How common are such occurrences?  What possible explanations could there be?”

Let’s look at Tom’s situation from different perspectives and see what we can find.

When I do DNA Reports for people, I still find people who don’t have any matches.  It’s not as unusual as people think.  In a way, it’s a blessing as compared to people who have so many matches that they can’t even begin to sort through them.  But to the person who doesn’t have any matches, it surely doesn’t seem like there’s a positive side to the situation.

First of all, remember that mutations can happen at any time in any generation….or not.  In the Estes line, Abraham Estes, one of two Estes immigrants to colonial America was born in 1647.  He had 8 sons.  We had DNA from the descendants of all 8 sons.  We reconstructed Abraham’s DNA using triangulation, so we know what his original genetic “signature” looked like.  One of those sons’ lines has 4 mutations in 8 generations, and one line has none.  The rest fall in the middle someplace.

I only mention this to illustrate that mutations are truly random events.  We use statistics to look at the “most likely” scenario, based on averages, but mutations are personal events and while they, as a whole, fall nicely into statistical models, individually, they happen when they happen.  You can see that the mutation rate can vary quite a bit, even within families.  Keep that in mind during the rest of this discussion.

Family Tree DNA gives us some tools to work with these kinds of situations.  The TIP calculator, available for every match by clicking on the little orange TIP button, tells us, statistically, how likely people are to match at which generational level.  This is called the time to the most recent common ancestor, or MRCA.  I did an earlier blog about this.

Comparing two exact 37 marker matches, below, we see that, statistically speaking, on the average, these two people are most likely to share a common ancestor about the second generation, meaning grandparents.  Again, word of caution, these are averages, which is why you have a range shown here.  DO NOT TAKE THEM LITERALLY.  I can’t tell you how many people obsess over these numbers and think that these numbers are telling them exactly when they share a common ancestor.  They don’t.

So let’s answer the questions that Tom asked.

Is it possible to have an identical match as a random event?

No, it’s not.  These men share a common ancestor at some point.  The question is, when and where.  However, it is possible to match on many markers, and then not on others.  I would suggest that these men upgrade to 111 markers and see how closely they match at that level.  I have seen at least one instance where 2 men matched at 37 and then had 5 or 6 mutations at the 67/111 marker level.  Unusual?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.

How common are such occurrences?

This isn’t as unusual as you would think.  I see this fairly often.  I always tell people to do four things.

First, upgrade the people you have to 111 markers.  If they continue to match at 111 markers, exactly, you probably have a very close match genealogically.

Second, find a second person to test from each line, as far back as possible.  In other words, if you’re testing the Abraham Estes line, you would want to find another son from Abraham to test to see if the DNA of the two sons match.  If they do match, then you know you have the lines proven back to 1647.  If not, then you know you have a non-paternal event (NPE) of some type, otherwise known as an undocumented adoption.  I call them undocumented adoptions because everyone knows what that means, and regardless of how it happened, it’s “undocumented” because we didn’t know about it.  In Tom’s case, he already has his 3 cousins, so his line is proven back to the common ancestor of those men.  Hopefully the person with the other surname can also find someone else from his line to test.

Third, enter the results into Sorenson at www.smgf.org and also into www.Ancestry.com for Y-line results to see if you come up with any other people who also match with that surname.  This is especially useful if you are having difficulty finding people to test.

Note: Neither SMGF nor Ancestry’s Y data base are available.

Fourth, look around the neighborhood – genealogically.  Are there reports of the two families in question being allied or intermarried in some location?  Were they neighbors in the same county?  In many cases, once you figure out that an undocumented adoption occurred – you can figure out in which generation through selective DNA testing, and often, which families were involved through DNA combined with historical and genealogical records.

In essence, to solve this type of puzzle, you need to become somewhat of a genealogical detective.

Tom’s last question was what kinds of situations could explain these results.

In some cases, especially where there are some mutations involved (meaning not exact matches), suggesting some time distance between common ancestors, matches between surnames occur because the families involved simply adopted different surnames.  When surnames were adopted varies dramatically by the location of the families and the circumstances involved.  For example, in the US, some Native American families were still using Native names in the 1880s.  Freed slaves adopted surnames upon obtaining their freedom in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and sometimes changed that surname at will.  In the Netherlands, some families didn’t take names until in 1811 when Napoleon mandated that they do so.  In England, some wealthy families had surnames by 1066, but peasants didn’t adopt surnames, for the most part, until in the 1200s and 1300s.  Jewish families in some parts of Europe didn’t adopt surnames until in the early 1800s.

Sometimes surname changes that look to us like undocumented adoptions occurred not at birth, but later in life.  Some people simply changed their names for a variety of reasons.

In one case, a man named John though he killed a man in Tennessee, ran off to the frontier which was at that time in Texas and changed his name, only to discover years later that not only had the man he shot not died, but that man had then married John’s wife he abandoned when he left.  Hmmm….karma at work.

One of the most common reasons for ‘undocumented adoptions’ is that a step-father raised the children and the kids simply used his name….forever.  So maybe John’s kids, above, took the surname of the man John shot.  Now this is getting interesting!!!  No wonder we have trouble figuring these things out retrospectively.

Another reason, of course, is that illegitimate children took the mother’s surname, but carry the father’s DNA signature.  In Native American cultures, matrilineal naming was very common, as is it in the African American culture, especially immediately after the end of slavery.  Children took whatever surname their mother adopted at that time.

Of course, the one thing we haven’t mentioned is the obvious….where someone was unfaithful.  Generally, that’s the first thing people think of…but it’s really not the most common reason.  But sometimes, indeed, it appears that Granny might have been a “loose woman.”  Don’t judge Granny too hardly though, because you really never know what happened in Granny’s life.  She could have had no choice in the matter, or her husband could have been abusive. We often see these conceptions during periods of war, especially the Civil War.  In one case, we know that a woman exchanged sexual favors for food for her children.  It’s really hard to be critical of that woman.

So the real answer for Tom is that there is no cut and dried answer, but lots of possibilities to explore.  You’re going to have to get out your Columbo tools and sleuth away….



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.

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