I’ve been hesitant to rock this boat, hoping this ship would right itself, but I’ve decided that this vessel needs to be swayed a bit with the hope of providing encouragement and perhaps positive motivation for change.
Based on my ancestors, I qualify to join multiple lineage societies, including both the DAR and the Mayflower Society.
I checked the qualifications for both, and did not apply to the DAR, but did inquire about membership to the Mayflower Association for several reasons:
- 2020 is the 400th anniversary of Plymouth Colony, meaning there should be lots going on next year.
- I descend from Pilgrims; William Brewster, Patience Brewster, William’s wife Mary Brewster, Stephen Hopkins and Gyles Hopkins.
- I felt that my expertise might be beneficial to the organization, in multiple ways, especially given the upcoming opportunities to recruit new members in 2020.
The first thing I ran into was a brick wall, not an ancestral brick wall, but an organizational one.
Lineage societies require your birth certificate.
Birth certificates are the most personal document you will ever have. Birth certificates are utilized for passports and are the premier document, meaning the most highly prized, for identity theft. Once compromised, you can never obtain a different birth certificate. It’s not like a credit card that you can cancel and have reissued.
Furthermore, you don’t actually need a birth certificate if you have tested the appropriate parent – and I have.
In fact, here’s my predicted relationship to my deceased mother at Family Tree DNA.
My mother is deceased, so her identity can no longer be compromized. I don’t have any problem providing her birth and death certificates in addition to an obituary that states that I’m her daughter – plus the genetic evidence of course. In fact, I could join the Mayflower DNA Project, and as administrators, they could see that relationship for themselves.
Furthermore, birth certificates are sometimes wrong – very wrong.
When Birth Certificates are Wrong
Birth certificates are wrong or misleading in the following circumstances:
- People who are adopted and don’t know it
- People who are adopted and know who their relevant biological parent is but have no access to a birth certificate showing their biological parents
- People whose parent is not who they believe it is
In some circumstances, the child’s birth certificate isn’t incorrect, but the lineage may be incorrect when people’s ancestors beyond their parents are not the recorded individuals. Yes, I’m referring to the dreaded NPE, non-paternal event or not parent expected. You can read more about that here.
Aside from the issues above, there’s the issue of security when storing the birth certificate and privacy associated with the parents named on the birth certificate, especially if they are living.
Security and Privacy
Let’s take the issue of privacy first. Let’s say, for example, that an applicant’s parents weren’t married. The relevant parent is the applicant’s mother, not the father, so the identity of the father (or lack thereof) is irrelevant for lineage society membership.
The father’s privacy is compromised, along with the fact that the society now knows that the applicant’s parents weren’t married at the time the applicant was born. That’s entirely irrelevant to the application, and an invasion of the privacy of all 3 people involved.
Requiring applicants to submit a birth certificate, especially when genetic forms of identification are now readily available, forces the applicant to disclose information not relevant to joining a lineage society.
Frankly, anything beyond confirming an applicant’s connection to the relevant parent is none of anyone’s business.
Second, the applicant has absolutely no idea who is going to have access to their birth certificate in the future, once submitted, where it will be stored and security precautions taken, if any.
When inquiring about birth certificates at the Mayflower Society, I was told then are kept in locked cabinets but would probably be scanned soon.
While I’m sure this was supposed to make me feel better, it struck terror into my heart.
Often, organizations are slow to adopt technology as a whole, and when they do, they often aren’t aware of and don’t utilize safety and security precautions. Organizations owe it to their membership to stay current with security requirements and maintain up-do-date security measures. So, while I was already concerned enough about who has access to the filing cabinet key, I’m terrified about savvy hackers taking blatant advantage of an ill-secured or unsecured computer.
The sad part is that today, this is really a moot point because with DNA, many times we don’t need birth certificates for proof – and the only reason to continue doing what has always been done is ignorance, inertia and resistance to change.
Because birth certificates without genetic evidence are considered as the only accepted proof of a relationship to the applicant’s parents, this means that many adoptees have joined believing they are a linear descendant of the ancestor in question. Legally, they are.
Each organization needs to consider whether they want to honor linear paper descent as membership criteria or whether they are looking for linear biological descent. Or perhaps both.
Today, some adoptees who discover their biological parents would be eligible if they had not been adopted – but they are not eligible for membership because they don’t have a birth certificate with the biological parent’s name as their parent.
This creates an awkward situation, at best.
People who should be able to join, can’t, because of the birth certificate issue. And some people who are not biological descendants can join with no problem.
Is this the intention?
This is not small consideration. According to the University of Oregon, 5 million living people in the US are adopted, with 2-4% of all families having adopted, and 2.5% of children under the age of 18 being adoptees.
The DAR requires direct linear descent from a Revolutionary War Veteran. Like with the Mayflower Society, I won’t provide my birth certificate, so I’m not eligible to join.
The DAR has for many years accepted Y DNA at 37 markers as a portion of proof. According to this document, one close relative of the application must match the Y DNA of a descendant of an already “proven” patriot exactly at 37 markers.
This protocol is flawed in multiple ways.
Let’s say we have 2 men who descend from a common patrilineal ancestor, but we’re not sure which ancestor.
Today the Y DNA of these men matches at some level. STR mutations do not occur on a schedule and the reality of when/how often mutations occur varies widely. It’s certainly possible, and even likely, that in the roughly 9 generations, using a 25-year generation, since that patriot was born, that a marker mutation occurred. That would disqualify the applicant from using DNA evidence.
Conversely, if I’m a male Estes applicant and I want to apply to the DAR based on my descent from George Estes, my Y DNA may match the descendants of George at some level whether or not I’m descended from George or George’s brother, father or uncle. Y DNA really can only disprove a direct paternal relationship, not prove it.
In other words, there’s no or little analysis involved, simply a rule that doesn’t make sense.
Click to enlarge
Let’s take a look at this example.
George Estes is the patriot, born in 1761. George had 3 brothers, Josiah, Bartlett and Winston.
George’s father, Moses II, had two brothers, John and William, who also had sons.
I’ve shown only one son’s line for both John and William, and I’ve named each man’s descendants the same name as his – for clarity.
John R. Estes, descendant of George was our original tester, and therefore, every other person who applies and submits Y DNA MUST match John R. Estes exactly at 37 markers.
George’s other descendant, George, comes along, but he does not match John R. exactly, having had one mutation someplace in the line between the patriot and George the tester’s birth. Therefore, George the tester’s Y DNA cannot be used – even though he is a descendant of George the patriot.
Based on my experience, it’s more likely that they won’t match at 37 markers, after 8 or 9 generations, than they will. That’s certainly the case in the Estes surname project.
In reality, in colonial families, everyone named their sons after their father, grandfather and often, brothers – so the names in all of these generations are likely to be the same, meaning John, William, George and Moses would likely be sprinkled in each generation of every line – causing confusion when attempting to genealogically connect back to the right Estes ancestor.
We see in our example chart, that by chance, William actually does match John R. exactly at 37 markers, even though George doesn’t. Therefore, if William was trying to use DNA to prove descent from George, even though that’s inaccurate, the Y DNA evidence would be allowed. So would Winston, descendant of George’s brother.
The only three that were accurate, based on the full 37 match rule is John, who does not descend from George, Josiah who was adopted and Bartlett who does descend from the same Estes line, but has too many mutations at that level to be considered a match to John R. Estes at all.
In other words, the only real descendant of the patriot is excluded, where 2 men not descended from the patriot would be included if they thought they descended from George.
Furthermore, one can be descended from George through a daughter and still qualify for DAR membership. If I believed, due to the Estes surname and other evidence, like a mention of a grandchild by name in George’s estate, that I descended from George’s son, but I actually descend through George’s daughter who was not married and gave her child the Estes surname – I would still technically qualify to join but the non-matching Y DNA would disqualify me today.
Another issue is if the original tester had been adopted or descended from a non-Estes male, every future tester would be compared to the wrong Y DNA and while the incorrect Y DNA would continue to be the reference sample for the patriot – even after it could be proven that was inaccurate due to multiple matching tests from multiple sons of George.
Rules without thoughtful analysis simply don’t work well. We know a whole lot more today than when these rules were put in place.
Parental Autosomal DNA is Definitive
Parental autosomal DNA is definitive unless you are dealing with an identical twin.
In addition to the actual match itself, you can see that parents and children match on the entire length of every chromosome.
Here’s my Mom’s chromosome browser match with me. There is no question that we are parent and child. Furthermore, looking at DNAPainter’s shared cM project tool, we can see that there is no other relationship that has the same match level as a parent/child relationship. My match with my mother is 3384 cM.
Could someone go to a great deal of trouble to change a siblings name to their name or change their child’s name to their parent’s name to “fake” the identities of the people involved? Yes, they could if they had proper access to all accounts.
However, I can do exactly the same thing with a paper birth certificate, even with a seal.
My DNA test matching my mother, in conjunction with my mother’s birth and death certificates, in addition to her obituary identifying me as a child is about the most definitive evidence you could ever produce – far, far, more reliable than a birth certificate which would state that my mother is my mother even if I’m adopted.
This scenario works for adoptees as well in multiple scenarios, such as full siblings who clearly share both parents. In this case, if the non-adopted sibling is a lineage society member, then based on a DNA match at the full sibling level, the adopted individual should qualify for membership too. This isn’t the only example, just the first one that came to mind.
Thoughtful analysis and understanding of DNA is required.
Distant DNA is Not Black and White
While a parent-child autosomal relationship is evident, other autosomal relationships require analysis by someone experienced with that type of evaluation.
Furthermore, Y DNA can be deceptive as well, because the extent of what Y DNA can tell you is that two men descend from a common ancestor, not which common ancestor, nor how long ago, with very few exceptions. The exception would be when the actual Revolutionary War veteran experienced a SNP mutation that his sons have, but his brothers don’t.
However, no lineage societies that I know of utilize Y DNA SNP or even autosomal DNA evidence – even at the most basic level of parent/child.
With increasingly advanced testing, analysis versus line-in-the-sand rules needs to be implemented.
If lineage societies are going to utilize DNA testing, they need to stay current with technology and utilize best practices of genetic evidence.
Lineage Society Suggestions
Lineage societies need to re-evaluate their goals with applicants’ privacy and security in mind, in addition to how they can utilize genetic and other evidence to replace the existing birth certificate requirement – both in terms of traditional applicants like myself, as well as adoptees.
I have the following suggestions to be implemented as steps in a comprehensive solution:
- Decide as a matter of policy whether applicants are allowed to join based on their paper trail descendancy, or their biological descendancy, or both. Paper trail only, meaning no additional evidence would be considered, would allow membership by children adopted into descendant families, but not children adopted out of descendant families. If genetic descendants are accepted, this allows children adopted out of descendant families to join once the relationship is discovered. If both types of membership are embraced, that avoids the issue of how to handle people who have already joined and subsequently discover they or their ancestors are/were adopted.
- Determine the course of action when a line discovers that their Y DNA does not match that of the ancestor in question, especially given that the person could still potentially be a linear descendant through a female who gave the child her (the patriot’s) surname.
- Obsolete the requirement for birth certificates at all when possible. If a DNA test proving a relationship can be substituted in lieu of a birth certificate, accept that as the preferred form of evidence.
- Obsolete the requirement to physically submit any applicant’s birth certificate. Two individuals viewing a certificate with the relevant parent’s information exposed, and the non-relevant parent obscured, should suffice when no other avenue can be utilized. This eliminates the storage and privacy issues and requirements.
- Implement a system that records the fact that current members and applicants have submitted a paper birth certificate that includes the parent of interest, then shred the existing birth certificates for anyone living. Without proof of death, this is presumed to be anyone under 100 years of age.
- Allow additional proofs like parents’ obituaries instead of children’s birth certificates. This can easily be verified using publicly available sources such as Newspapers.com., etc.
- Utilize Y DNA primarily to eliminate a line, and only when the descendants don’t match at 111 markers or are a completely different base haplogroup, such as haplogroup C versus R. Evaluate Y DNA matches along with other evidence, specifically looking for a mutation trail, if appropriate.
- Remove the out-of-date requirement for future descendants to be required to match the Y DNA of an already “paper proven” ancestor. Paper can easily be wrong.
- Revamp the DNA policies and procedures to incorporate qualified analysis. Provide guidelines instead of rules.
- Retain a competent genetic genealogist to analyze applications that include DNA evidence, understanding that a CG, certified genealogist, certificate has no bearing on or evidence of the competence of that individual in DNA analysis. There is no genetic genealogy certification and many people who consult in the autosomal space are not experienced in the Y and mitochondrial DNA arenas.
The Alternate Future
Many older genealogical organizations are struggling for life. For the Mayflower Society, 2020 is a banner year. I hope they take advantage of the opportunity by not hobbling themselves with out-of-date requirements that are unnecessarily risky to applicants.
Younger people won’t join otherwise. Out of date and unreasonably burdensome membership requirements will cause membership to shrink over time until the organization shrivels and dies, going the way of the dinosaurs.
I would like to join multiple lineage organizations, but that won’t happen until the organizations update their policies to utilize widely and inexpensively available technology, along with associated best practices.
If you’d like to see these suggested changes implemented, and especially if you would be willing to help, make your voices heard to lineage societies, especially if you are already a member.
These organizations play an important role in the preservation of the records and information of our ancestors. I hope they choose to adapt.
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