Have you been thinking about testing DNA for family history research, ethnicity clues, finding unknown family members, or other considerations? Here are a couple of recent articles that might help you understand what DNA testing can and can’t do for you:
As I mentioned in a recent article about maternal kin, Dee and Mom and I met cousins in June who we had found through DNA testing. In August we visited Diane and Janet in Ohio, meeting their mother Betty and their brother Jim. Mom was delighted to meet Betty, who is Mom’s age but is a first cousin of Mom’s mother. Betty’s mother Grace Dennis Abell was my Grandma Sovereign’s mother Idell Dennis Fisher’s youngest sister. While enjoying the company of our new-found cousins, we shared information about our Dennis and Powell ancestors.
Rachel was born in Mill Creek Township near West Unity, Williams County, Ohio on 11 February 1854. She entered the world in a family of strong religious ties. Her mother, Amy Cliffton, was raised in a large extended family of Friends, commonly known as Quakers. Clifftons, Bortons, Townes and other Quaker families were interconnected for generations. When Amy Powell died shortly after her daughter Rachel’s birth, a Borton cousin reportedly served as Rachel’s nurse. Rachel’s father, Joseph Powell, was a farmer and Methodist preacher.
Rachel and John Dennis
Rachel married John Samuel Dennis, ten years her senior, in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan on 13 October 1872. John was a veteran of the Civil War, having served in the 111th Ohio Volunteer Infantry for about three years. John’s obituary stated that he was born in Mansfield, Richland County, Ohio on 3 April 1844 shortly after his family’s arrival from England. His family lived in Mill Creek Township, Williams County by 1850.
In 1880 John and Rachel lived across the state line in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan with their children Joseph Clinton, Mary Amy, and Hannah as well as John’s mother Mary Dennis.
In 1890, John was listed in the Veterans Schedule for Ransom Township, Hillsdale County. Nearly all of the Population Schedules listing residents for the 1890 census have been destroyed so we have no record of the rest of the family in that census.
In 1894, the Michigan state census records John and Rachel in Ransom Township with Hannah, Charlotte, Clara May, Florence Idell, Anna Lucille, Arthur John and Ellen Grace.
John and Rachel’s relationship was apparently somewhat tenuous. John filed for divorce from Rachel in the Circuit Court of Hillsdale County, Michigan on 27 April 1897. Their oldest son, Clinton, died later in 1897 after suffering interstitial nephritis for perhaps three years. Their youngest child, Grace, had been born in 1894.
In 1900 Rachel was listed by the census enumerator in Morenci, Seneca Township, Lenawee County, Michigan with Charlotte, Idell, Anna, John, and Grace. Morenci borders the Ohio state line a few miles east of Williams County. Rachel was reported as married, but her husband John was not in the household. I have not yet located John S. Dennis in 1900 census records.
In 1910 John Dennis was listed in the household of his son-in-law and daughter Olla and Charlotte Moyer in Hudson Township, Lenawee County, Michigan. John was identified as divorced in this census enumeration. I have not located Rachel Dennis in the 1910 census.
On 21 June 1915 the Circuit Court of Lenawee County granted a divorce to John dissolving his marriage with Rachel on grounds of desertion. John married Sarah Russell Keefer on 9 July 1915 in Morenci. Her first husband had died in 1912.
In 1920 Rachel was recorded as a divorced woman in Hillsdale, Hillsdale County. Her occupation was reported as evangelist. John was recorded in Morenci, Seneca Township, Lenawee County, married to Sarah Dennis, age 43. Their household included children from Sarah’s previous marriage.
John died 5 July 1926 in Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan. He was buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery at Morenci, apparently in a family plot associated with his second wife Sarah. John was buried next to Sarah’s third husband Cyrus Bowersox and near one of her children from her first marriage, Earl Keefer.
In 1930 Rachel was recorded in the census enumeration as widowed, living in Hillsdale, Hillsdale County. She was reported as a seamstress. On 16 June 1930 Rachel was ordained as a Minister of the Gospel by the Assembly of God at The Gospel School, Findlay, Ohio. This school, described in an article about T.K. Leonard, was part of his work in the founding of the Assemblies of God. This was the final year of the school’s operation. Rachel apparently served in home mission work before she was ordained. She used a tambourine to accompany her music and message.
Rachel died 11 April 1937 in Medina Township, Lenawee County, Michigan. An index of her obituary provides more information about her family. Rachel was buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery at Morenci in a plot with her son Clinton, daughter Anna, and great-grandson Harold Apger.
Betty’s research notes indicate that her mother, Grace, was about a year and a half old when her parents separated. Without uncovering first-hand evidence or knowledge of causes leading to the dissolution of John and Rachel’s marriage, we can only speculate about some potential factors.
Was the strain of Clinton’s decline that eventually led to death a factor?
Was Rachel, mindful of her own mother’s death from childbirth, withholding her affections? Large families, including her father’s, were quite common. She might have been concerned about that prospect.
Was Rachel beginning to focus on gospel work outside of the home that might not have met John’s approval? John was described by his daughter as having died a Christian, suggesting that he had not always appreciated efforts in faith.
Was John convinced that Rachel had been unfaithful? He is reported to have had some doubt of Grace’s paternity, but I have seen no evidence suggesting infidelity on Rachel’s part.
DNA testing, while not yet offering the proof of shared DNA with descendants of John’s siblings or cousins, strongly supports the case for John as Grace’s father. Betty and Mom, as first cousins once removed, share 8.95% of their DNA. This is well above the average amount shared by first cousins once removed (6.25%), let alone the amount (3.125%) for half first cousins once removed, which they would be if John wasn’t Grace’s father.
If Rachel left John, as was the claimed basis for divorce, what prompted her departure? Something seems to have pushed or pulled her away, but we don’t know what that was. Rachel certainly didn’t abandon her children, but kept them in her care.
A daughter’s perspective
John and Rachel’s daughter Clara wrote brief accounts of her parents and her paternal grandmother that our Findlay cousins have shared with us. Here is Clara’s perspective on Rachel’s life:
Mrs. Rachel Powell Dennis
Her mother was French with just a little Welch mixed in some way. Her father was a Methodist evangelist-was Scotch and English
Mother was called by the Lord to be a minister of the Gospel. She was ordained in the Assembly of God Church in Findlay, Ohio years ago. Later she went to Hillsdale, Michigan, organized a little Mission church, was head of this Mission for 20 years. She believed much in prayer for all things. She was called to come and pray for the sick. When the terrible epidemic of the flu was raging all over America, she was kept busy praying for the sick and she said not one died whom she prayed for.
I lived in Hillsdale. After Mother was called to glory, I was in a neighbors house one day. Another neighbor came in telling of another neighbor being awful sick, and this one said to the other-I used to know of an elderly lady that went and prayed for the sick and they always got well right away but I don’t know if she is here any more. I haven’t seen her for some time. I (Clara) spoke up and said would you mind telling me her name. She said Mrs. Dennis. I said that was my mother. The Bible says when we leave here our works follow us.
She was a home Missionary. Went from slum to slum telling people about Jesus and He loved them so much He gave his blood for their salvation and gave His body to be beaten, marred, torn, spit upon. He did all this for the healing of their bodies. He said it is finished for body, soul and mind. Many accepted Christ thru her teaching.
A missionary was coming to North Morenci, when Mother lived in Morenci. The Lord told Mother to hire a livery rig and go to North Morenci for the lady. Mother did not have the money to pay for the rig, so she said to the Lord on the way over there, “Lord you told me to do this, now you will have to furnish the money.” Something right away told her to water her horse. There was a watering trough to water him and there in the mud lay a big silver dollar just enough to pay for the rig. Mother was a beautiful young lady with short curly hair, like it’s worn today.
Mother was a quiet person. I always described her as like a feather. She could put aside a lot of work, with no fuss nor bother. I could talk all day about my mother’s kind and loving ways.
I thank God for a mother like Rachel Dennis.
A life lived for others.
A saint if there ever was one on earth.
This transcribed account is from a document about the Powell and Dennis families. A note at the end of this document says
Recopied from a carbon of the original by Clara Dennis Schoonover-
On a 1977 August morning.
Handwriting after the dash says ‘date to be inserted.’ Clara would have produced the original sometime between her mother’s death in 1937 and her own death in 1957.
Mom and Betty were around eight years old when Rachel Dennis died. Mom remembers her Great-grandma Dennis scolding people who referred to children as kids. Betty probably saw more of her Grandma Dennis than Mom did. Betty has done quite a bit of research on her family, an interest that she has passed on to her daughters. Until Betty’s mother Grace died in 1988, she would have been a good source of information about her mother Rachel. Betty’s notes, of which I here include a few, indicate that Rachel had considerable education for a woman of her time.
Two things I know about Rachel Dennis-she gives me much to live up to and I have much more to learn.
When we think of family lines our surname ancestry is often the first thing that comes to mind. Our initial interest in genealogy and the broader topic of family history is likely to be curiosity about our father’s male ancestors. We might then expand our interest to explore our mother’s male ancestors and, more broadly, each of our grandparents and the families they grew up in. But what about our chain of maternal ancestors? They might not get the attention they deserve because they don’t typically carry a surname from generation to generation. In fact, that is one of the factors that makes our discovery of their identities and lives a greater challenge.
Finding our maternal ancestors
We don’t have to delve back many generations in our ancestry to find a mother referred to as Mrs. John Smith. If we are in fact dealing with such a common name, sorting out the right John Smith from others of the same name can be quite a challenge. But Mrs. John Smith, or even Mrs. Clyde Fisher can present a whole new level of difficulty. If we don’t know from personal family acquaintance that Clyde’s wife’s name was Idell we need to find records, letters, pictures, or something else that relates them as husband and wife and provides her given name. Further research might be required to learn that her given name was actually Florence Idell. We still might not have discovered that her surname at birth was Dennis. If a woman was married more than once we encounter further challenges in finding evidence of her life.
A corollary puzzle comes when we try to find married daughters. Why would we bother with that? Well, they were an integral part of their family, important in the lives of our direct ancestors. We might want to identify their descendants who show up as DNA testing matches. But even for strictly genealogical research, finding the families of our ancestors’ brothers and sisters can lead to information about their parents. A sister’s death certificate might reveal their mother’s maiden name. Although this is secondary information in regard to proving her name, it is a vital clue in the search for her identity before marriage.
DNA and our family lines
Most of the DNA in each of our cells resides in 23 pairs of chromosomes. Autosomal DNA, in Chromosomes 1-22, shapes personal characteristics aside from gender. Our autosomal DNA comes in segments that have been passed to us from any of our ancestral lines. By contrast, Y DNA (for males only) comes only from our all-male line of fathers.
X and Y chromosomes, which are paired on Chromosome 23, determine our gender. Mothers always provide an X chromosome to their children. If the father also provides an X chromosome, the child’s gender is female. If the father provides a Y chromosome, the child is genetically male. Most of us understand that Y DNA is passed down from fathers to sons. Because that DNA seldom changes in its passage through generations, it provides a very good map for common male-line ancestry among men.
So then, X DNA maps our all-female line, right? Well, no. Females receive an X chromosome from each parent, not just from their mother. My X chromosomes are a mix of the X chromosomes that Mom received from her mother and her father. Mom’s father’s X chromosomes came from his mother, but Mom’s mother’s X chromosomes are a mix of the X chromosomes she received from her mother and father. X DNA comes from a subset of our family lines, never from father to son.
A small portion of the DNA in our cells is in mitochondria, not in chromosomes. Mitochondrial DNA is passed by a mother to each of her children, male and female. Fathers do not pass on their mitochondrial DNA. Thus our mitochondrial DNA comes only from our all-female line of mothers. I received my mitochondrial DNA from Mom, but my son and daughter received theirs from my wife Dee, their mother.
Rachel Powell Dennis’s family
Lois Kidder, Marie Fisher, Idell Dennis and Rachel Powell are the most recent in my line of maternal ancestors. Rachel’s mother Amy Clifton and Amy’s mother Ann Borton extend that known lineage two more generations. I’ve seen a tree on Ancestry that identifies Ann’s mother as Sarah Peacock, Sarah’s mother as Susannah Ballinger, and Susannah’s mother as Mary Elizabeth Elkington in colonial New Jersey but I haven’t attempted yet to verify that information.
Rachel Powell was born in Mill Creek Township, Williams County, Ohio on March 11, 1854. She was the daughter of Joseph Powell and Amy Clifton, who were born and married in Gloucester County, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. Rachel’s parents were married at Gloucester Point, now in Camden County, New Jersey, on November 4, 1840. Rachel was apparently the seventh child of Joseph and Amy Powell.
Rachel’s mother Amy died on March 5, 1854 shortly after Rachel’s birth. Newly-met cousins of mine have seen information suggesting that Rachel might have been nursed by a Borton cousin. Rachel’s father Joseph Powell married Louisa Goss about 1855 so Rachel would have been raised by Joseph and Louisa, who had eight children born of their marriage.
Rachel’s husband John Dennis was one of my Civil War veteran ancestors. He served in the 111th Ohio Infantry regiment. I remember my granduncle Waldo Fisher, Marie Fisher’s younger brother, telling me when I was a teenager about John “Bull” Dennis’s valor as a soldier. I think the only bull was Waldo’s. Mom’s memory of her great-grandmother Rachel Dennis was her gruff assertion that “kids are goats!” Rachel apparently didn’t think it appropriate to call children kids.
Rachel married John Samuel Dennis on October 13, 1872 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. Their marriage produced nine children:
- Joseph Clinton Dennis was born on July 20, 1873 in Michigan. He died in Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan on November 2, 1897.
- Mary Amy Dennis was born on December 24, 1875 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married William Silas Bailey on December 25, 1897 in Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan. Will and Amy had a son and a daughter. Amy died on June 15, 1968 in or near Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan.
- Hannah Dennis was born on October 13, 1878 in Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Kelso George Blackford in Hillsdale, Hillsdale County, Michigan on October 28, 1908. I’m guessing that her sister Idell didn’t attend the wedding because Idell gave birth to my grandmother, Marie Fisher that same day. Kelly and Hannah had four sons and two daughters. Hannah died on June 26, 1951 in either Marion, Hancock County, Ohio or Knox County, Ohio.
- Charlotte Dennis was born on November 25, 1880 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Olla Leroy Moyer on April 29, 1903 in Sandusky County, Ohio. Ollie and Lottie had five sons and four daughters. Lottie died on September 16, 1978 at Spring Arbor, Jackson County, Michigan.
- Clara May Dennis was born on April 19, 1883 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Charles Lesley Schoonover on September 30, 1899 at Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan. Charles and Clara had three sons and a daughter. Clara died in 1957, probably in Colorado where she lived in 1940 and where she was buried.
- Florence Idell Dennis, my great-grandmother, was born on December 23, 1885 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Clyde Myron Fisher on December 23, 1903 in Jasper Township, Lenawee County, Michigan. Clyde and Idell had three sons and two daughters. Idell died December 1, 1934 in Lansing, Ingham County, Michigan.
- Anna Lucille Dennis was born on March 31, 1888 or 1889 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She died on August 3, 1953 in Findlay, Hancock County, Ohio.
- Arthur John Dennis was born on September 12, 1891 in Michigan. He married Josie Charlotte Wilkinson on October 7, 1914 in Stillwater, Montana. Arthur and Josie had one son and two daughters. A. J., as he was apparently known, died on October 9, 1957 in Twin Falls, Twin Falls County, Idaho.
- Grace Ellen Dennis, whose name might have been Ellen Grace, was born on April 16, 1894 in Michigan. She married Charles Dewey Abell on June 22, 1914 in Monroe, Monroe County, Michigan. Charles and Grace had six sons and one daughter. Grace died on July 1, 1988 in Findlay, Hancock County, Ohio.
Rachel Dennis’s daughters passed her mitochondrial DNA to their children and on through their daughters’ daughters.
John and Rachel Dennis divorced on June 21, 1915 and had apparently lived apart for some time. Rachel Dennis, of Hillsdale, Michigan, was ordained as a Minister of the Gospel by the Assembly of God at The Gospel School in Findlay, Ohio on June 16, 1930. Rachel died on April 11, 1937 in Medina Township, Lenawee County, Michigan.
Meeting new cousins
Mom, Dee and I recently met maternal family cousins that I learned of after testing DNA with 23andMe. Almost as soon as my results were posted, Janet McCall contacted me to share DNA segment information and to ask about family lines. We quickly found our common ancestry in John and Rachel Dennis. Janet and her sister Diane, who are very interested in family history and genealogy, came out of their way to see us. Their visit was a real blessing for Mom, Dee and me.
Idell Dennis was Mom’s grandmother and Grace Dennis was Diane and Janet’s grandmother. Because Janet’s and Diane’s mother and Mom’s mother were first cousins, Mom is their second cousin. Janet and Diane are my second cousins once removed. While they were here, we shared some of the information we have about our ancestors. Mom enjoyed showing Diane and Janet a quilt that was made by Amy Dennis Bailey, Idell’s and Grace’s oldest sister.
What about our common DNA with Diane and Janet? Not only do Mom and I share quite a bit of our autosomal DNA with the McCalls, we carry the same mitochondrial DNA, passed down through Ann Borton, Amy Clifton, and Rachel Powell. That DNA represents an unbroken line of female ancestors reaching far back in time. My siblings have that same mitochondrial DNA, as does my sister’s niece.
Dee’s maternal ancestry
For a number of reasons, my wife’s ancestors are harder to track down than many of mine. Her maternal line is, of course, a bit of a challenge. When I met Dee her close family consisted of her mother and her grandmother living in eastern European ethnic suburbs of Chicago. Dee’s grandmother grew up in a household where Czech was spoken.
Dee’s mother, Dorothy Lorraine Dlouhy, was born on December 30, 1922 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. She married Louis Peter Van Zandt on October 16, 1943 in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois. Louis and Dorothy had one child, Dedra Van Zandt. Dee’s parents divorced on Jan 4, 1960 in Cook County, Illinois. Dorothy died on August 22, 2012 in Greenville, Montcalm County, Michigan.
Dorothy’s mother, Rose Karel, was born on April 3, 1902 in Chicago. She married Joseph Dlouhy on December 3, 1921 at her parents’ home in Chicago. Dorothy was their only child. Rose died on August 28, 1996 in Cicero.
Rose’s mother, Frantiska Macak, was apparently born around 1860 in Bohemia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. One of Frances’s granddaughters, Marie Bouquet Cook, recorded her place of birth as Praha (Prague) on a family chart she drew in the late 1970s. Frances married Anton Karel in 1880, probably shortly before they sailed for America.
Anton and Frances had at least seven sons and five daughters:
- James Karel was born around 1881 and died young.
- Louis Karel was born on September 10, 1884 in Illinois. Louis married Julia O’Connor on June 28, 1905 in Cook County, Illinois. Louis and Julia had one son, who died young, and one daughter. Louis died on January 7, 1931 in Cook County, Illinois.
- Mary Karel was born on March 8, 1885 in Illinois. Mollie, as she was known, married John Edward Bouquet on August 27, 1908 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. John and Mollie had one son and two daughters. Mollie died on December 16, 1980 in Homewood, Cook County, Illinois.
- Ruzena Karel was born on January 4, 1887 and died young.
- Anna Karel was born on September 28, 1888 in Illinois. Anna married Antonin Vyzral on August 27, 1910 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Antonin and Anna had two sons and two daughters. Anna married George Edward Metzger on March 28, 1941 in Rochester, Fulton County, Indiana. Anna died on October 29, 1976 in Rochester.
- Anton Karel was born on August 16, 1890 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. He died on October 13, 1895 in Cook County, Illinois.
- Emily Karel was born on March 26, 1892 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Emma, as she was known, married George Edward Metzger on February 29, 1932 in Fulton County, Indiana. Emma died on September 25, 1941 in Richland Township, Fulton County, Indiana.
- Edward Karel was born on March 29, 1894 in Cook County, Illinois. He married Jane Scott about 1927. Edward died in 1959 and was buried in Dekorra, Columbia County, Wisconsin.
- Frank Karel was born on August 16, 1895 in Cook County, Illinois. He married Anna Kubal on December 14, 1914 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Frank and Anna had three sons. Frank died on October 18, 1932 in Proviso Township, Cook County, Illinois.
- Anton Karel was born on November 21, 1898 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. He married Julia Vetrovec on July 11, 1923 in Cook County, Illinois, Tony and Julia had one son. Tony married Genevieve Tanner on September 16, 1964 in Itasca County, Minnesota. Tony died on October 27, 1987 at Deer River, Itasca County, Minnesota.
- Rose Karel was born on April 3, 1902 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. She married Joseph Dlouhy on Dec 3, 1921 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Joe and Rose had one daughter. Rose died on August 28, 1996 in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois.
- James Karel was born about 1904 in Illinois. He married Mildred Riedl on September 14, 1943 in Cook County, Illinois. James and Mildred had one daughter. James, or Uncle Jimmy as I remember him, died on April 15, 1988 in Fairfax, Virginia.
Frances Karel died on May 9, 1943, which was Mother’s Day. Frances’s son Edward, who provided personal information for his mother’s death certificate, reported her date of birth as October 28, 1868. While I remember some family talk of a fuss about Anton leaving the old country with the family servant, this would have made Frances barely twelve years old on arrival in New York on November 12, 1880. Rose told me that she thought her mother had worked for her father’s parents.
The mitochondrial DNA that Frantiska Macak inherited from her unknown line of mothers has been passed in my family through Rose Karel and Dorothy Dlouhy to my wife Dee and our son and daughter who carry it today.
Our heritage is given to us in genetic blueprints and in the rich experience of history from the many branches of our family trees. Yet there is something unique about our all-male and all-female lineages. Our mothers in every family line have given birth to each new generation. They have cared for and shaped their children and passed on their own inheritance of life as they knew how. We are indebted to them, perhaps uniquely in our unbroken female connection to time beyond memory.
2015 was the year that DNA testing opened new windows on my family history research. Dee and I did autosomal testing with the three primary testing companies here in the United States. These tests produced long lists of prospective cousins who presumably share ancestors in common with us. Those potential cousins might have information that we don’t have about our ancestors. Coordinated research of shared DNA and traditional genealogy can reveal ancestry that we weren’t aware of.
Sometimes things aren’t as they appear. A DNA match might be a false call as a relative. Our chromosomes are comprised of DNA segments from different branches of our family trees with no signs marking their boundaries. A mixture of the DNA from both of our parents might match part of a segment from a single ancestor on someone else’s chromosome, giving the appearance of shared DNA from a single common ancestor. This is fairly common for small matching DNA segments. This DNA is identical by chance (IBC), not identical by descent (IBD) from a common ancestor. You might also see IBC segments referred to as identical by state (IBS). Many prospective DNA relatives who share very small segments of DNA with us are not in fact our relatives.
On the other hand, the fact that you don’t share DNA with another tester doesn’t mean that you are not distantly related. Our cells contain 22 pairs of autosomal chromosomes, one of each pair from each parent. For example, we have a pair of Chromosome 1s, one from our father and one from our mother. The single Chromosome 1 that we received from our mother was created by recombining the DNA from the pair of Chromosome 1s she received from her parents. The recombined Chromosome 1 might have been created by taking some DNA from the Chromosome 1 she got from her father, then crossing over to take the next portion of DNA from the Chromosome 1 she got from her mother, then crossing back over again in similar fashion. This process of recombination passes on only half of the DNA from each parent and might not pass on entire segments of DNA from some ancestors. Over the generations, many distant ancestors drop out of our genetic composition entirely.
How, then, do our lists of potential DNA relatives and our knowledge of direct ancestors from genealogical research correspond to each other?
- DNA segments shared with distant DNA relatives, when combined with knowledge of our family lines, can reveal or confirm common ancestors and break through brick walls.
- Many apparent DNA relatives who share only small segments of DNA with us are not in fact related to us.
- Known distant ancestors’ DNA might not have been passed down to us or to other testers who might in fact share those ancestors.
- Sometimes DNA testing indicates unknown branches in our family trees. Nevertheless, established family heritage is an important part of who we are. DNA testing combined with traditional research can aid in finding our ancestry.
I encourage traditional genealogists to add DNA testing to their arsenal of research tools. Unless you are just interested in a direct lineage, DNA testing is likely to expand your family knowledge considerably. When you separate the wheat from the chaff, those DNA relatives can be good connections.
It’s time for another look at DNA. I will attempt a brief and somewhat simplistic description of DNA in the following paragraphs, but you should not take this as a completely accurate definition. For a better description, this is a good place to start: http://dna-explained.com/2012/10/01/4-kinds-of-dna-for-genetic-genealogy/.
DNA gives each cell in our bodies instructions for its function (hair, eye, lung) and characteristics (brown, blue). Most of the DNA in each cell resides in 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosome 23 determines our genetic gender. We all get an X Chromosome 23 from our mother. If we get an X Chromosome 23 from our father, we have an XX pair and are female. If we get a Y from our father, we have an XY pair and are male.
Chromosomes 1-22 are called autosomes. Our autosomal DNA is inherited in equal proportions from each of our biological parents. Conversely, we only inherit half of each parent’s autosomal DNA, meaning that half of what they inherited from their parents is passed on to us and half is not. With the exception of some multiple births, each sibling receives a different mix of DNA segments from each parent.
A tiny percentage of our DNA, called mitochondrial DNA, is separate from our chromosomes. Whether sons or daughters, we all have it, but only daughters pass it on to their children.
Aside from our autosomal DNA being divvied up and passed out to children in different combinations with each generation, pieces of DNA are subject to minor changes from time to time through the generations. These mutations help us define different subfamilies in genetic genealogy and human history. Because Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA are less prone to change than autosomal DNA is, they provide a strong map for all-male and all-female ancestry.
So what kinds of tests are available for DNA?
- Autosomal tests reveal DNA information from all of our ancestral lines, not just our all-female or all-male lines. DNA analysis tools for autosomal tests can show us, by comparing our DNA with the DNA of our matches, what segments of DNA came from different ancestors. The segments can be from Chromosomes 1-22 and I think also from X chromosomes in the Chromosome 23 pair. Autosomal DNA testing is generally useful for common ancestry within the last two centuries or so. DNA test results can be used hand-in-hand with traditional genealogical research to find or confirm what neither alone might be able to determine.
- Mitochondrial DNA tests identify people who share common ancestors on their all-female lines, that is our mothers, their mothers, their mothers, and so on. Because mutations occur only rarely in mitochondrial DNA, these common ancestors might be hundreds or even thousands of years back.
- Y-DNA tests identify people who share common ancestors on their all-male lines. Y-DNA mutations occur seldom enough that these common ancestors can be much further back in time than is likely with autosomal DNA matches.
At the beginning of this year Dee and I tested our DNA with 23andMe. Later in the spring Mom and Dad tested with 23andMe as well. I have previously talked a bit about some resulting discoveries and confirmations. Later in the year, Dee and I tested with AncestryDNA and recently with Family Tree DNA. Each of these companies offers something different.
- 23andMe provides useful DNA tools and has a history of genetic health reports that the FDA suspended for a time but are again permitting.
- Ancestry DNA doesn’t offer DNA analysis tools, but their DNA results are tied into family trees from a very large customer base.
- Family Tree DNA provides DNA tools and offers additional DNA tests for all-male and all-female ancestry.
In general, mitochondrial and Y-DNA tests are more expensive than autosomal tests, but 23andMe recently doubled their price for autosomal testing in conjunction with the inclusion of health-related genetic reports.
With 23andMe’s renewed provision of genetic health reports, they have overhauled their website, consolidating and at least temporarily dropping some of their genealogy-related functions. I have been able to communicate with other testers who share DNA with me and my parents. Some of the DNA shared between one of my parents and other testers was not passed on to me but might well have been passed on to one or more of my siblings.
Dad’s family hasn’t had many close relatives test with 23andMe. One unknown tester shares enough DNA with Dad to be estimated as a first or second cousin. Dad has hundreds of other DNA matches, many of whose identities are known, but they all share less than 1% of their DNA with Dad. Nevertheless, comparing matching DNA segments with others who know something about their ancestry can provide clues for finding common ancestors.
Taking a look at my closest matches, you will notice a few McCalls near the top of the list. Janet McCall manages the testing profiles for several members of her family including two more not shown here. My Grandma Sovereign, born as Marie Fisher, was Betty (Abell) McCall’s first cousin. However, I never knew anything about the McCall family until we connected through 23andMe. Betty’s mother Grace (Dennis) Abell was Marie’s mother Idell’s youngest sister. Mom and Betty are about the same age, but Betty’s grandparents John Dennis and Rachel (Powell) Dennis were Mom’s great grandparents.
You might also notice that Dad’s closest DNA match appears in my list of matches but not all of the DNA shared between Dad and our anonymous cousin was passed to me. Dad shares 6.99% of his DNA with Mr. Anonymous in 17 segments. I received a 4.08% share of common DNA in 12 segments.
I have posted previously about Dad’s fifth cousin, found through 23andMe, who shares a small amount of DNA that came down the line to Dad through Staats Springsteen. That DNA was not passed on to me.
AncestryDNA provides tools to associate people with shared DNA. They don’t reveal the shared DNA segments but they do indicate how much is shared. AncestryDNA also maps the matching testers to their family trees in Ancestry, a definite genealogical benefit. They have also introduced DNA Circles, which shows clusters of people who share common DNA and suggest their common ancestor. I have been assigned to three DNA Circles so far, the John Samuel Dennis Circle, the Rachel Powell Circle, and the James Kidder Circle. The first two circles have four members and consist, of course, of the same members. The James Kidder Circle currently has ten members assigned to it.
AncestryDNA maps out the relationship between DNA matches when they can identify the connection based on our Ancestry family trees. I learned the identity of J.M. from one of his first cousins at a recent visitation for his aunt Merilyn Fisher.
Like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA offers autosomal DNA testing that is useful in finding distant cousins who share DNA in any of our chromosomes. Family Tree DNA’s autosomal test is aptly called Family Finder, casting its net wide to find cousins. We found a second cousin from Dee’s Czech family in Family Finder who could then be identified as a recent tester with 23andMe.
In addition to autosomal tests, Family Tree DNA offers mitochondrial and Y-DNA tests. As indicated earlier, these tests are suitable for finding people who share female-line or male-line ancestry far back in history. Our results from these tests have just been reported in the last few days, so I don’t have a good handle on using the resulting information yet.
Dee and I have both been tested at an intermediate level for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). She has 1000 matches at that level and I have 830. Again, these matches are people who almost certainly share common ancestors with us somewhere up our all-female ancestral lines. By contrast, autosomal DNA matches can be coincidental by virtue of repeated recombination of segments through the generations.
My Y-DNA results were quite surprising. I have only one match among those who have invested in Y-DNA testing:
Did you notice the next surprise? My sole Y-DNA match is not named Springsteen. Yet we come from the same male line. I imagine that Mr. DePew has been waiting for a Y-DNA match to show up and might be just as surprised as I was.
I am fairly sure that my paper trail for male-line ancestry is valid back at least to Staats Springsteen based on the small amount of DNA Dad apparently inherited from him, so I changed the base line for percentage calculation to five generations. With 93% chance of a common ancestor within twelve generations, that could reach back to a time before surnames were used in our male line. Dutch families on both sides of the Atlantic were commonly known by patronymics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my line, Symon Casparse was the son of Caspar Melcherse, who was the son of Melchior Casparse. The surname Springsteen was associated with these families in the new world, but not everyone in those times used a surname at all. Another obvious explanation is that someone in either my family or Mr. DePew’s might not have been the daddy. Nevertheless, we have a big fat question mark. I wish more Springsteen men, preferably in other lines, would have their Y-DNA tested.
This exploration of family history just keeps getting more interesting.
My four-times-great grandparents Staats and Anna Springsteen were people of no apparent public consequence, yet they left bits and pieces of evidence of their lives that continue to perplex me. While the very existence of this evidence is somewhat remarkable for apparently illiterate frontier farmers, it raises questions that have proven difficult to answer. Questions like ‘Am I really a Springsteen?’
Where did Staats and Anna come from?
Staats Springsteen was the son of Symeon (Simon) Springsteen and Maria Seger. Staats was probably born in late 1754, as he was christened in the First Dutch Reformed Church in Albany, New York on January 5, 1755. Maria’s brother Johannes Seger and his wife were sponsors for Staats Springsteen’s christening. Staats was apparently named after another of Maria’s brothers:
- Adriaan Seger, son of Staats Seger and Susanna Bradt, was christened on the same day as Staats Springsteen.
- Ten years earlier in 1745, Staats and Susanna Seger were sponsors for the christening of Staats Springsteen’s oldest brother Caspar.
1755 Christening Record for Staats Springsteen
Anna Springsteen’s ancestry, on the other hand, is still a mystery. I have seen indications that she might have been born in Pennsylvania or New York, but I have no substantive information about her place of birth or her parents. There have been suggestions from various sources, including descendants of Staats’ brother Caspar, that Anna might have been a native North American, but I have seen no evidence to support it.
Why was Staats a Loyalist?
Perhaps a more appropriate question would be ‘Why were so many relatives and neighbors loyal to the Crown?’ Staats’ brother Caspar, as well as various Segers, Bradts, Slingerlands and others supported the Loyalist cause. This might have been due to a desire to maintain trade and peace with the native nations who sided with the British, in part to contain the encroachment of settlers on their land. Albany was a key center in the native trade.
During the American Revolution, Staats served in John Butler’s Provincial Corps of Rangers. Unlike most of the provincial corps, Butler’s Rangers fell under the jurisdiction of the British Indian Department. Many of their operations involved native warriors. Staats was among a company of men who were able to speak at least one native language. In his book The Burning of the Valleys, Gavin Watt describes an incident at Ballstown in which Staats was instrumental in saving the scalp and probably the life of George Scott, for whom Staats had been a hired hand. It is quite possible that Staats interacted with natives before the war, and that might have influenced his loyalty.
Why did Staats have problems securing land in Upper Canada?
After the Treaty of Paris, Loyalists, particularly former militiamen, were encouraged to settle along the British frontier with the United States. Butler’s Rangers were settled on the Niagara peninsula. As a veteran, Staats received land in Stamford Township near the Niagara Escarpment.
Before land boards were set up to formalize the administration of land grants, certificates were issued for plots of land. These certificates weren’t always clearly defined. Staats apparently lost one certificate, and a land board administrator lost another. Staats at least partially developed another piece of land near Long Point without bothering to request a grant beforehand.
There is considerable evidence that Staats didn’t exercise much care for formalities. This tendency affected not only his own affairs but those of his brother Caspar, who asked in an 1807 petition ‘that his name may be inserted on the Roll of UE [Unity of Empire] Loyalists, which has been omitted thro negligence of your petitioner Brother Staats Springsteen.’ See the second page of this petition at the Library and Archives Canada web site: Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865), Microform c-2809, page 805.
Staats was engaged in a series of land petitions for many years. Confusion over lot entitlements led to several appeals seeking relief from the encroachment of neighbors. Staats didn’t help his cause when his case was presented to the land board. A 1795 petition to John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, asked for Simcoe’s influence to overcome ‘a spirit of animosity against your petitioner’ due to ‘your Petitioner having unguardedly suffered some expressions to fall from him which gave undesigned offense to two Gentlemen of the said Board.’ Undesigned? Really? See the second page of this petition at Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865), Microform c-2806, page 882.
What is this business about illegitimate children?
In 1797 Staats submitted a petition for ‘What Quantity of Family Land your Honors thinks Meet for my Wife and two Children.’ A notation on the petition states ‘It appears that the [petitioner’s children] are illegitimate.’ See the second page of this petition at Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865), Microform c-2807, page 25.
What does this mean? Was my three-times-great grandfatherJacob Springsteen’s father not Staats? Various United States censuses suggest that Jacob was born about 1794, which might make him one of the two children referenced in this 1797 petition. On the other hand, Staats was listed on a UE list in 1786 with a wife and two children. Who were they?
There are a number of plausible explanations for the notation of illegitimate children:
- Staats might not have been their father.
- Staats and Anna might not have been married. Given his service and life on the frontier during and after the American Revolution, coupled with his apparent casual regard for formalities, this might well be possible.
- Staats and Anna might have been married, but not in a recognized union. Lord Hartwicke’s Act of 1753 might have viewed their marriage outside the Anglican Church as clandestine and any children of that marriage as illegitimate. If speculation that Anna might have been at least partially of native ancestry were true, an unrecognized marriage would be quite likely. As a soldier in Butler’s Rangers, such a relationship would have been a reasonable possibility.
- Staats might have been falsely accused of having illegitimate children. He had personally offended members of the land board, and had crossed people during the war who were later influential in Upper Canada. Staats was apparently quite successful in recruiting men for Butler’s Rangers, and didn’t mind taking advantage of any opportunity. Mary Beacock Fryer relates an incident in her book John Walden Meyers: Loyalist Spy where Staats and his friend John Stoner appropriated some recruits bound for another corps while holding their recruiter as a spy. This action was protested to Frederick Haldimand and came to the attention of other leaders who were either disadvantaged or not put in good light.
Some of the potential explanations of illegitimacy are countered by other information:
- The cemetery marker for Anna Springsteen describes her as ‘Wife of Staats Springsteen.’ This might indicate that Staats and Anna were legally married, but not with certainty.
- In Staats’ will, written in 1825, he left land ‘to son Jacob.’ This indicates clearly, but again doesn’t prove, that Staats was Jacob’s father.
- Recent DNA testing reveals that my father, Ed Springsteen, shares a segment of DNA with another tester named Brett who lives in Manitoba. Brett has Loyalist ancestors who descend from Gerrit and Maritje Seger of Albany, New York. Staats’ mother Maria Seger was their daughter. Brett believes that Maritje’s mother was Barbara Springsteen, daughter of Caspar Springsteen and Geesje Jans. Caspar and Geesje were Staats’ father Symeon’s great grandparents, meaning that Symeon and Maria would have been second cousins. Staats might then have received the shared DNA from either Maria or Symeon. Either way, unless Brett and Dad share another common ancestor in a separate line, Dad could only have received the DNA he shares with Brett from Staats. Staats must then be Jacob’s father. Even if he weren’t, I would still come from generations of Springsteens, but this genetic link is interesting to note.
Dad’s DNA test results also shed light on another question: Do we have native North American ancestors? If we do, their DNA didn’t make it down the generations to us. In addition to rumors that Anna Springsteen might have been native, Dad’s maternal grandmother Loretta Green, who married Edwin Case, was thought to have recent native ancestry. While it is somewhat plausible that native DNA from Anna Springsteen might have completely fallen out of our genetic composition over the generations, it is unlikely that DNA from Amanda Brown, Loretta’s mother and a prime suspect, would not have survived a few generations.
Why did Staats and Anna return to the United States?
Staats was finally granted clear title to his Stamford Township land in 1808 after long years of dispute with neighbors and authorities. As early as 1795 he stated in a petition that he would be willing to relinquish his land to another claimant if he would compensate Staats for his improvements. See the third page of this petition at Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865), Microform c-2806, page 884.
It appears that Staats was ready to make a clean break and get a fresh start. Moving to another country would serve that purpose. The Genesee country held strong attraction to many on both sides of the Revolutionary conflict who had seen that area during the war. If I never find any concrete evidence that explains Staats’ motivation for moving to western New York, this explanation at least seems plausible. It still leaves me wondering.
Why did Staats and Anna separate?
In 1980 I mailed a letter to the Clerk of Monroe County, New York asking about records pertaining to Staats Springsteen, John Smith, Staats’ son Jacob, and Jacob’s son John. The clerk’s office forwarded my letter to a local researcher, William Flint, who sent me a reply with cursory information and a description of his fees for further research. Mr. Flint noted two newspaper references from 1824 and 1825 that certainly pique one’s interest:
- Springstun, Mrs. Anna: Runs away from husband; Rochester Telegraph, May 8, 1824, 3-4
- Springstein, Staats: Operation upon his blind eye by Dr. George B. Taylor successfully restores sight; Monroe Republican, October 25, 1825, 3-3
My wife Dee has a ready explanation for this: Anna left the old fart while he couldn’t see her going.
Dee and I spent an unfortunately short period of time in the Rochester Public Library in 2006 looking for these articles on microfilm. We didn’t find either one before we had to leave. We’re overdue for another crack at it. The index cards for these two references, which Mr. Flint apparently cited, are now available online at the library’s web site: Index to Newspapers Published in Rochester, New York, 1818-1897. Staats died in 1826, making no mention of Anna in his will made the previous year.
Was Staats difficult to live with? Sketchy accounts suggest that he didn’t always make life particularly easy for himself or those close to him. If I find the newspaper article or notice of Anna’s departure, will it provide any clues of her reason for leaving?
Why no compensation for the laundry?
Staats signed his mark to a last will and testament on July 5, 1825, before the operation on his eye. His will raises many questions. It bequeathed:
- ‘to son Jacob Springstean two hundred acres of land, by him already received and to him heretofore Deeded by me.’ Was this the land that Jacob farmed in Wheatland, Monroe County, or was it land in Upper Canada? While the former seems most likely, I have not discovered any record in Monroe County land registrations.
- ‘to my son David Springstean five Dollars.’
- ‘to my younges Daughter Lana Ann Sackner ten Dollars.’
- ‘the sum of Ten Dollars to my Daughter Polly Sackner.’
- ‘to each of the Children of Abraham Blood by my Daughter Jenny Blood, five Dollars to be paid in Goods, by my Executors, out of some Merchants store.’ Why did Staats bypass Jane (Jenny) with this bequest? Unless Jane had an older child of which I am not aware, she was nearing delivery of her first-born child, Sarah Ann, at the time this will was made. Was Jane involved in her mother Anna’s departure?
- ‘to my Daughter Deborah Chambers I give one hundred Dollars, on condition, that she furnishes my son John Springstean with suitable meat, dring, clothing lodging and washing, from the time of my decease until he is sixteen years, of age, for all of which she is to be paid by my Executors, a reasonable compensation by the week, but for his washing she is to have no compensation whatever other than the legacy above given.’ My wife Dee wonders if the other children at school teasingly called him ‘Stinky John.’
- ‘all the rest residue and remainder of my property of whatever name or nature to my son John Springstean to be paid over to him by my said Executors on the day he shall arrive to the age of twenty one years.’
Staats named Philip Garbutt, a prominent citizen, and Robert Chambers, Deborah’s husband, as his executors. Staats authorized these men ‘to superintend the education of my son John until sixteen years of age at which time, it is my will that he should be bound by them to some mechanical trade of their choosing.’ John was a stone mason by trade in later years.
Where were Staats and Anna buried?
I have not yet found any record of Staats’ burial, but I think it likely that he was buried in or near Scottsville in the Town of Wheatland, Monroe County, New York. I have checked some cemetery lists for Wheatland without finding any mention of Staats but further examination might yet find him. Jacob Springsteen’s father-in-law John Smith is buried in the Oatka Cemetery in Scottsville, but I haven’t found Staats there. Perhaps Staats was buried on Jacob’s farm. For that matter, maybe Jacob was buried there.
After Staats’ death, Anna probably remained in the area until her family relocated to southeastern Michigan. The 1840 United States Federal Census for the Town of Wheatland, Monroe County, New York lists an Ann Springsteen as head of household in a residence with one female aged in her seventies and one female in her nineties. Could this have been Anna with her mother? In 1850 and 1860 Anna is listed in the household of Robert and Debby Chambers in Deerfield Township, Livingston County, Michigan. Anna was apparently buried in the Sharp (Deerfield Center) Cemetery with Robert and Debby. I need to check the cemetery sexton’s records for information about burials. In addition to Robert and Debby, Jane’s and Lana Ann’s families are also buried in the Sharp Cemetery.
Genealogy has been described as perhaps the only undertaking where every problem solved results in two more. Discovering Anna Springsteen leaves us wondering who her parents were. Given my interest in family history, not just lineage, questions proliferate. Our ancestors lived in extended families and communities, in the context of broader history. That’s what makes all of this so interesting.
In difficulties and in blessings, we should appreciate and care for our families.
And keep asking questions.
This post is a revision of an entry posted on January 31, 2015, in my blog on the former Our Heritage site.
I have explored genealogy and family history through traditional research for decades, but I am new to the application of DNA to that quest. I finally made the leap to DNA as a research tool after reading Michael D. Lacopo’s blog, Hoosier Daddy? His long-running search for his mother’s biological parents and their ancestry makes for very interesting and instructive reading. If you have time and are in no hurry, I encourage following this story from his first post in February 2014, Beginnings. As a professional genealogist, he is well-versed in traditional research. As a veterinarian with a natural interest in science, his understanding and application of DNA is a good example of its value in genealogical research.
My wife Dee and I recently sent DNA sample kits to 23andMe for autosomal testing. Her ancestry appears to be 99.9% European with .1% unassigned. Coming from a predominantly Czech family, she does have more variety than we might have anticipated, including Southern European, British/Irish, and Scandinavian ancestry. My ancestry is 99.4% European, mostly Northern European with nearly 40% from the British Isles. Given that my family has been in the American melting pot longer than Dee’s, in some cases back to early colonial times, I was somewhat surprised by this British concentration.
DNA haplogroups are significant distinct divisions of the human race. My all-female maternal line is in a predominantly European haplogroup that originated in the Near East. My all-male paternal line is in a haplogroup from Northeastern Africa that expanded across Northern Africa and Southern Europe after the last ice age. That haplogroup is still predominantly in Northern Africa.
My first reaction on seeing my paternal haplogroup and also noting that 0.3% of my overall ancestry is Sub-Saharan African was that my paternal line was far more interesting than I had thought. As I examined my DNA results more carefully, I realized that my initial interpretation was incorrect. Nevertheless, although my distant paternal line is not Sub-Saharan African, it is also not Northern European. Given that the Springsteen ancestors from whom I think I descend came from the northern Netherlands, I was surprised at this ancestral origin. I’ll be interested in learning whether other Springsteens are in the same paternal haplogroup and, if not, where our genetic ancestry diverged.
Another curiosity in my DNA analysis is that while 0.1% of my DNA is Yakut, from far northeastern Asia, none of my DNA is classified as Native American. Evidence of rumored native ancestry might still reside in the DNA of close relatives, but I didn’t inherit any of it.
To gain a little understanding of genetic genealogy, I viewed a few brief videos entitled Genetics 101. These videos and others are available on the 23andMe Home page. To learn more about using DNA in genealogical research, I also subscribed to a blog entitled DNAeXplained. This blog demonstrates how to use DNA tools from Family Tree DNA to augment traditional genealogical research. The Genetic Genealogist is another informative blog to which I have subscribed. I have much to learn.
I have already been in contact with several newly-discovered relatives through 23andMe, including one who recommended DNAeXplained. Some of these newly-found cousins and I have been able to identify our common ancestors. Others require more information to be able to make that connection.
One thing seems clear: DNA tools yield much more information when results from several related people are correlated. 23andMe’s DNA chromosome browser provides specific comparisons that can shed light on mysteries from traditional research.
I can see great potential in complementing traditional documentary research with DNA analysis to learn more about our ancestors and others who share those progenitors.