Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Y-Chromosome is a powerful genealogical tool

Last year I had my DNA tested by Family Tree DNA.  I was mainly interested in their autosomal test, but I also ordered a Y-chromosome test just to be thorough.  This proved to be a good move, because the test revealed some awesome things about my direct-line paternal ancestors.

The findings can be broken up very roughly by time-period.

Recent History (the last 500 years) 
My main goal in taking the Y-DNA test was to find people who share my surname.  I was hoping to compare notes and maybe find out where our line originated.  My own Moyer/Meyer ancestors have been in America since 1750 at least, and I can't trace them back to Germany, so having another line of descent to trace would be very useful.  Surnames in Europe stretch back about 500 years, so a Y-match sharing my name would be, at most, my 18th-or-so cousin.

As it turns out, my closest match was indeed a Meier.  I wrote him and eagerly awaited a reply.  Sadly, he never responded, a problem that plagues DNA testing sites.  Luckily he had posted enough about himself that I was able to cobble together his family tree.  I traced his line back to Henry Meier, a prominent businessman in St. Louis.  Henry died in 1900, and I was able to locate an extensive obituary that gave his place of birth: the province of Hanover, Germany.  This doesn't necessarily mean that my Meyer ancestors were from the same place, but it at least provides a starting place.

Middle History (the last 1,000 years)
What else can we tell from the Y-DNA test?   Well, one fact that jumped out at me immediately is that, save the one already mentioned, every single one of my matches traced their ancestry to England, not Germany.   This result strongly implies that my paternal line spent quite awhile romping through the British Isles before packing up and moving to the Continent.   It's even conceivable that the traveler already had the name Meyer, since the name is English as well as German.

I hope to eventually confer with most of these matches to see if there is a particular region of England where they cluster.  However our common ancestors are so remote that the various lines probably had time to spread all over England.

Remote History (4,000 to 5,000 years ago)
This last result is what most people expect from a Y-DNA test: their haplogroup.  Mine happens to be I1.  This group has a high concentration across Northern Europe, maxing out in southern Scandanavia.  There is some disagreement as to where this haplogroup originated, but I believe the most recent thinking suggests Denmark.

In Great Britain today, the I1 haplogroup appears more often on the eastern side of the island, so that's likely the general area my ancestors inhabited while in England.

Putting it Together
When taken collectively, this really offers a compelling picture of my paternal ancestry.  The story begins somewhere around Denmark while the pharaohs were building their pyramids in Egypt.  There, a man belonging to the I1 haplogroup begat a son, who begat another son, and so on.

Eventually, an x-great grandson traveled from continental Europe to England, which has seen influxes of Germanic peoples throughout its history.  In England, the sons continued having sons, until one day, one of those sons went back to the continent, and possibly settled in northern Germany.  More sons and more sons, until finally, one of them packed up, got on a boat, and came to America.  In Pennsylvania, they had more sons: Wilhelm, Peter, Peter, Nathan, Roger, Alfred, David.  And finally me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My first DNA matches!

One of the first things I did when I got started in genealogy last year was submit my DNA to be tested with two popular services: 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.  I finally had some success in determining the relationships of some DNA relatives.

My first hit was with 23andMe.  In general I have been dissatisfied with the general lack of people interested in genealogy on that site.  People primarily use it for health analysis, and my own experience has been that only about 15% of users will respond to requests to find a common ancestor.

Still, even people who don't respond sometimes provide valuable information, such as their own name and a list of family names.  For one of my matches (a predicted 3rd to distant cousin), I was able to use the provided information to do a little Internet sleuthing and ultimately build a family tree.  By sheer luck one branch of the tree was fairly well researched by Ancestry members, and I found a connection between us.  We turned out to be 7th cousins twice removed.  Our common ancestor was a man named Hans Jorg Rex (b. 1682, Germany, d. 1772, Germantown, Pa.).

This finding was exciting but somewhat dissatisfying for three reasons:
  1. The ancestor was so remote that I can't really be sure that we didn't share a more proximate ancestor on another branch.  I was unable to push back very far on a large chunk of my match's tree, leaving open the possibility that we are much more closely related.
  2. The match was on an unconfirmed branch of my own tree.  I have circumstantial evidence to suggest that Hans Jorg Rex is my direct ancestor, and I believe that he is, but I lack documentary evidence at one step of the chain.  Perhaps this DNA match should be seen to strengthen my hypothesis of this direct ancestor.
  3. Because my match will not share genomes with me (or even respond to messages), I will never know which segment of my DNA was passed down from this ancestor.

My second match was made using Family Tree DNA.  We were predicted to be 3rd to 5th cousins, and better yet, I recognized a surname from my tree in his list.  It did not take long to confirm that we are actually 4th cousins once removed.  Our shared ancestors are Peter Moyer (b. 1800, Lynn, Pa.) and his wife Catharine Gerard (b. 1804, Germany).  My match and another genealogist in his family were both extremely helpful and willing to discuss and share research.

This match absolutely confirms the chain of ancestors in my tree leading back to Peter Moyer, which I find to be quite a relief!  I sometimes worry about the presence of so-called non-paternal events (NPEs) in my tree, but this is one line of descent where that can be ruled out.