TO TEST OR NOT TO TEST
My Journey Through Genetic Genealogy
By Susan McConnaughey Hedeen
This article was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
I returned home after a long day in the library researching my family history in microfilm indexes. However the brick walls would not budge. With my tea in hand I sat before my computer and clicked into my e-mail to find a message there from a researcher with whom I had been discussing my Sewell family with for many years. He wrote about a new form of inquiry, genetic genealogy using the Y chromosome. A Sewell surname project had been established and the project was looking for male Sewell descendants to test. By coincidence shortly afterwards I was contacted by a Soule researcher asking me what I knew about genetic genealogy and telling me that a Soule/Sowles surname project had been established and that her families were considering participating.
Six years later after exhausting the repositories, libraries, historical societies and internet genealogy sites, I decided it was time to take the plunge with genetic genealogy; perhaps this new tool had existed long enough that there would be a large enough database of genetic data and I would be able to locate my families in ‘The Old World’.
I suspected that my ancestor, Timothy Sewell was English. I’d found him in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1716 when he married his first wife, Elizabeth Jeffrey. I was convinced that with six years of testing by the Sewells of the Sewell project that at last I would be able to identify Timothy’s Massachusetts relatives and trace his family across the pond to England. Because the genetic testing needs to be done on a male family member a Sewell second cousin agreed to take part.
My McConnaughey lineage had come together nicely, was fully researched, cited, and described seven generations inclusive of allied and collateral families back to the original immigrant. Because of preserved family histories handed down through the generations we knew that he had sailed from Derry in about 1754. I decided to begin there. Since the McConnaugheys were known to be Ulster Scots I found a genetic project among Clan Donnachaidh to submit the McConnaughey results for comparison. Again, I contacted a McConnaughey first cousin, and asked if he would be interested in assisting me with this research inquiry.
As I was waiting for both sets of the results, I felt certain they would reveal remote ancestors and long unknown distant relatives with whom I could collaborate regarding missing documents. I familiarised myself with the scientific terminology necessary to interpret the results, the most current papers written on the discoveries yielded by the testing and talked further to fellow researchers. I read, read, read, including the testimonials from all of those who had been tested and succeeded in finding matches and so furthering their research. I was in love with this science; and then the results came in.
Our McConnaughey DNA had over 36 close matches with the DNA of those by the name of Duncan and many others with Irish and Scottish names, but no matches with any McConnaughey variants nor any relatedness more recent than perhaps 400 or more years ago. I rationalized the lack of better results by the fact that the McConnaughey testing pool was very small, and since the testing pool among Sewell and Soule projects were collectively was much larger, this simply would not be the case with that inquiry.
But again I was disappointed. My Sewell cousin was not related to any known Sewell or Soule in the genetic genealogy projects. However, the majority of close matches (to surnames other than Sewell or Soule) were to men who stated their ancestors were from England or the UK, at least suggesting Timothy also came from the UK. But the question lingered, “Just what went wrong?”
In fact nothing was wrong beyond my own expectations. I let my enthusiasm to achieve what forty years of traditional methods had not achieved cloud my mind. My experiences have shown me that if you are looking for an ancestor through genetic genealogy, do not expect that you will find him and genetic genealogy cannot make a lineage.
Many of the surname projects assert that the testing will identify and establish beyond a shadow of a doubt certain ancestors of various lineages. However there have been cases where people with different genetic ancestors claim descent from the same ancestor and have well documented family trees to ‘prove’ it. Who is and who isn’t the true descendant from that ancestor? It is absolutely impossible to tell without the DNA of that ancestor and when as is usually the case remains are not available to test, there is in fact no basis for one to claim the lineage at the exclusion of the others.
However perhaps we should question how accurate family trees are. They are a combination of firm knowledge of family units, historical records and many best guesses. Then there is the assumption when looking at published genealogies that where the given name and surname are the same, the dates are close, and the location compatible, that ‘they must belong to me, and by the way the source citations are also there, I’ve got the proof’. Never mind the fact that the assumed father of a child may not be the actual father – a crucial point as this type of DNA testing relies on DNA being passed from the father to the child.
However that said when used in conjunction with traditional genealogies, genetic genealogy may be useful in comparing relatedness within family units or established lineages. There have been reported cases in which individuals matched closely to others with the same surname which when the genealogies were compared yielded common ancestors. In some cases one individual may have information regarding other ancestors further back in time. One must keep in mind, however, that the genealogies already existed and what the DNA yielded was relatedness not the genealogies themselves.
The science is fascinating and discoveries are occurring at a rapid pace. Because of all of this testing many theories are very close to being proven as more data is collected. We know more about human migration; we have a better understanding of ethnic origins and ethnic migration into the various environs; analysis has confirmed and/or refined certain traditions regarding the presence of various cultures in certain locations proving some of the documented histories correct.
For example I learned that our McConnaughey and Sewell Y DNA are both Celtic, although from separate groups of Celts. Our Sewells descended from Brythonic Celts (British Celts) who migrated into Britain from Gaul (France). The Sewell DNA evidence confirmed what I believed regarding our Sewell family that Timothy came to the US from Britain, even if I don’t yet know exactly where he and his family lived before emigrating or which port they sailed from to enter The New World. The McConnaugheys descend from Celts who migrated from West Asia, across continental Europe and into Ireland, confirming our McConnaughey anecdotal history that they came to the US from Ireland.
In conclusion, genetic genealogy is simply another line of inquiry among all the others as we seek our ancestors. It is quite expensive and you need to consider the possibility that you may get few or no answers. If you have an open mind and realistic expectations it can be an enlightening, educationally interesting and enriching experience and I am not unhappy that we embarked upon this line of inquiry. The exercise for me has been well worth the investment and has enriched my understanding of my heritage. We have learned much and in fact my participation in this line of inquiry has opened doors for further research of a related, though of slightly different nature, which may be subject for future articles.