Benefits and Pitfalls of DNA tests as Clues for Finding Exact, Actual Ancestors

By Cecilia Fábos-Becker – Published 2019-10-18

Cousin So&So 2

Cousin So&So 1

In my e-book, Ancestry and DNA: Beyond the Basics, I discussed the potential of using DNA testing to narrow down document searches for actual ancestors. As is used in police cold-case research, DNA testing can be used to find common ancestors and thereby trace lines forward to find one’s cousins. This method not only narrows the geographic area of documents research, but the families being researched–reducing the field from unlimited numbers of wives in many states/colonies, to a few families’ females in a narrow geographic area. This works best with Y-DNA, father to son relationships but does work with autosomal relationships–ancestors and relatives from both parents of a researcher.  It is more difficult to use the autosomal DNA,  because the quantity of potential ancestors is greater.  Only autosomal DNA can be used, however, when you are comparing descendants of a male line and a female line. Then, it works most easily when people who get tested give some information about themselves to the data bases after they upload their DNA samples.

DNA matches help best when the subject uploads not just his/her DNA test results, but some clues about his/her family–and a means of contact. Here is a worse case example to illustrate these benefits–and pitfalls.

In fact this case is not the worst possible case – even worse would be a person with matching DNA who doesn’t list any email or other contact information, and isn’t easily found otherwise on the internet.

Hundreds of millions of Americans had emigrant ancestors in Ireland and the UK who arrived in what became the U.S. before the Revolution, and the subsequent ‘Dark Age.’ To find those ancestors, and to find where precisely they originated in Ireland and the UK, first a researcher has to get through the ‘Dark Age,’ the period of fewest records. DNA testing can help, but it’s not a quick magic bullet.

DNA testing can be a great tool for getting past ‘America’s Dark Age’. During this period, after the Revolution until the Industrial Revolution was underway (roughly 1783-1825, and later in some counties and states, even as late as 1860’s) some Americans, decided that literacy was a form of elitism, or contributed to socio-economic and political class hierarchies, making people less equal in the new democracy. Many Dark Age families, especially among the popular, newer and less literate, churches, particularly non-Episcopal Methodists and Baptists, were not keeping many records, and when they did so, the records were the personal property of their ministers. As personal property, these records survived in the area only as long as the minister was there, and, over time, as long as the minister was alive. There was no legal requirement that these records eventually be turned over to councils of elders, or counties, and only a few were voluntarily so given. Church buildings often burned and flooded, and likewise county courthouses. The county courts and county residents, together, weren’t much more interested in preserving anything but land and tax records than the individual churches and families.

Another big clue is the subject’s family tree. It’s understandable that not everyone wants to upload their family trees. Family trees in DNA databases are only as accurate as the documentation supporting them, and many have no documentation, only citations of ‘other trees’ as source materials, earlier than say, grandparents or great-grandparents. Generally, it is NOT helpful to list the generations that are not supported by PRIMARY sources–census, marriage, draft, etc. records–real records. Other people’s trees are NOT records.  Yet, people will often upload trees with undocumented generations in exactly the same manner they’ve been uploading this doubtful data to the family history research/exchange sites like Ancestry, My Heritage, etc.

For a clue as to whether or not trees or parts of trees are accurate, look at each generation and note how much detail is given within the data. Many trees in DNA databases don’t allow a lot of information to be entered, but they generally allow a birth date, birth place, and sometimes death date and place. If NONE of this is there, only an ‘estimated year of birth’ and maybe a state/colony,watch out! You will have to verify that generation, yourself.

There are other reasons why people prefer not to make their trees public. With some databases, trees can be altered by people other than the author. Ancestry allow trees to be altered by LDS members, and the data in the trees can be used by the owners of the data base for other purposes. (The DNA test results themselves cannot be altered, except with explicit permission of the subjects.) They can, and many do, enter a list of surnames in the ‘surnames being searched’ field and with those surnames, can enter a limited amount of additional data, such as counties and states for those surnames, and generations before the person. We do some of this, as well as posting our email, and responding to email queries.  This data can be almost as helpful as a full tree, and as long as the person uploading the test results and this additional information responds to emails, you can then exchange documented tree data privately.

Regardless, whether or not people post trees, or lists of families being searched, it is important that when they upload DNA test results they list some means of communication, ideally email, and then RESPOND. You can do very little or nothing with a DNA test result with only the name of an individual, if there is no email address, no phone number, no information, and you can’t find the individual otherwise in either family trees on any site, or find them easily through the internet ‘white pages’ and other sites.

Here is a case in point, from our own family research into one of my husband’s Dark Age, mostly illiterate for at least two generations, with churches that didn’t keep records and a burnt county courthouse line. Here is also why we started out with little family information.

Theodore Ellis Beebe

Theodore Ellis Beebe, aka ‘Little Al’

My husband’s maternal grandfather, Ellis Theodore Beebe aka ‘Little Al’ (1891-1973) was a gangster, a real, side-arm toting, bullet-proof vest wearing, member of Al Capone’s gang in Chicago in the 1920’s. Little Al started out as a Casanova-type, band leader, and sometime composer, good-looking, well-spoken and charming when he wanted to be. Unknown to my husband’s grandmother and her respectable Swiss family in Wisconsin, in 1918, he already had a tendency to marry 18 year olds or so and then abandon them for someone else a few years later. He married my husband’s grandmother without divorcing his first wife first. The county clerks didn’t communicate with one another in those days (1919), and he had not even been fully truthful with his own family, so it took awhile for enough people to figure this out. My husband’s maternal grandmother was introduced to her husband’s parents as his wife, and they accepted her as such.  When she went off to have children (she was a professional pianist and females did not keep performing in public once they began ‘showing,’) Little Al then increased the number of females in his band, and soon girls were joining and departing quite frequently. When we found Little Al’s sister-in-law, she told us he and his younger brother were introducing the 18-20 years olds to more than a career in show business.  By the mid 1920’s, Ellis Beebe was tending bar (speakeasies) for Al Capone, providing an all-female band, and ‘selling insurance’ for the Capone gang, and, in fact, he was also providing the female band members to Al Capone’s better friends for ‘extra services’ to them.  Ellis was making trips around the surrounding countryside to find these young women, promising one thing and delivering quite another. These activities were violations of the Federal Mann Act and since Ellis had married my husband’s grandmother without having divorced his first wife when she found out she went to the Feds and helped them put her now ex-husband in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

For a few years, afterward, she and her daughters lived in hiding. Thus, we heard little about her husband Ellis and his family until the last ten years of my husband’s grandmother’s life, not until the mid to late 1970’s, and more was only forthcoming in the 1980’s. The most we’ve learned since then about the reprobate grandfather came from a transcript of ‘True Crime Tuesdays’ on NPR! By the late 1970’s and 1980’s, the family in Kane County, Illinois had partly scattered and otherwise was no longer the same that she knew. Most of her ex-husband’s siblings had died and she didn’t know who their children were.  She also didn’t know the surname of her husband’s mother, or how long they had lived in Kane County.  It took us over 10 years of work before DNA testing and research to determine who my husband’s great grandmother, Al Beebe’s mother, really was.

Ellis Theodore Beebe himself, ironically, was a direct descendant of a very prominent Connecticut family that came to Colonial America before 1650. These Beebe’s were a founding family of a major port city, New London, CT, and several others, and had once owned half of Plum Island as well as a piece of Long Island. My husband’s 2nd great grandfather Beebe’s brother, Ellis’s uncle, added to family fame as as a child of about 7 when he was recorded (his obituary, among other things) in local papers as an eye-witness to the Dec. 2, 1859 hanging of the famous John Brown at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia).

In the last part of the 17th century and throughout much of the 18th century, some of the family’s wealth, had come from smuggling, as well as purchasing and selling the goods of privateers–government authorized pirates.  Some of these ancestors were likely acquainted with John Hancock and other famous New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies’ smuggler-merchants.

We found this story in A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, written by members of the Southold Historical Society of Long Island, New York., So the Beebe’s themselves were pretty well documented. These Beebes were definitely acquainted with famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold. Before the war, Arnold had wanted to participate in these traditional business activities, but they did not trust him and refused his attempts. To get even, after he’d turned traitor, Arnold seized the Beebe home on Plum Island and bivouacked there while planning the destruction of New London and other areas of Connecticut.

It was the wives of the Beebes we’ve had trouble identifying and finding. It looks like their families weren’t always so proud of their daughters’ marriages. Additionally, some of the wives came from the only families inclined to marry into the Beebes–families whose socio-economic status was such, the daughters might not have had many options. By the 1850’s, my husband’s line of Beebe’s and the families of wives, were ‘poster people’ examples of America’s Dark Age, and this continued until the 1870’s.  If we were ever to identify all my husband’s pre Civil War ancestors on this line, it was going to take DNA testing–many people. Thus research on many parts of my husband’s Beebe line was minimal until the last few years, when enough people actually took DNA tests–and then put enough information on databases to determine some degree of relationships and how to communicate with them.

We found a marriage record that identified one of his maternal 3rd great-grandmothers on the Beebe line as a Mary Hughes (b. Abt. 1827, d. 1877) , of Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia) and found there was only one Hughes family with a ‘Mary’ of the right age to be her, based on census records, including one the same year of her marriage. We had a marriage register transcription, and we were fortunate she was married during the later part of a census year.  We quickly identified her father as a James Hughes, but her mother Mary Piper, was harder to identify. In very recent years, county marriage records were transferred to the West Virginia state archives, and finally put online and using them, we were able to find the marriage record of Mary Hughes’ parents, identifying her mother as Mary Piper. However, this all is still NOT a smoking gun that shows  that Mary Hughes Beebe is, with 100% certainty, the daughter of James Hughes and Mary Piper.  It’s proof by process of elimination, assuming enough documents of ALL the Hughes families in Jefferson County in the early to mid 1800’s still remain, and coincidental documents–the census record of 1850 with a marriage record the same year. Who knows how many records are missing from the county records? It’s not a ‘burnt county,’ but we did discover groups of entire decades of early county records went missing when they were moved from the courthouse to local and state archives.  We’ve found the marriage records, but the whereabouts of the probate and civil records, including land records, are still a mystery–even to the highest ranking court clerks of the county. There was also an Edward Hughes, contemporary to James, who left the county for a neighboring county.  Did Edward Hughes, perhaps leave children, a sister to  a son still living in Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia)?  It was not very likely, but needed to be ruled out.  Without many written records, since the Hughes family was illiterate for two to three generations, except for James Hughes, one possibility of 100% proof remaining was tracing a brother of Mary Hughes forward and finding a link to this particular Hughes family, though DNA testing that matched a known, documented descendant of one of the brothers.

If a person is going to use DNA analysis and comparisons to identify ancestors, several things have to be known: as much of a documented line forward from brothers as possible; and the surnames of all the descendants of both sides of a marriage. If you want only one family for which to search for documents and identify a common ancestor, such as we did with my husband’s Hughes, there can be no other matches to any other family in one’s own family tree. This means, a person has to trace all the lines of all ancestors from a particular generation, of a particular husband and wife, forward. We actually have done a LOT of this.  We know who are my husband’s cousins to the 4th degree or so, and nieces’ and nephews’ families.  We had one big advantage in this: three quarters of my husband’s family–three of the four grandparents, were all from families of post Civil War emigrants, and they mostly stayed in a narrow geographic area of the U.S. until very recently–and mostly married within the same religion.  They were mostly Catholics.

This left only one grandparent with a lot more U.S. relatives, Ellis Theodore Beebe. From his own grandfather,  Charles Lemuel Beebe (1829-1875) and his wife Mary Hughes (1827-1877) forward, we have almost all their descendants. We have the descendants of their son, Ellis’ parents,  Thomas Jackson Beebe and his wife Amanda Alice McCormick, and even many of the descendants of Al Beebe by his several ‘wives,’ though we’re missing those by non-wife relationships. We know one important thing about those, however: where the liaisons occurred, and geography at particular times is important also.

Shared cM Project
Shared cM Project Chart of relationships by Shared centiMorgans

Thus, we were looking for a male Hughes, one whose family stayed well east of Chicago until very recently, and one candidate finally turned up. As shown in the graphic above, he was in the right range of matching, 42 centiMorgans, about a 3rd to 5th cousin. Most likely this meant he and my husband shared a 2nd or 3rd great-grandfather. Alternatively, they could be 4th cousins, once removed, but not twice, or 3rd cousin twice removed, etc.  The point is, one must look at the marriages of the siblings of each generation and trace these lines forward to find all the surnames of those DNA related individuals. The brothers of Mary Hughes and Mary herself, as children of James Hughes (1777-1865), all shared James Hughes as 3rd great grandfather.  Unfortunately, it turns out he is NOT likely to be a match on the Hughes, line after all. This person’s great-aunt has done a lot of professional, well-documented research and while their Hughes line does go back to Virginia, it also goes back to Pennsylvania, and does not include the name James. My husband’s James Hughes merely passed through PA, if he didn’t arrive at Baltimore instead of Newcastle, and went straight to Jefferson County, Virginia. He didn’t live in Pennsylvania at all. It appears that this Hughes family is connected to another missing 3rd great-grandparent instead.

The good news is, we’ve got only one other line in my husband’s family with missing 3rd-great grandparents: his McCormick/McCamick line where his 2nd great-grandfather, Samuel Sanford McCormick/McCamick (1838-1882) was an orphan by 1850, but had an unknown stepmother, and ended up placed with a childless couple as labor (but also for foster care and education) without having gone through the Orphans’ Court. The McCormicks and their intermarried families were from Virginia–and Pennsylvania.

Thus, in this case, the DNA test matches and careful research of the surnames and places didn’t turn out to be a magic bullet, but it did narrow the search in two lines considerably, and according to this particular male Hughes’ great-aunt,  her Hughes family is Mormon.  This confirms that this Hughes relationship is on this Beebe line, because this is the only long time American line that  could be 3rd to 5th cousins.  The connection, however, based on what the great-aunt wrote is not through the Beebes themselves who were Connecticut to the New York-Pennsylvania line.  Her Mormon Hughes line had Pennsylvania-VIRGINIA history.  The Mormons themselves almost entirely originated from old American families who had been more fundamental Protestants: Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians and who lived in the eastern part of the Mississippi River basin, western and central New York and to a lesser extent the Appalachians, themselves.  The Mormons are by far, mostly Scots-Irish, English and Welsh.  We know the Beebe line, and most of its allied lines’ descendants very well coming forward from the third great-grandparents.  They began as Congregationalists, and the Rogerenes Connecticut sect, then became Methodists–mostly Methodist EPISCOPAL, which is in part why we have more records of the family.   The only other line where a generation is unknown is the McCormick line and if this male Hughes with the matching 42 cM is not on Tony’s Hughes line, then he almost certainly has a connection to the McCormick line.  It helps to crack  the brick wall on my husband’s McCormick line, and Tony may yet get into the Caledonian Club of San Francisco.  There was another Hughes line in Virginia: in Augusta County, where the McCormicks first settled when they came from Pennsylvania.

People need to remember a few things about immigration and religion.  Recent immigrants, up to two generations from immigration tend to marry others of their kind and congregate, live near one another in smaller geographic areas.  After a couple of generations from the emigrants, descendants may become more adventurous and less clannish, but will then mostly intermarry within the same religion, or a religion closely related.  Mormons, like the Baptists in particular, but also parts of the Methodist church, emphasize old-Testament fundamentalism, and eschew many statues of saints, gilding of buildings, etc..  Therefore it was not a stretch for persons already inclined toward building a culture on the Old Testament, to become, or intermarry with, Mormons.  In my husband’s family, the Beebe’s, McCormicks, and Hughes were Methodists, but the Beebes were mostly Methodist EPISCOPAL.  The Ottingers were old style Lutherans, and because of that joined the Methodist EPISCOPAL Church.  They were not the Old Testament fundamentalists the others were.  The other three-fourths of my husband’s family were all CATHOLICS.  There was only one line that was not ME or Catholic. You can see how the Mormon connection along with the DNA narrows the possibilities of where the DNA match is.

For those who are wondering: the McCormicks are Scots-Irish, and a sept of Clan Donald/McDonald. The Beebe’s are Norman-English-Welsh and well documented in at least three counties of England, having moved about when they picked the wrong side of various wars, and soon after Charles I was executed in 1649/50 they found it necessary to decamp to the Massachusetts colony where didn’t get along with the more extreme Puritans there. The Hughes appear to be Welsh in origin.

Last, but not least, researchers, if you don’t know how to retrieve replies to messages with your cell phone, please avoid using your cell phone for family history correspondence. Research like this involves lengthy chains of email replies and I’ve had to resend a minimum of three such emails to people east of the Mississippi River in the past couple of weeks alone because they can’t find my earlier replies on their tiny cell phone screens. Think about this also: the cell phones are more easily–and more often–hacked and stolen. If you had intended a greater degree of privacy regarding your family, which is why you didn’t put a family tree, or even a list of families being researched, on the DNA database, then why on earth are you using a cell phone to discuss family history and exchange detailed family information?

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