Ancestry and DNA: Cautions when using Family Surname Project DNA Data, Part 1, Some Pitfalls

Have you ever noticed how often Americans of Celtic descent ask ‘Where is my family’s Castle’? In truth, not many Americans are lucky enough to have such ancestors–at least not in the last 300 to 400 years, to be able to link their families back to such lofty, powerful positions in the Celtic homelands, but many Americans wish they could. Most Americans can’t even be sure from which country their ancestors emigrated and when, because their families kept such poor records, if any, and some churches, counties, etc. weren’t much better. What civil, church newspaper, and other records were kept, are still mostly NOT online, nor in published/microfilm form in local libraries. So, to find their origins and cousins, Americans are increasingly trying to use DNA testing services and their matching databases, including the male-only Y-DNA surname project databases.

Have you ever noticed how often Americans of Celtic descent ask ‘Where is my family’s Castle’? In truth, not many Americans are lucky enough to have such ancestors–at least not in the last 300 to 400 years, to be able to link their families back to such lofty, powerful positions in the Celtic homelands, but many Americans wish they could. Most Americans can’t even be sure from which country their ancestors emigrated and when, because their families kept such poor records, if any, and some churches, counties, etc. weren’t much better. What civil, church newspaper, and other records were kept, are still mostly NOT online, nor in published/microfilm form in local libraries. So, to find their origins and cousins, Americans are increasingly trying to use DNA testing services and their matching databases, including the male-only Y-DNA surname project databases.

Recently, I’ve been looking at a group of Y-DNA databases that are some several years old and increasingly causing some heated discussions on several family surname forums. These are the Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) family surname projects, for example ‘Ross Family Project,’ ‘Collins Family Project’ etc.

I had noticed a couple of problems with trying to find cousins with these projects, but most were minor. However, some family surname projects have greater issues.  Usually these surname projects have had some famous person in the family to which at least every other person who submits a Y-DNA sample wants to be related, and often will claim as an ancestor in the column called ‘ancestors.’ This is particularly true of Scottish and English family surname projects, as the Britain and Ireland have been home to kingdoms for millennia, and still has titles, castles and clan chiefs, as well as some famous American relatives.

Another problem is that some words, especially occupations like ‘Smith‘, became names, and some names, occur in multiple countries, even beyond Britain and Ireland. The word ‘Ross‘ comes from a very ancient Indo-european root, meaning ‘red’, and another Celtic-Scandinavian-Germany word referring to a headland or hill. ‘Ross’ appears wherever Indo-european languages are spoken, with slight variances in spelling in Russia and Germany, and people who descend from Russian and German males are contributing samples to the ‘Ross Family Surname Project Database.’  ‘Collins‘ is a surname found in England and Ireland, albeit the English name is usually from the old Strathclyde Briton counties. Some of the Scottish families were international mercantile families–not enough arable land to pass on to expanding families, including Wallace and Ross, and actually did settle family members as ‘factors’ ‘ (business representatives) in ports in other countries, and they are likely to still have the same Y-DNA as their cousins in Scotland, Liverpool in England, and the Americas. But without consistently saying in the database where a family was from, it’s difficult to determine whether, as a Scottish American, or Irish American you are comparing samples that all came from Scotland, or Ireland. It can be done, but it takes keen observation of what is being said in the databases, and looking for ways to weed out those most obviously not likely to be kin, or who have bogus, or very different, claims of ancestry, including surnames.

I had noticed that a number of surnames of persons who allegedly gave samples to the project are not the same surname as the subject family of the project, and substantially different. There are three usual reasons.  The first is because there is an entire family with another surname that has been allowed to combine its samples with another surname project.  The second is when a person having an entirely different surname, believes he is descended from the surname and submitted his own paternal Y-DNA, anyway. The third is that  the name is that of a person managing several test kits, and not the person being tested.  As an example: there is a separate Rose family and clan from Ross, but both are in at least one surname project database, that of Ross. Another example of this is the variants of McCormick which include McCamick (from how it sounded to some clerk writing the name) and Cammack. McCormick is from Ireland and Scotland.  Cammack is from England.  In another family database, both are cited.

Noting the growing size of Facebook groups like ‘DNA Detectives,’ and other sites, there is the very valid bigger question of how do you know the person who had his DNA tested and has a particular surname really IS a person who has or should have that surname. Is his father really his father? Recently, I had a person appear In my Ancestry.com general autosomal database matches as a very close DNA match to me. This person had published a family tree in which there is not one single family surname that matches my well documented parents, siblings, or my first cousins, or any of their children, yet the amount of matching autosomal DNA between us is huge: 863 centiMorgans!! This is probably a person who was adopted and does not know it!

My growing concerns all came to a head this week when I received an email from a person who had seen claims of ancestors in the Ross Family FTDNA (Y-DNA) project, which someone subtitled within the site and some related forums as ‘Rose, Ross and Rev. George Aeneas Ross Branches,’ that didn’t add up.

The first problem was an easy one to see, by any reasonably experienced researcher of the American Ross family. There was no George Aeneas Ross. There was a Rev. George Ross (1679-1753) with one son named Aeneas Ross, and another son, George Ross Jr., who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Rev. George Ross left an autobiography to another of his sons, John, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, who added additional first hand family knowledge to it as a biography and more. Then a grandson of a son-in-law of the Rev. added yet more materials and published it in a pamphlet called ‘Rossiana’ in 1908. It’s been copied and sent to researchers for decades by several historical societies, and is now online. If people were claiming to be descendants of Aeneas, well, he had no sons, as per his own father and brother who left plenty of documents.  If they were claiming to be descendants of George Ross, Jr.,  ‘the Signer,’ his male line went extinct in the late 1800’s, as per a letter of one of his grand-daughters, with details of how and when. So the very subtitle of the group that also appears in forums is wrong.  It should be just ‘Rose and Ross’ and leave off the George Aeneas Ross.

Yet, when researchers tried to point this out to the more active members of these forums, who had created this subgroup title, some of whom insist they descend from the Signer on the male line, at least one researcher was told she should ‘not be listening to evil people.’ In other words, the facts are evil, fantasies are the truth.  I had a similar experience about a year ago.  I always tell people that what myself and any other researchers say about some of the early ancestors is subject to change pending new documents coming on line or being published and remind them that only 15% maximum of every and all records about people is online, and only 30% maximum is in published or microfilm form, not always widely available. For much you still have to go to a single library or archives thousands of miles away from where you live, or hire a researcher that lives there and not even full indexes of what is in these libraries and archives, or even county courthouses, are online.

Based on a combination of newly found documents and DNA testing and analysis, I had to revise the early ancestry of an Irish line. I was accused by this woman of ‘ruining the family history she’d been about to publish about her family,’ of being ‘two-faced,’ and ‘making her life miserable.’ This was a woman who had not ever done a bit of research herself but just grabbed bits and pieces of other people’s work to put together HER and her family’s history.

Even Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the popular PBS television series ‘Finding Your Roots,’ is doing less with ancient ancestry research, making fewer statements about it, and hedging his findings with the disclaimer, that ‘the findings and statements are subject to change as new documentation becomes available’  That’s reality and it helps promote careful research and accuracy. When PhD researcher-writer celebrities like Gates are saying this, it should be a wake-up call to all family history researcher-writers and family tree makers.

If today’s Europeans spend any time on the genealogy chat forums, even clan society Facebook pages, as some do, it’s no wonder many are beginning to think most Americans are deranged or demented, and uneducated savages. They also are wondering that, with so many Americans wanting to find titled ancestors and castles, and given some recent U.S. political events, why we ever bothered to have a revolution against a monarchy since we seem to be doing our best to re-create one. Some Europeans are even starting to say this in public on these internet forums and Facebook pages.

The more serious issues illustrated in the FTDNA family surname project tables are the column ‘names’ and how ‘ancestors’ being used to assume that the Y-DNA of the test submitter is the same as the claimed ancestor, or even persons with the project surname.

Autosomal DNA tests are real science, and cheap and accessible. However, most autosomal DNA matching cannot identify individual ancestors beyond about 250 or so years. Most Americans have ancestors who emigrated from the British Isles more than 300 years ago. Families have to be very inbred for autosomal DNA to be useful in finding ancestors beyond 250 or so years.

Autosomal DNA tests can provide very good clues to larger, country or regional geographic origins of one’s ancestors, and the more expensive Y-DNA tests (only males have Y-DNA), can especially find small geographic origins for persons with the same last name who do actually share the same ‘markers’ which define what scientists call a ‘haplogroup.’ This can be a very small, precise, geographic area, and even lead to a particular small branch of a specific family.

However, with the exception of a few samples, database DNA samples are composed of modern individuals only. No one has routinely gone and exhumed the remains of famous persons in Scotland or Ireland whose titles and lives were known and documented and put their samples online. Identifying real ancestors still takes documents research, and primary and valid secondary source written documentation that links the person who was tested, generation by generation back to his or her claimed ancestor. It is incorrect to assume the people in the FTDNA surname projects  ‘ancestors’ column are REAL ancestors of the persons who were tested and submitted their samples.  They are only CLAIMED ancestors, and there is no requirement that the claimed ancestors be documented with valid documentation, or any documentation, for that matter. The surnames, under ‘names’ entered with the samples and the (claimed) ‘ancestors’ entered in the ‘ancestors’ columns are all being entered on a voluntary, honor system basis.  Many, especially in family surname projects are incorrect and some of these claimed ancestors are easily proved as either non-existent, different in some key way from reality, or do not actually have the surname. A classic case of this is with the ‘Ross Family Project’, which will be the subject of Part 2.

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