DNA testing tips: getting the most out of your genetic genealogy

photograph of tree in early spring

DNA Day is here and many have been snapping up DNA test kits on sale this week at FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.

Most probably test because they want to learn what the test will tell about their ethnic makeup. But for serious genealogists and family historians, testing opens the doors to exciting yet often bewildering territory.

Here are my top three tips for getting the most out of testing your autosomal DNA:

  • Tip 1  Once your results are in, upload your raw data to Gedmatch.
    Gedmatch is a site that provides free DNA analysis tools and allows one
    to match with others across four major testing companies.
  • Tip 2  Test others in your family, starting with the oldest members.
  • Tip 3 Make concrete goals rather than end goals for exploring your genetic genealogy.

When I first took the DNA plunge and entered the confusing new realm of genetic genealogical research, I felt a bit had.

But I’ve learned a lot over the past year. And I’m beginning to reap something of value from a bit of swabbed saliva and inner cheek tissue.

I quickly realized that in order to reap more reward from my foray into genetic genealogy, I needed to do two things:  revise my goals and test others in my family.

My original goals consisted of vague hopes to connect with matches in the second to third cousin range on my Jewish and Irish lines. However, I soon discovered that endogamy makes this a Herculean task.

Instead, I decided to focus my efforts on my one of my nearest brick wall ancestors. By doing this I not only had a concrete goal, but was also able to formulate a genetic genealogy plan o’ action.

My brick wall ancestor, Sarah E. Brown, is my third great-grandmother on my paternal grandmother’s branch of my family tree, through her mother’s side. Her maiden name is unknown, as are her origins. As many researchers well know, locating 19th century records in central Pennsylvania is often impossible. For Sarah, the paper trail has been cold for two decades.

So, I am turning to DNA testing in hopes of locating other descendants of her family line.

Experts strongly recommend testing the oldest generation of one’s family for good reason. We inherit exactly half our autosomal DNA from each parent, but each successive generation passes on just half of that half.  Simply put, the oldest generation carries significantly more of one’s ancestors’ DNA. (For a more in-depth explanation, please read Roberta Estes’ excellent article on the subject.)

Unfortunately, my Dad and Grandmom died years ago. This meant I needed to find other older family members who would be willing to test.

Right away, I was able to recruit my Aunt Lisa (my Dad’s only sibling and the oldest living member of his side of the family).  That helped me figure out better which matches came from my paternal line.

A few months later, my Grandmom’s first cousin through her maternal side, Shirley, also agreed to test. Her DNA test has proved to be of enormous value.

Testing two other family members has enabled me to triangulate the matches we have in common. In a short time, this has led to a few connections with more distant (second and third) cousins that have been further verified through good old-fashioned paper trail genealogical research. It also led to one heck of a discovery.

Through those matches, I am slowly figuring out which triangulated segments relate to particular branches of our family.

My great-grandmother, Lulu (née Reuter) Bender, just happened to be the eldest daughter in a tight-knit family of 14 children. I am very fortunate that some of my Grandmom’s youngest cousins are still living.

This week, two more of her maternal first cousins – Patti and Lowell – have decided to test.

We all share some DNA passed down from my grandmother’s maternal grandparents: her grandfather was of 100 percent German ancestry from mid-19th century Catholic immigrants. Her grandmother was half Pennsylvania-Dutch (so again, German… only Protestant and dating back to colonial America).

The other half is the mystery we are all trying to solve.

Initially, I thought Patti’s mother was of 100 percent Italian ancestry and got excited thinking that if she tested and had any matches that were not of German or Italian ancestry, then it would be easy to identify which matches connect to our brick wall ancestor.

However, her mother turned out to be half Irish descent… so it turns out each cousin’s non-Reuter parent and my own great-grandfather all have British Isles ancestry.

Identifying matches descended from our shared mystery ancestor will be more challenging than I hoped. But through triangulating all three cousins, plus my aunt and myself AND then seeing if those matches triangulate (or not) with the verified distant cousins on the Pennsylvania-Dutch and German branches – maybe we can figure out the probable connections to Sarah.

Because even if she is of British ancestry, as I suspect, my thinking is that it is unlikely that any of us will share matches in the second to fifth cousin range who are of British Isles descent (unless endogamy again comes into play, which I suppose is possible).

What might prove quite useful is a comparison of X chromosome matches. Since Lowell is male, he only inherited an X chromosome from his mother, who was my great-grandmother’s youngest sister. Being female, Patti will have inherited her X chromosomes from both parents. However, Patti ‘s father was my great-grandmother’s brother – so if her X chromosome matches triangulate with Lowell’s (and the rest of us), those matches will assuredly be from our Brown line as her father would have only inherited the X chromosome from his mother.

I can hardly wait for the test results to come in…

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Tuesday Tip: use Lord’s Supper registers as early census alternative

imageIf you have a German-American ancestor who was residing in colonial Philadelphia, it might be worthwhile to check the Lord’s Supper guest register for St. Michael and Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1755-1763.

It can be found online via Ancestry.com’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey Church and Town Records, 1708-1985.

What’s remarkable about this register is that it’s a mini-census record of personal data that might aid further research.  It is particularly useful in narrowing down the year of immigration.

In fact, one of the main reasons for documenting those who took the sacrament of Lord’s Supper was to provide evidence of such so that immigrants could be naturalized as citizens of British North America.

The Plantation Act of 1740 required Protestant immigrants living in the Colonies for at least seven years (and who had not left said Colonies for longer than two months) to produce court certificates that they had taken the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in a Protestant or Reformed church three months before taking the oath to become a citizen of Great Britain.

Besides names of single parishioners, the register also lists husbands and wives. Then in columns to the right of the names it contains the following information on each person:

  • how many years in America
  • how many children
  • age
  • miscellaneous notes

The miscellaneous notes, though sometimes difficult to read, generally give indication of residence. This can include a Philadelphia neighborhood like Kensington or Frankfurt (Frankford).

Considering that St. Michael and Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church was one of the first (and main) Lutheran churches for colonial Philadelphia’s sizable German-American population, this is a great resource for those with ancestors who were parishioners.

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In this 1761 register, Jacob Bender is listed as age 37 and wife, Dorothea is listed as having immigrated to Philadelphia 19 years prior, the mother of 7 children and age 32. [image detail from Ancestry.com]

A search under my Bender family progenitor revealed some interesting things.

The entries (dated 1761) for Jacob Bender and his wife correctly listed their ages and the number of children born to them at that time.  The information is also accurate in listing Dorothea Bender as having been in the country for 19 years.

Jacob, however, had no number entered in that particular column.

Could this omission mean (as I have long suspected) that Jacob Bender was born in America?

The miscellaneous notes indicate his residence being in the Germantown Borough, which could be another big clue.

Jacob Bender bought a considerable amount of land after this register was made in the western Northern Liberties township (today’s Allegheny West neighborhood).  However, I have not located any deeds prior to 1771, even though Jacob married and had children in Philadelphia decades earlier.

Where was he living? Apparently in Germantown.

Was it on inherited land or with other family?

I have long thought that if Jacob was born in America, he almost certainly was born in Germantown and connected to the earliest German settlement there.

There’s a family legend which claims that Jacob is the son of a Jacob Bender/Painter who immigrated in 1693 and settled in Pelham area of Germantown (today Mt. Airy).

Plus, he does not appear to have a connection with any other Bender/Painter families in Northern Liberties or of St. Michael & Zion Lutheran Church, except for one –  Johannes Painter/Penter (d. 1768) and his wife, Carolina, who were the sponsors of Jacob and Dorothea’s daughter, Carolina. I’ve found no other mention of this couple in St. Michael & Zion’s records, so I am still unsure of how they relate.

Furthermore, a search under Bender and Painter surnames in Persons Naturalized in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1740-1773 yielded no entries for Jacob Bender/Painter, although there is a “Johann Jacob Binder” who took the oath listed as having received the sacrament in 1761. But this appears to be the same Johann Jacob Binder also among the parishioners on the 1761 Lord’s Supper register who immigrated in 1750.

So, it would appear that Jacob Bender just may have been born (ca. 1724) in colonial Pennsylvania. Now if I could only find proof…

Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

Tuesday Tip: online Irish parish registers

photograph of silhouetted winter trees

I recently discovered an invaluable resource for researching Irish ancestors. I’m six months late to this party, but figured it was worthwhile to write about in case others have yet to come across this information goldmine.

Catholic Parish Registers at the NLI is the National Library of Ireland’s online collection of scanned baptisms and marriage registers from the majority of Catholic parishes in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, covering years up to 1880.

The best thing is that it’s free!

My paternal grandfather was 100 percent Irish-American, his father’s parents having immigrated from County Kerry, Ireland and his mother’s parents immigrants from Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone.

I’ve had great success in the past with finding parish records for my County Kerry ancestors through irishgenealogy.ie, but until last summer, when the NLI’s records went live, online parish records for County Tyrone were available only through subscription to rootsireland.ie.

To search for one’s ancestors on the NLI site, you must first enter the village, townland or parish into the search engine bar at the top right corner of the web page. That will bring up the collection of scanned registers for the relevant diocese.

Next comes the hard work of scouring the images for your ancestors’ names. There’s a great filter to help narrow things down by year and even by moth and year, if you happen to know that information.

Fair warning:   the handwriting is so faint for some of the records that they are nearly impossible to read.

The good news is that there are image enhancement tools to adjust contrast, brightness and even to inverse the image.

It’s a fantastic resource and I look forward to researching my County Tyrone kin…

Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

Tueday Tip: Google your ancestors

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It’s always wise to periodically conduct a Google search on your ancestors. With more and more records, old books and other potential sources of information being digitized each day, you never know when you might find something new.

Recently, I discovered that my great-great grandfather, Philip Hess Bender, Jr. was appointed a position within the Philadelphia Police Department in 1876.

I consider the two decades of research on the Bender family of Philadelphia, particularly my own direct line, to be quite comprehensive. And yet, here was a new revelation about Philip Jr.’s life.

From the notation, it appears he was part of the vice unit in the PPD’s 24th district for just two years, resigning in 1878.

Of course, learning this led to some further exploration. For insight on the history of law enforcement in 19th century Philadelphia, Howard O. Sprogle’s Philadelphia Police Past and Present is a must read.

The PPD went through some reorganization and major reforms after Mayor William S. Stokely took office in 1871. For starters, he increased the force by 1000 men shortly after he was elected. Philadelphia had the second largest population in the nation at that time, increasing nearly 20 percent over the decade prior. Then came the Panic of 1873. The nation was plunged into a depression and with it came the desperation which caused crime, particularly vice, to escalate. Stokely added another 200 men to the police department’s ranks.

When Philip Jr. joined the force Philadelphia was gearing up to host the Centennial Exposition. The eight-month long event attracted more than 9 million visitors and some of the nation’s worst criminals.

Stokely added 300 extra officers to offset the city’s need for more police protection.

In addition, on March 20, 1876, Philadelphia’s Select Council (predecessor to today’s City Council) passed an ordinance to take a census of inhabitants during the Centennial. The work was entirely carried out by police patrolmen in April. Since Philip was appointed on March 30, he likely contributed to that enumeration.

During his brief time with the PPD, he also helped restore order in the city during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

It’s incredible how one tidbit of new information can lead to fascinating discoveries about past events and how they impacted the lives of those who lived during those times. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy nerding it up in pursuit of my ancestors.

For tips on how to get the most out of a Google search for ancestors, check out this Family History Daily article.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.