Friday, May 25, 2018

Using Descendancy Research and DNA to Scale a Brick Wall

When most people hear of genealogy, they probably think only of a long line of ancestors, going back generation after generation. But is genealogy only about our ancestors, or is it also about our cousins? What happens when we hit a brick wall and can go no further back?

As we saw last week, we have to be certain that we're following the right path, that we're standing on solid ground in our attempt to scale that brick wall. So we double check our research, we use census and vital records at our disposal to make sure our brick wall is where we think it is.

Once we know we're correct in our deductions, we can move forward with two of the Ten Steps to Family History Research: remember that siblings matter and that DNA is the way! The principle that siblings matter tells us that not only should we move backward to determine ancestors, but we should work with all available records that relate to our ancestors' siblings as well. And if we're aiming to access all available records, we must acknowledge the powerful and evolving record that is our own DNA. Just as paper records hold a wealth of details about our past, our DNA can help us follow, confirm, and even reject the conclusions we've made from our research.

In this week's post, we'll look at the use of descendancy research and DNA to scale my Williams of Powhatan brick wall.

1. Descendancy Research

In my last post, I showed how I worked back to my brick wall ancestors of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams of Powhatan County, Virginia. In order to discover the parents of Joseph Williams, I will need to find out all that I can about Joseph Williams and his immediate family with Ona Ann Adams. This is helpful for a few reasons. Most immediately, each child of each generation leaves behind different records that can confirm their relationship with the previous generation. This could ultimately provide important information about Joseph and Ona Ann. Secondly, descendancy research tells the wider story of the descendants of the ancestral couple. And perhaps most importantly, descendancy research provides a list of modern descendants of the ancestral couple with whom we can connect and collaborate.

When doing descendancy research, be forewarned that your tree will grow large, and quickly! I include every birth, marriage, divorce, census, city directory, social security application, death, and burial record for every descendant of the ancestral couple. Since I began my descendancy research for Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, I have worked down all lines at least to 1940 (the last U.S. census available) and in many cases much further to include living descendants.

The challenge is finding confirmed descendants of the target ancestral couple. Here, obituaries come in handy! They often provide names of children and grandchildren of those who were born prior to 1940. From there, with some genealogical sleuthing, you can usually find some of your cousins online through google and social media. In my case, I've even figured out I went to high school with some of my cousins!

For most of us, paper research isn't going to be enough. We're going to need to collaborate with people in a way that can absolutely confirm genetic relationships: through DNA.

2. Genetic Genealogy

Genetic genealogy is where descendancy research and the use of DNA combine to form an incredibly powerful tool in our family history research. Since I have worked down from Joseph and Ona Ann, and have discovered as many of their descendants as possible, DNA helps me connect much more easily to living descendants of my brick wall ancestors.

What sorts of DNA testing are most helpful in this process? Since this is a paternal line ancestral couple I'm working to discover more about, Y-DNA testing will be important. But since we're also looking at the wide spread of descendants of two people, we also need to utilize autosomal DNA. So let's look at these two types of DNA briefly before going on to show how they have helped me connect to DNA cousins.

Every cell in our body holds within it 23 pairs of DNA that are our own unique combination of the DNA inherited from our parents. One of those pairs are known as the sex chromosomes and determine our physical sex as male or female. Each person inherits an X chromosome from their mother and either an X or a Y from their father. Men inherit a Y chromosome, while women inherit another X chromosome. Y chromosomes remain almost unchanged from generation to generation, which means that the Y-DNA I inherited from my father will be (usually) the same as the Y-DNA his father passed on to him. The degree of difference between two men who match on the Y chromosome can give us clues as to how far back they share a common paternal ancestor. The measurement used to show this difference is called "genetic difference" and refers to the number of differences between two men's Y-DNA caused by naturally occurring mutations on the Y chromosome.

When we study autosomal DNA, on the other hand, we're looking at the DNA that both of our parents passed along to us. Keep in mind that each generation looses 50% of the DNA from the generation before. So while autosomal DNA is hugely important, especially when combined with descendancy research, a negative match between two people does not necessarily mean that there is no shared ancestor. It simply means that they share no sizable segment of DNA. While the two individuals might not be related after all, it's also possible that two related individuals simply did not inherit the same segment of DNA from their shared ancestor. But when two people do share autosomal DNA, it can unlock mysteries that sometimes paper records haven't yet.

So what does it actually look like when we combine forces, when we combine the use of records (descendancy research) and DNA in the case of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams?

3. Y-DNA research

To test my Y chromosome, I have used two tests. First, I tested my father with FamilyTreeDNA with a Y-DNA37 test. This test looked at 37 different locations on my father's Y chromosome to compare it with others in their database. The lower the number of markers tested, the lower the definition (so to speak) of the picture it can give of the Y chromosome. I chose a 37 marker test over the 12 marker or 25 marker test for this reason. Next, I upgraded to a Y-DNA67 marker test for even greater precision. Since Y-DNA is passed from father to son, my dad's Y-DNA should ideally only match other Williams men (since surnames in the British Isles are also passed from father to son).

Y-DNA67 results from FamilyTreeDNA

As you can see, only one of the 15 men tested have the surname Williams. The other surnames are Blackwell (3), Thomas (1), Harris (1), Traylor (3), Miles (1), Roberts (1), Rogers (2), Rowland (1), and Owen (1). The Williams match is my father's second cousin (which confirms that they both descend from Joseph Edward Williams at the very least). The next two most common surnames are Blackwell and Traylor. At 37 markers, there were also a few men who match with the surname Blackwell and Traylor but have yet to upgrade to a 67 marker test. I reached out to the Blackwell and Traylor matches and found that their earliest known ancestors lived in neighboring counties to mine in Virginia! I also have joined the Surname Projects on FamilyTreeDNA for each of those surnames in addition to the Williams Surname Project. These results show one (or both) of two possible scenarios: our common ancestor was before the adoption of surnames in the British Isles, or there was a NPE (non-paternity event, non-paternal event, or mis-attributed paternity) since the time our shared male ancestor.

More recently, I tested with a newer DNA testing company, LivingDNA. In addition to their autosomal DNA test, they also test the Y chromosome. While FamilyTreeDNA estimates my paternal haplogroup as R-M269, LivingDNA gives a much more specific result of R-L21 with the subclade R-DF13. This means that my paternal line descends not only from R-M269 (the most common haplogroup for Western European men) but from the more specifically 'Atlantic Celtic' haplogroup R-L21 and its subclade (subgroup) R-DF13. I've also ordered an additional SNP test through FamilyTreeDNA in hopes that they can confirm the same results that LivingDNA found.

So far Y-DNA research has shown that my Williams line is not closely related to any other Williams line that has been Y-DNA tested. My paternal line is however closely related to Blackwell and Traylor men from the neighboring counties of Goochland and Chesterfield. I also know that my Y-DNA is connected mostly with men from Atlantic Celtic ancestry, which makes sense considering Williams is a Welsh surname. What can autosomal DNA research reveal about Joseph Williams?

4. Autosomal DNA research

When working with autosomal DNA, the trick is to get as many of the oldest generations tested as possible. This is because the oldest generations have retained more DNA from the target brick wall ancestors. In addition to my father and his two sisters, three of their first cousins were tested. This gives me a firm foundation of autosomal DNA to compare all of the rest of our matches. Additionally, since I have access to my father's and aunt's autosomal DNA results, I can look at DNA matches for both of their tests. I was able to test my fourth cousin who I discovered through descendancy research and who also grew up with my father. His connection has proven invaluable as he matches some distant cousins that neither my father nor my aunt connect to.

Through analyzing the shared cousin matches of my father, my aunt, and my fourth cousin from the Joseph Williams line, I was able to identify the following matches that descend from the children of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams. I found two from Eliza W. Williams, six from William Henry Williams, three from Emmaline Williams, and one from Ellen Frances Williams. As for the descendants of Joseph Edward Williams (from whom my line descends), I have found five matches from the other siblings of Arthur Lewis Williams (my great-grandfather). In total, there are ten descendants of Arthur Lewis Williams that have been DNA tested. I have yet to find matches to descendants of three of Joseph and Ona Ann's children: John H., Mary Ann, and George W. Williams.

Since we are working with matches that vary from as close as sibling matches to as distant of matches as forth cousins-once removed, not all of these individuals share DNA with one another. But they do all match with the same general pool of DNA cousins. Additionally, I have been able to confirm their connection to Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams.

There remains a large pool of mystery matches that connect with many of the individuals listed above (and to one another) but whose connections to us is unknown. Some have no known relationship to the Williams and Adams families. Others connect with other families from Chesterfield and Powhatan. Yet still others descend from other Williams men from Powhatan living at the same time as Joseph Williams, namely James H. Williams and Powell Williams. I hope to determine the relationship of these two men to my Joseph Williams.


When you hit a brick wall, and have done an exhaustive search of the census and vital records available, descendancy research and genetic genealogy can be powerful tools in your genealogical toolkit. Descendancy research gave me a wide web of DNA cousins that I could connect with, and using autosomal DNA, I was able to confirm matches to individuals already in my tree. Y-DNA has told me more about the deeper roots of my paternal ancestors and their roots in the British Isles. And while my paper research led me to Joseph Williams, DNA research has confirmed that I do in fact descend from him.

Have you utilized descendancy research for your brick wall ancestors? Have you gotten the full use out of your DNA test results to assist in breaking down your brick wall?

The question may remain as to who the parents of Joseph Williams were, but my research - using both traditional records and genetic genealogy - has helped me to once again encounter my ancestors as I remember the past made present.

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