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Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358812578000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1358864015000
There's the story of a group of Irish lads who, on their journey, came to a wall too high to climb. Their solution? They threw their caps over the wall, so they had no choice but to follow them!

I've been struggling to get past some brick walls that relate to my mother's Scots-Irish ancestors. I can get back to the early or mid 19th century in Scotland or Ireland, but the trail goes cold there. So this past week I tried throwing my cap over the wall to see what would happen.

I went into my list of DNA matches and found all of the people with whom I matched at low confidence or better who had direct ancestors from Northern Ireland. (I also inspected the very low confidence matches that I had starred.) I made an Excel spreadsheet that listed their ancestors' names, dates and place of birth, the id of the individual I matched, and the degree of confidence. I then sorted the more than 900 matches by name and date.

I took the sorted list and identified any entries in which the same ancestor was listed independently by two or more of my matches. I then examined the individual trees according to these criteria:

1. There had to be enough detail in the entries that I could be sure that my matches in fact had the same ancestor.

2. There had to be primary source documentation for that ancestor--I eliminated any that were copied from other trees without independent sourcing.

3. The matches had to be related to the common ancestor along different lines of descent.

4. The family lines had to make sense in terms of what I know about my family and the patterns of my other DNA matches.

When I did this I was left with five families on the list, two each from Antrim and Tyrone and one from Armagh. In each case, there was an ancestor who was shared by my matches who immigrated from Ulster to the United States in the early 18th century. Four of the five went initially to Pennsylvania and one to North Carolina. Their families then dispersed over the generations, mainly along the Appalachians, but also to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Utah, Texas and Oregon.

This gave me a few interesting possibilities. I've long wondered why I have so many DNA matches from the Appalachian region, when my documented family ancestry stems mainly from 19th century immigrants to Western Pennsylvania. This new information suggests that, several generations earlier, ancestors of my Scots-Irish family were part of an earlier immigration to the colonies whose families have flourished in those parts.

I also now have a wider list of surnames to be alert for in investigating my DNA matches and tree hints. There is the possibility of working from both sides of the wall to see if I can eventually link one or more of these families to my known ancestors.

If we get some additional analytical tools, I'll be able to see if these theories hold up. With an "in common with" tool, I can see whether the people who share a common ancestor also share a DNA match. And with a chromosome comparison tool, I can determine whether all of us match on the same segment, which would strengthen the case for shared ancestry.

Just thought I'd pass this on, in case you find yourself facing a wall.

Comments and suggestions welcome.


Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358816989000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1358864368000
Jim, my cap is off to you! What an endeavor! I tried to list just Irish surnames for my Mom's matches and gave up when I reached 400 with very few in common and those few with only 2-3 mentions. Manipulating all this in Excel became far too challenging. I recently purchased Bento (very basic database) and may try again using your example. If my Irish luck holds, Mom may have more promising data now that her matches have grown in number. Let me know if any of your success stories involve our McCanns. All my best, Blanche

Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall

Posted: 1358819124000
Classification: Query
Jim, a truly wonderful post and a great idea. I'ld "like" it if I could.


Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358819144000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1358864385000
Thanks, Blanche--I'm hoping that at some point I'll be able to connect our McCanns to one of the Ulster families. I've made a spreadsheet of my Cork and Kerry relatives as well, but no common ancestors yet.


Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358829509000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1358864405000
WOW! I am truly impressed. My method is much less high tech. I am mostly looking for "grandmothers" born in the late 1700s and early 1800s with probable colonial roots. I have been copying each possible match with that surname (in New England) into a text file and comparing them until I find 4 or 5 for the same family. Then I can concentrate on that family to find my lost daughter.

Hats off to you!

Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358958318000
Classification: Query
Jim -

Thanks so much for posting this! I've been thinking of attempting this kind of thing for some of my lines using Excel - and now you've provided a methodology. I appreciate it!

-- Nancy

Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1358959243000
Classification: Query
I've actually found two other lines to evaluate since my original post.

Also, I've sorted the list by location. As I expected, most of the matches are from cities or large town, especially Belfast and Londonderry, but there are others that cluster in relatively small communities, which opens up other avenues for exploration.


Re: Throwing Your Cap over the Wall - using DNA to get past brick walls

Posted: 1360181852000
Classification: Query
OK--I've now gone through every one of my more than 3000 matches to identify all of the people with ancestors from Northern Ireland. The spreadsheet ran to over 2800 lines. I have found more than 225 instances in which I match with two or more individuals who have the same ancestor in their trees. There were 26 cases in which I matched with three such individuals, 6 with four matching individuals and one with six.

I decided to concentrate on the cases with the greatest number of matches to a common ancestor. They confirm, almost certainly, that my maternal grandmother had a large number of ancestors who were part of the early 18th century Scots-Irish immigration to America. In particular, there is one family from County Antrim with her surname. Although inconsistencies and gaps in the records prevent a firm conclusion, this location is consistent with birth records that I found for members of her family.

In the case with six matching individuals that family was from the home town of my paternal grandmother's family, confirming that they too had ancestors who were part of the earlier migration.

I made a similar, but smaller, list of my matches with ancestors from County Cork, home of my father's family. There were about two dozen shared ancestors. I couldn't draw any firm conclusions, but what I found was that there were shared matches with some prominent families from the 17th century, and merchant families in the 18th. This is tenuous evidence that is consistent with my theory that my father's family gradually transformed from landowners to tenant farmers over the course of two centuries.

Altogether this research took me about a month of work, a couple of hours per day. It would have been much simpler with adequate search tools. Also, without the ability to compare matching segments the conclusions are necessarily speculative.

Nevertheless, it has been a valuable exercise and has given me new things to ponder about my family.

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