How did you use DNA to break through a brick wall?

+11 votes
302 views
Hi everyone, most of us have a brick wall in our trees. I had one for over a decade, one of my maternal great great grandmother's, but DNA helped me break through her brick wall. Through collaboration with other matches and comparing our family trees great great grandmother's true origins were finally revealed. Has DNA enabled you to break through a brick wall? And if so how did you use DNA to do that?
in The Tree House by Maree Waite G2G6 (6.4k points)
Great for you! I love it when people break through!!
Yes, I have! Through 3 DNA autosomal tests there were three

of us who took the test and matched! All three of us descended from three siblings in the SAME family! Until this, I knew hardly anything about my grandfather's family. Now I know back to 1756 on his line! Yay!
I love it when people break through them too. It makes me think the task is just a little more doable.
It's like DNA opens up genealogy doors that you thought were permanently closed. I was really surprised when I had eighth cousin DNA matches that went all  the way back to 1727!

7 Answers

+10 votes

My mother's father.  Details are on her profile page: Worth-1434  

I'm hoping to do the same with some more distant relatives on my father's side.  My great grandmother's parents immigrated to the US from Ireland in 1876.  I've managed to find their parents' names on their death records, but don't have much else to go on so far.  I haven't done much research outside the US yet (still learning!) so will continue to do that, but I may couple that approach with DNA triangulation.  I have a cluster of "2nd-4th" and "3rd-5th" cousins on FTDNA that all match me and each other on a ~20 cM segment of chromosome 18, and almost all of them are in or from Ireland, which suggests they're related to one of my Irish ancestors.  (I just wish more of them had detailed trees posted!)

by Lisa Hazard G2G6 Pilot (155k points)
Hi Lisa, your DNA research is excellent, no wonder you were able to break though your brick wall with DNA. I used DNA to break through a brick wall but have no success with others wanting to document that although we did collaborate to find the answers but at least privately I know my ancestor is confirmed. My brick wall was in Ireland but now her parents are my new brick wall. I am the same as you but in reverse. I have DNA clusters in the US (one big one in Anne Arundel, Maryland) but I am still learning about your records. I did make a break through recently though with one of my US DNA matches, I am now trying to find sources (for our common ancestors in England) so that I can connect the US family and my Australian family here on WikiTree. I agree about others having detailed trees, it was only because the Maryland matches had good trees that I was able to connect the two families.

On a different note, how do you put the links in your reply so people can click on them? That is a really cool idea.

Thanks!  I worked pretty hard at that (it was probably overkill, really... so many cousins!).  Sometimes if I didn't have a tree for a cousin I'd try to build it myself.  Tricky since living people tend not to show up on genealogy sites... I ended up Google-stalking some people to try to find their deceased relatives. I didn't worry about thorough sourcing at first but for what I was doing it wasn't critical.

Now I'm trying to get my more traditional research skills up to speed to properly build and source my tree here on WikiTree.  FamilySearch has become my go-to site for basic records (US census, birth/death records, etc.).  And I'm learning about DNA tools that would have made my initial search much more efficient.  

I have a lot of family/ancestors in Maryland, mostly around Baltimore.  I think I've run across someone in Anne Arundel County, but I can't remember who off the top of my head.

In the formatting toolbar at the top of the comment box there's a link button... click on it and you can put in a URL and the text you want highlighted.  I figure if I want someone to actually look at a page I should make it as easy as possible for them.  smiley

Thanks for that Lisa I will try to add links with my next question. I also use FamilySearch but what I don't get is about twenty years ago I found my family's records on the site but now that I want to use those records they appear to have disappeared. It is so frustrating because I know the family tree but cannot re-find the records to link the families together. And yet other records that were just indexes back then have now been replaced by copies of the originals (not that I'm complaining about that). But I think FamilySearch would have to be the site I use the most.
Oh, that's frustrating.  I've only been using it for a few months, but maybe someone with more experience knows what changed and can help you find those records again.
Hi Lisa, I have had some joy with the records that I couldn't re-find. I couldn't find them with an ordinary search but when I went to the Catalogue and put in the place name of where they were created they were there and the originals not just an index. I'm so happy.
I live in Annapolis.  Let me know if you need some help with look-ups.
Glad you were able to find them!
+3 votes
I was able to establish that my ancestress, Delight Fuller, was a close relative of Cornelius Fuller.  I found a likely descent for her from the Mayflower's Edward Fuller.  Geography, family names, and, finally, DNA have helped me to find the right family and hopefully I will eventually get her ancestry fully worked out.
by K. Anonymous G2G6 Pilot (126k points)
Hi K, I agree with your recipe for finding ancestors - geography, family names and DNA and also as Lisa said detailed family trees. Although my brick wall didn't really fit into the geography bit. I was looking for her in Birmingham, England when in fact she was from Ireland. But it was DNA that finally confirmed who she was and where she came from. DNA is certainly an important part of the process but as you say working with names and places cannot be ignored.. Good luck with finding Delight Fuller's family.
Thanks!  Best of luck to you, too-DNA really does represent an incredible way to solve genealogical puzzles that have been around for decades (if not longer).
+3 votes
I am trying hard to break through my maiden name brick wall for over 35 years, unfortunately, all the DNA matches have brick walls too as I do mirror trees. Maybe this will pass one day as DNA gets better and better! Or maybe I will be able to do this by learning DNA painting??? Congrats on your feat!!
by Debbie Parsons G2G6 Pilot (139k points)
Hi Debbie, I looked up what a mirror tree is, I'm sure as you say DNA will get better and better. I tried chromosome painting but got nigley with it when it kept painting over the chromosomes I had already added. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question and I hope you have a break through with your family search very very soon. Just keep believing that one day you will find what you are looking for. Good luck.
+3 votes

The first DNA match (who I hadn't already known before testing) helped me discover the parents of my great-grandma, Franciszka (Kijewska) Ligocka. I couldn't find any documents listing her parents and had only found her maiden name, Kijewski, on her tombstone. But then I uploaded my DNA to GEDmatch and there was one match that was much stronger than all the rest and when I checked her tree, I saw some Kijewski's way up at the top. After speculatively adding them I started to notice a few clues, a shared Uncle, my great-grandma and this other family being adjacent on the census records, etc. I was able to use these connections to find clues as to where the family lived in Poland and even get another 2 generations back in Poland from church records.

by Shawn Ligocki G2G6 Mach 1 (13.0k points)
Hi Shawn, DNA is certainly a remarkable thing and GEDmatch has done its fair share, contributing so well to the advancement of genetic genealogy. It's like a map showing us where to look. The ability to extend our trees backwards is a bonus. Part of my family is from Germany before it was Germany if that makes sense but I haven't even tried to do any research there. It is great how your research went ahead in leaps and bounds once you uploaded to GEDmatch. You said it differently but just like K you have used DNA, location and names to solve your brick wall! Maybe that is the successful formula to tear most brick walls down?
+2 votes
Hi Maree,  

YDNA tests are the only way we have successfully identified the correct paternal lines for a number of colonial Smith men.  My mom's paternal line of Smith men have been identified and connected because of several matching YDNA tests of living Smith men.  When a man knows if he has genetic matches, in the Smiths for example, he then knows who his paternal line genetic cousins are and he can ignore all the other Smith lines in the world because he is only genetically related to his matching cousins.  

In SmithConnections Northeastern DNA Project, we have 95 matching groups of Smith men that are related to the men in their individual group, but are not genetically related to the men in the other 94 groups.
by Kitty Smith G2G6 Pilot (553k points)
Hi Kitty, that is an enormous amount of Smith lines. I have a Smith line too and I often wonder if they knew that their surname was so common why they didn't give their children more than one name. Or maybe that's me just putting my values on people of the past. DNA is such an advancement for genealogy it makes you think how on earth did we got by without it. Your Smith project is a fine example of how DNA can be used.
+3 votes
Yes!  I am battering down a brick wall right now.  My 3GGF on the paternal line was listed in an 1850 census with the only hints to his origin being his name and that he was born in Virginia in 1805.  Recently, I found two independent sets of families that matched variations of 3rd, 2nd, 1st cousins, siblings, and/or me.  Both sets had ANDERSON ancestors from Virginia in early 1800s and one of them pointed to Loudoun County.  The evidence points to them being brothers and I believe I have identified the parents but will be heading to Loudoun County tomorrow to do some lookups.  

These matches were all auDNA matches and none of them are descended on the all-male line, but I have located six men who are descended on the all-male line and hope to get one of them to do a yDNA test for added insurance.  Maybe that BigY test will finally have a match!

Previously, I had knocked down a wall with some Irish ancestors.  In this case, the cousins were all in Australia and New Zealand and some of them had records that were not on-line  There are many other examples where DNA helped to correct information and/or lead to look-ups that resulted in corrections.
by Thom Anderson G2G6 Mach 4 (49.1k points)
Hi Thom, thank you for your answer. I am finding that too. I have been able to use DNA to ascertain how accurate my paper trail is. Not only that but I have also been able to extend the parts of my family that are not direct ancestors. It is so interesting to see how the siblings of a direct ancestor fared and to see what family they had and where they lived. Just the other day and for the first time I was able to connect (because of DNA) from me (here in Tasmania, Australia) back to Devon, England (where the MRCA's lived) and then to my DNA match in Utah. I guess you have found the same where you had DNA cousins here and in New Zealand and was able to track them down. I also have Irish ancestors, the thing is, you knock one wall down, only to find another wall in its place! I don't know, even with DNA whether I will ever be able to knock all my Irish walls down. I also thank you for your offer of help for look-ups and if any of your Aussie cousins were in Tasmania I could look them up for you.
+3 votes
I have one with my 4 x GGF named William Micajah Williams born Abt. 1740 in Wales and died 1802 in Liberty County, Marion District, SC, USA. I did all the FTDNA tests thruu the BIG-Y Test. That last test said I was not a Williams but either a Davis or Davies. So there went. my Y-DNA heritage. To verify FTDNA's work I sent the BIG-Y raw data to Y-FULL in Russia, they came back with this "I share a twig on the "Tree of Life"with Mr Duane Davis. Duane was the number one match on the BIG-Y test. We did find a note in a Charleston, SC, Library saying a William Micajah Williams arrived in Charles Town, SC on the ship "The Harriet" in 1765 from Georgia US Territory. Georgia at that time was a Penal Colony so we're wondering if our 4 x GGF was a convict  and decided to change his name prior to settling in SC. I DON'T KNOW WHICH COURSE TO TAKE. Maybe I'll get lucky with DNA results down the road. Any suggestions are appreciated,

Joseph A Williams
by Anonymous Williams G2G6 Mach 1 (10.9k points)
Hi Joseph, thank you for your answer. It would appear from your answer to my question that two companies have confirmed that you are descended from Davis/Davies and not Williams. DNA not only helped me break down one of my great great grandmother's brick walls but in the process left absolutely no doubt that the person I had been researching was not her. So I know how difficult it is to start from scratch again with an ancestor.

I do not know anything about the penal colony in Georgia but as an Australian I can say that in some instances people did change their name and did move away from the place where they served out their sentence. However, if your family has been in the one location for a very long time I would start looking for the identity of your 4 X GGF there and gather up as much info about your confirmed ancestors that were connected to him as well as indirect family members and those they associated with before making a decision about whether your 4 X GGF changed his name or not.

Is there, for instance, a cluster of Williams and Davis/Davies in the last location your ancestor may have lived? Do you have any DNA matches that also come from that area? And Duane Davis does his family come from that particular area and where does his male line lead to? I would also look at why you believe that William Micajah Williams is your ancestor and try to pin point where on your male line you came to that conclusion and why.

There are also Y-DNA groups that you can join where you may be able to define the details of your Davis/Davies line further and locate other men who descend from that same surname line. And the people running that group may be able to help you identify your particular line.

Please remember I am finding my way with DNA just like you and so can only throw suggestions in your direction. I wish you luck with your research.

Joseph, you didn't mention if the yDNA full-sequence test came back showing you sharing SNPs with Davies/Davis at the deepest levels (the inappropriately named "terminal" SNP) or how many testers were involved in that clustering.

And a quick aside that Yfull, being a commercial enterprise, examines only the data sent to them--tested elsewhere--so they aren't on an altruistic mission to grow the yDNA phylotree and it wouldn't surprise me if you and Duane Davis are the only two matching records in their database. FTDNA's data will always be more extensive than Yfull's...unless something changes in the world of yDNA testing.

It's important to keep in mind that full sequence Y-SNP testing can offer remarkable refinement in the results, but with most ancestral SNPs we're still talking timeframes around or before the common adoption of surnames. Derived novel and unique SNPs can help positively identify individual branches within particular male lineages, but we're still totally dependent on who has taken the tests; of course, that applies to Y-STR tests, too. In other words, if you have only yourself and a couple of Davies/Davis men in your SNP cluster, it may as yet be indicative of nothing in the genealogical timeframe. Unless the results are able to rule out a specific hypothesis--e.g., you've identified a couple of 3rd or 4th cousins whose paper trails also show that they descend from William Micajah Williams and none of them match you--the verdict is still out. Unlike autosomal DNA with relatively close relationships, yDNA and mtDNA can't be predictive: it can't estimate degree of cousinship without good paper trails, multiple testers, and careful work to triangulate the results.

A much simpler explanation, just as an example only, might be that your Williams line is Welsh and that you and the Davies/Davis folks absolutely share a common male ancestor...just not recently. The three most common surnames in Wales today are Jones, Williams, and Davies, with Williams and Davies tied for second-most frequent. Wales continued to use patronymic naming well into the 15th century (some pockets even later) while England moved us into the "genealogical timeframe" after the Norman conquest in 1066; an adopted "permanent" surname became important as of the Domesday Book for census and taxation and inheritance purposes. You might well have had an ancestor as recently as the 15th century named William ap Davies (or vice versa) who became a Williams while his biological cousins stayed Davies.

You're R-L21 so can't use Alex Williamson's The Big Tree, but here's a snapshot of my line there:

This is 38 SNPs down from R-BY3332, and you can see the lineage differentiation developing under BY22194. We have two more Williams Big Y-500 tests pending in the upcoming months, and for my line we have no, as yet, solid understanding of the ancestry prior to the 1700s. The Sproats, however, have a good paper trail back to the late 16th century in southwest coastal Scotland. Right now, our working hypothesis is that these particular Sproat, Williams, Pratt, and Welsh lines share a common male ancestor sometime between the period of the Danelaw (call it the late 9th century) through possibly as late as the 13th or 14th centuries.

The point is, it's simple to use yDNA to prove a negative hypothesis. If you and a 4th cousin are supposed to share a 3g-grandfather and the two of you don't match at all, you can take it to the bank that one of the paper trails is either incorrect or that there was a non-paternal event along the way. But using yDNA to reach back before the paper trail begins can take a lot of work, a lot of willing test-takers, and a healthy dose of luck. The first yDNA test in that group above was taken in 2003. It's been 15 years to get to this point, and we're hoping for additional clarity from those next two pending Big Y tests.

Chin up! And I hope many new test-takers show up with Big Y results to help you fill in some blanks. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, locating and convincing some 3rd through 5th cousins to test would help define your Williams baseline, as we're doing with our clan.

Hi Edison, thank you so much for helping Joseph with his Y-DNA problem and in the meantime helping me also understand a bit more about Y-DNA. So, using Y-DNA, is it easier to actually say who you are not connected with than it is to confirm who you are connected with. If you were trying to break down a brick wall would you use Y-DNA to eliminate particular documented lines? Or is that too simplistic a view? I can see that it is definitely not a quick process and takes many years to achieve a result. I can also see that it is not as simple for men to just say that their surname is one thing and if their Y-DNA says differently then their surname must be the newly identified one. Clearly I have a lot to learn about Y-DNA. Would you know of any good sites etc where I could begin my Y-DNA education? Just a thought from what you said, if there is only maybe two matching records does that mean that it is quite possible that Duane Davis may actually be a Williams? Is that how it works with limited people testing?

Hey, Maree. It isn't so much about extended time and effort required to piece together good yDNA evidence as it is having multiple test-takers at high resolution levels of testing who also have well-researched family trees. So it's either luck (many related men just happened to take tests) or--the typically lengthy part--an organized plan to identify, seek out, and have tested specific men whose data can contribute information to a particular family line.

And, yep, with either of the uniparental DNA types--yDNA or mtDNA--it's always easier to prove a negative hypothesis than a positive one. That's one reason autosomal DNA was such a fantastic addition to the toolkit: genealogically it's of little use beyond 5th cousins--a shared 4g-grandparent--but it's great at close relationships and it can actually be predictive of the degree of cousinship. Plus it doesn't discriminate: everybody inherits it the same way.

Uniparental DNA, specifically because it escapes crossover during meiosis so recombination never takes place, can look many generations deeper. While yDNA can't be predictive about a relationship between two male cousins, it can still yield solid evidence that the two men share a common paternal ancestor within a handful of generations. And the information in the SNPs, the single nucleotide polymorphisms, can trace an ancestral chain from hundreds to many thousands of years ago. Mitochondrial DNA--which isn't part of the human genome at all and is a positively tiny molecule consisting of only 16,659 base pairs and 37 coding genes (compared to the Y-chromosome's 58 million base pairs with only twice as many genes)--is of least use in genealogy because there is so little room for non-harmful mutations to happen and the mutation rate is glacially slow. But mtDNA has the same non-recombinant trait and can look back thousands of years along the matrilineal line.

Because uniparental DNA can show an unbroken line of DNA inheritance over the course of thousands of years, it easily predates the times when surnames began to be adopted, regardless of the geographical region. You're absolutely correct: because of that, we can't be quick to rush to judgment about surname differences as displayed by yDNA testing. I mentioned Wales as one location that stayed with a patronymic naming tradition hundreds of years after surnames began to be adopted in England, as did, for example, Ireland and most Scandinavian countries.

In Joseph's case, I wasn't meaning to theorize but just offer a what-if sort of example. The most common surnames in Wales today are Jones, Williams, Davies, Evans, Thomas, Roberts, Lewis, and Hughes. In their patronymic convention, a person's given name would be linked by ap or ab (son of) or ferch (daughter of) to the father's baptismal name. So there could have been, in the same yDNA line, an Evan son of William or Evan ap William, then a Thomas ap Evan, a Dafydd (David) ap Thomas, and a Williams ap Davies when, boom, surnames began to be adopted. Some in the very same line may have chosen Davies or Davis, some Williams, and some Thomas.

It's much easier to construe an NPE over surnames when dealing with autosomal DNA because we're only looking back a handful of generations, at best. With yDNA we have to be much more careful because we might easily be looking at unbroken male lines that have no recent NPE, that in fact separated many hundreds of years ago from the same ancestor. This is a common problem for male adoptees who take yDNA tests: it can reveal a stockpile of important information, but it doesn't have the immediacy or predictive nature of autosomal results. A few yDNA matches to the Smith surname doesn't mean the birth father was named Smith. It's definitely a clue, but not yet evidence. IMO, the mantra should be to test everything the pocketbook will bear, but go into it understanding how to interpret and evaluate the results.

As for sources to learn more about yDNA, a place to start--especially if you prefer multimedia over mounds of text like I generate <cough> angel--might be a couple of YouTube channels. Family Tree DNA pioneered yDNA testing, so you can't really overlook them. The YouTube channel is here. They don't do regular webinar/instructional posts like they used to, but you can look through their videos and find several pertaining yDNA testing and interpretation of results.

Maurice Gleeson is a frequent lecturer on using yDNA in surname studies, and is kind enough to post a lot of those on YouTube. You can find his channel here

If there is British Isles ancestry, another good channel is Genetic Genealogy Ireland. Dr. Gleeson contributes there, as have John Cleary, Brad Larkin, Debbie Kennett, and others.

There are, of course, some rather oddball postings on YouTube about yDNA--well, about everything--so I'd personally stay with those until you feel comfortable in identifying the, er...odd from the useful. Have fun!

Hi Edison, thank you for your help. I will follow through with your suggestions. I have watched some of Maurice Gleeson but didn't realise he had a YouTube channel so I will definitely be having a look at that. Thank you again and good luck with your yDNA project.

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