Do we exhume ancestors? A YDNA primer, with implications for the Mt. Horeb Rankins

My friend Tony Givens asked me how the heck I obtained the YDNA of my great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Rankin, who I had identified as my ancestor via YDNA testing. Did we exhume his corpse, or what?

I was initially at a loss how to respond.

The short and almost correct answer is that I obtained Samuel’s YDNA by persuading my cousin Butch Rankin to take a YDNA test. However, I knew that wouldn’t suffice. Instead, I fell back on a standard cross-examination technique, asking leading questions to which I already knew the answer … hoping to answer Tony’s question without delivering an impenetrable lecture.

“So … tell me Tony, you know who your Givens grandfather is, don’t you?”

“Sure,” he said, “his name was David Givens.”

“OK,” said I, “you know the name of David’s father, right?”

“Yep! Harland Givens was my great-grandfather.”

“Well, Tony, if you swab your cheek today for a YDNA test, what would you have?”

Tony looked nonplussed. “A sample of my YDNA?”

“Yes, indeed. You would also have the YDNA of Harland Givens, give or take a few marker values.”

“Can’t be,” said Tony, “he’s been dead for a century.”

At that point, there was no alternative but to deliver a pseudo-scientific lecture about YDNA theory. A short summary follows. I am qualifying it as “pseudo”-scientific because I’m not a scientist and it’s easy to oversimplify these matters. Someone who actually knows something about this stuff may be compelled to post a corrective comment. Bobbi, I hope it will be you. Here goes …

I am female and don’t have a Y-chromosome. Instead, I have two X-chromosomes. Tony, a male, has one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome. The X and Y are called the “sex chromosomes” because they determine gender.[1] Tony can only have inherited his Y-chromosome from his biological father, since his mother didn’t have one to pass on. Likewise, Tony’s father inherited his Y-chromosome from his father David, who inherited his Y-chromosome from his father Harland Givens, and so on, theoretically ad infinitum up the male Givens line. (This ignores a possible “non-paternal event,” see below).

Those inherited Givens Y-chromosomes could all be identical, in theory. Putting it another way, a male’s Y-chromosome is passed down unchanged from father to son for generation after generation — except for occasional random mutations. If there were no mutations, Tony’s Y-chromosome would be an exact copy of the Y-chromosome of all of his male Givens ancestors.

Thus, the almost correct answer to Tony’s original question was that I obtained my ancestor Samuel Rankin’s YDNA by getting my cousin Butch Rankin to YDNA test. That isn’t quite accurate because mutations have occurred in the intervening generations between Samuel and Butch. If there had been no mutations, then Butch’s Y-chromosome would exactly match his five-great-grandfather Samuel’s.

There is an occasional “oops” in this process, when a man’s Y-chromosome doesn’t match his apparent father’s. This is called a “non-paternal event,” and please don’t get me started on the weirdness of that label. For example, if a male child is adopted, the adopted son inherited his Y-chromosome from his biological father and wouldn’t match his adoptive father. Likewise, if Mrs. Givens were raped and bore a son as a result, the child’s Y-chromosome would be a copy of the rapist’s rather than Mr. Givens’. The same would be true if Mrs. Givens had a son as a result of an extramarital affair.

Except for such non-paternal events, the Y-chromosome follows the line of the male surname without change other than occasional random mutations. This simple fact has given rise to surname DNA projects, in which participants compare their YDNA to other men having the same surname. Women cannot YDNA test, since we have two X-chromosomes. Instead, we cajole our fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and male cousins into swabbing their cheeks for a YDNA test.

There is a potload more science about this, but I’m already in over my head. If you want to learn about STRs (“short tandem repeats”) or SNPs (“single nucleotide polymorphisms”), check out the FAQs at the Family Tree DNA website.  Better yet, go search Roberta Estes’s website, “DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy.” She does an excellent job of making the science comprehensible.

Let’s leave the science and turn to how YDNA testing can be helpful in family history research.

As one example, it can help an adopted son identify his birth father when all other avenues have failed. I have a friend with a remarkable story who has done exactly that.

For another example, let’s assume that six men having the surname Willis have done 67-marker YDNA tests and joined the Willis DNA project. They are all a very good genetic match, having only one mismatching marker out of 67 between any two of these six men.[2] FYI, the number of mismatched markers is referred to as “Genetic Distance,” so any two of them would be considered a “67-marker match, GD =1.”

Five of the men can trace their Willis ancestry with a high degree of confidence back to a John Willis who came to Maryland from the U.K. circa 1700. The sixth man cannot identify a Willis ancestor earlier than 1800. Fortunately, his extremely close genetic match to the other five men makes it a virtual certainty that they share a common ancestor fairly recently, three centuries being “fairly recent” in genetic time. He would be justified in concluding that he is also descended from John Willis of Maryland.

YDNA testing can also disprove relationships. That leads us to the famous Rankin legend inscribed on a bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Cemetery in Jefferson County, Tennessee. You can read the entire inscription concerning this interesting piece of family lore in this article.

The Mt. Horeb tablet says this, elided to focus on relevant information:

“William Rankin had … sons, Adam [and] John … Adam married Mary Steele …  John … had two sons, Thomas and Richard, and eight daughters.”

If you have read the Rankin articles on this blog, you know that an Adam Rankin of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who died there in 1747 did, indeed, marry a Mary Steele. You also know that a John Rankin who died in Lancaster in 1749 left a will naming two sons, Thomas and Richard, and eight daughters.

In short, the Mt. Horeb tablet legend says that Adam Rankin (wife Mary Steele) and John Rankin (sons Richard and Thomas) of Lancaster were brothers.

Six descendants of the John Rankin who died in Lancaster in 1749 have YDNA tested and belong to the Rankin Family DNA Project. They are a close genetic match, and their ancestry “paper trails” are solid. All six are descended from John’s son Thomas.

The Rankin Project also has two participants who apparently descend from Adam Rankin and Mary Steele. They are a 67-marker match with a GD = 5, which is not a very close match. The odds are only slightly better than even that they share a common ancestor within the last eight generations. One man’s “paper trail” back to Adam and Mary Steele Rankin is good as gold. The other man’s chart has one weak link, although it is supported by convincing secondary and circumstantial evidence. It is possible (although unlikely, in my opinion) that these two men do not both descend from Adam and Mary, and, instead, their common ancestor is on the other side of the Atlantic.

In any event, the two men who probably do descend from Adam and Mary Steele Rankin are not a YDNA match to the six men who descend from John. A reasonable and perhaps inescapable conclusion, based solely on the available genetic evidence, is that John and Adam Rankin of Lancaster were not brothers. Perhaps, you may say, they had different mothers? It doesn’t matter from whom they inherited their X-chromosomes, though. We are dealing with Y-chromosomes here, and the YDNA of their descendants says that John and Adam did not have the same father.

This has implications further up the ancestral line. Both sets of descendants believe that Adam (or John) was a son of a William Rankin, and that William was a son of an Alexander Rankin. Based on the limited genetic evidence available, they cannot both be correct. Evidence in actual records about Adam or John’s parents would be wonderful, but I don’t know anyone who has found any.

Whatever is correct about William and Alexander, we need to find another descendant of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin to YDNA test and confirm the above conclusions. We also need to find a descendant of Richard, son of John, to confirm John’s line.

Is there anyone reading this who has a male Rankin relative who hasn’t tested? For heaven’s sake, woman, throw him down on the floor and swab his cheek! Even if he isn’t descended from Adam and Mary, or from John’s son Richard, the results of his test will almost certainly help him (and probably others) learn more about their Rankin family history.

Seriously. Whatever your surname may be, if you are interested in your family history, please  purchase a YDNA test (if you are a male) from Family Tree DNA. For the record, I’m not on the FTDNA payroll. It is the only firm offering YDNA tests. Start with a 37-marker test. If price isn’t a problem, do the 67-marker test. You can always upgrade to additional markers later without having to test again. If you have any reservations, contact me via a comment and let’s talk.

Meanwhile, I’ll be out there looking for another descendant of Adam and Mary … and a descendant of John’s son Richard …

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] There is a spectrum of gender identity from male to female that involves questions beyond both the scope of this article and my expertise. I’m using “male” and “female” as though those are the only options, which is an oversimplification.

[2] A “marker” is a Short Tandem Repeat. I think. They are what get measured or counted or something in a YDNA test.

Ancestry.com: a new beef

If you have come anywhere close to this blog before, you have heard me grouse about online family trees at Ancestry, Family History Search, and other websites. I have preached ad nauseam that “information” on such sites does not prove anything.[1] It is not even evidence, much less  proof.  Actual family history evidence — which leads to proof — comes from original sources such as county probate records, deeds, tax lists, state birth and death records, and so forth. Online trees are, at best, clues. For the most part, they aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. 

I obviously haven’t whined and moaned enough. It’s time to kick it up a notch.

A friend with considerable DNA expertise advised Gary and me to take the autosomal DNA test at Ancestry, although we had already tested at FTDNA. He said Ancestry has a larger database and that (at the time) their autosomal results featured something useful called “circles” of people to whom you are genetically related. The “circles” are now gone. What is left is something called “thru lines.”

I haven’t looked at “thru lines.” What I found out right off the bat (according to Ancestry) is that one’s autosomal results aren’t worth a spit unless you have a family tree at Ancestry.

Accordingly, I began to create one. Ancestry purportedly makes it easy by providing “hints.” For example, when I entered the name of a grandparent, a census record in which the grandparent appeared popped up. For the first few generations of a new tree, Ancestry’s suggestions are probably mostly accurate and harmless. There is good information in plenty of readily accessible information in twentieth-century census, marriage, birth and death records. More importantly, most of us know from personal experience the names of our parents, grandparents, and perhaps some great-grandparents. When that is the case, Ancestry’s suggestions, even if erroneous, don’t really matter. No harm, no foul for, say, the twentieth century.

The wicket gets a bit sticky as you make your way into the 19th century. It gets worse the further back in time you go. Let’s assume you have already done a good job researching your family history via conventional paper research in county and other primary records. You will be well-equipped to know whether Ancestry is providing accurate information when it suggests the names of an ancestor’s parents … or whether it is just providing names obtained from other family trees.

I eventually gave up on my autosomal results because of the arrant nonsense Ancestry was suggesting as possible parents for my relatives. Here are examples:

  • Ancestry suggested that the mother of my ancestor “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn Estes (wife of Lyddal Bacon Estes of Tishomingo Co., MS) was Lettice “Letty” Stone. This misinformation gets the “SAY, WHAT?” award. Other than the fact that Letty may also have been from Lunenburg and may have married a Winn — Lunenburg was awash in Winns and Stones in the nineteenth century — that is pure fiction, not fact. There are a million Lunenburg County records proving that “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn’s parents were Benjamin Winn and that his wife’s name was Lucretia (Andrews). Please forgive my hyperbole.
  • Ancestry suggested that Nancy Winn Estes’s husband Lyddal Bacon Estes (“LBE”) married Sally Alston Hunter. We need an emoji here for a big Bronx cheer. Sally Hunter did marry a Dr. Lyddal Bacon Estes (“Dr. LBE”). Dr. LBE and LBE were different men. This is a classic case of I wrote about “same name confusion.”  The Lunenburg couple — LBE and Nancy Winn — married there in March 1814. Dr. LBE died November 1814 in Maury Co., TN, and his widow was named “Sally” in at least two county records. LBE continued to appear in Lunenburg tax lists after Dr. LBE died. A comment by Shirley McLane’s character Ouizer Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias comes to mind: “these are not difficult questions!”
  • Chesley Estes, son of Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes of Lunenburg, was not the father of the LBE who married Nancy Winn. Chesley died in Maury Co., TN, having never married and having lived with his parents most of his life. This one at least gets a “close, but no cigar” award: Chesley’s sister Mary Estes was LBE’s mother. Her identity is, I confess, a more difficult question, although Chesley’s lack of children  is not.
  • Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes were the parents of Dr. LBE who married Sally Alston Hunter and died in Maury Co., TN in 1814. They were not the parents of LBE who married Nancy Winn in Lunenburg in 1814 and eventually settled in Tishomingo Co., MS. LBE died there between December 1844 and March 1845, and Nancy was his administratrix.  Here is an article  about LBE and Nancy Winn Estes’s family.
  • When Ancestry tells you it may have identified a parent for one of your ancestors, you can click on a link for the source of the information. You get only one guess for the source 99% of the time … And the winner is: someone else’s family tree. I made the mistake of messaging one of the tree owners about an error, but I should have known better. Correcting someone else’s family tree is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time, and it just irritates the pig. 

Here is a link to Roberta Estes’s post about “thru lines.” She explains it better than I could.  

And here is the bottom line. It has always been obvious that many, if not most, family trees on Ancestry and other genealogy sites are constructed by copying other people’s family trees. This is a fast way to spread both bad and good information. Ancestry has now exacerbated and accelerated that process by helping people rapidly construct family trees with information obtained almost primarily? exclusively? from other peoples’ family trees. Ancestry, bless its heart, is killing credible family history research. That may not be a good long-term business model.

Gary, who likes to predict comments I will receive on my posts, says I’m going to get one saying, “No, Ancestry is just killing antiquated effete intellectual ‘researchers’ who think solving genealogical puzzles by digging through actual records is ‘fun.’”

One final note. If you aren’t familiar with Southern idiom, “bless her/his/its heart” means “what a total idiot.”

See you on down the road.

Robin


[1]Some online trees do provide sources such as census and probate records. Such information is obviously worthwhile provided it is associated with the right person. There are many probate records attached to Mr. X on Ancestry, when the will in question was actually written by Mr. Y, who lived a generation later and lived 6 counties west. Both Mr. X and Mr. Y were named John Smith, but that doesn’t mean they were the same man.

So … Is He My Second Cousin or My First Cousin Once Removed???

I’ve been talking to a friend who is a fifth cousin once removed. “How on earth,” she said, “do you determine our relationship?” I mumbled something incoherent about “rules” concerning degrees of consanguinity before concluding it was impossible to explain without visual aids.

Most of you undoubtedly figured out long ago how to tell a fourth cousin from a fifth cousin, and what “once removed” and “twice removed” mean. It took me a while to get to an “AHA!” moment on those issues. If this stuff is old hat for you, please head for this website’s archives and find an article about genealogical proof, or legal concepts in family history research, or the Scots-Irish.  If you have had any trouble calculating consanguinity, please read on.  There WILL be visual aids.

OK, we all know how to identify a first cousin, right? He, or she, is a child of one of your parent’s siblings, and you share a set of grandparents. The chart below shows a pair of Rankin first cousins, Tom and Robert (the green rectangles), grandsons of John Rankin and Emma Brodnax. Please note: John and Emma, my grandparents, are the only real people on the charts in this article. All others are fictional.

Please notice that there is one generation in between the first cousins, Tom and Robert, and their common ancestors, John and Emma.

OK, moving on, let’s add a generation: Chris and Alex, sons of Tom and Robert, respectively – the green rectangles in the chart below. Chris and Alex are second cousins. Note that there are two generations between the second cousins and their common ancestors, John and Emma.

This demonstrates the general rule: the number of generations between the youngest members of the line and their common ancestors equals the degree of consanguinity. Like so …

  • One generation between the youngest & the common ancestors = first cousins
  • Two generations between the youngest & the common ancestors = second cousins

And so on.

“Removed” simply means that one of the cousins has more generations between himself and the common ancestor than does the other. In the chart below, Tom and Alex are first cousins once removed, since Alex is one more generation “removed” from their common ancestors John and Emma.

Simple, oui? Hahahaha … I still have to sketch a little chart in order to figure out distant relationships. Alternatively, I could just enter the family into my family tree software and let it calculate the relationships. But what fun would that be?

See you on down the road. I’ve got a load of Rankins on my mind …