Sunday, December 11, 2022

DNA, Centimorgans, and Me

One of the joys of having been climbing my own family tree in these days of rapidly-advancing technology is learning more about my ancestors based on that technology and how they are used by successful ancestry-related companies.

As a reader might recall, I have been a paid member of one of the most successful genealogy companies,, for many years. Because my ancestors only relatively recently arrived in the United States--my grandparents arrived in the 1920s from Scotland (via Quebec), Ireland, and England--most of my ancestral documents are found in those countries, necessitating my paying a higher price for worldwide access. It has been worth it for one reason: my family tree data gets updated regularly as more and more people join and submit their own family information and DNA samples for analysis.

Recently, my youngest daughter submitted her own DNA sample at my request. Her results came back, and as expected, she now shows on my family tree as a daughter with 3,488 centiMorgans (cM, for short) and with 50% shared DNA, as expected; the other half of her DNA comes from her biological mother. In my daughter's case, I was not expecting surprises, nor was I surprised by any result I found.

But her results and those written by one of my favourite writers about his own family seem to conflict a bit. This is most likely due to my own lack of knowledge, so it led me to a more in-depth study of what a centiMorgan is because I am not a scientist, and my knowledge of genetics comes from a time long ago. Perhaps a brief history of the process is relevant.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, is a polymer composed of two polynucleotide chains that coil around each other to form the now-famous double helix. The polymer carries genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms and many viruses. [That is a lot of scientific jargon; using your favourite search engine will help you understand the terms if you want.] DNA has been studied by biologists since the mid-19th century. As the knowledge base expanded, so did interest in the basic helix of all life, leading to modern times and the two most famous scientists in the field, James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson, an American geneticist and molecular biologist, and Crick, a British biophysicist and molecular biologist, were affiliated with the University of Cambridge in England. Together with other scientists and graduate students in 1953, they were successful in obtaining the correct structure of DNA of the human genome. This one event has led to rapid advancement in understanding human cellular biology and genetics, the causes of disease and afflictions, the creation of drugs to combat them and overall increase the quality and length of human life. Simply, the massive international genome project was one of the most important endeavours in human history.

DNA is a very complex double helix; it has been estimated that if the entire collection of DNA strands in a human body were laid out flat in one line, the distance would be equal to that of several trips to and from the sun. But modern advances in the field have shown that DNA is not limited to Earth-bound physical bodies or items. In 2021, scientists at Queen Mary University in London showed for the first time that DNA can be collected from the air, a finding that could provide new techniques for forensics researchers and investigators, and anthropologists; it might even help scientists understand the transmission of airborne diseases like COVID-19.

Though not without controversy, the discovery of the complex secrets in the double helix has also helped accurately identify everything from thousands of years old human fragments to the victims of modern homicides. It has also helped match humans with their long-ago ancestors and more-recent relatives, which is where my interest is.

This is where the function of centiMorgans comes in. The National Genome Research Institute defines it as "a unit of measure for the frequency of genetic recombination. One centimorgan is equal to a 1% chance that two markers on a chromosome will become separated from one another due to a recombination event during meiosis [which occurs during the formation of egg and sperm cells.] On average, one centimorgan corresponds to roughly 1 million base pairs in the human genome." The name came from Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American geneticist who worked on fruit flies (didn't we all in high school biology?), a commonly-used model organism for genetic research.

Quite simply, a centimorgan is a measurement or rate of how often something occurs. In genealogy, a higher cM means a greater likelihood of being more or less closely related. For example, in the example above, my biological daughter has a cM of 3,488, while a 4th-6th cousin from one side of my family (none of which I have accurately identified yet) would have as few as 24 cMs. 

In the case of genetics and genealogy, size matters.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Something New, Something Confusing

Recently, I was digging a bit deeper into my family tree, trying to determine just how strong my Irish roots are. I know that they come from my maternal side of the family; both of my maternal grandfather's grandmothers, my 2nd great-grandmothers (2xGGM), were from Ireland and married native-born US citizens. One generation back from them finds six of my eight maternal ancestors, my 3xGGP, are from Ireland. Starting with the 4th great-grandparent level, my maternal family line comes exclusively from Ireland. 

It is in the maternal 5xGGP level of my family tree, around 1800, that I discovered an unusual, confusing, and not-easily resolved conflict.

First, many of the birth certificates of my Roman Catholic Irish ancestors in that age are actually written in Latin; for example, my 5xGGF is identified as Patricium Ross. His parents are Alexandri Ross and Rosae Flynn. They are later identified as Patrick, Alexander, and Rose in other documents. That would be enough to make a novice stop and start doing research into name conventions in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th Century, but that is not the most challenging factor.

Patericium Ross was born in Athlone, County Roscommon, in Ireland, and according to three different documents was baptized in three different locations, on the same day, 19th March 1800, with the same two parents, Alexandri Ross and Rosae Flynn Ross:

  1. Baptism Place: Roscommon, St Peter's Church, Athlone, Ireland;
  2. Baptism Place: Drum, Roscommon, Ireland;
  3. Baptism Place: Bishops Caundle, Dorset, England

The documents are all Church documents and are legible. How one verifies what information, if any, on them is valid and why they differ with such exact, precise information is the 'brick wall' I have encountered today. The locations are not close to each other; if jurisdictions merge, that might be a partial explanation, and I cannot think of any logical explanation. More study into the history of Ireland and England in 1800 is warranted.

For beginners and for those of us who are a bit more advanced, this is one reason why merely adding information to a tree without thoroughly validating its accuracy can result in an error-filled tree. My work here has not ended!

Saturday, January 29, 2022

What Questions Are On The Decennial Census in the United States?

The United States has conducted a census count of its residents every ten years beginning in April 1790. As April 2022 approaches and the decennial Census taken in 1950 becomes public, I have had a question about what questions are asked on each one. I do know the questions are required by law and often are sources of political disagreement, as was the case a couple of years ago when several politicians wanted to add a question about legal residency. There was a great deal of partisan squabbling about potential outcomes and that question was never added.

So which questions have shown up? My research has shown a significant change in number and type of questions over the more than two hundred year history. Here are a few examples:

1790 -- The first; the number and choice of questions makes sense, considering the newness of the country and the reality of enslaved people in this country.

  • Name of family head; free white males of 16 years and up; free white males under 16; free white females; slaves; other free persons. 

1800 -- The next one; what a change in the number of questions...downward!

  • Names of family head; if white, age and sex; race; slaves.

1840 -- The first with a significant increase in the number of questions

  • Name of family head; age; sex; race; number of deaf and dumb; number of blind; number of insane and idiotic and whether in public or private charge; number of persons in each family employed in each of six classes of industry and one of occupation; literacy; pensioners for Revolutionary or military service.
1910 -- Another, even larger large increase in the number of questions

  • Address; name; relationship to family head; sex; race; age; marital status; number of years of pres- ent marriage for women, number of children born and number now living; birthplace and mother tongue of person and parents; if foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized, and whether able to speak English, or if not, language spoken; occupation, industry, and class of worker; if an employee, whether out of work during year; literacy; school attendance; home owned or rented; if owned, whether mortgaged; whether farm or house; whether a survivor of Union or Confederate Army or Navy; whether blind or deaf and dumb.
1940  -- The most recent decennial Census publicly available

  • Address; home owned or rented; value or monthly rental; whether on a farm; name; relationship to household head; sex; race; age; marital status; school attendance; educational attainment; birthplace; citizenship of foreign born; location of residence 5 years ago and whether on a farm; employment status; if at work, whether in private or nonemergency government work, or in public emergency work (WPA, CCC, NYA, etc.); if in private work, hours worked in week; if seeking work or on public emergency work, duration of unemployment; occupation, industry, and class of worker; weeks worked last year, income last year.

1950 -- Finally, here are the questions from the soon-to-be-released decennial 1950 U.S. Census

  • Address; whether house is on farm; name; relationship to household head; race; sex; age; marital status; birthplace if foreign born, whether naturalized; employment status; hours worked in week; occupation, industry, and class of worker.

My guess is the upcoming Census most likely be the largest so far by population considering that World War II happened after the 1940 Census, resulting in the Baby Boomer Generation; the 1940 Census has held the distinction of being the largest so far. 

Many of those alive now will see their names in a Census for the first time and perhaps for the only time since the 1960 Census will not be released until 2032, me included. I will be in my 80s, so while it is possible, it is less and less likely as time goes on. How old will YOU be...?

Monday, January 24, 2022

Where Do The Small-percentage Family Lines Come From?

A couple of years ago, I sent off to have my DNA checked for ancestry not health, as millions of us have, while I make the climb up my own family tree. When the results came back, I was not surprised to see the highest percentage of English DNA, 56%, a small percentage from Ireland (22%), and an even smaller percentage from Scotland, 11%. After all, both my paternal grandparents hail from Yorkshire, England, my maternal grandfather's lineage starts in Ireland, and my maternal grandmother's ancestors are from Scotland via Quebec, Canada.

What surprised me and for which I had absolutely no explanation was the small but measurable, DNA from Sweden, 2 percent. 

I have no recollection of any family history or stories about relatives from Sweden, I do not have any bodily resemblance to any Swede anyone has ever known, and there is no reason it should be there except this: If we go back far enough, all of us are most likely related to almost anyone else. That explains the less-than-one-per cent DNA from Africa. That is where the human race began all those eons ago. 

Having no reason to spend energy on something I could not explain, or even conceive of a reasonable explanation, and for which I found absolutely no evidence I gave no thought to my own Swedish connection other than believing that somewhere along the line, there might have been an ancestor who passed that way. I stopped looking.

Until January 24, 2021.

That was the day I found the Swedish connection in my family tree. Admittedly, it is way up and way out on one of those small branches that are only seen in the best weather. In this case, the first of my ancestors who came to this country is John Albert Anderson, born 10 Feb 1877, in Lindome, Halland, Sweden. 

He is the "uncle of the husband of a 1st cousin 1x removed of the wife of a 2nd cousin." This is what that looks like in lineal form, starting with my biological mother at the bottom:

Talk about way up and out there! But no matter how remote or far removed from my known ancestry, John Albert Anderson is the first relative of mine from Sweden to arrive in the USA. That would explain the percentage of Swedish DNA I have as not merely chance, but a real blood connection, no matter how long the lineage is between my mother and him.

While I am still working on verifying when he arrived in the USA and how--a very difficult process because "John Anderson" is a very common name, as you can imagine, and this is the first time I have verified that I even have a Swedish connection--I have verified that he took up residence in Worth County, Iowa (though I have not learned who his initial point of contact was), became a US citizen, registered for the World War 1 draft--I do not yet know if he served in the military--and he died in Iowa at 66 years of age in May 1943.

And I thought the most exciting discovery was finding that one English ancestor who had been knighted, Sir Whatzhisname! Who knows? I might just find a very-distant connection to someone in Africa, too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Two Censuses: England 1921 and United States 1950

 One might wonder what a blog about two Census reports from two separate countries would have to do with each other and why the would be a topic for an occasional blog.

Glad you asked!

Recently, the 1921 Census for England and Wales was released. This was significant because for many people alive today, it would be the first in which their name would appear. It would--and already has--answered questions about great-grandcestors (see what I did there?) because that Census was really taken during a modern time. The questions asked were different, making an amateur genealogist's job of climbing his family tree more...'fruitful.' 

It is significant, too, because it is the first Census in England taken after the Great Migration out of England and into the United States was in full swing. Many residents in England who normally would be counted had boarded ships to immigrant to the USA in search of a better life. In my case, that Census came after my ancestors emigrated, three to the USA and one to Canada in 1909, 12 years before this 1921 Census was taken. I have already verified that their names did not appear; I will not be able to break down a couple of the persistent 'brick walls' that have stymied me for a long time.

So what does that have to do with the 1950 Census? Let me explain.

US law requires that a census count remain 'private' for 72 years. Currently, the latest United States Census available to the general public is the 1940 Census. That one contains the pre-World War II generation, most of whom were born in the 1920s. My father served in the U.S. Army in WWII; he was born in 1927 and appears in the 1940 Census as a young man 13 years of age. That generation, often called the Greatest Generation, is well-documented. Their offspring will show up later.

The generation of their offspring, called the Baby Boomers, resulted from the millions of men and women returning to their homes after the war. My parents were among them and my mother gave birth to her first-born male child in late 1949, me. The 1950 Census will be the first one in which my name is found and it will be the only one in which I will be able to see my name. It will also be the largest Census because of the massive post-war population growth of the Baby Boomer Generation. Those of us still alive will be able to see our names in a Census for the first time. (It is also interesting to note that the 1950 Census will not include Korean War veterans; that conflict began June 25, 1950. It would last three brutal years, killing at least 2.5 million persons.)

The 1950 Census might also be the last time I see my own name unless I live to the year 2032 when the 1960 Census will be released; if I live that long, I will be 83. The problem is that in 1960, the Wilkinson Family was not in the United States; we had moved to the country of Jordan for my Dad's first posting with the United States State Department the year before. How we will have been recorded remains to be seen in 2032; I am sure the U.S. government had a way to enumerate the many folks living in offshore countries since it was a time of nation-building and goodwill after two horrid wars. Time will tell.

Let me now explain what had to happen for me to be listed in the 1950 Census, since there are circumstances beyond mere age.

As mentioned, I was born in late 1949, before the Census was taken in April 1950. Anyone born after the 1940 Census and alive before the 1950 Census would be counted. Unless a mistake happened, I was counted as a 6-month old baby. However, anyone born after the Census enumerators finished their count in 1950 would not show up until the 1960 Census. My next-younger sibling is in that boat. He was born in September 1950 so he will not appear in the 1950 Census. However, he might also not show up in the 1960 Census because he was in Jordan with the rest of the family; the first Census with his name might be the 1970 Census, when he would be about to turn 20 years old. He will have to wait until 2042 for the first chance to see his name in a Census report.

What I missed in the 1921 English Census because my ancestors had emigrated to the USA will partly be made up when the 1950 US Census is released in April 2022 because my parents were married, including my post-WWII father, and I would have been counted. There are some brick walls to break down and some uncertainties about my past to be resolved. Hopefully, that will happen in April.