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DNA Research Expanding

Modern DNA testing has its limits and it can yield some interesting surprises, but even surprises can provide interesting leads down new paths.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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In 2006 I joined the Owen Association. Soon afterwards, the association started an Owen DNA project which proved to be the only way I connected my mother's family line back to the early 1700s. The British, when they burned down the U. S. capital in 1812, also burned down what would have been key documents to connect generations together. This year I submitted my own DNA sample to to explore the extent of the Smith family. The trail went cold with the suspicion that my fifth great-grandfather Adam Smith Sr., who started off in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, had arrived in America around the time of the Revolutionary War. I could not find a match of any ship passenger list and, of course, there were only some 200 Adam Smiths popping up in Pennsylvania in the 19th Century.

This is the very reason that DNA has been a godsend for genealogy researchers. Recently the term genetic genealogy has become a popular term. In April of 2000 began offering genetic genealogy, and over the years the data base has increased as more and more people send in samples. The cost of the testing has lessened and the various genetic databases have increased in accessibility due to some innovative cross-matching with other databases. Previously, databases which were using slightly different parameters in labeling DNA specimens could not be easily cross-referenced. It is recommended that one should test at least 25 markers, since the more markers tested the more powerful the results. In 2006 it was estimated that 60 million dollars was spent on genealogy tests.

The surname of "Smith" is of course plagued with not only the commonality of the name, i.e. millions with the "Smith" name, but in addition, one has the chore of discovering what was the previous European surname from which it emerged. The only thing I could be certain about was that Adam Smith Sr. was connected to the German Baptist church, which most likely made him of German descent and possibly from the German surname of Schmidt. But, research has its ups and downs, and when I came across a 20th Century obituary which was quoted as, "They were Messershmidts", the whole mystery increased in size. I noticed a John Messershmidt was living right next door to Adam Smith in the Shenandoah Valley. Could this be the real surname? If genetic genealogy was ever needed, this was one of them.

I had investigated having my DNA testing previously, but never quite got around to it until now. There were three distinct large Smith DNA projects. One heralded from the Northeast of the United States, one from the Southern Smiths and a third was known as the Worldwide Smiths.

I knew my line started in Virginia and migrated generation after generation across central Ohio, into Indiana, Iowa and pretty much westward between the 40th to 44th parallel until they reached the Pacific Ocean. This seemed to leave me with no other choice than the Worldwide Smiths. I was looking at a vast area to explore, but then again, I was hoping to find a link with my European cousins. What a feat it would be to pick up the family tree on the other side of the Atlantic. Wouldn't it be intriguing to meet someone who is looking at his tree and wondering, "What ever happened to Adam Schmidt?"

Equally helpful would be to discover if Adam Smith Sr. had cousins, brothers, uncles or a parent who also migrated to America. DNA testing could discover entirely unknown family lines in America. One thing I learned about DNA testing is that the results can be surprising. The skeletons in the proverbial closet which can be drug along by a family might not be physically identifiable, but, it can not escape from DNA. No better example is with our own President Jefferson's history, or in my mother's branch, Edward Owen Sr., who was a match to a single lost family line of "Grigg." He just happened to live on the other side of the fence from that family in the early 1700s. It's a funny thing to uncover some hanky-panky activity some two centuries later. Previously adopted children could also be discovered, provided many samples are taken of several branches. However, such discrepencies can also throw a wrench into the works since we can't, in many instances, go back in time and test generations before the anomaly occurred.

Though human migration studies are fascinating, they do not lead to real results for a family researcher. I discovered that the Owen family originated in northern Europe around 10,000 years ago when the ice receded back to the north and south poles. However, 10,000 years is too big of a window as tribes lived, fought, died, and moved. Empires rose and fell, city states metamorphosed into countries, and all of this in the area known as northern Europe. It maybe interesting that my ancestors were apart of this history, but it does not identify any family lines.

Some of the benefits from genetic genealogy is the revealing of more geographical areas to explore for future research, determining the ancestral homeland, discovering more living cousins, validate or refute existing research, confirm or deny the connection with an individual, family group or generation, and of course prove or disprove those pesky unbelievable claims and tall stories passed down from previous family members.

DNA testing is not for everyone. The cost can be prohibitive if you need to include several individuals to test and, of course, there are some privacy concerns held by some. It also has a side effect to liquidate or make less ethnic identities, as DNA pulls man's history further and further back and creates a planet full of cousins.

Well, the final day arrived some four weeks after I sent in my sample, and unlike the Owen project, the results of the Smith clan is murky at best. Out of a good 1,327 Smith families, none were a match to my family. After checking the entire database, eight people were found, all but one on 12 points. The one with a 25-point match was a genetic distance of 2. This means some mutations have occurred since the prospective family member was connected to my line, most likely quite early and possibly in Europe. The amazing thing is that not one of the last names associated with the eight people matches any of my two volumes of earlier research.

Although this could be construed as a bit of a bummer, it is not without some intriguing leads. For example, I do have eight people to e-mail and see if they have any records that connect to my known family line. Perhaps the most interesting fact is the absence of a match with any Smith family. It could be that 1,327 sample of millions of Smiths is still too small of a sample, or it could also shed a light on the fact my family was not Smith or Schmidt. Sometimes the absence of data can make research change course. Perhaps this explains why the family line has gone cold. Maybe there is a record on a ship still to be found with a current unknown surname.

Well, that's genealogy. Turn one page in history and another page appears. I hope this article helps researchers appreciate the advancements in DNA. I know I learned some things.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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