Monday, April 28, 2014

Of Unknown Origin

Probably all American have branches in their tree which dead end in the US. How do you determine what their origins might have been when you can't find the immigrant ancestor for that line? There's a few things that will give you clues.

With a high percentage of British DNA, do I maybe have
more British branches than I thought?
One of them is DNA. Of course, a DNA test won't tell you "this branch came from here" and I wouldn't recommend getting a test done just for this purpose but an autosomal DNA test will help you determine your ethnic makeup. It's important to keep in mind though that it's possible to have an ancestor you happened to not inherit any DNA from, especially the more distantly you are related. But sometimes, you might come across an unexpected ethnicity, or perhaps have a higher percentage of something than expected. This could give you an idea of what those unknown branches could be. For example, my British heritage came back with a higher percentage than expected so I'm wondering if maybe a number of my unknown branches are of British origin. Of course, we need something more to go on than this but it's something to consider if you have already done a DNA test.

Another thing that will help you determine the origins of a branch is where they lived in the US and when. Almost all the branches of unknown origin in my tree dated within the US to at least the early 19th century, which means I'm looking for their immigrant ancestors from probably the 18th or maybe even 17th century. That pre-dates the Scandinavian immigration period of the mid 19th century to the Midwest, as well as the Italian wave of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that rules them out despite them being a part of my DNA makeup (I already have these documented in my tree but now I know I have no others). Plus most of my branches with unknown origins were from Pennsylvania and 18th century Pennsylvania was mostly English or Welsh Quakers and Germans or Swiss Germans, with smaller portions of Scots-Irish and Dutch. Again, this is looking good for British. Additionally, sometimes more specific locations, especially early settlements, can give you an idea of the origins of the community. For example, in early Franconia Township, Montgomery County, PA the community was almost entirely of German or Swiss German origin so I know all my ancestors there were likely German. This is why it's so important to learn about the history of the locations in your tree and about immigration and migration patterns.

Similarly, sometimes an ancestor's church or burial place can be a dead giveaway of their origins. Mennonites were normally German or Swiss German, Quakers were English or sometimes Welsh, although in early PA, these two groups were known to convert to one or the other. Presbyterian was often British but it was not unusual for German Reformed churches to become Presbyterian later so it's important to learn what the church's denomination was at the time your ancestors attended. Something like a "First German Church" is a dead giveaway.

You can also get an idea of their origins by their surnames, using tools like Ancestry.com's Name Meaning Look Up. Of course, names could be subject to change but in combination with the above knowledge, it may help narrow down the options. And sometimes, names which weren't anglicized can be a dead giveaway. I have a few names in my tree which are clearly German, even though I haven't found the immigrant ancestor yet, I know that branch is German. Likewise with a few Scottish names. Sometimes, even a first name can be the indicator. I have a "Willem" in my tree which is the Dutch spelling of William so they must be Dutch even if I haven't found their immigrant ancestor yet.

Lastly, you may also be able to get an idea of their origins by looking at the families they married into. While it was not unusual for people of early, small communities to be forced to marry outside their faith or culture, it was more common for people to marry within their faith and culture so who they married might be a good indicator of their cultural background, especially when comparing who their siblings married too.

Combine all of this together and with some branches, you may be able to say with reasonable certainty where they probably originated from. Here's a quick checklist:

  • DNA
  • Where/when they lived in the US
  • Religious orientation
  • Names (surnames or even given names)
  • Background of families they married into
Discuss this further at GeneaBoards.

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