Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Augusta's Confederate Monument and My Family History

Sometimes, genealogy and modern politics have some overlap. 

In Augusta, Georgia, a giant, imposing obelisk stands as a memorial to Confederate soldiers. In particular, it hosts four life-sized statues of infamous Confederate military leaders, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, William H.T. Walker, and Thomas R.R. Cobb (shown left), the latter of which is my 2nd cousin 6 times removed. It's a distant relation, for sure, but a significant one, given why this monument was erected in 1878 by the Ladies Memorial Association of Augusta.

Let's be clear about one thing - statues, monuments, and memorials are built in honor, respect, and celebration of the people, places, or events they represent. Monuments like this one are made in memory and respect of men whose only or primary contribution to history was to lead armies in the name of slavery. And when monuments like this are inscribed with quotes like the following, that fact becomes impossible to deny:

"No nation rose so white and fair 

None fell so pure of crime."

I'm not sure how anyone could say this is anything but blatantly racist, and this is the inscription found emblazoned under the feet of my cousin. That makes this a little bit personal for me - southerners like to shout about how this is their history, and their heritage. But for me, it literally is. 

And I say, tear it down.

The removal of statues like this isn't the removal of history. History belongs in museums and history books, which there is no lack of. There are plenty of Civil War and Confederate artifacts and memorials to be found in museums, where people can study and learn from them, and this monument could be one of them instead of being revered in the middle of town. When a memorial is erected in honor and celebration of Confederate leaders, it's honoring and celebrating slavery and racism. By not only leaving such a monument standing, but actively refusing to remove it, the government is not-so-subtly condoning a symbol of racism. We would never tolerate a statue of Hitler standing proudly in the middle of a city, paying homage and reverence to him, so why do we allow it for Confederate leaders?

Even if we remove all the slavery and racism from such symbolism (which isn't really possible, but just for the sake of argument), you're still left with a monument honoring men who tried to tear our nation apart with war and violence. Are we now going to see statues of the leading faces among the rioters who broke into the Capitol Building? Because they too are talking about civil war, they too are waving the Confederate flag, and they too believe their violence to be "fair" and "pure of crime". In reality, they are traitors, and so were Confederate leaders. And actually, many (if not all) of the rioters are also proud racists, just like Confederate leaders, as proven by the presence of white supremacy groups and Neo Nazi symbolism during the Capitol riot. Confederate leaders were also unabashed racists. This direct quote from my own cousin, Thomas R.R. Cobb, a Confederate General, proves it:

"This inquiry into the physical, mental, and moral development of the negro [sic] race seems to point them clearly, as peculiarly fitted for a laborious class. The physical frame is capable of great and long-continued exertion. Their mental capacity renders them incapable of successful self-development, and yet adapts them for the direction of the wiser race. Their moral character renders them happy, peaceful, contented and cheerful in a status that would break the spirit and destroy the energies of the Caucasian or the native American."

None of this means that every statue of every historical figure who ever did anything unethical should be removed. Yes, I am aware of the fact that most of our founding fathers were slaveholders, and that's certainly something I don't think we should hide from - we should talk about it, and we should teach it in schools. Our founding fathers were flawed, and that's something we have to accept. But the difference is, statues of founding fathers were not constructed in honor of them being slaveholders, they were erected in honor of all their positive achievements. Statues of Confederate leaders are produced in honor of their fight for slavery, and supporting that in the name of "history" or "heritage" is, frankly, bullshit. It's not in the name of history, it's in the name of racism and hatred. 

And if your heritage is racist, it's not something you should celebrate. Read about it in a history book, or visit a museum, or find something else about your heritage to celebrate that's not based on slavery, but do not protect a symbol of hate standing proudly in the middle of a city. 

Shame on the Augusta, Georgia government, and shame on everyone who enables them.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Small but Significant Changes at

Ancestry is rolling out some new tweaks to their website that has everyone in a tizzy and I don't really know why, because in many ways they seem like an improvement to me. 

One of the changes was the removal of the clickable alphabet at the top of our List of All People. It allowed us to jump to surnames that start with any letter by clicking on the letter. I know the removal of this seems like a negative, but it's really not. What remains are two name search fields, one for first name, the other for last name. They were always there, and they always offered the ability to do what the alphabet list offered too, which I imagine is why the alphabet was removed - there is no point in having two different tools that do the exact same thing. You can still jump to surnames starting with any letter by simply putting that letter into the surname search field. But even better than that, the search fields offers way more versatility than the alphabet did, because you can also do the same for the first name field (shown above), and you can use more than one letter, so you can quickly bring up all "Mc" or "Mac" surnames, for example (shown below). I believe this was always an option, a lot of people just apparently didn't realize it.

The bigger change is in hints, clicking on a hint now brings up a side bar to preview the hint (shown below) instead of it loading a whole new page. People are complaining that it requires more clicks to confirm and attach the hint now, but that's just not true. In the past, you had to click on the hint, it loaded a new page where you could review the record, then you clicked "yes" to the hint being correct and it loaded the page that allowed you to edit the data you're adding, then you click "save to your tree" and you were done. That's 3 clicks.

It's the same now. You click on the hint, but instead of it loading a new page, the side bar pops up. Instantly, I felt this was an improvement because you haven't left the person's profile page, so you can still fully view and compare all their data, and sources, etc. You can click on Facts, Gallery, etc and the side bar remains up, allowing for a full comparison (shown below). In the past, the only way to do this was to right click the hint and open it in a new tab, which you can still do, but now there's no need. I always did this, because I generally want to refer back to the profile while checking a hint. Now, finally, I don't have to open a new tab, which is going to make my workflow much more efficient. 

Even if you didn't open the hint in a new tab in the past like me, the number of clicks is still the same. After clicking on the hint and the side bar popping up, you click "yes" to the hint being correct and it loads the page where you can edit the data you're adding, and then you click "save to your tree" just like before. That's 3 clicks.

So I'm really not sure what the fuss is all about. The changes either won't slow your workflow, or they will actually improve it. Give it a chance, you might find it works better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Shotgun Weddings

Ever pay attention to the dates a couple married followed by the birth date of their first born child? It's not always possible because we sometimes don't have exact dates for either the wedding or the child's birth, and I think because of that, I don't always pay close attention to them when I do have them. But at one point, I made an effort to go through my tree and identify all known "shotgun weddings" - that is, weddings that took place less than 9 months before the birth of their first child. *Nudge, nudge, wink, wink*

Above: Oh dear, there's no hiding this! Anna gave birth less than 2 months after her wedding, so she was likely about 7 months pregnant when they married and probably very visibly pregnant.

Granted, some of them could just be premature births. But in other cases, the length of time between the wedding and the birth is too short to have just been premature, especially in a time before modern medicine could help preemies survive, such as the example above.

Thanks to's custom tagging option, I now have all potential shotgun weddings labelled as such, and it's kind of amusing how many there were. 15 couples in my ancestry have been identified so far as having a child less than 9 months after their wedding. And again, that's not including the couples who I haven't yet found a marriage record for, and/or don't have an exact date for the first child's birth. There could be even more among those if I could just find the right dates. It's also not including those who simply had children out of wedlock. That's a whole different tag, and there's at least 6 cases of those. 

In this case, my ancestors Agostino and Rosaria had a child out of wedlock, then waited more than three years before getting married, which was then a shotgun wedding! Rosaria was about 3 months pregnant when they married.

It kind of makes you wonder how many of our ancestors actually waited until they were married to have sex, like they were "supposed to", or like the stereotype that is always taught to us about sex and marriage in history. Because there must have been even more ancestors who lost their virginity before getting married, but it didn't result in a pregnancy, so there was no evidence of it. In one case, I have love letters between ancestors which seem to suggest they may have been intimate before marriage, even though they did not have a shotgun wedding.

When you consider all those factors, it really seems plausible that just as many people didn't wait until marriage to have sex as those who did. Maybe even more. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Is it Okay to Feel Ashamed of Our Ancestors?

This is a topic that comes up a lot in genealogy, so I'm going to say my peace about it here. I'm probably going to say some things that will make some people uncomfortable (because when I say them in social media, there are always people who get very angry), so if exploring our feelings about immoral things our ancestors did, like for example, owning slaves, or accusing someone of witchcraft, makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you stop reading now.

Above: A photo of my once-slave owning relatives alongside their black servants who were probably once slaves if they were old enough - this photo is from the 1890s. I also have ancestors who were slave holders but no photos of them alongside former slaves. Is it okay to feel ashamed of this photo and the relatives in it?

I'm not going to beat around the bush, I'm just going to say it: don't let people tell you your feelings are wrong if you feel ashamed of something an ancestor did that was really heinous. 

I know what people will argue. "But it's not your fault! You had nothing to do with it! You're not responsible for your ancestors actions!"

And yeah, that's all true. But feeling ashamed of what someone else did doesn't mean you're responsible for it or had anything to do with it. Those things are not mutually inclusive. Feeling ashamed of an ancestor doesn't mean feeling ashamed of yourself.

Because let's flip things for a moment. Have you never once felt pride in something great, something positive that an ancestor did or accomplished? I'm pretty sure we all have - it's a large part of genealogy. We all feel some kind of ties or connections to our family history and our ancestors, because why else would we do this? Genealogy sort of loses all meaning if we don't feel some kind of connection to our ancestors. And if it's okay to feel pride in our ancestors through these ties we feel to them, why would we not also be allowed to feel ashamed of them when appropriate? Isn't it a little bit hypocritical to feel pride in our ancestors when they do something wonderful, but shrug it off with "nothing to do with me" when they do something terrible? Isn't it just a little too convenient to have the luxury to only claim a connection to the good stuff? And again, to be clear, that connection doesn't make you responsible.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to shame people. I'm not saying anyone should feel ashamed - certainly not of themselves. I just think people who do feel ashamed of an ancestor or relative shouldn't be insulted, mocked, told they are wrong, or given a hard time for it in any way, and yet this something I see a lot whenever the topic comes up. On the contrary, I think people who are able to explore those feelings, and understand they can feel ashamed of an ancestor without being personally responsible for their actions, are very emotionally mature and intelligent. It seems to me that people who can't accept that dual reality are uncomfortable with something their ancestors did and instead of processing that emotion, they just shut it down. The fact that other people are able to process it makes them doubly uncomfortable, and so they lash out. And if what I have to say about that makes some people angry, that kind of just proves my point. 

Just let people feel whatever they feel. It doesn't mean they're consumed with guilt, it doesn't mean they can't still enjoy genealogy. Ultimately, it's not anyone's place to tell anyone else how they should or shouldn't feel. 

So yes, it is okay to feel ashamed of something an ancestor did, just like it's okay to feel proud of something an ancestor did. It can even be the same ancestor you can feel both ashamed and proud of at the same time. Human beings have the emotional complexity for both those feelings to exist at the same time. That doesn't mean you should or have to feel ashamed of an ancestor, but it does mean when you come across someone who does, just respect their feelings because they're not wrong to feel that way.

Monday, December 7, 2020

FamilyTreeDNA Updated Ethnicity Results

FTDNA have jumped on board the update wagon, and a few months ago, released myOrigins 3.0. They've broken down some regions into more specific locations, but not a huge amount and of course, they still find it impossible to accurately tell apart the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Germanic trifecta (though that's not unusual for most companies).

Here's my result history with FTDNA:

myOrigins 1.0:
Scandinavia 34%
Western/Central Europe 26%
Southern Europe 20%
Finland/Northern Siberia 3%
Asia Minor 12%
Eastern Middle East 5%

myOrigins 2.0:
British Isles 54%
Southeast Europe 33%
West and Central Europe 6%
Finland < 2%
East Middle East 3%
West Middle East < 2%

myOrigins 3.0:
England, Wales, & Scotland 48%
Scandinavia 11%
Ireland 5%
Greece & Balkans 28%
Italian Peninsula 8%

With Version 3, they've wrongly put most of my Italian ancestry into Greece, whereas most other companies are able to tell the difference better than this (I usually only get trace amounts in Greece, if anything, except at MyHeritage). Added up, it still equals about 36% Southern European though, which isn't far off the mark (should be about 32%).

And as noted, I have no results for Germanic now (previously West/Central Europe, now simply called Central Europe), when I should have around 20-25%. That means my British results (England, Wales, & Scotland) are somewhat inflated. Scandinavia is consistent with my tree though, since I had one Norwegian great grandparent. And they've finally managed to get rid of the trace amounts in unlikely locations (like Finland and Middle East). Considering it's common for companies to not be able to tell British from Germanic, the results aren't entirely off base.

My mom's kit probably saw the biggest change (she did not test early enough for Version 1):

myOrigins 2.0:
Scandinavia 42%
British Isles 35%
East Europe 18%
Southeast Europe 3%
East Middle East < 2%
West Middle East < 2%

myOrigins 3.0:
England, Wales, & Scotland 91%
Scandinavia 9%

My mom's tree is also about 20-25% Germanic so the lack of any results in that area yet again seems to suggest their results lean towards Britain instead. Likewise, her Scandinavian results went from one extreme to another and most of it went to Britain. She had one Norwegian grandparent, so should be about 25% Scandinavian. The fact that they can't get this anywhere near close suggests my Scandinavian results being fairly accurate might just be a coincidence.

Although they managed to eliminate the trace results in inconsistent locations like Southeast Europe and Middle East, and also removed the high percentage in East Europe where my mom has no ancestry, I'm not sure I'd say the update is a huge improvement for my mom.

My dad's results (again, no Version 1):

myOrigins 2.0:
West and Central Europe 65%
Southeast Europe 8%
Asia Minor 22%
East Middle East < 2%
North Africa < 1%
Scandinavia < 2%
West Middle East < 2%

myOrigins 3.0:
Italian Peninsula 38%
Malta & Sicily 15%
Scandinavia 22%
England, Wales, & Scotland 14%
Central Europe 8%
Ireland <2%
Anatolia, Armenia, & Mesopotamia <2%

They've at least managed to correctly put his Italian ancestry in Italy instead of Greece! My dad is half Italian (Southern Italian), and his results add up to 53%, so that's very close. However, I don't know where that Anatolia, Armenia, & Mesopotamia is coming from - if it's from his Italian ancestry, that adds up to 55%, which is moving away from accurate. Additionally, his British ancestry should be about 20%, so 14% is not far off from that.

Unfortunately, it's downhill from there. My dad has no Scandinavian ancestry, so 22% is really high, but he does have a lot of German ancestry (about 30%), so only 8% in Central Europe is very low. I guess I should just be pleased he got any results in Central Europe at all, given that my mom and I don't!

My paternal grandfather's results:

myOrigins 1.0:
Scandinavian 48%
Southern Europe 32%
British Isles 11%
Jewish Ashkenazi Diasporia 5%
Central Asia 4%

myOrigins 2.0:
West and Central Europe 84%
Scandinavia 8%
Asia Minor 7%
Ashkenazi < 2%

myOrigins 3.0:
England, Wales, & Scotland 62%
Central Europe 26%
Scandinavia 11%
Malta & Sicily <1%
Ashkenazi Jewish <1%

I really don't know why FTDNA insist on giving him Ashkenazi results when no other company does and has no known Jewish ancestry. His results really should be very straight forward - he's roughly 40% British and 60% German. And for the first time ever, FTDNA is giving him significant amounts in both Britain and Central Europe (usually it's one or the other), though if the numbers were swapped, it would be more consistent with his tree.

Finally, my husband's results:

myOrigins 2.0:
British Isles 97%
Ashkenazi < 2%
Northeast Asia < 1%
West Africa < 1%
Iberia < 1%
Oceania < 1%

myOrigins 3.0:
England, Wales, & Scotland 60%
Ireland 35%
Scandinavia 2%
Magyar 2%
Ghana, Togo & Benin <1%

My husband being a British native/citizen with no known ancestry outside the British Isles, if we dismiss the low results in Scandinavia, Magyar, and Ghana/Togo/Benin as noise, his results are probably the most consistent with his tree yet. He's basically half British and half Irish, so 60% British isn't too bad. Version 2 lumped them both together though, which meant 97% British Isles was probably even more accurate. This is a good example of how the broader the regions are, the more reliable they are.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Which DNA Company Should I Test With?

I did a guide for this a few years ago, but it's already kind of out of date, so let's look over the options again, especially since all the holiday sales are starting to happen. The main question when asking which DNA test/company to go with, is what are your reasons for testing? Instead of detailing each company, I'm going to answer the four main reasons people want to take a DNA test: 

1. I'm a genealogy hobbyist and want to use DNA as an additional research tool. 

AncestryDNA have the biggest database of testers, and because they are a genealogy website, they are the most likely to have DNA matches with family trees (which is the best way to get the most usage out of your DNA matches). Particularly, if you already subscribe there or have a tree there, it's easiest to have all your work in one place, including DNA. Even if you don't have an subscription, you'll still benefit from testing at the biggest autosomal DNA database (you will be able to contact your DNA matches even without a subscription, and you can add a tree for free too).

Additionally, because AncestryDNA don't accept raw DNA data from other companies, but other companies (like MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA) do accept raw DNA data from AncestryDNA, it's ideal to test with AncestryDNA and then upload your raw DNA data to sites like MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA (they have free uploads, but there's a small fee to unlock your full results). You'll get the most out of your money this way, and have access to several databases.

MyHeritage are best for foreign DNA matches, particularly from certain places where MyHeritage is popular (for example, I have lots of DNA matches living in Germany, but only a few from Italy, despite having more recent ancestry from Italy). They also make it easy to find/sort by foreign matches, whereas other companies don't. You may choose to test with MyHeritage for this reason, especially if you already have a subscription/tree there, but again, be aware that you can upload an AncestryDNA test to MyHeritage, but not vice versa. (Right: a screenshot of my number of matches from various countries at MyHeritage).

23andMe are not ideal for genealogy, since they don't host shareable family trees, and they are not a genealogy website. They also cap your DNA match list at about 1,500 people (in comparison, most people at AncestryDNA get about 20,000+ DNA matches), unless you upgrade to a monthly subscription which still only expands it to 4,000 matches (the subscription also includes some additional health report benefits). Some people might cite 23andMe's inclusion of haplogroups in their reports as a reason to test there, but haplogroups generally aren't useful to recent genealogy. Sharing a haplogroup usually just means sharing a most recent common ancestor (on the patrilineal or matrilineal lines) from thousands of years ago, which long pre-dates recorded genealogy.

FamilyTreeDNA do allow you to upload a gedcom, but their database is small and since you can upload your raw DNA data, it makes more sense to test elsewhere and then upload to FTDNA if desired.

2. I want health reports.

23andMe are best for health results. They have the most useful of health reports, and while other companies like AncestryDNA and MyHeritage have added a few "traits" or health reports, they are very minimal and not as useful or extensive as 23andMe's. (Right: an example of 23andMe's Health Predisposition report - their healh reports also include Carrier Status, Wellness reports, Traits, etc).

Whatever company you test with, uploading to for a small fee will provide the most extensive health reports, though it is not super user friendly (and they do not offer testing, it's strictly an upload site). If you're willing to deal with the learning curve, testing at AncestryDNA and uploading to Promethease is a good option for those who want the test for both genealogy and health reasons. Otherwise, you'll have to prioritize one over the other because there's no testing company that's ideal for both.

Also be aware that if you have a specific health report in mind, you might want to consider a test more specific to it. For example, for reports on your genetic predisposition of cancer, I would recommend a more comprehensive test like Color.

3. I'm looking for an unknown biological parent/relative (like in the case of adoption).

First test with AncestryDNA, since they have the biggest database of testers and host family trees. Then upload your raw DNA data to MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA for small fees to unlock your full results. You can also upload to Gedmatch for free (but Gedmatch isn't a testing company, just a place to upload, so I won't mention them much in this article). 

If your budget allows, also test at 23andMe (because like AncestryDNA, they do not accept uploads, so you have to test with them to be on their database). Although they aren't ideal for genealogy, which may make it difficult to make use of your DNA matches, when looking for unknown biological relatives, you want to maximize your chances of finding the closest DNA relative possible, and that means putting yourself on every database available.

If you are male, and looking for a biological father, or paternal grandfather, you should also consider taking a Y-DNA test at FamilyTreeDNA. Although more expensive than an autosomal DNA test, and there's no assurance that Y-DNA results will be useful because it depends on who else has tested, when it is useful, it can really help, especially in combination with your autosomal DNA matches. Because Y-DNA follows the patrilineal line, it's essentially linked to biological surnames. So excluding other NPEs (non-paternity events) or Y matches whose most recent common ancestor pre-dates the development of surnames, your Y matches surname should theoretically tell you your biological surname. That doesn't always happen, because again, it depends who has tested. But when it does, you can then take that surname and search your autosomal DNA matches trees for it, which should then point you to a most recent common ancestor.

4. I want to learn more about my ethnic ancestry!

I would strongly discourage from taking the test purely for the ethnicity percentages. I know they have great appeal, I know they seem like a quick, easy, and not too expensive way to learn more about your ancestral background, but the fact is, and I can't stress this enough, they are only estimates or interpretations of your DNA and are not particularly reliable. Different companies will likely give you different results, and every company periodically updates their ethnicity reports, which generally changes them, sometimes quite drastically. There is no one company that has the most reliable ethnicity percentages for everyone - which one is more consistent with your personal family tree really depends on the individual, and that could always change with the company's next update.  

That said, there are elements of the ethnicity report that can be more reliable. On a continental level (European vs Sub-Saharan vs East Asian vs Native American, etc), the percentages are generally much more reliable, so if you're of mixed race, the report might be enlightening. But the more specific the regional or sub-continental the percentage breakdown is, the more speculative it becomes, with only some exceptions in populations with high levels of endogamy (like Ashkenazi Jewish, or certain islander populations). So while it may be tempting to go with the company that offers the most percentage breakdown into specific nations, keep in mind that this will likely make it less reliable. 

Ethnicity percentages are fun to explore, but you can't take them very literally. It's better to view them on a broader scale, covering bigger areas, but of course that's not what most people want. 23andMe's percentages have categories like "Broadly Northwest European" which covers a large area, and therefore is more reliable, but then people complain it's not specific enough.

You may notice I keep specifying ethnicity percentages, or percentage breakdown. That's because some companies offer sub-regional reports that don't include percentages because they are calculated a different way. At AncestryDNA, they are called Genetic Communities, and unlike the percentages, positive results in Genetic Communities tend to be very specific to small areas, and highly accurate. Not getting results in a GC doesn't mean you don't have ancestry there though, you generally need significant ancestry from a specific area to get results in a GC. When you do get GC results, you can be 99% sure you have ancestry from that area, you just won't know how much because there's no percentage. 23andMe have similar sub-regional results with no percentages, but in my experience, they are not as reliable as AncestryDNA's Genetic Communities. 


In short, here's my recommendations:

        For genealogy - AncestryDNA

        For foreign matches - MyHeritage (or test at AncestryDNA and upload to MyHeritage for the best value).

        For health reports - 23andMe

        For unknown biological family - AncestryDNA, plus uploading to other companies, and if budget allows, also testing at 23andMe.

        For ethnicity - if this is your only reason for testing, please reconsider. If you really insist, then I'd recommend either AncestryDNA or 23andMe, for the same reasons I've detailed above: you can upload raw DNA data from AncestryDNA and 23andMe to MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA (for additional ethnicity results), but not vice versa. If your interests lean more towards health, go with 23andMe. If you think you may develop an interest in genealogy or family history at any point in the future, go with AncestryDNA.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

23andMe: Worse and Worse

It's never been a secret that I feel 23andMe is the worst DNA option of the 4 main companies when it comes to using it for genealogical purposes. While they do seem to still have the most reliable ethnicity percentages, and they offer the easiest way to get health reports that may actually be useful, when it comes to using our DNA matches for genealogy research, 23andMe are an epic fail, and over the years it has just become worse and worse. Between not hosting family trees/gedcom uploads, and capping our match list more and more, it's hardly surprising I've gotten very little use out of it and now it's only gotten worse. 

Years ago, back when I originally tested, they hosted uploaded gedcoms (family trees). Anyone who has done DNA based tree research knows this is essential to getting use out of your DNA matches. But not long after, 23andMe obviously decided this was a waste of their server space, but they at least attempted to provide an alternative. They did a deal with MyHeritage (long before MyHeritage got involved in DNA themselves), where gedcoms at 23andMe could be moved to MyHeritage, and a link to your MyHeritage tree would automatically appear in your 23andMe profile. Unfortunately, this didn't last long because at MyHeritage, you have to subscribe to view other people's trees, and probably a lot of 23andMe users weren't going to subscribe just for that reason. So it quickly became apparent that this was rather useless for most people. And of course, MyHeritage eventually began to sell their own DNA test, so they didn't want to be associated with any other DNA company at that point. 

For a while, 23andMe simply didn't host any trees at all. They did offer a spot in your profile to paste a link to an off-site tree. But most people didn't bother, and just like at MyHeritage, viewing trees at also requires a subscription (though they now have a sharing option, they didn't at the time). So unless your tree was available somewhere for free, this was still useless, which is why most people didn't bother. It seemed like 23andMe had abandoned any pretense they ever had at being genealogically useful.

Recently, they did trial an option where you could link your FamilySearch tree to your 23andMe account. This finally seemed like a great solution - it's free, and it's integrated, not just a link to an off-site tree, but something you could view at 23andMe. Sadly, not many people participated in the beta trial, and after months of beta testing, instead of officially adding it as a feature, it disappeared without a word from the company (something that happens a lot). I don't know if it's because not many people tested it out so they thought it wouldn't get used, or if it was something else, but one day it was just gone, so once again we're left with nothing.

Granted, they have recently added a tree feature that let's you add your ancestors and DNA matches to it, which helps visualize how you are related to some of your closest matches. But it only goes back to 2nd great grandparents (3rd cousins), and more importantly, this is for your own private usage only, no one else can see it. If no one else can see it, no one else can make any use of your tree for genealogical purposes. So this is not really what we actually need.

I did also notice they are advertising a "free quote for a genetic genealogy research package offered by Legacy Tree" which I assume includes a family tree. But not only does that cost a lot of money, it's totally unnecessary if you've already build your own tree. And even if you have a tree built at Legacy Tree, it's not integrated into 23andMe.

If that's not disappointing enough, let's talk about our match list, called "DNA Relatives". 23andMe has always capped our match list. At one point, it was capped at 1,000, then they upped it to 2,000, which was great. And more than that, they offered way to search for and find other people you shared DNA with, that you could connect with and add to your match list. But over time, they gradually removed those features, making it harder and harder to expand your match list. Of course, your match list still expanded as more people tested - it's not like people got bumped off the end of the list as new ones came in. Apparently, 23andMe have decided that these essential matches are taking up too much server space and have quietly reduce our match list to just 1,500 people. 

In comparison, I have over 22,000 matches at AncestryDNA, and that's not just because more people have tested there, it's because AncestryDNA's matching threshold is 8 cM. At 23andMe, capping my list at 1,500 people (actually 1,454 for me, whereas previously I had over 1,800) means my most distant matches share 20 cM with me. I regularly point this out, but shared segments of 15+ cM have a 100% chance of being identical by descent. That means 23andMe are excluding thousands and thousands of matches that have a 100% chance of being identical by descent. It's always been a real bummer, and in some ways I'm not sure that losing a mere 400-500 matches is that big of a deal since I never got much use out of 23andMe's matches anyway, thanks to their lack of hosting shareable trees/gedcoms. But here's the worst part about the new changes at 23andMe...

They are offering an option to expand your match list to 4,500... great, right?! Except it's going to cost you. Firstly, if you haven't tested on the V5 chip and/or haven't paid to include Health reports, you'll have to upgrade your test. The expanded service only applies to people with an Ancestry+Health V5 test (because it includes extra health reports too, not just the extended match list, and that requires the raw data in the V5 chip). If you tested previously on an old chip, you can upgrade to V5 Ancestry+Health for $99 (normally $199). If you're already on V5 but don't have Health reports, the upgrade to Health will cost $125.

And on top of that, you will have to pay a yearly subscription of $29. While that is not a huge amount of money, no other DNA company requires a subscription to access extra DNA matches. Especially when you consider that even the expanded match list you have to pay extra for is only a small fraction of what you'd get at AncestryDNA for no extra cost, this offer seems of poor value, unless of course you're actually after the extra health options that come with it, that AncestryDNA doesn't even offer. 

What that tells us, is that just like always, 23andMe are really more about the health and ethnicity side of DNA testing, whereas AncestryDNA are geared more towards genealogy. That's not surprising, since are, after all, a genealogy website, whereas 23andMe are not. But it still means that for us genealogists, 23andMe is not the ideal company to test with. 

For more info, see 23andMe's page on their "23andMe+ Experience".

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Giving Birth on the Atlantic Ocean

I have two documented cases in my tree of ancestors giving birth on board the ship taking them from Europe to America, one during colonial times, and the other from the late 19th century. It always makes me wonder why a woman would ever travel like this while pregnant, especially during the last trimester. It's not as though travel by ship, even in history, took nine months and she couldn't have known, but in both cases in my tree, it was a matter of the journey taking longer than expected. Not nine months long, but long enough that she could have reasonably expected to have arrived at the destination long before the birth, and maybe even before the last trimester. Maybe it was even a combination of a longer than expected journey and a premature birth. In the second case, I think that may have been likely, because the baby sadly did not survive.

The first case is of a well documented ancestor, Rachel de Forest, the daughter of noteworthy Jesse de Forest, and wife of equally well known Jean/Johannes de la Montagne. While perhaps not exactly famous in mainstream history, Montagne actually has a Society of Descendants, and was a notable figure in colonial New Amsterdam, serving on the New Netherland Council and as First Councillor to both Director Willem Kieft and Director-General Peter Stuyvesant. Jean and his wife Rachel left Holland (Netherlands) for New Amsterdam on 25 Sep 1636 on board the Rensselaerswyck, obviously while Rachel was pregnant. Exactly how far along she was, we can't say for sure, but she gave birth 25 Jan 1637 while at sea, and the reason is probably because the journey wound up taking a surprising 23 weeks, not arriving until 5 March 1637. Normally, at this time in history, the journey across the Atlantic took about 6-12 weeks. It was common for the ship to make several stops in Europe before making the crossing, but this usually only tacked on a few weeks, not the 14 weeks it wound up adding to the trip. If they left in September and the journey was only supposed to take 3 months at most, Rachel might have reasonably assumed they would be in New Amsterdam by or around Christmas, and if she wasn't due until late January, she would have no reason to think she might give birth on board the ship. What went wrong? Why did the journey take so long? 

First, immediately after leaving Holland, the ship hit heavy storms in the English Channel that left them at the mercy of the battering winds and sea swells for a brutal six weeks. During this time, another woman on board actually gave birth as well, though I am not related to her. Anna Van Rotmers had a son she appropriately named "Storm". Though the boy's father's surname was Bradt, Storm later adopted the surname "Vanderzee" which literally means "from the sea". Seems he was quite proud of being born at sea during a brutal storm.

The ship made attempts to dock at either Falmouth or Plymouth in England, and although they got close, the storm ultimately made it impossible to dock. The ship's sails were all badly damaged and it wasn't until November 16th that it finally limped into the harbor of Ilfracombe, in Devonshire, England. 

This wasn't the end of their troubles. Not only did the bad weather continue, making it difficult for the ship to set off again once repaired, but while they waited out the storms in Ilfracombe, the blacksmith (who was being sent to the colony by the Dutch West India Company) argued with his assistant, which resulted in the assistant killing the blacksmith! The ship's officers immediately turned the murderer into the authorities at Ilfracombe, but to be sure they wouldn't leave during the investigation, the authorities moored their ship and removed the rudder. Between this and the weather, they were delayed another eight weeks. 

They finally left England (presumably with no blacksmith or assistant) on 9 Jan 1637 and the crossing of the Atlantic took a mere two months, as expected, but by now, Rachel was much further along than she had originally planned and wound up having her 5th child, Maria, on 25 Jan 1637 while still on board the Rensselaerswyck. Fortunately, both Rachel and Maria survived the ordeal, and Maria went on to marry my 9th great grandfather, Jacob Kip (a clerk for the council Jean served on). By the time they left England though, Rachel must have known that she was nearing her due date, and I wondered why she didn't choose to stay in England for the birth, and catch another ship to New Amsterdam afterwards. Maybe they didn't have the money - they had, after all, already paid for their trip on the Rensselaerswyck and staying in England would mean paying for room and board somewhere, plus the cost of another ship later on, all presumably without income while they waited. Additionally, waiting for the next ship may have meant waiting for months after the birth, not just a few weeks. However terrifying the thought of giving birth on board a ship must have been, it's likely that Rachel didn't have a choice at that point. Fortunately though, her own husband was a physician, so at least he was there by her side to help her through it.

The second case in my tree took place much later in history, in 1880. My 3rd great grandfather, Giovantomaso Scioli, was a poor Italian farmer, who was apparently intent on making sure his first child was born in America, because he and his wife would leave for the US just weeks before she was due to give birth. A risky choice, if you ask me.

After marrying my 3rd great grandmother Lorenza Palladino on 27 Feb 1879 in Monteroduni, Italy, they left a year later for the US on board the SS Australia (shown above, from from London, England on 14 Feb 1880, while Lorenza was, of course, heavily pregnant. I do not know when or how they got from Italy to England, but the journey from England to the US should have taken about 1-2 weeks, yet the steamer did not arrive in New York City until 10 Mar 1880, about 3 and a half weeks from when it departed. We know why the ship was delayed, because it was documented in the newspaper as having had engine problems while at sea. Described only as a "disabled engine", it must have been running at only about half the speed it was normally capable of.

In addition, I believe Lorenza may have also given birth prematurely. On 28 Feb 1880, she gave birth to a little girl named after the steamship she was born on, Australia Domenica Scioli, who sadly died a mere 2 days later. In history, infant deaths were not uncommon, even if they weren't premature, but it could help explain how Lorenza wound up giving birth at sea. Let's say she wasn't due for another 5-6 weeks when they left, so a journey that should have only take a week or two, or maybe even three at the most like it did, should have still meant she would safely be in NYC weeks before her due date. Only if the baby was a week or two early would it have been a problem, and unfortunately that's exactly what may have happened. Of course, it's also important to remember that due dates in history weren't as exact as they are today and Lorenza could have thought her due date was later than it actually was.

The idea of giving birth in history seems daunting enough to begin with. Before modern medicine, the leading cause of death among women of child bearing age was child birth. Add to that having to do it on board a ship (pre-stabilizers, which help reduce the motion of the ship), in some cases probably without a doctor or even a midwife present, sounds terrifying. Unless you were lucky enough to marry a doctor like Rachel, the most you could hope for was another woman on board who had experience either giving birth and/or assisting in a delivery to help you through such an uncertain event. When you consider all this, it's a miracle both Rachel and Maria survived in the first case, even with her doctor husband, and that Lorenza survived in the second case, even if Australia Domenica didn't.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Why All the Scotland?

Since AncestryDNA's latest update introduced Scotland as it's own population, separate from Ireland, separate from England, lots of people are getting unexpectedly high results in Scotland. Even people with no known Scottish ancestry are getting significant percentages in that category. And of course, everyone is asking "why?"

For once, Ancestry actually honestly addressed this by explaining that natives to the British Isles have a lot of genetic overlap and can be difficult to tell apart, highlighting the fact that this is still just an estimate or interpretation of our DNA, and it should not be taken too literally.

But Scotland also has a lot of genetic overlap with mainland Europe, and I wanted to share some data and visuals that help illustrate all this. Firstly, although they haven't added the link for it yet, if you pull up the "full history" of the Scotland category (add "/ethnicity/Scotland/history" to the URL after the long that ID number), you'll see it lists all the surrounding areas included in "Scotland" (screenshot above):

Primarily located in: Scotland, Northern Ireland
Also found in: Belgium, Channel Islands, England, Faroe Islands, France, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Luxembourg, Wales

That's a big area this category is covering and makes the title of solely "Scotland" seem a little misleading. So is the map, which, apart from Brittany, half of Northern Ireland, and a sliver of Northern England, isn't covering any of the other locations listed here. Brittany, the seemingly rogue area in France that is included in the Scotland map, might seem out of place, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Brittany, as the name suggests, is actually heavily Celtic. In the 5th century, Celtic Britons fled the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and went to what is now Brittany, France. In fact, people there still speak a Celtic language called Breton that bares a similarity to Scottish Gaelic. But Scotland and France were often allies throughout history (united by their shared enemy, the English), so it wouldn't be unusual to see genetic similarities to other parts of France too.

And there's more.

I reference the PCA chart in the ethnicity white paper a lot, and there's a reason for that. It shows us upfront just how much genetic overlap there is among different regions. The latest PCA chart (shown right) is the most detailed yet, including a break down of countries that are lumped into bigger regions in our results.

It can be a little difficult to tell some of the icons apart, so I actually overlaid some colored blobs to show the overlapping regions. Even that can be difficult to tell apart because the overlap is so significant for the British Isles alone. This is why the rest of the British Isles is included in the "also found in" details.

The light blue blob is Ireland, dark blue is Scotland, red is Wales, and dark grey is England. Scotland, Wales, and England in particular are almost indistinguishable, and Ireland still have significant overlap with them. So it's hardly surprising if your break down of the British Isles isn't exactly what you'd expect.

And Scotland has some noteworthy overlap with a lot of mainland Europe too, not all of which are included in the "also found in" details. According to the PCA chart, European countries that have overlap with Scotland include Germany, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, and even Sweden.

It's difficult to even see which countries are included because there's so much overlap.

So basically, if you have ancestry from any of these regions, including the ones in the "also found in" details or the ones in the PCA chart, it could theoretically be turning up in your Scotland results. So the final inclusive list should be more like:

Northern Ireland
Channel Islands
Faroe Islands
Isle of Man

That's all of the British Isles, and the majority of Scandinavia and Northwest Europe.

Granted, AncestryDNA's algorithm may have been able to weed out the likelihood of some of those areas showing up under Scotland (I know they remove PCA outliers), and perhaps that's why not all of these areas are listed in the full details, but that's not necessarily foolproof, so I would still keep in mind that all of these places have some genetic overlap with Scottish samples. 

The PCA chart is very enlightening and anytime you have a question about DNA ethnicity and unexpected results, this chart might be able to answer it. AncestryDNA aren't always very forthcoming about the fact that Europe is so genetically mixed and neighboring regions often share too much DNA to accurately tell them apart, but the PCA chart doesn't lie (though you can generally exclude extreme outliers). I just wish they'd release ones for other parts of the world too, and some for areas where continents mix. For example, I'd love to be able to see how much genetic overlap Southern Italy might have with the Middle East and Northern Africa. I'd also like to see what populations Ashkenazi Jews most closely match (at one point, they were on the European PCA chart, but due to the fact that they were so dissimilar to any other group in Europe, they were obviously removed - I'd love to see if perhaps they are more closely related to Middle Eastern samples than European ones). And of course, not everyone is white and it'd be great if AncestryDNA provided as much background data about other parts of the world as they do with Europe. Providing PCA charts for them would be a great start.

Additionally, AncestryDNA used to have a chart that showed the average admixture for their samples (for people native to each region). For example, it showed us that the average person from the region which was "Italy/Greece" could expect to get about 10% results in the Middle East or Caucasus. It was highly informative in illustrating how genetically mixed some areas are (and also how distinct other populations can be). I have begged AncestryDNA support multiple times to make this data available again, but they refuse. I think they don't want to "confuse" customers too much, but in my experience, the less information you give people, the more confused they'll be. The constant questions about this I see on social platforms prove it.

Friday, September 11, 2020

AncestryDNA 2020 Ethnicity Update is Here!

Well, that was quick. Only days after announcing the update would happen in the next coming weeks, I have received the update already. It may still be rolling out for some people, but I imagine you'll get it in the next few days.

My update in comparison to the last one really highlights once again how much genetic overlap there is among the British Isles, Germanic Europe, and Scandinavia. I have ancestry from all three places, and AncestryDNA (and other companies) can never get them right. With each update, it swings from one extreme to another. The last update, for example, had me at 0% Norway even though I had one Norwegian great grandfather. With the latest update, I'm now 15% Norwegian! This is pretty close to the 12.5% the paper trails says I should be, but of course, we do not necessarily inherit exactly 12.5% from each great grandparent, so 15% is totally plausible, apart from the fact that all other reports usually underestimate my Norwegian ancestry (usually under 10%) which has also lead me to suspect that I inherited less than 12.5% from that particular ancestor. I don't know that though, it's just a hunch, so I can't say 15% is "wrong".

Anyway, here's the full breakdown, in comparison to what it was before.

2019 Estimate:
43% Germanic Europe
22% England, Wales & Northwestern Europe
21% France
12% Italy
2% Greece & the Balkans

2020 Estimate:
27% Germanic Europe
18% Scotland
15% Norway
12% England & Northwestern Europe
12% Southern Italy
11% Northern Italy
5% France

My Italian results have been bumped back up to a reasonable amount (if you recall, I had one Italian grandmother), but they are still lower than what I know they should be. As I've talked about before, my paternal grandfather tested so I know I inherited 18% from him, which means I inherited 32% from my paternal Italian grandmother. So I am fortunately enough to know for a fact that I should 32% Italian. The new results breaking down North and South Italy add up to only 23% (though if that 5% France is coming from my Italian ancestry, then it's 28%). Had my grandfather not tested, I would assume 23% is close enough to the expected 25% and been happy with that, but because I know differently, it's a little disappointing. Additionally, my Italian ancestry is supposed to be entirely southern, not northern, but I'm not hugely surprised they weren't able to tell the difference.

Back to Northern Europe. According to my tree, I should be about 23% Germanic, 32% British (English and Scots-Irish), and as mentioned, 12.5% Norwegian. But I am German and British on both sides of my tree, so really, who knows how much I inherited of each? Especially with the new breakdown of the British Isles into four groups - England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland - I really haven't even tried to determine how much of my English vs Scots-Irish I might have inherited according to my tree. I do have more recent English ancestry (an English ancestor who immigrated in the 1850s, whereas all Scottish or Scots-Irish immigrated in colonial times), so all I can say for sure is that I can reasonably expect my English results to be higher than Scottish, which they are not. However, combined, they do add up to 30%, which is very close to my estimate according to my tree, and I correctly don't have any results in Wales or Ireland. Of course, this leaves me with 27% Germanic, which is again pretty close to my estimate based on my tree.

So, overall, this new DNA estimate is pretty accurate, if we look at it from a broader view by lumping North and South Italy back together, and England and Scotland back together. If they hadn't tried to split those regions up and just changed my percentages, it would really be spot on.

I can't say the same for my dad's report (right).

The last update in 2019 had my dad at exactly 50% Italian, which was exactly right. My dad's mother was Italian and since we do get exactly 50% from each parent, his ethnicity report should reflect that. A few percentage difference may be within a margin of error, but to get exactly 50% gave me a lot of confidence in the results, so to move away from that 50% even slightly feels like a major downgrade.

Dad's 2019 Estimate:
50% Italy
31% England, Wales & Northwestern Europe
7% Ireland & Scotland
7% France
5% Germanic Europe

Dad's 2020 Estimate:
29% Southern Italy
19% England & Northwestern Europe
16% Scotland
15% Northern Italy
7% Turkey & the Caucasus
5% Norway
4% Germanic Europe
3% Greece & Albania
2% Ireland

According to my dad's tree, he should be 50% Italian, and the other half about 30% Germanic, 20% British (mostly Scottish or Scots-Irish), so to see so many more regions in his list than before instantly felt like a regression. His total Italian results are only 44%, and even if you try to add in neighboring regions like Greece and Turkey, he then has 54%. I know that's not far off 50%, but again, when his previous results were exactly 50%, it feels like a downgrade to deviate from that even slightly.

His Germanic results didn't change much at all, which means it's still being massively under reported, but when you consider that it's probably showing up under the "Northwestern Europe" part of England, it's actually pretty accurate. Combining Northwest Europe and Germanic, he gets 22%, which isn't too far off what his tree estimates. And who knows where that 5% Norway is coming from - could be either his Germanic or British ancestry. That leaves the 16% Scotland and 2% Ireland, which is very close to what his tree is for Scottish and Scots-Irish.

So again, combining specific regions does add up to make some sense, but there's also some regressions.

Over analyzing all my kits might be getting a little tedious, so I'll summarize the rest. My mom's kit (right) went from a very accurate 27% Norwegian (remember, she had one Norwegian grandparent), to a greatly overestimated 46%. She also got 11% in Wales and 10% in Sweden, neither being places she has ancestry in (and that Swedish results can't be coming from her Norwegian ancestry since that would bump it up to 56%, more than double what should be expected).

My paternal grandfather's results at AncestryDNA have always overestimated his British ancestry and underestimated his German ancestry. He should be about 40% British (Scottish or Scots-Irish), and 60% Germanic, but the results are always flipped, and this time is no different, with only 33% Germanic. Granted, he has 38% in England & Northwest Europe, which could go either way. Then he has 27% in Scotland. So what it's really saying is 38% of his DNA can't be distinguished between British and Germanic, which isn't surprising.

Finally, my husband's results (right). My husband is actually a British native - his father was Irish and his mother was mostly English with one Scottish branch and one Irish branch from further back, so he would be roughly 53% Irish, 41% English, and 6% Scottish. His previous results reflected that almost exactly with 43% England, and 56% Ireland/Scotland. So just like with my dad's Italian results, any deviation from that seems like a regression, and that's what happened here too. His new results have him at 41% Ireland, 33% England, and 25% Scotland. For someone who is pretty close to half English and half Irish, this is way off, but that's hardly surprising, since the PCA chart shows there's really not much distinction among these small, neighboring regions so I don't know why they are even attempting to split them up. At least his Genetic Communities are very accurate.

Additionally, the last 2 updates gave my husband 1% noise results in Africa, and for some reason it still remains. I know he's not the only one though, I have seen other reports of people with predominately British ancestry getting 1% in Africa with no known history of it. It's likely just noise, but I wish they'd sort it out already.

So, while I'm pleased that my Italian and Norwegian results accurately went up, the rest of the changes are a bit of a disappointment.