Tuesday, 5 June 2018

DNA test your Irish-descended elders, before it is too late

Recently, a genealogist with a brick wall at an emigrant Irish ancestor born in the 1840s posted to a group seeking advice on getting documentation to reveal his specific origins. As usually happens, the ancestor had a very common Irish name and nothing in US records was particularly specific about where he came from. Given the general scarcity of documentation capable of resolving these situations, suggestions quickly turned to autosomal DNA testing. The original poster indicated she had heard of DNA testing, but was not sure about doing it herself.

Such reticence can eliminate, forever, the chance of breaking through brick-walls at this typical Irish emigrant timescale.

Realistically, autosomal DNA testing is the best tool for connecting an Irish immigrant to his or her origin family and townland back in Ireland, given the preponderance of common names in Ireland and the typical lack of specific birth locations on later-life records in many destination countries. And, for it to work, we really need to test the great-great grandchildren of those who were born in Ireland in the period just before and after the famine. Some of these 2x great-grandchildren are still with us.

There are technical and practical reasons for this.

For diaspora researchers, once census, marriage, death, and obituary record leads have dried up, what can work -- and work very well -- is discovering a second or third cousin match at one of the DNA testing companies who happens to have more information than you do.

Someone who matched at predicted third-cousin level to an Irish-descended elder in my family knew she had a line leading back to a Mary (with a very common Irish surname) who married a Patrick (with an even more common surname) both of Ireland, whose daughter came to NY. Mary and Patrick were born in the 1840s. Mary's surname matched with an Irish line that we know a lot about -- one we are still in contact with back in the Old Country. Our family therefore has an unusual amount of knowledge well beyond what is recorded in expected documentation. We've also gone through parish records from the 1820s forward and plucked out the baptisms and marriages that we know from locations, dates, witnesses, and naming patterns belong to our family. Where possible, we have down-traced using records combined with the memories of elders about first and second cousins they met in passing as children in the 1930s, further filling in this tree.

Mary's name and surname, once given to me by the match, was of obvious immediate interest, and I checked my database and discovered we did indeed have a 2nd great aunt who had married a Patrick with the given surname. The resulting relationship was consistent with the DNA shared and it was clear we had figured out the Most Recent Common Ancestor within minutes. The match got to add three more generations and many cousins to her tree.  Mary and Patrick had married and moved away, and their children had gone even further, to upstate NY and then California, and so for us, this was really the only way to gain knowledge of what happened to her descendants.

Now, we were particularly lucky to have the two names of a couple to work with, and that Mary had married in her home parish (as expected) so that her husband's name was already in my database. While it would have been trickier, it still would have worked if we had only her name to go on. However, what likely would not have worked was if we waited to test the grandchild of either of the actual DNA testers. This is why:

Given that the probability the DNA tests can detect a cousin relationship drops off precipitously at the fourth cousin-level, waiting another generation or two is disastrous for solving these kinds of problems.

Additionally, looking at the estimated birth years in the above graphic, and taking into account the general history of Irish emigration (heavy starting in the mid 1800s) it is particularly important to test Irish diaspora descendants born in the 1920s and 1930s while we still can.

Once the elder generation has tested, it can take time for the autosomal DNA testing to bear fruit. For the first five years or so, I found it very slow going. However, so many more people are testing now, and some of them have good information, that we are generating results much more frequently and quickly. Once one Most Recent Common Ancestral couple is determined, that information becomes useful in figuring out potential relationships with other people who share that segment. And when people post the best trees that they can with their DNA testing profile, the linking can go like lightning.

The frustrating ambiguities inherent in researching immigrant ancestors who came from "Ireland" and often shared their name and birth year with many thousands of their countrymen persists. However, if one branch of the family happens to have knowledge going back 200 years and tests their descendants they can then help likely matches from other branches figure out how they fit in.

Large Irish families actually increase the odds of being able to sort it out (eventually) because all you need is for one branch to have remained relatively well established and documented. While all the other siblings may have dispersed around the world and to locales with next-to-useless documentation, if you can still test people in the needed senior generations, the match will show up and hopefully the pieces will then fit together. We found that good documentation happened with the eldest male branch which remained in Ireland, and then with the extended NY family that established itself in an around Brooklyn and still holds family reunions.

If we can piece together the family groups that constituted the population of Ireland throughout the nineteenth century, we may then be able to take it back even further. If we do not test Irish descended elders born in the 1920s and 1930s while we still can, this possibility will evaporate.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

UE Loyalist lineages: Now easy to research online for free! Part VII

The seventh in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.

Step 6: Search wills, obtain evidence linking generations

I'd hoped to expand my knowledge about wills across Canada, and retrieve more of them, while writing up this post, but the last few months did not unfold as planned. I do have extensive experience working with Ontario wills though, and have applied my training and experience as an archivist to identify will collections across the country. While I've personally used the Ontario and Saskatchewan probate files, I strongly suspect there are more will series out there than those identified below. So, this step is comprehensive but likely not complete at this time.

Hopefully, by the end of Steps 4 and 5, you have several UEL related names as well as place information.

Given that UELs were compensated with land (typically 200 acres), there is a strong tendency for property transfer records to exist for most of the individuals in the first three generations. Typically, there is a will for the UEL (unless they died very early), possibly his/her widow/er, their male children, sons-in-law, some daughters, and grandchildren, that either went through probate or was registered with a land transfer process at the municipal level.

Primogeniture was not the normal practice and therefore it is common for younger sons and daughters to be listed in the will. Depending on timing, the daughters may be referred to by their married names, either in the will or in the probate process documents, and this can prove a link between generations for those early 19th-century people whose baptism and marriage records have not survived.

Canadian wills and will indexes are not (yet, fingers crossed) generally available online. Quebec does not have a history of English Common law and therefore wills are handled differently there. Definitely check what is online first (if you are fortunate to have family from these jurisdictions within the given time span) as these are by far the easiest wills to access:
The next most accessible wills are those which were handled by a centralized or regional probate or surrogate court and which have been indexed by name, allowing the will to then be ordered on microfilm. Unfortunately, only the following indexes have been posted online so far:
There are also centralized or county court probates which are indexed and available on microfilm:
If you have not found someone in the above indexes, a will may still exist, but it is likely tied to some sort of localized land transfer process or was really only handled privately within the family. In which case you want to ask people with expertise about the locality or the family, if they know of any other will records. More than once I have searched for a will in the collection I expected it to be in, found nothing, then discovered by googling that someone else had an original private copy and had transcribed it to the internet!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Was John Holland the biological great-grandfather of Richard III?

Rumours have persisted for more than six hundred years that John Holland, Duke of Exeter, was the actual biological father of Richard of Conisburgh, who was legally the son of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.

The recent archaeological investigation of the remains of Richard of Conisburgh's grandson, King Richard III, concluded the patrilineally inherited Y-DNA of the skeleton does not match that of putative male-line living relatives. Of the 18 birth events which could misrepresent paternity, the birth of Richard of Conisburgh, paternal grandfather of Richard III (and Edward IV), is strikingly suspect.

While rumours of non-paternity were a common slander serving political ends, there are, aside from the Y-DNA results, historically notable anomalies in Richard of Conisburgh's relationship with his legal father, Edmund of Langley, and his elder brother, Edward. Edmund of Langley left Richard of Conisburgh, ostensibly the second of only two sons, out of his will. Edward also ignored his brother as a potential heir.

Edmund of Langley remained married to Richard of Conisburgh's mother, Isabella of Castille, until she died aged 37 in 1392. However, in the seventeen years after Richard was born, while both Edmund and Isabella were believed to be healthy and fertile, there were no more children, strongly suggesting they were estranged.

It tends to be considered a historical fact that Isabella had an affair with John Holland (maternal half brother to King Richard II). In her will she left her estate to King Richard II and asked him to give her son Richard an annuity of 500 marks. This arrangement is not inconsistent with the possibility that Richard of Conisburgh was the King's half nephew, and she knew the King was more likely to protect the interests of her "favourite" son, perhaps even against interference from her estranged husband.

The Y DNA haplotype of Richard III's skeletal remains was identified as G-P287. Trying to investigate the Holland family using wikipedia, thepeerage.com and some google searching, it seems clear that no Y-carrying descendant of John Holland exists (his legitimate male line seems to have died out with his grandson, and of his three illegitimate sons the "Bastards of Exeter," I could find evidence only that one had an heiress).

The same is true for his brother, Thomas. However, intriguingly, there is an unsourced statement on the wikipedia page of his nephew, Edmund Holland, suggesting that Edmund's remains may have been recovered archaeologically on Île Lavrec, Île-de-Bréhat. In which case, if autosomal DNA can be recovered from both those remains and those of Richard III, they should be compared. If they are Edmund's remains (and assuming Richard III's biological father was Richard Plantagenet), there would be, at minimum, a second cousinship once removed between the remains. Richard III's father's maternal great-grandmother was Alianore Holland. However, if John Holland is the biological great-grandfather of Richard III, there would be an additional first cousin relationship (twice removed), leading to increased shared autosomal DNA, and the Y-DNA haplotype of Edmund's remains should be G-P287.

The only caveat is the possibility of another non-paternity event striking the five birth events between Edmund Holland and Richard III.

However, this mysterious Internet attestation that the remains of Edmund Holland may be in hand could also be misguided or false (I could find nothing definite about a Lavrec dig by googling, and the find may also be old and contaminated). If so, that would leave, as the next best option, testing the closest available male line descendants of John Holland's male line first cousins. And they do appear to be out there:

Obviously, over twenty-odd generations, the probability that some other paternity event in the line is not what it appears to be goes way up. It is possible John Holland himself was not even a Holland. However, that does not mean the investigation wouldn't be worthwhile. I've shown one descending branch in the Holland tree, approximately the most senior one, but there are several other offshoots. It is a very interesting family and people have been working for hundreds of years trying to figure out how some potential branches fit into the complete tree. By testing living descendants of branches that meet up farther and farther back (a triangulation technique that effectively worked to identify the Somerset Y type for several generations) the validity of the Y DNA inheritance can be demonstrated between certain points on the tree and branches can be slotted together.

Given that the Somerset lines did not match, researchers have apparently gone even farther back than Edward III trying to find Plantagenet Y DNA carriers many generations removed from Richard III, including through purported illegitimate early Plantagenet lines. Compared to that, working down from Robert de Holland may be a relatively pragmatic thing to try, even just for elimination. For all we know, the South African Hollands have already tested their Y DNA and identified their own haplotype (in which case, please let us know if it is or is not G-P287...)

I've been following the Richard III investigation for about two years now. For me, the last few months were not conducive to writing blogs (I expect to get back to my Loyalists blogs and some case studies shortly). As soon as the old blogging brain muscles had some energy though, this is the post they wanted to produce. On some level, what fascinates me about the Richard III Y DNA results is the possibility it may ultimately reveal something fundamental about animosities during the Wars of the Roses. A modern-day biological investigation really could unlock something important about major historical events from six hundred years ago.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

UE Loyalist lineages: Now easy to research online for free! Part VI

Updated 2015-11-20, a new 54,000 item index was just put online by LAC!

The sixth in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.

Step 5. Access free UEL record indexes and records online

By the end of Step 4, if successful, you have a candidate UEL. You can continue to work backwards chronologically as well as attempting to work forward from the UEL (which is considerably easier, just remember not to discount anything that may indicate your link to the UEL is not valid).

The easiest thing to access for most UELs are their loss claims and land petition records. Search whichever of the following databases match the locations identified for your UEL family:
And, Ancestry has a database indexing the following claims records, but you can manually view the scanned typescript nominal indexes for free:

If you get hits in an index-only database - and remember, there are often different people with the same name -- look at the details (for the databases: either displayed in the hits table or via a linked screen). The details should provide basic information (like date, name, and township, which is very useful) and then some sort of item number, typically the volume/bundle and page/item number of the record in the original manuscripts. In some cases the database links directly to an image (hopefully there will be more image links in the future). If there is no image in the databases, it will provide a microfilm reel code (usually a letter followed by a four or five digit number).

(In the typescript index, you need to carefully write down the name and all bundle, volume, page and item number information and then do a lookup which I will discuss after first explaining how to access the Land Petition records.)

The records provided online for free consist, essentially, of large digital photo albums of the images from the microfilms. There is a trick to navigating these large image banks.

To locate an individual record you look at the volume and page/item numbers in the index details, then open the virtual "reel" (see below for links to collections of reels which are scanned and available online) and check how many images it contains (usually about a thousand). Go to the page/image number box and enter a number that is about half the total (i.e. 500). Look at that image and scroll down to the bottom (sometimes look to the right side instead) where there should be a little typewritten label below the manuscript document that was filmed. The label will indicate the volume for that item and may indicate the page or item number; if not, the page/item number will be written or stamped on the document (check top right corner first).

If the volume and page number you are looking falls after the one you want, go to a page halfway between the start and where you are now (i.e. page/image 250). If you are before where you need to be in the sequence, go in the other direction (i.e. 750). Check to see if that item is before or after the one you want and then repeat this process -- you can get to the record you want much more quickly than navigating through every single image of the album in order.

Almost all Land Petition microfilms in the above series, with the exception of New Brunswick and PEI (which is very small), are available online via the index or as scans through archived LAC sites or the Héritage project. Once an index has given you a reel number, check these sites to see if the reel is in one of these online collections. (On the Héritage project site you can just type the reel number into the search box and it will pop up if it is there.)
To access claims in the Audit Office records (which you identified by checking the scanned typewritten indexes) uses fundamentally the same navigational approach described above. For AO 12, transcriptions of the original claims (which are at the National Archives UK) in the surviving volumes (1-2, 5, 7, 10-12, 15-16, 18, 23, 25-27, 57, 59-63, 98-99, 109 and 123-124) were filmed onto three very large reels when the original paper transcription became brittle. The three rolls are available online for free. Your index search should have provided a volume number (and a page/item number), determine which of the following reels you need to access (then navigate by halves until you hit the right volume and page of interest):

  • C-12903 (2803 pages), vol. 1-vol. 16 page 420
  • C-12904 (2123 pages), vols. 18-99
  • C-12905 (959 pages), images up to 285 are AO 12 vols. 109 and 123-124

If you found a name in AO 13 on the LAC website, there is good news and bad news. Firstly, it is good to know that most of the material in AO 13 repeats what is in AO 12. However, while the extant volumes (1-100, 102-140) were microfilmed, only a transcribed selection of material is in the microfilm reel which is available online for free:
While it is unfortunate that the full set is not online, you can order the specific microfilm reel you need (and it is a microfilm of the original records, not a transcription) to your local Family History Centre (or check to see if the films are in the holdings of an institution in your area).

Finally, other easy to access online collections worth checking include:
The final step is to try to identify if your UEL or their descendants left wills which link the generations together and provide additional information.

Continue to Step 6...

UE Loyalist lineages: Now easy to research online for free! Part IV

The fourth in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.

Step 3: Google, using township name

By the end of Step 2 hopefully you have names of a 19th century Canadian ancestor or couple, and some location information as well as key dates. Start Googling.

As the figure in Part 1 demonstrated, UELs can be expected to have in the range of 180,000 grandchildren and 500,000 great grandchildren in the 19th century, and perhaps 26 million descendants living today. The odds that many UEL descendants are mentioned on the web are actually pretty good. Even if your ancestors turn out not to be descended from UELs, this step has potential to kick up useful information about their origins.

Query the name as well as whatever location information you've uncovered, preferably a township name. Add any known birth, marriage, or death years. Add the term "loyalist"/"UEL" to see if they pop up in the context of a UEL's descendants listing. You could uncover posts by your cousins seeking assistance researching the family, as well as secondary content sites providing information (including some of the county histories mentioned in Part I, if your research extends far enough back, to a generation that was alive by the time those were written).

Google really is the universal genealogical index (all due respect to the IGI) and it is foolish not to use it, albeit with careful analysis of whether the results generated really do pertain to your line.

Continue to Step 4...

Friday, 18 September 2015

UE Loyalist lineages: Now easy to research online for free! Part I

The first in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.


An estimated half a million colonists were loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. Of those, some 420,000 Loyalists remained in the former colonies at the close of the war.

However, 60,000-100,000 Loyalists -- those who experienced persecution, the confiscation and destruction of their property, and who served the British cause -- left the United States and were compensated for their losses by the Crown. Some loyalists went to refugee camps early in the war and when peace was declared those, and others evacuated from surrendered territories, began taking up land grants in British colonies.

This generated a tonne of paperwork.

The survival of these documents, mostly intact, is a tremendous boon for those seeking to extend their North American family histories well into the 18th century, as well as access biographical details that do not tend to survive in church records. Up until about five years ago, accessing these records required surmounting the usual bricks-and-mortar research institution obstacles.

However, given that approximately 50,000 Loyalists came to Canada -- where they are known as United Empire Loyalists (UELs) -- Library and Archives Canada (LAC) took the initiative to place the most important UEL record sets (as well as all Canadian census records), online for free.

LAC's priority digitization of these records reflect the continuing importance of the Loyalists in Canada. Canada's population was only about 125,000 in 1770. Therefore, the 50,000 refugees from the former colonies to the south exert a lasting founder-effect on the population and their legacy is embodied in a significant percentage of the Canadian population today.

Additionally, my own research tracing the descendants of couples born in the late 18th century has shown me how many Canadians were caught up in American expansion westward starting in the 1850s. A significant number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of UELs returned to American soil. My "back-of-the-envelope" attempt at estimating the percentage of UEL descendants in both Canada and the US indicates the following scenario is not impossible:

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of UELs were justifiably proud of their ancestors, who had lost everything, trekked into the Canadian wilderness, and successfully started again. They were also aware that many church records were gone and set about writing family and county histories to document their ancestors' lives before memories were lost forever. While such sources always need to be checked against primary documents, many of these 19th and early 20th century books are now in the public domain and accessible on sites such as Canadiana, OurRoots, OurOntario, and Internet Archive. Some of those sites also index the text to Google, ensuring the content will come up in a Google search, particularly if a township name and key date is included in the query.

In addition to the LAC digitization projects, and the provision of old county histories and family genealogies online, some provincial governments (Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland) deserve tremendous credit for placing not only vital records indexes, but actual scans of registrations online, for free.

The vital records, particularly marriages and deaths, often include parents' names and can be key to linking back to the preceding generation. While the records offer excellent coverage, there are unfortunate sequences which do not include intergenerational information (list forms were briefly used in some jurisdictions) and there is always a risk that ancestors were residing in a frontier township that could not properly support registrarial functions (or a generation was averse to registering, which does happen).

The final key in linking generations may therefore come down to wills. While the online coverage of wills is not (yet, fingers crossed) on par with these other record sets, some are online and there are techniques that enable wills to be obtained through interlibrary loan services such as Family History Centers.

Looking at the process for investigating UELs, I can break it down into 6 steps, some very easy, that you can follow to identify UELs in your tree, access the documentation of their lives, and collect solid evidence of your connection to these ancestors and their experience with some of the great events of history.

Start with Step 1...


PART I - Background
PART II - Step 1: Search FamilySearch.org, look at Canadian censuses online
PART III - Step 2: Search FamilySearch again, access Canadian vital records
PART IV - Step 3: Google, using township name
PART V - Step 4: Take stock, seek advice as needed
PART VI - Step 5: Access free UEL record indexes and records online
PART VII - Step 6: Search wills, obtain evidence linking to later generations
PART VIII - Future possibilities

UE Loyalist lineages: Now easy to research online for free! Part V

The fifth in an eight part series to help people with potential UE Loyalist lines access the wealth of documentation available online for free, as well as offline sources that can provide further evidence linking generations.

Step 4. Take stock, seek advice as needed

After Step 3, you will either have a candidate Loyalist ancestor or you won't:
  • Your Canadian ancestor may have left Canada before 1851 (or 1861 if from a township missing on the 1851 census) and Googling has not turned up a connection to their pre-census origins
  • You now know your Canadian ancestors immigrated to Canada from places other than the US well after the Revolution. Or before, don't forget those 125,000 Canadians kicking around in 1770 -- many of those are Quebecers, in which case the record bounty does continue but your focus would shift to Quebec records unrelated to Loyalists. If your ancestors immigrated from the US at the beginning of the 19th century, there is also a chance you have Patriots in your tree; while they won't show in Loyalist land records, their origins may show up in the county histories.
In the first scenario, circle back and look for documentation in their new country (marriage, death, burial, news coverage) that might indicate a fairly specific origin location in Canada. Run a couple more FamilySearch searches, as FamilySearch also indexes a variety of specialized Canadian record sets that pre-date 1851.

As soon as you have a province, or ideally a county or township, seek out advice on the Internet from people who have specialized knowledge of the records for that location. This could involve joining a Facebook group for a regional branch of the provincial Genealogical Society as well as reviewing branch websites (these organizations have active research support functions and branches may have very robust indexing projects), check the municipal library websites for historical records online -- particularly directories -- as well as specialized indexes for things like obituaries (this is highly variable by municipality, some have done a superb job at placing this information online), check for county and township historical societies which may also have a research function.

If your research leads to a family in the Kingston, Ontario area (a region known as "The Bay of Quinte" for the body of water that intersects with Hastings, Prince Edward, Lennox & Addington, and Frontenac counties), you should probably also check out the files of a renowned 20th century historian, Dr. H.C. Burleigh. He researched over a thousand families and Queen's University and his descendants have ensured his notes and records are viewable onlinefor free.

If you have identified a likely UEL ancestor, the time has come to ensure generational links are solid, as well as locate and review all the primary documentation available for that person online.

Continue to Step 5...


PART VII - Step 6: Search wills, obtain evidence linking to later generations
PART VIII - Future possibilities