Christian Theede Christiansen, Lys mellem træer via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

A Genealogist Looks At DNA Testing

By Roy L Hales

How much faith can we put in elaborate DNA based family trees that stretch back to a long vanished epoch in Africa? Have these tests shown themselves to be accurate when checked against genealogies based on written records? What does it look like when a genealogist looks at DNA testing.

My People

An elderly Katzie woman first sparked by interest in genealogy. The Maple Ridge News commissioned me to interview her regarding a 900-year-old stone axe uncovered at Pitt Lake, B.C. Peered at me through dark rimmed glasses. Her words “my people” reached back through the centuries to claim ownership of the artefact. Listening to her, I suddenly realised I had no “people.”

View looking east of the Flack Block (built 1899-1900; extant) on the NE corner of West Hastings and Cambie Streets in Vancouver, BC. via Flickr (Public Domain)
View looking east of the Flack Block (built 1899-1900; extant) on the NE corner of West Hastings and Cambie Streets in Vancouver, BC. via Flickr (Public Domain)

I am a Canadian, of course, but that word seemed more a geographic accident that a statement of being. I would never have claimed an old bottle dug up from an early settlement in New Brunswick or a four hundred year old iron pot from England as something belonging to “my people”. Upon reflection I realised that the Katzie woman and I were microcosmic reflections of how our cultures view the past.

This started changing after I started researching my ancestry. Now when you talk about Vancouver around 1900, I think of five families that came West on the railroad. Another of my ancestors served in the Blackwatch regiment, when they helped drive George Washington out of New York and New Jersey in 1776. Others were nailmakers in Cumberland, farmers in Kent or settlers in early New Brunswick.

As my knowledge of our family tree deepened, it spread to specific area. I am related to most, possibly all, of the inhabitants of modern Tabusintac, New Brunswick. I have connections to many families living in the Stockbury area of Kent during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Promise of DNA Testing

DNA testing offers more. For an almost nominal fee, anyone can purchase a phylogenetic Tree tracing motherline or fatherline back to the first human DNA. Though the range is much shorter, a typical DNA family profile should go back “approximately 10 generations.” Can this process provide the data needed to unlock some of the more recent puzzles our family heritage?

85% Immediate Confirmations

Living DNA was not aware I possess centuries worth of genealogical records, when I sent them a cheek swab last April.

Visiting my great greag grea grandfather Thomas Hales’ farm in Stockbury, Kent, during 2002

Overall, I am impressed by the results. To break down the results I can quickly confirm, by region:

  • 18.8% of my DNA comes from Southeast England. – My direct paternal line, and almost all associated lineages, was in Kent prior to 1881.
  • 25.4% came from Southwest Scotland & Northern Ireland. Though this percentage seems rather high, one of my grandmothers was an Armstrong, whose ancestral clan lands were in Southwest Scotland, and another of my families probably emigrated from Southwest Scotland into Northern Ireland sometime in the 17th century.
  • Cumbria (11.6%) – The first historic records of my Armstrong lineage comes from this county in 1741 and they remained in this area until 1860.
  • Northwest England (12.8%) – One of my maternal great grandmothers came from Lancashire, as did her immediate predecessors for at least a century.
  • Central England (15.7%) – Another family left Oxfordshire and Northants in the mid 19th century.
  • South England (3.5) – At least two generations of one of my paternal great grandmorher’s families came from Hampshire. (Family tradition asserts they came from the Channel Islands.)
  • Aberdeenshire (1.4%) – One of my ancestral families left Aberdeenshire to settle in Southeastern Quebec, in 1826.
  • Northwest Scotland (1.4%) – Another my ancestors left Atholl, in the Scottish Highlands, for North America in 1776.

Three Genealogical Puzzles

There were also three relatively recent questions that DNA testing helped to clarify:

St Margaret’s Church in Hales, Norfolk – by John Fielding via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
  1. I have tentatively linked my Hales family to the premier Hales family of Kent and found a plausible connection between them and an even older Hales family from Norfolk. Does my DNA throw any further light on this issue?
  2. 2.  A large number of the surnames in my family tree are Irish. My mother is a Garretty, one of the principal clans of county Roscommon in Ireland,1 two of my great grandparents come from other Irish families.2 Some of my lesser families3 are also Irish. So how Irish is my DNA?
  3. One of my ancestors is belived to have married a black merchant, or servant, named “Williams” from Jamaica. Charlotte Taylor is a historical character well evidenced fron New Brunswick records of the late 18th and early 19th century. Her daughter Elizabeth Williams is also well documented, though one acccount states she was actually adopted.4 However there is no documentation about Elizabeth’s father, Charlotte’s first “husband,” aside from family legend. So will my DNA prove our legendary African ancestor actually existed?

Lack Of African DNA

Looking over a riverfront lot owned by one of my ancestral families during the 18th century – during a 1997 trip to Tabusintac, New Brunswick

Much to my surprise, I do not have any African DNA to support the idea Charlotte Taylor’s first “husband” Williams was black. The only contemporary evidence of his existence is that my great-great-great-great grandmother’s marriage record states her maiden name is “Elizabeth Williams.”5

Charlotte Taylor’s biographer, Mary Lynn Smith, subsequently sent me summaries of  test results from eight of Elizabeth William’s other descendants:

  • five of us tested positive for African DNA; four did not.
  • one showed traces from Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers.
  • Another showed trace amounts from North Africa
  • Two had ties to Mali, which is inland from the Gold Coast in North Africa.
  • “One has Trace amounts Ivory Coast/Ghana.”6

Jamaica was receiving slaves from these areas in the 18th century. Recent DNA evidence shows that the Gold Coast was one of the principal sources. West Central Africa was a secondary source. Some, one test shows 2.1%, were also kidnapped from the Senegambia area of the Mali Empire.

The wide variety of geographic trace elements suggests that several generations of William’s predecessors may have been Jamaican. The first slaves were imported in 1513 and they have heavily outnumbered the white population throughout England’s rule.

“I can see why you would be surprised at your results re Africa. They were not as expected.  But Williams, if not ‘white’ which he may have been, was likely mixed race, ie Quadroon etc,” writes Mary Lynn.

Lack Of Southern Irish DNA

The biggest area of concern I have with the results from Living DNA is my apparent lack of Southern Irish DNA.

Six generations ago my ancestor Michael Garretty came from an area where his clan had been established for a thousand years. Mind you, the only record I have of him is as the “father of the groom” cited on a marriage certificate. I suspect he was a victims of the potato famine. Family tradition asserts his widow married a “Mr Cross” and they lived in Cork. Michael’s son, Robert, emigrated to Birmingham, where he christened his first child the surname “Cross.” The rest were all Garrettys – until they moved to Canada and the entire family took the name Cross.

Looking at the DNA evidence, I wonder if Mr Cross is the true patriarch of this family.

After seeing those surprising reports of African DNA among some of Elizabeth William’s descendants, the jury is out until I can see more Cross DNA.

Digging up artefacts from where one of my Irish ancestors barns once stood in Flatlands, New Brunswick.

The rest of my Irish families have less certain origins.

One of my maternal great grandmothers was a Ryan, whose family arrived in Canada in 1840. That was also six generations ago. Ryan is the #1 surname in Tipperary and has an ancient history in the South of Ireland, but we do not know where my family came from. As the range of family DNA is only “approximately 10 generations,” they be one of the many southern families that relocated to Ulster.

The last stream of my Irish families descend from Patrick Archbold, who brought his wife Bridget (Dunn) from Kildare in 1830. Thanks to the detailed records from Quebec at this time, we know his mother’s maiden name was Donnelly. Archbold is an Anglo-Irish surname, but Dunn and Donnelly are both Gaelic names and according to Electric Scotland:

  • the Donnelly “surname originated in the 10th century” and is from Ulster (Northern Ireland).
  • As regards the Dunn family – “Nearly all those who spell the name Dunn came from Ulster.”

So could a number of my Irish families have come from northern Ireland, where Living DNA traced a quarter of my DNA?

Possible Confirmation of Hales Origins

The tests also produced data supporting the idea my family descends from Kent’s premier Hales family.

Viking baby at the market – by Hans Splinter via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Thomas Philpott once wrote that Hales Place in High Halden, Kent, was the source “from whence as from their fountain, the several streams of the Hales’s that in rivlets have spread themselves over the while country, did break forth.” I believe he is referring to the landed families who were prominent during the later Plantagenet, Tutor, and Stuart dynasties. They were descended from Nicholas de Hales, who settled there in the early 1300s and were commonly believed to have descended from an older Hales that resided in Norfolk.

I used naming patterns to tentatively identify Nicholas de Hales’ father. It was customary to name children after their grandparents. One of Nicholas’ sons was Robert, and a Robert de Hales appears in three Norfolk real estate transactions between 1295 and 1304. Two of these were in the village of Hales, Norfolk.

My branch of the Hales left a strong paper trail since the mid 1600s, but my connections to earlier generations are more tentative.

The closest matches to my paternal DNA are in Scandinavia! 38% in Sweden, 32% each in Norway & Denmark – as supposed to a mere 15% in England. This suggests that my branch of the Hales family probably came to England from Scandinavia during the Viking invasions.

A Hunter’s Refuge in Aberfeldy, Scotland – by Marc31 via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

The Vikings did not conquer Kent, but they were in Norfolk for 152 years before King Canute ascended the throne of England (1017). They have a special relationship with that area, settled in large numbers, and have descendants living there today.

Another pertinent evidence: Living DNA found matches to 3.2% of my family DNA in East Anglia and the only known connection I have to this region is through my proposed descent from Norfolk’s Hales family.

While this does not conclusively prove my Hales lineage originated with the premier family’s of Kent and Norfolk, it is another evidence suggesting we may be.

A Genealogist Looks At DNA Testing

While it is fairly obvious that DNA is an invaluable tool for researching your genealogy,  there appears to be some randomness in the specific amounts we receive.

It is interesting that I do not appear to possess any African DNA< but another of Elizabeth William’s descendants does.

Is it reasonable to assume that most of my Irish families must have spent their most recent generations in Ulster?

Could I still carry the genetic signature from the Hales family’s sojourn in Norfolk, even though it was some 22 generations past? 

According to Living DNA “we receive variable amounts of DNA from more distant ancestors … Determining the geographic origins of these ancestors, especially if they contribute only a small amount of our DNA, is not exact science … If your grandmother was 100% Eastern European and the rest of your ancestors came from Asia, then your genetic profile could show anywhere from 0% to 34% Eastern European.”

Top Photo Credit: Christian Theede Christiansen,
Lys mellem træer, Sweden, via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)


Show 6 footnotes

  1. Della Cross was the daughter of Jack Cross, son of Bernard Cross, son of Robert Garretty- who changed his surname to Cross after he emigrated to Canada in the 1880s, son of Michael Garretty, a laborer in Roscommon
  2. Archbold & Ryan
  3. McCallum, Cody, Dunn & Donnelly
  4. William Ganong, HISTORY OF TABUSINTAC (p 325), states Charlotte Taylor’s “adopted daughter married Duncan Robertson.”
  5. “ Duncan Robertson and Elizabeth Williams of said parish were duly married by me according to law. Bay Devin, 22nd of September 1791 James Horton” – The Court of Quarterly Sessions, for the County of Northumberland in the Province of New Brunswick
  6. I am descended from Elizabeth’s daughter Jane Robertson, the DNA sample with African traces comes from someone descended from Elizabeth’s daughter Marjory Robertson‎.

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