DNA Testing for Genealogy
Copyright November 26, 2007
DNA Testing Problems in Family Research
In the past, on our main website, you may have noticed links to DNA Testing from Family Tree DNA. NFFG joined the affiliate program of Family Tree DNA, and created links to their testing service. These links have been removed. The essay below will tell you why. You may still wish to have DNA testing done, but it may not help you in your search for your ancestors. It is a very important science in some respects, valuable for information about the last two or three generations or so, depending how far back you have reliable information from research. The type of research you need to determine the useful range of DNA research for your personal genealogy, may be very well hidden, and unknown to you..
Several members (with various surnames) have reported surprising - disappointing - results from DNA testing. When compared with known bloodline cousins, DNA testing has shown either 'no relationship' with them, or only 'little relationship' (suggesting that there may be a connection in a 200 year or longer time frame). These are relationships which are known to exist from careful family research, where known brothers are found in the same family in a census return, or in other verified relationship, as reported in wills, etc. How can these anomalies be accounted for?
You may have watched the results of Oprah Winfrey's DNA testing, where she did not appear to match with known ancestors. Or, you may have viewed the results, where DNA from skeletons from a civil war shipwreck, failed to match know descendants of the sailors, as determined from Civil War rosters. The latter tests were conducted by Megan Smolenyk, one of the leading innovative researchers in DNA testing for genealogical purposes.
When you browse through the cases at Family Tree DNA, you find many cases which illustrate the contradictions. Where a family is located in a census, and/or defined by the wording of a will, and THEN some of the descendants of the family have undergone DNA testing, the results may show that (for example) descendants of two of the sons have DNA which shows a common father, while descendants of a third son shows little or no relationship. Does that mean that the two matching results are true, while the third son is not connected, and therefore not part of the family? No, it shows nothing; the third son may be the carrier of the 'true' y-chromosome, and the other sons may be the unknown stray. What gives?
Why should these tests fail?....
Here's the general idea of DNA testing. The testing is available at varying cost, and provides results based upon traits carried on the Y-chromosome (from the father) and on the X- chromosome (from the mother). In theory, if you are a male, with the surname 'Phillips' or 'Ripley' or 'Smith', etc., the y- chromosome test will show links from a past ancestor, and thus help you ascertain who really are your cousins, and which genealogy for your family is most accurate. You sign up and obtain a kit. Then, you take a cheek swab, and send it in for testing - and you choose the number of tests, and the number of tests determines the cost.
If you are a female, you have to find a closely related male to take the test, if you want to obtain results using the y- chromosome testing. Otherwise, both males and females may use mitochondrial DNA testing which is attached to the y- chromosome; this passes from mothers to all children. The results from this type of testing are not definitive, in terms of the hopes of the family tree searches of most people.
This is a very brief synopsis of a detailed new science. The science certainly works well on immediate family, and over two or three generations, in most cases, where it is known for certain if there is an adoption. You can check online for more detailed information, from Family Tree DNA, and other companies. The cost of the test is determined by the number of markers you wish to have analyzed. But no number of markers will help you with your family tree, because the markers will miss the presence of an adopted child in the chain, and it is very likely that there will be an adopted child in your ancestry, over a period of many generations. Over many generations, the failure rate of y-chromosome testing will approach and reach 100%.
If you submit your DNA for testing, then wait, hoping the results will shows connections to the past generations of your family, you will hit a brick wall at some point. You may find interesting relationships, but you should consider it a recreational exercise only.
The desired results will not be obtained, until mitochondrial DNA testing is able to track families more clearly from maternal genes: such a development could help show the relationships of people who are clearly identified in a family group, but which show no link based on the y-chromosome. For example, suppose you actually descend, not from the father of a family, but from one of his daughters, who may have had a child at an early age by an unknown father. You should still be able to find a link back to the girl's father, but this cannot now be done. Or, other new tests may be able to add more information. This type of event (see others below) is known to have occurred in many families. More about this below....
DNA testing is certainly an interesting process, but as you increase the level of testing, the cost increases exponentially. You must judge if it is worth it, and what you will really determine in your results.
The testing may be of little or no value, when it comes to family trees and family genealogy which extends far into the past. Testing does not apply to those linked to a family by adoption. Adoption is a political hot-button issue now; but in the past, adoption was simply an accepted act of parenting.. The farther one goes back in time, the more likely one is to intersect with an adopted child, and the harder it is to discover or verify such a relationship. The fathers and mothers of a given child, perhaps your direct ancestor, wanted that child to be known as their child, and generally did not bother recording the adoption anywhere. The Family Tree DNA Forum is full of people who KNOW they are someone's second cousin etc., but there is some anomaly in the DNA results which mystifies them. Suddenly, they feel like orphans, waiting for a better type of test.
The farther back in time, the greater the likelihood that you may be connected to an adopted child. MANY adopted children have been located by NFFG contributors and researchers, and many others are suspected. There are examples of all types shown below, in our archives. Only a very small number of these can be proven to be adopted children, since fathers and mothers simply took a child as their own, period, with no need for records.
Children are known be adopted in some or all of the following scenarios:
Consider a known father and mother, which you may find in a census or in a biography. They are living with 'their children' at a certain time, in a certain location. How many of the children are natural children, and how many are 'adopted'? Don't assume that the answer is 'zero'.
In the past, children were taken into families and raised as children of that family, for many reasons. You may find a census where children of a father and mother are named, and yet DNA testing of descendants shows that these children are not related. The practice of adoption within families is often impossible to prove or even indicate. However, the father and mother intended the children to be known for all time, as 'their children'. The children intended that this father and mother, for all time, were THEIR parents.
Who are we, to use DNA testing, to impose some modern concept of the family, and ignore the intentions of the parents and children?
A Recent Funeral
Recently I attended the funeral of my uncle, the brother of my deceased mother. My uncle was 96 years old at the time of his death. His two children, both at the funeral, were adopted. What to do about the genealogical records for this family?
I have my grandfather's Bible - my grandfather was the father of my uncle. In that Bible, my grandfather showed the birth of both of my uncle's children, with no mention of adoption. My uncle's will mentions 'my two children' by name - there is no mention of adoption.
Clearly, it was my uncle's wish that his two adopted children, were simply to be known as 'his children'. They were raised by him and his wife, my aunt, also deceased. They carry forward his values, beliefs, and the knowledge of the history and values of his family. In every conceivable functional way, they are his children.
Am I, as the family genealogist, to pass a judgement which is clearly contradictory to his values, and show them as 'adopted children?' I'm not going to do it. They will remain marked as his children.
What about the DNA markers of these children, and their children? My uncle's two children were not actually related to each other when they were adopted. They carry the DNA markers of the single sperm and egg which created them as entities. This may be scientifically important, but in terms of the family focus of meaningful genealogy, these markers are not important. The DNA markers may show some small things - their vulnerability to certain rare diseases, whether they committed some crime where DNA evidence is involved. But their DNA markers show nothing about the nurturing and development of the value systems and character which they carry into the world, and which will be carried forward to the end of time by their descendants.
I have other family members who are known to be adopted. Probably everyone who reads this, also has family members who are known to be adopted. Probably everyone who reads this is a party to the family genealogy. Do you plan to cut these cousins loose, and drop them from your family tree?
What about past times? Do you trace any of your ancestry back three hundred years? How many adopted children are to be found in this genealogy? How would you know? Your family Bible may say nothing. Might you descend from one of the adopted children of a given family? If so, your DNA tests will show that you are not of the family line which you thought. The test results will show a blip. You will be excluded from the family which you have traced. That's what DNA testing does. It may be better to trace your family the old-fashioned way.
Early Records and History of Adoptions...
Adoption in Ancient Rome
"was common and legal" in Ancient Rome, "with the laws of property and inheritance extended to adopted children." 9. (9. A.R. Colón with P.A. Colón, A History of Children: A Socio-cultural Survey Across Millennia, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT (2001), p. 82 (endnote omitted).
"An infant could be abandoned without penalty or social stigma for many reasons, including an anomalous appearance, being an illegitimate child or grandchild or a child of infidelity, family poverty, parental conflict (ob discordiam parentum) or being one of too many children. Sometimes there were given to friends, but more often than not they were abandoned to the elements, and death resulted from hypoglycemia and hypothermia. Sometimes the infant was devoured by the dogs that scavenged public places. It was likely however, that the expositi were rescued from these fates and picked up by slavers. Abandonment generally occurred in a public place, where it was hoped that the infant could be taken up by some wealthy person. A well-traveled street called the Velabrum, where oil and cheese merchants worked, and the vegetable market in the Forum (Olitorium), with columna lactaria, or nursing columns, were two favored locations for placing sucklings. Such an infant was considered a res vacantes (an unclaimed thing) and legally could be claimed. If picked up by wealthy persons, the child could become a slave, a play companion for another child, a pet (delicia), or a prostitute; it could be sold for begging purposes after mutilation or become a truly adopted child, a treasured alumnus. Most adoptions, however, were not of abandoned infants but of a close relative, a propinquus, because adoption commonly was used for purposes of succession or inheritance, to keep wealth within a biological family." 13. (13. A.R. Colón with P.A. Colón, A History of Children: A Socio-cultural Survey Across Millennia, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT (2001), p. 91 (endnotes omitted).
Of the Phillips family in early Wales...
We know from the records of the Phillips family at Picton Castle, in Wales, that the family was recorded in the area for at least one thousand years. We have cited many events which link back to this family.
If you think, from family legend or genealogy, that you may descend from that group, but DNA testing is negative or inconclusive, then don't worry. The DNA testing has not proven anything, except that there may be an adopted child in someone's ancestry, and you will NEVER match them by DNA.
"There was an ancient custom prevalent in Ireland of sending the children of one family to be brought up with those of another, by which an affection so strong was engendered, that the foster father* often divided his wealth between his natural and adopted children; *
The term 'foster', to nurse or bring up, is Icelandic, and would render the existence of a similar custom probable among the northern nations of Europe. In fact, there are other sufficient proofs that it did exist there. So also, in the fifteenth century, it was frequent in Wales."
(from "Scenes in Ireland: With Historical Illustrations, Legends, and Biographical Notes", page 76), by George Newenham Wright, Published 1834
Printed for Thomas Tegg and son, Cheapside; original is in the New York Public Library.
What about early days in America?
Many family researchers cite the prevalence of adoption. Here are examples...
"Early America was a nation of farmers and large families were very common. Peter J had 12 children from 2 marriages. Many households had step-children or adopted children. Phoebe brought three Curtis children to the Peter Dinehart house (Myron, Philo and Phoebe) who eventually returned to their father.
From "Dinehart Families" by Justin Dinehart -11-23-2004
In Colonial America...
(from the "Encyclopepedia of Adoption", available online in 2007, at http://encyclopedia.adoption.com/intro/introduction/3.html
"Informal adoptions were the norm in the colonial days of early America, long before the passage of the Massachusetts law.
Governor Sir William Phips, of Massachusetts was allegedly the first recorded adoptive father in the original thirteen colonies. He adopted a child in 1693. The word "adoption" appeared in Governor Phillips's will, as well as in the act of the colonial legislature that allowed for the legal name change of the sort.
In fact, it was fairly common for colonial legislatures to pass special bills recognizing the adoption of a child. Some historians have hypothesized that legislators became weary of passing so many bills for individual cases, bills that increased to such a great extent they bottlenecked other legislation. As a result, the legislators may have eased their legislative load by legalizing what was already common.
Laws prior to the 1851 Massachusetts adoption law, for example, in Texas ( 1850) and Mississippi (1846), have not been considered adoption laws by experts because such laws simply enabled individuals to leave their estates to nonrelatives in a similar manner in which property deeds were registered.
The groundwork for a philosophy favoring adoption had been laid well ahead of this time by Thomas Jefferson, who detested the concept of primogeniture and dedicated time during his early political career as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates to eliminate primogeniture in Virginia, ultimately succeeding in 1783. It's interesting to note that some British parents, still shackled by the bonds of primogeniture, sent their second or later-born sons to Virginia subsequent to Virginia's lilting of primogeniture.
Another status granted to children during the colonial era of the United States was that of godchild, and often the godchild did assume the name of the godparent. In addition, godchildren frequently inherited from godparents, although such an inheritance had to be stipulated in the will of the godparent"...
DNA testing is interesting and valuable over a very limited span of generations, but may have little or no value over an extended period of generations. If this is what you hope to find using DNA testing, you will be disappointed at some point in the past. The cost of the tests may not be justified. In your past, or in the past of others with whom you seek comparison, there may eventually be an adopted child in a family, who will stop you in your tracks. However, the child you descend from may have in fact been the child of his father & mother, other than by DNA. Let's respect the values of the families which created us.
- Richard Ripley
Project Co-ordinator, NFFG
Network of Founding Family Genealogies.
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Last Revised: November 2007