Tuesday, 26 November 2019

DNA: Reviewing our Tests


Wherever you turn you are seeing more information about the use of the DNA tool. There can be little doubt that it will continue to be a major part of family history research. All of the major testing companies now offer advanced analyses and comparisons to larger populations of tested results.

I have commented here before about DNA test results I have come across in my own research: Sometimes DNA Works (8 May 2018); New Found Family: A DNA, Ancestry, Facebook success story (17 July 2018); DNA? Don’t forget traditional genealogical research methods (27 November 2018).

Lately I have heard more about spedific family matching techniques being employed by the testing companies. Blaine Bettinger, genealogical DNA guru, gave two talks recently at the Virtual Genealogical Association conference: Identifying Your DNA Matches’ Secret Identity and Using DNA Shared Matching for Success that hit home with me. Most of us love to put things in chart form so we can visualize relationships. That is what a family tree is, isn’t it? So being able to make charts showing DNA connections is a great boon to using the data and understanding what those minute traces of shared DNA mean.

All companies are presently offering Thanksgiving Day (US) and Christmas sales to purchase and upgrade tests. Some of them are certainly worth considering.

My wife and I were tested (mtDNA) at 23andMe. I have 1,260 relatives shown on their list. My wife has 1,257. That is a lot of people to look at. It is important that we find ways of reducing or simplifying, at least right now, how we can compare details of the data and see how we can expand our knowledge of our family trees. We both found cousins on the match lists, some of whom were known to us but several that were not. The tests have thus proven useful so far.

23andMe allows you to compare actual segments so you can see in a picture how directly you match. DNA of one of my first cousins, Donald Miller, was also tested here, as were many of his children and grandchildren. We can now see exactly where our shared segments are and how they may relate to others on the connections list. Many other cousins also tested at 12andMe and the list is growing. We already have lots of data to review.


23and Me also offers a family tree built with DNA matches called Your Family Tree. (Below is one for my wife.) It is still in Beta (testing) form, but already is a useful way of showing relationships. We have found some cousins are not quite right (e.g. they show a 2nd cousin of my wife who is actually a 3rd cousin, once removed), but I am sure they will be rectified as more data is input by each of us in our respective trees. Links demonstrate what family lines people are connected through. If they all answer our requests for more information, we could have a very robust family tree overall and many other stories.


I sent our 23andMe results to MyHeritage to compare with what they have in their database. At present they show I have seven extended family and 9,013 distant relatives sharing DNA; my wife has two extended family and 10,423 distant relatives. That is a lot of people to try to contact or check family trees with!

MyHeritage has developed a system called Theory of Family Relativity which shows family connections. Cute name! I wondered how it might work and if it was going to be useful. Each person who has family tree information and a DNA test, can be compared directly. The common ancestor connections are rated in terms of confidence.


I had my same cousin, Donald Miller, and a brother-in-law test their Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA. We were interested in seeing if we could find family connections past the 2nd great-grandfathers of both me and my wife. We presently face brick walls for each of them and one possible way around the problem may be in finding a DNA connection. Both individuals are deceased now, so having had their DNA tests in hand I hope will be immensely helpful in the future.

My cousin presently has no matches at 37 markers but 17 names at 25 markers; my brother-in-law has one at 37 markers and 35 at 25 markers. Unfortunately, none of the people I have contacted know their family history back far enough to be helpful. I have upgraded both tests now to 67 markers. Hopefully we can find better connections than presently are indicated.

I also tested my own Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA. I have 286 matches at the 37-marker level and 7,001 at the 25-marker level. Two of the names are variants of my surname which one would hope was of value. None of the people I have contacted can point to any common ancestor, though. Only a few have provided a family tree that I can check, but none of the names of their earliest known ancestor are familiar to me. We still have a way to go to see if the data is going to be valuable.

Ethnicity estimate results from all sources are still under review and consideration. They do not hold a lot of interest to me in terms of finding family members but are curious to look at.


At the recent MyHeritage conference in Amsterdam, James Tanner reported, “DNA testing has become established as an integral part of the world-wide genealogical community and MyHeritage.com is making major technological advances extending DNA testing from its current position as a genealogical research tool by expanding their DNA Health program.” I have seen similar comments from many genealogical writers and bloggers.

I am unsure about the merits of doing the health reports. I know it is useful for some people who have specific health problems they want to know more about. But I am concerned that this kind of data could fall into the wrong hands.

What we don’t know yet is where such data will lead in terms of personal privacy or possible intrusions into the lives of people who have been or will be tested. Many presently worry about how law enforcement agencies may use the data or whether they will be able to access private files in their search for criminals or, more likely, the relatives of possible criminals.

Can we be confident that insurance companies will not try to look at this data in an attempt to reduce or modify coverage on their policy-holders. Something to ponder!

My Plan for 2020:

1.      Review in detail the Y-DNA upgrades for my cousin and brother-in-law on FamilyTreeDNA.
2.      Review all connections shown on the 23andMe and MyHeritage lists – although maybe not all the thousands of them right away.
3.      Get caught up on reading & listening – blogs, articles, webinars, tutorials – so that I can make more sense of the tests we have done.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

My Latest Published Articles

I have two new articles published concerning Mother Nature's Tests and family history.

One is in the December-January issue of Internet Genealogy and titled Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.

Over 20,000 people died between August and October of 1878 in dozens of areas along the Mississippi River. Memphis was one of the urban centres impacted, where over 17,000 cases were reported and over 5,000 people died. Thousands more left the city to escape the epidemic. In short order, the city was virtually emptied. The paper summarizes the history and the fate of some of the residents. 

A subscription to Internet Genealogy magazine can be obtained at https://internet-genealogy.com/


The second paper is in the Christmas issue of Family Tree (UK magazine). It is about The Great Frost & Famine of 1739-41.

Most genealogists will have read about the almost countless famines that occurred during the late Middle Ages. Stories of the experiences of ancestors and how they coped may have been incorporated into a few family histories, at least in terms of the times and places in which they happened. But is there a clear understanding of how such events came to occur? Or why they appear to have been more common during that time-period? Or how such events were so impactful? A close look at the event of 1739-40 gives us some answers.

A subscription for Family Tree, or a copy of the issue can be obtained at https://www.family-tree.co.uk/store/latest-issue/family-tree-magazine/

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Online Parish Clerks and GENUKI


I had occasion to post some comments to the Devon-L Rootsweb list this past week. And had some very good and a few very strange responses back. One of the posts was about the Online Parish Clerk OPC) program and how it seems to have died down in terms of people contacting OPCs for information. Here is part of my post:

In many recent email messages to Devon-L I have noticed that researchers are not as acquainted with the OPC program as they used to be. What is also apparent is that experienced genealogists and members of DFHS do not offer newbies and others any information about what data OPCs might have.

The rise of Internet sources has, of course, led to people finding their own way more often. That should allow them to find the OPCs as well, but it does not seem to be the case.

In my own parishes, the ones I look after as an OPC, I am very cognizant of the people and families that lived there for many generations. I am also aware that there have been many changes in the spelling of names over the centuries, as well as the births, deaths, marriages and migration of people. Only through transcribing all the parish registers and other documents, with the help of many volunteers I would add, have we been able to put together a significant database on families.

Yes, many of the registers are now online and you can pull up images of the various pages. That is, of course, if you search for the right name and spelling. I know, from my own experience that there are problems with indexing on most of the major databases. I also know that even though sites like
FindMyPast or Ancestry say they have all the records, there are still some missing from their library.

For Devon, not all parish registers can be found on FMP or Ancestry, or any other site. Many can be found on the DFHS
[Devon Family History Society] site, though, in the Members Only area. More importantly, the information may be available from OPCs who look after the parishes. Not all parishes are covered but there is still a good-sized group that are.

In the discussion and commentary from other list members, many people made the point that many family researchers do not take advantage of another quality source of information and advice – GENUKI (which stands for UK and Ireland Genealogy). https://www.genuki.org.uk/


We all agreed that this site, along with OPC information probably need more promotion in the genealogy world.

Many counties in England have OPC programs. You can find out which ones here. https://www.genuki.org.uk/search/site/online%20parish%20clerk I am most familiar with the Devon program https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DEV/OPCproject as I look after four parishes in that county. https://www.cornwood-opc.com/ (Which reminds me that I really need to update my website pages.)


As I indicated in my Devon-L post, we get fewer queries these days than we used to. Not zero yet, but other Internet sites seem to pull researchers in different directions. Those people that do come to ask about my parishes all are pleased they did as I am usually able to provide information about their ancestors who lived in the areas, but also to give them some advice about other sources. I have even met a few cousins through my role as an OPC.


OPCs generally have a great deal of knowledge about, and expertise in the areas they administer and the people that lived there. They are a great resource for beginners and advanced genealogists alike.

I have written about the OPC program in a few journal and magazine articles. One of my first blog posts, back on 14 August 2013 was about The Online Parish Clerk (OPC) Program. Other people have also published pieces about OPCs. See the list below.

·         Shepheard, Wayne. (2012). The Future is Still in the Past: An introduction to Online Parish Clerks. Crossroads. 7(2). pp. 6-13.
·         Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: Examples of information gleaned from parish registers. Relatively Speaking, February issue, 41(1), pp. 14-19.
·         Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: A case study involving the use of information from parish registers and other sources. The Devon Family Historian, May issue, No. 146., pp. 24-29.
·         Shepheard, Wayne. (2017). The Role on Online Parish Clerks in the Search for Surnames. Journal of One-Name Studies, October-December issue, 12(12), pp. 9-10.
·         Stockdill, Roy. (2012). Online Parish Clerks. Family Tree, April issue, 28(7), pp. 38-41.
·         Shepheard, Wayne (2013). Discover Genealogy Blog Post, The Online Parish Clerk Program https://discovergenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-online-parish-clerk-opc-program.html

If you would like copies of any of these papers, you can email me at cornwood.opc at shaw dot ca.

GENUKI is an especially wonderful resource for finding what information is available, and where it can be found for areas throughout the UK and Ireland. Most of us who have looked through their pages agree it should be the first stop for genealogists who are beginning their research adventure or looking at a new area. It is constantly being updated with new data and sources so is a place where you can revisit frequently and find new information that may be relevant to your studies. As participants on the Devon-L list, we get monthly memos of what has been added from Brian Randell, the Devon GENUKI manager.

I highly recommend genealogists consult both GENUKI and an OPC, if there is one in the area of your study. Both are resources where I am confident you will find relevant information that will further your family history research. Let others know about your perusal of these sites, too.

By the way, both GENUKI and the OPC program are always looking for more volunteers to assist them in making those programs and websites even better.