Newsletter - 22 September 2012
Steve Robinson interview EXCLUSIVE
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Researching our family tree is all about finding evidence - evidence that proves or, at least, strongly suggests that a particular person is our ancestor. The further we go back the harder it is to find that evidence: for example, civil registration in England & Wales didn't commence until 1837, so before that date church records are generally the best (and often the only) evidence that we have.
But we also know that written records, even official certificates, can be just as unreliable as family stories that are passed down the generations. DNA can not only fill in the gaps in our knowledge, but also verify the evidence that we've collected from conventional sources.
Until quite recently DNA tests were very limited in what they could do - so some of the companies marketing the tests invented concepts such as the 'Seven daughters of Eve' in order to sell tests to a wider market. I was very unhappy about the claims that were being made, and the way that tests were being marketed - so for a long time my advice to family historians was only to buy a DNA test in order to test a specific hypothesis.
I'm glad to say that in the past couple of years new tests have become available that offer many more opportunities, and in this newsletter I'm going to try to explain why these new tests are so exciting.
Note: in the following articles I'm going to keep the explanations simple by writing about what normally happens, and ignore the very rare exceptions - not least because they are still being discovered!†
Humans have 46 chromosomes in the nucleus of our cells, long strands of DNA that - even under a microscope - are only visible during cell division. We inherit 23 chromosomes from each of our parents, and we get 22 of them whether we are male or female; they are called autosomes. The last two chromosomes determine sex: females have two X chromosomes, one inherited from each parent; males have one X chromosome (inherited from their mother) and one Y chromosome (inherited from their father).
Cells also contain organelles (the word means 'little organs') called mitochondria which have their own DNA (it's thought that mitochondria are the relics of bacteria that invaded cells over a billion years ago); the role of mitochondria is to provide energy for the cell. These mitochondria are passed by mothers to all of their children, both male and female - but only the female children can pass their mitochondria, and thus their mtDNA, to the next generation.
The following family tree illustrates how the Y chromosome and mtDNA are passed down the generations:
I've used colours to indicate how the Y chromosome(shades of blue)† and mtDNA (shades of red) are inherited - note how the Y chromosome inherited by the two brothers has passed down the left-hand edge of the tree, whilst the mtDNA inherited by all three siblings has passed down the right-hand edge.
Typically the Y chromosome follows the surname, although in this example James Bradford was illegitimate and so - as usually happens in such circumstances - his surname came from his mother. By contrast on the right-hand edge of the tree the surname changes with every generation - this makes it more difficult to use mtDNA to find cousins.
Y-DNA and mtDNA tests each tell us about just one ancestor from each generation: 2 of our 4 grandparents, 2 of our 8 great-grandparents, 2 of our 16 great-great grandparents, and so on. This means that the further we go back, the less they tell us about our overall ancestry.
The fact that the Y chromosome passes from father to son with only slight modifications means that Y-DNA tests can be very useful when used in conjunction with surname studies - because surnames normally pass from father to son - and it allows male cousins who bear the same surname to confirm that they share a common ancestor. It's even possible to estimate how many generations back that common ancestor lived, which is very useful.
There's also the tantalising possibility of using a Y-DNA test to discover the identity of the father of an illegitimate child - but only in certain circumstances. For a start, the child must be a boy - otherwise the Y chromosome won't have been passed on - and for the same reason the person providing the DNA sample needs to be a descendant in the direct male line.
Let's see how this would work in practice using the example tree above. Notice that both of Robert Bradford's grandfathers, James Bradford and Arthur Dent, were illegitimate. Because Robert carries the same Y chromosome that his paternal grandfather inherited, a Y-DNA test offers the possibility of discovering who fathered Mary Bradford's child.
However, if Robert wants to use a Y-DNA test to find out who the father of his maternal grandfather was he's got a problem - unless Arthur Dent is still alive, or Mary Dent had a brother who isn't shown in the diagram, there's nobody in the family who has the same Y chromosome as Arthur and his unknown father.
Even if you can locate such a cousin you next have to persuade them to provide a DNA sample, which won't always be easy - and if you expect them to contribute to the cost it could be well nigh impossible! And even after the sample has been tested there is no guarantee that there will be an immediate match.
Even if there is a match it will only tell you what the surname of the father might have been, not precisely who they were - and the surname could still be wrong (for example, if there's another illegitimacy somewhere along the line). Nevertheless, it's better than nothing, and if you're lucky there may be some circumstantial evidence that points to a particular person - for example, there might be a neighbour, a lodger, or a fellow servant who has the same surname.
Note: there must have been cases when even the mother of an illegitimate child didn't know who the father was, which makes it particularly amazing that you or I might discover the answer 150 years later!
What will an mtDNA test tell you?
Mitochondrial DNA passes virtually unaltered from mother to child, which means that in theory you can trace back your ancestry on your maternal line for thousands of years. This was the logic behind the 'Seven daughters of Eve' concept developed by Professor Bryan Sykes, and described in his book. Whilst it has a romantic appeal, so far as genealogy is concerned it's pretty useless - indeed, I'd argue that it's worse than useless, because it can be grossly misleading.
Why? Because with every generation you go back the number of ancestors doubles, and once you go back more than a few thousand years it's statistically likely that we all share exactly the same ancestors. This means that identifying one person on one line 45,000 years ago is pretty meaningless, because everyone else in the world is also descended from that person, albeit by a different route.
Can mtDNA tests provide any insight in cases of illegitimacy? Usually there will be no doubt who the mother was, but there are exceptions - for example, the child may have been a foundling, or adopted and given a new name. However, because the surname changes with each generation, it won't be easy to interpret matches in a meaningful way.
I haven't yet found a way in which I can use an mtDNA test to help me with my family tree, and if you're new to DNA testing I would suggest you look instead at the test I'm going to write about next.....
Autosomal DNA comes from the 22 pairs of chromosomes that are inherited by all children, male or female. Whereas Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can only tell us about the ancestors at the extreme edges of our family tree, an autosomal DNA test (such as the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA) offers the potential to make discoveries and solve mysteries in any of our family lines.
However, before getting too excited about the prospects it's important to understand how autosomal DNA is inherited. You will recall from my introductory article that we inherit one chromosome in each pair from our father and one from our mother - and that sounds pretty simple, until you remember that each of our parents has two copies of each autosome. What decides which one of each pair they pass to us?
In practice we get a mixture - within each of the autosomes you inherited from your father there will be some parts that came from his father, and some that came from his mother. The same applies to your grandparents - they inherited a mixture from their parents, and so on, and so on.
This means that our DNA literally does contain a record of our ancestry, though of course, what we don't know is which bit of autosomal DNA came from which ancestor. The companies which offer auto tests use sophisticated statistical algorithms to determine which of their customers may be related - and they're also able to estimate how close the relationship is (the longer the segments of DNA that two possible cousins share, the closer the relationship is likely to be).
One day it will be feasible for the average family historian to have their entire genome sequenced: until then autosomal tests are the best option for those of us who are looking for more information about our ancestry than can be reliably ascertained using the available records. Family Tree DNA's test uses over 700,000 pairs of locations, which is a phenomenally large number compared to previous tests - and yet it still represents only 0.024% (about 1/4000th) of your autosomal DNA!
Tip: taking a Family Finder test is like completing your My Ancestors page at the LostCousins site - it's something that you only need to do once, but you'll continue to get matches as more and more people join the project.
Sequencing the first human genome cost about $3 billion, but in the next 5 or 10 years it's perfectly feasible that the cost will come down to under $1000.
There are some big incentives to succeed, not least the Archon Genomics X Prize, which is worth $10 million and will be awarded to the first team to accurately sequence 100 genomes in 30 days or less at a cost of no more than $1000 per genome. Teams must register before the end of May 2013, and the competition will take place in September, with the results being announced at an Award Ceremony on 31st October.
Supposing that tests do become readily available at $1000 apiece, will that offer the possibility of recreating the DNA of our ancestors? Although my own DNA contains only a small fraction of the DNA of any one of my ancestors who lived 150 years ago, perhaps if I collected DNA samples from every known descendant it might just be possible to reconstruct their DNA?
It's certainly an intriguing possibility....
Tip: LostCousins member Angeline tells me that whenever she or her children have their hair cut she keeps a sample in an envelope which she dates and annotates with the name of the donor. Who knows what those samples might reveal in the future? (If you plan to follow Angeline's example I suggest you include a few hairs in each sample which have the root attached.) ††
A study of 10,000 people has identified 5 genes which are associated with different face shapes, and could ultimately lead to visual reconstructions of long-dead ancestors (results from a previous study suggest that hair and eye colour can also be predicted from DNA).
The long-running story of the search underneath a Leicester car park for the bones of King Richard III, whose death at Bosworth in 1485 ended the War of the Roses and allowed Henry Tudor to seize the throne, is nearing its conclusion. Remains have been found which match some of the physical aspects of the King, and by the end of the year DNA tests should prove whether or not they belong to the monarch.
The DNA sample against which the bones will be tested has been provided by a Canadian man whose mother was in the direct female line of descent from Anne of York, King Richard's sister - but tracing her ancestry through 17 generations must have been quite a challenge! You can read more about this aspect of the story here.
Note: King Richard III isn't the only English King whose final resting place is in doubt, as this BBC article explains.
A public consultation has begun into a technique that could eliminate diseases, some of them fatal, which are inherited through mitochondrial DNA - but it requires a third person to provide DNA, so technically the child could be said to have three parents.
According to a BBC News report about 1 child in 200 is born with defective mitochondria, and while most show few symptoms, some suffer from muscular weakness, blindness, or heart failure.† One woman lost all 7 of her children to the same disease, as another BBC article relates.
If the procedure is approved for use, let's hope that it is properly documented. It's bad enough that the family historians of the future may not be able to draw on the census as a source of information - but imagine if the results of DNA tests couldn't be relied upon either!
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has warned that scrapping the ten-yearly census could cause problems - and might not save any money. However, so far as I can see, the needs of family historians were not one of the factors that they took into consideration.
You'll find the committee's report here.
The volunteers who run the Staffordshire FreeREG project are planning to collect data from birth, marriage, and death certificates for the county, and making it available online for no charge. If you have certificates for events registered in Staffordshire email Jonathan Maxfield for more details.
If you want to share information from certificates for other counties in England & Wales the best way to do this is by adding a 'postem' to the index entry at FreeBMD. There are sites that have been set up especially to share certificate data, but they all have so little data that the very small chance of finding the event you're seeking (typically 1 in 10,000) doesn't justify the effort.
The Person Search tool (beta) is also being discontinued at the end of the month - I'm not sure why.
It's amazing how the past can catch up with you - this week I received an email concerning a computer game I wrote in 1979, and which is going to be mentioned in an electronic book due to be published next summer.
Has your past ever caught up with you? I'd be interested to hear your stories....
I've had such a positive reaction to the recommendation in my last newsletter of In the Blood, the crime mystery featuring genealogist Jefferson Tayte that I decided to track him down for an exclusive interview.
'In the Blood' has been incredibly well-received, and once I got into it I couldn't put it down. What decided you to write a series of crime novels with a genealogical theme?
"The story of In the Blood began with something I read in a National Trust pamphlet about the Helford ferry in 1803.† From that I had the idea for a crime set in that time period and so I needed a way to uncover that crime.† Having a genealogist digging up the past seemed like an interesting angle and a logical way to get to the mystery that lies at the heart of the story.† I then imagined that someone in the present might want the past to remain buried and would try to stop the genealogist, which added the thriller element to the present day narrative.† I suppose one thing really led to another."
How much research have you done into your own family tree?
I've had very little time for my own genealogical research since I started writing full time and what time I have has been focused on my maternal grandfather, which was the inspiration behind my second book, To the Grave.† He was an American GI during WW2.† Soon after the war he went back to America leaving a young family behind and until recently I've know very little about him.† After gathering some basic information from my family I found his enlistment record on the NARA website which opened the door.† Then with the help of an amateur genealogist in Maine, New England, who wrote to me about my books, I now know his final resting place and even have a photograph of his headstone in the military cemetery where he's buried.† I also found out that I have quite an extensive American family as he was one of nine children.† I hope to continue working on my family history when I have time and I plan to write the story of my previously unknown American grandfather, which I will share on my website when I feel the journey has reached its conclusion.
Was the character of Jefferson Tayte, the genealogist hero of your novels, inspired by someone you met?
No, I've never met anyone like Jefferson Tayte, which is a shame because I think we'd get on really well.† I like his sense of humour and that he cares about people. He's an everyman in a non-stereotypical action-hero body who is based on the things that I didn't see in other fictional characters.
Is it as enjoyable writing your books as it is reading them?
I'm never really in reading mode when I'm reading my own work.† I'm always editing.† I do enjoy that though because it means the hard work is done.† I'm just fine tuning at the reading stage.† The writing part is something of a pleasure and pain process.† You have good days and bad days but you keep going because it's the only way to get to the end of the story and once I start a book I really feel the need to finish it.† That has a lot to do with the characters I've created.† It might sound strange but I feel I owe it to them to keep going until their story is told.
How important is it to you that the details in your novels are accurate?
It's extremely important.† I might not always get everything exactly right first time but I try very hard to and I think having that attitude has helped.† I always make edits whenever anyone points something out to me, too, and one of the great things about ebooks is that changes can be made within hours.† I think it's part of the writer's job to get the facts right.† It might be fiction but it should feel real to the reader.
Who are the other authors that you most admire, and how have they affected the way you write?
That's a difficult question for me to answer as I don't really have any firm favourites.† When I read a book that I really admire I tend to analyse it to understand why, but there's no one author who repeatedly does that for me.† I think you find your own style over time and I really couldn't put my finger on which authors have influenced me.
Your second Jefferson Tayte novel, 'To the Grave', is reckoned by many of the reviewers on Amazon to be even better than the first. What are reviewers going to say about your third book, and when can we expect to see it?
As I like to make each story different to keep things fresh I never know what readers might say about a book before I release it.† I can only hope that the key elements that readers enjoyed from the previous books are maintained and that they enjoy the story.† JT's a likeable character by all accounts and he's not going to change, and there's always going to be a past mystery with a present day thriller, but I try not to follow any more of a formula than that. There's no past narrative at all in the third book for example, but there's still plenty of genealogy and history revealed through Tayte's research.† I think as readers we all have our favourite books in any series and it's impossible to make each book better than the last for everyone.† I'm expecting to release the third Jefferson Tayte genealogical crime mystery by next spring.†
Are you going to kill off Jefferson Tayte at some point so that you can focus on 'serious' writing, in the same way that Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes?
I'm not exactly sure what you mean by 'serious'.† I certainly take my writing seriously.† If you mean 'literary' then no, I'll leave that to others.† I write the kind of stories I enjoy reading and hope others will too.† If I had a mantra for such things it would simply be 'a good story, well told'.† That's what I aim for.† As for killing JT off, I don't know.† His research certainly gets him into plenty of life threatening situations so he'll have to watch out and we'll just have to wait and see.
What would your (Jefferson Tayte's?) advice be to someone researching their family tree who is up against a 'brick wall'?
JT has certainly hit plenty of brick walls and as I like to carry out the research he does in the book for real I've had quite a time trying to climb them with him.† The best advice I can give is that the best way to climb a genealogical brick wall is to find a way around it.† By which I mean that it's good to think differently about the problem and seek another approach to it.† There is often more than one way to find what you're looking for.
Finally, as I know some LostCousins members are thinking of publishing their own electronic book, how difficult was it to put your book into Kindle format, and what was it like as a lone author dealing with an
enormous company like Amazon?
Publishing an ebook or paperback yourself and dealing with Amazon are the easy aspects of becoming an indie author.† The process is straightforward and Amazon are the best when it comes to helping authors get noticed.† Marketing your work is undoubtedly the hardest part in my opinion and newsletters such as this are a great way to help with that, so thanks, Peter, for recommending my genealogical crime series and for this interview.
And thank you, Steve, for interrupting your vacation to answer my questions.
Note: the highlighted links in the above interview will take you direct to the relevant pages at Amazon.co.uk, but if you live in the US or Canada you can support LostCousins by using the following links to Amazon.com:
Between 24th September and 1st October the code GENESPLAT12 offers a 15% discount against Platinum subscriptions to Genes Reunited. It's important to note that, despite the name, a Platinum subscription does not provide access to all of the records at Genes Reunited - it's comparable with a Foundation subscription at findmypast. However, Platinum subscribers do have the opportunity to buy add-on subscriptions for other record sets, one of which is the British Newspaper Archive.
Many of my tips only work for people who live in Britain, but I'm going to start this time with some tips that you can use wherever you live.
Overweight? Two unconnected friends of mine have lost at least 30lbs in weight this year, so I asked them what their secret was. It seems there is no magic formula - they have simply been eating less! Personally I'd go for eating a little less and exercising a little more, but I know that whichever option you choose will be perfect for you (and do send me an email in 6 months' time to let me know what you have achieved).
Some electronic books are more expensive than the paper equivalents, but the Kindle versions of Steve Robinson's books are about one-quarter of the price, which makes them an absolute bargain. Remember, you don't need to own a Kindle, because you can get free Kindle programs for your PC, Mac, iPad, or Android tablet. In fact, I can even read Kindle books on my phone - it's a Samsung Galaxy Note with a fabulous 5.3in screen which I picked up at a very reasonable price, probably because there's a new model coming out next month (isn't it always the way?).
Talking of phones, when I got my Galaxy Note I wanted to be able to access the Internet directly as well as make phone calls and† use WiFi - so I got a SIM from a company with the rather strange name of GiffGaff which uses the O2 network. They claim to be run by their users, and certainly so far they do seem to be more friendly than other phone companies. There's no contract - you just buy what you want when you want it - and for £10 you can get a month of virtually unlimited mobile Internet access and unlimited texts, with 250 minutes of phone calls thrown in. I think that's an unbeatable deal, but if you know of a better one, I'd like to hear about it!
LostCousins member Frances wrote in recently to suggest that I warn members to check the tyre pressures after their car has been serviced as, like me, she has found that they're often too low. Low tyre pressures mean higher fuel consumption, and in an extreme case can result in a blow-out.
On the subject of tyres, I think I mentioned a few months ago that when I needed two new tyres the cheapest supplier I could find on the Internet was Tyre Shopper, a name I hadn't come across before, but which turned out to be the online arm of one of the country's biggest and best known tyre chains. I got exactly the same service I would have done had I gone to them direct - the same brand-name tyres, fitted by the same mechanics, at the same depot. The only difference was the 40% saving!
This week I moved to a new electricity supplier after checking the free Which? Switch website - over the course of the next year I'll save about 8% compared to what I have been paying, which is a very welcome saving in these hard times. Even if you checked at Which? Switch the last time I mentioned the site in July, it's worth checking again now - in July I was on the cheapest tariff, but by September I wasn't. By the way, you can save on gas as well as electricity - but sadly there is no gas supply where I live.
There are two new TV series beginning in the coming week will be of interest to many family historians. The first series (in two parts on BBC4) is entitled "Health before the NHS"; it begins on Monday 24th September at 9pm, and if you miss it the first part will be repeated on Thursday. The second series (in three parts on BBC2) is entitled "Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs"; the first part is at 9pm on Friday 28th September.
I hope you've found this newsletter interesting, and that you now have a better understanding of how DNA tests might be able to help you unravel some of the mysteries of your family tree.
© Copyright 2012 Peter Calver
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