As many of my long-time readers know, I count genealogy as one of my hobbies. A few weeks ago for Orthodox Easter I travelled up to the hometown of my late grandfather. There I get to see people to whom I’m related as many of us can point to ancestors from the same few villages in a small geographic cluster in the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia and Poland. In other words, we’re all cousins.
But as xkcd shows, so are we all. And that means you too, cousin.
Another quick little post from a little while back, around Christmas news broke about the oldest family tree yet discovered. Researchers used DNA recovered from a 5700-year old tomb in the UK to piece together the relationships between the people interred within the tomb.
Graphic wise, we’re not talking about anything crazy or inventive here—it’s a family tree after all. But the designers did a nice job using colour to indicate the different family groups of descent, which were spatially organised within the tomb by the woman to whom the children were born. To be fair, it was all based upon the descendants of one man, but one man who had several wives.
What’s fascinating about this, however, is simply the age. We can go back nearly 6,000 years and simply from DNA create a family tree five generations deep.
The only thing I wish is that we had an accompanying map of the tomb, because that’s the other key part of the story. But at the end of the day I’ll always take a nice family tree.
Credit for the piece goes to Newcastle University’s design team.
Earlier this year I posted a short piece that compared my DNA ethnicity estimates provided by a few different companies to each other. Ethnicity estimates are great cocktail party conversations, but not terribly useful to people doing serious genealogy research. They are highly dependent upon the available data from reference populations.
To put it another way, if nobody in a certain ethnic group has tested with a company, there’s no real way for that company to place your results within that group. In the United States, Native Americans are known for their reluctance to participate and, last I heard, they are under-represented in ethnicity estimates. Fortunately for me, Western European population groups are fairly well tested.
But these reference populations are constantly being updated and new analysis being performed to try and sort people into ever more distinct genetic communities. (Although generally speaking the utility of these tests only goes back a handful of generations.)
Last night, when working on a different post, I received an email saying Ancestry.com had updated their analysis of my DNA. So naturally I wanted to compare this most recent update to last September’s.
Sometimes when you look at data and create data visualisation pieces, the story is that there is very little change. And that’s my story. The actual number for my Irish estimate remained the same: 63%. I saw a slight change to my Scottish and Slavic numbers, but nothing drastic. My trace results changed, switching from 2% from the Balkans to 2% from Sweden and Denmark. But you need to take trace results with a pretty big grain of salt, unless they are of a different continent. Broadly speaking, we can be fairly certain about results at a continental level, but differences between, say, French and Germans are much harder to distinguish.
The Scottish part still fascinates me, because as far back as I’ve gone, I have not found an identifiable Scottish ancestor. A great-great-grandfather lived for several years in Edinburgh, but he was the son of two Ireland-born Irish parents. I also know that this Scottish part of me must come from my paternal lines as my mother has almost no Scottish DNA and she would need to have some if I were to have had inherited it from her.
Now for about half of my paternal Irish ancestors, I know at least the counties from which they came. My initial thought, and still best guess, is that the Scottish is actually Scotch–Irish from what is today Northern Ireland. But I am unaware of any ancestor, except perhaps one, who came from or has origins in Northern Ireland.
The other thing that fascinated me is that despite the additional data and analysis the ranges, or degree of uncertainty in another way of looking at it, increased in most of the ethnicities. You can see the light purple rectangles are actually almost all larger this year compared to last. I can only wonder if this time next year I’ll see any narrowing of those ranges.
Last week I posted about an article in the BBC on the English ancestry of American president Joe Biden. And these types of article are a bit pro forma, famous person has an article about their personal ancestry with a family tree attached. Interestingly, this article did not, just the timeline I mentioned and a graphic as part of an aside on the declining self-identification as English-American.
And that, normally is it. Perhaps the article comes out with a few revisions upon the famous person’s marriage, birth of children, and more rarely death, but that is it. Yesterday, however, the BBC posted a follow-up article about an English family claiming kinship with Joe Biden. This article, however, included a family tree of sorts.
This isn’t a family tree in the traditional sense, I would argue it’s the sort of chart genealogists would use to highlight two parties’ relationship to their most recent common ancestor (MCRA). But this chart does something odd, it spaces out the generations inconsistently and so Joe Biden appears at the bottom, aligned with the grandchildren of Paul Harris, the man at the centre of the story.
If you compare the height/length of the lines linking the different generations you can see the lines on Biden’s side of the graphic are very long compared to those on the Harris’ side. This isn’t technically incorrect, but it muddies the water when it comes to understanding the generational differences. So I revisited the design below.
Here I dropped the photographs because, primarily, I don’t have access to them. But they also eat up valuable real estate and aren’t necessary to communicate the relationships. I kept the same distance between generations, which does a better job showing the relationship between Joe Biden and Paul Harris, who appear to be actual fifth cousins. Joe is clearly at a different level than that of Paul’s grandchildren.
I added some context with labelling the generational relationship. At the top we have William and James Biden, assuming they are brothers, listed as siblings. The next level down are first cousins, then second, &c. Beyond Paul, however, we have two additional generations that are removed from the same relationship level. This is where the confusing “once-removed” or “twice-removed” comes into play. One way to think of it is as the number of steps you need to take from, say, Paul’s grandchildren, to get to a common generational level. In their case two levels, hence the grandchildren are fifth cousins to Joe Biden, twice removed.
These types of charts are great to show narrow relationships. Because, if we assume that up until recently each of the generations depicted above had four or five children, that tree would be unwieldy at best to show the relationship between Paul’s family and Joe Biden. If you ever find yourself working on your family ancestry or history and need to show someone how you are related, this type of chart is a great tool.
Credit for the original goes to the BBC graphics department
We all know Joe Biden as the Irish American president. And that’s no malarkey. But, go back far enough in your family tree and you may find some interesting ancestry and ethnic origins and that’s no different with Joe Biden. Keep in mind that our number of ancestors doubles every generation. You have four grandparents, and many of us met most of them. But you had eight great-grandparents. How many of those did you know? And you had 16 great-great-grandparents, you likely didn’t know any of them personally. It becomes pretty easy for an ethnic line to sneak into your ancestry.
And in Biden’s case it may well be English. Although sneaking in is probably a stretch, as this BBC article points out, because his patrilineal line, i.e. his father’s father’s father’s, &c., is likely English. Of course back in the day the Irish and the English mixing would have been unconscionable, at least as my grandmother would have described it. And so it’s easy to see how the exact origins of family lines are quietly forgotten. But that’s why we have genealogists.
The article eschews the traditional family tree graphic and instead uses only two charts. The first is a simple timeline of Biden’s direct ancestors.
No, it’s no family tree, but timelines are a critical tool used by genealogists because at its core, genealogy is all about time and place. And a timeline has got one of those two facets covered.
Timelines help visualise stories in chronological order. I cannot tell you the number of family trees I have seen where people who create trees casually simply copy and paste data without scrutiny. Children born well after the deaths of parents are common. Or children born to parents in their 50s or 60s—perhaps not strictly impossible, but certainly highly irregular. And so to see Biden’s ancestors plotted out chronologically is a common graphic for those who do any work in genealogy, which my regular readers know is my hobby.
That alone would make the article worth sharing. Because, I enjoyed that graphic. I probably would have created a separate line for the birthplace of each individual, but I quibble.
However, we have another graphic that’s not so great. And once again with the BBC I’m talking about axis lines.
Here we have a chart looking at US ancestry as claimed in the US censuses of 1980 and 2000. But we do not have any vertical lines making it easy for readers to accurately compare the lengths of the various bars. Twice lately I’ve postedabout axis lines and the BBC. Third time’s the charm?
We can also look at using these not as bars, but as line charts as I did in this re-imagining to the right.
First, we no longer need two distinct colours, though you could argue the English line should be a highlight or call out colour given its role in the article. Instead each line receives a label at the right and only the English line crosses any other, but given their point-to-point slope, it’s not confusing like a line chart with all years between 1980 and 2000 could be.
Secondly, the slope here of the line reinforces the idea of falling population numbers. The bar chart also shows this, but through a leftward movement in bars. The bar option certainly works and there’s nothing wrong with it, but these lines offer a more intuitive concept of falling numbers.
I also added some clarification to the data definition. These lines represent the number of people who reported at least one ethnic ancestry—at the time US census respondents could enter upwards of two. For myself, as an example, I could have entered Irish and Carpatho-Rusyn. But my own small sliver of English ancestry would have been left off the list.
Ultimately, the declining numbers of responses along with some reporting on self-identification points to the disappearing concepts of “Irish American” or “English American” as many increasingly see themselves as simply White Americans. But that’s a story for another day.
In the meantime, we have Joe Biden, the Irish American president, with a small bit of English ancestry. Those interested in the genealogy, the article also includes some nice photos of baptismal records and marriage records. It’s an interesting read, though I’m hungry for more as it’s a very light duty pass.
Credit for the BBC pieces goes to the BBC graphics department.
Or just shake my hand, because today marks the second St. Patrick’s Day spent in isolation. I am lucky, of course, because two years ago I spent the holiday in Dublin. One of those bucket list kind of things. There I ran into a(n American) friend who was coincidentally in town. Then the next day I took the train to Cork to visit another friend. If you don’t count weddings, I think that was the last big trip I took.
Two years hence, I am here in my flat alone on a holiday meant to be spent with family and friends. But in the last year, I made significant progress on my Irish genealogy. For part of that progress I took two additional DNA tests. So this St. Patrick’s Day seems like a good time to reflect on those tests.
For those that don’t know, I do a lot of genealogy work as a hobby. Primarily I focus on paper records, but DNA is an important piece of the puzzle. In a sense, it is the only record that cannot lie. It will reveal your biological connections to family that may have been otherwise lost. And it cannot be faked.
But that’s only true for your genetic matches. Those are the real power of taking a DNA test. I would bet, however, that most people initially take the tests for the ethnicity estimates. On a day like today, how Irish are you? How Irish am I?
Not surprisingly, I’m pretty Irish.
Of course, if you look at me, those Irish values do not quite equal each other. So what’s the deal? After all, the underlying DNA does not change from spit tube to cheek swab.
The first thing to know is that in one sense, ethnicity is, like so many things, a social construct. Super broadly, every individual is unique—except twins. Of course humans have spread across the globe and in that spread, certain regions have evolved incredibly slight differences between the populations. In addition to those genetic differences, the populations created civilisations and cultures. An ethnicity, in a sense, is a group of people who share that culture, civilisation, and genetic similarities vis-a-vis genetic differences across the world.
Importantly, within those groups, we still have differences. The Irish, for example, are known for freckles and red hair. But not all Irish have those traits. Instead, again super broadly, we say that for a group of people, a certain percentage will share a certain set of features. Consequently, within an ethnic group, you will still have variations and outliers. In some cases because generations ago a traveller from a different group entered the gene pool for some reason or another. And while the offspring might identify entirely with their new civilisation and culture, their genes don’t lie and a DNA test would reveal their traits from their ancestor’s foreign gene pool.
The second point to make is that Ireland is a fairly modern creation. Ireland did not exist as a sovereign state until 1922. Before then, the idea of Ireland existed. The country, however, did not. A better example would be German or Italian. Neither Germany nor Italy existed until the 1870s and 1860s, respectively. If you have “German” ancestors who arrived in Philadelphia in 1848, you don’t have German ancestors. You have ancestors from one of the various principalities or bishoprics comprising the German Confederation. Italy had the Venetian Republic, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and many others. Being Irish, German, or Italian is thus a modern construct.
The third point is that identifying anyone as any of these ethnic groups requires a baseline for a comparison. To do that, you need a reference population in the area you are going to define as Ireland, Germany, or Italy. But humans have migrated throughout history. Ireland was conquered by the English. Germans…well, let’s just say Germans have a history with conquering parts of Europe. And so you can see exchanges of genetic information among populations pretty easily. And over time, those genetic populations evolve.
Take those three points and add them together in admixture test and your results are really only good back to about 500 years. And even then, you may find yourself belonging to something incredibly vague and all-encompassing because, especially as with France and Germany, there’s been too much mixture to get so granular as to fit ourselves within the borders of modern political states.
In the above results, you can see my “Irishness” varies from 63% to 75%. Though, as far as I know 21/32 (66%) of my 3xgreat-grandparents arrived from Ireland. That’s why I say I’m 2/3 Irish. But, genetically, I may be more or less because those 21 might have English or Scottish ancestors. Ancestry says I may be 18% Scottish, but whilst I have ancestors who lived in Scotland, I’m not aware of any ancestors born and raised for multiple generations in Scotland.
And then that’s just how Ancestry defines it. Compare that to my results from My Heritage. Because of the aforementioned difficulty in separating out certain population groups, they lump the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh together. Add my Ancestry Irish and Scottish together and I have 81%, not far from My Heritage’s 85% estimate. Then look at my results from Family Tree. They estimate me as 75% Irish, but add in the 10% Scandinavia and I’m up to 85%.
That brings me to my last point about DNA tests. It’s probably fair to say that I’m something like 80–85% genetically from the British Isles/North Sea region. What about the other 15–20%?
You will often hear you receive half your DNA from each of your parents. And they get half from each of theirs and so on and so forth. I’ve had conversations with folks who take that to mean they get 25% from each grandparent and 12.5% from each great-grandparent et cetera. But that’s not quite true.
You do receive 50% of your DNA from your father and the other 50% from your mother. But that 50%, well that’s a sort of random sample from the share your parents received from their parents.
My maternal grandfather was 100% Carpatho-Rusyn. For generations, his ancestors lived, reproduced, and died in the Carpathian Mountains. If we received exactly half from each previous generation, I should expect 25% of my DNA from my grandfather. But Ancestry, which has the best representation of this small ethnic group, says it’s 17% (though they give it as a range of being between 2 and 27%). In other words, I’m missing seven percentage points.
And so if you take a DNA test and you know you have a great-great grandparents of Irish descent, you may only see a small fraction in your results. If your connection to Ireland (or anywhere else) is even further back, the result becomes smaller still. In fact, beyond 5–7 generations back, you may not even inherit any genetic material from a specific ancestor in your family tree.
But ultimately, for today, as I wrote in one of my very first posts here on Coffeespoons, back in 2010, on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all at least a little bit Irish.
Hopefully next year we’ll be able to celebrate in person.
The holiday break is over as your author has burned up all his remaining time for 2020 and so now we’re back to work. And that means attempting to return to a more frequent and regular posting schedule for Coffeespoons.
I wanted to start with the death of Diego Maradona, a legendary Argentinian footballer. He died in December of a heart attack and left behind a complicated inheritance situation. To help explain the situation, the BBC created what in genealogy we call a descendancy chart. You typically use a descendancy chart to show the children, and sometimes grandchildren, of a person. (You can also attach people above the person of interest and show the person’s ancestral families.)
This is an example of a descendancy chart from my research into an unrelated family.
You can see Samuel Miller married Sabra Clark and had at least nine children with her. And I followed one of them, another Samuel, who married Elizabeth Woodruff and they had four children. In this version, you can also see Samuel the elder’s parents and siblings.
But Diego presents a complicated situation. He was married and had two children, then divorced. That’s not terribly uncommon. But he then went on to have potentially eight children with potentially five different women. (I say potentially because some of the claims are still working their way through the courts via paternity tests.)
The above type of chart works well with one couple. In my own family, I have at least one ancestor who had potentially two husbands (the second marriage has not yet been confirmed, but she definitely had children with two different men). And when we use this chart type to look at my ancestor’s descendants, you can see it becomes tricky.
Her children’s fathers can be placed to either side and then the children flow out from that. But whereas in the first chart we could see all nine children in one glance, Mary Remington had four and we only see two in this same view.
So how do you deal with one person who has six total relationships that have offspring?
The BBC opted for a vertical chart that uses colour to link the couples. Diego and his ex-wife receive a red line, and that link moves vertically down from Diego with the two daughters shown as descendants on the right.
Each subsequent relationship with offspring receives its own colour and continues to move vertically down the page, linking the mother on the left to the children on the right.
What I find interesting is the inconsistency within the chart, however. At the end, with the unidentified women, we have two instances of multiple children. Santiago Lara and Magali Gil, for example, descend from one stem. But note at the top how Diego’s two daughters Gianinna and Dalma each receive their own stem. Is there a reason for combining the two children from one unidentified mother into one branch?
And why the vertical format? You can see in my two examples, we are looking at a horizontal format. It works well when I am working on my desktop. The format is less useful on a mobile. I wonder if the BBC knows from their analytics that most people access their content like this via mobile phone and created a graphic that best uses that tall but narrow proportion. Because the proportions do not work well when the article is viewed on a desktop.
The vertical descendancy chart here is an intriguing solution to show descendants from multiple partners in a single mobile screen display. I am not sure how useful it would be as a new form, because I am not certain of how many times we would run into issues of children from six partners, but it could be worth exploring.
Credit for the images from my examples goes to the designers at Ancestry.com.
Credit for the BBC graphic goes to the graphics department of the BBC.
A study published last week explores the long-lasting impact of the Atlantic triangle trade of slaves on the genetic makeup of present day African Americans. Genetic genealogy can break down many of what we genealogists call brick walls, where paper records and official documentation prevent researchers from moving any further back in time. In American research, slavery and its lack of records identifying specific individuals by name, birth, and place of origin prevents many descendants from tracing their ancestry beyond the 1860s or 50s.
But DNA doesn’t lie. And by comparing the source populations of present day African countries to the DNA of present day Americans (and others living in the Western hemisphere), we can glean a bit more insight into at least the rough places of origin for individual’s ancestors. And so the BBC, which wrote an article about the survey, created this map to show the average amount of African ancestry in people today.
There is a lot to unpack from the study, and for those interested, you should read the full article. But what this graphic shows is that there is significant variation in the amount of African descent in African-[insert country here] ethnic groups. African-Brazilians, on average, have somewhere between 10–35% African DNA, whereas in Mexico that figures falls to 0–10%, but in parts of the United States it climbs upwards of 70–95%.
In a critique of the graphic itself, when I look at some of the data tables, I’m not sure the map’s borders are the best fit. For example, the data says “northern states” for the United States, but the map clearly shows outlines for individual states like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In this case, a more accurate approach would be to lump those states into a single shape that doesn’t break down into the constituent polities. Otherwise, as in this case, it implies the value for that particular state falls within the range, when the data itself does not—and cannot because of the way the study was designed—support that conclusion.
Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.
Yesterday was Armistice Day, a bank holiday hence the lack of posting. So I spent a few hours yesterday looking at my ancestors to see who participated in World War I. It turned out that on my paternal side, my one great-grandfather was too old and the other was both the right age and signed up for the draft, but was not selected.
And so the only two that served were my maternal great-grandfathers. One served a few months in the naval reserve towards the end of the war. My other great-grandfather served for a year, a good chunk of it in France. This I largely knew from my great aunt, who had told us stories about how he had told her about blowing up bridges they had just built to prevent Germans from capturing them. And then how after the war he served as military police, arresting drunk American soldiers in France. But I had never realised some of the documents I had collected told more of the skeletal structure like units and ranks. Consequently, I decided to make this graphic.
As many of you are aware, one of my personal interests is in genealogy and my family history. And sometimes, data visualisation can help make sense of my research. This past weekend, I was looking through some of my notes on my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a man named Stephen Remington.
One of the outstanding questions is who was his wife, a woman named Eliza Ann. Her surname might be either Garretson or Caustin. So I used a timeline of Stephen’s residences to see if any his residences overlapped with similar surnames. It sort of did, but not until after the year he married her. So still more work is needed.
But then I decided with a few tweaks I could actually plot out where he lived, because he lived all over. His earliest years are a bit of a mystery, because his parents are both unknown and they both died during Stephen’s youth.
In his earlier years he was what was called a circuit rider. Before there were large, dense settlements of people, the rural and frontier people relied upon essentially travelling ministers. The ministers had a responsibility for a small (sometimes large) area. And early in Stephen’s life his circuit riding kept pushing him north up the Hudson River with occasional postings back to New York City.
Eventually, however, he ended up preaching in Massachusetts, where he separately earned his medical doctorate from Harvard University. He practiced medicine on the side for years. Then in 1846 he converted from the Methodist church to the Baptist church. He wrote about it in a notable book/pamphlet: Reasons for Becoming a Baptist.
From then he became an itinerant pastor, never staying at a single congregation for more than five years or so. He travelled from New York to Philadelphia to Louisville for several months then back to New York.
He preached as a Baptist for twenty-plus more years before finally settling in Brooklyn, where he died at the age of 66. He lived all over the mid-Atlantic, especially the Hudson River Valley. And while he returned to places over the years, notably New York City, he appears to have never stayed in one place longer than maybe five years.
As for Eliza, she died in 1850. But I wonder if she may be related to a cluster of Garretsons that lived in Rhinebeck, which included the famous Reverend Freeborn Garretson, a circuit riding Methodist minister.
The daughter born in Hartford is my direct ancestor. She eventually married a man in New York City with the surname Miller. Then, after having a son (my next direct ancestor), she upped and moved to Wisconsin and married another man with the surname Miller, who was not related to the first. There is talk of a divorce, but no record of it. Could she have been a bigamist? That’s a story for another day.