Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Genetic Communities and My Origins

I haven't had anything new to report in a while. No breakthroughs, although I continue to get DNA matches to descendants of individuals that I suspect, but can't prove yet, were my ancestors. Maybe someday I will be able to report that I have proven my connection to the Embry, Pharris, or Faulk families. I'm working on a spreadsheet with my Faulk matches, so maybe I'll report on my progress in an upcoming post.

However, in the last week both Ancestry DNA and Family Tree DNA have published new features and/or results that are definitely worth examining in a new post. First, a feature called "Genetic Communities" debuted on Ancestry DNA two weeks ago. Then, last week Family Tree DNA completely revised its ethnicity percentages reported in the feature entitled "My Origins."

AncestryDNA's Genetic Communities

Apparently, the Ancestry Genetic Communities have been in beta testing for a while, but they came as a complete (and happy) surprise to me. According to Ancestry, a Genetic Community is "a group of Ancestry DNA members who are connected through DNA most likely because they descend from a population of common ancestors." I found out that I have been placed in three Genetic Communities: Settlers of the Potomac River Valley & Central Kentucky, Settlers of Southwest Virginia & Eastern Kentucky, and Settlers of Colonial South Carolina.

I underlined the phrase in the quote above because it's important to me. I have read comments from some AncestryDNA users who weren't that excited about the Genetic Communities because they already knew they had ancestors in southwest Virginia or colonial South Carolina. Well, I did and I didn't. I knew that I had ancestors--the Castles and others--who migrated from southwest Virginia to eastern Kentucky. I knew that I had ancestors from the Potomac River Valley--the Whitleys and others--who migrated to central Kentucky. But I didn't know that those groups of people could be identified by DNA. How cool!

On the other hand, I have only lately theorized that both my Smith and Williams ancestors came from South Carolina before settling in Alabama. It's nice to know that my DNA indicates a potential tie to colonial South Carolina. 

The Genetic Communities feature on AncestryDNA is based on similarities in DNA results among descendants of settlers from certain communities. Over 300 of these communities have been identified so far. They include communities in Europe, North America, Central and south America, and Asia. Ancestry then enhances the results with historical information, maps that show migration two and from that community, and pins on the map that indicate specific ancestors. All of those elements are visible when you choose the Story tab. (FYI--Maps and pins change as you click on each available historical period.) The Connection tab takes you to a list of all your DNA matches that fall within that particular community and a list of many common surnames from that Genetic Community.

Let's look a little more closely at the three Genetic Communities to which AncestryDNA has assigned me.

Settlers of the Potomac River Valley & Central Kentucky

The historical information for this community begins with the period 1700-1775, which saw the English, Scots-Irish, and German immigrants moving to the eastern seaboard and eventually on past the Appalachians. My map for this time period includes 72 pins for my ancestors who predominantly lived in Virginia and North Carolina. They include on my dad's side, the Henson, Lewis, Horton, Kendrick, Sargent, Bays, Oney, and Patrick families; and on my mom's side, the Crudup, Dixon, Powell, Fowler, Wheat, Ming, Fullen, and Whitley families, and the Embry and Pharris ancestors that aren't proven yet. (I have put them in my Ancestry family tree as "? DNA", so they are included in my genetic communities.)

Over the years that I have done genealogy, I've often seen suggestions to create a migration map for your ancestors. That's what is great about this new feature from Ancestry. They have done it for me, incorporating dates and places from my tree, and it's interactive. Way better than I could create myself.

The next period of history for this community is entitled "Kentucky Fever," and covers the years from 1775-1825. Using the geographical information that I have entered into my family tree, Ancestry maps the migration of some of my ancestors--Lewis, Patrick, Sargent, Whitley, Huff, Roberts, and more--to Kentucky and Tennessee.

The historical information for 1825 to 1850 states that Kentucky's and Tennessee's populations doubled in this time period. This is also the period in which people began to migrate to Arkansas and Alabama, as did my Patrick and Wheat ancestors. At this point though, my map doesn't show this particular migration with ancestors pins, but I still have 46 pins back in Kentucky.

The historical information for this group continues through the periods, 1850-1875, 1875-1900, and 1900-1950. According to the description for 1900-1950, this is the period in which this genetic community begins to move to urban areas or look for work in Oklahoma, Texas, or California. The pins for this final period include those for my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides who moved from Kentucky to Oklahoma in this time period.

If I click on the Connection tab, I get a list of all my matches that fall genetically into this Potomac River Valley to Central Kentucky community. At this point I have over 250 of them, and I can search for surnames and locations just within this community. I also get a list of surnames that appear often in this Genetic Community; the list for this community shows the surname Embry among its most common names.

A click on the name Embry sends me to Ancestry's surname information, which includes the meaning of the name; U.S. census information for this name in 1840, 1880, and 1920; and occupation, life expectancy, and Civil War records for the surname. In my opinion a great enhancement for the surname list would be the ability to click on the name and get a list of DNA matches within this genetic community with the name Embry in their family trees.

Settlers of Southwest Virginia & Eastern Kentucky

The 1700-1750 historical information for this Genetic Community explains that many immigrants came to America from England in this period--some as a punishment for crimes, some as indentured servants--and from Germany in search of economic opportunity. It specifically mentions the group that came from the Rhineland-Palatinate area of southwestern Germany and emigrated to Pennsylvania. This is the group from which many have speculated that Jacob Castle came.

There is some overlap here with the Potomac River Valley to Central Kentucky group, which you would expect since they are so close geographically. I have 10 pins here, including the surnames Kendrick, Henson, Lewis, Horton, Oney, and Jacob Castle.

From 1750-1800 farmers in search of land moved to Kentucky when it became open to settlement after the Revolution. Again, there is much overlap with the Potomac River/Central Kentucky group, with the addition of my Farris and Davidson ancestors from my mom's side. From 1800-1850 farmers in Appalachia were in a holding pattern, according to the historical information for this period. Little changed or improved until the Civil War. Ancestor pins for this era are located in Floyd, Pulaski, and Leslie counties in Kentucky, and back in Russell and Scott counties in Virginia.

The historical information for the 1850 to 1900 and 1900 to 1925 eras stress the growth and dependence on mining in this area of Appalachia, although not so much for my ancestors, as far as I've been able to find out. My Castle, Day, Reed, and Sargent ancestors farmed in Morgan and Magoffin counties in Kentucky until the turn of the century. By the early 1900's my ancestors had either died in Kentucky or moved on to Oklahoma.

The Connection tab takes me again to my DNA matches, over 250 of them, with genetic ties to southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. In the Associated Last Names (common surnames) list I was delighted to see Castle and the names Ratliff and Salyer/Salyers, surnames from Morgan County that I recognize.

Settlers of Colonial South Carolina

I actually was surprised that I was included in this group. As far as I know, the only one of my ancestors born in South Carolina was my 2nd great-grandmother, Mary E. Williams, the mother of my great-grandfather, Stephen Albert Smith. Only recently was I told by an Ancestry member that many of the families living near my Smiths in Pike County, Alabama, were originally from South Carolina. I have even questioned if my 2nd great-grandfather, John A. Smith, was really from South Carolina, instead of the Virginia birthplace usually given for him. 

However, if you look at the map of this Genetic Community, the area is includes is much larger than just South Carolina; it encompasses North Carolina and the states to which this community migrated: Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. When you look at this larger area, it's not surprising that I share DNA with over 340 descendants assigned to this Genetic Community.

According to the historical information for this community, Germans who had originally settled in Pennsylvania and immigrants from the British Isles who had first settled in Virginia made the Carolina coast their home in the years from 1700-1750. Apparently, even if John A. Smith was born in Virginia, he would still be considered one of my ancestors in this community, along with the Sneads from my Bays line and the Beasleys from my Ming line.

In the years from 1750-1775 farmers moved into the backcountry from the coast, and my Lewis, Reed, and Bell ancestors are pinned to the Genetic Community map for this time period. In the years during and after the Revolutionary War, 1775-1800, my Simmons and Soles ancestors appear on the map. In the years from 1800-1850 Alabama is opened to white settlement, and many migrated there from North and South Carolina, including my Simmons, Soles, Smith, Williams, Wheat, and Stephenson ancestors.

Farmers continued to migrate to Georgia and Alabama in the years before and after the Civil War, 1850-1900, and my Smith great-grandparents were born in Alabama. By 1900-1950 when many ancestors of this genetic community moved into the big cities of South Carolina and Alabama for work, my ancestors moved on to Oklahoma.

While none of my ancestors' surnames appear on the Associated Last Names list, I do see two I recognize: Strickland and Register. Strickland appears often in the trees of my DNA matches. They seem to have a connection to the Faulks, with whom I have a cousin relationship through the Simmons family. With so many matches from different Faulk branches, I also suspect a closer relationship, which I have been trying to analyze. The other name I recognize is Register, which is very common in the area in which the Smiths lived in Alabama; one of John and Mary Smith's granddaughters married a Register.


From looking carefully at the information provided by the new Genetic Communities feature I have come to the following conclusions:

I love AncestryDNA's new Genetic Communities.

If you want the most out of this feature, you really need to add your family tree to Ancestry. You still may be assigned a Genetic Community based on your DNA results, but you won't see the pins that place your ancestors in the community if you don't provide a tree.

If you have a tree, you need to be sure that you include locations and dates for your ancestors, so that the pins show their migration from place to place.

Try searching for hard-to-find ancestors within just the Genetic Community instead of among all your matches. For example, I still get a lot of results when I search for "Smith" in the Colonial South Carolina community, but not nearly as many as I get if I search all my DNA matches. It might someday help me narrow in on the Smith family that belongs in my tree. Of course, don't forget that they may not be where you think they are. I keep an open mind when it comes to my Smiths!

As more people test and you get more DNA matches, you may find that you have been added to more existing genetic communities. Blaine Bettinger, the genetic genealogy blogger and speaker, has compiled a list of the 300+ genetic communities that are now available on AncestryDNA. See the list at

Others will be determined as more people test, including those who are still located in the original geographic area of a possible community and serve as reference populations.

Family Tree DNA's My Origins

New research and new reference population data are the reasons given for the My Origins update on Family Tree DNA. According to their explanation, these changes are not corrections to the My Origins results I had before, but refinements based on the new information. They caution users to not get too caught up in modern borders; centuries of migration, especially in Europe, cause diverse groups of people to share DNA.

Unfortunately, I didn't record my previous results, so I can't compare them with the new results. I know I was mostly European, with the largest percentage in the British Isles and a much smaller percentage from Eastern Europe, but that's all I remember. I know I would have remembered if my previous results had shown the 5% in Iberia and the <2% in South America that I now have!

My new results are:

98% European
          88% British Isles
          5% Iberia
          5% East Europe

and Trace Results (that could be "background noise")
          <2% Finland
          <2% South America
          <2% Asia Minor

I actually am kindof hoping that the 2% South American might reflect my alleged couple of native American female ancestors, but I'm not sure if that's what it means at all. Barring that, I have created a romantic scenario in my head that involves a love affair between a Spanish pirate ancestor and a Latina ancestress. It would explain my love for Santana and Mexican food.

My brother's new My Origins results are similar, without the Iberian and South American percentages, and the addition of 4% Southeast Europe (Italy, Greece, the Balkans) and a trace of Scandinavia and West Middle East. His trace results don't really surprise me, as he matches many men with Scandinavian and Middle Eastern origins on 12 markers of his y-DNA test, although their common ancestor may have lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. I just throw that in because many people are surprised that siblings have differing ethnicity results. It all depends on what DNA gets passed down to each of the siblings.

I don't get as bent out of shape about ethnicity results as some people do. I think it's a work in progress and will get better with time and more people testing. I don't plan to trade in my kilt for gaucho pants just yet.

I just happened to hear Blaine Bettinger in a day-long speaking engagement in Oklahoma City weekend before last. AncestryDNA had just released the Genetic Communties feature, and he did a short presentation about it. He thinks that the genetic communities may become even more reliable, and thus useful, than ethnicity estimates. On his blog he says, "It may be possible that (GC's) will narrow in on counties or villages or families, eventually, if enough people test." That is an exciting development to look forward to.