Saturday, February 14, 2015

The DNA Grand Right and Left

Like one big Valentine’s Day square dance of genetic genealogy, my mitochondrial DNA test results lead me on a Grand Right and Left through the romance of generations. With each successive “pull by,” my supposed ancestral DNA moves backwards in time from one surname to another.

In my maternal grandmother’s case, she was known as a McClellan—until the day of her marriage to a Davis. Moving to the previous partner—the generation preceding that “I do” which transformed her into a McClellan—the mother in that case was once a Broyles. The next “partner” in time—the generation before that—had me considering a woman with the surname Rainey. Or was it Ramey? Or Raney? Or…well, I’ve decided on Rainey, at least for now. Which means the dance leads me to the possibility of a Taliaferro for the next step backwards in time.

McClellan to Broyles to Rainey to…then what? Even if it is Taliaferro for the next dance step, I can’t stay there long. This square dance never stops moving. With each preceding generation in this mtDNA test comes a change in surnames.

Tracing backwards in time for the male line—which is measured by the Y-DNA test—generally takes a man back through the generations with one constant: the surname (theoretically) does not change. Not so for the women. Every iteration of the generations requires a change of “partners”—a change of surname. There is no constant to insure you’re tracing the right line.

Compound that uncertainty with flaws in the genealogical record—published genealogies from past centuries, for instance—and it can leave a researcher on the dance floor paralyzed with uncertainty.

As I connect with potential matches on my autosomal DNA test results—the third type of DNA testing, used to match cousins within a range of about seven generations or less—I’ve found some promising toe-holds in the data pointing me to one specific Rainey line. I can infer certain specifics from that successful match—especially regarding the maiden name of that joint ancestor. Whoever she was—whether “Nancy,” as some genealogical books name her, or Mary, as the 1818 Oglethorpe County marriage records in Georgia have it—she was recorded as being a Taliaferro.

But which one? As unusual as the surname Taliaferro might seem to us nowadays, it was not an uncommon name in the South at the time in which Thomas Rainey and Mary Taliaferro were married.

Unsure exactly how to proceed—but not wishing to stand stock still, paralyzed with uncertainty—I’ve decided to explore a few hypotheses and see if any further DNA test matches can bear me out. That means making some presumptions about Mary’s parentage—and then searching to see whether I have any matches on that particular line.

Of course, I’ll still proceed with caution. Any time I can secure documentation to indicate what really happened, way back when, I will use it. But accessing records created back then—preceding the early 1800s—is a different matter than calling up digitized documentation of, say, census records at the other end of that century. Yes, many of the old genealogies are now digitized and widely available, but as we’ve already noted, some of those publications are rife with errors of their own. I’m afraid my own family line is one falling in those cracks.

Trained to adhere to proper genealogical protocol, we often feel we cannot add a name to our records without duly sourcing the information. No document, no inclusion in the record. Thinking outside the box—coloring outside the lines—these are forbidden moves under such confines. Yet somehow, I’ve got to test for possibilities. There are discrepancies between traditionally held genealogies and longstanding governmental documentation. Obviously, one of the two is incorrect. Until I can determine—definitively—which one is what really happened in history, I can’t proceed with the paper trail to confirm DNA test results.

Since I have a large number of autosomal DNA matches yet to connect to that paper trail, I suspect some of them will align with these as-yet undetermined matrilineal line connections. Hopefully, lurking in those undocumented matches will be ancestors whose presence on my DNA dance floor will lead me to partner up with the right maiden names in this grand procession backwards in time.


  1. So with each generation back, you need the mother? That is more challenging! Once you hit 1860 or so, it is really hard. The records were so male-centric

    Happy Valentines Day!

    1. And that is pretty much where I am stuck, Iggy. Well...I bested that by about ten years: I'm stuck at 1850. And yes, with the mtDNA test, it is a chase to follow the mothers. Hopefully, my nexus with my mystery cousin will not be much farther behind that 1850 roadblock, because you are right: it does get increasingly difficult.

  2. You must love puzzles...I am certain you will uncover something to lead you the right way:)

    1. I've never been much for crossword puzzles, or jigsaw puzzles, for that matter. But when it comes to people puzzles--well that is an entirely different matter.


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