Monday, September 11, 2017

Can't Get There From Here

It's September. That means the educational programs I'm involved with are now in full swing. Last Saturday, I taught my first in a series of genealogy classes at a new public library system. As usual, I ended up leaving the location later than I intended—I love to linger afterwards, answer questions and chat about research—but that put a time squeeze on travel to my next appointment.

To make matters worse, I decided to take a different route home—a more direct one that would bring me closer to an entrance to the freeway. Since this was not my home base, I didn't realize that the light I was stopped at was paired with unseen signals being received from the railroad tracks beyond. Sure enough, a train was coming. I was stuck.

Not to be deterred, I made a snap decision to take an alternate route. Though this was not my own city, I'm familiar enough with this place to know the back roads.

I thought.

After driving for a little way, it occurred to me that, with a simple left turn, I could backtrack and resume my original route, which paralleled the detour I was now taking. I could see that road with every intersection I crossed.

What I didn't bargain for was the fact that, years ago, a feeder track—likely supplying a route to some industrial spurs north of the downtown area—ran alongside that road. Though the tracks were long gone, access to the main road beyond from the neighborhood where I was now driving was still limited. I could see the road I wanted to get on, but the route I chose to reconnect with it simply ran into what was once a railroad right-of-way—but was now a no-man's-land of dirt and weeds.

So close, yet so far away.

Of course, this frustrating scenario plays itself out in other walks of life, as well. It's easy to see this in genealogical research, and especially when working with DNA matches. I might see a match with the exact same surname as a main line in my family tree, but try though I might, I can't seem to locate a route to connect our families. It's as if there was a genetic plot of barren ground separating my route from my target.

These invisible barriers can be aggravating. Granted, when it comes to genealogical research, some matches may be with novices who may have no idea how to construct a pedigree chart or explain the reasons behind their conclusions. But even with savvy researchers who know the ins and outs of their family surnames and locales, we still run into roadblocks.

Even more so, when we move beyond autosomal matches to use those more powerful tools measuring our distant genetic heritage: the Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA tests. The men in my family who have agreed to allow me to serve as their account administrator have received test results which are also frustrating. For my husband's Y, which presumably should be producing some matches with the name Stevens, I have garnered a wide variety of surnames among his matches. Granted, there are some repeats among some results listing names like Price, Little, Withycombe—and associated spelling variations—but nothing even remotely connected to the surname he holds today.

The smattering of appellations concluding with "-son" may harken back to his Viking connections in Ireland, and remind me that this Y-DNA test is powerful enough to carry us back before the institution of surnames. But how do I get there from here? With the exception of royalty, there isn't likely to be any paper trail long enough to reach for that type of information.

I've heard some researchers talk about building shadow trees, starting with their match's data and checking the research conclusions. That, however, can become tedious for people having upwards of a thousand matches. And, as I've seen, that becomes a pipe dream in the face of a genetic test with results powerful enough to reach so far back in history, beyond the dawn of surnames.

With autosomal DNA tests yielding us fairly reliable results to match us with cousins who share ancestors as distant as fourth or fifth great grandparents, yet such a gap still outstanding between that limit and the possibilities inherent in Y- or mt-DNA tests, I wish there was a test which could provide answers in that no-man's-land in between.

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