GA Live: S01 E02: Working with your DNA test results

In our second episode, co-hosts (and cousins!) Brian Sheffey and Donya Williams talk about:

* The difference between mtDNA, YDNA, and autosomal DNA;

* General ways you can work with the different types of DNA;

* What they learned about themselves through DNA testing;

* How DNA results and paper trail genealogy work together; and

* Some easy ways to start working on your 3rd and 4th cousin matches to figure out who your common ancestors were.

In the next show (Sunday, 8 April 2018 @ 4pm EST), Donya and Brian will discuss Freedmen’s Bureau work contacts…and the discoveries you can make using them. See you then!

Live Broadcast Link:…

DNA Adventures: Me and my mum’s mtDNA – Range 16001 to 16519

I have recently received a flurry of messages and emails after a series of articles I wrote about various Gedmatch DNA analytic tools have been re-discovered. And more than a few enquiries about the Genebase DNA testing service. So I thought I’d share the results of my various Genebase tests.

This is not a paid plug for Genebase. I will say what I always say when it comes to my results via this testing service: it won’t be the right testing service for everyone. As with anything, do your due diligence about the DNA testing service you may wish to use, Google customer complaints…and see if the test you choose, and its results, will suit your needs.

I’m starting with my mum’s mtDNA. This is the DNA that is passed from mothers to daughters. They also pass it on to their sons. Sons, however, do not pass mtDNA on to their children – only their sisters will. That is the conventional wisdom and understanding to-date.

In this article, I will be posting the last mtDNA sequences first…and the beginning sequences last. This way, once the first sequence results are posted, kit will appear on this website in chronological order.

Just so we all know what we’re looking at, here are some illustrations of mtDNA:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell

As you can see, mtDNA looks very different from the 23 chromosomes that form autosomal DNA (the DNA you inherit from both parents).

My mum’s mtDNA: Range 16001 to 16519

To my fellow Old Ninety-Six County, South Carolina cousins, this is the female line this DNA covers:

My mum < Pauline Matthews < Gertrude Harling < Aurelia Holloway < Amanda Peterson < Violet Williams < Moses Williams, Sr’s unknown first wife (not Mariah Stallsworth).

Note: Please click each image to see a larger version.

Genebase uses an analytical comparison measurement called RMI,which you will see in the numbers provided in the bar graph images below. RMI (Relative Match Index) is a measure of how closely your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplotype matches those of a defined population group as compared to all other population groups in the comparison. For example, a RMI of 100 means that you are 100 times more likely to belong to that population set as compared to the rest of the populations.

For the images below, Mutation = 0 is a perfect match / Mutation = 1 or more means a mutation has occurred in the comparison mtDNA matches.

That Swedish result? Yeah, 5 adults sitting around a table saying: wwwwhhhaaattt???!!?? We’re still working on that. It’s not a mistake or a glitch – as you’ll see in tomorrow’s post.

So…there’s quite a bit to take in. And this only covers the last of my mum’s mtDNA sequences. Feel free to ask questions! I appreciate this takes a while to wrap one’s head around. Dorothy, we’re not in autosomal DNA territory any more!

Genetic genealogy, DNA triangulation, and the search for my missing Futrell ancestor

When it comes to my genealogy adventures, more often than not, I feel like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot when it comes to uncovering the identity of missing ancestors who lived in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Century. Paper trails invariably run out, especially when it comes to my ancestors who were either working class whites, blacks, mulattos, Native American, or free people of colour. There are various reasons for this. Either records were lost, destroyed during times of upheaval (i.e. Revolutionary War, Civil War, Bacon’s Rebellion, etc) or were lost due to things like courthouses burning down. Given the remote areas some of ancestors lived, records may have never been produced at all. Or, if enslaved, full names weren’t provided. Or, due to ethnicity, they weren’t seen as people.

DNA testing is one key to uncovering the identities for ancestors where paper documents never existed, or no longer exist…or have yet to be digitized.  The process of DNA triangulation is key to this process:

Triangulation for autosomal DNA is kind of a chicken and egg thing.  The goal is to associate and identify specific DNA segments to specific ancestors.  The easiest way to do this, or to begin the process, is with known relatives.  This gets you started identifying “family segments.”  From that point, you can use the known family segments, along with some common sense tools, to identify other people that are related through those common ancestors.  Through those matches with other people, you can continue to break down your DNA into more and more granular family lines. (DNAeXplained, “Triangulation for Autosomal DNA” via

Regular readers will know I’ve developed a talent for triangulation over the years. In truth, much credit goes to my team of genetic genealogists who spent long and patient hours explaining how genetic genealogy and triangulation work; and mentoring me through my first forays into triangulating with my own DNA.

I’ve saved one of the most challenging triangulation tasks for last: discovering the father of my 2x great grandmother, Selinda Futrell, born about 1842 in Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina. This falls on my mother’s side of the family tree.


There are a couple of phases when it comes to organizing how I approach working with DNA and vital documents identifying a parent, or parents, for an ancestor. I’m still very much in the early phases with Selinda.

A preliminary to Phase I

Let’s start with her mother, Melinda, whose name appears as Melinda Futrell in official documents. Melinda was born around 1824 in Northampton County, North Carolina.  The first question I had to tackle was whether or not Melinda was a Futrell by birth, or was it a name she assumed after Emancipation.  In short, what was her connection to the Futrell name?

The three documents I have for Melinda, including the 1870 Census, cite that she is black.  All three documents are consist in this fact. There is nothing to-date to indicate that she was of mixed race. Now this could be for one of two reasons: either she was born of mixed parentage and simply didn’t appear to be.  Or, as I strongly suspect, she wasn’t born of mixed parentage. I am satisfied on the score that she was not a Futrell by birth.

Melinda’s children, on the other hand, are consistently cited as being mulattos. All of them. Which indicates that, unlike Melinda, her children had a white father. Given some 20+ DNA matches with white Futrells and Futrell descendants with roots in Northampton County, North Carolina, the team and I are very confident that man was a Futrell. This would explain Melinda’s adoption of the Futrell name, which she passed on to her children.

This is a prelim into Phase I.

Phase I: The Futrell family tree

So, the preliminary to Phase I was all about determining if Selinda Futrell was indeed a blood relation to the Quaker-descended Futrells in Northampton, NC.

Phase I, which is still ongoing, requires me to do a full and thorough work-up on the Quaker-descended Futrell family tree. This is easier said than done.  I’m not going the lie. The Futrells are a nightmare to research.

Let’s just start with the surname. When it comes to misspellings and variants of the name, it’s in a league of its own: Fewtrell (the old English spelling of the name), Futral, Futrill, Fetral, Tutrill, Titrill, Futrelle…the list goes on and on.

Then there are the beloved family names that were commonly used among numerous branches: Shadrach, William, Charity, Daniel, John, Nathaniel, and Mary, just to cite a few. Online family trees are aren’t an option – too many have confused or merged individuals who borne the same first name and were born within a few years of each other.

The one book I hoped to get a hold of, 12 Northampton County, North Carolina Families
Bridgers, Daughtry, Futrell, Jenkins, Joyner, Lassiter, Martin, Odom, Parker, Stephenson, Sumner, and Woodard by Rebecca L. Dozier is no longer in print.

But then, as luck or providence would have it, I discovered a second book: The Futrell Family Revised by Roger H. Futrell (available to read and/or download via:  This book has been an absolute godsend. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we couldn’t have done an accurate family tree without it.

The book allowed us to ramp up Phase I, and begin Phase II.

Phase IIa: Eliminating and shortlisting paternity candidates

The 18th and early 19th Century Futrell family is huge. The family was not only prolific, it produced an unusual number of male children generation after generation.

At the moment, we’re just shy of 60 Futrell men born between 1650 and 1820. In order to have the fullest list of possible paternity candidates, we’re required to try and trace as many descendant lines for Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell (born 1659 in Shropshire, England, lied for a period in Surry County, Virginia –  and died in 1693 in Bertie County, North Carolina). Once this has been done, we can begin to specifically look at Futrell men who were old enough, and resident in Northampton County, NC prior to Selinda Futrell’s birth in 1842.

I don’t know if ‘luck’ is the right word, but I’m going to use it anyway.  As luck would have it, around two-thirds of the Futrells who were in North Carolina had moved to Trigg and Christian Counties in Kentucky by 1814. Why is this lucky?  These Futrell men are automatically eliminated as possible descendant lines who could have fathered Selinda and her siblings. These Futrells didn’t moved back and forth between Kentucky and North Carolina.  Once they arrived in Kentucky, that was it.

We next looked into the proximity of Futrell men to Melinda and her family in Rich Square.  There were a dozen or so men of the right age either living in Rich Square. Another 8 Futrell men lived within a day’s horse ride away from Rich Square. Then there was the extended family group of Futrells who lived in Onslow County, NC.

Next we looked at which Futrells owned slaves.  This ruled the Onslow County group of Futrells out almost immediately. None of them had enslaved people.

This, again, helps us narrow the field of identifying the best, most likely paternity candidates on paper before we begin using DNA to triangulate.

After eliminating so many Futrells from consideration, we are left with a few family lines to investigate more closely:

  1. Male Futrell descendants of John W Futrell (1715-1788) and Martha “Polly” Daughtry;
  2. Male Futrell descendants of Benjamin Futrell (1720-1790) and Mourning Smith; and
  3. Male Futrell descendants of Thomas Futrell III (1713-1770) and Elizabeth Dickinson.

Work continues in investigating these three family groups.

Phase IIb: Wills and probate…and more Wills and probate

Wills and probate records are a vital – and rich – source of ancestral information. On the one hand, they provide the names of surviving family members, including grandchildren (e.g. I bequeath to my grand-daughter Hezekiah Heathcock, the daughter of Anne,…)

Next, Wills and probate are important for my Futrell ancestry for another reason. Wills and probate tells me who held enslaved people and who did not. This isn’t always a hard and fast rule.  My formerly missing German-American Sheffey 4x grandfather, John Adam Sheffey, was the only 18th Century Sheffey to not own slaves.  However, his brothers did. Yet, as far as DNA is showing, only John Adam Sheffey seems to have fathered children with Jemimah, an enslaved woman in the household of his brother Maj Henry Lawrence Sheffey. Slave ownership isn’t always a reliable factor when it comes to determining paternity.

For the Futrells who held enslaved people, the names of the enslaved are cited in their Wills.  It is actually possible to follow the trail of the enslaved from generation to generation through subsequent Futrell family Wills.

Using an example, let’s say Futrell #1 had an enslaved woman by the name of Amey. She goes from him to his son, Futrell #2.  Next, we might see in Futrell #2’s Will that Amey and her children, Patsy and Shadrach, pass to his son, Futrell #3.  Not only can I track Amey, I can now see that she has two children. Further Wills will provide further clues and information about Patsy and Shadrach.

The above is an illustrative example.  The Will of Elliot Futrell below, is a real-world working example:


I’ll go ahead and say.  Creating family trees from Wills is a strange and unsettling business. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile myself to it. With that said, it is a critical skillset to acquire when it comes to genealogy.

As part of my genealogy practice, I add this information my family tree for the respective individuals who held and inherited enslaved people.  I do this in the hopes that it helps other African Americans  researching their own family trees. I include the names of the enslaved and how that individual came by them (i.e. inheritance or purchase) with links back to the original course. The two images below show my working practice using the Will above:


The image above shows notes I add to respective pages to track the movement of enslaved ancestors from generation to generation.

Now, in the instance above, I don’t know if any of the enslaved people cited are part of my Futrell family’s story. However, they will be part of someone’s family story. So many have helped me along my way in my adventure, it would be churlish for me to not pay it forward.

Phase IIc: Identifying Futrell DNA segements

While I grapple with the traditional genealogy required in Phases IIa and IIb, the team is working on identifying my Futrell DNA segments and the Chromosome(s) associated with this segment or segments. While I’ve become adept at this part of the process, it is time consuming. And, in this instance, exceedingly tricky due to endogamy (cousin marriages, in short). I’m going to say it: the professionals are far quicker at this than I am!

This article from DNAeXplained gives you a glimpse into what’s involved: Concepts: Match Groups and Triangulation

Phase III: Working with online DNA cousin matches

This final phase will do one of two things.  It will either identify the father of Selinda Futrell and her siblings. Or, it will narrow the search down to a single family group, a father and his sons, in other words. Most of the time, we get a solid hit and there’s no doubt about it.  Other times – and this is largely due to endogamy – we can only narrow it down to a father and/or his sons.

For example, it’s not unusual in my family tree for two brothers from one family to marry sisters from another family – and both sets of couples were cousins. Add the fact that the parents of the 2 brothers and 2 sisters were 2nd or 3rd cousins. Nothing skews DNA triangulating quite like this. It’s a bit of a nightmare. Less frequent is a father and a son marrying a mother and a daughter from another family, who may or may not be related to them.

Part of Phase III includes me relaying any possible DNA overlaps back to the genetic genealogists. For instance, the Quaker descended Futrells married Outlands, Exums, Vinsons and Lassiters quite often In Northampton, NC. I know already that I have Lassiters and Exums in Virginia on my father’s side of the family. I also have Outlands from Pennsylvania and Virginia on both my parents’ ancestral lines. Regardless of which colonial territory or State they lived in, these Outlands, Lassiters and Exums are part of the same family. Add in the Quaker White family, which links all of these families and more…and you have some tricky triangulation to do.

This information is crucial for the genetic genealogy team to reduce the risk of them arriving at a false positive. They need to find ‘pure’ lines – lines that don’t share common DNA with any other, in order to successfully identify Selinda Futrell’s father.  We use this as a benchmark against which we compare every other line.

Each Futrell line will be examined individually to see which one matches me closer, in terms of generation, than any other. For instance, if all of my DNA matches are at the 5th, 6th and 7th cousin level, save one that matches me at the 4th generational level or less – the most recent shared match is the one we need to investigate more closely. The identity of her father rests on Futrells who match me more closely in terms of generational distance than any other Futrell descendant line.

Normally, we’d also rely on the length of DNA segments shared, and the number of segments shared, between me and my Futrell DNA matches.  However, because of cousin marriages, I already know we’ll share more DNA in common than is typical for 4th to 8th cousins.  As an example, I have a Quaker cousin in Pennsylvania who suggests is a 3rd cousin. We know a number of the ways we’re related, which makes us 5th, 6th, and 7th cousins respectively (due to endogamy within the colonial Quaker communities, we share at least 6 sets of common ancestors). We share a crazy amount of DNA segments for two people whose common ancestors lived between 1660 and 1770. It’s not’s fault, it can only go by what the genetic numbers are telling it.

Yep, I know, it sounds like a whole lot of work to identify one ancestor. It’s what you do when the paper trail runs out.

And why spend so much time and effort to identify a father-owner ancestor?  I’ll touch on that in the next article.

Can we really make assumptions about African American DNA admixtures?

I caught up  with some of the geneticist team who were going to be a part of my first proposed television series the other day. Skype truly is a wondrous thing!  We chatted about my YDNA Haplogroup, E1b1a1a1f1a. There’s something about this haplogroup in particular that has confused me.

To recap for those of you who are new to genetics and genetic genealogy, a haplogroup is a term scientists use to describe individual branches, or closely related groups of branches, on the genetic family tree for human beings. In theory, all members of a YDNA haplogroup (passed from fathers to sons) can trace their ancestry back to a single individual until we reach a theoretical genetic ‘Adam’, the father of every male on the planet. Women have a genetic ‘Eve’, the point of origin for human mtDNA (passed from mothers to daughters).

So, we had a chat about good ole E1b1a1a1f1a. In order to have an informed discussion, I gave them access to my Genebase account. Genebase is the DNA testing company I used to test the full sequence of my YDA. It’s worth noting that other, more commercial, DNA testing companies test only various parts of YDNA and mtDNA.  I needed full sequencing done as a basis for my TV series.

Let’s take a quick look at the information they needed which formed the basis of our discussion. To be 100% transparent, we stripped out all non-African DNA from the results. I only wanted to look at the African part of my YDNA, which was the bit that was causing me all kinds of confusion.

My YDNA sequencing:

Image of a partial snapshot of my YDNA sequencing results.

This is a partial snapshot of my YDNA sequencing results from Genebase, with various genetic mutations marked. Click for larger image

At this point, Tim, one of the geneticists (and he also happens to be an anthropologist) said that he saw something interesting – something he hadn’t noticed before when we were planning the TV series. But he wanted to wait a bit until he mentioned what it was. He wanted to see if the other two people on the Skype session would notice the same thing.

Before we went there, we looked at the cultures and tribes I’m genetically linked to via my YDNA.  You can see this in the two images below:

African tribes my YDNA links me to based on my DYS19a, DYS389i DYS389ii DYS390X DYS391 DYS393 YDNA markers

African tribes my YDNA links me to based on my DYS19a, DYS389i DYS389ii DYS390X DYS391 DYS393 YDNA markers. You can also see some of the tribes and cultures I’m genetically linked to at genetic distance of 2. Click for larger image

Image showing my DYS385a, DYS385, DYS392, DYS393, DYS456, GATAH4 marker results.

Image showing my DYS385a, DYS385, DYS392, DYS393, DYS456, GATAH4 marker results. Click for larger image

You’ll notice a neat little phrase in the the images above. It’s Genetic Difference. “Genetic distance” is the number of mutation “steps” or mismatches between any two individuals.  “0” is a perfect match, “1” is a one-step mutation, etc.  The more mutations, the longer the probable time period since the most recent common ancestor.

So, based on the last two images above, I am closely matched with the Akele and the Punu in Gabon as well as the people of Oman. I’m also closely matched with Egyptians. The second image is unusual in that it (currently) connects me to Egyptians and no other culture or tribe.

Let’s look at where the Akele and Punu are found in modern Gabon:

Ethnographic map of modern Gabon. Bakele=Akele and Bapouno+Punu

Ethnographic map of modern Gabon. Bakele=Akele and Bapouno+Punu. Click for larger image

The Punu (also referred to as Bapunu and Bapounou, are a Bantu speaking group from Central Africa.  It’s one of the four major peoples of Gabon, inhabiting interior mountain and grassland areas in the southwest of the country, around the upper N’Gounié and Nyanga Rivers. Bapunu also live in parts of the Republic of the Congo. Punu traditions record a migration from the south sometime before the 19th century, as a result of wars somewhere between the Congo and Niari River.

The Kele people (also referred to as Akele, Bakele, Dikele, and Western Kele) are also an ethnic group in Gabon.

Realization #1

Now the 3 chaps I was chatting with took one look at my Haplogroup and responded along the lines of “ok. African Haplogroup. It get’s lots of traction in Central Africa, particularly in and around the Congo region.”

That’s when I asked them to look at the people I’m linked to (Akele, Punu, Omani and Egyptian).

This is the point when Charlie and Rob chimed in, almost in unison. “Whoa, wait a minute, E1b1a1a1f1a is really rare in Gabon. This doesn’t make any sense”. I laughed at this point and welcomed them to my world of confusion.

It turns out that E1b1a1a1f1a is rife with confusion (oh lucky me!). This Haplogroup is a fairly recent classification. As more human populations undergo DNA testing, the more we understand about YDNA, mtDNA and the haplogroups they have been assigned. Which is a good thing. It’s worth remembering that Genetic genealogy and commercial DNA testing are still in their relative infancy. Further research and testing means a more refined understanding of genetic inheritance. It means a more finessed understanding of us – human beings. What’s known and understood now will undergo refinement down the road. We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the human evolutionary history. There is so much more yet to be uncovered, much less understood. It’s worth remembering that too.

I say this to highlight the point that there is only a basic understanding of the E1b1a1a1f1a haplogroup. E1b1a1a1f1a is linked to western Central Africa. It is rarely found in the most western portions of West Africa. It is, however, prevalent in Nigeria and parts of Gabon (The Bantu expansion revisited a new analysis of Y chromosome variation in Central Western Africa. It’s also closely linked to eastern and southeastern Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, etc), where one group of geneticists believe it originated. There is another genetic school of thought that states that E1b1a1a1f1a’s origins are Levantine (basically, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt).

If the scientists can’t agree, what’s a poor genetic genealogy adventurer to do?

So this is where Tim chimed in. He’s the one who noticed something unusual in my YDNA sequence:  “Anyone else notice the DYS391P mutation?”


My partial YDNA sequence with the specific mutation the geneticists were discussing.

The other two men’s reactions were priceless. Charlie: “What, what?, back up a minute”.  Rob: “Yeah, we need to back up for a sec. How did that happen?”

At this point I laughed and just said “You tell me, you’re the scientists”.

Direct ancestors & genetic cousins


A map of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The blue areas are the ones I cite in this post. The pink areas are also in other parts of my YDNA sequencing at a genetic distance of 1. As you’ll see, Gabon is notable by its geographic distance from everywhere else I have a genetic link to at a genetic distance of 1…which raises the fundamental question: How did that happen? Click for a larger image.

Rob and Tim got into an interesting conversation about my haplogroup and the very specific mutation within it. Both made a good point. I’m genetically connected to a staggering number of African tribes. Rob and Tim pointed out that I will be a direct descendant of only a few. All of the others would be genetic cousins. At a mutational difference of 1, the Akele, the Punu, and the Omani are the best candidates for being my direct ancestors. The Egyptians are too. They are just an older direct ancestor pool. At the moment, we’re speculating that all of the other tribes and cultures with a genetic distance greater than 1 would be genetic cousins. In other worlds, I’m not a direct descendant of them. We share a common ancestry further back in time. That time frame could be a few generations (prior to my unknown ancestor’s enslavement and transportation to the United States) for some, to centuries for others…to millennia.

All 3 surmise that at some point within the last 1,500 years or so, an east African man, with Arab male ancestors, carried my YDNA, with a key mutation, into north Africa and northwest Africa. This tallies with the other cultures and tribes in my YDNA, namely the Berber and the Tuareg. At some point, one of his male descendants, a Berber-Tuareg man with this haplogroup and DNA, settled in what’s now present day Gabon.

That’s not surprising. Africa has truly ancient trade routes. And where there are trade routes, there are people. Where there are people, DNA gets exchanged and admixtures arise. The following scientific paper, suggested by Charlie, made for some insightful reading into this specific subject: Sacko, O. Influences of Trans-Saharan Trade’s Cultural Exchanges on Architecture: Learning from Historical Cities and Cultural Heritages in Mali and Mauritania (

To shed some light on this, you’ll find some images that show ancient African trade routes.

East Africa trade routes:

A map showing ancient trade routes from east Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, India and beyond.

A map showing ancient trade routes from east Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, India and beyond. Is this how these regions contributed to my YDNA? click for larger image.

Intra-African Trade routes: 

Map showing ancient trade routes within Africa.

Map showing ancient trade routes within Africa. We know my YDNA travelled from East Africa to Northwest Africa along the North African Mediterranean Coastline. Is the route shown at the top of the image the way it travelled across northern Africa? click for larger image

Once established among either the Akele or the Punu, this ancestor’s male descendants married and produced offspring who melted into the surrounding tribal landscape. At some point, one of his male descendants was enslaved and sent to America. That’s the theory my 3 colleagues presented in the end. Much more DNA testing needs to be done on African populations to better understand the evolution of present day African admixtures and history. Significantly more DNA testing needs to be done.  I offer this exchange:

So what’s common and what’s not when it comes to African  Admixtures?

Charlie: “Brian’s haplogroup and this mutation just aren’t commonly seen in Gabon.”

Tim: “How do we know that? Science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to African DNA. We just don’t know. I don’t. Maybe it is rare. Maybe it isn’t. We just aren’t in a position to say what is or isn’t common with African DNA. What I will say is that I find this very, very interesting. It’s something I want to spend some time looking into.”

Charlie offered an interesting and plausible insight. He suggested that perhaps the ancestor who was abducted and then sold into slavery was specifically chosen because it was known that his family wasn’t indigenous to Gabon. They may have been part of the Akele and Punu for only a few generations. If his family had a falling out with a rival family or clan, that’s all it would take. The Akele and the Punu were both heavily engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. So they had the means and the connections to abduct and then sell a perceived ‘other’. Considering what’s happening all around the globe right now, this scenario isn’t just conceivable, it is highly probable.

When it comes to African American ancestry, what’s ‘normal’

Rob asked an interesting question: “Do you guys think Brian’s sequencing is common or uncommon in African Americans?”

I beat them all to the punch with a simple question: “What’s considered ‘common’ when it comes to African American admixtures?”  I was asked to clarify the question, which I duly did. I pointed out these numbers from the last US Census:

1) 45,672,250 or 14.3%: Black Only or Black in combination with another race;

2) 42,158,238 or 13.2%: Black Only;

3) 42,316,387 or 13.3%: ‘Black Only’ or ‘Black in combination with another race’ (non-Hispanic); and

4) 39,528,225 or 12.4%: Black Only (non-Hispanic)

This doesn’t cover those who self-identify as black and Hispanic, etc – or those who don’t even know that they have an African descended ancestor.

It’s believed that 1 million Americans have taken DNA tests. I haven’t found any reliable statistics that show how many of these DNA test takers are African descended Americans. I suspect that the number of African Americans who have taken DNA tests is a very small percentage of that overall 1 million figure. Infinitesimally small. Statistically speaking, not large enough to make any qualified statements.

This happens to be a huge bugbear for me. There are shows that make assertions like: most African Americans don’t have Native American ancestry, or, if they do, that African Americans ‘usually’ have X amount. Or, that few African Americans are 100% African in their ancestry. Or, that any given African American will have Y% of European ancestry or SE Asian ancestry… the assertions go on and on. If this subject interests you, Tim recommended an excellent article: The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans (

Now, if 10 million African Americans were to take DNA tests, then we’d have a significant DNA data set to begin making generalized DNA-based statements. Today? We’re working in a dark room without any windows or light. Just a single candle. That’s just not enough illumination to make any kind of definitive statement. Sorry, but I am stickler for such things.

The same is true of African DNA. We just don’t know if the prevalence of any given genetic admixture is typical or atypical. We know more about how DNA travelled from eastern Africa to China than we do about how it travelled from eastern Africa to all other points in the African continent. The remoteness of some tribes is a barrier to large scale genetic testing. Then, there’s the climate: arid and acidic soil conditions – as well as extremely moist environmental conditions – which aren’t conducive to preserving human remains, much less fragile DNA. Such finds would enable science to study the ancient roots and migrations across Africa of the ancient peoples who gave rise to the modern day tribes we see today. Then there’s the question of where to look for ancient remains to test, and then compare to modern day tribes. Africa is a huge continent. Looking for this is like looking for a needle in one huge haystack. Science has some real barriers when it comes to the genetic testing of African populations.

I was pretty pleased when all 3 men agreed that there is a need to stop asserting what’s typical when it comes to the DNA of African descended people.

Tim asked my opinion about whether or not I believed that the vast majority of American slaves came from western Africa. I didn’t hold back. Given the number of slave ports on the western African coast, one could assume that a significant proportion of slaves sent to the United States probably did come from the western African coastal region. What that number would actually be is just a guess.

And me being me, I went one step further with one of my analogies: New York City is an enormous port. Every manner of products and goods are shipped from, or flown out of, New York City. It is one of America’s exporting hearts. Not every single product or goods shipped out of New York came from New York or was produced in New York. They come from all four corners of the United States. It would take close inspection of export documentation to determine what percentage of good shipped from New York City actually came from New York, or the surrounding Mid-Atlantic or New England states.  One could assume what percentage of these came from this region. Maybe you’d be right. Maybe not. Only research could reveal what’s correct and what isn’t.

The same holds true for African American genetic genealogy as well as African genetic studies. For the time being, I don’t think anyone really knows. This needs to be understood and accepted. We just don’t know. I appreciate that’s a hard thing to hear. I say this to myself each and every day to manage my own expectations.Enslaved African ancestors could have come from pretty much anywhere in the African continent.

For the time being, I take my genetic results as an indication. No more and no less. My YDNA test indicates that I’m a direct descendant of an African man with an interesting Arabian Peninsula-East African-North African-Akele-Punu admixture. How he got that admixture is anybody’s guess. When that admixture occurred is anybody’s guess. And as more African people have their DNA tested and studied, this picture will hopefully become more finessed. Hopefully, the missing puzzle pieces will fall into place.

My geneticist friends are troopers. Bless them, I’ve hit them with a barrage of questions. None of the questions I’ve asked are easy to answer. Thankfully, they find them really intriguing questions that have piqued their interest.  I ask questions because I want to know. *smiling* and I can’t begin to tell you how badly I want to know. Are the Yoruba my first or second cousins, genetically speaking? Are the Fulani my second cousins or third cousins twice removed? Are the Baka something like a 10th great grand uncle?

I want to tackle this basic and fundamental set of questions before I even begin to think about how I’m genetically linked to everyone else in my YDNA – Central Asian, Persian, Sephardic Jewish, SE Asian, Korean and European.

To do the kind of genetic genealogy adventure TV series that my heart of hearts wants to do – we definitely need to figure out this smorgasbord of YDNA.

There’s a practical reason for wanting to know. I share my finds with my wider family, who find all of this fascinating (to various degrees). When you tell your family members you’ve found a new cousin, the first question is usually a simple one: how are we related? In straightforward genealogy, you can show them a family tree and walk them through the connection so they can see it for themselves.

I’d love to be in a position to do this with the global tribes and cultures we’re linked to. That’s the one thing I can’t do at the moment. And yes, I want to know for me. *grinning* For once, I can make this all about me. I want to know. I want to know where these different global groups of people fall on my YDNA tree.


A genetic genealogy article about Michelle Obama got me thinking…

I’m going to open with an apology.  I know I’ve been very, very quiet lately. Since September, I’ve been busy helping my nephew and his lovely wife take their fashion design business and their new online fashion business course to the next level. Like any new job, there’s just not enough hours in the day. The upside is I get to work with family; especially the younger generation of the family. And that’s always a good thing!

Josiah HalanThis hiatus is probably coming at the right time too. It’s always a good thing to take a step back from genealogy  from time to time.  To re-group as it were and assess research avenues old and new. There is one story that’s been on the backburner for a while. That’s the story of Josiah Harlan, an American Quaker who was created a prince of Afghanistan ( . Yep, you read that correctly: an American Quaker who became an Afghani prince. My Harlan ancestors are the gift that just keeps giving.

In the meantime, I’d like to share an interesting New York Times article I just finished reading this morning: Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden: DNA Gives New Insights Into Michelle Obama’s Roots

It’s a story of the First Lady’s new-found connection to white cousins she never knew she had. And vice versa – her newly discovered cousins had no inkling that they were related to African Americans.  It’s a great story about genetic genealogy, a subject you know I’m interested in. DNA has enabled me to discover the identity of a number of white men who fathered a number of my direct mulatto ancestors.

There is one sentence in the article that really stood out.  It was a quote from one of the First Lady’s white cousins: “You really don’t like to face this kind of thing.” She’s referring to the fact that a white ancestor owned slaves and fathered children by one of them. It’s such a decidedly American response – as peculiar as the institution of American slavery itself (and I use the word ‘peculiar’ in its original context, and not the context in which it has become known today). I struggle with the idea that something that is so straightforward should be so complicated. Then again, I’m the archetypal Aquarian – Spock on Star Trek is a perfect example.

I’m not going to diminish the subject of consent, even in a master-slave context. Until relatively recently, whether you were black or white, free or enslaved, women in America were owned and controlled by men. They had zero control over their own lives, much less their own bodies. It’s worth remembering that. I just wanted to get that subject out of the way.

So I’m not dismissing the myriad of ways in which white men fathered children by black women and women of color. It was what it was. That’s another conversation for another day. Rather than get lost in the angst of this, I’ve meet my newly found white cousins as family: be it online or in person. There’s no blame or recriminations or expectations around how we came to be related. I don’t think along those lines. Instead, I think of it like this:  It’s kind of like being adopted and discovering who you are and who you’re related to for the first time. It’s like finding missing puzzle pieces to your identity. As far as I’m aware, because this has always been my mindset when it comes to my family history, it’s been incredibly easy for me to get to know these newly found cousins. Actually, it’s been a joy.

I recognize distinct family traits when they chat about their side of the family. I can say to myself “so that’s where my family gets it from!” I was almost fated to be a lover of politics. I’m descended from a staggering number of US Governors, Congressmen, Senators and State Representatives. I was almost fated to be a global traveller; I follow in the footsteps of a number of ancestors who trekked around the globe. I don’t apologize for being a free-thinker; I follow in the footsteps of some renowned free-thinkers and philosophers. My resilience? I am the son of colonial pioneers as well as free and enslaved people of color who survived and fought to make something of themselves. As for a being a lover of liberty? I’m the child of 3 signers of the Declaration of Independence and numerous Revolutionary War heroes and heroines. DNA was the lock that opened the window into a previously unknown and unsuspected ancestral past.

Of course there are some white relations, notably in the deep American south, who aren’t happy that they are related to people of color. That’s their right. And that’s their loss. They aren’t ready yet. I get that so I leave them to it.

People can make things as easy or as complicated as they want to. What I do hope is that DNA testing will allow Americans to reassess their relationship to the fake concept of race, and all of the baggage we’ve burdened ourselves with and carried for far too long.

Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden: DNA Gives New Insights Into Michelle Obama’s Roots

While I am on hiatus, you can follow my Genealogy Adventures Facebook Page. I’m still regularly sharing interesting articles and family history research videos that I come across:

In search of my Jewish great-grandfather

Thanks to the new DNA project from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center, DNA Land (, I’m one big step closer to finding one of my maternal great grandfathers.

I’ve had my autosomal DNA analysed by quite a few DNA testing and analysis services: DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch and Genebase. They all show that a fifth (20%) of my autosomal DNA comes from an Ashkenazi/Levantine ancestor. All of my Jewish cousin matches from these services match me at an estimated 3rd to 4th generation level. Which strongly suggests that the ancestor I’m looking for is a great-grandparent or a great-great grandparent.

I know all of my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents with 100% certainty except for one: my maternal grandfather’s male line. This narrows down the field enormously. How? It’s easier to know that I’m only looking for one individual. And, I know the gender of that person. I also know which side of my family tree he falls within.

I’m looking for a man who in lived in the Washington DC area at the turn of 20th Century. Which is also a boon. I know the area he lived in and when he lived there. This too narrows the search parameters.

I know the man I am seeking would have been born roughly in the 1880s. Either he, or his parents, would have emigrated to Washington DC between the 1820s and the early 1900s. Which is another clue.

DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch, Family Tree DNA and Genebase all show that my missing Jewish great grandfather has a distinctive Jewish admixture: Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian. There is a zero Western or Northern European footprint in his DNA. There’s one place on the world map where a 19th Century European Jewish community had this admixture and emigrated to the US between 1820 and the 1880s – Galicia.

I immediately thought of Spain when I saw Galicia. Turns out, there is more than one European region with that name. The one that directly relates to me is the one in Eastern Europe. Once an independent kingdom, Galicia is a region that has been intensely fought over, and possessed, by Russia, Poland and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s southern region is part of Ukraine.It’s northern region is now part of present day Poland.

Armed with this new knowledge, I went back to Genebase, the more advanced and thorough of the DNA testing services I’ve used, and trawled through a mountain of DNA analytic results, chromosome by chromosome. It turns out that the man I’m looking for comes from a very specific part of Galicia: Eastern Galicia. Another incredibly strong filter.

map of the Galician Region

map of the Galician region

My Jewish autosomal DNA has the strongest resonance with present day people located in the southeastern area that encompasses Halicz to the west, Rawa to the north, Zbaraz to the east and Husiatyn to the south. That’s how precise my Genebase DNA test results are.

Armed with this new knowledge, I sent an email to Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. I explained who I was, the ancestor I was looking for any information sources they could recommend where I could find out more about the Galician Jewish community in Washington DC. In less than 24 hours I received an incredibly helpful reply.

In a way, I lucked out that my unknown great-grandfather, or his parents, chose Washington DC as their new home. Compared to other immigrant Jewish communities in the US, the one in Washington DC was relatively tiny.  20,000 or so souls lived in the Greater DC area at the turn of the last century. It was a very, very tight knit community. Which means there is a real chance that I could actually discover his name.

DNA testing is the tool needed to crack this. Specifically, my genetic cousin matches. Family names like Dunau, Fidel, Kessel/Kissel, Rosenberg, Tannenbaum and Yisrael hold the vital clues. Armed with a gender, a rough year of birth, a specific area or origins and a US place of residence, I can now begin the process of emailing my Jewish DNA cousins and ask if they know of any family who lived in Washington DC in the early 1900’s. While I wait for their responses, I can begin looking at digitized records from the Jewish Synagogues that served this community in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. And look for the family names I’m becoming familiar with.

I have to laugh at this point. I am descended from four forcibly displaced people who were scattered to the four corners of the globe: African, Irish, Jewish and Scottish. All four present the same challenges for any genealogist: non-existent or poorly kept records. None were considered human by those who controlled their fate. All present hurdle after hurdle when it comes to stitching their family trees back together again.

However, researching my African American ancestors has taught me patience, diligence and how to use my innate ability to not see a box (so I don’t have to ‘think outside’ of one) in order to crack genealogical barriers and mysteries. This skillset will definitely come in handy when it comes to cracking the mystery of my unknown Jewish great-grandfather. In the meantime, I’m learning about his Galician world and the world of the 19th and  20th Century Jewish community of Washington DC.

DNA Results Part 1: My Y DNA has been on quite a journey

I feel I owe American airport security a bit of an apology.  You see, I’m a liar.  I didn’t know it at the time…but I was.  Every time I fly to and from the States it’s hell.  I get pulled out the queue, grilled relentlessly by airport security and then sent on my way.  Why?  Because American airport security think I’m Arab. I fit ‘the profile’. I admit at first I had sense of humour failures where I’d state calmly but firmly that I didn’t have a drop of Arab blood and it really shouldn’t matter if I did.  Before 9/11 being ‘profiled’ as an African American by the police was bad enough. Trust me, after 9/11, being ‘profiled’ by airport security due to appearing Arab is hardcore and worse. I have, over time, gotten over it.  I just suck it up, smile politely, and then ask them to check out my father’s decades of military service.

So what was the lie?  Well, it turns out that I do indeed have Arab blood in these veins. And, um, rather a lot of it too. Who knew!?!  Well, I guess my DNA certainly did. And here’s how I found out about this and a whole lot more.

After much umming and awing over the matter, I decided to take a comprehensive DNA test courtesy of Genebase . The first test results arrived today. This first part of the many DNA tests I’ve booked looked at my paternal Y DNA (this is the DNA passed down from fathers to sons since our species began). This first part of the DNA test specifically looked at my ancient DNA markers…looking back between 4,000 to 50,000 years ago.

A tiny bit about Y DNA

A little bit about Y Chromosones

So what did these test results tell me?

4,000 years ago the ancient ancestors of my 4 x great grand-father, Jacob Sheffey, left Ethiopia for Egypt.  But more on that migration in a bit. The Y DNA test had strong results for populations who settled in Burkina Faso and Mali. This was great information to discover, but not exactly a surprise. A cousin who also did a DNA test had these markers in his DNA results. So I was already expecting the same.

What was surprising was my initial DNA results returned matches for China, India, Greece, the Middle East and Sephardic Jews (I refer to the older definition covering the ancient Jews of North African and West Asian ancestry as opposed to the more modern definition of Jews who lived on the Iberian peninsula and were forced to leave due to the Spanish Inquisition).

What really struck me, and continues to fascinate me, is visualizing the movement of his ancestors’ migration (the male ones at this point) over a staggering swathe of time. 36,000 years is a concept that takes a wee while for me to get my head around. We’re talking a period of time which witnessed cataclysmic climate changes, environmental changes, mass extinction events, population growth, the rise and fall of civilisations, the birth of spoken language and cuneiform,  the creation of tools, art…the genesis of everything the descendants of these ancient human beings take for granted every day.

Some funny things called Haplogroups & Sub-claves

So I’ve discovered that the ancient part of my Y chromosome belongs to a group called Y-DNA Haplogroup E. It doesn’t stop there.  There are dozens of sub-classifications for this Y DNA group called sub-claves.  This is a gross oversimplification but think of Haplogroups as a species, say a cat for instance (only because I’m sitting here looking at my cat). This would separate cats from lions, tigers, pumas, etc.   A sub-clave would be like a specific breed of cat, say Persian, Mau Mau, Burmese, Siamese, etc for instance. I’ll be taking a specific DNA test this month which will tell me what precise sub-clave my paternal male ancestors belong to.

Is knowing which sub-clave I belong to important?  Probably not.  I just want to know which precise ancient population my father’s male ancestors belonged to.  As one of the 4 oldest Haplogroups, my Haplogroup E group has a staggering number of offshoots. All of the really oldest variants are African. Even my sub-clave E1b1a has an impressive number of sub groups. The video below covers the E Haplogroup.

There’s a link below for a video that’s incredibly scientific.  I struggled in some parts.  But don’t let this put you off.  I’m glad I stuck it out as I think it has some incredible information.

Learn about Y-DNA Haplogroup E
Learning Center | Paternal Ancestry (Y-DNA) | Y-DNA Haplogroups (SNPs)

From Genebase

The trip my Y chromosome has taken…

So, 4,000 years ago or so, Jacob Sheffey’s male ancestors took one of 2 major migration routes across Africa. If his ancestors migrated through North Africa (from Egypt to Libya, Algeria, Morocco  etc), his ancestors would have been part of the great Berber migration along the northern coast of Africa.  The Berbers moved from Egypt along the northern African coast reaching Morocco. They continued their migration turning southwards, along the upper and mid western African coastline.

The second route would have been the great Bantu migration from East Africa (Ethiopia) across the Sahara to the western African coast (Burkina Faso and Mali in this case).  The sub-clave test I’ll be taking this month will shed light on which one of these two migration routes his ancient ancestors took.

So where does the Greek, Chinese, Sephardic Jewish and Indian DNA markers come from?  Most likely while Jacob’s ancient ancestors were in Egypt. 4000 years ago where there were ancient, well-established trade routes between Eastern Africa, Egypt, the Indian sub-continent and China. If his ancestors were traders, it’s not unfathomable that his African ancestors would have taken wives and husbands from these populations. As the video above outlines, the DNA group to which Jacob belongs eventually migrated and settled into these regions as well as North Africa and West Africa. Later still, they migrated throughout southern and Eastern Europe.

I settled upon Genebase as a DNA testing option for a few reasons. One of the reasons is its extensive DNA database.  Once tested, DNA is matched against other DNA samples in its database and it finds genetic matches – matches that are close as well as distant. Through this first part of the test, I’ve been put in touch with people who share a genetic match with me in the US, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia and Greece.

The degrees of relation vary wildly and depend on the number of genes shared.  For instance, there is a Mr Green in the USA with whom I share an ancestor as recently as 6 generations ago based on DNA results. He and I only differ in 1 gene in our Y Chromosomes. On the other side of the coin is Mr al Abrahim in Egypt. The test indicates we last shared a common ancestor around 66 generations ago…that’s approximately 1,650 years.  Or Mr Suarez in Brazil…he and I last shared a common ancestor 85 generations ago… approximately 2,125 years in the past.

Among the 143 Y DNA matches so far, there were American surnames which came as no surprise: Bagby, Green , Carpenter, Hill and Richardson.  In short, the first round of results has already underscored what the family research has brought to light about extended Sheffey family relations.

I now know which African tribes share my Y DNA!

What I wasn’t expecting – and came as a hugely pleasant surprise – was my Y DNA matching to various modern day peoples and tribes. I wasn’t expecting such information and didn’t realize it was even possible to drill DNA results down to this level. To say this information is kind of priceless is like saying that China and India are kind of populated. It takes a lot to blow my mind.  This information did it…in the best of all possible ways.

Focusing on Africa, in genetic terms, below is a list of tribes which share a large part of my African paternal Y- DNA (from highest match [more than 90% shared] to lowest match [more than 45% shared]:

Tribe – Country

Kassena – Burkina Faso, Africa

Bissa – Burkina Faso, Africa

Bisa – Zambia, Africa

Galoa – Gabon, Africa

Fwe – Zambia, Africa

Ateke – Gabon, Africa

Kunda – Zambia, Africa

Umbundu – Angola, Africa

Luyana – Zambia, Africa

Makina – Gabon, Africa

Kota – Gabon, Africa

Bantu speakers – Angola, Africa

Ndumu – Gabon, Africa

South Samo – Burkina Faso, Africa

Benga – Gabon, Africa

Tonga – Zambia, Africa

Marka – Burkina Faso, Africa

Akele – Gabon, Africa

Tsogo – Gabon, Africa

The upshot is now the next time I get grilled by American airport security, I can embrace my Arab-ness and kindly tell them that yes, millennia ago, I did indeed have ethnic Arab ancestors. And yes, there are unknown Muslim North African ancestors in the family tree…before smiling patiently and turning the conversation to my father’s decades of military service. Even better, thanks to genealogy and a dry sense of humour, I can chat to them about Sheffey family congressmen, Revolutionary War heroes, War of 1812 heroes, Civil War heroes and the like as I’m stepping out of my shoes, lifting my shirt up (in front of everyone else in the line) and answering a barrage of questions with a quiet but palpable indignation.

And I will have quite the in-flight reading list as I read up on a number of the African tribes listed above.