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Thread: Surname based ancestry limitations

  1. #1
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    Surname based ancestry limitations

    I've run into a serious problem when trying to determine what the precise ancestral breakdown of my family tree is.
    Surnames as the basis of ancestral breakdown are all but useless. Most of the branches go back to the mid-late 1700s and stop there, but clearly belong to families that have had residence for a significantly longer time period just based on property records and location. This is mainly due to a lack of standard census records before the 1800s, and the destruction of information during the Civil War in the states they lived in. This is a problem because determining the exact breakdown of every family line is proving impossible. Last names are nothing to go on, as all too often I find that someone with a German or French last name had, in reality, 3 irish or scottish or welsh grandparents upon further research. When 90% of the family tree records end when they were still clearly living there much longer, this becomes an almost complete lack of ability to determine anything with any accuracy.

    DNA tests have been absolutely no help at all, with ridiculous results that have no consistent estimates or even regions with the exception of all being majority British Isles. Dubious family myths about native great grandparents have not been a helpful addition to my research. What I'm beginning to fear is that actually figuring out where my ancestors came from with any accuracy will be impossible. Knowing that they all came from Europe is pretty meaningless because I could have told you that by looking in a mirror. Is there any strong guideline for using statistical analysis to figure out the most probable breakdown based on surnames alone?

  2. #2
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    In the British isles I donít think you can rely on surnames for origin because a lot of names have multiple origins. You also have to consider Gaelic names that have been anglicised and may appear Norman/Anglo-Saxon.

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    Some issues that impede my ancestry searches: literacy, inconsistent spelling of surnames, and political changes in record keeping. My ancestors came from towns in Poland, Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Germany. Yikes!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Milton1997 View Post
    I've run into a serious problem when trying to determine what the precise ancestral breakdown of my family tree is.
    Surnames as the basis of ancestral breakdown are all but useless. Most of the branches go back to the mid-late 1700s and stop there, but clearly belong to families that have had residence for a significantly longer time period just based on property records and location. This is mainly due to a lack of standard census records before the 1800s, and the destruction of information during the Civil War in the states they lived in. This is a problem because determining the exact breakdown of every family line is proving impossible. Last names are nothing to go on, as all too often I find that someone with a German or French last name had, in reality, 3 irish or scottish or welsh grandparents upon further research. When 90% of the family tree records end when they were still clearly living there much longer, this becomes an almost complete lack of ability to determine anything with any accuracy.

    DNA tests have been absolutely no help at all, with ridiculous results that have no consistent estimates or even regions with the exception of all being majority British Isles. Dubious family myths about native great grandparents have not been a helpful addition to my research. What I'm beginning to fear is that actually figuring out where my ancestors came from with any accuracy will be impossible. Knowing that they all came from Europe is pretty meaningless because I could have told you that by looking in a mirror. Is there any strong guideline for using statistical analysis to figure out the most probable breakdown based on surnames alone?
    No, I don't think an ancestry estimate based on surnames will be anything but a best guess and no better than Ancestry or 23andMe. Your best option is those in connection with research -- tracing a surname across the pond is hard in many cases, but relevant, and DNA can help with that, although it might be more about matches or YDNA than ethnicity estimates. Tracing within the US/America helps too as you may run into unquestionably ethnic groupings, and while the census only helps to a point there are wills and property records and maybe church records and military records and various others that just take more work.

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    even in countries like the nordic ones, surnames do not provide firm genealogical leads. There are reliable taxation records of landowners more than 300 years back as well as court records listing villains, private and public quarrels, university records from further south may help (protestant clergy sent to wittenberg, leyden and toher north European instuturions) (there is detailed knowledge of w0hich nobleman chopped the heads off whom about a mllennium back) Hence very socially skewed the further back you go,

    Even surnames that can be "time stamped" and localized are a wobbly foundation for building a family tree. Surnames.as adress replaced patronymicons once there were too many "nils nilsens", but different scribes had different place name spellings and if not takong over the family farm through primogeniture a marriage might well entail a change of surname (for instance marrrying a widow and hence aquiring her farm adress) . Several places could also have similarly named farms so the "phone book method" has nothing to commend it beyond providing training in geographical and historical source examintion

    p.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Milton1997 View Post
    I've run into a serious problem when trying to determine what the precise ancestral breakdown of my family tree is.
    Surnames as the basis of ancestral breakdown are all but useless. Most of the branches go back to the mid-late 1700s and stop there, but clearly belong to families that have had residence for a significantly longer time period just based on property records and location. This is mainly due to a lack of standard census records before the 1800s, and the destruction of information during the Civil War in the states they lived in. This is a problem because determining the exact breakdown of every family line is proving impossible. Last names are nothing to go on, as all too often I find that someone with a German or French last name had, in reality, 3 irish or scottish or welsh grandparents upon further research. When 90% of the family tree records end when they were still clearly living there much longer, this becomes an almost complete lack of ability to determine anything with any accuracy.

    DNA tests have been absolutely no help at all, with ridiculous results that have no consistent estimates or even regions with the exception of all being majority British Isles. Dubious family myths about native great grandparents have not been a helpful addition to my research. What I'm beginning to fear is that actually figuring out where my ancestors came from with any accuracy will be impossible. Knowing that they all came from Europe is pretty meaningless because I could have told you that by looking in a mirror. Is there any strong guideline for using statistical analysis to figure out the most probable breakdown based on surnames alone?
    Been there, done that; some success with other methods and some acquiescence - for now.

    O.K.
    First up, at a time when the big companies highlight people celebrating finding family (who were not hidden in the first place) from 100 years ago,
    you are doing really well to get back beyond 1800. And you really need to celebrate that achievement.
    I spend time helping people who can't get anywhere near that. So you have made great headway compared with many others.

    Second, there are ways around some of the problems you have mentioned, that can help you get back further.
    Surnames may be one "signature" that can be followed, but DNA can do the same thing - and over more lines.
    Arranged matches into clusters that go back along ancestral lines is one way.
    A parallel and combination track is to use triangulated match segments in a similar way.
    DON'T look only for surnames when you do this. As you say, they can change a lot. (Roughly 50% every generation due to marriage alone.)
    Look for geographical similarities and patterns, and bolster this by reading up on the history of the area and the people who lived there.
    People often made common purpose with people they knew in moving together to a new region.
    Some of my people came from one area of the Old Country and continued to associate with similar and sometimes related people over subsequent moves and generations, although the effect is diluted over time. And sometimes these associations were documented by others, and I have managed to find their records.

    You have mentioned the loss of records due to the Civil War.
    Is there any chance of your people turning up in records from earlier conflicts such as War of Independence or 1812, that might have been preserved due to being located elsewhere? (Not an area I know anything about, but I have seen Southerners' accounts of locating such records.)

    Some of my people kept their own records in family bibles and such, so when official records were lost or have been mistranscribed into another language, it has been possible to reconstruct parts. Church records have also been helpful sometimes, even though at first there was limited central control of procedures and storage. But again, in your case, the War of 1860s would have seen to that.

    Moving on, you have a Cornish flag amongst your origins.
    Cornish were generally different from most other English. Make sure you put "Cornwall" in your addresses for your ancestors from there.
    Some patronymics can be found all over Britain, but by adding "Cornwall", you can be much more specific.
    And attract the eyes of matches who might otherwise just move on.
    Use localised resources such as https://www.cornwall-opc-database.org/
    Their wildcards for surname searches work really well for my Cornish names.

    The other tip I finally realised would help keep me sane was a ratchet principle: just moving a particular family line on a little, based on lots of prior evidence.
    It's easy to look all over and try to examine 16 (or more!) different lines from a match. But it can be a poor research technique.
    As mentioned earlier, if you do want to keep doing this, filter by geography informed by history.
    (If you may have Scots/Irish you are going to need to look for both Northern Irish AND Scots matches. If they in turn came from the Scots Borders, you may need to include Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria as well as Scots for ancestors further back.)

    Y DNA is not always a magic bullet, but if you have the funds and available relatives, you can apply it to lines other than just your father's father's.
    If you have a suitable maternal male relative you can test them too, for that male line.
    But there can be disappointments.
    My surname line has a rare Haplogroup.
    I have zero matches from STRs, but looking at those closest to me, they are all on the NW European coast, with maybe a Common Ancestor (CA) as close as 1000 years ago.
    Y-700 killed that hope. Now I know that I have a different subhaplogroup from them, with a CA probably 10,000 years ago, when we were all in the Middle East somewhere.
    And I still have zero matches.
    But from autosomal DNA and family histories I know 3rd cousins in that line whose DNA could help sort out all those private variants and provide a better idea of chronology.
    And there are histories around from where I could track down some people with my surname who also came from where my people came from, so are candidates for more distant cousins.
    But I am following another ancestral line at present.

    Good luck.

  7. #7
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    Thanks for the big response. As for Cornwall, I know my maternal grandfathers family had some origins in Cornwall, but due to the muddy knowledge and lack of confirmation of his paternal line I hesitated to even put it on my profile.
    I can't take most of the credit for my family tree as the heavy lifting was done by family members keeping family records for a long time. Some of their information has been proven faulty, but most of it holds up pretty well under record analysis. My dad has taken several trips to parts of my state to examine these in person, and we're lucky that his entire family didn't move since colonial times. I guess I'm a little spoiled, complaining about not getting past 250 years on most lines. My dad and I are currently working on some big match clustering, mainly to connect a gap in the paternal line. We haven't said much about it, but it seems that in 1823 someone was born with a last name that might not be last name of their biological father.

  8. #8
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    I've come to realise that, ironically, other americans tend to know a lot more about their ethnic composition than I do. Most people I see that post family tree charts only go back to their 1G or 2G grandparents, which appears to be the common stopping point for most americans, seemingly because they already got back to their recent immigrant ancestors. By this point they've already determined major portions of their ethnic composition because, from what I see, they tend to have a lot of recent immigration by the time they get to 1900 or so. People with only 15-31 people in their researched family tree have a pretty comfortable idea of where in europe their different branches came from. But for me, even though I have researched a much more extensive family tree, I have a very murky knowledge of where my ancestors came from before they got to the united states. I have researched full generations all the way back to 4G grandparents, and on most lines to the mid-1700s. But most of them just dead-end at some point between 1750 and 1790 with only the knowledge of the state they were born in, most of them very obviously not first or second generation immigrants. I'll never really know 100% for certain because some of my ancestors just came from the people and towns that were already in their states for many generations, because before that a lot of individuals just weren't being recorded. In many cases the wife is just some girl with no records of her family, most in a location which is unlikely to have many immigrants. There's just no way of really telling and it's frustrating for me how poor commercial ancestry estimates still are. The ONLY known immigrants in my family tree are two Irish great-great-great-grandparents and two German great-great-great-grandparents who arrived shortly before the Civil War. I can only account for 12.5% of my ancestors european origins, the rest is just "from the Southern US for 300+ years". One of the German immigrants might not even be accurate, because their records don't match up well with the records of their supposed immigrant parents. My dad just keeps it in the tree because we have no other good leads, but he thinks this "Windsor" probably just came from around the area he lived in.

    At this point I guess I might as well just consider myself ethnically american and say that it's a Northwest European ethno-genesis which at this point supersedes whatever mix of northwest european nationalities my ancestors were before they got here. I think I'm mostly British Isles, but sometimes I get results that make me highly question it and think that al lot of those English surnames could be Germans.
    Milton_scaled,0.122929,0.138112,0.061471,0.03553,0 .043393,0.015618,0.001175,0.010846,0.005318,0.0105 7,-0.007795,-0.002698,-0.005054,-0.007019,0.011672,0.008088,-0.000913,-0.00038,0.008673,-0.002626,0.006988,0.002597,0.003821,0.014098,0.003 233

    Target: Milton_scaled
    Distance: 4.6323% / 0.04632266
    44.0 Yamnaya_RUS_Samara
    42.0 Anatolia_Barcin_N
    14.0 WHG

  9. #9
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    I started in DNA research because I wanted to know more about my father's father's family, of which at the time (2018) I knew next to nothing. My father was born Frederick P. Sellers III in Van Nuys, California, in 1958; by the time I was born twenty years later, he was de facto using the surname of his stepfather, who was his father figure for two thirds of his childhood. So I thought we were English, but, no, we are German. I still am ethnically English, as my mother is predominantly of English descent, but not in the male-line. My research quickly headed to Chicago, where my great-grandfather ran a laundromat, and finally to the Palatinate, where my male line great-great-great-grandfather was born, immigrating to America as a young adult right before our Civil War. The family name then was spelled Seller, a dialectical form of the German name Seiler, an occupational surname meaning a roper.

  10. The Following User Says Thank You to JoeyP37 For This Useful Post:

     JMcB (08-12-2021)

  11. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by JoeyP37 View Post
    I started in DNA research because I wanted to know more about my father's father's family, of which at the time (2018) I knew next to nothing. My father was born Frederick P. Sellers III in Van Nuys, California, in 1958; by the time I was born twenty years later, he was de facto using the surname of his stepfather, who was his father figure for two thirds of his childhood. So I thought we were English, but, no, we are German. I still am ethnically English, as my mother is predominantly of English descent, but not in the male-line. My research quickly headed to Chicago, where my great-grandfather ran a laundromat, and finally to the Palatinate, where my male line great-great-great-grandfather was born, immigrating to America as a young adult right before our Civil War. The family name then was spelled Seller, a dialectical form of the German name Seiler, an occupational surname meaning a roper.
    How difficult was tracing the German spelling of the name? I've found name spelling breaks to be the hardest to trace with certainty in my own research.
    Milton_scaled,0.122929,0.138112,0.061471,0.03553,0 .043393,0.015618,0.001175,0.010846,0.005318,0.0105 7,-0.007795,-0.002698,-0.005054,-0.007019,0.011672,0.008088,-0.000913,-0.00038,0.008673,-0.002626,0.006988,0.002597,0.003821,0.014098,0.003 233

    Target: Milton_scaled
    Distance: 4.6323% / 0.04632266
    44.0 Yamnaya_RUS_Samara
    42.0 Anatolia_Barcin_N
    14.0 WHG

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