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Digging Through the DNA

My father descends from Daniel Ryan (1829-1863). Born in Ireland, Daniel immigrated to the United States sometime before 1851 and settled in Illinois. We know nothing about his life in Ireland. The frustrating search for his roots continues.

We have not been able to isolate census records or a ship passenger record for Daniel. A marriage record tells us his parents’ names, Edmund Ryan and May Junk, but so far these names have led nowhere. The commonality of the Ryan surname compounds the problem.

I have hoped that DNA matches might help. Although we match several people with Ryan ancestors, none of their Ryan families seem to match up with one another. The descendants live all over the place—the United States, Ireland, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

I have searched for the earliest Ryan ancestor for all our matches. Most online trees extend back only to the early 1800’s, about the time our Daniel’s parents would have been born. No one has ancestors named Edmund and May.

The strongest matches fall into these family lines and groups:

  1. Denis Leonard (1802/1810 – 1866) and Mary Ryan (1811/1819 – 1865) of Pallasgreen, Limerick. This group looks promising because Mary’s father may have been named Daniel, and she named a son Edmund. Our closest match in this group matches my father at 55.7 cM.
  2. Timothy Ryan (1825-1881) and Bridget McDaid (1832-1882) lived on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Their descendants match us at 54 cM and 38 cM.
  3. Ellen Ryan. This match has two ancestors with this name, and he matches us at 52.5 cM.
  4. Timothy Ryan. This man’s descendant matches us at 43.6 cM.
  5. John Patrick Ryan (abt. 1795-1862) and Margaret Maher (1798-1866). This couple may have lived in Tipperary. We match at 43.2 cM.
  6. Cornelius Ryan (1807-1877) and Bridget Real (1807-1880), like Denis Leonard and Mary Ryan above, lived at Pallasgreen, Limerick. He had a half-brother named Richard, and our Daniel named his son Richard. Our matches in this group share about 42 cM with us.

All other Ryan matches fall below the 40 cM threshold. Our most common ancestors would have lived long ago, too far back to research easily.

I need to focus on the half dozen strongest matches and try to learn more about their families to see where my Daniel might fit in. I think it likely that all come from Limerick or Tipperary where the Ryan name is so common.

My plan will be to begin with our closest match, the great-grandchildren of Denis Leonard and Mary Ryan. Mary’s parents on some trees were reported to be Daniel Ryan (1787-1831) and Catherine Brien. Did he have a brother named Edmund?

I Create a System

More and more often I find myself searching my DNA matches for clues to my brick wall ancestors. I run cluster reports and try to construct family trees for my matches, hoping to find a familiar surname. I jot down information as I run across it, but these stacks of notes and trees were getting out of control. I needed a new system.

This week I worked on the record-keeping problem.

First, I found some space in a file cabinet drawer. I know, I know, I am a Luddite who likes to work with paper files. For me an electronic file is a file lost. The file cabinet works best for me.

I began by creating folders for DNA related information:

  1. I have attended numerous presentations and webinars on DNA research. I gathered the notes from these in a folder.
  2. I have run several auto cluster reports for my Dad. I put them all in a folder.
  3. The testing companies periodically update our ethnicity reports, and I print out this helpful information. Monitoring these has already assisted in identifying one unknown ancestor. For example, when the companies began separating English and Irish ancestry, I realized my mystery great-grandfather must have been Irish. Ethnicity reports went into another folder.
  4. I made folders for printouts of match lists from each of the companies we have used for DNA testing.

In the cabinet behind these folders, I placed alphabetical dividers. As I work on a particular match, I can alphabetically file the notes and trees for that person.

Organizing my work this way accomplishes two things:

  1. I can retrieve information with ease.
  2. I have less office clutter with everything in neat files.

As work evolves, so must organizational systems. My DNA research was overdue for a re-do. I should have done it a long time ago.

A Mysterious DNA Match

For a long time, I have spent about one morning a week analyzing my dad’s DNA matches. I am looking to break through some brick walls in our family tree. Sometimes I have success, as I did when a DNA match identified a great-grandfather earlier this summer. More often, though, it seems I have difficulty establishing the relationship.

My effort this week met with little success. I tried to determine how we are related to a California woman who is predicted to be my father’s third cousin.

Third cousins share second great-grandparents, so I needed those names (16 in all) for the woman’s family. One of them should be our most recent common ancestor.

The woman had no family tree posted on the testing site, so I Googled her unusual name. I found her father’s 2008 obituary including her as a survivor. This information implied her maiden name.

Next, I looked at her father’s FindAGrave memorial. This gave me more of his family information and linked to her mother’s memorial.

With this much information, I could locate the family on the Family Search family tree. There I found the names of 12 of the woman’s 16 second great-grandparents. Nothing looked familiar.

That leaves one set of the woman’s great-grandparents whose own parents are unidentified and for whom I have only the paternal surnames. This family lived in Wisconsin. If they are part of my family, I cannot see how they fit with ours.

I am looking for families for three of my ancestors, none of whom ever resided in Wisconsin:

  1. John Davis Riddle (1821-1896). He was born in Pennsylvania, lived as a young man in Ohio, and migrated to Michigan.
  2. Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800-aft. 1863). He was born in New York and had arrived in Kentucky by 1821. He sold his land there in 1863 and disappeared from the record. His children were in Indiana and Illinois by 1870.
  3. Katherine Stillabower/Stilgenbauer (dates unknown). Her daughter (my great-grandmother) was born at Edinburgh, Indiana in 1865. We have no other information about Katherine. The greater Stillabower/Stilgenbauer family immigrated from Bavaria in the 1830’s and 1840’s and settled in Indiana.

The California DNA match does have ancestors in other lines who did live in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states where my brick wall ancestors also lived. Perhaps our connection lies in one of those branches, but she has no surnames in common with any of mine.

This DNA match will remain a mystery for now.

Genealogy Databases Reveal a Life

Genealogical research has changed since the last century. More and more information continues to be available online. Nowadays I can fill my days doing research from home.

For my recently discovered turn-of-the-last century ancestor, I have been amazed at the amount of information I could collect about his life in a short time without leaving the house or mailing a letter to the county. A few databases contain enough information for me to create a good profile of his life:

  1. FindAGrave.com. My ancestor’s cemetery marker has been photographed and posted here. Someone added biographical information and links to monuments for a parent and a child.
  2. Ancestry.com. Here I found both state and federal census records that offer my ancestor’s place of residence and the composition of his household.
  3. Newspapers.com. This site has a searchable collection of county newspapers from my ancestor’s lifetime. I learned a bit about his daily life from news items describing his travels, land transactions, and political activities. I also found his 1925 obituary.
  4. Glorecords.blm.gov. The Bureau of Land Management’s general land office records give me access to my ancestor’s homestead file and tell me the location of some of the land he owned.

In days gone by, I would have needed to write numerous letters and visit repositories, courthouses, and cemeteries to gather this much data. It would have taken months.

Today, once this man’s identity was discovered through a DNA test (another technological advance in itself), I was able to use 21st century technology to compile a tremendous amount of information about him in just a few days.

The Mystery Man and the DNA Test

Well, well, well. That famous genealogy serendipity has struck again.

As I pondered taking an Ancestry DNA test seeking a match to the family of the Irish widower I suspect to be my great-grandfather, I received an e-mail from a sibling.

Guess who just took a DNA test at Ancestry? Guess who has a close DNA match to the great-grandsons of the Irish widower?

I think we have found the ancestor whose identity remained hidden for 125 years. An ancestor from whom my sibling and I each receive 12.5% of our DNA.

I can finally begin to fill in that huge empty space on my family tree. I have a lot of research to do.

On a Hunt to Sort the Ryans

This week I continued trying to find a connection to the Ryan family. Richard Ryan (abt. 1851-1925) lived near my Riddle family in Hayes County, Nebraska during the 1890’s. He signed my great-grandmother Laura Riddle’s homestead affidavit in 1892 and bought her land in 1902 when she left the area.

My grandmother was born on that homestead during that time in 1896. She never knew her father. I am trying to identify him using DNA clusters. The man I seek may have been a Ryan because everyone in one of my dad’s DNA clusters has distant Ryan ancestors. Was the neighbor Richard Ryan related to my grandmother?

I began this week by looking up the Ryan surname to see if its distribution in Ireland would give me any clues. To my dismay, I found it is among the 10 most common Irish surnames, and Ryans today live all over Ireland.

Research on the Ryan family will not be easy.

Undaunted, I jumped in and tried to find out more about these Ryan neighbors.

The household in 1900 included a father, Richard Ryan, and daughters Jennie Ryan Cable Geispert (1880-1961) and Mary Ryan (abt.1883-?).

I quickly lost Mary’s trail in subsequent years. I think she returned to her parents’ home state of Illinois to teach school. If she has descendants, I have not found them yet.

Jennie remained in Nebraska, and her family was easier to trace. I identified surnames for her descendants but did not find any of those names on our match lists at the DNA testing companies I have used—23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, My Heritage. Does this mean we do not match, or does it mean that none of Jennie’s family ever took a DNA test? No way to know.

With no luck tracing descendants, I looked next for Richard Ryan’s ancestors.

His mother was Jane Lawless (abt. 1829-abt. 1853). She immigrated from Ireland to Illinois with her family in May, 1849. She married and died young, when her only child Richard Ryan was just a boy. Richard had no siblings for me to trace.

Richard’s father was Daniel Ryan (abt. 1829-1863). He served in the Civil War and contracted a fatal disease while posted in New Orleans. He is buried in a military cemetery in Louisiana.

I have found nothing about Daniel Ryan’s ancestry. Again, the stumbling block is that all-too-common Ryan surname.

So where does that leave me? Our DNA matches have Ryan ancestors. My family lived near and interacted with a man named Richard Ryan. It is tempting to assume my grandmother’s father was a Ryan. But so far, nothing is linking up.

The Irish in Cluster 3

My dad’s DNA cluster report from My Heritage (www.myheritage.com) returned 21 clusters of matches. I continue to hope that one of these will reveal the identity of Dad’s unknown maternal grandfather.

As I analyzed this report, I focused first on the biggest clusters, 1-10. I recognized relatives in eight of those clusters, so I assume the people in them are relatives of either Dad’s father or his maternal grandmother, not his unknown grandfather. I can eliminate these clusters from my search.

The other two clusters, 3 and 6, are peopled with strangers to me. They may be members of the family I seek.

Unfortunately, no one in these clusters is a close match of 60 cM or more, the threshold for ease of relationship identification. They all fall in the more distant 3rd-5th cousin range. That means our most recent common ancestor would be 2nd great-grandparents at the closest. Some of my dad’s 2nd great-grandparents were born during the Revolutionary War.

Still, this match list is the best clue I have for finding my mysterious ancestor, so I will work with what I have. The methodology for cluster research tells us to reconstruct the family tree for each match in the cluster to look for a common ancestral couple. Then, follow the lines of descent from them to identify the unknown ancestor.

Creating family trees for each match presents a daunting task, but I worked on it for the six matches in Cluster 3 this week. Except for one, these people appear to be Irish. I could find no family information for one of the Irish-surnamed people.

For the man with an other-than-Irish surname, I found no family tree on My Heritage. I did find him on our match list on the 23andMe DNA testing site. He provided brief family information there, saying they came from New York and St. Louis. Not much help there. I then searched the site for our common matches there and found we have Irish relatives in common although the man himself does not have an Irish surname.

The other four matches on the cluster report provided family trees on the My Heritage site. I worked backwards, looking for their common ancestor.

I found that two of the matches were closely related to each other, an aunt and her niece. The other pair of matches seem to be second cousins. If Dad is their 3rd-5th cousin, I need to compile the family trees for all three groups going back 4-6 generations to find a common ancestor for us and all of them. None of their posted trees go back that far. There was no common ancestor for all four people provided on My Heritage. But I did learn that all four of the matches have Ryan ancestors.

The aunt and niece are descended from Patrick Ryan (1838-aft. 1911). The pair of second cousins is descended from Mary Ryan (1812-1865). Both these Ryan families lived in County Limerick, Ireland. Were they related?

The online trees I have searched so far (Family Search, WikiTree, Ancestry) do not have any more information for Patrick Ryan. Mary Ryan seems to be the daughter of Daniel Ryan (1787-1831) and Catherine Brien. I still need to look for these names on Geni.com. After that, research into the paper trail will be required.

As I worked on these family trees this week, I found no surname that fits into my family tree as I know it. Cluster 3 must be my unknown family branch. If their only common ancestors were the Ryans, then the Ryans must be our ancestors, too. I still need to find the common Ryan ancestor for all of us.

Only then can I follow the names of the Ryan descendants who came to America and try to guess which one is my great-grandfather. I sure wish a closer Ryan match would do a DNA test. Is it too much to ask for a second cousin?

The Cluster Slog

Earlier this fall I learned about DNA cluster research for identifying recent ancestors. I decided to try this to see if I can learn something about my dad’s maternal grandfather.

This mystery man fathered my grandma late in 1895. I do not know where my great-grandmother was at the time. She may have been living at home on her Nebraska homestead or visiting relatives in Michigan. I have done a tremendous amount of research for both locales, but no clues have turned up to help me identify this man.

DNA research offers my best hope for learning his identity. The My Heritage website offers a simple-to-use cluster tool to sort DNA into family groups. I have run my dad’s report twice, about a month apart.

The second report clustered the matches a little differently and included a few more people. It puts our matches into an overwhelming 21 clusters.

I recognize only one person in the first, largest cluster 15 people. She is a third cousin on dad’s paternal side. Similarly, Clusters 2 (7 people), 4 (6 people) and 5 (5 people) seem to be paternal relatives. So do the smaller Clusters 10 and 12. Since I am looking for Dad’s maternal grandfather, I did not look any further into these clusters of paternal relatives for now. I need a cluster of closely related people whose names I do not recognize.

In the remaining clusters I do not recognize anyone, but they are not close matches, either. The instructor who introduced me to cluster research said to focus on those clusters where no one is familiar, particularly those individuals who have a greater than 60 cM match. Unfortunately, no one in any of these clusters meets that threshhold.

Still there are some clues here. My dad’s ethnicity estimate says he has a lot of Irish heritage, yet no one among my known relatives is Irish. All seven of the matches in Cluster 3 have Irish surnames—Cusack, O’Brien, O’Neill, Ryan. Are these people relatives of my dad’s grandfather? Was he Irish?

And what about Cluster 6 where I do not recognize any of the five matches? Again, these people are very distantly related. No distinctive ethnicity appears from surnames in this group.

To do cluster research, I must begin somewhere, even if we have no 60cM or greater match to anyone in the unfamiliar clusters. This week I started by trying to construct family trees for the matches in Cluster 3, and the Ryan surname appears in two of them so far.

This is going to take a long time. I have learned to run a new report periodically to see if any new matches show up. Any other children of my mystery man would be my grandma’s half siblings, their offspring would be dad’s half-cousins. If we have relatives out there who fit this profile, I wish they would provide their DNA tests to My Heritage so I could find them.

This cluster research is fascinating and aggravating at the same time. I had hoped a simple answer would leap out. Instead, this is a slog or hard work over a period of time.

 

I Triangulate

In my quest to connect my ancestor Lucy Snow Hall to her parents Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln, I have yet to find a primary source document that spells out this relationship. The paper trail still hinges on an entry for the Hall family line in The Encyclopedia of Massachusetts. I continue to search for additional sources that could verify this relationship.

In the meantime, I can tinker with analyzing DNA results to search for clues. After listening to a presentation by local DNA detective Greg Liverman, I decided to modify the cluster approach he suggested for identifying unknown ancestors. He described how to use online family trees and the 1940 census to fill in the family lines of matches back to a common ancestor.

As I perused my dad’s match lists on the sites where he tested his DNA, I looked for people with New England ancestry. I focused on those with surnames that appear in my own tree, but I did not find much of interest.

I did notice a couple of matches who claimed Nickerson forebears. My ancestor Lucy had two close relatives, a sister and a daughter, who married into the Nickerson family. I spent a couple of days trying to put together the family trees for these Nickerson descendants, and I think they also descend from my Thomas and Hannah:

Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln descendants

Lucy Snow Hall                                       Bethia Snow Nickerson

Rhoda Hall Dunbar                                Thomas Nickerson VI

Olive Dunbar Riddle                              Thomas Snow Nickerson

Laura Riddle                          Annie Nickerson Mills        Alva Nickerson

Grace Riddle Reed                Mildred Mills Cushman       Maude N. Kaliher

Earl Reed                                Alta Cushman Brodie           Private

                                                  Private                                     Private

 

The last two people in the threads of the Bethia Snow Nickerson line, Dad’s predicted 5th cousins, both match him on the 13th chromosome. They match each other in the same place.

This is called triangulation. It means people who are not closely related match one other, indicating a common ancestral couple.

In this case, I think the couple must be Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln although it is possible there is a different common ancestor. If Thomas and Hannah are the common ancestors, Dad descends from their suspected daughter Lucy. The two men who match his DNA descend from their suspected daughter Bethia.

Thomas and Hannah did have daughters Lucy and Bethia who were baptized at the Brewster, MA church in the 1760’s. Are these the same girls who married into the Hall and Nickerson families?

I still do not have a paper trail proving these relationships, but the DNA result adds weight to my hypothesis.

I Discover a DNA Cluster Tool

This week I had the opportunity to hear a genealogy presentation by a local DNA expert. Dr. Greg Liverman of Pinewood Genealogy addressed the first meeting of the Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society’s 2020-2021 season via Zoom.

He showed us how to use DNA clusters to identify unknown ancestors in recent generations. I have such an ancestor—my dad’s maternal grandfather. According to Greg, this is just the sort of research problem that cluster analysis can solve.

The task of sorting all of Dad’s DNA matches by hand was overwhelming. I learned from Greg that I do not have to do that. There are tools available that will do the sorting for you. He mentioned several.

I decided to try the Auto Clustering feature on the My Heritage (www.myheritage.com) online genealogy platform. It is free to use when you have an account, and my husband/tech advisor had already uploaded my dad’s DNA data to the site. All I had to do was run a report.

To my surprise, what takes hours to do by hand required only a few minutes with the sorting tool. I soon had a color-coded report that put my dad’s DNA matches into relationship groups, or clusters.

To find relatives of an unknown ancestor, Greg told us to look for a cluster of matches who are not related to any family members whose family tree you already know. Locate the names of people in that cluster who are most closely related to you, who match you at the level of 50 cM or more. Then look at the family trees provided by these people for their common ancestor. This ancestor is probably yours, too.

This seems a simple enough process. I needed to search for people not related to anyone in Dad’s paternal line or his direct maternal line.

The report came back with twenty clusters of matches, some including only a couple of people who are quite distantly related to us. I set those small, remote clusters aside for now and began with the first, larger clusters to see if I could recognize anyone:

  1. Cluster 1 had three people who matched at over 50cM. Two I do not know, and they have no family trees on My Heritage. The third is a descendant of my Dad’s paternal cousin. I assume the others belong to the same paternal line.
  2. Cluster 2 included two people closely related to us. Both had family trees on the site, and both are descended from Dad’s paternal grandmother’s family.
  3. Cluster 3 had two close relatives, both descended from another of Dad’s paternal cousins.
  4. Cluster 5 included Dad’s double cousins, who descend from both his father’s family and his direct maternal line.
  5. Clusters 6-20 included either no close relatives or else relatives who barely met the 50cM threshold. Many of them also matched someone in Clusters 1, 2, 3, and 5.

That left cluster 4. It contains just 5 people, none of whom reach the 50cM match level. But these people do not match those in the other clusters, all of whom descend from the families of Dad’s three known grandparents.

If Greg is right, these people in Cluster 4 should belong to the family of my unknown great-grandfather. If I can identify their common ancestor, I can learn who his family was.

I was disappointed when I found that none of these people has placed a family tree on My Heritage. Learning about their families will take more legwork. That is the next step.

Perhaps with the tool of cluster analysis I have at last found the key to discovering the identity of my unknown great-grandfather. He has hidden himself from us for over 100 years. I hope his DNA trail can now force him to step out from behind the curtain.