In the previous blog post, I introduced the research objective, which was to use Y-DNA testing to determine whether five Wilson men, who were all living in a small rural Meigs County, Ohio town, were brothers. The hope was that if I could do so, I would be able to cast a wider genealogical net to identify my 4x great grandparents, and if correct, would also be the parents of these five Wilson men.
As a quick recap, between 1850 and 1860 five Wilson males, who were about the same age and whose birth locations suggested a migration pattern from Pennsylvania to Ohio, were found in this small Meigs County town. My ancestor, James H. Wilson (1815-1885) was one of them:
- William B., born 1810 Pennsylvania
- James H., born 1815 Pennsylvania
- John B., born 1818 Pennsylvania
- Robert, born 1820 Ohio
- David, born 1825 Ohio
The Research Plan
Following the four-step process outlined in Part 1 of the blog post, I successfully recruited four research collaborators to participate in the Y-DNA research study. Three of the collaborators helped me to find living male descendants with a direct paternal connection to one of the above Wilsons while one collaborators became a test taker himself. I was able to find test takers for all of the five Wilson men except for William B. Wilson, who appears to have never had any biological children.
Although I previously had my Y-DNA tested, I opted to find another male descendant to represent my James H. Wilson line as I was on average one to two generations further removed from the assumed common ancestor than the other test takers. Given that Y-DNA can mutate with each successive generation, it is recommended to find individuals who have fewer generations separating themselves from a common ancestor to minimize the number of possible mutations.
Each test taker took a Y-DNA test from FamilyTreeDNA where 111 markers were tested. At the time of this research in 2009, a 111-marker test was the most advance test available. The figure below graphically displays how each test taker connects to the hypothesized common ancestor on the Wilson paternal line (note: the two most recent generations, including the test taker, are privatized). Test takers are denoted with the letters A, B, C and D.
Before presenting the results of the test, a quick note about ordering tests for participants. Unless you are 100% certain of your test taker’s lineage, I first recommend ordering an entry level Y-DNA test rather than one testing all available markers. For example, today a Y-37 test is an entry level test for the male Y chromosome and the Big Y700 is the most advanced test at FamilyTreeDNA.com, which differs in pricing by more than $300. This can potentially save you money by making sure all participants match at the lower level before upgrading the number of tested markers to a level able to discern closer family relationships. You may quickly learn that your test takers don’t match your family requiring you to adjust your hypothesis.
Interpreting the Results
As alluded to in Part 1 of the blog post, interpreting the results was extremely challenging, especially in 2009 when Y-DNA tests had only been commercially available for several years. However, what was easy to interpret was that all four test takers were part of the same haplogroup (I-M253), which refers to the major branches on the human paternal family tree. This was encouraging as it told me they all share a common paternal Wilson ancestor…but how far back in time was their most recent common ancestor (MRCA)?
Beyond the identification of the haplogroup, Y-DNA tests also provide the values for each of the 111 markers tested. Differences in marker values between test takers is referred to as a mutation. The greater the number of mutations, the greater the genetic distance and so the more distantly related the two individuals are to one another. The genetic distances for my test takers are found below. For example, the genetic distance between test taker A and B is four meaning that the two men had four markers with different values or mutations.
The genetic distances between my test takers ranged from three to six mutations. Most of the test takers were five generations removed from the hypothesized MRCA. FamilyTreeDNA suggests the chance of these four men sharing a male Wilson ancestor within five generations was below 50%.1 Not entirely encouraging.
However, research then and now indicates that some of the 111 markers mutate much more rapidly than other markers and so calculating the time and probability to the MRCA may not be so straightforward.2 Some of these so-called rapidly mutating markers are also thought to vary by paternal family haplogroups.3 Indeed, several of the markers where differences existed for my test takers clustered on several markers, which appeared to be rapidly mutating as more than half of the test takers had different values at these locations (i.e., DYS570, DYS710, and DYS712).
While it would be difficult for a layman like myself to mathematically adjust the time and probabilities to the MRCA based on the identification of some rapidly mutating markers, I knew this likely improved the odds for these men being kin. How much? I was not sure. However, I did have other documentary evidence suggesting these five Wilson men were not strangers: one sold land to another in 1854 and two were enumerated adjacent to one another on the 1850 census.4 In 2011 when I concluded my research, I cautiously proclaimed them to be brothers or at the very least cousins. This tentative conclusion permitted me to cast a wider genealogical net in the search for the parents of my James H. Wilson ancestor.
Fast-forward by nearly 10 years when I discovered an 1848 estate file in Chester County, Pennsylvania for John Wilson who died prior to 1840 in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. The file contained an 1850 deposition from a cousin of John Wilson (deceased) identifying John’s heirs as none other than the following siblings living in Meigs County, Ohio (listed in the letter in the following order): William B. Wilson, James Wilson, John Wilson, Robert Wilson, David Wilson, and Sarah Ann Burnison. All were heirs of William Wilson (deceased), the father to John Wilson (deceased) and the grandfather to William B., James H., John B., Robert, David, and Sarah Ann. William had died in 1804 in Chester County leaving an estate that took more than two decades to settle. William’s son, John Wilson, had died before 1840 in Tuscarawas County leaving no estate file making the discovery of William’s estate file (and name) a real chore.
In addition to confirming the tentative conclusion from the Y-DNA analysis, the deposition also identified a sister and a grandfather for James H. Wilson! Talk about a winning the genealogical lottery, which is not to diminish the discovery of the estate file as an instance of luck. As mentioned, it took nearly 10 years to find.
While the process of finding the 1848 estate file is the subject for another (future) blog post, the Y-DNA project suggesting kinship for the Wilson brothers gave me the confidence to quickly proclaim my James H. Wilson as THE James Wilson listed in the letter because I knew he was genetically associated with William, John, Robert, and David, who were also listed in the letter.
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1. Family Tree DNA (n.d.), “If two men share a surname, how should the genetic distance at 111 Y-chromosome STR markers be interpreted?” accessed on 7 February 2022 from https://learn.familytreedna.com/y-dna-testing/y-str/two-men-share-surname-genetic-distance-111-y-chromosome-str-markers-interpreted/.
2. Ballantyne, Kaye N. et al. (2010), “Mutability of Y-Chromosomal Microsatellites: Rates, Characteristics, Molecular Bases, and Forensic Implications,” The American Journal of Human Genetics, 87(3), 341-353.
3. Kerchner, Charles F. (2005), “An Overview and Discussion of Various DNA Mutation Rates and DNA Haplotype Mutation Rates. Do the YSTR Haplotypes in some Y Chromosome Male Lines Mutate Faster Than in Other Male Lines?” accessed on 7 Feburary 2022 from http://www.kerchner.com/dnamutationrates.htm.
4. 1850 U.S. census, Meigs County, Ohio, population schedule, Rutland, p. 89a-b, image 1-2 of 42, Robert Wilson and David Wilson households; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 7 February 2022); NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 710. And Meigs County, Ohio, land deed, John B. and Letisha Wilson to Robert Wilson (1854), Book 17, p. 427, Recorder of Deeds, Pomeroy; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 236 of 704, film 313488.
5. Chester County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no. 11253, John Wilson (1848, Tuscarawas County, Ohio), Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, West Chester, Pennsylvania.