Category Archives: Genealogy

Veterans in My Family Tree

Inspired by Veterans Day, here is what I know about the veterans of the American military in my family tree.

I use the term “veterans” loosely, instead of getting into a debate over who officially is or isn’t supposed to be recognized on the federal holiday. I’m regarding this as a family history piece inspired by Veterans Day, not praise for everything my ancestors did or an official Veterans Day roster. In other words, I’m including Confederate veterans because they’re in the family tree, even though there are debates about whether those who took up arms against the US should be honored on Veterans Day. This list also includes slave owners, a deserter, and a convicted killer. I take a “warts and all” approach to family history, finding what it was instead of pretending it was something else.

Mostly, I’m focusing on my direct ancestors and their siblings. I’ve included a few others. However, I’ve left out a lot of Nth cousins M times removed, to keep this list from getting really big. And because it’d be a lot more work. I have my limits.

For privacy reasons, I’m omitting the birth years and photos of living relatives. I’m including birth and death years and a few photos only for the deceased veterans.

Veterans of the Iraq War

My niece Charlotte Brock (living) served in Iraq as a Marine officer. She was interviewed on NPR because of the essay she had contributed to the book Powder: Writing by Women in Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Veterans of the Vietnam War

My cousin Pat Sharpe (living) served as a Marine in Vietnam. He received a Purple Heart.

Frank Giddings (1945-2009), ex-husband of my cousin Maureen, was also a Vietnam vet. My recollection is that he was in the Army.

Veterans of the Korean War


Earl Becker

My father, Earl Becker (1930-2005), was a Marine during the Korean War. He received a National Defense Medal for enlisting during a time of war. Dad never got shipped out, and stayed stateside the whole time. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve for several years after his regular service.

My uncle Herman Becker (living) served in the Army, and I understand he did go to Korea.

Between WWII and Korea

My uncle Bob Becker (1927-2009) was a U.S. Navy veteran. He enlisted in 1945, after WWII had ended. He wasn’t old enough to have joined up any earlier. He left the service three years later, which was before the Korean War started. He spent at least some of his service stationed in Hawaii.

Veterans of World War II

I’ll count Dad as a WWII vet in a sense. As a teenager, he was a volunteer in the Army’s Aircraft Warning Service. These civilian volunteers were stationed at posts along the American coastlines. They were trained to identify enemy aircraft. This service existed because of concerns that long-range bombers might attack U.S. soil. The AWS volunteers were expected to be at their posts regardless of adverse weather conditions. The service was closed down shortly before the D-Day invasion, in order to divert full resources to that.

My late father-in-law Henri Soudée (1906-1996) was a veteran of the French military, not the US military, but I’m including him here because he was part of the French diplomatic team that came to the US during the war as supporters of Charles de Gaulle, not Vichy France. That’s how he wound up living in the US and raising a family here, which is how I met my wife.


Peggy and Johnny Sharpe

Mom’s brothers-in-law (and my uncles) Bill Schulz (living) and Johnny Sharpe (1921-1984) were both World War II veterans. Uncle Bill was in the glider service. Uncle Johnny was a sailor on the USS Alabama, among other ships. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Peggy (Mom’s sister) met at a USO dance.

Mom’s cousin Billy Shepherd (1924-1945) was a sailor, and a war casualty. He was on a destroyer, the USS Evans, for Operation Iceberg, the Battle of Okinawa. The Evans and another destroyer were escorting landing craft at Okinawa when they were swarmed by Japanese aircraft. Billy was among those killed. The crew of the Evans was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and Billy was awarded a Purple Heart. Mom was 8 years old when they got the news that her cousin Billy had been killed.

Joseph M. Miller (1921-1996) was another of Mom’s cousins. He served in the Coast Guard during the war. That’s all I know.

William Charles O’Connell (1919-1992) was yet another of Mom’s many cousins. He fought for the Army in Italy and North Africa.

Veterans of World War I


William Miller

My maternal grandfather, William Miller (1891-1943), was in the Army. He was stationed at Camp Meade (now Fort Meade, Maryland). A family story says that when he heard his unit was going to be shipped out, he walked the 25 miles from Camp Meade to his fiancee’s (my future grandmother’s) house in Washington DC to let her know. However, the war ended before his unit shipped out, so he never saw service “over there.” I never met him, but from all the stories, I think I would have liked him. I still remember my grandmother Nora, his wife, from when I was little.

Will’s brothers Edward Miller (1889-1931) and Joe Miller (1891-1973) registered for the draft on the same day as Will. I assume his brother Alfred (1895-1976) also registered, but I haven’t found any record of it. Edward’s draft registration card noted that he had to take care of his mother and his “crippled sister” (Aileen). I believe he was exempted from duty. I don’t know what sort of service Edward and Joe saw.

William James “Stoney” O’Connell (1887-1938) was Mom’s first cousin, twice removed. While Stoney was in France, he was the victim of a gas attack. He survived, but came back unwell. It was the eventual cause of his death.

Great grand uncle Walter Becker (1892-1971) was in the 68th Artillery.

Spanish-American War

I’ll mention Sister Brendan (Mary O’Connor, 1863-1921). Maybe including her is a bit of a stretch for my list here today, because she wasn’t in the military and she’s a somewhat distant cousin. However, there’s a story here, and besides, I don’t know of any other family veterans from the Spanish-American War.

Mary was my second cousin, three times removed. She became a nun (as Sister Brendan) with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She was also a nurse at Mount Carmel Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. In 1898, the governor of Ohio, Asa Bushnell, asked Mount Carmel for help bringing Ohio’s sick and injured soldiers back from the Puerto Rican Campaign. Sister Brendan and one other nun went to Tampa, Florida, by train and then to Puerto Rico by ship. After a couple of months, they returned with 1300 troops, plus other doctors and nurses. She was directly supporting the military, so I’m including her.

She later wrote of her time there: “We worked hard all day and at night we were entertained by lizards, fleas, bedbugs, and mosquitoes, large enough to beat a drum…. They were fat enough to fry after feasting on us.”

After the Civil War

Miles Carter (1840-1867) was my second great grand uncle, on Dad’s side. He had been a captain in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War, fighting for the Confederacy, but he made the transition to the U.S. Army after the war.

Veterans of the American Civil War – U.S.

All of my ancestors who were Civil War veterans, both North and South, were on Dad’s side of the family. Those who fought for the North were on his father’s side. Those who fought for the South were on his mother’s side. There’s no reason to think the two branches ever met during the war, in battle or otherwise. Dad’s parents were the connection. His father’s family had been in Illinois and Indiana for generations. His mother’s family had been in Virginia since colonial days. The connection between the two families didn’t happen until Dad’s parents got married in 1925.

One of my third great grandfathers, John Harmon (1834-1865), fought for the 140th Indiana Infantry. He saw action at places like the Siege of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was in Clifton, Tennessee, when he contracted pneumonia. He died of pneumonia at a military hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. A nurse who had been taking care of him wrote a letter to his wife. She said John “passed away as gently as the snowflake melts into the flowing stream.”

Three of John’s brothers – my third great grand uncles – also served. Two of them survived the war.

Samuel Harmon (1831-1912) was identified as a Civil War veteran of the Union Army in one record, but I haven’t found any other particulars about his service.

Archer Harmon (1842-1863), was in the 93rd Indiana Infantry. He was apparently at the Siege of Vicksburg, among other actions. He died a few months after the siege, shortly before his 21st birthday, in Missouri, but I don’t know what the story was.

Michael Harmon (1844-1927), the fourth Harmon brother to fight, was in the 3rd Indiana Cavalry.

A few more of Dad’s ancestors might have fought for the North, but I’m leaving them out of this list for lack of evidence.

Veterans of the American Civil War – Confederacy

My second great grandfather, Abner Walker (1824-1894), enlisted in 1863 at the age of about 39, two weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation. The war had already been going on for almost two years, so one might speculate that the Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with his decision to enlist. He was a slave owner, like so many of my Virginia ancestors. At the time, many southerners worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would lead to a slave rebellion or race war, so maybe that’s what drove him to join up. His unit, the 53rd Virginia Infantry, saw action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but Abner wasn’t at those battles. He spent the war in Richmond, alternating between hospital stays and detached service at the Ordnance Department. The diagnosis I found in one record was “rheumatism,” so it seems likely he was deemed unfit for combat duty.

My third great grandfather, Overton G. Slater (1828-about 1875), served in Tomlin’s Battalion in the Virginia infantry. He was another slave-owner.

John Henry Blayton (1827-1896) was my 3rd great grand uncle. He served in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry Regiment. A later newspaper account said he was reputed to be fearless in battle. Before and even during the early part of the war, before he enlisted, he raised a family with an ex-slave and made sure the kids were educated, which was unusual at the time for mixed-race children. Mixed-race marriages weren’t legal in Virginia until 1967, so they weren’t legally married. Years later, he got a legal marriage to a young white woman, but eventually he shot and killed her for having an affair. He took the insanity defense and spent his final years in a mental institution.

Another third great grand uncle, William F. Garrett (1823-?), was in the 1st Virginia Artillery. At the end of the war, he was held as a prisoner at Point Lookout in southern Maryland. Point Lookout had no barracks for the prisoners. It was five feet above sea level, so it was subject to flooding. It housed twice as many prisoners as it was designed for, which led to disease and hunger. Many of the guards were from “colored regiments,” which led to tensions between the guards and the prisoners. I don’t know when William died, but he at least survived Point Lookout. He was released after two months, as prisoners swore their allegiance oaths to the U.S. and went home.

My third great grandfather Pinkethman (“Pink”) Garrett had three sons in the James City Artillery in Virginia: John Garrett (1832-1899), Richard Minor Garrett (1834-1900), and Pinkethman Garrett Jr. (1845-1905). Pink Jr. was listed as a deserter in early 1865, not long before the end of the war. I don’t have any info on why he deserted or what happened as a result. At that stage of the war, many Confederate soldiers realized the war was almost over, so many of them abandoned their units to return home. Pink Sr.’s youngest son, my great great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Garrett, was too young to serve in the Civil War.

My 6th great grandfather John Goddin had four wives (not at the same time!), and 28-32 children, according to various sources. His son John Goddin (1804-1864) was my half 5th-great grand uncle. John Jr. wasn’t a Civil War veteran himself, but he had a role to play. He owned Goddin’s Tavern outside of Richmond for about 20 years. Virginia lawmakers often stayed there when visiting the state capital, because it was cheaper than staying in the middle of Richmond. When the Civil War started, John sold the place to a Catholic order, apparently the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. That order sent their nuns as nurses to various locales in the North and the South. When the hospital first opened for business, they ran this ad in the Richmond Dispatch: “INFIRMARY OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. BROOKE AVENUE, RICHMOND, VA. – Conducted by the SISTERS OF CHARITY. Patients of all denominations, not having small-pox or any other contagious disease, are received. Any physician may send his patients to the infirmary and attend them. White persons, in private rooms, pay from $7 to $12 per week, and in wards $6. Colored persons $5 per week.” It was variously known as St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, the Goddin’s Tavern Hospital, the Catholic Hospital, and the Brook Hospital. It served as a hospital for the duration of the war.

Another of John’s sons, Norman Goddin (1828-1892), was also my half 5th-great grand uncle. He was a Methodist minister and a physician. He joined up very early in the war, and became the captain of G Company, 5th North Carolina Infantry. That lasted about a month, and then he resigned his commission when his wife became gravely ill. She died a few months later. I have no info saying whether he did or didn’t return to military service after that.

Veterans of the War of 1812

John Blayton (1780s-1840s) was my 4th great grandfather. He and his brother Haley Blayton (?-?) served in the 52nd Virginia Militia.

William Walker (1791-1874), my 3rd great grand uncle, was in a Virginia artillery regiment. He wound up moving to Kentucky, where he founded Walker’s Chapel Methodist Church. He was a slave owner, but a family history says that when the Civil War broke out, he told his slaves to “go fight for their freedom.” When they returned from the war, he gave them land to live on.

Veterans of the American Revolution

John Goddin (1738-1830), my 6th great grandfather mentioned above, served in the Virginia Militia during the Revolution. A couple of histories say he was a lieutenant in the militia and participated in the Siege of Yorktown. A 1923 family history says that when Cornwallis surrendered at the end of that siege, John served hot coffee to General Washington and General Lafayette, among others. He kept the coffee pot as a souvenir.

William Blayton (1757-1800), my 5th great grandfather and the father of John and Haley Blayton mentioned above, served in the Virginia Militia.

That’s my list of veterans, in one sense or another.



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Family History: My 2G-Grand Uncle, the Hobbit

My great-great-grand uncle, Charles Albert Becker (1848-1926), was born in Germany, but he probably had no recollection of it. At the age of two, his parents, his four older siblings, and his mother’s half-sister sailed across the Atlantic to the US. His mother didn’t survive the Atlantic crossing. I imagine he had little or no recollection of her.

The family soon found themselves living in Illinois, along with lots of other German immigrants. They became farmers. They were Catholics.

In 1872, at the age of 24, Charles decided to head off to the wilds of Kansas to hunt buffalo. He relocated almost 600 miles westward to Logan, Kansas, which had been established only two years earlier. Even now, Logan has a population of less than 600.

This was about when the song “Home on the Range” was written, in the next county over from Logan. The song became an anthem for people like Charles, who had headed west to build new lives. It eventually became the state song of Kansas. The Little House on the Prairie series (published 1932-1943) was set in Kansas at about this same time.

Charles didn’t build a little house on the prairie, however. He built a dugout on the bank of Cactus Creek a couple of miles outside of Logan. This hole in the ground would be his home for years to come.

In 1878, after six years of living in his dugout, he got married to Emily (“Emma”) Elizabeth Walton. A probate judge performed the ceremony. At some later time, a Catholic missionary priest was passing through, so Charles and Emma got married in a Catholic ceremony. The first-ever Catholic Mass in Logan was at the Becker dugout.

Charles and Emma continued to live in the dugout after the wedding. Their first child, a daughter, was born nine months later.

They’d have three more daughters while living in their dugout. Charles continued to hunt buffalo, and he also trapped smaller game for food and hides. He did some farming, too.

Charles Becker and family

In 1883, the Beckers had fallen on hard times, along with everyone in the area. Food and work were scarce. The aid arriving by train from the eastern states wasn’t enough, apparently. Charles, Emma, and their four daughters left their dugout for Washington County, Kansas. I’ve got no info on what they did there, but apparently they were successful. They returned to Logan in 1885 and began building a house, which was completed the following year.

They started having kids again, eventually reaching nine children, one of whom lived to the age of 100.


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A Story from My Family History

Sometimes, when you’re doing family history research, you get more than just a list of names, dates, and places, and you find out “what happened.” For me, the facts themselves can be fascinating, but it’s even better when you can find the story behind the facts. You hope to find out that some ancestor was a good person with a good life, but sometimes you find out they weren’t so great. Sometimes, you find someone who had highs and lows.

Enter John Henry Blayton, who lived from 1827 until the early 1900s. The information below comes from a variety of sources. The facts come from various civil and military records and dozens of contemporary newspaper articles. The story behind the facts comes from the newspaper articles and family stories shared with me by one of John’s direct descendants.

John’s Heritage

John’s father, also named John Blayton, was my great, great, great, great-grandfather, on my father’s mother’s side of the family. That’s the branch of the family tree that has been in Virginia since the early colonial days.

The elder John was, like so many of my Virginia ancestors, a slave owner. He owned anywhere from 3-6 slaves. He lived in Charles City County, between Richmond and Jamestown. He might be the same John Blayton who served during the War of 1812. John senior’s parents were also Virginia slave owners. His father, William, fought during the American Revolution. John’s mother, Maria Saunders, had a similar story. She, too, was the child of Virginia slave owners. Her father, Archer Dennis Saunders, also fought during the Revolution.

John’s Early Life

John Henry Blayton is my great, great, great grand-uncle. He was born in about 1827. He had an older sister Mary (my ancestor), and he’d later have a younger brother James and a younger sister Maria. As a child, John lost an eye, because of “a cancer.” He became known as an adult as “one-eyed John Blayton.” A later newspaper article described John’s reputation in his younger days. “When young he was rather wild, and given to gambling. He had a high temper, and made a reputation as a fighter. He did not invite difficulties, but took little trouble to evade them, and usually came out first best.”

Susan Allen

John had a long relationship with Susan Allen, who might have been a former slave, and who was of mixed race. They had seven children together, born in the years 1846 to 1862. The stories that have been passed down say they lived openly as a loving family, although that didn’t go over well with the rest of the community, black or white. Whites were not allowed to marry other races in Virginia back then. John and Susan couldn’t get married, and the children were legally required to take their mother’s surname. (Mixed marriages wouldn’t be legal in Virginia until over 100 years later, after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.)

In a move that was unusual for mixed-race children, John ensured that their kids got an education. One or more of them went to the Hampton Institute. Their youngest son, Bob, became good friends with Booker T. Washington at Hampton, even serving as the best man at Washington’s wedding.

The Civil War

John enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry Regiment when the Civil War broke out. He held the rank of private, in Company F, the New Kent Cavalry. He had a reputation for being fearless in battle. The regiment participated in many of the war’s major engagements, including Gettysburg.

April 9, 1865: The 3rd Virginia Cavalry surrendered to Union troops, along with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

April 24, 1865: John appeared on a “Report of Paroles of Prisoners of War given by Col. D. M. Evans, 20 N. Y. Cav., in the month of April.”

After the war, John returned to his de facto family. The 1880 US Census still found John and Susan living together with some of their children. By this time, John and Susan had been together for at least 36 years.


Either John decided he wanted white children or he was pressured into having white children. He found a young white woman to marry him, but first, he took care of his de facto family, deeding his property over to them. Susan and their kids had a place to live for the rest of their lives. At least one of their grandsons became a millionaire.

April 18, 1882: John married Virginia Esther Jones. She was 25. John was 55 (or 52, depending on the source). Newspaper articles described Virginia as “a rather pretty woman.” They lived in New Kent County.

May 4, 1883: Virginia made out her will, leaving everything to her husband and naming him as her executor.

John and Virginia never had any children. The plan to have white children didn’t work out.

May 17, 1892: John and Virginia moved to Richmond, bringing Virginia’s niece, Lula Crump, with them. John ran a grocery store out of their house. They also took in George Bell, who was about Virginia’s age or a little younger. Bell worked for them as a grocer. He had left his wife and child in Washington, DC, because, he said, his wife had been unfaithful to him.

John and Virginia often played cards with their boarders and neighbors. John and Virginia normally played as partners, but one time Virginia wanted a change of pace and said she wanted to partner with someone else. John became furious, and that was the end of the card-playing.

February 6, 1894: Bell bought out the grocery business from John.

Leading Up to Murder

April (or so), 1894: According to John, he had complained to Virginia before that she and Bell had gotten too chummy, like sitting too close together. He  sometimes found Bell sitting on Virginia’s lap. Virginia told him it was “only fun” and he told her it was “too much fun.” She kept telling him he was crazy.

It was also around this time that Elmore Christian caught Virginia and Bell holding hands and standing very close together. She said Virginia hit her with a broomstick and washboard and threatened to have her arrested if she told anyone what she saw. Elmore was then a teenager; she had been raised by Virginia, and she had worked for Virginia.

A few weeks before the murder, a police officer came to John and Virginia’s house and spoke to Virginia. John became furious. I don’t have any info about the purpose or outcome of the officer’s visit.

April 29, 1894: John decided to visit New Kent County, and brought Virginia with him. They visited Lula’s mother.

May 1, 1894: Virginia returned to Richmond.

May 6, 1894: John visited the home of his brother James. James’s father-in-law, Richard Eggleston, said John was behaving strangely and claiming that someone wanted to kill him.

May 7, 1894: John came back to Richmond, telling Virginia that people were trying to kill him. He said he’d spend the nights running away from would-be killers and ghosts.

May 10, 1894: John stayed at an almshouse overnight, claiming that he hated to see his wife doing all the work. He showed up there in the evening, sat around looking “disturbed over something,” then went to bed. He left the next morning, skipping the breakfast offered by the almshouse. John returned home just as Virginia was asking his sister to help search for him. He didn’t offer any explanations.

May 11, 1894: George Bell visited the police station and asked to have John “taken up for lunacy.”

Around this time, possibly before or after the night in the boarding house, Anthony T. Mallet (around age 40) warned Bell that he should go away and leave Virginia alone.  Mallet was a neighbor and friend of the family who visited often. Mallet also warned John that he should keep his eyes open because of a possibly improper relationship between Bell and Virginia. Once Bell found out that Mallet had warned John, Bell threatened violence against Mallet.

One evening, John told Virginia he was going out for a walk. He sneaked back and peeked in through the windows. The news articles didn’t give details on what he saw, but whatever it was, it convinced him that there was an improper relationship between Virginia and Bell.

The Murder

Night of May 16, 1894: John stayed up all night with a pistol, convinced that someone was trying to kill him.

Virginia Esther Jones Blayton John H Blayton

May 17, 1894: At about 10 o’clock in the morning, John confronted his wife again. He told her he’d go away for a while because she didn’t like him, and she agreed she liked someone else better. She told him to mind his own business and she’d do as she chose, and told him to stay away as long as he wanted. She threatened that Bell would knock him around if he made any trouble.

John flew into a rage and shot her.

Mallet heard the shot and screams and came running. He found them in the upstairs bedroom as John shot his wife again. Mallet went to stop John, who fired further shots. Mallet wasn’t hit, and he managed to carry Virginia downstairs.

John tried to kill himself by chopping at his face with a hatchet, a knife, or both, depending on which report you read, but he wasn’t successful. News articles disagree on the extent of his self-inflicted injuries, but in any event they weren’t fatal.

Others arrived, and they managed to restrain John. Virginia died within minutes. The police and a doctor arrived, but not in time. John admitted to killing Virginia. Reports differ on how many times Virginia was shot, anywhere from two to five times.

John was taken to the almshouse with a police officer to stand guard. Doctors there said he suffered from “temporary flights of insanity,” randomly crying or talking incoherently. He told attendants that he was sometimes out of his mind and “not well balanced” at any time.

May 18, 1894: John’s brother James visited him briefly at the almshouse. Meanwhile, throngs of nosy people were crowding around John’s house to gaze at the crime scene.

May 30, 1894: Richmond held a parade and reunion celebrating Confederate veterans, almost 30 years after the war had ended. Around 3,500 veterans were present. John was unable to participate, of course.

May 31, 1894: John was brought to Police Court with the lawyers who were defending him, Richmond T. Lacy and D.C. Richardson. A Judge Critchfield was presiding. John’s lawyers said he “desired to waive examination and asked that the case be certified at once to the grand jury.” A few witnesses were called, including the police officers who went on scene, Anthony Mallet, and Elmore Christian.

July 7, 1894: John came up before a competency hearing. A doctor who had interviewed John said he was insane and suffering from Bright’s Disease, which the doctor said could have aggravated the insanity. John’s brother James added to the testimony that John was “a crazy man” who thought people were trying to kill him. The jury took five minutes to reach its decision. John was “adjudged insane” and sent to the “Insane Hospital at Williamsburg.” John’s oldest son by Susan Allen, George Washington Allen (now in his forties), held a power of attorney for acting on John’s behalf.

July 23, 1894: Virginia’s will went to probate. Her estate was worth about $1000. That’s equivalent to about $25,000 today. John had been designated as the executor of Virginia’s estate, but he was now ineligible to serve in that role.

September 24, 1894: John’s former home was partially damaged by fire. The news articles reporting it didn’t name a cause, and identified it only as John’s former home. Fire fighters extinguished the flames before the house burned down.

Final Years

In the 1900 US Census, John is listed among the inmates at Eastern State Hospital, a mental health hospital. Presumably, John spent the rest of his life there.

Susan Allen also shows up in the 1900 US Census, living with her youngest son Robert and Robert’s wife Elviry and their four kids. Susan would die a few years later. Her family lived on. All of today’s descendants of John H. Blayton are also descendants of Susan Allen.



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My AncestryDNA Results

AncestryDNA genetic ethnicity

Jim’s AncestryDNA results

I got my results from the AncestryDNA test, which offered a few surprises and a few non-surprises. In brief: my DNA is 52% British Isles (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales), 46% Scandinavian (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), and 2% uncertain (but still Earth, presumably).

What can I conclude from these results, which look back “hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of years ago” (according to the report)?

Not surprising—British Isles: I was expecting to see a British Isles heritage. Three of my great-grandparents were born in the British Isles (Ireland in particular). Another four are known or strongly suspected to have English ancestry. That leaves only one great-grandparent with no known British Isles ancestry. I could have had a very high percentage of DNA matching the British Isles.

Conclusion—British Isles on both sides: The fact that I’m more than 50% British Isles proves that both of my parents have this ancestry. If one of my parents never had this in their heritage, my British Isles percentage couldn’t have been more than 50%. I can’t tell how much I got from which parent, but I can be certain I got some from each.

Surprising (at first)—only 52% British Isles: With a British Isles heritage in 7 of 8 great-grandparents, why is my British Isles DNA “only” 52%? That was surprising at first, because 7/8 = 87.5%, but that’s now how DNA works. You get half of your DNA from your father and half from your mother, but you don’t know which half each parent contributes. Each child gets a different DNA mix. The half of my father’s DNA I received could have included very little of his British Isles DNA, or lots of it. Likewise for my mother. In other words, having 52% British Isles DNA is completely plausible.

Surprising—Scandinavian: Where did I get 46% Scandinavian DNA? Looking back through the last several generations, I don’t find a single Scandinavian in my family tree. I have some far-reaching branches of the family tree that find Scandinavians born over 1100 years ago, but a) there are some iffy genealogical connections between now and then, so I’m not entirely certain they belong in my family tree at all, and b) if I have to go that far back to find any Scandinavians, it seems unlikely that almost half of my DNA would be from IKEA.

Conclusion—got Scandinavians: I’ve probably got Scandinavian ancestors I don’t know about, probably within the last 1000 years. I could have gotten all of my Scandinavian ancestry from one parent, because it’s less than 50%, but the test doesn’t tell me how much came from one parent or the other. Possibly, the Scandinavian connection is a false positive, meaning it’s a mistake in the AncestryDNA data and I don’t have Scandinavian ancestors after all, but I’m not going to assume they blew it without further evidence.

Surprising—no German DNA:The DNA results didn’t show any German ancestry. The Becker surname is German. My Becker great-great-grandfather and his wife were born in Germany, and so were their parents. (To be precise, my great-great-grandfather was born in the Grand Duchy of Hesse — Großherzogtum Hessen in German — before there was a Germany. It was part of what would become Germany.) Why don’t I have any German DNA?

Conclusion—lack of German DNA is not a lack of German ancestors: Does my lack of German DNA mean I don’t really have German ancestry? No. This sort of DNA testing can prove what’s present in your ancestry, but it can’t prove what’s missing. My German great-great-grandfather Valentine Becker married Anna, a woman who was probably German. Their son Edward probably had lots of German DNA. Edward married Ethel, a woman with no known German ancestry. Their son Lester probably had 50% or less German DNA. Lester married another non-German, Mary. Their son Earl (my father) could have anywhere from 0 to 50% German DNA. Dad married a non-German too, so it’s completely plausible that I received no German DNA despite the fact that I have German ancestors.

Not surprising—my cousin is my cousin: The AncestryDNA site says my cousin Ellen appears to be my cousin! Our mothers were sisters, after all, and Ellen did the test too, so this accurate AncestryDNA match lends credibility to the results.

Surprising—my cousin is just like me: The AncestryDNA match say Ellen is 54% British Isles and 46% Scandinavian — very close to my results. We’re first cousins, so some DNA overlap is possible and likely, but I’m surprised our results were that close. Two of my grandparents have no connection to two of Ellen’s, so I would have expected some non-matching elements too.

Speculation—Scandinavian on Mom’s side: The similarity of our results raises the possibility that our Scandinavian DNA came from the grandparents we have in common. It’s something to pursue, but we’ve hit some genealogical dead ends in that part of the family, so I’m not sure how we’re going to solve this puzzle. However, it’s also possible that our Scandinavian DNA is a coincidence, if Ellen’s father and my father just happened to have Scandinavian ancestry, even though they weren’t related. It’s also possible that we each got a mix from both parents. Basically, while the Scandinavian ancestry could be in our common ancestry, it might not be.

Comparison to Other DNA Tests

This AncestryDNA test is in particular an autosomal DNA test (atDNA). A few years ago, I did the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test and the Y chromosome (Y-DNA) test. The mtDNA test placed my maternal line in Haplogroup H, which showed up in Europe during the Stone Age. This group spread all over Europe. The Y-DNA test looks only at the paternal line, and it put my paternal line in Haplogroup R1b, which also came to Europe from western Asia during the Stone Age. They wound up all over western Europe and the British Isles.

The results are consistent. Based on the mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, which look back tens of thousands of years, it’s no surprise that the atDNA test, which looks back centuries instead of millennia, found European ancestry. It’s official: I’m European-American.



Filed under Genealogy

Why I Don’t Have 1.6 Novemdecillion Ancestors

I was going to call this “Fun with Genealogy, Math, and Data” but then I’d have even fewer readers. (Darn, I said it! There go the readers!)

Lots of Boxes in the Family Tree

The odd thing about family trees is that the number of people gets larger as you go back through the generations, but the population of the world is smaller as you go back through the generations. If my family tree had no repetition, meaning that every spot in the tree held a different person, I’d have 1.6 novemdecillion ancestors by the time you go back to about 4000 BCE. That’s 16 followed by 59 zeros, which is vastly, hugely, astronomically more than the world population 6000 years ago of around 7 million people. It’s vastly more than the estimated number of stars in the universe.

The explanation, of course, is that a family tree must have tons of repetition when you go that far back. Somewhere back in ancient Europe, where DNA testing places my heritage, there are couples who must show up trillions of trillions of times in my family tree.

The Crossover Point

The next question is: Where’s the crossing point between the size of my family tree and the population of the world? At which generation in the family tree does the size of that generation exceed the world population? It turns out to fall somewhere around the year 1100. I’m estimating 30 years per generation. Look back 28 generations before my year of birth and we hit the year 1118. That 28th generation of the family tree has more than a quarter of a million people in it. The world population back then was a little more than that, somewhere around 320 million. Look back 29 generations to about 1088, and we’ve got over half a billion people in the family tree, but the world population was smaller than that. That’s the crossover, then. Somewhere around the turn of the 12th century, my family tree is larger than the population of the world. There are more spots to fill than people to fill them.

What does that mean? Although anyone could have repetition in the family tree more recently than that, it’s guaranteed to happen by the time you reach back to the Middle Ages. It also means that if your ancestors and a friend’s ancestors were from the same general region back then, there’s a very real possibility that you’re very distant cousins. If two people today have an ancestor in common from 29 generations ago, they’re 28th cousins.

That crossover point is where your family tree must have repetitions. Most likely, you’ve got repetitions that are much more recent, because you’re not descended from everyone who was alive back then. Some of those people didn’t have kids, or didn’t have family lines that survived until the present day, and some simply aren’t your ancestors.

Repetition in Our Family Trees

Both my wife and I have known repetitions in our family trees. Phillip Harmon (1803-1853) and Nancy Jackson (1801-1885) are my 4th great-grandparents in two different places. Their daughter’s son married their son’s daughter – cousin married cousin – back in southern Indiana. In my wife’s family tree, Pierre Georges Riffaud (1834-1890) and Marie Elisabeth Zélie (1833-1893) are her great-great-grandparents twice over (life on a small island, Martinique). Two of their descendants got married and became my wife’s ancestors.

We also found potential common ancestors in medieval Europe (because European nobility and royalty kept careful track of their lineage). Our evidence isn’t rock solid every step of the way, but it’s mostly pretty good, so we might well be distant cousins through some medieval ancestor. The math above makes this a rather unsurprising result. Just about all of European royalty was descended from Charlemagne, and there’s a decent chance that if you have European heritage, you’re descended from some European royal too, and therefore also from Charlemagne. If you have French heritage in particular, you’re probably descended from Charlemagne. Roughly 30% of today’s African-Americans also have European ancestry, so if you’re descended from slaves in the US, you too could be one of Charlemagne’s descendants.

If you are indeed descended from Charlemagne, you’ve got lots of repetition in your family tree. If he’s there at all, he’s probably there in multiple places.

30 Years per Generation?

Earlier, I estimated 30 years per generation. That’s a common genealogical estimate, but can we test it? Sure, with more math and more data! Yay! The average generation interval between an ancestor and a descendant is: (descendant’s birth year – ancestor’s birth year) / (number of generations between them). My 3rd great-grandfather Mathias Becker was born in 1814. I was born in 1958. That’s (1958 – 1814)/5 = 28.8 years. That’s one line. When I average out the 4 generations behind our kids, I get 30.4 years. Our family trees have complete birth info on everyone for those 4 generations. Our info gets more sparse as you go back. When I average what we have for 5 generations, I get 30.6 years. When I throw in the 6th generation, where the birth dates fall in the late 18th century, I get an average of 29.8 years. Those averages are all in the neighborhood of 30 years, so the estimate seems like a decent one, at least for the last few centuries of European heritage.

To go back farther in time, I looked at the oldest line I could trace with any kind of data, to Pepin of Landen, Charlemagne’s 3rd great-grandfather. (Once your family tree ties into European royalty, the family tree grows a lot.) For the sake of the exercise, let’s accept the path leading to dear old Pepin without pointing out where the weak links are, and see what this does to the average generation interval. He was born in about the year 580. In the family tree data we’ve accumulated, he shows up 24 times as an ancestor of my kids: 4 times as their 41st great-grandfather, 15 times as 42nd, and 5 times as 43rd. He’s 43-45 generations behind my kids. Five of those 24 ancestral spots are on my wife’s side, 19 on mine. He’s probably there in a lot more places that we don’t know about.

For my youngest, the average generation interval between her and Pepin of Landen is 31.4, 32.1, or 32.8 years, depending on the path you take. A rule of thumb of 30 years per generation still seems about right, all the way back to the early Middle Ages.

Genealogy. Math. Data.

Genealogy. Math. Data. This is how I have fun.

Thank you both for listening.


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Filed under Genealogy, Math