One Name Studies and DNA

One-name studies, or surname studies, are a traditional mainstay of genealogical research. See how they’re incorporating DNA into their enormous files of data on individual surnames.

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Since the advent of surnames, our last names have become the flagships of our genealogical research.  We name our files after them, we tag our research with them, we wear our lists proudly on pins and necklaces and T-shirts.

Although they are an obvious way to conduct and organize our genealogical research, surnames can also be misleading. Illiteracy, language barriers, and just plain carelessness in the past led to misspellings and alterations, not to mention those ancestors who flat-out changed their names.

YDNA testing and the Guild of One-Name Studies

The advent of YDNA testing around the year 2000 has changed the way many genealogists view surnames and their role in their genealogy.

Because a man’s YDNA is the same as the YDNA carried by each of the ancestors in his direct paternal line, the YDNA can act like a filter, clearly indicating which men with a particular surname, or variant, truly share a direct paternal line.

I was curious about how this technology has affected family organizations, so I spent a few minutes talking with Debbie Kennett an accomplished author and, among other things, regular contributor to the ISOGG Wiki pages and the ISOGG Facebook page where she volunteers her time to educate and improve information for genetic genealogists.  Debbie is also involved with the Guild of One Name Studies, which was established in 1979 and whose goal is to Promote public understanding of one-name studies and preserve the information obtained by those studies.

Debbie indicated that “virtually every common surname is now the subject of a DNA project” including “just over 500 Guild members who are running a DNA project. That number has jumped up considerably just in the last couple of years,” though she says the quality of those projects varies.  She tells us that a quality YDNA project includes three elements: “presenting the DNA data, recruiting people from different countries and also correlating all of the genealogy information.”

How projects may help your genealogy research

So there is no question that YDNA is becoming part of the research plan for most family societies.  I asked Jean Morrison, a member of the Morrison surname project, for her thoughts on how YDNA testing has affected her research.

“The Morrison Q Group has identified through Y line testing at 111 markers,   22  individuals with a MRCA (most recent common ancestor) within eight generations,” she says. Furthermore, because of DNA testing, “identifying where in Scotland this family originated prior to coming to America ca 1728 has become a realistic goal.”

Noel and Ron Taylor were two early adopters of YDNA testing for their Taylor family project, with their first samples being submitted to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in 2000.

Noel, former president and currently the head of the board of trustees for the Taylor Family Society, indicates that “the fact that we started using the ‘cutting edge’ of modern tech for our genealogical research caught the attention of many people in our organization and it renewed great interest in the hearts of many people who had been doing research for many years and I think they had lost interest and were somewhat discouraged.” The Taylors have made significant breakthroughs with their DNA testing, including not only connecting several Taylor lines back to a common ancestor, verifying their paper trails, but also finding a line of Hodges that were actually Taylors!

Debbie tells us that there is still much room for improvement as “not all Guild members are running projects. We have something like 2,700 Guild members so we are still not at the stage where the majority of Guild members are running projects.”

Other surname projects

Besides The Guild, there are other organizations that have been created to assist genealogists with their surname research including a new organization just launched in November called The Surname Society whose goal is to “to build a collaborative environment where members are encouraged to develop their own approach to the investigation of their surname.”

I asked Kirsty Grey, chairman of the Surname Society, what kinds of considerations they made for DNA testing when they were organizing their society. She indicated that DNA testing has taken a front seat role in the research of one of their founders as well as several early members. She states that “DNA is one of the many strands of family history research (and to a greater extent, surname studies) which can connect individuals, often where genealogical research cannot.”

And that really is the bottom line.

DNA, especially YDNA, can tell you things about the surnames in your pedigree that you can’t learn in any other way. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to jump on the YDNA bandwagon and see what your DNA has to tell you! So….why not read this next article on 3 reasons to take a YDNA test?


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