In our previous blog posts in this series, we have been learning all about how to research our Pennsylvania German ancestors by discovering the paper trail they have left behind. What about DNA? How useful will it be in helping us with these colonial ancestors? Even though (for most test-takers) colonial ancestors will be beyond the typical 5-6 generations that autosomal DNA is useful, using DNA with your colonial German ancestors may be a key to bridging the gap between the ancestors you know and those you would like to discover.
Here are the takeaways from Pennsylvania Germans and autosomal DNA:
- It’s useful to organize your oldest relatives’ matches into clusters that connect to their great or 2nd-great-grandparent lines.
- Some ancestral lines have more matches than others.
- Colonial ancestors have had several generations to leave American descendants.
- Americans, especially of European descent, are more likely to take DNA tests .
- Colonial Germans often have many descendants who take DNA tests.
- Unknown colonial German ancestors may often be 4th-5th great-grandparents. 4th-5th great-grandparents are 7-8 generations away, and so outside of the 5-6 generations where autosomal DNA is more consistently effective.
- 4th and 5th great-grandparent lines with many matches and good trees may be able to yield DNA hints that narrow down the possible candidates of an unknown ancestor’s family.
- If your ancestral line also has a Y-DNA, mtDNA or X-DNA component, be sure to identify DNA testers that would have inherited that DNA. Answering a genealogical question may require using every type of clue .
- Establishing the extended family of your Pennsylvania German ancestors will help you identify their FAN club.
First Step: Sort your match lists
First, you want to test your oldest relatives on as many different sibling lines as possible to get the greatest coverage of your unknown ancestor . When we look through our match lists from these oldest relatives and sort them into ancestral lines, I’m sure we all notice that some of our ancestors have a lot of matches, others have few or maybe none that we can identify . What lies behind this?
- The number of total descendants of that ancestor.
- The number of those descendants that take a DNA test (and post a family tree).
- Ancestral lines with known closer cousins can be sorted with greater confidence and ease than those with no close cousins.
Why do some ancestral lines have more matches than others?
I have been thinking about this simple question since my parents and I first took a DNA test. This is because each of my parents has one great-grandparent with colonial roots and seven with mid-19th century European immigrant roots. This combination of distant and closer immigrant lines made it very obvious that their colonial lines had many matches in comparison with their more recent immigrant lines, especially with my mostly German dad. My mom has several Irish great-grandparents. Irish ancestry means borderline endogamy, which makes this phenomenon less obvious.
Dad’s great-grandparents were born in the mid-1800s. He has one great-grandpa with all of his ancestral lines reaching back to the colonial era (the latest arrival was the mid-1700s). The rest of Dad’s great-grandparents were born in German lands or their parents were. This sets up an interesting situation where we can clearly see why some ancestral lines have far more matches than others.
From the beginning, I noticed that both my dad and his sister seemed to have an overwhelming number of matches from 1/16 of their ancestral lines: their 2nd great-grandmother with colonial German roots. Why? Because more descendants of the Pennsylvania German ancestors have taken a DNA test. Why? Probably a combination of his Pennsylvania German ancestral family having many descendants and they were Americans, and so a greater percentage of those descendants took a DNA test.
That’s the main point here. If you are looking at a colonial-era ancestral line, it’s especially worth pursuing DNA because the descendants of that line most likely live in America and generally a greater percentage of them have taken a DNA test than other lines. My dad’s mid-19th century German immigrant lines have very few matches. Why? Probably a combination of fewer descendants, but especially because the descendants of those lines mostly still live in German lands where people tend not to take DNA tests. I wrote about this in this blog post on 19th-century Germans & DNA.
Between family and clients, I have traced several Pennsylvania German lines with DNA and with documentary evidence. Anecdotally I have noticed that they all had many descendants and many matches. I suspect that this may be true for many Pennsylvania German lines. It may be that Pennsylvania Germans in general had many descendants.
However not for all, some colonial lines may just not have very many descendants, or those descendants have just not taken a DNA test. That’s the case with dad’s colonial English 2nd-great-grandpa. I have found few matches on that line even though it is colonial. Still, I have been able to use these matches to find clues about the origins of this English ancestor. However, with fewer matches, I feel less certain that I do with his Pennsylvania German wife’s DNA clues.
Colonial German ancestors on the edge of DNA’s usefulness
Autosomal DNA is useful for identifying ancestors to the 5-6 generation if you have enough matches with family trees. 5-6 generations back means that DNA can help us identify between a tester’s 2nd to 3rd great-grandparents with confidence. That’s because the 3rd cousins (3C) and 4th cousins (4C) that result from our 2nd and 3rd-great-grandparents often share enough DNA with us to be more confident of a close genetic relationship. That is the quality of our matches will be high enough to give us good clues.
Though our colonial Germans will likely be further back than 5-6 generations, they may also have many many more matches than other lines. Colonial ancestor matches at 7-8 generations away from the test-taker will share on average less DNA, but because of the saturation of DNA testing in America, you may have many matches. That is you may have quantity on your side. I discussed this idea of quality vs quantity in a previous blog post.
Suffice it to say for now that pursuing DNA with colonial German ancestors is a good idea because there’s a good chance of finding other descendants of your unknown ancestors in your match list. These matches’ family trees may provide you with a clue as to which family your brick-wall ancestor was connected to. Since Ancestry has the largest database of American test-takers, it’s the best place to look for the descendants of colonial ancestors. Here is a blog post with a good explanation of ”How to Evaluate an AncestryDNA Thrulines Hypothesis”.
Using DNA with colonial American lines has proved far easier than with my dad’s more recent immigrant lines. Also, Pennsylvania Germans are generally not endogamous (except for Amish and Mennonites), so ThruLines is more trustworthy. I tend to trust ThruLines somewhat less with my mom’s Irish lines for example.
Who was Dad’s Pennsylvania German 4th-Great-Grandma?
I have solid documentary evidence of who Dad’s Pennsylvania German 2nd-great-grandma’s parents and siblings were. However, in researching further back, I have found only one documentary reference to her paternal grandmother’s maiden name. The name was recorded as Christine Hittel. Christine is Dad’s 4th-great-grandmother.
Christine lived from about 1770 to 1820. I looked into the Hittels of Pennsylvania and found there were many families of Hittels that Christine could have been related to. I would generally not expect to be able to use DNA to identify dad’s 4th-great-grandparents on his 19th-century German lines because of the lack of matches. Can DNA help me narrow down the possible Hittels for documentary research?
Since there are several good 3rd and 4th cousin matches to this 2nd-great-grandma, I can use the 4th cousin matches to identify her paternal matches. As I looked through those matches for those who posted good family trees, I began to notice that several matches went back to the same common ancestors I did not know. As I built out these matches’ trees further, I noticed that those common ancestors went back to a Nicholas Hittel who was said to be born in 1772, very close to Christine’s birth. Could Nicholas be Christine’s brother?
I put Nicholas (born circa 1772) and his proposed father (who would be my dad’s 5th-great-grandpa), also Nicholas (born circa 1740), into my dad’s Ancestry tree (tagged as a hypothesis). ThruLines revealed about 21 matches for my dad and aunt (for about 17 separate people) who descend from Nicholas Hittel b. 1772. These matches share between 7-54 cM with them, which fits well into the range for 6C (average 18 cM, with a range of 0-71 cM). ThruLines proposed a few others that may descend from yet further possible siblings of Christine and Nicholas.
Is this proof that Nicholas and Christine were siblings? Absolutely not, but DNA proposed a candidate to research out of the many Hittels who could have possibly been Christine’s family. Diana has been discussing this very same process in regard to her Cynthia Dillard and Cynthia’s possible brother Elijah Dillard in the podcast.
My point here is that this Pennsylvania German line of my dad’s has many matches, and that may help with overcoming the challenge of using DNA evidence for more distant ancestors. Using DNA like this, to go back further along a 19th-century German ancestral line has been nearly impossible because there are so few matches for these ancestors. If you have ancestors who arrived in the colonial era, the saturation of DNA testing in the U.S. may mean that you can find many more distant cousins on an ancestral line.
In my post about Using DNA for Clues with Colonial Ancestors: Quality vs Quantity, I discussed the numbers a bit more. Are a larger number of lower-quality matches helpful compared to a smaller number of high-quality matches, that is quality vs. quantity? Why is 5-6 generations the cutoff for where autosomal DNA is confidently able to help us identify unknown ancestors?
The fact that Pennsylvania German ancestors belong to a group whose descendants tend to take DNA tests makes it especially worthwhile putting the time in to try DNA with them. The added benefit of identifying the extended family of your Pennsylvania German ancestors will be discovering their FAN club, which is so important to genealogical research. We hope you have great success in researching your Pennsylvania German ancestors!
- Heather Murphy, “Most White Americans’ DNA Can Be Identified Through Genealogy Databases,” The New York Times, 11 Oct 2018, and Giorgio Sirugo, et. al., “The Missing Diversity in Human Genetic Studies, “ Cell, Commentary Vol 177, Issue 1, P26-31, March 21, 2019 (https://www.cell.com/fulltext/S0092-8674(19)30231-4: accessed 2 Mar 2022).
- “Head-spinning DNA,” Ancestor Callings: Georgia and Mississippi Roots (https://ancestorcallings.blogspot.com/2016/05/head-spinning-dna.html : accessed 22 Mar 2022) > Inheritance Chart of Four Type of DNA.
- Paul Woodbury,”Covering Your Bases: Introduction to Autosomal DNA Coverage,” LegacyTree (https://www.legacytree.com/blog/introduction-autosomal-dna-coverage : accessed 22 Mar 2022).
- Robin Wirthlin, “Fast Ways to Cluster Your DNA Matches at the Beginning of a Research Project,” FamilyLocket (https://familylocket.com/fast-ways-to-cluster-your-dna-matches-at-the-beginning-of-a-research-project/ : accessed 22 Mar 2022).
- Nicole Dyer, “How to Evaluate an AncestryDNA Thrulines Hypothesis,” FamilyLocket (https://familylocket.com/how-to-evaluate-an-ancestrydna-thrulines-hypothesis/ : accessed 22 Mar 2022).