It can land you in prison, it can set you free and it's why you have Uncle Jim's nose. It's DNA and now genealogists are using it to grow missing branches on family trees.
James Brown had been searching for his ancestors for nearly 30 years. Family stories led him to St. Clair County, Ala. There, he found documents that tied land grant and military records to his great-great-grandfather David Brown, who lived in Tennessee. An exhaustive document search ended in disappointment; Brown could not trace his ancestry back farther than 1808.
Brown is a Scots or Irish surname, and the early counties of Tennessee were filled with William, David, John, Thomas and James Browns. Could any of these be relatives?
Encouraged by a distant cousin and fellow family researcher, Jim Brown turned to DNA testing -- a little-known resource which is revolutionizing genealogical research.
Most DNA genealogy analysis involves tests of the Y chromosome. Males only possess this "yDNA," and it is passed from father to son with little or no change through the generations.
In theory all males sharing the same last name, descending from a single ancestor should have similar, if not exact, Y-chromosome genetic coding. In actuality, there may be one or many male ancestral lines determined by DNA comparisons of males who carry that surname.
Take the last name Brown, for example. It may be Scottish or Irish, Brown; Nordic, Broune; or German, Braun.
If there is a match between two males within the Brown surname, then a common ancestor for these two men may be assumed. How far back in history they share a common ancestor is determined by the degree of the match.
DNA testing provided the evidence to move beyond the genealogical "brick wall" James Brown encountered.
Through research that produced significant documentation evidence, and some historical sleuthing, the Brown family finally came to the conclusion that they descend from one William Brown who immigrated to colonial Virginia as an 18-year-old indentured servant. He had at least nine children -- six boys and three girls.
Without DNA testing, the Brown family could not prove conclusively from documentary evidence that their ancestors were brothers.
The given names of the three brothers -- Robert, Thomas and William Brown -- matched the names of the heirs in the will of a William Brown in Knox County, Tenn. who died in 1807. The hypothesis for some time had been that this man was the ancestor of the brothers. DNA analysis has provided the confirmation of this theory.
To conduct DNA testing, four male descendants from each of four Brown lines of descent provided DNA samples for analysis. The results showed that three of the males were matches and thus shared a common ancestor. The fourth male appeared to have no relationship to the other three.
Given that information, and through land and church records, the Browns have traced their ancestry back another 350 years to 1552.
It is important to note that DNA analysis is one research tool that can be used to uncover the history of the microcosmic unit of all human history -- the individual, and the individual's family. DNA testing cannot replace document research or other traces of an individual. Although people create history, individual stories are often forgotten in the retelling of human history. The goal of the serious family historian should be to implement the discipline of historical research to emphasize the lives of ordinary people. DNA is now one of those disciplines.
The Northern Gila County Genealogical Society is offering a three-hour seminar called "DNA, Genetics, and Genealogy -- an Introduction," Saturday, Jan. 15, 1 to 4 p.m. at the Society's library building at 209 E. Bonita St. The fee is $15.
Call Judy Voran at (928) 476-3972 for information.