Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Present and Two Lumps of Coal to Stuff in Christmas Stockings

For you genetic genealogists I have a present to stuff in your Christmas stockings.

The present:

The present comes in the form of a link to a very comprehensive guide to the U.S. Census in e-book format. It was compiled by Michael Hait, an experienced genealogist, who has previously published a comprehensive guide to state resources---also in e-format. In the lead in on his blog, Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a profession, Hait claims all content is copyrighted. That would be true for the blog and for his 23 page United States Census Path Finder. However, most of the linked materials are not subject to copyright because they were published by the U.S. Government. This Path Finder is an information rich treasure trove of links that offer a comprehensive coverage of all aspects of the U.S. Census. Genealogical researchers of all levels of expertise will find this a useful reference for background and for specific information at time of need.

The lumps of coal:

For the States of New York and Maryland I have lumps of coal for their Christmas stockings. Many of you are familiar with the myth that Santa stuffs a lump of coal into the stockings of those whose behavior make them undeserving of receiving presents. The reason for these awards are their laws which prohibit genetic tests like the one administered by 23andMe which can be considered to offer individuals information about their potential for health conditions. The restrictions are different in the two states; and I will leave the details to Judy Russell in her recent post “NY and MD limits on 23andMe” to her blog The Legal Genealogist.
After you read Judy’s post, be sure to read the comments added Kathy Johnson. Regular readers of my blog will know what my feelings are on the right of individuals to be able to access the information stored in their own bodies.

I would like to be clear that these state restrictions affect all of us in one way or another. It will complicate my effort to test family members in these states. In addition it limits the likelihood that residents of these two states will test and can be possible matches for the rest of us. However, at the moment these restrictions have not been applied to Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and the National Genographic project which go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of offering health related information. 

Happy Holidays to all. May 2013 be a fantastic year of discoveries for all of us in genetic and traditional genealogy.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The DNA Dilemma

December 24, 2012 Time Cover

The current Time Magazine cover story “The DNA Dilemma: A Test That Could Change Your Life” by Bonnie Rochman raises several important questions. Each of us will have to answer them for ourselves. It is well worth reading. I have submitted the following letter to the editor for possible publication:
Bonnie Rochman (“The DNA Dilemma”, Dec 24th) is correct that “knowledge is power.” Currently, the greatest impediment to unleashing the knowledge within our genomes to improve our medical care is the ignorance or indifference of the medical community about how to harness this potential. A vast educational program is needed. Physicians see themselves as gatekeepers to this information and only value it if they have a fix that can be applied to the problems so identified.
Some patients will choose to know their predispositions and some will not. Some of us have been seeking them out with tests like 23andMe and then taking the results to our physicians. All these options should be open in the land of the free.
Information encoded within our DNA is owned by us—not by the medical establishment. It should be made accessible to those of us who want to be partners in our own health care decisions. It is not something to be doled out paternalistically when the medical profession is ready to offer us a fix for a defect. This information is valuable to us in making other life decisions. This is even more essential in guiding our decisions when current medical practice has no current fix to offer.
Patients and physicians should be partners in discussing how this information should be applied. It is not something from which the medical profession is ethically bound to protect us. By sharing the information and the responsibility for its use, all are empowered.
There are always questions about appropriate use when any new technology is introduced. The technology always develops faster than our ability to foresee or react to its impact on society. For more than a dozen years I taught "Ethics in the Information Age". Although it was focused on the ethical dilemmas library workers and web designers face on the job when dealing with clients and client information, the basic themes apply here. Reduced to the simplest possible terms there are four competing "Rights":

The right to know;
The right to privacy;
The right to own and benefit from intellectual property; and
The right to protect some or all of us in our society.

It's a zero sum game. One of those rights cannot be advanced without another retreating. It is clearly a case where one answer does not fit all people or all situations. Read the article. Discuss it with your family and physician. Comment on this blog and in other forums.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seismic Shift in Genetic Genealogy

It seems like the entire landscape of genetic genealogy has shifted in the last week. What magnitude on the Richter Scale were the shakes that led to this amount of widespread and almost simultaneous change? Only time will tell as to which of theses events will have the most lasting impact.

First we had 23andMe upgrading their "Ancestry Painting" feature. That feature previously had been interesting enough for it to form the central analysis tool for Bryan Sykes to analyze a couple dozen American genomes and generate his recent travelog DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America. Now their upgrade to "Ancestry Composition" is much more interesting and informative. The company followed that up with a blockbuster announcement of a permanent reduction of their test to $99. 

Wedged in between these two events National Geographic and explorer in residence, Spencer Wells began to release the first results of their Genographic Project, Geno 2.0.

Then Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) unveiled a major upgrade to their website and their database that will cause all of us who have tested there to reassess our results. All the pieces of the revamped website are not fully funcioning yet but the results are extremely interesting: 
Previously only exact full mitochondrial matches were displayed. Now those within a couple of mutations can also be viewed. This is an extension of similar latitude previously shown in displaying results on partial mitochondrial results.

Y-chromosome results have been re-calibrated and this will change with whom some of those tested match and don't match. Even for those who still match the same individuals, the probabilities of how many generations ago that match occurred are likely to have changed.

Within our Dowell DNA Project we have triangulated 111 marker Y-chromosome results of living descendants of three of the sons of my 6th great-grandfather. Through this process we have been able to reconstruct what the 111 marker DNA signature would have been of Philip Dowell, Sr. who died in 1733. The recent changes in the FTDNA database do not change our overall result. However, they reduce the mutations of some of us who participated  in this process. The chart immediately shows our descendancy from Philip:

Before the re-calibration of the database, the living descendants, who are represented by the lowest boxes in each column, had a combined total of 10 mutations from Philip, Sr. Today they are shown as having 8. From left to right: the descendant of Philip, Jr., still has 2 mutations over the generations. The descendant of John dropped from 6 to 5 mutations. The two of the descendants of Peter, Sr., previously were shown as have 1 mutation each and the third was shown as having no mutations. The revised results show two with no mutations and one still having a single mutation over the generations. Are these revisions significant? They don't change the previously predicted DNA signature of Philip, Sr. However, in borderline cases, it could change whether two men were shown as matches or did not ever show up on each others results pages.

Other 111 marker matches with different surnames, who were previously shown as having a genetic distance of 9 or 10, now show up as having a genetic distance of 5. No new men joined this cluster as a result of the changes in reporting.

The events of the last few days make one think, "Everything I knew about genetic genealogy has changed." But then we haven't heard anything from Ancestry lately. I wonder how long it will take them to try to get back in the spotlight?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

$99 Autosomal DNA Test from 23andMe

The following press release from 23andMe has the potential to drastically change the economics of the autosomal DNA market. The company is announcing what it says is a permanent price drop of its combined genealogy and health factors test to $99. This is the result of new funding and the launching of an ambitious plan to expand its current database of testers from 150,000 to 1,000,000. At this price many will find the price to be attractive for many family members. Autosomal testing for genealogical purposes is helpful for the last few generations to find close cousins but does not have the power to trace distant paternal and maternal lines that Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA can track. 

The health related information can be equally valuable. My wife and I now are patients of the Vanderbilt University Heath Clinics. Vanderbilt is beginning an ambitious plan to match patient records with DNA information that will PREDICT how those patients will react to drug therapy before the drugs are prescribed. Both of us had tested at 23andMe three years ago and were given the same information at that time as Vanderbilt confirmed this past summer.

It remains to be seen how soon 23andMe will be able to reach its ambitious goal of 1,000,000 tested. However, the economics of the marketplace for direct to consumer DNA testing just changed. I hope the major databases will remain economically viable. Need I suggest that you may want to reevaluate what you were planning to give family members for Christmas?

The full text of the press release is below:


23andMe Raises More Than $50 Million in New Financing
Company Sets Growth Goal Of One Million Customers, Reduces Price to $99 from $299
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – December 11, 2012 – 23andMe, Inc., the leading personal genetics company, today announced it has raised more than $50 million in a Series D financing. Participants in the financing include Yuri Milner, a new investor, as well as existing investors Sergey Brin, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, New Enterprise Associates, Google Ventures and MPM Capital. This investment will help the company achieve its growth goal of one million customers.
The Power of One Million PeopleExpanding the company’s ability to reach and serve one million individuals supports 23andMe’s goal to revolutionize health and wellness. It also will accelerate 23andMe’s ability to create a powerful platform that enables researchers around the globe to make meaningful discoveries significantly faster than is currently possible. With this expansion, 23andMe, which currently has more than 180,000 customers, will aim to:
  • Enable groundbreaking research by creating an exponentially larger collective of actively engaged, genotyped individuals;
  • Help accelerate development of new treatments;
  • Improve understanding of wellness and disease prevention; and
  • Broaden access for people seeking to manage their health and well-being through direct access and greater understanding of their own genetic data.
“A community of one million actively engaged individuals will be transformational for research. A community of this magnitude will improve researchers’ ability to quickly answer questions about genetic function and the role of environmental factors. In addition, it will enable researchers to understand medication efficacy and side effects, in both medications that exist today and medications are that are in development,” Wojcicki added.
Broadening Access: Lowering Price to $99
The Series D investment, combined with rapidly decreasing costs associated with genetic testing technologies, enables 23andMe to reduce the price of its Personal Genome Service to $99, effective immediately. The company will continue to evaluate optimal pricing strategies.
The investment also enables 23andMe to expand the necessary infrastructure to support growth in its research and operational capabilities, including product development, genetic research, software development, recruitment and marketing.

About 23andMe
23andMe, Inc. is the leading personal genetics company dedicated to helping individuals understand their own genetic information through DNA analysis technologies and web-based interactive tools. The company's Personal Genome Service® enables individuals to gain deeper insights into their ancestry and inherited traits. The vision for 23andMe is to personalize healthcare by making and supporting meaningful discoveries through genetic research. 23andMe, Inc., was founded in 2006, and the company is advised by a group of renowned experts in the fields of human genetics, bioinformatics and computer science. More information is available at

Geno 2.0 v. Ancestry Composition

It is easy for us to get caught up in our own drama and to lose perspective of what the larger picture is really all about. To some extent that is what I did yesterday. My own primary focus on DNA research is to find information that will allow me to extend the history of my own family and the families of extended family members—particularly those of the ancestors of my grandchildren. I am also very interested in learning about the health implications of our genomes and what we can learn about the historic journey of the human race. However, my original interest in DNA research was to find information from within my body and those of my family members that would help me as a genealogist to extend what I have been able to learn from extant oral and documentary information. In this quest I have been somewhat successful. I continue to look to each new DNA tool for new insight that will help me extend these genealogies.

This is the perspective from which I first examined my results from Geno 2.0 yesterday. In so doing was I missing the real point of this exciting new project? I was looking to build backward incrementally from what I already knew from my prior genealogical research. Geno 2.0 begins its story from the other end of the human narrative. Its primary focus is anthropological rather than genealogical. Although these two foci are ultimately complementary, they remain only loosely connected. Both approaches are seeking to connect with the other; but each are building from opposite ends of this long human journey.

In some ways this effort is analogous with the building of the transcontinental railroad across North America in the 1860s. Two efforts, launched from 1,770 miles apart, needed to standardize their gauge (rail width) and come together at a common point. That project was to connect two geographic locations existing in the same time dimension. Our genetic genealogy effort today is to connect different eras of the human journey.

When I first surveyed my results yesterday, I had on my genealogical tinted glasses. My own agenda of extending my own family histories back from North America to Europe colored what I saw or didn't see. I was trying to make an anthropological tool into a genealogical tool. It is not significantly different from trying to use a pair of pliers for a task for which a wrench is better suited. Sometimes this will work and sometimes not. In my post yesterday I tried to compare Geno 2.0 with the new Ancestry Composition tool that 23andMe introduced last week. My colleague CeCe Moore, Your Genetic Genealogist, gently pointed out that these two tools were looking at different times along the migration of my ancestors. Ancestry Composition was helping me look for my family at the dawn of genealogical time or about 500 years ago. On the other hand Geno 2.0 was trying to focus further back. Both tools can be useful but their reported results must be viewed appropriately. With this in mind I’ll begin to review my Geno 2.0 and my Ancestry Composition reports from a different perspective. I’ll share my observations here shortly.

Monday, December 10, 2012

First Look @ Geno 2.0 Beta Results

My Geno 2.0 Beta results from National Geographic's Genographic Project were just posted this morning. I am just beginning to absorb them. My maternal and paternal haplotypes were about what I had expected from previous tests at 23andMe and FTDNA. Determining haplotypes seems to be rapidly becoming established science. I'll have more to say about them later. 

However, my immediate attention was captured by some less familiar categories where the science is currently much more fluid:
This reported Neanderthal DNA percentage is lower than the 2.5% result that was previously reported by 23andMe under the "Ancestry Labs" tab.

Moving right along to my overall results under Geno 2.0's "Who Am I?" section: 

At first glance these seem significantly different than my report from the new "Ancestry Composition" report that debuted on 23andMe last week.

I'm going to have to explore and ponder on these apparent discrepancies and have lunch and then ponder some more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Other Henderson Dowell

[This is a continuation of a series of posts I have been writing over the last month about the interaction of White Dowells (my family) and Black Dowells who lived in Wilkes County, North Carolina in the 19th century. Many of their descendants continue to live in this area today.]

The Henderson Dowell (Black) who lived his entire life in Wilkes County, North Carolina, is often confused in pedigree charts with a man of the same name who may have lived his entire life in Tennessee even though he had Wilkes County roots. This other (White) Henderson Dowell was Priscilla Dowell’s first cousin-once removed on her father’s side and a first cousin-twice removed on her mother’s side of the family. The White Henderson, having been born about 1838, was about four years older than the Black Henderson (who was enslaved by Priscilla). Indications are that the family of the White Henderson Dowell had moved to Campbell County, Tennessee, prior to or soon after his birth. He appeared there as the 12 year old son of James and Nancy Dowell in the 1850 Census. In the 1860 Census he was enumerated in the same county with his mother and stepfather, William Ingram.

On January 20, 1861 the White Henderson married Hester Ann Lovett. The next year, on February 5th they had their only child—James F. Dowell. A year later he enlisted at Flat Lick, Kentucky in the 3rd Tennessee Infantry for a term of 3 years:

He was not to complete that tour of duty. He died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on March 27, 1863: 

His widow, Hester applied for a widow's pension on June 29, 1867. That was not unexpected. However, where did the grandchild H. L. Wheeler come from who applied on December 8, 1868 for a minor dependent's pension based on Henderson's military service?

Additions and corrections are always most welcome to these posts. This is one of the main ways I learn new things.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Priscilla Dowell's Former Slaves Become Citizens

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the close interaction between the European-American family of Priscilla Dowell and the descendants of African Americans who were enslaved by her at the beginning of the Civil War. Priscilla was my first cousin—five times removed. Previous posts during November may be viewed by clicking on these links:

I have yet to see documentation about what happened to Priscilla Dowell’s two one-time slaves Henderson and Payton immediately after she died. They would have been about 21 and 19 at the time her estate was probated in early 1863. Were they purchased by James GWYN/GUYN as was suggested as a possibility by Priscilla in her 1859 will? Circumstantial evidence suggests that might have been the case. Seven years later Henderson was enumerated as a “day laborer” living on one side of James Gwyn and Payton was listed as a “tenant” living on the other side in the 1870 US Census:

Remarkably all three gentlemen were listed as “Male citizens of the U. S. 21 years of age and upwards.” No one in their neighborhood was listed as being a “Male Citizen of U.S. of 21 years of age and upward whose rights to vote is denied on other grounds than rebellion or other crime.”

While the FamilySearch Wiki claims that “Only 15% of freed slaves used the family name of the former owner”, the former slaves in this corner of Wilkes County seemed to buck the trend. Henderson and Payton took the name “Dowel” in the 1870 census and “Dowell” in the 1880 census. This ambivalence about the correct number of “l”s at the end of this surname was common in records about the Whites of that name as well as the Blacks. Since oral communication was much more important than written, it seemed to depend on which record keeper wrote it down.

Literacy was becoming more wide spread, but it still had a long way to go to become universal. Henderson, Payton and their spouses were listed as not being able to read or write. All the adult members of the James Gwyn family were listed as being able to read and write. Could this be because the school teacher was boarding with them? I guess it could have been the other way around. Priscilla Dowell’s grand-niece Harriet Rogers, who at age 12 in 1860 was listed as attending school, was listed in 1870 as being able to read but not write. Her parents could neither read nor write.

Both Henderson’s bride Nancy (Hickerson) and Payton’s wife Malissa (Gwyn) also shared surnames with local White families. This may have indicated that for a combination of reasons slave owners and those who had been enslaved had more personal relations than in other parts of the South where plantation owners owned larger numbers of slaves.

Five years after the war, two of Priscilla’s five former slaves can be accounted for. But what about the other three? It would appear that the “Negro Girl by the name of Juda” who Priscilla inherited from her father in his 1823 will was the “Jude” aged 46 in Priscilla’s will and in the 1860 Slave Census. If that latter age is correct, “Juda” would have been about 9 years old at the time she was given to Priscilla. Could she have been the mother of Henderson, Payton, Eloisa and Jo? If so did Priscilla come to own them as “the Heirs of Juda’s Body” as stated in her father’s will? Family tradition says that Henderson and Payton were brothers. They both have descendants who can be traced down to the present. Were they full brothers or half-brothers? Were Eloisa and Jo also their siblings? Has anyone seen evidence as to what happened to Jude, Eloisa or Jo after the Civil War?

To be continued.