Surprising Discoveries with mtDNA

Charles Manning, Mary Manning, Addie (Ryan) Manning circa 1936. (My grandparents, and mother).

If my mother was alive, she’d be 101 today. So it seemed the perfect time to write about her, and the DNA that she shared with me–haplogroup K1a4a1b,. I know she would be surprised with the findings of my matrilineal (female line) search. But why? Well, my mom was most proud of being three-quarters Irish rather than being one-quarter English.

This was because my mother grew up in a household of two American born parents who both identified entirely with their Irish forebears. They were only one generation away from that horrible event–The so-called Irish Potato Famine, more appropriately known as An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger. It is estimated that between one and three million Irish people died from starvation or related diseases between 1845-1850. This year (2020) marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the3 Great Hunger. My grandmother and mother remembered, and so shall I, the lessons of An Gorta Mor–that colonialism is never just, and that exploitation, oppression and the abuse of power are crimes against humanity.

Now what follows is the really important part of my Irish history.  It explains why my angelic grandmother’s face always darkened and she spoke with anger in her voice about the English people.

Sketch of an Irish man, from “Irish ways,” by Jane Barlow; George Allen & Sons, (1909) from the University of California Libraries; on the Internet Archive.

Please never again disparage the lowly potato. There are many history revisionists who would like us to believe that is was this potato-fungus event,  that creates the worst human disaster in Ireland. Yes one crop failed but history tells us the story of a different demon. That the potato blight killed the Irish is “fake news.” The real history is mentioned on The Irish Memorial web site: “While her people cruelly suffered, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed them, but food was being removed at gunpoint by Queen Victoria’s troops garrisoned in Ireland for this purpose. In 1847 alone, 4,000 ships carrying £17,000,000 worth of foodstuffs, 10,000 head of cattle,and 4,000 horses and ponies sailed to England. That same year, etched in memory as “Black 47,” saw 500,000 Irish people die of starvation and related diseases.” In other words, the so-called Irish Famine was not a natural event, it was a political one. Hunger was a weapon used to impose the will of the British colonizers upon the colonized, increasing the profits of the rich by the destruction of the poor. Knowing this, I no longer wonder about my grandmother’s dark mood, and why my mother wanted to forget her English lineage.

In addition to these deaths, Irish lost more than 1.5 million adults and children who left Ireland by ship between 1845-1855.  Three of my great-grandparents were on those ships.  In 1997 Prime Minister Tony Blair officially apologized to the Irish people (the first one ever from British leadership) stating heblamed “those who governed in London” at the time for the disaster.”  So why do we keep promoting this idea that a lowly potato was at fault for those horrors in Ireland?

But, now back to matrilineal genealogy. For those of you who are confused by the jargon–matrilineal, for example, DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog has a wonderful article called “Concepts–Paternal vs Patrilineal and Maternal vs Matrilineal.”  In a nutshell the genealogy line I am discussing is that of my mother, her mother (my maternal grandmother), my grandmother’smother, etc., disregarding the men they married.

A Map of Portsmouth NH Harbor (section showing Great Island) 1827 Blunt

I wrote about my oldest known matrilineal ancestor, Jane wife of Thomas Walford this past Mother’s Day [see blog story with list of names]. Until I can discover her surname, it will be very difficult to trace back further than Jane. As for those women in the line between my grandmother and Jane, it took me over four decades to give these women complete first and last names. To this day there are several women in my family tree who I consider “sketchy” as far as documents go–no primary evidence for some of the important birth, marriage or death dates, but enough evidence based on secondary evidence. For some existence in their children’s documents produce a solid connection that they were are ancestors.

Months after I “finished” (are we really ever finished?) solidifying my research I decided to write/blog about these women. 3 months later I decided to have a mtDNA test performed. I was not sure what it would find, except I knew it would remove men entirely from the equation, which I hoped would make it easier. But had I been on the right track?

I uploaded my tree to familyDNA, submitted my DNA test and waited. The results were in, and I gave the “results” my rapt attention. In the intervening weeks while I had waited, I had revisited Jane, wife of Thomas Walford, to trace down her daughters. Again I faced a difficult research feat, for I don’t copy family trees which are often wrong–I want the original data, so I reviewed Portsmouth NH’s earlier records, and wills. From this I was able to trace, at least in a small part, Jane’s daughters.

Earliest known photograph of my grandmother, Addie (Ryan) Manning, a first generation Irish-American.

Well, it was a huge surprise for me to discover that I was a direct descendant of three different daughters of Jane–Her daughter MARY, my matrilineal line, plus 2 others. Through daughter JANE who married Rev. Thomas Peverly, and whose daughter Martha married Christopher Noble. [from there it moves to a male line connecting 2 generations later with the RAND family]; and Martha Walford who married John Westbrook, through their daughter Abigail Westbrook who married John Urin/Urann, my Isles of Shoales ancestor.

Getting back to my mtDNA results. The FamilyTreeDNA list of mtDNA matches includes the name of the DNA donor, their earliest known ancestor, genetic distance, and then the ability to look at a GEDCOM if they uploaded one. A genetic distance of 0 is an exact match. Among those with 0 or 1 genetic distance were two women who also traced their DNA back in time to Jane, wife of Thomas Westford.

The first cousin match’s earliest known matrilineal ancestor was Martha (Walford) Westbrook, who I have already mentioned above. But is one DNA connection enough to prove my entire line? Another woman with a distance of 1 stated her earliest ancestor was Sarah Knight, b 1711, d. unknown. I wrote to her and thankfully she responded. I knew the Walford descendants had a Knight branch–Martha (Walford) Westford had given birth to a daughter, Mary “Hannah” Westford (1671-1749) who married Nathan Knight. They had a daughter Sarah (1708-1756) who married Anthony Brackett. This latter woman was indeed the descendant of this line.

Now with two specific women, both with the same haplogroup, and both linking their matrilineal lines to Jane, wife of Thomas Walford, I felt secure in my research, and in all those amazing named women who lived through difficult days, survived, and produced female offspring. By these three (including myself) connections my matrilineal line research has been solidified and “proven” (as were the lines of my two new Jane Walford-descending cousins).

I welcome comments, and of course connections to more haplogroup cousins who share this ancestry!

P.S.  All of my mother’s sisters, and their daughters, and their daughters daughters share this same lineage.

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16 Responses to Surprising Discoveries with mtDNA

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I did a 23andMe dna test and discovered I was a European mutt, almost equal parts French, English, Irish, German, Italian, and Iberian.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Ernest, thanks for reading and commenting. It is a rare event for someone to be 100% anything. We are all Heinz-49 varieties as my mother used to say. It is these unique combinations that make us all so wonderfully different. No ethnicity is better than another. We are in fact, cousins to everyone, just differing in degrees of closeness. All one race–the human one.

  2. Amy says:

    That’s great that the DNA confirmed your research—nice to know science supports the paper (for those who still believe in science!). I do have one question. You said you were surprised to see you descended from all of Jane’s daughters based on the mtDNA. But wouldn’t all of Jane’s daughters get the same mtDNA as their mother and thus as your direct maternal line? That is, my mother and my aunt would have the same mtDNA since they were both daughters of my grandmother. But I am not descended from my aunt even though she and I have the same mtDNA. Am I not understanding what you meant?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy, actually I descend genealogy-wise from 3 of her daughters not all, she had more daughters. That information was based on the paper trail, on research, not on mtDNA which only traces a matrilineal line. It only came to light when I started researching collateral lines to my matrilineal one. Hoping this makes sense. Yes, all of Jane’s daughters would inherit her matrilineal DNA, but the moment it passed to a son, as both of the other daughters did before it got to me, it is no longer matrilineal. Its confusing I know, a great difference between a maternal line which is all people in a mother’s line, and a matrilineal one which is just mother to mother to mother to mother ignoring all the rest. Correct, you are not descended from your aunt (hopefully if your research is correct), however, both your mother, and your aunt, if your aunt is your mothers true sister, and they share the same mother, they two would inherit a specific haplogroup, which is a DNA marker. This does NOT say you would inherit exactly the same DNA because no two siblings unless they are identical twins would. Did I just make this more complicated?

      • Amy says:

        LOL! OK, so when you said you were descended from all three daughters, that was based on the paper trail, not mtDNA. Right?

        And my understanding is that mtDNA passes unchanged from mother to daughter to daughter and so on—matrilineal. It is autosomal DNA that not all children of the same parents share. But I understood that two sisters would have the same mtDNA even if they didn’t have the same autosomal DNA (unless they were identical). My brother and I share a lot of autosomal DNA, but obviously he does not have my mother’s mtDNA.

        • Janice Brown says:

          Amy, yes and yes. The descent from all three of Jane Welford’s daughters was discovered through document research first. The mtDNA connection to one of them (my matrilineal line) was confirmed by my mtDNA results, with definite relationships to 2 other women with identical mtDNA who also descend from Jane Walford. Yes, your mother and her sister(s) should all share identical mtDNA if they have the same mother. Autosomal DNA is different for everyone but identical twins. A brother can inherit his mother’s DNA (autosomal) but not mtDNA.

          • I think there’s a bit of confusion here due to the way the question was asked. A mother passes her mtDNA to all of her children which means siblings will share the same. Amy and her brother share mtDNA and while she passed hers on to her daughters, her brother cannot pass it on. If a woman had only sons and is deceased, a living son can be tested to help prove the line.

          • Janice Brown says:

            Cathy, thanks for clarifying that mtDNA can be passed down to sons, but that they cant pass it, only daughters can! This does not help anyone whose male ancestor who received the mtDNA is now dead, but effective for relatives who are still living and can take the test.

          • Amy says:

            So we are on the same page! I am glad to know my understanding of all this wasn’t off base!

  3. Pat_H says:

    Very interesting.

    The whole family here did one of the DNA tests some time ago and, to no surprise, I found that my ancestors hailed exactly where my family lore said they’d come from, which, like you, was mostly from Ireland. I was a lot more curious about my wife about whom not much that is known, ancestor wise.

    Well, like lots of Americans, Ireland and the British Isle in general for her too.

  4. It’s amazing to me that you have been able to trace your matrilineal line back to Jane 1598-1681 with records in America.
    I haven’t had my matrilineal DNA tested. I can trace my line back to my 6th great-grandmother Anna Catherina RONAS 1720-1790 with records for each generation with maiden names. This is, of course, not unusual as Luxembourg records nearly always named the women with their maiden name from birth to death. I’m still working on the next generation back. I have 7 candidates for children of my 7th great-grandmother, 4 of these were women who married.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Cathy, in your case mtDNA testing might be helpful. The testing points to ancestors far back in time, and who knows you might just connect with a cousin who could help you discover earlier ancestors. In my case it was four decades of research, helped along by some expert researchers who gave their research into to me. Finally after 40 years I was able to connect all the dots, add my own research (as we know certain research tools are available that weren’t years ago). I felt the line was correct when I wrote the blog story, but the mtDNA verified that I was correct. I would love to see what your mtDNA results would be.

  5. Dave Patterson says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this. It is a good reminder that history isn’t just words on a page, it is a valuable collection of the stories of us! Thanks to recent advances in DNA it is becoming easier than ever to connect the dots that help us accurately see our family history.

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