Marilyn Teaff Barton
By Jennifer Reeger
Sunday, July 9, 2006
It was chance and family lore that brought Ron Nicely and Jacob Knisely together.
But it was science that proved their connection.
Through DNA testing, the pair found their genetic link. And Nicely has found more than he bargained for -- his family's ancient history.
"If I hadn't had DNA (testing), I would not have found the link to Jake -- would not have found my 12th great-grandfather," said Nicely, 69, of Derry Township.
It just proved, which I already knew, that we were tied together," said Knisely, 70, of Bellefonte, Centre County. "It was a great tool."
The two are part of a growing number of people using DNA testing to trace their genealogy -- some looking to prove relationships with people they know, and others looking back tens of thousands of years.
While DNA proved that the two Pennsylvanians are closely linked in the genetic web, Nicely has traced his family's roots back even farther.
He discovered he had a male ancestor who lived 15,000 to 22,000 years ago near the Mediterranean Sea in what is modern-day Turkey.
"If you go back to 22,000 years, you're at your 800th cousin level," Nicely said.
Although DNA testing won't give people a filled-in family tree with names, dates and hometowns of ancestors, it will connect them with other people with the same genetic markers. In turn, those connections can lead to discoveries through paper searches.
"It's definitely here, and I think it's here to stay," said Diane O'Connor, marketing director of the National Genealogical Society in Arlington, Va. "I think it's a piece of the puzzle. If you have doubts, it can help you identify groups or particular regions or patterns."
For a hundred dollars or more, people can send a swab of DNA -- collected from the inside of their cheek -- to one of a number of companies that offer DNA genealogical testing through the Internet.
Y-chromosomal DNA will reveal a man's paternal line. Mitochrondrial DNA will offer information about a man or a woman's maternal history.
Genealogist founded DNA company
Family Tree DNA in Houston was the first to offer the service and is the most widely used.
Bennett Greenspan founded the Texas company after he hit a roadblock in his own genealogical research in 1999.
He had heard of ways that DNA has been used to trace family lines. So he approached the University of Arizona and "begged them to do DNA testing for me."
He wanted to learn if his family was related to a man with the same surname in Argentina. Both families came from the same area in the Black Sea region.
"I had all these questions in my mind, and as a genealogist I didn't want to let them go," Greenspan said.
The Arizona lab tested 24 people in Greenspan's trial run.
After discovering the two families are related, he founded a new business venture in 2000.
"I knew if it would help me, it would help every genealogist in the world," Greenspan said.
More than 60,000 people have been tested so far by the University of Arizona through Family Tree DNA.
The company also provides testing for The Genographic Project, a major undertaking by the National Geographic Society.
The project aims to build a better picture of ancient human migratory patterns through DNA testing. Scientists have fanned out around the world to test the DNA of indigenous peoples, and members of the public have an opportunity to have their own DNA tested through the purchase of a kit.
More than 122,000 public tests have been conducted, with close to 149,000 kits sold, according to National Geographic.
A family's link to American Indians
Nicely, a retired business forecaster for Kennametal, had been researching his family tree for several years when he first heard from Knisely.
Nicely had spent time researching the capture of Jacob Kneisle, an ancestor who was captured as a young boy near the family's Ligonier Township homestead by American Indians.
In the meantime, the Whitecrow family in Oklahoma had contacted Knisely in Bellefonte, wondering if he could help find information about a white ancestor of theirs who had been captured in Pennsylvania.
Knisely ended up at Westmoreland County Historical Society and found Nicely's name and phone number in a file about the family.
The two met, and Nicely was able to meet with the Whitecrows and write a book about his relative's capture.
One question lingered, though.
"Jake and I became good friends, and we noticed there were some characteristics of us that were similar," Nicely said. "We started to talk -- could we be related?"
They searched their paper trails for a connection but couldn't find one.
Then, in 2004, Nicely discovered DNA testing.
The friends matched perfectly on a DNA test through Family Tree DNA.
And when they went back to the paper files, they found a link. Nicely knew his family came from Germany to the United States in 1730. Knisely's family came from Switzerland in 1717.
The link was in one man who left Switzerland and moved to Germany.
"From that, Jake and I determined we are eighth cousins," Nicely said.
Nicely continues to have more DNA tests conducted. And he has been in contact with other people who share his DNA through a database -- searching for more family connections and more links to the distant past.
Looking for memories of a grandfather
Mickey Cendrowski said she hopes she'll find a connection through a DNA database.
Cendrowski, 50, of Russellton, Allegheny County, has been researching her maternal grandfather's family since 1993.
Her grandfather died when Cendrowski's mother, Lucille Brewer, was only 4.
"I thought I could find out a little more about her dad, and she could have some memories," Cendrowski said.
She was successful in finding out information on the paper trail about the Brewer family.
Cendrowski went back four generations and even found her mother's half-brother.
"So now she has more pictures and a whole lot more family," Cendrowski said.
Cendrowski wasn't satisfied, though.
A year ago, she had a male Brewer relative test his DNA to see if they are connected to another Brewer family.
"What it did was confirm that we do not connect," Cendrowski said. "It was disappointing in one respect, but in the other it was helpful."
O'Connor, of the National Genealogical Society, said DNA testing is a great way to get around barriers that often turn up in genealogical research.
"Sometimes it just keeps you from wondering forever," O'Connor said.
More and more people are turning to DNA.
"I think it's become very, very popular the last four or five years," she said. "I think the real indicator of that is the number of times I see it show up on genealogy conference schedules."
O'Connor plans to use DNA soon to help find some information on her great-grandfather, who was an orphan.
"We think he might have been Scottish, but we also find the surname (Eury) appears in France and in Greece," she said.
O'Connor, however, warns that DNA testing is just one tool that genealogists use.
"You really couldn't just do DNA testing. It really wouldn't tell you enough to form a complete genealogical picture," she said.
When the paper trail ends
Richard Newhouse, 69, of Waynesburg, Greene County, has used DNA to track information on his maternal line and his mother's paternal line.
Newhouse's parents were divorced. As an adult, he took his mother's maiden name.
He has been researching his family history since about 1970, but he really began working on it after his retirement as a high school science teacher in 1992.
Newhouse had traced his roots to one of two Newhouse families living in Philadelphia in 1790.
He began sharing information with members of the other Newhouse family in hopes they could find a common ancestor.
"You're going to go back in time, and you're going to find where the paper trail is going to end," Newhouse said. "If you've been into genealogy and you've hit a brick wall, you'll pay the price."
The price for DNA testing -- which ranges from around $100 for entry-level tests to $1,000 for the most precise testing -- wasn't a deterrent for Newhouse.
"You probably spend more money in the paper trail than in the DNA tests," Newhouse said.
He had the DNA of his male Newhouse relatives tested because his Y-DNA would show him only his father's line and not the line of his maternal grandfather.
A member of the other Philadelphia Newhouse family also was tested for comparison.
"Lo and behold, we're not related," Newhouse said. "We discovered they're completely different. They don't match at all."
Although the test closed one chapter, it may open others. As more and more people are tested, they may show a link to Newhouse.
He has had some success with his maternal line. Newhouse found a man in Texas with the same mitochondrial markers. They've been comparing notes, and Newhouse believes he's close to knowing the next step in that family line.
"You have to have documentation to support it. You can't just put your family history out there and see it connect," Newhouse said. "(DNA) will answer a lot of questions -- not everything -- but it will certainly open things up."
DNA can trace generations of ancestors, discover mutations
DNA testing doesn't only reveal paternity, potential medical problems or criminal acts. It also can be used to track a person's ancestry.
Men pass on their Y-chromosomal DNA to their sons. Women pass on their mitochondrial DNA to both sons and daughters.
Men can use their Y-DNA to track their paternal line and their mitochondrial DNA to track their maternal line. Women can use only their mitochondrial DNA to track their mother's family history.
Geneticists can look at occasional mutations in DNA -- random mistakes in the sequence -- that are passed down through the generations. These markers of descent can be traced back to their origin. Scientists can reveal the most recent common ancestors of people with the same markers.
Those who share those mutations, which usually occur at a specific time and place in history, belong to the same Haplogroup -- a group of genetic lineages assigned a letter for identification purposes. Scientists then can track human migration -- and an individual family's migration -- through these markers.
Companies that conduct DNA genealogy offer different levels of testing, with 12 markers as the lowest level.
Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, said people with rare DNA often can stop at a 12-marker test because it reaches back to the deepest ancestry. But more common DNA ancestry may require more resolution and, therefore, more markers to be tested.
Databases are available so that people with the same markers can make connections and maybe fill in missing parts of their family tree.