Using mtDNA for Genealogy: A Case Study – Contacting & testing possible matches

This is the third post of the series. In the first post, I introduced my 5th great grandmother, Charlotte Richardson and the two competing theories as to who her parents were.  In the second post, I outlined the process I followed to identify possible matches, in order to test the two theories.


Now came the hard part – contacting people and getting them to agree to test. I tackled this in multiple ways, with help from Arthur Owen, another descendant of Charlotte Richardson and the person who first got me interested in genetic genealogy.

Get the word out

The first thing we did was to try to get the word out. Even before I had completed Step 1, Arthur spread the word through mailing lists, research groups and forums. I put a note on the WikiTree profiles of Charlotte Richardson, Mary Flintoff, Jane Flintoff and Barbara Richardson, stating that I was looking for female-line descendants to test. We had a few bites, but they were all from people who were descendants but not along an all-female line.  Some of them offered to pass the information along to people who would be candidates, but nothing materialized. I’d still recommend doing this though, as you never know who you might reach this way.

Cousin bait

Another way of reaching people was through cousin bait. I mentioned in the last post that one of the reasons I used WikiTree to document my research is because it’s excellent cousin bait. Sure enough, just a few days after I created the profile of one of Barbara Richardson’s descendants, I was contacted by a woman named Dana. She had been doing genealogy research and had googled her great-grandmother’s name and came upon the profile I had created. Dana contacted me to see if I could answer a question she had. While I couldn’t, I did take the opportunity to tell her why I had created the profile in the first place. While she was not a suitable candidate for my research, as it was her father’s grandmother, he was a direct female-line descendant of Barbara Richardson. Dana put me in touch with her father, Don, who kindly agreed to do the DNA test. Yay! I had my first tester!

Direct contact

The third way I reached people was through direct contact. For this, I used Ancestry. I figured I’d have better luck finding someone to test by reaching people who at least had an interest in genealogy than by emailing people whose names I had read in an obituary, though I was prepared to go there if I had to.

Once I identified some potential matches, I did a search in the Public Member Trees of Ancestry for the most recently deceased person in that line. I looked for people who had a lot of detail. I figured if someone didn’t know the name of a person’s spouse or where they were born, they were probably a more distant cousin and not a direct descendant. For those that did, I looked at the tree, to see if the member was indeed directly descended from the person I searched.

To each of these potential matches, I wrote a short, carefully crafted message, explaining who I was, what I was trying to accomplish and how they were connected. I offered to pay for the test and to provide any additional information they requested.

Most of people that I contacted never responded. But a full two months after I sent one query, I got a positive response, and I was in business! I now had two testers – one representing each theory.

Tester names

mtDNA Tests

There are two mtDNA tests available at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), called mtDNA Plus and mtFull Sequence. Note that these are the prices at the time I’m writing this post (January 2018) – they do change periodically. And there’s usually a sale around Mother’s Day, so if you’re not in a rush to test, it might be worth waiting for a sale.


mtDNA tests

Prior to testing Pam and Don, I had already taken the mtDNA Full Sequence test and knew my haplogroup to be T2b, with some extra mutations (more on this in the next post). For comparison purposes, I started with the cheaper mtDNA Plus test for Pam and Don. This would be sufficient to rule out a match if, for example, their haplogroup was anything other than T. And if I had a match at that level, I could always upgrade to the full sequence test to confirm it.

Tests were ordered, cheeks were swabbed and finally, after months of research and reaching out to numerous people, all I had to do was wait for results. And as you’ll see in the next post, it was worth the wait.

Using mtDNA for Genealogy: A Case Study – Identifying possible matches

In the first post of this series, I introduced my 5th great grandmother, Charlotte Richardson and the two competing theories as to who her parents were. In order to test those theories, I first had to identify some possible matches.

Follow the daughters

In order to find people who carry the mtDNA of Mary Flintoff and Barbara Richardson, I followed as many lines as I could in order to increase my chances of finding some living descendants who would agree to be tested.

Theory 1 - daughters

Mary Flintoff had one known daughter, Elizabeth. She had one daughter, who had two daughters. I pursued this line, but since there was only one line to follow and I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, I also looked at Mary Flintoff’s sister, Jane, who would carry the same mitochondrial DNA (assuming, of course, they had the same mother). Jane had 2 daughters, who between them had 8 daughters. One of Jane’s daughters, Elizabeth Humphrey, married Charles Dixon Jr. They left Sackville, New Brunswick in September 1837 with their 7 youngest children for Kirtland, Ohio where they joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This would prove to be the easiest line to follow, due to the excellent genealogical record-keeping of the Mormons.

Theory 2 - daughters

For Theory 2, Barbara Richardson had 5 daughters, who had 16 daughters among them. There were lots of choices of lines to pursue there, so when one line would fizzle out, there were others to try.

For each daughter, I looked for the following:

  • marriage record or wedding announcement to identify married name
  • all censuses following marriage to identify children
  • birth records of each daughter to confirm mother’s maiden name
  • marriage record or wedding announcement of each daughter to identify married name
  • death record and/or obituary

I worked systematically through each daughter and each daughter’s daughter until I got as far as I could go, then I’d go back a generation and start again with the next one.

Use online sources

While following the lines to present day, I used readily-available online sources. I used some Ancestry trees for hints, but I didn’t want to end up testing someone who wasn’t actually a descendant due to shaky trees. I started with the easy-to-access sources and figured I would dig deeper if I got stuck. Fortunately, I was able to get to present day on several lines using only online sources, through Family Search, Ancestry, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick Archives online, Find a Grave and Google searches, which were especially useful for recent obituaries.

Doing this, I discovered that it’s much easier to get to living descendants on lines that went to the US than on those that stayed in Canada. That 1940 census is very helpful when you’re trying to get to present day!

Document everything

Throughout the process, I documented everything, including the sources I used. I created WikiTree profiles for each person, for a few reasons – First off, WikiTree is what I use for my own family research, so I’m used to it and I believe in the mandate of a collaborative family tree.  I figured I may as well make this research available for others to benefit from and add to.  As well, there was always the possibility that I would connect to trees already on WikiTree, which would save me some research. I did connect a few times to existing trees, but not on the lines I was interested in.  But most importantly, WikiTree is great cousin bait. Since each profile is its own web page, when you search for a name in Google, the WikiTree profile will show up as a hit. And as you’ll see later, this would prove to come in very handy.

WikiTree screenshot

Keep track

In addition to documenting on WikiTree, I also kept a running list in Evernote of where I was, who I had reviewed, and which lines had ended.

Tracking screenshot

Lines ended for a few reasons:

  1. On some, sources I checked had conflicting evidence. I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time going down the line of someone who might not even be related.
  2. Some people had no children, so their line ended
  3. Others only had sons. Since only women pass on their mitochondrial DNA, men were not going to be much help (except for living men, as they have their mother’s mitochondrial DNA)
  4. Some people I lost track of. I had several avenues to pursue, so I didn’t waste time trying to find people who couldn’t easily be found, but I knew I could always go back to them if I needed to.
  5. When I came upon a possible contact, I added a checkbox beside their name. Once I had contacted them, I checked the box.

One I worked through the lines, I had about 10 possible living female-line descendants identified. Next came the fun part – making contact and asking people to give a cheek swab for a total stranger! I’ll cover that in the next post.

Using mtDNA for Genealogy: A Case Study – Introduction

You may have heard that DNA testing can be seen as “fishing trips”, where you test, see who you match and then try to figure out who your common ancestor is, and “hunting trips” where you seek out particular people to test to compare against your DNA. You may have also heard that Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is pretty useless for genealogy. Well, it is often useless for “fishing trips”, but in this series of posts, I’m going to demonstrate how it can be quite useful for a “hunting trip”.  To do this, I’m going to share how I used mtDNA to try to answer the question “Who were Charlotte Richardson’s parents?”

I did this research in 2016 and presented my findings at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa (BIFHSGO) annual conference in September 2016, on a panel called “Making Connections: Adventures in Genetic Genealogy”. This is an adaptation of that presentation.

Who was Charlotte Richardson?

Charlotte Richardson was my 5th great grandmother, along my maternal line. While I’m fortunate to be able to go back 7 generations and 240 years on this line, I was stuck on Charlotte. And you know how it is…. we always want to get further back!

My maternal line

Charlotte was born in 1776 in New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island (now Canada), depending on which census you believe. On the 1851 NB census she was said to have been born there. The 1861 census has her birthplace as PEI. She married Richard Dobson when she was 18. Richard was born in 1769 in Yorkshire, England. In 1773, when Richard was 4, he and his family were among the over 1,000 immigrants from Yorkshire who settled in the Chignecto Isthmus (the neck of land that joins New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) between 1772 and 1775. Richard and Charlotte settled in Cape Tormentine, NB where they raised 12 children.

You can read more about Charlotte, including the conclusions to this research, in my last blog post, 52 Ancestors #3: Charlotte Richardson (1776-aft.1861). If you’d rather not have spoilers on how this research turned out, you may want to wait until the series is over to read that post.

Possible Parents

At the time I started this research, there were 152 Public Member Trees on Ancestry that had Charlotte Richardson, wife of Richard Dobson. Of those:

  • 94 trees had unknown parents.
  • 51 had her parents as John Christopher Richardson and Mary Flintoff
  • 6 had her parents as British Army Officer Richardson and Unknown

There was also one tree with completely different parents, born about 1850.  Since they would have born 75 years after their daughter, I went out on a limb and ignored that as a possibility.


Of the two plausible theories, neither had much in the way of solid evidence to back them up:

  • Theory 1: Charlotte was the daughter of John Christopher Richardson & Mary Flintoff. John & Mary were Yorkshire immigrants who arrived in Canada about the same time as the Dobsons. They settled in Sackville, which was not far from where Richard & Charlotte later lived. John and Mary did have a daughter named Charlotte, but one source, a history of Sackville published in 1933, says that she married someone named Horton. Other sources say she married Richard Dobson. But none of these are primary sources.
  • Theory 2: One of the researchers of the Dobsons has a letter from 1941 that says that Charlotte was the daughter of a British Army Officer, whose regiment was then stationed at Charlottetown, PEI. Obviously it would be hard to test this theory directly with little else known. But, there could be an indirect way.
  • Theory 2a: There was also a Barbara Ann Richardson, born in Charlottetown in 1782 (6 years after Charlotte), who married James Ingraham and settled in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Some people have speculated that they might have been sisters, due to the strong links between Charlotte’s family and Barbara Ann’s family. Two of Charlotte’s sons married two of Barbara Ann’s daughters.

How could mtDNA help?

Mitochondrial DNA is passed along the female line. Both males and females carry their mother’s mtDNA, but only women pass it on to their children. Since I’m a direct female-line descendant of Charlotte Richardson, I carry her mtDNA. In order to test the two theories, I needed to find people to test in order to compare their mitochondrial DNA with mine. Here was my basic research plan, which I’ll go through in more detail in subsequent posts:

  • Step 1 – Identify potential matches
  • Step 2 – Contact potential matches
  • Step 3 – Test one person from each line
  • Step 4 – Compare results

Possible outcomes

There were 4 possible outcomes to this comparison:

Possible outcomes

  1. If I matched someone on Mary Flintoff’s line, it would confirm that Charlotte was the daughter of John Christopher Richardson and Mary Flintoff.
  2. If I matched someone on Barbara Richardson’s line, it would confirm that they were sisters, but I still wouldn’t know who their parents were. I would, however, know that I was looking for someone who lived on Prince Edward Island between 1776, when Charlotte was born, and 1782, when Barbara was born.
  3. If I matched both, it would confirm that Charlotte and Barbara were sisters AND they were both the daughters of John Richardson & Mary Flintoff.
  4. Or of course, I could match neither. In that case, not only would Charlotte’s parents be unknown, I would have no evidence supporting the theory that Charlotte and Barbara were sisters. This could be because they weren’t, or because one or both trees were wrong, either due to misattributed parents or a non-parental event.

In the next post, I’ll provide details on how I identified potential matches. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your experiences with using mtDNA.

52 Ancestors #3: Charlotte Richardson (1776-aft. 1861)

Charlotte Richardson was my 5th great grandmother. I’ve always had a special interest in Charlotte, as she was my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother. Considering that researching female ancestors is often more difficult than researching male ancestors, I love that I’ve been able to go back 7 generations and 240 years on my maternal line.

When I first researched Charlotte, I had her parents as John Christopher Richardson and Mary Flintoff. John & Mary were among the over 1,000 immigrants from Yorkshire, England who settled in the Chignecto Isthmus between 1772 and 1775 (for those of you Chignectowho don’t know Atlantic Canada very well, the Chignecto Isthmus is the neck of land that joins New Brunswick and Nova Scotia).  John & Mary made the journey from Yorkshire in 1774, with two young children and a third born en route. Their son, Joseph Providence Richardson, so named because he was born on the ship, “The Providence”, is also a direct ancestor of mine.

In 2014, I met a distant cousin, Arthur Owen, who is also a descendant of Charlotte Richardson. He had evidence that was inconsistent with Charlotte being the daughter of John & Mary Richardson. Arthur had previously used DNA to disprove the oft-cited parentage of another of his ancestors. Since I’m a female-line descendant of Charlotte, we realized that if we could find the right people to compare to, we could use mtDNA to test various theories about Charlotte’s parents. In 2016, with support from Arthur, I did just that.

In an upcoming series of blog posts, I will explain the process I followed. In the meantime, suffice it to say, I had to throw out everything I thought I knew about Charlotte’s parents, and begin anew!

Here’s the new story of Charlotte.

Charlotte Richardson was born in about 1776 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. She was the daughter of James Richardson and Hannah (Unknown).  James died when Charlotte was about 6 years old, following which Hannah married David Dobson. Ten years later, in 1794, Charlotte, then age 18, married her step-father David’s younger brother, Richard Dobson, age 25.

Charlotte tree

Charlotte and Richard settled in Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, where they raised 12 children, including my 4th great grandmother, Mary Ann (Dobson) Allen.  At the time of the 1851 census, Richard, age 82, and Charlotte, age 75, were living near at least two of their children – their youngest son Job and his young family, and my ancestor Mary Ann Allen, then widowed, and 6 of her 11 children.

Charlotte Dobson - 1851 Botsford Pg 10
1851 Census, New Brunswick, Westmorland, Botsford (83) – Pg 10

Charlotte’s husband, Richard, died in July 1855, as did her son Job two years later.  In 1861, she was living with her daughter-in-law Eliza (Wells) Dobson, widow of Job, and their four young children.

Charlotte Dobson - 1861 Census Botsford - Pg 111861 Census of New Brunswick, Westmorland, Botsford – Pg 11

Charlotte died some time after 1861, having had 12 children, at least 120 grandchildren and at least 91 great-grandchildren (those were the numbers in Richard’s obituary in 1855 – no doubt there were more grandchildren and great-grandchildren by the time Charlotte died.)

The reason I chose Charlotte for this week’s 52 Ancestors post is because the prompt for this week was “longevity”.


With the exception of Miranda Allen, who died of dropsy at age 39, my maternal ancestors have all lived good long lives. So if longevity is passed down through mitochondrial DNA, I’d say I’m in pretty good shape!

52 Ancestors #2: Arthur A. Hicks (1872-1951)

Arthur Albert Hicks was my great-grandfather. Although he died before I was born, my mother has often spoken with great fondness of her Grandpa Hicks. He was born on April 22, 1872, in Midgic, New Brunswick, the 6th of John Manning Hicks and Jane Scott‘s 12 children, only 6 of whom survived childhood. Arthur grew up on the family farm and became a farmer, like his father. He and his wife Morinda Wheaton had 8 children, the eldest of which was my maternal grandmother, Bessie Hicks. Arthur died on April 12, 1951, at the age of 78.

This is the only picture I have of Grandpa Hicks. This would have been taken around 1918, as the child in the picture is Arthur’s eldest grandchild, my aunt Audrey, who was born in February 1917.

Arthur Hicks and Audrey Prowse

A few years ago, while going through a box of old photos and documents with my mother, we came upon this:

Sluice - Arthur A Hicks

We were intrigued. Mom couldn’t recall where she had gotten this sketch. I contacted the Tantramar Heritage Trust to see if perhaps someone there might have a suggestion as to where I could begin to look to locate the source of this illustration. The Executive Director of the Trust forwarded my email to a few people, one of whom knew exactly who could help. He put me in touch with Colin MacKinnon, a biologist at Environment Canada (now retired) and historian, with a particular interest in marshlands history. Not only did Colin recognize the reference, he actually had a copy!

Tidal Marshes and Their Reclamation - cover

This 1911 US Department of Agriculture publication contains a chapter called “The Marsh Lands of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick” which describes the various methods used around the Bay of Fundy to turn marshlands into agricultural lands. The section on sluices includes “Arthur A. Hicks of Upper Sackville, New Brunswick, has built a number of sluices equipped with a very simple and effective device for preventing sluice leakage. (See Pl. XV, fig. 1.)”, which goes on to describe this device in great detail.

The best part is that Plate XV, Fig. 1 is not an illustration, it’s an actual photo.


Arthur A Hicks and box sluice aboiteau (in Warren 1911)

The mystery remains as to who did a sketch of this photo, and why. But I must say, I was impressed that Colin was able to identify the source from the sketch. He clearly knows his marshland resources!

As an added bonus, he had a picture of my great-grandfather’s gravestone which he kindly sent to me.

Arthur Hicks grave

This was a great reminder that it always pays to reach out to others – you never know who may have a piece of the puzzle. And an added bonus of family history research is that it provides lots of opportunities to learn new things. If you’re interested in knowing more about the history of the Tantramar Marsh, check out Marshland: Records of Life on the Tantramar on the Mount Allison University website.

52 Ancestors #1: Elizabeth Weeks (abt 1814-1858)

I’ve decided to start the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge. And although the challenge does not require a blog, I’ve been thinking of starting one anyone, so no time like the present!

After much deliberation on how to begin, I have opted to start a with brick wall I’m currently trying to break down, my 3rd great grandmother, Elizabeth Weeks. And while I plan throughout this challenge to write about ancestors that I know something about, I have more questions than answers when it comes to Elizabeth (and her husband).

Here’s what I know….

Elizabeth Weeks was born somewhere, sometime. She married John William Kirkland and had 9 children, the eldest of which was my 2nd great grandfather, John W. Kirkland, who was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick about 1832. They had children born in Fredericton, in Chatham (Miramichi), New Brunswick and in Prince Edward Island, where their youngest child, Emma Lydia, was born about 1851 (or maybe 1855).  She died on January 26, 1858, in Newcastle (Miramichi) New Brunswick.

That’s it. That’s all I know.

When I first starting researching this line a few years back, I found my John W. Kirkland (the younger) with his wife and three children (including my great grandmother, Wilhelmina, then aged 2) on the 1861 New Brunswick census. Living with the family was John’s brother, Charles Kirkland.

John Kirkland and family - 1861 NB Census
1861 Census, New Brunswick, Kent, Richibucto, Pg 44

When I couldn’t find any information on John’s parents, I decided to research Charles. I thought I had struck gold when I found a wonderful profile of Charles, who had died on the Titanic. The profile, written in 2006, included the following:

Charles Leonard Kirkland was born in March of 1841 in Miramichi, Northumberland County, New Brunswick, the fourth child of John V. Kirkland and Elizabeth Sarah Weeks. The Weeks family had emigrated to New Brunswick from England circa 1820 and John Kirkland, a silk merchant, had emigrated to New Brunswick from Glasgow, Scotland in the early 1830’s. 

Yay! I had parents’ names and countries of origin. I figured it might be a bit challenging finding an Elizabeth Sarah Weeks, born in England who came to Canada around 1820, but at least I had something to go on.

So I kept digging. And here’s what I found…

On the 1891 Census, son John W. Kirkland’s mother is said to be born in the US.

John Kirkland 1891 census parents
1891 Canada Census, Library and Archives Canada, New Brunswick, Kent, Richibucto, Division 3, Pg 27

Likewise, on the 1880 census, son Charles Kirkland’s mother is said to be born in Minnesota. Minnesota?! Were there even settlers in Minnesota at the time she would have been born?

Charles Kirkland 1880 census parents
United States Census, 1880, Penobscot, Hancock, Maine, United States; sheet 149D

On the 1891 Census, daughters Emma and Leavinia both have their mothers’ birth places as Prince Edward Island. Leavinia’s birth record has her mother’s birth place as Fredericton, New Brunswick. On the 1900 US Census, sons James and Charles have their mother’s birthplace as Canada.

See what all of those have in common – not a single one has her birth places as England! So, was she born in New Brunswick? Prince Edward Island, the United States (perhaps Minnesota?) Where did the information about her emigrating from England come from?

And what about her date of birth? Daughter Leavinia’s Late Registration of Birth (issued in 1929) says Elizabeth was 47 at the time of Leavinia’s birth in 1849, which would make her birth year 1802. However, Leavinia was more likely born in 1844, which could make Elizabeth’s birth year as early as 1797. Her death notice in the newspaper says that she was 44 at the time of her death in 1858, which puts her birth at 1814.

If she were born in 1814, she would have had her children from ages 18 to 37 (or later, as sources differ on Emma’s birth date as well). A birth date of 1802 would put her between 30 and 49. The later date is probably more likely, but either is plausible.

So where do you even start looking when you have a 12 year range and multiple possible locations (some of which have minimal records for that time period)?

I’m hoping that DNA will help.

I’ve tested my mother at both Ancestry and FamilyTree DNA and have uploaded the results to GEDMatch. I’ve been spending lots of time lately going through her matches to identify those with a Weeks connection. By using shared matches, and building out some people’s trees, I have identified 12 family groups who descend from 4 of John William Kirkland and Elizabeth Weeks – John W., James, Emma Lydia and Leavinia. Now that I’ve identified these groups, people who match 2 or more of the known descendants are most likely to either a) also be Kirkland/Weeks descendants or b) are descendants of an ancestor of either John Kirkland or Elizabeth Weeks. This latter group could help me break through the brick walls. I’m currently combing through their trees to find common names and locations.

A couple of those shared matches are descendants of a Weeks family from Maine, which goes back to New Brunswick. It’s too early to determine whether Elizabeth is indeed connected to this family, but it’s looking promising!

Meanwhile, if you’re a descendant of Elizabeth Weeks and John William Kirkland, and you’ve done an autosomal DNA test (or plan to), please do let me know and upload your results to GEDMatch. Even if you don’t match me or my mother, you may match some of the other known descendants. Likewise if you have Weeks from New Brunswick or Maine in your tree, I’d love to hear from you!

May 2018 be the year I (finally!) break through this brick wall!