Tuesday, March 26, 2013

George Vance the Vicequicentenarian

While compiling his book in 1860 on the Irish Vances, William Balbirnie interviewed several members of the family of John Vance (a Dublin politician and Member of Parliament at that time) who all said that the first Vance in their family who came to Ireland

…was named George, that in 1662 he fled from Wigtonshire [in Cumberland in northern England near the border with Scotland] to the North of Ireland, in consequence of having married his cousin Grace, a rich heiress, and settled near Dungannon in County Tyrone…Further, that this George was born in Scotland about 1637…and died about 1757, aged about 120 years [Balbirnie, p. 57].

Balbirnie dismisses the whole story partly because he couldn’t quite believe someone would live to be 120:

The great age to which it is stated that this refugee lived…seems an incredible statement. ..after the most diligent enquiry…we have not been able to receive any confirmation of this astounding statement…We do think this story is incredible [Balbirnie, p. 58].

It’s a shame Balbirnie didn’t have Internet.  It turns out that George Vance’s advanced age actually WAS remembered starting all the way back in 1758 when the Scots Magazine in that year even gave a little extra personal health information in his obituary under Deaths:

Another publication from 1758, the Gentlemen’s Monthly Intelligencer, also gave an obituary for George.   Then in 1799 he was included in a book about supercentenarians (those over 100 years old) called Human Longevity.  In 1820, he was one of Kirby Magazine’s Remarkable Characters.  John O’Hart also mentions George Vance in his famous 1881 book Irish Pedigrees – and O’Hart even mentions his new set of teeth (except he says at the age of 90)!  George has even made it in modern times into Wikipedia on a list of reported supercentenarians.   In fact, although he’s not much remembered in genealogy circles, the George Vance who died in 1758 in Tyrone, Ireland has had some of the longest-running media coverage of any Vance in history.

Was George really a vicequicentenarian (literally, “20 and 100 years old”)?  Who knows?  But it does seem incredible if he lived almost three and a half times as long as the average human lifespan at that time.  John O’Hart claims to have found George’s baptism record from 1640, which would certainly support the story if it were the same George Vance.  

George Vance’s real age (and the health of his teeth) may never be known for sure.  But his story also raises a very possible second immigrant ancestor to Ireland for the Vances.  John O’Hart says George’s father was named Joseph Vans, probably born around 1590 and from either Cumberland or Scotland, and he also documents some of George’s descendants in Ireland and England up to about 1877, several of whom became prominent Vances in Dublin or London.   The origin of this Vance family could certainly be from another de Vaux/Vans family line, since both the English Vaux and the Scottish Vans families lived in areas close to Wigton for centuries.  Or they could be from a completely different origin of the Vance surname.

No modern Vances have connected their family trees to George yet, but it is certainly a possible ancestry for any of the Irish Vance DNA groups.   It would be interesting if we could find a male descendant of George’s to test and see what DNA Group he was from.   Or maybe we should just check if any of our older relatives have noticed any new teeth…

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Back to DNA: Is it Worth It?

The past few weeks have been pretty hard on genetic genealogy (DNA testing).  First, a professor of evolutionary genetics came out strongly against genetic genealogy, calling it "genetic astrology".  Next one of the testing companies was accused of making exaggerated claims at a genetics conference.  And then a widely-publicized "consumer report" was issued slamming DNA testing and the companies and their claims.  

Debate still rages around the Internet about the value of these warnings, but most of the cooler heads seem to agree that the extreme positions are unwarranted; that DNA testing for genealogy can be very useful but people should have realistic expectations - and yes, some testing companies have made exaggerated claims.  So I thought I would post my own experience of what people should expect that DNA testing can and can't do for them.  

What it CAN do:

1.  The best value – by far – of any DNA test is that it can match your DNA to others who may already know more about your common ancestors.   An autosomal test could find a second cousin who knows who your biological parent was.  A Y-DNA test could connect you to someone with a documented 400-year old family tree.  This is mostly luck and depends on others testing and available historical data, not just DNA.  But you might never know you were connected to those people and that research if you didn’t take the test.  I include here the connections you can make to the projects that collect and analyze what is known about people with related types of DNA to help them as a group learn more about their origins - for instance, the Vance/Vans/Wentz Y-DNA Project is a great example of group knowledge you can connect to.  

2.  A Y-DNA (and to some extent a mtDNA) test can estimate for any two tested people how long ago their common ancestor lived (but still with a fairly wide margin of error, so it can’t tell you who that common ancestor was).   

3.  Any DNA test can identify general geographical areas where people with your DNA are believed to have lived.  But there are limitations.  Y-DNA and mtDNA tests identify your haplogroups which reveal the migrations of your ancestors thousands of years ago (many years before your family tree).  Autosomal testing identifies general areas for your more recent ancestors – areas as wide as “British Isles”, or “Eastern European”; nothing more specific, and it won’t say which ancestors or when or for how long they lived there. 

4.  A DNA test can tell you what countries today have the highest number of tested people that most closely match your DNA.  That could be useful as a general indicator of what part of the world your ancestors came from.  Or it could just be a coincidence if someone from a branch way back in your family tree moved there and had a particularly large number of descendants.   

5.  A DNA test can put you in a group that will continue to grow as more people are tested, and whose story will continue to grow with each test.  It may take months or years, but our knowledge of our ancestry will continue to evolve as the information and knowledge grows.

What it CAN’T do, unless you luck into a match with someone who has that information already:

1.  By itself a DNA test can’t name your ancestors, and it won’t add people to your family tree.

2.  Although some testing companies like 23andMe can give you medical information based on your DNA, the test can’t tell you which of your ancestors had those medical conditions.   Or where you inherited your red hair, blue eyes, or webbed toes from.

3.  It can’t tell you that your ancestors were Vikings, Celts, Romans, Normans, what tribe of Indians they were from, or how you personally connect to any other historical group of people.  Actually the experts can theorize that close matches to your DNA existed, say, among the Vikings, either through modern analysis or because they tested old bones.  But people intermixed so much throughout history that all those groups were made up of many kinds of DNA, and that’s still no evidence that YOU personally descended from one group and not another.  Any identification with a historical group is based on a general theory, not from anything they discovered in your DNA. 

4.  It can’t tell you that you’re descended from royalty or any historical figure, although groups who already believe they do try very hard to claim it’s proven when the DNA shows they all really ARE a close match to each other.   It’s still the historical research that proves the lineage, not the DNA.   You don’t have proof through DNA unless you dig the ancestors up.    Even if you match a known descendant of Prince Eduardo the Magnificent, your ancestor might have been his third cousin Fergus the Drooler. 

5.  And finally, a DNA test only tests part of your family tree, because even an autosomal test only gathers data from pieces of your total DNA and anyway you have many more ancestors than sections of DNA so many of your ancestors aren't reflected in your DNA at all.  So be prepared that the test may show a different ancestry than the one you thought you had.  You may still be right.

So... is it worth testing?  Only you can answer that.  But I still thought it was and I learned many interesting things from my tests and connected with many people who share my interests and research.  Just be sure you know what you're getting into before you test.