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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

Programme 3: Understanding your family roots

We can sometimes identify the actual man or woman whose personal name became a surname several centuries ago. A thirteenth-century Oddi de Gasegill is likely to be the ancestor of all the Oddys/Oddies, and evidence suggests that Dionisia, a formidable woman who once lived in Linthwaite in the Colne Valley, is the ancestor of the Dysons. If we can trace a family tree back to the Middle Ages and if we map the distribution of the surname at different points in time, we can get a clear idea of where it came from. Where it started with a woman such as Dionisia, the surname identifies her male descendants, who can be traced by DNA inherited through the Y chromosome, but female lines can be followed too, through the patterns formed by mitochondrial DNA, which passes from mothers to daughters.

Spectacular results have been achieved with the DNA samples that proved the identity of the female descendants of Priscilla Mullins, who left for America on the Mayflower. Now the Great Migration Study Project, sponsored by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is attempting to trace the genealogies of the 5,000 or so families that crossed the Atlantic in the 1630s, and American genealogists have a powerful new tool to use alongside traditional ones.

Some families had several sons, who in turn had several sons, and so their surnames became prolific in the areas around their origins. The distinctive names of thriving districts such as West Yorkshire and East Lancashire multiplied as the local population expanded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, becoming even more common as population levels soared during the Industrial Revolution. Kevin Schürer's maps at the UK Data Archive of surname distributions in the 1881 census and in modern electoral rolls show how prolific some local family names became and how they help to form the distinctive characters of England's many regions.

Surnames can also provide a strong clue to the origins of migrants who left the family home and settled in more distant parts of the country or overseas. The Tordoffs, for example, did not spread in their original neighbourhood on the Solway Firth, but expanded rapidly once they had moved to Wibsey, near Bradford. The Addymans, who are all said to descend from an orphan boy who lived three hundred years ago, did not become more numerous until they moved to Nidderdale.

Migrations have traditionally been traced by genealogical methods, but DNA tests and maps showing the distribution of a surname at different points in time are powerful new aids to research. For example, DNA analysis on the surname Blencowe clearly shows a move for the name from the village of Blencowe in Cumbria down to Marston St Lawrence near Banbury in Oxfordshire in the fifteenth century. Tracing a family name has become a multi-disciplinary activity.

Programme 4: Going through the 1800 barrier >>

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Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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