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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

Programme 5: DNA - the final frontier?

Could DNA tests resolve the origins of the Pomeroys? A huge amount of traditional genealogical research had raised the possibility of a single-family origin for everyone bearing this name. The DNA patterns destroyed this theory, but the test results did point to some unproven relationships that have opened up new lines of enquiry for family historians.

A growing number of genealogists, who use the internet and can manipulate databases, welcome the evidence of genetics but regard DNA testing as just another tool with which to construct a family tree. They point out that usually only one in four of our grandparents was born with our surname and that the proportion soon becomes much smaller as you go back in time. Family historians get a more rounded picture by tracing all their family lines back to their sixteen great-great-grandparents, but DNA brings new power to the task of finding the home of a family name - the ultimate quest for the genealogist who has traced a family back as far as the records allow.

Every family name has its own story, even if it is a common one. A first task is to find the current and past distribution of the name, for it is surprising how many families are rooted in or near the places where they were first recorded in the Middle Ages. Then we have to trace a family back in time, using the well-known sources and methods of the genealogist. Once we get past the civil registration records of births, marriages and deaths (from 1837) and census enumerators' books (from 1841), we have to rely on parish registers, wills and a variety of miscellaneous records. With luck and perseverance these might take us back to the sixteenth century. A full set of manorial records might get us further. Fortunately, by that time most surnames are found close to their place of origin. You do not have to be a trained geneticist or an expert in old languages to find the home of your family name, but their techniques have enriched our understanding of how surnames began and how they spread.

Pomerology - Pomeroy family history:

The Pomeroy DNA Project:

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