Using DNA in Genealogical Research

March 18, 2012 by  

I’ve been involved in genealogy for the last 20 years or so, and have performed extensive research on my branch of the Rhode Island-based Grinnell family. Over the years, I edited the Grinnell Family Association newsletter, served as its president for far too long, edited the second edition of their published genealogy, posted the genealogy on the Grinnell Family Association website, and am currently putting together a third edition of the Grinnell genealogy in book form.

In my research, like the research efforts of many others, I’ve encountered roadblocks, dead ends, red herrings, and such in my effort to link my branch of the Grinnell family to the progenitor, Matthew Greenell, who, with his wife Rose, came to Rhode Island from England in about 1630.

Proper genealogical research demands proof of each and every piece of data, but sometimes definitive proof of some key piece of information can be elusive, or because of the years involved, may no longer even exist.

I have such a problem with one long gone Grinnell. Matthew Grinnell IV (1713-1807), born 1713 in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, who married Rose (Knowles) Wilson in 1738 in Jamestown, Rhode Island (I’ll be coming back to this in a minute…). One of Matthew and Rose’s children was Robert Grinnell (1756-1837). Robert was a Revolutionary War veteran. He had several children–one of whom is believed to be James A. Grinnell (1786-1841) also of Jamestown, Rhode Island. Here’s where the problem lies. I can trace back to James A. Grinnell without a shadow of a doubt. However, I have been unable to find a definitive link from James to Robert, other than a brief mention in the Jamestown town records that stated that James provided room and board for Robert, paid out of a small Revolutionary War veterans’ pension. But by the rules of genealogy, I cannot “officially” claim Robert as an ancestor because there is no paper trail to prove it. I had a similar issue with the linkage from Robert to Matthew, but after tedious examination of various town records in Jamestown, a paid researcher found the briefest aside in one record stating that Robert was the son of Matthew. Absent other documentation in public or private records, this is deemed sufficient proof by most genealogical authorities.

Author’s Note: Several months ago (in late 2011), proper documentation was discovered that proved the father-son relationship between Robert Grinnell and James A. Grinnell. Thanks to my Rhode Island cousin David Grinnell for the hard work!

Back to the Robert/James problem… I came across a column in a recent issue of New England Ancestors, published five times a year by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, as a companion to their quarterly scholarly Register publication. This column noted that the Knowles family (remember Rose Knowles Wilson, above?) has sponsored DNA research through the Family Tree DNA company, and offers a substantial discount for DNA tests if the information is shared with Knowles family researchers.

Here’s where it gets interesting (interesting, at least, if you are a Grinnell or Knowles researcher…). If this DNA testing proves a link from me to Henry Knowles (1609-1670), who was Rose’s grandfather, by definition, I can prove the connection of Robert to Matthew, as Rose was Henry’s granddaughter. This will bring in literally thousands of descendants, with documentation, into this Rhode Island-based branch of the Grinnell family.

So, how do you do it? In this case, as I believe myself to be a descendant of a member of the Knowles family, I clicked a link on the Knowles Family Association’s website to, where a wide variety of testing options are available, for as little as $99.00 (Knowles family group rate) or $149 if you can’t find a group to attach yourself to, for a Y-DNA 12 marker test. I chose a more advanced 37 marker test along with a maternal line test to see what kind of lines I have from my mother’s Norwegian ancestors. This was $199 ($389 non-group price). Make sure to read the site’s FAQ for more details on what this testing can and cannot do.

In a few days, I will receive a test kit from Family Tree DNA. With the supplied materials, I will swab the inside of my mouth, which will provide a sufficient amount of DNA to perform these tests. The results will be returned in about seven weeks.

The results will not only show a link to the Knowles family (if there really is one), but also general ethnic information (what parts of Europe, Africa, or Asia, ties to Native Americans, etc. from which I descend).

If I can prove this link, it will close the book on 20 years of research on my part, one way or the other. What this testing might bring forward is the possibility of no link–that I could descend from an illegitimate line, was given up for adoption, or the use of the Grinnell surname at some point in the line could have been adopted without genealogical validity.

DNA testing technology has come a long, long way, and affords opportunities for genealogical researchers who have encountered multiple dead ends. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to use this technology to help in your research. Just know that you might find out more than you want to know. Stay tuned…

Newsflash from 25 Feb 2013: Thanks to the miracles of modern DNA analysis, we have proved that the Matthew1, Matthew 2 line positively connects to the Matthew 1, Daniel 2 line. We recently were contacted by a member of the Grinnell Family Association who submitted their DNA to Family Tree DNA, and got a match with myself and my 2nd cousin, David Grinnell. David and I come from the Matthew1, Matthew2 line, while the one who contacted us came from the Matthew1, Daniel2 line. This validates the connection between the two families (sons of Matthew and Rose Greenell, the immigrants), and we hope at some future date to validate the Matthew1, Thomas2 line in the same way.