Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Searching for West Immigrant Ancestors Using DNA Data

Compiled by Joy Ikelman, June 2015. This article contains theories, based on the author’s experience. All disclaimers apply.

Finding West Ancestors in the British Isles

Our Immigrant Ancestors
Immigrant ancestors are family members that first came to America (or another country) from a different place in the world. People with Colonial ancestry—such as West DNA Family Group #5—often have a difficult time finding ancestors “across the pond.” We may think that the best way to get results is to put the surname into a British database and forage. This might work with highly unusual surnames. It doesn’t work for “West.”

The Study Published by Nature Magazine
In March 2015, the results of a study were published in Nature—a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. [1] One of the purposes of the study was to compare DNA data with the historical timeline of migrations from other countries to Britain and within Britain.

Part of the study involved analyzing the DNA of 2,039 individuals. The participants lived in rural areas and knew that their four grandparents were born within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of each other. Historically, the data went back to about the mid-19th Century, before major migrations occurred within the British Isles.

Seventeen distinct DNA clusters were identified in the British Isles. This was a surprising result. The researchers discovered that people in the late 1800s did not often marry outside of their cluster groups. This implied that any particular cluster group might have been in place for many generations before the 1800s, especially in rural areas. This is called “partial isolation.” [2] The data were then compared with more than 6,200 individuals in Europe, to determine a deeper ancestry. The researchers were able to verify where British people originated in Europe or other locations. The data were then compared to historical records of invasions and settlements.

Professor Peter Donnelly, one of the researchers in the study, said:  “Historical records, archeology, linguistics—all of those records tell us about the elites. It’s said that history is written by the winners. Genetics compliments that and is very different. It tells us what is happening to the masses . . . the ordinary folk.” [3]

A Simple Analysis of West DNA Family Project Data
I decided to do a very simple analysis of the overall West Surname DNA Project results to see where Wests came from in the British Isles.  I used any narrative where a participant self-identified as having an ancestor in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or Ireland. I used all pieces of information as “facts,” even though these might not have been proven. I was particularly interested in county names, but not every participant provided that information.

The overall West DNA Project (as of June 2015) has 347 participants that make up 41 Family Groups and 122 unrelated West lines. [4] Of these, 16 West Family Groups plus 16 individuals (who have no match yet) identified an ancestor from the British Isles. I plotted these on a map.

Distribution of West Surname Family DNA Project results in Britain as of June 2015. Family Groups are indicated by “#.” Individuals with no current Family Group match are identified with “W.” (Base map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; attributed to Nilfanion and Dr. Greg, 2010.)

Although this is a very small database, it is significant. Looking at the map locations, you can see an interesting distribution with very few repeats. The locations are unique to certain West groups. The results were:

    Buckingham: FG#3
    Derbyshire: FG#31
    Herefordshire: FG#32
    Kent: FG#28
    Leicester: FG#31
    Lincolnshire: W135
    London: FG#8
    Middlesex (today in Greater London): FG#7, FG#24 [6]
    Norfolk: FG#29
    Oxfordshire: W54
    Somerset: FG#5, W154
    Wiltshire: FG#19 [7], FG#32
    No county listed:
            FG#1, FG#14, FG#16, FG#20
            W143, W200, W219, W242, W248, W279, W312, W325, W326, W359
    Fremanagh: FG#38
    Down: FG# 9
    Leitrim: FG#9
    No county listed: W142, W205
Northern Ireland
    Armagh FG#9, FG#38
    No county listed: W238

The overall West coverage is similar to the distribution of the cluster called “Central/Southern England.”  There are a few West groups outside of the cluster area, including Wests in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Most of the West DNA Project participants have the haplotype “R.” These are probably descendants of the Anglo-Saxons who came into England circa 400 to 500 A.D. [7] Participant W54 has haplotype “J.” FG#29, FG#32, and participant W238 have haplotype “I.”

William West of Bristol, England
Debbie Kennett, English author of DNA and Social Networking, states that even the smallest clue to a town or county will probably lead to success in family history research in Britain.

“The chances of success depend very much on the size of the surname project and the range of lines tested, but if there is a match with a well-documented line originating in a particular town or village, your research will have much more focus and there will be a much greater chance of finding the link in the paper trail.” [8]

In Family Group #5, we have a documented line to Bristol, England. In 1855, William West (circa 1798-1902) migrated from Bristol, England to Sydney, Australia with his wife and children. His obituary in the Wangaretta Chronicle states that he was a native of Bristol. [9] Bristol has been administered by both Somerset and Gloucestershire counties over time.  

According to earlier family research (probably online), his baptismal record is dated 17 Nov 1798 and found in Kilmersdon parish, St. Peter and St. Paul Church, Somerset. His parents were John and Lucy West. [10] This William West appears on the 1841 (United Kingdom) Census, living in Kilmersdon, and working as a coal miner. His wife is Mary; they have two young children. [11]

However, there are problems with these data. William West’s wife was Elizabeth Jones. I have not found them in the Census yet, but by 1841 they had three children who were born in Bristol. [12] The William West in the obituary was described as a draper in Bristol—not a coal miner. He worked for Messrs Moses and Company, well-known clothiers. [13] A possible match for the correct William West might be one who was baptized on 19 May 1799 at St. Mary Church in Timsbury, Somerset. His parents were Richard and Mary West. [14]

There is a story among William West’s descendants that someone in the past did an in-depth genealogy that went back to the 12th Century, but no one can find a copy of the document. [15] So, we look for other clues to get started. In the Wangaretta Chronicle article, two men are mentioned as being from the same county as William West. According to census data, this county was Somerset. [16] This is an additional confirmation of West’s county of origin.

Narrowing the Search
As early as 1998, British genealogists worked with Oxford University geneticists to determine county locations of unusual surnames. [17] Here in the United States, we see “counties” within States in a different way. In American family histories, counties were sometimes brief stopping points for only one or two generations. In Britain before the mid-19th Century, rural people often settled in one area for many generations. The family might have changed parishes over time. [18] However, these are short distances compared to what we find in the United States.

For an overall search of FG#5 British ancestry, our starting point should be Somerset and Gloucestershire. These are in the Central/Southern England cluster group. I would also check Wiltshire, because of its location between the two counties. Devon county borders Somerset on the West, but Devon has a very distinct cluster group of its own, confined by natural boundaries. My opinion is that it is less likely that FG#5 origins are in Devon.

I would check counties in South Wales, such as Glamorgan and Monmouth, because of their proximity to Bristol. Wales is outside of the Central/Southern England cluster group. It has several distinct cluster groups of its own, such as “Welsh Borders” and “Pembrokeshire.” And, it is highly unlikely—though anything is possible—that we will find FG#5 ancestors in the cluster groups of Scotland.

We have two West FG#5 families almost ready to connect to Britain in the 1600s. These are (1) the Wests who first settled in Essex County, Massachusetts; and, (2) the Wests who lived in the Northern Neck of Virginia. [19] Early passenger lists of ships departing from Bristol to the Colonies might be a useful source of information. One such book, Bristol and America: A record of the First Settlers in the Colonies of North America 1654-1685, lists four Wests that came to Virginia from Bristol between 1654 and 1663, on different ships. Their names are Edward West, William West, Thomas West, and Francis West. [20] “Francis” isn’t a name in our FG#5 list, but the other names are intriguing.

References and Additional Notes
1. Leslie et. al, 2015: “The Fine-Scale Genetic Structure of the British Population,” Nature, 518, p. 309-314, 19 March 2015. The abstract is found online at: Accessed March 2015.
2. “The UK’s Genetic Structure Revealed,” The Guardian: Science Weekly podcast with Hanna Devlin of The Guardian, and Peter Donnelly of the Oxford study, 20 March 2015.
3. “Genetic Study Reveals 30% of White British DNA has German Ancestry,” The Guardian, 18 March 2015.
4. Please refer to the West Family DNA Results page at
5. The Guardian, March 18, 2015.
6. John Frederick Dorman, 2007: Adventures of Purse and Person, 1607-1624/1625, Fourth Edition, Volume III; R-Z. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, MD. Middlesex, formerly its own county, is often cited as the origin of Anthony West who married Anna Huffe.
7. Edward E. Cornwall, 1906: Francis West of Duxbury, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, p. 3. Wiltshire is often cited as the origin of Francis West who married Margery Reeves.
8. Debbie Kennett, 2011: DNA and Social Networking; A Guide to Genealogy in the Twenty-First Century. The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, p. 27. Kennett discusses surname projects in England, citing progress made via DNA data. She also gives online resources (as of 2011) for research in England.
9. “An Old Bristolian’s Career in Australia; His Death at 104 Years of Age.” Wangaretta Chronicle, 25 January 1902. The obituary reports, “The late Mr. West had no documentary proof of his age . . .”
10. Verified at Accessed May 2015.
11. The 1841 Census of the United Kingdom. Accessed May 2015.
12. Data compiled by the Leyshan family. Found at Accessed February 2015.
13. Wangaretta Chronicle.
14. Verified at Accessed May 2015.
15. Email from West DNA Family Group #5 participant (W338) to Kevin West, FG#5 researcher, August 2013.
16. The 1841 Census identified friends “Jacob Vincent” and “Mr. Nott” as being from Somerset.
17. Bryan Sykes, 2012: DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, London, p. 73-93. Bryan Sykes of Oxford University is credited with the first application of Y-DNA data to surname studies in England.
18. Kennett, p. 25-26. “With the increasing availability of online records . . . it is generally a reasonably straightforward matter to trace a British line back to the beginning of the 19th Century. You might, therefore, find a baptism record in one parish which matches the age given in a burial record. With a rare surname it is usually safe to conclude that you have found the right baptism. But it is often easy to make false assumptions, especially if the parish registers for the neighbouring parishes are not readily available online.”
19. (1) Henry West (1629-1703) and his brother Thomas West (1630/1631-1720) first appeared in Salem, Massachusetts records in 1658. It is my theory that they were born in England. (2) Three likely brothers—John, Thomas, and Ignatius West—are seen in church records and land deeds in Virginia in the 1740s and 1750s near Falmouth and Fredericksburg. It is my theory that these three men were born in Virginia, and that their father or grandfather came from England. My theory is based on the history of settlements along the Rappahannock River. Falmouth and Fredericksburg were not settled until the 1720s.

20. The full name of this publication is: William Dodgson Bowman, N. Dermott Harding, and R Hargreaves-Mawdsley, 1929: Bristol and America: A record of the First Settlers in the Colonies of North America 1654-1685, including the names with places of origin of more than 10,000 servants of foreign plantations who sailed from the port of Bristol to Virginia, Maryland, and other parts of the Atlantic coast, and also to the West Indies from 1654 to 1685 : this list is compiled and published from their records of the corporation of the city of Bristol, England. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland, reprint 1970). Edward West, p. 54; William West, p. 65; Thomas West, p. 87; and, Francis West, p. 95.

No comments:

Post a Comment