Tag Archives: news stories

Stories matter

Yesterday was Friday. And like many Fridays, unless there is something pressing, work is more about just finishing up a few things and getting through to the end of the day. And, like most days, I need to take a break once in a while to focus on something different for a few minutes.

During those breaks, I’ll often open up Ancestry.com or FamilySearch to see what might be there. No real genealogy gets done – just a quick look. Yesterday, though, was a bit different.

It was about 4 p.m. Nothing pressing was going on with work, and I needed a quick break. I opened up the FamilySearch website to see what new databases had been added or updated. One of them, updated the day before, is called “Utah, Obituaries from Utah Newspapers, 1850-2005.” My father’s family goes back to 1847 in Utah. (According to LDS history, my great-great-great grandfather, William Snow, and his brother, Erastus, were the first Mormon settlers to lay eyes on the Great Salt Lake Valley, two days before Brigham Young arrived and declared, “This is the right place.”) So I decided to do a quick search to see what would come up.

I entered my last name, Rands, in the database search and hit the search button. The first entry to come up was for Joseph Rands, whose obituary was dated 12 October 1875. My great-great-great grandfather was named Joseph William Rands, and he died on 11 October 1875 in Salt Lake City. So, of course, I clicked on it.

I was directed to the Utah Digital Newspapers website where an image of the original obituary appeared:

Joseph Rands, the old gentleman who recently fell from the new coöp. store, died early Monday morning. He suffered considerably from the time of the accident until his death. He leaves a large family. (“Died”, Salt Lake Herald, 12 Oct 1875, page 3)


I had never heard this story before, and had to know more. I did some searching on the Utah Newspaper Database site, and found an article reporting the accident, dated 25 Sep 1875.

Joseph Rands, of the Twentieth ward, while working on the new Coöp building yesterday morning, was precipitated from the third story to the floor of the first, breaking his thigh bone just above the knee, and otherwise injuring him. It appears that while Rands was unloading the elevator on the floor of the third story and the engineer was arranging the furnace, the signal bell was unaccountably rung, and the engineer supposing it had been purposely rung, immediately lowered the elevator, while Rands was in the act of lifting the hod, precipitating him as above stated. It is probably fortunate that in falling he struck on a beam on the second story, which broke the fall and saved his life. Doctor Richards is attending the patient. Although the injuries sustained are severe they are not necessary fatal. (“A Serious Accident”, Salt Lake Herald, 25 Sep 1875, page 3)

Of the many times I was at ZCMI in downtown Salt Lake City, I never knew that I had an ancestor who worked there, let alone one that died as a result of an accident there. The sad part of the story is that this “old gentlemen” was actually just a little older than I am – 48 years old. And he did leave a large family – his wife, six living children ranging in age from 24 to 5 years. (My great-great grandfather would have been 16 years old.) Five years later, his wife would die from cancer.

So many questions and feelings are going through me as I process this new information. How did this event affect the family? What sort of pain management and medical treatment existed at the time to deal with a broken femur? What ultimately killed him? Infection? Blood clot?

I often get obsessed with “information” and finding new connections in my family tree. But stories like this shock me back into what is most interesting about genealogy. They remind me that it’s not just about building a family tree. It’s about preserving the stories of our ancestors’ lives, and knowing them as real people – not just twigs on a distant branch.


Adoptees use DNA to find surname

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

DNA molecule (SPL)

The tests read a number of genetic markers on the Y chromosome

Male adoptees are using consumer DNA tests to predict the surnames carried by their biological fathers, the BBC has learned.

They are using the fact that men who share a surname sometimes have genetic likenesses too.

By searching DNA databases for other males with genetic markers matching their own, adoptees can check if these men also share a last name.

This can provide the likely surname of an adoptee’s biological father.

The genetic similarities between men who share surnames occur on the Y chromosome, a package of genetic material passed on, more or less unchanged, from father to son – just like a last name.

Because of this pattern of inheritance, men with the same surname may also share a similar complement of genetic markers on the Y chromosome.

That’s the real miracle of the DNA test. [The Y chromosome] can act in a sense like a silver bullet
Bennett Greenspan, Family Tree DNA

At least 30 men registered with US consumer genetic testing firm Family Tree DNA have found their “biological surname” in this way, the company’s chief executive told BBC News. The company has an online database called Ysearch containing genetic information from 125,000 men, along with surnames and other genealogical data.

Bennett Greenspan explained: “We now have a growing number of people who are adopted, who have tested with us and have matched several individuals with a particular surname, and maybe they haven’t matched anyone else with a different surname.

“From that, they can get the idea that they have at least found the surname they need to start looking for in the town in which they were born.”

The tests can “read” up to 67 genetic markers on the Y chromosome. Mr Greenspan said that, for some adoptees, discovering the surname of their birth father in any other way might be extremely difficult, or even impossible.

“That’s the real miracle of the DNA test. [The Y chromosome] can act in a sense like a silver bullet.” he said.

A little light

Mark Jobling, professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, UK, who is unconnected with Family Tree DNA said: “If you have a surname which is reasonably rare, but not so rare that the chances of another person being typed and going into that database are infinitesimal, then you could be in luck.

“There’s a big gamble in doing it, but people sometimes say that if you’re in a dark room then even a little light can be useful.

Y search screenshot (BBC)

Ysearch is one database allowing users to search for genetic matches

Chandler Barber, a 37-year-old advertising copywriter from Dallas, who was adopted at birth, said he had learned about the possibility of discovering his surname from a magazine article about consumer DNA testing.

Of six people in the Ysearch database who were close genetic matches, all had variants of the surname Ritchie, including one US-based Ruetschi who was a very close match.

“It was pretty concrete evidence,” Mr Barber told me.

“It’s a quick and effortless way to at least find some nugget about your history. I am sure there are people who have been searching for their birth parents on foot, with pen and paper, for years – and have got nowhere.

“You start to wonder to yourself – if I do this, am I letting my family down? I told my mother: I really don’t want to find my birth family. I just want to know where I’m from. But she told me that she had expected me to do this a long time ago.”

Common names

Edward Cerullo, 48, a computer programmer from Norway, knew his birth father’s surname – Page – before testing his DNA.

“When the results came back, of the 22 names they sent back who matched my DNA 11 were Page or Paige. That’s statistically pretty hard to argue against,” he explained.

The database allowed him to see how his own line of descent fits into the wider family tree for this surname.

The link between last name and likeness on the Y chromosome gets stronger, the rarer the surname is. But, said Mark Jobling: “Even in reasonably common surnames you see ‘descent clusters’.

“In a name like Jefferson, for example, which is quite a common name, you find lots of these little descent clusters. There is identity within those clusters but there are many of them.

“In a name like Attenborough, there is just one great descent cluster, and a few people who don’t fit into it. There’s a spectacular common ancestry for that name.”

But he cautioned that these general patterns might differ from country to country. Also, some rare markers ran across two or more surnames, which might cause false matches.

Such false matches might also arise from technical issues with DNA databases. For instance, genetic testing companies sometimes used different naming methods for genetic markers. Confusion might arise when customers whose DNA had been tested by different companies uploaded their own genetic information into the same database.

Future developments

Mark Jobling said tests offering better resolution on the whole genome should be able to solve other familial puzzles. In the first half of the 20th Century, when a child was born out of wedlock, grandparents would sometimes raise the child as their own.

Professor Jobling said he knew of one man who suspected this had been the situation with his own immediate family. An “older sister”, this individual believed, had actually been his mother. Unfortunately, the putative sister and parents were now deceased.

“If there is another relative, such as an acknowledged grandchild of this grandparental/parental couple, you can set up a hypothesis whereby you say: ‘if they were his parents, how much of his DNA should he share with this cousin’,” the University of Leicester geneticist explained.

“If they were his grandparents, he should share a certain lesser proportion of his DNA with his cousin. You can distinguish the two scenarios.”

Professor Jobling said that falling costs of sequencing entire genomes offered the promise of finding genetic variants that were specific to one surname – with no room for ambiguity.