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My own "brick wall"

My great-great-great-great-grandfather John Clifford married Ann Shill at Badgeworth, Gloucestershire in 1793 and was described as "John Clifford of Swindon" (i.e. what is now known as Swindon Village near Cheltenham, not the town in Wiltshire) in the marriage register entry there. He and Ann had five children baptised at Swindon, including my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Clifford (in 1803) and his younger brother William Clifford (in 1808).

(William was later convicted twice of theft and transported to New South Wales for seven years for the second offence in 1834, leaving descendants who live "down under" to this day - but that's a story for another time. Back to John...)

I have spent over 25 years trying to identify John's parents through the "normal" methods, e.g. Church of England and  Nonconformist registers, poor law and settlement records etc. etc. etc.

The sad, but inevitable conclusion I have come to is that John's life left virtually no impression on the documentary record. His years on this planet appear (as far as I can tell at this moment) to have resulted in:

  • an entry in a marriage register
  • five entries in a baptism register (for his children)
  • a cursory entry in the Swindon burials register ("1811: John Clifford" - he doesn't even merit a full date)
  • half a dozen or so mentions in the Overseers Accounts when he was "on the parish"
  • a passing reference in his son Thomas's settlement examination taken 20 years or more after his death

That's about it, so far as 25 years of searching has uncovered. There is no likely baptism to be found within 20 miles of Swindon. I have plenty of theories about John's origins, plenty of candidates to be his parents, plenty of possible lines to pursue, but given the sparse nature of the material available, there seems precious little prospect I will ever have any certainty about his parentage.

The sad truth, I'm afraid, is that even the best of us has to recognize eventually that the paper trail has gone cold and the documentary record alone just does not provide sufficient evidence to connect any further back with confidence.

This was particularly frustrating because there was no shortage of Cliffords to connect to! "Clifford" is by some margin the most common surname in the Swindon parish registers: there are more Cliffords even than there are Smiths or Jones.  There was a well documented line of Cliffords in Swindon back to 1522, if only I could find that missing link!

Could genetics help where genealogy had failed?

After 25 years of trying to find that link through documentary sources, I eventually began to wonder if genetic testing could help?

Here was the idea. I had two main theories about who John's parents might be, so I would trace two living people:

  • Person "A", a direct male living descendant of the man who would have been John's father if the first theory was correct, and;
  • Person "B",  a direct male living descendant of the man who would have been John's father if the second theory was correct.

I would then persuade those people to take part in Y-chromosome tests which I could then compare with my own test results. I realized, of course, that these tests would not actually prove anything, but they might help give me a steer as to which theory was the most likely, or avoid wasted time by largely ruling out an incorrect theory.

There were three possible outcomes, as far as the 3 Y-chromosome profiles were concerned:

  • I might match to neither A nor B. That would in some ways have been the least satisfactory outcome, but even this would have been interesting. One possible theory was that John was illegitimate, and if neither other Clifford matched to me, then this would have been a line of enquiry I might have been inclined to pursue more vigorously.
  • I might match to both A and B. This wouldn't have given me much of a clue in terms of deciding which of the possible lines of descent was correct, but it would still have been encouraging, in the sense that it confirmed John's connections at some point in the past with the other Swindon Cliffords and made it unnecessary to concoct elaborate and outlandish theories about his being a bastard, foundling or adoptee.
  • I might match to one profile, but not the other. This would perhaps be the best outcome, giving me a definite indication that the one theory was more likely than the other. But this seemed a highly improbable outcome.

The first obstacle, of course, was to trace those living male descendants to match to. This actually was very easy as far as the one theory was concerned - I'd been in touch with just the right person to be "A" for years through a one-name group. But in relation to the other theory, despite the potential father having had numerous offspring, tracing and then contacting a living direct male descendant turned out to be quite a challenge, and one that took several months to crack. There were many different lines to follow, and many of them seemed to die out after a few generations. But eventually, I found a line that came right down to the present day, and identified an individual still living in the Cheltenham area and whose contact details I was able to obtain (it turned out in fact I'd worked with his nephew for many years!).

The next hurdle was persuading both people to agree to the genetic testing (albeit at my expense, I hasten to add). Having spent all that time identifying and contacting the right person, I was worried I would face the frustration of a refusal, but in practice, both men were delighted to help.

The tests went off and I awaited the results with anticipation.

Opening the envelope

What the results showed was that the third possibility was the case: my Y-chromosome was completely different from A's but almost identical to B's (just one slight difference on a single marker - about what would be expected given that the lines probably separated over 200 years previously).

Clearly, that was a very exciting result for me, after 25 years of fruitless searching. But what did this exercise actually tell me, in reality, when I'd calmed down?

Well, nothing definite, is the truth, but plenty to take encouragement from. What I know for sure is that person B and I have a common male ancestor at some point in the past. Since I know with confidence who B's ancestors were, through the standard documentary method, I can be sure that my ancestor John and I connect to that tree somewhere, at some point. The slight difference in our Y-chromosome profile is perhaps suggestive that the two lines separated maybe 200 or so years ago, but it would probably be unwise to place too much reliance on estimates based on an assumed rate of mutation such as that. I am sure our trees don't connect up more recently than the middle the 18th century, but the actual common ancestor could, in theory, have lived hundreds of years before that.

Nonetheless, this has given me a great deal of encouragement that I can consider my John  to be a "true" Swindon Clifford who joins up with the earlier Cliffords from that place in some way, as well as indicating which lines of enquiry are most likely to bear fruit and which are probably a waste of time.

I think we are only just beginning to explore the potential for genealogy and genetics to complement one another. I am sure that as genetic science progresses, new opportunities to involve genetic testing in our family history research will become evident.