GENEALOGY: Using a Y-DNA test to answer (some) questions about my family tree

Let me say this:

I know you don’t care about my family tree. That’s OK. My family tree is beside the point. I’m writing this in case you’re wondering whether a Y-DNA test can tell you anything about your family tree.

And the answer to that question is, “Kind of!”

Starting point

I had a working theory about my ancestry.

I had traced my paternal line to George Pack, my 5th great-grandfather. George was born around 1755 in Virginia and died in 1825 in Kentucky. I’m descended from George’s son, Samuel.

I mention this because the names of the Pack men are important to the working theory.

Several years ago, I came across a manuscript called “Ancestral Families of Robert Lee Pack,” by a college professor and professional genealogist named John Vallentine.

Robert Lee was John’s wife’s grandfather. Robert Lee’s great-grandfather was a different Samuel Pack. This Samuel was from the same generation as my 5th great-grandfather. He was born around the same time and in the same Virginia county.

John thought my George and Samuel might be brothers but couldn’t prove it.

He also hypothesized that George and Samuel were descended from one of the original English colonists of New Jersey, also named George Pack. The short version is there was a steady line of George and Samuel Packs beginning in New Jersey and ending 100 later in present-day West Virginia.

What the Y-DNA said

DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that passes genetic information from one generation to the next. Y-DNA tests look at the Y-chromosome, which passes virtually unchanged from father to son. Sometimes, at random, there’s a mutation, and these mutations can be used to estimate how recently two people share a common paternal ancestor.

My Y-DNA test results said there’s a good chance John nailed it.

Let’s start with the question of whether my 5th great-grandfather was brothers with the Samuel Pack who lived in West Virginia.

Two strangers who’d taken the test listed Samuel as their earliest known paternal ancestor. Counting backward, I’m the first generation, my parents, the second, etc. George and Samuel’s father, the earliest possible Pack ancestor I could possibly share with these strangers, would be the ninth generation.

Based on our DNA, the testing service estimated there’s a 99.41% probability that these cousins and I shared a common ancestor within nine generations. That meant there’s only a 0.59% chance that our most recent common ancestor was someone else.

The test didn’t say who their father was. It only indicates there’s a strong chance that George and Samuel were brothers. We think their dad was a trapper named Samuel based on local tradition, family lore and a decided lack of Packs in the area at the time, but there’s no way to prove it because there’s no paper trail.

According to John’s theory, George and Samuel’s great-great-grandfather was a colonist named George Pack who arrived in present-day New Jersey in 1665.

Counting backward, this colonist would be the 12th generation.

My Y-DNA was a close match with two descendants of the earliest George Pack. John’s theory is that my line was descended from George’s son, Samuel. The guys I matched with were descended from a son named Job, whose family migrated first to Canada and then out to Utah and Idaho.

There was a 95.42% chance that one of these cousins and I had a common ancestor within 12 generations. The other cousin was an even closer match. The testing service estimated there is a 98.31% chance we shared a common Pack ancestor within 12 generations.

What does it mean?

By itself, the Y-DNA test didn’t tell me much of anything. It told me who I matched, but it didn’t tell me why I matched.

Judy G. Russell, a genealogist and lawyer who writes The Legal Genealogist, says, “DNA only works with the paper trail research, not instead of it.” Without things like birth records, wills, and court records, we can’t say for certain whether my cousins and I are linked through the trapper Pack or the George Pack who lived in New Jersey.

We might be connected through the trapper’s brother or George Pack’s uncle.

But then there’s Jack’s hypothesis.

Serious genealogists follow the Genealogical Proof Standards, a set of best practices that the Board for Certification of Genealogists that allows you “to come as close as possible to what actually happened in history.”

Basically, you should:

1. Do reasonably exhaustive research.

2. Include complete and accurate source citations.

3. Analyze and correlate the evidence thoroughly.

4. Offer a convincing resolution of conflicting evidence.

5. Provide a soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence.

In other words, you should do the work and be able to defend it.

John did that. He acknowledged that there was “a scattering of colonial Pack families” and that “Pack families settled in several eastern Virginia counties between 1655 and 1700,” but “family records for these early-day Virginia Packs are sparse,” and, besides, no one had linked these random colonial Packs to Samuel or my 5th-great grandfather, George.

The Y-DNA evidence was imperfect, but I believed it strengthened John’s argument, so I gathered up everything and applied to the Descendants of the Founders of New Jersey.

There are a bunch of hereditary and lineage organizations out there. The most famous might be the DAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution, which is open to women who can prove descent from someone who supported the Revolutionary War. The group I applied to is for people who can show they’re descended from one of the original New Jersey colonists.

A few months later, they accepted. I now have a certificate showing that genealogists who don’t know me read the application, weighed the evidence I submitted, and thought, Yeah, that checks out.

So, Y-DNA tests can be tremendously helpful, but they can’t tell you everything.

Taking pictures of the kids when they’re not looking

I take a lot of pictures of the kids, too many, probably, but most of them aren’t anything special. One or both of them is standing there, standing still, posing, or they’re making a funny face or giving each other rabbit ears, or they’re holding up a hand to block the lens, like they’re a movie star and I’m a paparazzo.

That’s why I like this picture of Thing 2, who’s 6.

We were on vacation, and at that moment, his mind was someplace else. He wasn’t posing. He wasn’t being silly. He was just being himself. I noticed the moment, leaned over the rail and took a picture. Once he realized I was there, he posed for a proper picture, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t being himself. 

Of the hundreds of pictures I have of him at 6, this crooked, slightly out-of-focus snapshot may be the best.



Someone, please build this: the zero-gravity roller coaster

There’s a point on all roller coasters when you crest a hill and, for a heartbeat, you’re weightless. It’s the reason we ride coasters.

Well, I saw a story the other day in Popular Science about a new kind of coaster where you’d be weightless for eight seconds.

Count it out: one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi….

Eight seconds of weightless would last forever.

Right now, the zero-gravity coaster exists only on paper, but according to Popular Science, there’s a company in Southern California called BRC Imagination Arts that’s ready to build it. Cut them a check today, the story says, and you’ll have your coaster by next Christmas.

BRC isn’t some fly-by-night outfit. When I worked in newspapers, I covered the theme-park industry, and I met BRC’s founder, Bob Rogers, a few times. He’s whip-smart and really clever. BRC’s worked on everything from the Test Track pavilion at Epcot to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. These guys know what they’re doing, and if Bob Rogers says he can build a coaster where you’re weightless for eight seconds, I believe him.

Here’s what he told Popular Science about the proposed coaster:

You’d sit in a capsule rather than an open car, so there’d be no wind and no visual cues telling you you’re moving. You’d be strapped in, but loosely.

The track would be shaped like a giant letter “L.” You’d rocket along the track then curve straight up, like the Superman coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

You’d climb at about 100 m.p.h., and as you neared the top, the capsule would slightly but suddenly decelerate. You’d be thrown out of your seat, like a stone from a slingshot, but the capsule would instantly match your speed.

You would, in effect, be floating inside the capsule.

After a moment, you’d begin to fall, but so would the capsule, matching your speed on the way down and eventually slowing so that you settled back in your cushioned seat.

By the time the coaster came to a stop, you would have experienced weightlessness for eight long seconds.

If you were to fly NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” the plane the space agency uses to train astronauts, you would experience weightlessness for 25 seconds.

Popular Science says ordinary coasters cost about $30 million but BRC’s zero-gravity coaster would cost $50 million, which sounds like a lot — heck, that is a lot — but Disney spent a reported $100 million to build Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom a few years ago. Fifty million dollars to a theme-park developer is nothing.

I have no idea whether when or whether anyone will actually build BRC’s zero-gravity coaster. I have no idea whether it’s a smart for untrained civilians to be subjected to eight seconds of weightlessness.

But if someone builds it, I’ll volunteer to test the thing, as many times as it takes.