Some months ago I started a Cavers Y-DNA project at Family Tree DNA. This is very much a long term thing, as I blogged at the time. The aim is to compare direct male line Cavers DNA, passed down from father to son, to see if different Cavers lines are related, and how closely.
So far one male line Cavers descendant has signed up for a brand new Family Tree DNA test. He descends from a branch of Cavers that is believed to originate in Roxburghshire, Scotland, with Walter Cavers born in Scotland circa 1795, but who then moved to Nottingham, England, and established a large family with many descendants. Walter’s origins are something of a mystery. There is no obviously clear baptism to tie up to him, without some problems and question marks. And many Cavers births are missing from the parish registers anyway. His could be one of those. So let’s call for the purposes of this blog post this DNA line that’s been tested Volunteer 1, a direct male line descendant of the mysterious Walter.
Shortly after that another Cavers descendant agreed to transfer their Y-DNA test results from Ancestry to Family Tree DNA. This can be done for a small fee, and is possible because of an agreement between the lab that Ancestry use and the Family Tree DNA system. This person descends from Thomas Cavers (ca1810-1879) who emigrated from Castleton, Roxburghshire to Lanark County, Ontario, Canada. He had many descendants, and a number of siblings who emigrated around the same time. This family line can be traced back to Thomas’s father John Cavers, who married in Hawick in 1798, and had a large family in Castleton parish. But John’s origins are also something of a mystery. Again there is no obvious baptism for him. Nor do the names of his children offer significant clues. Let’s call the DNA testee in this line Volunteer 2, again a direct male line Cavers descendant, this time of Thomas and John.
Some of the DNA results for Volunteer 1 came through quickly, for 12 markers of Y-DNA, and showed a perfect match with Volunteer 2’s Y-DNA. For such an unusual surname this suggests strongly that they have a shared male ancestry, although because Volunteer 2’s DNA was transferred over from Ancestry it’s not possible in Family Tree DNA to run a further report estimating how close the connection is. Then tonight the fuller results for Volunteer 1 have come through, sooner than expected, accurate to 37 markers, which can be compared with the 27 markers available from Volunteer 2’s transfer from Ancestry. And again they match very very closely. There is one genetic difference, but that may be due to a mutation in a later generation. Again though the indication is shared ancestry.
But to complicate things further a third test kit then matched the Y-DNA of volunteers 1 and 2, and this person isn’t even a known Cavers descendant! They are a Cowings, descended from Cowings or Cowan ancestors traced back to Gateshead, County Durham, and 1720. On 12 markers this person, let’s call them Volunteer 3, for they have now joined the Cavers Y-DNA project, match the DNA results for Volunteer 1 and Volunteer 2 perfectly. Extending things to 25 markers Volunteer 3 has a close match to Volunteer 1, with just 2 genetic differences i.e. a genetic distance of 2, and an even closer match to Volunteer 2 (at least those 23 markers available after transfer for Volunteer 2), with 1 genetic distance. At 37 markers Volunteer 1 again matches Volunteer 3 closely, with a genetic distance (differences in marker numbers) of just 2 – very strongly indicative of shared ancestry. Volunteer 2’s available 27 markers match Volunteer 3’s, but with a genetic distance of 3 this time. A further 3 genetic markers (outside the core 37) available for Volunteer 2 also match Volunteer 3’s results.
So what does this mean?! Well I think the 12 marker results indicate shared male line ancestry in all cases, but the higher genetic distance when more markers are compared suggest it is somewhat distant. Genetic distance grows as mutations in the DNA occur, and these mutations happen more frequently over a long time, and many generations. Volunteer 1’s line seems to tie up more closely with Volunteer 3’s line than Volunteer 2’s does. But I am confident that they ultimately have the same ancestry. With the Y-DNA results from Volunteer 1 and Volunteer 3 it’s possible to run a report at Family Tree DNA which estimates how closely the lines are related. This suggests that the chances of Volunteer 1 and Volunteer 3 sharing a common ancestor in 6 generations is almost 54%, in 8 generations 71%, and in 10 generations 83%. In genealogical terms this is relatively close, and quite exciting.
As for the Cowings/Cowan thing, I can’t give a simple answer at the moment. One possible explanation is that a distant Cowings or Cowan ancestor dallied with a Cavers, to put it nicely! Or that there is an illegitimacy link there somewhere, and a Miss Cowan had an illegitimate child, father someone Cavers, and the child took on the Cowan surname. There was a cluster of Cavers people in the Durham area from at least the 18th century onwards, and possibly earlier. Though they probably had Roxburghshire origins ultimately.
Alternatively it’s possible these Cavers lines link up to a Cowan in their ancestry somewhere. That is equally possible, and DNA can’t give a simple answer to this, especially because anything like this probably happened an extremely long time ago, before the good written records we genealogists rely on for piecing together family trees using documentation.
But it is all very exciting. To have two separate Cavers lines link up through the DNA when there was no evidence before of a connection is superb. We can now reasonably say that the Nottingham descendants and the Canadian descendants of John Cavers in Castleton are distant cousins of each other. And the Cowan matching side of things is interesting for raising more questions than answers. All information is good information.
Ultimately though we need more volunteers to sign up to have their DNA tested, from different Cavers branches. The more lines we can get tested, the bigger the picture the DNA can build of if and how the various lines are connected. And perhaps we might in some cases be able to back this up by tracing links in the documentary records, spurred on by the findings from the DNA tests. That would be nice. For more information about what is involved in testing, including the costs of the test kits, please see my original blog post about the project.