DNA, Gerald Family Legends, and History’s Mysteries

Off and on for the past ten years or so, I’ve been interested in tracing my family genealogy. I can trace my Gerald family back to a man named James Gerald who lived in South Carolina in the 1700s. We think he was born in Ireland around 1709, and he died in South Carolina in 1760. He had a son named Gabriel, and Gabriel had a bunch of children, and they are the ancestors of every Gerald in the US who is in any way connected to my family.

A lot of people can trace themselves back to James Gerald, but no one so far has been able to find any definitive records dating back to Ireland to establish who his parents were.

A few years ago, I decided that we should try the DNA route to deciphering this. My brother took a Y-DNA test through Family Tree DNA, and we learned a lot about our family’s genetic past. We are definitely Irish. We match up with a distinctly Irish haplogroup, and our paternal line appears to be Celtic in origin.

That said, what we have not done is to match up with any Geralds in Ireland or of Irish origin outside of the line from Gabriel Gerald that we already know about.

Family legend says that James Gerald was really James Fitzgerald, and he changed his name to Gerald when he moved to America. We haven’t made any DNA matches to Fitzgeralds either, at least not any that are close enough genetic matches to use as a basis for genealogical research.

At first, I just thought this would be a matter of waiting for the right people to take the DNA test. Genealogical DNA testing for tracing ancestry was still a fairly new thing, and I assumed it would take off over time, and eventually the right Gerald or Fitzgerald would take the test, and we would find out at least which branch of Fitzgeralds we were connected to.

Several years have now passed, and we still haven’t connected to a family of Fitzgeralds. Something else has happened, though. A distinct pattern of genetic links to people named O’Loughlin or O’Laughlin or McLaughlin, all with Irish origins, has emerged.

18th Century James Gerald is 7 generations back from the 20th Century James Gerald who took the Y-DNA test. Family Tree DNA says that we have an 87% chance of sharing a common ancestor with a number of people with the surname O’Loughlin within the past 8 generations and a 97% chance within the past 12 generations. By contrast, only one person named Fitzgerald has shown up on our genetic matches list, and we have a 70% chance of sharing  a common ancestor with him within the past 8 generations and a 90% within the past 12 generations.

We could say “But wait there is that one Fitzgerald. That probably is our connection to a family line.” We could, and we might be right. However, when there is only one very distant match, that match is usually considered to be an outlier, especially if a pattern is emerging in another direction. One person might be the result of a “non-paternal event” or a kid being born outside of marriage or with a genetic father who was not his legal father. A group of people all with varying connections is a stronger indicator of what might have happened. Our outlier right now is a Fitzgerald. Our group of people with a stronger and clearer pattern of genetic connections to us are all O’Loughlins.

On Family Tree DNA, there is a large Fitzgerald family project with more than 200 members, representing a wide variety of Fitzgerald family lines, and we are not definitively matching any of them, whereas we do have that strong pattern of genetic connections through Y-DNA, which is the direct paternal line, to a family named O’Loughlin. We can count back 7 generations of Geralds, and the O’Loughlin connection exists somewhere within the range of 8-12 generations back. It picks up at exactly the point in our genetic history where we lose our ability to trace the family back through traditional genealogical research.

I haven’t been keeping up this blog much lately, but I’m sharing this here today because my genealogy posts are the main ones that still get visitors even years later, and I know there are other people out there researching the same family line. I want to share the information, but I also want to share the brainstorming about what all of this might mean.

We don’t know that much about James Gerald. We don’t know why he came to America or what his family life was like before he did so. We do know who he married and where he lived and what became of his son.

One theory says that he arrived in America as an indentured servant and that he ran off without fulfilling his years of service and changed his name in order to avoid capture.

I have no idea whether that is true or not. I do know that he ended up married to a woman named Mildred Taliaferro and that her English/Italian family was fairly well off, so if he arrived here as an indentured servant, he did well for himself after.

The way the family has always told the story, he changed his name from Fitzgerald to Gerald, and that is the part that I am questioning now. I think he may have changed his name, but I’m starting to believe that his name was never Fitzgerald, or if it was that it came to him from his mother’s family and not from his father’s family. If Fitzgerald had been his paternal surname, I believe we would have hit upon a significant genetic connection to a branch of Fitzgeralds by now.

There are two main possibilities here.

1. There could be a genetic disruption in the paternal line somewhere between 18th Century James Gerald and 20th Century James Gerald.

I don’t believe this is the case because 20th Century James Gerald does have a genetic match to a distant Gerald connection who is a descendant of Gabriel Gerald through a different line. If we can establish paternal certainty all the way back to Gabriel Gerald’s children, and at least two of those children had the same father, then that only leaves one generation of uncertainty. If there’s a disruption in the line, that would mean that James Gerald was not Gabriel Gerald’s biological father, and there’s no real reason for us to suspect this.

2. James Gerald’s paternal surname was neither Gerald nor Fitzgerald.

I believe more and more that this is the case. I believe that James Gerald came from a family of O’Loughlins.

He could have been James Fitzgerald O’Loughlin with the Fitzgerald coming from his mother rather than his father, in which case the Fitzgerald connection wouldn’t show up in Y-DNA tests, but it would still make sense for him to pick James Gerald as his new American name. Another possibility is that he could have been born illegitimately and never used his father’s surname. There could be any number of explanations.

I might be dead wrong. New matches might show up down the road that change this whole scenario once again. I do find it interesting to consider for now, though, and I’m throwing it out there in case anyone else has any ideas.

Happy genetic sleuthing, Gerald cousins.

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2 Responses to DNA, Gerald Family Legends, and History’s Mysteries

  1. Deborah Gerald Morgan says:

    Sharron, my son just did the 23 and me ancestory, and according to his results my side (maternal) shows Scottish, not Irish, I know they are closely related though. I was just wondering if his results could help you any, if you think they can, I’ll be glad to share them with you. I think he would be James’ 2nd cousin since James and I are first cousins. Just let me know.

    • Sharon Gerald says:

      The test that James did is a Y-DNA test, which is the direct paternal line. Your son’s Y-DNA would show his father’s line and not anything from our family. The Y-DNA test is the only way to test for genealogy matches for a family line, and it can only be a direct male descendant. Ricky could do one that should show our family results, but I don’t know whether we would learn anything that we haven’t already learned from James’s.

      As for the Scottish, that doesn’t contradict this test. If Adam did a test for his general genetic makeup, it would show information from every branch of the family, whereas the Y-DNA only shows one line. By the time we reach the 7th generation back, we have 128 g grandparents in that generation. Autosomal DNA tests show info from all of those lines, but Y-DNA is still only showing info from one of them. We could be more Scottish than Irish when we consider all of our ancestors, but the Gerald male line is Irish Celtic dating way way back in time.

      Also, it if was an MtDNA test that showed his maternal line, that would have meant his mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother and on back into ancient times along one distinct maternal line. Woman cannot test for Y-DNA, but men can test for both Y-DNA and MtDNA.

      Thanks for the offer. I’ve been trying to figure all of this out for years, and no doubt I will still be trying to figure it all out years from now.

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