The History of Group Projects

In many places in Eastern Europe, most people did not have surnames until they were mandated to do so by Napoleon Bonaparte for tax purposes. When that happened, people would often adopt surnames for various reasons: they liked the name, it fit their occupation or location, etc. This means that surnames are fairly recent for many people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and that many people with the same surname are not paternally related. During and after WWII, many Jewish refugees emigrated to all parts of the world, especially North and South America. They took their surnames with them and, in many cases, left genealogical documentation behind.

The Greenspan Name

Newly retired entrepreneur Bennett Greenspan had a problem. He had connections all over the Americas that shared the Greenspan name. Unable to find documentation connecting them, how could he tell if they were related? Were they descendants of the same Greenspan family who emigrated to different areas? Were they unrelated and just happened to adopt the Greenspan name? He found his answer in the unlikeliest of places.

Landmark genetic studies

The previous year, a study by Foster et al. resolved a longstanding controversy over the descendants of Thomas Jefferson. It had long been suspected that Jefferson fathered a son by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. A direct-line male descendant of Sally Hemmings and a known direct-line male descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather underwent Y-chromosome testing that proved they shared the same ancestry. This groundbreaking study demonstrated the power of DNA to solve genealogical puzzles.

In addition, the 1997 publication Y chromosomes of Jewish Priests, co-authored by Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona, spoke of connecting modern testers to their patrilineal Cohanim ancestors using Y-STRs.

These articles got Bennett thinking: Maybe the same test could solve his own Greenspan dilemma. He contacted the University of Arizona lab where these tests were performed, and thus FamilyTreeDNA, the first direct-to-consumer DNA testing company, was formed. Other genealogists began to notice and thought DNA testing might help with their own genealogical brick walls. Patronymic surnames (surnames based on the father’s name, such as Johnson, Erikson, etc.) and occupational surnames (Smith, Carpenter, Baker, etc.) both face unique challenges. Often, people carrying the same patronymic or occupational surname are not genetically related. Adoptees, people with unknown parentage, people with scorched-earth ancestry, and others also hoped DNA testing could help with their own mysteries.

Pioneers of genetic genealogy

The early pioneers in the field were avid genealogists with specific goals for testing. They actively sought individuals who potentially shared DNA with them that could help them break past their genealogical brick walls. As different researchers had different goals, Mr. Greenspan decided to create free-to-join group projects. For example, all people interested in finding Greenspan connections could join the Greenspan project. Although the applicant had to have six candidates committed to testing before they could request a group, there was no cost other than the cost of the tests, and it was a great way to connect with other people who had the same goals. Genealogy enthusiasts could apply to start their own project, and they began doing so in earnest. A rising tide raises all ships, and as the database grew, more and more connections could be made. Group projects and their administrators were a driving force behind this explosion of testing, and more and more breakthroughs were made.

Group Projects Today

Today, there are over 10,000 group projects available through FamilyTreeDNA. These are all run by volunteer experts in their area of focus and provide a great resource for bursting past your genealogical brick walls. Customer confidentiality and privacy are of paramount importance, and these administrators are required to follow our Group Project Administrator Terms and Policies.

Different Types of Group Projects

There are several types of projects, each with unique goals and grouped into different categories. Certain test types or testing candidates are better suited than others for different research goals, so the requirements to join each project vary. Take a look at each category and see which one best fits your genealogical goals.

Surname Projects

Many times, the spelling of a surname was at the discretion of the immigration officer or census taker who recorded it. They wrote the name down as they heard it, so the same family could have spelling variations within the same generation from one source to another. Roach, Roch, Roch, and Roche, for example, could all be descended from the same patriarch, and different lineages underwent different changes. Surname projects concentrate on a single surname and its variant spellings (for example, Brewster, Bruster, and Brewer). It is fairly common for surnames to have spelling changes over the years for a variety of reasons. As surnames are typically carried through the direct paternal line, these groups usually require a Y-DNA test for membership, though some projects include autosomal (Family Finder) results as well.

McAlister Project

Many Scottish and Irish surnames begin with Mc or Mac. This is a Gaelic prefix meaning “son of” and is a form of patronymics. Scottish and Irish clans also “adopted” unrelated people who took on the clan name. Over the generations, the spelling was changed to MacAlister, McAllester, and many others. The Clan McAlister of America Society maintains a group project to encourage anyone related to McAlisters to join and collaborate to identify specific lineages and ancestral groups.
Y-DNA follows a very specific inheritance pattern (from father to son), but there are many other ways a person could be genetically related to Clan McAlister. The project has decided to include autosomal test takers as well to be more inclusive of all clan members. These people may be related to Clan McAlister in other ways, and autosomal results can help shed light on this.

Geographical Project

Geographical projects focus on a specific region of the world. These are people who have ancestors from any line and are not usually restricted to a specific DNA type. Surnames can also vary widely in geographic projects, so they focus more on regional connections.

Finland Project

The FTDNA Finland DNA Project seeks to help Finns, people living in Finland, and others who have Finnish ancestors or Finnish connections find DNA matches that may lead to confirmations and discoveries of shared ancestors and learn more about their deep ancestral origins. It is the largest geographic project, with just under 21,000 members.

The Finland DNA Project compiles and studies mtDNA, Y-DNA, and Family Finder results. Both women and men are welcome to join the project. All surnames are welcome; birthplace or residence are not a restriction.

Haplogroup Projects

A haplogroup is a major branch on either the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind or the mtDNA Tree of Humankind. Haplogroups are associated with early human migrations. Each haplogroup has many branches that represent different migration lines leading all the way to the present day.
Some haplogroup projects study very ancient haplogroups that originated tens of thousands of years ago, while others focus specifically on more recent branches that are hundreds of years old rather than thousands.
Today, these can be associated with a geographic region or regions. Haplogroups study particular Y-DNA or mtDNA haplogroups or their subclades and almost always require a Y-DNA or mtDNA test, respectively. They are a great resource to learn about your paternal lineage and to decide if further Y-DNA testing is right for you.

I1 Y-DNA Haplogroup

I1 (also known as I-M253) is one of the largest haplogroups in Scandinavia. This haplogroup is estimated to be about 35,000 years old and has many branches within it. It is a good place to start if you are not sure what your haplogroup means and what you should do with that information. The group project administrators can also help you decide if there is a project that focuses on your branch and might be able to provide more genealogically useful information for you.

I-A8100 and Subclades

I-A8100 is a subgroup of I1 that originated in the Middle Ages. This means it is much more recent in time than the overall I1 haplogroup. Because this project is narrower in scope, it has fewer members but can offer more relevant genealogical information for you.

mtDNA Lineage Projects

In many cultures, women take on the surname of their husbands, and their own surname is not passed on to their children. This can make tracing direct maternal lineages difficult. mtDNA lineage projects are designed to study these direct maternal lineages regardless of name changes, as mtDNA is passed down maternally.

Perry Project

This project is similar to a surname study but instead focuses on female Perry ancestors. This means anyone of any surname who has a direct maternal Perry ancestor can join.

Family Finder Projects

Family Finder projects were originally developed as a way of researching the descendants of an ancestral couple using the Family Finder test. These were usually one at the autosomal reach limit, which was five to six generations ago. However, they have evolved to be broader in scope and can contain multiple test types. They are often used for specific research projects that do not neatly fall into any other category, by people doing private family studies or people who manage multiple kits as a way to access their own family members’ results.

Huguenot Descendants

This is a group project for anyone with Huguenot ancestry. Hugenots were a religious sect in 16th and 17th century France, and as such, they were not genetically related in the same way that members of a surname or region might be. The purpose of the project is to identify as many Huguenot descendants as possible and to determine or confirm their Huguenot lineages using DNA testing in conjunction with traditional, or “records-based” genealogy. The Huguenot immigrant ancestor must have a surname listed in a Registry of Surnames with a Huguenot Lineage Society, either in the United States or in another country.

Finding and joining a project

You can search for publicly available projects on our search page or in your account if you have already tested. Each project will include a description of its requirements, and you can email the administrators with any questions you may have. You can learn more about group projects in our Help Center as well. If you don’t find a project that fits your goals, you can always apply to start your own.

Choosing the right test

When direct-to-consumer testing first became available, the only test available was a Y-DNA test that focused on 12 Y-STR markers. Today, there are many more options available, and the options might seem overwhelming. In the project description, it often details which test is best for that project’s goals, and you can always reach out to them with questions. In addition, our Help Center has many resources available to help you decide which test is best to meet your own individual goals.

Many projects, especially surname and Y-DNA haplogroup projects, recommend the Big Y-700 test. This is a comprehensive test that looks at an area of the Y chromosome rich in genealogically useful information. While the early Y-12 test was able to prove or disprove a specific theory, the Big Y-700 test can help pinpoint you on the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind and potentially connect you to people who have common paternal ancestry within the past few hundred years. It may also help to nail down specific lines descending from a common ancestor using the data points the group project makes available.

In some cases, it may not be you but a relative who is the best candidate to take the test. For example, the Big Y-700 and all Y-DNA tests are only available for males, as only males have a Y chromosome. For females, this means you may need to recruit a male relative who has a direct paternal line to the surname you are studying. Your own goals and the goals of your project may vary, so it might be a good idea to reach out to an administrator, customer service, or our Help Center with any questions you may have.

Group projects can be a great resource for your genealogy. Help grow the genetic genealogy community today and give group projects a try!