By: Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

How a genealogist confirmed her paper trail with the combination of Y-DNA and Family Finder.

When I was a child, my mom and I took my maternal grandfather to the downtown branch of the Dallas Public Library, where all the genealogy records are. As someone who has always loved reading and libraries, sometimes I would get to go in with him while he was researching.

After my grandfather passed away in 2012, I became the family genealogist. While genetic genealogy existed at the time, I had never heard about it. I didn’t know about FamilyTreeDNA and didn’t have a TV (why should I when there are books?), so I never saw all those commercials for Ancestry or 23andMe.

When I started working at FamilyTreeDNA in 2015, I was really excited to learn about genetic genealogy, especially Y-DNA testing, because I don’t know beyond my fourth great-grandfather on my direct paternal line.

First steps on your Y-DNA journey

There are three things you’ll want to do before you dive into your Y-DNA journey.

The first is to create goals. What are your goals for testing? What do you want to find out?

The next will be to determine who should take the Y-DNA test. If you’re female, you’ll need to recruit a father, brother, or paternal uncle to test your direct paternal line.

If you’re looking for answers on a paternal line that isn’t your direct paternal line, you’ll need to find a male cousin who descends patrilineally from that ancestor to test.

If you’re trying to determine if two men share a common ancestor or if two ancestors were brothers, you’ll need tests for a male from each line.

Lastly, you’ll want to determine which Y-DNA test level you need to answer your questions about.

My Y-DNA story

john rowe headshot
My third great-grandfather, John Rowe (1835-1913).

My fourth great-grandfather, Henry Williams Rowe, came to America with his wife and children in 1850. Based on his age on the ship record, he was born in 1798, and he was living in Hessenford, Cornwall, in the 1841 English Census.

After arriving in America, the Rowes briefly lived in Syracuse, New York, before settling in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.

Henry’s youngest son, John Rowe, my 3rd great-grandfather, moved from Wisconsin to Ennis, Texas, and we haven’t traveled very far from there since.

I determined what my goals for testing are:

  1. Find Henry Williams Rowe’s parents (and hopefully more beyond that).
  2. Learn where this line was from before 1841, hopefully including where Henry was born.

With those goals in mind, I ordered a Y-37 test for my dad.

Swabbing my dad

Since I’m female, I can’t take a Y-DNA test myself. I don’t have any brothers (only two younger sisters), but my dad is still living. So, for Christmas 2015, I bought him a Y-37 and a Family Finder and took the test kit home so he could swab.

I expected I might have to convince him or at least tell him a bit about it. But while I was distracted helping my niece open her presents, my dad had already opened the kit and started swabbing, his cup of coffee next to him and a cigarette in his other hand.

Since the instructions say to wait at least an hour after using dental hygiene products, eating, drinking, chewing gum, or smoking, I was worried that the sample wasn’t going to be any good. Luckily, everything turned out okay (although when I later upgraded him to the Big Y, the sample failed then, so I don’t recommend chancing it and going against the swabbing instructions).

What I learned from my dad’s Y-37 results

Your Y-DNA haplogroup can inform where your patrilineal ancestors are from.

With the Y-STR tests like the 111 or the 37, you’ll receive a very broad, predicted haplogroup, that doesn’t tell you too much. You’ll be at the top of one of the major branches of the Y-DNA haplotree, probably somewhere in the Stone Ages.

My dad’s haplogroup came back at I-M253, found all over North and Western Europe. So that doesn’t narrow the “where” down very much.

haplogroup I-M253 screenshot

Of course, I was really excited about the matches. But when my dad’s results came back, he had no matches at the Y-37 level. He had a couple at Y-25 and a handful more at Y-12.

None of them shared our surname. There’s a Rowe Surname Project at FTDNA, so I knew there were Rowes with Y-DNA results in the database, but my dad didn’t match any of them.

Most of his matches had surnames that rhymed with Rowe, like Lowe, Bowe, and Crowe, which was strange but interesting.

Why didn’t my dad match any of the other Rowes in the database?

Was his sample messed up because he was smoking and drinking coffee when he swabbed? No, if those things were going to cause an issue, they would cause his sample to fail testing and not produce any results, rather than produce different DNA results—smoking and coffee don’t change your DNA.

There could be a lot of reasons for this—the biggest one being something that I have since discovered: the surname Rowe in Cornwall and neighboring Devon is as common as Smith or Jones, and so there are many patrilineal lines that aren’t all related. Also, matches at these lower levels of Y-DNA testing often share a common ancestor with you before surnames were standardized, so it’s common to see various surnames in your list.

However, after receiving these results, my big concern was: are we not Rowes? Is my paper trail not correct?

New goals

Your paper trail can be confirmed or disproved with Y-DNA. So, I made some new goals:

  1. Upgrade my dad’s test to Y-111.
  2. Find another male Rowe who is descended from one of Henry Williams Rowe’s many sons and get him to test as well. If he matches my dad, that would confirm that my paper trail is correct.

It’s within the realm of possibility that I or my dad could match someone with an autosomal test who also descends from my fourth great-grandfather. Both of us have a Family Finder at FamilyTreeDNA, and I’ve transferred those to MyHeritage and LivingDNA. I also tested myself at Ancestry and 23andMe.

Through using autosomal matching and the tree matching tools at MyHeritage and Ancestry, I was able to find a woman I matched who descended from Henry Williams Rowe. I reached out to ask if she had a brother, and she did, and I was able to convince him to let me buy him a Y-111.

New results

My dad’s upgrade results came in, and so did the other Rowe’s results, and hallelujah! He matched my dad! My paper trail up to Henry Williams Rowe is correct, and I don’t have to start over from scratch.

updated results screenshot

The calendar icon to the far right of each Y-DNA match links to a TMRCA estimate called the FTDNA TiP report. Here, this is based on STR results alone, and Henry Williams Rowe’s birth falls within the TMRCA range.

ftdnatip report screenshot

One thing that did surprise me, but is actually fairly common, was that even though my dad initially did not have any matches at Y-37, he had a lot at Y-67!

y-dna matches screenshot

All of these men match my dad at Y-12, but then many fall off the list at Y-25, and they all fall off at Y-37. There is a threshold for how many STRs you and another tester can mismatch on at each Y-DNA level.

At Y-12, you have to be an exact match; all 12 have to be the same. At Y-25, you can mismatch on up to 2 STRs; at Y-37, you can mismatch on up to 4 STRs; at Y-67, up to 7 and at Y-111 up to 10.

All of my dad’s Y-67 matches have more than four mismatches, all mostly in the Y-25 and Y-37 STR panels. But then they are within the range at the higher levels.

While the other Rowe is my only match at Y-111, these other men at Y-67 are my dad’s next closest Y-DNA matches after him.

There’s still a mess of rhyming surnames and a scattering of EKA locations in Ireland and Sweden, but no one else in Cornwall.

Another plan to reach my original goals

While I confirmed that my paper trail is correct, I still haven’t met my original goals. Determining when my dad shares a common ancestor with his other matches may help me determine where my patrilineal ancestors are from.

Since SNP testing is better at estimating a TMRCA than STR testing is, and since the more specific your haplogroup is the more specific your ancestral location can get, I decided to upgrade my dad to the Big Y-700 and also reach out to his matches and convince as many of them to upgrade as well.

Big Y results

I was able to get nearly all of my dad’s Y-67 matches and one of his Y-25 matches to upgrade to Big Y. Unfortunately, my other Rowe is not one of those, and I didn’t originally get his permission to upgrade his test.

The Big Y helped me figure out which of these matches more recently share a common ancestor with my dad. Looking at my dad’s Block Tree, his closest matches are the ones with EKA locations in Ireland and the UK, and then we have the Swedish ones before then.

block tree screenshot

Now, based on my dad’s haplogroup and his connection to Swedish matches despite me tracing our line to Cornwall, I thought this connection might be based on Viking Age invasions into Ireland and England.

Doing rough TMRCA estimates with the Block Tree put my dad’s common ancestor with these men around the right time for that.

But a couple years after getting results, FamilyTreeDNA added the Discover Y-DNA Haplogroup tools and age estimates, and things got clearer.

Discover reports

discover haplogroup story report screenshot

In Discover, the Haplogroup Story report gives the age estimate of your haplogroup and the estimate of the TMRCA between you and others on your branch.

So my dad and his three matches with EKA locations in Ireland share a common ancestor around 1000 CE. That’s a little after the Viking Age, but it’s still within the realm of possibility.

discover ancient connections report screenshot

Ancient Connections shows all of the individuals from archaeological studies that tested ancient DNA that my dad matches. There are lots of Vikings in England, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Estonia, as well as Medieval connections in England, Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe.

discover migration map report screenshot

The Migration Map in Discover goes a bit further than the one on your dashboard—to a Metal Ages haplogroup instead of a Stone Ages haplogroup. And you can explore your Ancient Connections here as well.

Instead of covering all of West and Northern Europe, the Metal Ages path stops in Germany. Then the Ancient Connections are mostly scattered around the coastal regions of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

discover time tree report screenshot

The Time Tree is really where I got a good idea of when my dad shares a common ancestor with his matches and where our patrilineal line is from.

My dad is the black-and-white Cornish flag near the bottom, grouped with the Irish testers. Our common ancestor is estimated to have lived around 980 CE—still within Viking Age times and pre-surname standardization in England and Ireland.

But if we keep looking at the branches above that, a really interesting split happens.

At the very top, we’ve got a branch that goes back to Germany around 532 BCE. From there, the line splits with one group going to Sweden and another to England and Ireland.

Estimated at around 112 CE, one descendant migrated from Germany to Sweden and another descendant migrated from Germany to England—well before the Viking Age. All of my dad’s Swedish matches come from the branch that went to Sweden, and he and the Irish matches are with the branch that went to England.

So it’s not a Viking Age expansion into England that connects us—it’s an ancestor much earlier than that.

My dad’s connection with his Bowe, Lowe, Crowe, and Crowley matches is all from an ancestor who lived before surnames were standardized in England and Ireland. While I really would like to find out why my dad’s matches have surnames that rhyme with ours, that’s probably not something I’ll ever find the answer to. But of course, I’ll keep trying even though it’s unlikely, just in case.

And Globetrekker really drives home the migration path I found with the Time Tree. We get to Germany, and then the line splits, with one branch going to Sweden and the other to England and Ireland.

Review my goals

So, let’s review my goals:

I haven’t yet found Henry Williams Rowe’s parents. But Y-DNA testing may be the only way I’m going to do that, and I’m ready for when someone gets results that can help me.

I confirmed my paper trail from my dad to Henry Williams Rowe.

I was able to determine when my dad shares a common ancestor with his Y-DNA matches through almost everyone upgrading to the Big Y.

And having almost everyone upgrade to the Big Y also helped me determine where my patrilineal line is from. It’s still a little murky past my fourth great-grandfather, but I know my line has been in the British Isles since well before the Viking Age.

My next steps

Since I still have one goal that’s not checked off my list, what can I do besides wait patiently for the right person to test that will help me break my brick wall?

First, I’m going to keep trying to get the other Rowe I tested to upgrade to the Big Y. I’ve proved our connection, but his Big Y results could help me refine when we split from that group of matches from Ireland.

find my past screenshot
Image credit: Find My Past,

I’m also going to look for more Rowes in Cornwall that could test and match my dad. I mentioned earlier that Rowe is an extremely common surname in Cornwall, so I’m not going spring for the Big Y every time I find a Rowe willing to test. If you’ve got a fairly uncommon surname, that may be a good strategy for you, but it’s also a good strategy to test at a lower level and get permission to upgrade if they are a match.

With the addition of Y-DNA Haplogroup results with the Family Finder test, that can be even more economical. While someone who shares a common ancestor in the timeframe I’m looking at may not be an autosomal match, their haplogroup from the Family Finder will tell me if they’re on a branch upstream of my dad. If it’s the right haplogroup, then I can order a Y-DNA test for them, probably starting with Y-37 to make sure they’re a match and then upgrading to Big Y from there.

The Family Finder (and other autosomal tests at other companies) are still great places to search for Rowe men that I can convince to get a Y-DNA test. I’m going to keep going through those match lists until I find someone who can break this brick wall for me.

cornwall opc database screenshot

And while there’s not a national census including names prior to 1841 in England, there are plenty of other traditional genealogy records I can dig through. The Cornwall OPC database is an online resource where parish records are getting digitized and are searchable—I may be able to find a baptism record or other record that lists Henry Williams Rowe’s parents.

Headshot of Katy Rowe-Schurwanz - Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

About the Author

Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

Katy Rowe-Schurwanz has always been interested in genealogy, inspired by her maternal grandparents, who told her stories about their family and family history when she was little. After studying anthropology and history in college, she joined FamilyTreeDNA in 2015 and became the Trainer for Customer Support. Katy created and improved training processes and was fundamental in the creation of the Big Y Specialist team. In September 2021, she became Product Manager and has focused closely on improving FamilyTreeDNA’s genetic genealogy products.