Continental level information

We all know by now … or we should know by now … that the admixture percentages reported by the genealogy DNA testing companies are really rather awful at the level where we really want the information: the country level.

AfricanThe simple fact is, no test today can accurately tell us that we are, say, 46% German, 22% Irish, 20% English and 12% Italian. The similarities among the European populations are just too great to allow for that degree of specificity — at least not if we want to be sure about it.1

But what about at a broader level? At the continental level? Can DNA testing give us accurate information about our ancestral origins as between, say, European and African and Asian?

Reader Shirl poses this question in her own family: “I have reason to believe that my maternal ancestry includes an African-American who started passing as white in the late 1700′s in New England; the documented ancestry is all British Isles and German. Would an autosomal DNA test be able to determine if this is true?”

And the answer is:

(Drum roll, please…)

It depends.

Yes, European and African and Asian DNA shows very distinct patterns. At the continental level, autosomal DNA can tell us a lot about our deep ancestry.

But here’s the rub when we try to use it.

Each of us inherits 50% of our autosomal DNA from the father and 50% from the mother. So the odds of showing our ancestral origins if either parent was 100% European or 100% Asian or 100% African are essentially 100%: the child’s autosomal DNA should show roughly 50% of each parent’s ancestral origins.

But let’s say each parent was a 50-50 mix: one parent was 50% European and 50% African, and the other was 50% European and 50% Asian. On average, each child of this couple would end up showing roughly 50% European, 25% African and 25% Asian. Still a high percentage, still clearly detectable.

But now watch the average percentages inherited as we go down the generations:

From a parent: 50%
From a grandparent: 25%
From a great grandparent: 12.5%
From a second great grandparent: 6.25%
From a third great grandparent: 3.125%
From a fourth great grandparent: 1.5625%
From a fifth great grandparent: 0.78125%
From a sixth great grandparent: 0.390625%
From a seventh great grandparent: 0.1953125%2

Remember: these are averages, not set-in-stone numbers. Autosomal DNA changes — a lot! — with each and every generation because of a process called recombination. That’s a process where all of the pieces of autosomal DNA we inherited from our parents — what’s in each pair of chromosomes we have — gets mixed and jumbled before half (and only half) of those pieces gets passed on to the next generation. Because of this jumbling, the range of DNA we might inherit is pretty broad — it could be higher or lower than the average percentage shown.3

Now if we figure an average of 25 years per generation, for someone who is — say — 50 years old today, here’s how this translates into time frames:

Born around 1940: 50%
Born around 1915: 25%
Born around 1890: 12.5%
Born around 1865: 6.25
Born around 1840: 3.125
Born around 1815: 1.5625
Born around 1790: 0.78125
Born around 1765: 0.390625
Born around 1740: 0.1953125

If Shirl’s ancestor was already passing for white in the late 1700s, we’re probably talking about a racial mix in the sixth or seventh great grandparent generation: the first generation where African and European ancestry came together.

In other words, if the family story is true, Shirl’s African ancestry is likely to represent not more than about 0.2% of her autosomal DNA. Again, some people will have a higher percentage from an ancestor that far back, and some will have a lower percentage, in both cases by pure random chance. It’s a matter of whether or not Shirl won the genetic lottery and actually had that African DNA passed on to her.

Now if Shirl did win the genetic lottery, she could have that 0.2%. So… is 0.2% detectable?

It can be. At 23andMe, for example, my own results show 0.2% sub-Saharan African at both the standard and the speculative levels of confidence. Once I go to the conservative confidence level (a level where the scientists think they’re 90% sure4), however, my African ancestry fades into the background.

And not every company reads our DNA the same way. At AncestryDNA, my results still indicate less than one percent African, but there it’s shown as Africa North, rather than sub-Saharan Africa. And at Family Tree DNA, my results don’t show African at all; they show some from Asia Minor instead.

So do I have African ancestry in a generation born around 1740 or so? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe, because of random chance, it could be from much farther back — so far back that it really does fade into the background.5

That’s our first problem: if we do find detectable African DNA, it won’t tell us, by itself, how far back in time the DNA comes from. It can give us some hints, pointing us to a general time frame where we can start looking at the paper trail, but by itself it can’t prove when our African ancestor lived.

And there’s another problem: autosomal DNA can’t disprove any particular ancestral origin when we’re dealing with those very small percentages. Shirl may very well have African-American ancestry back in the late 1700s but, by that random force of recombination, may just not have inherited the DNA that could show it. The ancestor is still in Shirl’s family tree, but may not have made it into her genetic family tree.6

So it’s worth doing autosomal testing to look for this small an amount of possible African ancestry. What’s critical is understanding that finding it won’t tell us how far back in time it came from, and not finding it doesn’t prove we don’t have African ancestry.


  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Admixture: not soup yet,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2014 ( : accessed 11 July 2015). Also, ibid., “Making the best of what’s not so good,” posted 22 Feb 2015.
  2. See generally ISOGG Wiki (, “Autosomal DNA statistics,” rev. 4 July 2015.
  3. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Recombination,” rev. 14 June 2015.
  4. See 23andMe Customer Care, “Confidence thresholds in Ancestry Composition,” 23andMe ( : accessed 11 July 2015).
  5. See generally Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kasia Bryc, “How Long Ago Did African Ancestry Enter My Family Tree?,” The Root, posted 10 July 2015 ( : accessed 11 July 2015).
  6. See Blaine Bettinger, “Q&A: Everyone Has Two Family Trees – A Genealogical Tree and a Genetic Tree,” The Genetic Genealogist, posted 10 Nov 2009 ( : accessed 11 July 2015).
Posted in DNA | 9 Comments

Our July babies

You know you’re getting older when…

… the birthdays on the calendar represent more of the kin you’ve lost than the kin still living.

Now, for The Legal Genealogist, of course, that’s not all that unusual… we genealogists do tend to be far more fixated on deaths in, say, the 18th century than those more recent.

Except that it’s not so much fun when it’s those in the 21st century.

Sometimes looking at the birthdays on the calendar makes our hearts hurt.

There are three early July birthdays from my mother’s family that appear on the family calendar my cousin creates so beautifully each Christmas and that hangs now on my wall.

July 6. Marianne Cottrell.

July 10. Jerry LaStone Cottrell.

July 13. Susan Hodges.

The first and the last are mother and daughter. Marianne, my mother’s younger sister. Susan, Marianne’s older child, my first cousin.


And both gone, leaving holes in our hearts.

Marianne appears in the Texas birth index as Marianne Cottrell, daughter of Clay R. and Opal Cottrell, born 6 July 1936 in Wichita County, Texas.1 The index doesn’t indicate if that was an original birth record or a delayed birth certificate. I’d put my money on a delayed certificate, since I think her birth name was Mary Ann, the way it appears on the 1940 census, a census entry for which her mother was the informant.2

It doesn’t matter, really: by the time she was 14, everyone, including her mother, was spelling it Maryanne,3 and by the time she was grown it was always the more elegant Marianne.

And elegant she was — when she wasn’t being impish or sassy or brash or impish and sassy and brash.

She lit up a room just by walking in the door — and you knew she was coming your way because you could hear her laugh from a mile away. She’s the one who was once asked by the child of one of my young cousins, “Are you my Great Aunt?” and who answered, with absolute truth, “No, darlin’, I’m your GREATEST Aunt.”

Gone now. Her laughter silenced by cancer when she was just 71 years old.

Her daughter Susan was born 13 July 1954 in Louisa, Virginia, the county seat nearest to my grandparents’ farm that had what passed for a hospital back then.4

A cousin close enough in age to be a playmate, a co-conspirator in trouble, a friend — and a foe. One I laughed with, and cried with, and fought with, and played with. One who cared for me at times when I needed it, one I cared for at times when she did. One whose love of life and family and home seemed endless.

Until suddenly she was gone too. Her laughter silenced by cancer when she was just 60 years old.

And Jerry?

Laughing, singing, guitar-playing Jerry?

The Jerry who once rescued a kitten from my way-too-intense four-year-old attentions by swapping it out for “a fresh one”?

The Jerry who, when asked for stories of time he and Marianne got in trouble to share at her funeral, responded gleefully, “Honey, we were always in trouble”?

My memory shows me Jerry as a dark-haired straight-backed young man.

The calendar tells me he turned 81 yesterday.

You know you’re getting older when…


  1. “Texas, Birth Index, 1903-1997,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 6 July 2012), Marianne Cottrell, 1936.
  2. 1940 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 165-3A, page (illegible)(B) (stamped), sheet 7(B), household 161, Bobbette Staples; digital image, ( : accessed 6 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4105.
  3. Handwritten note by Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, 21 March 1951; digital copy in possession of Judy G. Russell.
  4. Entry for Susan Gayle Payne, 13 July 1954, Louisa, Virginia; database and index, “Virginia, Birth Records, 1864-2014,” Ancestry ( : accessed 10 July 2015). Her name at birth was Susan Gayle Hodges; it was later legally changed to Payne.
Posted in My family | 2 Comments

…aren’t always free

Genealogists love the word free.

Records that are free.

Websites that are free.

Anything that’s free.

cts.webinarAnd sometimes we’re a little annoyed when some of the things we want aren’t free.

But — alas — the bills still have to be paid, and until money trees start growing in all of our yards, it’s going to remain a simple fact of life that… the best things in life aren’t always free.

Today is a case in point. Because The Legal Genealogist is doing a webinar this afternoon as part of Legacy Family Tree Webinars … a really cool webinar on federal court records … and it’s not free.

It is, instead, open only to those who are subscribers to Legacy Family Tree Webinars.


A Legacy Family Tree webinar that isn’t free!?!?

Yeah, actually, even Legacy Family Tree has to pay the bills, and the fact is that subscribers keep the webinar series afloat. So it’s only fair that subscribers get some benefits that nobody else can get. Benefits like the handouts that accompany each of the webinars (generally a minimum of four pages of additional materials, and often eight or more pages of references and sources you can’t get anywhere else). And benefits like members-only webinars (like the Making A Federal Case Out Of It webinar this afternoon).

So… how do you get in on these goodies?

Become a subscriber, of course.

For an annual fee of $49.95, you get “1 year unlimited access to our recorded webinars at Also includes access to the instructors’ handouts, chat logs from live webinars, and 1 year of 5% off anything in the store (must be logged in at checkout), and a chance for a bonus subscribers-only door prize during each live webinar.”

There’s also a monthly subscription at $9.95 that gets you the same access for one month.

The subscription page is here and you can see all the webinars available in the webinar archive here.

Right now, there are 245 archived webinars — 361 hours of instruction — and 1069 pages of instructor handouts, and every bit of it is available to subscribers. That’s — oh — about 20 cents a webinar at the annual subscription rate.

And for subscribers, hope to see you this afternoon. 2 p.m. Eastern, 1 p.m. Central, noon Mountain, and 11 a.m. Pacific.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

The details in those records

So yesterday The Legal Genealogist took a quick look at what the Show Me State of Missouri is doing to try to make access easier to its historical court records:

• There are digitized circuit court records, covering 29 of Missouri’s 114 counties, mostly from the 19th century, ranging from divorce cases to cases described as involving debt.

• And there are also the records digitized as part of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, which features digitized collections of court files relating to Lewis & Clark, Native Americans, the fur trade, and slave freedom suits.

• And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the collection of Missouri Supreme Court cases, an index and abstract of the criminal and civil court cases that were appealed to the territorial Superior Court and state Supreme Court of Missouri up to 1868 — some as late as 1889.”1

And you know what happened, right?

GardnerI mean, we all could have predicted it.

Somebody immediately said: “Show me! Just what kinds of genealogical information can be in those old musty court records anyway?”


A better question would be, just what kinds of genealogical information won’t be in those old musty court records anyway?

Because the possibilities are endless.

Take just this one-page court file as as an example:

In the Circuit Court of St. Charles County, an indenture was filed on the 26th of July 1816, between Andrew Wilson, guardian of a boy named Doctor Cummins Gardner, and John Frazier of the Town and County of St. Charles. It was an apprenticeship agreement, under which Frazier was to teach Gardner the art and mystery of tanning and currying.2

The apprenticeship was to last until the boy was 21 years old, and throughout that term was to be given “plenty of good wholesome food & raiment.” And he was to be taught “reading, writing and common arithmetic including the rule of three.”3

When Gardner turned 21, he was to be free of his obligation to work for Frazier, and given 10 dollars and a decent new suit of clothes as his freedom dues.

And what genealogically valuable information do we learn from this?

• We learn that Frazier was a tanner and currier — since he could hardly have taught Gardner that trade if he wasn’t.

• We learn that Gardner was an orphan, a term that — remember — meant specifically a fatherless child at the time, not necessarily a child without any living parents.4

• We learn that there was a court order appointing Wilson as Gardner’s guardian — an event that points us to at least the possibility that other records exist about this boy.

• And we get the full name and the exact birthdate of the boy Doctor Cummins Gardner: “an orphan boy of the age of fifteen years the eighteenth day of August last” — 18 August 1815.

Now I don’t know about you — but I’d kill for an exact birthdate of any of my ancestors born around 1815!

And this is just one page of one court file… one of thousands Missouri has digitized.

The details in these files will show anybody just what we can find in court records — not just in Missouri, but anywhere the records may be found.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Missouri shows us,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 July 2015 ( : accessed 9 July 2015).
  2. St. Charles County, Mo., Indenture, Andrew Wilson as guardian to Cummins, filed 26 July 1816; digital images, “Missouri Judicial Records Historical Database,” Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( : accessed 8 July 2015).
  3. The rule of three, remember, was basic algebra. See Judy G. Russell, “Easy as one, two, three,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 9 July 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 857, “orphan.”
Posted in Court Cases, Resources | 11 Comments

The Show Me State shows off court records

The officially unofficial nickname for Missouri is the Show Me State.

It’s not really any kind of official alternative name for the state, but the slogan does appear on Missouri license plates.

Mo.CtEven though nobody is quite sure just where the slogan comes from.1

But no matter… because when it comes to showing us, at least showing us the kind of records that will float The Legal Genealogist‘s boat, Missouri definitely qualifies as the Show Me State.

Missouri has a fabulous collection of digitized court records… and we can peruse them at 3 a.m. in our jammies and our bunny slippers.

So in case you hadn’t figured it out, The Legal Genealogist is in Missouri today. A one-day in-and-out trip to teach in the Midwestern African American Genealogy Institute in St. Louis, where my friend and colleage Shelley Murphy is training her students to always, always, always look at genealogical information and ask: “So what?”

So what if it says this and not that?

So what if it was prepared this way instead of that?

So what if it is, or it isn’t, different from other records of the same time and place?

So what?

And when we’re trying to figure out so what about legal records, one place we always have to look is to the court records of the time and place — not always an easy task since so very many of the earliest and most important court records haven’t been digitized and aren’t readily available online.

But in Missouri…

Oh, the Show Me State is showing us all how it can be done.

As the Missouri State Archives explains:

Historic court records offer tremendous insight into the daily lives of Missourians throughout society.

Family historians have long recognized the value of probate files for tracing ancestry, but probate files also offer insight into lives, family relationships and local society through wills, inventories, settlements, and even debts and credits. Guardianships reveal details about a minor’s education, what they wore and ate and even apprenticeship information.

Researchers often overlook the immense value of circuit court files. These files often offer a clear snapshot of daily life in a time period. In an era when reputation was the basis for social standing, the only legal recourse was litigation. The opportunities for research into social history, commerce, freedom, race, gender, architecture and other topics are tremendous. Missouri’s circuit courts heard cases dealing with everything from fur trade to the Civil War, steamboats to railroads and agriculture to urbanization.2

To ensure that the records aren’t overlooked any more, the Missouri State Archives is digitizing thousands of circuit and Supreme Court cases, many of which can be accessed through the Missouri Digital Heritage website.

The circuit court records cover 29 of Missouri’s 114 counties, mostly from the 19th century. A search for records where one party’s name was Johnson turns up more than 1,500 entries in the index, including 29 divorce cases, three burglary cases and 561 cases described as involving debt.

There are also records digitized as part of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, which features digitized collections of court files relating to Lewis & Clark, Native Americans, the fur trade, and slave freedom suits. Cases from territorial days to 1875 are being included and ultimately some four million pages are to be preserved.3

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the collection of Missouri Supreme Court cases: “The Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Database provides an index and abstract of the criminal and civil court cases that were appealed to the territorial Superior Court and state Supreme Court of Missouri up to 1868, and a partial listing of cases to 1889.”4

These include — just as a sampling — seven arson cases, four condemnations, 88 cases involving allegations of defamation, 38 divorces, 139 murder cases, 11 cases involving riots, 132 cases where taxes were at issue, and 357 cases involving slaves.

Best of all: “Digital images are available for some case files dating from 1821 through 1865.”5

The wealth of genealogical detail to be found in records of court cases of all kinds is beyond dispute. Getting to the records is often the issue.

Not in Missouri.

The Show Me State.

Which is in the process of showing us just what court records access can be.


  1. Why Is Missouri Called the ‘Show-Me’ State?”, Missouri History, Missouri Secretary of State Records and Archives ( : accessed 7 July 2015).
  2. Missouri’s Judicial Records,” Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( 2015).
  3. St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project”, Programs & Projects, Missouri Secretary of State Records and Archives ( : accessed 7 July 2015).
  4. Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Records”, Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( 2015).
  5. Ibid.
Posted in Records Access, Resources | 1 Comment

No major changes, just some tweaks

Ancestry’s family of companies is in the process of updating its terms of use, applicable to all of its non-DNA-related websites, including,, and Ancestry Academy.

TOS.2015The update — a minor rewrite of its privacy statement — applies to “visitors and new users registering on any of the Websites on or after June 26, 2015 and to all users already registered or subscribing to any of the Websites on or after July 26, 2015.”1

In this first update since 1 August 2014, there are no surprises and no major changes — just some tweaks.

Now, a reminder: terms and conditions — terms of use — are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it.”2 In this case, the terms of use govern whether we can use the Ancestry websites and, if we do, what rights we’re giving Ancestry.

As savvy online genealogists we all know that we should read every last word of the terms of use and understand them before we agree to them by using a website.

And as human beings in a technological age we still generally just click through because, after all, what choice do we have? If we want to use Ancestry — and we do — we have to agree to the changes.

So… what are we agreeing to this time?

First and foremost, the privacy statement now applies to the newly-launched Ancestry Academy — the partly-free, partly-subscription-based learning center that began operations earlier this year. Many of the changes in the privacy statement simply add Ancestry Academy to the list of websites affected.3

Second, the new terms make it clear that anything — anything at all — that you choose to make public on any website Ancestry operates is… well… public. Among the things Ancestry will make use of, if you choose to use any of the Ancestry websites:

• “Your background, interests, and activity on the Websites.”

• “Your age, gender, background and interests … such as in your user profile.”

• “Information about some of your activity on the Website, such as historical records you save or Ancestry Academy courses you’ve taken.”

• “Personal information about yourself and others in the course of doing research on our Websites, e.g., adding a photo, adding information about a historical person, creating family trees, or sharing a photo with another user through our Services.”

• “Any comments on the Websites or … in community discussions, chats, communications with us or between you and other users… (and) any information you provide in these areas may be read, collected, and used by others who access them.”4

None of this “your information may be shared” stuff is new. You can go online and read the prior terms, posted 1 August 2014, and all of that “your information may be shared” stuff is there too.5 And you can go back to the terms before that, posted 28 June 2013, and all of that “your information may be shared” stuff is there too.6

In fact, the earliest online version I can find — from 2010 — says essentially the same thing:

As a member of, you can also chose to share further information about yourself, your activity on the site, and your background and interests, with other members of the site. … Information about some of your activity on the site… may also be shared with other members in order to help you connect with others researching similar ancestors. … To help you connect with other members researching similar ancestors, by default new accounts are set up to allow other members to learn about things you publicly add or post to the site, as well as some personal research activities (such as saving historical records to your Shoebox or private member tree).7

So if you don’t like the Ancestry terms of use, what can you do? Under the agreement, you have one — and only one — choice: don’t use the Ancestry websites. The terms explicitly provide that: “If you do not consent to any changes to our Privacy Statement and as a result you would like us not to use or hold personal information about you in accordance with the revised terms, you may notify us here so we can discontinue your account.”8


  1. Ancestry Privacy Statement, June 26, 2015, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015). The privacy statement for AncestryDNA has also been updated, but is separate and should be reviewed separately. See Judy G. Russell, “AncestryDNA doings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 July 2015 ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: a terms of use primer,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 4 July 2015).
  3. Ancestry Privacy Statement, June 26, 2015, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ancestry Privacy Statement, August 1, 2014, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
  6. Ancestry Privacy Statement, June 28, 2013, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
  7. Privacy Statement, December 14, 2010, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
  8. Ancestry Privacy Statement, June 26, 2015, Ancestry ( : accessed 6 July 2015).
Posted in Terms of use | 3 Comments

A sale and privacy changes

AncestryDNA has two things going on that genealogists need to know about this fine Sunday morning.

A sale.

And some changes in the privacy terms and conditions that users have to go along with if they want to test with AncestryDNA and/or continue using the AncestryDNA service.

Let’s go with the easy one first.

On Sale!

AncestryDNA has an Independence Day Sale going on right now, through 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, July 6th.

The price of an autosomal DNA test through AncestryDNA is down to $79, from the usual $99, for a 20% savings during the sale.

The ad for the sale says the offer does not include shipping costs or applicable taxes. But folks have found that using the coupon code FREESHIPDNA sometimes works to reduce the shipping costs if multiple kits are ordered at the same time.

So if you’ve been thinking about getting an AncestryDNA autosomal test done (an autosomal test, remember, is the cousin-finding test, the one that looks at the type of DNA we all inherit from both of our parents and that helps us find cousins to work with on our family histories1), now would be a good time to order.

Updated privacy terms and conditions

Privacy terms and conditions have been updated at AncestryDNA (and, by the way, at all of Ancestry’s other services, such as the main site, and

ADNA.privacyThe privacy terms at AncestryDNA were updated 12 June 2015 and the changes affect “visitors and new users registering on the Website on or after June 12th, 2015, and … all users already registered on the Website on or after July 12th, 2015.”2

And the changes in those privacy terms are really very minor — but they incorporate a change from earlier this year that The Legal Genealogist (and everybody else) missed.

Now, a reminder: terms and conditions — terms of use — are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it.”3 In this case, the terms of use govern whether we can use the AncestryDNA service and, if we do, what rights we’re giving AncestryDNA.

As savvy online genealogists we all know that we should read every last word of the terms of use and understand them before we agree to them by using a website.

And as human beings in a technological age we still generally just click through because, after all, what choice do we have? If we want to use AncestryDNA — and we do — we have to agree to the changes.

So what are we agreeing to this time?

Nothing that’s a whole lot different from what we’ve agreed to in the past — though — again — there was a change earlier this year that we all missed.

Right from the very beginning, in its very first terms of use, the AncestryDNA service’s terms appear to have permitted it to take our data and our information, strip off personally-identifying parts like our names and our addresses, aggregate it with data from other customers and use it to “research human genetic diversity.”4 While the original 2013 terms made it sound like that could happen only if we also signed a specific consent agreement, reading the document as a whole, that’s not so clear.

That’s because those original terms also gave AncestryDNA very broad rights to use non-personal information: “Because non-personal information does not personally identify you, we may use such non-personal information for any purpose. In addition, we reserve the right to share such non-personal information, with our Group Companies and with other third parties, for any purpose.”5

Then in February of this year, AncestryDNA amended its terms in a change that, frankly, I missed completely. The February change amplified the previous terms to include that AncestryDNA was allowed to conduct research to “internally analyze Users’ results to make discoveries in the study of genealogy, anthropology, evolution, languages, cultures, medicine, and other topics. In addition, if you voluntarily agreed to the Research Project Informed Consent we may use the Results and other information for the purposes of collaborative research and publication and in accordance with the Informed Consent.”6

That February 2015 privacy statement also said:

Subject to the restrictions described in this Privacy Statement and applicable law, we may use personal information for any reasonable purpose related to the business, including to communicate with you, to provide you information about Ancestry’s and AncestryDNA’s products and services, to respond to your requests, to update our product offerings, to improve the content and User experience on the AncestryDNA Website, to let you know about offers of interest from AncestryDNA or Ancestry, and to prepare and perform demographic, benchmarking, advertising, marketing, and promotional studies.7

So… since February 20th, we’ve all been bound by these new terms (and yes, you can delete your test and the results, but subject to the caveat that anything you’ve shared with others could have been copied and may be kept by those others).

Now… is this a change worth getting up in arms over?

Ummmm… no.

To provide us with accurate analyses of our own DNA results, any DNA testing company should “internally analyze Users’ results to make discoveries in the study of genealogy, anthropology, evolution, languages, cultures, medicine, and other topics.” The more internal analysis of user data that’s undertaken, the better the matching algorithms, ethnicity estimates and the like may be.

As long as the use of data outside of a testing company is controlled by “the Research Project Informed Consent … in accordance with the Informed Consent,” there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a testing company using its customer data to produce a better result for its customers.

Sure, that should have been in the terms of use from the outset, but it really is a pretty basic concept, isn’t it? How do you know you’re doing it right unless you’re constantly reviewing your customer data to doublecheck whether your analysis is standing the test of time?

So… the current changes. What about them? What actually has changed in this latest round of privacy terms updates is — to coin a phrase — not much:

• The terms now clarify that any comments you post on the website are part of the information that may be read, collected, and used by others.

• The terms now specify that one of the things AncestryDNA can use your personal information for is “to help you and others discover more about your family.”

• The terms note that there will be a “‘DNA Alert’ setting that will allow Ancestry to send you notifications for genetic matches, profile updates, and other DNA-related informational alerts.”

And that’s really pretty much all that’s changed in this latest round of changes at AncestryDNA.

We’ll go over the overall changes at and other non-DNA websites run by Ancestry tomorrow… and those current changes are minor, too.


  1. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 30 June 2015.
  2. AncestryDNA Privacy Statement, June 12, 2015, AncestryDNA ( : accessed 4 July 2015).
  3. Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: a terms of use primer,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 4 July 2015).
  4. AncestryDNA Privacy Statement, March 20, 2013, AncestryDNA ( : accessed 4 July 2015).
  5. Ibid.
  6. AncestryDNA Privacy Statement, February 20, 2015, AncestryDNA ( : accessed 4 July 2015).
  7. Ibid.
Posted in DNA, Terms of use | 5 Comments

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America,

Original Declaration

WHEN in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

WE hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Broadside, read to troops 9 July 1776

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

HE has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

HE has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

HE has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

1777 published version

HE has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

HE has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

HE has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

FOR Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

FOR cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

FOR depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

HE has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

HE is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

HE has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

IN every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

1823 published version

NOR have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Posted in General | 2 Comments

Different kinds of property claims

So here’s a real surprise: The Legal Genealogist is on the road. Again.1

lienBut this time it’s not simply as an instructor at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, but also as a student. I’m brushing up on my DNA education and skills in the Practical Genetic Genealogy class here at GRIP.

In my spare time here2 I’m also teaching in the New York track coordinated by Karen Mauer Jones and in the Advanced Land track coordinated by Rick and Pam Sayre.

Where a question arose that needs a bit more of an answer.

What’s the difference between a lien and a lis pendens?

They’re both things we come across in land or property records, and both of them represent claims against the property, but there really is a big difference between the two.

A lien, by definition, is a “qualified right of property which a creditor has in or over specific property of his debtor, as security for the debt or charge or for performance of some act. In every case in which property, either real or personal, is charged with the payment of a debt or duty, every such charge may be denominated a lien on the property.”3

A lis pendens, by definition, is a “suit pending; that legal process, in a suit regarding land, which amounts to legal notice to all the world that there is a dispute as to the title. In equity the filing of the bill and serving a subpoena creates a lis pendens, except when statutes require some record.”4

So in the lien situation there has to be a debtor-creditor situation. For example, if I do work on your house or your car, and you haven’t paid me for it, I’m your creditor, you’re my debtor, and I can file a lien — a claim — against your house or your car for payment of the debt.

In many states, there’s a flavor of lien called a mechanic’s lien:

A species of lien created by statute in most of the states, which exists in favor of persons who have performed work or furnished material in and for the erection of a building. Their lien attaches to the land as well as the building, and is intended to secure for them a priority of payment.

The lien of a mechanic is created by law, and is intended to be a security for the price and value of work performed and materials furnished, and as such it attaches to and exists on the land and the building erected thereon, from the commencement of the time that the labor is being performed and the materials furnished; and the mechanic has an actual and positive interest in the building anterior to the time of its recognition by the court, or the reducing of the amount due to a judgment.5

So think debtor-creditor every time you see the word lien.

A lis pendens, on the other hand, is filed — or is created automatically — when a lawsuit is started that has to do with the land, and usually with the title to the land. There isn’t a debtor-creditor situation; there’s an actual dispute over the land itself.

An example would be where you and I enter into a contract for the sale of a 100-acre tract of land called Blackacre. You’re the seller, I’m the buyer, and you conclude down the road that I’m not living up to my end of the contract. So you cancel the contract and proceed to contract to sell Blackacre to someone else.

If I sue you for breach of my contract with you, I want to make sure that someone else — the would-be buyer — is on notice of my claim. I would do that by filing a lis pendens. Sometimes just filing the lawsuit against you would act as a lis pendens.

So think notice of a lawsuit when you see the term lis pendens.

Both focus on property, both involve claims against the property, but one involves debtors and creditors and the other involves lawsuits.


  1. I am occasionally home. At least I think so. Home is where again?
  2. Yes, that is a joke.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 719, “lien.”
  4. Ibid., 725, “lis pendens.”
  5. Ibid., 763, “mechanic’s lien.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 2 Comments

Welcome, Jimmy… and welcome freedom

Today, in Flagstaff, Arizona, the sun is shining and the air is clean and clear.

And the family of The Legal Genealogist is gathered here to watch a beloved niece, Katya, walk down the aisle and join in matrimony with the love of her life, Jimmy.

KatyaIt is a wonderful, joyful event and even thinking about it brings a smile to all of our faces.

Katya is the youngest child of my brother Paul and his wife Nadine, and their only daughter. Her three older brothers are here to see her marry today, even her brother Rudi who lives in Australia. Jimmy is a talented photographer and sweet guy who loves Katya to distraction.

In many ways, Katya and Jimmy are polar opposites. Fair and dark. German and Russian on one side, Irish and Korean on the other. Even vegetarian and omnivore. And yet in so many ways, it’s a perfect match.

And it’s a match we are so happy to be here to witness.

Yet — without wanting to take anything away from the joy of welcoming Jimmy to our family today — we are all riveted on events so many miles to the east where, yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States by the narrowest of margins gave equal rights to other members of our family.

Where, yesterday, in a 5-to-4 decision, it said that another of my nieces can live her life freely and openly without legal discrimination by the federal government or the government of any state where she and her dearly loved partner choose to live.

Where, yesterday, it said that my niece and her partner have the same rights that Katya and Jimmy have. Like file a joint income tax return. Be the beneficiary of each other’s Social Security benefits or pension benefits. Make medical decisions for each other if the need arises.

Where, yesterday, it said that my niece and her partner can marry — legally — anywhere in the United States.

To me, these rights never should have been considered gay rights. They’re human rights. Rights of people who have faces. And names. Of friends, of colleagues, and of many I love with all my heart. People like my niece and her partner, whose faces and names I still decline to use online because they are what they are, two women who love each other in a country where, even after the Court’s decision yesterday, their lives will still be difficult and they will still face discrimination for that fact alone.

I cannot and do not accept such discrimination. I cannot and do not understand it. That they find joy in a partner of the same sex is so much less important than that they find joy in a partner.

And I am so proud that, yesterday, this nation has taken such a huge step towards seeing to it that such discrimination will end.

It will not affect Katya and Jimmy in the slightest — nor any other straight couple in the entire world — that her cousin is now legally able to do just what Katya and Jimmy are doing this afternoon. No right is being taken away from Katya and Jimmy in order to give it to her cousin and her partner.

No religious group will be forced to perform marriages it disapproves of; no pastor or rabbi or priest will lose his (or her!) religious freedom. This doesn’t affect religions at all — it’s a change in the way the law treats individuals, not in the way it treats religions.

We do not take away freedom from some by giving legal recognition to the freedom of others.

So my family is doubly warmed today.

By the Arizona sun shining down as we welcome Jimmy to the family and share in the joy of one straight couple.

And by the sun of legal freedom shining down on the joy of another couple miles to the east. A couple that just happens to be gay.

What a wonderful day…

Love wins.

Posted in My family | 27 Comments