top of page

Spear-fishing in the Genealogical Pool

There's a lot of truth to that old adage that you can pick your friends, but not your family. Where the latter are concerned, you simply have to take what you're given.

For those of you who didn't tune in to my last family tree update, this would perhaps be a good time to catch up on what you missed. For those who did, a recap might still be in order.

In an attempt to place our pesky Buchanan line within the larger Irish branch of the clan, I took a couple of simple DNA tests last year. They should have come back positive, if for no other reason than one of my great-grandfather's brother's descendants tested positive a few years back. It therefore came as something of a surprise when first one and then the other came back negative. The first had been aimed at an SNP that identifies the chiefly line of the Buchanan's. Alexander's brood had that one. We didn't. The second SNP we tested was one common to all male-line Buchanan's. Again, Alexander's brood had it. We didn't. So, in swift order, I'd gone from being a Buchanan looking for an answer to ... well, as best we could tell, not a Buchanan at all, and further away from answers than I'd ever been.

There ensued an amusing conversation (via Skype) with my mother, in which I had to ask her if there was anything she wanted (or needed) to tell me. There wasn't, but that didn't stop her rolling around the floor in a fit of tears as she laughed at the hole my research had dug under me. I then spoke to a cousin - or someone I hoped was still a cousin, at least - and asked him if he would take the same two tests that I'd taken. He was the grandson of my grandfather's younger brother, and since we both tested identically for both the SNPs - negative in each case - it seemed obvious (if not entirely conclusive) that his grandfather and mine had, indeed, been brothers. At that point, there was only really one point in the family tree at which the break could have occurred - with the birth of my great-grandfather, Robert Hamilton Buchanan, Alexander's younger brother.

There the story has rested for a few months, while I squirrelled away the cash to pay for what they call the Big-Y - a large scale DNA test that focuses on the YDNA, which is passed down directly from father to son along the male line. This particular version tested 111 markers, and then allowed for comparison with others who had taken a similar test. Those results came back this week.

The various number/letter combinations that the DNA people provide in their reports don't mean a great deal to the layman. They do, however, provide a section dedicated to matches, which are categorised as being anywhere between 0 genetic distance from the test subject, out to 10 degrees, each of which signifies a genetic variation which developed over time. So, the closer the number, the closer the match. 0 is an exact match, and suggests a very close family connection. 10 suggests a line that branched off any number of generations ago, but which still has identifiably similar DNA markers.

I had five Y-111 matches, three of which were to families with variations of the same name - Speer / Spear / Spier. Those matches ranged from a genetic distance of 6 through to a genetic distance of 10.

I then realised that those were only the matches which lined up with others who had taken the Y-111. The test also allows you to check for matches with those who have taken smaller, less detailed tests. At Y-37, for example, I had 56 potential matches, thirty of which were to variants of Speer, and four of which were at a genetic distance of just 1.

I bounced these results off a couple of friends who have more experience in this field than I do, just to be sure that I wasn't reading too much into them. But no, they agreed with my assessment: there was little doubt but that I had Speer YDNA. Someone's spear had been where it shouldn't have been, in other words.

I knew anecdotally that there were Speirs in County Tyrone - Samuel Buchanan of the Kirlish line had married a Jane Spier a few generations back, for example. What I hadn't realised was that there were Speers in Coolavannagh, where my family were farming throughout the 1800s. Indeed, there was a family by that name just a couple of farm cottages further down.

(Above: ruined farm buildings at Coolavannagh)

A look at Griffiths Valuation shows an Alexander Speers farming in Coolavanagh in 1856, along with a Thomas and a Robert Speers on nearby plots. The Census of 1901 then shows a John Speer and his wife, Matilda, with their daughters, Sarah Jane and Catherine, and John's sister, Jane, living at house number 18. The Buchanan's lived at house number 24. The same Census also listed a Robert Speer living alone (married, but with no wife to be seen on the record) at number 21.

The Census of 1911 shows a few changes - John and Matilda's children have grown up and moved away, while Matilda has passed on, leaving John and his sister Jane in their early seventies, by now in house number 23. Robert, meanwhile, is listed as a widower, and is now in house number 22 (it is worth noting that the house numbers in the Census, and the plot numbers in Griffiths bear no relation to one another).

Also of interest are changes in Robert's reported age. In the 1901 Census he is listed as being just 42 years old. In the 1911, he is recorded as being 72. Obviously one of other of these is incorrect. A death record for a Robert Speer (the 's' seems to come and go at random), resident of Cooel (a local abbreviation for Coolavannagh), aged 75 in 1913, would seem to indicate that it was the 1901 Census that was in error, but a check through the Griffiths Valuation Revision Books, which run up to 1929, show that there were, in fact, two Roberts, a Senior and a Junior, most likely father and son. Is it possible that it was Robert Jnr who completed the 1901 Census, aged 42, and Robert Senior who completed the 1911 version, just three years before his death? Both Roberts are listed as being on different portions of land in Coolavannagh in 1894, when Robert Hamilton was born, as illustrated on the map below. They were, indeed, the closest geographical neighbours to John and Sarah Jane.

Now, for some facts and figures from closer to home. Sarah Jane, my great-great-grandmother, would have been 38 when her youngest son, Robert Hamilton Buchanan was born in 1894. Margaret Jane, her eldest daughter, would have been 18 at that point. So, it seems to me, we have two distinct possibilities. Either Sarah Jane bore Robert to a Speer father, perhaps Robert Speers Jnr, who, if the above assumptions are correct, would have been very much of an age with her; or, Maggie bore him, to a member of the Speer family - either one of the older men, or a visiting younger relative - and Sarah Jane brought the child up as her own.

There are ways we can narrow this down, but they will take both time and money. We could, for example, test autosomal DNA (from the female line), mine against one of Alexander's descendants, to see if they match. Depending on the divergence, we might be able to figure if there was a generational gap caused by Maggie, or if Sarah Jane was our common ancestor at the same remove.

In the short term, though, it's a case of starting to contact the range of Speers (and Spears, and Speirs for that matter) who show up as close matches, to see if any of them have connections in the County Tyrone area at around the right time that might allow us to pin things down more exactly.

So, while you might not be able to pick your family, it is also true that you don't necessarily know who they are until you go looking ...

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page