DNA Testing for Family History
atDNA testing for both ethnicity as well as learning more about ones family tree is very “pop” (popular) at the moment. It is certainly popular with me, as a family historian, trying to break through research “brickwalls” that cannot be solved by the paper trail alone. Families are complicated, and genetic genealogical techniques have proven to be remarkably successful for solving illegitimacies and adoptions in my own tree, and those of my genetic cousins. It has once again proven its worth for my family of “POPs” aka POPPLEWELLs.
The surname Popplewell comes from the Old English popel, either meaning “pebbly soil”, “bubbling well, or “spring beside the poplar or poplars”. The suffix -well is associated with many towns and villages of the limestone country of north Derbyshire and southwest Yorkshire signifying a well or spring. The ancient farm and hamlet of Popplewell is just west of Scholes in Yorkshire. The surname is very common in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where it has its earliest recorded origins. It occurs elsewhere only through outward migration from these counties.
The POPPLEWELL One-Name Study
I hold the One-Name database for the surname of POPPLEWELL and its many spelling variants. This started out to solve the mystery of my own POPPLEWELL origins and clearly with too much time on my hands it escalated! Original basic research was bequeathed to me by a distant POPPLEWELL cousin who died in 1999. In those days, research was very much done by personal visit to libraries and writing letters. I completed a full transcription and digitisation of two large cardboard boxes of paper data in 2001 and built on this initial work to cover every known record across the world. A labour of love for 20 years.
My family of POPPLEWELLs came from Birmingham in the West Midlands and were well established from the early C19th. It is not a common surname in the area, so anyone carrying the name there can generally be shown to be related to the same local family. When first starting out forty years ago, records quickly enabled me to reach my 4x great grandfather David POPPLEWELL in Birmingham. It was assumed, based on his name, that he would have come from Yorkshire (possibly Lincolnshire), but there was no paper trail. Evidence on who he was is contradictory prior to his apparent arrival in Birmingham by 1812 where he is first recorded on his marriage.
It is quite easy in family history research to accept the first piece of information that proves your own assumptions, but you may later find it not to be correct. It does require forensic techniques to ensure all the evidence stacks up; the same technique used by police to solve any case. Online family trees are full of errors and are copied by others without the necessary due diligence. It is important to go back to first principles and ensure all data is coherent. Data that doesn’t fit needs to be explained.
All of David’s children were baptised in Birmingham. Helpfully, dates and places of birth were also recorded in the baptismal records (kudos to the incumbent of the day for being so diligent). Two of his sons were born in Heckmondwike in Yorkshire, right in the heart of POPPLEWELL country. One baptism recorded David as David Benjamin, the only time David is recorded with a possible second name. He also named his eldest child Benjamin. His only daughter was recorded on Birmingham census as having been born in the misremembered and unidentified “Leeds Common, Yorkshire”. This all pointed towards the suspected Yorkshire family origins.
The above Birmingham paper trail resulted in most researchers accepting and assuming a relationship with the Heckmondwike couple of Benjamin POPPLEWELL & Dinah ALLOTT who married in 1745. They had a son, David, who was born in 1769. Unfortunately, most also chose to ignore that the age on death for the Birmingham David gave his birth year as about 1790, some 21 years later than the son of Benjamin & Dinah. Dinah was also too old for this David to be a later son. The case for David being the son of Benjamin & Dinah was not proven. Unfortunately, no baptism for a ca. 1790 David or David Benjamin POPPLEWELL has been found. The trail was potentially close, but remained cold.
With a failure to find a supporting paper trail, the next step was to use my atDNA results to find any connection to any POPPLEWELL or other family name from Heckmondwike and then work the problem back from the other direction. We know families are complicated. It was possible David was illegitimate and the son of an unknown POPPLEWELL girl, as one possible reason. Unfortunately, the only genetic connections that could be established with my atDNA were all cousins that all connected back to David themselves through various Birmingham families, and not further back. This is where the benefits of sibling atDNA testing came to the aid of the investigation, when my sister tested.
The Missing 30%
My sister and I are typical average siblings in the atDNA sense, i.e. we each inherited about 70% of the same DNA from our parents, but this means that each of us have 30% that wasn’t shared with the other. This 30% will often include the genetic clues that you may be missing; an important consideration if you find your own DNA is not helping a particular line of enquiry. There are family lines were I am the only match, and vice versa, due to the random nature of our genetic inheritance.
It turned out that my sister matched far more POPPLEWELL cousins than me and explained why my DNA had not been helping to solve this mystery. Initially, her data was finding more near-cousin matches who also shared David as a common ancestor, but once new relationships were established it was possible to use these new clues to find the not-so-obvious cousins.
A 40-Year Old Mystery Solved by atDNA
The answer to this longstanding family mystery would likely be answered through my sister’s atDNA. Using surname searches, several matches appeared many thousands of matches down her match list. These were a few remote single segment matches connected through the BERRY family of Heckmondwike, who are connected to the POPPLEWELLs in Heckmondwike; i.e. descendants of the Benjamin & Dinah of the original assumption. This provided the first clues that David in Birmingham was in someway genetically related to this family, despite the lack of physical evidence. More recently, a much stronger, multi-segment match appeared through another BERRY family line that indicated beyond any genetic doubt that the two sides of the family were related.
Still Some Strands to Unwind
We can only infer a genetic relationship, as there remains no paper trail. Some mysteries surrounding David’s origins remain. To make the genetic tree work and knowing that the families of all the other children of Benjamin & Dinah are accounted for, we have to assume that their son David born in 1769 (i.e. David Sr) is most likely the father of David of Birmingham (i.e. David Jr) born in 1790. David Sr is somewhat mysterious as the youngest child of Benjamin & Dinah.
We know that David Sr is alive and living in Heckmondwike in Jr’s lifetime, which may be the reason two of Jr’s children were born there, but we have no record of his ever marrying or his death. Records in the area for the time are quite good, so it is unlikely he was missed. Records may emerge, but we can only assume that Jr was perhaps the result of a pre-marital relationship and that the mother may have died shortly afterwards, i.e. David senior acknowledged his child, who was then either raised by him or through the greater family in Heckmondwike. The child may have been baptised under his mother’s name and became known as David POPPLEWELL throughout his life. Such name changes after recognition of paternity are not uncommon. We cannot prove this as there are no census covering this period and such name changes were never officially recorded. All we know is that David senior was alive to be the father of David junior, which will account for the 21 years difference in ages not fully explained by the public record.
Ancient & Modern Connections
The DNA matches enable the family to review their more ancient Yorkshire heritage with more confidence, as revealed in the POPPLEWELL One-Name database. Over time, there may be additional supporting DNA evidence.
In modern times, it also proves the family connection to those POPPLEWELLs who left Yorkshire and also settled in Ireland (Dublin, Mayo & Waterford), including one famous son, Nick Popplewell, the Irish & British Lions rugby player. Nick turns out to be my 7th cousin. At such a genetic distance it is highly unlikely it would be proven by atDNA.
Genetic Genealogy Relies on the Goodwill of Testers to Share Data
Many people are now testing atDNA for ethnicity but results can take you much further than that through the field of genetic genealogy (“gengen”). It is not possible to always work through matches on testing sites since the main analysis tools for verifying matches are absent. Data needs to be shared on citizen science sites such as GEDmatch. I now have many personal case histories where sharing has broken through family brickwalls and solved mysteries that would have been impossible to resolve without atDNA.
It is not too difficult to become a DNA detective.
Mark Grace, Resident Genealogist, Ballynoe House