Plain English Genetic Genealogy

Mitochondrial (mt)DNA


mtDNA and Y-DNA, two specific types of DNA testing results, can also be useful in genealogy but, for most of my “Plain English Genetic Genealogy” blog entries, I will focus on atDNA.  It is, however, very important to understand both mt- and Y-DNA and how it may be used to further family tree research.

If you remember your high school genetics, you know that males determine the gender of each of their children.  Men carry two distinct types of gender-determining chromosomes: one X and one Y.   Males typically give either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome to their child.  If they give a Y, the child is male; if they give the X, the child is female.  There are times when a different type of chromosome situation appears but that conversation is for blogs on genetics, not genealogy.

From that same high school biology class, you should also remember that women have two identical gender chromosomes, both of which are X.  This means that women can only pass on an X chromosome to their children.  This is why the male always determines the gender of the child, never the female.  And, what gives Henry VIII a bad rep for getting rid of wives who could not produce a male heir; it wasn’t them it was him.

Mitochondrial or mtDNA

So, women only have the X chromosome to pass down and, contained in that X is mitochondrial or mtDNA.  The simple fact is that the X your mom gave you—whether you are male or female—carries the identical mtDNA that her mom gave to her.  And, her mom’s mtDNA is identical to the mtDNA that her mom gave to her and that her mom’s mom gave and her mom’s mom’s mom gave and on and on and on.

Mitochondrial DNA mutates (changes) about once every 20-30,000 years and each of those mutations are really, really small.  So, statistically speaking, you would have to go back about 1000 great grandmas to find a different mtDNA than that which your mom gave you; and, even then it would not really be that much different.  And, unlike dad, mom is an equal-opportunity donor; she gives all her children—whether sons or daughters—an exact copy of her mtDNA.

Science determined we can trace every single human (Homo sapiens) living today back to one (Homo sapien) mom who lived about 120-150,000 years ago; this mom has been given the name, Mitochondrial Eve.  [In fact, it is recognized that there were probably more than one woman with this unique mtDNA but, for the purposes of this blog, we’re going with a single woman because it works.  So when I reference 500 women, you could think of it as 500 unique mtDNA sequences irrespective of how many women there actually were.  It is just easier to write about this as if Mitochondrial Eve was a single woman.  Besides, it’s more fun and I get to use National Geographic‘s cool photo.]

It is not like we know exactly who this woman really was but, based on the length of time mutations happen and the ability to identify the differences (mutations) in mtDNA of the DNA pool we have today, it is possible to figure out how long ago lived the woman who carried the same unique mtDNA (with varying mutations) we see in today’s humans.

It is important to keep in mind that, after that first mutation of Mitochondrial Eve’s DNA, it is not as if each subsequent mutation will be the same as the one on the other side of that first split.  Imagine one little teeny piece of DNA (using the genetic code of ATCG) in Mitochondrial Eve’s mtDNA read: ATCGGTAC and the first mutation produced ATCGATGC for one line and left the other as ATCGGTAC.  The next time each mutates, ATCGATGC changed to ATCGATCG and ATCGGTAC might have been TACGGTAC.  You can now see, with 16,500 DNA building blocks (base pairs) and 37 genes, the potential for the incredibly large number of places a single mutation can happen.  This is how my mtDNA could radically differ from yours even though we both started 120,000-plus years ago with the same ancient ancestor, Mitochondrial Eve.

I’d like to take a moment to say that “Plain English Genetic Genealogy” is not intended to be highly scientific.  The intent is to (hopefully) inform readers, in language that makes sense to their needs, what most need to know to make use of their DNA test results.  My examples and explanations are to inform genealogy, not develop scientists.

Let’s approach this concept of Mitochondrial Eve a little differently.  Though I am certain someone somewhere has attempted to determine the number of Homo sapiens living 200,000 years ago, I could not find it so let’s pick a really easy number: 1000.  Of this, approximately 50 percent would be female so 500 women.  Of these, let’s say that one-quarter did not live to bear children, which leaves us 375 women, each with unique mtDNA.  Of these 375, let’s say only 281 had daughters.  This means that from this very first point in history, the unique mtDNA of 93 or 94 of these women never went any further because they only passed down their unique mtDNA to sons who do not pass it on.

Why?  Because while mothers pass down their mitochondrial DNA to all their children, only those children who are daughters can pass it down to their children.  For some biological reason (for which many genealogists will forever be grateful) men do not pass on their mom’s mitochondrial DNA.  So, only the women in a long line of women will pass on their unique mtDNA.  Again, it doesn’t matter how far back you go, mitochondrial DNA follows only a single female line.

Slide from my Basic Genetic Genealogy presentation.

So, now we’re left with 281 unique mtDNA chromosomes.  Of those, let’s conclude that together these moms had 1124 children of which 600 lived to child-bearing years, with 300 (50 percent) being female.  No matter how we look at it, this now limits the number of unique mtDNA chromosomes to a maximum of 300 and an unknown but potentially low minimum to be passed down to the next generation of Homo sapiens (because some of those 300 would have been sisters with identical mtDNA).  Even using the same percents as with the initial example, let’s say one-quarter of these moms only have sons; this leaves 225 unique mtDNA chromosomes to be passed down through the generations of daughters.  So, within just three generations, at least 275 unique mtDNA chromosomes were not passed on to future generations. This continues on and on and on until today.

And, each of these unique mtDNA chromosomes will undergo mutations—one about every 20-30,000 years.  These mutations form new unique versions of mtDNA, which are what is present in today’s humans (Homo sapiens).  Identifying and accounting for the mutations, it is possible to (tentatively) go back far enough to determine which original mtDNA chromosome has outlasted all the rest and when that woman lived.  The (unknown) owner of that original mtDNA chromosome has been called, Mitochondrial Eve and science believes she likely lived 120-150,000 years ago; this number is fluid as science progresses.

Again.  Mom passes her mom’s mtDNA to all her children.

Only daughters will pass on their mtDNA—that they get only from their mother—to their children and only their daughters will pass it on (in its identical form) to the next generation.

I am guessing that some of you—especially those searching for information on female ancestors—already see the potential of using mtDNA in your genealogical research.  Yes.  If one of the women in a direct female line (mom, mom’s mom, her mom’s mom, etc.) exactly matches another mtDNA test, then there is a common ancestor.

Tremendous, right?  Except.  How many of your 2x great aunt’s great grandchildren will know anything about your direct family line?  It is possible, absolutely, but not all that likely unless that third cousin, is a fellow genealogist with a treasure trove of diaries.  Definitely worth checking out but I would not hold my breath.

Because, if your mom only had sons, her mtDNA stops with you (because, if she only had sons, you’d be one of them).  But, if she had a sister, then that same mtDNA would be passed down, just not through your direct family line.  If each of your mom’s sisters only had sons, then your grandma’s sisters would have passed this mtDNA down to their daughters who would pass it down.  If your grandmother had no sisters, either, then you will need to keep going back to the first great grandmother who had more than one daughter who lived to bear daughters who bore daughters.  

What if you’re looking for a birth mother?  Now, I have your attention.  An mtDNA match with another person (male or female) could very likely be a half-sibling.  If they are willing to communicate freely, you may have found the birth mom.

This works even if you are trying to find your great grandmother’s birth mother.  mtDNA changes only about once every 20-30,000 years so if you find a match to your mtDNA, then that person is likely your second or third cousin from whom you have a good chance of getting your 2x great grandmother’s name (your most recent common ancestor or MRCA) and, other than the person you match, all of those ancestors you and your match have in common with mtDNA will be women all from the same maternal line.

Mitochondrial DNA also provides something called a haplogroup.  A haplogroup identifies which ancient regional signature your DNA matches.  Haplogroup information is passed down from both parents (in moms through mtDNA; in dads through Y-DNA) and is useful in understanding a person’s early origins and the migration paths their ancient ancestors took to get where you are today.  More on this in the Y-DNA blog entry.


mtDNA has long been useful in an historic perspective.  For an interesting story on how science proved Jesse James really was dead and buried in Kearney, Nebraska, check out Blaine Bettinger’s The Genetic Genealogist blog on Famous DNA Review, Part IV — Jesse James.  I remember when this happened and I have been hooked on the uses of DNA ever since; long before I got captivated with genealogy.

Mitochondrial Eve image from National Geographic: “Human Journey.”

Leta in my Home

I suppose most of the world wonders about us.  Why we do what we do with such passion that we’ll stay up all night, pepper family with questions for which no one could possibly know the answer (though, they would be surprised at what a single memory might provoke in terms of paths), stay bent over our computers for hours or similarly disposed in county offices surrounded by hundred-year-old stacks of books and documents.

It’s because of pearls like this: Leta Maude Best Mueller.


Turns out, Leta and her husband, Alfred Felix Mueller lived in my home from 1923 to 1939, perhaps longer.  Alfred, a grocery store shipping clerk at Guyer & Calkins Wholesale Groceries in Freeport, and Leta had two children, Max B (1916-2006) and Jean A (1920-2002) whom, one would expect, grew up in this house.

It’s odd.  Now that I know about this family, I can imagine these four people living here.  I don’t know a lot about them (yet) but I can imagine that the parents shared the room that is now my office—at the end of the hall, the biggest in size with a rather large sitting room.  I suspect Max, the oldest and the only male child, probably slept in the second largest room—also with its own large sitting room—and, the stairs to the full walk-through attic within which he likely played, perhaps hung out one of the dormer windows yelling to friends on the street or contemplating the stars.  And, he might well have seen the sky from the attic or his sitting room, as the giant weeping pine tree wouldn’t have been blocking his view (if it was even there at the time).

Jean was probably relegated to the smallest bedroom—9 by 13 wouldn’t have been all that small for a bedroom—with no  sitting room.  And, though I will likely find out by the time I get to the tax records portion of this house history search, next to the bathroom I’ve always wondered was original to the house or if it once might have served as her sitting room.

Okay, it’s not like I didn’t know people lived in my 100-plus year old house, so why am I seemingly so enthusiastic?

Leta Maude Best Mueller went to college.

In an era where few women attended college–and even fewer colleges were co-ed–it seems Leta attended Wesleyan in Bloomington, Illinois (majoring and serving as undergraduate assistant in English) for her first two years then transferred to Northwestern University where she studied English and “the science curriculum.”  I haven’t yet learned if she graduated but I hope to even though I suspect she did not.

I’ve begun to trace Leta and Albert’s family trees but it appears Leta’s grandfather was a physician, which might account for her interest in and ability to attend college.

What really made today’s search most special was finding this.  I present Leta Maude Best, junior at Northwestern University.


A Genealogist’s Spectacles


Yes, I use four different pairs of glasses.

I’ll start with the sunglasses because I rarely get to wear them.  Not much opportunity to do so when much of my life is spent indoors sitting before my computer, in libraries or dusty basements flipping through sooty books and legal documents.

Then there are my regular glasses, the purple ones without the old-lady neck strap, something like which I’ve worn since I was a child of seven.  I don’t really need them so much (cataract surgery took care of that a few years ago) but after a lifetime of wearing something on my face, it’s habit.  And, it’s helpful when I need to read on the run (i.e., no time to take off regular glasses for one of my other pairs).

The rather smart purple-with-neck-strap glasses are my reading glasses.  Books, documents (lots of documents), newspapers and more are considerably clearer with these accessories.  And, as a genealogist, often are in constant exchange with my BC glasses.

My BC glasses got its designation during my days in the US Army when we were issued similar pairs in Basic Training. The idea was that no man would be even remotely interested in one of us who wore them; hence, automatic birth control.  I received these BC glasses from the VA a few months ago and, while they are only mildly different than the dreaded BC glasses of our Basic Training days (once out of Basic, we were allowed to revert back to more fashionable ones), in the 21st century this same style is considered trendy!  Why is this pair important?  It seems that there are sunglasses, regular-seeing glasses, reading glasses (with or without neck cord) and computer glasses; who knew?

Utilizing all four pairs when necessary has saved considerable eye strain these past few years.

Why bring this up, now?

Because I spent the day reading city directories.  Ever read a city directory?  If you’re at all into genealogy and you haven’t, you should.  Thirty years (that’s just today’s work—there were 105 years’ worth, in all) and the names of owners/occupiers of ten homes.  And, tracking each and every one in Excel.  Reading glasses/computer glasses/reading/computer/reading/computer….

House FrontIt all started because I wanted to do a house history of my 105-year-old home as a sample for the CPGen website but the city of Freeport renumbered the houses on my one-block street and I can’t (yet) locate which of the early ones were mine.  So, since it’s a limited pool of ten houses on the street, I decided to do them all.  Good thing I love house histories.

So, I am officially done with the city directories.  Still haven’t identified which of the originally-numbered homes is mine but I have narrowed it down to three.  The problem is that each of the original homeowners left between the use of the old house numbers and the renumbering of the street.  At least, that’s the best available information given one missing city directory in our local library for the year the house numbers changed.  And, my county (Stephenson, Illinois) lists deeds by Grantor/Grantee and not by property address so the only way to track the original owner is to start with the last (that’d be me).  Finally, there are no plat maps available (that I’ve been able to yet locate) showing the placement of the original five properties on the street, of which my house is one.

Next stop?  County Recorder’s Office and deed books.  Lots and lots of deed books…..

A Family Narrative

Though this sample covers a single individual—my maternal grandfather, Philip E. Helferich—a family narrative traditionally covers an entire familial line from as far back as the client requests and for which documentation can be found.  As will be clear almost as soon as you start reading, Philip was an …unusual fellow, with three wives during his lifetime.  Philip’s life is reported in full (with information found to date), without a singular focus on the lives of any of his wives or children.  This narrative could have begun with Johannes “Henner” Helferich and covered all of his children in brief with the exception of Johann Fritz, who would have a narrative similar to this one on Philip E. and whose entire family would be listed in brief with the exception of Johan Georg and so on.

A family narrative that follows the entire Helferich line from Henner (because he’s the earliest ancestor with enough proven documentation to warrant inclusion) to me!  It would include a separate focus on:

Johannes “Henner” Helfferich, with brief documentation of his wife and children, including a focus on

Johannes Fritz Helfferich, with brief documentation of his wife and children, including a focus on

Johann Georg Helferich, with brief documentation of his wife and children, including a focus on

Görg Philipp, with brief documentation of his wife and children, including a focus on

Johannes “John” Helferich, with brief documentation of his wives and children, including a focus on

Philip P [Philipp?] Helferich, with brief documentation of his wife and children, including a focus on

George Lennis Helferich, with brief documentation of his wives and children, including a focus on

Philip Ernest Helferich, with brief documentation of his wives and children, including a focus on

Nola Deene Helferich Feinberg, with brief documentation of her husbands and children, including a focus on

Me (and my siblings, if wanted).

Yes.  It can be a very long document but, as is clear from The Interesting Life & Times of Philip E. Helferich, it can also be a document rich with information that helps to bring our ancestors to life.  Definitely much more interesting than a numbered list of ancestors.  Think Who Do You Think You Are? in text; and then some.  It is also important to note that few of our ancestors will have stories as …extensive as Grandpa Phil’s.

There is one additional thing to remember about any genealogical report.  A good genealogist will provide the client with all of the documentation found and will be as sensitive as possible in reporting potentially difficult to accept information.  If the client chooses to keep some information out of the final report—the one that goes to their family—a good genealogist will have an exchange with the client about the importance of being inclusive but, in the end, will respect the wishes of the client.

So, please enjoy P.E.’s interesting life and times—and, they were even a bit more interesting than is written here; if only documentation to support the stories was available!

Note: Unless otherwise requested, reports contain footnotes, not endnotes as in this version of The Interesting Life & Times of Philip E. Helferich.  This narrative was originally created as the final assignment for the Professional Genealogist Study Group (ProGen).  What is included here as a sample of a single-individual family narrative is the same report recreated to gift to Helferich family members and was written with endnotes.

All reports presented to clients will not only include footnotes to document where each document or piece of information was—and could be—found, but will contain either the original, paper or electronic copies of all documents.

Click here for The Interesting Life & Times of Philip E. Helferich.