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Y-DNA testing for genealogy: Are these men related?


DNA testing is very popular, and millions of people are now using it to find their ancestors. Some people are unaware that there are more than one kind of DNA test. The tests can be put into four broad categories: Full Genome, autosomal, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA. Autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA are subsets of the Full Genome test. We will use Y-DNA along with genealogical records to see how several men are related.


Autosomal DNA


The most common DNA test is the autosomal DNA test offered by companies such as 23andMe, Ancestry DNA, My Heritage, and Family Tree DNA's Family Finder. Current autosomal DNA testing uses segments from 22 of your chromosomes and compares your DNA results to the results of all the other customers who tested with that company. You then try to prove that these matching DNA segments came from particular ancestors. This is difficult, but very rewarding. It is generally accepted that these tests are useful for finding ancestors within the first five generations, but sometimes it is possible to go further. 


Y-DNA


A Y-DNA test is very different from an autosomal DNA test. It looks in more detail at only one chromosome -- the Y-chromosome. Only men have a Y-chromosome, so their Y-DNA came from their father, their father's father, etc. Y-DNA is a great test for solving paternal lines. Unlike autosomal DNA, Y-DNA is not broken up with each succeeding generation, so you can use Y-DNA to go as far back in time as you'd like. If you are looking for the origins of a male ancestor, Y-DNA may be able to answer your question.


The problem: Multiple men with similar surnames


In this post we will examine a very difficult problem that can't be solved by genealogical records. This is a case of men with similar surnames living in the same area at the same time.

There were several men living in Colonial Virginia with variations of the surname Karnes. The variant spellings include Carn, Karn, Carns, Karns, Kern, Cairns, Carnes, Kearnes, etc. In this post we will use the spelling Karnes. Are these Karnes men related? If so, how? Researchers have been trying for years to use genealogical records to sort out the relationships. Genealogical records don't tell us enough, and only Y-DNA can give definitive proof of relationships.


Genealogical records


Today we are looking at three men named Karnes. Two of men are named Michael Karnes, and one is George Karnes. What can genealogical records tell us about them? 

For many years, the two Michael Karnes were confused, but land records tell us that that they were two separate men. Both of them had held land in Botetourt and Bedford counties in Virginia (as well as other counties). One of them died in Bedford County, and the other left Bedford County and moved Grainger County, Tennessee, then to Knox County, Tennessee. We will call these men Michael of Bedford and Michael of Knox. Almost nobody could tell which of these men married a woman named Elizabeth and which married Catherine. Some even thought that Michael of Bedford had two wives--one named Catherine and one named Elizabeth. Genealogical records tell us that Michael of Bedford married Elizabeth, and Michael of Knox's wife was named Catherine. To add to the confusion, Hannah Karnes, the daughter of Michael of Bedford, married Charles Karnes, the son of Michael of Knox, on 13 Nov 1793 while they were all living in Bedford County. Surely these two Michaels were related! There are numerous family trees that call Michael of Bedford "Michael Gabriel Karnes," but there is no evidence whatsoever for this middle name. 

The third man, George Karnes, lived in Tennessee, but some of his sons state that they were born in Virginia. George settled in Hawkins County, Tennessee, which is adjacent to Grainger County where Michael of Knox had lived. We will call this man George of Hawkins. Many online family trees list him as the son of Michael of Bedford, but the following land records prove that George, the son of Michael of Bedford, was a different man. We will call him George of Botetourt. George of Botetourt married Elizabeth Persinger. In 1804 he received a tract of land in Botetourt County from his father Michael [Botetourt County, Virginia, Deed Book 8, page 412]. The deed is between "Michael Karns of the County of Bedford and State of Virginia of the one part and George Karns, son of said Michael Karns, of the County of Botetourt and said state." George of Botetourt died in Alleghany County, Virginia. In 1836, a deed is recorded describing the land in Botetourt County, Virginia, that George received from his father Michael [Alleghany County, Virginia, Deed Book 3, page 182]. In the deed, the land is passing to George's three children Michael, William, and Harriet Karnes (who married William Clarkson). These are not the children of George of Hawkins. This deed proves that George of Botetourt died in Allegany County, Virginia, and he was the son of Michael of Bedford. George of Hawkins is a different man.

George of Hawkins died 1816 in Hawkins County, Tennessee. The first mention of George in Hawkins County is a deed dated 1799. There is an even earlier deed by a man named John Karnes who was selling Hawkins County land in 1790. How is he related to George? Is he George's father? George's Last Will and Testament names his children Jacob, George, Andrew, William, and John Karnes, and his daughter Elizabeth Witty. His Will also names his wife Elizabeth, so it is easy to see how he was confused with George of Botetourt who had a wife named Elizabeth. One of the witnesses to the Last Will and Testament of George of Hawkins was a man named George H Etter. George H Etter had been living in Hawkins County since at least 1791 when he married his first wife. He married his second wife Maria Eva Karnes, daughter of Michael of Knox, on 31 Mar 1812 in Knox County, Tennessee, and continued to live in Hawkins County. George H Etter died 1842 in Hawkins County, Tennessee. Since he was a witness to the will of George of Hawkins, it appears that if George of Hawkins is related to either of the Michaels (or both), he is more likely to be related to Michael of Knox.

Although many Carnes, Cairns, etc. families were Irish, all of these Karnes men were German. Genealogical records can tell us where each man lived in America and can also tell us the names of their wives and children. We know from deeds and family records that Michael of Bedford and Michael of Knox were different men who appear to be related. George of Botetourt and George of Hawkins are also different men, one of whom is the son of Michael of Bedford; and the other appears to be related to Michael of Knox. Other than George of Botetourt, the records do not tell us the relationship between these men. How are the other three related?


The solution: Two types of Y-DNA tests


There are two types of Y-DNA that are used for genealogy. The first is a Short Tandem Repeat (STR) test. The second is a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) test. For an explanation of these tests and how they work, see Y-DNA STRs, SNPs, and Haplogroups.

STR tests can answer the broad question, are Michael of Bedford, Michael of Knox, and George of Hawkins related? STR tests cannot, however, tell us a precise relationship, but SNP tests often can. Genealogical evidence suggests that these men certainly might be related, but only Y-DNA can prove this.


Michael of Knox


We used Y-DNA STRs to find and prove the ancestry of Michael of Knox. We were even able to trace his ancestry to a specific town in Germany. Several men were tested and were proven to be descendants of Michael's father Nicolaus Karnes who died in Frederick County, Virginia. You can read the incredible story, and see the genealogical and DNA evidence here: The Amazing Power of Y-DNA. This link will open in a new window so that you will be able to easily go back and forth between posts.

Here are the STR results from descendants of Nicolaus Karnes, the father of Michael of Knox:

Matching STRs surname project
Kern DNA Project

Notice in the second column that three of the men have haplogroups shown in red: J-M172. One man has a green J-1296. His haplogroup is different because he did some SNP testing, but did not do a Big Y-500 test that could potentially bring his haplogroup into the genealogical time period. Two men did Big Y-500 testing. Their haplogroup is shown as J-BY45500. If we ask either of them for the match list in their Family Tree DNA account we will see this screen:

Big Y-500 step chart
Big Y-500 Matches


This shows that each man has only one match. Below the chart, the name of the match appears. That match is the other man in the Kern DNA Project. One of the men is a proven descendant of Michael of Knox. The other man is a descendant of Jacob Karnes, and he does not know where Jacob fits into the family of Nicolaus Karnes. He needs at least one more Karnes Big Y-500 test to be able to determine his ancestry.


Michael of Bedford


At the time of the post about Michael of Knox (The Amazing Power of Y-DNA), we only had one Y-DNA test from a descendant of Michael of Bedford. His Y-DNA results did not match the family of Michael of Knox, but this might have been because he was not a biological descendant of Michael of Bedford. We needed at least one more descendant of Michael of Bedford to prove whether or not these two Michaels were related.

We now have two descendants of Michael of Bedford. The first man is a descendant of Michael's son Michael Jr.:


Kerns Family Tree
Kerns family tree

The second man is a descendant of Michael's son Jacob:


Karnes Family Tree
Karnes family tree


They both ordered Y-DNA tests, and here are their STR results:


Matching STR Results
Matching STR results from two descendants of Michael of Bedford

In order to determine the Y-DNA of Michael of Bedford, we must test two or more descendants from two or more of his sons. We have done exactly that--we tested a descendant from Michael's son Michael and a descendant of Michael's son Jacob. The Y-DNA of the two descendants match. 

However, they do not match the results of Michael of Knox. So even though Michael of Bedford and Michael of Knox lived in the same areas and Hannah Karnes, daughter of Michael of Bedford, married Charles Karnes, son of Michael of Knox, the two Michaels were definitely not related. One is in Haplogroup J, and one is in Haplogroup R. They aren't even remotely close!

To know more about Michael of Bedford's paternal ancestry, we will need to do some SNP testing.


George of Hawkins


When we look at the Kern DNA Project, there is only one man who claims to be a descendant of George of Hawkins. His STR results are as follows:


Karnes STR results
STR results from a descendant of George of Hawkins


The results of one man don't tell us anything. What we do know is that his Y-DNA results don't match either Michael of Knox or Michael of Bedford. We need another descendant of George of Hawkins to confirm these DNA results. Notice that this man has not only done STR testing, but he has also done SNP testing because his confirmed haplogroup is shown in green: R-A6704. As it turns out, this man did a Big Y-500 test, so he is set up to really find the origins of George of Hawkins.

Although we don't see any matches in the Kern DNA Project, we have to ask this man for his Y-DNA match list from Family Tree DNA to see if he is matching anybody with the surname Karnes.

Here are his list of his matches from Family Tree DNA:

Y-DNA match list
Matches based on 37 STRs


The descendant of George of Hawkins has no matches at the 111 STR level, but he has three matches at 37 STRs. There are two men with the surname Karns/Karnes and one who appears to be a descendant of a man with the surname Kernen. As you can see by the genetic distance in the first column, the descendant of George of Hawkins appears to be more closely related to the two Karnes descendants that to the Kernan descendant. We would need for these men to join the Kern DNA Project so that we could examine the exact STR differences. While two of these men appear to have family trees
(as shown by the  symbol),
neither of them really does. Here is the "tree" for one of them:


No ancestors in family tree
A family tree with no ancestors shown


The other man's tree is similar. So what can we do? 

  • First, contact these men and ask if they know their ancestry; email addresses are provided in the match list. Encourage them to enter the name of their Most Distant Known Ancestor into their Family Tree DNA account and to join the Kern DNA Project. Even though the man descended from George Kernen does not have a tree, I have traced his ancestry. The Kernens came from the Reutigen area of Switzerland.
  • Next, encourage further DNA testing. 37 STR markers are not enough to determine an exact relationship, but a Big Y-500 test could do precisely that. Encourage one descendant of George of Hawkins and the descendant of George Kernen to take a Big Y-500 test. The three men will then be able to compare approximately 500 STRs as well as the essential SNPs.


The descendant of Karnes of Hawkins took a Big Y-500 test. Right now he has no matches:

No Big Y-500 matches
No Big Y-500 matches at this time


Testing another descendant of George of Hawkins will form a new branch under R-A6704 that will bring the haplogroup closer in time. The test will also reveal SNPs that are specific to each ancestral line.


What did we learn from Y-DNA?


  • Multiple descendants of Nicolaus Karnes, father of Michael of Knox, have taken Y-DNA tests. Their results match and allowed us to prove the names of the brothers of Michael, prove the name of his father, and to trace his ancestry back to his hometown in Germany.
  • Two descendants of Michael of Bedford have now taken Y-STR tests. Their results match and prove that these two men are biological descendants of Michael Karnes. The results also prove that Michael's DNA is within haplogroup R, and he was definitely not related to Michael of Knox. Researchers can stop looking for a biological connection between these men and direct their research to finding the ancestry of Michael of Bedford through further DNA testing.
  • We have not yet learned anything about George of Hawkins, because one Y-DNA test is not enough. We must test at least one more descendant to confirm these results. If confirmed, we will know that George of Hawkins was not related to either Michael of Bedford or Michael of Knox. This will be critical in correcting all of the current online family trees. 


Review: What's next?


  • Michael of Knox: Get at least one more descendant of Nicholas Karnes (father of Michael of Knox) to do a Big Y-500 test to detemine the Y-DNA profile of Nicholas Karnes. This will also help us see where Jacob Karnes (one of the Big Y-500 testers) fits into the Karnes family. Further, as stated in The Amazing Power of Y-DNA, the two previous testers [Mr. Karns and Mr. Carnes] have unique variants that have not yet been seen in anyone else. Mr. Karns has four, and Mr. Carnes has five unnamed variants. These mutations occurred in their own family line and not in the line of the other man. These unnamed variants can be named and tied to specific ancestors by testing more Karnes descendants. When any of these unnamed variants is found in another man, a new haplogroup will be formed.
  • Michael of Bedford: Get at least one descendant of Michael of Bedford to do a Big-Y-500 test. By comparing his results to any people on his Big Y-500 match list, we may begin to find Michael's German origins. This test will also begin to establish the Y-DNA profile of Michael of Bedford which will be useful in determining relationships of possible male relatives.
  • George of Hawkins: Get at least one descendant of George of Hawkins to do a Big Y-500 test to verify the lineage. Ask the descendant of George Kernen to do a Big Y-500 test to see how closely he is related to these two Karnes descendants. This could tell us if George of Hawkins was originally from the area around Reutigen, Switzerland, and can also tell us the approximate date of the common ancestor.



Y-DNA can do what nothing else can. With Y-DNA we can focus on specific genealogical lines, determine relationships, and prove or disprove our genealogical theories. Y-DNA is amazing!


This post first appeared on The Ultimate Family Historians, please read the originial post: here

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Y-DNA testing for genealogy: Are these men related?

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