The Conundrum of NPEs in Genealogical DNA Testing and the Ralston Family

I am finally finding some time to dig into my Ralston line. I was prompted to do this as my sibling’s DNA test is showing a possible Non-Paternal Event.

This means that somewhere on the male Ralston Y-DNA line, there was (possibly) an event in a family’s life in which they gave one of my ancestors the last name of Ralston, or he took on the surname himself, but his biological father was not a biological Ralston.

There are a lot of armchair DNA genealogists these days, running their little surname projects and asking everyone with the same surname to join the project and get tested. One of them did this to me and then wasn’t so nice about our results. Told me to stop saying my Ralstons were Scottish (not that I have), that I wasn’t a “real Ralston.” That my family tree was very problematic. See, he didn’t use the family tree I provided to the project but the one I was working on on Ancestry. And I don’t claim anything for sure without historical documents and references. If you haven’t noticed yet, most of the trees on Ancestry are cobbled together without fact-checking or sources. People don’t realize there were three Benjamin Ellisons all born within a year or so of each other and all born in Yorkshire (but in different towns or villages), for example, and they cannot possibly all have the same father. You have to do the work to sort these men out before you lay claim to one as yours.

BTW: I did figure out my Benjamin Ellison and was able to take his line back to the 1600s.

But the thing about Ancestry search is that the more you add to your tree, the better your search results. To combat this, I’ve taken to creating new trees with people I suspect might be my ancestors. Then I work through this tree, using ancestry, familysearch.org, archives, libraries, other source material. And when I can connect for sure with other people in another tree, I do so.

Couple of other problems with the armchair DNA genealogist’s claims. First, Y-DNA only tests the male line. So here is a very real scenario. One of my Ralston ancestors’ mother was a Ralston and she gave birth out of wedlock to him. I say this because on my maternal side, my fifth great-grandparents had a son out of wedlock and he was baptized under his mother’s maiden name and then a year later, his mother married his father. The baptismal record lists his father’s legal name. This child went the rest of his life using the name on his baptismal record, never using his father’s surname.

I could indeed be a real Ralston. Our maternal ancestry makes us just as much of who we are as our paternal does. Also, if our family has gone by the Ralston surname now since the early 1700s, I think we can say we are real Ralstons. Adopted doesn’t make someone any less part of the family.

Second, the Ralstons were Scotch-Irish Americans, or Ulster Scots, in the mid 1700s in Pennsylvania as is the family our DNA seems to be matching up with. Ulster Scots were from Scotland but some of them immigrated to Northern Ireland in the 1600s to help Mary Queen of Scots’s, the Roman Catholic queen who came to an awful end, Protestant son, King James I, populate Ireland with Protestants. Beginning in the early 1700s this wasn’t working out so well for these predominantly tenant farmers and they began migrating to colonial America. Land for the taking (or so they thought). They weren’t Irish in their ethnicity/heritage; they were Scottish. Most of them anyway. One hundred years is a long time to live in Northern Ireland and they intermarried and so forth. But basically, if you go far back enough, and you are of Scotch-Irish descent, you’ll find your roots in Scotland.

But like I said to the guy, Scotland is not better than Northern Ireland or vice versa. The English aren’t better than the Irish or the Scottish. Come on, this is the 21st century.

Back to figuring out an NPE. Where could this break have come into the line. My brother? My father? My grandfather? My great-grandfather? And so forth on back.

I called a cousin who knew both my grandfather and great-grandfather Ralston. We decided we are fairly certain that my father was my grandfather’s son and that my grandfather was his father’s son. I am fairly certain that my brother is my father’s son but there is no way I am bringing this up to either him or his mother.

Who do I check? My great-grandfather William Alfred Ralston of Iowa? His father, Millen Ralston of Butler County, PA then Jackson County, IA? His father John Ralston Jr of Butler County, PA then Jackson County, Iowa? His father John Ralston Sr of Greensburg, Westmoreland County, PA then Butler County, PA? Or his father, William?

So I decided to start with William Ralston born about 1755 somewhere and who suddenly appears in 1769 in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. I am not sure who his father was. Or his wife. The published sources on the Ralstons, such as The Golden Threads and the other Ralston book have a lot of inaccurate information because they found a Ralston with that name in a locality (ignored the other ones in other nearby localities) and then blended the men together. There are at least three William Ralston’s in Western PA during the mid 1700s, so we cannot blend them together. Ralston was a common name.

I will start recording the results of this search in future blog posts.

But if you were notified of an NPE in your family DNA results, don’t let the project coordinators force upon you uneducated assumptions. These project coordinators should be held to the genealogical standards of sourcing, using primary and secondary credible documents, and of relaying information within the historical context of your ancestor’s life. It is okay to make an educated and informed best guess, after you have largely ruled out the other options.

And Northern Ireland is stunningly beautiful. On the Antrim coast you can see Scottish islands and practically swim across. You can at least take a boat.

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The Antrim coast in Northern Ireland with a view to Scotland.