14 June 2024

A Contribution to AncestryDNA Communities

Ancestry, the genealogy company, updated their German DNA communities last month. Now among the 266 communities are four Germans from Russia communities. If you have had your DNA tested with AncestryDNA, your communities may have been updated from a broad description to something more specific…maybe more specific than you ever thought you would see outside of our own Germans from Russia research communities.

How did they do that?

From the support article “AncestryDNA® Communities,”

People in a community are connected through DNA, most likely because they descend from a population of common ancestors. Once we identify a community, we look for patterns. These patterns help us learn about the original group that still connects people through DNA today.

First, we find out where the ancestors of people in a community lived. We do this by comparing birth locations in their trees, using only trees linked to DNA tests.

Then, we find common journeys and migration routes using birthdates and birthplaces. When a parent was born in a different place than their child was, we know the parent moved. Once we know where these people lived and when and where they moved to, we match these facts with the history that explains it. This should answer the question, “What story binds the members of this community together?”

Earlier this year, Ancestry reached out regarding a German migration project related to their DNA communities. They had identified several communities with sub-communities in the areas that were on my maps. Having seen my research, they asked if I was interested in helping name the communities and tell their stories from a very broad level. Who were they? How were they connected? What prompted their migrations? What were their lives like? What bound them together?

It sounded like fun. It also sounded like a good way to get the stories of Germans from Russia onto a major genealogy platform. Those who first learn they are descendants through DNA tests might get on the right research path sooner simply by knowing one of their communities was Volga or Black Sea German or German Anabaptist.

For now, I will spare you the details of the several weeks long geek out that I enjoyed analyzing the data. It was a lot of fun. If you are interested in sausage making, let me know. 

In short, I was assigned four communities. Within each, there were between 4 and 12 sub-communities of that larger community where the DNA indicated there were closer relations. The names given to the communities made little to no sense and were more placemarkers for the data scientists: Large Dot North; South and North Dots, Less East and Romania; Might Be More Concentrated. For each, there was a list of surnames along with two sets of maps: one plotted the surnames, and one plotted the migrations.

After going through the data provided, filtering out the noise of non-relevant DNA cousins going other places and doing other things, and setting aside some odd places that ended up getting mapped, the four groups assigned to me shook out as I suspected they would: by region and religion. The regions were Volga and Black Sea, and the religions were Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist (Mennonite and Hutterite).

The divisions of the Protestant Reformation were still held tightly in the German colonies of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our ancestors moved in groups to an isolated territory far from other Germans. This isolation of the enclaves of Germans created ideal conditions to observe how an ethnic group with strong religious propensities would behave over several generations. They married and had children with members of their own ethnicity and religion over and over. This has always been a part of our narrative history and supported by our paper trails. DNA also seems to confirm it among those who tested with AncestryDNA.

I was concerned about suggesting community names with religion in them. I tried not to. All of the other example communities I saw gave some kind of geographical description. My old community name was very broad, “Germans from Austria-Hungary and the Don Steppe.” Because the data was broken down so finely into these subcommunites, there was no other way to differentiate and describe the larger group without using religion, especially in the Black Sea region. I knew that the names would resonate with those who knew their family history and would provide breadcrumbs for those who do not. The sub-community names identify the enclaves or the individual colonies that the surnames tracked to most in the earliest time periods. The colonies were originally settled by religious confession, and that was how the religion was identified to add to the community name. Make sense?

Answers to Questions You May Have

  • I never saw your DNA results or your linked trees. Ancestry’s science team did that analysis. 

  • The DNA communities and sub-communities are not new discoveries exactly but a refinement of the previous, larger communities. Communities may change again and become more refined as more people test their DNA and the sample size gets larger.

  • Volhynia did not show up in my analysis. I looked for it, but it was not a part of my assignments.

  • All of the Volga Catholics were in one sub-community that was discovered late. That may be why it is not as refined as the rest of the Volga sub-communities.

  • Crimea showed up but did not have a strong signal in the data as a migration destination and did not appear as a sub-community. Even though I knew the story was there, I could not tell a story that was not represented in the data from Ancestry.

  • Migration to and settlement in South Prussia before Russia was mostly absent. This could be because the time spent there was too short to generate enough births to trigger migration lines, and/or the linked trees did not include the intermediate migration step.

  • Migration and settlement in Hungary (the Donauschwaben) before Russia was long enough to generate enough births to trigger migration lines, and enough people had that information in their linked trees.

  • Later migrations to Dobrudscha, the Don, the Caucasus regions, and Western Siberia were faint but present. These were all just parts of original DNA communities and sub-communities moving around.

  • For the mass migration to North America beginning in the 1875 time period, the data showed everybody leaving. We know that was not true, but that is what was in the linked trees and that was the story that I was to follow. I struggled with telling the story between 1925-1950 because of those left behind and whose stories did not get told.

  • The place name mapping was not perfect. Ancestry did its best to map whatever places you had in your linked trees, but very few, if any, place name authorities are going to know about our ancestral colony names, much less what their names are today and how often they have changed during our ancestor’s time there. I am still in favor of using ancestral place names in trees. Our history is not the problem here. I spot checked many of the odd migration places thinking maybe there was a story I was unaware of. Some I understood what was going on (creative place name spellings mapping to incorrect places, choosing the wrong place from a dropdown menu, bad data replicated in trees, etc.), while others I had no idea. Some were so out of bounds that I disregarded them as a glitch. I hope to understand this better at some point and maybe even help fix it. But it still comes down to what you put in your trees. So, if the migration lines on your maps of the Russian Empire look a little strange, this is why. It does not reflect in any way on the validity of your DNA communities. 

My DNA Communities

Below are a few screenshots of my communities. I am the spawn of a Black Sea Lutheran father and a Catholic mother, so I was assigned both Protestant Black Sea Germans and Catholic Black Sea Germans. The communities assigned to me did not surprise me. My known Volga DNA connection (Hi, Hannah!) going back to mid-1700s Baden was too weak to show up. I was hoping for a surprise Mennonite connection, but no luck.

Go to the DNA tab and choose Discover Your Origins. You will see your Ethnicity Estimate. Scroll down on the panel on the right until you see DNA Communities. The map will change, and you will see your assigned communities. See the image at the top of this post.

My communities are to the left along with my sub-communities. The Catholic side includes sub-communities linking me to Bessarabia and the Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental enclaves—essentially, the Catholic colonies in Bessarabia (Krasna) and the Odesa region. And I also have one sub-community that links specifically to the Kutschurgan colony of Mannheim. This tracks what I have seen in my DNA matches over the years. I tested in 2017, and nearly all of of my maternal DNA connections link back to the Biegler (Bichler) and Hoffart families of Mannheim, and specifically to common ancestors Karl Ludwig Biegler and Armelia Hoffart who came to America in 1894. Their descendants seem to be the most curious about their DNA. 

My Protestant Black Sea German community has no specific sub-community. My paper trail places my paternal ancestors in the Glückstal colonies, the trail also leads to the Beresan enclave in the early 1800s and the Liebental enclave in the late 1800s. Most of my DNA connections have specific sub-communities in the Glückstal colonies, including some that go into Bessarabia. For what it’s worth, I identify as a Glückstaler.

Click on the community or sub-community name to zoom in and get a timeline of the lives of the people who lived there. As you scroll down, the map and descriptions change. See my note above about the strange places where migrations appeared in the Russian Empire.

Above are my Catholic ancestors and cousins moving into the Dakotas. All of my direct lines arrived between 1886 and 1913. 

Above are my Lutheran ancestors and cousins leaving the Dakotas and moving west, growing in numbers up in Saskatchewan and Alberta and, of course, the migration to Lodi, California. You can zoom in close to see the areas of concentration. 

Under your DNA communities, there is a button labeled Compare my DNA. Here you can choose among your matches and compare your ethnicity estimates or your communities. Below I chose DNA communities to compare. The new communities made it much easier for me to figure out which side of the family my matches are on. 

Above I have compared some of my Catholic Black Sea German matches on my maternal side. For privacy, I have removed the names and replaced them with the number of centimorgans we share. I had to try pretty hard to find two that did not include Mannheim. Most are connected through the Kutschurgan colonies, but there is one from the Liebental enclave near Odesa. I think I might know how this match fits in to my tree. Seeing the colony Kleinliebental is my clue. 

Above are some of my Protestant Black Sea German matches on my paternal side. I have not looked at their trees, but I suspect both their parents were both descended from Protestant Black Sea Germans, whereas I come from a mixed marriage. Why, you may ask, are there two sub-communities listing Wittenberg, Alt-Posttal, and/or Kulm? The data scientists found evidence in the DNA that there was a difference between the two groups and made them sub-communities. 

Summing Up

This was a fun project. Like really fun. I am glad I had the opportunity to do it and tell our stories. If you have done an AncestryDNA test, check out your communities. If you had parents or grandparents or other older family members tested, it may be even more interesting. If they are still around, get them tested. I wish had. 

The next time I ask the question “How did you find out you were a descendant of Germans from Russia?” I hope someone says “I saw it on Ancestry!” 

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