Sunday, December 13, 2020

A Report on the Status of the Ackley Surname Project Y-DNA Testing

Since there has been a lot of activity in the Ackley Surname Project at Family Tree DNA over the past several months, I thought I would provide an update on where the project stands and plans for the future. Much of this information has been provided in bits and pieces in other posts; I wanted to take this opportunity to present it all in one place. Although the project includes male and female members who have done autosomal tests as well as men who have done Y-DNA tests, I will restrict this report to just those Y-DNA tests that are relevant to the Ackley surname.

Project Members

The Ackley Surname Project currently has 22 members who joined the project and did some level of Y-DNA test to determine their relationship (or lack thereof) to the Nicholas Ackley family. A table of the project members and their kit numbers is shown here:

Table of Project Members Who Have Done Y-DNA Testing

There are 4 men (Ackerley, Akeley, Acra, and Hackley) who joined to see if their non-Ackley surnames might be variations of the Ackley surname. As discussed in previous posts, none of these 4 men are a match for any of the Ackley men in the project.

There are 16 Ackley men who joined presuming they might be descendants of Nicholas Ackley. Based on known genealogies and test results (discussed in more detail in the next two sections), 15 of the 16 Ackley men (listed in the table as Nicholas Ackley descendants) are most certainly related to each other and Nicholas Ackley is their common ancestor.

The 16th Ackley man (kit 938688) did not match any of the other Ackley men in the project. However, one of his matches leads us to believe that he may be a descendant of Johan Hendrick Eckler, some of whose descendants changed their surname to Ackley (see this post on the Eckler/Ackler/Ackley line). This member recruited two known Ackley descendants of Johan Eckler and their test results have recently become available. These three men do match each other, so a new grouping for the Eckler/Ackler/Ackley line has been created in the project.

Known Genealogies

The family tree below is a simplified view of the lines of descent of all 15 Nicholas Ackley descendants in the project. The kit number rather than a name for each of the 15 men is shown at the bottom of the tree, and the first names of all of their Ackley male ancestors up to Nicholas are shown. Note that there are 5 men (in various shades of gray) whose connections to Nicholas are not yet known. These 5 men are matches to each other as well as all of the other 10 men whose relationship to Nicholas is known, so we can be confident that they are descendants of Nicholas. Project and individual next steps (discussed below) should be developed to help these men discover their connections to Nicholas.

Simple Family Tree for Nicholas Ackley Descendants

Note that the project currently has descendants of 3 of Nicholas's 5 sons. Nicholas's son Nathaniel is not known to have had any children, and so far we do not have any known descendants of Thomas in the project. Finding descendants of Thomas will be discussed in the next steps section below.

You can see that the 4 descendants of John Ackley are closely related; kits 891932 and B313386 are first cousins, and kits MK45499 and MK45500 are brothers and the sons of kit B313386.

The figure below is a similar view of the lines of descent for the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley group. Since there are only 3 members in this group, the tree is pretty sparse at this point, but these are early days for this part of the project. The immediate goal of determining if member 938688 is a descendant of Johan Henrich Eckler has been achieved; future actions will need to be identified to help determine his actual line of descent.

Simple Family Tree for Descendants of Johan Hendrick Eckler 

Summary of Test Results

Some of these results have been presented in previous posts but are repeated here for completeness. Recall that Y-DNA matches are measured by genetic distance; I won't repeat all the details on how this works here, but if you need a refresher, see this postThe relationship between genetic distance and relatedness is summarized in the table below. We will make our comparisons at the the 37 marker level since many of the testers in the project have tested only at that level.

Table of Relatedness for Y-DNA Testers

The table below gives the genetic distances between every pair of Ackley men at 37 markers. The cell colors reflect the relatedness of the two kits at the intersection of the cell. The 15 men at the top of the table are the descendants of Nicholas Ackley, while the 3 men at the bottom of the table are the newly found Eckler-Ackler-Ackley group. You can see that the genetic distances between the top 15 men are all 5 or less, indicating that they are all probably related. The same can be said of the 3 men in the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley group. The genetic distances between the Nicholas Ackley descendants and the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley men are beyond the threshold for reporting, so those cells are red to reflect the fact that the two groups are not related.

Table of Y-37 Genetic Distances

The tables below show the STR values for each of the 18 Ackley men in the project. The ancestral values at the top of each group are the mode (most frequently occurring value) for each marker. The tables are split into three separate pictures, both for ease of readability as well as according to the standard panels defined by Family Tree DNA. The values of the individual markers are not important in and of themselves; it is the comparisons between individuals and to the ancestral values that give us information. Comparisons between individuals is how the genetic distances discussed above are calculated. Comparisons to the ancestral values can possibly reveal patterns that can be used to identify branching within a family group. Unfortunately, I don't believe we have enough samples for each group or enough diversity within each group to make effective use of this data at this time for branching. For example, all of the members in the John Ackley descendants group are closely related to each other, so any patterns we might find in their data may not necessarily be found in other descendants of John.

STR values that match the ancestral values are shown in green; values that are below the ancestral value are in blue, and values that are above are in red.

Panel 1 - Markers 1-12

Panel 2 - Markers 13-25

Panel 3 - Markers 26-37

Another way to view the STR results from the table above is to create what is called a mutation history tree. A mutation history tree presents much of the information from the tables above in a compact, visual manner. The mutation history tree below was created using a program called SAPP [1]. The program uses the STR values for a group of men and compares them to the ancestral values to attempt to create nodes of individuals who appear to be closely related. These nodes are in dark blue in chart below. For each node, the program uses a sophisticated algorithm to estimate the Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor (TMRCA). This estimate is given as a number of generations as well as a range of years. The group most recent common ancestor (represented by the larger blue node at the top of the tree), who we know to be Nicholas Ackley, has an estimated TMRCA of 14 generations (+/- 6), which works out to the year 1550 AD (range between 1400 and 1750 AD). Of course we know Nicholas was born about 1635 AD, so the estimate is relatively close.

The other two dark blue nodes represent the two closely related groups of testers mentioned above. Node #16 is for a father/son pair and gives a TMRCA of 0 generations, which is of course correct given the closeness of their relationship. The four members under node #21 are two first cousins and the sons of one of them, and the TMRCA of 2 generations is also accurate given that the common ancestor is known to be the great grandfather of the two first cousins.

The notes above each block give the deviations from the ancestral values; for example, the notes above member 177515 are 392=13->12, 464c=16->15, 456=16->15. This means that for this individual, marker DYS392 mutated from the ancestral value of 13 to 12, marker DYS464c mutated from the ancestral value of 16 to 15, and marker DYS456 mutated from the ancestral value of 16 to 15. The small red number to the upper right of each individual gives the number of markers that the individual has tested.

Note that the SAPP program was not able to find any other nodes (groupings) of individuals to suggest that they are closely related, which seems to confirm the statements made above concerning the small sample size and lack of diversity of the samples.

Mutation History Tree created by SAPP

With only three individuals in the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley group, a mutation history tree would not be especially interesting and so is not presented here.

The final set of results to be discussed is the SNP testing that has been done to date in the project. We have had 3 members do full Big Y tests and 3 members do individual SNP tests to confirm they are positive for the SNP identified by Big Y testing as the defining SNP for Nicholas Ackley descendants. Recall from this post about Viking DNA that positive SNPs determine the placement of individuals on the Y haplotree, sometimes referred to as the tree of mankind. The figure below shows the portion of the Y haplotree that is relevant to the descendants of Nicholas Ackley.

A Small Portion of the Y Haplotree

Note that the haplotree is hierarchical; i.e., the branches below and to the right of any branch are sub-branches of that branch. For example, R-BY10450, R-BY23657, R-FGC52285, R-FGC52286, and R-FGC52300 are all sub-branches of R-FGC22897. R-BY23657 and R-FGC52285 are both sub-branches of R-BY10450, but note that R-FGC52285 is not a sub-branch of R-BY23657 because they are at the same level under R-BY10450. The known surnames of the testers on the lower branches are listed to the right; note that two of the Ackley testers are on a sub-branch of the branch for four other Ackley testers. We'll discuss that in more detail below. Another important thing to recognize here is the fact that the Ackley surname is on a sub-branch under Bergin does not mean we were once Bergins that changed our name to Ackley. We did have a common ancestor, but the age of the SNP we have in common (R-FGC52285, formed about 2900 years ago) puts that branch well before surnames were adopted.

The figure below shows a more detailed view of the Ackley portion of the haplotree in a format known as a block tree. You can see that this shows the R-FGC52285 branch and sub-branches discussed above.

Ackley Portion of the Block Tree

Before discussing the details of this block tree, it is worth mentioning how individuals are placed in the tree as a result of testing. As a SNP-based test, the Big Y test examines over 700,000 locations on the Y chromosome looking for Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). A SNP is the change of a nucleotide value at a specific location on a chromosome from the expected value to something different. The SNPs that are found for an individual are compared to a known, named list of over 260,000 SNPs (known as named variants in FTDNA terminology), and the individual is placed in the tree at the lowest (most recent) named variant for which he has tested positive. To be named, a variant needs to have been found in at least two men. After this process, it is possible that an individual has some variants that are unique to him because so far no one else with those variants has tested. These are known as unnamed or private variants. You can see that this process makes the placement of an individual in the haplotree somewhat temporary because as long as he has private variants there is a possibility that someone else who also has those variants will test, the variants will be named, and the individual will be moved to a lower sub-branch below his previous branch. With that background, we'll discuss the evolution of the blocks of the block tree above as it pertains to the Ackley Big Y testers.

The first Ackley project member to do a Big Y test was B37138. At the time of the test, he was assigned to halpogroup R-S1051, which is several steps above the R-FGC22897 branch shown in the haplotree above. Shortly after that, the Hogge tester came along, and the assignment was updated to R-RBY10450. In early 2018, Ackley member B313386 did a big Y test, and the two Ackley testers were now on their own branch named R-BY52286, establishing the Ackley branch on the haplotree. At that point, B313386 had just two private variants remaining and B37138 had six. To further refine the branches, B37138 had his son (934998) do a Big Y test earlier this year, and 934998 had all six private variants, allowing them to be named and establishing a separate branch named R-FGC52300. The block tree above reflects this current state. Note that with no private variants left for either B37138 and 934998, they are truly at their "terminal haplogroup" because they have no unnamed SNPs that could possibly be matched by subsequent testers. 

You can see in the block tree above that there are 4 people listed in the R-FGC52286 block. The three additional individuals in that block are the first cousin and two sons of B313386, who did individual SNP tests for R-FGC52286. We will discuss the use of Big Y testing and individual SNP testing to help establish branching within the Ackley project in the next steps section below.

Next Steps

A discussion of next steps should include two things -- what needs to be done to achieve the overall goals of the project and what individual project members should do to achieve their genealogy goals. As you will see, some of the next steps for the project may include additional testing for individual members that may not be of immediate benefit to the individual.

The overarching goal of the project is to provide data in the form of test results and interpretations of those results that can help people with the Ackley surname with their genealogy. To attempt to achieve that goal, I have developed a testing strategy that involves Big Y testing of appropriate individuals to identify the SNPs that define each of the branches representing the sons of Nicholas Ackley who had sons (Thomas, Samuel, James, and John). As shown in the family tree above, we already have project members who are descendants of Samuel, James, and John. Research so far seems to indicate that there are not many Ackley male descendants of Thomas; one has been identified and a letter has been sent to him, but no response has been received yet. Efforts to identify other descendants of Thomas will continue.

The descendant of Samuel has just agreed to do a Big Y test and the test has been ordered. We will need to identify and test another descendant of Samuel to fully define the SNPs for that branch; recruiting will continue. As discussed in detail above, B37138 and 934998 have done Big Y and thus have identified the SNPs defining the branch for James. We have one descendant of John who has done a Big Y, and he has just ordered a Big Y for one of his sons, so the SNPs for that branch will soon be defined. So, we are taking steps to define the branches, but there is more work to do.

Next steps for the individuals in the project will vary depending on their current level of testing and how much is known about their genealogy relative to their Ackley family group. For example, someone like B37138 who has done a Big Y test for himself and his son and has a solid genealogical record back to Nicholas Ackley has very little opportunity to learn more by testing other family members. The next piece of information we'd like to know is where Nicholas came from in England and who his father was. This would require finding Ackleys from England to test in the hope that one or more of them would match project members. I have just recruited an Ackley man from New Zealand whose father was born in Lancashire, England. I will be anxiously awaiting the results of this test!

On the other hand, some of our newer project members (kits 938369, 938425, and B16608) who have learned from their Y-37 tests that they are likely to be descendants of Nicholas but don't yet know how they are related would benefit from SNP testing to help them establish to which branch (son) they belong. While not a new member, 792301 also is not certain how he connects with Nicholas, so he would also benefit from SNP testing. Note that one of the kits in gray, 205619, was left off this list. This is because he is actually a long-time member and knows his connection to Nicholas Ackley but has not shared that with the project.

The next question to be answered for these testers is what type of SNP testing they should do. The quickest way (but also the most expensive way) to gain information on which branch they belong on would be a Big Y test, and if any of them are so inclined and have the budget for it I would recommend a Big Y test. The alternative is to wait for some of the testing mentioned above to complete and define the branches for Nicholas's sons. They could then do SNP testing for just the branch-defining SNPs, which should be less expensive than a full Big Y test. This approach will probably require us to set up a SNP panel test with FTDNA.

Next steps for the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley group are a little less defined with so few members in the project. The two new testers (942081 and 942097) have a solid genealogy back to the progenitor so they do not really need additional testing to help with their family connection. If they are interested in confirmation and further refinement of their haplogroup (predicted to be G-M201), a Big Y test would provide that information. If they both did a Big Y, that would define the SNP for their branch of the Eckler family. For member 938688, a combination of good old fashioned research, working his autosomal matches looking for Eckler-Ackler-Ackley matches, and recruiting more men with known connections to the Eckler-Ackler-Ackley family to gather more data would be the best course of action.

Sorry for the length of this post and the somewhat technical nature of much of it. Hopefully I have given project members a feel for the next steps they can take to help themselves and the project move forward. As always, if anyone has any questions or comments about anything in the post, please use the "Post a Comment" at the end of the post.

Link of the Day

This is a link to the public version of the haplotree at Family Tree DNA:;name=R-BY10450

Quote of the Day

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." 

-- Benjamin Franklin


1. Vance, David. "SAPP", a tool on the website SAPP, The Life of Trees (Or:  Still Another Phylogeny Program), accessed online 13 Dec 2020.

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