Sunday, February 26, 2023

Update on the Ackley Surname Project

The Ackley Surname Project has had two new Big Y tests of Ackley men complete recently, and I wanted to report on the results. Before we discuss their specific results though, I would like to take some time to explain the project in some detail to give readers an understanding of the goals and benefits of becoming a member of the project and participating in Y-DNA testing.

Goals and Strategy

The overarching goal of the Ackley Surname Project is to provide data in the form of test results and interpretations of those results that can help project members with their genealogy. The testing strategy should support these project goals. One way we can do this is to help “unattached” project members discover their connection if there is one. We also want to use tests appropriate for defining branches (SNP tests vs. STR tests), and test individuals who can help define family branches. The testing framework should be designed to keep overall testing costs to a minimum. I will give some concrete examples of these ideas below.

Basic Testing Approach

We use two different types of Y-DNA testing in the project: STR testing to determine family membership and SNP testing to place people on branches in the Y-haplotree. Based on a haplotype analysis I did a while back (see here for a full explanation of this analysis), Y-37 should be sufficient for new members to determine family membership. Y-37 testers who are over the FTDNA threshold but “close” can upgrade to Y-67 and check DYS617. For existing members who are looking for more information on their branch, the Big Y test would give the most information, but cost may be a factor. Another approach could be to do a custom SNP panel based on other project Big Y results.

What is STR Testing?

Family Tree DNA offers three levels of STR testing: Y-37, Y-67, and Y-111. According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG):  “A short tandem repeat (STR) in DNA occurs when a pattern of two or more nucleotides are repeated and the repeated sequences are directly adjacent to each other.” [1] According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “A nucleotide is one of the structural components, or building blocks, of DNA and RNA. A nucleotide consists of a base (one of four chemicals: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C)) plus a molecule of sugar and one of phosphoric acid.” [2] STR testing counts the number of repeats on specific segments of Y DNA (called markers), which are designated by the letters “DYS” followed by a number. The marker values for two men are compared, and if the number of non-matching markers falls below established thresholds, there is a high likelihood the two men are related. We have used Y-37 STR testing in the Ackley Surname Project to determine group membership; i.e., to check if a tester is a descendant of Nicholas Ackley or not.

What is SNP Testing?

SNP testing identifies Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms. From Family Search: “A single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP is pronounced snip) is a DNA sequence variation occurring when a single nucleotide - adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), or guanine (G) in the genome (or other shared sequence) differs between members of a species or paired chromosomes in an individual.” [3] For example, the substitution of a C for a G in the nucleotide sequence AACGAT, producing the sequence AACCAT, is a SNP. The Big Y test examines over 700,000 locations on the Y chromosome looking for SNPs. SNPs found are compared to a known, named list of over 260,000 SNPs (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.

How Does This Work in Practice?

One example of how this has worked in our project is the case of a member who joined the project not knowing how or even if he descended from Nicholas Ackley. He had hit a brick wall in his research and turned to Y-DNA testing to see if it would help. He did a Y-37 test, and lo and behold he was not closely related to any of the descendants of Nicholas in the project. However, his test did provide some clues that he might be a descendant of a man named Johan Eckler. After doing some more research he discovered that a descendant of Johan had changed his surname to Ackley in the late 1700s, so he recruited two other Ackley men who knew they were descendants of Johan and found that he matched them. With further research, he was able to determine how he descends from Johan and solved his brick wall. Details on this case can be found here.

There is another example of three members who were in a similar situation to the man mentioned above; they did not know how or if they were related to Nicholas and had reached brick walls in their research. Each of them did a Y-37 test first and determined that they were all related to the other known descendants of Nicholas in the project, and thus were also likely descendants of Nicholas. They each decided to do a Big Y test, and the results showed that each one was on the same branch as a member who was a known descendant of Nicholas's son Samuel who had already done a Big Y test and established the "Samuel branch" on the haplotree. Although none of these three men have determined how they descend from Samuel yet, the knowledge that they are descended from him has greatly focused their research efforts.

As has been discussed in previous posts, we have also used Y-DNA testing to try to discover connections to our English ancestors. We have tested two Ackley men of known English descent (see this post for details); neither of these men were matches for the Nicholas Ackley descendants in the project (or each other), but this information is useful for future attempts to discover our English lineage.

Big Y and Variants

Variant is another name for a mutation. “Y-DNA mutations used in genetic genealogy are miniscule variations in the Y chromosome that are not connected to any known genetic conditions” [4]. Big Y results report two types of variants: named and unnamed or private variants. To be named, a variant needs to have been found in at least two men. 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.As discussed above, named variants determine the placement of an individual in the Y-haplotree (sometimes known as the "tree of life"). Placement of an individual in the haplotree is somewhat temporary because if 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.

The "Rule of Three"

From above, we know that a Big Y test for a single individual will define his haplogroup with possible private (unnamed) variants remaining. Testing a second, closely related individual (father, brother, son, etc.), will usually lead to the naming of the private variants (they will now have been found in two men) and will establish their family clade (branch) in the haplotree. A third test of a more distantly related individual (4th cousin or greater) will confirm the main branch for the common ancestor of the larger family group. Testing groups of three men whose relationships are known can help define branching within a surname project. This “Rule of Three” (a concept developed by Bill Wood, administrator of the FTDNA - BigY Facebook Group) will be a part of the testing strategy for our project. Note that it does not matter what order you test the second and third individuals in the group of three men.

I will illustrate the "Rule of Three" concept with my own test, another member's test, and my son's test. I was the first member of the project to do a Big Y test, and my first results assigned me to the R-BY10450 haplogroup. At the time, FTDNA had not yet developed the block tree as a way to present positions on the hapotree, but they had a step chart that gave your relative position and displayed the number of matches you had. Here is my step chart:

You can see I had no matches at R-BY10450, meaning that no other tester had tested positive for the SNP BY10450. R-BY10450 is estimated to have formed about 2,500 years ago, so this information was not really useful for genealogical purposes.

A few other testers came along that refined this estimate somewhat, but they were still too distant to be of use genealogically. Finally, another member of the Ackley project who was a known descendant of Nicholas did a Big Y test, and the two of us matched and established the Nicholas Ackley branch in the haplotree. The block tree now looked like this:

This block tree is showing my branch as R-FGC52286, and indicates that I have one match, which would be the other member of our project. Note that R-FGC52286 is under R-FGC52285, which is under R-BY10450, which was my original branch until more people began testing and getting the variants named. At this point, we have completed the last part of the "Rule of Three", which is to test a more distantly related individual (4th cousin or greater) to confirm the main branch.

Out of curiosity I decided to test my son to complete the "Rule of Three" and establish our own branch on the haplotree. The block tree after his results came in looked like this (sorry for the small, fuzzy text):

My son had all the same private variants I had, so there were now two men who had these variants and they could be named. Our branch was named R-FGC52300 and had five equivalent SNPs that are all shown in the white block on the block tree above. Note that the other member of the Ackley project still shows as R-FGC52286 in this block tree because he still has private variants that have not been named. I will not show his updated block tree, but he subsequently tested one of his sons and all of his private variants were named, establishing their own block under R-FGC52286. I will show the current block tree including that update in a later section.

Current Project Statistics (as of 25 Feb 2023)

  • 24 Ackley men have taken Y-DNA tests
    • 19 known or suspected descendants of Nicholas Ackley
    • 3 descendants of Johan Henrich Eckler
    • 1 New Zealander whose father and known ancestors were born in England
    • 1 Englishman whose father and known ancestors were born in England
  • 13 Big Y tests
    • 12 complete
    • 1 in process
  • 11 STR tests
    • 6 Y-37
    • 3 Y-67
    • 2 Y-111 (All Big Y tests also have Y-111 results)

Current Project Structure

Below is a graphical representation of the groups of testers in the project (again, sorry for the small, fuzzy text). For the purposes of Y-DNA testing, only Nicholas's sons are relevant to the picture, so daughters are not included. The green boxes represent Nicholas's son John and his three sons John, Benjamin, and Nathaniel. The circled numbers under each son give the number of testers who are descendants of each son; in the example of John, there are 4 testers who are descendants of John's son John, while there are none for Benjamin or Nathaniel. Thomas is represented by the purple boxes; there are no descendants of Thomas who have tested. Nathaniel, in red, had no known children. James, in blue, had five sons; there are two descendants of his son Nicholas, two descendants of Nathaniel, and one descendant of Benajah who have tested. There is also one descendant of James whose descendancy from James is not known; this will be discussed in a later section. Finally, there are six descendants of Samuel who have tested; two descendants of his son Elijah, and four whose descendancy from Samuel is not yet known.

New Results

Finally to the new results. A member of the project who is a known descendant of Nicholas's son James recently completed a Big Y test. His results led to a refinement of the block tree and added a branch under which all descendants of James will fall. To illustrate what occurred, consider the side-by-side comparison of the "before" and "after" block trees for the project below.

The block tree on the left is from before the new testers results were available. The white block on the left of that diagram is the block for me and my son; we are descendants of James (and his son Nathaniel), so one or more of the equivalent SNPs in that block may have been formed in James, Nathaniel, or any of the other descendants between James and me. Without any other results from descendants of James, we don't know which ancestor those SNPs may have formed in, so they are all lumped together in one block.

The block tree on the right includes the results from the first of the recent testers who is a known descendant of James (and his son Nicholas). Note that there is a new block above my R-FGC52300 block that is labelled R-FT82490 and an equivalent SNP named FT82868. In the original block tree these two SNPs were included in my block (inside the red boxes), but the new tester was also positive for these SNPs so it is known that our common ancestor had to have had these mutations and they are moved to the block immediately above my block. The new tester has six private variants that may eventually be named and create new branches if other descendants of James and his son Nicholas test. So, for the time being, the terminal SNP for the new tester is R-FT82490.

The other recent new tester also tested positive for the two SNPs defining the "James branch" on the block tree, but did not match any of the private variants of the private variants of the other recent tester or the SNPs defining my son's and my branch under the "James branch". From this we can conclude that this tester is a descendant of James, but not either James's son Nathaniel or Nicholas. This tester has five private variants of his own that will need to be named to fully define his true terminal branch. We do not yet know which of James's sons this tester descends from, but given the above information we do know that he did not descend from either Nathaniel or Nicholas.

Current Block Tree

Including the two recent testers, the current Ackley portion of the block tree looks like this:

I have added the names of Nicholas and his sons to show which block (branch) represents each one, and the kit numbers of the Big Y testers on each branch.

Recruitment Goals

There are several short term recruitment goals of the project that can help members with their genealogy research.

First, I'd like to recruit other descendants of John, James, and Samuel to test and further refine the known branches. This could help other members who do not know how they connect to Nicholas determine their line of descent.

The next goal is to recruit known descendants of Thomas to test. This may be difficult – there are very few known male descendants. I have contacted one, and never received a response.

We also need to recruit additional English Ackleys to try to make the English connection. We have two so far, neither one of whom is a match to any of the Nicholas Ackley descendants in the project.

I'd also like to recruit additional Hackley descendants to test the purported Ackley-Hackley connection. As has been discussed in this blog before, there are some who claim that Nicholas Ackley's father was named Hackley and the name was changed to Ackley. There is one Hackley in the project who is not a close match. There are other Hackley lines in the U.S. that seem to be unrelated to the Hackley in the project that should be tested to see if there is a connection.

Finally, I want to encourage all current project members who have done only STR testing to consider Big Y. Some of them know their line of descent from Nicholas, and their Big Y test will further refine the Ackley branches on the Y-haplotree. Others do not know how they descend from Nicholas, and a Big Y test may give additional clues on where to look next.

This is where readers of this blog can help achieve the goals of the Ackley Surname Project. If you are an Ackley male or know of an Ackley male who might be interested in taking a Y-DNA test and joining the project, I encourage you to contact me and let me know of your interest. I will gladly discuss with you the various types of testing and suggest which type of test might help you achieve your goals and possibly help other project members achieve their goals. Don't wait -- contact me today!


1. International Society of Genetic Genealogy. "Short Tandem Repeat". ISOGG Website, accessed 25 Feb 2023.

2. National Institutes of Health. "Genetics Review - Nucleotide". National Center for Biotechnology Information Website, accessed 25 Feb 2023.

3. Family Search. "Y-Chromosome Single Nucleotide Polymorphism testing". Family Search Website, accessed 25 Feb 2023.

4. Vance, David. The Genealogist's Guide to Y-DNA Testing for Genetic Genealogy. Independently published, 2020, p. 21.

Link of the Day

This is the link for the Ackley Surname Project home page at Family Tree DNA for anyone who would like more information about the project:

Quote of the Day

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant." 

--Robert Louis Stevenson

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