My convict DNA

I’ve mentioned previously that I have a bunch of convict ancestors. It makes for interesting research to say the least!

Descendants of convicts have been fairly lucky in being able to piece together an ancestor’s time after arrival. Not only did convict records in Van Diemen’s Land capture details including physical appearance, age and religion, their time while under sentence was also pretty well documented. For many of ‘my’ convicts, I know who they were assigned to (and where), and can track their movements up until they received their ticket of leave or were deemed ‘free’.

The downside, however, comes in tracing them back any further than their crimes. For my 15 known convicts, I have only found the baptism of one – and that’s largely due to this convict’s trial report being pretty specific, ie ‘father Peter Finlay, Moulder, of Old Wynd’. Her brother was also transported, with his record providing a mother’s name and siblings. Eureka!

In most cases though, I only have either a father’s name, or mother’s first name – never both. For the rest, no names were recorded at all.

Combine this with ‘Native Place’ sometimes referring to where they were living at the time of their crime (not necessarily where they were born), along with variances in age from record to record, and you have quite a sizeable amount of stumps!

As an example, my Ancestor Scorecard shows that I have 142 unknown (I love this tool as a great snap shot of where you may need to focus your efforts, but also a reminder of how far you’ve come).

Ancestor score card

Of these ‘unknowns’, 70 relate to my convicts; either their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Of the total number, quite a few were Irish as well (presenting their own challenges).

Convict Ancestors


So after years of digging and prodding my stumps, it’s time to try something new.

Enter DNA testing.

There are different types of tests, and different companies that do this, but I chose Ancestry’s Autosomal DNA testing.

DNA Testing


This test looks at the DNA I have inherited from both of my parents (and all of their ancestral lines), and is often referred to as atDNA – or what I like to refer to as,

ALL the DNA!”

The percentage of All the atDNA inherited from the more distant ancestors decreases with each new generation – it basically dilutes over time (which makes sense when you think about it). It also means that I may or may not have ‘bits’ of DNA from a particular ancestor, depending on how many generations back they are. But the beauty of DNA testing in genealogy is that you’re actually looking for matches with living people. Cousins!

Once my DNA is processed, magic technical sciencey stuff happens, and it will be compared to others in the AncestryDNA database looking for matching ‘segments’.

The higher the match, the more likely it is that we share a common ancestor. Then it’s just a case of us collaborating to work out who that common ancestor may be.

Simple, right?

Well – it’s more involved than that (involving other acronyms and DNA terms and wot-not), but in my rose-coloured glasses approach, I’m hoping I can crack at least one convict mystery. Just one would be lovely please.

At the moment, my convict-DNA-laden saliva is in a test tube somewhere in the US waiting to be processed.

The wait begins.

DNA Processing

In an ideal world, in 6-8 weeks’ time a fourth cousin in Ireland will be sitting at their computer, refreshing their screen hoping for a match. They have been searching for years for their great-great grandfather’s sister to no avail. But suddenly – what’s that? A match for Mahony! Could it be?

*cue excited people running toward each other in slow motion with uplifting music playing in the background*

It’s bound to happen, right?

But if not, I have a back-up plan.

DNA in Genealogy
Comic by Cartoonist & Freelance Illustrator, Jonathan Brown.



Thanks to Tangled Roots and Trees for the idea of an Ancestor Scorecard!

If you’re interested in DNA testing, or for more information on the process (other than my very simplistic attempt), I highly recommend Louise Coakley’s blog. Click here for an Introduction to using DNA for genealogy.

7 thoughts on “My convict DNA

    • I love coming across them – such varied stories! Some from regions of poverty, and even one from Ireland at the time of the Great Famine. She committed arson deliberately, and confessed in order to be transported! Definitely adds perspective.

      Enjoy your ‘hunt’ in finding out more. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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