Thurber Surname DNA Project

The Thurber Surname

The first known family to use the surname Thurber was the family of immigrant progenitor John and his wife Priscilla who were in Swansea MA ca 1668. Although they are reported to have been born in or near a small parish called Market Stainton in Lincolnshire, England, this has not been confirmed. Research has failed to locate any reference to them in Lincolnshire.

John Thurber and John Thurber (assumed to be John, husband of Priscilla, and their son Capt. John) are listed as signers to be inhabitants of the Town of Swanzey. According to History of Swansea pages taken from UMASS interactive course, New Swansea's grant for township was petitioned at the court of New Plymouth in 1667. The agreement was made between the Church of Christ, meeting at Swanzey, and Capt. Thomas Willet and associates. It was dated 22 Feb. 1668/9 [source: Early Rehoboth, Vol. I, by Richard L Bowen, p. 36]

The Thurber name was continued through the four sons of John and Priscilla - Capt. John, James, Thomas, and Edward. Thurber researchers often refer to the Thurber lines by the name of the sons.

In addition to these four Thurber lines, there are two others, commonly named for Benjamin Thurber and Isaac Thurber.

Benjamin Thurber was born about 1720 possibly in Providence or Portsmouth, RI. He married Elizabeth Hallett in 1747 in Warren, RI. His parents have never been determined. Since the Thurber surname was not a common one, it is assumed Benjamin was somehow connected with the immigrant progenitor John Thurber (c. 1626-1705). The question that remains is whether he was an unrecorded son of a Thurber male, adopted by a Thurber family, or born to an unmarried Thurber woman who gave him the Thurber surname.

Isaac Thurber b. 27 January 1768 is thought to be a son of Benjamin Thurber and Elizabeth Hallett.

The Thurber DNA Project

Using DNA testing on the Y chromosomes of Thurber males from Benjamin's and other Thurber lines, we should at least be able to verify whether Benjamin and/or Isaac are descended from John through the male line. Ideally, with significant participation, the project will help many Thurbers with their genealogies

Project Goals

The Thurber DNA project was initiated to determine whether Benjamin Thurber and Isaac Thurber were direct descendents of John Thurber, the immigrant through the male Thurber line.

Additional potential benefits include determining the geographic origin of the Thurber surname, and identifying the original surname.

For the individual participants, it would also determine if they are descended from the immigrant John Thurber.

The Thurber Family Tree DNA project findings

The Thurber surname DNA project is a Family Tree DNA project using the Y-DNA test. (See below for an explanation of on Y-DNA tests)

Six of the participants have Y -DNA results that are exact matches. Of these six, two have paper trails to the immigrant ancestor John (b. ca 1620). One of the two has been traced to John's son Thomas; the second of the two has been traced to John's son James. Of the remaining four matches, three have named their "Most Distant Ancestor" as Benjamin or Isaac (likely the son of Benjamin). There is a high probability that John Thurber b. ca 1620 is the progenitor for all six project members with matching Y-DNA. Although the line of descent from John to Benjamin is not known, there appears to be little doubt that this connection is through the male Thurber line.

All the other participants have unique haplotypes. This may be because of what are called non-paternity events--most typically adoptions and infidelities. Some lines may go back to a Thurber woman whose son took his mother's surname. As more men participate, it should become clearer where these Thurber lines began genetically.

In addition to the results from the Family Tree DNA Thurber surname project, there is currently one Thurber result listed in the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) Y-chromosome database. According to the posted pedigree, that subject is a grandson of Joseph Shelton Thurber b.5 Sep 1883 in Greenwich, Piute Co., UT. The pedigree traces him to James Thurber, one of the four sons of immigrant ancestor John Thurber. The results for this Thurber male do not match the results of any of the participants in the Family Tree DNA Thurber surname project. Since the Family Tree DNA Thurber surname project includes a match for a descendant of James, it can be assumed that the pedigree of the SMGF participant has a non-paternity event at some point in his Thurber line.

Y-DNA testing

The Thurber DNA project uses the Y-DNA test. As the name suggests, this test is performed on DNA from the Y chromosome. The Y chromosome is present in males only. This is the sex-determining chromosome passed on directly from father to son and can remain unchanged for hundreds of generations. Testing the Y chromosome provides information about the direct male line. The locations tested on the Y chromosome are called markers. Occasionally a mutation (a small changes in the DNA sequence) occurs at one of the markers. This is a natural occurrence and happens at random intervals. Mutations are estimated to occur once every 500 generations per marker. Because mutations are random, it is possible (although rare) for brothers to have non- matching results from a Y-DNA test, while more distant relatives, such as cousins could match. Mutations can sometimes be valuable in identifying branches of a family tree.

Since surnames are also usually passed from father to son, the Y-DNA test is ideally suited for single surname studies. In recent years, the cost of DNA testing has come within the reach of families tracing their surname. Given the amount of time and expense that many families have devoted to their research, taking part in a Y- DNA project is now an excellent solution to confirm a surname or possibly break through a "brick wall."

Importance of the paper trail

Paper records should be combined with Y-DNA testing in trying to prove (or disprove) a theory or connection between two males with the same or similar surname. The paper trail helps to establish that the participating male must be from an unbroken male direct line. Participants in the Thurber DNA project must be males who had a father named Thurber, a grandfather named Thurber, a great-grandfather named Thurber, and so forth. It must be an unbroken male descent from the surname Thurber.

There can be unusual circumstances that create exceptions. Although it is usually the case that the male being tested must "bear the surname," there can be exceptions. This is where a paper trail would play a role. For example, take the case of a divorced Thurber male whose wife after the divorce either resumed her maiden name or remarried. A young son who remained in the custody of his mother might take his mothers new surname. If the paper trail showed that at some point in the line the name was changed and the change was retained through future generations, then this non-Thurber male and his male descendants would still be eligible to participate in a Thurber Surname Y-DNA project. Another exception would occur in adoptions. An adoptee would be eligible for testing in the surname project of his biological father. There could be other reasons for a name change. The important thing is that the paper trail shows an unbroken direct male biological line to a Thurber ancestor.

The role of the female

Females (or males with a Thurber ancestor but who no longer carry the Thurber surname), can still take part in a DNA study by helping to finance a test for a male relative who is eligible. The results of a test from one known Thurber male relative can provide valuable information for other family members. It is wise to sponsor more than one test from the family, preferably from different male sons of the progenitor.

Non-matching results

Any participant in a DNA project should be prepared for the possibility that the test results may not match what he has believed is his family history. Traditional "paper" research may have led him to believe one thing, while the DNA testing may show something different. Although he may be disheartened to find that his Y-DNA does not match others with his surname, he should remember that this is only one line of his family tree.

If the goal is to get an accurate picture of a family tree, then the non-matching results may have provided an important clue to an anomaly in the line of that surname.

In addition to finding the results do not match other Thurbers, testing may show results actually match some other surname. Although at first glance this may be exciting and appear to provide a clue to some anomaly in the Thurber line, it may also have little meaning if the match is to a common surname. It could be that the matching participants share a common ancestor before the establishment of surnames.

When a match to a different surname occurs, it is important to refine the testing to include additional markers, if possible. In many cases the "match" will not hold up. If it does, then the next step is to review the research to see if there is evidence of an adoption, surname change, or extramarital event. If there are no obvious clues, it's reasonable to assume that the match is to a common ancestor prior to establishment of surnames, or as the result of convergence - where both participants' results match as the result of mutations.

Reasons for non-matches

Why does a person with the Thurber surname not match other Thurbers? Or why would someone with a different surname match a Thurber Y-DNA result?

  1. Adoption. In the past, when a woman was widowed with children, and remarried, the children would often take on the surname of the new husband. There may not be a formal record of adoption for this. The children simply started using the surname of the stepfather. If there were vital records from that era, birth and marriage records may provide evidence of the event. There were also times when a family took in an abandoned child, and the child assumed the surname of the family without formal proceedings..
  2. Extramarital event: It has been estimated that between 2 and 5 % of all births are extramarital births.
  3. The two participants had a common ancestor preceding the adoption of surnames.
  4. One of the participant's ancestors changed his name. There are many reasons for this, including personal preference, or even a husband assuming his wife's surname to prevent her surname from becoming extinct in her family tree. The surname could also have changed form when migration is combined with illiteracy. The Thurber surname is one that is suspected to have begun with immigrant ancestor, John Thurber. It is possible that with increased participation in DNA projects, clues will develop to help identify the original surname.
  5. An orphan was given a surname selected at random
  6. Convergence. This is when a matching test result comes from mutations over time that led to two different surnames having a matching result today

Contact Information

Jennifer Thurber Willis, a descendent of Benjamin Thurber and Elizabeth Hallett, is the group administrator for a Thurber surname DNA project.

Additional information on this project can be found at: