Benjamin Cooley’s Origins

The DNA Evidence

by William Warren Cooley
October 9, 2007

Thanks to The Cooley Genealogy, a two volume (1200 page) summary of the descendants of Ensign Benjamin Cooley published in 1941 by Mortimer E. Cooley, much is known about those who descended from him, but little is known about Benjamin’s ancestors. The records (e.g. birth and real estate) are very clear about how Benjamin settled down in Springfield, MA, and that he and his wife Sarah produced eight children, all of whom were born in Springfield between 1643 and 1662. It is also possible to trace all of the descendants for each of those eight children, some for at least 12 generations. Here for example is my Cooley lineage:

Benjamin > Obadiah > Obadiah > David > David > Festus > Warren > William > Herbert > Warren > William

For those eleven generations, the records are crystal clear. I am absolutely a descendent of Benjamin Cooley. Genetically speaking, my y-chromosome, which is passed on from father to son, is a copy of his. Knowing this, I wondered what might be learned from my y-DNA about the origins of Benjamin. This is important since the records of his history prior to his arrival in Springfield are not at all clear. In The Cooley Genealogy there is much speculation about his possible origins, but no hard data.

A web site established by Greg Parker has compiled DNA records from members of the Cooley family. One of his Cooley family groups, which he labeled CF02, includes seven of us with y-DNA results that are so similar that we must have a common ancestor, and that common ancestor is probably Benjamin Cooley. He definitely is for four of us in that group. Their similar DNA profiles illustrate the stability of the male lineage. So I decided to explore how DNA might help to clarify the origins of Benjamin himself. We do not have his DNA, but we have the DNA from some of his direct descendants.

Steve Oppenheimer at Oxford University has done extensive studies of the DNA of those who live in the British islands, and his book The Origins of the British, is a remarkable summary of his research. He has also established a laboratory which collects current DNA samples from individuals and reports back to them their results. I did that with the following result: “Using the Oppenheimer Clan Test for British and Irish origins, Stephen Oppenheimer has determined that you are male gene type R1b-12. This type is one of the nearly 50 clusters of male gene founding clans.” Clan R1b-12, also known as a haplogroup, is one of the indigenous people that migrated into the British Isles from Iberia between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, who we know as Celts. Haplogroup R1b-12 is “strongly represented in Wales and Ireland , the Fen country, and along the Atlantic coast of Britain ” according to Oppenheimer’s studies of current DNA distributions.

As Oppenheimer and others ( e. g. Bryan Sykes in Saxons, Vikings and Celts) make clear, during the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago, the only thing on British soil was a very large glacier, with no English Channel, no Irish sea, and no people. As the ice slowly melted (in an earlier global warming) people began moving in over the land bridges that were not yet flooded over. One series of migrations came up the Atlantic coast from Iberia , including Benjamin Cooley’s ancestors, the R1b haplogroup, beginning about 15,000 years ago. Our more specific haplogroup, R1b-12, emerged during the re-expansions of those early indigenous lines, about 4,000 years ago.

Another migration into the British Isles came down from Norway , haplogroup R1a1, about 5,000 years ago. This later migration included the ancestors of another Cooley Family Group in Greg Parker’s DNA collection, CF01. Their similar y-DNA indicates that they share a common ancestor. According to the Oppenheimer Clan Test that was done for one of the four Cooleys in CF01, this group of Cooleys is from the clan R1a1-2b, which moved to the British Isles from what is now Bergen, Norway. Comparing the DNA results for these two Cooley families (CF01 and CF02) illustrates how DNA profiles can inform the study of genealogical origins.

The Cooley Family Association has been working hard to try to pick up the genealogical trail of Benjamin Cooley in England . Doug Cooley, the Association genealogist, sent me the following email message which summarizes some of those efforts.

“The matter of Benjamin’s origins is of interest to all of us. In 1987 the CFAA commissioned the UK firm Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd. to research the records there. They found parish records in St. Albans Parrish, Tring, Hertfordshire, England with a Benjamin Cooley of the right age to be “our” Benjamin. No later records (marriage, death, probate, etc.) are found in the UK leading one to conclude that he likely emigrated. No passenger manifest exists with his name. Then a Benjamin shows up in Springfield. So we have reasonably concluded that the Benjamin from Tring is our Benjamin. The birth date is from the parish records. He was born to William Cooley and Joan Arnot. The birth records for his siblings show variations of the spelling for Cooley. They were not particular at the time. In February of this year, I asked Debrett to once again pursue this matter using a DNA approach. Like you, I thought that would be a good way to discover the truth. Actually, we tried to find a UK person who could establish his pedigree to one of Benjamin’s ancestors who was willing to submit to DNA testing. We even went through the UK phone book calling Cooleys (and spelling variants). We got nowhere. So I asked Debrett to try to find a descendant. This project is still underway.”

What we learn from genetic studies of human migration is that the ancestors of Benjamin Cooley were among the very early inhabitants of the British Isles. These Celts spread all over the British Isles, and were the indigenous folks which the Romans found when they invaded England at about the time Christ was born. Just exactly where our y-DNA was located at that time is unknown. Using surnames and place names, some Cooleys like to believe that our y-chromosome was centered in Ireland . As my Irish cousin Jim Cooley likes to point out: “In Ireland , there is a Cooley Peninsula, the Cooley Mountains, and even a Cooley Distillery, all on the North & East of the Isle.” Regarding surnames, Jim points out “Irish names were rarely spelled consistently in the Middle Ages. Spelling variations of the name Cooley dating from that time include Cooley, Cooling, Cowley, Cully, Colly, McCooley, Coaley, Coolyng, Couley, Colley, McCowley, Cooleng, McCoolay, Coolay, Collay, Cullay, Cowleigh, Culleigh and many more.” Then there is the most famous of all Irish myths, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, in which Cooley is spelled Cualnge. There is no denying Cousin Jim his Irish heritage.

Of course there is a big gap between a haplogroup moving up the Atlantic coast into the British Isles over 10,000 years ago and where Benjamin Cooley was living in the early 1600’s. Someday the rapidly expanding DNA databases may allow us to find matches of British y-DNA to our own, and trace their lineage. But meanwhile, I thought I would share what I think I have learned about our origins with my Cooley relatives.


The Origins of the British A genetic detective story: the surprising roots of the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. By Stephen Oppenheimer Carroll & Graf, 2006 534 pgs

Saxons, Vikings and Celts The genetic roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes W. W. Norton, 2006 307 pgs

Mapping Human History Genes, race, and our common origins by Steve Olson Houghton Mifflin, 2002 293 pgs