Ancestry’s “Inseparable” commercial is racist and a perfect example of the how white America continues to perpetuate racism

Ancestry’s “Inseparable” commercial is racist and a perfect example of the how white America continues to perpetuate racism

Soon after Ancestry.com pulled their racist “Inseparable” ad depicting an antebellum African American woman being proposed to by a white man who offers to take her a place where they can be together, someone in the genealogy community whom we respect quite a bit got into a Twitter argument over the ad. The person who was essentially trolling our friend was both not American, and trying to be confrontational, so it turned into one of those Internet lost causes. After further reflection however, it got us to thinking about how could this controversy be explained to someone who didn’t understand it, but actually cared enough to learn.

For full disclosure, and clarity, the voice/pronoun we use in this blog is “we” because no matter who’s at the keyboard, in a house full of children it’s a team effort when one of us gets 3 hours to put together a blog post. Plus, this is our journey as a family. But today, this is written by Michael’s father, a white American raised and living in the Midwest. This is written from this one person’s perspective, education, experience, and opinion.

Racism v. bigotry

Anyone who doesn’t understand the complete offensiveness of “Inseparable” is likely white. This is both understandable, and a huge barrier to any discussions about race in the United States. People identified as white in US have both a blind spot on race, and a defensiveness, which combines to make it almost impossible to discuss constructively. Their defensiveness is largely because they don’t have hate/prejudice in their heart, and thus they can’t imagine anyone else does. This seems like the culmination of the little black boys and little black girls being able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers, but instead the myopia of “I don’t see race, so there is no racism” is a corrosive force in American society.

Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.

What is often missed in these discussion is that bigotry isn’t required in racism, and well meaning white Americans can fully participate in racist traditions/concepts/assumptions/systems, without being bigots, and in fact without carrying any ill will against anyone.

Bigotry is not the same as racism, in that bigotry is much more about the active hatred/subjugation of races by people who tend to define themselves as being separate/superior to others. Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.

These systems are so deeply embedded in the United States, they are almost impossible to be seen/understood by white Americans. However, the African American members of our family understand these systems of control/oppression very well. They are obvious to them. But even as a person who understands many of these issues, it’s impossible for me, as a white American, to recognize just how deeply and completely these systems are ingrained in our country. It will never be obvious to white people.

Understanding that racism isn’t about individual acts of malice/prejudice, but about the blind acceptance by white people of the systems/beliefs in American culture that prevent African Americans from full freedom and rights in this country, helps explain why this ad is so blatantly racist.

So, what’s wrong with the ad?

This ad was horrible on so many levels, even accepting how invisible racial suppression can be to white America doesn’t help explain just how completely stupid it was that “Inseparable” was allowed to see the light of day. There are so many ways to understand how completely racist this ad was, it’s hard to see it as anything but intentional.

Our first reaction on seeing it was that there was a 99% chance she was owned, and that not only could there be NO romance there, it’s almost for certain she was either talking to her owner, or her owner’s son. She had no power in this, no agency, no decision making authority. She could only be told what to do, not choose. Entering into a “relationship” when you’re property, when you’re a prisoner, is always rape. Even if she was a freedman, her rights were so limited in southern culture there’s no way she could make a free choice with an equal of hers. This situation is so unbalanced, it’s almost guaranteed to be a story of a powerful man who is forcing a woman into a situation she can’t refuse. The can be no romance here, there can at best be someone doing what they needed to do to survive while being equal to a mule in the eyes of this country.

These are just the most obvious points, and we could list probably 10 more troubling messages in this ad, and all of these should have been so obvious that the commercial never aired. However, it’s not the most damaging, disgusting aspect of what Ancestry.com put out there.

Ancestry played into the narratives put forth by bigots, and legitimized their bigotry

On reflection, this is the point that really drives home just how disgusting Ancestry.com was in releasing this ad. Since 1877 (the end of Reconstruction), there has been an ongoing campaign of oppression against African Americans in this country by groups who are sometimes very overt (Klu Klux Klan, governments, etc.) and sometimes very covert (United Daughters of the Confederacy). “Inseparable” may as well have been written by them both.

Racism is about the systems that exclude African Americans from society in profound ways, and this country has found ways since the first Europeans arrived on this land to ensure that exclusion. Even after over 600,000 soldiers were lost fighting the Civil War to destroy the institution of slavery, the South spent the next 100 years effectively re-instituting slavery, and the North did next to nothing to stop it.

Jim Crow prospered in no small part by the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s concerted efforts to change the notions of what the Civil War was fought over. Soon after they were formed in 1894 they set out to soften and legitimize the treason of the South, and through their “Lost Cause” campaign sought to portray slavery as a benevolent institution that cared for people not as able as whites to care for themselves. They first made up the myth of the Civil War as a fight over “State’s Rights”, insisted that the war was not about slavery, popularized the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as the “Confederate Flag”, and built 100’s of monuments to the heroic leaders of the Confederate cause.

This subterfuge has largely worked to soften the view of the South’s renunciation of the United States and our Constitution. There are serious conversations about the ludicrous notion of States Rights being a cause the South fought for, we all know the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, and we have 3 times as many of Confederate monuments as Union in this country. This whitewashing of history continues to this day to influence and justify the mistreatment of African Americans in this country.

So, when Ancestry.com produced this ad, it was another brick in this revisionist, racist narrative that the institution of slavery wasn’t so bad. It further papers over the truth of how brutal we treated African Americans over our history. White men who were intimate with African American women were rapists. African American women who were fighting to escape North weren’t going with white men, they were going with their black husbands. These escapes weren’t for love, they were for their lives and the risked their lives. There was NOTHING romantic about these moments, and their were born not out of choice but out of the deep human right to be allowed to make choices to control their own lives.

But Ancestry glossed over this brutal reality and concocted a totally false romantic narrative. Instead of this powerful voice in our culture helping foster a conversation on the lingering effects of slavery, they chose instead to further this racist notion that’s been so doggedly pushed by groups like the UDC and the KKK: that the antebellum South was something other than dehumanizing. Their ad not played into this bigoted rewriting of history they helped further mainstream it, normalize it, and allowed even more people to minimize the impact of the brutality that’s continuing against our fellow Americans. We continue to have issues with race today because enough people can raise doubt on just how deep our racism goes, and Ancestry chose to enhance that doubt.

Ancestry made this worse by not apologizing

Apologies are pretty simple if you regret making a mistake. It has 3 parts: honest regret, ownership of your mistake, and a commitment to learn from your mistake. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done what I did, and it won’t happen again. It’s easy, but incredibly powerful.

Ancestry had a powerful chance to make amends, but they instead issued a very complicated non-apology apology. Instead of just saying they regretted their ad, they instead said “we apologize”…which is a clever PR way to make us think they said they were sorry. One makes an apology, but saying they apologize perfectly avoids any statement of regret. Ancestry then followed that up with the classic “[we] apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused” which both avoids any regret or ownership of their actions. They shifted the blame to us if we felt offense, and they dodge even more by only admitting their ad “may” have caused offense.

We’ve written previously about Ancestry is straying from their partnership with the genealogical community, as they transition to a data mining firm sitting on the largest collection of DNA tests on the planet. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but that doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed.

Links:

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

It’s rare that we can spot trends emerging, but we’re going to take a quick victory lap this week because we saw Ancestry.com’s ThruLines coming. We called it out…twice! And now that it’s arrived it feels like the “killer app” for genealogical DNA.

One of our first posts in 2017 was a discussion on how the Ancestry “We’re Related” mobile app was not just a silly diversion (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears) because of how it leveraged predictive relationships:

If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Over a year later we bemoaned the fact that Ancestry’s first major use of these predictive algorithms was the “Potential Mother/Father” tool. It was poorly implemented and presented so much risk (Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…), but we saw the power in this tool, if used properly:

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor.

Ancestry has finally harnessed predictive technology in a very effect feature with the release of ThruLines.

ThruLines-1

At it’s essence ThruLines a new graphical way to show HOW you’re related to your DNA matches. This is long overdue, and while the old way of clicking on a direct match and seeing the path from your kit to the most recent common ancestor (MCRA) worked, it was limited (we had to dig into each match with 3 clicks to see the path) and it was totally devoid of any context. Was there a brother of this tester that also matches? Did they have a 1st cousin that also tested that in-turn matches our tests? You just had to click through each test to find out.

 

But, the real power in ThruLines isn’t the graphical change, it’s that it’s using predictive algorithms to scour both Public AND Private trees, to greatly narrow down where another DNA match is likely to fall in your tree. That’s right, those close relatives we see in our “DNA Matches” screens that are just dead ends because they have Private trees and don’t reply to Ancestry messages are now likely to be mapped in ThruLines.

Our first discovery

ThruLines-3

“Lynne” is solid 3-4th cousin match (67cM) to Michael’s father, and through all of the techniques we’ve discussed previously, we’ve narrowed down that our MCRA is likely to be Wesley and Jane Tradewell. This is the same Tradewell line that is one of our large brickwalls, and so the more data we have for this branch the better. Lynne entered a small tree at some point, but she left all of her named ancestors living, so they appear “Private” and we have almost nothing to go on when trying to link her to our tree.

 

When we opened ThruLines for the first time, we understood right away that each of the photos we were seeing were MCRA’s, and clicking on Wesley Tradewell, we immediately understood the power of this tool. There was Lynne, mapped for us, with some information still private but it greatly narrowed down the line through which we matched. Knowing that she likely matches through William Humphry Tradewell removed 2 generations of likely matches, and narrowed down our search to children from William’s daughters. Even more powerful however is that we’re in regular contact with family who is likely Lynne’s 1st Cousin, Once Removed. We sent a quick email to that person, they confirmed Lynne’s lineage, and we’d filled in another DNA match. Actually, it was two, because we had the same issue with “Jonas667” (2 relative tree, both living/Private), and it was resolved in the same way.

ThruLines-4
ThruLines leveraged Private trees and DNA tests to map out our connections to a MCRA, even though we can’t make a direct match. 

All of our efforts to shrub out William Humphry Tradewell’s children had failed up to this point (no census, no obituaries, no Public Trees, etc.), so we had only one daughter tentatively identified. It would have taken significant work to break down the matches to Lynne/Jonas667 by building out each of those trees, and since we’d already tried diligently and failed, it might never have been done. But ThruLines broke through on the first click.

 

ThruLines-5
We now know where to search, to validate how “lynne” links to us

Now, this is cannot be stated more clearly: ThruLines are at best speculative “hints” that can guide your work in very effective new ways, but they do not create evidence nor can we be sure they even contain proof of anything. They are like user trees in that manner…and for good reason, they are built entirely on user trees.

 

We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

But the way the tool narrowed down these matches makes it much easier to prove them out. We know exactly where to start now, where last week we were stumped.

African-American Research

ThruLines-7Half of our tree traces their roots to enslaved African ancestors, and the second discovery we made was that ThruLines would give us suggestions even if there were 2 generations separating supposed ancestors. In the example we saw as we clicked through Michael’s maternal grandmother’s MCRA’s showed us an African-American GGM that was born in 1879, and no evidence of who her parents were. This is very common…to get to/near the 1870 wall for those of African decent, but no good leads on the generation previous. In this case however, we have a new hint: two identified generations of European ancestors, and two unidentified generations after them, leading to a link to the known Fanny Johnson. This is a highly speculative connection, and it will take considerable work to prove/disprove it going forward, but it’s at least a lead and it’s based on at least a little bit of conjecture. It may not be anything, but it also could be one of those rare finds that links one of our African ancestors back a few generations closer to their enslavement, as well as identifying the slave owner that contributed to our genetic make up.

What’s next?

Going forward, this could literally revolutionize both genetic genealogy as well as standard genealogy. Artificial Intelligence and matching algorithms can not only see patterns much better than any human can, they can do it faster while analyzing more data than we can ever hope to review in our lifetimes. We can see that in the future, when a new AncestryDNA kit is processed and put online, the user will see a large tree of matches and MCRA’s as their first few of the results, instead of a list of 4000+ matches they have to map one at a time.

Also, imagine a day when they use these tools to validate evidence of each users’ Public tree for instance, looking for clearly incorrect data/relationships and flag it for users. At the very least they can rate that “source” tree as unreliable, and bring better sourced trees to the forefront. These tools could easily allow the power of individual trees, while also bring them all into line with known facts, and start matching them in ways we can’t imagine.

Going back to our Tradewell example, our brickwall is around Reuben Tradewell and the one piece of evidence that his father might be “Jakin” from Connecticut…but the trail goes cold. Tools like this, however, point to the power that’s coming where some other groups of genealogists and family historians have a mystery “Jakin/Jacob” from Connecticut that they have sourced generations back, but don’t know his disposition. We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

Why Kenyatta D. Berry’s “The Family Tree Toolkit” needs to be on your bookshelf!

Why Kenyatta D. Berry’s “The Family Tree Toolkit” needs to be on your bookshelf!
(Note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.)

When we initially started this blog, one of the first topics we covered was our standard genealogy toolkit (How to: Getting started researching your family tree) that included everything we though people would need to successfully start getting serious with this hobby, and ease folks into more advanced work. Our suggestions included Tony Burrough’s Black Roots as well Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained, and now Kenyatta D. Berry’s The Family Tree Toolkit is a strong addition to that list. In addition to being an essential resource, it’s a wonderful read.

The Family Tree Toolkit finds that balance of storytelling, emotional connection, and practical research examples in a way we can only envy.

From a practical standpoint, her detailed list of research resources (often state-by-state) is pretty consistently spot on for a deep dive into each subject. It’s so complete, and as hobbyists who have spent nearly 8 years doing this work, we found so many additional resources it took much longer than it should have to finish the book. We’d swear that when we read the next section, we WOULDN’T dive into one of the suggested sources for that section. We’d just make notes and come back. It never worked, and we’d spend the next 2-3 days checking out new sources! If we had this book 8 years ago, and we took the time to plan our research back then, we would be SO much further on this journey. We found a lot just doing searches and lucking into things, but if we targeted the correct sources from the beginning, it would have been so much more effective, and we’re now consulting The Family Tree Toolkit as we continue our research.

The risk with these printed texts that catalog research sources is that they will grow stale with time, and the book loses it’s value, but each of the resources here seem to have been picked to be resistant to aging. Sites like familysearch.org will be around as long as the LDS church is around (essentially, forever), and other sites tend to be big, well funded, and the collections listed are more likely to grow over time. It’s a better bet than not that the book will be an essential reference guide well into the time Ms. Berry issues her first revision.

But another reason to not focus on the nature of reference aging is that the personal journey stories and examples of Ms. Berry’s work would have made this an essential read on their own. The Family Tree Toolkit finds that balance of storytelling, emotional connection, and practical research examples in a way we can only envy. Not that our passion is ever waning, but there is a thread of deep truth that runs through her stores that not only reminds us why we’re doing this work, it re-inspired us to make the effort to make physical connections to the data we’re gathering.

For example, take this passage where she talks about her first trip to an ancestral home in Madison County, Virginia:

“As I explored the grounds, I looked out to the neighboring property and realized that I was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors. More than 130 years ago, they had stood where I was standing, and as I closed my eyes, I could almost hear their voices in the distance.”

P17-0021
Rick’s Great Grandfather E.A. Morse, holding his Grandmother Catherine (Morse) Leonard, ca. 1912

That was a moving section that stuck with me for days…the profound nature of smelling the air your ancestors smelled, felt the same earth together under our feet as they did, had our heart filled with the same joy theirs must have looking at the same view we’re seeing. About a week later as we drove through my paternal ancestral home of Antigo, Wisconsin and passed my Great Grandfather’s E. A. Morse’s office….driving up Superior Street and coming to the corner of First Avenue, where he would have walked 1000’s of times on his way home, passing the same houses that still stand, the old service station that is right where its always been, up to their house which I still remember fondly, there’s a deep feeling of connection and home I shared with someone I only know from photographs, documents, and family stories. And I immediately was thinking of passages from Ms. Berry’s book.

Beyond that, thinking of my wife who is also descended from enslaved Africans, I understood the impact the lack of that connection she must feel. How part of this work, for her, is to find that natural connection to history and family. Seeking that profound moment she described has literally refocused our efforts to prove those links, and then stand on the same ground my wife’s family stood on.

Kenyatta D. Berry’s combination of a great compilation of research sources and deep, moving personal storytelling, makes The Family Tree Toolkit an essential part of our work, and our library.

 

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 6 – A science-free walk through xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA

How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches:  Part 6 – A science-free walk through xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA

We promised to keep this series as science-free as possible, and instead focus on the practical use of AncestryDNA tests to identify your ancestors. We’re going to keep that promise here, but we want to say a few words about other types of DNA tests you can’t get from Ancestry, and how xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA can be useful! Just remember, we’re generalizing a bit here, and if you want the detailed science behind all of this, Google has many great reads.

yDNA and mtDNA

yDNA and mtDNA come only from your father and your mother, respectively, and change very little over the generations. These tests are often written off in the genealogical community, because they won’t, by themselves, lead you to how you are matched with someone, or how many generations back you might match them.

dna 6 - 600px-female_dna_paths
mtDNA inheritance chart. From http://www.isogg.org.

For example, if our Michael has a yDNA test and he matches “Frank” who shares the same yDNA…it tells us next to nothing. From the test we know that on Michael’s paternal line we have proved he’s matched to Frank…but there’s no way to tell how. It could be 1000 years ago we all had a MRCA, or it could be that Frank’s 4xGGF was a brother to ours, but there’s no way that kind of range will narrow it down by itself.

There are two uses of yDNA and mtDNA, however, that makes these some of the most powerful tests you can take:

Geographical location

Unlike “ethnicity” estimates we see from all the major testers, yDNA and mtDNA can be very effective in pinpointing very accurately the location of your ancestors on the planet. The standard (Autosomal) DNA tests from Ancestry rely on a small global sample of historical DNA (16,000 samples currently), and human created Family Trees, to mathematically try and guess where our ancestors were 800-1000 years ago. They are looking for little shreds of DNA to trace back, and it’s very small amounts because Autosomal DNA gets cut in 1/2 for each side of a lin ever generation. However y/mtDNA doesn’t change over the generations and so we know very accurately where those ancestors were, based on where the bodies were found. This is especially important for African American genealogy, when there are nearly no records of origin before our ancestors were taken from Africa. These tests can be very accurate, and place your ancestral group in to very small physical and/or social (tribal) locations.

dna 6-ydna_migrationmap_(ftdna2006)
yDNA groups, and how they migrated over the centuries. From FamilytreeDNA.com.
Brick wall research

In our example above, we know for a scientific fact that Michael and Frank share an MCRA along their paternal line. The same is true for women who have an mtDNA match. While that again doesn’t help us much if we have no information, it’s invaluable if we have a good guess on how we’re related. Let’s go back to our DNA Painter walkthrough to see how we wish we had yDNA and mtDNA tests.

To recap from last week’s post, we have two lines of DNA tests that we know are connected, and we have narrowed down the MCRA for both a cluster of AncestryDNA matches and on our line, but we don’t know how they connect. So, we have two couples (Jacob/Maria Kupsch, and Joseph/Dorothy Haasl) that we know match, most likely 2-3 generations above them. Each of them have 8 potential match relatives, and we have 4 known relatives, so we’re facing 32 ancestors that might be our MCRA.

But, if we can confirm the y/mtDNA from those 4 relatives, whom all died over 100 years ago, because that DNA doesn’t change between generations. That means a direct male relative from Jacob (say his son’s, son’s, son’s, son’s DNA) will confirm Jacob’s yDNA. Same for Maria, and a direct female relative. If we could yDNA test relatives of both Jacob and Joseph, and mtDNA for both Maria and Dorothy we would have about a 25% chance of finding an immediate match. And, if say Maria and Dorothy share the same mtDNA we just figured out we need to focus our research only on both of their maternal lines to make our match. If we don’t find that match, we just eliminated 25% of our potential match points, so now instead of building out 32 ancestors to find our match, we’re down to 24. But even better, if we can go one level up and do the same thing, we can eventually narrow this down to where we share an MCRA.

Here’s a great blog post that breaks this down a real-world example from Roberta Estes: (Mitochondrial DNA Bulldozes Brick Wall)

xDNA

dna 6-gendmatch xGoing back to the GEDmatch installment of this series (How to make the most of your AncestryDNA matches: Part 4 – How to quickly, and effectively, use GEDmatch), there was a column in our DNA matches that showed the amount of xDNA that we matched other testers. The good news is that all of the major test kits include xDNA measurements in their most basic test. The bad news is, it’s unlike the other types we’ve talked about, and it’s almost useless. With one very valuable exception.

It would be highly unlikely we could ever build out a family match with xDNA, and the cM you share with someone tells you almost nothing about close of a match you are with them. The main value of xDNA is if you do match someone, it narrows down your link to that match in a very powerful way. xDNA is inherited in a unique pattern that going back several generations can eliminate more than 50% of your tree as a potential match.

Women will inherit an X chromosome from both their mother and their father, but men will inherit an X from only their mother. Going back to High School Biology, we quickly remembered that women have an XX chromosome, while men have XY!

But, the value for us comes in when we build out our potential ancestor’s chart, using that inheritance pattern. So, if we have a female test subject who has an unknown xDNA match, we know it’s not from her Father’s Father’s line because men only inherit their X from their mothers. Going back 2 generations, we just eliminated 25% of the potential matches. If you know, from other research, that this unknown match is on their father’s line, you just confirmed it’s on the father’s mother’s line.

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xDNA inheritance chart, from DNAeXplained

You won’t see a lot of xDNA matches, but when you do, Google one of the many xDNA inheritance fan charts, and start to see if you can eliminate suspects in how you match. It could bring you much closer to where to hunt for your MCRA.

Here’s a great break down of xDNA from DNA Explained, with more links to more detail as well: (Who Tests the X Chromosomes)

Just know that all of this work will have to be in GEDmatch however, since AncestryDNA doesn’t provide any information on the details of your genetic matches, and none of the tools needed to view/manage this information.

 

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 6 – Our crazy attempt to leverage 288 DNA matches to expand our tree comes to it’s conclusion

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 6 – Our crazy attempt to leverage 288 DNA matches to expand our tree comes to it’s conclusion

In the five previous parts of this series: We identified a plan to tackle what looked like a large group of DNA matches (Part 1), we went through and tagged all 288 of our Ancestry DNA results that were related to a group of matches that had Woodley/Woodson surnames in their attached trees (Part 2), we then built out a common tree for as many of the matches as we could, to nail down common ancestors, and to gain clues on where these matches link up with our tree (Part 3), we used GEDmatch and DNApainter to target the most likely line of “Mary’s” that leads from her to the group of 12 DNA matches (Part 4), and last week we broke through a brick wall with some old fashioned genealogy (Part 5). In this installment, we wrap up the story of this journey and the lessons we’ve learned. 

This journey also highlights the paradox of genealogical DNA: Your matches will come easiest on lines where you have a complete and accurate tree, but you’ll struggle to match those that are on the lines where you really need the help of DNA…because you don’t have a complete and accurate tree.

As we ended our last installment, we’d identified Sam Caswell’s wife as Annie (Moore) Caswell, daughter of Robert Moore and Henrietta (Bradford) Moore. We were able to quickly identify Henrietta’s mother, Sallie Bradford and five of Henrietta’s siblings. It was amazing, the links came easy, and the tree fell in-place just how you’d hope. The only problem was…we weren’t getting any closer to linking Roman and Mary Jones to “Mary”.  

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 3.18.43 PMGoing back to our work with the “What Are the Odds?” tool (Part 3), it’s 48 times more likely that “Mary” and Roman/Mary’s Most Recent Common Ancestor was our “Mary’s” 3x Great Grandparents, than it was her 2xGGP, and 77 times more likely that it was 3xGGP v. 4xGGP. That means Annie (Moore) Caswell’s parent all but needed to be the MRCA. One thing became increasingly clear as we shrubbed out our tree with the new information: Sam and Annie weren’t a link to Roman and Mary Jones 

Roman Jones was born around 1840, and his wife Mary was born around 1838. Annie (Moore) Caswell parents were both born around 1880, and for them to share parents would be…incredible. We looked back a generation (hoping to defy the 48 times odds!), and the lines still didn’t match.  We had good info on “Mary’s” 4xGGM Henrietta Bradford and her siblings…and while we couldn’t rule it completely out, it was very likely she wasn’t a link to the Jones either.

We went back to review everything we had on Annie Caswell, and in the 1910 U.S. Census it jumped out at us: Sam and Annie listed themselves as having no children, despite the fact that Mattie would have been 7 years old. She also indicated that she never had children. 

SamAnnie1910Census

When we looked at our notes, and research we realized we fell in the most basic trap in genealogy research: we had accepted family lore as fact, and built around that “fact”. We had an uncle that had done some basic Ancestry-based research, and when we first built out a skeleton tree, we’d used his info as the bones of the Caswell line. We had all the right facts on Mattie Caswell, we had all the right facts on Sam Caswell and Annie (Moore) Caswell…but we’d never proven their link. We went back and reviewed the transcripts of other family interviews we’d done with Mattie’s granddaughter (and others) about 4 years ago and there it was. They described that Mattie’s mother had died soon after Mattie’s birth, and her father died soon after. Mattie had been raised by others, her parents weren’t Sam and Annie, and the brick wall we’d broken through wasn’t ours…in-fact it wasn’t anyone’s, since they never had children who would be researching their ancestors.  

So what did we learn in all of this?

  • The crazy strategy of casting a wide net across 288 DNA matches worked..even though it was a LOT of work.
  • We identified a key ancestor, and we know where we can expect the MCRA to fall in our line once we know more about our line.
  • In the end, no matter how high-tech genealogy research becomes with DNA, it still comes back to the basics of a solid tree, with strong evidence, supported by old fashioned family history research. Without a solid tree, we can’t take full advantage of DNA links. 

This journey also highlights the paradox of genealogical DNA: Your matches will come easiest on lines where you have a complete and accurate tree, but you’ll struggle to match those that are on the lines where you really need the help of DNA…because you don’t have a complete and accurate tree.

For us, it’s back to the drawing board. We’re spinning off the branch of the Caswell tree for Sam and Annie that we’ve documented so well, and making it Public so others can benefit from our work. We’re attempting to identify more information from family on where/when George Barnes and Mattie (Caswell) Barnes died, so we can get their Death Certificates and begin working backwards again!

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy

In the first four parts of this series: We identified a plan to tackle what looked like a large group of DNA matches (Part 1), we went through and tagged all 288 of our Ancestry DNA results that were related to a group of matches that had Woodley/Woodson surnames in their attached trees (Part 2), we then built out a common tree for as many of the matches as we could, to nail down common ancestors, and to gain clues on where these matches link up with our tree (Part 3), and we finally used GEDmatch and DNApainter to target the most likely line of “Mary’s” that leads from her to the group of 12 DNA matches (Part 4). In this installment, we use take the high-tech leads we have and do some old-school genealogy to try and prove out our theory on who connects us to Roman and Mary Jones.

Given what we knew, it’s most likely that Mary matched the other 12 through a 3x Great Grandmother on her mom’s side. Of course that’s two women…neither of which we know much about: Fannie (Johnson) Barnes and Annie (–?–) Caswell. We had some decent confidence in who Fannie’s parents were, and the family originated in Tennessee. Since Roman and Mary Jones were from NW Mississippi, we decided to focus in on Annie Caswell from Quitman County, MS.

Mattie's Tree
Sam and Annie Caswell, when we started this process

We had almost no information on Annie Caswell. We didn’t know her maiden name, her actual birth year (only Census year), her death year, or her parents’ names. We did have her husband’s death month, year and location, and so we decided to order Sam Caswell’s Death Certificate and hope that would be enough…and that maybe there was more information on Annie listed.

Mississippi is horrible when it comes to Vital Records. They didn’t start requiring any Birth or Death Records to be recorded until 1912, and wide adoption by counties wasn’t complete until the early 1920’s. Additionally, they spent decades trying to dehumanize people of African descent to the degree that the less they were recorded as people, the better. On top of that, what they did record is mostly neither online or microfilmed…or even indexed.

There is no question DNA testing/results are valuable, but in the end it’s still just genealogy and the same techniques that have been used by family researchers for a 100+ years that are going to break through your brick walls.

This is one of the reasons there are so many holes in this branch of our family. We haven’t made the genealogy pilgrimage to Mississippi, we’re not sure what we’ll find when we get there, and there’s next to nothing available remotely. Facing this, we decide to attempt our first MS Vital Record purchase online…which requires “VitalCheck”.

About 2 weeks later, after having to remember just about every address we’ve had in the past 20 years to get past VitalCheck and deciding that selecting “Grandchild” for our relationship when we really meant “maybe 2nd Great Grandchild” was the same thing, we received Sam’s Death Certificate in the mail.

We were hoping that Annie was still alive at the time of his death, and that the certificate was filed out with her maiden name listed (maybe?). The bad news is, none of that was true…but the good news is that it gave us a next step.

We know that Sam and Annie were married in the 1940 U.S. Census but by the time of Sam’s death on 4 Jul 1974, he was married to Emma (Fox) Caswell. Of course, we’re not even 100% sure this Sam is the same Sam from Sam and Annie in 1940, and now we have a different spouse listed on the birth certificate. But, it’s possible that Annie died after 1940 and Sam remarried. The problem was how do we find Annie and tie her to Sam, let alone find her maiden name.

The hint we needed came from Sam’s Death Certificate, and his burial location. He was buried in an African American cemetery in Quitman County, which like most Southern Black cemeteries, is poorly documented. Looking in Find-A-Grave, we saw that only 1% of the headstones here were photographed, and there was no record of Sam’sOakGroveCemetery headstone/burial. However, looking at the other Caswell’s in Oak Grove Union Cemetery, we found a major lead: Annie Caswell, b. 15 Sep 1882, d. 11 Jul 1969. We’re well into speculative territory here, but this Annie first the proper birth range and she died before Sam.

Needless to say, the next step was to order our 2nd Mississippi Vital Record from the Mississippi Department of Health. But it highlights something we’ve known for quite some time about Genetic Genealogy, but it’s easy to forget: There is no question DNA testing/results are valuable, but in the end it’s still just genealogy and the same techniques that have been used by family researchers for 100+ years that are going to break through your brick walls.

We’ve shown how we can use things like DNA testing and GEDmatch to give us leads researchers would have NEVER had 20 years ago…but in the end, only the basic work of gathering and confirming Birth/Marriage/Death records will turn the leads into family members.

We received Annie Caswell’s death certificate, and it was the goldmine we were hoping for! She was married to Sam Caswell at the time of her death, and her mother’s maiden name was listed. We had gotten back a generation, both parent’s names, birth date and location…everything you could hope for! Unfortunately, her mother’s maiden name wasn’t Jones…it was Henrietta Bradford. That means Mary’s 3x Great Grandmother wasn’t a Jones, by name. It would have been much easier…but it’s possible that the 4x Great Grandparent we expect will be the link to the Jones family was Henrietta’s mother.

AnniesParentsNameWe’ll conclude this series next time, as we shrub out Henrietta’s tree…and reach the end of this journey!

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 4 – Proving the matches, and establishing a theory of connection

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 4 – Proving the matches, and establishing a theory of connection

In the first three parts of this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), we went through and tagged all 288 of our Ancestry DNA results that were related to a group of matches which had Woodley/Woodson surnames in their attached trees. We then built out a common tree for as many of the matches as we could, to nail down common ancestors, and to gain clues on where these matches link up with our tree. In this installment, we leverage GEDmatch, and deductive reasoning, to identify where we think our tree will link up with their trees.

The largest DNA matches (by centimorgans) we identified in Ancestry had also uploaded their DNA results to GEDmatch, so we were able to do tests to confirm they all truly matched. The “One-to-One” matches for each of them confirmed they were all related to “Mary”. It’s not scientific to say that all 288 were actual DNA matches, but we know the core group of matches are and that a good number of the matches-of-matches are likely also legit.

X DNA is tricky, but the important use of it identifying people who you CAN’T be a match if you share X DNA.

We were also able to use GEDmatch to identify the “true” cM match amounts between various matches, and from there we leveraged the International Society of Genetic Genealogists’ table showing cM ranges and averages between various family relationships (Shared cM Project – V3). The closest match for Mary was “W.W.”, and we settled on 133cM as their match level. The most likely relationship for that level of match was with a shared Great Grandparent, with W.W. likely being a 2nd Cousin, or a 2nd Cousin Once Removed. When we fleshed out the other 12 matches on paper, they all roughly fit this notion that they matched either Mary’s Great Grandparent or Great-Great Grandparent.

female-x-chart
Inheritance pattern for females (X DNA)

The other thing that jumped out at us, unexpectedly, from GEDmatch was that some of the 5 matches there had X DNA matches as well. X DNA is tricky, but the important use of it identifying people who you CAN’T be a match if you share X DNA. For example, a person will only inherit X DNA from their mother, so if you have an X DNA match that you’re theorizing is related to someone, but there are two male relatives in a row between the two matches, that isn’t possible.

Once we built out the theoretical map between all the matches and Mary it all fit that her GGP’s could be Roman and Mary Jones, and with the DNA levels and inheritance pattern of X DNA it’s likely that Marie’s relative was a daughter of Roman and Mary. It also pointed strongly to the matching being on her mother’s side.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 3.18.43 PM
“What are the Odds?” gives you the chances of various hypothesis’

The day after we did our work on paper with the ISOGG chart as our guidance, DNAPainter introduced a new tool called “What are the Odds?”  that does the same work we just did on paper! It’s easy, it’s awesome, and we’ll cover it in more detail in a future post. But, most importantly, it showed us that it was 77 times MORE likely that Roman or Mary Jones’s parents are our Most Recent Common Ancestor, than anyone else. It’s technically possible that our Mary is directly descended from Roman and Mary Jones, or that they are connected by 4xGGP’s…but it’s much, much more likely we’re looking for Mary’s 3xGGP’s, the parents of Roman and Mary.

Looking at Mary’s tree, and she of course has 2 maternal GGM’s. One, we have some documentation (mostly Census info with Ancestry Member Trees), but the other we had almost no information. We’re guessing the one we have little information on, Annie Caswell, might be the best lead, so we’re going to dig into her.

Samuel and Annie Caswell were born, married, and died in and around Crowder, MS. Family lore has Sam and Annie as Mary’s grandparents, but we only have Annie’s Census birth date, and no maiden name for her. About the only piece of hard information we had was that Samuel might have died in July 1974 (based on the SSDI).

Time for some old-school genealogy, to hopefully prove out the high-tech theory that points to Annie Caswell being on the Jones line.

Next in the Series: Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy