On October 28, 2013 at 3PM Eastern, join me and CeCe Moore as we discuss Strategies for Using Autosomal DNA - Part II on Bernice Bennett’s Research at The National Archives and Beyond on BlogTalk Radio

Strategies For Using Autosomal DNA

Join me & on 6/27/13 at 9PM Eastern Time as we discuss “Strategies for Using Autosomal " with  on BlogTalk Radio’s Research at The National Archives and Beyond 

Roots Revealed: Going Deeper With 23andMe

Roots Revealed: Going Deeper with 23andMe

Mystified 23andMe customers seeking to decode their DNA for genealogy - help is on the way. The African-American Genealogical Society of Northern California will host a public webinar, Roots Revealed: Going Deeper with 23andMe, on November 14, 2012 at 6PM PST. Registration is free, but limited to the first 200 participants. I hope to see you there.

The Genealogy Event

New York City genealogists,

Mark your calendars. Organized by BBNY Group LLC, The Genealogy Event, will unfold at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Pavilion (18th Street at 6th Avenue) on October 26th and October 27th. Billed as the only event of its kind in NYC in 2012, The Genealogy Event will feature talks from genealogists such as Judy G. Russell, author of The Legal Genealogist and Bennett Greenspan, founder of Family Tree DNA, as well as an active lineup of exhibitors.

An Ancestry Upgrade and A Discount for 23andMe

Many months ago, I promised Through The Trees readers a series of didactic posts detailing how to employ 23andMe to advance their genealogy research. After 23andMe named me an Ancestry Ambassador, I delayed the series to await the arrival of the new ancestry experience 23andMe’s CEO Anne Wojcicki promised to deliver by August 2012

As of today, 23andMe has unveiled many of the planned ancestry components.

Among the new features is an Ancestry Overview that summarizes what one’s genes reflect about one’s ancestry, including genetic ethnicity and the number of genetic relatives currently in the 23andMe database.

Ancestry Dashboard

A new map view of Relative Finder visualizes the geographical origins of one’s Relative Finder matches and, presumably, your shared ancestors.

Relative Finder Map View

23andMe’s new family tree (still in beta mode) allows genetic genealogists to compare family trees with Relative Finder matches and potentially identify the ancestors from whom they inherited their shared DNA segments. With substantial tweaks, the family tree tool will rank among the most powerful 23andMe has rolled out to date.

23andMe Family Tree

23andMe also plans to release a new, far more detailed Ancestry Painting feature that will include 20 reference populations and analyze the biogeographical origin of X-chromosome DNA.

Feel free to try the new features and supply feedback to the 23andMe team or email me at ThroughTheTreesBlog [at] gmail [dot] com. If you have not experienced 23andMe but have some interest, feel free to use this discount code to get $50 off your 23andMe purchase in the next three days: VMQ6KG; the offer expires at 11:59 PDT, Sunday August 12, 2012.

Family Tree DNA Serves Up Summer Sale

Family Tree DNA has renewed its perennially succesful summer sale, temporarily slashing prices for Y-chromosome DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA analysis until 11:59PM on Sunday July 15. As an avid proponent of genotyping, I encourage everyone to take advantage while supplies last. See the sale price schedule below courtesy of The Legal Genealogist.

Blogs To Follow: Allied Families

Tracking one’s ancestors in colonial America and the early days of the republic always demands a patient eye, especially when these ancestral lines become tangled webs of cousin marriages and repetitive naming patterns. Luckily, Kathryn Gearheart, an accomplished genealogist, has created a useful and unique resource for those seeking to untangle their Southside Virginia pedigree: Allied Families

Pulling from primary sources and collected genealogies, Gearheart has constructed a rich overview of the families that have populated southern Virginia since the 1600s, guiding readers through the labyrinth of connections.

‎”The moment I saw them I caught the first melody from our genomic ancestors. What had been until then a formless noise, audible only to the oscilloscope of computation, suddenly resolved into woodwinds, strings, and brass.” - Bryan Sykes in DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America

The Missing Pieces in an

African American Family History

As the series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. continues its 10-week run on PBS, The Spittoon will feature posts from 23andMe’s Ancestry Ambassadors featuring their own stories about using DNA to dig into ancestry.

By Shannon Christmas

African American genealogy remains a challenging jigsaw puzzle where half of the pieces seem irrevocably lost. Many families scarred by chattel slavery buried their pasts to distance themselves and their progeny from the horrors of bondage. Now, advances in genetics and Internet technology have unearthed some of the long-buried pieces of our especially fractured history.

Uncovering some of those missing pieces for my own family required an open mind. One of my paternal great-grandmothers, Katie Lee Davis of Warren County, North Carolina, inherited a revisionist version of our family’s past. In her correspondence with one of my cousins, Grandma Katie identified her ancestors, wrote lovingly of her paternal aunts, and recalled never having known a former slave among her relatives. Yet in 2010, 16 years after her death, revelations about Grandma Katie’s ancestors began to tell a different story.

Marriage and death records from Warren County list Grandma Katie’s paternal grandparents as Henry and Lucinda Davis, an African-American couple about whom little else is known. However, in the summer of 2010, Ray, the husband of one of my father’s first cousins, emailed me a pedigree outline that omitted Henry’s name and replaced it with a Peter “White” Davis. The glaring conflict between the government documents I had examined and this new email raised questions. Who was Peter “White” Davis? Was he really Grandma Katie’s grandfather?

The answers to those questions only heightened my curiosity. Ray reported that Peter “White” Davis, a slave owner, formally named Peter Randolph Davis, allegedly sired many mulatto children with his slaves. According to one of Katie’s elderly distant relatives, Grandma Katie’s father, Richard D. Davis, was one of those mulatto children.

Tracing Peter Randolph Davis’ lineage yielded another discovery. Peter’s maternal great-grandparents included a couple whom I had encountered in previous research: Captain William Green and Mary Elizabeth Christmas. Both Captain Green and his wife, Mary, were indirect ancestors of my great-grandfather, Richard Christmas. Richard Christmas’ paternal grandfather, Lewis Yancey Christmas, a wealthy Warren County planter and attorney, took two of his slaves as common-law wives. The first such union produced 12 children including my great-great-grandfather, Erasmus Christmas.

If the Peter Randolph Davis story was accurate, then my great grandfather Richard Christmas and my great grandmother Katie Lee Davis were not only husband and wife for 60 years, but 4thcousins once removed.

The possibility of a consanguineous marriage, though initially unsettling, provided an opportunity to verify this new paternity claim using DNA testing. Web-based DNA analysis tools allow one to search an individual’s raw DNA data file from 23andMe for runs of homozygosity, segments of DNA that indicate one’s parents shared recent common ancestors. Since my grandfather, the son of Richard Christmas and Katie Lee Davis, had tested with 23andMe, the truth sat just a few keystrokes away. GEDMatch.com’s “Cousin Test for Parents” identified nine runs of homozygosity among my grandfather’s 22 autosomal chromosomes, amounting to more than 55 centimorgans (cM) of DNA, an amount that suggests his parents were at least 4th cousins. A similar tool created by mathematician David Pike (http://www.math.mun.ca/~dapike/FF23utils/roh.php) replicated the results. Richard Christmas and Katie Lee Davis shared a bloodline, all but proving that Peter Randolph Davis was indeed Katie’s paternal grandfather.

In early 2012, I obtained a slave inventory from an estate file for Dr. Stephen Davis (Peter Randolph Davis’ father); the family of Henry and Lucinda Davis appears among the slaves listed.

Like so many former slaves, the paternal relatives with whom my great-grandmother spent her earliest years, clearly sought to conceal their dark history to embrace a brighter future. But DNA illuminated how that past proved prologue.

When he is not updating pedigree charts or mapping his chromosomes, Shannon Christmas is the founder and Chief Market Advisor/Design Strategist of The Christmas Collective, a strategic real estate and land use consulting atelier.

Y-DNA STRs: The Key to Finding Your Roots’ Unsolved Mysteries

Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

For the past week, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. has enlightened and thrilled viewers with revelations about the ancestry of musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, Congressman John Lewis, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, journalist Barbara Walters, and education advocate Geoffrey Canada. But the mysteries Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. leaves unsolved puzzle many genetic genealogists.

Geoffrey CanadaBranford Marsalis

Specifically, Gates left questions about the paternal lines of Branford Marsalis and Geoffrey Canada unanswered. Last week, Gates declared Isaac Black, not a man with the surname Carter, was Branford Marsalis’ great-great-grandfather simply because Isaac signed a marriage license with Marsalis’ great-great-grandmother four days after the Carter gentleman apparently reneged on his marriage proposal. Last night, Geoffrey Canada discovered that Charles Cannaday, a Franklin County, Virginia slave owner, enslaved and possibly fathered Geoffrey’s paternal great-great-grandfather, Thomas Cannaday. Dr. Gates located two living white descendants of Charles Cannaday but, since both declined Gates’ request for DNA testing, the research ended prematurely.

In both cases, Y-DNA STR analysis could potentially have provided answers without requiring the recruitment of additional testers. Genealogists use Y-chromosome DNA STR (short tandem repeat) testing to trace a male’s direct paternal line; this type of analysis associates a specific genetic signature with a particular line of males who often share a single paternal surname. Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com have offered Y-DNA STR tests for over a decade. Their large databases have already connected Y-DNA signatures to specific families. The family from whom Branford Marsalis inherited his Y-DNA STR signature may already be in such a database. As Your Genetic Genealogist reported in her recap of last night’s episode, many men with variations of the Cannaday surname have tested their Y-DNA STRs with Family Tree DNA and could descend from the same ancestor as Geoffrey Canada. The truth for Marsalis and Canada may be just a cheek swab away.

Y-DNA STR testing helped confirm a snippet of my family’s history. My paternal line, as family lore had it, inherited the unique surname Christmas from Lewis Yancey Christmas, a well-to-do Warren County, North Carolina planter and attorney who fathered a dozen children with my great-great-great-grandmother, a slave named Jenny. Lewis, Jenny, and their offspring (including my great-great-grandfather, Erasmus Christmas) reportedly lived together under one roof as happily as an interracial nuclear family could in the antebellum South. Aside from Lewis’ 1857 will emancipating his alleged slave children and bequeathing to them $10,000 (about $280,000 in 2012 dollars), little documentary evidence of our family’s tale existed.


In 2010, I tested my Y-DNA STRs with Family Tree DNA. My results included one genealogically relevant match: a Mr. Christmas of New Mexico. Comparing our family trees, we discovered that our most recent common ancestor was Thomas Cross Christmas (1689-1769) of Hanover County, Virginia and Bute (now Warren) County, North Carolina. Plenty of primary source documents identify Thomas Cross Christmas as the great-great-grandfather of Lewis Yancey Christmas. Seemingly irrefutable DNA evidence proved that my ancestors’ claims of descending from the Anglo-American Christmas family of Warren County are true.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is clearly aware of the power of Y-DNA STR testing; he has personally purchased such testing to investigate a mystery in his own family. With his Y-DNA STR results, Gates can begin solving his ancestral puzzle with a few keystrokes. Y-Search, a database of Y-DNA STR test results (including those of Professor Gates), allows men with matching Y-DNA to connect and begin tracing their shared lineage. The surnames of Prof. Gates’ Y-Search matches suggest that his elusive great-great-grandfather descended from the Lowery family, a clan that resided in Allegheny County, Maryland (Gates’ ancestral home) as early as the 19th century.


Hopefully, Finding Your Roots will eventually harness the power of Y-DNA STR analysis to extend and enrich family trees, especially those of African-American men, more than 30% of whom, like Geoffrey Canada and Professor Gates, descend from a European paternal line.