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.
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.
Esteemed genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills launched Historic Pathways, a new website featuring articles and other resources that help guide us through the challenges that often obstruct one’s view of a family’s past.
What is most inspiring about Mills’ new website is the sheer breadth of time periods, ethnicities, and geographic locations covered by the resources there, all of which can enrich and enliven the genealogical journey.
A look at aprilstechtips' genealogy technology toolbox:
I came across a link to look up my ancestors a couple of days ago and since then I have been HOOKED! A few decades ago when I wanted to start a genealogy project it was so difficult I gave up, but today’s technology makes genealogy research so easy! Here’s some places to get started:
In 1998, a group of scientists employed DNA analysis to prove that descendants of United States President Thomas Jefferson and descendants of Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings, shared a bloodline. That discovery irrevocably changed genealogy. Hard science could finally (dis)prove centuries-old oral history, history that had previously been dismissed because of a lack of documentary evidence.
Since that moment in 1998, countless family historians have utilized Y-chromosome DNA data to pinpoint paternal origins. Others have analyzed mitochondrial DNA to trace the migrations of their maternal line.
Now the Silicon Valley-based, Google-backed 23andMe uses autosomal DNA to trace all of one’s ancestral lines, not just the direct male or the direct female line. 23andMe’s Relative Finder feature even allows one to communicate with relatives from all of these ancestral lines.
For researchers of African descent 23andMe has been dubbed a “gamechanger,” as it pulls back the weighty curtain of history to reveal the identities of otherwise unknown Caucasian forebears and the Old World sources of African ancestry. Since joining 23andMe over one year ago, a single DNA sample has connected me to two Nigerian relatives and several others in the British Isles, continental Europe, and Australia - a true feat for someone whose known ancestors have been on American soil since the 17th century.
While I have used the service to verify known ancestry and discover unknown ancestors, these discoveries required my new found relatives to share and communicate. Sadly, a contingent of 23andMe customers feels overwhelmed by the deluge of data and needlessly fears that giving any information useful for tracing one’s ancestry may yield disastrous consequences.
To help new customers overcome their fears and maximize the opportunities presented by 23andMe, I will run a series of explanatory posts called “The 23andMe Chronicles.” Stay tuned…
In the meantime (until December 27, 2011), feel free to join 23andMe with a $23 discount from yours truly: http://www.23andMe.com/a/ff1/v4q3j
Qualifying individuals of African descent may want to sign up for 23andMe’s Roots into the Future, a health initiative that provides free genetic testing.