Tuesday, April 9, 2019

52 Ancestors - DNA: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

DNA is the big topic among genealogists and family historians these days. Many of my colleagues spout words like “haplotype,” "downstream," and “centimorgans” without flinching. I, on the other hand, just hear Charlie Brown’s teacher - “wah waah, wah waah.”

Admittedly, DNA solved one of the Jollett mysteries. Two Boyd researchers who met online compared notes and learned that both grew up hearing stories that their great-grandfather William Boyd had changed his name to avoid punishment for some unnamed crime. Some letters had been burned while preserving just enough to point the family to William’s identity as a Jollett while keeping the secret a secret.

William Boyd aka Jollett and Hattie Boyd https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
William Boyd aka Jollett
and wife Hattie
A DNA test solved the mystery when our Boyd matched with a Jollett. Good news! It was time to celebrate because we no longer had to wonder. If you want to read the story, click HERE.

When we had Daddy’s DNA tested, we looked forward to being part of the Slade DNA group study. We were eager to learn more about the great-grandfather who came to Virginia from Florida as just a child with his widowed mother. We hoped to learn about the other Slades, where they were from, where they went. I did not understand the early reports of those we match. None of our chromosome numbers matched any of the seven main Slade branches. But I now understood one thing and one thing only. A genetic distance of “0” means an exact match, definitely related within four generations or closer.

Our exact matches are with the families of Calhoun. Even matches with a distance of 1 or 2 match Calhoun. Not a single Slade match.

OK, I can accept a “non-paternal event” as a fact of life. No problem. When that event occurred is still unclear. From correspondence with two of my matches, it seems likely that my great-grandfather’s father might have been the product of an affair. Read the story HERE.

I have one more mystery that I would LOVE to solve through DNA since I do not think I will stumble upon a tell-all diary any time soon. Since there are people still living who will be impacted by this story, I am going to be vague on purpose.

I have a relative who was raised by an aunt and uncle but thought they were his natural parents. He learned the truth when he had to provide a birth certificate to join the Air Force. That is rather a long time to be sheltered from the truth and a hard way to learn it.

Julia and Tate Walsh https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Two "mothers"
But his story gets worse. He was raised as a twin with the couple’s son who was actually half a year older. The boys started school together although my relative was not really old enough yet. Today we all are much more aware of how maturity and school-readiness affects children, but not so much in the 1930s. Maybe that is why this relative performed poorly, stayed in trouble, and dropped out of school in the tenth grade.

To make matters worse, NO ONE in the family would tell him who his real parents were. The birth certificate revealed that his beloved aunt, a sister to the woman he called “Mom,” was his real mother. He believed his father was the man he called “Dad,” that the two had had an affair. However, those in the know said absolutely not. Even today the truth is a carefully guarded secret. The one who holds the key says that descendants of his birth father are still here in our community and it is not clear whether they know their grandfather/great-grandfather played around with a 16-year old girl.

Today this relative is just an angry man who has run off two wonderful and devoted wives and alienated his children. Maybe his behavior is genetic. Maybe it is the consequence of a lifetime of being let down and lied to. A DNA test could at least answer his question if not solve his problems. A DNA test could also turn the world upside down for another family.

Someone once said that we all have 2 genealogies: a legal one and a biological one. As the registrar for my DAR chapter, it is my job to compile the legal paper trail leading from an applicant for membership to a patriot who aided in the cause for American freedom during the time of the Revolutionary War. Sometimes though the legal documents conflict with what a family knows or believes based on family lore and/or DNA. Currently DAR recognizes paternity tests and Y-DNA tests only in a quest to join.

My experience with DNA testing makes me wonder how many of us are not who we think we are. I have a trail of legal documents that PROVE William Jordan is my ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. But I have to wonder if a DNA test would agree. After all, I have lots of paper proving I am a Slade with ancestors first appearing in Georgia in the late 1700s/early 1800s, but my DNA says otherwise. 

How will such knowledge affect lineage societies like DAR, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Mayflower Society, Colonial Dames, First Families, etc? At least in DAR, once a daughter, always a daughter. Anyone who learns today that they did not really descend from a verified patriot will not have to worry about being kicked out.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.”

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. You brought up so many good interesting thoughts about how DNA can change things in people's thoughts, records, etc. Like it is good to know about DNA, but should it take the forefront on how we were raised and what we thought we were ethnicity wise?

    I have to laugh because hubby's parents "swore" they had Native American Indian blood in them and when his brother got the DNA sample done, nothing from any thing like that and from countries that his parents would have been horrified to think they had connections with. I'm 100% sure his brother nor hubby were not adopted so I know there wasn't any stories made up.

    That is sad about your relative not knowing who truly his biological mom was. Its a shame that no one was willing to share any info with him and you wonder what would have been different if he had been allowed the truth.

    The local news did do a story last night about DNA testing and police serving search warrants at various DNA testings to share info with them about this or that. I guess you can opt out of having your DNA be able to be available to be searched.

    My thoughts, for whatever they are worth (not much). I'm not going to get DNA tested. I will go with what my mom said and take her word at it. Both of our kids are adopted so our DNA will mean nothing to them and they might in turn decide to see what pops up on their DNA though they know a bit of their backgrounds (they always knew they were adopted and we told them when they were 18 we would help them find their biological parents; neither expressed an interest so far).


    1. Oh yes, there's a lot of misunderstanding about police having access to our DNA. Genealogists are encouraged to SHARE their dna report on sites like Gedmatch to further our research. Anybody can do that, even police.

      As for the adoption, my son-in-law is adopted but has no interest in finding his birth parents. I would like to know simply for my grandbaboo's sake and so I can fill out her tree. But it's not my place.

  2. An unusually thoughtful and thorough discussion of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm rather appalled at the "ugly" story because so many lives were hurt by the secret parentage. Our ancestors never imagined there would be revelations such as these in the future, based on a simple scientific test. Thanks for telling your stories!

    1. I understand why decisions were made as they were for the times, but I don't understand keeping that secret today.

  3. An interesting sideshoot to the identified downsides of DNA testing.

    One thing I raise when I'm talking about family history is the need to consider your position on just what "family" means...for me it means those adopted in as well as those adopted out. It's a whole different question I guess for DAR.

    1. Lineage societies are usually particular about the bloodline. One exception is the United Daughters of the Confederacy which will accept collateral lines too. Of course, that's still blood-related. I don't know of any group that recognizes adoptions as lineage.

  4. First of all, I love your Charlie Brown reference!

    Second, in relation to the "ugly" story... it is hard not to use today's view of right and wrong to judge past generations. But, the truth is the world was different even 50 or 60 years ago! And, family members often raised other family members often to protect the good standing of the biological mother and also to protect the family's reputation. A wonderful book to read on this topic is "The Girls Who Went Away: The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade."

    My heart goes out to all of the family members who were affected by this!

    1. Oh I agree. I know the family had the best of intentions to protect a young girl, a Catholic girl no less. And they KEPT the child - that says a lot, right there. The part I don't like is that today - 80 years later - the secret is still a secret.

  5. This really pulled some heart strings I am untangling some family history that despite legal documents is finally being sorted by dna. Some much of what you have written is relevant. Thanks for your post