Was Her Enslaver Also Her Father? DNA Testing for Ancestor’s Origins

Sunny Morton

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Can DNA help Linda determine whether an enslaver was an ancestor’s father? Finding a 4x great grandfather using autosomal DNA can be tricky. Read Diahan Southard’s tips for Linda as she explores this question.

“Can DNA help me learn the identity of my 4X great grandfather?”

What a great question! It comes from Linda Crichlow White, who previously shared another story with us. This follow-up question relates to a family mystery: the identity of a 4X great grandfather.

The reconstructed McLean House (brick house on the right). Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Linda Crichlow White was cleaning out the home of her mother’s elderly cousin, Connie. Linda came across a letter written in 1948 by Connie’s mother to a local radio show host after hearing him air a program about Wilmer McLean (1814-1882) and his house.

Known as the  “Surrender House,” McLean’s home is where General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, near Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

According to the 1948 letter, a woman on the radio show told a story about a cannonball falling down the chimney during conflict prior to the surrender. Connie’s mother wrote: 

“My mother and grandmother were both living on the plantation of the McLean mansion (as my mother called it). She recalled the falling or dropping of the cannon ball in the chimney and she told how the miracle [was] that no one was hurt. She also told me how the ‘Yankees’ confiscated the ‘mansion’ for their headquarters and all of them had to ‘refugee.’….Mother at the time was old enough to serve the table and grandmother worked in the kitchen….The lady who told the story…might be interested to know that I am a direct descendant of women who were actually there when her story was made.”

Linda shares those same ancestors! Her 3X great grandmother, Lucy, was the small girl. Follow up research confirmed that Lucy and her family had been enslaved by Wilmer.

Can DNA Help Identify Lucy’s Father–and Was He the Enslaver?

She learned Lucy’s mother’s name–Betty–and knew Betty had fathered children with (and probably married) Henry Stewart, with whom she appears in the 1870 census. But Linda wondered whether Lucy was fathered by the women’s enslaver, Wilmer. Her family chart, below, currently reflects this possibility. “However,” she writes, “I have met (and am now friends with) some confirmed descendants of Wilmer and so far, we do not show up as DNA matches.” 

So now Linda considers it an open question. Whether Lucy’s father was Wilmer or Henry Stewart or someone else, Linda wants help connecting with other DNA matches who may be descended from him. As shown by the green labels we’ve added to her chart above, Linda will be looking for 5th cousins to connect her to that mysterious 4th great grandfather.

Here are some thoughts about Linda’s question from Diahan Southard:

1. Using autosomal DNA for 5th Cousins

Autosomal DNA isn’t great for connecting distant cousins. You only share noticeable amounts of DNA with about half of your fourth cousins–meaning about half of them won’t show up on your DNA match list, even if they’ve tested. Let that sink in for a second. And that’s for 4th cousins.

Linda needs 5th cousins to make any connection to Wilmer McLean or Henry Stewart, and the odds of her finding them on her DNA match list are even lower. The screenshot below from the Shared cM Project shows that for 1130 documented 5th cousin DNA relationships, they most commonly share only 20-30 cM (and often even lower amounts) of DNA. So this means that NOT finding specific matches on her list who are known to descend from McLean or Stewart doesn’t rule them out as fathers.

Source: Shared cM Project

That said, Linda can absolutely follow the Plan, outlined in Your DNA Guide–the Book and taught in the DNA Skills Workshop, to see if she can identify matches who descend from that mystery 4th great grandfather. First, she will group her DNA matches into four genetic networks, representing her four great grandparent ancestral couples. Then, as she goes back each generation toward the unknown father, she will split each genetic network in half to represent those who descend from the mother’s side or the father’s side. 

If at that distant point, she’s able to confidently identify someone who descends from someone on Betty’s parents’ side of the family, she can split the network into a group of “leftovers” who represent the matches who descend from Lucy’s father. This process can often get muddled at the 4X great grandparent level due to a variety of issues like low shared amounts of DNA, limitations of the Shared Matches tool at some companies, and the possibility of multiple shared ancestors at this level, to name a few.

Another possible approach in Linda’s autosomal match list, especially if she gets back a few generations and is having trouble splitting her genetic networks, is to filter matches by ethnicity. Lucy’s mother was enslaved. If her father was McLean or another white man, people who descend from his side of the family may have significantly more European ancestry than Lucy’s side, although this possibility may not pan out. (For example, if McLean himself had African descent; if he had other children by women of African descent; or if Lucy had significant European heritage).

2. Target testing to improve her chances

If Linda is in touch with descendants of McLeans and Stewarts, she can absolutely invite them to take an autosomal DNA test with the same company she’s tested with. In this case, she would want to test as many people as possible from the oldest living generations, as this will improve the odds of finding any connections. If she does find connections, she should be sure their DNA sharing is consistent with their proposed genealogical relationship (although being within range doesn’t prove a connection, especially at this distant relationship). Also, she should watch for other tree connections that might also explain their DNA sharing.

3. What about YDNA or mtDNA?

Unfortunately, because Lucy was a daughter, YDNA won’t be a useful strategy for finding this unknown grandfather. Potentially, she could use mtDNA to try to connect Lucy to her mother, Betty, and thence to other mtDNA matches who may have documented more of their shared heritage (or who could even also be distant autosomal matches, which is a long shot).

Next Steps

Linda’s question highlights the difficulty of trying to use autosomal DNA to peer more deeply into the past than a few generations. It’s not impossible, and Linda can certainly keep doing genealogy, dividing her genetic networks and watching for new, distant DNA matches who might–especially added up, over time–might provide useful evidence as to the identity of Lucy’s father.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to look for your 5th cousins using DNA, but you want to begin by finding some closer ancestors: we’ve got just the right place to start! Download our FREE guide on 4 next steps for your DNA. This guide is a great start to identifying unknown ancestors.

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1 Comment

  1. Gerri Gibson

    I have or had the same quandary and was actually in denial that my paternal grandmother’s surname linked back to a slaveholders family. Long story short, I created a Leed chart, then a spreadsheet. Genealogist says it’s of no significance, but most of my DNA matches that have my grandmother’s surname in theirctrees all fall on my same 2 chromosomes.


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