Friday, March 25, 2022

No Way Thru—
Or, Check Those Lines Often


More than my fair share of conjectures can pop up when I'm dealing with the uncertainty of tracing ancestors. Some people prefer to call them by the more science-y term, hypotheses, but my struggles sometimes expose my lack of such certainty. I call them guesses, mere guesses—and I'm not afraid to try them out.

Right now, I'm wrestling with the thought that the Andrew McClellan who keeps showing up nearby my fourth great-grandfather Charles McClellan, no matter where he moves, might turn out to be Charles' brother. Obviously, that's simply my guess; I have no smoking-gun documentation to which to triumphantly point. 

I have some possible encouraging signs. The 1800 census, back in South Carolina, puts the two men in the same county—then a large swath of land dubbed Orangeburgh District. Twenty years later, when both names show up in the southern coast of Georgia, they are once again living near each other, despite the different location.

Still, until I can dig out some as-yet undigitized records increasing my confidence level beyond coincidence, I'd like some alternate means to guide my guesses, er, hypotheses.

Enter DNA. At least with a slim margin.

With the distance between the current generation of McClellan descendants and their founding ancestors so great, it is possible that there is no shared genetic material which can be discerned through autosomal tests. In other words, it is quite possible that a typical DNA test will not produce any viable matches at all. Nor can I rely on Y-DNA tests (I'm not a male descendant, nor would this be my patriline, even if I were). Not even a mitochondrial test would help, as this McClellan connection comes through my maternal grandmother's father.

Regardless, I took a look. As it turns out, I have several DNA matches which connect me to Charles McClellan—matches ranging from fifty four centiMorgans all the way down to a miniscule eleven centiMorgans. Those matches approaching the lesser count still provide a solid paper trail all the way up to Charles' several sons who were siblings to my direct line descent from George McClellan, my third great-grandfather.

Looking for Andrew's kin, on the other hand, worked out great last week, but not today. Why? I suspect the ThruLines readout provided at changes periodically, based on the fact that a major portion of the data is drawn from subscribers' own self-reported family trees. Change enough trees, see the resulting reports change, as well.

This week, for instance, I suddenly have had my fifth great-grandparent—father, presumably, of both Charles and Andrew McClellan—changed from the "Unknown" entry I had listed in my own tree to parent of a daughter, not the man I'd been expecting.

I remember seeing ThruLines listings for Andrew last week, but now—poof!—they are gone. Worse, now my own fourth great-grandfather shows up in the tool listed as a great-something grand uncle to me. And yet, when I blink hard and go back to look again a few hours later, everything is different once again.

I saw it, though: this listing of DNA cousins who descended from Andrew McClellan. I saw it; I know I did. And I check again, just to make sure. And—reverse poof!—there he is once again, founding father of a whole line of DNA matches. What brought him back?

True, the preponderance of the ThruLines connection is based on aggregated information from other subscribers' trees, so I shouldn't forget that detail. It is a tool, after all. Sometimes, a tool is just what we need; other times, we need to look for a more suitable application.

And yet, for a DNA cousin to link me back to the brother of a fourth great-grandfather, I'd need to be discovering sixth cousins among my matches. Referring to the Shared cM Project at DNA Painter, I can see that that would require finding a match within the range dropping from seventy one centiMorgans on the high end to zero on the other end. Small wonder, then, that I find most of the seventeen matches reaching back to Andrew hovering dangerously close to the ten cM range. That certainly falls within the numbers experienced in the more than sixty thousand data points submitted by participants in the Shared cM Project to date.

The numbers, seemingly too close to the Identical By State dilemma, bring me precipitously near a lack of confidence in what the numbers could represent. Granted, those numbers could turn up for a closer relationship; even third cousins, for instance, might not share any genetic material, according to a DNA test. It is clear from the paper trail, though, that these matches are not closer than sixth cousin. They could, however, represent even more distant relationships; a seventh cousin might produce a similar genetic count, pushing the Most Recent Common Ancestor back even one generation further removed. Charles and Andrew might not be siblings, after all.

While I most certainly will be spending the weekend churning out a bibliographic litany of documentation resources on the descendants of this Andrew McClellan, it is time to specifically look for any records which confirm or reject the notion that Charles and Andrew were brothers.

That, by the way, brings me back to my original research goal for this month: to learn everything I can about where Charles came from—especially such details on who his parents might have been, and even whom he married, somewhere back in South Carolina in the very earliest years of the nineteenth century.

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