Monday, February 20, 2023

Musings on the Matriline


If you have ever considered taking a mitochondrial DNA test—that specialized test which, unlike the autosomal cousin connector, zeroes in strictly on the matriline—you will appreciate learning of my experience when I sprang for that same pricey DNA test alternative. You see, I have a gap in my family tree, one which I knew about ever since those early years when starry-eyed children asked their parents to tell them all about their ancestors.

Granted, I didn't get too far with that question when I posed it to my father. With my mother, I had only a bit more success: she could tell me about her mother, and then her grandmother. But when I asked for details on her mother, all I got were roadblocks—two of them.

That woman—my mother's great-grandmother and thus my own second great-grandmother—died at a young age. Her daughter barely knew anything at all about her, for the child had only turned three when she lost her mother. To complicate matters further, my mother indicated that, besides dying young, the unfortunate young mother had herself been an orphan.

I had my guesses, of course, which I had written up in posts years ago. My first obstacle was to escape the mindset based on understandings of adoption cases of our current times. Unlike closed adoptions of the twentieth century, when a child was orphaned in previous centuries, it was more likely that some member of the extended family would take in that orphaned child or children. If the researcher was fortunate, there might even be court records of guardianship proceedings.

Once I got used to thinking more like Pollyanna than a placement worker of the 1960s, I realized there might be clues within my extended family. The unfortunate woman who made my second great-grandfather a widower was not simply a nameless orphan. She had a marriage record, and a census entry just prior to that 1871 wedding, opening the door for some Pollyanna-esque speculation about just which relatives might have taken her in.

There was one other way, however, to help me be sure my guesses were well founded: take an mtDNA test, myself. Then, the only obstacle standing between me and confirmation of this orphan's birth family would be whether any exact matches would also have tested.

As I awaited my test results, I had composed a hypothetical tree for my orphaned second great-grandmother, focusing on her matriline. Moving step by step, I had entered and documented the one whom I thought would be her mother, then her maternal grandmother, and so on, back through the generations of mothers. I was ready for any likely candidates to show up in my test results.

Thankfully, someone did test who was an exact match to me—someone who, as a bonus, also had posted a complete tree back to the 1600s.

Far back through the generations, comparing both my hypothetical tree and that of my mtDNA match, I spotted our Most Recent Common Ancestor: a woman by the name of Margaret Watts. Said to have been born about 1700 in Virginia, Margaret had married a man by the name of William Strother. Their daughter Jane married Thomas Lewis, whose daughter Elizabeth became the mother of Mary Meriwether Gilmer, bringing this genealogy down into more familiar territory.

I think you may see where this is going now.

In the meantime, that original Margaret and William Strother had another daughter, who became the head of my exact mtDNA match's matriline, helping to confirm my guess as to the identity of my orphaned second great-grandmother.

I was elated at that discovery when it happened. But its full impact didn't hit me until I started working on this month's research project on the Taliaferro line. Sure, the mystery orphaned woman became the bride of my second great-grandfather, Thomas Taliaferro Broyles, whose very middle name trumpeted his connection to his grandfather, Zachariah Taliaferro.

But that unfortunate bride had a Taliaferro connection of her own. It just wasn't the same Taliaferro. We'll save that discussion for tomorrow.   


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