Saturday, April 29, 2023

Where the Mitochondrial DNA Trail Leads


Sometimes, the connections found between distant family members can be surprising. Not long after I began this month's research project, I discovered my mother-in-law's matriline connected her with women living in colonial Maryland, reaching as far back in time as the mid-1600s. Now, reversing the process, I'm searching for descendants of those ancestral women who are considered an "exact match" to my mother-in-law's mitochondrial DNA signature. The trail this hunt has led me on so far has yielded some surprises.

The trail began with my mother-in-law's sixth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Duvall who, with her husband William Ridgely, gave the mitochondrial world eleven daughters whose multiple female descendants could possibly number well into the hundreds by the time of our current generation.

I started this mitochondrial chase with Elizabeth's daughter Martha Ridgely, sister of our direct line ancestor, Rachel Ridgely. The reason for this choice was simple: when researching ancestors in the 1600s, it is not easy to find mention of the women we are seeking.

In Martha's case, however, I was fortunate. One mention in a book—Joshua Dorsey Warfield's The Founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, Maryland—revealed that Martha had married Henry Gaither. Henry, in turn, eventually became known as a D.A.R. Patriot.

From Martha and Henry, it was onward to following their daughters. First on my list—again, because I could find records for this—was their daughter Mary Gaither who, through marriage with another well-known family in Maryland, became the wife of Orlando Griffith Dorsey. The next generation brought yet another Mary, by then moved from Maryland to Kentucky, where Mary Dorsey became wife of John Carr.

Fortunately, this line from Martha to Mary to daughter Mary produced a family which once again included daughters. The mitochondrial line was still going strong.

That was where we met Mary and John Carr's daughter Mary Elizabeth Carr, wife of John Fenley. She it was who met that tragic end in the Quincy horror which claimed so many lives from the Fenley family. Though that appalling story permanently removed any chance of Mary Elizabeth Carr's mtDNA passing to future generations, Mary Elizabeth did have sisters.

Of course, I traced those lines, as well. I wanted to see where the mtDNA would land in the current generation. Unfortunately, I didn't find much to keep me going. Since Mary Elizabeth herself was born in 1819, the chances of finding her along with any other sisters in their parents' household by the time of the 1850 census—the first enumeration providing names of each resident in the household—would be slim. After all, Mary Elizabeth herself had been married to John Fenley in 1838. Still, I found three sisters: Martha, Laura, and Harriet.

Of those three, Martha married James T. Edmunds of Louisville, Kentucky, and had only sons. Laura married Benjamin Honoré and, though having what sounded like a fascinating life in both Chicago and Sarasota, Florida, had no children at all. Third sister Harriet died young—and unmarried—leaving me with no further leads.


I kept finding these mentions of another Honoré man who was somehow associated with the Carr family. Somehow, there had to be another Carr daughter to connect with this man. It wasn't until I went looking for the mother's own obituary—Mary Dorsey Carr died in 1883—that I finally found some leads.

What was strange was that Mary Carr's death notice appeared in multiple newspapers across the country. Much like had happened almost a decade later when her daughter Mary Elizabeth and the many Fenley family members died in the Quincy trail derailment, the elder Mary's story was carried by newswire services. 

One eight-line insertion, ironically carried in a Baltimore newspaper, simply read:

Mrs. Mary Carr, one of the oldest citizens of Louisville, Ky., died in that city Wednesday, aged eighty-nine years. She was well-known in New York, Chicago and other places. Mrs. Henry Honoré, of Chicago, was a daughter of Mrs. Carr, while Mrs. Fred. Grant and Mrs. Potter Palmer, of Chicago, were her granddaughters.

Who was Henry Honoré? And Potter Palmer? Just in case I'd get lucky, I started my search for answers with a quick visit to Google. Turns out, Henry was not only brother-in-law to Laura, wife of his brother Benjamin, but both couples moved from Louisville, where Henry became better known as Chicago real estate developer Henry Harrison Honoré. Also joining in the move to Chicago was Henry's bride, Mary Carr's daughter Eliza Jane Carr.

Passing that old Duvall mtDNA down yet another generation, Eliza became mother to daughters Bertha and Ida Marie. Bertha—who eventually became an astute businesswoman in her own right—married millionaire Chicago businessman, Potter Palmer. Her sister Ida Marie became wife of Frederick Dent Grant, oldest son of General—and later, President—Ulysses S. Grant.

While Bertha was mother to two sons, Ida Marie did have one daughter, Julia. Once again, this subsequent generation presented an unexpected trip further down the Duvall matriline. While traveling in Europe with her aunt Bertha, Julia met—and eventually married—Prince Mikhail Mikhailovich Cantacuzène. At the time of their 1899 wedding, he was a Russian nobleman, general and diplomat under the imperial order of the tsar.

Once again, that mtDNA line survived another generation, with Julia and her husband escaping the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and returning to the United States with their family, which included two daughters, one of whom eventually had two daughters of her own.

Despite the count of passing generations, that mitochondrial DNA might still be preserved in that line, even possibly without mutation, from the point at which I first began the genealogical chase with Elizabeth Duvall in colonial Maryland. Somehow, though, I doubt I'll see any of those names among the exact matches to my mother-in-law's mtDNA.

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