Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Genealogy by Wikipedia
(and Other Modern Conveniences)


Every so often, a researcher might get lucky and discover an ancestor so well-known as to appear in widely-distributed publications. Such was the case, I discovered, when I began wrestling with the question of the likely kin of my fifth great-grandfather John Carter of colonial Virginia. As it turned out, not only was there more than one John Carter in that particular colony, but there was conjecture that our John Carter might have been related to the likes of Robert "King" Carter, considered the richest man in the colony.

Fine, I thought: I'll just look him up on Wikipedia. And from that start, I gleaned the basics of a possible family tree for Robert Carter. Among other details about the man's life, the key detail I sought was Robert Carter's parentage. Sure enough, his dad was another someone named John Carter. But was this the right John Carter, same as the John Carter who was supposedly my John Carter's father? After all, that Robert Carter had a half-brother named John Carter, too.

As you can imagine, I went from online entry to entry, tracing details on family related to this well-known colonial Carter. Indeed, in one of the Wikipedia entries, while the senior John Carter was noted to have "founded the more famous branch" of the Carter family, the writer of the article considered the founding immigrant of the other branch—our John Carter's ancestor, Thomas Carter of "Barford"—to possibly have been related, "since both came from the same English village" and both eventually settled in Lancaster County.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry for that Barford estate—also known as Verville—I can see the history of the property was outlined, detailing the purchase by Thomas Carter's father-in-law Edward Dale as a wedding present to the couple. And yet, even there, the article theorizes that Thomas Carter "may have been related to planter Col. John Carter" (father of Robert Carter), supporting that conjecture by observation of business transactions between the two.

While we may easily gain entry to a wealth of information through our modern access to technology, there is one other modern convenience which we may credit for untangling this volley of conjectures. That "convenience" is based on the science of genetics—putting the question of kinship to the test through the tool of DNA testing.

A paper published in 2020 by the Lancaster Virginia Historical Society examined the possibility of relationship between not two, but three Carter men in colonial Virginia. One of those three was John Carter, father of the famed Robert "King" Carter. The other was Thomas Carter—my John Carter's ancestor "of Barford," as Joseph Lyon Miller of the 1912 Carter genealogy portrayed him. The third Carter man, also named Thomas, was characterized as "Thomas Carter of Isle of Wight."

Authors Robert Mike Terry and Robert D. Lumsden used for their research the database from the Carter Y-DNA surname project hosted by testing company Family Tree DNA. Comparing the readouts from three groups of Carter participants specifically identified as descendants of one of the three target Carter ancestors—John, father of Robert "King" Carter; Thomas Carter of "Barford" (or more correctly, of Lancaster County); or Thomas Carter of the Isle of Wight—the researchers compared differences in mutations of each subject's DNA results to draw conclusions about their research question.

Their observations? After explaining the concept of genetic distance in comparisons of Y-DNA test results in general, the authors looked at the specific count of mutations between the subject groupings descended from each of the three Carter ancestors. Finding a genetic distance of thirteen between the group of Thomas of Lancaster descendants and those of John of Lancaster, they explained that any distance scoring over  five would push the relationship beyond what they called a "genealogical time frame." In other words, there would likely be no way to confirm relationships by documentation, as the common ancestor shared between the two groups would have to be someone alive nearly two thousand years ago.

Worse, comparing descendants of John to Thomas of Isle of Wight yielded a genetic distance of fifteen. Comparing descendants of the two Thomases stretched to a genetic distance of seventeen—pushing the likelihood of a shared common ancestor back over 2,500 years ago.

In their conclusion, while authors Terry and Lumsden noted that "only traditional genealogical research can document a family history," DNA testing—in their particular case, the use of Y-DNA—"can validate the stated pedigrees." Through their examination of test results for several documented descendants of the three Carter lines, Terry and Lumsden have provided compelling reasons to discard the reports of Carter descendants from previous centuries regarding conjecture over family connections. In addition, their lead in applying this modern tool to one genealogical question opens my eyes to ways to resolve other questions about our Carter ancestors—particularly the question of our John Carter's wives, which could also be put to the test using another tool, the mitochondrial DNA test for the matrilines leading back to each possible wife.

As Terry and Lumsden noted, while authors of those past works on the Carter lines may have offered their speculations "based on the then best available information...we must now disregard these assertions in light of the genetic genealogy tools that earlier researchers did not have."

For now, that settles my sister's question about whether our Carter line was related to the famed "King" Carter family. It certainly spares me from endless hours of attempting to find documentation as I pushed back through the generations. However, having spent the first part of this year traveling through the many records of John Carter's related lines, there is one more item of research business I need to bring up before we close the chapter on February's pursuit of my Twelve Most Wanted. Tomorrow, we'll look at that last detail on my to-do list.


  1. Thank goodness the researchers were able to solve that question!

    1. They've certainly opened my eyes to other possibilities for resolving my research problems with John's wives. It's a fascinating tool, putting these DNA tests to work solving genealogical questions.


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