Saturday, March 30, 2024

While We're in the
(Matrilineal) Neighborhood


While we're still in the matrilineal neighborhood—that is, that point of discussion more akin to an ancestor's "F.A.N. Club" than actual pedigree chart—I couldn't just move on simply because it is the end of one month's research project. Having just spent a month following the trail of my matrilineal ancestors—especially the one who, as her husband's executor, sold their home to the father of George Washington—I was primed to fall for a social media post yesterday.

Actually a reposting of a tweet, um, announcement on, well, you know where, the indefatigable researcher Debbie Kennett shone the light on some archaeological and DNA work being done on the unmarked burial ground of some of the president's close relatives. I had to do a double-take on the originating source's post, though, for the actual announcement began, "DNA study IDs descendants of George Washington from unmarked remains...."

Um...George Washington did not have any descendants—at least not any I know of. Perhaps DNA will once again turn out to spotlight genealogical surprises.

Looking into the article itself clears up the details. According to Family Tree DNA, which was involved in the project, the study actually focused on some descendants of George Washington's younger brothers, Samuel and John Augustine Washington. The study involved a collaboration between FTDNA and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to help identify the remains in unidentified graves at Harewood, Samuel Washington's home in Charles Town, now in West Virginia.

One unique aspect of the study was its use of three different types of DNA testing to compare the genetic details of the unidentified, centuries-old burials with a known living descendant of the two younger Washington brothers. Of course, Y-DNA was used, thus allowing scientists to determine the haplogroup of that patriline, and thus infer the paternal haplogroup of George Washington, as well. The mitochondrial DNA test was used, allowing differentiation between each subject's maternal line, as sons would, of course, have different mothers than their father's mother. And finally, the more familiar autosomal DNA test was used, as well. (For those science geeks who prefer to dig into the details, the official report is online here.)

Though I am certainly not a Washington descendant, perhaps it was my near-brush with presidential proximity when I learned that my widowed seventh great-grandmother sold George Washington's father his childhood home that prompted me to notice that social media post shared by Debbie Kennett.

No matter what really caught my eye, this study reminds me that more and more historical and genealogical questions will be answered through genetic testing. I'm reminded of my realization last month of the quandary some Carter researchers face with the discovery of another wife of John Carter not mentioned in genealogical books of past centuries, thus leading researchers astray; now, we can find answers to those unresolved questions. I'm looking forward to seeing more such discoveries announced in the future. Their discovery and publication will certainly broaden our knowledge and, yes, simultaneously debunk some fondly-held family myths. 

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