Genealogy Adventures

Cracking genetic genealogy cold cases with incorrect AncestryDNA ThruLines

Happy New Year from the Genealogy Adventures team!

My apologies for the lack of articles over the past few months. The past 12 weeks have seen me beavering away on two genealogy-related books for Callisto Media. Tight deadlines and the Genealogy Adventures Live show moving to a weekly format hasn’t left me with much time to publish genealogy research articles.

Now that I have some spare time while the books are with the editors, I wanted to share an accidental discovery I made using AncestryDNA’s ThruLines. Or, in other words, this is how I made a genealogical discovery via inaccurate information provided from an erroneous ThruLine.

Last year I finished some research work on the enslaving Futrell family of Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina. Part of that process was adapting the Beyond Kin methodology (for more information about this methodology, please visit https://beyondkin.org/creating-beyond-kin-links-with-existing-software/). If you have enslaved ancestors, or your ancestors were enslavers, this is an excellent way of working with enslaved populations of people on online family tree hosting services.

I was working with the enslaved people held by my 4th Great Uncle, Littleberry “Berry” Futrell. Berry was the half-brother of my enslaved 3rd great-grandfather, Bug Futrell. In 1862, Berry Futrell hired out a number of the enslaved people he held. His brother Bug was among them. I created a label named “EPs hired out in 1862,” which included Bug. You can see how this label works in the image below:

The brilliant thing is Ancestry.com sees these labels as people. This means AncestryDNA also sees the people listed under these types of labels as people too. The result is you can receive common ancestor match hints on AncestryDNA. When we’re talking about enslaved people whose identities and histories were virtually erased, DNA is one of the essential tools researchers of the enslaved have in terms of working out enslaved peoples’ identities.

I’m going to admit straight off that I had issues with ThruLines from day 1 of it’s launch. I quickly intuited that ThruLines wasn’t any different from the We’re Related App that was all the rage back in the day. The problem being that information was taken from information on people’s family trees rather than through DNA matches. To cut a long story short, many of the ThruLines Ancestry provided for me were incorrect. I disengaged with ThruLines as a result.

Let’s fast forward 7 or 8 months later. Two of my (white) Futrell cousins reached out to me about a curious set of ThruLines that included my ancestor, Bug Futrell…and a possible mother for him. We already knew how Bug fit into the Futrell family picture. He was the son of an unknown enslaved woman and his father-enslaver, Jason Futrell. It was his mother who piqued our interest.

The image below shows the people ThruLines suggested were Bug’s parents:

This suggestion was partially correct. Jason Futrell was Bug’s father. The problem lay with Tempy Vinson, Jason Futrell’s white wife. An enslaved mulatto wouldn’t have had a white mother. American slavery just didn’t work that way. Nor does biology. Bug had to have had an enslaved black or mulatto mother. ThruLines left the three of us scratching our heads. I dismissed it out of hand at first. Then, I had to really think about it. I had to think about it because white Vinsons were popping up as common ancestors for Bug via the same EPs hired out in 1862 label. All of these hints stubbornly pointed to Tempy Vinson as his mother. Bug, it would seem, definitely had Vinson blood. However, if it wasn’t through Tempy Vinson, then who could this DNA have come through?

The penny dropped out of the blue as it often does. I was washing the dishes after dinner when the idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. Bug’s mother was most likely to have been Tempy Vinson’s enslaved half-sister. Moreover, this unknown enslaved Vinson woman (whom I will call Ms. Vinson for now), was, in all probability, a dowry slave. Their father, David Vinson, was planning a move to Tennessee when Tempy married Jason Futrell. Dowry slaves, slaves provided for daughters who were about to marry, were standard practice. Many of Tempy’s family (and Ms. Vinson’s family) were preparing to remove to Tennessee. Perhaps they thought a familiar face that Tempy would have known from childhood would soften the blow of her family moving to another state. Whatever the reason, Ms. Vinson was in her married sister’s household. A scenario that I can only refer to as the Thomas Jefferson scenario occurred.

Just as Thomas Jefferson embarked on a relationship with his half sister-in-law, Sally Hemings, Jason Futrell had a similar relationship with his enslaved sister-in-law. The whole “male enslavers having relations with their enslaved sisters-in-law” is a reoccurring theme in that part of my genealogy that involves my enslaved female ancestors.

Armed with new insights and research documents, I sent the whole package off to the geneticists back in London. They promptly groaned. There’s a substantial amount of endogamy, or generations of cousin marriages, among the Futrells and Vinsons. The geneticists had to factor that into their DNA segmentation and triangulation work. Seven months later, I had their report. Bug’s mother was indeed a Vinson. Compared with descendants of the Vinson family, and with a probability of 97%, David Vinson was the most likely man to be Ms. Vinson’s father.

The report from the geneticists gives us a family outline that looks like this:

Once I added David Vinson as Ms. Vinson’s father, Vinson family DNA matches stretching back two generations to James Vinson (1728-1797) and his wife Eunice Unity Hill (1730-1815) of Northampton County, NC fell into place. The screengrab below illustrates part of that story.

As with all things related to online family trees, you must take the time to vet and research all of the trees of the people you match via ThruLines. Ensure their trees (and your tree) are correct, well-sourced, and have citations.

I am now in the curious position of knowing who Ms. Vinson’s paternal family was while I don’t know her name…yet.

My advice is not to do what I initially did. Don’t completely discount mistaken or seemingly erroneous ThruLines. If AncestryDNA is consistently pointing in a specific direction in terms of bloodlines for an ancestor, it is worth doing an initial investigation to understand what it is AncestryDNA is trying to convey. Yes, it means more research. However, it could pay dividends in the end. While this hasn’t worked out in every instance where my ThruLines are concerned – some ThruLines are just too wrong even to begin working with them – I have cracked another three enslaved female ancestral lines through mistaken ThruLines. All three instances involved the same Thomas Jefferson scenario.

As we’re talking about dowry slaves in this instance, I also suggest reading the article Endogamy on the Plantation (https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/12/17/endogamy-on-the-plantation/) and consider how a Thomas Jefferson scenario may be hidden in the ancestry of your enslaved ancestors. When it comes to working with DNA matches for my enslaved female ancestors, the Thomas Jefferson scenario is something I will have to consider in future research work. It is something that has happened far too often in my family ancestry for me to discount or ignore.

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