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DNA Surprises

DNA testing, though a compelling tool, has it's limitations and will always need documentary historical research to confirm its results.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Alan Smith
Word Count: 677 (approx.)
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In 1998, the scientific journal "Nature" published the results of whether Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with his slave, Sally Heming. Though many have agreed that there is a high probability that Jefferson did father at least one of Sally's six children, the "proof" scientifically is never as clear cut as many would like. DNA testing, though a compelling tool, has it's limitations and will always need documentary historical research to confirm such two-hundred-year-old mysteries. After three different laboratories tested the DNA samples and found the results showed a match, the debate seemed to cool. Though there was considerable evidence in the historical records which supported such a relationship, it was not until the DNA testing occurred, before alternative theories were abandoned.

The episode of proving Jefferson's looking over the fence did not seem too important to me until recently when an article appeared in the Owen Association newsletter by Dan Wharton. I had been part of an on-going DNA project concerning the Owen surname which was sponsored by the association. Six distinct Owen family lines lived in Halifax County, Virginia during the 1700's and it made it very difficult to separate who was who's siblings. Some 50 to 60 participants retrieved DNA samples from Owen men, paid the fee and waited for the results.

The results began to aid researchers and myself to sort out a large part of the Owen tangle. For myself, I know which of the Halifax families is mine, but I do lack records to figure out who of the several siblings of Edward Owen from the Pole Cat creek area is my direct ancestor.

Meanwhile a group of about a dozen researchers of the Grigg, Griggs, Gregg and McGregor lines were doing their own DNA project as part of the Grigg Family Association. One of these lines which started with Moses Grigg did not match any of the other lines and some how someone started to look outside their own family and discovered that Moses Grigg was an exact match with my Edward Owen line of Pole Creek, Halifax County, Virginia. It seems my fourth great-grandfather was also looking over the fence!

As I mentioned before, DNA inherently has a draw back in that it does not narrow a search to any particular generation. It concludes that one is definitely part of a family line of males, but it does not particularly indicated any individual in a generation. So as in with the Jefferson fiasco, the assertion that Edward Owen fathered Moses Grigg had to be upheld by research. The Grigg research had identified Sarah Ann Pinson as Moses' mother. Certain evidence have focused on how the Pinsons lived adjacent to land owed by Edward Owen in the year of 1748, which is approximately when Moses was born. The date is important as it also disqualifies all known siblings of Edward as being of the correct age to have been involved. The only variable unknown is if Edward had any brothers in the Lunenburg / Halifax County area of Virginia. Currently we do not know who Edward's parents or family was.

Research can also notice curious changes in behavior which might indicate tensions or even guilt between groups. Such evidence of Edward Owen selling his land on Terrible Creek which was near the Pinsons and his relocation on Pole Cat Creek and that Edward was no longer in sequence with the Pinsons the following year of 1749 on the tithables, shows a departure from normal activity. But, perhaps the most compelling evidence is that Moses Grigg's DNA does not match any other Grigg family lines.

As usual in researching two-hundred-year-old mysteries, evidence is never complete and we are only left with an unquenched curiosity about what really went on with our ancestors. DNA has been helping to sort out some situations and focus our research in areas that we would not have thought to have included. In this case two family associations benefited from DNA testing. DNA testing can also add questions and sometimes can reveal surprising results.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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