On September 28, 2011, I got an automated e-mail notification generated by Karen Meadows-Rogers of Spartanburg, South Carolina from a DNA company called 23andMe. Karen and I had been communicating with each other online periodically for over 7 years because we both had ancestors from Union County, South Carolina. However, my direct ancestors were taken to northern Mississippi during the 1850’s. Karen was also a lover of genealogy research. Since we didn’t share any common family surnames, we assumed for years that we were probably not related. Many times, as you will see, the assumptions we make can be totally inaccurate.
Nevertheless, the notification stated, “Karen Meadows-Rogers is using 23andMe to learn about her DNA and would like you to take a look. Go here to view results for Karen Meadows-Rogers.” I was provided a link to look at Karen’s DNA analysis. Viewing her results piqued my interest in 23andMe’s efforts to collect DNA samples from 10,000 African Americans for health research. I took advantage of their then free test, mostly because of their ancestral analysis, and submitted my saliva sample which was received by 23andMe on November 10, 2011. On December 6, 2011, my results were ready to be viewed on their website. They determined that I am 89% African, 10% European, and 1% Native American. However, I was mostly intrigued by their Relative Finder (RF) database. 23andMe asserts that their “relative finder finds relatives by comparing your DNA with that of other 23andMe users. When two people share identical segments of DNA, this indicates that they share a recent common ancestor. Relative finder uses the length and number of these identical segments to predict the relationship between people.” (Source: 23andMe.com)
As I browsed through the 208 people in my RF database, I discovered that Karen was in my database! 23andMe predicted us as being “distant cousins”. The connection was rather distant because she ranked last among my 208 “DNA cousins”. As of today, March 27, 2012, I now have 232 “DNA cousins” in my RF database, and Karen ranks no. 229. Not all of my “DNA cousins” are African Americans. Other predicted relationships with the people in my RF database are a 2nd cousin (Len Morgan), 3rd cousins, 4th cousins, and many 5th cousins. However, Karen is noted only as my “distant cousin”, and we only share 0.09% DNA (7 cM) across 1 segment. For that reason, I figured that the connection is likely 6th cousins or beyond.
Karen Meadows-Rogers and her grandfather, Johnnie Meadows.
(Photo by Karen; Used by permission.)
(Photo by Karen; Used by permission.)
6th cousins are defined as people who have a 5th-great-grandparent(s) in common. Yes, 5 greats (great-great-great-great-great-grandmother/father). That’s going back seven generations. Therefore, in order for us to figure out exactly how we are related, we would have to know a great deal about our family histories. How many African Americans possess knowledge of their family histories going all the way back to 5th-great-grandparents? Very very few. When many adult African Americans today trace back four to five generations, we are in the slavery era when many of our enslaved ancestors were forcibly separated from their family, never to see them again, and the knowledge of many familial connections is unobtainable. I never admitted this to Karen, but I had very little hope of determining exactly how we are related.
During the next three months, Karen e-mailed me various family charts and trees of different branches of her maternal and paternal family. I only recognized one of her family surnames – Ray – but none of my direct ancestors carried that name. Karen also had her father’s brother to take 23andMe’s DNA test, and she informed me that I appeared in his RF database! Therefore, this told us that she and I are related on her father’s side of the family. Her father was a Ray. Hmmm… This alerted me that I truly needed to re-investigate why I was familiar with that surname. It had slipped my mind -- excusable for someone who is approaching 40. Right?
I found it amazing that 23andMe was able to pinpoint Karen and her paternal uncle as my distant cousins. Why? Because 23andMe states, “Because there is randomness when DNA is transmitted from parent to child, the more distant a cousin pair, the less likely they are to share any stretch of DNA that was passed down through the generations. Note that even though there is a relatively low chance of detecting more distant cousins, Relative Finder will likely find a good number of them given the large number of distant cousins that exist.” They estimate that the likelihoods of detecting a known cousin are the following: 100% for 1st cousins, 99% for 2nd cousins, 90% for 3rd cousins, 45% for 4th cousins, 15% for 5th cousins, and 5% for 6th cousins and beyond. In other words, if 1,000 of my known 5th cousins took 23andMe’s DNA test, the random transmission of DNA segments causes them to only detect approximately 150 of the 1000 as being my 5th cousins. And the probability is lower for 6th cousins – 50 out of 1000. Therefore, it was quite monumental that Karen appeared in my database, when a known 5th cousin of mine recently informed me that she also took the test, but she didn’t show up in my database. The random transmission of DNA segments also explained why Karen’s daughter, Alexis, did not show up in my RF database.
Nevertheless, I decided to concentrate on Karen’s paternal family, the Rays, especially since I had seen that surname before. I finally realized that it was during my research of my great-great-great-grandmother Clarissa Bobo’s roots. Karen had informed me that she and her cousins had traced back to her great-great-great-grandparents, Thomas & Melvina Ray. Yes, MELVINA! (The ancestors have a peculiar way of showing you that you are on the right track. LOL) She also informed me that she and her family had concluded that Thomas Ray, who was born around 1828, had probably been enslaved by a white Raiford Family, since he lived near them in 1870, but he shortened his surname to Ray. Interestingly, white Ray slave-owners and white Raiford slave-owners lived in the area, so I silently questioned their conclusion.
Thomas & Melvina Ray, Laurens County, South Carolina, taken in the late 1800's
(Photo by Karen; Used by permission)
However, a light bulb went off when I looked at the names of Thomas & Melvina Ray’s children in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. Three of them were named Milly, Palina, and Sims. Palina was also a name that was passed down in Grandma Clarissa Bobo’s family; she had a sister named Palina Boyce, who was also taken to northern Mississippi from Union County, South Carolina during the 1850’s with my direct ancestors. I immediately thought about the names of the slaves that were listed on the estate inventory of James Law, who died in nearby Newberry County in 1836. Those three names were common among the Law slaves! I had found James Law’s estate record when I visited the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in 2007. Each county in South Carolina has a microfilm of estate records and estate inventories. I was floored to see how his 36 slaves were divided into 6 family lots in 1836. The first family lot contained Jack, Milly, and their 6 children. This family lot was inherited by James Law’s daughter, Martha Law RAY, the wife of William RAY. That’s where I had seen the Ray surname! Brace yourself, but this was that family lot:
One Negro man, Jack, $1000
One Negro woman, Milly, $500
One Negro girl, Martha, $700
One Negro girl, Polly, $550
One Negro boy, THOMAS, $600
One Negro boy, Martin, $500
One Negro boy, Henry, $325
One Negro girl, Jencey, $175
By now, you are probably asking, “How are you connected to the slaves of James Law?” As expounded in Mississippi to Africa, I was able to trace my maternal grandmother’s maternal roots back seven generations because my ancestors were passed down several generations within one slave-holding family, starting with Capt. John Turner of Fairfield County, South Carolina. Turner died in 1807, and his four married daughters inherited most of his 22 slaves. Those 22 enslaved human beings included my 5th-great-grandparents, Jack & Anika, and their 10 children. Their son, Richard “Dick” (born c. 1785), was my 4th-great-grandfather (father of Grandma Clarissa Bobo). John Turner’s daughter, Agnes Turner Boyce, who lived in Union County with her husband David Boyce, inherited Grandpa Dick, his sister, Bess, and their younger brother, Jack Jr. Nearly 50 years later, during the 1850’s, Dr. William & Margaret Boyce Bobo, who was Turner’s granddaughter, took my ancestors – Grandpa Dick's offspring – to Panola County (Como), Mississippi.
Another one of Jack & Anika’s 10 children was a daughter named Easter (born c. 1790). John Turner’s daughter, Martha Turner Law, the wife of James Law, inherited her, and Easter was subsequently taken to the Law farm in Newberry County as a teenage girl in 1807. On the Law farm, Easter had a number of children; one was a son named Jack, whom she had named after her own father. This is the same Jack in that family lot above -- the father of Thomas! 23andMe detected that Karen and I are distant cousins because my 4th-great-grandfather, Grandpa Dick, and her 5th-great-grandmother, Easter, were brother and sister – two of Jack & Anika’s 10 children. Jack and Anika are our common ancestors. Therefore, Karen is my 6th-cousin-once removed, and I am still in awe that DNA analysis detected this distant relationship! That DNA is something else!