No matter what the oral history said, DNA can say something differently.
What may seem obvious may not be the truth.
Miscegenation during slavery is a situation that many of us African-American researchers are often confronted with in our family histories. My mother’s maternal grandmother’s mother, Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner, was known to look like a white woman with long straight hair “that reached the floor,” according to family elders. Recently, I discovered that I had the wrong white father attached to her for nearly 20 years! According to her Civil War widow’s pension file, she was born on January 21, 1842 in Union County, South Carolina. Her enslaver, Dr. William J. Bobo, transported her, her mother Clarissa Bobo, and other family members to Mississippi in 1858.
A late family elder remembered her very well. Cousin Robert Danner was 16 years old when his grandmother died in 1921, and he spent a lot of time at her home. From my first interview with him in 1996, until his passing at age 103 in 2008, he shared many details about her. Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery would not have been possible without his priceless memories. He recalled that a man named Sandy Wilbourn visited his grandmother often. He claimed that Sandy was her white half-brother who acknowledged their family relationship, something that was exceedingly rare at that time. Cousin Robert had proclaimed confidently, “Grandma Lue’s father was a Wilbourn.” I uploaded some of the recordings of my oral history interviews with him in this 2013 blog post.
With that huge clue, I researched the censuses and other records, as well as communicated with Wilbourn descendants, and determined that Sandy Wilbourn was William Sanford Wilbourn (1853-1935). He died in Panola County when Cousin Robert was 28 years old. “Sandy” resided in the area where Grandma Lue lived. His father was Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. (1810-1878), so I concluded that Elijah Jr. was the man who had impregnated Clarissa with Grandma Lue and possibly her “mulatto” brother, Eli Bobo (1844-1918), too. Eli was a shorter name for Elijah, so that naming clue carried a lot of weight, in my opinion.
Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. had settled in Panola County, Mississippi also from Union County, South Carolina around 1840, about two years before Grandma Lue was born in South Carolina. I had theorized that he probably traveled back to South Carolina periodically to visit family, and during one of those trips, he made his way onto his former neighbor Dr. William Bobo’s plantation and impregnated Grandma Clarissa. That was my story, and I was sticking to it. Besides, Cousin Robert’s memory of many other people and events of our family history turned out to be accurate, so I had very little reason to question his recollection of Sandy Wilbourn being Grandma Lue’s half-brother.
Grandma Lue’s death certificate reported “Don’t Know” for her father’s name, so I was extremely grateful that he remembered this piece of history. This was very valuable oral history. I soon made an entry in my family tree, closed that chapter, and didn’t put much more thought to this Wilbourn impregnator. Then, DNA hit the scene nearly twenty years later. It told a different story.
In early 2015, a high DNA match appeared in 23andMe. I’ll call him “Cousin D.” He was sharing 100 cM over 4 segments with my mother (79 cM/3 segments with me), 75 cM over 4 segments with her brother, and 75 cM over 3 segments with her sister. These significant amounts indicate a fairly close relationship, possibly in the third cousin range. I also noticed that he was sharing 20 cM with my mother’s 2nd cousin, Cousin MAJ. To my surprise, Cousin D was 99.9% European. How could my family and I share this much DNA with a white person? This was my first thought.
Interestingly, Cousin D was also sharing DNA on the X chromosome with my aunt and uncle. (See chart below.) My mother, her siblings, and Cousin MAJ are great-grandchildren of Grandma Lue and her husband, Edward Danner. Cousin D soon contacted me, and I expressed to him that he appears to be closely connected to Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. of Panola County, Mississippi. Having African-American relatives piqued his interest. But there was one huge issue.
Because Cousin D was sharing X-DNA with my aunt and uncle, this meant that he’s related to us on his mother’s side. Males inherit one X chromosome from their mothers, while females inherit two X chromosomes, one from their mother and one from their father. His late mother was adopted, and he had no knowledge of her biological family. He then hired a professional genealogist to utilize autosomal DNA to build his mother’s biological family tree. This was indeed a challenging feat, but she had great success after administering autosomal DNA tests to numerous key people.
Cousin D’s genealogist determined that he and my mother are 5th cousins, and no one in his immediate family ever resided in Panola County, Mississippi. This was shocking. William Wilburn (1765-1822) of Union County, S.C., who was Elijah Jr’s uncle, was his 3rd-great-grandfather. However, we both felt that Cousin D shares too much DNA with my mother to be her 5th cousin, so something was not jiving. I didn't know what was aberrant, so I left it alone. I needed something compelling to make it a bigger research priority. Well, that “something” soon came.
Cousin D's maternal 2nd cousin, Cousin E, recently took the FamilyTree DNA (FTDNA) test, and her raw data file was uploaded to GEDmatch.com. She too shares a lot of DNA and X-DNA with my family, including another one of my mother’s 2nd cousins, Cousin ORN (Cousin MAJ’s 1st cousin). See chart below. This was significant because Cousin D and Cousin E share the same great-grandparents, William Ray and Mary Amanda Wilburn (1855-1935) of Union County, S.C. Mary Amanda’s parents were Joshua Wilburn (1805-1887) and Elizabeth Sparks.
Cousins D and E’s sharing of X-DNA with my family was very revealing. While my family’s matching X chromosome segments with them came from Grandma Lue’s father, their matching X chromosome segments appear to have come from Mary Amanda. But there was a problem. None of Mary Amanda’s X-DNA ancestors matched the maternal ancestors of Elijah Wilbourn, Jr., who was her father’s first cousin. If Elijah Jr. was Grandma Lue’s father, the X-DNA he passed on to her came from his mother, Mary Roundtree. She was not related to Cousin D and Cousin E. Also, the X-DNA that Mary Amanda’s father passed on to her came from his mother, Susannah Gibbs (1781-1814). This was the second red flag.
Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. inherited all of his X chromosome from his mother, Mary Roundtree. She inherited that X-DNA from both of her parents.
Cousin D’s genealogist also observed that my family share DNA with other descendants of Joshua Wilburn – Cousins A, B, and C. See chart above. All of these autosomal DNA findings point to Grandma Lue’s father likely being either Joshua Wilburn or his twin brother, also named Elijah Wilburn (1805-1889), who were the sons of William Wilburn and Susannah Gibbs, and not Elijah Wilbourn, Jr. (son of Elijah Sr./Mary Roundtree) who migrated to Mississippi. Both of the twin brothers lived and died in South Carolina. Fortunately, there was additional evidence.
I performed the “People Who Match One of Both of 2 Kits” option in GEDmatch.com between Cousin E and Cousin MAJ since they share the largest amount of DNA at 111 cM over 5 segments. The purpose was to see who else shared DNA with both of them. As expected, my family appeared among their mutual matches. I also noticed a DNA match that was among my mother’s DNA matches in FTDNA who attached a family tree to his account. I am calling him “Cousin F.” Being able to view a family tree among shared DNA matches was essential to try to determine a common ancestor. Cousin F’s extensive family tree revealed that he indeed shares common ancestors with Cousins A, B, C, D, and E. His 3rd-great-grandmother was Elizabeth Gibbs, a sister of Susannah Gibbs’ father, James Gibbs. Elizabeth and James’ parents were John Gibbs (1716-1770) and Susanne Phillipe (1720-1786).
In a process known as manual triangulating, I viewed Cousin F’s “One-to-Many Matches” in GEDmatch.com. I then selected my family and Cousin E and viewed their matching chromosomes on the 2-D chromosome browser. Interestingly, Cousin F shares long overlapping chromosome segments with my family and Cousin E on chromosome 9. See figure below. I verified that they all match each other on chromosome 9. This indicates that everyone descend from a common ancestor.
In 23andMe, this section of my mother’s chromosome 9 is identified as Northwestern European.
DNA is indicating that Grandma Lue had Gibbs ancestry. This served as additional DNA evidence that her father was likely Joshua Wilburn or his twin brother, Elijah (1805), sons of Susannah Gibbs. However, if Joshua and his twin brother Elijah (1805) were identical twins, they would share 100% identical DNA with each other. Full siblings and fraternal (non-identical) twins share around 50% of identical DNA. Therefore, Grandma Lue would share DNA with both Joshua and Elijah (1805) in the parent/child range (approx. 3,600 cM) if they were identical twins. If Joshua was the father, then Cousins A, B, C, D, and E are half 3rd cousins to my mother, her siblings, and Cousins MAJ and ORN. However, my speculation now is that they were identical twins, and Elijah Wilburn (1805) was her father. Then, Cousins A, B, C, D, and E are half 4th cousins genealogically but half 3rd cousins genetically. This revelation would have never been discovered had it not been for DNA technology.
This AncestryDNA match shares 34 cM / 1 segment with my mother. Elijah Wilburn (1805) is his 3rd-great-grandfather.
Acknowledgement: Special acknowledgement is given to Clarise Soper, CG for her great work in utilizing DNA to discover Cousin D's maternal ancestors.