DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

Mitochondrial DNA Bulldozes Brick Wall

I’m doing that happy dance today – leaping for joy – and am I EVER glad I’ve sponsored so many mitochondrial DNA tests. Today, I’m incredibly thankful for one particular DNA test.

Think mitochondrial DNA doesn’t work or isn’t effective for genealogy?

Think again.

Often, when people ask on social media if they should test mitochondrial DNA, there is a chorus of Negative Nellie’s chanting, “No, don’t bother with that test, mitochondrial DNA is useless.” That’s terribly discouraging, depriving people of knowledge they can’t obtain any other way.

When people heed that advice, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people don’t test and don’t provide genealogical information that would go along with a mitochondrial DNA test, mitochondrial DNA is much less useful than it could be if people actually tested their full sequence mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA, not just for their haplogroup at 23andMe or Living DNA. There’s a huge difference.

Family Tree DNA tests the full mitochondria and provides matching to other testers which is critical for genealogical purposes. In fact, Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote about using this exact same technique here.

And by the way, this is not an isolated outlier case either. In fact, mitochondrial DNA from this same line was used previously to prove who Phoebe Crumley’s mother was.

If people hadn’t tested, then these walls would not have fallen. Every person who doesn’t take a mitochondrial DNA test is depriving themselves, and others, of critical historical information and clues.

It’s all about CLUES and sometimes that big brick-wall-breaking boulder falls into your lap out of the blue one day.

Today was that day!

Phoebe’s Family Found

I’ll be writing a more detailed article about my ancestor, Phoebe, shortly, but for now, I’d like to share exactly how mitochondrial DNA broke through this brick wall that I truly believed was permanent. I’ll walk you through the various steps so you can follow the same path. Do you have female ancestors without families in your tree? Start thinking about the possibilities!

DNA Pedigree Chart

Let’s start with my DNA Pedigree Chart.

I know many people look at my DNA Pedigree Chart and think it’s a bit over the edge, but identifying the family of Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe, would absolutely NOT have been possible without this valuable tool and the fact that I’ve been “collecting” my ancestors’ DNA.

As you can see, any time I find the opportunity to test either the Y DNA line, or the mitochondrial line of any of my ancestors, I do. I’ve been quite successful in that quest over the years thanks to many cousins.

The brick wall that fell is an ancestor of Elizabeth Vannoy and her mother, Phoebe Crumley, shown on my DNA Pedigree Chart, boxed in red, with their haplogroup, J1c2c.

A Proxy Tester

Elizabeth Vannoy, being my great-grandmother on my father’s side, doesn’t’ share her mitochondrial DNA with me, so I had to find a proxy tester.

My cousin Debbie knew another cousin, David, whose mother was Lucy, granddaughter of Elizabeth Vannoy. David agreed to test, back in…are you ready for this…2006. Yes, almost 13 years ago. Sometimes DNA is a waiting game.

Cherokee?

At that time, the family rumor was that Elizabeth Vannoy was “Cherokee.” Yea, I know, everyone with ancestors who lived east of the Mississippi has that same rumor – but the best way to actually find out if this is true is to test the relevant family line members’ Y and mitochondrial DNA. Native American haplogroups are definitive and haplogroup J1c2c is unquestionably not Native, so that myth was immediately put to death. (You can read about Native American haplogroups here.)

However, Elizabeth’ Vannoy’s mitochondrial DNA has patiently remained in the Family Tree DNA database, accumulating matches. Truthfully, I’ve been focused elsewhere, and since we had a brick wall with Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe (c1750-c1803), which had not yielded to traditional genealogy research, I had moved on and checked cousin David’s matches from time to time to see if anything interesting had turned up.

I thought there was nothing new…but there was! However, it would take my cousins to serve as a catalyst.

Cousin Rita

On New Year’s Eve of 2016, I received an e-mail from a previously unknown cousin, Rita, who was also descended from Jotham Brown and Phoebe. Rita was born a Brown and over the next two years, not only tested her Brown line’s Y DNA which matched Jotham Brown’s line, but also connected her family via paper trail once she knew where to look. She’s a wonderful researcher.

Cousin Stevie

Another researcher who lives in Greene County, Tennessee has doggedly researched the Brown, Crumley, Cooper and associated Johnson lines. It was rumored and pretty much believed for years, because of the very close family associations and migration routes that Phoebe was Zopher Johnson’s daughter. I worked through this mountain of information in late 2015, reaching the conclusion that I really didn’t think Phoebe was Zopher’s daughter, but since there were no known daughters and Zopher’s wife’s surname was unknown, there was no way of finding matrilineal descendants to test. That door was slammed shut. I thought permanently.

However, Stevie had previously recruited two men from the proven Jotham Brown line to Y DNA test who matched a third Brown man whose line descended from the Long Island, Sylvanus Brown family.  Wow, Long Island is a long way from Greene County, TN. Adding to the evidence, our Jotham Brown named one of his sons Sylvanus, a rather unusual name.

This revelation allowed us to track the Brown line forward in time from the Sylvanus on Long Island, providing significant pieces of evidence that Jotham indeed descended from this line.

At that point, we all congratulated ourselves on at least finding an earlier location to work with and went on about solving other mysteries.

Rita’s Theory

I think Rita must be on vacation between Christmas and New Years every year, because I heard from her again on December 28th this year. It took me a few days to reply, due to the Holiday Crud being gifted to me, but am I EVER glad that I did.

Rita, it seems, has spent the last several months sifting through records and looking for migration patterns of families from Long Island. Can you say “desperate genealogist.” I’m not going to steal her thunder, because this part of the journey is hers and hers alone, but suffice it to say she wrote me with a theory.

Joseph Cole was found in Botetourt County, VA along with many of the families that eventually settled in Frederick County, VA and then migrated on together to Greene County, TN. In other words, she’s using the Elizabeth Shown Mills FAN (friends and neighbors) concept to spread the net wider and look for people that might be somehow connected. I took this same approach in Halifax County, VA several years ago with my Estes line very successfully.

Rita discovered that Joseph’s father John Cole also migrated from Long Island through New Jersey into Virginia and settled with this same group. Hmmm, Long Island, same place as Sylvanus Brown. Interesting…

John Cole, it turns out, had a daughter Phebe, who married a Jotham Bart, according to a Presbyterian church book in New Jersey where they settled for a short time in their migration journey. The church records referenced are transcribed, not original.

Jotham Brown, who is known to connect to the Brown family found on Long Island, is found migrating with this same group, and Rita wondered if indeed, Jotham Bart was really Jotham Brown and Phoebe was actually the daughter of John Cole and wife, Mary Mercy Kent.

Still being in the grips of the Holiday Crud, I asked Rita if John Cole and his wife had any proven daughters who would be candidates to have descendants mitochondrial DNA test.

Lydia Cole

While Rita was searching for daughters of Mary Mercy Kent and John Cole, I had sufficiently escaped the grim reaper to check cousin David’s mitochondrial DNA matches, just on the off chance that some useful gem of information was buried there.

David has 16 full sequence matches, of which 7 are exact matches, meaning a genetic distance of 0, a perfect match. Keep in mind that a perfect match can still be hundreds of years in the past, but it can also be much closer in time. Just because it can be further in the past doesn’t mean that it is. You match your mother, her sisters and their children, and that’s clearly very recent.

What was waiting was shocking. Holy chimloda!

The Earliest Known Ancestor of one of David’s exact matches is Lydia Cole, born in 1781 in Virginia and died in 1864 in Ohio. The tester, Pete (not his real name,) had a tree. Thank you, thank you!!

Pete was stuck at Lydia Cole, obviously, but his tree provided me with Lydia’s husband’s name.

Oh, and by the way, guess what our Phoebe, born about 1750, named her daughter? Yep, Lydia.

Should I have noticed this hint sooner and dug deeper. Yes, I surely should have – Pete’s test was taken in 2012 so this information was there waiting for 6 years.

Is Lydia Cole too good to be true? Perhaps. Is she related? Of course the first thing good genealogists do is try to poke holes in the story. Better me than someone else. Let’s see what we can find.

Ancestry

Desperate to find out more about Lydia Cole, I checked Ancestry’s trees, understanding just how flakey these can be. Regardless, they are great clues and some are well sourced. Other people’s trees are at least a place to start looking.

There was Lydia with her father, John Cole and Mary Mercy Kent, the exact same couple Rita had hypothesized as Phoebe’s parents!

Lydia’s marriage was sourced and sure enough she married William Powell Simmons in Frederick County, VA in 1801, where Jotham Brown and Phoebe, his wife lived. It appears, according to Rita, that John Cole and his entire family settled there.

What a nice little bow on this package – at least for now. Am I done? Heck no…this journey is just beginning. You know how genealogy works – when you solve one mystery, you just add two more! Plus, there’s that little issue of verification, finding the relevant documents, etc. I know, details, right?

Is it possible that Lydia Cole isn’t really Phoebe’s sister? Yes, it’s possible. There is a roughly 30 year birth difference – although we all know how fluid these early dates can be.

DNA alone this far in the past can’t prove anything without additional evidence. It’s theoretically possible that Lydia’s mother was another close relative of Phoebe’s mother, somehow – explaining why Lydia and Phoebe would match so closely on such rare mitochondrial DNA. It’s possible, but not terribly likely.

Preliminary autosomal research also shows connections to the Cole family through other descendants of John Cole – so the evidence is mounting.

There’s a lot more research to do – verifying records, discovering more about Phoebe and John Cole and Mary Mercy Kent. I think Rita is already in the car on the way to Virginia😊

We can now follow Phoebe’s family’s migration from Long Island through New Jersey to Virginia. We now know the identity, pending confirmation, of both of Phoebe’s parents and can track those lines back in time. We know roughly when and where Phoebe was born. We can put the Brown and Cole families in the same place and time on Long Island.

All, thanks to mitochondrial DNA tests at Family Tree DNA confirming Rita’s hypothesis.

What a glorious day!!!

What Can Mitochondrial DNA Do For You?

Mitochondrial DNA is anything but useless. If you’re thinking, “yes, but David only had 16 matches total, and the only possible useful ones were the 7 exact matches because the rest are too far back,” – you’d be mistaken.

One of David’s matches is a distance of 2, meaning two mutations, and that’s the match that confirmed that Clarissa Marinda Crumley was the sister of our Phoebe Crumley, proving that Lydia Brown was indeed Phoebe’s mother, NOT Elizabeth Johnson who apparently married a different William Crumley just a few months before Phoebe’s birth. I wrote about unraveling that mystery here.

If you haven’t mitochondrial DNA tested, what critical information are you missing? You don’t know what you don’t know. If everyone would test, just think how many brick walls would fall.

If you haven’t tested, please do so today. Here’s a summary of what you can learn – as if you needed any more encouragement after Phoebe’s story.

I want to thank my cousins and wonderful collaborators, Debbie, Rita, Stevie and in particular, David for testing – along with Pete, Lydia Cole’s descendant.

Sometimes it does take a village! Test those cousins.

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Thank you so much.