We knew we were related somehow

Since we first began to correspond, Yvette, my cousin (whom I wrote about in my previous post), and I have trusted our instincts, which told us we must be related genetically. The Eastern North Carolina communities where our grandparents were born and raised had given us a cultural relationship. Recently, I discovered evidence that Yvette and I share an ancestor named William Willoughby, born about 1624, who emigrated from Dorchester, Dorset, England, in the middle of the 17th century and eventually settled in Dorchester County, Maryland. If my deductions are correct, the relationship makes Yvette my 9th cousin 1x removed.

The immigrant William Willoughby of Dorchester County, Maryland, who wrote his will in 1712, might have married more than once. However, I think his wife Hannah was the mother of Andrew Willoughby Sr. b. 1670-1680 (who married Anne Dent 1684-1755). I believe Hannah also was the mother of Mary Willoughby b. 1679 (who married William Wofford IV ca 1674-1764). My cousin Yvette appears to descend from Andrew and Anne Dent Willoughby, while I descend from William and Mary Willoughby Wofford.

Following the Willoughbys forward or backward in time gives a fairly intricate portrayal of certain English colonists’ inherent sense of entitlement. In England, the Willoughbys actually possessed titles. Today, some Americans find the archaic concept of class privilege absurd. On the other hand, some of the same Americans are fulminating against every effort to achieve the level playing field this country long has claimed to be. Fall down seven generations, stand up eight.

As for my Willoughbys in North America, because the two generations following William were women, the surname Willoughby disappeared among Woffords, Bobos, and Throckmortons as my ancestors moved from Maryland through Virginia to Ohio in a predictable migration pattern.

In Yvette’s lineage, the Willoughby surname disappeared after three generations in Maryland, when Mary Willoughby married John Jenkins Jr. and left Maryland for Eastern North Carolina a couple of decades prior to the American Revolution. Three generations of Jenkinses later, I theorize, Irena “Rena” Jenkins, who was born in 1824/25, married William Thomas Bond, 1827/28-1867, probably in Bertie County, North Carolina, USA, where they resided. From what I can piece together, their son George Thomas Bond, 1840s-1877, who was white, married twice, to two women of color: Mary Winslow b. 1844 (who I think was biracial), and Missouri Overton d. 1926 (who descended from free people of color). George Thomas Bond, 1840s-1877, had at least two children with Mary and two children with Missouri, and all of his children were described as black. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had photos? As far as I can tell, my cousin Yvette descends from one of the children of George Thomas Bond and Missouri Overton.

If new information is discovered, it could confirm or change these assumptions about our lineage. For now, Yvette and I are pretty confident that we were right all along. Our genetic relationship is just distant enough to be undetectable by standard Ancestry DNA tests but not so distant that we couldn’t sense immediately, in our hearts, that we were family.

Do try this at home.

Hi, cousin! I know Yvette’s reading, because she asked me if I planned to write this update. Please get in touch if you’re another of our cousins with family history to share.

The color of my ethnicity

In a 2021 episode of “Finding Your Roots,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. confirms for singer Clint Black that his 1% estimated African ethnicity is “a lot”—equivalent to having one 5th great-grandparent who was African-American. Until I heard that, I hadn’t thought my own 1.09% estimated Sub-Saharan ethnicity was a lot. The percentage was so small, in fact, that Ancestry .com didn’t care to show it to me. (Think about that.) However, I had uploaded my DNA profile to GEDmatch, which broke down my ethnicity estimates more minutely. GEDmatch also estimated that I had inherited 0.81% Amerindian ethnicity. When combined, these two ethnic categories squeak just under 2% of my inherited ethnicity.

I spent countless hours building my family tree on Ancestry, identifying one English colonist after another as my ancestors. Yet, until I began corresponding with another Ancestry user—I’ll call her Yvette, not her real name—who has more Sub-Saharan DNA, I hadn’t acquired the research skills to trace my ancestors who were people of color. Yvette seems to be the step 2nd great-granddaughter of my 6th cousin 3x removed. Another way of describing our distant relationship is that our common family member was born in England around 1650. As far as we’ve found, Yvette and I are related by marriage, not by blood. Our research continues.

Yvette and I don’t have matching DNA segments, but we did have parents who were born in adjacent counties in Eastern North Carolina. As children, she and I probably spent a few of the same summers playing at our grandparents’ homes, which were about 16 miles apart, so we refer to each other as cultural cousins. 

After I saw and actually dealt with the obstacles Yvette encounters in trying to trace her ancestors back further than 1865, I started to be able to recognize the slightest of clues. I began reading old wills more closely. I pored over the historical records of the communities in which some of my ancestors lived. I read the blogs, articles, and books written by people of color who had traced their ancestors back to those communities in Bertie, Martin, and Beaufort counties in North Carolina.

Then, I returned to my family tree and searched with a fresh eye. Already I knew of distant ancestors here and there who were said to be biracial or multiracial. However, I had assumed one elusive 3rd great-grandmother named Harriet Askew belonged to one of the white Askew families in Eastern North Carolina, despite evidence that didn’t quite add up. After reading more of other family history researchers’ discoveries, I realized that Harriet’s father most likely was York Askew, a biracial man born around 1808, who could have been fathered by a white Askew. As a child, York was owned by David Askew, who bequeathed York to his daughter Rachel Askew. Rachel died around 1858 in Bertie County, North Carolina, USA.

I corrected my family tree and found a DNA match to a 4th cousin 1x removed who also descends from York Askew b. circa 1808. We became acquainted a few weeks later, when she sent me a message through Ancestry.

I began to sense there were enough increments from enough of my identified ancestors to add up to 2%. All I needed to do was total the approximate percentages of ethnicity passed down to me from my ancestors of color to see if they matched my own ethnicity estimates derived by GEDmatch (not Ancestry) from my DNA test. 

Those months of correspondence with my cultural cousin Yvette and a reexamination of the records available online paid off. I had accounted for my roughly 2% combined Sub-Saharan African and Amerindian ethnicity. 

I broke out the chart below detailing my ancestors of color, starting with my father on the left, so I could see the color in my bloodlines more clearly and explain more easily. The percentages are rounded severely, and no doubt there is margin for error.

For purposes of this exercise I didn’t try to chart my Sub-Saharan African and Amerindian ancestors separately, because the people in the communities in which they lived did not document clear distinctions at the time. People of Tuscarora, African, and European origins lived together in the same communities, attended some of the same churches, and married each other. In Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin, Kenneth Paul Johnson wrote of his family history research, which led him to the same North Carolina communities. Much of his enlightening family history is searchable on Google Books.

It must be said that new information could change my conclusions and necessitate changes to my family tree and the charted subsection, but for now, this is what I see.

Click to enlarge the image to full size.

In “Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes in English Colonial North America and the Early United States Republic,” Aaron B. Wilkinson writes:

In 1823, an anonymous writer, under the pen name of Caroliniensis published an article in the Charleston Mercury newspaper, seemingly responding to laws made in 1820 and 1822 that prohibited ‘persons of color’ from coming into the state, especially by sea through the port of Charleston. By these acts, authorities at the port of Charleston had to report ‘all free negroes or free persons of color’ who arrived by ship from other states or foreign nations. These people could be taken to jail, fined $1,000, and could be sold into slavery if they could not pay the fee. Though it is not clear how often authorities enforced this law, Caroliniensis sought to set the record straight on who counted as ‘persons of color.’

Wilkinson then further quotes Caroliniensis’ definition of ‘persons of color’:

It is a term the most comprehensive that can be used, because it includes the descendants of negroes to the thousandth generation. Our Legislature used it of late familiarly, no doubt for the very reason, that as it is the most comprehensive, embracing all the varieties of the Mulatto tribes, so it must be the most appropriate.

The Charleston Mercury, and Morning Advertiser, August 16, 1823; McCord, SALSC VII, 459-462.

As it turned out, I’m neither as ethnically exotic as I had hoped to be nor as German as I once thought I was, but now I’m far more knowledgable about American history. That’s a gift.

Your own family history research

In “Extrapolating from those numbers…,” The Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell explains in helpful detail the problems and variables involved in tracing individual ancestors that contribute to your ancestral origin estimates.

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