Almost every time I visit Beaufort National Cemetery, preparations are underway for another interment, yet the grounds are quiet and sunlight dapples the markers. It’s a tranquil resting place, as it should be.
Last night, after I gathered the information I needed for photographing six gravesites to fulfill requests that had been submitted to Find A Grave, I spent a little while expanding my family tree on Ancestry.com. One of my newest additions to the tree was a second cousin, six times removed, named George Washington Albritton. He was born in Georgia in 1815. At the age of about 49 he had a wife and nine children when he enlisted in the 1st Regiment Georgia Infantry Reserves led by Colonel William R. Symons. He was captured in the battles around Atlanta near the end of the Civil War and died of pneumonia, probably at the U.S. General Hospital, on Hilton Head Island. Coincidentally, he’s also one of the more than 21,000 men, women, and children buried in Beaufort National Cemetery.
The National Cemetery Administration says:
The original interments in the cemetery were men who died in the nearby Union hospitals during the occupation and were initially buried in several places—among them East Florida and Hilton Head. About 2,800 remains were removed from cemeteries in Millen and Lawton, Georgia, and reinterred in the national cemetery; 117 Confederate soldiers are also interred here.
Two of my distant relatives are buried in a cemetery containing 21,000 graves. Calculating the statistical probability is beyond my capability, but my intuition makes me willing to bet. If you go to a similarly sized burial ground in the country of your birth, and if, like mine, most of your ancestors have lived in your part of the world for about four centuries, then there’s a good possibility you’ll find two or more cousins buried there. We are more closely connected than we realize.
Like most online networks, the more time I spend using Ancestry.com, the easier it is to understand and navigate the site. The logic behind its algorithms begins to make a little sense, and my searches become more fruitful.
After viewing quite a few of my Ancestry DNA Circles, I understood that I was being shown a picture of the combination or juxtaposition of portions of my online family tree (which Ancestry refers to as my pedigree) with another Ancestry user’s family tree, showing our most recent common ancestor (MRCA) at the top. In my case, none of the DNA Circles are actual circles; they’re shaped like horseshoes.
Some of my current 29 DNA circles are based on MRCAs who are six generations distant from me. Ancestry’s DNA Circles white paper says, “we only look for MRCAs in the most recent ten generations of the two pedigrees.” Ancestry’s reasons for the limitation: less likelihood of inheriting any DNA, or enough DNA to enable a match, from more distant ancestors, plus the decreased reliability of the oldest branches of users’ online family trees.
One of my newer DNA Circles revealed a previously unidentified great-great-grandfather. The only surprises the other DNA Circles have held so far were the names of distant cousins about whom I otherwise never would have known.
Increasing the size of my online family tree, or pedigree, has resulted in hundreds more genetic matches based on Ancestry’s identity-by-descent (IBD) analysis, which finds shared genetic segments among the site’s users. According to Ancestry.com’s study results, “On average, this suggests that an individual could gain one IBD match with an associated MRCA for every three ancestors added to their direct-line pedigree.”
Because the Ancestry.com database is growing and evolving, its DNA Circles regularly are reanalyzed. Ancestry notes, “While any inaccuracies in member pedigrees may be made less problematic by the aggregation of information across many pedigrees, pedigree inaccuracies could still result in spurious connections in DNA Circles.” I’ve corrected some of the mistakes in my online family tree, and other users are doing the same. Also, Ancestry occasionally adds newly digitized historical documents providing additional evidence for users who hope to expand their trees and improve the accuracy of their family histories.