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Oh, mama… mtDNA can be useful after all!

I’ll admit it: I’m a DNA junkie. Throw out a test that I can take (or con, uh, convince a cousin to take), and I’m there — I’ve done as much testing of my own DNA as I can afford: Family Finder and the Full mtDNA Sequence (FMS) from Family Tree DNA and the Relative Finder from 23andMe. Okay, so I haven’t sprung for the full genomic sequence yet. Ten thousand dollars1 is just a wee bit rich for my blood. But check back with me when it hits the $1,000 mark.

I’ve gotten YDNA from all sorts of male relatives, and autosomal DNA from male and female relatives, and, at the moment I have 14 family members in my Family Finder project… and I’m looking for more. (And don’t forget: I’m still looking for a male Faure/Fore/Ford from Manakin Town, Virginia, and for Cottrells from Madison County, Kentucky, around the 1820s.Contact me!)

All that being said, I’ll also admit that it took me practically forever to see any practical reason to do mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing. That’s the DNA that’s passed only from a mother to her own children, and, in turn, only her daughters can pass it on.2 So where YDNA is passed from father to son to son, mtDNA is passed from mother to daughter to daughter.

The hitch is this: you need a perfect match with somebody else in the full mtDNA test to have even a chance at finding a common ancestor in a time frame that’s useful for genealogy.3 Even the very best mtDNA testing only gets you a fighting chance at a common ancestor somewhere in the past 16 generations.4

With each generation being somewhere between 25 and 35 years,5 even taking the low end we’re talking at best a 90% chance of a common mama within the last 400 years. Let’s see here — 2012 minus 400 is 1612. I don’t know about you, but I pretty much bottom out on maternal lines a lot more recently than that. It’s no wonder that most people describe mtDNA as being most useful for finding out about deep ancestry.6

Distribution of mtDNA haplogroups

So when I did the test, I did it more out of curiosity than any hope of a genealogically-useful match. Turns out I’m haplogroup7 H3g. Whoopee. Haplogroup H is the most common mtDNA haplogroup in Europe,8 and the H3 subclade9 doesn’t have any interesting little quirks like, oh, I dunno, descent from an ancient Egyptian priestess or some cavewoman from the Pyrenees. Exciting, it’s not.

Well, yeah, all right, I’ll grant you that Jimmy Buffett is also H310 and that I do like margaritas, but I’m not sure just how useful that is on a day to day basis.

But I became a convert after I got into a bit of a tussle with someone who kept insisting that her ancestor — who certainly was Native American — was the son of my 3rd great grandmother Wilmoth (Killen) Gentry.11 Wilmoth, so the story went, was a full-blooded Catawba Indian.12

Now don’t get me wrong: like every other American genealogist who has ever lived, I would love to be able to say I really did have a ancestor who was Native American, even if she wasn’t a Cherokee princess. The problem is that all of the evidence was against it. All of the evidence, however, wasn’t enough for the other side in this debate.

And that’s where the mtDNA comes in. Not mine, mind you. I descend from Wilmoth through a grandson, so I don’t share her mtDNA. But I have a second cousin, once removed, who is the daughter of a daughter of a daughter of a daughter of Wilmoth. If Wilmoth was a full-blooded Catawba, my cousin’s mtDNA should show it. My cousin was kind enough to agree to be tested, we sent the sample off to FTDNA, and we waited.

Now look at the chart above. You can click on it and see it bigger. The haplogroups for Native Americans are A, B, C, D and X.13

And what did my cousin test out as? U5 — the “most ancient European mitochondrial haplogroup” that “evolved essentially in Europe.”14

Whatever else she may have been, Wilmoth was not Native American, not a Catawba, and not the mother of this half-Native American son.

And you know the rest of the story already, right? Yep. You got it. “So maybe Elijah had an Indian wife, name unknown, before he married Wilmoth.”

Sigh… What was it I’ve been saying about a legal genealogist’s work never being done?

Image in the public domain, courtesy of its author, Muntuwandi at the English Wikipedia project.

  1. Alex Planes, “The Race to the $1,000 Genome,” posted 11 Dec 2011, Daily Finance ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  2. See “Understanding your mtDNA Results,” Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  3. See generally “Mitochondrial DNA, Interpretation,” Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012).
  4. See “mtFullSequence,” footnote ***, Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  5. See generally Donn Devine, CG, “How Long Is a Generation?,” Ancestry Magazine (Sep-Oct 2005), reprinted in John Barrett Robb, “How Long is a Human Generation?,” John Barrett Robb, Family Historian website ( : accessed 11 Feb 2011).
  6. For example, Kimberly Powell, “DNA Family Trees: Tracing Your Ancestry Through DNA,”, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012).
  7. To understand haplogroups, see International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) Wiki (, “Haplogroup,” rev. 1 Jan 2011.
  8. Wikipedia (, Haplogroup H (mtDNA),” rev. 20 Dec 2011.
  9. ISOGG Wiki (, “Subclade,” rev. 9 July 2010.
  10. So says 23andMe, which tested him, and says so on my results page there. “Maternal Haplogroup: H3”, 23andMe ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  11. Willard Gentry, “`PREACHER ELIJAH’ GENTRY: Did he have an Indian wife?,” Journal of Gentry Genealogy (online) 3:4 (April 2003) ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  12. The Catawba Indian Nation originated in the Carolinas. See “Catawba History,” Catawba Indian Nation website ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  13. See also Peter Forster et al., “Origin and Evolution of Native American mtDNA Variation: A Reappraisal,” Am. J. Hum. Genet. 59:935-945 (1996), reprinted at National Center for Biotechnology Information website ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
  14. B. Malyarchuk, et al., “The Peopling of Europe from the Mitochondrial Haplogroup U5 Perspective,” PLoS ONE 5(4): e10285 ( : accessed 11 Feb 2012).
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