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Chasing George … again…

Every so often, The Legal Genealogist‘s attention gets focused on George.

You remember George.

My nemesis scoundrel second great grandfather whose genetic makeup apparently never included anything vaguely resembling a gene for truthtelling.1

Yep, that George. George Washington Cottrell. Born … well … sometime in the first couple of decades of the 1800s2 and maybe in Kentucky. Died in 1891 in Texas.3 If you want to hear a lot more about George, That Scoundrel George is the topic of my Legacy Family Tree webinar this coming Wednesday, July 21, at 2 p.m. EDT.

There’s a lot we don’t know about George. And the biggest thing we don’t know — don’t even have a clue about — is who his parents were.

No clue, that is, until I dotted the Ms.

You see, I know the answer to this question is somewhere in my family’s DNA matches. I keep meaning to look at this issue and every time I’ve watched someone explain how to add the color coded dots to matches at AncestryDNA I’ve thought that it would certainly help in figuring this out.

And then taken one look at the thousands and thousands of matches we have at Ancestry, hugely impacted by prolific old colonial families, and gone right back to my usual yeah, yeah, and I’ll get a round tuit someday.

And then I sat my tail down this past week in the advanced DNA class at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), coordinated by Blaine Bettinger.

And watched him and his team of instructors do something that didn’t just make the lightbulb turn on over my head — it lit up the sky over that whole side of my entire family tree.

What Blaine did in one case example wasn’t to start the color coding to try to include everybody who might possibly be in the group he wanted to work with. He used the color coding to try to exclude everybody except the group he wanted to work with.


Total lightbulb moment.

Ancestry DNA dots

So I played with this for just a minute this morning. Went to the DNA match list of my mother’s brother — a generation closer to the targeted ancestors than I am (George’s parents would be my third great grandparents; they’d be the second great grandparents of my mother and her siblings).

Now what I didn’t do is to start the way I keep seeing this color coding system used and hearing it described. I didn’t start with the usual blue dot for all the paternal matches and red dot for all the maternal matches, then add a different shade of blue for father’s father versus father’s mother, and so on. Every time I’ve played with that, it has left me with lots of matches with lots of dots, a total inability to figure out which dot I need to focus on, and a deep abiding desire to lose myself in a bottle of wine.

More power to you folks whose brains work that way, and who can keep track of the different shades of blue and red and green and yellow and detect which shade of purple is the match group you want to work with.

Me, I need to keep it simple. So what I did instead was start with a clean slate — no dots at all. And I went back as far as I could on that one single line and looked only at the matches shared with the one cousin we know descends from rascal George and his wife Louisa (Baker) Cottrell. Then I added one dot to all of them who shared a reasonable amount of DNA with my uncle.

Now we have to call these the Cottrell-Baker matches. Because all these people could share DNA with us from George’s Cottrell side or they could share DNA with us from Louisa’s Baker side or they could share DNA with us from both sides.

And even that list is daunting, because her line comes out of a pocket of folks in western North Carolina who produced cousins by the boatloads. We have kazillions of DNA matches from that side. Adding any kind of dot to those folks in the past has always given me a sense of futility — there are just way too many matches to work with.

But we gotta press on here. So I added a second dot to the ones who share matches in common with known cousins from Louisa’s side. Call these the Baker-Buchanan matches — the people who could share DNA with us through her paternal Baker side or her maternal Buchanan side.

Now… what have I got? I have a group I can exclude. I can simply stop looking at the matches with two dots.

Just focus on who’s left with just one dot.

My target group is now not all those kazillions of cousins who might be related on the Cottrell side but are far more likely to be on that Baker side.

My target group is now 13 cousins who share a workable amount of DNA with my uncle and who do match our Cottrell cousin but don’t match any of the Bakers we know of.

And, visually, I don’t have a ton of matches with a ton of dots to look at to try to separate out these cousins.

And yes, I know, I know… 90% (or more) of you are sitting there thinking I’m an idiot for not working this out earlier — or somehow incompetent because I can’t keep forty-‘leven levels of dots straight in my head. What can I say? For me, starting at the broadest base paternal-maternal level and adding dots to try to narrow down the lines just doesn’t work.

But starting at the narrowest possible level and dotting just those Ms — those specific matches — with one single dot and then excluding everybody who didn’t have one dot — that makes the dots make sense for me, and gives me just the group I need to work with.

Now excuse me while I go chase George for a while…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Dottings the Ms,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 18 July 2021).


  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Happy 200th birthday, or maybe not,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Mar 2021 ( : accessed 18 July 2021).
  2. Start with the 1821 birthdate on his pension application. Survivor’s Brief, 17 February 1890, pension application no. 7890 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cotrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; Records of the Bureau of Pensions and its Predecessors 1805-1935; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Compare that with the 1810 birth year suggested by the 1850 census. 1850 U.S. census, Tarrant County, Texas, Navarro District, population schedule, p. 89 (stamped), dwelling/family 3, G W Cotril, age 40, in the Archie Robinson household; digital image, ( : accessed 4 Jan 2021); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 910. Sigh…
  3. That, at least, I’m sure of. See “Altar and Tomb,” Fort Worth (Tx.) Gazette, 28 May 1891, p.5; digital image, Portal to Texas History ( : accessed 18 July 2021).
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