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Looking back on those tests

Today is the last Sunday of 2021, and the last time for The Legal Genealogist to think back on the pros, cons, and complications of using DNA as part and parcel of genealogical evidence.

Which makes it a perfect time to look back at the very first folks who stepped up in my family and contributed the clues they had tucked away in their genes to help find the answers to our mutual genealogical questions — or — sigh — to add new questions to the queue to be answered.

Unlike many researchers, who’ve been able to test parents and even grandparents, I had lost both parents and all four grandparents before DNA testing was readily available as a genealogical tool.

But then there were the others…

The very first people who tested at my request were cousins in my mother’s Robertson line — my maternal grandmother’s line.

One, my mother’s first cousin Michael, was critically important to help us establish the YDNA signature for the Robertsons and give us our best chance of tracking the direct paternal line. And boy did he give us a bit of a surprise.

The Robertson line is a tough line to research for lots of reasons. The farthest back we’ve been able to go with any degree of reliability is my third great grandfather William M. Robertson.

We don’t know a whole lot about this man. Census records say he was born in North Carolina between 1794-1800.1 He married Deliah Moore in Mississippi in 1822.2 The couple apparently had three sons, but only one — my second great grandfather Gustavus — can be identified; William lived with his son, my second great grandfather Gustavus and his family for many years. William was still living with his son’s family when he died in Attala County, Mississippi, in 1864.3

Who William’s parents were — where in North Carolina he came from — those are total mysteries.

The entry my mother made in my older sister’s baby book suggested that the Robertsons were Welsh. They could be. Or Irish. Or English. Or Scottish. Or just about anything except maybe non-European. And I couldn’t rule that out either.

So Michael agreed to test. We started with 37 markers — in 2006, that was a whole lot better than the usual starting point. And when the results came in, well, let’s just say that the migration map for our Robertson ancestors wasn’t exactly what we expected:

Migration path

Yeah, even today that J-M172 haplogroup means we have only 15 matches at 37 markers, eight at 67 markers and three at 111 markers, and our closest match — of course — is an adoptee who doesn’t know his paternal line. We don’t have a clue even now as to just how our Robertsons link back to a haplotype from the Middle East and southern Europe like that… but boy is it fun trying to find one.

The other early tester was Mary Leila “Pug” (Rudolph) Scott (1922-2020), who was critically important to help us establish the mitochondrial signature (mtDNA) for the then-earliest-known female in the family, a woman named Isabella who first appeared as the apparent wife of Gustavus Robertson on that 1850 Mississippi census. A whole lot of work went into proving that she was the daughter of Elijah and Wilmoth (Killen) Gentry — and that sent us into a headlong clash with a bunch of folks who fervently believe that Wilmoth was really White Cloud, a full-blood Catawba tribeswoman from North Carolina — or at least the daughter of a Catawba mother.4

So… how to resolve the question of whether Wilmoth could be White Cloud, the Catawba tribeswoman?

Enter Pug and her mtDNA. You see, Pug descends in an unbroken female line from Wilmoth. As a result, she carries Wilmoth’s mtDNA, which passes down the generations from each mother to all of her children but only the female children can pass it to the next generation.5

If Wilmoth really was a Catawba tribeswoman, Pug’s expected mtDNA haplogroup should be in one of the base haplogroups A, B, C, D and X — mtDNA haplogroups known to be found among Native Americans — with a subclade of F a real possibility and M an unproven possibility.6

Nope.

Not even close. She’s U5 — the oldest European-specific mitochondrial haplogroup known.7

Whatever else Wilmoth may have been, she wasn’t Catawba, or Native American, or White Cloud.

There have been a ton of others who have tested for me over the years. But those first two testers will always have a special place in my very grateful heart.

Two testers, one puzzle solved and one yet to be solved, and a whole lot of gratitude for their willingness to test.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Those first DNA testers…,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 26 Dec 2021).

  1. See 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 373(A) (stamped), dwelling 809, family 816, William M. “Robinson” in household of Gustavus “Robinson”; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Dec 2021); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 382. And see 1860 U.S. census, Attala County, Mississippi, Township 14, Range 8, population schedule, p. 76 (penned), dwelling 455, family 494, Wm. M. Robertson in household of G.B. Robertson; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Dec 2021); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 577.
  2. See Monroe County, Mississippi, Marriage records 1821-1825, Robertson-Moore, 3 Jan 1822; DGS 7600989, image 170, FamilySearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/ : accessed 21 Dec 2020); imaged from Monroe County Circuit Clerk, Monroe County Courthouse, Aberdeen.
  3. Diary of Jason Niles June 22, 1861–December 31, 1864: Electronic Edition, p. 205, entry for 26 June 1864; Documenting the American South (https://docsouth.unc.edu/ : accessed 26 Dec 2021).
  4. The number of trees at Ancestry that show Wilmoth as White Cloud is appalling. Then again they also name her husband as Jacob Elijah, who was their grandson. But I digress.
  5. See generally ISOGG Wiki (https://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA tests,” rev. 13 Feb 2021.
  6. See Roberta Estes, “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups,” DNAeXplained.com, posted 18 Sep 2013 (https://dna-explained.com/ : accessed 26 Dec 2021).
  7. See Chao Ning et al., “Ancient mitochondrial genome reveals trace of prehistoric migration in the east Pamir by pastoralists,” Journal of Human Genetics 61 (2016): 103–108 (“Haplogroup U5 is the oldest European-specific haplogroup, and it is estimated to be ~50 000 years old”); online at Nature.com (https://www.nature.com/articles/jhg2015128 : accessed 26 Dec 2021). And see Boris Malyarchuk et al., “The Peopling of Europe from the Mitochondrial Haplogroup U5 Perspective,” PLOS One, published 21 April 2010 (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010285 : accessed 26 Dec 2021).
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