Where the African DNA might come from
So it’s been a week since RootsTech 2023 wrapped up and The Legal Genealogist has just had a chance to sit for a second, take a deep breath … and dive into a new tool announced at RootsTech that Ancestry now offers to help with DNA analysis.
It’s called DNA compare, and it lets us compare our genetic origins — called ethnicity by Ancestry and most testing companies but more accurately called biogeographical ancestry analysis or admixture for short1 — with those of our matches in batches.
DNA compare doesn’t provide any new information — we’ve long been able to compare our own admixture to that of each individual match on a tab on the match’s page. What this does is let us look at up to 10 matches at a time. You can read more about it at Ancestry Support.2
So… what’s it good for?
Here’s how I used it.
Among the immediate members of my mother’s family, those who’ve tested show a small but persistent amount of African DNA. I have a theory as to where it comes from — I think my Revolutionary War veteran fifth great grandfather William Noel Battles, b c 1757 VA and d 1842 AL, was the illegitimate son of a free woman of color — but there’s no real documentary evidence for that.
So the question is: can this tool to analyze our DNA tell part of the story?
I started out using the SideView feature of a maternal aunt and uncle who’ve tested. SideView — another Ancestry tool — divides our matches and our admixture percentages by parent.3 And Sideview reported that both my aunt and my uncle have that small persistent amount of African DNA on their maternal side: from their mother, my grandmother, Opal (Robertson) Cottrell. There’s no reported African DNA on their paternal side.
Next step: identify the strongest matches from each of my grandmother’s parents to see if they also showed that same small persistent African DNA. The best would be close cousins descending from siblings of her Robertson father Jasper and from her Baird-Livingston mother Eula. I was looking for any hints of African ancestry from the west of Africa: Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast in particular, since that’s what the testing companies collectively usually identify this persistent DNA as hailing from.
Lots of Robertson cousins have tested at Ancestry, and DNA compare lets me look, all at once, at the admixture numbers for up to 10 cousins at a time. So I looked at matches descending from eight of Jasper’s siblings who share somewhere in the range of 70-230cM of DNA with my aunt and uncle. Not one of them shows a detectable amount of DNA from anywhere on the African continent. Zero. Nada. Zilch. I extended it out to cousins a bit more distant just to be sure I was being comprehensive. Nope. Nothing.
That pretty much eliminates my grandmother’s paternal side. It’s just not mathematically likely that out of all the descendants of nine children of Jasper’s parents Gustavus and Isabella (Gentry) Robertson who’ve tested, Jasper’s line would end up as the only one to inherit this chunk of DNA.
Next, looking at her mother’s side, it gets a little dicey. My great grandmother Eula was the only known child of her father Jasper Baird but the oldest of eight children of her mother Martha Louise (Shew) Baird Livingston. So we can’t just look at descendants of Eula’s siblings. We have to look at the Baird (paternal) side and at the Shew (maternal) side to see if there’s any hint to which side it could have come from.
The results were pretty dramatic. Entering in all the known cousins on the paternal Baird side, up to 10 at a time, the DNA compare feature only reported African ancestry for two — and both have identified African ancestors in lines they don’t share with us. Among the cousins who don’t have those identified African ancestors, none have any reported African ancestry.
So that suggests it’s still in my direct maternal line: my grandmother’s mother’s mother’s line — Opal to Opal’s mother Eula to Eula’s mother Martha Louise. The next question then is whether the descendants of Martha Louise’s other children, those by Abijah Livingston, got that persistent DNA as well.
Yep. They did. Not all of them, but enough to suggest that Martha Louise was the source.
So… which side of Martha Louise’s family did it come from? Her Shew father, Daniel, which would undermine my theory about William Noel Battles? Or her mother, Margaret (Battles) Shew, granddaughter of William Noel?
Entering in all the known cousins on the Shew side, up to 10 at a time, and excluding cousins descending from other marriages between Shew family members and Battles family members,4 DNA compare showed none — not a single one — with reported African ancestry.
But entering in all the known cousins on the Battles side, up to 10 at a time, and excluding cousins descending from those Battles-Shew intermarriages, DNA compare showed several with reported DNA from Benin & Togo or Ivory Coast & Ghana (or both).
Now… this isn’t take-it-to-the-bank stuff. The African DNA is very much hit-or-miss among descendants of Martha Louise’s siblings (children of Daniel and Margaret (Battles) Shew), and it could have come from Margaret’s mother, Ann (Jacobs) Battles rather than her father.
So is this proof that William Noel Battles was the son of a free woman of color?
No. But it is evidence consistent with that theory…
In other words, I may be heading down a rabbit hole, but at least there’s a fighting chance that it’s the right rabbit hole.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “About those origins…,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 12 March 2023).
- ISOGG Wiki (https://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Admixture analyses,” rev. 9 Feb 2023. ↩
- See “DNA compare,” Ancestry Support (https://support.ancestry.com/ : accessed 12 Mar 2023). ↩
- See generally Judy G. Russell, “Ancestry launches Sideview,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Apr 2022 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 12 Mar 2023). ↩
- Hey, c’mon, be nice. It was a thinly-populated rural area… ↩