By Helen Nichols Murphy (Battleson)
THOMAS JEFFERSON – SALLY HEMMINGS
In 1998, what is probably the most famous case of DNA-analysis was resolved with a Y-chromosome test: “Did Thomas Jefferson have children with his slave Sally Hemmings?” The DNA of five descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, Field Jefferson, were analyzed, in order to investigate the Y-chromosome profile of the family. Direct male descendants of Sally Hemmings’ son served as the comparison. John Weeks Jefferson, the only living descendant of Eston Hemmings, confirmed with his Y-chromosome that both families belonged to the same male line.
Y-DNA is only for men. This test will uncover your father line and the long journeys made by your ancestors out of the deep past partly because they keep their surnames, and until the age of mass transport were unlikely to move far from their places of birth. Men can discover a tremendous ancestral hinterland by taking a YDNA test. Two central questions can be answered — Where do we all come from, and who are we? So if you’ve been longing to find out who your ancestors were and how they lived, there’s never been a better time to start looking. Your view of your ethnic heritage may be challenged. Are you ready for that?
Even in the deep past when many fewer people inhabited our planet, it appears that mtDNA markers traced great journeys moving vast distances over thousands of years. Your mtDNA marker may well have originated on the other side of the world. Women often left their places of birth to find marriage partners, and significant numbers seem to have been traded, either formally or informally, as slaves.
How is it possible to retrace the steps of our ancestors by analyzing the DNA of living people? Inheritance is the key. Each of us inherits around six billion letters of DNA from our parents, three billion from each. These are made up from four biochemicals: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Our genes are read by scientists like very long strings of letters which are sequences of A, C, G, and T.
There are two special sorts of DNA that are particularly useful for information on our history. Our fathers pass on Y-chromosome DNA to their sons while mothers pass on mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA to their sons and to their daughters. But mtDNA dies with men and it survives only in the female line. When people are tested — that means men carry two stories inside them — a Y-chromosome lineage and their mtDNA lineage. Women have only one — a mtDNA story.
Inside all of us is a hidden history: the story of an immense journey told by our DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the biochemical molecule at the heart of the reproduction of all life, plants as well as animals. And since the discovery of its structure in 1953, scientists have pieced together the epic narrative of how human beings populated our planet. Your origins, your ancestors, the people who made you will emerge from the shadows as our research reaches back into the darkness of the deep past – your past. There are stories only DNA can tell. And sometimes these can be startling, changing perceptions of our own identity, making connections we never dreamed of.
Once your marker has been identified, the scientists and historians will tell its story — your story, the story of your fatherline. They will discover where the marker first arose and how old it is and where it spread to. Some YDNA markers are very ancient, others came into being in recorded history, all can be tracked accurately and explained.
From a simple saliva sample, our scientists can trace your ancestry over many thousands of years; and through new and developing technology, we can answer a fundamental question – where do we come from?
Only women can pass on mitochondrial DNA, and a motherline can carry the story of an extraordinary, epic journey across millennia, across continents. Men inherit mtDNA from their mothers, but it dies with them.
Each of us has inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) along with the mutations that have accumulated in our individual family lines. Geneticists can test for these accumulated mutations. Individual test results are called a haplotype or mitotype. People with the same cluster of mutations belong to the same haplogroup and are descended from the same female line. There are 36 known mitochondrial haplogroups worldwide with more being discovered as research advances.
Almost all Europeans belong to one of only seven haplogroups. This means that most Europeans are descended in the female line from one of seven different women. These women have been called the “Seven Daughters of Eve” although they could have lived at widely different periods in history. Their descendants came to Europe at different times and spread throughout the continent. Of course, because we each have so many ancestors, not just our ancestors in the female line, all Europeans descend from each of these seven women many times over.
SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE
According to Oxford Ancestors, the haplogroups most common in Europe include: Helena, Jasmine, Katrine, Tara, Ursula, Velda, and Xenia. Helena is by far the largest and most successful of the seven native clans with 41 percent of Europeans belonging to one of its many branches. It began 20,000 years ago (~1,000 generations) with the birth of Helena somewhere in the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vezere in south-central France. The clan is widespread throughout all parts of Europe but reaches its highest frequency among the Basque people of northern Spain and southern France.
Remains that are said to be those of St. Luke the Evangelist show that he was a member of this clan. He was born in Syria and died in Thebes about 150 CE. Another famous member was Marie Antoinette. Her earliest known maternal ancestor was Bertha von Pfullendorf who died in 1198. Marie Antoinette’s DNA was tested as part of a project to validate the remains of her son, Louis VII.
The remains of the Russian royal family show that they also belonged to this clan. When the Russian royal family was murdered in 1918, their bodies were hastily disposed. In 1991, nine bodies were recovered from a shallow grave near Ekaterinburg, Russia. Experts obtained mtDNA samples from female-line relatives of Empress Alexandra including Prince Philip. The samples matched the mtDNA extracted from the bones proving that the bodies were the remains of the Romanovs. Further tests showed that Anna Anderson, a woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, was in fact a Polish actress.
Jasmine is the second largest of the seven European clans after Helena and is the only one to have its origins outside Europe. Jasmine and her descendants, who now make up 12 percent of Europeans, were among the first farmers and brought the agricultural revolution to Europe from the Middle East around 8,500 years ago (~425 generations).
Katrine is a medium-sized clan with 10 percent of Europeans among its membership. Katrine herself lived 15,000 years ago (~750 generations) in the wooded plains of northeast Italy, now flooded by the Adriatic, and among the southern foothills of the Alps. Her descendants are still there in numbers but have also spread throughout central and northern Europe. “The Ice Man” also known as “Otzi” was a member of this clan. He lived about 3350 BCE – 3300 BCE. His remains were discovered in 1991 in a glacier in the Italian Alps.
Tara includes slightly fewer than 10 percent of modern Europeans. Its many branches are widely distributed throughout southern and western Europe with particularly high concentrations in Ireland and the west of Britain. Tara herself lived 17,000 years ago (~850 generations) in the northwest of Italy among the hills of Tuscany and along the estuary of the river Arno. Nicholas II, last Emperor of Russia, was a member of this clan as was Jesse James.
Ursula is the oldest of the seven European clans. It was founded about 45,000 years ago (~2,250 generations) by the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) as they established themselves in Europe. Dr. Brian Sykes, Oxford University, believes Ursula was born in a shallow cave cut into the cliffs of what is now Mount Parnassus close to what became Delphi. Her female-line descendants are common among both white Europeans and black Africans. She lived at a time before the emergence of the so-called “races”. Today about 11 percent of modern Europeans are the direct maternal descendants of Ursula. The clan is particularly well represented in western Britain and Scandinavia. “Cheddar Man”, whose remains were discovered in a cave in England, was a member of the Ursula Clan. He died about 9,000 years ago (~450 generations).
Velda is the smallest of the seven European clans containing only about 4 percent of native Europeans. Velda lived 17,000 years ago (~850 generations) in the limestone hills of Cantabria in northwest Spain. Her descendants are found nowadays mainly in western and northern Europe. They are surprisingly frequent among the Skolt Sámi (Lapps) (50 percent) of Scandinavia and the Basques (12 percent) of Spain.
Xenia is the second oldest of the seven European clans. It was founded 25 thousand years ago (~1,250 generations) by the second wave of modern humans, who established themselves in Europe just prior to the coldest part of the last Ice Age. Today around 7 percent of native Europeans are in the clan of Xenia. About one percent of Native Americans are also in the clan of Xenia. An Anglo-Saxon skeleton from the 11th century was discovered at Norwich Castle in England and shown to be a member of this clan. My own haplo-group is H – actually H-3 in the Helena group. MtDNA Haplogroup H3 – H3 is the second most common branch of H. Like H1, it is found mainly in Western Europe.
DNA was extracted from a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair that was snipped from her head as a child. Her DNA matched a sample taken from a heart believed to be from her son, King Louis XVII. Marie Antoinette’s farthest known maternal line ancestor: Bertha von Putelendorf, d 1190.
THE ROMANOVS – THE LAST RUSSIAN ROYAL FAMILY
In July 1991, nine bodies were exhumed from a shallow grave just outside Ekaterinburg, Russia. Circumstantial evidence, along with mitochondrial DNA sequencing and matches, gave strong evidence to the remains being those of the Romanovs, the last Russian Royals who were executed on July 18, 1918. Tsarina Alexandra, the three children buried with her and Prince Philip’s mitochondrial DNA were an exact match on 740 tested nucleotides.
DNA STORIES: Excerpts from Ancestry.com
WAY MORE THAN A BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT
More than a century later, DNA uncovers a bout of indiscretion and calls into question a researcher’s own identity – After researching his family history for a quarter of a century, Myrl Lemburg of Virginia Beach, Virginia, got the shock of his life when he took a DNA test. He had collected information on about 10,000 members of the Lemburg family tracing their roots back to Holstein, Germany. Somewhere around the year 1700, the paper trail dried up. He had identified three Lemburg families from the same area, but he couldn’t connect them.
Hoping to link the three groups, Lemburg convinced two distant cousins to participate in a Y-DNA test.The results showed that his test partners shared a common ancestor within 12 to 16 generations. The surprise? Myrl Lemburg didn’t match either of his “cousins”.
Baffled, he asked a first cousin on his Lemburg line to take a Y-DNA test. This time the results matched proving that Lemburg and his cousin are closely related.
So what do these results mean? Somewhere on Lemburg’s paternal line there was a male ancestor who wasn’t biologically a Lemburg. As close as Lemburg can figure, his great- or great-great-grandmother had an affair and bore a son who was raised with the Lemburg name — his mother’s married name.
“Somewhere along the line, the ‘milkman’ got involved,” says Lemburg. “The poor lady probably thought that her secret died with her, and here I am digging up the dirt a hundred years later.” Of course, an adoption could also account for the genetic discrepancies in Lemburg’s family tree.
“There are three generations between my grandmother and the ancestor where the line matches the other two groups,” Lemburg says. He has yet to find a test partner who could help him discover the true origins of his paternal line. For family secrets like this, DNA is probably the only way to get a glimpse at the truth.
“Now I will publish a genealogy book that has all the Lemburg people I can gather,” says Lemburg, “but I have no idea who my forefathers are beyond two generations!”
THE PROOF IS IN THE PACKAGE
It started with a census record feeding into one researcher’s theory: that Great-grandpa wasn’t really blood kin. A paternal DNA test turned that theory into fact.
The 1900 census first aroused Barbara Forsey’s suspicions. In it she found her 22-year-old maternal grandfather, Stanislaus (Stanley) Brady, living with parents Francis and Barbara Brady and five younger siblings. But the census stated that the parents had been married only 17 years and that Barbara had given birth to five children, not six. It seemed that Barbara Brady wasn’t Stanley’s biological mother.
Forsey, a resident of Chatsworth, California, guessed that Stanley was Francis Brady’s son from a previous marriage. But she became skeptical when she could find no evidence to support that assumption. She knew Stanley had been born in Philadelphia in 1878, but he appeared to have no birth or baptismal certificate.
On a hunch, Forsey tried searching for Stanislaus under the surname Sylvester — Barbara Brady’s maiden name.”Bingo! I found him on the 1880 census with Barbara and her sister Matilda,” says Forsey. “They were both single.” If Barbara wasn’t Stanley’s birth mother, then perhaps Matilda was.
But Forsey’s relatives found it hard to believe that Stanley wasn’t born a Brady. “The family needed proof that he was not a Brady,” Forsey says.
So she turned to science to confirm her theory. First she reached out to a male cousin who could serve as a genetic proxy for Stanley Brady. Next she tracked down a grandson of one of Stanley’s brothers. She persuaded both men to take DNA tests.Their Y-DNA didn’t match proving that Stanley Brady was not Francis Brady’s biological son.
Forsey hopes that one day she will be able to identify Stanley’s birth father. “I would love to find his biological family,” she says. As DNA databases grow in size, finding a match for Grandpa Stanley’s genetic signature becomes an ever more attainable goal.
MEET YOUR COUSIN, THE FIRST LADY:
A Family Story, Long Hidden!
Joan Tribble of Rex, Georgia held tightly to her cane as she ventured into the overgrown cemetery where her people were buried. There lay the pioneers who once populated north Georgia’s rugged frontier, where striving white men planted corn and cotton, fought for the Confederacy, and owned slaves. rry George, a member of the Shields family, has struggled with the discovery that Michelle Obama is a descendant of a slave owned by the Shields.
Joan Tribble at the grave of her great-great-grandfather, Henry W. Shields, a Georgia slave owner who is also an ancestor of Michelle Obama
The settlers interred here were mostly forgotten over the decades as their progeny scattered across the South embracing unassuming lives. But one line of her family took another path heading north on a tumultuous, winding journey that ultimately led to the White House. The white men and women buried here are the forebears of Mrs. Tribble, a retired bookkeeper who delights in her two grandchildren and her Sunday church mornings. They are also ancestors of Michelle Obama, the First Lady.
The discovery of this unexpected family tie between the nation’s most prominent black woman and a white, silver-haired grandmother from the Atlanta suburbs underscores the entangled histories and racial intermingling that continue to bind countless American families more than 140 years after the Civil War.
The link was established through more than two years of research into Mrs. Obama’s roots which included DNA tests of white and black relatives. Like many African-Americans, Mrs. Obama was aware that she had white ancestry but knew little more. Now for the first time, the white forebears who have remained hidden in the First Lady’s family tree can be identified, and her blood ties are not only to the dead. She has an entire constellation of white distant cousins who live in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, and beyond who in turn are only now learning of their kinship to her. Those relatives include professionals, blue-collar workers, a retired construction worker, an accountant, a dietitian, and an insurance claims adjuster among others who never imagined they had black relatives. Most had no idea that their ancestors owned slaves.
Many of them like Mrs. Tribble, 69, are still grappling with their wrenching connection to the White House. “You really don’t like to face this kind of thing,” said Mrs. Tribble, whose ancestors owned the First Lady’s great-great-great-grandmother. Some of Mrs. Tribble’s relatives have declined to discuss the matter beyond the closed doors of their homes fearful that they might be vilified as racists or forced to publicly atone for their forebears. Mrs. Tribble has decided to openly accept her history and her new extended family. “I can’t really change anything,” said Mrs. Tribble, who would like to meet Mrs. Obama one day. “But I can be open-minded to people and accept them and hope they’ll accept me.”
The bloodlines of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Tribble extend back to a 200-acre farm that was not far from here. One of their common ancestors was Henry Wells Shields, Mrs. Tribble’s great-great-grandfather. He was a farmer and a family man who grew cotton, Indian corn, and sweet potatoes. He owned Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who was about eight years old when she arrived on his farm sometime around 1852.
The DNA tests and research indicate that one of his sons, Charles Marion Shields, is the likely father of Melvinia’s son Dolphus, who was born around 1860. Dolphus T. Shields was the First Lady’s maternal great-great-grandfather. His identity and that of his mother, Melvinia, were first reported in an article in The New York Times in 2009, which also indicated that he must have had a white father. Melvinia was a teenager, perhaps around 15, when she gave birth to her biracial son. Charles was about 20.
Dolphus T. Shields, the son of a slave, was Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather.
Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide inevitably bring to mind the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Mrs. Obama’s ancestors, however, lived in a world far removed from the elegance of Jefferson’s Monticello, his 5,000-acre mountain estate with 200 slaves. They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.
The slaveowner was Henry Wells Shields, who inherited Melvinia when his father-in-law died in 1852. DNA testing and research indicate that he and his wife, Christian Patterson Shields, are the First Lady’s great-great-great-great grandparents. Henry Wells Shields is the man with the white beard. His wife, Christian Patterson Shields, sits to his right. Charles Marion Shields is the third man standing from the right.
NO EASY LIFE
In Clayton County, Georgia, where the Shields family lived, only about a third of the heads of household owned human property, and masters typically labored alongside their slaves. Charles was a man of modest means — he would ultimately become a teacher — whose parents were only a generation or so removed from illiteracy.
Melvinia was not a privileged house slave like Sally. She was illiterate and no stranger to laboring in the fields. She had more biracial children after the Civil War giving some of the white Shields hope that her relationship with Charles was consensual.
“To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then,” said Aliene Shields, a descendant who lives in South Carolina.
People who knew Melvinia said she never discussed what happened between them whether she was raped or treated with affection, whether she loved and was loved in return. Somewhere along the way, she decided to keep the truth about her son’s heritage to herself.
Ruth Wheeler Applin, who knew Melvinia and Dolphus, suspected that Melvinia had been raped by her master. But Mrs. Applin, who married Melvinia’s grandson and lived with her for several years in the 1930s, never asked that sensitive question. Melvinia died in 1938.
“You know,” Mrs. Applin said in an interview in 2010, “she might not have wanted nobody to know.” Mrs. Applin died this year at 92.
For many members of that first generation to emerge from bondage, the experience of slavery was so shameful and painful that they rarely spoke of it. This willful forgetting pervaded several branches of the First Lady’s family tree, passed along like an inheritance from one generation to the next.
Mrs. Obama declined to comment on the findings about her roots as did her mother and brother. But over and over, the black members of her extended family said their parents, grandparents, and other relatives did not discuss slavery or the origins of the family’s white ancestry. Nor was the topic much discussed within Mrs. Obama’s immediate family. She and her brother, Craig Robinson, watched the mini-series “Roots” about Alex Haley’s family’s experiences in slavery. During summers, the family would visit relatives who lived in a South Carolina town dotted with old rice plantations. But they never discussed how those plantations might be connected to their personal history.
Nomenee Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s paternal uncle, said he found himself stymied whenever he tried to delve into the past. His line of the family also has white ancestry, relatives say. “All of these elderly people in my family, they would say, ‘Boy, I don’t know anything about slavery time,’ ” he said. “and I kept thinking, ‘You mean your mother or grandmother didn’t tell you anything about it?’ What I think is that they blocked it out.”
Contemporary America emerged from that multiracial stew, a nation peopled by the heirs of that agonizing time who struggled and strived with precious little knowledge of their own origins. By 1890, census takers counted 1.1 million Americans of mixed ancestry.
All four of Mrs. Obama’s grandparents had multiracial forebears. There were Irish immigrants who nurtured their dreams in a new land and free African-Americans who savored liberty long before the Civil War. Some were classified as mulatto by the census while others claimed Cherokee ancestry.
There were even tantalizing hints of a link to a Jewish family with ties to the Charleston, South Carolina synagogue that became the birthplace of the American Jewish Reform Movement in the 19th century.
Mrs. Obama’s ancestors ultimately moved north with some arriving in Illinois as early as the 1860s. Others settled in Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio.
Dolphus’ daughter, Pearl Lewis, moved to Cleveland. Pearl’s granddaughter, Jewell Barclay, still remembers Dolphus, a stern, fair-skinned man with narrow lips and an aquiline nose. There were whispers in the family that he was half white.
“Slave time, you know how the white men used to fool with them black women. That’s what I heard,” Mrs. Barclay said.
Mrs. Barclay said she would like to meet white members of her family. Mrs. Tribble and Sherry George, a great-granddaughter of Charles Marion Shields, said they would also like to meet their black extended family.
Sherry George, a member of the Shields family, has struggled with the discovery that Michelle Obama is a descendant of a slave owned by the Shields.
Others remain reluctant. “I don’t think there’s going to be a Kumbaya moment here,” said one of Charles Shields’s great-grandchildren, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearful that the ancestral ties to slavery might besmirch the family name.
The discovery comes as an increasing number of Americans, black and white, confront their own family histories taking advantage of widespread access to DNA testing and online genealogical records. Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard who has studied the impact of DNA testing on racial identity, said this was uncharted territory.
“This is a whole new social arena,” Professor Hochschild said. “We don’t have an etiquette for this. We don’t have social norms.” “More or less every white person knows that slave owners raped slaves,” she continued. “But my great-grandfather? People don’t know what they feel. They don’t know what they’re supposed to feel. I think it’s really hard.”
Mrs. George, a hospital respiratory therapy manager, struggled to describe her reaction to the revelations. Her grandfather, McClellan Charles Shields, and Dolphus Shields were half brothers. They both lived in Birmingham where Mrs. George grew up.
“I’m appalled at slavery,” said Mrs. George, 61. “I don’t know how that could have even gone on in a Christian nation. I know that times were different then. But the idea that one of our ancestors raped a slave…”
She trailed off for a moment, considering the awful possibility.
“I would like to know the answer, but I would not like to know that my great-grandfather was a rapist,” she said. “I would like to know in my brain that they were nice to her and her children. It would be easier to live with that.”
Mrs. Tribble, who began researching her roots before Mrs. Obama became the First Lady, said she was shocked to learn that her ancestors owned slaves.
“My family, well, they were just your most basic people who never had a lot,” Mrs. Tribble said. “I never imagined that they owned slaves.”
Her mother, Lottie Bell Shields, was an orphan who picked cotton as a girl and was passed from relative to relative in a family that could ill afford an extra mouth to feed. She never got past the seventh grade.
Yet even before she took the DNA test, Mrs. Tribble had a strong feeling that her family and the First Lady’s family were related. She still remembers the moment when she laid eyes on an old black-and-white photograph of Dolphus Shields. She was sitting at her kitchen table in her house in the Atlanta suburbs when she saw him staring out of the pages of The New York Times: this stern, bespectacled African-American man who happened to share her mother’s last name.
Mrs. Tribble never had any doubts about her family’s ethnic background. Yet when she stared at the photograph that day, she said she felt something entirely unexpected: a strong stirring of recognition.
“I just thought, ‘Well, he looks like somebody who could be in my family,’ ” she said.
This article is adapted from “American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama” by Rachel L. Swarns, to be published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
I would love for you to Like what my multi-talented daughter, Rachel has done to my facebook page on Hewick, please go there and Like it, OK? Rachel has used her graphic arts degree and her expertise from her own company “Print Candy” (firstname.lastname@example.org) to re-design it for me! I am thrilled & would love to have your input! Helen
(Helen’s daughter, Rachel Battleson, is the creative artist behind the cover of this issue of The Coronado Clarion as well as The Fingers poster featured on the Back Cover.)