Genetic genealogy, DNA triangulation, and the search for my missing Futrell ancestor

When it comes to my genealogy adventures, more often than not, I feel like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot when it comes to uncovering the identity of missing ancestors who lived in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Century. Paper trails invariably run out, especially when it comes to my ancestors who were either working class whites, blacks, mulattos, Native American, or free people of colour. There are various reasons for this. Either records were lost, destroyed during times of upheaval (i.e. Revolutionary War, Civil War, Bacon’s Rebellion, etc) or were lost due to things like courthouses burning down. Given the remote areas some of ancestors lived, records may have never been produced at all. Or, if enslaved, full names weren’t provided. Or, due to ethnicity, they weren’t seen as people.

DNA testing is one key to uncovering the identities for ancestors where paper documents never existed, or no longer exist…or have yet to be digitized.  The process of DNA triangulation is key to this process:

Triangulation for autosomal DNA is kind of a chicken and egg thing.  The goal is to associate and identify specific DNA segments to specific ancestors.  The easiest way to do this, or to begin the process, is with known relatives.  This gets you started identifying “family segments.”  From that point, you can use the known family segments, along with some common sense tools, to identify other people that are related through those common ancestors.  Through those matches with other people, you can continue to break down your DNA into more and more granular family lines. (DNAeXplained, “Triangulation for Autosomal DNA” via https://dna-explained.com/2013/06/21/triangulation-for-autosomal-dna)

Regular readers will know I’ve developed a talent for triangulation over the years. In truth, much credit goes to my team of genetic genealogists who spent long and patient hours explaining how genetic genealogy and triangulation work; and mentoring me through my first forays into triangulating with my own DNA.

I’ve saved one of the most challenging triangulation tasks for last: discovering the father of my 2x great grandmother, Selinda Futrell, born about 1842 in Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina. This falls on my mother’s side of the family tree.

matilda

There are a couple of phases when it comes to organizing how I approach working with DNA and vital documents identifying a parent, or parents, for an ancestor. I’m still very much in the early phases with Selinda.

A preliminary to Phase I

Let’s start with her mother, Melinda, whose name appears as Melinda Futrell in official documents. Melinda was born around 1824 in Northampton County, North Carolina.  The first question I had to tackle was whether or not Melinda was a Futrell by birth, or was it a name she assumed after Emancipation.  In short, what was her connection to the Futrell name?

The three documents I have for Melinda, including the 1870 Census, cite that she is black.  All three documents are consist in this fact. There is nothing to-date to indicate that she was of mixed race. Now this could be for one of two reasons: either she was born of mixed parentage and simply didn’t appear to be.  Or, as I strongly suspect, she wasn’t born of mixed parentage. I am satisfied on the score that she was not a Futrell by birth.

Melinda’s children, on the other hand, are consistently cited as being mulattos. All of them. Which indicates that, unlike Melinda, her children had a white father. Given some 20+ DNA matches with white Futrells and Futrell descendants with roots in Northampton County, North Carolina, the team and I are very confident that man was a Futrell. This would explain Melinda’s adoption of the Futrell name, which she passed on to her children.

This is a prelim into Phase I.

Phase I: The Futrell family tree

So, the preliminary to Phase I was all about determining if Selinda Futrell was indeed a blood relation to the Quaker-descended Futrells in Northampton, NC.

Phase I, which is still ongoing, requires me to do a full and thorough work-up on the Quaker-descended Futrell family tree. This is easier said than done.  I’m not going the lie. The Futrells are a nightmare to research.

Let’s just start with the surname. When it comes to misspellings and variants of the name, it’s in a league of its own: Fewtrell (the old English spelling of the name), Futral, Futrill, Fetral, Tutrill, Titrill, Futrelle…the list goes on and on.

Then there are the beloved family names that were commonly used among numerous branches: Shadrach, William, Charity, Daniel, John, Nathaniel, and Mary, just to cite a few. Online family trees are aren’t an option – too many have confused or merged individuals who borne the same first name and were born within a few years of each other.

The one book I hoped to get a hold of, 12 Northampton County, North Carolina Families
Bridgers, Daughtry, Futrell, Jenkins, Joyner, Lassiter, Martin, Odom, Parker, Stephenson, Sumner, and Woodard by Rebecca L. Dozier is no longer in print.

But then, as luck or providence would have it, I discovered a second book: The Futrell Family Revised by Roger H. Futrell (available to read and/or download via: https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE99258)  This book has been an absolute godsend. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we couldn’t have done an accurate family tree without it.

The book allowed us to ramp up Phase I, and begin Phase II.

Phase IIa: Eliminating and shortlisting paternity candidates

The 18th and early 19th Century Futrell family is huge. The family was not only prolific, it produced an unusual number of male children generation after generation.

At the moment, we’re just shy of 60 Futrell men born between 1650 and 1820. In order to have the fullest list of possible paternity candidates, we’re required to try and trace as many descendant lines for Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell (born 1659 in Shropshire, England, lied for a period in Surry County, Virginia –  and died in 1693 in Bertie County, North Carolina). Once this has been done, we can begin to specifically look at Futrell men who were old enough, and resident in Northampton County, NC prior to Selinda Futrell’s birth in 1842.

I don’t know if ‘luck’ is the right word, but I’m going to use it anyway.  As luck would have it, around two-thirds of the Futrells who were in North Carolina had moved to Trigg and Christian Counties in Kentucky by 1814. Why is this lucky?  These Futrell men are automatically eliminated as possible descendant lines who could have fathered Selinda and her siblings. These Futrells didn’t moved back and forth between Kentucky and North Carolina.  Once they arrived in Kentucky, that was it.

We next looked into the proximity of Futrell men to Melinda and her family in Rich Square.  There were a dozen or so men of the right age either living in Rich Square. Another 8 Futrell men lived within a day’s horse ride away from Rich Square. Then there was the extended family group of Futrells who lived in Onslow County, NC.

Next we looked at which Futrells owned slaves.  This ruled the Onslow County group of Futrells out almost immediately. None of them had enslaved people.

This, again, helps us narrow the field of identifying the best, most likely paternity candidates on paper before we begin using DNA to triangulate.

After eliminating so many Futrells from consideration, we are left with a few family lines to investigate more closely:

  1. Male Futrell descendants of John W Futrell (1715-1788) and Martha “Polly” Daughtry;
  2. Male Futrell descendants of Benjamin Futrell (1720-1790) and Mourning Smith; and
  3. Male Futrell descendants of Thomas Futrell III (1713-1770) and Elizabeth Dickinson.

Work continues in investigating these three family groups.

Phase IIb: Wills and probate…and more Wills and probate

Wills and probate records are a vital – and rich – source of ancestral information. On the one hand, they provide the names of surviving family members, including grandchildren (e.g. I bequeath to my grand-daughter Hezekiah Heathcock, the daughter of Anne,…)

Next, Wills and probate are important for my Futrell ancestry for another reason. Wills and probate tells me who held enslaved people and who did not. This isn’t always a hard and fast rule.  My formerly missing German-American Sheffey 4x grandfather, John Adam Sheffey, was the only 18th Century Sheffey to not own slaves.  However, his brothers did. Yet, as far as DNA is showing, only John Adam Sheffey seems to have fathered children with Jemimah, an enslaved woman in the household of his brother Maj Henry Lawrence Sheffey. Slave ownership isn’t always a reliable factor when it comes to determining paternity.

For the Futrells who held enslaved people, the names of the enslaved are cited in their Wills.  It is actually possible to follow the trail of the enslaved from generation to generation through subsequent Futrell family Wills.

Using an example, let’s say Futrell #1 had an enslaved woman by the name of Amey. She goes from him to his son, Futrell #2.  Next, we might see in Futrell #2’s Will that Amey and her children, Patsy and Shadrach, pass to his son, Futrell #3.  Not only can I track Amey, I can now see that she has two children. Further Wills will provide further clues and information about Patsy and Shadrach.

The above is an illustrative example.  The Will of Elliot Futrell below, is a real-world working example:

elliott-futrell-1elliott-futrell-2

I’ll go ahead and say.  Creating family trees from Wills is a strange and unsettling business. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile myself to it. With that said, it is a critical skillset to acquire when it comes to genealogy.

As part of my genealogy practice, I add this information my Ancestry.com family tree for the respective individuals who held and inherited enslaved people.  I do this in the hopes that it helps other African Americans  researching their own family trees. I include the names of the enslaved and how that individual came by them (i.e. inheritance or purchase) with links back to the original course. The two images below show my working practice using the Will above:

mitchell-futrell

The image above shows notes I add to respective Ancestry.com pages to track the movement of enslaved ancestors from generation to generation.

Now, in the instance above, I don’t know if any of the enslaved people cited are part of my Futrell family’s story. However, they will be part of someone’s family story. So many have helped me along my way in my adventure, it would be churlish for me to not pay it forward.

Phase IIc: Identifying Futrell DNA segements

While I grapple with the traditional genealogy required in Phases IIa and IIb, the team is working on identifying my Futrell DNA segments and the Chromosome(s) associated with this segment or segments. While I’ve become adept at this part of the process, it is time consuming. And, in this instance, exceedingly tricky due to endogamy (cousin marriages, in short). I’m going to say it: the professionals are far quicker at this than I am!

This article from DNAeXplained gives you a glimpse into what’s involved: Concepts: Match Groups and Triangulation https://dna-explained.com/category/triangulation.

Phase III: Working with online DNA cousin matches

This final phase will do one of two things.  It will either identify the father of Selinda Futrell and her siblings. Or, it will narrow the search down to a single family group, a father and his sons, in other words. Most of the time, we get a solid hit and there’s no doubt about it.  Other times – and this is largely due to endogamy – we can only narrow it down to a father and/or his sons.

For example, it’s not unusual in my family tree for two brothers from one family to marry sisters from another family – and both sets of couples were cousins. Add the fact that the parents of the 2 brothers and 2 sisters were 2nd or 3rd cousins. Nothing skews DNA triangulating quite like this. It’s a bit of a nightmare. Less frequent is a father and a son marrying a mother and a daughter from another family, who may or may not be related to them.

Part of Phase III includes me relaying any possible DNA overlaps back to the genetic genealogists. For instance, the Quaker descended Futrells married Outlands, Exums, Vinsons and Lassiters quite often In Northampton, NC. I know already that I have Lassiters and Exums in Virginia on my father’s side of the family. I also have Outlands from Pennsylvania and Virginia on both my parents’ ancestral lines. Regardless of which colonial territory or State they lived in, these Outlands, Lassiters and Exums are part of the same family. Add in the Quaker White family, which links all of these families and more…and you have some tricky triangulation to do.

This information is crucial for the genetic genealogy team to reduce the risk of them arriving at a false positive. They need to find ‘pure’ lines – lines that don’t share common DNA with any other, in order to successfully identify Selinda Futrell’s father.  We use this as a benchmark against which we compare every other line.

Each Futrell line will be examined individually to see which one matches me closer, in terms of generation, than any other. For instance, if all of my DNA matches are at the 5th, 6th and 7th cousin level, save one that matches me at the 4th generational level or less – the most recent shared match is the one we need to investigate more closely. The identity of her father rests on Futrells who match me more closely in terms of generational distance than any other Futrell descendant line.

Normally, we’d also rely on the length of DNA segments shared, and the number of segments shared, between me and my Futrell DNA matches.  However, because of cousin marriages, I already know we’ll share more DNA in common than is typical for 4th to 8th cousins.  As an example, I have a Quaker cousin in Pennsylvania who Ancestry.com suggests is a 3rd cousin. We know a number of the ways we’re related, which makes us 5th, 6th, and 7th cousins respectively (due to endogamy within the colonial Quaker communities, we share at least 6 sets of common ancestors). We share a crazy amount of DNA segments for two people whose common ancestors lived between 1660 and 1770. It’s not Ancestry.com’s fault, it can only go by what the genetic numbers are telling it.

Yep, I know, it sounds like a whole lot of work to identify one ancestor. It’s what you do when the paper trail runs out.

And why spend so much time and effort to identify a father-owner ancestor?  I’ll touch on that in the next article.

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1 Comment

Filed under AfAm Genealogy, family history, Genetics, Race & Diversity, searching census records

One response to “Genetic genealogy, DNA triangulation, and the search for my missing Futrell ancestor

  1. I love that you took the time to add the names of people you aren’t directly related to. I believe that creates genealogical good karma.

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