Friday, September 30, 2011

DNA Test Spurs Surprising Discovery of Great Grandfather Thomas Jefferson

You never know what a DNA test might reveal!

A few months back, spurred on by my interest in genetic genealogy, my sister Erin decided to order a DNA test from 23andMe for my brother-in-law John Huffer. John has never known his father, so we didn't really know what his results would show. His mother's family has a strong oral tradition of Native American ancestry, so we expected some mixed ethnicity. What was not expected was his African maternal line DNA haplogroup L3e4 and the five percent African ancestry that was revealed in his Ancestry Painting. (Ancestry Painting is a 23andMe tool that examines the 22 chromosomes one segment at a time and determines for each stretch whether it was most likely inherited from ancestors in Africa, Europe or Asia.)

I had never investigated John's family tree before, but my curiosity was piqued with this result, inspiring me to begin researching it. Fairly quickly it was obvious that his was no run-of-the-mill genealogy. John's mother's line traces straight back to Madison Hemings. That name may be familiar to many as the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence. My genealogy research clearly showed that Thomas and Sally are John's fourth great-grandparents!*

John has always especially admired Thomas Jefferson above all other historical figures and felt a special affinity to Monticello when he first visited there ten years ago, although he had absolutely no idea of his familial connection. When I first relayed my findings to John and my sister, they were, understandably, shocked. Once they started browsing the Internet in search of more information, they came across a very familiar photo on one of the websites about Monticello. An original of this very photo had hung in John's house growing up. Further investigation shows that his mother had, at least, a vague knowledge of her family's relationship to Thomas Jefferson and/or Sally Hemings, but did not share it with her children.

There have been a number of interesting "coincidences" in regard to the Huffers and Monticello that make one ponder on genetic memory. When John and my sister first visited Monticello on an anniversary trip ten years ago, they loved it so much that they decided to go back the very next year with their daughter Courtney. When Courtney entered the dining room of Monticello, she promptly passed out. Although her reaction could be attributed to the hot, humid day, it bears notice that this was the one and only time that Courtney has ever fainted. This was long before the family knew about their personal connection to the place or the families that lived there.  Courtney says that although she felt "overwhelmed" at Monticello, she also "felt at home". Last weekend, the family visited Monticello for the first time since discovering their relationship to it and its previous inhabitants. John and Courtney both said that Monticello "seems like a happy place" and they "have a feeling of hominess" there.

Since John had never had any relationship with his father's family and had very little contact with his mother's side after a family dispute, he says it was as if they "had no history". Erin relates, "It's been fun for John to finally have a legacy of some sort, not to mention one as interesting as this," and goes on to say that this discovery has finally given John and his siblings "a sense of who they are and where they came from."

John Huffer posing with a statue of his 4th great grandfather Thomas Jefferson
I am so happy for John, once a fatherless little boy, who can now take comfort and pleasure in the knowledge that he is directly descended from one of the founding fathers of our country! On his visit to Monticello on Sunday, he couldn't help but wonder if his deep love of Paris is simply a coincidence or caused by the same unknown spark that made Thomas Jefferson fall in love with it so long ago. Or, if his interest in the art of brewing beer could have come from his forebearers, whom he learned on his visit were expert brewers at Monticello. It is wonderful for John and his family to finally have these types of questions to ponder that most of us take for granted.

John and Courtney Huffer, descendants of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello
DNA testing has come full circle for genetic genealogy with John's story. It is fitting that one of the very first public uses of DNA for genealogical purposes was the Y-DNA test in 1998 that originally addressed the controversy surrounding Sally Hemings' children's paternity. Today, more than a decade later, the simple decision to test with 23andMe is what led John to make this illuminating discovery about himself and his family.

This completely unexpected event has sparked my interest in the fascinating subject of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As a result, I have decided to organize an autosomal DNA project on the descendants of Sally Hemings. Although it is now generally accepted that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings' children, it was has been impossible to determine with certainty. The introduction of autosomal DNA testing has changed this. Through autosomal DNA testing I hope to be able to demonstrate that the living descendants of Sally Hemings share blocks of DNA with Jefferson's legitimate descendants. If it is not possible to procure DNA from them, I will seek DNA from descendants of individuals one step further back in Thomas Jefferson's pedigree in an attempt to show that Sally's descendants possess DNA from Jefferson's ancestral lines. [Update - Because Thomas’ descendants through his wife Martha may share DNA with Sally’s descendants through the Wayles connection, I also hope to locate and test Wayles descendants who are not related to Thomas Jefferson in order to determine if any shared DNA can be identified as originating exclusively with the Wayles (or Eppes) Family. (Due to the convoluted nature of the Wayles/Eppes genealogy, it would pose a challenge to determine which one.) Testing the descendants of Jefferson’s uncle and/or brothers to include in the study will be an essential step to isolate Jefferson DNA versus Wayles DNA. It may be of lesser historical significance if this study was able to find DNA evidence confirming that Sally was indeed Martha’s half-sister, but still extremely interesting and well worth exploring. This study is proving to be a long-term and very complex project.] Since autosomal DNA undergoes random recombination with each successive generation, it will be necessary to test the oldest living descendants of these lines. DNA is the perfect tool for this because it does not harbor any prejudice or predetermined notions. Anyone who fits these parameters should contact me at yourgeneticgenealogist@gmail.com.


[*Although some Jefferson researchers had disputed the validity of the claims that Sally's children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, most of these doubts were put to rest after a 1998 Y-DNA test on Sally's son Eston's direct male line descendants proved that they carry the Y-Chromosome of Thomas Jefferson's male line. Although Madison has no living direct line male descendants to test, it is now widely accepted that all of Sally's children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, as is supported by oral histories of Sally's descendants and analysis of Sally and Thomas' relationship and time spent together. A detailed look at this evidence is provided by Annette Gordon-Reed in her exhaustive study and Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Hemingses of Monticello". The official Jefferson Monticello website also addresses this issue.]

13 comments:

  1. What a story! Congratulations on a great find. It is so wonderful for John and his family.

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  2. Amazing! I'm trying to imagine all the reactions. You must have been stunned.

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  3. This is great news and an amazing project to be undertaking! I can't wait to see what results come of it!

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  5. Great post and what a gift that John now has a better understanding of his ancestry - however surprising it turned out to be. In genealogy. I've had some of those surprise ancestors too, the latest a Puritan. Talk about unexpected!!

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  6. I am absolutely amazed with this wonderful story. How excited your brother-in-law and his family must be to finally know their ancestry! Genetic genealogy is here to stay.

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  7. What a fascinating story! How can anyone not know, or not want to know, this stuff? :)

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  8. Good luck. This will be an interesting find as it appears that in the descent of the other children besides Eston, the Y-DNA was different; but, this could have occurred as downstream non-paternal events. An autosomal study would be the only way to prove this. It should prove interesting. I hope you find something of note. I just read about the Y study in "Surnames, DNA, & Family History."

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  9. While it's highly likely your brother-in-law is a Jefferson descendant, which Jefferson is probably impossible to prove. Credible arguments have been made for Thomas, his brother Randolph, and others. Maybe you'll be able to sort it out with autosomal testing, but I'd bet the surviving segments will be too small to make any definitive conclusions. At any rate, it's a fascinating project. Good luck!

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  10. Fascinating! I look forward to your future updates.

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  11. One of the things I find fascinating and enlightening about all this is how it blurs or even erases our distinctions of race and family. That in turn should change or erase many of our attitudes and assumptions about racial differences and what race we assume we 'are'. I think in particular, it raises the possibility that a surprising number of people who assume they are 'entirely white' or Caucasian actually have some Black African ancestry.

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  12. While the story is interesting it is time to inform him that a team of 13 prominent scholars found NO proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered any slave child. I refer the reader to www.tjheritage.org and www.jeffersondnastudy.com for FULL and TRUTHFUL details of the DNA Study which I personally participated in with Dr E.A. Foster. I suggest that all interested read the several books there that EXPOSE this false assumption. It is all a "slavery study" being carried out by Monticello and they and their friends have a vested interest in misleading the public in my opinion and in my long research. NOTHING gives credence to this man's claim. Dr Foster clouded the research by testing a KNOWN carrier of both Hemings and Jefferson DNA, not telling Nature, as I suggested, that in all probability there would be a match, BECAUSE this man's ancestor's family (Eston Hemings, son of Sally), had always claimed descent from "A Jefferson uncle or nephew." This translates to TJ's much younger brother, Randolph and his sons. Dr Foster worked closely with Nature to perfect a FALSE and misleading headline, "Jefferson fathers slave's last child." The media immediately grabbed it and Dr Dan Jordan, Presaident of Monticello was quick to jump on it without proper and truthful research because it would boost the story of slavery at Monticello (see Jefferson Legacies)and enhance the FALSE displays at Monticello and the Smithsonian. Their agenda is being played out by writers being invited to the Smith Thomas Jefferson Studies Institute at Monticello. The authors are wined, dined and provided lodging and then they write the "same old biased and one sided information." Dr Ken Wallenborn, then a Monticello top guide and member of the ALL in-house study group that had a mission to find TJ guilty as reported by Dr Wallenborn in a MInority Report that was completely "swept under the rug" and not originally published by Dr. Dan Jordan, Monticello President. I "got wind" of this deception and contacted Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chairman, Brent Halsey whose action resulted in the Minority Report being released and Dr Wallenborn apologized to. By the way, MEMORIAL was dropped from the title of the owners of Monticello, but who are they now memorializing........see the displays at Monticello and Smithsonian.

    Herb Barger
    www.tjheritage.org
    www.jeffersondnastudy.com
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and assistant to Dr Foster

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

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  13. I find it discouraging all these people like Herb Barger and others are so Quick to Defend Thomas Jefferson. All the while making it out Sally Hemings could of "slept" with any of the Jefferson men, even going as far as to say when they were on Monticello. How about standing up for Sally Hemings and trying to help prove her lineage and children's Father. She is often referred as a afterthought and presented as like they always do as "Chattel" and not a person of any stature. I find all your online writings Herb disheartening. One thing is for sure, these Descendents you so quick to dispel their Paternity have a DNA right and claim to be included in Thomas Jefferson's Legacy regardless to much evidence shows they are part of this Family in some capacity DNA wise. Stop the moral high road and putting Jefferson on some high moral highroad. I hope all the Descendents of Sally Hemings keep the fight up and continue to keep proving Barger just as wrong. Eventually the TRUTH will be Told. Great Post CeCe!

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