Thursday, July 25, 2019

A DNA Inspired Family Reunion - Part 2

When I set out to organize a family reunion for my great-grandparents' family, I hoped I'd get cousins to come from all different parts of their family. I specifically chose Powhatan County for our reunion because all of the grandparents of my great-grandparents lived in Powhatan. My roots in Powhatan go deep, y'all! My great-grandfather - Arthur Lewis Williams - was a Williams, Adams, Barley, and Wilburn; my great-grandmother - Mary Susan Wooldridge - was a Wooldridge, Beazley, Stratton, and Hopkins. 

Over the years, I've made connections with second to fourth cousins that share all of these various family lines. But when all was said and done, the common connection for everyone that came to the family reunion this year was the Stratton family. We are all descended from one man: David Stratton (1787-1871) of Powhatan County. 

In the first post of this three part series, we looked at the process I took to identify DNA cousins, confirm our common ancestors, and plan the event that brought us all together for the first time. In this post, we'll look at the evidence that proves we are family, that none of us is out of place, that we all belong as Strattons.

Stratton family DNA research

With organization comes clarity. And this was all too true for my work with the Stratton family. Last year, I began making a DNA chart  - as I describe in Organizing DNA Matches - for descendants of the Stratton family from Powhatan County, Virginia. Since then, I've developed an evolving list of 146 people (so far) who qualify with all three criteria: they have been DNA tested, they descend from the Stratton family from Powhatan, and they match other Stratton descendants. 

I work primarily - but not exclusively - with AncestryDNA because they have the largest database of DNA-tested individuals. So when a new person shows up in my aunt or my dad's DNA match list, I first look at their "Shared Matches" tab. Since I have my matches organized, I can quickly see if they're matching other Stratton descendants. My next task is to figure out who this match is and how they fit into my tree. Once I've figured that out, I include their line in my tree - which my Aunt Patsy calls my family "forest" - and I add them to my Stratton DNA Project chart.

The denser my "Family Forest" has gotten, and the more confirmed Stratton DNA matches I've identified, the easier it is to see if a new match is a Stratton relative. But genealogy is all about family - not just names and dates - so we need to collaborate and connect with our matches.

Facebook collaboration

You never know when and where you'll meet that previously unknown cousin with a golden nugget of family history knowledge, a photo of an ancestor, or a Family Bible. Facebook is a great place to make these connections with family, to collaborate with others with a shared surname or with people from the same ancestral area. And on 28 July 2015, I learned something through Facebook about David Stratton that has propelled my Stratton research and has expanded my family in ways I never thought possible.

Hoping to make some Powhatan County connections, I providentially joined a Facebook group called Powhatan County, VA Genealogy. I made a post to the group listing the surnames of my ancestors from Powhatan, and just hoped to find some distant cousins. Well, two minutes later, I got a response from Trisha who shared something I wasn't expecting! 

She told me she's a descendant of Kate Stratton, a woman who had once been enslaved by my ancestor David Stratton. 

Kate Stratton & Holman Hicks

I had so many questions. How did Trisha know that David Stratton had enslaved Kate? Had Trisha been DNA tested? Were we related?

I began to research Kate Stratton, and soon I saw that she was indeed connected to my family. I started to incorporate her and her family into my family tree, although not connected to the Strattons just yet. Instead, I added her and her husband, Holman Hicks, and their children and then worked on researching their descendants. The birth records for Kate's children during the period of their enslavement show that they were indeed enslaved by David Stratton in Powhatan County. At the time, there was only one David Stratton in the county and in the 1870 Census (the first after the fall of slavery), the Hicks family was enumerated only four families before my David Stratton. 

And then Trisha's mom's DNA results came back. And guess what? She matched my aunt, and her shared DNA matches with her were all Stratton descendants. As time went on, more and more descendants of Kate Stratton popped up in our DNA match lists. The highest match so far is a cousin L.C. who shares 65 cM across three DNA segments with both my aunt and dad. His great-grandmother was Kate's daughter Matilda Hicks. Matilda's birth was recorded in the Powhatan County list of births as being in Nov 1856, the daughter of Kate, and enslaved by David Stratton. Looking at L.C.'s shared matches with my aunt, the first seven matches are all descended from David Stratton. Nine others, more distant matches, are descendants of David Stratton's siblings, while still others are descended from David's first cousins. 

If Kate Stratton was enslaved by David Stratton, and her descendants are DNA matches to known descendants of David, how exactly were David and Kate related?


No one wants to accept that their ancestors participated in arguably one of the worst community sins of this country's history: chattel slavery. Fewer still want to admit that their male ancestors may have taken sexual advantage of enslaved women: people whose very station as personal property gave them no voice to say yes or no. So how was I to interpret the story of David and Kate? What was David's relationship with Kate's mother?

Kate was born - based on census and death records - about 1830 in Powhatan County. This would place her birth around the time David's first wife Susanna Norris passed away and right before he married his second wife (my ancestor) Jordenia Hopkins. From Kate's death record, we learn that Kate's mother was named Sally. Do we have evidence that David ever enslaved a woman named Sally? In this case, it was important to look at records of other families connected to David.

The 1815 will of Thomas Norris - the father of David's first wife Susanna - reveals that Susanna inherited an enslaved woman named Sally. The will also mentions some of Sally's children - including Reuben and Fleming, uncommon names we also see (perhaps coincidentally) repeated several times in the descendants of Kate Stratton. This means that David Stratton did in fact have in his household a woman named Sally by 1815. 

Additionally, descendants of four of Kate's children share DNA with a long list of David Stratton's descendants. This isn't an isolated event - such as a distant descendant of only one child of Kate matching one of David's descendants. Instead, descendants of four of her children match known descendants of several different children of David Stratton, as well as descendants of David's siblings, and first cousins. Genealogical research proves that Kate was enslaved by David Stratton. Genetic genealogy proves that Kate's descendants are genetically related to descendants of David Stratton. So was Kate the daughter of David Stratton? 

Reason says yes, and acceptance has given my family the gift of newfound long-lost family.


Thorough research of both paper records and inherited DNA has given me a much richer view of my Stratton heritage. A family that before I had known only through the research of others has become fuller because of my own research and being open to collaboration. Since I first discovered David Stratton's link to slavery - not only through records but now as a connection to living descendants of those he enslaved - my genealogical research is substantially deeper, more three-dimensional, more contextual. 

My questions today no longer stop at names and dates of my family but reach out to find the names and stories of those so often forgotten but whose names are hidden away in wills and deeds, tax records and chancery records - the many men, women, and children who were enslaved by my family. But sometimes they too - as we have seen - turn out to be my family. And by God's grace - and with modern technology - we are beginning to reconnect, and discover who our ancestors were and what family means for us today in the 21st century.

I hope you'll come back for Part 3, when we'll see how the reunion went - for all three branches of David Stratton's family (see the image above to see how we're all connected) - and how a place of worship became our place of reconnection.

This post was inspired by the week 16 prompt "Out of Place" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

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