By: Samantha Jones

In this insightful blog post, genealogist Samantha Jones delves deep into the labyrinth of her family’s past, employing a compelling blend of storytelling and scientific exploration.

I’ve been fascinated by genealogy since I was a little girl. On my mother’s side I’ve been lucky enough to have genealogists in the family who have documented past generations. Not so much on my father’s side.

After many unsuccessful years of trying to get more information from my father about his people, I finally planned my first trip to his hometown in 2009. It was then that I was able to connect with some of the cousins in various branches of his side of the family. After making those new connections, my research progressed and by 2013 I had proceeded to make some strides in going back a couple of generations on his lines.

However, like many other descendants of formerly enslaved ancestors, I was still butting my head against several brick walls.

My First Autosomal DNA Test Helped Provide Some Answers

It was in 2013 that I turned to autosomal DNA testing. Not only for myself, I also asked several of my known cousins to test as well. This helped me to break through some of the brick walls; unfortunately, several brick walls remained.

Also, like others who were using this brand-new autosomal test, I had just uncovered thousands of new cousin matches and I was a bit overwhelmed with trying to identify precisely how I was related to these newfound cousins.

How DNA Testing Can Help With Genealogy of Enslaved Ancestors

Those who descend from formerly enslaved ancestors know how daunting our searches are. The lack of records, common surnames, and separation of our ancestors during enslavement and more recently during the great migration lays the foundation for many brick walls. With enough traditional research many of us can identify a paper trail back to ancestors who were enslaved (those who survived to see emancipation, that is).

However, most of us cannot identify the ancestors who preceded those generations. Their names, ages, and origins remain completely unknown to us. For some of us those brick walls may be even closer, preventing us from identifying the generation past our grandparents or great grandparents.

It has become commonplace for me to specify that I know a DNA match (or even a cluster of DNA matches) must be related to me through a particular ancestor or an ancestor couple, even if I cannot identify the exact connection. I count that as progress and more than I had before autosomal DNA testing.

But as a genealogist, I grapple with how to document those connections in a family tree. Especially when there is no identified timeframe or even gender of the ancestor who connects the two groups.

Using Y-DNA and mtDNA to Connect to Ancestors

This is why I love to turn to Y-DNA testing to assist in these situations. Although Y-DNA will not help me or others resolve every unknown cluster of matches it can definitely be used to confirm or even to disprove a particular connection. It’s important to note that I don’t rely on Y-DNA by itself, I use it in conjunction with autosomal testing.

My first foray into Y-DNA and mtDNA testing was disappointing. In 2011, I shelled out over $300 for a test on a major genealogy site that only told me my father’s Y-DNA haplogroup is E-M2 and mtDNA haplogroup is L.

Using Haplogroups to Verify Direct Lineages

Fast forward to 2023, I now know enough about both Y-DNA and mtDNA to know that a haplogroup is just a fancy, scientific term for an ancestor. Someone who lived so long ago that their name is lost to time.

So the test my dad did in 2011 showed me that E-M2 and L are ancestors on his patrilineal and matrilineal lines. However, these are very ancient ancestors. E-M2 is a man who lived roughly 37,000 years ago and our L mtDNA ancestor is even older, she lived roughly 150,000 years ago.

FamilyTreeDNA Time Tree view of broad haplogroup E-M2

All the genealogy research in the world wouldn’t help me to identify these two ancestors, only through DNA testing was I able to uncover this information.

Big Y-700 Provides Additional Information About Your Direct Line

Thankfully, both Y-DNA and mtDNA testing have gotten better since 2011. For instance, in the past year I upgraded my father’s Y-DNA test at FamilyTreeDNA to the Big Y-700 test. And, for about the same price I paid back in 2011 (for a now-defunct test on a different site), I was able to uncover an even more recent haplogroup ancestor.

This haplogroup is named E-FT17849 (remember that a haplogroup is just a fancy, scientific name for an ancestor whose name has been lost to time).

FamilyTreeDNA Time Tree of E-FT17849 - the Y-DNA haplogroup of my enslaved ancestors

Using the FamilyTreeDNA Discover™ Y-DNA haplogroup reports, I can see that this newly identified ancestor of mine lived roughly 2,600 years ago. Working with the Discover tool and the Big Y Specialists team at the FamilyTreeDNA Help Desk, I can also see that this ancestor has 3 lines of descendants who have currently tested at the Big Y level.

Some of the testers who are modern day descendants of this ancestor live in the U.S. (those are the descendants of my 2x great grandfather Tarlton Morrison.) Other tested descendants live in Kenya, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. This tells me that it is likely that my ancestor (E-FT17849) may have been in East Africa roughly 2,600 years ago.

In time, as more people pursue Y-DNA testing, we will uncover more lines of descendants of this ancestor as well. We will also have a better idea of the global migration of this ancestor and his descendants.

With the help of projects such as the Million Mito Project or the E-M2 Group Project, eventually I will find matches on both Y-DNA and mtDNA in the future as well.

Using Y-DNA to Search For Ben Anderson

One of my favorite examples of using Y-DNA is the brick wall that I toppled for my 3x great-grandfather, Ben Anderson. I originally identified him by name in the pension file of his son, my 2x great-grandfather, John McClellan, who was born about 1845. Traditional genealogy led me to his name but that was as far as I could go using traditional research. I had too little information on him and there were too many Ben Andersons for me to search through in my lifetime.

The pension file included an affidavit provided by John’s mother, Mary McClellan (born abt 1828). From the affidavit, I knew that John’s father was named Ben Anderson and I knew that he had likely been in Tennessee around the time that John was conceived. But that’s all I had. No age, no enslaver’s name, no origin for him and no word on what happened to Ben in life. Nothing more than his name.

Affidavit identifying Ben Anderson - my brick wall ancestor
Mary McClellan’s affidavit from John McClellan’s pension file. Quoted: “I had three or four children, John McClellan is the oldest, his father was Ben Anderson who belonged to a different master from what I did.”

With the autosomal DNA testing, I identified a cluster of matches who matched my known cousins who also all descended from John McClellan. This newfound cluster of DNA matches all descended from a man named Bennie Anderson, born about 1872.

In corresponding with one of these matches, I found out that Bennie was their brick wall ancestor. Like me, they too were stuck with a brick wall. To Bennie’s descendants, he simply appeared in Oklahoma in 1900 and was married to a Native American wife. Nothing on any of the records they have for him documents his parents’ names and searches for him on census and other records turned up many results since he had a common name, but nothing that was conclusively him.

In comparing details between Bennie and his reported son John, we could see that Bennie was not old enough to have fathered John. But we could see that Bennie and John were definitely connected based on the clusters of their descendants matching each other.

Even though John was born over 175 years ago and he was my great-great grandfather, he fathered two more children with his second wife while he was in his 70s. As a result, John, a man who was formerly enslaved and served in the military during the Civil War, has grandchildren who are living today, in 2023, who are barely in their 70s and 80s.

Analyzing Y-DNA of Bennie’s Descendants Provide Insights Into Ben Anderson’s Origins

Since those matches are such close descendants to someone who lived so long ago, I very eagerly recruited one of them to do a DNA test. Several more descendants have tested but for the sake of clarity, I haven’t included all on the chart below. The two strongest matches are between Michael (from John McClellan’s branch) and B. Anderson (from Bennie Anderson’s branch). They share 154 centimorgans (cMs) of DNA.

Family tree showing the identified descendants of Ben Anderson through DNA Testing

Since Bennie’s grandson and John’s grandson share 154 cMs of DNA, I could surmise that they are likely half 2nd cousins based on their shared autosomal DNA. However, I had to admit that there were 14 other kinship possibilities that I couldn’t yet rule out, based on the Shared cM tool at

centiMorgan calculator for ancestor matches found through DNA testing

Since we were dealing with patrilineal (father to son) lines here, I wanted to see what Y-DNA testing would tell us. Fortunately, John and Bennie both had patrilineal male descendants who we could test.

Family tree showing which descendants of my ancestor need to have a Y-DNA test

Once the results were in we could see that John’s patrilineal great grandson and Bennie’s patrilineal great grandson do share a European Y-DNA haplogroup, as well as 36 of 37 Y-DNA markers.

FamilyTreeDNA Match List with Burris surnames from other descedants of enslaved ancestors

They also have matches to men with the Burrus/Burris surname who are of European descent which explains another cluster of autosomal DNA matches who match descendants of John as well as descendants of Bennie.

It appears that Ben Anderson’s father was likely a son of a Burris/Dickenson couple and that Burris Y-DNA passed down to two separate groups of descendants of formerly enslaved ancestors.

Autosomal and Y-DNA make the connection

Autosomal DNA led us to clusters of DNA matches and Y-DNA testing confirmed the specific line those descendants matched on. It did help that we had a name (Ben Anderson) to go on, but even without a name, Y-DNA would have pointed to the connection being along the patrilineal line. Just as Y-DNA pointed to Ben Anderson being a descendant of a man of European descent who carries the Burrus/Burris surname.

I will likely never find a paper trail that will connect me to Ben’s biological father. But using Y-DNA in conjunction with autosomal testing, I can prove his connection to this patrilineal line where no paper trail exists.

Although this is one of my favorite examples, I also have several other instances where Y-DNA has helped to prove connections where the paper trail runs out.

For those of us who are searching for our elusive ancestors, we truly need more descendants of former enslaved ancestors to pursue Y-DNA testing. As with autosomal DNA testing, you may not even be aware of those you match until you test.

When testing, start with the basic levels (37 to 111 markers) with a goal of doing a Big Y test in the future. I look forward to what the database will look like in 10 or even 20 years from now, when enough descendants have tested that the brick walls will come crashing down.

Samantha Jones - Group Project Administrator at FamilyTreeDNA

About the Author

Samantha Jones

Group Project Administrator

Samantha Jones is a mixed-race genealogist who has been able to trace her mother’s family tree back several generations (even on her maternal line) from Austria. On her father’s side, she is the great-granddaughter of formerly enslaved ancestors, despite being born in 1975 to a white mother and a black father. Born just 8 years after the supreme court made interracial marriage legal in the U.S, she has been able to reclaim some of the histories of the ancestors on her father’s branch through genetic genealogy.

That road to reclamation has been long and arduous, but she has now proven and documented several generations of her father’s ancestors. And, as a result of that research, she has also identified some of the families who owned my enslaved ancestors. Discoveries like that were painful, but important because she was able to unlock a wealth of information on my enslaved ancestors. Including documents that recorded their words and experiences.

As a result, she has become a passionate advocate of genetic genealogy, and created a website, Collecting Kin, to share the stories she’s uncovered and how she has used genetic genealogy tools in the process. She also formed Legacy Reclaimed, a non-profit organization whose mission is specifically to assist descendants of enslaved ancestors and people with unknown parentage or unknown grandparents.