Honoring Our Ancestors: Haley Family of Roots Fame Joins the DNA Game, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Chris HaleyMany of you have probably heard or read about the entry of Ancestry into the genetic genealogy world. And some of you may have also heard that one of the first in line to get tested by DNA Ancestry was Chris Haley, Director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland at the Maryland State Archives and –oh, yeah–the nephew of Alex Haley.

The Haley Line
While we strongly associate the Haley name with “Roots,” the classic book that has inspired so many avid genealogists, that particular book isn’t actually about the Haley line. But “Queen,” a later book by Alex Haley and David Stevens, gives a brief accounting of this branch of the family tree:

“Following the common custom among slaves, Alec had taken the name Haley from his true Massa, although his real father’s name was Baugh. William Baugh was an overseer . . .”

Alec was the grandfather of Alex and the great-grandfather of Chris. And his father had been an overseer. So to the best of the family’s knowledge, the progenitor of the Haley line was of European origin, not African.

The Legacy of Plantation Life
Those familiar with the dynamics of plantation society probably aren’t surprised by this. In fact, roughly twenty-five to thirty percent of paternal lines in African American families are actually European in origin. But until recently, there weren’t many options for researching this reality–especially since this is the kind of situation that rarely resulted in a paper trail.

But genetic genealogy is now offering a means to explore this, and Chris Haley decided to give it a go. If you’re curious about what’s involved in DNA testing, you can watch Chris take his test at this year’s FGS conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana, by checking out this brief and entertaining video. Aside from his other credentials, you’ll see that he’s quite a showman!

Preliminary Results
Since Y-DNA is passed intact from father to son down through the generations, if the Haley family lore was correct, Chris, who is a direct-line male descendent of Alec Haley, should have tested as having a European haplotype or genetic signature. And sure enough, he did. He’s from haplogroup R1b, one commonly found in Western Europe. If you could visualize a paternal family tree of all of mankind, the R1b branch is actually the most pronounced in this part of the globe, so Chris has plenty of distant genetic cousins, as well as scientific confirmation of the long told family story. But what else could he learn?

Next Steps
Chris has several options. He could leave it here, content to have learned more about his deep ancestry in the paternal branch of his pedigree. But when I walked him through his results, we discovered that he had a perfect match. Chris took a high-resolution test–forty-six markers–and there’s another person in the DNA Ancestry database who matches him. This means that the two of them share a common ancestor–and probably not too many generations ago.

This person has chosen to keep his identity private and is listed as “Anonymous.” That doesn’t mean that Chris is out to of luck. Ancestry offers an e-mail connection system that allows Chris to send a message to this person even though Chris doesn’t know his name or e-mail address. Then it’s up to this fellow whether he wants to communicate, but since most people get tested for the purpose of finding genetic mates, there’s a good chance that he will respond to Chris so the two of them can compare notes. This, then, is the logical next step.

Down the Road
But even beyond that, there’s more that Chris can do. He can explore online public access databases (such as http://www.ybase.org/, http://www.ysearch.org/ and http://www.smgf.org/) to find more matches–particularly any sporting the Haley or Baugh surname–and exchange information with anyone he finds. And he could even use his genealogical detective skills to locate direct-line male descendants of any Baugh and Haley families known to have lived in the same location around the same time as his great-grandfather, Alec. If they agreed to get DNA tested, the matchmaking game could then be used to attempt to substantiate the family story of a Baugh male being the progenitor. It’s up to Chris what his next step will be, but he has plenty of options and lots he can possibly learn!

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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak is Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com, co-founder of RootsTelevision.com, and co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree. She can be contacted through http://rootstelevision.com/blogs/megans-rootsworld.html and www.honoringourancestors.com.

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2 thoughts on “Honoring Our Ancestors: Haley Family of Roots Fame Joins the DNA Game, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. That is fasinating but what about his maternal line. Is he interested in that one? From what I learned at the anual PGSA conference this past fall, one can test that also. Although it’s limited to dna passed from mothers, grandmothers etc, it still would be worth investigation, I would think.

  2. Pingback: 24-7 Family History Circle » A Surprise DNA Connection and an Upcoming Reunion!

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