If you’re like me and overwhelmed by DNA and this new wealth of information for genealogists, I am going through my experience with the Research Like a Pro with DNA e-course to help those looking for a way to get started! This is the seventh post in the series.
In the sixth step of the RLP with DNA process, Exploring DNA Tools and Methodology, I document my learning experience with a handful of tools taught to me in the e-course. Now, it is time to select the tools I will be using for my particular research objective by making a research plan.
“The objective of this research project is to use DNA and genealogical records to determine the biological father of Mary Ella Parker born on 22 August 1877 in Baldwin County, Alabama. Mary Ella died on 28 December 1950 in Columbus, Muscogee, Georgia. The test taker is 3 generations from the research subject and atDNA will be applicable, however, 3rd-4th cousins may not share very much DNA which could make verifying the exact relationship difficult. The community of the research subject also experienced pedigree collapse, so there may be multiple MRCAs with the test taker. mtDNA is not useful in this case as it is not an unbroken maternal line and Y-DNA is not useful in this case as it is not an unbroken paternal line.”
A research plan for a DNA project should include both DNA and traditional genealogy strategies to help solve your research question. Before starting, you should make sure you have clearly laid out the genealogical background of the family, the DNA background for the project, and the locality background information that you gathered in Locality Research and Ethnicity.
The sections of a research plan in the RLP with DNA process are Summary of Known Facts, Working Hypothesis, Identify Sources, and Prioritized Strategy.
Note: For my e-course project, I am using the autosomal DNA of my mother-in-law, Lesley Kotter. She has permitted me to use her name and DNA in the project and these blog posts. Her matches will be privatized.
Summary of Known Facts – Traditional Records
For the summary of known facts, a bulleted list or table can be made to explain the traditional records that have already been discovered for the research subject. (See Research Like a Pro, Part 4: What’s the Plan?). I separated my summary of known facts into what is known about Mary Ella Parker (the research subject), William Edward Parker (hypothesized father #1), and Mr. Barnes (hypothesized father #2).
Mary Ella Parker
– Mary Ella Parker was born on 22 August 1877 according to her death certificate (the information for the death certificate came from her daughter). Sources are fairly inconsistent on her birth year with a range of 1877-1885. She seems to report a few years younger for each census indicating that she may not have been entirely truthful when reporting her age to the enumerator. Her parents on her death certificate are listed as William P. Parker and Zelhie Beck.
– All census records except one list Mary’s birth state as Alabama. Her family was residing in Helton’s, Baldwin, Alabama in the 1880 census, where she is enumerated as a 3-year-old. There is direct evidence of Baldwin County, Alabama being the birthplace of siblings older and younger than her, leading to the conclusion that Mary Ella Parker was most likely born in Baldwin County, Alabama. She is enumerated as the daughter of William and Zella Parker in the 1880 U.S. Census.
– In the 1900 U.S. Census, Mary’s family is found having moved to Santa Rosa County, Florida, two counties east of Baldwin County, Alabama. In this census, she is enumerated as the daughter of William E. Parker and Zille Parker.
– Mary Ella Parker married James Henry Sutton on 15 December 1904 in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Their marriage certificate does not list her parent’s names.
William Edward Parker
– William Edward Parker was born between 1842-1855 in Texas according to the 1880, 1900, and 1910 U.S. Census.
– William Edward Parker’s father was born in Alabama according to the 1880, 1900, and 1910 U.S. Census, and William’s mother was either born in Alabama or Georgia as the enumeration is not consistent between the census records.
– William Edward Parker married Zilla Beck around 1875 according to the 1900 U.S. Census. No marriage record has been found in previous research.
– William Edward Parker died sometime between 1916-1920, most likely in Santa Rosa County, Florida.
– Nothing is known directly about Mr. Barnes besides that he must have existed.
– In the 1880 U.S. Census, two of the children are enumerated with the surname Barns instead of Parker like the rest of the children.
– In the 1910 U.S. Census, William Barnes is enumerated as a stepson to William E. Parker, implying that Zilla was married to a Mr. Barnes before her marriage to William Parker.
– In the death certificates of two of the Parker children: Charles Lee Parker and Margaret Alice Parker, their father is listed as William Edward Parker and their mother is listed as Elizabeth (or Lizzie) Barnes. It is possible Zilla is a nickname for Elizabeth and this is evidence of a previous marriage to a Mr. Barnes as the rest of the children enumerate her maiden name as Beck.
Summary of Known Facts – DNA Evidence
For the summary of known facts for the DNA sources, I focused on confirming that Lesley is a biological descendant of Zilla Beck, Mary Ella Parker’s mother.
- Louie Carlton Sutton is Lesley’s biological grandfather
None of Lesley’s first cousins have tested, but her father has put his DNA on Ancestry, confirming the father-daughter relationships between Lesley and her father. His father was Louie Carlton Sutton.
- Mary Ella Parker is Lesley’s biological great-grandmother
The relationship of Lesley to her great-grandmother, Mary Ella Parker, is confirmed through DNA matches with first cousins once removed, second cousins, and second cousins once removed. Documentary evidence for this connection is also strong.
- Zilla Beck is Lesley’s biological 2nd great-grandmother
Lesley is related to descendants of Zilla Beck from both of Zilla’s husbands: Mr. Barnes and William Edward Parker. This confirms that she is a biological descendant of Zilla, but does not confirm her biological 2nd great-grandfather.
Going through the summary of known facts refocused me on my project and reminded me exactly where I was starting before creating my research plan.
After you have reviewed the known facts for the objective – both traditional and DNA sources – it is time to combine all the thinking and analyzing you’ve been doing in your brain into a working hypothesis for your project. Something I always need to be reminded of is that your hypothesis does not need to be the answer to your project, but instead it is a way to show what you’re thinking before diving into the research. I also always need to be reminded that I am trying to disprove my hypothesis just as much as I am trying to prove it. Here’s the hypothesis I wrote up for this project:
“The hypothesis for this research project is that William Edward Parker is the biological father of Mary Ella Parker. Mary was born 22 August 1877 in Baldwin County, Alabama, two years after the reported marriage date of William Edward Parker and Zilla Beck in 1875. William Edward Parker was born around 1842-1855 in Galveston County, Texas.
It seems unlikely that Mary would be a biological descendant of Mr. Barnes – her mother Zilla’s first husband. The dates do not seem to line up when analyzing the traditional records. It is also odd that the census records for the family distinguish between the Barnes children and the Parker children and Mary is listed with the Parker children. If she was biologically a Barnes, it would seem that she would be enumerated as such as the other biological Barnes children are enumerated with their proper last name.
If she is biologically a Parker, it would be expected that DNA matches between the test taker and other descendants of William Edward Parker will be in the 3rd cousin range, sharing 0-234 cM, with an average of 73 cM. If she is biologically a Barnes, then the matches will appear as half 3rd cousins, sharing 0-168 cM, with an average of 48 cM. It may prove difficult to distinguish the two relationships – especially with the added endogamy found during earlier stages of the research process.
Analyzing shared matches of the descendants of Zilla Beck who do not share DNA with other Beck siblings should help isolate Mary’s paternal line. Pedigree and segment triangulation should then be used to discover whether the next generation back is a Parker or a Barnes.”
At this point, I’m going with my gut that William Edward Parker is the correct biological father because all the traditional sources are confirming that to me. However, the DNA matches are not sorting out exactly as I planned, but I am highly suspicious that it is due to endogamy in the community. Hopefully, I will be able to build my research plan avoiding as much confirmation bias as possible.
The next step of the process I find highly satisfying because it allows me to get all my ideas swimming around in my head down on paper! In the “Identify Sources” step of your research plan, you get to go back to your locality guide and your notes from DNA tools and methodology and write down any ideas that you think will help you answer your research objective. Don’t hold back, write down all your ideas! I won’t list all that I included in my “Identify Sources” section because I wrote down any record group that I thought could help me answer my question. In a way, it kind of helps me get my “chasing shiny objects” out of my system since I’ve put all the ideas I can think of down. I also love to turn to my “Identify Sources” part of my research plan as ideas for future research suggestions at the end of my research report.
This go-around, with the added DNA sources to go through, I took this as a chance to review what I learned in Lesson 6, Exploring DNA Tools and Methodology, and see what I understood about the different tools. It helped to write down a DNA tool that I thought could help and specifically why I thought it would work. This helped me check my understanding of the tools.
Prioritized Research Strategy
Now you’ve reviewed what you know, created a hypothesis, and identified multiple sources and DNA tools to help you tackle your objective; it’s time to narrow down those sources and create a prioritized research strategy. One of the things RLP suggests is only listing 5 traditional sources to start your search with. This has helped me from getting too overwhelmed with searching everywhere for any record with my ancestor’s name on it. Instead, I can focus on what will answer my specific question and save the other record sets for another project. The 5 traditional sources I prioritized for this project were:
– Try to locate the marriage record for William Edward Parker and Zilla (Beck) Barnes. Family notes have that they got married in Covington County, Alabama – if this is true, the marriage record has been destroyed as the courthouse has been the victim of multiple disasters. However, the timeline shows that they may have married in Baldwin County, Alabama (Marriages, 1845-1870, Baldwin County, Alabama).
– Guardianship Records for the Barnes children should be searched for. If Zilla was widowed with two or more kids, a guardianship record in the probate most likely exists reassigning the guardian of the children. This record would have been destroyed in the Covington County, Alabama courthouse fires, but it may exist in Baldwin County, Alabama where the family is found next. (Wills, 1809-1934; probate records, 1861-1929; probate minutes, 1822-1928; general index to probate records, 1810-1930, 1809-1930)
– Tax records for the Parker family could be searched in Baldwin County, Alabama to track the family in between census records as best as possible. This could specifically help with locating when Mr. Barnes died/left and when William Parker appeared. FamilySearch.org has a gap in Alabama tax records so I plan on contacting the Baldwin County Archives to see what years of tax records are available for the county.
– As the range for William Edward Parker’s birth is from 1842-1855, Parker families should be searched in Galveston County, Texas in 1840, 1850, and 1860 to try to determine who William’s family could be.
– To identify Mr. Barnes further, exploring records of his known children, William and Sarah, could help give more detail on his name, birth, and death. After an extensive search with the Florida Department of Health, it was concluded that a death certificate was not created for William Washington Barnes. Finding Sarah’s death information may also give insight into her father’s identity. However, she is believed to have died before 1900 as William and Zilla appear to adopt her children as their own, so a formal death certificate may not exist for her. I will search for an entry for her in Births and deaths, 1886-1919 (Baldwin County, Alabama Probate Court) to try to gain information on her death with the hope that it may have a clue to her father’s identity.
DNA Research Plan
For my DNA research plan, I’m going to focus on three tools for my first DNA project. My hope is to overcome the endogamy problem that I keep running into and to also just get more comfortable with incorporating DNA into my genealogy research.
– Revisit my shared matches on Ancestry and other DNA websites with matches that I know are descended from Zilla. Try to identify the matches that I don’t know the common ancestor with – especially those that don’t seem to share DNA with the Beck family. Make sure when building these trees that I check for multiple MRCAs due to the endogamy in the community.
– Using the segment triangulation tool from GEDmatch, try to identify which segments came specifically from Zilla Beck and see if looking at the matches that have these segments as well can help me make progress.
– Using my results from AutoTree on Genetic Affairs, go through the common ancestors showing up in trees to find out if any pertain to this research project.
Now that I have a plan, researching with DNA doesn’t seem as intimidating! I am eager to begin my research and hope I can make progress on this objective as I learn to Research Like a Pro with DNA!
Some of the resources that helped me the most with this phase of the project were:
Other posts in this series are: