Jordan Carroll turned to 23andMe to help him solve a family mystery.
Like many African Americans, Jordan Carroll was intrigued by the stories passed down through generations that spoke of a white ancestor in his family dating back four generations, a man on his mother’s side. But unlike many other African Americans this
relationship wasn’t born out of slavery. He wanted to know more.
But Jordan had very little to work on. What he had was a name, or more accurately, a possible name — Larson or Lawson.
That’s not much to go on, so he and his mother tested with 23andMe hoping to learn more. As Jordan and his mother’s results came in, so too did the clues. They indeed had non-African ancestry — British, Turkish, Finnish and Native American. And on his mother’s results he matched with a predicted fourth cousin with the last name “Lawton.”
Jordan sent her a message. His cousin was white and lived in the same region of South Carolina, where his mother’s family was from originally.
“At the time, she was one of my mom’s highest matches in terms of DNA,” said Carroll, a 26 year-old student, who lives in San Diego. “So I put two and two together. … We began communicating and as more members of her family began testing, we were able to narrow down the possibilities in her family tree.”
The connection would kick off a fact-finding mission to shed light on this shared family mystery. By supplementing his family’s oral history with science and official records, Jordan revealed a connection that otherwise would’ve remained lost. Along the way, the Lawton clan came to embrace and welcome Jordan — a distant cousin on the other side of the country who bore little resemblance to them — into the family.
While his 23andMe results helped break the case, it was finding another cousin, Boyce Lawton, the family’s genealogist, that really helped solve the mystery, Jordan said. Using the meticulous records Boyce kept of the family tree, Jordan was able to compare the
segments in his mother’s DNA that she shared with various members of the Lawton family. This helped them identify their most recent common ancestor, Joseph Maner Lawton. This helped Jordan in turn narrow down his missing great-great-great-grandfather to one of Lawton’s three sons.
“[Boyce] got really into it, trying to figure out which son was the father of my ancestor,” Jordan said. “We immediately discounted [Boyce's direct] ancestor because we would’ve shared more blood than what we do. He was out of the picture.”
Of the remaining two sons in question, the name Francis Asbury Lawton rang a bell.
“I had been told by one of my grandaunts that her uncle Asbury had been named after his grandfather,” Jordan recalled.
Asbury’s last name was Brown, and Census records revealed that around 1880, there was a family named Brown — including a woman named Bella Brown — that lived next door to Francis Asbury Lawton. That family had a son named Winnie Joe Brown (a light-skinned African American, Jordan noted). Winnie Joe Brown had in turn been Asbury’s father.
“There’s a preconceived notion about black-white relationships back in those days as being almost entirely composed of rape or coercion,” Jordan said. “A lot of the times, that wasn’t the case. People also had hush-hush affairs.”
Carroll’s great-great grandfather Winnie Joe Brown was born about 20 years after the Civil War ended. Because Francis Asbury and Bella Brown, the mother of Winnie Joe, were close in age, Carroll believes she might have been a former slave of Joseph Maner Lawton. This would explain how Bella and Francis Asbury knew each other. His other theory is that Bella, who lived next door, could have worked as a servant for Francis Asbury.
“The fact that Winnie Joe knew who his father was and had a relationship with him suggests it’s not rape or coercion,” he explained.
But Jordan doesn’t know. He also hasn’t discussed it with his new found cousins.
“No one’s ever mentioned what they think the relationship is about,” he said. “It’s still considered taboo even to talk about it. I’m not sure what they think about the actual relationship. They just acknowledged that it happened.”
While Jordan thinks he’s solved the mystery, he is still trying to confirm it by having several other cousins tested with 23andMe.
In the meantime, he plans to meet some of his cousins.
“But on a grander scale, all of this confirms that we are all part of the same Lawton family.”
Looking back on old Lawton family photos, Carroll has noticed some family resemblance — freckles, distinctive ears and other things.
“We’ve always been wondering if it’s a family trait in my mom’s family to have freckles,” Carroll mused. “Like my grandaunt said, Winnie Joe had a lot of freckles, green-blue eyes.”
Carroll plans on visiting the Lawton family in South Carolina some time after he completes his courework in the U.K. on human physiology. Both he and his mother have been invited to the next family reunion.
“No matter how the Lawton blood came to me, I am very proud to learn that I am part of it and happy that I have been welcomed to it,” Jordan said.
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