Using 23andMe To Solve A Family Mystery

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
Jordan Carroll looking at photos of his ancestors.

Jordan Carroll looking at photos of his ancestors.

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
Joseph Manner Lawton

Joseph Manner Lawton

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. 23andMe provides genetic testing services for informational purposes; your results may or may not help you to search for or identify relatives or family members.
  • Boyce Lawton

    Thanks for sharing the story!

  • Jordan Carroll

    You disagree with the statement or you disagree with the preconceived notion?

  • Jordan Carroll

    If you disagree about the preconceived notion, please read what was said after that statement: “A lot of the times, that wasn’t the case. People also had hush-hush affairs.”

    • Timothy

      Given some of the rhetoric the misunderstanding is forgivable. I could just as easily speculate about or ask how many black or brown African woman were raped by Northern Union solders as they were raping, burning, and pillaging across the South. That kind of talk is not constructive to the conversation.

      Do you have any pictures of your multicultural ancestors? I noticed one thing right off hand in the article, the name Bella Brown. Bella meaning beautiful, and many Africans at the time may have took the name Brown or been called Brown because there skin was brown as opposed to black. A fair interpretation of her name could be “beautiful brown woman”. It might be possible that you have more than one white ancestor.



      GENDER: Feminine

      USAGE: English

      PRONOUNCED: BEL-É™ [key]

      Meaning & History

      Short form of ISABELLA and other names ending in bella. It is also associated with the Italian word meaning “beautiful”.

      VARIANTS: Belle, Issy, Izzy, Ibbie, Sabella

  • Jordan Carroll

    Well, the fact that interracial marriage was illegal in the 19th century, particularly in the south, does make most of those past relationships “hush-hush”. I classify any relationship in which two people cannot openly be together in a romantic way (or any other way for that matter) as “hush-hush”. Sure they may have been in love, but they were not able to publicly or legally express it. If your ancestors were somehow able to be together outside of closed doors, hats off to them, but this story is about my ancestors, and they did not have such luxuries or options.

  • Jordan Carroll

    Well there was a family legend that my 4th great grandmother was a Turkish gypsy, and my mom’s SouthAsian and Middle Eastern admixture seem to confirm it. The Finnish ancestry is actually from my father, and multiple 5th to distant cousins in Finland and Scandinavia match us on the same segment. it is likely from the colonial period since I do have roots around where the New Sweden colony was.

  • Adisa Onu

    Very cool story Jordan. I’m in the process of trying to do something similar to your research. I wish 23andme had more tools to help like a way to compare relatives or a way to know the type of DNA you match with a relative i.e. African, Indian. I had a few of my DNA relatives send me their relative csv files which I uploaded to a SQL database and ran a custom query to who matches but it is a bulky process. I’ve been meaning to make a few web based tools but haven’t got around to it.