One of my hobbies is figuring out how I'm related to my various "DNA relatives" on Ancestry, 23andMe, and Family Tree DNA. I love it. It's my favorite kind of puzzle, and while some of them are simple enough to solve to keep me from getting too frustrated, there are a handful of people in the vicinity of 3rd to 4th cousin who I feel like I should be able to figure out but haven't. Is it a non-paternity event? Was there an adoption? On their side or mine?
I've been able to figure out everyone up through my second cousins and most of my third cousins at this point, typically up through third cousins a couple times removed, at least when their names are visible to me. In some instances I've been able to determine their legal names from their user names and work from there, and in a couple rare occurrences I've identified private users on 23andMe simply by knowing who I'm looking for and what their maternal haplogroups ought to be (I'm proud of that one -- this is me patting myself on the back).
One of the closest relations I haven't been able to figure out yet is Aida. Aida is a black woman my mother's age who has been a prominent figure in her community and in the US Civil Rights Movement. She didn't know of any white people in her family, so when her 23andMe results came back, she was surprised to learn she was more than 50% white herself. That meant there had to be quite a few white people in her more distant ancestry.
When I first talked to Aida, she knew a lot more about her ancestry than I knew about mine. She comes from a large, proud family and has a cousin and a couple of aunts who have served as unofficial family genealogists back when that involved a lot more than internet research. Her cousin devoted a few years in the '70s to visiting old family homesteads and interviewing "the old-timers." Thanks to a family website she showed me with all the data they've collected, I now know about as much about her extended family as she does.
Now that my own family tree is better fleshed out (back to the early 1800s across the board and as far back as the 1600s in some branches of my tree) and we still have no family surnames in common, we're trying to figure out how we're related. If I had to put money on it, based both on shared DNA and our respective family trees, I'd estimate we're somewhere in the vicinity of 3rd cousins twice removed. She has a daughter, a granddaughter, and a couple first cousins on the various DNA databases. Because I'm also related to those particular cousins, we know I'm related to her on her mother's side. Because she isn't related to my paternal uncle, we know we're related on my mother's side too.
Because my 23andMe ethnicity report says I'm 99.9% European, we know our closest common ancestor was also white. I went through her family tree and highlighted all the people who were or could be white. There are some slave owners further back whose surnames don't appear in my tree (so far). A "non-paternity event" -- finding out someone's dad is not in fact his or her biological father -- is always a possibility, but even those locations don't appear in my family tree. If I am related to those particular slave owning families, which are farther back in time than I would expect our closest shared ancestor to be, Aida and I must be cousins a couple times over to account for all our shared DNA. I don't think that's the case, simply because we don't share as many DNA relatives in common as I would expect if we were twice related. It's not impossible though. My family has been in America for close to 400 years, and there was a lot of intermarrying between the same families over and over again for the first century or so. More than one of my seemingly closest DNA relatives turned out to actually be my 5th cousin AND my 6th cousin, or my 4th cousin twice over.
However, there is another way Aida and I could be related. Her grandfather was born just after the Civil War. His mother was a slave, and she had a few kids, all of whom were listed as "mulatto" in census records beneath their mother's "black." No one knows who his father was, but we're all pretty confident he was white. I didn't have direct ancestors in the same state where Aida's grandfather was born, but it's possible one lived there for awhile and it didn't end up on public record. Maybe during the Civil War, in which much of my family fought. It's also possible one of my ancestor's brothers was Aida's mysterious great-grandfather, which would make us 3rd cousins, probably twice removed, depending on which branch of my family tree.
The most obvious way I've come up with so far to figure out how Aida and I are related involves finding someone to whom we are both related the same way. We have a mutual distant cousin with whom we share the exact same 14.8 cM of DNA, but I haven't figured out how I'm related to her either. There are large blank spaces in her family tree that I haven't been able to fill. I keep thinking if I figure out how she and I are related, Aida and I are probably related just a generation or two closer on the same branch of the family tree.
I printed out a few generations of Aida's mother's tree and my mother's as well -- just a couple pages in total -- so that I could shade in the names of people who couldn't be our common ancestors and tag the ones who I share with other known cousins. I don't appear to share any of those cousins with Aida, but it's hard to be sure when some of them are distant relations and sites like Ancestry won't let you compare genomes anyway. I think I've narrowed down my mother's side of the family tree by about half at this point. I've even taken to fleshing out Aida's family tree with descendants of her grandfather's siblings, and their descendants too, in the hopes that I'll run across a name from one of my DNA databases. If I found one, I would consider it a lead indicating that we were most likely related on her grandfather's side. I've done the same with the slave-owning side of her family, but still no matches.
Setting aside the more obvious ills of slavery -- being kidnapped, held hostage, legally owned, and possibly beaten and raped, all so you can watch your children go through the same experiences -- slavery had some long-term side effects I am ashamed to admit didn't really occur to me until I started working on Aida's family tree. For instance, slaves were given their owners' surnames. I knew this. This was a thing I knew. But when I ran across the name of a famous slave with the same surname in the same region of Aida's ancestors around the same time, my first thought was that they might be related. In my family tree that far back, people in the same immediate area with the same surname -- even common names -- tend to have been related in some way. But in Aida's tree, it more likely meant people were owned by the same master, or by masters who were related. It's like all slaves were subjected to an exceptionally messed up closed adoption, and those adopted surnames are the ones that persist today.
No wonder Aida's holy grail of genetic genealogy is to find a cousin in Western Africa. Every bit of data her family had about their ancestors in Africa was obliterated by kidnapping and slavery. She knows no names or places; the people doing the kidnapping didn't write down her family's personal information in a ledger for later. A generation or two might have held onto the knowledge for awhile, passing stories and names on to their children, but whatever might have existed once is gone now. The DNA they handed down is all that's left, and with each passing generation, that DNA gets more diluted and the possibility of finding out who their ancestors once were grows weaker.