Methodology for Elusive Female Ancestors

Tracing female ancestors can be one of the most difficult challenges for genealogists. Historically, women had fewer legal rights than the men in their lives. As a result, they were often hidden behind the identities of those men, and did not leave much of a paper trail behind. Successful research into elusive female ancestors often calls for different methodology—focusing on the men in their lives, and on networks of friends, neighbors, and associates. When enough evidence pointing toward a woman’s identity can be assembled, DNA can sometimes help verify the paper trail.

In the case study, “Testing the FAN Principle Against DNA: Zilphy (Watts) Price Cooksey Cooksey of Georgia and Mississippi,” published in the June 2014 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FNGS, FASG, addresses four generations of Elizabeth Jane Odom’s maternal-line ancestry. In addition to the challenges involved with tracing females, Mills was also faced with tremendous record loss in several burned counties. Surviving records offered no direct evidence linking any of the four generations together. Despite these setbacks, Mills was able to prove Elizabeth’s maternal-line ancestry.

Mills resolves these problems of kinship by developing proof arguments to support that Elizabeth Jane (Boyd) Odom was the daughter of Elmira (Parks?) Boyd; that Elmira was the daughter of Nancy Parks; and that Nancy was the daughter of Zilphy, the subject of the article. This case study differs from most others published in NGSQ, since much of the evidence linking these generations together is not included in the narrative, but rather in research reports that are cited in the text and accessible via the author’s website. The article focuses primarily on details related to Zilphy’s life and proposed parentage—she and the men in her life are key to developing a family cluster that offers the evidence necessary to prove Elizabeth Jane Odom’s maternal ancestry.

Zilphy’s first husband, John Price, sued her for divorce in Montgomery County, Georgia, shortly after their marriage. She had two sons with the Price surname, and a daughter Nancy—none of whom appear to be the children of John Price. Zilphy married John Cooksey, and then later married John’s father, William Cooksey. In Mississippi, William consistently interacted with his children’s families and with the family of John Watts—individuals who were also his close associates in Georgia. The interactions between these families, in multiple states and over several decades, suggest that Zilphy was the daughter of John Watts.

Mills’s in-depth study and analysis of William Cooksey’s life, family, and known associates provides evidence necessary to develop a proof argument identifying Zilphy as the daughter of John Watts. Proving Zilphy’s identity and pinpointing her extended family, including her siblings and their descendants, also paves the way for Mills to test each of her proof arguments against genetic evidence. Mills’s proof arguments linking together several generations of Elizabeth Jane Odom’s maternal ancestors are based on evidence assembled from documentary sources. In this case study, she tests her conclusions against evidence from both mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing.

Mills compares DNA test results for several individuals—all descendants of either Zilphy or of Rhoda (Watts) Rayborn, John Watts’ documented daughter. These individuals all have identical or nearly identical mitochondrial DNA, indicating that they have a common maternal-line ancestor. However, the test results do not prove the identity of that ancestor, indicate how long ago the individual lived, or identify the exact relationship of the individuals tested. The shared mitochondrial DNA among Zilphy’s descendants supports the documentary evidence connecting the generations between Elizabeth Jane Odom and Zilphy. To further test her conclusions about Zilphy’s parentage, Mills also compared autosomal DNA test results for descendants of Zilphy and Rhoda. Descendants of both women share blocks of overlapping autosomal DNA on several different chromosomes, pointing toward a recent common ancestor on the Watts line.

Mills faced a difficult research problem—determining the parentage of four women who left behind no records identifying their families. Her methodology involves three key components. She traces the friends, associates, and neighbors of the women and their husbands to find clues related to the women’s parentage. She takes the indirect evidence she has pieced together and develops proof arguments to connect the women to their families. And, she tests the validity of those proof arguments against two types of genetic test results. Many genealogists can use similar methodology—coupling traditional research with DNA testing—to solve problems and prove kinships within their own families.

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