Discovering family mysteries through genetic research

Down the rabbit hole with genetic ancestry

It all started with my first DNA test with 23andme. I found out that family lore of “Cherokee blood” was something else together. I was 1.6% Nigerian, which most likely meant I had an enslaved ancestor.

I started pulling Ancestry all-nighters in search of this person in my lineage. Along the way, I traced my paternal ancestry directly back to my 10th great-grandfather, Captain John Clay, who arrived at Jamestown Colony in 1613 on The Treasurer. He was not only an early settler; he survived famine, disease, attacks by the natives. Ultimately, he would be one of 1,200 out of 6,000 to survive the first 20 years at Jamestown.

I was fascinated to recently learn of a documentary project, currently in crowdfunding mode, that explores the Captain John Clay lineage⏤from the great orator Henry Clay of Kentucky to the most-renowned boxing champ, Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali. (Yes, we are related.)

We Clays, I determined, are some seriously hearty stock. And more. One group of ancestors were early West Virginia pioneers who were attacked by Shawnee Indians. Three of William Mitchell Clay and Phoebe Belcher Clay’s children were murdered – two were scalped, one kidnapped and burned at the stake. The horrific story lives on, engraved on historic placards and monuments in that region of West Virginia.

From a lesser known union between Mitchell Clay, Jr., and another woman, Millicent “Millie” Keene, our Clay line is descended. (Philandering, it seems, is  practically genetic in our family.)

It got even more fascinating, however, when I found shared DNA and new relatives who appeared to have the same great-grandfather. That mystery continues to unfurl as we speak and I have written about its origins in Calling of Ancestors: Finding Forgotten Secrets in My DNA.