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By Michele Smith
The Times 

Piecing Together a family history through Genetic DNA

Whitman grad and trustee uses DNA to find family connection to Martha Washington


March 21, 2019

Courtesy Photo

Stephen Hammond has helped establish an exhibit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The Hammond Family has received the Solomon Northup Family Award from the Sons and Daughters of the Middle Passage for "their loving dedication to the memory of our enslaved or indentured ancestors of African descent in the U.S.A, prior to Dec. 6, 1865".

WALLA WALLA-On Feb. 28 at Whitman College, 1979 Whitman Graduate and Board Trustee Stephen Hammond presented his program: Piecing Together a Family History through Genetic DNA. The presentation was part of the Archaeology Institute of America Walla Walla Chapter lecture series, and in honor of African American History month.

An avid genealogist, Hammond has spent hours delving into classical family history research and DNA research to clinch that history.

"I tend to talk people's ears off," Hammond said about his passion for genealogy.

When Hammond was in middle school he said he caught the genealogy "bug" from talking with his cousin, Camillia Estrelda Spratlin Gray.

Gray told him about the family's history, and a possible connection to First Lady Martha Washington.

Hammond was doubtful, "I said, come on."

"She left me with the challenge of learning as much as I could about my family and also knowing who they are and working to keep us together, so we know each other," Hammond said.

Hammond has spent the better part of the decade working to separate the personal truths, or folklore, from the forensic evidence, particularly about his Siphax family ancestors, the focus of last week's lecture.

The Siphax Family and Washington Family connection is as follows:

In 1803, George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and her first husband Daniel Custis, had a daughter, with an enslaved woman named Airy Carter.

The daughter, Maria Carter Custis, married an enslaved man, Charles Syphax, in 1821, at the Arlington Plantation belonging to George Washington Parke Custis.

(Giving credence to the story, the National Park Service re-enacted the wedding of Maria Carter Custis and Charles Syphax at Arlington House, in the fall of 2016.)

There is more.

In 1807 George Washington Parke Custis married Mary Fitzhugh and their daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis married (General) Robert E. Lee.

Both of these daughters were married in the Arlington House, Hammond said.

Hammond said next steps are to analyze the data and invite the Lee Family to take part, focusing on the Siphax family.

"My goal is to continue to get the family to take the (DNA) tests, profile Maria Siphax, split Charles out of that so we can see what Maria's profile looks like and then we can compare that to the Lee Family and see where she compares to Mary Randolph Custis.

Hammond tantalized the audience about future findings, saying, "You're going to have to come back for the next installment."

As a Whitman College trustee, Hammond visits the college at least three times a year, from his home in Denver, Colo.

The Walla Walla Chapter of the AIA is the oldest in Washington State. Each year the AIA brings top scholars from throughout the world to lecture. The final lecture for 2018-19 will take place on Apr. 11.

Darby Stapp will speak on: Stories from the Ancient One/Kennewick Man, 1996-2017: Irony in Science, Truth, Law, and Political Correctness. Stapp was the Cultural Resources Program Manager for PNNL at the Hanford site, and he has formed a CRM firm, called Northwest Anthropology.


How DNA testing works

There are three main types of DNA tests on the market, y-chromosome, (or y-DNA), mitochondrial, (or mtDNA), and autosomal. Each test produces different information, according to AncestryDNA.

Because y-chromosomes are passed from father to son virtually unchanged, males can trace their patrilineal (male-line) ancestry by testing their y-chromosome.

Because women don't have y-chromosomes, they can't take a y-DNA test, although their brothers, father, paternal uncle or paternal grandfather can.

Y-DNA testing uncovers a male's y-chromosome haplogroup, the ancient group of people from whom one's patrilineage descends. Because only male-line direct ancestors are traced by y-DNA testing, no females, or their male ancestors from whom a male descends are encapsulated in the results.

mtDNA tests trace a person's matrilineal (mother's line) ancestry through their mitochondria, which are passed from mothers to their children.

Because everybody has mitochondria, both females and males can take the mtDNA tests.

Autosomal DNA tests, like the ones offered by the company Ancestry, trace a person's autosomal chromosomes, which contain segments of DNA the person shares with everyone to whom they are related, paternally and maternally, and indirectly and directly.

Since everybody has autosomal chromosomes both females and males can take autosomal DNA tests. However, the test will not include information about haplogroups. Only mtDNA and Y-DNA can yield these results.

Stephen Hammond said he utilized testing from the five largest DNA testing companies on the market, and he has been able to prove his family's European and African haplogroups.


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