Reflection Journal: Week 2: Create a Diagram of your Matches & Write a Research Objective

Introduction: Context, Assignment, and Prerogative

As I move into the second week of the course, I build from last week’s work. This week, I use the assessment of our DNA matches and analysis of our pedigree from my previous efforts, and I create diagrams to visualize that information and I refine our possible research objectives.

I’m going to exercise a bit of prerogative in my approach this week. Over the past several weeks, as I have mentioned two possible research objectives, it is becoming clear that one is the best choice. So I will address research objectives first. Then, having identified a research objective, the diagrams I create will be guided by that objective.

Write a Research Objective

I have two possible research objectives I am considering for my focus in this course, one modest, the other perhaps too ambitious. Both possible objectives are to confirm or refute the parentage of an ancestor using DNA analysis and documentary evidence. The more ambitious case dates to the late 1700s, involving my 3rd great-grandfather, Isaac Little (1799 — 1884, Ashe, NC) and determining Isaac’s father from among two brothers (Edmund Little or Peter Little) or perhaps their father, Charles Little (a 111-marker Y-DNA test strongly suggests that Isaac and this researcher are descendants of Charles’s ancestor, Abraham Little [1677, England — 1724, Virginia], mentioned earlier as my surname immigrant ancestor).

The more modest case is a non-paternity event (“NPE”) dating to the Civil War when a soldier, William McMillan (1830 — 1865, Ashe, NC), on leave in 1862, is said to have returned home not to his wife and children, but rather to have fathered my 2nd great-grandfather (James “Bawly” Bower, 1863 — 1960, Ashe, NC) with another woman, not his wife, my 3rd great-grandmother, Riley Bower (1840 — 1915, Ashe, NC). No shaming or judgment is implied or should be inferred; sometimes the most interesting stories arise out of challenging cases (just wait till you hear about Absolom Bower, scoundrel extraordinaire), not to mention that this researcher and a not-insignificant portion of the population of Ashe County, North Carolina, would never have been born but for this relationship.

It has become clear which research objective is the best choice. I am not ready to tackle the Isaac Little question this spring. The experience of working through the Bawly Bower question will prepare me to address the harder case as a next project. Therefore, my focus for this course will be Bawly Bower, and is formally stated: My research objective for this course is to determine if it is possible to confirm or refute with documentary evidence and DNA analysis that William McMillan (1830-1865, Ashe, NC) is the father of James Eli “Bawly” Bower (1863-1960, Ashe, NC), born to Margaret Riley Bower (1840-1915, Ashe, NC). Informally, and intended humorously, the shorthand I have used with friends and family to encapsulate the broader topic of this (somewhat) open family secret has with the question, “Who’s Eli’s Daddy?” I phrase it as an “open secret” because, according to oral family history, Bawly knew who his father was, and his children and grandchildren knew, as they have told me firsthand. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no documented record of the paternal relationship between William McMillan and James Eli “Bawly” Bower, and, to date, the DNA evidence has not been collected, analyzed, and reported. I intend to do that: to find any documentary evidence, if it exists, to collect and record the oral histories from his grandchildren, and to bring DNA evidence and analysis to bear on the question, and, if possible (acknowledging that it may not be possible) to confirm or refute that William McMillan is the father of Bawly Bower.

Create a Diagram of Most Recent Common Ancestors

Again here I exercise several bits of prerogative, presenting, I believe, a new type of diagram of my own design to display information about the most recent common ancestors among groups of DNA match relatives; also, having settled on the research objective of Bawly Bower’s paternity, I present, incrementally, a family tree of his descendants who have taken DNA tests.

The Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Grid

Displayed below are about 50 of my closest DNA matches for whom our most recent common ancestor couple has been identified. (The phrase most recent common ancestor is often abbreviated MRCA, and mention is often made to an MRCA-couple in reference to the couple from whom DNA match relatives descend.) This is a chart of my own design. I don’t believe DNA match relatives have been displayed in this format previously; please correct me if I am wrong. I developed this chart format with meaningful color scheme earlier this year and I have written about it a few times, at the Facebook groups Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques and Research Like a Pro, but in greatest depth in my initial, introductory article at Ashe Ancestors. The meaningfully color-coded table below groups related DNA matches by shared MRCA-couples and uses a pedigree grid to organize and display the information. I refer to this novel format of displaying genetic and genealogical information as a Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Table in honor of my parents. I hope others find it useful and informative.

Immediately below is a complete Lawrence-Little Pedigree Grid for my closest matches. A more complete explanation of the format, especially the meaningful color scheme, can be at the Ashe Ancestors post mentioned above. In a nutshell, the chart organizes and displays the closest DNA matches for whom a most recent common ancestor couple has been identified so that, in a quick glance, the researcher can know how matches are related to each other and to the primary test-taker. The black circles ⬤ designate DNA matches. Further below, an enlarged section of the grid is displayed with an explanation about how the chart works, and noting one perhaps counter-intuitive feature that needs mention.

Chart 1: A complete Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Grid. Click to enlarge.

The enlarged selection below displays information about 16 DNA match relatives (⬤), sorted into five family groups, across three generations. A bit more explanation follows.

Chart 2: Enlarged section of a Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Grid. Click to further enlarge.

I refer you to the post mentioned above for details about how color is used in a Lawrence-Little pedigree grid to convey genetic and genealogical information. But, above, you can see how matches are sorted into family groups by shared ancestor couples. A word of caution may be needed to call attention to one, perhaps, counter-initiative aspect of the format. Experienced genealogists will know that in a pedigree chart, ancestors are located to the right of a person, that each column represents a generation older than that to its left, and that organizational principle hold true in this format. A less experienced viewer, however, may mistakenly look at the top of a cell and incorrectly conclude the matches are descendants of the person named there; that is wrong. While the name at the top of a cell is a direct ancestor of the test-taker in ahnentafel position #1 at the far left of the chart, the ⬤ DNA match relatives noted below them would be their siblings, nieces, and nephews (and their descendants); the direct ancestor and the matches are grouped in the same cell because they share the same ancestor couple in the column to the right of their cell. In the figure above, the cell to the far left holds the LITTLE-BARE family group, named for the ancestor couple to the right of the cell, and notes my grandfather Mont Warden Little at the top of the cell, and a cluster of six DNA match relatives who share with my grandfather the MRCA-couple Joe LITTLE and Lou BARE; the DNA match relative ⬤ MatchI39(215;11;48), born in 1939, is the niece of Mont Little, the granddaughter of Joe and Lou, and shares with the test-taker a total of 215 cM of DNA, over 11 segments, with the largest segment being 48 cM long.

The Lawrence-Little chart format and color scheme is released under a Creative Commons license and all who might find it useful are welcome to download a copy, a link to which can be found at the bottom of the blog post mentioned above.

Family Tree of DNA Matches Related to Bawly Bower

My research objective for this course is to determine if it is possible to confirm or refute with documentary evidence and DNA analysis that William McMillan (1830-1865, Ashe, NC) is the father of James Eli “Bawly” Bower (1863-1960, Ashe, NC), born to Margaret Riley Bower (1840-1915, Ashe, NC). Having decided upon an objective for this course, I started collecting and analyzing the DNA matches that might inform my research. To visually organize the matches, I created a family tree. Here, with an eye toward the research objective, is how I built-out the family tree. Bawly Bower is one of my 2nd-great-grandfathers, so, as my DNA test will be the one with which other tests will be compared, I began with myself, with a straight line of ascent to Bawly Bower, and which includes the hypothesis this project seeks to confirm or reject, whether William McMillan is, conclusively, the father of Bawly Bower:

Chart 3: Line of descent from object of research, James Eli “Bawly” Bower, to author-researcher. Click to enlarge.

I manage the DNA kits for several family members, so I began to include them. Working back through the generations, here, next, are the matches I share through my grandmother, Ruby Bower, and great-grandfather, George Bower:

Chart 4: Closest match relatives to author-researcher. Relatives in red boxes are potential Y-DNA test candidates. Click to enlarge.

It is important, here, to observe that I may use a targeted Y-DNA test to attack the question. I have a first cousin once removed and a second cousin (seen by the red boxes) that would carry Y-DNA from Bawly Bower and from the father of Bawly Bower; I am inviting these cousins to help with this project by providing for one of them a Y-DNA test. Should that Y-DNA testing not be possible, or should time not allow for those results to be completed during this course, I will concurrently seek to attack the question with autosomal DNA analysis. That means looking further back than second cousins. Next, however, I note other descendants of Bawly Bower:

Chart 5: Third cousins of author-researcher in yellow box. Click to enlarge.

These third cousins will not directly help me address the parentage of Bawly Bower (I need to go back at least another generation to do that), but I take time to note these additional cousins for a reason. Several of these third cousins have transferred their DNA test results to GEDmatch, as I have done for my kit. And, as can be seen in the next figure, that analysis at GEDmatch could become an important option.

Chart 6: Fourth cousins and beyond may provide evidence of a shared relationship through a 3rd great-grandfather. Click to enlarge.

The figure above shows that I have DNA match relatives who may be half-fourth cousins, with whom are most recent common ancestor may be William McMillan. Two important items here to note: first, these McMillan descendants have also transfered their DNA results to GEDmatch, which means that I could run this analysis using one of them as the target test taker and comparing their results to all my other cousin matches whose results are at GEDmatch; I would welcome feedback as to whether there would be any advantage to this additional analysis. Second, I need to note and explain the tentativeness that these McMillan fourth cousins “may” and “might” share with me William McMillan as our MRCA. There is a heritage of pedigree collapse bordering on endogamy throughout this Appalachian county. And I know that I share multiple relationships with these McMillan cousins. Which means that a segment-level analysis will be necessary, if these cousins are to be considered. As the next figure shows, however, that may not be necessary. Seen next are some fifth- and sixth-cousin matches.

Chart 7: If fourth cousin matches are suspect due to pedigree collapse and multiple relationship, then it may be possible to find fifth or sixth cousin matches to evaluate a relationship. Click to enlarge.

The information is becoming crowded on the screen, so here next is an enlarged section of the family tree, focusing on these fifth- and sixth cousins.

Chart 8: Fifth and sixth cousin matches with McMillan surname. Click to enlarge.

These matches, all with the surname McMillan, have tested at Ancestry, so I cannot do a segment-level analysis of these matches, but I am investigating if any have transfered their results to GEDmatch, My Heritage, or Family Tree DNA, which would enable me to do research at that more granular level. The option to contact these cousins, inquiring about transferring, is also a possibility.

Although a bit crowded on the screen when seen all at once, the complete tree is show next as the last figure. This diagram is available to be enlarged, however, providing an opportunity to browse over the whole family tree.

Chart 9: Who’s Eil’s Daddy: A Civil War-era Investigation. Click to enlarge.


Visualization is powerful. I found it incredibly clarifying this week to organize this information graphically. I once heard a lecturer at a DNA conference speak about how difficult they found it to effectively communicate with others using only words to describe the relationships between test-takers, matches, and their shared most common recent ancestors; the lecturer noted how much easier it was to grab a nearby napkin and sketch-out a relationship. Building these diagrams took a little longer than a back-of-an-envelope sketch, but I think it was worth my investment in my time to be able to quickly–with a glance at an image–convey to another person a far-flung hypothetical relationship under evaluation.


Here’s a final image, a demonstration of how a Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Grid might be applied to a research question. First, a final note: the original thought behind the LL-MRCA pedigree grid was to imagine a way one might, when thinking about their colored dots at Ancestry, how those colored dots might be gathered, grouped by MRCA, and displayed on a pedigree chart for easy, pleasing, quick, and meaningful reference.

Chart 10: A Lawrence-Little MRCA Pedigree Grid being used to help solve a research question. Click to enlarge.

Series information

During the winter-spring of 2022, I am enrolled in the genetic genealogy course, Research Like a Pro with DNA Study Group, from the team at Family Locket of Diana Elder, Nicole Dyer, and Robin Wirthlin. A weekly reflection journal is one course component. I’m sharing mine.

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