by Ben Windham
September 17. 2006 3:30AM
Which to believe -- the Bible or the DNA evidence?? Maybe both. A DNA test and a full immersion in genealogy have given me a lot of options.
The Bible in question could provide some interesting answers. Unfortunately, it?s lost.
It?s a family Bible that my father used in the years before World War II in tracing our family tree. It linked our descent to a man named Reuben Windham who lived in Surrey County, Va., in the 1780s.
Reuben Windham married a woman named Jane Clements and they had five children. After Reuben?s death, Jane married an early Tuscaloosa County settler named John Wilson.
My father, who died in 1956, wrote that he got that information from an ?Old Windham Family Bible in possession of the Wilson Family, McConnells, Ala."
But a close kinsman that I never knew I had until a few weeks ago says he thinks my dad was barking up the wrong family tree as far as this particular Reuben Windham is concerned. And he has DNA evidence from inside my cheek to bear him out.
In the days before Internet and computerized databases, my father, Amasa Windham, spent more than a quarter century in tracking our ancestors back to the 12th century in Norfolk County, England.
An ancient village there named Wymondham, from whence the family took its name, has managed to wheeze into the present.
Somewhat more impressive, perhaps, is the survival of the ancestral family estate, Felbrigg Hall, a brick edifice in the Jacobean style near Cromer on the North Sea. An ambitious politician named John Wyndham bought it in 1450 and an eccentric named William Frederick ?Mad" Windham lost it 400 years later.
All of this my father discovered by following a paper trail through ponderous country deed and record books, family Bibles, musty letters, formal British pedigrees and sleep-inducing tomes on peerage and baronage.
For years, his work stood as the cornerstone for Windham researchers. But a new group of genealogists has emerged that seeks to use all the modern tools available -- including DNA testing -- to establish a family tree.
They take nothing for granted, demanding the kind of proofs that would warm the heart of a hard-nosed district attorney. If there?s a question or an apparent discrepancy, they zero right in on it. They are not afraid to upset the apple cart -- or to call a bastard a bastard.
I like their approach; it appeals to my training as journalist. I think my father, who labored for years in the newspaper and magazine businesses, would approve as well.
One of these family historians is Annette Edgeworth-Smith of Ranburne. Her persistent research led to the rediscovery of the old Windham-Moore Cemetery in Moore?s Bridge, with graves dating to the 1830s, which was rededicated last year. Some of my earliest Windham relatives in Tuscaloosa County are buried there.
But there are disputes in every family. One of the new players in the Windham genealogy circles has claimed that neither Edgeworth-Smith nor I descended from the Wyndhams of Felbrigg Hall.
And that?s what drew me into the DNA testing.
Edgeworth-Smith e-mailed me in late June that the veracity of my father?s work had been challenged. Would I be willing to submit a DNA sample to a lab so that it could be compared to someone with a ?proven" line of descent from the Felbrigg Hall clan?
I thought about it. I didn?t feel called on to defend my father?s work -- I thought it spoke for itself. But if there was a question of lineage, I wanted to resolve it.
The idea also intrigued me because I had been to Felbrigg Hall and experienced something like an epiphany in the Church of St. Margaret on the grounds of the estate.
It was the summer of 1969 and I was having a glorious time in Merry Old England. I had seen the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. I had wandered through the Lake District, looking for threads of Tennyson in the clouds, the mountains and the cold, blue water. I had lain in the fields of Merton College and heard the peal of Oxford?s bells as man stepped on the Moon.
A train took me to Norwich and a bumpy, 20-mile trip by bus brought me to Cromer, a decidedly British resort town on the North Sea.
From there, it was two-mile trek down a country road to Felbrigg Hall. It was a beautiful English morning, so I decided I would walk.
But this was England. Halfway there, the skies opened and buckets of rain drenched me. Wearing my best suit in honor of visiting my family?s ancestral home, I was soaked to the bone.
I can only imagine how I looked when I rapped at the big door of the colonnaded entranceway of Felbrigg Hall and asked to see the owner, R.W. Ketton-Cremer. A gentleman author, he was known in that part of the world simply as ?The Squire." His family had bought the home decades before from ?Mad" Windham.
A butler, impeccably attired in traditional English livery, took a slow, hard look at me as I ran a hand through my dripping long hair.
?Mr. Ketton-Cremer is not receiving today," he informed me icily, slowly closing the portal to my ancestry.
That left me to roam the grounds. But the visit wasn?t a total waste. I drank in the exterior of the massive two-story house -- its balustrade of stone letters reading ?Gloria Deo in excelsis," its rambling service wing and its finely finished rubbed brick -- like a man parched.
I also found my way to the nearby Church of St. Margaret, dating perhaps to the 14th century or before. Inside, I looked for a long time at the Elizabethan brass effigies of Windham knights and their ladies.
Something ancient swelled up in me. Moved and shaken to the core, I forgot all about Mick Jagger, William Wordsworth and the man on the Moon.
The butler be damned. In my bones, I knew this was my home, my family?s roots.
So there was never really a question of whether I would submit to a DNA test.
Edgeworth-Smith referred me to John B. Windham of Metairie, La., a retired grocery executive.
Literate, funny and knowledgeable, he has spent 45 years tracing family lineage. He has proof or a preponderance of evidence that establishes his ancestry back to Edward Windham, a descendant of the Felbrigg Hall family, who at age 26 immigrated to America in 1634 on a ship named ?John and Dorothy."
John B. Windham also is group administrator for the Windham Family DNA Project. It would be his DNA to which mine would be compared.
He says that he considers himself an amateur on understanding DNA. Moreover, he says more than four decades of work does not make him ?the 'King Know-it-All? on Windham genealogy."
?Your father?s Windham research writings have been the 'Bible? for just about every Windham researcher of modern times," he e-mailed me. They ?have been poked-up, clawed-at, torn down, built up, copied, stolen, criticized, sworn by, scorned and worshipped by thousands of Windham researchers like me."
But the more I read by and about John B. Windham, the more I trusted him. He impressed me as a thorough, careful, common-sense guy -- a Joe Friday-type detective who wanted ?just the facts."
An outfit on Houston, Texas, Family Tree DNA, would be doing my testing, he wrote. For genealogical research purposes, the test involves the Y-chromosome, passed on from father to son. Only males have the chromosome.
Four tests are available -- one with 12 comparative markers, one with 25, one with 37 and a 66-marker test. He recommended the 37-marker test; it would cost $189 plus $2 for shipping.
The company sends you a test kit in a plain white envelope: three plastic scrapers, three small vials; and some instructions.
?Using one cheek scraper," the directions said, ?scrape forcefully inside the cheek many times (about 60 seconds). A great scrape gives us a great sample!"
Then you open one of the little vials, pop the scraper tip inside its soapy solution and close it back up. Two more samples and your kit is ready to be returned.
The results seemed to trickle in. Six weeks after I took the test, Family Tree informed me by e-mail that it had finished analyzing 12 of the 37 markers; my DNA and John B. Windham?s were an exact match on all 12.
What that meant was that there was ?a 99 percent probability" that we shared a common ancestor, according to the Houston firm.
That was good news but we would have to wait for the results from all 37 markers to know more.
The analysis was completed within the space of a few days. John B. Windham and I had exact matches on 36 of the 37 markers.
There was a 91.61 percent chance that we shared a common ancestor at the ninth generation. The percentage rose to 99 or above for a common ancestor at generations 15 to 24.
From that information, and from the paper trail he had followed, John B. Windham decided that another Reuben Windham -- this one was the grandson of the Windham who crossed over from England in 1634 -- is probably our first common ancestor. This earlier Reuben is believed to have died in 1744 or 1745 in Isle of Wight County, Va.
That was the good part; it seemed to verify my blood ties to the family that bought the magnificent Norfolk manor in the 15th century.
But some of my Metairie kinsman?s other extrapolations were more disconcerting.
Where my father had listed two generations between the Reuben Windham of Isle of Wight County and an Edward Windham, who moved to Tuscaloosa County in the early 1800s, J.B. Windham listed three. Furthermore, he said he did not know their names.
But Edward Windham?s father ?is NOT Reuben Windham who married Jane Clements," he wrote emphatically.
If he is right, that means the entry in the old family Bible that my father said was ?in possession of the Wilson Family, McConnells, Ala." may be wrong.
J.B. Windham?s analysis, which he shared with other researchers, has stirred up quite a bit of interest. I?ve gotten e-mails lately full of tantalizing leads about Windhams in Georgia, east Tennessee and elsewhere.
But I went to McConnells to look for answers.
It isn?t exactly a Felbrigg Hall. In fact, McConnells doesn?t exist on the map these days.
However, longtime Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum remembered when the county had a voting precinct at McConnells and directed me there. It?s just a few miles from the old family cemetery at Moore?s Bridge.
I found McConnells but there isn?t much there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein -- a few ranch-style houses, some woods and a lot of open spaces that look as if they had felt subsidence from coal mining. I could find no Wilsons, no Windhams and no clue of the whereabouts of an old family Bible.
Edgeworth-Smith, who has been at it for more than 40 years, recommends more paper sleuthing and more DNA testing.
?Let?s don?t stop researching here," she e-mailed. ?Be willing to question your family lines ?"
And that?s exactly the right approach. In a way, I think, it mirrors the mindset of some of those people on the good ship John and Mary, who braved the Atlantic waves and currents and the unknown wilds of Virginia to see what they could find in a new land.
I?m eager to see what develops.
Reach Editorial Editor Ben Windham at 205-722-0193 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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