DNA from 19th-century unmarked graves revealed family secrets of George Washington

DNA from 19th-century unmarked graves revealed family secrets of George Washington


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Genetic analysis helped to unravel the mystery of the fate of the younger brother of the first US president George Washington Samuel and his relatives. Two of Samuel’s descendants and their mother were recently identified from skeletal remains found in unmarked burials dating to the 1880s.

Scientists have pinpointed key Washington family ties using several types of DNA analysis, according to a study published in the journal iScience, CNN writes.

Scientists, in particular, used a new technique that analyzed tens of thousands of genomic data points – single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Another key component was the DNA of a living descendant of Samuel Washington.

By comparing the offspring’s DNA with degraded centuries-old DNA in the bone fragments, the scientists discovered clues to long-lost identities.

“Many of these methods allowed us to reveal the relationship between unidentified human remains of the mid-19th century and a living descendant several generations from the ancestors.” – says the senior author of the study Charla Marshall.

Samuel is two years younger than George Washington. He died in 1781 and was buried in the cemetery on his Harewood estate near Charlestown (West Virginia).

“Records indicated that 20 members of the Washington family were buried in Harewood Cemetery, including Samuel Washington, his two wives, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” – notes the lead author of the study, Courtney L. Cavagnino, a research associate at the DNA-identification laboratory of the US Armed Forces.

Unlike George Washington, who is buried in a marble tomb in Mount Vernon, Virginia, Samuel’s grave was unmarked. Courtney L. Cavagnino suggests that they wanted to protect her from robbers. Other graves also had no tombstones, so historians do not know who is buried where.

In 1999, researchers excavated five unmarked graves in the cemetery in an attempt to find the resting place of Samuel Washington. They recovered small bones and teeth from three burials, but DNA testing was inconclusive at the time because the samples were badly damaged and contaminated with bacteria.

Now scientists have applied methods that optimize shortened strands of damaged DNA from the remains. This allowed them to extract the necessary genetic material.

Genetic data identified the remains as belonging to a woman and her two sons. They turned out to be the daughter-in-law and grandchildren of Samuel Washington: Lucinda Paine, George Steptoe Washington, Jr. and Samuel Walter Washington.

The DNA of the living descendant was a closer match to that of Dr. Samuel Walter Washington.

The authors of the study say that these methods can also help identify unknown remains of people who have served in the military since the Second World War.

We will remind, with the help of DNA, scientists recreated the appearance of the Chinese emperor of the 6th century.


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