Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Gypsy? Who me??

Mitochondrial DNA and Me

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is given to us by our mothers.   Mothers pass mtDNA to all of their children - both male and female, so we all have mitochondrial DNA.  But, only females can  pass it down.  That means our mtDNA came from our mother, who got it from her mother, who in turn got it from her mother, and so on, back to the beginning of time.

My mother gave me my mtDNA, which she in turn got it from her mother, Mabel Leffel.  Grandma Mabel got her mtDNA from her mother, Caldona Jane Box Leffel, who got her mtDNA from her mother, Roenna Johnson Box.  Roenna received her mtDNA from her mother, Anna Hellums Johnson, who got her mtDNA from her mother, Mary (unknown) Hellums.  Mary is our "brick wall" on our maternal line.

I was hoping that by doing a mtDNA test, I could find a link to our maternal 5th great-grandmother's family and maiden name.  Not so easy.  Why, you say?  Well it appears that the mtDNA changes (mutates) very slowly and can be passed down almost unchanged for thousands of years.   My mtDNA may be identical to that of my very distant (meaning hundreds of years) direct maternal ancestors and all of their female descendants.
MtDNA profiles with similar characteristics can be grouped together in large branches of the mtDNA tree called haplogroups.  These families of mtDNA are named following a common pattern of alternating a letters and numbers, as follows: Each large haplogroup is assigned a letter of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, etc.) and the addition of more letters and numbers to the first capital letter provides names for sub-branches of the main branch of the tree.

My haplogroup is U3.  According to, Haplogroup U3 is found at low levels throughout Europe (about 1% of the population), the Near East (about 2.5% of the population), and Central Asia (1%). U3 is present at higher levels among populations in the Caucasus (about 6%) in Svan population from Svaneti region(Georgia, Caucasus) 4,2% and among Lithuanian Romani, Polish Romani, and Spanish Romani populations (36-56%).

So, who are the Romani (or Roma) populations?  Again, helps us out: "The Romani are an ethnic group living mostly in Europe and Americas.  Romani are widely known in the English-speaking world by the exonym "Gypsies" and also as Romany, Romanies, Romanis, Roma or Rom...  Since the 19th century, some Romani have also migrated to the Americas. There are an estimated one million Roma in the United States." 

Gypsy Woman - English Lithograph 1826
Does that mean our 5th great-grandmother, Mary was Romani (Gypsy)?  Or, perhaps her mother or her grandmother? And, that all of us who are descendants of Mabel Leffel, Caldona Box, Roenna Johnson, and/or Anna Hellums are a little-bit Gypsy?  I don't know -- maybe or maybe not.  Though, it is kind of interesting to think about.

What is known about our 5th great-grandmother, Mary?  Very little. 
Mary (maiden name unknown) was born about 1763 in South Carolina.  Researchers think that Mary first married James Box and had at least one son, Michael Box (1780-1841).  James Box most likely died about 1780/1781, because Mary then married William Hellums.  Mary and William Hellums had three children: John Hellums (1782-1852), Mary Hellums, who married Grief  Johnson (1791-1863), and Anna Hellums, who married Luke Johnson (1803-1852).  William Hellums died sometime before 1815, when his will (written in 1808) was proven in Orphan's Court.  His will left the widow, Mary, all real and personal property until she died or remarried, after which the estate was divided into three parts (one for each of his three children).  Mary died about 1833 in Alabama. 

Several cousins who descend from the Roenna Johnson Box (daughter of Mary)  have tested their mtDNA, confirming the same result of Haplogroup U3a1c.

Perhaps the answers to "who Mary is" will come with Autosomal DNA.  I encourage all cousins (descendants - male & female) to test!   We now need to figure out which chromosomes and segments belong to the Box, Johnson, and/or Hellums families.  Right now I suggest testing with for autosomal DNA.  I like their tools for comparing and analyzing your DNA.  Or, you could test with  Help us solve this mystery!
Vincent van Gogh 1888


Anonymous said...

Who would have thought there was Gypsy in the family? Shouldn't be surprised because the family was always on the move and never settled down for very long. This DNA stuff is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Hi, U3a is actually european. U3b1c is the gypsy roma specific subclade, it also of european/near-eastern descent!

clm said...

Thanks for the U3 update. But when I first developed an interest in DNA back in 2012, I hired a genetic genealogy consultant to pull my results from a DNA test I had taken years earlier when the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation ( was collecting DNA samples. Her report at the time(2012)indicated that "U3" was Roma and could possibly be gypsy.
I have since realized that "U3a1c" was mostly Europe and perhaps Scotland or Ireland. Besides, that makes more sense when looking at my known family history.
It's exciting to see the haplogroup evolve.