Dna research opens door to match slaves with relatives – houston chronicle electricity deregulation choices and challenges


"Catoctin Furnace, as it is today, preserves a European immigrant history," Comer said. "When you drive to Catoctin Furnace, when you drive through the village, if you visit the church, if you go and visit anyone in that area — you will see that many of the people that live there and many of the people that live in Thurmont are direct descendants of European workers."

Much of the historical society‘s current work is to merge the narratives of the Europeans with those of the black enslaved people, but with no collective memory preserved in black generations alive today and very sparse written records, that is hard to do. One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of last names, Comer said.

In one spot, a pile of head and foot stone grave markers are unceremoniously piled under a tree that overgrew the cemetery. At the time the bodies were exhumed, there wasn’t an emphasis on cataloging stones and rocks, which is why they are all piled together, Comer said. The original field notes from the dig have also been lost.

"We do not have — as I said earlier — an African-American population that has come forward and said, ‘I’m part of this landscape. I’m part of this history,’" Comer said. But research just completed on the DNA of half of the exhumed slaves may be the key to finding that link.

On Feb. 21, 2017, Reich traveled to Washington, D.C., and collected samples from the bones of 14 of the Catoctin Furnace slaves. Collecting DNA from old bones is not as easy as it would be from a person who died today. The human DNA has to be carefully separated from extraneous environmental DNA from molds and other non-human sources, Comer said.

"A technological revolution has made it possible to sequence whole genomes from ancient bones, giving us an unanticipated opportunity to understand how humans are changing," writes Reich Lab, which looks at DNA and population structure. "Ancient DNA allows us to go beyond the two-dimensional map of genetic variation based on the coordinates of latitude and longitude. Now we can extend this to a three-dimensional map, adding time."

Comer recently submitted a research proposal to the Smithsonian Institute to allow Reich Lab to collect additional ancient DNA samples from the remaining exhumed slaves, after sitting down with Reich and Owsley to discuss the future of the project. They are awaiting a response from the Smithsonian.

In the meantime, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society is continuing its own work by putting together a "census of slaves" using historical records to identify family units and jobs assigned at the furnace. The research has been hampered in extending the genealogy into the future, because of the lack of last names, Comer said.

Now, with a pool of ancient DNA results, the historical society is going to load the existing genetic profiles of each of the enslaved people to 23andMe — a website and genetic testing company that analyzes people’s 23 chromosomes, which store all of a person’s genetic information. There they will be able to see if the genetic code of one of the slaves matches a person living today — with the hope to connect someone to their ancestor.

The jobs at the iron furnace were extremely dangerous. An atypical number of teenagers and young adults are buried in the slave cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Comer said. Even in the 18th or 19th century, if a person made it through the first year of life, or to the age of 5, then their chances of living through adulthood were high.

Yet the people buried in the cemetery show signs of being worked overly hard for long periods of time. It was possible they were worked so hard that when a disease hit they did not have have the reserves to fight off the infection, she said.

One young woman stands out, because her spine is compressed in a way that is usually found only in elderly people, Comer said. Her spine is yet another sign of years of hard labor. Currently, the historical society is researching if the enslaved people at Catoctin Furnace may in fact have been worked to death.