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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Adventures with DNA (2)

Motivated by my success in tracing siblings and cousin connections of my Irish great-grandmother Jane Nesbitt, I turned my attention to her husband, Charles Potts. Once again my limited information about him came mainly from his marriage record and census returns, which indicated that he was born in Belfast in about 1835 and that his father was Robert Potts, a mechanic. (“Mechanic” in the mid-19th century obviously didn’t mean exactly the same as today and could refer to any kind of semi-skilled machine operator.) Charles had served in the army in the Crimea as a young man: his death certificate refers to him as an “army pensioner” and a local newspaper reported that when he died he was one of the last twelve Crimean veterans in Manchester.

However my initial optimism came to a screeching halt when none of my DNA matches showed any Irish Potts connection whatsoever. Several 4th-6th cousin matches on Dad’s side had connections to the Belfast area, but I had no immediate way of knowing whether my link to these families was via the Potts family or elsewhere. After a pause for reflection (and with nothing more concrete to go on) I sorted and cross-referenced these matches until I had a sheet of paper covered in Venn diagrams and a core group who were linked both to me and to each other, but not to my Nesbitt matches.

I started entering these matches into my genealogy software and filling in as many details as possible in the hope of finding a point of junction between the various branches which might give me a lead to a particular surname – Charles’ mother’s family, for instance. (Spoiler: I didn’t find one.) However, while I was doing this, a new DNA match popped up on Ancestry which not only cross-matched the Antrim group, but included a Potts from Belfast - trumpet fanfare!

My new match linked me to an Alexander Potts born in 1881, who sadly lost his life in World War I: after investigation I found that his father was Henry (born c.1839) and his grandfather was Robert, a labourer. While “labourer” isn’t an exact match for “mechanic”, either term could arguably refer to a machine operator, and the amount of DNA I share with this match indicates that Henry’s father Robert was either the same person as Charles’ father Robert or at a stretch his brother - which is obviously impossible! Henry was therefore my great-grandfather’s younger brother, with descendants in Ireland and Australia.

At the same time I was still scratching away at my other Antrim DNA matches, and I thought I had made another breakthrough when I discovered that one of them led back to an Elizabeth Potts, born in about 1822, who married Fortescue Adams in the late 1840s. (As a family historian I thoroughly approve of any man with a fairly common surname who wasn’t called John, Thomas or William.) Although I couldn’t find an online record of their marriage to confirm Elizabeth’s father’s name, I was ready to assume she was an older sister of Charles and Henry until I found two records giving her place of birth as Gibraltar, which made no sense at all!

So it was back to the drawing board, checking every database I could think of, until I discovered an Army discharge certificate for Robert Potts, a weaver born in Moira, County Down, who enlisted in the North Staffordshire Regiment on 2 June 1815 aged 17 and was discharged on medical grounds on 25 June 1828. At the time of his discharge he was stationed in Gibraltar, and although there was unfortunately no record of his next-of-kin, it was common for wives and children to accompany soldiers posted to the garrison and (naturally!) for children to be born there. There was no longer any reason to discount Elizabeth, so she was pencilled in as another sibling.

I now knew that Robert had at least three children born between about 1822 and 1839 and almost certainly more. Searching Potts marriages in and around Belfast provided me with just one more son, John, whose marriage in 1851 not only named his father as Robert, but in addition was witnessed by Fortescue Adams. However the marriages threw up an unexpected bonus: Robert himself remarried as a widower in 1850 and named his father as Alexander Potts, a weaver.

Elizabeth and Fortescue Adams emigrated to the US with their young family and her American death record gives her mother’s name as Mary – surname unknown.

So once again DNA matching has helped me make modest but satisfying progress in growing my family tree. My next challenge – a major one! – is to attempt to exploit it to identify the ancestors and ultimately the identity of my unknown paternal great-grandfather.

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