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Thursday March 6, 2003

Reporter Uses DNA Method To Find His Family's Roots

(From The Wall Street Journal)

By Ken Wells

By the time I decided to become my family's historian, all I knew for certain is that my father and grandfather had come from Arkansas and that my great-grandfather, Rufus Henry Wells, had lived and died there, an impoverished itinerant laborer.

Beyond that was a story, delivered to me by a cousin along with a hand-lettered family tree by a great aunt, that said Rufus, his father, George Henry, and grandfather, Henry, were all Virginians. Oh, and maybe they came from someplace called Wellsburg or Wellsville, Ohio, and maybe their wives' names were Alzia (or Elvira) Vaughn and Mary Taylor.

On and off for 22 years, I had searched conventional genealogical records and, more recently, the Web, all in vain. I had pretty much given up until, in the summer of 2001, my brother e-mailed me about the Wells Family DNA Project on the Web. I eagerly signed up, though with beaten-down expectations.

Since the project was a pioneering one, wheels turned slowly. I finally gave a DNA sample in January 2002. Results started to trickle in last summer, but the first results weren't certified and formally released until late last year.

Orin Wells, the project's organizer, knew that I also had a journalistic interest in this story but we agreed it would be premature to write about the project until enough results were known to make clear a pattern. In late July, though, he gave me a heads up. It was an e-mail informing me that I had matched the DNA of a number of distant Wells cousins who belonged to one of the 24 early Wells families, known as baseline families because they have kept meticulous genealogies going as far back as the 1600s. For my purposes, my most notable new cousin was John Hart Wells of South Hill, Va.

Mr. Wells, a 68-year-old retired school administrator, had helped write a book titled, "The Wellses of Mecklenburg County, Va." Orin suggested that in that book lay a lot of my answers.

A day later I was on the phone with my newfound cousin John, a cheerful-sounding man with a soft Virginia drawl. He had in his hands the Wells book, 542 pages long, plus an index. And there on page 191 was a Rufus Henry Wells, son of George Henry Wells, married to an Eliza Vaughn -- a match to my great-aunt's hand-scrawled genealogy. On the page before was a Henry Wells, married (his second marriage, I learned) to a Mary Taylor -- another match. On the same page came new information: Henry's father and mother were David and Susannah Wells, David having been born about 1730 in Virginia.

My Henry was the seventh of his 10 children; my newfound cousin John was descended from David's youngest child, Baker Wells.

It started to sink in: Our great-great-great-great grandfathers had been young brothers at the time of the American Revolution. Two of their older brothers, cousin John informed me, had fought in the War of Independence; one, in George Washington's army, had died at Valley Forge.

The details went on and on.

"Come down and see me," Cousin John said. "We have a lot to talk about."

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