Unmarked Remains in West Virginia Are Actually George Washington's Descendants

Twenty-five years ago, a team of researchers excavated a cemetery in West Virginia hoping to find George Washington’s little brother. Five graves were unearthed, and after testing small bones retrieved from these burial sites, tentative identities have been assigned. A new DNA analysis has now certified three sets of identities from the site.

Two of the individuals were George Washington’s grandnephews—George Steptoe Washington and Samuel Walter Washington—and another set of bones belonged to their mother, Lucy Payne Washington. The team’s ID’ing of the bone remains was published today in iScience.

“This particular case gave us an opportunity to test methods for extended kinship prediction that we developed using a set of known, degraded DNA samples needing identity confirmation,” said Charla Marshall, a molecular anthropologist at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, and senior author of the study, in a Cell release.

The research team used Y chromosome DNA to study the paternal relationships in the Washington family tree. A new method of sequencing genetic data allowed the team to study nearly 100,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, to better predict ancestry between individuals. SNPs are specific combinations of base pairs along the DNA strand.

“These SNP methods will provide us with a method of positive identification from nuclear DNA,” Marshall added. “Very importantly, these methods will allow us to expand our pool of viable family reference sample donors to 3rd and 4th degree relatives in an effort to increase the number of DNA-assisted identifications, particularly those of past conflicts such as World War II, Korea, Cold War, and Southeast Asia/Vietnam.”

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