DNA solves a Rappahannock family puzzle

Blood proves thicker than paperwork for Colorado woman

It was actually because of her border collie that Deborah Napier set about trying to find the identity of her maternal grandfather.

Napier, a lawyer who currently splits her time between Colorado and Washington, D.C., had long been interested in her family history, but had settled for (an often-flawed) oral history before this summer.

Deborah Napier
Deborah Napier Courtesy photo

“You’re going to laugh when I say this,” Napier chuckles, “but I wanted to find a good dog to breed her with. I had gone back nine generations — I wanted to make sure I didn’t mix any lines — and then the Mormon church suggested I do [a genealogical history] for myself.”

Napier said she and her family had long known the father’s name on her mother’s birth certificate was faked, and while she had tried investigating the identity of her maternal grandfather before, all she’d been able to locate were old oral accounts.

Her mother, Napier says, was born right here in Rappahannock County — in Amissville in 1936. Her mother’s father was thought to be a man named Marvin Luttrell Hughes (born in 1891), but Napier had been unable to confirm it.

“Virginia has some very unreliable documents,” Napier says, noting that the state didn’t require birth certificates until 1912. “Back then people would just write down what they thought or heard — not like today, where the child’s information is taken directly from the parents shortly after birth . . . Oral records had told me it was Marvin Hughes, and we just took it at that.”

Napier might have just left it at that too, if not for her genealogical border collie research. Her search was made more complicated, however, by the passing of a great aunt, which limited her access to her mother’s side of the family.

Napier decided to trust the oral records she’d discovered — some through the help of a nearby Mormon church that collected family records dating all the way to the 1500s — and contacted a man named Puller A. Hughes III, whom Napier believed could be related to her.

“I called him up and told him, ‘I know you don’t know me, but would you be willing to take a DNA test with me?’ and he agreed: ‘Sure!’ ”

Napier had done her homework beforehand and sought the services of a reliable lab in Houston called Family Tree DNA. On Oct. 31, the lab contacted Napier and informed her that she and Hughes were second cousins — meaning that Marvin Hughes was indeed her maternal grandfather.

Perhaps even more impressively, Napier discovered that Hughes’ side of the family explained quite a lot about her. “My results came back with 94 percent of my DNA originating from France and the Orkney Islands [by Scotland]. So I thought it was funny that I have Scottish ancestry and a Scottish dog.

“The other 5 percent came from Africa . . . eight generations back, on my dad’s side. So that was a surprise!”

Hughes’ DNA, Napier says, revealed his English and western European origins, and made other connections clear.

Hughes’ family had been prominently involved with horses — and still are, as far as Napier knows, around Warrenton. “My siblings and I started riding when we were kids,” Napier explains. “So that probably comes from our DNA.” Hughes’ side of the family, Napier learned, can be traced back to the Civil War, when several of her ancestors rode as cavalry members. It also includes several doctors; one of Napier’s sons is currently enrolled at Virginia Tech studying — of course — to be a doctor.

Other historical ties Napier discovered during her research included her great aunt — Mary Hughes, born in 1886 — having registered as a Daughter of the American Revolution. “In order to join them, you have to be able to trace your ancestry back to those who fought against the British. So it’s very cool to know that I’m descended from at least two Revolutionary War patriots.”

Napier recently donated a copy of her family’s genealogical history to the Rappahannock Historical Society in an effort to help others trying to figure out their own origins — and better the community Napier spent many weekends and childhood summers visiting.

“This kind of thing is critically important to know for medical purposes,” Napier says, “and the historical society is a tremendous resource.”

The RHS, formed in 1833 in Culpeper County, keeps records and documentation of the county’s history in an attempt to preserve it for future generations — “Though our records go back before then,” emphasizes RHS co-founder Judy Tole.

“We only deal in primary sources,” Tole explains, “No second-hand accounts or hearsay — only things we can verify. And that gets harder the farther back you try to go.” Fortunately, the RHS was one of several county organizations just this month to receive a grant from the Lykes Foundation — $5,000, which will help the society continue to digitize county records.

“We’ve helped people trace their lineage here before,” Tole says. And Napier’s history could definitely aid someone else’s search. “It’s free for anyone who wants to stop by and look. In fact, I’d like you to emphasize that,” Tole laughs.

For her part, Napier also likes to think her charted history might help others. “I’d love to see the high school history class do something with it.”

“It really helped me understand what my mother and grandmother went through [as single parents]. I’m descended from a long line of strong, independent women. And I think it’s always better to know.”