University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Stepping Out of the Lab and into History – Raquel Fleskes


By: Anne Tiballi

September 19, 2017

As an anthropological geneticist, my comfort zone very much involves being in a laboratory. There, in the quiet, I extract, amplify, and sequence DNA samples to look at kinship and ancestry in populations. The work could be seen as monotonous looking in from the outside, but in the repetition of my research I find both a simultaneous excitement and peace. This was my experience last year, extracting DNA from 17th century skeletal samples at the University of Tennessee’s ancient DNA lab. Yet, this summer I found myself in a much different situation. I moved out from the laboratory, taking steps outside my comfort zone to meet with some amazing folks at the St. Mary’s Historical Society to talk to them about my DNA study.

I am interested in seeing how the first 100 years of colonial settlement in the Chesapeake region of the United States (Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware) has impacted patterns of present-day genetic diversity. Since the United States has undergone multiple immigration events since the first major colonial settlements in the 1600s, the question remains if we can still see the genetic structure from this initial settlement period. This research will help us understand how genetic diversity changes in colonization contexts, and how divergent genetic diversity is at the time of colonization in comparison to today. In order to answer these research questions, I am working to recruit persons who can trace their genealogy back to the 17th century (1600-1700) colonies of Virginia, Maryland, or Delaware, for this DNA study. This is why I reached out to the St. Mary’s Historical Society community, as their membership contains people who have a vested interest in their colonial heritage.I arranged to meet with the executive director of the St. Mary’s Historical Society at the end of June. The Historical Society is located in Leonardtown, Maryland, close to the Potomac river. The drive was only a few hours, and wound through some lovely landscapes in southern Maryland. The historical society is located in a beautiful Georgian-style home called Tudor Hall. Tudor Hall, I was surprised to learn, is the oldest building in Leonardtown, built in 1746. A perfect location for the active historical society at St. Mary’s! The society also curates a well-known historian’s collection, Dr. Lois Carr, who published a number of foundational works on early 17th and 18th century colonial Maryland during her lifetime. Dr. Carr recorded the name and information of every person she encountered in her archival research on note cards. As such, it has become an invaluable resource for historical and genealogical research.

Finding out about this database was only one of many fascinating things I learned at St. Mary’s Historical Society. I met with a few of the archaeologists, historians, and archivists who do research on St. Mary’s in colonial Maryland. I explained to them my research project, and it was met with great excitement. They have a large membership base that has genealogical descendants to the 17th century, who would be interested in participating in this genetic study. We discussed what DNA sample collection would look like, and what individuals would expect by participating in this study. In order to give enough time for the word to spread, we decided on a date in January 2018 for actual DNA sampling to take place. A later date, we agreed, would allow more people to participate in the study.

Now, I am busy contacting other historical societies and applying for funding to expand this DNA research study, while waiting for January to roll around the corner. We expect that we will hear many stories from people about their genealogical research, and, in turn, can give them more information about their heritage using genetic ancestry testing. For myself, I greatly appreciated getting out of the lab, and meeting with future study participants. I look forward to expanding this study out of its pilot phase, and meeting other individuals at different historical societies in Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware.

If you, or anyone else you know, can trace their ancestry back to the 17th century colonies of Maryland, Virginia, or Delaware and would be interested participating in this study and having their DNA tested – please contact Raquel Fleskes at rfleskes@sas.upenn.edu!

Sign for Tudor Hall, greeting visitors to the home of the St. Mary’s Historical Society.
Tudor Hall, home of the St. Mary’s Historical Society.
View of the Potomac River, down the road from St. Mary’s Historical Society.

All photos by the author.


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