The Harding DNA Study

Harding chart_2
Harding family tree, showing the relationships predicted by recently-announced autosomal DNA tests. Click on the image to expand it.

I was fascinated by the story released in The New York Times last Wednesday regarding the DNA research to help establish that Warren G. Harding had had a child with his mistress Nan Britton.

Nanna Popham Britton, known as Nan, was born and raised in Marion, Ohio, where Harding lived as well. Her child, known for most of her life as Elizabeth Ann but recorded as Emma Eloise Britton, was born at Asbury Park, New Jersey, on 22 October 1919. At certain points in her childhood she went by Elizabeth Ann Harding or Elizabeth Ann Britton; she was eventually adopted by her mother’s sister Elizabeth and her husband Scott A. Willits, when she went by Elizabeth Ann Willits. She married Henry Edward Blaesing in 1938 and listed her maiden name as Elizabeth Ann Harding on the birth certificates of her three sons, who were born in California between 1947 and 1954. Nan and her daughter’s family moved to Oregon where Nan died in 1991.

Elizabeth Blaesing died in 2005 and apparently had no interest in DNA testing to prove her paternity. The recent study was actually instigated by two grandchildren of Harding’s younger brother. These cousins, Dr. Peter Harding and Abigail Harding, contacted Elizabeth’s middle son James Blaesing. Through autosomal DNA testing (which was not really available at the level it is today back when his mother died in 2005), James was predicted to be a second cousin to both Peter and Abigail, which would be their kinship if Elizabeth were Warren’s daughter. Given that everyone in their parent generation is deceased (Elizabeth and the fathers of Peter and Abigail), these are the closest people alive for such an autosomal test, and a third cousin of the Hardings matched James Blaesing as well.[1] This is a great example of what can be confirmed by autosomal testing within a few generations when it involves a very specific hypothesis.

Note

[1]. Warren would be the only Harding sibling available for the second cousin kinship to work, matching James Blaesing’s “unknown” grandfather, as Warren Harding had one surviving brother, George, who was the grandfather of the two cousins. Had George been James’ grandfather, the Harding cousins would have a much higher amount of DNA in common, as half first cousins instead of second cousins.

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About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

9 thoughts on “The Harding DNA Study

  1. I, too, found that article interesting. Thanks for taking it beyond and especially the explanation of the DNA analysis — maybe the Times would be interested in your follow-up?

  2. Thank you for fleshing out (pun intended) the genealogical details for this story about Warren Harding’s daughter. It is exciting that DNA has solved one mystery of presidential children.

    Unfortunately, DNA testing may never solve the paternity question of Grover Cleveland’s purported son (Oscar Folsom Cleveland, subject of the popular taunt “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa / Gone to the White House, ha ha ha”) because it is reported that the young man died childless in the 1940s.

    However, the question that I hope gets answered is the mystery of the probable two oldest children of Sally Hemings by Thomas Jefferson. Both (William) Beverly Hemings (b. April 1798) and Harriet Hemings (b. May 1801) were given permission to leave Monticello — and probably given money and transportation to Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia — by Jefferson when they reached their early 20s. They were described as “nearly white” (with apparent seven-eighths European ancestry) and were well prepared to conduct successful lives in “white” society. Their younger brother (James) Madison Hemings (January 1805 – 1877) said in 1873 that Beverly had married a “white woman in Maryland” and had at least one daughter, and Harriet married “a white man in good standing in Washington City [and] raised a family of children.” Their descendants (if any survive) might have no idea that they descend from Sally Hemings and Jefferson. But I’m hoping that some future DNA testing or other technology can locate (if not prove, after so many generations) possible descendants of Beverly and Harriet.

    1. Candy –
      Thanks for your comment. I may be blogging about both Cleveland and Jefferson soon as I have research both of those stories as well. For Cleveland, you are essentially correct that DNA is very likely not possible [short of exhuming the grave of Oscar Folsom Cleveland aka James Edward King, Jr.]

      For descendants of Beverly and Harriet Hemings, that gets a little tricky. CeCe Moore’s blog post regarding a descendant of Madison Hemings is especially interesting since that descendant did not even known of their African ancestry as well – http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/2011/09/dna-test-spurs-surprising-discovery-of.html – For Beverly & Harriet, since we do not know their new names, etc., finding them is difficult. If a descendant took autosomal DNA and had a portion indicated with some African, and also had an ancestor born around the turn of the 19th century of completely unknown origin in MD/DC with all other ancestors accounted for, that could be possible.

      Chris

      1. Chris, thank you for the reference to CeCe Moore’s blogpost! I had not seen it, and didn’t know she was pursuing answers to the same questions I have about Sally Hemings’ descendants, and confirming the Wayles paternity of both Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

        I’m really looking forward to your future posts about Harding, Cleveland and Jefferson genealogical matters.

  3. I have a question; recently both my sister and I had our DNA done through Ancestry. com. But our ethnic estimate are different or I should say the percentages, for example it says I am 12% Scandinavian and she is 26% Scandi; I am 44% European (W&E) and she is only 20%; we both have 13% Irish. The report lists our mutual cousins from both sides that have taken the test so I know we have the same parents.

    1. Hi Julie. Full siblings can definitely have different results as they are likely to inherit different portions of their parent’s DNA (you each 50% from your father and mother, but how much of that 50% is the same can vary considerably). On average, siblings only share about 50% DNA in common. The only people who would have the exact same DNA results would be identical twins.

      Chris

  4. Can any one tell me the relationship of George Tryon Harding to the Tryon family ? I have a grandmother who was a Tryon and it was her father whose family goes back to Glastonbury and Wethersfield, CT and thus back to Bibury, England and the Flemish weavers of Flanders, now Belgium. Please contact me if you know of the connection. Thanks!

    1. Hi Mikki – George Tryon Harding was the son of Charles Alexander Harding (and Mary Ann Crawford), son of George Tryon Harding (and Elizabeth Madison), son of Amos Harding (and Phoebe Tripp), son of Abraham Harding, Jr. and Huldah Tryon. Huldah’s parents are unknown, but it would be great to know! Huldah and Abraham married in Connecticut on 9 July 1762, and Abraham was a New London, Connecticut native. Details on Harding’s full ancestry are in Gary Boyd Roberts, Ancestors of American Presidents, available here – http://shop.americanancestors.org/products/ancestors-of-american-presidents-2nd-edition?pass-through=true

      some additional discussion on Huldah is here – http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/TRYON/1997-01/0852694771

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