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DNA aids their family history search
Strangers come together for family reunion

For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/16/06

Bill Graves opened a hefty volume entitled "John Graves, 1635 Settler of Concord, Ma.," and examined a page about one-third into the roughly 1700-page tome.

Graves, who's 70, studied the page intently for some time before looking up and saying, "For years I used to joke about being related to Peter Graves, the actor. But it wasn't until today that I found out that I really am a direct relative."

Barry Williams/Special
Michael Graves of Roswell and Patricia Graves of Druid Hills, a native of England, look over charts of her family history.
Barry Williams/Special
Will Radke of Kennesaw reads a book about Graves family history during a Graves 'family reunion' at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.

He laughed before adding, "I can't wait to tell my daughter. She's a film director, and we both loved that show 'Mission: Impossible.' "

On Sunday, 33 people, most from metro Atlanta, but some from South Carolina, southeast Georgia and Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., held a Graves family reunion at Doraville's Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.

This was not the usual cavalcade of kin who gather at the same appointed time and place every year. Most of these Graveses were well over 50, many were committed genealogists, very few actually knew each other at all except through e-mail correspondence and few were directly related.

One big reason for this meeting was to share knowledge about DNA testing or "genetic genealogy," which has become a worldwide fascination since the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings findings released in 1998.

These unconventional and frequently impromptu Graves reunions are the brainchild of Ken Graves, a resident of Wrentham, Mass., for the past 36 years.

Ken Graves, 69, who worked as a chemical engineer and also started two computer software companies, began his own research in the early 1970s.

"I started researching my own family," he said, "then I started researching other Graves lines besides my own. I started the Graves Family Association in 1976, which now includes a real elaborate Web site. By now I've had contact with, I guess, 7,000 or 8,000 Graves."

He's also published eight books, including "John Graves, 1635 Settler of Concord, Ma." Therefore, he can tell you anything you'll ever need to know about Graves, including that it's "about the 246th most popular name — not even in the same ballpark as 'Smith' or 'Jones.' "

He can tell you there are about 900 Graves families who fall into roughly "12 or 15 or maybe as many as 20 [genealogical] lines." He can tell you there are over 50 variations of spelling — "none of them any more important than the other" — such as Grieves and Greaves.

He can also tell you that DNA testing has gotten all sorts of people stirred up, no matter how they spell their name.

"Thousands of Americans have swabbed their cheeks and mailed in DNA to companies for testing," Newsweek wrote in a Feb. 6 article. "Far-flung cousins are finding each other; family legends are being overturned. DNA testing forces some people to rethink their identities."

Ken Graves toted 20 DNA kits to Doraville, each costing $219. This is the most expensive kit, he explained, because it "provides more points of comparison, and therefore the most information on genetic links."

He said that, to date, 223 Graveses have been DNA tested worldwide, and that, before heading home this week, he and his wife were stopping off in Luray, Va., to pick up DNA samples from a family.

"What DNA does," Graves said, "it's shown us relationships where we thought none existed. We have shown, for instance, that many southern Graves are descended from the same ancestors as some northern Graves, which is really stunning information to me. For years and years, I had no idea of those connections."

DNA can link regular Graveses to high-profile relatives like Peter Graves or his older brother, James Arness, who killed 1,000 or so bad guys on "Gunsmoke."

In a slide show he prepared, Ken Graves covered other famous Graves descendants. This includes, they say, African-American writer Alex Haley (author of "Roots" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"), directly descended from the very earliest American Graves, Captain Thomas Graves, who landed in Jamestown in 1608.

Other famous relatives they claim include Grover Cleveland (the 22nd and 24th president), actor Steve McQueen, and the bluegrass dobro maestro Josh Graves.

But Graves emphatically points out the limitations to DNA testing, which can't link anyone to historic figures such as Shakespeare or Genghis Khan or Joan of Arc.

"Basically," he said, "DNA can prove if living people are related to each other. By itself, DNA can't solve a puzzle, it's only an extra tool, like old birth certificates, census forms, old-fashioned research and talking to relatives."

Ken Graves said the next major Graves reunion is June 2007 in Williamsburg, Va., the 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown by the British. Before then, however, he's hoping for a few more impromptu get-togethers like Doraville.

Later this year, in fact, he heads for England to gather more DNA samples.

"I'm trying to make connections with as many Graves as possible," he said. "I really have to rely on others, like the people here, doing serious research. This DNA testing has definitely dispelled some family myths. But most of us here want the same thing. We all simply want to know the truth about where we come from."

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