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For years, many people (including me) have assumed our Thorntons descended from William “the immigrant” or Luke (spoiler alert – we aren’t). William and Luke immigrated from England in the 1600s and settled in Virginia. Their descendants were connected to some famous names – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others out of America’s history book. They owned huge plantations, and had many children. It made sense that these Thorntons were our ancestors – the time, place and names all seemed to fit. Except no one could ever find any records to make the connection.

Documents have confirmed our Thorntons back to THOMAS Thornton. He may have been born or lived in Spotsylvania County (near Fredericksburg), Virginia in the late 1700s (according to his son’s marriage record). He married Susan Meredith and they moved to southwestern Virginia (Montgomery/Wythe/Pulaski Counties near Christiansburg) around 1805 where their descendants still live. We are all descended from at least one of their 4 sons Thomas Jr., Peter Reuben, Robert and Meredith (some of us are descended from more than one due to cousins marrying down the line).

A few years ago the Thornton DNA Project was created to trace the Thorntons and confirm ancestry. Males transmit their Y DNA relatively unchanged to their sons. Common key markers allow us to prove specific lineages back to a single ancestor. Changes (mutations or variants) in the DNA markers help identify different branches of a family and who is not a descendant because they don’t have the mutations.

So far 3 of our Thorntons have been tested. Earl (ggg grandson of Gordon Jefferson) was the first. Paul (grandson of Frederick “Boss” Thornton) and my brother Herb (another ggg grandson of Gordon Jefferson Thornton) recently took the test and have provided additional confirmation and data.

What the DNA tells us:

Our Thorntons are members of a genetic family line called “Virginia-A,” identified by 19 distinct markers. We all have a common ancestor who lived some time during the last 800-900 years (ca. 1160 AD).  3000 years ago (ca 980 BC), the progenitor is thought to have originated in the Oslo fjord between present-day Sweden and Norway, and belongs to the dominant Haplogroup found in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark today.

There are 3 known Virginia-A main groups: the famous “William the Immigrant” / Luke, the Northhamptons, and the Thomas Group – our Thorntons, differentiated because we have unique mutations not found in the other groups, and do not have the mutations found in the other groups so we cannot be descended from either of them. They are just very distant cousins.

The Thomas group (designated A-4) was discovered when our cousin Earl was tested. Earl has the 19 markers found in all Virginia-A descendants, but he also has some unique mutated markers that none of the other Virginia-A members have, and he does not have the specific mutations found in descendants of William (A-1) or Luke (A-2), which means that our A-4 branch cannot be directly descended from William or Luke, and that our distinct DNA mutations occurred independently from any of the other lineages identified.

Here are some of the different Virginia-A Group lineages:

  • Thornton the Founder –> Son 1 –>multiple generations –>William the Immigrant –>his descendants (Group A-1)
  • Thornton the Founder –> Son 1 –>same multiple generations as Wm. –>Luke –>his descendants (Group A-2)
  • Thornton the Founder –>Brother? –>different multiple generations –>Thomas –>his descendants (Group A-4)

Here are some of the descendants of our Thomas (Group A-4)

  • Thomas –>Peter Reuben Thornton –>Gordon Jefferson Thornton –> Stephen –>Stephen –>Hampton –>Earl (the first DNA testee that revealed the A-4 group)
  • Thomas –>Thomas Jr.  –>Frederick “Boss” –>Thomas James –>Paul Lester
  • Thomas –> Frederick “Boss” –>Earnest Washington –>Virginia Thornton –>Mark Francis
  • Thomas –>Peter Reuben Thornton–>Gordon Jefferson Thornton –>George Washington Thornton –>Nonie –>Earnest –>Charles Paul –> Diana / Herb
  • Thomas –>Meredith –>Andrew Jackson Thornton –>James Henry –>Zada –>Virginia Martin –>Timothy Dunford

Another way to think of how Thomas and William the Immigrant were related is the same way Paul is related to Timothy above – they are distant cousins with the same common ancestor many generations back.

Interestingly, even though William’s descendants and our Thomas were living in the same place at the same time with the same last name, and despite being distantly related, they probably didn’t know they were related since their common ancestor was many many generations back.

I know it’s confusing, but the main things to understand are that William the Immigrant is our very distant cousin and not a direct ancestor, and we still have to figure out our lineage beyond Thomas and find our immigrant ancestor in the records. While it was disappointing to learn we are not descended from those famous Thorntons, and DNA can’t tell us the name of Thomas’ father, it is invaluable to know we need to be looking in a different direction, and not waste time trying to find a connection that doesn’t exist.



  • If you are a Male Thornton and can trace your lineage back through only male Thorntons, then you are eligible to take the Y DNA test. The first step is a Y test to confirm you are a Virginia-A Thornton and which group you belong to. The next step is a more comprehensive test called the “BigY”.  THE MORE PEOPLE TESTED, THE MORE DEFINITIVE THE RESULTS.
  • If you are not eligible for Y DNA testing (female or nondirect male), we need your help to fund more tests for the direct line descendants. This will still benefit you and your kin because you can use their test results verify in your ancestry. You can still take other DNA tests to verify familial connections.
  • Forward this to any cousins who would like to participate, and/or send me their email addresses for me to contact them and keep them posted on results and family history research.

If you would like to take a test (just spit in a tube), or DONATE TO HELP FUND THE TESTING FOR OTHERS, please contact Charles Thornton at the Thornton DNA project.

In the meantime, we will keep searching the records.

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