Genetic genealogy, DNA triangulation, and the search for my missing Futrell ancestor

When it comes to my genealogy adventures, more often than not, I feel like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot when it comes to uncovering the identity of missing ancestors who lived in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Century. Paper trails invariably run out, especially when it comes to my ancestors who were either working class whites, blacks, mulattos, Native American, or free people of colour. There are various reasons for this. Either records were lost, destroyed during times of upheaval (i.e. Revolutionary War, Civil War, Bacon’s Rebellion, etc) or were lost due to things like courthouses burning down. Given the remote areas some of ancestors lived, records may have never been produced at all. Or, if enslaved, full names weren’t provided. Or, due to ethnicity, they weren’t seen as people.

DNA testing is one key to uncovering the identities for ancestors where paper documents never existed, or no longer exist…or have yet to be digitized.  The process of DNA triangulation is key to this process:

Triangulation for autosomal DNA is kind of a chicken and egg thing.  The goal is to associate and identify specific DNA segments to specific ancestors.  The easiest way to do this, or to begin the process, is with known relatives.  This gets you started identifying “family segments.”  From that point, you can use the known family segments, along with some common sense tools, to identify other people that are related through those common ancestors.  Through those matches with other people, you can continue to break down your DNA into more and more granular family lines. (DNAeXplained, “Triangulation for Autosomal DNA” via

Regular readers will know I’ve developed a talent for triangulation over the years. In truth, much credit goes to my team of genetic genealogists who spent long and patient hours explaining how genetic genealogy and triangulation work; and mentoring me through my first forays into triangulating with my own DNA.

I’ve saved one of the most challenging triangulation tasks for last: discovering the father of my 2x great grandmother, Selinda Futrell, born about 1842 in Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina. This falls on my mother’s side of the family tree.


There are a couple of phases when it comes to organizing how I approach working with DNA and vital documents identifying a parent, or parents, for an ancestor. I’m still very much in the early phases with Selinda.

A preliminary to Phase I

Let’s start with her mother, Melinda, whose name appears as Melinda Futrell in official documents. Melinda was born around 1824 in Northampton County, North Carolina.  The first question I had to tackle was whether or not Melinda was a Futrell by birth, or was it a name she assumed after Emancipation.  In short, what was her connection to the Futrell name?

The three documents I have for Melinda, including the 1870 Census, cite that she is black.  All three documents are consist in this fact. There is nothing to-date to indicate that she was of mixed race. Now this could be for one of two reasons: either she was born of mixed parentage and simply didn’t appear to be.  Or, as I strongly suspect, she wasn’t born of mixed parentage. I am satisfied on the score that she was not a Futrell by birth.

Melinda’s children, on the other hand, are consistently cited as being mulattos. All of them. Which indicates that, unlike Melinda, her children had a white father. Given some 20+ DNA matches with white Futrells and Futrell descendants with roots in Northampton County, North Carolina, the team and I are very confident that man was a Futrell. This would explain Melinda’s adoption of the Futrell name, which she passed on to her children.

This is a prelim into Phase I.

Phase I: The Futrell family tree

So, the preliminary to Phase I was all about determining if Selinda Futrell was indeed a blood relation to the Quaker-descended Futrells in Northampton, NC.

Phase I, which is still ongoing, requires me to do a full and thorough work-up on the Quaker-descended Futrell family tree. This is easier said than done.  I’m not going the lie. The Futrells are a nightmare to research.

Let’s just start with the surname. When it comes to misspellings and variants of the name, it’s in a league of its own: Fewtrell (the old English spelling of the name), Futral, Futrill, Fetral, Tutrill, Titrill, Futrelle…the list goes on and on.

Then there are the beloved family names that were commonly used among numerous branches: Shadrach, William, Charity, Daniel, John, Nathaniel, and Mary, just to cite a few. Online family trees are aren’t an option – too many have confused or merged individuals who borne the same first name and were born within a few years of each other.

The one book I hoped to get a hold of, 12 Northampton County, North Carolina Families
Bridgers, Daughtry, Futrell, Jenkins, Joyner, Lassiter, Martin, Odom, Parker, Stephenson, Sumner, and Woodard by Rebecca L. Dozier is no longer in print.

But then, as luck or providence would have it, I discovered a second book: The Futrell Family Revised by Roger H. Futrell (available to read and/or download via:  This book has been an absolute godsend. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we couldn’t have done an accurate family tree without it.

The book allowed us to ramp up Phase I, and begin Phase II.

Phase IIa: Eliminating and shortlisting paternity candidates

The 18th and early 19th Century Futrell family is huge. The family was not only prolific, it produced an unusual number of male children generation after generation.

At the moment, we’re just shy of 60 Futrell men born between 1650 and 1820. In order to have the fullest list of possible paternity candidates, we’re required to try and trace as many descendant lines for Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell (born 1659 in Shropshire, England, lied for a period in Surry County, Virginia –  and died in 1693 in Bertie County, North Carolina). Once this has been done, we can begin to specifically look at Futrell men who were old enough, and resident in Northampton County, NC prior to Selinda Futrell’s birth in 1842.

I don’t know if ‘luck’ is the right word, but I’m going to use it anyway.  As luck would have it, around two-thirds of the Futrells who were in North Carolina had moved to Trigg and Christian Counties in Kentucky by 1814. Why is this lucky?  These Futrell men are automatically eliminated as possible descendant lines who could have fathered Selinda and her siblings. These Futrells didn’t moved back and forth between Kentucky and North Carolina.  Once they arrived in Kentucky, that was it.

We next looked into the proximity of Futrell men to Melinda and her family in Rich Square.  There were a dozen or so men of the right age either living in Rich Square. Another 8 Futrell men lived within a day’s horse ride away from Rich Square. Then there was the extended family group of Futrells who lived in Onslow County, NC.

Next we looked at which Futrells owned slaves.  This ruled the Onslow County group of Futrells out almost immediately. None of them had enslaved people.

This, again, helps us narrow the field of identifying the best, most likely paternity candidates on paper before we begin using DNA to triangulate.

After eliminating so many Futrells from consideration, we are left with a few family lines to investigate more closely:

  1. Male Futrell descendants of John W Futrell (1715-1788) and Martha “Polly” Daughtry;
  2. Male Futrell descendants of Benjamin Futrell (1720-1790) and Mourning Smith; and
  3. Male Futrell descendants of Thomas Futrell III (1713-1770) and Elizabeth Dickinson.

Work continues in investigating these three family groups.

Phase IIb: Wills and probate…and more Wills and probate

Wills and probate records are a vital – and rich – source of ancestral information. On the one hand, they provide the names of surviving family members, including grandchildren (e.g. I bequeath to my grand-daughter Hezekiah Heathcock, the daughter of Anne,…)

Next, Wills and probate are important for my Futrell ancestry for another reason. Wills and probate tells me who held enslaved people and who did not. This isn’t always a hard and fast rule.  My formerly missing German-American Sheffey 4x grandfather, John Adam Sheffey, was the only 18th Century Sheffey to not own slaves.  However, his brothers did. Yet, as far as DNA is showing, only John Adam Sheffey seems to have fathered children with Jemimah, an enslaved woman in the household of his brother Maj Henry Lawrence Sheffey. Slave ownership isn’t always a reliable factor when it comes to determining paternity.

For the Futrells who held enslaved people, the names of the enslaved are cited in their Wills.  It is actually possible to follow the trail of the enslaved from generation to generation through subsequent Futrell family Wills.

Using an example, let’s say Futrell #1 had an enslaved woman by the name of Amey. She goes from him to his son, Futrell #2.  Next, we might see in Futrell #2’s Will that Amey and her children, Patsy and Shadrach, pass to his son, Futrell #3.  Not only can I track Amey, I can now see that she has two children. Further Wills will provide further clues and information about Patsy and Shadrach.

The above is an illustrative example.  The Will of Elliot Futrell below, is a real-world working example:


I’ll go ahead and say.  Creating family trees from Wills is a strange and unsettling business. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile myself to it. With that said, it is a critical skillset to acquire when it comes to genealogy.

As part of my genealogy practice, I add this information my family tree for the respective individuals who held and inherited enslaved people.  I do this in the hopes that it helps other African Americans  researching their own family trees. I include the names of the enslaved and how that individual came by them (i.e. inheritance or purchase) with links back to the original course. The two images below show my working practice using the Will above:


The image above shows notes I add to respective pages to track the movement of enslaved ancestors from generation to generation.

Now, in the instance above, I don’t know if any of the enslaved people cited are part of my Futrell family’s story. However, they will be part of someone’s family story. So many have helped me along my way in my adventure, it would be churlish for me to not pay it forward.

Phase IIc: Identifying Futrell DNA segements

While I grapple with the traditional genealogy required in Phases IIa and IIb, the team is working on identifying my Futrell DNA segments and the Chromosome(s) associated with this segment or segments. While I’ve become adept at this part of the process, it is time consuming. And, in this instance, exceedingly tricky due to endogamy (cousin marriages, in short). I’m going to say it: the professionals are far quicker at this than I am!

This article from DNAeXplained gives you a glimpse into what’s involved: Concepts: Match Groups and Triangulation

Phase III: Working with online DNA cousin matches

This final phase will do one of two things.  It will either identify the father of Selinda Futrell and her siblings. Or, it will narrow the search down to a single family group, a father and his sons, in other words. Most of the time, we get a solid hit and there’s no doubt about it.  Other times – and this is largely due to endogamy – we can only narrow it down to a father and/or his sons.

For example, it’s not unusual in my family tree for two brothers from one family to marry sisters from another family – and both sets of couples were cousins. Add the fact that the parents of the 2 brothers and 2 sisters were 2nd or 3rd cousins. Nothing skews DNA triangulating quite like this. It’s a bit of a nightmare. Less frequent is a father and a son marrying a mother and a daughter from another family, who may or may not be related to them.

Part of Phase III includes me relaying any possible DNA overlaps back to the genetic genealogists. For instance, the Quaker descended Futrells married Outlands, Exums, Vinsons and Lassiters quite often In Northampton, NC. I know already that I have Lassiters and Exums in Virginia on my father’s side of the family. I also have Outlands from Pennsylvania and Virginia on both my parents’ ancestral lines. Regardless of which colonial territory or State they lived in, these Outlands, Lassiters and Exums are part of the same family. Add in the Quaker White family, which links all of these families and more…and you have some tricky triangulation to do.

This information is crucial for the genetic genealogy team to reduce the risk of them arriving at a false positive. They need to find ‘pure’ lines – lines that don’t share common DNA with any other, in order to successfully identify Selinda Futrell’s father.  We use this as a benchmark against which we compare every other line.

Each Futrell line will be examined individually to see which one matches me closer, in terms of generation, than any other. For instance, if all of my DNA matches are at the 5th, 6th and 7th cousin level, save one that matches me at the 4th generational level or less – the most recent shared match is the one we need to investigate more closely. The identity of her father rests on Futrells who match me more closely in terms of generational distance than any other Futrell descendant line.

Normally, we’d also rely on the length of DNA segments shared, and the number of segments shared, between me and my Futrell DNA matches.  However, because of cousin marriages, I already know we’ll share more DNA in common than is typical for 4th to 8th cousins.  As an example, I have a Quaker cousin in Pennsylvania who suggests is a 3rd cousin. We know a number of the ways we’re related, which makes us 5th, 6th, and 7th cousins respectively (due to endogamy within the colonial Quaker communities, we share at least 6 sets of common ancestors). We share a crazy amount of DNA segments for two people whose common ancestors lived between 1660 and 1770. It’s not’s fault, it can only go by what the genetic numbers are telling it.

Yep, I know, it sounds like a whole lot of work to identify one ancestor. It’s what you do when the paper trail runs out.

And why spend so much time and effort to identify a father-owner ancestor?  I’ll touch on that in the next article.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, family history, Genetics, Race & Diversity, searching census records

Moses Byrd: A Revolutionary War musician


Illustrative open source image

I’ve been making one discovery after another when it comes to my ancestral kin who were both people of colour and American Revolutionary War veterans. I’ve found records for hundreds of kinsmen who were fpoc within my extensive ancestral extended family who served in many different capacities during the American Revolution.

Moses Byrd, born around 1745, is another interesting discovery. Moses was a musician in Lewis’ Company of the North Carolina Continental Line in Halifax County, North Carolina, in 1776. He seems to have disappeared from active duty in January 1778.

He mustered again in Taylor’s Company for 2-1/2 years in January 1779. [Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, XVI:1012, 1024, XVII: 192]. As a fpoc, he was legally obliged to register in his home county. He was a “Mulatto” taxable in Southampton County in 1802 [PPTL 1792-1806, frames 156, 183, 261, 311, 373, 407, 509, 546, 615]. There is usually a brief physical description fo the free person of colour in question included in the registration records. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find such a description for Moses.

He was taxable in Southampton County from 1782 to 1803: taxable on a horse and 4 cattle from 1782 to 1787, taxable on Asa Byrd [believed to be Moses’s nephew] in 1788, taxable on Thomas Byrd [Moses’s son] in 1795, called a “Mulatto” in 1802 [PPTL 1782-92; frames 508, 544, 634, 655, 705, 755, 812, 869; 1792-1806, frames 156, 183, 261, 311, 373, 407, 509, 546, 615].

He was living in Northampton County, North Carolina, before 2 January 1807 when he made his Northampton County will, proved March 1808 [WB 2:362]. He left most of his estate to his wife, whose name remains unknown.

This is his life, as it’s currently known, in a nutshell.

Musicians in the Revolutionary War

I was curious about the exact nature of his war service. Naturally, I did some digging.  I know he was a musician. However, the records don’t specify what instrument or instruments he played. I did, however, manage to unearth accounts of what army musicians did during the war.

It turns out that Moses was probably a part of the Fife, Drum, and Bugle Corps. 18th Century Army musicians had a dual role.  The first was as a communication channel.  There were no walkie talkies, radios, or quick forms of mass communication on the 18th Century battlefield. Musicians were a practical means of long distance communication. Anyone who lives within a mile of a sports arena today can attest to how far the sounds of drums, fifes (think flutes), and horns can carry!

The second apart of a musician’s service during the was was providing entertainment for the army camps. In other words, morale boosters.

According to the website The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps:

The fife was used because of its high pitched sound and the drum because of its low pitched sound. Both instruments can be heard from great distances and even through the sounds of a battlefield. Fifers and drummers would provide the music for all of the things that soldiers would need to do throughout the day. They would play tunes in the camp, on the battlefield, or for a march…

On the battlefield, musicians had the responsibility of helping keep order in battle and make sure the soldiers functioned well as a unit. Drummers would play beatings telling the soldiers to turn right or left as well as to load and fire their muskets. There was a tune called Cease Fire that fifers and drummers would play to tell the soldiers to stop firing at the end of a battle while a tune called Parley was used to signal to the enemy that a surrender or peace talk was desired.

More information about the service of Army musicians in the American Revolution is available on the same website via

Now that I had a very basic understanding of the service Moses provided during the war, I wanted to find out more about the battles he would have been a part of.  It turns out, he was involved in a quite a few.

Micajah Lewis, Captain of the 1st and 4th North Carolina Regiments

The first half of Moses’s war service was under Capt. Micajah Lewis (yep, another kinsman from my extended family) as part of the 4th North Carolina Regiment. This speaks to an important historical fact where Moses’s genealogy is concerned: he had already left Southampton, Virginia for North Carolina when he joined Maj Lewis’s regiment. Established on 15 April 1776, this means Moses was resident in North Carolina by 1776.

What’s interesting to me is that he was taxable in two states during an over-lapping period between 1790 and 1802: Halifax and Northampton Counties in North Carolina and Southampton County in Virginia. While he would ultimately come to permanently reside in Northampton, North Carolina…he was clearly going back and forth from North Carolina to Virginia.  He is far from being alone. I have swathes of ancestral kin who were fpoc moving back and forth from North Carolina and Virginia before permanently residing in North Carolina. I remain mystified as to why. What was happening in the early decade of the American Republic that caused thousands of fpoc to ping pong between these two states for two to three decades? I digress, but only in the name of genealogy!

The website The American Revolution in North Carolina ( has an excellent overview about the Regiment and its war activities. In its early stages, the Regiment was moved from place to place. In the Fall of 1778, the 4th NC Regiment was re-organized at Halifax, NC. This fits perfectly with when Moses enlisted. Halifax, NC was one of the ancestral centres for the extensive fpoc Bird/Byrds.

At this point, judging by the battle lists for 1778 in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, it appears that Moses may have been involved in skirmishes in South Carolina and Georgia…but saw no major action.

Capt Lewis, who attained the rank of Major by the time of his death in 1779, would die after being shot either during the course of, or directly after, a battle.  Which battle is unclear.  The website The American Revolution in South Carolina cites he died as a result of being shot at the Battle of Stono Ferry in South Carolina ( Some Lewis family history books cite the Battle of King’s Mountain in North Carolina as his final battle ( His death in 1779 is not in dispute.

Moses would serve at the Battle of Stono Ferry on 20 June 1779.


Image Courtesy of

After the death of Capt. Lewis, Moses would go on to serve under Capt. Philip Taylor’s 5th North Carolina Regiment.

Philip Taylor, Captain of the 5th North Carolina Regiments

As part of Capt. Taylor’s regiment, Moses would serve in the Battle of Stono Ferry (1779, )


British Map Showing Battle of Stono Ferry – 20 June 20 1779. Image Courtesy of


the Siege of Charleston in South Carolina (1781,

After the War

Moses was granted a land patent for his war service. The patent included a 274 acre land warrant granted in 1783 for his service in the American Revolution; evidently the tract of land was never claimed. It was returned to the State in 1821.

Roll #4, Book B-2, pg. 112-113, TN State Library & Archives State of North Carolina, No. 2332,…..granted unto John Gray Blount and Thomas Blount assignees of Moses Byrd a private in the Continental Line of said state 274 acres of land in County of Davidson on the South side of the Harpeth River…..the upper part of Millers Bend?…..James Robertson’s West boundary… dated 20 May 1793. (The rest of the deed is very difficult to make out)

For whatever reason, this land grant doesn’t appear to have been claimed by Moses, or his wife, or his children. I have no record of him or his direct family members having any connection to Davidson County. To-date, they are associated with only two North Carolina Counties: Halifax and Northampton.

This land grant, however, is beginning to paint a picture of how some of my ancestral kin who were either poor whites or free people of colour came by medium-sized tracts of land after the Revolutionary War ended. Land that would have been out of their reach to purchase, was a form of payment and/or reward for services rendered. Even better, some of these land grants are still held by these families to this very day.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, South Carolina

A peculiar inheritance: slavery and the case for reparations in the US

The draft journal paper below was produced in answer to a general call for papers on the subject of Reparations in the US. Myself, and my cousin, Donya Williams, address the subject through the lens of genealogy.

The draft version of our paper is provided in two formats: an embedded PDF document and widget that you can either read online, or download. A text version follows beneath the embedded PDF widget.

PDF Reader/Download Widget version

Text Version


Since the beginning of man’s life on earth, the family has served as the cornerstone of society.  The integrity of the family set the standard for society from the beginning of time as the underpinning of our civilization, reflecting the beneficial differences between men and women and the complementarity of their hearts, minds, and bodies.  Aristotle argued that the natural progression of human beings flowed from the family via small communities out to the polis.  The state itself, then, as a natural extension of the family, mirrors this critical institution.”[i] [ii]


The family is the entity that gives real meaning to life and to existence. The family is the cornerstone of the social system. The family is not a casual or spontaneous organization of people but a divinely ordained group. Marriage is noble and sacred, a social contract that confers mutual obligations on the couple and society. The progress and welfare of society, or its breakdown, can be traced to the strengths and unity, or the lack of it, in the family. This also applies to civilization…

The family has an important role in providing socialization and values for children and in providing social and economic security as well. Being part of a family motivates individuals, motivates us all, to work hard, sacrifice our well-being, and work for the welfare of the family.

In all faiths and religions, the family is the foundation of society. The peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued and considered central for the spiritual growth of its members, society, and humanity. The harmonious social order is created by the families and extended families in which all children are treasured, valued, and nurtured.[iii]

There are established arguments in support of, and against, descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States receiving reparations[iv]. The arguments in favor of reparations are based upon the economic advantage slavery provided the United States[v]; the brutal conditions of slavery[vi]; and the social, political, judicial, and economic disenfranchisement of African Americans. [vii]

A common argument against reparations cites the indigenous practice of slavery within the African continent. We acknowledge that the practice of slavery in Africa was ancient and well established by the Europeans began to export human beings from that continent. However, it differed greatly from the form of chattel slavery that existed with America with the arrival of Europeans.

In Africa, many societies recognized slaves merely as property, but others saw them as dependents who eventually might be integrated into the families of slave owners. Still other societies allowed slaves to attain positions of military or administrative power. Most often, both slave owners and slaves were black Africans, although they were frequently of different ethnic groups.[viii]

In the American system, slavery was a condition that was not only held for life, it was passed down through the generations via the status of the mother, codified by the laws of the individual states. It was a brutal birthright. This paper illustrates the profound and destructive force this peculiar form of slavery would have on the authors’ enslaved ancestors in Edgefield County, South Carolina. The authors will demonstrate the effects the American slavery system had upon the most fundamental aspect of the human experience – an attack on the fundamental building block of society – the family.

Lewis Matthews by Brian Sheffey


Image courtesy of Mr T. Dabney

My maternal 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews, was born in 1824 in the Blocker region of Edgefield County, South Carolina. He was the son of an unknown slave woman and her owner, Drury Cook Matthews (1760-1830). Born to a slave, he inherited his mother’s slave status from the moment he first drew breath. Despite being sired by his owner, he maintained the status of a slave until freed through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.


Apart from an oral tradition among the Matthews (including Mathis family members) still residing in Edgefield, little is known about Lewis’s life. What kind of man was he? What was his nature? What were the quirks and foibles that made him individual? These questions are part and parcel for any genealogist. When it comes to researching ancestors who were born into a lifetime of bondage and servitude, forbidden from learning how to read and write, each discovery made is akin to finding a sacred precious object. Each discovery for an enslaved ancestor is a hard fought for success. Something as basic as discovering even a first name for an enslaved ancestor is cause for celebration. This dynamic makes African American genealogy something unique. A people stripped of history, customs, traditions, family and ancestry have precious few clues to find their ancestors. This was by design. American slavery was designed and developed with this in mind to better control a people who chaffed at the slavery system. It also laid the foundations for the American expression of white supremacy.

Lewis Matthews was illiterate, born in a time when it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write. He was incapable of leaving any words to his descendants. Nor were his children capable of leaving a written account.  All of his known 22 children were illiterate. What I have gleaned of his life has largely come from vital records and slave records. He was human property. He was first owned by his father, and then by his half-sister, Susannah Pope Matthews. Like a chair, a horse, a parcel of land, or a table; he had a dollar value. US$ 450 in 1831 ($US 12,500.00 in 2016 currency) and US$ 500 in 1847 (US$ 14,705.88 in 2016 currency). Where there is property, there are accounts.

There are no words that can describe first seeing a Dollar value placed against an ancestor’s name on a Deed of Sale. No matter how prepared I was to see such a thing, it nevertheless broke my heart.  It was a visceral and raw experience. One I will never forget.

I cannot visit, much less share, Lewis’s history without touching upon the history of the place where he was enslaved. The history of Edgefield, South Carolina.

An overview of Edgefield’s history, including ITS founding families

Prior to its formation in 1785, Edgefield County was a part of Ninety-Six District.

Ninety-Six was divided into new counties, afterwards called districts, which included:  Edgefield, Abbeville, Newberry, Laurens, Union, and Spartanburg. Augusta, now in Georgia, also formed part of this county.

Old Ninety-Six, as it’s now called, was an active and critical trading post since the 1690s. The trade was mainly in furs. Prior to the arrival of European settlers and African-descended slaves, these lands were part of the dominion of the Cherokee Nation and the Creek. It was, and remains, an isolated, rural, and wild part of South Carolina.

Families such as Abney, Brooks, Cloud, Park, Sim(p)kins, and Stuart/Stewart, all slave owning families, were among the earliest settlers. DNA tests taken by the authors reveal a genetic connection to these families.  A latter wave of 18th Century arrivals from Virginia to Edgefield would include additional slave owning families such as Adams, Brunson, Dorn, Harlan/Harling, Ma(t)thews/Mathis, Ouzts, Peterson, Settles, Timmerman, Thurman, Utterback, Yeldell and White – all of whom are the authors’ ancestors. The link between their African American descendants and their white descendants has been confirmed through DNA.

A shattered family tree through 300 years of Matthews family enslavement

Traditional genealogy enabled me to glimpse key moments in Lewis Matthews’ history.

Researching post-Emancipation marriage and death certificates identified thirteen children born to Lewis and the woman he would come to marry once freed, Martha Bottom, also of Blocker, Edgefield, South Carolina. It is worth remembering that prior to Emancipation, the births, deaths and marriages of slaves were rarely recorded. This is one of the most fundamental voids in African American genealogical research.

An additional death record produced another child, a daughter, born to Lewis and a woman only identified as Janie.

Social Security Application records and death records produced a further eight children born to Lewis during the period of his enslavement. The mother, or mothers, of these children were cited as ‘not known’ by the respective informants.  DNA testing through AncestryDNA, along with DNA matching through Gedmatch, strongly suggests he fathered at least a further nine children prior to the end of the Civil War. All of his known and suspected children resided throughout the area formerly known as Ninety-Six.

Numerous conversations with African American Matthews-descended family members in the Old Ninety-Six area boiled down to one hypothesis when it came to the sheer number of children Lewis sired. He was used by his owner-father and owner-half-sister as a breeding stud.  In short, he sired a steady stream of slave children for the benefit of their slave owners either to increase that owner’s workforce or as the human equivalent of a cash crop. A young, healthy, handsome young man with a light complexion, and seemingly potent when it came to impregnating women, Lewis had the perfect attributes to produce a steady stream of children with a fair complexion and robust health – attributes which would have made these children valuable property with a significant dollar value.

While Lewis had what we, in this day and age, would class as a paternal relationship with the children he had with Martha Bottom, he had no involvement with the children he fathered with other enslaved women. Those other children were either formally or informally adopted by the men those other women married when they were freed at the close of the Civil War. To date, until they heard from me, the descendants of those unions had no idea of their Matthews origins. The reason for this is telling. This second group of children took the names of their step fathers, bar two who took the name Mathes, a seemingly deliberate corruption of the original Matthews/Mathis name.

A broken family tree


The arrows in the image above mark entries for my 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews. The peculiarities of how male slaves were classed as an adult or ‘boy’ varied widely. Although both entries are for my 3x great grandfather. The asterisks mark confirmed members of Lewis’s enslaved African American family. Sampson, Primus and Matthew were Lewis’s brothers. The stars in the image above note how Primus and Sampson were deeded to other white Matthews family members, who were also their relations. DNA testing will confirm how many others from the same image will prove to be members of Lewis’s immediate and extended family. Click for larger image

As you read Drury Cook Matthews’s Last Will and Testament below, remember that this is my 4x great grandfather discussing the disposal of his property, which included his son, my 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews.  I include the disposal of his other enslaved sons, Lewis’s brothers, who were my great uncles. Many of the ‘negroes’ cited in this Will were members of Lewis’s immediate family.  All of the whites who inherited these black human beings were also their blood relations. American slavery was indeed a singularly peculiar institution.

Please click each image below for the larger image version.


My prevailing question is a fairly simple one. If Drury Matthews didn’t overtly recognize his own bi-racial flesh and blood as a human being, as a man, what impact did that have on Lewis’s sense of self and his sense of worth as a human being? What did this teach him about the duties of a father for his children? For certainly some of the other slaves referenced in this Will were Lewis’s siblings and equally children of Drury Cook Matthews. And how would this dynamic play out and echo down the generations on the African American side of the Matthews/Mathis family?

That Lewis was a loving and dutiful father to the children he raised with Martha Bottom is not in doubt. There are a handful of family stories to testify to this. What of his other thirteen known children? Did their step-fathers make up for Lewis’s absence? And how did Lewis reconcile himself with their existence? My hypothesis is that he learned a fundamental lesson from his father, Drury. Perhaps he compartmentalized his life in a manner many men can relate to. There were his children by Martha who he had a duty of care to provide for. Just like his father-owner did with his white children. And then there were those he merely sired for other’s benefit – much like Drury’s actions towards his mulatto children borne by enslaved women: they were not his concern and, as such, were of no concern.

Magnify the ramifications of this dynamic by working back through time. The story, the legacy, and the history between my mulatto Matthews ancestors and their white owners-family members stretches back in time to my 9th great grandfather, Anthony Matthews (1611-1682), a slave owning immigrant from Kent, England who settled in Isle of Wight, Virginia. Anthony was the founding father, the scion, of a large slave owning family who passed slaves and enslaved family members down its various lines into the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

240 years of one family splitting its slave family apart generation after generation after generation; to the extent that their African American family had no notion of who they were as a people, they had no knowledge of their history, no knowledge of their kin or their kin’s whereabouts. It was the annihilation of their family. My family. It was a form of brutal ethnic cleansing at its most fundamental level.

Only now, through advances in DNA testing, can we, their descendants, begin the task of finding the broken branches from a slavery shattered family tree. Finding these lost branches is the easy part. Determining their rightful and correct place in the family tree is a painstaking process with no guarantee of success. It is a painstaking process. Each familial line has varying degrees of knowledge about their immediate ancestral line. Some can trace their ancestry back only 4 generations while others have traced their line of descent through 5 or more generations. Progress has largely been steered by the tireless efforts of a dozen or so dedicated family genealogists who have made it their life’s work to reunite a family dispersed through, and torn apart by, slavery. Their efforts require a combination of traditional genealogy alongside genetic genealogy and DNA triangulation. The task is herculean.

That is the legacy of slavery. This is the reason why the argument around reparations is a valid one.

In terms of non-Native American peoples who arrived in America, no other people in the history of the continental United States has ever experienced anything remotely like this. Not in scale. Not in duration.

Implications and reparations

Nienstedt makes the argument that “The State itself, then, as a natural extension of the family, mirrors this critical institution”. If the State was the cause of the destruction of enslaved African American families during the slavery epoch, does it not have a duty, a duty of care, to redress the wrongs done to enslaved families through restitution?

If, in Nienstedt’s argument, the progress and welfare of society, or its breakdown, can be traced to the strengths and unity, or the lack of it, in the family – should we not argue that the State has a moral imperative to recompense African Americans for the lack of progress; the lack of physical, mental and spiritual welfare; and the lack of unity wrought upon the descendants of slaves?

Reparations has the capacity to not only acknowledge the impact that slavery has had on the African American descendants of slavery, it can inform how best the State can serve those that slavery harmed. It addresses the legacies of slavery in the aftermath of slavery cemented in the Jim Crow Era, and the forms of socio-economic subjugation used against African Americans which followed the Jim Crow Era up to, and including, the present day. This latter point forms the central part of Ms William’s argument.

The civil unrest that smolders in modern America doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its roots lay in slavery. Its roots lay in Andrew Johnson’s refusal to provide reparations when the America of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was ready to provide it.

Any conversation on the subject of reparations requires a national conversation. However, by the very nature of the subject, it must be directed and led by those most affected by slavery – African Americans. For me, reparations would take a multitude of forms:

  • Financial: A national, minority-owned and managed, banking system with branches in urban areas as well as rural areas with large minority populations. Such a banking network would supply micro loans to support entrepreneurship and innovation, land ownership, and subsidized home ownership (e.g. housing co-ownership); and
  • Education: A national history curriculum would include truthful and accurate teaching about slavery as well as its impact – tracing the effects of the slavery to the presents day. Recent news commentary shows a complete ignorance about America and its history of slavery, as well as its’ aftermath that resonates to the present day[ix]; and
  • Land theft compensation: Where land was stolen from African Americans by coercion, threats of violence or actual violence (as was the case in Edgefield[x] [xi] in the 1920s, of which my own Matthews family was a victim) – there should be financial restitution in line with established precedents with Native American tribes;
  • Remembrance: A day with an official moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of slavery, and its legacy.

Martha Brooks by Donya Williams

The topic of this paper is to give our point of view on why African Americans should receive reparations from slavery. As an African American myself, of course my first initial thought is yes I should receive reparations for what my ancestors endured. I should because it is the only right thing to do. That is the short answer for one who is not fully educated on the topic of slavery.

For example, history didn’t teach me that those who were enslaved had the option to 1) keep the surnames of those that enslaved them after Emancipation; or 2) simply choose another surname if they wanted to. In fact, the only thing that history taught me was that whites enslaved blacks and that it was bad. It wasn’t until I started to research my family that I understood the magnitude of this question which, in turn, allowed me to give a more informed answer.

Martha Brooks was born into slavery in or about 1834 in South Carolina. The 1880 census says her parents were born in Virginia, however, who they were and where they originated from remains unknown. Before I started my research, my uncle researched the family in the 1950s. All that I know of his research is by word of mouth. His research found that we were from Haiti and that we were direct descendants of Alexandre Dumas. I have yet to prove his theories. This prompted me to look at other options for researching and DNA testing was at the top of my list. When I decided to do DNA testing I did so because I was stalled at where I was with regular researching and I felt DNA testing would give me more. I already knew other researchers who had tested and were getting results. Because my mother was the baby of 14 children, and her parents were born in the late 1890s, she was just one generation removed from slavery. This made her a prime person to test even though I wouldn’t be able to get much DNA pertaining to her father.

That is where Autosomal DNA testing stepped in. Autosomal DNA is a term used in genetic genealogy to describe DNA which is inherited from the autosomal chromosomes. An autosome is any of the numbered chromosomes, as opposed to the sex chromosomes. Humans have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X chromosome and the Y chromosome). Autosomes are numbered roughly in relation to their sizes. That is, Chromosome 1 has approximately 2,800 genes, while chromosome 22 has approximately 750 genes.[xii] This meant that taking this test for my mom would get info from her mother and father. DNA taken from my mother has shown that in short she is 86.6% Sub-Saharan African, 11.9% European, .6% East Asian & Native American, .3% Middle Eastern & North African, .1% South Asian and .5% Unassigned. The picture below gives a bigger breakdown:

I uploaded my mother’s raw data to Gedmatch, a company that allows you to compare your DNA with other people who have tested with other companies such as and, and found there were even larger breakdowns. Those breakdowns connected her to the Mediterranean, North-AmerIndian and several other demographics (see picture below):


This DNA analysis result from Gedmatch is just one of many different DNA analysis tools that can be used to learn one’s DNA breakdown. These analytical tools enable a person to understand how he or she is connected to several different demographics. Testing my mother felt like I had just tested Eve herself. My mother’s DNA was extremely revealing. She was genetically connected to every well-known name in the Edgefield area.

Martha was enslaved by one of the first families of Edgefield, South Carolina. The Brooks family. Like those that take DNA test to prove paternity, or find birth parents, DNA for genealogical research does the same thing. My mother’s results proved she was related to the Brooks family. This family was not just active in the settling of Edgefield; they were also active in the settling of America. Zachariah, Whitfield, and Preston Brooks (respectively Grandfather, Son, and Grandson) were involved in at least two American wars prior to the Civil War.

The American Revolutionary War and the Mexican War both seemed to have family members of the Brooks involved. Zachariah was enlisted in Newberry District, S.C. shortly after the evacuation of Cambridge by Gen. Greene, and served six months as a private in Capt. John Wallace’s Company of S.C. Troops. He fought in several skirmishes against the British. He served in 1781 and 1782 in Capt. Joseph Towles, company, Col. Samuel Hammond’s S.C. regiment, was in a skirmish on the Edisto River, and was stationed about six weeks on the frontier guarding the incursions of the Indians. He was also enlisted as one of a corps called the Life Guard of Pickens, serving a six month’s term of service. He was afterwards appointed Col. of State Calvary, and was always known as Col. Brooks[xiii].  Whitfield and Preston were both lawyers, and involved in both state as well as national politics. Preston fought in the Mexican War with his brother Whitfield, Jr.

Both men were a part of the Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers where Preston served as Captain. Whitfield Brooks, Sr. carried the title of Colonel however, I don’t see what service branch he fought with or what war he fought in. My research shows that he may have been mistaken as his son. However, Both Whitfield and Preston were planters and strong supporters of slavery. Preston Brooks was probably the most outspoken of the three – he is certainly the most well-known – when it came to slavery. It is he who committed the horrendous crime against the abolitionist Charles Sumner; what historians know as ‘the caning’. Simply put, Senator Brooks walked up to Mr. Sumner, who was sitting at his desk on the senate floor, and said “You’ve libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler, and I’ve come to punish you for it.[xiv]  This to Mr. Preston was a legitimate reason to beat a man so badly that it took three years for Senator Sumner to return to some semblance of physical normalcy.

Preston believed, supported, and encouraged the succession of South Carolina. On 1 November 1856, the Meeting of the Secessionists of South Carolina at Ninety-Six held an event to honor Mr. Brooks for what he did to Mr. Sumner. The south supported his choice to brutally beat Mr. Sumner. This event was not the only event held in his honor.  Directly after the beating, Mr. Brooks resigned his position from the Senate. In response to this, his fellow countrymen voted him back into his seat and sent him over 300 canes to show their support. This particular event presented the Honorable Preston S. Brooks with goblets of silver and gold, and replicas of the same cane he used to beat Mr. Charles Sumner.  As a part of his acceptance speech he wrote the following:

I tell you, fellow citizens, from the bottom of my heart, that the only mode, which I think available for meeting it is just to tear the Constitution of the United States, trample it under foot, and form a southern confederacy, every state of which will be a slaveholding State. I believe it, as I stand in the face of my maker—I believe it on my responsibility you as your honored representative that the only available means of making that hope effective is to cut asunder the bonds that tie us together, and take our separate positions in the family of nations. These are my opinions. They have always been my opinions. I have been a disunionist from the time I could think.[xv]

Martha was sold for $1,205 dollars in 1857 when Preston died. This information was found in the Edgefield Archives as well as in the book Slave Records of Edgefield County by Gloria Lucas.[xvi] I found a chart explaining the worth of a slave during 1857, the same year Martha was sold to Lemuel Brooks. This chart compared the cost of a slave in 1857 to what a slave would cost if slavery still existed in 1998:[xvii]

Class Value in Dollars, 1857 Value in Dollars, 1998
Number 1 men 1250-1450 20,800-24,100
Fair/Ordinary Men 1000-1150 16,700-19,200
Best Boys (Age 15-18) 1100-1200 18,300-20,000
Best Boys (Age 10-14) 500-575 8,300-17,900
Number 1 Women 1050-1225 17,500-20,400
Fair/Ordinary Women 1050-1225 14,200-17,100
Best Girls 500-1000 8,300-16,700
Families “Sell in their usual proportions”

Being sold for that amount, and finding the chart above, gave proof that Martha was in fact considered a prime breeding woman. Martha went through every atrocity that was heard of when it came to slavery for black women.

  • miscegenation – The interbreeding of individuals considered to be of different racial backgrounds;
  • fancy trade – Female slaves called “fancy maids” were sold at auction into concubinage or prostitution, which was termed the “fancy trade”; and
  • slave breeding – Slave breeding in the United States was a practice of slave ownership that aimed to encourage the reproduction of slaves in order to increase a slaveholder’s property and wealth.[xviii]

With my mother’s DNA showing that she was related to the Brooks family, I began to get a better understanding of things. I am politically knowledgeable and acutely aware of the things that are still happening to African Americans today. In some moments I can, and have, recited speeches similar to friends and family similar to the one you read above by Mr. Brooks himself. By reading and understanding his stance when it came to slavery, as well as finding the chart above, it was clear to me who I was. My mindset, my attitude and even how I can sometimes be hot-headed. It was like a light bulb was turned on and who I really am became clear to me. I was the product of my family; all of my family white and black and its surroundings. I am an American to the fullest extent of that word.

Defending the Case of Reparations

Genealogy has become very popular and the case of reparation is becoming more and more prevalent. Due to the use of DNA being added to genealogical research, it is becoming known that 151 years later, the descendants of slaves are still looking for their families.

I am a direct descendant of Martha Brooks. This topic raises the question of do I deserve reparations for everything that my 2nd great-grandmother, and her parents before her, went through? Answering honestly, I will say that reparations doesn’t entirely address the history of slavery and its aftermath in the United States.

I believe that I should have reparations on top of the acknowledgment of slavery. I believe that just like those who survived the Holocaust received monetary payments, and the recognition of an act that didn’t even happen on American soil, I should receive the same thing. European Jewry endured the horrific and the unimaginable during a 12-year period. Enslaved Africans, and their enslaved descendants, endured the horrific and the unimaginable for approximately 20 generations; nearly 400 years. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.[xix]

David Horowitz makes the claim that those asked to pay reparations have no liability because they didn’t do the enslaving, that their ancestors did. When truth be told, there were several different genocidal crimes committed against African Americans that could be attributed to the suppression of African Americans after slavery:

  • The bombing and burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921;
  • The burning and lynching of Rosewood, FL 1923;
  • Moore’s Ford Bridge Massacre 1947;
  • Church burnings that took place from 1954-2015;
  • Illegal and unconstitutional arrests of Blacks during the Civil Rights movement;
  • Jim Crow laws enacted at the state and local levels and ignored at the federal level;
  • The implications of the CIA linked crack epidemic in Black communities; and
  • Disenfranchised Hurricane Katrina victims living below the poverty line.

I cite these examples to address an argument often used against the American government making reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans: the people who committed the crimes against the enslaved, and those who immediately survived the crime of slavery, are no longer alive, therefore, money being paid out is unnecessary. Boiled down, it is a statute of limitations argument. At its heart lays the profound denial that the cumulative psychological trauma of slavery had an end date. That the trauma that affected those who were enslaved wasn’t passed down the generations. An inheritance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. [xx]

A disorder further heightened during the Jim Crow Era and the trauma endured during the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. It is also said that federally funded programs such as affirmative action, the welfare program, and similar initiatives were ways that reparations have been paid.

To state that the federally funded programs are the way reparations have been paid is a slap in the face. Why? Because not all African Americans have accessed, or utilized, the welfare program. It is a proven fact that more Caucasian Americans have utilized this program than African Americans. According to Statistics Brain, 38.8% of welfare recipients are white, while 39.8% of recipients are black. The remaining 21.4% is a combination of Hispanics, Asians and other nationalities.  But when you look at the percentage of those receiving food stamps, White Americans receive a whopping 40.2% while African Americans are 25.7% the remaining makes up the other nationalities.

The bottom line is, however, the fact that a promise was made 151 years ago to give over 400,000 acres of land stretching from South Carolina to Florida to the freed slaves. This was a promise retracted by the then President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. Honoring this promise should make America at least want to keep its word. National honor should be reason enough.

End Notes

[i] Thomas Aquinas, In Libros Ethicorum Aristotelis Expositio, Lib. I, lect. 1. “Man is by nature a social animal, since he stands in need of many vital things which he cannot come by through his own unaided effort (Avicenna). Hence he is naturally part of a group by which assistance is given him that he may live well. He needs this assistance with a view to life as well as to the good life.”

[ii] Rev. John Nienstedt. “Family as the foundation of culture,” Legatus. 2 September 2013. Last accessed 17 June 2016 via

[iii] A.A. Mohamad. “Address to Symposium Commemorating the International Day of Families,” United Nations, New York, 18 May 2009.

[iv] “Reparations for Slavery”, Constitutional Rights Foundation. Last accessed 21 June 2016 via

[v] Edward E. Baptist. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” Basic Books, New York. 2014.

[vi] Octavia Victoria Rogers. “The house of bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and other slaves, original and life like, as they appeared in their old plantation and city slave life: together with pen-pictures of the peculiar institution, with sights and insights into their new relations as freedmen, freemen, and citizens,” Hunt & Eaton, New York. 1890. Last accessed 17 June 2016 via

[vii] “United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Reports”. Last accessed 17 June 2016 via ;

The Freedmen’s Bureau Bank Records via ; and

The Freedmen’s Bureau Office Reports’s_Bureau_Records .

[viii] Dr Donald R. Wright. “Slavery in Africa,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia. 2000. Last accessed 17 Jun2 2016 via

[ix] James Wilkinson. “Michigan high schoolers caught on video wanting to bring back slavery,” The Daily Mail. 2 June 2016. Last accessed 21 June 2016 via

[x] J. D. Allen-Taylor. “Tracking the ghosts of Edgefield County,” South Carolina Progressive Network. 1996. Last accessed 21 June 2016 via

[xi] Todd Lewan, Dolores Barclay and Allen G. Breed. “Land ownership made blacks targets of violence and murder,” Authentic Voice. 2001. Last accessed 21 June 2016 via .

[xii] International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, Last accessed 26 June 2016 .

[xiii] Rootsweb, Last accessed 26 June 2016 via .

[xiv] “Canefight! Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner,” U.S. Online History Textbook.  Last accessed 7 August 2013 via

[xv] Marius R. Robinson. Anti-Slavery Bugle. 1 Nov. 1856 (via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers). Last accessed 25 January 2014 via .

[xvi] Gloria R. Lucas. “Slave Records of Edgefield County, South Carolina. Edgefield County Historical Society, Edgefield County, South Carolina. 2010, p. 55-56.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Boundless. “Women and Slavery.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 21 June 2016 from


[xix] NPR, last accessed 26 June 2016

[xx] Joy Angela DeGruy.  “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”, Joy DeGruy Publications, Inc. 2009.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Matthews/Mathis family, South Carolina

Finding Reuben Byrd: free person of color & an American Revolutionary War veteran

Updated 23 Sep 2016 with additional Bird/Byrd family groups

Reuben Byrd of Petersburg, Virginia and Orange County, North Carolina isn’t the first Colonial-era black ancestral family member I’ve found who served in the American Revolutionary War. However, he is the first black kinsman whose war records I’ve been able to access.

Finding those records was exhilarating, empowering, and bittersweet.

I’ve been researching four different Colonial-era Virginia Byrd families for quite a while in an effort to see if they were different branches of the same family, or unrelated families who shared the same surname. Just a note that this surname is also spelt Bird. However, I’m using Byrd, the variant most seem to have adopted. Each of these groups are my kinsmen and women via both of my parents’ ancestral lines in Virginia and the Carolinas.

  1. The first group of Byrds are the descendants of Col William Evelyn “The Immigrant” Byrd I and Maria Horsmanden. This family group (relations through a nexus of marriages with Carters, Braxtons, Baylors, and Claiborn(e)s, in Virginia’s Tidewater region) are my kin via my paternal Roane line. They resided at the very apex of Virginia society.
  2. The second group of Byrds are descendants of John Byrd and Margaret Dean of Augusta County – whose descendants were also resident in Wythe County and Grayson County in Virginia. This line is a combination of European, African and Native American. They are kinsmen via my paternal Sheffey line.
  3. The 3rd group of Byrds are descendants of a white (presumably English) indentured servant, Margaret Bird, and an unknown enslaved African man. Margaret’s story begins in York County. Her descendants would come to reside in Petersburg, Essex County, and Southampton County in Virginia – as well as Northampton County, Halifax County, and Orange County in North Carolina. Reuben is a descendant of this line. This line connects to my maternal Lassiters, Joseys, Outlands, Peel(e)s, and Smallwoods in the same North Carolina counties.
  4. The 4th group of Byrds were resident in Wythe County, Virginia. They were descendants of John Dennis Byrd and Senah Rachel Porter. It was previously assumed that Dennis and Senah were enslaved. This is an assumption that is now being reviewed and researched. This line of Byrds has connections via marriage  with Byrd Group #2 and also shows Native American results in their DNA analysis.
  5. The 5th group of Byrds were resident in Hillsborough, Virginia. Dr James Henry Byrd (a member of Byrd family group #2) married Alice Fravell Byrd of Hillsborough, Virginia. Alice was the daughter of John Henry Byrd I (of North Carolina and Indiana) and Rebekah Ann Hamilton White. Alice and a number of her siblings would settle in Hillsborough.
  6. There is a much smaller group of Byrds in Colonial Powhatan, Virginia. Again, a combination of European, African, and Native American. To-date, my research for this ends around 1715. They simply seem to disappear from all official records.

So back to Reuben.

Like all free people of color in Antebellum Virginia (including the Colonial period), Reuben was required to register with his local court house. These registration records are a goldmine. They provide crucial family and vital records information, such as place of birth and place of residence. They also provide descriptions of the individual who was registering. Without paintings or sketches to go by, these descriptions are, in so many cases, the only means to catching a glimpse into what an ancestor looked like.  In Reuben’s case, he was an Essex-County born head of a Petersburg household of 5 “other free” in 1810 [VA:121b]. He registered in Petersburg on 9 June 1810: a brown Mulatto man, five feet seven inches high, forty seven years old, born free in Essex County, a stone mason [Register of Free Negroes 1794-1819, no. 576]. He’s alternately cited as being a carpenter.  Either way, he was a skilled craftsman.

In the course of researching Reuben, I came across two petitions he made for a pensions due to his service in the American Revolutionary War. In summary, he applied for a pension in Powhatan County on 15 June 1820 at the age of fifty-six years. He testified that he enlisted in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and served in Captain James Gunn’s regiment of dragoons under the direct command of Lieutenant William Gray.

From what my research has uncovered, he was present at the scene of two pivotal Revolutionary War battles: The Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina (1780, see

Map of the Battle of Kings Mountain, courtesy of

Map of the Battle of Kings Mountain, courtesy of

and The Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina (1781, see

Map of the Battle of Guilford Court House, courtesy of

Map of the Battle of Guilford Court House, courtesy of

Both battles were pivotal in the southern theatre of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina was a contributing factor to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Benjamin Sublett testified that he met Reuben, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old “Mulatto boy,” while serving in the Revolution in May 1780. Gabriel Gray testified that Reuben served as “Boman” (military slang for valet) to his brother Lieutenant William Gray [NARA, S.37776, M804-243, frame 0362].

Transcription of the Pension Application of Reuben Bird S37776 NC Virginia, Powhatan County

To wit:
(Scans of the original appear after the transcription):

On this 15th day of June 1820 personally appeared in open court in the county court of Powhatan, in the state aforesaid, being a court of record Reuben Bird aged about fifty six years, according to the best estimate that can be made, who being first duly sworn according to law, doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the provision made by the acts of Congress of the 18th March 1818 and the 1st May 1820. that he, the said Reuben Bird enlisted for and during the war of the American Revolution in April or May in the year 1780 in Hillsborough in North Carolina in the Company commanded by Captain James Guinn in the Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Col. [Anthony Walton] White of Virginia; that he continued to serve in the said Corps until the peace came, when he was discharged from service in Culpepper [sic: Culpeper] county in the state of Virginia; That he was in no battle, he being a colored man, and kept as a Bowman, although he was very near the ground where several [battles] were fought, and that he has no other evidence now in his power of his said services except the certificates of Benjamin Sublett and Larkin Self [pension application S38363] herewith exhibited.

And in pursuance of the act of the 1st of May 1820 the said Reuben Bird solemnly made oath that he was a resident citizen of the United States on the 18th of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not since that time, by gift, sale, or in any manner disposed of his property, or any part thereof, with intent thereby so to diminish it as to bring himself within the provisions of an act of Congress, entitled “An act to provide for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war”, passed on the 18th day of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not, nor has any person in trust for him any property or securities, contracts, or debts due to him, nor has he any income other than what is contained in the Schedule hereto annexed, and by him subscribed, to wit; Real and personal property none; he is by trade a Brick layer, and is not very able to pursue his trade in consequence of a Rupture, which obliges him to wear a Truss of Steel; his family consists of his wife, who is about 37 years old, and one child, a female about seven years old; his wife is healthy, and by her industry somewhat contributes to support the family.

(signed)     Reuben Bird (his X mark)

16th October 1819. Powhatan County, to wit,

I was a Serjant in Captain William Mayo’s Company at the time of General Gates’ defeat at Campden in South Carolina [sic: Battle of Camden ( where Gen. Horatio Gates was defeated, 16 Aug 1780], and in the same company a mulatto boy appeared to be about the age of 16 or 17 years, by the name of Reuben Bird, who I believe enlisted under Captain James Gun [sic], in the town of Hilsbury, as we were on the way of our march to the South, and that for during the war; which I think was in the year

1780 sometime in May.                                     (signed) Benjamin Sublett

Map of the Battle of Camden courtesy of

Map of the Battle of Camden courtesy of

Octo. 2nd 1818

I do herby surtyfy that Rubin Bird did inlist at the same time that I did at Hilsburrow in North Carlina before Gates defeat in the the month of April about the 15th 1780.

(Signed)  Larkin Self

Virginia, to wit;

At a Court of Monthly Sessions holden for the county of Powhatan, in the state of Virginia aforesaid, at the Courthouse of the said County (being a Court of Record) on the 21st day of September 1820 Reuben Bird, a soldier of the Revolution, who made a declaration of his services in the Revolutionary War, in this court, on the 15th day of June last, under the acts of Congress of the 18th of March 1818 and of the first of May 1820, providing for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war, in order to obtain a pension under the said acts of Congress, and a transcript of whose declaration, and of the evidence in support thereof, has been forwarded to the department of War of the United States, and returned for want of sufficient proof, this day again appeared in Court, and together with the said transcript, produced in Court an affidavit of Gabriel Gray [S8590], given before the Justice of the peace for the county of Culpepper, which affidavit was ordered to be entered of record, and is as follows, to wit; “I do hereby certify that the bearer Reuben Bird was Boman for my brother William Gray [BLWt1486-200] while he was  Lieutenant in the horse service under the command of Col. White in the Southern Campaign of 1780 and 1781. Given under my

hand this 26th day of July 1820.                                     Gab. Gray”

Click each image below for a larger image (each courtesy of the National Archives, Washington D.C.):


The last image in the sequence was my bittersweet moment. His petition was denied at first. I’m still working through my feelings on that. It does explain, however, why his name doesn’t appear in either the Daughters of the American Revolution database nor the Sons of the American Revolution Database. However, that first image, with Dollar amounts, seems to suggest that, in the end, he won the argument. I’ll need to track down the last parts of his file to know for certain.

So what did a wartime valet do?

I was curious about what a wartime valet actually did during this period. So I asked Tony, a war historian who specializes in 18th Century warfare (I love my British mates and contacts).

He would have been a jack of all trades. His duties apparently would have been quite varied:

  1. Attending to the care of his officer’s uniform and non-military wardrobe;
  2. Ensuring his officer’s firearm(s) and other weaponry were in good working order;
  3. Ensuring the safekeeping of his officer’s personal and battle-related correspondence;
  4. Coordinating his officer’s meals;
  5. Running crowd control in his officer’s tent;
  6. Occasionally delivering important messages;
  7. Attending to his officer’s horse(s);
  8. Attending to his officer during battle;
  9. Ensuring that his officer’s belongings were packed, secure, and ready for removal to wherever his officer needed to be;
  10. Attending to his officer’s privy (a very nice way of saying emptying Lieut. Gray’s chamber pot);
  11. Any other duties his officer saw fit.

Tony went on to say that a valet wasn’t as easily as dismiss-able a position as I initially thought. As Tony put it, no one had closer access to a commanding officer than his valet. It was a position of unquestioned trust. Everyone in camp would have known exactly who Reuben was and the officer he served.  Those seeking to advance themselves through Lieut. Gray, or seek his favour, or arrange appointments with him would have tried to get on Reuben’s good side in order to gain access to Lieut. Gray.  Reuben would have been right in the thick of things, privy to planned activities by dint of close proximity to Gray. He would have also been Gray’s eyes and ears in camp.

All the while remember this: he was a teenager at the time. 

He may not have received the recognition he deserved by his peers.  I, for one, couldn’t be prouder of an ancestral kinsman.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, virginia

Amy Roan of Halifax, North Carolina: a mystery with some answers

Last Wills and Testaments are an essential part of my ‘go to’ tool kit when researching ancestors. Amy Roan is the perfect reason why.

Amy was born approximately in 1752 in Halifax County, North Carolina. She is a member of the Roan family group who were resident in early-to-Mid 18th Century Halifax County as well as Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina. This is a particularly difficult family group to research.  18th Century records are patchy at best for them. This makes it difficult to understand how the different Roan family groups in this region of colonial America are related to one another. DNA cousin matches and the use of specific family names within this group show there is a blood connection between these family groups. The progenitor of this line remains something of a mystery. However, a Will that I discovered yesterday might hold a clue as to who the founding member of the North Carolina family was.

Amy Roan would go on to marry Isham Hawkins and raise a family in Halifax, North Carolina.

Amy is a person of interest. My father, my sister and I match around a half dozen or so of her descendants on AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch. So I know there is a connection between these North Carolina Roans, and my Lancaster, Pennsylvania Roan kin. The North Carolina Roans are also related to my Scots-Irish Virginia Roanes.

The trouble I’ve had, on AncestryDNA in particular, are the family trees of Amy’s descendants. Most of these trees cite Amy’s parents as Colonel William Roane and Sarah Upshaw (my 7th Great Grandparents). A handful cite Colonel William Upshaw Roane and Elizabeth “Betty” Judith Ball (my 6th great grandparents) as her parents. I understand the confusion. There is a proliferation of early 18th Century William Roan(e)s in colonial America.

However, the name Amy never appears in the two Wills associated with either of these Essex-Virginia based William Roanes. Amy was alive and well when both of these men passed.  Her name should appear in either of their Wills if either man was her father. The fact that it didn’t appear in either Will was a big, old, red flag for me.

Another red flag was there are no existing records that show that either Essex County, Virginia-based William Roane ever owned land in North Carolina. True, such records could have been destroyed in either the American Revolutionary War or the Civil War. However, once again, had either man owned land in North Carolina, such tracts would have definitely been part of their probate records and would have been mentioned in their respective Wills. While both men had huge land holdings, neither had land in North Carolina. To-date, no proof exists that they had any dealings or connections to North Carolina.

The last red flag was the implied wealth within the households of the Essex Country William Roanes and the very modest household of the William Roan from North Carolina. The Virginia Williams were very wealthy men. Amy’s father, judging by his Will, had a very modest estate when compared to the other two Williams.

In short, things just weren’t adding up.

The Will below is proof that neither of the above William’s were her father (click each image for a larger picture):



Source Citation: Halifax County, North Carolina, wills; Author: North Carolina. County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (Halifax County); Probate Place: Halifax, North Carolina
Source Information: North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.
Original data: North Carolina County, District and Probate Courts.

This Will not only confirms the father of Amy, it also provides the names of her siblings. My father, sister and I also match a number of their descendants.

Of course, when it comes to genealogy, when one question is answered…more questions arise. So who is this William Roan, who owned land in both Halifax and Caswell Counties, North Carolina? I’m still working on that one. However, in the meantime, I believe the way he spelled his surname is a vital clue.

I’m going to take a quick, wee step back in time. The oldest known and proven Roane ancestor that I have is Archibald Gilbert Roan(e) of Grahsa, Antrim, northern Ireland (1680-1751).  Archibald had 5 children, all of whom emigrated to America:

  1. Col William Roane, Sr of Essex County, Virginia;
  2. James Roane of Essex County, Virginia;
  3. Andrew Roan of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania;
  4. Margaret Roan (married Captain John Barrett II) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and
  5. Reverend John Roan of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

While James and William adopted the Roane (with an ‘e’) spelling, their Pennsylvania-based siblings used the Roan (without an ‘e’) spelling. Roan, thus far, seems to be the consistent spelling variation used by the Pennsylvania branches of the family.  Which leads me to believe that Amy’s branch is linked to the Pennsylvania side of the family.

There is a William Roan within the Pennsylvania family who is the strongest, most likely candidate to be the same William Roan resident in North Carolina: one William Roan, born about 1736 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – the son of Andrew Roane (see #3 above) and Mary Margaret Walker (my 8x great uncle and aunt).

While the most likely answer, this remains speculative. As with many colonial-era American ancestors, I haven’t yet found records showing how William Roan went from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Nor have I found any records that cite this William’s parents.

As for the William Roan who is known to be Andrew’s son? I haven’t found any records for him either other than a legacy left to him in Andrew Roan’s Will.

It’s my hope that now that I have identified who Amy’s father really is (and who he isn’t), that my North Carolina descended Roan cousins and I can focus on taking Amy’s father’s story further back in time.

I can’t stress enough how essential using Last Wills and Testaments are in genealogical research. The above example is the perfect example of why this is so.

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Filed under ancestry, family history, genealogy, Roane family, Uncategorized

Free black families in Colonial America: The Bugg (Doss) family

Every genealogist, regardless of experience levels, has a family line that makes him or her want to rip their hair out. Seeing as how I cropped mine, I don’t have that luxury. I have to content myself with double face palms.  The Bugg family of Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties in Virginia – as well as its descendant lines in the former Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina (including the present day North Atlanta, Georgia), plus Warren, Northampton and Halifax Counties in North Carolina – is just that kind of family for me. ‘Difficult to research’ doesn’t even begin to describe the trials and tribulations this family has presented me with.

It all began with Rebecca Bugg, born around 1798, in Edgefield, South Carolina. Rebecca is on my mother’s side of the family tree. The earliest record I have for her is the 1850 Census when she is about 56 years of age:


Rebeca Bugg’s household in 1850.  Click for larger image.                                                                      Source: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The image above shows her as a free woman of colour…and the head of a household that was comprised of her dependent children.  Her husband, and the father of her children, was George Quarles. George was an enslaved blacksmith who lived not too far from his wife and his children. What initially interested me about Rebecca was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. She, along with the aid of her daughter Clarissa, and Edward Settles, bought George Quarles’s freedom from one Ralsa M Fuller, also of Edgefield.

george quarles

The sale that would lead to George Quarles’s freedom. Click for larger image. Source: Lucas, Gloria Ramsey. Slave Records of Edgefield County, South Carolina. Digitized book and electronic index. Edgefield, South Carolina: Edgefield County Historical Society, 2010.

No value is given against George’s name.  As a man in the most productive and able-bodied part of his life, I can only imagine that the sum of money Rebecca and Clarissa had to gather in order to purchase his freedom would have been considerable. Nevertheless, George was a free man around 1851. I have to admit that I gave Rebecca and Clarissa a “You go girls!”

The family is all together in the 1860 census:

george quarles 2

George Quarles as head of household in 1860. Click for larger image. Source: 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.

Rebecca had me intrigued.  Who were her people? Where were her ancestral roots?

The magical mystery tour began. It’s a tour that remains magical…and mysterious.

Research is showing that the Buggs were an old free family of colour with roots in Halifax County, Virginia. And this is where the hair pulling – or in my case, double face palms – comes into play.

For starters, I cannot find any details regarding the names of Rebecca’s parents. So…while I know that she is a descendant of the Halifax Bugg family, I have no idea which line she descends from. The names of some of her children provide tantalizing clues. However, at this stage, that’s all they are…clues.

A compiled list of Buggs in the 1850 Census for South Carolina has 3 pages of Bug(g) family members. Any one of them en born around 1778 and earlier could be her father. The 3 pages below are courtesy of Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006 and Original data: Motes, Margaret Peckham. Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002.


All of the Bug(g)s listed in the pages above are related to one another.  I’ve pieced together how roughly a third of the Bugg family groups cited in the 1850 Census are related to one another.  The other two-thirds are anybody’s guess. From there, it was a matter of tracing various lines back to the 1790 Census. 1790 seems to have been a pivotal year. It was just prior to this that a number of Buggs quit Virginia for Newberry and Edgefield in South Carolina.

The problem with earlier census records is a simple one: only the head of the household is listed by name. At this stage I can only trace male heads of households back to the 1790 Census. The names of their wives and children aren’t given. Exasperating is pretty close to what I’ve been feeling when working with these early census records. However, a handful of Wills for some of these men have provided the clues I needed regarding the identity of some of the Bugg family wives and children.  I’m hoping that other Wills still exist that cover this family in Newberry and Edgefield, South Carolina. These will be my last, best hope for compiling a more complete family tree for this family in South Carolina.

I struck a bit of gold dust while doing a general online search on this family.  I came across a Silvester Bugg, a man who will be my key to solving some of the fundamental mysteries regarding this family’s origins.

Silvester Bugg was free born in Halifax, Virginia around 1743. Born an illegitimate child, Robert Turner (the man Silvester’s free born mother was indentured to) sold him to a George Hoomes Gwinn (Gwyn). Silvester sued to extricate himself from his indenture to George Gwinn in 1769 (Virginia General Court, October 1769. He won his suit but lost when Gwinn appealed. Silvester was forced to serve 5 years of indenture before he was finally freed.

silvester bugg

Excerpt of Silvester Bugg’s first court case against George Gwinn. A full account can be read via’s%20Reports%20of%20cases%2C%2087%20(1769)&pg=PA48#v=onepage&q=bugg&f=false. Source: Google Books. Original: Virginia Reports, Jefferson–33 Grattan: 1730-1880 … Annotated Under the Supervision of Thomas Johnson Michie, Volume 1, Michie Company, 1903

I’ve read a few of the case summaries.  They provide some very interesting details: namely the name and the history of his mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Bugg (who also went by the surname Doss). They also provide a tantalizing clue about his maternal grandmother. This clue is excruciating. Betty Bugg’s mother, it transpires, was a “white Christian woman”. That’s all any of the summaries will say about his maternal grandmother. None name her. Was she a member of the Halifax, Virginia Bugg family?  Was she a Doss? I have European-descended DNA matches for bother Doss and Buggs on AncestryDNA, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.

Silvester’s case was an important one. Important enough for Thomas Jefferson to write about. Silvester’s case was heard during a time when Virginia was doubling down on its slave laws, further codifying its system of chattel slavery. Nor was colonial Virginia happy about the increasing number of free people of colour within its borders. The background to all of this is too lengthy to cover here.  An excellent legal overview of this is covered in the book Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia: From 1730, to 1740; and from 1768, to 1772, Virginia. General Court by Thomas Jefferson, published by F. Carr, and Company in 1829 (from Page 87 onwards): )

My hope of hopes is that there is some colonial record that still survives that will name my unknown ‘white Christian woman” ancestor. Her daughter Betty was born from a union with an unidentified enslaved man. I very much doubt his name will appear anywhere.  An enslaved man who was either African or of African descent, he would have been a non-entity. And yes, there is more than a little bit of cynicism in those words. A handful of my family lines that were free people of colour were the result of a white indentured woman having children with an enslaved man.  While these women have been named, and I could read about their respective fates and/or punishments, I have never – not once –seen the name of the man who was the father of their children. Apparently, these fathers were worthy of mention. Each one remains the most stubborn kind of brick wall.

Additionally, where there are court cases, there are affidavits and witness testimonies. Silvester had two court cases.  If said affidavits and witness statements still survive, it is my hope that his white grandmother is actually mentioned by name. A bonus would be confirming the name of his father.

Betty’s mother is a first for me when it comes to colonial women giving birth to mulatto children.  She remains unnamed.

I have searched for her name in all of the usual places: Church Warden Records, Bastardy Bonds, and Burgess Records from Halifax, Virginia. If it still exists, an account in one of these records should have Betty’s mother’s name. As the record below shows, Betty, a natural born child herself, was indentured to Robert Turner, presumably in Halifax County, where Silvester was born. Which begs the question, was Robert Turner the father of Silvester? Another mystery.


Excerpt taken from Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820, Volume 1. Paul Heinegg, Genealogical Publishing Com, 2005 via

The other mystery is around the Doss-Bugg surname.  Betty used both before settling on Bugg. Why she ultimately chose Bugg remains unanswered. It was the surname her descendants would use. So how the Doss surname come into the picture? How am I related to my Doss DNA cousins? It’s mystery after mystery after mystery with this line.

I’m curious about the Bugg family for a few reasons. They were a family of landowners as well as skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. From what I have seen so far, most were literate and could write. In a time when quite a few non-elite and non-middle class colonials weren’t either of these things, well, this makes this family something special. Naturally, I’d like to learn more about them.

And, of course, this is a family that married into other branches of my mother’s and father’s families. Among others, they married into the following free families of colour who are in my family’s tree in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina: Chavis, Gowens/Goings/Goines, Barbour, and Drew.

This is a mystery I will continue to return to from time to time. Yes, I am that stubborn😉

In the meantime, below is the family tree for the oldest generation I’ve been able to research thus far.  One of Betty’s children will be Rebecca’s parent:

betty bugg family tree

The known children of Betty Doss-Bugg. So far, only Samuel Bugg’s line has been traced to any great extent. The other lines remain a complete mystery. Nothing further is known of Betty’s brother, Frank Bugg.


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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity, South Carolina, virginia

Joseph C Sheffey, Jr: A US Navy race relations pioneer

My father’s US Naval career spanned some 30+ years when he retired. Considering the length of his career, my siblings and I know very little about his service. There’s a good reason for this. His missions were, and remain, classified. His service spanned the Cold War era, so it makes sense. It’s never stopped us being curious about his time in the Navy. However, I know whenever I asked him for details, I was always met with a polite but firm wall of silence. Even now, decades after he retired, he won’t speak about it.


Dad on a US Naval training mission in Italy in the early 1950’s

A document surfaced that unveiled a part of his career my siblings and I didn’t really know much about. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I never knew about this aspect of his career. It’s a pretty precious find.

Our father downsized his living arrangements not too long ago. You know what a monumental task that is if you’ve helped your parents through this process. The upside is this is when you can stumble across some amazing finds. My sister and I made quite the discovery while sorting through the Mount Kilimanjaro of old papers.   You can see it below (click it for a larger image):


I finally had something my father could actually discuss!

The letter says it all, really. However, there was more to the tale. It turns out that the US Navy race relations program my father created was so successful that it was rolled out to other Naval bases. It was the foundation of the US Navy diversity training that is delivered today.

Jim Crow was in full force when my father joined the Navy in the early 1950’s.


The U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, MD served the USN for 34 years – from its beginning as a recruit training command in 1942 to its closing on 31 March 1976. This is my father’s  Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) graduation photo taken around 1950 when dad was 17. My father is in the second row from the front, last one on the right hand side. Click for larger image

The foundation of what would be the 1960s Civil Rights movement was just taking root at this time. Undaunted, my father rose through the ranks of the 1950s USN. When he was made a Petty Officer, he not only had to prove himself as a worthy PO, he had to prove himself as a worthy African American PO. He was issuing orders to men who had never taken orders from a man of colour in the whole lives. It was no easy task. Nevertheless, he won the respect and admiration of his men. Dad was, and is, made of tough stuff.

The early 70s, when his race relations program was launched, was a period of civil and racial unrest in America.  Not too dissimilar to the social and racial unrest of today. The Navy wasn’t immune from the same unrest that was occurring in the civilian population. The Kitty Hawk riot in 1972 is one example (Racial violence breaks out aboard U.S. Navy ships:

I asked my dad a pretty logical question: Why him? His answer was typically to-the-point. He’d been marked for advancement by the Navy’s senior command’s radar for a few years prior to the establishment of this program. He was respected by commanding officers and the rank-and-file. His quick-thinking and level headedness made him the right man for the job in their view. Or, as he also said, he was in the right place at the right time.

His success led to his promotion to Chief Petty Officer.

So, in the month where my father turned 84, here’s a bit of recognition for one of his many Naval career achievements.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Sheffey family

1667: The year America was divided by race

Genealogical research has sent me down an American history rabbit hole once again.  I don’t mind. Being schooled on American history by genealogy is one of the reasons I Iove to do the research.  It brings my ancestors’ lives to life. History provides the backdrop against which their lives were lived and provides a vital context.

So what if I were to tell you that blacks and whites in the American colonies lived together harmoniously? Even better…what if I were to tell you that whites and blacks saw each other as equals?

You’d think I was trying to sell you a mountain of pixie dust or a unicorn. Or telling you a bedtime story.

Nevertheless, it’s true. There was a time in this country’s history when black and white were united.  Okay, to be precise, I’m going to have to come clean. I’m talking about poor whites: indentured European immigrants and European immigrants who had finished their term of servitude. I am also talking about free people of colour and enslaved people of colour.

This is the story of 2 American colonies: the one that existed before 1676 and the one that existed after 1676.  So what’s so important about that year?  Bacon’s Rebellion.

Bacon’s what? I hear you asking yourself. I know.  I hadn’t heard of it either.  It’s certainly nothing that was taught in school. Yet, it happened. I’d even go as far as to say that this rebellion defined America; more so than the American Revolution that would follow a century later.

I kept coming across references to Bacon’s Rebellion during some intensive 17th century era family research over the past few months.  I was curious about it   Was it a strange reference to some form of 17th Century acid reflux caused by excessive bacon eating?  But in all seriousness, it was an episode in our country’s history that involved many of my ancestral lines. The sons of numerous family lines fought on both sides of this conflict. On the white side of my family tree, names like Ball, Berkeley, Byrd, Carter, Lewis, Mottrom, Page, Pugh, Randolph, Roane, Spottswood, Washington, and West figure largely within this conflict. All of them were resident in the Tidewater region of Virginia (Jamestown, Charles City County and Henrico County) at the onset of the rebellion. However, when I spotted names from the African-descended/mulatto lines of my tree – Christian, Cumbee/Cumbo, Drew, Goins/Gowen, and Thomas – I had to check it out. Like the white side of the family, these ancestors were also resident in Virginia’s Tidewater region.


Map of Virginia’s Tidewater region.  Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

My ancestral links to this rebellion

My ancestors who were loyalists and adjudicators of the rebels:

Col. Augustine Warner – 1st Cousin
Major Robert Beverley – 2nd Cousin
Col. Mathew Kemp – 2nd Cousin
Col. William Claiborne – 1st Cousin
Col. Southy Littleton – 2nd Cousin
Lt. Col. John West – 1st Cousin
Major Law. Smith – cousin by marriage
Capt. Anthony Armistead – 1st Cousin

Ancestors who were part of the rebellion:

Henry West – 1st Cousin (banished from the colonies for 7 years)
John Sanders – 2nd Cousin (fined 2,000 lbs in tobacco)
Giles Bland – 2nd cousin (hanged)

William Hatcher – 1st Cousin (fined 8,000 lbs of pork , to be supplied to Virginia’s soldiers)

Sands Knowles – 2nd Cousin (Imprisonment and total forfeiture of all estates, lands, goods and slaves)

Henry Gee – Cousin by marriage (fined 1,000 lbs of pork)
Thomas Warr – 1st Cousin (banishment)
Col Henry Good – cousin by marriage (fined 6,000 lbs of pork)

And those who were a bit further down the colonial pecking order:

Henry Page – 1st Cousin (hanged)
William West – 1st cousin (hanged)

My curiosity was piqued. It was time to do some heavy reading.

A racial laissez faire  among the lower classes in the American colonies

Before 1676, poor whites, blacks, and mulattoes worked side by side. They lived together and caroused together.  And, they loved together. They recognised shared bonds of servitude and the sameness of their respective life situation.  So much so that they even ran away together to escape their bonds of servitude. They established communities in the mountains and the wilderness areas of Virginia, far from the reach of the colonial Establishment. These men and women formed unions/marriages and blended.

Modern American DNA results via the major DNA testing services has proven this. Are you a white-identified American with trace amounts of African DNA? If your working class ancestors were in Virginia in the 17th Century, I offer the paragraph above as a partial-explanation. The same holds true for African Americans with trace amounts of European ancestry. The paragraph above is a partial explanation of how that may have happened within your ancestry.

There was no ‘racial purity’.  That’s a modern myth. The Establishment certainly wanted to keep its bloodlines pure.  Not even the poorest white could even dream of entering that world. Purity in the 17th Century  Establishment’s mind was all about protecting its status, its privilege, its control, and its power. It’s the reason why the colonial elite only married other members of the elite. Racial purity as it’s espoused today?  Sorry, it didn’t exist.  It wasn’t even in its nascent stages.  All of that would come in the latter part of the 18th Century. When there was serious money to be made from an artificial concept and an excuse to double down on slavery.

In his work entitled People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn writes that 17th Century black and white servants were “remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.”

Edmund Morgan, an important historian of colonial America, has this to say:

“There are hints that the two despised [by the colonial Establishment] groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.”

And let’s not forget the Native Americans whose lands blacks and poor whites set up homes and communities within. They too married into this mix of black and white.


America was never a white nation. Don’t ever believe that it was. Not even for a millisecond. While I am focusing on the relationship between whites and blacks, 17th Century immigrants came from far and wide to the American colonies: Chinese, Jews, sub-Continental Indians, and Moors (Muslims from North Africa) were also here.

A colonial elite gripped by class fear and paranoia

The elite of colonial 17th Century Virginia was comprised of wealthy plantation owners, rich merchants, manufacturers, traders, their Burgesses (local government) and their governors.  Yes, I know, quite a few of my British colonial ancestors were Establishment figures. Collectively, they were at the apex of colonial society. The colonial Establishment had two primary fears. The first was the hostile Indian population who controlled the nearby lands that surrounded the lands settled by European colonials.  They also feared their indenture workforce and enslaved workforce. They had to contend with the class anger of poor whites – in other words, the property-less European immigrants – and the resentment of Africans who had been stolen from their homelands and trapped in a world as foreign to them as a trip to Mars would be for us.

Historian Edmund Morgan also wrote:

Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.

Just like the spice which had to flow on Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune science-fiction novels…the cultivation of tobacco in Maryland and Virginia, the cultivation of rice in South Carolina and the production of cotton in the lower South had to continue. At any price. Tell you what, the next time you watch Dune (or read the books), substitute the words tobacco, rice and cotton every time the word ‘spice’ is mentioned…it’s a mind-bender.  Herbert was so on point that it almost hurts.

The Establishment’s fear wasn’t entirely groundless either. Life in the early years of the colonies was far from harmonious. There were quite a few instances of servants organizing rebellions. Resistance to the colonial status quo by the English, Irish, Scottish, and German poor can be seen in wholesale desertions and work rebellions. Work slowdowns were fairly common. There were strikes by coopers, butchers, bakers, porters, truckers, and carriers. And there was the other major dread of a hierarchy obsessed elite: mutinies at sea. Our colonial ancestors were an unruly and feisty bunch.

A colonial rebellion plot was recorded as early as 1663.  The details of this plot show how white indentured white servants and enslaved blacks plotted to rebel and gain their freedom. This plot was betrayed and all the conspirators were executed as an example.

The colonial Establishment in Virginia feared that class conflict would undermine their tobacco plantation holdings. My English ancestors in particular were perhaps most troubled by this. Between 1381 and 1549, four large peasant revolts played out in England. Each were the result of deep socio-economic and political tensions. The first rebellion, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion (1381), saw parts of London fall to the peasant army.  The then king (a young Richard II) fled to the Tower of London where he took refuge. While this rebellion ultimately failed, its leaders meeting some pretty grisly ends, it scarred the psyche of the English ruling elite. The lower classes in England would never be entirely trusted again. Even to this day.

The Jack Cade Rebellion (1450) was the result of local grievances focused on the corruption and abuses of power by King Henry VI’s closest advisors. The rebels were incensed by the national debt that had been caused by years of warfare against the French, and the recent loss of the king’s Norman territory.  Jack Cade led an army of men from Kent, to the south of London, and the surrounding counties. His army marched on London in order to force the government to end the corruption and remove the traitors surrounding the king’s person. Remember this revolt in particular. It’s comparison to Bacon’s Rebellion is almost a textbook case of history repeating itself.

The last English rebellion I’ll mention is Kett’s Rebellion (Norfolk, 1549). This too had a cause that is uncannily similar to Bacon’s Rebellion. Kett’s Rebellion was largely in response to the enclosure of land. Land was (and remains) a source of power in England. Privilege came with land.  If you didn’t own land, you didn’t have a voice. Without a voice, you had no economic or political power.

When the lower classes united in England, they challenged the status quo, and the way in which power was centrally controlled. To counter-act any further uprisings, the English Establishment kept its poor on a back foot to ensure they wouldn’t pose a threat to its power.

As the younger sons and/or nephews of the British aristocracy and elite, Virginia’s colonial establishment would have been well versed on class warfare and the perils presented by a united lower class.

So let’s fast-forward 120 or so years and return to the lead-up to Bacon’s Rebellion.

The seeds of a rebellion


Map of Virginia at the time of Bacon’s Rebellion. Source:

The colonial elite had a monopoly on the land. The best land, of course. Demand for the best land drove up the cost of acquisition. Which meant that poor whites and free people of color were forced to remove themselves into Native American territory to the west of the Tidewater region of Virginia. They were effectively cut off from any access to support from the colonial government. They were on their own. Which meant fending off Native American attacks on their own.

An additional grievance against the elite had to do with revenues. Fur trapping and fur trading with Native Americans was a monopoly controlled by Virginia’s elite. It’s a bit of a simplification, but true enough to say, that the colonial hierarchy controlled the when, where, and with whom the frontiersmen could engage in fur trapping and trading with. The two parties began to butt heads over this. It was another source of rising tension.

In truth, classed as ‘rabble’, ‘the mob’, ‘uncouth animals’, etc, the colonial elite were relieved to see the back of this large underclass of people.

You can see where I’m going with this.

The colonial government used the situation to its advantage. They thought of these black and white Virginian frontiers people as an early defence system. If you think that’s me being cynical, that’s exactly what they were. And that’s exactly how they felt. They were human shields. Every attack on their farms and settlements led to a few of their number racing back to Jamestown to plead for soldiers to protect them and their families. Which, of course, alerted the colonial Government to Native American attack activity and where that activity was occurring. Of course the Establishment didn’t send any re-enforcements in the form of troops. It sent nothing.

Which, in turn, led to burning resentment for the frontiers people.

The snippet above made me think of the classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Okay…and the eponymous movie too. While the book takes place after Bacon’s Rebellion, the tensions between the elite and the frontiers people figures largely in the first part of the story. Remember the conversations between Hawkeye and John Cameron (whose farm is later attacked) where John recites his list of grievances against local government and the governor? The resentment between frontiers people and their government overlords still flamed brightly over a hundred years after Bacon’s Rebellion.

The Establishment’s worst fears came to fruition soon enough.


The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle. It depicts the burning of Jamestown, Virginia during Bacon’s Rebellion (A.D. 1676-77); used to illustrate the article “Jamestown” in Harper’s Encyclopaedia of United States History: from 458 A.D. to 1905 (1905). Note the multi-ethnic composition of the painting. Source: Wikipedia

Nathaniel Bacon was a young member of the elite. Nevertheless, he formed a movement that was the Establishment’s worst nightmare. At first his movement was based on anti-Native American sentiment. It quickly evolved into an anti-aristocratic movement; a movement that came to symbolize the mass resentment of the poor against Virginia’s elite. Hundreds (some accounts claim up to a thousand) of white freedmen, white bond-servants, free people of colour, and enslaved blacks staged an armed insurrection against the Virginia colonial elite.

The rebellion ultimately led to the burning of Jamestown.


Engraver F.A.C. (signed lower right) of Whitney-Jocelyn, N.Y. – From p. 117 of Ilustrated School History of the United States and the Adjacent Parts of America. From a digital scan at the Internet Archive
Engraving captioned The Burning of Jamestown showing the burning of Jamestown during Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). From Illustrated School History of the United States and the Adjacent Parts of America: from the Earliest Discoveries to the Present Time (1857). Source: Wikipedia

Garrisons and forts were taken by the rebels. Governor Council member Richard Lee (yet another ancestral cousin of mine) recorded that the rebellion had the overwhelming support of Virginia’s population.  This support cut across class-lines, which must have been anathema to the Establishment.

So what was Bacon’s hope for the rebellion? A general “leveling”.  In other words, the equalization of wealth, opportunity – and land.

Ultimately, despite its early successes, the rebellion failed. Nathaniel Bacon’s premature death from dysentery left a leadership vacuum which was filled by less capable men. The rebellion fell apart.  The Establishment’s reprisals were swift and harsh. Some of  the rebels who came from the working classes were executed. The elite who formed the rebellion’s leadership faced varying fates: deportation back to England to face trial, forfeiture of estates and land holdings, or stiff fines.

The suppression of the Bacon revolt was critical for the colonial rulers. Suppressing it would enable the ruling elite to (from Zinn):

  • develop an Indian policy which would divide Indians and pit them against one another;
  • underscore to poor whites that rebellion did not pay through a show of superior force (English troops and mass hangings);
  • develop a practice of dividing poor white immigrants;
  • drive a wedge between free people of color and enslaved blacks;
  • isolate people of colour and enslaved blacks from poor whites; and
  • develop a practice of dividing slaves based on occupation (field worker, skilled artisan/crafts person, house worker, etc) and complexion.

Bacon’s Rebellion was followed by a series of tobacco revolts.  Once these smaller revolts were suppressed, the Establishment instigated a series of progroms to ensure social control.  Front and centre were policies and codes that controlled poor whites and black servants and slaves.

The Establishment learned from their English ancestors that the only way to survive, and maintain power and control, was the division of its common enemy. Developing a system of inequality between black and white servants, they could fashion the allegiance of the English poor to that of their masters.

This is the genesis of the slave codes that were passed in the decades after the rebellion. These slave codes codified the system of slavery. In doing so, the codes made the status of ‘slave’ a life sentence. It was a system that saved the worst penalties and punishments for blacks. This dichotomy in how people were treated, built an unequal structure of racial slavery where black labor were slaves while white laborers were not slaves, was bound to cause resentment amongst blacks with regards to the lighter punishments meted out to their former comrades and allies. It instilled a fear amongst the poor whites that they could suffer the same fate of harsh treatment that was meted out to blacks.

This was the beginnings of institutionalized racism: a system based on the unequal treatment of whites and blacks who shared very similar circumstances.

It did not end there.  Once whites and blacks were divided, the next item on the agenda was dividing the non-English poor whites who largely came from Irish, Scottish and German backgrounds. The Establishment picked the Irish off first; re-igniting prejudices against them for their Catholicism. Anti-Irish propaganda portrayed them as unthinking brutes, animals, and rutting primates.


Both a reality and propaganda. Images like the one above were used to divide whites and blacks…and to depict the Irish as ‘not one of us’.  

This approach was so successful that, once the Irish were isolated from other poor whites, the same memes were used against people of color. The wedge of religion and ‘foreignness’ was used to divide the Germans and the Scottish. Lutheranism and Calvinism were largely the religious denominations of the Germans. With preference being shown to Scottish Anglicism (The Church of Scotland), it was an effective wedge to use to split these two groups apart.   The English began to treat the poor Scots in a manner like a wealthy cousin would treat a poor relation – with a thin and meagre kind of tolerance.

How effective was this practice of divide and conquer?  Just tune in to CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. Read a newspaper.  Or look at the race memes that flood social media. Virginia’s colonial elite would be quite pleased to see the systems they put into play in the 17th Century didn’t merely survive – they have flourished. Take a look at how these memes have been adapted for every new immigrant culture that arrives on America’s shores.

Now I understand why Bacon’s Rebellion isn’t part of the history curriculum in the majority of America’s schools. I’ve counted only a meagre few that do cover this as part of their curriculum. No wonder most Americans have never heard of it.

Knowing what I know now, I have two fundamental questions.  The first is what would America look like today had Nathaniel Bacon lived and succeeded in his aim?  That question can’t be answered.  I can see his vision, however.

The second is whether or not America can still achieve that vision, through non-violent means of course.   In order for a nation of people to see that they have been played, in the most cynical and vicious way possible, they first have to recognize that they have been played. They have to grasp how they have been played, and why they have been played.

Then, and only then, can a system used to divide and conquer finally be dismantled.

Was your ancestor one of Bacon’s rebels?

While it isn’t a complete list of the rebels, this is the largest list of combatants that I have found online:  Frazier, Kevin (2016). Bacon’s Rebels: A List of the Names and some of the Residences of the Rebel Participants in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 in Colonial Virginia, Rootsweb.


Allen, Theodore W. (1997). The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 2: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. London: Verso.

Bacon’s Rebellion, Africans in America, Part 1, PBS.

Bailyn, Bernard, Politics and Social Structure in Virginia. Seventeenth-Century America.

British National Archives:

Colonial State Papers, The British National Archives.

Gardner, Andrew G. (2015). Nathaniel Bacon, Saint or Sinner?, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2015.

Gormilie, Frank (2015). The Origins of Institutionalized Racism – a System to Control Blacks … and Whites, San Diego Free Press. (27 February 2015).

Library of Virginia.

Matthew, Thomas. The Beginning of Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in the Years 1675 & 1676. Reprint Manuscript. P. Force, 1835. Original manuscript, 1675. 

McCarter, William Matthew (2012). Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America, Algora Publishing.

Morgan, Edmund S. (1975). American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Rice, James D. (2012). Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford University Press.

Rothbard, Murray N. (1979) Conceived in Liberty, Miles Institute.

Sainsbury, W. N. Virginia in 1676-77. Bacon’s Rebellion (Continued),
The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1913), pp. 234-248

Salviati-Marambaud, Yvette. Nathaniel Bacon: A Frontrunner of the Revolution?. Vol. 19. Cycnos, 2008.

Schilling, Vincent (2013). 6 Shocking Facts About Slavery, Natives and African Americans, Indian Country Today Media Network.

Tarter, Brent. (2011). Bacon’s Rebellion, the Grievances of the People, and the Political Culture of Seventeenth-Century Virginia, Virginia Magazine of History & Biography.

Thandeka (1998) The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy, World: The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Vol. XII No: 4 (July/August 1998), pp. 14 –20

Thompson, Peter. (2006). The Thief, the Householder, and the Commons: Languages of Class in Seventeenth-Century Virginia, William and Mary Quarterly.

Webb, Stephen Saunders (1995). 1676: The End of American Independence. Syracuse University Press

Wyatt, David (2010). Secret Histories: Reading Twentieth-Century American Literature, JHU Press.

Zinn, Howard. (1997). A People’s History Of The United States. New York, NY: The New York Press.




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Discovering Pocahontas: A family surprise

I never get tired of saying that it’s been the women in my family tree who have revealed my most profound and memorable genealogy surprises.  This shows no signs of abating. Yet another lady in my tree has revealed something remarkable.


I discovered a new Martin family line when I began triangulating my DNA results in order to identify the father of my 2x great grandmother, Margaret Clark (please see the image above). Mary Martin is part of Margaret’s enormous white Fugate-Clark family.

As soon as I saw the surname Martin, I was all excited. I have a sizeable group of Quaker Martins in my family tree. While they were largely based in Chester and Delaware Counties in Pennsylvania, there were members of this Quaker family who migrated to Baltimore County, Maryland. They also spread out throughout Virginia. Naturally, I was keen to connect Mary Martin to the other known Martin branches in my family tree.

The problem was, I keep coming across a Mary Martin, born in Baltimore County, Maryland, who was always described as being ‘part-Indian’. There were no references to this Anglo-Native American Mary  being a Quaker. Nor were there any indications that her father’s Martin family were Quakers. If anything, her family were Anglicans. So, I dismissed her.  And began to get more than a little annoyed because this Mary that I kept coming across wasn’t the Mary I was seeking.  At one point, I just looked at my laptop and said “Enough already.  You’re someone’s ancestor to be sure. But you’re not my ancestor! Please get out of my way!”

Silly me.

I became so frustrated that I made the decision to put Mary Martin on the back burner.

Two days after I made that decision, a DNA cousin, whom I will call Mike, reached out to me on He said he had some family history information about my Fugates and Clarks – and would I like to chat on the phone about them?  Like I ever need an invitation to talk about family history stuff.

I phoned him in due course and he picked my brains about what I had uncovered at that point in my research.  Naturally, I relayed my frustration about the difficulty I was having in researching Mary Martin.  He laughed out loud.

“You mean you don’t know about Mary?”

I told him that I knew about the Mary who was part Native American…and that I knew nothing about my Mary, who would have been a Quaker.

Mike laughed out loud again. And then proceeded to tell me that I had already found the right Mary Martin. The Mary Martin who was the ancestor of Margaret Clark wasn’t a Quaker. The Mary Martin in my tree was the grand-daughter of Pocahontas.

My reply was classic, and worthy of Larry Wilmore: Whaaaaaat? Wait, what!?!  Can you say that again, one more time?

Mike thought that was hilarious. He then sent me some links to some essential reading just to seal the deal.



To put this into perspective, my Sheffey line is the one family line I have that never, and I mean never, laid any claims to Native American ancestry. No quiet whispers. Not even a murmur. No family rumours. No family myths or legends. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Turns out, it’s the one family line with a verified, bona fide, Native American Ancestor. And it’s Pocahontas to boot. She’s my 12x great grandmother via Ka Oke “Jane” Powhatan, her daughter by her first husband, Kocoum.

One source was the Patawomeck Tides, a newsletter that tribe sends its members ( Once I began reading, the pieces rapidly fell into place.  Mike was right (not that I had any doubts, Mike!).

I had to phone up my genetic genealogists in the UK. My question was pretty straightforward. I have such a negligible amount of Native American results in my DNA, it’s pretty much non-existent. Naturally, I wanted to know how this was possible.  Could this mean that maybe some of the family stories about Native Americans in the other branches of my family weren’t bedtime stories after all?

The team explained a fairly complex theory about Native American DNA inheritance. Basically, whatever Native American ancestry I have was so far back in time that only a minuscule amount is present in my autosomal DNA results. It’s called the “Wash Out” theory. Apparently, it doesn’t take very long for Native American DNA to wash out of DNA results when it comes to non Native Americans. That’s the grossly simplified version. The article NATIVE AMERICAN DNA Is Just Not That Into You ( delves into this in far greater detail.

The second strand of my conversation with the genetic genealogists had to do with DNA sampling from Native American tribes. They weren’t sure what percentage of Native Americans have undergone DNA testing. Which meant that were unsure about the size of DNA population data sets the big DNA testing services use to determine a person’s admixtures. Put another way, AncestryDNA, for instance, may not have a large Native American DNA data set to match DNA test results against. If it doesn’t then there really isn’t much Native American DNA to compare test results with. The American Indian and Alaska Native Genetics Resource Center website (  is an excellent place to learn more about this subject.


This part of the tree takes us from Mary Martin (Margaret Clark’s 4x great grandmother) back to Pocahontas. Click for a larger image.

As soon as I connected Pocahontas to Margaret Clark on my hosted family tree – the AncestryDNA shared matches shaky leaf hints started popping up – seemingly all over the place.  All of a sudden, family names like Bolling, Rolfe, Pugh, Lewis, Powhatan, and Pettus made sense. I could see who our common ancestor was.  All roads lead back to Pocahontas. And to Varina in Henrico County, Virginia, where a number of Pocahontas’s Anglo-Native American descendants resided.

My father’s enslaved maternal Roane family was also based in Varina. My 3x grandfather, George Henry Roane, married Susan Price, who is beginning to look like a Price by blood. The white Price family in Varina claimed descent from Pocahontas via Thomas Rolfe, the son she had with her husband, John Rolfe. If true, this would also make Susan Price her descendant.

So it looks like Pocahontas isn’t done with me just yet.

That’ll teach me about making assumptions when I’m looking for ancestors.

My head is still spinning a bit. Taking three of my ethnic groups into account – African, European, and now Native American – I have DEEP roots in America. My Goins/Gowing and Cumbo ancestors are believed to have been among the “Twenty and Odd” Africans who were taken from a Portuguese slave ship and indentured in Virginia in 1619. My West family were among the European founders of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. And Pocahontas puts my ancestry in America before the arrival of Europeans.

As I mentioned to my nephew, our family is about as American as it gets.

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Connecting Americans to one another – and the world – through genealogy



A few of you may have noticed that the Genealogy Adventures | DNA Adventures tagline recently changed. Our project has outgrown its initial tagline: inspiring your own genealogy adventures. Given the scale of our readers/follows (we are truly humbled!), I think we’ve achieved that initial impetus for the project.  Inspiring people to delve into their own genealogy adventures remains front and centre of everything we do.

Yet, there’s always been an underlying purpose for this project, including the TV series. This is expressed in the new tagline: Connecting Americans to one another- and the world – one family tree at a time.  We like to look at the two taglines this way: the first one acted like a cheerleader. It was all about getting people excited about delving into their own genealogy.

The new tagline represents the foundation of what our project is really about. Think of this new tagline like an American football quarterback (or like a mid-fielder for all of you footie fans). It’s the heart of what we do, and why we do it.

We live in a period marked by profound social and political unrest and divisiveness. I believe genealogy can have a role in addressing this. Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I know that genealogy isn’t a magic wand that can erase so much of what has lead us to this moment, this exact point in time. However, I believe that genealogy can be a route that enables all of us to understand how we arrived at this peculiar junction in history. That would be American history, to be precise. Genealogy and history…they are inseparable and indivisible.  You cannot have one without the other. You cannot understand the history of a family without understanding the historical backdrop that their lives played out against.

The history of any American family is the history of America in microcosm.

A nation founded on immigration has evolved

It’s not a (insert the name of your preferred news channel here) news flash that America was founded by immigration. It was an immigrant nation. Now it’s a nation. Just like a person goes through defined growth stages in the course of their life – infant, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, middle age, and pensioner – a nation goes through growth stages. The day after the American colonials won the Battle of Yorktown, America was in its infancy. The story of an immigrant nation was the narrative of its infancy. I’d argue that its Civil War was America as a teenager.  America can still be seen as an immigrant nation at that point.

Those new immigrants married into older immigrant families. They were absorbed into the fabric of a country that had almost completely morphed into a nation state. By nation state, I’m saying that America didn’t merely exist as a geopolitical entity. It had a distinct culture, which is an essential ingredient for a nation state.

Continued immigration into a nation doesn’t make it an immigrant nation.  Immigration isn’t its defining characteristic, which that phrase implies. Yet, this remains a stubborn narrative today.  That narrative implies that new immigrants today only marry other new immigrants. That’s not the history of our nation. Almost two centuries down the road from the Civil War, all of those immigrant families who arrived on these shores before the outbreak of the Civil War built a nation. A nation of families with unknown and forgotten connections to one another.

Relations between different ethnic groups in colonial era America was surprisingly fluid. That’s the polite way of putting it. While the ruling colonial elite were not best pleased about this, and began to actively legislate against it, cross-cultural sexual relations happened. A. Lot. No, think of a number and multiply it a thousandfold. Now you’re getting it. DNA testing services like AncestryDNA, 23andme and FamilyTree DNA have proven it.

Yet, America remains divided between groups of people who have been actively pitted against one another in a perverse form of an animal blood sport, one that has gone on for centuries.

Each culture that has arrived on these shores has contributed something to the shaping of this nation. There are too many to mention so I will highlight a handful. The Mid-west would have a fundamentally different character/vibe had it not been for the Scandinavians who settled that territory. Texas would be a very different place had it not been for German immigrants. The Southwest and California owe their distinctive flavour to the Spanish and Mexicans who were the first non-Native American inhabitants in this region. American music owes everything to the fusion of Irish and Scottish folk music with the music of Africans.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Genealogy is the road to an American identity

Genealogy has been my faithful and steadfast tutor on American history – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the morally obscene. My roots in America go back further than I could have ever imagined. All the way back to my 12x great grandmother Pocahontas (um, I’m not joking!)

If you’d told me that I had ancestors who settled and built Jamestown (that would be my West family), I’d have told you to go and do one. If anyone had told me that Martha Dandridge Washington, you know, George Washington’s wife, was my cousin, I’d have told you to pull the other one.

I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me that I was related to and/or descended from signers of the Declaration of the Independence (John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and Benjamin Harrison). Or that I was the direct descendant of a famed Revolutionary War hero (Patrick Henry), and a staggering list of Colonial Era and post-Revolutionary War governors, congressmen, senators and state representatives.

Or that I was related to an African American scientist who pioneered research in the field of blood transfusions (Charles Richard Drew) – who also developed improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks.

The fact that I am related to some of the framers of the American Constitution still blows my mind – that would be John Adams (again) and James Madison.

You wouldn’t think I had these ancestral connections solely based on my complexion. You wouldn’t guess it. Nevertheless, I am descended from, and related to, people who don’t look like me.

One thing genealogy has taught me: My roots run deep in America. America’s history runs deep within me. And, hand on heart, I’ve only learned the real history of the land of my birth through genealogy. Genealogy gave me the American identity that I never had. My parents, bless them, instilled in me a sense of inclusiveness.

The steady rhythm of history

There is no part of my tree where I can escape the steady rhythm of American history.  My Sheffey ancestors fled the war-torn 18th Century Palatinate region of Germany to become farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Weary from endless wars in the land of their birth, they did not hesitate to answer the call of Revolution in their new homeland. Their Ankney cousins landed in Pennsylvania and became part of the steady move westwards – usually amongst the first settlers as the frontier borders moved steadily westward.

My pantheon of Scottish and Irish ancestors were also at the forefront of that same expansion into new western territories, a number dying in skirmishes with various Indian tribes who were defending the lands of their forefathers. Other Scottish and Irish ancestors married Native American women, their descendants numbering in the tens of thousands.

There are my English Quaker ancestors who fled religious persecution in England – you know, the kind of persecution where you were fined, tortured, imprisoned or brutally executed for not practicing the faith of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland. They fled their homeland for Ireland, and then Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Or my Scottish ancestors who were Covenanters – a group of Scottish Protestants who also fled their native lands for Ireland and the American Colonies.

Or my African descended ancestors who worked their owners’ farms, cooked, looked after their owners’ children or were hired out as skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen: blacksmiths, wagon makers, wheelwrights, horse breeders, dress makers, milliners, etc. Their toil built the wealth of a nation. 

Or my ancestors who were free people of colour, who owned farms, businesses or were gifted artisans/craftsmen, men of the cloth, and healers.

My ancestors from every background fought in every American war, both domestic and foreign. Every. Single. Battle.

I know all of this, and oh so much more, because of genealogy.

And they married. And raised families…many of those families were an impressive size generation after generation after generation. They raised their families; instilling every hope and dream for the future. Whatever their background. Whatever their station in life. Each generation strived to better their parents, attaining their slice of the American dream.

Trust me, some of my ethnic ancestral groups had formidable obsticals to overcome to achieve their dreams. Some continue to battle entrenched obsticals now.

Together, they built America. All of them. In their own way. In time, their countless myriad of descendants become one, big, enormous, American family. Seriously. There are thousands of surnames in my family tree. All of these families are related. Each has spread out to reside in each of the 50 States…and a few American territories to boot.

There is more that unites Americans than divides us

Look, no family is going to get along all of the time. Families have their disagreements, their barneys, their tense moments. The strength of family is the ability to respect the bonds of family. To bounce back from those fractious moments. To respect differences while still acknowledging that you are kin. What strikes me most right now is this: most families I’ve seen unite when a family member is attacked. What frustrates me is how my fellow Americans tear one another apart. A house divided falls – a much more famous man than me said it. And he was right. We are weakest when we are at each other’s throats.We are weakest when we kill one another based on some contrived notion and narrative of “otherness”. 

Try this on for size.  Look at people when you’re out and about doing your usual daily thing.  Not like a stalker. You know, look at them the way people usually notice other people. Ignore the superficial differences like skin color, attire, body decoration, etc. Ignore the displayed symbols of that person’s religion. Don’t look at them like they are an ‘other’. Look at them as a person. And then ask yourself a simple question: How would I see that person if I knew we were related? Because you very well might be. If your family has resided within America’s borders for more than a few generations, don’t be surprised by the number of people you’re related to. And they all won’t look like you. They all won’t be from the same ethnic or cultural group as you.

400+ years of marriages, sex and children in America. How far back can you trace all of your family lines? Don’t make assumptions. That person who you thought something negative about, or made a snap judgement about because of their external appearance…well, you could be related to them. I’m only now discovering that I share common ancestral families with a handful of people I went to high school with twenty-something years ago. My colonial Quaker ancestors are the gift that just keeps giving😉

Or, to put it this way, as multi-ethnic as I am, as progressive as I am in my socio-economic and world views …I am related to John McCain, who is as European looking and Conservative as one can be. Put us side by side and you’d never guess in a million years that we were related.  Heck, I didn’t even know we were related until I took up genealogy and worked on my family tree. George Walker Bush? He’s my cousin. Preston Brooks, the infamous Senator from South Carolina? He’s my cousin too. Barak Obama?  Yep, another cousin.

You. Never. Know. Not until you do the work, and your family tree makes its revelations.

The meme of American individuality can only take us so far. Separately, sure, we may shine like a single star in a vast and endless universe. Together? We can be an incredible constellation that lights up the night sky. Part of that constellation is recognizing, respecting, and hopefully rejoicing in, the fact that we are connected in ways that have been long forgotten. That constellation is family. It’s your choice, my fellow Americans. There is always a choice. You can probably guess which one I’m hoping will be the outcome.

400+ years of division and hatred should be enough for any country.

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