Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools are failing to deliver’s DNA Circles. Like many others, I’m still grappling with this one. Boiled down, a DNA Circle on Ancestry is like a collaborative family research group. Only this group is created through shared ancestry from a common shared ancestor. Only genealogical research can determine how individuals within a Circle are related. The Circle, generated by DNA results and family trees, can only indicate shared genetics.

Now, I have an extensive family tree with over 26,000 individuals. Now no, size doesn’t matter, however, in this instance, it raises questions with regards to my DNA Circle results. You see, the fact of the matter is, I’m a member of zero circles. Yep, that’s right.

Not. A. Single. One.

Have a gander at the image below:

cropped screengrab of my Ancestry DNA landing page

click for larger image

Anything strike you as odd about the distinct lack of circles? Even after Ancestry’s ‘improvement’ to its DNA matching algorithm – which saw the number of my genetic matches decimated – I’m still left with 75 individuals who are identified as 1st to 4th Cousins. There’s probably another 100 or so who are identified as 5th – 8th cousins.

So I have  roughly 175 genetic matches. I have 7 shared family hints. At first I thought this had to do with the number of people who either don’t have family trees, or family trees with less than 50 or so people. This characterizes approximately 75% of my Ancestry DNA matches.

And, of course, locked trees present research issues as well.

Harlan DNA matchesDNA matches just for the Harlan name.

DNA matches just for the Harlan name. User names have been obscured for privacy reasons. Click for larger image.

And then I began researching my Quaker Harling-Harlan family. By that, I mean tracing all of its branches from the 1500s onwards; including the female lines. As I’ve recently mentioned…this is one huge family. And it’s a family that connects with both my maternal and paternal lines.

So I started to search my DNA matches for specific Harlan-Harling related names: Blackburn, Bailey, Hollingsworth, Peele, Cooke, Pike, Leonard, White, Heald and Calvert – just to name a few.

And there they were in a number of family trees. Over and over again there appeared the names of great-grandparents, grand uncles and aunts and cousins. Shared ancestors, in other words.

The tree below is a perfect example:

screen grab of George Harlan's family tree in Ancestry DNA

A Harlan family group form one of my DNA match’s family trees. click for larger image

Using the tree above:

  • Elizabeth Harlan is my 5th cousin 5x removed
  • George Harlan is my 2nd cousin 8x removed
  • James Harlan is my 4th cousin 6x removed
  • Samuel Harlan is my 3rd cousin 7x removed

Here’s the same group of Harlan cousins in my family tree:

Screengrab of Harlan cousins in my family tree

click for larger image

I’ve located other trees with the same individuals. Yet, I have no shared family tree hints with any of them. And it’s not a ‘me’ thing either. Others with these family members also don’t have any Harlan related circles. Most don’t have any Harlan-related shared family tree hints either. We’ve had to work out how we’re related by looking at each other’s tree.  Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s always great making contact with newly found cousins. However, this is something that Ancestry DNA advertizes that its service can do…with all the usual caveats, of course.

I think part of the problem is the complicated genealogy for the Harlan family. Like a number of Quaker families, one Harlan family feature is 3th or 4th cousins marrying other 3rd and 4th cousins since the 1540s. So you can have a woman who is both a [however-many-times] grand aunt and a cousin. It’s a pickle. It’s a pickle I think Ancestry should be able to figure out, especially in light of its DNA service and DNA tools like Circles.

So I think I have a partial answer where the Harlans are concerned.

I know I have Matthews family DNA matches. The Matthews lineage is pretty simple and straightforward. Again, no DNA circles and no shared family tree matches. So I kind of have to ask myself what’s up with these two aspects of Ancestry DNA. I’m hoping the much-publicized pending upgrade to these tools will address this. I’m managing my expectations.

Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools remain promising. For me, at the moment, this aspect of the service fails to deliver.


Filed under ancestry, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Genetics, South Carolina

When writing about an ancestor ‘outs’ their race: can there ever be an etiquette for this?

I’m sitting on the horns of dilemma. As you’d suspect, it’s not a comfortable place to sit. It all has to do with two late 18th Century marriages on my maternal line between white men and free women of colour in one of America’s southern states. And the the years that followed these marriages; which is to say their children and descendants claiming, and then having, a white identity.

Writing about these two couples would mean disclosing that the racial identity of these two mulatto women. So where’s the dilemma?

  1. There is a chance that the descendants of these 2 couples have no idea that (however many) great grandma Jane Doe wasn’t white;
  2. Continuing on from Point #1, this may cause upset; and
  3. Some descendants many know this but not want it publicly disclosed.

Publicly writing about family ancestry and history carries certain burdens. This is one of them. Well, okay, this specific burden largely applies  if you’re writing about American genealogy and family history and your audience is, not unsurprisingly, American.

Which brings me to my question. What is the etiquette in writing about inter-racial marriages in America in general and the Antebellum South in particular?

I know my motivations. There are 2 stories that I would like to share because they offer a very interesting glimpse into an aspect of American history that really isn’t discussed. Why interesting? Well, is the standard view that such marriages were as poorly received by society as we’ve been taught/led to believe? Were they as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe?

Then there is the legal side with inter-racial marriages up to and including the early 1960s. I’m still not certain when inter-racial marriages became illegal in the US. The second marriage in my wider family tree certainly happened when such marriages were illegal. This second couple didn’t hide it – their marriage certificate is proof enough of that. Nor did they immediately leave the town they were born and raised in to get married either – so everyone knew the racial identity of the woman, including the groom’s family (so what on earth did they think and feel about it?).

I’d also like to write about these women simply because their respective families have very interesting histories. Both come from mid 17th Century African American lineages that were indentured servants (and not enslaved) and then free thereafter.

I’m also a professional marketer. And I diligently measure the analytics for this site. I know what stories and themes are  popular and which ones aren’t. My all-time top two posts cover inter-racial relationships and ‘passing’ (Beyond the Pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America and Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line . To quantify ‘popular, each of the posts cited above get read around 350 times a week. Combined, that’s a lot of reading on these two subjects.

So there’s an obvious interest in both topics. I have two stories that cover both. Naturally, I’d like to add these to the canon of posts I’ve already written on the subjects. Both would provide deeper insights and a new take on both subjects.

Now if I were back home in the UK, and this involved black British ancestors, I’d write these stories in a heartbeat. Believe it or not, there is a healthy segment of British society that would wear black ancestry as a badge of honour. Amongst Millennial, it’s something that would give them ‘street cred’. In short, they’d embrace it. Not everyone. I know that.  However, on the whole, the British are far more chilled on the subject of diversity than Americans.

But I’m in the US. And in the 16 months since I’ve been on this side of The Pond, a ceaseless flow of news stories involving race has stayed my virtual pen when it comes to publishing these two stories. My experience with a few white relations from my maternal family lines  on and Gedmatch have definitely stayed my hand . To be fair, a small handful of newly discovered white relations from my maternal lines have been superb, stellar human beings; accepting, fun and helpful with my family history questions. The majority, however, have not. They were not pleased to discover a blood connection with African Americans. Could you imagine what others from the another branch of the same family would feel if they were to discover that they were actually descended from a person of colour? These are the things I have to be mindful of.

And before this looks like bashing southern people, I’m merely relaying my own experience. The numerous white relations I’ve met from my paternal Virginian lines have all been incredibly positive and brilliant people.

I suppose if those from my maternal lines had been as overwhelming positive as those from my father’s lines, I’d have my answer. I’d just go ahead and write and publish what I think would be two more interesting and positive stories that provide a glimpse into America’s past.

So what do you think? When sharing family history stories in America, what is the etiquette in outing an ancestor’s race? Leave a comment below.

Note:  We have to screen comments before approving & publishing them. Sadly, suffice to say it’s a necessary policy. So don’t panic if you submit a comment and there’s a delay in it appearing.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity

DNA traces origins of 17th century African slaves › News in Science (ABC Science)

Image of slave wrist shackles

The 17th century bones of three African slaves have been traced to their countries of origin for the first time.

Until now, uncovering the precise origins of the 12 million African slaves sent to the New World between 1500 and 1850 has been challenging, since few historical records exist from the time. Often, the ports from which the slaves were shipped is known, but not the nations from which they came.

Read the rest of the article from ABC Scioence here: DNA traces origins of 17th century African slaves › News in Science (ABC Science).

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The one where I give Sir Archibald Roane a demotion

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks diligently researching my Scots-Irish ancestor, Archibald Gilbert Roane. Put another way, I’ve been trying to sift fact from well intentioned fiction. With a myriad of uncited information about him online, that’s been a monumental task.

Archibald may or may not have been born in Argyllshire, Scotland around the year 1680. He may have been born in northern Ireland to Scottish parents. He may or may not have fought in the Battle of the Boyne. While he did live in northern Ireland, I’m not 100% certain where. All of the information online cite a place called Grenshaw or Greenshaw in County Antrim. As far as I can tell, no such place has existed. Grenshaw and Greenshaw might be a misspelling or Anglicization of Gransha, which is in County Down, in northern Ireland.

a map showing the location of Gransha, in County Down, northern Ireland

Gransha, in County Down, northern Ireland

His surname may have been Roan, Roane or Rowan. I’ve found Archibalds with all of these surnames born around 1680 in northern Ireland with Scottish origins. Each is from a distinctly different family. Pinpointing the correct gentleman as being my Archibald Roane has been a challenge that I’m still working on solving.

Which quite nicely brings me to the whole ‘Sir Archibald’ question. Online family lore states that Archibald was granted the honorific of Sir (which isn’t a title – for some deed or service carried out for William III during the Battle of the Boyne. This is something that would definitely have left a paper trail. No such paper trail exists. I’ve searched the length and breadth of the UK’s National Archives ( )…and there is nothing. There are Roans and Rowans mentioned, but no Archibald Gilbert Roan(e)/Rowan.

screen grab of the National Archive's home page

I’ve searched the honor roles for the Battle of the Boyne, including land grants made. Again, there are Roan(e) and Rowans to be found. There are none by the name of Archibald Gilbert Roane.

I dashed off an email to the Royal College of Arms ( The Royal College of Arms is responsible for the granting of new coats of arms. It also maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licences, etc. If anyone would know whether Archibald was a Sir or not, it would be the College.

screengrab of the Royal College of Arms homepage

I received a very nice, and equally informative, reply from one of the College’s Officers of Arms:

On Thu, Feb 12, 2015 at 8:48 AM, York Herald <[redacted for privacy]> wrote:

12 February 2015

Dear Mr Sheffey,

Thank you for your e-mail of 10 February regarding Archibald Gilbert Roane.

The standard reference work for knights is Knights of England by William Shaw (London 1906), which lists Scottish and Irish knights as well as English. It is probably not complete but is as exhaustive as possible and the best guide available. It contains no reference to anyone with the surname Roane or Rowan being knighted. This does not necessarily mean that it did not happen, but we should certainly assume so until shown otherwise.

An examination of the Scottish and Irish heraldic records revealed no reference to the surname Roane or Rowan. The records of grants of Arms by the Kings of Arms at the College of Arms for this period, which covered England and Wales, and the overseas colonies and empire, revealed no indication that a grant of Arms was made to this person.

These preliminary results suggest that the individual in whom you are interested never established a right to Arms by grant or descent. It is quite possible that he assumed the Arms of another family of the same name, as quite often happened.

I hope that this is helpful.

Yours sincerely,

[name withheld for privacy]

York Herald

College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT

It’s not looking good for Archibald on the heraldic front; so much so that I’ve demoted him on my Family tree. Sir Archibald Gilbert Roane is now Archibald Gilbert Roane.

image of Archibald Himlton-Rowan

Archibald Hamilton-Rowan

That’s not to say that his story is fully told. Is he related to the prominent, wealthy, land-owning Rowan family of County Antrim? By that, I mean is he related to the Reverend Andrew Roane or the Irish Libertarian, Archibald Hamilton-Rowan? If he wasn’t born to money he certainly acquired it. If he wasn’t born to it, how did he acquire his wealth? I do know this: where there’s money, there are records. So somewhere out there is more information about this mysterious ancestor.

At least two of his sons, William Roane (1701-1757) and James Roane (1707-1757) certainly arrived in Virginia with wealth which they used to buy large tracts of land and slaves. While he lived a more modest life than his older brothers, the Rev John Roane (1717-1775) lived a comfortable life in Derry, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. John too did not want for money. The origins of the family money remain a mystery.

With or without family heraldry, Archibald Gilbert Roane remains an interesting character. My writer’s instinct tells me that the truth of his story will be far more interesting than the fiction.

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Fabricating Nobility? Genealogy and Social Mobility among Franco-Scottish Families in the Early Modern Period


I’m going through something similar with my Scotts-Irish ancestor, Archibald Gilbert Roane…

Originally posted on The Franco-British Network for 17th and 18th Century Research/ Le Reseau Franco-Britannique des chercheurs des 17e et 18e siecles:

Steve Murdoch

Read the full article this blog is based on here


Seventeenth-century Europe witnessed a dramatic increase in social mobility, particularly from the lower into the upper-strata of society. This breakdown of a seemingly impervious barrier between the high and low born caused quite a degree of resentment. Long-standing noble families in many countries found their elite status challenged by people from non-noble backgrounds; these were those who had earned royal favour through their aptitude for warfare, commerce, administration and invention.[1] In Scotland this process occurred through the creation of a nobility of service, particularly in the reign of James VI & I. Under this king opportunities also opened up for some Scots in England, Ireland, and even in the New World through the creation of the baronetcies of Nova Scotia.[2] While opportunities were created within the king’s dominions, many more were opening up for the thousands…

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Do You Come Across Themes in Your Genealogy?

Genealogy is a crazy experience. There’s just no getting around it. It’s the reason why I keep an open mind. You just never know what’s going to crop up. And if you’re genealogy experience is anything like mine, you get certain themes in your family research.

At the moment, Quakers are my theme du jour.

I’ll explain.

At first, all of the African-descended ancestors I found and researched in the US were enslaved. Which, to be honest, was to be expected. With the expectation of my maternal grandfather’s paternal line (which I just don’t know enough about), all known African descended lines had enslaved ancestors. Not a whiff of one free person, much less a whole free family, of colour. And then there were. And then that’s all I found – line after line of free families of colour stretching back to the 1690s. So that was one surprise.

On the European descended side, it was all solidly German, and then Franco-German. And then, with one shaky leaf hint on Ancestry…it was nothing but Scots-Irish. Everywhere I looked, there were new Scots-Irish ancestors where none had previously existed.

My European ancestors appeared to be solid burgers; that is, to say, part of the Tudor Era proto middle class. Then, out of the blue, it went from middle class to aristocratic to royal. That was crazy.

Each theme lasted for weeks. It’s like setting aside one set of lenses to view the world and using a new set of lenses.

There’s been no rhyme or reason to this experience. It is what it is. There’s absolutely no hint of something – and then, for quite a while, that new theme seems to be all that exists. Put simply, it’s everywhere you look.

I’ve been spending some time researching the female lines of my Scottish-American Josey family of Rich Square, Northampton, North Carolina. This was an old Church of Scotland family. Honestly. You couldn’t get more Church of Scotland than this lot. And then it happened: a marriage record for my 4th great grand aunt, Margaret Josey. A Quaker marriage record, if you will, documenting her marriage to Robert Peele. The antennae immediately went up. Would there be a connection to my Harlan ancestors, who I’ve only recently found out were English Quakers and not German Lutherans?

Well, it really didn’t come as a great surprise when I saw a Quaker marriage record for one of their daughters ,who married a Mendenhall. The Mendenhall family are my distant cousins through my Quaker Harlan ancestors. A quick check of this new Mendenhall had him quickly placed on the Mendenhall branch of my family tree.

Basically, two of my distant relations from two completely different parts of my family tree had just married one another. And both lines were now connected to a third family, the Harlans, from yet another separate part of the tree.

The descendants of Margaret Josey and Robert Peele would go on to marry further descendants from the Harlan-Mendenall-Bailey-White-Carpenter family with links to southwest England, Armagh (northern Ireland) and Chester County, Pennsylvania. To simply, I’m going to call this rather large family the Quaker Harlans.

Image showing hedge with interconnecting tree branches

This is a pretty good visual metaphor!  Photo Credit: “The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland” from PlusThings via

To put this discovery into an overall context, let’s look at the great-grand-parent level of my tree. I have eight family names at this level:

Maternal Grandmother:

Harling (Edgefield, South Carolina)
Matthews (Edgefield, South Carolina)

Maternal Grandfather:

Josey (Rich Square, Northampton, North Carolina)
Turner (Charles County, Maryland)

Paternal Grandmother:

Bates ( Henrico, Virginia)
Roane (King William & Henrico, Virginia)

Paternal Grandfather:

Clark (Smyth & Wythe, Virginia)
Sheffey (Smyth & Wythe, Virginia)

There were now old Quaker Harlan links to three of my great-grandparent level lines: Matthews, Josey and Sheffey (distant cousin Margaret White, a Harlan descendant through her father’s line, married my 4th great grand uncle, Maj. Henry Lawrence Sheffey of Cripple Creek, Wythe, VA).

There’s a possible fourth link on my Roane line through the Ball family. If I can confirm this potential new lead, that who mean there was a link to the Quaker Harlans for half of my great grandparents lines. That’s what I mean by ‘crazy’.

I raise my hand and admit I know next to nothing about the Quaker faith. Again, it’s not something that was really covered in school apart from the fact that Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers. However, through all this family research, I see there were established and thriving Quaker communities in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Not just Pennsylvania. Compaired to the in-depth history lessons taught about the Pilgrims and their beliefs, I really do know precious little about the pioneering Quakers.

So not only am I seeing Quaker ancestors everywhere, at the moment, I see descendants from one Quaker family group in some pretty unexpected places.

A friend of mine says I should be surprised considering how small the colonial population was in Colonial America. There were only some 2,148,076+ spread across the thirteen colonies (European/African descended split of 79%/21% ++). In other words, if all of your family lines can be found in the American colonies before the 1770s, they were the base population of the country. It only makes sense that their lines would have the greatest number of descendants in the country’s population. And, through their descendants, would connect a staggering number of families together through marriages and through DNA. He laughed when he said that Americans should be nicer to one another: we just don’t know who we’re related to.

It’s not just family lines and religions either. I’m also finding themes with places. Why do Frederick County, Maryland and Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland link to so many of my great grandparent level lines between 1770 and 1850? This too is another theme at the moment. A crazy coincidence? Perhaps. Only time will tell.


+ Springston, C. 2013. Population of the 13 Colonies 1610-1790, YT&T.

++ Lemon, J.T. Colonial America in the Eighteenth Century, Chapter 6, University of Toronto. p. 123

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How genealogy got me watching historical drama on TV

Yes, it’s true, genealogy has subtly altered some of my television viewing habits. Historical drama isn’t something that’s ever really been on my radar. I’ve given the genre a few goes over the years and, well, found it wanting: characters that are given contemporary ideologies, beliefs and societal notions, really bad accents and actors/writers/directors just not in tune with how the world they were portraying really worked. It’s nit picking on my part to be sure. And, yes, I get that it’s entertainment. But still…

It all started with the History Channel’s historical drama series, Vikings – a new discovery. I actually found this gem online when I was researching the history of one of my own Roane & Matthews family’s Viking ancestors, Thorfinn “Skullcleaver” Torf-Einarsson (890 – 960), Jarl of Orkney ( He’s one of my 34th great grandfathers. Apparently, he was a badass even by Viking standards – and those were some tough standards! He was immortalized in the ancient Orkneyinga saga (History of the Earls of Orkney) . He even has an English ale named after him: Skull Splitter (

History Channel's The Vikings tv series

Anyway, I came across Vikings and decided to give it a go. Just for fun. I was hooked. I still am. I can suspend my disbelief just enough to imagine the world my Viking ancestors lived in. Even better, this series kills two birds with one stone, as it were. It covers the period when the Norse people began invading eastern England in earnest. So I get to see that world from my Saxon ancestors’ perspective as well – specifically those ancestors who lived in the old kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

Yes, the characters are suspiciously well-scrubbed most of the time, there’s our modern notion of ‘romantic love’ and there’s a bounty of attractiveness. However, what it does – and does rather well – is set up the cultural differences and opposing world views of both the Vikings and the Saxons. In other words, the series does an excellent job of depicting the sense of cultural ‘otherness’ – and all the strangeness and tensions that are experienced when two very different cultures meet, and clash. And, of course, how it portrays the stark, hurly burly, axe-wielding world of the eponymous farmer-warriors.

The fact that I can actually name ancestors who were alive in the historical era being depicted makes viewing even more compelling.

Book of Negroes banner image

I’ve just watched the last episode from the Book of Negroes series. And what a poignant, moving and somewhat emotional roller-coaster of a viewing experience it’s been. Again, the strength of this experience has been rooted in my ancestors’ experience during the American Revolution – specifically, the experience of my African-descended ancestors who were enslaved and free. From Jemimah Sheffey, who was born into slavery in the Virginia of 1770 to free families like the Goins, the Drews, the Christians, the Liggons, the Chavises and the Cleavers; I could catch a glimpse of their world.

The series explores the notion of freedom, specifically from the viewpoint of Aminata Diallo, one of the strongest multidimensional female characters to grace the small screen in quite some time. I could easily transfer her thoughts, hopes and dreams of freedom and imagine what my own ancestors might have thought.

Like Vikings, there is dramatic license to be sure. It is television after all, and meant to entertain as much as educate. Dramatized it may have been, however, one of its strengths was the stark portrayal of the precarious and hostile world free people of colour lived their lives within. It’s a subject not much discussed.

Of all my colonial era black ancestors known so far, I thought mostly of my 4x great grandmother, Jemimah. Around 5 years old when the American Revolution broke out, she wouldn’t see freedom until she was nearly 90 at the close of the Civil War. She was arguably old enough when the Revolutionary War happened to remember it. Growing up, she more than likely heard tales of promises made, dreams of and prayers for freedom offered by that revolution from slaves of her parent’s generation.

What did such thoughts and hopes mean to her and to those from her world? This series raised more questions than it answered. Which, to me, is the mark of a great series.

History Channel's Sons of Liberty series banner

Sticking with the subject of the American Revolution, the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty has also been compulsory viewing. I’m spoiled for choice in terms of ancestors who were actually part of this fight.

I’ve thought about Johann Adam Sheffey, my 5x great grandfather. He left the war-ravaged Sudwestpfalz Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany and arrived in Philadelphia on 20 September 1764 aboard the Sarah.

Image showing Johann Adam Sheffey's arrival in the US in 1764.

Johann Adam Sheffey’s arrival in Philadelphia. The name has been spelt in a variety of ways, including Scheffy, Schaff ,Scheffe and Sheoffe. Johann Adam arrived with his Kiefer, Kettering and Lohr cousins, who were also on the Sarah. This image is taken from: A Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French and Other Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727-1776: With a Statement of the Names of Ships, Whence They Sailed, and the Date of Their Arrival at Philadelphia, Chronologically Arranged, Together with the Necessary Historical and Other Notes, Also, an Appendix Containing Lists of More Than One Thousand German and French Names in New York Prior to 1712 (Google eBook) by Israel Daniel Rupp
Leary, Stuart & Company, 1896

He and his family would find themselves in the midst of yet another war in less than a decade. Whatever his thoughts about leaving one war torn country only to find himself in another, he enlisted early.

However, since the series deals more with the American colonial social elite and their perspective, I naturally think more about my Roane, Matthews and Josey ancestors. And, of course, I’ve thought about that Revolutionary War luminary in my direct line – Patrick Henry, my 6x great grandfather. I think about the how and why these families chose the colonial side over the British side. To-date, I have yet to find any members of these families who chose to fight with the British. Before the outbreak of revolution, they had all been proudly British. Indeed, their stature was due in no small measure to their family connections and history back in Britain. It’s a subject the series doesn’t really explore, but an interesting question for me to ponder nonetheless.

Patrick Henry certainly left a wealth of his thoughts and beliefs from every stage of the rebellion through to the eventual culmination of the war. I have a firm handle on him and I can see those thoughts echoed in the portrayal of the main protagonists in the series. My 7th great-grandfather, Colonel William Roane, left his in various letters. I haven’t seen any letters or journals from my colonial Josey and Matthews ancestors. Their personal thoughts, hopes and beliefs about the fight for liberty remain unknown. All I know is they fought.

The series depicts the messy and chaotic embers of the revolution. The split in pubic opinion and beliefs, the rhetoric, the economics and politics of colonials versus Parliament, the raw emotions – all of these are deftly captured and dramatized.

Genealogy has made history more interesting, relevant and real for me than any history class I’ve ever taken. History becomes more interesting and direct when you can name ancestors who had a personal stake during pivotal moments in time. So, while these shows are entertainment and dramatizations – and not the real thing – they do offer an interesting glimpse into a past that people in my family tree lived through and experienced.

If any of these series are relevant to you in this context, definitely check them out. See what you make of the worlds your ancestors lived in.

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Legislating Slavery in Virginia: Understanding William Henry Roane

Having ancestors who were state and national representatives is a blessing. The main blessing is that their lives were so well documented. Another is the fact that their speeches have been preserved.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then words can certainly be windows to the inner workings of a person’s mind. And my political ancestors left a wealth of words. I know, I’ve been reading them and studying them. Indeed, I’m only a quarter of the way through reading speeches and correspondence left by my 6x great grandfather, Patrick Henry, one of the luminaries of the American Revolution and Governor of Virginia.

image of William Henry Roane

William Henry Roane

However, the focus of this post is on his grandson, my 4x great grandfather, William Henry Roane (17 Sep 1787 – 11 May 1845); the well respected, well-regarded state politician from Virginia’s Brahmin class. A quick note: William Roane served in the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate.

I’d uncovered some interesting facts about William Henry Roane long before I discovered he was my 4x great grandfather. These facts came to light when I was researching the story of Rachel Findley’s 50 year legal struggle to free herself from an illegal enslavement ( ).

I’d read that William Henry Roane, who represented Hanover County in the Virginia Assembly, had introduced two pieces of legislation to that assembly in the early 1830s. Both featured expelling all free persons of colour from Virginia and the gradual reduction of slaves from that state. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Naturally, once I discovered I was one of his direct descendants, I wanted to read those bills.

Let me put William into an overall Roane family context. Collectively, the Roanes were large landowners and large slaveholders who sat at the apex of Virginia society. Relations between male Roanes and female slaves were not unusual. One of the most infamous divorce cases in early Virginian history had Newman Roane (a cousin once removed from William), installing his enslaved mistress as the lady of the house, with command over his wife (Newman Brockenbrough Roane: a historic & unconventional divorce in 19th Century Virginia: ). Newman had scandalized and so offended Virginian society that hey made an example of him.  Newman Roane’s brother, John, married a free woman of colour. The Roanes of King & Queen County listed the births and deaths of their ‘coloured family members’ in their family bible. The list goes on from there.

So I kind of had high hopes for William. What were his thoughts about his own child, George Henry Roane, when he stood before the Virginia Assembly to introduce his two bills? Motivations, it would seem, are hard to ferret out in his case.

William was young when he fathered George. He was 15 or 16 at the time. Which probably means that George – or certainly George’s mother – was owned by William’s father. I have no idea if this made what came next easier or more difficult for William.

He introduced the more famous, or at least more widely covered bills, on 14 December 1832. This wasn’t too long after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in neighbouring Maryland. The number of blacks and mulattos in Virginia – both enslaved and free – far outnumbered the number of whites in Virginia. So white Virginians were nervous. Did William use the zeitgeist at that moment to in a bid to free his son without arousing suspicion or attention? I don’t know. Was his appearance as a staunch defender of slavery a smokescreen? Again, I don’t know. I keep reading and re-reading his speech and it simply doesn’t offer up any clues.

Here are some key quotes from William, taken from his speech (taken from the book  Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South by Lacy K Ford)

“I will speak in favor of eternal, unlimited, and irretrievable slavery”. (Page 123)

Note: The capitalized and italicized words below are as they appear in the original text. They have not been added by me:

I know not, Sir [Assembly Speaker], what are the wishes or opinions of my constituents are on this subject. They do not, they would not, tell me – they shall now know mine. I lay it down as a postulatum, that free white people, free blacks, and slave blacks cannot and ought not to constitute one and the same society. The reasons why they should not, are so obvious and well understood, that it would be but a waste of time to recite them. As a member of the Committee to whom this whole subject was referred, I contributed my humble [might] towards the formation of a scheme to be presented to the House for removing, in the first, all free blacks from the Commonwealth, till the ratio of population between them and the whites attains, at least, that equilibrium, which, in all future time, will give every white man in the State that certain assurance that this is his country; which every slave-holder should feel, and ever shall feel, as far as I am concerned that his SLAVE IS HIS OWN PROPERTY. I will, to accomplish this great and desirable, and I believe, feasible object of a gradual diminution of the present excess of blacks over the whites, go as far as he who goes farthest – keeping steadily and in sacred view the right of property, which their masters have in them. (Page 123)

Just remember, my 4x great grandfather stood before his peers in the Virginia Assembly and said these things.

I’m pretty well schooled on the theatre of politics. And the nature of politics hasn’t changed a whit since William’s day. So I’m left with the question: did he articulate his genuine beliefs? Was this political theatre? Or , was it a kind of performance art – a smokescreen to hide a more personal purpose – a convenient way to remove his son, grandchildren and other slaves with Roane blood from Virginia en masse?

I honestly don’t know. And again, I keep coming back to the fact that when he delivered this speech he was the father of a slave, the grandfather of slaves and the cousin and uncle to numerous other slaves. And he knew this. And still, I can’t decide between political theatre or genuine belief or personal motive.

William walked a very, very, very fine line. The rhetoric, if I can call it that, not so subtly reminds his peers that he is one of them. He is a slave-holder. He is a large slave-holder. He, personally, doesn’t want to deprive his peers of property. He wants to be seen to argue for the greater good of white Virginians. That greater good required a sacrifice. It required the reduction in the number of slaves. I think he had his own black descendants and those from the wider family firmly in mind. It would have been an effective means of removing an embarrassment.

Whatever his motivations, Virginia’s history shows it didn’t work out that way.

What happened to his son, my 3x great grandfather George Henry Roane, is interesting in light of this context. Or rather what didn’t happen to him is interesting. He was not freed by his father or his grandfather Spencer Roane, who was his more likely owner. Instead, at some point early in his life, George was sold to Edmund Christian of Henrico County, VA. George and his family would come to be owned by Edmund Christian’s daughter, Edmonia Christian, and her husband, John Warren.

I know what I want to say at this point. But the entire subject is so (rightfully) charged and emotive; it makes it easy for my meaning to be misconstrued. It’s more than a bit of a landmine. I’ll try. All things about slavery being considered (and yes, you can say with all of its ills, inhumanity, moral evils and injustices) it would seem that great care was taken when choosing a family for George to be owned by. Now that’s one hell of a notion to think, much less write. I’ve put it this way because there is every evidence that his father and/or grandfather wanted George to be owned by a certain kind of person. Kindly? Considerate? Humane? Liberal? I honestly don’t know what word to use.

George (and later his own family) had close family ties with the Christian family. Edmund Christian left George money in his will. George and his wife named about half of their children after Christian family members (others were named after Roanes). What I really mean is this: whether it was Spencer or William who sold him, George wasn’t sold to just anybody. He could have been. He so easily could have been. But he wasn’t. Who he was sold to was a considered choice.

Why not simply free him? Existing laws in Virginia around freed slaves might have had a role to play. In Virginia, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Perhaps his father or grandfather chose not to free him due to this. If they had chosen to not keep George within the sphere of the family, this would be a strong probability. Perhaps, by placing George within the sphere of the Christian family, they may have felt they could still keep an eye on him – but at a distance. Perhaps neither felt comfortable owning a direct blood relation. William’s father Spencer Roane certainly had his own misgivings about slavery. Spencer ceased being a slave-owner when he moved to Tennessee and became its Governor.

Yet, if either of William’s bills had been ratified by Virginia, George would have likely been freed and been forced to leave the state with his family. Either way, why not free him and let him leave? And it’s back to square one. What was William thinking?

So when I re-read the speeches given by William, I have this firmly in the back of mind. And the jury is still out. William Henry Roane began as an enigma for me. He remains one.

You can read the full text of that speech here (be warned, it is a political speech…which means it’s looong!):

Ford, Lacy K. 2009. Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South

More about the subject of William Roane and these speeches can be read in this book:

Dunn, Susan. 2008. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia

William Henry’s Roane brief bio can be accessed via Wikipedia:


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

Family bibles can unlock some great family history gems

Facebook kindly notified me that a distant cousin of mine, Henry J, had posted some items on my timeline. Among the many photos of his family’s memorabilia that he’d posted and shared, there was this absolute gem below:

Inner leaf of Henry J's family bible

Inner leaf of Henry J’s family bible. Click for larger image.

Inner leaf of Henry J's family bible

Inner leaf of Henry J’s family bible. Click for larger image.

OK, it’s not going to be a gem for anyone outside of the wider Sheffey family. However, it was like the Hope Diamond of gems for me and my family research. The image above is the inner leaf of Henry’s family bible. His mother had stumbled upon it some place or another in her house.

The names written inside this bible are for members of the Wythe County and Smyth County Sheffey family in Virginia. Late 19th Centurt and early 20th Century Sheffeys. And, for the first time, I had maiden names for some of the ladies who married into the family. Which meant they were genealogical dead ends no longer.

John Summerfield Sheffey (looking dapper in his uniform) and his wife, Mollie Robinson

John Summerfield Sheffey (looking dapper in his uniform) and his wife, Mollie Robinson, who is cutting quite the style. Click for larger image.

No longer dead ends, I could now take these women’s family stories back another two 9and in one case, four) generations…unveiling a criss-crossing of family marriages between their families and mine.  Oh yes, my family tree on now has many more new branches thanks to this find, particularly relating to the Brown, Robinson and Hill families.

Even better, I had middle names. Benjamin M Sheffey was now Benjamin Moutain Sheffey.  With full names supplied, Ancestry went into overdrive offering up hint after hint. All manner of documents and certificates came to light: marriage, death, birth and baptism records.

Old family bibles, those original databases and filing cabinets….can be worth their weight in gold.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

When ancestral documentation trumps belief: The Harling-Harlan-Harland family

This post could almost be a companion piece to my post When the genealogy mistakes of others leads you astray: Elizabeth Bartellot Almost. I’ve learned quite a bit about family history research since then.

I’ve been intensively researching my Edgefield County, SC Harling family roots. I kept butting up against a brick wall that I had noticed in many other South Carolina-based Harling family trees online. The ancestral trail always went cold with my 7x great grandparents, Ezekiel Harling (1707-1754) and Hannah Oborn (born about 1707). The trees of their South Carolina descendants cite Germany as the place of birth for both. had provided plenty of hints for an Ezekiel Harlan and Hannah Oborn. The problem was, Ancestry’s hints were all for an English couple. So I temporarily ignored these hints in pursuit of any German ancestry records I could find. I was quite inventive. I used every form of the Harling name I could think of, including making it more Germanic by using the spelling Härling. I did find people with the variant spellings of the name. None, however, were the couple I was seeking.

I gave it a week.

Then I started accessing the records that Ancestry was offering for this couple. What a goldmine of information this turned out to be.

Ezekiel Harling and Hannah Oborn 1

Source: U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Swarthmore, Quaker Meeting Records. Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Description: This collection of Quaker meeting and vital records is one of the first of its kind. These records from monthly meetings have been brought together to form the most extensive searchable online database

Synopsis of the above record:

Name: Ezekiel Harlin Jr
Marriage Date: 23 Dec 1724
Marriage Date on Image: 23 Tenth 1724
Marriage Place: Delaware, Pennsylvania
Spouse: Hannah Oborn
Event Type: Marriage
Monthly Meeting: Concord Monthly Meeting
Yearly Meeting: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Title: Births and Marriages, 1693-1808
Meeting State: Pennsylvania
Meeting County: Delaware (part of the Pennsylvania colony at this time)

The above record sent me on a journey of family history discovery spanning 200+ years.

Ezekiel Harling and Hannah Oborn 2

Source: U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

Synopsis of the above record:

Name: Ezekiel Harlin
Marriage Date: 7 Dec 1724
Marriage Place: Delaware, Pennsylvania
Residence Date on Image: 07 Tenth 1724
Spouse: Hannah Obourn
Event Type: Marriage Intention (Marriage)
Monthly Meeting: Concord Monthly Meeting
Yearly Meeting: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Title: Women’s Minutes, 1715-1751
Meeting State: Pennsylvania
Meeting County: Delaware

 Ezekiel Harling was actually born with the name Ezekiel Harlan (sometimes spelled ‘Harlin’). He, and his wife Hannah Oborn, came from a long, long line of English Quakers. I’m going to go ahead and say they were English, and not Irish although both were clearly born in northern Ireland. Their parents and grandparents were English. I’d hate to muddy the genealogical waters by giving them an Anglo-Irish identity that a series of marriage, birth and death records just aren’t showing.

And what an amazing thing that turned out to be. Quakers thoroughly documented every aspect of their lives: their weekly meetings, marriages, births, deaths, excommunications, the travel of members from one Quaker community to another – everything. This enormous body of documentary evidence still exists. And it has been digitized (in America, at any rate).

Through these primary source records, I followed the Harling-Harlan trail back to 16th Century Harland family of County Durham in England. Along the way, I uncovered parts of history I’ve never known.

I’m not a Quaker scholar. I know very little about the religion. However, I do remember being taught that after facing persecution from the Church of England, many English Quakers left for the Netherlands, and from there to establish a colony in Pennsylvania. Or they went straight from England and Scotland to Pennsylvania.  I never knew that quite a number of English and Scottish Quakers went to Ulster and County Antrim in the northern part of Ireland. At least two generations of my Harlan ancestors were born in Antrim and Ulster before moving to Lancaster and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania, along with what looks like the majority of their local and regional religious community.

The Quaker bit explains why cousins within this family married members of their extended family generation after generation. They married members of their own faith. Existing in relative isolation, that also meant marrying someone from their own community or neighbouring communities.

Which explains why family names like Bailey, Breed(e), Gregg, Heald, Hollingsworth, Hoopes, Mendenhall, Pearce and Webb – and many others – appear with regular frequency. You’ll see these names in the records provided above. Over a few generations, this became one, enormous, extended family.

Naturally, I’m curious about how the Harlan name came to be changed to Harling when Ezekiel Harlan came to reside in Edgefield County, SC. I have some educated guesses.

My Virginia-based German-American Sheffey family became part of the English-descended elite that dominated southwest Virginia. They fashioned themselves after the dominant culture in this region of Virginia. The early 19th Century Sheffeys in Tennessee became part of the Scots-Irish community there. The Scheffe/Sheffeys of Pennsylvania and Frederick County, Virginia remained part of the German communities they lived amongst and maintained a strong German identity.

I’m guessing Ezekiel Harlan or his children did the same thing. They fashioned themselves after the leading, and genuinely German, families that dominated their community: families like Ouzts, Dorn and Timmerman. These are the families Ezekiel and Hannah’s descendants married into. ‘Harling’ does have a Germanic ring to it. Or perhaps the next generation of the family wanted to erase their Quaker connections. Or a mixture of both? I think they were partly successful in this. For 150 years, this line was ‘lost’ to the Harlan family. It’s only within the past few decades that it was re-discovered by members of the Harlan family.

The re-discovery thing is kind of interesting. A handful of their Harlan cousins left Pennsylvania for Union County, South Carolina a few decades after Ezekiel had left Pennsylvania. I’ve just located another Harlan branch that came to reside in Edgefield as well. I can only assume this wasn’t happenstance. And by that, I mean Ezekiel must have corresponded with his family back in Pennsylvania.

The records do seem to indicate, however, that connections with the family’s Pennsylvania roots were either lost through time or permanently severed.

It’s a shame. Reading through the Quaker records reveals an interesting and fascinating family history. I, for one, am thankful that the Quakers had one heck of an impressive administrative system – and such discipline when it came to the practice of documentation.

So what’s my takeaway point? Never fear to question established dogma when it comes to family history. If you keep coming up empty handed in your search, and if you keep coming across records that suggest an alternative answer to questions about an ancestor’s lineage…check those records out. Those records could prove a goldmine of information.

If you are researching your Harling-Harlan-Harlin-Harland family roots in America, I can definitely recommend the book below. It has been digitized and is available for free to read online. So far, i have found it to be incredibly accurate in the information it provides. in other words, the digitized records online supports the information provided in this old book. By the way, I’m a descendant of the George Harlan mentioned in the book’s title.

Harlan, Alpheus H., History and Genealogy of the Harlan Family, and particularly of the line of descendants of George and Michael Harlan who settled in Chester County, PA., 1687. 1914.

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Filed under ancestry, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, South Carolina