Black in the USSR: The life of Joseph Jepthro Roane

It’s funny how you search for the story of one ancestor and stumble upon another’s story that just leaves you saying “Wow”.  The story of Joseph Jepthro Roane, a cousin, is a perfect example.

Joseph Roane was born in 1905 in the town of Kremlin, Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the son of John Hampton Roane and Emily Virginia Griggs, both descendants of long-standing free families of colour in Westmoreland County. One of 15 children, Joseph grew up in a happy and prosperous farming family. This family were contemporary cousins to my paternal Roane grandmother, Susie Julia Roane.

Picture of John Hampton Roane and is wife, Emma Virginia Griggs.

John Hampton Roane and Emma Virginia Griggs. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, p. 59. Arcadia Publishing. 

He became an agronomist and trained at Virginia State University. No doubt his intention was to take over the family’s farming business.

apicture of The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia

The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

In 1931 Oliver Golden, an agricultural specialist who had studied at Tuskegee Institute, organized a group of 16 black Americans of various professional backgrounds to travel to Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia to develop an experimental cotton plantation. Joseph and his wife, Sadie Vivian Russell-Roane, were part of this party.

Picture of Joseph Jepthro Roane and his wife, Sadie Vivian Russell

Joseph Jepthro Roane and Sadie Vivian Russell. The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

Joseph would answer the question of why he left the US for the USSR in a series of interviews between 2010 and 2012. The reason was entirely rational and not political. The Depression in America continued to worsen and the USSR actually offered better financial prospects. The men were paid the equivalent of several hundred dollars a month, a fortune by the standards of the Great Depression. By his own admission, Joseph didn’t even know what socialism was. There was a well-paid opportunity on offer and he took it.

While Joseph may not have held any political interests, Stalin’s communist party certainly did. Stalin’s communist party believed that blacks, as members of an oppressed social group, would be key participants in the Communist revolution of the time. By demonstrating racial tolerance and progressive thinking, Soviet leaders were enhancing their country’s appeal to liberal-minded white and black intellectuals around the world. The aim was to secure sympathy for the Communist cause.

Politics aside, Joseph found himself part of a group of African American expatriates who were encouraged by the Stalinist government in the 1930s to work in the Soviet Union building a society free of class and racism. And he tells a telling story with regards to the latter. The only experience of racism he ever experienced in the USSR was at the hands of fellow Americans, who were white, in a Moscow barber shop. Their white compatriots demanded that he and another African American leave. When Joseph relayed the request of the two gentleman to the Russian barbers, the barbers insisted that the two white gentlemen had to leave, not even allowing the two men to wipe the shaving lather from their faces before being ejected (source: Blacks in the Soviet Union (excerpt)

In October 1931 Joseph and Sadie, along with their compatriots, settled in the tiny village of Yangiyul, Uzbekistan.

Map showing the location of Yangiyul in Uzbekistan

Map showing the location of Yangiyul in Uzbekistan

Their group’s mission was to improve on the local strains of desert cotton.  Roane and two other émigrés spent three years crossing Uzbek seeds with American seeds and finally produced a new strain of cotton that took 25 percent less time to mature than cotton in the American South.

Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, c/1934 in Uzbekistan. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, p. 59. Arcadia Publishing.

Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, c/1934 in Uzbekistan. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

Joseph and Sadie had a son while they were in Uzbekistan. Originally named Joseph, the Russians found it a curious name choice. So Joseph Junior was hastily and duly re-christened Yosif Stalin Kim Roane.

When the first three-year contract expired, all the farmers, including Roane, signed up for another three years.   He would be reassigned to Georgia to help operate a tomato-canning plant.

Things took a decidedly less harmonious turn in 1937. All the members of Golden’s group were ordered to adopt Soviet citizenship immediately. Those who did not were expelled from the Soviet Union. Joseph, Sadie and their 6-year-old son Yosif returned to Westmoreland.  Little Yosif arrived speaking Russian, the only language that he knew. Apparently Yosif’s classmates were amazed and startled to meet a fellow American who only spoke Russian and could not understand a word of English.

Joseph balanced farming with social activism.  He was invited to be one of the first three teachers at the A. T. Johnson High School; the new and only African America public high school in Westmoreland in 1937.  He founded the Virginia Farmers of America program for black high school students.  Roane would go on to be a consultant to the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory & Forestry Association.  He founded the Virginia Colored Farmers Association, and was a life-long member of the NAACP, and the Masons.

When I began this journey, little did I know I would have a family connection to Stalin, the USSR or his purges. Like other ancestors, Joseph has opened my eyes to yet another aspect of history entirely unknown to me. The histories of African Americans who left the US in the 1930s for all major points in Western Europe (Berlin, Paris, Madrid, etc) are well documented. It never occurred to me that there were those who left America for Eastern Europe and Soviet Central Asia. And yet, there they are in Vienna, Warsaw, Budapest, Riga, and pretty much any Soviet controlled Central Asian ‘Stan you care to mention.

Cousin Joseph, thank you for the wow moment and an unforgettable story.

You can hear more about his life in the audio podcast below:

Kremlin to Kremlin: The Joseph Roane Story

Note: If the audio player doesn’t appear,you can listen to the podcast by visiting:

For more information about the life and times of Joseph Jepthro Roane, and his expedition to Uzbekistan, here’s some great background reading:

  1. Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland, Arcadia Publishing (Google Books):
  2. Davies, Nick. 1990. The Black Russians.
  3. Russia and the Former Soviet Union, Encarta Africana (excerpt):

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

My working practice for my African American genealogy research

This post is a glimpse into my working practices when it comes to researching black ancestors who were enslaved. On the one hand, it will probably look like Olympic standard mental gymnastics. On the other, I hope it gives a good framework for other African Americans researching their own enslaved ancestors.

In this post, I’m going to concentrate solely on my Sheffey ancestors in Wythe County, Virginia.

A tale of a very tight knit family

Part and parcel of researching ancestors who were enslaved is acquiring knowledge about the family who owned them. Any chance of discovering such ancestors can only be accomplished through the records kept by slave owners. Our enslaved ancestors’ lives were inextricably linked to their owner’s family. Obvious, I know. Still, I’m stating this for a specific purpose. My enslaved Sheffey ancestors were kept together within the extended Sheffey family. I have no overall understanding of how usual or unusual a practice this was. The fact that the black and white sides of the Sheffey family were related may have had a pat to play in this. With an increasing knowledge of the beliefs and quirks of the slave owning Sheffeys, I wouldn’t be surprised if this kinship was behind keeping my black Sheffey ancestors and relations together.

Not only was the family structure of my enslaved Sheffey ancestors and relations kept intact, it definitely seems as though the extended black Sheffeys were in regular contact with one other. It makes sense. My white Sheffey ancestors and kin were a close knit and very sociable bunch of people. Going from family home to family home, with slaves in tow, seems the most obvious way my black Sheffey cousins kept in regular contact with one another and maintained their closeness.

How do I know the black Sheffeys were every bit as tight knit as their white counterparts? The 1870 Census. Whether it’s Wythe County towns like Wytheville, Cripple Creek, Ivanhoe or Black Lick (and Marion in neighbouring Smyth County) – there they all are, my black ancestors, all living near to one another. And through numerous marriage records showing second and third cousins from the different Wythe County towns (and Marion) marrying one another.

In other words, it wasn’t the habit of Sheffey slave owners to split the families of their black relations apart. Which has made researching my black ancestors an easier task than if they had been sold all over the southern states. Research is showing that my black Sheffey ancestors and kin were passed, intact, by my white  Sheffey kin to other Sheffey family members in their Wills.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I'll need for my research. Click for larger image.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I’ll need for my research. Click for larger image.

Now all I need is to find the Wills to actually prove this. Which segues quite nicely back to my opening sentences.

Enter genealogy: Focusing on the oldest known generation of back & mulatto Sheffeys

Let’s take a look at the oldest known members of my earliest known black Sheffey ancestors.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

I’m going to focus on three people: Jemimah, her son Jacob Sheffey and his wife, Elsey George.

Once you’ve identified an owner for an enslaved ancestor, it’s a good idea to do a rough work-up of that owner’s family tree. Slaves were usually passed from generation to generation. Doing a genealogical work-up of a slave owner and his family can provide clues about your enslaved ancestor’s genealogy – from identifying siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins to additional children they may have had.

Once you have done an outline of a slave owner’s family tree, the next step is to find any Wills, estate records, estate inventories (usually done as part of the probate period), tax records, letters and journals – anything that might make reference to slaves by name.  I have uncovered previously unknown family lines through this practice.

If an enslaved ancestor lived to an advanced age (say, seventy or older), you stand a good chance of tracing who owned them when they were born and then all the subsequent family members who owned them and their family. The caveat is this works so long as they were kept within the same family.

I find that it helps my research if I draw some outlines of inter-connections and relationships between enslaved ancestors and how they connect to various owners. Visual aides always help my research. Like the working example below:

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey's parents. Click for larger image.

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes questions to answer and avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey’s parents. Click for larger image.

The image above is a working outline I’ve shared with some Sheffey DNA cousins trying to place their ancestor, Godfrey Taylor Sheffey, into my overall Sheffey family tree. We know there is a connection. The men in their line bear an uncanny resemblance to me and many of the men who are descendants of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Seriously! It’s like the men in Jacob’s line were cloned!

Through plotting the image above, it’s my hunch that Godfrey Sheffey’s parents were Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Laying out all the known, pertinent facts – as they have been in the image above – just makes that hunch even stronger.

However, the image above serves a few purposes. There is more within it than meets the eye at first.

Jemimah’s origins remain a mystery. By that I mean I have no clue who owned her when she was born in 1770. This void means I have no clue about who her parents were, or the identity of any siblings – or what family name her family would have used. Her early life requires a lot more work. She was born before the second generation German-American Sheffey’s (e.g. Daniel Sheffey and his brother Henry Sheffey) arrived in Virginia and became save owners. Daniel and Henry were still children themselves in Frederick County, Maryland. So she couldn’t have originally been owned by them. I’m hoping a trail of Virginia Slave Deeds of Sales will lead me back to her first owner.

Some Deductive Reasoning and Critical Thinking

Now the next bit requires deductive reasoning and critical thinking. These are not ideal tools of the genealogist. However, my previous critical thinking and deductive reasoning has led to some remarkable genealogy breakthroughs.

Our enslaved ancestors’ stories are inextricably linked to the story of the families who owned them. This includes their Properties and Places of residence – I refer to this as P&P.

Here’s a working example:  In order for Jacob and Elsey to have a ‘union’ and produce children, they were more than likely resident within the same Sheffey household. So which one? My thinking is that Jacob and Elsey were owned by Henry Sheffey. And here’s how I came to that deductive conclusion:

  • Elsey’s first child was by James Lowry White, Henry Sheffey’s brother-in-law. Elsey and James were both teenagers when that child was born. So it makes sense that she was owned by James’s father, William White, and not by James. Carrying this deductive reasoning further, it seems highly probable that Elsey was born into William White’s household. William White more than likely also owned her parents and siblings – I’ll come back to this in a bit**.
  • Elsey more than likely became a part of Henry Sheffey’s household through his wife, Margaret White. I’m guessing that Elsey was either a part of an inheritance. And she came with her first born, the son she had with James White. In order for Elsey to meet and be courted by Jacob, I can only see this if he was already established in Henry Sheffey’s household.
  • If Jacob was already part of Henry Sheffey’s household, there is a strong likelihood that Jemimah, his mother, was also part of this household.

Now deductive reasoning requires a paper trail in order to convert reasoning and deduction into fact. Henry Sheffey has stymied me in this. He died fairly young. Some of his sons were raised by his brother, Daniel Sheffey, while others were raised by his brother-in-law, James White. If Henry left a Will, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. Nor have I been able to find any reference to a Will. Nor have I been able to find any probate or estate inventory papers. This means I have no idea what happened to my ancestors when he died. Did his sons inherit them? Were they held in trust by the boys’ guardians? I don’t know. In short, there is no paper trail to follow…yet.

Jacob and Elsey had their first child while Henry was still alive (this was my 2nd Great Grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, Sr). Jacob and Elsey’s remaining 5 children were born after Henry Sheffey’s death. Jacob and Elsey were clearly together. But where? In whose household? That remains a mystery.

What I do know is the trail picks up in the Wythe and Smyth Cohabitation Records that were compiled in February of 1866. The Cohabitation Records cite the last slave owner for each formerly enslaved person cited within it. And many of my Sheffey ancestors and relations are listed within these documents. By and large, all were owned by members of the extended Sheffey family.

In this image, I'm focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

In this image, I’m focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

Intricately Connected Lives

Last Wills and Testaments would answer so many of the questions that I have. And these are proving stubbornly elusive. Wills for Henry and his brother Daniel would answer quite a few. Their children’s Wills won’t provide any answers.  They all died after the end of the Civil War. There were simply no slaves for them to bequeath. Added to this, not all of their children, notably the Reverend Robert Sayers Sheffey, owned slaves.

The two Wills I have mentioned, however, would shed some light on:

  • Which of Henry and Daniel’s children inherited family slaves before the onset of the Civil War
  • How my family members came to be with extended family members like the Morrisons, Spillers Robertsons, Sanders and Porters.

Knowing this would better enables me to understand how formerly enslaved Sheffeys came to reside where they did within Wythe and Smyth Counties. In other words, this knowledge adds missing context to their lives and their histories.

**Now, back to Elsey George, her family, and how their lives were so closely entwined with that of the White family (let’s not forget I’m related to this family too through my mother’s Harlan lineage!).

William White owned extensive land holdings and enterprises throughout Virginia as well as Kentucky (Harlan County) and Alabama (Hunstville, Madison County). His son, James White, expanded upon his father’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in the southern states. William and James moved slaves throughout their various estate holdings in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. And in all the places they owned property, I find members of the George family.

Every. Single. Place.

It’s going to be quite the adventure to stitch the George family story back together. I have yet to find a copy of William White’s Will. James White died intestate. However, his billion dollar estate (in today’s money) resulted in a long and protracted lawsuit between his heirs. His estate holdings, if reports are accurate, were well documented as part of this lawsuit. And I’ve found where all of his estate and personal papers are kept: The University of Virginia Library This collection will be a goldmine of information when it comes to piecing together the George family tree. I’m also hoping it will shed some light on Henry Sheffey’s estate, including which family members inherited Henry Sheffey’s slaves.

 So, let’s recap.

There’s no getting around it. You have to do some genealogy work on the family or families that owned your enslaved ancestors. Yes, it’s extra work. Rather a lot of extra work, if the truth be told. In my case, it was part and parcel of my family genealogy research because the people who owned my enslaved Sheffey ancestors are blood relations.

Once you’ve done a genealogical outline of the family who owned your ancestors, the next thing on your list is to tack down any existing Wills or probate estate inventories that will cite and list the slaves. Provided your enslaved ancestors were kept within the same family for generation after generation, you can trace them from place to place, and by    generation after generation.


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

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?,we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe.  There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:

Read more of this excellent article here:
Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.

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African American Genealogy Research: Using the new Virginia Death Index & 1866 Cohabitation Records in Tandem

I’ve been doing what I call ‘deep research’ for my early to mid-19th Century black ancestors and relations in Virginia over the past month and a bit. The tools I’ve been using is a combination of the Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1912 – 2014, the Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 (Virginia) and the Register of Children of Colored Persons whose Parents had ceased to cohabit which the Father recognizes to be his, 1866.

Sticking with my black Virginian ancestors and relations, I have around 3,000 individuals on my family tree who lived and died in Virginia between 1800 and 1870. Many of the women in my tree were without maiden names. For whatever reason, many of them were listed on their children’s’ marriage certificate under their married name. Too few cited the mother’s maiden name. SO this was something I wanted to address first. It was time their full names were known.

To achieve this, I began with…

The Virginia Death Index.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917 on Click for larger image

To start with, I did a very basic search on the Sheffey name. This brought up records for all Sheffeys who died in Virginia.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917

Click for larger image

This basic search yielded some 400 previously unknown maiden names.

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917

Click for larger image

Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917

Click for larger image

This was a massive result. Maiden names came to light in a variety of ways:

  • The death certificate of their children more than often gave the maiden name of the mother
  • I could easily identify a death certificate for a Sheffey bride if her name was distinctive – or the name of her husband was either given in full (e.g. his middle name was given) or was also distinctive. There are a lot of Marys who married William or Robert Sheffeys in my tree – so anything that could specifically point to which Mary ad William Sheffey a death certificate related to made attaching it to the correct Mary much easier.
  • A Sheffey bride’s death certificate more often than not contained the name of her parents – which again narrowed the field of possible matches quite considerably.

Which brings me to the other bonuses of working with these death index records:

  • More often than not, they contained the names of the deceased’s parents;
  • They contained the county of birth (as well as death) for the deceased;
  • They contained the counties of birth (if known) for the deceased’s parents.

This information is critical for researching enslaved black families in the US. Enslaved ancestors and relations were moved about as they passed from one family member to another, or were sold outside of the county of birth. This is a vital clue I will expand more fully in another post later on in the week.

Armed with 400 maiden names, I could begin to further understand marriage patterns for my Virginian ancestors and relations. For instance, before the research exercise, I only had 3 women from the Bolden family marrying into the Sheffey family in Wythe County, Virginia. Afterwards, I had 11 Bolden women marrying into the family. Which naturally makes me ask what was the connection between these two families? Were they owned by the same family/families? Were the families who owned them related? Friends? Close associates? Was there an even older instance of intermarriage between the two families in the 18th Century? And not all of these families were enslaved – a number of them were families of free people of color and had been so since the 1600’s. So many questions.

Sticking with the Sheffeys in Wythe & Smyth Counties in Virginia, the number of Ward women went from 8 to 13. The number of Clarks went from 16 to 27. Whether it was the Robertsons, Carpenters, Hills, Drews, Findleys, Sanders/Saunders, Mayos, Browns, Brooks, Jones, etc – the number of known individuals from these families increased…significantly.

Solving what made these families so attractive to my black Sheffey ancestors – and what made my ancestors so appealing to them – is a riddle I hope to answer .

One other bonus of these records was the unveiling of second or third marriages for a number of women. More than a few women in my tree seemed to have disappeared after the 1870 or 1880 census. There was a reason for this: their surname changed when they re-married. Armed with a new married surname, I could further trace these women who had seemingly disappeared from the official records.

So, my tree was made more complete with maiden names.

After a very broad search, I could then focus on rather specific searches for individuals. With so many already accounted for in the broad search, finding the correct death records for the individuals in my tree became more straightforward.

As far as the men in the tree were concerned, the bonus was revealing their middle name(s). Middle name(s) made it possible to pinpoint male individuals in other vital records. Which confirmed what I long suspected – the men in my family, regardless of family line, liked swapping between their first and middle names. In other words, William Ormand Bryce Sheffey could be found in Census records as William Sheffey, Orman(d) Sheffey, and Bryce Sheffey. Even better, his WW1 draft card showed all 3 names together. Which means I could pick up his trail from 1910, where I had ‘lost’ him, until his death in 1968.

Another bonus for the men was discovering that they had moved counties within Virginia. Like the women who remarried, I could pick up the men’s trail within the county of their death. They hadn’t disappeared at all – merely moved.

1866 Cohabitation Records

I’m going to stick with my Sheffey ancestors once more.

Armed with a more complete family tree, I decided to revisit the 1866 Children of Parents Who Ceased to Cohabit for Wythe and Smyth Counties to see if I could unveil any new discoveries.

Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866

Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 (Wythe, Virginia) Click for larger image

There were Bolden family groups that I now knew to be relations. So I added to my family tree – although I am still researching how all of these Bolden family groups relate to each other. The same is true with the Sanders, Browns, Peoples, Harveys, Wards and other family groups with surnames I now knew to be significant.

I did the same with the 1866 Cohabitation Register, and again I made plenty of discoveries.

The image above is pretty indicative of the challenges faced in researching enslaved ancestors and relations in America. We have a William Bolden living in Wythe County in Feb 1866 – when this information was recorded. All of his children were born in Chesterfield County, VA. Presumably, he too was in Chesterfield, owned by some as yet known slave owner. His children, born in Chesterfield, were resident in Manchester County, VA at the time of this register. Note their owners. They were separated from their parents and owned by 3 different people, who may or may not have been part of the same slave owning family. It would be highly challenging to know these young people were related to each other without this register. That’s the importance of registers like this.

As it stands, I have some work to do in researching the Bolden family not only in Wythe County, but Chesterfield and Manchester Counties as well.

I don’t have all of the pieces to the puzzle. Nor do I know how some of these new puzzle pieces fit together. However, what I do know places these family groups into a new context. When I look at census returns for 1870 in particular, I can see the families my Sheffey ancestors and relations lived next to and near weren’t just neighbours…they were kin, either through blood or through marriage. There is an intricate mosaic of connections which paints a picture of a community crafted through kinship and familial relations. And this mosaic of community existed until the Great Migrations of the 1890s, the 1920s and the 1930s. And even then, these family groups didn’t strike North on their own, they went as part of extended family groups.

So to sum up…

This approach is a lot of work. My advice is to pace yourself. I’ve spent almost two months researching all of my black Virginia family lines using this approach. The payoff, however, can be incredible. It was for me.

The very last, and perhaps best, result was pushing quite a few of my enslaved relations lines back one more generation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been overjoyed at being able to trace enslaved ancestors back to those born at the start of the 19th Century. I was even more overjoyed to discover a handful who had been born as early as 1770. I now have nearly 30 enslaved individuals born between 1740 and 1770. While this is a paltry sum compared to the number of enslaved ancestors I had who were born during that timeframe, it’s a start. It is a remarkable find.

If I can do it…so can you.


Virginia Death Index 1853 – 1917:

Virginia Death Index 1912 – 2014: not available online

1866 Cohabitation & Abandoned Children Registers (Library of Virginia Online):

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

A suggestion for how could vastly improve its “List of All People” search function

Spoiler  alert: This post will be marginally in the realms of the genealogy anorak. Or to Americans, the realm of the genealogy nerd/geek. I know, I know, there’s already the patina of geekiness associated with genealogy already. How could things possibly get more geeky? Well..  ;)

I’m hoping developers will read this and take much of what I’m going to cover on board for future development of the service.

I’ve spent the past 3 weeks working my way through the All Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 records database on  When you have a family tree the size of mine – nearly 30,000 people – applying the information contained in a death certificate to the correct person isn’t always straightforward or easy on Ancestry. For me, this has to do with numerous people born around the same time in the same county or state bearing the same name.

Rather than just whinge, I think I’ve come up with a pretty straightforward ‘fix’ could implement.

I’ll elaborate.

For those of you with family trees on, the image below will be familiar to you. It’s the list of all people area on


This is the landing page area of the ‘List of Individuals’ for my main family tree

This is the area of Ancestry that could definitely, absolutely and positively benefit from some additional programming. Specifically, the search  functionality. For those of us with very large family trees, additional filtering options would greatly aide our efforts in finding specific individuals in large family trees – or at least filtering out a larger number of individuals.

For example, look at what happens when I try to find William Roane using the existing search function in this part of

150 William Roanes is a LOT of people to try to assess for relevance for a specific record you are trying to attach to a specific individual.

150 William Roanes is a LOT of people to try to assess for relevance for a specific record you are trying to attach to a specific individual.

150 William Roanes! Depending on why I’m looking for a specific individual, a list like this can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to go through to (hopefully!) find the specific William Roane I’m looking for. While knowing and using middle names can cut this list down dramatically, I can still end up with quite a number of individuals to sort through while looking for a specific ancestor or relation. Using the list above, if I searched for William Henry Roane, I would still have around 15 individuals. If that doesn’t work, then it’s ‘Plan B’ time and I can do a search for all William H Roanes – which can bump the number of individuals up to 25 or so.

Yes, you can scan these results and use dates of birth and counties  of birth and death as a guide – but these aren’t always helpful. Actually, the death records I’m pouring through provide this information, which is missing from a number of individuals in my tree. Lol not that this is always helpful as death record informants can provide misinformation.

And yes, one can always use a middle name or initial to further filter results. However, if middle names and/or initials aren’t known or already given, you’re limited to using just a first and last name. Again, the death records I’m looking at are providing even this fundamental bit of information.

What I’m suggesting is a far more finessed search function as shown below:


Image for illustrative purposes.

In trying to apply information gained from marriage and death records, I’d like to be able to search using a number of filter data:

  • Names of parents: for this. I’d probably use the father’s full name (if known) and the mother’s first name. I’m finding that a significant number of women in my tree remarried or were married before they married one of my ancestors or relations.
  • Name(s) of spouse(s)
  • Birth year (with +/- number of years option)
  • Place of residence (this would pull individuals based on their birth place, place(s) of residency, place of death and burial location for any individual in your tree)

Sticking with my William Henry Roane example, I have a scenario that still presents some researching issues. A staggering number of William Roanes married Elizabeths – or women with common derivations of the name Elizabeth: Bessie, Betty/Bettie, Lizzie, Liz, Liza, Eliza, Lettie/Letty, etc.

Now, if I could filter a search to look for A William Roane born around 1850 and was born in and/or lived in  King and Queen County, Virginia with Jack Roane as a father and Mary as a mother and Lizzie for a spouse…I’d have a list of 5 men to look at. By the way, that took me around an hour-and-a-half to work that one out using the current search functionality. Five people is a far easier number of people to investigate than, say, 25.

Remember, this search function would only search for individuals who are already in your tree.

There is another use for this more finessed search functionality, especially in my research for African American ancestors and relations who were enslaved and separated through that system.

There are certain families my African American relations seemed to prefer marrying into than others.  I’d like to search my tree to see how many Roanes in Virginia married people from the Quarles family. Filtering on this kind of criteria would better enable me to assess family relationships within the various broken Roane family lines. For those ancestors who were enslaved, it could help pinpoint slave owners.

At the moment, this kind of analysis is difficult, given the size of my tree. I know the information is locked away within the details of thousands if individuals. Being able to do a very filtered search would make such an analysis and investigation far, far simpler. And quicker.

One of the reasons why my tree is so huge is my attempt at bringing together what 300+ years of slavery tore apart. And what 300+ years of living in the margins of society as free people of colour also wrought. I am re-connecting lost and forgotten genealogies stretching back to the mid 1600s. I do so in the hopes that other African Americans can benefit from my research, find their place in the family tree that I’ve built over the years – and understand who they come from, who they are related to, and re-connect with lost and forgotten lines of the family.

Or, as I put it in another post, giving slavery and the marginalization of people of colour the finger.

So developers, I hope you can take these pointers on board. And if there’s a job at going…I have all kinds of UX (user experience) ideas  ;)

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AncestryDNA: So what does it take to get a DNA Circle?

So I’ve previously shared my frustrations with the whole DNA Circles thing. Namely, the fact that I have a distinct lack of what AncestryDNA refers to as DNA Circles.

For those of you not in the know, DNA Circles on Ancestry.Coms DNA testing service purportedly go beyond finding a common ancestor with your DNA matches. These circles are meant to link you to additional AncestryDNA members with the same common ancestor…thus creating a Circle of people who are all related. Nice and simple, isn’t it? :O)

Given the size of my tree and known DNA matches for my family lines such as Sheffey, Roane, Harling and Josey –  I shared my frustration about the fact that I didn’t have a single DNA Circle on  I felt (and still do) that this was a legitimate gripe…and a gripe shared by many using the service, especially those with African American lineages.

Two months ago two names suddenly appeared on my AncestyDNA landing page. Now, the sting in the tail was these two names appeared as “New Ancestry Discoveries” and not as DNA Circles. And, of course, neither name was familiar to me. Then, just as suddenly as these two names appeared, they disappeared just as quickly.

So you can imagine my surprise when these two individuals appeared once more today.


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I have no Medders or Altmans on my family tree. So, in order to determine how these two people could conceivably relate to me, I had to do some digging.  And this is what I discovered:

I clicked on the link for John Smith Medders.


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I then clicked on “See Your Connection” in the right column…for obvious reasons. And got this:

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This left me none the wiser about who John Medders was or how we might be related. So I clicked on the “Relationship” link, hoping this might shed some light.

What this gave me was a list of members I shared varying degrees of DNA with:

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Well, one thing became quickly apparent: I was definitely in the realm of the Medder family. Each and every individual was a member of various Medders family groups on Ancestry.

The second thing that quickly became apparent was that I had a solid DNA match with two individuals – the same two individuals that are shown in the third image in this post.

In order to “see what I could see’, I selected the “View Relationship” for both individuals. And that’s when things quickly clicked. I’m only going to show one of the relationships to illustrate the discovery.

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The surnames of Flowers, Gregory and Moore are exceedingly popular surnames in America. However, taken collectively, and with roots in Pennsylvania, and then the Carolinas, I knew exactly what family in my own tree these names related to: the Harlan / Harling family. Yep, another Quaker family connection via the Quaker Harlan family.  The Harlan / Harling family had married Flowers, Gregory and Moore for nearly three centuries: first in England and then northern Ireland. And continuing such marriages in Pennsylvania and then in the Carolinas.

In this instance, Hannah Flowers b. 1722 (a cousin many times removed), married a Joseph Ashton. Their daughter, Hannah Ashton, married William Thomas.  Hannah and William’s son, William Jr, married Celia Alice Gregory (yet another Quaker cousin through the Harlans). The Meddars family shown for my two DNA connections above are descendants of William Thomas, Jr and Celia Alice Gregory.

So, at the very least, I am a distant cousin to at least John Smith Medders.  I may yet be a cousin of Mary Ann Altman. At the moment, I haven’t come across any familiar family names in the family trees I’ve seen for her.

So, while these two DNA matches don’t have a single Harlan or Harling in their tree (yet!), I get the connection.

I don’t get the lack of DNA Circles though.  Of which I still don’t have a single one. Go figure.

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The benefits of using FamilySearch’s individual databases

It almost goes without saying that FamilySearch has a veritable cornucopia of free resources for genealogists and family history enthusiasts. However, it would seem, many aren’t getting the most out of this exceptional free research services. Why? Most FamilySearch users stick to the general database search option.

Did you know there are literally millions of free records available on FamilySearch that aren’t accessible via the main search option? There are. In truth, the vast amount of FamilySearch’s collections can’t be found via the search on their site. From my own experience, some of the most brilliant family history and genealogy gems I found were through the many individual databases available on FamilySearch – and not its  main search engine.

The article below steps you through why delving into these individual records databases needs to be an important part of your research practice:

Millions of Free Records on FamilySearch Can’t Be Found via Search: Here’s How to Access Them:

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The Global Family Reunion: 6 June 2015 (NYC)

Great Family Reunion homepage screen grab

This sounds like an incredibly fun and informative event. It’s such a shame I have a scheduling conflict and can’t make it.

All the same, here’s a link to the website. It has all manner of great information about the event, including presenters, presentation/seminar information and a whole lot more.

You know I’ve blogged quite a bit about how we’re all connected. The people behind this project are proving it :)

The Global Family Reunion website:

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Charlotte Brooks: A poignant & powerful firsthand history of slavery

I had the pleasure of a long chat last week with one of my newly found cousins, Donya. She and I share a myriad of ancestors and relations in Edgefield County, South Carolina.

And no conversation with Donya is complete without touching base about one of our shared ancestors, Martha Ann Brooks, who was born in Virginia and lived out the rest of her life in Edgefield. Martha Ann’s is quite the story, one that I’m leaving to Donya to tell when she’s ready.

So, while Martha Ann Brooks isn’t the subject of this post, a conversation about her lead to a book that is the subject of this post. As difficult a read as this book has been, I am eternally grateful to Donya for putting this book on my radar.

So…what book is this?

Cover image for The House of Bondage by Octavia Albert

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 written by Octavia V. Rogers Albert (Octavia Victoria Rogers, 1853-1889). Aye, that is quite some title! I’m shortening it to The House of Bondage.  The Book was published in 1890 by Hunt & Eaton (New York).

This book is powerful and poignant in equal measures. It is filled with equally beautiful and brutal life experiences.

What I love about this book is its simplicity. At its heart is a conversation between two women, the author, Octavia Albert, and former slave, Charlotte Brooks. This isn’t fiction. It’s non-fiction relayed in the form of conversations had during various interview sessions. The language is simple enough for a 12 year old to understand – and grasp the significance of the world being discussed.

Charlotte’s fortitude is formidable. The word ‘unbreakable’ springs to mind. Charlotte’s collective life experience during her enslavement – and the experiences of those she knew – is unflinchingly relayed. It is honest. It is stark. And at times, the experiences she relays are brutal. Charlotte doesn’t use overblown language. It’s the homespun delivery of the world she knew that is the real power behind the story of Charlotte’s life and the world she reveals.

One completely unexpected historical nugget came to light. It touches on the religious tensions that existed between slaves who were raised as Christians in Virginia, sold and sent down to Louisiana – and their Catholic Louisiana slave owners. I’ll let Charlotte’s words speak for themselves.

She never asks for sympathy. I have the feeling that even if she had, she wouldn’t have expected to receive any. Nothing in her life, or the lives of those she knew, would have authored that expectation. Two short paragraphs about the fate of all her children is evidence enough of that. I’ll be honest, this is one of two points in the book when I had to stop reading and set it aside for a while.

Yes, there are plenty of short first hand slave narratives that were gathered as part of the WPA effort. Where Octavia Albert’s book differs is Albert’s decision to focus on one former slave’s story. In doing so, the author struck a rich seam of every day slave life. Charlotte pulls no punches in talking about her life and the lives of those she knew. And Albert pays her the ultimate respect any author can give his or her subject – she pulls no punches in relaying Charlotte’s story.

This book is even more special to Donya and I. We’re in the midst of trying to determine if Charlotte Brooks was related to our ancestor Martha Ann Brooks. We’re trying to determine if Charlotte was owned by the same Virginia Brooks family that owned (and were relations of) our ancestor Martha Ann. Was Martha Ann one of the siblings Charlotte left behind in Virginia when she was sold and taken to Louisiana? Or could she and Martha Ann be cousins? We’re sifting through the available records to determine one way or another if there was a blood connection between the two women.

I’ve said it before and I will repeat it once more: American’s aren’t taught the true, unbiased, unvarnished history of the United States. We’re only taught the ‘best’ parts. The bits and selective pieces that are the easiest to be proud of. We never get taught the other side of the coin, those dark chapters, the ones that any nation ought to have seared into its collective memory in order to never make such mistakes again. And to learn from them. I know this because my genealogical research has unearthed all manner of historical truths that I was never taught in school – and I was blessed to attend one of the best schools in my state. From the history of the Quakers and their contribution to Colonial America, to the importation of Southeast Asians and Chinese in the early colonial era (and use as indentured servants), to the fact that Maryland was established as the only Catholic colony, to the practice of slavery being entrenched in all 13 colonies… I have learned more about American history through genealogy than I have through any other means.

I highly recommend this book.

The House of Bondage is available from all major online book sellers.

It is also available to read online for free via:

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Filed under AfAm History, Black History, Race & Diversity

Genealogy family relationship chart

If you’re like me, there are times you get the ocassional brain freeze when it comes to cousins who are ‘X’ times removed. Here’s a handy chart that tells you what’s what with those tricky family relationship definitions…


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