The Roanes of Virginia: 2 families with the same surname. Are they related or not?

What could possible be confusing about two immigrant families coming from the same region in Europe and landing in the US around the same time?  When it comes to pre-Revolutionary War Era Roane family…there’s plenty.

One group of early 18th Century Roanes were Scots-Irish in their origins, descendants of the northern Irish landowner of Scottish origins, Archibald Gilbert Roane.   The other Roane family hailed from England, descendants of Charles “The Immigrant” Roane.

Untangling A Right Genealogical Mess

As I’ve previously written, these two men were not directly related to one another. If I had the power to correct every single Roane family tree that shows Charles as being the father of Archibald, I would do it in a heartbeat :o)

Many years ago, like any newbie amateur genealogist, I figured countless online family trees had to be correct. I mean, they had been published for years – long before I began my own genealogy adventure. What wasn’t there to trust? The majority of these tress had merged both of these Roane family groups into one family. I took the information they contained as gospel. About a year later, I realized just how wrong these trees were.

It’s the only time I have ever had to delete an entire family from my tree and start again from scratch. However, it taught me a valuable lesson: never, ever take what’s in family trees as the gospel. The fact that most of the trees didn’t have citations or documentation should have been a clue. You live and you learn.

Part of the confusion, admittedly, was the realization that the American authors of these trees didn’t understand the distinction between England, Scotland and Ireland. They didn’t know the history of the UK and Ireland either.  A basic knowledge of a country or region’s history can guide your genealogical research. Historical knowledge can raise red flags. That’s what happened to me with the Roanes back in their respective countries of origin. The authors of these incorrect trees assumed that two people born around the same time with the same name were one in the same person, regardless of where they lived. So a Robert Roane, who clearly lived and died in Midlothian region  of Scotland, with a wealth of christening, marriage, death and property records to show that he was mainly domiciled in Midlothian, was presented as being one and the same as a Robert Roane who lived and died in Sussex County, England – and was sometimes a resident of London. The Scottish Roane was a wealthy Scottish merchant who was part of the sphere of influence for Queen Mary of Scotland. The other, a wealthy courtier and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

A myriad of official records and personal accounts clearly show these were two different men. Yet, there they are, on one online tree after another, where they are shown as being one in the same person. An extra layer of complexity.

Now there may or may not be a shared common ancestor between these two very different Roane families. Both claim descent from the ancient Norman/French noble house of de Rohan. And, of course, there is no proof of this. Until their direct male descendants do DNA testing, I can only take this as speculation that has yet to be proven.  For the time being, I’m treating them as two different families.

Two Families with The Same Name In Colonial Virginia

It gets even more confusing for these two families in the American colonies. The Scots-Irish Roane settled in two places when they first arrived in the American colonies: Pennsylvania and Virginia. The English Roanes went straight to Virginia. Virginia is where things gets interesting. Both Roane families were in the premier league of Virginia society. And, like any Division 1 family, they married into other Division 1 families. Which means these two Roane family groups became connected through marriages – marriages with families like Ball, Brockenbrough, Henry and Upshur/Upshaw. This, in turn, means that autosomal DNA from families like Ball, Henry, Brockenbrough and Upshur/Upshaw runs through both the English and the Scots-Irish Roane lines in the US. It makes it a challenge to know which Roane family group you’re a descendant of if you don’t know your direct line of Roane ancestors.

It’s especially difficult and confusing for African American descendants of either of these families (which I’ll get to directly).

Both Roane family groups were large slave-owning families. Generations of Roane men, from both family groups, fathered children with slaves. Pinpointing which male from either of these Roane families fathered your African American Roane family line is like looking for a needle in a haystack. And the shared DNA thing is just an added curveball, plain and simple.

There are a LOT of African American descendants from both these houses who are actively wanting to know which Roane family group they belong to in order to pinpoint their direct line and then uncover the identity of the man who fathered their line. I receive numerous emails from African American Roanes every week asking for advice, insight and my input into helping them along this path of discovery. Trying to untangle the knot of oral family history (which isn’t always correct), complicated family inter-connections, and interpreting DNA match results takes patience.

Working Through My Roane DNA Matches

I only made my breakthrough in identifying William Henry Harrison Roane as the progenitor of my Roane line through an exceedingly lucky break. Quite literally, through the luck of the Irish!

There were three Scots-Irish Roane brothers who arrived in the American colonies. Two headed for Virginia while one, the Reverend Andrew Roane, lived in Pennsylvania.  Luckier still, Andrew’s descendants largely remained in Pennsylvania. Which means this was as pure a Scots-Irish Roane line as anyone is likely to research in the US.  I say pure because this line never married into the same families as the Virginia Scots-Irish Roane lines before the outbreak of the American Civil War. In terms of DNA testing comparisons, this one Roane line is gold dust.

My DNA matches with Andrew’s descendants proved there was a genetic link between me and the Scots-Irish Roanes. After months of meticulous and laborious DNA results triangulation, I could eliminate a direct line of descent from the English Roanes (although I shared DNA with them through those pesky marriages to other prominent Virginia families). I could also whittle down my direct line of descent within the two Virginia-based Scots-Irish Roane lines until I finally hit my direct line.

I’ll give you an example. In terms of DNA matches, all of William Henry Harrison Roane’s living descendants who DNA tested with AncestryDNA were my closet matches (1st cousins ‘x’ times removed. They typically show as 4th cousins on DNA testing services).  William’s siblings’ descendants were the next closest series of DNA matches (2nd cousins ‘x’ times removed. They typically show as 5th cousins on DNA testing services). The descendants of William’s uncles and aunts were one more generation removed (3rd cousins ‘x’ times removed. They typically show as 6th cousins on DNA testing services).

My DNA matches with English Roanes has been consistently more removed than any I share with Scots-Irish Roanes. My English Roane DNA matches go from 8th cousins to ‘distant’. This suggest that we’re not linked by English descended Roane men. We’re linked by society ladies from the same family who married into both Roane families. And these unions had to have happened two to three generations prior to the birth of my 4x great-grandfather, William Henry Harrison Roane.  Which my Roane family tree actually shows. This makes sense. Families like Ball, Brockenbrough, Henry and Upshur/Upshaw had arrived in the colonies generations before either of the Roane family groups arrived.

A Little Bit About Triangulating DNA Matches

A note about triangulation. You have to compare your DNA matches with male descended lines and female descended lines. Which means you have to have a fully worked up family tree with both male and female lines to gather the surnames you’ll need to search on. For instance, it was a 50/50 shot whether it was William or his father who fathered my direct Roane line. It was comparing my DNA matches with his mother’s Henry family that clinched it. In order for me to have Roane and Henry DNA, I had to be descended from a child of a Roane-Henry union. That would be William – whose descendants were my closest DNA matches compared to any other line of Roane descendants.

Knowing the lineages of the women in your tree is every bit as important as the male lineages. And nowhere is this more important than DNA match triangulation.

Andrew Roane is my Roane family litmus test.

Some Roane Family DNA Matching Interpretation Tips & Tricks

So, if you’re an American Roane descendant reading this (and especially an African American Roane descendant), here are some suggestions:

  • See if you match with a living descendant of Andrew Roane with DNA results posted on the various DNA/family history sites.
  • If you do match a descendant of Andrew Roane, and that match is between the 3rd to 6th cousin level, then you are more than likely a descendant of the Scots-Irish Roanes.
  • If you don’t have a match with Andrew Roane’s descendants, then you are more than likely a descendant of the English Roane family group.
  • I don’t have any 7th cousin level matches, so can’t offer any interpretation for that result.
  • Once you’ve determined which Roane group you belong to, keep comparing your matches until you find a line that matches you more recently in time than any other. The chances are high that this is your direct line. There is a caveat:
    • Work back quite a few generations to ensure there are no linking families in your family line (two sisters marrying two brothers, or a pair of cousins from one family marrying siblings or cousins in another family). It happens more than you think. And this will skew your DNA cousin matching results. Think of these as potential false positives.
    • You will need to keep searching until you find family lines that aren’t connected by a linking family. This one is important. When I researched the ancestral lines of two people who married an aunt of uncle of William Roane, I discovered they were descendants of my Harling ancestors. Which made these two people my genetic cousins. Put simply, I had a set of Harling cousins marrying a set of Roane great aunts and uncles. This meant I had to completely ignore their Roane descendants in terms of making DNA comparisons. There simply is no way of saying ‘just look at the shared Roane DNA and ignore the Harling DNA’. I wish there were.
  • Trust me, the temptation is just to great to force your DNA match results to fit the information in your tree. Only refer back to your family tree for surnames to search for in your match results. However, forget about the specific individuals in your tree.
  • Don’t let your family history assumptions influence your match interpretations. Actually, forget everything your family oral histories have passed down. You have to triangulate like Dr Spock from Star Trek: dispassionately, focusing solely on the results.

Another consideration for African American Roanes is where your ancestors lived in Virginia. If you know where they were born, lived and died-  that, in and of itself, might give you some clues as to which Roane group you belong to if you’re getting Roane DNA matches.

The slave owning Scots-Irish Roanes are most strongly associated with King William and Henrico Counties in Virginia.

The slave-owning English Roanes are most strongly associated with King & Queen and Gloucester Counties.

Essex County & Richmond are tricky – both Roane family groups had land holdings and slaves both of these places. I’m still working on an overview of which family group was where in Essex County. For instance, which of the two families were in Indian Neck, Tappahannock, etc. This will also be a clue.

Ultimately, it will be a combination of finely-researched genealogy, DNA testing and patient and thorough triangulation that can unlock the mystery of which Roane family group you belong to.

With this is by no means definitive, also look at popular names in your family, especially names that keep recurring for family members born between 1800 and the 1880s. I’ve discovered that this was one way the formerly enslaved people of color indicated which white family line fathered them. Male names like Charles and Robert were popular for black and white descendants of the English Roane line. Henry was a popular first and middle name for black males who were descendants of William Henry Harrison Roane. Patrick, Spencer, Anthony and Wyatt were also popular male names associated with Scots-Irish Roanes.

This Research Has Inspired Something Even Bigger

The complications with Roane family genealogy fits quite nicely into one of my main goals in my genealogy adventure. And that is building one of the biggest online, public, slavery-era family trees for African Americans. One that is fully researched and trusted. It’s a project that I’m currently applying for grant funding to realize. I’m thankful that my current family tree is already a resource for African Americans researching families associated with Virginia and the Carolinas. However, I’d like to go bigger, deeper and further back in history. And that requires full-time research commitment for quite some time.

In the meantime, I continue to chip away. And always look forward to sharing whatever I find along the way.

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6 thoughts on “The Roanes of Virginia: 2 families with the same surname. Are they related or not?

  1. I very much your post, in part, because my surname is Roane, – but unrelated to your Scots-Irish or English, Protestant Roanes. – Among the great mid-nineteenth century migration out of Ireland, was a Roman Catholic Roane family,with descendants all over the country today. Though distinct from your tangled Roane roots, I thought you should know, there’s another Roane line out there. – Best of luck with your project, and thanks again for the interesting article. – Christine Roane

  2. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » The Roanes of Virginia: 2 families with the same surname. Are they related or not?

  3. If you go back to the 1700 in any family group you most likely have more things that are not correct than are correct. Like how many of the Flinner family were later Fleenor, Fleener and they swap the spelling around again.
    Census takers were not best of spellers either.

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