My 18th Century Virginia Ball family genealogy challenge

imaging showing Left to Right: Mary (Ball) Washington (My 1st cousin and George Washington's mother), Martha (Dandridge) Custis Washington (First Lady), Colonel Robert "King" Carter (acting Governor of Virginia), and Thomas Lee (Governor of Virginia)

A tiny fraction of some of my ancestors from the extended Ball family tree. Left to Right: Mary (Ball) Washington (My 1st cousin and George Washington’s mother), Martha (Dandridge) Custis Washington (First Lady & 3rd cousin), Colonel Robert “King” Carter (acting Governor of Virginia & 2nd cousin), and Thomas Lee (Governor of Virginia & 2nd cousin)

The time has come for me to grapple with my 18th Century Virginia Ball family ancestors. If that makes me sound more than little reluctant…it’s because I am. The genealogy for this family  online is a mess. A hot mess. It’s worse than the genealogy for my Roane family ancestors – and that’s saying something. I had to delete my first Roane family tree in its entirety and start from ground zero.

I have put this off for years. Literally. I’ve put it off because the very idea of tackling this family’s ancestral history and descendants is the stuff of genealogy nightmares.

It’s a good thing I love a challenge.

There are a few reasons why now is the right time for me to tackle this part of my family tree.

To begin, the Ball family is what I refer to as a ‘linking family’. Part of the Premier League of colonial Virginian families, the Balls were a part of the Who’s Who of 17th and 18th Century Virginia. Almost a century’s worth of labyrinthine marriages connects the Balls to families like Byrd, Carter, Chinn, Churchill, Custis, Edwards, Fox, Lewis, Lee, Mottram, Parke, Payne, Roane, Shackelford, Spencer, Stewart, Sa(u)nders, Washington, etc. Understanding how the Balls are related to each enables me to understand how I am connected to all of these families.

There’s a practical reason for the research. And it has nothing to do with famous or illustrious relations. On the one hand, this is my family and, like any genealogist, it’s about having an accurate family tree. On the other hand, these families were the largest slave holders in Virginia. More than a few of the men from these families sired children with their slaves. Which explains why I have so many DNA cousins, both black and white, who are connected to these families. For instance, I have a dozen or so African American Custis DNA matches on AncestryDNA, Gedmatch and FamilyTree DNA. That’s on top of the two dozen or so white DNA Custis cousin matches on the same DNA services.

The connection lies somewhere within this side of my family tree.

There are a few reasons why this will be a daunting task:

Common family names

I understand where people have gone wrong in researching this family – and how these mistakes have become ancestral ‘fact’. When you have around 8 William Balls, all born within a few years of each other, confusion and mistakes are bound to arise. And when all of these Williams have the rank of either Captain or Colonel – something that should make it easier to distinguish between them – this too doesn’t shed any light on which Colonel or Captain William Ball you’re looking at in the course of doing some family research. Middle names go some ways towards distinguishing one from the other. However, in many of the cases I’ve seen thus far, middle names aren’t known.

Ultimately, Last Wills and Testaments have been excellent source material for working out family group relationships. Other researchers might insist that so-and-so was a son or daughter of a Ball family ancestor I’m researching. If that name isn’t cited in a parent’s Will, I won’t include it in my family tree. It’s a hard and fast rule that is serving me well.

My caveat to this are DNA tests. I’ve worked with a handful of black and white DNA cousins from this side of the family. We’ve shared DNA test results and worked together to pinpoint the ancestors we share in common. We’ve developed a habit of making a note on the applicable ancestor’s online profile about DNA test verification.

Multiple marriages

Life spans were short for many back in the 17th and 18th Century. People married more than once. And women tended to have children with each man she married. So there is a slew of half siblings and half-relations generation after generation, each marrying into the same families within the same social strata. It’s endogamy on steroids.

This skews my estimated cousin ranges (whether someone is a third, fourth,or fifth cousin, etc) on DNA testing services.

Multiple marriages and maiden names

Multiple marriages can be an absolute nightmare when viewed through the genealogy lens. Especially when it comes to trying to determine the maiden name for a woman who has married two, three – and sometimes four – times. In too many family trees, a woman’s married name is used in lieu of her maiden name.

Take a name like Dorothea Spotswood Custis Parke Lee (I’m making this name up to illustrate a point). It looks harmless and straightforward enough. It isn’t. A seasoned genealogist has all sorts of questions when looking at a name like this.

  1. This could be her full name. She could be a Lee by birth, with her family throwing in paternal and maternal family surnames for her middle names. It was a common naming practice back in the day.
  2. She could be Dorothea Spotswood, with subsequent marriages to a Custis, then a Parke, and finally, to a Lee.
  3. She could be Dorothea Spotswood Custis, married to a Parke, and then to a Lee.
  4. She could also be Dorothea Spostwood Custis Parke, married to a Lee.

You get the idea. Correct maiden names matter. Because, and I can assure you on this, there will be women who had any of the names given in the 4 examples above. Only one of them will be correct in terms of an ancestor you’re researching.

It can really make you feel a bit like…

Not using a correct maiden name causes all manner of confusion that can take days, weeks or months to figure out.  In my worst case scenario, it took me a little over a year to finally prove that a woman listed as Frances Roane, seemingly married to a cousin, William Roane, wasn’t born Frances Roane. William Roane was her second marriage. Born Frances Upshur, she first married William’s cousin, Robert Roane. Hence the name ‘Frances Roane’ on her marriage certificate to William.

That year-long research was entirely avoidable…if only the trees she appeared on had used her correct maiden name. Maiden names aren’t easy to find. My golden rule of thumb is this: if I’m not 100% certain about a maiden name, I leave it blank. I’ll make a public note to cover the name used on a marriage certificate and continue to search for her family origins.

One clue is the age a women was when she married. In the 18th Century, it wasn’t uncommon for a 15 or 16 year old girl to marry. Nor was it uncommon for her to have first child at 16, 17 or 18. So if I see a marriage certificate with a woman in her 20’s (or older), I treat it as a second marriage until otherwise verified. In other words, I don’t use the surname listed on the marriage certificate until I am 100% certain that this was indeed a first marriage.

Family size

The Ball family, including all of its allied families, is enormous. I had this notion that the elite families of the time had small-ish families. Perhaps 4 or 5 children. Not this lot. With or without multiple marriages, I’ve seeing families with 9, 10 and, in some cases, 11 children. Most of the children survived until adulthood, married and, of course, had plenty of children of their own. And, of course, they married into the same pool of families. The word ‘labyrinthine’ is apt.

Just like other parts of my family tree where endogamy was prevalent, the extended Ball family is giving heart palpitations. Ancestry’s family tree view doesn’t seem to cope very well with generation after generation of cousins marrying within an extensive extended family. Ancestry’s ‘relationship to me’ feature doesn’t cope very well either.

For instance, I can have an Ann Adams, a 1st cousin 9x removed, marrying a Robert Cheatham, who is also a 1st cousin 9x removed. Yet, Ann might be displayed as ‘wife of 1st cousin 9x removed. Or Robert might be displayed as ‘husband of 1st cousin 9x removed’. In any case, one or the other of them will lose their ‘cousin’ status and become  just a spouse of a cousin. Which, of course, has a knock on effect for my AncestryDNA matches. If Ancestry sees this person as just a spouse of a relation – and not as a relation of mine in his/her own right – that knocks out their entire ancestral line from DNA matching hint results. Frustrating isn’t the word. This is happening throughout my tree.

In the meantime, I have an action plan. I made the decision to ignore pubic family trees entirely. I also won’t be consulting Family Collection Records (this too are filled with mistakes). I will limit myself to original records only…basically creating a Ball family tree from scratch.

As part of this process, there will be a few trips to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), where I’ll be working with specialist family historians. This will primarily be to work on the more difficult branches of the Ball family, those with scant records or information.

The research will be worth the effort. An accurate family tree for the family in Virginia will better enable me to match descendants from the wider family to the correct branch on the family tree. Which, in turn, will enable me to better understand a bevvy of DNA matches.


12 thoughts on “My 18th Century Virginia Ball family genealogy challenge

  1. Hello, I am very interested in researching Ball Ancestry. I have two lines back to Daniel Ball (DNA circle on Ancestry along with 16 other descendants so far). He lived 1794-1831. This Ball line moved from Virginia into Granville Co. NC as noted in a book about history of the county. I’ve researched the family back into Northern England using various Ancestry resources. Would love to collaborate with Ball descendants.

    • Correction
      Daniel Ball 1745-1794., son of…Daniel Ball 1713-1794, son of Edward Ball1670-1726.

      Daniel Ball, Jr’s descendants in my tree are Osborn Ball, Chesley R., George N. and my grandmother Ida Florence Ball.

      A Ball uncle and nephew married sisters to create my two Ball lines. They were sons of Daniel Ball Sr.

      Another phenomena to add to the miix is that they named some children after the mother’s maiden name. Osborn’s mother was Elizabeth Osborne. My other line is James, his son James and Nancy C. Ball my great gramdmother.

      I have many points of confusion for this family
      There are so mamy James Ball’s living all over NC at about the same time. Amy of them in my tree reportedly lived in 1794. Not sure that is accurate.

  2. Are you going to publish a book? I am beginning to believe that all of my mother’s ancestors and half of my father’s date back to this era and the families that you are discussing. I would happily purchase this, as would many others more than likely.

  3. Hello my names is Jerame Dees like to contact you, have all same ancestors you do above, Lewis , ball, Byrd, Robinson/Robertson family. William robinson married Nellie ball. In the tomb George Washington is beside Anne Washington , wife of William robinson. DNA is the only way to answer time old questions. George Washington 9th great grandfather is William ‘braveheart’ Wallace . Mt Vernon doesn’t have that info but my DNA will help prove it. Thanks if you are interested be glad to hear from you. Read you love a challenge I could use that drive to help find the truth. History as it was . Thanks

  4. My GG grandfather, Joseph Ball, was born in Virginia in the early 1800’s and moved to Ohio by 1830. I am using DNA matches to identify common ancestors. Please contact me if you are interested in sharing DNA info.

  5. I am trying to figure out if we are looking at the same “tree”. I can trace back to a James Ball (b. 1620) in a simple line using online sources but the hedge maze out from there is a bit over my head.
    James Ball – John Ball – Moses Ball – John Ball (revolutionary war) – Horatio Ball – Edwin Ball – Luther Clyde Ball – Richard C Ball (my maternal grandfather)

    • Hi John,

      I’m afraid those names are unfamiliar to me. There may be a connection – just one I haven’t found and/or explore yet. I’m descended from Captain William Ball IV, who left Barkham, Berkshire and settled in Lancaster, Virginia. This line married into families like: Washington, Mottrom, Carter, Armistead, Pugh, etc.

  6. I am a ball descendent, my great grandfather (x9) was colonial William ball, his son Joseph Ball my great grandfather (x8) is Marys brother who married Augustine and had George the first president 🙂 My grandmother is Rushia Gay Ball, daughter of Thomas Jefferson Ball, anywho, I love learning info on my ancestry. Feel free to reach out,

  7. I am descended from John Floyd Ball (1815-1859). He was descended from Isaac Ball (1758-1819). Isaac was descended from Richard Ball (1715-1790). Richard was descended from John Ball (1690-1741).
    My question is–who is John Ball’s father? There are several family trees online that say it is Col. Joseph Ball, the father of Mary Ball. Do you have a suggestion about how I can find the answer?

    • Hi Jeff. Property records might open up a new line of investigation for you. Try to find early property records for your John. Look at other Balls whose properties were either adjacent to, or very near, your John Ball. Brothers, for instance, might subdivide property bequeathed to them by a parent. If there are Balls who are close to your John’s property, start doing a workup on them using a mirror or research tree. Look for their probate records and deeds. It’s an arduous process, but worth it in the end. I wouldn’t consult lineage books or other trees. I learned that lesson the hard way years ago when I first started researching. I hope this helps.

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