Case Study Part 2: Attempting to break through Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian’s brick wall

This case study is a continuation from Research case study: My lost connection to Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian of Charles City County, Virginia (

The Genealogy Adventures geneticists are currently grappling with the DNA segmentation and sequencing work necessary to confirm the identity of the white Christian family male who is my 4x great grandfather. Whoever he turns out to be, DNA is ultimately pointing towards Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian (born about 1630, United Kingdom, and died in Virginia) as his direct ancestor.

While they are busy beavering away at their monumental task, I’m picking up the gauntlet to determine the identity of Thomas Christian’s parents. This is an equally monumental task. Thomas Christian has presented his American descendants with a centuries old brick wall. 

I am not daunted at the prospect. I have been here before quite a few times. My article Ann St. Clair of Wytheville, VA: Finding my lost connection to the St. Clair / Sinclair family ( is the perfect illustration of my successful research work in this area. I covered how we identified the white father of my 3x great grandmother, Ann St. Clair of Wythe County, Virginia…and the process we went through to identify his father.

It’s a good thing I’m never daunted by genealogical cold cases. When it comes to Thomas Christian, his isn’t simply a cold case – it’s frozen. No one has any true idea of who his parents were. This is a topic I will return to at the end of this case study.

First stop – British lineage and antiquarian regional history books

My first stop in researching had to be British lineage books. When it comes to researching pedigrees back in the Old Country, I won’t use American lineage of family history books. I have simply been burnt too many times due to errors. If I’m researching my ancestors back in their respective homelands, I will only use resources from their country of birth. Wherever possible, I will only use primary sources – unless a secondary source corrects an error in the primary source (and only if the secondary source contains sources and citations I can refer to).

Numerous American lineage books cite the Isle of Man as Thomas’s birthplace. Frustratingly, none cite sources for this. Naturally, this information has been incorporated into a staggering number of online family trees. Said trees also cite two different Manx men as Thomas’s father. I took all of it with a grain of sand as the trees didn’t have any sources or citations. What I did do, however, was scribble some notes, including the names of the two Manx Christian men, as items to research.

While I eventually discounted both men as Thomas’s father (see the last two sections), I was inclined to believe one thing: a strong case began to emerge that Thomas indeed had a connection to the Isle of Man. It’s the ‘how’ that is going to make this such a fascinating journey for 2019.

As is my preference, I began searching for British pedigrees and lineage books.After a couple of hours searching on Google Books, I found what I was looking for, which you will see below.

I began to build a Manx Christian family tree based on the pedigree chart below. If I’m going to disprove or prove Thomas’s ancestry, this was something that had to be done.

Note: to see larger images, click on the individual images.

Pedigree for the Christian Family of the Isle of Man:

Pedigree chart taken from: The History of the County of Cumberland: And Some Places Adjacent, from the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time: Comprehending the Local History of the County; Its Antiquities, the Origin, Genealogy, and Present State of the Principal Families, with Biographical Notes; Its Mines, Minerals, and Plants, with Other Curiosities, Either of Nature Or of Art, Vol. II, by William Hutchinson, 1794 – Cumberland (England) via Note the myriad of spelling variations for the Christian surname as you work your way through the pedigree chart.

The first thing to note is that Thomas doesn’t appear anywhere. No…I wasn’t going to get lucky like that. I didn’t expect to. Then again, there are plenty of gaps in this pedigree which focuses on detailing two specific Christian descendants: 1) those who inherited the family’s estates; and 2) those who married well and/or had notable descendants. In other words, not every child born to a couple had detailed descendants lines.

When choosing an anchor Christian to build a tree from, it made sense to begin with the gentleman below, John McChrystyn. My reason for starting with him was simple. He is the oldest known and confirmed progenitor of the Manx Christians.

The first three confirmed generations of this family only reference one child in each generation. I highly doubt that three generations of this family had only one child. The subsequent and better documented lines show anywhere from six to twelve children per married Christian family member – generation after generation. 

The image below depicts a fairly standard number of children people within this family were having:

The next two images illustrate some of the challenges of working with the Christian family pedigree.

In this image, we are looking at Ewan McChrysten, son of William. While he had 5 children, none of them are cited by name. Further online research hasn’t revealed any of his childrens’ names. Things like this are big research hurdles to overcome.

In this image, we are looking at the children of William Christian. In this instance, we know their names, but nothing further. While I have been able to find half of them via paper trails, the other half remain untraced.

Location, location, location

In the course of researching as many individuals cited in the pedigree chart as possible, new facts came to light. The Isle of Man was ground zero for the Christian Family from the 1300s onwards. However, from the early 1500s, the family branched out to Cumberland in England. In the early 1600s, they branched out further into London and Middlesex County, Lancashire (Liverpool), and Ireland. This means there are six places to search for Thomas’s parents. While I have a hunch that Cumberland and the Isle of Man are the strongest candidates for his origin story – I can’t discount London, Middlesex County, Lancashire or Ireland. Due diligence demands research in all six places.

What I was hoping (okay, praying) was going to be a relatively straightforward research project suddenly became more complex with so many widespread places to research.

A rose by any other name…

As I’ve mentioned, one thing became abundantly clear when I spent a few hours pouring over the above pedigree: only a fraction of this family was thoroughly documented in this pedigree chart. In other words, a picture began to emerge that it was likely that Thomas descended from a Manx Christian who wasn’t named in this pedigree. Or, he descended from one of the many males who didn’t have a lineage included in the pedigree. 

Where was the most likely place for Thomas’s ancestor to be? 

I began with his name: Thomas. This was a family who named their children for family members. So which Manx Christian line featured the name Thomas? In the above pedigree, the answer is simple…none of them. Thusfar, I have found six Thomas Christians born on the Isle of Man between 1400 and 1640. So far, Thomas wasn’t a common name in this family. His name wasn’t going to be a very useful clue, not where the family pedigree chart was concerned.

However, looking at the names of Thomas’s sons, they had names that repeated throughout the Manx Christian family: John and Charles. And, to a lesser extent, James. Edmund was a repeated name among Thomas’s Virginia descendants – and so it was among the Manx Christian family. 

There is one Manx Christian male name that was conspicuously absent for Thomas’s Virginia descendants: Ewan. Most of John McChrysten III’s (John III < John II < John I < William) descendants named at least one son Ewan; even his female descendants. Yet, there wasn’t a single Ewan among the Virginian Christians. This is another reason why I don’t believe Thomas descends from John McChrysten III, which the vast majority of trees claim. Clearly, there was a celebrated Ewan McChysten/McChristian/McCristen – a man of note. It’s surprising that the name didn’t travel with Thomas. It’s something this can’t be ignored or overlooked.

Still, I was left none the wiser as to where Thomas fit into the Manx Christian family tree.In this instance, using naming conventions as a genealogical clue was a big ole bust.

So, to get some ideas about potential couples to research, I peeked at some family trees once more.

Let’s look at the two men claimed by Thomas’s American descendants as being his father.

William “Illiam Dhône” McCristen

Approximately 90% of the online family my trees claim William McCristen is the father of Thomas. He had a son named Thomas, who was born in 1641 (Manx baptism record). 

Careful research would have eliminated him as a paternal candidate. I was initially suspicious due to the discrepancies in the years of birth of my ancestor Thomas, and this William’s son Thomas. Okay, no one seems to know when Thomas Christian was born. Considering the birth of his oldest known child, and his marriage, it’s believed Thomas was born closer to 1630 than 1640. There’s just no getting around that.

Secondly, William’s son Thomas is fairly well documented. For instance, he never stepped foot in the American colonies. It’s doubtful he ever left Britain at all. He was a very successful merchant and shipbuilder in Liverpool. He grew rich from trade, as well as building, owning and operating ships…and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Here is a snippet about William’s son Thomas.

The Thomas Christian born in 1641, son of William Christian, cannot be the same man as Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian.

Daniel McCristen

Next up is Daniel McCristen. Daniel has the distinction in around 10% of the family trees I have seen as not only being Thomas’s father – but the father of 5 Christian men who arrived in Virginia in the 1600s. 

Again, these trees have zero sources of citations to support this claim.

I don’t see how anyone could reach that conclusion. Nothing is known about Daniel’s life. No marriage record for him has been found online. Indeed, the only time I have seen his name has been strictly limited to this: simply as the son of John McCristen III. 

What I do know is this: Daniel had to have been born before his father died in 1511 (probate year, and given in his internment records). There is no way he could have fathered a child around 1630. It really is as simple as that. Daniel was another dead end.

So…where do we go from here?

With so many gaps and holes in this family’s history, there really is one thing to do. I’ll be spending a week researching them on the Isle of Man this year. I will digitize every applicable record, and build a more complete family tree for the Manx Christians. Truly, it’s the only credible way to crack this stubborn brick wall.

If I strike out on the Isle of Man, next up will be a trip to Cumberland. And, if that doesn’t yield an answer about Thomas’s parents, it’s a trip to the National Archives in London.

GA Live S02 E08: Special Guest Bernice Bennett

Episode 8: Bernice Bennett

Join Brian and Donya as we welcome a special guest, Bernice Bennett, to kick off our Black History month broadcast series.

Ms. Bennett is a genealogist, author, producer, and host of the popular Research at the National Archives and Beyond! BlogTalkRadio show. Her guests include nationally recognized historians, genealogist, book authors, and family researchers.

Ms. Bennett is also the recipient of the first Ida B. Wells Service Award from the Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passages for her dedication to broadcast the stories about enslaved and indentured ancestors of African descent.

Join us on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at 4pm via

Research case study: My lost connection to Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian of Charles City County, Virginia

If you have been a regular follower of my recent genealogy adventures, you will know the past few months have seen me eyeball deep researching my father’s ancient maternal roots along the James River corridor in Virginia. I have previously written about this journey in the article Ghosts in the DNA: The lost diversity of early colonial Virginia (

Unravelling this tale has resulted in some side journeys as I research the enslavers, and their enslaved people, who lived along the James River. Both the enslaved, and their enslavers, are my ancestors. Researching either group of people informs how I piece together a robust research strategy in order to reveal more of my family’s history.

My journey has brought me to the Christian family of Henrico, Charles City, Goochland, and New Kent Counties in Virginia. I initially thought this part of my journey was an off-ramp or a cul-de-sac. By this I mean that it would be an interesting detour with no real implications for my ancestry – apart from a select few members of the Christian family who enslaved my 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane, his wife, and their children. It turns out that this road is far from being an off-ramp taking me away from my core James River genealogical research. Nope. I’m on a parallel road that will connect back to my main research at some point.

I’ll explain.

So how did I get on this side journey?

My paternal grandmother, Susie Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey’s, older sister, Ella Bates Roane, married Thomas Matthew Christian of Charles City County, Virginia. 

Thomas’s Christian family were descended from a long line of free people of colour. Thanks to tax records, land records, freedom affidavits filed at court (free people of colour had to go to court to prove they were legally free), probate records, court cases, etc I built out Thomas’s family tree. 

Digging around in my Christian family DNA matches, I found matches who were descendants of Ella and Thomas. And then I began to find Christian DNA cousins, black and white, by the dozens who weren’t descendants of Ella and Matthew. These individuals should only be relations by marriage. And, as such, we shouldn’t share any DNA as we have no common ancestors. Yet, there they were…and so many of them!! 

Added to Christians, I had strong matches on descendants from families close allied to, and entangled with, the Christians, and resident in the same counties I’ve cited: Minge, Shields, Collier, and Warren, to name a few of the families.

Somewhere, in my father’s maternal direct line, there’s a Christian family member. The natural, initial question was who?

Developing a research strategy

When it comes to cracking a nut like this one, a supremely old DNA cold case, an informed, robust, and resilient research strategy is needed. My research strategy looks something like this:

  1. Return and interrogate Thomas Christian’s ancestry for any families linked to George Henry Roane’s ancestry. I found one. There was a marriage between a Christian and one of the sisters of my 7x great grandfather, Patrick Henry (George Henry Roane’s great grandfather).While this marriage explained why I matched a handful of white Christian descendants, it couldn’t explain most of them who, on paper, should still have been relations through marriage only ;
  2. Determine if Thomas Matthew Christian’s line descends from the white, British Christian family (this is currently ongoing);
  3. Review my DNA matches to see how they stack up to George Henry Roane in terms of cMs and SNPs shared to triangulate generational difference (Ancestry DNA already estimated matches from the 4th to ‘distant’ cousin level). Working with this data helps me to visualize the different degrees of relations. This work also points the way towards identifying the likeliest candidate(s) for shared ancestry;
  4. Examine the other surnames among my Christian DNA matches, paying particular attention to surnames I know we’re allied to the white and black Christian families. This stage of the process enables me to focus on specific Christian lines that are the most likely to lead back to our common ancestor. For instance, Christians married Shields in Virginia after they started marrying Colliers. Indeed, Christians and Colliers were marrying each other back in the Isle of Man in Great Britain (it’s believed that this is where the Christians hailed from at the time they began to arrive in the Virginia Colony). Therefore, Colliers should match me at a closer generational level than the Shields;
  5. Identify which white immigrant Christian whose family tree I should build. Who was the most likely white, male Christian to be my ancestor? There were at least 5 British Christian men who landed in Virginia in the 1600s: Thomas, Charles, Gabriel, Richard, and William. Only Thomas was in the right place: Charles City County. The core first names used within Thomas’s white line mirrored those in George Henry Roane’s line in a manner none of the other white Christian families of Virginia did. I was willing to roll the dice and begin the task of tree building with his line;
  6. Re-examine what I knew about George Henry Roane’s life, interrogating every repository and archive I could think of for more documents and information for him; and
  7. Re-examine George Henry Roane’s lineage for potential clues.

George Henry Roane’s history provides an overlooked clue

This part of the case study should really have the subtitle There’s Something about George Roane. Just for the simple reason that there is something about this man. His story really has only barely begun to be told.

After Emancipation, he was a farmer. His sons, would go on to become a Justice of the Peace, another a policeman, yet another a councilman, and yet another a successful entrepreneur. These achievements played out during the early Jim Crow Era.

I returned to the Will of the man who was his second-to-last enslaver: Edmund Christian. Yes, you read that surname correctly! Christian

Edmund Christian’s 1851 Varina, Henrico County, Virginia Will and Codocil:

Note: The George named in this will is my 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane, with his wife and children. The Susan that’s mentioned is Susan Price, who married my 3x great grandfather Patrick Henry Roane (George’s son. Patrick is named in this will too). 

(???)= word(s) that are indecipherable in the original document.
I Edmund Christian of the County of Henrico in the State of Virginia make and declare the following as and for my last will and testament.

I give to my daughter CHRISTIANA in addition to what she has under my feed of the fifth of January 1844 all that she may owe me at the time of my death and all the property in her possession which I purchased at the sale of her husband’s estate of at any time since.

I give to my granddaughter JUDY MINGE CHRISTIAN a little girl named CAROLINE and one thousand dollars and also any increase the said Caroline may have to my grandson EDMUND C MINOR a little boy named WILLIAM and to my grandson GEORGE G MINOR a little boy named HENRY; the said CAROLINE, WILLIAM, and HENRY being children of a woman named HARRIET. And I give each child of my son WILLIAM that may be living at the time of my death of born within ten months thereafter a slave as near as may be to the age of the child that the slave will belong to.

I give to my daughter EDMONIA the following slaves to wit: ELIZA, the wife of GEORGE, and their six children to wit: PATRICK, GEORGE, PRISCILLA, ANTHONY, EDMUND, and JOE, and also a mulatto girl named SUSAN and the increase of the females of any of the said slaves whether born before or after my death.

I give to my daughter CAROLINE the following slaves to wit: KELLY, HARRIET, ABRAHAM and FANNY, and the increase of the females of any of them whether of (can’t read) other than her husband or his representatives.

And in further trust that at any time before the same shall so devolve on such next of him, the trustees or trustee may (???) The said sums of twenty thousand dollars, or either of them or any part thereof in stocks or other property or (???) so investing may well The whole of any part of such stocks or property, and invest the proceeds thereof or any surplus interest of profits in other stocks or property or land (???) or such proceeds of surplus on good security and whatever may be so invested or so level-out shall be upon the same trusts that are before disclosed and these may from time to time as often as to (???) trustees or trustee shall seem advisable be unchanged in the more of investment or the whole of any part of the trust – subject – provided the proceeds be invested on the same trusts.

I appoint my son WILLIAM, my friend LOFTON A ELLIOTT and my son-in-law GEORGE G MINOR executors of this my will and direct that they shall not be obliged to give security. I also direct my estate not to be appraised.

In witness whereof, this will is signed by me this tenth day of March 1851, after first striking out on Page three the words “while he sometimes (???)” and the words ” or marriage ” and after investing in Page 2 the words “or profits thereof and on Pages 2 and 3 the words “or profits” in 3 places.

(Signed by Edmund Christian, with Seal).

The foregoing will was acknowledged by Edmund Christian in the presence of us who were present at the same time and subscribed this will in his presence.

P G Bayly
John D Warren [husband of Edmonia Christian, and the last enslaved of George and his family]
William G Warren
H B Tomlin

It is my desire that my daughter EDMONIA may take from the furniture that I may leave what furniture she may require for chamber furniture; and that my carriage and horses may be for the use of my daughters Edmonia and Caroline.

Though my servant GEORGE ROANE who has been in mindance of me will be subject to the management of my son WILLIAM, yet I wish him exempt – so far as practicable – from any liability to be sold for my son’s debts. George has been a faithful servant and I wish my son to give him annually about thirty dollars.

Signed by me this eleventh day of March 1851.

(Acknowledged by Edmund Christian and witnessed by the same men who witnessed his will).

I have read and archives literally hundreds of enslaved-ancestors Wills and estate inventories. I have seen enslavers leaving bequests to some of their enslaved people: clothing, tools, trinkets, etc. –  even freedom. But never money, much less an annual annuity. 

Note too how differently George was treated in comparison to Harriet and her family…All while remember they were both enslaved.

It’s worth noting that $30 in 1851 was a significant amount of money. To put it into perspective, $30 in 1851 is equivalent in purchasing power to $866.32 in 2019. Was Edmund making a provision that would have enabled George to buy his freedom, and that of his family? Possibly. While it’s an intriguing notion, I haven’t found anything to support that.

Just what the neck was going on here?

Quick back story: George, his wife Eliza, and their eldest son Patrick were sold by George’s grandfather, Spencer Roane, to Edmund Christian right before Spencer Roane quit Virginia for Tennessee with his wife Anne Henry, a daughter of Patrick Henry. 

I’ve thought that Edmund was chosen because he was a kindly man (ok this is slavery we’re talking about, so I’m not comfortable with the word ‘kindly ‘, but can’t think of a suitable word to use). However kindly Edmund may have been, I think Spencer Roane had another motive for selling his grandson and great grandson to Edmund Christian. I believe Spencer was sending George from his white family on his father’s side his white relations in his mother’s side.

Pay particular attention to the codocil. I initially thought George was left this because he was the great grandson of Patrick Henry, and the grandson of Spencer Ball Roane, who was a leading American political figure in his own right. These were facts everyone in George’s sphere knew. 

However, now I’m thinking Edmund left this annuity to George because they were related to one another.

Did George go from one enslaving family member he was related to to another?

Image showing the only places in my dad’s part of the family tree that could directly connect with the Christian family. I am specifically seeking a Christian family male at the 4x grandfather level, resident in Henrico County, Virginia, and old enough to have fathered a child around 1790, with biological ties to families like Minge.

While there are other lines in my father’s ancestry that could be hiding a Christian ancestor, it makes sense to begin this part of the journey within George’s immediate family. After all, he was enslaved by a Christian family member who made an incredibly unusual bequest in his Will. 

George’s paternal line is done. A question mark hangs over his mother, Elizabeth’s, maiden name. Was she Elizabeth “Betsy” Christian? If so, she could be Edmund’s sister, making George his nephew. It would explain dozens upon dozens of white Christian, Jordan, Fleming, Pleasants, Woodson, Shields, and Minge DNA cousins who are my 4th, 5th and 6th cousins.

Eight weeks of wrangling with cMs, SNPs, and records consistently brings the team to the man below, William Christian of Cherry Bottom in Charles City County, Virginia. The manner in which the DNA is stacking up points to one of his son’s being my missing Christian ancestor – the man who would be George Roane’s grandfather via his mother.

I’ve been doing this kind of research for a long time. I have learned to listen to, and respect, my hunches. These hunches rarely let me down. Eventually, one way or another, my hunches are usually proven to be correct. Different research methodologies and records keep leading me back to this family line.

William Christian married twice. I’ve already ruled out the sons he had with his second wife, Sally Atkins. They were simply too young to have fathered any children around 1790, when George Roane’s mother Eliza was born.

Researching his sons by Elizabeth Collier, I have ruled out all but 4: William “Wicked Willie”, Henry, Jones Rivers, and Edmund. 

Wicked Willie is proving the most likely candidate, albeit for fairly superficial reasons. Of the 4 brothers, Willie was the right age and in the right place at the right time. According to local history and lineage books, Willie had quite the reputation for hard drinking, hard living, partying (18th Century Style), and sleeping around. An unmarried man, prone to excessive drinking, with a property filled with young enslaved women doesn’t require much in the way of math. However, conjecture isn’t proof. 

Willie never married and left no known white children. If he had other enslaved children, presuming he is indeed the father of Eliza, I have yet to come across their living descendants in my DNA matches. This is an unfortunate wrinkle. To-date, the team has identified white enslaving father’s of my mulatto answers by comparing my DNA to that of their white descendants, alongside a paper trail.

The best we can hope to achieve is triangulating matches with the white descendants of his siblings, which is going to be tricky at best. It’s always best to compare DNA to descendants of the individual you’re looking at.

Going further back in time, my DNA trail leads back to Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian – a man who has presented a centuries old brick wall. I’ll be writing about the research I’ve been doing in the Isle of Man Christian family in my next article. Yes indeed, the team is trying to smash through this most stubborn of brick walls.


This is yet another example of why it’s important to use a well-researched paper trail with DNA. DNA alone could never answer the research questionof how, exactly, I connect to the Christian family. The best DNA can do is point towards specific avenues to research. There’s rarely an “ah ha, this is your ancestor” moment when it comes to DNA alone. Without a well developed and researched Christian family tree in Virginia, I wouldn’t have a clue about which ancestral Christian family line to interrogate further, much less specific individuals to research. 

If there’s any central message to be taken from this case study, let it be that. DNA is but one hand, a paper trail is another. Both are needed.

GA Live S02 E05: Writing your family’s history

Episode 5: Writing your family’s history

This week we discuss how to document your research. People don’t just use three ring binders anymore. The information is now place on the world wide web so all can see it. We are going to go in depth about writing a blog and book to keep your research handy and helpful for years to come.

Join us on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at 4pm via

GA Live S02 E04: Lineage societies & poorly documented ancestors

Episode 4: Lineage societies & poorly documented ancestory

Have you ever tried to join a Lineage or Heritage society just to be turned away because you didn’t have enough documentation.This episode will focus on issues surrounding poorly documented ancestors and the need for more societies to accept and incorporate DNA research as part of the application process.

It’s not just prestige that gets people interested in joining lineage societies. Some societies have genealogical libraries that are only open to members (or only open for free to members). The opportunity to network with other people who have similar ancestry is also a benefit. There is also a very strong possibility of you meeting a genetic relative in a lineage society (someone who is descended from the same person as you), which gives you the opportunity to exchange family information, and maybe even discover new family artifacts, documents, records, and photos that you never knew still existed.

Other reasons for joining a lineage society include bringing awareness to the particular group or time in history that the society celebrates, participating in the society’s charitable endeavors (some engage in charity and public service, while some do not), getting that membership certificate for your wall, being able to contribute your own genealogy research to the society, the thrill of accomplishment when you are accepted as a member, and the opportunity to get out and socialize with people of similar interests to yours at meetings. Illustrating a far richer and diverse American history is also a benefit.

Last, but by no means least, understanding a society’s research requirements will introduce you to genealogical best practice when it comes to your research.

We apologize for the technical glitches in this broadcast.

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The 1898 Phoenix Riot: Essex Harrison, Eliza Goode, and South Carolina’s black voter suppression

The current reports of black voter suppression in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have made me revisit two late 19th Century South Carolina voter suppression riots that had tragic and devasting impacts on my Old Ninety Six District, South Carolina kinsmen and women: The Parksville Riot (1884) and The Phoenix Riot (1889), which would see scores of extended family lynched, indiscriminately murdered, or run out the state.

I have already written about the Parksville Riot, and how that black voter supression-fuelled riot impacted on my Yeldell cousins. In this article, I will discuss how the Phoenix Riot led to the brutal death of one cousin, Essex Harrison, and the senseless killing of another cousin, Eliza Goode.
The Phoenix election riot, occurred on 8 November 1898, near Greenwood County, South Carolina. A group of local Democrats attempted to stop a Republican election official from taking the affidavits of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. The race-based riot was the outcome of increasing tensions not only between the Republican and Democratic parties, but also White Americans and the area’s black population.

This is a complex history with numerous moving parts. Neither voter suppression riots appeared out of the ether. There was a clearly demarcated road with numerous signposts that led to both tragic events. I will briefly touch on the major signposts leading up to the Phoenix Riot in order to provide a fuller picture of how this riot happened, and the immediate results that followed in its aftermath.

Not the same parties we know today: Republicans, Democrats, and the 1968 Southern Strategy

In order to understand the tensions that existed between the 19th Century’s Republican and Democrat parties, we need to see the difference between the two parties as we experience them today – and the parties they once were. The year 1968 would see a radical shift in the political ethos of both parties .
In 1968, George Wallace ran as a third-party presidential candidate against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Wallace ran on an explicitly segregationist platform. Of the two main presidential candidates, Humphrey had been the main champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate. Nixon, while no civil rights activist, rejected an overtly racist platform. Southern white racists, who felt abandoned by both parties, flocked to Wallace’s cause, winning him the Deep South states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and Nixon campaigner, reviewed voting trends between 1948 and 1968. Phillips viewed the Southern voters in those five states as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies.

President Nixon shrewdly played a Southern strategy by promoting affirmative action in employment, a wedge issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (John Skrentny,The Ironies of Affirmative Action, University of Chicago Press, 1996). This strategy soon produced the racial party alignments that prevail today.

I would argue that the pre-1968 Republican party resembled the centrists and moderates of the post-1968 Democratic party; it most definitely did not bear any parity to the progressive wing of the modern Democratic party. In contrast, the pre-1968 Democratic party resembled the modern Tea Party and Evangelical strands within the post-1968 Republican party.

The contrast and distinction between the modern face of these two parties, and their earlier pre-Civil Rights Era iterations, is an important aspect to grasp in order to understand the genesis of the Phoenix Riot.

The Phoenix Riot: A quick synopsis

The riot ignited when white land-owner, Thomas Tolbert, began to take affidavits from African Americans who had been disenfranchised by the new 1895 Constitution of South Carolina. Thomas Tolbert, the brother of republican candidate Robert R. Tolbert, urged the African Americans to fill out and submit an affidavit if they were prevented from voting. Tolbert and his allies hoped to use the affidavits that they collected to challenge the legality of certain portions of the 1895 South Carolina state constitution that had enshrined in law the previously informal disfranchisement of African-Americans.

On 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the entrance of the Watson and Lake general store and began to collect the affidavits of African Americans. Thomas Tolbert was quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including Democratic party leader, J. I. “Bose” Ethridge, and his followers. Ethbridge and his supporters began to repeatedly beat and terrorize Tolbert for his audacious actions.

Violence and chaos ensued following the outbreak of the riot: an estimated twelve African-Americans were fatally shot or hung, one African-American lynched, hundreds injured by the white mob, and one white man murdered. Additionally, Tolbert’s home, property and personal belongings were all burned in the days to follow the riot, with many family members forced to leave the state – and compelled to sell their vast landholdings.

The altercation triggered four days of violence directed mainly at the black population.

The Phoenix Riot: Outbreak

Although much of the riot is still under speculation, the initial outbreak was a direct result of heightened political and racial tensions that resulted in physical violence. Increasing tensions between Republican and Democratic parties played a profound factor in the eruption of conflict.

Thomas Tolbert, during this time, did not follow the common beliefs that surrounded African-Americans during the time. Despite the fact that Tolbert was a white man, he believed that African-Americans deserved the right to vote, and disagrees with their disenfranchisement by the South Carolina State Constitution. It is not clear whether he held this view because he was aware that a number of black Tolberts and Talberts who lived in close proximity to his family, and/or worked for his family, were his blood relations. I have seen no first or second hand accounts to prove whether or not this was a consideration for Tolbert. Then again, it does not appear that any research has been done on his connections to key black supporters of his apartment from citations that some lived on his family’s land and worked for them. Alternatively, he needed votes. As a Republican of the time, he needed black votes – and it could something as simple as that.

South Carolina’s Black Codes

The state’s Black Codes were passed by whites in late 1865. The Codes imposed a strict set of regulations on black labor and social life which plainly resembled a return to enslavement. Although the codes recognized abolition, blacks were expected to work as field hands or domestic servants, unless they had a license from a judge for a different occupation. They were required to work from sunrise to sunset and could be charged with vagrancy if caught unemployed by white officials. Fortunately for black Americans in the state, South Carolina’s military governor invalidated the laws by 1866. Yet, the codes clearly demonstrated white attempts to control black labor.

The federal government did equip black Americans with the means to protect themselves from such hostility by giving them full political rights. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867, later re-enforced by the Fifteenth Amendment, ensured that African-American men could vote and hold office, regardless of race or ancestry.

These new black voters overwhelmingly tended to vote for the Republican Party, which was not unusual considering the fact that Abraham Lincoln, the party’s first president, was seen by many former slaves as the “Great Emancipator.” At least ninety percent of 100,000 black voters were members of the Republican Party in 1869.

Black land ownership in 1868 South Carolina

In South Carolina – more than any other southern state – freed men took advantage of their newfound political rights. Constituting sixty percent of the state’s voting population, they elected 73 African Americans out of 124 total delegates to the 1868 Constitutional Convention.

Most of the black legislators in South Carolina owned land. This suggests a significant relationship between land ownership and political activism. In fact, black Americans who held onto land were more likely to register, vote, and run for office than those who did not. Black legislators in South Carolina therefore appreciated the powerful symbolism of land ownership and its potential for racial uplift. At the 1868 convention, delegate Richard Cain argued that, without owning land, freed men and women could not elevate themselves much higher than their status as former slaves. Despite having established strong black communities, they could “know nothing of what is good and best for mankind until they get homesteads and enjoy them.” His political comrades agreed with him.

Through the authority of the state government, they tried to extend the means for land ownership to their fellow freed men and women, creating what became known as the South Carolina Land Commission.

The South Carolina Land Commission

The Constitutional Convention met in Charleston on 14 January1868, to discuss among other pressing issues a land distribution program in the state of South Carolina. Seventy-six of the one hundred and twenty-four delegates were African American and they initially hoped to petition the United States Congress for a loan to purchase plantation lands for redistribution to landless people.

Little attention was paid to South Carolina’s request in Washington D. C. and no money was granted, but on 27 March 1869, the South Carolina legislature established the Land Commission on its own. The original appropriation from the legislature was $200,000, and in March of 1870, another $500,000 was appropriated for lands to be purchased by the Land Commission. This was made possible by the overwhelming presence and voice of black Americans in the legislature, and South Carolina would become the only southern state to promote the redistribution of land for the benefit of freed men and women, as well as landless whites (who largely refused to participate in the scheme due to racial animus towards blacks).

By 1890, as many as 14,000 African-American families had settled on Land Commission lands in South Carolina as a whole, but only 960 had received titles to 44,579 acres of the 118,436 acres available. The rest of land, now being sold in large parcels, was sold to whites, and by 1890 the sale of lands had ceased and the program was bankrupt.

Land ownership and political activism would become key issues a few years later when South Carolina passed a new state constitution in 1895.

The South Carolina State Constitution of 1895

The Constitution of 1895, which was ratified on 4 December 1895, essentially laid the ground work for Jim Crow in South Carolina, since almost the entire African American population was disenfranchised, which further strengthen the white control over the state of South Carolina. The disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws continued to thrive in the state until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

In Bleser’s book, The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890, black farmers in America have had a long and arduous struggle to own land and to operate independently from whites. For more than a century after the Civil War, deficient civil rights and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where many blacks worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity to achieve ownership and operating independence. By 1880, in state after southern state, the statistics on black landownership were depressing — 100,000 acres in South Carolina, less than that in Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

Since emancipation, the wealth of former slaves and their descendants has greatly lagged behind that of whites. Higgs (1982; 1977) found that black total property holdings were just 1/36 those of whites in 1880. This ratio improved slightly to 1/26 by 1890. When income from ownership of land and capital is added to labor income, the average per capita income of blacks was 61 to 64 percent of white per capita income in the South. Given that blacks were emancipated for the most part without any assets beyond their own labor, it is not surprising that in 1880, whites derived more income from the ownship of land and capital.

Land ownership would provide South Carolina’s white legislators with an easy means of stripping voting rights from black men. Literacy would be another. The 1895 Constitution also contained an understanding clause: the basics of which acted like a reading comprehension test. In order to comprehend whatever paragraph the election officials chose for black men to read, one needed an ability to read it. The paragraph(s) were not read aloud to the black men registering to vote. No, they had to read the passage(s) under their own steam. If you couldn’t read because you had no access to even the most basic forms of education, you were hobbled. You were ineligible to vote.

After 1 January 1898, the understanding clause was revoked. In order to vote, one had to be able to read and write – or present proof of having paid taxes on three hundred dollars worth of property. In the South Carolina of the 1890s, blacks tender to own between 10 to 150 acres of land…which put such black landowners well below the 300 acre minimum. This was the intent of that 300 acre requirement. Overnight, vast swathes of black landowners, who were in the minority already when it came to owning any land at all, were summarily stripped of their right to vote. My 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews, who has inherited 200 acres from his white father-enslaver, Drury Cook Matthews, was one of the countless black men affected by the new provisions in the 1895 South Carolina Constitution.

This was the South Carolina suffrage law that put black control of the State beyond possibility, while still preserving suffrage for the illiterate whites of that generation.

The day of the riot

At around 9:00 in the morning on 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the polling office at Watson and Lake general store with Joe Circuit, Will White and a number of other African-Americans. He proceeded to encourage the black men of the community to submit affidavits documenting how they had been prevented from voting. Tolbert had hoped that the affidavits would help to expose the ongoing electoral fraud that had deprived African-Americans of the vote for the past twenty-two years.

Tolbert and his followers were quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including J. I. Ethridge, the local Democratic party boss. Ethridge and Robert Cheatham asked Tolbert to stop what he was doing. Upon his refusal, they overturned the box that he had been using to collect the affidavits with and began to beat him with the splintered wood and other various materials. Tolbert quickly responded to the violence by hitting Ethridge over the head multiple times with a wagon axle. Honestly, in terms of this part of South Carolina and violence was concerned, this was a typical exchange.

During the altercation, William White, one of Tolbert’s followers, was pushed to the ground. It is speculated that White grabbed a shotgun and fired the first shot, which hit Ethridge in the middle of the forehead, killing him on impact. Outraged by the murder of their leader, Etheridge’s followers promptly engaged in further escalating the conflict with Tolbert and his supporters. The gunshots, which were overheard by the white voters, prompted the majority of those who were at the polling stations inside the general store to engage in the conflict.
During the riot, Tolbert withstood several injuries and sustained gunshot wounds to the neck, arms, and his left side. The buckshot, which struck Tolbert during the riot, proved not to be fatal, however, they resulted in his retreat.

Below are newspaper accounts covering the riot. I have opted to not provide a synopsis or an overview for a simple reason: note the coded language of white supremacy and racism. Pay particular attention to the racist dog whistles, nay, bullhorns.

(Note: click each article below for a larger, more legible copy to read)

Sat, Nov 19, 1898 – 7 · The Appleton Crescent (Appleton, Outagamie, Wisconsin, United States of America) ·

The riot, and Essex Harrison’s name, made the national news.

Tue, Nov 15, 1898 – Page 1 · The Newberry Herald and News (Newberry, Newberry, South Carolina) ·

The riot, and Essex’s brutal fate, have been addressed in numerous books:

A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940 by Terence Finnegan (available via Google Books)

The above account demonstrates that racist programs directed against the black community did not end with the lynchings. The reign of terror continued.

Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·


Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 50 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 52 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 54 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 56 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

The thing that applls me the most in the articles provided in the Aftermath section is straightforward. The then Democratic racists had learned nothing. That is pretty clear in their comments, how they portray the black community, and how they place the entirety of blame on the Tolberts.

Hundreds of black families fled the area for Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D. C., and New York in the twelve months following the riot. They and their families weren’t safe…and they knew it. It explains why some 25% of my extended family from this region of South Carolina were living in the northern states and Washington D.C. by the time of the 1870 U.S. Federal Census.

Nor was their any justice for Eliza Goode, Essex Harrison, or the many others who perished in the aftermath of the riot.

Reading and hearing the same kinds of racist dog whistles and bullhorns in 2016, and again in 2018, is disquieting. It is proof yet again that America fails to learn from the worst chapters in its history. Instead, as a country, it recycles its darkest history.


  1. “16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at“.
  2. Race Riots“. Remember Your history.
  3. Phoenix Riot – South Carolina Encyclopedia“. South Carolina Encyclopedia.
  4. 16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at“.
  5. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“.
  6. Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002-11-27). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052. ISSN 1534-1488.
  7. Norris, Pippa (02/12/2002). “Democratic Phoenix“(PDF).
  8. Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro (2016-07-11). The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813938738.
  9. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“.
  10. 10 Nov 1898, Page 2 – Keowee Courier at“.
  11. Loren Schweninger. Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 34.
  12. Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968“.
  13. Finnegan, Terence (2013). A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813933849.
  14. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Wilmington Riot | PBS“.
  15. Branch, Taylor (1999). Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 242.
  16. C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction(1956) p 8, 205-12
  17. Ted Van Dyk. “How the Election of 1968 Reshaped the Democratic Party”
  18. Zinn, Howard (1999) A People’s History of the United States New York:HarperCollins.
  19. Childs, Marquis (June 8, 1970). “Wallace’s Victory Weakens Nixon’s Southern Strategy”The Morning Record.
  20. Rick Perlstein (13 November 2012). “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy”, The Nation.
  21. Boyd, Tim.“The 1966 Election in Georgia and the Ambiguity of the White Backlash“. The Journal of Southern History. 75 (2): 305–340. JSTOR″
  22. George B. Tindall, “Southern Strategy: A Historical Perspective”, The North Carolina Economic Review in JSTOR.
  23. Margo, Robert A. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I: Comment and Further Evidence.” The American Economic Review, 74.4 (1984): 768-776.
  24. Higgs, Robert. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I.” The American Economic Review, 72.4 (1982): 725-737.
  25. Bleser, Carol K. Rothrock. The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.

Further reading

Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. University of North Carolina Press. 8 (4): 29&ndash, 55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052.

Wells, Tom Henderson (1970). “The Phoenix Election Riot“. Phylon (1960-). 31 (1): 58–69. doi:10.2307/273874.

Working with the 1773 and 1825 maps of Old Ninety Six, Edgefield, Abbeville, Newberry, and Barnwell, South Carolina

I have previously written about how maps can be an invaluable research tools in my  article Using maps in your genealogy research ( I’m currently in a research phase in my South Carolina research where I’m back to using maps again.

The first names my enslaved Old Ninety Six District families used are like finger prints for different family groups. Show me a woman named Muhulda/Huldy, I’ll show you how she links back to the Holloway family. Give me a Georgian(n)a / Georgia Ann / Georgie Ann or a Savannah/Versey, and I’ll show you how she links back to the Petersons or the Williams (who were really one in the same family). Show me an Albert, Elbert, Eldred, Gertrude, Anna, or similar Germanic name and, eventually, they will lead back to a Dorn, an Ouzts, or a Timmerman – the German descended families in this region.

Isabella, Wylie, Alfonzo, or Wesley? These are classic Settle(s)/Suttle family names.

Jacob, Levi, Obediah, Permelia, Keziah/Kizzie, Hannah, Suzannah, or similar classic Quaker names? These will lead back to the enslaving families who, while no longer practicing Quakers, still used Quaker first names.

There is a fairly straightforward reason why my enslaved families used the same first names that were so prevalent in the families who enslaved them. Their enslavers were also their blood relations. At least so far. I have yet to come across an exception.

Naming conventions can be an invaluable genealogy research clue. 

I decided to create a map of the Ninety Six District of South Carolina. My aim was to plot the locations of my ancestors’ enslaving families, who were also their kin, and then add the top six male and female first names for each family.

In the midst of doing a Google search for old colonial era maps, I unexpectedly struck gold. I found a series of 1773 and 1825 maps for the region I’m researching which plotted where the large and medium sized landowners were.  While all of these land owners weren’t enslavers, most of them were.

Seeing these families plotted out like this answered a number of questions:

  1. Why they married into some families and not others – and an understanding of why these inter-marriages were so frequent;
  2. Why enslaved people were sold to certain families and not others; and
  3. Why, after Old Ninety-Six was split into many different counties, marriages and transactions still occurred within certain groups of families, even if some of those families were located in a neighboring county.

It was all about location, location, location. The ties that bound different enslaving family groups together were so deeply entrenched during the Old Ninety-Six District era that it didn’t matter if part of one family group was in Edgefield while others they were related to were just over the border in neighboring Abbeville, Barnwell, Newberry, Greenwood, Greenville, McCormick, or Saluda. Enslaved people were also being passed back and forth over these newly established, and ever-changing, county boundaries.

Blood ties, it would seem, trumped county boundaries.

I’ll give an example to bring this all together. If I find an Elbert Harling, born around 1830 and living in Gray Township in Edgefield in 1870, I know I need to focus on three things. 

First, I need to research his connection to my white and black Matthews family. Second, I know I need to focus on the northwestern part of Edgefield that became part of Saluda. This area was first known as the Saluda District, Edgefield, SC, and then as Saluda Regiment, Edgefield, SC, which eventually was absorbed into the newly created Saluda, SC. Third, I will need to research the Dorns, Timmermans, and Ouztses in Meeting Street, Edgefield too. Either Saluda  or Meeting Street will be where the earlier part of his ancestry will lie. 

Why focus on these two places? Elbert was a name largely used by the Dorns, Ouztses, Timmermanns, and their descendants. The northwest quadrant of Old Ninety Six, and then Edgefield, was one of their strongholds until this part of the state became Saluda. Meeting Street was their other stronghold.

Those researching ancestors in any one of the above counties need to be mindful that they will need to research records in all of the surrounding counties.

You will find the maps I’m working with below:,-South-Carolina-?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina-?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina–?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina–?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1

GA Live S02 E03: Meet Sharon Morgan from Our Black Ancestry

Episode : Meet Sharon Morgan from Our Black Ancestry

In this episode, our special guest is Sharon Morgan from the popular and respected Facebook genealogy research community Our Black Ancestry (OBA).

The Our Black Ancestry Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of wounds that are the legacy of slavery. Its primary activity is the sponsorship of its Our Black Ancestry (OBA) website and member portal.

For more info about OBA, please visit their website:

Join us on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at 4pm via

GA Live S02 E02: Researching your female ancestors

Episode 3: Researching your female ancestors

Female ancestors are notoriously difficult to find. Once they get married, and you don’t know the family they married into, they disappear into the ether.

Was the maiden name given or a marriage certificate her correct maiden name – or a married name from a previous marriage?

Have you only searched under her full or formal first name? Or did you search using the popular nicknames/diminutive forms of the day (Mary/Molly, Sarah/Sally, etc?)

Were you looking in the correct County during the time she lived (remember, State and County boundaries changed…and changed often!)?

In this episode, we discuss – and give plenty of tips – on how to find those hard to find female ancestors

Catch us live on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month at 4pm EST via

GA Live S02 E01: The GU272 Descendants Project

S02 Episode 1: Meet the GU272 Descendants Project

Season 2 kicked off strong with our special guest, Karran Harper Royal, from the GU272 Descendants Project.

The GU272 Descendants Association is dedicated to preserving the memory, commemorating the lives, restoring the honor, and tracing the descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuit priests of Georgetown University in 1838.

GU272 Links:


Facebook Group:


To see how Genealogy Adventures uses the Beyond Kind methodology, you can read the following articles:

1. Why diversity matters for online genealogy service providers via

2. 1845 Will of Col. William Bolling (1777-1845), Goochland County, Virginia via

Genealogy Adventures Live will be taking a break in September. But don’t worry…we’ll be back in October!