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 (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/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 (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/11/26/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 https://books.google.com/books?id=2X8gAQAAMAAJ&dq=christian%20of%20altdale&pg=PA146#v=onepage&q=christian%20of%20altdale&f=false 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.

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 (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2018/07/23/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

CODOCIL TO THE FOREGOING WILL
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.

Summary

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 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:

Web: https://www.gu272.net

Facebook Group:
https://www.facebook.com/GU272/?ref=group_header&view=group

Twitter:
https://www.facebook.com/beyondkin

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

https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/why-diversity-matters-for-online-genealogy-service-providers

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

https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/1845-will-of-col-william-bolling-1777-1845-goochland-county-virginia/

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

Ghosts in the DNA: The lost diversity of early colonial Virginia

Source: Charles Cittie, AKA: City Point, Hopewell by Carol Tyrer via https://www.flickr.com/photos/22616393@N04/6770731109C

Nestled along the James River, Varina is a remote and quiet part of Virginia. Its vast tracts of rich farmland provide no indication that this region was once the epicenter of early colonial Virginia. Nor are there any hints that three cultures – British, Native American, and African – did more than play out parts of a deeply troubled history. They merged. That these cultures met and mixed is not in question. History books are filled with accounts of skirmishes between British immigrants and the Native American tribes who called this land home. History books also tell us of the 20-and-odd Africans who were brought to this area in 1619.

History has been, and remains, silent about how these three cultures mixed in the primordial Virginia colony of the early 1600s. This part of their shared history has yet to be told.

Genealogy Adventures aims to correct that omission.

A little bit of history first

Varina was named for Varina Farms, a plantation John Rolfe, the husband of my 12x great grandmother Pocahontas, established on the James River. It sits approximately an hour’s drive north from the settlement of Jamestown. It sits across the river from the settlement known as the Cittie of Henricus, which was wiped out by a Native American attack.

Varina had the distinction of being the county seat of Henrico in 1634 when the area was formed as one of the eight original shires of Virginia. It held that distinction until a courthouse was built in Richmond in 1752.

Richmond would emerge as a major community and port by the 1750s. An investment in land transportation in and around Richmond enabled it to eclipse Varina as a colonial epicenter. The isolated and rural Varina slipped primarily into agriculture use.

My link to Varina

A number of men in my family achieved great and notable things. Patriots, entrepreneurs, inventors, explorers, businessmen, legal geniuses, and politicians – they excelled in those things the world of men hold dear. However, it has consistently been the women in my family tree who have delivered the most genuinely jaw-dropping, totally unexpected, surprises. May I have a shout out to the ladies in our trees please!?

What I am about to relay is perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment in a pantheon of jaw-dropping moments from my family’s ancestry.

From left to right: my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey, and her parents, Julia Ella Bates and Leonard Wilson Roane, Sr

My connection to Varina is via my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Thomas Roane. Both of her parents were born in Varina.

Granny Susie had already provided a huge reveal many years ago when DNA testing proved she was the 4x great grand-daughter of Patrick Henry. Yes, that one.

The Roane line is the oldest part of my tree. It was one of the earliest lines I research many years ago. It was a fairly straightforward line to research. Julia Bates’ line, however, was far from straightforward. I hit an impasse…and then my mother’s Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina ancestry took over, leaving Julia’s line, on my dad’s side of the tree, to languish – until a week or so ago. That was a good thing.

I had met a group of amazing South Carolina researchers who were my cousins. It was, and remains, a thrill to work as part of an active genealogy research group. And trust me, when it comes to the area formerly known as the Ninety-Six District of South Carolina, you need a group of seasoned genealogists to work with. It’s a place that throws every kind of research difficulty at you:

  1. Endogamy (excessive cousin marriages down the generations) on steroids;
  2. A handful of commonly used first names that were used over and over again in many lines within an extensive, inter-connected family;
  3. Family spread over a vast region of a state;
  4. Family that spans race and/or ethnicity;
  5. One name ancestors;
  6. Ancestors who seem to disappear from the face of the earth;
  7. Unbelievable numbers of surname spelling variations;
  8. A thorough understanding of how to research enslaved people;
  9. Incredibly complicated and complex inter-relationships between every family in the region;
  10. Knowing how to utilize a vast array of records to do the research work on enslaved ancestors – and where/how to access and find those records;
  11. An intermediate (at the very least) understanding of genetic genealogy; and
  12. Finely honed critical thinking skills.

South Carolina made me the genealogist and researcher I am today. I couldn’t even begin to think about tackling Varina without that experience and expertise. All of the above-listed points would come into play.

Susie Roane Thomas Sheffey’s roots run deep within Henrico, Charles City, Goochland, Chesterfield, and Powhatan Counties in Virginia due to complicated, multi-layered inter-connections within her white and black ancestry in this area, collectively referred to as the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Source: County borders of Goochland County, Virginia, USA, on a map of Virginia. via https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/File:Vagoochland.jpg

When everything seems connected

Old Ninety-Six is a demanding mistress when it comes to genealogical research. After five steady years focused in this one place, I needed a break. So I decided to delve into my white Bolling ancestry in Goochland County, Virginia. Prior to removing themselves to Goochland, this line of Bollings, descended from Pocahontas and John Rolfe, were located in…Varina.

Truthfully? I was called to them.

I came across a series of Bolling lawsuits, referred to as Chancery suits in Virginia law, involving my Bolling ancestors and/or Bolling relations. The suits had to do with the disposals of various Bolling estates as part of their probate. These suits were a treasure trove of names for those my Bollings had enslaved.

It took me weeks to add the names of literally hundreds of enslaved people on my family tree in order to research them. To-date, I have traced roughly a tenth of some 500+ enslaved people down to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. Certain surnames from the various enslaved mulatto family groups immediately lept out at me: Bolling (For obvious reasons. They were bound to be related to their white enslaving Bolling family), Pleasants, Harris, Page, Cocke, and Woodson. These surnames were threaded throughout my grandmother’s family in Varina, as well as her family in nearby Charles City County, Virginia. I asked myself an obvious question: what were the chances that these enslaved families were part of Julia Bate’s and Leonard Roane’s families?

You see, Julia’s father’s place of birth was in Goochland County…right where my Bollings were. Did they go back to Varina? Time and further research will tell.

Her mother’s people, however, had deep, deep roots in Varina. As did Susan Price, my grandmother’s father’s mother. In short, my grandmother had a double dose of Varina. Her two ancestral mulatto connections to Varina ran deep. Indeed, it looks like the Bateses and the Prices had roots in Varina for as long as there has been a Varina.

My inner bloodhound catches an exciting scent

I had one thing left to finish before I could swing my full attention to Varina. That involved researching the enslaved people freed by John Pleasants III (1698-1772), and his son Robert Pleasants, as well as looking at enslaved people freed by other members of the Pleasants family in the middish 1700s. In all, there were over 500 enslaved people who were set free by the Quaker Pleasants family, which included the Quaker Jordan family.

It took weeks to add all of the freed individuals to my family tree before I could begin to research them properly. Again, like the Bollings, certain surnames just lept out at me, particularly for those described as mulattos: Pleasants (for obvious reasons again), Woodson, and Fleming. However, this time, there were new surnames that were of interest: Crump (I had seen this name among some of the families enslaved by the Bollings), Ligon (a noted free family of colour), and Goins/Gowen/Goings (another noted free family of colour). Ligon and Goins were also names threaded throughout my grandmother’s ancestry.

These individuals are a mere fraction of the enslaved people who were to be freed by John Pleasant III’s Will. Note some of the surnames.

All of these families were living near each other from the time they were freed. This can be seen in late 18th Century tax lists in Henrico and Charles City Counties. Julia Bates’ enslaved ancestors were right there among them, and marrying them, by the time of the 1870 U.S.Federal Census.

I actually had chills. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck literally stood up. And yes, I had goosebumps too. I was on to something. I had actually caught a whiff of something exciting.

It was Varina or bust.

Genealogy CSI Cold Case style

Something pulled me back to the Woodson family. The reason why took less than a day to materialize. I found a Dr. John “The Immigrant” Woodson who arrived in Jamestown around 1622. John and his wife, Sarah, would first reside at Flowerdew Hundred on the James River. After surviving an attack by neighboring Native Americans, who attacked after men from Flowerdew Hundred tried to steal their corn supplies, John and Sarah would go on to build a house known as Curles Neck further up the James.

In 1623, John and Sarah were documented as having six unnamed Africans in their household.

Six Africans in 1623. Why is that significant? The first Africans to arrive in Virginia, 20+ of them, arrived in 1619. There are no other known Africans arriving in Virginia between 1619 and 1623. Hence academics believing that six of the twenty-and-odd Africans were in John Woodson’s household. Others were with John Rolfe, the Piersey family, the Yeardly family, and the West family.

DNA, enter stage right

I apologize that has taken some time to get to this point. I had to step you through the various stages, from the beginning to this point, in order for what follows to even begin to be credible or plausible…much less believable.

My next step was to dig around in and amongst my DNA matches.

Due to extreme endogamy on the white side of my tree, I am already connected to the Pleasants, Woodson, Yeardly, Rolfe, Piersey, West, and Ligon families. If I had any doubts, DNA matches with descendants of two more families – Farrar and Michaux – sealed the deal. Those last two additional families are closely allied with my Pleasant and Woodson lines.

Very short snippets of shared DNA suggest that neither the Michaux or Farrar lines were among my direct ancestral lines. These two families were cousin lines. I share less DNA with them than I do with all the others listed. Nor do I share DNA with all Michaux or Farrar descendants. So far, I only share DNA with descendants of those who married Woodsons, Pleasants, and the families these two families married into.

To kick things off, I poked around my AncestryDNA matches. I had a set criteria list of what I was looking for:

  1. People with at least the Pleasants AND the Woodson surnames in their tree;
  2. Multiple people with each of these surnames in their direct ancestry (1, 2, or 3 people in their tree with these surnames wasn’t going to cut it);
  3. Direct ancestors from these two lines who were in and around Varina during the time period in question;
  4. People who were direct descendants of Dr John Woods and John “The Immigrant” Pleasants;
  5. Well researched trees: everyone on these lines had to be thoroughly documented as per established best practice; and
  6. Had no African DNA showing in their results (this last one was harder than I thought. It turned out that around 20% of my matches who met the first five criteria had trace amounts of sub-Saharan DNA).

I had 14 matches who met all 6 criteria. My Dad? He had 23!

Here is one of my matches:

In terms of my tree to-date, the Woodson and Pleasants families should also be cousin lines. I have no known direct ancestors from either family. One approach to investigating this was analyzing centiMorgans (cMs) with people who identify as white and were descendants of both families. cMs denote the size of matching DNA segments in autosomal DNA tests. Segments which share a large number of cMs in common are more likely to be of significance and to indicate a common ancestor within a genealogical timeframe.

Based on the length of centiMorgans (cMs), DNA strongly suggests a shared common ancestor between me and a group of people who were kind enough to share their DNA information with me. Caveat alert: I used the very unscientific Gedmatch.com to do an initial analysis. What I am suggesting requires a full scientific study in order to disprove or prove what I have initially found.

On average, excluding Farrar and Michaux descendants, the others and I share between 2.0 to 3.3 cMs on an average of 7 chromosomes. Yes, those are small shared DNA lengths. Some may very well be false positives (something you have to be mindful of when working with small lengths like these). Interestingly, while small, our shared DNA overlap in the same chromosomes within the comparison group of people. I am the only one showing African DNA, the others come up as European. For the real DNA eggheads out there, our SNPs run between 234 and 640. Again, this is small, but not easily dismissible. The amount of shared DNA aligns with a timeframe between 1630 and 1690, which suggest either children and/or grandchildren who carried both African and European DNA from this community.

There are any number of reasons why I might have these matches. Too many to go into here. Whatever you can think of to ask, trust me, I have pondered it and asked both myself and others. In the end, it boils down to the most straightforward answer: while we may never know all of the names of the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 – we can begin to identify their DNA. That, in and of itself, would be awesome.

So what am I left with?

At this stage, there is nothing definitive that I can say. This requires a robust and controlled scientific study.

But I am not surprised at what I think my DNA is pointing to. There were 20+ Africans who were either indentured servants, enslaved, or a combination of the two – meaning not all 20+ Africans were one thing or another.

Note: Colonial Virginia plantations along the James River. Julia Bates’ family has connections with the majority of them, all up and down the river.

Their story and fates were tied to those of the white families they were held by, either temporarily or permanently. Like the white households they were a part of, they went up and down the James River during this early period of colonial Virginia’s history. Which means the DNA of these Africans also went up and down the James River. And mixed with that of the British who held them…And the Native Americans who were also enslaved by the British during this time period.

Everything in my being is saying to me that the mulatto Pleasants, Woodsons, Wests, Flemings, Harrises, Pages, Cockeses, and Ligons in this part of Virginia are a mixture of some of the Africans who arrived here in 1619, the white families who settled this regions, and some of the Native Americans who were also enslaved by the same families.

A whole lot of Americans will be genetically linked to this mix of people, this ghosted chapter in our collective history.

Now all I need to do is intrigue the right scientists out there to undertake the mother of all American genetic studies. Little old Varina is hiding one heck of a bombshell when it comes to amazing historic discoveries.

The Genealogy Adventures team has always believed in one fundamental idea: that as a society increases its understanding of its collective history, it might be able to get past the constructs of race, ethnicity, culture, and so on – all of the man-made constructs that divide us – and begin to realize that through our innumerable life stories and shared experiences/histories…that we we just might have more in common than we think.

GA Live S01 E08: Sheila Hightower-Allen DNA Memorial Fund & Howard University

Check out our recent broadcast about our groundbreaking project with Howard University’s Biology & Genomics Dept.

We chatted with our Sheila Hightower-Allen DNA Memorial Fund Project partners – Director of Biology, Dr. Fatima Jackson, and Geneticist, Jennifer Caldwell – about the intersection of science + technology + genetics + genetic genealogy + health screening + anthropology.

The show aired on June 17th.

Please share so we can get the word out about this special and historic project.

Join Genealogy Adventures Live every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month @ 4pm EST via https://www.facebook.com/genealogyadventuresusa

Me, Virginia Historical Society’s ‘Unknown No Longer’ website…and a question answered

There is a growing wealth of information regarding enslaved people (EPs) in America for genealogists who identify as black, African American, or people of colour. The trick is knowing how to use records such as slave inventories, deeds, slave ensurance policies (yes, some enslavers took out insurance policies on EPs. It was quite the lucrative business for some American insurance companies), and similar slavery-based documents to:

  • Solve mysteries / answer questions;
  • Find missing family members for an enslaved ancestor;
  • Push the story of EP s in your family back further into earlier generations;
  • Retrace an EP’s life journey as s/he was passed from one generation to the next within the same enslaving family; or from one family to another via a sale – which includes movement from one town, county, or state to someplace new; and
  • Triangulate DNA results to see if the enslaving family who held an ancestor in bondage was also a blood relation.

There are more discoveries than these which you can make when working with American chattel slavery records. The above are the ones that immediately spring to mind.

I made an unexpected discovery when working with my enslaving Bolling ancestors in Goochland County, Virginia. While looking at my AncestryDNA cousin matches with the name ‘Bolling’ in their tree, a group of a dozen or so melinated Bollings appeared. Looking at the other surnames in their trees, there were other surnames that were significant in terms of my ancestry. However, at this stage, I was curious to see if there was a shared connection via white Bollings (spoiler alert: there was a connection, but more on that at another time).

In and amongst these dozen or so melinated Bollings with roots in Goochland County, an additional name kept popping out which piqued my curosity: Orange. Now Orange is a name I have never seen in my research. Yet, I matched 9 people – black, white, and mixed – who had Orange as a significant name in their tree; meaning they had a minimum of 10 or more individuals in their respective trees with that surname.

I was on to something. I couldn’t have told you what. I just ‘felt’ it. Sometimes that gut feeling is all a genealogist has to go on. So…it was record hunting time. It was also time to see where the records would take me.

Using critical thinking, I surmised the best place to start was by doing further research on my white enslaving Bollings who lived between 1690 and 1800. This meant tracking every last Will, probate record, slave insurance record, Bolling family court case involving EPs, and slave deed I could find.

I began with a general, open, Google search string “Bolling family +slaves.” I hit paydirt immediately in the form of the Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer website (https://unknownnolonger.virginiahistory.org).

It immediately led me to this:

It was only when I began to click on some of the individuals that my mouth kind of fell open:

Cousin Col. William Bolling had noted intra-family relations, dates of birth and death (or at the very least, years of birth and death), and new enslaver details. Not for everyone, mind, but he did so for the vast majority of EPs. This is genealogical gold dust for melinated genealogists researching Virginia EPs on their family tree.
I had to stop for a few moments to let a myriad of thoughts and emotions settle. Then…It was time for a game plan. The task ahead was going to be formidable.
Looking at an incredibly long list of names wasn’t going to yield the information I needed. I was catching significant glimpses. However, clicking through so many individuals, it was easily to lose the threads of any insights I was gaining. There was only one thing to do: turn these EPs into a new section of the Genealogy Adventures research tree on Ancestry.
Three days of slow, methodical work turned the above list of names into this:

Once everyone was in the tree, then – and only then – could I begin the task of researching these EPs. It’s worth noting that as I added each individual, and his/her respective family groups, I discovered duplicates. Not duplicate records per se. Different records for the same person, whose name appeared more than once in that long list of names. For instance, while it appears there were numerous Sukeys, it looks as though there were only 3 or 4 of them. I suspect these women were also related: mother, daughter, granddaughter, and neice.

Working with records in this manner also revealed naming patterns within the different EP family groups – a simple clue that’s oftentimes overlooked in genealogical research (S01 E06 Genealogy Adventures Live: Ancestral Naming Conventions & Smashing Genealogy Brick Walls (Video)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9YLRoMAnd0&feature=youtu.be)

After 3 days of inputting these EPs in my tree, I was itching to get to work researching the different family groups. To-date, I have traced one-third of the EPs listed in the first image set above down to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. This gives me something that looks like:

The image below continues on from the Nellie (Nelly) above:

This isn’t to say Nelly is biologically connected to Col. William Bolling. In our research tree, William is given the relationship status of “foster parent”. Ancestry doesn’t give the option of ‘enslaver’, so this is the best we can do to add EPs enslaved by him without making a biological connection to him.

After all of that work, did I answer my initial research question? Do I know how I connect to the Orange family members enslaved by William Bolling and his father?

Yes!

It turns out that an Orange listed among William’s EPs married an enslaved mulatto Bolling who was enslaved on the same plantation: “Yellow Sukey” to be precise. Well, to be even more precise, “Yellow Sukey Bolling.” Sukey, it appears, was most likely William Bolling’s half-sister. Which makes her my 3rd cousin. Which is on par with my new shared Orange family DNA matches.

One thing that has made it fairly straightforward to research some of these EP family groups. That would be location, location, and location. There were two main residential hot spots for these EPs in Goochland: Licking Hole and Byrd. Dover township also comes into play…but nowhere near as often as Licking Hole and Byrd townships. Narrowing a field of focus down to a town level makes this kind of research a relatively easier process. I was finding the EPs, or their descendants, in the 1870 Federal Census exactly where I expected to: in Bolling family land. By 1880, quite a few of the families formerly enslaved by William Bolling had moved to Richmond, Virginia. Not only that, they were living in close proximity to one another in the Richmond of 1880. Again, knowing where enslaved family groups collectively moved to makes it an easier process to find other EP family groups who were enslaved on the same farm or plantation.

I discovered more than this, however.

I was able to link some of the oldest of William’s EPs back to his father…where I found a mix of their parents and/or some of their siblings.

While researching some of the other EPs in that staggering list, certain surnames jumped out at me:

  • Archer
  • Britton/Brittain
  • Burwell
  • Carter
  • Dandridge
  • Eppes
  • Page
  • Skipwith
  • Spencer
  • Spotswood

These names are significant in my white enslaver history. They are all kin on the white side of my ancestry. Not that it surprises me to see EPs, or descendants of EPs, with these surnames. The Bollings married into most, if not all, of these families; who already had a century or more worth of complex family inter-relations (yep, endogamy!). Given the movement of dowry EPs (EPs a woman brought with her when she married), and relocation via inheritence, if any were mulattos and relations to their enslavers, they brought the DNA from the above listed families into the Bolling gene pool. They had children with the Bolling EPs, some of whom were William’s kin. It will take a while to prove this theory. In all honesty, I’m still working on researching William’s EPs from that Unknown No Longer list before I cycle off to trace this history of the EPs who weren’t biologically Bollings.are

I already known two surnames are key to unlocking the connection between the EPs I have cited in that bullet list of names: my white Carter and Randolph ancestors. They are the common denominator that links every single surname in this article.

For now? I’m just appreciating accomplishing my initial research goal.

GA Live S01 E05: Endogamy: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Donya and Brian’s family research broke Ancestry! The reason why has everything to do with endogamy. When your great-grandparents are second cousins, their parents were first cousins, and when your 3x great-grandparents are also second cousins… Ancestry just can’t handle it. It’s not just a hot mess, it is a red hot mess!

Endogamy not only affects your paper trail research, it also heavily affects your DNA research.

GA Live S01 E04: First contact with DNA cousins of a different race/ethnicity

So you’ve taken a DNA test….and discovered you have cousins who don’t look like you or pray like you. This shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world. Nor should it feel like the worst thing to happen to you in the entirety of your life.

It’s an opportunity.

When it comes to Americans, it’s an opportunity to cross the rubicon and actually reach out to people you may not ordinarily speak to. As well as an opportunity to learn more about your family’s journey and history.

Here at Genealogy Adventures, we have tales about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to first contact with folks who do not look like us.

There are no etiquette guides for this tricky subject. Where’s Ms. Manners when you need her However, in this episode, Brian Sheffey and Donya Papoose Williams will share their thoughts and advice…especially where the unexpected family connection comes via slavery.

LINKS

Beyond Kin Project Facebook Page:
https://www.facebook.com/beyondkin

Beyond Kin Project Website:
https://beyondkin.org

GA Live: S01 E02: Working with your DNA test results

In our second episode, co-hosts (and cousins!) Brian Sheffey and Donya Williams talk about:

* The difference between mtDNA, YDNA, and autosomal DNA;

* General ways you can work with the different types of DNA;

* What they learned about themselves through DNA testing;

* How DNA results and paper trail genealogy work together; and

* Some easy ways to start working on your 3rd and 4th cousin matches to figure out who your common ancestors were.

In the next show (Sunday, 8 April 2018 @ 4pm EST), Donya and Brian will discuss Freedmen’s Bureau work contacts…and the discoveries you can make using them. See you then!

Live Broadcast Link:
https://m.facebook.com/genealogyadven…

MindSight Collective interview (UK)

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the lovely Dionne Williams, host of the UK’s MindSight Collective.

Dionne asked: “Have you ever wonder “who am I?”, “where do I come from?”, and “where do I belong in Africa?”

The interview covered the ways you can discover how you can find those answers …and why genealogy is so important for the millions of people who are the children of the African diaspora: