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.

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.

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.

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

Source: Charles Cittie, AKA: City Point, Hopewell by Carol Tyrer via

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

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 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 E09: Pushing beyond the 1870 Census to find your enslaved ancestors

You’ve made it to the 1870 U.S. Federal Census…and now you have no idea of what to do or where to go to research your enslaved ancestors. “What do I do now?” is a question we continually see in countless Facebook African-American centric genealogy groups on Facebook, or letters to The Root.

We’re doing this broadcast with you in mind.

Join host Brian Sheffey and Donya Williams – with our special guest, librarian Sharon Rowe – as we share the tips, tricks, and research resources we’ve used to smash through slavery era brick walls.

Join Genealogy Adventures Live every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month @ 4pm EST via

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

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.

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:

DNA Adventures: Me and my mum’s mtDNA – Putting it all together

This post wraps things up with my mum’s mtDNA. I will be sharing some take-away points that I hope will inspire others to work with their own mtDNA inheritance.

However, before I jump straight in to the summary finding, I need to quickly explain two fundamental terms: 1) Haplogroups, and 2) Subclades.


While I tend to avoid using Wikipedia as a professional source of information, it does provide a great overview of what haplogroups are:

Haplogroups are used to represent the major branch points on the mitochondrial phylogenetic tree [a veryspecific kind of scientific, genetic family tree].

Understanding the evolutionary path of the female lineage has helped population geneticists trace the matrilineal inheritance of modern humans back to human origins in Africa and the subsequent spread around the globe.

The letter names of the haplogroups (not just mitochondrial DNA haplogroups) run from A to Z. As haplogroups were named in the order of their discovery, they (meaning the accidental dictionary ordering of the letters) do not reflect the actual genetic relationships.

The hypothetical woman at the root of all these groups (meaning just the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups) is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for all currently living humans. She is commonly called Mitochondrial Eve.

The rate at which mitochondrial DNA mutates is known as the mitochondrial molecular clock. It’s an area of ongoing research with one study reporting one mutation per 8000 years [Loogvali, Eva-Liis; Kivisild, Toomas; Margus, Tõnu; Villems, Richard (2009), O’Rourke, Dennis, ed., “Explaining the Imperfection of the Molecular Clock of Hominid Mitochondria”, PLoS ONE, 4 (12): e8260, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008260, pmc 2794369 Freely accessible, PMID 20041137]. This makes mitochondrial DNA less precise for genealogical dating than Y-chromosome DNA which accumulates one mutation for every 10 years [“Human mutation rate revealed”. Nature News. 2009.].

This mtDNA tree looks something like this partial example:



In genetics, subclade is a term used to describe a subgroup of a subgenus or haplogroup. It is commonly used today in describing genealogical DNA tests of human mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups.

Let’s use cats as an example. While all cats belong to the Feline mammal family (think of Feline as a haplogroup)…Siamese, Burmese, Person, and the common house cat would each be a different subclade.

Now, let’s get started!

I tested all three regions of the mtDNA I inherited from my mother. It was a full mtDNA sequencing. Based on my sequencing results, I am a confirmed descendent of mtDNA Haplogroup L2, Subclade L2a1c4a on my direct maternal lineage (mother’s, mother’s, mother’s…. maternal line).

My confirmed mtDNA subclade is L2a1c4a. Population studies have not yet been published for the mtDNA Subclade L2a1c4a. Yep, that’s correct. My subclade was created within the past few years. So…there are no peer-reviewed published studies covering it.

However, population studies are available for the direct ancestors of the mtDNA Subclade L2a1c4a. Population studies to date have found that the ancestors of L2a1c4a are found in the highest concentration in Chad Arabs in Lake Chad, Africa.

The major distribution of L2a1c4a

Chad Arabs in Lake Chad, Africa 11.55% > Buduma in Lake Chad, Africa 10.35% > Shuwa Arab in Lake Chad, Africa 7.69% > Central Morocco 5.4% > Mafa in Lake Chad, Africa 5.26% > Gurages in Ethiopia 4.76% > Amharas in Ethiopia 4.16% > Kanembu in Lake Chad, Africa 4.08%.

Studies were conducted by sampling the DNA of indigenous populations and determining the percentage of each indigenous population which belong to the mtDNA Subclade L2a1c4a:


* This table is based on a summary of current research published in peer reviewed journals and will be updated dynamically as more scientific data becomes available for mtDNA subclade L2a1c4a and its ancestors.

The image above is the core, the beating heart, of my mothers mtDNA.

To my fellow Old Ninety-Six County, South Carolina cousins, this is the female line this DNA covers:

My mum < Pauline Matthews < Gertrude Harling < Aurelia Holloway < Amanda Peterson < Violet Williams < Moses Williams, Sr’s unknown first wife (not Mariah Stallsworth).

Migration Map

mtDNA Haplogroup L2 is found predominantly in Africa. The migration map of mtDNA Haplogroup L2 is as follows:


The woman who founded mtDNA Haplogroup L2 is believed to have been born approximately 70,000 to 100,000 years ago in Central Africa. mtDNA Haplogroup L2 is one of the most ancient branches of the mtDNA phylogenetic tree. Today, descendants of mtDNA Haplogroup L2 can be found widely distributed in the African Continent, with a high frequency in Mbuti Pygmies.

The mtDNA tree expands at a rapid rate as new subclades are discovered. As the tree grows, my haplogroup/subclade will be automatically reclassified based the latest version of the tree. This tree was last updated on 18 January 2015 on Genebase, the company I tested with.

So what do we know?

On the face of it, the team knows my mtDNA began in East Africa, and then traveled through the interior of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. It appears my line of maternal female ancestors lived in the Lake Chad area. We don’t know how long they lived in this region. However, for now, the team believes they resided in this part of Africa for millennia. While there, an admixture traveled down from northern Africa to mix within this population before an unknown line of females from the same lineage brought it to the western coast of Africa.

We know that a series of truly ancient maternal great aunts and maternal female cousins took the same mtDNA out of Africa into the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, Russia, and the Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East.

The Brazilian results (you will see this in the other posts that are part of this series) indicate that another maternal female cousin, sister, or great aunt from this mtDNA family was taken from Africa and sent to that country.

At the heart of it, I have a dozen or so African cultures that form my direction mitochondrial legacy. Knowing which specific cultures are part of this story has enabled me to extensively read about them. And you know I want to visit them!

Each culture is a part of my history. They are me. And I’d like to know a heck of a lot more about them.

There is one specific application that I would like to use my test results for: identifying the unknown woman who was the wife of my 4x great grandfather, Moses Williams, Sr (1756-1884). I am descent of their daughter, Jane Williams. Moses and this unknown maternal ancestor had 20 daughters in the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina. That’s a whole lot of daughters to pass on this mtDNA… especially when the known children of Moses were having between 8 to 12 kids each!

Among the 2,500+ mtDNA matches I have on Genebase…someone may have the missing key to unlocking the identity of this 4x great grandmother…and the identity of her mother…and the identity of her mother.

So, as you can see, we are working with this DNA in more than one way to answer different sets of questions.

A quick reminder about mtDNA

Just so we all know what we’re looking at, here are some illustrations of mtDNA:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell

As you can see, mtDNA looks very different from the 23 chromosomes that form autosomal DNA (the DNA you inherit from both parents).

For a more in-depth understanding of mtDNA, I invite you to read Roberta Estes’s excellent article Mitochondrial DNA – Your Mom’s Story over at DNAeXplained via

DNA Adventures: Me and my mum’s mtDNA – Range 16050 to 16383

I was originally going to share a further 8 sequence rangers for my mums mtDNA. However, upon reflection, the remaining 7 sequences closely mirror the sequence I am sharing today. So, with this in mind, I am making the last raw analysis post for her mtDNA. The next post will wrap things up. The last post in this series will share what the team has learned via this DNA test – and further work we plan to do using this test.

The next post settings will share the results of my waterfall grandmother’s mtDNA. Granny’s mtDNA is something else!

You will see a summary explanatory section about mtDNA at the bottom of this article.

To my fellow Old Ninety-Six County, South Carolina cousins, this is the female line this DNA covers:

My mum < Pauline Matthews < Gertrude Harling < Aurelia Holloway < Amanda Peterson < Violet Williams < Moses Williams, Sr’s unknown first wife (not Mariah Stallsworth).

My mum’s mtDNA: Range 16050 to 16383


Note: Please click each image to see a larger version.

Genebase uses an analytical comparison measurement called RMI,which you will see in the numbers provided in the bar graph images below. RMI (Relative Match Index) is a measure of how closely your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplotype matches those of a defined population group as compared to all other population groups in the comparison. For example, a RMI of 100 means that you are 100 times more likely to belong to that population set as compared to the rest of the population.



In the images below, Mutation = 0 is a perfect match / Mutation = 1 or more means a mutation has occurred in the comparison mtDNA matches.














  1. So…there’s quite a bit to take in. And this only covers another short range of sequence ranges for my mum’s mtDNA! Feel free to ask questions! I appreciate this takes a while to wrap one’s head around. Dorothy, are definitely not in autosomal DNA territory any more!

A quick reminder about mtDNA

Just so we all know what we’re looking at, here are some illustrations of mtDNA:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell

As you can see, mtDNA looks very different from the 23 chromosomes that form autosomal DNA (the DNA you inherit from both parents).

For a more in-depth understanding of mtDNA, I invite you to read Roberta Estes’s excellent article Mitochondrial DNA – Your Mom’s Story over at DNAeXplained via