Using maps in your genealogy research

There are times I wish I could clone myself. This is one of those times. My apologies for slowing down on the writing front. I’m in the midst of promoting a new book from my cousin Donya Williams, Comes to the Light.  It’s a creatively written Non-Fiction/Social History book about some of our Edgefield County, South Carolina ancestors. You can find out more about the book here

So it’s been an “all hands to the pump” period. This hasn’t left me much time for my own research. Or for writing.  Of course, I made an intriguing discovery about my Edgefield, South Carolina Quaker-descended Holloway family just before starting the book’s promotional campaign . I’d definitely have one clone carry on that with. It will have to wait.  Still, I can’t wait to share my findings about that discovery.

In the meantime, I thought I would share a quick article about maps…and how you can use them as part of your genealogical research practice.

I spent a hot minute or three chatting about how I use maps during my keynote talk at the Le Comité des Archives de la Louisian hosted genealogy conference in Lafayette, Louisiana.

My first stop during this part of my talk was introducing how I used maps to research my different enslaved Sheffey ancestral groups in southwest Virginia:


Map illustrating where different African American Sheffey groups were located in southwest Virginia between 1790 and 1865.  Click for larger image.

Plotting where each group of enslaved Sheffeys lived prior to 1865 better enabled me to understand the relationships between these different groups within the extended family. These relationships were reflected in the 1870 and 1880 Census returns. I could see marriages between these different groups. Marriage and death records showed how these various Sheffey groups married one another. The family bond was strong, largely due to remaining in place for such a long period of time.

I also tend to be a very visual person in terms of engaging and understanding data and information.  The map above was the perfect visualization tool. Plus, in terms of public speaking, maps are just a great tool tool for conveying information.

The map below was also part of the same talk. This map outlines Moses William’s journey from Virginia, to North Carolina, to South Carolina from the time of his birth in 1765 in Virginia to his death in 1884 in South Carolina.


The story of Moses’ journey in slavery from Virginia to North and South Carolina illustrated in a simple map.

Each point on the map represents a know period in Moses’ life – a story that’s still being researched.  It’s one thing to simply rattle of a quick list of places where he lived. It’s quite another to see the distances his journey covered during his lifetime.

The Sheffey and Moses Williams maps were pretty easy to do using Google Maps ( This article steps you through the process: How To Pin Point Multiple Locations On Google Maps via

The last set of maps I used in my talk were related to genetic genealogy:


A map illustrating the journey the African portion of my YDNA underwent within Africa. Click for a larger image


A map illustrating the journey the African portion of my mtDNA underwent within Africa. Click for a larger image


A map illustrating the journey the African portion of my father’s mtDNA underwent within Africa. Click for a larger image

It’s one thing to recite a list of countries that formed each one of these epic DNA journies. It’s quite another to throw an image on the screen that brings that story to life.

Another kind of map that is very useful in our research work are property and state/county boundary maps. The Carolina’s are a perfect example.  As genealogists, we have to remember the boundaries we recognize today aren’t anything like the boundaries our ancestors from a hundred years ago – or more – would have recognized.


Map displaying the Carolinas as a single territory. Click for larger image


An early map displaying a nascent North and South Carolina. Click for larger image


This map gives you an idea of how dramatically South Carolina’s county boundaries changed from their first iteration. The original boundaries are illustrated by the thick, black lines.  The modern counties are shown with the thin lines.  Click for larger image

State and county boundary lines have undergone enormous changes throughout the course of the Carolinas’ history.  From the earliest existence of the Carolina territory, to its being split between North and South Carolina – to the formation of the North and South Carolina state and county boundaries we recognize today – boundaries roamed around quite a bit.

To put this into context, there were times when I thought some of my Carolinian ancestors had extreme wanderlust. Between 1790 and 1830, they seemed to bounce back and forth between North and South Carolina (or South Carolina and northern Georgia) – or bounced around different counties within the same state.  Not a bit of it. They actually stayed on the same patch of land they always had.  It was the state and/or county boundaries that changed dramatically over time. Referring back to state and county boundary maps enables me to make sense of this.

This is a perfect example: I frequently come across death certificates for my Edgefield-born ancestors who were born in the 1870s and 1880s and died in neighboring Greenwood County, South Carolina in the 1900s. The informant for the death certificate typically put Greenwood as the county of the deceased person’s county of birth. However Greenwood, as a county, didn’t exist until 1897.  Part of it was carved out of Edgefield County. In fact, the deceased was born in Greenwood, Edgefield County, South Carolina. It just so happened that the Greenwood section of Edgefield where they lived would go on to form Greenwood County proper in 1897. It seems like a tiny and inconsequential detail.  However, it can cause merry havoc trying to find the location of where an ancestor was born if you’re looking in the wrong county. I’m hip to this now. Now, when I see Greenwood County for anyone born before 1897, I know I need to look at property maps for the Greenwood section of Edgefield County.

Maps…the subject may not be as sexy as genetic genealogy among researchers and genealogy enthusiasts. Nevertheless, maps have an important role to play in understanding and uncovering critical information about your family’s history.


This story has barely been told: Diversity, Multiculturalism & Africans in pre-British colonial America

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Stuart, a member of a Virginia genealogy society. Our conversation was initially about me presenting at a genealogy conference in 2018.  As any lover of genealogy and history will tell you, once you begin chatting about all things genealogy and history…conversations become far ranging.  Ours wasn’t any different.

Stuart filled me in on how the Freedmen’s Bureau Records project began.  This project was the culmination of years of digitizing an inconceivable number of records from the Freedmen’s Bureau.  For those not in the know, The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established in 1865 by Congress.  Its remit was to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some 4 million slaves gained their freedom as a result of the Union victory in the war.  The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. 

The story that Scott conveyed was one of a personal mission for the man who envisioned the project via The Mormon Church elders and in Utah. It was an incredible story, and I’m honored that Scott shared it with me.

His story prompted one from me. I relayed to him one of my life’s missions: to give names to the “20 and odd Africans” who arrived in the American colony of Virginia in 1619. I want to give these 20-odd souls their rightful names, or at least the names they went by in the Virginia colony…and that I suspect this information is located somewhere in the British National Archives. The English were (and remain) consummate administrators. Copies of colonial documents were regularly sent back to England. The arrival of 20 plus Africans had to have been documented. And, I am willing to hazard a guess: documents about these Africans will include their names and what happened to them.  On the one hand, I want to restore their names to them.  On the other, and yes, for slightly selfish reasons, I want to prove or disprove a story that has threaded its way down through the generations of 3 families I’m related to and/or descended from: the Goins/Gowen/Goings, Thomas, and Christian families of Charles City County and Henrico County in Virginia.  These three old free families of colour claim descent from some of the 20-odd Africans of 1619. Seeing as how I have traced each back to the 1690s, this isn’t such an outlandish claim for them to make.  However, there are only two things that can clinch these claims: 1) documents; and 2) DNA.  However, in order for DNA to truly be of use, we need names in order to trace the descendants of these people.

Then I unexpectedly threw Stuart a curveball.

I asked Stuart if he’d ever heard of any records or documents about the Africans and African-descended people who were in North America long before the British arrived on North America’s shores. I had to repeat the question because he wasn’t sure if he’d heard me correctly. Like me before I began my adventures in genealogy, he’d never heard of African or African-descended people in North America before 1620.

So I sent him some links to some books I had found particularly helpful. You will find links to some of them in the Bibliography section at the end of this article.

My own journey in this lost part of America’s history began a few years ago when researching my mother’s Matthews/Mathis family. To cut a long story short, this part of her family had been enslaved by the Matthews going all the way back to the Pennsylvania Colony of the 1690s. Reading about colonial Pennsylvania meant reading about the colony that was there before William Penn rocked up onto these shores: New Sweden. Reading about this earlier colony grabbed my attention immediately.  In and amongst the cultures hidden in my mother’s mtDNA is a rather large amount of Swedish markers. More specifically, thanks to the DNA testing service Genebase, I know this Swedish DNA largely comes from Ostergotland and Jonkoping.


Ostergotland in Sweden


Jonkoping in Sweden


These are fairly rural and sparsely populated parts of Sweden, which is something that I hope will work in my favour when uncovering the identity of this Swedish ancestor.  You can read about the data set used by Genebase to calculate and interpret this result via the journal article Homogeneity in mitochondrial DNA control region sequences in Swedish subpopulations via Genebase data set pool of testees used for this Swedish analysis consists of 40 people. I match 23 of the people who provided DNA samples. That’s just over half. That, in and of itself, was a pretty significant discovery. Now it’s just a matter of working out how and from whom this DNA came to be introduced into my mother’s mtDNA.

As it turns out, the early Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania purchased enslaved Africans and African-descended people from the Swedes of New Sweden.  My gut tells me that it’s during this time period that a girl or woman of Swedish-African parentage came into the possession of the Matthews family in Pennsylvania. At the very least, one of the lines of descent from this mixed-heritage woman or girl would remain enslaved by the Matthews family from around 1691 in Chester County, Pennsylvania until 1865 in Edgefield County, South Carolina, when the Confederacy surrendered to Union forces.

So what was going on in Pennsylvania and the other Mid-Atlantic states during this early period of North American colonial history?

Mid-Atlantic States

To be clear, there were two different European colonies in this part of North America.  Both pre-dated the British settlement of the region.  The two colonies were New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, and New Sweden. Both, it turns out, brought Africans to North America from Africa and the Caribbean prior to the arrival of the British.

New Sweden


The chronology of the Swedish and Dutch colonies in North America is straightforward.  New Sweden was established first, and was subsequently handed to the Dutch, and became part of New Amsterdam.  The Swedes, it would seem, couldn’t make their colony a go in economic terms. The animal pelts and fish didn’t generate enough income for the colony to become profitable.  While I’m still reading about what work the Africans and African-descended people did in New Sweden, labour seems to have been boiled down into four basic areas:

  • Hunting for the pelts the Swedes would trade, and fishing;
  • Farming and farm laboring;
  • Clearing land; and the construction of buildings;
  • Skilled trades work (metal work, etc)

The Swedes settled along the Delaware River in the early part of 1638. Present-day Wilmington, Delaware, sits atop of their first settlement, Fort Christiana.

Prior to William Penn’s arrival, the black population of New Sweden was never very large (Miller, et al 1997:176).  Nevertheless, African and African-descended people were part of the colony from its earliest period. The first named black inhabitant of New Sweden was a man by the name of Anthony, who arrived in New Sweden in 1639 aboard a ship from the West Indies (Miller, et al 1997:176). It is unclear if he arrived in New Sweden as a free man or as an enslaved man.  Regardless, he was free in later life.

I’m still actively reading up on this subject. However, a picture is slowly emerging about the form of slavery the Swedes practiced in the colony. Unlike the system of chattel slavery that would be developed by the Americans, the Swedes had a system of manumission, or the freeing of enslaved people.  In other words, it was not a status carried for life, for the most part, in the colony. Like indentured servants, enslaved Africans could serve a period of time before gaining freedom. However, like indentured servants, an enslaved person in New Sweden could have his or her enslavement extended for what was deemed bad behavior (theft, immoral behavior (e.g. children out of wedlock), drunkenness, etc).

I am also searching for an indication of how many African and African-descended people were a part of New Sweden.  Hard and fast numbers are proving elusive. For now, I know they were here on these shores. And they were here early on.

New Amsterdam


While the earliest mention of New Amsterdam appears in 1614, a permanent settlement was secured by 1624 on the present day island of Manhattan in New York (Haviser: 63). It’s estimated that free and enslaved Africans and African-descended people accounted for as few as 15% and as much as 40% of the 9,000-plus population. The Dutch took control over New Sweden in around 1665. By this time, the colony had grown to the size of England: stretching from the Chesapeake Bay area to New England.  By 1681, control over the territory passed to the British.

Prior to passing to the British, New Netherlands became the America’s first multi-ethnic society. Barely half the settlers were Dutch; most of the rest comprised Germans, French, Scandinavians, and Africans, both free and slaves. In 1643 the population included Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, speaking eighteen European and African languages. (Boyer 2012:58)

Notably, the Dutch had a system of slave manumission. While it was a limited system, a policy for freeing the enslaved was established. As to be expected, marriages between blacks and the other inhabitants of New Amsterdam weren’t uncommon. The Dutch, it would seem, were more interested in maintaining harmonious, orderly, and efficient working practices in their colony rather than separating people based on religion or cultural backgrounds (Haviser 2016: 64-5).

In 1664, one-quarter of the 300 enslaved people who arrived in New Amsterdam were initially settled in New Amstel (renamed New Castle) on the Delaware River. Most of these 300 became casualties of war when Britain beat the Dutch during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Classed as spoils of war, these 300 souls were passed over to the British in order to be sold as slaves in Virginia (Miller, et al 1997:176).  

Like the Swedes, the Dutch seemed pretty chilled when it came to different cultures mixing. An orderly, efficient, harmonious society seems to be their primary concern.

The Carolinas and Georgia

Spanish explorers brought enslaved Africans to what are now the Carolinas around 1526 – nearly 40 years before the first permanent European settlement in North America. These Africans escaped in what is the first recorded slave revolt in North America.

In March 1540, the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, along with Afro-Hispanics and African slaves, reached the territory of the Ichisi, in what is now central Georgia. From here, his exploration party continued to work its way northwards into present day North Carolina and Tennessee. He and his exploration party would arrive in what is now South Carolina on 21 April 1540…the day of a Full moon no less! He and his party would arrive in present day North Carolina on 21 May 1540. For details of his expedition, visit

While it is believed that the Spanish ultimately didn’t establish any permanent settlements north of Florida, they did leave something behind in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee: Spanish, African, and Afro-Hispanic comrades. It’s believed they settled among the various Native American tribes in the region.

Spanish North America

Africans and African-descended people arrived in Florida with both the French and the Spanish in the 16th Century. Their presence in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas is documented as early as the 1520s.

The first Africans from Spain were known as ladinos, or Hispanicized Africans.  They were soldiers, servants, settlers, and slaves. They began to arrive in the Americas as early as the 15th century, many as auxiliaries to the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. As Matthew Restall states, “[F]rom the very onset of Spanish activity in the Americas, Africans were present both as voluntary expeditionaries and as involuntary colonists” (Restall 2000:172). Many people of African descent initially saw passage to the New World from either Spain or the Caribbean as a means of bettering their social and economic positions. Landers notes, “[G]iven their numbers and roles in Spanish port cities like Seville, and their generally depressed economic conditions, it is not surprising that both free and enslaved Africans hoped to improve their lots by crossing the Atlantic on the earliest voyages of exploration and conquest” (Landers 1999:9). Those who voluntarily set out on expeditions, and became part of armed auxiliaries, were more likely to gain their freedom than those in unarmed roles.

African men and women were part of a number of Spanish expeditions. The Panfilo de Narvaez Expedition of 1528 from Cuba to Florida is one example. This expedition included Esteban, perhaps the most notable African male to aid in the exploration of North America. The 1540 Coronado Expedition to Southwestern North America included a free African man who later served as an interpreter and would eventually become a Franciscan friar. The Juan Guerra de Resa Expedition of 1600 included African soldiers, their mulatto wives and children, and Isabel de Olvera, a mulatta woman. These are just three examples of the many expeditions which included Africans and African Americans among their members.

The account of Esteban, a Muslim, is one example of adaptation and survival in the New World. Esteban – also known as Estevan, Esteven, Estebanico the Black Man, Stephen the Black, and the “Black Mexican,” – was born in Azamar, Morocco. He was the first documented African in Texas and what would become the Western United States. As Juan Flores and others recount, he was one of the four survivors in the ill-fated journey of Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, from Cuba to the Florida coast (Flores 2004). Read more about Esteban.

Thanks to Genebase, I know my YDNA and my mother’s mtDNA is found in Latin America. I always believed this was via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Meaning that some ancestral African cousins went to either the Caribbean first, and they, or their descendants, were taken to South and Central America – or they went to the Americas direct. This remains the most straightforward theory. However, I can no longer dismiss the idea that I may have a direct connection to that part of the world through some unknown ladino ancestor. I have deep roots in North Carolina and Tennessee. All it would take is one descendant of a ladino for me to have inherited this directly. A long shot?  Absolutely. Is it inconceivable?  If my genealogy adventures have taught me anything…it’s to keep an open mind. My genetic links to Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Honduras have to be based on something.

Then there is the history of Louisiana, a state with an ancient mix of Native American, European, and African peoples. And, of course, the former Spanish held territories of American southwest, California, and Nevada. Wherever the Spanish went, Afro-Hispanics accompanied them and settled territories alongside them.

Wrapping things up

Needless to say, this was quite a bit to hit Stuart with. It’s quite the thing to take in when you’ve never heard this history before. And what I’ve provided above is merely the highlights. He laughed when I ended the topic with: “When certain Americans talk about a white America, I don’t know what country they speak of. People of colour have always been here. Many different peoples have been here from the beginning. And I won’t apologize if that’s an inconvenient truth.”

The last bit of the conversation is what truly captured his imagination:  Somewhere in the National Archives of Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, are colonial era documents about this period of North American history. Those documents will be a treasure trove for genealogists. For in them will be the names of some of the earliest non-Native settlers of North America who were from all walks of life and many different cultures. Within them lays the history of the settlement and growth of the earliest colonial settlements, which forms the true nascent history of America. How I would dearly love to be part of a project that begins the processes of digitizing them.


Blakely, A. 2001. Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society, Indiana University Press.

Boyer, P.S., Clark, C. E., Halttunen, K., Hawley, S., and Kett, J. F. 2012. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Volume I: To 1877, Concise, Cengage Learning.

Coughlin, E. K., 2007. The De Soto expedition, Learn North Carolina.

Finkelman, P., 2006. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass Three-volume Set, Oxford University Press.

Haviser, J. B., and MacDonald, K.C. 2016. African Re-Genesis: Confronting Social Issues in the Diaspora, Routledge.

Johnson, J. G. 1991. Black Christians–the untold Lutheran story, Concordia.

Landers, J., 1999. Black Society in Spanish Florida, University of Illinois Press.

McGinty, B., 2016. The Rest I Will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave, W. W. Norton & Company.

PBS. This Far by Faith: 1526-1775: From Africa to America via

Randall M. Miller, John David Smith. 1997. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, Greenwood Publishing Group.

Restall, M. 2000, Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America, The Americas, 57:2 October 2000, pp. 171-205 via

Sheppard, D.E. Hernando De Soto’s 1540 Exploration of the Carolinas via

United States National Park Service, Park Ethnography Program: African American Heritage & Ethnography: African Explorers of Spanish America via

Williams, W.H., 1999. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865, Rowman & Littlefield.

Pleasant Roane Part II: An unexpected link to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

There are times when my adventures in genealogy blow my mind.  This is one of them.

I wrote about my visit to Monticello last week (Visiting Monticello via )  What I didn’t say in that post is that the day after my visit to Monticello, I received an email from a Steven D. Now, Steven had no idea that I had visited Monticello the day before he sent his email.  No one did.  My phone battery had died by the time we reached the estate, so I had no way of sharing that adventure on social media.

So imagine my surprise when I received the email from Steven regarding the remarkable story of Pleasant Roane (Pleasant Roane (Rowan) and the road to manumission in Lynchburg via

His [Pleasant’s] father was Peter. Peter was owned by [John] DePriest, but Peter, his wife and a son were purchased from Thomas Jefferson in 1791. I have copies of John Sr and Jr, wills regarding the slaves they kept and sold.


Thomas Jefferson

Monticello and Thomas Jefferson…again.

I also now have the name of one of Pleasant’s parents, which I didn’t have previously: his father, Peter. This short email has opened a new line of research for Pleasant and his family. 

To clarify, Steven is a DePriest family descendant. I literally had goose bumps when I read Steven’s email. I was just there. I had just stood on the ground where Peter, Pleasant and their family had lived and toiled until they went to John DePriest. Take away the modern developments, and the trees that were planted by the subsequent owners of the estate…I had just seen the same vista that they would have seen. That’s some powerful mojo.

This is the perfect reason why genealogy is a powerful actor in my life. I never know what discovery is on the horizon.

Needless to say I’m in touch with the people at Monticello to see what records exists for Pleasant, his parents, and his siblings.

Visiting Monticello

I had the opportunity to visit Monticello the other day. Considering my recent trip where I visited some of my Roane family relations on another plantation in Louisiana, I knew It was going to be a day of mixed emotions.

While I knew Monticello sat atop a mountain, it never occurred to me exactly what went into its actual construction. Enter our (amazing) tour guide, Mary. One of the first things she told our tour group was that it had taken hundreds of enslaved people to literally level the uppermost part of the mountain in order to create the flat plateau visitors to Monticello see today. It didn’t occur to me until long after our tour had finished to ask how much earth had been removed as part of that human engineering feat. It was an exceedingly hot and humid day when we visited. I couldn’t image the physical toll that endeavor must have taken. While the view from the house and the surrounding gardens and terraces are stunning…they came at a real human price.


The land surrounding Monticello is what remains of the top of a mountain which was cleared away through the labour of enslaved people


The image above gives you some idea of the view of the surrounding area from Monticello.  You can literally see the surrounding countryside for miles in every direction.

Thomas Jefferson, the man behind the building of Monticello, was a practical man. The tons of earth his enslaved population removed, in order to clear the land for the estate, were used to make the very bricks which built the house. It was also used to daub the gaps of the cabins built for his enslaved population. Very little, it seems, went to waste.


The bricks used in the construction of the house and the surrounding terraces and outbuildings were made with the distinctive red soil that was removed in the creation of the flat plateau.

At the start of the tour, Mary asked people in our group where we’d come from. I mentioned that I was from London and Boston. I can’t remember the exact question that prompted my next answer. It had something to do with was I excited about being there. I laughed as I told her I was, but for a reason she probably would find very hard to believe. She countered with “Try me.” So I mentioned that Thomas Jefferson was an ancestral cousin via one set of known common ancestors – Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, and his wife, Margaret Wolton. Mary didn’t blink and answered with something of a cheeky grin: “Why on earth would I find that hard to believe?” There are other common ancestors via my Randolph line, however, I need to do much more work on that family to find the relatively more recent common ancestors via that line. My sister mentioned that Sally Hemmings was also a cousin and a Sheffey family relation via her Woodson descendants.

It was at that point that I clocked her surname…and spent the rest of the tour impatiently waiting for a chance to ask her a question about some of her ancestors. Mary’s surname is one that I know very, very well from years of researching my Virginia family. Because I haven’t had an opportunity to ask her if she’d be fine with me using her full name (I’m positive she would be. However, it’s always good to have that permission), I’m not going to publish her surname.


My brother (left) and I chatting to our newfound cousin Mary (centre). The small building in the background is where Thomas Jefferson and his family lived during the construction of Monticello.  Picture courtesy of Khoncepts

So, as we moved to one of the terraces, I asked her if she was a descendant of a famous Jamestown family. She readily answered ‘yes’. I explained how I was a descendant of the same family via a labyrinth of Ball-Mottrom marriages on my father’s maternal line through his Roane line, as well as Poythress-Strother marriages on his paternal side of his family through his Clark line. She laughed out loud. That was it. We were cousins. I had to laugh myself. I joked with her that she couldn’t have expected that as she got ready for work that morning. She couldn’t resist sharing that piece of news with the rest of the tour group.

Which just goes to prove one of the central premises behind Genealogy Adventures: Americans are connected to each other in amazing, surprising, and long forgotten ways – regardless of race, ethnicity, or other measures used to divide us from one another.

Things took a decidedly deeper, more contemplative, and spiritual turn as my siblings and I made our way to where Sally Hemmings had her rooms.


My brother and I standing in front of Sally hemming’s rooms. Picture courtesy of Khoncepts

Where she lived is currently an active archaeological dig site, so we were not able to actually go in and see. Nevertheless, in the moments before the above snap was taken, I spent some time contemplating the life of this familial relation. The range of emotions was wide and varied.

Next came Mulberry Row.  It was here that I stood inside a cabin for enslaved people for the first time in my life. The Hemmings cabin, as it’s called, is a reproduction – and by no means your typical slave cabin. From what our second tour guide told us, it reflected the status of the Hemmings family – well, as much ‘status’ as any enslaved person could attain  Just to put that into a realistic context.


Exterior shot of the Hemmings cabin


Interior shot of the Hemmings cabin

Too many thoughts went through my head to share here. Everywhere I looked, I returned to the thought than an entire family would have shared this humble space. I went pretty quiet as I contemplated that existence.  Suffice to say it was a powerful and stark experience. My only comment was to my brother as I said that, while I knew there were many African-descended Americans who couldn’t make the same claim – that our family had come a long, long way from the days this cabin represented. That’s all that needed to be said.

Our final stop before we left was the cemetery for the enslaved people. That space hit me the hardest.


There are 400 known enslaved souls who toiled at Monticello. To-date, only 40 of their burials are known. No one knows who any of these 40 individuals were. They are nameless. The area of the demarcated cemetery is small. It would take a minute to walk across its width, and about a minute to walk across its length. It’s small. As for headstones or engraved markers? There are none. Just a few rocks.


The image above is a plaque with a list containing the names of only a fraction of the enslaved souls who died at Monticello.  It is not an indication of any of the 40 known graves in the fenced off portion of the cemetery.

To say this hit me hard would be an understatement. It was like being sucker punched. I simply wasn’t expecting it. Nor was I alone. A friendly, middle-aged European-descended couple arrived just as my siblings and I were leaving. The wife asked us if we knew where the slave cemetery was. My siblings and I pointed to the space in front of us , and said, almost in unison: “This is it.”

Both of them looked perplexed. And the wife asked us another question: “But where are the headstones?” My voice was pretty flat as I spoke. “Those handful of rocks. That’s it.” Both of them were horrified, and visibly upset. All I could offer them was, “It is what it is.”  Really, that’s all I could say.  In that instance they got it.  I knew they got it. I could see it on their faces. And, I suppose, that is the unspoken power of places like Monticello.

That’s the full circle of my experience at Monticello.  At the start, it was visiting the ancestral home of a distant cousin.  The latter, the stark reminder of why I am related to Thomas Jefferson at all….through slavery. It’s quite the thing to wrap my head around at times and face.  However, as I said to the couple at the cemetery for the enslaved, it is what it is.

The Moses Williams Project in the news: San Diego Free Press

image showing The Moses Williams Project Article: A Genealogy Adventure with Slave and Supercentenarian Moses Williams | San Diego Free Press

The Moses Williams Project Article: A Genealogy Adventure with Slave and Supercentenarian Moses Williams | San Diego Free Press

Donya Williams, the four-times great-granddaughter of a man named Moses Williams, asked me if I would help draw attention to some research she and a cousin are doing titled: Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Genetic Genealogy Project.

So I started reading a bio she sent me of their work and can’t help but think they already know what they’re doing.

I was barely into reading other information when the names Strom Thurmond, 50 Cent, Al Sharpton, and L.L. Cool J jumped out at me – names I wouldn’t ever expect to appear in the same sentence.

I mean what could a white Southern senator who loves the KKK and a man who raps, “There’s no business like ho business” and a melodramatic Baptist preacher “Keepin’ it Real” and the creator of “Mama Said Knock You Out” possibly have in common?

Well, they’re all from Edgefield, South Carolina. And they’re all in one way or another related to the cousins. When this project is completed I want to hear that story.

Read more:

Critical Thinking: An important skill in genealogy research

I thoroughly enjoyed delivering my keynote talk at this year’s 1 day genealogy seminar hosted by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane ( in Lafayette, Louisiana. The hospitality was warm and welcoming. The attendees were brilliant (it was great seeing such a wide range in ages!). And the food?  My mouth waters at the memories of all of the delicious Louisiana dishes I sampled for the first time. It’s official.  I’m addicted to shrimp Po Boys.

One point elicited more post-talk questions than any other in the course of my 2 hour Discovering My American Identity discussion.  The questions arose from one thing in this slide below:

LouisianaThe questions had to do with critical thinking.

Critical thinking is part of my basic toolkit in terms of life skills. It’s no wonder considering I minored in philosophy as part of my university degree.  Critical thinking is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. It’s a skill that I apply to pretty much every aspect of my life. It is also the bedrock of my genealogical work.

So what is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a  an approach to  thinking, regardless of  subject, or content, or a problem.  It is a process through which a thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing their thought process; analyzing the route by which a person goes from Point A to points B, C, and D in his or her thinking. Boiled right down, critical thinking is thinking about thinking. Done right, it is a self-corrective process.  It entails effective communication and problem-solving skills. Critical thinkers make a commitment to overcoming their native egocentrism and sociocentric beliefs – or biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced thinking, in other words (Critical Thinking Community).

Why is it important?

The folks over at the Critical Thinking Community put it best:

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • Thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

So what does Critical Thinking have to do with genealogy?

Quite a bit as it so happens.

My 2011 post entitled A Tale of Two Emily Petersons ( was actually a post about critical thinking in a genealogical context. It outlined an early attempt at me applying my critical thinking skills to a genealogy problem. In a nutshell, I was faced with the prospect of two family members who bore the same name, lived near to one another, and who were clearly related to one other. However, one would be my direct ancestor, while the other would be an ancestral cousin. Critical thinking would be the key to unlocking who each of these two women were in relation to my ancestry.

Once I learned how to unlock all of the information various vital records and state records (e.g. censuses) held, I was able to solve the mystery. Well, records and a better understanding of my Edgefield County, South Carolina family’s history. Time, diligence in my education as a genealogist, and critical thinking, each played a part to enable me to ask the right questions in order to read the necessary records…and reach a correct conclusion.

I am fortunate that the lives of my famous relations are well documented. Their lineages have been researched and argued over for over a century…and longer in some instances. Critical thinking really comes into play with my ancestors and ancestral kin whose lives did not play out in the local or regional spotlight, or on the national stage.  Whether they were poor immigrants/indentured servants, lived in remote areas in the nascent American colonies/early years of the Republic, free people of colour, or the enslaved, their existence in official records is patchy at best. Typically, any records and written materials in which they are mentioned weren’t for them.   Rather, there exist only cursory mentions about them in regards to the lives of other people.

For instance, Mary Turner, an Irish indentured servant, only appears in court records due to her master’s complaints about her conduct.  Once freed of her indenture, she seemingly disappears from the face of the earth. She was poor, and a woman – probably illiterate – and as such, much of her life story remains unknown. The sole reason I know her name stems from her giving birth to three mulatto children out of wedlock, and the punishments meted out to her as a result. Did she ever marry? Did she remove herself and her children to the then frontier territories opening up in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina? These territories were occupied early on by free people of colour. While she was white, her children were not, and this hypothesis makes as much sense as any other. Critical thinking may enable me to unlock the mystery of her whereabouts after 1695.

My enslaved ancestors appear as property in deeds filed in the local courts as part of property transactions. Researching the enslaved requires a high degree of critical thinking as it involves piecing together the life story of a people with enormous gaps in their history.

Critical thinking comes into play when there are gaps in the records. Or, like my question about Emily Peterson, you have to do some deductive thinking to finally hit upon the right answer.

An example

Here is bog standard application of critical thinking in a genealogical context:

Here is a family branch for my 3x great uncle, Rev Edward Mathis.

ed mathis 1

ed mathis 2

Look at the year Charlotte Sue Hardy was born. Then, look at the years of birth for all of Edward’s children.

I’ve seen too many trees that show Charlotte as the mother of all of Edward’s children. I’ve even had a few arguments over it. Born in 1898, that just can’t be. A woman born in 1898 won’t be the mother of children born between 1905 and 1910. It is arguable, and even probable, that she could indeed be the mother of James Leroy Mathis, who was born in 1916.  There is a noticeable gap between the birth of James and his nearest sibling in age,  Lauvinia. This has me hedging my bets that James was the first child born to Edward Mathis and his second wife, Charlotte. Seemingly, Lauvinia is the last daughter born to him and his first, currently unknown, wife.  However, there is another significant gap between James and his sister Beulah. Given the information on her death certificate, Beulah is the first confirmed child of Charlotte Hardy. So…I’m awaiting the discover of James’s death certificate to confirm that Charlotte is indeed his mother.

This is critical thinking at its most basic.The Moses Williams project involves turbo-charged critical thinking; especially as the team is working with one-named ancestors in the depths of slavery.

Interrogating information – especially conflicting information (i.e. dates of birth or marriage or death, places where our ancestors were living at any given point and time, name misspellings and name variations, etc) – are all bits and pieces of information that require critical thinking when determining whether the record you are looking at is for the person you are researching.

Last, but by no means least, critical thinking enables me to explain to a fellow researcher how I reached a certain conclusion when a clear paper trail of documents is lacking. This doesn’t automatically mean that I am correct.  It forms an understandable and explainable framework that informs someone else how I reached a conclusion. He or she can then respond in kind until we work out what the truth actually is.

The Critical Thinking Process

The McGraw Education website goes into depth explaining the 6 steps to critical thinking as shown in the image above.  I highly recommend visiting the site which can be accessed via Reichenbach: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Chapter 2 Study Guide:

The images below syntheses the McGraw Hill information in two handy infographic:

Here’s an outline of the critical thinking process:


for a larger image, please click This infographic will make sense once you have read through the material on the McGraw Education website

The infographic below tackles the Six Steps of Critical Thinking:

If you’re new to the whole critical thinking process, I appreciate it can be daunting at first. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to stick with it, and incorporate it into your genealogy working practice. You will find your research will progress in leaps and bounds.

Save these dates: We’re on the Extreme Genes radio show, 1st-3rd July 2017


Set your alarms to listen. My cousin Donya and I will be on the Extreme Genes Genealogy show, which will be broadcast on 1st and 2nd July. The on-demand streaming version will go live on 3 July.

Donya and I talk about finding each other through DNA, genealogy…and, of course, the Moses Williams Project and what we aim to achieve through the project.

Click the link below to set a reminder:[%7B%5C%22surface%5C%22%3A%5C%22post_page%5C%22%2C%5C%22mechanism%5C%22%3A%5C%22surface%5C%22%2C%5C%22extra_data%5C%22%3A[]%7D]%22%2C%22has_source%22%3Atrue%7D&source=108&action_history=[%7B%22surface%22%3A%22post_page%22%2C%22mechanism%22%3A%22surface%22%2C%22extra_data%22%3A[]%7D]&has_source=1

Stations carrying the broadcast:
WTKI AM 1450 Huntsville AL Sun. 6-7 PM CT
WTKI FM 92.9 Huntsville AL Sun. 6-7 PM CT
WEKI AM 1490 Decatur AL Sun. 6-7 PM CT
WEKI FM 94.7 Decatur AL Sun. 6-7 PM CT
WTKI AM 1450 Huntsville AL Sat. 5-6 PM CT
WTKI FM 92.9 Huntsville AL Sat. 5-6 PM CT
WEKI AM 1490 Decatur AL Sat. 5-6 PM CT
WEKI FM 94.7 Decatur AL Sat. 5-6 PM CT
KARN FM 102.9 Little Rock AR Sat. 3-4 PM CT
KTAR FM 92.3 Phoenix AZ Sat. 6-7PM MT
KTAR FM 92.3 Phoenix AZ Sun. 6-7PM MT
KFCS AM 1580 Colorado Springs CO Sat. 11-Noon MT
KFCS AM 1580 Colorado Springs CO Sun. 3-4PM MT
WFLN AM 1480 Arcadia FL Sat. 1-2PM ET
KAOI AM 1110 Wailuku HI Sun. 6-7 AM Hawaii
KAOI FM 96.7 Wailuku HI Sun. 6-7 AM Hawaii
KSNA FM 100.7 Idaho Falls, ID Sun. 9-10AM MT
KSNA FM 100.7 Pocatello, ID Sun. 9-10AM MT
WLRT AM 1250 Lexington (Versailles), KY Sun. 11AM-Noon ET
WLRT AM 1250 Lexington (Versailles), KY Sat. 5-6 PM ET
WRKO AM 680 Boston, MA Sun. 6-7AM ET
WPKZ AM 1280 Fitchburg, MA Sun. 9-10AM ET
WPKZ FM 105.3 Fitchburg, MA Sun. 9-10AM ET
KWOC AM 930 Poplar Bluff, MO Sun. 8-9AM CT
KELE AM 1360 Mountain Grove, MO Sun. 7-8PM CT
KWOC FM 93.3 Poplar Bluff, MO Sun. 8-9AM CT
WVBG AM 1490 Vicksburg, MS Sun. 6-7 PM ET
WMXI FM 98.1 Hattiesburg, MS Sun. 8-9AM CT
WVBG FM 107.7 Vicksburg, MS Sun. 6-7 PM ET
KNNT FM 98.5 Battle Mountain, NV Sat. Noon-1PM PT
KNNT FM 98.5 Battle Mountain, NV Sun. 10-11AM PT
KZBI FM 94.5 Elko, NV Sat. 6-7AM PT
KZBI FM 94.5 Elko, NV Sun. 6-7AM PT
KELY AM 1230 Ely, NV Sat. noon-1PM PT
KELY AM 1230 Ely, NV Sun. 10-11AM PT
KXNT AM 840 Las Vegas, NV Sat. 6-7PM PT
WSDQ AM 1190 Chattanooga(Dunlap), TN Sun. 6-7AM ET
WSDT AM 1240 Chattanooga(Soddy-Daisy), TN Sun. 6-7AM ET
WEPG AM 910 Chattanooga(S. Pittsburg), TN Sun. 6-7AM ET
KAZZ FM 98.5 Cedar City UT Sat. 11-Noon MT
KVNU AM 610 Logan, UT Sun. 9-10AM MT
KZNU AM 1450 St. George, UT Sat. 11-Noon MT
KAZZ AM 1400 Cedar City, UT Sat. 11-Noon MT
KNRS AM 570 Salt Lake City, UT Sun. 6-7 PM MT
KNRS FM 105.9 Salt Lake City, UT Sun. 7-8 PM MT
KZNU FM 93.1 St. George, UT Sat. 11-Noon MT
KVNU FM 102.1 Logan, UT Sun. 9-10AM MT
KMAS AM 1030 Shelton, WA Sat. 8-9AM PT
KMAS FM 103.3 Shelton, WA Sat. 8-9AM PT

If you don’t see a station in your area you can go online listen to:

Lucretia “Creasy” Williams: Finding another daughter of Moses Williams, Sr

Sometimes the universe takes pity on genealogists and places a gift right in our laps. This is one of those times.

The Moses Williams project team took a short hiatus from the project to work on other parts of our respective family trees. This is an enormous and intensive project. Naturally, we’ll be taking breaks from it to catch our breath and clear our heads…and think of new ways to tackle the formidable research obstacles. So it was kind of nice landing a major find on the second day back on the project.

The message below is what led to the discovery we’ve just made today:

Christopher Williams

There was just enough information provided for me to decide to take a look. I thought I’d give it 15 or so minutes just to see what I could find.  I know, I know, every genealogist says that…and 12 hours later, you find yourself still working through your research. Not this time.

In no time at all, I was able to trace Christopher’s life journey from Greenwood County, South Carolina (which was actually still part of Edgefield County when Christopher was born) to Ohio. Working backwards in Greenwood County, I had his parents and his siblings.

Christopher was the son of Frank Williams (1883 – ?) and Eula (maiden name unknown) of Kirksey, Greenwood, South Carolina. Frank Williams. in turn, was the son of John Williams (1847 – ?) and Amanda Susanna Ross, also of Kirksey, Greenwood, South Carolina

Now Frank has been in my tree for a long time. He caused me all manner of confusion. I had two Frank Williams born abt 1847 – one married to an Amanda Ross and one married to a Susannah Ross. I treated these two Franks as two different men, even though I strongly suspected they were one in the same person.  It was the different given names for his wife or wives that threw me.  After some further digging and searching through additional records, both Franks are indeed the same man.  Now, whether Susannah Ross and Amanda Ross are the some woman, or sisters, I don’t know. For now, I’m treating them as one in the same person until more death certificates are found for their children.

Frank’s mother was Lucretia “Creasy” Williams (abt 1820 – ?). And then I truly hit a nugget of gold.  I found her in the 1880 Census with her mother, Mariah Stallworth. Lucretia, it turns out, was born and lived in apart of Edgefield that become Greenwood County when the district boundaries changed.

To see that name Stallworth was simply everything. It gives us a specific name to search on for additional children. We can also begin to identify the family who enslaved her, and trace her life through various slave deeds and probate records.

Taking a look at where Mariah and Lucretia were living in 1880, I immediately knew who Lucretia’s father was. We knew the name of his second wife already, which was Mariah (maiden name unknown). 10 minutes later and everything came together. The Mariah Stallworth who was Lucretia’s mother was one in the same as the Mariah who was Moses’s wife.

Here was another of Moses Williams’ missing 40 daughters.

There’s still a basic mystery with Lucretia. Who was the father of her mulatto son, John Williams?

To-date, the team has found 8 of Moses Williams 45 enslaved children:

  1. Ellick/Aleck Williams, born abt. 1780, and living in Laurens County by 1870;
  2. An unknown daughter, born in Edgefield County around 1790, who had at least one child by an unknown McKie.  that child was Moses McKie, Sr, born abt 1825 in Edgefield County. He is living in the midst of his extended Williams family in Edgefield in the 1870 Census;
  3. Moses Williams, Jr, born abt. 1791 in Edgefield, and died in the 1880s in Barnwell County;
  4. Violet Williams, born abt. 1809 in Edgefield County. She was the wife of Peter Peterson of Edgefield County (my 4x great grandparents);
  5. Lewis Williams, born abt. 1815 in Edgefield County. Presumed to have died in Edgefield County before 1880;
  6. Henry Williams, born abt. 1818 in Edgefield County. Presumed to have died in Edgefield or Greenwood Counties by 1880;
  7. Elizabeth Williams, born abt. 1840 in Edgefield County, and living in Barnwell County by 1880; and
  8. Lucretia Williams, born abt. 1820 and living in Greenwood County by 1880.

At present, we’re missing 1 son and 33 daughters – as well as the name of his first wife, who was the mother of 21 of his 45 children.


Media Appeal: The Moses Williams Project


In an atmosphere of division and rising tensions, especially around the issue of race, Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Project is a project that encourages people to talk to another. More importantly, it’s aim is getting people who wouldn’t normally talk to one another, namely people from different races, to talk. And to realize that there is more to unite Americans from different backgrounds than divides us. You never know who you’re related to.  Chances are, unknown cousins will look very different from the family you already know.

We are bringing this topic to you in the hopes that we can get a platform discussing how important this research is, and the impact that it has on America today.  The Genealogy Adventures team believes this research – and bringing Americans from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds together through genetic genealogy – has the makings of a riveting show segment.

Genealogy challenge: Researching the 45 enslaved children of Moses Williams

Knowledge is power.   It’s through that concept that the Genealogy Adventures team presents to you a project worth getting behind. The Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Genetic Genealogy Project began with two strangers who found each other through genealogical research…and discovered they were cousins via DNA. In fact, these two cousins share several common ancestors. It was in that find we realized that the place our ancestors came from (Edgefield, South Carolina) was not just another small town, but a place when, in its hay-day, had an enormous impact on American history.

Edgefield, South Carolina connects to well-known people such as Strom Thurmond, Senator Andrew Butler, the infamous Preston Brooks, 50 Cent and L.L. Cool J.

Our research has shown that in one way or another we are related to all of them. More than this, we’re related to pretty much everyone in the greater Edgefield area: white, black, and native Americans. When we learned that our 4x great-grandfather Moses Williams, who lived to be 115 years old, in his lifetime had 45 children it all started to make sense. Having that many children connects his descendants to a staggering number of Americans – white, black, and native Americans. Moses children were born in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with the majority of them being born in Edgefield and its surrounding counties.  When we first found him, he was listed as a slave of an American Revolutionary Patriot John Williams. It was through a series of legal deeds we learned that Moses was passed to his son Daniel. DNA analysis points to Daniel Williams II as the father of Moses.

Myself and Donya Papoose Williams set out to uncover this historic story along with four of our black and white DNA cousins: Loretta Bellamy, Sharon Rowe, Hammad Settles Asad and Sheila Hightower-Allen. The task this research group set itself was to find these 45 children, born in the depths of the slavery era, as well as Moses’s siblings, extended family, as well as the descendants from this family. It is a task that will connect millions of Americans to one another at the most basic level – genetic.

The challenge in finding these kids?

  • They are estimated as being born between 1786 and 1836. That is deep into the colonial days and the heart of slavery;
  • 40 of them are girls – This makes them even tougher to find due to marriage at an early age and the changing of the last name after marriage;
  • Moses Williams was having children at the same time as his eldest children were also having children, adding a multi-gernatoinal challenge in identifying correct parents for the descendants we find; and
  • Records for African Americans are extremely difficult to find

These six cousins have not only found the various enslavers of Moses (who were also his blood relations), we have found 7 of his 45 children, and a host of grandchildren, from deeds, probate records, census records, newspaper articles, and DNA triangulation.

We are hoping that having a discussion with you, and sharing that discussion with your audience, will provide a controlled question and answer period on the largest elephant in the room slavery and its effect on the American People. It is time to address this problem and Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Project is the way to get started to do it.

We are currently in the process of booking interviews. We’d like to extend our thanks to Scott Fisher, host of the nationally syndicated Extreme Genealogy Show ( for being the first to invite us to share our project with his audience.

These interviews are to shed light on this project and the importance of tracing your ancestors, discovering American history through genealogy research, and building bridges through conversation.

We would love to include you as part of our line-up.

This project is historic – in scope as well as subject. Thank you in advance for your support!

Thank you so much for your kind consideration.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

The Genealogy Adventures Team

Impact Goals

  • America is more than a country of immigrants. Tens of millions of us are connected at the most fundamental level there is – genetics.  Tens of millions of Americans are family, regardless of race/ethnicity/culture, religious beliefs, sociology-econonic and education attainment, or any other construct that serves to divide. we’re about connecting people from different backgrounds and breaking down perception barriers;
  • Leading people to think of people who are different from themselves as an important part of society;
  • Increasing understanding of ourselves and American history;
  • Helping people see the value in a myriad of life stories and experiences; and
  • To recognize and celebrate the commonality we share through the wonder of an enormous, extended family.

Go Fund Me Fundraising Campaign

Our Go Fund Me fund raising link is

Team Biographies

Below are bios for both Brian and Donya and where to donate to this cause. We are constantly updating our progress on our Genealogy Adventures Facebook  page and we appreciate your time and look forward to speaking with you both privately and publicly on this issue.

Brian Sheffey (Boston, MA)

My genealogy adventures began in 2010. My father was turning 78 and I wanted to give him a more personal birthday gift. I mean, what do you give a 78 year who literally has everything, right? We knew very little about his family history… Genealogy Adventures was born. My own genealogy primarily encompasses trans-African, European, Jewish, and Native American ancestry.  Each requires a different skill set, which I have focused on and developed over the years.

My adventure has had its ups and downs with each ancestral story that I have discovered. What I can say, with my hand on my heart, is that the adventure and the journey has been one of the most profoundly empowering, awakening, and grounding experiences of my life. I have learned more about myself, my people, and American history through genealogy than I have through any other means.

I discovered my American identity through genealogy. That sounds odd for an American who was born on a large Naval base in Groton, with a father who was career Navy, and plenty of uncles who served in the armed forces. Yet, as a person of color, I was made to feel that America was my not country. Discovering that I am the direct descendant of American Presidents (and related to many other presidents), the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution – as well as a whole host of governors, congressmen, and senators – changed all that.

Donya Williams (Washington DC)

-I can honestly say that Genealogy has been requesting my attention since a little girl, but it wasn’t until 1996 that I finally began to answer the call. Since then I have been placed on a journey that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

My genealogical make up is African, European, East Asian and Native American. Researching has opened my eyes to what I didn’t learn in school. I learn something new every day and it is the best thing I have ever done in my life outside of having my children.

Because of Genealogy I have submitted articles to the oldest running newspaper in South Carolina. I have been the leader for bringing all branches of my family together. But the most important thing that Genealogy has done for me is the ability to educate those on who they are and where they come from.

Sharon Rowe

I have been doing genealogy since 1976. While I learned of enslaving ancestors almost at once, it was many years before I realized how many of my family were involved. Through the Internet, I have been able to find some descendants of those people my family enslaved. DNA testing has linked me to more African-American cousins, though the actual connections remain murky for the most part. But more profoundly, I have found out I have trace African ancestry.

We are all cousins under the skin and I am excited to help with more discoveries.

Loretta Bellamy

My genealogy research began 29 years ago when I decided to locate my biological mother. Fortunately, my research ended successfully without the aid of online searching. Even then, I knew I had the gift of research. I’m a “Needle in The Haystack” type of person. When I joined in 2004, I never could have imagined the profound and fulfilling journey I would take. The ability to research my own family history as well as help so many others who may not have the resources is so fulling to me. The education I have gained since this journey began is immense. The old saying is so true, “You’ll never now where you are going unless you know where you come from.” It’s about helping people make those connections. The more research I do, the more I find the world is getting smaller and smaller, thus making people more biologically related than we ever thought possible.

Using church names and obits to find your ancestors in rural areas

When it comes to genealogical research, few places in America have challenged my grey matter like the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina.  I’m laughing as I write this next bit: old Ninety-Six has literally given me a few grey hairs.

South Carolina Districts 1769

There are a few simple reasons for this:

  1. Everyone with roots in Old Ninety-Six , regardless of ethnicity, are related to one another.
  2. Not only are people from this region related to one another, they are related in multiple ways. One cousin and I share no less than seven common pairs of ancestors – who were related to each other, as it so happens. This is due to entrenched endogamy. We’re talking cousin marriages that stretch back to early colonial Virginia. In some cases, generations of cousin marriages began in Great Britain. By the time my British-descended ancestors began producing children with enslaved African-descended women, they passed this inter-related mix to their mulatto children. These children, in turn, also married other mulatto and black cousins.  By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, no one in Old Ninety-Six could move without bumping into a cousin of some sort or another.  This brings me right back to point #1 above.
  3. DNA segment triangulation is a nightmare. Try applying specific surnames to DNA segments with a fourth cousin when the two of you share an above-average amount of DNA across more segments than fourth cousins should typically share. In the case of the cousin I mentioned above, you would think we were second cousins rather than fourth cousins.
  4. While a slight exaggeration, everyone in a rather huge extended family used the same dozen or so names for their children. Everyone. I have enough Old Ninety-Six Janie Lou’s – white and black – to fill a modestly sized New York City music venue. Even a name like Hazeltine, which should be more or less unique, was commonly used.  It makes identifying records for a specific person a challenge.

So when it came to dealing with a family tree that is exploding in size due to the Moses Williams Project…I had to think of another way of finding the records I needed for specific individuals myself and the project team has been researching.

A different approach hit me out of the blue.

My Old Ninety-Six ancestors and family worshiped at specific churches.  Churches like Springfield Baptist Church, Liberty Springs Baptist Church, and Shaws Creek Baptist Church were established and built by members of my family. Their descendants still worship at these churches to this day. That was the clue that I needed. It’s one of those clues that has been under my nose the entire time.

I decided to do a general search on the terms ‘Liberty Springs Baptist Church’ and Greenwood, South Carolina’ on I struck gold immediately.


There they were…dozens upon dozens of obituaries and news accounts specifically related to Liberty Springs. Surnames that I now know as well as my own – Adams, Gilchrist, Moore, Parks, Keys/Keyes, Dean, etc – leapt out at me.

I took a gamble. I decided to try and do a bit of reverse engineering.  I added a new orphan profile page on for the first few individuals I found on  By ‘orphan’, I mean the individuals I added  weren’t attached to anyone else in my tree.  They were stand alone ancestral profiles. I keyed in the relevant information from the obituary I was working from:  full name, date of birth, date of death, county of birth, county of death, their parents’ names, the name of their spouse, children’s’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), siblings’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), and any other family members who were mentioned. And…bingo!  Ancestry produced the correct records for the person I whose obituary I had. I didn’t have to trawl through two dozen possible death records or Social Security Claims Index records for a dozen or so Willie Mae Joneses in the hopes that I could find the right record for the specific person I was researching.  Ancestry gave me the correct one immediately.

The reason is pretty simple:  I already had all of the correct, specific, vital life information. This included maiden names, which are gold dust.  Having all of this information made it far easier to locate correct census returns. I could easily place this person’s branch of the tree into my overall tree within two to three generations.

Even better…I was picking up the trail of my black family members who left the south as part of the Great Migration into the northern states. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that family deaths in places like Washington DC, Newark, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newport News, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston were being reported back home in South Carolina.

Using this approach enabled me to plug some serious gaps in the Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina part of my tree within a matter of three days.  OK, three days of rather intensive focus using this approach.

This approach works for a few simple reasons. My Old Ninety-Six family stayed in the same place between 1860 and 1890. The family members who left as part of the Great Migration stayed in contact with the family left behind in South Carolina for at least one generation afterwards. Last, but not least, those family ties to their family church remained – and continue to remain – strong.

Now, as always, there is a caveat.  Obituaries were not the preserve of everyone prior to 1940.  Not in South Carolina at any rate.  If your family was poor, regardless of race, the chances are slim there will be an obituary.  In terms of this part of South Carolina, prior to 1940, the handful of obituaries I’ve seen for people of colour fall into two categories:  1) either the ancestor was classed as an ‘exceptional negro’; or 2) he or she did something remarkable (like live to be 115 years old and have over 40 children).  If your family was poor and white, well, your ancestor had to do something extraordinary and/or heroic to warrant an obituary.  After 190 is different – blacks, and whites of modest means, begin to have obituaries in the local papers in this part of South Carolina.

Basically, there are three things you need to have in order to make this research approach work:

  1. A family tree that has more than your immediate family line (in other words, it also has the siblings of your ancestors, and their extended family and descendants;
  2. Familiarity with all the families your ancestors married into (allied families); and
  3. The name of the church where your ancestors and their family worshiped.

I’ve only used this approach for family who lived in a very rural area.  I haven’t applied it to those who lived in cities.

I hope it’s an approach that works for you.  Let me know!