New DNA adventure show concept, new TV production conversations

20111019-072_webI’ve spent the past week and a bit in talks with a broadcasting company about a new DNA docu-reality adventure series I’ve been developing. This series, unlike the first one, will primarily be based in the US and Europe. Later series will focus more on other parts of the globe.

The head of programming  who was part of the conversation asked a great question: what were some of the top experience I wanted to share via this series. It’s such a seemingly simple question. However, there’s a real depth to it. The show’s natural high and low points – the drama, in other words – hinges on these experiences.

dnaadventures

It didn’t take me long to answer the question. Smashing long-standing brick walls. The answers to questions I’ve had for years will provide plenty of laughs, dad dancing, high fives – and probably a few tears – along the way.

So what were the top family history and genealogy brick walls I chose to share during the meeting?

On my father’s side of the family tree

Jemimah Sheffey

Born in Virginia around 1770, I am one to two generations away from finding the African ancestors for my 4x great grandmother. Just old enough to remember the American Revolution, Jemimah lived long enough to experience the freedom American Revolutionaries fought for a few short years after her birth. Born into slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and three generations of her family.

She adopted the name of the man who fathered her children: Sheffey. But what would her maiden name of have been had she not been enslaved? What surname did her siblings (whoever they were) and their descendants take?  Did they identify as Sanders/Saunders? As Whites? As Georges? I have absolutely no idea. I’d love to find out. It’s a gaping void in my father’s side of the family tree.

The early origins of her story is linked to Captain James Lowry White of Staunton, Augusta, Virginia. James was the father of Jemimah’s first child. I suspect James, and his father before him, owned not only Jemimah, but her enslaved ancestors as well.

This naturally brings me to…

James Lowry White

James is interesting to me for a number of reasons. He is a cousin on my mother’s side of the family. He also happened to own a number of my father’s ancestors and kin. It’s one of the many Quaker connections that link my father’s and mother’s families.

James White was one of the richest men in America in his day. Yet, he died intestate (without a will). On the one hand, I find it amazing that such a phenomenally successful business man didn’t leave his house in order before he died. On the other hand, it’s lucky for me that he died without a will. The legal battle over his estate lasted for decades. Where there is a probate legal battle, there is a detailed accounting of an estate. Since slaves were property, there will be plenty of documentation about the slaves he owned and where they were resident (James had farms and plantations in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. All of them had slaves.)

Thankfully, the Library of Virginia houses an extensive collection of his family papers, including the probate case.

James holds the key to the origins of Jemimah and her extended family. He also holds the key to my George and White family ancestors.

He is the link that will unite around 25 individual family lines in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

Finding the common ancestors for these lone family lines will be huge.

Cornelius White & Ann St. Clair

Cornelius has been as stubborn a brick wall as any I’ve encountered. I simply cannot find any information for him prior to 1870. I have used every tip and trick I can think of to unlock his ancestry. I have zip. Nada. Nothing.

I suspect that Cornelius was my great grandfather’s middle name. If this is correct, the priority will be in discovering what his first name was in order to pick up his life story.

My gut tells me that he and his immediate ancestors were owned by James Lowry White, and later on by James’s children who remained in the Wythe, Smyth and Augusta areas of Virginia. I’m also fairly certain that Cornelius, a mulatto, had a blood connection to the white White family.  Top of my to-do list to determine the blood connection is having one of Cornelius’s direct male descendants taking a YDNA test and comparing the results to a direct male descendant of James White.

I also believe that James White, or his father, owned the ancestors of Ann St Clair, Cornelius’s wife. Born into slavery in Tennessee, I have no idea of when Ann arrived in Wythe County, Virginia. My working hypothesis is that she was part of a White family estate dispersal that made Wythe County her new home before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Peter Scheffe

Peter Scheffe, my 9x great grandfather, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by mystery. My storyteller’s heart is shouting ‘bigtime story!’ where he’s concerned.

He just appears in Germany out of nowhere. His arrival coincides with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the outcome of which sent many French Protestants fleeing into the religious safety of the German dukedoms, principalities and kingdoms. This man went from being a shoemaker to a mill owner and then mayor within a few decades. Germans tell me that this was an amazing and incredibly rare feat in 17th Century Germany.

Then there’s the question of his coat of arms. Coat of arms aren’t produced for just anybody. And they definitely weren’t given to just anybody in 17th Century Europe. How, when and why did he come by his?

My working hypothesis is that he was a Huguenot with a Franco-Germanic ancestry. He and his descendants married into prominent Huguenot (French Protestant) families who fled to the same Südwestpfalz district, in Rhineland-Palatinate (western Germany), where Peter came to reside.

One spark of a clue has come via Genebase’s fun royal DNA comparison tool. Yep, Genebase has a series of DNA results for famous European royals. I compared the YDNA I Inherited from Peter with YDNA from the English king Richard III and French prince, Louis Joseph of France (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette). According to the Genebase results, I share a common direct male ancestor with both – an unknown man who lived approximately in 10th Century Europe.

Is this hidden lineage the reasons for Peter’s rise and success in Germany?

Peter’s origins are unknown. Nothing is known of his parents. He has been a mystery since the American Sheffey family began documenting its lineage in the mid 1800’s. Smashing this brick wall is long overdue. And I’m sure his story will be nothing short of pure gold dust.

Scots-Irish Roanes vs English Roanes

The question of whether or not these two Roane family groups are related has plagued family historians and genealogists in the US, Ireland, Scotland and England for over a century.  This is a brick wall that’s begging to be smashed.

On my mother’s side of the family tree

Now this list will appear to be very short compared to the number of brick walls on my father’s side of the family tree. Many of my mother’s white ancestors were Quakers…or the descendants of Quakers. Quakers kept exceptional records most of which have been digitized. It’s been relatively straightforward to trace her ancestry back through her various Quaker ancestral lines.

However, her line does have its brick walls.

A Jewish great grandfather

I know quite a bit about this gentleman, the father of my maternal grandfather. I roughly know when he was born. I know where he lived as an adult. I know his genetic make-up. I know that he was an Ashkenazi Jewish man either from Galicia (an area of Poland and the Ukraine) or with roots in Galicia.

galicia-poland-ukraine1

I don’t know his name.

Uncovering his identity and his story will fill in a major missing piece of my identity. He is, hands down, the biggest mystery on my mother’s side of the family tree.

Finding more of my mother’s white ancestors

I’ve made great strides in identifying the white slave owning men who sired a handful of my mother’s enslaved mulatto ancestors in North and South Carolina. There remains a substantial amount of work to do in identifying the white progenitors of a number of her enslaved mulatto ancestors. I know the families involved. The vast majority are descendants of the Quaker families I’ve spent some time writing about.

The key to unlocking this set of secrets will be in the form of DNA testing. Extensive DNA testing. The end result will be finding the rightful place for around 30 distinct family lines into my overall family tree. These individual family lines run from Virginia and the Carolinas to every slave owning state. This won’t just answer my questions. It will answer the question of how thousands of living descendants are related to one another, both black and white.

Her enslaved ancestors

The brick walls here will be solved through researching probate and tax records as well as family papers. The series would follow the paper trail from the Carolinas back to Virginia – and further back in time to 17th Century Pennsylvania Quaker slave owners.

A seventeenth-century image of English Quaker tobacco planters and enslaved Africans in Barbados.

A seventeenth-century image of English Quaker tobacco planters and enslaved Africans in Barbados. Source: http://www.historiansagainstslavery.org

Research will restore a family tree broken by centuries of enslaved families split apart in two ways: either through being deeded to slave owners’ descendants, who then moved to different parts of the southern states as territory became available, and through being sold.

The executive producer’s interest was certainly piqued (I love hearing that one simple word: “Powerful”). I certainly look forward to an opportunity of rolling my sleeves up and getting stuck in when it comes to busting these walls!

 

My working practice for my African American genealogy research

This post is a glimpse into my working practices when it comes to researching black ancestors who were enslaved. On the one hand, it will probably look like Olympic standard mental gymnastics. On the other, I hope it gives a good framework for other African Americans researching their own enslaved ancestors.

In this post, I’m going to concentrate solely on my Sheffey ancestors in Wythe County, Virginia.

A tale of a very tight knit family

Part and parcel of researching ancestors who were enslaved is acquiring knowledge about the family who owned them. Any chance of discovering such ancestors can only be accomplished through the records kept by slave owners. Our enslaved ancestors’ lives were inextricably linked to their owner’s family. Obvious, I know. Still, I’m stating this for a specific purpose. My enslaved Sheffey ancestors were kept together within the extended Sheffey family. I have no overall understanding of how usual or unusual a practice this was. The fact that the black and white sides of the Sheffey family were related may have had a part to play in this. With an increasing knowledge of the beliefs and quirks of the slave owning Sheffeys, I wouldn’t be surprised if this kinship was behind keeping my black Sheffey ancestors and relations together.

Not only was the family structure of my enslaved Sheffey ancestors and relations kept intact, it definitely seems as though the extended black Sheffeys were in regular contact with one other. It makes sense. My white Sheffey ancestors and kin were a close knit and very sociable bunch of people. Going from family home to family home, with slaves in tow, seems the most obvious way my black Sheffey cousins kept in regular contact with one another and maintained their closeness.

How do I know the black Sheffeys were every bit as tight knit as their white counterparts? The 1870 Census. Whether it’s Wythe County towns like Wytheville, Cripple Creek, Ivanhoe or Black Lick (and Marion in neighbouring Smyth County) – there they all are, my black ancestors, all living near to one another. And through numerous marriage records showing second and third cousins from the different Wythe County towns (and Marion) marrying one another.

In other words, it wasn’t the habit of Sheffey slave owners to split the families of their black relations apart. Which has made researching my black ancestors an easier task than if they had been sold all over the southern states. Research is showing that my black Sheffey ancestors and kin were passed, intact, by my white  Sheffey kin to other Sheffey family members in their Wills.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I'll need for my research. Click for larger image.

An example of how I identify which Wills and probate records I’ll need for my research. Click for larger image.

Now all I need is to find the Wills to actually prove this. Which segues quite nicely back to my opening sentences.

Enter genealogy: Focusing on the oldest known generation of back & mulatto Sheffeys

Let’s take a look at the oldest known members of my earliest known black Sheffey ancestors.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

Snapshot putting my oldest known black Sheffey ancestors into context. Click for larger image.

I’m going to focus on three people: Jemimah, her son Jacob Sheffey and his wife, Elsey George.

Once you’ve identified an owner for an enslaved ancestor, it’s a good idea to do a rough work-up of that owner’s family tree. Slaves were usually passed from generation to generation. Doing a genealogical work-up of a slave owner and his family can provide clues about your enslaved ancestor’s genealogy – identifying siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins to additional children they may have had.

Once you have done an outline of a slave owner’s family tree, the next step is to find any Wills, estate records, estate inventories (usually done as part of the probate period), tax records, letters and journals – anything that might make reference to slaves by name.  I have uncovered previously unknown family lines through this practice.

If an enslaved ancestor lived to an advanced age (say, seventy or older), and appears on the 1870 Census, you stand a good chance of tracing who owned them when they were born and then all the subsequent family members who owned them and their family. The caveat is this works so long as they were kept within the same family.

I find that it helps my research if I draw some outlines of inter-connections and relationships between enslaved ancestors and how they connect to various owners. Visual aides always help my research. Like the working example below:

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey's parents. Click for larger image.

Outline of black and white family connections. Includes questions to answer and avenues to investigate to identify Godfrey Taylor Sheffey’s parents. Click for larger image.

The image above is a working outline I’ve shared with some Sheffey DNA cousins trying to place their ancestor, Godfrey Taylor Sheffey, into my overall Sheffey family tree. We know there is a connection. The men in their line bear an uncanny resemblance to me and many of the men who are descendants of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Seriously! It’s like the men in Jacob’s line were cloned!

Through plotting the image above, it’s my hunch that Godfrey Sheffey’s parents were Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Laying out all the known, pertinent facts – as they have been in the image above – just makes that hunch even stronger.

However, the image above serves a few purposes. There is more within it than meets the eye at first.

Jemimah’s origins remain a mystery. By that I mean I have no clue who owned her when she was born in 1770. This void means I have no clue about who her parents were, or the identity of any siblings – or what family name her family would have used. Her early life requires a lot more work. She was born before the second generation German-American Sheffey’s (e.g. Daniel Sheffey and his brother Henry Sheffey) arrived in Virginia and became save owners. Daniel and Henry were still children themselves in Frederick County, Maryland. So she couldn’t have originally been owned by them. I’m hoping a trail of Virginia Slave Deeds of Sales will lead me back to her first owner.

Some Deductive Reasoning and Critical Thinking

Now the next bit requires deductive reasoning and critical thinking. These are not ideal tools of the genealogist. However, my previous critical thinking and deductive reasoning has led to some remarkable genealogy breakthroughs.

Our enslaved ancestors’ stories are inextricably linked to the story of the families who owned them. This includes their Properties and Places of residence – I refer to this as P&P.

Here’s a working example:  In order for Jacob and Elsey to have a ‘union’ and produce children, they were more than likely resident within the same Sheffey household. So which one? My thinking is that Jacob and Elsey were owned by Henry Sheffey. And here’s how I came to that deductive conclusion:

  • Elsey’s first child was by James Lowry White, Henry Sheffey’s brother-in-law. Elsey and James were both teenagers when that child was born. So it makes sense that she was owned by James’s father, William White, and not by James. Carrying this deductive reasoning further, it seems highly probable that Elsey was born into William White’s household. William White more than likely also owned her parents and siblings – I’ll come back to this in a bit**.
  • Elsey more than likely became a part of Henry Sheffey’s household through his wife, Margaret White. I’m guessing that Elsey was part of an inheritance. And she came with her first born, the son she had with James White. In order for Elsey to meet and be courted by Jacob, I can only see this if he was already established in Henry Sheffey’s household.
  • If Jacob was already part of Henry Sheffey’s household, there is a strong likelihood that Jemimah, his mother, was also part of this household.

Now deductive reasoning requires a paper trail in order to convert reasoning and deduction into fact. Henry Sheffey has stymied me in this. He died fairly young. Some of his sons were raised by his brother, Daniel Sheffey, while others were raised by his brother-in-law, James White. If Henry left a Will, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. Nor have I been able to find any reference to a Will. Nor have I been able to find any probate or estate inventory papers. This means I have no idea what happened to my ancestors when he died. Did his sons inherit them? Were they held in trust by the boys’ guardians? I don’t know. In short, there is no paper trail to follow…yet.

Jacob and Elsey had their first child while Henry was still alive (this was my 2nd Great Grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, Sr). Jacob and Elsey’s remaining 5 children were born after Henry Sheffey’s death. Jacob and Elsey were clearly together. But where? In whose household? That remains a mystery.

What I do know is the trail picks up in the Wythe and Smyth Cohabitation Records that were compiled in February of 1866. The Cohabitation Records cite the last slave owner for each formerly enslaved person cited within it. And many of my Sheffey ancestors and relations are listed within these documents. By and large, all were owned by members of the extended Sheffey family.

In this image, I'm focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

In this image, I’m focussing on the central figures in this specific research exercise. The diagram shows inter-relationships between the black and white sides of the family, with contextual notes and questions. Click for larger image.

Intricately Connected Lives

Last Wills and Testaments would answer so many of the questions that I have. And these are proving stubbornly elusive. Wills for Henry and his brother Daniel would answer quite a few. Their children’s Wills won’t provide any answers.  They all died after the end of the Civil War. There were simply no slaves for them to bequeath. Added to this, not all of their children, notably the Reverend Robert Sayers Sheffey, owned slaves.

The two Wills I have mentioned, however, would shed some light on:

  • Which of Henry and Daniel’s children inherited family slaves before the onset of the Civil War
  • How my family members came to be with extended family members like the Morrisons, Spillers, Robertsons, Sanders and Porters.

Knowing this would better enable me to understand how formerly enslaved Sheffeys came to reside where they did within Wythe and Smyth Counties. In other words, this knowledge adds missing context to their lives and their histories.

**Now, back to Elsey George, her family, and how their lives were so closely entwined with that of the White family (let’s not forget I’m related to this family too through my mother’s Harlan lineage!).

William White owned extensive land holdings and enterprises throughout Virginia as well as Kentucky (Harlan County) and Alabama (Hunstville, Madison County). His son, James White, expanded upon his father’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in the southern states. William and James moved slaves throughout their various estate holdings in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. And in all the places they owned property, I find members of the George family.

Every. Single. Place.

It’s going to be quite the adventure to stitch the George family story back together. I have yet to find a copy of William White’s Will. James White died intestate. However, his billion dollar estate (in today’s money) resulted in a long and protracted lawsuit between his heirs. His estate holdings, if reports are accurate, were well documented as part of this lawsuit. And I’ve found where all of his estate and personal papers are kept: The University of Virginia Library http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu00730.xml This collection will be a goldmine of information when it comes to piecing together the George family tree. I’m also hoping it will shed some light on Henry Sheffey’s estate, including which family members inherited Henry Sheffey’s slaves.

 So, let’s recap.

There’s no getting around it. You have to do some genealogy work on the family or families that owned your enslaved ancestors. Yes, it’s extra work. Rather a lot of extra work, if the truth be told. In my case, it was part and parcel of my family genealogy research because the people who owned my enslaved Sheffey ancestors are blood relations.

Once you’ve done a genealogical outline of the family who owned your ancestors, the next thing on your list is to track down any existing Wills or probate estate inventories that will cite and list the slaves. Provided your enslaved ancestors were kept within the same family for generation after generation, you can trace them from place to place, and by    generation after generation.

 

How genealogy got me watching historical drama on TV

Yes, it’s true, genealogy has subtly altered some of my television viewing habits. Historical drama isn’t something that’s ever really been on my radar. I’ve given the genre a few goes over the years and, well, found it wanting: characters that are given contemporary ideologies, beliefs and societal notions, really bad accents and actors/writers/directors just not in tune with how the world they were portraying really worked. It’s nit picking on my part to be sure. And, yes, I get that it’s entertainment. But still…

It all started with the History Channel’s historical drama series, Vikings – a new discovery. I actually found this gem online when I was researching the history of one of my own Roane & Matthews family’s Viking ancestors, Thorfinn “Skullcleaver” Torf-Einarsson (890 – 960), Jarl of Orkney (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorfinn_Torf-Einarsson). He’s one of my 34th great grandfathers. Apparently, he was a badass even by Viking standards – and those were some tough standards! He was immortalized in the ancient Orkneyinga saga (History of the Earls of Orkney) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkneyinga_saga . He even has an English ale named after him: Skull Splitter (http://www.sinclairbreweries.co.uk/index.php)

History Channel's The Vikings tv series

Anyway, I came across Vikings and decided to give it a go. Just for fun. I was hooked. I still am. I can suspend my disbelief just enough to imagine the world my Viking ancestors lived in. Even better, this series kills two birds with one stone, as it were. It covers the period when the Norse people began invading eastern England in earnest. So I get to see that world from my Saxon ancestors’ perspective as well – specifically those ancestors who lived in the old kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

Yes, the characters are suspiciously well-scrubbed most of the time, there’s our modern notion of ‘romantic love’ and there’s a bounty of attractiveness. However, what it does – and does rather well – is set up the cultural differences and opposing world views of both the Vikings and the Saxons. In other words, the series does an excellent job of depicting the sense of cultural ‘otherness’ – and all the strangeness and tensions that are experienced when two very different cultures meet, and clash. And, of course, how it portrays the stark, hurly burly, axe-wielding world of the eponymous farmer-warriors.

The fact that I can actually name ancestors who were alive in the historical era being depicted makes viewing even more compelling.

Book of Negroes banner image

I’ve just watched the last episode from the Book of Negroes series. And what a poignant, moving and somewhat emotional roller-coaster of a viewing experience it’s been. Again, the strength of this experience has been rooted in my ancestors’ experience during the American Revolution – specifically, the experience of my African-descended ancestors who were enslaved and free. From Jemimah Sheffey, who was born into slavery in the Virginia of 1770 to free families like the Goins, the Drews, the Christians, the Liggons, the Chavises and the Cleavers; I could catch a glimpse of their world.

The series explores the notion of freedom, specifically from the viewpoint of Aminata Diallo, one of the strongest multidimensional female characters to grace the small screen in quite some time. I could easily transfer her thoughts, hopes and dreams of freedom and imagine what my own ancestors might have thought.

Like Vikings, there is dramatic license to be sure. It is television after all, and meant to entertain as much as educate. Dramatized it may have been, however, one of its strengths was the stark portrayal of the precarious and hostile world free people of colour lived their lives within. It’s a subject not much discussed.

Of all my colonial era black ancestors known so far, I thought mostly of my 4x great grandmother, Jemimah. Around 5 years old when the American Revolution broke out, she wouldn’t see freedom until she was nearly 90 at the close of the Civil War. She was arguably old enough when the Revolutionary War happened to remember it. Growing up, she more than likely heard tales of promises made, dreams of and prayers for freedom offered by that revolution from slaves of her parent’s generation.

What did such thoughts and hopes mean to her and to those from her world? This series raised more questions than it answered. Which, to me, is the mark of a great series.

History Channel's Sons of Liberty series banner

Sticking with the subject of the American Revolution, the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty has also been compulsory viewing. I’m spoiled for choice in terms of ancestors who were actually part of this fight.

I’ve thought about Johann Adam Sheffey, my 5x great grandfather. He left the war-ravaged Sudwestpfalz Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany and arrived in Philadelphia on 20 September 1764 aboard the Sarah.

Image showing Johann Adam Sheffey's arrival in the US in 1764.

Johann Adam Sheffey’s arrival in Philadelphia. The name has been spelt in a variety of ways, including Scheffy, Schaff ,Scheffe and Sheoffe. Johann Adam arrived with his Kiefer, Kettering and Lohr cousins, who were also on the Sarah. This image is taken from: A Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French and Other Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727-1776: With a Statement of the Names of Ships, Whence They Sailed, and the Date of Their Arrival at Philadelphia, Chronologically Arranged, Together with the Necessary Historical and Other Notes, Also, an Appendix Containing Lists of More Than One Thousand German and French Names in New York Prior to 1712 (Google eBook) by Israel Daniel Rupp
Leary, Stuart & Company, 1896

He and his family would find themselves in the midst of yet another war in less than a decade. Whatever his thoughts about leaving one war torn country only to find himself in another, he enlisted early.

However, since the series deals more with the American colonial social elite and their perspective, I naturally think more about my Roane, Matthews and Josey ancestors. And, of course, I’ve thought about that Revolutionary War luminary in my direct line – Patrick Henry, my 6x great grandfather. I think about the how and why these families chose the colonial side over the British side. To-date, I have yet to find any members of these families who chose to fight with the British. Before the outbreak of revolution, they had all been proudly British. Indeed, their stature was due in no small measure to their family connections and history back in Britain. It’s a subject the series doesn’t really explore, but an interesting question for me to ponder nonetheless.

Patrick Henry certainly left a wealth of his thoughts and beliefs from every stage of the rebellion through to the eventual culmination of the war. I have a firm handle on him and I can see those thoughts echoed in the portrayal of the main protagonists in the series. My 7th great-grandfather, Colonel William Roane, left his in various letters. I haven’t seen any letters or journals from my colonial Josey and Matthews ancestors. Their personal thoughts, hopes and beliefs about the fight for liberty remain unknown. All I know is they fought.

The series depicts the messy and chaotic embers of the revolution. The split in pubic opinion and beliefs, the rhetoric, the economics and politics of colonials versus Parliament, the raw emotions – all of these are deftly captured and dramatized.

Genealogy has made history more interesting, relevant and real for me than any history class I’ve ever taken. History becomes more interesting and direct when you can name ancestors who had a personal stake during pivotal moments in time. So, while these shows are entertainment and dramatizations – and not the real thing – they do offer an interesting glimpse into a past that people in my family tree lived through and experienced.

If any of these series are relevant to you in this context, definitely check them out. See what you make of the worlds your ancestors lived in.

Ancestry.com DNA test answers one fundamental question

In my previous post Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/using-the-right-dna-testing-tool-to-answer-the-right-ancestry-question/ ) I cover the importance of being clear about what you want to achieve through DNA testing.

For me, I have persistent gaps in my genealogy. Ancestry.com’s DNA test is the second DNA I’ve taken. I did it in the hopes that it would help solve some of these persistent gaps in my family’s genealogy.

Well…my Ancestry.com DNA test results came in the other day! And to say it answered one fundamental question is a bit of an understatement. That question was whether or not my family were Sheffeys by blood or by close ties with their former slave masters. I am going to put my hand up and say that over the past three years I had my doubts that we were Sheffeys by blood. It wouldn’t change my outlook on being a Sheffey if we weren’t. It’s just a thing that would be nice to know.

Jemimah Sheffey, born around 1770 in Virginia, is my earliest discovered African-descended ancestor on the Sheffey side of the family. I knew she wasn’t a Sheffey by blood. It all came down to the identity of the father of her children. It’s still not 100% clear which German-descended Sheffey owned her. The German-American Sheffey family history in Virginia made it very easy to narrow down the possible candidate for the potential father of her children – born between 1800 and 1815 – if indeed any of them were. It could only be one of three second generation German-American Sheffey brothers: Daniel Henry Sheffey, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey and John Sheffey.

image of Johann Adam Sheffey family group

Johann Adam Sheffey family group

Daniel Henry Sheffey seemed the most likely candidate at first. He was a slave-owner. And, after all, my 2 x great grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, was named for him by his father, Jacob Sheffey (Jemimah’s son). He was also a slave owner. Daniel was my strongest contender. His brother Henry, also a slave-owner, was just as viable a candidate. I always discounted Henry, however. I can’t explain it. For whatever reason, in my mind and in my gut, he was out of the frame.

Last up was their younger brother John. I always discounted John. While he’d been (and remains) difficult to track through digitized records, he never owned slaves. That much I did know. Other than that, I knew that John just up and left either Frederick, Maryland (the home of his) or Virginia (the home of his brothers) for Greene County, Tennessee. I can’t even tell you when, exactly, he left for TN. All I can say with any certainty is that he left MD or VA for TN sometime between 1820 and 1828, the year he married Margaret O. Thompson in Greene County, TN.

There was another problem with John…his date of birth. In innumerable family trees, his marriage certificate and on his tombstone, his year of birth is given as 1804. Jacob Sheffey, my 3xgreat-grandfather, was born in 1800. So you can see the problem. However, I always knew John’s attributed year of birth was incorrect.

imageof John Sheffey's resting place in Greene County, TN

I’d already found him in the 1790 census as a minor living with his parents and two of his sisters.

image of ohann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790

Johann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790

His father, Johann Adam Sheffey, died in 1793. His mother, Maria Magdalena Loehr Sheffey, would have been 65 years old in 1804. Basic math and the laws of time and biology makes the year of 1804 impossible as the year of his birth. Yep, another mystery on how that year became his ‘official’ year of birth!

I don’t know how close John was to his brothers. The deep, brotherly affection shared between Daniel and Henry is well-documented. The letters, public accounts and biographies I’ve read for both men never mention John. Never. Their three sisters – Catherina Sheffey Brengle, Elisabeth Sheffey Geyer and Mary Sheffey Guyton – also have easily discoverable profiles online. They were written about and their family histories and genealogies are covered in great detail. John? It’s as though he simply didn’t exist from the family’s perspective.

So, I always discounted John. Well, I shouldn’t have. As it turns out, he is my 4 x great-grandfather.

Ancestry.com breaks down your cousin matches by generation. As it turns out, I have 30 or so 4th to 6th cousins who have also taken the same DNA test. Out of that number, 18 or so have made their family trees publicly accessible. After the first dozen or so glimpses at these distantly-related cousins and their family trees, I came across a small group of people who had ancestors from the Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany. This is the same region where Johann Adam Sheffey (Scheffe) – the father of John, Henry and Daniel – left to come to America. However, I didn’t recognize any of the surnames in these cousins’ trees (I’ll have to work that out later!)

Nonetheless, I started to get excited. That specific region of Germany was indicating that there was indeed a blood-link to the German-American Sheffeys. However, I needed more proof to seal the deal.

That proof I needed came with cousin matches 23, 24 and 25. I saw the names Cochran, Susong and Thompson in these family trees. And there’s only one Sheffey lineage where those names appear: John Sheffey’s. These were his descendants. Indeed, among all of my many branches on both sides of my family, there is only one place where these names converge – in association with John.

The combination of factors that led to this discovery are mind-blowing to me. For one, it relied on John’s descendants joining Ancestry.com and building comprehensive family trees. Secondly, that they made those family trees public (too many people don’t!). Lastly, that a handful of these descendants went on to take the ancestry.com DNA test. The combination of these three random factors was so perfect that they easily could have never happened.

It was a jaw-hitting-the-floor moment.

It figures that my 4x great-grandfather would be the one son of Johann Adam Sheffey that I knew the least about. His public profile was on a different scale from his brothers. His life isn’t that well document. I also haven’t met many of his descendants online…although I hope that will change. I’d love to know more about his life. And hopefully answer the question of why he so abruptly departed for TN. Although I now have a pretty strong suspicion. 😉

Interestingly, James Frank Sheffey Sr, an African American Sheffey born in Virginia around 1840, was resident in District 1 of Greene County in 1880 with his family. A coincidence? Or did he know? Of all the counties in Tennessee, why Greene County? James stubbornly refuses to find his place in the Sheffey family tree. I can’t find his parents’ names for love nor money. It does raise the interesting prospect that my Sheffey ancestors had full knowledge of their Sheffey roots. Knowledge that somehow got lost over time.

I’d love to know if there are any images of John. The African-descended Sheffey men tend to all bear a remarkable similarity with one another. I mean it’s uncanny how much we look alike. No matter which branch of the family that descends from Jacob Sheffey…there is an instant recognition and we and our families end up saying the same thing: “Yep, you’re a Sheffey”. Will we see ourselves in John?

For now, I’m basking in the afterglow of discovery and confirmation. And I am SO grateful that the year’s I’ve spent researching the Scheffe family in Germany wasn’t for nowt!