I’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.
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
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, 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.
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.
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!