Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim

ancestry new ancestor intro

On April 2, 2015, Ancestry rolled out its new ”New Ancestor Discoveries” feature.  The graphic above is now what greets me when I sign into Ancestry.com.

I wrote about my incorrect “new ancestor,” both of them actually, the day after the rollout. Contrary to what some people thought, this was not an April Fool joke – neither their release nor my article.

The software rollout was accompanied by a press release, in which Dr. Ken Chahine is quoted, among others, about Ancestry’s “New Ancestor” feature which claims to identify new ancestors for you by utilizing only your DNA, and not matching trees.  Their already implemented DNA Circles feature uses a combination of DNA matching and common ancestors found in trees between those matches – but this new feature uses only DNA.

“It is effectively a shortcut through time – you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree – AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA.

Needless to say, if this is true, it holds unparalleled promised for genetic genealogists.  After all, that’s what we all want – that elusive brick wall ancestor delivered to us – and our DNA has the potential to do just that.  In fact, for those of us brick walled in colonial America, especially in counties with no records, our DNA is the only hope we have of ever solving that mystery.

However, I find the claim that “you don’t need to research records or build a family tree” quite astounding – bordering on the incredulous.  An amazing claim for a genealogy company to make.  In fact, I reread that several times in disbelief, actually, and it has been bothering me ever since.  Ken Chahine is by no means an unintelligent man.  He’s a lawyer and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, among other things – so fully aware of the weight of his words.  I sincerely doubt, however, that he is a genealogist.

The video in this Ancestry blog by Kenny Freestone provides additional information and says that about three fourths of the “new ancestors” given to people are actually ancestors and the other one fourth are people who lived at the “same time and place as your ancestors so could be helpful as clues to point you in the right direction.”  That’s a bit of a different statement than the claim in both the e-mail and on my Ancestry DNA home page, shown below, that “we found you new ancestors.”

new ancestors hype

new ancestor e-mail 2

Ignoring Ancestry’s obvious hype, and the fact that both of my new ancestors aren’t, maybe things aren’t as bad as they appear at first glance.  I’m trying to be generous here.  Maybe if you don’t have a large, developed tree, this new feature is more helpful. Maybe it’s a fluke that I received two new ancestors and they were both unquestionably wrong.

Clearly, I realize that I’m one of the outliers – I have decades worth of experience in genealogy research and 15 years in genetic genealogy spent confirming paper genealogy.  So, I have an advantage that newcomers don’t have in that I know my ancestry back several generations and it has been proven with traditional genealogy records and confirmed with genetics through the 6th generation in most cases, and further back in some.

I’m also Ancestry’s worst nightmare – I’ve already spent my money for the test.  I know what DNA can do, what’s not being done and, along with others in my boat, am constantly clamoring for more – usually a chromosome browser, but in this case, just accurate representation.  I’m also far from alone.

Ancestry, on the other hand, fully knows that the rabid genealogists have already spent their $99 for their DNA test, so there is no incremental revenue to be had from us, aside from our subscriptions which we’re going to renew anyway.  Ancestry is focused on making DNA (and genealogy) easy and on recruiting new people.  That’s certainly not a bad thing – until it crosses the line between fact and wishful thinking.

Because of the investment in time, money and DNA that I’ve made personally over the years, I was able to very quickly discount the two “new ancestors” that Ancestry “found” for me.  Yep, Ancestry’s worst nightmare.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

But Ken Chahine’s claim really made me wonder.  What if I was a new person?  That’s clearly who Ancestry is targeting – someone who has never worked with a tree.  Ancestry wants them to test as the doorway, the entry, to genealogy.  How effective would this test be for them?  Is there a way, short of testing a second time, to find out?

Indeed, there is.  So let’s see if Ancestry really can do what Ken Chahine said.  Let’s try to prove Ken right.

We’re going to do something called regression testing.  In the technology world, this is where you already know the answer, but you set the system up to see if it can find the correct answer through the software only.  Think of new calculator software and testing to make sure when you add 2 and 2 you don’t get anything other than 4.  We’re going to use what we know about my matches, trees and DNA Circles through my normal tree and then we’re going to start over from scratch with a bare-bones tree and see what Ancestry finds.

My Proven Tree

First, let’s look at where we stand today, with my regular tree at Ancestry.  I’ve been a well-behaved genealogist and have done everything I can to help myself find connections.  I’ve entered my ancestor information and attached relevant hints, discarding others.  I have entered my full direct line tree at Ancestry, so all of my ancestors are available, with appropriate source information attached.  My tree is public.  I’m not holding out.  You notice there are no shakey leaves on my tree – that’s because I follow up on every single one of them.

ancestry claim full tree

Based on that information, here is what my DNA landscape at Ancestry looks like, utilizing my full tree, today.  I am a member of 16 DNA circles,  have 135 shared ancestor hints .

ancestry claim matches

And, oh yes, those two “new ancestors” gifted to me by Ancestry who aren’t my ancestors.

ancestry claim wrong ancestors

Of my 16 DNA Circles, several are relatively robust with 14, 15, 17 and 18 members.  These would be the best candidates for “New Ancestors” because there are so many matches.  Those four are Henry Bolton and wife Nancy Mann along with Nicholas Speaks and wife Sarah Faires.  You can see the number of members in the Circle at the bottom of each Circle below.

ancestry claim circlesancestry claim circles 2

Recreating Myself as a Newbie

In order to become a newbie again, I created a new mini-tree showing only my parents.  That’s where many people start.  I made my robust tree “private” and my new tree “public,” which means that Ancestry will not use the private tree for DNA comparisons, and will instead use the public tree.  Then I linked my DNA to my new mini-tree (under the settings gear under the DNA tab.)

ancestry claim mini tree

Given that with the robust tree, I have 16 DNA Circles and my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all, I should receive at least a subset of those circles and probably those erroneous “new ancestors” with the new mini-tree.

Ancestry told us previously that they refresh their database every 4 hours or so.  Sure enough, in just a few minutes, my circles and shakey leaf hints had all disappeared, which they should because those ancestors don’t exist in the new mini-tree.  However, my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all both remained.

So, I waited, because I’m sure that some of the Circles I was a member of with my robust tree will be shown now as “New Ancestors” with my mini-tree.

Be aware that Ancestry does have some hiccups in this beta version of the software.  It took overnight for the “switch” to the new tree to be completely effective, and in the meantime, it seemed to have been reading from both the new and old trees.  I know this because, at one point, it gave me back my 16 circles, which, of course is impossible because my mini-tree doesn’t include any ancestors other than my parents.  So, if you’re going to try this experiment, give it at least 24 hours to completely switch.

By the next day this had sorted itself out and I showed the following “New Ancestors.”

ancestry claim new ancestors

In addition to the same two “New Ancestors” who aren’t, Ancestry also gave me three correct ancestors, based on DNA alone, two of which, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, were DNA Circles previously, and the other new ancestor is their son.

I wonder where the other 14 Circle ancestors are and why they weren’t discovered?  Perhaps I didn’t match enough DNA or enough people, but that’s odd, because in many of the circles I DNA match far more people, as many as 7, than the two matches used to “give me” Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, incorrectly, as ancestors.

For a newbie who has no way to differentiate – meaning they don’t know who their ancestors are – this would be very exciting – and partially accurate.  However, there is no way to tell the difference between the accurate and inaccurate.  In fact, as a newbie, you have no way of knowing that some ARE or even might be inaccurate.  After all, Ancestry told you they are ancestors.  Why would you disbelieve them?  If someone finds that one of these ancestors is correct, they are likely to assume they are all correct, and probably vice versa.

I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was to receive two new ancestors, hoping they were brick wall ancestors, and then how horribly disappointed I was to discover that they weren’t.

Remember, for me to receive two new ancestors would mean a 30+ year brick wall would be falling that I have never been able to budge any other way.  Had these matches not been represented as “new ancestors,” I would have had an entirely different set of expectations.  Not only are they not ancestors, I can’t figure out how they are connected at all.  The best I can figure is that I match the two individuals who make up the New Ancestor “circle” on two different, unrelated, unidentified lines.  But let’s skip that for now and look at the three accurate ancestors as if I were a newbie.

Working With Results

Looking at my newbie results, Joseph Preston Bolton would be the easiest ancestor to find, as he shares a common surname with my grandmother and is her grandfather.  If I were an adoptee, of course, I wouldn’t know that, but if I know my grandmother’s surname, I would pick up on that commonality right away, as well as the locations shown in the story displayed for each new ancestor by clicking on the little leaf provided in the upper right hand corner.  Joseph’s is partially shown below.

ancestry claim joseph bolton

While the stories provided by Ancestry are all at least partially incorrect, because they are created from compiled trees – there are useful hints therein – if you know that’s how to interpret this information.  A warning, discussion or disclaimer about accuracy in the verbiage would be a nice touch – before the newbies make all of those novice mistakes and create even more incorrect trees by just accepting everything at face value.  We were all newbies once and did this – only to have to unravel it later.

The Good

The best part of this new feature is actually the new compiled “Facts” tab.

ancestry facts tab

It is a great tool to have the combined possible sources, possible facts and possible family members in one place.  I do really like this.  And Ancestry did the right thing and labeled them “possible.”  In this case, for Joseph Preston Bolton, these are from 188 combined family trees and I know beyond a doubt some of the information is wrong (like Joseph’s second wife’s Martin children from her first marriage are listed as Joseph’s children), but when I was sorting through Joseph initially, I would have loved to have had this repository of “possible facts” available in one place to sort through.

So, yes, I do think this tool could be very useful.  And I do think one day we will be able to tell people who their ancestors are, reliably, utilizing DNA alone.  But that day is not today.  So let’s say something more accurate, like “Your DNA suggests these people may be your ancestors or may be otherwise related to you.”

The Bad

My problem with this new feature isn’t what it does or doesn’t do, or even how well – it’s how it has been portrayed and the extremely inflated marketing hype that came along with it.

I applaud what Ancestry is trying to do.  I have a huge issue with how they are portraying DNA results – both directly and by inference.

It’s fine to give us “hints,” although what we really need is a chromosome browser.  But don’t give us a “hint” under the guise of something it isn’t – a new ancestor.  Call it what it is.  Don’t misset expectations.  This leads either to people who believe the hype and are wrong, seeding incorrect genealogies and trees, or people who discover they’ve been misled and then become disenchanted with both genealogy and genetic genealogy.

And Ken is right about not needing to build a family tree in order to take the test – even though that’s not exactly what he said.  However, receiving disarticulated ancestors, both correct and incorrect, means you absolutely must build a tree in order to figure out which ones actually ARE ancestors.  And then you’re disappointed to discover that some of your ancestors, aren’t, because they were represented as your “new ancestors.”  Of course, by the time you figure this out, you’ve already paid your DNA test money and you’re, hopefully, excited and motivated to find more.  I’m sure that’s the entire point, but saying that, “You don’t need to research records or build a family tree,” is a tad misleading.  Receiving 2 or 3 ancestors is not at all the same thing as knowing how you connect to them – and the only way to make that discovery is through research and by creating a tree.

So, in a way it’s better if you’re a newbie, because you’re more likely to receive a “new ancestor,” but it’s also worse because you have no tools or experience to judge whether your new ancestor actually is your ancestor – or how to connect to them.

Unfortunately, the newer or more naïve the tester, the more apt they are to accept Ancestry’s pronouncement of “new ancestor” at face value.  After all, Ancestry is a big genealogy company who deals with ancestors all of the time, and they are supposed to know what they are doing.  One would also presume they would not represent someone as an ancestor who isn’t, or who might not be, especially since Ancestry very clearly knows that some of these “new ancestors” aren’t.  I’m OK with them not being ancestors – just represent them appropriately.  “These MAY be your ancestors or you MAY be related to these people in another way,” might be a better way to present these results.

The Ugly

Playing fast and loose with the wording and over-representing what the product can do is going to give the entire industry a reputation for DNA being unreliable and testing companies as being smarmy.  Here’s an extract from a comment yesterday, “…the dna industry generally is not reliable.  So, while it may be fun to play with, none of this can be taken or should be taken seriously.”

Ouch, ouch, ouch.  While we know that’s not over-archingly true, it’s certainly the kind of commentary that Ancestry is inviting with its over-reaching and inaccurate marketing hype.  And that hurts all of us.

The Bottom Line

So I wouldn’t exactly say Ken is redeemed, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either – because by remaking myself as a newbie, I did receive three accurate ancestors along with the same two inaccurate ones.

By using my newbie results, Ken Chahine is 3/5th redeemed because 3 of my 5 new ancestors are in fact, ancestors, although we have no idea where my missing 14 ancestors who are circles with my robust tree have gone.  I have as many as 7 DNA matches to some of those circle ancestors who are absent, but only 2 DNA matches to the descendants of John Curnutte and Diedemia Lyons who are my incorrectly assigned “New Ancestors.”  So maybe Ken is really only 3/19th redeemed, depending on how you count.  Or, if you’re looking at my original results, my two “new ancestors” are still 100% wrong – so Ken is only partially redeemed if I’m a newbie with no prior info and no way to know my results are wrong.  So, I’m probably a very happy newbie camper (Wow – I got 5 new ancestors!) and a very unhappy experienced camper (I got 2 new ancestors and they are both wrong!)  Perception – it’s an amazing thing.

Regardless of how you count, If I were Ken, I’d still be going incognito to genealogy conferences where those experienced campers hang out wearing a wig and sunglasses for awhile.  Being 3/5th right about something as serious to genealogists as giving them incorrect ancestors is no saving grace, because it is still 2/5th wrong, especially when we know that given the tools we need, those of us who are so inclined could quickly eliminate the confusion.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

As a community we are beyond frustrated and exasperated, and exaggerated marketing claims are overshadowing the positive aspects of this new feature and making an already difficult situation worse.

What difficult situation, you ask?  The fact that people who don’t understand about genetic genealogy already claim that Circle membership “proves” ancestral descent (it doesn’t) and Ancestry consistently has refused to provide us with the chromosome browser tools we need to prove or disprove an ancestral connection.  Instead, we been given new ancestors who aren’t.  This is not a better mousetrap.  The only recourse we have is to beg our matches at Ancestry to download their results to either or both Family Tree DNA and www.gedmatch.com where we have tools.  That or blindly believe.

My Opinion

I hate hype, in particular untrue or misleading hype.  Out the gate, that colors my perspective of everything else and calls into question the credibility of the entity making the statements.

Setting that aside, I like the forward movement with technology and appreciate what Ancestry is trying to do.

This is indeed, the Holy Grail they are reaching for – being able to identify our ancestors based solely upon our DNA.  I said reaching for, because it’s certainly not here yet.  However, it’s not beyond reach either.  And I certainly want to encourage innovation – because, selfishly, I want to know who those elusive brick-wall ancestors are. I want new ancestors – real ones.

I am grateful for the information.  Ok, I would be grateful for the information were it accurate, or at least portrayed accurately – and it’s the portrayal that is really my issue here.

In my “real me” self, using the robust tree, I’m very irritated about receiving two incorrect ancestors, represented as my “new ancestors,” with no caveats, and no tools.  I am too wizened and seasoned to be a “trust me” kind of person.  I am not a blind believer.  I know better.  That combination of misrepresented and incorrect data is inexcusable because Ancestry knows better.  Not only that, they have the opportunity to provide the types of comparisons and tools that do represent proof, but have chosen not to.

In my “newbie” self that I recreated, I would have been excited to receive 5 new ancestors – and had no idea of what to do next – including no idea that two of them were entirely bogus.

The “real me” wants the novices to be successful – to come to love genealogy as many of us have over the decades.  To have the wonderful experiences we have had.  But to do that, they can’t be disenchanted by discovering that their ancestors gifted upon them aren’t true – after they’ve built that incorrect tree that is being copied.

The technology could be improved.  No doubt about that.  But first steps first and you have to crawl before you can walk.  I actually want to compliment the behind the scenes people for the work they have done.  Unfortunately, that effort is being overshadowed by the “in your face” marketing BS.

However, it takes no development effort to modify the way this test and results are portrayed to the consuming public.  And right now, that is what is needed most.

So, I’m happy that Ancestry is making this technology effort.  I’ll be excited when the methodology is perfected, a few years down the pike.  I’m glad to see Ancestry pushing the edge of the frontier.

I’m extremely unhappy with the combination of Ancestry’s overzealous marketing of this often incorrect new feature with the lack of the tools Ancestry clearly knows we need.

The most frustrating aspect is that the lack of tools holds our ancestors hostage just beyond our reach.  They could do so much.  Did Ancestry really think we would be appeased by Circles and “New Ancestors” that aren’t?

The Back Fence

You can see what others in the genetic genealogy community have to say about “New Ancestors,” below, and you can read the comments on my original article  and Ancestry’s blog postings as well.  Like I said, I’m far from alone.

Dr. David Dowell – Does Ancestry Think We are NOT OK?

Elizabeth Ballard – Ancestry DNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind

Kathleen Carrow Ingram – New Ancestors You Tell Me?  No proof?  Is this an April fool trick?

Annette Kapple – New AncestryDNA Circles: You Need A Big Tree

Judy Russell – Still Waiting for the Holy Grail

John D. Reid – “New Ancestor Discoveries” through AncestryDNA and beyond

Ancestry Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong

About six weeks ago, Ancestry had a meeting with a few bloggers and educators in the genetic genealogy community and brought us up to speed on a new feature that was upcoming.  Ancestry showed us their plans to expand the DNA Circles feature, although to be very clear, to the best of my knowledge, none of us were involved in any type of beta testing with Ancestry.

Today, Ancestry assigns you to DNA Circles based on a combination of your DNA results and your tree, based on common ancestors shown in trees of matching individuals.  I wrote about Circles and how they are calculated in the article, “Ancestry’s Better Mousetrap – DNA Circles.”

As an enhancement to DNA Circles, today Ancestry rolled out their new feature which is called “New Ancestor Discoveries” where Ancestry assigns ancestors to you based on DNA matching alone, without matching ancestors in your trees.

And, in my case, they are wrong.  Unquestionably wrong.  What I hate the most about this situation is if you’re not a genetic genealogist, and you haven’t done your homework, you’ll be thrilled with your new wrong ancestors, “proven,” of course, by DNA.

new ancestor discoveries

We received a quick glimpse of the pre-beta product – and truthfully – if this was accurately done and appropriately portrayed as a DNA match with people who shared common DNA and maybe a common ancestor – I could be excited.  In fact, I was excited.

I do believe this type of matching can be done accurately – but Ancestry has missed the mark – not just with me but from other early reports in the community as well – with lots of people.  Portraying this match as a “new ancestor” is wrong and it’s terribly misleading.

Here’s what Ancestry has to say about the New Ancestors matching.

new ancestors

new ancestor circles

Ok, what does Ancestry have to say about Diedamia Lyon, my New Ancestor who is not my ancestor?

New ancestor Diedamia Lyon

Clicking on the green “Learn About” button shows me the “facts” that ancestry has gleaned from their trees about Diedamia Lyon.

new ancestor Diedamia story

What this tells you that isn’t immediately evident is that Diedamia Lyon was married to John Curnutte, my second “New Ancestor.”  There is a “Facts” tab that shows you the sources that Ancestry used to create Diedamia’s story.  They have used compiled data from 215 trees.  I cant’ speak for Diedamia, but I know several of my Circle Ancestor’s stories are wrong – based on the compiled trees – substantially wrong in fact.  Because the trees are wrong.

new ancestor Diedamia sources

So, in essence, Ancestry is saying that I descend from both Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, an ancestral couple.  This would be invaluable, if it were accurate.  Ok, how did Ancestry connect those dots to arrive at that conclusion?

Clicking on the “See Your Connection” button under the Circle icon shows you the members of the Diedamia Lyon Circle.

New ancestor Diedamia circle

I have DNA matches with Don and Michael who are members of the Diedamia Lyon circle.  Clicking on Don, I can see that he has DNA matches to Michael and three other individuals who I don’t have DNA matches with in the Diedama Lyon circle.  However, all of those individuals also share a pedigree chart and Diedamia Lyon is their shared ancestor.

New ancestor Diedamia circle 2

I can click on any of these people and see who they match in the circle, or I can see a list.

What I can’t see is how Ancestry drew those DNA conclusions.  There are no tools, no chromosome browser, and obviously, “trust me” isn’t working.

I want to share with you how I know, beyond any doubt, that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are NOT my ancestors.  I am a long-time meticulous researcher.  I would invite you to search for any of my ancestors’ names on this blog.  I have been writing about one ancestor per week now for more than a year in the 52 Ancestors series and, if I have written about them, you can see the types of information we have on each one.  I know which of my ancestors are proven and which are questionable.  So, let’s see why Diedamia and John cannot be my ancestors.

First, we can eliminate my mother’s line.  My mother’s ancestors are from Holland, Germany, Canada/Acadia and one line from Vermont/Connecticut.  They are all accounted for and I know where they were, shown below.

new ancestor mother tree

The 6th generation shown above is the generation into which Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, both born about 1800, would fall.  Mother’s generation 6 ancestors, at the far right, were all born between 1766 and 1805, many in Europe.  You’ll note there are no blank spaces for missing ancestors and the geography is not southern – meaning no place near Wilkes County, NC where Diedamia was born in 1804.  So, my mother’s side is immediately eliminated.

My father’s side, however, does have several lines that come through Wilkes County, NC and many other southern lines. So the connection would be through my father’s side of the family.

new ancestor father tree

Again the 6th generation would be where Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte would have to fit if they are my ancestors, and there are no blank spaces here either.  All of these ancestors were born between 1759 and 1804.

Of the above generation 6 ancestors, the following have a Wilkes County connection:

  • Elijah Vannoy born in Wilkes County about 1784
  • Lois McNiel born in Wilkes County about 1786
  • William Herrell born about 1789 in NC, possibly Wilkes County where he married in 1809
  • Mary McDowell born 1785 NC, possibly Wilkes County where she married in 1809

New ancestor Herrell tree

Looking at the pedigree chart of William Herrell and Mary McDowell, you can see that indeed there are some unknown wives.  John Herrell was born in about 1760, possibly in Frederick Co., VA and Michael McDowell in 1747 in Bedford Co., VA.  While the connection may be through these lines, it’s clearly not from any two people born in 1800 and is at least in the 7th generation – IF the connection is through these lines.  At this point, this is the most likely connection because it’s in the right location and there are two unknown wives.  If I had triangulation tools, I could probably tell you immediately.

Now let’s look at the pedigree chart of Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel, also from Wilkes County.

New ancestor Vannoy tree

As you can see, this pedigree is even more complete than the Herrell/McDowell pedigree.  Not only is there no room for a couple born circa 1800, there are no unknown parents for another 3 generations prior, not until the 9th generation.  The only individual here through the 8th generation not proven via both paper and genetics, meaning triangulation, is Sarah Coates.

So, not only are Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte NOT my ancestors, it’s very unclear how they are related to me, IF they are related to me.  It’s obvious that the only way we are related is that someplace upstream, I do share a common ancestor with both Don and Mike who share the Lyon/Curnutte tree with each other and several others as well, but that does NOT mean that I descend from Diedamia and John, nor that I share a common ancestor with them.

Now, if I share the SAME DNA segment with Don and Mike that could be triangulated to the Curnutte/Lyon descendants, then that would mean we do all share a common ancestor someplace along the line.  But wait – Ancestry doesn’t use triangulation – nor do they give us the tools to do so.  So we have NO idea if we actually share the same DNA segments or not.

So, let’s take a look at the trees of both Don and Mike to see if we share any common surnames that might be linked.

Fortunately, Ancestry does provide an easy way to do this.  By clicking on your matches name to the right of the circle, and looking at their tree, Ancestry shows you the common surnames.

new ancestor match surnames

By clicking on the shared surname, you can see the people in both trees, theirs and yours, with that surname, side by side.

new ancestor surname list

All three of us have a dead end Moore line.  That is our only other surname in common, and Moore is very common.

So, it’s possible, given that we have no way to tell which segments are matching whom, that I match both Don and Mike through an entirely different ancestor, or ancestors, known or unknown. It’s also possible that someone upstream of Diedamia and John is a child of one of my unknown lines, and while Diedamia and John are not my ancestors, I do carry some of the same DNA as their descendants because we all share a common, unknown, ancestor.  But I have no way of knowing.

What I can do is to contact my two matches and see if they will download their DNA to GedMatch where I can get at the truth via triangulation.  It’s a shame we have to do that.

So, what is the net-net of this new tool?

  1. Ancestry missed, big time, especially by labeling the match as a “New Ancestor.”
  2. Ancestry can salvage the situation at least somewhat by renaming the “New Ancestor” something like “Common DNA Match.” This would alert people that there is some common ancestry someplace, but not mislead people into thinking that Ancestry really HAS discovered a new ancestor or ancestral couple. In some cases the named couple MAY be ancestors – but that’s certainly not always the case. And I don’t like the label “Potential Ancestor” either because I think it implies a much closer relationship than may be present. I remember how completely thrilled I was to see my “New Ancestors” names and without having enough experience to piece the puzzle together, both genealogically and genetically, I would never have known enough to be as disappointed as I am. I feel terribly sorry for the many people who will take this erroneous information as gospel – and the rest of us who will have to live with the incorrect fallout – forever. This amounts to a new way to create an incorrect ancestor and Heaven forbid, attach them to your tree.
  3. This would all be a moot point with a chromosome browser, but then again, Ancestry already knows that.

And I was so hopeful….

Fortunately, the New Ancestors feature is still in beta and changes can be made – and I hope they are.  I know Ancestry has already incorporated at least one the suggestions made as a result of the meeting a few weeks ago.

As I looked back over the new features and the information I received from Ancestry, I am especially concerned about the verbiage accompanying this information.

Here’s what greets me on my DNA page.

new ancestors hype

Here’s the e-mail I received.

new ancestor e-mail 2

The problem is – it’s just not true.  These matches may be valuable in some cases.  But they are not as represented.  This match is not my ancestor.

So yes, I do want Ancestry to “Show Me.”  Show me the chromosomes.  Show me how Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are my ancestors.  Show me how you put 2 and 2 together and came up with this.  Show me.

Finding Your American Indian Tribe Using DNA

If I had a dollar for every time I get asked a flavor of this question, I’d be on a cruise someplace warm instead of writing this in the still-blustery cold winter weather of the northlands!

So, I’m going to write the recipe of how to do this.  The process is basically the same whether you’re utilizing Y or mitochondrial DNA, but the details differ just a bit.

So, to answer the first question.  Can you find your Indian tribe utilizing DNA?  Yes, it can sometimes be done – but not for everyone, not all the time and not even for most people.  And it takes work on your part.  Furthermore, you may wind up disproving the Indian heritage in a particular line, not proving it.  If you’re still in, keep reading.

I want you to think of this as a scavenger hunt.  No one is going to give you the prize.  You have to hunt and search for it, but I’m going to give you the treasure map.

Treasure mapI’m going to tell you, up front, I’m cheating and using an example case that I know works.  Most people aren’t this lucky.  Just so you know.  I don’t want to misset your expectations.  But you’ll never know if you don’t do the footwork to find out, so you’ve got nothing to lose and knowledge to gain, one way or another.  If you aren’t interested in the truth, regardless of what it is, then just stop reading here.

DNA testing isn’t the be-all and end-all.  I know, you’re shocked to hear me say this.  But, it’s not.  In fact, it’s generally just a beginning.  Your DNA test is not a surefire answer to much of anything.  It’s more like a door opening or closing.  If you’re looking for tribal membership or benefits of any kind, it’s extremely unlikely that DNA testing is going to help you.  All tribes have different rules, including blood quantum and often other insurmountable rules to join, so you’ll need to contact the tribe in question. Furthermore, you’ll need to utilize other types of records in addition to any DNA test results.

You’re going to have some homework from time to time in this article, and to understand the next portion, it’s really critical that you read the link to an article that explains about the 4 kinds of DNA that can be utilized in DNA testing for genealogy and how they work for Native testing.  It’s essential that you understand the difference between Y line, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing, who can take each kind of test, and why.

Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA

For this article, I’m utilizing a mitochondrial DNA example, mostly because everyone has mitochondrial DNA and secondly, because it’s often more difficult to use genealogically, because the surnames change.  Plus, I have a great case study to use.  For those who think mito DNA is useless, well all I can say is keep reading.

Y and mito

You’ll know from the article you just read that mitochondrial DNA is contributed to you, intact, from your direct line maternal ancestors, ONLY.  In other words, from your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother and on up that line.

In the above chart, you can see that this test only provides information about that one red line, and nothing at all about any of your other 15 great-great grandparents, or anyone else on that pedigree chart other than the red circles.  But oh what a story it can tell about the ancestors of those people in the red circles.

If this example was using Y DNA, then the process would be the same, but only for males – the blue squares.  If you’re a male, the Y DNA is passed unrecombined from your direct paternal, or surname, ancestor, only and does not tell you anything at all about any of your other ancestors except the line represented by the little blue squares.  Females don’t have a Y chromosome, which is what makes males male, so this doesn’t apply to females.

First, you’ll need to test your DNA at Family Tree DNA.  This is the only testing company that offers either the Y (blue line) marker panel tests (37, 67 or 111), or the (red line) mitochondrial DNA full sequence tests.

For Y testing, order minimally the 37 marker test, but more is always better, so 67 or 111 is best.  For mitochondrial DNA, order the full sequence.  You’ll need your full mitochondrial haplogroup designation and this is the only way to obtain it.

I’m also going to be talking about how to incorporate your autosomal results into your search.  If you remember from the article, autosomal results give you a list of cousins that you are related to, and they can be from any and all of your ancestral lines.  In addition, you will receive your ethnicity result estimate expressed as a percentage.  It’s important to know that you are 25% Native, for example.  So, you also need to order the Family Finder test while you’re ordering.

You can click here to order your tests.

After you order, you’ll receive a kit number and password and you’ll have your own user page to display your results.

Fast forward a month or so now…and you have your results back.


I hope you’ve been using that time to document as much about your ancestors as you can in a software program of some sort.  If so, upload your GEDCOM file to your personal page.  The program at Family Tree DNA utilizes your ancestral surnames to assist you in identifying matches to people in Family Finder.

It’s easy to upload, just click on the Family Tree icon in the middle of your personal page.

Family Tree icon

Don’t have a Gedcom file?  You can build your tree online. Just click on the myFamilyTree to start.

Having a file online is an important tool for you and others for ancestor matching.

Your Personal Page

Take a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with how your personal page works.  For example, all of your options we’re going to be discussing are found under the “My DNA” link at the top left hand side of the page.

My dna tab

If you want to join projects, click on “My Projects,” to the right of “My DNA” on the top left bar, then click on “join.”  If you want to familiarize yourself with your security or other options, click on the orange “Manage Personal Information” on the left side of the page to the right of your image.

Personal info

Preparing Your Account

You need to be sure your account is prepared to give you the best return on your research efforts and investment.  You are going to be utilizing three tabs, Ancestral Origins, Haplogroup Origins and various projects, and you need to be sure your results are displayed accurately.  You need to do two things.

The first thing you need to do is to update your most distant ancestor information on your Matches Map page.  You’ll find this page under either the mtDNA or the Y DNA tabs and if you’ve tested for both, you need to update both.

matches map

Here’s my page, for example. At the bottom, click on “Update Ancestor’s Location” and follow the prompts to the end.  When you are finished, your page should like mine – except of course, your balloon will be where your last know matrilineal ancestor lived – and that means for mitochondrial DNA, your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.  I can’t tell you how many men’s names I see in this field…and I know immediately someone is confused.  Remember, men can’t contribute mtDNA.

For men, if this is for your paternal Y line, this is your paternal surname line – because the Y DNA is passed in the same way that surnames are typically passed in the US – father to son.

It’s important to have your balloon in the correct location, because you’re going to see where your matches ancestors are found in relationship to your ancestor.  Your most distant ancestor’s location is represented by the white balloon.  However, you will only see your matches balloons that have entered the geographic information for their most distant ancestor. Now do you see why entering this information is important?  The more balloons, the more informative for everyone.

The second thing is that you need to make sure that the information about the location of your most distant ancestor is accurate.  Most Distant Ancestor information is NOT taken from the matches map page, but from the Most Distant Ancestors tab in your orange “Manage Personal Information” link on your main page.  Then click on to the Genealogy tab and then Most Distant Ancestors, shown below.

genealogy tab

If your ancestral brick wall in in the US, you can select 2 options, “United States” and “United States (Native American).”  Please Note – Please do not, let me repeat, DO NOT, enter the Native American option unless you have documented proof that your ancestor in this specific line is positively Native American.  Why?  Because people who match you will ASSUME you have proof and will then deduce they are Native because you are.

This is particularly problematic when someone sees they are a member of a haplogroup that includes a Native subgroup.  Haplogroup X1, which is not Native, is a prime example.  Haplogroup X2 is Native, but people in X1 see that X is Native, don’t look further or don’t understand that ALL of X is not Native – so they list their ancestry as United States (Native American) based on an erroneous assumption.  Then when other people see they match people who are X1 who are Native, they assume they are Native as well.  It’s like those horrible copied and copied again incorrect Ancestry trees.

distant ancestor US optionsIt’s important to update both the location and your most distant ancestors name. This is the information that will show in the various projects that you might join in both the “Ancestor Name” and the “Country” field.  As an example, the Estes Y project page is shown below.  You can see for yourself how useless those blank fields are under “Paternal Ancestor Name” and “Unknown Origin” under Country when no one has entered their information.

estes project tab

While you are working on these housekeeping tasks, this would be a good time to enter your ancestral surnames as well.  You can find this, also under the Genealogy Tab, under Surnames.  Surnames are used to show you other people who have taken the Family Finder test and who share the same surname, so this is really quite important.  These are surnames from both sides of your tree, from all of your direct ancestors.

surnames tab

Working With Results

Working with mitochondrial DNA genetic results is much easier than Y DNA.  To begin with, the full sequence test reads all of your mitochondrial DNA, and your haplogroup is fully determined by this test.  So once you receive those results, that’s all you need to purchase.

When working with Y DNA, there are the normal STR panels of 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 markers which is where everyone interested in genealogy begins.  Then there are individual SNP tests you can take to confirm a specific haplogroup, panels of SNPs you can purchase and the Big Y test that reads the entire relevant portion of the Y chromosome.  You receive a haplogroup estimate that tends to be quite accurate with STR panel tests, but to confirm your actual haplogroup, or delve deeper, which is often necessary, you’ll need to work with project administrators to figure out which of the additional tests to purchase.  Your haplogroup estimate will reflect your main haplogroup of Q or C, if you are Native on that line, but to refine Q or C enough to confirm whether it is Native, European or Asian will require additional SNP testing  unless you can tell based on close or exact STR panel matches to others who are proven Native or who have taken those SNP tests.. 

Y Native DNA

In the Y DNA lines, both haplogroups Q and C have specific SNP mutations that confirm Native heritage.  SNPs are the special mutations that define haplogroups and their branches.   With the new in-depth SNP testing available with the introduction of the Big Y test in 2013, new discoveries abound, but suffice it to say that by joining the appropriate haplogroup project, and the American Indian project, which I co-administer, you can work with the project administrators to determine whether your version of Q or C is Native or not.

Haplogroups Q and C are not evenly distributed.  For example, we often see haplogroup C in the Algonquian people of Eastern Canada and seldom in South America, where we see Q throughout the Americas.  This wiki page does a relatively good job of breaking this down by tribe.  Please note that haplogroup R1 has NEVER been proven to be Native – meaning that it has never been found in a pre-contact burial – and is not considered Native, although speculation abounds.

This page discusses haplogroup Q and this page, haplogroup C.

Haplogroup C in the Native population is defined by SNP C-P39 and now C-M217 as well.

Haplogroup Q is not as straightforward.  It was believed for some time that SNP Q-M3 defined the Native American population, but advanced testing has shown that is not entirely correct.  Not all Native Q men carry M3.  Some do not.  Therefore, Native people include those with SNPs M3, M346, L54, Z780 and one ancient burial with MEH2.  Recently, a newly defined SNP, Y4273 has been identified in haplogroup Q as possibly defining a group of Algonquian speakers.  Little by little, we are beginning to more clearly define the Native American genetic landscape although there is a very long way to go.

With or without the SNP tests, you can still tell a great deal based on who you match.

For Y and mitochondrial DNA (not autosomal), at the highest levels of testing, if you are matching only or primarily Jewish individuals, you’re not Native.  If you’re matching people in Scandinavia, or Asia, or Russia, nope, not Native.  If you’re matching individuals with known (proven) Native heritage in Oklahoma or New Mexico, then yep….you’re probably Native

We’ll look at tools to do this in just a few minutes.                              

Mitochondrial Native DNA

There are several Native founder mitochondrial DNA lineages meaning those that are believed to have developed during the time about 15,000 years ago (plus or minus) that the Native people spent living on Beringia, after leaving continental Asia and before dispersing in the Americas.

Those haplogroups (along with the Native Y haplogroups) are shown in this graphic from a paper by Tamm, et al, 2007, titled “Beringian Standstill and the Spread of Native American Founders.”

beringia map

The founder mitochondrial haplogroups and latecomers, based on this paper, are:

  • A2
  • B2
  • C1b
  • C1c
  • C1d
  • C4c
  • C1
  • D2
  • D2a
  • D4h3
  • X2a

Subsequent subgroups have been found, and another haplogroup, M, may also be Native.  I compiled a comprehensive list of all suspects.  This list is meant as a research tool, which is why it gives links to where you can find additional information and the source of each reference.  In some cases, you’ll discover that the haplogroup is found in both Asia and the Americas.  Oh boy, fun fun….just like the Y.

Be aware that because of the desire to “be Native” that some individuals have “identified” European haplogroups as Native.  I’ll be writing about this soon, but for now, suffice it to say that if you “self-identify” yourself as Native (like my family did) and then you turn up with a European haplogroup – that does NOT make that European haplogroup Native.  So, when the next person in that haplogroup tests, and you tell them they match “Native” people with European haplogroups – it’s misleading to say the least.

When working to identify your Native heritage, some of your best tools will be the offerings of Family Tree DNA on your personal page.  The same tools exist for both Y and mitochondrial DNA results, so let’s take a look.

Your Results

If your ancestor was Native on your direct matrilineal line, then her haplogroup will fall within one of 5 or 6 haplogroups.  The confirmed Native American mitochondrial haplogroups fall into major haplogroups A, B, C, D and X, with haplogroup M a possibility, but extremely rare and as yet, unconfirmed.  Known Y haplogroups are C and Q with O as an additional possibility.

Now, just because you find yourself with one of these haplogroups doesn’t mean automatically that it’s Native, or that your ancestors in this line were Native.  If your haplogroup isn’t one of these, then you aren’t Native on this line.  For example, we find male haplogroup C around the world, including in Europe.

Here is the list of known and possible Native mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and subgroups.

If your results don’t fall into these haplogroups, then your matrilineal ancestor was not Native on this particular line.  If your ancestor does fall into these base groups, then you need to look at the subgroup to confirm that they are indeed Native and not in one of the non-Native sister clades.  Does this happen often?  Yes, it does, and there are a whole lot of people who see Q or C for the Y DNA and immediately assume they are Native, as they do when they see A, B, C, D or X for mitochondrial.  Just remember about assume.

Scenario 1: 

Oh No! My Haplogroup is NOT Native???

Let’s say your mitochondrial ancestor is not in haplogroup A, B, C, D, X or M.

About now, many people choke, because they are just sure that their matrilineal ancestor was Native, for a variety of reasons, so let’s talk about that.

  1. Family history says so. Mine did too. It was wrong. Or more precisely, wrong about which line.  Test other contributing lineages to the ancestor who was identified as Native.
  2. The Native ancestor is on the maternal line, but not in the direct matrilineal line. There’s a difference. Remember, mitochondrial DNA only tests the direct matrilineal line. What this means is that, for example, if your grandmother’s father was Native, your grandmother is still Native, or half Native, but not through her mother’s side so IT WON’T SHOW ON A MITOCHONDRIAL DNA TEST. In times past, stories like “grandma was Indian” was what was passed down. Not, grandmother’s father’s father’s mother was Waccamaw. Any Indian heritage got conveyed in the message about that ancestor, without giving the source, which leads to a lot of incorrect assumptions – and a lot of DNA tests that don’t produce the expected results. This is exactly what happened in my family line.
  3. Your ancestor is “Native” but her genetic ancestor was not – meaning she may have been adopted into the tribe, or kidnapped or was for some other reason a tribal member, but not originally genetically Native on the direct matrilineal line.  Mary Jemison is the perfect example.
  4. My ancestor’s picture looks Native. Great! That could have come from any of her other ancestors on her pedigree chart. Let’s see what other eividence we can find.

At this point, you’re disappointed, but you are not dead in the water and there are ways to move forward to search for your Native heritage on other lines.  What I would suggest are the following three action items.

1. Look at your family pedigree chart and see who else can be tested to determine a haplogroup for other lineages. For example, let’s say, your grandmother’s father. He would not have passed on any of his mother’s mitochondrial DNA, but his sisters would have passed their mother’s mitochondrial DNA to their children, and their daughters would pass it on as well. So dig your pedigree chart out. and see who is alive today that can test to represent other contributing ancestral lines.

2. Take a look at your Family Finder ethnicity chart under myOrigins and see how much Native DNA you have.

FF no Native

If your ethnicity chart looks like this one, with no New World showing, it means that if you have Native heritage, it’s probably more than 5 or 6 generations back in time and the current technology can’t measurably read those small amounts.  However, this is only measuring admixed or recombined DNA, meaning the DNA you received from both your mother and father.  Recombination in essence halves the DNA of each of your ancestors in each generation, so it’s not long until it’s so small that it’s unmeasurable today.

You can also download your raw autosomal data file to http://www.gedmatch.com and utilize their admixture tools to look for small amounts of Native heritage.  However, beware that small amounts of Native admixture can also be found in people with Asian ancestors, like Slavic Europeans.

The person whose results are shown above does have proven Native Ancestry, both via paper documentation and mitochondrial DNA results – but her Native ancestor is back in French Canada in the 1600s.  Too much admixture has occurred between then and now for the Native to be found on the autosomal test, but mtDNA is forever.

If your Y or mtDNA haplogroup is Native, there is no division in each generation, so nothing washes out. If Y or mtDNA is Native, it stays fully Native forever, even if the rest of your autosomal Native DNA has washed out with succeeding generations.  That is the blessing of both Y and mtDNA testing!

FF native

If your myOrigins ethnicity chart looks like this one, which shows a significant amount of New World and other areas that typically, in conjunction with New World, are interpreted as additional Native contribution, such as the Asian groups, and your Y and/or mtDNA is not Native, then you’re looking at the wrong ancestor in your tree.  Your mtDNA or Y DNA test has just eliminated this specific line – but none of the lines that “married in.”

You can do a couple of things – find more people to test for Y and mtDNA in other lines.  In this case, 18% Native is significant.  In this person’s case, she could eliminate her father’s line, because he was known not to be Native.  Her mother was Hispanic – a prime candidate for Native ancestry.  The next thing for this person to do is to test her mother’s brother’s Y DNA to determine her mother’s father’s Y haplogroup.  He could be the source of the Native heritage in her family.

3. The third thing to do is to utilize Family Finder matching to see who you match that also carries Native heritage. In the chart below, you can see which of your Family Finder matches also carry a percentage of Native ancestry. This only shows their Native match percent if you have Native. In other words, it doesn’t’ show a category for your matches that you don’t also have.

ff native matches

Please note – just because you match someone who also carries Native American heritage does NOT mean that your Native line is how you match.

For example, in one person’s case, their Native heritage is on their mother’s side.  They also match their father’s cousin, who also carries Native heritage but he got his Native heritage from his mother’s line.  So they both carry Native heritage, but their matching DNA and ancestry are on their non-Native lines.

Lots of people send me e-mails that say things like this, “I match many people with Cherokee heritage.”  But what they don’t realize is that unless you share common proven ancestors, that doesn’t matter.  It’s circumstantial.  Think about it this way.

When measuring back 6 generations, which is generally (but not always) the last generation at which autosomal can reliably find matches between people, you have 64 ancestors.  So does the other person.  You match on at least one of those ancestors (or ancestral lines), and maybe more.  If one of your ancestors and one of your match’s ancestors are both Native, then the chances of you randomly matching that ancestor is 1 in 64.  So you’re actually much more likely to share a different ancestor.  Occasionally, you will actually match the same Native ancestor.  Just don’t assume, because you know what assume does – and you’ll be wrong 63 out of 64 times.

Sharing Native ancestry with one or several of your matches is a possible clue, but nothing more.

Scenario 2:

Yippee!!  My Haplogroup IS Native!!!

Ok, take a few minutes to do the happy dance – because when you’re done – we still have work to do!!!

happy dance frog

Many people actually find out about their Native American heritage by a surprise Native American haplogroup result.  But now, it’s time to figure out if your haplogroup really IS Native.

As I mentioned before, many of the major haplogroups have some members who are from Europe, Asia and the America.  Fortunately, the New World lines have been separated from the Old World lines long enough to develop specific and separate mutations, that enable us to tell the difference – most of the time.  If you’re interested, I recently wrote a paper about the various European, Jewish, Asian and Native American groups within subgroups of haplogroup A4.  If you’re curious about how haplogroups can have subgroups on different continents, then read this article about Haplogroups and The Three Brothers.  This is also an article that is helpful when trying to understand what your matches do, and don’t, mean.

So, before going any further, check your haplogroup subgroup and make sure your results really do fall into the Native subgroups.  If they don’t, then go back to the “Not Native” section.  If you aren’t sure, which typically means you’re a male with an estimated haplogroup of C or Q, then keep reading because we have some tools available that may help clarify the situation.

Utilizing Personal Page Y and Mito Tools to Find Your Tribe

Much of Y and mitochondrial DNA genetic genealogy matching is “guilt by genetic association,” to quote Bennett Greenspan.  In other words we can tell a great deal about your heritage by who you match – and who you don’t match.

Let’s say you are haplogroup B2a2 – that’s a really nice Native American haplogroup, a subgroup of B2a, a known Beringian founder.  B2a2 developed in the Americas and has never been found outside of the Native population in the Americas.  In other words, there is no controversy or drama surrounding this haplogroup.

It just so happens that our “finding your tribe” example is a haplogroup B2a2 individual, Cindy, so let’s take a look at how we work through this process.

Taking a look at Cindy’s Matches Map tab, which shows the location of Cindy’s matches most distant ancestor on their matrilineal line (hopefully that’s what they entered.)  Only one of Cindy’s full sequence matches has entered their ancestor’s geographic information.  However, it’s not far from Cindy’s ancestor which is shown by the white balloon.

Cindy full seq match

Please note that Cindy, who is haplogroup B2a2, has NO European matching individuals.  In fact, no matches outside of North and South America.  Being Native, we would not expect her to have matches elsewhere, but since the match location field is self-entered and depends on the understanding of the person entering the information, sometimes information provided seems confusing.  Occasionally information found here has to be taken with a grain of salt, or confirmed with the individual who entered the information.

For example, I have one instance of someone with all Native matches having one Spanish match.  When asked about this, the person entering the information said, “Oh, our family was Spanish.”  And of course, if you see a male name entered in the most distant ancestor field for mtDNA, or a female for Y DNA, you know there is a problem.

While the full sequence test is by far the best, don’t neglect to look at the HVR1 and HVR2 results, because not everyone tests at higher levels and there may be hints waiting there for you.  There certainly was for Cindy.

Cindy HVR1 match

Look at Cindy’s cluster of HVR1 matches.  Let’s look at the New Mexico group more closely.

Cindy HVR1 NM matches

Look how tightly these are clustered.  One is so close to Cindy’s ancestor that the red balloon almost obscures her white balloon.  By clicking on the red balloons, that person’s information pops up.

You will also want to utilize the Haplogroup and Ancestral Origins tabs.  The Haplogroup Origins provides you with academic and research data with some participant data included.  The Ancestral Origins tab provides you with the locations where your matches say their most distant ancestor is from.

Cindy’s Haplogroup Origins page looks like this.

Cindy haplogroup origins

Keep  in mind that your closest matches are generally the most precise – for mitochondrial DNA meaning the group at the bottom titled “HVR1, HVR2 and Coding Region Matches.”  In Cindy’s case, above, at both the HVR1 and HVR2 levels, she also matches individuals in haplogroup B4’5, but at the highest level, she will only match her own haplogroup.

Next Cindy’s Ancestral Origins tab shows us the locations where her matches indicate their most distant ancestor is found.

Cindy ancestral origins

These people, at least some of them, identified themselves as Native American and their DNA along with genealogy research confirmed their accuracy.

Now, it’s time to look at your matches.

Cindy fs matches

If you’re lucky, now that you know positively that your results are Native (because you carry an exclusive Native haplogroup), and so do your matches, one of them will not only list their most distant ancestor, they will also put a nice little heartwarming note like (Apache) or (Navajo) or (Pueblo).  Now that one word would just make your day.

Another word of caution.  Even though that would make your day, that’s not always YOUR answer.  Why not?  Because Native people intermarried with other tribes, sometimes willingly, and sometimes not by choice.  Willingly or not, their DNA went along with them and sometimes you will find someone among the Apache that is really a Plains Indian, for example.  So you can get excited, but don’t get too excited until you find a few matches who know positively what tribe their ancestor was from.


So let’s talk about what positive means.  When someone tells me they are a member of the Cherokee Tribe for example, I ask which Cherokee tribe, because there are many that are not the federally recognized tribes and accept a wide variety of people based on their family stories and little more except an enrollment fee.  I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m saying you don’t want to base the identity of your ancestor’s tribe, unwittingly, on a situation like that.

If the answer is the official Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, for example, whose enrollment criteria I understand, then I ask them based on which ancestral line.  It could well be that they are a tribal member based on one relative and their mitochondrial DNA goes to an entirely different tribe.  In fact, I had this exact situation recently.  Their mitochondrial DNA was Seminole and they were a member of a different tribe based on a different lineage.

If the match is not a tribal member or descended from a tribal member, then I try, tactfully, to ask what proof they have that they are descended from that particular tribe.  It’s important to ask this in a nonconfrontional way, but you do need to know because if their claim to Native heritage is based on a family story, that’s entirely different than if it is based on the fact that their direct mitochondrial ancestor was listed on one of the government rolls on which tribal citizenship was predicated.

So, in essence, by your matches proving their mitochondrial lineage as Native and affiliated with a particular tribe, they are, in part, proving yours, or at least giving you a really big hint, because at some point you do share a common matrilineal ancestor.

You may find that two of your matches track their lineage to different tribes.  At that point, fall back to languages.  Are the tribes from the same language group?  If so, then your ancestor may be further back in time.  If not, then most likely someone married, was kidnapped, adopted or sold into slavery from one tribe to the other.  Take a look at the history and geography of the two tribes involved

Advanced Matching

It’s difficult to tell with any reasonable accuracy how long ago you share a common ancestor with someone that you match on either Y or mtDNA.  Family Tree DNA does provide guidelines, but those are based on statistical probabilities, and while they are certainly better than nothing, one size does not fit all and doesn’t tend to fit anyone very well.  I don’t mean this to be a criticism of Family Tree DNA – it’s just the nature of the beast.

For Y DNA, you can utilize the TIP tool, shown as the orange icon on your match bar, and the learning center provides information about mitochondrial time estimates to a common ancestor.  Let me say that I find the 5 generation estimate at the 50th percentile for a full sequence match extremely optimistic.  This version is a bit older but more detailed.

mtdna mrca chart

However, you can utilize another tool to see if you match anyone autosomally that you also match on your mitochondrial or Y DNA.  Before you do this, take a look at your closest matches and make note of whether they took the Family Finder test.  That will be listed by their name on the match table, by the FF, at right, below.

mtdna matches plus ff

If they didn’t take the Family Finder test, then you obviously won’t match them on that test.

On your mtDNA or Y DNA options panel, select Advanced Matching.

advanced matching

You’ll see the following screen.  Select both Family Finder and ONE Of the mtDNA selections  Why just one?  Because you’re going to select “show only people I match on selected tests” which means all the tests that you select.  Not everyone takes all the tests or matches on all three levels, so search one level of mtDNA plus Family Finder, at a time.  This means if you have matches on all 3 mitochondrial levels, you’ll run this query 3 times.  If you’re working with Y DNA, then you’ll do the same thing, selecting the 12-111 panels one at a time in combination with Family Finder.

The results show you who matches you on BOTH the Family Finder and the mtDNA test, one level at a time.  Here are the results for Cindy comparing her B2a2 HVR1 region mitochondrial DNA (where she had the most matches) and Family Finder.

advanced matches results

Remember those clusters of people that we saw near Cindy’s oldest ancestor on the map?  It’s Cindy’s lucky day.  She is extremely lucky to match three of her HVR1 matches on Family Finder.  And yes, that red balloon overlapping her own balloon is one of the matches here as well.  Cindy just won the Native American “find my tribe” lottery!!!!  Before testing, Cindy had no idea and now she has 3 new autosomal cousins AND she know that her ancestor was Native and has a very good idea of which tribe.  Several of the people Cindy matches knew their ancestor’s tribal affiliation.

So, now we know that not only does Cindy share a direct matrilineal ancestor with these people, but that ancestor is likely to be within 5 or 6 generations, which is the typical reach for the Family Finder matching, with one caveat…and that’s endogamous populations.  And yes, Native American people are an endogamous group.  They didn’t have anyone else to marry except for other Native people for thousands of years.  In recent times, and especially east of the Mississippi, significant admixture has occurred, but not so much in New Mexico at least not across the board.  The message here is that with endogamous populations, autosomal relationships can look closer than they really are because there is so much common DNA within the population as a whole.  That said, Cindy did find a common ancestor with some of her matches – and because they matched on their mitochondrial DNA, they knew exactly where in their trees to look.

Identifying your Tribe

Being able to utilize DNA to find your tribe is much like a puzzle.  It’s a little bit science, meaning the DNA testing itself, a dose of elbow grease, meaning the genealogy and research work, and a dash of luck mixed with some magic to match someone (or ones) who actually know their tribal affiliation.  And if you’re really REALLY lucky, you’ll find your common ancestor while you’re at it!  Cindy did!

In essence, all of these pieces of information are evidence in your story.  In the end, you have to evaluate all of the cumulative pieces of evidence as to quality, accuracy and relevance.  These pieces of evidence are also breadcrumbs and clues for you to follow – to find your own personal answer.  After all, your story and that of your ancestors isn’t exactly like anyone else’s.  Yes, it’s work, but it’s possible and it happens.

In case you think Cindy’s case is a one time occurrence, it’s not.  Lenny Trujillo did the same thing and wrote about his experience.  Here’s hoping you’re the next person to make the same kind of breakthrough.

John Y. Estes (1818-1895), Civil War Soldier, Walked to Texas, Twice, 52 Ancestors #64

John Y Estes

John Y. Estes, whose photo we believe is shown above, started out years ago with a question, one that is probably answered now, but every time we think we answer one question about him, another dozen take its place.

Let’s start from the beginning.  When I first saw John’s name, I immediately noticed the Y.  Two things occurred to me…first, that’s someone’s last name and second, that’s shouldn’t be too difficult to find.  Y is not like S that would include something like Smith and takes up 10% of the alphabet.  Famous last words, or first thoughts, because assuredly, that second thought was NOT true.

Now don’t laugh, but one time I was at one of those fortune telling places.  The fortune teller asked me if I had any more questions.  I said yes, and asked her about John Y. Estes’s middle name.  She said something like Yarborough or maybe Yancy.  She wasn’t right about anything else either.

Nope, never let it be said that genealogists are a desperate group!

John Y. Estes was born on December 29, 1818, in Halifax County, Virginia to John R. Estes and his wife, Nancy Ann Moore.  Hmmmm, that middle initial R. might be someone’s last name….never mind….

We know that John R. Estes and his wife, Nancy Ann Moore, along with five if not six children made the long wagon journey from Halifax County, Virginia to Claiborne County, TN. sometime between 1818 and 1826 when John R. Estes had a land survey in Claiborne County.  The 1820 census doesn’t exist for Claiborne County and John appears to be gone from Halifax by then, so we’re out of luck knowing where John R. was in 1820.

In the 1830 census, John R. Estes was living in Claiborne County in the vicinity of Estes Holler, shown below.

Estes Holler 2

How do I know that?  Because these families have all become very familiar to me over my 30+ years of research.  John is living beside William Cunningham, who, in 1871 signed as a character witness for John R. Estes.  And six houses away we find John Campbell, the grandfather of Ruthy Dodson who likely raised her after her mother, Elizabeth Campbell died.  Rutha Dodson was the future wife of John Y. Estes.  And next door to John Campbell lived Mercurious Cook whose son’s widow John R. Estes would marry in another 40 years – but that is a story for a different day.

In the early 1830s, John R. Estes took his family to live in Grainger County for a short time.  Nancy Ann Moore’s two uncles, Rice and Mackness Moore lived there, Rice being a Methodist minister.  John R. Estes’s daughter, Lucy, married in Grainger County in 1833.  By 1835, John was back in Claiborne County when Temperance married Adam Clouse, so they didn’t stay long in Grainger County.

For the most part, John Y. Estes grew up in or near Estes Holler, below, from the cemetery, which, of course, is why it’s called Estes Holler today.

estes holler 5

By 1840, John Y. was probably courting the lovely Ruthy Dodson, likely at her grandfather’s house.  John Campbell had died in 1838, but his widow Jenny Dobkins Campbell didn’t die until between 1850 and 1860, so she would have still been living on the old home place, on Little Sycamore Road, below, when young John Y. Estes came to call.

Campbell house

We don’t find John R. Estes in the 1840 census, but by 1841, John R. Estes had to be living someplace in the vicinity because both his sons Jechonias and John Y. Estes married local gals.

On March 1, 1841, John Y. Estes married Ruthy Dodson, just a couple months after his 23rd birthday.

John Y Estes Rutha Dodson marriage

Ruthy Dodson’s mother, Elizabeth Campbell died before Elizabeth’s father, John Campbell, did in 1838.  After John’s death, a guardian was appointed for Elizabeth’s children to function on behalf of their financial interests in his estate.

In the 1830 census, the John Campbell household has small children, so it’s very likely that the grandparents, John and Jenny Dobkins Campbell were raising Elizabeth Campbell’s children she had with her husband, Lazarus Dodson.

On September 5th, 1842, John Y. Estes signed a receipt for receiving part of Ruthy’s inheritance.  This seems to have been paid yearly, at least until the children reached the age of majority.

“John Y. Estes rect. dated 5th Sept. 1842, $54.35. Ditto rents for the year 1841, $1.50. Ditto order for what ballence may be in my hands as guardean, amt. $56.61.”

By 1850, we find John Y. Estes living in Estes Holler along with the rest of the Estes clan.  John is listed as a laborer, age 30, Ruthy as age 25 and Lazarus as age 2.

Given that John and Ruthy were married in 1841 and their oldest child in 1850 is only 2, this suggests that John and Ruthy had already buried several children.  If they had one child per year and the child died at or shortly after birth, they could have buried as many as six children in this time.  The Upper Estes cemetery, as well as the Venable Cemetery at the end of the road have many, many unmarked graves.  The Upper Estes Cemetery was within view of the John Y. Estes home place.

Upper Estes Cemetery

Furthermore, we know that John Y. Estes was living on this land, even though we find very few records of John Y. Estes in official county documents.

This land was originally granted to William Devenport and would eventually, in part, become the property of Rutha Estes, John Y.’s wife – but that wouldn’t happen for another 30 years.

William Devenport, April 17, 1850 – James McNeil trustee to William S. McVey, Districts 6 and 8, 475 acres, Buzzard’s Rock Knob – corner of grant to James M. Patterson, from Devenport’s spring, grant to Drewry Gibson, 50 acres #14072, line of Drewry Gibson, crossing Gibson’s branch, S with John Dobkins grant owned at present by Leander and Greenberry Cloud near N.S. McNeil’s line crossing Gibson’s branch on top of Middle Ridge, Planks fence of old Wier place, John Mason’s corner and line, Cunningham’s line, Devenport-Lanham’s corner, Weatherman’s spring, middle ridge – all of above contained in grant 16628 from the St. of Tennessee to William Devenport.

Second tract – 130 acres of land on the S. Side of Wallen’ ridge, corner of D. Gibson’s 50 acres tract #14072, Houston’s line, NW of Devenport’s line, Harkins corner, large rock on top of knob called Buzzard’s Rock, Harkins corner, Abel Lanham’s corner, Henderson’s line, 100 acre tract of WH Jennings, Bise’s corner, top of Wallen Ridge at Bise’s stake corner of Hardy tract, Henderson’s corner, the above contained in grant 27438 St. of Tn. to Devenport.

Also a 25 acre tract known as the Weatherman place.

1851 – William Devenport tax sale to William McVey – bid July 7, 1851 at courthouse, land in the 8th district, but due to a change in the lines now in the 6th district living near the lines of the 6th and 8th, sold for the taxes of 1845 and 1846, $16.77, 200 acres.

Tract 1 – S side Wallen Ridge near Little Sycamore adjacent lands of William Houston, Mordica Cunningham on the South, Samuel Harkins on the North, on NE Cunningham, William Houston’s, the land commonly known as the Weatherman place where William Devenport and John Estes now live.  Census records show that this is John Y. Estes, not John R. Estes that lives beside William Devenport.

So, in 1851, William Devenport is losing his land and apparently, neither he nor John Estes can do anything about it.  John is not bidding on the land.  William S. McVey purchased this land and in 1852, William McVey also purchased a very large tract of land granted to William Estes, John’s brother, which John Y. Estes witnessed.

By 1876, this same land is being conveyed by Henry Sharp to W.H. Cunningham.  How do we know this is the same land that is where John Y. Estes lived?  Metes and bounds are included, it states that is was William Devenport’s and it says that is where David A. King lived when he died.  The Reverend David A. King, a Methodist minister fought for the Union in the Civil War, died in 1873 and is buried in the Upper Estes Cemetery.  His daughter, Elizabeth married the son of John Y. Estes, George Buchanan Estes, in 1878.  I wonder if the old Reverend rolled over in his grave to have his daughter marry the son of a Confederate.  Yes, the secret is out, John Y. Estes was a Confederate.

David King

1876, Mar 30 – Henry Sharp of Campbell Co., TN to W.H. Cunningham of Claiborne for $400, 2 tracts of land in Claiborne on the waters of Little Sycamore Creek on the South side of Wallen’s Ridge adj the land of William Houston, decd and constitute the farm on which David A. King lived at the time of his death, one part is an entry made by William Devenport and bounded as follows: Beginning at a hickory stump on a red bank in Houston’s line thence north 9 deg west with Hentins? Line 94 poles to the Buzzard Rock on the top of Wallen’s Ridge thence with the top of Wallen’s ridge 240 poles to a chestnut oak and when redused to a strait line is south 60 deg west 234 poles then south 75? Deg east on Houston’s line 34 poles to a stake in the other line of Houston’s then with the same north 70 deg east 93.75 poles to a double chestnut and gum on a spur at Houston’s corner thence with lines of Houston’s land south 390 deg east 43 poles to a maple at the branch then east 62 poles to a hickory stump then with lines of Houston’s land south 30 east 43 poles to a maple at a branch then east 62 poles to a hickory stump then north 62 poles to a large white oak corner then east 9 poles to the beginning containing 90 acres more or less.

This land would eventually be owned by Rutha Estes, the wife of John Y. Estes.

The second parcel bounded by…Houston’s line, Devenport’s grant line, 25 acres.  Witness JW Bois, WW Greer.

This was a very, very indirect “round the mountain” way to track John Y. Estes, but it worked.  However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s go back before the Civil War.

On March 8, 1856, in the court records, we show that John Y. Estes had an account in the estate of Thomas Baker – in other words, he owed Thomas money.

In the 1860 census, John and Rutha have four more children, although with a gap of 4 years between Lazarus and Elizabeth, it looks like they lost at least one more child.

John Y Estes 1860

Interestingly, John Y. Estes is a shoemaker.  John is shown as owning no land, but he does have a personal estate of $173, which isn’t exactly trivial.

I think in 1860 that John Y. Estes is not living in Estes Holler.  He is living beside carpenters, stage drivers, a wagon maker, a wagoner and a carriage maker who was quite wealthy.  That sounds suspiciously like he was living in town which would have been Tazewell.

The Civil War

Shortly after 1860, life would change dramatically for the Estes family.  Tensions were escalating towards the Civil War, and in 1861, they erupted when initially 4, then 7, then 11 states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederacy.  Tennessee did secede, but not initially.  Claiborne County was badly torn between the North and South, the blue and grey – and families were torn apart as different brothers and sons joined opposite sides.  Loyalties were divided and family members fought against one another.

In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Confederate troops occupied Tazewell as part of the greater struggle for the strategic Cumberland Gap. When the Confederates evacuated the town in November of that year, a fire followed, destroying much of Tazewell.  In essence, anyone who could leave, did, because Tazewell was a target of continuous raids for food and supplies.

We know by 1870, positively, from the census, that the John Y. Estes family is back in Estes Holler.  We also know from family stories about the Civil War that they spent the majority of the War in Estes Holler.

But what we didn’t know was something far, far more important.

Aunt Margaret told me that while the war was over, it was really never resolved in Claiborne County.  The Crazy Aunts used to tell stories of the men in Claiborne County wearing their Civil War uniforms once again, on Memorial Day, and head for town to “refight” the war, as long as there were any veterans left to do so.  I suspect that most of the fighting was verbal and in the form of relived memories, but assuredly, not all, especially if region’s notorious moonshine was involved….and you know it was!

The aunts, Margaret and Minnie, lived in Estes Holler as a child, and while I knew none of my direct Estes ancestors had served in the Civil War, obviously some people from that area had.  Just a couple years ago, I decided to look for Estes men in Claiborne County, TN to see if any of them had fought in the Civil War at www.fold3.com.  Was I ever in for the surprise of my life.

My great-great-grandfather, John Y. Estes served in the Civil War – but for which side?

John Y Estes reference slip

Look what that says.  Confederate.

John’s service records are confusing, to say the least.  There are documents in his file from both sides, it seems.  How can that be?  Let’s start with the basics.

The Civil War began in earnest in April, 1861 when confederate forces bombarded the Union controlled Fort Sumter, SC in Charleston Harbor.

Many people who lived in Claiborne County fought for the North and joined the Union troops, but not all.  The Civil War was a source of dissention within and between families in Claiborne County.  Few people there held slaves, so slavery was not a driving force.  By searching for his unit, I confirmed that John Y. Estes had joined the Confederate Army, but I was stunned.  All of my other family members in my various lines fought for the Union – including the families from that area.

The history of Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment F, formed in Claiborne County shows that it was formed on August 10, 1862 by Captain R. Frank Fulkerson who lived near John Y. Estes in the 1860 census.  There is no existing muster roll, although I recreated one as best I could from the various men’s service records in his unit.  Reading John’s record, along with the other men’s records in his unit, (along with regimental and other histories,)  is also how I reconstructed where that unit was, when, and what they were doing.

We don’t know when John enlisted, although it was likely when the unit was formed, nor do we know if he ever applied for a pension.  John would have been 44 years old in 1862, so no spring chicken.  His daughter, Nancy Jane has been born in November of 1861.  He had a wife and 6 children at home ranging in age from Lazarus born in 1848, so 13, to newborn.  His wife probably wanted to kill him for enlisting and save the Union Forces the trouble.

What we do know is that on March 20, 1865, in Louisville, KY, John Y. Estes signed the following allegiance document.  I later discovered that he had been captured and this was one way men obtained their freedom. This document tells us that he had dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes and was 5 feet 7 inches tall, just slightly taller than me. Information I didn’t have before.  If you look closely at John’s picture at the beginning of this article, he may have been mixed-race.

John Y. Estes allegiance

And look, we also have his signature.

So, how did John Y. Estes get to Louisville, KY in 1865 from Claiborne County?  To answer that question, I tracked the activities of his unit.  That was much easier said than done.

Here’s what we know about the activities of Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment.

Prior to the organization of the regiment, the battalion had been operating in the neighborhood of Cumberland Gap and Big Creek Gaps, at present day LaFollette, TN, about 33 miles distant from each other, along the line of the railroad.

When the regiment was organized it was assigned to Brigadier General John Pegram’s Cavalry Brigade in Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith’s Department. This brigade was composed of Howard’s Alabama Regiment, 2nd (Ashby’s), 4th (Starnes’), I. E. Carter’s Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Marshall’s Battery.

Prior to the Battle of Murfreesboro, on December 29, 1862, Carter’s Regiment joined Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s Brigade, and participated in his raid around the Federal Army from Jefferson Springs to LaVergue, to Nolensville, to Murfreesboro, TN. The unit was engaged on December 31 along the Murfreesboro Pike.

Following this battle, the regiment returned to Pegram’s Brigade, in the Department of East Tennessee under Brigadier General D. S. Donelson.

With Pegram’s Brigade, the regiment took part in operations in Lincoln, Boyle and Garrard Counties of Kentucky, and was engaged March 30, 1863 at the junction of the Stanford and Crab Orchard Roads where it was under the command of Colonel Scott, of the 1st Louisiana Regiment. General Pegram’s comment on this operation is interesting: “For Colonel Scott’s operations, I refer you to the accompanying report. Touching this curious document I have only to say that I cannot but admire the ingenuity with which Colonel Scott has attempted to account for disobedience of orders and dilatoriness of action which it is my sincere belief lost us the fight.” Colonel Carter reported five officers and 32 men as casualties in this operation.

It was not a good day to be a Confederate soldier.  John saw his comrades die. It probably wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

On April 25, 1863, Colonel J. I. Morrison was reported in command of the brigade, now listed as composed of 1st Georgia, 1st and 2nd Tennessee Regiments, 12th and 16th Cavalry Battalions, and Huwald’s Battery. The brigade was at Albany, Kentucky on May 1; at Travisville, Fentress County, Kentucky on May 2.

On July 23, the Chief of Staff, at Knoxville, ordered Colonel Scott, then commanding the brigade, to send 300 horses of 1st (Carter’s) Regiment to Loudon, Tennessee.

On July 31, Pegram’s Brigade, consisting of 1st and 6th Georgia Regiments, 7th North Carolina Battalion, 1st Tennessee Regiment, Rucker’s Legion, and Huwald’s Battery was reported at Ebenezer.

From December of 1862 to August of 1863, John Y. Estes’s unit covered over 1000 miles and marched from East Tennessee, near the Cumberland Gap to central Tennessee to Kentucky, back to central Tennessee and then back to the Cumberland Gap.

John Y Estes civil war map

On August 15, Carter’s Regiment was reported as operating near Clinton and participated in the fighting around Cumberland Gap.  This fighting occurred on the land previously owned by John Y. Estes’s wife’s father, Lazarus Dodson.  The photo below is on Tipprell Road, on Lazarus’s land, looking North towards Cumberland Gap.

dodson land tipprell road

This is where Lazarus Dodson’s father, Lazarus Dodson’s Revolutionary War marker stands today, in the Cottrell Cemetery, below, now on land owned by Lincoln Memorial University.  This photo is standing in the cemetery, looking North towards the mountains and Cumberland Gap.

Cottrell cem looking north

This map shows LMU complex, the location of the cemetery with the upper red arrow and the location of the Dodson homestead with the lower arrow.  You can see the now abandoned road that used to connect the homestead with the cemetery.

Dodson homestead Cottrell Cem

The map below shows the larger area.  It’s probably a mile between the Dodson homestead and the LMU campus across the back way and maybe two and a half miles to Cumberland Gap, up Tipprell Road from the Dodson home.

Cumberland Gap Dodson homestead

This Civil War map shows where the troops camped, at Camp Cottrell, at Butcher Springs.  Lazarus Dodson had sold this land in 1861 to David Cottrell whose residence is marked on the map.  That was the old Lazarus Dodson homestead.  The main road, now called Tipprell Road, was called Gap Creek Road at the time.  It connects the valley, passes Butcher Springs and continues up to Cumberland Gap along the creek and now the railroad as well.  The road heading to the right above the Cottrell homestead used to go up to the cemetery, but is no longer a road today.

camp cottrell civil war map

This photo shows that area today.  It’s flat, so perfect for camping.  Butcher Springs is to the right in this photo, below, just out of sight.


This is me standing in the Cottrell Cemetery.

Me in Cottrell Cemetery

Butcher springs would be behind me in the valley to the right.  On the Civil War map, Patterson’s Smith shop would be the cluster of buildings where you can see the church, to the left in the picture, in the distance, across the road.

Cumberland Gap was captured by the Federal troops on September 9, 1863, but the Confederate regiment had escaped up the valley before the surrender, and on September 11, Colonel Carter was reported in command of the brigade near Lee Courthouse.  Lee Courthouse is present day Jonesville, VA, about 35 miles from Cumberland Gap.  I’ve added Estes Holler here for context.

John Y Estes Cumberland Gap Lee Courthouse

On September 18, Carter’s Regiment was driven from the ford above Kingsport, TN after a severe fight.  This fight was only 7 days later and Kingsport was another 45 miles distant over rough, mountainous terrain.

John Y Estes Jonesville Kingsport

Somewhere about this time, the regiment was assigned to Brigadier General John S. Williams’ Cavalry Brigade, composed of the 16th Georgia Battalion, 4th Kentucky Regiment, 10th Kentucky Battalion, May’s Kentucky Regiment, 1st Tennessee and 64th Virginia Regiments, which on October 31, 1863 was reported at Saltville, Virginia, 60 miles northeast of Kingsport, TN.

The unit received orders to proceed to Dalton, GA, but despite these orders, Carter’s Regiment was reported near Rogersville on November 1, in Williams’ Brigade, with Colonel H. L. Gutner commanding.

Rogersville was back, through Kingsport, about 90 miles “down the valley,” so to speak.

John Y Estes Rogersville Saltville

In the meantime, Captain Van Dyke’s Company “C” had returned from Mississippi, and on November 24, 1863 was at Charleston, Tennessee with Colonel John C. Carter’s 38th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Charleston was 145 miles from Rogersville.

John Y Estes Rogersville Charleston

Colonel Carter highly commended Captain Van Dyke and his 44 men for the part they played in helping his forces to evacuate Charleston without being captured.  On April 16, 1864, the regiment was transferred to Vaughn’s Brigade, of Brigadier General J. C. Vaughn’s Division, and reported 248 men present. It remained in this brigade until the end of the war.

By May of 1864, the majority of the fighting had shifted to Virginia.  Between mid-April and May, John Y. Estes’s unit traveled almost 400 miles, from Charleston, TN to the Lynchburg, VA region.

John Y Estes Charleton Lynchburg

The Civil War was becoming a series of constant battles which were referenced as the Campaign in the Valley of Virginia which lasted from May-July of 1864 as shown on this map by Hal Jespersen.

Shenandoah Valley Campaign 1864

As part of Vaughn’s Brigade, the regiment moved into Virginia in early 1864, fought at the Battle of Piedmont, New Hope Church, and in the subsequent campaign in the Valley of Virginia under General Early.

Germanna Ford

This drawing from Harper’s Weekly shows the troops crossing at Germanna Ford during the Battle of New Hope Church, also called the Mine Run Campaign.


This drawing shows the “Army of the Potomac at Mine-Run, General Warren’s Troops attacking.”

Battle of Piedmont

This is the location, today, of the Battle of Piedmont.  This battlefield looked very different when John Y. Estes stood here on June 5th, 1864.  There were men, horses and blood all over this battlefield.  After severe fighting, the Confederates lost, badly.

It was this point, nearing the end of this chapter of the war, that John Y. Estes entered the hospital on June 12th.  But, that doesn’t mean he was done…the worst, perhaps, was yet to follow.  What happened next?  There has to be more.

Hmmm, let’s check the 1890 Civil War veterans census.  Nope, nothing there.

Well, let’s look under Eastice.  His folder says that name was used as well.

John Y Estes private

Well, Glory Be, look what we’ve found.  His index packet, indeed, under Eastice.

John Y Estes absent

This regimental return of October 1864 says that he was an absent enlisted man accounted for, “Without Cane Valley of Va. Aug. 28.”  That’s odd phrasing.  Does it mean “without leave?”  But it says he is accounted for?

John Y Estes deserter

Uh-oh, this doesn’t look good.  Now he’s on the list of deserters as of March 18, 1865.  It says he was released north of the Ohio River.  That goes along with the “Oath of Allegiance” document that he signed on March the 20th.

John Y Estes POW

Wikipedia says that during the Civil War, prisoners of War were often released upon taking at “oath of allegiance.”  General Sherman was known to ship people to Louisville and those who signed were freed, north of the Ohio, and those who didn’t remained in prison.

This documents John Y’s oath of allegiance, and the faint writing says that his name also appears as John Y. Estus.  How many ways can you spell Estes?  I checked and there are no additional records under Estus – at least none that are indexed yet.

John Y Estes transfer

This document says that he was a Prisoner of War, but this kind of Prisoner of War was a Rebel Deserter.  He was apparently “caught” on March 6th, 1865, send to Chattanooga, then to Louisville apparently in late March where he was taken across the Ohio River.  I’m thinking John Y. considered this a very bad month.

John Y Estes desertion info

This page gives us a little more info.  Apparently he deserted at Staunton, Va. on June 30 of 1864, just days after his hospitalization and release.  Where was he between June 30, 1864 and March 6 of 1865?  And where was he captured?  The first document says that in October of 1864, he was accounted for which I would interpret to mean that they knew where he was and whatever the situation, was OK.  Nothing confusing about these records….

John Y Estes medical

Well here is at least part of the answer.  On June the 12, 1864 he was hospitalized and had a partial anchyloses of his knee.  On June the 19th he was sent to a convalescent camp.  The 30th of the same month, he was reported as having deserted at Staunton.

What they don’t say here is that Staunton was devastated by the Union in June of 1864 – everything was burned including shops, factories mills and miles of railroad tracks were destroyed.  If that is where he was convalescing, it’s no wonder he deserted, or simply left.

He was accounted for in October, but sometime between then and March 1865, he apparently deserted for real, or he already had in October.  I wonder if he simply went home, or attempted to go home.  Where was he when he was caught, or deserted?  If you are a Confederate deserter, and the Union forces “catch” you, do they still hold you prisoner?  Maybe the Confederates only thought he deserted and he was in fact captured?  But the Union paperwork indicates he was listed as a Rebel deserter.  So many questions.

Ankylosis or anchylosis is a stiffness of a joint due to abnormal adhesion and rigidity of the bones of the joint, which may be the result of injury or disease, sometimes resulting from malnutrition. The rigidity may be complete or partial and may be due to inflammation of the tendons or muscular structures outside the joint or of the tissues of the joint itself.  Sometimes the bones fuse together.  This disease is considered a severe functional limitation.

So here is what we know about John Y. Estes and the Civil War.  He probably joined when the regiment was formed on August 10, 1862, although he may have been participating in the unofficial unit since 1861.  The Fulkerson’s in Tazewell, his near neighbors, were instrumental in raising Confederate volunteers in Claiborne County.  John Y. Estes fought and served until he was either injured or a previous condition became so serious in 1864 that he could not function, although he participated in some of the worst fighting and most brutal battles of the war.  John is reported to have been admitted to the hospital in Charlottesville, VA on June the 12th, transferred to a convalescent camp on June 19th, and deserted at Staunton, Va. on June the  30th.  In October, 1864 records say he was accounted for, but absent.  By March 6th of 1865, he was in prison, captured as a deserter, transferred to Chattanooga, signed the allegiance oath and by the end of March, had been taken to Louisville before being deposited on the north side of the Ohio River, having agreed to stay there for the duration of the war.

He didn’t have long to wait.  General Lee surrendered at the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.  But then John probably had to walk home on that injured leg.

That leg apparently didn’t slow him down much.  John Y. Estes eventually walked to Texas, not once, but twice, according to the family, which means he walked back to Tennessee once too.  The family said one leg was shorter than the other and he walked with a cane or walking stick.  It’s about 950 miles from Estes Holler in Claiborne County, Tennessee to Montague County, Texas.  I surely want to know why he walked back from Texas to Tennessee.  After making the initial journey, on foot, taking months, what could be that important in Tennessee?  Was he hoping to convince his wife to relocate with him?  Even then, land and other legal transactions could be handled from afar, so it must have been an intensely personal reason.  Maybe he only decided to return to Texas, forever, after he had returned to Tennessee.

I have to wonder how John’s Civil War allegiance and subsequent desertion, if that is actually what it was, affected John himself and the way that the people in Claiborne County viewed him.  He went back home and lived for several years.  His neighbor in Estes Holler, David King, fought for the North.  So did his sister’s husbands and children.  I’m betting holidays were tough and there was no small talk at the table.  Maybe there were no family gatherings because of these polarized allegiances.  They would have been extremely awkward and difficult.  Maybe John was quietly ostracized.  Maybe that’s part of why he eventually left for Texas.

On October 5, 1865, just six months after being released on the north side of the Ohio River, John Y. Estes did a very unusual thing.  He deeded his property, mostly kitchen items and livestock, to his son Lazarus who was about 17 years old and lived in the family home.

Transcribed from book Y, pages 286 and 287, Claiborne County, Tennessee, by Roberta Estes.

Deed of Gift From John Eastis to Lazarus Eastis :

State of Tennessee, Claiborne County. Personally appeared before me J. I. Hollingsworth, clerk of the county court of the said county, J. R. Eastis and Sallie Bartlett, with whom I am personally aquainted, and after being duly sworn depose and say that they heard John Y. Eastis acknowledge the written deed of conveyance, for the purpose therein contained upon the day it being dated. Given under my hand at office in Taswell this 9th day of October, 1865. J. I. Hollingsworth, clerk. Know all men by these presents that I, John Eastis of the County of Claiborne, State of Tennessee in consideration of the natural love and affection which I feel for, my son, Lazarus and also for divers good cause and consideration, I the said John Eastis, hereunto moving, have given, granted and confirmed by these presents, do give, grant and confirm unto said Lazarus Eastis all and singularly, the six head of sheep, one horse, fourteen head of hogs, one cow and calf, two yearlings, the crop of corn that is on hand, and all the fodder, and all the household and kitchen furniture, to have and to hold and enjoy the same to the only proper use, benefit and behoof of the said Lazarus Eastis, his heirs and assigns, forever and I the said John Eastis for myself and my heirs, executors, and administrators all and singular the said goods unto the said Lazarus Eastis, his heirs and assigns, against myself and against all and every person, or persons, whatever shall and will warrant and forever defend by these presents in witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 5th day of October 1865.  John Y. Eastis.

ATTEST: John R. Eastis, Sallie Bartlett. I certify this deed of gift was filed in my office, October 9, 1865 at 12:00 and registered the 10th day of the same month. E. Goin, register for Claiborne County. [ stamped on page 58 ].

John R. Estes is the father of John Y. Estes who would have been close to 80 years old at that time.

Is this somehow in conjunction with or a result of the Civil War?  Did it take him that long to find his way back to Claiborne County?  Was he angry with his wife?  Lazarus was only a teenager and didn’t live in his own home, and wouldn’t for another 18 months.

The verbiage in this transaction, “hereunto moving” does not mean that John was literally moving, but refers to what motivated him or moved him to make this transaction.  So, in this context, love and affection for his son “moved” John to convey this property.  Of course, this begs the question, “what about your wife?”  Rutha would be the person to use all of that kitchen gear to prepare meals for the entire family.  What about Rutha?

In the 1870 census, John is shown with his wife and family, with another baby, Rutha, named after his wife, born in 1867. John and his wife, Ruthy Dodson, would have one more child, John Ragan (or Reagan or Regan) Estes, born in March of 1871.

We know that in 1879, John Y. Estes was in Claiborne County, but whether he was “back” from Texas or whether he had not yet left, we don’t know.  On June 20, 1879, John Y. Estes signs an agreement granting James Bolton and William Parks permission to make a road across his land in order to enable Bolton and Parks to have access to their own land that they had just purchased from Lazarus Estes, John Y’s son.  This is the last document that John Y. signs in Tennessee.  And actually, it’s the only deed, ever.

Deed records show no evidence of John Y. Estes ever owning land or a conveyance to or from John Y. Estes.  My suspicion is that John was buying this land “on time” and when he failed to pay, the transaction was simply null and void and the deed never filed.  It’s still odd that he would sign to grant access on land he did not officially own.  This is very likely the same land that Rutha would eventually own in her own name.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

We know that by June of 1880 when the census was taken, John Y. Estes is living in Texas and his wife Rutha, is shown in Claiborne County as divorced, although no divorce papers have been found.  Maybe divorce was less formal then.  Given the distance involved, about 900 miles, and give that John could probably not walk more than 8 or 10 miles a day, the walk to Texas likely took someplace between 95 and 120 days, or 3 to 4 months, if he walked consistently every day and didn’t hitch rides.  So John likely left Claiborne County not long after the signing of the 1879 deed.  In fact, that might have been the last bit of business he took care of before departing.

The family in Texas tells the story that John Y. was wounded in the leg as a young man, although they don’t say how, and that one leg was shorter than the other.  He walked with a stick.  It causes me to wonder if the injury was truly when he was a child or if it was a result of his time in the Civil War, or maybe some of each.  It’s a wonder they would have accepted him as a soldier if he was disabled and his military battle history certainly doesn’t suggest a disability.  Maybe they were desperate or maybe the old injury got much worse during his military service – or maybe the injury occurred during one of the Civil War battles.  John was hospitalized and I find it difficult to believe he would have been hospitalized for an old injury.

During John’s absence, Claiborne County was not immune to the effects of the war.  In fact, they were right in the middle of the war, time and time again, and without a man in the household, Rutha and the family weref even more vulnerable.

During the Civil War, soldiers from both sides came through Estes Holler and took everything they could find: food, animals, anything of value. They didn’t hurt anyone that we know about, but the people hid as best they could. Adults and children both were frightened, as renegade troops were very dangerous.  Elizabeth Estes, born in 1851, was the second oldest (living) child of John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson.  After the soldiers took all the family had, the 4 smaller children were hungry and crying. The baby had no milk. Elizabeth was angry, not only at what they had done, but the way they had been humiliated. She was a strong and determined young woman, about age 14 or 15, and she knew the soldiers were camping up on the hillside. She snuck into the camp of the soldiers that night, past the sentries, and stole their milk cow back. She took the cow’s bell off and the cow just followed her home. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but another story adds that she went back the second night and took their one horse back too. That one horse was all the family had to plow and earn their living.

Today, not one family member knew that John Y. Estes had served in the Civil War, not even the Crazy Aunts.  Given the way his service ended, it’s probably not something he talked about.  He would have been considered a traitor by both sides.  He didn’t claim his service on the 1890 veterans census either.  It seems a shame to have served for most of the war, in many battles, and survived, only to have had something go wrong in the end that seems to be medically related.  The term “deserter” is so harsh, and while I’m sure it technically applies, I have to wonder at the circumstances.  During the Revolutionary War, men “deserted” regularly to go home and tend the fields for a bit, showing back up a month or two later.  No one seemed to think much of it then.  That’s very likely what happened to John when he supposedly deserted in June of 1864, right after his injury.  He probably just left and went home.

I’m sure there is more to this story, much more, and we’ll never know those missing pieces.  And it’s a chapter, a very important chapter in the life of John Y. Estes and who he was.  It’s very ironic that none of his descendants alive today knew about his Civil War Service.

The Walk to Texas

Initially, I had no idea John Y. Estes ever left Claiborne County.

When I first visited Claiborne County, I did what all genealogists do – I went to the library.  I had called the library and the librarians seemed friendly enough, and they told me they had these wonderful things called “vertical files.”  I didn’t know what that was, so the nice lady sighed and said, “family files.”  Now, that I understood.

The first day I arrived in town, I went straight to the library.  I looked through the books and the family histories that had been contributed.  Most of those were for the “upstanding families” whose members had been judges and public officials.  That would not be my family.  In fact, there was very little for my family.  I was sorely disappointed.  Those promising vertical files either held little or there were none for my surnames.

I had packed up and was leaving, walking past the shelves that held so much disappointment, when one of the files literally fell off the shelf and about three feet onto the floor.  I was no place close to it, so it was prepared to fall with no help from a human, but the librarians looked up at me, and then down at the file on the floor, with great disdain and disgust.  They, obviously, felt I was careless and had knocked the file onto the floor.

I had no problem picking the file up, but I wished they hadn’t been so put out with me.  The file hit sideways and all of the papers fanned across the floor.  Most of them weren’t stapled together, so I was trying to make sure that I put them back in the file in order that they had come out, without mixing things up.  I have no idea the surname on the file.  I had already checked all of mine.  But as I was gathering those papers back into the file, a familiar name crossed my vision, Vannoy, then another, and then Estes.  I stopped and actually looked at the papers in the file.

I was holding a story about John Y. Estes, written by a Vannoy who had moved to Texas.  I put my bag and purse down, and sat down – on the floor – in the aisle way – oblivious to the librarians and their stares, now glares.  I read all three pages of the story and sat in stunned disbelief.  This had to be the wrong man. It was in the wrong family file.  Otherwise, someone would have told me….wouldn’t they?

My family didn’t go to Texas.  Did they?

This story says John Y. Estes walked to Texas, not once, but twice.  This man injured his leg somehow as a child and walked with a limp, one leg being shorter than the other. He walked with a cane or a stick, and still, he walked to Texas, twice, and back to Tennessee once.  This man had tenacity.  Of course, when I was reading this, I didn’t realize he had also fought through the Civil War with this lifelong challenge. I wouldn’t know that piece of the puzzle for another 30 years. I hesitate to call it a disability, because John Y. apparently didn’t treat it as such.  In fact, it just might have saved his life in the Civil War.

Fannie Ann Estes, John’s grand-daughter, said that John Y. brought a skin cancer medicine from Tennessee and sold it in Texas.  He traveled throughout north Texas selling his remedy and established a relationship with William Boren, a merchant that sold goods on both sides of the Red River throughout the Red River Valley.  This was also the location where the Chisolm Trail crossed from Texas into Oklahoma, so comparatively speaking, it received a lot of traffic.

So John Y. Estes was either a snake-oil salesman or a genius on top of being a shoemaker, according to the census, a Civil War veteran and a former Prisoner of War.  This man was certainly full of surprises.  What a great plot for a book!

His grandchildren said that as an old man, they remember him being short and fat.  Hardly a fitting legacy.  Thankfully, one person remembered more and wrote it down.

To the onlooker, it appears that John Y. Estes basically left his family in Claiborne County, TN and absconded to Texas.  But looking at what happened next, his children apparently did not seem to hold a grudge against him for leaving their mother….in fact, John Y. Estes seemed to be more leading the way than abandoning the family.

It’s clear from Rutha’s 1880 census designation as divorced that she viewed the relationship as over.  She never intended to leave Claiborne County, nor did she.  But that didn’t stop her relatives from going to Texas – and they all settled together, including her husband.  Many are buried in the same cemetery.

William Campbell, Ruthy’s uncle, and his family were in Texas by 1870. Barney J. Jennings married Emily Estes, daughter of Jechonias Estes, and they went to Montague Co., TX, as well.

Many of John Y’s children, in fact all of them except Lazarus, eventually moved to Texas, including brave Elizabeth who married William George Vannoy.  She left with William Buchanan Estes and Elizabeth King in 1893, in a wagon train.


The following children were born to John Y. and Ruthy Dodson Estes:

  • Lazarus Estes, born in May 1848 in Claiborne Co., died in July of 1918 in Claiborne Co., married Elizabeth Ann Vannoy.  Both buried in the Pleasant View Cemetery.
  • Elizabeth Ann Estes, born July 11, 1851 in Claiborne Co., died July 7, 1946 at Nocona, Montague Co., Texas.  On September 11, 1870, she married William George Vannoy, brother to Lazarus’s wife and son of Joel Vannoy and Phebe Crumley.  They settled in Belcherville, TX in 1893 and her husband was buried in the Boren Cemetery in Nocona on Sept. 12, 1895, only seven days before her father died and was buried in the same cemetery.  I wonder what killed both men.  This must have been a devastating week for Elizabeth.  She spent most of her life in Texas as a widow – more than 50 years.

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy’s 95th birthday. She liked to sit on an old seat out under a tree.  Elizabeth is buried in the Nocona Cemetery, not with her husband.

Elizabeth Estes Vannoy stone

  • Margaret Melvina Estes, born July 19, 1854 in Claiborne Co., died April 7, 1888 in Claiborne Co., buried in Pleasant View Cemetery.  Never married and no children.
  • George Buchanan Estes, born December 17, 1855 in Claiborne Co., died July 1, 1948 at Nocona, Texas, buried at Temple, Cotton Co., Oklahoma. In 1878 he married Elizabeth King, daughter of David King, in Claiborne Co. She died in 1920 and is buried at Temple, Oklahoma.

George Buchanan Estes and Wanda Hibdon

George Buchanan Estes and granddaughter Wanda Hibdon Russell in 1945.

  • Martha Geneva J. Estes, born October 6, 1859 in Claiborne Co., died April 9, 1888, buried in Cook Cemetery on Estes Road. She married Thomas Daniel Ausban in Claiborne Co. April 17, 1884.  It’s not believed that she had any surviving children.
  • Nancy J. Estes, born November 1861 in Claiborne Co., died at Terral, Jefferson County, Oklahoma in 1951, married a Montgomery.  Buried in the Terral cemetery.  No children.

Nancy Jane Estes Montgomery

  • Rutha Estes, born January 7, 1868 in Claiborne Co., died at Terral, Jefferson Co., Oklahoma in 1957.  She married Thomas Vannoy in 1902 in Claiborne County, or at least she took the license to marry him.  They may have never actually married, as she never used the Vannoy surname, nor is she ever found living with him.  She married William H. Sweatman after 1920 in Texas or Oklahoma and is buried in the Terral Cemetery.  No children.

Ruthie Estes Sweatman

  • John Reagan Estes, born March 25, 1871 in Claiborne Co., died July 8, 1960 in Jefferson Co., Oklahoma. On April 10, 1891 he married Docia Neil Johnson, daughter of William Johnson and Jinsey Nervesta King in Claiborne Co., She was born November 7, 1872 in Claiborne Co. and died August 30, 1957 in Jefferson Co.  John and Docia are both buried at Terral, Oklahoma.

The Texas family provides this information about John Regan Estes.

John Regan Estes grew to manhood in Claiborne Co. Tennessee, he received his schooling on the old split log seats and was taught to the “tune of a hickory stick”. On April 9, 1891 he married Docia Neil Johnson in Tazewell, with Rev. Bill Cook, the old family preacher, reading the vows. John and Docia were wed on horseback. A daughter, Fannie Ann, was born to them on May 4, 1892 at Tazewell.

In 1893, John Regan Estes had the ambition to go west. On the first day of November 1893, he stepped off the train at Belcherville, Texas. He was accompanied by his brother, George Buchanan Estes and family, Clabe Bartlett, and Lewis Taylor Nunn. He worked on the Silverstein ranch until January 1894.

He saved his money and sent it back to Docia and on February 9, 1894, Docia and Fannie, aged 20 months, arrived at the train station in Belcherville. At this time, they went to Oscar, Indian Territory. He located on a farm in the Oscar area and lived there until moving to the Fleetwood community in 1901. John’s farm was located on the Red River across from Red River Crossing where the Chisholm Trail crossed into Oklahoma. He had a shop near his barn and shod horses, sharpened plows, and did other metal work for the community.

Cousin Gib’s grandmother, granddaughter of John Y. Estes through John Reagan Estes told of life in Texas when they first arrived:

Fannie wrote about the Estes family living conditions at the time that Lula was born. She said that they lived in an old log house at the end of Ketchum Bluff, this is the area where the road going south from Oscar, Oklahoma makes a turn along a high rock formation an goes to where, at a later time, there was a toll bridge built going into Texas.

Ketchum Bluff map

Courtesy Butch Bridges

Note that the old trestle of the toll bridge can still be seen on the shore of Ketchum Bluff in the aerial photo, below, about one fourth of the way from the right hand side, directly across from the sand bar.  The bend in the river at the turn is in the lower left hand corner of the photo.  The bluff, of course, lies along the river.

Ketchum Bluff aerial

Courtesy Butch Bridges

Lula was born January 29, 1899 and Fannie said that it was extremely cold and they had snow on the ground for about six weeks. The sun would come out about noon each day for a little while and then it would cloud up again and snow all night. She said that their father would cut wood all day and carry it into the house. He did not have any gloves and his hands would crack open and bleed and hurt so bad that at night he would sit by the fire and cry from the pain.

In 1901, John got the farm a little farther west of here, just east of Fleetwood, and that is where Lula grew up.

The Estes family had moved to Indian Territory in 1894 and Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907. During this time it was pretty much every man for himself and gunfights were common. John Reagan worked as a farmer, blacksmith, farrier and lawman. The family remembers him wearing a gun.

Once, a man named Joe Barnes sent word to John that he was coming to kill him. John only had a black powder shotgun and he told Barnes to stop and to not come any closer. Barnes kept coming and John blew him full of birdshot. John had a bullet hole in his stomach and would tell the grandchildren that he had two navels.

John Reagan Estes circa 1905

John Reagan Estes about 1905.

John Reagan Estes family 1905

John Reagan Estes and family in 1905.

John Reagan Estes

John Reagan Estes in 1943.

Uncle George said that John R. Estes came to visit in the 1940s in Claiborne County Tennessee and that he was extremely tall and had very long eyebrows.

John Reagan Estes stone

The Texas family members, tell another secret too, that John Y. Estes had another family in Texas, but a search of marriage records produced nothing.  However, when I visited, I realized that the location where John lived was on the Choctaw land.  Perhaps he did have a second family without benefit of a legal marriage.  Laws and customs on Indian lands on the Texas/Oklahoma border were quite different than back in “civilized, orderly” Tennessee.  Furthermore, Indian tribes were considered sovereign Nations.  We will probably never know the details unless another family member steps forward.

John Y. Estes died on September 19, 1895 and is buried in the Boren cemetery, northeast of Ringgold, Texas.

Old Time Texas

In 2005, I visited my cousin, Gib, in Texas.  Gib had come back to Claiborne County, TN the year before and had visited Estes Holler.  Now, I was visiting Texas to retrace the steps of my great-grandfather, John Y. Estes.

Gib gave me a great piece of advice before I set out on my great adventure to Texas.

We went to see the movie “Open Range” starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. The setting for the movie is 1882 and they are “free grazing” a herd of cattle on the open range as they are moving toward market. They pass through a little town, cross a river, and are tending their herd.

John Y. Estes was in Montague County Texas in 1880. The Chisholm Cattle trail came right through the little town of Red River Station which was two miles south of the Red River. From the information that I have, the movie town was exactly like what Red River Station was like in 1882. I really got intrigued with the movie by imagining John Y. being in a place just like that. This was where he would have been at that time because Nocona and Belcherville were not founded until 1887 when the MKT railroad came through going from east to west. Ringgold was not founded until 1892 when the Rock Island railroad was built going south to north and crossed the MKT at the site of Ringgold.

Of course no good western movie would be worth the price of admission without a good gun battle. They had one and people were killed. The next thing that grabbed me was the burial scene. They dug graves out on top of a hill and hauled the wooden caskets out in a wagon. This setting was just like what I found at Boren cemetery.

Another thing that caught my attention was the heavy rain storm that they experienced at the little town. Red River Station was pretty much wiped out by a Tornado in the late 1880’s and all the business moved to Belcherville and Nocona.

Anyway, go see the movie and imagine John Y. being one of the residents of the little town and then visualize all of our relatives crossing the Red River on horseback as they did in the movie. The River depth shown is also accurate of Red River. Later, John Reagan Estes owned the land on the Oklahoma side and the Campbells and Vannoys owned ranches on the Texas side.

Go see where John Y. lived in 1882, let your imagination run wild and enjoy it.

 I agree 100% with Gib’s recommendation.

The Chisolm Trail

The Chisolm Trail cut through the Estes land.

Chisholm Trail

Not far from Ryan is one of the cuts in a creek bank  worn by the pounding of thousands of hoofs when the Chisholm Trail was noted for its cattle drives from Texas to Wichita, Kansas.

This map shows Ryan and Terral, OK, and the ghost location of Fleetwood.  All that is left today is a store full of bullet holes and a cemetery.

Fleetwood OK

According to Gib, that cut is still visible on the Estes property. Although highway U.S. 81 mostly follows the route of the old Chisolm Trail, at times Engineers had to diverge from the trail itself in the interest of safety, mileage and economy. The original route crosses a cow lot owned by a man who probably knows more about that trail than anyone in this area. ( Note: the worn cattle trail rut up the hill was just west of the Estes cow lot. ) The location is about three miles east of Fleetwood.

The Chisolm Trail crossed the Red River at Red River Station.  On the Oklahoma side, or Indian Territory at that time, this was at Fleetwood and a marker has been placed today.  On the map below, you can see the balloon of the marker at Fleetwood and below the Red River, Red River Station Road.

Red River Station

Turning on the satellite image, here’s that part of the Red River near Station Road where the cattle would have crossed into Oklahoma.  Apparently, this is the area where the Estes land was located.  I thought sure I’d still be able to see the Chisolm trail today, but I can’t.

Red River Chisolm Crossing

There was a large dugout in the side of the hill where the Estes family lived while their house was being built.

dugout house

You really have to want to visit the Boren Cemetery.  It’s nearly impossible to find, to begin with, and after you to locate it, getting to it through 3 or 4 farm gates is another problem entirely.  And then there’s the issue of wild hogs – and they are not friendly.  In fact, they’re pretty testy – and they aren’t looking to you to feed them, but are looking at you as food.  I fully understand why people here carry guns – plural.

The Boren Cemetery

Boren cemetery crop

The Boren cemetery isn’t far from the Chisolm Trail and not far from where the Estes land was located.  On the map below, you can see the cemetery, marked by the red balloon, and you can also see the Red River Station Road to the right and Fleetwood on the Oklahoma side of the border.

Boren Cem near Red River Station

The Boren Cemetery is located in rolling Texas hill country – and sometimes those rolls are a bit steep.

Gib says to me, “It’s over there somewhere.”

Boren cemetery approach

Ok, Texas is a mighty big place and I don’t SEE anything that looks like a cemetery.

Gib had obtained directions and he and his wife had come out once already and scouted the area.  His wife opted not to come a second time.  That should have been a clue.

Gib had called the local farmer, so he had the lock combinations to the several gates we encountered.

Eventually, we entered a field and started driving across the field, then up the hill, then Gib’s 4 wheel drive vehicle bottomed out.  We were on foot from here on.

Gib forgot to mention about the snakes to me.  Those would be rattlesnakes.  Now, I have snake-boots at home, but those boots at home weren’t helping me one bit here.  I was not to be deterred.  Gib was wearing cowboy boots and walked in front of me.


We found the path that led up to the cemetery,

We had to crawl under the barbed wire fence, or climb over it – because there was no gate.  By now, I could feel the rivulets of sweat running down my back.  Gib, the consummate Texas cowboy, was entirely unphased.  They make ’em tough down there – I’m telling ya!

Boren cemetery cactus

And if the barbed wire doesn’t get you, the cactus will.  Yes, that’s a bone.  I don’t know is the answer to your next question.  Just don’t ask.

Boren cemetery stones

It’s kind of rough country here, with the stones scattered in no order, graves dug where there were no rocks to interfere with the shovels.  At home on the Indiana farm where I grew up, we would have called this scrub, scratch or hard-scrabble.  Here, it is normal.  But that’s why they need a lot of it to make a living.


This stone in front is the marker for John Y. Estes.  It’s beside a Campbell and Vannoy marker, in fact, John’s son-in-law who was buried just a week before John was.  Did John stand at his son-in-law’s grave just a week before he would be buried beside him?  John’s marker is actually very unique, as gravestones go – and the only one here like it.  In fact, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen like it.


John’s stone was cast in concrete and then the information was drawn in the wet concrete with some kind of object – freestyle.  This tickled Gib a great deal because he had spent many years of his life working in the concrete business – so this somehow seemed fitting.


Tracking John Y. Without GPS

So now we’ve followed John Y. Estes across half of the United States.  While his son, Lazarus likely never ranged further than Knoxville, John Y. Estes not only was very widely traveled, the biggest part was on foot – at least the Tennessee to Texas to Tennessee to Texas part – and probably much of the Civil War part too.

Let’s look at where John Y. Estes was and when.  I can’t keep track.

Location Date
Halifax Co., VA 1818 – birth location
Claiborne Co., TN 1820s, 1840-1870s
Grainger Co., TN 1830s
Tazewell, Claiborne Co., TN 1860
Claiborne County, TN Aug. 10, 1862 – Confederate Unit Formed
Murfeesboro, TN Dec. 29, 1862 – Civil War battle
Murfeesboro Pike, TN Dec 31, 1862 – Civil War battle
Stanford and Crab Orchard Road, KY March 30, 1863 – Civil War battle
Albany, KY May 1, 1863 – Civil War battle
Travisville, Fentress Co., KY May 2, 1863 – Civil War battle
Ebenezer, TN July 31, 1863 – Civil War activity
Clinton, TN August 15, 1863 – Civil War activity
Cumberland Gap, TN August 15, 1863 – Sept. 1863 – Civil War activity
Lee County, VA Courthouse Sept. 18, 1863 – the North took the Gap – Civil War battle
Kingsport, TN Sept. 18, 1863 – Civil War battle
Saltville, VA Oct. 31, 1863 – Civil War battle
Rogersville, TN Nov. 1, 1863 – Civil War battle
Charleston, TN Nov. 24, 1863 – Civil War battle
Battle of New Hope Church, Orange Co., VA Nov 27 – Dec. 2, 1863
Valley of Virginia Campaigns, Shenandoah Valley, VA May-July, 1864
Battle of Piedmont, Augusta Co., VA June 5, 1864
Charlottesville, VA June 12, 1864 – hospital
Stanton, VA June 30, 1864 – deserted
Chattanooga, TN March 6, 1865 – POW
Louisville, KY March 20, 1865 – POW signed oath of allegiance – released north of the Ohio
Claiborne Co., TN 1865-1879
Nocona, TX 1880-1895

I would have loved to sit for a day and talk to this man.  What stories he had to tell.

The John Y. Part of Me

I have to tell you, this man had hootspa.  He was tenacious.  He walked to Texas, twice, using a cane or stick to walk, more than 900 miles each way, when he was 61 years of age.  And it didn’t kill him.  I can’t even begin to imagine this trip, once, let alone once there, walking back to Tennessee and then back to Texas, again.  In essence, just one of those trips took 3-4 months.  Three of them probably took more than year of his life.

The concept of that just baffles me. What could be that alluring about Texas?  And why go back to Tennessee once you had arrived in Texas?

But then again, I’m not so terribly different in some ways.  And sometimes things I do baffle others.

In the 1980s, I decided to retrace the Trail of Tears, in honor of my Native American ancestors and in protest of the atrocities that befell them.  I walked part of the trail, but that’s a lot easier said than done for various reasons – not the least of which is that the trail isn’t (or wasn’t then) marked and segments are lost or missing in many places.  In the 1980s and 1990s, I had completed the segment through Tennessee and Kentucky, into Illinois.  In 2005, I completed the section between southern Illinois and Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the home of the western Cherokee nation today, where the Cherokee settled. Altogether, this trek took me over 20 years because I had to make it in segments.  In 2005, I picked up where I had left off in Illinois and within a couple days, found myself at the location where the Native people crossed the Mississippi..

Trail of Tears State Park

I walked part of that as well, on both sides of the river, but given that I was traveling alone, I had to walk back to my car and then drive to the next segment to walk.  Take my word for it, the state of Missouri goes on forever!

Trail of Tears Crossing

I was a lot younger then that John Y. was when he walked to Texas, and he walked the entire distance, not just a few miles or a day here and there.

One of the most unforgetable stops on that journey was the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri, just across the border from Illinois where the Cherokee spent a horrific winter, starving and freezing to death, and waiting for the ice to melt so they could cross the Mississippi.  It took eleven weeks to cover 60 miles and the Native people suffered terribly, horrifically – the local people refusing to help them with food.  Within days, there was no wildlife left to hunt.

Trail of Tears at Mississippi

This is on the Missouri side of the River, looking across the river at the land where more than 15,000 Native people camped, and waited, with no food and only light blankets in one of the worst winters recorded.  Weakened from starvation, people froze to death nightly.  The dead couldn’t even be buried, their bodies left in the snow.  There were no reports of cannibalism, but that level of desperation would not have surprised me.

The Trail of Tears as a whole, but in particular, this segment was a unfathomable act of inhumane genocide – torture, hour by hour, day by day, as you watched those you love starve and freeze, as you were doing so yourself.  One can feel their aching spirts as you stand on the land, even yet today.  Some were so devastated that they never spoke again in their lifetimes.  Their torture and grief is unfathomable and the depth of that black hole remains both tangible and palpable today.  There simply are no words.

My final destination in 2005, 125 years after John Y. Estes walked to Texas?  Texas.  Why?  To find John Y. Estes’s grave.  I never, at that time, realized the parallels.  But then, I didn’t really know the rest of the story.  Today, I find the parallels mind-boggling.

What of John Y. Estes do I have in me?  Do I carry his tenacity?  My mother would assuredly have voted in the affirmative, and she would not have meant that as a compliment!  I, on the other hand, am quite proud of that trait.

Sometimes it’s difficult to answer these kinds of questions – meaning how much of one particular ancestor’s DNA you carry.  One reason is that generational DNA is often measure in couples.  By this, I mean that if I compare myself to another individual who descends from John Y. Estes, like cousin Buster for example, the DNA that Buster and I share will not be just the DNA of John Y., but also the DNA of John Y’s wife, Rutha Dodson.

The only way to avoid this “spousal contamination,” and I mean that only in the nicest of ways, is by comparing the DNA of descendants of John Y. to someone who only descends from the Estes side, not the Dodson side.  What this really means is that the comparison has to be against someone who descended from John R. Estes, the father of John Y. Estes (or another Estes whose ancestor is upstream of John Y. Estes and who doesn’t share other family lines.)  Unfortunately, this means that it pushes the relationship back another generation, which means that less DNA will be shared between the cousins.

The cousins I have to work with are as follows, at least at Family Tree DNA.

Estes descent chart

In order for the closest descendants of John Y. Estes to be compared to a descendant of John R. Estes, I utilized the chromosome browser at Family Tree DNA.  Garmon is descended from John R. Estes, so carries none of Rutha’s DNA.  Therefore, any DNA that John Y’s descendants share with Garmon had to come from the Estes side of the house.

The chromosome browser graphic below shows the chromosome of Garmon, with the following individuals with matching DNA displayed as follows:

  • Me – Orange
  • Iona – Blue
  • David – Green
  • Buster – Magenta

On chromosome 1, Buster and Iona match Garmon, but I don’t and neither does David.  This is clearly John Y. Estes’s DNA, but I don’t carry it.

On chromosome 7 there is a small segment shared by everyone except David.

On chromosome 10, there is another small segment shared by me, David and Garmon.

Part of chromosome 13 is shared by Garmon, Iona and David.

To me, the most interesting part of this equation is that chromosome 19 holds a fairly large segment shared by everyone except Buster.

Garmon chromosome

So, let’s answer the question of how much of John Y’s DNA I carry.  I downloaded the segment chart that accompanies the chromosome browser and used that information to triangulate my matches – meaning that I noted when I matched two other cousins.  Not all matches are triangulated, proving a common Estes ancestor, but some are.  I then checked those cousin’s accounts to be sure they did, indeed, match each other on those segments – which is the criteria for triangulation.

This chart shows all of my matches to Garmon, which, precluding a second line or matches by chance, would all be John Y.’s DNA.

Garmon Roberta DNA matches

As we know, the only way to actually prove that these segments descend from John Y. is through triangulation but how can I triangulate more DNA to John Y. Estes?

The answer is the Lazarus tool at GedMatch, a tool built to reassemble or recreate our ancestors from their descendants – to reassemble their scattered DNA.

First, Lazarus allows you to enter up to 10 direct descendants and up to 100 “other relatives,” which means brothers, cousins, descendants of those people, but not someone who descends from the same spouse as John Y. Estes’s wife, Rutha Dodson.  If he had two wives and you were comparing children from both spouses against each other, then the criteria would be a bit different.

In other words, we’re only utilizing direct Estes line descendants, upstream of John Y. Estes.

I selected 4cM and 300 SNPs as my match criteria.

I have a total of 7 descendants and 4 other relatives, not all of whom have tested at Family Tree DNA.

I was pleased to note after running Lazarus at GedMatch that we had a total of 513.9 cM of John Y. Estes’s DNA reconstructed through his descendants and his other relatives.  In essence, that’s approximately 7.6% of John’s DNA that we’ve recovered.  Not bad for someone who was born 197 years ago.

The Lazarus tool matched my DNA with other Estes relatives, but NOT descendants of John Y. Estes.  I inherited the following segments directly from John Y. Estes.  Several of these segments were triangulated with 2 or more relatives.

John Y. Estes reconstruct DNA matches

Of these, only two, on chromosomes 9 and 19, are partial matches to the original list from Family Tree DNA. While, at first glance this looks unusual, it isn’t.  Both of the matches at Family Tree DNA over the threshold selected at GedMatch are included.  The lower segment matches were not “seen” at Gedmatch.  This is one reason why I utilize both tools when possible.  GedMatch allows you to utilize people’s results who tested at a different company, and Family Tree DNA allows you to easily pick up those common small segments.

If all of these segments are from John (and not from a secondary unknown shared line or identical by chance,) then I carry 156.6 cM of John Y. Estes’ DNA that I can map.  Given that John is my great-great-grandfather, I would be expected to carry about 6.25% of his DNA.  Of that amount, I’ve been able to tentatively identify about 2.3%, so if the right people were to test, I should be able to identify about another 3.95%.  So, in rough numbers, I’ve identified around one third of the DNA that I inherited from John Y. Estes utilizing 7 descendants and 4 other relatives.

So, now if I could just figure out which one of these genes is the “walk to Texas” and wanderlust gene, we’d be all set.  If I received that from any ancestor, it’s very likely to be from John Y. Estes, the only man I’ve ever know who walked to Texas, even once.

Red river aerial

Aerial view of the Red River, Texas on the right, Oklahoma on the left.

Acknowledgements:  A special thank you to cousin Gib, who supplied most of the Texas information and a lot of camaraderie over the years.

Am I Weird – Or What?

OK, don’t answer that.

When we’re working with our autosomal DNA and that of our close family members, we only see our immediate results.

For example, I can see that I share a total of 407.92cM segments of DNA with my second cousin, and our longest shared segment is 81.34cM.

2nd cousin share

Does that mean that another match with 407 shared segments is also a second cousin match?  In other words, is 407 normal for second cousins, or an outlier, and how would I know?

When we’re trying to figure out where a match might fit in the family – and how distantly related we really are to that person, we need a broader perspective.  We need to know what the average is, but we also need to know the possible range.  In other words, we need a lot more data than just our own to know where the most likely placement of this person is, and where they might fall in the range.  I mean, let’s face it, my family has not one time EVER fallen into the normal range of anything!

I have done a lot of cousin testing within the family, and I’ve compiled a chart of the amount of shared DNA that these various people share, along with the longest segment.  Why did I do this?

Blaine Bettinger is getting ready to do the grunt work. He’s going to crunch the data and prepare the ranges for how much DNA is shared by people of various relationships – and all he needs from us is raw data.

Blaine wrote about this recently, along with super-easy instructions for how to compile and contribute your data.  It’s right on your Family Finder match page – and Blaine makes submitting your information easy.

Blaine's instructions

You don’t need a whole list, like mine.  If there is an overachiever gene, I’m sure I have it.  I have contributed my information to Blaine already – because I think this kind of a project – to be shared among all genetic genealogists, is very important and will benefit everyone. It takes very little on our part and a whole lot more work on Blaine’s part – and I’m not only very grateful – I’m more than willing to submit my data.  And hey, if you submit your data before April 1st, you are eligible for a Family Finder kit from Blaine – and no – I don’t think that’s an April Fool’s joke.  Maybe you’ll get a kit with no swabs:)

So, how weird am I anyway?

I sorted my spreadsheet by the total shared DNA segments and I added a column for the percentage of expected shared DNA.

You can see that this holds together quite well and just as expected through the 1st cousin/great-granddaughter range which is 12.5% expected shared DNA.

Amount shared DNA

However, below that, the expected amount of DNA and the actual amount of DNA becomes shuffled or “out of order.”  For example you can see that I have a second cousin once removed that I share 460cM of DNA with – and I should share 1.56% of DNA with them.  Just below that row, I have a first cousin once removed with whom I share 414cM of DNA with, and who I’m supposed to share about 6.25% of DNA.

We’ve talked several times about how DNA isn’t always passed in 50% amounts, even though that is the average, and this shows the cumulative effects of this phenomenon, especially after you’re out a couple of generations.

So, now we wait. I want to know if my family falls into the middle or expected range.  I want to know if my family is an outlier.  Maybe, for a change, we’re normal.  Nah!!!  I want to know just how weird we really are.

Don’t answer that….

Just send your data to Blaine and he’ll take care of that answer for all of us.

Why Autosomal Response Rate REALLY DOES Matter

In my recent article “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?,” one of the comparison items between vendors I mentioned is response rate.  Specifically, I said, in reference to 23andMe, “Very low match response rate to inquiries.  Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.”

This has generated some commentary, but based on the nature of the comments, both in terms of blog comments and private e-mails, I can tell that many people don’t understand why response rate matters at 23andMe.  On the other hand, some regular users of all 3 vendors felt I didn’t go far enough in explaining the difference and why response rate at 23andMe matters so much.

I’m going to see if I can make this issue a bit more clear.  Response rate really does matter and it’s not just whining!

apples oranges

At 23andMe YOU CAN’T SEE MATCH INFORMATION OR DO ANY DNA COMPARISON WITHOUT A POSITIVE RESPONSE FROM THOSE YOU MATCH.  In other words, they must reply in the affirmative – that they want to communicate with you AND that they want to share DNA results.  Otherwise, you can do nothing.

This is a process not required by either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.  So, out the door, there is a very big difference.

At Family Tree DNA, you can see everything available WITHOUT additional correspondence, so while a response from a match would be nice, it’s not essential to being able to compare their DNA, see who you match in common, see their tree, if posted, find your common surnames, or perform any other function provided by the vendor.

At Ancestry.com, WITH a subscription, you can see your matches, their trees (if not private) and DNA Circles with no additional correspondence.  The only time you need to correspond with someone is if their tree is private or they don’t post a tree.

The operative words here are want and need.  At 23andMe, you absolutely positively NEED a positive response from each and every match (both authorization to communicate AND authorization to share DNA results) BEFORE you can DO anything.

So, comparatively speaking, a low response rate at 23andMe means that you’re only going to see a small fraction of your matches that are showing, while a low response rate at the other vendors is an irritant and comes after you’ve utilized the vendor’s tools and then asked your match for additional information.  In other words, no response at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry is not a barrier to playing.  At 23andMe, you’re dead in the water if your matches don’t respond.

In essence, 23andMe requires three authorizations to be able to see your matches DNA information: the original authorization to test, authorization to communicate and authorization to “share” DNA results.

With both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, one authorization, when you initially test, is all you need – although the tools and approach of these two vendors are very different as pointed out in the original article.

So, as you can see, the response rate at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry really isn’t essential to utilizing the tools, but it’s another matter entirely at 23andMe – so we’re not comparing apples to apples.

So, let’s look at the real effects of 23andMe’s authorization policy.

At 23andMe

At 23andMe, this is what you get, out of the box.  The person’s account I’m using for this first graphic tested for two purposes and is not interested in genealogical contact, so this is an “untouched” account, except that I’ve redacted the names, if showing, in blue to the left.  Looks good – all those matches, until you realize you can’t DO anything without contacting each and every single match.

23andme untouched

What isn’t obvious is that you can’t COMPARE your DNA or information with any of these people WITHOUT sending an introduction request.  In addition, they ALSO must authorizing DNA sharing.  And by the way, an introduction request and DNA sharing are NOT one and the same thing.  You can see the names of public matches, who have pre-authorized communications, but you cannot compare DNA with them.  You can’t even see the names of other (nonpublic) matches until you send an introduction request to them and they reply in the affirmative.  Those are the accounts above that just say “male” with no blue partially redacted name above them.

If you click on “Send an introduction,” here are your options.

23andMe intro request

You can request an intro and genome sharing in one message, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept both nor does it mean that someone will send you a request for both.

This is what an introduction request looks like to the receiver.

23andMe contact request

Now, an introduction request only allows you to talk to your match.  If they do not ask for, or authorize genome sharing, next, you have to request to share your DNA results – and they also have to reply in the affirmative to that request too.

Not intuitively obvious you say?  Right!

Here’s the process to request to share genomes.

23andme dna share request

And here’s the reply step to authorize genome sharing.

23andme dna share authorization crop

Is it any wonder the response rate is low?

So, as you can see, just being able to see that you have a match is not the same thing as being able to utilize the information.  With Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, you can immediately utilize the information from all of your matches to the full extent of that vendor’s offerings.

At Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, here is what you see out the gate (full names redacted.)

Family Tree DNA out the gate

No contact request needed, no separate authorization to share DNA and no subscription required to see your matches, to compare DNA, to see who you match in common, to see their trees (if provided) or to see your matching surnames.  The little dropdown box under each person provides additional options.

You don’t NEED to contact your matches for anything.  You may WANT to contact them for genealogy information, especially if they have not uploaded or created trees.

At Ancestry – WITH Subscription

At Ancestry.com, to see all three available DNA related features, your matches, their trees (if provided and if public) and DNA Circles, you must have a subscription.  Ancestry offers a minimal subscription for $49, per year, for this purpose or a standard subscription covers DNA functionality as well.  You must have a subscription to see your matches trees and your DNA Circles.

Here is what your Ancestry match page looks like.

Ancestry with subscription

You don’t NEED to contact your matches to view results.  You may WANT to contact those you match and if their tree is private, you will have to contact them to request to see the tree or for the identity of your common ancestor if you have a shakey leaf.

Comparative Numbers

So, let’s look at this comparatively, for my accounts at the three vendors.

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry (with subscription)
Total Number of Matches 1373 2100 3950
Number of Matches I can see without special approvals (meaning a match response required) 0 (0%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, number of effective matches 137 (10%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, DNA accounts available to compare DNA 10% or 137  accounts 100% or 2100 accounts 0% (no chromosome browser)

This shows, in black and white, why a low response rate at 23andMe is so devastating.  The percent of people whose DNA you can see equals the response rate at 23andMe.  So if you have 1000 matches at 23andMe, but you only have a 10% response rate, it’s the same as having only 100 functional matches – because the rest are entirely unavailable to you – well except for the fact that they sit there and stare at you mockingly.

If one has a 10% response rate at 23andMe, and all of those responses are positive, and all authorize BOTH communication and DNA sharing, you are still only seeing 10% of the matches listed.  So, 1000 matches at 23andMe is not at all the same as 1000 matches at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.

At Family Tree DNA, all of your match accounts are immediately available to you for viewing, communicating and comparison.

At Ancestry, you can see all of your matches (with a subscription), but you can’t compare the matching DNA because Ancestry offers no chromosome browser.

The Meat

The meat of genetic genealogy is comparing your actual segments to your matches.  So, let’s look at some real numbers.

I send a custom request to each of my matches at 23andMe and have been doing so since the product was introduced.

Looking at my top 100 matches, let’s see how many authorized sharing.

In a way, this is skewing the results, just so you know, because many of these matches are relatives who I recruited to test initially.  Plus I’ve worked on my closest matches at 23andMe much harder than my more distant matches, so this is an absolute BEST CASE scenario for the 23andMe numbers.  My actual response rate is about 10% for all matches.

At 23andMe, of my closest 100 matches, several of which are close family, 22 of my matches are sharing, one has declined and the rest are in limbo where I’ve sent an invitation and they have not responded. It’s interesting to note that of those 100, 23 are “public” which means that the intro step can be skipped, but they still have to be invited to share genomes.

Number of my 100 closest matches I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of 100 closest matches I can see 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 100 (100%)
Extrapolated by % to entire match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 3950 of 3950

23andMe said that existing trees would be available until May 1, 2015, but I can find no trees attached to any of my matching 23andMe accounts now, although there never were many.

Number of trees I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of trees I can see 0 (0%) 33 (33%) 66 (66%)*
Extrapolated by % to match total 0 of 1373 693 of 2100 2607 of 3950

*The balance of Ancestry trees are 20 matches that have no trees and 14 that have private trees.  Twenty of the 66 have common ancestors, but of those, 6 are private trees.

Number of people with whom I can compare DNA segments in chromosome browser:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of people I can compare DNA 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 0 (0%) (no chromosome browser tool)
Extrapolated by % to match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 0 of 3950

I hope these examples help make it clear why response rate really is an important factor – unfortunately – and why a response rate discussion about Family Tree DNA and Ancestry does not have the same meaning as a response rate discussion about 23andMe.

One of the best things 23andMe could do would be to get rid of the convoluted DNA authorization courtship Macarena dance.  There is no dance instructor, people don’t discover that they need to do it until after they test, and many people simply don’t understand, don’t bother or give up.  If 23andMe isn’t going to get rid of it, the LEAST they could do is to make it easy and step you through the process.  I don’t know who benefits from this, but I guarantee you, it’s not the genealogy consumer.


Elizabeth Vannoy Estes (1847-1918), Cherokee?, 52 Ancestors #60

“You do know there were two of them don’t you???”


“Yea, Elizabeth Estes and Elizabeth Estes, don’t get them confused.”


“They were sisters, well, sisters-in-law anyway.”


“Yea, they married brothers?”


“Actually there were three of them…”


“And Elizabeth was half-Cherokee, you know.”

And so began the conversation about Elizabeth Estes, my great-grandmother, or more specifically, Elizabeth Vannoy Estes.

But of course, the very first thing I did was to get confused, because, well…. it’s damned confusing.  Let’s start at the beginning.

My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Ann (called Betty, Bet and Bets) Vannoy, was born on June 23, 1847 to Joel Vannoy and Phebe Crumley in Hancock County, TN.  The family eventually moved “down the valley” to the little valley across from Estes Holler which is now called Vannoy Holler, in Claiborne County, TN.

vannoy holler

Joel built a house at the mouth of the holler, not too far from Little Sycamore Creek, a little over a mile from the main road.

The Estes homestead was at the far end, a couple miles from the road, up against the mountains, across “Little Ridge” that lay between the lands.

vannoy holler 2

On February 6, 1867, Elizabeth Vannoy married Lazarus Estes, the boy from Estes Holler, becoming Elizabeth Estes, just like Lazarus’s sister, Elizabeth Estes.

Now here’s where it starts to get complicated.

Lazarus’s sister, Elizabeth Ann Estes, was born July 11, 1851 in Claiborne County, in Estes Holler to John Y. Estes and Martha “Rutha” or Ruthy Dodson. Elizabeth Ann Vannoy and Elizabeth Ann Estes were friends, growing up as the closest neighbors and flirting with each other’s brothers.  In 1867, Elizabeth Vannoy married Lazarus Estes, and then, Elizabeth Estes, on Sept. 11, 1870, married Elizabeth Vannoy Estes’s brother, William George Vannoy, becoming Elizabeth Vannoy.  So now we have Elizabeth Ann Vannoy Estes and Elizabeth Ann Estes Vannoy. Yessiree….nothing confusing about that.

So yes, a brother and a sister married a brother and a sister.  The two females had the same first and middle names.  All I can say is thank heavens the men didn’t.

But wait, we’re not done yet, because George Buchanan Estes, brother of Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Estes (Vannoy) married neighbor, Elizabeth King, who then became….Elizabeth Estes.  Two of these couples eventually left for Texas, but for about 20 years, living within feet of each other in Estes Holler, we had Elizabeth Vannoy Estes, Elizabeth Estes Vannoy and Elizabeth King Estes, all sisters-in-law.  I’m guessing if you hollered out, “Lizzie,” several people would answer.  They may also have had nicknames to differentiate them.

We have a few photos that we know positively are of Elizabeth Vannoy Estes, because she is photographed with her husband Lazarus Estes and the photos are, thankfully, labeled.

3 Elizabeth Vannoys

But then, there is this photo, below.

vannoy siblings

I was told that this is the 3 Vannoy siblings, left to right, Nancy Vannoy Venable, JH (James Hurvey) Vannoy and Elizabeth Estes.

So, is this Elizabeth Vannoy Estes (who was married to Lazarus Estes) or is this Elizabeth Estes Vannoy who would have been married to the brother of Nancy Vannoy Venable and JH Vannoy?

If it is Elizabeth Vannoy Estes, then the woman at right should look like the rest of the photos, above.

Does she?  Is it the same person?

Uncle George, her grandson, said this woman is Elizabeth Vannoy Estes, one of the Vannoy siblings.

These people look to be between 40 and 50 years old.  That would date this picture to about 1895, given that Elizabeth was 10 years older than Nancy and JH was in the middle.  By 1895, Elizabeth Estes Vannoy had been in Texas for 2 years.  I know this is slim pickins in terms of evidence, but it’s the best I can do, in addition to the fact that the photo is represented to be siblings.  This would also make sense in that Elizabeth Vannoy Estes’s son, William George Estes started taking pictures around this time with his new-fangled camera.

If Elizabeth is half-Cherokee, her siblings are too.  Do they look half-Cherokee?

This last photo was taken sometime after 1914, based on the birthdates of the children.  The man is Charlie Tomas Estes and his wife is Nannie Greer Estes.  Their children are George, born 1911, Grace born in 1912 and Jesse born in 1914.  Elizabeth died in 1918, so the photo was taken between 1914 and 1918.  Both grandmothers are in this photo, with Nannie’s mother, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Edens Greer to the far left and Elizabeth Vannoy Estes to her right, beside her son Charlie.  From the looks of Elizabeth’s mouth, droopy on one side, I wonder if she has had a stroke.

Charlie Tomas Estes with wife and both mothers

So, I have to ask myself, did Elizabeth ever smile???

The Early Years

Elizabeth Vannoy was born on June 23, 1847 to Joel Vannoy and Phebe Crumley Vannoy in Hancock County, TN.

In the 1850 Hancock County census, Elizabeth is shown as the second child born to Joel Vanoy and Pheby.  Joel was a farmer and the family lived next door to the Baptist minister.  Joel was born in Tennessee and Pheby (Crumley) was born in Virginia, with all of their children born in Tennessee.

Vannoy 1850 censusThe 1860 census shows them living in the same location, in Hancock County.  Joel owned land, shown below.

Vannoy Hancock Co land

Elizabeth would have been 15 when the Civil War began in 1861.  The war would  continue in full force in this area until 1865 when the South surrendered, partly at Cumberland Gap.  The Civil War ravaged this region for more than three full years.

The Cumberland Gap was a strategic location and several times, a pivotal point in the war.  The Gap wasn’t located far from where the Vannoy family lived, not to mention they were just a few miles south of the Virginia/Tennessee state line which was heavily patrolled.  Hancock County soldiers were split between the north and south.  Elizabeth’s brothers were too young, and her father was too old to serve.  Elizabeth’s sister, Sary Jane, married John Nunn in 1864 and he was a Confederate soldier.  One of Elizabeth’s uncles by marriage, although her aunt had died, was Sterling Nunn, and he fought for the Confederacy as well.  Isaac Gowins (Goins), another uncle, fought for the Union, although according to his service records, he deserted. There was no such thing as a unified family during this time, and emotions ran high in all quarters.

The Vannoy family tells of how they gathered their livestock, in particular chickens, and left their cabin, going up to the top of the mountain and hiding in a cave so that the soldiers would not take their livestock nor harm them.  They feared all soldiers, from both sides.  We don’t know where the cave was, exactly, but this is part of the ancestral Vannoy land in Hancock County.  One thing we do know, that cave was well hidden.  No one knows where it is today.

Vannoy Hancock wooded land

It was about this time that Joel Vannoy moved to Little Sycamore, eventually acquiring land and built this house which still stood more than 100 years later, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Joel Vannoy home

In the 1870 census, Joel Vanoy lived beside his daughter, Elizabeth who had married Lazarus Estes on February 6, 1867 in Claiborne County.

Elizabeth Vannoy Lazarus Estes marriage crop

Two houses away, daughter Sarah had married John Nunn as well.

Based on this information, we know that Joel had to have had a presence in Estes Holler so that his children would have an opportunity to “court” with the neighbors.  In these hills and hollers, you don’t marry who you don’t see.  And you only saw the neighbors and the other families who attended your church.

In the 1870 census, Elizabeth and Lazarus are both age 21 and have a two year old daughter, Phebe, named after Elizabeth’s mother and a baby just born in February of 1870, Rutha, named after Lazarus’s mother.  Neither of these girls would survive to adulthood, but in 1870, Lazarus and Elizabeth had not been visited by the grim reaper of death and had not yet had to bury a child.  That would happen soon enough, in another 2 years when twins were born and died the same day, and again in 1873, when daughter Ruthy died.

Venable cemetery

Their children are buried just down the road in the Venable Cemetery at Pleasant View Church.

Pleasant View church

Lazarus and Elizabeth did have a cemetery on their land as well, shown below, although I’m not sure how early it was established.

Lazarus Estes cemetery

Uncle George told me that Lazarus buried a school teacher there that died and it’s now marked with a stone that says “first grave” which was later installed by the family.  No one remembered the teacher’s name as the family had the stone set, long after Lazarus’ death.

Lazarus Estes first grave

The 1870 census also tells us that Lazarus and Elizabeth didn’t own land, but lived beside Joel who did, so Lazarus may have farmed part of his father-in-law’s land.  The deeds tell us a bit of a different story, but deeds often weren’t filed for some time after the land actually changed hands.

And, as it turns out, this family wasn’t exactly “normal,” which we’ll talk about later.

Lazarus can read and write, but Elizabeth cannot write, although the records vary over the years on this tidbit.  She apparently can read.  According to later deeds, sometimes she signs her name and sometimes with an X.

The 1880 census doesn’t show Lazarus and Elizabeth living beside Joel Vannoy anymore, but then again, it could be a function of how the census was taken.  They do still live close, and we know that they did for the rest of their lives.  To the best of my knowledge, neither Lazarus nor Joel ever moved.

Lazarus and Elizabeth are now age 32, both can read and write, they have 4 living children, Phebe age 12, William G., my grandfather, Thaddeus and Corna L.  Of those children, only William G. and Cornie would live to adulthood.  Phebe and Thaddeus would die a month apart in 1884.  This must have been devastating to Elizabeth.  It makes me wonder if the entire family was ill.  We do know that small pox visited Estes Holler at some point in time, causing several deaths.

What the census doesn’t tell us is that Elizabeth is pregnant when the census was taken, and Martha was born on October 25, 1880.

The land where Elizabeth and Lazarus lived was beautiful.   This photo was taken as Uncle George and I approached Lazarus and Elizabeth’s land for the first time on my first visit.

Approaching lazarus land

The house, located in this clover meadow, is gone today.  It was a relatively flat area, something of an oddity, located at the far end of Estes Holler.  It was shaded and had a fresh spring, an extremely valuable commodity, and no one lived “upstream” which reduced the likelihood of getting typhoid, a regular killer by contaminating water.

In the photo below, the spring is on the left by the fence and the house was in the clover, according to Uncle George.

Lazarus Estes land

This beautiful little spring brought forth cool water for Elizabeth and Lazarus and their family.  It was located just outside the house, and maybe 50 feet downstream, it joined the slightly larger creek that ran down the center of Estes Holler a mile or so to join Little Sycamore Creek.

Lazarus Estes spring

A similar creek ran down Vannoy Holler and joined Little Sycamore too.  In fact, a creek ran down the center of every Holler in Appalachia joining a larger creek at the foot of the holler.  The entire settlement of the Appalachian mountain range depended on these springs and creeks providing fresh water, while the mountains themselves with their forests provided cover for the wildlife and vegetation needed to sustain pioneer families.  Farming was difficult.  There was little flat land.  What there was, was covered with trees, and there were a lot of rocks.  LOTS of rocks – peeking out the ground everyplace just waiting to dull plow blades and trip the unwary.  Reminds me very much of the highlands of Scotland. It’s no wonder the Scotch-Irish were so comfortable here.

Uncle George and I stood quietly, reverently, beside this beautiful little spring, listening to the musical gurgling as it emerged from the earth and laughingly ran downward to join the larger creek.  Brook sounds are life giving sounds.  This moment was timeless and is with me still.  George somehow knew I needed to stand in silence for a long time. to drink this into my soul.  Maybe he was visiting Lazarus too – after all, George lived on this land and understood.

I knew that Elizabeth had heard the same thing I was hearing, standing in this same place, for most of the days of her life.  This spring was the umbilical cord tying me in the here-and-now to her across the years.  She had lived in Estes Holler, likely on this same exact spot, from the time she married in 1867 and was a young bride, looking forward to a glowing future with her oh-so-charming husband.  She walked these lands and drew water from this spring for the next 51 years, more than half a century, with every meal she cooked, every time she washed clothes and every time someone bathed.  She would have come to this spot several times a day to fill the water bucket, for her young family, her ailing children, for her mother-in-law perhaps, for her grandchildren and for her aging husband. Finally, her children and grandchildren probably visited this spring when they buried Elizabeth on that fall day in October of 1918.

George told me that when he was a boy, they had dug out a little basin in the spring and on a rock beside the basin, which is where they filled the water buckets for people and livestock both, laid a gourd dipper.  Everyone used that gourd dipper to get a drink of fresh water – share and share alike.  The family shared, kids and adults and probably neighbors shared too.  Butter and milk sat in crocks on those rocks too, with their bottoms in the water to stay cool in the shady spring on Lazarus’ land.  This was, in essence, Elizabeth’s refrigerator.

I could see that gourd sitting on the rock, reaching back in time through Uncle George to the days when Lazarus and Elizabeth drank from this life-giving spring.

Elizabeth probably also stood here and cried some days, because life was not always rosy and her family faced a dire situation.

The Problem We Don’t Discuss

Things had not been well in the Joel Vannoy household for some time.  This situation wasn’t something people talked about, but it assuredly existed, and probably with increasing severity for quite some time.  It was probably a constant worry to Elizabeth.

Regardless of the diagnosis he would receive today, Joel Vannoy became very delusional and nonfunctional.  The family had to take turns “sitting with” him night and day so that he didn’t hurt himself, someone else, or burn the house down.  Finally in May of 1886, the Eastern State Mental Hospital was opened in Knoxville for the insane.

On Oct. 4, 1886, Lazarus Estes was granted $26 by the court for “conveying Joel Vannoy to the hospital for the insane.”  It must have been a terribly sad day.  Or maybe it was a relief that Joel had some hope of getting help.

I doubt that the illness came upon Joel suddenly.  This is probably something that the family had been living with in some capacity for a long time.  I have to wonder, thinking about the stories of the Civil War, just 20 years prior, if that time and the constant fear and paranoia required to survive would have triggered a permanent condition for Joel.  We see “odd” signs in land documents beginning in 1872.

Like I said, no one talked about this.  When I discovered this notation in the court records and specifically asked, it turns out that some people did know about it, but they were very quick to say it was NOT from the Vannoy side of the family, but from his mother’s side.  Of course, his mother’s side says just the opposite.

Everyone seemed to be very embarrassed and uneasy, a full century later.  Mental illness tends to make people uncomfortable, in general.  Mental illness in the immediate family makes people VERY uncomfortable.

A series of very odd transactions began in 1872, running through 1893, which begin with a deed to Joel’s wife, Phebe and the adult children of Joel Vannoy, conveying land to them “where Joel Vannoy lives.”  Typically, the land would be conveyed to Joel, which tells us that Joel was already considered unable to attend to his affairs by that point in time.  Then, in 1877, Phebe and children convey land to Joel’s son George W. Vannoy.  A third deed conveys what appears to be Joel’s land to Joel.  There is no Joel Jr., so the deed had to be to Joel himself.  A fourth deed is to Lazarus and Elizabeth Vannoy Estes.

However, for the strangest deed I’ve ever seen, take a look at the last transaction, in 1893.  This is from Lazarus Estes to his wife, Elizabeth Vannoy Estes in which he “deeds” to her the money from the sale of her father’s land back in 1877.

I don’t know what happened, but it smells like the result of a huge fight to me.  And if they had a loud fight, you can bet that everyone up and down the holler could hear them.  The neighbors were probably were betting on the outcome and taking sides.  The preacher would have preached about it on Sunday.  Everyone would have known.

Date From To Acres Comment
January 15, 1872 John McNiel power of attorney for William N. McNiel Phebe Vannoy, George W. Vannoy, Lazarous Estes and wife Elizabeth and John Nunn and wife Sary Jane. 465 $1100, where Joel Vannoy now lives


March 22, 1877 Phebe Vannoy, Lazerous Estes and Elizabeth, Sarah and John Nunn George W. Vannoy and Elizabeth, his wife $300 the land where George now lives
March 22, 1877 Phebe Vannoy, George W. Vannoy, Lazarus Estes and wife Elizabeth, John Nunn and wife Sarah Joel Vannoy 200 $800 – land where Joel now lives – this must be Joel’s land because it mentions the Lazarus Estes line
April 17, 1877 Phebe Vannoy, George W. Vannoy, Sarah and John Nunn Lazarus and Elizabeth Estes 140 $436.65 – children and wife of Joel Vannoy convey this, but he has not died
Feb, 27, 1878 Lazarus and Elizabeth Estes James Bolton and William Parks 60 $150 adjoin lands of Lazarus and J. Y. Estes – then J. Y. signs permission for them to put a road across his property to get to their land
March 25, 1884 Joel and Phoebe Vannoy James H. and M.J. Vannoy, his wife $600 – to take effect after the death of both Joel and Phebe
Oct 15, 1888 Jechonias and Nancy Estes Lazarus and Elizabeth Estes $200 – this is not the same land as he sold to William Buchanan Estes
Nov. 30, 1893 Lazarus Estes Elizabeth Estes Paid $436.65 by money from sale of her father’s property – this is very odd

The Final Years

The 1890 census is missing, of course, but the 1900 census shows us three generations in a row, living in Estes Holler.

Lazarus and Elizabeth are now ages 55 and 53, respectively, have been married for 33 years, and had 10 children of which, 5 are living.  Since the 1880 census, Martha was born in the fall of 1880, followed by James C. (Columbus) and Charlie T. (Tomas) in 1883 and 1885, respectively.

On one side of their household lived Lazarus’s mother, Rutha Estes, now age 75 and next door, on the other side, Cornie had married Worth Epperson and William George Estes had married Ollie Bolton.

Lazarus claims he owns his land mortgage free and both Lazarus and Elizabeth can read and write.

Elizabeth’s parents had passed away, Joel in 1895 and her mother, Phoebe in 1900.  Joel lived to be 82 in spite of his mental illness and Phoebe outlived him by 5 years and lived to be 82 as well.

The 1910 census is the last census where we find Lazarus and Elizabeth Vannoy Estes.  Their 3 married children still live within sight of their home and Lazarus’s unmarried sister lives with them.  Lazarus’ mother Rutha has passed.  Cornie and William George are still living probably exactly where they were before, and Martha has been married to William Norris for 10 years.  They live beside William George Estes, but tragedy would strike in 1911, when Martha dies, probably in or related to childbirth.

Elizabeth has also buried 3 grandchildren in the past decade, children of William George Estes and Ollie Bolton – one who burned to death when William and Ollie’s cabin burned in Estes Holler.  That would have been a terrible, heartbreaking funeral, especially given that the family traditionally prepared the body for burial.

In the census, all three of Elizabeth’s children are shown as renting, not owning land, and one can rest assured that they are renting from Lazarus and Elizabeth.  I know where at least three of the houses were in relation to Lazarus’s house, which was gone by the time I found Estes Holler, and they were within a stone’s throw.

The cabin that burned was built beside the creek where this willow, below, had fallen in the 1980s.  Uncle George planted the willow when he was a young man where that cabin had stood.  This is a few hundred feet, at most, down the holler from Lazarus’s house.

Cabin burned

Lazarus and Elizabeth knew they were aging and they were faced with a dilemma.  Their daughter Martha was now dead.  Their son William George was, how shall we say this graciously, less than reliable, and their two sons, James “Lum” and Charlie were the youngest and just starting families.  The only solidly stable child of the bunch was Cornie who was married to Worth Epperson and had been since about 1895.

Lazarus Elizabeth 1915 deed

In 1915, Lazarus and Elizabeth deeded their land to Cornie and Worth Epperson, making provisions within the deed for William George and the children of their deceased daughter Martha.  Cornie and Worth, in essence, paid them cash over time for their shares.

There wasn’t enough land to divide and provide a living for all of the children, so the rest of the children moved elsewhere, except for James “Lum” who is buried on Lazarus’s land.  Charlie built the house down the hollow, but then he sold it to Lum who lived and died in Estes Holler.  Uncle George, Charlie’s son, eventually wound up living on Estes land in Estes Holler, in the house, now abandoned, shown below.  We all migrate back, it seems.

George Estes house

Elizabeth died on October 25, 1918, just 3 months after Lazarus, and her death certificate shows that she had no medical attention, which was not unusual at all in that time and place if you look at the rest of the death certificates.  She died of old age and heart dropsy, an old term for what was probably congestive heart failure.

Lazarus had no death certificate, but Elizabeth had two.  Go figure.  Death certificates were not reliably completed at this time, nor were they reliably filed.  It’s amazing that any remain.

Her second death certificate shows that Elizabeth’s father was Joel Vannoy, born in Jonesville, VA, which is incorrect.  He was not born in Jonesville, although he was born in Lee County.  It says that Elizabeth was buried in the Estes Cemetery on Oct 28th, Bill Estes listed as undertaker, which would mean who was in charge of her burial, not undertaker as embalming as we think of it today.  This is also incorrect.  As per this death certificate, she was buried in the Venable cemetery with the rest of the family.  Bill was my grandfather, William George who was not in favor at the time – but based on this, he does not seem to be entirely disenfranchised either.

Elizabeth’s other death certificate was has not been indexed or filmed and was badly smeared when I saw the originals probably two decades ago.

Elizabeth Estes death cert crop

Elizabeth was buried in the Pleasant View Cemetery, then called the Venable Cemetery, right beside Pleasant View Church.  She is with her children, her husband, her mother-in-law and her parents – surrounded by her family – much in death as it had been in life in Estes and Vannoy Holler.

Venable Vannoy stones

Elizabeth’s parents stones are beside the road, above.  The Estes stones are towards the back and grouped together, below.

Venable Estes stones

Uncle George and I had stones made for Lazarus and Elizabeth, who was called Betty, Bet or Betz, in the 1980s.  I wish we had had one made for Rutha too.

Elizabeth Estes stone

George placed them at the end of their graves so that the original stones can still be seen at the heads, even though Elizabeth’s appears to have no carving on the field stone.  If it did originally, it was worn away by the 1980s.

Venable Estes new stones

The Cherokee Mystery

Elizabeth left us with an even larger mystery.  You see, she was our Indian princess.  Every Appalachian family has one it seems, and she was ours – although our story didn’t say anything about a princess.

Per Margaret and Minnie, the Crazy Aunts, Elizabeth’s granddaughters, the children of William George Estes, Elizabeth Vannoy Estes was half Cherokee Indian and half Irish and her brother claimed head rights in Oklahoma.  They knew this woman personally, having lived in Estes Holler.  Her son, William George Estes also wrote about her, and his, Indian heritage in letters.  He knew his grandmother, Phebe, who hadn’t died until he was 27 years old and he grew up just a few feet away from her house. It’s so hard for me to believe this isn’t true, because Phebe herself would have had to have said she was Indian, assuming she would discuss it at all.

And yes, Elizabeth did have a reason to lie, but not what you’re thinking.  That lie would have been that she was NOT Indian, because at that time, Indian was considered to be “of color” and discrimination was rampant.  No one in their right mind would have claimed they were any portion “of color” if they had any other choice, and most certainly would never had made up a story saying that they were.  If they were “of color” they might well have claimed they weren’t, and most mixed-race people “became white” at the very first opportunity.  In the south, that was called “passing,” as in passing for white.

Uncle George Estes, Elizabeth’s grandson, was told that Elizabeth Ann was part Black Dutch and that Lazarus was part Irish.  George wasn’t sure exactly what “Black Dutch” meant, but it was part of “that bunch” up in Hancock County “where she was born” and it probably means, whispering now, “not entirely white.”  I was then advised that the topic was best left alone.

The Vannoy family did live very near to the Melungeon families and one of Joel’s sisters married into the mixed race Melungeon Goins family.  They also came from Wilkes County, at the same time and location as many of the Melungeon families as well.  Furthermore, Phebe’s father may have married a Native woman as his second wife.  That family is still not completely sorted out and may never be.

Other family members from other family lines had some version of this same story as well, although in some, it’s Elizabeth’s mother, Phebe who is half Cherokee.

Margaret and Minnie, separately, both said Elizabeth was half Cherokee and that Lazarus was ashamed of it and would not let Elizabeth claim head rights.

Head rights was a slang term used in the 1890s and early 1900s that refers to funds paid by the government to individuals through Indian tribes who were relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s for their land, an ordeal better known as the Trail of Tears.

In order to qualify, you had to prove that you descended from someone on specific removal rolls and join the appropriate tribe via an application process.  The allure of land or money caused many to attempt to qualify who would otherwise never had admitted they were part Native.  Those applications, both those accepted and declined still exist, and neither Elizabeth, nor her brother, are in those records.

Elizabeth’s brother did move to Texas on the Oklahoma border, so maybe that added to the confusion.

If the family story was true, then Elizabeth or Phebe’s mother or father had to have been Native.  We know for sure that the Vannoy family is not Native, so it would have had to be on Phoebe’s side.  We know for sure that Phebe’s father wasn’t Native, because we know where his father came from and who his parents were, so that only leaves Phebe Crumley’s mother, whose parentage and past is murky at best – and that’s today, after years of research.  At that time, it was entirely shrouded in mystery.

That’s it, we had nailed it, Phebe’s mother was Native…or so we thought.

It turns out that indeed, Phebe’s parentage and past is murky, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to Native American.  It can mean a lot of other things too.

I spent a lot of years pouring over the various rolls and the Cherokee removal and pre-removal records, all to no avail, I might add.  I also looked for “head rights” in Oklahoma obtained by her brother, also to no avail.  I visited Talequah looking for records.  No dice.  I have gone on so many wild goose chases and road trips tracking this down that I get invited to the wild goose family reunions now as an honorary member.

Native records were notoriously sparse and difficult to access in the 1970s and 1980s.  I know beyond a doubt that my family believed, and had believed this for decades, so it was not a story of convenience.  It’s written in early letters.  In fact, they were rather ashamed of it because it caused their neighbors to “look down” on them because of their “mixed race” heritage although no one in polite company discussed it.  It was always conveyed as a secret.  We were all “dark.”   When I was a child, I remember my mother being asked to take me and leave the play area for white children and go to the one for “colored.”

My grandfather, William George Vannoy was secretly proud of his Indian heritage and referred to his ancestor as a brave squaw, intermittently discussing this topic in several letters over decades.

I looked at the census records – no one was mixed race in that line back as far as the records go.

Finally, the age of DNA testing arrived.  The mystery of Elizabeth’s Native heritage still remained. It could neither be proven or disproven, and I knew DNA testing was the way to go.  In fact, all I needed was one person, descended from Elizabeth though all females, to test her mitochondrial DNA.  That test, giving me her haplogroup, would tell me positively – given that Elizabeth would have inherited her mitochondrial DNA from her mother directly, and she from her mother, ad infinitum, on up the tree.

Finally, with the help of another cousin, we found the right person, descended through Elizabeth’s daughter, Cornie Epperson.

Given the complete agreement throughout the family about the story of Native heritage, imagine my utter shock when her haplogroup came back as haplogroup J, and not just J, but the full sequence would later reveal, J1c2c – unquestionably European as shown on the haplogroup J migration map from the Family Tree DNA results pages, below.

hap j migration

Ok, so now we’re back to where we started, with “Huh?”

But what about our Cherokee history?

Let’s face it, the evidence just doesn’t add up and the haplogroup was the icing on the proverbial cake.

  1. There is no census that shows us that Elizabeth or her mother or siblings or aunts are people of color. If they were 100% Indian, they would very likely, at some point, be noted as some category other than white, probably mulatto.
  2. There is no record of Native heritage like being on the Dawes or Guion Miller Rolls.
  3. There is no record of “head rights” in Oklahoma.
  4. There is no record of delayed tribal application that would entitle the family to both citizenship and land payments.
  5. The Trail of Tears, Indian Removal was in the late 1830s, fully 90 years, or about 3 generations before Elizabeth was born. For her ancestors to remain “fully Native” for 3 generations outside of a reservation would be almost impossible.
  6. The Cherokee were highly admixed prior to removal, so finding Cherokee after the removal who were not admixed would be very unusual – in the best of circumstances.
  7. The DNA is European, not Native.

However, there are a couple of outside possibilities so let’s discuss them

  • Adoption – The Native tribes did adopt white women into the tribe as full tribal members – generally women who were kidnapped or who had been previously enslaved. If that were the case, then the tribal member would have removed to Oklahoma with the rest of the tribe.
  • An Undiscovered Native Haplogroup – Haplogroup J might be a previously unknown Native haplogroup. For it to be considered Native, it would mean that eventually we would have to find Native burials, pre-Columbus, carrying this haplogroup, and that hasn’t happened today. In the US there is limited access to Native burials, but those issues are not as prevalent in Mexico, Central and South America and Canada. To date we have never found burials carrying mitochondrial haplogroups other than subgroups of A, B, C, D, X and possibly M. Furthermore, we do have solid matches in Europe, so this is a very, extremely, unlikely scenario.  In fact, it can be ruled out.

Aside from the very prevalent family oral history, there is just no evidence for recent Native ancestry through Elizabeth Vannoy Estes’s matrilineal line.  However, that does NOT mean that she has no Native heritage at all.  Her lines do disappear into the mists of time in pre-1800s Montgomery County, VA.

If Elizabeth Vannoy had been half Native, then her children would have been 25% and their children, her grandchildren would have been 12.5%.  We have the autosomal DNA of one of her grandchildren, and he carried no Native American admixture that is detectable by Family Tree DNA, which would cover to about the 5th or 6th generation.  We also have autosomal DNA from other descendants as well, with the same results except for me, but I have known Native heritage from other lines.

I ran Elizabeth’s grandson’s results at GedMatch too, also showing no Native results.  Ok, it wasn’t exactly none, it was about one tenth of one percent, which is most likely noise.

There is simply no actual evidence at all that Elizabeth was Native or had any Native heritage.  Of course, we also can’t prove that she didn’t, but what we can say is that if she did, it’s not on her direct matrilineal side according to her mitochondrial DNA, and it was likely not in the 4 generations prior to Elizabeth’s birth according to her descendants autosomal DNA – although there are a lot of blank spaces on her pedigree chart, and one of those, upstream, still could be Native.

Elizabeth Vannoy pedigree

So, it appears that Elizabeth Vannoy Estes is not Indian after all – at least not that we can tell.  Believe me, I fully understand why people don’t like this message when they receive it from DNA testing and often question whether the results can possibly be correct.  But alas, the truth is the truth and DNA doesn’t lie – like it or not.

I’m glad to have the truth, but between you and me, I liked the story much better!  It’s difficult when we have to lay a treasured family myth to rest.