Sarah Hickerson. That was her name. It’s a new name to me, well, new in the sense of being an ancestor… rolling around on my tongue like sweet dark chocolate – the best – from Belgium – my favorite. Let me say it again and savor its flavor.
Sarah was my great-great-great-great grandmother. Those are glorious words, because before now, she was a brick wall – a maybe and nothing more. I want to introduce you to Sarah, but first, I need to introduce you to Harold.
Harold is my long-suffering cousin. I met Harold more than 20 years ago now, probably about a quarter century ago. I remember things relative to life events – landmark events in my life – and I know where I was living when I met Harold and that it was before my previous husband’s massive stroke. He is my longest-standing genealogy research partner – what a testimony to his endurance!
Harold with Jayden, his great-granddaughter.
You see, this week when I mentioned that we had broken through a 30 year brick wall, he told me that for him, it was more like a 45 year brick wall. Suddenly my 30 year brick wall didn’t look nearly so bad. Or maybe I should say his 45 year brick wall made me even more jubilant.
Harold and I didn’t know each other before we met through genealogy. You’d think we would. Our common ancestors, Joel and Phoebe Crumley Vannoy died in 1895 and 1900 respectively, and their children were our great-grandparents who clearly knew each other – and so did their children. It seems that it was in our parent’s generation that the families lost track of each other – probably that the generation who began to move away from Appalachia in earnest – often in order to find jobs elsewhere. Harold’s grandparents moved to Missouri, and mine moved to Arkansas and then Indiana, before divorcing a decade later and a half later, in the 19-teens. The families moved apart and not only lost track of each other, the next generation didn’t even know the other families existed. That was the generation of our parents. So it was something of a miracle when Harold and I found each other, and even more amazing when we discovered we lived within 35 miles of each other in an entirely different state.
It was progress that divided the family, plus maybe a bit of bootlegging on my grandpa’s part, and it was genealogy that reunited us more than half a century later.
Harold and I are both old fashioned genealogists – meaning diggers – think of us as hound dogs after a bone. Both of us have visited many locations over the years and we share our results and research with each other. In this case, it’s the cumulative effort of both of our research work that has brought us this breakthrough – although in this case, much of the Hickerson research, especially the pieces that led to Higginson, is entirely Harold’s.
Who Was Elijah Vannoy’s Father?
The Vannoy family in Hancock and Claiborne Counties of Tennessee had kept good records, for the most part, since they had moved from Wilkes County, North Carolina to then Claiborne County in about 1812. Before that, not so much.
The earliest record of Elijah Vannoy is an 1807 entry in the Wilkes County, North Carolina Deed Book G-H. He married Lois McNeil (daughter of William McNeil and Elizabeth Shepherd) sometime before 1810 and he is listed in the Wilkes County, NC 1810 Federal Census. He left Wilkes County, NC after 1811 with the McNeil family and an Elijah Vannoy is listed in the Bedford County, Tennessee 1812 Tax List.
Later in 1812, he appears in the Claiborne County, TN court notes where he lived for the rest of his life, even though his homeplace shifted to be in Hancock County in the 1840s when Hancock County was formed.
The problem is that we didn’t know who Elijah’s father was. This should not have been so tough. There were only 4 candidates. All 4 Vannoy men who lived in Wilkes County in the 1784 timeframe when Elijah was born were sons of John Francis Vannoy and Susannah Baker Anderson. How tough can this be?
Very tough, let me tell you. Half a century tough!
Not all Wilkes County records are existent. Seems that at some time, or times, in the past, the clerk decided to have a large bonfire because they didn’t need those old records anymore. If you’re cringing and groaning, well, so was I. I still do, every time I think of that being done intentionally. The county next door, where we think Elijah and his parents may have lived for at least part of the time, Ashe, has incomplete records as well. Ashe County was created from Wilkes in 1799.
The four candidates for Elijah’s father are:
- Nathaniel Vannoy (1749/50-1835) and wife Elizabeth Ann Ray (1754 – before 1830), daughter of William Ray and Elizabeth Gordon
- Andrew Vannoy (1742-1809) and Susannah Shepherd (1758-1816), daughter of John Shepherd and Sarah J. Rash(?)
- Francis Vannoy (1746-1822) and Millicent Henderson (1754-1794/1800), daughter of Thomas Henderson and Frances, last name unknown
- Daniel Vannoy (1752-before 1819) and Sarah Hickerson (1752-?), daughter of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle (Little)
Fortunately, the Wilkes County local tax records are still existent as well as the 1790 census records. Utilizing those records, I reconstructed, as best I could, the family structures and rough ages of the various children. Then, utilizing family records, Bibles, deeds and such, I assigned the children to the parents.
At the end of this process, I had narrowed the parental candidate to either Daniel or Nathaniel Vannoy. Harold had an uncle who told him that Elijah was “Nathaniel’s boy” and given what we had, we pretty much took that at face value.
But then, then, a Bible record emerged from a family member. Nathaniel’s Bible, and guess what….there was no Elijah. Now, people didn’t leave children out of the Bible. Nonetheless, I tried to decide if there was “room” for Elijah there, because Nathaniel seemed to be such a good fit. And there was, barely, but not very reasonably. He would have had to have been conceived when his sibling was about 3 months old, and left out of the Bible – and both of those things individually were very remote possibilities, let alone to have happened together.
Nathaniel died at the home of his daughter in 1835 in Greenville, SC. A few years ago, I visited Greenville, SC, on the way to another destination. I spent the night and the next day in the local courthouse pouring over will records, deed records, probate records….anything and everything, only to determine that Nathaniel had pretty much distributed his estate to his children before his death. However, there was no mention of an Elijah.
Daniel was the most difficult of the men. He died early, for one thing, we think, as did his wife, leaving very few records. Daniel married Sarah Hickerson on October 2, 1779. He filed for a land patent in 1780, obtained the grant in 1782 and was on the Wilkes County tax list with 100 acres until 1787. After that, he was still taxed, but he was no longer taxed on land. He shows up in the 1790 census and on the personal property tax lists until 1795, but in 1796, he is gone and there is nothing further. However, we know the family didn’t move away, because Elijah is living there when he married Lois McNiel not long before 1810. Their proven son, Joel, also married in Wilkes County in 1817, so they had to be living someplace in the vicinity!
If Daniel died and had no land, there was likely no estate. Furthermore, his widow would not have been required to pay tax because only adult males over the age of either 16 or 21 were taxed, depending on where they lived and the laws of the time. In 1795, unquestionably, Elijah was under the age of 16 and any child born after 1880 would have been as well.
The 1800 census doesn’t exist, but in the 1810 census, we find Sarah Vannoy shown with three females. There is no further record of Sarah, unless an 1820 census record that shows a Sarah Vannoy age 26-45 is Daniel’s widow. This seems extremely unlikely, unless someone simply counted the boxes on the census form incorrectly, because in 1820, someone 45 years of age would have been born in 1779, the year Sarah was married to Daniel. That’s an awfully large mistake to make.
The only known male child of Daniel Vannoy is Joel, known as “Sheriff Joel” in the family. A daughter Susannah is also attributed to Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson. In the 1790 census, they had two male children, and given that we only know of one son, Joel, the slot for a second male born before 1788 is enticingly vacant.
In 1810, Sarah Vannoy is shown to be age 26-45, which is too young for our Sarah. If this is our Sarah, she is shown with three females, which would make three daughters and 2 sons, at least, if it is Sarah Hickerson Vannoy.
I tried to correlate names as well. Elijah’s oldest son was named Joel, the same name as Daniel’s only known son. Elijah had a daughter named Sarah too, but no male child named Daniel…at least not that survived. But then, Joel didn’t name a son Daniel either, but he did have one named Elijah. We didn’t have a lot to work with here.
So there we stood, for more than a decade.
I had journeyed to Wilkes County, NC, Greenville, South Carolina and the NC State Archives in Raleigh. Harold had been to the Allen County Public library searching for Hickerson information. That’s where he discovered that the Hickersons were originally Higginsons. We had information alright, but nothing to tie it all together and nothing to tie it to any specific Vannoy male.
It was still only data, information, not evidence.
The New Age – DNA
When DNA testing first became available, Harold and I decided that we could at lease rule in or out one possibility, and that was that Elijah wasn’t the son of any of the Vannoy men, but was instead illegitimate or adopted. Harold tested, and we found other males as well not in our line of descent, confirming that Elijah was indeed a Vannoy male genetically. At least one possibility was removed.
I surmised years ago that the only way I was ever going to solve this mystery was through the wives lines. By that, I mean that because we are going to match descendants of all 4 men utilizing both Y and autosomal DNA, because they all 4 shared a father, that the only differentiating factor was going to be the DNA of the various wives lines.
To make this even tougher that means that we had to match someone ELSE, preferably multiple someone elses, descended from the wives lines utilizing autosomal DNA.
We have just one more fly in the ointment. Harold and I are descended from one of the wives too. Yep, everyone married their neighbors and it was inevitable. Andrew Vannoy’s’s father-in-law, John Shephard is the brother of our ancestor, Robert Shephard who married Sarah Rash and had daughter Elizabeth Shepherd who married William McNiel. William and Elizabeth had daughter Lois who married…you guessed it….Elijah Vannoy. And around and around we go.
So, if Elijah’s father was Andrew Vannoy, we were up the proverbial creek without a paddle. And we’d never know it because only sign would be if many people who descended from the other wives lines tested and we consistently did NOT match any of them. That’s not exactly proof – not at more than 6 generations removed.
Fortunately, Andrew had been fairly well ruled out pretty early in the game as a candidate to be Elijah’s father.
I tentatively entered Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson as Elijah’s parents in my genealogy software, more than anything as a placeholder because I knew who Elijah’s Vannoy grandparents were, unquestionably and I needed someone to connect the generations. I felt Daniel was my best shot, although I really hesitated when I added this record to Ancestry because I felt the link was so tenuous and I didn’t want anyone else copying it as gospel.
So, that brings us to today, or this week, anyway. It seems appropriate that I’m finishing this article on Thanksgiving day!!!
Periodically, I’d go and look, rather half-heartedly to see if I had any DNA matches with any Hickersons, Hendersons or Ray/Reys and periodically, I would find out that I didn’t…or not anyone I could connect to anyway.
Each of the three autosomal DNA vendors has the ability to search on surnames, including ancestral surnames. However what I didn’t do was twofold. I only searched my own account. I did not ask Harold to search his, nor did I search the accounts that I manage who also descend from Elijah. Duh!!! What was I thinking?
Actually, truthfully, after so many years of that wall standing so firmly, I thought it would never fall and so I stopped pushing the envelope. We are right at that 6 generation threshold, so I was painfully aware that I might not match someone on a big enough piece of DNA to be over the threshold for matching.
Here’s my direct line to Sarah.
- Sarah Hickerson married Daniel Vannoy (1752-c1796)
- Elijah Vannoy (c1784–1850/1860) married Lois McNiel (c1786-c1839)
- Joel Vannoy (1813-1895) married Phebe Crumley (1818-1900)
- Elizabeth Vannoy (1846-1918) married Lazarus Estes (1845-1919)
- William George Estes (1873-1971) married Ollie Bolton (1874-1955)
- William Sterling Estes (1902-1963)
We don’t yet have advanced tools that are flexible enough to say “find all the Hickersons in the data base, drop the threshold to 3cM and tell me if I match them and if they match each other. Oh yes, and tell me if any of my Vannoy cousins match these people too.” Nope, not here yet, still a dream… so I searched my own account periodically with no results.
Secondly, I didn’t search for the surname Higginson. I have a really good excuse for that. I didn’t realize that Higginson was the earlier form of Hickerson. Cousin Harold shared that with me this week. He found it a couple years ago when he visited the Fort Wayne library, and while it didn’t seem to matter at the time, today, it matters a great deal.
A Bad Day Improves
It’s winter in Michigan…far too early, way too cold and rather a brutal and dramatic entrance. The wind was howling the snow blowing straight sideways. Here, just look out my back window for yourself. You used to be able to see a lake, but not anymore!
I had just spent two days researching and writing about the new Ancestry DNA Circles rollout. Truthfully, this seems “cute” and very easy and enticing, but certainly not adequate as compared to what genetic genealogists want and need, and not terribly relevant to me. By this, I mean that the only thing that DNA Circles does, is, well, group your DNA matches and those who also match each other’s DNA and have a common ancestor in a pedigree chart. That doesn’t mean that all of your DNA matches because you descend from this ancestor, but it does increase the odds, the more people in the circle.
For example, the only circle I have that is relevant to this discussion is a circle for Joel Vannoy that is made up of me, cousin Harold, a kit he administers and a fourth cousin who doesn’t reply to messages.
I already know I’m descended from Joel Vannoy, so really, there is nothing for me here. Now if there had been a Hickerson circle, THAT would have been news!!!!
Given Ancestry’s suggestive “soft science” approach, I was terribly frustrated and rather grumpy when you combine the hours that the articles took and the terrible weather. Grumpy cat’s got nothing on me.
However, because I was writing about the before and after aspect of Ancestry’s new software, I had to review all of my shakey leaf matches, before and after. Among other things, ancestry changed the way their software sorts and matches.
Before, I had no shakey leaf match to a descendant of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle, but afterwards, I did.
There it was, in color, sitting there just calmly staring at me. OMG!!!!
Was this the real McCoy?? Or was this the proverbial case that we have so often found on Ancestry where the DNA does match and the pedigree does match, but they point to two different ancestors?
Need I mention that there are no tools at Ancestry, no chromosome browser, nada, to solve or resolve this issue? Ancestry feels we don’t need them. I’m here to tell you, we do. Here’s the perfect example of why.
So, what was I to do?
I did what any good genealogist cousin would do. I e-mailed Harold right away with the news!!!! I asked him to check his results at Ancestry and those of his brother as well, and let me know if he matches the same person, or any Hickerson descendant.
And then, I waited, of course, for his answer.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Harold’s brother had a Charles Hickerson/Mary Lytle match at Ancestry too.
Neither Harold nor his brother matched the same person that I did, but one of the people they both matched was very interesting, because a third cousin, Cindy also shared a match with this person. Cousin Cindy descends through her ancestor known as “Sheriff Joel Vannoy,” the proven son of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson. This match is shown above, with the current tester’s screen name and current generation removed.
So three Vannoy cousins, one not through Elijah, but through his suspected brother, all match the same Hickerson descendant.
OMG this is enticing, but the problem is that we can’t prove it because we have no tools. This is exactly why we need a chromosome browser that shows us they not only match the same descendant, but match on the same segment of DNA. That’s confirmation of a genetic match – and the only way to provide that confirmation. So close but so <insert swear word of choice here> frustratingly far away.
Below, a little summary table of our Hickerson/Higginson matches at Ancestry.
About this time, I received another message from Harold. He told me that while cousin Cindy had tested at Ancestry, her brother had tested at Family Tree DNA – and she had just joined him to the Vannoy DNA project which Harold and I administer.
If I was ever glad that I have embraced autosomal participants in surname projects, today is that day.
Digger the Dog
I quickly signed onto the the Vannoy project and looked at Cindy’s brother’s Family Finder results. Utilizing the “ancestral surname” search capability, I discovered that Cindy’s brother indeed matches three people who descend from a Hickerson line, including one who descends from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle through a son.
Oh, I’m in Digger the Dog heaven now, because I do have tools at Family Tree DNA – and I also have cousins – lots of cousins.
I hadn’t really realized the true power of cousins until this exercise.
There are a total of 10 cousins, nine of whom descend from Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel and one from Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson’s son, Joel, who have tested at Family Tree DNA, all of whom are in the Vannoy DNA project.
Needless to say, I searched each one for both Hickerson and Higginson ancestral suranme matches, and what I found was a goldmine. Individually, these results were interesting with a nugget or two, but cumulatively, it was the Gold Rush!!!
After I made a matrix of who matched whom, I then began the process of pushing the results into the chromosome browser. I won’t bore you with the many iterations of that exercise, but suffice it to say that it’s very exciting to see the Vannoy, Hickerson and Higginson segments overlap.
In this example, individuals are being compared to my cousin Buster at 1cM.
- Me – orange
- Harold – blue
- Reverend John Higginson descendant – green
- Hickerson descendant – pink
- Vannoy cousin – yellow
At the end of the day, we had the following match matrix. All of the Vannoy cousins are shown at left, including William who descends from Sheriff Joel Vannoy, proven son of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson. The rest of the cousins all descend from Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel. The top row represents all of the individuals who show Hickerson or Higginson in their ancestral surnames. The two green individuals descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle (Little).
You’ll notice, above, that there are several instances where more than one cousin matched the same Hickerson/Higginson descendant. This was very important, because it allowed me to compare their DNA by segment in the chromosome browser.
I downloaded all of the match data for the matches to the Hickersons and Higginsons, and to each Vannoy cousin as well. Needless to say, the Hickerson and Higginson matches won’t be displayed at Family Tree DNA unless they are over the matching threshold of around 7.7cM, which does not mean they would not match at lower segment thresholds. That can be discovered by a composite spreadsheet in which all of the matches of all of the cousins plus the Hendersons and Hickersons are compiled. Downloaded match data at Family Tree DNA includes segments of 1cM or above.
The spreadsheet is 614 rows and includes 64 matching clusters of individuals which include Vannoy cousins and at least one Hickerson/Higginson match. Some of these matches are as large as 20cM with 6000 SNPs. More than twenty Hickerson/Higginson triangulated matches are over 10cM with from 1500 to 6000 SNPs. Many are much smaller. An excerpt of one match cluster is shown below. This is the same group as is shown on the chromosome browser on chromosome 2, at the very top of the graphic.
Note that the cousins are matching each other on this segment, and they are also matching the Hickerson/Higginson descendants as well on this same segment, which strongly suggests that this “Vannoy” segment is descended from the Hickerson/Higginson line of the family.
Bingo! Checkmate! Wahoo!!!! Happy Dance!
Sarah Hickerson – you are now MY confirmed ancestor, along with your husband Daniel Vannoy. Welcome back to the family – we’ll be celebrating you at the Thanksgiving table today. You have been resurrected to us, reconnected after more than 100 years of being lost!
The dead may be dead, but our ancestors don’t have to be dead to us, even if the records are gone – they aren’t.
Their DNA runs in our veins, and that of our cousins. The power of this solution was found in the many cousins who have tested. Without all of us, the ancestral connection would not have been revealed.
Thank you, cousins, on this wonderful Thankgiving Day!!!! Thank you Harold for your tireless research, and for never giving up.
And thank you Family Tree DNA for the chromosome browser, the matrix and other tools necessary to break down this brick wall.
I am truly thankful!