Phoebe McMahon (c1741-after 1815), Frontier Wife, 52 Ancestors #58

Phebe is one of those ancestors that we know little about.  We have no pictures or signatures.  In fact, we’re not even positive of her surname.  Most of the information we have about Phebe comes through her husband’s Workman family, through a book, “Some Branches of the Workman Tree” by Ralph Hall Sayer, 1979.

According to Sayer, the following marriage record shows that Phoebe McMahon married Joseph Workman in Christ Lutheran Church in York County, PA. on August 4, 1761.

“Joseph Workman, son of Abraham, married ‘PHEBE M’RAY, daughter of Hugh (Juh.) Mecmeher”‘.

This suggests that Phebe was probably born around 1741, give or take a few years, although we don’t know where.  There is a christening record for one Hugh McMahon on March 26, 1699, the son of John McMahon in County Monaghan, Clones, Ireland.  But, we don’t know if this is the same Hugh, and if so, who he married and if Phebe was born in Ireland, in transit or in the colonies.

The original marriage record was in the Dutch or German Language and the transcriber suggested that the maiden name of Phebe might have been M’Meagher.  Subsequent research reveals that the church was unquestionably German.

So was her name Phebe McRay McMeher or was it McMeagher or McMahon as it has been later reported?

A study of “History of York Co., PA” by John Gibson, gave no verification of the presence of a family named McMeagher. There was a Thomas McCreary in York Co., PA as early as 1754. There is no evidence that Joseph Workman or Phoebe actually lived in York Co., and no record of baptism for children of Joseph and Phebe was found in the church records.

In fact, this begs the question of why they were married in York County at all.  Joseph Workman is known to have been in Chester Co, PA, in 1759, which is about 40 miles from Yorktown where they were married.

Joseph Workman, son of Abraham Workman, was born about 1736 in NJ.

“Pennsylvania Archives:, Series 5 Volume 1,” gives a record of a May 6, 1758 enlistment in Chester Co., PA in Captain Paul Jackson’s Company for the Pennsylvania Regiment of the following: “Joseph Workman, laborer, 5’8″ of thin visage, age 21”, and “Abraham Workman, laborer, 5’ 9″, of thin visage age 19” and both gave NJ as their birthplace.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has a record reflecting “Provincial Servie” of a Joseph Workman who enlisted as a private in Captain Charles Stewart’s Company April 22, 1759 at Chester, PA. For this enlistment he gave his age as 24 and his birthplace as NJ. Although there is a difference in age, it is probably the same Joseph Workman in both enlistments. These two enlistments would have given him knowledge of the unsettled territory to the west and experience in protecting himself from the Indians.

I also wonder why Joseph and Phoebe were married in a German-speaking Lutheran Church, given that McMahon is clearly Scottish, Irish or Scotch-Irish with a name beginning with Mc.  The Scots were generally Presbyterian, the Irish were Catholics and Joseph Workman was second generation Dutch.

The answer to that question may possibly be found in the Revolutionary War pension application of their oldest son, Abraham, submitted in September of 1834 in Tazewell Co., VA.  He reports that he was born on January 25, 1761, which would have been several months before his parents married.  He also reports that he was born in Washington Township, PA but he couldn’t remember the name of the county.

Abraham Workman Pension app 1834 Tazewell Co Va

Abraham Workman Pension app 1834 Tazewell Co Va2

There is a Washington Township in York County, PA although it was not incorporated until 1805.  We know that Washington County, PA was not formed until taken from Westmoreland County in 1781, so Washington Township may well have been what Washington County was called in Westmoreland County before becoming a county.  Washington County was the area where current day Pittsburg is located, no place near York County which is in the eastern part of the state.  However, Abraham Workman, Phebe’s son, entered service in Monongalia Co., VA and served at Fort Pitt which is present day Pittsburg.

Joseph Workman, Phebe’s husband, also served in Washington County, PA, so Phebe may well have seen this fort up close and personal.  In that time and place, forts were often used to shelter residents in time of danger.  She, along with her younger children, may have taken refuge here from time to time.  If nothing else, she may have brought supplies to her son and husband at the fort.

Fort Pitt

Sometimes we are left with more questions than answers. What we can glean from this is that Joseph Workman and Phoebe may have spent little if any time in the York County area after their marriage.  They were next found on the frontier in Westmoreland County, the part that became Washington County in 1781.  Where they lived in-between?  We don’t know.

A study of “Virginia Court Records in Southwestern PA 1775-1780” by Boyd Crumrine reveals that in the minute Book of VA Court held for Yohogania Co., first at Augusta Town (now Washington, PA) and afterwards on the Andrew Heath Farm near West Elizabeth from 1776 to 1780: there is a record of several trials involving those of the Workman name and others of the McMahen (also spelled as McMahan and McMahon) name. The list of these trials gave only the surnames. Several of these names which appeared in the index also appeared later in the counties of Monroe, Tazewell, Logan and Boone in VA, areas in which the Workman families also settled.

Around 1776, six Workman families settled west of Fort Cumberland, MD, in the mountains near the border with Pennsylvania and current day West Virginia.

Fort Cumberland, MD

They were Andrew, Isaac, Jacob, John, Joseph and Stephen Workman and may be presumed to be brothers. Andrew, Isaac, Jacob, John and William Workman secured military land grants in what is now Allegany Co., MD in 1788.

Allegheny, Montgomery and Washington Counties in Maryland are located adjacent and abut the Pennsylvania border.

“Pennsylvania Archives”, Series 3, Volume 26, indicates that a Joseph Workman received two land patents in 1785; 400 acres in Washington County and 300 acres in Westmoreland county, which validates Abraham’s presence there in that timeframe as well.

Joseph and Phoebe Workman apparently moved to Westmoreland/Washington County before Joseph and their son, Abraham, both served in or about 1777 and moved to Montgomery County, VA between 1785 and 1787.  Joseph and Phoebe’s son, Abraham Workman, was married in Montgomery Co., VA in 1785. Joseph Workman appears on the 1787 Montgomery Co., VA tax list and in 1788 their daughter Anne Workman married Samuel Muncy, with Joseph writing a letter of permission.

1788 Workman Muncy letter

Some records and family tradition indicate that all or some of Joseph and Phoebe Workman’s family migrated to NC about 1788 and independently returned to Virginia at varying times. They may have been led there by Joseph’s brother, John Workman, who according to census listings settled in Orange county, NC. If this is true, Phebe may have lived in NC for a short time as well, although we know where they were in 1785 and 1787, so they didn’t have a long time to be in North Carolina.

Indications are that some of the Workman family members came back into VA about 1789 to settle around Burkes-Garden in the part of Wythe county which later became Tazewell Co.

Joseph Workman, Sr., is on the 1800 Wythe Co., tax list and on the 1802 and 1803 Tazewell Co. tax lists. In 1805, he was listed as “exempt of taxes due to old age and infirmity”.

“Pheby Workman” was listed on the Tazewell tax records in 1815 which probably indicates that Joseph had died prior to that time.

She is not listed in the 1820 census in her own household, but by 1820, Phebe, if living, would have been age 80 or older.

Most of Phebe’s life is tracked by the records of her husband and children, with the exception of her marriage and the 1815 tax record.  She was born before the French and Indian War which lasted nine years, from 1754 to 1763.  She survived that and the Revolutionary War era on the frontier, having babies and worrying about the constant threat of Indian massacres.

She probably had children from 1761 until about 1785 or so, as the family was lumbering once again in a wagon moving them from Washington County, PA to Montgomery County, VA.

Whether the family moved, or the county line moved, or the family took a short side trip to North Carolina and settled in a different location upon returning, Phebe was found in Wythe County, VA in 1800 and in Tazewell County, VA in 1815.  After that, Phebe’s life fades to black, except for the DNA found in her descendants.

It Pays To Ask

In the article about Phebe’s daughter, Anne Workman, I asked for anyone who was descended from this line through all females to please contact me.  Indeed, one cousin, Jef, did, and glory be, his father is descended directly from this line though Agnes Muncy Clarkson’s daughter Sarah Shiflett and had already tested his mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA, and at the full sequence level.  His mitochondrial DNA came directly from Agnes Muncy Clarkson, from her mother Anne Workman Muncy and from her mother Phebe McMahon Workman.  It’s ironic isn’t it that this DNA also came from Phebe’s mother, a woman whose name we don’t know, but we do know about her DNA.

Oh, Happy Day!!!

Jef’s father joined the Muncy DNA project so that I could take a look at the mitochondrial results.

So, what can we tell about Phebe?

Her haplogroup is H5a1 which is European.  There were no Indian princess stories in this line, but had there been, this would definitely dispell them.  Haplogroup H is the most common mitochondrial haplogroup in Europe.

Therefore, she has lots of matches.  She doesn’t have any really unusual mutations to form a personal genetic filter so many of her matches may reach back in time hundreds to thousands of years.  That’s alright though, because it will help tell us where Phebe’s ancestors lived.

Jef’s father has no exact full sequence matches.  In fact, his closest matches are two mutations different.  The “Matches Map,” below, shows the known European location of the oldest ancestor of the testers that Jef’s father matches.

Phebe McMahon match map

You can see that these balloons clump rather according to mutation distance, meaning that the yellow balloons which have two mutations difference are found primarily in Ireland in the British Isles and the green balloons which are three mutations difference are found more in England and the continent and in a more scattered and wider pattern.  This make sense since more mutations generally means further back in  time to a common ancestor – so these yellow people would have shared a common ancestor more recently than the green group – and the green group has therefore had more time to disperse.

Zooming in on the UK part of the map, we can see that there is only one yellow balloon in Scotland, one in England and four in Ireland.  None of the yellow balloons in Ireland are from the Ulster Plantation area, which is where most of the Scots transplanted into Ireland from Scotland were settled.

mcMahon match map isles

Granted, a few yellow balloons isn’t a lot to go on, but it’s better than nothing and it does provide us with some information.  Phebe was likely Irish on her matrilineal line, at least most recently, which makes sense since her father’s surname was Mecmeher or something similar.

Looking at the Haplogroup Origins tab at Family Tree DNA, which reports academic findings, we discover that at the full sequence level, where everyone listed is H5a1, the distribution is as follows.

Location Genetic Distance 2 Genetic Distance 3
England 7 30
Germany 6 8
Ireland 7 7
Scotland 6 2
UK 4 3
Finland 1 2
France 1 6
India 1
Wales 1
Russia 1
Spain 2
Netherlands 1
Norway 2
Slovenia 1
Sweden 1
Ukraine 1
Shetland Islands 1

Looking now at the H5 project at Family Tree DNA, we can see that the administrators have grouped the H5a1 participants together in a group, which means we can see where the entire group falls on a map, so long as the participants have entered a location for the most distant ancestor.

Many of these people won’t match Phebe’s descendants today, but they certainly do share an ancestor further back in time.

H5a1 map

Think of this as a distribution and settlement map of the descendants of Phebe’s common ancestor with these people, the woman who first had the mutation that defined H5a1.

What, you ask, is that mutation?

The defining mutation for haplogroup H5a1 is 15833T.  If you have this mutation, you are a member of H5a1, and if you don’t have it, then you are a member of the parent group, H5a, without the sub-branch.

How long ago did this mutation happen?

According to the supplemental information from the paper, “A ‘Copernican’ Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root” by Behar et al, this mutation happened approximately 6567 years ago with a standard deviation of 1533 years.  Translated into non-scientific speak, this means that this mutation occurred sometime between 5034 and 8100 years ago, or 3,000-5,000 BC, and based on the distribution map, probably in Europe – although sometimes distribution maps can be tricky, especially if people have not tested at the geographic origin of the mutation.

Looking backwards in time by looking at haplogroup formation is like looking through a time periscope and peeking at our ancestors at the other end.  Let’s look a little further.

Haplogroup H5a, the mother haplogroup of H5a1 is about 3000 years older and only three examples are found in the haplogroup H5 project.  Of those, one appears to be brick-walled in the US, one is found in Belgium and one in Scandinavia.

In turn, haplogroup H5, the ancestral value with no additional mutations is only represented by two people in the project and one of those is found in Scandinavia as well.

This map from Eupedia shows the distribution of haplogroup H5.

H5 heat map

H5 is only estimated to be about 500 years older than H5a, so these earlier haplogroup locations suggest that Phebe’s ancestors were living in Northern Europe 8,000 to 11,000 years ago.

Sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale doesn’t it…long, long ago in a place far away, where night lasts for most of the winter…before Vikings were Vikings and when snow ruled the earth…

But even though this is the stuff of fairy tales, this tale is true – it’s our ancestors history, what little we can discern through the time travel of DNA.

So, we don’t know Phebe’s mother’s name, but thanks to her DNA, we can tell that she was likely Irish, at least most recently, and before migrating to the British Isles, her ancestors likely lived in northern Europe for thousands of years.

And that, all thanks to a simple DNA swab test on a person who descends from Phebe through all females to the current generation.

I can’t thank my cousin enough!



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15 thoughts on “Phoebe McMahon (c1741-after 1815), Frontier Wife, 52 Ancestors #58

  1. Loved the story. Gives me hope for my MtDNA line of an unknown Rethie who lived in Hawkins CO, TN and was married to William Mosley. I liked the mutation explanations. I could actually understand that. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for referring to the Virginia Court Records in Southwestern Pennsylvania 1775-1780. Melba Pender Zinn’s Monongalia County, (W) Virginia Records of the District, Superior and County Courts as well as records filmed in that region by the LDS are great sources as well. My family were in Monongalia County in 1805, and before that, in Washington Township and in Springhill Township, Fayette Co. Pennsylvania.

  3. I liked the mutation explanations too, Bobbi – understandable to a DNA dummie!

    I also love that I can almost smell the campfires when reading your stores.

  4. Hummm!! I’m H5a1 and 100% European despite being born in Montreal … Adopted, no birth info and now have 40 matches at genetic distance 0 at mtdna…. No idea what todo with all this info….to be honest, a suggested b’mother name of Eva CRAIG but after 55 years searching, no verifiable matches…but it’s now a game of roulette…what can I say?

  5. Regarding the Lutheran marriage record, it does not necessarily mean the marriage took place ~in~ the church. Many preachers, including Lutheran, Reformed, Brethren, were circuit riders, and may have entered baptisms and marriages into the church book of the next actual building/congregation they arrived at. The Reformed records of the Minisink Valley are very confusing in this respect.

  6. Roberta,
    I have question. I have two matches who family tree lead me to a George Presley Johnson. Because I want a match to George Presley Johnson ( he is a known yDNA match for us) I am delighted. Both matches lead me through his daughter Hannah. ( though not the same match– on seperate chromosomes and segments.) Wonderful. Only both party’s have Hannah married to someone else,And from research, I Know that Hannah md Jefferson Wyrick which is, neither of these men. There is not time or years or locations for her to have had children with someone else and raised a family with them;

    So– how much of the bathwater do I throw out?


    • I wouldn’t throw anything out. I would personally note that there is conflicting paper genealogy and leave it at that for now, especially if you have solid evidence. The DNA is always right. I sometimes attempt to discuss these things with the other parties, but if they are not receptive, I leave it alone. I don’t feel it’s my personal obligation to rectify a situation that other people don’t want rectified.

  7. Phebe is my dad’s 4th gr grandmother and he has that 1% of his genes from India too, any ideas about who it came through on this line? His DNA was through Ancestry and mine is through 23 & Me but I don’t really know how to make the results useful.

    • There is nothing to indicate that the Iberian came through this line. These people could have inherited that DNA from any of their ancestors – not just their common ancestor. Also, keep in mind that 1% is trembling on the edge of “noise” and that Iberian could be representing something else. In other words, don’t spend too much time pondering this because you can draw no conclusions.

  8. This article was so well written. It takes a fairly complicated subject and really breaks it down in such a comprehensible manner. The writing is entertaining and extremely well done. I would love to contact the author of this paper. Phoebe is my 5th great grand
    mother. My father has 703 DNA matches to Phoebe on I have so many questions.

  9. So I did not know anything of my biological father, except he came from West Virginia. Now I made the DNA and found out with the DNA matches, that at the end is mostly the Workman family represented with Joseph and Pheobe Workman (born McMahon, McCmeher?). I live in Munich Germany.
    Thank you for this article and excuse my English.

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