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.




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39 thoughts on “Elizabeth Vannoy Estes (1847-1918), Cherokee?, 52 Ancestors #60

  1. No, Elizabeth they did not smile, nor did most people there, and in the world, in those times, and earlier. Primarily, because of missing teeth, no teeth, broken teeth. This I was told by a guide in a museum. You can usually tell by the set of their mouth and/or hollowness, those who have lost their teeth. I have read that oral disease has always been a fairly common cause of death until recent times. The only relative in my family who wore false teeth was born in 1899.

  2. Same story in my family that lived in the same general area. Since I have done DNA testing I know that it isn’t true I am 100% European. Did they tell
    this story to explain dark skin?

  3. I may have gotten lost in the weeds here but did you upload Cornie’s raw data to GEDmatch.com? I went from 100% European at frdna.com and 23andme.com and ancestry.com to 88% European (including Balkan) and 12% a mélange of Other, including 1% Red Sea!. I’ve heard that ftdna.com’s ethnic projections are not as precise as GEDmatch.

  4. Roberta,

    Great photos. I would imagine from how you describe it, Appalachians didn’t smile much in those post-Civil War days, especially those from the Cumberland Gap.

    Earlier today, I was pondering when I should again “pick up” my research about our “Indian Chieftess.” Those in my family who “solved the puzzle” in the 1990s weren’t satisfied with a princess. The original story was simply that we were descended from Tecumseh, then it was that he had a daughter who married a Johnson, then it got a little [or very] crazy after that.

    We have a small percentage of possible native and/or African atDNA. My mtDNA, which would have helped solve one mystery, is not native, yet it seems that most, if not all, of my FMS matches (about a dozen) say they’ve had an Indian wife/mother story.

    I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it to try to figure it out, or just do the rest of my genealogy and by process of elimination, lay the mythical daughter of Tecumseh/Indian Chieftess to rest. Because I honestly don’t care one way or another and never have. I just want the truth to remain for everyone’s descendants, and sadly, regardless of what my research ends up uncovering, it is not the truth that will remain, it is what people want the truth to be.


  5. Wonderful post–you really create a sense of the place and the times as well as a sense of the people. It’s just a pleasure to read. And FWIW, I think the Elizabeth Estes in the photo is the sister of Lazarus, not his wife.

  6. You know, one doesn’t really need teeth to smile, just a reason; and I guess they had little reason to smile, except of course when someone pulled a prank on a sister or cousin, like when you were introduced as your uncle’s new wife. Elizabeth, though, appears downright severe. And they all appear to prefer black clothes. Are you sure these weren’t Amish? The German side of your family would have appreciated what’s called schadenfreude, though.

  7. An interesting story. My Grt-Grandmother is also believed to have been part Cherokee. When I had my first DNA test at FTDNA I was disappointed to see no evidence of Native heritage but much later a small (less than 1%) amount did show. I have had three tests at FTDNA. Later I was tested at 23&Me and at Ancestry. Both showed a very small bit of Native ancestry. That percent of Native ancestry, I guess, is so small that Ancestry removed that bit from my results and looking at their chart for heritage, the Native bit is now missing. Grt-GM was my maternal Grandfather’s Mother. I have a photo of her and she does resemble Cherokees that I have met. Her parentage is a mystery. She is believed to have been born in Cherokee Co., AL, and to have been adopted by a couple who lived there and later moved to GA. She did have an origin story that I have since found related by a Cherokee, “A Buzzard dropped me on a stump and the Sun hatched me out.” That is all she would say regarding her origin. One of her sisters had land in IT, now Oklahoma, and had through a letter, encouraged another sister to come there and claim some land. That indicates that perhaps the sister had been recognized as Cherokee but I cannot find any information in the rolls or other Native documents at Ancestry or Fold3. Grt-Grandma’s story may forever be a mystery but maybe one day another DNA test might yet indicate Native heritage.

  8. Roberta, I think you had a typo in one paragraph when you talk about the family and the census of 1870, then you say their baby was new in 1880 and then refer to 1870 again–I just thought if you are doing these interesting family posts to save them, you might want to fix that?

  9. I have known two men that were “Cherokee” over 75% and I would never ever guessed it. Then I have some ancestors children from a family that was described as Germanic, look very native american. We don’t have an indian princess story, but we do have the cherokee story. Supposedly the family “discussed it” and decided not to apply for their indian rights. When i do the painted chromosome thing at gedmatch, there are very small places that show up, but that is all. Its not in the percentages.

  10. I think people mostly didn’t smile in photos back because they took it so seriously – it was a big event to get a photograph made, sometimes a once in a lifetime occurrence. And if they had no teeth, they would not want that to be evident in the photo by having a big smile showing off a toothless or near toothless mouth. Even though their lives were difficult with a lot of hard work, I can’t believe they never smiled otherwise. There is joy in life and family no matter how difficult the toil & circumstances.

    Great story, Roberta! I do enjoy your writing. It’s an inspiration to the rest of us struggling to write our family stories.

  11. Roberta, looks as if my McGee and Berry families traveled the same trails in Hawkins and Hancock county as yours. Thru DNA testing, my brother and I are both NA. My McGee family was turned down on the Cherokee Indian Rolls because they couldn’t prove they were Indian. My McGee family had left TN by 1845, moved to Kentucky and were in Tarrant County by 1868. I am still trying to find out who Doreus Wa Chi Se is, a Indian name that has been passed down thru the family. Melba

  12. If some people looked frail or malnourished, it was not necessarily from lack of food, but from lack of teeth to eat the food. If no teeth, they could not eat solid food, including meat. So sad.
    And for women with no teeth having to provide nourishment for multiple pregnancies…………

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  14. Did you ever think to check the CHEROKEE BY BLOOD series? (For those unfamiliar with this resource, it contains abstracts of the claims made in the early 1900s against the reparation money paid to the Cherokee for the Trail of Tears. If any of Elizabeth’s other relatives filed a claim, you may find additional details that would help clarify things. In any case, it can be a useful tool that provides clues for further research.

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  22. Roberta, do you have DNA at FTDNA (Buster)? Or is that a cousin? I’ve read your stories about the Estes family with amusement, thinking ‘sounds like MY family.’ And now I find… they are (at some level, and maybe not the Estes)

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  25. Hello. I realize this post is a bit old, but I found it while searching for my ancestors. I wonder if maybe you can help? I descend from Ragsdale family in Canton, Ga. About 50-60 yrs ago a Ms Van Leer did an extensive genealogical history of the Ragsdales and I have it and that’s what led me to this post. One of my ancestors, Benjamin Ragsdale b in mid 1700’s, had a few children and one of them was John Ragsdale who married Nellie Harnage and she’s from a well documented Cherokee family so they are well known. An entry for John’s sister, FNU Ragsdale states that she married a “Daniel Vannoy of the Cherokee Nation”. Do you have any idea if this Daniel Vannoy is related to your Vannoys? Your family group is the only one I find when I search around for Vannoys in the same areas as my family. They were all pioneers of western N & S Carolina and Tennessee and Georgia while it was still Cherokee territory.

      • “The Ragsdale Family in England and America” By Ms Blake Ragsdale Van Leer, later updated in the 1970’s by June Hart Wester, is the main source I have for them. It can be found online if you are interested in seeing the entry I’m referring to, but it only says that “a daughter” of Benj Ragsdale “married a Daniel Vannoy of the Cherokee Nation in Ga before 1815”. Since her brother John is well documented as marrying into the Cherokee Harnage family and went on TOT, I was hoping she would be fairly easy to find but I can’t find a Daniel Vannoy that fits just yet. However there are later Vannoy daughters, (possibly their daughters?)that are referred to in many Cherokee genealogies. Starr’s is one. I can’t nail down the connections yet so when I saw your Vannoy posts I thought you may have some info I could use. 🙂

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