Using Spousal Surnames and DNA to Unravel Male Lines

When Y DNA matching at Family Tree DNA, it’s not uncommon for men to match other males of the same surname who share the same ancestor. In fact, that’s what we hope for, fervently!

However, if you’re stuck downstream, you may need to figure out which of several male children you descend from.

If you’re staring at a brick wall working yourselves back in time, you may need to try working forward, utilizing various types of information, including wives’ surnames.

For all intents and purposes, this is my Vannoy line, in Wilkes County, NC, so let’s use it as an example, because it embodies both the promise and the peril of this approach.

So, there you sit, disconnected from the Vannoy line. That little yellow box is just so depressing. So close, but yet so far. And yes, we’ve already exhausted the available paper trail records, years ago.

We know the lineage back through Elijah Vannoy, who was born between 1784-1786 in Wilkes County, or vicinity. We know my Vannoy cousin Y DNA matches with other men from the Vannoy line upstream of John Francis Vannoy, the known father of four sons in Wilkes County, NC and the first (and only) Vannoy to move from New Jersey to that part of North Carolina.

Therefore, we know who the candidates are to be Elijah’s father, but the connection in the yellow box is missing. Many Wilkes County records have gone missing over the years and births were not recorded in that timeframe.  The records from neighboring Ashe County where Daniel Vannoy lived burned during the Civil War, although some records did survive. In other words, the records are rather like Swiss cheese. Welcome to genealogy in the south.

Which of John Francis Vannoy’s four sons does Elijah descend from?

Let’s see what we can discover.

Contact Matches and Ask for Help

The first thing I would do is to ask for assistance from your surname matches.

Let’s say that you match a known descendant of each of these four men, meaning each of John Francis Vannoy’s sons. Ask each person if they know where the male Vannoy descendants of each son went along with any documentation they might have. If your ancestor, Elijah in this case, is not found in the same location as the sons, geography may be your friend.

In our case, we know that Francis Vannoy migrated to Knox County, Kentucky, but that was after he signed for his daughter’s marriage in Wilkes Co., NC in 1812. It was also about this time that Elijah Vannoy migrated to Claiborne County, TN, in the same direction, but not the same location. The two locations are an hour away by car today, separated by mountains and the Cumberland Gap, a nontrivial barrier.

We also know that Nathaniel Vannoy left a Bible that did not list Elijah as one of his children, but with a gap large enough to possibly encompass another child.  If you’re thinking to yourself, “Who would leave a child’s birth out of the Bible?,” I though the same thing until I encountered it myself personally in another line.  However, the Bible record does make Nathaniel a less likely father candidate, despite a persistent rumor that Nathaniel was Elijah’s father.

Our only other clues are some tax records recording the number of children in the household of various ages, but none are conclusive. None of these men had wills.

Y DNA Genetic Distance

Your Y DNA matches will show how many mutations you are from them at a particular marker level.

Please note that you can click to enlarge any graphic.

The number of mutations between two men is called the genetic distance.

The rule of thumb is that the more mutations, the further back in time the common ancestor. The problem is, the rule of thumb doesn’t always work. DNA mutates when it darned well pleases, not on any clock that we can measure with that degree of accuracy – at least not accurately enough to tell which of 4 sons a man descends from – unless that line has incurred a defining mutation between the ancestor and the current generation. We call those line marker mutations. To determine the mutation history, you need multiple men from each line to have tested.

You can read more about Y DNA matching in the article, Concepts – Y DNA Matching and Connecting with your Paternal Ancestor.

Check Autosomal DNA Tests

Next, check to see if your Y DNA matches from all Vannoy lines have also taken the autosomal Family Finder test, noted as FF, which shows matches from all ancestral lines, not just the paternal line.

You can see in the match list above that not many have taken the Family Finder test. Ask if they would be willing to upgrade. Be prepared to pay if need be – because you are, after all, the one with the “problem” to solve.

Generally, I simply offer to pay. It’s well worth it to me, and given that paper records don’t exist to answer the question – a DNA test under $100 is cheap. Right now, Family Finder tests are on sale for $69 until the end of the month.

Check for Intermarriage

While you’re waiting for autosomal DNA results, check the pedigrees for all for lines involved to see if you are otherwise related to these men or their wives.

For example, in Andrew Vannoy’s wife’s line and Elijah Vannoy’s wife’s line, we have a common ancestor. George Shepherd and Elizabeth Mary Angelique Daye are common to both lines, and John Shepherd’s wife is unknown, so we have one known problem and one unknown surname.

You can tell already that this could be messy, because we can’t really use Andrew Vannoy’s wife’s line to search for matches because Elijah’s line is likely to match through Andrew’s wife since Susannah Shepherd and Lois McNiel share a common lineage. Rats!

We’ll mark these in red to remind ourselves.

Check Advanced Matching

Family Tree DNA provides a wonderful tool that allows you to compare matches of different kinds of DNA. The Advanced Matching tab is found under “Tools and Apps” under the myFTDNA tab at the upper left.

In this case, I’m going to use the Advanced Match feature to see which of my Vannoy cousin’s Y matches at 37 markers, within the Vannoy DNA project, also match him autosomally.

This report is particularly nice, because it shows number of Y mutations, often indicating distance to a common ancestor, as well as the estimated autosomal relationship range.

You can see in this case that the first Vannoy male, “A,” is a close match both on Y DNA and autosomally, with 1 mutation difference and falling in the 2nd to 4th cousin range, as compared to the second Vannoy male, “D,” who is 3 mutations different and falls into the 4th to remote cousin range.

Not every Vannoy male may have joined the Vannoy project, so you’ll want to run this report a second time, replacing the Vannoy project search criteria with “The Entire Database.”

Unfortunately, not everyone that I need has taken the Family Finder test, so I’ll be contacting a few men, asking if I can sponsor their upgrades.

Let’s move on to our next tactic, using the wives’ surnames.

Search Utilizing the Wife’s Surname

We already know that we can’t rely on the Shepherd surname, so we’ll have to utilize the surnames of the other three wives:

  • Millicent Henderson – parents Thomas Henderson born circa 1730 Virginia, died 1806 Laurens, SC, wife Frances, surname unknown
  • Elizabeth Ray (Raye) – parents William Ray born circa 1725/1730 Herdford, England, died 1783 Wilkes Co., NC (the portion now Ashe Co.,) wife Elizabeth Gordon born circa 1783 Amherst Co., VA and died 1804 Surry Co., NC
  • Sarah Hickerson – parents Charles Hickerson born circa 1725 Stafford Co., VA, died before 1793 Wilkes Co., NC, wife Mary Lytle

Utilizing the Family Finder match search function, I’m going to search for matches that include the wives surnames, but are NOT descended from the Vannoy line.

Hickerson produced no non-Vannoy matches utilizing the matches of my first Vannoy cousin, but Henderson is another matter entirely.

Since the Henderson line would be on my cousin’s father’s side, the matches that are most relevant are the ones phased to his paternal line, those showing the blue person icon.

The surname that you have entered as the search criteria will show as blue in the Ancestral Surname list, at far right, and other matching surnames will show as black. Please note that this includes surnames from ANY person in the match’s tree if they have uploaded a Gedcom file, not just surnames of direct ancestral lines. Therefore, if the match has a tree, it’s important to click on the pedigree icon and search for the surname in question. Don’t assume.

Altogether, there are 76 Henderson matches, of which 17 are phased to his paternal line. You’ll need to review each one of at least the 17. Personally, I would painstakingly review each one of the 76. You never know where a shred of information will be found.

Please note, finding a match with a common surname DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU MATCH THIS PERSON THROUGH THAT SURNAME. Even finding a person with a common ancestor doesn’t mean that you both descend from that ancestor. You may have a second common ancestor. It means that you have more work to do, as proof, but it’s the beginning you need.

Of course, the first thing we need to do is eliminate any matches who also descend from a Vannoy, because there is no way to know if the matching DNA is through the Vannoy or Henderson lines. However, first, take note of how that person descends from the Vannoy line.

You can see your matches entire surname list by clicking on their profile picture.

The surname, Ray, is more difficult, because the search for Ray also returns names like Bray and Wray, as well as Ray.

But Wait – There’s a Happy Ending!

If you’re thinking, “this is a lot of work,” yes, it is.

Yes, you are absolutely going to do the genealogy of the wives’ lines so you can recognize if and how your matches might connect.

I enter the wives’ lines into my genealogy software and then I search for the ancestors found in my matches trees to see if they descend from that line.

One tip to make this easier is to test multiple people in the same line – regardless of whether they are males or carry the desired surname. They simply need to be descendants – that’s the beauty of autosomal DNA and why I carry kits with me wherever I go.  And yes, I’m really serious about that!

When you have multiple testers from the same line, you can utilize each test independently, searching for each surname in the Family Finder results.  Then, from the surname match list, select a sibling or other close relative with that same surname in their list, then choose the ICW feature. This allows you to see who both of those people match who also carries the Henderson surname in their surname list.

Not successful with that initial cousin’s match results – like I wasn’t with Hickerson?

Rinse and repeat, with every single person who you can find who has descended from the line in question. I started the process over again with a second cousin and a Hickerson search.

About the time you’re getting really, really tired of looking at all of those trees, extending the branches of other people’s lines, and are about to give up and go to bed because it’s 3 AM and you’re discouraged, you see something like this:

Yep, it’s good old Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.  I could hardly believe my eyes!!! This Hickerson match to a cousin in my Vannoy line descends from Charles Hickerson’s son, Joshua.

All of a sudden…it’s all worthwhile! Your fatigue is gone, replaced by adrenalin and you couldn’t sleep now if your life depended on it!

Using the ICW (in common with feature) to find additional known cousins who match the person with Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle in their tree, I found a total of three Vannoy cousins with significant matches.

Using the chromosome browser to compare, I’ve confirmed that one segment is a triangulated match of 12.69 cM (blue) on chromosome 2.

You can read more about triangulation in the article, Concepts – Why Genetic Genealogy and Triangulation? as well as the article, Concepts – Match Groups and Triangulation.

Do I wish I had more than three people in my triangulation group? Yes, of course, but with a match of this size triangulated between cousins and a Hickerson descendant who is a 30 year genealogist, sporting a relatively complete tree and no other common lines, it’s a great place to begin digging deeper! This isn’t the end, but a new beginning!

After obsessively digging through the matches of every Elijah Vannoy descended cousin I can find (sleep is overrated anyway) and whose account I have access to, I have now discovered matches with four additional people who have no other common lines with the Vannoy cousins and who descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle through sons David and Joseph Hickerson. I can’t tell if they triangulate without access to accounts that I don’t have access to, so I’ve sent e-mails requesting additional information.

WooHoo Happy Day!!! There’s a really big crack in the brick wall and I’ve just witnessed the sunrise of a beautiful, amazing day.

I think Elijah’s parents are…drum roll…Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson!

Which walls do you need to fall and how can you use this technique?



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27 thoughts on “Using Spousal Surnames and DNA to Unravel Male Lines

  1. And then there are those of us with plenty of matches, none of which is a surname match

    Sent from my Etch A Sketch


  2. Welcome to my nightmare… genealogy in the South. I’m a 12th generation South Carolinian through my father, whose ancestors, with the exception of one lone Mayflower grandson and a few other Yankees, are all from the South Carolina sea islands and lowcountry. The research is extremely difficult at times, but after 40 years of slogging through it, I am used to it. We have an excellent Dept. or Archives and History in Columbia, SC, and many of their records are digitized and available in their online search engine; but in general, SC research almost makes researching other states a “piece of cake.” Almost. My mother’s people are from the upstate of SC and NC, including Laurens Co. SC and Wilkes Co. (cousin?); Buncombe Co NC and Stafford Co. VA (the latter being the black hole of records.) Did people in NC not realize 200 years later, I would need to know when and to whom my ancestors were born?

    Your process is exactly how I do research using DNA results, so thank you, Roberta, for confirming I probably couldn’t be doing it any better. I manage 4 of the DNA surname group projects at FTDNA, and I tell people all the time, do not forget the spouses. It is as important to share that information as it is your direct, male ancestors in a y-dna project.

  3. Hi Roberta,

    What does it take to have access to Advanced Matches? This element does not appear in myFTDNA menu.

    Thank you,

  4. Thanks Roberta! Every one of your articles is fascinating. I’ve even started doing my own version of 52 ancestors to share with my matches. What is your magic trick to get all your cousins to test? I’m obviously doing something wrong. They are all interested in the results but I just can not get them to contribute. They even object to me offering to pay! I’m sure with your experience you could write a whole article on this!

  5. Roberta, I just got my FTDNA Family Finder results and have a couple questions.

    First, my results are substantially different than results I got on Ancestry. Is this due to differences in the segments of dna measured – that is more of my British Isles dna (52%) was found in the segment FTDNA measured vice the segment measured by Ancestry (5% British Isles plus 8% Irish)? Or is this a matter of differing reference populations? To the best of my knowledge, it should be about 25% total British Isles. This is just one example.

    Second, when I look at the chromosome browser, why don’t I see 2 X chromosomes? (I am female.) I had thought that when I compared X to my sister, whose test is not yot finished, that I would see one X, from our father, where we would match completely and one recombined X from our mother, where we would be close, but with some random differences. Seems to me this would be very useful as then we could see what X our dad got from his mother. Doing the same sort of comparison between the female daughters of my mother’s brother, would tell what X he got from our common grandmother. Is it possible to do this sort of analysis, or am I over-thinking the situation? If it is not possible, why not?


    • You have two of each chromosome, but unfortunately, there is no zipper and they can’t be separated into mother and father, without additional testing by mother or father or relatives on either side. No one can tell you why FTDNA and Ancestry’s ethnicities are different. Remember, they are only estimates.

  6. I think Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle’s grandson Joshua Greer Hickerson may be a cousin of mine. My Greer ancestors were from Wilkes County, North Carolina. Who was Joshua’s mother?

  7. That’s great, Roberta! So logical and very creative! If only I could even get as far as to have the Y-DNA matches that I can work with, both for my son and my brother. But time will tell.

    You wrote, “Please note that this includes surnames from ANY person in the match’s tree if they have uploaded a Gedcom file, not just surnames of direct ancestral lines.” What??? Since when? Oh, no. Any idea why?

  8. Dear Roberta,
    I want to thank you for your blog post of yesterday! You won’t believe the impact that this post had really on my day.
    I help with a group of DNA testers from the Hampton/Jasper County area of South Carolina. We are over 100 strong and growing. Most of these lines were free people of color dating back to 1790 census. We are trying to find their origins.
    I subscribed to your blog shortly after taking my first dna test almost three years ago. I was looking for anything that would help me with how to use this testing. During this time on a couple of occasions, I noticed that you blogged about ancestors that I saw in my own ancestors of matches listing. I really didn’t think much of it. Also, I have read your findings regarding the Melungeon study which is of interest to me because I have a bunch of the Newman’s Ridge folk on my chrome 7.
    Back to yesterday ……………
    I was scanning a group kit which stopped abruptly. I ran the matches report to see how far it had gotten when I noticed your name on two of the matches. I restarted the scan then went to another computer and found the matches which contained your name. I confirmed that it was you by remembering one of the Miller surnames that you had blogged about. Then I noticed the surname of Vannoy on your tree. I don’t have Vannoy on my tree but I remembered there seemed to be a connection to several people who went up to a Vannoy/Baker Anderson couple which then went up to a Cornelius Anderson and some other foreign names. I was going strictly on memory as it has been a long time since I looked at this. I thought “hmmm” and went on with my day.
    About an hour later I checked my email and there was your blog post. I opened it and there was your post regarding Henry Francis Vannoy and Susannah Baker Anderson. Then it was OMG! At this point I had to go back to the scans to see if my memory was right. Then I went back to your tree to see what else was there. I was looking for any ties to my area. I saw the Vannoy Family information and there was the Cornelius Anderson guy. More excitement!
    At 1 a.m. I finally saw the confirmation in the Vannoy Family info ……
    “The family of John and Rachael Vannoy drifted away from Staten Island between 1710 and 1720. Family tradition has it that one Vannoy family came from England and settled near Georgetown, SC. The writer cannot find a single record to prove this. John Francis Vanay did, however, settle in the Prurrysburgh District of SC on land granted him by the state on warrant dated December 14, 1739.”
    The modern day Purrysburg is Pineland SC, my father’s hometown.
    I didn’t get much sleep. My brain was dancing and jumping up and down.
    Thank you so much for the blog post and for the public tree and thanx to the ancestry angels for their guidance.
    Jeanette Stepherson Williams
    Lake Mary, Florida

    • Jeannette, I was thrilled to see your post. Congratulations on your find! I am from Fairfax, and have several Huguenot ancestors who went through Purrysburg, French Santee and Robertville.

      I belong to a Lawton Family Research Group and have a few Lawton cousins who I am sure would be interested in your dna study. May I refer them to you? My email is lcmoseley[at] I would be happy to return the favor, too. I have a lot of info on the lowcountry Hampton/Beaufort District Colonial planter families from which I am descended and/or are related through allied marriages: Lawton, Rhodes, Peeples, Elliot, Oswald, Willingham, Rice, Maner, Terry, Brisbane, DeFreese, Jaudon, Robert, Stoney, Cater, Barnwell, Miles, McPherson, Baker, Bellinger, Hyrne, Jenkins, Rippon, Fripp, Chaplin, and others.


      • Lynda: Who is your Rhodes? My ancestor William Johnson (bc. 1760)married a Catherine Mitchell Rhodes in Barnwell SC and we are trying to find out which Rhodes line she came from. I also have Rich on my pedigree who setled in Georgia in Newton and Gwinnett Counties. Miles and Cater are also on the Johnson pedigree. My email is

      • Oliver, I have two Rhodes lines, one paternal, one maternal. The paternal one is upstate SC, the paternal one, lowcountry SC.

        The paternal Rhodes line includes Cater and Miles. My earliest known paternal Rhodes ancestor is George Rhodes b. about 1745 who married Elizabeth Bache in Weykin, England. Their son, Thomas Rhodes b. 1775 Shropshire, England m. Mary Elizabeth Cater (d/o Thomas Cater and Rachel Miles.) My ancestor is Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Cater Rhodes’s son, George Rhodes b. 1802 Beaufort District, SC who m. Eliza Jane Robert. Their daughter, Julianna Cora Rhodes b. 1850 Beaufort District m. Edward Bullard Stoney. Their son, Cornelius Louis Stoney b. 1881 Hampton Co. SC m. Caralie Douglas Medlock. Their daughter, Coralie Dolly Stoney, was my paternal grandmother.

        Email me if you would like more information on any of these lines. I would love to add your direct line to my database. I am sure we can figure out who your Catherine belonged to. There are Johnsons and Johnstons in my lowcountry Lawton and allied lines, too.

  9. Neat! Thanks for this inspiring example. One day, I’ll manage to do something with my autosomal DNA, and if I manage to get any good at it, I may be able to find the mother of a male foundling using this technique, hoping she wasn’t fresh from France and didn’t became a childless nun afterwards…

    I though she was a hopeless case, but you give me hope today!

      • I definitely need more close matches to make sense of the others. All I have so far is endogamic mess that score like a 2nd-4th cousins but are in fact 10x 10th cousins instead. T_T

        But I tested my paternal grand-mother a few weeks ago, so I may be able to start to short what segment come from which ancestor. Waiting for the results.

  10. My brother, sister, daughter,a first cousin and I match on the same chromosome segment as follows: I have access to all of their accounts.


    72017__________________Helen _______________________________247093448

    72017 _________________ Michael ____________________308720088


    72017___________________Eileen ______________11686264

    How can three known cousins not match each other perfectly?

    • They inherited different segments of the ancestor’s DNA. In other words, in different generations between the ancestor and them, different pieces were lost so that they only overlap partially today.

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