The story of the Reverend George McNiel includes the oft-repeated 3 brothers story, and one of the three brothers in this version was named Thomas, or so the legend goes.
I’m used to 3 brothers stories, sometimes used to explain men of the same surname but with no paper trail connection, and I had rather discounted this particular version. I’ve just heard this same story about different families too many times.
That is, I discounted it until droplets of doubt arrived, served up by records in Spotsylvania County where George McNiel lived. In 1754 records included Thomas McNial, then again in 1761, followed by records of one Thomas McNiel in Caswell County, NC about the same time that the Reverend George McNiel migrated from Spotsylvania County to Wilkes County, NC.
From the book, Apprentices of Virginia, 1723-1800:
James Cartwright, a white male, son of Thomas Cartwright decd, was to be apprenticed to Thomas McNial on October 1, 1754 to learn the occupation of a tailor. This is from the Spotsylvania County court order books, 1749-1755, pages 62 and 497.
James Pey, a white male, to be apprenticed to George McNeil on March 1, 1757 to learn the occupation of tailor. From Spotsylvania will book B 1749-1759, page 307.
Robert Mitchell, a white male, was apprenticed to Thomas McNeil on Sept 7, 1761 to learn the occupation of tailor. Spotsylvania County will book B, 1749- 1859, page 540.
I discovered that both George and Thomas were tailors, or at least had tailors on their plantations. Was this possibly an indicator that these men might have both been tailors themselves. With the same surname and same occupation, perhaps that they were related in some way? Was this just a coincidence, or could the “brothers” story be true?
Generally, tailors weren’t needed in the farming countryside, so that tidbit might well mean these men worked either in cities or in wealthy households before immigration. If they were tailors, they themselves would have been apprentices someplace.
More than a decade ago, I worked with another researcher who descended from Thomas McNeil who lived in Caswell Co. He made his will dated April 20, 1781 in which Thomas named his three sons; Thomas, John and Benjamin.
Thomas McNeil’s will:
In the name of God Amen I Thomas McNeil of Caswell Co NC being weak of body but sound of mind and memory do April 20th 1781make this my last will and testament in the manner following. I give unto my living wife Ann the use of all my personal estate during her life or widowhood. I give unto my son Thomas a tract of land lying on Sanderses Creek containing 200 acres which land I bought of my son John and my desire is that my said son John do make a right of said land to my son Thomas. I give unto my son Benjamin 150 acres joining the lines of Andrew Caddell and my son John Land to him and his heirs forever. I give to my daughter Mary 100 acres of land lying on Henley’s Creek joining Wilson Vermillions line to her and her heirs forever. At the death of my loving wife that my sons Thomas and Benjamin have each of them a horse and saddle and a bed which horses to be of the value of 10 pounds in specie also the plantation working tools I desire may be equally devided between them. I further give unto my daughter Mary one feather bed and furniture and two cows and calves after the death of my loving wife. All of my negroes and their increase after the death or marriage of my loving wife be by three honest men equally divided amongst my 8 children, or the survivors of them, to wit John, Thomas, Benjamin, Elizabeth Roberts, Nancy Vermilion, Mary, Patsey Hubbert and Lois to them and their heirs forever. Lastly I nominate and appoint my wife Ann , my son John and my son-in-law Wilson Vermillion and George Lea (son of William) executors of this my last will and testament revoking all other wills by me made in witness whereof I have hereunto sett my hand and seal…signed. Witnessed George Lea, Lucy Lea, John Clixby. Proved Dec court 1781.
At that time, no relationship had been established between this Thomas and the McNeil’s of other counties.
That McNeil researcher was unable to recruit a male McNeil family member to DNA test, so for more than a decade, this research languished with no way to answer the question of whether George McNiel and Thomas McNeil were indeed brothers.
Beginning in Spotsylvania County, the journey to Wilkes County is about 337 miles, and the old rutted wagon road passed through Caswell County on the way. At about 10 miles per day, that’s a total of about 34 days, assuming nothing went wrong. It makes you wonder if Thomas just got tired of the wagon lurching and bumping along the trail and said, “I’m done, drop me off here” about 3 weeks into the trip.
It’s about 135 miles from Caswell County to Wilkes County, with Wilkes being in the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway. At that time, this was the frontier, and the mountains, the barrier to the next one.
Were Thomas and George Brothers?
Today, we have an answer, or at least a probable answer, thanks to Y DNA testing.
Aside from paper documentation, which we don’t have, the only way to obtain relationship evidence is by DNA testing, specifically the Y chromosome passed from father to son in every generation and not mixed with any DNA from the mother. This means that the Y chromosome is passed intact from father to son for many generations, except for an occasional mutation. The Y DNA of men who were brothers in the 1700s should match very closely.
The Rev. George McNiel’s Y DNA line is represented by two known descendants from different sons’ lines, so we know the haplotype of his DNA, meaning the STR value numbers that cumulatively read like a DNA fingerprint.
I hadn’t checked the Y DNA results of my cousin who tested to represent the Reverend George McNiel’s line in some time, so I decided to take a quick look. What a welcome surprise was waiting.
At 67 markers, our George McNiel’s descendant’s best match is to a descendant of Thomas McNeill of Caswell County. Wooohoooo!
Unfortunately, the match has not taken the Family Finder test, which might show how closely he matches to the descendants of George utilizing autosomal DNA. Of course, given how many generations back in time those men lived, their descendants might not match autosomally. But then again, some might!
Not only that, but George’s descendant matches more closely to Thomas’s descendant than to another descendant of George. Just the way the DNA dice rolled in terms of when mutations happened.
Looking at the public McNiel project display, there are several McNeil men along with other spelling variants that fall into the Niall of the 9 Hostages grouping characterized by haplogroup R1b>L21>M222.
These men look to have descended from a common ancestor far back in time. You can easily see that there are specific clusters of men who match each other on particular allele values. My cousin who tested to represent George McNiel’s line is highlighted in blue.
Unfortunately, not one man in this group has taken the Big Y test for further haplogroup refinement. Hmmm, we might have to do something about this.
But, there’s more information on my cousin’s McNiel match page that wasn’t there before. Much more. Each match provides clues that I’ve compiled into the following table:
|1 – 50th percentile at 3 generations||Thomas McNiell 1724-1781||Caswell Co., NC||Probably George’s brother|
|3 – 50th percentile at 4 generations||Thomas MccNiell married in 1750||Rombout, NY||Ancestry shows Thomas married to Rachel Hoff, English christening records shows a Thomas Macneil born to Gilbert MacNeil in Witton Le Wear, Durham, England in 1699.|
|5 – 50th percentile at 6 generations||Hugh Neel b 1750||Ireland||Ancestry shows born Ireland, lived in Camden Co., SC, died after 1792 in KY|
|7 – 50th percentile at 12 generations||Edward McNellis 1816-1888||Died Glennageeragh, Tyrone, Ireland||Father may have been Frank who died in Glenncull, Ballygawley, County Tyrone|
The information gleaned from these matches, in closest to furthest match order, above, can yield clues to where our McNiel line was before immigration in addition to further back in time.
The oral story says that George came from Edinburg, Scotland after studying for the Presbyterian ministry which tells us that he might have traveled to Edinburgh from elsewhere. There is no evidence to either confirm or refute this historical nugget. If George left from Edinburgh, it stand to reason that Thomas probably did too.
At a genetic distance of 3, a second Thomas McNiell, was reportedly born in Witton Le Wear, which is found about 95 miles south of Coldstream, which sits right on the border of England and Scotland. As you can see on the map below, Coldstream isn’t far from Edinburgh.
This does assume the Thomas born in Witton Le Wear is the same Thomas subsequently found in New York. I have not verified that information.
The Neel line with a genetic distance of 5 was born in Ireland, but they don’t know where.
The match with a genetic distance of 7 hails from Glennageeragh. On the map below, at the blue dot, we find the location of Glennageeragh Townland in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
County Tyrone was one of the seated plantation regions, meaning that many Scots immigrated here. However, there is much more history involving the McNiel family in County Tyrone from before the Plantation Era when displaced Scots were settled in Ireland.
The picturesque townland of Glenncull, near Glennageeragh, where Edward McNellis’s father may have died is shown in the photo below.
Interestingly, the town of Ballygawley is also known as “Errigal-Kerogue” or “Errigal-Kieran”, supposedly from the dedication of an ancient church to St. Kieran (Ciarán of Clonmacnoise). It was in the Clogher (barony), along the River Blackwater, Northern Ireland. Some of the remains of the old church were known, and an ancient Franciscan friary, founded by Conn O’Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone. In the churchyard was a large stone cross, and a holy well.
Conn O’Neill was born in 1480 and died in 1559, both in Ireland. In 1541 he travelled to England to submit to the Henry VIII as part of the surrender and regrant that coincided with the creation of the Kingdom of Ireland and was subsequently made Earl of Tyrone.
Conn Bacach O’Neill was the son of Conn Mór O’Neill, King of Tír Eógain (Tyrone), and Lady Eleanor Fitzgerald. Con Mor O’Neill was the son of Henry Ó Néill, King of Tír Eógain. Eleanor Fitzgerald was the daughter of Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare. Con Bacach O’Neill was the first of the Ó Néills whom the English, in their attempts to subjugate Ireland in the 16th century, brought to the front as leaders of the native Irish. His father, the King of Tír Eógan, was murdered in 1493 by his brother.
Conn’s grandson, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was born in 1550 and came to the throne in 1587, crowned in 1595, and died in 1607.
George and Thomas McNiel were born sometime around 1720. Based on oral history, it’s suggested that they came to Maryland from Scotland sometime around 1750, as adults. The story further reveals that George had studied at the University of Edinburgh for the Presbyterian ministry and that the brothers argued about religion on the ship, during the long Atlantic crossing. George reportedly “saw the light” and became Baptist, but one of the brothers was so upset about the religious discussions during this adventure that he changed the spelling of his name to McNeill.
If that’s true, then the unhappy brother must be the third missing one, possibly named John, because Thomas and George lived in the same vicinity from about 1750 to at least 1761.
My observation is that names were spelled every-which-way in records during that time, with very little consistency – so a name change without other evidence would not indicate a dispute.
So, Is Thomas George’s Brother or Not?
Unfortunately, we can’t draw an entirely 100% firm conclusion.
The first piece of evidence is that the Y DNA clearly did not rule out a relationship. In fact, it confirmed a close relationship, but we can’t say how close from Y DNA alone.
We already know that George’s descendant matches Thomas’s descendant more closely that George’s second descendant.
So, yes, it’s very, very likely that these two men were brothers or closely related.
Autosomal tests could potentially help. I’ve e-mailed and asked the McNeil matches if they would consider upgrading to a Family Finder test. However, in a situation like his, without some paper documentation, given the number of generations between now and then, there is no way to prove absolutely that George and Thomas were brothers, as opposed to cousins, or uncle/nephew, etc.
While we can’t positively prove that George and Thomas were siblings, we can potentially look a bit further back in time by determining the terminal SNP of our McNiel line. Perhaps it’s time for me to order a Big Y test for George’s descendant.
I’m hopeful that looking back in time through the lens of the Big Y test will unwrap even more about the early history of the McNiel men, before the adoption of surnames or where these men lived when surnames were adopted. From that surname-adoption location, whereever it was, it appears that the McNeil men by whatever spelling spread throughout Ireland, Scotland and to parts of England.
Perhaps George and Thomas McNiel descended from a long line of adventurers.
And to think all of this information emerged from George’s descendant’s Y DNA matches. Amazing!