DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

If you’re involved in genetic genealogy, you’ve probably noticed the recent announcements by both 23andMe and Ancestry relative to workforce layoffs as a result of declining sales.

Layoffs

In January, 23andMe announced that it was laying off 100 people which equated to 14% of its staff.

Following suit, Ancestry this week announced that they are laying off 100 people, 6% of their work force. They discuss their way forward, here.

One shift of this type can be a blip, but two tends to attract attention because it *could* indicate a trend. Accordingly, several articles have been written about possible reasons why this might be occurring. You can read what TechCrunch says here, Business Insider here, and The Verge, here.

Depending on who you talk to and that person’s perspective, the downturn is being attributed to:

  • Market Saturation
  • No Repeat Sales
  • Privacy Concerns
  • FAD Over

Ok, So What’s Happening?

Between Ancestry and 23andMe alone, more than 26 million DNA tests have been sold, without counting the original DNA testing company, FamilyTreeDNA along with MyHeritage who probably have another 4 or 5 million between them.

Let’s say that’s a total of 30 million people in DNA databases that offer matching. The total population of the US is estimated to be about 329 million, including children, which means that one person in 10 or 11 people in the US has now tested. Of course, DNA testing reaches worldwide, but it’s an interesting comparison indicating how widespread DNA testing has become overall.

This slowing of new sales shouldn’t really surprise anyone. In July 2019, Illumina, the chip maker who supplies equipment and supplies to the majority of the consumer DNA testing industry said that the market was softening after a drop in their 2019 second quarter revenue.

Also last year, Ancestry and MyHeritage both announced health products, a move which would potentially generate a repeat sale from someone who has already tested their DNA for genealogy purposes. I suspected at the time this might be either a pre-emptive strike, or in response to slowed sales.

In November 2019, Family Tree DNA announced an extensive high-end health test through Tovana which tests the entire Exome, the portion of our DNA useful for medical and health analysis.

In a sense, this health focus too is trendy, but moves away from genealogy into an untapped area.

23andMe who, according to their website, has obtained $791 million in venture capital or equity funding has always been focused on medical research. In July of 2018 GlaxoSmithKline infused $300 million into 23andMe in exchange for access to DNA results of their 5 million customers who have opted-in to medical research, according to Genengnews. If you divide the 300 million investment by 5 million opted-in customers, 23andMe received $60 per DNA kit.

That 5 million number is low though, based on other statements by 23andMe which suggests they have 10 million total customers, 80% of which opt-in for medical research. That would be a total of 8 million DNA results available to investors.

Divide $791 million by 8 million kits and 23andMe, over the years, has received roughly $99 for each customer who has opted in to research.

We know who Ancestry has partnered with for research, but not how much Ancestry has received.

There’s very big money, huge money, in collaborating with Big Pharma and others. Given the revenue potential, it’s amazing that the other two vendors, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, haven’t followed suit, but they haven’t.

Additionally, in January, 23andMe sold the rights to a new drug it developed in-house as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases for a reported (but unconfirmed by 23andMe) $5 million.

It’s ironic that two companies who just announced layoffs are the two who have partnered to sell access to their opted-in customers’ DNA results.

My Thoughts

I’ve been asked several times about my thoughts on this shift within the industry. I have refrained from saying much, because I think there has been way too much “hair on fire” clickbait reporting that is fanning the flames of fear, not only in the customer base, but in general.

I am sharing my thoughts, and while they are not entirely positive, in that there is clearly room for improvement, I want to emphasize that I am very upbeat about this industry as a whole, and this article ends very positively with suggestions for exactly that – so please read through.

Regardless of why, fewer new people are testing which of course results in fewer sales, and fewer new matches for us.

My suspicion is that each of the 4 reasons given above is accurate to some extent, and the cumulative effect plus a couple of other factors is the reason we’re seeing the downturn.

Let’s take a look at each one.

Market Saturation

Indeed, we’ve come a very long way from the time when DNA was a verboten topic on the old RootsWeb mailing lists and boards.

Early DNA adopters back then were accused of “cheating,” and worse. Our posts were deleted immediately. How times have changed!

As the technology matured, 23andMe began offering autosomal testing accompanied by cousin matching.

Ancestry initially stepped into the market with Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, but ultimately destroyed that database which included Y and mitochondrial DNA results from Relative Genetics, a company they had previously acquired. People in those databases, as well as who had irreplaceable samples in Sorenson, which Ancestry also purchased and subsequently took offline permanently have never forgotten.

Those genealogists have probably since tested at Ancestry, but they may be more inclined to test the rest of their family at places like Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage who have chromosome browsers and tools that support more serious researchers.

I think a contributing factor is that fewer “serious genealogists” are coming up in the ranks. The perception that all you need to do is enter a couple of generations and click on a few leaves, and you’re “done” misleads people as to the complexity and work involved in genealogical research. Not to mention how many of those hints are inaccurate and require analysis.

Having said that, I view each one of these people who are encouraged for the first time by an ad, even if it is misleading in its simplicity, as a potential candidate. We were all baby genealogists once, and some of us stayed for reasons known only to us. Maybe we have the genealogy gene😊

But yes, I would agree that the majority, by far, of serious genealogists have already tested someplace. What they have not done universally is transferred from 23andMe and Ancestry to the other companies that can help them, such as MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. If they had, the customer numbers at those companies would be higher. We all need to fish in every pond.

Advertising and Ethnicity

The DNA ads over the last few years have focused almost exclusively on ethnicity – the least reliable aspect of genetic genealogy – but also the “easiest” to understand if a customer takes their ethnicity percentages at face value. And of course, every consumer that purchases a test as a result of one of these ads does exactly that – spits or swabs, mails and opens their results to see what they “are” – full of excited anticipation.

Many people have absolutely no idea there’s more, like cousin matching – and many probably wouldn’t care.

The buying public who purchases due to these ads are clearly not early adopters, and most likely are not genealogists. One can hope that at least a few of them get hooked as a result, or at least enter a minimal tree.

Unfortunately, of the two companies experiencing layoffs, only Ancestry supports trees. Genealogy revolves around trees, pure and simple.

23andMe has literally had years to do so and has refused to natively support trees. Their FamilySearch link is not the same as supporting trees and tree matching. Their attempt at creating a genetic tree is laudable and has potential, but it’s not something that can be translated into a genealogical benefit for most people. I’m guessing that there aren’t any genealogists working for 23andMe, or they aren’t “heard” amid the vervre surrounding medical research.

All told, I’m not surprised that the two companies who are experiencing the layoffs are the two companies whose ads we saw most often focused on ethnicity, especially Ancestry. Who can forget the infamous kilt/leiderhosen ad that Ancestry ran? I still cringe.

Many people who test for ethnicity never sign on again – especially if they are unhappy with the results.

Ancestry and 23andMe spent a lot on ad campaigns, ramped up for the resulting sales, but now the ads are less effective, so not being run as much or at all. Sales are down. Who’s to say which came first, the chicken (fewer ads) or the egg (lower sales.)

This leads us to the next topic, add on sales.

No Repeat Sales

DNA testing, unless you have something else to offer customers is being positioned as a “one and done” sale, meaning that it’s a single purchase with no potential for additional revenue. While that’s offered as a reason for the downturn, it’s not exactly true for DNA test sales.

Ancestry clearly encourages customers to subscribe to their records database by withholding access to some DNA features without a subscription. For Ancestry, DNA is the bait for a yearly repeat sale of a subscription. Genealogists subscribe, of course, but people who aren’t genealogists don’t see the benefit.

Ancestry does not allow transfers into their database, which would provide for additional revenue opportunity. I suspect the reason is twofold. First, they want the direct testing revenue, but perhaps more importantly, in order to sell their customer’s DNA who have agreed to participate in research, or partner with research firms, those customers need to have tested on Ancestry’s custom chip. This holds true for 23andMe as well.

Through the 23andMe financial information in the earlier section, it’s clear that while the consumer only pays a one time fee to test, multiple research companies will pay over and over for access to that compiled consumer information.

Ancestry and 23andMe have the product, your opted-in DNA test that you paid for, and they can sell it over and over again. Hopefully, this revenue stream helps to fund development of genetic genealogical tools.

MyHeritage also provides access to advanced DNA tools by selling a subscription to their records database after a free trial. MyHeritage has integrated their DNA testing with genealogical records to provide their advanced Theories of Family Relativity tool, a huge boon to genealogists.

While Family Tree DNA doesn’t have a genealogical records database like Ancestry and MyHeritage, they provide Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, in addition to the autosomal Family Finder test. If more people tested Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, more genealogical walls would fall due to the unique inheritance path and the fact that neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA is admixed with DNA from the other parent.

Generally, only genealogists know about and are going to order Y DNA and mtDNA tests, or sponsor others to take them to learn more about their ancestral lines. These tests don’t provide yearly revenue like an ongoing subscription, but at least the fact that Family Tree DNA offers three different tests does provide the potential for at least some additional sales.

Both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA encourage uploads, and neither sell, lease or share your DNA for medical testing. You can find upload instructions, here.

In summary of this section, all of the DNA testing companies do have some sort of additional (potential) revenue stream from DNA testing, so it’s not exactly “one and done.”

Health Testing Products

As for health testing, 23andMe has always offered some level of health information for their customers. Health and research has always been their primary focus. Health and genealogy was originally bundled into one test. Today, DNA ancestry tests with the health option at 23andMe cost more than a genealogy-only test and are two separate products.

MyHeritage also offers a genealogy only DNA test and a genealogy plus health DNA test.

In 2019, both Ancestry and MyHeritage added health testing to their menu as upgrades for existing customers.

In November 2019, FamilyTreeDNA announced an alliance with Tovana for their customers to order a full exome grade medical test and accompanying report. I recently received mine and am still reviewing the results – they are extensive.

It’s clear that all four companies see at least some level of consumer interest in health and traits as a lucrative next step.

Medical Research and DNA Sales

Both Ancestry and 23andMe are pursuing and have invested in relationships with research institutions or Big Pharma. I have concerns with how this is handled. You may not.

I’m supportive of medical research, but I’m concerned that most people have no idea of the magnitude and scope of the contracts between Ancestry and 23andMe with Big Pharma and others, in part, because the details are not public. Customers may also not be aware of exactly what they are opting in to, what it means or where their DNA/DNA results are going.

As a consumer, I want to know where my DNA is, who is using it, and for what purpose. I don’t want my DNA to wind up being used for a nefarious purpose or something I don’t approve of. Think Uighurs in China by way of example. BGI Genetics, headquartered in China but with an Americas division and facilities in Silicon Valley has been a major research institute for years. I want to know what my DNA is being used for, and by whom. The fact that the companies won’t provide their customers with that information makes me makes me immediately wonder why not.

I would like to be able to opt-in for specific studies, not blindly for every use that is profitable to the company involved, all without my knowledge. No blank checks. For example, I opted out of 23andMe research when they patented the technology for designer babies.

Furthermore, I feel that if someone is going to profit from my DNA, it should be me since I paid for the sequencing. At minimum, a person whose DNA is used in these studies should receive some guarantee that they will be provided with any drug in which their DNA is used for development, in particular if their insurance doesn’t pay and they cannot afford the drug.

Drug prices have risen exponentially in the US recently, with many people no longer able to afford their medications. For example, the price of insulin has tripled over the last decade, causing people to ration or cut back on their insulin, if not go without altogether. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very people whose DNA was sold and used to create a drug had no access to it.

Of course, Ancestry and 23andMe are not required to inform consumers of which studies their DNA or DNA results are used for, so we don’t know. Always read all of the terms and conditions, and all links when authorizing anything.

Both companies indicate that your DNA results are anonymized before being shared, but we now know that’s not really possible anymore, because it’s relatively easy to re-identify someone. This is exactly how adoptees identify their biological parents through genetic matches. Dr. Yaniv Erlich reported in the journal Science November 2018 that more than 60% of Europeans could be reidentified through a genealogy database of only 1.28 million individuals.

I think greater transparency and a change in policy favoring the consumer would go a long way to instilling more confidence in the outside research relationships that both Ancestry and 23andMe pursue and maintain. It would probably increase their participation level as well if people could select the research initiatives to which they want to contribute their DNA.

Privacy Concerns

The news has been full of articles about genetic privacy, especially in the months since the Golden State Killer case was solved. That was only April 2018, but it seems like eons ago.

Unfortunately, much of what has been widely reported is inaccurate. For example, no company has ever thrown the data base open for the FBI or anyone to rummage through like a closet full of clothes. However, headlines and commentary like that attract outrage and hundreds of thousands of clicks. In the news and media industry, “it’s all about eyeballs.”

In one case, an article I interviewed for extensively in an educational capacity was written accurately, but the headline was awful. The journalist in question replied that the editors write the headlines, not the reporters.

One instance of this type of issue would be pretty insignificant, but the news in this vein hasn’t abated, always simmering just below the surface waiting for something to fan the flames. Outrage sells.

For the most part, those within the genealogy community at least attempt to sort out what is accurate reporting and what is not, but those people are the ones who have already tested.

People outside the genealogy community just know that they’ve now seen repeated headlines reporting that their genetic privacy either has been, could be or might be breached, and they are suspicious and leery. I would be too. They have no idea what that actually means, what is actually occurring, where, or that they are probably far more at risk on social media sites.

These people are not genealogists, and now they look at ads and think to themselves, “yes, I’d like to do that, but…”

And they never go any further.

People are frightened and simply disconnect from the topic – without testing.

If, as a consumer, you see several articles or posts saying that <fill in car model> is really bad, when you consider a purchase, even if you initially like that model, you’ll remember all of those negative messages. You may never realize that the source was the competition which would cause you to interpret those negative comments in a completely different light.

I think that some of the well-intentioned statements made by companies to reassure their existing and potential customers have actually done more harm than good by reinforcing that there’s a widespread issue. “You’re safe with us” can easily be interpreted as, “there’s something to be afraid of.”

Added to that is the sensitive topic of adoptee and unknown parent searches.

Reunion stories are wonderfully touching, and we all love them, but you seldom see the other side of the coin. Not every story has a happy ending, and many don’t. Not every parent wants to be found for a variety of reasons. If you’re the child and don’t want to find your parents, don’t test, but it doesn’t work the other way around. A parent can often be identified by their relatives’ DNA matches to their child.

While most news coverage reflects positive adoptee reunion outcomes, that’s not universal, and almost every family has a few lurking skeletons. People know that. Some people are fearful of what they might discover about themselves or family members and are correspondingly resistant to DNA testing. Realizing you might discover that your father isn’t your biological father if you DNA test gives people pause. It’s a devastating discovery and some folks decide they’d rather not take that chance, even though they believe it’s not possible.

The genealogical search techniques for identifying unknown parents or close relatives and the technique used by law enforcement to identify unknown people, either bodies or perpetrators is exactly the same. If you are in one of the databases, who you match can provide a very big hint to someone hunting for the identify of an unknown person.

People who are not genealogists, adoptees or parents seeking to find children placed for adoption may be becoming less comfortable with this idea in general.

Of course, the ability for law enforcement to upload kits to GedMatch/Verogen and Family Tree DNA, under specific controlled conditions, has itself been an explosive and divisive topic within and outside of the genealogy community since April 2018.

These law enforcement kits are either cold case remains of victims, known as “Does,” or body fluids from the scenes of violent crimes, such as rape, murder and potentially child abduction and aggravated assault. To date, since the Golden State Killer identification, numerous cases have produced a “solve.” ISOGG, a volunteer organization, maintains a page of known cases solved, here.

GEDmatch encourages people to opt-in for law-enforcement matching, meaning that their kit can be seen as a match to kits uploaded by law enforcement agencies or companies working on behalf of law enforcement agencies. If a customer doesn’t opt-in, their kit can’t be seen as a match to a law enforcement kit.

Family Tree DNA initially opted-out all EU kits from law enforcement matching, due to GDPR, and provides the option for their customers to opt-out of law-enforcement matching.

Neither MyHeritage, Ancestry nor 23andMe cooperate with law enforcment under any circumstances and have stated that they will actively resist all subpoenaes in court.

ISOGG provides a FAQ on Investigative Genetic Genealogy, here.

The two sides of the argument have rather publicly waged war on each other in an ongoing battle to convince people of the merits of their side of the equation, including working with news organizations.

Unfortunately, this topic is akin to arguing over politics. No one changes their mind, and everyone winds up mad.

Notice I’m not linking any articles here, not even my own. I do not want to fan these flames, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the topic of law enforcement usage itself, the on-going public genetic genealogy community war and resulting media coverage together have very probably contributed to the lagging sales. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that while a great division of opinion exists, and many people are opposed, there are also many people who are extremely supportive.

All of this, combined, intentionally or not, has introduced FUD, fear, uncertainty and doubt – a very old disinformation “sales technique.”

In a sense, for consumers, this has been like watching pigs mud-wrestle.

As my dad used to say, “Never mud-wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, you get muddy and the spectators can’t tell the difference.” The spectators in this case vote with their lack of spending and no one is a winner.

DNA Testing Was A FAD

Another theory is that genealogy DNA testing was just a FAD whose time has come and gone. I think the FAD was ethnicity testing, and that chicken has come home to roost.

Both 23andMe and Ancestry clearly geared up for testers attracted by their very successful ads. I was just recently on a cruise, and multiple times I heard people at another table discussing their ethnicity results from some unnamed company. They introduced the topic by saying, “I did my DNA.”

The discussion was almost always the same. Someone said that they thought their ethnicity was pretty accurate, someone else said theirs was awful, and the discussion went from there. Not one time did anyone ever mention a company name, DNA matching or any other functionality. I’m not even sure they understood there are different DNA testing companies.

If I was a novice listening-in, based on that discussion, I would have learned to doubt the accuracy of “doing my DNA.”

If most of the people who purchased ethnicity tests understood in advance that ethnicity testing truly is “just an estimate,” they probably wouldn’t have purchased in the first place. If they understood the limitations and had properly set expectations, perhaps they would not have been as unhappy and disenchanted with their results. I realize that’s not very good marketing, but I think that chicken coming home to roost is a very big part of what we’re seeing now.

The media has played this up too, with stories about how the ethnicity of identical twins doesn’t match. If people bother to read more than the headline, and IF it’s a reasonably accurate article, they’ll come to understand why and how that might occur. If not, what they’ll take away is that DNA testing is wrong and unreliable. So don’t bother.

Furthermore, most people don’t understand that ethnicity testing and cousin matching are two entirely different aspects of a DNA test. The “accuracy” of ethnicity is not related to the accuracy of cousin matching, but once someone questions the credibility of DNA testing – their lack of confidence is universal.

I would agree, the FAD is over – meaning lots of people testing primarily for ethnicity. I think the marketing challenge going forward is to show people that DNA testing can be useful for other things – and to make that easy.

Ethnicity was the low hanging fruit and it’s been picked.

Slowed Growth – Not Dead in the Water

The rate of growth has slowed. This does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that genetic genealogy or DNA testing is dead in the water. DNA fishes for us 365x24x7.

For example, just today, I received a message from 23andMe that 75 new relatives have joined 23andMe. I also received match notifications from Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.  Hey – calorie-free treats!!!

These new matches are nothing to sneeze at. I remember when I was thrilled over ONE new match.

I have well over 100,000 matches if you combine my matches at the four vendors.

Without advanced tools like triangulation, Phased Family Matching, Theories of Family Relativity, ThruLines, DNAPainter, DNAgedcom and Genetic Affairs, I’d have absolutely no prayer of grouping and processing this number of matches for genealogy.

Even if I received no new matches for the next year, I’d still not be finished analyzing the autosomal matches I already have.

This Too Shall Pass

At least I hope it will.

I think people will still test, but the market has corrected. This level of testing is probably the “new normal.”

Neither Ancestry or 23andMe are spending the big ad dollars – or at least not as big.

In order for DNA testing companies to entice customers into purchasing subscriptions or add-on products, tools need to be developed or enhanced that encourage customers to return to the site over and over. This could come in the form of additional results or functionality calculated on their behalf.

That “on their behalf” point is important. Vendors need to focus on making DNA fun, and productive, not work. New tools, especially in the last year or two, have taken a big step in that direction. Make the customer wonder every day what gift is waiting for him or her that wasn’t there yesterday. Make DNA useful and fun!

I would call this “DNA crack.” 😊

Cooking Up DNA Crack!

In order to assist the vendors, I’ve compiled one general suggestion plus what I would consider to be the “Big 3 Wish List” for each of their DNA products in term of features or improvements that would encourage customers to either use or return to their sites. (You’re welcome.)

I don’t want this to appear negative, so I’ve also included the things I like most about each vendor.

If you have something to add, please feel free to comment in a positive fashion.

Family Tree DNA

I Love: Y and Mitochondrial DNA, Phased Family Matching, and DNA projects

General Suggestion – Fix chronic site loading issues which discourage customers

  • Tree Matching – fix the current issues with trees and implement tree matching for DNA matches
  • Triangulation – including by match group and segment
  • Clustering – some form of genetic networks

MyHeritage

I Love: Theories of Family Relativity, triangulation, wide variety of filters, SmartMatches and Record Matches

General – Clarify confusing subscription options in comparative grid format

  • Triangulation by group and segment
  • View DNA matches by ancestor
  • Improved Ethnicity

Ancestry

I Love: Database size, ThruLines, record and DNA hints (green leaves)

General – Focus on the customers’ needs and repeated requests

  • Accept uploads
  • Chromosome Browser (yes, I know this is a dead horse, but that doesn’t change the need)
  • Triangulation (dead horse’s brother)

23andMe

I Love: Triangulation, Ethnicity quality, ethnicity segments identified, painted and available for download

General – Focus on genealogy tools if you’re going to sell a genealogy test

  • Implement individual customer trees – not Family Search
  • Remove 2000 match limit (which is functionally less after 23andMe hides the people not opted into matching)
  • DNA + Tree Matching

Summary

In summary, we, as consumers need to maintain our composure, assuring others that no one’s hair is on fire and the sky really is not falling. We need to calmly educate as opposed to frighten.

Just the facts.

Other approaches don’t serve us in the end. Frightening people away may “win” the argumentative battle of the day, but we all lose the war if people are no longer willing to test.

This is much like a lifeboat – we all succeed together, or we all lose.

Everybody row!

As genealogists, we need to:

  • Focus on verifying ancestors and solving genealogy challenges
  • Sharing those victories with others, including family members
  • Encourage our relatives to test, and transfer so that their testing investment provides as much benefit as possible
  • Offer to help relatives with the various options on each vendor’s platform
  • Share the joy

People share exciting good news with others, especially on Facebook and social media platforms, and feel personally invested when you share new results with them. Collaboration bonds people.

A positive attitude, balanced perspective and excitement about common ancestors goes a very, very long was in terms of encouraging others.

We have more matches now than ever before, along with more and better tools. Matches are still rolling in, every single day.

New announcements are expected at Rootstech in a couple short weeks.

There’s so much opportunity and work to do.

The sky is not falling. It rained a bit.

The seas may have been stormy, but as a genealogist, the sun is out and a rising tide lifts us all.

Rising tide

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DNAPainter: Painting “Bucketed” Family Tree DNA Maternal and Paternal Family Finder Matches in One Fell Swoop

DNAPainter has done it again, providing genealogists with a wonderful tool that facilitates separating your matches into maternal and paternal categories so that they can be painted on the proper chromosome – in one fell swoop no less.

Of course, the entire purpose of painting your chromosomes is to identify segments that descend from specific ancestors in order to push those lines back further in time genealogically. Identifying segments, confirming and breaking down brick walls is the name of the game.

DNA Painter New Import Tool

The new DNAPainter tool relies on Family Tree DNA’s Phased Family Matching which assigns your matches to maternal and paternal buckets. On your match list, at the top, you’ll see the following which indicates how many matches you have in total and how many people are assigned to each bucket.

DNAPainter FF import.png

Note that these are individual matches, not total matching segments – that number would be higher.

In order for Family Tree DNA to create bucketed matches for you, you’ll need to:

  • Either create a tree or upload a GEDCOM file
  • Attach your DNA kit to “you” in your tree
  • Attach all 4th cousins and closer with whom you match to their proper location on your tree

Yes, it appears that Family Tree DNA is now using 4th cousins, not just third cousins and closer, which provides for additional bucketed matches.

How reliable is bucketing?

Quite. Occasionally one of two issues arise which becomes evident if you actually compare the matches’ segments to the parent with whom they are bucketed:

  • One or more of your matches’ segments do match you and your parent, but additionally, one or more segments match you, but not your parent
  • The X chromosome is particularly susceptible to this issue, especially with lower cM matches
  • Occasionally, a match that is large enough to be bucketed isn’t, likely because no known, linked cousin shares that segment

Getting Started

Get started by creating or uploading your tree at Family Tree DNA.

DNAPainter mytree.png

After uploading your GEDCOM file or creating your tree at Family Tree DNA, click on the “matches” icon at the top of the tree to link yourself and your relatives to their proper places on your tree. Your matches will show in the box below the helix icon.

DNAPainter FF matches.png

I created an example “twin” for myself to use for teaching purposes by uploading a file from Ancestry, so I’m going to attach that person to my tree as my “Evil Twin.” (Under normal circumstances, I do not recommend uploading duplicate files of anyone.)

DNAPainter FF matches link.png

Just drag and drop the person on your match list on top of their place on the tree.

DNAPainter Ff sister.png

Here I am as my sister, Example Adoptee.

I’ve wished for a very, very long time that there was a way to obtain a list of segment matches sorted by maternal and paternal bucket without having to perform spreadsheet gymnastics, and now there is, at DNAPainter.

DNAPainter does the heavy-lifting so you don’t have to.

What Does DNAPainter Do with Bucketed Matches?

When you are finished uploading two files at DNAPainter, you’ll have:

  • Maternal groups of triangulated matches
  • Paternal groups of triangulated matches
  • Matches that could not be assigned based on the bucketing. Some (but not all) of these matches will be identical by chance – typically roughly 15-20% of your match list. You can read about identical by chance, here.

I’ll walk you through the painting process step by step.

First, you need to be sure your relatives are connected to your tree at Family Tree DNA so that you have matches assigned to your maternal and paternal buckets. The more relatives you connect, per the instructions in the previous section, the more matching people will be able to be placed into maternal or paternal buckets.

Painting Bucketed Matches at DNAPainter

I wrote basic articles about how to use DNAPainter here. If you’re unfamiliar with how to use DNAPainter or it’s new to you, now would be a good time to read those articles. This next section assumes that you’re using DNAPainter. If not, go ahead, register, and set up a profile. One profile is free for everyone, but multiple profiles require a subscription.

First, make a duplicate of the profile that you’re working with. This DNAPainter upload tool is in beta.

DNAPainter duplicate profile.png

Since I’m teaching and experimenting, I am using a fresh, new profile for this experiment. If it works successfully, I’ll duplicate my working profile, just in case something goes wrong or doesn’t generate the results I expect, and repeat these steps there.

Second, at Family Tree DNA, Download a fresh copy of your complete matching segment file. This “Download Segments” link is found at the top right of the chromosome browser page.

DNAPainter ff download segments.png

Third, download your matches at the bottom left of the actual matches page. This file hold information about your matches, such as which ones are bucketed, but no segment information. That’s in the other file.

DNAPainter csv.png

Name both of these files something you can easily identify and that tells them apart. I called the first one “Segments” in front of the file name and the second one “Matches” in front of the file name.

Fourth, at DNAPainter, you’ll need to import your entire downloaded segment file that you just downloaded from Family Tree DNA. I exclude segments under 7cM because they are about 50% identical by chance.

DNAPainter import instructions

click to enlarge

Select the segment file you just named and click on import.

DNAPainter both.png

At this point, your chromosomes at DNAPainter will look like this, assuming you’re using a new profile with nothing else painted.

Let’s expand chromosome 1 and see what it looks like.

DNAPainter chr 1 both.png

Note that all segments are painted over both chromosomes, meaning both the maternal and paternal copies of chromosome 1, partially shown above, because at this point, DNAPainter can’t tell which people match on the maternal and which people match on the paternal sides. The second “matches” file from Family Tree DNA has not yet been imported into DNAPainter, which tells DNAPainter which matches are on the maternal and which are on the paternal chromosomes.

If you’re not workign with a new profile, then you’ll also see the segments you’ve already painted. DNAPainter attempts to NOT paint segments that appear to have previously been painted.

Fifth, at DNAPainter, click on the “Import mat/pat info from ftDNA” link on the left which will provide you with a page to import the matches file information. This is the file that has maternal and paternal sides specified for bucketed matches. DNAPainter needs both the segment file, which you already imported, and the matches file.

DNAPainter import bucket

click to enlarge

After the second import, the “matches” file, my matches are magically redistributed onto their appropriate chromosomes based on the maternal and paternal bucketing information.

I love this tool!

At this point, you will have three groups of matches, assuming you have people assigned to your maternal and paternal buckets.

  • A “Shared” group for people who are related to both of your parents, or who aren’t designated as a bucketed match to either parent
  • Maternal group (pink chromosome)
  • Paternal group (blue chromosome)

It’s Soup!!!

I’m so excited. Now my matches are divided into maternal and paternal chromosome groups.

DNAPainter import complete.png

Just so you know, I changed the colors of my legend at DNAPainter using “edit group,” because all three groups were shades of pink after the import and I wanted to be able to see the difference clearly.

DNAPainter legend.png

Your Painted Chromosomes

Let’s take a look at what we have.

DNAPainter both, mat, pat.png

There’s still pink showing, meaning undetermined, which gets painted over both the maternal and paternal chromosomes, but there’s also a lot of magenta (maternal) and blue (paternal) showing now too as a result of bucketing.

Let’s look at chromosome 1.

DNAPainter chr 1 all.png

This detail, which is actually a summary, shows that the bucketed maternal (magenta) and paternal (blue) matches have actually covered most of the chromosome. There are still a few areas without coverage, but not many.

For a genealogist, this is beautiful!!!

How many matches were painted?

DNAPainter paternal total.png

DNAPainter maternal total.png

Expanding chromosome 1, and scrolling to the maternal portion, I can now see that I have several painted maternal segments, and almost the entire chromosome is covered.

Here’s the exciting part!

DNAPainter ch1 1 mat expanded.png

I stared the relatives I know, on the painting, above and on the pedigree chart, below. The green group descends through Hiram Ferverda and Eva Miller, the yellow group through Antoine Lore and Rachel Hill. The blue group is Acadian, upstream of Antoine Lore.

DNAPainter maternal pedigree.png

Those ancestors are shown by star color on my pedigree chart.

I can now focus on the genealogies of the other unstarred people to see if their genealogy can push those segments back further in time to older ancestors.

On my Dad’s side, the first part of chromosome 1 is equally as exciting.

DNAPainter chr 1 pat expanded.png

The yellow star only pushed this triangulated group back only to my grandparents, but the green star is from a cousin descended from my great-grandparents. The red star matches are even more exciting, because my common ancestor with Lawson is my brick wall – Marcus Younger and his wife, Susanna, surname unknown, parents of Mary Younger.

DNAPainter paternal pedigree.png

I need to really focus hard on this cluster of 12 people because THEIR common ancestors in their trees may well provide the key I need to push back another generation – through the brick wall. That is, after all, the goal of genetic genealogy.

Woohoooo!

Manual Spreadsheet Compare

Because I decided to torture myself one mid-winter day, and night, I wanted to see how much difference there is between the bucketed matches that I just painted and actual matches that I’ve identified by downloading my parents’ segment match files and mine and comparing them manually against each other. I removed any matches in my file that were not matches to my parent, in addition to me, then painted the rest.

I’ll import the resulting manual spreadsheet into the same experimental DNAPainter profile so we can view matches that were NOT painted previously. DNAPainter does not paint matches previously painted, if it can tell the difference. Since both of these files are from downloads, without the name of the matches being in any way modified, DNAPainter should be able to recognize everyone and only paint new segment matches.

Please note here that the PERSON unquestionably belongs bucketed to the parental side in question, but not all SEGMENTS necessarily match you and your parent. Some will not, and those are the segments that I removed from my spreadsheet.

DNAPainter manual spreadsheet example.png

Here’s a made-up example where I’ve combined my matches and my mother’s matches in one spreadsheet in order to facilitate this comparison. I colored my Mom’s matches green so they are easy to see when comparing to my own, then sorting by the match name.

Person 1 matches me and Mom both, at 10 cM on chromosome 1. Person 1 is assigned to my maternal side due to the matches above 9 cM, the lowest threshold at Family Tree DNA for bucketing.

In this example, we can see that Person 1 matches me and Mom (colored green), both, on the segment on chromosome 1. That match, bracketed by red, is a valid, phased, match and should be painted.

However, Person 1 also matches me, but NOT Mom on chromosome 2. Because Person 1 is bucketed to mother, this segment on chromosome 2 will also be painted to my maternal chromosome 2 using the DNAPainter import. The only way to sort this out is to do the comparison manually.

The same holds true for the X match shown. The two segments shown in red should NOT be painted, but they will be unless you are willing to compare you and your parents’ matches manually, you will just have to evaluate segments individually when you see that you’re working in a cluster where matches have been assigned through the mass import tool.

If you choose to compare the spreadsheets manually to assure that you’re not painting segments like the red ones above, DNAPainter provides instructions for you to create your own mass upload template, which is what I did after removing any segment matches of people that were not “in common” between me and mother on the same chromosomal segment, like the red ones, above.

Please note that if you delete the erroneous segments and later reimport your bucketed matches, they will appear again. I’m more inclined to leave them, making a note.

I did not do a manual comparison of my father’s side of the tree after discovering just how little difference was found on my mother’s side, and how much effort was involved in the manual comparison.

Creating a Mass Upload Template and File

DNAPainter custom mass upload.png

The instructions for creating your own mass upload file are provided by DNAPainter – please follow them exactly.

In my case, after doing the manual spreadsheet compare with my mother, only a total of 18 new segments were imported that were not previously identified by bucketing.

Three of those segments were over 15cM, but the rest were smaller. I expected there would be more. Family Tree DNA is clearly doing a great job with maternal and paternal bucketing assignments, but they can’t do it without known relatives that have also tested and are linked to your tree. The very small discrepancy is likely due to matches with cousins that I have not been able to link on my tree.

The great news is that because DNAPainter recognizes already-painted segments, I can repeat this anytime and just paint the new segments, without worrying about duplicates.

  • The information above pertains to segments that should have been painted, but weren’t.
  • The information below pertains to segments that were painted, but should not have been.

I did not keep track of how many segments I deleted that would have erroneously been painted. There were certainly more than 18, but not an overwhelming number. Enough though to let me know to be careful and confirm the segment match individually before using any of the mass uploaded matches for hypothesis or conclusions.

Given that this experiment went well, I created a copy of my “real” profile in order to do the same import and see what discoveries are waiting!

Before and After

Before I did the imports into my “real” file (after making a copy, of course,) I had painted 82% of my DNA using 1700 segments. Of course, each one of those segments in my original profile is identified with an ancestor, even if they aren’t very far back in time.

Although I didn’t paint matches in common with my mother before this mass import, each of my matches in common with my mother are in common with one or the other of my maternal grandparents – and by using other known matches I can likely push the identity of those segments further back in time.

Status Percent Segments Painted
Before mass Phased Family Match bucketed import 82 1700
After mass Phased Family Match bucketed import 88 7123
After additional manual matches with my mother added 88 7141

While I did receive 18 additional matching segments by utilizing the manually intensive spreadsheet matching and removal process, I did not receive enough more matches to justify the hours and hours of work. I won’t be doing that anymore with Family Tree DNA files since they have so graciously provided bucketing and DNAPainter can leverage that functionality.

Those hours will be much better spent focusing on unraveling the ancestors whose stories are told in clusters of triangulated matches.

I Love The Import Tool, But It’s Not Perfect

Keep in mind that the X chromosome needs a match of approximately twice the size of a regular chromosome to be as reliable. In other words, a 14 cM threshold for the X chromosome is roughly equivalent to a 7 cM match for any other chromosome. Said another way, a 7 cM match on the X is about equal to a 3.5 cM match on any other chromosome.

X matches are not created equal.

The SNP density on the X chromosome is about half that of the other chromosomes, making it virtually impossible to use the same matching criteria. I don’t encourage using matches of less than 500 SNPs unless you know you’re in a triangulated group and WITH at least a few larger, proven matches on that segment of the X chromosome.

Having said that, X matches, due to their unique inheritance path can persist for many generations and be extremely useful. You can read about working with the X chromosome here and here.

I noticed when I was comparing segments in the manual spreadsheet that I had to remove many X matches with people who had identical matches on other chromosomes with me and my mother. In other words, just because they matched my mother and me exactly on one chromosome, that phasing did not, by default, extend to matching on other segments.

I checked my manually curated file and discovered that I had a total of seven X matches that should have been, and were, painted because they matched me and Mom both.

DNAPainter X spreadsheet example.png

However, there were many that didn’t match me and Mom both, matching only me, that were painted because that person was bucketed (assigned) to my maternal side because a different segment phased to mother correctly.

On the X chromosome, here’s what happened.

DNAPainter maternal X.png

You can see that a lot more than 7 bright red matches were painted – 26 more to be exact. That’s because if an individual is bucketed on your maternal or paternal side, it’s presumed that all of the matching segments come from the same ancestor and are legitimate, meaning identical by descent and not by chance. They aren’t. Every single segment has an inheritance path and story of its own – and just because one segment triangulates does NOT mean that other segments that match that person will triangulate as well.

The X chromosome is the worst case scenario of course, because these 7 cM segments are actually as reliable as roughly 3.5 cM segments on any other chromosome, which is to say that more than 50% of them will be incorrect. However, some will be accurate and those will match me and mother both. 21% of the X matches to people who phased and triangulated on other chromosomes were accurate – 79% were not. Thankfully, we have phasing, bucketing and tools like this to be able to tell the difference so we can utilize the 21% that are accurate. No one wants to throw the baby out with the bath water, nor do we want to chase after phantoms.

Keep in mind that Phased Family Matching, like any other tool, is just that, a tool and needs some level of critical analysis.

Every Segment Has Its Own Story

We know that every single DNA segment has an independent inheritance path and story of its own. (Yes, I’ve said that several time now because it’s critically important so that you don’t wind up barking up the wrong tree, literally, pardon the pun.)

In the graphic above of my painted X chromosome matches, only the six matches with green stars are on the hand-curated match list. One had already been painted previously. The balance of the bright red matches were a part of the mass import and need to be deleted. Additionally, one of the accurate matches did not upload for some reason, so I’ll add that one manually.

I suggest that you go ahead and paint your bucketed segments, but understand that you may have a red herring or two in your crop of painted segment matches.

As you begin to work with these clusters of matches, check your matching segments with your parents (or other family members who were used in bucketing) and make sure that all the segments that have been painted by bulk upload actually match on all of the same segments.

If you have a parent that tested, there is no need to see if you and your match match other relatives on that same side. If your match does not match you and your parent on some significant overlapping portion of that same segment, the match is invalid. DNA does not “skip generations.”

If you don’t have a parent that has tested, your known relatives are your salvation, and the key to bucketed matches.

The great news is that you can easily see that a bulk match was painted from the coloring of the batch import. As you discover the relevant genealogy and confirm that all segments actually match your parent (or another family member, if you don’t have parents to test,) move the matching person to the appropriately colored ancestral group.

I further recommend that you hand curate the X chromosome using a spreadsheet. The nature of the X makes depending on phased matching too risky, especially with a tool like DNAPainter that can’t differentiate between a legitimate and non-legitimate match. The X chromosome matches are extraordinarily valuable because they can be useful in ways that other chromosomes can’t be due to the X’s unique inheritance path.

What About You?

If you don’t have your DNA at Family Tree DNA and you have tested elsewhere, you can transfer your DNA file for free, allowing you to see your matches and use many of the Family Tree DNA tools. However, to access the chromosome browser, which you’ll need for DNA painting, you’ll need to purchase the unlock for $19, but that’s still a lot less than retesting.

Here are transfer instructions for transferring your DNA file from 23andMe, Ancestry or MyHeritage.

If you have not purchased a Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA and don’t have a DNA file to transfer, you can order a test here.

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Robert Shepherd (1739-1817), Died of the Stone and Gravel – 52 Ancestors #271

I’m incredibly indebted to a cousin, David Stielow, with whom I corresponded in 1991 about the Shepherd family. David proudly signed his correspondence with “6 great-grandson of Robert and Sarah (Rash) Shepherd.” Unfortunately, I lost touch with David decades ago. David, wherever you are – thank you!

David sent me a copy of the long-rumored but never-produced Bible record of Robert Shepherd including information that at that time, Mildred Judd Hodkins (1922-2015) who descended through Robert’s daughter, Sarah Shepherd, wife of William Judd was the then-current owner of the Bible.

The Shepherd Bible

It’s a beauty, that’s for sure!

Shepherd Bible0004.jpg

The marriage or Robert Shepherd and Sarah Rash in Spotsylvania County, and their removal to Wilkes County 12 years later.

Shepherd Bible0003.jpg

Births, including Robert and Sarah themselves. A spouse’s name and a death date sprinkined in for good measure.

Shepherd Bible0002.jpg

The last child was born when Sarah was 43, then Robert’s death is recorded 30 years later.

The handwriting is ornate, rendered artistically in stunningly beautiful script. Was it Robert or Sarah who lovingly penned these entries by the light of candles in front of a fireplace? I would love to see the original Bible.

I’ve come to doubt that the handwriting is either Robert’s or Sarah’s. To begin with, the handwriting recording Robert’s death entry looks just like the first entry recording his birth. That’s pretty difficult to accomplish. Sarah’s entry refers to her as “now the espoused wife,” which suggests that Sarah and Robert are living, and that it’s after 1765 when they married.

Robert’s wife, Sarah Rash’s death is not recorded for some reason, so perhaps the handwriting is actually hers – except that in 1819 records regarding Robert’s estate, Sarah signed her name with an X. So the entries couldn’t have been written by Sarah unless something dramatic happened to her ability to write between 1817 and 1819.

This might be the “church Bible” that was sold at Robert’s estate sale, or perhaps a later Bible altogether.

It’s probable that this entire Bible record was recopied from an earlier Bible belonging to Robert and Sarah, because the entries all appear to be in exactly the same penmanship except for a couple obvious additions later. This wouldn’t be unusual if the old Bible wore out, burned or was sold at the estate sale, and a new Bible was purchased. It could also be expected if the original Bible descended to one child and another child copied the original records into their own Bible. Seeing the Bible printing information in the front might help narrow these possibilities.

My guess, and that’s all it will ever be, is that this Bible belonged to daughter Sally who married William Judd because it’s her descendant who had the Bible in 1991. Furthermore, William Judd’s name is written above Sally, along with her proper name, “Sarah” and a death month and year of November 1858.

I suspect that the original Bible was probably distributed to another family member after Robert’s death in 1817 – hence the last entry in the “original” handwriting is about Robert’s death.

There is a confusing date conflict which might be explained by recopying and adding a bit of information. Daughter Rhoda is reported to have been born in Wilkes County on March 23, 1777, which clearly could not have happened if the family didn’t leave Spotsylvania County until December of 1777. One of those two years or Rhoda’s birth location has to be wrong.

This amazing Bible doesn’t just tell us that Robert and his wife Sarah Rash were born, but when and where they were born, their parents’ names, marriage date and who married them, their children’s names, birth dates and locations, along with a couple death dates.

But it doesn’t end there either. The last page records Robert’s death:

“Robert Shepherd father of the aforementioned family deceased June fifth one thousand eight hundred and seventeen 1817 – at his own house, on Reddies River, Wilkes County, North Carolina State where to he removed and settled his family from Spottsylvania County, Virginia, December 7, 1777.

After 17 days illness with his old disorder the Stone and Gravel, after residing about 40 years in the aforesaid spot.

Aged according to this record exactly seventy seven years eleven months and seven days subtracting elven days for his old stile birth.”

I initially thought that Stone and Gravel meant gall stones, but according to medical references, I suspect it was kidney stones. Gall stones appear to have been referred to as colic at that time. Regardless of which kind of stones – they had to be absolutely agonizing and probably became lodged where they shouldn’t, killing the man.

“His old disorder” tells us that Robert had suffered from this previously, probably repeatedly over a very long time. I’d guess he either died of uremic poisoning, if the stone lodged in the ureter between the kidney and the bladder, or sepsis if he developed an infection. Either would have been horrifically painful.

How much more could we ask of a Bible record? This is hands-down the most informative Bible record I have ever found in my family.

Joyce Dancy McNiel (1937-2003), another now-deceased cousin, transcribed the Bible record and sent me the following information from her files. I’m so indebted to these researchers from the generation that preceded mine. They were immeasurably kind when I was beginning.

Shepherd Stielow letter.png

Robert’s Birth

Robert was born on June 17, 1739 in St. George’s Parish, Spotsylvania County, Virginia to George Shepherd and Elizabeth Mary Angelique (or Angelicke) Day Shepherd.

St. George’s Parish was formed in 1714, initially in Essex County until Spotsylvania County was formed in 1720.

In 1730, the parish was split with the new St. Marks Parish incorporating in the upper portion which was made into Orange County, and eventually Orange, Madison, Culpepper and Rappahannock counties, according to the book, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia published by Bishop Meade in two volumes in 1861.

Shepherd Spotsylvania County.png

Spotsylvania County, where Robert was born, is located about 50 miles north of Richmond, near the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers.

In 1732, Colonial William Byrd visited, saying of the place, “Besides Colonel Willis, who is the top man of the place, there are only one merchant, a tailor, a smith, an ordinary-keeper and a lady who acts both as a doctress and coffee-woman.” What the heck else do you need?

I have to ask, what exactly is a coffee-woman? Susanna Livingston, a widow was indeed that person and you can read about her colonial Virginia coffee house here.

Keep in mind that this description was just 7 years before Robert’s birth.

The first church in Spotsylvania County was built in 1732. There was an earlier church near Fredericksburg built in 1728 and one near Mattapony as well called the Mother-Church.

In the 1720s and 1730s, Spotsylvania County was literally the unsettled frontier.

Marriage

Robert Shepherd was married to Sarah Rash on October 1st, 1765 in Spotsylvania County by church parson, James Mcrae. Bishop Meade’s books don’t show a James Mcrae, but do include a Christopher Mcrae and someone by the initial of A.

Mcrae is a decidedly Scottish name, which might provide a hint as to the origins of the Shepherd or Rash families, either or both.

Spotsylvania County Deeds

Deeds tell more of the story of the Shepherd family in Spotsylvania County. The first record of George Shepherd is found in 1749, although he was clearly married prior to that time, given that son George was born about 1728, supposedly in Spotsylvania County as well. This suggests that the elder George, Robert’s father, was probably born about 1700.

On November 6, 1749, George Shepperd of St. George’s Parish of Spotsylvania County and Elizabeth Mary Angelicke Day, his wife, sold land to Benjamin Holiday of same parish and county, 25 pounds current money, 60 acres, part of the land whereon the said Shepperd lives, etc. Witnesses were Joseph Holloday, William Miller and Margaret Randolph. Everyone signs with an X except for Joseph Holloday.

In Deed books D and E, on August 31, 1751, we find a deed from Benjamin Holloday husband of Robert’s sister, Susanna, for her father George Shepherd’s land conveyed to Robert Shepherd and his brother George Shepherd.

Shepherd Spotsylvania Holloday land purchase.png

On November 5, 1775, John Shepherd, Robert’s older brother by 5 years, sold his 500 acres of land to William Arnold, a transaction witnessed by George McNiel who also moved to Reddies River, settling land adjacent Robert and John Shepherd.

On November 20, 1776, Robert Shepherd (who signed with an X) and his wife Sarah, George Shepherd and his wife Mary, of Spotsylvania County sold to Benjamin Holloday of the same county for 54 pounds current money, 108 acres in Spotsylvania County. Witnesses: Charles Yates, Edward Herndon, John Chew, Jr, Anthony Gholston, Clayton Coleman, John Herndon and John Holloday. Recorded January 16, 1777.

It appears that Robert was laying the groundwork for their move to Wilkes County, along with his brother, John Shepherd and the George McNiel family.

Robert’s family, probably along with the others, made the journey from Spotsylvania County to Wilkes County, according to the Bible, on December 7, 1777 – clearly a turning point in the lives of these families. I’d wager there was a wagon train that “removed from” Spotsylvania County, pulling out on December 7th and hoping to reach Wilkes by Christmas. They were probably bumping along those rough roads until at least the second week of January. The average distance for a wagon was 10 miles a day, and that’s without problems.

The family had to decide which path to take.

Shepherd Spotsylvania to Wilkes.png

A more westerly path, down the old wagon road through the Shenandoah Valley would have been slightly shorter, but much more treacherous through high mountains, especially in the slippery winter.

I believe they chose the route shown above that took them through South Boston in Halifax County. Not only is this route flatter, James Shepherd, brother of Robert Shepherd settled in Halifax County for several years before moving on to Wilkes County to join the rest of the family.

For all we know, the entire group could have stopped there for some time, either to rest or to evaluate Halifax County as a place of settlement. It’s ironic that a few generations later in Claiborne County, Tennessee, the McNiel/Shepherd/Rash descendants of Wilkes County, NC would intermarry with the Estes/Moore/Dodson/Younger lines of Halifax County, VA.

Halifax County, like Wilkes County, was on the generational migration path westward for many families.

Robert Shepherd and George McNiel were more or less contemporaries. George was somewhat older, born about 1720 as compared to Robert born 19 years later.

About 1784, George McNiel’s son, William McNiel would marry Robert Shepherd’s daughter, Elizabeth Shepherd, born in 1766. Clearly, they knew each other from Spotsylvania County and undertook the overland journey to Wilkes together, but she was a bit young to have been flirting on that journey. The Rash, Shepherd and McNiel families have been hopelessly intertangled since they arrived in Wilkes County and began intermarrying. For all we know, they could have already been somehow related in colonial Virginia and before.

The Revolutionary War

The War wasn’t far behind these families. In fact, that could be part of what encouraged the Shepherd family to pull up stakes and move. Robert’s future son-in-law, William McNiel, served in Virginia from June through November 1777, fighting in the Battle of Brandywine. By this time, the Revolutionary War was in full swing.

The Revolutionary War began in April of 1775 when shots were exchanged at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Shortly, both Virginia and North Carolina had joined the war. For the next 8 years, the residents of both Virginia and North Carolina would suffer from warfare, deaths and injuries, shortages of food and clothing, destruction, loss of property and constant fear.

But Virginia and North Carolina, as states, would also lead the way. In May of 1775, the King’s Governor in North Carolina fled the palace and the seat of government in New Bern was taken over by Abner Nash, the eventual governor, leading the Whigs.

North Carolina proceeded to create a Bill of Rights, placing the power with the people instead of a king, providing for independent branches of government. In other words, they voted for a form of democracy that would be mirrored on a national level a few years later.

Similar events occurred in Virginia, with independence from England declared in May of 1776 following the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, about 150 miles south of Spotsylvania Courthouse, near Norfolk.

Of course, Robert Shepherd couldn’t know how things would eventually work out in November of 1776 when he sold his land, nor in December of 1777 when he left for North Carolina, probably via Halifax County, Virginia. He may have anticipated a great deal more warfare with accompanying devastation to land and crops. Or, the move may have had absolutely nothing to do with the war. Regardless, these families moved during the war, while a literal revolution was occurring. I have to wonder what types of precautions they put in place to attempt to stay safe, and why they chose that time to migrate westward into an area plagued by Tories and Cherokee uprisings.

There’s no record of Robert Shepherd actually serving as a soldier, but he did provide supplies according to North Carolina Army accounts, in the form of a horse and 13.5 bushels of corn, or about enough corn to feed a horse for 54 days at 8 quarts of corn per day.

Life on the Reddies River

Cousin Joyce’s handwritten letters provide both general and specific information about the Shepherd family.

They lived in what is known as the Reddies River and Parlier section, west of North Wilkesboro some 12 to 14 miles. John Shepherds’s entry no. 64 called for 405 acres of land at the Deep Ford on Reddies River. Robert’s entry was next, #65-B-1-M188 for 200 acres and Rowland Judd’s entry #145-A-!-M276 was for 514 acres. John Shepherd also owned A-1-#233 calling for 333 acres on the north side of the Yadkin. George McNiel was a neighbor too, his line joined Rowland Judd’s line.

The name Deep Ford was derived from the fact that the original road leading from New River in what is now Ashe Co to the Yadkin Valley crossed the Reddies River at the foot of this hill, and that the ford at this crossing was unusually deep – thus the name that remains today; Deep Ford Hill.

Paul Gregory in his book, The Early Settlers of Reddies River tells us that:

When John arrived on Reddies River, only a few scattered families were living there. It must have been a highly satisfying experience for them to find that the fertile bottom land on both sides of the stream beginning ‘at the bend in the river’ and extending North­ward to the forks of the river was still uninhabited and unclaimed. The place where the wagons crossed the river was just north of the bend in the river. The water was unusually deep at this crossing, hence the name deep ford. The crossing was also located at the base of a hill, giving the name Deep Ford Hill. It is here that John settled.

Reddies River was flanked on either side not only with wide, fertile bottom land but also with mountain land covered with heavy timber, abounding in an assortment of wildlife. The waters of Reddies River were clear, clean, swift, and cold. This is the place that John sank his roots never to move again.

When John arrived on Reddies River, most land of this area belonged to Earl Granville, Lord Proprietor for the British Government. Furthermore, no land was available for sale or lease, as the British land office had been closed several years prior to this date. Only a very few settlers actually owned the property on which they lived. Thus, more early settlers took possession (squatted on) land of their choice, with the idea of later buying or leasing the property when the land office was reopened. This is what John did.

On July 4th, 1776 all land was confiscated and all land transactions with the British Government were invalidated. The confiscation act provided a way for the early settlers to own the land they had improved and to which they laid claim. The settlers were required to register their land with the local government as a basis for subsequent land grants. On April 24th, 1778, John entered his land, claiming 405 acres, beginning at the bend in the river near Deep Ford and extending northward to the forks of the river, including property on both sides of the river. Although John later bought many additional acres of land, it was here that he reared his family, and it is here that John and his wife, Sarah, lived for the rest of their lives.

John’s land provides an important clue about Robert. Cousin Broderick Shepherd has been compiling information about the older generations of the Shepherd family for years at http://www.reddiesrivershepherds.com/ and more recently on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Reddies-River-Shepherds-363723261156/

Broderick’s research about Robert can be found here, brother John, here, James here who fought at King’s Mountain. Brother George never left Spotsylvania County.

According to land grants, Robert Shepherd lived adjacent his brother, John Shepherd, on the Reddies River.

Shepherd grant 847.png

In 1775 Robert applied for 200 acres and in 1788 obtained 199 acres of land on the Reddies River.

Shepherd 199 acres.png

This document says that Robert is already living on this land, “for comfort.” There is no record that he ever lived elsewhere in Wilkes County.

Shepherd 199 acres 2.png

Shepherd grant 65.png

Robert applied for 200 acres but was actually granted 199. This made me wonder if an acre was set aside for either a church or a cemetery or if that’s just how the survey fell. Robert’s land is very irregularly shaped.

Shepherd grant survey.png

Looking at this survey, grant and map, John Sheppard’s line is shown below. A pole is 16.5 feet, so their joint line is 2145 feet, or about half a mile.

Shepherd survey.png

The land grant process took several steps and each step had an associated fee.

According to A. B. Pruitt, in 1777, North Carolina passed a law allowing people to take over the title to all “vacant” land in the state, meaning the land formerly the property of the King or his representative, the Earl of Granville, in addition setting forth the process, grants, for land to be sold to anyone who could pay the fees.

Land was located by prospective owners and claims were entered into books, with associated fees paid. After a waiting period, in case someone else claimed the same land, a warrant was issued which meant the county surveyor would survey the claimed land. Of course, the surveyor needed to be paid. After the survey, shown above, the survey and associated information was returned to the Secretary of State. Beginning in 1783, the state charged 10 pounds per hundred acres, or less if the land was somehow substandard and included swampland or was mountainous. In other words, if the land couldn’t all be farmed. Prior to 1783, only 50 shillings was charged per hundred acres. With Robert’s 199 acre grant, he would have paid 1990 pounds if every acre was deemed farmable.

Next, the governor would sign a land grant, attaching one of the two copies of the survey which was sent to the grantee in one way or another – sometimes being delivered to the local courthouse where ads were placed stating that the grant could be picked up.

Shepherd grant book.png

At the same time the governor wrote the grant, it would be recorded in a grant book, shown above. That wasn’t the end of the process though, because the grantee only had a year in which to register their new grant with the Register of Deeds in the county where the land was located. That filing also cost a small fee, but no one checked to assure that registering of  grants in the deed book was ever actually done.

I’ve seen cases where patents and grants were sold at these various steps, possibly because the man couldn’t pay the upcoming fees and wanted to recover his initial investment. Often, he had staked the land out and already made improvements by clearing land, planting crops, adding fences and building a cabin and outbuildings.

Robert’s actual grant in the land patent book occurred three years after the original application. I’m sure the offices and surveyors were absolutely swamped initially. Robert probably didn’t care, because he had been living there and farming the land all along. The grant was just making things official.

Shepherd 199 acre certificate.png

In 1796, Robert obtained another 50 acres abutting his original 199 acres.

Shepherd 1201.png

Shepherd 50 acres.png

Shepherd 50 acre warrant.png

Notice on the survey that north is not at the top.

Shepherd 50 acre survey.png

Shepherd 50 acre certificate.png

Robert’s brother, John’s land grant is shown below, a total of 405 acres, 180 by 360 poles, or 2970 feet by 5940 – a little over half a mile east to west by a little over a mile north to south.

Shepherd John survey.png

Note that west is at the top, so north is to the right on the survey.

Aligning the two surveys, along with the marker for the location of the old Deep Ford Cemetery with the red pin, we see the following.

Shepherd both surveys.png

George McNiel’s survey was adjacent the land of both brothers.

By comparison, here’s the first official NC map by Strother in 1808.

Shepherd Strother 1808 map.png

Church and Cemetery

Fortunately, there are contemporary roads that we can “drive” down using Google Street view.

At the top of Deep Ford Hill, the cemetery was located where these mobile homes are today, according to George McNiel during a 2004 visit when he took me to visit these sacred ancestral locations.

George and his wife, cousin Joyce Dancy McNeil, spent their lives documenting both history and cemeteries in Wilkes County. George and Joyce are both descendants of the McNiel, Vannoy, Shepherd and Rash lines. Our collective roots and blood run deep in this land.

Shepherd Deep Ford HIll Cemetery.png

In the early 1900s, the Deep Ford cemetery was abandoned by the families. The landowner used the gravestones to build the foundation of a chicken house, then the chicken house was bulldozed sometime later, reportedly in the 1960s or 1970s. George McNiel was just sick about this.

George stated that, “there was a cemetery just over from the church where Vance Lovett in the 1930s took the stones to build a chicken house, then years later bulldozed them into a ravine.” He took me to that location and showed me the 2 or 3 trailers there in 2004. I can’t help but wonder if they are haunted.

According to Brodrick Shepherd, family members believed to be buried in this lost cemetery include:

  • John Shepherd Sr. born August 10, 1734 and died June 11, 1810, married to Sarah Jennings 1738 – >1810
  • Robert Shepherd born June 17, 1739, died June 5, 1817, married to Sarah Rash born April 23, 1749. Her death in unknown.
  • John Shepherd Jr., c1760 – May 7, 1812, son of John Sr.
  • Phoebe Shepherd c1770 – >1812

I’d wager that there are more, including Sarah Rash and one if not both of their sons, James and John.

The cemetery isn’t the only thing that’s missing today.

According to historian George McNeil, one of the very early churches was established before 1800 on the top of the hill at Deep Ford. It would make sense that the church and cemetery were very close or adjacent.

Shepherd deep ford intersection.png

If the church was located at the top of Deep Ford Hill, the area across from the cemetery is flat, where a gas station is located today.

Shepherd deep ford hill store.png

The only other location would be the northwest quadrant of the intersection, below.

Shepherd deep ford nw.png

An aerial shows the location of the old destroyed cemetery along with the possible church site at the top of the hill.

Shepherd deep ford aerial.png

However, a map drawn by George shows the possible old church site at the base of Deep Ford Hill, marked with the red star below. I notice the road today crossing the river is called “Old Campground” and “camps” were held at revivals, which could have been held at the location of the old church. People came tp “camp meetings” from miles in any direction, staying from days to a few weeks as preachers cycled through, stood on stumps, and whipped up religious fervor in the audience, hoping to save souls. Baptisms took place immediately in the adjacent streams.

Shepherd deep ford hill base.png

The old cemetery location is marked with the gold star.

Regardless of where the original church was located, George McNiel who accompanied the Shepherd family from Spotsylvania County was the preacher and the Shepherds and McNiels made up most of the congregation along with their immediate neighbors, the Rowlands, Judd family and others.

According to Brodrick, Robert Shepherd, along with his brother John, and George McNeil, established the first church in Reddies River which was located on the crest of Deep Ford Hill, just above lands owned by John Shepherd, Sr. The Deep Ford Hill Church was established as early as 1783 and was in existence as late as 1796.

The location of the original church has been lost to time.

Following the church at Deep Ford Hill was the Reddies River Baptist Church that was constituted on April 7, 1798. Robert and Sarah Shepherd were founding members of this new church.

Shepherd Reddies River Church.png

Robert assuredly attended and probably helped built this church. It’s possible that he’s buried in the yard here as well given that he had been attending this church for 19 years when he died.

When the Reddies River Baptist Church was created, its members gathered for services alternately at the Deep Ford Meeting House and Brother Robert Shepherd’s house. This probably answers the question about whether the missing acre in Robert’s land was for a church – it clearly wasn’t if churchgoers were meeting at his house.

Shepherd Deep Ford to Reddies River churches.png

The Reddies River Church is shown with the red pin at the top, above, the location of the now-destroyed cemetery with the gold star, and the general location of the Deep Ford Meeting House at the base of the hill with a red star, according to George’s map. Robert Shepherd’s land was at the branching of the North Fork and South Fork of the Reddies River, almost exactly at the half-way point beneath the white mileage text box.

Shepherd Reddies River church distance.png

The church is shown from the road, above, although there’s a bend in the road that leads directly to the church. A cemetery was established at the new church, of course, with the list of burials here and here. Unfortunately, few are documented on FindaGrave.

Paul Gregory provided the Reddies River membership list, here, in which he says that the original Deep Ford Meeting House was established as early as 1784 and that all members of the newly constituted Reddies River Church were members of the Deep Ford Hill Church when it closed its doors in 1797. Reddies River opened in 1798 with the following 24 charter members.

Shepherd Reddies River 1798 charter membership.png

It’s worth noting that there are no McNiel’s on the list.

Deeds and Property

While Robert Shepherd’s land claims were first filed in 1785, according to files found at the North Carolina archives, he apparently entered land as early as 1778 according to the land entry books.

I’ve compiled related land information in date order. Eventually, Robert owned a great deal of land.

  • March 12, 1778 – George McKniel entered 120 acres on the South Fork of Reddies River, side mountain, along Roland Jud’s line. Robert Shephard’s line.

Clearly, Robert was already living in this location by 1778 and George McNiel from Spotsylvania County was living adjacent Robert. Two of Robert’s daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, would marry George’s sons, William and James, respectively.

  • April 24, 1778 – Robert Shepherd entered 200 acres near the ford of Readys River on John Shepherds line, including improvement where said Shepherd now lives. Entry 65

At that time, Reddies was spelled a wide variety of ways.

  • December 26, 1778 – Barnard (Barnet) Owens entered 200 acres both sides Reddies River in Robert Shepherds line including improvement whereon said Owens now lives. Entry 614
  • April 15, 1780 – George McNiel entered 100 acres on the south side of the south fork Reddeys River at his and Robert Shepherd’s corner. Entry 1769

In 1782, the tax list is quite interesting, both in terms of Robert and also of the men he is associated with in land transactions and on road crews, which reflect the men living along the road in question assigned as road hands and road jurors in the court records.

Name Acres of land All negroes Mules/horses Cattle
Capt Cleveland’s District
Nathaniel Vannoy 150 1 5 7
Capt. Nathaniel Gordan’s Dist
Daniel Vannoy 100 1 1 4
Capt Rowland Judd Dist
James Shepherd (single man) 0 0 6 0
Andrew Vannoy 650 0 7 11
John Sheppard 505 0 7 20
William Owens Sr. 250 0 3 5
Charles Hickerson 320 0 3 4
Leonard Miller 50 0 2 4
David Hickerson 50 0 6 4
Mordica Fuller 200 0 3 7
John Owen 200 0 3 4
William Owens Jr 530 0 5 6
James Sheppard 110 2 4 11
Robert Shepard 200 0 3 8
Francis Vannoy 1070 0 8 10
Thomas Owen 150 0 1 6
David Owen 50 0 1 3
Barnet Owin 350 0 5 7
George McNeal 160 0 3 6

This tax record tells us that Robert was paying tax on 200 acres, which is likely the 200 that he does not yet own, but for which he has entered a claim. He has no slaves, thankfully, 3 mules or horses and a total of 8 cattle.

  • October 23, 1782 – Grant to George McNiel 132 acres both sides south fork Reddis River…Robert Shepherd line, page 358
  • November 9, 1784 – Grant to Barnet Owen 200 acres Reddis River…Robert Shepherds line, page 463
  • Date obscured on my copy – Barnet Owen ? ac Reddies River…Robert Shepherd line, witness Rowland Judd and Elijah Denney, signed Barnet Owen page 127 in deed book
  • February 21, 1787 – Deed between Josiah Sartain and Robert Shepherd, 40 pounds, 50 acres north side of south fork of Reddies River. Wit Alexander Buchanan, Andrew Baker and James Sartain. Signed Josiah X Sartain Page 114
Date Robert’s Land Acres Location Running Total
1782 Entry (granted 199 acres in 1788) +200 Near ford of Reddy’s River, joining John Sheppard 200
1787 Purchase from Josiah Sartain +50 North side south fork Reddies River 250
1788 Grant +100 Reddies River line between Shepherd and Barnet Owen 350
1790 Purchase from James Sartain +70 Line between Sartan and Shepherd, both sides south fork Reddies River 420
1795 Purchase from Josiah Sarten (Sartain) +50 470
1795 Purchase from James Sartin +70 540
1796 Grant +50 Reddies River 590
1799 Purchase from George McNiel +120 710
1800 Sale from Robert Sheppard and Nathaniel to John Judd -130 South fork Reddies River 580
1800 Sale from Robert Sheppard and Nathaniel to John Judd -50 530
1800 Purchase from George McNeil +100 Reddy’s River 630
1802 Sale to James McNeil -50 North fork Reddies River, old wagon ford, south fork Reddies River 580
1802 Sale to James McNeil -50 North fork Reddies 530
1804 Sale to William Judd -100 South fork Reddies River, south side river upon the mountain Ridge formerly called Joes Hill 430
1814 Sale to William and Nathaniel Judd -100 North side south fork Reddies River crossfence between Larkin Pumphrey and Shepherd, crossfence conditional line between John Judd and Shepherd, conditional line between Reuben and Humphrey Kilby and Shepherd. Road runs from head Sport Branch to the Mill, across top of ridge” Carrells old field, top main ridge between William and John Judds field 330

Given that George McNiel sold his land in 1799 and moved to the Parsonville area, and the church building at the base of Deep Ford Hill was abandoned in 1797, with the new church opening in 1798, I have to wonder if George’s land sale and church closing were somehow related.

  • July 10, 1788 – Grant to Robert Shepherd, 100 ac, Reddies River, line between said Shepherd and Barnet Owen, Page 188
  • February 16, 1790 – Between James Sartain and Robert Shepherd, 75 pounds, 70 acres, Nathaniel Judds corner line, conditional line between Josiah Sartain and Robert Shepherd, both sides south fork of Reddies River. Wit William McNiel, Nathaniel Judd and William McQueary, Signed James Sartain page 115
  • December 9, 1794 – Samuel Carter, Miller and William Kilby, yeoman, 300 pounds, 299 acres, two plantations or tracts of land with grist mill on the north fork Reddis River as appears by deeds from David Owen to Samuel Carter April 21 1791, Robert Shepherd’s line, William Owens line. Wit Nathaniel X Judd, Reuben Kilby and David James, Signed Samuel Carter page 412
  • February 2, 1795 – Deed from Josiah Sarten to Robert Sheppard 50 acres, oath of Andrew Baker, ordered registered
  • Deed from Joseph Sartin to James Sartin 70 acres, oath Robert Sheppard
  • Deed from James Sartin to Robert Sheppard 70 acres, oath William Mcqeary
  • February 3, 1800 – Between Robert Shepherd and Nathaniel Judd and John Judd, 50 pounds, 130 acres south fork of Reddies River…Shepherd’s line. Wit James Bunyard, Rowland Judd and Rowland Judd Jr. Signed Robert X Shepherd and Nathaniel X Judd page 109

Robert signed with an X, indicating he cannot write.

  • March 1, 1800 – Between George McNiel and Robert Shepherd, 25 pounds, 100 acres waters Reddys River…Robert Shepherds line. Wit Robert X Bingham, Joseph McNiel and Benjamin McNiel. Signed George McNiel page 836
  • June 10, 1800 – Grant to William Kilby 50 acres on waters of Reddies River, his own line…Robert Shepherd’s corner, pages 285 and 286
  • February 27, 1802 – Between William McQuerry and James McNiel, 25 pounds, 42 acres, branch Reddies River, Cane Creek branch, John Shepherd Sr.’s line, Robert Shepherds line. Wit George McNiel and Jonathan X Darnal, signed William McQuerry page 367
  • March 13, 1802 – Between Robert Shepherd and James McNiel, 25 pounds, 50 acres, Reddies River said Shepherds line. Wit Squire Lowry and John Shepherd. Signed Robert X Shepherd page 368
  • April 9, 1802 – Between Robert Shepherd and James McNiel, 100 pounds, 50 acres, north fork of Reddies River, John Shepherds corner, old wagon ford, south fork Reddies River, wit Squire Lowry and John Shepherd. Signed Robert X Shepherd page 368
  • September 5, 1804 – Between Robert Shepherd and William Judd, Ashe County NC, $100, 100 acres south fork Reddies River, Robert Shepherds old line south side river upon the mountain Ridge formerly called Joes Hill, John Judd’s line. Wit Thomas Farmer. Signed Robert Shepherd, page 188
  • February 4, 1805 – Between John Judd, Ashe Co, NC and William Judd, $250, 130 acres south fork Reddies River, Robert Shepherds line, Nathaniel Judds corner, Rowland Judd, Sr. line. Wit Robert Shepherd, Nathaniel X Judd, Rebecca X Shepherd page 187
  • April 10, 1807 – Between John Shepherd Jr. and Amos Harmon, $200, 82 acres Middle fork of Reddies River both sides upper line of Esquire Judds old survey, side old road, conditional line made by Judd and White, wagon road. Wit Robert X Shepherd, Nathaniel X Judd, William X Felphs. Signed John Shepherd page 530
  • April 10, 1807 – Between John Shepherd Jr. and Amos Harmon, $400, 5 2/3 acres middle fork Reddies River, Wit Robert X Shepherd, Nathaniel X Judd, William X Phelps, signed John Shepherd page 543
  • April 10, 1807 – Between John Shepherd and Amos Harmon, $200, 37 acres middle fork Reddies River, Spencer White’s line, John Tirey’s line, David Owens line, Johnsons line. Wit Robert X Shepherd, Nathaniel X Judd, William X Phelps, signed John Shepherd Page 552
  • May 9, 1809 – Between Henry Miller and James Welborn and Robert Shepherd, $545, negro woman named Rachel and negro boy named Jerry. Wit Nathaniel Vannoy signed Henry Miller and James Welborn page 3

My heart just sank.

Shepherd 1800 census.png

While Robert had no slaves in the 1800 census, above, it pains me greatly to see that in the 1810 census, Robert Shepherd owned not just Rachel, but also Jerry. He still owned both of these humans at his death in 1817. In 1809, Rachel would have been about 42 and Jerry, about 11.

  • May 1, 1810 – Between William Kilby Sr. and Humphrey and Reubin Kilby, 40 pounds, 340 acres, three tracts of land including 2 plantations where Humphrey and Reubin now live, north fork waters of Reddies River – first 200 acres in Robert Shepherds line, William Owens line…2nd 90 acres waters Reddies River, Owens line, head Top Hill Branch, Elijah Dennys line, 3rd 50 acres joining 1st above tract William Kilby’s own line and Robert Shepherds corner. Wits John Judd and Fanny X Kilby. Signed William X Kilby page 157
  • October 28, 1814 – Between Robert Shepherd and William Judd and Nathaniel Judd Jr., $300, 100 acres north side of south fork of Reddies River, crossfence between Larkin Pumphrey and Shepherd, crossfence conditional line between John Judd and Shepherd, conditional line between Reuben and Humphrey Kilby and Shepherd. Road runs from head Sport Branch to the Mill, across top of ridge” Carrells old field, top main ridge between William and John Judds field “2 plum trees planted by John Judd and Larkin Pumphrey.” Wits Rowland Judd and Nancy Judd. Signed Robert X Shepherd and William X Judd page 542

Surveying the Land

This intersection of Shingle Gap Road with NC 16, where the cemetery and church used to be located, is the top of Deep Ford Hill. We know that John Shepherd lived someplace at the bottom of this hill, and his brother, Robert, did as well. Let’s take a drive.

Shepherd Deep Ford Hill.png

Descending the hill, below.

Shepherd Deep Ford descent.png

It’s a long way down. You can’t see the bottom from the top, or even close due to multiple curves and lots of trees. This area is still heavily forested in many places.

Shepherd Deep Ford curve.png

The road curves around the mountain with vegetation on both sides for most of the distance.

Shepherd Deep Ford bottom.png

At the bottom of the hill, we find beautiful, cleared flat land that belonged to John Shephard. The Deep Ford Meeting House may have been located in this area.

The old State Road turns to the right near where the Deep Ford itself was probably located. The exact crossing location isn’t known today.

Shepherd Deep Ford split.png

At this point, perhaps we can see the Reddies River from the bridge on the right close to where Deep Ford would have been. We arrived from the right in the photo below.

Shepherd Deep Ford bridge.png

Indeed, we can see the river. The original “deep ford” would have been someplace in this vicinity.

Shepherd Reddies River from bridge north.png

From the bridge, looking over John Shepherd’s land to the north.

Shepherd Reddies River from bridge south.png

Looking back south at Deep Ford Hill, above.

Shepherd west.png

This view from the bridge is looking back towards the west at the mountain range. The Blue Ridge Parkway snakes its way along the top.

We are going to drive east, the other way, across the bridge, then north along the east side of the Reddies river.

Shepherd deep ford aerial land.png

On the map above, the original cemetery is marked with a red star, the bottom red arrow points to the bridge in the photos above. We will be driving along the road where the red arrows point to John Shepperd’s land. The gold arrows point to the road along Robert’s land.

The road continues for almost a mile shadowing the river, following the general curving river shape, but sometimes with fields between the road and river as shown below.

Shepherd John's land.png

John Shepperd owned this land between the mountains, crossing the Reddies River located behind the bushes, through the field and across the road.

Shepherd small stream.png

At the point at where the river curves left, marked by that first gold arrow, we find a house on a stream on the right and the Reddies River is evident on the left side (through the trees, above) as the small stream running beside the house empties into the river.

Pioneer cabins would have been located on smaller, clean streams, so I can’t help but wonder if this was Johns’ home. It’s also possible that the mouth of this stream was actually on the land that Robert patented. It’s very near the border of the boundary line between the brother’s lands.

The house on the stream is visible, below, at far right above the words “Old North.”

This begins the area where Robert’s 199 acre land grant can be seen from the road. In fact, according to the court notes, the road is likely driving across Robert and John’s land.

We know Robert owned a lot more land, a total of at least 789 acres at one point by adding other grants as well as purchasing additional acreage. Robert’s additional land abutted his original land. A square mile is 640 acres, so Robert owned more than a mile by roughly a mile and a quarter. His total land holdings were about twice the size of his brother John’s initial land grant.

In essence, it appears that Robert and John at one owned pretty much everthing along this part of the River from mountain to mountain. A few other men owned adjacent lands which were bought and sold over the years.

Shepherd Robert aerial.png

In this area, near the small stream in the upper right of the photo, above, you can’t see the river from the road. Trees line the riverbanks as you can see both above and below, probably providing stability during floods. This would have been part of Robert’s original land. I wonder if the part not cleared isn’t suitable for farming, or if it’s being harvested for trees and logs today.

Shepherd road to river.png

Driving north, farmland lines the road on the west, and mountains form the east boundary.

The map below shows the junction of the north branch of Reddies River where it separates from the south branch.

Shepherd north and south Reddies split.png

We don’t know exactly where the roads today named old and new NC 16 ran at the time, but there weren’t a lot of options based on the lay of the land. The main road, according to the 1808 NC map may have run up the left side, but we know absolutely that there was a road on the right or east side too, because the hill and the ford to get there was named “Deep Ford” very early.

Today we can also see Robert’s land from NC Highway 16 on the west side of Reddies River as the highway cuts across the south branch of the river. George McNiel’s land would have intersected Robert’s in this area, and eventually Robert would purchase 100 acres of George’s land.

Shepherd Robert South Reddies.png

NC 16 is quite hilly until we cross the river at the bottom with the mountains in view ahead.

Shepherd Robert flat.png

Robert’s land is the flat land to the right with several homes today.

Shepherd Robert view.png

This vista is incredibly beautiful. I see why Robert came, put down roots and never left.

Shepherd Robert Deep Ford.png

As we drive away from Robert’s land, I couldn’t help but turn around and take one last look back across his land. Deep Ford Hill rises from the valley floor, a silent sentry marking the location where the earliest pioneers are buried in a long-lost cemetery. Robert traversed this hill innumerable times, on foot. on horseback and in wagons.

I have literally driven in his footsteps.

Court Records

I love court records. They reflect both the ordinary life of being summoned and serving jury duty combined with the excitement of trials. Court was the entertainment of the day, aside from church of course. Men gathered in Wilkesboro in pubs and houses surrounding the courthouse for the week that court was in session. Only local men went home at night, and those men probably arrived very late and often intoxicated. Everyone else stayed someplace in the vicinity of the courthouse for the duration of the court session.

In the early days, not much of a town surrounded the courthouse, and there wasn’t even a proper courthouse. A lot of “make do” went on.

It wasn’t until 1800 that there WAS a town of Wilkesboro when the town was actually platted after land was deeded for that purpose. An actual town began to emerge around the old courthouse that was probably not much more than a log cabin.

In August 1801, court was held for the first time in the new courthouse. Three years later, there appeared to be some concern about the clerk, because the court appointed commissioners to assure that the “County clerk’s office was sufficient or suitable” for the court’s official records.

Three months later, in November the court ordered the former county officials to account for tax collection from 1778 through 1800, 22 years, which they completed satisfactorily in 1802. Most of us today would have trouble reconstructing 22 years worth of records.

The early Wilkes County records are not complete. Some omissions could be due to whatever caused the justices their concern in November 1801, but not entirely. When I first visited Wilkes County, in the 1990s, the courthouse employees quietly told me of old records being used for bonfires in the distant past, but not so long ago as to be purged from memory. From what they said, and George confirmed, back in the depression era no one thought that “old records about dead people” would be of interest to anyone, for any reason.

I. Was. Horrified!

During later visits, after Wilkes County transferred records to the North Carolina State Archives, there was still confusion in the modern-day offices about which records still existed and where they might be located.

Robert Shepherd in the Records

Shepherd was spelled a variety of ways in these early records. Shepherd, Sheperd, Sheppard and just about any way you could think to spell it and a few you probably can’t. There is no “right” way of spelling the name. It appears, based on “signatures” of both Robert and Sarah that neither could write, so the spelling was decided by whomever was recoding the record at the time. Spelling was not standardized at that point in history.

Wilkes County was formed from Surry County and Washington District (now Washington County, TN) North Carolina on April 20, 1778. If the Shepherd family left Spotsylvania County, Virginia on December 7, 1777, they would not have arrived in Wilkes County before January 1778, best case. I did not check Surry County records given that Robert would have only lived in that county for 3 or 4 months, max. My luck, the juciest record EVER is probably hiding there, mocking me.

Robert was first found in Wilkes County court records in December 1778, and thereafter regularly. One had to be male, white, 21 and a property owner to be a juror. According to deed records, Robert filed for land on April 24, 1778. His traveling comparison, George McNiel filed in March, so they arrived sometime between January and March 12th.

At that time, men would be “summoned” for jury duty at the end of one session, then serve at the next, 3 months later. Robert’s entries in the court records regarding jury duty begin in December of 1778.

  • December 10, 1778 – juror
  • March 5, 1779 – juror
  • June 8, 1779 – juror
  • December 8, 1780 – juror
  • September 7, 1781 – juror
  • July 31, 1781 – juror
  • July 29, 1784 – juror
  • April 11, 1784 – juror
  • October 28, 1784 – juror
  • January 28, 1785 – juror
  • July 24, 1785 – juror
  • July 25, 1785 – juror

Another type of court record, road orders, are just wonderful, because they tell us who the neighbors are and often included landmarks, some of which can be found today.

  • January 24, 1786 – Ordered John Sheppard overseer of the road instead of Nathaniel Judd. Ordered William Nall, Morris Baker, James Baker, Martin Adams, John Read, Jesse Ray, John Robins, William Vias, James Sheppard, Barnet Owen, David Owen, Francis Vannoy, Martin Gambill, John Tyre, Nathaniel Vannoy and Robert Sheppard as a road jury from John Sheppards to the foot of the mountain at the head of Reddies River.

This is a very interesting entry. I found the head of Reddies River. Vannoy Road snakes it’s way along the entire branch of the north fork of the Reddies River, all the way to the top.

Shepherd Vannoy Road.png

This is my Jeep a few years ago at the intersection with Vannoy Road where it crosses Reddies River at the gold arrow on the map below. It’s very rough terrain and the locals didn’t recommend trying this section of Vannoy Road, even with a Jeep. They said there are some places with switchbacks that only accommodate one car and they are dangerous in the best of circumstances, but treacherous if it rains or snows.

Shepherd Deep Ford to beginning of Reddies River.png

On this map, Thomas Shepherd’s land is the green arrow where the north and south forks of the Reddies River split. The red arrow is where Vannoy Road begins to climb the mountain, near the Reddies River Church.

I know beyond a doubt that the Owens and Vannoy families lived along the north fork of the Reddies River.

  • April 27, 1786 – Ordered William Nall, Esq Thomas Dickson, Morris Baker, Martin Adams, John Reed, Jesse Ray, John Robins, William Owen, James Sheppard, Barnet Owen, Francis Vannoy, David Smith, John Tyre, Nathaniel Vannoy and Robert Sheppard as a road jury from Deep Ford at John Sheppards to foot of mountains at head of Reddies River.

This suggests that John Sheppard lived at or very near Deep Ford. I suspect that this road order was for this entire stretch of road.

  • January 25, 1787 – Ordered John Owens, Thomas Owens, William Owens, David Owens, James Sheppard, Henry Woody, Francis Vannoy, John Robins, Nathaniel Judd, Rowland Judd, Josiah Sartin, Robert Sheppard, John Tirey, Peter Baker, James Sheppard appointed as a road jury road near Francis Kerby’s up north fork of Reddies River to Thomas Owens.
  • April 28, 1790 – Whereas Jervis Smith hath in consequence of an Act of Assembly passed in 1788 to encourage building of Iron Works in the state, entered 2000 acres on both sides of Reddies River adjoining William Kilby, likewise 500 acres on north side Reddies River at line of said Smith adjoining lands of William Kilby and Justice Bowland, incl part of Bull Head Mtn, likewise 500 acres on both sides of Mulberry Creek adjoining land of John Robins and John Hawkins running down creek including vacant land between land of Isaac Perlier and Walter Brown, whereupon, court orders Adam Kilby, Jonathan Wall, Walter Brown, William Kilby, Samuel Carter, Michael Kilby, Justice Rowland, George Owen, John Sheppard, Robert Sheppard, John Hawkins, James Yates, Henry Adams, James Hays and Aaron Cannady to view whether lands above mentioned are fit for cultivation.
  • July 26 1790 – Whereas Jervis Smith hath in consequence of Act of Assembly passed 1788 to encourage building of iron works in state, entered 2000 acres both sides of Reddies River adjoining William Kilby, likewise 500 acres north side Reddies River at line said Smith adjoining lands of William Kilby and Justice Bowland including part of Bull Head Mountain, likewise, 500 acres both sides of Mulberry creek adjoining land John Robins and John Hawkins running down creek including vacant land between land Isaac Parlier and Walter Brown.

Whereupon, ordered Adam Kilby, Jonathan Wall, Walter Brown, William Kilby, Samuel Carter, Michael Kilby, Justice Rowland, George Owen, John Sheppard, Robert Sheppard, John Hawkins, James Yates, Henry Adams, James Hays and Aaron Cannady to view whether lands above mentioned are fit for cultivation.

This huge grant was more than two miles by two miles and, I suspect, further north and east where Mulberry Creek and Bull’s Mountain are found.

  • January 25, 1791 – Jury appointed at last court to view lands of Jarvis Smith as fit for cultivation report found they are not fit for cultivation. (Robert Sheppard included on jury list above.)
  • Ordered John Robins Jr., Robert Sheppard, William McNiel, John Sheppard Sr., Rowland Judd, Esq, Rowland Judd, Nathaniel Judd, Asel Cross, Stephen Sheppard, John McQuary Sr., John McQuary, James McNiel, David Owen Sr., John Judd, John Tyre appointed as a jury to view a road from Deep Ford on Reddies River to Elijah Denneys over said River.
  • October 31, 1792 – Ordered William Copeland, William Kilbee, James Kilbee, Michael Kilbee, Owen Williams, Thomas Owens, William Cash, Thomas Erwin, Benjamin Church, Francis Vannoy, William McNiel, James McNeil, Robert Sheppard, Joel Copeland, Jarvis Smith, Humphrey Smith, Horam Boon, a jury to view a road round Samuel Carter’s Mill pond where water overflows on Reddies River.
  • Wilkes County Will Abstracts Book 1, 1778-1799 by Absher – Page 448 (orig book) page 41 extracted book – February 4, 1792 proved at May term 1795, Power of attorney from James Brown of State of Georgia to Robert Sheppard to convey unto John Forester 200 acres of land and 100 acres whereon Fielding Forister and Benjamin Bruce now live. Wit Rowland Judd, William McNiel, John Sheppard Jr., Stephen Shepherd, signed James X Brown

Did Robert Shepherd have a relationship with James Brown? If so, what?

  • 8, 1793 – juror
  • April 29, 1793 – grand jury
  • November 7, 1793 – juror
  • May 7, 1795 – Power of attorney from James Brown to Robert Sheppard, oath John Sheppard Jr
  • Also, juror at same session.
  • May 8, 1795 – Ordered William Cash, Nathaniel Judd, Thomas Owen, William Owen, Thomas Erwin, Robert Sheppard, William Colvart, James Sheppard, John Owen, Benjamin Pennell, Elijah Denney, Zachariah Denney, Johnson Owen, William Tyre to view a road from William Colvarts to top of Ridge above said Colvarts.
  • February 4, 1796 – Ordered William McNiel, Philip Church, William Owen, Joseph Keslar, Rowland Judd, John Tyre, James Calloway, James McNiel, William Cash, William Colvard, Robert Sheppard, Francis Vannoy, Reuben Stringer, John Yates, John Sheppard to view and lay out a road from oldfields on New River to the Punchion Camp on the ridge.

I believe this is present day Ashe County.

  • May 1, 1797 – Ordered William Colvard, William Cash, Robert Judd, John Judd, Benjamin Viers, Lewis Sheppard, Humphry Kilbee, Reuben Kilbee, David Owens, James Sheppard, Stephen Sheppard view road from Deep Ford of Reddies River to top of hill above John Sheppards.

This tells us that John lived at the bottom of the hill, not at the top. I wonder if this is the road that became Tumbling Shoals Road. I don’t see a lot of other candidates.

  • April term 1799 – Robert Shepherd appraised estate of Michael Kilby
  • November 1, 1803 – William Adkins and John Adkins bound to Robert Shepherd to learn the occupation of farmer until 21 years old. Signed Robert X Sheppard

This confirms that Robert was a farmer. The Adkins boys were probably orphans and Robert, now age 64 with his own children grown could use some extra help.

  • February term 1805 – Deed from Robert Shepherd to William Judd for 100 acres land duly prove in court by oath of John Judd
  • April 30, 1799 – Appraisement of Michael Kilby’s estate returned by William Trible and Robert Sheppard, appraisers.
  • August 2, 1799 – Robert Sheppard summoned as juror to next session
  • November 4, 1799 – Robert Sheppard sworn on grand jury
  • November 8, 1799 – Deed from George McNiel to Robert Sheppard for 120 acres acknowledged in court by George McNiel
  • February 7, 1800 – Ordered that John Forester, Jacob Robards, James Kilby, John Querry, William Querry, John Sheppard, Robert Sheppard, Lewis Sheppard, Nathaniel Judd, John Judd, William Vias, Henry Pumphry, William Trible and Jarvis Smith or any 12 of them be a jury to view a road from where the road crosses the branch at Ambrose Hammon’s house running through the field along a ridge into the old road near the Deep Ford and report the same to the next court.
  • May Term 1800 – Deed from George McNiel to Robert Sheppard for 100 acres ack in court by George McNiel
  • May Term 1800 – Deed from Robert Sheppard and Nathaniel Judd to John Judd for 100 acres proven by oath of Rowland Judd
  • May Term 1802 – Two deeds from Robert Sheppard to James McNiel for 50 acres of land each proven in court by Squire Lowrey.
  • August 4, 1803 – Ordered that Francis Vannoy, Esq., William McQuerry, John Sheppard Sr., Robert Sheppard, Nathaniel Judd Jr., John Judd, William Colvard, Jesse Busy, William Cash, James Hays, Leonard Whittenton, George Owen, Edward Dancy, Thomas Irvin and Zaceriah Denny or any 12 of them to be a jury to review and mark the road the best way from the ford of the river above Robert Sheppards to the mouth of the branch above where Thomas Farmer lived and report the same to the next court.
  • October 31, 1803 – Apprentices rebound – ordered that the indenture binding William Adkins to John Jinnings dated April 30, 1799 and the indenture binding John Adkins aged 15 years the 31st of January last to Elisha Jinnings dated May 3, 1799 be rescinded and that they be bound unto Robert Shepard until they are 21 years old.
  • May 1, 1804 – Jury on Reddies River – Ordered that Thomas Johnson, Nathaniel Judd, Robert Sheppard, John Owen, William Kilby, Nathaniel Judd Jr., William Cash, John Church, John Judd, William McNiel, James McNiel, John Vannoy, Joel Vannoy, James Kilby, Reuben Kilby, Humphrey Kilby, William McQuerry, Henry Pumphrey, John Sheppard Jr., Francis Vannoy, Edward Dancy, George Owen, John Dancy, William Jinkins, William Colvard, John Harmon and Robert Cleveland, or any 12 of them be a jury to view a road from the new meeting house on Reddies River by John Shepherd’s Jr. into the road that leads to New River and if they think it necessary to lay it out and report the same to next court.

We know the location of the new meeting house. I searched for the closest way to reach the New River.

Shepherd to New River.png

This is really rough terrain, crossing the mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Shepherd to New River aerial.png

The view near the top of the ridge shows the stunningly beautiful country.

Shepherd ridge top.png

Robert cut this road or one similar and nearby. These men were made of steel, I swear.

  • February 8, 1806 – Road jury to view the road from John Sheppards Sr. on Reddies River to Robert Sheppards on said River and report to next court. Jury James Hays, John McQuerry, Henry Pumphrey, Leonard Whittenton, William Judd, Nathaniel Judd Sr., Nathaniel Judd Jr., William Colvard, Jesse Berry, Thomas Johnson, William Cash, William McQuerry, John Sheppard Jr., Edward Dancy, James Woody, George Owen, Leonard Wingler, Johnson Owen, Francis Vannoy, Abraham Kilbey.

Obviously the brothers already had some type of road or path between their homes. Perhaps just a horse trail, and they wanted a wagon road.

  • May 6, 1808 – Road jury to view and lay off a road from the ford of the (Yadkin? – the extractor called it possibly Yadkin, but it would be Reddies) River at John Shepherd’s Sr. to a branch at James McNeil’s and report the same to next court. Jury James McNiel, Reuben Kilbey, Henry Kilbey, William McQuerry, John Shepherd Jr, Thomas Johnson, William Covard, Nathaniel Judd Sr., Amos Harmon, Nathaniel Judd, Jr., William Judd, Robert Sheppard, John McQuerry, William Viars, Lewis Shepherd, Leonard Whittington
  • May 10, 1806 – Report the jury appointed in February 1806 to view the road from John Sheppards to Robert Sheppards reported and say they find the say sufficient for a road on the foot of the hill round the bottom.

If only they had included maps with these reports.

  • March 1809 – Robert Sheppard juror
  • February Term 1809 – Road Jury to view and lay off a road from the ford of the creek where Stephen Viars lived last summer down to the schoolhouse and make report. Jury William Viars, Henry Pumphrey, John McQuerry, John Shepherd Sr., Robert Shepherd, William Judd, James McNiel, William McQuerry, George Owens, Johnson Owens, Nathaniel Judd, John Shepherd Jr., Andrew Shepherd, William Cash, Jesse Berry, Abraham Kilbey, Esq.

This is the first mention of a schoolhouse. This means that Robert’s grandchildren were probably being educated, at least to some level. It also tells us that the schoolhouse is not the same as the church.

  • May 1, 1809 – Bill of sale from Henry Miller and James Wellborn to Robert Sheppard ack in open court by oath of Miller and Wellborn.
  • January 29, 1810 – Jury to lay off road from the ford of Reddies River below John Sheppards Sr. to the road leading up Mulberry Creek by Ezekiel Browns. Jury Reuben Hays, William Adams, Charles Adams, James McNiel, Jarvis Smith, Joshua Smith, James Kilbey, Thomas Tinsley, James Hays, Reuben Kilbey, William McQuery, Robert Sheppard, Henry Adams, John Roades, Joseph Roberds, Larkin Cash.
  • May 2, 1811 – Road jury to view and lay off road from the sign post at Sheppard’s Hill on Reddies River up the north fork of said river to Johnson Owens. Jury George Owens, James McNeil, Reuben Kilbey, Humphrey Kilbey, James Kilbey, John McQuerry, John Sheppard, Larkins Sheppard, William Viars, Abraham Kilbey, Francis Vannoy, Johnson Owens, James Woody, Benjamin Darnall, Edward Dancy, Aaron Wiatt, Nathaniel Juddy, John Judd, William Judd, Robert Sheppard.
  • August 2, 1811 – Road jury to view and lay off a road from the Deep Ford on Reddies River to the fork of the road above Thomas Johnsons. Jury James Hays, William Viars, John McQuerry, John Sheppard, James McNiel, Humphrey Kilbey, Reuben, Kilbey, Larkin Pumphrey, James Kilbey, Leonard Whittington, Henry Pumphrey, Robert Sheppard, John Judd, William Judd, Nathaniel Judd Sr., Nathaniel Judd Jr., Francis Vannoy, Esq, William Colvard.
  • November 6, 1811 – We the jury met and viewed and found a wagon road from the Deep Ford on Reddies River to the Fork Road above Thomas Johnsons and se we say. (entire jury list repeated, including Robert Sheppard).
  • August 6, 1812 – Jury summoned to November term 1812 – Robert Sheppard
  • November 3, 1812 – Ordered that jurors Robert Sheppard, Willis Alexander and William Mooney be fined the sum of 1-/- each. Sci Fa to issue.

Robert could have been having a bout of kidney stones. He seemed quite dependable, for years and years.

  • February 1, 1813 – Fine remitted against Robert Sheppard at last term for nonattendance as a juror be remitted without costs.
  • May 6, 1813 – Road jury to lay off the road from the Deep Ford of Reddies River by Mrs. Sheppards to James McNiels house or against his house. Jury James Hays, Robert Viars, Leo Whittington, Henry Pumphrey, John Judd, John McQuerry, James McNiel, Robert Sheppard, William Judd, Nathaniel Judd, Reuben Kilbey, Humphrey Kilbey, Johnson Owens, Benjamin Darnall, Stephen Viars.
  • August 5, 1813 – Road jury to view and lay off a road from the ford of Reddies River by Mrs. Sheppards to James McNeil house, or against his house. Jury James Hays, Leo Whittington, Henry Pumphrey, John Judd, Robert Viars, Robert Sheppard, William Judd, Larkin Pumphrey, Reuben Kilbey, Humphrey ilbey, Francis Vannoy, Martin Maker, James Woody, Stephen Viars, Edward Dancy, Thomas Griffin, Aaron Wyatt, Vickory Wyatt.
  • November 4, 1813 – Road jury report – we the jury met according to summons Aug. 5, 1813 and viewed and marked out a way for a road from the first ford of Reddies River above the sign post at the foot of a hill to or against James McNiels house and found no damage. (list of jurors repeated),
  • November 4, 1813 – The following jury viewed and lay off a road near the old road from the foot of the hill by Sarah Sheppards at the sign post to the ford below Thomas Johnsons on Reddies River (list of jurors repeated).
  • October term 1814 – Deed from Robert Sheppard and William Judd to Nathaniel Judd for 100 acres of land proven by oath of Rolin Judd.
  • August 3, 1815 – The following be a jury to view and lay out a road from John Sheppard’s Sr. decd to the ford of Reddies River above William Colvards. Jury James McNeil, Robert Sheppard, James Woody, George Taylor, Thomas Johnson, Solomon Bolin, James Hays, James Fletcher, Larkin McNeil, Johnson Owens, Henry Miller, William Colvard, William Judd, Edward Dancy, Aaron Wiatt, Thomas Tinsley, Reuben Kilbey, Humphrey Kilbey, James Kilbey, John McQuerry, Thomas Griffin.
  • July 31, 1816 – Jury to view and lay off a road from the sign post at John Judds on Lewis Fork road to the Deep Ford on Reddies River. Jury Presley Cleveland, Andrew Vannoy, Jesse Vannoy John Eller, John Harmon, Amos Harmon, Larkin McNeil, John Judd, Thomas Erwin, Henry Miller, Thomas Tninsley, Henry Kilbey, Joseph Baldwin, Henry Hambey, William Judd, Robert Sheppard, James McNeil, Humphrey Kilbey, John Viars, Robert Viars, Leonard Whittington, John Kilbey, Thomas Rash, Hugh Hays.
  • November 7, 1816 – Road jury to view and lay off a road from Robert Sheppards to William Colvards Mill so as not to run into the (Reddies?) River more than crossing the same from Robert Sheppards to said Colvards Mill the best way. Jury Edward Dancy, Vickory Wiatt, James Woody, Johnson Owens, Humphrey Kilbey, Henry Miller, Thomas Johnson, Aaron Wiatt, Reuben Kilbey, Thomas Rash, John Kilbey, Thomas Griffin, William Colvard, John Adams, Solomon Boling.

This is an interesting entry in that Colvard Road still exists today as a two-track between the South Fork and Middle Fork of the Reddies River, near Robert Shepherd’s land, marked with the red star.

Shepherd Colvard Road.png

  • February 6, 1817 – Jury report from Robert Sheppards to William Colvards Mill as follows, begun at a stake near Fletchers house at the hill, then down to a stake, then keeping the road to a wash’d place to a stake, then down the river bank to a persimmon tree, then into the old road, then 20 foot to Robert Sheppards, the damage assessed at $$.75 (jury names repeated here.

Note – a November 23, 1812 deed, Deed book G-H, NC grant number 2860 Jesse Berry 100 acres the waters of the south fork Reddies River, William Colvard’s line, John Adams line.

This February 1817 entry is the last court note – at 77 years of age he was still riding a horse and laying out roads. He died 4 months later, and he was ill for at least 2 weeks before his death.

The next court entries regard Robert’s death and estate in August 1817.

  • August 5, 1817 – Ordered James McNiel administer on the estate of Robert Sheppard decd who gave bond in the sum of $4000 with William Colvard and James Wellborn as security and qualified as the law directs.
  • An inventory of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd was returned on oath by James McNiel, administrator.
  • Commissioners ordered that Humphrey Kilbey, Leonard Whittington, Presley Cleveland and Joshua Smith, Esq be commissioners to lay off one years provision to Salley Sheppard, widow or Robert Sheppard, decd,
  • Ordered that James McNiel, administrator, sell such part of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd as he thinks proper and make return to the next court.
  • November 5, 1817 – Commissioners appointed to layoff one years provision to Robert Sheppards widow, returned their report which was received by the court.
  • February 5, 1818 – Account of the sale of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd was returned on oath by the administrator, James McNiel (August 5, 1817 entry).
  • February term 1818 – Bill of sale James McNiel, administrator of Robert Sheppard, to John Judd was duly proven in open court by the oath or Francis Barnard.
  • August 3, 1819 – Commissioners ordered that Gen. Montfort Stokes, Hamilton Brown and Jesse Vannoy be a committee to settle with James McNiel, administrator of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd and report to next court.
  • May 3, 1820 – Committee appointed to settle with the administrator of Robert Sheppard decd, James McNiel, returned a report which was received.

Unfortunately, the list of the estate inventory items wasn’t included in the court notes, but cousin Carol came to our rescue.

Robert’s Death

Thanks to the Bible, we know exact when Robert Shepperd died, June 5, 1817, and why – “the old stone and gravel” – known today as kidney stones.

Robert was not a young man. He was just 12 days short of his 78th birthday. One would think that he would have had a will, just based on his age alone, but he didn’t. Perhaps Robert was an optimist.

He didn’t die suddenly either. Robert was ill for 17 days, and clearly getting sicker day by day. I’m surprised that at some point, he didn’t construct a will, even a noncupative or spoken will. We know that he did not, not only because a will wasn’t wasn’t recorded or submitted to the court, but because Sarah approached the court and waived her right as administrator.

Entries in Robert’s probate file include Sarah’s petition on August 2nd waiving her administrative right in lieu of her son-in-law, James McNiel.

Shepherd Sally admin.png

Note that Sarah signed with an X. The balance of the documents in his packet include James McNiel’s bond and a receipt for a payment of debt.

Robert’s Estate

I absolutely love estates and estate inventories. They allow us a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors, much like walking through our houses today would tell someone a great deal about us. People wandering through my house would discover that I’m a quilter and a genealogist. Now there’s a surprise!

Robert Sheppard was not a poor man. He had done quite well for himself, amassing, and then selling most of his land except for 122 acres where he lived at his death.

I’m apparently missing a few real estate transactions, because I show Robert’s running total at his death as 330 acres.

What I didn’t have was any detail about the contents of his estate. Cousin Carol did me a HUGE favor, looked up Robert’s estate inventory on microfilm and sent those pages along to be transcribed. Thank you IMMENSELY, Carol!!!

What isn’t included in Wilkes County estate information is a list of purchasers at the estate sales, but we do have the complete inventory thanks to Carol.

In Robert’s estate inventory, his assets were apparently listed in the perceived order of their value. His land came first, and then, sadly, two slaves; Rachel who was about 50 years old and Jerry, between 17 and 18. One has to wonder if Rachel is Jerry’s mother. There is no list of purchasers at the estate sale, so we don’t know who purchased what, or whom, or what became of Rachel and Jerry. Jerry would have been born about 1800, or maybe 1801 and could have still been living in 1865 when the slaves were freed during the Civil War.

In Wilkes County Will Book 3, Robert’s estate inventory items are listed together in one long list, but I’ll transcribe, divide the list at intervals and interject some commentary from time to time.

Robert Shepherd inventory page 1.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 2.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 3.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 4.jpg

Will Book 3, Page 154/155 – August term 1817

An inventory of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd:

  • One tract of land containing 122 acres
  • 1 negro woman named Rachel about 50 years of age
  • 1 negro boy named Jerry between 17 and 18 years of age

I checked the 1850 and 1860 slave census in the hope of finding Jerry, but slaves first names were not recorded in Wilkes County. By 1870, there is no Jerry born about that time that is either black or mulatto in Wilkes County, so either Jerry had died, moved or was recorded under a different name. I can only hope that this information can somehow help Jerry’s descendants connect with their family.

  • 1 black horse rising 5 years old
  • 1 sorrel mare rising 4 years old
  • 1 dark bay horse rising 3 years old

The horses would have been used for transportation and pulling the plows and wagons. Interesting that there were no mules. I’ve not seen the term “rising” in this context before, but would presume it means just under or just over.

  • 14 head of cattle
  • 19 head of sheep
  • Between 20-30 head of hogs

Robert had enough livestock to feed his family and sell some to the neighbors too – for a long time.

  • 1 curry comb

Shepherd curry comb.png

A curry comb is used in horse grooming.

  • 1 waggon and hind gears
  • 1 bar shear plow
  • 1 half shear plow
  • 1 double tree
  • 2 shovel plows
  • 1 swingle tree

A swingletree is a wooden bar used to balance the pull of a draft horse when pulling a vehicle of some sort. This would be used with a horse collar to attach harnesses to both sides of the horse and to the swingletree behind the animal.

  • 1 pair of chins and hames? (chains perhaps?)
  • 1 bark band
  • 2 clwius?
  • 3 axes
  • 4 hacs
  • 1 mattock (a combination of an ax and an adze)
  • 1 cross cut saw
  • 1 hand saw
  • 1 frow
  • 1 log chain
  • 1 augers
  • 2 chisels
  • 1 foot adds (adze)
  • 1 gouge
  • 1 pair pinchers
  • 1 jointer
  • 1 jack plain (type of woodworking bench plane)
  • 1 box of iron lumber

Robert had obviously been clearing land – probably constantly. That makes sense, of course, after he purchased land grants, meaning no settler had lived there before. The different types of plows tell us that he was a farmer, but the joiner and chisels suggest that he was also a carpenter.

Like many colonial settlers, Robert probably had to be a jack-of-all-trades.

  • 1 grindstone

Shepherd grindstone

A grindstone, usually made from sandstone, is a round sharpening stone used for grinding or sharpening metallic tools or knives.

  • 1 pair sheep shears
  • 1 cutting knife and box
  • 6 hogsheads
  • 2 tight casks
  • 4 tubs

Hogsheads were a type of barrel, so either Robert was also a cooper, or he purchased or traded for casks, barrels and tubs.

  • 3 gums

Shepherd bee gum.png

A bee gum is a naturally occurring hive, often cut from trees with the hive portion of the tree intact by early settlers and brought home so that the bees could be cultivated, and the honey harvested.

  • 1 fat tub
  • 1 soap tub
  • 1 washing tub

This looks like a production area for rendering lard and soap-making, assuredly outside.

  • 1 canteen
  • 2 pail and 2 piggins

A piggin is a pail with one stave extended upwards for a handle.

We’ve obviously moved into the kitchen area now.

  • 1 churn
  • 1 cubbard
  • 2 tables
  • 1 chest
  • 1 small trunk
  • 1 knife box
  • Some knives and forks
  • 4 dishes
  • 6 plates
  • 4 basons
  • 6 tin cups
  • 5 crocks
  • 2 earthen pans
  • 2 earthen dishes
  • 2 mugs
  • 1 jug
  • 1 coffee pot
  • 1 sadle
  • 1 skimmer
  • 6 spoons
  • 2 wooden ladles
  • 2 pots
  • 1 gridiron
  • 1 shovel
  • 1 pair tongs
  • 1 flat iron
  • 2 pair of pot hooks
  • 2 ovens
  • 1 skillet
  • 2 iron trammels

Except for the sadle, which could have been in the kitchen for some reason, everything here is kitchen-related. While Robert was not poor, the small number of plates and dishes tell a tale of austerity. 6 plates and 4 dishes wouldn’t even have been enough for each family member – Robert and Sarah had 10 children for a family of 12, assuming no one’s spouse, children or neighbors were visiting. Wooden trenchers were probably in use, although they aren’t listed. There also only 6 cups and 6 spoons.

  • 1 looking glass

The looking glass is the only suggestion of luxury or any item that was not absolutely essential. I initially thought this would have been Sarah’s mirror, but then I realized it might have been Robert’s for shaving. If that’s the case, then it wouldn’t be a luxury at all. I wish we knew if this looking glass was hand-held or wall-mounted.

  • 3 bedsteads with their cords
  • 3 feather beds with their furniture

I wonder if Sarah and Robert had their bed, plus a “boys’ bed” and a “girls’ bed” where the kids slept until they married.

  • 2 under beds and his wearing apparel

This seems to suggest that there was some unit for storing things under the bed – and that Robert’s clothes were stored there. Or perhaps I’m misreading this and an under-bed was a trundle bed. Regardless, I wish Robert’s “wearing apparel” had been detailed.

  • 1 church Bible
  • 1 testament
  • 2 hymn books

I wonder about the definition of a “church Bible.” Compared to what other type of Bible? Does this mean that a “church Bible” is smaller than many of the big Bibles of the time, so transportable to church? Or maybe the opposite, a church Bible is large and therefore stays at church.

I’m also quite curious about the hymn books. I would expect even someone who couldn’t read might own a Bible – but why own a hymn book if you can’t read to sing along? On multiple documents, Robert signs with an X, never signing a signature, suggesting that he cannot write. Here’s an example of what might have been in a Baptist hymnal around 1800.

  • 2 flax wheels
  • 1 cotton wheel
  • 1 counting reel
  • 1 pair wool cards
  • 2 pair cotton cards
  • 1 pair cloth shears

mary-dodson-spinning-wheel

“Woman’s work is never done.” Indeed, Sarah was clearly spinning flax, cotton and wool, probably weaving and assuredly sewing.” Yet, legally, Robert owned everything, so her spinning wheels and literally everything except her clothes were included in Robert’s estate sale.

  • 1 half bushel
  • 4 sides of leather
  • 3 bells
  • 2 collars
  • Mans saddle
  • 8 shears
  • 1 woman’s saddle
  • 2 bridles
  • 1 head stall and bits

These items seem to be associated with equine or animal care.

Rachel Rice cowbell

The bells are probably cattle bells.

  • Some wool
  • Some cotton
  • 1 crop flax
  • 1 flax buck
  • Some spun truck

Obviously wool, cotton and flax are to be spun, but I don’t know what “spun truck” or a “flax buck” is and google isn’t helpful. Any spinners out there?

  • 1 pair of stilyards

Shepherd stilyards.png

A stillyard is a device for weighing things. They came in all sizes to weight a variety of items from small things like coins to large shipping containers using a crane. Scales with a counterbalance on which you’re asked to step at the doctor’s office, before groaning and removing your shoes, are a form of stillyard.

  • Some wheat
  • Some rye
  • Some oats
  • A crop of corn now growing

Crops, obviously. The corn would not be valued or sold until after harvest.

  • Some salt
  • Some bacon
  • Some old corn

Salt was a valuable commodity, available only by mining or near the ocean from evaporation. Based on 1863 court minutes, it appears that salt in Wilkes County came from Saltville, Virginia, some 80 rough miles away, over the mountains. Salt was used for seasoning, but sometimes, more importantly, for the preservation of meats. Meats were also smoked in a smokehouse for preservation. Old corn would have been left from last year’s harvest.

  • 1 bread tray
  • 1 sifter
  • 1 riddle

Obviously, we’ve moved to the oven area, either outside or beside the fireplace. A riddle is a type of sifter.

  • 1 hackle

A hackle or hatchel is a type of carder or brush generally for wool or flax. You can see one here. Notice the bottom side where the square-headed nails are driven through.

  • 1 rasor
  • 1 rasor case

Rachel Rice shaving

The straight edge razor would have been Robert’s. This 1846 illustrates the art of shaving, and presumably, not getting cut.

  • 1 pair horse fetters

Horse fetters are in essence horse handcuffs, chaining the horses legs together to restrict their movement. ☹

  • 1 pair of saddle bags

Robert Shepherd had several debtors. However, a closer looks shows that many of these debts were owed by Robert’s sons-in-law (bolded below) and may have been a method to facilitate early inheritance. The $100 amounts often match the amount of a land sale exactly.

Accounts due by note, to wit:

  • 1 note of William McQuerry for $100
  • 1 note on James McNiel for $25
  • 2 notes on Thomas Erwin for $110
  • 1 note of John Judd for $100
  • Note of William Judd for $100
  • Note of Larkin Pumphrey for $10
  • Note on Amos Harmon for $40
  • Note on Lewis Cash for $22.50
  • Note on John Adams for $15
  • Note on James Persons for $8

Accounts due by book, to wit:

  • Larkin Pumphrey – one tract of land $100
  • William McNiel – $59.50
  • Edmond Woods – $1.25
  • William Wilson – $2
  • John Viars – $24
  • George Taylor – $1.75
  • Alexander Brown – $1
  • William Powell – $1
  • William Nash or Mash – $7 desperate
  • John Wauson – $24.90 desperate
  • Thomas Erwin – $10
  • James McNiel – 6 bushels of rye
  • John Judd – $10.93 ¾
  • William Judd – 15 gallons of brandy, 4 pounds of iron, one bushel of wheat

The William Judd entry is interesting, because no place in Robert’s estate inventory do we find brandy, iron or wheat. Brandy is one way of preserving fruits and alcohol was used medicinally, in addition to the obvious.

  • Amos Harmon – $11
  • Christian Miller – $1.50
  • James Fletcher – $2
  • Joseph D. Baldwin – 1 bushel of wheat
  • Rowland Judd – $1
  • Nancy Irwin – $4

James McNiel admin – Wilkes County, NC August Term 1817 – the above inventory returned on oath of the administrator

Next, we find Sarah’s widow’s allotment of food that was intended to maintain the widow and family during the time that the estate was in probate.

Robert Sheperd estate widow allotment.jpg

Page 167 – November term 1817 – An Allowance to Robert Sheppards Widow and family:

We the commissioners appointed by the county court of Wilkes on August term 1817 for the purpose of saying off one years provisions for the widow of Robert Sheppard decd have met on the 13th of September 1817 at the dwelling house of the said decd and after being duly sworn according to law do allow as followeth, to wit:

  • One cow and calf
  • One small beef
  • Two choice hogs
  • Two choice sheep
  • 5 bushels of wheat
  • 11 barrels of corn
  • One small side of leather
  • One bushel of salt
  • 10 pounds of sugar
  • 4 pounds of coffee
  • And roughness sufficient to winter her cattle and sheep
  • 6 gallons of spirits and all the cloth and spun truck she has in hand
  • 2 pounds of wool
  • Seven pounds of cotton
  • What old corn and bacon that was mentioned on the inventory returned by James McNiel admin

Commissioners:
Leonard Whittington
Humphrey Kilby
Presley Cleveland

The widow was granted enough to “keep her” for a year from her husband’s estate. In Sarah’s case, all of her children were grown and married, and the two remaining slaves would be sold in another month or two. I’d wager the commissioners were generous, granting perhaps more than they deemed necessary. No body wanted tales of a hungry widow and children reaching the court.

Looking at Robert’s estate inventory, Robert had more than 10 times this much livestock, so his family likely never went hungry. Coffee, sugar and spirits were not noted in the inventory taken the month before. All items were supposed to be included, so I wonder why these were omitted.

Robert Shepherd estate.jpg

Page 167 – An account of the sale of the estate of Robert Sheppard, decd

  • On the 19th and 20th of September 1718 was…..$1749.23 ¾
  • On the 20th November 1817 was…..$272.83 ¼
  • Total February term 1818 – $2022.07

Above amount of sale returned on oath by James McNiel, admin.

Thus ends the physical life of Robert Shepard on Earth, but pieces of him live on in me and others today, some 7 generations later.

DNA

Using DNAPainter, I can attribute 4 segments of my autosomal DNA to Robert Shepherd and Sarah Rash specifically. These segments match people who descend from Robert and Sarah through children other than daughter Elizabeth, my ancestor. Because we share these segments, and no other (known) ancestors, our common segments are then attributed to Robert or Sarah.

Of course, until someone matches me on these segments who descends through another child of Robert or Sarah’s parents, I won’t be able to determine whether these segments descend from Robert or Sarah.

Shepherd DNA.png

It’s interesting to observe that the largest segment, slightly under 30cM, is a 5th cousin once removed.

Unfortunately, I have another 109 DNA matches to descendants of Robert and Sarah at Ancestry on ThruLines, but since Ancestry doesn’t provide segment location information, I can’t paint those☹

What I do have though, is ammunition. While today, I can only attribute these four teal segments DIRECTLY to Robert or Sarah, I have many McNiel, Vannoy, Shepherd and other downstream identified matches on these same segments.

Shepherd pedigree.png

Robert and Sarah’s DNA descended to me through the red-starred ancestors, above.

The ammunition is that I also have unidentified matches. It’s in those matches and their trees that the gold nugget I need to break through ancestral brick walls may be buried. What do these trees of unidentified matches have in common? Where do they lead? Their ancestors are clearly my ancestors too, somehow.

Take a look.

Shepherd chr 3 large.png

Every single one of these triangulated people in the red box match me on all or a portion of this same teal Shepherd/Rash segment on chromosome 3. Some matches descend through the Vannoy line, some through the McNiel and Shepherd lines – but some, the ones in dark blue are a bulk import of my paternal bucketed matches list at Family Tree DNA. These people may share an ancestor in their trees with each other that I don’t – who would be a huge hint for me.

But that’s not the only segment that holds hints for me.

Shepherd chr 3 small.png

Here’s another chromosome 3 segment match.

Shepherd chr 8.png

Chromosome 8 has 5 matches plus the teal Robert Shepherd/Sarah Rash match.

Shepherd chr 15.png

This segment on chromosome 15 has more matches than the others, but they are smaller and several only have a small overlaps. Still, the larger matches may yield valueable clues.

Indeed, I need to get busy. While I’ve found all the documentary records that I can for Robert Shepherd, my DNA matches hold the key for deeper discoveries. DNA isn’t limited. As more people test, new matches quietly arrive, waiting for me to notice, and I continue to have additional opportunities for new discoveries.

It’s like Robert is leading me back home by scattering a trail of genetic breadcrumbs.

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Mary Lytle Hickerson (c1720/5 – 1793/4), Died at Mulberry Fields – 52 Ancestors #266

We don’t know who Mary’s parents are, but Mary Lytle’s surname comes from two sources. First, an 1877 letter written from her unnamed granddaughter in Texas to a relative in Wilkes County provides us with this information:

Nacogdoches, Texas.

May the 20th, 1877

Dr. Hickison

Dear Sir,

I write you in regard to a business matter.

You will doubtless be surprised to hear from one of Elizabeth Hickison’s daughters. My mother was daughter of Charles Hickison of North Carolina. He was buried at the Mulberry Fields on the Yadkin River, Wilkes County, North Carolina. My grandmother’s maiden name was Mollie Little. She was from Scotland. Grandfather was from England. I write you the particulars so you will know who I am. My mother married a Stuart. I was 3 years old when we left that country. My age is 86 years. I have been a widow 34 years.

(remainder of letter is missing)

Comments by Felix Hickerson:

I think it is undoubtedly true that the Charles Hickison here referred to was the father of David Hickerson and the grandfather of Litle (Lytle) Hickerson.

Whether Hickerson was originally spelled “Hickison” is doubtful, as an old lady, aged 86, living so far away, could easily become careless about the spelling when perhaps others adopted the simplified spelling.

“Mulberry Fields” was the original site of the town of Wilkesboro. It was the central meeting place for a large neighborhood.

It’s very unfortunate that rest of the letter was lost, including the name of the sender.

Felix Hickerson didn’t have access to online records in 1940 when he published this information, but I do.

I checked the 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 census for women in Nacogdoches County born about 1791 in North Carolina.

In 1880, there were none, so the author had presumably passed away by then.

In 1870, we find Jane Anderson, age 78, born in North Carolina who cannot read or write. Hmmm. Just because the woman sent a letter doesn’t mean she actually scribed it herself.

Jane Anderson is living with J. B. Anderson, son of Benjamin Anderson, age 50 (born 1830) in Alabama.

There is no other female fitting this description in this county in 1870, or even close to this description, meaning born in North Carolina. Of course, we don’t know when she went to Texas.

In 1860, Jane Anderson, age 68, is living with Napoleon B. Anderson, age 26, born Alabama and Caledonia Anderson, age 18, born Texas. It appears that Jane can read and write.

In 1850, Jane Anderson, age 59, is married to Benjamin Anderson, age 92, living along with Jefferson Anderson, 20, Harriett 17, Doctor, 16, all born in Alabama. Were these Jane’s children?

I can’t find a record where Jane married Benjamin Anderson.

However, if Jane has been widowed 34 years in 1877, that tracks back to 1843, and Jane Anderson was clearly married in 1850.

Jane Anderson could be the wrong person, but if so, then where is the right person in the 1870 census? Or any census, for that matter?

Another inconsistency is that Mary Lytle Hickerson’s 1793 will very clearly calls forth her daughter, Mary Stewart, who clearly did marry a Stewart, Steward or Stuart, however you spell it.

Mary’s will does not mention a daughter named Elizabeth. However, Mary also did not mention Sarah and Rachel, and we know positively these two women were her daughters.

There’s no question that the author knew her mother’s name. She would not have mistaken Mary for Elizabeth, and middle names at the time her mother would have been born were exceedingly uncommon.

Is Elizabeth Hickerson who married a Stewart yet another unknown daughter? It’s certainly possible. In 1771, Charles Hickerson witnessed the will of Lydia (Harrison) Stewart who had son Samuel Stewart, the probable husband of Mary Hickerson Stewart. Lydia Stewart’s will also mentions sons Benjamin, Joseph, David, Samuel, Isaiah and John.

Mary Lytle Hickerson’s husband, Charles Hickerson, didn’t have a will, so the will mentioning children is Mary’s.

Mary’s will named sons David and Joseph Hickerson, daughters Jane Miller and Mary Stewart, along with Mary’s son Samuel Hickerson, leaving the balance of her estate to “my daughters” without identifying them.

It’s extremely unfortunate that the name of the letter’s author was on the portion that is missing.

I’ve been unable to identify the author from the census and other available information.

Lytle as a First Name

In combination with the surname Little provided in the 1877 letter, we also have evidence in the form of the name Lytle being used as a first name for Mary Lytle Hickerson’s grandchildren. Spelling was, of course, arbitary and phoenetic at that time in history. Lytle and Little would have been pronounced the same way, so the spelling would have been the preference of the speller.

Mary Lytle Hickerson in North Carolina

We know very little about Mary from records that involve her before she signed the deed with an X when she and Charles sold land to their son, David on July 29, 1788. In fact, there is no direct evidence other than the fact that David, born between 1750 and 1760 named his son Lytle.

We know, positively, that Mary and Charles were living on Mulberry Creek ten years before the deed-signing, in 1778 when Charles made a land entry, and that they lived in Surry County, the part that woul,d become Wilkes in 1776 when a group of militia men marched to the Cherokee Towns.

It’s probable that by 1774 they had already settled along the Yadkin near what was then called Mulberry Fields, today the area just north of Wilkesboro. Charles was listed in the tax district of Col. Benjamin Cleveland who we know positively lived there.

The first record of Charles Hickerson in North Carolina isn’t on this part of the Yadkin River but about 15 miles west of what is today Winston-Salem.

On January 11, 1771, Charles Hickerson witnessed the will of Lydia Stewart. Her husband, Samuel, had died a few years before, leaving his land to two of his sons, but his moveable estate to Lydia.

It stands to reason that Lydia lived on that land until her death. In fact, based on her will, it seems apparent that she still lived in the old home place.

Charles Hickerson, and by extension, Mary, would have had to live in close proximity to Lydia to witness her will. It’s also worth mentioning that at least one of Mary’s daughters, Mary, married a Stewart, if not two daughters – meaning Elizabeth too. This might suggest that the Hickersons in fact lived very close to Lydia – close enough for their kids to court.

Where did Lydia Stewart live?

Lydia Stewart’s Land

I lucked out. Not only did my cousin, Carol, discover that indeed, Charles had witnessed Lydia’s will, along with his mark for a signature, but I discovered that Wes Patterson has researched the Stewarts extensively. You can see his website, here.

Based on Wes’s work, it looks like Lydia Stewart lived on land that her husband, Samuel, willed to sons Benjamin and Joseph.

This land was located near where the Great Wagon Road crossed the Yadkin River where modern Robinhood Road intersects Chickasha Road near Gorgales Creek, then known as Muddy Creek.

Samuel had a land grant for 640 acres on Muddy Creek above the head of Stewarts Run.

Today Stewart’s Creek is Shallowford/Country Club Road.

The old wagon road came into Lewisville at Shallowford Road near Lewisville-Vienna Road. Yadkinville Hwy., Old 421, crosses the Yadkin River at Old 421 River Park.

Then, Wes’s item #16 confirms the location on Bersheba Creek where Samuel Stewart Sr. and Lydia had lived.

I found and marked these locations on Google maps, here.

Mary Lytle Winston-Salem.png

I’ve marked these places on the map, above.

On the left, at 7699 Yadkinville Road we see where 421, aka the Old Wagon Road crossing the Yadkin. The dotted line dot above that is where the Bashavia Creek empties into the Yadkin. This is where Lydia and Samuel lived, and where Charles Hickerson would have witnessed her will.

I wonder if Charles was working on her land after arriving in North Carolina from wherever they came from.

The other Robinhood Road locations are 5901 Robinhood at Chickasha Road, mentioned by Wes, and 4600 where Robinhood crosses Muddy Creek.

At 1425 Lyndale, we find the head of Tomahawk Creek, then Stewart’s Run, mentioned in one of the deeds.

Mary Lytle Bashavia.png

I think it’s safe to say we’ve pretty well isolated where Lydia lived given that the deed says on both sides of Bashavia on the east side of the Yadkin, and we know that Charles and Mary Lytle Hickerson lived someplace nearby.

Mary Lytle Muddy.png

The land around Winston-Salem is much flatter than further west in Wilkes County where Charles and Mary would settle permanently. Standing on the bridge below, looking north where the old Wagon Road crossed the Yadkin. Lydia and Samuel Stewart’s land would have been on the right, beyond the bend in the river.

Mary Lytle Yadkin.png

Moving on West

It appears that perhaps Charles and Mary checked things out here, and decided, for some reason, to keep moving west.

Mary Lytle Winston-Salem to Wilkesboro.png

Wilkesboro is about 45 miles further west on the Yadkin River, although the Yadkin does not follow 421, but arches north and then back south to Wilkesboro. Charles and Mary settled near Mulberry, north of Wilkesboro just a few miles. After the Revolution, they patented the land they had been living on where they lived the rest of their lives.

Note under item 15 that Les says that Samuel Stewart Jr.’s wife was Elizabeth Winscott. He probably believed this to be true because Samuel Stewart Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth, sold land in 1774 mentioned in Lydia Stewart’s will.

I think that Wes might have been confused. Cousin Carol found the marriage bond of Elizabeth Winscott who married Thomas Benjamin Steward/Stuard on August 19, 1769. Either John or Joseph Stewart signed with Thomas, and Elizabeth appears to have been an orphan. Carol indicated that the original document was in very poor condition, badly smeared, and the transcribed version spelled the groom’s name as Benman Sheart. Carol found the record by reading the originals.

Therefore, we know that Elizabeth Winscot did indeed marry a son of Lydia’s, but not Samuel, who obviously was also married to an Elizabeth in 1774. The woman in the 1877 letter who was born in 1791 says that her mother’s name was Elizabeth Hickerson and she had married a Stewart – which certainly tells us that Elizabeth Hickerson Stewart was yet alive in 1791.

Either Mary Hickerson and Elizabeth Hickerson are one and the same person, or two of Mary Lytle Hickerson’s daughters married Stewart men.

Other than Mary Lytle Hickerson’s signature on the 1788 deed, the next we find of her is when she composed her will. Unfortunately, we don’t have a will for Charles Hickerson, so without Mary’s we would know little.

Mary Lytle Hickerson’s Will

Mary Hickerson’s will was composed on December 5th, 1793. The will was unsigned and the will was clearly not prepared by an attorney. It says that the will was “Delivered in the presence of us Amy Hickerson Jane Miller” so the witnesses were two Mary’s daugher and daughter-in-law, suggesting that they were the two people who just happened to be in the house as she was dictating or speaking her will.

Mary was likely very gravely ill, possibly suddently, told whoever was in the cabin at the time what she wanted, and that was it.

At the February Court term, the family probated Mary’s will.

Mary Lytle will.jpg

Recorded at the February 1794 court held in Wilkes County, meaning that Mary died sometime between December 5th and the February court dates, we find her will recorded and written into the book.

In the name of God Amen, I Mary Hickerson of the County of Wilkes and State of North Carolina, being of Sound mind and memory, blessed be God, do this the fifth day of December in the year of our lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety three make and publish this my last Will and Testament in the manner following, that is to say– First, I give my son Joseph Hickerson one purple rugg. I also give my daughter Jane Miller my chest and tea ware. I also give my daughter Mary Stewart and her son Samuel Hickerson one feather bed and also my daughter, Mary Stewart, all the goods in the above mentioned chest. And all the balance of my property to be equally divided amongst my daughters. I also leave my son David Hickerson three yards of white linnin. Also this is my last Will and Testament and Desire. Delivered in the presence of us Aney Hickson Jane Miller.

Aney Hickerson was the wife of Joseph Hickerson, Mary’s son. Jane Miller was Mary’s daughter who was married to Leonard Miller.

Note that Mary specifically names her daughter, Mary Stewart.

We later discover that not all of Mary’s children were mentioned in her will.

What do we know about Mary’s children?

Mary Lytle and Charles Hickerson’s Children

Happy Valley History and Genealogy written and published in 1940 by Felix Hickerson provides the names of the children of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle. Below, I’ve expanded significantly on what Felix included. This isn’t intended to be critical of Felix, but I have a lot more available resources than Felix did in 1940, plus DNA evidence. Then again, living in Wilkes County, Felix probably had access to records that no longer exist or will never be online – not to mention the long memories of residents still alive who were born in the first half of the 19th century.

Let’s look at what we know about each child of Mary Lytle Hickerson.

David Hickerson

  • David Hickerson born circa 1750/1760 in Virginia married Nancy Toliver (Taliaferro). His children include:
    • John Hickerson 1782-1845 who married Nancy Petty and died in Manchester, Tennessee
    • Charles Hickerson born about 1784, died 1819 in Wilkes County, unmarried
    • David Hickerson Jr. born 1787, died in 1861 in Manchester, Tennessee
    • Joseph Hickerson born 1789, married in 1813 to Nancy Rousseau, died in 1850 in Coffee County, Tennessee
    • Major Lyttle Hickerson born 1793, married in 1827 to Amelia Gwynn, died 1884 in Wilkes County

Mary Lytle - Lytle Hickerson.jpg

    • Nancy Hickerson born about 1794 married a Cole, probably Isaac who proved David Hickerson’s will in court, died before 1870 in Coffee County, Tennessee
    • Mary “Polly” Hickerson 1798-1847 who married John Adams
    • Lucy Hickerson 1804-1853 who married an Allison
    • Sarah “Sally” Hickerson born about 1805 and married Isaac Lusk of Tennessee, died before 1860

There are no photos of Mary Lytle Hickerson’s children, of course, and I believe Lytle Hickerson is the only existing photo of one of Mary’s grandchildren. Does Lytle look like Mary or Charles?

With the exception of sons Charles and Lytle, David Hickerson and his children moved to Coffee Co., TN about 1809, but assuredly before 1812 because David’s son, David Hickerson Jr., served in the War of 1812 from Coffee County.

Rabbit Hole – Cameo Appearance of Nathaniel Vannoy

It’s interesting to note that Nathaniel Vannoy is a witness to David Hickerson’s will dated January 25, 1821. Daniel Vannoy was married to David Hickerson’s sister, Sarah. This goes to show that people kept in touch with family members, even distant, as they removed from their home counties and expanded westward.

The fact that Nathaniel Vannoy witnessed David’s will, suggesting he was a trusted friend or relative, but not next of kin, causes me to wonder if Nathaniel is the missing male child of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson who was born prior to 1788.

Although that gives me pause, because David Hickerson sued Daniel Vannoy for slander back in Wilkes County in 1794. Daniel Vannoy disappeared from the records after that suit, so it’s possible that David didn’t get along with Daniel, but was fine with his sister Sarah and her Vannoy children – especially if Daniel left. Several people sued Daniel Vannoy about that time for slander and assault.

David Hickerson’s son, Lytle, signed for another one of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson’s children, Susan, when she married in 1822.

At that time, Lytle Hickerson could have been Susan Vannoy’s closest living relative living in Wilkes County, with her parents both gone. In fact, for all we know, Lytle could have raised Susan after her mother, Sarah, died.

The Happy Valley story goes on to say that David Hickerson went to Tennessee in 1809, established a grist mill in 1815, later a cotton gin, sawmill and corn mill on the Duck River between 1820 and 1830. The family story of the migration of Sarah Hickerson Vannoy’s son, Elijah Vannoy, to Claiborne County, Tennessee is that the family came up the Duck River, which until this very minute, made no sense whatsoever. Elijah’s daughter is the person who conveyed that information about the Duck River, so it could be considered fairly close to the source.

Bingo – Elijah was visiting his uncle David Hickerson, probably considering whether to settle there or not, and I thought that Nathaniel Vannoy is Elijah’s brother that did stay, at least for a while. If so, I wonder who Nathaniel married and if he had children.

Another piece of this puzzle that never made sense is that the Duck River is no place close to Claiborne County where Elijah settled, so it’s not “on the way” nor would it be logical.

Mary Lytle Duck River.png

On the map above, the Duck River begins about Manchester, Tennessee where David Hickerson lived in Coffee County, and ended on the Tennessee River, further west.

Sneedville, where Elijah Vannoy settled is in the upper right-hand corner of the map.

Mary Lytle Wilkesboro to Duck River.png

If Elijah too had traversed the Duck River, from the west to get to Coffee County, he then had a long overland route to get back east to Sneedville which is far closer to Wilkesboro than to Manchester, or anyplace on Duck River.

I’m not even sure that a water route to Coffee County from Wilkesboro, meaning “up the Duck River,” makes sense under any circumstances.

The Yadkin River becomes the PeeDee which empties into the Atlantic near Charleston, SC. From there, travelers would need to travel around Florida by boat, to the Mississippi River at New Orleans, then traveling north to Paducah, Kentucky where they could intersect with the Tennessee River, then traveling the Tennessee back south to Manchester, southeast of Nashville.

That seems very counter-intuitive. On the map below, you can see the direct route, albeit over the mountains. The “water route” looks much longer and more difficult and I’ve not heard of anyone else taking a long water route between North Carolina and anyplace in Tennessee. Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – especially not in my family who failed to do anything in the “normal” way.

Mary Lytle around Florida.png

Back to David Hickerson and Nathaniel Vannoy.

In a December 1833 deposition about the validity of David Hickerson’s will that was signed a dozen years earlier, in 1821, James Haggard, another one of the witnesses, testified that, “Sanders is dead and Vannoy the last I saw of him he resided in Greenville District, North Carolina.”

I was unsuccessful in discovering more about Nathaniel Vannoy in Greenville District, North Carolina, nor anything about a district called “Greenville District.”

Daniel Vannoy’s brother, Nathaniel Vannoy, died in 1835 in Greenville, the city, in Greenville County, South Carolina at about age 87. Born in 1749, it’s somewhat unlikely that Nathaniel would have been in Tennessee in 1821 at 71 or 72 years of age witnessing a will. Nathaniel was the register of deeds in Wilkes County in 1814 and 1815, a founder of the New Hope Baptist Church in 1830, and died living with his daughter in South Carolina in 1835. You wouldn’t think Nathaniel would have witnessed a will in Tennessee unless he lived there and anticipated being able to prove the will in court.

However, Nathaniel Vannoy’s son, Andrew, settled in Bedford County, Tennessee, and married on January 7, 1821, the same month that Nathaniel Vannoy witnessed David Hickerson’s will. Bedford County is just a few miles on west of Manchester near where David Hickerson lived. It’s possible that Nathaniel helped to move his son to Tennessee, helped him get settled, attended his wedding, and visited David Hickerson in the process. In that case, Greenville District would have been mistakenly recorded as North Carolina instead of South Carolina.

We’ll likely never know and the information available is ambiguous.

Let’s look at Mary Lytle Hickerson’s other son, Joseph Hickerson.

Joseph Hickerson

Felix tells us the following:

  • Joseph Hickerson, probably born around 1765 – Captain of the 13th VA Regiment, Rev War and later of the Wilkes County Militia

Felix was mistaken. Joseph, the son of Charles and Mary, is NOT the Joseph who served in Virginia. He can’t be, because that Joseph Hickerson died during the war.

His service record says:

Joseph Hickerson, enlisted October 1777 for 3 years, sick at Bethlehem 13th VA reg commanded by Col. William Russell – listed under casualties as “Dead Nov 8.”

Mary Lytle Joseph Hickerson Rev War.png

In a March 1939 letter from Adelaide Sisson, the Librarian General of the DAR to Frances Hickerson of Hickerson Station in Tullahoma, Tennessee, Adelaide says that the Joseph who served in Virginia was born in 1747 and was married in 1768 to a Whiting.

The lineage is published in the DAR Lineage book, Volume 166, page 221. She further says that the DAR is focused on New England and cannot be of further assistance with Virginia. It’s too bad she didn’t bother to look further, being located in Washington DC, because that would have prevented the incorrect information being disseminated about Joseph Hickerson from Wilkes County for, oh, the next 80+ years!

Obviously, Mary’s son Joseph listed in her 1793 will was a different Joseph Hickerson. We know that Charles and Mary Hickerson were in Surry County by January 1771, so it made no sense that their son Joseph served in Virginia several years later.

Joseph, the son of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle was born about 1766, lived his life in Wilkes County, married Ann Green (or Greer), date unknown but clearly before 1793, and had at least 4 children:

  • Joseph Hickerson born 1789
  • David Hickerson born 1793
  • Joshua Greer Hickerson 1794-1856, married Susannah Murphey and moved to Warren County, TN
  • Sarah Hickerson born about 1803

Mary Hickerson

Felix tells us that:

  • Mary Hickerson married Mr. Stewart and (possibly) moved to Texas

While indeed Mary Hickerson clearly did marry a Stewart, she may or may not have moved to Texas. Texas didn’t exist in the 1790s, to begin with, and it’s likely they moved someplace else first. Texas was part of Spain until 1821 when it became part of Mexico who actively recruited Anglos. By 1834, 30,000 Anglos lived in Texas. The Texas Revolution took place in 1835-1836 and Texas joined the union in 1845. Given this history, it’s unlikely that Mary Hickerson Stewart was living in Texas prior to about 1830.

Typically, Tennessee was the path to Texas, or one of the paths.

While this information came from the 1877 letter, given that the writer, whoever she was, says that her mother’s name is Elizabeth, not Mary, I have to wonder if Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle Hickerson had another daughter, Elizabeth, that we don’t know about, who also married a Stuart. The letter’s author clearly knew her mother’s name – and Mary Lytle Hickerson when she was creating her will in 1795 on her death bed clearly knew her daughter’s name.

Mary and Elizabeth are not nicknames for each other.

The Stewart that Mary Hickerson probably married was Samuel Stewart, who I thought was the son of Samuel and Lydia Stewart who lived close enough to Charles Hickerson for him to witness Lydia’s will in January of 1771 in Rowan County.

By the time Lydia Stewart’s will was probated in 1772, the location was Surry County. Lydia mentions son Samuel Stewart inheriting the bed known as “his bed.” Of course, “his bed” could still be “his” after he moved from his mother’s home, but it sounded to me like Samuel was still using “his” bed.

One Samuel Stewart sued Daniel Vannoy, husband of Mary’s daughter, Sarah Hickerson, in 1781. In 1794, after Mary’s will was probated, Mary Hickerson Stewart’s son, Samuel Hickerson alias Stewart, and Daniel Vannoy were embroiled in slander and assault lawsuits.

The one child of Mary Hickerson Stewart’s that we know positively existed was Samuel Hickerson aka Samuel Steward/Stewart. Descendants of Sarah Hickerson DNA match with the children of one Samuel Hickerson who was found in Kentucky.

Samuel Hickerson alias Stewart also went by the name of Lytle. Did Mary rename him entirely after she married Samuel Stewart from Lytle Hickerson to Samuel Stewart?

Note that Wes Patterson, under item 15, says that Samuel Stewart Jr.’s wife was Elizabeth Winscott. If the Samuel married to Mary Hickerson is the son of Lydia Stewart, then did he later marry Mary Hickerson? Note that the women in 1877 letter said her mother, Elizabeth, married a Stewart and that she was born in 1791.

So, there is some doubt about whether or not Mary Hickerson Stewart/Steward moved to Texas, but clearly Elizabeth Hickerson Stuart’s daughter wound up there.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Mary Hickerson Stewart, when, or where – or to her Stewart husband, whatever his name was. Mary’s son, Samuel Hickerson appears to have gone to Kentucky where today, I have DNA matches to his descendants.

Clearly, for anyone descending from daughter Mary Hickerson Stewart, there’s a lot of unraveling left to do.

Jane Hickerson

Felix tells us that:

  • Jane Hickerson married Mr. Miller.

Indeed, Jane, born about 1760 did marry Leonard Miller with whom she had at least 7 children, three being daughters. I can only confirm one child positively, and three probably based on DNA matches to their descendants.

  • Michael Miller 1783-1858
  • Benjamin Miller born 1790, lived in South Carolina by 1815, in Alabama by 1820 and in Lafayette County, Mississippi by the 1830s when his father, Leonard was living with him and collecting a Revolutionary War Pension
  • William Miller 1791-1889

It appears that Jane remarried in 1806 in Wilkes County to John Reynolds based on a marriage bond signed by David Hickerson, her brother. It’s possible that instead of Jane herself, one of her daughters, also named Jane, married in Wilkes County.

Jane Hickerson’s situation is interesting, to say the least.

In May of 1794, following a series of lawsuits, Leonard Miller forfeits his bond and does not appear as a witness in the slander suit of Janes brother, David Hickerson, versus her brother-in-law, Daniel Vannoy.

This series of lawsuits is particularly brutal, because Jane Hickerson Miller herself was convicted of concealing a feather bed stolen from her sister, Rachel Hickerson Harris, during a 1789 robbery and arson of Rachel’s home. The jury’s remarks are particularly unflattering towards Jane:

March term 1793 – State of North Carolina Morgan District Superior Court of law – The jurors for the state upon their oath present that Jone Miller late of the County of Wilkes in the Morgan District labourer being a person of evil name and fame and of dishonest conversation and a common buyer and receiver of stolen goods on the 10th day of March 1789 in the county aforesaid one feather bed of value of 15 pounds of the goods and chattels of one Braddock Harris by a certain ill disposed person to the jurors aforesaid as yet unknown then lately before feloniously stolen of the same ill disposed person unlawfully unjustly and for the sale of Wicked gain did receive and have (she the said Jone Miller) then and there well knowing the said bed to have been feloniously stolen to the great damage of the said Braddock Harris and against the peace and dignity of the state . J. Harwood Atto. Genl. State vs Jone Miller Ind. Misdemeanor, Braddock Harris, John Roberts (name marked through) prosr. And witness. Joseph Hickerson. Witness Rachell Harris. Sworn and sent.

This robbery and arson committed by John Roberts, followed by lawsuits filed after Mary Hickerson’s death, divided the Hickerson family terribly. Many suits for assault and slander follow – and the only thing that’s clear is that there’s a war being fought between the Hickerson siblings along with their spouses.

  • During this time, about 1794, Mary (or Elizabeth) Hickerson Stewart leaves, Daniel Vannoy disappears without a trace and Leonard Miller moves, apparently without Jane, to South Carolina. Braddock and Rachel Harris move to South Carolina too and in 1809, David Hickerson goes to Tennessee.
  • In 1800, Jane Miller appears in the census in Wilkes county, without a male of Leonard’s age in the household. She does have 3 males 10-15, 1 male 16-25, 2 females under 10, 1 female 16-25, and one female 26-44, which would likely be her.
  • In 1800, John Reynolds is the same age as Jane, has children, but no wife.
  • In 1810, John Reynolds has a male 26-44 and a female of the same age. These age brackets seem to be off.
  • Leonard Miller, in Laurens County, SC, in 1810 does have a female of his age in the household, so perhaps he remarried too.
  • In 1833, Leonard Miller, then living in Jefferson County, Alabama applied for a pension for having served in Rutherford’s Campaign under Col. Benjamin Cleveland in Wilkes County. After his death, in April 1845, Leonard’s son, Benjamin stated that Leonard had 7 children, and he had heard from none of his siblings in the past 18 years, dating back to about 1827. Benjamin said the last he heard, they were scattered with some in Kentucky and Virginia, but he didn’t know where. He said that Leonard had not had a wife since he had been a pensioner.

Something happened between Jane and Leonard Miller, and it looks like they got a “divorce” in one manner or another. I found no divorce records, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Rachel Hickerson

Apparently Felix didn’t discover Rachel Hickerson.

  • Rachel Hickerson was born about 1765 and married Braddock Harris about 1786.

In April 1786, Braddock was convicted in court of “intended rape,” was carted through the town for an hour as a spectacle with a sign pinned to his forehead saying, “This is the effects of an intended rape.”

John Roberts burned Rachel and Braddock Harris’s house on March 1, 1789 after robbing their home. In collaboration with John, Rachel’s sister Jane Miller hid the stolen feather bed.

No wonder this family was at war!

After Mary Lytle Hickerson died in late 1793 or early 1794, Rachel Hickerson Harris stayed in Wilkes County long enough to testify against both Roberts and her sister, but then she and Braddock left for Laurens District, which became Laurens County, SC where they lived until at least 1810. Rachel died in 1822 in Franklin County, Georgia. Rachel had at least 8 children including three females.

  • Stephen Harris born about 1787/9
  • Mollie Harris born 1792, marriage unknown
  • Sallie Harris born about 1792/4-1856 married Nathan Curry, having many children including at least 6 daughters
  • Nancy Harris born 1799, marriage unknown
  • John Lane Harris born about 1802
  • Littleton Harris born about 1804
  • William Washington Harris born about 1807

Sarah Hickerson

Felix also didn’t discover Sarah Hickerson.

  • Sarah Hickerson married Daniel Vannoy on October 2, 1779.

Sarah was born sometime between 1752 and 1760, based on her husband’s age and her marriage date. Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy had:

  • Elijah Vannoy born about 1784 married Lois McNiel in 1809 and moved to Claiborne County, Tennessee a couple years later
  • An unknown son born before 1788
  • An unknown daughter born before 1788
  • Joel Vannoy born in 1792 married Elizabeth St. Claire in 1817, having 8 children. He then married Emily Lemira Suddworth about 1832 in Burke County where they had another 10 children.
  • Susan Vannoy, born about 1804, married George McNiel in 1822 in Wilkes County and had 6 children
  • Possibly another daughter born between 1795-1800

According to the census, Sarah Hickerson and Daniel Vannoy had at least one unidentified male and one unidentified female child, both born before 1788. They may have had another daughter born between 1795 and 1800.

That male child may have been Nathaniel Vannoy, found in 1821 in Franklin County, Tennessee witnessing the will of David Hickerson, or maybe not. Nathaniel could also possibly have been Daniel Vannoy’s brother, although he would have been quite aged to have been traveling.

It’s also possible that the unidentified children didn’t survive.

Possibly Elizabeth Hickerson

  • Elizabeth Hickerson, mother of the anonymous letter writer who left Wilkes County about 1794 married a Stuart (Stewart/Steward)

It’s possible that Mary Lytle Hickerson had another daughter named Elizabeth, based on the 1877 letter from Elizabeth’s daughter where she states that her mother married a Stewart and that she (the letter writer) was born in 1791.

I find it hard to believe that the letter-writer would record her mother’s name incorrectly.

If Elizabeth Hickerson’s daughter was born in 1791, and Mary Lytle was having children by about 1745, Elizabeth’s mother would have been between the ages of 43 (born in 1748) and 33 (born in 1768 as Mary’s last child.)

When Was Mary Lytle Hickerson Born?

We know that Mary Lytle Hickerson’s daughter, Mary Hickerson Stewart had a son named Samuel Hickerson who used aliases including Stewart, Lytle, and Litle.

In 1781, Samuel Steward filed a suit against Daniel Vannoy in Wilkes County. I initially thought this was Mary Hickerson Stewart’s son, Samuel, but at this point, I doubt that she had her son, Samuel in 1760 or before which would have had to be the case if he were filing a suit in 1781. Samuel would have had to be of age to file suit. It Samuel was age 21 in 1781, he had to have been born in 1760 or earlier.

We know that Charles Hickerson was age 60 in 1784 when he was exempted from taxes, which puts his birth year in 1724.

Assuming that Mary is not older than Charles, and that they married when she was about 20, and assuming that her daughter Mary Hickerson is Mary Lytle’s oldest child, that put’s daughter Mary’s birth about 1745. To have had son Samuel in 1760, Mary would have given birth when she was 15. While that’s not impossible, especially given that he appears to have been illegitimate, it’s unlikely.

Mary Lytle Hickerson’s will specifically names Samuel Hickerson as Mary Hickerson Stewart’s son, and he is the only grandchild she left anything to by name. I suspect that this is because she probably raised Samuel in her home after he was born illegitimately to his mother, before Mary married the Stewart male probably sometime after 1771.

Based on the ages of her children, I suspect Mary Lytle was born about the same time as Charles Hickerson, so would have been about 68 when she died in December 1793 or early 1794.

Mary’s DNA

I’ve identified autosomal DNA segments on three chromosomes that descend from Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle. What we don’t know, and can’t discover until we figure out who their parents are, is whether these segments descend through Charles or Mary.

Mary Lytle segments.png

Mary’s Direct Matrilineal Line

However, if we can find someone descended from Mary Lytle through all females to the present generation, which can be male, we can obtain Mary’s mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by both sexes of children from their mother, but only females pass it on. Therefore, the mitochondrial DNA of Mary’s daughter’s direct linear female descendants (to the current generation which can be male) is the same as Mary Lytle Hickerson’s.

Mary’s mitochondrial DNA can tell us a great deal about where she came from and may help us further break down brick walls, especially if it’s rare, or Native. We don’t know who Mary’s mother is, so Mary’s mitochondrial DNA is a direct lifeline to matrilineal ancestral women – Mary’s mother, grandmother and so forth.

Of Mary’s daughters, listed above, we know that:

  • Mary Hickerson Stewart had one son, but nothing more is known
  • Jane Hickerson Miller had daughters, but I’ve been unable to document who they were
  • Rachel Hickerson Harris’s daughters are listed in bold, above
  • Sarah Hickerson Vannoy’s only known daughter, Susan, is bolded above as well
  • Elizabeth Hickerson Stuart’s only known child is the nameless author of the 1877 letter from Nacogdoches, Texas. If anyone can figure out who she is, and if she had daughters, please let me know.

If you descend from these women through all females to the present generation, which can be male, I have a DNA testing scholarship for you. Please get in touch! We have brick walls to break down together.

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

DNA Inherited from Grandparents and Great-Grandparents

Philip Gammon, our statistician friend has been working with crossover simulations again in order to tell us what we might expect relative to how much DNA we actually inherit from grandparents and great-grandparents.

We know that on average, we’re going to inherit 25% of our DNA from each grandparent – but we also know in reality that’s not what happens. We get more or less than exactly 25% from each person in a grandparent pair. It’s the total of the DNA of both grandparents that adds up to 50% for the couple.

How does this work, and does it make a difference whether we inherit our grandparent’s DNA through males or females?

Philip has answers for us as a result of his simulations.

DNA Inheritance from Grandparents

Philip Gammon:

When we consider the DNA that we inherit from our ancestors the only quantity that we can be certain of is that we receive half of our autosomal DNA from each parent. This is delivered to us in the form of the 22 segments (i.e. chromosomes) provided by our mothers in the ova and the 22 segments/chromosomes provided by our fathers in the sperm cell. Beyond parent-child relationships we tend to talk about averages. For instance, we receive an average of one quarter of our DNA from each of our four grandparents and an average of one-eighth of our DNA from each of our eight great-grandparents etc.

These figures vary because our parents didn’t necessarily pass on to us equal portions of the DNA that they received from their parents. The level of variation is driven by the number (and location) of crossover events that occur when the ova and the sperm cells are created.

The statistics relevant to the recombination process were discussed in detail in a previous article (Crossovers: Frequency and Inheritance Statistics – Male Versus Female Matters). With the availability these days of abundant real data from direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies (such as the 23andMe data utilised by Campbell et. al. in their paper titled “Escape from crossover interference increases with maternal age”) we can use this information as a basis for simulations that accurately mimic the crossover process. From these simulations we can measure the amount of variation that is expected to be observed in the proportions of DNA inherited from our ancestors. This is precisely what I have done in simulations run on my GAT-C model.

Before looking at the simulation results let’s anticipate what we expect to see. The previous article on crossover statistics revealed that there are an average of about 42 crossovers in female meiosis and about 27 in male meiosis. So, on the set of 22 chromosomes received from our mothers there will have been an average of 42 crossover locations where there was a switch between DNA she inherited from one parent to the other. That means that the DNA we inherit from our maternal grandparents typically comes in about 64 segments, but it won’t necessarily be 32 segments from each maternal grandparent. Chromosomes that experienced an odd number of crossovers contain an even number of segments (half originating from the grandmother, the other half from the grandfather) but chromosomes with an even number of crossovers (or zero!) have an odd number of segments so on these chromosomes you must receive one more segment from one grandparent than the other. And of course not all segments are the same size either. A single crossover occurring close to one end of the chromosome results in a small segment from one grandparent and a large segment from the other. All up there are quite a few sources of variation that can affect the amount of DNA inherited from grandparents. The only certainty here is that the amount inherited from the two maternal grandparents must add to 50%. If you inherit more than the average of 25% from one maternal grandparent that must be offset by inheriting less than 25% from the other maternal grandparent.

Gammon grandparents maternal percent.png

The above chart shows the results of 100,000 simulation runs. Excluding the bottom and top 1% of results, 98% of people will receive between 18.7% and 31.3% of their DNA from a maternal grandparent. The more darkly shaded region in the centre shows the people who receive a fairly even split of between 24% and 26% from the maternal grandparents. Only 28.8% of people are in this region and the remainder receive a less even contribution.

On the set of 22 chromosomes received from fathers there will have been an average of around 27 crossovers so the DNA received from the paternal grandparents has only been split into around 49 segments. It’s the same amount of DNA as received from mothers but just in larger chunks of the grandparent’s DNA. This creates greater opportunity for the father to pass on unequal amounts of DNA from the two grandparents so it would be expected that results from paternal inheritance will show more variation than from maternal inheritance.

Gammon grandparents paternal percent.png

The above chart shows the results of 100,000 simulated paternal inheritance events. They are more spread out than the maternal events with the middle 98% of people receiving between 16.7% and 33.3% of their DNA from a paternal grandparent. Only 21.9% of people receive a fairly even split of between 24% and 26% from each paternal grandparent as shown by the more darkly shaded region in the centre.

Gammon grandparents percent cM.png

To help with the comparison between maternal and paternal inheritance from grandparents the two distributions have been overlayed on the same scale in the chart above. And what are the chances of receiving a fairly even split of grandparents DNA from both your mother and your father? Only 6.3% of people can be expected to inherit an amount of between 24% and 26% of their DNA from all four grandparents.

Now I’ll extend the simulations out to the next generation and examine the variation in proportions of DNA inherited from the eight great-grandparents. There are effectively four groups of great-grandparents:

  • Mother’s maternal grandparents
  • Mother’s paternal grandparents
  • Father’s maternal grandparents
  • Father’s paternal grandparents

The DNA from group 1 has passed to you via two maternal recombination events, from your mother’s mother to your mother, then from your mother to you. On average there would have been 42 crossovers in each of these recombination events. Group 4 comprised two paternal recombination events averaging only 27 crossovers in each. The average amount of DNA received along each path is the same but along the group 1 path it would comprise of more numerous smaller segments than the group 4 path. Groups 2 and 3 would be somewhere between, both consisting of one maternal and one paternal recombination event.

Gammon greatgrandparents percent cM.png

The above chart shows the variation in the amount of DNA received from members of the four groups of great-grandparents. 25,000 simulations were performed. The average amount from any great-grandparent is 12.5% but there can be considerably more variation in the amount received from the father’s paternal grandparents than from the mother’s maternal grandparents. Groups 2 and 3 are between these two extremes and are equivalent. It doesn’t matter whether a paternal recombination follows a maternal one or vice versa – the end result is that both paths consist of the same average number of crossovers.

The table below shows the range in the amount of DNA that people receive from their great-grandparents. The bottom and top 1% of outcomes have been excluded. Note that these are based on a total of 3,418 cM for the 22 autosomes which is the length observed in the Campbell et. al. study. The average of 12.5% of total DNA is 854.5 cM:

Group 1st percentile 99th percentile
Mother’s maternal grandparents 522 cM 1219 cM
Mother’s paternal grandparents 475 cM 1282 cM
Father’s maternal grandparents 475 cM 1281 cM
Father’s paternal grandparents 426 cM 1349 cM

As a matter of interest, in each of the 25,000 simulations the amount of DNA received from the eight great-grandparents were sorted into order from the highest cM to the lowest cM. The averages of each of these eight amounts were then calculated and the results are below:

Gammon greatgrandparents average cM.png

On average, a person receives 1,129 cM from the great-grandparent that they inherited the most of their DNA from and only 600 cM from the great-grandparent that they received the least of their DNA from. But none of us are the result of 25,000 trials – we are each the product of recombination events that occurred once only. The above chart shows the average or typical variation in the amount of DNA received from the eight great-grandparents. Half of people will have experienced more variation than shown above and half of people will have experienced less variation.

Could you have received the same amount of DNA from all eight grandparents? Of course, it is possible, but it turns out that it is extremely unlikely. The average is 12.5% (854.5 cM) so anything between 12% (820.4 cM) and 13% (888.7 cM) could be considered as being close to this figure. The results reveal that this did not occur in any of the 25,000 simulations. Not one person received amounts between 12% and 13% from all eight great-grandparents.

Widening the criteria, I observe that there were 13 instances in the 25,000 simulations where people received between 11.5% and 13.5% of their DNA from all eight great-grandparents. That is still an extremely rare occurrence. Expanding the range further to between 11% and 14% saw a total of 126 instances, but this still only represents about half a percent of all observations. I think that we just have to face the fact that unless we are an extremely rare individual then we will not have inherited close to equal amounts of DNA from our eight great-grandparents.

Now, back to Roberta.

Thanks Philip.

Now we see why we might not inherit the same amount of DNA from our grandparents and great-grandparents.

We Don’t Have Equal Numbers of Matches on Tree Branches

This also might explain, at least in part, why people don’t have the same number of DNA matches on each branch of their tree.

Of course, other reasons include:

  • Uneven family sizes
  • Fewer or more cousins testing on different branches
  • Recent immigration meaning there are few people available to test
  • Family from a region where DNA testing and/or genealogy is not popular
  • Endogamy which dramatically increases the number of people you will match

Real Life Example

In our real-life example, two grandchildren are fortunate to have three grandparents and one great-grandparent available for matching.

For comparison purposes, let’s take a look at how many matches each grandchild has in common with their grandparents and great-grandparent.

The line of descent is as follows:

Gammon line of descent.png

Both end of line testers are female children.

The transmission path from their great-grandmother is:

  • Female to their paternal grandmother
  • Female to their father
  • Male to female tester

The transmission path from their maternal grandfather is:

  • Male to their mother
  • Female to female tester

The transmission path from their maternal grandmother is:

  • Female to their mother
  • Female to female tester

This first chart shows the number of common matches.

Matches Grand 1 Grand 2 GGF GGM Grand 3 Grand 4
Female 1 absent 1061 absent 238 529 1306
Female 2 absent 1225 absent 431 700 1064

It’s interesting that the matches in just 3 generations to the great-grandmother vary by 55%. The second tester has almost twice as many matches in common with her great-great-grandmother as she does the first tester. There a difference in the earlier generation, meaning matches to Grand 2, but only about 23%. That difference increased significantly in one generation.

The second chart shows the total number of matching cM with the matching family member.

Total cM Grand 1 Grand 2 GGF GGM Grand 3 Grand 4
Female 1 absent 1688 absent 713 1601 1818
Female 2 absent 1750 absent 852 1901 1511

We can see that the amount of DNA inherited from a grandparent does correlate with the number of matches to that grandparents. The more DNA shared, of course the better the chances of sharing that DNA with another person. However, multiple factors may be involved with why some people have more or fewer matches.

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

Triangulation in Action at 23andMe

Recently, I published the article, Hitting a Genealogy Home Run Using Your Double-Sided Two-Faced Chromosomes While Avoiding Imposters. The “Home Run” article explains why you want to use a chromosome browser, what you’re seeing and what it means to you.

This article, and the rest in the “Triangulation in Action” series introduces triangulation at FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter, explaining how to use triangulation to confirm descent from a common ancestor. You may want to read the introductory article first.

This first section, “What is Triangulation” is a generic tutorial. If you don’t need the tutorial, skip to the “Triangulation at 23andMe” section.

What is Triangulation?

Think of triangulation as a three-legged stool – a triangle. Triangulation requires three things:

  1. At least three (not closely related) people must match
  2. On the same reasonably sized segment of DNA and
  3. Descend from a common ancestor

Triangulation is the foundation of confirming descent from a common ancestor, and thereby assigning a specific segment to that ancestor. Without triangulation, you might just have a match to someone else by chance. You can confirm mathematical triangulation, numbers 1 and 2, above, without knowing the identity of the common ancestor.

Reasonably sized segments are generally considered to be 7cM or above on chromosomes 1-22 and 15cM or above for the X chromosome.

Boundaries

Triangulation means that all three, or more, people much match on a common segment. However, what you’re likely to see is that some people don’t match on the entire segment, meaning more or less than others as demonstrated in the following examples.

FTDNA Triangulation boundaries

You can see that I match 5 different cousins who I know descend from my father’s side on chromosome 15 above. “I” am the grey background against which everyone else is being compared.

I triangulate with these matches in different ways, forming multiple triangulation groups that I’ve discussed individually, below.

Triangulation Group 1

FTDNA triangulation 1

Group 1 – On the left group of matches, above, I triangulate with the blue, red and orange person on the amount of DNA that is common between all of them, shown in the black box. This is triangulation group 1.

Triangulation Group 2

FTDNA triangulation 2

Group 2 – However, if you look just at the blue and orange triangulated matches bracketed in green, I triangulate on slightly more. This group excludes the red person because their beginning point is not the same, or even close. This is triangulation group 2.

Triangulation Group 3 and 4

FTDNA triang 3

Group 3 – In the right group of matches, there are two large triangulation groups. Triangulation group 3 includes the common portions of blue, red, teal and orange matches.

Group 4 – Triangulation group 4 is the skinny group at right and includes the common portion of the blue, teal and dark blue matches.

Triangulation Groups 5 and 6

FTDNA triang 5

Group 5 – There are also two more triangulation groups. The larger green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal people because their end locations are to the right of the end locations of the red and orange matches. This is triangulation group 5.

Group 6 – The smaller green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal person because their start locations are before the dark blue person. This is triangulation group 6.

There’s actually one more triangulation group. Can you see it?

Triangulation Group 7

FTDNA triang 7

Group 7 – The tan group includes the red, teal and orange matches but only the areas where they all overlap. This excludes the top blue match because their start location is different. Triangulation group 7 only extends to the end of the red and orange matches, because those are the same locations, while the teal match extends further to the right. That extension is excluded, of course.

Slight Variations

Matches with only slight start and end differences are probably descended from the same ancestor, but we can’t say that for sure (at this point) so we only include actual mathematically matching segments in a triangulation group.

You can see that triangulation groups often overlap because group members share more or less DNA with each other. Normally we don’t bother to number the groups – we just look at the alignment. I numbered them for illustration purposes.

Shared or In-Common-With Matching

Triangulation is not the same thing as a 3-way shared “in-common-with” match. You may share DNA with those two people, but on entirely different segments from entirely different ancestors. If those other two people match each other, it can be on a segment where you don’t match either of them, and thanks to an ancestor that they share who isn’t in your line at all. Shared matches are a great hint, especially in addition to other information, but shared matches don’t necessarily mean triangulation although it’s a great place to start looking.

I have shared matches where I match one person on my maternal side, one on my paternal side, and they match each other through a completely different ancestor on an entirely different segment. However, we don’t triangulate because we don’t all match each other on the SAME segment of DNA. Yes, it can be confusing.

Just remember, each of your segments, and matches, has its own individual history.

Imputation Can Affect Matching

Over the years the chips on which our DNA is processed at the vendors have changed. Each new generation of chips tests a different number of markers, and sometimes different markers – with the overlaps between the entire suite of chips being less than optimal.

I can verify that most vendors use imputation to level the playing field, and even though two vendors have never verified that fact, I’m relatively certain that they all do. That’s the only way they could match to their own prior “only somewhat compatible” chip versions.

The net-net of this is that you may see some differences in matching segments at different vendors, even when you’re comparing the same people. Imputation generally “fills in the blanks,” but doesn’t create large swatches of non-existent DNA. I wrote about the concept of imputation here.

What I’d like for you to take away from this discussion is to be focused on the big picture – if and how people triangulate which is the function important to genealogy. Not if the start and end segments are exactly the same.

Triangulation Solutions

Each of the major vendors, except Ancestry who does not have a chromosome browser, offers some type of triangulation solution, so let’s look at what each vendor offers. If you and your Ancestry matches have uploaded to GedMatch, Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage, you can triangulate with them there. Otherwise, you can’t triangulate Ancestry results, so encourage your Ancestry matches to transfer.

I wrote more specifically about triangulation here and here.

Let’s look at triangulation at 23andMe.

Triangulation at 23andMe

At 23andMe, click on “DNA Relatives” in the Ancestry dropdown at the top of your page.

Triangulation 23andMe DNA Relatives.png

You will then see your list of matches.

23andMe does offer a Mom’s side and Dad’s side option, but only if at least one of your parents has tested AND you and that parent BOTH elect to share with each other. It’s not automatic.

To view your relationship with someone on your match list, click on that person’s name. I selected a known relative on my father’s side, Stacy.

Scroll down to the “Relatives in Common” section where you will see your matches in common with the person you selected. Stacy and I have 284 matches in common.

Triangulation 23andMe shared DNA.png

You can view the relationships of the match to you, and also to the person you’ve selected.

“Yes,” in the shared DNA column indicates that you, the person you selected (Stacy) and this match share DNA on a common segment. In other words, you triangulate.

In this example, Stacy and I share a triangulated segment with my own V4 kit (of course), and with both James and Diana, but not with George or Everett. We both match James and Everett, just not on the same segment, so we don’t triangulate.

Let’s look at James. By clicking on “Yes,” I can view the chromosome browser.

Scrolling down, I see that Stacy (purple), me (background grey) and James (orange) share DNA on only one segment, on chromosome 17.

Triangulation 23andMe chromosome 17.png

That segment triangulates between the three of us. I know how I am related to Stacy, but not how I am related to James. I can tell via my matches and triangulation with James that our common segment descends to me through my Vannoy line.

Unfortunately, 23andMe does not support trees in the traditional way, but some people enter surnames and locations, and you can download some Family Search ancestors to 23andMe or place a link to a tree elsewhere. I wrote about that here.

Check your 23andMe matches for surnames, common locations and links to trees.

You can also download your 23andMe segment matches and their information by clicking on Download Aggregate Data at the bottom of your matches page. Segment matches tell you exactly where on each chromosome you match other people.

Triangulation 23andMe download.png

Segment matches is NOT the same thing as downloading your raw DNA data file to upload to another vendor. See the Transfer section for those instructions.

Other 23andMe Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

23andMe provides additional tools, noted below, with the links to instructional articles I’ve written.

Transfers

Have you tested family members, especially everyone in the older generations? You can transfer their kits from Ancestry or 23andMe if they have already tested there to MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA or GedMatch.

Here’s how to transfer:

I wrote recently about how to work with triangulation at FamilyTreeDNA. and MyHeritage. Join me soon for similar articles about how to work with triangulation at GedMatch and DNAPainter.

Most of all – have fun!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

Top 10 All-Time Favorite DNA Articles

Top 10

I’ve been writing about DNA is every shape and form for approaching 8 years now, offering more than 1200 free (key word seachable) articles.

First, thank you for being loyal subscribers or finding my articles and using them to boost your genealogy research with the power of DNA.

You may not know this, but many of my articles stem from questions that blog readers ask, plus my own genealogical research stumbling-blocks, of course.

DNAeXplain articles have accumulated literally millions and millions of page views, generating more than 38,000 approved comments. Yes, I read and approve (or not) every single comment. No, I do not have “staff” to assist. Staff consists of some very helpful felines who would approve any comment with the word catnip😊

More than twice that number of comments were relegated to spam. That’s exactly why I approve each one personally.

Old Faithful

Looking at your favorites, I’ve discovered that some of these articles have incredible staying power, meaning that people access them again and again. Given their popularity and usefulness, please feel free to share by linking or forwarding to your friends and genealogy groups.

Subscribe for FREE

Don’t forget, you can subscribe for free by clicking on the little grey “follow” box on the upper right hand side of the blog margin.

Top 10 subscribe

Just enter your e-mail address and click on follow. I don’t sell or share your e-mail, ever. I’ve never done a mass e-mailing either – so I’ll not be spamming you😊

You will receive each and every article, about 2 per week, in a nice handy e-mail, or RSS feed if you prefer.

Your Favorites

You didn’t realize it, but every time you click, you’re voting.

So, which articles are reader favorites? Remember that older articles have had more time to accumulate views.

I’ve noted the all-time ranking along with the 2019 ranking.

Starting with number 10, you chose:

  • Number 10 all-time, did not place in top 10 in 2019: Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum – Published in 2016 – How ethnicity testing works – and why sometimes it doesn’t work like people expect it will.

Ethnicity results from DNA testing. Fascinating. Intriguing. Frustrating. Exciting. Fun. Challenging. Mysterious. Enlightening. And sometimes wrong. These descriptions all fit. Welcome to your personal conundrum! The riddle of you! If you’d like to understand why your ethnicity results might not have … Continue reading →

  • Number 9 all time and number 4 in 2019: How Much Indian Do I Have in Me? – Published in 2015 – This article explains how to convert that family story into an expected percentage.

I can’t believe how often I receive this question. Here’s today’s version from Patrick. “My mother had 1/8 Indian and my grandmother on my father’s side was 3/4, and my grandfather on my father’s side had 2/3. How much would … Continue reading →

  • Number 8 all-time, did not place in top 10 in 2019: 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy – Published in 2012 – Short, basic and THE article I refer people to most often to understand DNA for genealogy.

Let’s talk about the different “kinds” of DNA and how they can be used for genetic genealogy. It used to be simple. When this “industry” first started, in the year 2000, you could test two kinds of DNA and it was … Continue reading →

Yep, there’s a gene for these traits, and more. The same gene, named EDAR (short for Ectodysplasin receptor EDARV370A), it turns out, also confers more sweat glands and distinctive teeth and is found in the majority of East Asian people. This is one … Continue reading →

  • Number 6 all-time, did not place in top 10 in 2019: What is a Haplogroup? – Published in 2013 – One of the first questions people ask about Y and mitochondrial DNA is about haplogroups.

Sometimes we’ve been doing genetic genealogy for so long we forget what it’s like to be new. I’m reminded, sometimes humorously, by some of the questions I receive. When I do DNA Reports for clients, each person receives a form to … Continue reading

  • Number 5 all-time and number 10 in 2019: X Marks the Spot – Published in 2012 – This article explains how to use the X chromosome for genealogy and its unique inheritance path.

When using autosomal DNA, the X chromosome is a powerful tool with special inheritance properties. Many people think that mitochondrial DNA is the same as the X chromosome. It’s not. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited maternally, only. This means that mothers … Continue reading →

  • Number 4 all-time, did not place in top 10 in 2019: Ethnicity Results – True or Not? – Published in 2013 – Are your ethnicity results accurate? How can you know, and why might your percentages reflect something different than you expect?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many questions I receive that go something like this: “I received my ethnicity results from XYZ. I’m confused. The results don’t seem to align with my research and I don’t know what … Continue reading →

  • Number 3 all-time and number 1 in 2019: Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages – Published in 2017 – With the huge number of ethnicity testers, it’s no surprise that the most popular article discussed how those percentages are calculated.

There has been a lot of discussion about ethnicity percentages within the genetic genealogy community recently, probably because of the number of people who have recently purchased DNA tests to discover “who they are.” Testers want to know specifically if ethnicity percentages are right … Continue reading →

  • Number 2 all-time, did not place in top 10 in 2019: Which DNA Test is Best? – Published in 2017 – A comprehensive review of the tests and major vendors in the genetic genealogy testing space. The answer is that your testing goals determine which test is best. This article aligns goals with tests.

If you’re reading this article, congratulations. You’re a savvy shopper and you’re doing some research before purchasing a DNA test. You’ve come to the right place. The most common question I receive is asking which test is best to purchase. There is … Continue reading →

Every day, I receive e-mails very similar to this one. “My family has always said that we were part Native American.  I want to prove this so that I can receive help with money for college.” The reasons vary, and … Continue reading →

2019 Only

Five articles ranked in the top 10 in 2019 that aren’t in the top all-time 10 articles. Two were just published in 2019.

  • Number 8 for 2019: Migration Pedigree Chart – Published in 2016 – This fun article illustrates how to create a pedigree charting focused on the locations of your ancestors.

Paul Hawthorne started a bit of a phenomenon, whether he meant to or not, earlier this week on Facebook, when he created a migration map of his own ancestors using Excel to reflect his pedigree chart. You can view … Continue reading →

Just as they promised, and right on schedule, Family Tree DNA today announced X chromosome matching. They have fully integrated X matching into their autosomal Family Finder product matching. This will be rolling live today. Happy New Year from Family … Continue reading →

  • Number 6 for 2019: Full or Half Siblings – Published in April 2019 – Want to know how to determine the difference between full and half siblings? This is it.

Many people are receiving unexpected sibling matches. Every day on social media, “surprises” are being reported so often that they are no longer surprising – unless of course you’re the people directly involved and then it’s very personal, life-altering and you’re … Continue reading →

Ancestry’s new tool, ThruLines has some good features and a lot of potential, but right now, there are a crop of ‘gators in the swimmin’ hole – just waiting for the unwary. Here’s help to safely navigate the waters and … Continue reading →

One of the most common questions I receive, especially in light of the interest in ethnicity testing, is how much of an ancestor’s DNA someone “should” share. The chart above shows how much of a particular generation of ancestors’ DNA … Continue reading →

In Summary

Taking a look at a summary chart is interesting. From my perspective, I never expected the “Thick Hair, Small Boobs” article to be so popular.

“Which DNA Test is Best?” ranked #2 all time, but not in the 2019 top 10. I wonder if that is a function of the market softening a bit, or of fewer people researching before purchasing.

I was surprised that 5 of the top 10 all-time were not in the top 10 of 2019.

Conversely, I’m equally as surprised that 3 of the older 2019 articles not in the all-time top 10.

I’m very glad these older articles continue to be useful, and I do update them periodically, especially if I notice they are accessed often.

Article All-time Top 10 2019 Top 10
Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum 10 0
How Much Indian Do I Have in Me? 9 4
4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy 8 0
Thick Hair, Small Boobs, Shovel Shaped Teeth, and More 7 9
What is a Haplogroup? 6 0
X Marks the Spot 5 10
Ethnicity Results – True or Not? 4 0
Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages 3 1
Which DNA Test is Best? 2 0
Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA 1 2
Migration Pedigree Chart 0 8
X Chromosome Matching at Family Tree DNA 0 7
Full or Half Siblings Published in 2019 6
Ancestry’s ThruLines Dissected: How to Use and Not get Bit by the ‘Gators Published in 2019 5
Ancestral DNA Percentages – How Much of Them is in You? 0 3

What Would You Like to See in 2020?

Given that your questions are often my inspiration, what articles would you like to see in 2020?

Are there topics you’d like to see covered? (Sorry, I don’t know the name of your great-great-grandfather’s goat.)

Burning questions you’d like to have answered? (No, I don’t know why there is air.)

Something you’ve been wishing for? (Except maybe for the 1890 census.)

Leave a comment and let me know. (Seriously😊)

I’m looking forward to a wonderful 2020 and hope you’ll come along!

_____________________________________________________________

Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some (but not all) of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

2019: The Year and Decade of Change

2019 ends both a year and a decade. In the genealogy and genetic genealogy world, the overwhelmingly appropriate word to define both is “change.”

Everything has changed.

Millions more records are online now than ever before, both through the Big 3, being FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Ancestry, but also through multitudes of other sites preserving our history. Everyplace from National Archives to individual blogs celebrating history and ancestors.

All you need to do is google to find more than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve made more progress in the past decade that in all of the previous ones combined.

Just Beginning?

If you’re just beginning with genetic genealogy, welcome! I wrote this article just for you to see what to expect when your DNA results are returned.

If you’ve been working with genetic genealogy results for some time, or would like a great review of the landscape, let’s take this opportunity to take a look at how far we’ve come in the past year and decade.

It’s been quite a ride!

What Has Changed?

EVERYTHING

Literally.

A decade ago, we had Y and mitochondrial DNA, but just the beginning of the autosomal revolution in the genetic genealogy space.

In 2010, Family Tree DNA had been in business for a decade and offered both Y and mitochondrial DNA testing.

Ancestry offered a similar Y and mtDNA product, but not entirely the same markers, nor full sequence mitochondrial. Ancestry subsequently discontinued that testing and destroyed the matching database. Ancestry bought the Sorenson database that included Y, mitochondrial and autosomal, then destroyed that data base too.

23andMe was founded in 2006 and began autosomal testing in 2007 for health and genealogy. Genealogists piled on that bandwagon.

Family Tree DNA added autosomal to their menu in 2010, but Ancestry didn’t offer an autosomal product until 2012 and MyHeritage not until 2016. Both Ancestry and MyHeritage have launched massive marketing and ad campaigns to help people figure out “who they are,” and who their ancestors were too.

Family Tree DNA

2019 FTDNA

Family Tree DNA had a banner year with the Big Y-700 product, adding over 211,000 Y DNA SNPs in 2019 alone to total more than 438,000 by year end, many of which became newly defined haplogroups. You can read more here. Additionally, Family Tree DNA introduced the Block Tree and public Y and public mitochondrial DNA trees.

Anyone who ignores Y DNA testing does so at their own peril. Information produced by Y DNA testing (and for that matter, mitochondrial too) cannot be obtained any other way. I wrote about utilizing mitochondrial DNA here and a series about how to utilize Y DNA begins in a few days.

Family Tree DNA remains the premier commercial testing company to offer high resolution and full sequence testing and matching, which of course is the key to finding genealogy solutions.

In the autosomal space, Family Tree DNA is the only testing company to provide Phased Family Matching which uses your matches on both sides of your tree, assuming you link 3rd cousins or closer, to assign other testers to specific parental sides of your tree.

Family Tree DNA accepts free uploads from other testing companies with the unlock for advanced features only $19. You can read about that here and here.

MyHeritage

MyHeritage, the DNA testing dark horse, has come from behind from their late entry into the field in 2016 with focused Europeans ads and the purchase of Promethease in 2019. Their database stands at 3.7 million, not as many as either Ancestry or 23andMe, but for many people, including me – MyHeritage is much more useful, especially for my European lines. Not only is MyHeritage a genealogy company, piloted by Gilad Japhet, a passionate genealogist, but they have introduced easy-to-use advanced tools for consumers during 2019 to take the functionality lead in autosomal DNA.

2019 MyHeritage.png

You can read more about MyHeritage and their 2019 accomplishments, here.

As far as I’m concerned, the MyHeritage bases-loaded 4-product “Home Run” makes MyHeritage the best solution for genetic genealogy via either testing or transfer:

  • Triangulation – shows testers where 3 or more people match each other. You can read more, here.
  • Tree Matching – SmartMatching for both DNA testers and those who have not DNA tested
  • Theories of Family Relativity – a wonderful new tool introduced in February. You can read more here.
  • AutoClusters – Integrated cluster technology helps you to visualize which groups of people match each other.

One of their best features, Theories of Family Relativity connects the dots between people you DNA match with disparate trees and other documents, such as census. This helps you and others break down long-standing brick walls. You can read more, here.

MyHeritage encourages uploads from other testing companies with basic functions such as matching for free. Advanced features cost either a one-time unlock fee of $29 or are included with a full subscription which you can try for free, here. You can read about what is free and what isn’t, here.

You can develop a testing and upload strategy along with finding instructions for how to upload here and here.

23andMe

Today, 23andMe is best known for health, having recovered after having had their wings clipped a few years back by the FDA. They were the first to offer Health results, leveraging the genealogy marketspace to attract testers, but have recently been eclipsed by both Family Tree DNA with their high end full Exome Tovana test and MyHeritage with their Health upgrade which provides more information than 23andMe along with free genetic counseling if appropriate. Both the Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage tests are medically supervised, so can deliver more results.

23andMe has never fully embraced genetic genealogy by adding the ability to upload and compare trees. In 2019, they introduced a beta function to attempt to create a genetic tree on your behalf based on how your matches match you and each other.

2019 23andMe.png

These trees aren’t accurate today, nor are they deep, but they are a beginning – especially considering that they are not based on existing trees. You can read more here.

The best 23andMe feature for genealogy, as far as I’m concerned, is their ethnicity along with the fact that they actually provide testers with the locations of their ethnicity segments which can help testers immensely, especially with minority ancestry matching. You can read about how to do this for yourself, here.

23andMe generally does not allow uploads, probably because they need people to test on their custom-designed medical chip. Very rarely, once that I know of in 2018, they do allow uploads – but in the past, uploaders do not receive all of the genealogy features and benefits of testing.

You can however, download your DNA file from 23andMe and upload elsewhere, with instructions here.

Ancestry

Ancestry is widely known for their ethnicity ads which are extremely effective in recruiting new testers. That’s the great news. The results are frustrating to seasoned genealogists who get to deal with the fallout of confused people trying to figure out why their results don’t match their expectations and family stories. That’s the not-so-great news.

However, with more than 15 million testers, many of whom DO have genealogy trees, a serious genealogist can’t *NOT* test at Ancestry. Testers do need to be aware that not all features are available to DNA testers who don’t also subscribe to Ancestry’s genealogy subscriptions. For example, you can’t see your matches’ trees beyond a 5 generation preview without a subscription. You can read more about what you do and don’t receive, here.

Ancestry is the only one of the major companies that doesn’t provide a chromosome browser, despite pleas for years to do so, but they do provide ThruLines that show you other testers who match your DNA and show a common ancestor with you in their trees.

2019 Ancestry.png

ThruLines will also link partial trees – showing you ancestral descendants from the perspective of the ancestor in question, shown above. You can read about ThruLines, here.

Of course, without a chromosome browser, this match is only as good as the associated trees, and there is no way to prove the genealogical connection. It’s possible to all be wrong together, or to be related to some people through a completely different ancestor. Third party tools like Genetic Affairs and cluster technology help resolve these types of issues. You can read more, here.

You can’t upload DNA files from other testing companies to Ancestry, probably due to their custom medical chip. You can download your file from Ancestry and upload to other locations, with instructions here.

Selling Customers’ DNA

Neither Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage nor Gedmatch sell, lease or otherwise share their customers’ DNA, and all three state (minimally) they will not in the future without prior authorization.

All companies utilize their customers’ DNA internally to enhance and improve their products. That’s perfectly normal.

Both Ancestry and 23andMe sell consumers DNA to both known and unknown partners if customers opt-in to additional research. That’s the purpose of all those questions.

If you do agree or opt-in, and for those who tested prior to when the opt-in began, consumers don’t know who their DNA has been sold to, where it is or for what purposes it’s being utilized. Although anonymized (pseudonymized) before sale, autosomal results can easily be identified to the originating tester (if someone were inclined to do so) as demonstrated by adoptees identifying parents and law enforcement identifying both long deceased remains and criminal perpetrators of violent crimes. You can read more about re-identification here, although keep in mind that the re-identification frequency (%) would be much higher now than it was in 2018.

People are widely split on this issue. Whatever you decide, to opt-in or not, just be sure to do your homework first.

Always read the terms and conditions fully and carefully of anything having to do with genetics.

Genealogy

The bottom line to genetic genealogy is the genealogy aspect. Genealogists want to confirm ancestors and discover more about those ancestors. Some information can only be discovered via DNA testing today, distant Native heritage, for example, breaking through brick walls.

This technology, as it has advanced and more people have tested, has been a godsend for genealogists. The same techniques have allowed other people to locate unknown parents, grandparents and close relatives.

Adoptees

Not only are genealogists identifying people long in the past that are their ancestors, but adoptees and those seeking unknown parents are making discoveries much closer to home. MyHeritage has twice provided thousands of free DNA tests via their DNAQuest program to adoptees seeking their biological family with some amazing results.

The difference between genealogy, which looks back in time several generations, and parent or grand-parent searches is that unknown-parent searches use matches to come forward in time to identify parents, not backwards in time to identify distant ancestors in common.

Adoptee matching is about identifying descendants in common. According to Erlich et al in an October 2018 paper, here, about 60% of people with European ancestry could be identified. With the database growth since that time, that percentage has risen, I’m sure.

You can read more about the adoption search technique and how it is used, here.

Adoptee searches have spawned their own subculture of sorts, with researchers and search angels that specialize in making these connections. Do be aware that while many reunions are joyful, not all discoveries are positively received and the revelations can be traumatic for all parties involved.

There’s ying and yang involved, of course, and the exact same techniques used for identifying biological parents are also used to identify cold-case deceased victims of crime as well as violent criminals, meaning rapists and murderers.

Crimes Solved

The use of genetic genealogy and adoptee search techniques for identifying skeletal remains of crime victims, as well as identifying criminals in order that they can be arrested and removed from the population has resulted in a huge chasm and division in the genetic genealogy community.

These same issues have become popular topics in the press, often authored by people who have no experience in this field, don’t understand how these techniques are applied or function and/or are more interested in a sensational story than in the truth. The word click-bait springs to mind although certainly doesn’t apply equally to all.

Some testers are adamantly pro-usage of their DNA in order to identify victims and apprehend violent criminals. Other testers, not so much and some, on the other end of the spectrum are vehemently opposed. This is a highly personal topic with extremely strong emotions on both sides.

The first such case was the Golden State Killer, which has been followed in the past 18 months or so by another 100+ solved cases.

Regardless of whether or not people want their own DNA to be utilized to identify these criminals and victims, providing closure for families, I suspect the one thing we can all agree on is that we are grateful that these violent criminals no longer live among us and are no longer preying on innocent victims.

I wrote about the Golden State Killer, here, as well as other articles here, here, here and here.

In the genealogy community, various vendors have adopted quite different strategies relating to these kinds of searches, as follows:

  • Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage – have committed to fight all access attempts by law enforcement, including court ordered subpoenas.
  • MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch allow uploads, so forensic kits, meaning kits from deceased remains or rape kits could be uploaded to search for matches, the same as any other kit. Law Enforcement uploads violate the MyHeritage terms of service. Both Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch have special law enforcement procedures in place. All three companies have measures in place to attempt to detect unauthorized forensic uploads.
  • Family Tree DNA has provided a specific Law Enforcement protocol and guidelines for forensic uploads, here. All EU customers were opted out earlier in 2019, but all new or existing non-EU customers need to opt out if they do not want their DNA results available for matching to law enforcement kits.
  • GEDmatch was recently sold to Verogen, a DNA forensics company, with information, here. Currently GEDMatch customers are opted-out of matching for law enforcement kits, but can opt-in. Verogen, upon purchase of GEDmatch, required all users to read the terms and conditions and either accept the terms or delete their kits. Users can also delete their kits or turn off/on law enforcement matching at any time.

New Concerns

Concerns in late 2019 have focused on the potential misuse of genetic matching to potentially target subsets of individuals by despotic regimes such as has been done by China to the Uighurs.

You can read about potential risks here, here and here, along with a recent DoD memo here.

Some issues spelled out in the papers can be resolved by vendors agreeing to cryptographically sign their files when customers download. Of course, this would require that everyone, meaning all vendors, play nice in the sandbox. So far, that hasn’t happened although I would expect that the vendors accepting uploads would welcome cryptographic signatures. That pretty much leaves Ancestry and 23andMe. I hope they will step up to the plate for the good of the industry as a whole.

Relative to the concerns voiced in the papers and by the DoD, I do not wish to understate any risks. There ARE certainly risks of family members being identified via DNA testing, which is, after all, the initial purpose even though the current (and future) uses were not foreseen initially.

In most cases, the cow has already left that barn. Even if someone new chooses not to test, the critical threshold is now past to prevent identification of individuals, at least within the US and/or European diaspora communities.

I do have concerns:

  • Websites where the owners are not known in the genealogical community could be collecting uploads for clandestine purposes. “Free” sites are extremely attractive to novices who tend to forget that if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product. Please be very cognizant and leery. Actually, just say no unless you’re positive.
  • Fearmongering and click-bait articles in general will prevent and are already causing knee-jerk reactions, causing potential testers to reject DNA testing outright, without doing any research or reading terms and conditions.
  • That Ancestry and 23andMe, the two major vendors who don’t accept uploads will refuse to add crypto-signatures to protect their customers who download files.

Every person needs to carefully make their own decisions about DNA testing and participating in sharing through third party sites.

Health

Not surprisingly, the DNA testing market space has cooled a bit this past year. This slowdown is likely due to a number of factors such as negative press and the fact that perhaps the genealogical market is becoming somewhat saturated. Although, I suspect that when vendors announce major new tools, their DNA kit sales spike accordingly.

Look at it this way, do you know any serious genealogists who haven’t DNA tested? Most are in all of the major databases, meaning Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage and GedMatch.

All of the testing companies mentioned above (except GEDmatch who is not a testing company) now have a Health offering, designed to offer existing and new customers additional value for their DNA testing dollar.

23andMe separated their genealogy and health offering years ago. Ancestry and MyHeritage now offer a Health upgrade. For existing customers, FamilyTreeDNA offers the Cadillac of health tests through Tovana.

I would guess it goes without saying here that if you really don’t want to know about potential health issues, don’t purchase these tests. The flip side is, of course, that most of the time, a genetic predisposition is nothing more and not a death sentence.

From my own perspective, I found the health tests to be informative, actionable and in some cases, they have been lifesaving for friends.

Whoever knew genealogy might save your life.

Innovative Third-Party Tools

Tools, and fads, come and go.

In the genetic genealogy space, over the years, tools have burst on the scene to disappear a few months later. However, the last few years have been won by third party tools developed by well-known and respected community members who have created tools to assist other genealogists.

As we close this decade, these are my picks of the tools that I use almost daily, have proven to be the most useful genealogically and that I feel I just “couldn’t live without.”

And yes, before you ask, some of these have a bit of a learning curve, but if you are serious about genealogy, these are all well worthwhile:

  • GedMatch – offers a wife variety of tools including triangulation, half versus fully identical segments and the ability to see who your matches also match. One of the tools I utilize regularly is segment search to see who else matches me on a specific segment, attached to an ancestor I’m researching. GedMatch, started by genealogists, has lasted more than a decade prior to the sale in December 2019.
  • Genetic Affairs – a barn-burning newcomer developed by Evert-Jan Blom in 2018 wins this years’ “Best” award from me, titled appropriately, the “SNiPPY.”.

Genetic Affairs 2019 SNiPPY Award.png

Genetic Affairs offers clustering, tree building between your matches even when YOU don’t have a tree. You can read more here.

2019 genetic affairs.png

Just today, Genetic Affairs released a new cluster interface with DNAPainter, example shown above.

  • DNAPainter – THE chromosome painter created by Jonny Perl just gets better and better, having added pedigree tree construction this year and other abilities. I wrote a composite instructional article, here.
  • DNAGedcom.com and Genetic.Families, affiliated with DNAAdoption.org – Rob Warthen in collaboration with others provides tools like clustering combined with triangulation. My favorite feature is the gathering of all direct ancestors of my matches’ trees at the various vendors where I’ve DNA tested which allows me to search for common surnames and locations, providing invaluable hints not otherwise available.

Promising Newcomer

  • MitoYDNA – a non-profit newcomer by folks affiliated with DNAAdoption and DNAGedcom is designed to replace YSearch and MitoSearch, both felled by the GDPR ax in 2018. This website allows people to upload their Y and mitochondrial DNA results and compare the values to each other, not just for matching, which you can do at Family Tree DNA, but also to see the values that do and don’t match and how they differ. I’ll be taking MitoYDNA for a test drive after the first of the year and will share the results with you.

The Future

What does the future hold? I almost hesitate to guess.

  • Artificial Intelligence Pedigree Chart – I think that in the not-too-distant future we’ll see the ability to provide testers with a “one and done” pedigree chart. In other words, you will test and receive at least some portion of your genealogy all tidily presented, red ribbon untied and scroll rolled out in front of you like you’re the guest on one of those genealogy TV shows.

Except it’s not a show and is a result of DNA testing, segment triangulation, trees and other tools which narrow your ancestors to only a few select possibilities.

Notice I said, “the ability to.” Just because we have the ability doesn’t mean a vendor will implement this functionality. In fact, just think about the massive businesses built upon the fact that we, as genealogists, have to SEARCH incessantly for these elusive answers. Would it be in the best interest of these companies to just GIVE you those answers when you test?

If not, then these types of answers will rest with third parties. However, there’s a hitch. Vendors generally don’t welcome third parties offering advanced tools and therefore block those tools, even though they are being used BY the customer or with their explicit authorization to massage their own data.

On the other hand, as a genealogist, I would welcome this feature with open arms – because as far as I’m concerned, the identification of that ancestor is just the first step. I get to know them by fleshing out their bones by utilizing those research records.

In fact, I’m willing to pony up to the table and I promise, oh-so-faithfully, to maintain my subscription lifelong if one of those vendors will just test me. Please, please, oh pretty-please put me to the test!

I guess you know what my New Year’s Wish is for this and upcoming years now too😊

What About You?

What do you think the high points of 2019 have been?

How about the decade?

What do you think the future holds?

Do you care to make any predictions?

Are you planning to focus on any particular goal or genealogy problem in 2020?

______________________________________________________________

Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

Triangulation in Action at MyHeritage

Recently, I published the article, Hitting a Genealogy Home Run Using Your Double-Sided Two-Faced Chromosomes While Avoiding Imposters. The “Home Run” article explains why you want to use a chromosome browser, what you’re seeing and what it means to you.

This article, and the rest in the “Triangulation in Action” series introduces triangulation at FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter, explaining how to use triangulation to confirm descent from a common ancestor. You may want to read the introductory article first.

This first section, “What is Triangulation” is a generic tutorial. If you don’t need the tutorial, skip to the “Triangulation at MyHeritage” section.

What is Triangulation?

Think of triangulation as a three-legged stool – a triangle. Triangulation requires three things:

  1. At least three (not closely related) people must match
  2. On the same reasonably sized segment of DNA and
  3. Descend from a common ancestor

Triangulation is the foundation of confirming descent from a common ancestor, and thereby assigning a specific segment to that ancestor. Without triangulation, you might just have a match to someone else by chance. You can confirm mathematical triangulation, numbers 1 and 2, above, without knowing the identity of the common ancestor.

Reasonably sized segments are generally considered to be 7cM or above on chromosomes 1-22 and 15cM or above for the X chromosome.

Boundaries

Triangulation means that all three, or more, people much match on a common segment. However, what you’re likely to see is that some people don’t match on the entire segment, meaning more or less than others as demonstrated in the following examples.

FTDNA Triangulation boundaries

You can see that I match 5 different cousins who I know descend from my father’s side on chromosome 15 above. “I” am the grey background against which everyone else is being compared.

I triangulate with these matches in different ways, forming multiple triangulation groups that I’ve discussed individually, below.

Triangulation Group 1

FTDNA triangulation 1

Group 1 – On the left group of matches, above, I triangulate with the blue, red and orange person on the amount of DNA that is common between all of them, shown in the black box. This is triangulation group 1.

Triangulation Group 2

FTDNA triangulation 2

Group 2 – However, if you look just at the blue and orange triangulated matches bracketed in green, I triangulate on slightly more. This group excludes the red person because their beginning point is not the same, or even close. This is triangulation group 2.

Triangulation Group 3 and 4

FTDNA triang 3

Group 3 – In the right group of matches, there are two large triangulation groups. Triangulation group 3 includes the common portions of blue, red, teal and orange matches.

Group 4 – Triangulation group 4 is the skinny group at right and includes the common portion of the blue, teal and dark blue matches.

Triangulation Groups 5 and 6

FTDNA triang 5

Group 5 – There are also two more triangulation groups. The larger green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal people because their end locations are to the right of the end locations of the red and orange matches. This is triangulation group 5.

Group 6 – The smaller green bracketed group includes only the blue and teal person because their start locations are before the dark blue person. This is triangulation group 6.

There’s actually one more triangulation group. Can you see it?

Triangulation Group 7

FTDNA triang 7

Group 7 – The tan group includes the red, teal and orange matches but only the areas where they all overlap. This excludes the top blue match because their start location is different. Triangulation group 7 only extends to the end of the red and orange matches, because those are the same locations, while the teal match extends further to the right. That extension is excluded, of course.

Slight Variations

Matches with only slight start and end differences are probably descended from the same ancestor, but we can’t say that for sure (at this point) so we only include actual mathematically matching segments in a triangulation group.

You can see that triangulation groups often overlap because group members share more or less DNA with each other. Normally we don’t bother to number the groups – we just look at the alignment. I numbered them for illustration purposes.

Shared or In-Common-With Matching

Triangulation is not the same thing as a 3-way shared “in-common-with” match. You may share DNA with those two people, but on entirely different segments from entirely different ancestors. If those other two people match each other, it can be on a segment where you don’t match either of them, and thanks to an ancestor that they share who isn’t in your line at all. Shared matches are a great hint, especially in addition to other information, but shared matches don’t necessarily mean triangulation although it’s a great place to start looking.

I have shared matches where I match one person on my maternal side, one on my paternal side, and they match each other through a completely different ancestor on an entirely different segment. However, we don’t triangulate because we don’t all match each other on the SAME segment of DNA. Yes, it can be confusing.

Just remember, each of your segments, and matches, has its own individual history.

Imputation Can Affect Matching

Over the years the chips on which our DNA is processed at the vendors have changed. Each new generation of chips tests a different number of markers, and sometimes different markers – with the overlaps between the entire suite of chips being less than optimal.

I can verify that most vendors use imputation to level the playing field, and even though two vendors have never verified that fact, I’m relatively certain that they all do. That’s the only way they could match to their own prior “only somewhat compatible” chip versions.

The net-net of this is that you may see some differences in matching segments at different vendors, even when you’re comparing the same people. Imputation generally “fills in the blanks,” but doesn’t create large swatches of non-existent DNA. I wrote about the concept of imputation here.

What I’d like for you to take away from this discussion is to be focused on the big picture – if and how people triangulate which is the function important to genealogy. Not if the start and end segments are exactly the same.

Triangulation Solutions

Each of the major vendors, except Ancestry who does not have a chromosome browser, offers some type of triangulation solution, so let’s look at what each vendor offers. If your Ancestry matches have uploaded to GedMatch, Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage, you can triangulate with them there. Otherwise, you can’t triangulate Ancestry results, so encourage your Ancestry matches to transfer.

I wrote more specifically about triangulation here and here.

Let’s start by looking at triangulation at MyHeritage.

Triangulation at MyHeritage

MyHeritage offers triangulation integrated into their chromosome browser.

Triangulation MyHeritage matches.png

At MyHeritage, select DNA Matches from the DNA dropdown menu, then click on the purple “Review DNA Match” of the person you want to compare. We re looking at my cousin, Cheryl F.

Triangulation MyHeritage review.png

When reviewing my DNA match with Cheryl, I can see the list of people that Cheryl and I both match, including my mother, first on the list. In addition to my mother’s relationship to me, I can also see an estimate of how closely my mother matches the other person – in this case, Cheryl. Cheryl is my mother’s first cousin (1C) and my first cousin, once removed (1C1R.)

Triangulation MyHeritage icon

Click to enlarge

For triangulation, the important image is the little purple icon at right, above.

Clicking on the purple triangulation icon shows the segments where Cheryl, my mother and I all three match and triangulate.

Finding my mother among Cheryl’s close matches tells me immediately which parent I share with Cheryl.

The areas on the chromosome browser below in the rounded squares are triangulated, meaning that I match Cheryl and the other person (who just happens to be my mother) on that same segment.

Triangulation MyHeritage browser.png

Showing triangulation with Cheryl and my mother provides a great example, because of course I triangulate with Cheryl and my mother on every segment where I match Cheryl – because I inherited all of those segments through my mother.

However, as far as triangulation goes, the fact that two of those people are closely related, me and my mother, makes it the same as only two people matching – Mom and Cheryl. Still, since Mom and Cheryl are first cousins, that match confirms my great-grandparents.

Cheryl carries pieces of my great-grandparent’s DNA that my mother doesn’t though, so matches in common with Cheryl may prove very genealogically useful.

At the top right of this chromosome browser page, I can “add or remove DNA matches” from my match list. I can look through my match list to find another close relative to see if they triangulate or I can download my match list to see who else matches me on that same segment. Instructions for the file download are at the end of this section.

Same Segment Matches

To illustrate that people will match you on the same segment, but don’t match each other because they descend from different sides of your family, I’ll add some cousins from my father’s side of the family.

I’m going to select cousins Charlene and David, and remove my mother.

Below, we show chromosome 3 again, but the triangulation bracket is gone. This tells us that this segment does NOT triangulate between me and ALL three people.

Please note that I may triangulate with some of the people. The absence of the bracket only means that I don’t triangulate with ALL of them.

I already know that while I match Cheryl, Charlene and David on this segment, only David and Charlene match each other because they are both from my father’s side, and Cheryl doesn’t match either of them because she is on my mother’s side.

Triangulation MyHeritage segments

Click to enlarge

To prove this, and to determine triangulation groups, I can compare the people two by two and continue adding people to see if they continue to triangulate.

Below, I’ve removed Cheryl, and I triangulate on chromosome 3 with both Charlene and David. The triangulation bracket appears.

Triangulation MyHeritage chromosome 3

Click to enlarge

Therefore, I know that Charlene and David descend through one of my parents, and Cheryl through the other – even if I didn’t know anything else at this point.

To reiterate, triangulation at MyHeritage means triangulation with everyone showing at the same time on the chromosome browser.

Other Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

For additional information, I can check the match information with each person to see if our trees, surnames or locations intersect.

SmartMatches and Theories of Family Relativity each provide clues and help to explain why we might triangulate.

SmartMatches tell you that you and another person share an ancestor in your and their tree, BUT, that common person may not be a direct ancestor of one or both of you. You also may or may not be DNA matches, and if so, your DNA match may or may not be through that ancestor.

Theories of Family Relativity (TOFR,) on the other hand, tell you that not only do you have a DNA match with this person, but that you have a common ancestor, and who that ancestor is. Sometimes the connection is made for you, even if one or both of you don’t show that ancestor in your tree simply because you have not extended your tree back far enough in time.

I wrote about how to use Theories of Family Relativity here.

Downloading Matches

You can request to download your matches list and also your shared DNA segments at MyHeritage by clicking on the three dots to the right at the top of your match list, then click on the option you wish. The resulting files will be e-mailed to you a few minutes later. If they don’t arrive, be sure to check your spam filter.

Triangulation MyHeritage export.png

Downloading your match list and/or shared DNA segments is NOT the same thing as downloading your raw data file to upload elsewhere. You’ll find those instructions in the Transfer section later in this article.

What About You?

Do you have a tree at MyHeritage?

Triangulation MyHeritage tree tab.png

If not, click on Family Tree to create or upload one including not only direct line ancestors, but their children and grandchildren which facilitates and encourages the formation of Theories of Family Relativity.

Connecting Your DNA to Your Tree

Assigning your kit and those of family members to the proper profile card in your tree is very important, especially for the formation of Theories of Family Relativity

To suggest a theory, MyHeritage searches through all the possible links in the MyHeritage database meaning SmartMatches between trees, Record matches, record to record matches, etc.

If a DNA kit is not associated with an individual that is connected to ancestors, this reduces the probability that MyHeritage will be able to find a theory.

For example, if I took a DNA test but only have myself in the tree, not connected to my father and mother, but my father appears in another user’s tree (and there are more ancestors in that tree) MyHeritage won’t be able to find the information to generate a theory.

If I add my father, then the system has a common ancestor to work with.

When the TOFR algorithm runs, it’s trying to find any possible route to connect the two individuals (you and your DNA Match). If you are associated with individuals in multiple sites or trees, MyHeritage will try all of them and generate multiple paths for you to evaluate.

Have you assigned the kits of family members you manage to the proper place in your tree?

Triangulation MyHeritage tree.png

You can do this easily under the Manage DNA Kits option, under the DNA tab. Click on the three little dots to the right of the kit.

Triangulation MyHeritage assign dots.png

Then click assign the kit.

Triangulation MyHeritage assign kit.png

You’ll be prompted

Triangulation MyHeritage kit name.png

If you start typing, you’ll be prompted with the names of people in your tree.

Other Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

MyHeritage includes other tools to help you identify common ancestors as well, including:

  • SmartMatches where MyHeritage matches individuals in trees
  • AutoClusters showing groups of people that match you and each other
  • Shared Matches indicating common DNA matches between you and another DNA match
  • Shared Ancestral Surnames show common surnames, even if a common ancestor does not show in a tree
  • Shared Ancestral Places indicating common locations in trees
  • Shared Ethnicities comparing ethnicity between matches, a feature typically only beneficial if looking for a minority (to you) ancestry match
  • Genealogical Records including matches from other databases such as Geni.com and FamilySearch
  • Trees

Transfers

Have you tested family members, especially everyone in the older generations? You can transfer their kits from Ancestry, 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA if they’ve already tested there to MyHeritage.

The article, Are You DNA Testing the Right People? explains how to determine who to test. Make sure you aren’t missing anyone that you need.

Here’s how to transfer:

I wrote recently about how to work with triangulation at FamilyTreeDNA. Join me soon for similar articles about how to work with triangulation at 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter.

Most of all – have fun!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Are You DNA Testing the Right People?

We often want to purchase DNA kits for relatives, especially during the holidays when there are so many sales. (There are links for free shipping on tests in addition to sale prices at the end of this article. If you already know who to test, pop on down to the Sales section, now.)

Everyone is on a budget, so who should we test to obtain results that are relevant to our genealogy?

We tell people to test as many family members as possible – but what does that really mean?

Testing everyone may not be financially viable, nor necessary for genealogy, so let’s take a look at how to decide where to spend YOUR testing dollars to derive the most benefit.

It’s All Relative😊

When your ancestors had children, those children inherited different pieces of your ancestors’ DNA.

Therefore, it’s in your best interest to test all of the direct descendants generationally closest to the ancestor that you can find.

It’s especially useful to test descendants of your own close ancestors – great-great-grandparents or closer – where there is a significant possibility that you will match your cousins.

All second cousins match, and roughly 90% (or more) of third cousins match.

Percent of cousins match.png

This nifty chart compiled by ISOGG shows the probability statistics produced by the major testing companies regarding cousin matching relationships.

My policy is to test 4th cousins or closer. The more, the merrier.

Identifying Cousins

  • First cousins share grandparents.
  • Second cousins share great-grandparents.
  • Third cousins share great-great-grandparents.

The easiest way for me to see who these cousins might be is to open my genealogy software on my computer, select my great-great-grandparent, and click on descendants. Pretty much all software has a similar function.

The resulting list shows all of the descendants of that ancestor that I’ve entered in my software. Most genealogists already have or could construct this information with relative ease. These are the cousins you need to be talking to anyway, because they will have photos and stories that you don’t. If you don’t know them, there’s never been a better time to reach out and introduce yourself.

Who to test descendants software

Click to enlarge

People You Already Know

Sometimes it’s easier to start with the family you already know and may see from time to time. Those are the people who will likely be the most beneficial to your genealogy.

Who to test 1C.png

Checking my tree at FamilyTreeDNA, Hiram Ferverda and Evaline MIller are my great-grandparents. All of their children are deceased, but I have a relationship with the children born to their son, Roscoe. Both Cheryl and her brother carry parts of Hiram and Eva’s DNA their son John Ferverda (my grandfather) didn’t inherit, and therefore that I can’t carry.

Therefore, it’s in my best interest to gift my cousin, Cheryl and her brother, both, with DNA kits. Turns out that I already have and my common matches with both Cheryl and her brother are invaluable because I know that people who match me plus either one of them descend from the Ferverda or Miller lines. This relationship and linking them on my tree, shown above, allows Family Tree DNA to perform phased Family Matching which is their form of triangulation.

It’s important to test both siblings, because some people will match me plus one but not the other sibling.

Who’s Relevant?

Trying to convey the concept of who to test and not to test, and why, is sometimes confusing.

Many family members may want to test, but you may only be willing to pay for those tests that can help your own genealogy. We need to know who can best benefit our genealogy in order to make informed decisions.

Let’s look at example scenarios – two focused on grandparents and two on parents.

In our example family, a now-deceased grandmother and grandfather have 3 children and multiple grandchildren. Let’s look at when we test which people, and why.

Example 1: Grandparents – 2 children deceased, 1 living

In our first example, Jane and Barbara, my mother, are deceased, but their sibling Harold is living. Jane has a living daughter and my mother had 3 children, 2 of which are living. Who should we test to discover the most about my maternal grandparents?

Please note that before making this type of a decision, it’s important to state the goal, because the answer will be different depending on your goal at hand. If I wanted to learn about my father’s family, for example, instead of my maternal grandparents, this would be an entirely different question, answer, and tree.

Descendant test

Click to enlarge

The people who are “married in” but irrelevant to the analysis are greyed out. In this case, all of the spouses of Jane, Barbara and Harold are irrelevant to the grandmother and grandfather shown. We are not seeking information about those spouses or their families.

The people I’ve designated with the red stars should be tested. This is the “oldest” generation available. Harold can be tested, so his son, my first cousin, does not need to test because the only part of the grandparent’s DNA that Harold’s son can inherit is a portion of what his father, Harold, carries and gave to him.

Unfortunately, Jane is deceased but her daughter, Liz, is available to test, so Liz’s son does not need to.

I need to test, as does my living brother and the children of my deceased brother in order to recover as much as possible of my mother’s DNA. They will all carry pieces of her DNA that I don’t.

The children of anyone who has a red star do NOT need to test for our stated genealogical purpose because they only carry a portion of thier parent’s DNA, and that parent is already testing.

Those children may want to test for their own genealogy given that they also have a parent who is not relevant to the grandfather and grandmother shown. In my case, I’m perfectly happy to facilitate those tests, but not willing to pay for the children’s tests if the relevant parent is living. I’m only willing to pay for tests that are relevant to my genealogical goals – in this case, my grandparents’ heritage.

In this scenario, I’m providing 5 tests.

Of course, you may have other family factors in play that influence your decision about how many tests to purchase for whom. Family dynamics might include things like hurt feelings and living people who are unwilling or unable to test. I’ve been known to purchase kits for non-biologically related family members so that people could learn how DNA works.

Example 2: Grandparents – 2 children living, one deceased

For our second example, let’s change this scenario slightly.

Descendant test 2

Click to enlarge

From the perspective of only my grandparents’ genealogy, if my mother is alive, there’s no reason to test her children.

Barbara and Harold can test. Since Jane is deceased, and she had only one child, Liz is the closest generationally and can test to represent Jane’s line. Liz’s son does not need to test since his mother, the closest relative generationally to the grandparents is available to test.

In this scenario, I’m providing 3 tests.

Example 3: My Immediate Family – both parents living

In this third example, I’m looking from strictly MY perspective viewing my maternal grandparents (as shown above) AND my immediate family meaning the genealogical lines of both of my parents. In other words, I’ve combined two goals. This makes sense, especially if I’m going to be seeing a group of people at a family gathering. We can have a swab party!

Descendants - parents alive

Click to enlarge

In the situation where my parents are both living, I’m going to test them in addition to Harold and Liz.

I’m testing myself because I want to work using my own DNA, but that’s not really necessary. My parents will both have twice as many matches to other people as I do – because I only inherited half of each parent’s DNA.

In this scenario, I’m providing 5 tests.

Example 4: My Immediate Family – one parent living, one deceased

Descendants - father deceased

Click to enlarge

In our last example, my mother is living but my father is deceased. In addition to Harold and Liz who reflect the DNA of my maternal grandparents, I will test myself, my mother my living brother and my deceased brother’s child.

Because my father is deceased, testing as many of my father’s descendants as possible, in addition to myself, is the only way for me to obtain some portion of his DNA. My siblings will have pieces of my parent’s DNA that I don’t.

I’m not showing my father’s tree in this view, but looking at his tree and who is available to test to provide information about his side of the family would be the next logical step. He may have siblings and cousins that are every bit as valuable as the people on my mother’s side.

Applying this methodology to your own family, who is available to test?

Multiple Databases

Now that you know WHO to test, the next step is to make sure your close family members test at each of the major providers where your DNA is as well.

I test everyone at Family Tree DNA because I have been testing family members there for 19 years and many of the original testers are deceased now. The only way new people can compare to those people is to be in the FamilyTreeDNA data base.

Then, with permission of course, I transfer all kits, for free, to MyHeritage. Matching is free, but if you don’t have a subscription, there’s an unlock fee of $29 to access advanced tools. I have a full subscription, so all tools are entirely free for the kits I transfer and manage in my account.

Transferring to Family Tree DNA and matching there is free too. There’s an unlock fee of $19 for advanced tools, but that’s a good deal because it’s substantially less than a new test.

Neither 23andMe nor Ancestry accept transfers, so you have to test at each of those companies.

The great news is that both Ancestry and 23andMe tests can be transferred to  MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA.

Before purchasing tests, check first by asking your relatives or testing there yourself to be sure they aren’t already in those databases. If they took a “spit in a vial” test, they are either at 23andMe or Ancestry. If they took a swab test, it’s MyHeritage or FamilyTreeDNA.

I wrote about creating a testing and transfer strategy in the article, DNA Testing and Transfers – What’s Your Strategy? That article includes a handy dandy chart about who accepts which versions of whose files.

Sales

Of course, everything is on sale since it’s the holidays.

Who are you planning to test?

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items