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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Y DNA: Part 2 – The Dictionary of DNA

After my introductory article, Y DNA: Part 1 – Overview, I received several questions about terminology, so this second article will be a dictionary or maybe more like a wiki. Many terms about Y DNA apply to mitochondrial and autosomal as well.

Haplogroup – think of your Y or mitochondrial DNA haplogroup as your genetic clan. Haplogroups are assigned based on SNPs, specific nucleotide mutations that change very occasionally. We don’t know exactly how often, but the general schools of thought are that a new SNP mutation on the Y chromosome occurs someplace between every 80 and 145 years. Of course, those would only be averages. I’ve as many as two mutations in a father son pair, and no mutations for many generations.

Dictionary haplogroup.png

Y DNA haplogroups are quite reliably predicted by STR results at Family Tree DNA, meaning the results of a 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111 marker tests. Haplogroups are only confirmed or expanded from the estimate by SNP testing of the Y chromosome. Predictions are almost always accurate, but only apply to the upper level base haplogroups. I wrote about that in the article, Haplogroups and the Three Brothers.

Haplogroups are also estimated by some companies, specifically 23andMe and LivingDNA who provide autosomal testing. These companies estimate Y and mitochondrial haplogroups by targeting certain haplogroup defining locations in your DNA, both Y and mitochondrial. That doesn’t mean they are actually obtaining Y and mtDNA information from autosomal DNA, just that the chip they are using for DNA processing targets a few Y and mitochondrial locations to be read.

Again, the only way to confirm or expand that haplogroup is to test either your Y or mitochondrial DNA directly. I wrote about that in the article Haplogroup Comparisons Between Family Tree DNA and 23andMe and Why Different Haplogroup Results?.

Nucleotide – DNA is comprised of 4 base nucleotides, abbreviated as T (Thymine), A (Adenine), C (Cytosine) and G (Guanine.) Every DNA address holds one nucleotide.

In the DNA double helix, generally, A pairs with T and C pairs with G.

Dictionary helix structure.png

Looking at this double helix twist, green and purple “ladder rungs” represent the 4 nucleotides. Purple and green and have been assigned to one bonding pair, either A/T or C/G, and red and blue have been assigned to the other pair.

When mutations occur, most often A or T are replaced with their paired nucleotide, as are C and G. In this example, A would be replaced with T and vice versa. C with G and vice versa.

Sometimes that’s not the case and a mutation occurs that pairs A with C or G, for example.

For Y DNA SNPs, we care THAT the mutation occurred, and the identity of the replacing nucleotide so we know if two men match on that SNP. These mutations are what make DNA in general, and Y DNA in particular useful for genealogy.

The rest of this nucleotide information is not something you really need to know, unless of course you’re playing in the jeopardy championship. (Yes, seriously.) The testing lab worries about these things, as well as matching/not matching, so you don’t need to.

SNP – Single nucleotide polymorphism, pronounced “snip.” A mutation that occurs when the nucleotide typically found at a particular location (the ancestral value) is replaced with one of the other three nucleotides (the derived value.) SNPs that mutate are called variants.

In Y DNA, after discovery and confirmation that the SNP mutation is valid and carried by more than one man, the mutation is given a name something like R-M269 where R is the base haplogroup and M269 reflects the lab that discovered and named the SNP (M = Peter Underhill at Stanford) and an additional number, generally the next incremental number named by that lab (269).

Some SNPs were discovered simultaneously by different labs. When that happens, the same mutation in the identical location is given different names by different organizations, resulting in multiple names for the name mutation in the same DNA location. These are considered equivalent SNPs because they are identical.

In some cases, SNPs in different locations seem to define the same tree branching structure. These are functionally equivalent until enough tests are taken to determine a new branching structure, but they are not equivalent in the sense that the exact same DNA location was named by two different labs.

Some confusion exists about Y DNA SNP equivalence.

Equivalence Confusion How This Happens Are They the Same?
Same exact DNA location named by two labs Different SNP names for the same DNA location, named by two different labs at about the same time Exactly equivalent because SNPs are named for the the exact same DNA locations, define only one tree branch ever
Different DNA locations and SNP names, one current tree branch Different SNPs temporarily located on same branch of  the tree because branches or branching structure have not yet been defined When enough men test, different branches will likely be sorted out for the non-equivalent SNPs pointing to newly defined branch locations that divide the tree or branch

Let’s look at an example where 4 example SNPs have been named. Two at the same location, and two more for two additional locations. However, initially, we don’t know how this tree actually looks, meaning what is the base/trunk and what are branches, so we need more tests to identify the actual structure.

Dictionary SNPs before branching.png

The example structure of a haplogroup R branch, above, shows that there are three actual SNP locations that have been named. Location 1 has been given two different SNP names, but they are the same exact location. Duplicate names are not intentionally given, but result from multiple labs making simultaneous discoveries.

However, because we don’t have enough information yet, meaning not enough men have tested that carry at least some of the mutations (variants,), we can’t yet define trunks and branches. Until we do, all 4 SNPs will be grouped together. Examples 1 and 2 will always be equivalent because they are simply different names for the exact same DNA location. Eventually, a branching structure will emerge for Examples 1/2, Example 3 and Example 4..

Dictionary SNP branches.png

Eventually, the downstream branches will be defined and split off. It’s also possible that Example 4 would be the trunk with Examples 1 and 2 forming a branch and Example 3 forming a branch. Branching tree structure can’t be built without sufficient testers who take the NGS tests, specifically the Big Y-700 which doesn’t just confirm a subset of existing named SNPs, but confirms all named SNPs, unnamed variants and discovers new previously-undiscovered variants which define the branching tree structure.

SNP testing occurs in multiple ways, including:

  • NGS, next generation sequencing, tests such as the Big Y-700 which scans the gold standard region of the Y chromosome in order to find known SNPs at specific locations, mutations (variants) not yet named as SNPs, previously undiscovered variants and minimally 700 STR mutations.
  • WGS, whole genome sequencing although there currently exist no bundled commercial tools to separate Y DNA information from the rest of the genome, nor any comparison methodology that allows whole genome information to be transferred to Family Tree DNA, the only commercial lab that does both testing and matching of NGS Y DNA tests and where most of the Y DNA tests reside. There can also be quality issues with whole genome sequencing if the genome is not scanned a similar number of times as the NGS Y tests. The criteria for what constitues a “positive call” for a mutation at a specific location varies as well, with little standardization within the industry.
  • Targeted SNP testing of a specific SNP location. Available at Family Tree DNA  and other labs for some SNP locations, this test would only be done if you are looking for something very specific and know what you are doing. In some cases, a tester will purchase one SNP to verify that they are in a particular lineage, but there is no benefit such as matching. Furthermore, matching on one SNP alone does not confirm a specific lineage. Not all SNPs are individually available for purchase. In fact, as more SNPs are discovered at an astronomical rate, most aren’t available to purchase separately.
  • SNP panels which test a series of SNPs within a certain haplogroup in order to determine if a tester belongs to a specific subclade. These tests only test known SNPs and aren’t tests of discovery, scanning the useable portion of the Y chromosome. In other words, you will discern whether you are or are not a member of the specific subclades being tested for, but you will not learn anything more such as matching to a different subclade, or new, undiscovered variants (mutations) or subclades.

Subclade – A branch of a specific upstream branch of the haplotree.

Dictionary R.png

For example, in haplogroup R, R1 and R2 are subclades of haplogroup R. The graphic above conveys the concept of a subclade. Haplogroups beneath R1 and R2, respectively, are also subclades of haplogroup R as well as subclades of all clades above them on the haplotree.

Older naming conventions used letter number conventions such as R1 and R2 which expanded to R1b1c and so forth, alternating letters and numbers.

Today, we see most haplogroups designated by the haplogroup letter and SNP name. Using that notation methodology, R would be R-M207, R1 would be R-M173 and R2 would be R-M479.

Dictionary R branches.png

ISOGG documents Y haplogroup naming conventions and their history, maintaining both an alphanumeric and SNP tree for backwards compatibility. The reason that the alphanumeric tree was obsoleted was because there was no way to split a haplogroup like R1b1c when a new branch appeared between R1b and R1b1 without renaming everything downstream of R1b, causing constant reshuffling and renaming of tree branches. Haplogroup names were becoming in excess of 20 characters long. Today, the terminal SNP is used as a person’s haplogroup designation. The SNP name never changes and the individual’s Y haplogroup only changes if:

  • Further testing is performed and the tester is discovered to have an additional mutation further downstream from their current terminal SNP
  • A SNP previously discovered using the Big Y NGS test has since been named because enough men were subsequently discovered to carry that mutation, and the newly named SNP is the tester’s terminal SNP

Terminal SNP – It’s really not fatal. Used in this context, “terminal” means end of line, meaning furthest down and closest to present in the haplotree.

Depending on what level of testing you’ve undergone, you may have different haplogroups, or SNPs, assigned as your official “end of line” haplogroup or “terminal SNP” at various times.

If you took any of the various STR panel tests (12, 25, 37, 67 or 111) at Family Tree DNA your SNP was predicted based on STR matches to other men. Let’s say that prediction is R-M198. At that time, R-M198 was your terminal SNP. If you took the Big Y-700 test, your terminal SNP would almost assuredly change to something much further downstream in the haplotree.

If you took an autosomal test, your haplogroup was predicted based on a panel of SNPs selected to be informative about Y or mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. As with predicted haplogroups from STR test panels, the only way to discover a more definitive haplogroup is with further testing.

If you took a Y DNA STR test, you can see by looking at your match list that other testers may have a variety of “terminal SNPs.”

Dictionary Y matches.png

In the above example, the tester was originally predicted as R-M198 but subsequently took a Big Y test. His haplogroup now is R-YP729, a subclade of R-M198 several branches downstream.

Looking at his Y DNA STR matches to view the haplogroups of his matches, we see that the Y DNA predicted or confirmed haplogroup is displayed in the Y-DNA Haplogroup column – and several other men are M198 as well.

Anyone who has taken any type of confirming SNP test, whether it’s an individual SNP test, a panel test or the Big Y has their confirmed haplogroup at that level of testing listed in the Terminal SNP column. What we don’t know and can’t tell is whether the men whose Terminal SNP is listed as R-M198 just tested that SNP or have undergone additional SNP testing downstream and tested negative for other downstream SNPs. We can tell if they have taken the Big Y test by looking at their tests taken, shown by the red arrows above.

If the haplogroup has been confirmed by any form of SNP testing, then the confirmed haplogroup is displayed under the column, “Terminal SNP.” Unfortunately, none of this testers’ matches at this STR marker level have taken the Big Y test. As expected, no one matches him on his Terminal SNP, meaning his SNP farthest down on the tree. To obtain that level of resolution, one would have to take the Big Y test and his matches have not.

Dictionary Y block tree.png

Looking at this tester’s Big Y Block Tree results, we can see that there are indeed 3 people that match him on his terminal SNP, but none of them match him on the STR tests which generally produce genealogical matches closer in time. This suggests that these haplogroup level matches are a result of an ancestor further back in time. Note that these men also have an average of 5 variants each that are currently unnamed. These may eventually be named and become baby branches.

SNP matches can be useful genealogically, depending on when they occurred, or can originate further back in time, perhaps before the advent of surnames.

Our tester’s paternal ancestors migrated from Germany to Hungary in the late 1700s or 1800s, settling in a region now in Croatia, but he’s brick-walled on his paternal line due to record loss during the various wars.

The block tree reveals that the tester’s Big Y SNP match is indeed from Germany, born in 1718, with other men carrying this same terminal SNP originating in both Hungary and Germany even though they aren’t shown as a STR marker match to our tester.

You can read more about the block tree in the article, Family Tree DNA’s New Big Y Block Tree.

Haplotype – your individual values for results of gene sequencing, such as SNPs or STR values tested in the 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker panels at Family Tree DNA. The haplotype for the individual shown below would be 13 for location DYS393, 26 for location DYS390, 16 for location DYS19, and so forth.

Dictionary panel 1.png

The values in a haplotype tend to be inherited together, so they are “unique” to you and your family. In this case, the Y DNA STR values of 13, 26, 16 and 10 are generally inherited together (unless a new mutation occurs,) passed from father to son on the Y chromosome. Therefore, this person’s haplotype is 13, 26, 16 and 10 for these 4 markers.

If this haplotype is rare, it may be very unique to the family. If the haplotype is common, it may only be unique to a much larger haplogroup reaching back hundreds or thousands of years. The larger the haplotype, the more unique it tends to be.

STR – Short tandem repeat. I think of a short tandem repeat as a copy machine or a stutter error. On the Y chromosome, the value of 13 at the location DYS393 above indicates that a series of DNA nucleotides is repeated a total of 13 times.

Indel example 1

Starting with the above example, let’s see how STR values accrue mutations.

STR example

In the example above, the value of CT was repeated 4 times in this DNA sequence, for a total of 5, so 5 would be the marker value.

Indel example 3

DNA can have deletions where the DNA at one or more locations is deleted and no DNA is found at that location, like the missing A above.

DNA can also have insertions where a particular value is inserted one or more times.

Dictionary insertion example.png

For example, if we know to expect the above values at DNA locations 1-10, and an insertion occurs between location 3 and 4, we know that insertion occurred because the alignment of the pattern of values expected in locations 4-10 is off by 1, and an unexpected T is found between 3 and 4, which I’ve labeled 3.1.

Dictionary insertion example 1.png

STR, or copy mutations are different from insertions, deletions or SNP mutations, shown below, where one SNP value is actually changed to another nucleotide.

Indel example 2

Haplotree – the SNP trees of humanity. Just a few years ago, we thought that there were only a few branches on the Y and mitochondrial trees of humanity, but the Big Y test has been a game changer for Y DNA.

At the end of 2019, the tree originating in Africa with Y chromosome Adam whose descendants populated the earth is comprised of more than 217,277 variants divided into 24,838 individual Y haplotree branches

A tree this size is very difficult to visualize, but you can take a look at Family Tree DNA’s public Y DNA tree here, beginning with haplogroup A. Today, there 25,880 branches, increased by more than 1000 branches in less than 3 weeks since year end. This tree is growing at breakneck speed as more men take the Big Y-700 test and new SNPs are discovered.

On the Public Y Tree below, as you expand each haplogroup into subgroups, you’ll see the flags representing the locations of where the testers’ most distant paternal ancestor lived.

Dictionary public tree.png

I wrote about how to use the Y tree in the article Family Tree DNA’s PUBLIC Y DNA Haplotree.

The mitochondrial tree can be viewed here. I wrote about to use the mitochondrial tree in the article Family Tree DNA’s Mitochondrial Haplotree.

Need Something Else?

I’ll be introducing more concepts and terms in future articles on the various Y DNA features. In the mean time, be sure to use the search box located in the upper right-hand corner of the blog to search for any term.

DNAexplain search box.png

For example, want to know what Genetic Distance means for either Y or mitochondrial DNA? Just type “genetic distance” into the search box, minus the quote marks, and press enter.

Enjoy and stay tuned for Part 3 in the Y DNA series, coming soon.

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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!

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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.

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Y DNA: Part 1 – Overview

This is Part 1 of a series about Y DNA and how to use it successfully for genealogy.

If you’re in need of a brief DNA testing overview, please read 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy.

Y DNA testing has so much to offer. In this overview article, I’m touching briefly on each of the major functions and features of Y DNA testing. Following articles in this series will focus on how to utilize each tool for genealogy and harvesting every snippet of information available.

If you have Y DNA results, you can sign on to your account at Family Tree DNA and follow along. Throughout these articles, we’ll step through every tab and function, how to use them, and what they mean to you.

What is Y DNA and Why Do I Care?

Y DNA is what makes males, well, male.

The 23rd pair of human chromosomes consists of an X and a Y chromosome.

Female children inherit an X from both parents.

Male children inherit an X chromosome from their mother, but a Y from their father.

Generally, the Y chromosome follows the male surname line, so Estes males pass their Estes Y chromosome to their sons.

When adoptions occur, of course the surname of record does not match the biological surname associated with the Y chromosome – which is exactly why male adoptees take Y DNA tests.

Inheritance Path

In the example below, you can see that the light blue Y chromosome is passed from father to son to son to son to the male child in the current generation.

Y overview inheritance path

Click to enlarge

The dark blue maternal great-grandfather in this example also passes his Y chromosome to his son, but it stops there since the next generation in this tree is a female.

The light blue son at the bottom inherits a Y chromosome from his father, from ancestors all the way up that light blue line – along with his surname. The daughter doesn’t receive a Y chromosome nor do any females.

If you’re a male, you can test your own Y DNA of course.

If you’re a female, like the daughter, above, you must find a male in the line you seek to test. In this case, the brother, father, grandfather, paternal uncles and so forth represent her father’s Y DNA.

If you want information from any of the Y chromosome lineages in this chart that you don’t personally carry, you must find a male descended directly patrilineally from that line to test. It’s generally fairly easy to identify those people, because they will also carry the relevant surname. There are several examples in the article, Concepts – Who to Test for Your Father’s DNA.

Every Y DNA line has its own unique story for genealogists to harvest – assuming we can find an appropriate candidate for testing or find someone who has already tested. We’ll talk about how to see if your line may have already tested in the Projects section later in this article.

Why Y DNA Works

Y DNA is inherited from the patrilineal line directly. Unlike autosomal DNA, there is no genetic contribution from any females.

This uniquely male inheritance path allows us to use Y DNA for matching to other males beginning with the first generation, the father, then reaching back many generations providing a way to view our ancestral heritage beyond the line-in-the-sand boundary of surnames.

In other words, because Y DNA is not mixed with any DNA from the mothers, it’s very nearly identical to our patrilineal ancestors’ Y DNA – meaning it matches that of the father, and grandfather, reaching back many generations.

Some people, especially new autosomal testers, believe that Y DNA is ONLY useful for deep ancestry and not for genealogy. That’s ENTIRELY mistaken. Y DNA is extremely important in confirming descent from known ancestors. In fact, without Y DNA, you can’t tell the difference with autosomal testing between a child born to a male and a child born to the female of a couple. I wrote about that hereNo one wants to spend years barking up the wrong tree.

Y DNA testing is also the single best way to push the Y DNA genealogy back further in time. It can and does identify the geographic source, overseas, of the DNA lineage, through matches to other testers as well as haplogroup matches. These are things autosomal DNA simply cannot accomplish.

In fact, Y DNA did exactly that for my own Speak(es) line, connecting us genetically to the Speak family from Downham, Lancashire, England which then facilitated discovering the actual baptism document of our immigrant ancestor. Finding our English geographic source had eluded researchers for decades. A year later, a group of 20+ descendants visited Downham and stood in that very church.

Speak Family at St Mary Whalley

There simply is no better success story.

Migration Path Identified

Not only can Y DNA confirm recent ancestors and find ones more distant, by tracing a series of mutations, we can track our ancestor over time beginning with Y Line Adam, born in Africa tens of thousands of years ago to that church in an ancestral country and then to where we are today.

Y overview migration path.png

Mutations Happen

If mutations never occurred, the Y DNA of all males would be identical and therefore not useful for us to use for genealogy or to peer back in time beyond the advent of surnames.

Mutations do occur, just not on any schedule. This means that it’s difficult to predict how long ago we shared a common ancestor with someone else based solely on Y DNA mutations – although some types of mutations are better predictors than others.

A mutation might occur between a male and his father, or there might be no mutations for hundreds or even, potentially, thousands of years – depending on the marker type.

For example, in the Estes DNA project, one group of men have no STR (short tandem repeat) mutations in 8 generations. Others have several in the same number of generations.

Part of the success of matching genealogically with Y DNA testing has to do with:

  • The type of markers tested
  • The number of markers tested – testing fewer marker locations results in matches that are much less specific and therefore less relevant.
  • The luck of whether anyone else from your line has tested

The best results are between men who have taken the Big Y-700 test which provides for the largest number of STR markers and all SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) , both previously known and discovered individually during that person’s Big Y test result.

Let’s take a look at the two different kinds of Y DNA markers and their mutations.

Two Kinds of Mutations

Y DNA can be tested for two different kinds of mutations, STR (short tandem repeat) markers and SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms.)

All DNA is comprised of four different nucleotides, abbreviated by A, C, G and T.

  1. A=adenine
  2. C=cytosine
  3. G=guanine
  4. T=thymine

When mutations take place, they can take the form of three types of mutations:

  • A deletion occurs when a nucleotide, or multiple nucleotides, fail to copy during reproduction. Therefore, that location or locations are then blank, with no DNA at that location permanently.
  • A replacement occurs when a nucleotide is replaced or swapped out with a different nucleotide. For example, an A could be replaced with one of the other nucleotides, and so forth.
  • An insertion occurs when a nucleotide or a group of nucleotides is duplicated and inserted between existing nucleotides.

Let’s look at how this actually works.

Indel example 1

Here’s an example segment of DNA.

A deletion would occur if the leading A (or a series of nucleotides) were simply gone.

Indel example 3

A replacement would occur if the first A above were to change to T or G or C as in the example below:

Indel example 2

A replacement is a SNP mutation.

An insertion would be where DNA is inserted between existing nucleotide locations.

STR example

Note the extra red CTs that have been inserted. Specifically, 4 extra CTs, for a total of 5 sets of CT. This is the definition of a STR, a short tandem repeat mutation.

STR markers, known as short tandem repeats, accrue what are similar to copy machine errors. This occurs when a specific segment of Y DNA gets repeated several times in a row. In other words, the copy machine gets stuck.

STR Markers

We purchase STR Y DNA tests from Family Tree DNA grouped into panels that include a specific number of markers.

Y overview STR results

Example of 37 marker results – click to enlarge

These panels consist of the following number of marker locations:

  • 12 markers (now obsolete)
  • 25 markers (now obsolete)
  • 37 markers
  • 67 markers (replaced by 111)
  • 111 markers
  • 500 markers bundled as part of the now-obsolete Big Y-500
  • 700 markers bundled with the Big Y-700

The more markers purchased, the more data points to be compared, and the more relevant and convincing the results.

What Matches See

The STR matches and SNP matches look different on the tester’s results page.

Y overview matches

Click to enlarge

People whom you match on STR panels can see that you do match, if you’ve opted-in to matching, but they can’t see specific differences or mutations. They see the name you’ve entered for yourself, your earliest known ancestor and your match can send e-mail to you. Aside from that, they can’t see your results or mutations unless you’ve joined a public project.

Y overview project

Click to enlarge

Within projects, participant names cannot be listed publicly. In other words, your matches can’t tell that it’s you unless you tell them your kit number or they recognize your earliest known ancestor on the project page and you are the only person with that ancestor.

The Big Y-700 test tests all STR markers in addition to scanning the entire Y chromosome for all SNP (haplogroup defining) mutations. They have the STR matches page like everyone else, but they also have an additional Big Ypage.

People who have taken the Big Y test see a different view of matches on their Big Y matches tab. This is true for either the original Big Y, Big Y-500 which includes a minimum of 500 STR markers or the current Big Y-700 test which includes a minimum of 700 STR markers. (You can always upgrade to the Big Y-700 from earlier tests.)

Y overview Big Y.png

For SNP markers only, above, Big Y matches can see who they match and the SNPs they do and don’t match with that person in common.

For STR markers available only under the Big Y umbrella, meaning above 111 markers, results are displayed under the Y DNA Matches tab in the Big Y STR Differences column, below.

Y overview Big Y STRs

Click to enlarge

You can easily see that only one man on this match list has also taken the Big Y test, and he had 2 differences out of 440 markers. That’s in addition to 2 differences in the first 111 markers, for a total of 4 differences (mutations) in 551 markers.

Researching Without Testing

The great news is that even if you’ve just ordered your test and are waiting for results, you can research and join projects now.

For that matter, you can research using public projects without testing by going to the main Family Tree DNA webpage, scroll down and simply entering the surname of interest into the search box.

New dashboard surname search

You’ll be directed to surname projects where you can view ancestors and results of anonymized project members.

Give it a try to see what comes up for your surnames of interest.

Project Results

Projects at Family Tree DNA provide testers with access to volunteer administrators who help users with various types of information. Administrators also cluster users in projects that are meaningful to their research.

Most Y DNA testers immediately join their surname project.

Using the Estes surname project as an example, you can see that I’ve grouped the project members in ways I feel will be helpful to their genealogy.

Y overview Estes project.png

The Paternal Ancestor Names are particularly helpful to testers as well as people who are interested in testing in order to determine whether or not they are descended from a specific line.

It’s very useful to be able to discern if someone from your line has already tested – because it provides someone for you to match against, or not, as the case may be.

Y overview hap C project.png

The haplogroup C-P39 Y DNA project is shown above with the Paternal Ancestor Name as provided by testers that reflects Native American and First Nations ancestors.

Another important project feature is the project map function, allowing testers in a specific haplogroup (C-P39 below) to view the locations of the earliest known ancestors of other members of the same haplogroup – whether project members match each other or not. Your Native ancestors traveled with theirs and descended from a common ancestor. Cool, huh!

Y overview C map.png

What’s the story associated with the pin distribution of the C-P39 project, above? I wish we knew, and we may someday as research progresses. Whatever it is, it’s probably important genealogically.

Another type of project to join is a geographical or interest group project.

The Acadian AmerIndian Project welcomes descendants who have tested the Y, autosomal and/or mitochondrial DNA of the various Acadian families which includes French and English settlers along with First Nations indigenous ancestors.

Y overview Acadian.png

The map below shows the distribution of Y DNA members of the Acadian Amerindian project diaspora before and after Le Grand Dérangement” that scattered their descendants to the winds.

Y overview Acadian map.png

The pins on the Acadian Amerindian project map above are color coded by haplogroup.

Projects such as this facilitate genealogists discovering the haplogroup and related information about their direct line ancestor without personally testing.

Y overview Doucet.png

For example, if Germain Doucet born about 1641, part of the mustard-colored group above, is my ancestor, by viewing and/or joining this project, I can obtain this information about my ancestor. Project members can see more than casual browsers, because some testers only choose to display results to other project members and some projects are private, with results only displayed to project members. Many surname projects accept descendants who don’t carry the surname itself.

I obviously can’t personally test for Germain Doucet’s Y DNA myself, but thankfully, others who do descend patrilineally from Germain Doucet have been generous enough to test and share by joining this project.

Furthermore, I can contact the tester through the project administrator(s) and gain a great cousin with potentially LOTS of information.

Just think how useful Y DNA would be to genealogists if everyone tested!

Finding Projects to Join

I encourage all testers to join appropriate haplogroup projects. Often, more than one haplogroup project exists for each Y DNA letter, such as C or R. Generally, there are many subgroups for each core haplogroup and you may want to join more than one depending on your results.

I encourage testers to browse the selections and join other interest projects. For example, there are projects such as the Anabaptist Project which focuses on an endogamous religious sect, French-Swiss which is regional, or the American Indian project for people researching Native ancestry, in addition to relevant surname and haplogroup project(s). There are more than 10,000 total (well-organized) projects to choose from.

Your project selections may be a huge benefit to someone else as well as to your own research. Y DNA testing and matching is your best bet for jumping the pond and finding connections overseas.

How to Join Projects

Sign on to your personal page at Family Tree DNA and click on myProjects at the top, then on “Join A Project.”

Mitochondrial DNA join a project

Next, you’ll see a list of projects in which your surname appears. These may or may not be relevant for you.

Y overview project list

Click to enlarge

You can search by surname.

Y overview surname search.png

More importantly, you can browse in any number of sections.

Y-overview-project-categories.png

For Y DNA, I would suggest specifically surnames, of course, Y DNA haplogroups along with Y DNA Geographical Projects, and Dual Geographical Projects.

Y overview haplogroup alpha

Click to enlarge

When you find a project of interest, click to read the description written by the volunteer administrators to see if it’s a good fit for you, then click through to join.

Next Article in the Series

Of course, you’re probably wondering what all of those numbers in your results and shown in projects mean. The next article in a couple weeks will address the meaning of STR marker results.

Testing

If you haven’t yet Y DNA tested and you want to know what secrets your Y DNA holds, you can order your Y DNA test here.

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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.

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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?

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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

Charles Hickerson (c1724 – 1790/1793) High Drama on the Frontier – 52 Ancestors #263

We first find Charles Hickerson in Surry County, North Carolina on January 11, 1771 when he witnesses a will by Lydia Stewart.

Charles isn’t on the 1771 tax list, but he is there by 1772. He was not a young man – about 48 years old with children of marriage age.

Where did Charles come from?

We don’t know, but there IS a long-standing theory that Charles and family came from Virginia. At the end of this article, I’ll share what DNA has revealed.

Where did that Virginia theory come from?

Happy Valley

In the book Happy Valley, written by Felix Hickerson (1882-1968) and published in 1940, Felix discussed his research, looking at multiple possible ancestral lines.

First, Felix documents the Rev. Francis Higginson (1587-1630) who arrived from Claybrooke, Leistershire, England and was the first minister in Salem, Massachusetts.

Felix states that the Higgison’s of New England are connected with the Higginsons and Hickersons of Virginia on pages 4 and 24 of The Higginsons in England and America.

He notes that:

The name Hickerson in Virginia was first spelled Higginson then Higgason, Higgerson and Hickerson, dating to 1645 or earlier when Capt. Robert Higginson, the Indian fighter, commanded at the Middle Plantation, a palisaded settlement in York County.

Robert Higginson was a son of Thomas and Anne Higginson of Berkeswell, Warwick England.

Robert had two brothers, Humphrey and Christopher, mentioned in James City family records.

Felix then says, “The Higgisons later settled in old Stafford County, VA as is shown by wills, deeds and inventories, among which is an inventory of the estate of Thomas Higgason who made a will that was probated in February 1743.

Felix goes on to state that after 1778, we find Charles Hickerson and his wife Mary Lytle on the Yadkin River along Mulberry Creek.

I found Charles slightly earlier, on the 1772 Surry County, NC tax list – a portion of which became Wilkes County in 1777.

Felix descended from Charles Hickerson through his son David, and his son Lytle (1793-1884). Felix lived on the family home place on the Yadkin River at Wilkesboro owned by Lytle called “Round About,” originally owned by Col. Benjamin Cleveland of Revolutionary War fame.

I spent time this past summer in the Allen County Public Library searching through all of the Hickerson/Higgason and related books and records from New England and elsewhere, to no further avail. Felix was a thorough researcher.

Where Did the Information About Stafford County, Virginia Come From?

Years ago, before DNA testing, when I was trying to figure out which of John Vannoy’s sons my ancestor Elijah Vannoy descended from, I asked people descended from all 4 candidate-sons to send me information about their wives. Sarah Hickerson was married to Daniel Vannoy.

In the Hickerson packet sent by my Good Samaritan cousin, we find a partial letter, as follows:

Nacogdoches, Texas
May the 20th, 1877

Dr. Hickison (sic)

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.

Mulberry Fields is shown on the map below.

Hickerson Mulberry Fields 1752.jpg

On this map from 1752, North is at the bottom, so Mulberry Fields is actually north of the Yakdin.

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

What other documents do we have?

Pioneers of Coffee County

Alice Daniel Pritchard states in this 1996 Coffee County book that:

Charles Hickerson, the progenitor of the lineage presented here, came from Virginia to settle in the New River Basin of North Carolina, about 1772. He and his son, David were on the 1774 tax list of Benjamin Cleveland. In 1778, that part of Surry became Wilkes County. Information from the unpublished manuscript of William Lenoir, lists Charles Hickerson with the names of Wilkes County Revolutionary War Soldiers. He served on a jury for the State of North Carolina Wilkes County court in 1779. In July 1784, Charles Hickerson was over age 60, as recorded in the Wilkes County Court Minutes when he was listed as being exempt from paying Poll Tax. On July 29, 1788, Charles Hickerson sold 150 acres of land on Mulberry Creek, Wilkes County to David Hickerson for 75 pounds, “Being survey Charles Hickerson lives on,” signed by Charles Hickerson and Mary Hickerson. In her nuncupative will, Dec. 5, 1793, probated February 1794, Mary Little Hickerson did not mention her husband, leaving the impression that he had preceded her in death. He was not on the 1800 Wilkes County, census.

Before this verbiage, Alice discussed the fact that Charles was rumored or suspected to have been from Fauquier or Stafford County, Virginia and that Stafford County was formed from Fauquier.

Charles Hickerson’s son, David Hickerson, moved to Tennessee before 1812 where one of his sons served in the War of 1812.

We don’t think of letters being written and travel occurring between those locations, about 350 miles across the mountain range, but both seemed to happen more than we might have expected. Thankfully, at least a few letters survived.

Coffee County Letters

When David Hickerson moved to Tennessee, his son, Little, also spelled Lytle Hickerson remained behind and lived the rest of his life in Wilkes County.

David Hickerson died in 1833, but his sons still communicated back and forth and apparently visited from time to time. These letters show what life was like in the 1830s.

Letter from John Hickerson to Major Little Hickerson

Coffee County, TN
January 25, 1836

Major L. Hickerson
Wilkesboro, NC

Dear Brother:

I have been looking for you in this county for some time but have been disappointed. Have concluded to write you a few lines to inform you of our misfortune in losing our daughter Sally. She was taken sick on Tuesday the 15th of December. Her child was born on Friday and she died on Sunday the 20th. The child is living. We have it here. I hope we can raise it.

I was in Nashville when Sally died and had been there for some time. No person known that never had the misfortune to lose a child how much it will grieve them to have one taken so suddenly. But when death comes we must submit. Sally’s mother didn’t get to see her until Friday evening after which she never spoke again.

I hope when you receive this letter if you are not coming to this county soon you will write and let me know when you expect to come and when Ely Petty is coming.

Our crops of corn and cotton are light in this county. My corn crop is up to the average. Before the frost I expected to make between 40 and 50 bales of cotton but only made 10. The early frost last fall almost put me in the notion to hunt a warmer climate. I will try it another season.

We have got our new county at last after a struggle of 6 or 7 years with the strongest kind of opposition. I have no doubt but the county seat will be at Stone Fort. On the first Monday in February next, the commissioners are to meet to select a place for the county seat. I had the appointing of the Commissioners. I among of them and can venture to say the Stone Fort will be the place. It will make the people’s land valuable in the neighborhood.

If you have a disposition like mine I hope you will never undertake anything without you are sure of success. Am sure I have spent $500 about the new county. Maybe I have made 200 or 300 enemies that used to be my friends. Ever since our election I have been out on the new county business. We lost our election by a few votes and rascality. In one instance the sheriff had to case the vote. The Hillsborough people when they beat us in the election made sure they would get their new county and have the county seat at Hillsborough. They bragged and boasted and said many things that they had better left unsaid. They said the Hickersons had lost their election and the new county was dead and buried. About that time I would have feely given $1000 if it would have insured our success. I got busy in a few days and went to see a number of people in the adjoining counties who were newly elected and in a good humor and ready to promise anything that was right and reasonable. I made the necessary arrangements with them and employed a surveyor and had our county run out and complied with every letter of the constitution. I have been at Nashville most of the time since the Legislature met, but we never got our new county bill past into a law until the 8th of January. The victory was – – much talked about as the battle of New Orleans.

When the new county bill was first introduced in the Senate the vote was nearly equally divided. By the time it came to the third reading there was but one vote against us. In the House, the majority vote was in our favor at the first reading, and only one opposing vote at the third reading.

I got acquainted with most of the members of both houses. Some of them I fear cannot be repaid for their kindness.

You can tell ___ Allen I met a son of William Allen in the legislature from ___ County. His name is Jared S. Allen. He was a good friend of mine.

Didn’t intend when I began this letter to make it so long drawn out. Will write again when the commissioners select the place for the county sea of Coffee County.

All our friends are well.

Yours with respect,
Jn. Hickerson.

Letter from John Hickerson to Major Litle Hickerson

Coffee County, Tennessee
April 29, 1837

Dear Brother,

I received your letter on the 26th of March a few days ago. Was truly glad to hear from you and family, and that all are in good health, plenty to eat, a fine son, etc. You mentioned writing a few days after the presidential election was over. The letter didn’t reach me. There are so many Van Buren postmasters in this State it is difficult for a letter to pass, or even a newspaper is the editor does not belong to the party. My paper, the Banner, that never used to fil don’t come now more than half the time. The editors tell me they never fail to send it, and I have no doubt for they are honest. I believe some of the Van Buren postmasters intend to make the people quit taking any paper that tells the truth. They like darkness better than the light because their deeds are evil.

Myself and family are all well and so are all our friends and neighbors I saw mother a few days ago. Her health was as good as could be expected of one of her age.

A great many commission merchants in Nashville and New Orleans have failed. Produce of every description has fallen very much since you were here. Cotton that opened last fall at 12 to 14 cents in Nashville is now worth only 6 to 7 cents. Plenty of negroes for sale in this county but no buyers. Corn and bacon are plentiful Corn is $2 per bushel on credit. Bacon is 10 cents but the Wagoners are buying it up fast and hauling it to Mississippi to sell for 25 cents per pound.

The town of Manchester is improving very fast. Three stores there now, all doing good business. We have had one circuit court since you were here. AT the next, two negroes will be tried for killing their mistresses.

I wish to be remembered to all my old friends. Best wishes to yourself and family.

Jn Hickerson

You mentioned in your last letter that Col. Waugh spoke of taking a long trip through the west this spring. Tell him to be sure and call on me without fail. Please write me real often and I will be sure to answer.

To Major Litle Hickerson
Wilkesboro, NC

Now that we’ve seen what life was like in the 1800s, let’s look at the earliest records pertaining to Charles. What can we discover about his life?

Was Charles a Patriot?

Charles Hickerson lived in Wilkes County during the Revolutionary War.

Charles is not listed on the DAR website as having served as a Patriot, meaning no one has yet joined based on his service but according to the DAR criteria, since he served as a juror in 1779, he would qualify.

He may have actively served as well.

William Lenoir, a soldier from Wilkes County kept a diary that incorporates details about his Revolutionary War service – which of course includes information about other Wilkes County men too.

The William Lenior Diary shows the following two pages:

Hickerson Lenoir list.jpg

The first page indicates that the men on this list were involved in an expedition against the Indians on May 31, 1776.

Leonard Miller, listed, either was then or would become Charles Hickerson’s son-in-law.

Hickerson Lenoir list 2.jpg

This page simply lists “soldiers” and included is Charles Hickerson, with his name scratched through, along with Andrew Vannoy, my ancestor’s son, who we know served.

Additional information is provided on page 258 in the Journal of Southern History.

Hickerson Journal Southern History.png

Lenoir’s diary in an article in the Journey of Southern History tells us that:

In the spring of 1776, the Cherokee Indians, inhabiting a large area in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, inspired by the efforts of John Stuart and Alexander Cameron, the British Indian agents, began a series of attacks upon the white settlers of the frontier. They further agreed to attack when the English fleet reached the port at Charleston – a plan that was thwarted. However, the militia determined to stop any further plans.

A North Carolina force of 2800 men in addition to 1500, 1150 from South Carolina and more from Georgia were placed under commanders that entered and destroyed the Indian towns along the Tugaloo River. These consisted of the Cherokee Lower Towns with 356 gun men, the Middle and Valley Towns with 878 men and the Overhill Towns with 757 men. Outlying towns had another 500 warriors, totaling about 2000 in all.

The Rutherford expedition passed along the Island Ford Road, a few miles south of Morganton, and moved on to Old Fort. The Wilkes County and Burke County forces joined with this group.

Rutherford’s instructions were direct, according to the State Records of North Carolina. He was to move into the Indian country and, “there act in such a manner as to you in your good sense and judgment may seem best so as effectually to put a stop to the future depredations of those merciless Savages.” Rutherford was an experienced Indian fighter and was trusted to know what to do.

On July 16, 1776, we find the following passage written by the North Carolina Council of Safety:

The Troops Brigadier Rutherford carries with him are as close Rifle Men as any on this continent and are hearty and determined in the present cause. We have every expectation from them. With pleasure we assure you that they are well armed and have plenty of ammunition in short they are well equipped.

William Lenoir recorded his experience in his diary.

August 1776 – After ranging sometime on the head of Reddeys River with 25 men Capt. Jos. Herndon was ordered to raise as many men as would be equal to the number of guns in his district and perade at the general place of rendezvous at Cub Creek.

Does this entry actually mean that there were only a total of 50 guns in the entire county? Surely not. On the 1787 tax list just a few years later, there were a total of 12 districts with 1003 total entries ranging between 45 and 120 entries per district with the average of 83. This makes far more sense.

The next day, on the 13th, the militia paraded.

On Wednesday the 14th I took 30 men out of our company and as Lt. of the same joined Capt. Ben Cleveland with 20 of his men.

On Saturday the 17th marched from the Mulberry Field meeting house to Moravian Creek 6 miles. On Monday the 18th to Bever Creek 10.

The men continued to march towards the Cherokee towns through August and into September when the fighting began on the 12th with the killing of 3 Indians and the scalping of one Indian squaw. On the 19th and 20th, they killed more Indians, took prisoners and began burning towns.

Lenoir notes several times how difficult the terrain was.

His account is painful to read, understanding that the settlers thought they were within their rights, and the Indians felt invaded, especially after having ceded a large amount of land in 1775, supposedly to buy peace and no further settler incursions. You can read about the Cherokee Wars here.

Indeed, the militia laid waste to the Cherokee towns, with amazingly minimal loss of life on either side – at least compared to what could have occurred. Thirty-six towns were completely destroyed, along with their stores and crops. The Indians faced the prospect of starvation. The Cherokee survived the winter using their knowledge of the land on which they lived, eating nuts and what they could hunt and gather. They signed peace treaties the following year. Those treaties, like the rest, didn’t last long. The westward land push continued.

Today, the path taken by the soldiers is known as Rutherford’s Trace.

Hickerson Rutherford's trace

By Learn North Carolina – Map by Mark A. Moore, Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives & History. Based on research by Charles Miller, Waynesville, North Carolina. From brochure Rutherford Expedition, 1776 produced by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. – http://www.learnnc.org/lp/media/maps/nc/rutherford-trace-450.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52491123

Lenoir closes by noting that he arrived back home on Monday, October 7, 1776. If Charles Hickerson was with these men, he returned home then as well, as did his son-in-law, Leonard Miller.

Did any of these men collect a Revolutionary War pension or land based on this service? Unfortunately, this campaign didn’t last long enough – from August 12th through October 7th. Not even 60 days. In various pension requests submitted after the Pension Act of 1832, it’s noted that the application was denied because the man did not serve a minimum of 90 days.

Leonard Miller’s Revolutionary War pension application confirms the dates and many of these events, although clearly not in as much detail as Lenoir, nor at the time they happened.

In 1776, Charles Hickerson would have been 52 years of age. I don’t know whether he would have been considered seasoned and wise, or “too old,” especially given the difficult terrain and physical demands of the march through the mountains.

No place is there any explanation about the men whose names are lined through.

However, I counted.

  • 58 total names
  • Of those, 2 are lined through and listed as providing a horse.
  • 2 have a note – “h found” and I’m wondering if that means not found.
  • 9 are lined out, in addition to the two who provided horses
  • That leaves a total of 45.

In Lenoir’s commentary, he states that there were 20 men from his company and 30 from Benjamin Cleveland’s which totals 50. He also mentions that there were about 25 men at Reddies River, but he doesn’t say if that 25 is part of the 50.

There’s no way to correlate between these numbers and list to arrive at the actual number of men who went on this expedition, or to know who they were.

I was hoping to find at least one of the men whose name was lined through applying for a pension or land, but I was not able to do so. They would have been more than 76 years old by 1832, assuming they were only 20 in 1776, and this campaign didn’t last long enough. However, I was hopeful that perhaps one of the men served later, perhaps during the Battle of King’s Mountain, in addition to the 1776 Expedition to the Cherokee – which would have told us that the men lined through did in fact serve.

What did I find?

  • Nathaniel Gordon is mentioned in Chapman Gordon’s wife’s pension application as being an officer, but Chapman served in 1779 and 1780.
  • John Sheppard enrolled in 1777.
  • In 1833, Timothy Holdaway did apply for a pension from Bent Creek, Jefferson County, Tennessee, stating he was one of the first settlers there 50 years earlier, just a few years after the War. He describes more of the march against the Cherokee in his application. His name is listed twice, once under “h found.” However, he’s not lined through.

Therefore, we don’t know if Charles Hickerson signed up and then didn’t actually go on the expedition, or what, exactly. We do know that Leonard Miller did march in the expedition, as proven by his 1832 pension application, but he was also charged, not once, but twice, with being a Tory.

One man’s pension application describes marching against Tories at the Moravian Town in Wilkes County, along with other places. Apparently, there was at least a small Tory population there. It was even smaller after the soldiers hung several Tories.

Early North Carolina Records

Aside from the Revolutionary War records, what can we discern about Charles in early records?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Lydia Stewart’s Will

Charles Hickerson witnessed the will of Lydia Stewart on January 11, 1771. Lydia’s will provides us with Charles’ signature, or in this case, his mark.

This is the only remaining personal item of his own making on this earth, other than his DNA passed on to his descendants, of course.

Lydia Stewart will.jpg

In the name of God Amen I Lydia Stewart of Rowan County in North Carolina being weak in body but of perfect mind and memory thanks be given unto God do dispose of my worldly estate as followeth

Imprimus I will that out of my estate a title to be obtained for a certain tract of land on the southside of Yadkin River adjoining Benj ? and James Persons land and if such title can be obtained the same to be sold of the value thereof to eb equally divided unto my beloved sons David, Samuel, John and Isaiah Stewart.

Item I give and bequeath unto my granddaughter Lydia (the daughter of my son David) my bed and furniture thereunto belonging.

Item I give unto my son Samuel the bed and furniture usually called his bed.

Item I give unto my son Benjamin an iron pot now in his possession

Item I give unto my son Joseph’s daughter Lydia a good heifer or young cow

Item I bequeath unto my beloved sons David, Samuel, Isaiah and John Stewart all the rest of my estate to be equally divided amongst all their heirs I do nominate and appoint my said sons David Stewart and Samuel Stewart exec of this my last will and testament ratifying allowing if confirming this to be my last will and testament I do utterly dismiss all former wills by me made in testimony whereof I have set my hand and seal Jan. 11th, 1771

Signed sealed and published and pronounced in the presence of us

Christopher Stanton, jurat, his mark

Charles Hickerson his mark

Edw Hughes, jurat (signed)

Lydia’s will was probated in Surry County in November term 1772, proved by Edward Hughes and Christopher Stenton.

Lydia’s husband, Samuel died about 1770.

It’s interesting that Lydia’s property was on the Yadkin in 1771, suggesting that’s where or near where Charles lived as well. A few years later, we know that Charles lived just north of Wilkesboro, which is located on the Yadkin River in an area called Mulberry Fields at that time.

Even more interesting, we know that Charles Hickerson’s daughter, Mary, married a Stewart and one Samuel Stewart filed suit against Daniel Vannoy, husband of Charles Hickerson’s daughter, Sarah, in 1781.

Mary Hickerson Stewart’s son, Samuel Hickerson, used the alias of Samuel Stewart.

(Thanks to cousin Carol for finding Lydia’s will.)

Surry County Tax Lists

Charles Hickerson is first found on the Surry County tax list in 1772, but is absent in 1771. However, based on Lydia’s will, we know he was already living there in January 1771.

Benjamin Cleveland’s 1774 tax list shows:

  • Francis Vannoy with Leonard Miller, in all 2
  • Charles Hickerson, David Hickerson, in all 2
  • Daniel Vannoy 1

The 1774 list is important because it shows an early affiliation between the Vannoy and Hickerson family. Leonard Miller either was at that time or became the son-in-law of Charles Hickerson by marrying daughter, Jane.

By the 1790 census, Leonard Miller had 8 family members and lived 19 houses from Daniel Vannoy who married Leonard Miller’s wife’s sister in 1789. Six living children suggest a marriage of at least 12 years, so married perhaps between 1774 and 1778 – right about the time of the 1776 Expedition. It appears since Leonard appears on the tax list with Francis Vannoy in 1774 that he was not yet married at that time.

Finding Charles Hickerson and his son, David, together on the tax list may suggest that David isn’t then married either.

1775 John Hudspeth list of taxes:

  • Charles Hickerson 1

The War

While military events aren’t reflected in the tax records, they were very much a part of the lives of these Appalachian families – for six long years during which time Wilkes County was formed from Surry in 1777. What residents didn’t fear from the Indians, they feared from the British and Tories, not to mention the fear of battle taking place and destroying their homes.

The first Cherokee Expedition occurred in 1776, and the famous Battle of King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780. The last battled listed, here, was another Cherokee Expedition that ended in October of 1782 following a total of 28 known battles in which Wilkes County men participated plus 4 earlier battles, here, when Wilkes was Surry County.

Perhaps the best known battle was the Battle of King’s Mountain, often credited with turning the war.

Hickerson King's Mountain.png

Colonel Cleveland commanded forces at the Battle of King’s Mountain too, along with many Wilkes County men. I do know that some men were older at that battle. Specifically, the Rev. George McNiel was 60 and went along as the chaplain, of sorts.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list of the OverMountain Men who fought at King’s Mountain.

In the intervening years, Tories were despised and were hung from the Tory Oak in Wilkesboro in 1779, and from a tree at RoundAbout, the plantation of Col. Benjamin Cleveland.

Land!

On March 4, 1778, Charles Hickerson entered a claim for 320 acres on both sides Mulberry Creek including his own improvement. Entry 14

Hickerson 320 acres.jpg

This tells us that this is where Charles has been living. He couldn’t claim land until the Revolutionary War was over so that the United States government actually had land to give.

Just a few weeks later, on April 21, 1779, Leonard Miller entered 50 acres on Mulberry Creek joining Charles Hickerson’s lower corner. (Leonard Miller marked out, David Hickerson written in.) Entry no 977

This tells us that Charles’ son-in-law, then his son owned adjacent land.

September 24, 1779 – Granted Charles Hickerson 320 acres both sides Mulberry Creek, page 96

Oct 16, 1779 – William Fletcher entered 100 acres at the first big branch of Mulberry that runs into Mulberry Creek above Charles Hickerson’s called the Hay or Mead Branch below improvement that the Tolivors made (William Fletcher marked out and Aaron Mash written in). Entry 1247

Aha – there’s probably the Tolivor family whose daughter David Hickerson likely married!

I love stream names, because they provide us with intersection points.

Hickerson Hay Meadow.png

Intersection of Hay Meadow branch and Mulberry Creek. About 3 miles north of the Yadkin.

Beginning in 1779, we find Charles Hickerson in the court notes, often serving as a juror, probably as a result of becoming a land owner.

Sept term 1779 – State vs William Alexander indict T.A.B. 13 jury impaneled and sworn: including Nathaniel Vannoy, Daniel Vannoy, Charles Hickerson. Not guilty

Daniel Vannoy is Charles Hickerson’s son-in-law, or at least he would become his son-in-law on October 2nd.

Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson were probably married at the bride’s house – so in the cabin of Charles Hickerson. Except – we have to wonder why Charles Hickerson didn’t sign for his daughter’s marriage. Was he not in favor?

December 6, 1779 – Charles Hickerson is a juror

January 24, 1780 – Joseph Herndon entered 200 acres upper long branch Mulberry Creek above path leads from Mulberry Fields to Charles Hickerson’s. Entry 1555

You can see several landmarks mentioned on this first map of North Carolina, created by John Strother in 1808. Mulberry Fields is shown with the red arrow, with Charles Hickerson’s land nearby marked with the red box. If this branch isn’t Charles Hickerson’s then it’s the branch just below, at the rear of the red arrow. The point here is that the location of “Mulberry Fields” is to the left of his land, where Charles is described as being buried. This makes sense, since his land was considered to be in or at the Mulberry Fields.

Other landmarks mentioned in various documents are Mulberry Creek, Roaring River, Fishers Creek, Cub Creek which runs by the courthouse, Moravian Creek, and Beaver Creek – all of which we see below.

Hickerson Strother map.png

Using the actual survey portion of Charles Hickerson’s grant, plus a little math, we can determine a lot.

Hickerson survey.png

A pole is 16.2 feet, so the top to bottom measurement is 2,592 feet, or about half a mile. The left to right distance is 4,860 feet, or just under a mile, which is 5,280 feet.

Looking at Mulberry Creek on Google maps, we can see a section that looks almost exactly like this drawing.

Hickerson land map.png

Looking just north of this, in fact, we can see Hay Meadow Creek, referenced in another deed.

Hickerson map Hay Meadow.png

This is where Charles lived.

Hickerson land aerial.png

The path referenced is probably either Mulberry Creek Road or Mountain View Road.

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve driven this road, oblivious that it was literally through my ancestor’s land.

Let’s take a drive!

Taking a Drive

On the road just about where Charles’ land would begin, let’s drive north on Mountain View Road.

Hickerson road.png

Fields hang precariously on the sides of hills, placed wherever there’s a few feet available to cultivate.

Hickerson field.png

Charles’ cabin stood someplace along this route.

Hickerson barn.png

Above, driving through the hills before we descend a bit to cross Mulberry Creek, below.

Hickerson Mulberry Creek.png

Charles owned the land on both sides of the road and both sides of the creek. Mulberry Creek isn’t terribly wide.

Hickerson Mulberry bridge.png

Of course, no bridge existed in those days. Charles and his neighbors would have forded the creek with a wagon or his horse would just have walked across.

Hickerson Y.png

The Y where Mulberry Creek Road goes to the left and Mountain View Road to the right – both roads skirted a mountain or large hill.

We’ll go to the right, first.

Hickerson Mountain View Road.png

We immediately start climbing as we move away from the Creek.

Hickerson hill.png

It’s pretty much straight up on the left.

HIckerson field 2.png

Fields dot the landscape to the right.

Hickerson curve.png

As we drive further, it’s wooded on both sides, not farmable, then or now.

Hickerson wooded.png

We’ve reached the boundary of Charles’ land, so I’m “turning around” and going back to the intersection with Mulberry Creek Road.

Hickerson at Mulberry Creek Road.png

I’m turning right onto Mulberry Creek Road, with the bridge over Mulberry Creek on the curve, above.

Hickerson Mulberry Creek Road.png

The first thing I see is the S curve sign!

Oh NO! I can’t “Google” drive down that road. Apparently, it’s too curvy for the Google car.

Hickerson Mountain.png

Here’s what I’ve missed. For perspective, in the upper left-hand corner of the picture is the intersection of Hay Meadow Creek with Mulberry Creek.

Hickerson logging.png

Now, looking northeast to southwest, the roads skirt this mountain or hill that clearly can’t be cultivated. In the upper left-hand corner, we see the bridge over Mulberry Creek. It looks like this mountain is being logged now. That’s probably the only way to make this land productive – but it wasn’t when Charles Hickerson owned this land and its mountain. I wonder if this mountain or “hill” had a name.

Where did Charles Hickerson actually live on this land from 1772 until his death between 1790 and 1793, and his son David after that?

How did Charles earn a living? Did he clear and farm the lowlands, or did he perhaps build a mill on Mulberry Creek?

Where are Charles and wife Mary, buried?

FindAGrave shows several cemeteries in this area.

Recalling that Charles’ granddaughter said he was buried at Mulberry Fields, I‘d wager he’s buried on his own land, in a cemetery marked only by a wooden cross at the time, or fieldstones, lost now.

Hickerson cemeteries.png

The cemeteries with brown pins are family cemeteries. The brown question marks are “lost” cemeteries that families know exist, or existed, but not exactly where. The green cemeteries are church cemeteries, none of which existed at that time.

I’d wager that there’s a lost cemetery someplace on Charles Hickerson’s land. Both he and his wife, Mary, died in the 1790s and you know his children had children that died. They likely would have been buried in the family cemetery too.

Civil Matters

Thank goodness for court records that allow us a distant peek into life at the time Charles Hickerson lived.

Charles would have traveled to town, Mulberry Fields then, Wilkesboro now, to the courthouse where he would have remained until after the several-day court session was concluded. Not only did he have a civic responsibility, but court was the entertainment of the day.

Until Charles Hickerson owned land, he would not have qualified to be a juror.

September 1779 – Charles Hickerson, juror

December 1779 – Charles Hickerson, juror

March 1780 – Charles Hickerson, juror

May 5, 1780 – Alexander Holton entered 50 acres north side Mulberry Creek between John Robins and Hickersons (Alex Holton marked out, Gervis Smith written in), entry #1804

Apparently, Charles got a new neighbor.

1782 tax list: Charles Hickerson 320 ac, no slaves, 3 mules or horses and 4 cattle.

No slaves. I’m greatly relieved.

April 1784 – Charles and David Hickerson summoned to court as jurors next session.

July term 1784 – Ordered David and Joseph Hickerson, William Johnson, Thomas Robins, George Barker, Leonard Miller, John Robins Sr, Andrew Vannoy, John Nall, Phillip Johnson and George Wheatley, Lewis Piston, Francis Brown or any 12 of them be a jury to lay out and view a road from Thomas Robins to the main road near Robert Chandlows and that John Robins Sr. appointed overseer of the same

July 29, 1784 – The following person be exempt from paying a poll tax on account of their age and infirmities: Charles Hickerson

The list of exempt people included Charles. In 1784, Charles was either age 60, or infirm. If he was 60, that puts his birth in 1724, which seems about right.

April 25, 1785 – court at George Gordon’s – Charles Hickerson appointed juror to next court

July 27, 1787 – Andrew Vannoy, William Viax, Nathaniel Burdine, Owen Hall, Jesse Hall, John Hawkins, David Hickerson, John Chandler, Robert Chandler, Joseph Hickerson, Leonard Miller, James Brown, Walter Brown, Timothy Chandler, Henry Adams, John Townzer and Stephen Hargis jury to view and lay out road from Andrew Vannoy’s to Timothy Chandlers.

We know that Andrew Vannoy lived further north on Mulberry Creek, near the town of McGrady today, probably on Vannoy Road. This also tells us that Joseph Hickerson, Charles’ other son, lived nearby too.

July 29, 1788 – Between Charles Hickerson and David Hickerson 75 pounds 150 acres Mulberry Creek being survey Charles Hickerson now lives on. Witness Philip Goins, Nathaniel Gordon and Charles Gordon. Signed Charles X Hickerson and Mary X Hickerson, page 35

Charles patented 320 acres. This 150-acre conveyance leaves 170 acres unaccounted for. What happened to that?

July 30, 1789 – Deed from Charles Hickerson and Mary Hickerson to David Hickerson 150 acres on oath of Charles Gordon

To assure the legality of a land transfer, the seller also appeared in court to testify and generally, one of the witnessed gave oath that they witnessed the conveyance, meaning the money pass hands.

In the 1790 census, Charles Hickerson has 3 males over 16 and 1 female. David who lives next door has 1 male over 16, 4 males under 16, 3 females and 2 slaves.

This is interesting, because Charles Hickerson only has 2 sons, David and Joseph, who are both adults. Who are those 2 additional males?

By 1790, Charles’s son, Joseph is also serving on juries and David serves often.

The 1790 census is the last official sighting of Charles Hickerson.

Charles died sometime in the 40 months between the 1790 census which recorded the population as of August 2, 1790, and December of 1793 when his wife Mary published her nuncupative will.

Had Charles not been dead by that point, Mary would not have been able, legally, to will possessions such as furniture to her children. Had Charles been alive, the rug, linen, chest and bedstead would have belonged to him, not his wife. Until the husband’s death, his wife owned nothing personally.

Just the fact that Mary had a will at all is the confirmation we need that Charles had passed. Given that Charles had no will or probate, or if he did, it was somehow lost in the records, he likely sold his land before his death – including the 170 missing acres.

However, the deaths of Charles and Mary were the starting shot for a war between their children.

Had Charles been alive, he would likely have been devastated at this turn of events. In all likelihood, his steady hand and mere existence probably prevented this flareup and family feud since 1781 when we see our first hint of a disagreement when Samuel Steward aka Hickerson sued Charles’s son-in-law, Daniel Vannoy.

What happened?

Arson, Robbery, Slander and Drama

In reality, this drama began a few years before Charles’ death. Let’s take a look as this unfolds, like pages in a really good book.

Let’s start with a bombshell.

In April 1786, Braddock Harris was prosecuted in court for attempted rape and 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.”

We don’t know who the female in question was – but we do know that sometime in 1786, Braddock married Charles Hickerson’s daughter, Rachel, and in 1787, she had their first child. It’s possible that the female was Rachel, and it’s also possible that the rape wasn’t simply attempted, or perhaps it wasn’t a rape at all.

There are no further records about this, and we simply don’t know. One thing is clear – everyone but everyone in the county would have known about Braddock’s humiliating punishment – and Rachel married him anyway.

But there’s more.

According to court records, on March 1, 1789, at 10 in the night, John Roberts robbed the house of Braddock Harris and burned it to the ground. In 1792, Braddock filed suit about this arson and in 1793, the suit was heard, with Roberts being found guilty.

However, the drama doesn’t end there either, because Jane Hickerson Miller, Rachel Hickerson Harris’s sister is accused of concealing goods from the robbery that preceded the fire. Yes, Jane, at some level, participated in the robbery and torching of her sister’s home.

It’s no wonder this family was at war.

July term 1791 – Deed from Braddock Harris to Henery Carter for 120 ac land proved in open court by oath of James Fletcher Esqr

Braddock sold his land in 1791 and the family moved to South Carolina not terribly long after Mary’s death in 1793. I’ve wondered if one of Rachel’s children died in that fire, but there’s no way to know.

Jane Hickerson Miller was the wife of Leonard Miller.

Leonard served in the Revolutionary War in 1776, 1779 and 1780.

We don’t know exactly when Leonard married Jane, but in 1788, Leonard and his wife were being sued for slander.

October 29, 1788 – Mourning Wilkey vs Leonard Miller and his wife case for words #7, jury called and finds for plaintiff and assess her damage to 50 shillings and costs

Mourning Wilkey was a widow by 1787 when she was listed on the tax list with 4 females and an underage male. She apparently wasn’t just going to stand by and take whatever Leonard and Jane were dishing out.

On October 7, 1792, we discover in the Morgan District Superior court that both Joseph Hickerson and Samuel Hickerson are subpoenaed and required to attend the March 1793 court to testify for the state against John Roberts and his wife, and Jane Hickerson Miller, their sister and aunt, respectively, in the robbery and arson of the cabin of Braddock Harris and Rachel Hickerson Harris, his wife. They are both bound for 70 pounds, but released on their own recognizance for 20 pounds.

In March 1793, not only was John Roberts found guilty of burning Braddock Harris’s house down after robbing it, Jane Miller was convicted too.

State of North Carolina Morgan District Superior Court March Term 1793, Jurors for the state present that John Roberts late in the Morgan district labourer not having the fear of God but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the first day of March 1789 about the hour of 10 in the night of the same day with force and arms in the County aforesaid did a certain dwelling house of Braddock Harris there situate feloniously voluntarily and maliciously did burn and consume against the form of the statute in such case made and provide and against the peace and dignity of this state. Indt. Arson. Signed by the attorney general. Witness Joseph Hickerson, Samuel Hickerson, Rachal Harris.

While Roberts case was recorded in the Wilkes County and Morgan records, Jane’s was found in the Morgan district only.

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.

(Hat tip to my friend, Aine Ni in Fort Wayne for finding the March term 1793 entry for Jane, for me.)

This suggests that Jane (Jone) Miller is not living in Wilkes County at that time.

This verdict is quite damning – making reference not only to this instance where Jane was involved with secreting the bed stolen from her sister, but states that she is “a common buyer and receiver of stolen goods.” For good measure, they also say that she’s “a person of evil name and fame and of dishonest conversation.”

Wow – “evil name and fame.”

Just wow!

And a bed? A bed isn’t exactly small and can’t be easily hidden.

From the Wilkes County court notes.

April 1793 – David Hickerson, Joseph Hickerson, Samuel Hickerson on jury

April 1793 – David Hickerson vs John Roberts and wife, slander deft and enqu #8, jury impaneled and sworn, find defendant guilty in manner and form as charged in plaintiffs declaration and assess his damage to 50 pounds, 6 pence and costs. Plaintiff releases 48 pounds of his judgement.

Ordered R. Wood to show cause why David Hickerson should not pay witness in suit.

John Roberts is the man who burned down Braddock Harris’s house and David Hickerson was the bond for Jane Hickerson Miller, who was charged alongside of him. This suit occurred one month after the suit in which Roberts was found guilty. Samuel Hickerson and Joseph Hickerson in additional to Rachel Harris were witnesses.

This implies that David Hickerson sided with the man who burned his sister’s house, but also sued him for slander? Then forgave him?

I have no idea WHAT to think. Why aren’t there actual court notes? This is killing me.

Note the difference between the 50 shillings found for Mourning Wilkey and 50 pounds found for David Hickerson, both for slander. What was the difference between those two cases?

Fifty pounds was a HUGE fine for people in that place and time – enough to purchase a significant amount of land. However, David Hickerson then forgives John Roberts 48 pounds of the fine. Why would he do that when this is the man who torched his sister’s house after robbing it? Why wouldn’t he keep those funds and if nothing else, give them to his sister to help compensate her family?

How confounding!

Charles Hickerson was likely dead by this point, April 1793, but Mary was still living. I’d not be surprised if all of this turmoil hastened her death. Maybe hastened Charles’ passing too.

Mary died sometime between December 5, 1793 and February 1794 when her will was probated.

The fight over her few meager possessions started almost immediately in a family that was already over the brink.

In Mary’s will, Jane Miller and Mary Stewart were mentioned specifically, along with Mary Stewart’s son, Samuel Hickerson alias Stewart. The balance of possessions after what was left to those two daughters and David and Joseph Hickerson were to be divided among Mary’s daughters. The problem may have been that Mary didn’t name all of her daughters, and she left the contents of the chest to Mary Stewart. It’s possible that the contents of the chest were in dispute. Mary doesn’t say what was in the chest, and it would have been easy for contents to be changed. Even if they weren’t, suspicions in a family so terribly torn would be rampant.

And of course, what the court said about Jane Miller, “a person of evil name and fame and of dishonest conversation.” That dynamic along Jane’s involvement with the robbery and burning of her sister’s house are certainly factors.

How many daughters did Mary Hickerson have? We’ve identified at least two that were previously unknown, Sarah and Rachel. There could be more, possibly an Elizabeth. If a daughter was deceased, does that mean her children would inherit? No matter, the will was in dispute and the family was embattled – complete with aliases.

May 7, 1794 – Samuel Steward alias Little Dr Hickerson vs Daniel Vannoy, slander #3 jury impaneled, jury find for defendant.

May 7, 1794 – David Hickerson vs Daniel Vannoy – same jury, Leonard Miller forfeit his appearance as witness in case.

May 7, 1794 – David Hickerson vs Daniel Vannoy slander #4, jury sworn, same as jury 3, finds for plaintiff and assess his damage to 40 pounds and 6 costs.

Not only were they fighting, publicly, they were taking their battles to court.

May 7, 1794 – Leonard Miller has forfeited according to an act of assembly for his nonappearance as witness in the suit of David Hickerson vs Daniel Vannoy he being lawfully subpoenaed.

Where was Leonard? Did he leave?

May 7, 1794 – Order by court that attorney McDowal show cause tomorrow 8th why new trial not be granted in the suit Samuel Hickerson vs Daniel Vannoy.

May the 7th seems like a circus in the courtroom in Wilkes County. The entire family appears to have been present except for Leonard who didn’t show up, and the gallery was probably full of spectators too. This was juicy stuff that would fuel the grapevine for months, if not years.

August term 1794 – On motion of attorney McDowell on behalf of Daniel Vannoy complainant ordered that a sci facias issue to Samuel Hickerson alias Stewart alias Little and his bail to appear at next court to show cause why execution is not satisfied.

November 2, 1794 – On motion of attorney McDowell on behalf of Daniel Vannoy, complainant, a sci fa issued to Samuel Hickerson alias Steward Hickerson Litle.

Scire facias is a writ requiring a person to show why a judgment regarding a record or patent should not be enforced or annulled.

November 6, 1794 – State vs Daniel Vannoy, indicted assault and battery, fined 1 penny.

November 7, 1794 – State vs Samuel Hickerson indicted assault and battery #7, submitted to court and find 5 pounds and costs, fine remitted to 1 d by order of court.

November 7, 1794 – State vs William Curry, indicted assault and battery, jury called.

Ordered fine 5 pounds be remitted in State vs David Hickerson.

Ordered by the court that the fine of 5 pounds state vs David Hickerson be remitted to 1 d.

It sounds like November 6th and 7th were potentially another circus performance. You can almost hear the judge calling everyone up before the bench, telling them to stop fighting, go home and work out their differences. Kind of like colonial adult time-out chairs.

Nov term 1794 – Capt. Joseph Hickerson mentioned as collecting taxes in his district.

Apparently, Joseph Hickerson was trying, and succeeding, in staying out of the fray, although he was called to testify against John Roberts and his sister, Jane Miller. He’s apparently the only one that manage to escape the rest of the drama. Or at least kept it out of court.

We don’t really know how all of this actually ended up, other than both John Roberts and Jane Miller were convincted – in pretty damning terms.

We know for sure that Charles was alive in 1789 when this took place. He may or may not have been alive in 1792 when Braddock first filed the complaint, but Charles’ wife, Mary, was. He might still have been alive in 1793 when the orders were given for the 1794 court appearances, but neither he nor Mary were alive in 1794 when this played out.

This family was in terrible turmoil, even before Mary’s will. Her death and will was simply fuel on the flames.

We do know that Mary Stewart, Samuel Hickerson and Rachel Harris moved away. Leonard Miller winds up in South Carolina, then Georgia. Jane Miller appears to remarry in 1806, with David Hickerson signing her bond.

Daniel Vannoy bought land several miles away in 1779, so he would not have been nearby daily. He sold his slaves on November 8, 1794, the day after this court episode, and sold his land two months later in January 1795, disappearing altogether.

David Hickerson sells out and leaves by 1809 for Tennessee, although two of his sons remain in Wilkes County.

Of Charles’ children, only Joseph Hickerson and Sarah Hickerson Vannoy positively remained in Wilkes County – although Sarah somewhat disappears too.

I know in my heart that there is far more to this story – and I know just as well that I’ll never know what it is. Daniel’s disappearance is somehow connected and it’s impossible to tell how from the distance of more than 200 years.

Well, What Does the DNA Say?

While attempting to confirm the Stafford County, Virginia connection, I’ve probably proven the theory that Charles descends from the Stafford County Higgerson line false, thanks to Y DNA.

Whoo boy.

I was excited several years ago to find a cousin who was a Hickerson male descended through Charles’ son, David, born between 1750 and 1760 who died in 1833 in Coffee County, Tennessee. Our descendant took Y DNA and autosomal DNA tests. And, thankfully, his Y DNA matches another descendant of David through son Lytle who remained in Wilkes County.

The bad news is that our Hickerson Y DNA:

  • Does not match the Higgerson DNA line from Stafford County, VA.
  • Does not match the Thomas Higgison (1761-1834) line that descends from King William and Hanover County, VA and has multiple testers
  • Does not match the John Higgison (1654-1720) line from King William County, VA that has multiple testers
  • Does not match the Thomas Hickerson (1736-1812) line from Stafford County, which is the line that was suggested. Two of Thomas’s sons’ lines have tested, and possibly more, although not everyone has posted the information as to which son they descend through.

Charles Hickerson had one other son, Joseph, who, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t have any Y DNA testers. We need a Y DNA test from a Joseph Hickerson descendant.

It’s possible that the Y DNA of David Hickerson and Joseph Hickerson don’t both match the Y DNA of Charles Hickerson.

If David’s two descendants match Joseph Hickerson’s Y DNA descendant, then we know that Charles Hickerson was not descended from the above lines.

However, and here’s a BIG however, our Hickerson men do match 4 descendants of a James Henderson born in Hunterdon, New Jersey in 1709 and died on Nov. 21, 1782 with a distance of 6 mutations at 67 markers. That’s not exactly close, but given that many of the families from Hunterdon settled in Rowan County in the Jersey Settlement and moved to what became Wilkes County, it can’t be discounted either, at least not yet.

Autosomally, David Hickerson and Sarah Hickerson Vannoy descendants have matches to:

  • Descendants of Joseph Hickerson
  • Descendants of Samuel Hickerson (whose mother was Mary Hickerson who married a Stewart)
  • Other descendants of David Hickerson
  • Other descendants of Sarah Hickerson who married Daniel Vannoy
  • Descendants of Jane Hickerson who married Leonard Miller
  • Descendants of Rachel Hickerson who married Braddock Harris

If you are, or know of, a Hickerson male who has descended from Joseph Hickerson, I have a Y DNA testing scholarship for you. We need you.

Y DNA of Joseph’s descendant who carries the Hickerson surnames is critical information necessary to solve one more mystery of Charles Hickerson.

The story of the first half-century of Charles’s life still needs to be written! We can’t do that until we resolve the question surrounding Charles Y DNA, and in doing so, figure out who Charles DOES descend from.  Are you the key?

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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

FamilyTreeDNA Thanksgiving Sale + New Comprehensive Health Report

FTDNA Thanksgiving.png

FamilyTreeDNA’s Thanksgiving Sale has begun. Almost everything is on sale. I don’t know about you, but I like to have all of my holiday planning and purchasing DONE before Thanksgiving. Some of the gifts I wanted for people this year are already sold out or backordered – but DNA testing is always available. The gift of history, and now of health too.

I wrote about the Big Y test and upgrades just a couple days ago, here, including the restructuring of the Big Y product resulting in a permanent $100 dollar reduction, in addition to sale prices.

FamilyTreeDNA has made a few product changes and introduced the new Tovana Health test.

I’ve included a special section of frequently asked questions (and answers) about tests and when upgrading does, and doesn’t, make sense.

Individual Tests

Let’s start with the sale prices for individual tests.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder (FF) $59 $79 $20
Y DNA 37 $99 $169 $70
Y DNA 111 *1 $199 $359 $160
Big Y-700 *2 $399 $649 $250
Mitochondrial Full Sequence *3 $139 $199 $60

*1 – You may notice that only the 37-marker and 111-marker tests are listed above. The 111-marker test was reduced to the 67-marker sale price, so, at least during the sale, the 67-marker test is not available. In other words, you get 111 markers for the price of 67.

*2 – The Big Y-700 test includes the Y 111 test plus another 589 STR markers (to equal or exceed 700 markers total) plus the SNP testing. You can read about the Big Y here.

*3 – The mitochondrial full sequence (FMS) aka mtFullSequence test is now the only mitochondrial DNA test available. I’m glad to see this change. The price of the mtFullSequence test has now dropped to the level of the less specific partial tests of yesteryear. Genealogists really need the granularity of the full test.

Bundles save even more – an additional $9 over purchasing the bundled items separately

Bundles

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder + mtFullSequence $189 $278 $89
Family Finder + Y-37 $149 $248 $188
Family Finder + Y111 $249 $438 $189
Y-37 + mtFullSequence $229 $368 $139
Y-111 + mtFullSequence $329 $558 $229
Family Finder + Y-37 + mtFull $279 $447 $170
Family Finder + Y-111 + mtFull $379 $637 $258

When Does Upgrading Make Sense?

Y DNA Q&A

Q – If I have several Y DNA matches, will upgrading help?

A – If you need more specific or granular information to tease your line out of several matches – upgrading will help refine your matches and determine who is a closer match, assuming some of your matches have tested at a higher level.

Q – If I have tested at a lower level of STR markers and have no matches, will I have matches at a higher level?

A – Sometimes, but not usually. If your mutations just happen to fall in the lower panels, you may have matches on higher panels that allow for more mutations. If you do have matches on a higher test in this circumstance, the person may or may not have your surname. You can also join haplogroup and surname projects where thresholds are slightly lower for matching within projects.

If you don’t test, you’ll never know.

Q – If I have no matches on STR markers, meaning 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111, will upgrading to the Big Y be beneficial?

A – Possibly to probably – and here’s why, even if you don’t initially have matches:

  • The Big Y-700 provides multiple tools including matches at the SNP level, not just the STR level, so you are matched in two entirely different ways.
  • You may have same-surname matches at the SNP level that you do not have at the STR level which are further back in time, but still valuable and relevant to your family history.
  • You may have SNP matches that aren’t STR matches that are not your surname, but reflect your family history before the advent of surnames. These matches can tell you where your family came from before you can locate them in records. In fact, this is the ONLY way you can track your family before the advent of surnames.
  • Even if you don’t have matches, you’ll receive all of your SNP markers that allow you to view your results on the Block Tree, which is in essence a migration map back through time. You can read about the Block Tree here.
  • Your test contributes to building the phylotree – meaning the Y DNA tree of man – which benefits all genealogists. In just the first 10 months of 2019, 32,000 new SNPs have been placed on the tree, resulting in about 5,000 new individual branches. All because of Big Y-700
  • New people test every day and your DNA tests fish for you every minute of every day.

Mitochondrial DNA Q&A

If you’ve previously taken lower level mitochondrial HVR1 and HVR2 tests, now is the perfect time to upgrade.

Q – I have 5,000 <or fill in large number here> HVR1 level matches. Will upgrading reduce the number of matches to those that are more meaningful?

A – Absolutely! Your most genealogically relevant matches, meaning closest in time, are those that match you exactly at the full sequence level.

Q – I don’t know where my ancestor was from. Can a full sequence test help me?

A – Yes. You can use the Matches Map and see where the ancestors of your closest matches were from. That’s a huge hint. You can also utilize your haplogroup, which, in some instances, will point to a specific continent such as Africa, Europe, Asia or Native American and Jewish populations.

Q – If I have no matches at the HVR1 or HVR2 level? Will an upgrade help me?

A – Possibly. Both the HVR1 and HVR2 (now obsolete) tests only allowed for one mutation difference to be considered a match. The full sequence allows for many more differences. If you were unlucky and your mutations just happened to fall in the HVR1 or HVR2 levels, it would prevent a match which will occur at a higher level. Either way, you’ll receive information about your rare mutations – which may well explain why you don’t have matches (yet)! You’ll also receive a full haplogroup which will be useful, allowing you to use the mitochondrial haplotree to track back in time, which I wrote about here.

There are so many ways to obtain useful information. I wrote a step-by-step guide to using mitochondrial DNA, here.

Upgrade Options

Please note that if you are considering an upgrade, it maybe beneficial to upgrade to the maximum test available for either the Y or mitochondrial DNA, especially if you cannot obtain more of the sample. Of course, if it’s your own sample, you can always swab again, but others can’t.

Every time a vial is opened for testing, more DNA is used, until there is none left. Additionally, DNA degrades with time, depending on the quality of the original scraping and the amount of bacteria in the sample. Generally, the sample is viable for at least 5 years, but not always. Some older samples remain viable for many years. There’s no way to know in advance.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Y-12 to Y-37 $79 $109 $30
Y-12 to Y-67 $149 $199 $50
Y-12 to Y-111 $169 $359 $190
Y-25 to Y-37 $49 $59 $10
Y-25 to Y-67 $119 $159 $40
Y-25 to Y-111 $149 $269 $120
Y-37 to Y-67 $69 $109 $40
Y-37 to Y-111 $119 $228 $109
Y-67 to Y-111 $69 $99 $30
Y-12 to Big Y-700 $359 $629 $270
Y-25 to Big Y-700 $349 $599 $250
Y-37 to Big Y-700 $319 $569 $250
Y-67 to Big Y-700 $259 $499 $240
Y-111 to Big Y-700 $229 $499 $270
Big Y-500 to Big Y-700 $189 $249 $60
HVR1 to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60
mtDNA Plus to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60

Tovana – A New Limited Availability Exome Medical Report 

Recently, FamilyTreeDNA did a limited announcement about a medically supervised health exome health test for a subset of customers, specifically customers who:

  • Don’t live in Pennsylvania, New York, California or Maryland, due to state law restrictions.
  • Took the Family Finder test since October 2015 – meaning no transfers. The Family Finder test is used in conjunction with the exome chip to generate the customer report.

If you took the Family Finder test before October 2015, you are eligible but the rollout is being done in stages and your kit will be eligible in December.

This Tovana Genome Report is focused towards people who are health and wellness conscious. Meaning those who don’t want to die a premature death that might be preventable.

All genetic health tests focus on predispositions. You may or may not develop the condition, with a few notable exceptions, but forewarned is forearmed.

You might, however, be VERY interested in intervening, one way or another, BEFORE you develop potentially life-threatening conditions, or taking preventative actions to avoid developing those conditions. At the very least, you can be aware and monitor your health to catch them early, when they are treatable, manageable or potentially curable.

It only takes one, ONE, terrifying experience to convince you that health testing might make a difference.

Once you’re embroiled in that health nightmare, there is no going back in time to take a test and enact preventative measures.

My mother might still be with us had we known she was susceptible to blood clots. My sister had metastatic breast cancer.

Let me show you something from a Tovana report.

FTDNA Tovana.png

This portion of a page from an actual customer report shows this individual is positive for a mutation for a clotting disorder where clots are formed that can cause strokes, pulmonary embolisms and DVTs (deep vein thrombosis).

I’d give anything, any amount of money – to have had advance warning so we could have watched my mother more vigilantly and taken simple proactive measures that might have prevented her stroke and resulting death.

What would another 10 or 15 years with her have been worth?

We could have and would have discussed this with her doctors and asked about preventative measures, like taking aspirin or other measures as indicated by her health and other medications. (Please do not self-diagnose or medicate without discussing with your physician as drugs interact in ways patients may not be aware of.)

Compared to hospital (or funeral) bills, not to mention the sheer agony…the cost of this test at $799 is irrelevant. What better way to say, “I love you”?

I would pick up bottles by the side of the road, if I needed to, to be able to purchase this test for my Mom 15 years ago. Sadly, this type of testing wasn’t available then, but it is now.

Ignorance is not bliss.

I want to know if I or my children carry these predispositions so that we can take action.

The Tovana Test is Different

The Tovana test is different from and much more comprehensive than the tests offered by Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe that utilize only your autosomal genealogy test.

To begin with, the Tovana test is run on an exome chip that tests over 50 million locations in addition to the 700,000+ locations tested in the Family Finder test.

The completed report that I viewed was 128 pages in length, with lots of graphics. This  explain explains autosomal dominant inheritance.

FTDNA Tovana autosomal dominant.png

The report is very user-friendly, including drawings, a risk-meter for polygenic conditions that involve more than a simple yes or no answer, explanations and recommendations for each condition reported.

FTDNA Tovana risk meter.png

And yes, in case you’re wondering, the report also includes the fun traits like ear wax and such that you can discuss if you’re bored beyond imagination at a cocktail party.

Each report is centered around and tailored to the family information you provide, such as known Jewish heritage, or known cases of cancer.

FTDNA Tovana Table of Contents.png

Comparisons

I’ve compiled a chart with some comparison details – although this test is in a class by itself where the other three tests compete directly with each other.

I’ve personally taken the other tests, except for the Ancestry upgrade. I also took an early exome test a few years ago, but THAT ONE CAME WITH NO REPORT OR EXPLANATIONS.

  23andme Ancestry Health Core MyHeritage Family Tree DNA Tovana Test
# DNA locations tested About 700,000 About 700,000 About 700,000 >50 million plus the 700,000 in the Family Finder test
# Results Provided to Customer 78 health + polygenic diabetes +34 traits such as freckles 84 88+ polygenic heart, diabetes, breast cancer 3000+ including many polygenic diseases including heart, diabetes & 35 genes associated with breast cancer
Physician Oversight No PWNHealth PWNHealth Tovana
Personal Clinical Analysis No No No Yes
Analysis, Interpretation by board certified geneticist No No No Yes
Genetic Counseling No Yes, limited Yes, limited $50 for 30-minute session
Updates Yes, episodic depending on test level, may not receive, sometimes have to purchase new test No, one time results only Yes, free for first year then with $99 per year subscription Not at this time, but under consideration
Cost – Initial Purchase $149 upgrade only after DNA test $199 new purchase -combined health plus ancestry $799 introductory price
Upgrade if Already Tested No $49 upgrade if have already tested $120 to upgrade if already tested, plus $99 year subscription after year 1 Not relevant
Requirements None This is an upgrade from an existing Ancestry test Must test with MyHeritage, not a transfer kit

Are You Eligible?

To see if you are one of the customers eligible to purchase the Tovane Genome Report, sign in, here, and then check your personal page under “Additional Features” to see if the Tovana Genome Report is available. If so, click for more information or to order.

FTDNA Tovana order.png

You’ve probably guessed what my family is receiving for Christmas😊. No one else is going to suffer from or die from something preventable if I can help it.

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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

Big Y News and Stats + Sale

I must admit – this past January when FamilyTreeDNA announced the Big Y-700, an upgrade from the Big Y-500 product, I was skeptical. I wondered how much benefit testers would really see – but I was game to purchase a couple upgrades – and I did. Then, when the results came back, I purchased more!

I’m very pleased to announce that I’m no longer skeptical. I’m a believer.

The Big Y-700 has produced amazing results – and now FamilyTreeDNA has decoupled the price of the BAM file in addition to announcing substantial sale prices for their Thanksgiving Sale.

I’m going to discuss sale pricing for products other than the Big Y in a separate article because I’d like to focus on the progress that has been made on the phylogenetic tree (and in my own family history) as a result of the Big Y-700 this year.

Big Y Pricing Structure Change

FamilyTreeDNA recently anounced some product structure changes.

The Big Y-700 price has been permanently dropped by $100 by decoupling the BAM file download from the price of the test itself. This accomplishes multiple things:

  • The majority of testers don’t want or need the BAM file, so the price of the test has been dropped by $100 permanently in order to be able to price the Big Y-700 more attractively to encourage more testers. That’s good for all of us!!!
  • For people who ordered the Big Y-700 since November 1, 2019 (when the sale prices began) who do want the BAM file, they can purchase the BAM file separately through the “Add Ons and Upgrades” page, via the “Upgrades” tab for $100 after their test results are returned. There will also be a link on the Big Y-700 results page. The total net price for those testers is exactly the same, but it represents a $100 permanent price drop for everyone else.
  • This BAM file decoupling reduces the initial cost of the Big Y-700 test itself, and everyone still has the option of purchasing the BAM file later, which will make the Big Y-700 test more affordable. Additionally, it allows the tester who wants the BAM file to divide the purchase into two pieces, which will help as well.
  • The current sale price for the Big Y-700 for the tester who has taken NO PREVIOUS Y DNA testing is now just $399, formerly $649. That’s an amazing price drop, about 40%, in the 9 months since the Big Y-700 was introduced!
  • Upgrade pricing is available too, further down in this article.
  • If you order an upgrade from any earlier Big Y to the Big Y-700, you receive an upgraded BAM file because you already paid for the BAM file when you ordered your initial Big Y test.
  • The VCF file is still available for download at no additional cost with any Big Y test.
  • There is no change in the BAM file availability for current customers. Everyone who ordered before November 1, 2019 will be able to download their BAM file as always.

The above changes are permanent, except for the sale price.

2019 has been a Banner Year

I know how successful the Big Y-700 has been for kits and projects that I manage, but how successful has it been overall, in a scientific sense?

I asked FamilyTreeDNA for some stats about the number of SNPs discovered and the number of branches added to the Y phylotree.

Drum roll please…

Branches Added This Year Total Tree Branches Variants Added to Tree This Year Total Variants Added to Tree
2018 6,259 17,958 60,468 132.634
2019 4,394 22.352 32,193 164,827

The tests completed in 2019 are only representative for 10 months, through October, and not the entire year.

Haplotree Branches

Not every SNP discovered results in a new branch being added to the haplotree, but many do. This chart shows the number of actual branches added in 2018 and 2019 to date.

Big Y 700 haplotree branches.png

These stats, provided by FamilyTreeDNA, show the totals in the bottom row, which is a cumulative branch number total, not a monthly total. At the end of October 2019, the total number of individual branches were 22,352.

Big Y 700 haplotree branches small.png

This chart, above, shows some of the smaller haplogroups.

Big Y 700 haplotree branches large.png

This chart shows the larger haplogroups, including massive haplogroup R.

Haplotree Variants

The number of variants listed below is the number of SNPs that have been discovered, named and placed on the tree. You’ll notice that these numbers are a lot larger than the number of branches, above. That’s because roughly 168,000 of these are equivalent SNPs, meaning they don’t further branch the tree – at least not yet. These 168K variants are the candidates to be new branches as more people test and the tree can be further split.

Big Y 700 variants.png

These numbers also don’t include Private Variants, meaning SNPs that have not yet been named.

If you see Private Variants listed in your Big Y results, when enough people have tested positive for the same variant, and it makes sense, the variants will be given a SNP name and placed on the tree.

Big Y 700 variants small.png

The smaller haplogroups variants again, above, followed by the larger, below.

Big Y 700 variants large.png

Upgrades from the Big Y, or Big Y-500 to Big Y-700

Based on what I see in projects, roughly one third of the Big Y and Big Y-500 tests have upgraded to the Big Y-700.

For my Estes line, I wondered how much value the Big Y-700 upgrade would convey, if any, but I’m extremely glad I upgraded several kits. As a result of the Big Y-700, we’ve further divided the sons of Abraham, born in 1747. This granularity wasn’t accomplished by STR testing and wasn’t accomplished by the Big Y or Big Y-500 testing alone – although all of these together are building blocks. I’m ECSTATIC since it’s my own ancestral line that has the new lineage defining SNP.

Big Y 700 Estes.png

Every Estes man descended from Robert born in 1555 has R-BY482.

The sons of the immigrant, Abraham, through his father, Silvester, all have BY490, but the descendants of Silvester’s brother, Robert, do not.

Moses, son of Abraham has ZS3700, but the rest of Abraham’s sons don’t.

Then, someplace in the line of kit 831469, between Moses born in 1711 and the present-day tester, we find a new SNP, BY154784.

Big Y 700 Estes block tree.png

Looking at the block tree, we see the various SNPs that are entirely Estes, except for one gentleman who does not carry the Estes surname. I wrote about the Block Tree, here.

Without Big Y testing, none of these SNPs would have been found, meaning we could never have split these lines genealogically.

Every kit I’ve reviewed carries SNPs that the Big Y-700 has been able to discern that weren’t discovered previously.

Every. Single. One.

Now, even someone who hasn’t tested Y DNA before can get the whole enchilada – meaning 700+ STRs, testing for all previously discovered SNPs, and new branch defining SNPs, like my Estes men – for $399.

If a new Estes tester takes this test, without knowing anything about his genealogy, I can tell him a great deal about where to look for his lineage in the Estes tree.

Reduced Prices

FamilyTreeDNA has made purchasing the Big Y-700 outright, or upgrading, EXTREMELY attractive.

Test Price
Big Y-700 purchase with no previous Y DNA test

 

$399
Y-12 upgrade to Big Y-700 $359
Y-25 upgrade to Big Y-700 $349
Y-37 upgrade to Big Y-700 $319
Y-67 upgrade to Big Y-700 $259
Y-111 upgrade to Big Y-700 $229
Big Y or Big Y-500 upgrade to Big Y-700 $189

Note that the upgrades include all of the STR markers as yet untested. For example, the 12-marker to Big Y-700 includes all of the STRs between 25 and 111, in addition to the Big Y-700 itself. The Big Y-700 includes:

  • All of the already discovered SNPs, called Named Variants, extending your haplogroup all the way to the leaf at the end of your branch
  • Personal and previously undiscovered SNPs called Private Variants
  • All of the untested STR markers inclusive through 111 markers
  • A minimum of a total of 700 STR markers, including markers above 111 that are only available through Big Y-700 testing

With the refinements in the Big Y test over the past few years, and months, the Big Y is increasingly important to genealogy – equally or more so than traditional STR testing. In part, because SNPs are not prone to back mutations, and are therefore more stable than STR markers. Taken together, STRs and SNPs are extremely informative, helping to break down ancestral brick walls for people whose genealogy may not reach far back in time – and even those who do.

If you are a male and have not Y DNA tested, there’s never been a better opportunity. If you are a female, find a male on a brick wall line and sponsor a scholarship.

Click here to order or upgrade!

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Michael McDowell Jr. (c 1747 – c 1840): Slanting Misery – 52 Ancestors #260

In the first article about Michael McDowell, Michael McDowell Jr., (c1747-c1840), Revolutionary War Veteran, Spy, Miller and Apparently, Rabble Rouser – 52 Ancestors #258, I told the story of Michael’s early years.

When Michael McDowell was about 63 years old, when most people are looking forward to sitting around a cozy fireplace on chilly mornings, Michael set out on yet another great adventure, lumbering along in a wagon pulled by his three horses and slowly making his way across mountains to the next frontier.

Michael McDowell Wilkes to Slanting.png

On average, wagons traveled approximately 10 miles a day. This journey, crossing the Appalachian Mountains through a pass someplace would have taken about 3 weeks, presuming that no wagon axles broke or anything else unforeseen happened to slow their progress during their bumpy trek.

Sometime in late 1809 or early 1810. Michael McDowell and most of his family left Wilkes County, North Carolina and settled on the border between Lee County, Virginia and Claiborne County, Tennessee, along the Powell River. They probably made the journey in the fall, after harvest, but before snow, or in the spring before planting – although mud would have been worse during that time.

We know that Michael had arrived in Lee County by mid-May of 1810.

Michael McDowell Powell River map.png

The 1810 tax list of Lee County, Virginia, located just across the county and state line from where Michael McDowell eventually settled in Claiborne County, Tennessee shows the following men on a tax list taken on May 12th:

  • Michael McDowell 1 poll, 3 horses
  • John McDowell 1 poll, 1 horse
  • Edward McDowell 1 poll, 2 horses
  • Luke McDowell 1 poll, no horses

A “poll” means this man is paying for 1 male over the age of either 16 or 21, depending on the time and place. They are listed separately, which indicates that they live in separate households. None of these men owned slaves over age 12 on this list, nor is there any indication they ever owned slaves at all.

Another indication that Michael lived initially in Lee County is that in 1812 when his son-in-law, William Herrell (Harrell, Harold, Herald) purchased land, Herrell was identified as “of Lee County, Virginia” in the deed. It’s also possible that the state line was indeterminate at that time. A Supreme Court case filed in 1893 sought to clarify the Virginia/Tennessee state line, as there had been disputes since the original surveys of the border between these two states. The Herrell/McDowell lands were only about half a mile, or less, from that eventual border.

Pushing Further Into Kentucky

A hundred miles further northwest, Pulaski County Kentucky Marriage Records transcribed by the Pulaski County Historical Society document the following marriages:

  • April 18, 1811 – Edmon McDowell married Lucy Haynes, Thomas Haines bondsman, Thomas Hansford present
  • November 7, 1811 – William McDowell married Anna Herrin, Wesley Short present
  • December 8, 1811 – Luke McDowell married Francis Fields, Wesley Short present

I find no documentation in these marriage records that these were Michael’s sons, but the 1810 tax list in Lee county is at least suggestive that Edmon (Edward) and Luke are connected with Michael McDowell Jr. Wesley Short stands with both William and Luke, connecting them. A William McDowell is later found with Michael where he lived in Claiborne County. However, for the William in Claiborne to have been the William who married in Pulaski County in 1811, he would have had to have moved back to Claiborne County sometime after his marriage.

What was the draw in Pulaski County, Kentucky? They aren’t the only men from this region to settle there.

Thompson Settlement Baptist Church

Michael McDowell’s Revolutionary War pension application in 1832 tells us that that he has a good relationship with the Baptist preacher, James Gullut (Gilbert), who he had known for 15 or 20 years which means they met roughly between 1812 and 1817. Now, we just need to find out which Baptist church James Gullut (Gilbert) was associated with.

At the Thompson Settlement Baptist Church, founded in 1800 and located across the Tennessee/Virginia border on Powell River in Lee County, Virginia we find records of James Gilbert being received by experience and baptized on April 23rd, 1815 by Reverend Andrew Baker.

“Received by experience” means that Gilbert was “saved” and subsequently baptized in this church, not transferred from another church. If he had transferred from another church, he would have been “received by letter.”

Michael McDowell Thompson Settlement.png

The Thompson Settlement church was located on Powell River, in Lee County, some 15 miles from where Michael McDowell lived on land aptly named “Slanting Misery.” And trust me, it is – I’ve been there.

Michael appears to have initially settled, at least temporarily, in Lee County, Virginia but that didn’t last for long, settling by 1812 in Claiborne County, Tennessee, just over the Lee/Claiborne line. He may not have moved very far, half a mile or so, or he may not have moved at all – believing that the area where he lived was actually in Lee County. The boundary was disputed and other settlers in Carter Valley in Hawkins County discovered they weren’t living in Virginia, after all. Maybe Michael did too.

Getting to the Thompson Settlement Church in Lee County from Michael McDowell’s land was no small feat, given that the wide Powell River probably had to be forded, at least once, if not twice, and there were mountains in the way. I’m not at all sure it wouldn’t have taken a day to get to church in a wagon – and you had to take the wagon in order to transport a family. In fact, probably the entire extended family. A day coming and a day going would make church a 3-day event – and that just wasn’t feasible every week for a farming family. Not to mention that trip in the winter would have been both miserable and perilous.

MIchael McDowell Thompson Settlement to Slant Misery.png

It’s no surprise that the Rob Camp Church was eventually formed about 3 miles away, just past the Clarkson’s, in the part of Claiborne County that became Hancock County, but not officially until 1844, after Michael McDowell’s presumed death.

McDowell Rob Camp Church

It’s likely that a group of church members had been meeting locally for a long time. In 1842, the church minutes stated that the members met at the home of Rob Parkey. Parkey Gap is in the ridge of mountains just south of Slanting Misery, so “church” might have been simply at a neighbors house.

If Michael hadn’t already died, his membership was never transferred to Rob Camp. He would have been 97 at that time.

Thompson Settlement Church

The Thompson Settlement Church records provide a few nuggets of information.

Events recorded reflect members being tried within the church and censured for activities like playing marbles, dancing and drinking, letting us peep into the rules and daily church life. We also gain insight into the lives of the membership, and the clergy.

On July 1, 1822, “Brother James Gilbert is licensed to use a public gift when he may think proper.” In essence, this means they are giving him the official nod to preach, whenever he is ready.

Then, on May 1st, 1823, “Brother James Gilbert is set apart for ordination, and Brother William Wells and Brother William Jones to be called as a Presbytery to ordain Brother Gilbert to the ministry.” Gilbert was ordained the following week.

In 1835 and 1836, James Gilbert is still with the church, so we know that in 1832 when he gave a deposition for Michael McDowell, he was indeed the minister. Based on the information provided in Gilbert’s autobiography, it sounds unlikely that he would have endorsed Michael if he were not a church member, because in that place and time, not being a church member equated to being an unrepentant sinner.

This tells us that Michael McDowell was a member of the Thompson Settlement Church – the first indication of any kind that he was a church member. James Gilbert was probably also Michael McDowell’s neighbor, because in 1845 when James Gilbert and others established the Rob Camp Church in what was then Hancock County, Michael McDowell’s neighboring families were among the first listed church members with James Gilbert among the parishioners. Rob Camp was an offshoot or sister church to Thompson Settlement and a lot closer.

A list of members who belong to the Thompson Settlement Church in Lee County, VA detailed members in the year 1835 and Mikel McDowell is noted, with no indication as to what happened to him. Nancy McDowell is listed as well, with “dismissed.” John McDowell’s wife, Nancy, died in 1841, per her gravestone. I guess death is one method of dismissal.

Another membership list dated Saturday, September 1, 1838, includes the name of Michael Macdowell, with a note beside the name, “dismissed.”  Is this someone other than the elderly Michael McDowell, or is dismissed recorded instead of deceased, perhaps? I don’t see deceased on the list for anyone, so I’d suggest that dismissed means “no longer a member.” Clearly, the disposition of these members was added later, not when the list was created. The fact that he was listed on this 1838 list means he was alive then.

We know that Michael was not in the census in 1840 under his own name, but he may have been living with family members.

Claiborne County, Tennessee

In Michael McDowell’s pension application in 1832, the good Reverend Gilbert states that he has known Michael for 15 or 20 years. This places Michael’s arrival in the area no later than 1812-1817, and perhaps earlier – but we knew that from the tax list.

Michael’s son, John, said in a deposition that a group of families migrated about 1810. That year is of course confirmed by the Lee County, Virginia, 1810 tax records.

Michael McDowell Wilkes to Claiborne.png

Three of Michael’s sons married in Pulaski Co., KY in 1811, although initially I wasn’t entirely convinced that these men were all Michael’s sons. We do find Edward signing that 1799 deed in Wilkes County as a witness for Michael McDowell Jr. and William is found later with Michael in Claiborne County. Y DNA adds evidence that indeed Edward and Luke were sons of Michael McDowell. To date, the only McDowell men matching this group above 12 markers are men who descend from those two sons of Michael.

Where was Michael McDowell in the 1810 census? The Claiborne County 1810 census is lost, as is the Lee County, VA Census. There is no McDowell in Pulaski County in the 1810 census.

In 1845, John McDowell, son of Michael McDowell, when giving a deposition on behalf of his sister, Mary McDowell, who married William Herrell, testifies that about 1810 a group of families moved to Claiborne County, and that both he and Mary McDowell Harrell were among those families. I’d wager that Michael McDowell was driving a wagon in that train, the back full of the family and a few of their belongings. They couldn’t have brought many things in a wagon that also had to transport the family. There were probably multiple wagons given that Michael and his sons had a total of 7 horses after arrival. Or maybe the sons rode horseback instead of in the wagons.

At least 4 of Michael’s younger children would have been riding. We know that Michael’s oldest son, Michael III, stayed in North Carolina, but the rest of his known children moved north with Michael. His daughter, Mary, was pregnant at the time with her first child.

I surely wonder what prompted Michael to uproot and leave, given that he was well-established in Wilkes County and had been for about a quarter century. Maybe with his children at marriage age, he knew if he didn’t relocate “now” he never would, because his children would be establishing their own homes and would be reticent to leave.

If Michael left Wilkes for Claiborne in 1810, he would have been 63 years old. Not a young man – older than I am today and I certainly would not want to undertake that journey, especially not under the conditions of that time and place in a wagon with no shocks or springs, over badly rutted roads, up and down mountains. Makes me ache to even think about that. Not to mention shudder when thinking about those cliffs and precipices. No thank you.

Michael would have had his youngest children riding behind the seat, in the wagon or walking alongside, perhaps encouraging a cow to keep up. In 1800, Michael had 4 children age 0-10, so they would be between 10 and 20 in 1810.

William Harrell’s first land purchase in Claiborne County was on October 10, 1812 and was witnessed by none other than his father-in-law, Michael McDowell.

May term 1813 – Oct. 10 1812 John Claypool and Eliza his wife of Claiborne and William Harrold of Lee Co Va. for the sum of $200 a tract of land lying in Claiborne on the N side of Powell River including a stripe of land on the opposite side of said river included in a tract of land conveyed to William Bails by James Allen bounded as follows: Beginning on the back line in a deep hollow at two hickories and at a dogwood, thence to a white oak marked AB (with the right side of the A the same as the back of the B) thence to the south line of said tract containing 100 acres more or less it being part of a tract of 440 acres conveyed to said William Bails by James Allen as above said conveyance bearing the date Jan. 20, 1809. Witnesses William Briance, Michael McDowel (his X mark), William Hardy. Registered Dec. 3, 1813.

Notice that Michael signed with an X, like he did every previous document. It appears that Michael was not able to read or write. That didn’t keep him from transacting business.

Land

In January of 1814, Michael was granted 15 acres plus 200 acres previously assigned to John Braham. Perhaps Michael had been living on John’s land ever since his arrival. Or maybe he settled on the land he eventually purchased, given that William Herrell’s land was right next door.

Michael McDowell 1814 land grant.png

The great thing about Michael’s land grant is that it tells us exactly where this land is located.

District 6, Powell River by 4 Mile Creek and it’s bluff adjoining Herrell’s line beginning on the north bank of Powell’s River above the mouth of 4 Mile Creek then up the rivers…to the east bank of 4 Mile Creek…

Michael also received another 25 acres in the same location.

Slanting misery panorama

During one on my visits, I took these photos which I’ve assembled as a panorama, taken from the top of “Slanting Misery,” Michael’s land, looking left to right from the Harrell land to the Clarkson grant. In the next 3 generations, these families would intermarry and become my ancestors.

On February 1, 1817, Michael McDowell witnessed a deed for the purchase of land by his son, John McDowell. Another witness was William McDowell. This is the first instance of William McDowell in any record, unless you count the 1811 marriage in Pulaski County, Kentucky.

Although the land that’s being surveyed below isn’t Michael’s, it’s the best overview of the area and property owners that I’ve ever found because the drawing includes all of the families along Powell River. Notice the survery is for a Parkey, the same family as where church was being held. The Parkey’s owned significant land along the Powell River, including south of the river.

parkey survey 2 cropParkey survey 3

A current map shows the following locations. Before GPS and Google Maps, this is how we found land and locations. It worked!

MIchael McDowell topo map.jpg

Additional information is recorded in the Claiborne County Court Notes from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions 1819-1821:

Thursday Nov. 11, 1819, Page 31 – John McDowell appointed as a juror to the next session.

Wed. August 16 1820, Page 162 – Ordered by the court that Alexander Ritchie be appointed overseer of the new road leading from the 9 mile post at Doherty’s to the Powell Valley Road at John Hurt that is from the said 9 mile post to Powels River and have for hands the following bounds that is all Capt. Thoms McCarty’s company south of Wallen’s Ridge and the following named hands on the N side of said ridge – William Herrold, John McDowell, Joseph Baker, William Baker, William Medlock, William McDowell and Robert G. (or C.) Parks.

I suspect Parks was really Parkey.

In 1824 Michael McDowell granted a deed to John P. McDowell in Claiborne County, for “love”. A second transaction was the reverse. Did these men trade land?

In these records, we need to differentiate between John McDowell and John P. McDowell, who were different men.

John McDowell’s 1825 survey was located on the far northern end of “Slanting Misery.”

Michael McDowell John 1825 survey.jpg

William McDowell’s 1829 survey is shown below, adjacent William Herrell in the area that would be called Herrell’s bend of Powell River.

william herrell 2 survey

The 1830 census for Claiborne County shows:

Michael McDowell:

  • 1 male 80-90 (Michael 83)
  • 1 male 30-40 (unknown, born 1790-1800)
  • 1 female 70-80 (wife about 77)
  • 1 female 20-30 (unknown, possibly wife of male 30-40)

The unknown male could possibly be son William. Although William had land surveyed in 1829, he isn’t listed on the census.

Michael was living beside his son, John McDowell, age 40-50, so born between 1780-1790, with John’s 5 children.

They live less than a dozen houses from William Herald who married Michael’s daughter, Mary McDowell, in 1809 in Wilkes County.

Michael McDowell 1830 census Claiborne.png

Nathan McDowell is living in Claiborne County as well, but not close to Michael. He is age 30-40, so born between 1790-1800, as is John P. McDowell, age 30-40.

In 1832, we find another 50 acre survey for John and William McDowell, jointly.

Michael McDowell 1832 John and William

The John and William McDowell 1832 4 Mile Creek survey mentions Michael McDowell as a chain carrier. In 1832, Michael McDowell was 85 years old. He must have been a quite spry 85, or maybe this Michael was a grandson?

Michael McDowell 1832

John and William’s land was the north end of Slanting Misery, adjacent Michael McDowell’s land.

The map below shows the exact area as the survey above, including the location where the river is forded at McDowell Shoal with the red arrows. You can see the 2 tracks on the other side of the river, on Slanting Misery.

Michael McDowell ford of river.jpg.png

The land at the mouth of 4 Mile Creek is the land Michael sold to his granddaughter, Margaret Herrell and her first husband, Anson Martin. After Anson’s death, Margaret married Joseph Bolton and they became my great-grandparents. They probably lived right here.

Michael McDowell 4 Mile Creek mouth.png

River Road runs alongside Slanting Misery, across Powell River from Slanting Misery. Michael owned land on both sides of the river. The yellow arrow is the mouth of 4 Mile Creek, and the green arrows mark the two fords of the river today.

Michael McDowell 4 Mile Creek ford and barn.png

This view shows 4 Mile Creek, the fords and the barns on Michael’s land. Michael’s house stood near the barns and cemetery. McDowell Shoals is to the far right on River Road, above.

Michael McDowell McDowell Shoals.png

This high area along River Road, looking across the Powell River to Michael’s land is called McDowell Shoals. You can see the island in the middle of the river that used to support a swinging rope bridge.

On May 16, 1832, the surveyor surveyed 50 acres of land on both sides of 4 Mile Creek for Michael and the chainer was John McDowell.

Michael McDowell 1832 survey

Today, driving along River Road, we cross 4 Mile Creek just before it dumps into the Powell River. Michael owned this land.

Michael McDowell River Road 4 Mile Creek.png

By this time, Michael was 85 years old, and he’s still amassing land!

We know his age due to his application in court on May 17, 1832 for his Revolutionary War pension. It was no small endeavor to travel to the courthouse in Tazewell, either. That journey began with fording the Powell River, as map shows, which runs high in the spring, sometimes VERY high.

Michael McDowell to court.png

That trip to town probably required a couple days and equally as long to return. Michael and whoever went with him probably stayed in town during the week to attend court. The entire adventure to appear before court probably took a week or more. Not to mention that “court,“ which occurred quarterly, was the entertainment of the day. If you went to all of the trouble and effort of attending court, you were surely going to stay for the entire spectacle. Who wants to leave the movie at intermission? Court was the soap opera of 1800s Appalachia, with adult beverages flowing freely. Not to mention that Michael would have gotten to mingle with the other Revolutionary War veterans who were also applying for pensions. I can just see those old men telling stories and “swapping lies,” as my Dad would have said. Maybe over some whiskey at the tavern.

In 1833, a deed was granted from Michael McDowell to S. and W. (Nathan S. and William) McDowell “for love,” confirming a close relationship. I wish he had told us the exact nature of those relationships.

The Claiborne County 1833 tax lists shows Michael living beside William McDowell and William Herreld who lived 5 doors from John McDowell.

Michael McDowell 1833 tax list.png

John McDowell obtained a grant in 1834 on the Powell River, just below the mouth of 4 Mile Creek.

Michael McDowell 1834 JOhn grant

And another grant in 1836. This family was a land baron! It’s just that the land was rough and not very productive.

1836 land grant.jpg

I thought surely that Michael was finished obtaining land, but not according to the Tennessee land grant books found in the Middlesboro, KY library. In 1836, when Michael would have been 89, he was granted another 40 acres. I have to wonder if a lot of this land was “scrub” by this time, or others would have already patented the land had it been productive farmland.

Last First Year Acres District Book Page Grant County
McDowell Michael 1836 15 E dist 8 669 70038 Claiborne
McDowell Michael 1836 25 E dist 8 669 70039 Claiborne

The 1839 Claiborne County Tax list is in alphabetical order, not house order, and it tells us that Michael had 40 acres valued at $100, taxed at $5. There is another 60 acres listed as school and valued at $50 and taxes at 2.5. He has no poll, due to his advanced age, and under the tax column, it shows .05, which does not add up to the total of the previous columns, but then neither do the rest so I’m apparently misunderstanding something.

It appears that at least part of Michael’s land is missing, although that simply might mean that others were farming the land and paying the taxes. Some deeds could have been conveyed by hand and not recorded as well.

In his lifetime, Michael was granted a total of 330 acres. He conveyed land to John P. McDowell in 1824 for “love” and to Nathan and William McDowell in 1833, although the acreage is not stated.

Given that Michael obtained yet another two land grants in 1836 for 25 and 15 acres, and was taxed in 1839 for 40 acres, this appears to be the amount of land that Michael has left.

Anson Martin and Margaret Herrell

On June 20th, 1840 Michael McDowell along with William McDowell sold 2 acres of land to Anson Martin at the mouth of 4 Mile Creek for $50. Anson had married Margaret Herrell, Michael’s granddaughter, about 1828. I have to wonder why they only purchased 2 acres. That certainly wasn’t enough to farm. Would they have established a mill at the mouth of a creek?

At this time, Michael would have been 93 years old and it is presumed he died shortly thereafter since he is not listed individually on the 1840 census, and not listed on the Rob Camp Church membership in 1844. He is probably buried on his own land on Slanting Misery, close to the confluence of Four Mile Creek and the Powell River in what is now Hancock County, but like most of the early pioneers in this area, there is no marked gravestone to identify the exact location in the cemetery.

The Claiborne County 1840 census shows us that there are a John and William McDowell, both living near William Herral, with William McDowell having a female aged 80-90, possibly his mother.

Additionally, the Reverend Nathan McDowell who had moved further east in Claiborne County has a male living with him, age 80-90. Are these two elderly people Michael McDowell and his wife?  Perhaps they both needed help, and two children each took one parent.

Or, maybe, just maybe, there was something else going on.

A Scandal

Michael McDowell’s son-in-law, William Herrell served in the War of 1812 not long after the family settled in Claiborne County. William came home, while many of their neighbors, including James Claxton, their neighbor who lived in the next river bend to the west, did not.

After the war, William Herrell and Mary McDowell Herrell continued to live on the land adjacent Michael, as they would until Michael’s death. From the distance of almost 200 years, life seems routine based on what few records exist. Deeds and court records, mostly, with a few tax records sprinkled in for good measure.

It’s in those tax records that we find the first hint of the scandal that must surely have enveloped the family, if not the entire community and possibly further.

William Herrell is taxed in 1836 and 1839 on land and a slave worth more than half the value of his land.

In the 1900s, the whispered story that William Herrell had two wives lived on, even into the late 1900s. Told in hushed voices so that children wouldn’t overhear. Of course, that made the savvy children strain to listen harder – thankfully – because it was one of those nearly 90-year-old children that heard her grandmother tell that story – and told me around the year 2000. Her grandmother KNEW the family involved, but wouldn’t say who, other than “William Harrell had two wives,” and then just clucked her tongue.

Of course, there were two unrelated Herrell families in the region during that time, our William Herrell who lived in the far north part of the county, and another Herrell family who lived in the far southern part of Claiborne County, bordering on Grainger County, about 30 miles distant. There was also a William Herrell in the Claiborne/Grainger group, my friend’s ancestors, but this rumor didn’t seem to pertain to him as he never owned slaves, which confused my 90+ year old friend. According to my friend, those two families didn’t realize they weren’t related back in time and (at least she) presumed they were because their names were the same.

It wasn’t until I discovered that “my” William had two wives that this persistently repeated story made sense. It was quite by accident that I discovered which Herrell family was involved.

I don’t mean that William had one wife who died and he then married a second wife, but that he had two wives at the same time. Technically, if not legally, bigamy. Not only that, but one wife was white and one was black. In that time and place, THAT might have been the bigger cluckable offense. Which also explains, of course, why this it wasn’t legally bigamy. Not only was it illegal for a white person to marry a black person, there was more to this story.

And no, William Herrell was not Mormon, so his actions were not religiously directed. In fact, not surprisingly, we don’t find any evidence of William in any church records.

Apparently, the white Herrell family and black Herrell family in northern Claiborne, the part that eventually became Hancock County, “always knew” they were somehow related, even though exactly how had been long forgotten, at least according to oral history from some of the family. Others, however, knew more. In fact, their oral history included the fact that Cannon, the son of Harriett, William’s slave, wound up owning some of William’s land via inheritance.

One thing is for sure – Cannon Herrell and the rest of the Harrell family all lived together, apparently harmoniously, along the Powell River for generations – including today.

Harriett Herrell was William Herrell’s slave, but at some point, as the story goes, she became his second wife according to my friend. Eventually, my elderly friend told me that when she was young, in the early 1900s, her grandmother, great-aunts and others still discussed the scandal of the William Harrell with the white wife and the black wife. She said that topic never got old, and all “those old women did was gossip about people.” Obviously a very interesting and unusual story to hold thier attention for so long.

William reportedly built Harriett a house on one side of his property, his wife Mary McDowell Herrell’s house on the other side, and he would live with one until she got mad at him and kicked him out. Then he’d live with the other until she got mad and kicked him out, when he’s go back and live with the other wife again as the circular scenario continued to repeat.

There is one part of the original story that doesn’t add up. That tidbit is that Harriett “had a whole passel of kids,” which she did not according to available records, or her descendants. There are no stories of Cannon having siblings other than Mary’s children. Of course, we don’t know how many children Harriet bore that might have died, or, God forbid, might have been sold.

A second problematic part from the Cannon family oral history is that William Herrell left Cannon land, which it appears that William did not. We know this in part because at the time William Herrell died, in 1859, intestate, Cannon was still legally a slave and William could not have bequeathed him land. That does not mean that in 1872, Mary McDowell Herrell couldn’t have left or given Cannon land. The deeds burned, so we’ll never know for sure.

However, Cannon did eventually own some of William’s land, living adjacent Alexander Herrell, his half-brother, although Cannon purchased the land outright. That deed occurred after the first courthouse fire.

Mary McDowell Herrell, William’s wife and Cannon’s step-mother, raised Cannon with her children after Harriett’s death and could certainly have left Cannon money when she passed, sometime after 1872. William did claim Cannon as his child, according to all parties, and Cannon carried the Herrell surname. Cannon is listed on the census with the family in 1870. In 1850 and 1860, he is listed as mulatto – one of only two people in that broad region. Cannon’s parentage was clearly no secret to anyone.

Cannon lived with Mary and her adult daughters until after Mary died. According to the census, Cannon seemed to be doing financially fine on his own – better than his stepmother and sisters combined. Mary owned the property, but Cannon owned more personal property than the women. It probably took the efforts of everyone, working in tandem, to farm and earn enough to survive, given the location of their farm.

How did I find Cannon?

In the 1830 census, William Herrell (spelled (Harold) did not own a slave.

In the 1840 census, William Herrell owned one female slave, with a male slave under the age of 10. That child was Cannon Herrell who was born between 1827 and 1838, depending on the record you reference. Keep in mind that slaves were taxed according to thier age, and younger males were taxed as a lower rate than older males.

On the 1850 slave census, Cannon is shown as age 12 and Harriett is gone.

On the 1860 slave census, Cannon is owned my “Mary Herrel and 5 others,” clearly her children as a result of William’s death in 1859, where Cannon is listed as age 33. That would put his birth in 1827, the earliest date we find.

In 1870, Cannon is living with Mary and his age is given as 35, putting his birth in 1835. In 1880, he has married and gives his age as 45.

Cannon Herrell death 1916.jpg

Cannon’s death certificate in 1916 says he was illegitimate and doesn’t name a father which is not unusual under the circumstances, meaning a white man fathering a child with a black woman. It does list Cannon’s mother’s name as Harriett Herrell.

I considered that there was one other possibility, which is that William Herrell’s eldest son, Alexander, fathered Cannon with Harriett. Alexander, born on Christmas Day, 1820, would have been 16 or 17 when the child, Cannon, was conceived IF he was born in 1838. At this point, I think it’s more likely that Cannon was actually born earlier, possibly in 1830, given that the family actually had a full birth date which is recorded on Cannon’s death certificate. Other records indicate 1834, 1835 and 1837. Any date before 1838 would likely exclude Alexander.

In 1829, William Herrell’s white wife, Mary, bore her last child, Malinda. I would suggest that many tears were shed by both Harriett and Mary during those years. Both would have been trapped in a situation neither one wanted and neither could control. I suspect they spent a lot of time together.

Furthermore, if William empregnated Harriett once, it’s nearly certain that behavior didn’t cease. The behavior clearly wasn’t “common and accepted” because in 1850, Cannon was only one of two mulattoes listed in that region.

It was 1838 when Margaret Herrell Martin, William’s oldest child, and her husband, Anson Martin, requested to be dismissed from the Thompson Settlement Church. There was no “other church” to join at that time, in this region, which suggests they left the church for other reasons. I’d can’t help but wonder if it had something to do with the scandal which may have just been occurring and assuredly was hotly debated for a variety of reasons.

Slavery in Claiborne County was unusual, and slavery in this part of the county was almost unheard of, although in 1830, the Bales family who is listed adjacent William Herrell had one slave, and John Parrott, another two properties away owns a few slaves including a female slave of the age that could have been Harriett. By1850, Peter Parkey owned slaves too.

Just a few years later, these families would fight for the north during the Civil War.

In this part of Claiborne County, there was no flat land to be cultivated. Plantations were impossible. Slaves were few and far between, and when a landowner was found with slaves, it was generally one, or at most, two. Poverty was a common thread. No one had enough money for anything, let alone slaves – so William’s purchase of a slave between 1830-1836 is mystifying – especially having been to see his land and his family’s hardscrabble existence clinging to the river banks.

The portion of this article titled “Roberta and Mary’s Great Adventure” shows the Herrell property.

Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that what occurred between William and Harriett was so scandalous, not to mention the strong primitive Baptist regional leaning. And poor Harriett, caught up in all of this. I can’t help but wonder if she died in childbirth, but there is absolutely no evidence of that.

Two years later, in 1840, Margaret and Anson bought the two acres from Michael McDowell. Were they trying to live someplace away from Margaret’s father’s land and the family drama? Granted, the land at the mouth of 4 Mile Creek wasn’t very far from her parents – but maybe far enough.

Did Margaret ask her grandfather to sell her two acres? Margaret’s parents were William Harrell and Mary McDowell, Michael McDowell’s daughter. Margaret’s brother was Alexander Herrell. Everyone lived in close proximity to one another.

Regardless of whether William Herrell or Alexander Herrell fathered a child with Harriett, Y DNA confirms that one of them did – and it was most likely William. I’d say almost certainly.

Regardless of which male fathered Cannon, William’s wife, Mary and her family may have been ostracized, especially at church, as a result. Harrell Bend and surrounding area was already quite remote and remains so today – it’s own microcosm.

Michael McDowell, Mary’s father, was certainly alive in the 1830s when Harriett gave birth to Cannon. I’m guessing, given that Michael never owned a slave and neither did any of his sons in Claiborne County, that Michael was not one bit pleased when William Herrell who was both his son-in-law and neighbor purchased a slave between 1830 and 1836, then (presumably) proceeded to cheat on Michael’s daughter with that slave.

This is the same Michael McDowell who beat Betty Wooton in Wilkes County in 1790 and was prosecuted more than once for trespass. Michael apparently had something of a temper, so I’m guessing it had abated somewhat by the 1830s – or he was just too old to do anything about the situation.

The slave, Harriett, probably had absolutely no say in any of this and was also a victim, in more ways than one. Slaves controlled absolutely nothing, including their own bodies. In 1838, William would have been about 50 years old and she was probably young.

To make matters even worse, the fact that Harriett was possibly purchased as a second wife compounded an already difficult situation. When Cannon was born, if William’s fidelity was ever previously in question, all doubt was removed. If Alexander was the father instead of William, which is not what the original oral history on either side of the family indicates, scandal would still have spun around the family, especially in the church.

Making matters even more sticky, Nathan S. McDowell, Michael McDowell’s son and Mary McDowell Herrell’s brother, was a Baptist preacher, described as having a “very crabbed disposition.” He had already purchased land in Claiborne County, but in 1837 he began serving as moderator of the Big Springs Baptist Church south of Tazewell, 18 miles distant.

This family was probably torn from stem to stern, although Nathan was reported to have refused to swear an oath of fidelity during the Civil War. Still, adultery is adultery and sin is sin, regardless. Not to mention the human emotions of Mary, Harriett and all the family members other than William who caused this mess.

Mary McDowell Herrell, about 50 in 1838, was probably EXTREMELY unhappy with her husband, to put it mildly. Betrayal is incredibly painful – especially if Mary suspected that William bought Harriett with that plan in mind and she could do absolutely nothing. Regardless of the circumstanced under which this occurred, William bore sole responsibility for being intimate with another woman – and “how” could have been even worse if the act was not consensual. For that matter, can a woman held in bondage to a man actually give free consent? I don’t think so.

Michael McDowell was elderly and probably also very angry with his son-in-law, William Herrell. He had obviously been close to William since at least 1810 and had spent the time since as neighbors on the Powell River.

Mary lost her husband’s fidelity in the 1830s (if not before) when William fathered Cannon, lost her father about 1840, her son-in-law (Anson) in about 1845, gained an orphan half-sibling of her children between 1840 and 1850 when Harriett died, as well as losing her husband, William, in 1859. Mary may not have grieved William’s death on a personal level, we don’t know. They had children and shared a lifetime together. They were economically tied and more work would have fallen on Mary and her children’s shoulders after his death. That 20 years or so of Mary’s life must have been living hell – and Michael couldn’t have helped but notice his daughter’s pain.

In the 1870 census, after William’s death and Cannon was freed, Cannon is still living with Mary McDowell Herrell and her adult daughters. That smaller family unit was reported to be very close. I hope so. They deserve that.

Nope, no family drama going on at Slanting Misery. Nada. Nothing to see here folks! Move right along. This has all the makings of a good soap opera. Downton Abbey’s got nothing on the McDowell/Herrell clan living on the Powell River.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that Michael McDowell who roughed up Betsy Wooten in 1790 didn’t personally put William Herrell into a grave for cheating on his daughter. Maybe Michael was simply too old (90 in 1837), or maybe that’s why Michael may have been living with Nathan in 1840. Maybe he tried. It appears that Isabel, Michael’s wife was living with William McDowell in 1840, unless that female is William’s mother-in-law.

Perhaps Michael got sent to live with the preacher son 18 miles away because the entire family felt everyone was safer with some distance between Michael and William Herrell. Or maybe the family simply hid Michael’s gun(s), much like we hid my mother’s car from her for her own (and others’) safety during her last few months.

I understand that William Herrell is buried in the Herrell Cemetery although there is no marker. I’m sure he would not have been welcome in the McDowell Cemetery if in fact Cannon was fathered by William Herrell. Mary’s brother, John, owned the McDowell Cemetery land when William Herrell died. I don’t know whether Mary is buried with William in the Herrell cemetery, or maybe she was buried in the McDowell cemetery, with the rest of her family. That decision rested with her children, and the decision may have been predicated upon whether Cannon was fathered by William (probably) or Alexander Herrell (probably not), along with whether or not William “repented” and if Mary forgave him.

Cannon’s family certainly believed he was fathered by William, and Cannon lived beside Alexander on the land he purchased, for the duration of both men’s lives.

It’s possible that this stress contributed to Michael McDowell’s demise – although he was clearly elderly.

Let’s visit the McDowell Cemetery on Michael’s land where he most assuredly rests.

Where is the McDowell Cemetery?

Michael McDowell’s descendants helped me find the old McDowell Cemetery on Slanting Misery, which was no easy task, I assure you. By looking at this tranquil land today, you’d never guess it’s storied history.

Let me begin with a letter from Mary Kay, married to (now deceased) Les McDowell, Michael’s descendant through son Luke.

This is Mary Kay. Michael McDowell is my husband Les’s ancestor.

Twice we have waded the Powell River to the Old McDowell Farm, in 1997 and 1999. The first time I photographed the gravestones there. The second time we took a large crowbar over there to turn over a big stone in hopes of seeing scratchings indicating that it was for Michael. Unfortunately, it was just a plain stone; no evidence of it ever having had anything on it. However, in “witching” the graves, there are definitely at least three other bodies there – two men and one woman. We think that Michael has to be one of the men, but I guess we’ll never know.

Grave “witching,” also called dowsing, a technique using a rod or stick often made of hickory is a very old technique used traditionally to avoid digging up existing graves when new burials were being dug, and more recently to locate old graves. It sounds ominous, but it wasn’t and isn’t. I grew up with this tradition which is also used to find underground water when wells are being dug.

Back to Mary Kay:

Mary Parkey, the historian for the Claiborne County Historical Society at that time, had the original deed to that land, in Michael McDowell’s name. I wanted to purchase the deed from her, but Mary wouldn’t sell it, but did provide a photocopy. The original was in the house fire that took Mary’s life a few years later, along with many other irreplaceable documents.

Mary Parkey, now deceased, was descended from both Margaret Herrell and Anson Martin, and Alexander Herrell.

Mary Kay sent a list of the names of the people buried in this cemetery surveyed in 1994. The name of the cemetery is Speer-McDowell and the location is given as the Bill Brooks Farm, formerly Edd Breeding. Locally, it was just called “The Old McDowell Farm” and as late as the 1990s, Joe Herrell still owned the adjacent farm at that time.

For nearly 200 years this land had remained in the same family.

  • Hettie Greer (w/o R. L. Greer) b. 06-25-1892; d. 12-26-1918 (her mother was Mollie Thompson and her father was James Speer)
  • E. Speer b. 11-29-1845, d. 01-13-1923 (James Edward Speer, son of John Roe Speer and Rachel Denton)
  • Mary E. (Mollie) Speer (wife of J. E. Speer) b. 03-11-1873, d. 06-27-1914
  • Hettie Edds, (w/o J. E. Speer) b. 11-19-1829, d. 02-05-1888
  • R. Speer b. 1820, d. 18–?
  • Caroline McDowell b. 01-16-1830, d. 10-04-1899 (daughter of John McDowell, no record of marriage)
  • Surena McDowell b. 3-11-1826, d. 11-07-1893 (daughter of John McDowell, no record of her ever marrying)
  • John McDowell, aged 94, d. 10-17-1817 (This year is incorrect, he died in 1877. Clearly the 7 was misinterpreted.)
  • Nancy McDowell, aged 47, d. 12-03-1841 (means she was born in 1794 and is probably John’s wife)

Reconstructing the Family from a Letter

A letter from Mary Opal Herrell in 1997, when she was 80, said that her grandpa Jim Speers first wife was a McDowell and that he is buried in the McDowell cemetery between his first wife and second wife.

The 1880 census shows James Speer, age 33, living with Matilda, age 41, with daughter Elnora, age 7. Caroline age 47 is married to R.M. Tipton who works on the farm, and Bird Campbell, a male age 15 is a servant, along with Surena McDowell age 51, listed as a sister-in-law.

In the 1900 census, James Speers states that he is born in November 1846, age 52, and is married to Mary, born in March 1873, age 27. They have been married for 9 years, have 2 living children, Hettie born in 1892 and Leonidas born in 1893.

The second wife appears to be Mary Opal’s grandmother. Mary Opal’s mother died when she was just a year old in the flu epidemic. She said that John McDowell sold the land to Jim Speers. Mary Opal said that her Aunt Nora, Jim’s daughter from his first wife never accepted Jim’s second wife. Nora was “raised by the McDowell women.” Mary Opal Herrell appears to be the daughter of Hettie Greer who died in 1918.

In the 1870 census, James Spear, age 22, is living with John McDowell, who is age 89 (so born in 1781) and James apparently married John’s daughter, Matilda, by 1872. The Hancock County courthouse burned, twice, so the deed between John McDowell and James Speer which would have been conveyed probably between 1872 and 1877 when John died went up in flames.

Fortunately, between the cemetery records, the census and Mary Opal’s old letters, we reassembled the family, at least somewhat.

Visiting the Cemetery

Let’s visit the cemetery!

The first group of photos were provided by Mary Kay and show Mary Kay’s husband with a local gentleman crossing the Powell River and their discovery of the cemetery on Slanting Misery.

First, let’s look at an aerial view. The red arrow below marks the actual location where people drive or walk across the river when the water is low enough. It’s the only location accessible on both banks of the river.

MIchael McDowell ford and island.png

After Michael lived here, a swinging bridge was hung across the river someplace in the area of the green arrow. I believe the tiny white dot in the center of the river just above the green arrow is the old foundation of the bridge on an island. The bridge was washed away decades ago in one of the legendary floods.

The photo below shows the men wading the river, marked by the red arrow above, and the gate on the Slanting Misery side. When I waded the river, the water was higher.

Michael McDowell powell river.png

This next photo shows the group walking along Slanting Misery, roughly parallel with the river.

Michael McDowell shed.png

I had to visit the location twice. It couldn’t find the cemetery the first time, so Mary Kay sent instructions, which I’ve included below, although all of the buildings except the barn were gone when I visited.

The buildings are landmarks — if you didn’t see these you were not at the right place. You come to the shed first, and it will be on your left. Quite a ways further, the barn will be on your right. The cemetery isn’t far from the barn and will be on a hill on your left.

Michael McDowell barn.png

I never saw the barn the first time, and asked Mary Kay if she could provide additional instructions.

I’m wondering if you missed seeing it because you thought it was a more “structured” graveyard than just an area with stones. It is too bad that there wasn’t a fence around it, before the cows damaged the stones. The person who owns it has no connection with McDowells.

Mary Kay sent one photo of another landmark that I could use – assuming I could find the landmark.

The cistern and what looks like stones from a house foundation are “after” the shed, and I think, on the left on the way to the cemetery.

Michael McDowell well.png

I strongly suspect that the foundation is that of the original house which was probably nothing more than a log cabin. It looks very small, but that was common then.

Michael McDowell cemetery.png

Finally, the cemetery. It was overgrown in 1997 when she visited and in 2004 when I visited as well.

Michael McDowell cemetery 2.png

The current Google map shows Slanting Misery.

Michael McDowell Slanting Misery.png

The entire peninsula is between 2000 and 3000 feet long, and the Virginia/Tennessee border is about that far north of the northern tip of the Slanting Misery.

The next photo shows a closeup of the river ford and the barn.

Michael McDowell river ford.png

Last, I believe the area with the red arrow is the cemetery. It’s difficult to correlate from the air, and several years later.

MIchael McDowell cemetery location.png

Michael Gets the Last Laugh

Never in my life have I ever managed to go on a “normal” genealogy adventure. There is always some unexpected twist or turn of some sort, and this time was no different. Ancestors truly do have a sense of humor – I’m totally convinced.

My first visit attempting to locate the McDowell cemetery was extremely disappointing. It was the dregs of summer and the thermometer hit at least 100 degrees. We were miserable. Had I any idea of the difficulty involved, I would never have attempted this, so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know.

After crossing the river, I walked up the two track for a short distance, then made the mistake of climbing UP Slanting Misery. I thought from that vantage point, I would surely see the cemetery – because I couldn’t see it, or a barn, or anything from where I was.

You can’t tell from the aerial, but the center of Slanting Misery is really quite high in comparison to the perimeter. The reason the river carved out a peninsula is because Slanting Misery is a granite mountain with a little topsoil – but very little.

After climbing UP Slanting Misery, I knew immediately why Michael had named it that. The question remains WHY he purchased this land.

We had been cautioned about the cows when we obtained permission to visit, which is why there is a fence on the 2-track road into Slanting Misery, after crossing the river. At least, I think that’s why the fence is there. Maybe the cows ford the river too.

Regardless, we closed the gate carefully so there would be no bovine escapees.

McDowell Powell river.jpg

My first glance of Slanting Misery gives no hint as to either slanting or misery. But across the Powell River lies both.

You can see the “driveway” on the other side of the river just beyond the tree branch, above. I was concerned about sinking in the mud and a rapid undertow. I can walk, and swim, so I didn’t want to risk driving and sinking.

This is literally the “front door” or “driveway” to this property. It’s the mountainous South – these kinds of things happen. The best or only way “in” is across the river. I was told there is an alternative, but it’s literally a half hour drive up and around and back down again – and it’s very difficult going. Better to ford the river.

Powell River McDowell shoals.jpg

Half-way across this river, looking upstream at McDowell Shoals, you can see what is left of an old island. The local people tell me that this was the location of an old swinging footbridge at one time. Apparently not everyone wanted to ford the river.

The words “swinging footbridge,” as in rope bridge, causes me to hyperventilate and sweat. I find that concept terrifying. The bridge washed out in a flood back in the 1970s, as I understand, but it had been there for years, as in decades, prior.

No one lives on this rather inaccessible land today – it’s used simply for grazing cattle.

The hill is high and the river over millennia has carved its way around the “bluff” made of granite. That’s the slanting part of Slanting Misery.

The misery part relates to the humans.

slanting misery hill

After climbing to the top of Slanting Misery, I naïvely thought I would be able to easily spot the cemetery. I mean, how difficult could this be?

The answer is – incredibly.

The photos below show a panorama of sorts, looking towards the Herrell lands to the left and then panning to the Clarkson land at the right.

Slanting misery pano 1

Slanting Misery pano 2

slanting misery pano 3

During the first visit, I didn’t know to look towards the barn for the cemetery, nor did I realize that the cemetery was entirely grown up in vegetation.

I left empty handed, knowing I was so close, yet so far away.

I can’t believe I actually did this twice, on two separate trips. In fact, I intentionally went back to try this a second time.

Second Time is “Charmed”

My second experience a year later was somewhat different. Not only did I have photos and more detailed instructions from Mary Kay, I also enlisted the assistance of a local gentleman with the historical society who is also my cousin, Boyd.

Boyd grew up in this area and knew it well. I was so grateful that he agreed to accompany me.

Once again, we crossed the river, except, this time I decided to simply drive my Jeep. The water was lower than before, about knee high and I didn’t see any reason NOT to drive the Jeep. After all, that’s what Jeeps are made for, right?

After arriving on the other side, I turned the Jeep around, pointing it back in the direction from which we had come. I parked in the river, because there wasn’t anyplace else. We got out of the Jeep, quite pleased with ourselves, waded a few feet to the shore, opened and closed the gate, and proceeded to walk towards the barn, up the 2 track, which I had been assured, was within easy sight of the cemetery. I knew I could find it this time, and I wasn’t leaving until I did!

Boyd had never been there before, but he was certainly game, and off we went, determined to succeed – chatting about history and ancestors.

This land is so breathtakingly beautiful.

Slanting Misery looking to Clarkson land

This is Slanting Misery, looking towards the Clarkson land.

On the way to the barn, I noticed what looked to be a historic trash pile and found a piece of metal, maybe from a tractor or piece of Oliver farm equipment.

Michael McDowell metal.jpg

I doubt this was Michael’s, but Michael lived here, near the well, near the cistern and near the barn. This was his domain for three decades.

The house had to be someplace very near this location. I think the stones beside the cistern from Mary’s photos were the house, but they were gone when I was there.

The green cedar tree on the far left, if you are approaching the barn, marks the cemetery.

McDowell Cemetery at left by barn.jpg

The cemetery is really not a on hill, it’s more of a knoll.

McDowell Cemetery tree.jpg

 You’d never know this is a cemetery if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

The condition was appalling, but it was sold outside of the family, AND, it’s very inaccessible. This photo was taken roughly 15 years ago, so the cemetery is probably in even worse condition today if it could even be located. The photos of the headstones below are a combination of Mary Kay’s photos and mine.

McDowell Cem Mary Speers.jpg

Mary Speers, wife of James.

McDowell Cem Mary Footstone.jpg

The footstone for Mary Speers.

McDowell Hettie Greer.jpg

The stone for Hettie Greer.

McDowell Cem John McDowell.jpg

John McDowell’s stone – barely legible.

Did you know that cows are really curious beasts?

Especially if they have come to associate humans with feeding time.

McDowell Cem Knoll.JPG

They noticed us in the cemetery and came to see what we were up to. Besides, in the cow’s world, it was THEIR cemetery and we were trespassing.

I grew up with cows and wasn’t the least bit worried.

Boyd, on the other hand, was getting increasingly nervous and said he thought we should begin walking back towards the Jeep.

I thought this was a bit odd because he was a farmer, but after all, he was the local person with experience. I was extremely reluctant to leave, because I wasn’t finished in the graveyard. Or at least I thought I wasn’t. I wanted to take a few more photos and I wanted to poke around and see if I could find a stone that might have been overgrown. Surely Michael was here someplace!

As it turned out, I really was finished.

Another cow approached Boyd, and Boyd started talking and backing. He shouted to me, “Come on, HURRY UP,” and he began to move quite quickly, then turned and ran. Then I began to run, because a cow had begun to chase us in a rather threatening way.

This cow had horns!!!

I realized that that was no cow, but was the bull, and he was protecting his harem from us.

At home, where I grew up – we borrowed a neighbor’s very happy bull. No one kept their own bull – and the neighbor’s bull was very happy because of that.

Worse yet, the bull was between Boyd and me, with Boyd in the lead and the bull following on his heels, which meant that when Boyd escaped, the bull would turn around, facing me and would be square between me and the fence.

Hopefully, Mr. Angry Bull just wanted to chase us off and meant us no harm. Hopefully! I really didn’t want to find out, AND you have to assume that any bull that is chasing you isn’t just wanting to say hello.

I had never been chased by a bull before…or since either for that matter. Not something I need to experience again in this lifetime – which I was just sure was destined to be ended momentarily.

It didn’t seem far from the river to the barn when we were walking IN and chatting, maybe a quarter to half a mile, but running back, being chased by a very large bovine, the distance to the gate seemed interminable. Worse yet, we had closed and latched the gate with a lock and chain.

I had absolutely no idea I could run that fast, or that far. Think of it as an impromptu stress test.

In 2005, I was looking at the half century mark and pole vaulting the gate wasn’t something I had in mind, but taking stock of my options, that suddenly seemed quite reasonable.

About 150-200 feet from the gate, Mr. Angry Bull veered off to the left into the brush – along what I now know is a second path. Boyd, somewhat older than me, but probably in much better shape, slowed down to a trot and I was extremely relieved. I had NO desire to turn around and go back. I did, however, desperately wish we had driven the Jeep inside the field instead of leaving it on the other side of the gate.

Boyd and I continued to trot and reached the gate. I, thankfully, was still holding my camera. The adrenaline still pumping, we sprinted over that gate and heaved a huge sigh of relief on the other side, seeing the Jeep waiting for us in the river near the edge, a few feet in front of the gate. We took a minute to catch our breath…until we realized Mr. Angry Bull was waiting for us, having taken a shortcut.

We were now trapped against the gate by the bull, with the bull between us and the Jeep, stamping his foot in the river, splashing the water.

I’m not sure if I actually audibly screamed, or if it was simply a silent scream of terror in my mind that happened.

I do know that the bull was MASSIVE and stomped angrily at us, having planted himself directly between us and the Jeep, expressing his disdain. I think he was drooling. His eyes might have been red and shooting flames too. Boyd and I began to play an insane game of ring-around-the-rosie with Mr. Angry Bull.

Swear to God on Michael McDowell’s grave – which I never found but am still sure is there.

Me, Boyd, my Jeep, the river and Mr. Angry Bull. Sounds like a country song. The only thing missing was a dog and a shotgun and we could have used the assistance of either or both at that moment.

The other problem is that once we reached the Jeep, we had to open the doors towards us, which means we had to step backward, with a bull in hot pursuit. Stepping backwards would have taken a second, or two, or three – but when you’re running away from a bull – seconds suddenly seem monumental.

In retrospect, I suspect that the bull was simply playing with us by this time. Irritated at the stupid humans. He clearly had chased people out of his field before, because he knew EXACTLY where the shortcut was located and how to gain the advantage at the gate.

The bull moved aside slightly, heading back for his shortcut. We dashed for the Jeep.

As we watched behind us for the bull to follow, charging again out of the overgrowth. The bull however, was already waiting for us, probably watching us watch for him – but he was watching us from BEHIND the gate already. If bulls can laugh, he unquestionably did. We surely looked as idiotic as I felt.

Make no mistake, that gate had absolutely NO EFFECT on that bull – he made that perfectly clear.

By the time Boyd and I finally got into the Jeep, I quickly turned on the ignition.

Thankfully, I had left the keys in the car, something I NEVER do. Thank Heavens, because there is no way on God’s green earth I was getting out and going back in that field to look for missing keys.

The adrenaline was rushing and I quickly threw the Jeep into drive and gunned the engine, heading across the river.

Too fast.

Yep, that river water sprayed right up into the engine compartment and drown out my engine. The Jeep lurched to a stop in a spray of water.

Dead!

Now, we’re sitting ducks in the middle of the river, and Mr. Angry Bull is going to have his way with us after all!!!!

McDowell stranded in the river.jpg

Not that I want to tell tales on my cousin Boyd, but let’s just say that we looked at each other and both said the same thing at the same time – something that is not repeatable in church and would assuredly have gotten us censured in the Thompson Settlement Church of our ancestors.

Lord have Mercy.

We braced for what we knew was coming.

I wondered if the glass in the Jeep would hold?

Would Mr. Angry Bull use those horns to break through the windows in the doors or bust out the windshield?

Would he come through?

How much of him?

His whole body or just his head and those terrible horns the size of a house?

Would it help to get in the back seat? Could we even climb over? I wasn’t getting out, that’s for sure.

For God’s sake, how can you defend yourself from a bull?

There is no training for this.

I’ve seen those ugly photos of matadors gored by bulls – although they certainly deserved that they got.

Us, on the other hand, we were only guilty in “bull court” of getting too close to the harem.

Does that infraction receive the death penalty?

We braced!

Then….

nothing

Absolutely nothing.

Silence.

Dare we look?

Boyd and I kind of sat in embarrassed, awkward silence for a minute. Realizing how ridiculous we surely looked – and grateful that the only witnesses to our folly were each other.

The bull, quite pleased with his prowess, I’m sure, turned his back on us and headed back into the pasture to brag to the girls how successfully he had protected them.

They were probably already telling him how wonderful he was, fanning him and feeding him the bull equivalent of grapes.

Mr. Now Very Pleased With Himself Bull wasn’t the least bit interested in us anymore. He’d had his fun.

Thankfully.

Pondering what to do next, given that cell phones certainly didn’t work there, I asked Boyd if we should get out and begin walking to his house.

The answer was an emphatic “No!,” followed by a much calmer, “you might want to try the engine again.”

It’s hard to think clearly when you’ve just come within inches of having your life ended by a bull.

Vroom!

I slowly, VERY SLOWLY, drove back across the Powell River, onto River Road along McDowell Shoals, pretending nothing embarrassing had happened at all, and away from Michael McDowell’s Slanting Misery forever.

Michael’s Children

Michael’s children remain a real conundrum. Let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.

A few we know with varying degrees of certainty, one is iffy, and then there are two that are unknown.

In order to compile as much as possible about his children and probable children, I utilized the various tax, census and other records available when creating this chart.

First appears Birth Year 1787 Wilkes 1790 Wilkes 1800 Wilkes 1810* 1820* 1830 1840
Michael Jr. himself Rev War 1777 1747 21-60 (40) >16 >45

Born before 1755

Lee Co tax 80-90 80-90

1750-1760 With Nathan

Isbel – wife Son born 1782, pos son 1778 1750-1755 female female >45

Born before 1755

70-80

1750-1760

80-90 1750-1760 with William Herrell
Michael III 1799 deed witness 1765-1778 <21 <16

Born after 1774

Gone? Wilkes Co. to 45, 4 kids
John (wife Nancy d 1841) 1810 in deposition 1782 <21 (age 5) <16

after 1774

Gone? Lee Co tax 40-50

1780-1790

50-59

1780-1790

Edward m Pulaski 1811 1799 deed witness, 1811 marriage 1774-1775 ? missing <16 after 1774 Gone? Lee Co tax Pulaski

>45 (<1775)

50-60

1770-1780

50-60 1780-1790
James* 1801 deed witness <1780 ? missing <16

Born after 1774

?
Mary 1809 Wilkes marriage to William Herrell 1785-1789 (m 1809) B After 1787 female 10-16 1784-1790 Clai-borne Clai-borne
Luke* m Pulaski 1811 1810 tax list 1792-1797 B after 1787   0-10 1790-1800 Lee Co tax
William* 1817 doc, or 1811 marriage 1795* B After 1787 Missing ? 30-40

1790-1800

40-50

1790-1800

Nathan S. 1833 deed from Michael to Nathan 1797* B after 1787 0-10

1790-1800

30-40

1790-1800

40-50

1790-1800

Female 1800 census 1790-1800 0-10 1790-1800
Female 1800 census 1790-1800 0-10

1790-1800

20-30

1800-1810

*Nathan is born in 1785 if oral history of him being 80 and refusing to take oath at Cumberland Gap is accurate. 1790-1800 if census is correct. Based on other records, I suspect the census is correct.

*William witnessed deeds in Claiborne from 1817 on. Born circa 1795 from census records. If this is the same William, he was married in 1811 in Pulaski County, KY.

*1810 Claiborne County, TN and Lee County, VA census lost

*1820 Claiborne County census lost

*Nathan McDowell, ‘precher” is found in Owsley Co., KY in the 1850 census, age 53, born in Tennessee and Easter McDowell, age 52 born in NC. This puts his birth in 1797.

*William born in 1795 is age 55 in 1850, born in NC wife Sally, age 50, is gone in 1860. Sally is not the wife of William McDowell married in 1811 in Pulaski Co., KY.

*Luke is found in DeKalb County, TN in both 1860 and 1870, placing his birth date in 1797.

*1833 Michael deeds land to Nathan and William, for “love”

*James witnessed a deed in 1801, but never appears in a record again.

The problem when trying to reconstruct Michael’s family is that two males appear to be missing from the 1787 census, along with conflicts in the 1800 census as well.

Were the records wrong? Were his sons living elsewhere? Or were these men not all Michael’s sons?

Let’s see what evidence we have for each child or potential child.

Michael McDowell III

Michael’s oldest son was probably his namesake, Michael.

Michael McDowell III, likely son of Michael McDowell Jr. is first found in Wilkes County signing as a witness for Michael McDowell, his father in 1799. In 1802, Michael McDowell III is noted as Michael McDowell Jr. when appointed as a constable with Michael McDowell Sr. providing his security. As late as the 1810 census, Michael III is present in the county with 4 children, but disappears from the records before the 1820 census.

James McDowell

If James is Michael McDowell’s child, he only appears in one 1801 record. I classify this as very weak evidence, but it remains a possibility. He may have died. James is not a name that repeats in Michael’s family.

Edward McDowell

There is genetic confirmation that Edward McDowell who was born probably after 1774 and before 1778 was the son of Michael McDowell Jr. Edward signed the 1799 deed for Michael Jr. along with Michael III. Edward serves as a juror in May of 1804 in Wilkes County,

Edward was noted on the 1810 Lee County Tax list beside Michael McDowell Jr. and Michael’s son, John. The next year, Edward married Lucy Harris in Pulaski County, KY where he is listed through the 1840 census. According to these documents, Edward was apparently born sometime between 1774 and 1781.

Edward’s children are:

  • Martin McDowell
  • Mariah McDowell b c 1812 Married Stephen Hail and then Moses Roberts
  • Sarah McDowell b c 1814 married Archibald Haynes
  • Michael McDowell b c 1816
  • Eliza McDowell b c 1818
  • Montgomery McDowell b c 1820
  • Son b c 1822
  • Thomas McDowell b c 1824 married Seleta McDowell (said to be his first cousin, the daughter of Luke McDowell,) then 2nd Vernettie Fisher
  • Franklin McDowell b c 1826
  • Son b c 1828
  • Son b c 1831
  • Son b c 1833

Edward is reported to be the brother of Luke McDowell and Edward’s son reportedly married his first cousin, Luke’s daughter.

Edward died in January 1858 in Pulaski County, KY.

Luke is confirmed to be Michael McDowell’s son via Y and autosomal DNA testing.

Edward’s descendant matches Luke’s on Y DNA and other known descendants on autosomal.

John McDowell

April 30, 1783 – October 7, 1877, according to his tombstone.

In the 1850 census, John’s birth state is shown as Tennessee, which we know cannot be correct. Tennessee wasn’t a state until 1796, to begin with, and we know that Michael McDowell Jr. was living in Virginia in 1783. John’s 1860 census shows his birth location as Virginia, 1870 shows that he was born in North Carolina.

Roll the dice, take your pick!

John McDowell filed an affidavit in 1872 stating that he was 90 years old and had been acquainted with both William Herrell and Mary McDowell before their marriage, stating that he was at their wedding in 1809 in Wilkes County.

John McDowell further states in his affidavit that he left Wilkes about 1810 and that Mary and William were married about a year before that. We have every reason to believe that William Herrell and Mary relocated about that same time (probably in the same wagon train) to Lee County or the Powell River area of what was then Claiborne County.

This puts John’s birth in approximately 1782. The census later shows his birth as 1781. His gravestone when it was still legible reportedly said he died October 7, 1877, age 94 years, 5 months, 7 days, which means his birth calculates to April 30, 1783.

John’s wife is reported to be Nancy, surname unknown, which is confirmed by the headstone in the McDowell cemetery.

In 1830, John is shown on the census beside a Henry McDowell. I wonder if this is another son of John.

In the 1850 census, John is shown with the following family members:

  • Hill McDowell (probably Hillary, male, age 25)
  • Surrena McDowell – 22
  • Matilda McDowell– 21
  • Caroline McDowell – 20
  • John McDowell– 18

John, age 18 in 1850 was born February 12, 1833 and died on February 17, 1895 in Lee County, Virginia. He married Susannah Jones and they had 7 children, including three males, below:

  • T. Clinton “Clint” McDowell who married Gertrude Smith in Kentucky in 1900.
  • James Hillary McDowell born 1861, married Nelly Flanary and died in 1959.
  • John Ervin McDowell born 1871, married Alpha Jesse and died in 1951.

James Hillary McDowell had 4 sons, Willie born 1892, Hubert born 1987, Walter born 1904 and Paul born 1911.

John Ervin McDowell had 8 sons, Fred born 1905, Rylie Columbus born 1906, James Elmer born 1908, Robert Lee born 1909, Marvin Richard born 1911, George Ervin born 1914, Albert Jesse born 1918 and Lawrence William born 1924.

The 1994 Hancock County family book includes an article by Lyle McDowell and reports that John McDowell’s daughters, Surena and Caroline never married and are buried on the farm with John and his wife, Nancy.

From Lyle McDowell, John McDowell’s children other than Hill, Serena, Matilda, Caroline and John include:

  • William Franklin McDowell who moved to Owsley County, KY about 1840, along with his brother Irvin. Lyle indicates that William Franklin is his great-grandfather.
  • Irvin McDowell (July 7, 1825-Octoer 9, 1882) Hamilton Cemetery, Hamilton County, TN

Lyle also reports that John’s son, John, born 1833 moved to Lee County, VA, which is accurate.

John P. McDowell

John McDowell born in 1783 is not the same man as John P. McDowell who sells land in 1838 on Strait Creek in Claiborne County. That land in the deed is noted as where John P. McDowell lives. That deed is witnesses by a Capps male, suggesting a relationship with Nathan McDowell and his wife, Esther Capps.

In 1824, Michael McDowell deeds land to John P. McDowell “for love.” It appears that John P. is not Michael’s son, because Michael already has a son John, so this is probably Michael’s grandson. Furthermore, on the 1836 and 1839 Claiborne County tax lists, both John and John P. McDowell are listed, and they do not live close to each other. John lived adjacent Michael, but John P. does not.

John P. McDowell was born about 1799 in TN (according to the census) and died in Buchanan Co., MO, after the 1870 census but before 1880. He married Rebecca Capps in 1821 in Grainger County, TN, the neighboring county south of Claiborne. He had sons:

  • William McDowell born in 1825
  • John Pryor McDowell born in 1831
  • Jacob Y. McDowell born in 1836
  • David McDowell born in 1844

Given that the older John McDowell was the son of Michael McDowell Jr., this John P. McDowell was probably being raised by the McDowell family because he was closely related, probably Michael’s grandson.

John P. McDowell was clearly associated with Nathan S. McDowell but could not have been Nathan’s child given that they were only about 5 years different in age. My guess would be that John P. McDowell is the son of Michael’s son, Michael McDowell III who disappears from the records in North Carolina after 1810 but before 1820. Or, John P. could be the son of James McDowell who disappears in Wilkes County after 1801 – meaning that Nathan was John P. McDowell’s uncle. Given that Nathan had no children, he would be a good candidate to raise an orphan nephew. This is purely speculation but they had to be connected somehow.

What is certain is that Michael McDowell would not have deeded John P. McDowell land “for love” if he weren’t somehow closely related.

A Y DNA test on a male McDowell descendant of John P. McDowell would be quite interesting in that it would (hopefully) match one of the McDowell lines. I would love to compare the Y DNA of a John P. McDowell descendant to a male McDowell descended from John McDowell who died in 1877 in Hancock County or other McDowell males that have tested.

John’s Photo – But Which John?

Lyle McDowell provided the following photo, but as you can see, the 2 John McDowell’s are likely conflated, meaning John born in 1783 and John P. McDowell born in 1799. Many of the genealogy trees on Ancestry have done this as well.

1994 book John P. McDowell photo.jpg

I don’t know if this is the John P. McDowell who died in Missouri before 1880, or the John McDowell in Claiborne/Hancock County born in 1783 and who died in 1877. Given that this man’s hair is black, and the camera wasn’t even in use until after the Civil War, I question the providence of the photo. I’m suspecting that it came from the Hancock County McDowell line, given that’s the focus of Lyle’s research and that Lyle simply added the middle P. in error, not realizing that there were actually two separate men.

I wonder if this might be the older John’s son, meaning John McDowell born in 1833. If that John born in 1833’s photo was taken when he was ago 50 or 60, in 1883 or 1893, the black hair would be more readily acceptable than a photo taken of John McDowell born in 1783 who would have been about 87 in 1870, the first practical time for this photo to have been taken, and this John in the photo has entirely black hair. That’s hard to believe at about age 87. It’s also possible that the photo had been “restored” but his eyebrows don’t appear to have been modified.

Regardless, it’s probably the closest we will ever get to seeing Michael McDowell Jr. through the face of another McDowell male. If this is John born in 1833, he is Michael McDowell’s grandson.

Did Michael McDowell Jr. resemble this John? I’d wager that he did, at least somewhat.

Mary McDowell

Mary McDowell was born about 1787 and married William Herrel in 1809 in Wilkes County. You can read her story here.

William McDowell

William is presumed to be a son of Michael because William is found consistently with Michael in the Claiborne County records beginning in 1817. Of course, there is also a William marrying in 1811 in Pulaski County. If William was actually born in 1795, per the 1850 census, then the 1811 William marrying in Kentucky can’t be this William because he would have only been 14 at the time. However, if William was actually born in 1790 instead of 1795, then he could have been the male in Pulaski County in 1811.

Some William McDowell is married in 1811 in Pulaski County, KY to Anna Herrin. (Luke and Edmon are also married in Pulaski that same year.) We find nothing more about William in Pulaski County, but a William McDowell does appear back in Claiborne County TN about 1817. Of course, the William born in 1795 also comes of age that year, so what happened to the William who married in Pulaski County in 1811 is uncertain, as is his identity.

In 1828, William McDowell deeds his land grant in Herrell bend to William Herrell.

Michael McDowell deeds land to William and Nathan in 1833 “for love,” so there is little question that William is his son or at least very close kin.

One of the last documents signed by Michael McDowell is jointly signed with William conveying land to Anson Martin on June 20, 1840. We don’t know who William’s wife is, but in the 1840 census, he has a female of age 80-90 living with him. Chances are good that that female is either his mother-in-law or Isabel, Michael McDowell’s wife.

In 1850, William McDowell is noted as age 55, being born in NC and had no children living in the household. His wife is Sally, age 50, so not Anna, the name of the wife in 1811 in Pulaski County, TN. It does not appear that William had any children.

Luke McDowell

Luke was born about 1792 in North Carolina and died in 1879 in DeKalb County, TN. He is listed on the 1810 tax list of Lee County Virginia with Edward, Michael and John McDowell.

In 1811 in Pulaski County, Luke married Francis Field.

In 1850 in Dekalb County, Luke is noted as a blacksmith and age 58, placing his birth date as 1792 in North Carolina. In 1860, he is age 68 and also shows his place of birth as North Carolina.

Luke’s children are:

  • Curtis McDowell born February 1810 died 1882, married Margaret Jadwin
  • William Field McDowell born September 1811 died 1861 in Illinois, married Mary Gott and then Deborah Test
  • Cynthia McDowell born 1812 died 1890, married Joseph Cantrell
  • Kitty McDowell born circa 1814 died 1840-1850, married Thomas Rigsby
  • Son born circa 1816
  • Son born circa 1818 married Margaret
  • Seleta McDowell born circa 1825, married Thomas McDowell (son of Edward) circa 1848

Luke’s descendant through son William Field McDowell, son John Benjamin McDowell, son Luke Bradley McDowell, son John William McDowell and 2 more generations has confirmed Luke as the son of Michael using both Y and autosomal DNA.

Luke’s Y DNA matches that of Edward.

Luke and Edward’s descendants autosomal DNA matches that of Michael’s descendants in Claiborne County through John McDowell and Mary McDowell Herrell.

Nathan McDowell

Michael’s presumed son Nathan S. McDowell was born about 1797, according to the 1860 census.

Nathan married Esther Capps (born 01-19-1798 died 03-02-1892) of Grainger County, TN. She was the sister of John Capps. They are not known to have any children.

In 1833, Michael McDowell deeds Nathan land, along with William McDowell, “for love.”

Nathan was a school teacher and minister of the Baptist denomination. A sketch of his life appears in the book “Old Time Tazewell” by Mary E. Hansard.

In Mary Hansard’s book, she states that Nathan was reported to have refused to take an oath of allegiance to the North, at Cumberland Gap, during the Civil War. He was taken to a northern prison where he died shortly, about the age of 80. His wife was apparently very proud of his bravery and how he died. However, that doesn’t exactly correlate with the census research, given that he was already living in Kentucky prior to the Civil War and wouldn’t have been 80 until 1879, long after the Civil War was over. I don’t find him in the 1860 census.

Minutes of Davis Creek Church in Speedwell in Powell Valley 1797-1907

  • Nathan S. McDowell made application for letter of dismissal for Sister Hannah (no date)
  • 1840 received elder Nathan S. McDowell by letter

Prior to that, beginning in 1837, Nathan was the moderator at the Big Springs Baptist Church, south of Tazewell, shown today below at the intersection of Lone Mountain Road and Riddle Lane.

Big Springs Primitive Baptist Church

In the 1850 census, Nathan is living in Owsley County, KY, noted as a “precher” born in Tennessee, age 53, and his wife is Esther, born in NC.

It’s possible that Nathan was not Michael McDowell’s son, but his grandson. Nathan is closely associated with John P. McDowell who we know is not Michael’s son. These two men are about 5 years different in age. If Michael’s oldest son was Michael III, born in 1778 or earlier, Nathan born in 1797 could have been his son along with John P. McDowell.

Michael III disappears from Wilkes County after the 1810 census where he has 4 children, including 2 males under 10. The under 10 designation doesn’t fit exactly, but is a possibility.

Nathan S. McDowell and John P. McDowell are the only two McDowell men who are clearly connected with Michael who live in Claiborne County, but distantly. Both married Capps women. It’s possible that Nathan, who was childless, raised his nephew.

Children Summary

In summary, Michael’s confirmed or most probable children are:

  • Michael McDowell born between 1774-1778, either dead or gone from Wilkes County by 1820 (confident, but not confirmed)
  • Edward McDowell born circa 1774-1780 (confirmed)
  • John McDowell born 1782 or 1783 (confirmed)
  • Mary McDowell born 1787 (confirmed)
  • Luke McDowell born circa 1792 (confirmed)
  • William born circa 1795 (confident, but not genetically confirmed)
  • Nathan S. McDowell b 1797 (probably son, related in some way)
  • Daughter born between 1790-1800 (no further information)
  • Daughter born between 1790-1800 (no further information)

Possible children are:

  • James born before 1780 (unlikely)

The Unidentified Children

There are of course, two unknown daughters in the 1800 census. It’s possible that neither reached adulthood.

What Does DNA Say?

In 2004, Lewis McDowell, a now-deceased descendant of Edward McDowell who settled in Pulaski County, KY tested his Y DNA. Lewis was a long-time genealogist, then 93 years old, pictured here with his lovely wife the day he contributed his DNA, and welcomed the opportunity to participate.

Michael McDowell - Lewis.jpg

Lewis’s genealogy reflects that he descends from Edward, the son of Michael McDowell Jr. Amazingly, there were only two generations between Lewis and Edward McDowell who married Lucy Haines in 1811 in Pulaski County, Kentucky.

I wanted to compare Lewis’s Y DNA results with other McDowell male descendants of Michael through other sons.

Since Lewis McDowell’s death, he has since accrued Y DNA matches with three other McDowell males, all confirmed descendants of Luke McDowell.

Autosomally, many descendants of Michael McDowell Jr. who died circa 1840 in Claiborne County match each other, including Lewis, descendants of Luke, John and Mary McDowell Herrell, confirming their genetic connection.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for MIchael now is to find and confirm his children. I’m still looking for the children of his eldest son, Michael III, son William and potential son James, if in fact, James had children and was Michael’s son. We know that son Nathan didn’t have children, so we can’t confirm him genetically. There are no known children for William, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If you descend from any McDowell that is or might be connected, please check your autosomal matches, especially at Family Tree DNA where several known family members have tested. If you are a McDowell male, please take the Y DNA test at Family Tree DNA.

I’d love to hear from you!

______________________________________________________________

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In Search of the Lost Colony of Roanoke – History Channel Documentary

I hope you’ll join me this Friday, October 18, 2019 at 10 PM for “In Search of the Lost Colony,” a documentary on the History Channel. Here’s the schedule.

Lost Colony History Channel

If you can’t see the episode on Friday, past “In Search Of” episodes are available for viewing and The Lost Colony episode will be available here too after airing. You can watch it on your computer after it airs if you don’t have access to The History Channel.

If you’d like more background, you can read my article, The Lost Colony of Roanoke: Did They Survive? – National Geographic, Archaeology, Historical Records and DNA.

A Little History

In 2007, I became involved in the search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, a group of settlers who sailed to what is now Roanoke Island, NC in 1587 with the intention of establishing an English Colony.

Luck was not in their favor. Many elements were against them. The supply ship with their food was wrecked on the shoals during one of the notorious hurricanes that plague the North Carolina Outer Banks.

Adding even more drama, the captain of the lead ship in the voyage was supposed to transport the colonists on to the Chesapeake, but refused to do so, in essence, stranding them. Did I mention that the notorious captain just happened to be a pirate, rescued from the gallows by a man who was scheming for the colony to fail?

You might be guessing by now that there are layers upon layers of drama – and you’d be right.

The transport ships themselves were headed back to England after depositing the colonists and agreed to carry only one person from the colony with them. The colonists elected their “governor,” John White as their representative to return to England and request resupply. Somehow, somehow, the colonists, White’s daughter among them, would try to survive half a year, until about Easter 1588, when crossing the Atlantic would once again be safe. At that time in history, winter crossings were not undertaken.

However, the Spanish Armada and the war between England and Spain interfered with the resupply plan. It wasn’t until 1590 that John White was able to return, on yet another pirate ship, to attempt to resupply or rescue the colonists.

A Big Mystery

He found…nothing.

The colonists were gone – disappeared – but they left White a one-word message – Croatoan – carved into a post at their fort and “Cro” carved into a tree.

Croatoan tree

Dawn Taylor (left) and Anne Poole beside a reproduction of the carving White discovered upon his 1590 return to Roanoke Island.

Croatoan was the name of the friendly Indians who lived on Hatteras Island, just south of Roanoke Island.

Another hurricane arose, preventing White from visiting Hatteras, but their ships had sailed within sight of Hatteras on their way to Roanoke.

Were the colonists gone?

Had they survived?

Did they perish?

Or move on?

Inland perhaps?

What do we know?

What is yet to be discovered?

The Documentary

Along with others involved in the search, I filmed a segment for the History Channel in June. My portion was recorded at the Family Tree DNA lab in Houston, Texas. As you might guess, my portion involves DNA testing.

Lost Colony, Dr Connie Bormans and Roberta Estes

Here’s a sneak peek, Dr. Connie Bormans, Lab Director, at left, with me in the dark lab coat, at right, during the filming. You’ll enjoy a lovely tour of the genetics lab while walking a test through the process, assuming that portion is included in the documentary.

This is the first production of this type that I’ve been involved with. I’ve declined several other invitations because of concerns about sensationalism.

I’ve enjoyed programs on the History Channel before and hoped that they would be less inclined to fall into that trap.

The DNA Projects

Regardless, the DNA part of this story is mine to tell, and I wasn’t about to forego that opportunity.

I founded the Lost Colony DNA projects in 2007.

The Lost Colony Y DNA Project for males who carry the Lost Colony surnames AND whose families are found in early eastern North Carolina OR among the Native people is here, and the Lost Colony Family Project for those interested but aren’t male who carry the colonist surnames is here.

How Does Filming Work?

I’ve always wondered how this works, so I’m sharing with you.

It’s interesting to note that people in the episodes don’t know what the other people said or who else is involved.

In my case, I did happen to know about two other people, Anne Poole, Director of the Lost Colony Research Group and Andy Gabriel-Powell. The three of us along with Dawn Taylor and others have worked on solving the mystery together for a dozen years now, focused on archaeological excavations in various locations on the Outer Banks along with historical records in the US, England, Spain and Portugal.

Lost colony dna

Anne and I sifting during one of the digs.

Andy, the former mayor of historic Bideford, England, home of Richard Grenville, authored the book Richard Grenville and the Lost Colony of Roanoke which you can view, here.

I know the production crew interviewed other people as well, but I’ll find out who they are and what everyone says right along with you.

It might not surprise you to learn that numerous people have been involved in the search for the Lost Colony over the ensuing 432 years – and not all of them ethical. Like anything else high-profile, the Lost Colony has attracted its share of bad actors along with some fantastic researchers.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what or whom to believe, so Anne, Andy and I, along with our colleagues working alongside us, committed to document and source all information independently. Our goal was and is to excavate the truth, regardless of where that truth leads.

In 2007, Anne and I founded the loosely organized, all-volunteer, Lost Colony Research Group to facilitate various types of research and coordinate archaeological excavations.

The LCRG sponsored half a dozen digs and committed to making our finds public, allowing future researchers access to our research, artifacts and DNA results when technology has improved and perhaps more is known or can be discovered. It’s the only responsible approach.

People interviewed during the filming are not actors and are not paid, nor are they afforded the opportunity to review and approve any footage or anything in the segment before it’s aired.

Other than clarifying a couple of questions after the filming and being informed of the date and time when the episode will air, we had no communications with the production crew or staff after filming.

None of us knows what the segment contains or how it will be portrayed. We don’t actually even know if we are IN the segment, just that we were filmed. The segment at the lab with Dr. Bormans took about a day and a half of filming, plus several days of preparation, as did Andy’s and Anne’s portions, respectively. Most of what is filmed winds up on the cutting room floor. That’s the nature of the beast.

I have my fingers crossed that the resulting program is scientifically sound as well as entertaining. The Lost Colony is, after all, one of America’s oldest mysteries.

One thing is for sure – I’ll be watching. I hope you do too.

If you have ancestors in the US or in the British Isles – you or your family might just have that critical piece of information needed to solve the mystery!

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