23andMe Genetic Tree Provides Critical Clue to Solve 137-Year-Old Disappearance Mystery

DNA can convey messages from the great beyond – from times past and people that died long before we were born.

I had the most surprising experience this week. It began with receiving an email with the sender name of my long-time research buddy, cousin Garmon Estes.

It’s all the more surprising because not only did Garmon never own a computer, despite my ceaseless encouragement, he passed over in 2013 at the age of 85. So, imagine my shock to open my email to see a message from Garmon. Queue up spooky music😊

As it turned out, Garmon’s nephew is also Garmon. I had communicated with the family off and on over the years since the death of Garmon the elder. Garmon, the younger, had written to tell me that the second “great brick wall” that haunted his Uncle Garmon had fallen – and how that happened, thanks to DNA.

Garmon, the Elder

Estes Garmon

Garmon Estes, the elder

I first met Garmon the elder, via letter, back in the 1970s or maybe early 80s. He was an experienced genealogist and I was beginning.

At that time, Garmon had been chasing the identity of the father of our common ancestor, John R. Estes, for decades, and I was just embarking on what would become a lifelong adventure, or perhaps it could better be called an obsession.

John R. Estes had moved from some unknown location to Claiborne County, Tennessee with his wife and family about 1820. That’s pretty much all we knew at that time. Garmon had spent decades before the age of online records researching every John Estes he could find. I can’t even begin to tell you how many John Esteses existed that needed to be eliminated as candidates.

Garmon lived in California, far from Tennessee. I lived in Indiana, then Michigan – significantly closer. He began caring for his ill spouse, and I began traveling to dusty courthouses, sometimes reading musty books page by yellowed page, extracting everything Estes. Garmon worked from his local Family History Center when he could and wrote letters.

Between our joint sleuthing and many theories that we both composed and subsequently shot down, we narrowed John R. Estes’s location of origin to Halifax County, Virginia. However, there were multiple John Esteses living there at the same time, about the same age, none using middle initials reliably, and some not at all. How inconsiderate!

I began perusing every possible record. I had eliminated some Johns as candidates, most often because they clearly remained in the community after our John had moved to Claiborne County. Late one night, in our local family history center, I found that fateful clue – John R. Estes noted as (S.G.) short for “son of George,” on just one tax list. All it takes is that one gold-nugget record.

It was after 10 PM when I left the Family History Center and even later when I got home. I debated whether I should call Garmon or not, but I decided that indeed, he would want to know immediately, even if I did call at an inconvenient time or wake him up.

The discovery of John’s father, of course, opened the door for much more research, and it solved one of Garmon’s two brick walls that had haunted his genealogy life.

He never solved the second one, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

What Happened to Willis Alexander Garmon Estes?

Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was born on December 21, 1854, in Lenoir, Roane County, TN. His nickname was Willie.

Willie married Martha Lee Mathis in 1874 and they had 4 children beginning with the first child born the next year in Roane County. Sometime between 1875 and the birth of the second child in 1877, they migrated to Greenwood, Wise County, Texas where their next two children were born in 1877 and 1881.

Martha was pregnant for their fourth child in 1883 when something very strange happened. Willie disappeared, and I do mean literally and completely. Just poof, gone.

Not sure what to do, Martha’s father, who lived in Missouri, went to Texas to retrieve his pregnant daughter and her children and took her and the children home to Missouri where their last child was born that September.

Willie was only 28 when he vanished. The family, of course, had many stories about what happened. Texas at that time was pretty much the “wild west” and the stories about Willie reflected exactly that.

Texas was sometimes the refuge of outlaws and shady characters. One story revealed that Willie had shot a man back in Tennessee and the family fled to Louisiana, then Texas. Of course, that doesn’t tell us why he disappeared in Texas, but it opens the door to speculation and casts doubt on his character, perhaps.

Another story was that he was shot by Indians.

A third story stated that Willie settled in Indian Territory north of the Red River, now Oklahoma, and that he had an altercation with an Indian over the supposed theft of firewood, although who was accusing who was unclear. Willie shot the Indian, then had to flee for his life, leaving his pregnant wife and children as a posse of Indian Police surrounded his house. Willie supposedly promised Martha that he would return, but never did. It was reported that he was shot in Mexico, but no further details emerged.

Aren’t these just maddeningly vague???

Yet another story was that Willie headed for the goldfields of California, struck it rich, and was murdered on the way back home. The details varied, but one version had him murdered by a traveling companion on the trail. Another had him becoming ill and dying in a hospital in St. Louis where his wife went to search for him, to no avail. That might explain why she went back to Missouri, Garmon postulated. And yet a third version was some hybrid of the two where “someone” tried to find Willie’s family for years to reveal what had happened, and where, but was never successful. Of course, how did the family know about this if the mystery person was unable to find the family? But I digress.

Garmon desperately wanted to solve that mystery. He wanted closure.

I didn’t realize that the genealogy bug had bitten Garmon’s nephew too, but it clearly has. Garmon would be so proud.

With Garmon the younger’s permission, I’m publishing “the rest of the story,” Connecting the Dots, as written by Garmon the younger, with a few technical interjections from me involving DNA from time to time.

Connecting the Dots

In 2015, My dad Richard Estes, my brother Corey Estes, and I took a trip to Texas and Oklahoma to see if we could find out more about Willis Alexander Garmon Estes’ disappearance.

Estes greenwood

We visited Greenwood, Texas and nearby Decatur where we looked at historical records at the Wise County Clerk Office. We also went up to Oklahoma City to see the state archives and to Tishomingo to look at any records that might be available.

Estes Oklahoma history.png

Interestingly enough, we did not find any clues as to the disappearance of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. There were no newspaper articles or criminal records concerning any incidents with Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. The only new information that we found was a couple of land deeds showing that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes’ brother Fielding had bought and sold land in Wise County during the time that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was living in Greenwood.

We left empty-handed on our trip but our curiosity remained strong and we began talking to each other about going on another trip to Tennessee to speak with Estes family members in Loudon County to see if they might know something about Willis Alexander Garmon’s disappearance.

DNA Testing

In December of 2018, my wife, children, and I had our DNA tested using the service 23andMe. We received test results within a month of sending in saliva samples. The results did not reveal anything unusual.

Fast forward to October 2019. 23andMe introduced a new Family Tree feature that automatically creates a family tree based on the DNA results that you share with relatives in 23andMe. This was a fascinating feature and I noticed that all of my family members were automatically placed into the correct position on the family tree without me having to do anything.

[Roberta’s note – this is not always the case, so don’t necessarily expect the same level of accuracy. The tree is a wonderful innovative feature, just treat family placement as hints and not facts.]

Every few weeks as more and more people had their DNA tested on 23andMe, new relatives were added to the family tree.

In February 2020, I noticed something interesting under the location of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes on the family tree. A woman by the name of Edna appeared as a descendent of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. The first thing I did was to try and get in contact with her on 23andMe. No luck. Next, I thought maybe she was the descendent of one of Willis Alexander Garmon’s sons (James, John, or George). However, after researching the descendants of each of those lines, Edna’s name did not appear.

The next step I took was to look up as many Ednas by that last name on ancestry.com as I could find and trace their ancestry back to see where it led.

There were two Ednas by that last name in the United States whose age matched the one on 23andMe. I traced both of their ancestry lines back to the 1800’s. Neither one had Willis Alexander Garmon Estes as an ancestor.

Breakthrough

During the middle of March 2020, when I was quarantined at home from work due to the COVID-19 virus, I took another look at Edna’s family lines. I noticed there was a gentleman by the name of James Henry Houston mentioned as an ancestor.

The interesting thing about James was that he was born on the same day, same year, and in the same county as Willis Alexander Garmon Estes. James Henry Houston was born on December 26, 1854 in Loudon County, Tennessee. This seemed like possibly more than a coincidence, so I dived into the data a little bit more.

I looked at federal census records to find out more about James Henry Houston’s past. Strangely there were no official records of him until May 12, 1889 when he married Allie Ona Taylor in Erath, Texas. Normally, if someone is born in 1854, they would show up in one of the federal census records of 1860, 1870, or 1880. James Henry Houston does not show up in any official federal census records until 1900.

According to ancestry records, James Henry Houston married Allie Ona Taylor in 1889 and resided in the Hood County region of Texas until 1910. During this time, he raised 8 children with his wife Allie.

In 1920, the federal census placed him and Allie in Whitehall, Montana. The last federal census he appears in is 1930. He lived in Pomona, California where he died in 1933 at the age of 78.

At this point, I thought it was highly likely that James Henry Houston and Willis Alexander Garmon Estes were the same person. If my hunch was correct then a photo of James Henry Houston would most likely show a resemblance to his son, my great grandfather John Alexander Estes.

Estes James Henry Houston

The photos above show a remarkable similarity in the eyes, nose, mouth, and facial structure between the two men. To me, the photo and historical evidence is enough to conclude that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes is James Henry Houston.

Garmon’s Concluding Thoughts

As I reflect on the fact that Willis Alexander Garmon Estes renamed himself James Henry Houston and moved from Wise County down to Hood County, Texas – approximately 60 miles distance to marry and raise a new family, many more questions come to mind.

What exactly happened to cause Willis Alexander Garmon Estes to leave his wife and children behind? Was it simply a marital dispute or did it involve a criminal offense and running from the law as was mentioned in the family lore?

Did my great grandfather know that his father lived in Pomona in 1930, which was only 6 miles away from where he was living in Rancho Cucamonga? Were there other family members that knew what happened but promised not to tell anyone else? We may never know.

Finally, I want to add one more piece to the story that I found fascinating. On ancestry.com, many of the family trees for James Henry Houston state that the mother and father of James Henry Houston was Jennie Bray and Henry Houston. No information is given for their birthdates or where they came from. The mother and father of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes was Jennie McVey and William Estes. The names Jennie Bray and Jennie McVey are very similar. In order to hide his true identity, James Henry Houston would have to make up a surname for his father since he called himself Houston, not Estes. Willis Alexander Garmon Estes had a brother named John Houston Estes. This might explain why James Henry Houston chose to use the surname Houston rather than another name.

Congratulations Garmon

I know this made Garmon the elder puff up with pride for Garmon the younger’s sleuthing skills and leap for joy at the solve. Garmon, the elder, had two main genealogy goals throughout his entire life. One was solved while he was living, but it took another generation to solve this one.

Great job, Garmon!

About the 23andMe Genetic Tree

23andMe is the only vendor to construct a “trial balloon” genetic tree based only on how the tester matches people and how they do, or don’t, match each other. This occurs with no input from testers in the form of genealogical trees of identifying how people are related to the tester.

Family Tree DNA has Phased Family Matching, MyHeritage has Theories of Family Relativity, and Ancestry has ThruLines which all do some sort of DNA+tree+relationship connectivity, but since 23andMe does not support user-created or uploaded trees, anything they produce has to be using DNA alone.

On one hand, it’s frustrating for genealogists, but on the other hand, there is sometimes a benefit to a different “all genetic” approach.

Of course, the only information that 23andMe has to utilize unless your parents have tested is how closely you match your matches and how closely your matches match each other. This allows 23andMe to place your matches at least in a “neighborhood” on your tree, at least approximately accurate, unless your parents are related to each other and that shared DNA causes things to get dicey quickly.

I wrote about 23andMe’s new relationship triangulation tree when it was first introduced in September 2019, nearly a year ago, here. The launch was rocky for a number of reasons, and if you’ve done genealogy for a long time, your research goals are likely to be further back in time than this 4 generation relationship tree will reveal.

23andMe tree

Click to enlarge

This is what my relationship tree looked like at the time the function was launched. You’ll note that 23andMe places relationships back in time 4 generations, to your great-great-grandparents, meaning that you might have 3rd or even 4th cousins showing up on your genetic tree.

I initially had a total of 18 people placed on my tree, with 3 being close family, 4 being accurate, 4 unknown, 1 uncertain and 6, or one third, inaccurate.

Keep in mind that 23andMe doesn’t make any provision to accommodate or take into account half-relationships, like half-brother or half-sister, either currently or historically. Therefore, descendant placement predictions can be “off” because half-siblings only carry the DNA from one common parent, instead of two, making those relationships appear more distant than they really are.

In Garmon’s case, his great-great-grandfather is the ancestor who was MIA, so the genetic tree has the potential to work well for this purpose.

Estes 23andme tree today

click to enlarge

Today, my tree looks somewhat different, with only 14 people displayed instead of 18, and 6 waiting in the wings to see if I can help 23andMe figure out how and where to place them.

Since the initial launch, customers have been given the opportunity to add their ancestors’ names to their nodes. This works just fine so long as nobody married more than once and had children from both marriages.

Estes Willie Alexander today

click to enlarge

 

Here’s a closer image of the left-hand side of my tree where I’ve super-imposed the location of Willis Alexander Garmon Estes and Edna, as they are related to Garmon the Younger, at bottom right. Ignore the other names – I only utilized my own tree for an example tree structure.

One more generation and it’s unlikely that 23andMe would have made the connection between Edna and Garmon the younger.

Not only does this illustrate the perfect reason to test the oldest generations in your family, but also never to ignore an unknown match that seems to be within the past 3 or 4 generations. You never know what mysteries you might unravel.

Four generations actually reaches back in time quite substantially. In my case, my great-great-grandparents were born in 1805, 1810, 1812, 1813, 1815, 1816, 1818 (2), 1820, 1822, 1827, 1829, 1830, 1832, 1841 and 1848.

If you have mysteries within your closest 4 generations to unravel, the genetic tree at 23andMe might provide valuable clues, but only if you’re willing to do the requisite work to figure out HOW these people match you.

You can’t transfer your DNA file TO 23andMe, so if you want to have your results in the 23andMe database, you’ll need to test there.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Garmon Estes, the younger, for generously sharing this story and allowing publication. My heart was warmed to see your generational research trip.

Thank you to Garmon Estes, the elder, for being my research partner for so many years. You can finally RIP now, although somehow I suspect you already have these answers.

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Y DNA: Step-by-Step Big Y Analysis

Many males take the Big Y-700 test offered by FamilyTreeDNA, so named because testers receive the most granular haplogroup SNP results in addition to 700+ included STR marker results. If you’re not familiar with those terms, you might enjoy the article, STRs vs SNPs, Multiple DNA Personalities.

The Big Y test gives testers the best of both, along with contributing to the building of the Y phylotree. You can read about the additions to the Y tree via the Big Y, plus how it helped my own Estes project, here.

Some men order this test of their own volition, some at the request of a family member, and some in response to project administrators who are studying a specific topic – like a particular surname.

The Big Y-700 test is the most complete Y DNA test offered, testing millions of locations on the Y chromosome to reveal mutations, some unique and never before discovered, many of which are useful to genealogists. The Big Y-700 includes the traditional Y DNA STR marker testing along with SNP results that define haplogroups. Translated, both types of test results are compared to other men for genealogy, which is the primary goal of DNA testing.

Being a female, I often recruit males in my family surname lines and sponsor testing. My McNiel line, historic haplogroup R-M222, has been particularly frustrating both genealogically as well as genetically after hitting a brick wall in the 1700s. My McNeill cousin agreed to take a Big Y test, and this analysis walks through the process of understanding what those results are revealing.

After my McNeill cousin’s Big Y results came back from the lab, I spent a significant amount of time turning over every leaf to extract as much information as possible, both from the Big Y-700 DNA test itself and as part of a broader set of intertwined genetic information and genealogical evidence.

I invite you along on this journey as I explain the questions we hoped to answer and then evaluate Big Y DNA results along with other information to shed light on those quandaries.

I will warn you, this article is long because it’s a step-by-step instruction manual for you to follow when interpreting your own Big Y results. I’d suggest you simply read this article the first time to get a feel for the landscape, before working through the process with your own results. There’s so much available that most people leave laying on the table because they don’t understand how to extract the full potential of these test results.

If you’d like to read more about the Big Y-700 test, the FamilyTreeDNA white paper is here, and I wrote about the Big Y-700 when it was introduced, here.

You can read an overview of Y DNA, here, and Y DNA: The Dictionary of DNA, here.

Ok, get yourself a cuppa joe, settle in, and let’s go!

George and Thomas McNiel – Who Were They?

George and Thomas McNiel appear together in Spotsylvania County, Virginia records. Y DNA results, in combination with early records, suggest that these two men were brothers.

I wrote about discovering that Thomas McNeil’s descendant had taken a Y DNA test and matched George’s descendants, here, and about my ancestor George McNiel, here.

McNiel family history in Wilkes County, NC, recorded in a letter written in 1898 by George McNiel’s grandson tells us that George McNiel, born about 1720, came from Scotland with his two brothers, John and Thomas. Elsewhere, it was reported that the McNiel brothers sailed from Glasgow, Scotland and that George had been educated at the University of Edinburgh for the Presbyterian ministry but had a change of religious conviction during the voyage. As a result, a theological tiff developed that split the brothers.

George, eventually, if not immediately, became a Baptist preacher. His origins remain uncertain.

The brothers reportedly arrived about 1750 in Maryland, although I have no confirmation. By 1754, Thomas McNeil appeared in the Spotsylvania County, VA records with a male being apprenticed to him as a tailor. In 1757, in Spotsylvania County, the first record of George McNeil showed James Pey being apprenticed to learn the occupation of tailor.

If George and Thomas were indeed tailors, that’s not generally a country occupation and would imply that they both apprenticed as such when they were growing up, wherever that was.

Thomas McNeil is recorded in one Spotsylvania deed as being from King and Queen County, VA. If this is the case, and George and Thomas McNiel lived in King and Queen, at least for a time, this would explain the lack of early records, as King and Queen is a thrice-burned county. If there was a third brother, John, I find no record of him.

My now-deceased cousin, George McNiel, initially tested for the McNiel Y DNA and also functioned for decades as the family historian. George, along with his wife, inventoried the many cemeteries of Wilkes County, NC.

George believed through oral history that the family descended from the McNiel’s of Barra.

McNiel Big Y Kisumul

George had this lovely framed print of Kisimul Castle, seat of the McNiel Clan on the Isle of Barra, proudly displayed on his wall.

That myth was dispelled with the initial DNA testing when our line did not match the Barra line, as can be seen in the MacNeil DNA project, much to George’s disappointment. As George himself said, the McNiel history is both mysterious and contradictory. Amen to that, George!

McNiel Big Y Niall 9 Hostages

However, in place of that history, we were instead awarded the Niall of the 9 Hostages badge, created many years ago based on a 12 marker STR result profile. Additionally, the McNiel DNA was assigned to haplogroup R-M222. Of course, today’s that’s a far upstream haplogroup, but 15+ years ago, we had only a fraction of the testing or knowledge that we do today.

The name McNeil, McNiel, or however you spell it, resembles Niall, so on the surface, this made at least some sense. George was encouraged by the new information, even though he still grieved the loss of Kisimul Castle.

Of course, this also caused us to wonder about the story stating our line had originated in Scotland because Niall of the 9 Hostages lived in Ireland.

Niall of the 9 Hostages

Niall of the 9 Hostages was reportedly a High King of Ireland sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, actual historical records place him living someplace in the mid-late 300s to early 400s, with his death reported in different sources as occurring before 382 and alternatively about 411. The Annals of the Four Masters dates his reign to 379-405, and Foras Feasa ar Eirinn says from 368-395. Activities of his sons are reported between 379 and 405.

In other words, Niall lived in Ireland about 1500-1600 years ago, give or take.

Migration

Generally, migration was primarily from Scotland to Ireland, not the reverse, at least as far as we know in recorded history. Many Scottish families settled in the Ulster Plantation beginning in 1606 in what is now Northern Ireland. The Scots-Irish immigration to the states had begun by 1718. Many Protestant Scottish families immigrated from Ireland carrying the traditional “Mc” names and Presbyterian religion, clearly indicating their Scottish heritage. The Irish were traditionally Catholic. George could have been one of these immigrants.

We have unresolved conflicts between the following pieces of McNeil history:

  • Descended from McNeil’s of Barra – disproved through original Y DNA testing.
  • Immigrated from Glasgow, Scotland, and schooled in the Presbyterian religion in Edinburgh.
  • Descended from the Ui Neill dynasty, an Irish royal family dominating the northern half of Ireland from the 6th to 10th centuries.

Of course, it’s possible that our McNiel/McNeil line could have been descended from the Ui Neill dynasty AND also lived in Scotland before immigrating.

It’s also possible that they immigrated from Ireland, not Scotland.

And finally, it’s possible that the McNeil surname and M222 descent are not related and those two things are independent and happenstance.

A New Y DNA Tester

Since cousin George is, sadly, deceased, we needed a new male Y DNA tester to represent our McNiel line. Fortunately, one such cousin graciously agreed to take the Big Y-700 test so that we might, hopefully, answer numerous questions:

  • Does the McNiel line have a unique haplogroup, and if so, what does it tell us?
  • Does our McNiel line descend from Ireland or Scotland?
  • Where are our closest geographic clusters?
  • What can we tell by tracing our haplogroup back in time?
  • Do any other men match the McNiel haplogroup, and what do we know about their history?
  • Does the Y DNA align with any specific clans, clan history, or prehistory contributing to clans?

With DNA, you don’t know what you don’t know until you test.

Welcome – New Haplogroup

I was excited to see my McNeill cousin’s results arrive. He had graciously allowed me access, so I eagerly took a look.

He had been assigned to haplogroup R-BY18350.

McNiel Big Y branch

Initially, I saw that indeed, six men matched my McNeill cousin, assigned to the same haplogroup. Those surnames were:

  • Scott
  • McCollum
  • Glass
  • McMichael
  • Murphy
  • Campbell

Notice that I said, “were.” That’s right, because shortly after the results were returned, based on markers called private variants, Family Tree DNA assigned a new haplogroup to my McNeill cousin.

Drum roll please!!!

Haplogroup R-BY18332

McNiel Big Y BY18332

Additionally, my cousin’s Big Y test resulted in several branches being split, shown on the Block Tree below.

McNIel Big Y block tree

How cool is this!

This Block Tree graphic shows, visually, that our McNiel line is closest to McCollum and Campbell testers, and is a brother clade to those branches showing to the left and right of our new R-BY18332. It’s worth noting that BY25938 is an equivalent SNP to BY18332, at least today. In the future, perhaps another tester will test, allowing those two branches to be further subdivided.

Furthermore, after the new branches were added, Cousin McNeill has no more Private Variants, which are unnamed SNPs. There were all utilized in naming additional tree branches!

I wrote about the Big Y Block Tree here.

Niall (Or Whoever) Was Prolific

The first thing that became immediately obvious was how successful our progenitor was.

McNiel Big Y M222 project

click to enlarge

In the MacNeil DNA project, 38 men with various surname spellings descend from M222. There are more in the database who haven’t joined the MacNeil project.

Whoever originally carried SNP R-M222, someplace between 2400 and 5900 years ago, according to the block tree, either had many sons who had sons, or his descendants did. One thing is for sure, his line certainly is in no jeopardy of dying out today.

The Haplogroup R-M222 DNA Project, which studies this particular haplogroup, reads like a who’s who of Irish surnames.

Big Y Match Results

Big Y matches must have no more than 30 SNP differences total, including private variants and named SNPs combined. Named SNPs function as haplogroup names. In other words, Cousin McNeill’s terminal SNP, meaning the SNP furthest down on the tree, R-BY18332, is also his haplogroup name.

Private variants are mutations that have occurred in the line being tested, but not yet in other lines. Occurrences of private variants in multiple testers allow the Private Variant to be named and placed on the haplotree.

Of course, Family Tree DNA offers two types of Y DNA testing, STR testing which is the traditional 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker testing panels, and the Big Y-700 test which provides testers with:

  • All 111 STR markers used for matching and comparison
  • Another 589+ STR markers only available through the Big Y test increasing the total STR markers tested from 111 to minimally 700
  • A scan of the Y chromosome, looking for new and known SNPs and STR mutations

Of course, these tests keep on giving, both with matching and in the case of the Big Y – continued haplogroup discovery and refinement in the future as more testers test. The Big Y is an investment as a test that keeps on giving, not just a one-time purchase.

I wrote about the Big Y-700 when it was introduced here and a bit later here.

Let’s see what the results tell us. We’ll start by taking a look at the matches, the first place that most testers begin.

Mcniel Big Y STR menu

Regular Y DNA STR matching shows the results for the STR results through 111 markers. The Big Y section, below, provides results for the Big Y SNPs, Big Y matches and additional STR results above 111 markers.

McNiel Big Y menu

Let’s take a look.

STR and SNP Testing

Of Cousin McNeil’s matches, 2 Big Y testers and several STR testers carry some variant of the Neal, Neel, McNiel, McNeil, O’Neil, etc. surnames by many spellings.

While STR matching is focused primarily on a genealogical timeframe, meaning current to roughly 500-800 years in the past, SNP testing reaches much further back in time.

  • STR matching reaches approximately 500-800 years.
  • Big Y matching reaches approximately 1500 years.
  • SNPs and haplogroups reach back infinitely, and can be tracked historically beyond the genealogical timeframe, shedding light on our ancestors’ migration paths, helping to answer the age-old question of “where did we come from.”

These STR and Big Y time estimates are based on a maximum number of mutations for testers to be considered matches paired with known genealogy.

Big Y results consider two men a match if they have 30 or fewer total SNP differences. Using NGS (next generation sequencing) scan technology, the targeted regions of the Y chromosome are scanned multiple times, although not all regions are equally useful.

Individually tested SNPs are still occasionally available in some cases, but individual SNP testing has generally been eclipsed by the greatly more efficient enriched technology utilized with Big Y testing.

Think of SNP testing as walking up to a specific location and taking a look, while NGS scan technology is a drone flying over the entire region 30-50 times looking multiple times to be sure they see the more distant target accurately.

Multiple scans acquiring the same read in the same location, shown below in the Big Y browser tool by the pink mutations at the red arrow, confirm that NGS sequencing is quite reliable.

McNiel Big Y browser

These two types of tests, STR panels 12-111 and the SNP-based Big Y, are meant to be utilized in combination with each other.

STR markers tend to mutate faster and are less reliable, experiencing frustrating back mutations. SNPs very rarely experience this level of instability. Some regions of the Y chromosome are messier or more complicated than others, causing problems with interpreting reads reliably.

For purposes of clarity, the string of pink A reads above is “not messy,” and “A” is very clearly a mutation because all ~39 scanned reads report the same value of “A,” and according to the legend, all of those scans are high quality. Multiple combined reads of A and G, for example, in the same location, would be tough to call accurately and would be considered unreliable.

You can see examples of a few scattered pink misreads, above.

The two different kinds of tests produce results for overlapping timeframes – with STR mutations generally sifting through closer relationships and SNPs reaching back further in time.

Many more men have taken the Y DNA STR tests over the last 20 years. The Big Y tests have only been available for the past handful of years.

STR testing produces the following matches for my McNiel cousin:

STR Level STR Matches STR Matches Who Took the Big Y % STR Who Took Big Y STR Matches Who Also Match on the Big Y
12 5988 796 13 52
25 6660 725 11 57
37 878 94 11 12
67 1225 252 21 23
111 4 2 50 1

Typically, one would expect that all STR matches that took the Big Y would match on the Big Y, since STR results suggest relationships closer in time, but that’s not the case.

  • Many STR testers who have taken the Big Y seem to be just slightly too distant to be considered a Big Y match using SNPs, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
  • However, this could easily be a function of the fact that STRs mutate both backward and forwards and may have simply “happened” to have mutated to a common value – which suggests a closer relationship than actually exists.
  • It could also be that the SNP matching threshold needs to be raised since the enhanced and enriched Big Y-700 technology now finds more mutations than the older Big Y-500. I would like to see SNP matching expanded to 40 from 30 because it seems that clan connections may be being missed. Thirty may have been a great threshold before the more sensitive Big Y-700 test revealed more mutations, which means that people hit that 30 threshold before they did with previous tests.
  • Between the combination of STRs and SNPs mutating at the same time, some Big Y matches are pushed just out of range.

In a nutshell, the correlation I expected to find in terms of matching between STR and Big Y testing is not what I found. Let’s take a look at what we discovered.

It’s worth noting that the analysis is easier if you are working together with at least your closest matches or have access via projects to at least some of their results. You can see common STR values to 111 in projects, such as surname projects. Project administrators can view more if project members have allowed access.

Unexpected Discoveries and Gotchas

While I did expect STR matches to also match on the Big Y, I don’t expect the Big Y matches to necessarily match on the STR tests. After all, the Big Y is testing for more deep-rooted history.

Only one of the McNiel Big Y matches also matches at all levels of STR testing. That’s not surprising since Big Y matching reaches further back in time than STR testing, and indeed, not all STR testers have taken a Big Y test.

Of my McNeill cousin’s closest Big Y matches, we find the following relative to STR matching.

Surname Ancestral Location Big Y Variant/SNP Difference STR Match Level
Scott 1565 in Buccleuch, Selkirkshire, Scotland 20 12, 25, 37, 67
McCollum Not listed 21 67 only
Glass 1618 in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland 23 12, 25, 67
McMichael 1720 County Antrim, Ireland 28 67 only
Murphy Not listed 29 12, 25, 37, 67
Campbell Scotland 30 12, 25, 37, 67, 111

It’s ironic that the man who matches on all STR levels has the most variants, 30 – so many that with 1 more, he would not have been considered a Big Y match at all.

Only the Campbell man matches on all STR panels. Unfortunately, this Campbell male does not match the Clan Campbell line, so that momentary clan connection theory is immediately put to rest.

Block Tree Matches – What They Do, and Don’t, Mean

Note that a Carnes male, the other person who matches my McNeill cousin at 111 STR markers and has taken a Big Y test does not match at the Big Y level. His haplogroup BY69003 is located several branches up the tree, with our common ancestor, R-S588, having lived about 2000 years ago. Interestingly, we do match other R-S588 men.

This is an example where the total number of SNP mutations is greater than 30 for these 2 men (McNeill and Carnes), but not for my McNeill cousin compared with other men on the same S588 branch.

McNiel Big Y BY69003

By searching for Carnes on the block tree, I can view my cousin’s match to Mr. Carnes, even though they don’t match on the Big Y. STR matches who have taken the Big Y test, even if they don’t match at the Big Y level, are shown on the Block Tree on their branch.

By clicking on the haplogroup name, R-BY69003, above, I can then see three categories of information about the matches at that haplogroup level, below.

McNiel Big Y STR differences

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By selecting “Matches,” I can see results under the column, “Big Y.” This does NOT mean that the tester matches either Mr. Carnes or Mr. Riker on the Big Y, but is telling me that there are 14 differences out of 615 STR markers above 111 markers for Mr. Carnes, and 8 of 389 for Mr. Riker.

In other words, this Big Y column is providing STR information, not indicating a Big Y match. You can’t tell one way or another if someone shown on the Block Tree is shown there because they are a Big Y match or because they are an STR match that shares the same haplogroup.

As a cautionary note, your STR matches that have taken the Big Y ARE shown on the block tree, which is a good thing. Just don’t assume that means they are Big Y matches.

The 30 SNP threshold precludes some matches.

My research indicates that the people who match on STRs and carry the same haplogroup, but don’t match at the Big Y level, are every bit as relevant as those who do match on the Big Y.

McNIel Big Y block tree menu

If you’re not vigilant when viewing the block tree, you’ll make the assumption that you match all of the people showing on the Block Tree on the Big Y test since Block Tree appears under the Big Y tools. You have to check Big Y matches specifically to see if you match people shown on the Block Tree. You don’t necessarily match all of them on the Big Y test, and vice versa, of course.

You match Block Tree inhabitants either:

  • On the Big Y, but not the STR panels
  • On the Big Y AND at least one level of STRs between 12 and 111, inclusive
  • On STRs to someone who has taken the Big Y test, but whom you do not match on the Big Y test

Big Y-500 or Big Y-700?

McNiel Big Y STR differences

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Looking at the number of STR markers on the matches page of the Block Tree for BY69003, above, or on the STR Matches page is the only way to determine whether or not your match took the Big Y-700 or the Big Y-500 test.

If you add 111 to the Big Y SNP number of 615 for Mr. Carnes, the total equals 726, which is more than 700, so you know he took the Big Y-700.

If you add 111 to 389 for Mr. Riker, you get 500, which is less than 700, so you know that he took the Big Y-500 and not the Big Y-700.

There are still a very small number of men in the database who did not upgrade to 111 when they ordered their original Big Y test, but generally, this calculation methodology will work. Today, all Big Y tests are upgraded to 111 markers if they have not already tested at that level.

Why does Big Y-500 vs Big Y-700 matter? The enriched chemistry behind the testing technology improved significantly with the Big Y-700 test, enhancing Y-DNA results. I was an avowed skeptic until I saw the results myself after upgrading men in the Estes DNA project. In other words, if Big Y-500 testers upgrade, they will probably have more SNPs in common.

You may want to contact your closest Big Y-500 matches and ask if they will consider upgrading to the Big Y-700 test. For example, if we had close McNiel or similar surname matches, I would do exactly that.

Matching Both the Big Y and STRs – No Single Source

There is no single place or option to view whether or not you match someone BOTH on the Big Y AND STR markers. You can see both match categories individually, of course, but not together.

You can determine if your STR matches took the Big Y, below, and their haplogroup, which is quite useful, but you can’t tell if you match them at the Big Y level on this page.

McNiel Big Y STR match Big Y

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Selecting “Display Only Matches With Big Y” means displaying matches to men who took the Big Y test, not necessarily men you match on the Big Y. Mr. Conley, in the example above, does not match my McNeill cousin on the Big Y but does match him at 12 and 25 STR markers.

I hope FTDNA will add three display options:

  • Select only men that match on the Big Y in the STR panel
  • Add an option for Big Y on the advanced matches page
  • Indicate men who also match on STRs on the Big Y match page

It was cumbersome and frustrating to have to view all of the matches multiple times to compile various pieces of information in a separate spreadsheet.

No Big Y Match Download

There is also no option to download your Big Y matches. With a few matches, this doesn’t matter, but with 119 matches, or more, it does. As more people test, everyone will have more matches. That’s what we all want!

What you can do, however, is to download your STR matches from your match page at levels 12-111 individually, then combine them into one spreadsheet. (It would be nice to be able to download them all at once.)

McNiel Big Y csv

You can then add your Big Y matches manually to the STR spreadsheet, or you can simply create a separate Big Y spreadsheet. That’s what I chose to do after downloading my cousin’s 14,737 rows of STR matches. I told you that R-M222 was prolific! I wasn’t kidding.

This high number of STR matches also perfectly illustrates why the Big Y SNP results were so critical in establishing the backbone relationship structure. Using the two tools together is indispensable.

An additional benefit to downloading STR results is that you can sort the STR spreadsheet columns in surname order. This facilitates easily spotting all spelling variations of McNiel, including words like Niel, Neal and such that might be relevant but that you might not notice otherwise.

Creating a Big Y Spreadsheet

My McNiel cousin has 119 Big Y-700 matches.

I built a spreadsheet with the following columns facilitating sorting in a number of ways, with definitions as follows:

McNiel Big Y spreadsheet

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  • First Name
  • Last Name – You will want to search matches on your personal page at Family Tree DNA by this surname later, so be sure if there is a hyphenated name to enter it completely.
  • Haplogroup – You’ll want to sort by this field.
  • Convergent – A field you’ll complete when doing your analysis. Convergence is the common haplogroup in the tree shared by you and your match. In the case of the green matches above, which are color-coded on my spreadsheet to indicate the closest matches with my McNiel cousin, the convergent haplogroup is BY18350.
  • Common Tree Gen – This column is the generations on the Block Tree shown to this common haplogroup. In the example above, it’s between 9 and 14 SNP generations. I’ll show you where to gather this information.
  • Geographic Location – Can be garnered from 4 sources. No color in that cell indicates that this information came from the Earliest Known Ancestor (EKA) field in the STR matches. Blue indicates that I opened the tree and pulled the location information from that source. Orange means that someone else by the same surname whom the tester also Y DNA matches shows this location. I am very cautious when assigning orange, and it’s risky because it may not be accurate. A fourth source is to use Ancestry, MyHeritage, or another genealogical resource to identify a location if an individual provides genealogical information but no location in the EKA field. Utilizing genealogy databases is only possible if enough information is provided to make a unique identification. John Smith 1700-1750 won’t do it, but Seamus McDougal (1750-1810) married to Nelly Anderson might just work.
  • STR Match – Tells me if the Big Y match also matches on STR markers, and if so, which ones. Only the first 111 markers are used for matching. No STR match generally means the match is further back in time, but there are no hard and fast rules.
  • Big Y Match – My original goal was to combine this information with the STR match spreadsheet. If you don’t wish to combine the two, then you don’t need this column.
  • Tree – An easy way for me to keep track of which matches do and do not have a tree. Please upload or create a tree.

You can also add a spreadsheet column for comments or contact information.

McNiel Big Y profile

You will also want to click your match’s name to display their profile card, paying particular attention to the “About Me” information where people sometimes enter genealogical information. Also, scan the Ancestral Surnames where the match may enter a location for a specific surname.

Private Variants

I added additional spreadsheet columns, not shown above, for Private Variant analysis. That level of analysis is beyond what most people are interested in doing, so I’m only briefly discussing this aspect. You may want to read along, so you at least understand what you are looking at.

Clicking on Private Variants in your Big Y Results shows your variants, or mutations, that are unnamed as SNPs. When they are named, they become SNPs and are placed on the haplotree.

The reference or “normal” state for the DNA allele at that location is shown as the “Reference,” and “Genotype” is the result of the tester. Reference results are not shown for each tester, because the majority are the same. Only mutations are shown.

McNiel Big Y private variants

There are 5 Private Variants, total, for my cousin. I’ve obscured the actual variant numbers and instead typed in 111111 and 222222 for the first two as examples.

McNiel Big Y nonmatching variants

In our example, there are 6 Big Y matches, with matches one and five having the non-matching variants shown above.

Non-matching variants mean that the match, Mr. Scott, in example 1, does NOT match the tester (my cousin) on those variants.

  • If the tester (you) has no mutation, you won’t have a Private Variant shown on your Private Variant page.
  • If the tester does have a Private Variant shown, and that variant shows ON their matches list of non-matching variants, it means the match does NOT match the tester, and either has the normal reference value or a different mutation. Explained another way, if you have a mutation, and that variant is listed on your match list of Non-Matching Variants, your match does NOT match you and does NOT have the same mutation.
  • If the match does NOT have the Private Variant on their list, that means the match DOES match the tester, and they both have the same mutation, making this Private Variant a candidate to be named as a new SNP.
  • If you don’t have a Private Variant listed, but it shows in the Non-Matching Variants of your match, that means you have the reference or normal value, and they have a mutation.

In example #1, above, the tester has a mutation at variant 111111, and 111111 is shown as a Non-Matching Variant to Mr. Scott, so Mr. Scott does NOT match the tester. Mr. Scott also does NOT match the tester at locations 222222 and 444444.

In example #5, 111111 is NOT shown on the Non-Matching Variant list, so Mr. Treacy DOES match the tester.

I have a terrible time wrapping my head around the double negatives, so it’s critical that I make charts.

On the chart below, I’ve listed the tester’s private variants in an individual column each, so 111111, 222222, etc.

For each match, I’ve copy and pasted their Non-Matching Variants in a column to the right of the tester’s variants, in the lavender region. In this example, I’ve typed the example variants into separate columns for each tester so you can see the difference. Remember, a non-matching variant means they do NOT match the tester’s mutation.

McNiel private variants spreadsheet

On my normal spreadsheet where the non-matching variants don’t have individuals columns, I then search for the first variant, 111111. If the variant does appear in the list, it means that match #1 does NOT have the mutation, so I DON’T put an X in the box for match #1 under 111111.

In the example above, the only match that does NOT have 111111 on their list of Non-Matching Variants is #5, so an X IS placed in that corresponding cell. I’ve highlighted that column in yellow to indicate this is a candidate for a new SNP.

You can see that no one else has the variant, 222222, so it truly is totally private. It’s not highlighted in yellow because it’s not a candidate to be a new SNP.

Everyone shares mutation 333333, so it’s a great candidate to become a new SNP, as is 555555.

Match #6 shares the mutation at 444444, but no one else does.

This is a manual illustration of an automated process that occurs at Family Tree DNA. After Big Y matches are returned, automated software creates private variant lists of potential new haplogroups that are then reviewed internally where SNPs are evaluated, named, and placed on the tree if appropriate.

If you follow this process and discover matches, you probably don’t need to do anything, as the automated review process will likely catch up within a few days to weeks.

Big Y Matches

In the case of the McNiel line, it was exciting to discover several private variants, mutations that were not yet named SNPs, found in several matches that were candidates to be named as SNPs and placed on the Y haplotree.

Sure enough, a few days later, my McNeill cousin had a new haplogroup assignment.

Most people have at least one Private Variant, locations in which they do NOT match another tester. When several people have these same mutations, and they are high-quality reads, the Private Variant qualifies to be added to the haplotree as a SNP, a task performed at FamilyTreeDNA by Michael Sager.

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Michael speak, please do so. You can watch Michael’s presentation at Genetic Genealogy Ireland (GGI) titled “The Tree of Mankind,” on YouTube, here, compliments of Maurice Gleeson who coordinates GGI. Maurice has also written about the Gleeson Y DNA project analysis, here.

As a result of Cousin McNeill’s test, six new SNPs have been added to the Y haplotree, the tree of mankind. You can see our new haplogroup for our branch, BY18332, with an equivalent SNP, BY25938, along with three sibling branches to the left and right on the tree.

McNiel Big Y block tree 4 branch

Big Y testing not only answers genealogical questions, it advances science by building out the tree of mankind too.

The surname of the men who share the same haplogroup, R-BY18332, meaning the named SNP furthest down the tree, are McCollum and Campbell. Not what I expected. I expected to find a McNeil who does match on at least some STR markers. This is exactly why the Big Y is so critical to define the tree structure, then use STR matches to flesh it out.

Taking the Big Y-700 test provided granularity between 6 matches, shown above, who were all initially assigned to the same branch of the tree, BY18350, but were subsequently divided into 4 separate branches. My McNiel cousin is no longer equally as distant from all 6 men. We now know that our McNiel line is genetically closer on the Y chromosome to Campbell and McCollum and further distant from Murphy, Scott, McMichael, and Glass.

Not All SNP Matches are STR Matches

Not all SNP matches are also STR matches. Some relationships are too far back in time. However, in this case, while each person on the BY18350 branches matches at some STR level, only the Campbell individual matches at all STR levels.

Remember that variants (mutations) are accumulating down both respective branches of the tree at the same time, meaning one per roughly every 100 years (if 100 is the average number we want to use) for both testers. A total of 30 variants or mutations difference, an average of 15 on each branch of the tree (McNiel and their match) would suggest a common ancestor about 1500 years ago, so each Big Y match should have a common ancestor 1500 years ago or closer. At least on average, in theory.

The Big Y test match threshold is 30 variants, so if there were any more mismatches with the Campbell male, they would not have been a Big Y match, even though they have the exact same haplogroup.

Having the same haplogroup means that their terminal SNP is identical, the SNP furthest down the tree today, at least until someone matches one of them on their Private Variants (if any remain unnamed) and a new terminal SNP is assigned to one or both of them.

Mutations, and when they happen, are truly a roll of the dice. This is why viewing all of your Big Y Block Tree matches is critical, even if they don’t show on your Big Y match list. One more variant and Campbell would have not been shown as a match, yet he is actually quite close, on the same branch, and matches on all STR panels as well.

SNPs Establish the Backbone Structure

I always view the block tree first to provide a branching tree structure, then incorporate STR matches into the equation. Both can equally as important to genealogy, but haplogroup assignment is the most accurate tool, regardless of whether the two individuals match on the Big Y test, especially if the haplogroups are relatively close.

Let’s work with the Block Tree.

The Block Tree

McNIel Big Y block tree menu

Clicking on the link to the Block Tree in the Big Y results immediately displays the tester’s branch on the tree, below.

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On the left side are SNP generation markers. Keep in mind that approximate SNP generations are marked every 5 generations. The most recent generations are based on the number of private variants that have not yet been assigned as branches on the tree. It’s possible that when they are assigned that they will be placed upstream someplace, meaning that placement will reduce the number of early branches and perhaps increase the number of older branches.

The common haplogroup of all of the branches shown here with the upper red arrow is R-BY3344, about 15 SNP generations ago. If you’re using 100 years per SNP generation, that’s about 1500 years. If you’re using 80 years, then 1200 years ago. Some people use even fewer years for calculations.

If some of the private variants in the closer branches disappear, then the common ancestral branch may shift to closer in time.

This tree will always be approximate because some branches can never be detected. They have disappeared entirely over time when no males exist to reproduce.

Conversely, subclades have been born since a common ancestor clade whose descendants haven’t yet tested. As more people test, more clades will be discovered.

Therefore, most recent common ancestor (MRCA) haplogroup ages can only be estimated, based on who has tested and what we know today. The tree branches also vary depending on whether testers have taken the Big Y-500 or the more sensitive Big Y-700, which detects more variants. The Y haplotree is a combination of both.

Big Y-500 results will not be as granular and potentially do not position test-takers as far down the tree as Big Y-700 results would if they upgraded. You’ll need to factor that into your analysis if you’re drawing genealogical conclusions based on these results, especially close results.

You’ll note that the direct path of descent is shown above with arrows from BY3344 through the first blue box with 5 equivalent SNPS, to the next white box, our branch, with two equivalent SNPs. Our McNeil ancestor, the McCollum tester, and the Campell tester have no unresolved private variants between them, which suggests they are probably closer in time than 10 generations back. You can see that the SNP generations are pushed “up” by the neighbor variants.

Because of the fact that private variants don’t occur on a clock cycle and occur in individual lines at an unsteady rate, we must use averages.

That means that when we look further “up” the tree, clicking generation by generation on the up arrow above BY3344, the SNP generations on the left side “adjust” based on what is beneath, and unseen at that level.

The Block Tree Adjusts

Note, in the example above, BY3344 is at SNP generation 15.

Next, I clicked one generation upstream, to R-S668.

McNiel Big Y block tree S668

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You can see that S668 is about 21 SNP generations upstream, and now BY3344 is listed as 20 generations, not 15. You can see our branch, BY3344, but you can no longer see subclades or our matches below that branch in this view.

You can, however, see two matches that descend through S668, brother branches to BY3344, red arrows at far right.

Clicking on the up arrow one more time shows us haplogroup S673, below, and the child branches. The three child branches on which the tester has matches are shown with red arrows.

McNiel Big Y S673

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You’ll immediately notice that now S668 is shown at 19 SNP generations, not 20, and S673 is shown at 20. This SNP generation difference between views is a function of dealing with aggregated and averaged private variants on combined lines and causes the SNP generations to shift. This is also why I always say “about.”

As you continue to click up the tree, the shifting SNP generations continue, reminding us that we can’t truly see back in time. We can only achieve approximations, but those approximations improve as more people test, and more SNPs are named and placed in their proper places on the phylotree.

I love the Block Tree, although I wish I could see further side-to-side, allowing me to view all of the matches on one expanded tree so I can easily see their relationships to the tester, and each other.

Countries and Origins

In addition to displaying shared averaged autosomal origins of testers on a particular branch, if they have taken the Family Finder test and opted-in to sharing origins (ethnicity) results, you can also view the countries indicated by testers on that branch along with downstream branches of the tree.

McNiel Big Y countries

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For example, the Countries tab for S673 is shown above. I can see matches on this branch with no downstream haplogroup currently assigned, as well as cumulative results from downstream branches.

Still, I need to be able to view this information in a more linear format.

The Block Tree and spreadsheet information beautifully augment the haplotree, so let’s take a look.

The Haplotree

On your Y DNA results page, click on the “Haplotree and SNPs” link.

McNIel Big Y haplotree menu

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The Y haplotree will be displayed in pedigree style, quite familiar to genealogists. The SNP legend will be shown at the top of the display. In some cases, “presumed positive” results occur where coverage is lacking, back mutations or read errors are encountered. Presumed positive is based on positive SNPs further down the tree. In other words, that yellow SNP below must read positive or downstream ones wouldn’t.

McNIel Big Y pedigree descent

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The tester’s branch is shown with the grey bar. To the right of the haplogroup-defining SNP are listed the branch and equivalent SNP names. At far right, we see the total equivalent SNPs along with three dots that display the Country Report. I wish the haplotree also showed my matches, or at least my matching surnames, allowing me to click through. It doesn’t, so I have to return to the Big Y page or STR Matches page, or both.

I’ve starred each branch through which my McNiell cousin descends. Sibling branches are shown in grey. As you’ll recall from the Block Tree, we do have matches on those sibling branches, shown side by side with our branch.

The small numbers to the right of the haplogroup names indicate the number of downstream branches. BY18350 has three, all displayed. But looking upstream a bit, we see that DF97 has 135 downstream branches. We also have matches on several of those branches. To show those branches, simply click on the haplogroup.

The challenge for me, with 119 McNeill matches, is that I want to see a combination of the block tree, my spreadsheet information, and the haplotree. The block tree shows the names, my spreadsheet tells me on which branches to look for those matches. Many aren’t easily visible on the block tree because they are downstream on sibling branches.

Here’s where you can find and view different pieces of information.

Data and Sources STR Matches Page Big Y Matches Page Block Tree Haplogroups & SNPs Page
STR matches Yes No, but would like to see who matches at which STR levels If they have taken Big Y test, but doesn’t mean they match on Big Y matching No
SNP matches *1 Shows if STR match has common haplogroup, but not if tester matches on Big Y No, but would like to see who matches at which STR level Big Y matches and STR matches that aren’t Big Y matches are both shown No, but need this feature – see combined haplotree/ block tree
Other Haplogroup Branch Residents Yes, both estimated and tested No, use block tree or click through to profile card, would like to see haplogroup listed for Big Y matches Yes, both Big Y and STR tested, not estimated. Cannot tell if person is Big Y match or STR match, or both. No individuals, but would like that as part of countries report, see combined haplotree/block tree
Fully Expanded Phylotree No No Would like ability to see all branches with whom any Big Y or STR match resides at one time, even if it requires scrolling Yes, but no match information. Matches report could be added like on Block Tree.
Averaged Ethnicities if Have FF Test No No Yes, by haplogroup branch No
Countries Matches map STR only No, need Big Y matches map Yes Yes
Earliest Known Ancestor Yes No, but can click through to profile card No No
Customer Trees Yes No, need this link No No
Profile Card Yes, click through Yes, click through Yes, click through No match info on this page
Downloadable data By STR panel only, would like complete download with 1 click, also if Big Y or FF match Not available at all No No
Path to common haplogroup No No, but would like to see matches haplogroup and convergent haplogroup displayed No, would like the path to convergent haplogroup displayed as an option No, see combined match-block -haplotree in next section

*1 – the best way to see the haplogroup of a Big Y match is to click on their name to view their profile card since haplogroup is not displayed on the Big Y match page. If you happen to also match on STRs, their haplogroup is shown there as well. You can also search for their name using the block tree search function to view their haplogroup.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I created a combined match/block tree/haplotree.

And I really, REALLY hope Family Tree DNA implements something like this because, trust me, this was NOT fun! However, now that it’s done, it is extremely useful. With fewer matches, it should be a breeze.

Here are the steps to create the combined reference tree.

Combo Match/Block/Haplotree

I used Snagit to grab screenshots of the various portions of the haplotree and typed the surnames of the matches in the location of our common convergent haplogroup, taken from the spreadsheet. I also added the SNP generations in red for that haplogroup, at far left, to get some idea of when that common ancestor occurred.

McNIel Big Y combo tree

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This is, in essence, the end-goal of this exercise. There are a few steps to gather data.

Following the path of two matches (the tester and a specific match) you can find their common haplogroup. If your match is shown on the block tree in the same view with your branch, it’s easy to see your common convergent parent haplogroup. If you can’t see the common haplogroup, it’s takes a few extra steps by clicking up the block tree, as illustrated in an earlier section.

We need the ability to click on a match and have a tree display showing both paths to the common haplogroup.

McNiel Big Y convergent

I simulated this functionality in a spreadsheet with my McNiel cousin, a Riley match, and an Ocain match whose terminal SNP is the convergent SNP (M222) between Riley and McNiel. Of course, I’d also like to be able to click to see everyone on one chart on their appropriate branches.

Combining this information onto the haplotree, in the first image, below, M222, 4 men match my McNeill cousin – 2 who show M222 as their terminal SNP, and 2 downstream of M222 on a divergent branch that isn’t our direct branch. In other words, M222 is the convergence point for all 4 men plus my McNeill cousin.

McNiel Big Y M222 haplotree

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In the graphic below, you can see that M222 has a very large number of equivalent SNPs, which will likely become downstream haplogroups at some point in the future. However, today, these equivalent SNPs push M222 from 25 generations to 59. We’ll discuss how this meshes with known history in a minute.

McNiel Big Y M222 block tree

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Two men, Ocain and Ransom, who have both taken the Big Y, whose terminal SNP is M222, match my McNiel cousin. If their common ancestor was actually 59 generations in the past, it’s very, very unlikely that they would match at all given the 30 mutation threshold.

On my reconstructed Match/Block/Haplotree, I included the estimated SNP generations as well. We are starting with the most distant haplogroups and working our way forward in time with the graphics, below.

Make no mistake, there are thousands more men who descend from M222 that have tested, but all of those men except 4 have more than 30 mutations total, so they are not shown as Big Y matches, and they are not shown individually on the Block Tree because they neither match on the Big Y or STR tests. However, there is a way to view information for non-matching men who test positive for M222.

McNiel Big Y M222 countries

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Looking at the Block Tree for M222, many STR match men took a SNP test only to confirm M222, so they would be shown positive for the M222 SNP on STR results and, therefore, in the detailed view of M222 on the Block tree.

Haplogroup information about men who took the M222 test and whom the tester doesn’t match at all are shown here as well in the country and branch totals for R-M222. Their names aren’t displayed because they don’t match the tester on either type of Y DNA test.

Back to constructing my combined tree, I’ve left S658 in both images, above and below, as an overlap placeholder, as we move further down, or towards current, on the haplotree.

McNiel Big Y combo tree center

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Note that BY18350, above, is also an overlap connecting below.

You’ll recall that as a result of the Big Y test, BY18350 was split and now has three child branches plus one person whose terminal SNP is BY18350. All of the men shown below were on one branch until Big Y results revealed that BY18350 needed to be split, with multiple new haplogroups added to the tree.

McNiel Big Y combo tree current

click to enlarge

Using this combination of tools, it’s straightforward for me to see now that our McNiel line is closest to the Campbell tester from Scotland according to the Big Y test + STRs.

Equal according to the Big Y test, but slightly more distant, according to STR matching, is McCollum. The next closest would be sibling branches. Then in the parent group of the other three, BY18350, we find Glass from Scotland.

In BY18350 and subgroups, we find several Scotland locations and one Northern Ireland, which was likely from Scotland initially, given the surname and Ulster Plantation era.

The next upstream parent haplogroup is BY3344, which looks to be weighted towards ancestors from Scotland, shown on the country card, below.

McNiel Big Y BY3344

click to enlarge

This suggests that the origins of the McNiel line was, perhaps, in Scotland, but it doesn’t tell us whether or not George and presumably, Thomas, immigrated from Ireland or Scotland.

This combined tree, with SNPs, surnames from Big Y matches, along with Country information, allows me to see who is really more closely related and who is further away.

What I didn’t do, and probably should, is to add in all of the STR matches who have taken the Big Y test, shown on their convergent branch – but that’s just beyond the scope of time I’m willing to invest, at least for now, given that hundreds of STR matches have taken the Big Y test, and the work of building the combined tree is all manual today.

For those reading this article without access to the Y phylogenetic tree, there’s a public version of the Y and mitochondrial phylotrees available, here.

What About Those McNiels?

No other known McNiel descendants from either Thomas or George have taken the Big Y test, so I didn’t expect any to match, but I am interested in other men by similar surnames. Does ANY other McNiel have a Big Y match?

As it turns out, there are two, plus one STR match who took a Big Y test, but is not a Big Y match.

However, as you can see on the combined match/block/haplotree, above, the closest other Big Y-matching McNeil male is found at about 19 SNP generations, or roughly 1900 years ago. Even if you remove some of the variants in the lower generations that are based on an average number of individual variants, you’re still about 1200 years in the past. It’s extremely doubtful that any surname would survive in both lines from the year 800 or so.

That McNeil tester’s ancestor was born in 1747 in Tranent, Scotland.

The second Big Y-matching person is an O’Neil, a few branches further up in the tree.

The convergent SNP of the two branches, meaning O’Neil and McNeill are at approximately the 21 generation level. The O’Neil man’s Neill ancestor is found in 1843 in Cookestown, County Tyrone, Ireland.

McNiel Big Y convergent McNeil lines

I created a spreadsheet showing convergent lines:

  • The McNeill man with haplogroup A4697 (ancestor Tranent, Scotland) is clearly closest genetically.
  • O’Neill BY91591, who is brother clades with Neel and Neal, all Irish, is another Big Y match.
  • The McNeill man with haplogroup FT91182 is an STR match, but not a Big Y match.

The convergent haplogroup of all of these men is DF105 at about the 22 SNP generation marker.

STRs

Let’s turn back to STR tests, with results that produce matches closer in time.

Searching my STR download spreadsheet for similar surnames, I discovered several surname matches, mining the Earliest Known Ancestor information, profiles and trees produced data as follows:

Ancestor STR Match Level Location
George Charles Neil 12, 25, match on Big Y A4697 1747-1814 Tranent, Scotland
Hugh McNeil 25 (tested at 67) Born 1800 Country Antrim, Northern Ireland
Duncan McNeill 12 (tested at 111) Married 1789, Argyllshire, Scotland
William McNeill 12, 25 (tested at 37) Blackbraes, Stirlingshire, Scotland
William McNiel 25 (tested at 67) Born 1832 Scotland
Patrick McNiel 25 (tested at 111) Trien East, County Roscommon, Ireland
Daniel McNeill 25 (tested at 67) Born 1764 Londonderry, Northern Ireland
McNeil 12 (tested at 67) 1800 Ireland
McNeill (2 matches) 25 (tested Big Y-  SNP FT91182) 1810, Antrim, Northern Ireland
Neal 25 – (tested Big Y, SNP BY146184) Antrim, Northern Ireland
Neel (2 matches) 67 (tested at 111, and Big Y) 1750 Ireland, Northern Ireland

Our best clue that includes a Big Y and STR match is a descendant of George Charles Neil born in Tranent, Scotland, in 1747.

Perhaps our second-best clue comes in the form of a 111 marker match to a descendant of one Thomas McNeil who appears in records as early as 1753 and died in 1761 In Rombout Precinct, Dutchess County, NY where his son John was born. This line and another match at a lower level both reportedly track back to early New Hampshire in the 1600s.

The MacNeil DNA Project tells us the following:

Participant 106370 descends from Isaiah McNeil b. 14 May 1786 Schaghticoke, Rensselaer Co. NY and d. 28 Aug 1855 Poughkeepsie, Dutchess Co., NY, who married Alida VanSchoonhoven.

Isaiah’s parents were John McNeal, baptized 21 Jun 1761 Rombout, Dutchess Co., NY, d. 15 Feb 1820 Stillwater, Saratoga Co., NY and Helena Van De Bogart.

John’s parents were Thomas McNeal, b.c. 1725, d. 14 Aug 1761 NY and Rachel Haff.

Thomas’s parents were John McNeal Jr., b. around 1700, d. 1762 Wallkill, Orange Co., NY (now Ulster Co. formed 1683) and Martha Borland.

John’s parents were John McNeal Sr. and ? From. It appears that John Sr. and his family were this participant’s first generation of Americans.

Searching this line on Ancestry, I discovered additional information that, if accurate, may be relevant. This lineage, if correct, and it may not be, possibly reaching back to Edinburgh, Scotland. While the information gathered from Ancestry trees is certainly not compelling in and of itself, it provides a place to begin research.

Unfortunately, based on matches shown on the MacNeil DNA Project public page, STR marker mutations for kits 30279, B78471 and 417040 when compared to others don’t aid in clustering or indicating which men might be related to this group more closely than others using line-marker mutations.

Matches Map

Let’s take a look at what the STR Matches Map tells us.

McNiel Big Y matches map menu

This 67 marker Matches Map shows the locations of the earliest known ancestors of STR matches who have entered location information.

McNiel Big Y matches mapMcNiel Big Y matches map legend

My McNeill cousin’s closest matches are scattered with no clear cluster pattern.

Unfortunately, there is no corresponding map for Big Y matches.

SNP Map

The SNP map provided under the Y DNA results allows testers to view the locations where specific haplogroups are found.

McNiel Big Y SNP map

The SNP map marks an area where at least two or more people have claimed their most distant known ancestor to be. The cluster size is the maximum amount of miles between people that is allowed in order for a marker indicating a cluster at a location to appear. So for example, the sample size is at least 2 people who have tested, and listed their most distant known ancestor, the cluster is the radius those two people can be found in. So, if you have 10 red dots, that means in 1000 miles there are 10 clusters of at least two people for that particular SNP. Note that these locations do NOT include people who have tested positive for downstream locations, although it does include people who have taken individual SNP tests.

Working my way from the McNiel haplogroup backward in time on the SNP map, neither BY18332 nor BY18350 have enough people who’ve tested, or they didn’t provide a location.

Moving to the next haplogroup up the tree, two clusters are formed for BY3344, shown below.

McNIel Big Y BY3344 map

S668, below.

McNiel Big Y S668 map

It’s interesting that one cluster includes Glasgow.

S673, below.

McNiel Big Y S673 map

DF85, below:

McNiel Big Y DF85 map

DF105 below:

McNiel BIg Y DF105 map

M222, below:

McNiel Big Y M222 map

For R-M222, I’ve cropped the locations beyond Ireland and Scotland. Clearly, RM222 is the most prevalent in Ireland, followed by Scotland. Wherever M222 originated, it has saturated Ireland and spread widely in Scotland as well.

R-M222

R-M222, the SNP initially thought to indicate Niall of the 9 Hostages, occurred roughly 25-59 SNP generations in the past. If this age is even remotely accurate, averaging by 80 years per generation often utilized for Big Y results, produces an age of 2000 – 4720 years. I find it extremely difficult to believe any semblance of a surname survived that long. Even if you reduce the time in the past to the historical narrative, roughly the year 400, 1600 years, I still have a difficult time believing the McNiel surname is a result of being a descendant of Niall of the 9 Hostages directly, although oral history does have staying power, especially in a clan setting where clan membership confers an advantage.

Surname or not, clearly, our line along with the others whom we match on the Big Y do descend from a prolific common ancestor. It’s very unlikely that the mutation occurred in Niall’s generation, and much more likely that other men carried M222 and shared a common ancestor with Niall at some point in the distant past.

McNiel Conclusion – Is There One?

If I had two McNiel wishes, they would be:

  • Finding records someplace in Virginia that connect George and presumably brothers Thomas and John to their parents.
  • A McNiel male from wherever our McNiel line originated becoming inspired to Y DNA test. Finding a male from the homeland might point the way to records in which I could potentially find baptismal records for George about 1720 and Thomas about 1724, along with possibly John, if he existed.

I remain hopeful for a McNiel from Edinburgh, or perhaps Glasgow.

I feel reasonably confident that our line originated genetically in Scotland. That likely precludes Niall of the 9 Hostages as a direct ancestor, but perhaps not. Certainly, one of his descendants could have crossed the channel to Scotland. Or, perhaps, our common ancestor is further back in time. Based on the maps, it’s clear that M222 saturates Ireland and is found widely in Scotland as well.

A great deal depends on the actual age of M222 and where it originated. Certainly, Niall had ancestors too, and the Ui Neill dynasty reaches further back, genetically, than their recorded history in Ireland. Given the density of M222 and spread, it’s very likely that M222 did, in fact, originate in Ireland or, alternatively, very early in Scotland and proliferated in Ireland.

If the Ui Neill dynasty was represented in the persona of the High King, Niall of the 9 Hostages, 1600 years ago, his M222 ancestors were clearly inhabiting Ireland earlier.

We may not be descended from Niall personally, but we are assuredly related to him, sharing a common ancestor sometime back in the prehistory of Ireland and Scotland. That man would sire most of the Irish men today and clearly, many Scots as well.

Our ancestors, whoever they were, were indeed in Ireland millennia ago. R-M222, our ancestor, was the ancestor of the Ui Neill dynasty and of our own Reverend George McNiel.

Our ancestors may have been at Knowth and New Grange, and yes, perhaps even at Tara.

Tara Niall mound in sun

Someplace in the mists of history, one man made a different choice, perhaps paddling across the channel, never to return, resulting in M222 descendants being found in Scotland. His descendants include our McNeil ancestors, who still slumber someplace, awaiting discovery.

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Concepts: Chromosome Browser – What Is It, How Do I Use It, and Why Do I Care?

The goal of genetic genealogy is to utilize DNA matches to verify known ancestors and identify unknown ancestors.

A chromosome browser is a tool that allows testers to visualize and compare their DNA on each chromosome with that of their genetic matches. How to utilize and interpret that information becomes a little more tricky.

I’ve had requests for one article with all the information in one place about chromosome browsers:

  • What they are
  • How and when to use them
  • Why you’d want to

I’ve included a feature comparison chart and educational resource list at the end.

I would suggest just reading through this article the first time, then following along with your own DNA results after you understand the basic landscape. Using your own results is the best way to learn anything.

What Does a Chromosome Browser Look Like?

Here’s an example of a match to my DNA at FamilyTreeDNA viewed on their chromosome browser.

browser example.png

On my first 16 chromosomes, shown above, my 1C1R (first cousin once removed,) Cheryl, matches me where the chromosomes are painted blue. My chromosome is represented by the grey background, and her matching portion by the blue overlay.

Cheryl matches me on some portion of all chromosomes except 2, 6, and 13, where we don’t match at all.

You can select any one person, like Cheryl, from your match list to view on a chromosome browser to see where they match you on your chromosomes, or you can choose multiple matches, as shown below.

browser multiple example.png

I selected my 7 closest matches that are not my immediate family, meaning not my parents or children. I’m the background grey chromosome, and each person’s match is painted on top of “my chromosome” in the location where they match me. You see 7 images of my grey chromosome 1, for example, because each of the 7 people being compared to me are shown stacked below one another.

Everyplace that Cheryl matches me is shown on the top image of each chromosome, and our matching segment is shown in blue. The same for the second red copy of the chromosome, representing Don’s match to me. Each person I’ve selected to match against is shown by their own respective color.

You’ll note that in some cases, two people match me in the same location. Those are the essential hints we are looking for. We’ll be discussing how to unravel, interpret, and use matches in the rest of this article.

browser MyHeritage example.png

The chromosome browser at MyHeritage looks quite similar. However, I have a different “top 7” matches because each vendor has people who test on their platform who don’t test or transfer elsewhere.

Each vendor that supports chromosome browsers (FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, and GedMatch) provides their own implementation, of course, but the fundamentals of chromosome browsers, how they work and what they are telling us is universal.

Why Do I Need a Chromosome Browser?

“But,” you might say, “I don’t need to compare my DNA with my matches because the vendors already tell me that I match someone, which confirms that we are related and share a common ancestor.”

Well, not exactly. It’s not quite that straightforward.

Let’s take a look at:

  • How and why people match
  • What matches do and don’t tell you
  • Both with and without a chromosome browser

In part, whether you utilize a chromosome browser or not depends on which of the following you seek:

  • A broad-brush general answer; yes or no, I match someone, but either I don’t know how are related, or have to assume why. There’s that assume word again.
  • To actually confirm and prove your ancestry, getting every ounce of value out of your DNA test.

Not everyone’s goals are the same. Fortunately, we have an entire toolbox with a wide range of tools. Different tools are better suited for different tasks.

People seeking unknown parents should read the article, Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching because the methodology for identifying unknown parents is somewhat different than working with genealogy. This article focuses on genealogy, although the foundation genetic principles are the same.

If you’re just opening your DNA results for the first time, the article, First Steps When Your DNA Results are Ready – Sticking Your Toe in the Genealogy Water would be a great place to start.

Before we discuss chromosome browsers further, we need to talk about DNA inheritance.

Your Parents

Every person has 2 copies of each of their 22 chromosomes – one copy contributed by their mother and one copy contributed by their father. A child receives exactly half of the autosomal DNA of each parent. The DNA of each parent combines somewhat randomly so that you receive one chromosome’s worth of DNA from each of your parents, which is half of each parent’s total.

On each chromosome, you receive some portion of the DNA that each parent received from their ancestors, but not exactly half of the DNA from each individual ancestor. In other words, it’s not sliced precisely in half, but served up in chunks called segments.

Sometimes you receive an entire segment of an ancestor’s DNA, sometimes none, and sometimes a portion that isn’t equal to half of your parent’s segment.

browser inheritance.png

This means that you don’t receive exactly half of the DNA of each of your grandparents, which would be 25% each. You might receive more like 22% from one maternal grandparent and 28% from the other maternal grandparent for a total of 50% of the DNA you inherit from your parents. The other 50% of your DNA comes from the other parent, of course. I wrote about that here.

There’s one tiny confounding detail. The DNA of your Mom and Dad is scrambled in you, meaning that the lab can’t discern scientifically which side is which and can’t tell which pieces of DNA came from Mom and which from Dad. Think of a genetic blender.

Our job, using genetic genealogy, is to figure out which side of our family people who match us descend from – which leads us to our common ancestor(s).

Parallel Roads

For the purposes of this discussion, you’ll need to understand that the two copies you receive of each chromosome, one from each parent, have the exact same “addresses.” Think of these as parallel streets or roads with identical addresses on each road.

browser street.png

In the example above, you can see Dad’s blue chromosome and Mom’s red chromosome as compared to me. Of course, children and parents match on the full length of each chromosome.

I’ve divided this chromosome into 6 blocks, for purposes of illustration, plus the centromere where we generally find no addresses used for genetic genealogy.

In the 500 block, we see that the address of 510 Main (red bar) could occur on either Dad’s chromosome, or Mom’s. With only an address and nothing more, you have no way to know whether your match with someone at 510 Main is on Mom’s or Dad’s side, because both streets have exactly the same addresses.

Therefore, if two people match you, at the same address on that chromosome, like 510 Main Street, they could be:

  • Both maternal matches, meaning both descended from your mother’s ancestors, and those two people will also match each other
  • Both paternal matches, meaning both descended from your father’s ancestors, and those two people will also match each other
  • One maternal and one paternal match, and those two people will not match each other

Well then, how do we know which side of the family a match descends from, and how do we know if we share a common ancestor?

Good question!

Identical by Descent

If you and another person match on a reasonably sized DNA segment, generally about 7 cM or above, your match is probably “identical by descent,” meaning not “identical by chance.” In this case, then yes, a match does confirm that you share a common ancestor.

Identical by descent (IBD) means you inherited the piece of DNA from a common ancestor, inherited through the relevant parent.

Identical by chance (IBC) means that your mom’s and dad’s DNA just happens to have been inherited by you randomly in a way that creates a sequence of DNA that matches that other person. I wrote about both IBD and IBC here.

MMB stats by cM 2

This chart, courtesy of statistician Philip Gammon, from the article Introducing the Match-Maker-Breaker Tool for Parental Phasing shows the percentage of time we expect matches of specific segment sizes to be valid, or identical by descent.

Identical by Chance

How does this work?

How is a match NOT identical by descent, meaning that it is identical by chance and therefore not a “real” or valid match, a situation also known as a false positive?

browser inheritance grid.png

The answer involves how DNA is inherited.

You receive a chromosome with a piece of DNA at every address from both parents. Of course, this means you have two pieces of DNA at each address. Therefore people will match you on either piece of DNA. People from your Dad’s side will match you on the pieces you inherited from him, and people from your Mom’s side will match you on the pieces you inherited from her.

However, both of those matches have the same address on their parallel streets as shown in the illustration, above. Your matches from your mom’s side will have all As, and those from your dad’s side will have all Ts.

The problem is that you have no way to know which pieces you inherited from Mom and from Dad – at least not without additional information.

You can see that for 10 contiguous locations (addresses), which create an example “segment” of your DNA, you inherited all As from your Mom and all Ts from your Dad. In order to match you, someone would either need to have an A or a T in one of their two inherited locations, because you have an A and a T, both. If the other person has a C or a G, there’s no match.

Your match inherited a specific sequence from their mother and father, just like you did. As you can see, even though they do match you because they have either an A or a T in all 10 locations – the As and Ts did not all descend from either their mother or father. Their random inheritance of Ts and As just happens to match you.

If your match’s parents have tested, you won’t match either of their parents nor will they match either of your parents, which tells you immediately that this match is by chance (IBC) and not by descent (IBD), meaning this segment did not come from a common ancestor. It’s identical by chance and, therefore, a false positive.

If We Match Someone Else In Common, Doesn’t That Prove Identical by Descent?

Nope, but I sure wish it did!

The vendors show you who else you and your match both match in common, which provides a SUGGESTION as to your common ancestor – assuming you know which common ancestor any of these people share with you.

browser icw.png

However, shared matches are absolutely NOT a guarantee that you, your match, and your common matches all share the same ancestor, unless you’re close family. Your shared match could match you or your match through different ancestors – or could be identical by chance.

How can we be more confident of what matching is actually telling us?

How can we sort this out?

Uncertainties and Remedies

Here’s are 9 things you DON’T know, based on matching alone, along with tips and techniques to learn more.

  1. If your match to Person A is below about 20cM, you’ll need to verify that it’s a legitimate IBD match (not IBC). You can achieve this by determining if Person A also matches one of your parents and if you match one of Person A’s parents, if parents have tested.

Not enough parents have tested? An alternative method is by determining if you and Person A both match known descendants of the candidate ancestors ON THE SAME SEGMENT. This is where the chromosome browser enters the picture.

In other words, at least three people who are confirmed to descend from your presumptive common ancestor, preferably through at least two different children, must match on a significant portion of the same segment.

Why is that? Because every segment has its own unique genealogical history. Each segment can and often does lead to different ancestors as you move further back in time.

In this example, I’m viewing Buster, David, and E., three cousins descended from the same ancestral couple, compared to me on my chromosome browser. I’m the background grey, and they show in color. You can see that all three of them match me on at least some significant portion of the same segment of chromosome 15.

browser 3 cousins.png

If those people also match each other, that’s called triangulation. Triangulation confirms descent from a common ancestral source.

In this case, I already know that these people are related on my paternal side. The fact that they all match my father’s DNA and are therefore all automatically assigned to my paternal matching tab at Family Tree DNA confirms my paper-trail genealogy.

I wrote detailed steps for triangulation at Family Tree DNA, here. In a nutshell, matching on the same segment to people who are bucketed to the same parent is an automated method of triangulation.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of having their parents tested, so testing other family members, finding common segments, and assigning people to their proper location in your tree facilitates confirmation of your genealogy (and automating triangulation.)

The ONLY way you can determine if people match you on the same segment, and match each other, is having segment information available to you and utilizing a chromosome browser.

browser MyHeritage triangulation.png

In the example above, the MyHeritage triangulation tool brackets matches that match you (the background grey) and who are all triangulated, meaning they all also match each other. In this case, the portion where all three people match me AND each other is bracketed. I wrote about triangulation at MyHeritage here.

  1. If you match several people who descend from the same ancestor, John Doe, for example, on paper, you CANNOT presume that your match to all of those people is due to a segment of DNA descended from John Doe or his wife. You may not match any of those people BECAUSE OF or through segments inherited from John Doe or his wife. You need segment information and a chromosome browser to view the location of those matches.

Assuming these are legitimate IBD matches, you may share another common line, known or unknown, with some or all of those matches.

It’s easy to assume that because you match and share matches in common with other people who believe they are descended from that same ancestor:

  • That you’re all matching because of that ancestor.
  • Even on the same segments.

Neither of those presumptions can be made without additional information.

Trust me, you’ll get yourself in a heap o’ trouble if you assume. Been there, done that. T-shirt was ugly.

Let’s look at how this works.

browser venn.png

Here’s a Venn diagram showing me, in the middle, surrounded by three of my matches:

  • Match 1 – Periwinkle, descends from Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy
  • Match 2 – Teal, descends from Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton
  • Match 3 – Mustard, descends from John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson

Utilizing a chromosome browser, autocluster software, and other tools, we can determine if those matches also match each other on a common segment, which means they triangulate and confirm common ancestral descent.

Of course, those people could match each other due to a different ancestor, not necessarily the one I share with them nor the ancestors I think we match through.

If they/we do all match because they descend from a common ancestor, they can still match each other on different segments that don’t match me.

I’m in the center. All three people match me, and they also match each other, shown in the overlap intersections.

Note that the intersection between the periwinkle (Match 1) and teal (Match 2) people, who match each other, is due to the wives of the children of two of my ancestors. In other words, their match to each other has absolutely nothing to do with their match to me. This was an “aha’ moment for me when I first realized this was a possibility and happens far more than I ever suspected.

The intersection of the periwinkle (Match 1) and mustard (Match 3) matches is due to the Dodson line, but on a different segment than they both share with me. If they had matched each other and me on the same segment, we would be all triangulated, but we aren’t.

The source of the teal (Match 2) to mustard (Match 3) is unknown, but then again, Match 3’s tree is relatively incomplete.

Let’s take a look at autocluster software which assists greatly with automating the process of determining who matches each other, in addition to who matches you.

  1. Clustering technology, meaning the Leeds method as automated by Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom help, but don’t, by themselves, resolve the quandary of HOW people match you and each other.

People in a colored cluster all match you and each other – but not necessarily on the same segment, AND, they can match each other because they are related through different ancestors not related to your ancestor. The benefit of autocluster software is that this process is automated. However, not all of your matches will qualify to be placed in clusters.

browser autocluster.png

My mustard cluster above includes the three people shown in the chromosome browser examples – and 12 more matches that can be now be researched because we know that they are all part of a group of people who all match me, and several of whom match each other too.

My matches may not match each other for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They are too far removed in time/generations and didn’t inherit any common ancestral DNA.
  • This cluster is comprised of some people matching me on different (perhaps intermarried) lines.
  • Some may be IBC matches.

Darker grey boxes indicate that those people should be in both clusters, meaning the red and mustard clusters, because they match people in two clusters. That’s another hint. Because of the grid nature of clusters, one person cannot be associated with more than 2 clusters, maximum. Therefore, people like first cousins who are closely related to the tester and could potentially be in many clusters are not as useful in clusters as they are when utilizing other tools.

  1. Clusters and chromosome browsers are much less complex than pedigree charts, especially when dealing with many people. I charted out the relationships of the three example matches from the Venn diagram. You can see that this gets messy quickly, and it’s much more challenging to visualize and understand than either the chromosome browser or autoclusters.

Having said that, the ultimate GOAL is to identify how each person is related to you and place them in their proper place in your tree. This, cumulatively with your matches, is what identifies and confirms ancestors – the overarching purpose of genealogy and genetic genealogy.

Let’s take a look at this particular colorized pedigree chart.

Browser pedigree.png

click to enlarge

The pedigree chart above shows the genetic relationship between me and the three matches shown in the Venn diagram.

Four descendants of 2 ancestral couples are shown, above; Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton, and John Y. Estes and Rutha Dodson. DNA tells me that all 3 people match me and also match each other.

The color of the square (above) is the color of DNA that represents the DNA segment that I received and match with these particular testers. This chart is NOT illustrating how much DNA is passed in each generation – we already know that every child inherits half of the DNA of each parent. This chart shows match/inheritance coloring for ONE MATCHING SEGMENT with each match, ONLY.

Let’s look at Joseph Bolton (blue) and Margaret Claxton (pink). I descend through their daughter, Ollie Bolton, who married William George Estes, my grandfather. The DNA segment that I share with blue Match 2 (bottom left) is a segment that I inherited from Joseph Bolton (blue). I also carry inherited DNA from Margaret Claxton too, but that’s not the segment that I share with Match 2, which is why the path from Joseph Bolton to me, in this case, is blue – and why Match 2 is blue. (Just so you are aware, I know this segment descends from Joseph Bolton, because I also match descendants of Joseph’s father on this segment – but that generation/mtach is not shown on this pedigree chart.)

If I were comparing to someone else who I match through Margaret Claxton, I would color the DNA from Margaret Claxton to me pink in that illustration. You don’t have to DO this with your pedigree chart, so don’t worry. I created this example to help you understand.

The colored dots shown on the squares indicate that various ancestors and living people do indeed carry DNA from specific ancestors, even though that’s not the segment that matches a particular person. In other words, the daughter, Ollie, of Joseph Bolton and Margaret Claxton carries 50% pink DNA, represented by the pink dot on blue Ollie Bolton, married to purple William George Estes.

Ollie Bolton and William George Estes had my father, who I’ve shown as half purple (Estes) and half blue (Bolton) because I share Bolton DNA with Match 2, and Estes DNA with Match 1. Obviously, everyone receives half of each parent’s DNA, but in this case, I’m showing the path DNA descended for a specific segment shared with a particular match.

I’ve represented myself with the 5 colors of DNA that I carry from these particular ancestors shown on the pedigree chart. I assuredly will match other people with DNA that we’ve both inherited from these ancestors. I may match these same matches shown with DNA that we both inherited from other ancestors – for example, I might match Match 2 on a different segment that we both inherited from Margaret Claxton. Match 2 is my second cousin, so it’s quite likely that we do indeed share multiple segments of DNA.

Looking at Match 3, who knows very little about their genealogy, I can tell, based on other matches, that we share Dodson DNA inherited through Rutha Dodson.

I need to check every person in my cluster, and that I share DNA with on these same segment addresses to see if they match on my paternal side and if they match each other.

  1. At Family Tree DNA, I will be able to garner more information about whether or not my matches match each other by using the Matrix tool as well as by utilizing Phased Family Matching.

At Family Tree DNA, I determined that these people all match in common with me and Match 1 by using the “In Common With” tool. You can read more about how to use “In Common With” matching, here.

browser paternal.png

Family Matching phases the matches, assigning or bucketed them maternally or paternally (blue and red icons above), indicating, when possible, if these matches occur on the same side of your family. I wrote about the concept of phasing, here, and Phased Family Matching here and here.

Please note that there is no longer a limit on how distantly related a match can be in order to be utilized in Phased Family Matching, so long as it’s over the phase-matching threshold and connected correctly in your tree.

browser family tree dna link tree.png

Bottom line, if you can figure out how you’re related to someone, just add them into your tree by creating a profile card and link their DNA match to them by simply dragging and dropping, as illustrated above.

Linking your matches allows Family Matching to maternally or paternally assign other matches that match both you and your tree-linked matches.

If your matches match you on the same segment on the same parental side, that’s segment triangulation, assuming the matches are IBD. Phased Family Matching does this automatically for you, where possible, based on who you have linked in your tree.

For matches that aren’t automatically bucketed, there’s another tool, the Matrix.

browser matrix.png

In situations where your matches aren’t “bucketed” either maternally or paternally, the Matrix tool allows you to select matches to determine whether your matches also match each other. It’s another way of clustering where you can select specific people to compare. Note that because they also match each other (blue square) does NOT mean it’s on the same segment(s) where they match you. Remember our Venn diagram.

browser matrix grid.png

  1. Just because you and your matches all match each other doesn’t mean that they are matching each other because of the same ancestor. In other words, your matches may match each other due to another or unknown ancestor. In our pedigree example, you can see that the three matches match each other in various ways.
browser pedigree match.png

click to enlarge

  • Match 1 and Match 2 match each other because they are related through the green Jones family, who is not related to me.
  • Match 2 and Match 3 don’t know why they match. They both match me, but not on the same segment they share with each other.
  • Match 1 and Match 3 match through the mustard Dodson line, but not on the same segment that matches me. If we all did match on the same segment, we would be triangulated, but we wouldn’t know why Match 3 was in this triangulation group.
  1. Looking at a downloaded segment file of your matches, available at all testing vendors who support segment information and a chromosome browser, you can’t determine without additional information whether your matches also match each other.

browser chr 15.png

Here’s a group of people, above, that we’ve been working with on chromosome 15.

My entire match-list shows many more matches on that segment of chromosome 15. Below are just a few.

browser chr 15 all

Looking at seven of these people in the chromosome browser, we can see visually that they all overlap on part of a segment on chromosome 15. It’s a lot easier to see the amount of overlap using a browser as opposed to the list. But you can only view 7 at a time in the browser, so the combination of both tools is quite useful. The downloaded spreadsheet shows you who to select to view for any particular segment.

browser chr 15 compare.png

The critical thing to remember is that some matches will be from tyour mother’s side and some from your father’s side.

Without additional information and advanced tools, there’s no way to tell the difference – unless they are bucketed using Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA or bracketed with a triangulation bracket at MyHeritage.

At MyHeritage, this assumes you know the shared ancestor of at least one person in the triangulation group which effectively assigns the match to the maternal or paternal side.

Looking at known relatives on either side, and seeing who they also match, is how to determine whether these people match paternally or maternally. In this example below, the blue people are bucketed paternally through Phased Family Matching, the pink maternally, and the white rows aren’t bucketed and therefore require additional evaluation.

browser chr 15 maternal paternal.png

Additional research shows that Jonathan is a maternal match, but Robert and Adam are identical by chance because they don’t match either of my parents on this segment. They might be valid matches on other segments, but not this one.

browser chr 15 compare maternal paternal.png

  1. Utilizing relatives who have tested is a huge benefit, and why we suggest that everyone test their closest upstream relatives (meaning not children or grandchildren.) Testing all siblings is recommended if both parents aren’t available to test, because every child received different parts of their parents’ DNA, so they will match different relatives.

After deleting segments under 7 cM, I combine the segment match download files of multiple family members (who agree to allow me to aggregate their matches into one file for analysis) so that I can create a master match file for a particular family group. Sorting by match name, I can identify people that several of my cousins’ match.

browser 4 groups.png

This example is from a spreadsheet where I’ve combined the results of about 10 collaborating cousins to determine if we can break through a collective brick wall. Sorted by match name, this table shows the first 4 common matches that appear on multiple cousin’s match lists. Remember that how these people match may have nothing to do with our brick wall – or it might.

Note that while the 4 matches, AB, AG, ag, and A. Wayne, appear in different cousins’ match lists, only one shares a common segment of DNA: AB triangulates with Buster and Iona. This is precisely WHY you need segment information, and a chromosome browser, to visualize these matches, and to confirm that they do share a common DNA segment descended from a specific ancestor.

These same people will probably appear in autocluster groups together as well. It’s worth noting, as illustrated in the download example, that it’s much more typical for “in common with” matches to match on different segments than on the same segment. 

  1. Keep in mind that you will match both your mother and father on every single chromosome for the entire length of each chromosome.

browser parent matching.png

Here’s my kit matching with my father, in blue, and mother, in red on chromosomes 1 and 2.

Given that I match both of my parents on the full chromosome, inheriting one copy of my chromosome from each parent, it’s impossible to tell by adding any person at random to the chromosome browser whether they match me maternally or paternally. Furthermore, many people aren’t fortunate enough to have parents available for testing.

To overcome that obstacle, you can compare to known or close relatives. In fact, your close relatives are genetic genealogy gold and serve as your match anchor. A match that matches you and your close relatives can be assigned either maternally or paternally. I wrote about that here.

browser parent plus buster.png

You can see that my cousin Buster matches me on chromosome 15, as do both of my parents, of course. At this point, I can’t tell from this information alone whether Buster matches on my mother’s or father’s side.

I can tell you that indeed, Buster does match my father on this same segment, but what if I don’t have the benefit of my father’s DNA test?

Genealogy tells me that Buster matches me on my paternal side, through Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy. Given that Buster is a relatively close family member, I already know how Buster and I are related and that our DNA matches. That knowledge will help me identify and place other relatives in my tree who match us both on the same segment of DNA.

To trigger Phased Family Matching, I placed Buster in the proper place in my tree at Family Tree DNA and linked his DNA. His Y DNA also matches the Estes males, so no adoptions or misattributed parental events have occurred in the direct Estes patrilineal line.

browser family tree dna tree.png

I can confirm this relationship by checking to see if Buster matches known relatives on my father’s side of the family, including my father using the “in common with” tool.

Buster matches my father as well as several other known family members on that side of the family on the same segments of DNA.

browser paternal bucket.png

Note that I have a total of 397 matches in common with Buster, 140 of which have been paternally bucketed, 4 of which are both (my children and grandchildren), and 7 of which are maternal.

Those maternal matches represent an issue. It’s possible that those people are either identical by chance or that we share both a maternal and paternal ancestor. All 7 are relatively low matches, with longest blocks from 9 to 14 cM.

Clearly, with a total of 397 shared matches with Buster, not everyone that I match in common with Buster is assigned to a bucket. In fact, 246 are not. I will need to take a look at this group of people and evaluate them individually, their genealogy, clusters, the matrix, and through the chromosome browser to confirm individual matching segments.

There is no single perfect tool.

Every Segment Tells a Unique History

I need to check each of the 14 segments that I match with Buster because each segment has its own inheritance path and may well track back to different ancestors.

browser buster segments.png

It’s also possible that we have unknown common ancestors due to either adoptions, NPEs, or incorrect genealogy, not in the direct Estes patrilineal line, but someplace in our trees.

browser buster paint.png

The best way to investigate the history and genesis of each segment is by painting matching segments at DNAPainter. My matching segments with Buster are shown painted at DNAPainter, above. I wrote about DNAPainter, here.

browser overlap.png

By expanding each segment to show overlapping segments with other matches that I’ve painted and viewing who we match, we can visually see which ancestors that segment descends from and through.

browser dnapainter walk back.png

These roughly 30 individuals all descend from either Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy (grey), Elizabeth’s parents (dark blue), or her grandparents (burgundy) on chromosome 15.

As more people match me (and Buster) on this segment, on my father’s side, perhaps we’ll push this segment back further in time to more distant ancestors. Eventually, we may well be able to break through our end-of-line brick wall using these same segments by looking for common upstream ancestors in our matches’ trees.

Arsenal of Tools

This combined arsenal of tools is incredibly exciting, but they all depend on having segment information available and understanding how to use and interpret segment and chromosome browser match information.

One of mine and Buster’s common segments tracks back to end-of-line James Moore, born about 1720, probably in Virginia, and another to Charles Hickerson born about 1724. It’s rewarding and exciting to be able to confirm these DNA segments to specific ancestors. These discoveries may lead to breaking through those brick walls eventually as more people match who share common ancestors with each other that aren’t in my tree.

This is exactly why we need and utilize segment information in a chromosome browser.

We can infer common ancestors from matches, but we can’t confirm segment descent without specific segment information and a chromosome browser. The best we can do, otherwise, is to presume that a preponderance of evidence and numerous matches equates to confirmation. True or not, we can’t push further back in time without knowing who else matches us on those same segments, and the identity of their common ancestors.

The more evidence we can amass for each ancestor and ancestral couple, the better, including:

  • Matches
  • Shared “In Common With” Matches, available at all vendors.
  • Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA assigns matches to maternal or paternal sides based on shared, linked DNA from known relatives.
  • The Matrix, a Family Tree DNA tool to determine if matches also match each other. Tester can select who to compare.
  • ThruLines from Ancestry is based on a DNA match and shared ancestors in trees, but no specific segment information or chromosome browser. I wrote about ThruLines here and here.
  • Theories of Family Relativity, aka TOFR, at MyHeritage, based on shared DNA matches, shared ancestors in trees and trees constructed between matches from various genealogical records and sources. MyHeritage includes a chromosome browser and triangulation tool. I wrote about TOFR here and here.
  • Triangulation available through Phased Family Matching at Family Tree DNA and the integrated triangulation tool at MyHeritage. Triangulation between only 3 people at a time is available at 23andMe, although 23andMe does not support trees. See triangulation article links in the Resource Articles section below.
  • AutoClusters at MyHeritage (cluster functionality included), at Genetic Affairs (autoclusters plus tree reconstruction) and at DNAGedcom (including triangulation).
  • Genealogical information. Please upload your trees to every vendor site.
  • Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA confirmation, when available, through Family Tree DNA. I wrote about the 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy, here and the importance of Y DNA confirmation here, and how not having that information can trip you up.
  • Compiled segment information at DNAPainter allows you to combine segment information from various vendors, paint your maternal and paternal chromosomes, and visually walk segments back in time. Article with DNAPainter instructions is found here.

Autosomal Tool Summary Table

In order to help you determine which tool you need to use, and when, I’ve compiled a summary table of the types of tools and when they are most advantageous. Of course, you’ll need to read and understand about each tool in the sections above. This table serves as a reminder checklist to be sure you’ve actually utilized each relevant tool where and how it’s appropriate.

Family Tree DNA MyHeritage Ancestry 23andMe GedMatch
DNA Matches Yes Yes Yes Yes, but only highest 2000 minus whoever does not opt -in Yes, limited matches for free, more with subscription (Tier 1)
Download DNA Segment Match Spreadsheet Yes Yes No, must use DNAGedcom for any download, and no chromosome segment information Yes Tier 1 required, can only download 1000 through visualization options
Segment Spreadsheet Benefits View all matches and sort by segment, target all people who match on specific segments for chromosome browser View all matches and sort by segment, target all people who match on specific segments for chromosome browser No segment information but matches might transfer elsewhere where segment information is available View up to 2000 matches if matches have opted in. If you have initiated contact with a match, they will not drop off match list. Can download highest 1000 matches, target people who match on specific segments
Spreadsheet Challenges Includes small segments, I delete less than 7cM segments before using No X chromosome included No spreadsheet and no segment information Maximum of 2000 matches, minus those not opted in Download limited to 1000 with Tier 1, download not available without subscription
Chromosome Segment Information Yes Yes No, only total and longest segment, no segment address Yes Yes
Chromosome Browser Yes, requires $19 unlock if transfer Yes, requires $29 unlock or subscription if transfer No Yes Yes, some features require Tier 1 subscription
X Chromosome Included Yes No No Yes Yes, separate
Chromosome Browser Benefit Visual view of 7 or fewer matches Visual view of 7 or fewer matches, triangulation included if ALL people match on same portion of common segment No browser Visual view of 5 or fewer matches Unlimited view of matches, multiple options through comparison tools
Chromosome Browser Challenges Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal matches without additional info if don’t select bucketed matches Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without additional info if don’t triangulate or you don’t know your common ancestor with at least one person in triangulation group No browser Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without other information Can’t tell whether maternal or paternal without other information
Shared “In Common With” Matches Yes Yes Yes Yes, if everyone opts in Yes
Triangulation Yes, Phased Family Matching, plus chromosome browser Yes, included in chromosome browser if all people being compared match on that segment No, and no browser Yes, but only for 3 people if “Shared DNA” = Yes on Relatives in Common Yes, through multiple comparison tools
Ability to Know if Matches Match Each Other (also see autoclusters) Yes, through Matrix tool or if match on common bucketed segment through Family Matching Yes, through triangulation tool if all match on common segment No Yes, can compare any person to any other person on your match list Yes, through comparison tool selections
Autoclusters Can select up to 10 people for Matrix grid, also available for entire match list through Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom which work well Genetic Affairs clustering included free, DNAGedcom has difficulty due to timeouts No, but Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom work well No, but Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom work well Yes, Genetic Affairs included in Tier 1 for selected kits, DNAGedcom is in beta
Trees Can upload or create tree. Linking you and relatives who match to tree triggers Phased Family Matching Can upload or create tree. Link yourself and kits you manage assists Theories of Family Relativity Can upload or create tree. Link your DNA to your tree to generate ThruLines. Recent new feature allows linking of DNA matches to tree. No tree support but can provide a link to a tree elsewhere Upload your tree so your matches can view
Matching and Automated Tree Construction of DNA Matches who Share Common Ancestors with You Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with you Not available Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with you No tree support Not available
Matching and Automated Tree Construction for DNA Matches with Common Ancestors with Each Other, But Not With You Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with each other, but not with you Not available Genetic Affairs for matches with common ancestors with each other, but not with you No tree support Not available
DNAPainter Segment Compilation and Painting Yes, bucketed Family Match file can be uploaded which benefits tester immensely. Will be able to paint ethnicity segments soon. Yes No segment info available, encourage your matches to upload elsewhere Yes, and can paint ethnicity segments from 23andMe, Yes, but only for individually copied matches or highest 1000.
Y DNA and Mitochondrial Matching Yes, both, includes multiple tools, deep testing and detailed matching No No No, base haplogroup only, no matching No, haplogroup only if field manually completed by tester when uploading autosomal DNA file

Transfer Your DNA

Transferring your DNA results to each vendor who supports segment information and accepts transfers is not only important, it’s also a great way to extend your testing collar. Every vendor has strengths along with people who are found there and in no other database.

Ancestry does not provide segment information nor a chromosome browser, nor accept uploads, but you have several options to transfer your DNA file for free to other vendors who offer tools.

23andMe does provide a chromosome browser but does not accept uploads. You can download your DNA file and transfer free to other vendors.

I wrote detailed upload/download and transfer instructions for each vendor, here.

Two vendors and one third party support transfers into their systems. The transfers include matching. Basic tools are free, but all vendors charge a minimal fee for unlocking advanced tools, which is significantly less expensive than retesting:

Third-party tools that work with your DNA results include:

All vendors provide different tools and have unique strengths. Be sure that your DNA is working as hard as possible for you by fishing in every pond and utilizing third party tools to their highest potential.

Resource Articles

Explanations and step by step explanations of what you will see and what to do, when you open your DNA results for the first time.

Original article about chromosomes having 2 sides and how they affect genetic genealogy.

This article explains what triangulation is for autosomal DNA.

Why some matches may not be valid, and how to tell the difference.

This article explains the difference between a match group, meaning a group of people who match you, and triangulation, where that group also matches each other. The concepts are sound, but this article relies heavily on spreadsheets, before autocluster tools were available.

Parental phasing means assigning segment matches to either your paternal or maternal side.

Updated, introductory article about triangulation, providing the foundation for a series of articles about how to utilize triangulation at each vendor (FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, GEDmatch, DNAPainter) that supports triangulation.

These articles step you through triangulation at each vendor.

DNAPainter facilitates painting maternally and paternally phased, bucketed matches from FamilyTreeDNA, a method of triangulation.

Compiled articles with instructions and ideas for using DNAPainter.

Autoclustering tool instructions.

How and why The Leeds Method works.

Step by step instructions for when and how to use FamilyTreeDNA’s chromosome browser.

Close family members are the key to verifying matches and identifying common ancestors.

This article details how much DNA specific relationships between people can expect to share.

Overview of transfer information and links to instruction articles for each vendor, below.

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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

Free Webinar: 3 Case Studies and How I Solved Them

I recorded my latest webinar live yesterday for Legacy Family Tree Webinars, but Murphy interfered a bit in the last 5 minutes or so. The great news is that we re-recorded that portion and it’s fixed seamlessly for your (free until March 10th) viewing pleasure.

This webinar utilizes historical and genealogical records, autosomal, Y or mitochondrial DNA, sometimes in combination with each other, to solve various cases. I use the features available at the major vendors plus third-party tools as well – whatever is needed to address the situation at hand.

Which resources I use, when, depends on what I have to work with and where I seek to go – kind of like following clues on a treasure map – except this treasure trove I’m unearthing is my ancestors!

You’re not going to believe how much information, and how many generations were revealed in the mitochondrial DNA case. This was a GOLD MINE!

3 Case Studies and How I Solved Them is free until March 10th by clicking here. This is a wonderful opportunity if you didn’t get to watch live or had viewing issues. Just scroll down to the very first webinar in the library.

Legacy Tree 3 case studies.png

After March 10th, you’ll need a subscription which you can purchase, here by clicking on the subscribe link in the upper right hand corner of the Legacy Family Tree Webinar  page.

Legacy Tree subscribe.png

If you want to order any of the tests mentioned in the webinar, they are available at the following links:

Instructions for transferring from vendors to either FamilyTreeDNA or My Heritage are found here. I recommend transferring to or between both. In other words, make sure you are in all 4 of the major testing databases. You never know where that critically important match is going to be found.

Need an autosomal testing and transfer strategy to minimize costs and mazimize results? Click here.

Enjoy and Share the Love

You can always forward my articles to friends or share by posting links on social media. Who do you know that might be interested?

_____________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

The Shepherd Bible

It’s a beauty, that’s for sure!

Shepherd Bible0004.jpg

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

Shepherd Bible0003.jpg

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

Shepherd Bible0002.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Stielow letter.png

Robert’s Birth

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

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

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

Shepherd Spotsylvania County.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage

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

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

Spotsylvania County Deeds

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

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

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

Shepherd Spotsylvania Holloday land purchase.png

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

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

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

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

The family had to decide which path to take.

Shepherd Spotsylvania to Wilkes.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life on the Reddies River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd grant 847.png

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

Shepherd 199 acres.png

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

Shepherd 199 acres 2.png

Shepherd grant 65.png

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

Shepherd grant survey.png

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

Shepherd survey.png

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

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

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

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

Shepherd grant book.png

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

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

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

Shepherd 199 acre certificate.png

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

Shepherd 1201.png

Shepherd 50 acres.png

Shepherd 50 acre warrant.png

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

Shepherd 50 acre survey.png

Shepherd 50 acre certificate.png

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

Shepherd John survey.png

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

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

Shepherd both surveys.png

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

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

Shepherd Strother 1808 map.png

Church and Cemetery

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

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

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

Shepherd Deep Ford HIll Cemetery.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd deep ford intersection.png

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

Shepherd deep ford hill store.png

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

Shepherd deep ford nw.png

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

Shepherd deep ford aerial.png

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

Shepherd deep ford hill base.png

The old cemetery location is marked with the gold star.

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Reddies River Church.png

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

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

Shepherd Deep Ford to Reddies River churches.png

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

Shepherd Reddies River church distance.png

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

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

Shepherd Reddies River 1798 charter membership.png

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

Deeds and Property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert signed with an X, indicating he cannot write.

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

My heart just sank.

Shepherd 1800 census.png

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

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

Surveying the Land

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

Shepherd Deep Ford Hill.png

Descending the hill, below.

Shepherd Deep Ford descent.png

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

Shepherd Deep Ford curve.png

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

Shepherd Deep Ford bottom.png

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

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

Shepherd Deep Ford split.png

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

Shepherd Deep Ford bridge.png

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

Shepherd Reddies River from bridge north.png

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

Shepherd Reddies River from bridge south.png

Looking back south at Deep Ford Hill, above.

Shepherd west.png

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

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

Shepherd deep ford aerial land.png

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

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

Shepherd John's land.png

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

Shepherd small stream.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Robert aerial.png

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

Shepherd road to river.png

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

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

Shepherd north and south Reddies split.png

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

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

Shepherd Robert South Reddies.png

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

Shepherd Robert flat.png

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

Shepherd Robert view.png

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

Shepherd Robert Deep Ford.png

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

I have literally driven in his footsteps.

Court Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Was. Horrified!

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

Robert Shepherd in the Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Vannoy Road.png

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

Shepherd Deep Ford to beginning of Reddies River.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe this is present day Ashe County.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd to New River.png

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

Shepherd to New River aerial.png

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

Shepherd ridge top.png

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

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

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

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

If only they had included maps with these reports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Colvard Road.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert’s Death

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

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

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

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

Shepherd Sally admin.png

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

Robert’s Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Shepherd inventory page 1.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 2.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 3.jpg

Robert Shepherd inventory page 4.jpg

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

An inventory of the estate of Robert Sheppard decd:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 1 curry comb

Shepherd curry comb.png

A curry comb is used in horse grooming.

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

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

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

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

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

  • 1 grindstone

Shepherd grindstone

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

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

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

  • 3 gums

Shepherd bee gum.png

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

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

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

  • 1 canteen
  • 2 pail and 2 piggins

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

We’ve obviously moved into the kitchen area now.

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

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

  • 1 looking glass

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

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

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

  • 2 under beds and his wearing apparel

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

  • 1 church Bible
  • 1 testament
  • 2 hymn books

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

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

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

mary-dodson-spinning-wheel

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

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

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

Rachel Rice cowbell

The bells are probably cattle bells.

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

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

  • 1 pair of stilyards

Shepherd stilyards.png

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

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

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

  • Some salt
  • Some bacon
  • Some old corn

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

  • 1 bread tray
  • 1 sifter
  • 1 riddle

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

  • 1 hackle

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

  • 1 rasor
  • 1 rasor case

Rachel Rice shaving

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

  • 1 pair horse fetters

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

  • 1 pair of saddle bags

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

Accounts due by note, to wit:

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

Accounts due by book, to wit:

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Sheperd estate widow allotment.jpg

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

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

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

Commissioners:
Leonard Whittington
Humphrey Kilby
Presley Cleveland

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

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

Robert Shepherd estate.jpg

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

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

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

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

DNA

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

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

Shepherd DNA.png

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

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

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

Shepherd pedigree.png

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

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

Take a look.

Shepherd chr 3 large.png

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

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

Shepherd chr 3 small.png

Here’s another chromosome 3 segment match.

Shepherd chr 8.png

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

Shepherd chr 15.png

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

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

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

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Triangulation in Action at MyHeritage

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

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

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

What is Triangulation?

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

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

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

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

Boundaries

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

FTDNA Triangulation boundaries

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

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

Triangulation Group 1

FTDNA triangulation 1

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

Triangulation Group 2

FTDNA triangulation 2

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

Triangulation Group 3 and 4

FTDNA triang 3

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

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

Triangulation Groups 5 and 6

FTDNA triang 5

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

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

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

Triangulation Group 7

FTDNA triang 7

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

Slight Variations

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

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

Shared or In-Common-With Matching

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

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

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

Imputation Can Affect Matching

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

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

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

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

Triangulation Solutions

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

I wrote more specifically about triangulation here and here.

Let’s start by looking at triangulation at MyHeritage.

Triangulation at MyHeritage

MyHeritage offers triangulation integrated into their chromosome browser.

Triangulation MyHeritage matches.png

At MyHeritage, select DNA Matches from the DNA dropdown menu, then click on the purple “Review DNA Match” of the person you want to compare. We re looking at my cousin, Cheryl F.

Triangulation MyHeritage review.png

When reviewing my DNA match with Cheryl, I can see the list of people that Cheryl and I both match, including my mother, first on the list. In addition to my mother’s relationship to me, I can also see an estimate of how closely my mother matches the other person – in this case, Cheryl. Cheryl is my mother’s first cousin (1C) and my first cousin, once removed (1C1R.)

Triangulation MyHeritage icon

Click to enlarge

For triangulation, the important image is the little purple icon at right, above.

Clicking on the purple triangulation icon shows the segments where Cheryl, my mother and I all three match and triangulate.

Finding my mother among Cheryl’s close matches tells me immediately which parent I share with Cheryl.

The areas on the chromosome browser below in the rounded squares are triangulated, meaning that I match Cheryl and the other person (who just happens to be my mother) on that same segment.

Triangulation MyHeritage browser.png

Showing triangulation with Cheryl and my mother provides a great example, because of course I triangulate with Cheryl and my mother on every segment where I match Cheryl – because I inherited all of those segments through my mother.

However, as far as triangulation goes, the fact that two of those people are closely related, me and my mother, makes it the same as only two people matching – Mom and Cheryl. Still, since Mom and Cheryl are first cousins, that match confirms my great-grandparents.

Cheryl carries pieces of my great-grandparent’s DNA that my mother doesn’t though, so matches in common with Cheryl may prove very genealogically useful.

At the top right of this chromosome browser page, I can “add or remove DNA matches” from my match list. I can look through my match list to find another close relative to see if they triangulate or I can download my match list to see who else matches me on that same segment. Instructions for the file download are at the end of this section.

Same Segment Matches

To illustrate that people will match you on the same segment, but don’t match each other because they descend from different sides of your family, I’ll add some cousins from my father’s side of the family.

I’m going to select cousins Charlene and David, and remove my mother.

Below, we show chromosome 3 again, but the triangulation bracket is gone. This tells us that this segment does NOT triangulate between me and ALL three people.

Please note that I may triangulate with some of the people. The absence of the bracket only means that I don’t triangulate with ALL of them.

I already know that while I match Cheryl, Charlene and David on this segment, only David and Charlene match each other because they are both from my father’s side, and Cheryl doesn’t match either of them because she is on my mother’s side.

Triangulation MyHeritage segments

Click to enlarge

To prove this, and to determine triangulation groups, I can compare the people two by two and continue adding people to see if they continue to triangulate.

Below, I’ve removed Cheryl, and I triangulate on chromosome 3 with both Charlene and David. The triangulation bracket appears.

Triangulation MyHeritage chromosome 3

Click to enlarge

Therefore, I know that Charlene and David descend through one of my parents, and Cheryl through the other – even if I didn’t know anything else at this point.

To reiterate, triangulation at MyHeritage means triangulation with everyone showing at the same time on the chromosome browser.

Other Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

For additional information, I can check the match information with each person to see if our trees, surnames or locations intersect.

SmartMatches and Theories of Family Relativity each provide clues and help to explain why we might triangulate.

SmartMatches tell you that you and another person share an ancestor in your and their tree, BUT, that common person may not be a direct ancestor of one or both of you. You also may or may not be DNA matches, and if so, your DNA match may or may not be through that ancestor.

Theories of Family Relativity (TOFR,) on the other hand, tell you that not only do you have a DNA match with this person, but that you have a common ancestor, and who that ancestor is. Sometimes the connection is made for you, even if one or both of you don’t show that ancestor in your tree simply because you have not extended your tree back far enough in time.

I wrote about how to use Theories of Family Relativity here.

Downloading Matches

You can request to download your matches list and also your shared DNA segments at MyHeritage by clicking on the three dots to the right at the top of your match list, then click on the option you wish. The resulting files will be e-mailed to you a few minutes later. If they don’t arrive, be sure to check your spam filter.

Triangulation MyHeritage export.png

Downloading your match list and/or shared DNA segments is NOT the same thing as downloading your raw data file to upload elsewhere. You’ll find those instructions in the Transfer section later in this article.

What About You?

Do you have a tree at MyHeritage?

Triangulation MyHeritage tree tab.png

If not, click on Family Tree to create or upload one including not only direct line ancestors, but their children and grandchildren which facilitates and encourages the formation of Theories of Family Relativity.

Connecting Your DNA to Your Tree

Assigning your kit and those of family members to the proper profile card in your tree is very important, especially for the formation of Theories of Family Relativity

To suggest a theory, MyHeritage searches through all the possible links in the MyHeritage database meaning SmartMatches between trees, Record matches, record to record matches, etc.

If a DNA kit is not associated with an individual that is connected to ancestors, this reduces the probability that MyHeritage will be able to find a theory.

For example, if I took a DNA test but only have myself in the tree, not connected to my father and mother, but my father appears in another user’s tree (and there are more ancestors in that tree) MyHeritage won’t be able to find the information to generate a theory.

If I add my father, then the system has a common ancestor to work with.

When the TOFR algorithm runs, it’s trying to find any possible route to connect the two individuals (you and your DNA Match). If you are associated with individuals in multiple sites or trees, MyHeritage will try all of them and generate multiple paths for you to evaluate.

Have you assigned the kits of family members you manage to the proper place in your tree?

Triangulation MyHeritage tree.png

You can do this easily under the Manage DNA Kits option, under the DNA tab. Click on the three little dots to the right of the kit.

Triangulation MyHeritage assign dots.png

Then click assign the kit.

Triangulation MyHeritage assign kit.png

You’ll be prompted

Triangulation MyHeritage kit name.png

If you start typing, you’ll be prompted with the names of people in your tree.

Other Resources to Identify Common Ancestors

MyHeritage includes other tools to help you identify common ancestors as well, including:

  • SmartMatches where MyHeritage matches individuals in trees
  • AutoClusters showing groups of people that match you and each other
  • Shared Matches indicating common DNA matches between you and another DNA match
  • Shared Ancestral Surnames show common surnames, even if a common ancestor does not show in a tree
  • Shared Ancestral Places indicating common locations in trees
  • Shared Ethnicities comparing ethnicity between matches, a feature typically only beneficial if looking for a minority (to you) ancestry match
  • Genealogical Records including matches from other databases such as Geni.com and FamilySearch
  • Trees

Transfers

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

The article, Are You DNA Testing the Right People? explains how to determine who to test. Make sure you aren’t missing anyone that you need.

Here’s how to transfer:

I wrote recently about how to work with triangulation at FamilyTreeDNA. Join me soon for similar articles about how to work with triangulation at 23andMe, GedMatch and DNAPainter.

Most of all – have fun!

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

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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Michael McDowell Jr. (c1747 – c1840), Revolutionary War Veteran, Spy, Miller and Apparently, Rabble Rouser, 52 Ancestors #258

I’m struck by how much Michael McDowell’s life reads like a book with distinct chapters. One closes and as the wagon pulls away from the old homestead and another opens.

Michael did that at least twice in his adult life.

I first found Michael McDowell in present day Hancock County, Tennessee and worked my way backward in time, which was anything but easy.

For starters, Hancock County records burned, twice. At the time Michael lived, it was Claiborne County, whose records are incomplete. The place where he lived also bordered Lee County, Virginia and the border between Virginia and Tennessee was disputed for the entirety of Michael’s lifetime. And not to mention various census years that I need that are missing.

For decades, I’ve felt like the great genealogy gods have a perverse and somewhat perverted sense of humor. “Oh, you’ve overcome that road block, well, try this one! Hahahahah.”

In reassembling Michael’s life and that of his parents and children, I’ve had to connect many dots. Some snapped right in, like puzzle pieces nestling together like Russian tea dolls, but a few…not so much. The further back in time we go, the more scarce and difficult the pieces. It’s doesn’t help any that his father’s name was Michael McDowell too, as was his son.

Our Michael McDowell Jr. was born about 1747, possibly in Lunenburg or Albemarle County. His father’s trail goes cold in 1755 in Bedford County where Michael Jr. entered the Revolutionary War in 1777.

The name of Michael’s mother is unknown. She could have been from anyplace between Maryland and Lunenburg County, Virginia. If she was the same age as Michael’s father, she would have been born about 1720, or about 27 when MIchael Jr. was born. It’s likely that someplace, Michael Jr. has siblings.

Revolutionary War Pension Application

One of our most valuable pieces of information about Michael McDowell is his application for a Revolutionary War pension found in Claiborne County, Tennessee. Two versions exist, one somewhat more detailed than the other.

Michael McDowell, Page 31 section 28, Michael McDowell S 1690 Virginia Service:

This day personally appeared before Samuel Powell, Judge of the Circuit Court of Law and this equity in Claiborne Co., TN. Michael McDowell, age 85, in order to obtain benefit of an act of Congress, passed June 7, 1832. He made this application 1832. States he entered the service in Bedford Co., VA 1777 or 1778. He was drafted to perform 3 months tour of duty and he belonged to Company of Capt. Arthur which was attached to the regiment of Col. James Calloway. He then marched to the lead mines in the western part of Virginia and built a fort, and also under Capt. Wm. Leftridge at the same Fort. And after his term expired, returned home to his residence in Bedford Co., VA, and again volunteered under Capt. Arther, and marched against the Indians, and again after returning home joined with some neighbors and friends with the citizens of the country calling themselves spies, to protect women and children from the skelping knife of the savage. He went to see his Capt. Arther who now lives in Kentucky and he is so parallized and so polsed? so that he can not speak, so as to be understood.

John Hunt a citizen of Claiborne County, Tennessee, certify that I am well acquainted with Michael McDowell, and it is reputed and believed in the neighbourhood where he lives that he was a Revolutionary War Soldier.

Affidavit of James Gilbert, one of the clergyman of the Baptist Church, state I am well acquainted with Michael McDowell.

John Hunt, High Sheriff of said county, makes the same statement.

This affidavit gives us a lot of information about Michael, including that he and his friends called themselves spies.

His age is given, which puts his birth about 1747.

We know that in 1777, Michael was 30 years old and living in Bedford County, Virginia. He was married by that time, with his son Edward born in 1773 and his son Michael (the third) being born before 1774.

Information from “TN Pension Roll of 1835” copied by William Navey:

Michael McDowell – Claiborne Co., TN – Private VA Line, $30 annual allowance – $90 amount received, Sept. 20, 1833 pension started – age 87 in 1835

State of Tennessee, Claiborne County This day personally appeared before Samuel Powell, Judge of the Circuit Court of law and equity in the state of Tennessee the same being a Court of Record, Michael McDowell age 85 years who being first duly sworn according to law doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the benefit of an Act of Congress passed June 7, 1832. States that he entered the services of the United States under the following named officers and served as herein states that he resided in the County of Bedford in the State of Virginia and some time in the year of 1777 or in the year of 1778 he was drafted to perform a three month tour of duty in the services his county and that he belonged to company commanded by Capt. Arthur which said company was attached to the regiment commanded by Col. James Calaway then marched to the lead mines in the western part of Virginia and we then built a fort and we were there stationed until my time of service has expired and then it was that Col. Calaway called upon us to volunteer our services in the cause of our country for the time of three months which this applicant did do in good faith and he states most positively that he did serve his country under the command of Capt. William Selfridge at the same fort and after his time of service had again expired this applicant returned home to his residence in the State of Virginia in Bedford County and some time after this applicant returned home he again volunteered himself under Capt. Arthur and he then marched against the Indians who were committing many defamations on the inhabitants of Virginia and the applicant states that he served in the campaign as long as his services was required by the commanding officer, but the precise time he does not recollect and then being discharged from service he returned to his residence in the County of Bedford. And this applicant begs leave further to represent to the department that some time after he had returned home from the last above mentioned campaign that he united himself with some of his neighbors and friends together with a vow to protect the women and children from the scalping knife of the savage and often performing a great deal of hard labour in the service of our country and after the spring of the year had set in and the savages had left the frontier we again returned home the applicant states that he believes taking the whole of his service together that he served in the cause of his country for the term of nine months although it may be more or it may be less. Said applicant also states that he has no documentary evidence of his services nor does he know of any living testimony by whom he can prove his services. He a few days ago went to see his Capt. (to wit) Capt. Arthur who now lives in the State of Kentucky and that he found that the said Arthur is paralyzed and so palsied that he cannot speak so as to be understood which now fully appears no reference to a document, herewith presented and signed by one of the Justices of the Peace in said state. Hereby relinquish his every claim to a pension or annuity except the present and declares that his name is not on the pensions roll of any agency of any state whatsoever. Sworn to in open court Dec. 1832

If this was sworn in December 1832, chances are very likely that Michael had already had his birthday for the year. His year of birth subtracts to 1748 in this document.

In a publication listing Tennessee veterans of the Revolutionary War, Michael is listed as having been born in 1745. The source of this information is not given.

I obtained Michael McDowell’s Revolutionary War Pension file from the National Archives.

Michael McDowell Rev War1.jpg

The actual pension act was found in Michael’s pension papework.

Michael McDowell Rev War 2.jpg

Michael McDowell Rev War 3.jpg

I originally though that Michael signed this document himself, but after looking more closely, he didn’t.

Michael McDowell Rev War 4.jpg

The “X, his mark” is present. Of course, we don’t know from this document alone whether Michael was simply too elderly and too feeble to write, or if he never could. Other documents will tell that story.

Michael McDowell Rev War 5.jpg

Michael McDowell Rev War 6.jpg

MIchael McDowell Rev War 7.jpg

Michael McDowell Rev War 8.jpg

$90 was a lot of money in 1832 – enough to purchase a farm or at least land to clear for a farm.

Michael McDowell Rev War 9.jpg

Michael McDowell Rev War 10.jpg

From these documents, we can put together roughly the following timeline:

When What Where
1777 or 1778 3 month tour Lead mines with Arthur and Callaway
Additional 3 months at lead mines Callaway requested, served under Leftridge
Home after the second three month tour Bedford County
Some time later Volunteered again to march against Indians With Arthur
Returned home Bedford County
Some time later Spied on Indians – returned home after spring when Indians departed

Michael states that he served 90 days in total, more or less. Given the dates above, his time spying on the Indians would have had to have been in either late 1777 or late 1778. If he was drafted in 1777, most of that year would have been consumed with the 6 months contiguous duty at the lead mines.

Michael McDowell Rev War 11.png

This final document is interesting in that it lists Michael as an invalid. It’s possible, at 85 years of age, that his invalid status is simply a result of his age, meaning he can no longer farm, and had nothing to do with his service or an injury. He did not apply in 1818 at which time destitute soldiers could apply.

These documents reveal more too. Michael left Bedford County and marched to the western part of Virginia. At this time, Tennessee and Kentucky didn’t exist, so Virginia just trailed off into nothing – with no western border as shown in the Fry and Jefferson map from 1775, below.

Michael McDowell 1775 Fry map.jpg

Revolutionary War Service

In the book, Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War: McAllister’s data we find several references to lead mines as well as the officer’s surnames noted in Michael McDowell’s pension application.

This book reveals: Capt. Benjamin Arthur R. Sept. 29, 1781 from Bedford County. James Callaway Co. Lt, S, Dec. 8, 1778. We then find Lt. Col. William Leftwich, S. Feb. 28, 1780. I’m not quite sure what that means, but it does confirm that they served.

Bedford County: 1776. Capt. Wm. Leftridge against Tories and Indians at Lead Mines, 47, 157.

This suggests that there might have been an encounter.

1780 – Capt. Robt. Adams’ Company guarding Lead Mines, 153.

Greenbrier County 1780: Capt. Thomas Wright raises a Company to go against the Indians at Detroit. But it was marched to Lead Mines on Holston, and then to Logan’s Station in Kentucky.

Jarvis Fields, in his pension application tells us that he served from Bedford County as well and he was called to duty in 1779 by Col. Calloway for guard duty at New London, in Bedford County, “the British prisoners taken at the Cowpens being confined there and at Lynchburg.”

Henry Cartmill who served from Botetourt tells us this about the possible location of the lead mines:

At another time he ranged the mountains between Fincastle and Sweet Springs in search of Indians. Himself and many others assembled at the lead mines in Wythe to meet Col. Fergerson who was said to be advancing from the Carolinas with a large force of Tories. After going as far as Stone House in Botetourt, they were stopped by Col. Skillern, commanding the Botetourt militia, until more men could be collected. News reaching them that the Tories were dispersed, they returned home.

Colonel Ferguson was killed at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780.

William King states that he was enlisted in Bedford County in 1778 and for two months, he guarded the lead mines in Wythe County. Other men refer to the lead mines in Wythe County, as well.

William Murphy is very detailed in his pension application:

About Aug. 1, 1776, from Bedford under Capt. William Leftridge, Lt. Calloway, Ensign Joseph Bond. Guarded Chiswold lead mines till relieved by other troops. In April, 1777, was substitute three months for Lewis Dusee (?), who was drafted from Thomas Jones’ Company in Henry. Served under Capt. Peter Herston, Lt. William Ferguson, Ensign Edward Tatum in Col. Christie’s regiment. Marched 200 miles to Long Island in the Holston to stand guard during a treaty with the Cherokees.

Volunteered in April 1780, to serve three months against the Cherokees. Went as sergeant under Capt. Jno. Clark and Lt. John Bond, Gen. John Sevier being in general command. Marched to the headwaters of the Tennessee and killed a number of Indians, with the loss of Capt. Davis and Lt. Bond killed, and Jasper Terry wounded.

In February 1782, volunteered three months under Capt. John Clark, and Lt. John Murphy, of Washington County, N. C. (now Tenn.), Col. J. Brown commanding the regiment, and marched across Nolachucky and French Broad in pursuit of the Indians who had attacked Sherrill’s Station on the frontier, losing one of their number in the attack. We overtook a band, supposed to number 60 to 100, and killed, as was said, thirteen of them. In August 1782, drafted against the Indians again and hired George Doggett as substitute, but Gen. Sevier insisted that I go. Served under him in company of Capt. Thomas Wood and Lt. Vathan Breed, all the officers being of Greene Co. (Tenn.) We destroyed several Cherokee towns, killed a number of Indians, and took some prisoners. John Watts, a half-breed gave up a white woman named Jennie Ivey, who was taken from Roane’s Creek a year before.

The reference to Chiswold’s lead mines gives is a critical clue.

Michael McDowell lead mines.jpg

This waymark exists today at the intersection of interstate 77 and Route 52, but the actual mines were about 10 miles further south in the Austinville Community on a bluff on the south bank of New River. Known variously as the mines on Cripple Creek, the Austinville mines, or the Wytheville mines, they were discovered in 1756 by Colonel John Chiswell.

The original Fort Chiswell was built during the French and Indian War where the current village of Fort Chiswell stands, but was paved over when the intersection of I77 and I81 was constructed in the 1970s.

Given that Michael McDowell said that they built a fort, it’s probable that they built a fort at the actual mines to protect the lead, an extremely valuable commodity to both the militiamen and the Tories who were attempting to capture the mines.

The website, Diggings, below, shows the mine with the green balloon and the deposits in red. The information on the site states that production at the Austinville East Lead Zinc Mines began in 1753 and concluded in 1981.

Michael McDowell Austinville.png

This would be where Michael McDowell camped and built the fort.

MIchael McDowell mine.png

Today, the two routes from Bedford County to the lead mines, both through gaps in the mountains, would be either 110 miles or 125 miles.

Michael McDowell mine map.png

A Google satellite view of the vicinity shows extensive mining efforts at Chiswell Hole.

Michael McDowell Chiswell Hole.png

If the location of the original lead mines is accurately positioned by the green locator of the Diggings map, the original mine location would be where the white roofed building, below, is located today.

Michael McDowell mine location.png

Unfortunately, none of these roads are “drivable” today utilizing Google street view. Maybe in a few years.

Indians, Spies and Scalpings

In both application versions, Michael mentions being an Indian spy, banding together to protect people and that the Indians subsequently left the frontier. What can we discover about when and where this might have occurred?

Michael says he “marched against the Indians, and again after returning home joined with some neighbors and friends with the citizens of the country calling themselves spies, to protect women and children from the skelping knife of the savage.” He also mentions that he and his fellow spy citizens returned home in the spring, meaning they tracked Indians in the cold of winter.

We know that this was after Michael marched to the lead mines, which was probably about April 1777, based on the information unearthed about the mines and other men who served there, and after Michael served with Col. Leftridge and then marched with Captain Arthur against the Indians. After all that is when he “joined with some neighbors and friends.”

In Michael was at the lead mines in April of 1777, then he went home in about October of 1777.

We know that this was probably related to the peace treaty signed with the Cherokee Indians in July 1777 ceding the Watauga lands or in July of 1781 when they ceded more land, both events taking place at the Long Island of the Holston. Another treaty during this time was the Treaty of Fort Pitt signed in November of 1778 with the Delaware. It’s difficult to know which event might have resulted in the Indians leaving the frontier as he mentioned, an event that allowed him to finally return home for the last time – although it’s most likely prior to 1781.

Two articles shed light on this time period and events that clearly impacted Michael McDowell.

The first is found in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Apr., 1915), pp. 113-123, article by David I. Bushnell, Jr.

In the first of a series of articles titled, “The Virginia Frontier in History – 1778”, David Bushnell tells us that in 1774, Cornstalk, Chief of the Shawnee entered into a peaceful agreement with Lord Dunmore and subsequently became friendly with the English.

However, in November 1777, at Fort Randolph which was located at Point Pleasant (now West Virginia,) Cornstalk along with his son were brutally murdered. Ironically, Cornstalk had come to warn the settlers and his killing was in revenge for the murder of a settler by an Indian.

During the winter months that followed, the settlers realized what grave danger they had brought upon themselves by killing Chief Cornstalk and prepared for the now-expected attack by the Indians. In January 1778, Col. William Preston sent a letter from Montgomery County, Virginia, begging then-governor Patrick Henry of Virginia for assistance, expecting the Shawnee to descend upon the settlers at any time.

A widespread attack was expected, “upon all Frontier Inhabitants from Pittsburg to the lower Settlements of Clinch and the Kentucky.”

Col. Preston writes:

“I acknowledge, Sir, that this detestable murder was committed by backwoods men who ought to have behaved in a manner very different; and I am sorry to inform your Excellency that upwards of 100 persons in the County alone have yet refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the State, many of whom are disarmed and the remainder soon will, who cannot claim, nor are they entitled to Protection while they continue Obstinate.”

“The inhabitants in this and the neighboring counties, especially those most exposed to danger are in the greatest consternation. Several thousand good subjects ought not to suffer for the indiscretion and obstinacy of a few. Being generally in low circumstances, they are not able to remove and support their families in the interior parts of the state, and by continuing at their homes, without the assistance of government, or the immediate interposition of Providence, they and their helpless families must fall a sacrifice to savage fury and revenge.”

“Should this (assistance) be omitted or delayed, I am fully convinced from long experience that this county or a great part of it will be depopulated before May next and the enemy, like blood-hounds, will pursue until they overtake their prey, even to the south side of the Blue Ridge, as they did not many years ago.”

Preston goes on to ask for provisions, stating that the lack of salt prevented people from laying up the quantity of pork that they would have otherwise done. He says they will be out of provisions in two months. Normally pigs butchered in the fall would last until at least the following summer when crops could be harvested.

Preston also asks for Indian corn to be purchased and says there is none in his or neighboring counties. Furthermore, “the want of lead is a most discouraging circumstance. They offer any price but they cannot purchase it.”

Guns don’t work without bullets and lack of lead for their muskets made the settlers little more than sitting ducks.

According to the response recorded in the “Journal for Council for 1778” in the Virginia State Archives, Greenbrier County also submitted a request and on February 19th, the Council agreed to the following:

  • One pound of lead for each militia man
  • To direct trusty scouts to range towards the enemy’s country
  • To advise proper stockades for receiving the helpless inhabitants, wherever the savages have in in their power to penetrate
  • To direct the County Lieutenants of Botetourt and Montgomery to consult together on the expediency of establishing a post near the mouth of Elk River for keeping up the correspondence between GreenBrier and Fort Randolph
  • To do so in the matter they judge best to reinforce the garrison at Fort Randolph with 50 men from the militia of Botetourt
  • That earnest and close pursuit of the foremost scalping parties be made in order to discourage others
  • To apprehend and deliver up the people concerned in that murder

On March 27, 1778 they recommended ordering 50 men from Rockbridge County, Virginia to Fort Randolph and 50 men each from Botetourt and Greenbrier County to “post at” Kelley and authorized 1000 pounds for “commissary.”

The order to “direct trusty scouts to range towards the enemy” stems from the following document passed by the General Assembly on May 5, 1777 as found in Henning (Vol IX, p294-295):

“The lieutenant or next commanding officer of the several counties on the western frontier, with the like permission, shall appoint any number of proper persons, not exceeding 10, in any one county to act as scouts for discovering the approach of the Indians…who on such discovery shall immediately give notice thereof to such militia officer.”

The scouts were instructed not to fire on the Indians, except in self-defense, but only to report locations to the militia officers. Their job was to find the Indians and spy upon them. Their instructions were to not lose time, to stay constantly “on foot” and after they “have fully ranged the part of the country which it was supposed would take 2 or 3 weeks,” they should report back. They were to take their own provisions, but they would be paid for them. I wonder if that ever happened.

However, now we know where the term that Michael used, “spies,” originated in this context.

Interestingly enough, on the back of a paper were listed locations, probably made by a scout, showing the locations visited. The author believes the numbers represent the number of miles:

  • From Culbersons bottom to the big Crab Orchard – 60 (Crab Orchard is in Kentucky)
  • From there to Maiden Spring – 15
  • From thence to Elk Garden – 17
  • To the Glade Hollow – 13

Underneath that is a total line and then 105.

  • To Cowins fort – 10
  • Moores fort – 5
  • BlackMores – 2
  • To Mockinson Gap – 18
  • To ye Great Eatons (?) – 8
  • To Capt Donelsons line – 8

Another total line and 174.

Fort Blackmore was located in what is now Scott County, VA, as is Moccasin Gap.

According to Familypedia.wikia, this 1774 copy of the Smith map with red circles indicates the locations of forts as shown on Daniel Smith’s original map, now in the Draper collection, item 4NN62. The red line became the Kentucky Trace.

1774 Smith map.png

This area includes part of the present Virginia counties of Tazewell, Russell and Scott from the Clinch River to the Holston.

Col. Preston apparently became more fearful and requested additional protection in May of 1778, the following being noted:

“The Board being informed of Col. Preston’s expored situation on the frontier and that is was apprehended (should be obliged to remove) most of the back inhabitants would quit their settlements, they do advise the governor to empower Col. Preston to keep a sergeant and 12 men stationed at his house as Draper’s Meadow to enable him to continue at his habitation and to encourage others to do so.”

In a second article in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1915), pp. 337-351 by David I. Bushnell, Jr. we find additional information.

A report detailed the importance of maintaining 4 forts, one of which is Fort Henry in Ohio County and one at Fort Randolph, which is on the Ohio at the mouth of the Kanawha river, the scene of the treacherous murder of Chief Cornstalk in November 1777. That act was the touchstone of the rebellion that caused the Indians to attack the settlers on the frontier. Fort Randolph was stated to be “200 miles distant from the settlements” and 150 men were requested for that location.

Michael McDowell Fort Randolph.png

Indeed, Fort Randolph is about 266 miles from Bedford County, VA.

Michael McDowell Bedford to Fort Randolph.png

Also requested for the various forts was 1500 gallons of whiskey. That’s a LOT of whiskey!

The two documents presented…enable us to picture the frontier posts as they were during the summer of 1778. Small groups of militia, at widely separated spots in the vast primeval forests. Nearby were the clearings and log cabins of the settlers. Supplies were scarce and consequently difficult to obtain and of a high price: a condition which resulted in more than one expedition being either postponed or abandoned. Scouts were ever on the alert for the approach of the warriors from beyond the Ohio; the accepted boundary between the white settlements and the Indian Country later to become the Territory Northwest of the Ohio.

That same year a census of the tribes was prepared by William Wilson at the request of the War Office as reported in the Virginia Historical Magazine:

1778 tribal census.png

1778 tribal census 2.png

The tribes were widely separated and the number of hostile warriors was given as 330, certainly a very conservative figure; but nevertheless, they were sufficiently numerous to spread terror over many hundreds of miles of the frontier.

In the endeavor to gain peace for the Virginia frontier, and the friendship of the Indians beyond the Ohio, Congress planned a treaty to be held at Fort Pitt, July 23, 1778, to be attended by commissioners of the government and representative of the different tribes. This was destined to be the first treaty between the United States and an Indian Nation, and was signed September 17th.

Michael’s Revolutionary War papers take us back to Bedford County, Virginia where he lived after being dismissed the final time from his Revolutionary War service – and presumably once the region became relatively safe again after November of 1778.

What we don’t know is which spring Michael was referring to, 1778, which is unlikely, given the above information, or perhaps the spring of 1779.

Bedford County, Virginia

Michael McDowell Bedford County

Bedford County is mountainous and rough. I visited Bedford County, years ago, and Bedford isn’t much different from surrounding counties. In essence, Bedford is part of the Appalachian range which extends for thousands of miles as an expansive sea of craggy rocks interspersed with tiny patches of green that farmers have been trying to cultivate since before the Revolutionary War. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful with incredible vistas.

Bedford County hosts a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a beautiful WWII era road that runs along the summits of the mountains offering stunning vistas, in particular the Peaks of Otter in Bedford County, shown below – visible for a hundred miles in any direction on a good day.

Michael McDowell Peaks of Otter.jpg

This might have been particularly relevant for Michael McDowell’s father, Michael Sr., who we know lived in Halifax County, Virginia in 1752. This means that if Michael Jr. was born in 1747, he might have been born in present day Halifax County which was Lunenburg County at that time. Interestingly, you can see the Peaks of Otter from Halifax County, below, at a location called “Top of the World.”

Perhaps Michael saw these mountains and felt irresistibly drawn towards them – an area that was then the risky, unsettled frontier.

Peaks of Otter

The photo above was taken from Halifax County, looking 50 miles distant to the Peaks. Did Michael live here, or see this on his way back and forth to the tobacco warehouses in Danville, in Pittsylvania County? As a young boy, did he dream of adventure there? One day that dream would come true.

Michael McDowell Peaks of Otter valley.png

Looking across the roof of the Peaks of Otter Lodge today, from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Many of the men who settled in Bedford County were Scots-Irish, and before that, they were Scottish families, so trying to farm fields filled with rocks was nothing new to them. Perhaps it even reminded them somewhat of home, or the homeland of their fathers and grandfathers anyway.

After finding Michael McDowell’s Revolutionary War record, of course I began digging in Bedford County for more information.

Ironically, some of the information I found in Bedford County in June of 2005 referred me back to Claiborne County, Tennessee.

At the Bedford Co. Historical Society, I found a McDowell family file and it held a contact from California from 1989 and 1990 who descends from our Michael McDowell

The researcher mentioned that in Mary Hansard’s book, Old Time Tazewell, Michael’s son Nathan S. McDowell is mentioned as being of Irish descent, which the researcher interpreted to mean that Michael was born in Ireland. As it turns out, Michael Jr. wasn’t, but his grandfather, Murtough McDowell, was.

Blackwater River

On September 24, 1783, Michael purchased 75 acres on the North side of Blackwater River in Bedford County from James Stevens. and on March 22, 1784 the purchase was confirmed in court. Witnesses to the sale were Richard Richards, Skinner Devaul(?) and Ambrose Rains.

Michael McDowell Blackwater River Bedford.jpg

It’s important to note that this does not say Michael McDowell Sr. or Jr., which it surely would have stated if there were two Michael McDowell’s living in the same county at the same time.

On the 1782 Bedford County tax list, we find only one Michael McDowell, listed with 1 free male above 21 years, no slaves, 4 horses, 11 cattle with 1 white tithable, himself.

Unfortunately, the tax list is semi-alpha, which means it’s not in household order, so we can’t look at the list to identify his neighbors. There are no other McDowell residents listed.

In 1783, we find Michael with 1 poll tax, 1 male over 21, 2 horses and 4 cows. Most people had both more horses and more cows that Michael.

By 1784, Michael is gone from the tax list but he doesn’t sell that land until 1793 as a resident of Wilkes County, NC.

It appears that the area of Bedford County where Blackwater River was located became Franklin County.

The Blackwater River runs for about 20 miles as the crow flies, west of the area called Callaway, to the left of the pin below, and the county line at far right where it opens into what is now Smith Mountain Lake, formed by the Roanoke River.

Michael McDowell Callaway.png

Given that Michael served under Colonel James Calloway, which means that Michael probably served with his local muster group, my strong suspicion is that Michael lived near James Calloway. Given that Callaway is located on Blackwater River, Michael probably lived in this region too.

Indeed, this is probably where he grew up because his father apparently applied for a land grant in 1754 on the Black Water River – although beyond the initial application we never find any additional informatoin about Michael Sr.’s 400 acres. He could well have forfeited the grant for any number of reasons.

The north and south branches of Blackwater are born near Calloway and flow eastward to the Roanoke.

Michael McDowell Blackwater River 2.png

Today, this area is a mosaic of farmland, but at that time, it was probably still forested, and men like Michael would fell trees to make room for fields.

Michael McDowell Blackwater satellite.png

Someplace, Michael’s land was probably here in this crazy-quilt mosaic of farmland and forest.

Michael McDowell Blackwater River Callaway Road

Today, Callaway Road where it crosses the Blackwater River. This would have been a ford when Michael lived here.

The Arthur family lived nearby too, with several deeds showing land near Goose Creek, in Bedford County, 4 or 5 miles east of the Roanoke River where Blackwater River empties.

This was Michael’s stomping ground growing up. It’s probably where he married his wife.

We know that Michael McDowell Sr. was on the Bedford County tax list in 1755, and given that our Michael was born in 1747 or 1748, the 1755 Michael had to have been Michael Sr., not Junior.

Or stated another way, it couldn’t have been Michael Jr. and there is a small possibility that the 1755 Michael was not Michael Jr’s father. Given that he was the only McDowell living in Bedford County by the same name, there’s a good chance that the 1755 Michael is indeed Michael Sr., the father of Michael Jr.

I checked all Bedford County deeds 1761-1771, wills 1759-1810 and court orders 1754-1761 – no Michael McDowells. He certainly kept a low profile.

There are also records in Bedford County for one Ephriam McDowell, no known relationship and these two male lines carry completely different Y DNA.

Michael McDowell bought land in Bedford County in 1783, but in 1784 he is not listed on the Bedford County tax list and a Michael McDowell is listed with 1 white poll in adjacent Botetourt County. Is this the same man? If so, was he trying out different locations? Why did he leave just after purchasing land?

If this isn’t the same Michael McDowell, what happened to that second Michael McDowell in Botetourt County? Where did he come from and where did he go? The only other McDowell in Botetourt in 1784 was George. However, there was a Michael in Botetourt, earlier, in 1774 who was found to be delinquent on his taxes.

If this was our Michael in Botetourt, he clearly didn’t stay and it was a very short chapter in a very long book. Our Michael is also not the Michael McDowell who served out of Pennsylvania in 1776-1777 in the Revolutionary War.

Where is our Michael?

Pat Bezet and Mary Kay McDowell

A few years after visiting Bedford County, I found Pat Bezet on an old Rootsweb board along with Mary Kay McDowell, the wife of Les who Kay believed to be a Michael McDowell Jr. descendant through Michael’s son, Luke. These women had done a massive amount of research on Michael and family, and I would spend the next several years following in their footsteps, trying to add additional tidbits. They were both very generous about sharing their work. However, it was interesting that even though we were all plowing the same fields, so to speak, that we all found things that had either been overlooked by the other parties or found different records altogether. Six eyes are obviously better than any two. By reviewing available records again, I’ve recently found things that all three of us missed previously.

Mary Kay McDowell systematically sifted through nearly all of the published Virginia sources available in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

The results of our research and trips are intermingled in this article, with many thanks to both ladies.

Albemarle County, Virginia

It’s likely that Michael McDowell Jr. was born in 1747 or 1748 in Lunenburg County, Virginia or possibly in Albemarle County. Michael’s father, Michael Sr. was found in both locations.

Keep in mind that Halifax County where we positively identify Michael McDowell Sr. in 1752 was Lunenburg before that.

We find a similar name in Albemarle County, VA in the 1745 road records, dated June 27th in which Andrew Wallace was appointed surveyor of the highway from D.S. to Mitchams River and both Merlock (also transcribed as Mirlock) McDowell and Micha McDowell were ordered, along with other men to clear the road. Albemarle county as was formed from Goochland in 1744, although deed, court and will records did not begin in Albemarle until 1748. Albemarle road records are lost beginning in 1748. Research into Albemarle records from 1748-1753 produced nothing, nor did research into Goochland deed and will records from 1731-1749.

The name Merlock sounds very close to Murtough, Michael’s father’s name, raising the question of whether Michael was Merlock’s brother. It’s also worth noting that in Maryland, Murtough’s name was also spelled Murto, with the surname as Mackdowell and Mackdaniel. Names were spelled as the person hearing them understood them and spelling wasn’t standardized at the time.

If Michael was in Albemarle County, he was familiar with the Three Notch’d Road which is the road the crew where he was assigned was instructed to clear and open in 1745. Men were assigned to crews along the road where they lived.

The Virginia Department of Transportation document titled, “The Route of the Three Notch’d Road: A Preliminary Report” written in 1976 shows the “1740 House,” an old tavern near the site of the D.S. Tree, near present day Ivy Virginia. Today the building, also known as the “D. S. Tavern” is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The original 3 Notched Road was begun about 1742 and the route was marked the entire length between Richmond, VA and the Appalachian Mountains in Augusta County, VA – including running directly through Albemarle County and is currrently US 250. US 250 was rerouted in some places, but is basicaly the same road in Albemarle County.

If indeed this is our Michael’s father in the 1745 road record, this 1740 House which stood and functioned as an ordinary at the time was probably intimately familiar to him, both inside and out.

Michael McDowell Three Notched Road.png

The D. S. Tree is reported to be in the final segment of a the “Three Notched Road” between Secretary’s Ford on the Rivanna River, (near the old woolen mill adjacent to I-64 on the east side of Charlottesville) to the D. S. Tree in Michael Wood’s road, the road east from Wood’s Gap to Ivy.

MIchael McDowell 1740 tavern.png

Today, this private home is at the intersection of Dick Woods Road and 250.

Early deeds refer to Stockton’s branch of Mitchum River, and also Stockton’s ford.

Michael McDowell Woods Gap.png

An aerial view shows the mountainous area between Ivy and the top of the mountain range.

Michael McDowell Woods Gap aerial.png

According to Edgar Wood’s History of Albemarle county, Virginia, the D. S. Tree had the initials of David Stockdon, an early patentee of land nearby, carved into it. That tree no longer exists.

Here’s a section of what was called the “Three Notch’d Road” also known as the Mountain or Mountain Ridge Road, now US 250, which today intersects with the Ridge Parkway.

Below, Mountain Ridge Road, another name for the Three Notch’d Road.

Michael McDowell Mountain Ridge Road.png

Today, on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Jarman Gap.

MIchael McDowell Jarman Gap

The Appalachian Trail runs alongside Skyline Drive, which is the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I’ve hiked much of this area. You can see Wood’s Gap Road in this aerial.

Michael McDowell Appalachian Trail.png

Below, the road descending to Lickinghole Creek.

Michael-McDowell-Lickinghole-Creek.png

Here’s the view on Three Notched Road crossing Lickinghole Creek today.

Michael McDowell Lickinghole

Three notched road ascending the Blue Ridge below.

Michael McDowell Three Notch ascending Blue Ridge.png

Jarman(s) Gap Road today just before it begins ascending the mountains. Wood’s Gap is now Jarman or Jarmans Gap.

Michael McDowell Jarman Gap Road.png

Google Street View does not drive on roads with no center line. The trip from Jarman’s Gap Road alongside Lickinghole Creek, above, to Jarman Gap which is one of two gaps crossing the mountain range is maybe 5 twisty-turny miles on road 611 – complete with switchbacks.

Michael McDowell road ascending mountain.png

And of course, a 3 notched tree. The original D.S. tree stood east from Wood’s (now Jarman’s) Gap to Ivy, probably on the same property where the 1740 D.S. Tavern stood.

Michael McDowell three Notched tree.png

Ivy to Jarman Gap. Today you must use the Park Entrance, but not so then when they took the more direct route up the side of the mountain, marked with red arrows.

Michael McDowell Ivy to Jarman Gap.png

Michael Sr. worked here, opening the roads still in use today, but looking very different. The area where he was assigned was from the D.S. Tree to Mitchums River, which is Mechums River today – a distance of about 3 miles.

Michael McDowell Ivy to Mechums River

That means he would have lived someplace along this route probably on a spring branch of a creek where fresh water was available. This is likely where Michael McDowell Jr. was born.

I’m not convinced that the blue 250 portion is the original road, but Google didn’t drive down 738 which looks like it might have been the original road.

However, there is a portion where 738 and 250 join, and that was likely the original portion, as is the portion where Dick Wood’s Road and 250 intersect.

Michael McDowell Ivy to Michums River aerial

In fact, when I enlarged the photo, I could clearly see 3 Notch’d Trace, the portion that exists today, and the portion which no longer exists. You can see Mechums River at left and where it is crossed by 250. At right, with the arrows is the old section of 3 Notch’d Road.

MIchael McDowell 3 Notched Trace

Michael McDowell Sr. labored to maintain the road so that horses and wagons could ford Mechums River, below, today where 250 crosses. This could have been Stockton’s ford referenced in the various early Albemarle deeds.

Michael McDowell Ivy Road at Meachums River

At the intersection of Ivy Road and 3 Notch’d Trace, a remaining segment of the original road, we can see the Appalachian Mountains in the distance.

MIchael McDowell Ivy Road at 3 Notchd Trace.png

Those mountains would beckon to Michael Sr., whispering, “Come,” and he did, but first he took a detour.

Lunenburg County, Virginia

Lunenburg County, where we find Michael next, was formed in 1745 from Brunswick County. The 1748 tax map for Lunenburg is the first tax list available, so we don’t have any way of knowing whether or not Michael Jr., born about 1747 was born in Lunenburg or perhaps Albemarle. It’s also possible, although unlikely that the Michael in Albemarle wasn’t Michael Jr.’s father, and that he was still in Maryland before arriving in Halifax County.

Pat included the Lunenburg County 1748 tax list where Michal McDanel was shown with 1 tithe in the district taken in June by Mathew Talbot from Bleu Store to Little Roanoke. The Roanoke is now called the Staunton which forms the northern and much of the eastern border of Halifax County.

Michael McDowell Lunenburg 1746 tax map

Sunlight on the Southside by Landon Bell provides the Lunenburg tax lists, where extant. We find the McDowell family mentioned in the intro portion as being from Lunenburg Co., VA before they went to NC.

In 1749, we find Michael McDowell in William Caldwell’s district, which bordered Halifax on the north on the Staunton River. In 1752 Halifax was formed from Lunenburg, where Michael McDowell. had 1 white tithe, meaning white male over 16, and no negroes.

In 1749, the Lunenburg road orders included a Michael McDaniel, who may have actually been Michael McDowell.

In 1750 we find Michael McDowell in Nicholas Hale’s district with one tithe and neighbors that included Jacob and John Pybon.

In 1751, Michael is missing from the list and in 1752, Halifax County was formed from Lunenburg. We already know that Michael McDowell Sr. is in Halifax in 1752 where he signed a power of attorney to sell his father’s land in Maryland.

The Lunenburg Order books 1746-1755 reflect the following:

June 1753, Michael McDuel vs Jacob Pyborn – Pyborn not inhabitant of county – suit abates.

Trouble with the neighbors, it seems.

May Court 1754, John Thompson vs Michael McDuel – defendant not inhabitant of county – suit abates.

This tells us that Michael McDowell Sr. left between June of 1753 and May of 1754, and it might give us some idea of why. Trouble was brewing perhaps.

Given that Michael lived in Halifax in 1752 and is found in neighboring Lunenburg in 1753 – it appears that he might have moved often, perhaps back and forth across the county border, or maybe he lived near the Staunton River.

Michael Jr. would have been 5 or 6 years old in 1752 or 1753, so likely remembers moving frequently and probably remembered Halifax County.

Bedford County was created in 1753 from Lunenburg County, but as it turns out, Michael didn’t live initially in what would become Bedford County. He was in Halifax, at least for a short time before moving on to Bedford.

Halifax and Bedford 

Halifax County was formed from Lunenburg in 1752, and that’s where we find Michael McDowell in that same year, selling his father’s land in Maryland. Thank goodness for this link, because without it, we would never have been able to connect Murtough McDowell in Baltimore County, Maryland with Michael McDowell in Virginia.

Details are provided in the article about Michael McDowell Sr., but suffice it to say that Michael Jr. would have been about 5 years old when his father was selling his grandfather’s land. Michael Jr. probably never got to meet his grandparents. Maybe he heard stories about his grandparents’ lives back in Ireland. His father may have been born there. Michael Sr. was born around 1720 and his father was in Maryland by 1722.

An important aspect of the documentation of Michael Jr.’s life is that Michael McDowell Sr.’s signature was never recorded as being signed with an X. Michael Jr., on the other hand, never signed his name without using the X.

In 1754, we find a mysterious entry in Marion Dodson Chiarito’s book, “Entry Record Book 1737-1770” which covers land in the present counties of Halifax, Pittsylvania, henry, Franklin and Patrick, she says the following:

This book contains land entries in the western portion of the original Brunswick County, namely Halifax, Pittsylvania, Henry, Franklin and Patrick. The area concerned was south of the Roanoke-Staunton River, west of Tewahomony Creek, now Aaron’s Creek which divides Mecklenburg and Halifax cuonties, and extending to the Blue Ridge Mountains. These counties were formed from Lumemburg which was separated from Brunswick in 1746.

Marion continues:

It must be pointed out that an entry for land was but a statement of intention. Ownership of land resulted from satisfying the requirements for settlement the land and improving it. For this reason, many entries were voided.

On page 161 of Marion’s book, on page 203 of the original entry taker book residing in current day Pittsylvania County, we find an entry for a man who might be Michael McDowell:

Michael McDuell 400 on a Branch of Black Water River beginning at a white oak with 4 chops in it in the fork of said branch then up both forks and down the branch.

If this was Michael McDowell Sr., I’ve failed to find a deed of sale at any time, and he is next found in Bedford County, formed in 1754, which indeed did have a Blackwater Creek that extended from today’s man-made Smith Mountain Lake southwest to beyond Callaway, where Michael McDowell Jr. appears to have lived.

By 1755, Michael Sr. was found on the Bedford county tax list indicating that Michael Jr. lived in Bedford County from about the time he was 8 years old.

The next piece of Michael Jr.’s life is his Revolutionary War pension application where he states that he served from Bedford County in 1777 or 1778 and returned there to his home when discharged. Michael McDowell Jr. would have been 30 years old in 1777 and based on the ages of his oldest children, had been married about 5 years by then.  If still living, his father, Michael Sr., would have been at least 57 years old.

We have no idea when Michael Sr. passed away, but Michael Jr. bought land in Bedford County in 1783 with no indication that there were two Michael McDowell’s living there in either 1782 or 1783, nor were there any other McDowell taxpayers.

Was Michael alone? There aren’t any other McDowell males, but his mother could well have been living. He could have had sisters who married and lived nearby. His wife, Isabel, surely had family in Bedford County.

Those details will probably never be revealed, but if Michael had no family there, that might have been part of what encouraged him to move again – although it’s quite strange that he left just a few months after purchasing property – and without selling it.

There are missing pieces of his story.

On to Wilkes County, North Carolina

What? Another move?

Wilkes County, NC?  This man did not let any moss grow under his feet. Just saying.

So far, we have Michael McDowell Sr. in Baltimore County as a son of Murtough. Probably in Albemarle in 1745, in Lunenburg County between 1748-1750, selling land in Baltimore in 1752 from Halifax County and then on the Bedford County tax list in 1755.

MIchael McDowell Sr life.png

This is the migration journey of Michael McDowell Sr.

Michael Jr. was born someplace (probably in Virginia) in 1747 and served in the Revolutionary War in 1777 and 1778 from Bedford County. It wasn’t until 1783 that there is a record of Michael purchasing land, then leaving by the next year without selling his land. He was possibly living in Botetourt County, adjacent to Bedford – at least some Michael McDowell was found on the tax list there.

Michael McDowell Bedford Botetourt.jpg

Sometime after that, Michael Jr. moved to Wilkes County, North Carolina, although we do have a 2 or 3-year gap in Michael’s life. Where was he?

Michael McDowell Ivy to Halls Mills.png

Michael would add the area near Halls Mills on Sparta Road in Wilkes County, today, to his lifelong journey.

On February 4, 1786 there is a Wilkes County deed from John Hall Sr. to Michael McDowell for 161 acres including “the plantation where Michael McDowell now lives. Witnessed by William Abshire, James Gambill and Andrew Vannoy.”

This tells us that Michael was already living in Wilkes County.

The connection with the Vannoy family would continue for generations – into Tennessee  where their descendants 5 generations later, my grandparents, would marry.

Another 1786 reference to Michael McDowell was found in a November 24th deed between Owen and Robert Hall for “156 acres on Andrew Vannoy’s line, Mickel McDowell’s corner and the line between Hall and Mikel McDowell.”  Jacob McGrady witnessed this deed. Given that Michael was Andrew’s neighbor, that also explains why Andrew witnessed his purchase.

Michael McDowell first appears in Wilkes Co in 1786 on the tax lists (he is absent earlier) with 1 poll and 160 acres and in 1787 with 162 acres and 1 poll. Therefore, we know that 1786 is probably when Michael moved to Wilkes County.

The 1787 “census” of North Carolina shows us that Michael had in his household:

  • 1 white male age 21-60
  • 2 white males under 21 or above 60
  • 1 white female
  • no blacks

Michael Jr.’s sons, Edward, born in 1773 and Michael (the third) born before 1774 account for these two “under 21” males. Michael III and Edward first appeared in court records witnessing a deed in 1799.

James McDowell, not a confirmed child of Michael, was born about 1779 based on his age when he signed as a witness to a deed in 1801.

Michael Jr.’s son John was born in 1782 or 1783 based on a deposition as well as his gravestone, so we know for sure he was under 21 in 1787. He’s missing from this record.

This discrepancy for a long time caused me to question whether all of Michael’s sons were in fact his sons. DNA has partly answered that question, but not entirely.

Early Court Records

In 1787, in Volume 2 of the Wilkes County Court Minutes (January 25, 1785 – November. 1, 1788) Michael is mentioned on July 25th in the State vs Michael McDowell – indictment for trespass.

Trespass at that time often meant something different than the current meaning, although since the state is bringing charges and not a neighbor in a civil suit, perhaps not. In some cases, trespass means that one man charged another with farming part of his land, encroaching over the property line. In this case, since the state brought the charges, it sounds more like the trespass infraction we are more familiar with today.

Michael is found not guilty by a jury.

On the very next page in the minute book, and the very next day at court, Michael is listed on a jury.

Also on the same day; Michael McDowell versus George Lewis on appeal. A jury is sworn and this case is found for Michael, with his damanges assessed to 3 pounds, 7 pence and costs.

However, on he is again charged with trespass and the same jury is ordered to hear Michael’s case as is hearing the case of Owen Hall and John Hall Senior and wife, “case for words,” which is found for the plaintiff.

The State then moved Michael’s case to the civil docket and finds him guilty of trespass, as charged.  Apparently, Michael’s case has something to do with the Hall family dispute. Recall that the Halls were his neighbors. This also makes me wonder if Michael’s wife, Isbael, was a Hall. If so, and if she was the mother of Michael Jr., that means that the Hall family would have been in Bedford County in 1773 when Michael’s first son, Edward, was born. There are Hall families in Bedford in this timeframe, but of course, that doesn’t mean that they are the same Hall families, or connected in any way.

A year later, in July of 1788, Michael is again listed on a jury and on the tax list in both 1788 and 1789 with 160 acres and 1 poll, meaning only one male over the age of 16. Being listed as a juror indicates that he was a citizen in good standing, but that would change in 1790.

Michael’s record up until now contains multiple services as a juror, and also an involved trespass charge.

However, sometime much more serious happened in 1790.

Criminal Charges

Criminal Action Papers Wilkes County, NC – July Court session – 1790:

State vs Michael McDowell, William Abshers and Owan Hall, labourers, who on July 20, 1790 did beat, wound and ill treat Betty Wooten.

Three men – beating a woman. That’s unconscionable by any standard of measure. Once again, this involves the Hall family.

The Abshire family lived on the south side of Mulberry Creek.

In 1787, Michael would have been 40 and 43 in 1790. No hothead kid, that’s for sure. This charge is much more serious than trespass.

Ok, who was Betty Wooten?

Betty Wooten

In the 1790 census, the only Wooten in Wilkes County was one Elizabeth, probably called Betty for short, who had no adult men in her household, 1 male under 16, and 5 females. According to the July 29, 1788 administration bond, she was the widow of Lewis Wooten. If her children were all born at 2 year intervals before her husband’s death, and she was his age and married at age 20, Betty would have been about 35 in 1790 when she was beaten.

Betty Wooten lived near the Sebastians, three houses from Jacob McGrady, who lived three houses from Owen Hall, who lived beside Michael McDowell who lived two houses from Andrew Vannoy.

Owen Hall was Michael McDowell’s neighbor and in the 1790 census, he was married with 2 males over 16, 3 under 16 and 4 females. If he had children every 2 years and married at age 25, he would have been about 40 years old.

William Absher was born about 1769 and died in 1842 in Wilkes County, so he would have been 21. The 1790 census reflects that he is married with a child, living beside Frank Vannoy, Andrew Vannoy’s brother.

Honestly, what possessed those men? There is certainly far more to the story. How I would have loved to have been a mouse in that house. All of those houses. What happened in that lawsuit? This had to be perceived as very serious for the state to bring a criminal action. And what exactly does “ill treat” mean? Is it code for something else?

Michael McDowell didn’t serve on a jury for the next 3 years.

Michael Jr.’s son, Michael III

Michael McDowell Jr. had a son, Michael, who we’ll call Michael III (the third). It’s possible that Michael III was the person in trouble in 1790, but not terribly likely – he would probably have been under 20. In 1789, Michael Sr. only pays for 1 poll tax, meaning that his sons were not yet 16. That suggests that Michael III was not born before 1783 although it’s possible that Michael was born as early as 1778. Michael III doesn’t otherwise appear in the records until 1799, signing a document as a witness for his father which would suggest he’s 21 at this time, or born 1778 or earlier. Still, in 1790, Michael III would have been 12 if he were born in 1778, so he’s not likely the preson who beat Betty.

Note here that the Michael who signed the deed signed with an X, but Michael the witness, presumably Michael III, signed his name.

This is an important generational differentiation, because Michael Sr. in Virginia apparently could write, Michael Jr. could not, but Michael III could.

The 1790s in Wilkes County

In the 1790 census, we find Michael McDowell living in Wilkes County among and near people who would also move to Claiborne County, Tennessee just a few years later, specifically the Baker, Herrell and Vannoy families.

Michael McDowell 1790 census Wilkes.png

In 1790, Michael had the following members in his family:

  • Males under 16: 4 (John 1782/3, Michael c1778, Edward 1774 and possibly James c1780)
  • Males over 16: 1 – Michael himself
  • Females: 2, one of which would be his wife and the second would be daughter, Mary born c1787

This tells us that Michael had 3 additional children between 1787 and 1790, 2 sons and a daughter or the 1787 tax list was incomplete – the more likely scenario.

If Michael was born in 1747/1748, he would probably have married at about 25, so roughly 1770-1775. He would have been having children from about 1771 or 1772 to roughly 1793 or perhaps somewhat later, depending on the age of his wife of course.

Therefore, the 1790 census should show all of his children, with the exception of any child born after 1790. It’s very unlikely that any of his children had already left home.

In 1790, Michael had 5 children, assuming that one of the females was his wife.

In 1790, Michael is shown on the tax list with 156.5 acres and 1 poll. Why does he have 156.5 acres this year and from 160-162 acres previously?

In 1791, the Wilkes County tax records are not complete and he is not shown through 1794, so they may be only partial as well.

On July 31, 1792, page 35, the court notes record an order for Michael McDowell to “have leave to rebuild and continue the mill formerly the property of said McDowell.”  Now indeed, this is a curious order. Did the mill wash away? Did it burn by some chance? What happened that he needed to rebuild the mill? So tantalizing and frustrating at the same time! This is the only indication we have of Michael’s occupation other than the lawsuit of 1790 lists the three man as laborers.

Maybe the 1790 Michael was Michael’s son, but I would have expected the suit to say that if it were. The fact that no Sr. or Jr. designation exists suggests that the younger Michael was not of age, so no designation was yet needed.

This court entry also tells us of a major catastrophe in Michael’s life. Given his run-ins with the law, I have to wonder if there wasn’t some form of “neighborhood justice” going on here. Of course, that could also be my overactive imagination, but beating a woman is a pretty severe offense and would garner long-standing animosity from her family.

Mix that with a little alcohol and that’s the perfect recipe for retribution.

From a 1793 deed, we discover Michael’s wife’s name when Michael sold his land in Bedford County. Did Michael sell his property in 1793 to pay the bills while the mill was being rebuilt, to pay for the rebuilding of the mill or to help replace income he would have lost while the mill was out of order? There was no insurance in those days.

It was Pat Bezet that discovered Michael’s wife’s name, Isbell.

I found a sale of property or deed for Michael and Isbell McDowell. Isbell is listed as his wife in Wilkes Co., N.C. The property they are selling is in Franklin County, VA. The timeframe for the sale was 1793. If you look at the forming of the counties, Franklin was formed from Bedford and Henry County in 1785.

On February 16, 1793, Michael McDowell and his wife, Isbell, from Wilkes County, NC sold their 75 acres of land on Blackwater River, which was at that time located in Franklin County, VA after it had been divided from Bedford.

Michael McDowell Blackwater 1793 sale.jpg

Michael and Isbell both signed three times, all three times via a mark. Witnesses included John Abshire, Robert Hall, Jacob McGrady, Edward Abshire and another John Abshire who appears to be different from the first one, differentiated by his ability to sign his name. Jacob McGrady was the local minister.

There’s clearly a connection of some sort with the Abshire family, given that the 1790 record of the assault on Betty Wooten included Owen Hall along with William Abshear as defendants.

This deed confirms that the Michael McDowell from Bedford County is one and the same as the Michael McDowell in Wilkes County. What we don’t know is the reason this land wasn’t sold before Michael moved to Wilkes County. Obviously Michael didn’t need money from the Virginia land to purchase his land in Wilkes.

For some time, I thought that maybe the Michael McDowell in Bedford County was Michael McDowell Sr. If that was the case, then Michael Jr. would only have sold this land after Michael Sr. died. The problem is that the purchase deed in 1783 doesn’t say anything about Michael Sr. or Jr., indicating that there weren’t 2 men in the county by the same name. The 1782 and 1783 tax lists only show one Michael McDowell and we know our Michael was married and having children before this time, having served in the Revolutionary War in 1777 and 1778. He was a married adult and certainly wasn’t living with his father.

While we can’t prove definitively, I suspect that Michael Sr. died in Bedford/Franklin County, VA years before, sometime after 1755 and before 1782, and we can safely say that the land on Blackwater River always belonged to Michael Jr. If Michael Jr. had sold this land as part of an estate, he would have had to share with heirs, and he clearly sold this entire tract himself.

Unfortunately, Michael Sr. simply disappeared after 1755 in Bedford County, apprently never owning land before or after he sold his father’s Maryland land in 1752 out of Halifax County.

In November 1793 in Wilkes County, once again Michael served on a Jury, as he did in May of 1794 and 1795.

In 1793 and 1794, an attorney, Joseph McDowell is recorded in Wilkes County, but he dies in 1802 with no connection to Michael.

In 1795 and 1796, Michael McDowell in Capt. McGrady’s district is shown with 1 poll tax and 160 acres on the tax list adjacent John Abshire and near the preacher Jacob McGrady. Other neighbors include the Vannoys, members of the Shepherd family and others who would intermarry and move to Claiborne County, Tennessee at the same time as Michael McDowell.

At some point, Claiborne County, the next frontier, probably became the topic of local chatter – at the mill, at church, wherever people gathered.

In November of 1796, Michael served again as a jury member.

The 1797 tax list shows Michel with 1 poll and no acres. What happened to his land?

There is no tax list for 1798.

In 1799, Michael McDowell sold land to the preacher, Jacob McGrady. The deed is in very poor shape, but you can make out the words “Mulberry Creek” and Robert Hall’s line. I could not find the acreage listed, so we don’t know if this is all of Michael’s land, or just part.

Michael McDowell 1799 deed to McGrady (2).jpg

The deed is signed by Michael using his mark and then witnessed by a Michael McDowel who can sign, an Edward McDowel who cannot sign and a Robert Hall who cannot.

My guess would be that the reason that Michael had no property tax in 1797 and 1798 is that he had rented the land to Jacob McGrady, who eventually bought the land, but was paying the taxes on the land as part of their rent or lease agreement.

We are left with the question of how, without land, Michael made a living? In 1797, Michael would have been 50 years old.

The same year as his land sale, in 1799, Michael McDowell, in Capt. Gradie’s district (6) is shown with 200 acres and 1 poll. Where did this land come from? Michael’s original land purchase was 161 acres.

On May 3, 1799, the State versus Michael McDowell for tresspass, again. The jury found Michael not guilty, as charged, and order that George Lewis pay the costs. He also served on a jury the same day in lieu of another juror. I’m wondering if it’s because Michael is present in the courtroom and can serve when another juror didn’t show up.

The same day, Michael also files Michael McDowell vs George Lewis: Appeal. The jury is sworn and finds for Michael, his damages 3 pounds 7 pence and costs.

In August of 1799, Michael again serves as a juror.

The 1800 tax list for district 6 is missing but we do have the census that provides us with at least some information.

1800-1810

The 1800 census holds some surprises. For example, it looks like Michael has daughters we don’t know about.