Friday, September 27, 2013

DNA Solves a 20-year-old Hair-Pulling Mystery!

After 20 years, I finally confirmed a connection, and it was through DNA technology! Uniting genealogy research with DNA technology yields an indelible marriage!  Let me take you back two decades ago. I really can’t believe that it has been that long!  My father’s birth mother Gertrude Belton was born in 1908 in Warren County, Mississippi.  Before she died in 1983 in Harvey, Illinois, we never garnered any family history information from her. Besides, I was so young and really didn’t care about genealogy at the time.  When my interest surfaced ten years later, I started researching her family with only scant information.  Her obituary, as well as her Social Security application, revealed her parents’ names, Peter (Pete) Belton & Angeline Bass.  Therefore, I had a starting point but without any oral history accounts. Not being able to get confirmations and information from older kin stymied the research to a good degree but not totally. Circumstances did not afford my father a chance to meet any Beltons personally from her father’s family.

Now, here is where things could not get any more worse for a researcher. I found Peter Belton Jr. in the 1900 Warren County, Mississippi Census. 20-year-old Peter Jr. and others were living with a white Austin Family. He married my great-grandmother Angeline Bass on October 22, 1901. Then, in 1910, Angeline Belton was the head of household with my grandmother and her older brother Jake in the house. She was reported as being a widow, so I figured that Peter Jr. had died right after 1908, the year my grandmother was born. That alleviated the chance of finding a death certificate for him, since Mississippi death certificates started in 1912. But, that’s not all. It gets worse, and more hair-pulling is involved!

Peter Junior’s birthdate was reported as March 1880. Because an elder Peter Belton also resided in the same area, I ascertained that the elder Peter was likely his father, since he was the only Belton in Warren County in 1870.  Also, a woman named Martha Belton was also in the area in 1900 with five other children in her household.  She was born around 1855/1860.  Well, two marriage records were found for Peter Sr. He married Esther Friar on April 8, 1871, and then he married Mrs. Martha Wilkins on March 23, 1880 in Warren County. Remember, Pete Junior’s birthdate was reported as March 1880, the same month Peter Sr. and Martha married. I also had to consider that Peter Junior’s reported birthdate may or may not have been accurate.  Well, who was his mother, Esther or Martha? My bet was on Martha.

Well, things get even worse, unfortunately. I could not find the Beltons in the 1880 census. At all. This left a huge gap in my research for years.  Since I suspected that Martha was Peter Junior’s mother, I ordered her son William Belton’s Social Security application. I wanted to know her maiden name, since Wilkins appeared to have been her married name from a previous marriage (I never found a marriage record for that marriage).  William reported that his father’s name was Peter Belton and his mother’s maiden name was Martha Miller.  However, with the absence of Peter Jr. in her household in 1900, I was still never for sure if she was his mother.

William Belton's Social Security application that was filed in 1937.

I continued on with researching Martha, but the records did not want to cooperate with me!  Living near Martha Belton in 1900 were Frederick (Fred) & Hannah Miller, an elderly couple who were old enough to be her parents. Hannah was reported as being the mother of 18 children with 13 living; only 5 children were in the house in 1900.  Martha named one of her sons Fred Belton, and her other sons had the same first names as some of the sons of Fred & Hannah. Naming patterns were indicating a connection to Fred & Hannah! However, Martha was not in Fred & Hannah’s household in 1870. To add to this hair-puller, Fred & Hannah were reported under the surname Neely in 1870 and 1880.  Martha was nowhere to be found.  Nevertheless, I figured that there's still a good chance that Fred & Hannah were her parents, since Hannah had a lot of children. But, again, is Martha truly the mother of Peter Jr., which made Fred & Hannah Miller additionally questionable for being my ancestors.

Well, my father’s DNA results from 23andMe started rolling in during the first week in September.  His fifth highest match was someone named Delia Payne. She shares 39 cM (0.53%) across 3 segments, and the predicted relationship is 3rd cousin, which is pretty close. She lists 6 surnames and 5 states in her profile. One of the surnames is Miller, and one of her states is Mississippi. Delia accepted my sharing invitation, and of course, I inquired about her Millers, wondering if they were from Mississippi.

Thankfully, Delia responded to my message this week. She revealed that her mother's maternal grandfather was named Wade Miller. He was the son of Henry & Mary Miller from Warren County (Vicksburg), Mississippi!  Born Oct. 1899, Wade was in their household in 1900. He and his wife Delia had moved to Alton, Illinois after 1920. I checked the censuses, and low and behold, Fred & Hannah Miller had a son named Henry! Henry Miller was born in Nov. 1866, according to the 1900 census, and a 15-year-old son named Henry was reported in Fred and Hannah’s household in 1880.  Close enough!  To add, Martha Belton named one of her sons Henry. This DNA match has confirmed that (1) Martha Miller Belton was indeed my father’s great-grandmother, and (2) Fred & Hannah Miller were her parents – my great-great-great-grandparents!  Henry Miller was Martha Belton's brother. Sharing the same great-great-grandparents, Delia’s mother and my father are 3rd cousins. This makes Delia a 3rd cousin-once removed to my father, so 23andMe’s prediction was on the money! A longtime mystery has been solved! (Doing a happy dance….the Carlton Banks Dance. LOL)

Update (03/20/14): Henry Miller also relocated to Alton, Illinois, where his son, Wade Miller, and his family lived. Henry Miller's Illinois death certificate was found on He had died on Sept. 4, 1936 in Alton at the age of 72. His death certificate reported that his father's name is Fred Miller! Hooray!

Update (06/27/14): A new DNA cousin, Michael Miller, appeared in my and my father's database this week. He's a grandson of Wade Miller, the son of Henry Miller. This is how much DNA my father shares with Michael and Delia, further confirming that Henry Miller and Martha Miller Belton were siblings and the children of Fred & Hannah Miller. Michael and my father are third cousins.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Oral History Interview

I FOUND THE CASSETTE TAPE! On April 8, 2005, I drove to Memphis, TN to capture my late Cousin Robert Danner’s family recollections on tape. This was for an assignment for one of my graduate classes while pursuing my Master of Arts degree in African-American Studies from Clark Atlanta Univ.  The day of this interview was Cousin Robert’s 99th birthday.  Shortly after moving to Memphis in Nov. 1996, I developed a close relationship with him. Born on April 8, 1906 near Como, Mississippi, he was my maternal grandmother’s first cousin and my great-grandmother Mary Danner Davis’ nephew.  He became like a grandfather to me; he shared so much with me about our family history.  In fact, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery would not have been possible if it wasn’t for his clear mind and vivid recollections.  I often brag that Cousin Robert was a “Walking History Book,” and now you can hear why.

This interview is presented here in 5 short clips with a synopsis of what he had shared with me many times during the 11 years I was blessed to have him in my life.  Really, this is just a small portion of all the knowledge he poured onto me.  Cousin Robert Danner joined the ancestors three years after this interview on April 9, 2008, at the age of 102. I am thrilled to be able to share his voice, his kind spirit, and his wonderful recollections with family members and the world. Two thumbs up for technology!

Cousin Robert Danner with his longtime companion/”girlfriend,” Ruthie Mae Byers (left), and our cousin, Orien Reid Nix (right), taken in 1998, Memphis, TN

AUDIO CLIP 1 (7:40): Cousin Robert shares his memory of his grandmother, Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner (1842-1921) of Panola County (Como), MS (my great-great-grandmother), and why he and his baby sister were afraid of her when they were small children.  He also shares how Grandma Lue got her land (100 acres).

Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner (1842-1921)

AUDIO CLIP 2 (8:00): Cousin Robert talks about how his father, Uncle Alfred Danner, quit school to work after his father Edward “Ed” Danner had passed away on Sept. 15, 1876.  Ed Danner was only 42 years old. He shared more recollections of his grandmother, Lue.  He recalls her white half-brother, Sandy Wilbourn. In this interview, he said Sandy was her “Daddy” in error but in previous conversations, he confirmed that Sandy was her brother.  He also recalls what his grandmother Lue had told him about how they had church during slavery. He shares about how he and his family lived on Dr. Archie Yarbrough’s farm near Como. Lastly, he talked about how his church, Mt. Moriah C.M.E.Church (Como), began shortly after slavery.

Cousin Robert’s father, Alfred Danner (1863-1961), sitting with his sister, Laura Danner Reid (1871-1955)

AUDIO CLIP 3 (8:00): Cousin Robert continues talking about the history of Mt. Moriah Church and how it was built shortly after slavery by his grandfather Ed, the Pratchers, etc. He discusses the injustice of sharecropping. He recalls the elders he remembered during his childhood, and how his grandmother’s sisters would visit her and they had “church” out in the road. He shares how his grandmother Lue would be shouting as she walked to church (Mt. Moriah).

Mt. Moriah C.M.E. Church near Como, MS. The red arrow points to the spot where Cousin Robert showed me where Grandma Lue Danner was buried on July 6, 1921.

AUDIO CLIP 4 (4:14):  Cousin Robert confirms that his father, Alfred Danner, was born into slavery. He describes his grandmother Lue’s house. He talks about his Aunt Martha’s son, Isaac Gray (who changed his last name to Hockenhull after his stepfather, his mother’s 2nd husband.). Cousin Isaac Hockenhull married the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. Remarkably, he shares accounts of what his father told him about how he raised money to pay the lawyer so that Grandma Lue could get a widow’s pension from the federal government.  Her husband Edward Danner (my great-great-grandfather) fought with the 59th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War.  Cousin Robert shares how he heard that black soldiers fought in the War with sticks.

1880 Panola County, MS Census showing Cousin Robert’s father, Alfred Danner, in his mother’s household. His reported age was 18. My great-grandmother was Mary.

AUDIO CLIP 5:  Cousin Robert discusses how a white store-owner in Como, named Charlie Chambers, surprisingly revealed to him that his wife, Mrs. Maggie “A.T.” Wilbourn Chambers, was a first cousin to his father, Alfred.  He recalls a story of how his father Alfred had to borrow money from a white merchant in Como.  He also discusses how his father had a philosophy of a person being a “Man of his Word”. 

Cousin Robert celebrating his 100th Birthday, Memphis, TN

1910 Panola County, MS Census showing Cousin Robert Danner in his father’s household, 4 years old

Cousin Robert’s grandfather’s name is on the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. After the Civil War, Ed changed his name back to Danner.