Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why Many African Americans Should Do the Genetic DNA Testing

My great-great-grandparents, Hector Davis & Lucy Milam Davis of Panola County, Mississippi

Since I started researching my family history in 1993, I have seen the interest in genealogy leapfrog! Many African Americans are actively researching to document the history of their ancestors. An attest to this rapid growth can be witnessed by the large number of people who are members of Black genealogy groups on Facebook like Our Black Ancestry, which currently has over 20,000 subscribers, like AfriGeneas, which currently has over 6,000 subscribers, and like the African-American Genealogy Forum, which currently has over 3,000 subscribers. There are more, and they all are growing.

Reading the genealogical accomplishments in these groups often leaves me in awe! I am often fascinated by what many have uncovered about their ancestors. Contrary to those “impossibility declarations” that Dr. Henry Louis Gates makes on Finding Your Roots on PBS, a number of people have successfully traced their families back to the first African ancestor to touch American soil.  Although many researchers and I have traced back five or more generations, we are looking to autosomal DNA to take us further or to help us prove if certain people were our ancestors. The more people that get tested with 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or other DNA companies, the more that connections can be proven and more ancestors can be unearthed.

DNA technology is especially beneficial for documenting our enslaved ancestors. Slave ancestral research is not an easy task. However, finding and utilizing the right records and the correct methodologies for slave ancestral research, many people are able to trace back to enslaved ancestors who were born in the 1700s. DNA can and has assisted greatly in these quests. These documented histories are a great legacy to the generations after us. Therefore, one’s willingness to participate in genetic DNA testing not only helps the individual to understand his ancestral background, but it’s conducive to the many active researchers who desire to leave that great legacy.

For this blog post, I am presenting another case in which I really need DNA to help to confirm potential enslaved ancestors. The last enslaver of my great-great-great-grandparents, Wade Milam (born c. 1825 in AL) and Peggy Warren Milam (born c. 1829 in TN), was Joseph R. Milam of present-day Tate County, Mississippi. After years of research, I was finally able to figure out how Joseph acquired Grandma Peggy, since she was not from Alabama. A DNA match from Arkansas even helped to confirm Grandma Peggy’s family from whom she was separated! You can read it HERE. Joseph Milam was born in Madison County, Alabama in 1811. He, his wife, his parents, and most of his siblings moved to Marshall County, Mississippi around 1835. The censuses confirmed that they brought slaves with them. Only one brother, James W. Milam, remained in Alabama and settled in Talladega County. (Remember that.) Once they landed in Mississippi, Joseph Milam decided to go about 8 miles further west, into present-day Tate County, where he established his plantation on the Tate-Panola County line by 1840.  

Since Grandpa Wade Milam was also from Alabama, I theorized that perhaps the white Milams transported him to Mississippi. So I decided to place some focus on Joseph’s father, Jarvis Jackson Milam, just to see if I can find out anything about his origins. Thankfully, the Milam Family is a well-researched family, and I learned that Jarvis died on July 4, 1849 in Marshall County, Mississippi. To my fortune, has digitized Marshall County Probate Records for the time period 1839 to 1871. You can access them HERE. I fortunately found an inventory of Jarvis Milam’s estate, dated March 30, 1850, and it listed 26 enslaved people by name, age, and value.

The slave inventory of Jarvis Milam’s Estate, March 30, 1850
Marshall County, Mississippi

I didn’t expect Grandpa Wade to be a part of Jarvis’s estate because he was enslaved on Joseph Milam’s plantation by 1846. That’s the approximate year when his first-born, my great-great-grandmother Lucy Milam Davis (1846-1927), was born. However, “Little Spencer, age 11” on the inventory caught my attention. This was likely Spencer Milam, who lived right next door to my great-great-grandparents, Hector & Lucy Davis, in 1870. Spencer and his first wife, Huldah (Hector’s sister), married on the same day as Grandpa Hector and Grandma Lucy; both couples married on July 7, 1866. It appears that they traveled together to the courthouse to get married.  I immediately wondered and suspected that Spencer Milam was somehow related to Grandma Lucy. But was he?

Spencer & Huldah Milam lived adjacent to Hector & Lucy Davis in 1870, DeSoto (now Tate) Co., MS.
Joseph Milam’s widow, Eunice Milam, was next-door.
Grandma Lucy’s mother Peggy was two households above Eunice.

“Spencer, 50” and “Lucy, 45” on the slave inventory also caught my attention. Interestingly, sleuthing through the 1850 Marshall County slave schedule, I discovered that the three older males, Spencer, Anthony, and Abraham, were all reported as 52, rather than 50 that was reported on the slave inventory. Lucy was reported as 54, instead of 45 that was reported on the slave inventory. Like any researcher would likely ask, were Spencer and Lucy the parents of Grandpa Wade? Had Grandma Lucy Davis been named after her paternal grandmother? Also, many researchers would understandably theorize that “Little Spencer” was probably their son. But was he?

I decided to scroll through the Marshall County Probate Records images on to see if I will discover more on other pages. I am so glad that I did that! I am also happy that I checked to see if there were probate records on for Talladega County, Alabama. Again, I hit pay dirt! You will see why the Alabama records were important. The following three important documents were found:

ESTATE DOCUMENT 1: The following slaves were sold from Jarvis Milam’s estate, April 29, 1851. This document verified that Spencer and Lucy were husband and wife. “Spencer and wife Lucy” were acquired by Joseph R. Milam. “Little Spencer” and Ann were acquired by Jarvis’ son, Benjamin L. Milam.

ESTATE DOCUMENT 2: Jarvis’ widowed son, James W. Milam, died in Talladega County, Alabama in Nov. 1841. In another estate document, Jarvis was named the guardian of James’ only child, James Clayton Milam. Shortly after little orphaned James moved to Marshall County, Mississippi to live with his grandparents, he died at a young age in 1844. Little James’ estate record was also found, and it included his slave inheritance from his father. The inventory was made on April 19, 1844. I discovered that “Little Spencer” and “Little Ann,” who were inventoried in Jarvis’ 1850 estate, had come from Jarvis’ son James, who was in Alabama! Therefore, “Little Spencer” was NOT the son of Spencer and Lucy.

James Clayton Milam’s Estate, April 19, 1844, Marshall County, Mississippi
Mariah and four children, Ann, Spencer, Amanda, Anderson
Lizzy and three children, Amelia, Fanny, Hampton
Riah and two children, Alfred, Edmund

ESTATE DOCUMENT 3: After finding document 2, I was also fortunate to discover that some of Talladega County, Alabama probate records had been digitized and uploaded to I found James W. Milam’s will that he wrote on November 1, 1841. This will named the same slaves, and James desired for his father Jarvis to take them to Mississippi. See the following:

“Second. I give and devise and bequeath to my son  James Clayton Milam three Negro women and there children viz Mariah and three children, Ariah & two children, also Liz a yellow girl & two children, the above named Negroes I wish removed by my father Jarvis Milam to the state of Mississippi. Third, a Negro man Stephen and a woman named Sylvia with all my personal and real estate I wish sold on a credit of 12 months….”

If I had not found those estate documents, I would have continually theorized that “Little Spencer” (Spencer Milam) may have been Spencer and Lucy’s son. Now, I am asking the following questions: (1) Was Spencer Milam’s mother, Mariah, a daughter of Spencer and Lucy who Jarvis had given or sold to his son, James W.? I feel that it is more than coincidental that there’s an Elder Spencer and a child Spencer. (2) Again, was Grandpa Wade also a child of Elder Spencer and Lucy? (3) Were Mariah and Grandpa Wade siblings? If so, Spencer Milam in 1870 and Grandma Lucy were first cousins.

DNA would certainly help to determine if there’s a connection to Jarvis Milam’s slaves. I am in contact with a great-grandson of Spencer Milam and his second wife, Mollie. Some years ago, one of my elderly relatives (a granddaughter of Hector & Lucy Davis) stated that she thinks that Spencer and his family were a “different set” and weren’t related to Grandma Lucy. However, Spencer Milam’s great-grandson, who was born and raised in the area, knew my Davis Family as being his cousins, according to his family elders. Therefore, we are confused.

Spencer Milam’s great-grandson also took the 23andMe DNA test recently. He did not match me and my mother. Speculating that Mariah, his great-great-grandmother, may have been a sister of Grandpa Wade Milam, Mom’s great-great-grandfather, that theory would make them as possibly being 4th cousins. With 4th cousins, there's only a 45% chance that DNA will detect a kinship. This link explains the probabilities. Therefore, because of the higher probability of a non-match (55%), I am not ready to conclude that Grandpa Wade was not related to Mariah, Little Spencer, Elder Spencer and Lucy. Also, while he doesn't match my mother, he may match other family members. I am awaiting my aunt's 23andMe DNA results to see if he matches her. My mother and her sister likely inherited different chromosome segments from the same common ancestors. That's the nature of DNA transmission.

I found a number of those enslaved by Jarvis Milam in the 1870 and 1880 Marshall County censuses, including Dudley (who was also born in AL) and his family. They retained the Milam surname. To add, Jarvis Milam’s will, which can be read here on FamilySearch, identified Ann, who was the first slave on his 1850 inventory, as Dudley’s wife. The enslaved children inventoried after her and before Dudley were their children. Were Dudley, James, and Morgan Milam, who were all born in Alabama too, the sons of Elder Spencer and Lucy? Were they Grandpa Wade Milam’s brothers? Were they Mariah’s brothers, too? There were and are many black Milam descendants in Marshall County, Mississippi and elsewhere. It would be wonderful if some of them took the 23andMe DNA test (or others) to help determine if Elder Spencer and Lucy were our direct ancestors and my 4th-great-grandparents. I will maintain hope!

DNA Note: If you decide to take the AncestryDNA test, I highly recommend that after you get your results, please upload your raw data file to GEDmatch. See GEDmatch is a great online DNA program that allows you to further analyze your DNA results with their great analysis tools. It is also free. AncestryDNA does not offer any analysis tools. GEDmatch's analysis tools are essential if you desire to compare people in your relative list to figure out ancestral connections, which is known as DNA triangulation. The meaning of DNA triangulation is further explained HERE. 23andMe offers great analysis tools as well. However, I would also recommend that 23andMe users (and others) upload to GEDmatch as well. You will gain more matches in GEDmatch. 

Research Note: To date, I have been unable to find any court records showing Jarvis Milam deeding slaves to his children before they left Madison County, Alabama or after they arrived in Marshall County, Mississippi.


  1. Fascinating! And thanks for the point of view re Dr. Gates. I like his program very much but thanks to being a member of this page, I've come to the conclusion that while the research is quite involved in African-American genealogy, it's not impossible.

  2. I now know of 2 more research groups to join! AfriGeneas is an awesome resource. I am grateful to everyone for sharing their journey.

  3. Thank you,, and don't forget to tell folks about GEDMatch, will allow different testing companies to cross compare

    1. Done. Thanks for the tip, Jase! Definitely need people to upload to GEDmatch!

  4. Melvin, I like how you present your findings and then list issues that need further clarification or additional information. Doing so highlights the nature of this research- for every question answered, many more are created.

  5. Glad that you are resorting to all means to search and find your roots. It is an extensive process, a lot of which isn't even digital. That is why it's wise to have scanners around, as well as the tactile knowhow in sorting and archiving raw and physical data as they arrive. The commitment there takes more than mere academic curiousity, but a genuine passion to right one's history as well. Thanks for sharing that! All the best to you!

    Roberta Scott @ Spectrum Information

  6. We recently wrote about the three main DNA tests and how they can apply to finding African American roots:

  7. Excellent information on your blog,thank you for taking the time to share with us.I really appreciate sharing this great post.Keep up your work.Thanks for sharing this great article. Great information thanks a lot for the detailed article.
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