Thursday, December 21, 2017

Adoptee's DNA Leads to Porter Ties

Meeting Cousin Rhonda for the first time in Silver Spring, Maryland

On May 4, 2015, my cousin Orien Reid Nix sent me an inquiry e-mail. An adoptee, Rhonda Roorda, contacted her because she is searching for her biological parents. Born in Rochester, NY, the award-winning author of In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption, and also a consultant for the NBC TV series “This Is Us,” had taken two autosomal DNA tests (FTDNA & AncestryDNA). Rhonda also uploaded her raw data file to Cousin Orien and Rhonda share 44 cM of identical DNA on chromosome 3, with an additional 21 cM on the X chromosome. That amount suggests the third cousin range. Cousin Orien asked me if it is possible if Rhonda is related via our Danner-Bobo line. As second cousins, my mother and Cousin Orien are both the great-granddaughters of Edward Danner Sr. (1832-1876) and Louisa Bobo Danner (1842-1921) of Panola County (Como), Mississippi. Utilizing the chromosome browser in GEDmatch, I soon realized three key things: 

(1) Rhonda also shares 17 cM with my mother’s brother on chromosome 15 and 18 cM on the X chromosome, which overlaps with the 21 cM she shares with Cousin Orien on the X.  

(2) Rhonda also shares 20 cM on the X with my mother in the same spot. These overlapping segments, where everyone is matching each other on the same chromosome spot, mean that they all inherited that identical DNA from a common ancestor.

(3) Rhonda is also sharing 9 to 19 cM of identical DNA with four other descendants of Edward and Louisa Danner.

Therefore, the answer to Cousin Orien’s question was a resounding YES. Rhonda is our cousin via Edward and/or Louisa Danner. But how? I also noticed that they all are sharing DNA with three people with the last name PORTER. For privacy purposes, I will call them Cousins A, B, and C. Those matches would prove to be very conducive to honing in on the family connection and some of Cousin Rhonda’s ancestry.

Months later, a new AncestryDNA match (Cousin D) appeared among my mother’s DNA matches. She shares 63 cM over 2 segments with my mother, and the “Shared Matches” include six other descendants of Edward & Louisa Danner who took the AncestryDNA test. Luckily, Cousin D attached a public family tree to her profile. I didn’t see any common ancestors, but she had PORTERs in her family tree. I soon discovered that she, as well as Cousins A, B, and C, all descend from a couple named Albert Porter and Fillis Whitlock Porter via two of their 12 children. Cousin Rhonda is also sharing significant DNA with Cousins A, B, C, and D, from 34 to 134 cM. Two other Porter descendants, Cousins E and F, were also sharing weighty amounts of DNA with us, particularly Rhonda. See chart below.

DNA Sharing Between Rhonda and Porter Descendants (Cousins A, B, C, D, E, and F)

This analysis revealed that Cousin Rhonda is a descendant of Albert & Fillis Porter, and one of them was closely-related to Edward or Louisa Danner. The major commonality between the two couples is location. Grandma Louisa “Lue” was enslaved by Dr. William Bobo, who transported her, her mother Clarissa Bobo, and her numerous siblings to Panola County, Mississippi in 1858 from Union County, South Carolina. On a trip back to South Carolina in 1859, Dr. Bobo purchased Grandpa Edward from the Thomas Danner Jr. estate of Union County and brought him back to Mississippi. According to his Civil War pension file, he had been born on the Danner farm, which is why he kept the Danner surname. He never saw his family back in South Carolina again. Edward and Louisa subsequently married in 1860.

Albert & Fillis Porter were found in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, residing in Union County! Albert was born around 1838 in South Carolina, and Fillis was born around 1840, also in South Carolina. After 1880, they and their children later migrated into Spartanburg County, near Wellford, where their family tree grew by leaps and bounds. They became members of the Upper Shady Grove Baptist Church (aka New Shady Grove Baptist Church) near Wellford.

Cousin Rhonda and the Porters are not sharing DNA with family members related via Grandma Louisa, who was fathered by a white man named Elijah Wilbourn Jr., according to oral history (DNA-proven). Therefore, the connection strongly appears to be via Grandpa Edward. When the Danners sold Edward to Dr. Bobo, they also sold most of their 20+ slaves to raise funds for their pending move to Grant County, Arkansas. Thomas’ widow, Nancy Bates Danner, and their sons only kept a woman named Harriet Danner, possibly Edward’s sister, and her seven children and took them to Arkansas in 1859. Edward’s parents and siblings were sold to other slave-owners, but I haven’t been able to uncover the names and whereabouts of Edward’s displaced family members and who may have purchased them. This has been a longtime mystery.

However, these DNA findings with Cousin Rhonda and the Porters are leading me to believe that Albert may have been Edward's brother, due to the amount of DNA my family is sharing with them. So I started digging to try to prove or disprove it. Here’s what I found.

Research Finding #1

In the online Freedmen's Bureau records, now accessible at, I found an 1865 labor contract for Albert & Phillis (Fillis) Porter, being contracted for their labor in Union County, S.C. by M.S. Porter. These contracts “consist of agreements between freedmen laborers and planters stating terms of employment, such as pay, clothing, and medical care due the freedman; the part of the crop to be retained by him; and whether a plot for growing subsistence crops was to be provided.” (Source) M.S. Porter was likely the last slave-owner who entered Albert and Fillis into a labor contract shortly after enslaved people were emancipated.

1865 Freedmen’s Bureau Labor Contract – M.S. Porter & Albert and Phillis (Read full contract here) 
"South Carolina, Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872," images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), Union district, Roll 105, Labor contracts, series II, A-S, 1866

Research Finding #2

Per the censuses, M.S. Porter was Marion Sandford Porter. He was only 21 years old in 1860 and was reported as being a planter. I checked the 1860 slave schedule, and M.S. Porter (spelled Poter in the census) owned five slaves:

(1) 21-year-old black male
(2) 18-year-old mulatto female
(3) 10-year-old mulatto female
(4) 3-year-old mulatto male
(5) 1-year-old mulatto male

The 21-year-old black male fits the profile of Albert Porter. Perhaps, the 18-year-old mulatto female may be Fillis? She was noted as being “mulatto” in the later censuses.

Research Finding #3

Fillis died in 1921 in Spartanburg County. Luckily, her death certificate was found on Her father’s name was simply written as "Stark." Her mother’s name was reported as being Mary Whitlock. Since she is reported as being mulatto in the censuses, I wondered if her father may have been white, keeping in mind that the census-taker’s mulatto notation was likely based on appearance. But who was “Stark”? I immediately found my answer. It appears that he was a white man named Stark Whitlock, born in 1818. His father was Bennett Whitlock (1790-1859), whose 1859 estate record included a slave inventory. Among the enslaved were a woman named Phillis and her oldest son, Dennis. In my extensive research of Grandma Louisa’s family, I haven’t found any ties to the Whitlocks. Interestingly, Cousin Rhonda shares sizeable amounts of DNA with numerous white Whitlock descendants.

Research Finding #4

Marion Sandford Porter's father was Hancock Porter, who died in 1852 in Union County. Per the 1850 slave schedule, Hancock owned 12 slaves. His estate record revealed that he did not own an enslaved male named Albert. Therefore, young Marion appeared to have acquired Albert from somebody before 1860. Cousin C mentioned that the oral history in the Porter family relays that Albert had been sold to the Porter family and had been separated from own his family. Another descendant, Marvin Porter, also shared with me that their oral history also sadly claims that Albert was used to breed children during slavery. This history was written in a 1987 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Porter family.

1987 Philadelphia Inquirer Article (Shared by Rhonda Roorda) 
McCabe, Barbara. “Bus Driver Discover Road to Relatives.” The Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, PA] 9 July 1987: Page 30-M. Print. 

The Porter Family’s oral history is matching up with the documented history about Grandpa Edward Danner – the sad saga of enslaved families being permanently separated. I am theorizing, with a high level of certainty, that Albert and Edward were brothers who got sold and took different surnames. This was not uncommon. I have no doubt that future DNA testing (and/or more genealogical research) will help to solve this case. Stay tuned.

Cousin Rhonda was recently invited down to Spartanburg, South Carolina to meet some of the descendants of Albert & Fillis Porter, who have held a number of family reunions and who garner a great pride in their family history. The resemblances to Rhonda were quite noticeable. She shared, “It was a real blessing to be in Spartanburg this past weekend and have the opportunity to meet some of these amazing relatives. The fact that family members arranged a welcome gathering for me was quite humbling and beautiful. The elders were so happy that they could meet me, as I was them. It was a great trip.” Incredibly, her DNA match to my Danner family led to a wonderful discovery – the Danners and Porters are blood kinfolks. Our family histories added a special meaning to our biological connection. However, the best outcome will be when Cousin Rhonda uncovers the identity of one or both of her biological parents. That day will come.

Cousin Rhonda with relatives in Spartanburg, South Carolina 
(Shared by Rhonda Roorda)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Pinpointing the Origin of Family's Igbo Ancestry with DNA

Source: Wikipedia, public domain

DNA-testing multiple family members always prove to be extremely beneficial. About two years ago, I tested my mother’s first cousin with 23andMe. Cousin Armintha’s father and my mother’s father were brothers, so they share the same paternal grandparents, Bill & Sarah Reed of Tate County, Mississippi. Last week, while checking my cousin’s account for new matches, I saw a new DNA relative with an African name. This is always exciting! He shares 0.12% (9.0 cM) [2,240 SNPs] on chromosome 5 with Cousin Armintha. Luckily, his profile indicates that he was born to Nigerian parents of Igbo descent. To safeguard privacy, I will refer to him as Igbo Cousin 1. His posted surnames are Egolum and Anyiwo.

When I viewed the “Relatives in Common” section, I was pleasantly surprised. Igbo Cousin 1 also shares 9.0 cM of DNA [2,290 SNPs] with my mother and her brother, Uncle John. See Figure 1 below. He also matches Cousin Bryan, whose great-great-grandfather, Jerry Edwards, is strongly believed to be a brother to their great-grandfather, Prince Edwards, their Grandma Sarah Reed’s father. In the “Shared DNA” column, YES is noted for both my mother and Uncle John. According to 23andMe, “Shared DNA” means that an individual and their two genetic relatives share a portion of the same DNA segment. Therefore, since Igbo Cousin 1 is matching Cousin Armintha on a single chromosome 5 segment, my mother and Uncle John are also matching him on that same segment. NO is indicated for Cousin Bryan, so he is sharing DNA with Igbo Cousin 1, either on another chromosome or on a different section of chromosome 5.

FIGURE 1: Relatives in Common with Igbo Cousin 1

I also noticed that Igbo Cousin 1 shares 0.36% (27 cM) of DNA with another Nigerian-American who had been in our relative databases for over a year. I will refer to him as Igbo Cousin 2.  YES is also noted for “Shared DNA,” which means that he, Cousin Armintha, Igbo Cousin 1, my mother, and Uncle John all share the same chromosome 5 segment. Wow! They are considered a triangulation group. In other words, they all descend from a common African ancestor. Of course, I immediately clicked YES to view the segments on the chromosome browser. I reorganized the comparison list to compare Igbo Cousin 2 with Igbo Cousin 1, Cousin Armintha, Mom, Uncle John, and Cousin Bryan. See Figure 2 below. I was thrilled with what I saw!

FIGURE 2: Comparing Igbo Cousin 2 with Everyone

FIGURE 3: Comparing Cousin Armintha with Both Igbo Cousins,
Uncle John, and Mom on Chromosome 5

Turns out, Igbo Cousin 1 and Igbo Cousin 2 share 27 cM on two segments – 11.8 cM on chromosome 5 and 14.8 cM on chromosome 8. This is in the range of 3rd cousins-once removed to 4th cousins. Not only that, I discovered that while Cousin Armintha, my mother, and Uncle John share the same chromosome 5 segment with both Igbo cousins, Cousin Bryan shares identical DNA with both Igbo cousins on chromosome 8. This is indicating that the kinship to our Igbo cousins may be thru one of our Edwards ancestors. Everyone likely descend from a common Igbo ancestor. How could I confirm this?

Eager for confirmation, I went to for clues. GEDmatch is a free, third-party DNA utility site that enables people to find the family connection between others who have uploaded their autosomal DNA raw data files from either 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or FTDNA. Think of GEDmatch as “DNA Central” – the central location where autosomal DNA test takers can compare their DNA to others, utilizing their vital chromosome browsers and other neat tools. My goal was to see if there are any known family members who match my mother, Uncle John, and Cousin Armintha on chromosome 5. If so, that will enable me to determine if this chromosome 5 segment truly came from their grandmother, Sarah.

So I performed the “People who match both kits….” function in GEDmatch with Uncle John and Cousin Armintha’s kit numbers first, since they share the longest identical segment (129 cM) on chromosome 5. See the gold bar in Figure 3 above. I then viewed their mutual matches on the 2-D chromosome browser. Lo and behold, their 3rd cousin-once removed, Verena, matches both of them and my mother on chromosome 5, in what genetic genealogists call "overlapping segments." She shares a 7.0-7.3 cM segment [900+ SNPs] with them on chromosome 5. See Figure 4 below. Cousin Verena took the AncestryDNA test and had uploaded her raw data file to GEDmatch. This was a great discovery! Why? Because Cousin Verena is related thru Grandma Sarah. Her great-great-grandfather, Peter Edwards, and Grandma Sarah’s father, Prince Edwards, were brothers. There are no other known connections to Cousin Verena, after analyzing her family tree.

FIGURE 4: Comparing Cousin Verena, a descendant of Peter Edwards,
with Cousin Armintha, Uncle John, and Mom on Chromosome 5 in GEDmatch

FIGURE 5: Cousin Verena inherited the same DNA on chromosome 5
in the boxed section above.

Wonderfully, this confirmed that their chromosome 5 segment came from the Edwards side, thru one of their MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor), which would be the parents of Peter and Prince Edwards. In other words, Uncle John and Cousin Armintha, as well as my mother, inherited chunks of the same identical DNA on chromosome 5 from their great-grandfather, Prince Edwards. Since our Igbo cousins share 8 to 9 cM of identical DNA with them on chromosome 5, and since they share 9.0 cM [1,078 SNPs] of identical DNA with Cousin Bryan on chromosome 8, our Igbo cousins are related to the Edwards side of my mother’s family.

“Ogba Ogumba” – an Igbo Name

As I revealed in previous blog posts, oral history and genealogical clues revealed that the parents of Jerry, Prince, Peter, and others were likely Luke Edwards (born c. 1790) and Lucy Edwards (born c. 1795 in Georgia), who may have been known as “Reedia.” The late Cousin Dr. Sidney Edwards Sr., a great-grandson of Jerry, interviewed family elders in Mississippi around 1970. They relayed to him that Luke told their grandparents that he was captured in Africa and brought to Virginia. I uncovered that he had been enslaved by William Edwards of Panola County, Mississippi. Not only that, Luke communicated to his family that his African name was “Ogba(r) Ogumba,” which he was forced to renounce. Recently, several Nigerians of Igbo descent claimed the name as theirs without hesitation. Read more about this here.

Our Igbo cousins are related to my Edwards family, either thru Ogba Ogumba or via Lucy. But as you may imagine, my bets are on Grandpa Ogba Ogumba! And I’m not a gambler. Maybe the future will reveal more definitive evidence. Interestingly, the parents of both Igbo cousins are originally from Anambra State, in southeast Nigeria, the heart of Igboland. But check this out! A tourist attraction in Anambra State are the Ogbunike Caves, which are a collection of caves that are situated in a valley blanketed by tropical rain forests behind the "Ogba Hills." Africans shrouded in those caves from slave-raiding convoys during the period of the transatlantic slave trade.

Transatlantic slave trade voyages data show that nearly 40% of all documented human imports into Virginia and Maryland, the largest concentration of enslaved Africans, were taken from the Bight of Biafra region, also known as the Bight of Bonny. This region encompassed the coasts of present-day Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and northern Gabon. A majority of these captives were described as Igbos, who were embarked from the major trading ports at Bonny and Calabar, in present-day southeastern Nigeria. According to Douglas Chambers, the state of Virginia itself received nearly 37,000 enslaved Africans from Calabar in the early 19th century, and 30,000 of them were Igbos [1]. Consequently, most African Americans, who are descendants of enslaved Africans brought to America, have at least one Igbo ancestor. For more information, read Fonte Felipe’s very informative article, The Igbo Connection for Virginia & Virginia-Descendants.

[1] Chambers, Douglas B. (March 1, 2005). Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia. University Press of Mississippi. p. 23. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

No Longer Invisible

John Israel Towner (1853 – 1938) of DeRidder, Louisiana
(Shared by his great-great-grandson, Ivan McMahon, with permission.)

I actually gasped when I laid eyes on this magnificent picture! John Israel Towner of DeRidder, Beauregard Parish, Louisiana was born in Mississippi on March 20, 1853, according to his death certificate and his tombstone. Therefore, he had been enslaved for the first 12 years of his life. I am enamored by this picture for two reasons. First, he is exuding joy in this picture, and he was a man who likely endured a lot of hardships during his life, before and after slavery. I seldom see photographs of people smiling in old pictures. But Cousin John Israel is illuminating with happiness. He was probably counting his blessings, including the fact that he was able to purchase and take this picture before he died on October 27, 1938, at the age of 85. In 1930, when the census taker visited his daughter Julia Ida Towner’s home in the town of DeRidder on Midway Road, with whom he was living, he was noted as being a janitor at a local school. At the age of 77, he was still a strong man who was still holding down a job.

1930 Census; De Ridder, Beauregard, Louisiana; Roll: 784; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0004; Image: 851.0; FHL microfilm: 2340519

Secondly, this picture fascinates me because I am looking at the face of another close relative who had been born into slavery, in addition to how my family’s relationship to him and his family was discovered. I discovered that Cousin John’s mother, Ellen Towner, who was born around 1834 in Virginia, was very likely a sister to my father’s great-grandmother, Jane Parrott Ealy of Leake County, Mississippi, who was born around 1829, also in Virginia. After 1860, Grandma Jane and Aunt Ellen never saw each other again. Aunt Ellen and her children were taken to the southwestern corner of Louisiana, near Texas, to the Sugartown community of Beauregard (then Calcacieu) Parish, probably right before or during the Civil War. Over 300 miles now separated them….permanently. 

Cousin John appeared to have been Aunt Ellen’s third child of her nine found children – Melford Towner, Ellen Towner Atkins, John Israel Towner, Sally Towner Carthen, Martha Towner Smith, Louis Wells, George W. Wells, Harriet Alzeara Wells Iles, and Richard Wells. Those children produced many descendants who lived/lives in southwestern Louisiana, near Sugartown, DeRidder, Lake Charles, as well as near Alexandria, and also in Texas.

How did I figure this out? Well, DNA uncovered Aunt Ellen. Had it not been for DNA, she would have remained an unseen ancestor. She is no longer invisible. Fortunately, a number of her descendants are taking an autosomal DNA test, and I hope that many of them will learn more about her via this blog post. With six pieces of evidence – two DNA pieces and four genealogical pieces – this is how I connected the dots.

DNA Evidence 1

Two of Grandma Jane’s great-grandchildren, my father and his first cousin, F. Kennedy, and at least five other descendants are sharing DNA with great-great and great-great-great grandchildren of Aunt Ellen. Specifically, my father and his first cousin are both matching at least 8 descendants, from 16.8 cM to 89.1 cM. See chart below. Most of these 8 matches took the AncestryDNA test, so I am unable to utilize a chromosome browser and DNA triangulation, which are essential in determining and verifying family connections with DNA. That’s why many genetic genealogists, geneticists, and DNA scholars strongly recommend that AncestryDNA test-takers upload their raw data files to GEDmatch. Nonetheless, matching numerous people who all descend from the same ancestor points to that ancestor, especially when no other connections are found.

J. Collier
My Father’s First Cousin
M. Ware
(great-great-grandson via Sally Towner Carthen)
(great-great-granddaughter via John Israel Towner)
L. Dixon
(great-great-granddaughter via Ellen Towner Atkins)
C. Gillespie
(great-great-great grandson via Ellen Towner Atkins)
A. Williams
(great-great-granddaughter via Ellen Towner Atkins)
L. Matthews
(great-great-granddaughter via Ellen Towner Atkins)
M. Gillespie
(great-great-granddaughter via Ellen Towner Atkins)
Can’t Determine Now
A. Atkins
(great-great-grandson via Ellen Towner Atkins)
Note: A great-great-grandchild would be a third cousin once removed, and a great-great-great grandchild would be a third cousin twice removed.

DNA Evidence 2

N. Smith and V. Jones, two female descendants of Grandma Jane, and C. Harris, a male descendant of Grandma Jane, share DNA on the X chromosome with three of Ellen’s descendants. Utilizing the X-DNA inheritance chart, I was able to determine that Grandma Jane could have been one of the contributors to their X-DNA, and that segment matches some of the X-DNA that those three descendants of Ellen could have inherited from her. Those three descendants (A. Williams, L. Matthews, & M. Gillespie) are two half-sisters and their father’s niece. That X-DNA that all six of them inherited came from a MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor), which would be a parent of Ellen and Jane. Therefore, sharing DNA on the X chromosome is a big piece of DNA evidence.

Genealogical Evidence 1

Virginia was reported as Ellen’s birthplace in the 1880 Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana census, although Mississippi was reported as her birthplace in the 1870 Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana census. To add, Virginia was reported as the mother’s birthplace for most of Ellen’s children in the 1880 and later censuses. Therefore, this strongly indicates that Ellen was likely born in Virginia. This is important because Grandma Jane was also born in Virginia around 1829. Research has uncovered that her enslaver, William Parrott, moved his family and slaves from Lunenburg County, Virginia, to Leake County, Mississippi shortly before 1840. Ellen’s age was reported as being 35 in 1870 and 46 in 1880, placing her time of birth around 1834.

Genealogical Evidence 2

In the 1870 Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana census, Ellen’s surname was reported as Iles. She lived next door to a white Iles Family, John Iles and his wife, Martha Atkinson Iles. Therefore, she was likely residing on the Iles farm near Sugartown. She was the head of the household. Then, in the 1880 census, her name was reported as Ellen Towner. She was also the head of the household and reported as being widowed/divorced.

Determining Martha’s maiden name (Atkinson) proved to be an eye-opener because I found Martha and her parents, Manson & Elizabeth Atkinson, in the 1860 Leake County, Mississippi census. They had migrated to Sugartown, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana shortly after the 1860 census was taken. Mississippi was sometimes reported as the birthplace of Ellen’s older children, who were born from 1850 to 1861. Additionally, Ellen’s oldest daughter, also named Ellen, was married to Arthur Atkinson, who was also born in Mississippi and who later went in the surname of Atkins after 1870.

Genealogical Evidence 3

Manson Atkinson was also found in the 1860 slave schedule of Leake County, Mississippi. However, the census taker reported “Manson Atkinson for himself and 2 others” as being the owners of 28 enslaved people. Well, who are the “2 others”? I noticed that in the 1860 census, Manson’s household contained five children, ages 16 to 8, who had the Towner surname. Their relationship to Manson has not been determined. Perhaps, the “2 others” may have been the oldest Towner children, John Towner, age 16, and James Towner, age 14. Interestingly, the census taker noted that John Towner was a student, with a personal estate valued at $11,000. This likely included slaves. This finding establishes the fact that the Towner surname is indeed connected to the white Atkinson/Iles Family. Perhaps, those Towners also moved to Louisiana with the Atkinsons, transporting those 28 enslaved people with them?? I did not find them in the 1870 census.

Genealogical Evidence 4

In the 1850 slave schedule, William Parrott was reported as owning 13 enslaved people. Six of them were females, noted as Black, with the following estimated ages: 38, 21, 16, 10, 9, and 5. The 21-year-old matches the age of Grandma Jane. Per the 1860 slave schedule, William Parrott owned 5 females that year who were above the age of 10. Their estimated ages were reported as 50, 31, 18, 17, and 14. What happened to the 16-year-old who was counted in 1850? She would have been around 26 years old in 1860. This matches the approximate age of Ellen, who was born around 1834. Hmmm….. 

Since slave schedules do not contain the names of the slaves, this record can only serve as an aggregate piece of circumstantial evidence, to show that a female girl matching Ellen’s age was not enslaved by William Parrott anymore by 1860. Maybe one day, I will find a court record or something that supports my theory that William Parrott had sold Aunt Ellen to the Towners or Atkinsons, who moved her to southwestern Louisiana. But the DNA and genealogical evidence at hand are pretty compelling, in my opinion. Aunt Ellen, I see you! You are now visible!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Diagramming the Family, the History, and the DNA

Visual learning with charts, diagrams, illustrations, etc. is often conducive for many people to comprehend information. Why not apply it to family history research and DNA. I decided to build a diagram in Microsoft Word, using the hierarchy Smart Art graphic, to show how DNA links the family history research of my mother’s great great grandmother, Margaret Peggy” Milam of Tate County, Mississippi, and her parents and siblings.

The research that uncovered the origins and sad saga of Grandma Peggy Milam and her family has been featured in several past blog posts, noted below. According to 1870 and 1880 U.S. census records, Grandma Peggy Milam was born in Tennessee around 1829. She and my great great great grandfather, Wade Milam, and their children had been enslaved by Joseph R. Milam in present-day Tate County. To make a long story short, an 1839 bill of sale recorded in adjacent Marshall County enabled me to uncover that her previous enslaver was Edward Warren (c. 1775-1842), as well as the names of her parents and several siblings. He transported Grandma Peggy and her family to Marshall County, Mississippi from the hills of Williamson County, Tennessee around 1836, when she was just a young girl. She and her family were eventually split apart, taken to various areas of Mississippi and Arkansas, likely to never see each other again.

Fortunately, DNA has proven this research and her family. This diagram shows the displaced branches of her family tree, the history, and how DNA triangulation connected the branches, to prove that Grandma Peggy’s parents, my mother’s great great great grandparents, Adam and Sarah, were the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestors).

Click image to view a larger image.

This history reflects several things that researchers should keep in mind:

1.     Like Henderson Herron and Random Briscoe, it was common for two brothers to take different surnames, especially if they had been sold away from each other and their parents.
2.     For African Americans, the descendants of enslaved people of African descent in the United States, many of our DNA matches are from displaced family members who were separated from our direct ancestors during slavery.
3.     The more slave ancestral research that is conducted and documented on our enslaved ancestors, as well as the history and migration patterns of the enslaver’s family, the better the chance of connecting with some of our DNA matches.
4.     Our family histories involve numerous surnames, due to our enslaved ancestors taking different surnames for various reasons. Check out genealogist Robyn Smith’s “The Complexity of Slave Surnames.” The four branches in this diagram had different surnames. What would be the “root surname” for this family? (Feel free to comment below.)
5.     Pay attention to names in the family. Both Grandma Peggy Milam and her displaced sister, Caledonia Ellis, named a son HENDERSON. These four children all named a daughter SARAH. Uncle Henderson Herron named a son ADAM. Names are often great connecting clues.
6.     Never assume that all of an enslaved couple’s or an enslaved woman’s children were documented in the enslaver’s will, estate record, slave inventory, etc. Adam and Sarah’s son, Henderson Herron, was never found in the records of Edward Warren’s estate. He had been sold or given to Edward’s daughter. DNA found him. See link below to read about that discovery. Another daughter, named Rachel, was also not documented in Edward Warren’s estate. She too had also been transferred to another son and taken to Magnolia, Arkansas.

To read more about how each of these four branches were discovered genealogically and genetically (DNA), see the following past blog posts:

(1)  Finding Grandma Peggy Milam’s Origins and Parents: “Name Discrepancies Can Often Lead to More”
(2)  Finding Henderson Herron: “DNA Uncovers an Unknown Brother”
(3)  Finding Random Briscoe: “The Truth Is In the Spit”
(5)  Finding Rachel Warren of Columbia County, Arkansas (another daughter): COMING SOON

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Family Was Broken but the DNA Wasn’t

In 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended, I wrote the following about how I learned that a man named Pleasant (Pleas) Barr (1814-1889) of Tippah County (Ripley), Mississippi was the father of my mother’s paternal grandfather, William “Bill” Reed (1846-1937) of Tate County (Senatobia), Mississippi. Grandpa Bill’s death certificate provided his name. He, his sister Mary, and others came to northern Mississippi in 1866, from Abbeville, South Carolina, shortly after gaining their freedom. Grandpa Bill Reed told stories to his children and grandchildren about his experiences as a slave in South Carolina. Many of those stories are in the book. Here’s one account:

After discovering Pleasant Barr, I called Cousin Ike and expressed ecstatically, “I found out Grandpa Bill’s father’s name!  It was Pleas Barr!”

The name jarred his memory. He immediately shared, “Yeah, that’s right!  Boy, you are sure digging up some history! Grandpa Bill told us that his father was named Pleas, and that’s where Uncle Pleas’ name came from.”

“So he talked about his father,” I questioned.

“Oh yeah, all the time! He told us that his father was sold away, and they never saw him again. He used to talk about the day it happened. He said that they loaded his father on a wagon, and as the wagon was leaving the place, Grandpa just stood there and watched until the wagon was out of sight. It crossed some creek near the place where they were at, and it went down into a valley, and went off into the sunset. His father was gone but not forgotten. He talked about that so often because he always wondered where they took him. He was a young boy at the time.”

I was floored by this vivid account but saddened by what it gave an account of.

“What about his mother? Did he talk about her, too,” I asked with grave curiosity.

Bewildered, he stated, “You know, he didn’t talk about his mother much. He talked about an older sister that took care of him, but I don’t recall much of anything ever being said about his mother. I don’t know what may have happened to her.” 

Apparently, Uncle Jimmy Reed also did not know much about Grandpa Bill’s mother since the words “not known” were written on his death certificate.

Cousin Ike’s account sent chills through me like water flowing down the mighty Mississippi River. He continued, “Grandpa sure did love his father though. I remember him telling us how he was such a fun-loving man who would always joke around with the other slaves there on the place. You know that was really hard on him to be separated from his father like that, never to see him again and never knowing where his father was at. He would always say that he watched his father being taken away, off into the sunset.” (Chapter 3, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” pp. 44-45)

In 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended, I chronicled how years of connecting the dots through oral history, genealogy research, and slave ancestral genealogy research enabled me to reconstruct Grandpa Bill Reed’s family story and family tree – one that got broken in 1859 in Abbeville, South Carolina. That year, his father was sold away and taken to Ripley, Mississippi, and William Barr Jr. took his mother, Isabella Barr, his paternal grandmother, Fanny Barr, and his father’s sister, Sue Barr Beckley (born c. 1812), her husband Jacob Sr., and their twelve children to Pontotoc County, Mississippi. Barr had sold Grandpa Bill and his sister to his first cousin, Lemuel Reid, there in Abbeville. Grandpa Bill never laid eyes on them again, but he told his family about them, particularly his father, Pleas, and his first cousin, Cannon Beckley, with whom he had a brother-like relationship. I told the story of this discovery and presented a great amount of documentation.

Although the preponderance of evidence was quite abundant, I would sometimes ask myself, “What if?” Sometimes, the truth is not always what the paper records indicate. What if I misinterpreted my research findings? What if I had missed something? What if I saw something that really wasn’t there? What if I drew the wrong conclusions? These were usually just quick thoughts because the amount of genealogical records and oral history I presented in the book left my shadow of doubt at a very low 5%.

Now we have autosomal DNA testing (AncestryDNA, 23andMe, or Family Tree DNA) to not only learn about what is in our DNA and who our biological relatives are, but we can also prove some of our research through DNA matches. We can also connect with family branches of our family tree that we never knew existed. We can add more narrative to our ancestors’ stories. This is what makes autosomal DNA and genetic genealogy very exciting for me. As descendants of enslaved people of African descent in America, African Americans will undoubtedly have numerous DNA matches to people whose ancestors were forcibly separated from their loved ones during slavery.

DNA now has my shadow of doubt at ZERO percent with Grandpa Bill Reed’s family roots. When his father was sold and taken to Ripley, Mississippi, Grandpa Pleas Barr continued on with his life as best as he knew how. He remarried to a widowed lady named Amanda Young, and they had one child together, Elijah Barr, who was born about 1866/1867. I can’t help but wonder if Grandpa Pleas told Elijah about his children back in Abbeville, South Carolina. Sadly, before he died in/around 1889, Grandpa Pleas never learned that Grandpa Bill Reed and Aunt Mary Pratt had left South Carolina shortly after slavery and were just sixty miles away from him, over near Senatobia, Mississippi. They were so close but still so far.

Uncle Elijah Barr eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he married Lula Winston on March 16, 1908. Before Elijah died in 1918, he and Lula had two children: Frances Barr Evans (1909-1991) and Rev. James Matthew Barr (1913-198?). His descendants, via his daughter Frances, were finally found last year after I clicked on a “Shaky Leaf” family tree hint in That “Shaky Leaf” led me to a family tree uploaded by Ivy of California, indicating that the same Elijah Barr was her great great grandfather! Soon afterwards, another descendant, a great great grandson named Keith of Chicago, shared pictures! One of them included this old picture of Elijah’s widow, Lula, and their two children.

Elijah Barr’s widow, Lula Winston Barr, and their two children, Frances & James Barr. Shortly after Elijah’s death, she and her children moved to Chicago, Illinois. Shared by Keith Evans

Subsequently, I also learned that another descendant, a great great granddaughter of Elijah, had taken the 23andMe DNA test. Lo and behold, Jessica was among our DNA matches, matching me, my mother, my aunt, and their paternal first cousin Armintha on overlapping segments on chromosomes 3 and 4. To add, and not shown here, she also matches my mother's paternal first cousin's grandson, Dr. Leroy Frazier, at 23 cM.

As mentioned earlier, William Barr Jr. took Sue Barr Beckley and her husband Jacob and their twelve children to Pontotoc County, Mississippi. The preponderance of evidence led me to conclude that she was Grandpa Pleas Barr’s sister and both of them were children of Lewis Barr (born c. 1780) and Fanny Barr (born c. 1790). To date, at least six descendants of Sue have taken an autosomal DNA test, and they are DNA matches.

(1)  In AncestryDNA, wa7860 shares 42 cM over 2 segments with my mother. Sue is his 4th-great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). He and my mother are third cousins three times removed.

(2)  In AncestryDNA, kismo7185 shares 30 cM over 2 segments with my mother. Sue is her 3rd-great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). She and my mother are third cousins twice removed.

(3)  In AncestryDNA, M.G. shares 28 cM over 4 segments with my mother. Sue is her great great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). She and my mother are third cousins once removed.

(4)  In AncestryDNA, OnreaR shares 30 cM over 2 segments with my mother. Sue is her 3rd-great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). She and my mother are third cousins twice removed.

(5)  In AncestryDNA, J.R. shares 8.5 cM with my mother. Sue is his 3rd-great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). He and my mother are third cousins twice removed.

(6)  In 23andMe, Arlene shares 21 cM with my uncle and my aunt on overlapping segments. Sue is her 3rd-great grandmother via her son, Clay Beckley (1846-1903). They are third cousins twice removed. Arlene also shares DNA with Jessica at 25 cM. They are fifth cousins.

Since has refused to provide their millions of DNA customers with a chromosome browser, like 23andMe and Family Tree DNA have done, and since three of the seven haven’t uploaded their raw data files to, I am unable to do more DNA triangulations. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this is DNA from Lewis & Fanny Barr, our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA), that is shared among them. The family was broken during slavery, but the DNA wasn’t. 

1880 Pontotoc County, Mississippi Census: Grandpa Bill Reed’s paternal grandmother, Fanny Barr, was still alive when the 1880 census was taken. Her age was reported as being 100 years old. She was living with her grandson, Rev. Jacob Beckley Jr.