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 ancestry.com. 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 Ancestry.com 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 GEDmatch.com, 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.