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


  1. This is a great tool. I have some branches that have recently found, not split during slavery but in the first decades afterwards, and I want to picture it.

  2. Family Reunion Season is Upon us and I so needed this!!! Thank You Melvin!

  3. Once again, another Melvin masterpiece. Love the visual display!

  4. I never knew this tool existed until now. I have to try it out. Great job like always, Melvin!

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  6. Nice visual! Thank you! As to Root Surname - If neither Adam nor Sarah used Warren, how about waAdamneSarah (or something along those lines). Wa = Of in Tshiluba and ne = and. Sort of like "ben Joseph" or a patrinomic Adamson or Adamkin or Sarahadam. ???

  7. Looks great.
    I have been playing with Their free version works well for simple family diagrams.

  8. Thank you for the good insight. I have been gathering my family history for years, not as consistent as I would like to. However, my mother and her siblings shared with me that their father, who was born in Louisiana, said his mother was from the "Malagasy People." My mother and her siblings never knew the spellings. Everytime I asked others about it, I was immediately told that this has to be Indians, because no slaves came from East Africa. Thank you for sharing the history.


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