Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of this experiment of live-blogging a search to break down a brick wall. It was kind of exciting starting this series not knowing if we’d be successful, even though it felt like we might be able to link this DNA match.
We’ve gone through every quick trick we know to try and find Excell before 1910, and so far, we’re striking out. We’ve searched for Excell (and XL and Ex and X) in both the 1900 and 1880 U.S. Census. We’ve used Stanford/Standford/Sanford/Stanfor and we’ve looked in the counties we expected him in, surrounding counties, and the entire state. We’ve even looked for him as “White”. Theres nothing so far, although there are a surprising number of people with the first name “Excell” in Mississippi in 1900! We’ve also tried to push through to 1880 using his uncle James, but to no avail. We now know James’s wife’s maiden name, but we can’t find either of them in the 1880 U.S. Census.
So, after a day of searching, we have another set of data points which will someday help us break down this wall, but we didn’t get through it today. When we’re on the ground in Mississippi doing physical research, we’re confident we can put this puzzle together…just not today. Not yet.
But hopefully sharing this day of searching illustrates how we go after these leads, and we’ll follow this up with a more detailed explanation of our approach on these DNA matches, and of course we’ll follow up when there’s a break through!!
Progress was good this morning…until we got out of Illinois, and started researching the history of Excell Stanford in Mississippi. It’s just disheartening on how little information is available for Mississippi post-Civil War, especially for African Americans.
We know that Excell and Carrie were married in Mississippi around 1917. Of course there is no marriage record, so we still don’t have a maiden name for Carrie confirmed, but we do have her children’s birth records showing it as Boling/Boiden. We found Excell’s 1910 U.S. Census entry, and he was living with his uncle James in Coahoma Co., Mississippi. Interestingly, his name is listed as “XL” which gives us another name to search (we confirmed that his son Edward’s middle name was legally “Excell” so that’s likely how our Excell spelled it). We’ve been able to take uncle James and his wife/children back to the 1900 U.S. Census, but not yet to the 1880 U.S. Census…which might give us a lead on Excell’s father.
We also haven’t been able to find Excell in the 1900 U.S. Census yet…which is going to put up a pretty serious barrier to tying our DNA match to the known Stanford line. Let’s hope we can get past this. There are some un-indexed records like the Mississippi List of Educatable Children which can be helpful, but records for the early 1900’s can be spotty, and since they are un-indexed it will take review of each of hundreds of pages to find a match.
We’ll keep digging in on Excell, and see where we are in a few hours!
It was the biggest shock we had when we started trying to use DNA results in our research: We spend most of our time working DNA building other people’s trees.
So, step one was re-create their tree in our Ancestry account using the information they had posted. They don’t have much up on this line, but the good news is that the match’s grandparents died in Cook County, IL and grandfather had a VERY unique name: Excell. It’s also positive that Excell was born around 1895, so we miss the gap of the 1890 Census, we have a good shot at him being on the very helpful 1900 Census, and he’s born after the 1870 slavery gap.
As of right now we have expanded Irma’s family to identify her mother’s maiden name, some brothers/sisters, as well as a step-family. We’ve gone through Excell’s Cook County records, and the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census. We’re working backwards to build out the tree in chronological order, and so far so good! As much as we’d love to rush to 1900 U.S. Census, to see what we can find, we’re trying to be patient and let it unfold for us!
The process we’re following is how to build a good skeleton tree: review online sources, attach them to facts as Primary or Alternate, starting with “Shakey Leaf” hints (which are the top 10% of Ancestry matches), then using “Search” to look for the other 90% of Ancestry records. Notice we’re stay away from Ancestry User Trees at this point. They aren’t sources! Here’s how we brokedown this process in an earlier set of posts: Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part Three: Attaching online records to your tree
We’re going to try something different today…we’re going to live blog the process of taking an AncestryDNA match and using it to break down a brick wall, without knowing the outcome before we start the posts. We’re not sure it’s going to go as we hope, but we thought it might be interesting to try.
What’s going on
Last night, after finishing up a few genealogy emails after 10 days of near-obsessive research on ANOTHER brick wall (which is crumbling nicely, and we’ll post on that later) I was killing time before our youngest was going to need us to put him to bed and hadn’t gone through my wife’s mother’s DNA results in awhile. As I was puttering around, I literally gasped when I clicked a match…the match was 98cm (close cousin, 3rd or better most likely), had a small tree to the grandparents, and the match’s maternal grandfather’s last name matched Felice’s mother’s grandfather’s surname. We’re going to call Felice’s mom “Sue” in this post, since we haven’t gotten her approval to use her real name. Only needing to match the parent of both “Stanford” men in these two trees to make a match might be doable, and this will be a huge brick wall broken down.
Why is this a brick wall
This is part of the darkside of genealogy in-general, and DNA genealogy specifically: when you ask questions, and collect proof, you expose not just the best parts of your family. Sue’s mother Delia had 3 children, by a man named Robert Holmes in Mississippi, before she migrated to Milwaukee in the 1960’s. But, it’s widely assumed, and Delia told Sue as much, that Robert Holmes was not Sue’s actual father. He had just agreed to sign the birth certificate, although he might have actually been the father of Delia’s first child. Robert was married this entire time, and 30+ years older than Delia, and no one has any information on him in the family. He died in 1968, and Delia died in 1999, so we can’t ask them. Talking to Delia’s sister about her history, and as much as she could remember about Delia, she said they were party girls back in these times and that the sister had actually gotten married once just so she had someone to watch the kids while she went out and partied with Delia. I love this woman, and I would have loved to meet Delia when she was here, and I love that she giggled and with a gleam in her eye at 85 years old gave me the best quote of all of our family interviews: “We were whores back then”.
Further complicating this search, is that getting past Sue’s great grandparents is difficult because before the 1870 they were all owned property (the “S” in the image above symbolizes a person born into slavery), and for the 100 years that followed they lived in Mississippi which sought to de-humanize them in every way they could…including reducing the official records their names might appear. Since these official records are the lifeblood of genealogy, and since Mississippi is behind just about every state in digitizing/sharing the records they do have for African Americans, it’s very challenging finding black ancestors in that state.
Additionally, African Americans tend not to participate in the hobby of genealogy as much as, say my family, which was DAR in 1904, and which I have several lines that have books published about. The combination of not wanting to talk about a painful linage, generations of economic challenges which doesn’t lend itself to time consuming hobbies, systematic suppression of official records, lack of work from older generations to build upon, and of course the 1870 wall, finding good genealogical matches is hard. For my wife’s family, we have only identified 12 of 32 3xGGP vs. my side where we’ve identified 29. (More about this: Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…)
The good news is that our match is in Illinois now, with at least her father passing away in the same state. This means we should have better records to start our search, and since I work in Cook County, it will not be hard getting access to original birth/records for their first generation.
We’re going to start building out our match’s tree, and hope that we find a Standford father that has her great grandfather, and Sue’s great grandfather, as children, and we’ll proven the DNA link. In doing so, we’d not only better understand that line, push back her known ancestors back at least one more generation, but we’ll also be able to prove that Sue’s father is the man listed on her birth certificate.
During this recent Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we received one of those messages on Ancestry.com that you dream of. Through Felice’s paternal grandmother’s DNA, we had a 5-8th cousin reaching out to help try and draw the line between the tests, and while their theory probably doesn’t match up as she thought it might, it did highlight 3x great-grandparents we hadn’t yet identified. From that, we’re starting to piece together a theory that’s looking pretty strong about siblings of the 3x GGP’s, and with that a good lead on new direct relatives for my wife.
Genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.
These new relatives were all born as slaves in the South before the civil war, and so very little is known about them, very little was recorded, and even less survived. Good theories may be all we can ever piece together to explain the DNA connection we now know we share…and it seemed appropriate that this excitement, and struggle, should happen during the weekend we put aside to honor the struggle of our ancestors to be allowed to be human and citizens in the United States.
But like many lessons taught by Dr. King, there is a level even deeper than that which became apparent only after we thought about it and discussed it more.
By contrast, my genealogical line is much better defined, as most northern European/British lines are. In addition to being a Mayflower descendent, I have several lines that go back to the early 1630’s in the new world, and all of my relatives had arrived in the United States by 1850. This means I have a great deal of documentation on my ancestors, and it means I only have questions about the identity of 3 of my 32 3x GGP.
Felice’s line has only about 12 of 32 3x GGP’s identified, and since both of our relatives in that generation would have been born between 1800 and 1850, it’s surprising we have as many of her line identified as we do. It’s an obvious truth: genealogy for European
families is much easier pre-civil war because they were considered humans, even if they were largely disdained at times; genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.
While we were both excited and troubled (as you are when you discover new relatives who were born as property) by this new finding, there was another emotion: we have so much information about Felice’s father’s side of the family, and not nearly as much as her mother’s…and here’s another breakthrough on her father’s side.
As we talked, and thought about it, we narrowed in on why this was: the relatives on her mother’s side were subjected to the worst of the Jim Crow post-war South, and suffered for generations under economic conditions that not only led to very few records being created, it meant that there were no family historians that had the luxury of gathering stories, documents, and proof of their ancestors to pass down. They were just further victims of the social apartheid they were subjected to for another 150 years after gaining their “freedom”.
In contrast, her father’s side of the family had several relatives that broke that cycle in the late 1800’s. A few relatives owned property by 1880 and were able to work it independently and keep the profits/proceeds. Another owned a cotton gin in 1875 and used that buy property, and spread the wealth to his children so they could be above the lowest social rungs. Felice’s paternal grandmother’s parents owned their land in Arkansas, and so the descendent of the original slaveholder in the neighborhood, who now managed a massive sharecrop (read exploitation/subjugation) organization in Ashley County would come to her father at harvest time and ask if he would help harvest his crop. He would refer to her father as sir, and ask please. He would take “no” for an answer, and pay him market price for what he helped harvest…the same as his white help.
It’s not just chance that we have more information on this side of her family. They were not as impoverished, they had the luxury of history and time to collect the information we now have. Just as my great-grandmother on my father’s side was completing her DAR application, and gathering so much of the amazing material I have today in the early 1900’s, so too were parts of Felice’s family. Today, there are multi-state bi-annual family reunions on some lines, and books published, and for others there’s a network of researchers who capture new DNA matches and connect the historical dots for us.
But her mother’s side heartbreakingly illustrates the subtle effects of the brutal oppression they suffered, and the echoes of which linger for generations after…even after many of the children escaped North during the Great Migration. Her mother’s family was largely sharecroppers, at best, and we regularly see 50% child mortality in these lines. The mothers often had more than 10 children, and we can only imagine how they struggled to make ends meet. They were living in the worst of the deep south, in the parts of Mississippi that were still stringing up African Americans regularly well into the 1960’s.
For example, Felice’s mother was born in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi only 10 years after a young Emmett Louis Till was tortured and murdered in that county. At the time of her birth, no one had been convicted of that horrific murder, and it was still known as the “Free State of Tallahatchie County” since the white residents knew they could, and would, do whatever they wanted and damn what anyone else said.
This black hole of genealogy just so clearly demonstrated the devastating conditions her family survived through, that we both were speechless as it because clear to us the answer why one side was more documented than the other. While both her parents’ families survived horrible oppression in the Jim Crow South, one side had slight means and a slightly less aggressive apartheid to allow them a sliver of advancement out of Arkansas.
The other side was in Mississippi, which freely and deeply continued to destroy the identities and lives of black families to the point of there being few official records, and those records are still very inaccessible. The official policy continued to be to deny the humanity of African Americans even after the world tried to force them to accept these people as people. That side of the family could barely feed itself, and couldn’t even accuse white people of a crime for most of their existence. Family history couldn’t be less important in those circumstances, and we see that today by the complete lack of their history beyond a basic census every 10 years.
It’s another example of how what isn’t in your family history can be as valuable as what is, and it’s another way that we learn what our ancestors faced on their journey leading to our birth. And on this MLK day, it helped our family feel more acutely the struggle and fight of those who put everything on the line to free African Americans from the oppression of the American government and culture…which is exactly what we should do on this holiday.
We’ve known for some time that our research strategy is not focused as well as it should be, and our undisciplined methodology ( lack of research logs, research notes, well defined questions, formal output, etc.) was slowing down our work. Not only that, it’s been sloppy, and lead us down some dead ends…twice.
Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work.
This week it came to a head when we identified a DNA match with my wife’s Grandmother (who is African American) that comes from a tree that is almost entirely white, and has a strong slave-holder history in their line. This would be the first confirmed slave-holder/slave child we’d identified (if we could identify the line), which is a pretty major step in African American genealogy.
We went back to a “Working” Tree on Ancestry (because I can’t sync our Family Tree Maker!) for the white Thornton line, and built a good link from the DNA match to the brothers in Coffeeville, AL we’ve long suspected were the likely parents of her slave ancestor. We were completely excited.
It wasn’t until the next day as we poked around the Working tree, and our main tree, that it dawned on us: the slave ancestor with the Thornton surname was likely never in Alabama and the brothers were never likely in Arkansas. We’d hit this dead end before, but forgot all about it. We knew better, we’d just forgotten it…and we left the speculative tree intact without any notes.
It’s been a thought for awhile now that we were getting too cowboy in our research. We felt too pulled in whatever direction a whim drew us, often getting sucked down DNA result rabbit holes, and not making a lot of good progress. We’re getting to be a mile wide and an inch deep.
As I laid down for a nap this afternoon, I wanted to do some genealogy reading without working on any project, and after searching on “genealogy research plan” I immediately hit upon one of our favorite resources: Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is fantastic series of Research Reports on the Association of Professional Genealogists website where Mills presents the fascinating case of Samuel Witter (Essential Research Reports for Genealogists: 3 Samples). We read through all 3 examples, and were immediately inspired!
Take a look for yourself, and the first thing that will strike you is that they are long and detailed. It might feel daunting to draft something like this. But as I started to think of several of our brick walls, and involved projects, we can see how having the discipline to produce something this detailed should both highlight the areas we need further research, and give us the path to the best next steps to attack that research.
We clicked through a link to Mills’ website Historic Pathways and found not only the Witter examples, but an entire library of GREAT documentation (Historic Pathways – Research Reports).
Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work: clean up our main tree by moving the speculative links to Private/Unsearchable trees, clean up/verify the citations for all facts in our main tree, get our paper documentation and filing up-to-date, and draft more formal plans to answer specific questions when we start our research again.
We’ll update everyone as we start following this process, and start creating these documents, but in the meantime, take a look and let us know what you think! How formal is your research documentation, and what works for you?
The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to just standard genealogy, and this is a successful part of that effort.
I noticed this morning that my DNA Homepage had been updated…and a new feature had been added (in Beta): Genetic Communities.
Under what’s now termed Genetic Ancestry and in addition the Ethnicity Estimate, there’s now a section called Genetic Communities.
When you click through to Genetic Communities you’re presented with the communities that Ancestry has calculated that you, and member matches that share ancestors with you, belong to. The information presented can be a bit general, but it does provide pretty accurate/helpful historical context. For me, I was presented with 2 “Possible” communities that I could belong to:
In clicking through the Settlers of Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island & Connecticut community, I saw some pretty cool graphics:
The migration lines are animated, and you can see some of the stories that support the idea of a community on the left side pane. If you click a time frame in the left pane, you’ll get a small write-up on what that time encompassed as well as showing how many of your relatives are potentially covered in that description. Additionally, you’re shown graphically where your connected Member Trees have ancestors during that time.
If you click on the list of users from your family tree, you’ll see the list of your ancestors who lived in the covered area, during the covered time.
As you scroll through each time span, you’ll be able to see a representation of how your ancestors, and some of your connected relatives, migrated as time went on. You’ll also get more information about the events and context surround those time periods, as well as a complete list of your relatives who match this classification.
If you go back to the main page for your community, there’s an option to show “Connection” and clicking that will give you more information on your family tree:
I clicked Connection and it details how sure Ancestry.com is that I fit an identified community:
On the lower part of the screen, you can see they have grouped your DNA matches between you and the broader community, as well as the last names associated with your lineage.
There is definitely a LOT to click through and enjoy. For instance, each time period has a listing of “Historical Insights” at the bottom that will help give you broader information about what was occurring during that period.
The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to standard genealogy, this is a part of that effort.
My family line is heavy on English settlers to Massachusetts in the early-to-mid 1650’s, and Genetic Communities identified that successfully, but since I know this era relatively well it was easy picking out some less than accurate facts that were attributed to my family. Ironically, the tests from Felice’s Grandmother were much more accurate and helpful.
It’s not the case usually that any area of African American genealogy is more complete than white genealogy, however Felice’s grandmother quickly showed a “Very Likely” match to the African Americans in North Carolina community.
As you can see, her community is pretty well established and is Very Likely to return matching records. Reviewing the notes that go along with this community was fascinating, and will likely help my work to further her line. I didn’t understand the prevalence of the West Africa/North Carolina flow of slaves, and it helps explain why so many references to North Carolina appear when tracing her various relatives, even though her family has very few ancestors in the state from 1850 onward.
Just like with my line, however, the general nature of the historical notes is pretty clear as the migration patterns and experiences of this group in general gives way to what we know about her family in fact.
So, my first impressions are that this is major new feature that delivers very interesting information, and helpful context and general information about both my lines and the lines of those related to us, but it likely will need further refining to bring it’s true value into clearer focus.