Using DNA Matches to Find Ancestors

Samuel Sanford McCormick
Samuel Sanford McCormick’s Gravestone

#StayAtHome: Using DNA Matches
Family History Research Techniques

Some Family History Research Techniques

Not everyone is good at sewing and can make masks, and even if you are good at this, there may be distractions like pets, small children, or messy, necessary household repairs that won’t allow you to focus as you need to make the masks in the manner prescribed.  You may be getting bored with either the endless reruns or live police department shows on cable. You worry about ordering new or new pre-owned novels too much through Amazon because the cardboard boxes and delivery persons might be infected.

For those of you researching family history, and still struggling with brick walls, here is something you can do at home that can be interrupted and yet requires focus from time to time.  You also might learn something about how your own ancestors faced serious adversities and survived and why they chose to live in places they did.  It might be good for your mental health and give you the realization, our families have all been through very tough times before, including pandemics, and we are all here today.  A lot of our ancestors survived.

Just before we were sequestered, the house re-siding project, (with all its incredible noise and dust which terrified our cats for 7 hours, 5 days a week) ended. We had just enough time to clean up the house, thoroughly, from all the mess, again, and then, because of our age and a couple of mild-moderate chronic conditions we were sequestered.  We decided to focus on another little project we’d been meaning to do for the last few months.

Between the weather and the pandemic, it was clear it would be awhile before we could employ researchers in strategic areas.   We decided to try to break down the last remaining brick walls in Tony’s family history using Tony’s Autosomal DNA test results, and crafted a plan for doing this.  I had spent 35 years trying to find the parents of Tony’s of the last known and documented Scottish ancestor, 2nd Greatgrandfather Samuel Sanford McCormick, and the best possibility was to find this ancestor’s brothers or half brothers. There were similar gaps in two more of Tony’s ancestry with surnames Ottinger and Beebe.  We had identified three brothers, of which one was a grandfather of the earliest documented Beebe, Charles Lemuel Beebe “Sr.” (for his twig (1829-1875) and had narrowed the Ottinger field to about six men in two counties in Tennessee for the father of Robert Ottinger (1822-1881/2). Again, all the ancestors of these six men were well known and documented.

We had to determine how many centiMorgans the last known and documented ancestor was likely to have in relationship to Tony.  Blaine Bettinger‘s chart from ‘The CentiMorgan Project’, (I love all the colors for the lines of relationships!), was a wonderful tool for figuring out what the range of centiMorgans (cM) of DNA to expect for brothers–and sisters of each of the three male ancestors.

This also required the matches on the DNA testing sites to have at least some family trees that were themselves documented.  Not all were going to be well documented back to the 1820’s and 1830’s where we needed to find the matches.  However, millions of people have subscribed to ancestry.com and use the census records and can certainly, absolutely identify ancestors, for the most part back to the 1850’s, and some earlier, back to the parents of children in the 1850’s.  So to deal with the short trees that end in more recent times, I had traced the trees forward from known descendants of the three men whose parents were in question, and made abbreviated trees involving the males in particular with the surnames of the men in question.  This way, if I spotted trees that stopped in time only at these descendants I knew who were already known relatives and because so many of us have already been in communication with one another, not likely to have any more DOCUMENTED ancestry further back than the brick wall ancestors my husband shared with them.  By doing this and figuring out the centiMorgans I needed, I could narrow the database field I needed to search for just documented matches in the earliest generations.

Now we were lucky in one other way when it came to these three brick wall individuals.  Three of Tony’s four grandparents were children of emigrants.  Anything beyond a certain period for three quarters of his matches, or more, were not going to be in the U.S.  We were looking for parents of three individuals who had definitely been born in the U.S.  All three were suspected of having one or both parents also born in the U.S., with a fair amount of documentation to support that idea. In two of the cases, we knew who earlier U.S. ancestors were for certain.  We were trying to determine which of several known persons of likely grandparents in the U.S. were the fathers.  That left one real mystery person only and he turned out to be the real surprise after all.

We had spent a lot of time–and money–researching this Samuel Sanford McCormick/McCamick (1838-1882). He usually went by the name Sanford, but we will call him ‘SSM’ for short. It was SSM’s military records and finding his military headstone (Civil War Service, Union Army) and that headstone’s related papers that made us finally realize he had two names and that Samuel was probably his real first name.  Ok, well, gee, there were lots of McCormicks who all had come to Kentucky from Virginia and Pennsylvania and were all related to one another, and they included the name Samuel, if not Sanford.  Even if he was an orphan, surely he had male relatives in one of these lines.  We’ll find the McCormick lines in Kentucky, who had persons in or near Washington County, where he believed and said he’d been born, who match in the right centiMorgan range.

It had just worked for my husband’s Ottinger line and then for his Beebe line, which interestingly turned up another Scottish line for the mother of that brick wall individual, so it should be a piece of cake with the two days of practice on the other lines, right?  Well, yes, if his parents had both been born in the U.S. and he himself had really been born in Kentucky.  At the end of another two days working on just this one individual we were really mystified as to how few matches he had prior to his own known descendants, really few.  Worse, all the early McCormicks in his line all seemed to be in County Antrim, Ireland, not in the colonial U.S.  How in the blazes did we miss someone in Washington County, Kentucky who had to be a relative of his, a parent, who was actually born in Ireland?

SSM was there all along, but the clue to what had happened to him was exactly two lines long in one of the two memorials written for his relative Thomas McCormick. SSM was not born in Kentucky, he was born in New York. It also showed something else: that his real surname was McCormick – McCamick was a clerical phonetic spelling error based on how it sounded to clerks.

There was exactly one born-in-Ireland patriarch in any of six counties around Washington County in Kentucky, who had the surname McCormick.  This was a Thomas McCormick, born in 1807 to William and Ann McCormick in Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland.  Thomas died in 1881, on a farm he owned in Nelson County, KY between the towns of New Haven and New Hope, and he had been married three times, the first time possibly in Ireland.  In his memorials, written by non-family persons not long after he died, and in the modern Find A Grave memorial, with a picture of the headstone of his second wife, were descriptions of how Thomas had first emigrated in 1837 from Manchester, England, where he’d been apprenticed to a relative of his parents, to New York City, where an older brother had moved.  Thomas was living near his older brother in 1840, in the U.S. and we found him on the 1840 census in New York. The older brother had been married to Lucy Wilson, and had two children by Lucy, both very young, when Lucy’s first husband died.  The brother, whose first name was never given by the writers of the two memorials, had died, either in late 1840 or early 1841, and so did Thomas’ own first wife. Thomas McCormick then married his brother’s widow, Lucy, in New York City, and brought her and at least one child of hers, a son by her first husband, to Kentucky with him.  Lucy Wilson McCormick-McCormick died in 1843 in Nelson County, Kentucky.

Next, we looked for documents showing who Thomas McCormick’s brother was.  In the 1840 census we found that John McCormick and Thomas McCormick were both living in New York City’s Ward 11, and using the online city directory for 1839, found they were living one block apart.  A half mile away were Samuel D. Wilson (actually his widow, Anna M.) and Samuel Wilson “Jr.”  John McCormick and his wife on the 1840 census had exactly one child left, a son, “under the age of 5.”  John McCormick was the ONLY McCormick to have only one or two children and have them under the age of 5.  These Wilsons were the ONLY Wilsons listed, besides a Mary Wilson who was single, and successfully living on her own making “stocks” (the fancy things that preceded ties, and often trimmed in lace), also living within a half mile of John McCormick and Thomas McCormick, whom we knew from the memorials were brothers.

Thomas McCormick had his ups and downs in life. He was not as skilled as his brother, John and not making as much money in New York and didn’t want to stay in the city. According to his memorials and the information on the 1850 census, he was struggling a bit in his early years in Kentucky. Unfortunately, Lucy was definitely a town or city girl.  Her parents and a brother and sister had been doing well.  Lucy didn’t survive long in the wilds of Kentucky in the early 1840’s.  Before the age of 6, our SSM was an orphan living with his uncle and a half sister and half brother. When his uncle Thomas remarried again, for one reason or another, the nephew was no longer wanted or needed by his uncle and merely an extra mouth to feed while his uncle and his new growing family were themselves still struggling. After the birth of two of his uncle Thomas’s own sons, one by his third wife, Thomas had joined a new church, the Methodist Church.  (This is also mentioned in the memorials.)  In the 1850 census, when names of children were finally included, Sanford, as he was going by, was living with a childless couple, William and Rebecca Nichols,  as a farm-hand, at about age 11 or 12. Their farm was in Washington County, KY, very near Mackville, whose principal building was a substantial Methodist church.  SSM was pretty well treated by the Nichols and was a healthy, literate young man when he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861.

However, since there were both Cammack and one small McCormick family in the same immediate area of Mackville, this led to years–decades–of fruitless chases after related documents by a half dozen researchers all trying to figure out to whom little Sanford was related. This included one professional genealogist who swore ‘I never want to hear the surname “McCamick” ever again’, and an entire historical and genealogical society.  What really confounded people was that he was not in the orphans’ court records for any of six counties–and this was before railroads were in much of this state. He couldn’t have been moved around great distances easily or cheaply.  So, everyone knew he was orphaned in the county or nearby, but not truly orphaned. Sanford had a relative, somehow, nearby who had placed him with the childless Nichols couple.   Because he was Thomas’s nephew and had been outplaced just before the 1850 census, Sanford did not appear on the 1850 census with his only close relatives, his uncle and a half brother and half sister.  Sanford’s half brother also didn’t leave any descendants for anyone to find an easy DNA match, because he’d died in the Civil War, unmarried. On the same 1850 census, SSM didn’t show up living with relatives anywhere in Washington County, or in any neighboring counties.

After all the work of this network of at least three cousins, one Cammack researcher, a professional genealogist and an entire historical and genealogical society, it took a pandemic and three days of being focused entirely on putting together a DNA matching project to finally figure out who Samuel Sanford McCormick and his parents really were. I wouldn’t recommend waiting for a pandemic and looking for an alternative to endless reruns on television to do this, if you really want to solve your family history mysteries. You can decide to tackle a brick wall–and probably break it down– without being locked down and having weather too lousy to start a garden.

Rather than a garden that might freeze, cultivate some ancestors, and be nice to your pets and living family.

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