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#52Ancestors – Fresh Start: How DNA rewrote my genealogy

#52Ancestors – Fresh Start: How DNA rewrote my genealogy

After many years of research on my mother’s family, I had a solidly documented family tree. In fact, I had published a book on that family. Now, the central ancestor of that story, Miles Lassiter, is still firmly in place on my tree. My direct line to him is firmly established. He was my fourth great grandfather, my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, father. It’s the spouses that were the problem. I couldn’t see it at first. After all, I had documented everything.

It all started when I became troubled over my efforts to confirm DNA documentation of my third great grandfather, Calvin Dunson, married to Miles Lassiter’s daughter, by his wife, Healy Phillips Lassiter, Nancy Phillips Lassiter. Miles was technically enslaved by the Widow Sarah Lassiter, but Healy, called Healy/Helia/Heley Phillips in most records, was a free woman of color. Thus, all her children with Miles were originally known in public records by the name “Phillips,” rather than Lassiter, since children followed the condition of their mothers, i. e., if enslaved they were enslaved, if free, then the children were free. After Miles was freed from the Widow Lassiter’s estate when purchased by his wife Healy, Nancy and her siblings began to be known by the Lassiter name, though not consistently.[1]

One of the difficulties in determining when Nancy and Calvin married was that no marriage bond has survived. In fact, there may never have been one because they were not a requirement for marriage. On the other hand, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have sought one since Nancy’s brother, Colier, had one when he married Katherine Polk, though there was none found for the marriage of her other brother, Wiley Lassiter and wife, Elizabeth Ridge. To estimate the date of marriage for Nancy and Calvin, I used the birth date of their oldest daughter, Ellen, my 2nd great grandmother. According to the 1860 census,[2] Ellen was born about 1851; however, her death certificate said 1854. Based on the census, it appeared that Nancy and Calvin had four other children: Rebecca, J. Richard, Martha Ann, and Mary Adelaide. I did find that J. Richard was the child of a possible rape. Nancy sued the perpetrator. I’ve never found any information on the named assailant. Additionally, it appeared that Richard died sometime after 1870. After that, he no longer appeared in the census or other records with the family and he was not named with the other siblings as an heir to the Lassiter estate. So, I determined that Nancy and Calvin married between 1851 and 1854.

Nancy Dunson 1860 census
Calvin and Nancy Dunson and children (Ellen, Sarah Rebecca, and Richard. Emsley was not one of their children), 1860 Census

Fast forward to my DNA testing.[3] I kept looking for Dunson/Dunston matches. I found one in AncestryDNA. I had hundreds of matches but only one person had a Dunson in her family. Even at that, it appeared that it was one of her other lines that was my connection to her. So, she probably wasn’t a Dunson match.

While at a genealogy conference, I mentioned my puzzlement to some of my genie friends and colleagues. One mentioned that she was a Dunson descendant. With that we began searching to see if we were a match or if I matched any of her other known Dunson cousins who had DNA tested. She checked especially on GEDmatch, a third-party site when individuals having tested their DNA on various sites can upload their results, thus expanding their chances of learning about more family members. We did not find a single match. Not one. I figured that my branch did not have descendants who had tested yet or uploaded to GEDmatch. This was several years ago when the databases did not have the numbers of individuals who have tested that they have today. Still, it bothered me. I had it documented in multiple places, Calvin Dunson was the spouse of Nancy Lassiter and the father of Ellen. I couldn’t explain the DNA; it was a conundrum.

One day I was talking to someone, G. C., who was commenting on the connections between his Cranford ancestors, especially Samuel “Sawney” Cranford, and Miles Lassiter. He noted that they were both Quakers, members of the same Meeting.  I commented that, apparently, we didn’t just have business and social dealings, but we were somehow related. I told him I had several Cranford DNA matches. I speculated that if he tested, we might be a DNA match as well. After we got off the phone, I was reflecting on our conversation, when I suddenly had a revelation. I realized that I needed to follow the DNA to find the answers. I needed to let the DNA tell me what the genealogy was, not just the paper trail.

It occurred to me that Sawney Cranford had played an important role in the lives of Miles and his brothers, Jack and Samuel, especially Samuel. When the Widow Lassiter died, a final stipulation of her husband Ezekiel’s will was enforced. According to the will, Miles, Samuel, and Jack were to be under the control of Ezekiel’s widow until she died. She died in 1840, at which time both estates reached final settlements.[4] As part of Ezekiel’s final accounting, the only property mentioned were the three men, old men at this point. They were offered for sale. Miles’ wife, Healy, purchased him from the estate. Miles’ son, Colier, purchased Jack. Both men were purchased for nominal amounts of money.  However, according to the estate information, Samuel had been a runaway, apprehended in Raleigh. There were associated expenses with his capture: newspaper ads, jail time, transport back to Randolph County. The fees, $262 worth, were paid by Sawney Cranford, thus purchasing Samuel. That’s the same Sawney Cranford who was G. C.’s ancestor. I realized that my DNA matches were also descendants of Sawney Cranford. A light bulb went off. I was descended from Sawney Cranford! If that was true, where was the connection? Sawney was a contemporary of Miles and Healy. So, his children were contemporaries of Miles’ children, well some of his children anyway. Sawney had children that spread over a wide time period. Based on the centimorgans (cMs), I shared a third great grandparent. Well, it wasn’t Nancy or Calvin was my first thought. That doesn’t make sense. I had the documentation, but the DNA seemed to be saying otherwise. Then I began to think back to some other documents I had.

Sale of Miles from Estate of Ezekiel Lassiter
From the Account of Sales of the Estate of Ezekiel Lassiter, 27 Feb & 1 Apr 1840,Three Negroes: Miles, Jack & Samuel.

After Miles died, it appears that there was a need to raise funds. Miles’ son, Colier, began purchasing interests in the family land from his siblings and then taking out a Deed of trust. As part of that process there seemed to be a hastily filed intestate probate for Miles’ wife, Healy, called “Healy Phillips or Lassiter.” Oddly the document had no date on them. However, they were filed in Will Book 10, which covered the years 1853-1856 with Healy’s papers mixed in with others from 1854 and 1855.[5] In them, all the children, heirs, were named, including Nancy. She, like her siblings, was called “Phillips or Lassiter.” There was no mention of her being married in any of the above-named documents.

Heirs at Law of Healy Phillips
Heirs at Law of Healy Phillips

One clue to these legal actions seemed to be found in a letter written in 1851, on behalf of Colier, by Jonathan Worth, a local attorney who later became governor of North Carolina. In the letter, Worth stated that Healy had four children from a previous marriage, with whom it would be necessary to share her estate along with the seven children with Miles. The other alternative was to buy out the four other children. I’m speculating that the other documents pointed to efforts to raise the monies to buy out the four half siblings. What I realized also was that not one of these documents referred to my 3rd great grandmother, Nancy, as Nancy Dunson, wife of Calvin Dunson. Not one.

Jonathan Worth Letter page 1
Jonathan Worth Letter (P. 1)
Jonathan Worth Letter Page 2
Jonathan Worth Letter (P. 2)

The first time Nancy is referenced as married in any public document located so far by me was in the lawsuit for the assault and subsequent bastardy bond in 1858.[6] By that time, not only was there the son, J. Richard, subject of the lawsuit, but another sister, Sarah Rebecca, born about 1857. Therefore, there is reasonably solid information that Ellen was born between 1851-1854. There was one more piece of information that helped determine her age, her marriage certificate. The record I had seen does not mention her age. That’s okay, because using her date of marriage was sufficient.[7]

Marriage record of Anderson and Ellen
Marriage Record of Ellen Dunson & Anderson Smitherman, 23 Sep 1865

Ellen Dunson married Anderson Smitherman on 23 Sep 1865, in Randolph County. I repeat, 1865. If Ellen was born as late as 1854, she would only have been 11 years old. I know that there were no regulations for minimum age in those days, but eleven is extremely young. I really can’t say that I can find another incidence of an eleven-year old marrying in my family. There may be some in other families, but not in mine. It is far more likely that Ellen was born in 1851 or 52. That would make her thirteen or fourteen when she married, still very young, but not unprecedented. With that reality, it was most likely that Ellen was not the biological child of Calvin Dunson, even though she carried the Dunson name, was named as one of his heirs,[8] and his name was listed as her father on her death certificate.[9] I realized Ellen was born five years before her next closest sibling, Sarah Rebecca, was born, or before any legal documents referred to Nancy as Nancy Dunson, wife of Calvin Dunson.[10] Putting it all together, it appeared that my 2nd great grandmother Ellen was most likely the Cranford descendant.

Nancy Dunson 1870 census
Calvin and Nancy Dunson Family, 1870 Census

Based on my DNA matches, it appeared that the most likely candidate was a son, Henry. My closest matches are with his direct descendants. Altogether I have identified 32 of my matches as Cranford descendants. At this time, I have no information that sheds any light on what led to Nancy having a child with Henry. They were not cited in the Bastardy Bonds of the time. I can’t really say I’m very concerned with that. What I do know is that I have since developed a very good relationship and communication with G. C. and other Cranford relatives. I also still have an interest in the Dunsons because Calvin and Nancy’s descendants are still my cousins. They do have a Dunson legacy.

DNA has expanded, broadened, my family connections and given me new perspectives on my relationship to my community, Randolph County. DNA has helped me break down brick walls and confirmed oral tradition and given me the surprise of rewriting my family story. Did I say “surprise,” singular? My mistake. Yup, I realized I had another ancestor who was well documented, but whom DNA said was not my ancestor, in the same family line! This time, it was my great grandfather, … but that’s a story for another day.

References

[1] Williams, M. L., (2011). Miles Lassiter (Circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home. Palm Coast, FL (Crofton, KY): Backintyme Publishing, Inc. All the information for this essay on Nancy and the family is based on documentation provided in Miles Lassiter.

[2] 1860 US Federal Census, Western Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head; Nancy Dunson, & Eallen [sic] Dunson, age 9; Sarah, age 3; Richard, age 1. NARA Roll: M653-910; Page: 212; Image: 429; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[3] My DNA testing referenced in this article is specific to my matches at AncestryDNA.

[4] Obituary of Miles Lassiter. (1850, June 22).  Friends Review iii,700.

[5] Estate of Healy Phillips or Lassiter. (1854-1855). Randolph County, Randolph County, North Carolina Will Book 10:190-192. FHLM #0019645. See also North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998. [Database and Images on-line] Henly Phillips. Digital Images: 1225-1229.  Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[6] Nancy Dunson v. John Hinshaw, 2 November 1858, Minutes of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions, FHLM #0470212 or #0019653.

[7] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database  and Images on-line]. Anderson Smitherman and Ellen Dunson, 23 Sep 1865. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[8] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database and Images on-line]. William Dunston, 1892. Digital Images 1393-1398. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[9] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database and Images online]. Ellen Mayo, died: 12 Jun 1920. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[10] 1870 US Federal Census: New Hope, Randolph, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head; Nancy Dunson; S. A. R. (Sarah Rebecca); J. A. [sic] (J. Richard); M. A. (Mary Adelaide); and M. Ann (Martha Ann). NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 400B; Image: 250; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

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#52Ancestors – A Strong Woman – Healy Phillips Lassiter

Deciding on which strong woman from my family to feature for this essay has left me in a quandary. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded my whole life by strong women who have been my role models. I have already written about a few of them. This week I wanted to focus on a woman from several generations back who really provided significantly to the many opportunities and privileges my maternal family enjoys today. She was Healy Phillips Lassiter, a free woman of color, and my 4th great grandmother. She was married to Miles Lassiter, my 4th great grandfather. They lived in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina. While many of life’s trials require extra strength, being a free woman of color, married to a slave in the first half of the 1800’s must have required extraordinary strength.

As best as I can determine, Healy was born around 1780.[1] I know it was somewhere in North Carolina, but I do not know if it was in the Piedmont where Randolph County is, or it was in eastern North Carolina. Although her last name is spelled Phelps in the earliest record I have found, I have not been able to confirm if she had a relationship with the Jonathan Phelps family, Quakers, who came to the Piedmont from eastern North Carolina sometime in the late colonial period, early US period, when she can be confirmed to be living there. I note also that the “Phillips” spelling is noted in later documents, perhaps indicating the influence of a Phillips family that also lived in the area, but with whom I have not found any relationship.

Doc 35-Healy Phillips 1840 census.jpg

The first time I found Healy in public records was in the 1840 census; she was listed as a head of household and since the enumeration only identifies people by age, gender, and free status, I thought “Heley” was the male head of household.[2] It would be many years later before I learned that it was a nickname for Mahalia. In any event, the 1840 census was the only place I had seen the name for quite a while. I should note that I had heard from a cousin that Miles’ wife was named something like “Hildy,” but I never put the two together, because the last name in the census was Phillips, not Lassiter.

My first break at truly identifying her came when a local librarian/historian from the county historical and genealogical society sent me information that there was an intestate probate for a “Healy Phillips or Lassiter.”[3] It did not name Miles, but it did name all their children: Emsley, Abigail, Colier, Susannah, Wiley, Nancy (my 3rd great grandmother), and Jane. What was notable beyond confirming her relationship to the children who could be found on censuses in connection with Miles and each other in subsequent years, was that she owned a significant amount of property, 400 acres in fact. I couldn’t find where she bought this land outright. There was a legend that the land had been given to the family. Had it been? There were no deeds to be found in Healy’s name. However, there was other information to be found about Healy.

Doc 1C-Heirs at law of Healy Phillips or Lassiter.jpg

The earliest record found for Healy was an 1818 bastardy bond, wherein she was called “Huldy Phelps.”[4] She did not name the man. Another record implied her presence but did not name her; it was the 1830 census. Miles Lassiter was listed as a free man of color, and his family was enumerated by gender and age. Presumably, Healy was the woman 36-54 years of age.[5] The roles switched in 1840 when Healy was listed as head of household.

1840 turned out to be an important year for Healy and her family. Sarah Lassiter, the widow of the man who had been her husband Miles’ owner died. Healy had an opportunity to buy Miles’ freedom, which she did for $0.05, most likely because he was described as an old crippled man.[6]

Doc 7-Account of Sale-Ezekiel Lassiter.jpg

I was also alerted in a letter from a Marian Miller to another transaction in August 1840, in which Miles and Healy were mentioned in a deed of trust between John Newsome and Ezekiel Lassiter (most likely the grandson of Ezekiel Sr. and Sarah Lassiter). The deed indicated that John Newsom owed “Helley Phillips and her heirs or children had by Miles Lassiter … due to bonds for $250.[7] The bond was posted for Newsom and it maintained that if he did not pay the money back, he would have to forfeit to her 150 acres on Hannah’s Creek, a tributary of the Uwharrie River, in the Lassiter’s Mill area of southwestern Randolph County. Healy would appear in only one other record, that was another deed of trust in 1842 wherein she was a trustee on behalf of Edward “Ned” Hill, a free man of color.[8] Although Healy would not appear again in records in her own right, she was still a factor in several records.

The first was Miles’ obituary, which appeared after his death in June 1850. It stated that,

he married a free woman early in life and brought of up a large family of children to more respectability than is common for free colored persons in their neighborhood. … His wife and children by their industry and his management accumulated a sufficiency to purchase a small farm upon which they lived comfortably a number of years. At length they were able to purchase another adjoining the farm of his mistress and removed to it…[9]

Doc 8-Miles Obituary Friends Review.jpg

In 1851, a letter by Jonathan Worth, then a lawyer in Asheboro (later a governor), retained after Miles had died, by Colier Phillips Lassiter, Miles and Healy’s son referenced Healy. Apparently, Healy had been married before Miles and had four other children. Colier needed to know if the estate had to be divided among them as well. Worth summarized the issue: “Colier Philips, of color, consults us on the following case – He states that he is the son of a free woman of color, named Helia – that she had four children by a first husband and seven by a second husband who was a slave, the said Collier [sic] being one of the seven – that his mother died some five years ago possessed of a considerable personal estate. …[10]  Her estate containing 400 acres of land was probated about 1854, as referenced above.

In 1856, Wiley Phillips Lassiter, another son, was involved in a lawsuit against a Michael Bingham for not paying him for carriages and horses on consignment with Bingham. In the petition Wiley stated that he had inherited two tracts of land from his mother, one 268 acres and the other 150 acres, about five or six years earlier actually referencing Miles’ death.[11]

From these few records a picture of Healy as a strong independent-minded woman emerged. I do not doubt that her strength of character and personality were reflected in daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters alike. I could see it in my mother, and recognize it in the stories of my grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great grandmother, especially. I’ve seen it in my cousins Kate, Vella, and Ave who each worked in their own way to further social justice, as well as others who have become teachers, nurses, veterinarians, and more. I hope I have been able to convey it to my daughter.

References

[1] 1840 US Federal Census; South Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Heley Phillips of color, head. NARA Roll: 369; Page: 65; Image: 136; Family History Library Film: 0018097. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8057/4410817_00136/1646123?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400616/facts/citation/221710701383/edit/record

[2] 1840 US Federal Census; South Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Heley Phillips of color, head. NARA Roll: 369; Page: 65; Image: 136; Family History Library Film: 0018097. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8057/4410817_00136/1646123?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400616/facts/citation/221710701383/edit/record

[3] Phillips Heirs. (Winter 1982). The Genealogical Journal of the Randolph County Genealogical Society, VI, 51-52. See also, North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. Henly [sic] Phillips Estate. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/9061/007384174_01225/1814897?backurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ancestry.com%2Ffamily-tree%2Fperson%2Ftree%2F66453873%2Fperson%2F36156400616%2Ffacts%2Fcitation%2F960301203453%2Fedit%2Frecord&bm=true#?imageid=007384174_01228&imageId=007384174_01228

[4] Vidales, C. L. and Cates, L. (n.d.). Huldy Phelps, bastardy bond. Randolph County, NC Bastardy Bond Abstracts and Related Records, 1786-1918 (Arranged and Indexed by Pamela Winslow Donahue), p. 20.

[5] 1830 US Federal Census; Regiment 1, Randolph, North Carolina; Smiles [sic] Lassator, head. NARA Roll M19-125; Page: 7; Family History Library Film: 0018091. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8058/4410684_00017/242848?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400616/facts/citation/960072978653/edit/record

[6] Estate of Sarah Lassiter and Ezekiel Lassiter, Will Book 7:332. Sale of Miles Lassiter to Healy Phillips. Family History Library Microfilm 0019643.

[7] John Newsome to Ezekiel Lassiter, Deed Book 22; proved in court, August term 1840, Randolph County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions.

[8] Edward Hill to Samuel Hill, Ezekiel Lassiter, et al. Deed Book 25:1. Family History Library Microfilm 0019639 or 0470232.

.[9] Miles Lassiter Obituary. (22 June 1850). Friends Review, III,700.

[10] Statement of J. Worth, 22 Jan 1851. Copy in possession of the author. See also: Williams, M. L. (2011). Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African-American Quaker from Lassiter Mil, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL & Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), pp. 65-66.

[11] The Willie Lassiter Petition. (Winter 1981). The Genealogical Journal by the Randolph County Genealogical Society, V, 38-42.