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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 – (16) Storms: Ellen Dunson Smitherman vs. Adelaide Dunson Kearns

This week I had a wonderful surprise when I was contacted by a descendant of my 2nd great grandmother Ellen Dunson Smitherman’s sister, Adelaide Dunson Kearns. Adelaide’s descendant, Marva and I have each been researching the family’s history for years, but we did not know about each other. I knew about Marva’s ancestor Adelaide, her great grandmother.  My mother, Margaret (who was Ellen’s great granddaughter), had met her at least a couple of times when a child, but there was no sustained contact. What had really struck me as I did my research was that Adelaide was known to other cousins in our home community of Lassiter Mill, in Randolph County, North Carolina, but no one knew about my mother, even though she had lived nearby in Asheboro for a couple of years. Marva didn’t know about her either.

How did this separation occur? There are many storms in life. Some a result of weather events, such as hurricanes. We’ve seen a lot related to these this past year with Harvey and Maria and their aftermath. However, there are also the storms that blow through our lives leaving psychological scars, or economic damage. Those storms can also result in rifts in families leaving family members alienated, and their descendants unaware of each other’s existence. That seems to be what happened between Ellen and Adelaide.

Nancy Dunson Grave Marker
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Memorial Plaque, Asheboro Old City Cemetery, includes name of Nancy Dunson

In 1890, Nancy Phillips Lassiter Dunson died. There was no will for Nancy or for her husband, Calvin, who had died about ten years earlier.[1] The land on which Nancy lived and had inherited from her parents, Miles Lassiter and Healy Phillips Lassiter, should have been distributed to her children or, if deceased, to their heirs. Those heirs were: Ellen Dunson Smitherman (later Mayo), Adelaide Dunson Kearns, Harris Dunson, William Dunson, heir of Nancy’s daughter Sarah Rebecca Dunson, and Mamie Hill, heir of Nancy’s daughter Martha Ann Dunson Hill. [2] However, Ellen had purchased the share of their brother, Harris, giving her two shares in the land to inherit.[3] In 1892, Adelaide and her husband, Solomon Kearns, seem to have taken exception to that and proceeded to sue Ellen, her husband Anderson Smitherman, and the other siblings, asking the court to divide the land equally among all concerned, presumably negating the purchase by Ellen.[4] As part of that partition, a guardian was appointed for William Dunson (said to be about 16 years of age) and Mamie Hill, said to be a child about eight or nine years old. A family friend, J. W. Birkhead, was appointed.[5]

About this time another family death occurred, that of Nancy’s brother, Colier Phillips Lassiter, also without a will. Colier’s descendants lived on adjoining lands also inherited from their parents, Miles and Healy. Two additional siblings of Nancy and Colier, Abigail and Jane, also had interests in these lands. At least, that’s how the courts viewed things. Rather than simply deciding the distribution of the lands per the request of Adelaide and her husband, Solomon, the courts determined that the entire property needed to be distributed to all heirs involved.

In 1893, the court issued a final decree, dividing the properties where all parties lived as one inheritance. The court awarded the lands where Colier’s heirs lived to them as an entity, calling it the Colier Lassiter Tract. Shares were awarded to Abigail and Jane each. Nancy Dunson’s tract was then divided. Unfortunately for Adelaide and Solomon, not as they hoped. The purchase of Harris Dunson’s share by Ellen was upheld. The courts therefore awarded Ellen two shares, but only one share to Adelaide.[6]

A couple of years later, Ellen and Anderson separated. It could have had something to do with this lawsuit; family in-fighting can be stressful. On the other hand, it may have been related to the fact that Anderson had fathered a child by another woman in 1875, years after he and Ellen had married[7] and already had two children,[8] undoubtedly creating another storm.[9]  Hard to say for sure, however.  Regardless the reason, Ellen would remarry by 1900, to Charlie Mayo.[10] Anderson would remarry as well, to Victoria Bell, in 1901.[11]

Ellen Mayo deed to Will Lassiter
Deed from Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo to William Lassiter and Colon Lassiter from the “Division of Lands of Miles Lassiter,” representing her inherited shares of land.

Ellen and Charlie[12] as well as Anderson and Victoria[13] would end up living in Asheboro, leaving behind Lassiter Mill and the land they had won in court; leaving Adelaide and Solomon behind as well. Ellen eventually sold the land she was awarded to descendants of Colier Lassiter,[14] not to her sister Adelaide and her husband, Solomon. I can’t help but think this was a deliberate snub. After all, Adelaide and Solomon were still living in the area.[15] Adelaide had very likely sued so that she could have an opportunity to make her own offer to her brother Harris for his share, a plan that didn’t work out. My mother, Ellen’s great granddaughter, said no one ever took her to the Lassiter Mill area when she was living in Asheboro, although she visited her great grandmother Ellen’s house often. In addition, once my mother and her grandmother, (Mary) Louise, moved to New Jersey, after Ellen’s death, she never returned to North Carolina at all until I took her in 1982.[16] It’s hard not to conclude that the fight over the land didn’t create at least some bad blood between Ellen and Adelaide.

Fortunately, the story does not end there. Through our respective genealogy research efforts resulting in our public family trees on Ancestry and the ability to send messages to tree owners, Marva and I have the opportunity to bring about healing and the reunification of our respective personal branches grown from our shared family roots.

Sula Kearns Eller 2
Nancy Ursula “Sula” Kearns Eller, daughter of Adelaide and Solomon Kearns, and Marva’s grandmother.

Endnotes

[1] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[2] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] J. H. and Phoebe A. Dunson to Ellen Smitherman. Randolph County Deed Book 144:216. F(amily) H(istory) L(ibrary) (Microfilm)#0470278.

[4] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] Anderson Smitherman, et al. v. Solomon Kearns, et Ux. Final Decree. Randolph County Superior Court Orders and Decrees, Volume 2:308-309, FHL #0475265. See also: Randolph County Deed Book 248: 156. FHL #0470851.

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

[8] 1870 US Federal Census, Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Anderson Smitherman, head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867. NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 506A; Image: 465; FHL #552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

See also: 1880 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Ande Smither (sic – says Smitherman on the original), head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867; and Emory W., son, born about 1873. NARA Roll: 978; Page: 185C; Enumeration District: 223. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[9] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Annie Steele; Father: Anderson Smitherman. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] No record identified to date. See: 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[11] North Carolina, Marriage Collection, 1741-2004 [Database on-line]. Victoria Bell and Anderson Smitherman, 16 Apr 1901, Asheboro, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[12] 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[13] Death Notice Anderson Smitherman, 8 Jul 1909. The Randolph Bulletin, p. 5. Retrieved from: Newspapers.com

[14] Estate of Miles Lassiter/Charles and Ellen Mayo to Will Lassiter and Colon Lassiter, Randolph County Deed Book 166:91, FHL #0470286.

[15] 1900 US Federal Census; New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Solomon Kearns, head; Adilade Kearns, wife. NARA Roll: 1213; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0090; FHL #1241213. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[16] Williams, M. (2011). Grandma Ellen. 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 and Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.).