Solving a brick wall with DNA

Sometimes there are no records to prove a relationship.  It could be because the individuals lived in a remote area and didn’t bother to record the event, be it a marriage, birth or death.  It could be because the records burned.  Or it could be becauses of an illegitimate birth that was hidden.

When a brick wall occurs, in some cases DNA might be the only thing that can shed light on the situation.  I had a client come to me with her brick wall – a man by the name of John Stewart, born about 1808, and some DNA matches whose surnames she didn’t recognize but thought they might be connected to John.  She wanted to know who John Stewart’s parents were. When starting a genealogy project you ALWAYS start with confimed information that you know.  She had found John on the 1850 census living in Overton, Tennessee with his wife,  Cynthia and children.  The census agreed with his birth as 1808 and said both he and his wife were born in Virginia. Based on information from the DNA matches she did know, it appeared the John and Cynthia may have come from Franklin County, Virginia, so that’s where I started.

Since John was born about 1808, looking for a two year old male on the 1810 census was the first step.  There were 7 Stewart men living in Franklin County, Virginia in 1810:

David Stewart – age 45 and over
William Stewart – age 45 and over who was living next door to Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart – age 26-44
John Stewart – age 26-44
James Stewart – age 45 and over, living near James Stewart (the younger man)
James Stewart – age 16-25
Brice Stewart – age 26-44

Of these 7 men, four had a son under the age of 10 (ie. could be 2 years old): Robert, John, James and Brice.  We’ll look at each one seperately.

Robert Stewart married Polly Goff in 1806 and appeared to never have left Virginia.  Following him from the 1810 census through 1820, 1830, 1840 censuses to 1850, he was found in Mercer County, Virginia, in what is now West Virginia.  The 1850 census shows he had a son John Stewart but this John was the wrong age and living in the wrong place to be the man we are looking for.

John Stewart was born 1782 in Franklin County, Virginia and had been very well researched with documentation by one of the Client’s DNA matches.  This match had records for John’s marriage to Agnes Warren 15 April 1805 and more to prove he moved to Tennesse with the group of Stewart family members and then on to Illinois.  John’s father was Charles Stewart.  According to her DNA match, John and Agnes Stewart did not have a son John, so this ruled him out of our search.

James Stewart was a the man born 1785 who married Phoebe Jones.  He moved to Tennessee but died in 1814 during the War of 1812.  Information on Find A Grave, coordinates with that provided by another DNA match to the Client.  According to an unsourced online family tree James had a son, Thomas born 1810 who was the child on the 1810 census.  After James died, his wife relocated to Tennessee with Stewart family members where she married Joseph England.  She moved again with family to Morgan County, Illinois.

Brice Stewart was born 1779 in Franklin County and married Polly Hodges 30 January 1798.  He moved to Tennessee along with other family members and appears on the 1820 census there.  By 1830 he and his family had moved on again to Morgan County, Illinois where he is found with James Stewart, members of the Jones family and James and Joseph England.  Although Brice would have been 61 years old in 1840, the census shows him sill living in Morgan County, listed as age 40-49.  Wrong ages on the censuses are not uncommon and whoever answered the census taker probably didn’t know Brice’s age.  On the 1840 census he lived next door to Robert And William Stewart.  Brice’s grave indicates he died 23 April 1847 in Polk County, Missouri.  Brice was a likely candidate to be the father of John Stewart born 1808.

The James Stewart, the man who was mentioned at the start of this blog as 45 and older on the 1810 census, was found on a Find A Grave listing.  He was born 1755 and died 1829 in Morgan County, Tennessee.  Find a Grave names his wife as Rachel Holloway and children named Brice and James mentioned above.  A search for a will for this James in Morgan County was unsuccessful as their online probate records don’t start until 1866.  However a Revolutionary War pension for James under his wife Rachel’s name as widow verifies the information on Find a grave.  The pension gives his wife, her age, their marriage and his death date.  Find A Grave also lists James’s father as James Stewart, Sr. who was born 1720 and died 1796 and married Agnes Hendley.

So where does this leave us?  We have a bunch of names with only a few who can be connected.  This is where the DNA comes in.  Using the cM amounts from the Shared Centimorgan Project, possible generations were able to be calculated for DNA matches the client had with previously unknown surnames which had been identified in the documentary research.  Using these DNA generations combined with birth dates and the few family connections we had from the documentary research, a hypothetical family tree was formed.  (See chart below).  Ancestor names now fit with the previously unknown DNA matches.  Now that a hypothetical family tree was formed other matches could be placed for further confirmation.  Combining the research and the DNA to place individuals in a family tree, it appears that Brice Stewart is the father of John Stewart who was born in 1808.

Stewart Tree


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