Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Forty Seven Matches and One Will


This week, I've been speed-reading through the forty seven DNA matches who, like me, descend from John Carter's daughter, Margaret Chew Carter. After looking over the one match descending from her sister Mary Beverley Carter, or the five from the other sister, Judith, working to verify forty seven was definitely a big gulp to swallow.

Unlike when I researched John and Hannah Chew Carter's other children, knowing I have DNA relatives tracing back to Margaret Chew Carter really doesn't tell me much. After all, many of those lines actually connect to mine at a closer generational level. It's just that we all share Margaret Chew Carter as our distant ancestor. I actually consider the descendants of the half-siblings, the children of John by his first wife, to be more helpful matches. After all, the only genetic material we could share in that scenario would be from my fifth great-grandfather John, himself.

Which brings me back to one point which stumped me early in this month's research project: where was John Carter's will? I needed to find some way to document his children, since his lifespan existed long before handy government records like the 1850 census were there to tell all about the family.

While I spent more time than I care to recall, going page by page through the unindexed digitized copy of the Spotsylvania County, Virginia, court records—coming up empty-handed, as you might have surmised after that long stretch of silence—thankfully, someone came to my rescue.

Actually, it was two different readers here who were kind enough to share that information with me. First was an email I received from blogger Charlie Purvis of Carolina Family Roots, who first sent me a link to a finding aid at the Library of Virginia. Though he mentioned that there seemed to be quite a few John Carters out there in Virginia—my sentiments, exactly!—this was apparently a problem which he couldn't just put down. Pretty soon, he sent me a link to John Carter's will at FamilySearch. And then, another link: the same will, this time at

The second reader contact I received was likewise a pleasant surprise. It was a set of comments from Patrick Jones of Frequent Traveler Ancestry, who has been blogging almost as long as I have. While Patrick likewise sent me the link to John Carter's will at Ancestry, he also shared an unexpected connection.

Though in the past, we've joked about the challenges involved in researching such a surname as Jones—yes, I have some Joneses in my line, as well—Patrick mentioned that years ago, he had done some research on the same John Carter as I'm studying now. Since his blog features a blending of his penchant (and work requirements) for travel with his genealogical research, he had actually acquired a copy of the Carter will straight from the Spotsylvania County courthouse in Virginia. It was while he was pondering just how to go about shrinking down the large photocopy to scan that he discovered the will on Ancestry.

And now, we find we are cousins. Very distant cousins, but kin, nonetheless. You know we'll be comparing notes.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

That's Beverley — With an Extra "E"


When it comes to digging deep into our family history roots, I've noticed two possible situations for ancestors who flaunted a middle name. One was simple enough: a second given name like, say, Beverly. The second possibility used the option to carry down a family name—a surname of a significant someone from a past generation. If you spot a middle name like Beverley—spelled with that extra "e"—that may be an example of the latter.

As I delve deeper into the history of my fourth great-grandmother's parents, I realize how fortunate I am that her family opted for that latter naming style. My fourth great-grandmother, born Margaret Chew Carter, provided me with a middle name guiding me to her mother Hannah's maiden name: Chew. The second wife of John Carter, Hannah Chew used that naming device not only to carry forward her own maiden name to the next generation, but she used the same device to recognize other members of her family, such as in the naming of her firstborn daughter, Mary Beverley Carter.

Dispel any notion that that Beverley was simply a given name spelled elaborately. That Mary Beverley with the extra "e" received her middle name from her mother Hannah's own mother, Margaret Beverley, part of a longstanding colonial Virginia family, the Beverleys. Of course, mentioning that today means I'm jumping ahead to next month's research goal.

For now, as I continue this month's process of checking all my Carter DNA matches with's ThruLines tool, it turns out I do have a DNA match with a descendant of this Mary Beverley Carter. According to Joseph Lyon Miller's Carter genealogy, Mary Beverley Carter married a local military man by the name of Richard Stevens, and had seven children: Lucy, Lewis, Robert, Hiram, Horace, Polly, and Judith. The same litany was repeated in a later genealogy book, The Beverley Family of Virginia.

Notice, in that list, the lack of any son named after his father, Richard Stevens. Yet when I turned to examine the line of descent from the one DNA match I share with Mary Beverley Carter's line, that is the very name showing on the line of descent as son of the couple. This makes for a problem.

Since the two genealogy books identified Mary Beverley Carter's husband as Captain Richard Stevens, given the time frame of that generation, I wondered whether that captain might have served in one particular war for which we have ample records: the American Revolution. 

I took my question to the national website of the Daughters of the American Revolution—D.A.R. Looking for a Richard Stevens who served from Virginia, I found my answer in no time. The entry for Captain Richard Stevens, husband of Mary "Beverly" Carter, listed the specific names of his children from whom D.A.R. applicants had descended. Along with entries claiming eldest son Lewis and youngest daughter Judith, there were several who had designated another man not named in the two genealogy books we saw: Richard.

Yes, Richard: the same Richard who was listed in Mary Beverley Carter's line of descent for my DNA match. Time to pull up another court record on this Spotsylvania County family in Virginia to see whether there was a will with any mention of a son named Richard...or not.

Monday, January 29, 2024

A Second Chance at Suttons


To say that someone's DNA has survived enough generational recombinations to make it down to our current day is, in my mind, astonishing. I am in awe of what I am discovering about DNA as I look at the strangers whom asserts are my relatives. This month, my focus has been on the line of my fifth great-grandfather John Carter, a colonial Virginia resident whose children were born in the mid to late 1700s. And yet, distant as that era might have been, something of the Carter DNA is still showing up in my test results.

I've been going through all my Carter matches using's ThruLines tool this month. Last week, I examined some matches who descend from John and his first wife—in essence, my distant half-cousins—but this week, we'll wrap up with three descendants from John's second wife, Hannah Chew, who was my direct line ancestor. Today, we'll focus on their daughter Judith who, fortunately for us, married a Sutton, giving us a second chance at reviewing two different century-old genealogy books.

Like her half-sister Sarah, Judith's marriage to a Sutton allows us to consult the 1941 genealogy by Trible Dix Sutton, The Suttons of Caroline County, Virginia. Through that book, we learn that Sarah's husband William Sutton was brother of her half-sister Judith's husband Joseph.

According to the Carter genealogy we've been using, that 1912 publication by Joseph Lyon Miller, The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford," Judith Carter and Joseph Sutton had two sons and a daughter. The ill-fated daughter, Maria Chew Carter Sutton, married her cousin John Carter Sutton, son of Maria's aunt Sarah and uncle William, and gave birth to a son, John Oliver Sutton, before her untimely death in 1813.

Though I know such unfortunate circumstances befell many women in previous centuries, I tend to remember these tragic details. Thus, when I reviewed the DNA matches descending from Judith's Carter line—of which I have five—it was easy to spot the discrepancy on those matches whose trees declared Judith herself to be the mother of John Oliver Sutton. Three of those five matches, in fact, indicated that that was so. Coupled with that problem, the fourth match indicated a son's name for Judith's child which I cannot find in any records whatsoever. Only one out of the five DNA matches were verifiable by the paper trail.

And yet, how many people do we all know in our current age who, in losing a child, will step into the situation to raise the grandchild? Would that have been the case back in the 1700s? I realize people do copy others' trees, but I don't want to miss any valuable detail. The only recourse at this point would be to research the will for Judith's husband, Joseph Sutton, to see if he made any special provisions for such a grandson as John Oliver.

Conferring with the Sutton book, I noticed the listing for Joseph Sutton's children, unlike in the earlier Carter book, included a fourth child by the aggravatingly similar name of John Orville Sutton. Indeed, checking the book's listing for this John Orville Sutton's children, it included a son whose name had been entered on my Carter DNA matches' line of descent as a son of John Oliver Sutton, Maria's son.

With all the possible confusion generated by such similar middle names, an absolute go-to for this question will be to review the will of Joseph Sutton, grandfather of John Oliver Sutton, and apparently father of John Orville Sutton.

Thus, with this second research approach, I may get a second chance at reviewing that Carter ThruLines readout for all those descendants of Judith Carter who assumed that one Sutton was just the same as another Sutton.  

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Now You See Them . . .


There must be a reason why I am so feverishly pursuing all the suggested DNA matches on's ThruLines. With all the changes in the field of genetic genealogy lately, perhaps I'm anticipating the other shoe to drop, as if one event will trigger a predictable follow through. Those tools to organize our DNA matches? Now we see them, but then, maybe, soon we won't.

Though I'm not a social media maven, the other day I spotted a post on not-Twitter from Jonny Perl. If that name doesn't exactly ring a bell for you, let me introduce a man with initiative and creativity: the web developer who devised a DNA visualization tool which took the grand prize at the 2018 DNA Technology Innovation contest at RootsTech and has seen his site grown rapidly since then.

I tend to pay attention to someone like that. So when he states that a key DNA testing company now seems  "completely useless for genealogy purposes," I pay attention.

The situation Jonny Perl was referring to is the company response to last October's unauthorized access to accounts at 23andMe via stolen passwords. Among other actions taken to protect their customers, the company removed access to its "Relatives in Common" tool, a most helpful utility for sorting through a customer's DNA matches for genealogical purposes. The Perl website, DNA Painter, had outlined that situation last November.

While that instance understandably caused a ripple effect throughout the entire genetic genealogy universe—including at other companies in that same industry—it also causes me to wonder just how long this technological gift will still be available for family history use. After all, I haven't forgotten the chill factor impacting DNA testing in the wake of the Golden State Killer case—a strange mix of wonder at the capabilities of the science, combined with a future-shock response recoiling at the very real specter of civil liberties abuses. After all—and I've tracked this in my biweekly counts—the rate of new DNA matches added to my accounts week over week has markedly decreased since that point when the news of the Golden State Killer's arrest broke in April 2018.

For now, I'll consider it prudent to quickly review my DNA matches—even those most distant ones like the descendants of my fifth great-grandfather John Carter—and glean whatever hints I can find in the process of studying those matches. We may have entered a golden era of genetic genealogy, but we could find ourselves leaving it just as quickly as we stumbled upon it at its dawning.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Tree Trauma


How many times when you find a family tree online which contains your mystery ancestor do you race to see where that researcher found the secret stash of tell-all documents—only to discover a very obvious case of mistaken identity? That's likely happened to all of us, for I can't count the number of times I've spotted comments about the disappointment of realizing such mistakes.

No sense in lapsing into tree trauma over this unfortunate situation, though. Anyone who knows how to research our own family history can certainly put those same skills to work in evaluating the quality of another researcher's work.

That's the kind of viewpoint I carry with me into the pages of century-old genealogy books, and it can work just as well when evaluating the work of fellow subscribers to today's online services like or MyHeritage, too. Any genealogy service which allows us to pull up documents equips us with the tools we need to make such evaluations for ourselves.

Finding verification in documents may be key, but once we find the document to inspect, actually looking at the document, rather than relying solely on the transcription, can go so much farther in helping confirm or reject another researcher's family history assertions. No document showing in the tree you're viewing? Run the specific point in the tree through a search process for yourself—even on another person's tree, you can do that at Ancestry, sometimes with eye-opening revelations on trees which had no previous verification.

There are, of course, the inevitable situations which seem to slip through the research cracks. A birth and death which happened in between two census years, for instance, can make it seem like nothing serious happened in the family at all that decade, simply because we didn't know to look elsewhere for any signs of tragedy.

Sometimes, a part of a family's history might be known only to those who lived through that particular family's circumstances at the time. Yesterday, reader—and blogger, too—Miss Merry commented on how her grandfather was raised by his grandmother after his parents both died young, and yet the census enumerators recorded their relationship wrong, thus becoming the likely source of misinformation in other  trees online connected to her grandfather's family. She commented, "I know the true story as a direct descendant." But would a distant cousin have realized the problem?

Though we sometimes complain about scrambled information on some family trees posted online, I've realized what Miss Merry mentioned provides us with some guidance. Yes, people can get information wrong on their own family tree—but it is usually concerning more distant relationships. If I'm in doubt concerning a tree at, say,, I'll click on the view that lets me see the pedigree leading to the "home" person. If the relative in question is a fairly close family member, I'm more likely to trust a subscriber's assertion on that tree than, say, a claim about a fifth or sixth cousin.

Even better yet, some online subscribers are not only adding documentation to their tree from records accessible through services such as, but adding documents from their own family's personal collections. I've seen photos of entries from old family Bibles, or inscriptions from backs of old family photographs. In one instance I ran across this past week in working on my Carter DNA matches, one man explained the source of confusion in his line. Posting a copy of his father's obituary, he explained that after his dad divorced his mom, he married another woman by the same name. Of course, those who didn't know those details might have thought that the second woman was the son's mother, but she wasn't. By his sharing the document plus his comment—and because he was so closely involved in that aspect of his family's history—it helped guide other researchers away from mistaken assumptions.

Face it, whether we are using century-old genealogy books as our guide, or trying to make sense of our family history from trees posted online in this current decade, we're going to find mistakes. Always go into this research process with eyes wide open.  Anyone can make mistakes, even governmental record-keepers. Avoid tree trauma: do your own follow-up by seeking out documentation to confirm and double check any assertions made by other researchers, no matter who they are or where they shared their family tree.

Friday, January 26, 2024

From Half to Whole


It would seem natural to expect, in using DNA for family tree charting purposes, to see closer matches in our full cousins rather than in half-cousins. In the DNA cousins I've been examining this week, all descendants of my fifth great-grandfather, John Carter of colonial Virginia, each of the lines of descent had one specific detail in common: these DNA matches of mine all descended from John Carter and his first wife. The catch? I descend from John Carter's second wife.

Naturally, when I moved from analyzing those half-cousin DNA results to looking at my full-cousin relatives, I thought I'd see larger amounts for the genetic material we share in common. For instance, the three half-relationships I looked at this month were the descendants of John's son William and his two daughters, Margaret and Sarah. For William's two descendants in my DNA matches, the closest relative shared ten centiMorgans with me—a puny genetic amount, bordering on chance similarities, though the paper trail points to the connection. For Margaret, the numbers were slightly better, with the highest shared centiMorgan count at nineteen. Sarah's descendants shared about the same with me, about eighteen centiMorgans. What can we expect from a half-fifth cousin once removed?

When we move to those DNA matches descending from John and his second wife, Hannah Chew, I was surprised to see the numbers for my best matches were generally no higher than those half-matches. The best in one line shared seventeen centiMorgans with me, the other boasted eighteen. (For those descendants of my own fourth great-grandmother, John's daughter Margaret Chew Carter, the centiMorgan count was a much higher sixty two, but that is owing to the fact that those relationships, though tracing back to John Carter, are actually closer cousins to me who simply share that same ancestry.)

Next week, we'll take a look at the three daughters among my DNA matches who descend from John Carter and his second wife: the lines of Judith Carter, Mary Beverley Carter, and finally my fourth great-grandmother, Margaret Chew Carter.  

Thursday, January 25, 2024

The Long Steep Slide Downward


It's been a long steep slide downward through the generations from my fifth great-grandfather, colonial Virginian John Carter, but I think I've located a Carter DNA match whom I can successfully document. Starting with John himself and his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Armistead, the next step was to their daughter Sarah. She, in turn, married William Sutton and, still in Virginia, became mother of several children.

Fortunately for us, the specific line of descent for my DNA match flowed next to one of Sarah's children with a distinctive name: Norborne Elzy Sutton. Once again, an old genealogy book served as trailblazer for me: Trible Dix Sutton's The Suttons of Caroline County, Virginia. The record there for this particular Norborne Elzy Sutton—yes, there were other relatives also carrying that same name—led me to the son he named after himself, detailing the next generation in this DNA match's lineage.

From that point, we moved from the junior Norborne Sutton to his daughter Alice. It is fortunate to have this outline from a book—which presumably also relied on guidance from family members themselves—for Alice married someone by the unhelpful surname of Clark, not quite as impossible to research as a Smith or a Jones, but still common enough to present a challenge. However, by this point, the search has entered well beyond the pre-1850 stage of hard-to-trace documentation, so that line of descent could more easily be verified by multiple means.

Alice herself, born about 1870, was my DNA match's grandmother, and from that point, the rest of the line fell into place in the family tree fairly easily with documentation. Once that generations-long trail was confirmed, it turned out my DNA match and I are half fifth cousins, once removed—at least on paper.

The half relationship, owing to my descent from John Carter's second wife, augments the distance even more, but just considering the relationship of fifth cousin and beyond makes me almost question how any genetic material can still be there, waving at us, after such a long slide through the generations. The likelihood that no genetic material could be discernible to demonstrate a connection is far greater than the probability that it would be spotted.

Still, surprise or novelty or scientific fluke, this descent through the generations has been an exercise which helped guide me in documenting at least one branch of a family line pointing to that multi-great-grandfather. Silly as it might sound, I feel so connected.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Lost Without Brothers


If it weren't for collateral lines, I'm convinced far more of our forebears would bear the label "brick wall ancestors." As I'm exploring the descendants of my fifth great-grandfather John Carter to confirm some DNA matches, tracing the generations of some of his daughters has become challenging. Frankly, I'd be lost on the trail of one of John Carter's great-granddaughters, if it weren't for her brothers—and I'm still having a hard time finding my way.

Women can be hard to trace, especially in earlier centuries when they sometimes were invisible, other than those brief mentions in wedding documents and wills. The research hazard of tracking each change of surname as a woman marries—then becomes widowed, then marries again—makes me realize what a stroke of luck it is to find a widowed woman living in the household of her brother. In some cases, I'd be lost in the genealogical maze if it weren't for brothers.

Take my research project for today—which is stretching into a two-day search. Still checking all my Carter DNA matches via Ancestry's ThruLines tool, I've moved on to John Carter's daughter Sarah. According to the 1912 genealogy by Joseph Lyon Miller which I've been using, this Sarah married a man of Caroline County, Virginia, named William Sutton. Miller also continued in his book with one of the Sutton children, John Carter Sutton, listing this John's children by his second wife, Elizabeth Page Pendleton.

This was fortunate for me. While I realize that any genealogy, no matter whether published online or in a hundred-year-old book, needs to have the details confirmed by documentation, it helps to have a roadmap to get started. Even better, I discovered that this Sutton line into which Sarah had married also had a genealogy published in 1941. Thus, I picked up the same line of Sarah Carter and her husband William Sutton in that book, as well.

As it turns out, I have four DNA matches at Ancestry who descend from Sarah Carter and William Sutton. The highest ranked match follows that same line I just mentioned, from Sarah to her son John Carter Sutton and his second wife, Elizabeth Page Pendleton. And from there, the line turns to a daughter—a hard to trace daughter—Sarah Jane Sutton.

Sarah Jane appears to have married in Caroline County, Virginia, one William Wright. After their 1841 wedding, they remained in her home county, where the 1850 census showed their household growing to include three daughters: Bettie, Margaret, and Sallie. However, by 1860, their growing family—now having added two more daughters—had removed to Mississippi County, Arkansas. If we use that same census as our guide, the Wrights' trail to Arkansas led through Tennessee, where daughter Ida had been born about 1853.

But from there, the line of Sarah Jane seemed to disappear. With a married name as common as Wright added to the popularity of a given name like Sarah, any discovery of where the family moved next could be not much more than a guess. That's when I discovered the helpfulness of knowing who an ancestor's brothers were.

In the 1870 census—though back in Tennessee, not Arkansas—I found a possible Sarah Wright, but no William. There in her household were the familiar names of some of her daughters. However, that household was not actually hers, but the home of a fifty four year old man whose scrawled name looked like E. P. "Sulten." 

There is something to be said for immersing one's self in the full set of ancestral details in any given family. Though the surname may have stumped me, there was something about those initials, E. P. Sure enough, looking back over notes in the Miller book, Sarah Jane's mother's name had been Elizabeth Pendleton—making her initials E. P. And Elizabeth was the only daughter of a man named Edmund Pendleton, again rendering the same two initials. Better yet—and this is why I love tracing those brothers—Sarah Jane had an older brother named after their maternal grandfather. He, too, had moved to Tennessee—the Wrights' stopping place on their way to Arkansas—and set up his home in Haywood County. And in 1870, that's where Sarah Jane and her daughters showed up in the census.

Again in 1880, I found Sarah Jane living with a brother—a different one, and back in Mississippi County, Arkansas. Once again, the miserable handwriting mangled the census readout, but tracing the family history of her brothers helped identify his place in Sarah Jane's family constellation. As I move on to Sarah Jane's specific daughter whose line leads to my DNA match, I've found that same need to check for collateral lines, but in this case, I'm stumped: Sarah Jane had all daughters, whose names changed as they married.

Since confirming DNA matches on ThruLines means I am tracing a family line from an ancestor, while my match did work which began with the present generation and worked backwards, that hope of finding a happy mid-point is not always realized. That means more work ahead.

There are three other DNA matches in this same line of Sarah Carter, daughter of my fifth great-grandfather John Carter, so there are others yet to confirm as well. At this point, I'm just curious to see whether the paper trail can actually yield a verification to a DNA relationship of such distance as theirs.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Two Margarets and Two Marshalls


What do you do when two children in the same ancestral household have been given the same name? Apparently, in some cases, the one easily gets confused for the other. 

This week, as I turn my attention to those DNA matches who claim the same John Carter as my fifth great-grandfather of colonial Virginia, I've been working my way through the lines of descent of John's children represented among my matches. Since I descend from Margaret Chew Carter, John's daughter by his second wife, Hannah Chew, I was rather dismayed to discover that John already had another daughter by that same name. This research, I thought, will not be easy.

Sure enough, that same fact stumped another researcher over one hundred years ago: Joseph Lyon Miller, who wrote the 1912 genealogy, The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford," Lancaster County, Virginia. It was he who, a couple years before publishing his book, realized his error in confusing the one Margaret Carter for the other. This he noted in an article appearing in the October, 1910, edition of The William and Mary Quarterly, and correctly identified Margaret Chew Carter's husband as Zachariah Taliaferro. The other Margaret, according to Joseph Miller's article, was wed to a Captain John Marshall.

This discovery brings difficulties of its own, for John Marshall is not only a fairly common name, but also one of distinction in the early history of our country. In fact, searching through trees of matches at Ancestry, I was surprised to see one subscriber had appended a portrait of John Marshall for that other Margaret's husband—but it was the wrong John Marshall. Sure enough, double checking that for myself, I saw the familiar portrait did belong to Chief Justice John Marshall, whose parentage—and name of spouse, incidentally—did not line up with what the Miller book indicated.

As for the John Marshall supposedly married to John Carter's older daughter Margaret, I've found very little on him so far. The Miller book noted that he was "of Caroline" and that he must have been deceased before 1794, as that was the year a legal document was drawn up, including Margaret's name and indicating that she was a widow. The only other note about Margaret in the Miller book was that she had a son named Horace.

So, when I turned to my ThruLines readout at to check all my DNA matches from Margaret's line, I was hoping at least one of the four matches there would descend through her son Horace. Wrong. Not a one of those four descended from a son named Horace. Instead, I got four matches descending from a son of Margaret said to have been named Carter.

While a given name like Carter might be a promising discovery, considering that was Margaret's own maiden name, I could find no record of such a name in that immediate family line. I couldn't find Margaret's husband's will—in itself a hunt and peck proposition, since all I know about his date of death is that it had to predate that 1794 document drawn up for Margaret as widow, plus her brother and sister-in-law. The actual date of death could have been years before that point. 

It is in research situations like this when I appreciate the sharing opportunities offered by the community surrounding genealogical services. While is just this past year ramping up their effort to encourage subscribers to collaborate, over the years, I have seen other subscribers share documents they've discovered during genealogy road trips and other research efforts. As I examined the other trees, searching for someone—anyone—who might have discovered a record regarding this mystery Carter Marshall, I ran across a three page document scanned and uploaded to another subscriber's tree.

The document, labeled by the subscriber as "Carter Heirs' Survey," was supposedly from Caroline County, Virginia, location of the deceased Captain Marshall. The first of the three scanned pages had the heading, "April Court 1801," and whatever ledger the scan was drawn from had labeled that item as page 274. Alas, thinking I could simply scoot over to and search through Caroline County records, even those way markers offered me no help.

Still, the court document—showing as plaintiffs a listing of several men by the surname Marshall, including one "infant" Horace—named Margaret Marshall, "executrix of John Marshall," as defendant. Could this be the right Margaret? And the right John Marshall? At least the case was said to appear in Caroline County, home of the John Marshall who was our Margaret's husband, the entire county of which, at the time, had a mere seventeen thousand residents. What were the chances?

The fact that this Margaret was labeled as executrix and not administratrix tells me I need to get back to that hunting and pecking once more; there's a will to be found out there somewhere in Caroline County. And, if this posted document is any indication, John and Margaret Marshall certainly had more than one son. Perhaps those DNA matches leading back to one Carter Marshall are on the right track, after all.


Monday, January 22, 2024

Carter Connections: William's Line


Using DNA testing to confirm or rule out certain ancestral lines has opened up a lot of possibilities for my tree. The more tools I can use, the more helpful that DNA world is becoming to me. However, entering the realm of's ThruLines approach calls for caution, as we'll see as we check the sixty five DNA matches who call me cousin on account of my fifth great-grandfather, John Carter of colonial Virginia.

The main caveat Ancestry offers, when using their ThruLines tool, is that it is drawn on the trees posted on their website by subscribers. Faulty tree equals faulty results, right? But we sometimes get swept up in how handy the device is that we forget there are errors lurking in those shady shadows of some trees.

Since ThruLines tells me I have matches descending from seven of John Carter's fourteen children, we'll take a look at each line of descent through this week. We'll reserve my own line—descending from Margaret Chew Carter—for more exploration next week. The only other line—that of a supposed child of John Carter named Bailey—has not been one I've been able to verify by other means yet, as I had mentioned last week, so we'll set that one aside.

Today, let's look at what I've been able to find on John Carter's son William. William's mother was John Carter's first wife, Elizabeth Armistead, according to the Carter genealogy I've been consulting, Joseph Lyon Miller's 1912 book, The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford," so any match through this line would be a half-cousin to me.

William married Rice Curtis' daughter Frances sometime in 1761 or earlier. According to the Miller book, the couple had five sons and five daughters, including one, nameless, who had apparently already died, as only her husband and one child—a son named William Lewis Hume—were mentioned in the book by name. The remaining four daughters were Lucy, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Frances, who were joined by their five brothers, Rice, John, Guildford, Kenyon, and Abraham.

When I double-checked the book's listing of William Carter's children with his own 1803 will from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, there were apparently some additional details not included in the Miller book. Guilford, for instance, appeared with a middle name, Dudley, and his brother William and sister Lucy apparently both had for their middle name what is surely a family name: Aylett. Daughter Frances was noted to be wife of Rice Connor. And there was an additional daughter added to the list: Sarah, wife of Edmund Foster, who was also mentioned specifically in her father's will.

While it is always possible for a researcher to miss one child in a large family, it is less likely for a parent to unwittingly omit one of their own in as important a document as a will. So when I pulled up that Ancestry ThruLines tool to see who among William Carter's descendants I might be related to, I expected to see one of those names we've already discussed. Wrong. The supposed next generation was not Lucy, or Frances, or even the formerly-missing Sarah. It was someone named Virginia.

If this DNA match were a closer relationship, I might expend some energy to build out that person's tree, just for my own information. After all, that match could connect with another line in my family instead of what appears to be an incorrect choice on the ThruLines version. But realizing the connection was based on the strength of only one segment the size of ten centiMorgans, I hardly thought that was worth the effort.

Admittedly, it is possible for people to show up as DNA matches at as distant a relationship as sixth cousin—or beyond—sharing only ten centiMorgans, that, plus a name showing in the subsequent generation which didn't match cursory research makes me less inclined to pursue any relationship possibilities. So I moved on to the next ThruLines entry for William's descendants. Surprise: that one also descended from the mystery Virginia. Strike two.

At least in the process, I found a record of William's descendants through his will, providing enough detail to push through one more generation from my fifth great-grandfather John Carter. Discarding these two supposed Carter DNA matches, we'll move on tomorrow to see what we can discover about another of John Carter's children, William's sister Margaret.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Confession of a Disorganized Researcher


Lately, it seems I've been seeing a lot of articles online about getting organized. Maybe it comes with the New Year buzz—"new year, new you" et cetera—or surfs the crest of the New Year's wave toward spring cleaning. Confession: when it comes to advice like that, I usually look the other way. One notorious quality of mine is my dis-organization, and I'm afraid I'll likely tend toward that fault in the future, as well. (Besides, I like chasing down those rabbit trails.)

On second thought, as I turn a blind eye and deaf ear (may as well be thorough) to those wise words about organization, I decided not to beat myself up so badly. I have, after all, set up a system to handle my family history explorations—that's a type of organization, isn't it? The overarching outline is the Twelve Most Wanted I've set as my research projects for each year, with the subheading of rounding up all DNA matches for each designated ancestor's descendants, primarily through's ThruLines tool. 

Then there are those even-huger projects I've consistently tackled, like my year-long Tilson project to map out all that colonial family's descendants and verify their place in the tree via documentation—a task which is now reaching into its second year of work. I'm far from seeing the end of that line, but I have a system to work my way through each branch of that family tree. While my papers may seem disheveled and disorganized, my work flow follows a set pattern.

One result of that plan is seeing the progress on my biweekly check-in. Progress reports help bolster that energy which keeps a project moving forward. For instance, who wouldn't be encouraged to see 451 new individuals added to the family tree with two weeks' work? That's what happened in the last two weeks as I work through my mother's ancestral Carter family—and, of course, also keep plugging away at that Tilson project. That family tree now contains documents—digitized documents, of course—on 37,050 relatives. And that all happened, bit by bit. Over years.

Granted, there are some unexpected occurrences which do pop up, and there is always a way to fit those research surprises into the week. Discovery of a new DNA match on my mother-in-law's line called for a quick check of her records, which led to adding five new names to that tree, even though that's not part of my research task for January. Stuff happens, and sometimes the best time to handle the unexpected is right when it pops up. While that's not the main reason why my in-laws' tree now has 34,162 individuals—we'll get to that part of the research calendar in the spring—every little bit helps grow a family tree.


Saturday, January 20, 2024

What to Name the Baby — Southern Style


Descending the long line of generations which stretch from my fifth great-grandfather, John Carter of colonial Virginia, all the way to current-day DNA matches can be a dizzying experience. Along the way, I witnessed enough examples of naming traditions to remind me of something: figuring out what to name the baby can be far different, Southern style, than the traditions I've become acquainted with in my more northern lifestyle.

It was those singular naming quirks that reminded me of questions I've had in the past—but for which I've never received a satisfying answer. Why, for instance, do baby namesakes become encumbered not with great-grandma's given name alone, but her entire name—a name, by the way, which could go on for more than one middle name plus the woman's maiden (and maybe even married) surname. The same could go for a brand new son, now weighed down with a name heavier than his very being.

A more common tradition among these Carter descendants I'm researching might be to include a family surname as a middle name. Take, for instance, Stephen Carter Sutton, whose middle name gave a nod to the roots of his paternal grandmother, John Carter's daughter Judith. That seems to be a naming tradition not solely reserved for the Southern branches of our country's early residents, thankfully, and has been a naming device which has provided clues at several research decision points.

Even more common than that, though, is what seems to me to be a Southern tradition: people who are colloquially known by their middle names, not their first names. Why?

I get the scenario when a father names his son after himself: having two people in the same household answering to the same given name can become confusing. In many situations I've seen, the son will have his father's full name, but everyone who knows him will know he goes by his middle name, informally.

When we run across the case in which, family member after family member, everyone goes by her middle name, what about that? Over the years of researching my grandparents' Southern roots, I've seen that tendency multiple times. I have two aunts from different branches of my family who followed that same pattern. I want to know: where did that tradition come from?

This week, after running across several Carter family members in Virginia over the generations whose own situations repeated that same pattern, I decided it was time to look for some answers. While I can't say these are scientifically validated responses, at least someone else has considered the same question—and looked to find a satisfactory answer.

First of all, it was helpful to see someone else note that this naming tendency is a Southern thing. Writing for Country Living in 2017, Maria Carter confessed that she was, as she calls it, a "middle name-ite" herself, and explored the possible roots of the tradition. After outlining some of the details I've mentioned here, she pointed out one other possibility. Since the Southern way seems to be enamored with the style of two given names—Mary Beth or Sarah Ann, for instance (although if you heard both names together in the same breath from a parent, you might be in trouble)—perhaps the shortened form dropped the first name, rather than the second. Thus, Mary Beth would become Beth, and Sarah Ann simply Ann.

But where did that custom come from? Maria Carter cites one psychologist who pinned the source at a "mass migration of the Scots and Irish into the South." Upon seeing that explanation, I felt vindicated, as I had often wondered whether the habit came from early roots in another culture. Better yet, a more recent article in Southern Living examining the same phenomenon added yet another cultural source, early French immigrants, onto the list. And here I was, thinking all the time that the source might have been my eighteenth century German ancestors, whose naming traditions sometimes deferred to giving an honorary first name of, say, a saint—a name no one ever intended to actually use—before appending the working name the child became known by for the rest of his or her life.

With traditional American governmental insistence on using a first name for documents, it sometimes becomes tricky to trace these identities hiding behind their middle names. But at least now I know. I'm not the only one who noticed, digging through those Virginia documents on the Carters, that that was a Southern style when it came time to name that new baby.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Counting Carter Connections


How far back can a simple autosomal DNA test go? When we use the more powerful tests—Y-DNA or mtDNA—we can trace back generations through two hundred years or more, but with limitations. Those tests limit our inquiries to the patrilineal—father's father's father line—or the similar concept for the matriline, or mother's line, only.

What if I want to learn more about my fifth great-grandfather? For that line leading to John Carter, we need to do far more zigging and zagging than we'd see in either the matriline or patriline. To be precise, after following my matriline to my great-grandmother, we'd then zag to her father, then his mother, then jump to her maternal grandfather to reach John Carter, my fifth great-grandfather. But at least at that point, the far more common autosomal DNA test can still reach. But barely.

What I realized yesterday was that, incredibly, I have at least sixty five DNA matches at one company where I tested whose record also reaches back to that same John Carter. That means I have at least sixty five other people related to John Carter who would probably be my sixth cousin. That's a stretch.

To check that out more closely, I had to look at the particulars. Here's what I found.

On the surface, things seem to be in order. Remember, John Carter had several children by two different wives, with my line descending from the second wife, Hannah Chew. Using the ThruLines tool at, which organizes likely matches into family groups by children of this ancestor, it looks like I have matches descending from seven of John Carter's children. 

That's not surprising, since we've already seen there were at least fourteen children to yield possible matches. But when I look closer, I begin to see there might be problems. For instance, of the seven lines, I spotted one name which doesn't line up with the genealogies I've found so far. Granted, at this point, I'm working from published genealogies, and although the one I favor seems to be the result of careful research, there could be mistakes—or omissions. I still need to do my own research; I'm just using this as a thumbnail sketch.

The lines ThruLines provided for John Carter's children were William, Margaret, and Sarah from his first wife, and Mary Beverley, Judith, and, of course, my line from Margaret Chew Carter for John's second wife. There was one more listed in ThruLines, though, that has me stumped: a line for someone named Bailey Carter, a name for which I can find no report.

Taking a closer look at who in my DNA matches descended from this unknown person, I realize there is only one person listed in this ThruLines list. While that match connects with me based on one segment of twenty one centiMorgans, looking at the proposed path of descent reveals some problems. Bailey, for instance, was said to have been born in 1743, but the next generation, a woman named Nancy, had a birth year of 1750. 

I don't think so.

Granted, I could take the time to build that tree for myself. A project like that might reveal another path to our relationship, maybe not even linked to the Carter line. Or I could discover just where Bailey fit into the Carter family constellation and make the appropriate corrections in my own tree.

Or I could just take it as a mistaken identity—and not a very close match at that.

There are others in the collection of Carter matches still to look at, but they seem to fall within two camps. One group is comprised of matches who connect with me at very low levels, hovering around ten centiMorgans or less. The other group shows me that I definitely need to get busy on my own research into the descendants of the John Carter line. We'll need to look more closely at this again. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Just How Much is Enough?


While I am casting about for various ways to bring my fifth great-grandfather to life—at least for family history purposes—it occurred to me that while I might not find the documents I hope to locate on John Carter's life, there is one other source I could consult: his DNA. After all, within each one of us is a record of our ancestors, both known and unknown, which can provide more information.

But just how much is enough? After all, autosomal DNA is only so powerful; it loses its strength with every generation removed from us. Could my DNA actually include any genetic material from a relative as distant as a fifth great-grandfather? Besides, what is the likelihood that any other sixth cousin—for that is the degree of relationship we're likely to seek in these match cases—might share that same shred of genetic material with us?

I jumped over to my ThruLines readout at to see if there were any entries for John Carter. Surprisingly, not only were there any—there were sixty five! Before we take a closer look at these assertions, though, let's step back and take in a few statistics. According to a study mentioned at the International Society of Genetic Genealogy's wiki, the probability that a fifth great-grandparent—like my John Carter in colonial Virginia—would share zero detectable DNA with me hovers at 4.95%. In other words, there's a good chance some of John Carter's genetic material is still speaking through me, even in such a distant relationship.

Taking this one step further—and flipping my optimism on its head—the probability of no detectable DNA relationship between, say, a sixth cousin and me would be 89.9%. In other words, while there is some trace of John Carter's DNA pattern in me, finding another cousin in my generation would be rather rare.

Let's look at this from another angle. ISOGG also provides statistics on this same question, based on reports of three well-known testing companies. Since I'm using my test for comparisons right now, let's see what Ancestry reports: the probability that two sixth cousins would share enough DNA for a relationship to be detected sits at 11%. Not a solid number, but still a chance that there might be another Carter cousin among the millions who have tested their DNA at

But sixty five matches? All for John Carter's descendants? Right next to John Carter's name in my ThruLines readout was that of my fifth great-grandmother, Hannah Chew. I took a look to see how many matches and I shared her genetic signature. Usually, that number is approximately the same for a husband and wife, but in this case, I had fifty four matches linked to Hannah Chew, as opposed to John Carter's sixty five.

Naturally, there could be a good reason for that discrepancy: while I might share John Carter's genetic material with that many people, those matches who descend from John's first wife would be a half-relationship to me. Of course, that would be a relationship even more removed than those descendants of both John Carter and Hannah Chew—and less likely to show up in my match list. But it would still be possible that the larger number of matches showing for John than Hannah has been represented in a half-relationship.

Granted, some of those matches share a very tiny segment of genetic material with me. Some, once we check the paper trail, will turn out to be bona fide relatives. Others might be related, but through some other ancestor we haven't yet discovered. And some might share such a small amount of genetic material as to border on coincidence, not relationship.

We'll take a look at the particulars tomorrow to see if any of these matches lead to helpful discoveries.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

While I'm Hunting and Pecking


Behind the scenes, I've been hunting and pecking through the non-indexed microfilmed pages of court records from Spotsylvania County, Virginia. I'm on a quest to find the will of John Carter, my fifth great-grandfather.

According to the genealogy volume on the Carter family published in 1912, John Carter's will was probated in Spotsylvania County on December 18, 1783. Thankfully, at least I have that specific date and Virginia county—but that still doesn't mean the search will be streamlined. I'll be plugging away at that task in the background, to spare you the monotony, though I'm spotting some interesting details as I wander.

Meanwhile, though I can't yet confirm the "Who's Who" of this family tree—at least not by their patriarch's will—at least I can learn a bit more about the "Where's Where" of the Carter property. Joseph Lyon Miller noted in his book, Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter, that John Carter had died "at his home on the Caroline-Spotsylvania county line" in November of 1783. Thankfully, the author also noted the specific county to which I should look to find the man's will. Searching one county's records from the late 1700s is trouble enough; having to repeat the process for two counties—especially picking the wrong one for my starting point—would be discouraging.

As it turns out, there might have been a reason why the Carter estate was situated on the county line: perhaps it wasn't always spanning two counties. I took a few minutes to look up the boundary changes for the area, and the dates at which they occurred. While I don't know yet when—or how—John Carter acquired his property, for a frame of reference, I used his approximate date of birth to begin the timeline. According to the Miller book, the author estimated John Carter's birth as occurring some time between 1715 and 1720, and noted that he was born in a third Virginia county, King and Queen County.

Checking the dates of formation for the three counties, I started first with searching for Caroline County. Apparently, Caroline County was established in 1727, drawn from three other Virginia counties, one of which was King and Queen County, where John was said to have been born. Likewise, Spotsylvania County was also drawn from the same three counties as Caroline County—though it was established earlier than Caroline County, formed in 1721 (though still after John's own birth). That root county, King and Queen County, had also been drawn from another colonial county—but much earlier, being established in 1691, long before John Carter's time.

Since researcher Joseph Miller speculates that John Carter was the eldest son of his parents in King and Queen County, perhaps the property where he was born was the very home at which he died in 1783—a case in which we see one ancestor said to have lived in three different counties, but all the time living in the same location. It's just the county lines which moved, not the family's property.

Of course, that is all conjecture on my part (though primogeniture laws in Virginia during that colonial era may well have meant it was so). I certainly am not up for seeking yet another will in another county to see who inherited John Carter's parents' home. I need to stick with this one goal, first.

Until I find that document, though, I realized there is another interesting detail about my ancestors John Carter and his second wife, Hannah Chew: it might be a stretch, but their DNA could possibly still show up in their descendants of my generation. While my will-searching efforts grind away, out of sight in the background, let's explore that possibility next.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

A Will to Find


Sometimes, it takes a solid will to accomplish the research task we wish to tackle. In my case this month, that will has to do with a document dated late in 1783 in Virginia—not an easy task for someone in the twenty-first century on the opposite end of the continent. The document was the will of John Carter of Spotsylvania, supposedly probated in that year, but drawn up in 1778. The hope is that it will provide a tidy listing of all his surviving children to help me in my January goal for my Twelve Most Wanted project.

Left to find such a document online may take some determination—not to mention perseverance, considering the chance that the two hundred forty year old court record might be available on a non-indexed microfilm at FamilySearch—if, that is, it hasn't already sustained water or mold damage, or been one of the brittle pages broken in pieces or missing altogether. 

Before we launch that paper chase, though, let's take a look at the names that might be on the record. For that, we'll turn to the work of a genealogy trailblazer, Joseph Lyon Miller, in the pages of his 1912 book, The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford", Lancaster County, Virginia, 1652-1912. 

First, if we do manage to find John Carter's will, it should show us who received the patriarch's nod to inherit his residence. According to the Miller book, that would have been his daughter Margaret Chew Carter, my fourth great-grandmother. Margaret was one of five daughters born to John Carter and his second wife, Hannah Chew, according to the Miller book. If this list is correct, when we find their father's will, it will hopefully included the names of each of them: besides Margaret, Mary Beverley, Judith, Lucy, and Elizabeth Matilda. Along with those daughters of Hannah Chew, add one son, Robert.

Those were not the only children of John Carter, as he had several from a previous marriage, according to the Miller book. From his first wife, Elizabeth Armistead, there were two additional sons and six more daughters: William, Elizabeth, Frances, Martha, Anne, Margaret—that other daughter of the same name as my fourth great-grandmother, who previously caused the author some confusion—Sarah, and John junior.

While the Miller book appears to be well-researched, we need to take a look at the documents supporting those statements. In this case, the will of this particular John Carter—remember, Virginia had many by that name—is what we hope to find to corroborate the Miller text. And so, here I stand at the edge of a digital abyss in a hunt-and-peck mission to find John Carter's will in Spotsylvania, Virginia, from 1783.

Monday, January 15, 2024

A "Singularly Verified" Dream


In wrestling with the deeply-buried roots in our family tree, it's best to start with what we know before digging down into the murky unknown. Thus, in seeking the Carter roots of my fourth great-grandmother Margaret Chew Carter, who eventually became the bride of "old bachelor" Zachariah Taliaferro, it's best to start from the vantage point of her married life, complete with the names of her children—known values which keep my genealogical wanderings centered in reality.

Still, in searching through the book we discovered last week—the 1912 publication by Dr. Joseph Lyon Miller, The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford"—it was encouraging to spot between its covers what, at least to me, was a familiar story from my family's past. I had read this story in other, more recently published, genealogy books, and wonder whether the Miller book was their source for the tale in which Zachariah Taliaferro, persuaded by a Virginia friend to delay his return home to South Carolina, had a dream about the grand ball he was about to attend, and which was the prime reason for his delayed departure. 

In his dream, bachelor Zachariah saw himself entering the ballroom and spotting a beautiful young lady across the room, tying her slipper. As author Joseph Miller put it in his book, on the night of the actual event, Zachariah found his dream "singularly verified." The beautiful young lady, Margaret Chew Carter, eventually became his bride.

Those details I've already documented in my own family tree, so it was affirming to see the listing of Margaret's children in the Miller book, just as I already knew it to be. From that starting point, I could then move cautiously back through time, seeking what leads I could then verify about the Carter family through other documentation.

There were a few details I found in the process—one I felt confident could be confirmed through Margaret's father's will, and one which has already confounded me. A book intended to trace the lineage of the founding Carter immigrant in the American colonies, the Carter book obviously would have provided a listing of the children of Margaret's father—John Carter—but it also mentioned that Margaret became her father's one child who inherited the old Carter residence. Both of these details can easily be verified, once we find John Carter's will.

Where I am stumped is in the book's statement that John Carter served as a captain in the Revolutionary War. While one resource is by no means a complete listing of the universe of possibilities, the D.A.R. listing of Patriot ancestors is a first go-to website when I wish to confirm service in that war. In the case of John Carter, there is a listing at the D.A.R. website, but it comes with so many red flags that I begin to doubt the details asserted in the Miller book. Chief among the problems, at least in my mind, is the website's statement regarding the identity of John's first wife, combined with the tricky detail of his having two different daughters to whom he gave the name Margaret—one child from each of his two wives, at least according to the Miller book.

While finding a genealogy book of the early 1900s detailing all the names in multiple generations of an ancestral family may seem like a dream come true, it only reminds me, once again, of my oft-repeated motto, "Trust but verify." It may be great to find a trailblazer for our research, but we need to enter that relationship with our eyes wide open. Now we start with the real work.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Finding Stories Like Those


Reading stories of those mysteries solved only through modern techniques like DNA testing gives both a sense of awe and a sense of other-worldliness. Those stories, we think, can never be part of our own family's narrative. And yet, our family's stories can contain their own amazing events.

While I was reading The Forever Witness last week, I also was continuing my year-long project, mapping out the descendants of my mother's Tilson line. On, I ran into a subscriber-shared transcription of a newspaper article about a Willis family member in eastern Tennessee, a Tilson descendant who would have been my fifth cousin. This woman, Della Willis Bible, went missing in June of 1994 in the hills of Cocke County.

The family reported Della as missing, launching a search through mountainous terrain that lasted for weeks and involved local law enforcement, neighboring fire departments, rescue squads, even FEMA and the National Guard scouring the kudzu-choked brier patches for miles around the missing woman's home. No sign of her body was found, even after weeks of effort. The search was called off.

Five years later while on a mountain trek, hikers happened to find the body, according to The Knoxville News-Sentinel that Sunday, April 25, 1999. Unlike the Van Cuylenborg case I'm reading in The Forever Witness, authorities suspected no foul play. However, the body was sent to forensic anthropologists from the University of Tennessee, not only to confirm the body's identity but to inspect for evidence of what might have happened to the seventy nine year old woman. At least now, her family could know.

I couldn't help but wonder: once her remains were found—or possibly long before—had Della's family members sprung for DNA tests in hopes of finding the rest of the story in those many "Jane Doe" reports? I went looking for DNA matches among my own results who could have been related to Della's family. Some of those matches in my list might well have gotten there through desperate stories of their own—maybe not brutal murders or even more benign tragedies, but stories of abandonment of one form or another.

This little discovery alongside the saga of a monumental case in the book I'm reading juxtaposed big, sensational stories with those more personal events which can so easily fade into oblivion over the years. Researching our own family's stories—not just the lineage—helps us uncover, relive, and celebrate (or at least learn from) the experiences of the distant cousins we may never meet. These are not common stories—or even "common" lives—but experiences which merit our attention and efforts to preserve. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Off the Shelf: The Forever Witness


With all the social media prompts and promotions lately, it seems the genealogy meme for this new year is writing your ancestors' stories. I picked up this handy list from a now-nameless social site providing twelve "details the best biographers include that you can add to your ancestor's story." The list includes suggestions like adding a "description of the house and/or farm," focusing on the geography of the land, or explaining what it was like to travel from one place to another during a specific ancestor's life.

As I was sharing that list with members of our local genealogical society, I happened to be deep in the midst of catching up on my latest read, a forensic genealogy book published in 2022. Nearly halfway through the book, I realized the very details on that list of writing tips were part of what prevented me, for hours at a time, from putting the book down. The author had this way of making me feel as if I were there with the main characters, driving down the road as they embarked on their adventure or, after they disappeared, getting to know the supporting characters as they learned the awful truth of what happened next.

No surprise here, learning that the author is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, for this is not a fictional whodunit of the genre lately becoming popular among genealogy hobbyists. This book is The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder, tracing the stalled investigation of the 1987 international case involving two brutally murdered Canadians, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, somewhere in northwest Washington state.

Eventually, the book's narrative will focus on the historic application of DNA testing to the case which reversed that stalled investigation. Yet even halfway into the story, the many strands interwoven into the telling of the incident skillfully set the stage and draw the reader into the process.

Right now, I'm reading for the experience, and letting the story carry me along. Later, I'll go back to capture some of the DNA details which will serve as useful references and analogies for my own work. And I'll certainly re-examine those story-telling techniques the author employs which seem the most compelling in drawing me in, page after page.

While case studies of forensic genealogy applications have always caught my attention, this book goes far beyond the academics of the approach. It gifts us with a study bathed in skillful devotion to the little details in life which can allow us to feel what life was like for the people we are studying—whether victims of high-profile crimes, or those elusive ancestors we'd like to bring back to life, at least on paper.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Trusting the Trailblazer


While those of us who chase our family's history may pride ourselves on our independent research, the truth of the matter is that none of us could do this detective work without the help of others. One way or another, we need a trailblazer to point the way. The key, however, is to ensure that that trailblazer is worthy of our trust.

There is a phrase which made its appearance toward the end of the Cold War years which I have since co-opted for my own less-political purposes: "Trust, but verify." What inspired me to adapt that motto for genealogy was the frustrating discovery that some information provided on death certificates might not necessarily be correct—details like mother's maiden name, for instance. Not that anyone was deliberately seeking to deceive future generations; it's just that the moments immediately following the death of a loved one can be some of the most high-stress times in a person's life. Thus, we receive incorrect information that once got blurted out by those who should know, then duly recorded by government officials who are only doing their job, but otherwise would have no way of knowing.

My father-in-law's family led me to yet another example of "documentation" which might not be trustworthy: his great-grandfather's grave marker, which clearly spells the patrilineal surname as "Steavens." Since discovering multiple instances such as these, I've learned to be far more willing, in looking at family history resources of any kind, to trust—but verify.

Thus it is when we turn to those published genealogies of the early years of a previous century. Though research trailblazers may have written their findings closer to the time of our ancestors, these books were compiled without the technological aids we've come to take for granted. No matter how well-meaning the researcher, we have to accept it as a given that there will be mistakes. But should we toss out the books as worthless for our purposes? Absolutely not; we take them and double-check the work done a hundred years ago with the tools we have now to bring up digitized documents for verification. Thus, we trust, but verify.

In researching my January project for those Twelve Most Wanted I slated for 2024—the paternal line of my fourth great-grandmother Margaret Chew Carter—I've found mentions that she was descended from a man known as King Carter. We've already discussed one example from a book published in 1911, but I later found that same information repeated in a different book from 1926. The problem is that many of the genealogy books of the previous century were not as stringent about providing their sources; the latter book might only have been repeating what the author read from the previous one, without personally verifying the information. The reader has no way to know—only to verify that detail independently.

Based on what I've learned from the minimal research done this past week, I already have warning bells going off in my head when I read an entry like this:

This section of the 1916 book, The Kinnears and Their Kin, details a Carter line from John Carter, presumably the founding immigrant, through to the children of Margaret Chew Carter and her husband Zachariah Taliaferro. Yet, based on a quick search online, it becomes obvious that the author's designation for the person known as King Carter was incorrect. How many times has this information been repeated?

While that may be discouraging to realize, I have run across some positive signs. I mentioned the other day that I had run Margaret Chew Carter's name through a Google search. Among other hits, I ran across this entry at JSTOR from an October 1910 article in The William and Mary Quarterly. (If you don't have access to that service—though you only need to view that first-page preview—you can also read the article at Internet Archive.)

The article, written by Joseph L. Miller, detailed several discoveries—"positive proof"—found since his last article on the Carter line had been published the previous year in the same quarterly. Among those items was correction of a detail concerning one Margaret Chew Carter, incorrectly noted to be wife of someone named Captain John Marshall. As Dr. Miller explained, it was actually her half-sister, also named Margaret, who had married the captain. Updating such discoveries for the record certainly helped up the author's trustworthiness level, at least in my opinion.

But who, exactly, was that writer in The William and Mary Quarterly? It took a bit more searching to discover that "Dr. Jos. L. Miller" was indeed a medical doctor, whose published works in his chosen field generally pertained to what has been called "his major hobby and passion," first the history of Western medicine, then eventually, local history and the history of various lines in his own family.

These lines included—fortunately for me—the Carter family from which Margaret Chew Carter eventually descended. Not long after publication of the 1909 and 1910 articles Joseph Lyon Miller wrote for The William and Mary Quarterly, he did indeed fold those "positive proof" discoveries into a 1912 volume he called The Descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford," Lancaster County, Virginia, 1652-1912

From the reputation detailed in the biography included with a donation he made to a Virginia college, to examples of how he updated his own research, I feel Joseph Miller gains enough credibility to tentatively merit trustworthiness as a genealogical trailblazer—but remember, as we look at his discoveries on Margaret Chew Carter's forebears, we still need to keep that mantra close at hand: trust, but still verify.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Finding the Road Map


Tracing the line of a family surname can be challenging, as those of us wrestling with "brick wall" ancestors can attest. This month, as I work on the first goal of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2024, I am chasing after a colonial woman with the maiden name of Carter—a surname common enough to possibly lead me astray. However, I am also fortunate enough that this particular Carter line includes some notables from the colonial era in a region rich in history—and historic preservation. Finding the "road map" to lead me through the Carter generations may be easier than I thought.

Of course, the question might be, why find a "road map" for genealogy at all? Just do the work. Yet, pushing back to an era devoid of the common types of documents we might rely on for more recent family research—birth certificates, death certificates, even census records or obituaries for women—it sometimes seems the search would be easier if we already knew the father's name. And that is precisely what we aren't sure of. Yet.

Thankfully, in our digitized age, we stand a better chance of locating records, thanks to trailblazers who've already done the research and shared their work. We have libraries full of published genealogies—think the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana—with multiple volumes already scanned and put online for anyone to use. The same goes for independent organizations like Internet Archive where, once a book has aged beyond copyright and is in the public domain, a quick search can bring us right to the front page—or deep inside, if we use the website's own search capabilities.

Then, too, subscription services like or MyHeritage have acquired digitized volumes for their own customers' use. In seeking information on my fourth great-grandmother Margaret Chew Carter, wife of Zachariah Taliaferro, several hints at Ancestry provided citations in books and journal articles.

Besides that, despite the common state of a surname like Carter, I discovered that doing a simple Google search on Margaret's maiden name led me to several resources I would otherwise not have known about. For instance, as part of the Zachariah Taliaferro family records donated to the Clemson University Library Special Collections and Archives, there is a biographical statement which includes Margaret by name. And if I repeat that Google search while specifying one website—limiting my search to, say, "Internet Archive"—it leads me to mentions of her name in several books written in the early 1900s.

Finding the road map, in Margaret's case, is not necessarily the problem. There are resources out there. But once I find them, the question becomes: are they reliable? We've already mentioned the entry in one book, asserting Margaret's relationship to a well-known Carter man who preceded her by one or more generations, "King" Carter. I've seen that claim repeated in other resources. But is it true?

That's a question I'll need to answer for myself. But in the meantime, it points us to another question to consider: once we find a family history road map, how can we know that resource is reliable? Let's take a look tomorrow at a couple examples I've found which give me pause—and some thoughts on how to handle that likelihood. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

What I Know About Margaret


Considering Margaret Chew Carter, my fourth great-grandmother, if you asked me what I know about her, I'd have to say: very little. Well, at least that is a step beyond answering, "nothing." But my aim this month is to learn far more about this woman's life.

The problem with researching Margaret starts with learning that she was someone who was born in 1771—not a very good time for finding records about women. Even so, there should have been some records on her life. Women's names did appear in baptismal records and marriage records—if, after over two hundred years, we can still find them. Yet, even those basic documents I have yet to find.

What I do know about Margaret starts at the end of her life. She became the wife of Virginian Zachariah Taliaferro, and moved with him to South Carolina, where they set up housekeeping and he practiced law. Over the years since their wedding, she gave birth to four daughters who survived to adulthood, all of whom married and raised families of their own. These she named Sarah Ann, Lucy Hannah, Mary Margaret, and Caroline Virginia.

In addition, Margaret's headstone is pictured at Find a Grave, a wonderful gift to family researchers, with the small caveat that I can't exactly read the inscription pictured on her grave's memorial. A kind volunteer at Find A Grave transcribed the information onto the website's virtual memorial, indicating that her date of death in South Carolina was May 19, 1822.

While I have no way to vouch for that information—yet—I noticed there was no mention of her name in her husband's will, dated January 14, 1831. Nor was there any indication that he, if a widower, had remarried. Zachariah Taliaferro died—again, according to his Find a Grave memorial—April 14, 1831, nearly nine years after the date indicated on his wife's headstone. 

However, while I can't find actual documentation regarding Margaret, apparently, several others have included her in their published genealogies. Granted, any genealogy can contain errors, but it would do us some good to at least catalog the several sources I've run across while working on this family line. Some of the books were written on the Taliaferro line of Margaret's husband, some on other surnames related to Margaret's own Carter family in one way or another. Let's take a few days to review what has already been written on her in these hundred-year-old resources. If nothing else, we can use any information we find as a road map to guide us in locating those elusive records.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Who is This King —
and Why Does he Have a Last Name?


When I told my sister that the daughter-in-law of our D.A.R. Patriot ancestor was named Margaret Chew Carter, she wasted no time in shooting out the question, "Was she related to King Carter?"

My sister is a finance person. She specializes in commercial real estate. She was keen to know whether we were related to this man, presumably because of her occupational interests. Me? I have no such specializations. All I could think was, "Who is this king—and why does he have a last name?"

As it turns out, "King" Carter received that nickname specifically because of his phenomenal capabilities—with power, influence, financial management, and political connections much of the reason behind why he ended up being the wealthiest man in colonial Virginia. But there was one thing I needed to learn before I could answer my sister's genealogical question: his name wasn't "King."

It was Robert.

Granted, researching a Virginian named Robert Carter would be only slightly easier than searching for a name like John Carter. And John Carter—at least one of the many surely in existence at that time—was the man we'd need to start with, if we were to trace the roots of our fourth great-grandmother, Margaret Chew Carter.

But since she asked—and since I once again stumbled upon that question with the passage found in the book I mentioned yesterday—we may as well first take a look at just why Robert Carter's peers bestowed such a nickname upon him.

Looking at a portrait of the man, he seems to be self-assured, certainly affluent, maybe even imposing in stature. Born in colonial Virginia about 1664—to yet another John Carter—Robert Carter was orphaned at an early age and sent to London to complete his education, according to his father's wishes. During that time, he also learned the practicalities of the tobacco trade from the English perspective, an edge he capitalized upon, once returning to his colonial home.

Back in Virginia, he mounted a series of political career moves, all of which added not only to his political but financial power. Above all, his keen interest in accumulating land holdings—whether by inheritance, acquiring patents on the best of still-unsettled land in Virginia, or even foreclosing on mortgages—worked to produce financial resources which he then shrewdly invested for greater return.

King Carter died in 1732, leaving a generous legacy to both his sons and his daughters, as well as to grandchildren, detailed in a will stretching for forty pages. Though one of those sons was indeed named John, jumping to any conclusions about our Margaret Chew Carter's father—also named John—would not be a wise way to begin this month's research endeavor. For that quest, we'll return to Margaret herself, and begin our search tomorrow with a more sound approach.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Tracing the Carters


There is always the possibility that, delving into our own family's history, we may cross lines with someone who was, indeed, historically significant—not just to our own family, but to the community at large. Tracing the Carter line may just hold that very possibility—but first, we'll have to check this out for ourselves. That's my goal in researching my Carter family history this month.

While this won't be as daunting as tracing the family history of a line of Smiths, the Carter surname—the focus of the first of the Twelve Most Wanted I'll be researching this year—might just be a challenge. Carter is a surname which has been part of this country's history for centuries.

Granted, when thinking of well-known Carters in American history, our former president Jimmy Carter may come to mind, and that would indeed be a good example. Seeing the multitude of people claiming that same surname, though—only a decade ago, records showed Carter being the fifteenth most common surname in President Carter's home state of Georgia—we can hardly say that there must be a relationship there, simply because of a shared surname. Besides that, the Carter I am pursuing was my fourth great-grandmother, Margaret Chew Carter, wife of Zachariah Taliaferro. Back then, those Carters lived in Virginia, which, at least by 1880, claimed Carter as the ninth most common surname in that state.

While we'll need to hone our search to a very specific line of Carters this month, I already have a few clues to guide me. Margaret Chew Carter is mentioned in some published genealogies, which can serve as trailblazer to lead me to documentation, either to verify or discard what's been asserted in those books. While that may seem like "reinventing the wheel," I think it's prudent to confirm for ourselves what others have claimed in any genealogy, whether published as online family trees or coming from the pages of dusty old volumes at the library. Just because a source is old or printed in a book doesn't mean it is more reliable—it's the documentation that counts.

What details I have for now include that Margaret was born about 1771 in colonial America—just a few years shy of the start of the American struggle for independence. Her father—the next step in our search for Carter roots—was said to have been John Carter, a perfect example of how to expand the generic nature of such a name.

While a given name like John may seem to confound the research challenge, we can add that Margaret Chew Carter's mother was a woman named Hannah Chew, passing down her maiden name to her child, as has often been customary, plus providing us a guidepost to separate this one John Carter from the multiple others who were surely out there at the same time around their colonial Virginia home.

However, I can't be sure that those history books including this family's names are entirely correct. This is something we'll need to prove for ourselves. Take, for example, this excerpt about Margaret's husband's Taliaferro line, linking Margaret to another member of the extended Carter family:

According to that book, our Margaret was a descendant of King Carter. So, who was King Carter? And was Margaret's connection to this man one that we can verify?

That resource—the 1911 volume entitled Historical Sketches of the Campbell, Pilcher and Kindred Families—might indeed have been well-researched, but I want to trace that line for myself, not solely because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but because we all need to confirm each step in our family's chain of events with solid documentation.

So, lest we get lost in the minutiae of King Carter, we need to focus on Margaret and move in a methodical process, first to the next generation in this Carter line: that generically-named John Carter of colonial Virginia. But for those consumed by curiosity (confession: I am, too), I'll relent to take a brief moment tomorrow to discover who this claim-to-fame possible ancestor might have been, at least according to history. Then, back on track!

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