DNA Circles is Ancestry DNA’s new twist on DNA matches. Judy Russell, who writes the blog The Legal Genealogist calls them “…shaky leaf hints on steroids.” While still not giving genetic genealogists the tool they really want—something that lets you compare matching segments on a chromosome to identify DNA derived from a particular ancestor—the Circles combine DNA matches with family trees to create circles of Ancestry members who may share particular ancestors.
Critics are warning that while DNA Circles may prove helpful to genealogists, they have a couple of drawbacks: 1. Since there is no way to compare actual DNA results, you can’t know for sure that the ancestor in your circle is the common ancestor of you and your match, and 2. The matches are only as good as the data in people’s trees, and everyone has seen common mistakes in numerous trees on Ancestry.
I thought it might be useful to look at my 14 DNA Circles--what I know about the ancestor in each circle; what, if anything, I know about my matches; any inaccuracies that I am aware of; and if anything can be learned from the endeavor.
My 3rd great-grandparents, Samuel Wheat and Cynthia Stephenson, are the ancestors at the center of two of my DNA Circles. They married 13 November 1814 in Madison County, Mississippi Territory (Madison County, Alabama.) Samuel was the son of Zachariah Wheat and Priscilla Reynolds, who married 4 February 1782 in Upper Marlborough (now spelled Marlboro), Prince George’s County, Maryland, where many of our Wheat families seem to originate. Priscilla was the daughter of Thomas Reynolds and Elizabeth Bordley of Prince George’s Co.
Most researchers have Samuel’s (and his brothers’) place of birth as Loudon County, Virginia, which is only about 50-60 miles from Prince George’s County, although it appears that Zachariah Wheat died in Prince George’s County in 1792 at the age of 28. Samuel and his brothers—Josiah, William, and Benjamin--all resided in Madison Co. AL by 1813. Josiah married Martha Fletcher in Madison Co. in 1812; Benjamin married Mary Gourley there in 1812; and William married Esther Stephenson, Cynthia’s sister, again in Madison Co. AL, in 1813.
Samuel apparently makes a detour to Tennessee (daughter Mary Elizabeth was born there in 1826), before he next appears on a tax list in Washington Co. Arkansas in 1828 and on the 1830 census there. In 1840 he is still in Arkansas, but by 1846 he is in Red River County, Texas, and appears on the 1850 census in Milam, Texas. He is in Bell Co. in 1860, living with his daughter M.E. (Mary Elizabeth) and her husband, G.W. (George Washington) Cloer. He died in 23 November 1866 in Grayson Co. Texas and is buried at the Hall Cemetery in Howe.
Samuel was a Primitive Baptist preacher and helped start several churches in Arkansas and Texas. His headstone reads: “In memory of Elder Samuel Wheat, who departed this life November 23, 1866, aged seventy-nine years and one day. Elder S. Wheat had been an old school Baptist from his youth and a minister of the cross for fifty-eight years. Standing firm amidst all the siftings and schisms among the churches. The fearless advocate of electing and reigning grace. Elder Wheat was born in Virginia, emigrated to Alabama, thence to Tennessee, thence to Arkansas, then to Texas in 1847, making his first discourse to Pilot Grove Church in Grayson County to which he made his last a few days before his death. From the 48th Psalm, Walk About Zion.”
|Samuel Wheat headstone, Hall Cemetery, Howe, TX|
when headstone was still intact
Cynthia Stephenson (sometimes spelled Stinson) and her sister Esther were the daughters of Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley. Elizabeth was the daughter of William Whitley and Esther Fullen, early Kentucky pioneers whose home was known as the “Guardian of the Wilderness Road” and still stands near Crab Orchard, Kentucky. (See my post “Daughter of the American Revolution.”)
Children of Samuel and Cynthia (Stephenson) Wheat
I have been able to document the following possible children of Samuel and Cynthia (Stephenson) Wheat:
Joseph Wheat, born in 1815 in Alabama; married Malitta DeRecors; appears on 1850 census in Milam, TX; most trees list death date as 1850. Some trees list Joseph as the son of William and Esther (Stephenson) Wheat. Joseph is usually in the same places as Samuel (Madison, AR; Milam, TX), but so is William. Joseph’s first son is Drecory (coined, no doubt, from his mother’s maiden name); second son is Samuel, and third son is William. (If Samuel’s brother William is also my ancestor, as I believe, I would share DNA with the descendants of Joseph Wheat, no matter whether his father is Samuel or William.)
Sarah Elizabeth Wheat, born 1817 in Alabama; married William Jackson in Arkansas; William Jackson is on tax list in Arkansas in 1849, William and Sarah are on 1850 census in Grayson Co. TX; Sarah and children (including son John, age 9) definitely appear on 1870 census in Grayson Co.; Sarah Jackson, widow, living with son John, age 18, on 1880 census; says her parents were born in North Carolina. I wish I could find proof that this person—Sarah Elizabeth Wheat—is daughter of Samuel and Cynthia.
*William Whitley Wheat, born 1820 in Madison, AL; married Cynthia Ann Maynard in 1838; was living in Texas by 1846, where he appears on the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses, dying in Grayson Co. in 1890; buried in Hall Cemetery, Howe, TX. Undoubtedly son of Samuel and Cynthia. Prominent citizen of Grayson Co. where he was a county commissioner for 8 years; subject of a Texas Historical Society marker.
*Mary Elizabeth Wheat, birthdates according to censuses vary from 1822 to 1830, birthplaces both Alabama and Tennessee; married George Washington Cloer Jr., probably in Alabama; on 1850 census in Madison Co. AR; definite proof of connection to Samuel Wheat, as he is living with the Cloers on the 1860 census in Bell Co. TX; G.W. Cloer died in Civil War; Mary Elizabeth died in 1895 in Collin Co. TX.
*Martha Jane Wheat, born 8 December 1827 in Madison Co. AL; married Andrew Jackson Edwards in Arkansas in 1845; on 1850 and 1860 censuses in Madison Co. AL; on 1870 and 1880 censuses in Tarrant Co. TX; died 1916 in Parker Co. TX. The Biographical Souvenir of the State of Texas, published in 1889, lists three siblings of William Whitley Wheat: Samuel, Elizabeth, and Martha.
*Susanna Wheat, born 1835 in Arkansas; on 1850 census in Milam, TX, with her parents, Samuel and Cynthia; married her 1st cousin, William Frederick Ming, about 1856; on 1870 census in Grayson Co. and 1880 census in Collin Co. TX; living with her daughter Martha “Mattie” (Ming) Bell on the 1900 census in Garvin Co. OK. Susanna died in 1916 in Carson, OK, while living with the Bells. (More information has come to light about why Susanna, my ancestor, was living apart from her husband in 1910. Explanation to come in future post.)
*The 1850 census is the only census that lists both Wheat parents, Samuel and Cynthia, with children living at home at the time. The children were: James, age 20; John, age 18; Susanna, age 15; Samuel, age 12; and George, age 10.
Many trees list a son Andrew, born 1818. I couldn’t find any more information about him, nor anything definitive about James, John, Samuel, or George. Some trees list a younger daughter named Sallie; is she the same person as Sarah Elizabeth, even though their birthdates vary widely? Which Elizabeth is the one that The Biographical Souvenir lists as a sister of William Whitley Wheat: Sarah Elizabeth or Mary Elizabeth?
Descendants of Samuel and Cynthia in DNA Circles
So now let’s look at the descendants who join me in the DNA Circle with Samuel (11 matches) and Cynthia (3 matches). Ancestry’s claim about DNA Circles is that they look at the DNA matches first and then look at the trees to determine if two matches should share the circle with their common ancestor. You will match at least one other person in the circle by DNA; some other people in the circle will match someone else in the circle, but not you.
And as Roberta Estes, in her blog DNA Explained, points out: “The common link is, of course, that in addition to genetically matching someone in the circle, they all share a common ancestor in their tree. Now, yes, it does go without saying that if everyone has the same wrong ancestor -- the circle will show that ancestor. Conversely, if you are the only one with the right ancestor's name and everyone else has the wrong name, then you won't be shown in that circle."
From Roberta's post, "Ancestry's Better Mousetrap--DNA Circles," 19 November 2014.
From Roberta's post, "Ancestry's Better Mousetrap--DNA Circles," 19 November 2014.
Ancestry has some kind of fancy algorithm that finds reliable matches in the trees. Sometimes spelling or nicknames or quotes seem to defeat their search. Are my matches’ trees reliable? Are we all listing the right ancestor? Is the shaky leaf the real deal, or do we really connect in some other way? Am I missing some connections because some Ancestry users, including me, have used nicknames or question marks?
The first Ancestry user in the Samuel Wheat DNA Circle is a descendant of Mary Elizabeth Wheat (Cloer.) We are considered both DNA and Tree matches. Samuel would be our 3rd great-grandfather.
The next Ancestry user in the Samuel Wheat DNA Circle gives her 3rd great-grandmother as Sarah Elizabeth Wheat. We are both DNA and Tree matches. Samuel would be her 4th great-grandfather.
The next Ancestry user in the circle shows her 3rd great-grandmother, daughter of Samuel and Cynthia (Stephenson) Wheat, as Mary Polly Wheat, born 1801. There is a big problem with that. In 1801 Samuel would have been 14 and Cynthia would have been 6, according to the user’s own tree. Ancestry considers us both DNA and Tree matches. I believe we are DNA matches, not through Mary Polly Wheat, but through her real ancestor, Mary Polly Stinson, daughter of Robert and Elizabeth (Whitley) Stephenson, who married her 1st cousin, Logan Stephenson. And in fact, this user and I are both in the Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley DNA circles.
The next user in the circle is the descendant of Martha J. Wheat. We share Samuel Wheat as our 3rd great-grandfather. The next has the right wife for Logan Stephenson, Mary Francis Stephenson, but makes her a daughter of Samuel and Cynthia. Again, while we are DNA matches, Ancestry makes the erroneous assumption that we are Tree matches, just because we both have Samuel Wheat in our trees. Again, our DNA connection appears to be Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley, and again, we both appear in those circles.
Match #6 is a descendant of William Whitley Wheat. I would agree that we are both DNA and Tree matches. Match #7 is a descendant of Sarah Elizabeth (Wheat) Jackson. While I’m still uncomfortable that I can’t directly tie Sarah Elizabeth to Samuel and Cynthia, I’m prepared to agree that Match #7 and I are DNA and Tree cousins.
The next circle member is a DNA match to the Circle, but not to me. He is a descendant of William Whitley Wheat. I’m prepared to believe we are paper cousins who just don’t share an appreciable amount of DNA. The next is a descendant of Sarah Elizabeth (Wheat) Jackson. We are considered both DNA and Tree matches.
Circle member #10 is a DNA match to the circle and a Tree match to me, as we both show Samuel Wheat as our ancestor. She shows her descent from Samuel’s daughter, Mary Jane (Wheat) Edwards. While researching this child of Samuel and Cynthia, I saw her name as Martha Jane and Mary Martha, but never Mary Jane. ??? I am #11 in Samuel Wheat’s DNA Circle.
I share Cynthia Stinson Stephenson’s DNA circle with 2 other people. The discrepancy in the number of members in Samuel’s and Cynthia’s circles can be explained by the fact that the two other circle members and I listed Cynthia as Cynthia Stinson Stephenson. Apparently, the other members in Samuel’s tree showed her as Cynthia Stephenson. Makes me wonder, if I changed it, would I gain 8 more members in Cynthia’s circle?
My conclusions? Wow, there are a lot of mistakes out there in Ancestry Land. About DNA Circles?
Pro: I’m not sure. It seems like a good idea to have your DNA and Tree matches that show a common ancestor all in one place. And now that I’ve done all this research to verify my circle matches, I have more people to add to my tree and a better “big picture” of the Samuel and Cynthia (Stephenson) Wheat family.
1. You can’t depend on people’s trees, even if they appear in your DNA Circle. Duh.
2. You can’t depend on the ancestor in your circle being your common DNA connection with the other circle members. In two instances above, Samuel and Cynthia (Stephenson) Wheat are not our common ancestors; Robert and Elizabeth (Whitley) Stephenson are.
3. Although it seems like Ancestry has done all the work for you, it actually took me hours of research and analysis to determine that at least two of these matches were completely bogus. (However, part of that is because I had never done the necessary research to document all the children of Samuel and Cynthia Wheat—just the one who really mattered to me—Susanna (Wheat) Ming.)
4. Ancestry needs a Chromosome Browser! With that tool and Ancestry’s extensive database, all of us could determine exactly how we are connected, but in addition, I could easily determine that for two of the members, our common ancestor is not Samuel Wheat but Robert Stephenson or Elizabeth Whitley. And with a Chromosome Browser, I could probably find out if it is Stephenson or Whitley DNA, thus helping me with future matches.
5. Ancestry DNA users may be persuaded to make their trees Public or include theoretical ancestors in their trees in the hopes that they will be included in a DNA Circle. I have already succumbed to this myself by adding some probable (by DNA) but undocumented ancestors to my tree, hoping that inclusion in a DNA Circle will give me the “proof” I’m looking for.