Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

DNA Circles: Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley

The Ancestors

Robert and Elizabeth Whitley Stephenson are my 4th great-grandparents, three times over. As I have mentioned before, I am a descendant of three of their daughters: Esther, Cynthia, and Susannah. Ancestry.com has placed me in the Elizabeth Whitley DNA Circle with 8 other descendants of Elizabeth and in the Robert Stephenson circle with 5 other descendants of Robert. I can't explain the discrepancy in the number of circle members; I don't know whether it has something to do with our DNA tests or with the way our trees are constructed.

Elizabeth Whitley is well-documented as the daughter of William Chapman Whitley and Esther Gill Fullen, early pioneers of Kentucky. (See my post, "Daughter of the American Revolution.") I think it has been much harder for Stephenson descendants to build Robert's family tree and attribute the right parents, siblings, and children to him. Many researchers agree that Thomas Stephenson and his wife Elizabeth "Betty" Logan were the parents of Robert. Others have identified Betty as the sister of the Benjamin Logan who established Logan's Fort (later becoming Stanford, Lincoln County, Kentucky) in 1775. It seems likely that Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley were part of the same pioneer community in Kentucky, especially since Elizabeth's family lived at Logan's Fort. Records show that Robert and Elizabeth married on 28 May 1793 in Lincoln County.

Children of Robert and Elizabeth (Whitley) Stephenson

Robert and Elizabeth moved from Kentucky to Mississippi Territory (Limestone and Madison counties in Alabama), probably sometime before 1813 when daughter Esther married William Wheat in Madison County. Robert Stephenson died before 25 August 1825 when Elizabeth appeared in Limestone County orphan's court as administratrix of his estate, asking that his real estate be sold and divided among his children, listed as:

William WHEAT and Esther WHEAT, his wife, Whitley STEPHENSON, Samuel WHEAT and Scintha WHEAT, his wife, Elliott H. NIXON and Jane NIXON, his wife, Logan STEPHENSON and Mary STEPHENSON, his wife, Thomas N. MING and Susannah MING, his wife, Greenup STEPHENSON, Freedom STEPHENSON, William SMITH and Sarah SMITH, his wife.

Andrew and James Stephenson are also listed as infant (under 20) sons of Robert Stephenson and asked to be assigned a guardian. The court minutes also state that Scintha Wheat, Susannah Ming (both my ancestors), Greenup Stephenson, and Freedom Stephenson were not residents of the state, and the court ordered that a copy of "this order" be published in the newspaper for four weeks to give due notice to these heirs.

I can't say that I'm completely versed in women's rights in the 19th century, but it is interesting to me that Elizabeth can be the executor of the estate and yet not be considered a "guardian" for her own children. I also love how the spouse of each of Robert's daughters is listed first, along with "his wife"--who is the actual child of the deceased.

Because of the way the daughters are listed, much confusion has ensued over "Logan Stephenson and Mary Stephenson, his wife"; which of them is Robert's child? Lots of trees, including mine for a while, listed Logan as the son of Robert and Elizabeth, when many Stephenson researchers believe it is Mary who is the daughter. Logan is probably the son of Robert's brother James and therefore Mary's first cousin. His name, no doubt, comes from the maiden name of their mutual grandmother, Betty Logan Stephenson. Back to this question in a minute.

I guess it's a sign of those times that members of families, formerly living within miles of each other, all feel the temptation to move west. It appears that the three youngest of the Stephenson children, Sarah, Andrew, and James--the ones that were born in Alabama--remain there, but the older children, who were born in Kentucky, keep moving west.

Cynthia (Wheat) and Susannah (Ming) had already left Alabama by 1825, according to the court records following Robert Stephenson's death. Cynthia and Samuel Wheat were on the 1830 and 1840 censuses in Arkansas, then by 1847 in Milam County, TX, where Cynthia died about 1850. Susannah and Thomas N. Ming also lived in Arkansas on the 1850 census; Susannah is on the 1850 and 1860 censuses in Grayson County, TX, and died there in 1880.

Freedom and Greenup Stephenson were also living out of the state at the time of their father's death. Searching for them is complicated by the fact that the Stephensons often used the Scottish spelling of their name, Stinson. I found Freedom Stinson living in Callaway, MO, in 1830 with his wife, Aletha Brunson. Some trees on Ancestry.com list his death date as 1839. "Green" Stinson married Malinda Jane Perry in Rutherford County, TN, on 29 Jun 1833, and is last found on the 1850 census in Limestone, AL, as "Green Stenson."

Esther and William Wheat and Mary and Logan Stephenson end up in Texas; Whitley Stinson is living in Hardeman County, TN, by 1840; some trees on Ancestry report his death in 1859 in Tippah County, Mississippi. Elliott Nixon's remarriage in 1837 in Hardeman County, TN, comes after the death of his wife Jane the same year.

Descendants of Robert Stephenson and Elizabeth Whitley in DNA Circles

Out of the 8 other members of Elizabeth Whitley's DNA Circle, I have DNA matches with 7 of them. Two of the circle members show Cynthia Stephenson has an ancestor; two of them show Susannah. The other four show Logan Stephenson as their ancestor, which is interesting since it is highly probable that Logan is not a direct descendant of Elizabeth at all. Which begs the question: since I am a DNA match with three of these purported descendants of Logan Stephenson, is it really his wife Mary that creates the connection to Elizabeth Whitley, or do we match two generations back with the parents of Robert and James Stephenson?

I am considered a Strong match to the Elizabeth circle, six members have a Good match, and two are shown to have "Some" connection. What does that mean, according to Ancestry DNA? A Strong match means there is a "considerable amount of proof that an individual is related to the shared ancestor (and other members of the DNA Circle.)" This is based on three factors: the number of connections; the strength of connections (the confidence score that each DNA match receives); and the number of people in the circle. (If you want to read about how DNA Circles are created and how matches are scored, go to one of your circles and click on the green question mark in the upper right corner of the screen.) Perhaps I have a Strong match because I have not just one, but three, connections to the children of Elizabeth Whitley?

Turning now to the Robert Stephenson DNA Circle, I am a member along with five other descendants. I am a DNA match to all of them, and all of them are members of the Elizabeth Whitley circle. Two of them are descendants of Cynthia, two name Logan as their ancestor, and one is a descendant of Susannah. Whereas I was a Strong match to the Elizabeth Whitley circle, all of us in the Robert Stephenson circle are considered "Emerging." According to Ancestry, "An emerging level means that there is some DNA evidence of a relationship but the DNA circle is too small for us to determine how strong that evidence is. As the circle grows, your connection level will most likely change."

What Next?

I don't know if Ancestry knew this would happen, or if it is an unintended consequence, but knowing how the DNA Circles work makes me want to improve my tree on Ancestry. I've already realized since starting this series on my DNA Circles that I haven't done a very good job of documenting siblings of my ancestors and their descendants.

Although I'm not a Mormon, I attended a genealogy workshop at our local LDS Family History Center a couple of years ago. One of the classes I attended was on "descendancy research," documenting the descendants of your direct and collateral lines. Not only does that sometimes help with locating ancestors in traditional paper research, but in these days of DNA testing, it pays to know the possible surnames and places of residence of as many of your family's descendants as you can find.

It looks like this research will be ever more important as Ancestry.com adds some features to DNA Circles. In a few weeks, some Ancestry DNA customers will find themselves assigned to new DNA Circles based on their DNA results alone. So, even if you don't have a known tree connection to the circle members, if you have a DNA connection, Ancestry will give you a "hint": the common ancestor of circle members whose DNA you match. With some research, you may be able to determine if you are also related to their identified ancestor.

As Blaine Bettinger, the Genetic Genealogist warns, "Only a certain percentage will actually be direct-line ancestors. It will be impossible to determine--based on the DNA Circle alone--whether an identified person is direct-line, collateral, or population-based...additional research will always, always, be necessary."

So what are my goals in advance of his new DNA Circles feature? I at least would like to get siblings, children, and documents attached to all three of my Stephenson lines on my public tree. Right now, only one of them is complete in any way at all. And before the new feature is added to the DNA Circles, I would like to write blog posts on the other 8 ancestors for whom I have DNA Circles: Thomas and Susannah (Stephenson) Ming, Champion and Catherine (Davidson) Farris, William and Rachel (Barker) Bays, Luke Russell Simmons, and Zachariah Wheat. 

Hopefully, future blog posts will show how the new DNA Circle hints helped me break down some long-standing brick wall. We'll just have to wait and see--and do more research.



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