Tuesday, March 17, 2015

52 Ancestors: Luck of the Irish

Amy Johnson Crow of No Story Too Small has issued a challenge:  write one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor.  It can be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem – anything that focuses on one ancestor.

DNA testing is not for sissies.  It can turn your world inside out and render your research null and void.  I can’t say I was shocked or even upset to learn my Slades are not Slades after all; they are Calhouns.  It is just an interesting fact of life that demands my attention. 

It never occurred to me that legitimate Calhouns would not share my interest in getting to the bottom of this NPE – “Non-Paternal Event,” as it is called in the world of DNA and genealogy.  Of my two exact matches, only one has contacted me.  I’ll call him “Mr. Calhoun #1.”  He has identified all of his Calhouns who were in Georgia and Florida, but none of them were the Calhouns who lived near my Slades.  Our shared exact match, “Mr. Calhoun #2,” hasn’t responded to my inquiries.  Could it be he doesn’t want to admit one of his ancestors might have behaved badly? 

While I am busy looking for my mystery ancestor in census records in Georgia and Florida, people smarter than I am are studying the entire human race, identifying their migration patterns and haplotypes.  At the invitation of various project administrators, I have agreed to join a number of studies, the latest of which seeks to “establish the hierarchy of the various SNPs currently known to be associated with the Irish Type II haplotype and discover more branches that are there amidst the significant number of men carrying this genetic signature. As these branches are identified, we will be better able to determine the possible origins of this prominent subclade centered in the south of Ireland.”  When I read this, all I hear is “wah waah wah waah.”

Fortunately, Mr. Calhoun #2 posted his direct line at Family Tree DNA with his oldest known ancestor to be Noah Calhoun born about 1765 and resident of Florida thanks to a Spanish land grant in 1818. Next in line is a son:  one John C. Calhoun, born at the right time to be the neighbor of my 3X great-grandparents Stephen and Margaret Slade in 1860 Lafayette County, Florida. 

Excerpt from Lafayette Co, Florida 1860 Census

The John C. Calhoun living near the Slades was listed as single, age 37.  He was a farm hand from Georgia working for William White.  Finding him before and after 1860 is tricky.  

1850 Santa Rosa, Florida
In 1850, there was a John C. Calhoun, age 37 from Georgia, living in Santa Rosa, Florida, the same place that Noah Calhoun supposedly died.  John C. and his wife Pamelia had two daughters, Mary age 6 and Martha age 1.  But in 1860, Pamelia is gone.  According to Find A Grave, she died in 1853 and is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Santa Rosa. 

That makes it entirely possible for John C. Calhoun, the farm laborer in Lafayette, to have been a widower free to move on.  However, the whereabouts are unknown for the daughters and a son John Pinckney Calhoun born in 1853.

Those who have posted family trees on Ancestry present a number of versions of the life of John C. Calhoun.  All say he was the son of Noah Calhoun, and some even add a mother, either Rebecca White or Elizabeth Baggett.  Some say John C. was married to Pamelia and had two daughters; some say Pamelia with two daughters and one son (John Pinckney); others say Mrs. Calhoun and one son William J.  All have John C. deceased in 1879 Lafayette County, home of the Slades.  The dates suggest it is even possible the researchers knew only a piece of the truth and that combined, they might present a more accurate picture:   John C. plus Pamelia, plus FOUR children:  Mary born 1844, Martha about 1849, William J. about 1851 and John P. about 1853.  Unfortunately, no one included any documents to prove the dates or relationships. 

1885 Lafayette Co, Florida
One researcher even includes a second wife for John C. Calhoun named Sarah Ann Elizabeth Hobbs.  A marriage date of 1862 is given along with three more children, again without citation.  In the 1885 Florida census, Elizabeth Calhoun was on her own with her three sons, which supports the theory that John C. Calhoun had died by then, supposedly in 1879 if other researchers are correct. 

So while circumstantial evidence pointing to this John C. Calhoun as my ancestor is very strong, there is another possibility.

In the 1860 Lafayette County, Florida census when John C. Calhoun and the Slades were near neighbors, they were separated by James and Nancy Douglas.  Nancy was the widow Nancy Slade when she married in 1853.  Could Nancy Slade and Noah Calhoun have crossed paths that resulted in the NPE who became my 3X great-grandfather? 

Short of a tell-all diary or a will naming an illegitimate son, the mystery might never be solved.  I just might need some “Luck of the Irish” type help from my DNA group projects.

© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. How very interesting, good luck in your research.

  2. This sounds like an interesting challenge, Wendy. I hope that diary, journal, will, or even a letter shows up. Good luck!

  3. Well, you certainly have a tantalizing premise there, Wendy. I get so frustrated with those "NPE" labels, though, and have learned to proceed with caution. Everyone likes doing the "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" dance and talking about the possibilities, but sometimes they turn out to be quite different than we imagine.

    Something I'm confused about: exactly which type of DNA test it was that has you referring to an "exact match" for your results (and which person was the third great grandfather to which you've referred by title but not by name). I've seen the mitochondrial DNA test use that terminology, "exact match"--but that is referring strictly to the matrilineal line (in other words, mother's mother's mother, etc.). Likewise, the Y-DNA test will talk about exact matches ("genetic distance" of zero), but that is for the patrilineal line (father's father's father, etc.).

    So, my question would be: how, if you are viewing results for the mtDNA test, are you, a woman, talking about a man several generations up the line, being an exact match? To you? Or did you have a brother or father test, using the Y-DNA test? A third great-grandfather's male descendant couldn't show as an "exact match" to you from your matrilineal line. Not for a third great grandfather.

    Or are you using the autosomal DNA test, which shows all relationships, but puts the results in terms of relationships of cousins ("3rd to 5th cousin," for instance)? If so, the best way to ascertain relationship would be to compare your results with at least two other people suspected of being in that Calhoun line.

    I've been through that same "exact match" difficulty, myself. I've discovered, with my own "mystery cousin" that an exact match can be a connection that stretches out for many more generations than what would reach a third great grandfather--upwards of 750 to 1000 years, in fact. Not only does that exceed the reach of an impeccably solid genealogist's paper trail, but it sometimes pre-dates the advent of surnames at all. It certainly can pierce the veil of the political intrigues that caused some ancestors to have to change their surname--especially in the case of embattled places like both Ireland and Scotland (home of many Calhouns), where some surnames were outright outlawed.

    It is a fascinating journey, admittedly--but a frustrating one, coupled with the unreliability of some other people's online trees, as you've seen. As you review your documentation, you may discover the "NPE" (or the real cause) occurred many years before this 1860 dalliance you are currently fingering.

    That said, I certainly agree with your initial premise: DNA testing is definitely not for sissies! But it is fascinating. And sometimes, it even tells us the kinds of things that help us construct more reliable family trees.

    1. Well shoot -- sorry to have posted something that leaves anyone confused. I've been writing about my dad's Y-DNA testing. When I said "I joined" some projects, I should have clarified that as custodian of my dad's DNA, I submitted HIS results. "Exact" matches are the two gentlemen with genetic distance of 0. I understand that the "0" could represent 1000 years, but I do believe in this case, we're much closer than that.

      One trouble I'm experiencing is finding the names I've mentioned. But honestly, I haven't tried all the possible misspellings of Calhoun.

  4. I've had some disappointments with DNA results, but I hope that with time and more and more people jumping on the DNA bandwagon, maybe a few mysteries will be solved. I've had some friends have great results with DNA tests. If the line at Rootstech for Ancestry's DNA kits is any indication of the growing popularity of DNA testing, there is hope!