Sunday, March 1, 2009

When Paper Records Are Not Conclusive Y-DNA Testing Can Help

Family history research relies heavily on primary records (e.g. birth, death, and marriage certificates). Sometimes even primary records have mistakes. My wife had an aunt that was born in a small town in Arkansas. The aunt lived there her whole life. Apparently, the aunt never looked at her birth certificate closely until she applied for Social Security. Not having earned much working outside the home, the aunt applied for a spouse’s benefit (based upon her husband’s Social Security earnings).

After reviewing the aunt’s application and birth certificate, the clerk politely pointed out that my wife’s aunt could not collect Social Security benefits against a husband’s account. She said it was because the aunt’s birth certificate said she was a male. While it took some time, the birth certificate was corrected. Even if it had not been, it would not have been hard for a researcher to realize there was a mistake. There were other primary documents that correctly showed her sex, and her children’s birth certificates were a good reference for the fact that she was a female. Sometimes mistakes on primary records cannot be so easily identified. For example, while it is very unusual not to know the identity of a baby’s mother at the time of birth, the identity of the baby’s father may not be correct on the child’s birth certificate.

Even with their faults, where possible it is best to review primary sources in genealogical research. However, sometimes we can’t find a primary source. Birth certificates, for example, came into use relatively recently. If there is no birth certificate, finding a person’s parents’ names might mean having to rely upon secondary sources like census records. While these secondary sources are even less reliable than primary sources, we often have no choice but to use them. If you have ever spent any time looking for someone in census records you know that census records are littered with mistakes. It is not unusual to find conflicting information for the same person in different census years. In one census a person’s age may be given as ten years old and then in the next census (ten years later) the person’s age may be given as 17 years old. Likewise, one census may say the person was born in Kentucky and the next census may say the person was born in Tennessee. By looking at multiple census records you can sometimes figure out what information is likely correct and what is likely incorrect. The degree of proof can be rather subjective. In the final analysis census information depends upon the knowledge of the person who provided the information to the census taker and upon the care the census taker took in recording the information.

When someone joins the VICK Y-DNA Surname Project, we ask for as much paternal pedigree information as he can provide. If he cannot prove his pedigree back to Joseph Vick of Isle of Wight County, Virginia, we try to help him prove his paternal line. This usually involves finding names in the pedigree in various sources and linking the information to the excellent research in Joseph Vick of Lower Parish, Isle of Wight County, Virginia and His Descendants by John D. Beatty and Di Ann Vick.

Several months ago a new member of our VICK Y-DNA project was trying to trace his roots. When he joined our project he said he had proven his pedigree to his third great grandfather William Alfred. However, at that point he had run into a dead end. While he had found William Alfred in the 1880 U.S. Census of Pope Co., AR, he was not sure who William Alfred’s father was. William Alfred was a one year old child who was not living with his parents at the time of the 1880 census. Interestingly, it appears that William Alfred is listed twice on the same page of 1880 census.1 First he is shown in the household of Erasmus FORD where William Alfred is listed as a one year old “ward.” Then, he is shown in the household of Andrew J. (Jackson) TATE and his wife Lucindia where he is described as a one year old “nephew.” Perhaps William Alfred spent time in each household.

Since William Alfred was only one year old in 1880, we cannot go to the 1870 census and find him with his parents. However, there were other Vick children in the TATE household. A Louisy Jane, age 11, was listed as a niece; a Sidney P., age 8, was described as a nephew; and a Benjamin F., age 22, was said to be a boarder. Since Louisy Jane and Benjamin F. were over ten years old, they should be able to be found in the 1870 census. In fact, they appear in the household of an Alfred Vick and his wife Caroline in Pope Co., AR.2 Alfred’s line is (Samuel5, ?Josiah4, Benjamin3, Robert2, Joseph1).3

Alfred6 married Caroline Timmons on 12 Mar 1848 in Pope Co., AR.4 Louisy Jane and Benjamin F. may have been their children given that the two were living in Alfred6’s household in 1870. Andrew Jackson Tate married Rebecca Jane Timmons in Pope Co., AR on 23 Sep 1852.5 So, Andrew Jackson’s wife Jane would appear to be the aunt of Louisy Jane and Benjamin F. thus explaining why Louisy Jane was listed as a niece in the 1880 census.

Everything appeared to be lining up to conclude that William Alfred, age one in 1880, was also the son of Alfred6. Another piece of information in the census is the birth state of each person and the birth state of the person’s father and mother. In the 1870 census, Alfred6 is shown as having been born in TN, and his wife Caroline is shown as having being born in KY.

The 1880 census states that the father of Louisa Jane, Sidney P., and Benjamin F. was born in TN and their mother was born in KY. This fits with the information in the 1870 census for Alfred6 and Caroline. Interestingly, in both the households in which William Alfred appears in 1880, his father was reported to have been born in AR. This would seem to rule out Alfred6 as being his father since Alfred6 was shown as being born in TN in the 1870 census, and in the 1880 census the father of Louisy Jane, Sidney P., and Benjamin F. was shown as bring born in TN. We do not know who the census enumerator talked to or whether the same person provided the information for both households, but the birth state information throws serious doubt as to Alfred6 being William Alfred’s father.

Alfred6 was married twice. His second marriage was to Mrs. Louisa C. Johnson. They were married in Pope Co., AR, on 30 Dec 1876.6 According to William Alfred’s World War I draft registration card, he was born on 3 Sep 1877.7 So, if William Alfred’s draft registration was correct, he was born eight months and four days after the marriage of Alfred6 and Louisa. Could William Alfred have been the son of Louisa’s first husband, her second husband (Alfred6), or someone else?

William Alfred’s birth date of 3 Sep 1877 also conflicts with his age being one in the 1880 census. If he was born on 3 Sep 1877, he would have been two years old in the 1880 census (his last birthday prior to the census date – 1 June for the 1880 census).8 The difference in age is rather small, and it could just be an oversight.

It does not appear that the secondary sources I have cited will be helpful in identifying William Alfred’s father. Perhaps there are guardianship documents in Pope Co., AR that might be more helpful. However, any paper documents could contain errors for several reasons.

What other information could we use to help solve this mystery? Since all men carry many copies of their paternal family history in each cell of their body, DNA could be used to point us in the right direction. If William Alfred is a descendant of Alfred6 his straight line male descendants should match the Y-DNA signature of Joseph1.

When the project member’s Y-DNA test results came in, he found that his Y-DNA signature did match the Y-DNA signature of Joseph1 (and of the Robert2 line). Of the 591 men with the Johnson surname or a variant of it that have been Y-DNA tested at Family Tree DNA by March 1, 2009, none has a Y-DNA signature that resembles the one the Joseph1 descendants have (including the descendant of William Alfred).9 Likewise, none of the 452 men with the surname Johnson who had been tested by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) as of March 1, 2009 had a Y-DNA signature that resembled the one Joseph1’s descendants have.10 Further, of the about 150,000 men that have been Y-DNA tested at Family Tree DNA, only men with the surname Vick, Holland, Strickland, and Shaw have a Y-DNA signature matching Joseph1’s. The same holds true for the about 32,000 men that have been Y-DNA tested at SMGF. Based on discussions with the Hollands, the Stricklands and the one Shaw who match the Joseph1 Y-DNA signature, they are very likely descendants of Joseph1.

While Y-DNA cannot prove that William Alfred was the son of Alfred6, it does show there is good reason to believe he was the son of Alfred6. This reasoning is based upon the fact that William Alfred was in the same household in 1880 with Alfred6’s other probable children, and William Alfred’s descendants’ Y-DNA signature matched the Y-DNA signature of other Robert2 (Joseph1) descendants. This conclusion is in spite of the fact that the 1880 census says William Alfred’s father was born in AR and the other children’s father was born in TN.

Sometimes we must look beyond paper records for answers in tracing our roots. Using Y-DNA to trace your roots is a powerful addition to your family history tool box. You can read more about DNA and its usefulness in tracing ancestry in the book Tracing Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner.


1 and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2005. 1880; Census Place: Illinois, Pope, Arkansas; Roll: T9_54; Family History Film: 1254054; Page: 90.2000; Enumeration District: 137; Image: 0299.
2 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2003. Original data: 1870. Year: 1870; Census Place: Gally Rock, Pope, Arkansas; Roll: M593_61; Page: 353; Image: 159.
3 Vick Family Newsletter, Vol. XIX, No. 3 and 4, p. 53.
4 Hunting For Bears, comp.. Arkansas Marriages, 1779-1992 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2001.
5 Dodd, Jordan, Liahona Research, comp.. Arkansas Marriages, 1851-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2001.
6 Ibid
7 World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2005.
8 Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy [Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1990], 185.
9 Family Tree DNA ( has the largest database of Y-DNA signatures in the world.
10 The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation ( has the largest collection of Y-DNA samples with correlated pedigrees in the world.

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