This story is several months old. I had to let the emotion wear off to think clearly enough for a post.
I knew of the amazing discoveries some people made with DNA testing in recent years.
Last summer, my AAHGS chapter (shout-out to Central Maryland) had a series of introductory sessions on the topic.
I’d taken the autosomal test two years ago, but after hearing others’ success, I asked other family members to take the test. Ever the willing soul, my dad jumped right in.
John Smith’s History
His grandfather, John Smith (shown above), had been the number one biggest brick wall in my 18 years of research. With the name ‘John Smith,’ he is often the topic in my lectures and classes.
He lived in Jacksonville, Florida in the early 20th century, married Georgia Harris, and had three known children. I track him there until his death in 1960. I have never been able to find him in any Florida census before 1930, but multiple sources provide Georgia as his birthplace.
John first appears, unambiguously, in his 1918 World War I draft registration in Jacksonville:
In John’s obituary, likely his son William reported that John was born in Swainsboro, Georgia.
John himself said in his Social Security SS5 form that he was born in Tifton, Georgia. He said Simon Smith was his father, and indicated that he did not know his mother’s name:
I spent some time searching for Simon Smith’s in Tifton, but that was fruitless. I was unable to uncover anything about John’s life in Georgia(?). My dad and uncle also reported that they thought John was interracial. They noted that he looked “white”, as can be seen in the photo that heads this post.
So, I gave up the idea that I would ever know more about John’s roots. Until autosomal testing came along.
Robeson County, North Carolina?
My father’s Autosomal DNA immediately matched numerous people from Robeson County, North Carolina. This was odd. I had no roots in North Carolina.
I suspected the matches were on his father’s side because his mother’s roots are well-documented in Maryland. One match was incredible: a calculated 2nd cousin!
That means one of this individual’s grandparents was a sibling to my father’s grandfather.
I discovered that Robeson County, NC is the historic home of the Lumbee Indians. Their history is fragmented, but most sources say they are descended from Cherokee and Tuscarora, Anglo- and African-Americans. The endogamous community is comprised of specific surnames such as Locklear, Oxendine, Lowery, and Dial.
They are listed in early census records as free people of color. One of their forebears, Henry Berry Lowery, gained notoriety during the Civil War. I also read an excellent book on Lumbee history and racial/tribal identity.
I spent a month reading DNA/genealogy blogs (like Kitty Cooper’s blog and Melvin Collier’s blog) and learning how to upload and examine my results at gedmatch.com.
The Georgia Connection
Since I had only evidence that John was born in Georgia, I wondered how North Carolina might have come into the picture. After reviewing the census in Robeson County, NC from the 1920s through the 1940s, I noticed something. So much of good genealogy research is simply that: noticing things.
There were many people with children who had been born in Georgia, although their parents were born in North Carolina. That is a census clue that screams “migration.”
I created a list of the people in the community with children born in Georgia. Then I found World War II draft cards for many of the male children, in order to find their birthplaces. Most of these males reported births in Claxton, Bulloch, or Evans County, Georgia.
For example, see Vandy Locklear’s 1920 household in Robeson County, NC:
This is Vandy’s son Miller’s draft card (he is 14 years old in the image above):
Evans County, Georgia was created from Bulloch County, Georgia in 1914. Claxton was the capital of Bulloch County. So I headed to the 1900 and 1910 censuses in Bulloch County and YES! There they are, migrants from Robeson County, NC, working in the brutal turpentine camps of Georgia.
By 1930 and 1940, many of these camps departed Georgia for Florida and its fresh supply of woodlands. Some laborers followed the camps to Florida (perhaps my ancestor John?). Many of the Robeson County migrants, older now, went back home to North Carolina. I traced at least 25 families.
DNA Matches Provide Leads
Simultaneously, my conversations with database matches finally yielded a feasible candidate: Nelson Locklear appeared in the trees of several of the top matches.
Now keep in mind this is a highly endogamous community and the same families show up in almost everyone’s tree. This makes finding our match more difficult. So I focused on the top three matches with my dad.
I was not surprised to find Nelson Locklear living in Bulloch County, Georgia in the 1900 census alongside his other kinsmen.
I was COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY when I saw who was living next door:
I knew it was my John Smith. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
He was the right age and in the right place.
He lived next to a man whose DNA made it’s way into my dad, in large quantity. And my uncle too, by the way, who I also tested.
My grandfather’s recollection of Swainsboro as his father’s birthplace was probably not right. But guess what city is in Bullock County, Georgia?
Statesboro. Not Swainsboro, it was Statesboro. That would be an easy error to make.
A Family Back in Robeson
Nelson Locklear was a married man, not that that ever stopped men from fathering children with other women. In the 1880 Robeson County, Nelson Locklear was newly married.
Although John Smith’s mother is unknown, it is notable that several women of child-bearing age surnamed Smith were living right next door to Nelson back in North Carolina:
But it seems a tad unlikely that he would bring a son all the way to Georgia from NC. It seems more likely that he fathered John there in Georgia.
This ranks as one of my most satisfying and unexpected finds. I had long given up the thought that I would find anything more on John Smith. But DNA allowed me to do that.
This example shows how even original sources (John’s SS5) can contain inaccurate information.
It is also another example of how human beings aren’t doing anything now that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years. Genealogy shows us just how human we all are.
People birthed children before and outside marriage. They lived and loved across the false boundaries of race.
Why did John list Tifton, Georgia as his birthplace and Simon Smith as his father? Who knows. Did John even know that Nelson was his father? Maybe not.
But Autosomal DNA just exploded the biggest brick wall I’ve ever had.
(Update, 2019: my father and uncle have hundreds of DNA matches with the Lumbee community. I’ve solidified numerous matches to Nelson’s parents, Malcolm and Polly Ann Dial, and Polly’s parents, George Dial and Mary Lowery. My father and uncle have numerous very close matches–more than 20 individuals who match between 200-300cm, on Ancestry, Gedmatch, My Heritage, and Family Tree DNA. I have just ordered a Y-DNA test and will look forward to what that reveals. My hope now is to hopefully one discover the name of John Smith’s mother.)
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Intetesting cuz.. very interesting..what im interested in is. “Joshua waters
Congratulations Robin on this new discovery! DNA is simply amazing!
This is amazing! That’s some incredible sleuthing you’ve done.
You make it sound so easy, and I know it was soooo hard. Thanks for sharing it.
Amazing!!! This gives me inspiration to further investigate my GedMatches.
Congratulations on breaking down one of your brick walls. I enjoyed reading this post.
Robyn, thanks so much for the shout-out to Central Maryland Chapter AAHGS. I am almost as excited as you are about finding John Smith after searching for 18 years! This is a perfect example of how DNA, when used with traditional genealogy, can help bust some of our “biggest brick wall[s]”. Congratulations!