This story is actually several months old—I think I had to let the emotion wear off a little to think clearly enough for a post.
I’ve been aware for some time of the amazing discoveries that people have been having with DNA testing the past few years. I had taken a test about 10 years ago when it was all pretty new, and the results didn’t really provide much exciting or new in my research.
But last summer, my AAHGS chapter (shout-out to Central Maryland) had a series of introductory sessions on the topic. They also hosted a panel session a few months ago on DNA discoveries. Even though I’d taken the autosomal two years ago, I decided to push for other family members to take the test. Ever the willing soul, my dad jumped right in.
His grandfather, John Smith (shown left), had been the number one biggest brick wall in my 18 years of research. With a name like that, he is often the topic in my lectures and classes. He appeared in Jacksonville, FL in the early 20th century, married Georgia Harris, with whom he had at least three children. I have never been able to find him in any census before 1930, but multiple sources provide Georgia as his birthplace. HIs son William said he was born in Swainsboro, Georgia, while John’s own Social Security SS5 form said he was born in Tifton, Georgia to a father named Simon Smith. Still, I’d found nothing.
My father’s Autosomal DNA immediately matched numerous people from “Robeson County, North Carolina.” This was odd—nothing in my research suggested North Carolina. I suspected the matches were likely 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. Unfortunately, this person never responded to my inquiries.
I soon discovered that Robeson County, NC is the historic home of the Lumbee Indians, who are descended from the Cherokee and Tuscarora, Anglo- and African-Americans. The community is comprised of many of the same surnames, such as Locklear, Oxendine, Lowry, and Dial. They are listed n early census records as free people of color. One of their forebears, Henry Berry Lowery, was a famous hero during the periods of the Civil War and Reconstruction whose story sounds like something right out of a movie. I also remember seeing the Lumbees at the opening of the Native-American Museum in Washington, D.C.
I spent about a month reading the 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. I also purchased and began to read an excellent book on Lumbee history and racial/tribal identity. Learning how to best utilize and understand DNA results is an uphill climb. I also made contact with several of the other DNA close matches so we could try to find the relative we have in common.
I decided that since I had only evidence that John was born in Georgia, I thought about how North Carolina might have come into the picture. After reviewing the census neighborhood in Robeson County, NC in the 1920s,30s and 40s, I noticed many people had children who had been born in Georgia, although their parents were born in North Carolina. This is a census clue that screams “migration.” I began to document a list of the people in the community with children born in Georgia. Then I found World War II draft cards for many of those male children, in order to ascertain the cities of their births. Amazingly, the vast majority of these individuals reported births in “Claxton, Georgia,” “Bulloch, Georgia” or “Evans, 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, GA in 1914. Claxton was the capital of Bulloch County. So I headed to the 1900 and 1910 censuses in Bulloch and YES! There they are, these migrants from Robeson County, working in the brutal turpentine camps of Georgia.
By 1930 and 1940, many of these camps had left Georgia for Florida and its fresh supply of woodlands. Some laborers followed the camps to Florida. Many of the Robeson County migrants, older now, went back home. I traced at least 25 families. It took a long, LONG time, but it was worth it.
Simultaneously, my conversations with database matches finally yielded a feasible candidate: a man named Nelson Locklear was in the tree of several of the top matches. Now keep in mind this is a highly intermarried community and the same families show up in almost everyone’s tree—making finding the match more difficult to identify. So I focused on the top 3 matches. Several were kind enough to share their own trees and information on this family.
As I was working on matching these families from GA to NC, I was not surprised to find Nelson Locklear living in Bulloch County in the 1900 census, like 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 straight up.
He was the right age. He’s in the right place.
He’s living next to a man whose DNA made it’s way into my dad, in large quantity.
My grandfather’s recollection of Swainsboro as his father’s birthplace was wrong.
But guess what city is in Bullock County, Georgia? Statesboro. Not Swainsboro, it was Statesboro. That would be an easy error to make. It makes sense.
In 1880, back in Robeson County, NC, Nelson Locklear had recently married and just started his family with his wife. Although John Smith’s mother is still unknown, I think it’s interesting to say the least that several women of child-bearing age surnamed Smith were living right next door to Nelson:
This example shows how even original sources can contain inaccurate information. It also illustrates how human beings aren’t doing anything now that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years. People birthed children before and outside marriage, people 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 blew apart the biggest brick wall I’ve ever had.