Wednesday, 24 May 2017

From the War of 1812 to eternity via the Y chromosome

One aim of researching family history is to discover the origins of the male line.

This is a popular objective for genealogists as it shows the geographical origins of the surname which a person carries. There are other possible choices of course. The female line would take a completely different path, or one could track all ancestral lines equally.

Pursuing the last option may quickly lead to an uncontrollable flood of ancestors, but it has the benefit that some lines are easier to research than others – and reminds us that our real roots spread far and wide.

It was easy to follow my mother’s female line which took me back to the kings of Scotland (they were males I know) and thence to Charlemagne from whom most Europeans are descended. See ‘Why do family history?’.

The Genographic Project takes things much further than any genealogy could. Around 100,000 years ago, an unnamed male ancestor developed a mutation named ‘P305’ in his Y chromosome. 70, 000 years before anyone invented surnames, one of his male descendants emerged from Africa. A later ancestor known as ‘M207’ was born in Central Asia around 30,000 years ago. His descendants went on to settle in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East over the following 20,000 years.

Today, most western European men belong to the R-M342 branch who descended from this lineage. It appears to have been one of the earliest lineages to settle in Europe more than 25,000 years ago. So even back then my ancestors were pioneers.

My current search aims are rather modest by comparison, I’m hoping to trace my male line back about 500 years, not 50,000. ‘M 207’ may have thought it was too hard to get to America but much later, some of his descendants ended up there.

The name of my nearest ancestor who arrived in America is something I’ve yet to work out. The DNA evidence does not show a certain connection to any relevant participating family in North America. In any case, the only way to build a certain link is from documentary evidence, but a DNA link could provide a clue if the right people take part.

Back to surnames… 

My father changed his surname from Poe to Lyell just before getting married. It was a logical move for him since he had been brought up by the Lyell family from about the age of 7.
As a young man, I announced my interest in family history. My father asked me what I’d like to know. The question top of my list was ‘Tell me about your father and his family’.  ‘Oh, he was William George Lyell and his father was William Ly…’  ‘No’, I said ‘your real father.’ ‘Well, he was my real father’.  I looked at him and said, ‘I have your birth certificate here…’ 

It was a tense moment.

‘OK’, he conceded, ‘See what you can find out and I’ll tell you if it’s true’.  ‘Would anyone like a cup of tea’ Mum interjected…

That was a challenge I took up; the ‘see what you can find’ I mean.  I had the cup of tea too.

I had noticed some of the family stories didn’t match up. Mum had told me what she knew of Dad’s actual parents. Though she swore me to secrecy, the documents allowed me to ask the question. That’s the first lesson: listen to the stories but get the documents!

Finding out about the Poes proved difficult as my father was not the first to change his name. My grandfather used many names and on other occasions seems to have obscured facts. He was not alone in this and when combined with earlier generations distrust of governments seeking information, illiteracy, the loss of records through fire or neglect, wishful thinking and faulty memories and the endeavour is quite a challenge.

It took a little time to track my grandfather’s birth details, he was born at Shasta Retreat in northern California. Once I could plug into the census records it was relatively straightforward to make leaps through the next three generations to my great great great grandfather, William Romulus Poe (WRP).

I thought the gallop back in time would continue, but here the trail quickly ran cold.

I was comforted by the likelihood that good records could probably be found somewhere and that they would take me back at least another three generations to perhaps indicate where the family were before they arrived in America. However, finding WRP’s birth and death details is a drawn-out task.

I knew that WRP married Margaret Brown in Garrard County, Kentucky in 1817. There were however too many possible Poe ancestors in the early census records that survive and these are not very helpful because only the head of the household (usually a male) is listed. Williams and Johns abounded as given names and there were natural variations of surname spellings due to assumptions of the census collector or the lack of literacy of the household member who answered the door.

For a long time, I couldn’t find a death record for WRP. I was pretty sure that he must have died and I knew he had divorced my great great great grandmother in 1850. Several people thought he’d gone to prison and died there, but the relevant prison records show the fellow concerned was 30 years too young. 

Others thought he was the same William Poe who married Sarah Harris, but this was impossible as the two Williams were living in the same area with different wives at the same time. Some material on the internet still confuses these two people and mixes up their families.

Eventually, I found what could have been him in Illinois in 1860 living with a much younger woman, Mary Poe, and a child. I eventually uncovered that WRP had married a second time and left Missouri via Indiana to settle in Illinois where he ended his days in 1866 – only seven months after the death of his eldest son, Alonzo Marion Poe, a Washington Territory pioneer.

After confirming that the two Williams were the same person, I then found that a daughter from his second marriage, Lucy Jane Blandy (nee Poe) had joined the National Society United States Daughters of 1812 in the 1920s. The Society is a women's service organisation for descendants of patriots who aided the American cause during the War of 1812 – the final battle for American independence.

Her application papers had some details of the man although nothing of his parents. Mrs Blandy was celebrated as the ‘last real daughter’ for some time before her death at the age of 94. Her application material was complete and had been confirmed by authorities at the time, though the specific letter of confirmation is no longer in the file. Her application was very specific about who her father was, listing the unit he served in specifically showing him as a corporal. This allowed me to obtain a copy of his file from the US National Archives. Sadly, it showed very little, simply confirming his period of service and that he joined in Virginia.

I then obtained a copy of Mrs Blandy’s mother’s pension records as the widow of WRP. Again, the US National Archives were obliging but again the file contained very little. It confirmed that Mrs Mary J Poe was eligible for a pension and had a physical description of WRP ‘from her best recollection’.


Mary was illiterate and wasn’t born until about 15 years after the 1812 war ended. She couldn’t recall what unit her husband served in but nonetheless, her application was accepted. Her pension application was linked to a different William Poe than her daughter had later claimed for membership of the 1812 society. This fellow had joined in Kentucky. 

My inclination is to believe that the daughter’s research in the 1920s was more thorough; it was confirmed by military authorities at the time but the letter confirming this has been lost – it was no longer necessary. Nonetheless, I feel some obligation to also check out the second William Poe.

Nonetheless, to a large extent ancestor William Romulus Poe has been found but I've not found any clues about his parents.

As I mentioned, DNA evidence shows no certain connection to any other participating Poe family in North America. Hopefully, more people will participate and that may help uncover the next clue. 

But the DNA evidence does show a match for a family descended from a John Poe born in Dublin in about 1850. So far, I have not been able to trace the connection to him and my line. His parents are also not known. I am hopeful that a link can be found, eventually, to this family.

The interesting thing is that he also fought in the War of 1812 – for the British!

Uniforms of the Virginia militia during the 1812 War

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