Breaking Down Brick Walls with Limited DNA Evidence
Genealogy researchers run into dead-ends from time to time, especially when there is a limit to what information DNA testing can provide. When you have exhausted the obvious possibilities, it can be helpful to have patience and create a convincing web of evidence. Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Carolyn Tolman provides specific examples of how she used limited DNA and documentary evidence together to break down a brick wall in her family.
Even professional genealogists have “brick walls” in their family trees – those seemingly unsolvable gaps for which there are no records available to break through to the earlier generation.
In my tree, it is my father’s early Kentucky ancestors who seem to have appeared out of nowhere and left no trace of their origins. After decades of scouring census, land, probate, court, and tax records in several central-Kentucky counties, I had resigned myself to the idea that these blank spots in my tree would probably never be filled.
With the advent and evolution of genealogical DNA evidence, I hoped that some of my father’s matches’ trees might reveal the missing link. For several years, I have carefully grouped my genetic cousins, who I know descend from my brick-wall ancestors, and then studied our shared matches, building out their trees, and looking for common ancestral couples whose close relatives might be my missing ancestors.
When working in the realm of 4th-6th cousins with low amounts of shared DNA, this is a slow, time-consuming process that yields such tiny pieces of evidence that we must gather many different pieces (a preponderance of evidence) before we can come to any conclusions. The same is true for documentary evidence from the early American frontier period, before births, marriages, and deaths were registered with government or church authorities. Rarely do we find “smoking gun” documents naming a person’s birth date and parents from this era, so we must gather clues from indirect sources such as land, tax, and court records.
Given the limitations of DNA evidence and documentary evidence for our 4th-6th generation American ancestors, it is critical that we combine the two methodologies so that one can inform the other and vice versa. In my own case, this patient and comprehensive approach has yielded some surprising breakthroughs!
My dad’s great-great-grandfather was Alexander Green, born on 13 May 1813 and died on 13 May 1889, according to his headstone in the Frankfort, Kentucky Cemetery. He married Nancy Ann Wallace on 11 January 1841 in Jessamine County, Kentucky, and we have good records detailing the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, none of those records told me who his parents were. The best leads were his 1840 census entry in Mercer County, and one land deed in neighboring Jessamine County in which he sold land to his mother-in-law (confirming this was the correct Alexander), and to a Henry Green, the only other Green named in Alexander’s records.
Continuing my years-long swim through my father’s many Green family line DNA matches, I realized I had multiple hits on a common ancestral couple whose names were Llewellyn Martin (1770-1844) and Elizabeth Pantier (1772-1845). They were married in Mercer County, Kentucky in 1792. Matching descendants of more than one of this couple’s children was a significant sign that I had a viable new lead. Subsequent research revealed that Llewellyn was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, an interesting clue that later became a golden link in my search.
Taking Time to Find the Golden Link
Although I had scoured Mercer County records many times before, I realized I had not taken the time to go page-by-page through an unindexed court minute book spanning the years 1789-1833.
Back in the days of having to go to the Family History Library in person to scroll through microfilm, it was never practical to use up my whole research day going through this old book of chicken scratch when there seemed to be little chance of success. But in this pandemic age of online research from home, I realized I could search a few pages at a time whenever I had an hour to spare.
Of course, I decided the best place to start would be around the year 1813 since I would need Alexander’s name to recognize any ancestral entries. Lo and behold, I soon came upon this entry dated 7 February 1814.
There he was, my third-great-grandfather, with his seven siblings, being “bound out” to the community upon the passing of his father Henry Green. How did I know this was actually my ancestor? I had several small pieces of evidence tied together in this one record:
- The date of 7 February 1814 fit with Alexander being named the last of his siblings, usually reflecting age order since he would have been about nine months old.
- It took place in Mercer County, the first place Alexander appeared as an adult in the 1840 census.
- There was a Polly Martin associated with these children, echoing the DNA clue I had recently discovered.
- Alexander had a brother named Henry Green who was probably the associate named in the Jessamine County land deed.
- Having lost his parents as an infant, it made sense why Alexander would never have named them in his records.
But did Alexander really lose his mother as an infant? Henry Green’s name is followed by “& Lavina Nation,” who I assumed was the deceased mother of the children, but I have since learned that she was another orphan, likely a cousin of the Green children.
Who was this Polly Martin (alias Green) who was taking care of the orphans? I assumed she must have been an aunt or other close relative.
Continuing to Collect Small Clues
Subsequent research of Alexander’s siblings revealed some of their marriage and death records, including Joel’s death from typhoid fever on 4 October 1858 in Pleasant Hill, Mercer County. His parents were named in the county death register as Harvy and Mary Green. Harvy was a common variation of Henry, and I noted that a common nickname for Mary would be Polly. Was it possible that Polly Martin (alias Green) was the children’s mother who could not afford to care for them after her husband’s death?
I have continued to go page-by-page through the 1150 images of the Mercer County court book, gathering other small clues about this family. One day, my usual website link to the court book was not working, so I decided to go through the Family History Library Catalog. On the Mercer County page, I noticed that there were some records specifically for Pleasant Hill, where Joel died.
Uncovering Records that Changed Everything
The Pleasant Hill records turned out to be a register of Shakers from the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, known today as Shakertown, Kentucky. Lo and behold, there were all of Alexander’s siblings, living among the Shakers since 1814.
At first, I didn’t see Alexander there, but upon closer inspection, I realized he must be “Eli” with a birth date of 8 May 1813, five days earlier than the birth date on his headstone.
Next, I noticed “Mary, Sr.” with a birth date of 22 March 1772, old enough to be the Green children’s mother. Her arrival date with the children in 1814 and her death there on 11 August 1835 support my hunch that she was the same as Polly Martin (alias Green) who took her children to live with the Shakers, who were noted for taking in widows and orphans to compensate for their celibate lifestyle.
There the children would have been well cared for, fed, and educated until they turned 21, at which time they could choose to stay and sign the Shaker covenant or leave to go out to “the world,” which Alexander and four of his siblings did. Anna died young in another Shaker community, and Joel and Charity remained “true Shakers” at Pleasant Hill until they died in late adulthood.
I have been thrilled to learn that the Shakers were excellent record keepers, with repositories at the historical societies in Harrodsburg, Louisville, and the University of Kentucky. I am now in the process of gathering more biographical details about each member of this family with the help of onsite researchers in Kentucky.
Creating a Convincing Collection of Evidence
One final detail that brings us full circle in this story is that Mary Sr. was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and was of the age to have been a sister to my DNA relative Llewellyn Martin, opening another avenue of future research for me.
This further testifies that while limited DNA clues and limited documentary clues are relatively weak standing alone, they create a convincing web of evidence when gathered together that tells me I’m on the right track and urges me onward.
Until recently, finding the birth family of my family’s Alexander Green was a brick wall that seemed I would never breakthrough. But with persistence and patience, carefully gathering and pondering every little piece of evidence, the seemingly impossible dream has become reality.
Do you need help chipping away at your own brick wall because of a lack of DNA evidence? Let us apply our skill and passion to solving your genealogical problems. Even with professional help, most brick walls take time and effort to break down as we gradually gather evidence. But with your trust and patience and our team approach, we can make progress that you may not have made on your own. Please contact us for a free estimate on research. We look forward to working with you!
 Mercer County, Kentucky, Court Minute Book (1789-1833), page 314, Family History Library microfilm #7901429, image 395 of 1150, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS4T-64QD?cat=134893, accessed December 2021. Rhorer, Marc Alan, ‘Gone to the World’: Vital Statistics on Individuals in the Shaker Community at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, p. 18, FamilySearch Books, https://familysearch.org/library/books, accessed December 2021. “Mercer County Kentucky Shakers,” Southern Indiana Genealogical Society Vol. XXIII, July 2002, Kentucky Genealogy Trails, http://genealogytrails.com/ken/mercer/shakers.html, accessed December 2021.