My Family Line

Not lost to history: Sandy Wise


Mother and baby being sold separately

Some of my ancestors owned human beings: placed them in terrible living conditions on plantations and had no problem abusing them, selling their babies, and inflicting other atrocities upon them. I understand that some will say slavery was a product of the time they were living in and that enslavement was normal for families who could afford to buy people and land. Well, I have plenty of ancestors who did not own humans and who actively fought against enslavement. I also have plenty of ancestors who spoke out against slavery during  that time period and assisted in the Underground Railroad. I refuse to believe that any person with a heart could look at a mother and her newborn baby and just see them as commodities to be sold – to be listed as property alongside horses and goats. We all have brains, hearts, and critical thinking skills. So no, ancestors, I do not accept that because enslavement was normal during your lifetime that what you did was acceptable. My ancestors who enslaved others had the same opportunity to oppose it as my abolitionist ancestors but they chose not to.

One of my 5th great grandmothers Catherine Margaret Coward (maiden name Scarborough) was born 6 March 1772 in Accomack, Virginia, and died June 1831. On February 9th, 1831 she made a will where she goes into detail about the future lives of the people her family enslaved. I know according to the 1830 United States slave census she and her husband owned a total of 19 people: 10 men and 9 women, most of them under the age of 10.

Here is a transcript of her will:

“My slaves Patty & her daughters Margaret & Isabella & her son Edward shall all be free immediately after my death. To grandson Samuel W. C. Pettitt, after the death of his mother, two Negro boys Griffin & Charles. To grandson George D. Wise two Negro boys Thaddeus & Sandy after the death of his mother. To granddaughter Catharine S. Pettitt after the death of her mother, Negro girl Harriet. To granddaughter Elizabeth M. W. Wise after the death of her mother, Negro girl Caroline. Should my daughter Eliza E. Wise choose to take my house & lot in Pungoteague, then my daughter Louisa W. Pettitt should draw the equivalent value in cash or slaves. To female slave Patty all the property she has belonging to me. To Negro girl Margaret, daughter of Patty, … To my sister Alice S. Bayly $25. To friend William P. Moore $25 for the many favors he has done for me. Two sons-in-law John R. Wise & William M. Pettitt & friend William P. Moore Extrs. Witt: John A. Ames, John J. Ayres & George K. Taylor.”

To recap: Patty, Margaret, Isabella, and Edward are to be free after Catherine’s death. Griffin, Charles, Thaddeus, Sandy, Harriet, Caroline and others not listed by name are to remain enslaved.

What happened to those who were freed or remained enslaved? It was a miracle to find the names of those enslaved in the will since in US slave censuses individuals are listed only by age and sex up until 1870. No first names, no surnames. Finding out everyone’s fate will take considerable time and research – something I am happy to do as every genealogist enjoys a challenge. But, it is more important to remember that these individuals likely have descendants searching for them. The more we transcribe the wills of slave owners and make them searchable, the more likely it is their descendants will find them.

I decided to start with Sandy, listed in the will as being a “negro boy” given to George D. Wise. Remember, many of those enslaved took the surnames of those who owned them after emancipation,  but some did not. It is not completely foolproof to search for a freed person by their former master’s surname. But I got lucky. In the 1870 US census, I found a Sandy Wise, age 50 (which places his birth year as 1820) living in Accomack, VA with his wife Lillie/Lydia and their children Leah, Ann, Sandy Jr., and George.

This is the only Sandy who fits the profile (age, skin color) of the same Sandy listed in Catherine’s will in Accomack, VA. Since Sandy was owned by the Wise family it is not unrealistic to imagine he kept the surname. However, this is only the beginning of researching Sandy and his family. Who were Sandy’s parents? He is first listed only as a number and age in the 1830 slave census. Were his parents there as well? Or were they split up and sold separately? Clearly, as you read in Catherine’s will, she had no problem giving young children to different families.

I do not want Sandy’s name lost to history. Sandy and others like him are why my ancestors became rich, could educate their children, and participate in the shaping of the United States government. On the back of a 10-year-old like Sandy, slave owners built their empire. For some this might be uncomfortable to discuss, embarrassing, or shameful. To me it is nothing more than sharing the truth.


If you know the names or information about the people your ancestors owned please share the information with Our Black Ancestry. To read subsequent blogs about Sandy, his family, and the others enslaved by Catherine’s family feel free to subscribe to this blog or keep checking back for updates.

Native American Heritage Month – Special


Greetings everyone! November is officially here. For the entire month of November I am offering a special discount to those researching Native American ancestry. Whether you are just getting started or fleshing out your tree, I am happy to assist. I do not usually use this blog to talk about my genealogy company, but I wanted to spread the news about this special as much as I could. Everyone deserves a chance to ‘meet’ their ancestors!

P.S. Family trees make great holiday gifts🙂



Great grandparents Ernest Walter & Maude Knapp (nee Copella)

As a young girl I would ask about my ancestors and was often told we had Dutch ancestry. This would be on my father’s side, which as far as my 10 year old self ‘knew’ was Dutch, German and Italian. Fast forward to 2011 and I was deep into researching my genealogy! Would I find this supposed Dutch ancestry?

My great grandparents Ernest Walter and Maude Knapp (nee Copella) had moved to Canada for Ernest’s work, and on their border crossing documents back into the USA Ernest listed his origins as Dutch and his wife’s as Italian. Woohoo! I thought. Confirmation that family lore was true!

However as years of research went on, I dug deep into Ernest’s tree. He not only had massive English-Colonial American ancestry but far more Irish than I could ever imagine. This was a huge shock to my family, and they loved it! Yet….no Dutch ancestry. I began digging into Maude’s background. She was born Maude Agnes Copella on 10 December 1894 in Horton Township, Elk, Pennsylvania to John Francisco and Emma Copella.

John Francisco was born in Italy and arrived as a toddler with his parents to Pennsylvania in 1857. No chance of Dutch ancestry there. How about Maude’s mother? Emma was born Emma Elder in Clarion, Pennsylvania on 7 January 1856 to Matthew and Delinda H. Elder (nee Shugart).

Matthew’s ancestry was also deeply English, Scottish, and Irish. But researching his wife’s background, I began to find more German ancestry mixed in with English-American colonial ancestors. While I was finding exciting information on revolutionary soldiers, Quakers, and more, I still was not able to find Dutch ancestry.

Researching ancestors does not just require locating vital records, but also researching the time period and history they were living in. Eventually I found explanations in books and articles that individuals from German speaking parts of Europe would refer to themselves as Dutch, not German in Pennsylvania. Thus the term Pennsylvania-Dutch was born!

Ah, it suddenly made sense! My German ancestors fell into this category and family lore considered them Dutch.

To add to the ‘mystery’ my cousin told me our ancestors were “Black Dutch.” The term “Black Dutch” is largely thought of to mean being of european ancestry mixed with black or Native American ancestry, however it is more broad than that. It is a derogatory term used for anyone whose appearance was of a slightly darker nature. Black hair, olive skin, dark eyes – you name it. Since my German (“Dutch”) ancestors from Pennsylvania married into a Sardinian-Italian family, I can easily see how they were called Black Dutch. Many of them had wild dark hair and a darker complexion.


My great grandmother’s sister Martha Copella. 

The irony of genealogy is that I later found another branch from my paternal great grandfather’s tree that had Dutch ancestry! Far, far back though: families from the 1600s marrying into French Huguenot families. I can now share with my family yes, we have Dutch ancestry, but not from the side you originally thought! I love the twists and turns in family research. Luckily, as my fellow genealogists know, it is a never ending adventure.


On August 24th of last month, my boyfriend proposed to me in Diocletian’s palace in Split, Croatia. It was a beautiful proposal (that our awesome waiter captured on camera!) and one of the best moments of my life.


The proposal 

Ever the genealogist, I later thought how I would be taking my fiancé’s surname as so many of my female ancestors did. I have traced my maiden name, Knapp, back to Nicholas Knap (spelled Knapp in the American Colonies) who was born about 1606 in England. Nicholas and his wife Elinor arrived in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1630. They were Puritans, farmers, and weavers. In genealogy communities I am often asked about my surname since many people descend from the offspring of Nicholas and Elinor and it is always a pleasure to connect with distant cousins.

I have to say though, I am excited to unite my family and fiancé’s family. To be Mrs. Filitchkin! My fiancé was born in southern Russia and we have traced his surname back to his grandfather who fought in World War II with the Soviet military. We know he was awarded many medals, fought in the Battle of Berlin, and was wounded twice. However, his direct paternal ancestry remains a mystery until we conduct more research. I am lucky that my fiancé is also my partner in crime when it comes to genealogy.


Here’s to the joining of two families, histories, and genealogies!


From Africa to Russia

Last year, my boyfriend called me to let me know his DNA results had come in. It went like this:

“My Y chromosome haplogroup says I’m African!” Of course it does, I thought – all of modern humans come from Africa. Men inherit their Y chromosome from their father, who in turn inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father, and so forth. Testing the mutations on the Y chromosome can indicate deep origins for the paternal lineage. I assumed he was reading about the history of modern humans leaving Africa but missed the part where his Y chromosome had mutated so many times within Europe that it was considered European. Wrong! I was so, so wrong. ychromI realized my boyfriend, Paul, was reading his results correctly when I logged onto his account and saw that his Y chromosome haplogroup was A-M32, a subgroup under the its’ father haplogroup A00. A00 is the oldest human Y chromosome and is thought to have originated about 382,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, with haplogroup A originating 125,000-140,000 years ago. Paul’s sub-haplogroup A-M32 is about 90,000 years old. Why was my boyfriend’s result so surprising? He was born in Russia, his parents were born in Russia, and majority of his grandparents were born in Russia (with deeper roots in Ukraine). While it is not unheard of for haplogroup A to be found outside of Africa, it is extremely rare.


Frequency of “A,” though it has been sparsely found in Europe and the Middle East

The administrator of the Haplogroup A project on Family Tree DNA and genetic genealogist Cece Moore were kind enough to weigh in on the most likely scenario that brought Paul’s African Y chromosome to Russia. They both agreed the Arab slave trade was very likely – this slave trade lasted from the Arab conquests to the 19th century. Slave markets existed in the Middle East, and since Paul’s A-M32 haplogroup is found in the Middle East his paternal lineage could have easily made its way into southern Russia over the decades.


Main slave routes in Africa during the Middle Ages (wiki)

It is important to keep in mind that this is just one of many ways his paternal fathers made their way into Europe. All of us – Paul, his dad, his mother, and I were delighted at these unexpected results. Without DNA testing this ancestor’s story would have been lost. For me, this has been an example of the complexity of human history and a testament to the will to survive and even thrive overcoming dire circumstances.


My boyfriend as a child and his father. The tale of two A-M32 chromosomes.

If you have a surprising DNA result, I would love to read about it!

Finding Ohana

As a little girl one of my favorite grown-ups was my mother’s artist friend, Hari. Hari always made me feel respected and like an equal, her gentle and artistic nature making anyone feel at ease with her. I always knew Hari had been born and raised in Hawaii and as I grew older learned she was adopted shortly after her birth in 1957.

At age 58, Hari felt ready to begin the search for any biological family members. She felt the need to discover her roots. Where in Europe were her mother’s ancestors from? Was her father really Hawaiian? Did she have siblings? We turned to DNA testing and tested at Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, and after receiving results uploaded her raw data to Gedmatch.  Her ‘ethnicity’ breakdown absolutely supported her prior knowledge of being half European descent (Irish, German, Czech, and Slovakian) and Hawaiian (Polynesian). This was huge, since Hari had always been active in the Hawaiian community but now had something more substantial than her appearance that indicated Hawaiian ancestry: DNA

One afternoon an intriguing match caught my eye. On AncestryDNA Hari had a match predicted to be a 1st-2nd cousin. I clicked on this individuals profile and saw that AncestryDNA’s breakdown of their ethnicity was entirely European. This meant the match was likely from Hari’s mother’s side! I contacted them right away but the message was left unread for seven months. I tried searching his username and found an article about her match, including a brief biography. I figured this was enough information to start a tree researching his ancestors, and then research forward, searching for descendants who fit the biological description of Hari’s mother.  I kept the tree private and began researching like mad. Within a couple of weeks, I found two women – sisters – who had a high probability of being Hari’s biological mother.

Even better, I finally received a response from the match! Well, not from the match, but the individual who had asked her older family member to take a DNA test. We figured out pretty quickly how Hari was related to her 1st-2nd predicted DNA match on AncestryDNA: He was her great uncle. This cousin who had asked Hari’s great uncle to test was thrilled to find out about Hari’s existence and offered any help she could. A wonderful first contact with Hari’s bio family.

Understandably, time was what Hari needed. After a year of knowing more about her biological origins than she ever dreamed possible, she reached out and contacted her biological mother. Unfortunately her biological father passed away in 1988. This initiation of contact happened recently, so the best I can end this post with is: to be continued.

Diving into Polish records

I have had the fortune of hiring two fabulous Polish genealogists to help me in the past. They were worth every penny, but I would need far more pennies to afford their services again. So I was faced with a choice: either save up, or try researching Polish records myself. The biggest obstacle in this was indeed, just me! I simply lacked confidence that I could read baptisms and marriages from the 1800s in the Polish language. But my passion and determination to find my ancestors was stronger, so I searched to see if they had a microfilm of my ancestor’s parish. They did!! And not just one microfilm, but many. Oh boy. Now I was excited.


To prepare I researched what Polish words I would need to be able to recognize. For example: Birth, daughter, father, godparents, etc. Looking at handwriting from the time period I was researching (1800-1855) was helpful as well. Unlike my later ancestor’s records, these would not be in Russian, but I was prepared there too: I told my Russian boyfriend he was on call if I needed assistance!

And what do you know? I found my ancestors! To be more specific, the baptism of my 4th great grandmother Julianna Sokolowska. She was born 15 Feb 1831 in Wolka Piaseczna, Podlaskie region to Teodor Sokolowski and Marianna Halicka.


Julianna Sokolowska’s baptism. 

The next weekend I searched for Julianna’s marriage record to Stanislaw Zyskowski and once again had success:


Marriage of Julianna Sokolowska & Stanislaw Zyskowski

And it doesn’t end there! My next challenge is finding the marriage of Teodor Sokolowski and Marianna Halicka. These parish records are older and harder to read, but time, thoroughness, and patience will find them. Trust me, I have to repeat that to myself as I search, ha!

I hope those of you who might be holding back reading records in a language you do not know reconsider and give it a try. For the $9 I paid Familysearch to rent the microfilm, I am forever grateful.

Witchcraft, Lawyers, and Reverends!

Halloween is creeping up on us!  I thought it appropriate to blog about my ancestors connected to the witch trials. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term witch craft or witch trials I picture scenes from my favorite Halloween movie Hocus Pocus.


Witches from Hocus Pocus (1993)

In reality those accused of being witches or of dabbling in witchcraft were nothing like Hocus Pocus. Reaching back to what I learned in high school, being accused of witch craft had more to do with town politics, character assassination, and fear of the unknown or anyone who dared to be different.


As I began researching my father’s massive Colonial-American genealogy I thought, would I suddenly find my ancestors embroiled in the witch trials? The answer? Yep! But not in the way I originally thought. The first ancestor I discovered was a 10th great grandfather: Thomas Burnham, born 1619 in England. He was an early Puritan settler in Connecticut (Podunk and Hartford).

Thomas was a lawyer and saved the life of Abigail Betts, a school teacher accused of witchcraft and blasphemy. Thomas argued that in England blasphemy was not a capital crime, and thus that in colonial-Connecticut should not be either. Despite his successful defense and saving of Abigail, he was stripped of his rights to further practice law. On a personal note I have to say I truly admire Thomas stepping up and defending this woman’s right to speech, even if it did offend a few (okay, probably more like the entire Puritan community). It is not easy to go against the status quo.

Who did I find next? Another 10th great grandfather, Reverend James Fitch.


                                                                           Headstone for Rev. James Fitch

Back in Hartford, Connecticut (final home of Thomas Burnham!) witch trials were taking place when Alice Young was found guilty of witch craft and executed in 1647. Similar trials took place all over Connecticut, ending in about 43 trials. However, Norwich, Connecticut had not experienced the hysteria….until 1684. A young woman began experiencing uncontrolled fits, flailing on the ground and screaming in pain. Concerned friends and family turned to their Reverend for answers: who was responsible for the demonic possession of this girl?

Reverend Fitch’s response is best summarized by the Norwich historical society:

“Reverend Fitch refused their demands, calmly informing them that any procedure that attempts to uncover the responsible witch was, in itself, a form of witchcraft. He then went on to say, “I will pray with her and say psalms with the rest of you”, for that is the best way to proceed in this matter. In so doing, Fitch took control of the situation, quickly snuffing out the flames of fear which had so often resulted in community hysteria and executions.  Reverend Fitch reports of freeing the young girl of her symptoms, not by blaming human witches for causing them, nor placing the blame on demonic possession, but instead, by convincing her that God was willing to forgive her sins, and of Christ’s mercy for her. “

Wow, how inspiring was he?! I am thankful for Rev. Fitch’s cool thinking and compassionate approach. I truly feel honored to have these men as my ancestors and they remind me to always defend those unjustly accused or bullied.

Do you have ancestors accused of witchcraft, who defended those accused, or an ancestor who accused someone of witch craft? If so, please do share in the comments! Happy Halloween and All Saint’s Day readers.

Genealogy Happy Dance

Yesterday my last big genealogy brick wall was obliterated! Huzzah! There are still some pretty good mid-sized brick walls, but this was a biggie. My great great great grandma Elizabeth was born about 1837 in England. She arrived in the USA in 1853, and married Walter Murray (a native of Ireland) in 1856. Elizabeth lived out her life in Elmira, Chemung, New York.

For years I searched for a marriage document, birth records of her children, anything I could get my hands on to find her maiden name. Finally I ordered my great great grandma Margaret’s death certificate (Elizabeth and Walter’s first child) and lo’ and behold, there was the information that smashed through that brick wall. To be honest I was surprised, often I have received information on death certificates that is incorrect or no detailed information is provided.

Elizabeth’s maiden name was Curry, and she was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England. I found her in the 1851 English census working as a servant in a household as a nurse-girl (akin to a nanny).

1851 English Census

1851 English Census. Elizabeth Curry is the last person listed in the household.


Suddenly I felt a little Downton Abbey!

Elizabeth Curry’s deeper family history is from Ireland which fits since Liverpool has a strong Irish history.  I am curious to research more about life as a servant during this time period and how a young girl would employ herself a nurse-girl.  And of course, what being a nurse-girl entailed! I find Elizabeth very brave for living away from her family and working, and of course, for immigrating to the United States.

I am so very happy to have found you Elizabeth!

Back in the hot seat: John Vincent McDonald



John Vincent and Roseanne McDonald on their wedding day

Last month I posted about my quest to find out more about great-great grandfather John Vincent McDonald’s direct paternal lineage. I did this by having his direct male descendant G. McDonald test his Y chromosome. Since the Y chromosome is passed down directly from father to son (nearly) unchanged this was essentially like testing John Vincent – and his forefathers too!


Testing the Y chromosome can give deep insight into direct paternal lineage

The earliest I can confidently trace John Vincent’s paternal ancestry is to Ranald MacIsaac McDonald born about 1754 in Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire Scotland. What about after Ranald? Ranald’s great paternal grandfather may be Hugh McDonald, but I have not confirmed this yet. When the DNA results came in I was so excited! Oh heck, I still am. Immediately I noticed that my McDonald had only low matches on the 25th marker (matches on the 111th, 67th, and 37th marker are considered high). All of these men save one belonged to a set of Y chromosome mutations known as R1b-U106. R1b-U106 is strongly associated with men who belonged to Germanic/Scandinavian cultures. Certainly they were not limited to these cultures, but U106 dominates Germanic and some Scandinavian regions today.


Frequency of R1b-U106/S21

I was quite intrigued to think that my highlander McDonald lineage might belong to a Germanic invader or Danish Viking. I was ready to conclude based on his Y-DNA matches that he was U106, but tested him specifically for U106 just to be 100% sure. Lo’ and behold, the results came back negative! R1b-U106 was now off the table. The next step? Carefully selecting another Y mutation (SNP). I went with L21, another branch of R1b which dominates Ireland, England, Scotland, and western France.  As you may have  guessed, L21 is strongly associated with Celtic cultures.


Frequency of R1b-L21

I received the results today and am happy to say that my McDonald tested positive for R1b-L21. Now comes the task of narrowing down which subgroup under L21 my McDonald belongs to.  In my family tree I have not had a male lineage belong to L21 yet, so this is an exciting opportunity to learn about the L21 family.

DNA truly is a box within a box within a box!