DNA test answers one fundamental question

In my previous post Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question ( ) I cover the importance of being clear about what you want to achieve through DNA testing.

For me, I have persistent gaps in my genealogy.’s DNA test is the second DNA I’ve taken. I did it in the hopes that it would help solve some of these persistent gaps in my family’s genealogy.

Well…my DNA test results came in the other day! And to say it answered one fundamental question is a bit of an understatement. That question was whether or not my family were Sheffeys by blood or by close ties with their former slave masters. I am going to put my hand up and say that over the past three years I had my doubts that we were Sheffeys by blood. It wouldn’t change my outlook on being a Sheffey if we weren’t. It’s just a thing that would be nice to know.

Jemimah Sheffey, born around 1770 in Virginia, is my earliest discovered African-descended ancestor on the Sheffey side of the family. I knew she wasn’t a Sheffey by blood. It all came down to the identity of the father of her children. It’s still not 100% clear which German-descended Sheffey owned her. The German-American Sheffey family history in Virginia made it very easy to narrow down the possible candidate for the potential father of her children – born between 1800 and 1815 – if indeed any of them were. It could only be one of three second generation German-American Sheffey brothers: Daniel Henry Sheffey, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey and John Sheffey.

image of Johann Adam Sheffey family group
Johann Adam Sheffey family group

Daniel Henry Sheffey seemed the most likely candidate at first. He was a slave-owner. And, after all, my 2 x great grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, was named for him by his father, Jacob Sheffey (Jemimah’s son). He was also a slave owner. Daniel was my strongest contender. His brother Henry, also a slave-owner, was just as viable a candidate. I always discounted Henry, however. I can’t explain it. For whatever reason, in my mind and in my gut, he was out of the frame.

Last up was their younger brother John. I always discounted John. While he’d been (and remains) difficult to track through digitized records, he never owned slaves. That much I did know. Other than that, I knew that John just up and left either Frederick, Maryland (the home of his) or Virginia (the home of his brothers) for Greene County, Tennessee. I can’t even tell you when, exactly, he left for TN. All I can say with any certainty is that he left MD or VA for TN sometime between 1820 and 1828, the year he married Margaret O. Thompson in Greene County, TN.

There was another problem with John…his date of birth. In innumerable family trees, his marriage certificate and on his tombstone, his year of birth is given as 1804. Jacob Sheffey, my 3xgreat-grandfather, was born in 1800. So you can see the problem. However, I always knew John’s attributed year of birth was incorrect.

imageof John Sheffey's resting place in Greene County, TN

I’d already found him in the 1790 census as a minor living with his parents and two of his sisters.

image of ohann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790
Johann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790

His father, Johann Adam Sheffey, died in 1793. His mother, Maria Magdalena Loehr Sheffey, would have been 65 years old in 1804. Basic math and the laws of time and biology makes the year of 1804 impossible as the year of his birth. Yep, another mystery on how that year became his ‘official’ year of birth!

I don’t know how close John was to his brothers. The deep, brotherly affection shared between Daniel and Henry is well-documented. The letters, public accounts and biographies I’ve read for both men never mention John. Never. Their three sisters – Catherina Sheffey Brengle, Elisabeth Sheffey Geyer and Mary Sheffey Guyton – also have easily discoverable profiles online. They were written about and their family histories and genealogies are covered in great detail. John? It’s as though he simply didn’t exist from the family’s perspective.

So, I always discounted John. Well, I shouldn’t have. As it turns out, he is my 4 x great-grandfather. breaks down your cousin matches by generation. As it turns out, I have 30 or so 4th to 6th cousins who have also taken the same DNA test. Out of that number, 18 or so have made their family trees publicly accessible. After the first dozen or so glimpses at these distantly-related cousins and their family trees, I came across a small group of people who had ancestors from the Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany. This is the same region where Johann Adam Sheffey (Scheffe) – the father of John, Henry and Daniel – left to come to America. However, I didn’t recognize any of the surnames in these cousins’ trees (I’ll have to work that out later!)

Nonetheless, I started to get excited. That specific region of Germany was indicating that there was indeed a blood-link to the German-American Sheffeys. However, I needed more proof to seal the deal.

That proof I needed came with cousin matches 23, 24 and 25. I saw the names Cochran, Susong and Thompson in these family trees. And there’s only one Sheffey lineage where those names appear: John Sheffey’s. These were his descendants. Indeed, among all of my many branches on both sides of my family, there is only one place where these names converge – in association with John.

The combination of factors that led to this discovery are mind-blowing to me. For one, it relied on John’s descendants joining and building comprehensive family trees. Secondly, that they made those family trees public (too many people don’t!). Lastly, that a handful of these descendants went on to take the DNA test. The combination of these three random factors was so perfect that they easily could have never happened.

It was a jaw-hitting-the-floor moment.

It figures that my 4x great-grandfather would be the one son of Johann Adam Sheffey that I knew the least about. His public profile was on a different scale from his brothers. His life isn’t that well document. I also haven’t met many of his descendants online…although I hope that will change. I’d love to know more about his life. And hopefully answer the question of why he so abruptly departed for TN. Although I now have a pretty strong suspicion. 😉

Interestingly, James Frank Sheffey Sr, an African American Sheffey born in Virginia around 1840, was resident in District 1 of Greene County in 1880 with his family. A coincidence? Or did he know? Of all the counties in Tennessee, why Greene County? James stubbornly refuses to find his place in the Sheffey family tree. I can’t find his parents’ names for love nor money. It does raise the interesting prospect that my Sheffey ancestors had full knowledge of their Sheffey roots. Knowledge that somehow got lost over time.

I’d love to know if there are any images of John. The African-descended Sheffey men tend to all bear a remarkable similarity with one another. I mean it’s uncanny how much we look alike. No matter which branch of the family that descends from Jacob Sheffey…there is an instant recognition and we and our families end up saying the same thing: “Yep, you’re a Sheffey”. Will we see ourselves in John?

For now, I’m basking in the afterglow of discovery and confirmation. And I am SO grateful that the year’s I’ve spent researching the Scheffe family in Germany wasn’t for nowt!


16 thoughts on “ DNA test answers one fundamental question

  1. Interesting story. I got a little confused in the middle, but figured it wasn’t really important for me, a reader to know a few ancestral details and connections, and true….You gotta be a slueth to study those elusive ancestors! I’m happy for you in finding and solving a
    question of your lineage.

  2. How exciting for you! My 50th birthday is happening soon. I have asked for the DNA test as a gift. I anxiously look forward to my own discoveries.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story – it is always great to read other family history blogs. It is amazing what the power of AncestryDNA and the sharing of records can do.
    At this time I don’t know anything about my 95 year old paternal grandfather’s grandparents. Both were immigrant families from Poland and Lithuania. In April I purchased an AncestryDNA kit for my grandfather. What is remarkable is he has several 4th cousin matches – with the common ancestor being an unknown grandparent living in Eastern Europe. Perhaps in time working with other researchers we may be able to determine how we are connected.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Michelle. It’s time consuming, but I’d suggest going through your matches’ family trees to see if there are surnames you recognize.

      If you can get the right time period for these great-grandparents, you may find siblings for your paternal great-grandfather to start with. You can try to work out the connection through census records. Quite a few people only trace their direct line. However, if you’re dealing with uncommon names, you just might get lucky.

      If you find him, chances are, you’ll also find a marriage certificate. It’s a laborious kind of research, however, it can pay big dividends.

      Hopefully you will see some surnames you recognize.

      1. Hi!

        In this case it is a bit complicated.

        In most cases with the 4th cousin matches we do not have a shared surname. We also don’t have trees that go back far enough to create the link.

        In one specific example of the no shared surname my grandfather is connected to several people in the family that did the DNA test – a mother, her three children and two grandchildren. There is clearly a family connection here. Both of our trees have holes and currently do not go back far enough to identify the common ancestor.

        I created a spreadsheet to identify the possibilities based on all of the known information both of our trees. There are 16 individuals that could be the shared ancestor. It is plausible our shared grandparent has one of my surnames, one of their surnames or an unknown surname. It is fascinating to know they are distant family – we just don’t know exactly how we are connected – yet. Perhaps in time with more individuals participating in the test and more matches we will be able to learn more.

        I did a blog post when I first received the match which you can read here –

      2. Hi Michell

        Great to hear from you and thank you for your comment.

        There are a few factors which this hinged upon. I’m a direct descendant of Jacob Sheffey born in 1800 in VA. The Sheffeys didn’t begin to own slaves until the second generation of being in the US. Other factors are the family’s arrival into the US, it’s move from PA to MD, and then Daniel and Henry’s move to VA. They just weren’t in the US long enough to have bloodlines from the surrounding families in VA who had been in the US for quite some time.

        Only two of Johann Adam’s sons owned slaves, which began a few decades before Jacob Sheffey was born. That cuts things down to a very small pool of candidates. The cousin matches for John’s descendants are closer to me than those of his brothers or sister, Catherina. My match to John’s descendants is more recent.

        The VA lines married into many of the same families through the generation, which would have made pinpointing Daniel or Henry as Jacob’s father incredibly difficult. John’s TN line is very, very distinctive for the family names that appear within it. It’s almost like an individual fingerprint. The only connection I could have to any of those families at the generational level that I do is through John.

        You do raise a good point. What you mention is the very challenge I’m having with the Price family in VA that I’m descended from. I have quite a few 4th Cousin matches for this family. However, with this family, I genuinely do have large gaps in the tree, as do they, between that family’s arrival in VA and the birth of my earliest discovered ancestor, the slave William Price. We know we share a common Price ancestor but, at the moment, can’t figure out who it is. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the Sheffey family and its numerous lines that have been traced.

        I hope I’ve explained that well 🙂

      3. I am not sure how this will display as I was unable to reply directly to your comment posted 27/06/2014 at 6:04 PM.

        Yes you explained very well! You also did a great job in your blog post about explaining how you were able to arrive at your conclusion. Another great example of how researching the broader family can help to answer questions about our direct ancestors.

        My paternal grandmother’s tree is much deeper. I am hoping to DNA test some of her living siblings soon. It will be interesting to see what those results show!

        Great blog – I have added you to my reading list!

      4. I’m hoping more Sheffeys do the DNA test. It’s still a mystery where Peter Scheffe originated. I figure the more people who test, the more precisely we can pinpoint it. I’d also love to know how some of the English Sheffeys and Scheffes fit into things. The ones I spoke to when I lived in England weren’t sure about their origins.

  4. Looking at the research you’ve collected here there are two things that come to mind. First, I see no evidence that John is the son of Johann and Maria. In fact, some of the evidence above seems to indicate that he is NOT their son. Could it be that he is, in fact, their grandson or even their great-grandson? That would explain the age difference, the fact that he is not mentioned by any of the siblings, etc. I’m curious to know if there is other evidence you have not shared here that has led you to this conclusion.

    Second, regardless of the relationship of John to Johann and Maria, having DNA matches to John does not specifically indicate that he is your ancestor. All it means is that his descendants have taken the DNA test you are using for comparison. John, as a son/grandson of Johann and Maria would share DNA with any of the descendants of that same couple.

    I’m really not trying to burst your bubble as I can tell through your writing that you are very excited about working out these relationships. But, I have learned that sometimes we are too close to the situation (having spent too many hours “in the weeds” of the family as it were) to see clearly. It’s one of the reasons that we, as genealogists, publish our finding – so that we can get that peer review.

    Your excitement now has me invested in this family history mystery! 🙂 I’m anxious to hear your responses.

    1. Hello

      No need to apologize for asking such interesting and relevant questions. 🙂

      I have two sources for John’s connection to Johann Adam and Maria Magdalena: Johann Adam’s Revolutionary War pension and his will. In all the documentation I’ve read, and information the German-American side of the family has provided, there just isn’t anyone between John and Johann Adam.

      Of course that doesn’t answer such a discrepancy in his year of birth. Mind you, I’ve had ancestors who shaved 10 years off their age. But John is unique in this regard. Of one thing I am certain: there is an interesting tale to be told here.

      As for the DNA cousin match – I’ve been matched to descendants of the two brothers and 1 of his sisters. However, these matches are 1 generation removed from the match I have with John’s descendants who also took the test. In other words, the common ancestor I have with cousins from the brothers and sister would be Johann Adam. Mind you, I still struggle sometimes with the distinctions between 4th, 5th and 6th cousins. However, I am blessed to have professional contacts that have kindly walked me through this.

      For obvious reasons, John has truly piqued my interest. I am hoping that somewhere out there are personal papers, a diary – something – that can shed some light.

      Thanks again for the great comment.

      1. That all makes perfect sense. Thanks for your reply! I’ve bookmarked your blog so I can keep up on further developments as they unfold.

  5. Hi Brian …. I was just thinking that I should try to find your blog again. I’ve sent a couple of messages but no response. I did my first test in November and suddenly I’m hooked with genetic genealogy. Perhaps I have those same matches as you because I found all the names and Greene,, Tn. I’m denniejj on Perhaps you remember.

    Did you upload to yet?

    Would love to hear from you again. I’m still trying to confirm the Sheffey link to Alabama.

    Jeanette S Williams

    1. Hello Jeanette

      Of course I remember you. Great to hear from you. Apologies, I didn’t receive those emails. My email address is: briansheffey[at]gmail[dot]com

      I’ll be uploading to gedmatch soon.

      I won’t repeat what I put in a previous comment I’ve just published. The Greene connection is striking in that it’s a closer cousin match than those for the descendants of Daniel Henry Sheffey, Henry Sheffey or their sister Catherina Sheffey Brengle. My connection to their descendants is 1 generation more than that for John’s.

      Lol and thank you for still plugging away at the Alabama connection. I wish I could find the names of Godfrey Taylor Sheffey’s parents. After al this time it would be brilliant to place him in the family tree. It would also be brilliant to find the link between his children who remained in Alabama and the Sheffey’s who live there today.


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