Do You Come Across Themes in Your Genealogy?

Genealogy is a crazy experience. There’s just no getting around it. It’s the reason why I keep an open mind. You just never know what’s going to crop up. And if you’re genealogy experience is anything like mine, you get certain themes in your family research.

At the moment, Quakers are my theme du jour.

I’ll explain.

At first, all of the African-descended ancestors I found and researched in the US were enslaved. Which, to be honest, was to be expected. With the expectation of my maternal grandfather’s paternal line (which I just don’t know enough about), all known African descended lines had enslaved ancestors. Not a whiff of one free person, much less a whole free family, of colour. And then there were. And then that’s all I found – line after line of free families of colour stretching back to the 1690s. So that was one surprise.

On the European descended side, it was all solidly German, and then Franco-German. And then, with one shaky leaf hint on Ancestry…it was nothing but Scots-Irish. Everywhere I looked, there were new Scots-Irish ancestors where none had previously existed.

My European ancestors appeared to be solid burgers; that is, to say, part of the Tudor Era proto middle class. Then, out of the blue, it went from middle class to aristocratic to royal. That was crazy.

Each theme lasted for weeks. It’s like setting aside one set of lenses to view the world and using a new set of lenses.

There’s been no rhyme or reason to this experience. It is what it is. There’s absolutely no hint of something – and then, for quite a while, that new theme seems to be all that exists. Put simply, it’s everywhere you look.

I’ve been spending some time researching the female lines of my Scottish-American Josey family of Rich Square, Northampton, North Carolina. This was an old Church of Scotland family. Honestly. You couldn’t get more Church of Scotland than this lot. And then it happened: a marriage record for my 4th great grand aunt, Margaret Josey. A Quaker marriage record, if you will, documenting her marriage to Robert Peele. The antennae immediately went up. Would there be a connection to my Harlan ancestors, who I’ve only recently found out were English Quakers and not German Lutherans?

Well, it really didn’t come as a great surprise when I saw a Quaker marriage record for one of their daughters ,who married a Mendenhall. The Mendenhall family are my distant cousins through my Quaker Harlan ancestors. A quick check of this new Mendenhall had him quickly placed on the Mendenhall branch of my family tree.

Basically, two of my distant relations from two completely different parts of my family tree had just married one another. And both lines were now connected to a third family, the Harlans, from yet another separate part of the tree.

The descendants of Margaret Josey and Robert Peele would go on to marry further descendants from the Harlan-Mendenall-Bailey-White-Carpenter family with links to southwest England, Armagh (northern Ireland) and Chester County, Pennsylvania. To simply, I’m going to call this rather large family the Quaker Harlans.

Image showing hedge with interconnecting tree branches
This is a pretty good visual metaphor!  Photo Credit: “The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland” from PlusThings via

To put this discovery into an overall context, let’s look at the great-grand-parent level of my tree. I have eight family names at this level:

Maternal Grandmother:

Harling (Edgefield, South Carolina)
Matthews (Edgefield, South Carolina)

Maternal Grandfather:

Josey (Rich Square, Northampton, North Carolina)
Turner (Charles County, Maryland)

Paternal Grandmother:

Bates ( Henrico, Virginia)
Roane (King William & Henrico, Virginia)

Paternal Grandfather:

Clark (Smyth & Wythe, Virginia)
Sheffey (Smyth & Wythe, Virginia)

There were now old Quaker Harlan links to three of my great-grandparent level lines: Matthews, Josey and Sheffey (distant cousin Margaret White, a Harlan descendant through her father’s line, married my 4th great grand uncle, Maj. Henry Lawrence Sheffey of Cripple Creek, Wythe, VA).

There’s a possible fourth link on my Roane line through the Ball family. If I can confirm this potential new lead, that who mean there was a link to the Quaker Harlans for half of my great grandparents lines. That’s what I mean by ‘crazy’.

I raise my hand and admit I know next to nothing about the Quaker faith. Again, it’s not something that was really covered in school apart from the fact that Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers. However, through all this family research, I see there were established and thriving Quaker communities in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Not just Pennsylvania. Compaired to the in-depth history lessons taught about the Pilgrims and their beliefs, I really do know precious little about the pioneering Quakers.

So not only am I seeing Quaker ancestors everywhere, at the moment, I see descendants from one Quaker family group in some pretty unexpected places.

A friend of mine says I should be surprised considering how small the colonial population was in Colonial America. There were only some 2,148,076+ spread across the thirteen colonies (European/African descended split of 79%/21% ++). In other words, if all of your family lines can be found in the American colonies before the 1770s, they were the base population of the country. It only makes sense that their lines would have the greatest number of descendants in the country’s population. And, through their descendants, would connect a staggering number of families together through marriages and through DNA. He laughed when he said that Americans should be nicer to one another: we just don’t know who we’re related to.

It’s not just family lines and religions either. I’m also finding themes with places. Why do Frederick County, Maryland and Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland link to so many of my great grandparent level lines between 1770 and 1850? This too is another theme at the moment. A crazy coincidence? Perhaps. Only time will tell.


+ Springston, C. 2013. Population of the 13 Colonies 1610-1790, YT&T.

++ Lemon, J.T. Colonial America in the Eighteenth Century, Chapter 6, University of Toronto. p. 123

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