The time has come for me to grapple with my 18th Century Virginia Ball family ancestors. If that makes me sound more than a little reluctant…it’s because I am. The genealogy for this family online is a mess. A hot mess. It’s worse than the genealogy for my Roane family ancestors – and that’s saying something. I had to delete my first Roane family tree in its entirety and start from ground zero.
I have put this off for years. Literally. I’ve put it off because the very idea of tackling this family’s ancestral history and descendants is the stuff of genealogy nightmares.
It’s a good thing I love a challenge.
There are a few reasons why now is the right time for me to tackle this part of my family tree.
To begin, the Ball family is what I refer to as a ‘linking family’. Part of the Premier League of colonial Virginian families, the Balls were a part of the Who’s Who of 17th and 18th Century Virginia. Almost a century’s worth of labyrinthine marriages connects the Balls to families like Byrd, Carter, Chinn, Churchill, Custis, Edwards, Fox, Lewis, Lee, Mottram, Parke, Payne, Roane, Shackelford, Spencer, Stewart, Sa(u)nders, Washington, etc. Understanding how the Balls are related to each enables me to understand how I am connected to all of these families.
There’s a practical reason for the research. And it has nothing to do with famous or illustrious relations. On the one hand, this is my family and, like any genealogist, it’s about having an accurate family tree. On the other hand, these families were the largest slaveholders in Virginia. More than a few of the men from these families sired children with their slaves. This explains why I have so many DNA cousins, both black and white, who are connected to these families. For instance, I have a dozen or so African American Custis DNA matches on AncestryDNA, Gedmatch, and FamilyTree DNA. That’s on top of the two dozen or so white DNA Custis cousin matches on the same DNA services.
The connection lies somewhere within this side of my family tree.
There are a few reasons why this will be a daunting task:
Common family names
I understand where people have gone wrong in researching this family – and how these mistakes have become ancestral ‘fact’. When you have around 8 William Balls, all born within a few years of each other, confusion and mistakes are bound to arise. And when all of these Williams have the rank of either Captain or Colonel – something that should make it easier to distinguish between them – this too doesn’t shed any light on which Colonel or Captain William Ball you’re looking at in the course of doing some family research. Middle names go some ways toward distinguishing one from the other. However, in many of the cases I’ve seen thus far, middle names aren’t known.
Ultimately, Last Wills and Testaments have been excellent source material for working out family group relationships. Other researchers might insist that so-and-so was a son or daughter of a Ball family ancestor I’m researching. If that name isn’t cited in a parent’s Will, I won’t include it in my family tree. It’s a hard and fast rule that is serving me well.
My caveat to this is DNA tests. I’ve worked with a handful of black and white DNA cousins from this side of the family. We’ve shared DNA test results and worked together to pinpoint the ancestors we share in common. We’ve developed a habit of making a note on the applicable ancestor’s online profile about DNA test verification.
Life spans were short for many back in the 17th and 18th Centuries. People married more than once. And women tended to have children with each man they married. So there is a slew of half-siblings and half-relations generation after generation, each marrying into the same families within the same social strata. It’s endogamy on steroids.
This skews my estimated cousin ranges (whether someone is a third, fourth, or fifth cousin, etc) on DNA testing services.
Multiple marriages and maiden names
Multiple marriages can be an absolute nightmare when viewed through the genealogy lens. Especially when it comes to determining the maiden name for a woman who has married twice, three, and sometimes four. In too many family trees, a woman’s married name is used in lieu of her maiden name.
Take a name like Dorothea Spotswood Custis Parke Lee (I’m making this name up to illustrate a point). It looks harmless and straightforward enough. It isn’t. A seasoned genealogist has all sorts of questions when looking at a name like this.
- This could be her full name. She could be a Lee by birth, with her family throwing in paternal and maternal family surnames for her middle names. It was a common naming practice back in the day.
- She could be Dorothea Spotswood, with subsequent marriages to a Custis, then a Parke, and finally, to a Lee.
- She could be Dorothea Spotswood Custis, married to a Parke, and then to a Lee.
- She could also be Dorothea Spotswood Custis Parke, married to a Lee.
You get the idea. Correct maiden names matter. Because, and I can assure you on this, there will be women who had any of the names given in the 4 examples above. Only one of them will be correct in terms of an ancestor you’re researching.
It can really make you feel a bit like…
Not using a correct maiden name causes confusion that can take days, weeks, or months to figure out. In my worst-case scenario, it took me a little over a year to finally prove that a woman listed as Frances Roane, seemingly married to a cousin, William Roane, wasn’t born Frances Roane. William Roane was her second marriage. Born Frances Upshur, she first married William’s cousin, Robert Roane. Hence the name ‘Frances Roane’ on her marriage certificate to William.
That year-long research was entirely avoidable…if only the trees she appeared on had used her correct maiden name. Maiden names aren’t easy to find. My golden rule of thumb is this: if I’m not 100% certain about a maiden name, I leave it blank. I’ll make a public note to cover the name used on a marriage certificate and continue to search for her family origins.
One clue is the age a woman was when she married. In the 18th Century, it wasn’t uncommon for a 15 or 16-year-old girl to marry. Nor was it unusual for her to have her first child at 16, 17, or 18. So if I see a marriage certificate with a woman in her 20’s (or older), I treat it as a second marriage until otherwise verified. In other words, I don’t use the surname listed on the marriage certificate until I am 100% certain that this was indeed a first marriage.
The Ball family, including all of its allied families, is enormous. I had this notion that the elite families of the time had small-ish families. Perhaps 4 or 5 children. Not this lot. With or without multiple marriages, I’ve seen families with 9, 10, and, in some cases, 11 children. Most of the children survived until adulthood, were married, and, of course, had plenty of children of their own. And, of course, they married into the same pool of families. The word ‘labyrinthine’ is apt.
Just like other parts of my family tree where endogamy was prevalent, the extended Ball family is giving Ancestry.com heart palpitations. Ancestry’s family tree view doesn’t seem to cope very well with generation after generation of cousins marrying within an extensive extended family. Ancestry’s ‘relationship to me’ feature doesn’t cope very well either.
For instance, I can have an Ann Adams, a 1st cousin 9x removed, marrying Robert Cheatham, who is also a 1st cousin 9x removed. Yet, Ann might be displayed as ‘wife of 1st cousin 9x removed. Or Robert might be displayed as ‘husband of 1st cousin 9x removed’. In any case, one or the other of them will lose their ‘cousin’ status and become just a spouse of a cousin. Which, of course, has a knock-on effect on my AncestryDNA matches. If Ancestry sees this person as just a spouse of a relation – and not as a relation of mine in his/her own right – that knocks out their entire ancestral line from DNA matching hint results. Frustrating isn’t the word. This is happening throughout my tree.
In the meantime, I have an action plan. I made the decision to ignore public family trees entirely. I also won’t be consulting Family Collection Records (this too are filled with mistakes). I will limit myself to original records only…basically creating a Ball family tree from scratch.
As part of this process, there will be a few trips to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), where I’ll be working with specialist family historians. This will primarily be to work on the more difficult branches of the Ball family, those with scant records or information.
The research will be worth the effort. An accurate family tree for the family in Virginia will better enable me to match descendants from the wider family to the correct branch on the family tree. Which, in turn, will enable me to better understand a bevy of DNA matches.
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