My 18th Century Virginia Ball family genealogy challenge

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.

imaging showing Left to Right: Mary (Ball) Washington (My 1st cousin and George Washington's mother), Martha (Dandridge) Custis Washington (First Lady), Colonel Robert "King" Carter (acting Governor of Virginia), and Thomas Lee (Governor of Virginia)
A tiny fraction of some of my ancestors from the extended Ball family tree. Left to Right: Mary (Ball) Washington (My 1st cousin and George Washington’s mother), Martha (Dandridge) Custis Washington (First Lady & 3rd cousin), Colonel Robert “King” Carter (acting Governor of Virginia & 2nd cousin), and Thomas Lee (Governor of Virginia & 2nd cousin)

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.

Multiple marriages

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.

  1. 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.
  2. She could be Dorothea Spotswood, with subsequent marriages to a Custis, then a Parke, and finally, to a Lee.
  3. She could be Dorothea Spotswood Custis, married to a Parke, and then to a Lee.
  4. 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.

Family size

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 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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38 thoughts on “My 18th Century Virginia Ball family genealogy challenge

  1. Hello, I am very interested in researching Ball Ancestry. I have two lines back to Daniel Ball (DNA circle on Ancestry along with 16 other descendants so far). He lived 1794-1831. This Ball line moved from Virginia into Granville Co. NC as noted in a book about history of the county. I’ve researched the family back into Northern England using various Ancestry resources. Would love to collaborate with Ball descendants.

    1. Correction
      Daniel Ball 1745-1794., son of…Daniel Ball 1713-1794, son of Edward Ball1670-1726.

      Daniel Ball, Jr’s descendants in my tree are Osborn Ball, Chesley R., George N. and my grandmother Ida Florence Ball.

      A Ball uncle and nephew married sisters to create my two Ball lines. They were sons of Daniel Ball Sr.

      Another phenomena to add to the miix is that they named some children after the mother’s maiden name. Osborn’s mother was Elizabeth Osborne. My other line is James, his son James and Nancy C. Ball my great gramdmother.

      I have many points of confusion for this family
      There are so mamy James Ball’s living all over NC at about the same time. Amy of them in my tree reportedly lived in 1794. Not sure that is accurate.

    2. Brian, I’m laughing so hard after midnight at these words, so true! I’m a Ball and many of my lines go right back to Morris County or Elizabethtown area with Squiers, Meekers, Potters, Ostermans, Campbell’s, Stewart’s, MacKenzies, Gordons, Lewis, Thompsons, Saxtons, Remingtons running all over the place. Thanks for this great article! I’m with you, start from scratch, use only real documents and follow the sisters I might add! Mothers, sisters, aunts!

  2. Are you going to publish a book? I am beginning to believe that all of my mother’s ancestors and half of my father’s date back to this era and the families that you are discussing. I would happily purchase this, as would many others more than likely.

  3. Hello my names is Jerame Dees like to contact you, have all same ancestors you do above, Lewis , ball, Byrd, Robinson/Robertson family. William robinson married Nellie ball. In the tomb George Washington is beside Anne Washington , wife of William robinson. DNA is the only way to answer time old questions. George Washington 9th great grandfather is William ‘braveheart’ Wallace . Mt Vernon doesn’t have that info but my DNA will help prove it. Thanks if you are interested be glad to hear from you. Read you love a challenge I could use that drive to help find the truth. History as it was . Thanks

    1. I have found William Wallace in my Ball line too! I never dreamed that the Ball’s where in Scotland.
      Have you ever noticed that pictures of a few old castles in Scotland have round turretts on them?
      Well……The Balls fled France and escaped to Northern Scotland! Look on “Wikimedia”
      Ball was spelled de Balole or de Bailoil. Small world!

      1. Hi Marian

        I found a link from the Ball family in Scotland to the Balloil family from France also. John Balloil from France was King if Scotland before Robert the Bruce. He was imprisoned by King Edward and thrown in the Tower only to be released if he agreed to return to France, which he did. His son actually held the Kingship of Scotland briefly as well, after Robert the Bruce was killed. The Balloil family held lands in England and Scotland and a castle and built a University. It’s said that the male line of Balloil died out. But I’ve found some evidence that they changed their name to Ball. My great great grandfather and Great grandfather were both William Ball and my grand father was Yruman William Ball. My Grandfather always said we were related to Mary Ball, George Washington’s mother, but I’m just starting to put out tree back together after a fire in 2015 destroyed our family records. However, I do have DNA Records that I’m hoping will help me to make some connections to an accurate family tree.
        Any assistance would we Grand.
        Thank you
        Kathleen Ball

  4. My GG grandfather, Joseph Ball, was born in Virginia in the early 1800’s and moved to Ohio by 1830. I am using DNA matches to identify common ancestors. Please contact me if you are interested in sharing DNA info.

  5. I am trying to figure out if we are looking at the same “tree”. I can trace back to a James Ball (b. 1620) in a simple line using online sources but the hedge maze out from there is a bit over my head.
    James Ball – John Ball – Moses Ball – John Ball (revolutionary war) – Horatio Ball – Edwin Ball – Luther Clyde Ball – Richard C Ball (my maternal grandfather)

    1. Hi John,

      I’m afraid those names are unfamiliar to me. There may be a connection – just one I haven’t found and/or explore yet. I’m descended from Captain William Ball IV, who left Barkham, Berkshire and settled in Lancaster, Virginia. This line married into families like: Washington, Mottrom, Carter, Armistead, Pugh, etc.

    2. Your Luther is interesting to me! I don’t have my notes or computer but my line, I believe goes on like this – Luther – Calvin (KY)- Cyrus (IN) who had sons Richard, Seneca, Eugene and Cyrus Gordon Ball (my guy)- George Gordon Ball to Cable Gordon Ball (my maternal grandfather IN)

  6. I am a ball descendent, my great grandfather (x9) was colonial William ball, his son Joseph Ball my great grandfather (x8) is Marys brother who married Augustine and had George the first president 🙂 My grandmother is Rushia Gay Ball, daughter of Thomas Jefferson Ball, anywho, I love learning info on my ancestry. Feel free to reach out,

  7. I am descended from John Floyd Ball (1815-1859). He was descended from Isaac Ball (1758-1819). Isaac was descended from Richard Ball (1715-1790). Richard was descended from John Ball (1690-1741).
    My question is–who is John Ball’s father? There are several family trees online that say it is Col. Joseph Ball, the father of Mary Ball. Do you have a suggestion about how I can find the answer?

    1. Hi Jeff. Property records might open up a new line of investigation for you. Try to find early property records for your John. Look at other Balls whose properties were either adjacent to, or very near, your John Ball. Brothers, for instance, might subdivide property bequeathed to them by a parent. If there are Balls who are close to your John’s property, start doing a workup on them using a mirror or research tree. Look for their probate records and deeds. It’s an arduous process, but worth it in the end. I wouldn’t consult lineage books or other trees. I learned that lesson the hard way years ago when I first started researching. I hope this helps.

  8. My 5-6 generations of the Ball family is from Pickensville, AL, and moved there from Chester, SC in early 1800’s, where there are many more. Some came from early NC , GA, Early VA, Earlier MD, PA, DE, Connecticut, NY, all over Canada. Early Continental soldiers/settlers in the Old Garden Cemetery, in Pickensville fought under Augustine Washington, Gen Nathaniel Green, Gen Andrew Pickens in and around Charleston and in the Red Sticks War in AL. They lived in AL before the Louisiana Purchase in 1819, when it was a huge Territory. My DNA testing was done in Ancestry, 23. My Brother Wilson Irwin Ball had his DNA with Geni in 2012-13 timeframe. I have almost 2000 matches but have only been added to the Wilson family group. I’ve read now for years but only documented with facts and finally stopped but I know Im connected to many other early names in America. There’s too much false information to get to the truth without DNA. I’ve learned a lot from reading but cannot do it alone.

  9. I live in Northern Virginia. My Immediate family includes Ball names like William Owen, Edward Louis/Lewis, Thomas Roy, Wilson Irwin, Suzanne. These names are repeated over the generations in many states. The early Edward Ball in Middlesex VA can be found in the Historic Episcopal Church names and in the Cemetery. They moved to NC. There is Worldwide Ball Family study now and it’s probably another reason for the complexity.

  10. Hello from Virginia! How are you coming along with all this? I’m very interested in reading more about this. My family are part of the original Virginia Ball family and would like to connect the dots. Hope to see more soon!

    1. Hello Chris, and thank you for the message. We’ve gone as far as we can with digital records. Once the team has raised research funds, the next step will be living in various VA archives for a spell, sifting through Ball family documents…and a trip to the British National Archives US Colonial records to fill in crucial blanks for the VA Ball family.

  11. Hello, My 3rd GGF is Silas Ball
    BIRTH OCT 1832 • Russell, Virginia, United States
    DEATH 1900 • West Virginia, USA
    I have traced the family back to Colonel William Ball 1615–1680
    BIRTH 1615 • Barkham, Berkshire, , England
    DEATH 1680 • Millenbeck, Lancaster, Virginia, United States
    9th great-grandfather
    But how can I be sure that this is the right Ball line ?
    Any help you can give me is greatly appreciated. Thanks so much!!
    Tania Davis

    1. Hello Tania,

      I honestly feel your pain. The Balls are not an easy family to research due to too many repeating names. Too many people with the same name have either been confused for one another – or merged.

      I was fortunate. My Balls are vua Judge Spencer Roane of VA and TN. Due to his lineage and his wife’s lineage (Patrick Henry’s daughter, Anne), my line of Balls have been gone through with a fine tooth comb over the centuries.

      I checked my tree and I don’t have your Silas in it. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to hit and do a search on the Ball family. Read through the various lineage books – and ask for people’s input about the content from the books you’re using on various Facebook genealogy groups. Some books are riddled with errors while others are ok to use.

      I hope this helps

  12. I, too am researching the Ball family on behalf of my husband, who is descended from Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Ball in Missouri. Keep us posted!

  13. Susannah Ball m Andrew Susong b 1799 – She, supposedly, the descendant of John Ball, brother of Moses Sr. Anyone else? Gedmatch kit a599911

  14. My Ball family were Quakers in the 1600s living in Virginia. They moved to Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska and settled in Fall River County, South Dakota

    1. Hi Pamela, I’m researching the Ball Quakers as well out of Loudoun and Frederick VA counties harking back to John McFarlane Ball sr . Can we confer and see also if we are dna matches (if you’ve taken the test). Mike dot ball at ccci dot org.

  15. I’m a descendant of Moses Ball Sr, Moses Ball Jr, and his daughter Sarah Ball born 1780 fairfax va, she married John Kennedy Long Sr and lived in Hawkins County Tennessee. The family stayed in Hawkins county until 1920. Anyways, my Moses Ball was neighbors with George Washington and is in his Will. I believe the state now owns that land as apart of the Washington history. I am trying to confirm that Moses Ball Sr was a relation to George Washington somehow. Too many coincidences to not be in my opinion… some people say yes some people say it’s unproven, I can’t find the exact connection, too many unreliable family trees.

    1. Yes. Moses is my ancestor as well. I’ll have to find all my old research. But I have a DNA confirmed connection. Moses is a cousin of George Washington’s Mother – Ball family. Last I looked, however, past Moses Sr. the Ball family is a huge big messy tangle. Good Luck and keep me posted!

      1. I also lead back to Moses Ball. I found an old book that mentions Mary Ball Washington (BELLES AND CAVALIERS ) that mentions her brother, John Ball. Would love to connect.

    2. Jeri is right, beyond Moses is one huge, snarled mess. The one good thing, perhaps the only good thing, is that the family didn’t move around Virginia too much. My advice would be to really dig in at the county level, constructing your tree using marriage, tax, deed, and probate records. Plus Chancery suits. Just keep an eye out for the popular first names used in all of the Ball lines – this is where the mistakes occur

    3. Search online for Moses Ball or John Ball house in Arlington, Virginia. The cemeteries & history are there. Also the history of Ballston in Arlington, Virginia.

  16. My mother descends from the Ball family (what I have is Osborne Ball (1779-1860) m Martha “Patsey” Thomason 1785-1860.) She too, apparently like everyone, grew up being told she was related to Martha Ball. I am relatively new to genealogy research, but there is so much conflicting information regarding Osborne’s parents that I can’t make sense out of it. I wanted to follow this post in case my Ball connection ties in some where. Looking forward to any updates.

    1. My family has only been able to track our Ball family ancestry back to William Brewer Ball born about 1824 probably in Indiana but maybe in Ohio. I had been told that previous ancestors lived in Virginia. Does anyone know the parents of William Ball?

  17. Have you been able to find a death date for Anne Ball who married Edwin Conway in 1704. She was born 3 Oct 1686. The death dates I have seen are not correct. Anne was the half-sister to George Washington’s mother. There were eight or more children born to Edwin Conway, but not sure if they were all Anne Balls children. Edwin married Anne Hack in 1746, second wife.
    Thanks for any information anyone would have about this…

  18. Thomas Ball, father to Timothy Ball and son of Edward Ball, is my 8th great grandfather. I have read of speculation that Timothy Ball was related to George Washington, as Washington’s mother was a Ball. There is also local lore that Washington spent nights at Timothy Ball’s house in New Jersey, during the war, sometimes hiding his horse in the kitchen. I am stuck in an overwhelming Ball mystery.

  19. Hi! Also interested…Descendant of: Capt. John Ball thru
    Joseph Ball 1783
    James Andrew Ball 1833
    Calvin Ball 1872
    Ethel Ball 1902
    her son Kyle my dad

  20. Searching the Jairus Ball family any help would be greatly appreciated.

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