GA Live S01 E07: Critical Thinking & Genealogy Research

Genealogical research is filled with mysteries, conundrums, conflicting information, and dubious claims…which needs solving in some way shape or form to reach a resolution and the truth. Critical thinking is an essential tool/skill every serious genealogist and family historian ought to use in the course of his or her research.

So what is critical thinking? says that critical thinking is:

“…that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it [thinking about how you think]. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism [not making everything about us or our viewpoint] and sociocentrism [a tendency to assume the superiority or rightness of one’s own social group].”

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • Thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems

Join Donya and Brian as they chat about how critical thinking is embedded in their genealogical research…And the amazing successes they’ve had piecing lost branches of their family via this essential skill.

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Amy Roan of Halifax, North Carolina: a mystery with some answers

Last Wills and Testaments are an essential part of my ‘go to’ tool kit when researching ancestors. Amy Roan is the perfect reason why.

Amy was born approximately in 1752 in Halifax County, North Carolina. She is a member of the Roan family group who were resident in early-to-Mid 18th Century Halifax County as well as Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina. This is a particularly difficult family group to research.  18th Century records are patchy at best for them. This makes it difficult to understand how the different Roan family groups in this region of colonial America are related to one another. DNA cousin matches and the use of specific family names within this group show there is a blood connection between these family groups. The progenitor of this line remains something of a mystery. However, a Will that I discovered yesterday might hold a clue as to who the founding member of the North Carolina family was.

Amy Roan would go on to marry Isham Hawkins and raise a family in Halifax, North Carolina.

Amy is a person of interest. My father, my sister and I match around a half dozen or so of her descendants on AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch. So I know there is a connection between these North Carolina Roans, and my Lancaster, Pennsylvania Roan kin. The North Carolina Roans are also related to my Scots-Irish Virginia Roanes.

The trouble I’ve had, on AncestryDNA in particular, are the family trees of Amy’s descendants. Most of these trees cite Amy’s parents as Colonel William Roane and Sarah Upshaw (my 7th Great Grandparents). A handful cite Colonel William Upshaw Roane and Elizabeth “Betty” Judith Ball (my 6th great grandparents) as her parents. I understand the confusion. There is a proliferation of early 18th Century William Roan(e)s in colonial America.

However, the name Amy never appears in the two Wills associated with either of these Essex-Virginia based William Roanes. Amy was alive and well when both of these men passed.  Her name should appear in either of their Wills if either man was her father. The fact that it didn’t appear in either Will was a big, old, red flag for me.

Another red flag was there are no existing records that show that either Essex County, Virginia-based William Roane ever owned land in North Carolina. True, such records could have been destroyed in either the American Revolutionary War or the Civil War. However, once again, had either man owned land in North Carolina, such tracts would have definitely been part of their probate records and would have been mentioned in their respective Wills. While both men had huge land holdings, neither had land in North Carolina. To-date, no proof exists that they had any dealings or connections to North Carolina.

The last red flag was the implied wealth within the households of the Essex Country William Roanes and the very modest household of the William Roan from North Carolina. The Virginia Williams were very wealthy men. Amy’s father, judging by his Will, had a very modest estate when compared to the other two Williams.

In short, things just weren’t adding up.

The Will below is proof that neither of the above William’s were her father (click each image for a larger picture):



Source Citation: Halifax County, North Carolina, wills; Author: North Carolina. County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (Halifax County); Probate Place: Halifax, North Carolina
Source Information: North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.
Original data: North Carolina County, District and Probate Courts.

This Will not only confirms the father of Amy, it also provides the names of her siblings. My father, sister and I also match a number of their descendants.

Of course, when it comes to genealogy, when one question is answered…more questions arise. So who is this William Roan, who owned land in both Halifax and Caswell Counties, North Carolina? I’m still working on that one. However, in the meantime, I believe the way he spelled his surname is a vital clue.

I’m going to take a quick, wee step back in time. The oldest known and proven Roane ancestor that I have is Archibald Gilbert Roan(e) of Grahsa, Antrim, northern Ireland (1680-1751).  Archibald had 5 children, all of whom emigrated to America:

  1. Col William Roane, Sr of Essex County, Virginia;
  2. James Roane of Essex County, Virginia;
  3. Andrew Roan of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania;
  4. Margaret Roan (married Captain John Barrett II) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and
  5. Reverend John Roan of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

While James and William adopted the Roane (with an ‘e’) spelling, their Pennsylvania-based siblings used the Roan (without an ‘e’) spelling. Roan, thus far, seems to be the consistent spelling variation used by the Pennsylvania branches of the family.  Which leads me to believe that Amy’s branch is linked to the Pennsylvania side of the family.

There is a William Roan within the Pennsylvania family who is the strongest, most likely candidate to be the same William Roan resident in North Carolina: one William Roan, born about 1736 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – the son of Andrew Roane (see #3 above) and Mary Margaret Walker (my 8x great uncle and aunt).

While the most likely answer, this remains speculative. As with many colonial-era American ancestors, I haven’t yet found records showing how William Roan went from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Nor have I found any records that cite this William’s parents.

As for the William Roan who is known to be Andrew’s son? I haven’t found any records for him either other than a legacy left to him in Andrew Roan’s Will.

It’s my hope that now that I have identified who Amy’s father really is (and who he isn’t), that my North Carolina descended Roan cousins and I can focus on taking Amy’s father’s story further back in time.

I can’t stress enough how essential using Last Wills and Testaments are in genealogical research. The above example is the perfect example of why this is so.

Top tip video: Using FTDNA Chromosome Browser raw data + MS Excel for your rearch

So you’ve transferred your raw autosomal DNA data from Ancestry or 23andme to Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). So now what?

Downloading FTDNA’s Chromosome Browser raw data and working with it in MS Excel (or another spreadsheet software) can lead to some amazing discoveries. I was so excited about what I discovered that I had to share this top trick.

This video will step you through the process that I’ve developed for my own genetic genealogy research. Step by step.

Pushing the clock back for your slave ancestors

Your search for African American ancestors needn’t end at 1860 or 1850. and have marriage records you can access.  And these can be a goldmine of information.  After the Civil War, marriage records for freed slaves and their children were registered.  When I accessed these records, I found the names of ancestors I’d been searching for but couldn’t find any other way.  For instance, the mother of  my great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey.

I couldn’t find his mother’s Christian Name, much less her Surname.  She didn’t live with him or his family in the 1870, 1880 or 1900 Census returns. Therefore, her name wasn’t recorded with theirs.  I didn’t have a name to search for and couldn’t find any information about her in any of the census records.  I only found her when I searched for Daniel’s marriage records.

This record produced a goldmine of information.  It gave the name of Daniel’s mother, Margaret Clark.  It also gave his wife’s maiden name (before this, I only knew her as Jane A. without a Surname) – and it gave the names of Jane’s parents (born in the 1820s – so I’d taken this slave ancestry journey well beyond 1850).  This meant I could do a family search on Mr & Mrs White in the 1870’s census in order to find Jane’s siblings.  I did a quick search on the White family and found them and their children in the 1860 and 1850 Slave Schedules too!

Last, but not least, the marriage record confirmed the name of Daniel’s father (which I knew already but was happy to have verified by another source – more about this in another post).

So one marriage record filled in quite a few blanks…and opened up new avenues.

The last interesting bit of information was that Daniel is listed as being ‘divorced’ in this record. Out of curiosity, I spelt Daniel’s name a slightly different way (using Daniel Sheffy instead of Daniel Sheffey) and discovered he had indeed been married before. Which answered a question I’d had about why there was such a large gap between his firstborn child and subsequent children with Jane White.

This research also proved another thing for me.  My paternal grandfather’s family had deep roots in Wythe County, Virginia.

Another source of ancestral information is Freedman’s Bank records. Just like it sounds, Freedman’s Bank was established at the end of the Civil War for freed slaves.  Why is it important?  Freed slaves typically listed other family members when they opened up accounts.  It sounds  a bit like ‘Big Brother’.  However, in terms of genealogy, it’s another great source of family information.

You can find out more about it and its records here:

Getting to grips with the 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedule census – Part 2

What’s the detective work when searching for your ancestors in the Slave Schedules?

A bit of background is needed:  Joe Blogs got his surname in one of two ways: he (or one of his ancestors) was a direct blood descendant of a white farmer or plantation owner. So he (or his ancestor) took that family’s name as their own.  Alternatively, Joe Bloggs just assumed the name upon being freed.

The next step is to look for white slave owning Bloggs in Wythe, Virginia.  You can do this on or – both have 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedules.  If you’re lucky, there will only be one or two Blogg families in Wythe who owned slaves. For this example, there was only one.

In the list of slaves on the 1860 Slave Census, you will be looking for a black male aged 33 (or close to this age). With luck he’ll be there.  If not, look at other slave holding families who lived near or around the white Mr (or Ms – because women owned slaves too!) Bloggs. If you haven’t found your ancestor via this route, there is a link at the bottom of this post with information about other routes you can try.  So don’t give up!

In this instance, we’re going to say that you did find a black male aged 33 listed as a slave of a Mr Daniel Bloggs.  That slave now has a name – the ancestor you were looking for.

So we do the same thing for the 1850 Census Slave Schedule; this time bearing in mind that Joe Bloggs would be 23.

Now if your ancestor Joe Bloggs was married to Jane, aged 42, in the 1870 census with children (say he had a son aged 11, a daughter aged 14 and another son aged 20) you can probably find them on the same census records.

So here goes:

You found Joe Bloggs in the 1860 census.  He was the 33 year old Black male.  There is a female slave with an age of 32, a 1 year old male, a 4 year old female and a 10 year old male – you have probably found Joe Blogg’s wife and children.

Going back to 1850, you found a 23 year old male (Joe Bloggs).  Along with him, there is a 22 year old female, and a 5 month old infant.  Again, you have probably found his wife and eldest son.  So it’s safe to give them names.

The above examples work very well with farms and plantations with a small number of slaves – anything up to 10 or 12.  It’s not impossible to do with larger plantations – just more time consuming.

Have a look at a 1860 Slave Census from 1860:

a blank Slave Schedule

An example of a Slave Schedule

So what happens if you want to go further back than 1850?  Catch the next post for some tips and tricks.

Here’s a link to a great article with more tips on how to use the 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedules:

Getting to grips with the 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedule census – Part 1

If you’re an African American, the chances are you will come up against Slave Schedule census records for 1850 and 1860.  Precious few African Americans can avoid them.  While these census records offer some challenges, it needn’t mean your ancestral search has to end with them.  If you can trace your ancestors to 1870, depending on their age, there is a very strong likelihood that you can find them in one or both of these Slave Schedules.

For instance, let’s say that your ancestor Joe Bloggs appears on the 1870 census (let’s use census returns for Wythe County, Virginia  as an example) as a 43 year old black male. There are some good clues here for you to work with:

  1. Year of birth:  If Joe Bloggs is 33 in 1870, that would make his birth year around 1837/36.  Age and birth years aren’t always recorded accurately in census records, but they do give you a ball park.  If you have to choose two people with the same name in the same county, Joe Bloggs with a birth year of 1820 won’t be the person you’re looking for.
  2. His age:  he would be 33 years old in 1860 and 23 years old in 1850
  3. His race: he is cited as ‘black’ and not ‘mulatto’.  While this factor isn’t always consistent across census years, it’s still a good clue to keep in mind.  You will come across people sharing the same name.  Any difference between them will help you eliminate people in your search.
  4. The county: If you find that your ancestors were living in the same country between 1920 back through to 1870, then that county is more than likely where your earlier ancestors came from too.  While there were those in the South who left their birth counties after the Civil War, many stayed.  And oftentimes, they stayed in the area where they were born.

So let’s say your Blogg ancestors lived in Whythe County, Virginia from 1920 through to 1870.  So given a choice between two Joe Blogs with similar ages but one lives in Wythe Country and the other one lives in King William County –  the chances are the one in King William County is not the person you’re looking for.

So these are clues worth bearing in mind when we reach the year 1860. The census for 1860 was the last of its kind.  Your ancestor will appear in what’s called a Slave Schedule.   Slave censuses listed slave owners by name – and slaves by gender, colour (Black or Mulatto are the only two signifiers) and age. Slave name very, very rarely appear.

Here’s an example of a Slave Schedule:

If the names of slaves aren’t given on the census, then how do you find your ancestor?  You use the four clues given above, some simple math to calculate ages, and a bit of detective work.

More on the detective work bit in the next post!