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Month: December 2018

Colon Williams of Alleghany Co, NC

Colon Williams of Alleghany Co, NC

DNA testing is a wonderful thing.  That’s how I feel right now.  If you like mysteries and the challenge of solving them, this is a good time to be in the business.  Whether your taste tends toward Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Jessica Fletcher, or Scully and Mulder, we can each include ourselves among those who are trying to solve life’s greatest mysteries.  Always remember, the truth is out there!

It was about 25 years ago in the 1990s that I learned my great grandfather Colon Williams came to Alleghany Co, NC, from England.  As I started building my family tree in those early days as a beginning genealogist, I realized that he was my most recent immigrant ancestor.  I wanted to know where he came from, who he was, and what brought him to the mountains of North Carolina.  An article in the “Alleghany County Heritage” book stated that he was born on 3/11/1820 and that he taught mining engineering at Oxford University.  (I later learned that he probably didn’t teach at Oxford, but he was in the mining business.)  In 1998 I visited the Ashe Co courthouse and found his marriage record.  He married Patsy Irwin on 9/25/1858.  For the next 15 years, that’s the earliest record I found of him.

Colon Williams, born 1821 in Cornwall, England.
Colon Williams, born 1821 in Cornwall, England.

In 2014 I decided to give it another try and see what I could find.  I searched online for records of a Colon Williams in England and was amazed at how many there were.  That was a much more common name that I expected.  I had heard from close cousins that my ancestor supposedly had another family in England, and that his children’s names in North Carolina were the same as his children in England.  Now that sounds strange, but at least it provided a clue.

Skipping through the hours and days of searching through records, I eventually found a Colan Williams who boarded a ship in Liverpool and traveled to New York in 1857.  I found census records for what appeared to be the same man in Cornwall, England, who was the right age and had a family there in the 1851 census.  Earlier, in the 1841 census, he was a teenager in the house of his parents, Colan and Mary Williams.  His brother was Emanuel and his sister was Mary.  That was interesting because my ancestor Colon Williams named a son Emanuel and a daughter Mary.  Coincidence?  If this Colan Williams in Cornwall was my ancestor, then he came from a long line of men by the same name who had lived there since at least the early 1700s.  In fact, he was the fifth generation in a row to have the name Colan Williams!

That’s all I could find until last week when the DNA test for one of my cousins showed a close match with a man named Andrew Bell in England.  His mother was a Williams, and he had traced his tree back to his great great grandfather who was named – you guessed it, Colan Williams from Cornwall.  But there was a problem.  His ancestor was born in 1858.  My ancestor had already left England and was in America at that time.

After trading a few emails with Andrew, we’ve been able to piece together quite a story.  It’s fascinating that both of us had part of the story, but without the missing pieces, we only had questions.  Now, after sharing information and DNA tests, we both know more about our Williams ancestors.

As it turns out, Colan Williams was married three times.  It appears that he first married Joanna Oats in 1846 and they had three children:  William J. (1849), Samuel (1851), and Joanna (1853).  Perhaps wife Joanna died, because Colan remarried to Ann Ellis in 1856.  This is where Andrew’s line comes from.  He always knew that his great great grandfather Colan Williams (1858) was the son of Ann Ellis.  Now we’ve not only found an 1856 marriage record between Colan and Ann, but we have the DNA evidence showing that Andrew is related to my Williams line.  Together, the DNA and the marriage record present a convincing argument that we both descend from Colon Williams (1821) who came to America.

But there’s more.  In the 1980s, Andrew’s grandmother wrote notes about her father-in-law.  She wrote that Colan Williams (1858) went to America in 1876 in search of his father who was also named Colan.  The son was angry at his unknown father for leaving his mother, and he was determined to find him.  He never did.  In fact, the elder Colon likely never knew he had a son with wife Ann.  The ship sailed on 8/25/1857, and the younger Colan was born the spring of 1858, in the month of April, May, or June.  The elder Colon might have already been in America before his wife back in England knew she had a baby on the way.  Would he have stayed if he had known?  This is one of those pivotal forks in the path of history.  If he had stayed, I wouldn’t be here to write this article.  So, yeah, I’m biased in favor of him leaving, and so are several other people in Alleghany Co and around the country!

I still don’t know the circumstances of his leaving.  From what I’ve read, mining became more difficult and less profitable in the mid 1800s in Cornwall, so maybe Colon Williams left temporarily to find work in America.  Perhaps his wife expected him to return, and so she named her son after him.  Another fact lends credibility to the fact that he had planned to return.  Traveling with Colon on the ship was a 20 year old man named Robert Ellis.  After doing some research, it appears that he was the younger brother of Colon’s wife.   Colon traveled to America with his brother-in-law who was also in the mining profession!  Again, all of these pieces are lining up nicely.

Colon and Robert arrived in New York on 9/12/1857.  Robert is listed in the 1860 census living in Michigan, and it appears that he later moved to Australia.  Colon stayed in America, but he seems to have quickly moved south.  Twelve months after his arrival in New York, he was married to Patsy Irwin in 1858 in Ashe Co.  They are my great great great grandparents, and I descend from their youngest son John M. Williams who was born in 1868.  I wonder what he knew about his father’s past in England.  How much did Colon tell his American family about his family back in England?  Some of those personal notes might remain a mystery, but thanks to DNA testing, both me and my cousin in England have been able to expand our family trees and learn more about our Williams ancestry.




Choosing a DNA Test

Choosing a DNA Test

If you’re new to DNA testing, it can be confusing to understand the variety of tests offered, the different companies in the DNA business, and what each test offers. While everyone’s opinions vary, knowing certain facts about the different tests will make the decision easier.

I did my first DNA test in 2004, and I now manage tests for over 30 friends and family members. Those tests are scattered among each of the four major testing companies: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage.

All four companies offer some of the same information.   They each provide an estimate on how much of your ancestry is from different regions around the world.  They also provide you with a list of your DNA relatives. That is, of the thousands of people around the world who have also taken a DNA test, you get to see a list of who is related to you. This can be really exciting, and it’s the primary reason people take a DNA test for genealogy.  You have the option to contact each match and then share information.  After all, a single DNA test is useless.  It’s only when we compare them that we begin to get the full story of what our own DNA can tell us.

These autosomal DNA tests usually match people who are related within 6 generations, and sometimes even farther back. The pieces of DNA that are passed from one generation to the next are random, and so the amount you share with 3rd, 4th, or 5th cousins is also random. That means you might show up as a DNA match to one 4th cousins, but not to another.  I’ve read that 50% of 4th cousins will show up as a match.  99% of 2nd cousins will match, and 90% of 3rd cousins will.

Deciding which test to take depends on what you want to accomplish. For adoptees or other people who are looking for answers to specific questions, the best bet is to have your DNA at each of these companies. You never know which one that close cousin might have used, and if your test isn’t there, you’ll never know it.

While the four major companies offer much of the same type of information, each one has some differences.

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) is the company I use for all my DNA testing. They call their autosomal DNA test the Family Finder test, and last month it was on sale for $39, the lowest price ever for a DNA test. Their website is relatively simple to use, and they provide all the information needed to investigate the stories hidden within the DNA results. FTDNA offers a chromosome browser that is essential to fully understanding your results. The list of DNA matches tells you THAT you’re related to those people, but the chromosome browser allows you to determine HOW your’e related to them.

FTDNA also offers a yDNA test for men who want to determine their patrilineal line, or the line of his father’s father’s father’s father, etc. One cheek swab can be used for both the Family Finder test and the yDNA test.

AncestryDNA also offers autosomal DNA testing. Their biggest advantage is that they have a larger database of test takers. More people have tested with them than with any of the other companies, and that means you’re more likely to have a close match with them. However, AncestryDNA is the only company that does not offer a chromosome browser. That means even if you have some interesting close matches, your AncestryDNA results are not going to tell you whether that person is on your father or mother’s side. AncestryDNA tells you THAT you’re related to someone but does not provide enough information to explain HOW you’re related to them. Another criticism of AncestryDNA is that they require a subscription to have full access to features on the site. Since I have a subscription to access their historical records, I’m not sure exactly what those limitations are.

23andMe is another company that many people have heard in commercials and advertisements. They offer the autosomal test as well as some health related information. Their website is awkward, but at least they do offer the chromosome browser. The cost of the DNA test is usually more expensive than that offered by FTDNA and AncestryDNA.

I’ve only recently begun to use MyHeritage, but I don’t like what I see so far. The website is cluttered and difficult to navigate. They are subscription based, and since I don’t have a subscription, I keep clicking on links that turn into dead ends. It’s frustrating to get excited about a new match, then find out you can’t learn more until you pay for a subscription.  They also limit the size of the family tree you can upload, and that seems somewhat counterproductive. But at least they have a chromosome browser.

There is a fifth site that I need to mention, and that is It’s free!! At gedmatch, you can upload your DNA test from any of these four companies and compare to anyone else who has done the same. So if you tested at FTDNA and someone else tested at 23andme, you can see if you’re a match even though you tested with different companies. They offer many tools that make it easy to see which tests match each other and how. Comparing DNA tests is an important step toward breaking through those genealogy brick walls.

In summary, if you want to take one DNA test, I recommend the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. If you want to take a second to find more cousins, then add AncestryDNA to fish in the bigger pond. When you get your results back, upload them to gedmatch for free.

This is only skimming the surface of DNA testing. There’s a great blog by Roberta Estes called DNAeXplained ( that goes into much more depth about any DNA topic you can imagine. I’ve learned a lot from what she’s written, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about how to use to DNA to uncover secrets about your family history.