Mama as guardian

Yesterday’s blog about the man being named guardian of his sister’s children sparked the inevitable flurry of “but… but… but…” comments from folks who had seen cases where women had in fact been named as guardians of their children.


There are always exceptions.

To just about every legal rule you can imagine.

That’s why The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite answer to almost any question about genealogy and the law is “it depends.”

And whether there would be an exception in a particular case, and a woman would be named as guardian of her children, rather than some man from her or her late husband’s family, depended on a number of factors.

The most common reasons why you might see an exception include:

• the time. Women’s rights first began to be acknowledged by the law with the passage of the first married women’s property acts in the 19th century.1 So the later the guardianship was required, the more likely it would be that the law’s preference for male actors would be lessening.

• the place. Local views towards women and their roles in the community influenced the choice of guardian as well. The more patriarchal the community, the less likely it would be; the more liberal the community was in its views on women, the more likely it would be.

• the age of the child. Particularly when at least one of the children was over age 14 — the common law age at which a child could choose a guardian2 — it wasn’t uncommon for that oldest child to choose his or her mother as guardian. If there was no compelling reason not to honor the child’s choice, then Mama would be allowed to serve as guardian … and would often be named guardian for any younger children as well.

• the type of property involved and its value. Where the property involved was going to require a great deal of management, as in the case of land or slaves, it was more likely that a man would be selected. But if there was only a little management required, as in the case of pension money being received, or where the value of the property was small, the more likely it was that Mama would be chosen.

• the availability of a male guardian. Sometimes the key issue was whether there was a man around who could serve. If all the menfolk were off at war, or out to sea with the fishing fleet, there might not be a male available — and that tended to favor Mama’s appointment.

• the woman’s connections. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the women to be heard, and recognized, especially if they had powerful kin. The well-educated daughter of a member of the local gentry would have a lot less trouble getting a guardianship approved than a poor woman without connections.

So while the legal norm was for a man to be named guardian of children, don’t ever be surprised to see the exceptions.

After all…

It depends.


  1. See generally Law Library of Congress, “Married Women’s Property Laws,” American Women ( : accessed 2 Mar 2015).
  2. See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I: The Right of Persons (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1765), 451; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 March 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 3 Comments

Why not the mother?

Reader Jeanie Attenhofer was struggling to understand what happened when her third great grandfather died in 1828.

He was killed, she said, along the Santa Fe trail — shot with his own gun (“he fell asleep at the switch, as it were,” she reports) — and left a wife and four minor children.

guardianAnd that’s when something happened that she couldn’t figure out. The children were placed under the guardianship of their mother’s brother. “But why?” she asked. “Why would her brother have been given guardianship of the children if she was still alive?”

The Legal Genealogist understands Jeanie’s confusion here. We are, after all, 21st century women accustomed to taking care of ourselves and our families. But that wasn’t always the expectation in the past — and it certainly wasn’t what the law expected.

The first thing to keep in mind here is that the law generally didn’t get involved with children at all in generations past — not the way it does today and not with our modern focus on the best interests of the child.

About the only time the legal system really cared about kids until very modern times was when they were a public nuisance or a public charge, in which case they were locked up or bound out, or when they were entitled to get property, in which case the law stepped in to make sure the kids didn’t trade the property for a hunting dog and no adult stole it from them.

And when the law stepped in, in the vast majority of cases, it stepped in to give control to a man.

We start with the fact that, at common law, control over the persons and the estates (property) of a child rested with the father — and only the father. And in the course of explaining the legal power of the father, Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England noted, in passing, that “a mother … is entitled to no power, but only to reverence and respect…”1

Let’s repeat that: “a mother … is entitled to no power, but only to reverence and respect…”

We can add in the legal disabilities of women generally, both in the common law and in early statutes. Think, just as one example, about the fact that a wife didn’t ordinarily inherit from her husband: all the property went, not to her, but to the children — and then often to the sons and not the daughters.2

So when it came to guardianship, the law naturally looked to men as well — at least when it came to property.

To understand that better, we need to keep in mind that, in the common law, there were three essential types of guardians: the guardian by nature; the guardian for nurture; and the guardian in socage. The guardian by nature or guardian for nurture had the right to physical custody of a minor child. That was always the father or, if the father died without naming a guardian in his will, then the mother.3 The difference between the two was that the guardianship by nature lasted to age 21 and gave the guardian control over the child’s personal property. Guardianship for nurture lasted to age 14 and didn’t involve property at all.4 The guardian in socage was the one who had custody of a minor’s lands and person.5

In America, the guardian in socage gave way to the guardian by statute — the person “appointed for a child by the deed or last will of the father, and who has the custody both of his person and estate until the attainment of full age.”6 And if nobody was named by the father, the court stepped in with a guardian by appointment of the court, with the same authority.7

Notice that this type of guardianship came into play only when there was an estate involved. If Papa died, and there wasn’t any property involved, then if Mama was able to keep the kids, she simply kept them. If Mama died too, then Gramma or Grampa took them in. Or Aunt Fanny and Uncle Bert. Or a cousin down the road. Or even a neighbor down the road. This was informal, and if the kids got raised, didn’t starve and didn’t run wild, nobody took a second look. Remember: the notion of formal adoption under the law didn’t even start in the United States until the 1850s.8

But when property was involved, the preference was overwhelmingly for the nearest male relative who couldn’t inherit from the child to serve as guardian. Even the example used by Blackstone points this out: “where the estate descended from his father, … his uncle by the mother’s side cannot possibly inherit this estate, and therefore shall be the guardian.”9

And that’s exactly what happened in Jeanie’s case: the mother was bypassed by the law as entitled to “reverence and respect” but not to legal power, and her brother was named the guardian instead.

That doesn’t mean the children lived with him. In all likelihood, they would have remained with their mother. But the legal authority over their property remained with him (or any substitute guardian) until each child reached full age.


  1. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I: The Right of Persons (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1770), 453; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 1 March 2015).
  2. See e.g. ibid., at 463-464.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 552-553, “guardian by nature.” Ibid., 553, “guardian for nuture.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 553, “guardian in socage.”
  6. Ibid., “guardian by statute.”
  7. Ibid., 552, “guardian by appointment of the court.”
  8. See “Timeline,” The Adoption History Project ( : accessed 1 Mar 2015).
  9. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I: The Right of Persons, at 461.
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources | 17 Comments

What DNA can tell us

Every so often, even those of us who work with DNA test results on a regular basis are just astounded, not just by what DNA can do … but even more by what stories it tells.

This week, we got yet another lesson in the value of this amazing resource.

babiesIt’s not my story — not my family and not my story to tell — and you need to read it from the viewpoints of the people whose lives it has touched.

One family’s part of this story was written by a young woman named Jess. She is the granddaughter of a man born in New York in 1913. You can read Jess’ part of this story here: “And Who Would’ve Thought… It Figures.”1

The other family’s part of this story was written by a woman named Alice. She is the daughter of another man, also born in New York, also in 1913. You can read Alice’s part of this story here: “Switched at Birth: Unraveling a Century-Old Mystery with DNA.”2

Yeah, that title kind of gives away the ending, I know… but …

Just read these.

Read them both.

You won’t regret a minute of your time.

It’s that amazing a story.

This 21st century tool continues to astound us.


  1. Jess, “And Who Would’ve Thought… It Figures,” A Strange Kind of Pilgrimage, posted 22 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 28 Feb 2015).
  2. Alice Plebuch, “Switched at Birth: Unraveling a Century-Old Mystery with DNA,” Your Genetic Genealogist, guest blog posted 27 Feb 2015 ( : accessed 28 Feb 2015).
Posted in DNA | 9 Comments

Sixty years ago today

There is something very wrong with this picture.

judypic001Yes, this specific picture.

The one you see here on this page.

Not to mention the one that greets me every day when I stagger down the hall and see that … that … that grown-up staring back at me in the bathroom mirror.

It’s hard enough to come to terms with that: I cannot possibly be the age I appear to be.

But it just isn’t possible … no way, no how …

It’s simply out of the question …

There is no way that I could possibly be old enough to remember something that happened sixty years ago today.

It was a Monday, that 28th day of February, 1955.

We had been back in the United States for only a few months after a year of living in The Netherlands and had only been living in the house in central New Jersey for perhaps 90 or 120 days.

Just long enough for the house to be a little less new to our family of four.

Just four.

My parents, my older sister Diana and me.

Long enough to be settled in the room Diana and I shared at the front of the big Dutch colonial.

Long enough to marvel at all the infant furniture being assembled and installed in the room at the other end of the hall, at the top of the stairs.

Long enough to understand what that, and our mother’s expanding waistline, meant.

Long enough to know we weren’t staying a family of four.

And definitely long enough to have formed an unshakeable preference.

Each of us had a sister.

We wanted a brother.

And so it was that I remember that very early Monday morning, sixty years ago today. Now I was a very little girl that day. Not yet four years old.

But my memory tells me that we were awakened early by our father. Dressed in neat little dresses with what were likely saddle shoes and given sweaters — not coats, but only sweaters — to wear for warmth. Taken next door to the house where Bailey and Peg Pepper lived and given into Mrs. Pepper’s care.

Given breakfast. Sent out to play in the backyard. Given lunch. Sent out to play again in the backyard. Wearing only those sweaters for warmth.

And then came the news.

Mrs. Pepper came running out of the back door. “Girls,” she called. “Girls, you have a baby brother!”

I looked at Diana. She looked at me. Good. I’m not sure how we would have reacted to the news if it hadn’t been a brother. We probably would have tried to send the baby back.

Now I really don’t remember much else until they brought him home from what was then Middlesex General Hospital. All nine pounds, 15 ounces, of little boy with a little butch haircut.1

And sitting outside on the front steps with a very determined look on my face (and — no surprise — a dirty forehead), I got to hold my brother for the very first time.

I was not yet four years old. And, at that age, you have to wonder just how much of what you remember is actual memory and how much you may think you remember because of stories told down the road.

So… memory? Or stories I was told?

I have only one real clue to go on.

It’s the memory that tells me about those sweaters. Only sweaters to wear, there on the 28th of February, in New Jersey. Not warm coats. Just sweaters.

The end of February isn’t nearly spring yet. We surely won’t be wearing sweaters here in New Jersey today.2 When we talked a few weeks ago about this upcoming natal anniversary, my older sister didn’t remember what the weather was like the day Paul was born; I don’t remember ever discussing it before with anyone.

But I remember sweaters. Only sweaters.

So I did what any self-respecting genealogist would do.

I checked the newspapers.

“March is coming in like a lamb tomorrow–” reported the Trenton Evening Times of 28 February 1955, “and February is going out the same way. The temperature climbe(d) to a Spring-like 61 degrees by mid-afternoon today and was expected to read a high of 62.”3

Sweater weather.

Uh oh.

It’s really true.

I really do remember something that happened sixty years ago.

Sixty years ago today.

Happy birthday, Paul. Love you dearly.

But this getting-older bit has got to stop, okay?


  1. The nurses nicknamed him while he was in the nursery and it stuck. He was Butch, or Butchie, until he was 12 and came home from school one day and announced that his name was Paul and he wasn’t answering to anything else. Only the most beloved of our aunts and uncles were ever allowed to call him Butch after that. I hope his children and grandson call him Butchie all day today.
  2. Today’s high may reach a whopping 30 degrees, if we’re lucky. See, forecast for 28 Feb 2015, Middlesex County seat of New Brunswick ( : accessed 27 Feb 2015).
  3. “March Comes Like A Lamb,” Trenton Evening Times, 28 Feb 1955, p. 1, col. 4; ( : accessed 27 Feb 2015).
Posted in My family | 31 Comments

Indiana House restores funding

It’s not exactly time to breathe a deep sigh of relief — not yet — but there is reason for cautious hope in Indiana these days.

ISL_Logo_4-20-2009The House of Representatives in the Hoosier State has voted to restore most of the funding cut from the budget of the Indiana State Library that would have eliminated the library’s genealogy department.

The budget proposed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence and originally introduced in the House there as House Bill 1001 included a massive 24% reduction in funding to the Indiana State Library.

In addition to cutting at least 10% of the library staff, the bill would have eliminated all funding — every last penny — for the Genealogy Department of the library.1

The Indiana State Library houses a collection described this way by State Librarian Jacob Speer:

The Indiana State Library (ISL) is home to one of the largest Genealogy collections in the Midwest. This collection (over 100,000 items) is focused on Indiana, states from which Indiana was settled as well as some foreign countries. The collection is rich with unique family histories and genealogy materials that cannot be found in other locations. In comparison, the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) only collects materials on Indiana and the Old Northwest – genealogy research can never be restricted to one state only. Family trees branch outside of a single state and spread throughout the country and across oceans. Genealogy collections (including ours) contain materials for neighboring states as well as items covering the east and southern coasts (where most immigrants landed) and genealogical resources for other countries (mainly in Europe where most immigrants came from). These types of resources are not collected by IHS or the Indiana State Archives or the Historical Bureau.

In addition, the ISL serves as the Genealogy destination for patrons that use the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library (IPL). In the past, IPL donated their collection to ISL because they were not going to actively collect for Genealogy and they wanted somewhere close by to send their patrons and know they would get service in this area. Over the years they have also donated funds so that ISL could purchase valuable Genealogy research materials to be kept in the collection and used by patrons statewide. It has been a beneficial partnership.2

As introduced, House Bill 1001 threatened “the availability and use of a one-of-a-kind resource that includes many elements of family history and Indiana history.”3

But in response to a call put out by the Indiana Genealogical Society and other concerned groups, our community and the entire community spoke out — and we were heard.

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to restore the funding to the Genealogy Department, and this week the entire House passed the revised budget bill and sent it on to the Indiana Senate.

News accounts of the legislative vote quoted the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Tim Brown, as saying that the proposal had sparked criticism from universities, libraries and genealogists throughout Indiana4 — and we know that some of that criticism came from genealogists outside the state whose ancestors came from Indiana.

We still need to be vigilant as the proposal goes through the Indiana Senate — so stay tuned and watch this space and the blog of the Indiana Genealogical Society.

But for now… for this once … maybe we’ve won one.


  1. See Amy Johnson Crow, “Proposed Elimination of Genealogy at the Indiana State Library,” Indiana Genealogical Society Blog, posted 22 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 23 Jan 2015).
  2. Jacob Speer, State Librarian, ISL 2015 Budget Cuts, 15 Jan 2015, PDF accessed 23 Jan 2015.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See e.g. Lauryn Schroeder, “New budget could save state library from cuts,” Evansville Courier & Press, posted 20 Feb 2015 ( : accessed 26 Feb 2015).
Posted in General | 2 Comments

…get discounts on registration!

For so many reasons, we all can’t wait for February to end.

Snow, cold, ice, slippery roads, all the things that winter brings and that make getting around so very difficult are heading out as February draws to a close.

But the end of February brings the end to something else too — and this is something we don’t want to miss: early bird discounts.

East and west — in New England and in Oklahoma — early bird registration discounts end on Saturday, February 28th, and savvy genealogists don’t want to let these opportunities slip away.

East: NERGC 2015

You might think that NERGC stands for New England Regional Genealogical Conference, and you’d be partially right. Because it also stands for excellence in genealogical education … and for fun.

NERGC_Logo_2015NERGC 2015 — “Navigating the Past: Sailing into the Future” — is the largest regional genealogical conference in the northeastern United States, and it’s taking place April 15-18, 2015, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence, Rhode Island.

Roughly 1,000 genealogists will take part in more than 95 sessions ranging from methodology to ethnic genealogy to technology and online resources.

The conference is headlined by Lisa Louise Cooke and by The Legal Genealogist, but there are so many great speakers who’ll be there. There isn’t enough room here to list them all, but the line-up includes D. Joshua Taylor, Laura Prescott, Blaine Bettinger, Marian Pierre-Louis, Maureen Taylor — oh, so many!

Regular registration for this amazing conference is $150 but you can save $30 by taking advantage of the early bird registration discount. The early bird rate is just $120, but it expires Saturday, February 28, 2015.

So head on over to the NERGC website — — and get ready for some fun with me and Lisa Louise Cooke and so many others. You can register, select your agenda, plan for lunch and dinner all on-line.

West: Oklahoma Genealogical Society

For folks further west, in the Sooner State, early bird registration runs through Saturday, February 28th, for the Oklahoma Genealogical Society’s Genealogy and the Law Day, to be held on Saturday, March 28th, in Oklahoma City.

ogs-logo1Members and non-members of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society alike can save $10 by registering by the end of the day Saturday at the OGS website here. The early bird rate is $40 for OGS members, $45 for a second family member in a family membership, and $50 for non-OGS members. After Saturday, registration goes up to $50 for members, $55 for a second family member, and $60 for non-member.

This seminar — “Genealogy and the Law: From Finding the Evidence You Couldn’t Find to Enriching Your Family Story” — is one I’m really looking forward to. My roots run deep in Oklahoma: my great grandfather was one of the successful bidders in the Big Pasture sealed bid land auction just before Oklahoma statehood, so I am so very honored to be the featured speaker for this event.

It’ll be held at the Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive in Oklahoma City, and we’re going to explore topics from the rogues and rascals of our families to using tax records and indirect evidence and even how knowing the law makes us better genealogists.

Come on out and join me and OGS on March 28th — and act now to save $10 on your registration.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to

The son of The Legal Genealogist‘s niece is a little boy named Jack.

Jack.1He is my brother’s first grandson, the light of all of their lives, and a total charmer whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time this week, just in time for his first birthday.

Which goes a long way towards explaining the dearth of blog posts lately.

But his very existence creates a question…

Is he my great nephew (or great-nephew) or my grand nephew (or grandnephew)?


(Drum roll please…)


Despite a rather persistent effort by genealogists to standardize the reference,1 the simple fact of the matter is that either term is just fine, thankyouverymuch.

The dictionary definition of great-nephew — at least from Merriam-Webster — is “grandnephew,” giving a first reference year for the usage of 1581.2

But that same dictionary — after defining grandnephew as “a grandson of one’s brother or sister” — gives the first reference year for that usage as circa 1639.3 Which means that great-nephew came first and grandnephew is a Johnny-come-lately.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines great-nephew as “A son of one’s nephew or niece”4 and grandnephew as “Another term for great-nephew.”5

Now there are good reasons why genealogists want to standardize the reference one way or the other — to reduce confusion and clarify relationships.6 But just as some of us say jean-ee-ology and some of us say jen-ee-ology, some of us are going to say great nephew and some of us are going to say grand nephew.

Which makes me a great aunt.

Or, at my own aunt would say, whenever any of the children of her nieces and nephews would ask if she was their great aunt, “Honey, I’m your greatest aunt.”

Cue the music: You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to…


  1. See e.g. Amy Johnson Crow, “Great and Grand Aunts,” Ancestry blog, posted 25 Oct 2013 ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015).
  2. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015), “great-nephew.”
  3. Ibid., “grandnephew.”
  4. Oxford Dictionaries Online ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015), “great-nephew.”
  5. Ibid., “grandnephew.”
  6. See generally Robert Resta, “And Bob’s Your Uncle: A Guide To Defining Great Aunts, Great-Great Grandparents, First Cousins Once-Removed, and Other Kinfolk,” The DNA Exchange, posted 16 Apr 2013 ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015).
Posted in General | 24 Comments

That cousin

The Legal Genealogist is swooning.


Head over heels over a male of the species.

And he’s not even tall, dark and handsome.

He’s short, sandy blond and adorable.

He’ll be a year old tomorrow, and he’s my brother’s first grandchild.

His name is Jack.

Br0020-40And I am not taking time from meeting Jack to write a blog post.

But I can’t leave this space vacant, so here’s the answer to a question asked by reader Joe Fibel after the blog post “Reprise: duty came first” this past Saturday.1

There, I had described the late George Thomas Cherryhomes of Young County, Texas, as a shirt-tail cousin of mine, and Joe hadn’t come across that reference before.

Now don’t go reaching for Black’s Law Dictionary here, okay? This isn’t a legal term, but a plain ordinary term you’ll find in plain ordinary dictionaries.

A shirt-tail cousin is a distant cousin2 or, more generally, someone who is “distantly and indefinitely related (as in) a shirttail cousin on her father’s side.”3

And I love the way Rhonda McClure explained it in What Makes a Cousin? in 2001:

Often I have received questions asking how a person is related to the sister of their husband’s brother-in-law and other obscure relationships. The answer is there is no relationship. When a marriage is the only connection between two individuals, then there is no cousinship in the true sense of the word. The most you can claim with this person is a shirt tail cousin. The cousinship is riding on the shirt tails of someone.4

Shirt-tail relatives. A term that definitely does NOT include my great nephew Jack. To whom I am returning. Immediately.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: duty came first,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Feb 2015 ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015).
  2. Collins Online Dictionary ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015), “shirt-tail cousin.”
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015), “shirttail.”
  4. Rhonda McClure, “Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: What Makes a Cousin?,”, posted 25 Oct 2001 ( : accessed 23 Feb 2015).
Posted in General | 13 Comments

Those dratted ethnicity percentages

It’s a question that just won’t go away.

percentNo matter how many times The Legal Genealogist warns — and most others interested in genetic genealogy agree — that the ethnicity estimates provided by DNA testing companies are not all that accurate,1 people still want to know:

• What’s the best testing company to find out where in Africa my people came from?

• What’s the best testing company if I think I have Native American or American Indian ancestry and I want to know what tribe?

• What’s the best testing company if I’m English, or German, or Russian, or Italian, or…?

I really do understand the desire to know. I am sitting at an airport waiting to board a flight that will take me to meet a great nephew2 for the first time, and like many of the youngest members of my family he is adding an amazing element of diversity to our family’s ethnic mix. This little boy is contributing Korean genes to our mix, joining a cousin who has brought in African genes and others whose origins are spanning more and more of the globe.

Someday, I surely hope, young Jack will want to know more about his ancestry, and I hope will want to look at the clues hidden in his genes. And, I expect, I will hear the question from him that I hear from other researchers today: “what’s the best testing company for…”

Maybe by the time Jack is old enough to ask the question, and understand the answers, there will be an answer to that question that will satisfy him, and me, and you, and everyone else who wants to know about the evidence of our ancestry that may be found in our genetic makeup.

But the simple fact is, that day isn’t here yet.

We have to keep in mind what these admixture tests do: they take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

So coming up with these percentages in these tests requires this fundamental assumption: that the DNA of the reference populations — those groups whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and more all come from the same area — is likely to reflect what we might see if we could test the DNA of people who lived in that area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In other words, these percentages are:

• estimates,

• estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, and

• estimates based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations.

In fact, because of these limitations, the very best we can get right now shouldn’t even be called an estimate of the percentage of our genes that come from a specific country. At best it might be called a guesstimate.

The reality is that these percentages are dynamite at the continental level: European versus African versus Asian. And they’re pretty good at identifying descent from populations that are fairly isolated and not mixed with other similar populations. But for the most part they’re really a crap shoot when you try to distinguish, say, English from Irish from Welsh.

These limitations are true of all of the testing companies. I’ve tested with them all, and my own results are — literally and figuratively — all over the map. I’m German with some companies, not German at all with another. Largely Scandinavian with one, only slightly Scandinavian with the others.

Just as one example, 23andMe says I am a little more than four percent Scandinavian. Family Tree DNA says I am about 12 percent Scandinavian. And AncestryDNA says I am more than 30 percent Scandinavian. I have no known Scandinavian ancestors. None at all. So which company is right? Or are they all wrong? I don’t know, and unless they start digging up those old bones, I’m not convinced I’ll ever know for sure.

So what’s the answer to the “what’s the best company” to test with question? It has to be the same answer I give about any DNA testing: test with every company you can afford to test with. You will see differences in the ethnicity estimates from each company you test with, and you can make your own decision about which set of estimates you think most closely approaches the truth.

If one of the three major testing companies detects 0.01 percent Native American and you want to believe it, you will choose that company’s results. If another detects 2.2 percent sub-Saharan African and you want to believe that, you will choose that company’s results.

In the final analysis, because the science is simply not there yet to support percentages at the country or tribal level, we’re all left choosing to accept what we want to believe.

And that’s the best we can do with tests that just aren’t all that good at detecting ethnicity on a country-by-country basis. And I can only repeat what I’ve said before: DNA testing for genealogical purposes is a wonderful tool. But people get disappointed when they see these percentages and they don’t match up to their own paper trail and don’t match up from company to company. And when they get disappointed, they may lose interest in genealogy or in DNA testing. And when they lose interest, we lose out on the paper trail information they might add to our mix.

Bottom line: We need to educate our friends and our families, our DNA cousins, to the limits of what these percentages can show — and to show them all the other things DNA testing really can help with.

Because friends don’t let friends do DNA testing only to get these percentages.


  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Admixture: not soup yet,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2014 ( : accessed 22 Feb 2015).
  2. Grand nephew if you prefer.
Posted in DNA | 37 Comments

RIP George Thomas Cherryhomes

“Faithfull and forgiving but duty came first.”

Those are the words on the tombstone of George Thomas Cherryhomes at Oak Grove Cemetery in Graham, Young County, Texas.

He was born, the engraving says, on 8 November 1870. He died 100 years ago this coming Tuesday, on the 24th of February 1915.

And he died because, as the words on his tombstone say, “duty came first.”

Tom, as he was called, was a shirt-tail cousin of mine, the husband of Ida Bell Baker (1876-1921), my maternal grandfather’s second cousin. He and Ida were married on 5 March 1894 at her parent’s home five miles west of Graham.1 By 1900, they’d had two children, and they were farming next door to Ida’s parents.2

By 1910, there were four Cherryhomes children ranging in age from 4 to 14, and Tom was still shown as a farmer, doing general farming.3 One more child was born, in 1911.4

But sometime between the enumeration of that census in April of 1910 and the early days of 1915, Tom began doing something other than farming. At some point before a fateful night, 100 years ago, in February 1915, he had become a deputy sheriff in Young County. And he was on duty in the early morning hours of 24 February 1915.

Some days earlier, a local politician, former county judge E.W. Fry, had been charged with forgery. Tom and a special deputy, Riley Dollins, were assigned to guard the Young County Courthouse in Graham and prevent anyone from taking anything from the building, “it being feared that some effort would be made to secure some of the official records.”5

At about 3:30 a.m. on that Wednesday, the lawmen heard noises from the area of the cistern outside the courthouse. They went to investigate and were confronted by four armed men, who ordered them to surrender. Contemporary accounts quoted Tom as saying he’d “never” throw up his hands. He and Dollins opened fire; the armed men returned fire.

According to one account, Tom emptied two pistols at the armed men and Dollins shot six rounds with a shotgun. But “the intruders … had the advantage since Cherryhomes and Dollins were illuminated by the exterior lights of the courthouse…”6

Tom yelled to Dollins that he’d been hit, and Dollins helped get him to the local telephone exchange building. A posse followed the tracks to a local church and then followed buggy tracks to the home of the local politician, E.W. Fry, where they found one Pat Carlton in critical condition with a gunshot wound and Fry’s brother Pete with a scalp wound.7

Tom lived for only 12 hours after being shot. Carlton died later in the day; the Fry brothers and two other men were arrested, charged with murder, and taken to Wichita Falls, county seat of nearby Wichita County, because of tensions running high in Young County.8

They were tried there in April 1915; Tom’s statement that he had “done his duty as he swore to” wasn’t allowed to be read to the jury.9 But the doctor who treated him was allowed to testify that Tom said he “stood until his ammunition gave out, like he said he’d do.”10 Tom’s widow did testify. “Do the best you can and raise the children the best you can,” she said he’d told her in his last hours. Daughter Gladys also testified, breaking down in tears.11

But the evidence wasn’t enough: at the end of the trial, presumably because there was no proof that anyone other than Carlton had fired any shots, all four of the defendants were acquitted.12

Former Judge Fry stood trial twice on the forgery and other charges. In June 1915, the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict. In October, he was convicted. In his second trial, one of his co-defendants J. B. Lischke, testified that he’d been at the Fry home, say Judge Fry masked and then went with others to the area of the courthouse where the shooting occurred.13 He was sentenced to two years in prison.14

Tom’s tombstone stands today in Oak Grove Cemetery in Graham, only blocks from the site of the courthouse he died protecting. And, on it, the words recognize that, for Tom, “duty came first.” In recognition of that devotion to duty, his name is engraved today on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the Memorial website, the description reads: “Deputy Cherryhomes was shot while as a result of a gun fight while he was protecting county records. Records were being audited for possible embezzlement charges of local judge.”15

George Thomas Cherryhomes.

Deputy Sheriff.

Young County, Texas.

End of Watch February 24, 1915.

My shirt-tail cousin, for whom “duty came first.”

Rest in peace, Tom. Rest in peace.


First published 23 February 2013; repeated to honor the 100th anniversary of Tom’s death.
Courthouse photo used with permission of Dorman Holub.
Tombstone photo used with permission of Kay Douglas.

  1. Oak Grove Cemetery, Young County, Texas, Ida Bell Baker Cherryhomes; digital image, Find A Grave ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013). The information as to the marriage was supplied by Young County GenWeb coordinator Dorman Holub, whose wife is a Baker cousin.
  2. 1900 U.S. census, Young County, Texas, Justice Precinct 1, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 161, p. 228(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 84, G.T. Cherryhomes household; digital image, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1681; imaged from FHL microfilm 1241681.
  3. 1910 U.S. census, Young County, Texas, Justice Precinct 1, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 270, p. 207(A) (stamped), dwelling /family 4, G. T. Cherryholmes household; digital image, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1595.
  4. Texas Birth Index, 1903-1997, database, entry for I.B. Cherryhomes, 1911; ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  5. “Three Shot at Graham,” Wichita Daily Times, Wichita Falls, Texas, 24 February 1915, p.1.
  6. Clifford R. Caldwell and Ronald G. DeLord, Texas Lawmen, 1900-1940: More of the Good & the Bad (Charleston, SC : The History Press, 2012), 388-389.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Four Charges of Murder Follow Graham Tragedy,” Wichita Daily Times, Wichita Falls, Texas, 26 February 1915, p.1.
  9. “Dying Man’s Words Barred From Trial,” Galveston (Texas) Daily News, 10 April 1915, p.2; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  10. “Witness Says Plan Was To Get Records,” Galveston (Texas) Daily News, 11 April 1915, p.4; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  11. “Court Has Statement Of A Man Now Dead,” Galveston (Texas) Daily News, 13 April 1915, p.3; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  12. “Fry Et Al Freed At Wichita Falls,” Abilene (Texas) Daily Reporter, 18 April 1915, p.1; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  13. “Testimony Barred at Murder Trial May Be Admitted,” Wichita Weekly Times, Wichita Falls, Texas, 1 Oct 1915, p.1.
  14. “Judge Fry Is Found Guilty, Given Two Year Sentence,” Wichita DailyTimes, Wichita Falls, Texas, 4 Oct 1915, p.1.
  15. George Thomas Cherryhomes,” National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund ( : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
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