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Not a “potential descendant”

Dear AncestryDNA,

No, actually, I’m not a “potential descendant” of Simon Shew.

Shew.circleI don’t know how I can make it any clearer in my family tree — and I don’t know that you’d care if I did — but Simon isn’t one of my ancestors.

You can put me in as many circles as you want, but that isn’t going to change the fact that — have I said this already? — Simon isn’t one of my ancestors.

Now I’m not disputing that Simon’s descendants and I ought to be sharing a fair chunk of DNA. But it isn’t because of even the slightest possibility that I am a “potential descendant” of Simon Shew.

It is, instead, because of who Simon Shew’s parents were — and who his wife’s parents were — and the fact that all four of those people are in fact my ancestors while Simon and his wife are not.

Got that?

Let’s look at the paper trail here.

Once upon a time, in western North Carolina, a man named Boston Shew married a woman named Elizabeth Brewer. He took out a marriage bond in Wilkes County in October 1816;1 later census records support the conclusion he and Elizabeth actually did marry.2

By 1820, Boston had two children under age 10 in his household — one boy and one girl.3 By 1830, there were two boys and four girls.4 In 1840, there were three boys and five girls.5

By 1850, Boston had moved his family to Cherokee County, Alabama. There, the census and other evidence lets us put names on the sons who had been so steadily recorded as tick marks in earlier years: Simon, the first-born, born around 1819 in North Carolina;6 Daniel, the second son, born around 1826 in North Carolina.7

Simon and Daniel met and married local girls and were enumerated side-by-side on the 1850 census. By that 1850 census, Simon and his wife Sarah already had three children: Charlsey, age 3; Emily age 2; and two-month-old Nancy. Daniel and his wife Margaret had one child, one-year-old William.

The families were still enumerated living side-by-side on the 1860 census of Cherokee County — but with huge changes. Simon and Sarah had added a passel of children: Charlsey, Emily and Nancy were joined by John, Elias, Amanda, Lucinda and Henry.8 Their cousin William had picked up two siblings — Gilford and Martha Louise — but they had lost their father. Margaret was shown as head of that household in 1860.9

So where do I fit in? I descend from Martha Louise. Daniel’s daughter. Not Simon’s. Daniel is my third great grandfather. Simon is my 3rd great granduncle. Their parents — Boston and Elizabeth (Brewer) Shew — are one set of my fourth great grandparents. Any Shew genes that I share with any of Simon’s descendants come from common descent from Boston and Elizabeth.

So why am I in a circle with Simon Shew’s descendants at AncestryDNA?

Because AncestryDNA sees two things: (1) there are a whole lot of people who descend from Simon who share a whole lot of DNA with me; and (2) Simon is in my tree and in theirs.

What AncestryDNA doesn’t see is what’s not in the trees of most of Simon’s descendants.

What’s not in those trees is that Simon’s wife is the sister of Daniel’s wife. Sarah (Battles) Shew and Margaret (Battles) Shew were sisters, children of William and Ann (Jacobs) Battles.

Most family trees show Sarah’s maiden names as Botten — a misreading of the death certificate of Sarah’s son Elias Grogan Shew. It’s indexed that way on Ancestry10 — but the original clearly reads Battles.11

In other words, all of Simon’s and Sarah’s children were double-cousins to all of Daniel’s and Margaret’s children — and all descendants on both sides can be expected to show a closer genetic relationship as a result.

And that in a nutshell is why DNA by itself doesn’t solve family mysteries. Only when it’s combined with the paper trail does it become evidence.


  1. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  2. See e.g. 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, 26th District, p. 6(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 3.
  3. 1820 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 494 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 25 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M33, roll 83.
  4. 1830 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, p. 335 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 125.
  5. 1840 U.S. census, Grayson County, Virginia, p. 305 (stamped), Boston “Shoe” household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Nov 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 555.
  6. 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee Co., Ala., pop. sched., 27th District, p. 136(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 1054, Simon Shew.
  7. Ibid., dwelling/family 1055, Danl Shew.
  8. 1860 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, Division 1, population schedule, p. 315(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 828, Simon “Shoe” household; digital image, ( : accessed 23 May 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 5.
  9. Ibid., dwelling/family 829, Margaret “Shoe” household.
  10. See “Alabama, Deaths and Burials Index, 1881-1974,” entry for E Grogan Shew; ( : accessed 23 May 2015).
  11. Alabama State Board of Health, Death Certificate No. 16698, E. Grogan Shew, 14 July 1934; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Montgomery.
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