Tracing lost ancestors using DNA

A few years ago I decided to try DNA matching to see if I could confirm my family tree. I tried it first with familytreeDNA and then with ancestry. My parents also tested a few years later. The autosomal DNA tests confirmed many of the key relationships that I had inferred from written records. It put me in touch with other descendants of common ancestors and, through them, I was able to expand and enrich my tree. Many of them had written documentation about common ancestors that I did not know about.

The vast majority of my DNA matches are to people whose relationship to me I cannot decipher. Many of them do not post a tree and do not respond to enquiries. But an interested few, when contacted, start a process of examination to try and work out the link. In a few instances, such as one that I will expand upon here, by determining the DNA link, we have worked out further generations of the tree and identified missing ancestors that no amount of serendipitous searching would have discovered. Without DNA matching, we would never have known where to look or what questions to ask. Many of our ancestors emigrated, moved away and reinvented themselves, and DNA is one of the only ways to bridge that gap.

Michael John Anthony SHARMAN and John Anthony SHERMAN

Two of my most unusual ancestors are John SHARMAN and Elizabeth ALLMAN.  John and Elizabeth were both born in England; John in Earl Stonham in Suffolk and Elizabeth in Newark upon Trent. However, they were married on 16 Apr 1826 in the Governor’s Palace in Valetta in Malta, and a year later, on the 12 Jun 1827, their first son, Michael John Anthony SHARMAN was born in Valetta. My own ancestor, Mary Clara SHARMAN was born in Algiers around August 1830, precisely the moment in time that the French Army was attacking the Bey of Algiers. Although I can find no surviving birth or baptism records, it seems that Mary Clara was born into the middle of a war zone. I do not know why my ancestors were in the Mediterranean or what they were doing in a war zone but, by 1835, they were back in the relative safety of Brixton in South London, where their son Robert William SHARMAN was born. The family remained in South London for the rest of their lives where two daughters (Caroline Louisa, 1837; Martha, 1840) and a son (Albert Henry, 1846) were born. In later life John was a gardener, giving no particular clue to the career that sent him abroad.

The family appear on the 1841 census in Clapham. By this time Mary Clara appears as the eldest child: there is no sign of Michael John Anthony Sharman, who, by this time, would have been 13 years old. I assumed that he had died in the confused period between 1827 and 1835 when the family were in Malta and Algiers.

When my DNA matches came through, I found myself matched to someone in the US (Karen) whose family tree was extensive. The link between us was reasonably strong and I reasoned that we must be able to find the link. When my Dad also tested, it turned out the link to Karen was on my Dad’s side, and with the stronger signal, we were able to show that my Dad and Karen had a common match in another person in the US, Jeffrey. Fortunately, Jeffrey and Karen knew that their common link was John Anthony SHERMAN who had come to the US around the late 1840s. He had married Laura C LESLIE on the Wadham Mills, New York, on the 22 Sep 1850 and acquired US citizenship soon afterwards. John Anthony and Laura had had two daughters, with Karen descended from one daughter, and Jeffrey descended from the other. Laura Leslie was born in America from pioneers who had settled much earlier in American history, and hence she could not be the link to me in the UK.

Given that Jeffrey, Karen, my Dad and myself all shared common DNA, we inferred that we were all related through John Anthony Sherman. I looked at my tree and saw the name SHARMAN, but noted that the US connection was a SHERMAN and not SHARMAN. Looking at rough dates, we wondered whether my Michael John Anthony Sharman was Karen and Geoffrey’s John Anthony Sherman. We looked closely at the records for these two individuals. Fortunately, John Anthony Sherman had been a soldier in the American Civil War, and he had left documents related to his pension that gave some biographical details. He gave his parents as John and Elizabeth Sherman, claiming that his father had been a naval officer. He also left a family bible, and in this he had written that he was born in Valetta, Malta on 12 Jun 1827. This matched perfectly with my missing Michael John Anthony Sharman. We therefore concluded that my Michael John Anthony Sharman was the same as John Anthony Sherman in the US.

Nearly 180 years after the events, we were able to infer that Michael John Anthony Sharman joined the Navy as a cabin boy in his early teens, therefore avoiding the British 1841 census. He must have sailed to the US before disembarking in New York and establishing a family. Once in the US, he appears to have reinvented himself, using Sherman rather than Sharman as his name.

Every family tree has people who are unaccounted for. In this case, autosomal DNA was able to provide Karen and Jeffrey with links to the UK that they had sought for in vain for many years. In return, I learned the colourful career of a missing cousin who had joined the Navy, became an American citizen and fought in the American Civil War. This was only possible from the clues provided by DNA genealogy.

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