Applying DNA to a genealogy brick wall: getting started


Happy Birthday, Nancy Agness Ann Jameson, born 10 Oct 1810!

birthday-cake-public domain

That’s a fun date to remember—and a lot of given names for a little lass born in Kentucky so long ago. I wish I knew more about her. She appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Greene County Ohio in the summer of 1832, when she married James Hammond. By 1840, they had relocated to Holmes County Ohio, and around 1850 their growing family moved to DeKalb County Indiana. Nancy spent the rest of her life there and died a widow in 1888. My search for her parents reached a dead end pretty quickly.

Could DNA help me find her mom or dad?


This isn’t a case study. I’m just beginning to focus on this problem. I thought I’d walk through an example of the five steps I follow when I start to apply DNA to a family history brick wall.

  • Step 1. Plan/conduct reasonably exhaustive research
  • Step 2. Develop some hypotheses
  • Step 3. Identify a FAN Club
  • Step 4. Build a DNA network
  • Step 5. Ready, Set, Go [Wash, Rinse, Repeat]

This is an iterative process. At any point, I may learn something new that causes me to revisit other steps.

Step 1. Plan/conduct reasonably exhaustive research

To find someone’s parents, it’s helpful to narrow down the known ancestor’s birth date and place. Nancy’s obituary tells me she was born in Kentucky on 10 Oct 1810. Her appearance in each census from 1850 to 1880 concurs that she was born in Kentucky around 1810. I have other sources that agree too. It’s too bad none of those sources name her parents.

The US decennial censuses didn’t record relationships between family members until 1880. Before 1850, they only named the heads of household; everyone else was just tallied by sex and age but not named. Nancy married in 1832; she never appears by name in a census with her parents. County histories don’t mention her. Her obituary doesn’t give her parents, and she died before the area began civil death registrations. It would be nice if her father left a will and named her, but I haven’t found one yet.

I’ll keep looking, and I’ll keep adding other ideas to my research plan, but meanwhile, I’ll start Step 2.

Step 2. Develop some hypotheses

Here is a brain dump of some hypotheses on Nancy’s childhood family. These are not mutually exclusive.

[A] Maybe Nancy named a child after her father. She christened her sons James, George, Samuel, John, and Joseph. Any of those might be family names.

[B] Perhaps Nancy was sibling to another Jameson who married in the same county she did. Siblings can be a great help when looking for parents. I checked across 10 years on either side of Nancy’s marriage date. There were only two Jameson marriages in that county: George Jameson, who married Sarah McClennan in 1837, and Rebecca Jamison, who married George Paris in 1841. Further research revealed that George Jameson was born in Kentucky around 1812. I haven’t found Rebecca or her husband after they married; I’ll add that to my research plan in Step 1. I may also want to expand my marriage record search beyond +/- 10 years, or include neighboring counties. Those go in my research plan too, marked as lower priorities for now.

[C] Nancy married in 1832; in the summer of 1830 she could have been the 19-year-old daughter of a Jameson man heading a household in Greene County Ohio. George Jameson was the only one I found there in the 1830 census; he was age 50-60 and lived in Ross Township. This George had a large household, including a teenage girl and boy who could be Nancy and young George.

George Sr. left very few records. He never bought or sold land in Greene County, Ohio. He died in 1847, but his slight probate file identifies no kin by name. He may be the father of George Jr.—even though Sr. and Jr. didn’t signify kinship then, merely which man was older. But in 1840, George Sr. and George Jr. were close neighbors, adjacent to each other in the census, flanked on either side by the McClennands who were George Jr.’s wife’s family. My guess is, the two George’s were related.

But Nancy was in another county by then. I don’t have convincing evidence that George Jameson Sr. was Nancy’s father.

[D] It’s possible that Nancy’s father never came to Ohio. Perhaps she came with a married sister. Or perhaps Nancy was still living in Kentucky in 1830. There are a LOT of Jamesons (and variant spellings) in Kentucky! This doesn’t lead to new research plan items yet, but I can’t rule this scenario out.

[E] What if Nancy was a widow when she married James Hammond in 1832? Jameson might have been her first husband’s name, and her father’s surname could be something else entirely.

As I continue through my journey, I’ll revisit this step and add and subtract hypotheses as new evidence comes to light.

Step 3. Identify a FAN Club

A ‘FAN’ Club (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) is a group of other people connected to your mystery individual, who might provide leads to new evidence. See Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012).

Here is a list of surnames I have so far in my Jameson FAN Club:

  • McClellan[d] – George Jr.’s in-laws
  • Paris[h]possible in-laws
  • Trost – administrator of George Sr.’s probate
  • Neighbors in 1830 census: Lawrence, Ireland, Scott, Johnson, McCoy, Espy, Townsley… you get the idea.
  • The middle names of Nancy’s children may be useful. According to a letter written by Nancy’s daughter, her sons were James Alexander Speers Hammond, George Washington Hammond, Samuel Yerty Hammond, John Benjamin Hammond, and Joseph Andrew Hammond. I’ll add Speers and Yerty to my FAN Club surname list for now.

These surnames may belong to cousins, in-laws, neighbors who migrated from the same neighborhood in Kentucky…. I’ll keep an eye out for these names when I do documentary research, and when I look at DNA matches’ trees too.

Step 4. Build a DNA network

Still with me? We’re finally getting to the DNA part of the process!

Since Nancy is female, she didn’t have a Y-chromosome. So I’ll use autosomal DNA to expand my search for clues. Nancy is 5 generations back from me. I’m looking for DNA matches descended from her siblings or cousins, which means I’m going back 6 or 7 generations. That’s just within the realm of possibility for autosomal DNA.

Nancy Jameson and James Hammond only had two children who went on to have children of their own:

  • James Alexander Speers Hammond 1833-1901 married Eleanor McCurdy and had 9 children.
  • Margaret Jane Hammond 1835-1929 married Francis Johnson and had 7 children.

Ideally, I would like descendants of each to take DNA tests. I discovered some among my own close matches. Some I recruited. They will form the backbone of my Jameson Network. See Image 1.

Image 1.

Hammond DNA Networks

Everyone in Group A has common ancestors in our Hammond-Jameson-McCurdy-Davis lines. Everyone in Group B has common ancestors in their Hammond-Jameson-Johnson-Ryan lines. If someone in Group A matches someone in Group B, those shared DNA segments most likely came from the Hammond or Jameson lines. When a newly discovered DNA cousin matches both of them, he or she is probably descended from an ancestor of either James Hammond or Nancy Jameson too. This new cousin’s genealogy may help me dig deeper into my Hammond or Jameson roots.

I put information about these DNA testers and how they match each other in a spreadsheet. And now I’m ready to get to work.

Step 5. Ready, Set, Go

I’ve linked my DNA to my public tree on Ancestry. Based on one of my hypotheses from Step 2, I update my tree to indicate that George Jameson is the father of Nancy, but for his image, I attach an icon that says NOT PROVEN. See Image 2.

Image 2.

Jameson not proven 

If any of my DNA matches has George Jameson in their trees, with matching data, AncestryDNA may trigger an automated ‘leaf hint’ to call it to my attention. And then, wouldn’t it be sweet if that new cousin had the Jameson Family Bible, with a page that listed a boatload of kids, including a daughter named Nancy, born in Kentucky on 10 Oct 1810?

Yeah… but no. That didn’t happen.

So I check every testing company where I manage or have access to a DNA kit belonging to a relative descended from Nancy. I search their matches for the surname Jameson and spelling variants—which only works if those testers have provided trees or surname lists, of course. The DNAGedcom utility lets us download our AncestryDNA data into spreadsheets so we can filter by both name and place; that can save effort. I may use that to look for Jamesons born in Kentucky. I also look for surnames in my FAN Club in the locations I’m interested, to see if I’m related to any of them.

At FamilyTreeDNA, I find a cousin Ruth whose lineage has Jamesons living in Gallatin County Illinois ca. 1820. Her tree doesn’t go back earlier than that. That county borders Kentucky, which has potential. But there’s an issue. I’m looking for Nancy’s parents or grandparents, which would be a couple among my 64 4x-great-grandparents, or my 128 5x-great-grandparents. If I don’t know all 64 or all 128 in those generations, and/or my match doesn’t know hers, then our shared DNA might come from someone unnamed in our trees.

This is one reason why having a Jameson DNA network is valuable. If Ruth matches someone in Group A and Group B, then it’s more likely our shared ancestor is in my Jameson or Hammond line. Ruth does match several people in Group A. She isn’t on GEDmatch, though, and my Group B cousins aren’t on FTDNA, so I can’t compare her to Group B. For all I know, Ruth might share one of my Davis ancestors, on a branch she doesn’t know in her tree.

Now I wonder if anyone in my Groups A or B match any Jamesons from Gallatin County on Ancestry. I discover five of us match J.S., whose great-grandmother Lucy Jamerson was born in Gallatin County Illinois in 1872. His tree doesn’t have her parents.

So neither Ruth nor J.S. have traced their Jameson roots earlier than my Nancy. Maybe I should research their ancestors in Illinois records—I might discover their Jamesons also came from Kentucky, and maybe I’ll find the county there too. I add new items to my Research Plan in Step 1. Next, I go back to Step 4 and add a Group C of DNA cousins who have Jamesons in Gallatin County IL. And I’ll see if I can interest Ruth and J.S. in copying their DNA data to a site like GEDmatch so I can compare them to each other and everyone in Groups A and B.

The iterations continue. I pursue new research; I monitor DNA matches to see if new leads emerge.

Maybe over time I’ll discover new cousins to add to DNA Group A or B.  Maybe some of us in Group A or B will find new matches with a Jameson surname in a specific common county in Kentucky and I can update my research plan to explore records there.

Perhaps I’ll decide to revisit Nancy’s potential brother George Jr. and look for any of his descendants who might be willing to take a DNA test. If I do, I’ll create a DNA Network Group D. These DNA candidates would be my 5th cousins, or perhaps 4th cousins once removed, and odds are we won’t share enough DNA to be on each other’s match lists. So that’s a risk. But four people in my Group A are a generation older than me, so odds are better for them. If several people in Group A and Group B and Group D match each other, esp. if they ‘triangulate’ on the same chromosome segments, it’s reasonable evidence that Nancy and George Jr. were related, likely siblings. Then I can develop a proof argument that George Jameson Sr. was their father. I’d even consider getting a direct male-line descendant of George Jameson Jr. to take a Y-DNA test, if I’m confident he’s Nancy’s brother.


It takes time. DNA results can point me to new locations to do documentary research. They can add credibility to a hypothesis. And they can connect me to cousins who are interested in genealogy—how cool is that?

If any readers are descended from James Alexander Speers Hammond or Margaret Jane Hammond Johnson and you’ve taken a DNA test, I hope you’ll contact me at I’m happy to share my findings and answer any questions you might have.

And if you’re descended from George Jameson of Greene County Ohio who died there in 1893, there may be a free DNA kit available to you! Email me for details.


Ann Raymont © 2017


3 thoughts on “Applying DNA to a genealogy brick wall: getting started

  1. Barb LaFara

    I read your post with interest, first, because I too have many brick walls and am ever hoping DNA will help to solve them, and second, because I descend from a John Hammond (1799-1888) living in Holmes County in 1840 and 1850. I have looked back on his line to see if any of his uncles went to KY, but I found none. However, one of his uncles died in Holmes County in 1840 and I know very little about him, but I am fairly confident he was in PA in 1810. In my own research of this family I have found the surname spelled Hamman, Hammon, Haman, Hamon, and Hammin. Good luck!


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  3. Manuela Waters

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