Barton Lewis's Genealogy Pages

Brick wall case study no. 1

My 5th great-grandfather, Reuben Fletcher, was well-documented in North Carolina records, including the 1790-1830 censuses, many deeds, and his 1832 Revolutionary War pension application. They include his 22 Dec 1802 marriage to Betsy Thompson, in Burke County, North Carolina, but the name of his first wife, my ancestor, was unknown - until a DNA match with a distant cousin shook loose a branch of my family tree.

Chromosomes 3 & 4

My aunt and uncle overlap on much of their paternal chromosome 3 through their grandfather, William Archibald Smith. Matching them there for a portion of that segment is their 3rd cousin once removed, Willie Grace, who tested at Ancestry, but uploaded her kit to gedmatch. Willie Grace's daughter, Rebecca, then tested at FTDNA, and she also matches there. Also matching them is DF, with almost exactly the same positions and amounts as Willie Grace (13.77 and 12.84 cM, respectively). There aren't others on this segment with comparable overlaps, but DF also matches my uncle for 39 cM on chromosome 4, also on a segment my uncle got from his grandfather Archie. (My mother and aunt match there too, but for somewhat smaller segments, due to crossovers they received.)

A paper trail

Since Willie Grace and DF were matching on chromosome 3, I assumed DF was related to me through my 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Fletcher, who was Willie Grace’s great-grandfather's sister. Although I could not spot a connection in our trees, TF, DF’s daughter, noticed something: many online trees named Rhoda Estes as the wife of Reuben Fletcher, who was Sarah Ann’s grandfather. Rhoda was the sister of Lott Estes, DF’s 4th great grandfather.

I had seen the trees at WorldConnect but never paid much attention to them, as they offered no source for the name of Rhoda Estes. But Rhoda’s father, Reuben Estes, sold land to Reuben Fletcher in 1787 and 1794, and Reuben Fletcher served on juries and road surveys with Reuben Estes and his sons.

Estes will

Reuben Estes's will, in which he names his grandchildren, "My Daughter Rodi's Children," including Nathan, Sally, James and Betsy.


Deed naming heirs of Reuben Fletcher, including James and Nathan Fletcher, Sarah Pack and Elizabeth Rhodes.

TF then found Reuben Estes’s will, and it contained the fol­lowing clause: "It is Lickwas my will and pleasure that My Daughter Rodis Chil­dren Nathan Saley James [?]aley Betsy Aires of her own bodey to have a Childs part Equally Divided a­monks them ..." It looks as if the name Saley (Sally) is repeated after the line breaks where it first appears, but the for­ma­tion of the capital "S" is different than else­where in the docu­ment. The names Eliza­beth, Sarah, James and Nathan are in a deed naming Reuben Fletch­er’s heirs in 1834 (Sally was a popular nick­name for Sarah in the 1700-1800s). Reuben Estes wrote his will on 11 Nov 1803, just under a year after Reuben Fletcher married Betsy Thompson.


But I needed more than this to say that Rhoda Estes was Reuben Fletcher’s first wife. So I began to examine the pedigrees of the other significant matches on chromosome 4. Among them were Marjorie, Jim, Tegan, and Lee - as shown in my uncle's chromosome browser below.



To my surprise, I found that Marjorie, Jim, Tegan and Lee were all also Estes descendants. Lee was the des­cendant of Reuben & Delphia Estes’s son, Leonard; and Jim, Marjorie and Tegan were descendants of Reuben Estes’s uncle, Elisha Estes, through two different sons. These relationships are shown below:



As delighted as I was to see these strong matches were Estes descendants, I was also somewhat surprised. Other than Willie Grace, my "Kits"’ (my mother, aunt and uncle) nearest relationship based on an Estes connection was 5th cousin once removed – with Lee. DF was a 6th cousin; Marjorie and Jim were 7th cousins once removed; and Tegan was an 8th cousin once removed. Because DNA is passed in a purely random fashion from our ancestors, and we receive less and less of it with each generation back in time (about 6.25% from 2nd great-grandparents, with the amount halving (in theory) with each generation), the odds are strongly against 5 distant cousins matching on the same segment. How to account, then, for the formation of TG's with distant cousins - whether matching the way we think we are, or not?

The factors that influence these scenarios - DNA from founder populations and more recent endogamy - are discussed in my article on Triangulated Groups. Abraham and Barbara Estes were members of a founder population (Abraham arrived in the colony of Virginia in January 1674) and there is every possibility that more recent endogamy played a part in their descendants' families as well.

It is important to state that just because DF matches Willie Grace on chromosome 3, it does not necessarily follow that DF is related to Willie Grace or the Kits in the same way that the Kits and Willie Grace are related to each other. However, the fact that both segments are passed to the Kits through their paternal grandfather, Arch Smith, and the segment on chromosome 3 is isolated further to Arch's grandmother, Sarah Ann Fletcher, narrows its path to within three generations of Reuben Estes, the MRCA of the Kits, Willie Grace, DF and Lee.

But if the matches are not 5th-8th cousins as shown in the table, what are the alternatives? If we believe the odds are against matches with distant cousins to begin with, then it seems they should be more closely related than we think. But their pedigrees do not bear this out. It may be that the segment comes from an even more distant ancestor through divergent pathways in their pedigrees, for the reasons already stated. Ancestry states that while the number of 3rd cousins in a DNA Circle are in line with their simulations, three times as many 6th cousins are in DNA Circles than what their simulations predict.


In this, as in the other case studies on this site, the grandparent and more distant ancestor through which my Kits are related to confirmed 2nd or 3rd cousins on a segment are in the “correct” lineage for the more distant 4th, 5th or greater cousin matches on that segment. My conclusion is that either the matches are matching in the way I think they are – and endogamy is somehow upending the odds of their not matching in this way with their more distant cousins; or they are not matching in the way I have identified but it just so happens that the alternative, unidentified pathways through which they are receiving the segment is upstream of the common ancestor to their 2nd/3rd cousin(s) and/or their “correct” grandparent on that segment. Either way, it does appear to me that it is possible to assign the segment to a lineage, if not specific ancestor – and this can be just as powerful a tool for breaking down brick walls and solving other genealogical mysteries.

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