It’s been said that setting goals turns the invisible into the visible.
And when it comes to a brick wall ancestor, it often seems like one is chasing a ghost, hoping one day for identity to materialize. The pursuit can last years – decades, even.
Today, genealogists have more tools at our disposal than ever before. But we need to have a concrete goal in order to best utilize this ever expanding toolbox.
Around this time last year I decided to set such a goal for utilizing DNA testing in my genealogical research. I focused my efforts on learning the identity of Sarah E., first wife of Samuel Sherfey Brown, by examining DNA matches and their family trees.
This concentration led to some interesting twists along the way, including helping two adoptees find their birth parents and ancestry (which I will write about someday).
But in the end – nearly one year after I had set my goal – I finally busted the biggest brick wall in my family tree!
For over two decades, I have strived to find clues that could help identify Sarah, who died at the young age of 25 in 1877. I knew her given name and middle initial, birth and death dates from her tombstone and death notice. But nothing was known about her maiden name.
Two of her three children had not even a mother’s name listed on their death certificates (common, yet still blows my mind) and the third had the maiden name of a stepmother. Sarah’s husband, Samuel S. Brown , was widely known in the area they resided, but his obituary also yielded no information.
Because Samuel and Sarah likely married in 1870, I looked for the couple in the 1870 census. I found Samuel enumerated in his parents’ household. But where was Sarah?
The only “paper trail” clues I had for the longest time were as follows:
- A marriage listed in a compilation of Mifflin Co., PA marriages, dated 24 March 1870, between a Samuel Brown of Huntingdon Co., PA and a Sarah Martin of Lewistown, Mifflin Co., PA. This fit the approximate date of marriage I had for them based on their first child’s birth year (given as 1869 and 1871, depending on the source).
- A random email sent to me a decade ago, shortly after I had made a Genforum post concerning Martin being a possible maiden name. In the email, the person (from Australia) said the correct maiden name was Mabin. But the writer offered no evidence nor further information – and never again replied to any emails I sent. Since that message, I had long wondered if perhaps Martin was a misprint of Mabin in either the newspaper where the compiler got his info or a transcription error by the compiler himself.
I tried to find a family surnamed Maben with a daughter named Sarah that would be the correct age to fit in the 1860 and 1870 federal census, but came up empty handed. I also tried under the surname Martin with no luck.
So, I tucked the name Maben away in the back of my mind as a remote, but possible contender.
Not knowing Sarah’s maiden name, let alone her parents’ names nor where she resided, made for a laborious and difficult hunt. It was so frustrating because mid-19th century records for Mifflin and Huntingdon counties are scarce. Crazy scarce.
I wrote to the Mifflin County Historical Society, but they could only find the death notice.
I’d give up for some time, only to try again… and again… and again.
I made several fruitless searches of the census records for other Sarahs of the same approximate age in the Juniata Valley region. Either these women married others or wound up never marrying. Once in awhile, I would also do internet searches under the surname Maben (plus Martin and others), looking for clues and sifting through possibilities using the process of elimination .
And then I added DNA testing to my genealogical toolbox.
I tested myself, my paternal aunt and three of my paternal grandmother’s first cousins.
Immediately, I began finding a lot of matches for the Brown side – and began charting them on a spreadsheet. The other grandparent the cousins all have in common was a recent German immigrant to Philly and there have only been three matches total for that line (probably since DNA testing is not popular in Germany).
I began to notice that all the remaining matches that the cousins had in common seemed to have deeper colonial American ancestry – a great deal in the South, NJ/NY/New England and places in PA where I did not believe the Brown line originated – and many with British, Dutch and Mennonite origins. It wasn’t yet enough to see a definitive pattern or clue, but I sure was keeping my eyes open for something.
Next, my aunt and one of my grandmother’s cousins did a mtDNA test and that, too, indicated deeper colonial American ancestry originating in NJ/NY, either of British or Dutch origin.
Fast forward to this month…
On a late night whim, I decided to make use of the free DNA data transfer offer at MyHeritage. And it has made all the difference. There really is something to be said about fishing in as many ponds as one can.
My grandmother’s 3 maternal first cousins (all whom are great-grandchildren of Sarah) all showed strong 2nd-4th cousin match in MyHeritage to the same man (Jim). When I looked at Jim’s family tree, I immediately noticed the Maben surname paired with Lewistown, Mifflin County, PA.
No other branches of Jim’s family tree matched our family save for this possible one: Maben. And when I looked into Jim’s Maben family further, I found that his ancestor had a sister named Sarah E., born in 1852.
I got goosebumps!
To calm myself down, I created a private mirror tree going back a few generations further on all of Jim’s lines just to be sure that there were no other branches that could possibly connect with our family.
Then I found another person who posted a Maben family tree on Ancestry with census records attached and that’s when I made a stunning breakthrough.
I discovered a HUGE transcription error for the 1860 census both on FamilySearch and Ancestry (and by NARA too, from way back when I first poured over records the old fashioned way – hunched over a microfilm reader): Maben was spelled Maglon.
The record was indeed very faint, but it definitely was written as Mayben (Maglon doesn’t even show as a Soundex match). And the family of David and Sarah Mayben indeed had a daughter Sarah E. born the exact year my ancestor was born, living in the area where she and her husband lived after they wed.
Sarah was under my nose the whole time!
Interestingly, the census recorded her father and older brothers’ occupations as “wood chopper”. Sarah’s husband, Samuel, his father and brothers were also all employed in the lumber industry.
Of course, I want to close the case on this long time mystery. But in order to make this new found evidence even stronger, I need to both gather further documentation and trace this family’s history back even further and triangulate DNA matches.
Right away, I found two other strong matches on Gedmatch to my Grandmom’s cousins who are also strong matches with Jim. One is connected one generation further back on Sarah’s maternal line (Baumgardner) which married into her paternal Maben line. The other descends via the Maben line.
That Maben descendant, however, also is related to Jim on another branch of his family tree (same generation back as the Maben line). I see no connection to that line in my own family tree, but I suppose there’s always chance of a connection on that line further back in the genealogical time frame. (though I don’t think that the shared cMs would be as high as they are – even if some Pennsylvania-Dutch endogamy was part of the equation).
I’ve since found other matches, mostly via Sarah’s maternal line (Baumgardner). And because I’ve also traced back a few more generations, I’ve been able to triangulate the following:
- on Chromosome 4, a triangulated match between my Grandmom’s cousin (Shirley), Jim and another Baumgardner descendant (decended via Sarah’s uncle Abram Baumgardner).
- on Chromosome 5, a triangulated match between Grandmom’s cousin (Shirley) and two Baumgardner descendants (each descended from Sarah’s uncle Hiram Baumgardner).
- on Chromosome 22, a triangulated match between Grandmom’s cousins (Lowell and Patti), Jim and another Maben descendant.
And while a mtDNA match would totally clinch it, I do believe I have enough triangulations to finally consider the identity of my most challenging brick wall ancestor to be DNA confirmed as Sarah E. Maben.
After more than 25 years, this cold case is finally closed!
1.”Grave marker for Sarah E. Brown“, jpeg image, Find A Grave (Online: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012)
2.”Death notice for Sarah E. Brown“, jpeg image, Lewistown Gazette, Lewistown, Pennsylvania, USA, 5 September 1877.
4.” “1860 United States Federal Census (Population Schedule)”, Armagh Township, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, USA, Dwelling, 219, Family 219, David Mayben household“,jpeg image, FamilySearch (Online: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2010)
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