John, William, James or David?

Searching for more documentary evidence.


Mugshots from Barrhill – the four Stevenson brothers from the surviving family photograph. You can find the previous parts of this story here and here.

Right time, right place?

Mabel’s son, (my husband’s grandfather) was born on 21 December 1908, a few months after Mabel’s 20th birthday. Assuming that this was a full-term pregnancy, conception would have taken place around the middle of March 1908. As Mabel had been working as a maid in a country house near Barrhill, it seems fair to assume that she met the father of her child there. When there is not much else to go on, we have to hypothesize.

In March of 1908, John Stevenson was 22. His brother William was 19. James was 17 and David, the youngest, was just a few months past his 16th birthday. There’s nothing conclusive we can draw from any of this. I was more interested in trying to prove where they were living around this time. Cousin L from 23andMe had mentioned that the brothers all went to New Zealand. So, was it possible that some of the brothers could be eliminated by proving they left for New Zealand before 1908?

I couldn’t find any of them recorded as passengers on the available ships’ manifests for voyages from the UK to Australia or New Zealand. But by cross-referencing information about the family on with searchable death records at, I was able to locate death records for three of them. John, William and David had all died in New Zealand according to the index. The NZ government website told me that one of the pieces of information listed on the death certificates should be the number of years that person had lived there. I applied for the certificates online and waited to have them emailed to me.

The death certificates yielded the following information:

  • David Maxwell Stevenson died in 1965 and had been living in New Zealand for 54 years. This meant his approximate year of arrival was 1911.
  • William Stevenson, “retired dairy farmer”, died there in 1963 after living there for 51 years. So he arrived there around 1912.

The death certificate for John Stevenson was difficult to read. He died in 1918 when he was only 33. He had been married for a year at the time of his death. The figure in the “number of years” column is unclear – it could be a one or it could be a nine. As he had married the previous year, and records seemed to indicate that he met his wife there rather than traveling to New Zealand with her, I went with “9”.

These dates didn’t help eliminate any of the brothers as the father of Mabel’s child.

James Stevenson was nowhere to be found in the New Zealand records.  Nor was he in the 1911 Scottish census, at least locally to Barrhill. Unfortunately a wider search of the same census revealed hundreds of young men by the name of James Stevenson. My feeling is that he may not have gone there, but at this point it is just not clear where he went.

A new family member

A few weeks ago we got another match on Ancestry, connecting my husband to this same family of Stevensons. Looking at this person’s tree, I can see that she is a direct descendant of David Stevenson. I’m hoping that if I ask her the right questions, she may have some answers that will help sort out this paternity mystery.

The Stevensons of Barrhill – the DNA connection.


Why is DNA useful when searching for relatives?

DNA is a very new tool in genealogical research. Previously family trees could be assembled through a combination of personal experience and family knowledge; documents and records. Even with a plethora of documents, gaps in a family tree can be left unfilled. In research terms these are called “brick walls”.  

DNA testing for genealogical purposes has become increasingly popular in the US over the past few years. At the beginning of 2017 Ancestry DNA announced that it had broken the 4 million mark of testers in its database. Many people initially test because of interest in and “ethnicity estimate” – a breakdown of where your ancestors may have originated hundreds of years ago. Ethnicity estimates are still being refined and are not always accurate. On the other hand, a positive match to someone who is a DNA relative within a database such as or can benefit genealogical research in the following ways:

  • verify existing research
  • establish that two surname variants are related
  • provide locations for further genealogical research
  • help determine the ancestral homeland
  • discover living relatives
  • confirm or deny suspected connections between families
  • prove or disprove theories regarding ancestry

(List courtesy of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy,

The 23andMe test

As a genealogist using DNA testing as a tool, it helps to have testers in as many databases as possible. My husband’s DNA is currently in 3 major databases. Each company has a different name for DNA matches. At 23andMe they are called “DNA relatives”.

So what are DNA relatives?

Testing companies basically do the science part for you. In simple terms, here is how 23andMe explains the comparison of DNA for finding relatives:

“When two people share identical segments of DNA, this indicates that they share a recent common ancestor. The length and number of these identical segments is used to predict the relationship between relatives.”

The term “Most recent common ancestor(s)” is used a lot in genetic genealogy and is often abbreviated to MRCA. The types of relationship that we share with most people who are our DNA relatives (other than close family) will be cousinship of some degree. There are many charts available to explain cousinship and the MRCA. Put simply, it works like this:

If you are…… Then your MRCA(s) are…
First cousins Grandparents
Second cousins Great-grandparents
Third cousins Great-great-grandparents

There are other variables to consider, such as half cousins, cousins “removed” once, twice or three times, but I have stuck to the simplest form for now. The testing company compares your “autosomal” DNA (taken from markers along the first 22 chromosomes) to that of everyone else in their database. Areas where your DNA is the same as another person’s are classified as matches. Autosomal DNA matches can be as close as parent/child or as distant as 6th, 7th or 8th cousin. The “size” of the match given indicates the closeness of the relationship. The larger the match, the closer the relationship.

So a few months ago on 23andMe, we got a match with a predicted relationship of third cousin to my husband’s kit. The match had overlapping shared DNA segments on chromosomes 11, 17 and 18. The largest segment was on chromosome 18, an overlap of 66cMs (CentiMorgans, a unit to measure genetic linkage). Totalled with the other segments, the resulting shared match was 109cMs which is in the third cousin range. Cousin L, as we shall call her,  was also a match for my brother-in-law and his three teenage children, who had also been tested on 23andMe.

23andme chr 18 stevensons and mcNeill

(23andMe Stevensons/”Cousin L”) Chromosome 18 from husband’s DNA “chromosome browser” at 23andMe. Very pretty, but what is it actually telling us?

“Cousin L” had a list of ancestral birthplaces that included Barrhill. This was already interesting. A potential match of a third cousin would mean that husband “D” and “Cousin L” shared a great-great grandparent, exactly what we would be looking for if Cousin L was a descendant of a sibling of D’s great-grandfather.

23andMe then gives you the facility to contact DNA matches and ask them if they would like to explore how you may be related. Many people don’t respond – part of the issue being that a lot of the early testers at 23andMe were only in it for the health and traits report, and were/are still not interested in DNA relative matching. That is slowly changing. Luckily cousin L was very open and chatty about the potential connection. Here is the extract from her reply that gave us hope:

  • “I know we are related to Stevensons in Barrhill. My great grandmother in Barrhill was part of that family. There were 4 brothers too.”

Over a series of emails, Cousin L told us the story of her Stevenson ancestors in Barrhill. Could DNA tell us which brother was our family’s direct ancestor? Which one of these four was the great-grandfather of these two cowboys from the 1970s?

Doug Bob cowboy crop 2

Who’s your great-granddaddy? John, William, James or David?

(The top photograph from around 1971 was taken around 50 miles away from the family portrait that the “mugshots” are lifted from. The Stevenson family portrait was probably taken around 1905, judging by the ages of the children.)