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 21. 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. As often  happens, another story began to emerge from the death certificate of John. The cause of his death read “Verdict of Coroner’s Jury – Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head whilst in a state of unsoundness of mind”. Something had gone awry in John’s life, causing him to take his own life.

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.)

Meet the family.


(for the first part of this story, see previous blog post here

Drumlamford House, Barrhill, Ayrshire

According to her baby’s birth certificate, Mabel had been working as a housemaid in a large country house called Drumlamford, in Barrhill, Ayrshire, before becoming pregnant.

I haven’t been able to find much information about Drumlamford around the turn of the century. It was a large scale although somewhat plain-looking house set in 1500 acres of land. The Valuation Rolls (register of property tax) of 1908 and the census of 1911 both indicate that the estate was used for typical Edwardian country pursuits – several gamekeepers are listed living on the estate as well as dairy workers, grooms, coachmen, housekeepers, housemaids and a chauffeur. There were several trout-stocked lochs for fishing. Mabel’s father, George Earley, worked as a coachman on the estate, and had occupancy of a tied house called Drumlamford Cottage.

Drumlamford House, Barrhill

A housemaid’s job was tough enough. An unmarried, pregnant housemaid may not have been tolerated and it’s possible that Mabel lost her job or was unable to continue working as her pregnancy progressed. Her mother was dead and her father had remarried several years before. Presumably there was no offer “to do the right thing”; or perhaps she rejected it. Her expectations, fears and state of mind can only be guessed at. She travelled to London at some point in her pregnancy and gave birth there; I hope to visit the London Metropolitan Archives this summer and get access to the patient registers for the Queen Charlotte Hospital. Perhaps they will shed a little more light on her confinement.

After the birth (again, we don’t know when), Mabel entered domestic service as a cook in London. Somehow she survived. Her son was taken care of and eventually she took him back to Scotland.*

The Stevenson brothers of Barrhill

So who was the father? Living family members never spoke of who he was. When I began to “unravel” this mystery it was clear that no-one still living knew his name. Trust a genealogist to air the dirty laundry!

There were a few clues to his identity:

  • Mabel’s son was given the surname “Earley” – her family name.
  • By the time he got married in 1935 he had changed his name to “Stevenson, formerly Earley”. (Although Mabel had married by this time, her husband’s last name was Watson).
  • He was probably from Barrhill, Ayrshire.*

Screenshot 2017-04-26 at 12.58.32 PM

(Excert from marriage register entry for “Douglas George Stevenson, formerly Earley”. At some point Mabel’s son had chosen to use the surname Stevenson over Earley. Did this mean that he knew who his birth father was?

DNA testing has become a powerful and reliable tool in helping confirm ancestral relationships. In this case, I was able to make significant progress in overcoming the “brick wall” of unknown paternity with DNA results. Through a DNA match I was able to connect with a third cousin of my husband’s. Her description of her family background, after some research, gave me some likely suspects to be relatives of him, his brother and all of our children. As an added bonus, I was thrilled that she was able to provide a photograph:


Great GrandMother Annie Broadfoot- Great Gr Uncles Jonny-William-David-Jamie StevensonOne of these four young, hot-blooded Scots was, almost certainly, the father of Mabel’s child. He is my husband’s great-grandfather and my sons’ great-great grandfather. The four brothers are John, born 1885 (standing, left); William, born 1888 (standing, right); James, born 1890 (seated, left); David, born 1892 (seated, right). Their sister Annie is standing in the middle, and seated are their parents – Annie (McKie) Stevenson and William Stevenson.

The problem is, which brother was it?



*Location threw me off the scent for a long time. As Mabel gave birth in London, I thought she must have met the father in London. A recent conversation with the oldest living person with knowledge of the family said “his father was born in Barrhill” but had no other information on the matter.


Tough women – Mabel Fanny Earley

I’m doing a mini-presentation to family this weekend on (mainly) solving the mystery of a previously unknown great-grandfather on the Stevenson paternal line. The DNA matching we have pinpoints the family but there were 4 brothers and any one of them could have been the father. My catchy title for the presentation is “Who Do You Think He Was?” The photograph is from one of London’s “lying-in” maternity hospitals in 1908, where my husband’s great-grandmother gave birth to a son in December of that year. The pregnant, unwed mother made the trip from rural south-west Scotland to London when heavily pregnant, possibly to partake of the “modern” facilities at the Queen Charlotte Hospital in Marylebone. The hospital allowed unmarried mothers to give birth there if this was their first child. Presumably this was more support than she may have been given by remaining in Scotland. After the birth she remained in London for several years, working in domestic service as a cook in a private household. Her young son spent some time in the care of a children’s home or school about 15 miles from where she was working. It’s impossible to document what their life must have been like at that point, but eventually she was able to take her son back up to Scotland where her father and stepmother lived. She eventually married and had at least two more sons. I’d love to post a photograph of this tough and resilient woman, Mabel Fanny Earley, but unfortunately there don’t seem to be any in the family. A DNA match in Canada who was essential to the discovery of the father has sent me a fabulous photo of the 4 brothers and their parents and given me a lot of information on the family. I will post those after I have shown them off at the weekend. These kind of discoveries are why I love what I do.Midwife at another London lying in hospital, 1908

Finding Philip – a brief introduction (in memory of M.P.H).

Philip Holmes

A few months ago I posted this picture on my personal Facebook page. I had seen it on a private forum for people who are searching for lost family by using simple direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits. A lovely woman called Carol, from the UK, posted this photograph of the man she believed was her maternal grandfather, Philip Holmes.  She had never met him. Her mother had grown up not knowing her father and the name and the picture were the only pieces of information they ever had.

Carol was frustrated with the search. Her Mum had DNA-tested with Most of her DNA matches were distant – 5th to 8th cousins, meaning that they shared a set of 4th great-grandparents or beyond. That can be very hard to trace, even if you can identify the ancestor you have in common. The majority of her results appeared to connect to her grandmother’s side.

I started working with Carol, analyzing her DNA results and thoroughly going through her matches. I will be posting more on the story in the near future, but I am happy to say that we were able to solve this 80-year-old mystery last week. One new DNA connection, and a great family tree meant that we were finally able to connect Carol’s Mum by DNA to a man called Philip Holmes who was born in 1903. There comes a point in DNA searching where the paper trail and the DNA line up, and this was it. We had found our Philip.

Sadly Carol’s Mum had been unwell and passed away the day after I was able to confirm the match. She is heartbroken at the loss of her Mum, but wants to continue the search to see if we can find living descendants of Philip. She has given me full permission to write about the search, which I hope to do sometime in the future, at a more appropriate time.

In the meantime I have 2 other people I am working with in search of missing relatives. The work is long, slow and detail-oriented but the results are game-changing for the field of genealogy and literally life-changing for the people involved.



From Suffolk to the Salt Lake Valley, 1882.

A Fish in Salt Lake City

For several years I have been trying to find the connection between the Stevenson family and a family called Fish. On my husband’s paternal grandmother’s side I eventually discovered that a great-great-great aunt, Mary Ann Webb, had married a man called Edwin Fish. They were both from Suffolk. Yet every subsequent descendant of Mary Ann and Edwin had died in, or close to Salt Lake City, Utah.  

So why did an English couple in the 1880s move to Utah and how did they get there?

The Mormon connection to Utah

The Mormon church was started in 1830 by Joseph Smith in New York. Smith based the teachings of his new church on a series of visions. Smith was murdered in 1844 after angering the city council in Nauvoo, Illinois with his revelations and practice of polygamy. Despite this, he had already built up a following of over ten thousand converts.

The church had sent missionaries to the UK as early as 1837. Brigham Young, an enthusiastic missionary who would later lead the persecuted Mormons into Utah, made sure that a leather-bound copy of the Book of Mormon was presented to Queen Victoria. Young was declared the new leader of the Mormon church in 1847. He led the first Mormon group to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah in April 1847. There, in this remote and sparsely-populated area, they hoped they could live peacefully and practice their faith free of persecution.

The Mormon missionaries in the UK were extraordinarily successful in their proselytization. On arrival in Britain they encountered wretched poverty and squalid housing. Their religious teachings became popular, as well as their claims that the faithful could come to Utah and live far more comfortably than they currently did. Large numbers of people converted to Mormonism:

“The Britain of those days was ripe for a message of hope, and the preaching of a restored gospel of Jesus Christ was timely. By June 1842 there were 8,245 members of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Six years later there were 18,000, and by the end of 1851 England had 24,199 Latter-day Saints, Wales had 5,244, Scotland had 3,291, and Ireland had 160-a total of almost 33,000-and an additional 11,000 had already emigrated to America. In 1851 there were more members of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland than there were in Utah (12,000).”

(from The Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

It seems that the Fish family from Suffolk became enthusiasts of and converts to the Mormon faith. Edwin Fish, born in Suffolk on 26 April 1847, was a coach maker by trade. Here he is in the 1881 UK census with his wife Annie (born Mary Ann Webb, 24 January 1853 in Norfolk) and their 2 children, Mary Ann, age 5, and Frederick age 2. Edwin’s brother (also called Frederick) was living with them too – he is the coach smith at the bottom of this entry. Their first-born son, Edwin Walter Fish, was spending some time with his paternal grandparents when this census was taken:

Edwin Fish 188102.14 PM

In 1881 Edwin senior’s parents and his brother Frederick sailed to New York aboard the SS Wyoming to make the trek to Utah to join the faithful. In 1882 Edwin boarded the SS Nevada to travel to New York and then on to Utah. The passenger list shows he paid “15/, 2s, 4d” in old money for his passage (15 pounds, 2 shillings and fourpence). He traveled with his eldest son, Edwin, although Edwin is recorded as Edmund in the passenger list.

All of these ships had been chartered specifically for Mormon groups – next to each passenger’s name the location of their membership was recorded. In Edwin and Edwin Jr’s case, they were members of the Latter Day Saints Norwich branch in Norfolk. The Mormon-chartered ships had a reputation for orderly crossings and great camaraderie, with a level of comfort and security that was not found on other ships. The church even had a financial aid programme to help pay for passage. Charles Dickens famously visited the ship Amazon in 1863, a Mormon-chartered vessel that was one of the first to sail from London taking Mormons across the Atlantic. He was suitably impressed:

“Now, I have seen emigrant ships before this day in June. And these people are so strikingly different from all other people in like circumstances whom I have ever seen, that I wonder aloud, “What would a stranger suppose these emigrants to be!”

The vigilant bright face of the weather-browned captain of the Amazon is at my shoulder, and he says, “What, indeed! The most of these came aboard yesterday evening. They came from various parts of England in small parties that had never seen one another before. Yet they had not been a couple of hours on board, when they established their own police, made their own regulations, and set their own watches at all the hatchways. Before nine o’clock, the ship was as orderly and as quiet as a man-of-war.”

(From “The Uncommerical Traveller: Bound for the Great Salt Lake.”)

On 2nd September 1882 Mary Ann Fish and her 2 children boarded the SS Wyoming and sailed to join her husband in Utah. Although she was sailing on an LDS ship, with all of its organisational security, there was another issue at hand. She was pregnant with her 4th child, Louis.  It can’t have been an easy journey for Mary Ann, even though there had been many improvements in travel since the 1850s and 1860s. In those decades it would have taken up to 6 months to get from Liverpool to Utah. Much of the journey had to be undertaken in covered wagons.  By the 1880s the trip took around 3 weeks – steamship to New York and then railroad into Utah.

Her son Louis was born in Utah on 9 November 1882, so around 5 weeks after she probably arrived. He may have been premature or sickly but he died less than a year later. Despite that, Mary Ann and Edwin went on to have another 5 children. In 1900 they were living in Ward 5 of Salt Lake City with 4 of their children; Leonard (16), Francis (13), Mary Ann (9) and Raymond (1, although his birth year is recorded incorrectly as 1889);

Fish 1900 census Utah

Their son Edwin, already 12 years old when they had arrived in Utah, had gone on to marry into a prominent Mormon family. His wife, Isabelle Cooley had been born in 1874 in Weber, Utah. Her father, Andrew Wood Cooley, was an active Mormon who eventually went to prison not once but twice for failing to discontinue the practice of plural marriage (he had 4 wives, including Isabelle’s mother Rachel. Rachel and her friend Mary Jane Jenkins had been married to Andrew on the same day as sister wives – 22 February 1868.) Rachel had 9 children with Andrew Cooley including Isabelle.
1880 census Andrew Cooley and 2 wives

(1880 census showed Andrew Cooley living with 2 of his wives and some of their children, including Rachel C and her daughter Isabelle who later married Edwin Fish. The other wives and children probably lived nearby. Rachel and Ann are clearly marked as “wife”.)

Edwin and Isabelle were married 9 March 1895 (place unknown) and their marriage was later solemnized in the Salt Lake Temple. They had 11 children. Edwin was a member of the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir and the Salt Lake Opera Company. Later he became a contractor and builder. Isabelle was reportedly a good seamstress and cook. They subsequently became grandparents to at least 28 grandchildren and great-grandparents to at least 47.

Edwin Walter FIsh and family

(Undated photograph of Edwin Walter Fish, Isabelle Cooley and family).

Edwin senior died in 1919 and Mary Ann died in 1930. Edwin died in Oregon where he had been living with his married daughter Mary, wife Mary Ann and 2 of their other children. Mary Ann subsequently moved back to Salt Lake City as her death was recorded there in 1930. Edwin Jr. died in 1939 and Isabelle in 1956. Many of the Fish descendants have remained in Salt Lake City and Utah.

In January I visited Salt Lake City for a course. I was unaware that some of my distant in-laws had been among early Mormon settlers in Utah. I took in the stark splendour of the Salt Lake Temple (from the outside – only members of the Latter Day Saints church may enter). I photographed it without knowing that many of the Fish marriages had taken place or been solemnised there and that a second cousin twice removed had been ordained as a high priest in the church.


(Photo – the Salt Lake Temple as it looked in 1905).

Utah today has a Mormon population of over 60% on average, with some counties as high as 80% Mormon. As well as housing the Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City has several other historic buildings connected to the establishment of the church in Utah, as well as every genealogist’s Mecca – the Family History Library, housing the largest collection of genealogical material in the world.

Salt Lake Temple

(The Salt Lake Temple from a different angle today. Little has changed on the outside of the building. The surrounding area is now considered “downtown” Salt Lake City” and it is full of shops, restaurants and office buildings. The original Mormon plan of building city streets twice as wide as other cities means that the downtown area does not feel as hectic as some other cities).

Maggie FHL

The author outside the Family History Library in January 2017.

Memorializing Scotland’s Women

Women’s History Month – March 2017

March is Women’s History Month so I was pleased to discover 2 initiatives in Scotland to recognize Scottish women and their achievements and contributions to society. The first one is the “Scotland’s Heroines” project which you can read about here. 130 years after a “Hall of Heroes” was created at the Wallace Monument near Stirling (think Sir William Wallace, or Mel Gibson in Braveheart if you must), the idea is that a woman will finally be added to the busts of the 14 men already included in the hall. There is a shortlist of women on the website and even a youtube page here to find out more about each nominee. There’s a public vote to choose the winner – if you feel inspired you can vote until the end of March. The official website of the Wallace Monument puts it this way, highlighting that it would like to “tell the story of women who have surprised, delighted and inspired so many with their determination, fortitude and spirit” whilst also highlighting that there are “physical and logistical constraints” to accommodating more than one heroine at this time.

The second project is an interactive project mapping memorials to women in Scotland:

“All over Scotland, in towns, villages and in the countryside, there are many types of memorials, large and small, commemorating the lives and achievements of women. Some names are well known, others have been forgotten. All the women have contributed in some way to the life of the country we know today.”

The map is satisfyingly littered with blue pins showing the location of monuments and memorials submitted so far. You can view it here and click on any of the pins to get a description (and sometimes a picture) of the memorial and information about the woman it is dedicated to. I went back to one of my childhood haunts via the map – Linlithgow in West Lothian, where my maternal “granny” lived. I was pleased to see that the 2 memorials submitted so far for Linlithgow highlight completely different types of women. The first is for Mary Queen of Scots, who was born in Linlithgow Palace.


(Linlithgow Palace as it is today – still grand, although without a roof.)

The second is a memorial called “Katie Wearie’s Sundial”. Although the memorial is relatively new (a bronze sculpture from 2011) it has been installed near a spot where there used to be a tree, known locally as “Katie Wearie’s Tree”, The original tree was purportedly where a young girl drover (or possibly an older woman on her way to market) would rest up after a hard day’s work (or to fortify herself for some market shopping, depending on which story you believe).


(An undated photograph of Katie Wearie’s Tree in Linlithgow)

A palace and a tree could not be more different. I love the idea of mapping these memorials. Whilst women like Mary, Queen of Scots will never be forgotten by history, others like Katie Wearie remind us that we should pursue the story of our women and memorialize them where we can – not necessarily with physical memorials but through exploring and recording family lore for the future.