Finding Sarah Ann Stewart – a DNA success story

I’ve written in the past that my Stewart ancestors (my Mother’s Mother’s family) are a bit of an enigma. Their Stewart line are sons of Kings, as confirmed by my Stewart cousin who has tested his yDNA, but by the 19th century they were poor Ulster men who emigrated to the boom-town of Shildon  in County Durham. This year (2016) I’ve begun to find out a little more about them. I’ve managed to find the Ulster roots of the Stewarts in the small town of Lissan on the County Tyrone/County Derry border. On top of that my research has confirmed that my Ulster ancestors John Stewart and Jane Marshall had a daughter Eliza no one realised. I’ve often wondered if Eliza was their only daughter amongst their four sons, or if there were others.

Recently I was contacted by someone who believed that their ancestor Sarah Ann Stewart was another daughter of John and Jane, and that our shared DNA result at ancestry.com proved this.

It's not much of a shared DNA link, just 13.7 CentiMorgens over 2 segments.

It’s not much of a shared DNA link, just 13.7 CentiMorgens over 2 segments.

Just to wrap a little perspective around this piece. Below are my gg-grandparents, John and Jane Stewart (born Jane Marshall) and their children in the 1871 census. This is the first time we see the family on record, presumably because in 1861 they were still living in Northern Ireland. All four (known) sons are still living at home, probably enjoying Ma’s home cooking. Next door is their only known daughter Eliza, who’s now Mrs French, having married George French in 1869 in Shildon. The census shows that all the children were born in Ireland, so we can assume that the family moved from Ireland some time between the birth of their last son, Robert c.1859 and Eliza’s wedding in 1869.

John and Jane Stewart in the 1871 Census

John and Jane Stewart in the 1871 Census

Untangling the Family Tree

Now back to Sarah Ann. I’m a bit of a sceptic when someone announces that shared DNA has proved a link to my ancestors. To me DNA evidence is only as good as the paper-trail that supports it. As a result of my scepticism one of the first things I did is take a quick look at my DNA cousin’s family tree and assess it for accuracy. A quick scan of their tree left me more baffled than before. Part of the tree is shown below

Sarah Ann Stewart's Family Tree

Sarah Ann Stewart’s Family Tree

As you can see there was an unknown unknown, two children (Margaret J.) with the same name, born 4 years apart and a most confusing great-Grandfather, Robert Stewart, who appeared to carry his mother’s surname, but didn’t appear in any of the correct censuses. Still it was necessary to investigate.

Having seen all these problems with the tree it took some time for me to wrap my dumb head around all of these inconsistencies. Eventually, with the help of my DNA cousin, I got to the bottom of these problems, and it turned out all could easily be explained.

  1. The unknown unknown was simply the absent father of a child born outside of marriage. I’ve enough of those in my family history to know how they work !
  2. The two Margarets; simple, the first child died during infancy (probably aged 1) and the name was passed to a second child born 4 years after the first. Again not an unusual occurrence in my family.
  3. The g-grandfather, Robert Stewart, was born a few months before his parents married. As a result the child needed to be baptised and recorded as a Stewart. His birth certificate does not record the father. As he grew up he was recorded in the censuses with his father’s Stephenson surname. I’m not sure if this was by design or accident. In one census I see that the enumerator didn’t manage to spell his father’s occupation (Coal miner) correctly, so I’m guessing the enumerator wasn’t the smartest. The boy returned to his mother’s surname at the time of his marriage. Again I’m not sure it was by design or accident, but I can easily imagine it happening.

Finally after all these knots were untangled we needed to look at the most important document, the marriage record of a Sarah Ann Stewart who married and Isaac Stephenson on the 19th August 1872. This says exactly what it should. Sarah Ann’s father was a Labourer called John Stewart. As a bonus one of the witnesses is a Joseph Stewart, who would nicely fit as the older brother of Sarah Ann. Neither piece of evidence proves anything, however they also doesn’t disprove anything.

Isaac Stephenson and Sarah Ann Stewart's marriage certificate. Rather wonderfully her father is John Stewart (a Labourer) and a Joseph Stewart (brother ?) is a witness.

Isaac Stephenson and Sarah Ann Stewart’s marriage certificate. Rather wonderfully her father is John Stewart (a Labourer) and a Joseph Stewart (brother ?) is a witness.

At this point you may well wonder where Sarah Ann was living before she got married. This should be visible in the 1871 census. The most likely record is this one of a Sarah Ann Stewart, aged 17, working as a servant in nearby Walworth, Co. Durham. The birth location looks all wrong, but perhaps she just got recorded as being “from” Shildon where her parents would have been living at the time.

Sarah Ann Stewart in the 1871 censusWe only have two more documents that cover Sarah Ann’s life. By the 1881 census she’s now married and living in Front Street, West Auckland. Again he birth location is wrong.

The 1881 Census for Isaac Stephenson and Family

The 1881 Census for Isaac Stephenson and Family

Finally, there is her death certificate:

Sarah Ann Stephenson death cert. 3rd Jun 1883

Sarah Ann Stephenson death cert. 3rd Jun 1883

Sarah Ann died aged just 28 years old. She’s given birth to six children, two had already died before her, one would die within weeks after her, and one more would die before they reached adulthood.

Am I related to Sarah Ann ?

Before I answer this I should add that there is other, circumstantial, evidence that links Sarah Ann to the rest of the Stewarts. Firstly you will notice the fact that Sarah Ann has all her children named after her brothers, coincidence ? Secondly, my great grandfather Robert Stewart (brother of Sarah Ann) had a daughter he named Sarah Ann. She was born in April 1884, less than a year after Sarah Ann died. Did he name his daughter after his sister ?

Why might we not be related ? Well, my cousin has other ancestors (Walker) who lived in Ripon, Yorkshire. These could fit with some of my Walker ancestors, who lived in nearby West Tanfield, however there is no clear connection between these two Walker families.

The other problem is that Sarah Ann’s birth location is never recorded as being in Ireland, but then again I doubt that anyone ever asked her the question when they were filling in the census returns.

Given all this evidence I think that Sarah Ann is probably the daughter of my gg-grandparents. If I follow the principles of Occam’s Razor (the theory with the least assumptions is the best) then my cousin is related via our shared Stewart line. The only way DNA could prove the connection would be through autosomal Triangulation. As far as I’m aware non of Sarah Ann’s 3 daughters survived long enough to have children, so we couldn’t triangulate through mitochondrial DNA.

Final Thoughts

It’s been an interesting journey finding out about Sarah Ann, and I’m actually rather pleased that she can be “re-united” with the rest of her family. I wonder if there are more Stewart siblings out there. Given that her parents were widow and widower when they married there could well be other children from earlier marriages.

This has been the first time that DNA has identified anyone new in my family history, which given the amount of time I’ve spent researching my DNA is a rather poor return on my time. I suspect that I could have been more productive by searching through the vast amount of information already published on the genealogical websites, however that’s not important. I  enjoy the challenge of learning about, and applying, genetic genealogy.

It’s interesting to see that it was my cousin that found our link, but sometimes genealogy is like that. She knew that Sarah Ann’s father was John Stewart. I, on the other hand, had no evidence that she existed, so it’s unlikely that I would ever have found Sarah Ann on my own.

Now we know how my cousin and I are related (she’s my third cousin, once removed) we can compare our DNA result with average values. These are rather conveniently displayed in the ISOGG Wiki. From this table it shows that we should, on average, share 0.39% of our DNA or just 26.6 centiMorgans. To put it another way there is a 12% chance that we would share no detectable amount of DNA.

One open question is when was Sarah Ann born ? Her ages according to official documents don’t properly tie in, but then again non of my ancestors had a good track record on getting dates correct. In Sarah Ann’s case she manages to be 17 at the time of the 1871 census (2nd April 1871) and 16 months later when she marries Isaac. My best guess is that she was born in 1855, as this would be half-way between her older brother Charles (c.1853) and her younger brother Alexander (c.1857).

Finally, Sarah Ann’s short life and early death is very similar to her sister Eliza. Both married early, were mothers of multiple children and died before they reached 30. It’s hard not to feel saddened knowing about their desperately sad lives. My only hope is that during their short lives there were some happy times.

PS. When writing up Eliza Stewart’s life I noted that Eliza’s brother Robert was in a mental hospital for many decades. One interesting detail from his medical records states “14th March … He told me that 3 sisters had died of Phthisis.” Perhaps Robert was correct after all.

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