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Searching for My Ancestors Through DNA and a Family Tree: Pleasant, But Unexpected, Surprises

9 min read
Searching for My Ancestors Through DNA and a Family Tree: Pleasant, But Unexpected, Surprises

I wouldn’t characterise my family as a very close family, but I had always shared a lot of hobbies and interests with my grandparents on my mother’s side when I was young. They saved a lot of family photos and movies dating about as far back as when photography was first possible, and they had big boxes of family letters. My grandfather, William Frank Sweany, was a novice photographer and filmmaker who knew how to splice old movies well and who kept a big collection of his work. However, he was officially a top accountant for Weirton Steel Corporation.

My grandparents collected art and old postcards. One of their boxes of papers contained lots of postcards from travels by various family members who ventured across the world and another box contained the letters that we wrote to each other when we were far away. My grandparents liked to read books as well as the news. At one point in around 1990, my grandfather purchased a book about the Sweeney family tree, his own family. Still, the information in that book was nothing like what one finds today in books now available online and on various websites. There’s no doubt that if my grandfather had lived today, he would have subscribed to one of those websites that permit researchers to explore their family trees as well as their DNA after sending for a test kit.

I recall the day we gathered around a giant poster board on the dining room table. I began to sketch a tree with branches in pencil, as I would later trace it in ink. Then I put my grandparent’s names in the middle: William Frank Sweany (a variation of Sweeney) and Freda Agnes Craig. The two of them were ecstatic about my interest in our family history and pleased about sharing the family names that they could recall. We managed to write about sixty names on the family tree. They wanted to give me all of the information they could remember before they forgot it. Although they didn’t know everything that I know today, the exploration process and the storytelling was remarkable. Getting as much information as I could from my grandparents was genuinely delightful. If only I could have shared with them what I know today!

Daniel Sweeney/Sweaney (1842-1931) of Ohio was one of the great patriarchs. All I knew was that he was of Irish descent and that he had fought the Civil War in Company B’s 80th Infantry from Ohio. With the power of the internet search engines, I later discovered newspapers which further revealed that he was a handsome war hero who married a pretty socialite by the name of Abbigail Lawrence Huber (1846-1916) from Pennsylvania. Daniel Sweeney will always be remembered for his love of country and his willingness to give whatever it took to keep the nation united. He was an old-fashioned Superman. There now happens to be a lot of information in the newspapers about this couple who had a total of 18 children. Likewise, their children had plenty of progeny, but as the years passed, future generations had fewer offspring. My grandfather (who was Daniel’s grandson) only had one daughter named Jacquelyne Sweany, perhaps because they wanted to send her to an outstanding university or trade school, which was part of the American dream those days.

Freda Agnes Craig, my grandmother, told me about her brother Thomas Craig who was an outstanding musician who supported himself by playing in Nashville, Tennessee. When he was growing up, he filled the house with guitars, harpsichords, and other instruments. Numerous women thought Thomas was a handsome man, but no one I know of caught his heart. I doubt I will ever comprehend the songs he wrote and played in Nashville, but I think he must have been quite proficient at having made a living with his music. His parents were quite disappointed when he left Ohio to go to Nashville since they didn’t understand the importance of an artist’s dedication to music. I only had the opportunity of meeting Thomas once, soon after we created the family tree on posterboard because I insisted upon travelling to Tennessee to meet with him as well as a few other relatives in Hohenwald.

When we got to Hohenwald, my grandfather took me through the woods nearby to see the ghost town of Riverside. There was nothing left but abandoned buildings in the woods. We entered what might have been my great grandfather’s old store, which I can faintly recall. It had been abandoned during the Great Depression of 1929 because it is said that my great grandfather’s customers could no longer pay for their purchases. The store was quite different from today’s stores since it was much smaller with everything inside glass cases or on shelves behind the cases. From the store, we moved on to an abandoned graveyard, probably dating back to the early 1800s, where he pointed out the two graves of my great-great-grandparents (on my grandmother’s side) who lay there side-by-side without tombstones per their request. It once had been a beautiful graveyard before the Depression prompted everyone to move away. Although I asked my grandfather to put a monument there and he had the means to do it, he had promised them never to add one, a tradition that I found to be quite strange.

My grandparents didn’t live to find out about their genetic heritage, but years later, I opted to get a DNA test of my heritage. There had been rumours that we had a little American Indian blood running in our veins. These rumours weren’t the case, according to my DNA test, which revealed that I was 47.9% English, 42.6% Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, 6.2% Italian, and 3.3% Eastern European. I had my mother tested and discovered that she, too, had some Italian ancestry (2%), but was mainly Irish and English. Still, my father Wallace Morgan Williams Jr had a little more Italian DNA than my mother as his grandmother was discovered to be Fannie Lupo.

Fannie was a direct descendent of Ambrose Lupo, a famous composer and violinist born in Milan, Italy. He emigrated to England in the 1500s, leaving his wife and sons behind in Venice, to work as a musician for the king. It is said that he sent money to his wife and that his sons later followed him to play the violin for the king. How strange it was when I made this discovery, especially since my son Giovanni had asked to learn how to play the violin as a child. I wouldn’t have expected to find another musician in my father’s family line, especially since I am without musical talent myself.

Ambrose (Ambrogio) Lupo made a significant impact on the musical scene in England. One can find information about him in many books. Much of the story is speculation, but he is said to have been the violinist who worked the longest for the king and to have been a great composer. Although many doubt Ambrose Lupo’s Italian origins, his numerous descendants find that they do indeed have Italian DNA.

My father’s mother had always been a mystery. Fannie Lupo (1884-1937, Walker County, Georgia) died suddenly of a medical condition at the young age of 53. All memories of her had been erased after her husband Carl C Williams (1882-1954), another one of my great-grandfathers, married a second wife. To my knowledge, she had only had one son, Wallace M Williams Sr, who was my great grandfather on my father’s side. Little did anyone know that she descended from the talented Ambrose Lupo, whose progeny remained in England and emigrated to both Australia and America, where they landed in Maryland. This forgotten woman, whose name was never pronounced by anyone in my presence, descended from quite a talented family that had lived in England during the Renaissance. Quite a few Protestant preachers were in her family line, and that would be another interesting story. I can only imagine that they loved reading, learning, communicating, and giving advice to people in the ‘new’ colonies after they immigrated.

In my father’s family (that of Wallace Morgan Williams Jr), there were three ship captains from the British Isles. Captain John James Corker (1565-1657, Wiltshire, England) was the father of William Corker (1584-1677). John James Corker died in Jamestown, Virgina, in 1657. His descendent, Sarah Branch (1660-1713) married James Lupo (1655-1713) during the 17th century while the new nation was still a Colony. It was the Lupo family that had various influential Protestant preachers in their line. For instance, Laban Lupo (1750-1806) lived on the Isle of Wight in Virginia. He and Catherine Price had five sons who eventually moved to Robeson, North Carolina, in the early 1800s.

Discovering explorers such as ship captains in my family came as a surprise! It has also been a pleasure to know there were some scholarly men. There is less information about the women of the past, but I hope people will find more information about women in the future. Some of them were teachers, while others were homemakers. It seems like they had many children to raise, although a few of them had small families. There is not much evidence that women in my family focused on their careers. However, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side (William F Sweany’s mom) raised 13 children alone with her laundry services after her husband died during the Spanish Flu Pandemic. My grandmother, Freda Agnes Craig, was required to quit her job after she married because my grandfather wanted her to care for the house and her daughter.

My father’s side of the family was quite interesting: My paternal grandmother, Zelda Crane, was a quiet, soft-spoken woman from a religious family. Her silence and inability to express emotion might have been mistaken for her not having cared, but I now understand that she merely had a difficult time expressing affection. She had always assured other family members that we were related to Stephen Crane, the renowned American writer, and I had my doubts when I first received this news, just as I had previously had doubts about being a Native American. To my surprise, my family tree intersected with the genealogical tree with the family of Stephen Crane, so I think there is a good chance she was right.

Some Cranes immigrated from the British Isles to New Jersey. A man by the name of Henry Crane (b. England) had a son by the name of Stephen Crane in England in 1620. This son was not the famous American writer. However, he married Esther Norris in Monmouth, New Jersey, between 1663 and 1700. This Stephen died in Elizabeth, Union County, New Jersey in 1709. His son Nathaniel Crane was born in Elizabethtown, Essex, New Jersey, in 1702. Likewise, William Crane (1716-1784), the son of Nathaniel, lived with his wife Mary Wheeler (1721-1788) in Cranetown, Essex, New Jersey. This William Crane had a son named William Crane Jr (1742-1826). William and Elizabeth Gregory (b. 1780) had a son named William Crane the 3rd (1785-1850) who married Ophelia Arphie Suggs (1791-1881). They had a huge family as well as John Jackson Crane (1824-1894) who was to be one of my very great-grandfathers.

It is not easy to prove that the writer Stephen Crane is one of my distant cousins without getting more DNA samples from the Crane family. To my knowledge, Stephen Crane left no children as he died of tuberculosis in Germany at the early age of 28. My grandmother’s claims are compelling because Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was born in Newark, New Jersey. After his father Jonathan Townley Crane died, Stephen Crane’s mother left him with his uncle Edmund Crane in Sussex, New Jersey. Stephen also had a grandfather by the name of William Crane from Elizabeth (Union County), New Jersey. His great grandfather Joseph Crane was also from Elizabethtown, while his great-great-grandfather Stephen Crane, a participant in the American Revolution, was born in 1709 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey.

It’s unlikely I will ever know the complete truth about the Cranes or other family members. Nevertheless, a heritage expedition is a journey that teaches along the way. Others are welcome to add to the knowledge base, expanding upon discoveries of treasure. Curious future generations are likely to fill in the missing gaps, to find still more treasures, while sharing knowledge of DNA and historical records with others in order to grow the tree’s branches. I’ve enjoyed the journey, so it’s my wish that, at some point, you will make your own flight through the generational branches on the forever-growing tree that connects humankind.

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