Cavan calling

Last Wednesday I received an email from an organisation called ‘Ireland Reaching Out’ about ‘Cavan Day, when proud Cavan people and their Diaspora all over the world will be celebrating their heritage and culture’.

‘Ireland Reaching Out’ hopes to link descendants of the Irish Diaspora—Irish immigrants, in other words—with their home parishes in Ireland. It provides tools and resources for exploring Irish family history.

“The first-ever Cavan Day, where people and the diaspora of Co Cavan in Ireland come together to celebrate their pride, will be hosted virtually on Saturday, September 26.

Organizers said that Cavan Day is taking the place of the much-anticipated “Cavan Calling” homecoming festival that has been postponed until 2021 thanks to coronavirus.

The inaugural Cavan Day, organizers say, will allow Cavan people around the globe to show their colours and their pride in their home county, by taking to social media and celebrating Cavan using the #CavanDay hashtag.”

County Cavan, in the Province of Ulster, borders on the Northern Ireland province of Fermanagh. It is about an hour’s drive from Dublin.  Cavan, said to have 365 lakes, is known as ‘The Lakeland County’. Many rivers rise there, most notably the Shannon.

Northern end of Castle Lough in the Bailieborough Demesne. Photographed 2017, image retrieved from
County Cavan highlighted in darker green shown to the north of the Republic of Ireland shown in green and just south of Northern Ireland shown in pink. Retrieved from Wikipedia CC 3.0.

Parts of Cavan were hard hit by the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. In 1841 the population was 243,000. This fell by over 28% to 174,000 in 1851 then declined again to 154,000 in 1861. The population continued to decline until 1971, when it stood at 53,000. At present County Cavan has 76,000 people, with the largest towns Cavan (10,900) and Bailieborough (2,700).

Margaret Smyth (1834 – 1897), great great grandmother of my husband Greg, emigrated on the ‘Persian‘ to Australia from Ireland, arriving  in Melbourne, Victoria on 9 April 1854 with a baby born on the passage.

From the passenger list of the Persian, Margaret Smyth and infant are at the bottom of the screenshot , record retrieved through

The passenger list records that Margaret Smyth was from Cavan. Her religion was Church of England; she could read and write; and she was 20 years old. She did not find a job immediately on landing, but went to stay with her cousin John ‘Hunter’ (or something like that; the surname is not completely legible).

I have not been able to find more about this cousin, nor have I have discovered anything more about Margaret’s baby. There seems to be no death certificate, but the baby may have died without its death registered, for in 1854 civil registration of deaths was not yet in force in Victoria.

On 19 November 1855 Margaret Smyth, dressmaker from Cavan, aged 22, married John Plowright, also 22, a gold digger. Their wedding was held at the residence of John Plowright, in Magpie (on the Ballarat diggings, five miles or so from where Greg and I live now). On the certificate Margaret’s parents are given as William Smyth, farmer, and Mary nee Cox.

On documents Margaret usually gave her birthplace as Cavan. On her death
certificate her birthplace was given by her adopted son Harold as Bailieborough, Cavan. On that document, however, Harold gave her parents
as Joseph, a farmer, and Ann Smyth. I am more inclined to believe the names of the parents given by Margaret at the time of her wedding are correct.

Main Street, Bailieborough, Co. Cavan in 2007 from

I have found possible baptism records linking the names of William Smyth and a daughter Margaret but none that seem entirely reliable.

The ‘Ireland Valuation Books’ of 1838 (which I viewed through FindMyPast) have a William Smyth of Tanderagee Townland, Bailieborough Parish, Clankee Barony, County Cavan. This could be Margaret’s father.

More and more records are being digitised, so perhaps some useful documents will come to light. DNA connections also offer some tantalising clues but I have not yet found any definite Smyth cousins.

I hope we can visit Ireland one day. Cavan will certainly be part of the trip. Before we visit I hope I will have discovered more about Margaret Smyth’s family there.

Related post

Using MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity™

The genealogy company MyHeritage recently announced it had refreshed the data for its ‘Theory of Family Relativity™’, a tool that computes hypothetical family relationships from historical records and DNA matches. It does this by ‘…incorporating genealogical information from [its] collections of nearly 10 billion historical records and family tree profiles, to offer theories on how you and your DNA Matches might be related.

In yesterday’s webinar I looked at a MyHeritage theory of the relationship between my husband Greg and his cousin Pearl. MyHeritage suggests that Pearl is Greg’s second cousin once removed. This is confirmed by the historical records. Greg and Pearl have well-developed and reliable family trees, so it wasn’t difficult to calculate the relationship.

It’s hard to say what’s new in MyHeritage’s new Theory. It’s possible that new ways of massaging the data have been developed, but it seems more likely that, with larger volumes of data being processed to develop Theories, ‘new’ simply means more, as in ‘newly-added’.

Anyway, I thought I’d give it a try.

MyHeritage’s announcement included a note advising users that ‘If we have found new theories for you in this update, you’ll see a banner about the Theory of Family Relativity™ at the top of your DNA Matches page. Click “View theories” to see all the theories we’ve found, both old and new.’

I couldn’t find this banner, but I eventually found my way to the filters on the DNA results page where by using the “All tree details” filter, I could select “Has Theory of Family Relativity™”

1 choose DNA from top menu bar – 4th option, 2 choose to look at DNA Matches, 3 select filters, 4 click on “All tree details and from the drop down menu select the top option “Has Theory of Family Relativity™” indicated by the green arrow

My husband Greg has 14 matches with theories. Back in March 2019 I counted 7 matches with theories so I looked at this list of matches again to see if I can learn anything new. In March 2019 Greg had 4313 DNA matches at MyHeritage. Now he has 6399, 50% more.

Several of the 14 matches in the list were matches I had not previously reviewed. I decided to look at S, whose DNA kit is managed by T from Canada.

2 of the 14 matches which have a Theory of Family Relativity: in the post I have looked at the second match in this list
closer view of screenshot of the 2nd match

Greg and S share 35 centimorgans across 1 segment. MyHeritage estimates them to be 3rd to 5th cousins. S appears in a family tree with 250 people. S is the 4th cousin of Greg according to the Theory of Family Relativity™. Ancestral surnames appearing in both trees include Dawe; Daw and Smith. Ancestral places common to Greg and S include Great Britain and Ireland.

I clicked on View Theory which I have highlighted with the green arrow.

There are three paths to support the theory that Greg and S are 4th cousins.

The first path uses 3 websites: my tree, a tree by B R from Australia and the third website the tree by T who administers the DNA kit for S. MyHeritage states “This path is based on 3 MyHeritage family trees, with 55% confidence”

The green arrow highlights that there are three paths to review, the first path is displayed. The letters a and b show the links between the trees and there is a confidence level that they have a match between the trees which is shown immediately above the letters a and b.

The link is William Smith Dawe (1810-1977), Greg’s third great grandfather. I have on my tree that he is married to Mary Way (1811 – 1861). B R’s tree has William’s dates (1819 – 1877) and has William’s wife as Elizabeth Hocken 1821 – 1884 and the daughter of William and Elizabeth as Thirza Dawe 1824 – 1891. Thirza is the great great grandmother of S.

MyHeritage thinks the probability that the two William Smith Dawe’s on my tree and B R’s tree is 100% despite the differing birth dates. MyHeritage thinks the probability that Thirza Daw on B R’s tree is the same Thirza Daw on T’s tree is only 55%. I clicked on the small 55% immediately above the green letter b and got the following pop-up.

I have highlighted the 55% confidence with a green arrow up the top. Both Thirza’s have the same birth and death dates and places. The significant difference between the two Thirza’s is their parents. In B R’s tree Thirza is the daughter of William Smith Dawe and Elizabeth Dawe born Hocken. In T’s tree Thirza is the daughter of Isaac Smith Dawe and Betsy Dawe born Metters or Matters

There are several problems with this first path of the theory calculated by MyHeritage. I don’t believe our William had two wives and Thirza born 1824 would have been born when William and Elizabeth were extremely young. I know this family does have common names and these are repeated across several generations. There are also several cousin marriages in this branch of the tree.

I looked at the second path to see if it is more plausible. MyHeritage states “This path is based on 4 MyHeritage family trees, with 70% confidence.”

The four trees are mine and the tree by T who administers the DNA kit for S plus a tree by JS from Australia and a tree by MT from Australia.

This path goes from Greg’s great grandmother Sarah Jane Way (1863 – 1898) to her mother Sarah Way née Daw (1837 – 1895). The Daw surname sometimes is spelt with an extra e as in the tree by J S. From Sarah Dawe on J S’s tree we go to Sarah Ellen Dawe (1837 – 1895) on the tree by M T. I am not sure where the middle name came from. I don’t recall it on any document. I will check the documents I have.

M T’s tree has the parents of Sarah Ellen Dawe as Betsey Metters 1792 – 1863 and Isaac Smith Dawe 1795 – 1851. From Isaac we link to T’s tree. He shows Isaac Smith Dawe 1797 – 1851 and Betsy Metters (Matters) 1792 – 1863 as the parents of Thirza Daw 1824 – 1891, the great grandmother of S.

This theory seems more plausible to me, but I need to verify this against source documents. At the links between the trees MyHeritage assigns a confidence level. Most of the links are 100% but MyHeritage is only 70% confident that Sarah Dawe in J S’s tree is the same person as Sarah Ellen Dawe in the tree by M T.

I clicked on the 70% and got the popup showing the comparison which gives additional detail from both trees. The difference is that the tree by J S has no parents has no parents but the tree by M T has Sarah Ellen Way’s parents as Isaac Smith Dawe and Betsy Metters. M T’s Sarah Ellen Daw has the same dates and places of birth and death as the Sarah Daw in my tree. I have plenty of documents to back up that sarah’s parents were not Isaac and Betsy but instead Isaac’s brother William Smith Daw.

This theory almost but not quite adds up. The need to go across several surnames is because of the spelling variations between Daw and Dawe. In my tree I have spelled the surname without a final ‘e’. I think MyHeritage has placed too much emphasis on the surname variation and not enough on other variations.

The third path “…is based on one community tree and 4 MyHeritage family trees, with 52% confidence”.

This path uses our tree, the tree by Greg’s cousin Pearl, a tree managed by S R from Great Britain, Family Search Family Tree, and the tree by T who administers the DNA kit for S.

Pearl’s tree provides the link between Sarah Daw on our tree spelt without an e to Sarah Dawe with an e and from there to her father William Dawe – surname with a final e. From there the link is to S R’s tree with William Smith Dawe (1810 – 1877), MyHeritage are only 72% confident they have the right man. William Dawe is not a direct forebear of Pearl and she has not provided many details for him in her tree.

S R shows Thirza Dawe (1824 – 1891) as the daughter of William Smith Dawe. From there the link is to FamilySearch Family Tree but with only 52% confidence. I clicked on the 53% to find out why MyHeritage is not confident they have the same person.

There are some important differences. The dates are the same and the place name variations are minor. FamilySearch, however, has Isaac Smith Dawe as the father of Thirza, not William Smith Dawe.

This path is rated 52% confidence by MyHeritage. The level of confidence is determined by its assessment of the weakest link.

I don’t think this path is correct. S R’s tree shows William Smith Dawe fathering Thirza when he was only 14, which is unlikely.

Of the three paths I think path 2 is most plausible but even then it is not quite right as it relies on the wrong father for Greg’s great great grandmother Sarah Way born Daw and does not fit with known records.

The next step is to review records and update my own tree using those records. After all, the Theory of Family Relativity generated by MyHeritage is meant to be a hint and not a proven conclusion.

I did not have Thirza Daw(e), the great great grandmother of S in my tree.

I have Isaac Smith Dawe (abt 1797 – 1851) and his wife Betsy Metters (1792 – 1863) in my tree. They show as Greg’s 4th great uncle. I have only one daughter showing for that marriage, the forebear of another match. Because Isaac is off to one side I have not researched all that family.

Isaac Daw appeared on the 1841 English census as a 40 year old miller living at Newton Mill, Tavistock, Devon. In the same household was Betsy Daw aged 45, and four children Betsy Daw aged 15, Honor aged 9, Jane aged 8, David aged 4.

On the 1851 census Isaac S Daw is a 54 year old miller employing 4 men and 1 boy living at Lumburn, Tavitock. In the same household are his wife Betsy aged 58, a niece aged 15 and a servant, a miller’s labourer, aged 30. All children have left home.

At the time of the 1841 census there may have been other children who had already left home.

Research by another cousin Lorna Henderson which she shared to Wikitree showed “entry in Beer Ferris in Tavistock parish register for 25 Aug 1818 shows Isaac Smith Dawe as sojourner of this parish, and Betsey Metters of this parish spinster, “married in this church by banns with the consent of their parents” by Harry Hobart, Rector. Both signed: Isaac Smith Daw and Betsey Matters. Wit: Humphrey Roberts, Mary Box (neither of whom witnessed other marriages on the page)”. I navigated to the Wikitree entry from MyHeritage when I searched Isaac Smith Dawe (Daw)/Dawe in All Collections. MyHeritage has 13,676,346 results for Isaac Smith Dawe (Daw)/Daw – far too many, the problem with a common name – they would of course be reduced as one narrowed down the search parameters.

I have been in correspondence with Lorna Henderson before and I know she is a most conscientious researcher and that Isaac is her direct forebear. She has a website for her family history at and the details she has researched about Isaac Smith Daw are at . Lorna records there that in his will of 1847, William Smith Daw mentions his daughters: “My Daughters Names are as follows Mary Cook Betsey Bennett, Thirza Daw, Honor Daw and Jane Daw” and also his sons “my too sons Isaac Daw and David Daw”.

I could not find a baptism record for Thirza Daw in the MyHeritage record collections. On Wikitree cousin Lorna recorded that Thirza Daw was baptised 5 APR 1824 Tavistock, Devon, England. I found an image of her baptism in 1825 at FindMyPast. She was the daughter of Isaac Smith and Betsy Daw. Their abode was Newton Mill and Isaac’s occupation was Miller. I have updated Wikitree with the slightly revised date.

I am confident that Thirza is the daughter of Isaac Smith Daw, Greg’s 4th great uncle. Thyrza Daw shows up on the 1841 census as a female servant in another household. She married in 1850.

I traced down to S through English and Canadian censuses and other records. I found that she was Greg’s 5th cousin. S and Greg share 4th great grandparents Isaac Daw(e) 1769 – 1840 and Sarah Daw née Smith 1774 – 1833. Greg is descended from William Smith Daw 1810 – 1877 and S is descended from his brother Isaac Smith Daw 1797 – 1851.

I will update my family tree at MyHeritage. The Theory of Family Relativity won’t update straight away but at least I know that the next time it updates it may use the opportunity to trace a more accurate path.

As mentioned above I feel the algorithms MyHeritage used placed too much emphasis on the variation between Daw and Dawe and not enough emphasis on the parents named in the trees though there was obviously some weighting for variations in parents.

Nothing has changed about the MyHeritage theories particularly that I can see although I had not noticed previous theories that I reviewed making use of the tree at FamilySearch.

The Theories of Family Relativity generated by MyHeritage are just that, theories or hints. But they did point me in the right direction to make the connection between S and Greg and build my tree a little further.

Related posts

A webinar presentation

Last November I agreed to give a webinar (Web-seminar) – a live Internet presentation – for the genealogy company MyHeritage. Scheduled to be broadcast on Tuesday, September 22, 2020, it was to be called “Finding new cousins and building your family tree with DNA”.

The webinar was to start at 2 p.m. North American Eastern Time. I can’t remember if I realised that this would be 4 a.m. here in Ballarat.

What with bushfires and a pandemic I’d forgotten about this. Then last Friday I got an email scheduling an audio-visual test of the webinar software and hardware. It was on.

The walk-through went well, with only one hiccup: my Macintosh was reluctant to give microphone permissions to the webinar software. I gave up trying and used my Windows laptop instead.

My presentation was based on several posts, especially:

To comply with the convention that living people should not be identifiable, I asked the few people affected if they would mind being referred to by forename only. No one refused and I am very grateful. I also spent some time blurring their surnames where these were visible in screenshots and also blurring the details of other DNA matches.

My webinar was about using the MyHeritage DNA tools. Users interact with a web page for this. It’s complicated, and people new to it sometimes struggle to understand what’s going on. I tried to explain, emphasising that:

  • Find your matches where you know how you are related. MyHeritage has 4.2 million DNA kits in its database. You do not match all of these people but the number of matches you do have is probably overwhelming. Work from these known matches on to the matches you share with these matches.
  • Build or upload your family tree and link that tree with your DNA kit. If you are trying to work out how a match might be related you may need to work on their family tree to find the path to your shared most common recent ancestors and also to ensure there are no other possible relationships that could explain the shared inherited DNA.
  • There is a lot of data on the website and you have to explore often by scrolling down, and by clicking on the screen to reveal more even when there are not obvious prompts.
  • I pointed out the messaging icon and also the notes icon. Not everybody responds to your messages but many do. I recommend keeping the message short and offering to work with your match to find your shared ancestry.
  • I use the notes facility to keep track of when I messaged somebody and if I had received a reply plus any brief thoughts I might have about how they are related.
  • I looked at some of the tools MyHeritage offers: my favourite is the AutoClusters tool, an automatic tool that organizes your DNA Matches into clusters that likely descended from common ancestors. The tool was developed by Evert-Jan Blom and I have previously looked at the tool in my post DNA: experimenting with reports from

All in all, it went well. The feedback was good. Most people found the session useful and in line with their expectations.

Next time I’ll use a headset for better quality audio and I’ll show simpler slides. And I will try to make sure the navigation tool for the presentation does not pop up.

And, er, um, um, I’ll try to say “Um” less.

The presentation was recorded. You can enjoy it, umms and all, through

The Lancastrian Vauxs

The Wars of the Roses

From time to time my children ask me about our ancestors. Have we got a pirate in our family tree? Did we have someone at Waterloo? Were we part of the Raj?

Recently my daughter Charlotte wondered if our family had supported the Lancastrians or the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. The short answer of course, is ‘Yes, very likely’. The war started in 1455 and continued for over thirty years, so given the usual pattern of branching genealogical descent it is probable that we had forebears on both sides.

The Vauxs

The English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, fought over whether the House of Lancaster or the House of York should control the English throne, began in 1455 and continued for 30 years.

 “Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens” by Henry Albert Payne (1868-1940) based upon a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

My fifteenth great grandfather William Vaux (1435 – 1471) supported the Red Rose of Lancaster, but when the Yorkists won a series of battles in 1461 Vaux was convicted of treason and his lands were confiscated, including his principal manor at Harrowden in Northamptonshire. He was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. (Last year we visited Tewkesbury Abbey and looked at the nearby battlefield. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the name William Vaux seems to have gone unrecorded there.)

Tewkesbury Abbey

Vaux left a widow, Katherine, and at least two children: Nicholas (born about 1460, my 14th great grandfather) and Jane or Joan.

Katherine, a lady of the household of Queen Margaret, was with the Queen when she was taken prisoner by King Edward IV after the battle, and she stayed by the Queen during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. On the Queen’s release in 1476 Katherine went with her into exile.

Illumination from the Books of the Skinners Company : Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI – the picture commemorates the Queen’s entry into the fraternity about 1475/6. Image retrieved from Wikipedia. It is suggested in the book “Middle Aged Women in the Middle Ages that the lady in waiting is possibly Katherine Vaux.

Nicholas Vaux and his sister Joan were brought up in the Lancastrian household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.

It seems likely that Nicholas Vaux fought under Margaret Beaufort’s husband, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This of course was the decisive battle which put the Lancastrian Henry Tudor on the throne as King Henry VII. The defeated King Richard III, who Shakespeare has crying ‘a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’, was killed. (In 2012 his skeleton, identified by DNA, was unearthed beneath a carpark in Leicester.)

Battle of Bosworth Field by Philip James de Loutherbourg retrieved from Wikipedia

Nicholas Vaux prospered under the new king. His family property was restored to him, he was frequently at court, and he held a number of official positions, one of them the important command of Guisnes in 1502. Guisnes, an English possession, was a castle six miles south of Calais.

Guisnes castle pictured in a 1545 painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold (see below)

Nicholas Vaux is said to have spent the summer months in Guisnes and the autumn and winter in England.

Nicholas’s sister Joan became governess to Henry VII’s daughters. Joan’s first marriage in 1489 was attended by the King and Queen.

When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, Nicholas Vaux continued to be active at court. In 1511 he entertained the king at the Vaux estates in Harrowden. Among other roles Vaux was a royal ambassador to France in 1514 and 1518.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

In 1520 Nicholas Vaux served as one of three commissioners responsible for a formal meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France, staged as a tournament. The summit, which ran for 18 days between 7 June and 24 June was arranged to strengthen the bond of friendship between the two kings.

The tournament was a magnificent royal spectacle which from the richly embroidered fabrics of the tents and costumes became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545 in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court. Henry VIII on horseback approaches at bottom left. Retrieved from Wikipedia. Guisnes Castle is to the left of the temporary palace which has a wine fountain in its forecourt.

In just over two months, a huge English workforce erected several thousand tents, built a tiltyard (or tournament arena) for jousting and armed combats, and constructed a vast temporary palace of 10,000 square metres to accommodate the English King.

The feasting and entertainments were extraordinarily lavish.  “Each king tried to outshine the other, with dazzling tents and clothes, huge feasts, music, jousting and games.” 12,000 people attended. The English accounts English food and drink accounts showed provisions of nearly 200,000 litres of wine (wine was flowing from two fountains) and 66,000 litres of beer; the English food supplies included 98,000 eggs, more that 2,000 sheep, 13 swans, and 3 porpoises.

Both kings took part in the tournaments. “While the carefully established rules of the tournament stated that the two kings would not compete against each other, Henry surprisingly challenged Francis in a wrestling match, but it turned sour for Henry when he quickly lost.”

Vaux’s marriages

Vaux married twice.

His first wife, Elizabeth Fitzhugh (died 1507) was the widow of Sir William Parr (died 1483; her granddaughter Catherine Parr through her first marriage became the sixth wife of Henry VIII).  Elizabeth was the niece of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker). The Lancastrian Vaux’s first marriage was thus to a Yorkist.

His second wife, Anne Greene, was the sister of Maud Parr nee Green, who was the wife of Thomas Parr who was the son of Nicholas’s first wife. Maud was the mother of Catherine Parr. Anne Greene was the sister of Nicholas Vaux’s first wife’s daughter-in-law Maud.

Abbreviated family tree showing the two wives of Nicholas Vaux (c 1460 – 1523).
Vaux’s first wife was grandmother and his second wife was aunt to Catherine Parr who married King Henry VIII in 1543.

In May 1522 England was at war with France and Vaux was at Guisnes ensuring its defence. In September 1822 he was reported to be “very sore”: either sick or wounded. He returned to England and died on 14 May 1523 at the hospital of St. John, Clerkenwell, London.

Nicholas Vaux had three surviving daughters by his first marriage and two surviving sons and three surviving daughters by his second marriage. His oldest son Thomas inherited the title and was also at court.

Nicholas Vaux is a minor character in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. He has four lines directing a barge to be prepared to ferry Buckingham to his execution. It has been observed that Vaux showed ‘his humanity and respect for the Duke by ordering that the barge to convey him to his death be properly decorated to reflect the Duke’s status’.


Small matches in AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA announces changes to its matching policy

From time to time users of the AncestryDNA service are confronted by a message advising that:

Our backend services are overtaxed at the moment and we are unable to retrieve all your matches. We apologize for the inconvenience, please try again later.

At other times users are told, “Something went wrong. Try reloading the page in your browser, or come back later.”

Refreshing the page often fails to work and users are forced to accept the invitation to ‘come back later’. Sometimes even the less specialised site becomes overwhelmed.

AncestryDNA has more than 18 million samples in its database. It uses enormous computer power to store data and compare DNA. This is costly, of course, and where its methods produce false positives, inefficent.

Recently the company announced that it will no longer provide details of matches with only one segment where that segment is smaller than 8 centimorgans. The company gives as the reason for this new policy that

the shorter the length of the detected IBD segment (expressed in genetic distance), the less likely it is that the detected chromosome segment is truly inherited from a common ancestor.

AncestryDNA Matching White Paper Last updated July 15, 2020 – Discovering genetic matches across a massive, expanding genetic database

AncestryDNA notes that:

  • it has “…changed the [minimum] amount of DNA you need to share to be considered a match with another individual to 8 cM”.
  • from late August “…you’ll no longer see matches or be matched to people who share 7.9 cM or less DNA with you unless you’ve messaged them and/or included them in a note, or added them to a group (including your starred group).”
  • the change has been delayed “…until late August so you have time to review and determine if you want to save any very distant matches by sending them a message and/or including them in a note or group”.

Definitions, and what the AncestryDNA announcement means

A centimorgan (cM) is “a map unit used to express the distance between two gene loci on a chromosome. A spacing of one cM indicates a one percent chance that two genes will be separated by crossing over.” 

The more centimorgans person A shares with person B the closer they are likely to be related. Your chromosomes have a total length of about 7400 cM, so you share about 3700 cM with each of your parents. Two people who share 6 to 7.9 cM are likely to be about 6th cousins, that is, they possibly share 5th great grandparents.

If you are related to a DNA match then the DNA segment or segments you share with at least one other person are identical by descent (IBD); you and your match inherited the segment from a common ancestor without recombination, and the segment has the same ancestral origin for you and your match.

The blogger Roberta Estes has estimated that 18% of her total matches share 7 cM and 30% share 6 cM. AncestryDNA’s purge of matches smaller than 8 cM will reduce her number of DNA matches by nearly half.

It has been estimated that about half the matches in the 6 to 7 centimorgan range are false positives. These matches do not truly demonstrate inheritance from a common ancestor. An error might have occurred when the DNA testing company compiled the chromosome marker: the DNA variations or the series of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) .

The companies’ matching algorithms do not treat the paternal and maternal chromosomes separately. Consequently consecutive SNP results for a short segment of DNA may appear to be half-identical in two individuals when in actuality the DNA sequences are not identical because the SNPs match on opposing chromosomes or because of errors in the matching algorithms. False matches can be the result of pseudosegments (matching alleles zig-zagging backwards and forwards between the maternal side and the paternal side), compound segments and fuzzy boundaries.

International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki: Identical by descent – false positive matches

DNA is inherited so a match must also match one of our parents

If a person appears to match me but does not also match either of my parents, something has gone wrong in the matching process, for if neither of my parents shared the segment that appears to justify our match that person and I did not inherit the segment from a common ancestor.

The blogger Debbie Kennett found that 54% of her matches in the 6 to 7 cM range were not shared by either of her parents.


If about half of all DNA matches in the AncestryDNA database are very small and about half these are false positives, then about a quarter of the matches in our list of matches are false positives and are not genealogically relevant.

My experience

On 15 August 2020 I had 25,434 DNA matches to individuals. With 125 of these people I share 20 Cm or more. There are 25,309 distant matches with whom I share between 6 and 20 cM. Unfortunately there is no way using AncestryDNA to count matches in the range of 6 to 8 cM.

As both my parents have had their DNA analysed I am able to look at my very small matches to assess whether they match either of my parents.

Recently I looked at my small matches where AncestryDNA used its ‘Thrulines’ algorithm to show we both share common ancestors on our family tree and share DNA.

Fan chart showing the genetic ancestors identified by AncestryDNA using ThruLines for small matches 6 – 7 centimorgans (August 2020; Fan chart generated by DNA Painter)

I have 9 matches with shared common ancestors and shared DNA of 6 to 7cM. Of these matches 8 also share DNA with my father. The 9th match has a strong genealogical connection on my Mainwaring line and I do not doubt we are 5th cousins. However, he does not show up among my father’s DNA matches so despite being cousins we do not share DNA. It is estimated that only one third of fifth cousins share DNA.

It may be that the match with my father was somehow modified by AncestryDNA’s proprietary Timber algorithm, which tries to eliminate false matches “because they are of the same ethnicity or population — meaning that they (and many others from that same population) share DNA that they inherited from a distant ancestor who lived much longer ago”.

The Timber algorithm removes matches where the segments show “identical DNA with thousands of other people at that particular place”.

Recording notes about matches in the AncestryDNA database

AncestryDNA allows users to make personal notes in their database for each of their matches. Users can record when they messaged a match, how they believe they might be related, and the details of their shared match.

part of the list of AncestryDNA matches. Those in the list where AncestryDNA’s Thrulines algorithm have identified a common ancestor are shown with a green leaf in the 3rd column – see orange arrows. Part of the notes field appears in the 4th column see green arrows.
One of my DNA matches showing my notes about the match

I looked at the 38 matches in the range of 6 to 7 cM shared DNA where I had made notes.

Of these 38 matches only one was shared with my mother, who shares 9 cM with that match.  I don’t know how we connect.

Of 19 matches for which I had made notes and messaged, the matches also recorded shared DNA with my father. Three show common ancestors. Sixteen do not show common ancestors at present, although for several I know definitely how we are related.

Eighteen matches that I had annotated do not show as sharing DNA with either of my parents. It is thus likely that these matches and I do not share a common ancestor who can be genealogically traced.

Two of these matches had previously shown up as common ancestors, a green leaf in the list and the connection between our trees identified but no longer show up with the connection between our trees. Moreover they do not share DNA with my father.

For 2 of the 18 matches my father does not show as sharing DNA but does share DNA with another relative administered by the same manager. To me this indicates a possibility that the match is genuine but AncestryDNA’s Timber algorithm has modified my father’s match so it does not show up.


I am not concerned if AncestryDNA removes smaller matches from my match list. Based on my very small review I accept that around half of the matches do not share DNA with my parents and thus are not useful matches for genealogy.

Of the remaining matches I already try to make connections with cousins who are researching the same ancestors using’s member connect facility, which helps users to find fellow users researching the same ancestor. So while the ‘Thrulines’ method of highlighting shared DNA and common ancestors on a tree is useful, it is not the only means to make connections with cousins.

The Member Connect option is highlighted by the orange arrow
When you click through to Member Connect you can see other people who are researching the same ancestor, the facts they have used and the sources they have saved to their tree. Sometimes does not correctly identify the common ancestor and you can ignore their suggestion.

Other matching services

Databases such as MyHeritage, FTDNA, and GEDMatch have tools that AncestryDNA does not provide. The tools are based on a chromosome browser, which helps to reveal details about the matched segment, enabling users to compare the shared segment with other matches. Without this it is impossible to be confident that the inherited segment is indeed from a distant ancestor. (See my post on Triangulating Matilda’s DNA.)

These other matching services have databases considerably smaller than that of AncestryDNA. Notwithstanding the better tools they have and the ability to see details of shared segments, I think it is best to test at AncestryDNA in the first instance because of the larger pool of matches.

Estimate of the size of the major autosomal databases in January 2020 caculated by Leah Larkin and published at In January 2020 AncestryDNA announced it had past the 16 million mark; in July 2020 AncestryDNA announced it had passed 18 million tests. When we first tested in July 2016 the AncestryDNA database was less than one sixth the size.


The findings that a significant proportion of DNA matches are not genealogically significant seems plausible . For those small matches that are in fact genealogically sound I am prepared to miss out on these and concentrate my research efforts on the many thousands of larger DNA matches where I can be confident that there is definitely shared DNA and a genealogical connection if I could work it out – there are plenty of puzzles yet to be solved.

I will be pleased if AncestryDNA’s decision to remove small matches relieves pressure on its computing resources and improves response time for its users.

How will these proposed changes affect subscribers? I hope that AncestryDNA will provide more information about shared matches and new tools for exploring DNA data. And I wouldn’t mind at all if I never saw the “backend services are overtaxed” message ever again.


Related posts

Update to AncestryDNA communities: Vinnie has views

In 2016 my husband Greg and I, hoping to learn more about our family history, had our DNA analysed by AncestryDNA.

All living things are related; you and I are related to bananas, earthworms, and the fish, your cousin, whom you ate for dinner.

Our cat Vinnie at the computer: we are distantly related – a 2007 study found that about 90 per cent of the genes in the domestic cat are similar to humans

We share more and longer segments of DNA with our closer cousins, a fact that can be turned to use in family history research: find someone with whom you share a significantly long string of DNA and that person is your genealogical relative – you can probably work out how you are related.

Cousinship in the great tree of life means a common ancestor: whales and cows are related in this way. The DNA we share, or to be precise, the fact that we share it, provides clues about our relative places in the tree. To focus in a little, our relative places in the tree of our direct forebears and cousins are indicated by the segments of DNA we share. The more DNA I share with someone the more recent our common ancestry.

Last year I wrote about AncestryDNA’s ‘ethnicity estimates’ and ‘genetic communities’. AncestryDNA has two ways of looking at your genetic background: the ethnicity estimate which compares your DNA to a reference group and genetic communities where you are linked with cousins who share DNA from a similar geographic area.

AncestryDNA’s ethnicity estimate is intended to be a measure of a person’s ethnic makeup. Are you partly Inuit? Were your ancestors Tasmanian Aboriginals or Scottish Highlanders? AncestryDNA calculates the estimate using DNA data about people who, it is said “…have long-standing, documented roots in a specific area”. This group of people identified by the company provide a reference group for ethnicity estimates.

Genetic communities, compiled on the basis of shared DNA, are defined as “groups of AncestryDNA members who are most likely connected because they share fairly recent ancestors who came from the same region or culture.”

It is said that a large proportion of people who pay to become members of Ancestry do so in order to discover their ethnic makeup, and presumably many of them are satisfied with what they are told. Ethnicity is a tricky concept, however, and Ancestry’s pitch about ‘long-standing’ (how long?), ‘documented’ (by whom? how?) roots in a specific area (how is the area specified?) sharing ‘fairly recent’ (how recent?) ancestors (which?) in a ‘region’ (of what extent?) or culture (what’s that, for Heaven’s sake?), is a pitch that will strike many people as promoting something largely meaningless. [AncestryDNA explains some of this in their 2019 Whitepaper on ethnicity estimates but you can see for example that they are estimating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ethnicity on the basis of 14 DNA samples only.]

AncestryDNA ethnicity estimates were last updated in August 2019. I wrote about this in an October 2019 post: ‘ethnicity’ DNA: beware of inheritance from daughter to mother.

In late July 2020 AncestryDNA updated its genetic communities calculations, including those for communities associated with European and British settlers in Australia. I have looked again at my family’s place in the ethnicity estimates and genetic communities provided by AncestryDNA.
The updated AncestryDNA genetic communities of my husband Greg and of my father became more specific: no longer vaguely “Southern Australia British Settlers” my father is now part of the group “South Australian European and British  Settlers” genetic community and Greg is linked to the “Victoria, Australia, European and British Settlers” genetic community. Our ethnicity estimates have not been updated.

My father’s AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate showing the link to the South Australian European and British Settlers genetic community
Greg’s AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate showing the link to the Victoria, Australia, European and British Settlers genetic community

As I type these notes my cat Vinnie is sitting on my desk amusing himself by pressssssssssssssssssing randommmmmmmmm keys. I moved his paws, but now he’s taken to making sarcastic comments, and it’s hard to concentrate.

ME: “Most of Greg’s forebears came to the Colony of Victoria at the time of the gold-rushes and the assignment of this genetic community makes sense. AncestryDNA provides the information that just over 127,000 AncestryDNA members are part of this genetic community.”

VINNIE: “I’d say that the vast majority of his forebears didn’t come to Victoria at all. Most of them saw out their days on the African savannah. I’d call this a genetic community of approximately 50 million. What AncestryDNA ‘provides’ is just gas.”

Three close cousins have also been assigned to this community – we know how we are related to these cousins.
A timeline with a potted history links forebears – for the most part the linking is accurate, these forebears are all associated with Victoria.

ME: “A year ago I found my mother was assigned to the South Australian British settler community. The only person who was a member of that community with whom she shared DNA was me. My mother came to Australia as a child and all her forebears for several generations were from Germany. As far as we know no relatives came to Australia before World War 2.”

VINNIE: “In the logic trade that’s called a reductio ad absurdum. AncestryDNA’s methods make the daughter the mother of the mother.”

ME: “This was an anomalous result”.

VINNIE: “Did you get your subscription back?”

My mother’s DNA results summary report from AncestryDNA in October 2019

ME: “In response to this assignment of genetic communities and while waiting for the update, I removed my results from AncestryDNA by updating my settings and choosing not to see my matches and by not being listed as a match. My strategy seems to have worked. In the latest update my mother is no longer assigned to any Australian genetic community.”

VINNIE: “If I remove myself from the veterinarian’s appointment list I will no longer be assigned to it as a cat and you won’t have to take me for my annual checkup. Great.”

My mother still has very few DNA matches on AncestryDNA; the only match where I know how we are related is to me and I am also the only match sharing more than 50 centimorgans – that is all other of my mother’s DNA matches are likely to be no closer than 3rd cousins.
my mother’s ethnicity estimate as at August 2020

ME: “Ethnicity estimates including the assignment by AncestryDNA to genetic communities need to be treated like any other hint with caution but as a clue to one’s origins”

VINNIE: “It was thought that the One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater had to be treated with caution too, but he turned out to be harmless. There weren’t any purple people for him to eat. You needn’t be cautious about nonsense.


Related posts

Updating my Ahnentafel index

When I started this blog eight years ago, one of its pages was a pedigree spreadsheet with Ahnentafel numbering. Today I updated the published index on this website.

An Ahnentafel (German ‘ancestor board’) table assigns a unique number to each person.

On your own Ahnentafel chart you are number 1. In the previous generation your father is 2 and your mother is 3. Your father’s number is calculated by doubling yours; your mother’s number is one plus double yours.

This scheme continues up the generations. Your paternal grandparents are 4 and 5. Your maternal grandparents are 6 and 7. Men have even numbers; women odd.

My table starts with my children as number 1 and incorporates both my husband Greg’s forebears and mine.

I use Ahnentafel numbering to keep track of our Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA), ancestors we share with our DNA matches, provided, of course, that I have been able to establish what the genealogical relationship is.

The update of my Ahnentafel index made me think about our progress on the tree. The last time I reviewed our tree progress was March 2020. At 31 March 2020 my tree showed 344 of the possible 1023 forebears up to 10 generations of 7th great grandparents. I know all 32 of my children’s 3rd great grandparents and thus all 62 of their possible ancestors to that level. At the 4th great grandparent level I know 53 of their 64 possible 4th great grandparents.

Direct ancestors whose names I know are coloured; blanks represent those whose names are unknown to me. Chart generated by DNAPainter.

In the four months since March I haven’t made any progress in identifying more ancestors in these 10 generations, but I have made a little progress in the generations beyond, with two more 8th great grandparents, four 9th great grandparents, two 10th great grandparents, and two 11th great grandparents. Adam and Eve are coming up.

GenerationAncestors identifiedTree completeness at this level
Parents2 of 2100%
Grandparents4 of 4100%
Great-Grandparents8 of 8100%
2nd-Great-Grandparents16 of 16100%
3rd-Great-Grandparents32 of 32100%
4th-Great-Grandparents53 of 6483%
5th-Great-Grandparents72 of 12856%
6th-Great-Grandparents76 of 25630%
7th-Great-Grandparents80 of 51216%
8th-Great-Grandparents66 of 10246.45%
9th-Great-Grandparents43 of 20482.10%
10th-Great-Grandparents31 of 40960.76%
11th-Great-Grandparents21 of 81920.26%
12th-Great-Grandparents12 of 163840.07%
Tree completeness calculated by DNAPainter.
There is limited pedigree collapse: 10 people appear twice as our children’s 3rd great grandparents John Way and Sarah Daw were cousins who married.

Our family tree, including indirect relatives, has grown from 10,481 people in March 2020 to 10,928 as at August 2020. It now has 17,204 records (previously 16,099), 2,238 images (previously 2,109), and 305 stories (previously 289). I have added 65 posts.

These statistics give me a quick measure of the progress I’ve made. There still a long way to go…

Related posts

Should I accept this ‘hint’?

Today on my family tree today I noticed a new hint for my husband’s 3rd great grandmother Ellen née Dony or Dory, wife of a glassblower named George Murray. (Their daughter Ellen Murray provided information about her parents when she married James Cross, a gold digger, at Buninyong in 1856.)

1856 marriage certificate for James Cross and Ellen Murray

The younger Ellen Murray arrived in Victoria in 1854 as an assisted immigrant on the ‘Persian. Also on board was her sister Bridget. The passenger list records Bridget and Ellen Murray as both from Dublin. Their religion was Catholic; both could read and Ellen could also write; Bridget was twenty-four (which means that she was born about 1830) and Ellen was eighteen (born about 1836).

To date I have had no luck in finding what happened to Bridget, nor have I been able to track down their family in Ireland.

Today’s hint for Ellen Dony or Dory was a baptism record for a daughter called Ellen with parents George and Ellen Murray. The baptism was in 1836 in Dublin. The father’s occupation is not given.

Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915 retrieved through Detail: National Library of Ireland; Dublin, Ireland; Microfilm Number: Microfilm 09151 / 02 Name Ellen Murray Baptism Age 0 Event Type Baptism Birth Date 1836 Baptism Date 21/05/1836 Baptism Place St Mary’s (Pro-Cathedral)Diocese Dublin Father George Murray Mother Ellen Murray

At first I didn’t feel completely confident that these were Greg’s forebears. Murray is a common surname in Dublin, and I thought that at the time there was probably more than one couple called George and Ellen with a child named Ellen.

So I decided to search the Ireland Catholic Parish Registers 1655-1915 for all children born with the surname Murray, father George and mother Ellen. I did not restrict the search by place or time. If there were many children belonging to many couples with the same names it would be a mistake to assume that the baptism belonged to Greg’s great great grandmother and her parents.

There were only five records, with two belonging to the same child. All baptisms were at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

  • Bridget, baptised 12 November 1828
  • Peter, baptised 21 February 1831 (2 records for same name and date)
  • Josh, baptised 3 April 1834
  • Ellen, baptised 21 May 1836

I have not found any other couples named George and Ellen Murray having children baptised in Dublin at this time. I was very pleased that Bridget’s baptism turned up in the results, for she appears to have been roughly the right age to be the Bridget recorded on the Persian‘s passenger list.

I have concluded that there is a strong chance the Bridget and Ellen of these baptisms are indeed Greg’s relatives and that they had two brothers, Peter and Josh, probably Joseph.

I have decided to accept the hint and use the information to try to make make further progress on this branch of the tree.

Related post

Ellen Cross (1824 – 1840)

Recently I’ve been doing a bit of research about Greg’s 3rd great grandfather James Cross (c 1791 – 1853). I have been greatly helped by  contributions from several of Greg’s cousins who are also interested in their Cross ancestors. Here’s what I’ve turned up.

On 28 December 1819 James Cross married Ann Bailey (1791 – 1860). At the time he was employed as a brewer. He lived at Penketh, about ten miles east of Liverpool.

Between 1820 and 1822 James and Ann had seven children, two girls and 
five boys:

  • John Cross 1820–1867
  • Thomas Bailey Cross 1822–1889
  • Ellen (Helen) Cross 1824–1840
  • Ann Jane Cross 1826–1827
  • James Cross 1828–1882
  • William Grapel Cross 1832– 1876
  • Frederick Beswick Cross 1833–1910

James and Ann’s third child, the eldest daughter, was called Ellen. She was born 9 February 1824 and baptised in the Chapelry of Hale on 22 August 1824. The baptism register records James’s occupation as road surveyor and their abode as St Helens. Ellen Cross was Greg’s 3rd great aunt.

St Mary’s Church Hale
Bishop’s transcripts Reference Number
Drl/2/19 from Lancashire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1911 retrieved through

On the 1841 census James Cross, occupation farmer, was living with his  wife Ann and three of his five sons: Thomas, James and Francis. There is no mention of daughters. 

The eldest son, John, was a surgeon’s apprentice on the 1841 census living with Thomas Gaskill surgeon in Prescott.

James and Ann’s son William Grapel Cross was possibly at school. He was then about ten years old but ten years later he was with the family on the 1851 census. There is a William Cross at a grammar school in Whalley in 1841. The age and Lancashire location seem to fit, and the fact that he later got a job as an Admiralty clerk indicates he was well educated.

Ellen and her sister Ann Jane who was born in 1826 were not with the family.

Ann Jane Cross was born 28 June 1826 and baptised 16 July 1826 at St Helens, Lancashire. There is a burial on 14 May 1827 at St Mary, Hale, Lancashire, England of an Anne Jane Cross with Age: 1 Abode: St Helens. She seems likely to have been Anne the daughter of James and Ann.

There is a marriage of Ellen Cross daughter of James Cross, husbandman of Eccleston, in 1842. Ellen was a minor and this is consistent with the 1824 birth-date as she would then have been 18. A husbandman’s status was inferior to that of a yeoman. The latter owned land; the former did not.

Marriage of Ellen Cross 2 June 1842 at Rainford from Lancashire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936 retrieved through

Ellen could not sign her name, nor could her husband and the witnesses. From what I know of the family of James and Ann Cross it seems unlikely that Ellen could not sign her own name. I am also not able to identify the witness Elizabeth Cross.

I found an 1840 burial at St Thomas Eccleston for a Helen Cross. Her age is given as 16. This is consistent with Ellen’s 1824 year of birth. Her abode is recorded as Eccleston. There are no other clues to suggest that this Helen Cross was indeed Ellen the daughter of James and Ann Cross.

Burial of Helen Cross age 16 of Eccleston on 14 April 1840 at St Thomas Eccleston. Retrieved from Lancashire, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813-1986 through

To confirm my hunch that Ellen daughter of James and Ann was Helen who was buried at Ecclestone in 1840, I ordered the death certificate of Helen Cross from the UK General Register Office.

death certificate of Helen Cross from the UK General Register Office: Year 1840  Qtr Jun  District PRESCOT  Vol 20  Page 620 

Helen Cross, aged 16 years 2 months, daughter of James Cross, clerk,
died of consumption on 10 April 1840 at Eccleston. This Helen’s age
matches that of Ellen born February 1824.

Different documents give different occupations for James Cross, but I
believe that for each of the instances that it is the same person.


Consumption, now more commonly known as tuberculosis, is an infectious bacterial disease, usually affecting the lungs. A common symptom is a persistent cough, which in later stages brings up blood. The patient, with no appetite, loses weight. Other symptoms include a high temperature, night sweats, and extreme tiredness. Tuberculosis was usually a slow killer; patients could waste away for years.

An 1840 study attributed one fifth of deaths in England to consumption. It has been claimed “Tuberculosis was so prevalent in Europe and the United States during the period comprising the end of the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century that almost every family on the two continents was affected in some way by the disease.”

In 1838 the death rate in England and Wales from tuberculosis was around 4,000 deaths per 1 million people; it fell to around 3,000 per million in 1850. The improvements in the death rate have been attributed to improvements in food supplies and nutrition as the improvements are before knowledge of the cause of the disease or any treatment was available.

Graph of Death rates from respiratory tuberculosis in England and Wales from Integrating nutrition into programmes of primary health care, Food and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 10, Number 4, 1988 (United Nations University Press, 1988, 74 p.) retrieved from 

The World Health Organisation reports that today tuberculosis is still one of the top 10 causes of death and the leading cause from a single infectious agent. Worldwide 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018; over 95% of cases and deaths are in developing countries. The WHO estimated 58 million lives were saved through TB diagnosis and treatment between 2000 and 2018 and the WHO hopes to eliminate TB by 2030.


Related posts

Pulteney Johnstone Poole Sherburne (1802 – 1831)

In compiling this brief biography of my 1st cousin 5 times removed Pulteney Sherburne (1802 – 1831), I have tried to flesh out the bare record with a few inferences and conjectures but, with little material to draw on beyond names, dates, and the sparse chronology of his army career, I am afraid the portrait I have drawn of the man may be a little distorted. It’s the best I can do.

Born in India

Pulteney Johnstone Poole Sherburne, the son of Joseph Sherburne (1751 – 1805) and Frances Johnstone Sherborne née Dana (1768 – 1832) was born in
north-east India and baptised in Bhagalpur in 1802. Joseph Sherburne was a Magistrate Collector and senior merchant with the East India Company. Pulteney was the oldest child. A sister, Frances, was born in 1803. Joseph Sherburne died in 1805 and Frances Johnstone Sherburne returned to England with her two children.

Army career

On 20 April 1813 Pulteney Sherburne was appointed as an ensign with the South Hants Regiment of Militia. The militia was designed to serve as a home guard or reserve force. In 1813 England was at war with the French. Sherburne was aged 11 and it appears that this was intended as a first step in a military career. In modern terms he had become a part-time officer cadet.

All three of Pulteney’s surviving uncles were in the army at this time:

  • George Kinnaird Dana (1770 – 1837) was Lieutenant-Colonel of the 6th garrison regiment serving in Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland.; he was promoted to Major-General on 4 June 1813
  • William Pulteney Dana (1776 – 1861) was paymaster in his brother’s regiment, also serving in Ireland
  • Charles Patrick Dana (1784 – 1816) served with the East India Company and was a captain with the 23rd Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry at the time of his death at sea travelling back to England in 1816

On 27 July 1815, a month after the Battle of Waterloo, Volunteer Pulteney Johnstone Poole Sherburne was commissioned as an Ensign (without purchase) in the First Regiment of Foot, the Royal Scots. An ensign was the most junior rank of commissioned officer in the army. Pulteney Sherburne was about 13 years old. At the time the Royal Scots had four battalions. I am not sure which battalion Sherburne served in. The first was stationed in Ireland from 1816 to 1825; the second was in India and involved in the Third Anglo-Maratha War; the third formed part of the Army of Occupation following the Battle of Waterloo. It was disbanded in 1817. The fourth battalion was used mainly as a depot battalion for providing the other three battalions with drafts and it was recruited mainly from the militia. It was disbanded in 1816.

In 1818 Sherburne transferred from the 1st Foot where he had been on half-pay to the 70th Foot. In 1818 and 1819 the 70th Foot was serving in Canada: at Fort George from April 1817, Kingston from June 1819 and Quebec from May 1821.

The Gazette of 18 April 1822 announced the promotion of Ensign Pulteney J. Poole Sherburne, from the 70th Foot, to Lieutenant (without purchase) in the First Regiment of Foot. The Gazette of 11 May 1822 updated the announcement to say the Commission of Lieutenant Sherburne, of the 1st Foot, has been antedated to 18th October 1820, but that he had not been allowed to receive any back-pay. It seems that although Sherburne had been a lieutenant with the 1st Foot from 1820 he had been paid as such only from 1822.

In the Gazette of 24 October 1822 Pulteney J. Poole Sherburne of the 1st Regiment of Foot exchanged with Lieutenant Daniel Keogh of the 58th Foot who was on half-pay. The 58th Foot was in Jamaica, the West Indies, from 1816 to 1828 when it was deployed to Ceylon.

I can find no further notices in the Gazette revealing Sherburne’s military career.

Bruce Bassett-Powell who maintains a website devoted to the study of military uniforms at, commented:

 Lieutenant Sherbourne’s experience as a company officer would be fairly typical. … The dramatic draw down of regimental personnel after the Napoleonic Wars left many career officers without a regiment of their choice, so officers were transferred with or without purchase to any regiment they could find. … [Sherburne’s] career was so very typical of the era in which he served.

email correspondence July 2020

Barrack Master

 From about 1825 (possibly as early as 1822) when he exchanged out of the 1st to the 58th on half-pay, Lieutenant P. P. Sherburne held the position of Barrack Master at Berbice in the British West Indies, now in present-day Guyana.

From 1822 British army barracks were the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance. In 1826 there were 41 barrack masters in the Foreign Departments administered by the Board; the West Indies station had 14 barracks.

Barrack masters oversaw individual barracks and their role was to see
that the blocks were properly equipped, maintained and run in accordance
with a bureaucratic system of regular returns.

In the 1826 Army Ordnance estimates Berbice had 10,000 pounds allocated for a new Barrack, Commissariat and Ordnance Establishment at Canje Point to replace the Barrack Establishment at St Andrews which was not worth repairing.

The army in Berbice used slave labour hired from others. There were several complaints about Lieutenant Sherburne and his treatment of slaves while he was barrack master; in at least one instance Sherburne was investigated for alleged cruelty and the charges were disproved.

New Amsterdam Berbice in the 1830s from Sketch Map of British Guiana by Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804–65) published in London 1840 retrieved from World Digital Library

British colony in Berbice

The garrison at Berbice was quartered at Fort Canje one mile from New Amsterdam. The 1838 Army Medical Services Report describes the garrison as a small military post of square form bounded by the Berbice River on one side and a small stream called the Canje. The two other sides were protected by trenches and wooden pallisades. The ground on which it is built is low and swampy.

The 1838 report of the Army Medical Services observed that the climate of the whole of British Guiana was noted for its extreme moisture, the rate of annual rainfall being six times that of Great Britain. The average temperature in Berbice was 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a minimum of 75 and maximum of 86. The Berbice district was the most southerly British possession in the West Indies. It extended 100 miles along the coast and the ground was so low that at high-water it would be completely inundated were it not protected by strong dams (dykes).  Where the country was not under cultivation in the 1830s it was a succession of forests, savannahs and marshes. The soil was said not to absorb the moisture and became very muddy. The air was consequently reported as extremely humid.

A 2012 visitor described the location:

It was always a sickly piece of land. Even now, few people live out here, on the swamps formed at the confluence of the Berbice and the Canje. The clay is always weeping oily water, and the air is itchy with mosquitoes. … There was no view beyond,just an enormous burning sky and a fringe of thick mangrove.

Fort Canje near New Amsterdam by John Gimlette
Canje River, Guyana taken from the Canje Bridge in New Amsterdam in 2009 by User:Loriski , CC BY-SA 3.0 retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1838 there was a barrack with an hospital and offices within the fort for the accommodation of the troops. The barrack was an oblong wooden building with a basement used for stores and two upper stories each divided into four apartments for the soldiers with some smaller rooms for non-commissioned officers. The hospital was also built of wood with a basement and two stories.

British Guiana was not a healthy place. In 1826 there were 1162 white
troops and 74 black troops in the colony. In that year there were 115 deaths among those troops. In 1831 there were 968 white troops and 2160 black troops with 113 deaths that year. Most of the deaths among white troops at that time were from fevers, particularly yellow fever.

Leave in England

In 1830 Sherburne was on leave in England and he signed his final will on 7 August 1830 at Burton in Wiltshire. He described himself as “Lieutenant in His Majestys Army and Barrack Master to the forces serving in the Colony of Berbice”. He appointed his cousin Joseph Coxon of Burton, Wiltshire, as executor and the main beneficiary was Joseph Coxon’s daughter Isabella Coxon.

[In 1788 Harriet Sherburne, sister of Pulteney’s father Joseph, had married John Coxon, Esq., Command of the Grosvenor, East Indiaman; the Grosvenor, under the command of John Coxon was shipwrecked in 1782; John Coxon was among those who died afterwards. Harriet’s son Joseph (1779 – 1842) had a daughter Isabella born 1809.]

Death in West Indies

Pulteney Sherburne died in Berbice on 28 June 1831 aged about 28.

At the time of his death he was Barrack Master, with the rank of Lieutenant. His death notices in The Asiatic Journal, Gentleman’s Magazine, and New Monthly Magazine describe him as “late of the “Royals” but the army death notices state he was of the 58th Regiment of Foot on half pay. As the 1st Regiment of Foot was more prestigious than the 58th Foot his family perhaps wanted to retain that association from before he transferred out.


In its Rare Books and Special Collection, the University of British Columbia has a bookplate belonging to P. J. P. Sherburne.  The bookplate is not associated with a particular book and is mentioned in H.W. Fitcham, “Artist and Engravers of British and American Bookplates,” 1897. Fitcham dates the bookplate to 1820. In 1820 Pulteney Sherburne turned 18 and was promoted to Lieutenant. The bookplate has a shield, Quarterly— 1 and 4, Vert, an eagle displayed argent ; 2 and 3, Argent, a lion rampant. Crest : An unicorn’s head. Motto : “Je ne cede a personne.”  The Sherburne coat of arms was discussed in a previous post on The search for the Arms of the Dana family as it appears engraved on a box which Pulteney’s mother left in her will to her niece and goddaughter Charlotte, my 3rd great grandmother.

The motto is unusual but as Arthur Fox-Davies notes in his Complete Guide to Heraldry, mottoes do not form part of the grant of arms in England but are “ left purely to the personal pleasure of every individual”. The phrase “Je ne cede a personne”  or in Latin: Concedo Nulli – I yield to none – appears associated with the Dutch philosopher Erasmus in the 1805 book “Memoirs of Angelus Politianus, Joannes Picus of Mirandula, Actius Sincerus Sannazarius, Petrus Bembus, Hieronymus Fracastorius, Marcus Antonius Flaminius, and the Amalthei : translations from their poetical works: and notes and observations concerning other literary characters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries”.

Miniature Portrait

My father has a miniature portrait of Pulteney Sherborne passed to him
from his grandfather, Constantine Trent Champion de Crespigny who received it from his grandmother Charlotte Frances Champion Crespigny née Dana.  The portrait was left to Charlotte Frances Dana by her aunt and godmother, Frances Sherbourne née Dana, Pulteney’s mother.

The uniform in the miniature portrait could be either the 58th or the 70th regiment. Bruce Bassett-Powell confirms both regiments had black facings with gold lace, evenly spaced.  Bassett-Powell suggests it is possible that the portrait of him was done in Canada, that is when he was serving with the 70th Foot.

Frances Sherburne, Pulteney’s mother, made her will not long after she heard of Pulteney’s death – sadly both her children predeceased her and there are no descendants. She specifically mentioned the portrait in her will, leaving it to her niece and goddaughter.

In his portrait Pulteney Sherburne looks bright, determined and optimistic. The role of Barrack Master in Berbice would have been demanding as he was in charge of constructing a new barracks and dealing with living in a challenging humid climate. Sherburne’s army career, cut short by his premature death aged 28, was not notably successful. He maintained his career despite the army being reduced following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Born in India and serving in Canada and the West Indies, Pulteney Johnstone Poole Sherburne (1802 – 1831) was one of the many men who contributed to the making of the British Empire across the globe.


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