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Break Through the Brick Walls


“You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you.” ~ George Lucas ~

Many of you may not know I’ve being doing genealogy research for close to two decades. I love the feeling of connection it gives me to the past – not just to family, but also to history. If you dig long enough and hard enough, you will find historical surprises along the way.

Take for instance my Tall & Handsome’s family. I was recently doing some work on his family file and I unearthed some things he didn’t know.

His 2nd great-grandfather on his paternal side was a man from Tennessee who chose to fight for the Union during the Civil War. This didn’t surprise me because I have ancestral roots in East Tennessee, an area that was very divided during that terrible, vampiric war that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties. Like T & H’s ancestor, almost all of my Southern ancestors fought for the Union.

In 2012, there was a recalculation of the death toll of the Civil War. It was recalculated to 750,000 casualties tied to the War Between the States.

There were two new discoveries that made those statistics more palpable for   us:

  • T & H’s 2nd great-grandfather from Tennessee died in a Confederate prison camp in Virginia.
  • He had ancestors who were wounded at Gettysburg – the mother of all battles during the Civil War where about 50,000 of those casualties perished. This was all the more poignant because just a few days earlier we had re-watched Gettysburg the movie.

Yes, genealogy can get that personal. It’s one of the reasons I love it like I do and why I keep digging and pushing on. Who knows what tasty family morsel you might uncover?

Like any other journey, there are bumps in the road, confusion (like working on the wrong lead, etc.) and dead ends. Or, as we call those dead ends in genealogy – brick walls.

I ran upon my brick wall fairly soon after starting my leaf strewn path into family tree making. Her name was Rachel Henry Hicks. Plus, I had a family mystery to solve concerning parentage, which also revolved around Rachel.

Rachel’s story is rather unique. She was born in 1830 in Blount County, Tennessee. By 1850, I should have been able to find her in her parent’s household. The 1850 census is a genealogist mother lode because everyone in the household is enumerated by name. Prior to 1850, only the head of the household was enumerated by name. Other family members were enumerated with tick marks in age range categories.

The 1850 census proved a dead end. There were an overwhelming number of  women named “Rachel Henry” on the census. I did pinpoint one record that might have been my Rachel, but the head of the household was the widowed mother. No father info here.

How could I discover the Henry family with so few details? I really needed to know the names of Rachel’s parents and siblings. Without that, it was simply guessing.

On to the next mystery involving Rachel…

I’d heard and been told my great-grandfather, Hugh, wasn’t a real Hicks, but an adopted Hicks. You see, Rachel married a man named Abraham Hicks.

Abraham was married before to a woman named Elizabeth Pence Blair. Together they had nine children. Elizabeth died from cholera in 1854.

Now, this is where it gets rather interesting.

Rachel gave birth to my great-grandfather, Hugh Thomas Hicks in 1856, two years after the death of Abraham’s first wife, Elizabeth; but three years before Rachel and Abraham married in 1859.

This little timeline gave birth to the notion Hugh Thomas Hicks wasn’t Abraham Hicks’ biological offspring – but, an adopted child. There were even tongues that wagged and said he was the son of “one of those McMahan boys from Sevierville”.

I had a gut feeling. Something told me Hugh was Abraham’s biological son.

So, inspired by one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes: “A woman uses her intelligence to find reasons to support her intuition.” – I set out on a quest to discover if my “gut feeling” was right or wrong. There were certain things that lead me to create two hypotheses.

  • The area where the family lived
  • Naming patterns used by our ancestors

The area was a rural, isolated portion of the mountains and foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. My people are mountain people and their lives unfolded in the shadows of those great mountains.

I knew back in those days many communities didn’t have full time ministers. They waited for a circuit rider preacher to come through on his next pass of the circuit. While he was in the area it was his job to make many unions and marriages official and conduct baptisms, funerals and other pastoral duties.

Additionally, circuit riders tended to be Methodist and I knew in the early days my family had a Methodist background.


Hypothesis #1 – Abraham and Rachel were married. The official wedding was delayed until 1859, three years after the birth of Hugh. Possibly because they had to wait until a circuit rider preacher came through the area.

Hypothesis #2 – Naming patterns were very popular in past generations. There was a method to how it was done. Traditionally, a first-born son might be named after the parents’ fathers. Abraham’s father was Thomas Hicks. Abraham and Rachel’s son, my great-grandfather, was named Hugh Thomas Hicks.

I was beginning to have a “eureka” moment, but I needed more evidence to support my theories.

Next, enter the door behind DNA testing. Not only did I hurdle a brick wall, but I solved a parentage mystery by entering that door.

I had taken part in the Ancestry.com DNA project. I first had my DNA tested. Next, I had Daddy’s DNA tested – this was a big plus because better discoveries are made with male descendants DNA.

After sending the DNA sample the wait began. First, for the DNA to be processed. Then, for information concerning matches to correlate. With time, more results are found and matches made connecting your test to others who share DNA profiles with you.

I was hoping to solve my mysteries but a time of two I began to doubt.

Then, like a much-needed rain, breadcrumbs leading to my little genealogy mysteries began to pop up. And, those mysteries began unraveling like a ball of yarn.

First, DNA results popped up showing a clear, unequivocal DNA match to Abraham Hicks. We are biological Hicks family. I couldn’t wait to call my octogenarian Daddy with the news.

Second, within the last couple of weeks my genealogical brick wall, Rachel Henry popped up in my test results. Not only was there proven DNA match to Rachel, but there in black and white were Rachel’s parents.

I set back and began crumbling my brick wall to dust.

Would you be surprised to find out Rachel’s father’s name was Hugh? I wasn’t – it had been my hypothesis for years – remember that naming pattern? My great-grandfather was named after his parents’ fathers – Hugh Thomas Hicks.


So, now the Henry journey back in time commences.

If you have any of these issues throwing up roadblocks in your genealogical pursuits, I highly recommend DNA testing. I gain nothing by suggesting this, except the desire to encourage and help others hurdle their brick wall.

There’s nothing like that eureka moment.

© 2017 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.



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