Growing up in Illinois, my family’s origins were almost invisible. I knew the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents, but I still wondered how we got here. I heard we came from Ireland or Germany or England, but those places seemed far off. In truth, it was like my family had sprung out of the ground in America, grilling burgers and going bowling.
It was only after my grandma passed away that I began thinking about her maiden name: McDonald. I read through books and websites about Scottish clans, with their images of tartans and kilts and bagpipes. I was pretty certain we belonged to Clan Donald, one of the oldest and most powerful of the Highland clans. But I really wanted more than words – I wanted proof. And that became a problem because I could only trace my McDonald ancestors back to the 1890s to the exotic locale of Missouri.
This all changed the day my mom and Aunt Donna discovered a letter in a box of old family photos. The letter said that my great-great-great-great-grandparents were named Hiram and Nancy McDonald. I went to Ancestry.com, and soon I found census and marriage records showing that my ancestors Hiram and Nancy lived in Lincoln County, Missouri, beginning in the 1830s.
Fantastic! I had found my family. But it wasn’t enough. If I were going to uncover a link to Clan Donald, I’d first need to find out who Hiram’s parents were, and where they lived before the 1830s — before Missouri. But how to do that?
I turned to the 1830 census – the census taken just before the earliest record I’d located for Hiram and Nancy. But there were no McDonald households in Lincoln County. The closest I got were two households headed by people named “McDanel.”
Now, my initial thought was to dismiss this find and try to figure out some other way to find Hiram and Nancy’s family. But then I looked more closely at the McDanel households. The first was headed by Cyrus McDanel, a young man with a wife and children. The second was headed by Elizabeth McDanel, a woman in her 40s with a household of 11 young adults and children.
What if. … What if my ancestor Hiram was one of them? And what if Cyrus was his brother? What if the census taker had just gotten the family name wrong?
I kept researching. I found coincidences that I couldn’t ignore: Cyrus and Elizabeth were listed only a page apart in the 1830 census. Samuel K. Tilford was Cyrus’s neighbor – and shared a last name with the woman Hiram would marry in the same county three years later. More details added up in online records and at courthouses, and an anonymous tip in an online tree led me to a county in Virginia. Eventually I followed the family all the way back to Scotland … but not quite as quickly as it now sounds.
Suffice it to say, I learned my lessons. Spelling isn’t everything, names change and it pays to have an open mind. If I hadn’t been desperate for clues, I may have never looked at those two McDanels in the 1830 census. If I hadn’t researched the McDanels, I may have never made my connection to the past. And I might still be here scratching my head, wondering exactly how we got here, where we were from and how I could learn more.
— Ryan Littrell
You can read more about Ryan Littrell’s journey in his new book Reunion: A Search for Ancestors. Learn more about his research in this interview with the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowan.