The Cleveland conundrum, and more on Sarah Locke

The glory of DNA research is that there is always a new discovery around the corner, and sometimes these discoveries raise new questions as well as answering old ones.

Among my DNA connections, there are a fair number who are descended from a Benjamin Cleveland (1783-1853) and his wife Lydia Cooper (1787-1872). According to the written records, I am distantly related to Benjamin Cleveland; he is my 5th cousin 5 times removed (5C5R in the jargon), meaning that he and my 3x great-grandmother shared a set of 4x great-grandparents. At that distance, we should not really share any DNA; but a number of his descendants pop up on my connection lists.

(I had hoped to find a connection between him and President Grover Cleveland, but they appear to be from different families. The closest I personally can get to the top of the Executive Branch is from a different branch of ancestors, Sophia Chew Nicklin, who was married to George Mifflin Dallas, Vice-President under James Polk from 1845 to 1849.)

Going back to Benjamin and Lydia, their biographies are a bit mysterious. Benjamin was born in Massachusetts, but some sources say this was in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, and others put his birthplace further west, in Hardwick in the centre of the state. It is unclear if Lydia was from Richmond NY, Rhode Island or New Jersey, which is really rather vague. The official family biography has them marrying in December 1804 in upstate New York, but is ambiguous about whether this was in Richmond or 130 km away in Oswego. Benjamin was 21; Lydia was 17, and gave birth to their first child nine months later. They moved from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and finally Middleton, Wisconsin, where he died in 1853 or 1854; she died almost two decades later, in 1872, in Iowa. They had eleven children, most of whom survived to adulthood, and at least four of whom have living descendants.

When I started to look into the Cleveland connections in more detail, the numbers seemed very strange. Between the various websites – Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and 23andMe.com – I found no less than 25 people who shared some of my DNA and are descended from Benjamin and Lydia: two great-great-grandchildren, ten 3x great-grandchildren, another ten 4x great-grandchildren, two 5x great-grandchildren and a 6x great-grandson. Here’s a chart showing their lines of descent and giving the DNA overlap in each case in centimorgans (cM), the standard unit of comparison. (Your whole genome has a bit under 7,000 cM.)

(Click to embiggen.) I’ve given first name and birth surname initials for DNA connections, and also the overlap between them and me in centimorgans. I give two numbers for LS because she has tested on two different sites which found slightly different DNA overlaps with me. DNA connections with the same initials are labelled MW1 and MW2 etc. The ancestors of the DNA connections who are descended from Benjamin and Lydia are identified by first name initial; siblings with the same initial are labelled M1 and M2, etc.

If the records are right, and Benjamin was my fifth cousin five times removes, then my DNA overlap with all of these people should be so small as to be invisible. In fact, one of Benjamin and Lydia’s 3x great-grandchildren (the row from RC to LC on the chart) had an overlap of 47 cM with me, which would be typical of a half third cousin or third cousin once removed, and most of the others are in the fourth cousin / half fourth cousin / fourth cousin once removed territory. This suggests that the connection is a lot closer than the records suggest.

(Just to refresh you: a third cousin is someone you share two great-great-grandparents with. A half third cousin is someone you share one great-great-grandparent with. A third cousin once removed is someone who shares two great-great-grandparents with one of your parents, or vice versa. For fourth cousins, apply the above but with 3x great-grandparents.)

So, in summary, we know for a fact that I am related to those 25 descendants of Benjamin Cleveland and Lydia Cooper, which suggests that either Benjamin or Lydia is a relative of mine. One other point that came up in my research is that several of the 25 also have DNA connections to relatives who are definitely descended from my great-great-grandparents William Charlton Hibbard (1814-1880) and Sarah Ann Smith (1815-1891).

So, purely hypothetically, I crunched the numbers on the basis that one of Benjamin Cleveland or Lydia Cooper was in fact secretly the parent of one of William Charlton Hibbard and Sarah Ann Smith. This would mean that I share a single 3x great-grandparent with Benjamin and Lydia’s 3x great-grandchildren, and they are my half fourth cousins. According to the DNAPainter site, this would give me on average an overlap of 27 cM with their generation, 37 cM with their parents, 23 cM with their children, 20 cM with their grandchildren and 18 cM with their great-grandchildren. We can plot this hypothetical DNA relationship against the actual numbers, and we get the following result:

So, this hypothesis is worth investigating further. We can eliminate one possibility quickly. Quite apart from the fact that it is much more difficult to conceal maternity than paternity, Lydia Cleveland née Cooper gave birth in Unadilla in upstate New York in May 1814 and had another child in January 1816, probably also in Unadilla. She is therefore unlikely to have been the mother of either William Charlton Hibbard, born in Littleton in northern New Hampshire in September 1814, or Sarah Ann Smith, born in Dover at the other end of New Hampshire in April 1815.

That leaves that possibility that one of them was the child of Benjamin Cleveland. To eliminate another possibility quickly, it seems unlikely that William Charlton Hibbard was his son. I have vague but ultimately convincing DNA links between myself and more distant members of the Hibbard family, reinforcing the official account of William Charlton Hibbard’s ancestry. Also Littleton, NH, is well over 400 km from Unadilla, NY, a heck of a long way to go.

Sarah Ann Smith is a different matter. I wrote earlier this month about the difficulty of pinning down her mother’s biography. Her father, supposedly a John Smith, has almost completely vanished from the historical record. I have not identified any DNA connection between me and anyone else related to John Smith, though I have been able to do so for all of my other 3x great-grandfathers on the American side.

Dover, where Sarah Ann Smith was born, is 40 km from the border with Massachusetts, Benjamin Cleveland’s native state. On top of that, there is evidence linking her mother, Sarah Locke, to western Massachusetts, where Benjamin may have been born – and if he wasn’t born there, he was born in Boston, which is much closer to Dover. It’s not conclusive, but for me it’s convincing.

Other explanations are possible, of course. But it’s quite difficult to find another that fits the genetic evidence anything like as well. If Benjamin Cleveland was not Sarah Ann Smith’s biological father, but I am connected to him by some other route, we will have to insert at least another two generations into the hypothetical model, which makes the DNA numbers much more of a stretch.

So I’m going to change my family tree now and identify Benjamin Cleveland as Sarah Smith’s biological father, and my 3x great-grandfather. It’s the first time I’ve had this in my direct line of descent, though I’ve had several cases in collateral branches, some of which I have written about here and here. At this distance in time, we can have no idea of the circumstances that brought two youngish folks together in New England in the summer of 1814, with Sarah Ann Smith arriving nine months later.

A few other notes that came up in the research:

  1. For some reason, Ancestry.com thinks that I have slightly more DNA in common with BL2 and KL than with their father, BL1; which seems unlikely. It’s possible that I am also distantly related to their mother, and that both parents passed DNA that they share with me to both daughters. But it’s more likely that my link with BL1 has somehow been understated (or that my link with the girls is overstated).
  2. I generally don’t identify the living in these posts, but the two strongest links that I identified here are both with people who have died since uploading their DNA to Myheritage.com. The strongest, 47 cM, is with Byron Regnier, who died in April 2018, and the second strongest, 44 cM, with Alvin Stowers, who died in August 2021. My sympathies to their families, if they ever read this; I’m grateful that Byron and Alvin helped me to solve this historical mystery.
  3. On a lighter note, the weakest and most distant of the connections that I identified belongs to KJ, whose full name is quite unusual. When I checked on Facebook for evidence that he is who I thought he is, I discovered that we have a mutual friend – another distant DNA relative who I’ve been corresponding with about how to connect our family trees. I asked her how she knew KJ, and she said that they were classmates in the same high school, in a town in rural Iowa whose total population is 4,000. They are not related to each other, but they are both distantly related to me. It’s a strange world.

Edited to add: Having set Benjamin Cleveland as my 3x great-grandfather on Ancestry, the system immediately found another dozen users connected to him by genealogy and to me by DNA. I now have AncestryDNA connections with more of his descendants than with all my other 3x great-grandparents, combined. It’s pretty convincing!

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