The Cornett Connection

During my trip to America last month, I linked up with several descendants of my grandmother’s paternal grandparents, William and Sarah Hibbard. Of course, there is another half to her family. Her mother, born Rebecca Wickersham, was one of eleven children by three marriages of Samuel Morris Wickersham (1819-1894); one of her brothers was killed in the Johnstown Flood, and another became Attorney-General of the United States under President Taft.

The Wickershams were descended from one of the early Quaker immigrants to Pennsylvania, Thomas Wickersham, who came from Bolney, 20 km north of Brighton in Sussex, and was one of the first white settlers in Chester County (west of Philadelphia, bordering both Maryland and Delaware) around 1700. He is known to have had fifteen children by two wives, and therefore has a lot of descendants. I have identified 88 people on who seem to share Wickersham ancestry with me. All 88 of us have a particular chunk of shared DNA, and there are about a dozen whose ancestry I can trace back to Thomas Wickersham (from both marriages).

There are a couple more among the 88 who have Pennsylvania ancestry, but who I haven’t managed to link with Thomas Wickersham directly, and this could be for one of several reasons: 1) I simply may not have tried hard enough to find a link to the Wickershams which is in fact lurking there in the records; or 2) perhaps there is what genealogists describe as an NPE, a non-paternity event, where a child was born to a descendant of Thomas Wickersham but not recorded as such (one does also get non-maternity events, such as the Douglas Cause, but obviously these are much rarer); or 3) alternatively I could be completely wrong about the Wickersham links, although I have more evidence pointing in that direction than not.

It’s fascinating that there is enough DNA in my own system surviving from Thomas Wickersham, my 6x-great-grandfather, to link with 88 other people alive today. The strength of the DNA links with the 88 Ancestry users is at least 0.1% in each case. By the law of averages, I should have 2-8 of Thomas’s genes, which is 0.39%; and any other relatives descended from him at the same distance as me through one of his other children should share 2-15 of our DNA if we have the same 6x great-grandmother, 2-16 if we are descended from different wives, 0.003% and 0.005% respectively.

But the law of averages is wrong. I have 50% of my mother’s DNA and 50% of my father’s; but I won’t have exactly 25% from any of my grandparents, or 12.5% from any of my great-grandparents – different amounts will make it down the generations. I am getting the impression also that some DNA is more “sticky”, more likely to be inherited – which of course is what you would expect from natural selection anyway. So something in Thomas Wickersham’s DNA has been powerful enough to survive in extra strength in a lot of his living descendants, eight or nine or ten generations on. (Of course, a lot of them will also have lost that from their family trees.)

Anyway, the really interesting bit is that there are about another dozen of the 88 Ancestry users with Wickersham DNA for whom I have been unable to find a Wickersham or even a Pennsylvania link, but who all appear to be descended from the Cornett family of Grayson County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, way down in the southwest of the state and bordering both North Carolina and Tennessee. The origins of the Cornett family are somewhat murky. The first recorded family member, John Cornett, pops up near Richmond, VA, where he bought land in 1733; he was then one of the early white settlers of Grayson, which is 400 km away.

John Cornett’s origins are shrouded in mystery. There are completely undocumented assertions that “Cornett” derives from King Canute, or that his father was an earl; estimates of his birthdate vary from 1696 to 1712; he might have been one of four, or six, or seven brothers who all emigrated from England at the same time, or different times; there is a story that he worked as an indentured servant in Philadelphia and ran away to Virginia (Philadelphia is also 400 km from Richmond, in exactly the opposite direction). Tellingly, his mother Elizabeth’s maiden name is also recorded as “Cornett” or “Cornute”; she was supposedly born in Southampton in 1676, and possibly died there in 1720, but again the details are murky (and probably were supplied by John Cornett in his old age).

With no more evidence than the DNA and my best guess at interpreting the myths, I reckon that John Cornett was born out of wedlock in Philadelphia in the first decade of the 1700s, and that his biological father was Thomas Wickersham. Wickersham moved to Pennsylvania from England in 1700, with his newly married second wife, Alice Hogge, and four children from his first marriage to Anne Grover (who had died in 1697). Alice seems to have spent most of the next few years having babies: she had a girl 1701, twins in 1703, a boy in 1705, another boy in 1706 and twins again in 1708 (and another four in the years between then and 1723; I’m descended from the second youngest, Isaac, born in 1721). Thomas Wickersham was in his early 30s in 1700; he would not have been the first or last man to seek amusement outside a home dominated by young children, in the big city up the road. It’s also interesting that John Cornett pops up in Virginia soon after Thomas’s death in 1730; where did he get his stake to buy property near Richmond? (Did someone pay him to leave Philadelphia?)

There are other possibilities, of course. John Cornett’s mother is recorded as having been born and died in Southampton, England. But I do not trust those records (though I suppose that John could have been born there in the 1690s, before Thomas emigrated, and then in turn emigrated himself as a young man). The Cornett records are murky enough that the connection could be be at a later date, but I have difficult placing any of John’s descendants in the same place as any of the Wickershams. Theoretically I could have it the wrong way round, and the Cornetts could secretly be the ancestors of the Wickershams – but I have found enough connections to Thomas Wickersham, and to John Cornett a generation later, that this seems unlikely.

So there we are. There is a big community of Cornett researchers, and many of them have confessed their frustration at the brick wall they run into in the early 18th century. I don’t think I’ve knocked down the wall, but I may have helped loosen one of the bricks.

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