In 895 AD, a Finno-Ugric speaking horse people fled from their enemies on the Great Steppe and swept into the Pannonian Basin in Central Europe. From there, these terrifying nomads raided and pillaged across much of Europe, reminding their neighbors so much of Atilla and the Huns that they named them the Hungarians.
Growing up in Canada, I've learned a lot about British Isles with the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans but Eastern Europe was mysterious and insufficiently western. Further, recorded history in Eastern Europe doesn't really begin until Christianization and before then, historians rely on the records of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sources. So other than someone from Hungary, what is an Hungarian? Can a DNA test tell us?
According to Ancestry DNA, my 100% ethnically Hungarian mother is 76% East European, 8% South European, 3% Central Asian and the rest northern and western European. Ancestry arrived at that conclusion by comparing my mother's autosomal DNA, which is to say the 99% of her DNA that is a combination of her mother's and father's autosomal DNA, to the autosomal DNA of thousands of people living across the world who can trace their family history back many generations in the same geographic area in which they live.
"Eastern European" is a pretty broad description but it appears as if Hungarians aren't genetically distinct enough from Ukrainians, Bulgarians, or Slovaks to easily tell them apart. Interestingly, Ancestry has another ethnicity estimating tool that uses her closer genetic matches on Ancestry DNA, most of whom live today in the United States and Canada.
Looking at the shared DNA between these matches as well as the recorded birth places of their ancestors, Ancestry not only narrowed down the location of my mother's family to Hungary but to Eastern Hungary. However, this estimate looks back on two or three hundred years and really doesn't reveal much new. However, for DNA testers who have less information about their family tree, it could be quite useful.
DNA testing at 23andme and Family Tree DNA provide slightly different but broadly similar results.
Y-DNA testing at Family Tree DNA allows a much deeper dive into the past, since the Y-Chromosome doesn't combine DNA from the mother and father with each generation but is exclusively passed from father to son. Down my paternal line, my Y-Chromosome is almost identical to that of my father, 10x great grandfather, 20x great-grandfather and so on. I write "almost" because it did slowly and randomly mutate over time. By comparing Y-chromosomes between large numbers of men, researchers created a tree of very roughly when and where these mutations had occured.
My Mom's father was a Daku and her mother was a Debreceni. My Debreceni cousin has a series of mutations in his Y-DNA that researchers named R1b-U106. This "haplogroup" is very common among men of German descent and researchers believe that everyone in it shares a proto-Germanic ancestor who lived a few thousand years ago. Further, my cousin's paternal descent is entirely Hungarian but this haplogroup is rare in Hungary today.
My Daku cousin is in a haplogroup named R1b-U152, which is very common among men who live in or near the Alps, including Switzerland and Italy. Researchers believe that then men in this group share an ancestor who is proto-Celtic and my cousin's closest Y-DNA match is an Italian man with whom he likely shared a common ancestor who lived 2,000 years ago. Again, however, this haplogroup is rare in Hungary.
Mitochondria are organelles which live in each and every one of your cells, consuming oxygen to provide your cells the energy they need to function. They has their own distinct DNA, completely separate from our DNA. Every animal on Earth inherited all of their mitochondria from their mother and their DNA never combined with any other DNA, making it a useful indicator like Y-DNA. However, it mutates much more slowly than Y-DNA, making it a far less precise indicator.
If I could test the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of my 20x great-grandmother down my maternal line, hers would be nearly identical to mine, with perhaps only a small difference or two. My mtDNA haplogroup is named HV6a, which is a very rare group anywhere. My closest mtDNA match has recent ancestry in the Ukraine, which is not unexpected. Other, slightly less close, matches have ancestry in Eastern Europe, which is also not unexpected. And then I have 2 matches, which whom I probably share a common ancestor over a thousand years ago, who are from Finland. Finland?
Interestingly, when looking at my mother's autosomal DNA, she matches several people who live in Finland and Sweden. The sizable DNA segments they share are not likely inherited from any recent ancestor, however, but are common in both populations, meaning a connection much further in the past.
Using DNA to determine your ethnicity is a tricky endeavor. If a test indicates that you're Irish, German or Scandinavian, what does that mean? When discussing these peoples, we are referring to cultural and linguistic identities, as opposed to genetic ones. These peoples settled across large territories and migrated frequently, meaning that several groups may have been absorbed into their tribes.
To be English today means that you are Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman and each of these cultures may be broken down even further. Likewise, although my Mom is only 76% East European, it doesn't mean she's not 100% Hungarian or that she has non-Hungarian great grandfather somewhere. Her family might be 100% Hungarian for many, many generations and still get that admixture because some German is part of every Hungarian's DNA. It's part of East European DNA. So what makes up an Hungarian?
All of my Mom's grandparents were born in the Kingdom of Hungary in the late 19th century. While Hungary was culturally and politically distinct, it was also a melting pot of many different peoples. As we've noted, genetically, Hungarians are similar to the West Slavic countries that surround them, with the exception that they have a slightly higher percentage of Central and East Asian DNA, which is consistent with the conquest of the Magyars.
From 400 BC to 150 BC, the lands of modern Hungary were peopled by successive Celtic tribes. However, about 150 BC, the Roman Empire encroached into the region, conquering the basin all the way to the Danube. The Romans named this province Pannonia, which possibly derived from the language of a local people, meaning "swamp, water, or wet". If you look at older maps of Hungary, you might notice there are a tremendous number of marshlands.
While Romans did settle some of their own people in distant colonies, they also encouraged allies to settle on their borders and so arrived the East Germanic Vandals and Goths, along with the nomadic Eurasian Avars from the Steppe. Hundreds of years later, when the borders of the Roman Empire shrank back in response to attacks from the Huns, the Avars established a Khanate across the region, including in Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
With one exception, the nomads who came from the Great Eurasian Steppe were a Turkish-speaking, Eurasian people who travelled great distances from east to west, seeking pasture and trade. They were a vital connection between several geographically separated peoples, transmitting culture, technology and language between China, the Muslim States, the Byzantine Empire, and Europe. However, while fierce, invincible warriors, they were comparatively few in number.
This nomadic culture had dominated the steppe for several thousand years and would continue to dominate it until the end of the Mongol era, hundreds of years later. In Eastern Europe, the nomads coexisted with the Slavs, a forest dwelling people, not unlike the Celtic or Germanic tribes, who raided and plundered the Greeks and Romans for centuries. However, unlike these other tribes, Slavs also had to contend with the nomads.
For many years, nomads traded with the Slavs but also raided them for goods, cattle or slaves, which the nomads sold into the Muslim world. Germanic or Viking invaders would also seize and sell Slavs to the nomads, and even the Slavs sold their fellow Slavs. In fact, there was such a large trade that Slav became the word for slave in many languages.
After the Avar Khanate diminished, the nomadic Bulgars, Slavic Moravians, and Eastern Franks from across the Alps fought for control of Pannonia. However, regardless of who won these wars, the Slavs became the dominant population and, over time, they assimilated all the others, making the region culturally and linguistically Slavic, even Hungary. Until the Magyar arrived.
The Magyar were once a forest dwelling people in the north of the Ural Mountains, who spoke a Finno-Ugric language, like the people of Finland and Estonia. Over time, seven tribes of the Magyar became nomadic, and payed homage to the Khazzar Khans, which dominate the western part of the great steppe. About 850 AD, they migrated south to the lands between the Dnieper and the Black Sea and became independent, being joined by some Turkish tribes.
However, they were not to stay on the steppe for long. The fierce Magyar were a trouble-making people who attacked and pillaged their neighbors, the Byzantine Empire, who resolved to deal with them. The Empire made a pact with the Pechenegs, yet another Turkish nomadic people, and attacked the Magyar, driving them west into the Pannonian Basin.
Unlike what happened with the Avars and Bulgars, the Magyar elite imposed their language and much of their culture on the local population, making Hungary the only non-Slavic nation in the region. A parallel would be if part of the British Isles retained the Norse Viking culture rather than being assimilated by the local people.
The Magyar continued to raid Europe for several decades until the King of East Francia finally defeated and exterminated a large Hungarian army in 955 AD. Aftwards, Hungary accepted western Roman Christianity, in contrast to most of the Slavic nations who accepted eastern Byzantine Christianity, and became a Christian Kingdom.
For the last thousand years, despite absorbing new nomadic tribes such as the Cumans, suffering crushing losses to the Mongols, and being conquered by the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, Hungary has remained politically, socially, and linguistically distinct. So what is an Hungarian? Ethnically, they are mostly Slavic but likely has inherited some DNA from many of the peoples of the wider regions, including Celts, Germans, Romans, Greeks, and Eurasian Turks.
So while my Hungarian genetic roots are mostly Slavic, it's also East Germanic, Turkish, and Mediterranean. Considering the U152 haplogroup of my Daku cousin, perhaps there are even some ancient Celtic ancestry mixed in there. That Celtic line may have been in Hungary for over 2,000 years or may have come later with different invader groups, such as the Romans.
As to my mtDNA, it seems to me that it might, perhaps, be Magyar, the nomads from the north who share a common language group with the people from Finland. There appears to be autosomal DNA connection there as well. It would be nice to have some proof of Magyar in there somewhere.
Absalom Wollis Croft Collins, a 42-year-old farmer, of Lindley Township, Mercer County, Missouri, started a new census page. Absalom was earning $4 a day from the U.S. government to ride about his township to collect information about his neighbors and record it on pre-printed census forms. He had begun his appointed task on June 1st and today was the 5th, as he penned in the families of the Oxfords, Craigs, Booths, Stills, Cains, Lushbaughs, Boyds, Elliots, Cramers, and Nicholsons.
As of June 5th, William, 50, and Telitha, 43, Nicholson lived on their farm with their 5 children: Telitha Elizabeth, 15, William Thomas, 12, Charles Beverly, 7, Arminda Belle, 5, and Jeanettie, 2. What Absalom did not record is that Telitha was about 4 months pregnant with another child, who would be born November 12, 1880: Leonard Isaiah Nicholson, my wife's great-grandfather.
The Nicholsons had lived in this area since at least 1870, where they lived a few miles further south, in Harrison Township, and had just started their family. Tracing William Nicholson further back, however, was a challenge. I've posted about this previously, but I've never laid out all the evidence, which I will do now.
It is possible to identify William Nicholson on the following 3 census records because of the names of his wife, Telitha, and children. However, the data on the records is inconsistent, which is fairly typical for census records.
Since his eldest child, Telitha, was born in Missouri about 1865, it makes sense to look for records in Missouri about that time, starting in Mercer County. It doesn't take long to find an 1863 Civil War draft record for a Wm. Nicholson, born about 1831 in North Carolina, married, in Lindley County, Mercer County, Missouri.
This record states that William is exempt from service due to a physical disability. However, it does not specify what disability he may have suffered from or much other information about William.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any record of a William Nicholson in Mercer County on the 1860 U.S. Census. Looking further abroad, in Indiana and North Carolina, located several men with the name William Nicholson but nothing in the records directly suggested that any were our William Nicholson.
It is time to look at his neighbors.
Next door to William and Telitha on the 1870 U.S. Census lived Ezekiel and Mary Ellen Sexton. The census states Ezekiel was 27 years old and born in Indiana, while Mary Ellen was 48 and born in North Carolina. I believe Ezekiel's and William's ages both experienced some copy errors and that in 1870 Ezekiel was really 47, not 27, and William was really 40, not 30.
On the 1860 U.S. Census, an E.R. and Mary E Sexton with several children of the same names as on the 1870 U.S. Census lived Harrison Township, Mercer County. E.R. Sexton is age 37, which is consistent with the 1870 census if you assume a copy error as I did, and Mary E is 38. However, there is no trace of any Nicholsons near them.
Searching on the 1850 U.S. Census, we find the Sexton family in Jackson Township, Sullivan County, Indiana. Living almost next door to them is a Nicholson family, all born in North Carolina:
This William Nicholson, born about 1831 in North Carolina, looks promising. If this is our William then Charles, Lazarus, William and Sarah are probably relatives, perhaps siblings, and Phoeby may be his mother. Investigating Mary Ellen Sexton some more, the death certificate of her daughter, Nancy Sparks, lists her mother's name as Mary E Nickelson, which suggests that Mary Ellen may be another sibling of William.
When we look for other Nicholsons in Jackson Township, we find this family:
With a Lazarus in this household as well, we could hypothesis that this is a related family. Samuel could be another brother and Lazarus could be his father.
Looking still for more Nicholsons, we find that a Lydia Nicholson married a Samuel House 1850 in Sullivan County. She lives in a neighboring county on the 1850 Census and was recorded as 20 years of age. This may be another relative?
Looking at this area on the 1860 U.S. Census, we find William and Lazarus Sr. gone, a find-a-grave record claims he passed away in 1855, but living next to Lazarus Jr. and Charles Nicholson is another Nicholson family:
There seems to be a strong possibility that John is also related to the family, given the proximity of this family to the others and the similarity of the names with the other Nicholsons, such as Pheba and Lydia.
When we look for Nicholsons on the 1840 U.S. Census, we see the family of Lazarus Nicholson. The 1840 Census only names the head of household, signifying all other members of the household by checkmarks in age and sex based columns.
Adding the names we already have, we can attempt to account for several of those checkmarks.
Charles and Lazarus would provide 2 males in the 10 thru 14 range instead of 1 but this could be an error with age on one of the census. Also, 60-year-old Lazarus from the 1850 Census is a whole 10 years off the Lazarus of the 1840 Census. John is not accounted for here but he would have been 24 and perhaps not living at home.
However, censuses are often not completely accurate and the Nicholsons we find in 1850 largely conform to the counts in 1840 so we can't rule anything out yet.
However, even if this is our William's family, the only evidence we have so far is that Mary Ellen Sexton lived next to William Nicholson in Indiana in 1850 and next to William Nicholson in 1870 in Missouri. The 2 William's are of similar ages, though, and both have reported themselves as being born in North Carolina.
Fortunately, DNA may put the issue to rest. Below, we have four people who claim descent from Lazarus Nicholson, each through a different child.
Comparing their DNA against each other, we have the following matches. I put in the strength of Bill's match with each of them.
Additionally, there are matches with other descendents of Lazarus, Mary Ellen, and Samuel. Given the physical proximity of these Nicholsons and that their descendants form a good DNA network, I feel there is a strong case for suggesting that they are related.
Given one older Nicholson male in the township who shares the name of one of the possible siblings also strongly suggests that he is their father, although the DNA does not yet provide evidence of that. However, Lazarus is definitely worth investigating further.
Looking for Lazarus Nicholson on the 1830 U.S. Census, we find him in Wilkes County, North Carolina:
While there are several children here that I cannot account for, the suggested children all appear to fit within the counts on the census. The ages of Lazarus and Phoeby match the categories here as well.
Also in Wilkes County, we find a 1932 record of an Elizabeth Nicholson marrying Wilborn Squire Kemp. This is interesting because living next to the Nicholsons on both 1860 U.S. censuses is the family of Wilborn and Elizabeth Kemp. This is additional evidence tying together the Lazarus Nicholson of Jackson Township, Sullivan County, Indiana to the Lazarus Nicholson of Wilkes County, North Carolina.
On the 1820 Census, we find him again in Wilkes County:
And again in 1810:
These records place Lazarus and Phoeby back to 1810 in Wilkes County, North Carolina. When we look for additional records regarding them, we find the 1809 marriage record of Lazarus Nicholson and Phoebe Coleman:
At this point, the evidence become thinner. While there is abundant paper and DNA evidence tying the family of Lazarus and Elizabeth to the Coleman family in this area, the Nicholson line is murkier.
Living in Wilkes County at this time are 2 other Nicholson families:
Abel Nicholson appears on the 1800 and 1830 census for this county. Assuming both censuses are accurate, Abel was born between 1771 and 1774. His oldest child appears to have been born as early as 1790, which suggests Abel was born closer to 1771.
Samuel Nicholson appears on the 1830 census, which places his birth year between 1771 and 1780. Interestingly, Samuel has children with the names Lazarus, Lidia, and Samuel.
On the 1800 U.S. Census for Wilkes County, living next door to Abel Nicholson, is an older Samuel Nicholson, who is indicated to have been born earlier than 1755, married to a woman also born earlier than 1755. Additionally, there are 2 males, age 16 to 25, which could be the younger Samuel and Lazarus, along with 3 other male children and 2 other female children.
Wilkes County was formed in 1777 from parts of Surry County, which was formed in 1771 from parts of Rowan County, which was originally a vast territory. There is an August 9th, 1768 record for the marriage of Samuel Nicholson to Lidia Dickhouse.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that this couple are the parents of Lazarus, Samuel, and Abel is the prevalence of the names Samuel and Lidia among their children and grandchildren. However, it could simply be that those names were popular at that time.
Trying to put together the family of Samuel and Lidia is challenging. While Abel and Samuel do not fit any other family, most of the others also fit as the possible children of Abel.
One example is Rebekah Nicholson. Lazarus Nicholson was the bondsman on her December 20th, 1808 marriage bond with Beverly Coleman, the brother of Phoebe Coleman. Less than 3 months later, Beverly was the bondsman on the bond between Lazarus and Phoebe. This seems to suggest that Rebekah may have been Lazarus's sister but she may have also been his niece.
There are some DNA matches which support relationships between Lazarus, Abel, and the younger Samuel. Each of these test takers claim some descent from Samuel Nickelson and Lidia Dickhouse.
However, while these matches may match other descendants of Lazarus, none seem to match each other, denying the relationship a DNA network. Additionally, while I believe Samuel, Abel and Lazarus may be related, the precise nature of the relationship is not known; the paper trail is simply too sketchy to know for certain. For example, Lazarus may be a nephew to these older men, not a brother.
However, while I don't regard this as proven, I believe that the Nicholson line does lead to Samuel Nicholson and Lidia Dickhouse. That this senior Nicholson lived in Wilkes County in 1800 and so many of the younger Nicholsons named their children Samuel and Lidia while being related to each other is too enticing not to strongly consider.
Assuming that Samuel and Lidia are the parents of Lazarus, though, where do we go from here? I have not been able to find a paper trail taking us further. However, many have jumped the Nicholsons from North Carolina back to New Jersey and the Quaker community there. Although there are Nicholsons there, with names such as Samuel and Abel, this feels like a big leap, especially since I haven't yet seen documentary evidence for it. There must be something out there but I haven't yet found yet.
Curiously, though DNA seems to point that way. Bill has many matches with people who claim descent from these New Jersey Nicholsons and other families reportedly on that family tree. It looks very promising. I'll update with more later.
When building my family tree, I do make notes and construct proofs in my head but I rarely write things down. However, I really should write things down.
This is my first attempt at a proof. I suspect it could use more editing and I hope one day to strengthen it with documents that I know are out there... somewhere...
Nelson Simpson Proof
Joe inherited half his DNA from me and half from Kate. However, the DNA we provided to him was a shuffled up version from both our parents. Below is a painting of all 23 pairs of chromosomes, which show which parts of Joe's DNA came from each grandparent.
In each pair of lines below, the top line came from me, the bottom line from Kate and the colours show which grandparent specifically contributed it.
We could go further with this painting... on chromosome 1, I painted over part of the DNA from Kate's Dad with segments I know came from his mother, Rosey. How do I know it's hers? Because Bill shares that DNA with relatives on his maternal line.
So who's responsible for Joe's brown eyes? The OCA2 gene provides instructions for making a protein located in melanocyotes that can affect your skin, hair and eye color. That gene happens to be found a segment of chromosome 15 that was contributed by both our mothers.
Of course, scientists know of at least another dozen genes that influence those traits so it's not really that simple, not even accounting for non-coding DNA and epigenetics, which can switch genes off. Still, one day we may be able to figure out that Joe inherited his chin from his 3x great grandmother.