Roll a Ball Downhill and Who Knows Where It Stops


DNA story with an unexpected twist

- Appearing in August 2005 Issue of Tennessee Ancestors -

 Written By

James Ed Goff, Phil Goff and Maureen Pierce

Earl Goff & wife (L:)   --  James Ed Goff & wife (R:)

The genealogy bug first bit me about 1970.  I learned my father’s parents died when he was 12 and that he was reared by his older sister.  He knew very little about his parents except for their names.   Some few years before, he had worked with his oldest brother, my Uncle Willie, to get a “proper rock” placed on their grave.   A fieldstone had been the only marker for their graves as was so common in the country at that time and Uncle Willie was the only one who knew where the graves were located and the appropriate dates.  This was all the family could tell me.

Research proved my descent from Lewis R. Goff (1811–1894), who married Marinda Kelly and settled in Decatur County near Corinth Church before 1850. I teamed up with Maureen White Pierce of Phoenix, Arizona to search for the parents of our common ancestor, Lewis R. Goff. The search was complicated by the presence of Edmond T. Gawf (1794-ca. 1886) and James Henry Goff (1809-after 1850) living in Henderson County at the same time.  Edmond, Henry and Lewis each had large families and were the patriarchs of the many Goff and Gawf families that are found in Decatur, Henderson and Hardin Counties.

I traveled to Scotts Hill where my family originated in my quest to find the parents of Lewis Goff and visited my great grandparent’s log house, which was still standing, their graves at Corinth Church and met Ms. Zelma O’Neal who was a local genealogical researcher.  (She was a delightful woman of my father’s age and told me this story.  In early 1919, someone had taken a small hillside in Scotts Hill and placed a movie screen at the bottom of the hill and a movie projector near the top.  The movie started after dark and people paid to sit on the hillside and watch the movie.  She said my father looked so handsome in his navy uniform when he came back from the navy at the end of WWI and took her to the movie.)

Ms O’Neal was sure that Lewis Goff and Henry Goff were brothers but could offer no confirmation or other information.

At this point new information stopped.  We filled notebooks with data but it did not give a clue as to the parentage of Lewis Goff and others were no more successful in their researching Edmond Gawf or Henry Goff.  We were discouraged and Goff research slowed almost to a stop for years. 

Maureen and I wanted to revive Goff research and in the course of several emails concluded that a DNA study to see if the Henry and Lewis were related was the best place to start.  We began the DNA project with only one limited goal but it grew and changed as DNA results were received.

Orphan Story
While years of research failed to show how or if these men were related, each Goff family had similar folklore. One tale that covers any Henderson County research like an autumn fog is the Orphan Story. In one version, a family named Barlow, Barr or Bartholomew was sailing to America when the parents died and the ship’s doctor named Goff took the children and raised them. In another telling, a Barlow family was traveling west through Henderson County when the parents became sick and died and a Goff family took their children and raised them. A third variety of this tale has a large group traveling with two wheeled ox carts moving west when they found a Barlow boy in the group. It was too far to take him back, so the Goff family raised him. You can take your pick or create your own version, as many have done, but every story has Barlow boys who became Goffs.

The orphan story was too widespread to completely ignore, but not specific enough to take seriously. Therefore, Goff researchers have pretty much ignored the story and worked to find a Goff ancestor for the men. The first record for any of these three men was the 1830 census, which showed Edmond Gough and Henry Gough living in Henderson County, perhaps with Lewis Goff in Henry’s household. In the thirty years of research of Goffs born before 1830, not one of the notebooks of collected data had any Barlow research. We ignored the Barlow connection in hopes it would go away but 30 years of looking had not produced any believable results. A Goff ancestor could not be found.

A New Possibility
The relatively new genealogical tool: DNA testing of the Y-chromosome offered a new possibility. Men have distinctive markers in their Y-chromosome and pass these markers from father to son to son to son largely unchanged, just like surnames. Random mutations on these markers only occur about once every 500 years. Only the father can pass along the Y-chromosome to a son, so the line has to be an unbroken male-to-male line. Therefore, a DNA test made on a living male can determine the DNA of a person that died years ago. If one can find an unbroken male-to-male-to-male descendant of a person who lived in 1800 and conduct a DNA test on the descendant, the DNA pattern will be substantially the same as the ancestor who lived in 1800. The DNA can be used to compare with similar DNA produced by testing the descendant of another person who lived at that time. This will tell if the two people were closely related. Unfortunately Y-chromosome testing is not sophisticated enough to tell just how two people were related. They could be brothers, father and son or cousins but the tests may prove they are very closely related.

We thought if we could prove the 1830 Goffs were closely related by DNA testing, we could presume they were brothers based on the folklore and their ages. We mounted a campaign in March 2005 to find male descendants of Henry and Lewis who were willing to have their DNA tested. Through the Internet we contacted Phil Goff who is the group administrator for Goff Surname DNA Study a web site where the Goffs post their DNA test results. He told us the tests are simple. One takes a cotton swab or plastic stick and rubs it on the inside of the cheek, places the tip in a bottle provided and mails it in the envelope provided. He advised us on the tests to have taken and generally acted as a leader in the project.

One can have 12, 25 or 37 markers test. The 12 markers are not definitive enough. The cost increases as the number of markers increase, so that the 25 markers is the test that is most commonly used. It is sufficient where there is group testing and a base line has been established and one is adding new members. The 37 markers are used to further refine results in special cases or when first establishing a families DNA line. Two male descendants each of Edmond, Henry and Lewis were recruited and tested.  Then came the many weeks of nail biting while waiting for the results.  We did not find the descendants all at once but over a time frame starting Mar. 17 for the first test to Sept 26 when the last test was started.

Tests have been completed on two descendants of each of the three families. My 37 marker test result was the first received. Much to our surprise I did not match the Goff DNA samples on file at Phil’s web site but was a 37/37 match for the Barlow family that originated in The Isle of Wight, Virginia in early 1700’s. The additional tests on Edmond, Henry and Lewis descendants are 25/25 markers match with my results. Edmund, Henry and Lewis were closely related and possibly brothers. 

Modern science, through DNA tests, has proved not only were Edmond, Henry and Lewis possibly brothers but they were also Barlows. Both stories were true. There is a 99% probability that the Goffs and Barlows have a common ancestor within the last 250 years named Barlow. This would be since 1750 and that is right in the time period in question and confirms the Orphan story. In addition, the perfect match between Edmond Gawf descendants, Henry Goff descendants and Lewis Goff descendants prove they had a common ancestor within the last 250 years and are possibly brothers.

We have been fortunate to meet some of our Barlow relatives on the Internet and have found a whole new group of researchers and redirected our traditional paper research towards finding just who were the orphans. Our first problem is to find the generation in which the name change occurred.  We believe the men in the 1830 census are the best candidates to be the orphans. If the change occurred much before then, we believe the story would have been lost by passing of time.  We first heard the story from the older generation born about 1900 that related their version when we began questioning them about their ancestors.

It appears that we are really part of the Barlow family that originated on the Isle of Wight, VA.


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