Sunday, December 18, 2016

Chapter 1: My Search for a Second Great Grandfather


     When I began genealogical research in the early 1970s, I had some knowledge of my grandparents and great grandparents, and with that knowledge I was able to work backwards by traditional means and discover much of my ancestry beyond those generations.
     One of my great grandmothers on my father's side was Mary Elizabeth Liston.

Mary Elizabeth Liston Case (1852-1908)
     I did not know who her parents were at first, but I was able to find her death certificate in the Massachusetts Vital Records office.

Mary Elizabeth Liston Case--Death Certificate

     Death certificates are valuable genealogical resources because they provide so much information. Of course, there are the date, hour, and location of death, but there is much more genealogical information: cause(s) of death, physician's name, sex, race, marital status, usual residence, date of birth, location of birth, name of spouse, names of parents and their birthplaces, the name of the informant who provided the information, place and date of burial, and the undertaker's name. It is easy to see how valuable these documents are to a genealogist--if the information is accurate!

     Accuracy in death certificates depends on the physician, of course, but primarily it depends on the informant. Usually, the informant is a family member, and in the case of Mary Liston it was her husband Elisha Case (1835-1929). It was from this document that I first learned who my 2nd great grandparents were: James Liston, born in Illinois, and Letitia Sinnet, born in St. John, New Brunswick. I had every reason to trust the information because it was Mary Liston's husband who provided it.

     This portion of my paternal family tree was shaping up like this:

     Based on Grandpa Case's information, I began my search for the origins of James Liston and Letitia Sinnet.  According to Elisha Case, his wife Mary Liston was born in St. John, New Brunswick, so around 1852, James Liston and Letitia Sinnet must have been in that city; however, James Liston was from Illinois, so I had to search Illinois records for him.

     In the 20th century, even after home computers and the Internet became fixtures in our lives in the 1990s, genealogical records, such as census returns, birth and death certificates, and various court documents, including probate and land files, had to be viewed in person or on microfilm at the courthouse, library, state and federal archives, genealogical societies, or the family history centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In those days, too, much reliance was placed on published genealogies and abstracts of records.

    Using these resources to trace the ancestry of James Liston and Letitia Sinnet, I kept running into roadblocks. I could find no James Liston to attach my great grandmother to. 

     For years, I collected information about Listons in Illinois. At the time, I focused on Liston descendants of Morris Liston of Delaware, a seventeenth century immigrant. This was comfortable territory for me because most of my research into my paternal ancestry had taken me back to seventeenth century New England, and in my naivete, I did not think that I had ancestors who had immigrated in more recent times. When I finally shifted my attention from Illinois to New Brunswick, I began to learn the truth about my Liston ancestry.

     I learned that Mary Liston's mother had been widowed before 1856 and remarried. This first came to light in a newspaper notice.

On the Trail in New Brunswick, Canada

     It is hard to know where to begin here because I cannot remember the sequence of events that led to my discoveries, but I will start with the newspaper notice.

     A relative and fellow genealogist from New Brunswick, named Dan Johnson, was compiling newspaper articles containing genealogical information and publishing them back in the 1980s, and it was through his efforts that I found the marriage of Letitia Liston to Simpson J. Murphy:

m. Thursday eve., by Rev. Wm. Smithson, Sampson J. MURPHY, Pennfield (Charlotte Co.) / Mrs. Letitia LISTON, widow, Portland (St. John)

   The marriage announcement was in the New Brunswick Courier, 15 March 1856.

     [Note:  The Reverend William Smithson was born in Yorkshire, England, and was for over forty years a Wesleyan Methodist minister. He was resident Methodist minister in Fredericton in 1829, and a Wesleyan minister in Sheffield, 1836-37, subsequently living in St. Stephen and Sackville. <>]

     Now I knew how to search for my family. If I had not discovered this marriage, I might never have found Letitia and her Liston children. One of my father's cousins, a granddaughter of Mary Liston, in a stray comment had once said, "I thought Nana was a Murphy." Now I knew why. But I probably would never have followed up on my cousin's comment, off-hand as it was and contrary to the documentary evidence I had.

     With Letitia Liston's new name, I began to search in other records, in particular the census returns. Canada's census is taken every ten years, but unlike the US census, which is taken on the even years 1850, 1860, 1870, etc., Canada's falls on the next, odd years, 1851, 1861, 1871, etc. Canada's 1851 returns have survived for only a few localities, and I could not find the Listons in 1851. I could not find the Murphys in 1861 or 1871, either. I was frustrated, but I finally found the Murphys living in Vanceboro, Maine, in 1870, and by that time their family had grown.

     In this image, we can see Murphy, James, 41, M[ale], W[hite], Laborer, [Real Estate valued at] 200, [born in] New Brunswick. The checks in the following two columns indicate that his father and mother were foreign born. The marriage notice indicated that he was Sampson J. Murphy, so we learn from the census that his middle name was James, and perhaps he went by that name. From this census return, we might think that all the children were Murphys; however, three of them, are 18, 21, and 19, putting their births in 1851/2, 1848/9, and 1850/1, respectively, long before the 1856 marriage. These three must be Letitia's children with her first husband--Mary E, James, and John K--the Liston children. The census taker included an unnamed baby girl, born in Maine, in June of that year, just one month old, but the entry has been crossed out. It is possible that the baby died, and at this point the next available census becomes important.

     By the time of the 1881 Canadian census, the Murphys were back in Canada, in Southampton Parish, York County, New Brunswick.

    This census is instructive, when compared to the 1870 census. The census taker chose to write Leticia instead of Letitia (a warning that census information can be capricious), and we now see Murphy, S. J. rather than James. Whereas in the 1870 census, James Murphy is two years younger than Letitia, in the 1881 census they are both the same age (50). James should be 52, and Letitia should be 54. Another apparent error is that John W in the 1870 census is now listed as John C. Data can vary like this from census to census. We have learned that information reported in the census can vary widely and may or may not be accurate.

     The Canadian census includes information about religion and ethnic origin. The Murphys are Free Will Baptists, and S.J. Murphy is Irish while Letitia is French. That she identified as French would become important in identifying her father and siblings later on. Children were assigned the ethnicity of their fathers. 

     In the intervening eleven years, the Liston children have moved on. The children who remain include ten-year-old Angelina. Is she the baby girl born in Maine in June of 1870? This census says she was born in New Brunswick, which may be another error on the part of the census taker. There is also a mystery member of the family--Thomas Cineth or Cinett (?), age fifteen. It is hard to know how his last name is spelled here, but since we know that Letitia's maiden name was Sinnet, it may be that this was a relative of hers, possibly a nephew. It is not clear why the census taker has written "son" under occupation. 

     As it turns out, this locality in Southampton Parish was Millville, and it is from here that the survivors in this family would move to Massachusetts around 1890.

Back to My Liston 2nd Great Grandfather

     What of Letitia's first husband, then, the object of my quest? Of course, I traced the Murphy family and the Liston children in the censuses forward and discovered much about their lives, but I needed to look back before 1856 to find my second great grandfather Liston. To recap, I believed he was named James, which seemed reasonable since his elder son was named James. I needed to find some other records that might reveal him to me, and I decided to try land records. Through the records held by the Provinicial Archives of New Brunswick, I found an 1843 petition for a grant of land in Johnston, Queens, New Brunswick--but by Thomas Liston, not James Liston.

1843 Land Petition by Thomas Liston

     From this document, I learned that this Thomas Liston was in New Brunswick in 1843, a resident of the parish of Johnston in the county of Queens and that he was born in Ireland. I also had his signature.

     Of course, faced with this name difference, I had to adjust my thinking, and I had to ask if at this point I could say for sure that this was indeed my ancestor. It certainly seemed so because I had no record of any other man by the name Liston in the province. This land petition was my first real glimpse of my second great grandfather--Thomas Liston. 

     As it turned out, he never did purchase the land. As the following paper indicates, the land was offered at auction, not sold, and subsequently sold to John Ward. Thomas Liston must have changed his mind.

     I thought I could find this piece of land on a land grant map. It says it is Lot 47, Block 3. I have not followed up on the additional records (9960, 2527, or 7986). I wonder who the "self" is who paid the £0/20/- deposit on 25 January 1843. Thomas's petition is not dated. A little more investigation is needed to understand what happened with this attempt to buy land. I did find a John Ward occupying a 100-acre lot in Johnston, Queens, on a land grant map, and I think this is the land in question. In the upper left corner of the lot is the number 47. It borders Johnston as described in the petition and Keys (is that Case?) and is by Long Creek. This is probably where Thomas Liston wanted to settle down in 1843.

     How could I confirm that this Thomas Liston was my ancestor, though? What other records were there to see? The answer was his son James Liston's death certificate.

Death Certificate of James Liston (1845-1931)

     This James Liston is Mary Elizabeth Liston's elder brother who was in the 1870 US Census for Vanceboro, Maine, age 21, in the household of James and Letitia Murphy. As with other records we have examined, this certificate contains a number of errors. The informant was James's adopted son, John Kenny Liston, who probably knew little of James Liston's background, so we are led to believe that James was born in Ireland and that his mother was as well. Every other record has indicated that he and his mother were born in New Brunswick, however, so we can overlook these inaccuracies. Based on other records, it is likely that he was somewhat younger, born in 1848 or 1849, but his real age must remain a mystery. The important information here are the names of his parents, which confirm that his father was Thomas Liston and his mother was Tishie Sinnot [sic], both of which are too specific to have been pulled out of a hat. 

     Despite some errors, then, I am confident that this document along with the land petition establish that my second great grandfather was Thomas Liston, a native of Ireland and immigrant to New Brunswick, Canada.

     My tree had to be revised, changing James to Thomas:

A Major Breakthrough

     This was where my research stood for many years until just a few years ago when I came across a new piece of information in another newspaper (Harris, Ruth-Ann M., Donald M. Jacobs, and B. Emer O’Keeffe, editors. Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in “The Boston Pilot 1831–1920”. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989.):

“Of THOMAS LISTON, who left Limerick in the ship Breeze, in April, 1841; when last heard from was in the Parish of Norton, New Brunswick. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by his brothers, Patrick and James Liston, Litchfield, Ct.”

Scene at a dock in Ireland

Brig by Fitzhugh Lane 1863
     You can imagine how excited I was to see this notice in the 1850 Boston Pilot. To be fair, I could only guess that this must be my Thomas Liston, but I knew of no other Liston in New Brunswick; I had already established that the only one there was named Thomas; and the timing was perfect. Norton is not far from Johnston in neighboring Kings County, so the proximity was right. And yet, by 1850, somehow Thomas's whereabouts were unknown to his brothers--his brothers! If this query in the Boston Pilot pertained to my Thomas Liston, I now had more of his family. They were in the United States, and I could try to trace their descendants.
     [Note: If you examine the source of the newspaper notice, you will see it was published in 1989, so for twenty-four years it had been there available to me. The reason I had not found it was that I had not looked for it. I had no idea that my ancestor was an Irish immigrant, so that title never seemed relevant. It was only through an internet search on the name Liston that it popped up because someone had made the contents available online.]

     My tree had to be revised once again to reflect my new uncles:

     Here is a map showing the proximity of Johnston Parish, Queens County, to Norton Parish, Kings County, New Brunswick:

Wickham, Queens, which is almost between Norton and Johnston, was the hometown of Mary Liston's husband Elisha Case's family, but there is no evidence that the Listons and Cases were acquainted in this time (1843-1856).


     The ship "Breeze" referred to by Patrick and James Liston in The Pilot was a brig of 321 tons, a two-masted sailing ship with a fore-and-aft sail on the aft mast, square sails on both masts, and a set of jibs. The Breeze had been in operation at least since 1830 when it was transporting cargo between Canada and Liverpool. 

      The ship sailed from Limerick 5 April 1841 with 160 passengers. A notice found among the British Parliamentary Papers, Volume 31: Emigration Canada, under the heading, "List of Vessels Wrecked coming to Quebec during the Season 1841, with the number of Lives lost" states "The brig Breeze, Captain O'Donnell, from Limerick, was wrecked on the Island of Scatari on the 14th May, with 160 passengers, who were all saved, but lost all their baggage and provisions."

     In a report by A.C. Buchanan, Chief Agent, Emigrant Department, Quebec, returns from the week ending June 12th:

    "In the schooner Mary, from Sydney [Nova Scotia], Captain Breton, were 107 passengers, the remainder of those in the Breeze, O' Donnel master, from Limerick, which vessel was wrecked on the island of Scatari, on the 14th May, passengers all saved, but with the loss of their baggage and provisions. She had 160 on board, 53 of whom remained at Sydney for employment ; a few went to St. John and Halifax, and those that came on here are going to their friends ; about 51 of them will remain in the province, the remainder are going to a place called Silver Lake in the state of New York. In consequence of their condition, I forwarded them to Montreal, and gave them a supply of provisions, as they were nearly all penniless."

     To provide a sense of what might have happened in such a wreck, the following Quebec-bound ships also wrecked in 1841, and the outcomes were quite different from that of the "Breeze:"
'The brig Minstrel, Captain Outerbridge, from Limerick, was wrecked the 8th May, on 
Red Island Reef, with 141 passengers and 15 of a crew, only eight persons saved . 148 
The barque Amanda, Captain Davis, from Limerick, was wrecked on Little Metis Point, 
on the 26th September, with 18 of a crew and 39 passengers, 5 of the former and 
captain, and 10 of the latter saved ......... 41 

Total lost 189 [in 1841]

     This is how Thomas Liston landed on the American shore, possibly penniless with no baggage and no doubt unsure about how to proceed. It must have been a harrowing experience and a real setback for him. It would appear that he was among those few among the 53 who remained at Sydney and "went to St. John," but by what route it is impossible to say. At any rate, however he got there, we know from other records that within two years he was in Norton Parish, Kings County, New Brunswick, beginning his new life in the Canadian province.

A New Tack

A Married Couple ca 1845
     At this point in my research, I had to make a new plan. I wanted to know as much as I could about my Liston ancestry. 

     What did I know? I knew that by the time Thomas and Letitia were having children in 1850, Thomas's brothers had immigrated to Litchfield, Connecticut, and that sometime before they published their notice in the Pilot, they had been in contact with Thomas or had spoken to someone who met him in New Brunswick and passed information on to them. I also knew that within six years of that notice Thomas had died. An 1857 map of New Brunswick shows that Norton Parish was immediately adjacent to Portland and was more extensive than it was later. Johnston, Queens, does not appear on the map.

Part of New Brunswick 1857
     There were many potential explanations for Thomas Liston's death at what must have been a relatively young age. I had no idea what Thomas's occupation was. Was it dangerous? Study of his descendants in Millville taught me that communities were often hit by epidemics of various kinds, including diphtheria, influenza, and cholera, among others. Consumption (tuberculosis or phthisis) was a common disease well into the twentieth century, and without antibiotics and other drugs, injuries and conditions that we think minor today could lead to death in the mid-nineteenth century. I wanted to find out what killed Thomas Liston.     An event that stood out as I began to read about the history of New Brunswick was a cholera outbreak in the city of Saint John in 1854.
     According to this history, the outbreak hit the area of the city called Portland very hard, and I recalled that Letitia Liston was living in Portland when she married Simpson Murphy in 1856. I became convinced that Thomas Liston was a victim of cholera and had died in the 1854 epidemic, leaving a widow and three small children. 

Part of Portland, Saint John, showing Straight Shore Road at the bottom left

     See also (1875):,-Village-Plan-No--4---New

     As it happened, there was a list of cholera deaths for the city of Portland; however, I did not find Thomas Liston's name at first, and I gave up on proving my theory--until one day I decided to call the Provincial Archives. A kind curator, Rob Gilmore, listened to my research problem, took notes, and agreed to look through records for me to see what he could find. Within a few days, he came back to me, and there was the record I sought.

Cholera Deaths, City of Portland, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, 1854

     At the very bottom of the list among the surnames beginning with L was Thomas Liston. He died near the 4th of September, 1854, age 36, while residing on Straight Shore Road. His death was reported by one R. Payne.

     When Letitia Liston married Simpson Murphy on that Thursday evening, the 13th of March, 1856, she had been a widow for eighteen months and had apparently stayed on in Portland, possibly in the same house. After their wedding, she and Simpson Murphy and her three Liston children no doubt moved to Pennfield in Charlotte County, where Simpson had land. 

     We do not know where they were in every year until 1870 when we find them in Vanceboro, Maine. However, there are local directories published by Hutchinson and Lovell for some of the intervening years. From the directories, we know that the family was in the following places:

     In 1865 and 1867, there are entries for Creevy Settlement, Clarendon Parish, and Lepreaux Parish in Charlotte County, where Simpson Murphy was a farmer.

     In 1871, he is listed in Clarendon Parish, Charlotte County, also as a farmer, so the family returned to this locality after their appearance in Vanceboro, Maine. Since they also appear in the 1881 census for Southampton Parish, York County, the family must have made the move to that locality by 1881.

     Their daughter Margaret was born in 1862, so it may be that they bore and lost some children during the first six years of their marriage or that there was a separation for some reason. Margaret Murphy was followed by brother John W in 1865, and sisters Amelia in 1866, Anna in 1868, and probably Angelina in 1870 in Maine. Letitia had a daughter and namesake, Letitia Jane Murphy, born in 1866 (possibly Amelia), who died on the same date as her younger sister Edna Stella (b. 1874), 24 Oct 1879.

     The Liston children all went on to marry and raise families. James Liston married twice and had three children by three women and has left many descendants. John K. Liston, the youngest, married once and had two sons by whom he has many descendants today. Mary Elizabeth Liston bore Elisha Case twelve children altogether during the course of their forty-six year marriage and raised all but their first and last children, a boy and a girl, who died in infancy. She has a great many descendants today.

Thomas Liston's Brothers

     By the time I had reached this point in my Liston research, I had been on the computer for over twenty years, and the amount of information online had mushroomed. Much of the work that had required visits to various repositories could now be accomplished in the comfort of my own home.

Genetic Testing Becomes a Motive in the Search

     By this time another development had occurred, which was genetic testing for genealogy. My first test was with 23 and Me, and in 2007, I had my y-DNA tested by Family Tree DNA. In the nine years since then, I have tested to 111 STR markers and SNP-by-SNP to find my deep clade in the R1b haplogroup--R-CTS11567. I manage the Norwood Surname Project and a geographical project for Union County, South Carolina. As genetic genealogy has advanced, I have tried to keep up and make good use of DNA in my genealogical research. Later on, the role of genetic testing in my Liston research will become much clearer. I mention it here because it motivated the next steps in my journey to find my Liston ancestors.

     Once I had identified Thomas Liston and discovered that he had two brothers who also emigrated from Limerick, Ireland, to North America, I knew I had to find his brothers for additional clues to their origins in Ireland. I hoped that they stayed in the U.S. and that I could trace them through records to find their families. With genetic testing in mind, I wanted to find a male descendant of each brother, with the surname Liston, and convince him to take a y-DNA test. I would then try to have one of Thomas's descendants do the same. The comparison of the three tests had the potential of confirming that Thomas, Patrick, and James Liston were brothers.

     The Boston Pilot notice of 1850 named Thomas Liston's brothers--James and Patrick Liston. They were living in Litchfield, Connecticut, at the time, so I immediately consulted the 1850 census return for that town. Sure enough, Patrick and James were there.

James Liston in the 27 July 1850 Federal Census for Litchfield, CT. (

Patrick Liston in the 27 July 1850 Federal Census for Litchfield, CT. (

     The 1850 census is not particularly rich in detail, but it was the first US census that named each member of a household and listed age, sex, occupation, income, and place of birth.

     These pages from the 1850 census for Litchfield, Connecticut, provide a sketch of James and Patrick Liston. They did not obtain lodging together but in separate households. Their landlords were prosperous and boarded others in their homes in addition to the Liston brothers. According to the record, James was 28, born around 1822, and Patrick was 35, born around 1815, both in Ireland. They were working as laborers.

     Tracking people through the US Census means leap-frogging decades, so the question then was where the brothers would be in 1860, and was there any record of them in the intervening ten years?

     A search of the 1860 US census found them in Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois, married with children. At this point, I have to remark on a constant problem in searching records online. We rely on a number of dedicated, generous transcribers for and to whom we need to be very grateful; however, they do make mistakes interpreting record-keepers' handwriting. Sometimes the errors are understandable because so much handwriting in records is barely decipherable, but in many cases common sense or a little time studying the letter formation patterns in a record-keeper's handwriting would lead to greater accuracy. Why do I bring this up? It is because the transcriber of the 1860 census for Bloomington, Illinois, decided Liston was Siston. This is a very common error because capital L and capital S have similar shapes, but researchers can completely miss important records because of these transcription errors.

     When I searched for Patrick Liston at, this is what I found:

     This census provided new information about the brothers:

The Liston Brothers in Bloomington Ward 1, McLean County, Illinois, US Federal Census, 1860, p. 145
     Like the 1850 census, the 1860 census does not provide a great wealth of information, but there are interesting new facts here to examine.

     Patrick Liston is now listed as 40 years old, which would imply he was born in 1820; however in 1850, he was listed as 35, implying he was born in 1815. This discrepancy can be attributed to a number of reasons. Many times, people did not know exactly when they were born. Sometimes, the person providing information to the census taker did not know exactly how old a family member was. Five years is not a very great difference, but we may never be able to determine when Patrick Liston was born. Likewise, James Liston's reported age in 1860 is 33, born in 1827, but in 1850, he was 28, born in 1822. Again, there is a five-year difference--and it is interesting that in each case the brothers have become five years younger! Was vanity the culprit? We may never know James and Patrick Liston's actual birth years. 

     Patrick is still working as a laborer.

     This census also shows that the brothers have married and started families since 1850. 

     Patrick has a wife Ellen, 31 years old, and two children, Michael, 9, and Ellen, just six months old. Michael was born in 1851, so presumably Patrick and Ellen were married in 1850 or 1851 immediately before or after migrating to Illinois. The birth of baby Ellen six months before the census in 1859 or 1860 (the census taker did not record the date of the return) is puzzling. A nine-year gap between the births of children is rare. There are two possible explanations: Patrick and Ellen had other children between Michael and Ellen who all died in childhood, and there is room for as many as five children within the nine or ten years of their marriage, or it is also possible that this Ellen is Patrick's second wife, and baby Ellen represents the beginning of a new family. In that case, Michael would have been the son of Patrick's as yet unidentified first wife. We can also see that Patrick Liston had arrived in Illinois before his son Michael was born.

     James has a wife Bridget, age 26, and children Thomas, 8; John, 6; James, 4; Rosann, 2; and Philip, two months. It looks as though the couple is minding or has taken in three-year-old Mary A. Harrow. Who was she? James is now a bricklayer, not just a laborer, so he has acquired a skilled trade since 1850. In addition, we can see that James and Bridget, on the way to Illinois, passed through Ohio where their first son Thomas was born in around 1852. This means that James and his wife followed Patrick to Illinois, arriving as much as a year later.

     When I found the Liston brothers in the 1860 census, I was particularly happy because each of them had sons who might also have had sons, and this was crucial for future DNA testing. I had to trace the family lines forward many years to find living male descendants, but the prospect looked promising.

     First, though, I was interested in finding out what I could about the brothers in the ten years between 1850 and 1860. Were there marriage records? Had they become citizens? I began a search for any records from these years, and quickly found a marriage record for James and Bridget and naturalization papers for both James and Patrick.

Finding Additional Records

     A Marriage

     The first significant record I found was the marriage of James Liston and Bridget Ryan. It was in the vital records for Hartford, Connecticut:

     James and Bridget are both (b.) said to have been of Warren, Connecticut, in April of 1851, but in 1850, a young woman of the same name and age, born in Ireland was living in Litchfield in the household of Ithamer and Jennett Page:

1850 US Federal Census for Litchfield, Connecticut

     Further investigation of Charles R. Fisher revealed that James and Bridget were married in Christ Church, an Episcopal church in Hartford. 

Christ Church, Hartford, Connecticut

     A Grave Record

     I now knew that Bridget's maiden name was Ryan and the couple had married before they set out for Illinois. They passed through Ohio on their journey, and their son Thomas was born there sometime around the first of the year or later in 1852. In fact, other sources indicate that he was born in June, 1852. How did I know this was the right couple? First were the right time frame and the right location. Second was Bridget Liston's gravestone in Illinois.
Gravestone of Bridget Theresa Ryan, Bloomington, IL

     This grave record is wonderful as it provides Bridget's full maiden name and where she was born. I now knew that her family were from County Tipperary, which neighbors County Limerick. I was also very confident that the Hartford, Connecticut, marriage record pertained to this couple.

     Naturalization Records

     The next records I located were the naturalization certificates of both James and Patrick Liston, which were executed and filed in the McLean County, Illinois, courthouse. James was naturalized in 1855, and Patrick was naturalized in 1858.

     A summary of James Liston's naturalization file includes the date and the names of his attestors, Thomas Ryan and Thomas Spellman, who were probably related by marriage to both brothers:

376 LISTON, JAMES Nat. Rec. Bk. 1853-1896 p. 21

16th day of April 1855 (native of Ireland); Declaration of Intent at least 2 yrs prior; 5 years residency last past in US and more than 1 yr in Ill. last past; Attested to by Thomas Ryan & Thomas Spellman; From Great Britain & Ireland. 

      In addition, a summary of Patrick Liston's record provides the name of his attestor, John Dawson, who was a constable in Bloomington:

377 LISTON, PATRICK Nat. Rec. Bk. 1853-1896 p. 107 

6th day of April 1858 Final Order; Native of Ireland; Declaration of Intent filed 2 yrs prior; 5 years residency last past in US; 1 yr in Ill.; Attested to by John Dawson; From Great Britain & Ireland.

     Though the naturalization records are pro forma, since James was naturalized first, in 1855, we can establish an estimate for his immigration and the time of his filing for citizenship. He filed his declaration of intent at least by April of 1853, and he had been in the US at least by April of 1850. He had also been in Illinois since at least April of 1854. How long was he in Ohio? I have found no Ohio records related to James and Bridget Liston. I have also not found either his or his brother's applications for citizenship, or declarations of intent. I inquired of the McLean County clerk about it, and she told me there was nothing on file and that the brothers may have applied outside that jurisdiction. Searches in Connecticut and Ohio have not turned up anything.

     I have also not yet found marriage records for Patrick Liston or any concrete evidence to support my theory that he had two marriages with women who were both named Ellen, but I will continue to search. Some documentary evidence suggests the possibility but sheds little real light on the circumstances that left Patrick in 1860 with a nine-year-old son and an infant daughter, so I have to be clear that I am still engaged in speculation, educated and intelligent, I hope, but still speculation.

     Additional Death Records

     Two confusing records that support in part the idea of two wives are the death certificates of two of Patrick's children, his first son Michael and his second son Thomas Patrick:

Death Certificate of Michael Liston (1852-1919)
      In Michael Liston's death certificate, his wife Harriet was the informant. They had been married in 1886, when Patrick Liston's wife was still alive, and she was living with Michael and Harriet in 1900. Harriet states that Michael's father was Patrick Liston, born in Ireland, and that his mother was Ellen Ryan, also born in Ireland. This is good genealogical information, which should be accurate. Harriet obviously knew at least one member of the family in the previous generation, shared a home with her, and presumably knew the family stories and history. She would be considered a credible informant, but did she make an error?

     Let's take a look at the death certificate of Patrick Liston's next son, who was eleven years Michael's junior and died in 1944, twenty-five years after his elder brother:

Death Certificate of Thomas Patrick Liston (1863-1944)
     In Thomas Patrick Liston's death certificate, the informant was his second wife, Jennie (1879-1958), whom he married in around 1910. They did not live with his relatives, and his mother had died six years earlier. Jennie probably knew Harriet Liston and other family members, but at the time of Thomas's death, she could not recall her husband's father's name. She was also able to say that Thomas's mother was Ella Spellman, though she knew nothing about her. She is a less credible witness than Harriet by virtue of her distance from the earlier generation; however, she may well have known at least the name of her husband's mother.

     Patrick had another son Dennis Liston, who was born in 1867 in Illinois and died in 1904 in Saint Louis, Missouri. He was a switchman and was struck in the head and killed as a result of a fractured skull. He was only thirty-five years old. A death certificate was completed, but it did not contain his parents' names. As a result, it could not provide any help with the question about his mother's maiden name.

     If these records could stand on their own, my theory that Patrick Liston had two wives would have very good support. Michael's mother is reported to have been Ellen Ryan, and his much younger brother Thomas Patrick's mother is reported to have been Ella Spellman. It is very reasonable to think that these were two different women.


     Back to the Census

    There is, of course, another record to complicate things--the 1900 US Federal Census.

     The 1900 census is very interesting for all the detailed information it collected: location, name, relationship to head of household, color/race, sex, month and year of birth, age at last birthday, single/married/widowed/divorced, number of years of present marriage, mother of how many children, number of these children living, place of birth of self, father, and mother, year of immigration, years in US, naturalization year, occupation, months not employed, months in school, can read, can write, can speak English, owned or rented house, free or mortgaged, farm or house, number of farm schedule. The categories in italics were new in this census.

     Ellen/Ella Liston, Patrick Liston's widow since his death in 1874, was still living in 1900--with Michael and Harriet Liston--so we can learn more about her.

     This census form is hard to read, a good example of the difficulties transcribers face in their work. One interesting and immediate point of interest is that Ellan [sic] is listed second under her son. Normally, the wife is listed second and a mother or mother-in-law last, after the children. What is of particular note here, though, is that Ellan was born in Ireland in June, 1845, and that she was the mother of nine children, of whom only four were living in 1900. (Oh, and the family had moved to Saint Louis, Missouri.) That Ellen or Ella had had nine children tends to support the one-wife theory rather than the two-wife theory.

     The facts presented, then, are that she was the mother of Michael Liston, that she was born in June of 1845 (though this may well be 1835) in Ireland, and that she had had nine children altogether. Because she was a widow, they did not record the length of her marriage. Later on in the sheet, it says she immigrated in 1844, so she could not have been born in Ireland in 1845. The census taker has made a mess of her age. It looks as if he first wrote 45, but then recalculated and changed it to 65. There is no sign that the first digit was ever a 5. It would appear then that she was born in 1835, not 1845, and that she was of the right age to have been Michael Liston's natural mother. She would have been about 17 when he was born. However, in the 1860 census, Michael's mother was 31, born therefore in 1829, making her 22 when Michael was born. Perhaps vanity made Ellen shave six years off her real age in 1900, and it may be why the census taker seems to have been confused. 

     Before looking at the 1870 and 1880 censuses, it would be good to list the known children of Patrick and Ellen Liston. In addition to Michael (b. 1852), there were Ellen (1860-1862); Thomas Patrick (1863-1944); Dennis (1867-1904); and Honora (1871-1918). Michael, Thomas, Dennis, and Honora were the four children still living in 1900. With baby Ellen (1860-1862) added, there are four children unaccounted for who died before 1900.

1870 US Census for Gridley, McLean County, Illinois
       In the 1870 census, we can see that Ellen is 40, born around 1830, consistent with the information in the 1860 census. There are three children in the household, Michael, 18; Thomas, 7; and Dennis, 2. Everything is consistent with what we have learned through other records.

1880 US Census for Gridley, McLean County, Illinois

     Patrick Liston died in 1874, so in 1880 Ellen Liston is living as a widow with her children, still in Gridley, McLean County, Illinois, and she has added a daughter to the family, Honora, seven years old, born in 1873. Here are the four children who were living in 1900. Ellen reports being 49, so her birthday has not yet arrived. She was born therefore around 1830. Everything is consistent with previous records. We know Ellen lost (1) her namesake in 1862. Thomas was born the next year. Dennis was born six years later, so it is possible that Ellen lost (2) another child between Thomas and Dennis. It is also possible that between Dennis and Honora another baby died (3). If she lost (4, 5) two other children between Michael and Thomas, that would account for the five children she bore and lost according to the 1900 census.

The Spelman (Spellman / Spilman / Spillman) Connection

     When James Liston was naturalized in 1855, the two men who attested to the truth of his statements were Thomas Ryan and Thomas Spellman. His wife was Bridget Ryan. Subsequently, the name Spellman comes up as a possible maiden name for his brother's wife. No research into the Spellmans in McLean County, Illinois, has allowed me to establish that they were related to the Listons; however, let's  look back at the 1860 census, on the same page as Patrick and James Liston:

1860 US Federal Census, Bloomington 1st Ward, McLean County, Illinois
     This family is two households away from Patrick Liston's family. There are James and Margaret Spillman, 50 and 36, born in Ireland, and their children, Peter, 16 (b. 1844 in Nova Scotia!); Joanna, 13 (b. 1847 in New Brunswick!!); Edward, 10 (b. 1850 in Connecticut!!!); and Catherine, 4 (b. 1856 in Illinois). I have tried to tie this family to the Listons without success, but I am convinced they were very close to them. Look at their migration: Ireland to Nova Scotia, to New Brunswick, to Connecticut, then to McLean County, Illinois. They were in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick at the same time as Thomas Liston and had a baby girl in Connecticut the same year that Patrick and James Liston posted their inquiry in the Boston Pilot. Was it the Spillmans who brought word of Thomas from New Brunswick to his brothers and prompted them to submit their query? Notice, too, that the Spellmans were not just anywhere in Connecticut in 1850; they were in Litchfield County. 

Litchfield County, Connecticut, Showing Municipalities, Due West of Hartford
     In the map above, Litchfield, where the Liston brothers were living in 1850, is bounded to the north by Torrington, where the Spelmans were living, and to the west by Warren where James Liston and his bride, Bridget Ryan, were living in 1851. The Spelman family in Torrington were recorded as follows:

1850 US Federal Census for Torrington, Litchfield County, Connectictut

     The Spellmans had made their way to Illinois by 1855, not long after the Liston brothers, and may even have migrated there at the same time the brothers did. Did they have a relationship to Thomas Spellman who spoke for James Liston in 1855?

1855 Illinois State Census for Bloomington, McLean, Illinois

     In the above census we can see the main characters in our family history with an enumeration of their households: Thomas Ryan, James Spilman, Patrick Liston, and James Liston. Unfortunately, we do not have the names of all the family members. The census counted people by an age range: under 10, 10-20, 20-30, 30-40, etc., males and females enumerated separately.

     Thomas Ryan was probably the same man who spoke for James Liston at his naturalization hearing. As James's wife was Bridget Ryan, and her father was named Thomas (I learned this from other records), and this Thomas Ryan is just 30-40 years old, I suspect he was Bridget's brother--entirely speculation.

     James Spilman has one boy under 10, one boy 10-20, and himself, 30-40; two girls under 10, and his wife, 30-40.

     Patrick Liston has two boys under ten, a young man 20-30, and himself, 30-40; and his wife, 20-30.

     James Liston has two boys under ten and himself, 30-40; and his wife, 20-30.

     Without names, it is hard to tell, but it would appear that Patrick had two young sons in 1855 (but only Michael in 1860), so it is very likely that the other boy died in childhood before 1860, accounting for one of Ellen Liston's lost children early in the marriage. Who was the young man in the household who was between 20 and 30 years old?

     In the Spilman family, Edward was 8, Peter was 11, Johanna was 7, and Kate must have just been born, confirming the composition of the family.

     James Liston's little boys were Thomas, 3, and John, 1, just the beginning of the large family to come.

     In 1870, two households away from James Liston and his family in Bloomington lived Daniel Spellman and his family. I believe that Daniel was related to James Spellman, but I have not been able to uncover any concrete evidence. These relationships in the United States and Canada may be important clues to the Listons' origins in Ireland.

     I continue to investigate the Spellman connection. Without additional evidence, it is impossible to know whether the Ellen Liston in the census returns was Michael's natural mother and Patrick Liston's only wife or not. The two different surnames, Ryan and Spellman, in her children's death certificates will for the time being cast doubt on any conclusion.

Finding Living Male Descendants of James and Patrick Liston

     It has been said, "Seek, and you will find." While in the spiritual context in which these words were uttered, no doubt they are true, in genealogy, a truer statement would be "If you do not seek, you will not find." Seeking is not always fruitful, but not seeking is never fruitful. I did not find Patrick and James Liston's 1850 query about the whereabouts of their brother Thomas because I wasn't looking for it. Finally, it was just dropped in my lap. Sometimes serendipity is a greater force than any other in genealogical research.

    Once found, the newspaper notice opened up a new and exciting path on my journey to find out more about my second great grandfather Thomas Liston, his ancestors, and relatives. I would take this new path equipped with my knowledge of Y-DNA in surname studies and guided by my quest for Patrick and James Liston's male descendants. I have already written of the beginnings of this quest, and now I want to continue down the path of discovery that led me to where I am today.

     When I discovered that my second great grandfather had brothers, I immediately realized that I had a chance to prove or at least to provide very good evidence that James, Patrick, and Thomas were brothers through Y-DNA testing. Excellent and abundant explanations about DNA and genetic genealogy can be found elsewhere online, so I will only give a brief explanation here.

What is Y-DNA?

     Y-DNA is the DNA that is found on the Y chromosome, one of the two sex chromosomes. As we learned in biology classes, human females have two X chromosomes, and human males have one X and one Y chromosome. It is the Y chromosome that determines that a fetus will be male. The only source of the Y chromosome is the father, so all males inherit their Y chromosome from their fathers, and that chromosome is passed intact from father to son, from generation to generation. Down the generations, the Y chromosome undergoes mutation very slowly, if at all, so it becomes an excellent identifier of a paternal line of descent. Men with a common male ancestor in this line of descent will have identical or nearly identical Y-DNA.

     In most western European societies, surnames are passed down from fathers to their sons in the same way Y-DNA is passed down. For this reason, Y-DNA is an excellent tool for surname studies, and I wanted to create a Liston surname project at Family Tree DNA, one of several DNA testing companies operating now. In order to start the project, I had to find participants, and that is why I needed to trace the descendants of the Liston brothers. I had to find living male descendants in the direct paternal line with the surname Liston.

     Because I am descended from a daughter of Thomas Liston, I could not participate in the project, so in future trees I will no longer be present. Fortunately, Thomas Liston had two sons, so there was a chance that I could find grandsons of some degree if I searched for them. We have already begun to trace the descendants of James and Patrick, and I continued that work until I found one living descendant of each of the brothers.

So How Does One Trace Living Descendants? 

     As we have seen, an important tool in genealogical research is the census. Census returns in the United States are available for viewing and study from 1790 to 1940 with the exception of the 1890 census, most of which was destroyed--a very great loss of a crucial record. Other tools include city directories, Vital Statistics (births, marriages, and deaths), obituaries, cemetery records, high school year books, newspaper databases, land and tax records, and probate files, among others I will mention as they come up. Most of these records are particularly valuable when searching for deceased relatives and those born before the mid-1930s. Living persons are much harder to find in records, and additional valuable research tools nowadays are social media, such as Facebook or Linked In, background checking sites, and Google searches.

    When doing Google searches for living people, one finds a number of sites devoted to such searches, usually attached to background checks that cost money to complete. I try to avoid paying fees for information if at all possible, so I use the sites that provide addresses, phone numbers, age, and the names of possible relatives free of charge. That is usually enough information to make an identification. Other interesting data I have found include voter registration and real estate ownership information. Google searches will also sometimes lead to people's own websites, work-related websites or news items, news stories related to their activities, obituaries, and with these one can often find their friends, relatives, and other associates, through whom one can sometimes get contact information. This sounds very invasive, and it is, but I know my motives are good, so I have learned to assuage my conscience about it. 

     Another excellent method for finding a living relative is a search of Facebook. I search the primary name--the name of the person I am trying to find--with their likely location and history in mind. Sometimes, of course, he or she has a Facebook account, and I can check the friend list to see if the "right" people are there, people I have identified as probably related. If a person does not have a Facebook account, then I check for accounts of their relatives, particularly younger relatives, and follow the same procedure. When I think I have found the person I am looking for or a close associate, I then send a private message to introduce myself and explain why I am contacting him or her.

Making Contact with Patrick and James's Descendants

     The prospect of contacting the descendants of Patrick and James made me nervous. Asking for DNA is an imposition, and DNA tests are not inexpensive. In addition, contacting a stranger out of the blue to ask for anything is awkward. This is particularly true because after all the research, I often know more about their family and ancestry than my contact does. I found it important to be humble and to forget momentarily much of what I knew in order to learn what I didn't know and establish an equal, trusting relationship for sharing. Once trust has been established, it is a joy to share what I know with new relatives.

      It was apparent to me that I must pay for the DNA tests myself. That immediately removed one obstacle. It was my project, after all, and I could not take for granted that these men would be as interested in their Liston heritage as I was. I then prepared a coherent explanation for my request and information to reassure them that Y-DNA testing is benign, privacy is protected, and the procedure is simple and painless.

    I decided to write letters to both men with my contact information. One of them called me on the phone, and we had a very nice conversation, after which he agreed to participate in the project, and I was able to order him a test kit. I contacted the other man through a sister of his, and after some back and forth, he agreed, and arrangements were made to send a test kit to him. At that point, it was just a matter of waiting for the mail and to see if they would follow through. Both did, and their kits were returned to the lab for analysis.

Recruiting the Rest of the Participants

      I had already been in touch with two cousins in my branch of the family, one a descendant of James H. Liston (d. 1931) and the other of John K. Liston (b. ca. 1852). The latter had her father tested before he passed away in 2015, and his Y-DNA results were available. As a result, he became the charter member of the project. I wanted to confirm the pedigree from James H. Liston and have additional DNA from the Thomas Liston branch of the family, so I asked another cousin whom I had been friends with on Facebook for some years if she could get an uncle to agree to be tested. Her uncle agreed, and I sent out the test, but for some reason he did not follow through. Eventually, I was able to use the same kit for my cousin's brother, who did follow through.

     Here is a chart representing the three branches of the Liston family: descendants of Patrick, James, and Thomas. The chart shows the direct line of descent from father to son, starting with the three immigrants and coming forward to the present day. Patrick and Thomas both have other male descendants with the surname Liston, but James only has the one.

Tracing Living Descendants of the Liston Brothers for Y-DNA Testing

     Conventionally, the names of living persons are not given in trees shared online, so I have followed the convention in the tree here to protect privacy, referring to living descendants of the Liston brothers only by their relationship  to their earliest known paternal ancestor. 

The Y-DNA Results   

     applied for the LISTON Y-DNA Project at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) once I knew I had living descendants to test. Y-DNA testing involves identifying markers that are called short tandem repeats (STRs), which, according to Family Tree DNA, "are useful in verifying common ancestry between two males and finding genetic cousins on the paternal line." For a more in-depth explanation of Y-DNA testing, please visit:

     Family Tree DNA has a number of test options. The most basic is just 12 STR markers, which can establish a man's haplogroup. The haplogroup is "a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor on the patrilineal . . . line" ( With the 12-marker test, men who match each other may or may not share a surname because a match on this limited number of STRs may indicate a common ancestor a thousand years ago or more. For that reason, testing more markers is usually necessary to establish a more recent relationship. FTDNA, therefore, has a number of additional tests: 25 markers, 37 markers, 67 markers, and 111 markers. At 25 markers as with 12 markers, matches will include a number of men with different surnames, and it is believed that the common ancestor probably lived around the time that surnames were first adopted, about 900 years ago. Depending on the haplogroup, fewer or more markers may have to be ordered to find matches with common ancestors within the time of record-keeping.

     Within each haplogroup, it is possible to establish family lineages based on the pattern of the STRs. Each lineage has a signature pattern that makes it easy to identify and sets it apart from other members of the haplogroup. The lineage's pattern is its haplotype, another term to identify a subcategory within a haplogroup. So, the haplotype is the string of STRs of an individual and those men who have the same string, sometimes with a few differences.

     Since the Y-DNA tests are relatively expensive, and I had decided to pay for them, I opted for 37 markers as a good starting point. If the Listons belonged to a haplogroup that turned out to be very common, I could always upgrade to 67 markers later, but chances were good that a 37-marker match would largely be limited to men with the surname Liston and would certainly show whether or not the participants were related.

   Once the test kits had all been received by the lab, it was again just a matter of waiting four to six weeks for the results. The first results that came back were those of Patrick Liston's descendant. Thomas Liston's first descendant's results were already there, so to have one e-mail message saying that the new results were in and another that there was a match was exciting, to say the least.

    It is time now to look at the results. Please visit Liston Y-DNA Results at World Families Network for the full picture. In the results below, I will use the ancestor's name rather than the name of the person tested:

Thomas Liston (1)
Patrick Liston

Each number in the row represents the value for an STR. The colors indicate a difference in this haplotype from the value for each STR in the larger R1b haplogroup and nicely show the genetic signature for this (developing) lineage. As we can see, the values are very nearly all the same with the exception of a 9 for Patrick where Thomas has 10 on one STR. Thomas's value is the same as that of the haplogroup. This mutation probably occurred at some time in Patrick or one of his descendants, even with the testee himself. With a genetic difference of 1/37 markers, this match indicates that the two men are "tightly related."

Eventually, the result for James Liston's descendant came in:
James Liston

There are no differences (0/37) between the Y-DNA markers of James Liston's descendant and the descendant of Thomas Liston, which means that they are "very tightly related." According to FTDNA, "Few people achieve this close level of a match."

After some time, the results came in for the other descendant of Thomas Liston:

Thomas Liston (2)

Again, there are no differences (0/37) between this participant's results and those of the first Thomas Liston descendant, and James Liston. The only anomaly is the 10-9 mutation in Patrick's results.

The Liston Y-DNA project with all its participants currently (17 Dec 2016) looks like this:

Across the top, are the field labels. First is the kit number of each participant, then the earliest known ancestor. The haplogroup for Lineage 1 is R1b, and in the next column, there is a shorthand code for the branch of the haplogroup participants belong to. Next are the STRs, all of which have a number or other code to identify them. It is easy to see the signature for Liston lineage 1 in the colors (blue, buff, pink, or purple) of the columns that vary from the usual value in the R1b haplogroup (represented in pale green). It is clear that the first project participant does not belong to Lineage 1 by looking at his signature. Likewise, the three participants at the bottom of the chart, two of whom do not have the surname Liston, are not members of Lineage 1. The participants without the Liston surname believed they might have Liston ancestry, so they were allowed to join the project. There are two additional members of Lineage 1 who have some differences in common from the other members of the lineage. They bring with them other stories that will have to wait for another day.


    We have finally come to the end of this part of the story and journey. In genetic genealogy, it is tempting to believe that DNA does not lie, and therefore these results have proven that Thomas, Patrick, and James Liston, the three men I tracked down through various genealogical records, were indeed brothers. The truth is that any cousins of any degree with the surname Liston might have had the same matching results. Y-DNA alone cannot prove a specific relationship. It is only one piece in a large puzzle. However, in combination with all the other evidence found in a variety of records, both private and public, the Y-DNA results provide powerful corroborating evidence that these three men from Ireland, Patrick, James, and Thomas Liston,  were indeed brothers and that the participants tested for the Liston Y-DNA Surname Project are their descendants.

     I have found my second great grandfather Thomas Liston and learned a great deal about his life and his family. I have met several dear cousins I didn't know existed and enjoyed many long-distance conversations with them. The next part of the journey will take me overseas to Ireland where I will uncover more fascinating evidence of the origins of Thomas and his brothers--and Australia will even play a role in this continuing story. Thank you for taking this leg of the journey with me. I hope it has been interesting and instructive.


  1. From the author: If you find any errors or think a paragraph or sentence could be clearer, please let me know. I'd like some "peer review." I invite any questions to help me clarify and be more thorough. Thanks.

  2. What you did was a great work, Richard, to the extent that you were able to establish the true relationship thru y-dna test. You are the only one among the members of the family who has done this, burning your midnight candle and spending some amount for many years to trace the roots of the ancestors and the living. Actually, the name given by our late grandpa, Levi E. Case, to my mother, thru a lawyer, was Lititia Case. That is why her nickname was Littia. CONGRATULATIONS Richard for the job well done.

    1. Thank you, Myrtle. It has been a labor of love (if a little compulsive and obsessive at times), and it is very nice to have relatives pat me on the back and make it seem that the time and effort are worthwhile beyond myself.