DNA test leads to surprising family ties

Some McLeans and McNeills trace back to Harnett County plantation

Posted 2/6/20

Deena Hill of American Fork, Utah, and Desi Campbell of Harnett County didn’t realize how their lives would change after they submitted a DNA sample to Ancestry.com in 2016.

Hill is a …

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DNA test leads to surprising family ties

Some McLeans and McNeills trace back to Harnett County plantation

Posted

Deena Hill of American Fork, Utah, and Desi Campbell of Harnett County didn’t realize how their lives would change after they submitted a DNA sample to Ancestry.com in 2016.

Hill is a genealogist with family roots in Sicily on her father’s side and England on her mother’s side. Hill has a great love for genealogy and has helped many different families discover their family heritage.

Campbell works in the Harnett County School System and has deep roots in North Carolina spanning several generations of his African-American family. Campbell is a pro-genealogist with Ancestry.com and has spent much of his time researching and building his and others’ family trees. He has commissioned two monuments in Harnett County and has written several books.

In February 2016, Hill received the DNA results she was waiting for. She had taken the test to see if the family rumor of Cherokee blood in the family was true. To her surprise, it revealed that she had African-American ancestors and African-American cousins in Harnett County. Campbell was one of them.

The two quickly traded emails and information and the mystery of how an Italian-English woman from Utah and an African-American man from North Carolina could be cousins began to unravel.

Now all the two had to do was figure out the identity of their common ancestor. With many phone calls and many hours of searching documents such as wills, deeds and census records, the picture began to unfold before them.

Hill is the third great-granddaughter of a man named Nelson Holder Ritchie, who was born in Lawrence County, Missouri. Nelson’s mother is Jane McNeill, who was born in Harnett County. McNeill was the slave of William Holder and became pregnant by Wiley Holder, the nephew of William Holder. A neighbor, Neill McNeill, bought Jane McNeill and took her to Missouri in 1840 where she gave birth to her son, Nelson. He moved to Utah later in his life.

Jane McNeill’s parents are Sarah and Sherod McNeill. Sarah and Sherod McNeill had 13 children, one of them was Jane McNeill and another was a son by the name of Gabriel McNeill, who is Campbell’s third great-grandfather. This is where Campbell’s and Hill’s family trees intersected. The two, who share a flare for genealogy, are first cousins five times removed.

Over the last four years, the cousins have been able to trace the Sherod McNeill lineage back to Jenny and Joe McLean.

Jenny and Joe McLean and their 13 children were slaves of Harnett County plantation owners, Archibald McLean and Archibald McNeill. Some of Jenny and Joe McLean’s children took the surname McNeill and some McLean, depending on what plantation they lived on.

Some of their children and grandchildren have migrated to such places as Lawrence County, Missouri; Buckatuna, Mississippi; Kansas City, Missouri; Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and other places. The descendants were all reconnected more than 200 years later using DNA. The following surnames have been connected through the lineage: Austin, Campbell, Chapman, Coffield, Elliott, Gandy, Harrington, McDougald, McLean, Muse, Moore, Murchison, Nelson, Ramsey, Ray, Ritchie, Smith and Tolbert.

Campbell said the most amazing discovery was the information listed on the Upper Little River 1880 Census where Jenny McLean was listed as a 95-year-old (making her born in 1785). Her birthplace was registered in Virginia. The birthplace of her father and mother was listed as Africa, around 1765.

There are now over 200 DNA matches to Jenny and Joe McLean down through all of their children and grandchildren. All DNA matches have blood from Cameroon, Congo, Benin, Togo and Nigeria on the African continent.

Hill traveled to Harnett County in 2017 to attend a McNeill family reunion and in 2018 Campbell traveled to Utah to meet new family there and to attend the Rootstech genealogy conference with Hill.

In February of last year, Hill returned to Harnett County to attend the first African-American Festival at Campbell University organized by Campbell, Tammie Hooks, Alfreda Wilson and John Bartlett.

In August of 2019, Campbell returned to Utah and was a guest speaker at the Ritchie Family Reunion organized by Hill.

The history of this family is documented in a book titled “The McNeill Story” written by Campbell and collaborated by Hill.

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