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Uncertain paternity = family history puzzle

One of the hardest puzzles to solve in family history research is that of uncertain paternity. A child may be born and no father named, or else a father is named but he disputes the claim. So there may be no clear paper trail to find the father, or determine whether the named father was correctly identified.

Sometimes later family memories give an indication of paternity, or else the child may state at their marriage who they think their father was, but experience shows that neither information is sufficiently reliable to settle the matter.. Sometimes the names given to the child are a clue. And sometimes the local Kirk Session tried to identify the father and arrange for him to support the mother and child. But even when there is this information, the biological family line remains uncertain.

The advent of inexpensive DNA testing can be definitive here – but only if a known descendent of the uncertain father has tested, which isn’t always the case. (DNA testing also shows that many apparently known fathers are not in fact the biological father, something that couldn’t be known and probably wasn’t even suspected previously.)

There are at least two cases of uncertain paternity in the McNaughton family tree which illustrate some of these points.

Ann Ross (1805- )

Ann was born to William Ross and Ann Shirres/Sheriff about 1805 in Aboyne, and later lived in Banchory Ternan. Both these locations are adjacent to the River Dee. She lived in her late teens in “Burn of Bennie” on the edge of the town of Banchory Ternan. Burn of Bennie is identified as a separate location in the census returns, so we know that only few families lived there. In 1841, there were the Skinner family (6), the Ross family (7), and two elderly ladies – 15 in all.

In 1824, when she was 19, Ann gave birth to a son. The church baptismal record names the son as John Skinner, and says she claimed the father was John Skinner, who was part of the Burn of Bennie Skinner family, but had recently moved to Drumoak, further down the river. But, from the wording on the baptismal record, he apparently refused to accept paternity.

John Skinner baptismal documentation. It seems to read: “Ann Ross at Burn of Benny had a son baptised October 3rd and named John – John Skinner in the parish of Drumoak late at Woodend of Leys given up as the father who refused.”

The church was a moral and social authority in those days, and often tried to determine the facts when paternity was disputed, virtually forcing the father to pay some maintenance. It appears in this case that paternity wasn’t settled, but we don’t know for sure, and we don’t know why. We might expect that they would believe the woman, especially as the two families lived so close to each other. But perhaps the Skinner family was more respected or more influential (John Skinner Snr went on to study at Aberdeen University for a year and become a teacher, so might have been given more credence).

But whatever happened, Ann never married and was left to bring up John Jnr herself. She died a pauper. But she was Jock’s great grandmother and Ron and Ian’s great great grandmother.

Confirming John Skinner’s paternity would be difficult. The church records of the case may still exist, and may give some indication of their response to John’s denial, but I have not yet found them online, and I live on the other side of the world, making visiting the church (or wherever the records might be kept) unlikely.. So the best hope would be if a descendant of the true father does a DNA test and the match is identified.

Thomas Stephen (1862-1935)

Thomas Stephen was the grandfather of Ron and Ian McNaughton. His mother was Elspet Moir (1833-1891), but his father is uncertain.

Elspet grew up in a large, poor, rural family, in the Methlick area, the 12th of 14 children. She married John Sangster when she was 19, and had 3 children within 5 years before John died aged only 28, in 1857. Elspet subsequently moved to Aberdeen, but apparently didn’t take her children with her.

Elspet had 4 more children by several different men, none of whom she married.

1. Jane Stephen (1859-1862)

Jane was born in 1859 in Aberdeen, and Thomas Stephen was named as the father. It seems that Elspet was in a relationship with Thomas Stephen between about 1858 and 1862 when Jane died while she was pregnant with Thomas.

2. Thomas Henry Stephen Moir (1862-1935)

No father is named in Thomas’ birth documentation, but the names given to him are interesting. Thomas and Stephen come from the father of Jane, while Henry is the name of the father of her next child, Mary Ann. It is possible that Thomas left after she became pregnant, perhaps after Jane died, and Elspet entered into a relationship with Francis Henry, the alleged father of Mary Ann in 1863, and so she named Thomas after both the biological father (Thomas Stephen) and her current partner (Francis Henry). It is hard to see her giving Thomas both names under any other circumstances.

At any rate we know that Thomas jnr named Thomas Stephen as his father at his marriage. However he wasn’t recognised in Thomas snr’s will, nor is he buried with other members of the family at Fyvie. So it may be that Thomas snr never accepted paternity, and it is possible Thomas jnr chose the name either because he seemed to be a more favourable father than Francis Henry, or because Elspet told him Thomas was his father, whether it was true or not.

If Thomas Stephen was indeed the name of the father, then it is still a problem to identify which Thomas Stephen, for there were several people by that name around at that time. I had to make up a spreadsheet of possibilities, and see where people were living at different times, who their parents were, etc. In the end, there seemed to be two candidates.

Thomas Stephen and his brother Arthur, sons of Thomas Stephen (yes, it does get confusing!) and Jean Auld, and who grew up in the Auchterless area, were living in the same street as Elspet in Aberdeen around this time, making it quite likely they knew each other. This seems to be the most probable identification. This Thomas went on to marry, have a family and become an innkeeper in the village of New Deer.

Another Thomas Stephen lived in Methlick at this time, and so may have known Elspet when she was younger, but there is no other known connection.

  1. Mary Ann Henry Moir (1863-1946)

The birth record of Mary Ann Henry Moir doesn’t name the father, but refers to a subsequent Register of Corrected Entries, based on a Sheriff Court’s determination, that the father was Francis Henry, a seaman.

4. Jane Moir (1866- )

No father was named on Jane’s birth documentation.

Again, it is difficult to see how Thomas’ paternity could be established more firmly. It is possible that there was some determination of paternity, for example, by the Kirk Session in Aberdeen, but this seems unlikely as there is no reference to it in the same way that a determination was given by a court for Mary Ann (see below) or by the Kirk Session for Ann Ross. Again, perhaps the best hope is a DNA match.