Martin David Helton: Another “Missing” McGraw?

CAUTION: Lengthy blog post ahead!

This past month, I once again went through the list of Y-DNA Matches for my cousin Homer over at As you may already know, the Y-DNA test is only taken from males since only males pass their Y Chromosome to the next generation. (Males have an XY chromosome, females have an XX chromosome, which as you’ve probably figured out by now, determines gender or “sex.”).

The Y chromosome (Y-DNA) is passed from a father to his son(s), generation to generation, with few changes or slight mutations over hundreds of years. Y-DNA and the Haplogroup it represents are often used to trace the migration of the males in the genealogy back to the country of origin within approximately 1500 years, possibly more. I’m simplifying the complicated to try to help you understand as I understand. I encourage you to read more about it from someone other than me. Here’s a website with an explanation that’s much easier to read than my convoluted explanation:

Three of my first cousins, all surnamed McGrew, have taken the Y-DNA test from FamilyTreeDNA. Another McGrew cousin (possibly a 5th cousin) took the same test. All four men appear in the Match Results as Exact Matches (what you cannot see is the actual test taker, not listed; I am the Admin for his account. The Genetic Distance to “me” is shown in this column). This is because all four, regardless of having different fathers, have the same common ancestor going back up the family tree: Thomas McGraw, son of Martin McGraw, Sr. Try not to let that surname confuse you: In my family tree, the McGrew and the McGraw surnames are one and the same.

These same men are related to other males surnamed McGrew in the western United States (yellow); men we do not know, never met, but each of whom descends from a man named Thomas McGrew who claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania – much like our ancestor – but can only be found in records in South Carolina and far western Kentucky up until his death in 1833. These men are a 1-Step Match from the same common ancestor as my McGrew cousins. It has been speculated there was an Uncle/Nephew or first-cousin relationship between their ancestor Thomas McGrew and our ancestor Martin McGraw, Sr. Please don’t confuse a 1-Step Match as being a 1-Generation difference.

And of course, there are men surnamed McGraw with whom my cousins share a 2- and 3-step Match to the same common ancestor as me and my McGrew cousins, specifically Martin McGraw, Sr (Blue). I was able to trace a few of these men’s trees because they provided just enough information regarding their ancestors in FTDNA. With that, I was able to trace these McGraws back to Martin McGraw, Sr, through their respective ancestor – namely John McGraw and his brother Henry McGraw, just to name a couple.

*Note: “Steps” translates to how many father-to-son steps there are from the test taker to the first common ancestor.

Spreadsheet showing Y-DNA matches to Top 3 McGrews + the individual tester, all 1st or 1C1R (Green). Yellow: Unknown McGrew cousins sharing 1-Step Genetic Distance. Blue: McGraw cousins by distant Uncles. Orange: subject of this post. NOTE: The surnames are not the same.

John McGraw married his first wife, Sarah or Sally Anderson in Greenbrier County, WV in 1796. By 1820 he was living in Russell County, VA. There, he had a large family. At least 10 children were born to John but I cannot possibly know which were born to him and his first wife, Sarah Anderson, and which, if any, were born to him and a second or third wife. Regardless, in the past couple of years, two of the sons born to him were discovered either by accident or by a descendant contacting me for more information. These names (William D. McGraw and John A. McGraw) have been added to my tree.

Back over at FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) there was one bothersome Y-DNA Match that shared a common ancestor at 2-Steps that has nagged at me for some time. This is because his surname is different.

Helton is the surname of the match. Not McGrew. Not McGraw. Helton. How in the world is that even possible?

I suspected that there was an adoption or an “oops” back in his genealogy but at what point? He’d provided his tree but it made absolutely no sense to me because there wasn’t a single McGraw mentioned. So I wrote to him and explained why I was writing, asking if he had any reason to believe there was an adoption back a few generations.

He was not offended by my question – in fact, he stated that he already had suspected something wasn’t quite right in his genealogy. It was the reason he took the Y-DNA test in the first place. And that may have complicated his research.

Over the course of several days and intense research, I concluded that his earliest known Helton ancestor was a McGraw instead. And here’s my reasoning:

He explained that there was a story handed down through the family that their ancestor, Martin David Helton, was an abandoned or orphaned child that was raised by James Edward Helton and/or his wife Rebecca, thus taking on the Helton surname. Martin David Helton, whom I learned was born 25 May 1860, is not listed with the couple and their children in the 1860 Russell County VA Census.

Ah, but directly above James Edward Helton and wife Rebecca in the census, is listed Thomas J. McGraw, wife Nancy (surname unknown), and “daughter” Maria, two months old. The census was taken on or about 16 August 1860.

1860 Russell County VA Census, Hendrick's Mills, 16 Aug 1860
1860 Russell County VA Census, Hendrick’s Mills, 16 Aug 1860 showing Thomas J. McGraw and James Helton families.

Let’s take a closer look at Thomas J. McGraw. His father was Anderson McGraw, son of John and Sarah Anderson McGraw. Anderson had married Elizabeth Hilton – my misunderstanding of the surname – and gave birth to several children, including Thomas J. It turns out that Thomas J’s mother Elizabeth’s surname was actually HELTON, not Hilton, and either her father or brother was George Helton. You’ll find Anderson McGraw listed directly after George Helton in the 1840 Russell County VA Census. Sadly, Elizabeth Helton McGraw died suddenly in April 1850 according to the Federal Census Mortality Schedule of 1850 for Russell County.

So, there is a very good likelihood that James Edward Helton and Thomas J. McGraw were related, perhaps even first cousins. The two males are very close in age.

Family Group Sheet showing only eldest child, Thomas J. McGraw

I located Civil War Records for both of our subjects at Fold3. It turns out that both went to Abingdon, VA, and joined Company A, 63rd VA Infantry on 31 March 1862 for a period of 3 years. Both were Mustered In on April 1, 1862. That means they didn’t travel the distance back to Russell County after enlisting, not with only two days to spare.

I believe with great conviction that Thomas J. McGraw and his wife Nancy are the parents of Martin David Helton. While the 1860 Census of Russell County shows that their child is a female named “Maria” I firmly believe that it is, in fact, Martin David McGraw. The child is listed as two months old (2/12) on 16 August 1860. Using Martin David Helton’s date of birth, 25 May 1860, and calculating forward to 16 August 1860 gives an age of 2 months and 22 days old. The census taker was using fractions not decimals to list ages. As for the gender and the name “Maria,” I can only suppose that the census taker wrote down the information incorrectly or he wrote down the information as provided by another source – a neighbor.

In summary, I believe that Martin David Helton was in fact a McGraw, firstborn son of Thomas J. McGraw, based on the following:

  1. The individual HELTON whose Y-DNA results appear in matches the McGrew testers of my family within 2-Steps (a very close match);
  2. Martin David Helton, as the family legends states, was an orphaned child that the Helton’s took to raise;
  3. The Helton and McGraw families are closely related through the marriage of Anderson McGraw to his first wife, Elizabeth Helton;
  4. Martin David Helton’s “mother” Rebecca – the woman who raised him – is married to James Edward Helton living ‘next door’ to Thomas J. McGraw, his wife Nancy, and “daughter” (2-month-old “Maria”) in the 1860 Russell County VA Census;
  5. Thomas J. McGraw and James Edward Helton enlisted and were mustered into the same CSA Unit on the same dates in 1861 in Abingdon, VA;
  6. Thomas J. McGraw remarried in June 1863 – unmarried mysteriously and childless – while James Edward Helton disappears from the records (death during his Civil War service?), leaving widow Rebecca free to remarry;
  7. Martin David Helton’s first name is Martin, a family name passed down through generations of Martin McGraw Sr particularly through his son John McGraw.

While the evidence is completely circumstantial, with the exception of the Y-DNA match, I personally believe it is clear and convincing.