Michael Cooley's Genetic Genealogy Blog GEN • GEN
31 January 2018

The Case for Reuben Ransom Cooley

I'd largely lost interest in genealogy by the time I had my Y chromosome tested in 2006. Genealogical and historical evidence, I realized, could go only so far. Virtually all genealogical trees likely had at least one behind the woodshed moment, but there was no way to prove it, particularly once everyone who could possibly cop to the moment had passed away. If the chain had been broken, would I still be considered a Cooley? To progress in my studies, it seemed I had to simply accept possible fiction along with fact. I've never appreciated blind acceptance as a logical outcome. Disillusioned about the nature of truth as I was, I all but gave up on genealogy.

But my Y-DNA test results told a very specific story; one that could be interpreted one way: I was an exact match to another Cooley--a fifth cousin, twice removed. Indeed, we share a patrilineal ancestor in the name of John Cooley (c1738-1811), and I could now take that lineage back, with confidence, to nine generations without the intervention of even one behind the woodshed moment. I'm a Cooley after all, at least nine generations worth, whatever the hell that means.

The value in testing was immediately impressed upon me. My Y chromosome is of a type that has origins in Norway, one that likely showed up in Britain by way of the Vikings, possibly via Scotland. I now had the measure by which I might discern whether my clan is of the so-called Dutch Cooleys, a large family of Cooleys that had its enormous tendrils planted in virtually all parts of the new American republic, at least so said Lura Coolley Hamil (1878-1933) in 1932. This notion of Dutch roots was later taken up by my distant cousin Dale Walker (1946-1993) who believed he had identified our John Cooley out of the pixilated Frankensteinian web that was Hamil's A Story of Pioneering. I didn't doubt such a family existed, but I was unable to find evidence that supported the idea that my Cooleys were part of it. So, are we Dutch or are we Scottish?

My blog article, The Bogus 'Dutch Cooley' Lineage, provides a brief summary of the genetic data I collected over several years. I've written extensively about it elsewhere, including in the last revision of a chapter I'm working on aptly called Laura Hamil's Coolley Genealogy. As it turns out, the Dutch Cooley myth is as dead as a door nail. There's no evidence that such a creature has ever existed.

This is just one of many busted myth by means of genetics I can cite among my own lineages. Another Cooley-related example, if less dramatic, is that of Abraham Cooley (c1740-1820). He had lived near John Cooley in Surry County, North Carolina for several years, but DNA disproves that he was a relative, as recorded in old family lore. Still, there's often a grain of truth in fictionalized accounts of family history. Genetics, I'll demonstrate here, may have pinpointed the truth for the family into which Reuben Ransom Cooley was born in c1805. But, it turns out, his "story" belongs to another family altogether.

Reuben's family lived and died among my Cooleys in Indiana during the majority of the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, they knew one another at least reasonably well. A 1946 letter by George Cooley, one of Reuben's descendants, had me half-convinced that the two Cooley families were related. Not only are there Reubens to be found in John's family, the families had adjacent properties in Bartholomew and Jackson counties. And, importantly, George's description of his family history sounded a lot my own family. His Cooleys, according family legend, had come to Ohio from North Carolina; Reuben was one of eleven children--eight boys and three girls; one of his brothers was named James; and another of the boys was killed in the Battle of New Orleans. Indeed, my Cooleys had North Carolinian heritage, John Cooley did have sons Reuben and James (but it was evident early on that this Reuben wasn't the same man). And, yes, as if to really drive in the point, John's youngest son, Cornelius Cooley, we later learned, did die of illness days following the Battle of New Orleans. Although there is no record of John's family (the courthouse in Casey County, Kentucky, had suffered a number of calamities early in the nineteenth century), historic documents and DNA tells us that he may have had nine sons and two daughters. Eleven children in all, if not in the precise configuration stated by George.

These are too many similarities to be coincidences. But some of what George cited could not possibly have been pertinent to my family. Although John was likely of English origins, he did not immigrate to North Carolina from England in 1801. His children were all born in Virginia and North Carolina between the years circa 1759 and 1783, and he himself likely died in Kentucky in 1811. Indeed, none of his children were known to have gone to Ohio. All but one, my Indiana ancestor Edward Cooley, went south, mostly to border states. Still, I continued to think Reuben might have been related to us, and George's story certainly gave credence to the notion. The solution to this particular conundrum was simple: DNA.

The Short Tandem Repeats (STRs)--a series of genetic letters repeated X number of times--of Reuben's descendant match those of the Tring, England Cooleys, a large family that now appears to have immigrated in waves. Additional testing shows that Reuben's lineage has two markers that define the descendants of Benjamin Cooley (1615-1684) of Springfield, Massachusetts. This in and of itself proved without doubt that there was no relationship between my John and Reuben Ransom Cooley, at least not Cooley-wise. I now had some real ammo with which I went a-huntin'.

Jabez Cooley was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1775. He was an early emigrant to Ohio, appearing on the Washington County census in 1803 then on several tax rolls in Athens County, Ohio until 1812, after which he disappeared from the record. An 1813 letter of inquiry from his wife Lucy to President Thomas Jefferson explains that he had gone to serve "Capt Woods Company of Infantry from the 88th Regiment" in the recent war against the British.1 He never returned, and Lucy remarried in 1823.

No records regarding Jabez's death are known to exist. There is no will and his children do not appear to be firmly established. The 1820 Lodi, Athens County, Ohio census for Lucy Cooley enumerates herself, of age 26 to 45, a girl of 10-16, and a young man of 16 to 26. Lucy's sons, Gordon and Rufus, had households of their own, and her daughter Martha is known to have later married in 1829. The girl in 1820 is certainly her. My research shows no clear identity of the young male. The closest we seem to come is found in a blog entry. Apparently, one of Lucy's granddaughters believed she had an uncle named Reuben: "The person you have as a male Reuben was probably a female Mary. Again, the granddaughters had different stories, but we think the one who thought she remembered Reuben really had Rufus in mind."2

So, consider the following:

A number of genealogies on the Net now have Reuben listed as Jabez's son if somewhat tentatively, which is understandable. At this point, it seems unlikely there will ever be perfect genealogical proof that Reuben was a son of Jabez's, but considering the available historic record, along with the DNA evidence, this scenario seems almost foolproof.

John Cooley's own family is nearly as tentative in a purely genealogical sense. Whether he had eleven or more children cannot be proved in the record. If he left a will, it suffered any one of a number of courthouse calamities, and there are only two sons specifically cited in deeds: Reuben Cooley (of Marion County, KY) and James Cooley (later of Howard County, Missouri). Joanna Cooley is mentioned in one deed and Edward Cooley in two deeds, but relationships are not described. His family, then, is inferred by various records, circumstantial evidence, and, of course, DNA. (By our reckoning, John may have had nine sons and two daughters.) It is by sheer luck (and delight) that George Cooley had somehow confused his neighboring Cooley family for his own. His letter confirms, through entirely independent means, what John Cooley's descendants have slowly pieced together since the bogus Dutch Cooley debacle was finally exposed. The letter, along with the genetics, has provided two genealogical victories. And I'm now again completely on board with genealogy.

1 https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0342

2 http://www.migenweb.org/allegan/ahnentafels/ccorkins.htm