The Province of Ulster
with County Down in red

Very little has been passed down over the years about the origins of our Jordan family.  Dim memories of one’s grandfather remembering how his father sang Irish tunes to him as a child are about as specific as it gets.  In an essay on his Jordan Ancestral Line, Theron Vasco Morrison wrote in 1989 that one Lettie Jordan Higgins, a descendant of James Jordan through his son John, told of her Jordan ancestors emigrating to Virginia from County Down in the northern Irish province of Ulster.  Unfortunately these wisps of memory were all we had to go on until just recently, when modern science pointed to an answer.

Y-DNA Testing

Ancestral Tree
Jordan Ancestral Line as indicated by Y-DNA analysis

Y-DNA Testing–a recent, but very useful, tool for helping determine relationships and family ties in which males send samples of their DNA to testing laboratories–has yielded some interesting information on James Jordan‘s roots.  DNA testing of two male descendants of James Jordan through his sons William and Andrew reveals that James was closely related to a group of Jordans who lived in Highland County, Virginia/ Pendleton County, (West) Virginia, during the late 1700s.  Indeed, the matches are very close: the result was exactly the same for Andrew’s descendant (matching the Pendleton County Jordans in 25 out of 25 alleles) and almost as close for William’s (24 out of 25).  Furthermore these results matched those of a Jordan who currently lives in Northern Ireland and one from the Isle of Man, both of whom can trace their descent from a Jordan family living in County Down during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

James Jordan’s Immediate Origins

While little is known about James Jordan‘s origins, the descendants of the Jordans from Highland/Pendleton counties have a rich tradition–two versions of essentially the same story that has been passed down in their family for over 200 years.    According to their tradition, two (or three) Jordan brothers–Andrew, James, and possibly a third whose name could have been John or William–emigrated from County Down to Virginia in the mid- to late-1760s.  While Andrew settled on land around the Bullpasture Mountain in what is now Pendleton County, West Virginia, nothing was known of James, except that he was reported to have been killed by Indians.[1]

County Down - 1776
County Down in 1776
James Jordan possibly came from the area around Ballynahich (in Kinalarty, center)

Given the DNA test results noted above, the brother named James could have been our James Jordan, who had moved on to Greenbrier County, where he settled and raised a family.  The rumor of his death from an Indian attack could have been rooted in an actual attack that James and his young family survived in May of 1778, the attack on Fort Donnally.  James and his family were among twenty families who took shelter in Fort Donnally shortly before 200 Indians swooped in from the west and attacked the Greenbrier settlements.  With the help of replacements sent from Fort Savannah (Lewisburg), these settlers drove the Indians off; and James Jordan and his family survived.[2]

A look at the history of Highland County Virginia shows that several other Jordans living there had come from County Down as well; some arriving even earlier.  If our James Jordan was not the James refered to in the oral history of Andrew Jordan‘s family, he still may have been among those who arrived from County Down.  The Y-DNA results are strong evidence of his connection to these Jordans.[3]

Our Irish Ancestors

There are at least three independent Jordan family lines in Ulster through which James Jordan might have descended.  The oldest, the Anglo-Norman line, dates from the twelfth century when an English knight, Jordan de Saukville, received land for his services with the invading forces of John de Courcy.  This Jordan line is replete with tales of wealth, castles, nobility and power, but is, unfortunately, probably not the line that can claim James Jordan’s descent.

Next to come were the Jordans of Connacht, a line established in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in County Connacht by descendants of an Anglo-Norman knight named Jordan de Exeter.  This family took the surname Mac Siurtain, gaelic for “son of Jordan,” and later called themselves Mac Jordan–eventually shortened to Jordan. Alas, it’s unlikely that our ancestor could ever claim to have been a MacJordan.

The smart money says that our progenitor was from the Scots-Irish Jordans, part of a group of farmers and tradesmen who had been imported into Ulster during the seventeenth century to settle large holdings (plantations) recently seized from Irish chieftains by the English Crown.  Since most of these new settlers were from Scotland, they came to be referred to as Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish.

After James Jordan arrived in America in the late 1760s, he chose to settle among Scots-Irish communities in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia rather than in the English (and high Irish) communities along the east coast.  Similarly, he chose to worship as did many Scots-Irish emigres as Baptist, rather than with the gentry in the Anglican Church.  In Greenbrier County, James’ children were married by the Baptist minister, Rev. John Alderson, and James is thought to have attended the Greenbrier (Baptist) Church.  After moving to Cabell County, James belonged to the old Union Baptist Church, in whose graveyard he was eventually buried.

In brief, the life choices James made after coming to America offer strong anecdotal evidence that he was Scots-Irish.  Finally, there is the DNA evidence…

What Our DNA Tells Us

Y-DNA testing over several years on dozens of living descendants in our Jordan line confirms our family’s heritage as being Scots-Irish.  We belong to the J1 haplogroup, (J-M267), denoting a Semitic people who made their way south from the Levant into the Arabian peninsula, and from there moved into southern Europe.  Sometime afterward, possibly during the Roman period or, at the latest, shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066, our direct ancestor continued on to the British Isles.  By the middle of the millennium, our ancestors were living in the border country between Scotland and England.

Now for the interesting part. Family researchers generally expect a surname to be passed down through generations from father to son.  Short of a known break in this pattern, such as a person legally changing his name or a son taking his mother’s surname, this assumption guides genealogists’ research and informs their conclusions.

Y-DNA analysis frees us from that assuption and has revealed that our Jordan line probably emerged from a family surnamed Graham who lived along the Anglo-Scottish border during the Middle Ages.  The Grahams were notorious border reivers, medieval raiders who prospered by taking advantage of the lawlessness of the border area.  At some point, probably in the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, a Graham male took Jordan as his surname, thus beginning our Jordan line.  One can only speculate on the reason for this name change.  Perhaps some rogue found it in his interest to assume a new identity; perhaps an illegitimate child was given his mother’s surname; or perhaps an adopted boy took the name of his new father.  The truth must be lost to history.

While future research may shed more light on some of the specifics, DNA evidence strongly indicates that the first Jordan in our line was the natural son of a man named Graham.  This further explains why, among all the Jordan lines descended from European stock, ours is unique in belonging to the J-M267 haplogroup.[4]


1 The story of the Jordan brothers from County Down was recounted separately by two of Andrew Jordan‘s granddaughters, Lettie Cosner (according to Jeff Jordan) and Mary Jordan Taylor (according to Elaine Zukowski).
2 Sharelle Renick, “Attack on Fort Donnally,” West Virginia Daily News (March 3, 1969).  An account of the attack on Fort Donnally can be found in several other sources, including the Historical Booklet of Greenbrier County, 160th Anniversary – 1778-1938 (1938).
3 Map of County Down extracted from An Hibernian Atlas or General Description of the Kingdom of Ireland (1776), map #23.
4 Thanks to Ken Jordan, an Irish cousin now living on the Isle of Man, for his research into the origins of the Jordans of Ireland and their J1 haplogroup.