Solving an Adoption Case From 1787

Solving an Adoption Case From 1787

Date published
April 11, 2023

The objective of this study was to determine whether John Regan Sr. (born in 1787) or his son, John Henry Regan Jr. (born in 1816), was the adopted member of my client Gina’s family. The study also aimed to find a direct paternal connection between Gina’s Regan family and the Phipps family, the top surname in Regan paternal Y-DNA analysis. Once it was established who was adopted, the next goal was to identify John Regan’s parents. Finally, the study looked into the family history of the adopted member's parents, including where their ancestors came from before moving to America.


For decades, members of the Regan family from Hawkins County, Tennessee, have been actively researching and documenting their family history. They have uncovered rich details about their heritage, including personal narratives from other Regan descendants. The family even has details of their Regan ancestors migration path from Tennessee to Kentucky and finally on to Illinois. An important piece of information that remained unknown was the origins of this family line.

Family historians always knew that either their ancestor John Regan Sr. or his son, John Henry Regan Jr. had been adopted by an unrelated individual or couple. The family also knew that both men lived in Hawkins County, Tennessee and that this is where John Jr. was born.

The main unresolved question throughout the generations was, Which ancestor was adopted, John Sr. or his son John Jr.? The family always considered John Jr. to be the son of John Sr. but it was unknown if this was a biological relationship or one from adoption. John Jr. did not have a birth record or any other document that could help confirm a father-son relationship.

Over the years, the family scoured personally written accounts, bibles, vital records and libraries looking for clues needed to provide the answers they sought. However, nothing was found.

During this comprehensive project, the following questions were researched and resolved:

  • Was John Regan Sr. or John Regan Jr. the progenitor of the Regan family?
  • Is John Regan Jr. the biological son of John Regan Sr.?
  • Who were the biological parents of John Jr. or John Sr.?
  • Why was John Jr. or John Sr. given up for adoption?
  • Where did this family live before immigrating to the United States?
  • Was John Regan Jr. or his father a direct maternal descendant of the Phipps family and if so, which Phipps branch?


Thanks to advancements in DNA technology, people are resolving previously unknown family mysteries. These include but are not limited to unknown parents, adoption cases or simply lost history due to a lack of vital records. DNA testing has enabled genealogists to discover ancestors who could not be found using conventional research methods.

Gina’s research began with Y-DNA testing and analysis. The participant for this study was her oldest living male Regan relative, John Franklin Regan (1911-2020). John submitted his saliva to Family Tree DNA and after the test was processed, the results were compared with closely matching people.

As a side note, only men carry and pass down Y-DNA and therefore, only men can be included in a Y-DNA study. The first piece of information that Gina learned from John Franklin Regan’s test was that he was very closely related to Phipps descendants. This information confirmed what the family had always suspected. The belief was that the father of John Regan Jr. or his father John Sr. was a Phipps. At this point, it was still too early to tell if it was John Sr. or his son who was the earliest known ancestor in the family.

The second part of this research was to perform comprehensive autosomal DNA analysis. Several closely related people in Gina’s immediate family, including her mother, an aunt and an uncle were compared, using autosomal DNA (a different test than Y-DNA) with our original Y-DNA subject, John Franklin Regan. Additional, more distantly related Regan descendants were also compared with Gina’s immediate family. The DNA companies that were used in this study include FTDNA, My Heritage, AncestryDNA and Gedmatch. Gedmatch is not a testing company but they have many tools to assist in comparing uploaded DNA kits.


Due to the fact that there was a large group of testers descending from John Regan Sr., we were able to determine that he was the person with unknown parentage in this family.

At least five of John Regan Sr. and his wife Elizabeth (incorrectly documented as Blades) King’s children have descendants that took a DNA test. These descendants share several exact DNA segments with both Gina’s close relatives and others who are more distantly related in this family line. The common ancestor couple for everyone goes directly back to John Regan Sr. and Elizabeth. John Regan Jr. b. 1816 is one of their children. To recap, John Jr.’s descendants and those of his four siblings were all compared with one another and were found to share DNA. This enabled us to conclude that John Regan Sr. is the progenitor of the Regan family.


The next objective was to locate descendants of Phipps males who fit the criteria to be John Regan Sr.’s father and who took a DNA test. This included Phipps males living in Hawkins County, in 1786 who were most likely unmarried and in their late teens or early twenties.

At the time of John Regan Sr.’s conception, Hawkins County was known as Sullivan County, NC. The county name changed in January 1787 to Hawkins, NC. It is estimated that John was born in February 1787, after the change had occurred. Tennessee was established in 1796 and that is when Hawkins County became part of this new state.

Conclusion for John Regan Sr.’s Paternal Line

After numerous DNA comparisons were made, results showed that Regan descendants, as a whole group shared significantly more DNA with William Phipps (1768-1856) descendants than they did with his brothers descendants. It was also discovered through documentation that in January 1786, William Phipps, age eighteen and single, moved to what is now known as Hawkins County, TN. This was a year before John Sr. was born. Records from John Sr.’s childhood years do not exist but Hawkins County was also the exact location where he lived from the earliest time known (young adulthood) until he moved to Bracken County, KY. The strong DNA evidence plus William’s location at the time of John’s birth supports the conclusion that William Phipps is John's father.

After it was confirmed that John Regan Sr. was a direct Phipps descendant on his paternal line, his lineage was further examined. The vast amount of documentation available for this particular Phipps pedigree enabled Gina to learn that her Phipps ancestors were early settlers in America.

The earliest known couple in this Phipps line are Joseph Phipps b. 1640 and his wife, Sarah Binfield b. 1643. They were both born in Reading, Berkshire, England. Joseph and Sarah emigrated from England and arrived in the Colonies between 1682-1683, eventually settling in Abington Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. They arrived in Pennsylvania with the Quakers.

Research for John Regan Sr.’s Maternal Line

Gina’s final goal was to find John Regan Sr.’s mother.

Early in the autosomal DNA analysis, the surnames Bishop and Looney were quite noticeable because they consistently showed up between the Regan group and their DNA matches. These two surnames became useful in this research.

The Bishop surname was directly connected to the Looney surname. It was soon discovered that many of David Bishop b. Abt. 1770 and Elizabeth Looney b. Abt. 1772 descendants, who took an autosomal DNA test, had a few significant matching DNA segments with the Regan group.

Another observation, directly connected to the same shared DNA segments between the Bishop/Looney group and the Regan group is that a few additional people share a common ancestor with the group but further back in time. Specifically, several people that match and triangulate on a couple of segments, descend from Elizabeth Looney b. 1772 while others descend from Captain John Looney b. 1744 and his wife Elizabeth Renfro b. 1745. (Triangulate means that at least three people share the same DNA segment with one another.) Captain John Looney and Elizabeth Renfro descendants are triangulating on chromosomes 5 and 10 with descendants of Elizabeth Looney. Furthermore, matching DNA segments were found between descendants of Elizabeth Renfro and people from this Renfro branch that share a common ancestor further back in the tree.

The family tree below begins at the top with Elizabeth Renfro’s paternal great-grandparents Robert Renfroe b. Abt. 1640 and his wife Mary Evans. This tree shows the ancestry of people that share DNA on chromosome 5 with the Regan and Bishop/Looney group, descending either from Captain John Looney and Elizabeth Renfro or an ancestor further back in Elizabeth Renfro’s tree. Everyone in the group shares the common ancestor couple Robert Renfroe and Mary Evans. The shared DNA segments in this group are usually smaller because DNA recombines in each generation and breaks into smaller pieces. Everyone with a red star has a descendant that is matching DNA with the Regan group in the shared location on chromosome 5.


The DNA matches along the Looney line support the idea that Elizabeth Looney is more than likely the daughter of Captain John Looney and his wife Elizabeth Renfro.

The following image, using a chromosome mapping tool from, is one example, showing where some Regan, Looney and Renfro descendants share and triangulate with one another in two locations on chromosome 5. The top three segments overlap with both the Looney and Renfro groups. The top two segments are from a person that descends from David Bishop and Elizabeth Looney. This person also matches and triangulates with all of the other samples in the picture. The indigo group shares a common ancestor with the Regan group further back along just the Bishop line. The top four lines in the royal blue group in the lower portion of the image slightly overlap with the indigo group.

Color key: gold = Regan descendants, indigo = Renfro descendants, royal blue - Looney descendants, light blue = MRCA (most recent common ancestor) of John Henry Regan b. 1816. Regan descendants match each surname group.


Conclusion for John Regan Sr.’s Maternal Line

The search for John Regan Sr.’s mother would not have been possible without the use of autosomal DNA. After extensive analysis, it is highly suggested that Elizabeth Looney is John’s mother. Vital records and census reports have not been located for Elizabeth Looney but the following evidence supports the theory that she is indeed John Regan Sr.’s mother.

  • Elizabeth is the only woman in the group of female candidates in the Looney line from her generation to have descendants matching the Regan group.
  • At least twenty-one of Elizabeth’s descents have been identified that match the Regan group.
  • Elizabeth was not married when John Regan Sr. was born.
  • Elizabeth was the perfect age to have a child out of wedlock.
  • Elizabeth was close in age to William Phipps.
  • Elizabeth and William Phipps, John Regan Sr.’s father were presumably living in the same county and within close proximity of one another.
  • Elizabeth doesn’t have children on record until three years after John Regan Sr. was born.

The circumstantial evidence below points to why Elizabeth Looney is the daughter of Captain John Looney and Elizabeth Renfro.

Captain John Looney’s residence was in Sullivan County/Hawkins County at the time that John Regan Sr. was born. He received a grant from the state of North Carolina for 160 acres on Possum Creek in Sullivan County, NC, dated 23 October 1782. This land became part of Hawkins County in 1787. Another item placing Captain John Looney in Hawkins County is a 1787 ledger from a general store in that location.

Since DNA evidence strongly suggests that Elizabeth Looney is Captain John’s daughter, she was most likely living with him in Hawkins at the time of John Sr.’s conception.

Elizabeth’s approximate year of birth fits in perfectly with Captain John Looney and Elizabeth Renfro’s other children.

John is a common name but the observation that John Regan Sr. was given this name stands out. It is the same name as what appears through DNA evidence to be Elizabeth’s father, Captain John Looney. Elizabeth did not have other sons with this name.

Elizabeth’s second born son (first born child in her marriage) was named Stephen. Stephen was also Elizabeth’s brother’s name as well as her maternal grandfather’s name. The name Stephen was not commonly used in Colonial times, supporting the idea that it had been a family name.

Thoughts regarding why Elizabeth may have given John up for adoption.

The information below was extracted from people who researched single unwed mothers during the 18th century.

When John Regan Sr. was born, it was not unheard of to have a child out of wedlock. In an article called, Unwed Motherhood Insights From the Colonial Era, the author, Abigail Trafford looked into the social patterns of a rural community in Maine and found the following, “Of 106 babies born to first-time mothers between 1785 and 1797, nearly 40 percent were conceived by single women.”

The next item is based upon a thesis about illegitimacy in North Carolina during the 18th century. Illegitimacy was frowned upon in North Carolina and the laws were very harsh concerning it. These laws may have applied to Hawkins County, still part of North Carolina when John was born.

A thesis called, Nobody’s Children: The Treatment of Illegitimate Children in Three North Carolina Counties 1760-1790 mentions on page 4 that in North Carolina, “According to the eighteenth-century definition, a child without a father was considered an orphan. Illegitimate children, without legal fathers, were usually bound out by the county courts to ensure the financial maintenance of the child.” It goes further to say, on page 23, that these children were assigned by the court system to become apprentices of their guardians. Was this the case with John Regan Sr.? It is impossible to know without documentation. The reader can only make the supposition that if this was the law of the land, then Elizabeth Looney probably was forced to give her baby up to a court-appointed custodian.

Additional information

The tree below includes just a few of John Regan Sr.’s many descendants who took an autosomal DNA test and were used for comparisons in this research. The black boxes represent these individuals.


Wikipedia states that the Looney surname can be traced back to Robert Looney Jr., who was born in 1721 on the Isle of Man and died in 1756 in Virginia. Robert Looney Jr. was one of the area's first European settlers. He founded Looney’s Mill c. 1742. The site is located near the confluence of Looney's Mill Creek and the James River.

If you would like additional information, contact Gina Reynolds at

Wendy Werner did the research and wrote this report. She can be reached at

About the author:

Wendy Werner is a family history researcher with a passion for helping others locate their roots. She has eighteen years of genealogy research experience.

You can email Wendy at:

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