Unexpected Family

Deena Porcaro Hill and Desi Campbell

Little did Deena Porcaro Hill of American Fork, Utah, and Desi Campbell, of Harnett County, realize how their lives would change after both submitted a DNA sample to Ancestry.com in 2016

Hill is a genealogist with family roots in the Sicily region of Italy from her father’s side and an English heritage from her mother’s side. She has a great love for genealogy and has helped many families discover their family heritage.

Campbell works in the Harnett County School System and has deep roots in North Carolina spanning several generations of his African-American family. He is also is a “pro-genealogist” with Ancestry.com and has spent much of his time researching and building his own and others’ family trees. He has commissioned two monuments in Harnett County and has written several books.

In February 2016, Hill received the DNA results she was waiting for. She had taken the test to see if the family rumor of Cherokee blood in the family was true. To her surprise, it revealed that she had African-American blood, and that she had African-American DNA cousins in Harnett County. One of them just happened to be Desi Campbell.

The two quickly traded emails and information, and the mystery began to unravel explaining how an Italian-English woman from Utah and an African-American man from North Carolina could be cousins.

“I was shocked to find out that I had African-American blood, but was so excited by this new information,” says Hill.

Now all the two had to do was figure out who their common ancestor was. With many phone calls and many hours of searching documents such as will, deeds and census records, the picture began to unfold before them.

Hill is the third great-granddaughter of a man named Nelson Holder Ritchie, who was born in Lawrence County, Mo. Nelson’s mother is Jane McNeill, who was born in Harnett County. Jane was the slave of William Holder and became pregnant by Wiley Holder, the nephew of William Holder. A neighbor, Neill McNeill, bought Jane and took her to Lawrence County, Mo., in 1840, where she gave birth to her son Nelson. Nelson moved to Utah later in his life.

Jane’s parents are Sarah and Sherod McNeill. Sarah and Sherod McNeill had 13 children, one of them being daughter Jane and another being a son by the name of Gabriel McNeill, who is the third great-grandfather of Desi Campbell. This is where Desi Campbell and Deena Hill’s life intersect: They are first cousins five times removed.

Not everyone in their families were thrilled to find out about this connection.

“When Desi and I first talked on the phone, I told Desi how when I told my 95-year-old grandmother her DNA results and that she had African-American blood, she said she did not want to talk about it,” Hill says. “Desi said that when he told his grandmother about it, she said, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’”

“This [research] process was long and hard,” says Campbell. “My third great-grandfather Gabriel McNeill was born around 1820. He is the only person we knew as it relates to his family. Although we never found him with his family, we found all of his 13 children had him as the family. We did find him in Florida, remarried, and with other children.”

Campbell adds that Gabriel McNeill was sold, along with other slaves, in the 1860s to Alabama.

“We found him through a DNA match,” he says. “His name changed from McNeill to Backus. Using DNA of one of my suspected cousins led us to a brother named Charles who was still in Harnett County. In 1870 and 1880 he was in the Upper Little River area of Harnett County. We found Charles’ mother Sarah McNeill. 

Next door to Charles were descendants of Archibald McNeill, the slave owner. In their house were five African-Americans, and we noticed that their names were very similar to some of the names in our family.”

Over the last four years, Campbell and Hill have been able to discover 13 of Sarah and Sherod McNeill’s children and to go back one more generation, locating 13 children of Jenny and Joe McLean. Jenny and Joe McLean and their children were slaves of Harnett County plantation owners Archibald McLean and Archibald McNeill, and members of those familes over the years. Some of Jenny and Joe’s children go by the name of McNeill, and some McLean, depending on what plantation they lived on.

Campbell says the connection to Moore County comes because the McNeill and McLean slave owners were in the Barbecue Township on the border of Harnett and Moore counties.

“Several of Sarah’s children and descendants were found in Vass,” he says. “One of her grandchildren, the Rev. George Washington McLean, was the first pastor of Frye’s Chapel Church. Harrington Chapel also in Moore County was named after one of Sarah’s grandsons.”

Some of their children and grandchildren have migrated to such places as Lawrence County, Mo., Buckatuna, Miss., Kansas City, Mo., Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and other places and have all been reconnected more than 200 years later using DNA.

Down through the first and second generations, the following surnames have been connected: Austin, Campbell, Chapman, Coffield, Elliott, Gandy, Harrington, McDougald, McLean, Muse, Moore, Murchison, Nelson, Ramsey, Ray, Ritchie, Smith and Tolbert.

The most amazing discovery was the information that was listed on the 1880 U.S. Census for Upper Little River in Harnett County, where Jenny was found as being 95 years old, making her born in 1785, her birthplace Virginia. Her father is listed as being born in Africa and her mother being born in Africa around 1765.

There are now more than 200 DNA matches to Jenny and Joe down through all their children and grandchildren. All DNA matches have blood from Cameroon, Congo, Benin, Togo and Nigeria, Africa.

Hill traveled to Harnett County in 2017 to attend a McNeill family reunion, and in 2018 Campbell traveled to Utah to meet new family there and to attend Rootstech genealogy conference with Hill.

In February 2019, Hill again traveled to Harnett County to attend the first African-American Festival at Campbell University organized by Campbell, Tammie Hooks, Alfreda Wilson and John Bartlett. In August 2019, Campbell again traveled to Utah and was a guest speaker at the Ritchie Family Reunion organized by Hill.

The history of this family has been documented in a book titled “The McNeill Story” written by Desi Campbell, with the collaboration of Deena Hill.

“I have been truly amazed by the kindness and acceptance by my new North Carolina DNA cousins and also to see how Desi was so lovingly welcomed into my family here in Utah,” Hill says.

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