Early in my research efforts, as I started digging through County Vital Records, I realized there were parts of my family’s past I will likely unearth that they might have fought to keep hidden. My first time in a courthouse was in Langlade County, Wisconsin, and I had gone through the Birth Registers to research my known ancestors and was just about to wrap up. My Great Grandparents (Elmer A Morse and Myra (Tradewell) Morse) were married in 1897 and had a single daughter in 1911, my Grandmother Catherine. I had always found it interesting that they had only one child, and dawned on me that there could have been other children throughout the years that were stillborn or otherwise didn’t survive. I reviewed the entire register from about 10 years before they were married through when my Grandmother was born, and I only found an interesting entry.
Apparently, an “E.J. Morse”, who was a farmer from Racine County, Wisconsin, had a child 15 Feb 1907 that was unnamed, that didn’t have sex indicated, and didn’t list the Mother’s name…only that she too was born in Racine County. My first reaction was that this was a close match. I can see that E.A. could be mistaken for E.J., and the fact that they had both been born in Racine County was a huge clue, as well as the fact that E.A. had originally been a farmer. However, E.A. was a U.S. Congressman at the time of this child’s birth so I would have expected that to be listed as his occupation, and it was highly unusual to not have the Mother’s name listed on the birth record. I searched for death records that might have matched, and I found none. To this day I’m left wondering what it means, and what it would mean if there was a child born to my Great Grandfather out of wedlock, or if perhaps they had another child before my Grandmother who was stillborn. Depending on how this information played out, it could have either been a good hint towards why they only had one child, or it could have destroyed the historical reputation of one of the scions of our family.
In this case the paper trail went cold, and it’s likely we’ll never know the full story. However, with DNA there’s no need for paper, and not all of the stories it will unearth will be happy.
The blessing of DNA is certainty; there can be no doubt you’re related to someone who’s a match. However, it’s also a curse when that certain link establishes proof that someone’s family line isn’t as it’s always been understood. Not only do you need to be prepared to uncover uncomfortable truths about your family lines, you need to be understanding that you’re likely going to deliver distressing news to fellow researchers.
Recently we established an DNA connection between my wife Felice and a 2nd Cousin 2x Removed, through her Father-Mother-Mother’s line. We knew nothing beyond the name of the parents of Felice’s Great Grandmother until the DNA match reached out to us, and we established that her Great Grandmother was the illegitimate child of Henry Aldridge, born about 5 years before he married to a different woman. This researcher had never heard of the child, but the evidence is pretty clear that there is a proven match. Given Henry’s history, it wasn’t a huge surprise that there was an illegitimate child, and the players were all long dead, so it was just a historical curiosity, as well as a brick wall torn down!
Until I reached out to a shared match between Felice and the new researcher.
Using GEDmatch I reached out to the highest common match, and the response floored me. The gentleman who responded apologized for being so upset, but my email had confirmed to him that his maternal Grandfather was not the man the family had always known was his Grandfather, but a brother of Henry Aldridge. This man was the namesake of the presumed Grandfather, so not only was this information shocking, it also meant he had lived his whole life named after someone who was not his relative. To complicate matters even more, his mother is still alive and is devastated that her father is not really her father. She asked him to keep this secret, and that she never wants her family to know the truth. As a family history researcher, this man is both devastated, regretful that he has turned his mother’s life upside down, and also is facing the need to stop further research on his mother’s side.
I’ve kept it pretty light with him, and let him know that I will maintain his privacy as well as understanding the struggle he’s going through, but I honestly don’t. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have my hobby turn into such a source of pain for my mother. As it is, I feel very conflicted about the role I’ve played in this man’s life. I neither brought this possibility to his attention first, nor did I force him to participate in this process, but I did play a role and it’s having an impact on him and his family.
I will continue to pursue my family history, and my DNA matches, just as I always have, but I’m much more aware of how DNA can have serious consequences, in ways that traditional ancestral research can’t. I’ve talked to my living relatives, including my mother, since to let them know that this work with DNA might pose more risk than we thought, and so far everyone’s agreed to continue.