Solving Our Family Tree Mystery Opens Old Wounds

Solving Our Family Tree Mystery Opens  Old Wounds

Putting it all Together – Part 4

(Part 4 of a series on building out Michael’s maternal family tree, read: Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday: Putting it All Together Part 1, The brick wall starts to crumble: Putting it all together – Part 2, and One stunning turn after another as our brick wall falls: Putting it all together – Part 3)

Patrica’s loss hit the entire family hard. Her death was unexpected, even after years of various health issues. She was only 61 years old and full of life…it just didn’t seem like it was her time. We were jolted because we’d literally just reached out to her to learn how she knew (guessed?) the secret that her Father had a child with her Aunt. A secret that took us 4 DNA tests and years of research to piece together. It didn’t seem real that we couldn’t just pick up the phone and ask her family history questions anymore. It really hit us when it sunk in she wouldn’t ever be laughing with us as she doted on our children. 

Her brothers, who a day before sat in our Dining Room receiving our big news, were now in charge of their sister’s funeral. They asked if we’d do the obituary and was a natural ask. We’d probably read more obituaries than anyone else they knew, but it was a sobering task for someone we loved so much.

A Second Family

Funeral Program, Patricia White (1958-2109)

In addition to learning that Felice’s Mother “Susan” was Pat’s half-Sister, we also had recently figured out their Father Luther had a 2nd family. Two of his daughters from that 2nd marriage tested with AncestryDNA, and we had confirmed their linage through vital records. They had just lost a half-Sibling, and the brothers agreed we should confirm their information for the obituary. We reached out to both of the DNA testers, leaving messages about losing their half-Sister. 

One of the siblings responded, and we found out that we had unknowingly opened up old wounds. Luther’s 2nd family was close to him, closer than the children of his 1st marriage. While his 2nd family was news to most of us, Luther’s children from his marriage to Ann knew of them. They were apparently dismissive and cold as Luther was dying.

The dynamics became apparent when we learned we’d never get a response from the other DNA tester. The wounds and anger ran too deep. Even the tester we were working with was struggling hard participating with us. She understood we played no role in the drama, and she had enjoyed their time with Pat. But there was too much damage done to want to revisit this side of the family. She did eventually provide information on her siblings which allowed us to include them in the obituary. However, even though they lived in town, two of the children from the 2nd marriage did not attend her funeral. 

After the Funeral

After the funeral, our contact with the 2nd family asked about Susan’s DNA results. She too couldn’t figure out how Susan could be so close a match. We explained that her Father had a child with the Sister of his first wife, and that only added to the pain we’d opened. In the end it was all too much. While very supportive and respectful, it was clear she needed some time before reaching out again. I doubt we’ll ever initiate another conversation with the 2nd family.

Ann’s surviving children now know that Susan is their half-Sister, as well as their 1st cousin. They have decided that Ann doesn’t need to know the truth, and we won’t be bringing it up. For this reason, we didn’t include Susan as a sibling in Pat’s obituary. 

One Last Puzzle to Solve

When we started that Super Bowl Sunday we had two theories: 1) Susan was the Daughter of Luther; and 2) Luther’s Grandmother Sarah Moore’s maiden name was Jones and she was the daughter of Roman and Mary Jones. Several months later, the final piece of that puzzle fell into place.

The proof on the second theory came when we were browsing around FamilySearch in December that year. There was a hint showing the Marriage Register of Joseph and Sarah Moore, married in 1894 in Carroll County, Mississippi. Carroll County is where Roman and Mary had raised there children and would reside in until their deaths. The marriage record showed that Sarah’s maiden name was Jones, and she was born in 1873. That’s the matches the records for Roman and Mary’s daughter.

Michael Leonard's maternal family tree
Susan Moore is the missing link to 17 DNA matches

Combined with our other research, we’re confident this being the same Sarah meets the Genealogical Proof Standard. Additionally, the cM’s in other the DNA tests fit and support this link. We’re now able to link our family tree with the 17 DNA matches we’d grouped together in the “Casting a Wide Net” series.

Putting it All Together

In the end we realized we had much of the data needed to break down these brick walls all along. Going back to June 2018 we had a good idea that Susan and Charles were closer than 1st Cousins. If we’d opened our minds a bit, we likely should have figured out they shared Fathers. We had Sarah Jones’ daughter in our family tree, and a little digging could have likely linked her pretty quickly. Also, it was pretty clear there was no link on Susan’s maternal line to those 17 DNA matches. 

Even with that, it took a stroke of inspiration on a random Super Bowl Sunday to put it all together. We learned our lesson on this. Again. We often have all we need to solve these mysteries, we just need to better examine the data. We also opened more family wounds than we would have liked, including ones with families we didn’t even know existed. Additionally, there doesn’t feel like we have any closure by resolving Felice’s Mother’s biggest family history mystery. Susan doesn’t discuss her father and the family dynamic hasn’t changed. While they all know they are 1/2 siblings, they still rarely interact…just like Cousins. 

Was it worth it?

Michael’s family tree is now more complete and the stories of Roman and Mary Jones help round out his family history. Genealogically, it was a clear success and two brick walls have been toppled. Still, it’s hard to see this as a victory. These “mysteries” often weren’t that when the people involved were alive. It’s likely become lost to future generations because those who lived them didn’t want them to be known. They often aren’t just quirks of poor record keeping. Brick walls aren’t always meant to fall.

We’ve said it before in this blog: Building a family tree using DNA testing is serious (Family History is a hobby…but DNA is serious business). Even when the tools work better than hoped, the results can be complicated and painful. We will always tell the truth we find in our journey, but we have learned to consider whether we want an answer to the questions we ask.

One stunning turn after another as our brick wall falls: Putting it all together – Part 3

One stunning turn after another as our brick wall falls: Putting it all together – Part 3

(Part 3 of a series on building out Michael’s maternal family tree, read Putting it all together Part 1 – Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday and Putting it all together – Part 2: The brick wall starts to crumble)

In the months after that Super Bowl Sunday Felice and I talked a lot about sharing what we suspected. We talked to her Mother “Susan” to gauge if she wanted to know if we found troubling results. She was hard to read. Susan seemed pretty indifferent, but it also seemed like she was increasingly uncomfortable with discussing the topic.

The cousin with the very high centimorgan match with Susan also had a deep interest in Felice’s family history. “Charles” is the son of “Ann”, but he’d  focused more on his Mother’s side when he was doing family research. At the time, he was the only DNA test we had to reference for his Father Luther’s decedents. We started working with Charles getting his test into GEDmatch and leverage their tools to confirm our “3/4 Sibling” theory.

We also started building out Luther’s family tree, and ordered the Birth/Marriage/Death records of himself, his siblings, parents, and children. After Luther and Ann split in Mississippi, she moved to Milwaukee and he moved to Hartford, CT. Luther started a second family with a woman and they had 6 children together.

Family tree  reflecting our new theory that "Susan's" father was Luther White.
Our new theoretical family tree

The work to move Charles’ test into GEDmatch had fallen off (as we began to question if we would continue using GEDmatch for our African American family). In the meantime we were surprised by two new DNA test matches for Susan. Two of Luther’s children from his second marriage tested with Ancestry, and they matched both Susan and Charles as half-siblings. That sealed it. We didn’t need to do a deeper dive into their chromosomes. There was no doubt that Luther was the father to the 2 new siblings, as well as Charles and Susan.

It was time to talk to Susan, especially because we needed to understand from her how we could proceed and if we could share this information with anyone but her. Felice and I talked to her early in the summer of 2019, and she didn’t show much reaction. She was pretty calm about it, and we weren’t quite sure if they believed it or not. In the end, proving how she matched the children from Luther’s second marriage settled it. Susan was ok with us sharing this with whomever we wanted, and we decided that we’d talk with Charles next. As a fellow family historian, he was most interested, and he’d know how to approach his mother Ann about this.

We had a few more conversations with Susan, giving her time to change her mind. But she was fine, and about 6 weeks later we setup a time to have Charles to talk.

He brought his brother “George” with the next Friday and we laid out everything we knew. They were speechless. We talked it through a few times, and they understood that we’d found the truth: Susan was not just their cousin but their sister as well, and that their Father had been with their Aunt at least once.

Michael with Patricia in 2014
Patricia, with Michael, Shakiera and Felice in 2014

At the end of it all, George calmly said “You know, all these years and Patricia was right. She said dad was Susan’s dad and I just brushed it off. But somehow, she knew…she was right!”. This just rocked our world.

Patricia was their baby sister, and we are close to her. She was our first family history interview subject and had been a valuable source. Pat loved to share stories about the family and bound everyone together for us. Pat was one of our first family history interviews and we had asked her who might be Susan’s Father. She was the first person to share “Big James” as the most likely candidate, but now it appeared this deep family secret wasn’t secret to her. Pat just hadn’t shared it with us.

As soon as the brothers left, we called Pat and left a message asking her to call us back. Our voicemail explained that we had some information we’d come across and we wanted get together the next day. It had been too long since we’d talked to Pat, and we loved seeing her so we were excited. Plus, it sounded like she was going to help fill in some of the gaps on this major family twist.

Unfortunately, we’d never get to discuss these findings with her. We received a call from Charles the next morning that she had passed away unexpectedly overnight. Not only were we grieving the loss of one of our favorite family members, but one of the keys to unlocking this mystery was now gone…just a few hours after we found out she held that key. We were stunned.

This turn of events would only bring more family pain to the surface, even as the last pieces of this mysterious family tree fell into place.

Check out the next in the series: Solving Our Family Tree Mystery Opens Old Wounds

Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday: Putting it All Together Part 1

Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday: Putting it All Together Part 1

Super Bowl Sunday 2019 started like most of our Sundays. Felice got her breakfast in bed, the kids all got pancakes, and breakfast was complete. I sat down at the computer with a nice cup of coffee hoping to kick the mini-migraine that was resisting drugs and enjoy a few hours of genealogy.

Screen Shot 2020-02-15 at 8.57.08 AM
The Tweet that broke open our mystery

As I sat down that morning, for some reason a Twitter post we’d made 7 months earlier about Felice’s mother “Susan” popped in my mind. Susan matched her 1st Cousin “Charles” with 2122 cM…enough that he was almost a full sibling. It was a head-scratcher. We’d tweeted out our confusion, and a follower explained to us that it might mean he was a “3/4 siblings”. 3/4 siblings are where the same person parents children by two siblings, for example, when one man has children with two women who are sisters. But the tweet came during a busy time and it fell out of our minds…until this morning when it hit like a lightning bolt.

Susan’s paternity was THE big “brick wall” of our family history research. The man listed on her birth certificate, Roger Homes, was likely not her father. Family history held that Susan’s mom Dealia had at least 1 of her 2 other children with Roger, but Roger was on Susan’s birth certificate because Dealia’s father him on there. He didn’t want his Grand daughter’s Father left blank. Family interviews had given us a couple of leads on Susan’s father, but finding “Big Ed” from a neighboring town in Mississippi seemed like a significant long shot. DNA was always our best hope to solve this mystery.

Going into that Super Sunday we had recently finished our series about the tools we used to go from a handful of Ancestry DNA matches to connecting them in a tree. In the “Casting a Wide Net” series (Link) we took a group of over 5000 matches to Susan that were shared between themselves and built them into a mirror tree. Ultimately we mapped out 17 of those DNA kits to each other and identified the MRCA for them and Susa.

Putting it all together 1 -Slide1
Susan’s tree, as we had it originally

In of our research, we’d noted Susan’s maternal cousin Charles also matched the 17. This led us to focus on her mom’s side of the tree to find the link, but the evidence hadn’t lined up with that theory. We ended the series without being able to establish the direct link between the MCRA and Susan.

As the computer fired up that morning, the tweet, the MCRA, and the unknown father all slammed together at once: What if the maternal cousin wasn’t only a cousin? What if Charles’ father was also Susan’s, and what if the 17 matches were on their father’s line!

We’d never built out Charles’ father’s line because he was an Uncle who didn’t feed much information into our line. We’d added his parents, so knew their names and not much else. We’d interviewed Felice’s Aunt “Ann” and she explained about how she’d married Luther White at 13 years old and almost immediately kicked him out. Despite that, he would still go on to father each of her 10 children while Luther’s parents supported her and her children, including giving them a place to live.

Putting it all together 1 -Slide2
Susan’s tree as we imagined it as the Super Bowl kicked off

I was shaking a little as I opened up Ancestry and started to build out the Father’s line. This theory perfectly clicked together, but if we were right we were about to be swimming in deep waters. It was always our hope to breakdown the brick wall of Susan’s paternity and to help her fill out the picture of her life. We envisioned a happy moment where we put to bed a lifelong secret and expanded our family tree. Now, this was taking a very sudden turn and we were likely unearthing a painful family secret.

All of this before my first cup of coffee on a Sunday…and little did we know at the time how deep this would go.

Check out the next in the series: The brick wall starts to crumble: Putting it all together – Part 2

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

In early 2018 we made a series of posts on how to use the multiple “Shared Matches” in AncestryDNA to narrow down the DNA line that connects you to them. The challenge was that often they have no trees, or small trees that don’t come anywhere close to matching your (much more complete!) tree.

This strategy was a way to use mirror trees to match them to themselves, which should indicate a Most Recent Common Ancestor for them, and in all likelihood to be your MCRA as well. For this series we broke down a large set of matches (5000+) to Felice’s mother, to try and establish her first DNA link outside of the immediate family.

There were all of the challenges we all face with African American genealogy (fewer family histories to draw off of, smaller trees, difficulty with 3x/4xGGP’s due to the “1870 Wall”, etc.), and in this series we found the MCRA…but we failed to find the link between them and our family. However, about a year later we broke through that wall, and we’ll be following up on that shortly. In the meantime, here’s the complete series in one page:

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 2 – Identifying all “Matches of Matches” as a Group

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 3 – Building a single tree using all of our DNA matches Public Trees

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 4 – Proving the matches, and establishing a theory of connection

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 6 – Our crazy attempt to leverage 288 DNA matches to expand our tree comes to it’s conclusion

 

 

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

It’s rare that we can spot trends emerging, but we’re going to take a quick victory lap this week because we saw Ancestry.com’s ThruLines coming. We called it out…twice! And now that it’s arrived it feels like the “killer app” for genealogical DNA.

One of our first posts in 2017 was a discussion on how the Ancestry “We’re Related” mobile app was not just a silly diversion (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears) because of how it leveraged predictive relationships:

If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Over a year later we bemoaned the fact that Ancestry’s first major use of these predictive algorithms was the “Potential Mother/Father” tool. It was poorly implemented and presented so much risk (Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…), but we saw the power in this tool, if used properly:

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor.

Ancestry has finally harnessed predictive technology in a very effect feature with the release of ThruLines.

ThruLines-1

At it’s essence ThruLines a new graphical way to show HOW you’re related to your DNA matches. This is long overdue, and while the old way of clicking on a direct match and seeing the path from your kit to the most recent common ancestor (MCRA) worked, it was limited (we had to dig into each match with 3 clicks to see the path) and it was totally devoid of any context. Was there a brother of this tester that also matches? Did they have a 1st cousin that also tested that in-turn matches our tests? You just had to click through each test to find out.

 

But, the real power in ThruLines isn’t the graphical change, it’s that it’s using predictive algorithms to scour both Public AND Private trees, to greatly narrow down where another DNA match is likely to fall in your tree. That’s right, those close relatives we see in our “DNA Matches” screens that are just dead ends because they have Private trees and don’t reply to Ancestry messages are now likely to be mapped in ThruLines.

Our first discovery

ThruLines-3

“Lynne” is solid 3-4th cousin match (67cM) to Michael’s father, and through all of the techniques we’ve discussed previously, we’ve narrowed down that our MCRA is likely to be Wesley and Jane Tradewell. This is the same Tradewell line that is one of our large brickwalls, and so the more data we have for this branch the better. Lynne entered a small tree at some point, but she left all of her named ancestors living, so they appear “Private” and we have almost nothing to go on when trying to link her to our tree.

 

When we opened ThruLines for the first time, we understood right away that each of the photos we were seeing were MCRA’s, and clicking on Wesley Tradewell, we immediately understood the power of this tool. There was Lynne, mapped for us, with some information still private but it greatly narrowed down the line through which we matched. Knowing that she likely matches through William Humphry Tradewell removed 2 generations of likely matches, and narrowed down our search to children from William’s daughters. Even more powerful however is that we’re in regular contact with family who is likely Lynne’s 1st Cousin, Once Removed. We sent a quick email to that person, they confirmed Lynne’s lineage, and we’d filled in another DNA match. Actually, it was two, because we had the same issue with “Jonas667” (2 relative tree, both living/Private), and it was resolved in the same way.

ThruLines-4
ThruLines leveraged Private trees and DNA tests to map out our connections to a MCRA, even though we can’t make a direct match. 

All of our efforts to shrub out William Humphry Tradewell’s children had failed up to this point (no census, no obituaries, no Public Trees, etc.), so we had only one daughter tentatively identified. It would have taken significant work to break down the matches to Lynne/Jonas667 by building out each of those trees, and since we’d already tried diligently and failed, it might never have been done. But ThruLines broke through on the first click.

 

ThruLines-5
We now know where to search, to validate how “lynne” links to us

Now, this is cannot be stated more clearly: ThruLines are at best speculative “hints” that can guide your work in very effective new ways, but they do not create evidence nor can we be sure they even contain proof of anything. They are like user trees in that manner…and for good reason, they are built entirely on user trees.

 

We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

But the way the tool narrowed down these matches makes it much easier to prove them out. We know exactly where to start now, where last week we were stumped.

African-American Research

ThruLines-7Half of our tree traces their roots to enslaved African ancestors, and the second discovery we made was that ThruLines would give us suggestions even if there were 2 generations separating supposed ancestors. In the example we saw as we clicked through Michael’s maternal grandmother’s MCRA’s showed us an African-American GGM that was born in 1879, and no evidence of who her parents were. This is very common…to get to/near the 1870 wall for those of African decent, but no good leads on the generation previous. In this case however, we have a new hint: two identified generations of European ancestors, and two unidentified generations after them, leading to a link to the known Fanny Johnson. This is a highly speculative connection, and it will take considerable work to prove/disprove it going forward, but it’s at least a lead and it’s based on at least a little bit of conjecture. It may not be anything, but it also could be one of those rare finds that links one of our African ancestors back a few generations closer to their enslavement, as well as identifying the slave owner that contributed to our genetic make up.

What’s next?

Going forward, this could literally revolutionize both genetic genealogy as well as standard genealogy. Artificial Intelligence and matching algorithms can not only see patterns much better than any human can, they can do it faster while analyzing more data than we can ever hope to review in our lifetimes. We can see that in the future, when a new AncestryDNA kit is processed and put online, the user will see a large tree of matches and MCRA’s as their first few of the results, instead of a list of 4000+ matches they have to map one at a time.

Also, imagine a day when they use these tools to validate evidence of each users’ Public tree for instance, looking for clearly incorrect data/relationships and flag it for users. At the very least they can rate that “source” tree as unreliable, and bring better sourced trees to the forefront. These tools could easily allow the power of individual trees, while also bring them all into line with known facts, and start matching them in ways we can’t imagine.

Going back to our Tradewell example, our brickwall is around Reuben Tradewell and the one piece of evidence that his father might be “Jakin” from Connecticut…but the trail goes cold. Tools like this, however, point to the power that’s coming where some other groups of genealogists and family historians have a mystery “Jakin/Jacob” from Connecticut that they have sourced generations back, but don’t know his disposition. We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.