Family History is a hobby…but DNA is serious business

The news is blowing up today about how the “Golden State Killer” was tracked down, at least partially, due to the authorities using publicly available genealogy DNA sites to identify the relatives of whomever left DNA evidence behind at crime scenes. Assuming that the DNA was left by the suspected criminal, they were able to create a DNA profile, upload it, and narrow down a suspect that matched the criminal’s age and location.

My first reaction was not at all shock or fear that the authorities had somehow overstepped some boundary. My first reaction was that any serious genealogist and/or serious family historian that’s using DNA should know this is a risk, and that lives can be changed/destroyed by these tests. My second reaction was that I’d be fine with any of the DNA kits we manage leading to a close relative being arrested for a serious crime.

We published a post about some of the risks of DNA testing a while back (Dangers of DNA Testing), to highlight that this tool isn’t just about nice charts and cool stories about the geographic location of your ancestors 1000 years ago. And while we didn’t raise criminal charges of relatives as one of the risks (but I thought about adding that, honestly) DNA hobbyists need to understand this: Testing your relatives could lead to very serious, negative consequences to your loved ones…and the more successful you are in using these tests, the higher the risk becomes.

About two years ago Felice’s test led to our first brick wall broken down by DNA. Her great-grandmother was Ella Aldridge, born in 1911 in Arkansas, and that she died young of cancer in 1958. Through GEDmatch, we met a shared relative that connected through Ella, and he was descended from Henry Washington “Wash” Aldridge, Sr. He was related to Wash’s daughter Charlotte, and it looks very much like Ella was the daughter of Henry Washington “Cap” Aldridge, Jr. This researcher had evidence of another out-of-wedlock birth for Cap in 1910 by a different woman, and with evidence listing Cap as Ella’s father, we were pretty confident we had a match. We received a trove of great information on this wing of the family, and confirmed with Ella’s granddaughter (Felice’s grandmother) some of the details matched some of the speculation over the years.

Excited for this new breakthrough, we went to the next match on the GEDmatch.com list, and explained our findings and the strength of our DNA matches. The response shook us, but not nearly as much as our original email had shook him and his family. Frederick Smith (all names have been changed on this line, for obvious reasons) is in college and had picked up family history as his hobby. He is the son of Sarah (Jones) Smith, who was the daughter of Mary and Frederick Jones. The Frederick we’d reached out to was named after his grandfather.

Frederick took an AncestryDNA test, and at first the results were straight forward. He was able to identify some close cousins, and it largely matched his know family history going back a couple of generations. Past that, however, things got strange on his mother’s side. There were a series of matches that he could not build lines to, and that didn’t match his known tree. He had talked to his mother about how it seemed strange that the matches on her father’s side didn’t make much sense, and she didn’t seem overly concerned but did ask him to keep his research private. They had a suspicion that something might be up, but 5 days later, they received our email, and it confirmed a truth they hadn’t full considered: Frederick Jones was not Sarah’s biological father.

Frederick had considered that Aldridge was a name appearing enough in his mom’s results that there might be a link, so when we laid out what we knew and why it was likely that his mother was a child of Cap Aldridge it had a strong ring of truth. Frederick didn’t reply for about 2 weeks after we reached out, and when we followed up he explained the impact of that first email. He was named after his grandfather, who he now knew was not his grandfather. His mother had never suspected that her parents had any secrets, and was completely devastated. Her father was not her father, and her mother had lied and kept this secret her entire life.

Sarah asked Frederick to delete the test information, stop digging into family history, and to never talk to anyone about this ever. He was torn, but for as long as she’s alive he decided to dropped everything and stop working on his family history. We exchanged a couple of emails, and he’s since gone completely quiet.

The joy and rush of breaking down our first brick wall using DNA was replaced by regret and sorrow in just a few short weeks. There are two people out there that had their lives changed forever, who’ve had their birthright taken away in many ways, because of this hobby, and because my wife took a test. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and Sarah will never think of her mother, or father, the same way again.

DNA is a wonderful tool, and it’s literally changing the notion of genealogical research forever, but do not think that these tests are either simple or easy. You can change lives with your research, you can do damage with your research, and once you start you largely will lose control of how your research affects your relatives.

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 4 – Looks like we’re back at the brick wall…

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 4 – Looks like we’re back at the brick wall…

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of this experiment of live-blogging a search to break down a brick wall. It was kind of exciting starting this series not knowing if we’d be successful, even though it felt like we might be able to link this DNA match.

We’ve gone through every quick trick we know to try and find Excell before 1910, and so far, we’re striking out. We’ve searched for Excell (and XL and Ex and X) in both the 1900 and 1880 U.S. Census. We’ve used Stanford/Standford/Sanford/Stanfor and we’ve looked in the counties we expected him in, surrounding counties, and the entire state. We’ve even looked for him as “White”. Theres nothing so far, although there are a surprising number of people with the first name “Excell” in Mississippi in 1900! We’ve also tried to push through to 1880 using his uncle James, but to no avail. We now know James’s wife’s maiden name, but we can’t find either of them in the 1880 U.S. Census.

So, after a day of searching, we have another set of data points which will someday help us break down this wall, but we didn’t get through it today. When we’re on the ground in Mississippi doing physical research, we’re confident we can put this puzzle together…just not today. Not yet.

But hopefully sharing this day of searching illustrates how we go after these leads, and we’ll follow this up with a more detailed explanation of our approach on these DNA matches, and of course we’ll follow up when there’s a break through!!

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Correcting the tree from Episode 3…THIS properly reflects James as Excell’s Uncle. Thanks for one of our readers pointing it out!!

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 3 – Now we’re in the thick of it…

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 3 – Now we’re in the thick of it…

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

Progress was good this morning…until we got out of Illinois, and started researching the history of Excell Stanford in Mississippi. It’s just disheartening on how little information is available for Mississippi post-Civil War, especially for African Americans.

We know that Excell and Carrie were married in Mississippi around 1917. Of course there is no marriage record, so we still don’t have a maiden name for Carrie confirmed, but we do have her children’s birth records showing it as Boling/Boiden. We found Excell’s 1910 U.S. Census entry, and he was living with his uncle James in Coahoma Co., Mississippi. Interestingly, his name is listed as “XL” which gives us another name to search (we confirmed that his son Edward’s middle name was legally “Excell” so that’s likely how our Excell spelled it). We’ve been able to take uncle James and his wife/children back to the 1900 U.S. Census, but not yet to the 1880 U.S. Census…which might give us a lead on Excell’s father.

We also haven’t been able to find Excell in the 1900 U.S. Census yet…which is going to put up a pretty serious barrier to tying our DNA match to the known Stanford line. Let’s hope we can get past this. There are some un-indexed records like the Mississippi List of Educatable Children which can be helpful, but records for the early 1900’s can be spotty, and since they are un-indexed it will take review of each of hundreds of pages to find a match.

We’ll keep digging in on Excell, and see where we are in a few hours!

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Tree growth has slowed…and we’re using “Unknown” to link the two brothers.

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 2 – Building out our match’s tree starting with her grandparents and their children

(Note: This is continuation of a series, and we suggest you start at the beginning – Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery)

It was the biggest shock we had when we started trying to use DNA results in our research: We spend most of our time working DNA building other people’s trees.

So, step one was re-create their tree in our Ancestry account using the information they had posted. They don’t have much up on this line, but the good news is that the match’s grandparents died in Cook County, IL and grandfather had a VERY unique name: Excell. It’s also positive that Excell was born around 1895, so we miss the gap of the 1890 Census, we have a good shot at him being on the very helpful 1900 Census, and he’s born after the 1870 slavery gap.

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Our match’s tree

As of right now we have expanded Irma’s family to identify her mother’s maiden name, some brothers/sisters, as well as a step-family. We’ve gone through Excell’s Cook County records, and the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census. We’re working backwards to build out the tree in chronological order, and so far so good! As much as we’d love to rush to 1900 U.S. Census, to see what we can find, we’re trying to be patient and let it unfold for us!

The process we’re following is how to build a good skeleton tree: review online sources, attach them to facts as Primary or Alternate, starting with “Shakey Leaf” hints (which are the top 10% of Ancestry matches), then using “Search” to look for the other 90% of Ancestry records. Notice we’re stay away from Ancestry User Trees at this point. They aren’t sources! Here’s how we brokedown this process in an earlier set of posts: Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part Three: Attaching online records to your tree

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Our tree…so far!

More to follow!!

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery

Breaking down a brick wall in real-time: Episode 1 – The setup, and the discovery

We’re going to try something different today…we’re going to live blog the process of taking an AncestryDNA match and using it to break down a brick wall, without knowing the outcome before we start the posts. We’re not sure it’s going to go as we hope, but we thought it might be interesting to try.

What’s going on

Last night, after finishing up a few genealogy emails after 10 days of near-obsessive research on ANOTHER brick wall (which is crumbling nicely, and we’ll post on that later) I was killing time before our youngest was going to need us to put him to bed and hadn’t gone through my wife’s mother’s DNA results in awhile. As I was puttering around, I literally gasped when I clicked a match…the match was 98cm (close cousin, 3rd or better most likely), had a small tree to the grandparents, and the match’s maternal grandfather’s last name matched Felice’s mother’s grandfather’s surname. We’re going to call Felice’s mom “Sue” in this post, since we haven’t gotten her approval to use her real name. Only needing to match the parent of both “Stanford” men in these two trees to make a match might be doable, and this will be a huge brick wall broken down.

Why is this a brick wall

This is part of the darkside of genealogy in-general, and DNA genealogy specifically: when you ask questions, and collect proof, you expose not just the best parts of your family. Sue’s mother Delia had 3 children, by a man named Robert Holmes in Mississippi, before she migrated to Milwaukee in the 1960’s. But, it’s widely assumed, and Delia told Sue as much, that Robert Holmes was not Sue’s actual father. He had just agreed to sign the birth certificate, although he might have actually been the father of Delia’s first child. Robert was married this entire time, and 30+ years older than Delia, and no one has any information on him in the family. He died in 1968, and Delia died in 1999, so we can’t ask them. Talking to Delia’s sister about her history, and as much as she could remember about Delia, she said they were party girls back in these times and that the sister had actually gotten married once just so she had someone to watch the kids while she went out and partied with Delia. I love this woman, and I would have loved to meet Delia when she was here, and I love that she giggled and with a gleam in her eye at 85 years old gave me the best quote of all of our family interviews: “We were whores back then”.

Further complicating this search, is that getting past Sue’s great grandparents is difficult because before the 1870 they were all owned property (the “S” in the image above symbolizes a person born into slavery), and for the 100 years that followed they lived in Mississippi which sought to de-humanize them in every way they could…including reducing the official records their names might appear. Since these official records are the lifeblood of genealogy, and since Mississippi is behind just about every state in digitizing/sharing the records they do have for African Americans, it’s very challenging finding black ancestors in that state.

Additionally, African Americans tend not to participate in the hobby of genealogy as much as, say my family, which was DAR in 1904, and which I have several lines that have books published about. The combination of not wanting to talk about a painful linage, generations of economic challenges which doesn’t lend itself to time consuming hobbies, systematic suppression of official records, lack of work from older generations to build upon, and of course the 1870 wall, finding good genealogical matches is hard. For my wife’s family, we have only identified 12 of 32 3xGGP vs. my side where we’ve identified 29. (More about this: Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…)

What’s next

The good news is that our match is in Illinois now, with at least her father passing away in the same state. This means we should have better records to start our search, and since I work in Cook County, it will not be hard getting access to original birth/records for their first generation.

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 9.59.17 AMWe’re going to start building out our match’s tree, and hope that we find a Standford father that has her great grandfather, and Sue’s great grandfather, as children, and we’ll proven the DNA link. In doing so, we’d not only better understand that line, push back her known ancestors back at least one more generation, but we’ll also be able to prove that Sue’s father is the man listed on her birth certificate.

More to follow in a few hours!!

Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…

Genealogy was teaching us lessons on MLK Day…

During this recent Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we received one of those messages on Ancestry.com that you dream of. Through Felice’s paternal grandmother’s DNA, we had a 5-8th cousin reaching out to help try and draw the line between the tests, and while their theory probably doesn’t match up as she thought it might, it did highlight 3x great-grandparents we hadn’t yet identified. From that, we’re starting to piece together a theory that’s looking pretty strong about siblings of the 3x GGP’s, and with that a good lead on new direct relatives for my wife.

Genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.

These new relatives were all born as slaves in the South before the civil war, and so very little is known about them, very little was recorded, and even less survived. Good theories may be all we can ever piece together to explain the DNA connection we now know we share…and it seemed appropriate that this excitement, and struggle, should happen during the weekend we put aside to honor the struggle of our ancestors to be allowed to be human and citizens in the United States.

But like many lessons taught by Dr. King, there is a level even deeper than that which became apparent only after we thought about it and discussed it more.

By contrast, my genealogical line is much better defined, as most northern European/British lines are. In addition to being a Mayflower descendent, I have several lines that go back to the early 1630’s in the new world, and all of my relatives had arrived in the United States by 1850. This means I have a great deal of documentation on my ancestors, and it means I only have questions about the identity of 3 of my 32 3x GGP.

Felice’s line has only about 12 of 32 3x GGP’s identified, and since both of our relatives in that generation would have been born between 1800 and 1850, it’s surprising we have as many of her line identified as we do. It’s an obvious truth: genealogy for European

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There is more to the “1870 wall” than slavery

families is much easier pre-civil war because they were considered humans, even if they were largely disdained at times; genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.

While we were both excited and troubled (as you are when you discover new relatives who were born as property) by this new finding, there was another emotion: we have so much information about Felice’s father’s side of the family, and not nearly as much as her mother’s…and here’s another breakthrough on her father’s side.

As we talked, and thought about it, we narrowed in on why this was: the relatives on her mother’s side were subjected to the worst of the Jim Crow post-war South, and suffered for generations under economic conditions that not only led to very few records being created, it meant that there were no family historians that had the luxury of gathering stories, documents, and proof of their ancestors to pass down. They were just further victims of the social apartheid they were subjected to for another 150 years after gaining their “freedom”.

In contrast, her father’s side of the family had several relatives that broke that cycle in the late 1800’s. A few relatives owned property by 1880 and were able to work it independently and keep the profits/proceeds. Another owned a cotton gin in 1875 and used that buy property, and spread the wealth to his children so they could be above the lowest social rungs. Felice’s paternal grandmother’s parents owned their land in Arkansas, and so the descendent of the original slaveholder in the neighborhood, who now managed a massive sharecrop (read exploitation/subjugation) organization in Ashley County would come to her father at harvest time and ask if he would help harvest his crop. He would refer to her father as sir, and ask please. He would take “no” for an answer, and pay him market price for what he helped harvest…the same as his white help.

It’s not just chance that we have more information on this side of her family. They were not as impoverished, they had the luxury of history and time to collect the information we now have. Just as my great-grandmother on my father’s side was completing her DAR application, and gathering so much of the amazing material I have today in the early 1900’s, so too were parts of Felice’s family. Today, there are multi-state bi-annual family reunions on some lines, and books published, and for others there’s a network of researchers who capture new DNA matches and connect the historical dots for us.

But her mother’s side heartbreakingly illustrates the subtle effects of the brutal oppression they suffered, and the echoes of which linger for generations after…even after many of the children escaped North during the Great Migration. Her mother’s family was largely sharecroppers, at best, and we regularly see 50% child mortality in these lines. The mothers often had more than 10 children, and we can only imagine how they struggled to make ends meet. They were living in the worst of the deep south, in the parts of Mississippi that were still stringing up African Americans regularly well into the 1960’s.

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Mose Wright testifying against the white men who murdered of Emmett Till in 1955. In doing so he “crossed a line that no one could remember a black man ever crossing in Mississippi”, and that was only 10 years before Felice’s mother was born in the same county.

For example, Felice’s mother was born in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi only 10 years after a young Emmett Louis Till was tortured and murdered in that county. At the time of her birth, no one had been convicted of that horrific murder, and it was still known as the “Free State of Tallahatchie County” since the white residents knew they could, and would, do whatever they wanted and damn what anyone else said.

This black hole of genealogy just so clearly demonstrated the devastating conditions her family survived through, that we both were speechless as it because clear to us the answer why one side was more documented than the other. While both her parents’ families survived horrible oppression in the Jim Crow South, one side had slight means and a slightly less aggressive apartheid to allow them a sliver of advancement out of Arkansas.

The other side was in Mississippi, which freely and deeply continued to destroy the identities and lives of black families to the point of there being few official records, and those records are still very inaccessible. The official policy continued to be to deny the humanity of African Americans even after the world tried to force them to accept these people as people. That side of the family could barely feed itself, and couldn’t even accuse white people of a crime for most of their existence. Family history couldn’t be less important in those circumstances, and we see that today by the complete lack of their history beyond a basic census every 10 years.

It’s another example of how what isn’t in your family history can be as valuable as what is, and it’s another way that we learn what our ancestors faced on their journey leading to our birth. And on this MLK day, it helped our family feel more acutely the struggle and fight of those who put everything on the line to free African Americans from the oppression of the American government and culture…which is exactly what we should do on this holiday.

 

Unearthing lost treasure: The inventory of our family history windfall’s first box is complete

Unearthing lost treasure: The inventory of our family history windfall’s first box is complete

In my last post (Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection) I discussed how we were hopeful we’d find a balance between protecting this amazing find of a life time, and our family life, work, other genealogy, blogging, sleep, etc. That I haven’t posted in a month or so should give you a good indication of how completely we’ve failed at finding anything close to balance!

However, the first of the three boxes we received has now been inventoried and stored archivally, and it’s given us hints of just what an amazing collection this is. By the numbers, we found over 250 photographs, over 175 newspaper clippings related to the family, and over 250 documents ranging from invitations to the Teddy Roosevelt White House and speeches to Congress, to letters home from college and recipes.

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Box 1, Before
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Box 1, After

The material has filled 4 Gaylord boxes (actually Hollinger boxes, but everyone just calls all metal-edged boxes Gaylords), a photo sleeve for all pictures 5″x7″ or less, and a 16″x20″ flat photo storage box for the larger pictures. As you can see, we’re still using the cardboard boxes that the 5″x7″ photo sleeves were shipped in to store the photos, but that’s just until the order is placed for the Gaylord “shoe box” to hold them.

Each piece of paper is separated by a sheet of acid-free printer paper, with all staples, paper clips, clasps, etc. removed. Each item was given a number, and inventoried with basic info like date, sender, receiver, # of pages, etc. Once the inventory and archiving of all 3 of these boxes is complete, we’ll go back and scan and catalog each item, and share them out publicly for consumption.

By the numbers, we found over 250 photographs, over 175 newspaper clippings related to the family, and over 250 documents ranging from invitations to the Teddy Roosevelt White House and speeches to Congress, to letters home from college and recipes.

Luckily, it wasn’t all work. About a month ago my cousin Denise, who is working on putting together the Morse family reunion in Oregon in August, asked if we could share photos from this collection for some of the materials. We were able to scan and share more than a dozen pictures that likely haven’t been seen in at least 30 years, as well as several originals that have been circulating through the family as scans of photocopies. It was fun to go through images and piece together which ones were related to the Morse family, and who the subjects in the photos were. It was also very gratifying to share out high quality images of some of these originals that we came to know through copies of old family reunion books, and hoped we’d some how get access to the originals one day.

And, of course, as we were reading through the documents quickly to gather information for the inventory, we came across lots of great information that jumped out at us…even though it was not all flattering.

Sadly there were a lot of dated references to “darkies” and the like as my Great Grandparents wrote home about their first trips to Washington, DC during his first term in Congress. Additionally, my Great Grandfather gave a speech talking about First Nation issues in the early 1900’s that really captured some of the most accurate and honest understanding of how we as a country unfairly destroyed these nations, but in the same speech he both calls for the cultural genocide of these First Nation bands that had survived, and contrasted their strong, positive culture with the “lazy” negroes.

There also was a lot of very personal and touching moments like when my Great Great Grandmother wrote her daughter on Christmas Eve about how lonely she was and how she wished that all of her children could be under the same roof again “singing college songs”.

We also got to follow my Grandmother Catherine’s path through college (she wrote home 2x a week for 4 years, and her mother saved every letter), from how she was dating many boys, to

Catherine (Morse) Leonard, portrait (P17-0018)
My Grandmother Catherine (Morse) Leonard’s senior portrait (college), 1932

how she got in trouble for drawing in the school hymnals and had to pay an $8 fine…which she found very unfair. We are lucky enough to have her father’s response to that letter, which basically said that she should keep quiet and pay the fine now, and give the Dean both barrels once she’d officially graduated!

 

 

It came as a bit of a shock learning that my Grandmother dated both the future Governor of Wisconsin Warren Knowles and Hollywood actor Jack Carson, one of the biggest comedic stars of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”.

So, all-in-all it’s been amazing going through all this work, but it most certainly been work. One of our DNA tests came back late last week, and so we spent the weekend working on the Tradewell brick wall we talked about a few months ago, with a little progress, so we’re trying to get back to enjoying all parts of this hobby. But this is a pretty major undertaking!