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

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 2 – Identifying all “Matches of Matches” as a Group

(Note: Before we go further, we rely heavily on Jeff Snavely’s Ancestry DNA Helper tool for this work. It’s a Chrome plug-in that adds a lot of essential functionality to Ancestry DNA results. You can download it here: DNA Helper. For this project, we’re specifically using two features: “Search Test Notes” and “Download Matches”, and if you’re following along at home, you’ll want to get this tool and get acquainted with it.) 

As we discussed in our first post (Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea), we came up with the idea to cast a wide net on this group of matches that have “Woodley” or “Woodson” surnames, build out one big speculative tree for them all, and see if we can identify a pattern to the matches that would indicate where the DNA grandma in question (“Mary”) might connect.

It is critical that we identify the target group from the nearly 11,000 DNA matches for Mary. It started easily…select the closest match with “Woodley” in their attached tree, and put a string in the Notes field of that match. Our note indicated who’s side of the family this match was on, and broke down if we’d researched it yet, and tagged it as “Woodley/Woodson family, unresearched – Line 47” since this is the 47th separate shared ancestor we’re researching in on DNA trees. By adding this note, we can easily search all of the matches later, and when we have the entire list of matches, we’ll be able to review and confirm the status of each. Have we reviewed the match’s tree? Did we find out how they fit in the large shared tree?

Click, paste, click, click, paste. Times 288. It took over a week, and it was some of the most boring work we’d ever done in our time doing family history.

Once we added the first note, we clicked on “Shared Matches” and clicked on the first match that Mary and this match shared. We then added the same note to that person, and repeated the process. Match, note, Shared Matches, click Match. We had NO idea how many matches we’d have to repeat this before we started. It turns out it was 288 times. Click, paste, click, click, paste. Times 288. It took over a week, and it was some of the most boring work we’d ever done in our time doing family history. We’ve gone through 10 years of unindexed registers of the Educable Children in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi…with about 300 pages per year. That was fun and excited compared to this. We had NO idea how many matches of matches were in front of us.

Line memoTwo things to note. First, yes it was horrible work, but it was great to finally make progress on such an intractable line with so little data on how those matches matched. Second, this is amazingly unscientific so please know that we knew going into this that some one of these people weren’t matches, they merely were tagged as potential matches by Ancestry. There’s no way to confirm the level of confidence in a match in Ancestry, so we took it at face they all were. That way we’d cast that net as wide as we could, because you didn’t know who’s tree/match would be the valuable one that would provide the connection we needed.

Click, paste, click, click, paste. Times 288. Not even knowing if this would pay off.

After over a week of work, when it was finally all done…we took a few days off. Our minds needed the break. But the hardest, worst part of this project was done, and we were about to start the fun, valuable stuff!

Next in the Series: Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 3 – Building a single tree using all of our DNA matches’ Public Trees

We’re not dead yet, posts to resume shortly!

It has been WAY too long since we’ve posted, and we just wanted to drop a quick note to let our followers know that we’re still in the land of the living, and that we’re still here.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole, in addition to an overwhelming amount of family history material we worked to archive over the summer (Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection), we had planned a move to Costa Rica on October 1st. Much of August and September were consumed with that, and then 8 days before the move we found out we were not going to be able to leave the country, and we’ve spent the time since scrambling to find temporary housing, getting a car back from Costa Rica, storing our belonging, finding permanent housing, and getting unpacked…as well as working and living our lives! Needless to say the hobbies of Genealogy and blogging have both taken a back seat.

Last night we were able to access RootsMagic for the first time since late September, and time is starting to free up for hobbies. We’ve got some good insights on leveraging non-indexed resources, updates on the large Archive project (and the first published works from there), a funny coda to the Family Tree Maker vs. RootsMagic saga, and some nice personal discoveries from the last few month.

Thanks for your patience and your interest, we’ll talk to you soon!