Below is a recap of a recently completed project concerning one family’s journey to uncover an adoption mystery that until recently, they were unable to even talk about.
When I first spoke to Jen on the phone, I could hear a combination of excitement and anxiousness in her voice. For years, she and her family had tried to discover why her mother had a different last name than her grandfather. Jen’s mother Donna Mayer was the daughter of Francis Roy and Madelaine Rose. Whenever they asked Madelaine or Roy why Donna and her sister had different last names, they were quickly told not to ask about it again. This continued for years, until Madelaine’s death in 2013. With the increase of ancestry information on the internet, Donna’s daughter Jen began researching, with the hopes of uncovering the mystery.
Jen began her research using Ancestry.com and other online services as well as completing Ancestry.com DNA tests for her mother and herself; however, after a couple of years, she still hadn’t made any progress. She was referred to me and asked for my assistance. After hearing her story, I was excited to help this family uncover this mystery.
I used the free one-hour assessment I provide to conduct a preliminary review of Jen’s research, their DNA results and review my resources for any existing Mayer research that may have already been performed. Unfortunately, there were no immediate discoveries that would help. However; after reviewing her mother and grandmother’s history, including where they lived, the history of those towns, availability of records and the fact that we had two DNA tests completed, I drafted a proposal to Jen, careful to preface that most adoption cases go unsolved.
With Jen’s approval, I began mapping the movement of her family from the time her grandmother was 16 years old to the time her mother was born. This included only two towns. On a map, I pinpointed their addresses. This proved somewhat difficult as her grandmother had married twice during this period. Once this was complete, I researched all Mayer males in approximate age of her grandmother living in those towns, also pinpointing them on the map. There were several, so I began the process of elimination by researching each one, starting with those that lived closest to her grandmother.
Eventually, I narrowed the search down to just two male Mayer candidates. I researched both of their family lines and then turned to Jen and Donna’s DNA results. Through triangulation, I identified individuals that matched both Jen and Donna. I recorded the surnames of the matches and then compared them to the family trees I created for the two Mayer matches. While both had matches, one had twice as many. This is not empirical evidence, but it allowed me to prioritize my next steps.
I began in-depth research into Robert Mayer, the Mayer with the most matches and that’s when I had my first breakthrough. I discovered that the town they resided in had a small-town newspaper during this period. I began the tedious process of searching the most likely period that either a marriage or birth would be announced and I struck gold. I found a marriage license application for Robert Mayer and Madelaine Rose.
Armed with this information, I continued my research into Robert Mayer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any additional information in Clearfield, PA for him. I thought he might have died, but could not find any information supporting this. I studied his parents and siblings and discovered they all moved to Ohio. His father passed in 1949 and his obituary identified that Robert resided in Clearfield, PA. I continued to research both Pennsylvania and Ohio, when I discovered a death record for Robert Mayer in 1980, in Ohio, which I confirmed was the same Robert Mayer I was searching for.
Not wanting to provide Jen with only sad news, I began researching the descendants of Robert’s siblings with the hope of contacting one of them and obtaining a photograph that I could share with Jen and her mother. After identifying several cousins, I turned to social media to find them. I reached out to five of them and three responded, including Robert’s nephew who Robert lived with for the last 10 years of his life.
I spoke to his nephew on the phone, who revealed a heart wrenching story, very different than what Jen and her family had suspected. He revealed that Robert and Madelaine had a falling out and divorced, although Robert never talked about what the falling out was about. Robert spent time with his daughters until one-day Madelaine and the girls disappeared (Madelaine had relocated to Florida at that time). He said that Robert spent his entire life trying to find the girls, but was unable to and died a lonely man.
After revealing this information to Jen and her family, they were heartbroken. The family will probably never know what the falling out was about or why Madelaine relocated the family without telling Robert. I connected Jen with her new-found cousin, who informed her that they have an annual Mayer family reunion and that they would welcome Jen and her mother with open arms. They would provide her with photographs, family heirlooms, plenty of cousins and finally closure on the family mystery that had haunted them for so long.
While I would have preferred a happy ending that introduced Donna to her father face-to-face, I am glad I was able to help this family. This was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on.
P.S. During my research, I also discovered that Jen’s grandmother Madelaine was adopted, which no one new. I was also able to identify her birth father.
In the field of genealogy, we use the term “Brick Wall” to identify an unsolved family connection. We try not to use conclusive terms like “dead end” or “unsolved mystery” because a genealogist never stops looking for the connection and when we finally find it, we can state that we “broke through” that brick wall. We view it as a temporary obstacle, not an ending.
Most genealogists begin their research online. When they’ve exhausted all online sources, they explore works published in repositories, libraries, state agencies, etc... Even the most thorough search can’t guarantee you’ll find the evidence you’re looking for. After all, records have been destroyed by fires and other natural disasters, have been discarded in error, improperly stored, or just don’t exist for certain generations.
Once you’ve exhausted all formal sources, you turn to informal sources. You call or write distant relatives in hopes that they have information or know someone who does. You remember at the last holiday party, you’re Aunt telling you about her 3rd cousin, twice removed that knew about your family history and you search for their living descendants in hopes that their stories and documents were passed on and that their kids found it important enough to hold on to.
This is where DNA testing can help. If you test your DNA through one of the primary providers such as Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA or 23andMe.com, you can compare your DNA with the thousands of members in their database and identify who you share DNA with (see part 2 of this series). In addition, you can upload your raw DNA results to several 3rd party websites and you will be matched to their directory as well. From there, you can compile a list of individuals who you are related to.
Once you have your list, you need to try to identify which branch of the family you are a match to. The first thing I do is scan for familiar surnames. If I find a surname that matches the surname of my brick wall or their spouse, I contact them first. If not, I look at my closest matches, meaning I explore 2nd – 3rd cousins before I look at 4th-6th cousins. I also look to see which DNA testing service the match used and whether or not they have a family tree published online that I can explore.
Most of these sources provide contact information for your matches. The next step is to contact them, provide some background on your family including surnames and see if you can identify the connection. Once you do that, you can share information and if you’re lucky that person may unlock the mysteries that allow you to break through your brick wall. The best approach is to provide them the most information with the least amount of documentation in your first contact. Provide your name and kit number, tell them what testing service you used, the specifics of your match and some background about your family.
People often ask me “When do you know it’s time to give up and stop researching a brick wall?” The answer is that you never stop. You never know when that missing document is going to be discovered, when a record is going to be digitized, or when new family connections will have their DNA tested and join an online community. Genealogy is a journey of discovery, there is no end.
For help discovering the benefits of DNA testing or find family matches, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Are you struggling to reach your fitness goals or are you looking to take your training to a new level? Genetic based fitness programs are becoming popular as new companies surface and offer nutrition plans, fitness programs and other services based on your DNA test results. The concept is simple, everyone’s body is different and therefore our bodies respond to nutrition and exercise in different ways.
DNAFit has become a leader in genetic based fitness and offers online programs that range from the struggling beginner to the athlete interested in peak performance. They focus on diet & fitness, sports and well-being. The theory behind DNAfit’s service is outlined on their website as:
Unlike other companies who require you to use their DNA test kits, DNAfit allows you to upload test results from Ancestry.com and 23andme.com.
Using your DNA test results, the company provides custom reports taking into consideration several things including:
You have three report options to select from. 1. Diet 2. Fitness 3. Both Diet and Fitness. You’ll receive your results in 10 business days and then DNAfit will help you refine your plan to meet your needs and to maximize your results.
DNAfit is an award-winning company that has been featured in Vogue, Men’sHealth, The Daily Telegraph, BBC and more. I highly recommend you visit www.dnafit.com to learn more about the company, their process and their services.
Just in time for your New Years Resolution!!
If you have any questions about DNA testing, contact me at email@example.com.
We’re all looking forward to the day when we can go to the doctors and take a simple DNA test that will predict future ailments and diseases so they can be treated in advance. DNA testing has come a long way and although we’re not at that level of predictability yet, there are a growing number of services that offer DNA analysis, prediction of disease risks and what medicines may give you trouble.
DNA testing has limitations and we need to remember that genetic testing can only tell you what scientists know about the DNA included in the tests. They can’t tell you anything about the DNA that the test doesn’t cover or things hidden in the DNA that scientists haven’t figured out yet.
Prometheus.com is a third-party tool that uses your DNA test results from Ancestry.com, 23andme and familytreeDNA to provide a DNA Health Data Report.
According to their website; “Biomedical researchers, healthcare practitioners and customers of DNA testing services (such as 23andMe, Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA, etc.) use Promethease to retrieve information published about their DNA variations. Most reports cost $5 and are produced in under 10 minutes. Much larger data files cost $10 and have increased runtime.”
Below are two Snips of a sample report that you can view on their site:
You can print your report and share it with your doctor so that they may include it with your medical records and adjust your scheduled physicals for any identified risks.
Of course, there is always more you can do to predict hereditary medical traits. As you research your family history, you should also identify causes of death of your family members and track them on a spreadsheet. This additional information could also reveal common causes of illness and death in your family and provide you and your doctor additional information to include with your medical records and check-ups.
Below is an example of information included in death certificates:
So, while science hasn’t reached the point where we can pinpoint the illnesses we will have, great strides have been made in providing us information to use in a preventive medical plan to help predict the medical conditions we may encounter.
A genealogist can help you create a genealogical based medical history profile. For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the most exciting benefits of having your DNA tested is the ability to discover new family connections. Many testing companies provide the ability to compare your DNA results against the results of others that have taken a DNA test with them. In addition, there are a growing number of independent companies that provide the ability to upload your raw DNA results and compare them against the results of other participants that may have had their DNA tested by a different company. These services provide the ability to contact the other participants so you can join forces in trying to find your shared family.
DNA testing has become a very effective and popular tool for adoptees looking for their birth parents. The approach has been successful for thousands of people. Some are lucky enough to get a direct parental or sibling match, while others may only get a 3rd or 4th cousin match. The more distant the match, the more important it is to work with a genealogist who can use several tools to help narrow the search for birth parents/siblings.
In addition, your genealogist will use databases and several services to widen your search and increase the chances of reaching your goal. The combination of DNA testing and traditional genealogy is your best chance of success.
Shortly after my first DNA test results were posted on Ancestry.com, I was contacted by a second cousin who also lived in Connecticut. We compared family trees and found our common connection. To my surprise she had pictures of my 3x great grandparents, which were the first ones I had ever seen. I was able to add another branch to my tree, meet new ancestors and we continue to stay in touch and share new discoveries.
Above is an example of a 4th-6th cousin match on Ancestry.com
I also had my mother’s DNA tested. I use another service that allows me to compare my matches to common matches between my mother and I. Since I do not have any DNA samples from my father’s family, I can use this method to identify which of my matches are from my mother’s side of the family and which are from my fathers.
I’ve connected with dozens of family members and although I’ve only been able to find the common connections with about half of them, I continue to work with the others to eventually make those connections.
Having your DNA tested is a great way to quickly discover other branches of your family tree and connect with new family members. The DNA test is just a tool though and although there are services available online; working with a genealogist will greatly increase your chances of success.
For assistance with your DNA project contact email@example.com.
One of the most popular reasons people have their DNA tested is to determine their family’s ethnicity. You’ve probably seen television commercials of people making surprise discoveries after taking a DNA test. Most people connect their ethnicity to family folklore that has been passed down for generations. DNA testing provides proof of where your family originated from and often their migration pattern.
My father and his family celebrated their Irish heritage with great pride. As a kid, I remember holiday parties around the piano singing songs and celebrating every St. Patrick’s Day with other Irish families in town. My great-great grandparents on my father’s side were from County Kerry in Ireland, so I was not surprised when my DNA results revealed that I was 66% Irish. However; my mother’s side was a mix that we never really knew. We knew it included German, English and Dutch with rumors of French and Italian.
With 66% of my DNA being Irish, did I really inherit that much from my father? My mother had always identified herself as German being her dominant trait. We decided to test my mother’s DNA as well and although the rumored mix was true, to everyone’s surprise her dominate trait (38%) was Irish. She was thrilled to find out she is part of a heritage that our family still celebrates.
So, how does a DNA test determine your ethnicity? Testing companies compare your DNA to the DNA of thousands of people whose genealogies have proven are native to certain regions. For example, Ancestry.com creates a DNA reference panel made up of individuals representing 26 global regions. Your DNA is compared to the reference panel to calculate your estimate for each region, which is presented in a final analysis report, your DNA report.
What your DNA test reveals is the percentage of your DNA related to that region. The report may identify that X% of your DNA is related to Ireland, or Great Britain, or maybe Europe West. What it can’t do right now is pinpoint a more specific area. So, if you were hoping your DNA test would reveal that your family came from County Cork in Ireland, you’re out of luck.
Above are my DNA test results through Ancestry.com. As you can see, the major regions are highlighted on the map and the percentage of each trait is listed on the left. Ancestry.com allows you to also view the “trace regions” that show even your smallest traces of DNA. Below is the map including my trace regions.
This is where the relationship between DNA and genealogy connects. The benefit of working with a genealogist is that your DNA will be used to potentially connect with distant relatives that you never knew existed. Your genealogist will use your DNA results along with information from other sources to map your family history and trace your family to a more specific location. Once that’s accomplished, pack your bags because you will have some new vacation destinations. Tracing the steps of your ancestors, visiting the towns they lived in and their homes is a great way to connect to your roots.
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I get a lot of questions concerning the usefulness of DNA testing, so starting this week we’ll begin a series focused on the top five benefits (listed at the bottom) of having your DNA tested. Make sure you like our Facebook page to see the announcements for each part of the series.
Today, we’ll start with a quick DNA Testing Overview:
A genealogical DNA test analyzes a person's genome at specific locations. Results give information about personal ancestry and geographic ethnicity. These tests compare the results of an individual to others from the same lineage or to current and historic ethnic groups. Currently, there are three types of DNA tests genealogists can order; mitochondrial DNA, Y Chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA.
Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted from mother to child. A direct maternal ancestor can be traced using mtDNA. The transmission occurs with relatively rare mutations. A perfect match found to another person's mtDNA test results indicates shared ancestry of possibly between 1 and 50 generations ago.
Y-chromosome testing is one of the oldest and most powerful DNA tools used for genealogical purposes. The Y-Chromosome is one of the 23rd pair of human chromosomes. Only males have a Y-chromosome, because women have two X chromosomes in their 23rd pair. Because the Y-chromosome is transmitted from father to son nearly unchanged, a man's male-line ancestry can be traced using the DNA on his Y chromosome (Y-DNA).
Autosomal DNA is the 22 pairs of chromosomes that do not contribute to sex. These are inherited equally from both parents and roughly equally from grandparents to about 3x great-grand parents. Inheritance is more random and unequal from more distant ancestors.
Choosing the type of test to take depends largely on your goals; however, the most popular DNA test is the autosomal DNA test because it works across genders to locate relatives and help determine geographic ethnicity.
This is a quick 30,000 foot view of genealogy DNA testing; there are several books and websites dedicated to in-depth explanations of DNA testing.
Our series will explore detailed information about the benefits listed below:
1. Determine Ethnicity: Ever wonder where your ancestors came from? You might be surprised. Learn how DNA testing is used to determine your family’s origins.
2. Connect with Relatives: With the growing number of DNA testing participants, testing services have become a primary resource to connect with family. Whether you’re looking for lost relatives or want to meet new ones, DNA communities can bring family members together.
3. Discover Medical Traits: Several companies provide a service allowing you to upload your raw DNA results to provide a predictive report identifying risks for obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, prostate cancer and several other medical conditions.
4. Genetically Guided Fitness Plans: Take your fitness regime to the next level by using your DNA test results to isolate the exercises that will provide the best results for you.
5. Break through research “Brick Walls”: Every family historian runs into a problem that seems unsolvable. Learn how to use your DNA results to break through those brick walls.
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Although only a small fraction of available resources have been digitized, the online genealogical movement is making family research easier every day. Below are my top 5 recommended resources for any DIY Family Historian.
1. Ancestry.com $: It’s an undeniable fact that Ancestry.com is the most comprehensive, collaborative, user-friendly genealogy website. With over 14 billion records, 4 billion surnames, 29,000 searchable collections and 70 million family trees, Ancestry.com is a must for any DIY genealogist. They have collaborative tools that allow you to connect with other users, post on community forums and participate in their DNA testing community. Ancestry.com is what I use as the central repository for my work and it’s where I’ve started every project since 1997. It has an annual fee that you need to maintain once your tree is online, but it’s worth it if you’re serious about your research. You can always save photos and documents to your computer and download a GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communication) file of your tree if you decide to leave.
2. Familysearch.org FREE: Operated by the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, they’ve been gathering and preserving records for over 100 years. Their website was published in 1999 and contains over 3.5 billion names in searchable databases. They add over 35 million records per month and over 200 million indexed names per year. They also have over 60,000 digitized historical books. They still have over 7 billion records on microfiche that can be ordered and viewed at one of their 4,600 worldwide family history centers. You can also create your family tree online and although it’s not as popular as Ancestry, participation continues to grow.
3. Genealogybank.com $: Census and vital records help outline the facts surrounding your ancestors, but nothing fills in the blanks better than a story and the best stories are often found in newspaper articles and obituaries, which is why genealogybank.com is my next favorite resource. With over 1 billion records online, they offer historical newspapers, recent newspapers and obituaries and historical documents dating as far back as 1690. A well written obituary can help you learn about your ancestor’s life with birth/death dates, family names, occupations, associations, military service, hobbies, locations lived, etc. In addition to obituaries, small events were often recorded in newspaper articles, including family parties, vacations, engagements, weddings, etc. and often include pictures.
4. Findagrave.com FREE: I love researching cemeteries! I know, that sounds morbid, but cemeteries are full of history and family connections. There are over 141 million graves listed at findagrave.com, which is still only a fraction of what exists. However, this community based website continues to grow as people add gravesites to its database every day. If you find an ancestor on this site, you can quickly search for others with that surname in that cemetery, town or county. You could be lucky enough to find a picture or transcription of the grave and sometimes an obituary. When I’ve hit a brick wall, I usually turn to findagrave.com to trace a family.
5. Google.com FREE: That’s right, good old google.com. The most comprehensive search engine is a valuable tool for any researcher. Understanding how to vary your search criteria will result in the most success. A solid search can find research previously conducted, forum posts, records, etc. In addition, Google’s library contains out of print books that include local and family histories.
Remember, online research is only the beginning. If you don’t find the information you’re looking for online it probably means it just hasn’t been digitized yet. In that case, it’s time for a genealogy field trip or time to consult with a professional who is well versed in available records.
No matter how long you've researched your family history, there are always those elusive ancestors who just don't seem to want to be found. My 2x great grandfather Harrison Gesner was one of those ancestors. Although I have photographs and other information, much of his story was still a mystery. I also encountered several dead-ends researching his wife and some of his kids. Contributing to this challenge was the fact that there was another Harrison Gesner from a distant branch of the family that was the same age and living in the same county.
My first break came when I discovered Harrison also went by E.H. Gesner and eventually I learned that his full name was Elihu Harrison Gesner, but he chose to go by the name Harrison. This uncovered a few more clues and I learned that one of his children who died at the age of thirteen was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in West Haven, CT.
I decided to drive to Oak Grove Cemetery on Saturday to investigate. Admittedly, I am a bit of a cemetery junkie (don't judge). When conducting research, I find cemeteries to be one of the most straightforward sources of information and have solved several mysteries by walking a cemetery. Researching in libraries and other repositories can result in hours and hours of searching through documents. Online research is great, but only a small percentage of available records are online. Researching cemeteries takes you outside, you get exercise and it can feel like an exciting hunt. There's also no better feeling than when you find what you're looking for.
As I walked amongst the graves at Oak Grove, I came across a few Gesner stones, but not the family I was looking for. After about 20 minutes I passed a small family plot of footstones. Jackpot! it was the family plot of E.H. Gesner.
One of the great surprises about this plot was that each stone identified the relationship of the individual. There were a total of eight stones including my 2x and 3x great grandmothers including their surnames. Birth and death dates were on each stone and those clues will provide me the opportunity to research further.
This isn't the first time cemeteries have solved mysteries for me. In past research, I've discovered stones identifying the town/county/country the individual was born in, occupations, relationships and other clues.
So, if your research has stalled and you know where your ancestor was buried, visit the cemetery and take a walk. Make notes of anyone with the same surname or even better take pictures of the stones. Cemeteries can be tricky, most have very little information online and it's often difficult to get assistance over the phone. If you get frustrated, don't give up. Get help from a professional genealogist with experience in researching cemeteries. Happy Hunting!!
I meet a lot of people who have inherited their family photo albums, most containing dozens of unmarked photographs leaving the new owner confused about what to do with them. Through Forensic Genealogy and Photograph Analysis, there are approaches you can use to identify the photograph. There are clues hidden in the type and size of the photograph, the scenery, costume/clothing, hair styles, architecture and much more. Below is an example of using the hidden clues in a photograph to identify its location.
Forensic Photography Example - A Genealogical Irony
A client was trying to determine where her great grandparents lived when they first migrated to the United States. They eventually settled in Massachusetts and the family believed they had always lived in New England. They researched all traditional sources and had reached a dead end. The photograph below was included in their family album and for years they believed that if they could identify the town in the picture it would unlock the mystery. They spent months researching New England towns, but found nothing. Continued below....
After using photo editing software to clean up the image, we have a better understanding of the landscape including the mountain lines and the foliage. Although the family made an assumption that the town was located in New England, it became clear that based on the visible landscape and structures, this town could be located in several other states or possibly in another country. To start, we focused on the most distinguishable feature of the image, which is the building with the steeples and a dome structure (look closely) behind it. Continued.....
Researching the structure and the unique dome behind it, we were able to determine that the building was not in New England, but over 2000 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah. The ironic part of the story is that this building is the Mormon Tabernacle and the Mormons in Salt Lake City host the largest genealogical collection in the United States. Unfortunately, we know the family never lived in Salt Lake City, but eliminating this image from their research helped them shift focus to other leads. They also learned the valuable research lesson of not make assumptions.
So....before you decide to discard unmarked photographs in your collection, consider that one of those gems could unlock a secret about your family....