Wednesday Wonders: Up the tree and down the rabbit hole

Due to certain things I recently learned from my DNA, I’ve gone back to the online family history records maintained by the Mormons and, say what you want about the church, when it comes to genealogy, they are an amazing resource because they’ve kept copies of everything, originally in multiple locations, and now online.

Of course, they got into genealogy for all the wrong reasons. Originally, it was because they did not admit black members, so all of those family trees were designed to weed out people who might violate the reprehensible “one drop rule.” They justified this based on the so-called Curse of Ham.

Eventually, the Church did start to admit black members — they couldn’t get enough white ones, apparently, plus they discovered Africa as fertile ground for planting their missionaries — but I can never bring up the role of the Church of Latter Day Saints in giving such a boost to genealogists without including the really nasty reason why.

But the fascinating thing about genealogy is the history it can expose as the people and places in your tree come to light. Since my DNA test showed that I’m definitely descended from my father’s mother, I decided to fill in her tree and did it methodically.

Basically, I started with her father, and filled in what parts of his line I didn’t have already, building by adding each successive generation of parents and then following the paternal line up until I hit the earliest ancestor.

Next, I came back down and did the same for his mother, also following her paternal line. Once that was done, it was time go back up my great-grandfather’s lineage, only this time filling in the tree for each wife at each step.

Interesting thing, by the way: It’s amazing how often the people keeping the records really seemed to have no interest in the wives. I’ve had many a line that continues back centuries for the males that peters out after a few generations with someone having an unknown wife with no birth or death dates, or no spouse listed at all, and then no parents after that.

At least this made it easy to fill out the matrilineal part of that first great grand-father out of four — well, to be precise, my paternal grandmother’s father. I repeated the steps basically moving across the line, so my grandmother’s mother was next — although I’m still working up her lines and haven’t even gotten to my paternal grandfather’s ancestors.

One other note: I’ve found it necessary, on the way up, to only include the children I’m descended from after about five generations. This isn’t to discount the other kids in any way. It’s just that some of these people had a metric fuckton of children, and including them all makes it really hard to hop up and down the line when I’m trying to find the next ancestor to enter into the program.

Surprisingly, though, in those (not infrequent) cases of cousins marrying, the common ancestor will usually manage to reveal themselves when then program suddenly asks me, “Is this John Jones the same as this John Jones?” And they usually are.

Oh — I don’t use “Jones” facetiously here. I apparently have a ton of Jones ancestors who were in Kentucky and who definitely married cousins a lot.

But that’s something else you quickly learn when you do genealogy: The cousin thing was totally the norm until fairly recent times. Why? Because most people never traveled very far from the town or village they were born in. Your dating pool can be limited to second or third cousins very quickly.

Another thing I learned from this exercise: I am apparently related to the Breckenridge Family, who started out very influential in local politics in Kentucky, but then took it national. Among its prominent members are a U.S. Representative, two Senators, and a Vice President, mostly in the 19th century.

And this brings up the ugly history of John Cabell Breckinridge, who started out as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky but then wound up as Secretary of War for the Confederacy. Oops. He fled the country after the war, winding up with his family in Canada via England, but eventually returned after President Andrew Johnson removed his own spine and offered amnesty to all former Confederate officials.

At least I’m not directly descended from him. But this wasn’t the only fascinating thing I learned about America from doing this.

Nope. That would be the discovery of one of my 8th great-grandfathers, Christen Thomasson, who was born in 1654 in a place called New Sweden. And where was New Sweden?

Well, nowadays, it’s known as part of the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, but for 17 years, from 1638 to 1655, it was a Swedish colony in North America. It was in the year after Christen was born, in fact, that New Sweden came to an end as they lost another battle in an ongoing war with the Dutch, who took it over — although my Thomasson ancestors did not appear to move.

And yes, the Dutch had colonies here, too — probably not a surprise because you’ve heard that famous story of how they originally bought what would later become Manhattan and called it New Amsterdam. (And the territory may not even have been owned by the natives who sold it to them. Fun!)

Now, I’ve long known about the Dutch and British and French and Spanish colonies in the new world, but the Swedish one was totally new to me. Even more interesting is that my mother’s ancestors managed to wind up living near what had once been part of New Sweden, except about two hundred years after it had ceased to be a Swedish colony.

It remained part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland until it was all finally seceded to England in 1674, nineteen years after the Dutch had taken it from the Swedes.

Oh… one other dirty little secret from history for you: All of this Dutch colonization wasn’t so much carried out by the government back in the Netherlands. Rather, it was perpetrated by a corporation, the Dutch West India Company. One of their major imports to their colonies were slaves kidnapped from Africa.

They’re not to be confused with the Dutch East India Company, which was an even bigger, vertically integrated top-down monopoly that focused on exploiting India and the far east for their spices, cloth, foodstuffs, and whatever else they could suck out while they weren’t also busy colonizing.

I’m sure there are some modern-day object lessons hiding in the stories of the bad shit that happens when government takes the reins off and lets private companies get that powerful, but I’ll let you find them for yourselves.

Oh yeah… the Dutch East India Company was financed by bonds and private investors, not by the government.

And these are the rabbit holes you run down when you start seriously climbing your family tree again.

What DNA really stands for: Discovering Nasty Actualities

When I first got into genealogy years ago, I remember one of my mother’s brothers (and my favorite uncle ever) saying that he decided to “Never shake the family tree for fear of what skeletons would fall out of it.” To me, that had actually been the most interesting part and over the years I have been digging, I’ve actually found a lot more fascinating and heroic characters than I have scoundrels.

But perhaps the better advice would be, “When you look into your own DNA, it looks into you.” And you may not always like what you find.

I recently wrote about the results of a DNA test via Family Tree DNA that I took because my presumable half-brother’s girlfriend (HBG) had formerly tested his DNA there, and in the preliminary results, we did not come up as a match while the logical assumption would be that we’d have at least a 50% match and show as close relatives.

There was enough evidence in the results to conclusively connect listed second cousins and onward to relatives on my mothers side, as well as a direct link via a second cousin to my father’s maternal grandmother. Stranger still, my half-brother connected to someone who turned out to be the illegitimate offspring of a first cousin on our father’s side — but I did not.

My mom’s side of the family is totally normal, more or less, with generation after generation of huge Irish-Catholic broods. My mom was the odd exception because she was the only one to move away from the East Coast, marry a divorced non-Catholic (double gasp!) and only have one kid. All of her siblings who did have kids popped out multiples, as did those kids.

When I talk to my relatives on my mom‘s side or look at pictures of my cousins or second and third cousins, there’s no mistaking it. We are related. Hell, the sons of one of my aunt’s daughters-in-law look so damn much like me that it’s scary.

Also important to note: On my mom’s side of the family, I was born into the proper cohort, meaning that I’m around the middle of the age-range of all of my first cousins. We were pretty much all born within the same generation.

Meanwhile, on dad’s side — it’s a total mishmosh. My father’s mother was the second oldest of seven children — four boys and three girls, almost perfectly alternating until an extra boy snuck in between five and seven. Meanwhile my father’s father was the second youngest of six children, four of whom survived to adulthood, all boys. He was only about three months older than her.

They went on to marry very young — only a few months after they turned eighteen — and their oldest son, my uncle, was born ten days shy of nine months after they were married. This uncle, in turn, was the father of the first cousin who fathered the illegitimate child my half-brother showed up related to.

If you’re keeping score, at this point I know that I’m related to his mother, but possibly not to him.

My grandparents second and only other child was born three months and a couple of weeks after his older brother, and is still presumably my father, although he should technically also be my half-brother’s father, since he’s our direct connection.

Or we thought he was.

Now, my uncle and my father both got married fairly early as well — each of them was about twenty at the time. My uncle had two kids, a boy and a girl, born almost seven years apart. My father had three with his first wife, the first two born about two years apart and the last one born about seven years later. That last one would be the half-brother in question.

Now, although my two grandmothers were born only six months apart, Mom’s mom spent a lot longer time making babies, and my mom came along a good decade into the process. Grandma was actually pregnant 13 times, but only eight kids made it to or much past birth. One of them died when he was about 12. Our of the other seven, two never married (one became a nun and the other was probably gay) and one was born with Downs Syndrome. He was the last one, born exactly four months after my grandmother’s 44th birthday and more than five years after his next oldest surviving sibling.

End result: about seven or eight years after my father’s youngest from his first marriage was born, he and his first wife called it quits. Then he met my mother, who was over a decade younger than him and they got married. I was their only child (to my lifelong annoyance) but the age difference and the fact that people on my dad’s side had had their kids early led to a very interesting phenomenon.

As I mentioned, on my mom’s side, I was born in the right cohort and matched all of my first cousins. On my dad’s side? Not so much. I was born a generation off, so that all of my first cousins were actually old enough to be my parents and I wound up being the same age as my second cousins and nephews.

One big consequence of this was that I did not grow up with my half-siblings, since they were all pretty much long gone by the time my infant brain developed the ability to hold onto memories. My half-sister felt more like a friend of my mom’s, since they were practically the same age, and all of her kids, who were technically my nephews, always felt like cousins growing up.

But during all of this, I never had any doubts that I was my parents’ only child, and that my half-siblings were the product of my father’s first marriage.

Although as I got older, I did learn of a few unsettling facts — mainly that my dad’s first wife was a raging alcoholic who died before 64 and who had a reputation for cheating on him. And, of course, the latest unsettling fact, or the appearance of such.

HBG and I weren’t sure what to do, so she contacted Family Tree DNA and got in touch with their quality control department to explain the situation. We both provided a list of people that each of us had matched with and that we thought the other one should have as well. They agree to re-examine the results, and finally got back to us.

Their conclusion was that my presumable half-brother and I are not close relatives at all. The next step is to pony up for a Y-DNA test, which will look at the paternally linked genes for each of us, as well as match us to more people who may have had this test as well.

But at the moment it’s still inexplicably weird because each of us has one genetic connection to our father, but it’s not direct. It links into the family line but does not pass through him. And I know that, on my part, it’s not an adoption situation because I definitely link to my mother. I could understand linking only to my father’s mother — maybe my mom lost that child and a niece or nephew of my grandmother had a baby they needed to give up. Except that, again, I am related to my mother, no question. So I can’t even figure out how that one would work unless one of my dad’s cousins became a sperm donor because for whatever reason my dad couldn’t make babies anymore.

But I was born before IVF was a thing. Maybe not before turkey-baster conceptions, but let’s not go there yet.

Image source: OpenStax Anatomy and PhysiologyOpenStax, (CC BY 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Well, this is awkward…

A while back, I took a DNA test and submitted it to the same place that my half-brother’s girlfriend (HBG) had sent his, and then waited. And waited. It took almost a month after they received my samples back to post the results and, well…

What I was expecting: About half Irish, the rest mostly German, British, and French. That was what all of the genealogical research HBG and I had done over the years told us, and in going from either of us to our common father and then to his parents and, at least, his father’s ancestors, was pretty well-documented, back to an ancestor with our family name born in Germany in the late 17th century.

That ancestor, Joannis Georg Bastian, moved from the village of Völkersbach in Baden, Germany to Gaggenau-Michelbach, also in Baden, where he died and where all of his descendants lived until the mid-19th century, when our common great-grandfather and family set sail to America.

According to the genealogist/historian who gave me the treasure trove of records, descendants of all of my ancestors still live there, but it’s a small place, with only about nine families that have either interbred across distant cousin relationships or pounced on any marriageable foreign man to wander into the place.

German ancestry seemed pretty cut-and-dried, although my half-brother was clearly the first one of our direct line to do this particular DNA test. The closest relatives he got were someone listed ambiguously as a 1st cousin/nephew/uncle and that person’s daughter, a second cousin — but the name didn’t seem familiar at all.

He did show as having come from German, British, and French roots, which was to be expected. All the rest were clearly from his mother, to whom I’m not related.

So far, so good. Then my results came back with a few… surprises. First of all, they showed not a hint of any German, British, or French ancestry. None at all. Second, I was a lot more Irish than I’d thought. Not just 50%, but 64%.

And the rest of it? Scandinavian, Italian, and Basque.

Even weirder, neither my half brother nor the cousins he found showed up anywhere among my matches. But… I matched with a few people who were related to my father’s mother — the names matched exactly what I had in genealogical records.

My half-brother did not match any of them.

And he and I did not match each other at all.

So, at the moment, this seems to say that a large chunk of what I thought was my documented heredity may be completely wrong, although I’m still related to my father’s mother. And while my half-brother is at least related to my father’s line via a first cousin, he doesn’t seem to be related to my father’s mother. (Oh… I guess I’m not related to that cousin, either.)

It’s a conundrum with several weird implications. One is that our aunt, who married into the family, cheated on her husband, creating the son who had a one-night stand that made the cousin that showed the connection to my half-brother but not to me.

Second is that my half-brother’s own mother cheated, which is why he’s apparently not related to what should be our mutual grandmother.

Third is that my half-brother’s ancestors are legit and related to his dad in all regards, whereas I’m either adopted from a relative of my father’s mother or who knows what.

My mother did have a miscarriage during a previous marriage before I was born, and then I was allegedly two months premature — well, “allegedly” although it was documented on my birth certificate and since I was born eight months after they got married, they had to have conceived me within a few weeks.

Plus, after my dad died, I remembered finding old letters to my mom from former co-workers assuring her not to worry about me being premature, all dated just after I was born.

So there’s definitely a bit of a mystery to solve here. But here’s the summary: My presumable half-brother is clearly related to our presumable common father’s nephew, but not to his mother. Meanwhile, I’m related to my father’s mother, but not to his nephew.

As far as whether I am related to my mother, that’s inconclusive, because no one on her side of the family has done the DNA test, and my genealogical records for her only go back about four generations at most. But being way more than 50% Irish kind of indicates that this part might be right.

For the moment, though, I’ve suddenly found out that I have no WASP, Teuton, or Gaul in me, but I’m mostly Celt and Viking, with a dash of Roman and a dash of “weird loners who live somewhere between France and Spain and speak their own language.”

That would explain a lot about me, actually.

To be continued…