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Family in Our Heart

DNA is a wonderful tool for the family historian. But what happens when the unexpected comes up, when your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents aren’t connected to you biologically, after all?

I’ve encountered so many surprises thanks to DNA. My own parents? Both mine. My sister? Stuck with being my sister. And my first and second cousins? Yeah, sorry guys, you’re also stuck with me.

There have been adoptees thrilled to find family because, hey, that’s usually what they’re looking for when they test their DNA. I’ve had wonderful interactions with these folks.

And then there are the finds that make a person take pause… maybe they don’t even want to acknowledge it. I’ve seen it with both DNA matches I don’t know, but have tried to connect with, and my own family.

Last year, I discovered that my grandfather’s father, wasn’t actually his father. At least, not biologically. DNA gave us a clear pathway to his paternal heritage.

However, that doesn’t change who his family is – the people who took him into their hearts, raised him and loved him. You see, biology can be fascinating. I love having a new facet to my family tree to explore, another aspect of my genetic identity.

But, as far as family? It will always be the people who were there for Grandpa.

So if you’ve taken a DNA test and are, to put it bluntly, freaked out by the results, it’s okay. You’re allowed to be freaked out. You’re also allowed to feel hurt, betrayed, sad, and grieve about it.

Know, also, that the people you find – those unexpected matches who reach out to you and say “Hello, cousin” – don’t want to replace your family in any way, shape or form. Most of the time, if we message you, it’s because we want to connect, to know you, and to help you know more about whatever you’re trying to find.

Likewise, when we find out a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent wasn’t the person we were actually raised knowing, that doesn’t change who our family is. If anything, it makes our family bigger, because there’s genetic family… and then there’s the family that chooses to be there for you, no matter what.

WikiTree: The Good & the Bad

In the summer of 2017, I made the decision to join WikiTree, to see if there might be any useful information there. I uploaded a limited GEDCOM to the site, to see if I could contribute anything of value, but soon became frustrated with the site and its users.

The Bad

Wikis by their very nature are openly editable by anyone who happens to be a member. This means you have “well-meaning” members making changes to your data or telling you, in no uncertain terms, what to do with it. It is extremely rare that I come across polite requests on there that include the words please and thank you. Most messages are brusque and to the point with: “Merge so-and-so and so-and-so. Clear duplicate.” And “Clean up profile.” Very few people are personable.

Also, uploading a GEDCOM means you must then go in and fix every single person you added to conform with WikiTree standards. That includes fixing names, dates, locations, biographies, sources, and more. If you upload a GEDCOM of several hundred people (which I don’t recommend unless you’re sure you want to participate), it can take quite some time to fix all of their profiles. And if you are busy with work, school, children, or life in general and can only devote an hour or two a week to it, this can take a while, which might earn some of those cold, brusque messages from other WikiTreers.

There is also the problem of other people editing the information you’ve uploaded or added, which can be frustrating. I’ve had people add links to subscription-only sites as sources, which means no one can even see the sources unless they are a paying member of the site. People will even go so far as to correct your ancestors’ names without asking you for more information first.

If you prefer control over the information you’ve gathered (even if much of it is freely available), then do not upload a GEDCOM to WikiTree. In fact, run, don’t walk away from the site.

The Good

Now, all of that said, WikiTree in general is a good-intentioned endeavor and, once you get into the spirit of it, it can be a lot of fun. If the idea of contributing to one family tree appeals to you (there can only be one profile per person who has ever existed; hence, merging of duplicates, because this is not your personal family tree), then I suggest starting slowly.

Limit your GEDCOM upload to no more than 4 generations – yourself, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Beyond that, the privacy options are much more open and other members can edit your information quite freely. I suggest really understanding WikiTree’s mission before going any further by adding older ancestors.

Starting with the people closest to you, with default settings that limit others from seeing them completely, gives you time to learn how things are done on WikiTree, from the naming and location conventions, to formatting biographies, notes, and sources in profiles. Take the time to learn about tags and also how WikiTree interacts with Find-A-Grave. Properly source your profiles as soon as possible to avoid being tagged with the “Unsourced” designation.

A slow and steady start will save you from the unnecessary frustration that comes from people who think they’re doing you and WikiTree a favor by adding to your profiles willy-nilly. Also, some of these genealogists don’t actually adhere to WikiTree’s formatting guidelines, which is even more frustrating once you do get into using the site.

You can also earn badges on WikiTree, which can be a lot of fun. I’m a goal-driven video gamer, so the badges appeal to me in the sense that they almost gamify the experience.

I wish people were more polite and friendly on WikiTree, as well as willing to reach out to people before altering profiles. Despite that, I’ve forged ahead with trying to make my profiles the best they can be. I also make sure the messages I leave people are enthusiastic and friendly i.e. “Hi there! I see we both manage profiles for So-And-So and So-And-So, who are duplicates. So-and-So is my 4th great-grandfather, which might make us cousins, and I’ve added several sources. If we could get these merged per WikiTree guidelines, that would be fantastic!”

While I have become an active WikiTreer, I recommend avoiding it entirely. Or at least save yourself the headache of putting too many ancestor profiles up there unless you have the time and energy to make sure they are as mistake-free and well-sourced as possible.

The Year I Find Emma | Our Prairie Nest
2019: The Year I Find Emma

I am confident that 2019 will be my year – the year I find the origin of my great-great grandmother, Emma Anna Murphy. Emma, who married first a Mr. Reagan and then my great-great grandfather, Erastus Bartlett Shaw of Middleborough, Massachusetts in 1888.

The first time I tested my DNA was in 2006, before FTDNA offered Family Finder or Ancestry DNA became a thing. The only option available to me was mtDNA, which wasn’t applicable to Emma, but I still wanted to get “in” on this technology. I hoped that this new tool would help me break down the looming Emma brick wall. Since then, I’ve followed up with several autosomal tests, had my father test, and also seen other relatives on that side of the family test.

Now, after 25+ years of attempting to either dismantle or climb it, I think the end is in sight (despite a professional genealogy firm telling me the prognosis of a search for Emma was “poor”)! The technique that I believe will yield answers is that of creating genetic networks or DNA match clusters.

I found that creating a spreadsheet that sorted all DNA matches known to connect to my father’s mother – and therefore, potentially, Emma – was the way to go. Here’s a look at what I did:

You could probably create a network like this in mere moments using DNA Gedcom or Genetic Affairs, but I did this by hand in Excel, person by person, because I wanted to look at each person individually. The process allows us to see patterns in our matches in a different way.

How did I do it? First, this was made based upon my father’s DNA matches. Since Emma is his great-grandmother, it makes sense to work off Dad’s DNA instead of my own. He’s a generation closer to her and thus ought to have more of her DNA than me or my sister do.

I then took the 4 close matches he has who are confirmed as maternal matches. They are my father’s half-niece, his great-niece, a second cousin, and a first cousin, once removed. While the half-niece is my generation and the great-niece is even more generations removed from Emma, they are still useful for pinpointing maternal-only matches for my father. Why? Because my grandmother was married twice and her eldest son (father of the half-niece) and daughter (grandmother of the great-niece) were from her first marriage, while her two younger sons (my other uncle and my father) were from her second marriage, to my grandfather. Thus, these two nieces allow me to absolutely rule out my father’s paternal matches.

Next, I looked at the first cousin, once removed. She is actually a first cousin we didn’t know my grandmother had and I’m sure there’s a story there that the DNA match herself doesn’t even know (one I’ve been trying to approach as sensitively as possible with her). But that isn’t the focus of this post. The nice thing is, I can actually rule out the first cousin, once removed, because she connects to my grandmother’s maternal side, and my focus is my grandmother’s paternal grandmother.

With that large grouping of people in gray set aside, that allows me to move on to the peach, pink, and green matches. A review of the green matches shared with my father’s great-niece didn’t give me much hope that I would find my answer there.

So my focus is on the peach and pink clusters. I’m already biased toward one of them, because two of the matches in it who only match me, my cousins, and one another appear to be likely candidates. However, ruling out all others also helps in this instance, to ensure I’m not chasing the “wrong” cousins. I’ll definitely post updates as I work through this project and let you know if I’m successful!

Corn and Black Bean Burritos | Our Prairie Nest
Corn & Black Bean Burritos

When it comes to food, I’m a by-the-book person. I don’t experiment with recipes much, if at all, but I decided to try that tonight and my daughter liked it so much, she finished her dinner before the rest of us! In fact, I didn’t expect this to taste so much better than the usual recipe I go by from a book (sorry, book!), so I didn’t take pictures of the food. Just go with it. 😉

Corn & Black Bean Burritos

You need:

1 cup frozen corn

1 can black beans

1/4 cup diced green pepper

1/4 cup diced onion

Chili powder (to taste)

1 tbsp olive oil

Up to 9 flour tortillas (or as many as you want for now; you can always save the rest for later)

Directions

  1. Heat corn in microwave for 5 minutes. Drain black beans. Rinse, if desired. Meanwhile, warm olive oil in small frying pan (we use cast iron) over medium heat.
  2. Add diced onion and pepper to oil, and stir while sautéing, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add black beans to frying pan and sprinkle chili powder to taste (I like to do a layer over the entire pan). Stir beans, onions, and peppers together, sautéing for a few minutes.
  4. Drain corn and add to frying pan. Add more chili powder, if desired. Stir vegetables together.
  5. Prepare flour tortillas either by heating them up in the microwave for 10 seconds or by heating for 30-60 seconds (or until browned) on each side in a dry, ungreased skillet (this is the tastier way to do it!).
  6. Spoon mix into tortillas, add cheese and anything else you want (sour cream is great on these), and eat!

If you’re cooking for more than 2 people, it helps to have a second person to warm the tortillas and pass them to you for filling or vice versa as they’re ready, so everything doesn’t sit out and get cold.

Rice makes a great side dish with this. I stock up on rice sides whenever they’re on sale for something easy to make while I’m doing a more involved recipe. If you don’t like white or red onions, scallions would also be delicious. This is a super light, vegetarian (but not vegan) meal with a lot of flavor for very little effort and money.