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The Importance of Radical Empathy with DNA Matches | Our Prairie Nest
The Importance of Radical Empathy with DNA Matches

You log in to your various DNA tests to see what’s shaking, and see something exciting: a new close relative match! It’s not a name you recognize, but that makes the new match that much more exciting, yes? So you send out the message you have used time and again with new or particularly intriguing matches:

Hi there,

We are a DNA match through my mother’s (or father’s) side. It looks like we share many cousins I’ve been able to identify as sharing my ancestors, (great-grandfather) and (great-grandmother), from (town), Massachusetts. Are those names familiar to you?

I am also from Massachusetts, but now reside in Nebraska. I love connecting with new cousins and sharing family history. You can reach me via Ancestry or email at (email address). I hope to hear from you!

Sincerely,
Wendy Callahan

A sample of the short, but informative message I like to send new matches.

You wait eagerly for a response but, when you receive it, find it’s not nearly as enthusiastic as the ones you normally receive.

“I’m confused,” they may say. “I thought I knew everyone in my family. I took this test and the results aren’t at all what I expected.”

Many of us have been there and a little bit of detective work has led us to what happened, as far as this person’s test: a person they thought of as their biological parent or grandparent wasn’t.

In particularly sensitive situations, it’s a matter of non-paternity being “outed” by the test. What’s a genealogist to do in this situation?

Based on my experience and what I’ve seen with others, I recommend radical empathy. This is the process of striving to understand and share another person’s feelings.

And while this is all well and good, your mileage may vary. Not everyone responds well and part of radical empathy is accepting whatever response you receive, with the understanding that this new cousin is going through something difficult and unexpected.

In my case, it turns out my father has a first cousin whose paternity was not what they expected. This match was confused by the relationship to my father, my sister, and I, as well as a lack of a particular ethnicity in their results. Based on the information made available about the person they believed was their father and compared to our ethnicity results, it was easy to see why they were confused.

I reached out to certain family members and did some other legwork to solve the mystery of how this person was a first cousin to my dad. It quickly became obvious who among my known paternal family was this person’s parent.

However, the match did not ask for this information, so I did not supply it to them.

In fact, the match stopped talking to me and I accepted this as that person not wanting any information, and furthermore put my energy into understanding why they would feel this way, instead of focusing on my disappointment that they didn’t want contact. The one thing I provided without being asked was medical information about a potentially hereditary disease. That in and of itself confirmed the paternal connection between us both, based on their last response to me.

Accepting that this person didn’t want to continue communication was difficult, but important. This wasn’t about me, but about them. I had to put my feelings aside and put theirs first. I made sure to also let them know that if and when they were ready to talk, I would be here waiting for them. I gave them my phone number and email address and left it at that.

When a DNA match doesn’t want to continue contact, it might be difficult, but try to prioritize their feelings over yours. Even if both of you are processing an unexpected revelation in biological relationships, your way of dealing with it might be different than theirs. As genealogists, we are generally open to these kinds of discoveries. We know – or ought to know! – what we’re possibly getting into with a DNA test.

But not everyone does. So, I believe it is our duty to guide them through those potential hereditary minefields with patience and sensitivity. Let’s be not just genealogists who get excited about new relatives, but also people who care about what our fellow humans are going through in their own discovery process.

Brick Wall or Research Question | Our Prairie Nest
Brick Wall or Research Question?

This year, I’ve decided it’s time to be more specific about exploring my brick wall ancestors, as well as those who aren’t brick walls, but leave me with questions. Sometimes, it’s easy to mix up the two. What we think is a brick wall might actually be a research question, one that’s easily answered if we focus on it.

A brick wall is a place where you are at a standstill. You have unanswered questions and until you get those answers, can’t move any further back to previous generations. A research question can apply to both brick walls and ancestors for whom you’ve learned a lot, but might need confirmation of certain facts.

In the interest of putting some “cousin bait” out there, here is my list of brick walls and research questions for 2020:

Paternal

7th Generation: John Wood (circa 1800 – aft 1871) & Ann Siddall (circa 1810 – aft 1871), Marple to Ancoats and Chapel-en-le-Frith to Ancoats, England – Brick Wall

7th Generation: William Gray (circa 1815 – bet 1891-1901) & Ann Jane Mason (1815 – aft 1901), Ireland to Stockport to Ancoats and Woolrich to Stockport to Ancoats – Brick Wall

5th Generation: Emma Anna Wallace/Murphy (1861-1945) & Unknown Reagan, Guysborough, NS to Middleborough, MA – Research Question: Who was her first husband? When were they married? How did their marriage end (death or divorce)?

6th Generation: Francis Wallace (unk – aft 1867) & Elizabeth Murphy (1838 – aft 1861), Port Mulgrave, NS and Guysborough, NS – Brick Wall and Research Question: Did either of them every marry? If so, whom? Did they have other children? When did Francis and Elizabeth, and their potential spouses, die?

7th Generation: John Patrick Murphy (abt 1793 – 1873) & Mary Ann (Fraser) Lowery (abt 1806 – 1882), County Wexford, Ire to Guysborough, NS and Guysborough, NS – Brick Wall

8th Generation: Esther Unknown, wife of Edward Curtis (circa 1747 – 1840), Dudley, MA – Brick Wall and Research Question: What is her maiden name? DNA potentially points to Burrell or Short. Also mtDNA ancestor of Dad/paternal aunt. Willing to test their mtDNA?

Maternal

6th Generation: Giovanni Feola & Teresa Sofia, Campora, Italy – Brick Wall, not yet explored.

6th Generation: Nicola Tomeo & Francesca Trotta, Campora, Italy – Brick Wall, not yet explored.

8th Generation: Elizabeth, wife of William Parks & Mr. Johnston (circa 1795 – bet 1881-1890), Halifax, NS – Brick Wall and Research Question: What is her maiden name? What was her second husband’s name? When did she die? DNA potentially points to Johnston as a maiden name, as well.

8th Generation: Levi Benson (circa 1765 – 1815), Wareham, MA – Research Question: Were his parents Elisha Benson (1731-1813) and Sarah Steward (1732-1790)? Prove his paternity using Vermont probate record found for Elisha. Need to view at FHL or affiliate library.

6th Generation: Michele Galfre (1836 – unknown) & Francesca Manassero (1839 to unknown), Spinetta Italy – Research Question: Where were they born, married, and died?

7th Generation: Giovanni Battista Bartolomeo Galfre & Teresa DeMatteis, Spinetta, Italy? – Brick Wall

7th Generation: Giovanni Manassero & Teresa Cavallo, Spinetta, Italy? – Brick Wall

6th Generation: Giuseppe Bergamasco (abt 1837 – 1941), Cairo Montenotte to Moneglia, Italy – Research Question: When was Guiseppe born? Continue trying to decipher the handwriting on his birth record from the Allegati. When did he die? Possibly in or after 1941, supposedly 104 at the time of his death. No death record for him in Moneglia up to 1941. Died after 1941 or elsewhere?

7th Generation: Antonio Bergamasco & Maddalena Bozzolasco, Cairo Montenotte, Italy – Brick Wall (one of the witnesses to their son, Giuseppe’s, birth was Joseph Bozzolasco, perhaps a relative?)

7th Generation – Tomaso Pedemonte & Angela Giusto, Cogoleto, Italy – Brick Wall. Angela is the farthest back I can go on my mtDNA line thus far.

Ernesta Maddalena Bergamasco
Transcripts vs. Original Records

It seems I’m on a roll with sharing my thoughts in 2020! As it turns out, I’m also on a roll with finding Italian records. You see, I have two “sets” of Italian ancestors, both maternal. My mom’s parents each have one Italian parent. And those Italian parents are from completely opposite “ends” of Italy.

This year, my focus is on my mother’s mother’s – or Nana’s – family. We have some neat photographs of my great-great grandparents, Bartolomeo Giovanni Michele Galfré and Ernesta Maddalena (Pedemonte) Bergamasco. There is also a fantastic family history my Aunt Espezzia put together with two of her sisters. However, there are tidbits of misinformation in the family history, and it’s still only part of the story of the Galfré and Bergamasco families.

After two solid weeks of research, I’ve learned so many new things that none of us knew, like the fact that my great-great grandma Ernesta had 3 sisters we weren’t aware of, and that her parents actually weren’t married until after they’d already had 8 children together. Thus, Ernesta often went by her mother’s surname, Pedemonte. After her parents married, she then went by either her father’s surname of Bergamasco or her husband’s surname of Galfré, but only in U.S. records.

Furthermore, her mother was previously married to a man named Giacomo Spiazzi and Ernesta’s eldest siblings were Spiazzis. We’d also been told that Ernesta had an uncle who was a bishop. Well… I’ve yet to find such a person, but through her half-brother Bartolomeo Spiazzi, she’s the aunt of Catholic theologian Raimondo (born Aurelio) Spiazzi.

Of course, all this research has involved digging deep into Italian records, using a combination of the FamilySearch catalog to find non-indexed records and the Antenati website, for those records to which FamilySearch currently restricts access.

Here’s a small reminder about why genealogists always strongly recommend you look for an original record or image of the original, instead of relying on transcriptions.

Transcriptions can be handy, but incomplete, such as this one for the birth of one of my distant uncles from the Italy, Imperia, San Remo, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1805-1910 database on FamilySearch:

Name: Vittorio Galfrè
Event Type: Birth
Event Date: 20 Oct 1895
Event Place: San Remo, Imperia, Italy
Gender: Male
Father’s Name: Bartolomeo Galfré
Certificate Number: 402

I’m glad FamilySearch has this available, however they currently restrict access to the image of the actual record. Fortunately, the Antenati has the record, which looks like this:

Nati (birth) of Vittorio Galfre, 20 October 1895, San Remo, Imperia, Liguria, Italy.

Why is the actual handwritten birth record superior? For starters, my Uncle Vittorio’s birth record shows that his father (my great-great grandfather Bartolomeo) was 30-years-old and worked as a porter. From what we understand, he worked at the train station in Ventimeglia.

This record also tells you Vittorio was a “gemello” or twin. His brother, Emanuele, is on the next page. I’m sorry to report that both Vittorio and Emanuele died as infants. This seemed to also be a sad trend with their mother’s mother, who had twins, one of whom died in infancy.

Another interesting tidbit is that Vittorio’s parents, my great-great grandparents, weren’t yet married! As I mentioned, the same thing occurred with Ernesta’s parents. They took a good 20 years after her birth to finally marry one another.

I hadn’t yet located a marriage record for Bartolomeo and Ernesta over weeks (actually years) of researching. Now I knew why. They weren’t married in 1894, as we were told. I’d also put a great deal of time into trying to find a marriage record for them in their native towns/villages of Cuneo and Moneglia, respectively.

Now that I knew they were married sometime after the birth of the twins in 1895, I decided that perhaps they were married in San Remo, simply because of this record. After all, how far might they have gone between 1895 and 1896, when their next son was born, also in San Remo? Not far, it turns out, because I found their marriage in San Remo within about 30 minutes of finding the images of the birth records for their 3 sons born in Italy.

I never would have known from the transcription that Bartolomeo and Ernesta weren’t yet married. Thanks to the original image, I was able to refocus my efforts and find what I was looking for!