- Posts for family history friday tag
Emma Anna Murphy | Our Prairie Nest
Emma Anna Murphy Regan Shaw

I like to go shopping at 7 a.m. Okay, that’s not true. I just so happen to be up at 6:30 to get the kids out the door by 7, and it’s convenient for me to go shopping as soon as they get on the bus. I don’t actually enjoy driving into town that early, but the store is pretty empty, the line at Starbucks is non-existent, and the drive home is peaceful.

Peaceful enough to make me think about the ancestors who are as much a part of my life as if they were still alive. Hello, I’m talking to you, great-great grandma Emma!

I’ve been blogging about Emma since, gosh 2004? Earlier? Emma has been a source of frustration ever since I was 18. I’m now 44, so that’s 26 years of said frustration.

Known records on her start in 1888, when she’s already 25 and marrying her second husband, my great-great grandfather Erastus Bartlett Shaw in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses all give conflicting information about her origin. So do her marriage certificate, her death certificate, and her one and only child’s birth, marriage, and death certificates.

Great-grandpa Harrison Clifford Shaw, their only child, died before I was born and his wife, my great-grandma Nina (Blake) Shaw, died in January 1975, one month after I was born. So I never got to ask either of them questions. I interviewed their daughter, my grandmother, and typed my entire transcript, but she didn’t know precisely where her grandma Emma was born. My closest living link to Emma now is her great-grandchildren – my father and my aunt. Both have been kind enough to test their DNA (thanks to Uncle Pete for his help!).

And that’s been wonderful. In fact, I’ve found likely cousins on that side of the family. Not close cousins – there’s still a gap that needs to be bridged – but there is hope.

Anyway, I’m rambling as usual and here’s the thing about those quiet morning drives alongside the cornfields of rural eastern Nebraska: I have plenty of time to think.

Today I thought about money and my great-great grandma’s relationship to it. The family stories about her almost always mention money:

  1. She was business-minded and ran her own store;
  2. She showed her grandkids pictures of schooners owned by wealthy relatives;
  3. She buried thousands of dollars inside coffee cans in her yard, according to rumor;
  4. She sewed over $4000 in paper money in her dress/es, another rumor.

I started muttering to myself, as I often do when I have nothing but 15 minutes alone in my truck with a cup of coffee and NPR on in the background.

“Why do so many of the stories about Emma center around money? What was Emma’s relationship with money? What in her life informed her views on money?”

I thought about the Great Depression (1929-1939), but decided that had little relevance to Emma’s mentality about money. For contrast and additional context, I considered my great-grandmother, Mildred Marian (Burrell) (St. Onge) Haley.

Mildred Burrell St. Onge Haley | Our Prairie Nest
Mildred Marian Burrell St. Onge Haley

I remember being 32 and how that was still a formative time in my life, learning, growing, and realizing so many things about myself. I simply can’t imagine being that age and having given birth to 7 children, all living in various homes because I couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. Times were hard throughout the 1920s and I think Mildred never got to a place where she fully recovered or got ahead in life.

So when I consider how her life turned out and compare it to Emma’s supposed money hoarding, I think Emma’s handling of money came from a very different place than Mildred’s.

My meandering thought process led me back to my current hypothesis on Emma: that she was born an illegitimate child, that her mother was a Murphy and the daughter of the couple named as Emma’s parents on her marriage and death certificates, thus meaning her supposed parents were actually her maternal grandparents. Furthermore, it appears Emma was reared by another family. I credit Barbara Poole with discovering the only likely pre-1888 census entry for my Emma many years ago.

Sometime between 1871 and 1888, Emma decided to get out of Manchester, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia and find a better life. If she is the Emma I think she is, I can narrow that even further to between 1879, when she was a sponsor at a baptism in Manchester, and 1888. Her first marriage supposedly happened when she was 16, according to one census, but I have yet to find a marriage record for her and Mr. No-First-Name Regan.

Have I been able to absolutely prove my hypothesis? No. Do I think I will eventually? I hope so. It’s the one question that actually keeps me up at night. I have a consultation with Melanie McComb at NEHGS this month and hope she will give me some other avenues to pursue, because Emma remains a brick wall in my family history. I think, in the end, that it will be a combination of hitting upon the right record and my DNA network that makes it happen. But it might not be 2019, as I’d hoped…

John Wood family photo
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.

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!

DNA Testing: Caveats | Our Prairie Nest
DNA Testing: Caveats

Family Tree DNA first began offering direct-to-consumer genetic testing in 2000. After years of reading articles about the success people had with DNA testing for genealogy, I took my first test in 2006. Only a year later in 2007, 23andMe joined the party, and now everyone is doing it.

Yet, not everyone understands the risks of DNA testing. So many people test and are disappointed or, worse, upset by their results. There’s so much education out there, that while I am an enthusiastic advocate of genetic genealogy, I also ask people to take a common sense approach. What do I mean by this? I mean it’s a good idea to try to understand the science behind, as well as risks and rewards of, DNA testing for genealogy, before spitting into the tube.

As with scientific processes, there is an answer for each of your concerns. Here are some things to keep in mind:

You might not get the ethnicity you “want”

You’ve tested, gotten your results, and you’re upset because the results don’t show that you’re “British enough.” This can happen for a number of reasons and should not put you off genetic genealogy, as it is now considered an important tool for meeting the genealogical proof standard.

The different companies have different test groups and regions, so while one company might label you as Italian, another might label you as Greek. This happened to me and I’m not too concerned. I don’t see this as a problematic ethnic label and because they will probably refine this in time.

Also, your ancestors might not have been “as insert-ethnicity-here” as you expected. After all, do you know what ethnicity their parents or grandparents were? What about their great-grandparents? Your admixture might be more diverse or mixed up than you expect, and that’s okay!

Instead, let DNA ethnicity results be your guide in genealogical research (rather like online family trees), and not the be-all and end-all of who you are.

You might find unexpected relatives

I love that Judy Russell emphasizes this consistently in her blog posts and presentations.  I had the pleasure of seeing her speak at the Nebraska State Genealogical Society Conference this past April where she stated as emphatically as she does in her blog posts do not test if you are not prepared for the potential results.

Yes, you might find unknown siblings, first cousins, second cousins… even parents. You might realize a grandparent’s parents weren’t their parents after all. I’ve found a first cousin I didn’t know I had and I thought that was the only surprise I would get. A year later, I found out there are still close surprise relatives around every corner.

While my family and I welcome these relatives, other families may not. Or perhaps the tester now has to come to terms with their new “identity.” As enthusiastic as I am about DNA testing, I’ve learned to take an “I’m here for you when you’re ready” approach to those cousins who’ve received a genetic shock.

If you don’t think you can be open to people who suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of this kind of “what do you mean my father isn’t my father?!” news or handle it yourself, then this warning bears repeating: DO NOT TEST IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED FOR THE POTENTIAL RESULTS.

I hope that won’t put people off from testing, because there is support out there and many people within the genealogy community feel it is their duty to be as supportive as possible to others in these cases.

You might be wasting your money

Let’s be honest: most people only take these tests as a lark to learn their ethnicity. Honestly, that just isn’t worth the $49 or $59 or $99. If you do take the test just for ethnicity reasons, please do consider at least adding a skeletal family tree to whatever testing service you use. Going as far back as great or great-great grandparents is super helpful and those of us utilizing DNA testing for genealogical reasons would greatly appreciate it! And don’t be surprised to hear from people trying to figure out how you’re related. If you’re not sure, it’s perfectly okay to answer that you’re not really into genealogy and sorry you can’t help them.

But it’d certainly rock if getting your DNA tested turned into a gateway to you becoming interested in genealogy. 😉