Updated: Jan 7, 2022
The Luck of the Draw
In my previous post, I explained a little bit about the way I work and introduced a case I was working on that involved DNA (provide link). The case involved finding a genetic link between John Smith and Harry Brown, so John could prove that he was Harry’s son and inherit his estate. The case involved an element of luck: John tested at a commercial genetic site, (such as Ancestry.com) in the hopes that he would find matches to members of Harry’s family.
I made sure John knew that there were no guarantees that a close relative would show up as a match. If no one in Harry’s family had tested, then no one would show up as a relative. While it is rare that no one matches, the relatives that do match could be so distantly related that a relationship would be difficult to prove. However, since there were no other options for John in this case, it seemed worth a try.
It can take a few weeks to receive match results from a genetic test after it is mailed in. In order to be able to analyze the matches as soon as they came in, I began with creating a family tree for the client, both on the father’s side and his mother’s.
Here is a family tree for John’s mother’s side of the family. You can see by the colors that there are four family names: Smith, Summer, Jones and McClary. Just as everyone inherits genes from their biological mother and father, they also inherit genes from their grandparents and great grandparents. The people that shared DNA with John would share the last names of his relatives too.
For example, if a match named “Peter McClary” came back, I would know that he was a relative on John’s mother’s side.
This is a simplified sample tree. In my complete tree, I would go back several more generations, because people can inherit DNA from as far back as their 4th cousins, sometimes as far back as the 1790’s!
One of the most important tasks in building this family tree was to make sure that I knew the married names of all the women in the family. This is because while women’s DNA is inherited by their descendants, their names change when they marry. If you look at Donna Jones, she has Jones DNA, but her name and her children’s names are Smith.
Confused Yet? It’s Okay!
If you are starting to glaze over, that is understandable! This is very complicated and specialized work that requires training and experience. Suffice it to say that my task in this case was to diagram all the family names on each side of the family. The matches that shared names with the mother’s side: Jones, McClary, Summer and Smith, I would disregard. While important to John and his history, I would be looking only for people that match on the Brown side.
Harry Brown’s Family Tree Here is a tree for Harry Brown’s side of the family.
The surnames I would be looking for that link John to Harry Brown’s family are: Brown, Miller, Wood and Hall. Any matches to those names would indicate that John IS related to Harry. Because several of these names are very common, I would have to make sure that they were related to Harry Brown and his family through other records, and not relatives by marriage to people on the mother’s side.
Location, Location, Location
Knowing the location of the family members on a tree helps. If all of Harry Brown’s family is from Ohio and the Smiths are all from Texas, a Brown from Texas might make me wonder if that Brown is married to someone on the Smith side. The closer to the present day, the more difficult it becomes to trace people by location. Many people now move long distances away from where they were raised. However, looking farther back in time, families tended to stay in a single state or even a town for generations, which helps when searching for distant relatives.
So why did I include Pete Green in the tree, if he isn’t related to Harry? Because often, someone a generation younger will test and it is important to know the surname of a match. If Pete Green, Jr. shows up as a close relative of John Smith’s, I will know how he is related. He is Harry Brown’s nephew and John’s half cousin, and a great match for John.
My family trees are constructed using documents such as marriage certificates and birth certificates that show how families are related. This documentation is important to have, because when the matches come back and I am writing a report demonstrating how the matches relate to each other, I will need evidence. The lawyer’s expectation is that the matches and my paper trail will prove that John Smith is related to Harry Brown. Without a paper trail showing how people are related to each other and to the client, the whole case is speculation. I aim for a level of proof that will enable the court to compel the family members on the Brown side and be confident that the results will match what I have found.
Katharine O'Connell is a forensic genealogist and the owner of North Coast Genealogy. Katharine has solved over 150 probate cases for clients such as national banks and estate planning attorneys.