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Probing My DNA Results

Recently I began combing through the family trees of my DNA matches looking to see if I could determine how I am related to these people. I have several brick wall ancestors, and a DNA match offers the possibility of breaking through one.

My first success was a connection to a descendant of the Stillabower family of Indiana. I have long suspected that my great-grandmother’s mother was a Stillabower. This match provides some evidence, especially since neither the other tester nor I recognized any other surnames in common.

This week I looked through my matches again for anyone who claimed a Riddle ancestor. My second great-grandfather, John Davis Riddle (1821-1896) was born somewhere in Pennsylvania, but I know nothing of his family. If I could find a Riddle match whose family also came from Pennsylvania, it might help my own research.

As I scrolled through my matches, one person who listed Riddles in his family tree seemed like a possibility. Further investigation, however, showed that his ancestors lived in the Carolinas, not Pennsylvania. Odd, then, that we should be a DNA match.

As I looked more closely at his family tree, I realized that our genealogical match probably is not from our Riddle lines at all. He has Carter and Templeton ancestors from Tennessee, and so do I. This common heritage is much more likely to be the reason for our DNA match.

Analyzing this match made me much more aware of how difficult it is to prove relationships with DNA testing and how careful one must be. Finding a common surname does not guarantee the DNA match is on that line. My matches and I must also match a third party who also descends from the suspected common ancestor. This is called triangulation. Once this occurs, one has a proven descent.

I will keep trying. As new matches are added, I will look for the surnames of all my mystery ancestors, Stillabower, Riddle, and Sherman. I will also search for close matches I do not recognize in the hopes that one may be from the family of my unidentified great-grandfather.

Sometimes there just is no paper trail to move us back in time. DNA testing can provide answers.

Thanks to the Palatines To America

Last weekend the Colorado chapter of Palatines to America, a national group that researches German-speaking ancestors, hosted a half-day session at the Denver Public Library. The speaker was Katherine Schober, a German-English genealogy translator.

My husband/tech advisor (who is half German) and I decided to go. We were glad we did.

Katherine addressed a couple of topics including an introduction to German genealogical research and some tips and tricks for deciphering German handwriting. She introduced us to helpful websites.

Katherine was a good, entertaining speaker. She also took time during a break to look at a puzzling, centuries-old German document related to my husband’s family. She identified it as a journeyman’s record. This is an exciting find for us.

From her presentation, we picked up several good strategies to use as we pursue our own research. I also picked up an application to join the Palatines organization.

Over the years, I have attended many of their events. My motive was to become more knowledgeable and help my husband with his research. Now, with a recent DNA match to a German family in my dad’s line (Stillabower), I feel like I can join this German group on my own behalf.

In Search of a DNA Match

My local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society began its 2018-2019 season this week. At the meeting, we welcomed Mark G. Liverman of Pinewood Genealogy as our speaker. Well-known in Colorado genealogical circles as an expert on DNA testing for genealogy, he spoke again on this topic.

I sat in on this lecture because I wanted to refresh my memory on the fundamentals of DNA testing for genealogy. I need to dig more deeply into my family’s test results in the hopes of identifying some of my brick wall ancestors.

When I visited Nebraska last month, I found no clues in the county records to the name of one of my great-grandfathers. A DNA match will offer my only hope of learning who he was. Other descendants of his family would be my 2nd or 3rd cousins. This is a pretty close match, one I should be able to find if the right person does a DNA test.

How do I go about finding such a person? By taking DNA tests and reviewing the DNA matches.

I have DNA test results on file at Family Tree DNA. So does my late father.

My Dad also took a DNA test at 23andMe. This widens our test pool beyond those who have tested at just one company.

Neither of us tested with the big kid on the block, Twice they turned away Dad’s saliva sample, saying it was inadequate for testing. This is not an unusual response for someone in his 80’s. The elderly often cannot generate enough saliva for their test.

I have not tested with Ancestry yet, but perhaps the time has arrived for me to do so. My chances of matching other descendants of my great-grandfather or his parents are greatest there. They have a database of 10 million people. 23andme has half that many, and Family Tree DNA has fewer than a million.

As Liverman always says, chances of success in finding a match are greater if you fish in every pond.

No Biological Dad Found

My paternal grandmother, Grace Riddle (1896-1976) has an unidentified father. This man continues to refuse to make himself known despite my best efforts.

Grandma herself claimed ignorance of the man’s identity. Her contemporaries in the family told me they had no ideas as to who he might have been. Apparently, her mom, Laura Riddle (1853-1933), took this information to her grave.

Last week my husband/tech advisor and I made a trip to southwest Nebraska to investigate this mystery. I really did not expect to uncover any new information. Yet the Genealogical Proof Standard requires us to make exhaustive searches. Until I looked at local records, I could not claim to have been thorough.

From 1885 to 1933, Laura Riddle lived in four Nebraska counties along the Colorado and Kansas borders. My grandmother was born at Palisade (Hitchcock County) during the time her mother resided on a homestead just north of town in Hayes County. I do not know whether Grandma was born on the homestead or in town.

Before we left for our trip, I made a checklist of all the types of records and repositories available in the counties where Laura lived after she migrated from Michigan in 1885. Then we visited courthouses, libraries, a genealogical society, and an historical museum to look for sources. My husband/techadvisor worked out a timeline for us because many of the repositories in these rural areas keep limited hours.

We searched several types of records during our stay:

  • County and town histories,
  • Guardianships,
  • Land records,
  • Historic newspapers,
  • Paternity cases, and
  • School census records.

Neither of us found any mention of a father for Grace Riddle. Now, as the genealogist at the Southwest Nebraska Historical Society in McCook (Red Willow County) counseled, my best bet for identifying my great-grandfather will be a DNA match.

We did not come home empty-handed, though. Other information about Laura Riddle’s life turned up:

  • Her eldest son, Francis Edmonds (1876-1944), attended school near McCook in 1886 and 1887. During that time, he resided with a neighboring farmer, John F. Black, and probably worked on that farm.
  • Laura and her younger sons retired from their Dundy County homestead in 1923, earlier than I had thought. Her son Joseph (1880-1956) traded his portion of the ranch acreage for a house in Palisade. With the help of a town plat, we identified the address, visited the property, and took photographs.
  • Laura sold her share of the Dundy County ranch, also in 1923, to the same man who traded for Joseph’s share. She offered the man a mortgage, but he defaulted. She was forced to foreclose in 1928. The next year, she received her share of the ranch back via a Sheriff’s Deed. Ultimately, she resold her land in 1932.
  • Joseph outlived his mother and brother Lewis (1877-1935) by a number of years. By 1949, he needed a Guardian. The court appointed long-time family friend C. C. Cole to care for Joseph, and I picked up a copy of the guardianship file at the Hitchcock County Courthouse.

As we drove through these counties, we took time to visit the sites of Laura’s three homesteads in Red Willow, Hayes, and Dundy Counties. The Red Willow site lies just east of the airport. The Hayes land is on the high ground north of Palisade, currently inaccessible but viewable from a distance. In Dundy County, we drove for what seemed like miles along loose dirt roads (thanks, Google Maps!) until we reached the site. Upon our arrival, we learned of a much better road back to Haigler, NE, and returned to our lodgings by that route.

After completing this trip, I cannot think of any other records that might reveal my great-grandfather’s identity. I believe I have done a reasonably exhaustive search. Now I must turn to DNA testing in hopes of uncovering this information. With all the records I have about Laura, I have a good list of many of her associates. If a DNA match turns up, perhaps I will recognize a surname. If not, perhaps my great-grandfather was a passing cowboy rather than someone she knew well.




Give Tax Lists a Try

For some states and time periods, tax lists can provide good genealogical evidence. People who owned land or livestock had to pay annual taxes on these sources of wealth. Counties kept records of these payments, and these lists can work as a yearly census of residents.

For my own family and my search for the roots of John Davis Riddle, I am looking at tax lists for clues. I know this ancestor was born in Pennsylvania in 1821, and he married Olive Dunbar in Summit County, Ohio in 1843. I have no information on his family or his whereabouts before 1843. Perhaps tax lists can help me.

Family Search ( has some Ohio tax lists online. I plan to search those records beginning with 1849 (when the Riddles left Ohio) and then work backwards to see if I can locate any likely Riddle families in Summit and the surrounding counties. I will also search for Davis families because my ancestor oddly signed the marriage register as a Davis instead of a Riddle when he married.

If I can locate my ancestor on one of these lists, I can then follow up with a search of other county records kept during the same time period. If he owned real property, his transactions will be in land records. If he had only valuable personal property, at least his name should appear on a list. In either case, I can look at marriages and probates for those same years for more information about him.

If he had little of anything, I will not find his name. I will be out of luck with tax lists as a clue for this genealogical problem.

Dead Ends, Genealogically Speaking

Earlier this summer I reported hearing from a new research contact. The person suggested a location to search for information about my 2nd great-grandfather, John Davis Riddle (1821-1896).

I know nothing of this ancestor’s origins, other than a purported Pennsylvania birthplace. He ultimately settled and died in Mendon, Michigan.

Three of his children and grandchildren married into the nearby McClish family. The McClish researcher suggested that I search for my ancestor in Washington County, Pennsylvania because the McClishes had once lived there. I took a look recently.

Using the U.S. census and cross-referencing with family trees posted on Family Search and Ancestry, I investigated several Riddle families who lived in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio in the 1820’s, 1830’s, and 1840’s. I found no likely candidates for my John Davis Riddle.

I did eliminate a couple of Riddle families who resided in Washington County, Pennsylvania during that time:

  • Samuel Riddle (1759-1825) who married Martha Johnson. This man moved his family from Pennsylvania to Mahoning County, OH around 1803, long before my ancestor was born. Although his children were born in Pennsylvania, they grew up and were married in Ohio. No one seemed to remain behind to father my John Davis Riddle in Pennsylvania in 1821.
  • Samuel Riddle (1794-1879) who married Jane Turner. This family remained in Pennsylvania. Their son, John Aiken Riddle, was born in 1846. It seems unlikely they would have an older son also named John.

I also eliminated a Riddle family living in Ohio during the 1840’s when my John Davis Riddle resided there:

  • Thomas Riddle (1781-1823) who married Minerva Merrick. This family lived in 1840 and 1850 in Geauga County, OH. They began their pioneer journey from Massachusetts through Pennsylvania until they reached Ohio. Geauga County is a bit northeast from Summit County where John Davis Riddle was married in 1843. Thomas’ son John Adams Riddle was born in Massachusetts in 1814 and lived until 1884. Again, it seems unlikely they would later have another son named John.

One family bears more investigation. Samuel Riddle (1795-1857) who married Margaret Scott comes from a large Riddle family in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I have not completed my research into these Washington County families. If my John did come from this place, he will not be so easy to find.

A Family of Black Sheep

So many genealogists look for outstanding ancestors. They point with pride to kings, presidents, Mayflower descendants, and other famous people in their family trees.

Me, not so much. Other than a very distant relationship to Henry David Thorough (via our common Dunbar line), I have found no illustrious ancestors. In fact, mine seem quite the opposite. I have a tree full of black sheep forebears:

  1. Seymour Riddle (1858-1934). My great-grandmother Laura’s brother Seymour served time in Michigan’s Jackson prison for larceny.
  2. Franklin Glover (1858-1936), Edward Glover (1861-1936), and Henry Glover (1865-1905). My great-grandmother Petronellia’s cousin Franklin spent time in the Illinois penitentiary for assault and robbery. Edward paid fines for selling tobacco to minors. Their brother Henry was arrested for assault several times, and he also received two jail sentences for counterfeiting. Henry came to a tragic end when he was shot to death in his home by an unknown assailant. Henry lingered awhile and attempted to pin the crime on two different foes, but both had alibis.
  3. My dad’s cousin Henry displayed a bad streak from an early age. When my toddler-aged dad and uncle visited Henry’s family farm one summer, Henry enticed them into a haystack and then set it on fire. This Henry later served time in the Nebraska penitentiary for a different crime.
  4. Dean Reed (1938-1986). My third cousin became a socialist during the Cold War and defected to East Germany. A singer and actor, he achieved tremendous fame behind the Iron Curtain. The press called him The Red Elvis. His gravestone reads “American Rebel” after the title of a documentary film made about him shortly before he died. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in Berlin.

These colorful characters are just the black sheep ancestors I know about. How many more do I have? As I continue to research my family tree, I keep a sharp lookout for people who stray from the accepted path. After all, these behaviors seem to run in the family.

Cast a Wide Net and Reap the Rewards

Professional genealogists often exhort us to publish our research. Doing so preserves it for posterity in case no one in the immediate family wants it. Making it widely available can also work as “cousin bait” for distant relatives whose families have saved information we may not have.

Over the years, I have tried to do this using various ways including online trees and a blog. This summer I have connected with previously-unknown cousins in three ways.

My Heritage

Although I am not an active user of the My Heritage site, my husband/tech advisor is. He posted my family tree there for me. Another genealogist spotted it and recognized the name of my second great-grandfather, John Davis Riddle. Several members of her husband’s McClish family married Riddles. She has given me a clue for a location to search for the birthplace and family for John Davis Riddle.

FamilyTree DNA

One of my brick wall ancestors is my purported 2nd great-grandmother, Katherine Stillenbaugh. I have long suspected that she was a member of an extended German family, the Stilgenbauer/Stillabower clan, who lived south of Indianapolis. This summer I took time to search the online trees of my close matches at Family Tree DNA. I discovered that I match a proven descendant of this family. Next I hope to figure out where my ancestor fits into this group.

My Blog—Genealogy Jottings

Last week a Dunbar descendant left a message on my blog. Since then, we have corresponded and exchanged information. We learned that we both descend from Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1831) and Rhoda Hall (1784-1850). I hope we can continue to collaborate in our research on the Dunbar line.

These strategies of posting online trees on DNA test sites and writing a blog about my ongoing research all preserve my work. They also have proven a means of finding new information about my family. Although they all take time away from the joy I receive in doing research, they all pay me back with new discoveries.

The Next Generation Learns About Genealogy

The Sons of Norway organization encourages its members to become proficient in various Norwegian cultural skills. We can earn beautiful, enameled pins as we progress through various levels of knowledge and understanding on any given aspect of Norwegian life. This week I began working on Level 2 of Norwegian genealogy.

To complete this level, I must add several names to my family tree. I also need to relate a story about one of these people. For the final requirement, the instructional packet offers various activity suggestions I can do to apply what I have learned.

For my activity at this level, I have chosen to help a grandchild begin a genealogy research project. I selected my granddaughter, who will enter 5th grade in the fall, as the researcher.

Earlier this week we got together to introduce her to genealogy. I showed her around my office and explained how I keep my records. We looked at the paper ones and those online. My data includes information on both her parents’ ancestry, so she could look at a complete tree for several generations.

Next, I showed her my current research project, my Riddle line. We looked at the photos of these ancestors and at some of the documents I have collected. I described what I need to find next about this family and told her about the road trip to their homes in Nebraska that I will take later this year.

She finished her lesson by copying her tree onto a decorative paper chart that she can keep. We began it with her own name and filled it in back to her second great-grandparents. She giggled at some of the unusual ethnic names of her ancestors, names like Flottemesch.

Next time I see her, I will have her identify a genealogy research question that she can pursue. Perhaps she can fill in a family group sheet for her own family. I have some, but not all the documentation she would need. After we begin it in my office, she can consult her mother, my daughter-in-law, to complete it.

From this activity, I have learned that this young lady does not appear to have the interest in genealogy that I had at her age. She likely will not carry on my work. Yet after this summer, she will have a greater understanding of her heritage. She will know what I have collected and where to find it.

Best of all, we will have spent time doing something fun together, inspired by the Sons of Norway.

A Local Genealogical Society Faces Big Changes

Since the early 1990’s I have belonged to the Colorado Genealogical Society (CGS). I have seen them through many changes in format and meeting place over the years, and now some changes are afoot again. Genealogical societies must continue to evolve in order to survive.

When I first joined, the group met on Friday evenings at a Methodist church building in south Denver. It was not too far for me to drive, and an evening meeting suited my schedule. Thus I joined this club instead of one closer to home. I soon became involved in the society by serving as Recording Secretary and Vice-President. I learned a great deal about genealogy through the fine speakers the club hosted each month.

Shortly before I joined, the club had formed a sub-group of people who were interested in doing genealogy in a new way, on computers. They called themselves the Computer Interest Group, or CIG. This group met on a different night and offered speakers and classes on genealogy-related technology topics. They also held workshops on various software products. One year, I won a free membership to CIG and began attending those meetings, too.

CGS and CIG have run in parallel since then. Both had monthly meetings and elected full slates of officers. Both ran yearly seminars and put out newsletters. As their meeting place needs changed, together they left the Methodist church for the Glendale Community Center, then a Lutheran church, then the Denver Public Library. The last move required a change in meeting time from Friday evenings to Saturday mornings for CGS followed by Saturday afternoons for CIG. Through it all, the world around us was changing, too.

As computerized genealogy became the norm, there has been ongoing talk of merging the groups. The missions of the two no longer seemed so different. A few years ago, they took a first step by joining forces to run one joint seminar a year instead of holding separate events.

This week I received a message from CGS proposing additional changes. A meeting of the membership to discuss the issue will take place this coming Saturday night.

They have several ideas and are looking for more. Should they combine newsletters and websites? As volunteers get more difficult to recruit, should CIG eliminate its officers in favor of a Leadership Chairman? Should CIG eliminate its dues?

I may submit some written comments, but I will not attend the special meeting. When the clubs moved to Saturday meetings at Denver Public Library, I stopped going. I have other commitments on Saturdays, and I do not relish paying to park downtown for a routine genealogy meeting.

Although I remain a CGS member, I dropped my CIG membership and joined my local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society instead. CIG has been a great club that filled a need as the electronic age began, but it seems to be struggling now. The members must decide its fate. Perhaps it is time to merge into its mother organization, the Colorado Genealogical Society.