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Adding DNA to the Toolbox

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Do you have any of those ancestors who seemingly appeared out of thin air? Despite exhaustive research in documentary records, you can find only the tiniest slivers of indirect evidence that MIGHT suggest a potential family or origin?

What about an adoption in a time and place when the biological father of a child born out of wedlock would not be named in any document?

These are just two of the cases in which I've incorporated DNA evidence to solve long-standing genealogical mysteries within the past year.

First, let me introduce Asher Millhouse:

  • 4th great grandfather

  • born 1804

  • father of 15 children

  • former "brick wall"

  • now a connection to a United States President!

Photograph recently shared with me by Larry Millhouse, a great-great grandson of

Asher Millhouse (1804-1881)

Using my grandma's DNA (SO much better than my own since she is two generations closer to the target), I traced him to a specific grandparent couple. In the process, I discovered that my grandma is a 5th cousin twice removed to former President Richard Milhous Nixon!

(Okay, so he wouldn't have been my first choice of a President to be related to, but still...)

Second, early in my venture into family history research, I discovered that my great grandfather, Peter Groenendaal, was born out of wedlock in 1887 Amsterdam. His mother married three years later and her husband adopted Peter in 1894. So if Peter was not a Groenendaal by birth, who was his biological father?

Peter Groenendaal (1887-1949), photograph about 1910

Using my mom's DNA (a generation closer than mine) and organizing shared matches into groups, I was able to determine that Peter's father was not a Groenendaal, but a Frank. His father was a Jewish musician and orchestra conductor who I could place within one mile of Peter's mother in 1886 Amsterdam. His wife's 1895 divorce testimony specifies that he had affairs, providing indirect documentary evidence supporting the DNA identification. I even started to wonder... was it possible I might be related to Anne Frank, whom I had portrayed in The Diary of Anne Frank in high school?

The excitement of identifying Peter's biological father was quickly sobered with the realization that many of Peter's biological aunts, uncles, cousins, and half-siblings were killed in the Holocaust. The only extended family members who survived were a few who had moved to England before the war. Their descendants were the ones who carried on the Frank DNA that led me to Peter's father. So many other branches of his family were obliterated between 1942 and 1945: fathers, mothers, and every single one of their children.

Uncovering such a profound story made me realize that DNA can be a tool that we use to find and tell stories of forgotten lives. That has always been my primary goal and I had shied away from DNA in the past because it was too "science-y" and I've always preferred history. However, a tool is only helpful in the hands of a skilled user, so I wanted to ensure that I understand how to use DNA evidence properly. This week, I'm tackling that goal in the Advanced DNA Evidence course at GRIP (Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh).

Our schedule for the week shows the topics we are covering. We've made it through Wednesday so far and my brain is about to burst!

Here is what is coming up for the rest of the week.

It will take a great deal of time to practice and apply all of these techniques, but I am excited to see how many more mysteries I can solve when I add DNA to my problem-solving toolbox.

First up, I hope to apply my newfound knowledge to settle a case of conflicting evidence. I want to identify the mother of one of my 3x great grandmothers, Fannie B. Wise. born in 1837. She could be a poster child for challenging research: female, pre-1850, poor, illiterate...

But she has a forgotten life story that deserves to be told. I hope DNA will be one of the tools I use to find it.

Fannie B. (Wise) Millhouse (1837-1914)

photograph provided by Larry L. Millhouse


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