Saturday, October 19, 2019

Good things do occasionally come to those who wait

The last couple weeks have been such a roller coaster ride. I took a short trip to Utah for the annual company retreat, which was amazing; turned in some projects for work where we were able to find quite a bit of info for a few clients; spent some time as a family doing service for others; and biggest of all, today was the third birthday of my son Levi, who left us two months after he was born. I can't begin to describe the range of emotion that goes along with all of those activities, but it honestly was a little exhausting. So to have some time to just sit back and explore my own family history for a bit is, for me, the ultimate in relaxation.

And I've got some great discoveries to share! At the retreat last week, we had some free time on Friday morning, and management asked us what we'd like to do. Some folks said they wanted to collaborate on a work project, as those are fun to do - you really get to see your coworkers in action, watch brainstorms happen on the spot. Someone said they wanted to do their own family history, which I totally agreed with - seems I have so little time for it anymore, between trying to fit in two jobs, two church callings, family responsibilities, and everything else. But then I thought - what if we did both? What if we collaborated on each other's family history brick walls? The idea of having these awesome minds I work with helping me tackle my family history problems was exciting, so I suggested it, and the response was really positive, so we did just that. Three other coworkers and me brought genealogy problems to be solved, and the company split into four teams. The problem my team and I tackled was the origins of my fourth-great-grandparents, George Donald McDonald and Jane Dobson. Both were born in England, though they apparently immigrated separately (Jane around 1830 as a five-year-old, George I don't know when) and raised their family in Ontario. I had no siblings, no parents, no extended family for either of them, and with a name like McDonald, I hadn't ever tried to find them amongst all the other McDonalds out there.

My awesome team helped me in several ways - scoured church records for evidence of them (didn't find anything), traced the lines of my ancestors' other kids and tracked down living McDonalds who could be invited to do a Y-DNA test; and helped me identify genetic matches on my Dobson side with some big clues as to Jane's parents, siblings, and point of origin in England!! Needless to say, I was over the moon about all of this! I still need to go in and verify the paper trail for my apparent Dobson relatives to make sure everything checks out on their end, but if it does, then I can finally link that side of my tree to its Old World origins. That was on my bucket list of genealogy problems to solve, so I am super stoked on that.

The other breakthrough came just today. A little over 2 1/2 years ago, I upgraded my paternal grandfather's mitochondrial DNA test to a full sequence test - I really wanted to see what it said about grandpa's mother's mother's mother's line. FTDNA had trouble processing it, and at one point they even asked for another DNA sample (which we provided). They tried and tried again and again, but for some reason they said it just wasn't working. Eventually, after months and months of unsuccessful tests, they said they had one last option - a last ditch, all or nothing final effort. There was no guarantee of success, and if it failed to read his DNA, there would be no refund, and no timeline for when or if it would succeed. On the other hand, I could take the refund, but get no results, and I would not be able to resubmit another test (because they said they'd already lost money on this one from having re-run it so much). I weighed the options, and figured I had nothing to lose by trying the rescue program, as they called it, because it was the only option that offered me what I wanted most - the full haplogroup of my grandfather's mtDNA, and the opportunity to find matches on that line. So I opted for the rescue.

I checked in on the progress every six months or so, but the answer was always the same - we don't know if it will work, and we don't know when we'll know the results. Then today a little before dinner, I got a few emails from FTDNA - the results were in!!! I now know that my great-grandma's mtDNA haplogroup is U5b2a1a1. The cool thing is, he has seven perfect matches that show their mtDNA line's origins - one is in the US, one in Poland, and four in Germany. That fits perfectly for where his mother's line is from - they were Germans living in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mom was Augusta Joseph, who was born Uljanowka. Her mom was Pauline Rosenke, born in Zhitomir, in the Volhynia region of what is now Ukraine. Pauline's mom was Marie Siebert, though that's all I know about her. So whatever connection my grandpa has to these matches is through Marie. But even just knowing her line was apparently German for at least a ways back is really cool - drives home just how German his mom's side really was. That's information that was worth waiting 2 1/2 years for.

Pauline Rosenke's birth record

So now I've got some new answers to old problems, new tools to work with, and more answers to find. Which is exactly why I love genealogy - you get the satisfaction of solving difficult puzzles, only to realize you just expanded the size of the original puzzle, and there's still work to do. It never ends, and that's a great thing!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Progress is progress right?

I haven’t had a lot of time lately to work on my own family history so I made a special effort to get some time in last night. I wanted to check at least one of my grandparents’ DNA tests and see if they had any new important matches (ideally one that would help me break through one of my brick walls). Since my paternal granoda’s Gibson and Cain lines remain my most stubborn brick walls, I checked his account at 23andMe.

His closest matches are descendants of his maternal uncle, Elmer Joseph. Then there are a few matches on his father's side, descendants of his aunt Annie Condon and uncle Thomas Gibson (one of which turned out to be an adoptee). Then there's a mix of maternal and paternal matches that are a little more distant - descendants of his maternal granduncle Gottlieb Joseph and paternal granduncle Anthony Cain. There's a whole group of descendants descended from his grandaunt Tina (Joseph) (Leistiko) Levick, seems that branch of my family got into DNA testing! There are a couple that I know which side of grandpa's ancestry they belong to, but I don't know exactly how yet (mostly because they haven't responded so I don't know anything about their ancestry).

As I worked through these matches, it struck me how much I've learned about my grandpa's ancestry since he did his first DNA test back in 2012. The fact that I can pinpoint where a lot of these matches fit in my grandpa's family tree is amazing to me. I didn't have as much luck with his matches at FamilyTreeDNA. Part of that is because his matches at FTDNA are much more distant, and their common ancestors are back further than I can go at this point. Because of that, I've spent most of my efforts on grandpa's matches at other websites, like 23andMe and Ancestry.

Ancestry has made some great improvements in their DNA offering, with the addition of color-coded groups and Thrulines to help see where you and your matches may be related (provided you have public and searchable trees attached and linked to your test). There are a lot of matches here related to Tina Levick, more than are at 23andMe, and quite a few Gibson and Cain matches too. I'm hopeful that I will eventually break through the brick wall on my Cain side and find where in Ireland Dennis Cain was from as told in Irish records. My biggest breakthrough so far thanks to Ancestry was help in identifying the maiden name of my grandpa's great-grandmother Pauline. We thought it was Rosen, based on the death certificate of grandpa's mother, Augusta (Joseph) (Staffen) Gibson, but it turned out to be Rosenke. That led me to find Pauline's parents in German records in Volhynia, which I still can't believe I found. I need to pursue that some more at some point. Along with about a billion other leads...

One exciting lead I followed just today was from a match at Ancestry, who turned out to be a Gibson match. She is a descendant of Sarah Gibson, a sister of my grandpa's grandfather John Gibson. Sarah Gibson married James Harris, a native of Nova Scotia who was 17 years older than she was, and they had six children that I know of. One of her grandchildren, George Aubrey Harris, left Canada in 1922 and sailed to Boston, where he married Gladys Moriarty and raised his family. As a fan of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, I loved the fact that I now have Moriarty relatives. I even found an old postcard of the ship he sailed to Boston on, the SS Governor Dingley. 

I wish I had more time to work on this, and I do get frustrated at these stubborn brick wall ancestors sometimes. But I'm grateful for all I've learned so far and I'm excited to see what else there is still to learn. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Genealogy remembers them all - Ivar Bergstad

I had some time tonight to dig into my own family history (yay!) and found myself drawn to the records of a relative I haven't really researched much before - Iver Bergstad, son of Ole Sjursen Bergstad and Karen Johannesdatter, born in Fertile, Worth County, Iowa, on 8 April 1878. Ivar's father Ole was born in Norway, and was the brother of my ancestor Johannes Sjursen Bergstad.

The earliest record I have of Ivar is his baptism into the Fertile Lutheran Church on 12 May 1878, just a few weeks after his birth. His godparents were Johannes Sjursen (likely his uncle and my ancestor), Knud Sjursen (another uncle) Thorbjor Knudsen and Anna (can't read her last name). Two years later, he's in the 1880 census with his large extended family - parents Ole and Karen (aka Caroline), older siblings Carl and Shur, uncle Knudt Bergstad and aunt Caren, and cousins Albert and Anne. He seems to have lived with and near family for much of his life:

1885 - Ivar lived with his parents and older brothers, as well as younger brothers John and Nils.
1895 - Ivar lived with his parents and all the previously listed siblings, as well as additional siblings Sophia and Osker.
1905 - Ivar was still living with his parents and all his siblings, none of whom had apparently yet married.
1915 - Iowa decided the best way to record the census was to make individual cards for each person. That makes it unclear who lived with who, since home addresses weren't recorded. 
1917 - He listed Ole Bergstad (maybe his father) as someone who would always know his address.
1920 - Ivar lived with his parents and brother Osker (also known as Clarence).
1925 - Ivar's father had passed away, but his mother and brother Osker still lived with him.
1930 - Osker had married a woman named Ida, and they had two children, Otto and Betty Ann. They lived with Karen, Ivar and Osker's mother, in Ivar's home.
1940 - Ivar's household included his mother, his nephew Otto, and his brother Nils.

He was physically pretty fit too - his WWI draft registration said he was 6 feet tall, 175 pounds, blonde hair and blue eyes. He worked as a farmer in every census, and in every census of his adult life, Ivar was the head of the household, even when his parents lived with him. Though he apparently never married or had kids, he took care of his family well in to his 50s and maybe longer. He seems to have been one of those men who just did what needed to be done to take care of those he loved. He passed away in North Dakota in 1971.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

And I thought it was complicated before...

I wrote not long ago about discovering that my great-grandmother Rosie Sitzman and her sister Mary Sitzman had different fathers. I had a little time this week, and started going through the DNA tests for my dad and his siblings and looking for matches that had ancestry from Bohemia or Czechoslovakia, that didn't have their second cousin in the shared match list. That way, the odds were more likely that they were related through Rosie's mystery father. I was able to find at least five or six leads, so I sent off emails to them, hoping at least someone would write back.

This weekend, I got an email back! One of the matches identified a few other matches as her first cousin and father, which gave me a little family group to work from. That was really helpful, because her cousin had a family tree that gave me enough data to identify some of their ancestors in census records in Wisconsin. With that info, I traced them back to their immigrant ancestor - John Miller, born 3 March 1883 in Kathrina, Bohemia/Czechoslovakia.

I found John's birthdate and birth place in his WWI and WWII draft registrations, where the info came directly from him, which made the info more reliable. Knowing that, I went looking in the Bohemian archives at the Porta fontium website ( and found the most likely candidate for the village of Kathrina - Sankt Katharina, a little village that's actually part of my great-great-grandmother's hometown of Rosshaupt! The right family in the right place at the right time! I couldn't believe my luck.

I went looking through the birth records for Sankt Katharina and Rosshaupt, and with some help from the German-Bohemian mailing list I'm on, I soon had most of three generations of John Miller's ancestry identified, and even a few ancestors from the fourth generation. His family name was, as I suspected, originally Müller (I wish I could take a German class so I could pronounce these names correctly). He also has the surnames Dobner, Radl, and Heger in his tree, none of which appear in my Zitzmann line. So this is all really good news, it's additional evidence that I really am on the track of my elusive great-great-grandfather. But as I began researching this family, I ran into some roadblocks.

For starters, John's mother Anna Radl was born to a single mother. Anna's birth record lists her mother (also named Anna Radl) and maternal grandparents, but the father's section is totally blank. That leaves a big chuck of John's family tree empty. Then, to complicate things even further, John's paternal grandfather, Michael Müller, was also born to a single mother (also named Anna, as it turned out). Thus John's pedigree has two big holes in it that local records probably won't help with (if the parents later married, they would sometimes add the father's info in later, but they didn't here).

It's still early into my research on this family, so I'm not giving up by any means. Many years ago, when I first learned my great-grandma was born to a single mom, I thought "well, that's one blank I'll never be able to fill," but that was before the advent of DNA and genetic genealogy. Now, I've got at least a partial family tree for someone that I am reasonably sure is related to me through that mystery great-great-grandfather. I have names, exact dates, and specific places for vital events of his relatives! That is huge!!  It looks like he, or at least his extended family, was from the same area that Rosie and her mom and sister were from, which makes sense. It's also a bit comforting to know that too, that my ancestor wasn't some vagabond who vanished into the ether. Even though his name isn't on the records, his DNA is, which links him to his family. I really hope someday I'll be able to find his name, as he's the only second-great-grandparent I haven't identified in my tree. And I don't like having white space in my family tree. :)

One other thing this research has taught me - there's a reason we keep saying test all the relatives you can afford. If I had tested just myself, I wouldn't have had enough DNA to match some of these matches. I tested my dad and three of his siblings, all of whom show these matches as related, but they all share different amounts of DNA with them - my uncle shares the most (over 200 cM with with father of that family group I mentioned earlier), one aunt shares less than half of that (barely 90 cM) and my dad and another aunt are about halfway between the two. Thus I now know to use my uncles test when dealing with these matches, as he shares the most DNA from that line, and is most likely to be the test that picks up matches the best. It's like having four fishing poles in the same pond with different bait - you don't know which will work best or what you'll catch, but the more lines you have out there, the better the odds that something will bite. (and yes, for any of you that really understand fishing, I clearly don't. But it's the best I could come up with late on a Sunday night.)

Sunday, July 7, 2019

They let me in!

A few years ago, I learned that I have ancestors among the Filles du Roi, kind of Quebec's version of the Mayflower immigrants. I was fascinated by the story of these brave women leaving France to help colonize Quebec, some maybe seeking a better life or more opportunities in the new world (though given its underpopulated state, I'm not sure what opportunities they were expecting). As I began researching my French-Canadian ancestry, I found several of these Filles du Roi in my family tree. I thought this was really cool, and wanted a way to commemorate these ancestors. 

After a few minutes of searching on Google, I found a lineage society called "La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan," based out of Virginia interestingly enough, not Quebec like I would have imagined. I asked them if I would be able to join, given that my link to my French-Canadian ancestors was discovered through DNA research and not via paper trail genealogy. Surprisingly, they hadn't seen genetic genealogy used to prove a relationship to a specific individual. They knew about ethnicity results, and how that could show a general relationship to an ethnic group, but they hadn't seen it applied to a specific individual and family. I wrote back, and sent them a proof argument I'd written a few years ago, where I showed how I came to the conclusion that I was a descendant of William Vadnais. They wrote back and said the argument was very interesting, and I should apply for membership!

It took me a while to get my documentation together. Part of the delay was the amount of documentation I felt I needed to prove the connection between my chosen ancestor, Marie Boisleau (born about 1651 in Dercé, Vienne, France) and me, her ninth-great-grandson. That's 12 generations covering over 300 years, and I wanted to prove every birth, marriage, and death in the chain that I could. Then I realized that some of my documents were pretty poor quality images, so I needed to go dig up better images of them. Then came the task of filling out the application with all these names, dates, and places. But I kept at it, and eventually I had everything together. I sent it off, and didn't hear anything for a while. Then just yesterday, I got an email back welcoming me to the society! 

The society seems to have some cool benefits, chief of which is access to the society's newsletter. As I don't have a ton of personal research time, this is a great way to get access to information (hopefully a lot of historical context too) on this branch of my family tree without having to spend a ton of time learning it all on my own. They also have a really cool medallion you can buy, which would be neat to have. Most of all, I'm just excited that I was able to apply for this organization in a way they hadn't seen before, and was able to prove my ancestry well enough to be accepted. It makes me feel like I really do know what I'm doing, and it gives me a way to honor and celebrate another branch of my family history. I have a few other lineage societies I'm interested in joining - there's one for descendants of War of 1812 soldiers (my ancestor Elisaph Sanford was one), descendants of Civil War Union Veterans (I have at least two of those), and one I just learned about for descendants of American Farmers. At first I thought that was a joke, because who doesn't have ancestors in the US that were farmers? But then, don't all of our ancestors deserve to be celebrated and remembered, even (perhaps especially) those that don't seem to have the glamorous or noteworthy story or background? So yeah, lots still to do. Which is why I love this work!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Wartime Tragedies

There was another amazing find in my family history this week, but I didn't make it. My grandpa Fred called me on Sunday, saying he had a letter written in German that belonged to my 2nd-great-grandma, Mary Hoffman. I had no idea the letter even existed! He then asked if I'd like to have it. Um, YES!! He then offered to mail it to me the next day, I thanked him several times, and then had to wait three days for the letter to arrive.

During those three days, I tried to imagine what it could be - a letter from her relatives in Bohemia? Perhaps even information on the identity of my great-grandmother's father??? I tried not to let my imagination run wild, but it was exciting to guess what could be in the letter.

When the letter finally came, several things struck me about the envelope - its age was readily apparent. It was brown and worn, almost soft to the touch. The sides were marked with tape letting the recipient know that the letter was opened by the military as part of censorship practices. That got me wondering when the letter was written - sometime during World War II maybe? There were postmarks on the front, but nothing that had a date. The back had the sender's name and address, but I couldn't read it - I could tell it was German, but the script was unfamiliar. The sender's given name looked like Babetta, maybe a form of Barbara?

As I studied the front of the envelope, I noted the name of the addressee - Christopf Hofmann, which was my ancestor Mary Hoffman's husband (though he was always called Christ Hoffman by my family), and stepdad to my great-grandma Rosie and her sister Mary. I immediately realized this likely wasn't addressed to my ancestor, and probably had nothing to do with her family at all. But honestly, I didn't care - this was something OLD, from the Old World, in German and related to someone connected to my family. Something that had been held on to for decades and decades. With all the ancestors I have from foreign countries, nothing has been passed down in my family in a foreign language. I've got photocopies and scans of some documents in Norwegian (thanks to my cousin Delores Olson) and I've since found records in other languages on various websites. But I haven't held in my hands something from the Old Country in the original language of my ancestors - until this week. What a rush!!

I took it inside, gently opened it and extracted the letter. It was two pages, written in clear German script, but again in a variation of it that I found difficult to make out.

The date on the top looked like January 4, 1947 (or was it April 1? I don't know when Europe started using DDMMYY for their dates). I looked through it and saw 1945, and the name Babette again, but that's was about all I could make of it. I really wanted to know what it said, so I posted copies of the letter and the back of the envelope on the Genealogy Translations Facebook group I'm in, and asked for a translation. It only took a few hours before one of the volunteers kindly responded with a complete translation!

The return address on the back said "Frau Babette Schmidt, Furth, Bayern, Gartenstrasse N 22." So Babette was the sender, and perhaps a relative of Christ Hoffman. The text of the letter turned out to be extremely tragic. Here's the translation in full:

"Dear Godfather and Aunt,
After a long time we are finally allowed to write to you again. How are all of you? I hope you are well. I can't say the same about us. We were totally destroyed by an air raid and had to leave Nurnberg, Hintere Ledergasse No 28 second floor and had to go to Furth, because the house where we lived was totally destroyed on the 2nd of January 1945 during the great air raid on Nurnberg, and we were thankful to be alive. Thousands of people lost their lives. We only had the clothes we wore, all our possessions burned.
My husband Christopf has died and his brother. From fathers side, the wife burned to death. Our Anny's husband is a prisoner of war in Russia. And how are you uncle Christopf and your dear wife and children. Did your loved ones get home safe again? I hope so, here it looks very sad.
I will close this letter, sending you loving greetings
Frau Babette Schmidt and Anny.
How is Mrs. Schlek, is she still alive. My husband Christopf has died"

After reading the translation, my heart just broke for Babette. So much loss! Her husband, her home, all her belongings, her son-in-law's captivity, living in a strange new place. I know we did what we had to in order to win the war against Hitler and his Nazi regime, but this letter really puts a human face on the ordinary German people who suffered during the war and afterwards. It's a stark reminder that in war, there really are no victors in some ways - war results in loss for everyone involved.

What made this letter even more tragic was the fact that Christ Hoffman had actually passed away on 24 June 1942, almost five years before this letter was even written. Due to the war (and apparently its aftermath), Babette had been out of contact with Christ Hoffman for so long, she didn't know he had died years before. I hope Christ's widow Mary wrote back to Babette and let her know.

Two other things really stood out about this letter. First, the U.S. military was still screening and censoring letters almost two years after World War II had ended. Did they do that for all incoming mail from overseas? Just for Germany? I would have thought such practices would have ended with the war, but apparently not.

The other thing that stood out was the name of Babette's late husband - Christopf Schmidt. When my great-grandma Rosie and her sister Mary applied for Social Security Numbers in 1943 (on the same day, it turns out) they both put Chris Schmidt as their father. It may be a coincidence, as Schmidt is a very common German surname, and Chris is a popular first name. I also know now that Rosie and Mary had different fathers, so even if one of them had a father named Chris Schmidt, both didn't. It may be just a coincidence, but it's a startling one.

I would love to somehow be able to identify Babette and Anny, and learn more about them. I did a quick search to see if I could find anything on them in Nurnberg, and found Christopf in a Nurnberg city directory for 1935:

The address matches Babette's letter exactly - hinter Ledergasse No. 28, second floor! Christopf's occupation was flaschner, which Google Translate tells me means plumber. If they appear in this record, I'm hopeful they'll appear in more. I would love to find out how exactly they connect to Christ Hoffman - Babette called him uncle, so maybe her mom was Christ's sister? Gonna have to find out! Babette and Anny's story deserves to be rediscovered and shared. They lost so much, and endured so much together. It puts my own trials and difficulties in a whole different perspective - I've never lost  a home, been forced to move as a refugee, suffered the death of a spouse, and waited anxiously to know whether a loved one was surviving in a foreign enemy's POW camp. And yet, she reached out to Christ and his family, asking about their welfare, and that of an apparent common friend. She didn't ask for anything - no money, no assistance. I think she just wanted to know someone out there still remembered and cared. I may be 70+ years too late to help Babette and Anny, but I can still remember and care.