How can DNA Solve Unknown Parentage and Break Down a Brick Wall?
One of our researchers uses her own family tree investigation as an example to explain how DNA can be used to break down brick walls, solve an unknown parentage case and uncover surprises in genealogical research.
Important Female Ancestors
Who are the important female ancestors you would like to honor in your life? Sometimes finding historical records about our female ancestors is not enough. Sometimes, all you can do is send in a DNA test, hoping that somehow, some way, you will find a previously unknown genetic cousin who can give you the answers you need. Below is my female ancestor’s story and how the quest to learn more about her story and parentage led to a long-lost relative, broke down a brick wall, and solved a surprise unknown parentage case.
Annie Rice was born on 9 July 1876 in Hickman, Kentucky. At the age of 14, she married William H. Franklin in Cairo, Alexander, Illinois (pronounced Care-oh), in 1890. My great-great-grandparents went on to have fifteen children together, twelve of whom survived to adulthood. The couple’s fourteenth child, Edith Irene Franklin, was born on 14 August 1914 and was my great-grandmother.
Life in Cairo was not easy for the Franklin family as they were never what could be considered middle class. William and Annie raised their large family in a small two-bedroom home, and they both worked in a box factory to make ends meet. Annie died on 25 March 1924, and her parents’ names were listed “unknown” on her death certificate. For over a decade, my family searched records to tell Annie’s story; however, her documented history always began in 1890 when she married William H. Franklin and ended on 25 March 1924 with her death. No documents listed her parents’ names, and all we knew about them was that they were German immigrants.
Using DNA to Get Past Roadblocks
Finally, in 2017, my eldest sister and I decided to take DNA tests to see if we could make it past the brick wall that was Annie Rice. However, once we received our test results, we were left with more questions than answers. Every DNA match descended from William and Annie revealed less about Annie than we already knew. Even worse, we had some DNA matches that made no sense. William H. Franklin and Annie Rice’s daughter, Irene Franklin, gave birth to a son named James Frederick Miller, my grandfather, with her husband Harry William Miller—or so we thought. We had no Miller matches, despite the common surname. It seemed our grandfather, Annie Rice’s grandson, had a misattributed father.
We spoke with our mother, who recalled her father saying he was adopted by Irene’s first husband, Harry Miller. Our grandfather’s father wasn’t misattributed after all, but who was his biological father? After sorting, contacting, and building out the trees of dozens of DNA matches, we narrowed my grandfather’s biological father down to two brothers: Elbert and Ell Deweese.
Ell Deweese was a name we recognized as Irene’s brother-in-law and married to Irene’s sister, Helen. No descendants of Ell Deweese had taken a DNA test, but we could reach out to one of his grandchildren. Ell’s grandchild, who was also my mother’s 2nd cousin through Ell’s wife Helen Franklin, graciously agreed to take a DNA test to help prove which of the Deweese brothers was our biological great-grandfather.
After Ell’s grandchild’s DNA results were processed, it becomes evident that Ell Deweese was our biological great-grandfather as this descendant shared 665 centimorgans (cM) of DNA with my mother—much too high of a count for a second cousin. We uncovered a family story that remained hidden for decades with this information. My great-grandmother was only 14 years old when she conceived my grandfather. Irene’s brother-in-law, Ell, was 27 and married to Irene’s sister Helen who was then seven months pregnant with their daughter.
Late in her pregnancy, my great-grandmother, who had turned 15, was sent to an unwed mother’s home in St. Louis, Missouri; the Salvation Army ran it. There, she gave birth to her son James Frederick Miller on 14 November 1929. Knowing she could provide no financial support, my great-grandmother made the courageous decision to keep her baby when that choice was highly unpopular and discouraged. It seems my grandfather’s parentage was never openly discussed, and it is unlikely my grandfather ever knew who his biological father was.
Uncovering a Surprise
While discovering my grandfather’s father, we found another surprise. My sister had been messaging every genetic Franklin and Deweese cousin we could find when she received this reply from one of our Franklin cousins:
“My [relative] says [they] remember Bertha talking about siblings Oscar, Pearl, Rosie (the oldest, maybe?) and Lucille (who is 109 and still living in St. Louis.)”
Shocked, we turned to Google, and sure enough, our great-great-aunt Lucille, who was born on 30 January 1908 in Cairo, was still alive at the age of 109! We had marked her as dead on basically every family tree we owned because no one in our family had ever lived past the age of 100.
We devoured the stories told about Lucy in newspaper articles because her childhood stories were stories about our family. Eventually, we got in touch with Lucy’s grandaughter and started messaging back and forth with her. We learned that Lucy attributed her longevity to “hard work, and a beer every day but Sunday.” Lucy’s granddaughter also had all the genealogical information we had been searching for for over a decade, allowing us to complete Annie’s story. Annie Rice was a first-generation American and a daughter to German immigrants named Jacob Rice and Christine Lehgel. We were also able to have Lucille take an autosomal AncestryDNA test. Only two years after learning about Lucille, she sadly passed away at 110 on 20 August 2018 in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri.
Taking a DNA test through any provider is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you will get. But, who knows—maybe you to can get past your brick wall, solve a family mystery, and find a 109-year-old great-great-aunt you had no idea was still alive.
Thank You to the Women of My Past
I want to honor the incredible sacrifices that the women in my family tree made to have the life I do today. To three generations of powerful Franklin women, I say: thank you. Thank you to my great-great-grandmother Annie Rice and my great-grandmother Edith Irene Franklin Miller Tinker. Thank you to my great-great-aunt Lucille Ruth Franklin Hamm, my grandmother, James Frederick Miller’s wife, Evelyn Middleton, and my mother and sisters for making me the woman I am today.
Researching your family tree can be a fun and exciting experience, especially when family members work together. If you hit a roadblock that you can’t get past, consider hiring a professional. At Legacy Tree, our genealogists will work with your family to uncover new surprises. Contact us today for a free quote!