Becoming Sherlock Holmes

Often when people start their family history research, they concentrate on direct lineage: paternal, of their father's father and back into time, or maternal, their mother's mother and back in to time.

Americans, for the most part, research because we want to connect back to the country where their ancestors immigrated from. We want to know who they were and, ultimately, where and how they lived.

Naturally curious, I love finding new things – information, ancestors, photos. It's the thrill of the chase, and keeping focus on the question at hand can be difficult with so many bright, shiny objects (BSOs) to distract me!

I first subscribed to in about 2000. With that and other useful sites online, even in the infancy of the Internet, I could finally dig into my Codling-Hackett lines and build out my tree. Going against the conventional wisdom of researching only my direct ancestors for a pedigree, I searched for my paternal grandparents' siblings and then searched for their siblings' descendants; I did the same to the extent I could with the great-grandparents, too. I was on the hunt for living cousins who might have photos and information that I didn't. That's how I've collected most of my Codling and Hackett photographs and scans of documents. Little did I know that this would lay the groundwork for becoming a genetic genealogist.

Back to Joanne's Case ...

Building lines of known relatives forward to the present is crucial to solving adoption and misattributed-parent cases like Joanne's.

As discussed in the first post about Joanne's case, we knew that her mother was my dad's first cousin on his paternal side, which rules out nearly half of those in her match list. Determining the relationships between Joanne's paternal matches (those I don't share) will ultimately lead me to her relationships with them, which in turn will provided the leads I need to determine her biological father's identity.

The first step is to identify the closest matches and start building speculative trees for them. This can seem impossible, particularly for those matches that have very common first and last names, as well as those who have very small digital footprints online. It's a good idea to look at a matches' profile. Even if there is no other personal information given, you can determine if they are active on Ancestry or if they haven't logged in for a year or more. Those who are active, I find, are generally more open to working with us, if we need to contact them directly.

Two of Joanne's key matches only identified themselves with usernames. For privacy, I will refer to the first match as SK, who matches Joanne at 163 cM and had a nice fat tree with 659 names. Among SK's matches shared with Joanne was HR, who shares 108 cM with Joanne and had smaller tree with 40 people – most marked private. I was happy to see that both seem to log in regularly.

Neither SK or HR provided personal information on their AncestryDNA profiles, but their trees gave me the first major clue: For both, the surname Shields dominated their paternal lines. There was enough information to see where SK and HR were related – SK's grandparents, it turns out, were HR's great-grandparents. On the chalkboard I created on my office wall with paint, I made this diagram:

An excellent start! But how are they related to Joanne?


This free site is my go-to for determining these relationships. Here, armed with just the shared cMs, you can get a good idea of where matches connect.

Typing in SK's cM amount shared with Joanne, I got this prediction of most-likely relationships:

Most likely, according to this tool, SK was either a half second cousin (half 2C), second cousin once removed (2C1R), half first cousin twice removed (half 1C2R) or first cousin three times removed (1C3R) to Joanne. The second tier of probabilities included great-great-aunt/uncle or niece/nephew , unlikely because of their ages, but 2C, half 1C1R or 1C2R also seemed possible.

HR's shared cM amount with Joanne resulted with this:

The top-tier probabilities are identical; the next tier are different and farther apart, probably because HR appears to be one generation removed from SK and, likely, Joanne, too.

So, my work becomes focused now on how these relationships would appear. Each of these is another generation away from the cousin relationship between HR and SK. This indicates that the shared ancestral couple for Joanne and both matches is at least two generations back ... which could look like this:

But if Peter had been married twice, or had had a child out-of-wedlock, it could look like this:

In the end, both of these fall into or close to the top-tier relationships, with one exception: SK could actually be Joanne's 2C, which falls in the second-tier relationships. But, if that's true, HR would be Joanne's 2C1R, which is her top-tier predictions. So, I like the odds that Joanne is descended from a full sibling of M. Shields; but the half 2C/half 2C1R remain clear possibilities.

Now my work is clear: I have to look at all the possibilities. I have to start researching Peter, identitfy all of his children and their descendants – and possibly Peter's siblings and their descendants – to find the needle in this proverbial haystack.

This is when I put on my deer-hunter hat and become Sherlock Holmes – in the iteration of your choice:

(I'm torn: Robert Downey Jr. was great, but I kinda have a thing for Benedict Cumberbatch. No offense to Basil Rathbone, but the other two are way hotter. And still alive.)

Of course, I digress.

Without Holmes, this sleuthing takes a lot of skill and a lot of time. As I'm building Joanne's speculative tree trying to link her to the right person to create the correct relationships with her matches, I am fastidious. I collect as many documents as I can to ensure the puzzle piece I'm bringing in fits this puzzle and isn't actually from another puzzle entirely.

That's because I'm looking for someone else to test – someone who could be Joanne's half-sibling or niece/nephew, or half-1C. Yes, it's possible to find a living parent or aunt/uncle – which would be amazing, but not as likely with my client being in her 70s.

In the next post, I'll show you some of my secrets for how to get from here – having a clue – to there – having the answer!

Happy Hunting!

27 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Dreams do come true. This summer, I am receiving grants that will allow me to travel to do more research on Robert Jefferson and his family. The ultimate goal will be writing a book about him, his lif