A Family Mystery

Nearly 40 years ago, an older family member confided to me that, according to secret family lore, my father–born in 1903, the youngest of four children–was not the son of Granny Amy’s husband, Granddad Fred. Neither my brother nor I found this to be very surprising; it explained our father’s estrangement from his brothers and sisters and his love/hate relationship with Granny Amy.

But although there were broad hints (Dad was said to be named after his biological father, a prominent man in our small Midwestern city), my brother and I had no way of confirming whether there was any truth in the family whispers. I began doing the family-tree thing 20 years ago–but it only showed us how much we couldn’t know. Until the on-line family tree services came along and I began posting what we knew of our family tree. We learned a little more.

Last year, we added DNA kits to our tree and began collecting matches. It was easy to recognize the many matches from our mother’s large family, settlers of colonial Virginia and pioneers of the 18th and 19th centuries’ westward movement into Kentucky and Missouri. There were fewer matches from our father’s mother’s side–understandable, since Granny Amy and her mother and father were late-comers, arriving at Ellis Island only in the 1870s. And no matches at all–zip, zero, nada, none–from Granddad Fred’s family, a populous and still prominent tribe that settled a city near our hometown. When it comes to DNA, a negative result is strongly positive. It appeared that we have no DNA cousins in that family. Whoever Dad’s father was, he did not seem to have been Granddad Fred.

So we got to work. Combining the massive resources of Ancestry’s records database (census, birth/death, marriage, public family trees, DNA records) with some on-site traditional genealogical sleuthing, we were able to identify and locate Granddad John, the man who (according to the intriguing family story) was our biological grandfather. He died a few years before my brother and I were born, but we have learned quite a bit about him and his family. Neither he nor his siblings produced any other biological children, so we can’t expect to discover any DNA-confirmed close living cousins. But we are finding a small clan of distant cousins, DNA-confirmed descendants of our biological grandfather’s grandparents and great-grandparents. We have even been able to create family trees for both sides of Granddad John’s family and to learn, from the historical record, who they were and where they lived.

As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a great deal of satisfaction from these discoveries. Granddad John’s family accounts for about 25% of our DNA. They’re an important part of who we are and how we got here. There’s some sadness, too, but that’s mostly outweighed by a greater understanding of the sources of our father’s unhappiness. Both my brother and I feel we understand him better:  a closed, insular man who must have known the truth about his biological father and felt the disconnects with his half-siblings. That’s worth quite a bit to both of us.

Those of you who have followed my passion for women’s stories and my long relationship with the Story Circle Network can understand the importance of this family story to me. All of us have secret stories hidden in the depths of our families, often over many generations. Exploring those stories–opening out the dark mysteries to the light–can teach us a great deal about who we are. I hope you’ll be encouraged by our success to do some family-style digging of your own. And if you have, that you’ll find ways to share your story. In the largest sense, your story is mine, my story is yours. We are all one story, as I wrote many years ago in Writing From Life. We live most largely when we recognize that truth.

P.S. “Wittig” is not my birth name, so please don’t try to climb that family tree. It is a name from my first marriage, the name of my wonderful children and the name under which I earned a doctorate back in the day when that was still an unusual achievement for a woman in my field. It means a great deal to me, but there’s no DNA there. And Albert is Bill’s name, assumed because we write together. I have been privileged to make my names a matter of choice.









52 comments on “A Family Mystery

  1. I am reminded today of Wm. Faulker’s famous quote: ” The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
    Barak Obama has used the Faulker quote when speaking about African American history, more than once.
    It is one thing to say “that happened a long time ago” but quite another when you are referring to your parents.

  2. Nancy, there are so many errors and mysteries in the old genealogies. My brother and I were so glad to have DNA to clear up our century-old family puzzle. I have to smile, thinking how mortified our grandmother would be at the idea that we know her secret. (She was not a pleasant influence in our family, when we were growing up.) Glad to hear that you’ve had success in your search–and that it’s opened up a new view of family history for you.

  3. How come I never read about your DNA until today in 2023? Been interested in geneology since I was a small child. Prefer facts rather than stories that been corrupted over the years. The name of my great-grandmother’s first husband was passed down incorrectly for one thing. Thanks to Ancestry, I found a cousin in the UK who had been doing geneology and had access to Scotland’s People and shared information and documents with me. I connected this UK cousin with some family in Ohio where my great-grandparent had moved to because my great-grandfather was a coal miner. Who knew Ohio was looking for Scottish coal miners? A couple of my Ohio cousins just visited Scotland met up with our relative. Your DNA story is fascinating Susan. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Sadly, after considering what I already know about family members both living and long gone, this lover of all things historical has decided to lay low . There’s too much stuff going on that looks to be genetic. Thought I’d say so, in case anyone else out there might have good cause to take a second look and not go there. (Book plot???)

  5. Grandad Thompson impregnated both his foster sister & my step grandmother in 1923. He was running for county road commissioner. Fearing he would loose the election, the foster sister was sent to Chicago & he married the woman who would become step mother to my mom. I found the never acknowledged uncle through ancestry DNA. And, importantly, to me some reasons why my mom had despised her dad. Plus the background that led to her mental break which mom, amazingly, clawed her way out.

  6. My maternal grandmother was a “Wittig”. Only have been able to trace her to her grandfather’s arrival in America as a 6 yr. Old child. The child’s mother died aboard ship on crossing. They were from the Bavarian area of Germany. Could not trace family due to most records being destroyed doing WW II.

  7. I have the curious situation of knowing more about my biological father than even my mother knew! My siblings didn’t know we didn’t share the same father until I was in my mid-fifties. It was an awkward and bizarre way to grow up.

  8. Susan, you might want to look at Roberta Estes’ blog, DNA Explained. She has a search bar at the top and a help page, so you can look for specific topics.

  9. Interesting blog post, and I share a family name, Collins, with the author. I knew the term woods colt, though I’m not sure how, I imagine through my long years of reading novels of all sorts. I also know the name he mentions, Roberta Estes, she is a well known expert and interesting blog poster, in the DNA genealogy community. I did my DNA at Family Tree DNA dot com back in 2014 and have since had 18 family members test and I manage their kits, as well. We discovered two surprises by doing this, and solved one older mystery. I always prefer to know the truth, so while it was certainly a surprise to learn we are not the Boatrights we thought we were, before 1863, I’d still rather know the truth. Susan, if you wish, your brother could do the Y DNA testing at Family Tree DNA (they are one of the few companies which still do Y testing, Ancestry used to but they’ve destroyed all of those records some years ago) and you might learn more about your father’s actual surname, that way. Those tests are more expensive, but they do have sales now and then–you just missed the usual Father’s Day sale, unfortunately. Enjoy the family exploration.

  10. I read the first of the series noted above when it came out. Found it so-so and was totally jerked out of the story when the main character, who is a professional genealogist, “checks the 1890 census”. If you are into genealogy at all, especially if you are a professional, as this main character is supposed to be, you know that virtually all of the 1890 census was destroyed, it’s one of the “big deals” that genealogists bemoan all the time. I certainly do, since I’d love to be able to find one gr-gr grandma on it. She died in 1899, so just before the 1900 census would have been taken. Because of this, I’ve never bothered to read any others in this series.

  11. My mother and I love all your books and we’re thrilled that you’re writing another one. Will the new book be part of the China Bayles series, or the Darling Dahlias, or something else? “Inquiring minds want to know.” 🙂

  12. Victoria, that must have been a challenging journey–ithe pain of dementia and the assumption of your father’s affairs in addition to all the other things going on in a busy life. If China and Ruby have been companions along the way and have lightened the burdens for you, I’m very glad. Blessings on that lady who shared her acquaintance with the Pecan Springs gang.

  13. Hi Susan,

    Family… what an appropriate topic for me to find as I discover your newsletter. I have been reading the China Balyes series and just finished Rosemary Remembered. I happened to notice your website mentioned in the book and here I am.

    I was on one of many flights in recent years to Hill Country Texas, when a lady seated next to me recommended this series. In 2014, I went to a small Town outside of Fredericksburg to check on my ill father. I had never been to Texas. What I discovered when I got there was the beginning of a five year journey at the end of my father life. His dementia was getting worse and he was in quite a mess. I eventually brought him to my home state and took care of him and his affairs in Texas. He passed in 2019 and last year I liquidated the remainder of his estate. It was a very difficult journey, but I discovered so much about him. I sorted through documents dating as far back as the 70’s and family photos older then that. I sold his antique cars to help pay for his care, and how I did that is a story all on its own.

    Your books remind me of the fond times I had in Hill Country, despite the many difficult times. I miss that part of the country very much and I developed an very unexpected love for The Hill Country.

    I look forward to the rest of the series and plan to explore your other ones when I finish. Thank you for the great series.

  14. I’m so excited for you to discover your family’s “truths” through DNA and research. I love all your books; have read every one. I’m practically rabid about genealogy; it’s been my hobby since I was 12 and on a whim asked my dad to share stories about his father with me. It turned into a conversation that never ended until my dad’s death; we became great friends as well as father-daughter through shared interest in family histories.

    My best friend has had a great time with DNA research; she was adopted as a year-old child and for decades told me she wasn’t interested in finding her birth parents. Then in her 60s she did it . . . and discovered she has 17 siblings on her birth mother’s side and 8 more on her birth father’s side! On her next birthday, more than a dozen of her maternal siblings threw her a birth-into-their-family party as a surprise. They were thrilled to find their eldest sister, as their mother had told them all of her existence from as early as they could remember. On her birth father’s side, one brother came from England to meet her, and then she and he were instrumental in reuniting the rest of those siblings who had been estranged from one another for decades. A happy story.

  15. Dear Susan
    I have read an enjoyed your books for many years. I particularly enjoy the ones that deal with family history. I was raised on family stories especially from my maternal grandmother and my father. I have recently begun to ask deeper questions eg how in the world did my great Aunt Sallie Conley meet and marry her husband who brought pain to both of them? He was raised neighbouring farm. And many other little answers have been teased out of the history. It is such a fascinating read no matter what the family history and with DNA it is even more fascinating. As I read your post I was struck by the comment about respecting the history of family secrets. There are secrets in all our family histories and even though the primary people are long gone we all have to live with ourselves and the boundaries of common decency that family membership asks of us.

    I often wonder ….. and still I only dig so far preferring to surmise and not put into print or on a site anything that will infringe on someone’s privacy even though they may be long gone.

    More Darling Dalia books please..


  16. The deeper I dig, the more puzzles I uncover. Yours is tragic, Linda–and a reminder that answers were frustratingly elusive, back then. Impossible now. All we can do is respect the mystery.

  17. Oh, yes please! Nothing would make me happier than if you were to take the ball and run with it! I am wondering if the same kind of thing can still happen legally today? As you can see, it certainly is a mystery to me. … Must tell you, I really enjoyed A Plain Vanilla Murder! Many thank yous for all you put into your books!!

  18. When I submitted my DNA & began researching, I was puzzled to find a guardian ship document for my great grandfather & his siblings. I learned that his mother had suddenly died followed not too long after by his father. Then I discovered that his mother had been found floating in the Ohio River. She apparently went up to bed the night before but was then found the next day. Suicide? Foul play? No answers to that story. She was relatively young but health care was iffy so maybe I’ll & no one knew?

  19. Thank you for this tribute to local historians, Georgeann. They are a passionate group with a dedication to the stories and the genealogies of the people in their area.And it’s so much fun to track them down and tap their knowledge and local resources.

  20. That’s hard, isn’t it, Cindy–trying to discover just how much truth lives in that rumor. My brother and I wondered about that “rumor” for decades, before genetic technology helped us to put it to rest. Good luck in your search!

  21. Thank you, Susan. I tell myself that the next book really ought to have a genealogical plot. We’ll see . . .

  22. I understand, Marilyn. I wish my father were still alive–I’d love to ask him what he knew about his father. I wonder if talking about it might have helped him. But I’ll never know.

  23. Just downloaded it, Liz. Looks really interesting–thanks for the tip!

  24. In the corn crib! Not the most pleasant place in the world to engage in a little hanky-panky (mice, rats, bats, spiders, dust, corn cobs, etc). But passion probably ruled. (But I’ll bet you didn’t find the corn crib in the DNA.) 🙂

  25. Yes–name changes make a major statement in a woman’s life, don’t they? Like yours, Kathy, mine document serious changes in direction. But they would also frustrate a genealogist.

  26. It’s been a little hard to shift the view from where I thought we were to . . . well, a different place.

  27. Trouble is, this stuff can be addicting. My brother is threatening to send in an intervention team. And I’m behind on the next book . . .

  28. So instead of a skeleton, you found a real, live sister! Now, that’s a discovery to shout about, Tanya. But see Jan’s comment above for a different perspective.

  29. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? Ive loved seeing all the names on my mom’s side of the family–and remembering them as “aunts” and “uncles” and “cousins” from my childhood.

  30. Jan, you’re so right to be careful in this difficult situation. I hope you’re able to dig down into the truth. But see Tanya’s comment below, for another side of the story.

  31. Dear Susan, A year ago I was contacted by someone on a website where you could look for ancestors. She told me she was my half-sister and I had been adopted. I am taking slowly and with caution.

  32. Thanks for sharing your interesting story. I think most of us would find things in our lineage that would surprise us. 😊

  33. For years we have bred purebred livestock that I had pedigrees that put our children’s known ancestry to shame. Covid quarantine has provided the opportunity for me to rustle the leaves on our family tree. Throughout my life I was under the impression that there were “aunts” and “uncles” included in our family circle who were afforded these titles as a courtesy because in that era it was unthinkable for a child to address an adult by their first name. It has been eye-opening to find that they were actual relatives with too complex a relationship to bother trying to explain to a child. It has been puzzle -solving fun trying to find where they fit into the genealogy. And then I discovered the “Relationship” button on the upper right of the person details screen at familysearch.com. It details the closest genetic pathway of the person with the free account and the individual identified as a possible relative. It’s like discovering “instant ancestors”. Hoping to see acestry stories in your books in the coming years.

  34. Thanks to the DNA kits available, I have found a half-sister I didn’t know existed. As she was adopted, she was thrilled to learn she has a sister, and other relatives she never would have known about. While I have to admit that I was looking for skeletons in my maternal side’s closets (just to make life interesting), this discovery from my father’s side was welcome news.

  35. Everyone has such interesting experiences with filling-in their family trees! Some years ago over a dinner at a friend’s house a man told us that he had been trying to research his mother’s family. She had been adopted at birth and though this man thought of her ‘adoption parents’ as his grandparents, he always knew that was not quite right. His mother had not wanted to look into who her birth parents were, which he felt she had been discouraged from doing by her adoptive parents, as he himself had been discouraged from doing. His mother was now dead, as were her adoptive parents and so he felt more free to look into things. To make a long story short, after much investigation he was made aware that a letter was being kept on record by the state regarding his mother’s birth and that it was not to be made public for x number of years! (I have forgotten how many years or the names involved.) He knew his mother’s birthday and with a little tracing of the historical events 9 month’s prior to her birth, he became aware that it had been an election year and that a few Presidential candidates as well as gubernatorial candidates had been in the city where she had been adopted. Of course, one couldn’t help but speculate! That man later died and he had never married or had any children, at least that we knew of. And so now I wonder if anyone ever was or will be told what that letter said!

  36. Great story. Thanks for sharing. Back in the 1930’s a man showed up at my paternal great grandmother’s door and proclaimed himself a “woods colt” of my great grandfather – who had just died. Sounded like a scam, but I’m keen to take a look see in the records since I’ve done the DNA testing. Thanks.

  37. I love your family story!! I have been working off and on on my and my husband’s families since 1979. Started before the Internet and Ancestry! My sister in law has discovered several cousins (there were 12 children!) they had lost track of in the 1970’s and has reconnected with them.

  38. Have both politicians (Nixon, Bush, some minor ones too) and horse thieves. My great grandmother was pregnant when she got married both the first and second times, and her father cheated on her mother (who he’d married for her money) in the corn crib with the lady who became his second wife (my great grandfather discovered them). My grandmother knew all this but was appalled when I discovered it while doing genealogy!!

  39. Wonderful. According to my father there was a horse thief somewhere in my mother’s family history. I’ve not yet found it, but then again, I’ve focused on generations 12 and more generations back and skipped most of them from the early 1600s to the last few generations. Some day I’ll get to all those people in the middle. Thanks for a fascinating summary of years of work. I’ve changed my name three times. Once to marry my first husband. Again to marry a second time. And the third and final time back to my first husband’s names since that is the name by which folks have known me for over 50 years now. Never again.

  40. I’ve done ancestry for the last 50 yrs. Did DNA test and found some cousins for all 4 branches of my family. I just this week found my paternal grandfather’s story. I knew he was born in St. LOUIS IN 1884, but adopted. Thanks to the Mormon Library they post names of children who were in St Anne’s orphanage. I was ecstatic to find who I think is him. He was left at their door, so no background, but I do know who adopted him. I’m trying to put together information for my 4 nieces so we all know where we came from and what they did so we are here in USA in the 21st century.
    So amazing.

  41. My mother was adopted. Through DNA I’ve been able to find her birth mother and father…both way too young to marry at the time…they went on to have different lives, but continuing matches only reconfirm their identities. I only wish my Mother was here to know the truth.

  42. How very interesting. Thank you for sharing. My husband is interested in genealogy and has uncovered quite a few previously unknown relatives, both his side and mine, through the years. He has helped family members connect with those they were unaware of, and in most cases, it has been favorable. Geneology is interesting. Keep writing the wonderful series you write. They fill my heart and hours with joy!

  43. Thank you for sharing!! I think every family has some kind of ‘secret’ !! I know because I’m trying to find out if there is a ‘secret’ or it’s only a rumor! Thank you for feeling free to share with those of us who look up to you!

  44. Several years ago I too began to trance my family – especially on my maternal side. As it turns out one family line goes all the back to the foundations of our country, and I am now a member of the DAR. What I found most fascinating was how this very large maternal family tree has huge numbers of members to trace – all the way back to the settling of Virginia.
    More mysterious are the “holes” in the record. Some, because of the death of so many young children. But others had their names “struck” from the family bibles leave curious gaps.
    I am most frustrated by the lack of a family record for my father – his mother gave birth to him as an illegitimate child. No one would ever speak of this – and it was only through later genetic testing that it came to light.
    During my search I too used Ancestry.com. But since I have “famous” pioneers in my lineage, some of the most useful information was found in the records of smaller towns and a couple of very small museums.

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