Liv Tyler – Who Do You Think You Are – “Drummer Boy”

On Monday’s season finale of Who Do You Think You Are? (airing Monday, April 24 at 8/7c on TLC), actress Liv Tyler unravels the mystery of her father Steven Tyler’s maternal family line, uncovering ancestors who took part in famous American battles. She also learns truths that change the way she will see herself and her family, forever.

Please note that this, the last episode for this season, airs on MONDAY, not Sunday, this week.

This episode will especially appeal to Civil War buffs.

Liv focuses on her father’s family line. Her father is Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. Liv’s family has been immersed in music as far back as she knows.

Liv begins her journey with a genealogist who was able to extend her family back several generations, to her great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Elliott who they found on the 1860 census in New York as a shoemaker.

Coming forward another decade to the 1870 census, Liv discovered something in the race column of the 1870 census that did not match the 1860 census – spawning questions that many of us have experienced as well.

Genealogy isn’t so much about whether you will find surprises, but when and what those surprises will be.

Liv travels to Clinton County, NY to discover more.

Liv discovers that Robert served in the War of 1812, as a drummer boy.

I had absolutely no idea about the role that drummers played in early wars, the War of 1812 as well as the Civil War.

Drummers apparently served a much more important function than I ever imagined, especially since many were in essence children, too young to really serve as a soldier. They drummed commands, a language that all the soldiers understood and apparently could hear over the din of warfare. The drum rat-a-tat-tat” was a specific set of instructions relative to how to advance, or retreat, or whatever they were supposed to do.

I always learn something interested in each of these episodes. In addition to this tidbit, I learned that the state of New York outlawed slavery in 1799 and mandated that males that had been held in slavery serve as indentured servants until they were 28 years of age.

Robert’s son, George Washington Elliott served in the Civil War, at both Antietam and Gettysburg. He did survive, to have 17 children, but not unscathed. Liv traveled to the National Archives to find George’s service records and the records of his unit.

I really enjoyed the special treat that they had in store for Liv at the National Archives!

From there, Liv visited Gettysburg with a historian that explained the troop movements of that fateful day.

I have visited the Gettysburg Battlefield, and just being in that place where so many fought and died is a sobering event. Somber doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling there.

The peace and tranquility of the fields today belie the events that took place there in July of 1863 where someplace between 46,000 and 51,000 men were killed, injured or captured. More than 12,000 died.

Liv discovered that George eventually applied for a pension, listing Schuylerville, Saratoga County, NY as his place of residence in 1889.

Liv wanted to learn about George’s life after the Civil War, so she traveled to Schuylerville and met with a historian there.

Liv desperately wanted to see what George looked like, and not only was she able to do that, she also discovered that he was a Mason.

Unusual for these episodes, Liv’s father, Steve, joined her in Schuylerville where she told him of her discoveries and how connected their family had been to these men that they previously knew nothing about.

The family resemblance between Steve and his ancestor, above, is remarkable.

Together, Liv and her father visited George Washington Elliott and his wife.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s episodes of Who Do You Think You Are.  I have and look forward to next season. In the mean time, I hope you make discoveries of your own!!!

Concepts – Percentage of Ancestors’ DNA

A very common question is, “How much DNA of an ancestor do I carry and how does that affect my ethnicity results?”

This question is particularly relevant for people who are seeking evidence of a particular ethnicity of an ancestor several generations back in time. I see this issue raise its head consistently when people take an ethnicity test and expect that their “full blood” Native American great-great-grandmother will show up in their results.

Let’s take a look at how DNA inheritance works – and why they might – or might not find the Native DNA they seek, assuming that great-great-grandma actually was Native.

Inheritance

Every child inherits exactly 50% of their autosomal DNA from each parent (except for the X chromosome in males.) However, and this is a really important however, the child does NOT inherit exactly half of the DNA of each ancestor who lived before the parents. How can this be, you ask?

Let’s step through this logically.

The number of ancestors you have doubles in each generation, going back in time.

This chart provides a summary of how many ancestors you have in each generation, an approximate year they were born using a 25 year generation and a 30 year generation, respectively, and how much of their DNA, on average, you could expect to carry, today. You’ll notice that by the time you’re in the 7th generation, you can be expected, on average, to carry 0.78% meaning less than 1% of that GGGGG-grandparent’s DNA.

Looking at the chart, you can see that you reach the 1% level at about the 6th generation with an ancestor probably born in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

It’s also worth noting here that generations can be counted differently. In some instances, you are counted as generation one, so your GGGGG-grandparent would be generation 8.

In general, DNA showing ethnicity below about 5% is viewed as somewhat questionable and below 2% is often considered to be “noise.” Clearly, that isn’t always the case, especially if you are dealing with continental level breakdowns, as opposed to within Europe, for example. Intra-continental (regional) ethnicity breakdowns are particularly difficult and unreliable, but continental level differences are easier to discern and are considered to be more reliable, comparatively.

If you want to learn more about how ethnicity calculations are derived and what they mean, please read the article Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum.

On Average May Not Mean You

On average, each child receives half of the DNA of each ancestor from their parent.

The words “on average” are crucial to this discussion, because the average assumes that in fact each generation between your GGGGG-grandmother and you inherited exactly half of the DNA in each generation from their parent that was contributed by that GGGGG-grandmother.

Unfortunately, while averages are all that we have to work with, that’s not always how ancestral DNA is passed in each generation.

Let’s say that your GGGGG-grandmother was indeed full Native, meaning no admixture at all.

You can click to enlarge images.

Using the chart above, you can see that your GGGGG-grandmother was full native on all 20 “pieces” or segments of DNA used for this illustration. Those segments are colored red. The other 10 segments, with no color, were contributed by the father.

Let’s say she married a person who was not Native, and in every generation since, there were no additional Native ancestors.

Her child, generation 6, inherited exactly 50% of her DNA, shown in red – meaning 10 segments..

Generation 5, her grandchild, inherited exactly half of her DNA that was carried by the parent, shown in red – meaning 5 segments..

However, in the next generation, generation 4, that child inherited more than half of the Native DNA from their parent. They inherited half of their parent’s DNA, but the half that was randomly received included 3 Native segments out of a possible 5 Native segments that the parent carried.

In generation 3, that child inherited 2 of the possible 3 segments that their parent carried.

In generation 2, that person inherited all of the Native DNA that their parent carried.

In generation 1, your parent inherited half of the DNA that their parent carried, meaning one of 2 segments of Native DNA carried by your grandparent.

And you will either receive all of that one segment, part of that one segment, or none of that one segment.

In the case of our example, you did not inherit that segment, which is why you show no Native admixture, even though your GGGGG-grandmother was indeed fully Native..

Of course, even if you had inherited that Native segment, and that segment isn’t something the population reference models recognize as “Native,” you still won’t show as carrying any Native at all. It could also be that if you had inherited the red segment, it would have been too small and been interpreted as noise.

The “Received” column at the right shows how much of the ancestral DNA the current generation received from their parent.

The “% of Original” column shows how the percentage of GGGGG-grandmother’s DNA is reduced in each generation.

The “Expected” column shows how much DNA, “on average” we would expect to see in each generation, as compared to the “% of Original” which is how much they actually carry.

I intentionally made the chart, above, reflect a scenario close to what we could expect, on average. However, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility to see something like the following scenario, as well.

In the second example, above, neither you nor your parent or grandparent inherited any of the Native segments.

It’s also possible to see a third example, below, where 4 generations in a row, including you, inherited the full amount of Native DNA segments carried by the GG-grandparent.

Testing Other Relatives

Every child of every couple inherits different DNA from their parents. The 50% of their parents’ DNA that they inherit is not all the same. The three example charts above could easily represent three children of the GG-Grandparent and their descendants.

The pedigree chart below shows the three different examples, above.  The great-great-grandparent in the 4th generation who inherited 3 Native DNA segments is shown first, then the inheritance of the Native segments through all 3 children to the current generation.

Therefore, you may not have inherited the red segment of GGGGG-grandmother’s Native DNA, but your sibling might, or vice versa. As you can see in the chart above, one of your third cousins received 3 native segments from GGGGG-grandmother. but your other third cousin received none.

You can see why people are always encouraged to test their parents and grandparents as well as siblings. You never know where your ancestor’s DNA will turn up, and each person will carry a different amount, and different segments of DNA from your common ancestors.

In other words, your great-aunt and great-uncle’s DNA is every bit as important to you as your own grandparent’s DNA – so test everyone in older generations while you can, and their children if they are no longer available.

Back to Great-Great-Grandma

Going back to great-great-grandma and her Native heritage. You may not show Native ethnicity when you expected to see Native, but you may have other resources and recourses. Don’t give up!

Reason Resources and Comments
She really wasn’t Native. Genealogical research will help and mitochondrial DNA testing of an appropriate descendant will point the way to her true ethnic heritage, at least on her mother’s side.
She was Native, but the ethnicity test doesn’t show that I am. Test relatives and find someone descended from her through all females to take a mitochondrial test. The mitochondrial test will answer the question for her matrilineal line unquestionably.
She was partly, but not fully Native. This would mean that she had less Native DNA than you thought, which would mean the percentage coming to you is lower on average than anticipated. Mitochondrial DNA testing someone descended from her through all females to the current generation, which can be male, would reveal whether her mother was Native from her mother’s line.
She was Native, but several generations back in time. You or your siblings may show small percentages of Native or other locations considered to be a component of Native admixture in the absence of any other logical explanation for their presence, such as Siberian or Eastern Asian.

Using Y and Mitochondrial DNA Testing to Supplement Ethnicity Testing

When in doubt about ethnicity results, find an appropriately descended person to take a Y DNA test (males only, for direct paternal lineage) or a mitochondrial DNA test, for direct matrilineal results. These tests will yield haplogroup information and haplogroups are associated with specific world regions and ethnicities, providing a more definitive answer regarding the heritage of that specific line.

Y DNA reflects the direct male line, shown in blue above, and mitochondrial DNA reflects the direct matrilineal line, shown in red. Only males carry Y DNA, but both genders carry mitochondrial DNA.

For a short article about the different kinds of DNA and how they can help genealogists, please read 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy.

Ethnicity testing is available from any of the 3 major vendors, meaning Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe. Base haplogroups are provided with 23andMe results, but detailed testing for Y and mitochondrial DNA is only available from Family Tree DNA.

To read about the difference between the two types of testing utilized for deriving haplogroups between 23andMe and Family Tree DNA, please read Haplogroup Comparisons between Family Tree DNA and 23andMe.

For more information on haplogroups, please read What is a Haplogroup?

For a discussion about testing family members, please read Concepts – Why DNA Testing the Oldest Family Members is Critically Important.

If you’d like to read a more detailed explanation of how inheritance works, please read Concepts – How Your Autosomal DNA Identifies Your Ancestors.

DNA Day Sale Starts Today!

Everyone anticipates this sale every year. The DNA Day Sale begins sometime today, April 20, and runs for a week, according to the information provided by Family Tree DNA, below.

National DNA Day, April 25, celebrates the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, as well as the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. And wherever DNA is being celebrated, you’ll find genetic genealogists eagerly anticipating a sale on DNA tests.

Beginning April 20, the FTDNA DNA Day 2017 sale will begin! The sale ends at 11:59 PM Central Time on Thursday, April 27. Please note that Items ordered on invoice during the sale must be paid by the end of the sale.

You’ll note that Y-DNA and mtDNA upgrades are not included. You will receive the sale price if you add a new product, listed above, to an existing kit, but going from Y37 to 67 or mtPlus to mtFull Sequence (FMS) will not be discounted.

Click here to take advantage of these prices and order or upgrade.

Unwelcome Discoveries and Light at the End of the Tunnel, 52 Ancestors #156

Mother used to say that things happen in groups of 3. These past couple weeks have proven her old adage to be true. What an emotional roller-coaster!

Sooner or later, every genealogist meets an ancestor they really don’t like. One whose personal values are diametrically opposed to their own in a way that causes the genealogist some amount of…well…let’s just say consternation. Maybe even soul searching as you struggle to understand. And maybe you can’t understand and you wish the ancestor just wasn’t yours.

I met one of those when I wrote about Thomas Day, the probable wife murderer. When I discovered his murderous history, which looks very much like he beat his wife to death, given that he was found sitting by her dead body, I even checked my pedigree chart to see how far back he fell. The answer is 9 generations, meaning that if I carry any of his DNA at all, today, it would be on average 0.195% of his DNA, less than one fifth of 1%. I felt like I dodged that bullet. Whew!!

Coping Mechanisms

It’s interesting to see how people cope with revelations like this. This ancestor is so distant that you can emotionally distance yourself in many ways – by saying he might not be a murderer after all, by compensating for his behavior by making excuses, by minimizing the negative information, by emotionally divorcing yourself from him, or by accepting the evidence, feeling empathy for his spouse and realizing that he, 9 generations ago, really has nothing to do with you today.

But let’s face it. Who wants an icky ancestor?

Each of the ancestors in our tree has bad and good, some more bad than good, and some vice versa. We know so very little about any of our ancestors that we define them by the snippets, good or bad, that we do know. Keep in mind that each of those people did indeed do one thing that was very important to you – and that’s to beget your ancestor who begot another ancestor who a few generations later had one of your parents who had you. You would not exist, as you, without them – regardless of anything else in their life. You are their legacy every bit as much as what they did when they were alive.

We can simply hope we don’t “inherit” the “murderous” proclivity, genes, or whatever brought that person to that place in time in a way that led to that behavior – whether the driving factor was some something social, situational or genetic. We hope that the trait or tendency was not passed to us, today, either through genetics or family dynamics, meaning learned behaviors by example.

Whatever it was, we don’t want it!

Mental Illness – The Untouchable Topic

Of course, there is the possibility that mental illness was involved. Mental illness tends to be the topic that no one, and I mean no one, discusses.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, in my family line, a descendant of Thomas Day, Joel Vannoy, Thomas Day’s great-great-grandson was in fact committed to the Eastern State Mental Hospital for the insane in Knoxville, Tennessee. Joel was my great-great-grandfather.

The people in Tennessee who told me all kinds of things when I first began visiting and talking about genealogy never revealed that. They talked about wife cheaters and wife beaters and women having children not fathered by their husbands and “carrying on” with the preacher, but no one ever talked about mental illness. That was THE taboo subject.

After I made that discovery, quite by happenstance, in the court records, it turned out that people knew. Then the uncomfortable discussion immediately turned to which side of the family the “crazy came down from.” Everyone was very anxious to distance themselves not from Joel himself, but from the possible spectre of mental illness – and by virtue of the unsaid, that it was or could be found in their line as well.

Joel wasn’t dangerous, just “preachin’, swearin’, and threatenin’ to fight,” according to his hospital paperwork, but his grandson, my grandfather might have been a different matter.

Smoke and Fire

My grandfather, William George Estes, seemed to have a somewhat distant relationship with a moral compass. He not only cheated on my grandmother, Ollie Bolton, but with her own young cousin. After my grandmother divorced him, he married that cousin. They moved to Harlan County, Kentucky where he was a moonshiner and then cheated on her with her cousin. See a pattern here, perhaps? Divorced and married again, he treated that third wife very poorly, according to my mother who visited a grand total of one time. Mother was horrified and did not wish to discuss the situation.

Sometimes oral history is right, and sometimes it’s wrong, but there is often some sort of fire where there is smoke. In the case of William George Estes, there are troubling whispers about the murder of a revenue agent. I have no idea if that story is true, but I do know that one of his children starved to death, according to the death certificate. No one talked about that either. In fact, until I found the death certificate quite by accident, I never knew the child existed. I wanted to believe that the cause of death was wrong, but then I recalled that my father’s sister reported that when they were young, they didn’t have enough food and the children were fed moonshine to keep their hungry stomachs from hurting and so that they would sleep.

Imagine hearing this about your parent and grand-parents. Imagine living like that as a child. Imagine being my father.

Then, add to that the fact that the Aunt, who was somewhat inclined to embellish, said that when your grandparents divorced, when your father was about 12, neither parent wanted your father or his brother who was younger by two years. The boys, desperate, hopped on a freight train with the hobos, finally making their way back to Tennessee, from Indiana, to their grandparents’ home. They arrived very hungry and dirty. I didn’t want to believe that, but after being told the same thing by three different people with personal knowledge, I realized it was true.

Mind you, the mother who didn’t want him is the mother my father cared for, at home, for months, in her final lengthy illness in 1955. He did not betray her as she had betrayed him.

That unwanted 12 year old child turned into a 14 year old who lied about his age to enter the service in World War I. Anything was probably better than trying to scavenge. It’s no wonder he spent the majority of his life, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places” and trying to pretend everything was OK when it wasn’t.

I have never believed, nor do I believe today, that the past is necessarily a predictor or deterministic of the future. I don’t believe that parents’ actions dictate what the child will turn out to be, either bad or good, although they certainly have an influence. The world is full of examples that disprove that logic, in both directions. I fully believe that nurture can either overcome or mediate nature – excepting of course for barriers like Down’s Syndrome that people are born with – and that our own personal decisions are what drives and determines our lives. Of course, sometimes there seems to be no nurture, but still, we have the ability to choose and to change – to create our own destiny.

My father was no angel. He was human. I have no idea how much of his behavior sprung from his early environment, but I know that later he made choices that were not in his own best interest and he paid dearly for them.

The Father I Knew

The father I knew loved me, doted on me in fact, for just short of 8 years. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1963.

He spent quality time with me when I did see him. He made special meals and I got to have special “coffee” with him. Coffee parties instead of tea parties. Of course, “coffee” was really warm milk and sugar with enough coffee to look like today’s latte. He played dolls with me, pulled me in my red wagon and often held me as I slept. I have no bad or negative memories of him.

My parents separated when I was young. While my father was a doting father to me, he was also doting in a different way, it appears, on women other than my mother.  A long-time pattern with my father it seems, as with his father.

My “half-brother,” Dave, who also knew my father, remembered him in the same affectionate way.

The father we knew took us fishing and was a man we adored. Our father rescued animals in need, a raccoon whose mother was killed on the road, an orphan duck and a little dog named Timmy. He rescued people too, including two orphan children from the orphanage in Knightstown, Indiana with his last wife, Virgie.

Dave and I who were born when my father was in his 50s have very different memories about my father than my sister, Edna, who was born when my father was in his 20s.

Edna did not know our father as a child and her opinion of him was formed entirely from her mother’s perspective.

My father did find Edna as an adult and tried to establish a relationship, as best you can after a prolonged absence. Pictured above, my father with Edna’s children between about 1958-1960.

I surely don’t blame Edna’s mother for how she felt, as my father was anything but a model husband – at least until his last marriage.

His last wife, Virgie, a lovely woman, knew him, understood him and loved him. In a letter to me after his death, she wrote that no matter what anyone said about him, no one knew what he had survived as a child and that he was not all bad. Perhaps he at last finally found the love he sought so desperately. I hope so. He was killed two years and 3 days after their marriage.

Our Identity

Our identity, in many ways, is tied to our family – to our parents. It’s tied to knowing that our parents are our parents, that our father is our father, that our siblings are indeed our siblings. It’s rooted in what we believe to be true and in good memories that make us feel warm, wanted and loved.

Our identity is uprooted when we discover something that contradicts, challenges or disproves that identify, and to say it’s upsetting is just about as big an understatement as can be made.

It shakes our very worldview, of ourselves and our place in the family. It makes us question if we are somehow less worthy because of circumstances beyond our control. We wonder if we were unwanted, a mistake, or an inconvenience.

We question who we really are. These types of discoveries are life-shaking and life-altering.

Grief

I’ve always felt that many times, I’ve been brought to and through something to provide me with perspective so that I can help others. Perhaps that’s one way of making bad things alright – of finding a plateau for acceptance – or maybe it’s just my justification for why bad or painful things happen. The silver living, so to speak. Regardless, it’s a way of helping others through situations that are almost impossible to understand without having walked a mile in those shoes.

Sometimes that mile is awfully long, uphill and freefalling at the same time, and treacherous, let me tell you. The worst roller-coaster ride you’ll ever experience.

Such was the case with the discovery that my brother, Dave, wasn’t really my brother. I then spent months doubting that my father was my father, only to discover that he was my father, and not Dave’s father. It was a miserable few months filled with doubt, dread and anxiety. The end was a mixture of relief for myself and anguish for Dave’s loss – information I never shared with him because he was terminally ill at that point.

In essence, I twice, within a few months, lost the brother I so loved.

That experience gave me the opportunity to experience the agony that others would as well, but also to learn that love really has nothing to do with biology. The depth of suffering is equal to the depth of love.

When we lose what we believe, there is grief involved. Grief over the lost truth, over the part of what we believed ourselves to be that isn’t, doesn’t exist, and dies before the rebirth of a revised identity.

Sometimes grief over the fact that someone lied to us, or hid the truth – even if they believed it was for our own good or their own protection. Grief has many reasons and many forms. But when we lose something we held dear, in any form, we grieve.

The Double Whammy

When grief is mixed with betrayal, it’s even worse. Betrayal takes a couple of forms too. Betrayal of oneself, of a moral compass, or personal betrayal by someone we love and thought we could trust.

Think of betrayal of a moral compass as occurring when someone does something that they know they shouldn’t – and do it anyway. And I’m not talking about eating chocolate here – but actions that are socially, culturally or legally unacceptable – generally addressed by legal or severe personal consequences.

Think of personal betrayal as when you discover that your spouse cheated on you.

Sometimes betrayals involved both kinds of issues. Those are particularly ugly.

Times Three

This past week or two, I’ve gotten to experience up close and personal three different betrayal/grief situations – although they are not all three mine. Two belong to close friends, which means I share their pain as I have been involved in their respective journeys.

In one case, a woman accidentally discovered through DNA that her mother and her uncle are half instead of full siblings. Yes, there are all kinds of reasons why that might be, but the first assumption out the gate is always that grandma cheated. That may not be the case, but other options, like the possibility that nonconsensual sex might be involved is also disturbing. Most of us clearly know what is involved in begetting, but we really don’t want to know the details of grandma’s sex life. TMI.

Regardless of why, the revelation that the person you grew up with believing was your full sibling is not, and the entire family lived in ignorance, except for one person, who probably lived a lie – is very disturbing on several levels. It means rethinking everything and everyone involved. It also means you’ll probably never know what really happened, but you get to deal with all of the possibilities. A homework assignment no one signs up for.

Been there, done that. It’s ugly and it takes time to get used to your new identity that you don’t like nearly as well as your old one. Your family members get new identities too. And grandma? You’re just confused about her, at the same time remembering that women at that time had very few options. All I can say is try not to judge.

It takes time to process through all of this very emotional high drama, especially when you suddenly realize you’ve spent several decades working on the genealogy of a line that isn’t yours. One more thing to grieve.

In the second case, a friend discovered the identity of his father, after decades of looking, being one of two brothers. Along with that, he discovered why the secret was closely guarded by his mother for her entire life. It’s one of those stories that would make a wonderful soap opera or reality TV show – so long as it’s not your own story. It’s also incredibly sad on so many levels.

My friend is well adjusted. He’ll absorb this, he’ll deal with it and go on. He now owns the truth he sought for so long. However, I know he was hoping that maybe his father had “only been a married man.” At one time, his mother having an affair with a married man seemed scandalous, but compared to the truth, it’s the tame option.

While these types of events are extremely interesting and colorful if they aren’t your ancestors, they are far from amusing when you discover that they pertain to your parent.

Which leads me to the third situation. My own.

Let’s just say that sometimes you have to go through a really dark tunnel to emerge into the light.

The Dominoes Fall

There is a great irony to the fact that I am probably the only person, ever, that knows, or will know when I’m finished, the truth about my father’s life. Except for my father, William Sterling Estes, himself, of course.

The dominoes began to fall a couple weeks ago. And they haven’t stopped. Just when I think there can’t possibly be any more left to discover, there is. It there a bottom to this barrel?

While the two circumstances with my friends involved DNA, one as the accidental medium of discovery, and one as the solution to the long-standing question of paternity, my situation, ironically, has nothing at all to do with DNA.

What are the chances, right?

Sometimes people think that only DNA reveals unsettling surprises, but that’s not the case. Unmasking the truth is as old as genealogy and research itself.

I’ve been prepared for years to find an unknown sibling, or two, or maybe three. Kind of hopeful, actually, since all of the ones I know about are deceased. Nope, that didn’t happen via DNA.

What I have discovered is why there was such a big gap in my father’s life.

Pandora’s Box

Let’s just say I’m struggling through this. I am extremely grateful for the woman who sent me the information, but man alive, has it ever opened a Pandora’s box. Like my friend who unveiled the identity of his father, I got what I wanted but the situation discovered is very disturbing on several different levels – which is obviously why it was hidden by anyone who knew.

The information revealed that my father was using an alias, and was prosecuted for statutory rape after marrying a 15 year old girl. The female in question had listed her age on the marriage license as 18, and had previously told him she was 24 when they met. The testimony asserts that the girl’s mother told my father that the female in question was 15 five days before they were married, which means that he committed statutory rape, because he was an adult. And yes, he went to prison for a felony – for having sex with his wife, who was less than 30 days away from being 16 which was the legal age of consent in that state at that time.

Scratching your head as to how that makes sense? Me too.

The first thing I did was to have a huge meltdown when I saw the words statutory rape. I mean, the second word is horrible enough, before the addition of the first word. That was before I discovered the details, almost two weeks into this nightmare, specifically the age discrepancy issue and the fact that the wife lied about her age on the marriage license – and that the “event” was consensual. I breathed a huge sigh of relief about the consensual part, because I really did not want to think of my father in the way I typically think of a rapist.

There had been vague rumblings in the family about a situation like that, but I thought I had disproved those rumors years ago, based on when and where my father applied for his Social Security card. I was wrong. This was something entirely different. The original rumbling was probably two stories conflated together or someone who only knew a tidbit. That old smoke and fire thing again.

I found it difficult to believe that my father was sentenced to prison under the stated circumstances, so I talked to a historian at the archives in the state where this occurred and then visited the county where the trial proceedings remain.  The verdict; yes, that is exactly what happened and why. If a male over the age of consent had sex with a female under the age of consent, it was considered statutory rape. There was absolutely no legal differentiation between that and forcible rape, and the mandatory sentence was the same too.

The woman who sent me the original information assumed I knew about “it” and had omitted the information from his timeline because of what “it” was. Believe me, “it” was news to me.

If you’re saying “Holy Cow” or the same phrase with another word in place of cow, so was I. I walked around for days shaking my head and doing the facepalm. I desperately want to grab ahold of my father, shake him, and scream, “What the hell were you thinking?”

An alias and an underaged girl – what was he thinking? My mother had a saying about that kind of behavior too – something to do with thinking with the wrong body part.

Of course, I’m assuming here that my father did in fact know her true age, but I suspect that he had no idea he could be prosecuted if they were married. Perhaps that’s why they married. Or maybe he believed the girl’s version of her age. His testimony is not included in the case because he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty.

Why did he do that, considering the length of a sentence for statutory rape? Perhaps to spare his wife from having to testify about very private things? Maybe he didn’t fully understand. We’ll never know, because I clearly can’t ask him what he was thinking.

I do know, based on his letters, that he didn’t realize that his wife divorced him a couple years later. How sad is that?

And in the greatest of ironies, the judge who sentenced him wound up trying to help him, saying that his hands were tied in the situation by the guilty plea and the mandatory sentence required.

The Maze

I feel like I’ve spent the past two weeks or so living in a twisty-turny maze that rivals any spine-tingling gripping can’t-put-it-down novel I’ve ever read. Except this is no novel.

As any good genealogist knows, there are clues to be followed. And yes, because I can’t not know, I dug into every clue with the tenacity of a beagle after a fresh bone.

It’s been a productive search too, finding records at state and county archives. Many records. Some with depositions and testimony. Some include heartbreaking letters…from my father.

My father did go to prison, but he was not a violent man. He seemed to have been somewhat impulsive and he loved too many women, the wrong women, too closely together. I can’t help but wonder if there are more wives and marriages yet to be discovered, but because he was using an alias or aliases, I’ll likely never know. If you’re up for some high drama entertainment, you can read more about my father’s story here.

I’m guessing alcohol played a part in his errant decisions too. I’m not surprised, given what we know about his childhood. Both of his brothers had alcohol issues as well. Maybe nature and nurture were both stacked against them.

My mother and others said that my father fought with the demon, alcohol, and tried repeatedly to “get clean.” Those were the days before AA. At his death, Virgie, his wife at the time, said he was clean and had “dried out” in the VA hospital in Fort Wayne. Her daughter said he had fallen off the wagon. Regardless of whether he ultimately won that battle in his 60s or was defeated one last time by alcohol, alcoholism surely informed many of his decisions and negatively affected the relationships in his life in the years my mother knew him – and probably earlier as well.

Yes, my father’s life was “colorful” in a very sad way and the price he paid was heart-wrenching and dark. I shudder to think about his life in prison. I’m still struggling with the reality of my father and prison and all of the associated connotations and baggage.

A history of prisons in the state where he served exists, and it’s so horrid I haven’t been able to read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Yes, prisoners deserve to serve time, but they don’t deserve to be chained together for up to 18 hours a day, working on road construction in the unrelenting heat as, one by one, they fall and die. That’s torture, not punishment or rehabilitation.  He served during that time. Is it any wonder that the prison’s detailed inmate records for this time period have somehow disappeared over the years?

More than once in these past couple of weeks I have wondered if it would have been an easier discovery to find out he wasn’t my father at all – rather than to discover my father was not quite who I thought he was.

Conflict

I will be sharing more with you as I can, while respecting the privacy of people who may still be living. When you’re doing genealogy, you really never expect the big reveal to be your parent – and certainly not in quite this way.

But first, before I can share more, I have to finish the research and get through this dark space and out of the tunnel into the light.

I’m both very angry with my father for his behavior that can’t be called anything but massively stupid, at best, and predatory at worst. It’s very difficult to wrap my head around that and to know that I’ll probably never really know whether he was in some ways a victim himself or whether he was, in truth, a slimy bottom feeder. Or some combination of both.

At the same time, my heart aches terribly for him based on some of the evidence that has come forward. He was, after all, my father, the man I loved and adored. The thought of him being tortured, for years, tears at the very fabric of my soul. Yet, he survived, and so will I.

It’s hard to feel this conflicted about someone you dearly loved and idolized as a child and who was ripped from your life by death. It’s also very difficult to reconcile the man I knew with the man in the impersonal black and white words of the legal proceedings staring back at me resolutely and unblinkingly from paper yellowed with age.

I am sharing this most difficult journey because I want others who find themselves in this darkness, regardless of the details of what put you into this space, to know that you are not alone.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

For all of you who might make or have made an inconvenient or unwelcome discovery – through DNA or through traditional genealogical records – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And yes, it’s really dark and ugly and lonely in the tunnel, because it’s a tunnel you have to walk alone.

As you struggle in that dark place, I want you to remember something.

You are YOU, not someone else. You may be a biological product of your parents, but more so you are a product of your own hard work and your personal decisions. Your accomplishments and your decisions are yours. Parents don’t get the credit and they don’t get the blame.

Whatever the dark space, you are the awesome outcome, regardless of anything else. You have the opportunity and potential to shine.

Unwelcome discoveries like this may cause you to doubt or devalue yourself. Don’t.

Just. Don’t. Go. There.

There is a fork in the road, multiple forks in the road, for all of us, and it’s the choice you make at those forks that matters. Those forks define your life.  Your forks – your decisions, not theirs. Their forks do not reflect on you.

Your life is your book. Your parents only get an opening chapter. You get to write the rest. Those are your blank pages to fill. Yours. Only yours.

You are only in control of you. Your ancestor’s decisions, while they clearly affect your life in terms of your existence, where you were born and your economic circumstances, do not define who you are or dictate the kind of person that you evolve to be or the choices you make.

Regardless of the creepy critters in the dark haunted tunnel, the trap doors and the spider webs, there is a light at the end and you will emerge a better and more empathetic person than you entered. It’s painful, but not fatal.

Just keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t be afraid. The discovery is the worst part, and by the time you’re walking in that tunnel, the discovery is over. You’re now in the healing process. Your wounds will become scars that testify to your strength and survival. Be proud of your resilience.

Just. Keep. Walking.

As I used to say to my kids, “the only way to it is through it.”

Feel the feelings you need to feel, but don’t let those consume you or define you either – and don’t wallow there. No good will come of that. Purposefully walk through the tunnel and out the other end into the warmth and light. The rest of your life is waiting for you, and you ARE the light for others.

Easter is, after all, a time of resurrection and redemption – of the earth when flowers joyfully spring from their long sleep and as our souls emerge from colorless hibernation as well.

Take heart, spring always arrives, no matter how long, cold or bleak the winter in the tunnel!

John Stamos – Who Do You Think You Are – “Honor and Family”

On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, actor John Stamos explores his Greek heritage for the first time and learns more about his grandfather’s sad childhood. He also meets a relative he never knew and hears firsthand about his family’s enduring strength. In a suiting coincidence and homage to John’s heritage, the episode premieres on Greek Easter, which is usually celebrated on a different date but this year coincides with the Western calendar’s Easter Sunday.

Warning – get the box of Kleenex.  Yep, this is one of those – in a good way.

John begins by explaining that he never wanted to go to college, and how supportive his parents were of his decision to pursue acting.  John’s parents and grandparents were all very family focused.

His parents are gone now, and of course, he and his sisters wish they had asked many more questions while they could have. 

He said, “I always thought Mom and Dad would be around.”  Yea, John, you and so many others, right up until they aren’t anymore.

As it turns out, for John, the information he was able to glean from a trip to Greece wasn’t anything that his parents were likely to have known.

John’s grandfather, for whom John’s father and John himself are both named, certainly did know, and perhaps intentionally left that part of the family story back in Greece.

John and his sisters think they remember the village name in Greece, but they have different memories, so John will need help figuring out where his family is from.  He thinks they were from someplace near Tripoli. Turns out that he was close – about 40 miles or so distant. And of course, the family name was changed in America.

John heads to the Greek National Archives to begin unraveling his own personal Greek tragedy.

Courtesy TLC

At the National Archives, John works with a historian who has put together as much as she can from what is in essence a Greek census document and school records that show John’s grandfather as a 13 year old boy and have him marked as an orphan.

John never knew this about his grandfather, and wants to know more, but of course, he must return to the county where his grandfather was raised.

The Greek countryside is stunningly beautiful, but be prepared…for snow.  I had no idea it snowed in Greece, and John is driving on those mountain roads in the snow, with the flocks of sheep.

John’s next stop is the notarial archives which have records of things like land sales.  Indeed, John’s grandfather’s mother sold land in 1916.  The historian explained to John that this was her dower land, near and dear to her heart because it was given to her when she married.  To sell it would have probably meant she was in some kind of trouble.

As John said, “a desperate act of a desperate woman.”

But to find out why, John had to go on to the actual village, Kakouri, to discover what was actually going on, and why. John is now in the part of the world where villages hang on mountainsides, roads are one lane and addresses are given by description.  “Look for the house with the green gate.”

John discovers that he is literally related to half the village, and probably the other half too, if he went back more than a couple generations or did some DNA testing.  I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to do a village genealogy and DNA test everyone, but I digress.

John discovers the secret that his grandfather very clearly knew, and left behind.  He meets a most amazing woman and finds a photo of his grandfather’s mother, hanging on the wall and learns the story of this amazingly strong woman from someone who knew her.  She sacrificed her dower land for honor and family. 

John’s reunion in the village and his discoveries there are nothing short of amazing, and heartwarming, and heart-wrenching too.

Courtesy TLC

I’m so glad John made this journey and took all of us along. The views of Greece and the cemetery, especially if you are a cemetery buff, are worth watching alone. I love learning about the cultures and records of other countries.

But for John, it truly was a journey home in ways he could never have imagined.  It’s amazing how much “distance’ is created in just two generations, and how much can be recovered when you physically visit the location where your ancestor lived.  There is just something about standing where they stood and seeing what they saw that gives you roots.

Don’t forget the Kleenex, and enjoy!  It’s wonderful way to spend Easter evening.

Autosomal DNA Transfers – Which Companies Accept Which Tests?

Somehow, I missed the announcement that Family Tree DNA now accepts uploads from MyHeritage.

Update – Shortly after the publication of this article, I was notified that the MyHeritage download has been disabled and they are working on the issue which is expected to be resolved shortly.  Family Tree DNA is ready when the MyHeritage downloads are once again functional.

Other people may have missed a few announcements too, or don’t understand the options, so I’ve created a quick and easy reference that shows which testing vendors’ files can be uploaded to which other vendors.

Why Transfer?

Just so that everyone is on the same page, if you test your autosomal DNA at one vendor, Vendor A, some other vendors allow you to download your raw data file from Vendor A and transfer your results to their company, Vendor B.  The transfer to Vendor B is either free or lower cost than testing from scratch.  One site, GedMatch, is not a testing vendor, but is a contribution/subscription comparison site.

Vendor B then processes your DNA file that you imported from Vendor A, and your results are then included in the database of Vendor B, which means that you can obtain your matches to other people in Vendor B’s data base who tested there originally and others who have also transferred.  You can also avail yourself of any other tools that Vendor B provides to their customers.  Tools vary widely between companies.  For example, Family Tree DNA, GedMatch and 23andMe provide chromosome browsers, while Ancestry does not.  All 3 major vendors (Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe) have developed unique offerings (of varying quality) to help their customers understand the messages that their unique DNA carries.

Ok, Who Loves Whom?

The vendors in the left column are the vendors performing the autosomal DNA tests. The vendor row (plus GedMatch) across the top indicates who accepts upload transfers from whom, and which file versions. Please consider the notes below the chart.

  • Family Tree DNA accepts uploads from both other major vendors (Ancestry and 23andMe) but the versions that are compatible with the chip used by FTDNA will have more matches at Family Tree DNA. 23andMe V3, Ancestry V1 and MyHeritage results utilize the same chip and format as FTDNA. 23andMe V4 and Ancestry V2 utilize different formats utilizing only about half of the common locations. Family Tree DNA still allows free transfers and comparisons with other testers, but since there are only about half of the same DNA locations in common with the FTDNA chip, matches will be fewer. Additional functions can be unlocked for a one time $19 fee.
  • Neither Ancestry, 23andMe nor Genographic accept transfer data from any other vendors.
  • MyHeritage does accept transfers, although that option is not easy to find. I checked with a MyHeritage representative and they provided me with the following information:  “You can upload an autosomal DNA file from your profile page on MyHeritage. To access your profile page, login to your MyHeritage account, then click on your name which is displayed towards the top right corner of the screen. Click on “My profile”. On the profile page you’ll see a DNA tab, click on the tab and you’ll see a link to upload a file.”  MyHeritage has also indicated that they will be making ethnicity results available to individuals who transfer results into their system in May, 2017.
  • LivingDNA has just released an ethnicity product and does not have DNA matching capability to other testers.  They also do not provide a raw DNA download file for customers, but hope to provide that feature by mid-May. Without a download file, you cannot transfer your DNA to other companies for processing and inclusion in their data bases. Living DNA imputes DNA locations that they don’t test, but the initial download, when available, file will only include the DNA locations actually tested. According to LivingDNA, the Illumina GSA chip includes 680,000 autosomal markers. It’s unclear at this point how many of these locations overlaps with other chips.
  • WeGene’s website is in Chinese and they are not a significant player, but I did include them because GedMatch accepts their files. WeGene’s website indicates that they accept 23andme uploads, but I am unable to determine which version or versions. Given that their terms and conditions and privacy and security information are not in English, I would be extremely hesitant before engaging in business. I would not be comfortable in trusting on online translation for this type of document. SNPedia reports that WeGene has data quality issues.
  • GedMatch is not a testing vendor, so has no entry in the left column, but does provide tools and accepts all versions of files from each vendor that provides files, to date, with the exception of the Genographic Project.  GedMatch is free (contribution based) for many features, but does have more advanced functions available for a $10 monthly subscription.
  • The Genographic Project tested their participants at the Family Tree DNA lab until November 2016, when they moved to the Helix platform, which performs an exome test using a different chip.
  • The Ancestry V2 chip began processing in May 2016.
  • The 23andMe V3 chip began processing in December 2010. The 23andMe V4 chip began processing in November 2013.

Incompatible Files

Please be aware that vendors that accept different versions of other vendors files can only work with the tested locations that are in the files generated by the testing vendors unless they use a technique called imputation.

For example, Family Tree DNA tests about 700,000 locations which are on the same chip as MyHeritage, 23andMe V3 and Ancestry V1. In the later 23andMe V4 test, the earlier 23andMe V2 and the Ancestry V2 tests, only a portion of the same locations are tested.  The 23andMe V4 and Ancestry V2 chips only test about half of the file locations of the vendors who utilize the Illumina OmniExpress chip, but not the same locations as each other since both the Ancestry V2 and 23andMe V4 chips are custom. 23andMe and Ancestry both changed their chips from the OmniExpress version and replaced genealogically relevant locations with medically relevant locations, creating a custom chip.

I know this if confusing, so I’ve created the following chart for chip and test compatibility comparison.

You can easily see why the FTDNA, Ancestry V1, 23andMe V3 and MyHeritage tests are compatible with each other.  They all tested utilizing the same chip.  However, each vendor then applies their own unique matching and ethnicity algorithms to customer results, so your results will vary with each vendor, even when comparing ethnicity predictions or matching the same two individuals to each other.

Apples to Apples to Imputation

It’s difficult for vendors to compare apples to apples with non-compatible files.

I wrote about imputation in the article about MyHeritage, here. In a nutshell, imputation is a technique used to infer the DNA for locations a vendor doesn’t test (or doesn’t receive in a transfer file from another vendor) based on the location’s neighboring DNA and DNA that is “normally” passed together as a packet.

However, the imputed regions of DNA are not your DNA, and therefore don’t carry your mutations, if any.

I created the following diagram when writing the MyHeritage article to explain the concept of imputation when comparing multiple vendors’ files showing locations tested, overlap and imputed regions. You can click to enlarge the graphic.

Family Tree DNA has chosen not to utilize imputation for transfer files and only compares the actual DNA locations tested and uploaded in vendor files, while MyHeritage has chosen to impute locations for incompatible files. Family Tree DNA produces fewer, but accurate matches for incompatible transfer files.  MyHeritage continues to have matching issues.

MyHeritage may be using imputation for all transfer files to equalize the files to a maximum location count for all vendor files. This is speculation on my part, but is speculation based on the differences in matches from known compatible file versions to known matches at the original vendor and then at MyHeritage.

I compared matches to the same person at MyHeritage, GedMatch, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. It appears that imputed matches do not consistently compare reliably. I’m not convinced imputation can ever work reliably for genetic genealogy, because we need our own DNA and mutations. Regardless, imputation is in its infancy today.

To date, two vendors are utilizing imputation. LivingDNA is using imputation with the GSA chip for ethnicity, and MyHeritage for DNA matching.

Summary

Your best results are going to be to test on the platform that the vendor offers, because the vendor’s match and ethnicity algorithms are optimized for their own file formats and DNA locations tested.

That means that if you are transferring an Ancestry V1 file, a 23andMe V3 file or a MyHeritage file, for example, to Family Tree DNA, your matches at Family Tree DNA will be the same as if you tested on the FTDNA platform.  You do not need to retest at Family Tree DNA.

However, if you are transferring an Ancestry V2 file or 23andMe V4 file, you will receive some matches, someplace between one quarter and half as compared to a test run on the vendor’s own chip. For people who can’t be tested again, that’s certainly better than nothing, and cross-chip matching generally picks up the strongest matches because they tend to match in multiple locations. For people who can retest, testing at Family Tree DNA would garner more matches and better ethnicity results for those with 23andMe V2 and V4 tests as well as Ancestry V2 tests.

For absolutely best results, swim in all of the major DNA testing pools, test as many relatives as possible, and test on the vendor’s Native chip to obtain the most matches.  After all, without sharing and matching, there is no genetic genealogy!

WWI – 100 Years Ago – Thou Art Gone, 52 Ancestors #155

World War I was billed as The War to End All Wars, except, of course, it didn’t. This past week saw the commemoration of 100 years since the United States entered WWI. 100 years, a century…and to think my father served.

After three years of keeping the United States out of the war, on April 2, then President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress and called for Congress to declare war on Germany, saying that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Four days later, Congress did just that.

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered WWI by declaring war on Germany after the sinking of 8 neutral US ships by German submarines in February of 1917 along with the discovery of a German plot to encourage Mexico to wage war on the US. The war no longer belonged only to Europe. We were involved, whether we wanted to be or not.

Shortly thereafter, more than 4.7 million Americans rallied to the cry and enlisted. A sampling of the recruitment posters is shown below.  You can click to enlarge.

Twenty-one months later, Germany was defeated and an armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

That’s the short dry version of America’s involvement in WWI, but there was more, so much more.

Families

Those 4.7 million men – they were our fathers and grandfathers and uncles and great-uncles and cousins. Every one of those men left families behind and went to war. 53,402 of those men would be killed in battle, and another 63,114 men would die in service from non-combat injuries and illnesses, including the Spanish Flu which struck with a vengeance beginning about March 1918.

Soldiers, stationed and living in close quarters, were particularly susceptible. This photo from 1918 shows a hospital ward of soldiers suffering from the Spanish Flu in Fort Riley, Kansas. Many military hospitals couldn’t handle the onslaught of patients and temporary hospital quarters were set up in gymnasiums and anyplace additional space could be found.

Ultimately, about one third of the world population became infected, and of those, 10-20% died.

For the soldiers who were taken ill, not only were they very sick, sometimes gravely so, they were far from home and loved ones. They must also have been worried about family at home, if they contracted the flu, and how they fared. Were family members alive or dead?

Both of my father’s paternal grandparents died in July and October of 1918, while he was serving his country.

The Agony of Departure

No matter how much one believes in the cause and wants to fight for all that is right, no matter how patriotic the family, the agony of departure with its uncertainty of return is universal.

This screen shot from The History Place shows soldiers and their families with such poignancy.

My father, a young enlistee, left behind a girlfriend, Virgie…who…as fate would have it, he married not as a young man, but some 44 years later in his sunset years, just two years before his death. The heart-wrenching photo below is of my father, but the handwriting is hers.

Virgie kept and cherished this photo for 44 years until they were reunited, and it was then passed to me after her death, more than another 30 years later – when they were both truly gone.

The Draft

Voluntary enlistments didn’t provide enough manpower. Beginning May 18th, 1917, men born between 1872 and 1900, between the ages of 18 and 45, regardless of citizenship status, were required to register for the draft, providing genealogists today with a peek into the lives of those men sometimes not otherwise available. After all, it was a full century ago.

24 million men registered, or about 25% of the total population.

Today, those registration cards are available at Ancestry and additional information is available at www.fold3.com. At the Ancestry link, be sure to scroll down for history about the registration itself and hints for searching. If your ancestor isn’t present in the draft cards, perhaps it was because he had already enlisted.

The Records

My grandfather’s draft card is shown below. I didn’t know where William George Estes was living at that time, as he moved between Indiana and Tennessee and eventually settled in Harlan County, Kentucky. However, I did know his birthdate, so it was relatively easy to find his draft card with a combination of name and birthdate. Will, as he was called, didn’t use his middle name on his draft registration, but he did sign the card. This is the only copy of his signature that I have.

He was white, 45 years old, his nearest relative was his wife, Joisie (Joyce) and he was of medium height and build with brown eyes and black hair.

While I do have a few photos of my grandfather, you can’t ascertain much of that information from photos.

Will and my grandmother had divorced in Indiana, and I wasn’t sure if he was married at that time, or not. The date of his registration is September, 12, 1918, which gives us a snapshot of him at that point in time. He was never called to serve.

Sons

William George Estes had 3 living sons:

  • Charles Estel Sebastian Estes born November 1, 1894
  • William Sterling Estes, my father, born October 1, 1902
  • Joseph “Dode” Harry Estes born September 13, 1904

Of those sons, only one would have been required to register for the draft initially, Charles, who went by the name Estel, was the only son old enough. I was unable to find his draft registration, even though I think I know where he lived at that time.

The other two sons, far too young to enlist, did just that – enlisted.

Enlistment

How could William and Joseph “Dode” have enlisted? They were too young. No place near 18 years of age.

Both boys “adjusted” their birth year.

My father recorded his birth year upon enlistment as 1898 and his brother, two years younger, did the same. We know, positively, via the census and later Social Security records that neither was born before 1900.

In the 1900 census, above, you can see that neither William nor Joseph were members of the family.  Only Estel and Robert, the son who died when the house burned.

In the 1910 census, Sterl is age 8, so born in October of 1901, and Doad is age 5, born in September of 1904. These years may be off by one year, as Joseph’s SS record says he was born in 1903 and my father’s says he was born in 1902 – but still, they were far younger than 18 years old in 1917.

How the heck did those boys pull that off? I have no idea, but they unquestionably did.

Unfortunately, my father’s military service records burned in the July 1973 fire in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. That blaze was so intense that it burned for 2 days and most of the records were destroyed. However, between various alternate record sources, the Veteran’s Administration and I were able to piece some of his information together.

For example, we know that William Sterling Estes enlisted on May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, near Indianapolis, giving his age upon enlistment as 18 years and 24 days of age. He was actually 14 years, 6 months and 13 days old. So young to be trained how to kill.

Fourteen. Years. Old.

Enrolling in the military.

Fighting a war.

And that is assuming that my father was actually born in 1902, not 1903 as some records, such as his delayed birth certificate, sworn to by his father and with the family Bible as evidence, state. So, he could have been 15 years old if he was born in 1901 as the census suggests, 14 based on other records such as social security, or 13 years old if he was born in 1903.

Giving his birth year as 1898 would have made him old enough to enlist. So, yes, there are primary source records that show my father’s birth year ranging from 1898 through 1903.

William Sterling Estes during WWI, above.  His brother, Dode, was two years younger.

Joseph “Dode” Estes during WWI.

I don’t have Dode’s service records, so I’m not sure whether he actually enlisted with his brother, or later, but the family story is that they enlisted together and “Dode was 12.”  It’s hard enough to believe my father enlisted and served at 14, but he did, let alone Dode at age 12.

Fort Benjamin Harrison

Fort Benjamin Harrison was a welcome center and training ground for recruits before they were sent elsewhere.

Men were assigned to housing known as cantonments.

They were trained in combat skills.

Training and study took place outside, between the cantonments.

Including inspections.

Quarters were close.

The mess tent was camp style.

You can see additional photos of Fort Benjamin Harrison at the World War I Museum, here.

To the best of my knowledge, my father never served overseas and never had to use his bayonette skills. I don’t really know though, because his military records were destroyed.  He died in 1963 and there is no one left to ask. On his funeral home record, it does record a war injury, so the question of overseas service remains unanswered.

After training was complete, the men were sent to their assignment.  I know that my father spent most, if not all, of his first enlistment at Camp Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan, where he was honorably discharged on May 19, 1919 and re-enlisted the following day.

Camp Custer

Camp Custer was built in 1917 for military training during World War I. Named after Civil War cavalry officer General George Armstrong Custer, the facility trained or demobilized more than 100,000 troops during World War I.

Construction began on July 1, 1917 and on December 5, less than six months later, the completed camp was turned over to the government.

A booklet, “Souvenir of Camp Custer,” published in 1918, gives an excellent contemporary view of the camp and its resources.

Camp Custer was called a “national university that takes a young man from the farm, the shop and the office and in a few short months graduates soldiers, trained and equipped, ready to fight the battles of democracy.

Camp Custer is a wonder place. Nothing like it was ever built in America before — and this is one of thirty-six such cantonments, all built in an amazingly short time to meet the country’s emergency needs.

The site of Camp Custer was as peaceful and quiet stretch of countryside as existed in America. Then came the declaration of war, and in five months a complete military city of two thousand buildings, with comfortable quarters for 36,000 men, stretched its length over four miles of territory.

This aerial view taken in 1918 shows what was at that time an expansive complex.

From my father’s letters to Virgie, we know that he contracted the Spanish Flu and was hospitalized at Camp Custer, at least twice in 1918. It was during that time that he met a hospital volunteer, Martha Dodderer, who was destined to become his wife and the mother of my half-sister.

In 1918, displays of patriotism became very popular. At that time, a human shield was formed at Camp Custer, utilizing 30,000 men and officers dressed for their position in the shield. My father would have been in this photo, someplace.

According to the brochure, this photo was taken from the top of the water tower.

I wish I knew more about the role my father played during the war. I know nothing other than his occupation was listed as a fireman.

The last veteran of WWI has died. It’s unusual to find someone whose father served. I was a very late in life child for my father causing me to be a generation off-shifted.

Your Tree

Take a look at your tree to see who was of the age to either serve in WWI or register for the 1917 draft.

In my tree, only one other male qualified, my Brethren grandfather. Brethren were pietists, but he did register and not as a conscientious objector.

This registration does solve one long-standing question about John Ferverda’s middle name. Was it Whitney or Whitley? Since he signed this card himself, his middle name is clearly Whitney! I also didn’t know he had grey eyes and light hair. By the time I knew him, his hair was clearly “light,” as in grey. There is only one color photo and it’s late in his life.

John Whitney Ferverda is shown below.

Earlier photos don’t really show his hair to be remarkably light.

John Whitney Ferverda never served, but, surprisingly three of his brothers did, and two more registered for the draft, telling me that several men in his family had grey eyes and dark hair. One had blue eyes and light hair. I really had no idea this family was more fairly complected with lighter skin and eyes. I guess we always think of our family as similar to ourselves.

The three stars in the window found in this picture of Evaline Miller Ferverda indicate that this family has three sons serving in WWI. That’s pretty amazing for a Brethren family.  If I hadn’t actually looked, I would have assumed that none of their sons served…and I would have been dead wrong and overlooked a great deal of information.

Siblings

Take a look in in the WWI draft registrations for your ancestor’s siblings as well. You never know what you might discover. WWI draft cards are an underutilized resource.

Samuel Bolton was my father’s uncle – his mother’s brother. He was born on June 12, 1894, so he was relatively close to my father’s age.

Samuel turned 23 years old a week after his draft registration. Samuel did serve in the war, being inducted on September 20, 1917, just 3 months after registering. He was sent overseas in May of 1918 and was killed on October 8, 1918, on the battlefield, in France. Sadly, there are no photos of Samuel, nothing, other than this one.

I was able to discover the name and number of Samuel’s unit, which allowed me to track Samuel, with his unit, to that fateful day in France. If you can find the unit name and number in which your family member served, you can figure out where they were, when, and put together the story of what happened to them during that time in their life.

Honoring Our Veterans

Thankfully, WWI was not on American soil. It was not the war to end all wars. In fact WWII followed just over two decades later. Sadly, as we have seen since, warfare seems to be a perpetual state someplace in the world and even as I write this, American men and women are serving in harm’s way.

Other than the short-lived Spanish American War in 1898, in which comparatively few American men participated, WWI was the first conflict since the Civil War in the 1860s. The Civil War produced some draft registrations for northerners, but did not produce draft registration cards on this scale, so WWI is the first resource that offers genealogists a type of nationwide census of military eligible men.

How did WWI touch your ancestors? Was it through their own service, or the service of a spouse, brother or parent? Did they return home, or are some buried in cemeteries like the one at Camp Custer or even on foreign soil?

Please take a minute to silently honor those who served and to think about how our lives today might have been different had WWI not occurred, or had the outcome been different in either a global or personal sense.