The Summer of 1970 – Little Did I Know, 52 Ancestors #204

Ah, the glorious summer of 1970. As adults, we can look back at our lives and specific forks in the road stand out and define themselves as life-altering, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.

That was the summer of 1970 for me.

Sometimes our life course needs to be altered and we don’t even know it. Call it Fate. Call in Divine intervention. Call it whatever you will.

A test and a trip redirected my life forever.

There was no turning back.

The Test

During the school year, students throughout the country took a test to qualify for studying abroad. The highest scorers were offered the opportunity to travel to Europe during the summer and study overseas.

That trip wasn’t free, but it was quite reasonable, comparatively, at $1200.

For our family, any amount over about $10 was a lot of money, and anything over $100 meant it wasn’t going to happen. A hundred dollars was more than an entire week’s wages for my mother. Minimum wage was all of $1.45 an hour and I don’t think she made $2 as a bookkeeper.

I tested anyway at the encouragement of my French teacher. The possibility seemed remote, and the entire class was testing so it was much easier to simply test than suffer the embarrassment of explaining why I wasn’t.

The days turned into weeks, and I had all but forgotten about the test when a letter arrived at home.

Yes, I was one of the selected students, and so was one of my classmates, Kim.

We were overjoyed, but, BUT, how was I ever going to afford the trip?

Studying abroad was expensive, even though these trips were designed specifically with “students” of working-class families in mind. There’s a difference between working-class and single-mother-with-deceased-father finances. We lived in daily fear of something breaking, because we knew we couldn’t afford to fix anything.

The Collège du Léman in Versoix, Switzerland (and other universities) filled their empty summer dorms with foreign high school students in the hope that they could recruit them as students later. Of course living abroad promised amazing adventures, trips to picturesque cities we had only heard about and days complete with castles and romance – the stuff movies were made of.

The trip accommodations were a bit more humble than those fantasies – traveling by train or bus and staying in youth hostels.

Still, a trip like that would be the adventure of a lifetime. And far beyond the reach of Mom and me financially.

Financial Reality

My father had been dead for 7 years and my mother worked every overtime minute possible, along with side jobs. We both wore hand-me-down clothes and what garments I could make, I did. I sewed for both of us.

Our car ran on a wink and a prayer and some days, didn’t run at all. We used a lightbulb in the winter under the hood to keep the engine warm so that the battery wouldn’t have to work so hard, or would work at all – because everything on that car was old. I remember the day a bicycle beat our old clunker across an intersection. Mom cried.

A breakdown of any kind of anything required money we didn’t have. We ate out ONLY once a year, when I was promoted from one grade to the next. That’s just how life was. I had never known anything different.

Mother was distraught. She wanted to provide me with this opportunity, but how would she pay for the trip? My grandparents were dead too – there was no one to help.

I wasn’t yet old enough to work, but I would be later in the year and the following summer. I already babysat, had for years, and performed other jobs available “for cash” for those too young to actually have a “real job.”

My mother was one determined lady.

Mom visited the bank on her lunch hour and arranged for a $1500 loan, $1200 for the trip and $300 for spending money for the summer. Her employer where she had worked since I was an infant co-signed. Our agreement was that she would initially pay for the loan by working overtime, or getting a second job, and I would take over the payments as soon as possible. I would also pay her back, which I somehow seemed to be doing for the rest of her life😊

That not only seemed fair, I was ecstatic and incredibly grateful. I was afraid to even dream that the trip might be a possibility. I still remember jumping up and down, our arms locked together when we received the news that her loan was approved. She must have worried about how she would pay that bill too, in addition to everything else, but she never let on.

I saw the words in the brochure; London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Paris. I savored the words, “Study French at the Collège du Léman, outside Geneva.” I looked in the encyclopedias at school to see where those places were located. That was long before the days of google or any home resources. I devoured the history of those locations.

Our French teacher began to prepare us for our “grande aventure.” Never in my wildest dreams could I have comprehended even at a rudimentary level what awaited.

My world was about to change, and the one to which I would return would look entirely different from the world I left. My life upended, turned upside-down.

The Evidence

My pictures from the trip have been badly water damaged, plus the ravages of almost 50 years. Many are out of focus, and their colors have faded.

Not to mention, I did a bad thing and wrote on the backs in ink, which transferred to the photo behind the picture. At least I DID write something, because I would be lost without those memory joggers today.

I recently scanned the few that have survived and will attempt to crop judiciously as I share this wonderful journey to the land of my ancestors. The photos may be damaged, but my memories, more of events and people than places, remain crystal clear.

My mother saved my letters that I wrote home during that trip, which I inherited in her “Suitcase of Life” when she passed away. They were like a time capsule from the past, hearing a younger me speak. Some are amazingly prescient, and some are quite cringe-worthy. I’ll be excerpting from them. You’ve been warned!

If there’s anything I take away from those letters, in general, it’s that growth is much like an internal tug-of-war. I’m both enchanted and horrified as I read those letters today.

Grab a cup of tea and come along!

New York City

The flight departed from New York City. My mother discovered that the cost of the flight from Indiana to New York City was not included in the package and was quite steep. My great-aunt who lived in upstate New York volunteered to pay for that part of the trip if we would stop and visit for a few days on the way to New York. Visiting with Aunt Eloise was an added bonus.

We were Hoosiers, not the least bit familiar with New York City traffic and my mother, bless her heart, drove straight into the heart of the city to the hotel and, a couple days later, to the airport. I’m amazed that we didn’t die. She didn’t realize what she had gotten herself into, but the only way out was through, and she wasn’t letting anything stop her now. That was before the days of GPS, navigation or even Google maps.  We navigated with accordion folded maps, squinting as the car moved.

While we were in New York, we ascended the top of the Empire State building, visited the United Nations building and of course, boarded a ferry to view the welcoming Statue of Liberty. Iconic New York. For me, it was a wonderful sendoff. For her, the first vacation she had taken since my birth. One of her girlfriends came along to split the cost. We had a great time!

From the minute I discovered that I was actually going to be able to go, I had sought every possible opportunity to earn money. I had saved my babysitting pay and cleaned houses to purchase fabric from the remnant bin to make my clothes for the trip. I made Mom a new dress for New York City, shown below at some NYC landmark.

While Mom was thrilled to be visiting New York City, she was understandably reluctant to put me on the plane to England. I think she had some last minute remorse. I didn’t look back – although had I realized the traffic nightmare my Mom faced leaving New York, I would have been worried. I was far safer airborne than her.

I had never been on a plane before, and I was flying alone. I would meet the rest of the students in Stansted Airport, 42 miles outside of London, the following morning. We would meet up with the counselors later in the day, in London.

I fell asleep, literally, flying into the future.


I don’t know what I expected, but I guarantee you, this wasn’t it.



Holy moley, we lost a mirror on the bus – and I’m sitting on THAT SIDE. The bus driver looks irritated, but nothing more.


The roads are miniscule!

I can’t look!!!

Slams eyes…waits to die.

Ok, I’m peeking, and I see quaint cottages with beautiful flower gardens, much like these buildings today.

Not soon enough, we arrived in London, in one piece but shaken.

Other than the 2 students from my school, I had never met the other students, of course, since we lived all over America. Soon we were chattering like magpies and quickly became acquainted. Two hours later, you’d have thought we were one big family on vacation together.

In spite of flying all night, no one wanted to sleep. After all, we were in LONDON, home of pop music, hip fashion and a cosmopolitan flavor we had never been exposed to before.

My first letter home was written on July 20th, on toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. The toilet paper there was very “different” from Charminesque TP as we know it today. Think of see-through thin, non-absorbent and crispy. Kind of like super-crunchy tissue paper. Not at all comfy to use as TP, but made great stationery.

Toilet paper was one of my least favorite things about Europe. However, air mail was expensive, toilet paper was very lightweight and free, so I wrote on UNUSED TP regularly.

Here’s proof – the first paragraph of a letter.

Excerpts of my letter to Mom continued:

“We toured London on foot today. My feet and ankles are all swollen, but I had fun. Went back out tonight. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of the chaperones.”

Of course, it never occurred to me that if my feet and ankles were swollen, I should stay home and put my feet up. HA! That wasn’t about to happen. I’m sure that chaperone part made my Mom feel just wonderful. At least we were together as a group.

Wide-eyed, we walked until our legs gave out, then rode the subways everyplace, drinking in the heady cosmopolitan ambience.

We visited Big Ben, of course, and the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace with its massive gold gates.

Little did I know that the Queen is my cousin – albeit very distant, but a cousin just the same. I’m suspecting she wouldn’t have welcomed a visit from a poor but extremely starry-eyed and enthusiastic American student who is her 18th cousin 3 times removed and hadn’t the foggiest idea how to curtsy. How to behave in the presence of royalty wasn’t a concept I was familiar with.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance involved with the changing of the guards at Kensington Palace.

My cousin, the Queen, is a horsewoman herself, shown below, riding in the center.

We tried our best to distract those guards, somewhat of a local sport, since they were reported to be unflappable, of course setting themselves up as targets. We were quite unsuccessful – they were oblivious to our amateurish shenanigans. We, however, giggled uncontrollably with the sheer headiness of being in London combined with what to us was brazen misbehavior.

Ohhh, that guard was so cute and so was his horse.

I had no understanding of city gates, or even a comprehension of what medieval actually meant. Why would there be a gate or a wall??? Who needed to be kept out, or in, and why?

I had never seen castles and fountains or formal gardens. I lived in heartland Indiana, land of soybeans, barns and cornfields, not castles that functioned as fortresses towering over lakes in major cities, harkening back to the days of Lords and Ladies, Queens and Kings – many of whom were my family – albeit entirely unknown to me at the time.

This park and pond is located in the center of London, with Buckingham Palace in the distance.

Little did I know that my ancestors, yes MY ANCESTORS, are buried in Westminster Abbey. In fact, several repose there, including King Edward who died in 1307. My roots in London, and in fact, all of England run deep. Very deep. My ancestors’ DNA litters the English soil.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but my fascination with architecture, history and medieval buildings had been born, although my photography skills were abysmal.

That was long before the days of digital cameras and cell phones where you can see the photo you’ve just taken. These pictures were developed after returning home months later. You just crossed your fingers, clicked and hoped for the best. In fact, I rationed my film, so many photos allowed per day or location.

Next, we visited the massive Parliament buildings that overlooked the Thames River. Decades later, I would learn that the Thames was a central theme in the history of my ancestors, the ultra-rich, the abysmally poor and refugees alike.

I fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. During my last trip, a few years ago, we were informed that the pigeons had all been exterminated via poison, victims of “progress.”

London was the fashion center of the world. Just ask any teenage girl on that trip! Londoners had clothes so wild we Americans had never even imagined them. What seems old-fashioned and tame now was radical at the time.

Carnaby Street was so MOD! And look at those shoes in the window – to die for! Actually, I think they are back in style again.

Little did I know that Henry Bolton, a poor child who lived in the oldest part of the city near the docks in the shadow of London Bridge was my ancestor. He was born in what was then the ghetto about 1760, along with his brother, Conrad.

Little did I know that my German 1709ers had stayed, albeit somewhat unwillingly, as refugees, in London in 1709 in a make-shift tent city at St. Katherine’s Wharf on the Thames River. I would visit them there some 43 years later.

Little did I know.

My Speaks ancestors lived near Gisburn in Lancashire, but I wouldn’t know that until Thomas Speak’s Y DNA match to a cousin from New Zealand led us home more than four decades later.

And my Pilgrims – mother would have been thrilled to know that she descended from William Brewster whose home was in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire before he became a religious refugee in the Netherlands prior to sailing on the Mayflower in 1620. Not to mention John Lothropp of Yorkshire, Stephen Hopkins of Hampshire and their wives.

Little did I know that my Estes ancestors, whose surname I carried then and still carry, originated along the White Cliffs of Dover, but I wouldn’t visit that location until decades later. I had no idea at that time that Estes was English. I had never thought about genealogy, as hard as that is now to believe.

I would know none of that until much, much later.

In the summer of 1970 in London, I was captivated by the atmosphere so vastly different than anything I had ever experienced. Even the language sounded entirely different. As they say – two countries divided by a common tongue.

I wrote to mother:

“We’ve seen a lot of neat things and a lot of different customs too. I can’t begin to describe it“.

This would only be the first of many times on this journey that I found myself without words.

And then, not that I was conflicted or anything:

“London is OK but I like home better. But I’m not homesick. However, I would like to be there.”

Two days later, in a sleep-deprived brain fog, we climbed aboard a train and slept all the way to the coast as the train rumbled through the English countryside, occasionally bouncing our heads against the windows we were using for pillows.

We departed England by crossing the English Channel, boarding the ferry at Harwich for a 125-mile crossing. I can’t tell you much about the English Channel, because, well, I was distracted.

I met Robin.


I met Robin on the misty rain-drizzled upper deck of the ferry boat, the St. George, sailing between England and the Netherlands on a rough 6-hour crossing. I had never been on a ship before, or on the sea for that matter, and I told mother:

“I’m not seasick, but I feel drunk.”

Truth be told, I had no idea at that time what being drunk felt like either.

A little later:

“I’m starting to like this. I met a Dutch boy.”

Tall, older and handsome, Robin bought me my first beer on that ferry – AFTER I wrote that part about feeling drunk, just for the record. However, I didn’t mention that “beer” detail to mother. Nosiree…

Robin was just a month shy of 19, a merchant marine, and handsome – that cute guard on the horse from Kensington Palace quickly faded from memory.

Of course, teenage girls have a boy-memory-half-life of about 30 minutes on a good day anyway.

Here’s a picture of Robin when he married, five years later, and no, not to me. Our relationship took a decidedly different turn.

Robin and Joan, his lovely wife, and I are friends today, but on that rainy summer day in 1970, Robin hadn’t yet met Joan and he was enjoying “holiday,” on leave from officer’s school in the Dutch Merchant Marines.

Robin and I chatted during the crossing…OK, so we might have flirted a tiny little bit, but Robin was absolutely a perfect gentleman. A few hours later, I watched Robin ride away on his motor scooter as my group waited together to depart for parts unknown. Robin looked up and waved goodbye from the parking lot as we stood on the ship’s deck, watching over the railing. Robin and I had exchanged addresses and promised to faithfully write as penpals. It never occurred to me that I might actually SEE Robin again someday, nor that he would actually write to me, beginning while I was in Europe.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I exchanged addresses with the best of intentions over the years, then and now – but the absolutely amazing thing is that we actually DID write – for decades. I suspect, in retrospect, that part of our sustained friendship was due to the fact that Robin was sequestered for weeks and months at a time onboard ship. So he wrote, to me, to my Mom and to his wife after he met Joan. Robin was a wonderful penpal. I loved receiving his letters where he waxed philosophic about his dreams and aspirations, detailed his career advancements, and sometimes, regaled us with his stories of adventures in port. Like the time the taxi somehow wound up in the canal…but I digress.

A year later, Robin visited America and stayed with Mom and me. Looking back now, it’s funny, because Mom gave Robin her room and slept on the couch like a watchdog in the living room which separated her bedroom and mine. Robin and I were just friends, but we had several adventures and mis-adventures which included swimming, meeting a few officers and Robin managing to get his rental car stuck in a cornfield (without me along,) adventures we never told mother about – EVER. Just the memories bring a smile to my face today.

Decades later Robin would celebrate his 50th birthday by visiting his “American Mom” once again. It’s a good thing Robin returned when he did, because Mom didn’t have much longer.

Last year, my husband and I met Robin and Joan in Amsterdam, and this summer, we’ll see Robin again to celebrate his retirement after he rides a Harley across America.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to make a lifelong friend on a ferry in the English Channel.

The Netherlands

I have three vivid memories of the Netherlands.

  1. I lost my camera. If you’re wondering how I have the photos of London, I didn’t lose the film. It was tucked safely in my suitcase. But the camera was gone, and along with it the film in the camera at the time, including the photos from the ferry, a few of Robin and many from Holland as well. I was heartbroken, not to mention a new camera was not in my budget, but I purchased one nonetheless.
  2. The Netherlands is the cleanest country I have every visited. I recall vividly the “housewives” sweeping and then scrubbing the sidewalk in front of their house EVERY SINGLE MORNING about 5AM. Needless to say, I was shocked and very curious. They were equally as shocked that we NEVER swept and scrubbed our sidewalks. Nor were we up at 5 AM unless there was absolutely no other choice.
  3. In Amsterdam, there was no drinking age. My student friends and I decided to purchase Heineken beer. We didn’t sit at the bar in the hotel, because somehow we just knew that we surely would get “caught,” so we took the beer back to our room, crawled in bed and drank it. Then we decided to write letters home, laughing the entire time. Everything was suddenly funny!

No, I don’t know why we thought writing letters was somehow a good idea.

However, when I returned home, my mother pulled out that letter, written all cattywampus across the page and asked me if I cared to explain myself.


From that letter:

“Last night, my roommate had a beer and got drunk, sick and giggly.  My other roommate and I died laughing. I felt sorry for her though.”

And then, in an effort to redeem myself:

“I really miss church.”

Let me translate, “I feel really guilty about this, but I’m having the time of my life.” (And I’m going to be hell on wheels when I come home…just saying’!)

In the Netherlands, I discovered my lifelong love of beer.

Little did I know that my Vannoy ancestors had stayed in Amsterdam before departing for the New World. Little did I know that Govert Van Oy died in route in 1664 and was buried on the island of Texel.

Little did I know that Govert was baptized in the church in Venlo, above, where I would one day visit. Or that my Andreissen ancestors who married into the Vannoy line in New Netherlands had lived in Leeuwarden along with my Ferwerda ancestors who immigrated 200 years later.

Little did I know that one day I would return to the Dutch island of Vlieland where my ancestors lived on the part of the island washed away by the sea in 1736, and that 47 years in the future I would stand at the end of that island and stare, transfixed, across the channel to the island of Trexel where Govert Van Oy was buried.

Little did I know.

William Brewster, my Pilgrim ancestor from England lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a refugee before embarking for Plymouth.

The Pilgrims, in 1970, were only impersonal figures in history books and not at all connected to me.

Little did I know that my mother’s Ferwerda grandfather had been born in the Netherlands. While my English ancestors had left England long ago, my mother’s family had immigrated just over 100 years earlier, in 1868. How quickly our history is lost – just three generations and that epic journey was already erased from family memory.


My time in Amsterdam in 1970 was quite limited. In a whirlwind bus tour, we saw where Rembrandt was buried and where Anne Frank lived. My heart was saddened to learn about Anne Frank’s story, and that there was no happy ending. I had heard about the Holocaust, but seeing Anne Frank’s house where she hid and was ultimately betrayed for myself was my first up front and personal introduction to the evils wrought by an insane dictator that sanctioned brutal acts of discrimination while the populace stood idly by, hoping it wouldn’t affect them.

Our student group stayed in private homes outside of Amsterdam, a few with each family.

To mother:

“I’m in Holland now, in a tourist home where no English is spoken at all. Groovy huh?! The woman who lives here smiles a lot, so I know she’s friendly. Our bus driver was so funny. We couldn’t understand a word but we communicated OK. It’s funny how far away you have to travel to find out what a big grin will do for you. I think you’ll be surprised how much I’ve learned about life in general since I’ve been gone. I know it’s odd to say, but I can see all of us kids growing up in a hurry. It’s odd to watch yourself growing up.”

And later:

“I’m not homesick, but it’s a good feeling to know you have a home waiting but you can still be free for awhile. Give Snowy (our rescued cat) a kiss for me and chirp at Babe (our rescued parakeet) for me.”

After a busy final day in the Netherlands, we boarded a train for the next chapter of our journey.

To mother, just in case she was wondering about that Amsterdam letter:

“My writing is jolty because the train is. I’m tired, but the train is too noisy to sleep. I didn’t much care for the tour in Amsterdam, because we didn’t get to get out of the bus much, and the tour consisted of them constantly saying “there are two hippies on the right.” I think the boat from England to Holland was my favorite part. I’m lonesome. I feel like a misfit here.”

Never write home when you’re tired.

Most of the train trip was at night, so we missed the scenery, changing trains in the middle of the night and awakening in the train station in Geneva in the morning.

Again, to mother:

“It’s early morning now, and we’re coming into the mountains. They are really beautiful in the sunrise.”

We shuffled our tired bodies to a local train and arrived just a few minutes later in Versoix, Switzerland, a tiny village about 7 km away, on the shores of Lake Geneva which is also known as Lac Léman.

Versoix, Switzerland

Our destination, of course, was the college in Versoix, our new home.

I still couldn’t believe I was actually going to be living in Switzerland, LIVING there.

My state of mind and the tone of my letters immediately changed:

“We’re in Geneva now. Had the best meal when we got here, although the train ride was 13 hours and they didn’t feed us. Got my first taste of French on the train. There were these 4 guys in the service…”

The full-time students were gone from the college for the summer, and we took up residence in the modern dorms, shown below, each student adopting a bed and dresser. We didn’t realize or care that our attendance was a way for the school to keep the teachers and staff employed year round, and perhaps a small source of revenue as well.

Our teachers spoke French and no English, which was very frustrating. We tested to be assigned to a class based on our fluency.

Our group included 4 chaperones from the US, but two of them, a male and female were very interested in each other and none of the 4 were interested in us. They eventually disappeared “to attend to business,” which left us with little if any oversight, which pleased us immensely. I’m not positive what they were actually doing, but according to the student speculative grapevine, the couple had eloped. Imagine our disappointment when they showed up sans wedding rings. We were perhaps a little too young to understand the nature of their relationship.

What they were doing mattered not one iota to me, I was very busy falling in love with Switzerland.

The campus was small, quaint and hypnotically beautiful in a way only European villages can be, with a villa and a courtyard for all to enjoy. Villa Portena was a typical European “home” and served as the campus social center where we gathered and ate most of our meals. Europeans don’t have the same concept of “old” as Americans. Three hundred years there is not yet old, perhaps nicely broken in and comfortable with a lovely patina. 800 or 900 years, that’s approaching old. The enclosed grounds were lovely with freshly manicured gardens, artistic wrought iron fencing and circular benches built around trees. Lovely for reading and studying.

Every morning we walked to the local bakery a block or so away to purchase a French baguette, butter and some kind of fresh jam. We ate it, sitting outside on the rock walls by pulling chunks off – the crusty outside and the soft center – my mouth is watering just remembering.

Our dorm was entirely female, with many pajama parties in the common area. My friend, Kim, from my home town, is in the middle in blue.

Did I mention that there was no drinking age anyplace in Europe? Wine was simply served as a part of meals and no one thought anything of it. We sampled the local wares – food, bread, cheese, wine and hard liquor. No one seemed to care. We had pajama parties almost every night. Life was good!

For the most part, we were responsible for ourselves. We thought we were quite grown up, but we didn’t realize that in many ways that we couldn’t yet conceive, we did grow up that summer. Growing up is a process, not an event. In our case, the process was accelerated by the lack of adult supervision which means we had to depend on ourselves. And truthfully, we were amazingly well-behaved.

a href=””> By Piisamson – own work, oma teos, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The college was just three or four blocks uphill from Lake Geneva. This contemporary photo shows Versoix, a tiny village, from out on Lake Geneva.

The Versoix waterfront sported a couple of restaurants along the marina, and a night club type of pub. Our walks to the lake shore often culminated in drinks and long talks about our aspirations for the future looking out dreamily over the lake. Life in America seemed far away and nothing was impossible – after all – we had managed to travel to and were living in Switzerland. What could be impossible after that miracle?

The trip to Switzerland allowed me to dream dreams that I would never have considered even remotely feasible before. Every great achievement in life begins with a dream, no matter how seemingly impractical. After all, I was living proof of a miracle every day in Switzerland, so there was no limit to what dreaming might achieve. Flights of fancy didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

The Prince

Our dorms might have been segregated by gender, but there was a boy’s dorm. We quickly made friends with international students from all over the world, our bond being that we were all strangers together. This young man was a member of a royal family, complete with his own security detail. Apparently, they didn’t think that American girls were terribly dangerous, because we walked to the waterfront almost everyday and enjoyed talking, eating and soaking up the lusciousness of Switzerland. His security detail remained distant, but ever-present.

Indiana was far away, another time, another place, and I was entirely disconnected. I had been homesick before, but in Switzerland, I never wanted to go back.


About this time, another student became memorable as well for an entirely different reason.

One of the female students was blind and a specific chaperone was supposed to be a personal aid to the blind student.

Unfortunately, that chaperone wasn’t terribly interested in that aspect of her job, for which she was being paid extra and may have been the only reason she was along.

As students, we had a lot of individual freedom. Mostly, we ranged in small groups as we explored our new home away from home, branching out to ride the train into Geneva and further. However, we were required to let people know where we were going, and to be back by curfew. Kim and I managed to miss curfew.

We were busted, and the chaperone who was supposed to be attending to the blind student is the person we found waiting for us. Let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant. That chaperone was never pleasant, in her best moments. Our punishment was to be the guide for the blind student.

In retrospect, I feel terribly sorry for the blind girl – but at the time, everyone was unhappy. Kim and I both, for obvious reasons, and the blind student because I’m sure she felt more than a little betrayed by the counselor, vulnerable and afraid. She wasn’t very friendly and she assuredly did NOT like us, or at least didn’t like me.

However, if the chaperone thought that assigning us guide duty would slow Kim and I down, she was sorely mistaken.

We introduced the blind student to worlds she never knew existed – and while the counselor couldn’t have cared less, the blind girl was not entirely too pleased about that turn of events. We were told we had to take her with us, and so we did – everyplace, much to the blind student’s chagrin! As irritating as she was, we felt sorry for her.


Our EuroRail Pass was our ticket to the world, including Geneva, just a few miles around the lake. Geneva, a multi-cultural center with amazing entertainment and night life was quickly becoming a favorite. Nothing was lacking. The summer stretched out before us endlessly.

a href=””> By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Geneva was beautiful with the fountain in Lake Geneva called Jet d’Eau visible from every vantage. Everything and everyplace was stunning. Swans graced the lake, gliding by, people were friendly and a smile was your ticket to anything.

I was in love – and it wasn’t with a boy, but with Switzerland itself – with or without our blind unwilling protege. I couldn’t drink enough of this dew.

Immersion French

Of course, our entire purpose for being in Switzerland was what would today be called immersive French, the language, the culture and the history.

We attended our classes at the college every day, but we weren’t the most well-behaved or attentive students. After all, the city, the lake, the waterfront establishments and the beaches called – and we heard that call loud and clear. Imagine our shock when we discovered that topless beaches in Switzerland and in fact, in many places in Europe were simply “normal” there.

From my letter to mother:

“We took our placement tests today. Classes start tomorrow. Dinners are formal here, with wine. There’s nothing else to drink. We have to dress and my two dresses are dirty. I’m doing laundry in the sink, which has no plug. Our room looks like the United Nations flags with clothes hung all over to dry. I hope Snowy doesn’t forget me. Did you call my boyfriend? Did his song sell in Nashville? I’m not getting letters from him very often The bathing suits here are vulgar. Mine is considered here like a one piece with sleeves and tights would be at home. One lady wasn’t wearing at a top, at all. I was shocked. I’m enjoying Geneva much more than London and Amsterdam, put together. I love the campus. Makes everything worth it.”

“Nothing else to drink”…please. I’m sure she knew better.

We were supposed to be focused on French, and we were while in class, but outside of class, we were distracted by everything else. Let’s just say we were having an immersive cultural experience.

I struggled with the class. To mother:

“My French is really improving but I get so frustrated in class. I can’t answer questions because I miss one or two words. I feel really dumb. I want to get into an easier class, but they won’t let me. I may have to buy an iron for my clothes if I can figure out what to ask for. Plus, they don’t let us lock our dorm rooms and someone broke in my room. I think they were looking for money, but I had mine on me so I’m fine. My roommates are gone on an optional trip to Rome and I would have been alone in my room tonight. It scared me so I’m bunking in with someone in another room. I’m getting homesick and feel like I don’t belong. I should be at home instead of here spending money we don’t even have. When I feel down, I want to go home. Before I came over here, home was just a word and a place to me. Humans are so ignorant they don’t know a good thing until they are without it. The cost of the trip is worth it if I get nothing else out of it.”

If anyone doesn’t think that teenage girls have mood swings, have another think.

The next day, I wrote to my mother that I disliked my French teacher because she kept us late in class, making us late for lunch. Then I promptly told her that I wasn’t homesick, that most of the people are very nice and the scenery is awesomely beautiful and I wished I could share it with her.

Suffice it to say, the only time we spoke French was when we couldn’t communicate with another person in English. In other words, it was only French by necessity. That was, until I met the Prince. He spoke no English and I didn’t speak his language, so we were both very motivated to learn French quickly😊

All of a sudden, my French teacher and I got along MUCH better and French became much easier too. A little motivation does wonders!

Problem = Opportunity

Monsieur Francis Clivaz, the owner of the college, had a problem. He had somehow overbooked the facility.

A very large group of Japanese students arrived, unexpectedly, and there weren’t enough dorms to accommodate everyone. The college wasn’t just overbooked, it was double booked.

We were already jam packed, and there just wasn’t room. I was furious at this unwelcome interruption, just when we had settled in and gotten comfortable.

Monsieur Clivaz called us all into his office, including our chaperones.  A hush fell over the fidgeting, restless students. We loved it there and a sense of foreboding crept over the group. This couldn’t be good.

He explained the overbooking situation. He chastised us for not being more focused on speaking French. We just knew we were being sent home. Some began to cry.

However, Monsieur Clivaz was a clever man, and he provided us with an opportunity to redeem our sorry selves.

His brother owned a resort in the tiny sleepy alpine village of Montana, today a part of Crans-Montana, a world class ski resort community. Montana occupied less than 2 square miles and was not heavily developed at that time. Montana in this contemporary photo is every bit as stunning as it was then.

Seeing this photo caused the memories to come rushing back in an avalanche.

Monsieur Clivaz made us a deal. If we would solemnly PROMISE not to speak anything but French, he would send us, with a bus, driver, our teacher, and our chaperones, to Montana for the duration of the summer.

Cheering erupted. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

We were saved. We didn’t have to go home in shame, not that he had ever actually threatened that.

All of the students at the college went to Montana and the Japanese students stayed in Versoix.

Let me tell you, we got the better end of that deal, although I loved in in Versoix and initially felt extremely cheated! But, that was before we arrived in Montana.


We packed our things and boarded the bus. Mail would be delivered once weekly from Geneva, along with anything else we wanted. Monsieur Clivaz was very generous and agreed to show us the countryside as part of our education. Field trips abounded. No more being left behind when the rest of the group went to Rome on an optional trip.

Montana was about a 4 or 5-hour ride from Versoix, through the utterly breathtaking Alps.

My memory of that trip, aside from the heart-stopping scenery in every direction, was the utter terror of navigating switchbacks in a bus. Those roads were made for mules, then small cars, not busses.

I remembered the bus ride from the airport in England. That was child’s play by comparison. Training wheels. This was nail-biting white-knuckle serious. Straight down on one side and straight up the other. An error didn’t mean a missing mirror, it meant plunging over the edge of the road to sure and certain death. How many busses are down there anyway?

I tried not to think about death. In some places, the bus actually had to stop and inch around the hairpins using both lanes, occasionally backing up and hitching. The rear of the bus was hanging over the cliff edge. I wasn’t Catholic, but you could tell the Catholics because they kept crossing themselves. I started crossing myself too. It couldn’t hurt! You’ve heard of foxhole religion? This was bus Catholicism.

As we climbed through the mountains, small chalets dotted the countryside along the road which ran alongside the stream that trickled through the center of the valley.

The houses became increasingly distant from each other, and the granite walls of the mountains began towering overhead.

Waterfalls cascaded free-falling down the sides of mountains, and glaciers were evident in the distance. We could see snow on the upper peaks which were drawing increasingly close.

We continued our slow climb in our lumbering bus until we reached Montana at about 5000 feet above sea level, almost 3800 feet above Versoix. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and it was chilly.

Montana occupies one the highest peaks of the Alps, affording an utterly stunning view of the surrounding lakes and mountains. Taking the ski lift to the top of the mountains provided a birds-eye view from, literally, the top of the world. We had died and ascended Heaven.

href=””> By chensiyuan – chensiyuan, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Click on this link and view the photos, including some of the 360 views and videos. Heart-stopping is the only word that comes to mind.

My world-view was expanding minute by minute.

Zermatt, gateway to the Matterhorn was visible about 25 miles in the distance, across the roof of our neighbor building.

We settled in to our new home, wowed by the scenery that was taken for granted by all those who lived or worked there. Like cornfields and soybeans were at home.

I had never seen mountains before driving to New York and arriving in Europe, and I couldn’t believe my eyes to discover glaciers in the distance outside my bedroom window, above. New York’s mountains were baby mountains compared to these.

To mother:

“I’m in Montana now and it’s really beautiful. The most beautiful of all the places – of all the places I’ve ever seen. You’d love it here. You wouldn’t be able to help it. It’s about 2/3rds way up a really tall mountain with skiing on the top.”

A month before, I had been sweltering in the heat of a Midwest summer. Now, I was in Alpine glory where we needed jackets and snow was still very much in evidence at the higher elevations. In the photo above, I was hiking in the mountain pass.

Just outside our hotel, the bases of ski lifts and gondolas were anchored, shown by the red lines in the map above. Since skiing was out of season by this time, but some snow remained, the area was deserted of tourists. It was our lucky day, as we had free and immediate access to lifts. We could walk anyplace in the village, and the restaurants and nightclubs were very welcoming. Especially one particular nightclub, but I digress.

Montana and nearby towns were sleepy, partially trapped in an earlier time, and supplies were often transported by the slow plodding of horse-drawn wagons that weaved between people walking on the street. Watering troughs made of hollow trees served both horses and people. While this was a ski area in the winter, the townspeople clearly lived here as evidenced by a school, grocery and church. Everyone lived for Oktoberfest.

We were true to our word and spoke only French. Our teacher decided we might learn better in an outdoor setting, and our lessons often took place on the bus on the way to a new destination.

We absorbed culture in Zermatt, Chamonix and Mont Blanc, about 70 miles and 2 hours distant, in addition to countless meadows, mountaintops and picnics packed by the hotel or picked up impromptu at the grocery.

We hiked in the snow.

And in mountain meadows. Yes, despite my fear of heights, I was in the gondola with the camera.

I came to love Edelweiss and mountain meadow flowers. I plucked and pressed a few in my Bible.

To mother:

“Kim and I walked up a mountain today. We found a gorgeous meadow with the remains of a little swiss house in it. We walked and walked and finally got to a spot where you can look down and see the whole valley. It must be a good 2 or 3 miles down. We found really cool rocks and wild mountain flowers. Tomorrow we are going to the top of the mountain for a picnic lunch.”

We literally lived with our teacher and we loved everything about French, history and Switzerland. Sometimes, we couldn’t find the right words, so we talked with our hands. Our friend the Prince, below, didn’t speak English so French and hand-speak was our only option.

This is the one and only photo I have of myself from this entire trip.

If you notice on the map below, the dividing line for the Canton of Bern, a primarily German speaking region of Switzerland on the north side of the Alps begins not far from Montana. French was spoken on the south side of that dividing line. To see stunning photos from the top of the mountain, click here.

Canton of Bern

Little did I know at the time that my mother’s paternal grandmother Miller’s line was originally found in Schwarzenmatt, about as far across the mountains to the north as Zermatt is to the south.

You can’t see Schwarzenmatt from Montana (at least I don’t think), because the peaks of the Alps are in the way. As the crow flies, I was perhaps 25 miles distant from what may be the oldest location of an actual known ancestor’s home in a Swiss village. No wonder I felt like I had come home. I literally had.

Little did I know that my links to the Alps were genuine and real – an ancestral memory perhaps. Heinrich Muller, in his son Johann Michael Muller’s 1684 marriage record is stated to be from Schwarzenmatt, in the district of Bern, and the Muller home is known to have been in the family from before 1615 until the late 1800s when it was sold to a son-in-law. It remains in that family today.

Dreams, Dates, Drama and Grief 

I spent my days consumed by all things French, immersed in possibilities, thinking about how different my life might be than what I had always assumed it would be. My French teacher told me I had a very large French vocabulary and hoped I would “do something” with it someday, maybe as an interpreter. No longer was “getting married” my priority. Life had so much more to offer. Georgetown University in Washington DC, far from my home town, had a foreign language and diplomatic services degree I needed to consider.

I began to dream. Young people can’t dream of a world they don’t know exists.

I grieved when the day came to leave Montana. I knew the discotheques well, the people, and I even had a real date – or at least I tried, with a young man named Francois from Italy. Our common language was French and flirting, although to be perfectly clear, I did NOT kiss on the first date. Do Italian boys kiss on first dates? (Yes, Italian boys kiss whenever possible.) No one explained THIS aspect of the culture.

My next letter home reflected conflicted feelings about this date and my boyfriend at home. Like most girls that age, I felt that this “affected my whole life.” By the time I came home, I knew that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life with the boyfriend back home and had to figure out how to explain that to him.

The date in Montana was challenging with the blind girl in tow. Yep, she was still somehow my responsibility. She wasn’t amused either, I assure you, and told the slacker chaperone that she had heard things “unzippering.” Never mind that we were in public the entire time, and the unzippering was jackets and my purse as my newfound beau and I exchanged addresses. Yes, we were penpals for a year or so, right up until he proposed marriage by writing a letter to my mother, twice in a row. That ended that.

Montana wasn’t without drama. Kim’s purse was stolen with her passport, all of her money, and replacing it was going to take “a long time.” Overseas calls were expensive, but she called her grandparents, in tears, to ask for help. I told my mother I thought I was having an appendicitis attack but didn’t want to spend the money to go to the doctor. I’m surprised I didn’t give her a coronary. By the time she received the letter, called Monsieur Clivaz who in turn called our hotel in Montana, I was fine and had forgotten entirely about the episode. Poor Mom was always working with at least 10 day old information.

Our adventures in the area surrounding Montana included Zermatt, visible over the horizon and Mt. Blanc, shown below, the highest mountain in Europe. Literally, in that time and place, the zenith of the world – also the watershed line between Italy and France.

I had just begun the climb to my own summit, but I had inadvertently stumbled across one of many personal watershed lines.

As the summer drew to an end, I grieved as I left Montana – the tears silently rolling down my cheeks as my beloved mountains slipped away into the distance, but never from my heart. As unhappy as I was to be displaced from Versoix to Montana, I was exponentially more aggrieved to leave. My heart was broken. I loved that place in a way I didn’t know I could love any place on earth.

I would write my last letter home to mother, fundamentally changed. I asked her advice on how to break the news “gently to Tony,” the boyfriend, that I was not returning as the person who left, in spite of the fact that he had faithfully written and waited. That old adage about having nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me was true. I knew he would never understand. He didn’t.

He returned the most expensive gift I had purchased for anyone, including mother and myself, a ring, in pieces.

I also knew, in some fundamental unspoken way that I had changed and in ways mother wouldn’t understand either. She didn’t.

Nor in ways I yet understood myself. An internal metamorphosis that would take a lifetime to complete had been set in motion. I looked like the same person, but I wasn’t at all.

We returned to Versoix for a few nights to regroup and repack at the Collège du Léman. Spending time back there made me realize just how the world had expanded in the weeks since we left.

Kim received her replacement paperwork in the nick of time. Our flight was out of Paris a few days later. Monsieur Clivaz had to assist several students with various crisis, such as not having enough money for the French airport tax on the trip home.

Our unexpected time away from the school drained our personal coffers, so he extended loans to anyone who needed them. After one final trip to the bakery, one final walk to the lakeshore and one final pajama party, the next morning we said our goodbyes to our many international friends, Monsieur Clivaz and our teacher, who we now loved, and silently boarded the train for Paris.

I looked longingly back at my beloved Switzerland and ached for a final look at the Alps.

Little did I know.


I loved Switzerland. I fell in love, passionately with the Alps. Paris was supposed to be the high point of our trip, saved for last.

I enjoyed Paris, but I had already left my heart behind.

Still, Paris beckoned with a mystical allure too. Paris is an ancient city full of history.

In our short time there, we visited the Eiffel Tower, of course. Ironically, it’s one of the “new” attractions built in 1887, but it’s also one of the first things that tourists see.

href=””> By Armin Hornung – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I didn’t climb the 704 steps to the top, but I wish I had, because the panorama of Paris, shown above is stunning and shows many of the historical locations. Neither the ride up nor the steps was free and cash was in very short supply by this time. I had only taken about $300 for the entire summer’s spending money, and it was already depleted.

The Arc de Triomphe, also known as La Place de l’Etoile is standard tourist fare.

We lodged at a youth hostel, the Maison de Mines which still exists as a dorm in the winter and a youth hostel in the summer. Bathrooms were community, and each floor had one. At that time, air conditioning didn’t exist in Europe, but I didn’t miss it because we didn’t have air in the US either.

However, Paris was exceedingly HOT when we were there, and the open windows provided exactly no ventilation because the air was not moving at all. Let’s just say the city didn’t smell inviting either.

By this time, we were all quite sick of the chaperone who was supposed to be caring for the blind student, and she couldn’t do much to make us miserable anymore. She could punish us exactly how?

The chaperone had washed out her underwear by hand and had made the mistake of hanging it in the community dorm room to dry.

Innovative students that we were, we used coat hangers to suspend her rather matronly underwear outside her room from the window ledge to dry from the windows, hanging over the sidewalk, flapping like large white prayer flags.  Not only could she not see it from within her room, everyone else could see it outside.

We laughed until we cried. She didn’t.

I’m sorry, I still have no remorse for that prank.

This hospital dome was the view from my window, well, when not staring at the counselor’s underwear.

Paris is a beautiful city. History permeates every step, every building and perhaps unknown to the Parisians, every person too.

Ancestral Paris

The Seine River runs through the city center, and not surprisingly, the earliest settlement was established here on an island mid-river, Ile de la Cite.

Today, barges and tourist boats traverse the waterway while the rest of Paris watches from the many bridges, each of which has it’s own personality and story.

I loved the right and left banks of the river, La Rive Gauche and La Rive Droit, populated by artists and students, sitting alongside the river. Paris is a city for walking, and walk we did – plus walking was free. I sat alone in the beer gardens amid the hustle bustle energy of the city. I strolled along the Seine, longing nostalgically for the peace and quiet of the Alps. At the same time, I anticipated and hesitantly embraced a future that would unfold fundamentally differently from the trajectory I previously expected, and would assuredly have lived without this experience. There was no “going back,” and returning home was going to be challenging.

For a teenage girl, I did a lot of deep thinking and soul searching while surrounded by the avant-garde atmosphere of the Paris left bank sidewalks full of inspiration and street vendors, accompanied by the ghosts of my distant past. All of that in combination encourages thinking far, far outside any restructive box.

Little did I know.

There was one moment, standing on a bridge near city center that literally took my breath away. Stopped me dead, cold in my tracks as I looked up from my walking and ruminating.

Notre Dame. I took the above photo in 1970, but here’s one from almost the same location on the bridge named Pont de la Tournelle.

href=””> By Lolowaro from Paris, France – Notre Dame de Paris from pont de la Tournelle, CC BY 2.0,

I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t even know that I was looking at Notre Dame. But I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to go inside that building. I found my way to Notre Dame, bought and lit a candle, even though I had no idea that I was participating in an age-old Catholic ritual.

I was overwrought by emotion. Perhaps part was due to the amazing experience I had just lived over the past several months – even though I had yet to assimilate all that it would eventually mean to me. I’m sure part was due to being homesick.

But perhaps not all.

Little did I know that my ancestor, Jacques “dit Beaumont” Bonnevie, an Acadian man who was born about 1660 was noted as “a native of Paris” on a historical document.

Little did I know what his life would have been like, what he saw, and that he was very probably baptized in Notre Dame Cathedral on the historic Ile de la Cite.

href=””> By Daniel Vorndran / DXR, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He probably stood very near this location, viewing Notre Dame 300 years earlier.

Little did I know that I was walking in his footsteps, and that I had returned home to his church.

Little did I know I would return again, and again. Called back…summoned by those ancient whispers.

Little Did I Know

I left Indiana full of naïve enchantment, and I returned with a brand-spanking-new world-view, crafted from an expanded consciousness.

I understood that we, me, the US was part of a much larger world that I could not be truly comprehended without experiencing it directly. There’s a massive difference between reading about something and experiencing it personally. Experiences indelibly shape us, and at that age, who we become.

I understood that the way “we” do things is one way, but not the only way, and not always the “right” way. There can be multiple right ways, and someone doesn’t always have to be “wrong.”

I understood that there are many perspectives, and all need to be considered with an open mind. Mine wasn’t. The culture in which I had grown up had already shaped me and my opinions. I had to rethink “me.”

I understood that many cultures embrace different religions, and everyone who embraces a different set of religious values is not going directly to hell. That was a tough realization for the Baptist girl from Bible Belt Indiana.

I understood that prejudice of all kinds, meaning relative to economic conditions, race, gender, religion and more had fomented all forms of hatred, and no love, throughout history, in many if not most of the very places I walked. Bombs had dropped, cities burned and millions died, over and over again – often in the name of or under the guise of religion.

Anne Frank’s poignant story never left my soul. Last year, on the shores of the Danube in Budapest, a memorial in the form of shoes that Jewish people were forced to step out of on the bank of the river before they were shot, their bodies falling into the water to be whisked away like so much rubbish, reminded me once again of the demons of prejudice. I understood that I had to fight those fundamental evils with every ounce of my being.

I understood that good people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, religions and speak any number of different languages.

I understood the same thing about bad people, and that they masquerade as good people, often hiding behind an agenda they believe you will embrace.

I understood that the world looks very different when you are raised with blinders, not because of willful ignorance, but because the people raising you have no other point of reference. Blinders beget blinders, ignorance begets ignorance, but humans, thankfully, can learn and change.

I understood that “because that’s how things have always been done” is not a good reason. In fact, it’s a very bad reason. I learned to think for myself “outside the box.” That was very difficult for my mother after I returned home.

I understood that opportunity is often disruptive, and it only comes knocking if you are willing to function outside of the environment in which you are comfortable. That’s exactly what happened to me.

I understood that I was forever changed, remolded, and it would murder my newly liberated soul to re-conform to the constraints that had previously bound me.

I understood that education was transformative in unimaginable ways and would be my ticket “out.”

I understood that mental ties that bind us are far stronger than physical ones, and infinitely more difficult to break.

I understood that once you comprehend, you’ve lost your excuse for ignorance.

I understood that my path into the unknown was mine for claiming and that if I didn’t choose that path, wherever it would lead, the light I was supposed to shine from my own personal summit would forever be lost. I would have to leap with no net.

I understood fear. In spades.

I understood what it meant to be truly alone.

I also was beginning to understand both tenacity and commitment. That, I got from my mother. Examples, both good and bad, never leave us as we are always leading by example.

I understood that to not leap meant that I would condemn myself to a life of darkness, understanding every single day that I had actively forsaken the light. Worse yet, I would be able to see that mountain I had declined to climb while others would claim the summit.

I came to understand that I could not ignore the nagging hand of fate. I tried, for years. That was slow torture, a fate worse than death. I decade later, I chose the difficult, rockstrewn path and never looked back again.

And so, in those golden summer days of 1970 began a slow transformative epiphany.

I could not be silent.

I could not conform.

Little did I know how much that summer changed my life – every molecule of my being. I left a caterpillar and returned emerging from my cocoon.

On that alpine vista, I knew that I had to walk that frightening, uncertain path into an unknown future to places no one on my family had ever been. No one could, or would, accompany me. It was my own personal watershed.


I was terrified, because I knew that path would lead me away from the home and people where I was raised – and I had no idea what would happen to me or where it led. I knew they would never understand why and many would be critical, or worse. I hoped that at least a few of them would love me anyway, or maybe because of my courage.

I felt an iron-clad bond across generations with my ancestors who left as frightened immigrants and arrived as refugees, embarking on an uncertain, perilous journey from which they would never return.

I prayed that someone, on the other side of that chasm, would understand.

I am tied to my ancestors in ways I didn’t then understand, them to me, and us to the future. Some part of them had awakened in me.

There was no turning back.

There was no going “home,” not that home had moved or changed. I had.

I returned, forever metamorphized, a refugee of my former self, tossed into the swirling vortex where everything you thought you knew and believed is stripped away. A solitary swimmer, navigating upstream into the future, against the current, towards some undefined misty summit in the distance.

This was not the journey I thought I was taking. I was only a student, going to Europe for the summer.

The dawning of enlightenment begins in darkness.

Little did I know.

How small my world had been, or how big the world really is.

MyHeritage LIVE User Conference in Oslo, Norway

Announcing the very first MyHeritage LIVE User Conference, in Oslo, Norway. Be there or be square!

Sorry for the 70s throwback. It’s just that I’m super excited to be attending and speaking at MyHeritage LIVE in Oslo, November 2-4, 2018.

Registration just opened with an early bird discount and only costs 75 Euro which is equivalent, today, to about $88 US. That’s a great value. (Yes, I know, you still have to get there, but I just found a round trip flight for about $700 which is less than my ticket to Salt Lake City earlier this year. You will also need a current passport.)

The conference will feature three tracks:

  • Genealogy
  • DNA
  • Hands-on workshops

I’ll let you guess as to which track to follow if you want to see my presentations. 😊

Of course, you can mix and match. The hardest part for me is selecting between wonderful speakers who are presenting at the same time.

Tickets also include a reception, the keynote by Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage founder, CEO and very inspirational speaker, lunch and a party on Saturday night. I can tell you, MyHeritage knows how to throw a genealogy party.

Here’s the list of international speakers. I’m sure you’ll recognize several names.

I realize this is rather short notice for a conference, but MyHeritage is known for taking the ball and running with it to get things done. Think of this as a “flash” conference. I hope that lots of Europeans will seize the opportunity to attend and DNA test!

If you haven’t yet DNA tested, there’s still time to order your test and receive your results before the conference. You can also transfer results to MyHeritage from Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or older 23andMe tests taken before August 2017, for free.

Just so you know, you don’t have to already be a MyHeritage user or subscriber to attend the conference. It’s open for all, at least until it’s sold out.

I can’t wait to see my old friends and make new ones too. I only attend or speak at a couple of conferences each year, so I pick and choose carefully. I hope to see you in Oslo.

Will you be attending? If so, please let me know so we can say hello in person!


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Owed to Mrs. Alsup: Be Undeniable – 52 Ancestors #203

One of the comments I hear regularly is that I’m lucky to be involved with genetic genealogy and the opportunities it offers. I agree, I am very fortunate, but luck, per se, has little to do with it. Luck is buying the winning lottery ticket. I haven’t managed to do that yet, although I’m still trying.

In the mean time, while I waited for Lady Luck to smile on me, I prepared, just in case I’m never “lucky.”

Everyone needs at least one really great teacher in their life. I was fortunate to have three, the first of which was Mrs. Alsup, followed by my step-father, Dean Long, who told me that “Luck favors the prepared and elbow grease,” and then with Joe Caruso.

Mrs. Alsup

Mrs. Inez Alsup was my English teacher in high school who taught me an extremely valuable lesson, one I really didn’t understand that I had learned or the depth of its value until nearly 25 years later.

I’ll add that she was a black woman, but in saying that, I also want to say that to me, she was just Mrs. Alsup and black or white mattered not one iota. I never thought of her in those terms. It’s just that looking back, I realize what a pioneer she really was and have a much greater respect for what she had to overcome to achieve what she did. It was from the depths of those experiences that she spoke to me.

She was a black woman, born in 1938 in the deep south, in Georgia, who obtained both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, became a teacher, then an administrator and assistant principal before retiring.

But Mrs. Alsup was tough, really tough. She was tougher on me than on anyone else and I felt she was extremely unfair.

As an adult, I fully understand why, and I appreciate it beyond expression. But I wasn’t an adult back then.

Mrs. Alsup saw my potential, and she comprehended something I didn’t. Women, in that day and age, had to be better to be equal. They had to excel, and excellence had to be absolutely unquestionable. Good wasn’t good enough.

On top of being a female, I was a mixed race female, and she understood all too well what that meant. I did not. Consequently, I was extremely unhappy with Mrs. Alsup.

“Next Time, Earn It”

Mrs. Alsup refused to give me an A that I fully believed I deserved. I was one-thirty-second of a point away from that A.

One. Thirty. Second. Of. A. Point.


Using math to average and round up, I could fully justify why I should have that A, but Mrs. Alsup was completely unswayed. Other teachers do this as standard practice, I argued. She patiently heard me out, and then she looked at me, dead straight in the eye, leaning forward over her desk until her face was just inches from mine, squinted her eyes at me and said, or rather kind of hissed, “Next time, earn it.”

I was furious, utterly furious. Mrs. Alsup was entirely unfazed as I stormed out of that room with an attitude and a half.

I did earn it, damn it, I did!

But, I really hadn’t. I had been almost good enough. Not good enough. Not better. Just almost. Not quite. Almost isn’t good enough.

But guess what…the next semester, and the next, I earned that A, and then I earned an A+ followed by what was called an A5, which was a 5 point A, as compared to a “regular” 4 point A.

Mrs. Alsup was right – if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, completely and unquestionably. I learned to be undeniable and it served me very well from that time forward in my life, but it wasn’t until I met Joe Caruso that I fully internalized the lesson Mrs. Alsup had taught me.

Until I truly understood the value of undeniability, and could put words to the phenomenon, I was unable to leverage it effectively.

Joe Caruso

Joe Caruso, founder of Caruso Leadership Institute, is a cancer survivor (as a teenager) with a high school education. Yet, he consults with and to America’s largest corporations. Joe is an unprecedented teacher and leader and he does not know the meaning of the word “can’t.” If you ever have the opportunity to hear Joe speak, just do it.

In 1997, I attended a seminar, (quite by accident actually), taught by Joe which turned out to be a clarifying, life-changing event. You can download, for free, Joe Caruso’s Success Strategies, one of which is to “Be Undeniable.” Indeed. Joe’s Success Strategies poster has remained on the wall by my desk through three moves and more than two decades.

Yes, I’m lucky, fortunate and blessed to have had Inez Alsup, my step-father AND Joe Caruso enter my life at the moments I needed a lesson.

Being Undeniable

On that fateful day that I was infuriated by Mrs. Alsup, I learned what it meant to be undeniable, although at that time I didn’t understand undeniability as a strategy.

A year later, I put that lesson to use when I attended a school board meeting, refusing to be excluded from a college prep class because the school wasn’t going to “waste the seat on a girl who’s just going to get married anyway.” They were going to “give it to a boy who would make something of himself.” I made my case and refused to leave. I obtained that seat in the class. I didn’t realize at the time that I had internalized Mrs. Alsup’s lesson.

Some two decades later, Joe Caruso would verbalize this golden rule of opportunity and made me realize the important life lesson that Mrs. Alsup had taught – far more important, at least to me, than the English class or the grade itself.

I wish I could personally thank Mrs. Alsup, but she passed away in 2010. My Dad’s gone too, but I can still thank Joe Caruso. In their honor, I would like to convey these very simple messages:

  • Luck favors the prepared and elbow grease. (Thanks Dad.)
  • Earn it. (Thanks Mrs. Alsup.)
  • Be undeniable. (Thanks Joe Caruso.)

And in case you’re wondering just how this applies to genetic genealogy, this is exactly the strategy I used to make the risky move of switching careers in the early/mid 2000s to genetic genealogy which was at that time a brand new field. It’s not luck, it’s thanks to Mrs. Alsup, Dad, Joe and a whole lot of continuing elbow grease. 😊

However, I am still buying lottery tickets. It never hurts to be both prepared AND lucky. Fingers crossed!

New Family Tree DNA Blog

Family Tree DNA launched a new blog when no one was looking! The first article is dated June 1st.

You can take a look here.

The other three major testing companies also publish blogs, although Family Tree DNA is the only one of the three that doesn’t have a business interest elsewhere. In other words, both Ancestry and MyHeritage would like to sell you a subscription to go along with your DNA test, and 23andMe’s primary focus is and has always been medical research.

I highly recommend those genealogy subscriptions though, because genetics is only one half of genetic genealogy. However, that also means that those blogs cover much broader topics than just incorporating DNA into your research.

  • Ancestry’s blog is here.
  • The MyHeritage blog is here. Coincidentally, imagine my surprise to discover that  today’s article is about my friend and cousin, Marie Rundquist, who recently broke through a huge brick wall utilizing DNA, her ingenuity, plus records. Small world, indeed!
  • 23andMe’s blog is here.

Blogs are a great way to keep current with the latest news from vendors and learn how to best utilize their tools.

Join me in my next few articles where I’ll be talking about each vendor’s best feature, the biggest vendor differences and transferring autosomal raw DNA files between vendors.

If you haven’t already subscribed to this blog, you can do so easily by clicking on the little grey “follow” box, near the top right of your computer screen. Subscribers receive articles in their e-mail every time a new article is published.


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I provide Personalized DNA Reports for Y and mitochondrial DNA results for people who have tested through Family Tree DNA. I provide Quick Consults for DNA questions for people who have tested with any vendor. I would welcome the opportunity to provide one of these services for you.

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When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received.  In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

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Philip Jacob Miller (1723/1727-1799), The Reluctant Patriot, 52 Ancestrors #202

Philip Jacob Miller was a Brethren man, also called Dunkers because their faith called for fully immersing, or dunking, those being baptized. Baptism took place as adults, not as infants, with the belief that one could only adhere to the tenets of the church if one was old enough to comprehend the teachings. Hence, converts were rebaptized, invalidating infant baptisms performed in other Protestant sects, causing the Brethren to sometimes be referred to by the derogatory term, “rebaptizers” by their Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed contemporaries. The Brethren were perceived as fanatical and sometimes seditious in their beliefs, but they found strength and comfort among their Brethren families and communities. This history explains the tight-knit sect that became both accustomed and immune to public outrage and pressure from outside of the Brethren church. Pressure to confirm from inside the Brethren church was another matter.

Philip Jacob’s father, Michael Muller/Miller, was Brethren as were his children, grandchildren and on down through a total of 5 generations until the first non-Brethren emerged in my line. John Whitney Ferverda, my grandfather, was raised Brethren, married a Lutheran woman and their compromise was the Methodist church. Philip Jacob was probably rolling over in his grave, wherever that is.

Brethren adhere to the “three negatives.” According to “A Centennial Statement,” published in 1981 by the Brethren Church:

Obedience to Christ is the center of Brethren life. This conviction has led the Brethren historically to practice non-conformity, non-resistance, and non-swearing.

  • In non-conformity, Brethren have sought to follow the way of Christ in contrast to the way of the world.
  • In non-resistance, Brethren have renounced the Christian’s use of violence in combating evil, striving, as far as possible, to be reconciled to all persons.
  • In non-swearing, Brethren have sought to lead such trustworthy Christian lives that oath-taking becomes unnecessary.

Every Brethren believer must live in a way that exhibits to the world the truth and love of Christ.

Historically, this means that Brethren did not believe in any particpation in government, to the point that they would not obtain a marriage license and those who did were shunned.

For instance, on February 14, 1776, Alexander Mack Jr., the son of the founder of the Brethren faith writes in a letter that he is shunning his daughter, Sarah, because “she married outside of the brotherhood” and secondly “because the marriage was performed with a license and third because her husband had not quite completed his apprenticeship.”

Brethren seldom registered deeds and often did not file wills. Worse yet, at least for the genealogist, they didn’t keep church records of births, baptisms, marriages or deaths.

Tracking Brethren families is difficult because of these beliefs. Sometimes tax lists, land surveys and purchases from or sales to non-Brethren community members are the only documents that confirm where our Brethren families were living at a given time, at least before the census began. You might escape a death record, but not even Brethren could escape the tax man.

If a Brethren was called to court, or wanted to become naturalized, they would not take an oath, but asked to be allowed to “affirm” instead. Hence, the Brethren men from Maryland traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where they were allowed affirmations as opposed to “swearing an oath.” Several Brethren men, including the minister Nicholas Martin, Philip Jacob Miller, Michael Miller, Jacob Stutzman and Stephen Ulrich made that journey for naturalization in either 1762 or 1767, or both.

Some Brethren felt that they had betrayed their faith by becoming naturalized, even under those circumstances, as minister Nicholas Martin reported to Alexander Mack Jr. in a letter in 1772 about Stephen Ulrich’s remorse and feelings of estrangement within the Brethren community.

The Brethren were peaceloving pietists. In essence, they would not participate in violence. They would literally not defend their families in a time of danger or warfare because violence was fundamentally opposed within their religion.

This wasn’t just a conceptual belief, as there are many examples over the years of Indian raids and families who died, and allowed their children to die rather than to defend themselves. I can’t imagine a faith so strong that someone would let a family member, particularly a child, be injured, tortured and perish.

I have to marvel at the people who lived by these beliefs. I respect them for the strength of their convictions, but I would never last.

Therefore, understanding that Philip Jacob Miller was indeed a devout member of this church, in a strong Brethren community where his entire extended family was Brethren as well, it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that Philip Jacob Miller was a Revolutionary War Patriot.

That’s about as “un-Brethren” as you can get, especially for a man who went all the way to Philadelphia to avoid taking an oath in Maryland, not once, but twice.

I published the story of Philip Jacob Miller and there are surely some hints that, as I read back over the article, now seem obvious. Cousin Marian, a former DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapter rep sent me an e-mail and told me that several people had joined the DAR based on Philip Jacob Miller’s service. Imagine my shock!

Marian discovered that Philip Jacob Miller’s service was based on the 1783 tax list. I had found that list previously, but I didn’t realize the significance, especially when combined with other information.

The Maryland State Archives indicate that the tax list was bound into a book with the title of “Copy of Assessors Certificates of Valuation of Property in Washington County in Pursuance of the Act of Assembly for Raising the Supplies for the year 1783.” (Underscore mine.) The important part, relative to Philip Jacob Miller’s Revolutionary War service are those underlined words. In other words, these taxes, at least in part, went to fund the Revolutionary War effort.

The tax list shows several Miller men on page 46 and 47, including Philip Jacob Miller, his brother John and his son, Daniel.

Please note that you can click to enlarge any image.

From the article about Philip Jacob Miller, I’ve excerpted the portions relevant to his Revolutionary War service, and added information, as follows:

The Revolutionary War

Philip Jacob Miller lived through the Revolutionary War in Washington County, Maryland, taken from Frederick County in 1776. This would have been Philip Jacob’s third war in 30 years, or fourth war in 40 years, depending on how you were counting.

Floyd Mason, in his book, “The Michael Miller and Susanna Bechtol Family Record,” tells us what he discovered about the Brethren in Frederick County during the Revolutionary War.

During the Revolution, the colonists held their national conventions and appointed certain committees of local leaders to carry out local responsibilities. In PA and MD, the main committee was the Committee of Observation who had the responsibility for raising funds to promote the war, select its leaders and furnish themselves with one committee member for each 100 families.  This committee had full power to act as it saw fit, answered to no one and there was no appeal of their decisions.

The militia groups were called Associations, later called Militia Companies. The Committee of Observation made lists of those not participating, whether Loyalist or members of the “Peace churches,” and they were called non-enrollers or Non-Associators.

The war issues divided the people’s loyalty. About one third favored the revolution, one third were Loyalists or Tories who favored the English and one third were neutral or did not believe in this manner of settling the issues. This threw the Quakers, Mennonites and Dunkers (Brethren) in with the Tories or Loyalists and in opposition to the efforts of the Committee of Observation, at least as the committee saw it.

The churches were bringing discipline to bear on members who did not follow the historic peace teachings of the church. Annual Conferences were held each year and members were asked to remain true to the Church’s nonviolent principles, to refrain from participating in the war, to not voluntarily pay the War taxes and not to allow their sons to participate in the war. This caused a lot of problems for the church members who wanted to be loyal to the church, loyal to the Loyalists who had brought them to the new country and loyal to the new government which was emerging.

As the war wore on and it looked as if the patriot’s efforts might lose, emotions raged. Non-Associators found themselves having to pay double and triple taxes. Their barns were burned, livestock stolen or slaughtered and their crops destroyed.  They were often beaten and “tarred and feathered.”  Church members came to the aid of those who endured the losses.

Some members chose not to pay the war taxes or participate in the war activities and chose to wait until the authorities came and presented their papers to have taxes forced from them. This was in compliance with the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Action. The Committee of Observation provided that non-Associators could take as much of their possessions with them as they could and then they would seize the property and remaining possessions and sell them to fill their war chests.

During this time, the Revolutionary War was taking place and the Brethren were known as non-Associators, those who would take an oath of loyalty, but would not belong to a militia unit nor fight. Many non-Brethren residents suspected them of secretly being allied with the Tories and resented their refusal to protect themselves and others.  Laws of the time allowed for the confiscation of property of anyone thought to be disloyal.  Records of this type of event have survived in the oral and written histories of some of the Brethren families, in particular some who migrated on down into the Shenandoah Valley.  Perhaps others thought it wise to move on about this time as well.

Taken from several sources, these are some of the names of non-Associators and others who were processed by the Committee of Observance that are descendants of Johann Michael Mueller (Jr., Philip Jacob Miller’s father) who died in 1771.

  • Samuel Garber who may have married one of Michael Miller’s daughters, and their sons Martin and Samuel Garber
  • Jacob Good, Michael Miller’s step-daughter’s husband
  • John Rife, Michael Miller’s step-daughter’s husband
  • David Miller, the son of Philip Jacob Miller
  • Michael Wine, married Susannah, the daughter of Lodowich Miller, son of Michael Miller
  • Jacob Miller, son of Lodowich Miller
  • Abraham Miller, relationship uncertain
  • Another source lists Elder Daniel Miller, stated as Lodowick’s son, as being fined 4.5 pounds.

Susannah Miller Wine told her children and grandchildren that Michael Wine, Jacob Miller, Martin Garber and Samuel Garber had their property confiscated by the authorities for remaining true to the non-violent principles of their church.

Lodowich Miller’s family group removed to Rockingham County, VA about 1782 or 1783.

We know that in 1783, Philip Jacob Miller, John Miller and Lodowick Miller were signing deeds back and forth in Frederick County. These activities may well have been in preparation for Lodowick’s departure. He was not on the 1783 tax list, and at least part of his land was clearly in Washington County, so he was apparently gone by that time.

William Thomas, on the Brethren Rootsweb list in 2011 tells us:

I have a copy of the 1776 non-enrollers list for Washington County, MD, that lists “Dunkars & Menonist” fines. The list includes Abraham Miller, David Miller, and David Miller son of Philip.  It goes on to list an appraisal of guns (whatever that means) in 1777 and includes a Henry Miller.

Point being there were several Miller’s in Washington County, some of who were Dunkers or Mennonites, a name common to both denominations.

If you move to the 1776 non-enroller list for Frederick County, MD, you have even more Millers. You have Jacob Miller, Jacob Miller s/o Adam, Abraham Miller, Peter Miller, Stephen Miller, Solomon Miller, Robert Miller, Henry Miller, Philip Miller, David Miller and Daniel Miller, all fined, and implying a Dunker/Mennonite/Quaker religious affiliation.

Washington County, Maryland was formed in September 1776 from the portion of Frederick County where Philip Jacob Miller lived. Note that while David Miller, son of Philip is listed, Philip Jacob is not listed but he could be listed as Philip, although we’ll see on the 1783 list that another Philip Miller is also residing in the area. So, Philip on the tax list could be another Philip, Jacob could be the Jacob Miller who left for Virginia, and Philip Jacob’s name could be legitimately absent from the “Dunkars and Menonist” list.

There is other evidence that Philip Jacob Miller did participate at some level. Men 16-60 were required to participate in the local militia. Philip Jacob was born between 1722 and 1727, so he would have been about 50 years old in 1776, clearly not 60 where he would be exempt until 1782 at the very earliest.

From the book, “Colonial Soldiers of the South, 1732-1774” by Murtie June Clark:

Capt. John White’s Company Maryland Militia, 6 days, undated:

  • Michael Miller
  • Jacob Miller

Note that there were multiple Michael and Jacob Millers in the area, and not all of them appear to be Brethren. This alone is not conclusive.

List of Militia 1732-1763 now before the Committee of Accounts lists John White’s militia as from Frederick County as well as that of Jonathan Hager.

Capt. Jonathan Hager’s Company, Maryland Militia 6 days service, undated:

  • Jacob Miller
  • Conrod Miller
  • John Miller Jr.
  • John Miller
  • Jacob Miller Jr.
  • Zachariah Miller
  • Philip Jacob Miller
  • Jacob Miller (son of Conrad)

Perhaps Philip Jacob Miller was trying, rather unsuccessfully it seems, to find a middle ground.

It’s difficult to understand how to interpret this information that seems to be conflicting. To try to resolve or better understand the situation, I turned to the 1790 census where I found 2 Philips in Washington County, 5 Jacobs, 7 Johns and an Abraham in both Washington and Frederick County.  Unfortunately, the 1790 census did not add clarity.

One thing we do know is that Philip Jacob Miller always used both names. A second Jacob Miller, also Brethren, also found early in Frederick County, Maryland, moved to Virginia about this time and then later to the Brethren community in Montgomery County, Ohio where Philip Jacob Miller’s sons, Daniel and David settled. This Jacob Miller has been proven to be unrelated on the Michael Miller line via Y DNA testing through the Miller-Brethren DNA Project.

If you descend from any Brethren Miller line, and have either Miller paternal Y or autosomal DNA tests, please join this project at Family Tree DNA to help us identify the various Miller Brethren lines. If you haven’t yet tested, Miller men can order the Y DNA test here and everyone can take the autosomal Family Finder test.

Philip’s Land

We can tell based on Philip Jacob Miller’s land records that he did indeed pay his taxes. In the 1750s, he had a 290 acre tract and a 50 acre tract surveyed.

The 1783 tax list provides us with the following information:

Philip Jacob Miller owned “sundry tracts” meaning more than one, which included:

  • Acres of wood – 98
  • Acres of meadow – 14
  • Acres of arable – 55
  • Total #acres – 167
  • Value – 250
  • Value of improvements – 110
  • Horses – 2
  • Black Cattle – 4
  • Value of livestock – 21
  • Value other property – 3
  • Total amount of property – 384

We don’t know what happened to the total of 340 acres that Philip Jacob had surveyed in the 1750s, but it’s entirely possible that he sold or gave portions to other Brethren, in particular, his children. We haven’t found deeds. It’s also possible that some of the land lay in Frederick County, the part that did not become Washington, although given the locations that we know, I don’t think that’s likely.

We also know that in 1796, when Philip Jacob sold his land to move to Kentucky, he sold 290 acres which is consistent with his survey.

While I can’t confirm exactly how and when Philip Jacob Miller obtained and disposed of land, one thing is clear. Philip Jacob Miller did not lose his land that he purchased from his father in 1751 and had surveyed in 1755. He sold the largest portion of that land in 1796. I don’t know why the 1783 tax list shows less land, unless he gave some of it to his children, who gave it back when they left, not long after this tax list was prepared. In fact, perhaps this 1783 forced payment of taxes to support the war was the last straw that convinced his sons, Daniel and David to move to Bedford County, Pennsylvania.

His son, “Daniel Miller of Philip” is shown on the 1783 list as well with no land, but a David Miller has 142 acres. Since there is only one David Miller, he isn’t listed by noting his father.

Military Evidence

Hagerstown, Maryland fell into Washington County in 1776, so we know that the militia list that showed Philip Jacob Miller in Capt. Jonathan Hager’s Company with 6 days service in Frederick County was prior to the county split in 1776. While Philip Jacob may have served for 6 days, that unit was never called to duty, so he never had to make that decision.

The 1783 Washington County tax list is clearly to raise funds for supplies to support the war effort. Philip Jacob is listed and obviously paid the tax, because he did not lose his land. Not only that, he had paid previous taxes as well, because he owned land in 1783 and he sold his original land surveyed in 1755, 41 years later, in 1796.

Philip Jacob is never found listed on the non-Associator’s lists of those who protested silently by refusing to participate unless either the “Philip” or “Jacob,” listed separately, is actually Philip Jacob. We know from the 1783 tax list, combined with other information, that there is another Phillip Miller and another Jacob Miller in the county at that time.

While Philip Jacob Miller may have broken with the Brethren at least somewhat on the topic of war, taxes and resulting land confiscation, he traveled all the way to Philadelphia with his elderly father and other Brethren in 1767 to be naturalized – a location where they were allowed to affirm and did not have to swear an oath. He also traveled there in 1762 to witness Nicholas Martin’s naturalization. He obviously took his Brethren faith seriously.

It appears that Philip Jacob Miller may well have walked somewhat of a tightrope, trying to preserve what he had worked so hard to accumulate for the future, for his family, and for his descendants while not acting in opposition to his religion. He wanted to leave his children in the best circumstances possible. At the age of between 70 and 75 in 1796, he sold his 192 acres of land and underwent a treacherous journey cross country and down the Ohio river to settle on yet another frontier on the Ohio River bordering Kentucky and Ohio where he bought 2000 acres of land that he left to his heirs.

Honoring Philip Jacob Miller’s Service

Philip Jacob Miller might well be appalled by this article and my recognition of him as a Revolutionary War Patriot – but he’s dead and can’t protest now. I want his legacy, his truth, to live. Brethren did not call attention to themselves and led very humble lives. His great-grandson’s gravestone was ordered “without too much polish,” in an effort to respect the Brethren way of life.

Honoring Philip Jacob for anything would be embarrassing, and assuredly, to honor him for his military service, no matter how reluctantly he served, would be mortifying to the man – especially if he really didn’t intentionally serve and tried not to. I’m sure he had a great deal of remorse about however he served and it probably panged his Brethren conscience for the rest of his life. It was clearly a slippery slope to find just the right balance of “service” that would fulfill the requirement well enough to prevent the confiscation of his land and farm, yet not alienate the Brethren community entirely.

I wouldn’t be quite so sure that Philip “served” at all if the only evidence was the 1783 tax list, because many other Brethren men are listed there including Nicholas Martin, the minister. All men who owned land would have been on that list of taxes owed, which is not the same as taxes paid. The only question remaining would be if they paid the bill or allowed their land to be confiscated. Given the Brethren directive, I’d guess that we he waited until the very last minute possible before paying, literally staring confiscation in the eye. Perhaps that much resistance was enough to preserve his membership within the church.

However, the 1783 tax list and the fact that he paid those taxes, combined with the earlier list of Hager’s men who served in the militia for 6 days is quite convincing, even without Philip Jacob’s apparent absence on the list of non-enrollers.

I can’t exactly put this bronze marker on Philip Jacob Miller’s grave since his burial location is either on an island that washed away in the Ohio River, or an unmarked grave in the Twelve Mile Regular Baptist Church Island Cemetery, depending on which version of the story you like.

So, I’ll just say thank you Philip Jacob Miller, for your service despite the tough decisions you had to make in the turmoil and uncertainty of the time in which you lived, your practical nature and your love for your family. The rights you and others secured for your descendants continue to protect Americans today, almost 250 years later.

Notes to 40 Year Old Me

Sometimes milestones make us think. Life is seldom what we expect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t influence the outcome. In fact, life is an amazing journey that takes us to incredible places we never expected. When I was 40, genetic genealogy hadn’t yet been born – yet here we are today!

One of my beloved family members is having a 40th today, and I’d like to share some “accumulated wisdom” for her and also for my genealogy friends.

Looking back, here are the things I would tell my 40 year old self.

1. It’s not too late. You’re just now ripe.

2. Someday isn’t a day on the calendar.

3. Risk is not a 4 letter word. Fear is.

4. Love undeniably.

5. Remove toxic people, and jobs, from your life. You’re worth it!

6. Listen to your gut. It’s seldom wrong.

7. Life’s too short to drink bad wine or eat bad food.

8. Dark chocolate is not bad for you. Excesses of anything are.

9. Unpursued dreams will kill you, slowly and painfully.

10. Life is about the long game. In 10 years, if you’re lucky, you’ll be 50 – so investment in your own life so that you’re 50th will be perfect, because you’ll be 50 whether it’s perfect or not and you have 10 years to make it happen.

11. You are your greatest barrier.

12. You are your greatest asset.

13. A positive attitude makes most of the difference between being happy and miserable.

14. If you’re unhappy, fix the problem whether it’s external or internal.

15. If you can’t bloom where you are planted, uproot yourself and move on.

16. Always entertain the possibility of new opportunities.

17. When looking at employment, think about opportunities to make a difference.

18. Most regrets are born of what we didn’t do. Just do it!!

 Relative to genealogy:

19. Write it down. Yes, you will forget it otherwise.

20. Back up your computer, religiously, and store a backup outside your home.

21. Share. Post your tree. Be kind. It’s good for everyone.

22. Pay it forward. Someday you will be the beneficiary – in spades.

23. DNA test every relative you can find, because you’ll lose the opportunity if you don’t.

24. Be prepared. Carry a DNA kit with you at all times. Learn how to beg effectively:)

In Summary

Give some thought about how you’d like to be remembered. Write your own “dream obituary.” Then, do what’s needed to grow into that legacy.

Those of you past this birthday, what would you add?

Ancestors: What Constitutes Proof?

All genealogists should be asking this question for every single relationship between people in their trees – or at least for every person that they claim as an ancestor. The answer differs a bit when you introduce DNA into the equation, so let’s discuss this topic.

It’s easier to begin by telling you what proof IS NOT, rather than what proof is.

What is Proof, Anyway?

First of all, what exactly do we mean by proof? Proof means proof of a relationship, which has to be proven before you can prove a specific ancestor is yours. It’s a two-step process.

If you’re asking whether those two things are one and the same, the answer is no, they are not. Let me give you a quick example.

You can have proof that you descend from the family of a specific couple, but you may not know which child of that couple you descend from. In one case, my ancestor is listed as an heir, being a grandchild, but the suit doesn’t say which of the man’s children is the parent of my ancestor. So frustrating!

Conversely, you may know that you descend from a specific ancestor, but not which of his multiple wives you descend from.

You may know that your ancestor descends from one of multiple sons of a particular man, but not know which son.

Therefore, proof of a relationship is not necessarily proof that a particular person is your ancestor.

Not Proof of an Ancestor

OK, so what’s NOT proof? Here are a dozen of the most common items – and there are surely more!

  1. Proof is not a DNA match alone. You can match as a result of ancestors on any number of lines, known or unknown.
  2. Proof is not an oral history, no matter how much you want to believe it or who said it. Oral history is a good starting point, not an end point.
  3. Proof is not, not, 1000 times NOT someone else’s tree. A tree should be considered a hint, nothing more.
  4. Proof is not a book without corresponding evidence that can be independently corroborated. Being in print does not make it so, people make mistakes and new information surfaces.
  5. Proof is not a man by the name of Jr., meaning that he is the son of a man by the same name with the suffix of Sr. Sr. often means older and Jr. means younger, but not necessarily related. Yes, this has bitten me.
  6. Proof of a father/son relationship is not two men with the same name in the same location.
  7. Proof is not a Y DNA match, at least not without additional information or evidence, although it’s a great hint!
  8. Proof is not an autosomal DNA match, unless it is an extremely close match and even then you (probably) need additional information. For example, if you have a half-sibling match, you need additional information to determine which parent’s side.
  9. Proof is not an Ancestry Circle, at least not without additional information.
  10. Proof is not similar or even identical ethnicity, or lack thereof.
  11. Proof is not a “DNA Proven” icon, anyplace.
  12. Proof is not a will or other document, at least not alone, and not without evidence that a person by the same name as the child is the RIGHT person.

I learned many of these NOTS or KNOTS as I prefer to call them, because that’s what they tie me in, by ugly experience. I began genealogy before there were proof standards, let alone the GPS (Genealogical Proof Standard). DNA adds yet another dimension to existing paper standards and is an important aspect of the requirement for a “reasonably exhaustive search.” In fact, there is no reason NOT to include DNA and I would suggest that any genealogical search is not complete without including genetic evidence.

Proof Is a Two-Way Street

Using traditional genealogy, genealogists must be able to prove not only that an ancestor had a child by a specific name, but that the person you believe is the child, is indeed the child of that ancestor.

Let me use an example of Daniel, the son of one Philip Jacob Miller in Washington County, Maryland in 1783.

The tax list shows Philip J. Miller, 15 entries from the bottom of the page, shown below. It also shows “Daniel Miller of Philip” 6 entries from the bottom, and it’s our lucky day because the tax list says that Daniel is Philip’s son.

But wait, there’s another Daniel, the bottom entry. If you were to look on the next page, you would also notice that there’s a Philip Miller who does not own any land.

What we have here is:

  • Philip J. Miller, with land
  • Daniel, son of Philip, no land
  • Daniel, no father listed, land
  • Philip, no land

This just got complex. We need to know which Philip is Daniel’s father and which Daniel is which Philip’s son.

Establishing proof requires more than this one resource.

The great news about this tax list is that it tells us how much land Philip J. Miller owned, and utilizing other resources such as deeds and surveys, we can establish which Philip J. Miller owned this land, and that his name was indeed Philip Jacob Miller. This is important because not only is there another Philip, who, by the way, is NOT the son of Philip Jacob Miller (knot #6 above), there is also another Jacob Miller, who is NOT Philip Jacob Miller and who isn’t even related to him on the Miller line, according to the Y DNA of both men’s descendants.

How would we prove that Philip Jacob Miller is the father of Daniel Miller? We’d have to follow both men backward and forward in time, together. We have great clues – land ownership or lack thereof.

In this case, Philip Jacob Miller eventually sells his land. Philip Jacob Miller also has a Bible, which is how we know that there is no son named Philip. Philip Jacob’s son, Daniel leaves with his brother David, also on this tax list, travels to another location before the family is reunited after moving to Kentucky years later, where Philip Jacob Miller dies with a will. All of his heirs sign property deeds during probate, including heirs back in Frederick and Washington County, Maryland. There is enough evidence from multiple sources to tie these various family members from multiple locations conclusively together, providing two way proof.

We must be able to prove that not only did Philip Jacob Miller have a son Daniel, but that a specific Daniel is the son of that particular Philip Jacob Miller. Then, we must repeat that exact step every generation to the present to prove that Philip Jacob Miller is our ancestor.

In other words, we have a chain of progressive evidence that taken together provides conclusive proof that these two men are BELIEVED to be related. What? Believed? Don’t we have proof now?

I say believed, because we still have issues like unknown parentage, by whatever term you wish to call it, NPE (nonpaternal event, nonparental event,) or MP (misattributed parentage,) MPE (misattributed paternal or parental event) or either traditional or undocumented adoptions. Some NPEs weren’t unknown at the time and are results of situations like a child taking a step-parent’s surname – but generations later – having been forgotten or undocumented for descendants, the result is the same. They aren’t related biologically in the way we think they are.

The Big Maybe

At this point, we believe we have the Philips, Philip Jacobs and Daniels sorted correctly relative to my specific line. We know, according to documentation, that Daniel is the son of Philip Jacob, but what if MY ancestor Daniel ISN’T the son of Philip Jacob Miller?

  • What if MY ancestor Daniel just happens to have the name Daniel Miller and lives in the same geography as Philip Jacob Miller, or his actual son Daniel, and I’ve gotten them confused?
  • What if MY ancestor Daniel Miller isn’t actually my ancestor after all, for any number of reasons that happened between when he lived and died (1755-1822) and my birth.

If you think I’m being facetious about this, I’m not. Not long after I wrote the article about my ancestor Daniel Miller, we discovered another Daniel Miller, living in the same location, also descended from the same family as evidenced by BOTH Y and autosomal DNA. In fact, there were 12 Daniel Millers I had to sort through in addition to the second Daniel on the 1783 tax list. Yes, apparently Daniel was a very popular name in the Miller family and yes, there were several male sons of immigrant Johann Michael Muller/Miller who procreated quite successfully.

Enter DNA

If DNA evidence wasn’t already a factor in this equation, it now must come into play.

In order to prove that Philip Jacob Miller is my ancestor, I must prove that I’m actually related to him. Of course, the methodology to do that can be approached in multiple ways – and sometimes MUST be approached using different tools.

Let’s use an example that actually occurred in another line. Two males, Thomas and Marcus Younger, were found together in Halifax County, Virginia, right after the Revolutionary War. They both had moved from Essex County, and they consistently were involved in each other’s lives as long as they both lived. They lived just a couple miles apart, witnessed documents for each other, and until DNA testing it was believed that Marcus was the younger brother of Thomas.

We know that Marcus was not Thomas’s son, because he was not in Thomas’s will, but Marcus and his son John both witnessed Thomas’s will. In that time and place, a family member did not witness a will unless it was a will hastily constructed as a person was dying. Thomas wrote his will 2 years before it was probated.

However, with the advent of DNA testing, we learned that the two men’s descendants did not carry the same Y DNA – not even the same haplogroup – so they do not share a common paternal ancestor.

Needless to say, this really threw a monkey wrench into our neat and tidy family story.

Later, the will of Thomas’s father, Alexander, was discovered, in which Marcus was not listed (not to mention that Alexander died before Marcus was born,) and, Thomas became the guardian of his three sisters.

Eventually, via autosomal DNA, we proved that indeed, Marcus’s descendants are related to Thomas’s descendants as well as other descendants of Thomas’s parents. We have a proven relationship, but not a specifically proven ancestor. In other words, we know that Marcus is related to both Thomas and Alexander, we just don’t know exactly how.

Unfortunately, Marcus only had one son, so we can’t confirm Marcus’s Y DNA through a second line. We also have some wives missing from the equation, so there is a possibility that either Marcus’s wife, or his unknown biological father’s family was otherwise related to Alexander’s line.

So, here’s the bottom line – we believe, based on various pieces of compelling but not conclusive evidence that Marcus is the illegitimate child of one of Thomas’s unmarried sisters, who died, which is why Marcus is clearly close to Thomas, shares the same surname, but not the Y DNA. In fact, it’s likely that Marcus was raised in Thomas’s household.

  • It’s entirely possible that if I incorrectly listed Thomas as Marcus’s father on Ancestry, as many have, that I would be placed in a Thomas circle, because Ancestry forms circles if your autosomal DNA matches and you show a common ancestor in your trees. This is why inclusion in a circle doesn’t genetically confirm an ancestor without additional information. It confirms a genetic relationship, but not how a person is related.
  • It’s entirely possible that even though Marcus’s Y DNA doesn’t match the proven Y DNA of Thomas, that Marcus is still closely related to Thomas – such as Marcus’s uncle. That’s why Marcus’s descendants match both Thomas’s and Alexander’s descendants through autosomal testing. However, without Y DNA testing, we would never know that they don’t share a paternal line.
  • It’s entirely possible that if Marcus was supposed, on paper, to be Thomas’s child, but was fathered by another man, such as his wife’s first husband, I would still be in the circle attributed to both Thomas and his wife, by virtue of the fact that I match DNA of Thomas’s descendants through Thomas’s wife. This is your classic step-father situation.

Paper is Not Proof

As genealogists, we became so used to paper documentation constituting proof that it’s a blow when that paper proves to be irrelevant, especially when we’ve hung our genealogical hat on that “proof” for years, sometimes decades.

The perfect example is an adoption. Today, most adoptions are through a court of law, but in the past, a functional adoption happened when someone, for whatever reason, took another child to raise.

The history of that “adoption” although not secret when it happened, became lost in time, and the child is believed to be the child of the couple who raised them. The adoption can actually be a step-parent situation, and the child may carry the step-father’s surname but his own father’s Y DNA, or it can be a situation where a relative or unrelated couple raised the child for some unknown reason.

Today, all paper genealogy needs to be corroborated by DNA evidence.

DNA evidence can be some combination of:

  • Y DNA
  • Autosomal DNA
  • Mitochondrial DNA

How Much Proof is Enough?

One of my favorite saying is “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

People often ask:

  1. If they match someone autosomally who shares the same ancestor, do they really need to prove that line through Y or mitochondrial DNA?
  2. Do they really need to match multiple people?
  3. Do they really need to compare segments?

The answers to these is a resounding, “it depends.”

It depends on the circumstances, the length of time back to the common ancestor, and how comfortable you are not knowing.

Relative to question 1 about autosomal plus Y DNA, think about Marcus Younger.  Without the Y DNA, we would have no idea that his descendant’s Y DNA didn’t match the Thomas Younger line. Suddenly, Marcus not being included in either Thomas nor Alexander’s will makes sense.

Relative to question 2 about matching multiple people, the first cousin we tested to determine whether it was me or my brother that was not the child of our father turned out to have different Y DNA than expected. Thank goodness we tested multiple people, including autosomal when it became available.

Relative to question 3 about comparing segments, every matching segment has its own unique history. I’ve encountered several situations where I match someone on one segment from one ancestor, and another segment from an entirely different line. The only way to determine this is by comparing and triangulating individual segments.

I’ve been bitten so many times by thinking I knew something that turned out to be incorrect that I want every single proof point that I can obtain to eliminate the possibility of error – especially multiple kinds of DNA proof. There are some things that ONLY DNA can reveal.

I want:

  • Traditional documentary evidence for every generation to establish the actual paper trail that proves that the child descends from the proper parents.
  • Y DNA to prove the son is the son of the father and to learn about the deeper family history. For example, my Lentz line descends from the Yamnaya culture, something I would never have known without the Big Y DNA test.
  • Mitochondrial DNA to prove that the mother is the actual mother of the child, if possible, not an unknown earlier or later wife, and to learn about the deeper family history. Elizabeth Mehlheimer’s mitochondrial DNA is Scandinavian – before her ancestors are found in Germany.
  • Autosomal DNA to prove that the paper lineage connecting me to the ancestor is correct and the line is not disrupted by a previously unknown adoption of some description.

I attempt to gather the Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroup of every ancestor in my direct line if possible and confirm using autosomal DNA.

Yes, my personal proof standard is tough, but I suggest that you at least ask these questions when you evaluate documentation or see someone claim that they are “DNA proven” to an ancestor. What, exactly, does that mean and what do they believe constitutes proof? Do they have that proof, and are they willing to share it with you?

Genealogical Proofs Table

The example table below is designed to be used to document the sources of proof that the individual listed under the name column is in fact the child of the father and mother shown. Proofs may vary and could be personal knowledge (someone you knew within your lifetime), a Bible, a will, a deed, an obituary, death certificate, a church baptismal document, a pension application, census records, etc. DNA confirmation is needed in addition to paper documentation. The two types of proof go hand in hand.  

Name Birth Death Spouse Father Mother Proofs – Sources DNA Confirmed
William Sterling Estes Oct. 1, 1902, Claiborne Co., TN Aug. 27, 1963, Jay Co., IN Barbara Ferverda William George Estes 1873-1971 Ollie Bolton 1874-1955 Personal knowledge – William is my father and William George is my grandfather. Autosomal triangulated to multiple Estes cousins
William George Estes March 30, 1873, Claiborne Co., TN Nov. 29, 1971, Harlan Co., KY 1. Ollie Bolton

2.  Joyce Hatfield

3. Crocia Brewer

Lazarus Estes 1845-1918 Elizabeth Vannoy 1846-1918 1.  Will of Lazarus Estes Claiborne Co., Tn. Will Book 8, page 42

2.  Deed where Lazarus states William George is his son.  Claiborne Co., Deed Book M2, page 371.

3. My father’s personal knowledge and birth certificate

Autosomal triangulated to multiple descendants of both Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy.
Lazarus Estes May 1845, Claiborne Co., TN 1916-1918, Claiborne Co., TN Elizabeth Vannoy John Y. Estes 1818-1895 Rutha Dodson 1820-1903 1. Personal knowledge of George Estes, now decd

2.  Deed here John Y. deeds all his possessions to his eldest son, Lazarus when he goes to Texas, Claiborne Co., Deed book B1, page 37.

Y DNA confirmed to haplotype of Abraham Estes, autosomal triangulated to descendants of Lazarus and Elizabeth and upstream ancestors through multiple matches on both sides.
John Y. Estes December 29, 1818, Halifax Co., VA Sept. 19, 1895, Montague Co., TX Rutha Dodson John R. Estes 1785/88-1885 Nancy Ann Moore c 1785-1860/1870 1. Family visits of his children in Tennessee

2. Census records, 1850, 1860, Claiborne Co., Tn. shows families in same household

Y DNA confirmed through multiple sons. Autosomal triangulates to several descendants through multiple lines of other children.
John R. Estes 1785-1788, Halifax Co. VA May 1885, Claiborne Co., TN Nancy Ann Moore George Estes 1763-1869 Mary Younger bef 1775-1820/1830 1. Halifax County 1812 personal property tax list where John R. Estes is listed as the son of George Estes and lives next to him.  Only 1 George in the county. Later chancery suit lists John R.’s wife’s name and location in Tennessee Y DNA confirmed through multiple lines.  Autosomal confirmed triangulation of multiple lines of his children and his ancestors on both sides.

If you’d like to read more about the difference between evidence and proof, and how to get from evidence to proof, check out this article, What is proof of family history? by my cousin, retired attorney, Robin Rankin Willis.

Proof is a Pain!

So now that we’ve discussed what proof is not, and what types of records constitute proof, you may be thinking to yourself that proof is a pain in the behind. Indeed, it is, but without sufficient proof, you may literally be doing someone else’s genealogy or the genealogy of an ancestor that’s not your own. Trust me, that’s infinitely more painful.

I hate sawing branches off of my own tree. If I have to do it, the sooner I make the discovery and get it over with, the better.

Been there, done that, and really, I don’t want the t-shirt.

There is never such a thing as “too much” proof, but there is certainly too little. We are fortunate to live in a time when not only are historical records available, but the record passed by our ancestors inside our very cells tells their story. Use every tool and every type of DNA at your disposal! Otherwise, you get the t-shirt:)


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