When DNA Leads You Astray

I’m currently going through what I refer to as “the great purge.”

This occurs when you can’t stand the accumulated piles and boxes of “stuff” and the file drawers are full, so you set about throwing away and giving away. (Yes, I know you just cringed. Me too.)

The great news is that I’ve run across so much old (as in decades old) genealogy from when I first began this journey. I used to make lists of questions and a research “to do” list. I was much more organized then, but there were also fewer “squirrel moments” available online to distract me with “look here, no, over here, no, wait….”

Most of those questions on my old genealogy research lists have (thankfully) since been answered, slowly, one tiny piece of evidence at a time. Believe me, that feeling is very rewarding and while on a daily basis we may not think we’re making much progress; in the big picture – we’re slaying that dragon!

However, genealogy is also fraught with landmines. If I had NOT found the documentation before the days of DNA testing, I could easily have been led astray.

“What?”, you ask, but “DNA doesn’t lie.” No, it doesn’t, but it will sure let you kid yourself about some things.

DNA is a joker and has no problem allowing you to fool yourself and by virtue of that, others as well.

Joke’s On Me

Decades ago, Aunt Margaret told me that her grandmother’s mother was “a Rosenbalm from up on the Lee County (VA) border.”

Now, at that time, I had absolutely NO reason to doubt what she said. After all, it’s her grandmother, Margaret Claxton/Clarkson who she knew personally, who didn’t pass away until my aunt was in her teens. Plenty close enough to know who Margaret Claxton’s mother was. Right?

DNA Astray Rosenbalm

Erroneous pedigree chart. Rebecca Rosenbalm is NOT the mother of Elizabeth Claxton/Clarkson.

I filled Rebecca Rosenbalm’s name into the appropriate space on my pedigree chart, was happy and smugly smiling like a Cheshire cat, right up until I accidentally discovered that the information was just plain wrong.

Uh oh….

Time Rolls On

As records became increasingly available, both in transcribed fashion and online, Hancock County, TN death certificates eventually could be obtained, one way or another. Being a dutiful genealogist, I collected all relevant documents for my ancestors, contentedly filing them in the “well that’s done” category – that is right up until Margaret Clarkson Bolton’s death certificate stopped me dead in my tracks.

margaret clarkson bolton death

Oops

Margaret’s mother wasn’t listed as Rebecca Rosenbalm, nor Rebecca anyone. She was listed as Betsy Speaks. Or was it Spears? In our family, Betsy is short for Elizabeth.

Who the heck was Elizabeth Speaks, or Spears. This was one fine monkey wrench!

A trip to Hancock County, Tennessee was in order.

I dug through dusty deed and court records, sifted through the archives in basements and the old jail building where I just KNEW my ancestors had inhabited cells at one time or another.

Yes, my ancestor’s records really were in jail!

Records revealed that the woman in question was Elizabeth Speaks, not Spears, although the Spears family did live in the area and had “married in” to many local families. Nothing is ever simple and our ancestors do have a perverse sense of humor.

Elizabeth Speak(s) was the daughter of Charles Speak, and the Speak family lived a few miles across the border into Lee County, Virginia. This high mountain land borders two states and three counties, so records are scattered among them – not to mention two fires in the Hancock County courthouse make research challenging.

Why?

I asked my Aunt Margaret who was still living at the time about this apparent discrepancy and she told me that the Rosenbalms “up in Rose Hill, Virginia” told her that her grandmother, Margaret Claxton/Clarkson was kin to them, so Margaret had assumed (there’s that word again) that Margaret Claxton’s mother was their Rebecca Rosenbalm.

Wrong!

The Kernel of Truth

Like so many family stories, there is a kernel of truth, surrounded by a multitude errors. Distilling the grain of truth is the challenge of course.

Margaret Claxton’s mother was Elizabeth (Betsy) Speak and her father was Charles Speak. Charles Speak’s sister, Rebecca married William Henderson Rosenbalm in 1854, had 4 children and died in February 1859. So there indeed was a woman named Rebecca (Speaks) Rosenbalm who had died young and wasn’t well known.

Rebecca’s sister Frances “Fanny” Speak also married that same William Henderson Rosenbalm in November 1859, a few months after Rebecca had died. Fannie also had 4 children, one of which was also named Rebecca Rosenbalm. Do you see a trend here?

So, indeed there were 7 living Rosenbalm children who were first cousins to Elizabeth Speak who married Samuel Claxton and lived a dozen miles away, over the mountains and across the Powell River. Now a dozen miles might not sound like much today, but in the mountains during horse and wagon days – 10 miles wasn’t trivial and required a multi-day commitment for a visit. In other words, the next generation of the family knew of their cousins but didn’t know them well.

The following generation included my Aunt Margaret who was told by those cousins that she was related to them through the Rosenbalm family. While, that was true for the Rosenbalm cousins, it was not true for Aunt Margaret who was related to the Rosenbalms through their common Speak ancestor.

Here’s what the family tree really looks like, only showing the lines under discussion.

DNA astray correct pedigree

You can see why Aunt Margaret might not know specifics. She was actually several generations removed from the common ancestor. She knew THAT they were related, but not HOW they were related and there were several Rebecca’s in several branches of the family.

Why Does This Matter?

You’ve probably guessed by now that someplace in here, there’s a moral to this story, so here it is!

You may have already surmised that I have autosomal DNA matches to cousins through the Rosenbalm/Speaks line.

DNA astray pedigree match

This is one example, but there are more, some being double cousins meaning two of Nicholas Speak’s 11 children’s descendants have intermarried. Life is a lot more complex in those hills and hollers than people think – and unraveling the relationships, both paper and genetic (which are sometimes two different things) is challenging.

DNA astray chromosome 10.png

I match this fourth cousin once removed (4C1R) on a healthy 18 cM segment on chromosome 10.

Wrong Conclusions

Now, think back to where I was originally in my research. I knew that Margaret Claxton/Clarkson was my aunt’s grandmother. I knew nothing at all about the Speak family and had never heard that surname.

Had I ONLY been looking to confirm the Rosenbalm connection, I certainly would have confirmed that I’m related to the Rosenbalm family descendants with this match. Except the conclusion that I descend from a Rosenbalm ancestor would have been WRONG. What we share are the Speak ancestors.

So really, the DNA didn’t lie, but unless I dissected what the DNA match was really telling me carefully and methodically with NO PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS, I would have “confirmed” erroneous information. Or, at least I would have thought that I confirmed it.

I would actually have been doing something worse meaning convincing myself of “facts” that weren’t accurate, which means I would have then been spreading around those cancerous bad trees. Guaranteed, I do NOT want to be that person.

Foolers

I can tell you here and now that I have found several matches that were foolers because I share multiple ancestors with a person that I match, even if those multiple ancestors aren’t known to either or both of us. Every single DNA segment has its own unique history. I match one individual on two segments, one segment through my mom and one segment through my dad. Fortunately, we’ve identified both ancestors now, but imaging my initial surprise and confusion, especially given that my parents don’t share any common ancestors, communities or locations.

We have to evaluate all of the evidence to confirm that the conclusion being drawn in accurate.

DNA astray painting

One of the sanity checks I use, in addition to triangulation, is to paint my matches with known ancestors on my chromosomes using DNAPainter. Here’s the match to my cousin, and it overlaps with other people who share the same ancestor couple. Several matches are obscured behind the black box. If I discover someone that I supposedly match from a different ancestor couple sharing this segment of my father’s DNA, that’s a red neon flashing sign that something is wrong and I need to figure out what and why.

Ignoring this problem and hoping it will go away doesn’t work. I’ve tried😊

Three possible things can be wrong:

  1. The segment is identical by chance, not by descent. With a segment of 18 cM, that’s extremely unlikely. Triangulation with other people on this same segment on the same parent’s side should eliminate most false matches over 7cM. The larger the match, the more likely it is NOT identical by chance, meaning that it IS identical by descent or genealogically relevant.
  2. The segment is accurately matched but the genealogy is confused – such as my Rosenbalm example. This can happen with multiple ancestors, or descent from the same family but through an unknown connection. Looking for other connections to this family and sorting through matches’ trees often provides hints that resolve this situation. In my case, I might have noticed that I matched other people who descended from Nicholas Speak, which would not have been the case had I descended through the Rosenbalm family.
  3. The third scenarios is that the genealogy is plain flat out wrong. Yea, I know this one hurts. Get the saw ready.

The Devil in the Details

Always evaluate your matches in light of what you don’t know, not in order to confirm what you think you know. Play the devil’s advocate – all the time. After all, the devil really is in the details.

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Thank you so much.