After my initial excitement… and then disappointment… I realized that I didn’t have the easy answer I thought I did, so I was going to have to be scientific about this. I went back to that scrawled chart of shared matches and neatened it up, to start using it as a cross-tab tool of who matched with whom. Clearly this group was closely related, and I just needed to figure out how.
|MC (Tom C’s mom)||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
That is a very substantial block of people who seemed to be related to me… and each other. Since I had already hit a dead end with M.C., my top Second Cousin match, I just went next down the list to JZ, which was administered by a Judy Z(xxxxxx). It appeared that a number of the other people in the chart might be her family members, because some of those accounts were administered by her. So after we got home from our trip the the East Coast, on October 26 of 2017, I sent my second letter to a total stranger, keeping it much simpler this time.
“Hi Judy! My name is Tom Holowach, and my wife and I live in Hawaii now, but I grew up in upstate New York. I’m 66, and I decided to do my DNA test because I am adopted, and wanted to see if my bloodline could give me any clues to my medical history. My public tree is for my adoptive parents, but is not linked to my DNA, because it would be irrelevant. The #1 entry on my DNA match list is to the mother of a Thomas C(xxxxx), who I actually just met with in Massachusetts last month. Tom and I are working together to triangulate with other connections, in order to fill in the missing links that connect us all together. I have made a simple grid chart that shows how everyone is grouped together. We believe we are all connected together by a “missing link” in an Irish family in the New York area. Are you interested in working with Tom and me? Please let me know. Thanks! Tom Holowach”
I also included my email address, as well as my cell phone number, just to prove some kind of legitimacy. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that someone would respond to one of these notes by actually calling me… but Judy did! When she woke up the next morning and read my note, she was so excited that she just grabbed her cell phone and called me. When you live in Hawaii, you get used to people on the Mainland having no idea what the time difference is, so somewhere around 4 a.m., my phone took a message (that’s what Do Not Disturb mode is for). When I woke up, I checked my email first, and read this note:
From: Judy Z(xxxxxx)
Date: October 27, 2017 at 12:42:56 PM EDT
To: holowach@ xxx.xxx
Subject: Sorry to call so early
So sorry I called so early but did not realize I was calling Hawaii. Checked afterward and found out it was an obscene time to phone anyone. That being said I would be happy to help however I can.
Just a note: both sides of my family have a strong history from New York.
On her phone message, she had left her cell number, so I excitedly called her back. That was the moment that changed my life. If it wasn’t for Judy’s openness and generosity, I never would have solved my puzzle when I did. It still took me another 6 months of work, even after getting her information, but without it, I’m not sure how long it would have taken. Judy first confirmed that many of those top matches of mine were, indeed, related to her. She told me that her daughter, Tracy, had bought Ancestry tests for everybody as a gift back in October of 2016. The third match on my list was Judy’s sister, the fourth was her daughter, the sixth was her son, and the 8th and 9th were her daughter’s children.
The problem was that she and her family had never done a family tree. Her ethnicity chart showed that she was 91% Ireland/ Scotland/ Wales, so clearly I was now about to start working on the Irish side of my tree. The next moment was the most crucial point. I asked her if she would mind if I created a family tree for her, based on whatever information she gave me over the phone. She said yes, and that made all the difference. For the next hour, I asked questions and scribbled notes furiously, trying to keep up with her. The initial easy info about her parents and grandparents was followed by other hazy memories of aunts and uncles and siblings of grandparents. Some were scraps of things she remembered from trips as a child and other were memories relayed from her parents. I’m glad that I still have that piece of legal paper. It’s fun to go back and look at how my story began to come together.
This is where all the hours I had spent using Ancestry to build my adoptive mother’s family tree paid off. I started a new private tree, which I named Z(xxxxxx) Research Only, and plugged in the facts she had given me over the phone. In just a few hours, I had built a solid tree for both sides of her family, going back to her great-grandparents. Her father had been born in Yorkshire, England, but he was solidly Irish, with a father born in Limerick. Her mother’s side was Irish as well, with a few more generations in New Jersey, with a 2nd Great-Grandfather coming from Ireland about 1850. I followed every single branch of her family as far I could, in every direction possible, to as close to present day as I could. It was exciting to have a solid lead, but I was still confused how I could be so closely related to someone whose family, for the most part, had lived only in New York City and New Jersey since coming to the US. I could not quite reconcile that fact, with me being born in upstate Rochester, NY. That was a conundrum I would continue to have until I had actually solved the puzzle.
I discovered that the U.S. Census was becoming my primary trustworthy tool to find solid facts about family trees. There were only 2 caveats: the first is that the last Census we have access to is from 1940. That is because of the “72 Year Rule,” which declares that U.S. Census data can only be released after the passing of (you guessed it) 72 years. The 1950 census is coming up in just a few years, in 2022. The biggest tragedy is the destruction, by a catastrophic fire in January of 1921, of the Census of 1890. Some charred sections from just a few states were eventually preserved. That particular year was so crucial for the understanding of the United States, the impact was described in the National Archives:
“Of the decennial population census schedules, perhaps none might have been more critical to studies of immigration, industrialization, westward migration, and characteristics of the general population than the Eleventh Census of the United States, taken in June 1890. United States residents completed millions of detailed questionnaires, yet only a fragment of the general population schedules and an incomplete set of special schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows are available today. This was the first U.S. census to use Herman Hollerith’s electrical tabulation system, a method by which data representing certain population characteristics were punched into cards and tabulated. The censuses of 1790 through 1880 required all or part of schedules to be filed in county clerks’ offices. Ironically, this was not required in 1890, and the original (and presumably only) copies of the schedules were forwarded to Washington. This is a genuine tragedy of records–played out before Congress fully established a National Archives–and eternally anguishing to researchers.”
Another important source, when available, are obituaries. Many that were published have been digitized. Other have been posted by family members as part of the electronic memorials on FindAGrave.com. Besides very precise birth and death information, they also usually contain names of family members and spouses, and often their children, who have passed earlier and those who survive the deceased. If you read those carefully and transcribe the info to enter into your tree manually, it can often provide significant breakthroughs. As I followed Judy’s family back, I found an obituary for her grandmother, Anna L. Moore, which said that she was the daughter of “the late George and Margaret Moore” and that she was survived by “a brother, John Moore of New York.”
When I looked at my scribbles on that legal pad, in the upper right I noticed that it said “Grandmother Anna Moore, Nyack” and “sister Josephine.” That already gave me 3 children for George Moore and Anna Kennedy. It didn’t take much research to add a couple more. It was time to take this basic tree and contact my other 2 closest matches, Jody B(xxxxx) and Susan S(xxxx). I sent them that same internal message in Ancestry that I had sent Judy, but I now had a bit more info to add to the note this time. I wrote on November 11.
“I have another close cousin I am working with named Judy Z(xxxxxx), whose family is from New Jersey, and you and she come up on Tom C(xxxxx)’s list, as well as mine. I have made a simple grid chart that shows how everyone is grouped together. We believe we are all connected together by a “missing link” in one of the related Irish families who live around the New York City area. All of this research is on 2 private trees (on which I am nowhere located) that I can give you guest access to. Are you interested in working with Tom, Judy and me? Please let me know.
Thanks! Tom Holowach”
Within 2 days, both Jody and Susan wrote back with interest. Neither had created a family tree, but both were interested in the project. Susan said she wanted to get her father involved, as he was the keeper of their family tree, but it wasn’t online yet. Jody was sorry that her dad had passed and could not help… but she certainly would. “Hi Tom! I would love to work with you and everyone else! I’ve not done much research but I do have some of the family tree on my father’s side I could look for. My father died in 2004 and he knew a lot! However, now that I’m thinking about it, my father‘s cousin, Charles Brewer, sent me quite a list of ancestors and I know his daughter has the whole set of research papers from him. “
I gave Jody and Susan guest access to the tree I had already built. Because I had already researched the Moore family so well, they both recognized their great-grandparents’ names on the tree. When Susan showed it to her mother, Audrey responded that she actually saw her father’s name on my tree already. With a bit more work, using information from them, I was able to create something which I began calling the Moore Family Tree. At this point, I knew how they were all related to each other. Because Judy’s immediate family was about half of my closest matches, by November 15 of 2017, I was able to tie together 10 of my top 12 matches. My only problem was… I had absolutely no idea where I fit in under there, or indeed, whether I actually fit in that window at all. After all, since my closest connection to any of them was as a second cousin to Judy, I might actually be related to the spouses of George Moore, or to people descending from the families of his or his wife’s mother and father. I was only seeing part of one side of this triangle, and only in 2 dimensions. In reality, this only was but one facet of a 3-dimensional, 4-sided pyramid. I needed to study the families of George Moore and his wife Margaret Kennedy, and find their parents and all of their brothers and sisters, in order to go far enough back to find all the combinations and permutations of possible relatives that a second cousin relationship might generate.
One other thing… this was still only for the Irish side of my family. I also had to do the same thing for the Polish side as well, and I unfortunately had no clue which ethnicity belonged to which parent. I suddenly realized that it felt was like I was playing Myst all over again, and I was staying up until 2 and 3 am, obsessed with finding the answer. What is still my favorite phrase, which summarizes this whole process that basically describes a year of my life, was uttered one night by my wife. She would walk from her office toward the bedroom, passing my office, seeing me hunched over a keyboard and huddled behind 2 big computer monitors, searching desperately for that “one more clue” which would miraculously solve this puzzle.
As my wife sauntered by, she would say, with a mix of understanding and cheerful exasperation, “Come to bed! They’ll still be dead in the morning.”