Classes taught by Me!, dna

Spreading Genealogy JOY! one Brick Wall at a Time




I am literally bursting with joy as I type.

Several years ago I met a sweet, elderly, cheerful woman who also volunteers at my local Family History Center.  I was shocked when she told me that her father is her brick wall.

I don’t know why I was shocked.  It’s a story I hear a lot.  I suppose it might be because she is an elderly Mormon lady and we Mormons tend to know a lot about our family trees…?

We talked for a bit and honestly, she didn’t say anything that gave me ideas on how to figure it all out.

Time passed.

I hadn’t seen her.

A few months ago I prepared a class on DNA Basics to teach at my local FHC and I started thinking about my friend.  Had she solved it yet?  If not, had she DNA tested yet?

It wasn’t long after that she happened to walk into the center during my shift to talk to someone else.  I asked – had she solved it, had she tested?

The answers were no and yes.  But the DNA results hadn’t helped her.

My inner genealogist/detective/puzzle-solver started doing this:


And it was all I could do to calmly ask if she would be willing to let me take a peek at her DNA results.

I was ANYTHING but calm on the inside.  I was full on Hermione raising my hand as high as possible wanting to shout, “Let me try!  Let me try!!!”

She told me about a granddaughter who has been working on it and some theories she has and she told me about some new discoveries they have made that they are hoping will help.

Like, as in one document.

(But I suppose when you have literally been searching for 50 years, even one new document that leads you nowhere feels like an accomplishment).

There I sat, with a kind smile, understanding eyes, gentle head nods all masking my internal jumping up and down yelling, “Pick me, pick me!  I reeeeeeeeeally want to try to help you!!!!!”

She agreed to give me access to her Ancestry DNA.  But it was totally in a, “Do you know how many people have tried to help me over the years?” kind of way.

One thing led to another, and a few weeks later I was sitting on my cozy couch with my laptop going through her DNA matches.

I could see notes made by her granddaughter.  I found her tree.  I found a blog her granddaughter put together outlining every bit of detail they had.  Which was almost nothing.

I started sorting.  I took every scrap of a lead in each record and dug deeper than they had ever considered going.  I created a tree for the person her father listed as someone who would always know how to find him.

I compared that tree to her DNA matches trees.  I started grouping her matches into clusters.  Those clusters started lumping together into two groups.  Even her matches without trees were matching other matches in just two groups.

The woman who was listed as the person who would always know where her father was?  That woman’s parents had the same first and middle names that my friend had been told might be her father’s parents’ names.  Those potential parents had a son born at the right time in the right place to be my friend’s father.  He just had a different name.  That son, the firstborn son, completely disappears at about the time my friend believes her father became estranged from his parents.

Oh boy.

The stars were aligning.

Did I just begin the end of a 50-year journey for my friend?

(Insert clapping, dancing, shouting for joy – all loud enough for our entire small town to hear!)

And then I reined it in.  There was more work to do.

But my hypothesis was looking pretty fantastic, so I emailed my friend and told her I had found some interesting things and would she have time to come see me so that I could show her what I had discovered?  In fact, I suggested that she could come to my DNA Basics class in a few days and I could show her after or we could meet the following Thursday.

Sure enough, she came to my class.

After class, I pulled out my laptop and began the slow build.

I showed her the US Consular record that she already had.  I showed her that woman who her father listed as someone who would always know where he was.  I showed her that woman’s family, including her siblings and the parents whose first and middle names matched what she believed her grandparent’s first and middle names might be.

She stopped and said, “But their last name is Key, not Campbell.”

Yes, yes it is.

I gently suggested that when a young man becomes estranged from his family – so estranged that he never goes home again – it is not uncommon for that young man to change his name.

I explained that while I wouldn’t call my hypothesis solid yet, so far, there was not another possible set of parents emerging from her DNA matches or from any documents.

I offered a research plan that we could follow to work through the process of trying to prove or disprove my theory.

It really didn’t take her long to go from, “But their last name is Key, not Campbell.” to “My whole life I thought I was a Campbell, but I’m really a Key!”

I gently refocused her and suggested that while it was looking like that was true, we better spend some more time to be certain.

My sweet, elderly, cheerful friend was headed out of town for several weeks.  She would be back to work on everything some more.

And last Thursday was the day she showed back up at the center.

She was literally bursting with joy – just like me – as she told me that this is all she can talk about with every person she comes across.  She wanted to keep working.

So work we did.

I showed her my spreadsheet of her matches.  I showed her how I was working through some of the nitty-gritty.  We dug in and started researching and connecting more of her matches to this family.  We dug and read and compared and analyzed and updated and attached and discarded and worked and worked and worked.

We only found more connections and further proof that my theory was correct.

I wouldn’t say we are done.

But I also can’t offer you any other hypothesis.  So far, every match is easily connected to her mother’s side, or it’s connected to the possible grandparents I discovered.  Parents of a father whose life was cut short.  A father who was only around for her first six years of life.  A man for whom my friend has only one picture.

There is no third cluster to consider.

We have two clusters.

We have ONLY two clusters.

I think we are nearly there.

And that, my friends, is filling my entire heart and soul with joy.



Happy Monday, do you have a brick wall?  Have you tried using DNA to smash it?  I highly recommend that you do.



31 thoughts on “Spreading Genealogy JOY! one Brick Wall at a Time”

  1. Amazing work, Amberly! It must be so rewarding to you to be able to solve this. I wish I knew exactly how to do what you are describing. What a good soul you are!

    1. Thank you, Amy! That is so kind of you to say. <3

      I keep chipping away at learning the science, which is definitely interesting, but honestly I prefer to just use my detective skills. And those, are difficult to teach. When I figure out how to break it down in steps (while still protecting everyone's privacy) I will sure try to write about it…

  2. Fantastic work, Amberly! I hope you can find more confirming evidence for your theory. I am working with some members of my husband’s family to smash a very similar brick wall on his grandmother’s father. Thankfully the DNA evidence is strong even though the paper trail thus far is very thin and circumstantial.
    Now I need to learn more about turning the DNA evidence into a written proof argument.

    1. Thank you, Melissa! <3

      I need to learn the very same thing! But when you are helping out a friend, out of love, not business, there is a lot less pressure to formulate a great written proof argument. 😉 (I still need to learn it though.)

    1. Hahahaha!! I LOVE it! When I wrote the sentence at the end about using DNA to smash a brick wall I thought of you and how you prefer to build yourself a door, find the key, and open that door up. A great analogy to be sure, but I guess all of these years of being a boy-mom has given me more of a rough and tumble smash-it-up attitude. 😉

      Thank you, Cathy, for your kind words. <3

  3. Wow, Amberly! Good work! It particularly makes sense to me because her father died young. There was no hope of a reconciliation. I wonder if his parents ever knew about their granddaughter.

    1. Thank you, Luanne!! <3

      While his life was cut short, and she was so young, he was not. He was nearly 60 when he died. But I have wondered the same. Did he ever send word to anyone that he had a daughter? His sister, one of his other siblings? His parents had died many years before her birth, but did he tell anyone? That is the kind of question that makes you a great genealogist! 😉

      1. I know I’m not a great genealogist, but a passionate one, for sure! So many important questions! And really a heart-breaking story. I guess what I never can understand is when someone breaks off from family that they don’t think it harms their children.

        1. You are definitely better than you give yourself credit for. 😉

          Well, the good news is that she is now learning all about the family she never knew. She is so happy. But you are right, it does hurt the children.

          1. That is good news indeed!
            I know that I am not good at staying focused or spending enough time or clearly documenting, but that I am good at pulling things together intuitively and in writing and being diligent about blogging and keeping up a steady pace of photo scanning and research. So I know my limitations, that is for sure. I would never call myself a genealogist, but a family history researcher and genealogy buff.

  4. I can’t get over all these amazing stories about genetic genealogy these days. I was kind of a curmudgeon about it for a long time, but after completing the BU course I realized I needed to stop being a stick-in-the-mud and now I’m waiting for the results of my first test.

    Anyway, I cannot wait to see how this story turns out!

    1. It has been so fun to help my friend! I’ll just give you this little teaser – she hopped on an airplane several weeks ago to go meet her previously unknown half-niece and half-nephew. Such a cool experience!

      I hope you make some awesome discoveries with your own DNA!!

  5. What a heart-warming story! Isn’t it amazing what we can discover with DNA? I just met some “new” first and second cousins yesterday, thanks to DNA. Who knew this would happen when I took that test?!

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