Her name was Sarah and she was (yet another) fourth cousin DNA match on Ancestry. Her surname was a very common French-Canadian one, heard often all over New England. She had no family tree attached to her DNA test but she used what appeared to be her real name and she had a photo of herself in her profile. She was clearly an adult but she looked young enough to be my daughter. It’s always a bit tougher to create family trees with young adult DNA matches as they’re not going to be found on a census record and neither are their parents. I turned to Facebook.
I entered her name as it appeared on Ancestry and hoped for the best. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to slog through too many profiles before I found her. Sarah used the same profile picture on both Ancestry and Facebook which made it easy to spot her. I grabbed a cup of coffee, settled in, and began reading her public posts on her Facebook page. I first needed to figure out the names of her parents so I could begin a family tree for her. Most people are Facebook friends with their parents, so I entered her surname in the search field of her “Friends” list. And there they were: her parents. I knew these people were her parents because her mom posted a family photo and there she was. Her daughter. My DNA match.
I created a (private, unsearchable) tree with just this information. I then turned to Google. I googled her parents names and general locations. I got an obituary with Sarah’s name and her parents names, along with the name of the deceased grandparent and their spouse. I was on my way.
I worked on this tree but I wasn’t seeing any connection to any of the paternal surnames or locations I was regularly getting DNA hits with: No McCurdys. No McBriartys. No Mullalys. No connections to Allagash. Nothing I could find connecting her to Springfield Parish. The first couple of generations in, it was French-Canadian surnames on both sides of her tree. 23andMe said that my biological father only contributed British Isles DNA to me so I kept building her tree. I finally found it; the only branch on Sarah’s tree with non-French surnames: Dignam, Blakely, and Rollins/Rowlands.
The surnames didn’t ring a bell. I had never seen them before in any DNA match tree I had ever created. I did manage to trace this family back to New Brunswick, Canada but these families originated in Glenelg Parish, Northumberland County. I didn’t readily see any connection to anything familiar so I moved on and worked on other matches and trees.
Over the course of year, I got a handful of other DNA matches to the same Dignam family in Sarah’s tree. All fourth cousin DNA matches that didn’t have published trees on Ancestry. I created trees for all of them and would eventually stumble on the Dignam surname and the same family from Glenelg, buried a few generations in. The Dignam matches seemed pretty far-afield in terms of current location. A few of the offspring of the original Glenelg, New Brunswick family made their way to America in the late 1800’s. Some of my Dignam DNA matches had roots that lead to New England; one branch went to the mid-west and Texas before curving into the original family in New Brunswick. Still, there was no connection to any other tree I was working on as far as I could see. These Dignams only matched one another. I’d work on them when I’d come across them, but I kept the Dignams on the back burner.
One afternoon, just poking around, I decided to go off the beaten path and run a general search on them on Google. I put in the names of the ancestor couple all these DNA matches of mine had in common: “James Dignam Louise Rollins,” and the location: “Glenelg, New Brunswick, Canada,” and I hit the search button.
In the midst of this general search, I found a query written back in 2002 on the website, Rootsweb. In it a fellow asked about his Dignam family that also reached back to Glenelg, New Brunswick. He had a maternal connection and mentioned all the proper names in his particular branch leading back to Glenelg, New Brunswick. I didn’t have this information in my DNA Dignam tree so I added it in and worked on it a little. On Ancestry, I found a high school yearbook photo of this man’s mother. And my jaw dropped. I recognized that face. She didn’t look exactly like me, no…but for the first time in my life, I saw elements of my own face I had never before seen in anyone else. Well, except my in my own two daughters. The feeling of familial recognition was overwhelming. Tears welled up in my eyes.
I had to be related to this woman.
I called on my genealogy buddies for second opinions: “I know, I know…I hate photo comparisons too, but do you see any resemblance?”
Teresa’s eyes widened. “Oh my God! Who is this woman?!” She asked.
Sara messaged back, caps lock: “YES!!”
I began furiously working on this line. I included all the aunts, uncles, cousins, married-ins I could find and then I found it: A McBriarty connection.
If my experimental DNA Dignam tree was correct, the woman in the high school yearbook photo, the mother of the guy that made the inquiry on Rootsweb, was a niece of a Dignam female that married into the McBriarty family.
Even better, this Dignam female had two McBriarty sons that were in the bio-dad ballpark with respect to their ages. I continued to tree build this McBriarty branch back and found a direct connection to the McCurdys. And they were direct descendants of William McBriarty and Bridget McDermott, buried in Cromwell Hill Cemetery in Springfield, Parish. It all seemed to line up. Perfectly. Even the DNA cousins from Allagash fell into correct, 4th cousin, place.
I was absolutely gobsmacked.
“You need to get this Rootsweb guy to test!” Teresa said. “You have nothing to lose. He’s already interested in genealogy.”
“He was interested in genealogy fourteen years ago,” I replied. “I don’t know…”
The truth is, as crazy as it sounds, I was extremely reluctant to reach out to him. For one, I knew it was entirely possible that I was flat-out wrong. Yes, it all fit perfectly but I was still working with only fourth cousin DNA matches. As a genetic genealogist, I knew a conclusion about paternity based on nothing but fourth cousins is far too remote to call, “solved.” To do so would be ridiculous. Second, I didn’t want to make a wild, baseless accusation about this guy’s cousins. I didn’t want to be a cause of family drama. And I sure didn’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t know anything about a close DNA connection to this family for sure. With all of my DNA connections being around the year 1800, at best all I could legitimately claim was theory.
I asked CeCe what she thought. “It’s definitely a Hail Mary play, but you could be right,” she said. “You need to offer this Rootsweb guy a DNA test.”
I sat on it for several weeks, dithering back and forth about what would be the right thing to do and how I should do it. Mr Rootsweb/Potential Second Cousin lived in an entirely different state than his McBriarty cousins. And there was a pretty substantial age difference between them. It was entirely possible that they didn’t even know each other, I told myself. I doubt my brothers could name our maternal grandmother’s siblings, much less their children or grandchildren. Finally, I decided to reach out via Facebook. The message was short and sweet. I told him I’d seen his inquiry on Rootsweb and wanted to know if he’d DNA tested anywhere. If not, would he be willing to test?
I didn’t get a reply.
Weeks went by. My genealogy buddy Sara pestered me to call him on the phone. “Have you him called yet?” she asked. She didn’t need to preface the question over Facebook messaging. I knew who and what she was talking about.
One day over lunch, Teresa said, “I know you. You’re second guessing yourself and your work and you’re twisting yourself into knots over this.”
“I really am,” I confessed. “If I’m right, I’m going to have to decide what to do with it and if I’m wrong, I don’t know what direction to take next. I’m just completely stuck.”
“We’ve spent four, almost five years with the McBriartys, in Allagash, in Canada, and the McCurdys, the Mullalys and the MacEveryones and all the rest of the fourth cousin DNA matches for these enormous Irish Catholic families. God, I think we could probably write family history books for everyone in New Brunswick Canada!” she laughed. “No one else knows these family trees and all the DNA connections you’ve got as well as you do…except me.”
I laughed. She was right. She knew these dozens and dozens of family trees as well as I did. She labored on them right alongside me. For years.
“If you doubt yourself, trust me,” she said. “You’re right about this, Laurie. I see it, too.”
The following day, I took a deep breath and gathered all the courage I could muster, and I called Mr Rootsweb-Potential Second Cousin on the phone. The call went to voice mail. I hadn’t anticipated that happening and felt totally unprepared. I left a voice message that, coming out of my mouth, sounded like the words of a rambling genealogy lunatic. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I remember thinking that I wouldn’t call me back. I was certain I had blown it.
But, Mr Rootsweb-Potential Second Cousin did call back. Within the hour. His wife was on the phone as well. I told them that I didn’t know how I was related to the Dignam family but that I kept getting these fourth cousin DNA matches to people found within the branches of his Dignam tree. I had bumped into his inquiry over at Rootsweb and I was wondering if he had DNA tested, and if if he hadn’t, if he would be willing to DNA test at Ancestry if I paid for it. I would gift it to him. I just wanted to see if we were a DNA match or not. We could be fourth cousins, something closer, or no DNA match at all. I honestly didn’t know. If we weren’t a DNA match, I could eliminate his branch. No matter the outcome, his DNA test would help me break down my genealogy brick wall. Everything I told him was one hundred percent true.
I just didn’t tell him the brick wall was me.
He hadn’t tested previously but he agreed to test. I sent him a kit.
It would be a long six weeks waiting for those results.
Perpetually curious. I love history, genealogy, old movies, good books, all sorts of music, and adventures involving travel. In my spare time, I help admin a genetic genealogy Facebook page for CeCe Moore ("DNA Detectives") and coach people how to connect with their biological family using DNA.