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  • Writer's pictureMarcia Edwina Herman-Giddens

A Few Spooky Surprises While Researching a Relative

Time flows on relentlessly. Here it is September already and I have been 82 for eight days. In this time flow I continue to find myself persistently researching the relationship with my cousin Greg who lives in the same county as I do and whom I discovered due to a DNA match. My limited skills failed me so, I recently hired a nationally known genealogist to see if he can find out exactly how we’re related, that is, who is our common ancestor? Greg and I are not closely related but close enough for me to really want to know how he matches my very Southern and very white maternal line which is the one that seems to be the most peppered with mysteries and the one that connects us. Greg is one of my many African American cousins. I have been so fortunate to meet and get to know him as well as some others. They have enriched my life in so many ways and I have learned so much from them. When relatives become friends, it makes for an especially rich relationship.

Every so often while waiting for the genealogist’s report, I mess around with the genealogy sites FamilySearch, Ancestry, 23andMe, and My Heritage. A couple of weeks ago, FamilySearch lured me in with an email having nothing to do with Greg, but it made me realize I had not looked at that site to see if somebody might have put up a family tree for him. Little did I know when I did this that strangers may be starting trees there, at least that is what I must conclude from what followed. On FamilySearch, I knew that anyone can create and change other peoples’ information, so the site may be even less reliable than the others, but I assumed each tree would have been started by a family member, or, at the least, by someone trying to figure out a genealogy question involving that family. Not being a regular user of FamilySearch, and thus, not knowing their methods, I ended up spooked. Here is what happened as best as I can re-create.

Since I had the dates of my cousin’s parents, I was able to search for a possible family tree. I found a very small tree which fits with what Greg had told me. He is particularly interested in learning more about his paternal line, so it was convenient that I had learned through Ancestry’s rather new ability to separate DNA matches by parents that he and I are related through his father’s side, but that has no further part of this story.

At the site, there were two odd things I noticed right away. One was that the names of the two people who had added records (such as censuses, marriage notices, and gravesites) to Greg’s family tree did not appear to be any of his relatives. The other thing was, when I clicked on the two names of the record-adders, they both not only came up with their contact information but were listed as having ancestors in common with me! One, JF, was a 10th cousin, the other a 7th cousin 3 times removed.

I messaged JF.

Hello, I noticed you have posted on this small tree. Are you related to this person or just helping? I am a relative. Thank you.

The next day I get:

JF 4:26 PM

According to there is no relationship known [JF must mean between himself and my cousin’s father] for 15 generations. Also, I’m not African American. I likely entered information as part of a research project. I do genetic genealogy and help people with unknown parentage. It is very likely I entered this data from a DNA match. Having said that, I’m happy to assist in any way I can.

So, JF knows my cousin’s father is African American. This is easily learned from the censuses he attached to the tiny tree. Notice his word “likely.” This implies he does a lot of these and does not remember this particular one. When I clicked on JF’s name for more information, it also shows our (his and mine!) entire 10th cousin lineage. That was a surprise, indeed. I recognize my mother’s ancestors’ names on her line. His ancestral line is partly familiar. Our common set of grandparents were British born in the late 1500s. It was coincidence, of course, that JF and I had common ancestors. Having an unknown very distant cousin putting documents on Greg’s family tree is part of what spooked me, so I did more research.

The spookiness speaks for itself but is also related to my knowing something about the practice of the Latter-Day Saints performing posthumous baptisms on just about anybody whether they were Mormon or not. Some decades ago, when families of Holocaust victims found out about this practice, they were none too happy. Their protests led to an agreement with the Mormons in 1995 that the proxy sealings, as they are also known, would be limited to direct ancestors of Mormons. The church has also been criticized for performing this ritual on people like Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II, and assorted celebrities. Of course, this is without permission from the people or the families.

Even though this policy is supposed to have stopped, it is known to be violated at times; known as there are watchdogs checking. Sometime ago, while on the FamilySearch site, I recall seeing that a person I was researching had a notation about their being “sealed” on a certain date. This startled me and gave me a disturbing feeling. I have never seen another sealing notation and shouldn’t as those records are supposed to be kept behind a wall accessible only to certain church members. Mormons point out this practice comes from love and, according to their beliefs, wanting all people to be able to access the highest level of heaven so as to be able to spend eternity with their families.

I could not make myself stop my dig into this family tree strangeness. I was still curious about a lot. When did the site start posting relationships in this manner? (I still don’t know.) Maybe my relationship with the two record-adders on Greg’s line was a fluke. After poking around more, I learned it is not, at least for myself, possibly because I have lengthy known lineages on both my maternal and paternal sides “out there.” My people have been in this country for many generations. That must lead to the fact that even when I played with looking at a strangers’ trees, I was usually distantly related to the people who were adding records. (I am assuming the record-adders are Mormon and are not paid for doing this. The two I checked out online were Mormon, hence my assumption.) Far less frequently, I wasn’t related to the volunteer. For example, when I clicked on one documenter, the message read “no relation” and showed a smiling very dark face from South Africa. (Not all of these record-adding folks have their photo and their contact info posted.)

Finally, there was another surprise. Picking more names to check out other record-adders, I looked at my former husband’s father’s tree and my now husband’s mother’s tree. Yes, I was related to the record-adders. And, guess what? I also learned that I am related to both husbands- distantly but related! My former husband and I share the same set of grandparents eleven generations back (in the 1500s). The shared great-grandparents between my now husband and myself are ‘only’ eight generations back. The FamilySearch website shows the names and birth and death dates of the entire lineages. They, too, looked correct as far as I could tell without going into another rabbit hole of research.

Adding more spookiness, my now husband's fourth great-grandmother, Lydia Gilbert, is from the same Gilbert line as my Gilbert line. She was possibly named after my ninth great-grandmother, the first Lydia Gilbert, further back in the same line, who was convicted of witchcraft in Hartford, Connecticut in 1654 and likely hanged. At last, though still spooked, I am too tired to do more.


Final comments are called for. I am sure there are a lot more that could be made, but I will leave it at this:


1. I acknowledge having these long and known lineages of my forebears is just one of countless examples of the privilege of being white in this country. African Americans can seldom find much, if anything, before the 1870 census. Most of us should know enough about the inhuman conditions of slavery and the behavior of the enslavers and the government to know why this “brick wall” exists.

2. Since we all are ultimately related to everybody, let’s love each other and be kind.

A section of the 1850 slave schedule for my

1st cousin 5 x removed. The only name on the census

is that of the enslavers. The enslaved are listed only by

age, sex, and color.

The eleventh great-grandparents I share

with my former mother-in-law.

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