DNA SUCCESS STORIES


Learn how genetic genealogy has helped researchers crack family history "cold cases" - sometimes raising new questions in the process"


    • Way More Than a Birth Announcement

      More than a century later, DNA uncovers a bout of indiscretion and calls into question a researcher's own identity.

    • The Proof Is in the Package

      It started with a census record feeding into one researcher's theory: that Great-grandpa wasn't really blood kin. A paternal DNA test turned that theory into fact.

    • Grandpa Said We Were Famous

      When your last name is Lee and you hail from the South, you're practically obligated to find out if you're linked the legendary Virginia clan.

    • Double Identity?

      Could this family lore really be a case of one man with two names? A family historian searches for the exact point where DNA meets the old fashioned paper trail.

    • WANTED! A father's father's mother's father's mother's mother's father's mother's father...

      DNA can't do it alone - but neither can following a paper trail. For this messy situation, the only answer was to combine the two tried-and-true methods.

    • Is It Them?

      Hoping to settle the mysterious whereabouts of Nicholas and Alexandra's youngest children once and for all, researchers turn to DNA.

    • Findings of a Founding Father

      Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings's children? The most compelling evidence comes from DNA.

Way More Than a Birth Announcement

More than a century later, DNA uncovers a bout of indiscretion and calls into question a researcher's own identity.
After researching his family history for a quarter of a century, Myrl Lemburg of Virginia Beach, Virginia, got the shock of his life when he took a DNA test. He had collected information on about 10,000 members of the Lemburg family, tracing their roots back to Holstein, Germany. Somewhere around the year 1700, the paper trail dried up. He had identified three Lemburg families from the same area, but he couldn't connect them.
Hoping to link the three groups, Lemburg convinced two distant cousins to participate in a Y-DNA test. The results showed that his test partners shared a common ancestor within 12 to 16 generations. The surprise? Myrl Lemburg didn't match either of his "cousins."
Baffled, he asked a first cousin on his Lemburg line to take a Y-DNA test. This time the results matched, proving that Lemburg and his cousin are closely related.
So what do these results mean? Somewhere on Lemburg's paternal line there was a male ancestor who wasn't biologically a Lemburg. As close as Lemburg can figure, his great- or great-great-grandmother had an affair and bore a son who was raised with the Lemburg name - his mother's married name.
"Somewhere along the line, the 'milkman' got involved," says Lemburg. "The poor lady probably thought that her secret died with her, and here I am digging up the dirt a hundred years later." Of course, an adoption could also account for the genetic discrepancies in Lemburg's family tree.
"There are three generations between my grandmother and the ancestor where the line matches the other two groups," Lemburg says. He has yet to find a test partner who could help him discover the true origins of his paternal line. For family secrets like this, DNA is probably the only way to get a glimpse at the truth.
"Now I will publish a genealogy book that has all the Lemburg people I can gather," says Lemburg, "but I have no idea who my forefathers are beyond two generations!"

The Proof Is in the Package

It started with a census record feeding into one researcher's theory: that Great-grandpa wasn't really blood kin. A paternal DNA test turned that theory into fact.
The 1900 census first aroused Barbara Forsey's suspicions. In it she found her 22-year-old maternal grandfather, Stanislaus (Stanley) Brady, living with parents Francis and Barbara Brady and five younger siblings. But the census stated that the parents had been married only 17 years and that Barbara had given birth to five children, not six. It seemed that Barbara Brady wasn't Stanley's biological mother.
Forsey, a resident of Chatsworth, California, guessed that Stanley was Francis Brady's son from a previous marriage. But she became skeptical when she could find no evidence to support that assumption. She knew Stanley had been born in Philadelphia in 1878, but he appeared to have no birth or baptismal certificate.
On a hunch, Forsey tried searching for Stanislaus under the surname Sylvester - Barbara Brady's maiden name. "Bingo. I found him on the 1880 census with Barbara and her sister Matilda," says Forsey. "They were both single." If Barbara wasn't Stanley's birth mother, then perhaps Matilda was.
But Forsey's relatives found it hard to believe that Stanley wasn't born a Brady. "The family needed proof that he was not a Brady," Forsey says.
So she turned to science to confirm her theory. First she reached out to a male cousin who could serve as a genetic proxy for Stanley Brady. Next she tracked down a grandson of one of Stanley's brothers. She persuaded both men to take DNA tests. Their Y-DNA didn't match, proving that Stanley Brady was not Francis Brady's biological son.
Forsey hopes that one day she will be able to identify Stanley's birth father. "I would love to find his biological family," she says. As DNA databases grow in size, finding a match for Grandpa Stanley's genetic signature becomes an ever more attainable goal.

Grandpa Said We Were Famous

When your last name is Lee and you hail from the South, you're practically obligated to find out if you're linked the legendary Virginia clan.
If you share a surname with a famous author, inventor, general or President, chances are you're often asked whether you also share a bloodline with your illustrious namesake. And, more than likely, you've heard a family legend or two about your connection to the historical figure in question. But if the paper trail leaves room for doubt, how can you find out if you're really related to such noble stock?
Clinton Lee, project coordinator for the Lee DNA Genealogy Project, bears the surname of one of the oldest families in America: the "famous Lees of Virginia." But, as he discovered through DNA testing, he doesn't share their genes.
Most participants in the project are at least partly motivated by a desire to know whether they're related to the famous Lees - especially the great Civil War general. "Probably 90% of the people say, 'Grandpa said we were related to Robert E. Lee,'" says Lee.
Several years ago, the project tested three direct male-line descendants of Richard Lee, the general's original immigrant ancestor, who arrived in Virginia from Shropshire, England, around 1640. Of 134 other Lees who have joined the project so far, not a single one has matched the Y-DNA sequence of the Richard Lee descendants. "Some people don't seem to want to believe it," says Lee.
While he can't claim the famous general as a cousin, Clinton Lee views his participation in the DNA project as a success story. Before the project began, he had been unable to trace his Lee line beyond his great-grandfather, who was born in 1839.
Through DNA testing, Lee has found 24 genetic cousins who match his Y-DNA sequence within two or three mutations - meaning that they share a common ancestor within the timeframe of the settlement of the United States. Because some of the people in his "kinship group" have documented their Lee ancestry back to the 17th century, Clinton Lee now has compelling evidence that he is descended from a John Lee who received a 1694 land grant in Old Nansemond County, Virginia.
Building on that knowledge, Lee hopes to close the gaps in his family tree between his great-grandfather and John Lee. "What I tell people is you take a big pile of male Lees and sort them into smaller piles of Lees that are related to each other based on DNA test results," he says. "It helps you focus your research on those that you know you're related to so that you can connect the dots and fill in the missing generations."
Rebecca Owens of Dunn, North Carolina, has two ancestral lines with the Lee surname. One line goes back to John Lee, Esquire, of Johnston County, North Carolina, whose son Thomas served as a captain in the Revolutionary War. A few generations back, someone made an entry in the family Bible indicating that Captain Thomas Lee was the son of Richard Lee of Northumberland County, Virginia - a grandson of the Richard Lee who immigrated to Virginia in 1640.
Based on her research, Owens believed that entry represented wishful thinking by one of her ancestors. She persuaded a male cousin - a proven male-line descendant of Captain Thomas Lee - to take a DNA test. The results matched descendants of John Lee, Esquire, but not the descendants of Richard Lee.
Owens also recruited cousins from her other Lee line - male-line descendants of Hugh Lee of Prince George County, Virginia - to join the DNA project. Their test results show that the two sets of Lees in Owens's family tree are not related to each other. "I knew the two lines were not related," says Owens, "and the DNA proved it."

Double Identity?

Could this family lore really be a case of one man with two names? A family historian searches for the exact point where DNA meets the old fashioned paper trail.
According to family lore, Barbara Cobb Rowe's great-great-great-grandfather, Alexander Cobb, was the son of William Cobb - a founder of Piney Flats, Tennessee, who distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War - and Sally Stancil. But Alexander Cobb's signature suggested that he might be the same person as Sanders Cobb, and paper documents show that Sanders Cobb's mother's name was Rebecca.
"We needed to prove that Sanders and Alexander were the same person," says Rowe, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. "The only hint up to this point was the unusual way he signed documents, making his X with a dot on each of the four inside corners."
Could DNA testing solve a long-debated identity question? Fortunately, a fellow Cobb researcher had started a Cobb Family DNA Project, and Rowe's uncle - a direct male-line descendant of Alexander Cobb - joined it. His Y-DNA was a 100% match with that of a male-line descendant of Jeremiah Cobb, who is mentioned in a South Carolina deed of mortgage along with his brother, Sanders Cobb.
The match proved, at the very least, that Sanders Cobb of South Carolina and Rowe's ancestor, Alexander Cobb of Alabama, were closely related. While the results do not definitively prove that Rowe's ancestor had a double identity, they are consistent with Rowe's theory.
Several years later, the DNA project shed even more light on Rowe's heritage when a proven descendant of Joseph Cobb of the Isle of Wight joined the project. His Y-DNA sequence was a close match with that of Rowe's uncle.
"We now know which Cobb line we belong to out of the approximately 16 lines found so far," says Rowe. "And that means we know where to focus our search to find the name of the still elusive father of Alexander/Sanders Cobb."
Rowe hopes a proven descendant of William Cobb will join the project so that she can find out if there's a kernel of truth in the family legend. "We now know William can't be the father of Alexander and Jeremiah, thanks to paper documents," she says. "But he could possibly be a grandfather or perhaps an uncle. We believe that someday the DNA project will help us answer that question."

WANTED! A father's father's mother's father's mother's mother's father's mother's father...

DNA can't do it alone - but neither can following a paper trail. For this messy situation, the only answer was to combine the two tried-and-true methods.
If you're familiar with the concept of genetic genealogy, you know that it can be useful for tracing your direct paternal line (through Y-DNA) or direct maternal line (through mitochondrial DNA). But what if you're trying to find your father's father's mother's father's mother's mother's father's mother's father? While you can't untangle such a circuitous relationship through DNA alone, you might be surprised at what you can learn when you combine DNA testing and traditional family history research.
Thomas Hubbard Caswell of Orem, Utah, has been exploring his family tree for four decades. He had made some important breakthroughs on his Hubbard line, but he couldn't fully document his relationship to George Hubbard, whom Caswell believed to be his eighth-great-grandfather. "I had circumstantial evidence that indicated that George Hubbard was my ancestor," Caswell says.
He had posted his family tree on Ancestry.com, and Ancestry's connection service helped him get in touch with a distant cousin, "Sam," who was also researching the Hubbard line. Sam believed himself to be a direct male-line descendant of George Hubbard, but he couldn't prove it on paper.
Sam knew another family historian, however, who had a solid paper trail documenting his own paternal line all the way back to George Hubbard. Sam and the other researcher, "Fred," both took Y-DNA tests. Their results matched, proving that Sam is also a direct descendant of George Hubbard.
So where does Caswell fit in? Since Caswell can document his relationship to Sam, and Fred can document his relationship to George Hubbard, the DNA test connecting Sam and Fred supports Caswell's theory that he is also a descendant of George Hubbard.
"It's a classic example of traditional research and DNA research working together," says Caswell. "DNA opens up other possibilities to discover things beyond the straight paternal line or straight maternal line."

Is It Them?

Hoping to settle the mysterious whereabouts of Nicholas and Alexandra's youngest children once and for all, researchers turn to DNA.
Two of the first mysteries solved by DNA testing concerned the murdered family of the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II. The final questions in the Romanov saga - regarding the fate of the Czar's two youngest children - may be answered once and for all this spring, when scientists release their report on two sets of bones discovered in Siberia in August 2007.
The Czar and his wife and five children were executed on Lenin's orders in July 1918. In the decades that followed, rumors circulated that one or more of the children had escaped. Several people came forward claiming to be the royal couple's youngest daughter, Anastasia, or their only son, Alexei. The most famous "Anastasia," a woman known as Anna Anderson, even won the support of the Czar's mother, who was living in Denmark. Anderson eventually settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she died in 1984.
In July 1991, Russian archeologists unearthed the remains of nine bodies in a forest near Ekaterinburg, the city where the royal family was imprisoned and killed. Scientists who analyzed the bones using traditional forensic methods concluded that they belonged to the Czar, his wife Alexandra, their three oldest daughters and four servants. Initial DNA tests confirmed that the remains included a family group consisting of two parents and three female children. As expected, the three daughters all had the same mitochondrial DNA sequence as their mother.
To prove that the bodies were indeed those of the deposed Czar and his family, scientists collected DNA samples from living relatives of the Czar and Czarina: Count Nicolai Trubetskoy, a retired French banker whose maternal line goes back to the Czar's grandmother, Queen Louise of Denmark; and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who has an unbroken maternal line to the Czarina's sister, Princess Victoria of Hesse. The samples matched in both cases, proving that the Czar and his family had been found.
The second mystery - the true identity of Anna Anderson - was solved in a similar manner. As fate would have it, a Virginia hospital had saved a tissue sample from a biopsy performed on Anderson in 1979. Researchers analyzed her mitochondrial DNA and found that it did not match the Czarina's. However, it did match that of a living, maternal-line relative of Franziska Schanzkowska, a patient who went missing from a Berlin psychiatric facility shortly before Anna Anderson surfaced in 1919.
So what happened to the real Anastasia and her brother? According to members of the execution squad, two of the bodies were buried separately from the others. In August 2007, amateur archeologists discovered bone fragments near the site where the rest of the victims were buried. Initial tests showed that the remains belong to a girl between the ages of 16 and 18 and a boy between the ages of 13 and 15. Anastasia was 17 when the family was killed; Alexei was 13. A team of British and Austrian scientists is currently testing the bones to determine if the missing Romanov children have been found at last.

Findings of a Founding Father

Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings's children? The most compelling evidence comes from DNA.
Soon after genetic genealogy tests were invented, researchers seized the chance to solve a mystery that was nearly as old as the United States: Did Thomas Jefferson father the children of his slave, Sally Hemings?
Jefferson's wife, Martha, inherited Sally Hemings from her father, John Wayles, who was Sally's original owner and most likely her father. A few years after Sally joined the Jefferson household, Martha died at the age of 33. On her deathbed, she extracted a promise from Jefferson that he would never remarry. Did Jefferson, who would outlive Martha by more than four decades, turn to her half-sister for companionship during the long years that followed?
Historians debated the paternity of Sally Hemings's children for decades. Some argued that Jefferson's nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr - sons of Jefferson's sister - were more likely candidates than Jefferson himself.
In the 1990s, a team of British scientists attempted to put the controversy to rest through DNA testing. Since Jefferson's only son with Martha was stillborn, there are no direct descendants who carry Jefferson's surname and his Y-DNA. But the researchers found five male-line descendants of his uncle, Field Jefferson, to serve as genetic proxies for Thomas Jefferson. Their Y-DNA matched that of a male-line descendant of Eston Hemings, the youngest son of Sally Hemings, proving that Jefferson and Eston Hemings were closely related.
Three male-line descendants of Samuel and Peter Carr were also tested, ending any speculation about the brothers, as their descendants' Y-DNA clearly differed from that of the Eston Hemings descendant.
It's possible, of course, that another Jefferson male fathered Eston and the other Hemings children - Jefferson's brother Randolph has been implicated - but the circumstantial evidence points to Thomas Jefferson, who lived under the same roof as Hemings throughout her childbearing years.