The Gifts DNA Testing Can Bring

It’s been about thirteen years ago when an old friend of mine looked me up on Facebook and in reconnecting with each other I discovered one of my greatest passions: unpuzzling my family history. My friend built a family tree for me on Ancestry and it was incredible to go through it. I was amazed at all she had uncovered, all from entering in a small bit of information here and there and pointing and clicking with the mouse. Seeing all the different names and the different branches and lines of the tree, seeing all the locations where my ancestors and relatives had been, and seeing actual images of documents and photos and maps started a fire inside me. I had to have my own subscription to Ancestry and I had to learn how genealogist use evidence to make the claims that they do. Some of the claims made in my tree were really hard to believe and I had to find out for myself.

So in 2006 I started learning how genealogists look at primary and secondary and tertiary sources to identify facts that can be used to rule out certain possibilities and support others. I started up my own family tree doing what professionals do, and I looked at documents, mostly images of documents that were scanned and uploaded to the internet. I looked at documents created by researchers who used primary sources in their research. I also looked at documents created by researchers who used secondary sources for their research. It’s been a fascinating journey but it’s been a journey of small steps, and one with lots of breaks in between.



After several years I was able to delve into genetic genealogy when I was able to have my DNA tested. I used a company called FTDNA and they provided a great number of services for genealogists to be able to use their genetic test results to compare and match with other test results and connect with other researchers and relatives.


Through FTDNA I’ve been able to learn about my Haplogroup for Deep Ancestry research, learning about ancestors who existed on this planet long before the origins of civilization, long before humans settled down to plant, long before the origins of written human languages, long before the origins of spoken human languages. I’ve also met plenty of cousins through FTDNA, fellow family history fans and researchers.

After a few years of toying around on FTDNA, looking at GEDMatch, Y-Search (which is, sadly, no longer online), Mito-Search (also, sadly, no longer online), and various DNA projects, I had a much more interesting experience.


AncestryDNA logo

AncestryDNA logo

About two years ago a man contacted me who claimed to be related to me according to genetic testing, and he had done his testing through Ancestry, which didn’t exist when I had my DNA tested. This man didn’t know how we were related, but his DNA profile told him we were a match.


Soon after this “cousin” explained that he was also related to a woman who I had already met through Ancestry, another cousin, so this indicated we shared a common cousin. I was related to this woman through my mother. She is either the Great granddaughter or the granddaughter of my mother’s mother’s mother, my great grandmother. I knew and still know very little about my great grandmother or this line (my mother’s maternal line).

So I learned a bit about my great grandmother, the mother of my grandmother who I was very fortunate to get to be around quite a bit, especially after I moved close to her right before I started high school. I learned about my great grandmother from my new cousin, the female cousin, who knew my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother,  and my great grandmother’s sister, who was this cousin’s grandmother, I believe. My cousin also knew the mother of our great grandmothers, our great great grandmother.

The male cousin who contacted me also contacted my female cousin, but none of us really knew exactly how we were related. I figured it had to be through my mother’s mother’s line because of the connection with my female cousin. What it turned out to be was far more amazing.

I started asking more questions of this new cousin — where was he living, was he married, kids, what was his age, what was his occupation, what were his hobbies? I learned that he was in his early 50s. He lived in Connecticut. He was married. No children. He worked with grants for organizations, a financial job. He played guitar in jazz combos professionally. He liked to cook. I also learned he was adopted.

This new cousin of mine was adopted, and his parents, after he reached a certain age, told him about his biological mother and gave him the name of the “home for unwed mothers” where she gave him up for adoption. He went on a search, and part of that search involved having his DNA tested and attempting to contact his matches, like he did with me.

I looked at photos of my new cousin. I saw him with his guitars. I saw him in a kitchen, sautéing something on the stove. I pondered his age and figured out his birth year and possible time when his mother would have known she was pregnant. I thought about myself: I love music and love playing guitar. archtopjazzguitar.jpgI love to cook and have worked in restaurants nearly all my life. In his photos it seemed to me he looked like my grandfather, Simmie, who I didn’t really get to know because he wasn’t around much when I was a child and died before I reached the age of eight. I thought: what if he was the son of my grandfather with another woman? He was married five times. But some things didn’t fit.

My cousin and I discussed our searches through messages, and I was flipping through photos. I started pulling up photos of my uncle, my mother’s brother, Simmie’s only son that I knew of. Donnie was beloved by my mother. She thought of and spoke of him often in her life. Before my parents were married Donnie was killed in a horrible car accident in his MG.

I looked at the photos of Donnie and the photos of my new cousin. I thought about Donnie’s age before he died and noticed that my new cousin was born before or around the time Donnie died. Donnie was a musician too, according to my mother. He played drums real well. And it seemed to me that my new cousin looked even more like my Uncle Donnie than he looked like Grandpa Simmie. I sent my cousin photos of Donnie and shared my suspicions after he took a look at them and said “That is my father!”

Well, soon after this conversation my new cousin had introduced himself to many other family members on my mother’s side through Facebook friends I assume he found through my page. And soon we both learned from Simmie’s sister as well as his second wife that Donnie did, indeed, father a child before he died. The child’s mother was sent away to that “home”, gave birth, and had to move on. We now had her name and heard the whole story. I had no idea that Donnie had fathered a child. My mother never told me. My aunts never told me. None of my cousins ever told me, and I don’t think they knew about our cousin.

DNA testing had (“re”?)connected me with the son of my Uncle Donnie. DNA testing had (“re”?)connected my new cousin with family he didn’t ever really know for sure he ever had. He eventually met our other DNA cousin on my mom’s side. He even eventually found and met his biological mother and then was happy to meet his newly found biological sisters, daughters of his own mother. It’s truly an amazing gift that this technology brought to all of us: the gift of knowing who we are after knowing where we came from and the gift of knowing our family and our pasts.

Now this, of course, is a special outcome of DNA testing. Not everyone can have their DNA tested and immediately discover lost worlds like our new cousin did. However, what are you missing out on by waiting to have your DNA tested or deciding it’s not that important or just putting it off as something silly or extravagant or a waste of time? Other than the cost of having your DNA tested, or perhaps you are worried about security and privacy, what is it that concerns you?

I’m curious to know.

R1a1a/R-M512, My Y-DNA Haplogroup

Although I have found genetic genealogy to be interesting and enriching I use a much different approach with the use of DNA testing than with standard and traditional genealogy, using paper and digital image documentation. Genetic genealogy, using the science and technology behind DNA collection and analysis, looks at deep ancestry over tens of thousands, sometimes millions or billions of years, while standard and traditional genealogy looks at ancestry over generations of people, over hundreds of years, sometimes several hundred years, and even, in some rare cases, sometimes thousands of years. Continue reading

Military Historian Profile: Jonathan Gawne, Militaria Magazine, Author, Collector

Finding Your Father's War

Finding Your Father’s War : A Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II US Army, by Jonathan Gawne (Casement: 2006)

Military Historian, Collector, and Author Jonathan Gawne has written books and an extensive amount of articles and has consulted on many, many projects on the subject of World War II. This book, Finding Your Father’s War : A Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II Us Army” (Casemate: 2006), promises to be an excellent resource for family history researchers, military historians, or history enthusiasts who have an interest in learning more about an individual’s military history.

Understand that Gawne is much more than a military collector and enthusiast, as illustrated by a brilliant interview on by Andrew L. Turner. He is a scholar who has done his research thoroughly and has clearly gone beyond the level of the war movie fan-turned-re-enactor, doing extensive reading, studying still and moving images, interviewing veterans, and talking with other historians and collectors. Check out his work on the “Ghost Army of the E.T.O.” project. He’s written his own book on that subject, “Ghosts of the ETO…”. He has a website promoting “Finding Your Father’s War” and an archive saluting the 8th Division. Gawne has also written “Spearheading D-Day : American Special Units in Normandy”.

If interested in contacting Jonathan Gawne through social media you might try his Facebook page. Also, check out his works on the Militaria Magazine website.

Buy This Book on Amazon!


Back At It

I am back on the saddle again, hit with the genealogy bug, ever since I got my computer and internet hooked up in my new home, with space to store all of my research materials and reference books.

I’ve been going over the Joseph D. Rivers Pedigree Charts. I’ve been going through the screen clips of those charts that I’ve clipped into Evernote, and I’ve been placing where I left off two years ago.

I’ve restored my Ancestry account and have purchased a new Ancestry DNA kit.

I’ve made a collection of ‘ancestor cards’ that will be a short glimpse of a particularly interesting ancestor. I’ve been working on my virtual cemeteries on Find A Grave.

Stay tuned for more posts!

Why I Celebrate Samuel L. Jackson Day on 21 Dec Every Year…

Facebook Post from 21 Dec 2012
This note about a happy day popped up in my ‘this day in history’ type feed from Facebook, and I remember this day vividly. It was a great wintery day!

My girlfriend and I celebrate actor Samuel L. Jackson‘s birthday on this day, rather than the day my mom died nine years ago, but it’s hard to forget sad days.

I’d rather remember the happier days, but I realize that in remembering the bad times I create a palette of moments that makes all of those moments important in expressing how truly valuable is life.

Happy moments stand out, however brief they may be.

This is one reason why I love history so much! By studying what happened in the past I can see how all of these moments are connected — how they touch each other and ultimately lead us to the present moment. Right now.

Mom, I love you for being me my mom, and particularly for all of the happy moments you gave to me.

Happy Birthday, Samuel L. Jackson!

Happy December 21!

Many ancestors, many siblings, many descendants, many cousins

rivers_family_treeIt is hard to imagine sometimes how many ancestors we have when we go pretty far back in generations.

When you start counting these things it’s easy, at least for me, to be amazed.
Everyone has two biological parents, no matter how complicated the fertilization process is, because, let’s face it, things have changed. There are all kinds of technologies and procedures that complicate matters, but just for the sake of this lesson: We each have two (biological) parents, and every one of our ancestors has two parents.

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The Joseph D. Rivers Pedigree Chart Preservation and Continuity Project – Update, September 2016

There are five “sheets”, which are really five different charts, that make up the Joe Rivers Ped. Chart collection. I found them when a fellow family historian pointed me to the Thomas W. Rivers Collection that is available online through East Carolina University. That collection contains all five of the charts that are known to exist that Joe Rivers compiled, using data compiled by a whole slew of family historians who have researched the Rivers family, and other connected families, over decades and decades. These are people like Leon Madison Rivers, just one of thousands upon thousands of our cousins who took his interest in looking into and sharing our family’s history to a whole new level and made it available to future family historians to use and build on. It has been my passion to just be able to take part in a story that has been unfolding and has been told and re-told for a long, long time. I hope that when I’m long gone that future family historians can use the work that we’ve all put into understanding, recording, and sharing this great story of ours.

What I’ve done so far…
with Sheet 4 of the Joe Rivers Pedigree Chart, which is the copy of the huge “family tree” chart that was recovered from Grandma Reba’s and Grandpa Thomas’s home in 2009 (thank you, Vera Rivers Schemering!), or maybe 2010, is to capture small “screen clips” of a digital copy (thank you Deborah Jane Rivers Clasby!) of the chart and to save them to Evernote, a “note-taking” app.
I took the whole sheet and “clipped” an image of every family group on the chart, and now I am entering the data from the chart, as best as I can, since some of it is difficult to read, even when the print is blown up to 200-300%.
Over the years, in my moments of lunacy, I’ve saved many of those screen clips as image files onto my PC’s hard drive so that I can add them to the RootsMagic database, and I have used Evernote to “tag” them and organize them into families and sort out the families, places, and individuals associated with each image. I use these “notes” when I enter the data into RootsMagic, and I use other online sources, like big-name genealogy sites (, GENI, WikiTree,, FamilySearch), newspaper archives (, document archives (university libraries), to find primary and/or secondary and tertiary (etc) sources to support the claims made in the charts.
When Joe Rivers compiled all the data he could amass in preparing these five beautiful charts he was using data that came from real research. He used documentation. He checked on sources. He recorded where he found those sources and where they could be found again. He may have even possessed some primary documents, like Family Bibles, family papers, family heirlooms, photographs, hand-drawn charts, or any vast number of ‘documents’ (using that term loosely). At this point I am unaware of the location of these ‘documents’ that Joe Rivers was using. He makes references in his charts to certain ‘documents’, such as a family heirloom that was a vase, emblazoned with the initials “G.R.” that indicate, supposedly, that the vase once belonged to George Rivers, Sr, a Rivers Family patriarch (my seventh great grandfather).
These source ‘documents’ that Joe Rivers used in his project had to have gone somewhere or stayed somewhere. Maybe some of them ended up in the Library of Congress, an archives somewhere, a library, or a museum? Maybe they are in the possession of a Rivers descendant? Maybe some of them were ‘lost’ or destroyed? Maybe some of them ended up on EBay? I don’t know. What I do know is that these objects, these family heirlooms, these source ‘documents’ should be preserved and archived and documented and be made available to be used for research and for viewing. Maybe someday they will be?
In the meantime, I am using the charts as a guide, and I am using the resources available to me, to document the information made on the charts, to fill in the data ‘gaps’, to get through the ‘brick walls’, and to add information that was not included on the charts. A lot has happened since the final chart was published in 1970!
Although I feel like a total snoopy-snoop for doing so, due to time constraints and money constraints, I’ve had to use Facebook and Find-A-Grave and Twitter and Ancestry and GENI and Flickr and Instagram and all kinds of websites and social media in order to gather some of my the information needed for this project. I’ve made it a point to ask people if they would like to provide information for this project and have done some ‘interviews’ here and there, using email and social media. I’ve also used information that was made publicly available. It is not my goal to publish personal information about my living or recently-deceased relatives and ancestors and to make people vulnerable in terms of personal security or to violate their desires for privacy. So, I follow a system for protecting the privacy and security of people in this family project. Please let me know if you spot something that I may have missed or overlooked.
I am working on this project on an almost daily basis now and I will make an effort to keep you all posted through my blog and through this group.
I can’t explain why I’m so crazy about doing genealogy and learning more and more about history and our family’s history other than to say that I know I was born to do it, and I promise to put everything and all that I am into this project. Thank you all for showing interest in this project and for all your help and cooperation and support!

Who Are The Parents of Ollie Virginia “Ollie” Richards, My Great Grandmother? – Part 1

Yesterday, I received a message from a cousin of mine who I had been waiting to hear back from for such a long time I had almost forgotten about what she had to say. Brenda Pinti reached out to me in the end of January 2013 to tell me that she knew my maternal grandmother, my mother, as well as my great grandmother, the mother of my maternal grandmother. I replied back to her message, indicating my eagerness to learn anything she could pass on to me about our family, but I didn’t hear back from her right away. In fact, two-and-a-half years went by before I finally heard back from her.

I was very excited when I read this message from Brenda, as I was very close with my maternal grandmother. Grandma Lois Marjorie PALSON Romanac, who I called “Grannymom” when I was very little,

J.P. Rivers and Lois Romanac

The author and his grandmother, Lois Romanac, Fall 1986

was such a gentle and loving person with a kind of prankish sense of humor. It wasn’t an ill-intentioned prankishness or malevolence. She just got a kick out of hiding things from my mother, like her cigarettes or her lighter, and giving no clue that she knew exactly where they were. She loved to keep secrets.

She loved to let me know that she knew a secret that she wasn’t going to tell me.


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