See that cute little tomboy on the left? That’s my Nana Ferne. Her handsome papa was Johannes Henry Neilson, and that grim looking lady next to him is my great-grandmother Ruby Nancy Neilson. My mother remembers her as quite a lively lady, so maybe she was suspicious of the camera. Or just plain worn out. Look at all those kids.
Henry’s parents were Danish immigrants to Canada in the late 1800s, who founded a farming community near the border between New Brunswick and Maine, clearing the forest by axe, and eventually transforming the land into the pastoral countryside they were persuaded it was before they left Copenhagen.
Until recently, I didn’t know anything about Ruby’s origins, except that she came from Maine, and that she had been adopted by the people from whom she got her maiden name.
I mentioned that when my Ancestry DNA results came in, I had two close matches right away. The first was a long-lost, recently-found 2nd cousin on my father’s side. The next was an estimated 4th cousin. I clicked on her family tree, and started scanning for common surnames. There were none, until I came to the one that belonged to my great-grandmother’s adopted parents: Boynton. I scrambled along the branch, and quickly came to their first names. But how could that be, since Ruby wasn’t their biological child?
I fired off an excited message to my DNA match, who lives in Maine, and sure enough, she and my mother were third cousins “on paper.” Her great-grandfather and Ruby’s adopted father were brothers. Our kinship should have been in name only, but here was the genetic data saying it was also through blood.
I looked up and down both our trees for any other way we could be related, and found nothing. The most obvious and likely explanation was that Ruby had been adopted within her biological family, as was common in days of bigger clans and earlier mortality.
After searching the rest of my DNA matches for her maiden name (as well as new ones that the database finds continuously), the evidence mounted. If great-grandmama Ruby wasn’t the biological child of these people, one of my great-grandparents was. And they weren’t.
So, who were Ruby’s biological parents? We’ve narrowed it down to two suspects, both siblings of her adopted father, both whose lives ended early. We may never know which, or more information may surface—which it seems to nearly every time I login to my Ancestry account. As more people share their family trees and DNA online, more pieces of the picture come together, like we’re all gathering up shards of something that broke apart into tens of thousands of pieces and are patiently gluing it back together.
It kind of blows my mind.
What really blows my mind is learning that my American roots, through Ruby, run deep and long. Back to the Revolution, back to the Pilgrims, back even farther than my husband’s tree shows so far. Eleanor Pell, my eleventh great-grandmother, was born in Boston in 1614. Her husband, John Boynton came to the Massachusetts from England in 1643.
Even though I vaguely knew that my great-grandmother on my Mom’s side came from Maine, I’d always considered myself a stranger to these United States of America. I’m the first generation American, I’m the modern pilgrim to the New World. That’s been my personal mythology.
But it turns out a lot of my relatives beat me to it. I’m at least a thirteenth generation American. I could qualify for the American Daughters of the Revolution. As the founding fathers surely intended the Constitution to say, there goes the neighborhood.
There’s more I want to write about adoption in family trees, because there’s a flipside to this story in which I realize that my adopted ancestors are as much part of my heritage (and sometimes more) than bloodlines, but it will have to wait for a separate post.
Meantime, how about a FREE 1-Year World Explorer membership to Ancestry.com (valued at $299), in time for an incredible Mother’s Day gift for yourself, your mom, your grandmom, or a mom you know? Just leave a comment, and a winner will be randomly drawn after noon CT, Friday, May 9th.
Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Congratulations to Melissa, who won the DNA test from Ancestry.com in April!