Finding Ruby Nancy: an adoption story (and an Ancestry Giveaway)

May 2nd, 2014


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 (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. is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Congratulations to Melissa, who won the DNA test from in April!

25 Responses to “Finding Ruby Nancy: an adoption story (and an Ancestry Giveaway)”

  1. Tammy Bedford says:

    OMG. ..Our mothers look for exciting, hopefully you can make it to the reunion in 2015..and bring all this info with you. Would love to win and research the ousted French side of my DNA

  2. Carmen Mosley-Sims says:

    I told myself I wouldn’t enter one of these after Brad won the DNA kit, because it would be unbecoming if two people from the same family won. But now I tell myself, “To heck with appearances!”

  3. marilee pittman says:

    I love hearing about my grandmother. We were close. I wish I had known her as an adult. So much information she could have given us.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Ha, in my personal mythology I too am a first gen American Kyran. But nope, as I was weeping on the phone to my dad one day, filled with homesickness he tried to console me by letting me know about all the Americans on his dad’s side of the family.

    Love these posts, thanks for sharing.

  5. Shell says:

    So cool! I would like to find out more about my grandma’s relatives. She was Canadian and her grandpa was one of five given up for adoption- three of which went to the US.

  6. Jennifer A-G says:

    For some reason, I had the idea that DNA tests worked best with the Y chromosome. Thanks for flipping that!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    You are getting me really interested in tracing all of mine. Signed up for a class today at the butler center in lrock. Have you taken class or all

  8. I would love to know more about my family history. Earlier this week while on a trip to the Isle of Skye, I mentioned my family connection to a older man I came across cutting peat for his fire at home.

    While I initially intended to learn about what he was doing and take a few photos for my blog, he quickly captivated me with his talk on ancestry and family connections on Skye. When I said I had knew I had a MacKenzie connection he quickly said, ” My wife’s a MacKenzie ” and began to ask me details that I did not have answers for yet.

    Perhaps it’s time to do a bit of searching. Fingers crossed for a win.

    I think it’s too funny and very interesting that your roots carried your DNA from the new world long before you found you way back.

  9. Greta Houston says:

    Fascinating family history. The more that I find out, the more interested I am.

  10. Meghan says:

    i’ve been researching family history for awhile. that subscription would help greatly!

  11. Ruth Schofield says:

    Crossed branches in the family tree tell us so much.

  12. Cool to hear you have American roots! The Vanderslices came over in the last 1600’s but my side is late 1800’s. At least my kids can trace themselves back. Would love a membership for all kinds of reasons.

  13. juliloquy says:

    What a story! A surprise in our family was that one of the ancestors we assumed was Norwegian was actually a Scottish nobleman who emigrated. I’d love to know more. Thanks for the contest.

  14. Mami2jcn says:

    I find this kind of stuff so interesting! I’d love to trace my roots.

  15. Peggy K. says:

    I love to read stories such as this – I have found several interesting stories in my family that were lost for a time.

  16. jenny says:

    Would be great to have the chance to experience this for myself. Great giveaway.

  17. Kelly says:

    So interesting! My family tree doesn’t go back very far, at least in terms of the memories of my parents & grandparents, so this would be a very cool prize in many ways.

  18. glen hooks says:

    Nicely done. I bet my mom would love this even more than the macaroni necklace I was planning to give her.

  19. Melissa Mc says:

    Oh adoption…you haunt me.

  20. Susan says:

    The best gathering of shards. yes!

  21. Erika says:

    What a great story! I’d love the opportunity to research my own history. Thanks for hosting the giveaway.

  22. Jacqueline Carey says:

    I find ancestry so intriguing! Fingers crossed.

  23. Suebob says:

    What a story! My sister is the geneaologist in the family. My aunt, who had had that duty before, kept finding fascinating tidbits…like the great-aunt who was so prudish and high and mighty had left a couple out-of-wedlock kids back in Ireland…

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