Genealogy is a hot topic these days. With DNA evaluation kits from several online companies becoming more affordable, millions of people are discovering their heritage. It can be very exciting to learn about famous ancestors we never knew we were related to. Almost everyone I meet has an extraordinary family story passed down through generations or a mysterious ancestor. Perhaps you want to find out if you are related to royalty. Well, there has never been a better time to find out. Every day another person has their DNA tested, and every day additional digital records become available to the public. It is a genealogist’s dream.
Like many others, I started with genealogy to research my own family heritage. My family mystery: I wanted to know who my grandfather was, specifically my father’s father.
Unfortunately, my dad passed away in 2000 after living his entire life with his mother, Hazel Hamilton, never identifying his father. In fact, much of my grandmother’s life was a mystery to my father leaving him with nothing much to pass on to us. What little I do know is that my father lived a tough and impoverished childhood. He grew up in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood, the roughest area in the city. My inquisitive personality left me wanting to know more.
Being a technologically savvy person, I took to the Internet using Ancestry.com as my choice for family research. Admittedly, I was smitten after uncovering that I was related to Scottish Royalty through my grandmother Hazel, and I almost lost track of my goal. There is something about family castles and royal drama in faraway lands that captures the imagination. But I digress.
Earlier, I mentioned DNA testing. I opted for autosomal DNA testing through Ancestry.com, which looks at DNA inherited from both sides of your family, as opposed to yDNA or xDNA testing which only follows your paternal or maternal line. Both have their pros and cons, but that is for another article. Autosomal DNA is the most widely chosen method.
After waiting for what seemed an eternity, I finally received my DNA results. DNA results are not an automatic answer, but rather a very helpful clue. I looked at my list of DNA matches and saw a name I did not recognize. A woman, predicted to be my second cousin, is where I started my journey.
A second cousin is someone with whom one shares the same great-grandfather, giving me four possibilities. Two of the potential matches never lived near my grandmother in Kentucky, thereby eliminating them. That was as narrow as I could make my list. I then reached out to my new found second-cousin, Virginia Cook.
After connecting through email, we chatted on the phone. At first, I thought my grandfather was her great-grandfather, John Cook. Virginia told me two of John’s grandchildren had also taken the AncestryDNA test, and we were not close matches. Now we had two choices. My dad’s father (my grandfather) was either her great-grandfather, John Carlisle, or her great uncle, Oliver Chester Carlisle. We were able to eliminate her great-grandfather, John, whom we thought was too old and, we believe, happily married at the time of my father’s conception. This only left Virginia’s great uncle, Chester. Online census records and city directories indicate Chester was the same age as Hazel and lived around the corner from her about the time she became pregnant with my father.
By analyzing my DNA results, combined with online historical documents as well as talking to family members, I was able to paint, what I feel, is an accurate portrait of what happened those many years ago with my grandmother, Hazel.
Hazel was born in 1906. Being a young woman living in a small, southern and rural Kentucky town in the early 1930s and working at the F.A. Neider Auto Trim Company, one can only assume Hazel found the prospect of living with the stigma of being an unmarried woman with two young children from two different fathers too much to bear. So, she ran to a big city where she could start over anonymously, without ever telling Chester he was even a father. Maybe this explains why on the 1940 census she labeled herself a widow to explain the whereabouts of the father her children. Hazel was poor but never asked for help. She cleaned houses and performed clerical work at an auto repair shop. Her 1936 marriage to Herbert Nieheisel only lasted a few years and ended in divorce. After raising my father and his sister, Hazel moved from downtown Chicago to her final home in Norwood, Ohio.
Chester was born in 1907 and worked for L.V. Marks and Sons Company Shoe Factory in the 1930s. On Christmas Eve, 1940, the Bracken Chronicle reported that Oliver Chester Carlisle died when his house burned to the ground. He was married, but never had children leaving everyone to believe the Carlise family line ended with him.
I learned that Hazel was a feisty and tough woman, and when visiting her, you needed to bring beer. Hazel died in 1960 after complications from a broken hip, caused by tripping over her spirited little dog, Stink. She succumbed to pneumonia exacerbated by the fact that she smoked like a chimney. My father stopped smoking cold turkey the day she passed.
As I stated earlier, she passed before I was born so I did not know her. Thankfully, through genealogy, I feel I somewhat now know her and her struggles. I now know who my grandfather was and I have met several new family members. While your personal experience with genealogy may not be as impactful as mine, it may still have a few surprises in store. In fact, it just might surpass my experience. I believe that fact is truly stranger than fiction, and there are some things you just cannot make up.