Generic image
Thinkstock

Dear Professor Gates:

I am writing you to ask your advice on how to handle a problem that has recently occurred in my ancestral search. I have been on Ancestry.com since 2006 and recently received my ethnicity results from my DNA. The company helps people find relatives by matching DNA results. As it turns out, one of my highest matches came from my father’s paternal side, through my grandfather Theodore Joseph Johnson, whom we knew little about. When I made contact with a new “cousin,” she seemed happy and excited about completing the puzzle. However, once I was able to narrow down the source, this “cousin” became quite negative and defensive about the notion that her grandfather was my great-grandfather. Her mother and I are a 98 percent match, and her grandfather’s history, occupation, etc., all aligns with what I know to be true concerning my grandfather’s family origins. 

Advertisement

What advice do you have for dealing with a situation as sensitive and life changing as this? As it stands, I recently received correspondence in the form of a nasty text demanding that I remove her grandfather’s information from my family tree. I felt I had no choice but to block her from my Ancestry.com and Facebook pages. Why begin a genealogy search if you are not mature enough to deal with all that may be uncovered? —Margo Canady-Johnson

An All-Too-Common Scenario

We are sorry that you have come across someone who initially was interested in communicating but for some reason is not interested anymore. This could be for a number of reasons.

Advertisement

The best thing to do is to share what information that you have with that person, making sure that all of your information has citations. If anything is speculation, state why and state that further research is needed.

Most times when we connect with “cousins,” we share information and receive memorabilia such as photographs and family Bibles that we did not have, since such items are often passed down through different family members. It is a fun way to share. 

On one occasion, this piece’s co-author, Suzanne Stewart, knew of a client’s ancestor being researched by the New England Historic Genealogical Society who had fought in the Civil War, was captured and spent some time on an island in a prison. Later he escaped with several others, and this escape was written up in the newspaper, mentioning all escapees by name. This particular person being researched then went on to fight for the opposite side.

The “cousin” with whom they made contact was very excited to share photos he had of the soldier in both his Union and Confederate uniforms. With the client’s consent, the society made sure that they shared everything that they found in their research process with this newfound relative. Researching other family lines is usually a good idea, and one that often provides additional information.

If you have controversial information, we think it is best to not make it public online. It could be that this person was interested in corresponding with you until she spoke with someone else in the family. Possibly she is trying to protect her privacy and information that she doesn’t want others to know about. If you surprised her with new information, this could very well be the case.

It Happens to Prominent People, Too

When filming the ancestry of Geoffrey Canada for the first season of Finding Your Roots, Professor Gates tracked down two descendants, a brother and a sister, from the man who owned Canada’s slave ancestor, his great-great-grandfather. The show wanted to know if Canada was a descendant of this slave owner, and the only way to tell would be by comparing the autosomal DNA of these white descendants with Canada’s. But to do that, the brother or the sister would have to consent to a DNA test. 

Advertisement

So they contacted the brother first. He was not only reluctant; he also seemed quite hostile to the idea. Disappointed, Professor Gates personally contacted the sister. They had a long conversation about what they had found and what they sought to determine through a DNA comparison. He sent her DVDs of his previous genealogy TV series and let her know that Canada’s motivation was purely to discover the facts of his ancestry. He didn’t want to judge the circumstances of his possible paternity; he merely wanted to know if, indeed, as they suspected, he shared a white ancestor with this woman. Canada’s admixture revealed a significant recent percentage of European ancestry, so they thought this white ancestry most probably originated on this man’s plantation. 

Professor Gates waited a bit for a response. When this person didn’t call, he called her again. “The answer is no,” she said, politely but firmly. When asked why, she responded that the results would embarrass her father. Her father? Hadn’t he been dead for some years? “Yes,” she replied. But he would be embarrassed anyway, so the answer was no. No test. 

Professor Gates had to explain all of this, in the most positive way he could to Canada on camera. But he did so without disclosing the identity of the brother and sister who declined to be tested. They had a right to their privacy, and he believed they could not violate that right, or mock or criticize them in any way, though obviously they were as disappointed as Canada was. (That being said, the show always identifies slave-owner ancestors by name, even if it might embarrass any of the descendants.) 

How to Handle a Disagreement

It’s also important to note that there are many family trees on public boards with inaccurate information. It is frustrating, especially when you contact the person to let him or her know where the error is and he or she never responds and the public tree stays up online.

Advertisement

If your family tree is public, it might be a good idea either to make it private or to take it down, especially while trying to work this out with your “cousin.” If it is making someone uncomfortable, having information posted on Facebook is not a good idea, either. If it is 100 percent accurate, with sources cited, make it private and share it with your cousin.

Let your cousin know that you want to work with her to figure out the true answers to your ancestry. If she still doesn’t want to acknowledge you, we suggest staying private until further confirmations can be made. At that time, share again, and maybe she will be more receptive. If she isn’t, then let it go.

We agree with you that most researchers who post information on ancestry generally are interested in sharing. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are definitely some who aren’t interested in sharing information. Keep in mind that you don’t know this person, and maybe you don’t want to know this person. Just because she is or might be related doesn’t mean she’s someone with whom you want to connect.

Advertisement

Ancestry is quite personal to some. Maybe you should keep it this way until you find more primary documentation, gathering as many vital records as possible, as well as deeds and probate records. Don’t give up. Maybe you can find another person in another line who is willing to share information and connect with you.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

Advertisement

This answer was provided in consultation with Suzanne Stewart, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.