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Using DNA to Break Down a Brick Wall

Using DNA to Break Down a Brick Wall


Back in July I was contacted by a distant cousin. He found me through a blog post I had written that had mentioned my 3rd great grandmother, Pleasant Ann Clawson. I was elated to receive his email. This was my first contact with another Clawson descendant. But I was feeling somewhat apprehensive as well. You see, Pleasant Ann Clawson was my second most stubborn brick wall. I wasn't sure what I'd be able to tell my new cousin.

I've been researching Pleasant Ann for about 12 years. She was born in 1823 in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. She died in 1902, four years before the start of the Pennsylvania death certificates, and took the secret of her parent's names with her.

My biggest problem, besides lack of records in early Pennsylvania, is that the Clawson family is very large! My strategy was to start with the very early censuses, find the heads of households and recreate the families. After that I tried tracking down land and probate records for the best male candidates. Nothing came of it.

My best clue to sorting out these Clawsons was the 1860 US Federal Census where Pleasant McClarren (her married name), age 30, was found right next door to James Clawson, age 35, and family. I spent my efforts trying to chase James Clawson's family tree but never figured out who his parents were either.

What was I going to say to my new cousin? I was still mulling over my response in January when MyHeritage came out with a chromosome browser for their dna results.  I took a much keener interest then and started to really dig deep into the tools provided with the dna. I found I could do a surname search and on a whim searched for Clawson. What did I find but a dna match that was a direct surname descendant of the Clawsons!

Before getting too excited I realized the match only had a tree for himself, his father and grandfather. I would not be deterred.  If searching in the 1800s wouldn't bring results then I would start with an unfinished tree that is proven to be tied to me through dna. And so I started researching someone else's tree!

Recreating the tree of a known dna match proved to be a much easier task.  Perhaps being descended from a male Clawson instead of a female Clawson made finding records easier. Without too much trouble I made it back to William Clawson (1815-1888) and who was very conveniently brother to James Clawson (abt. 1825-1890), the same James who lived next door to my Pleasant in 1860.

My philosophy about solving unknown parentage brick walls is that it is a two-step process. First you determine who the probable parents are and then you prove that you have the right parents. I used this exact same process with Geoff's Nathan Brown brick wall.

So far, because of this dna match, I have determined a likely candidate for the family of my Pleasant Ann Clawson - John Clawson and his wife Elizabeth Wincher (with sons William and James among other children).  A nice gaps exists in 1823 right where my Pleasant would fit into the birth order.

With step one finished let's hope it won't be too difficult a process proving that I have the right family!


Learn how Marian found the parents for Geoff's ancestor Nathan Brown in these two webinars in the Legacy library:

Part 1 - Brick Walls: Cracking the Case of Nathan Brown's Parents

Part 2 - Pointing Fingers at Ancestors' Siblings - Breaking Down Brick Walls with Collateral Research

Other Brick Wall webinars in the Legacy Library


Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.




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My brick wall was a great-grandfather who abandoned his wife and my grandfather. Years of research based upon what little we knew convinced me that everything we "knew," including his name, was a lie. A DNA match with someone else in his line seemed the only possibility.

Two days after loading the DNA results along side my family tree I got an email, "Who are you and how can you be so closely related to my husband?" Nothing in your trees match.

Apparently our hero had abandoned a earlier family, changed his name, and moved 1000 miles. They'd been told he'd died in a logging accident.

Outside evidence supporting the DNA match included:
1. He'd kept his middle name, Byrd.
2. He kept his first name but made it his last name.
3. He named my grandfather after his own father.
4. In the 1900 census he reported his parents as having been born in the proper states even while his misreported himself.
5. Family lore said that a telephone call had reported his death in South Dakota. With his real name we were able to locate his burial there in the proper timeframe for the call. (Ten years later than his first family thought he'd died.)

Interestingly, after 50 years of looking for this guy finding him was a bit of a let down. The trouble with a grand quest is replacing it. Now I just need to figure out who his grandparents were.

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