The cousin who isn’t

Thank you, Tony!

We call it serendipity in genealogy.

Those moments when the stars align or the fates dictate or somehow things just happen.

And yesterday was one of those days.

teapartyThose of you who’ve been following along this week know that I had the great honor and privilege to be a keynote speaker at RootsTech yesterday, and used a couple of family stories to explain why it’s so important to pass down our history both purposely and accurately.

And like so many families the problem with mine is that a good number of stories that get passed down purposely are… well… let’s just say that my family never lets the truth interfere with a good story.

Case in point: the purported descent of my thoroughly-Virginia-based Baker family from an Alexander Baker who came to Boston in 1635 on the ship the Elizabeth and Ann.

It’s a lovely story since it takes our Bakers at least close to the first settlers of this great nation, and later … um… enhancements put one of our ancestors right onto the decks of the Mayflower.

And then I came along. The genealogical partypooper. I wanted (gasp) proof.

You see, there was just so much about the story that didn’t make sense to me.

Every bit of the story seemed to have some documentation, except the documentation didn’t quite match up. A purported town record in Massachusetts that listed all of the children of one couple, for example… except the one that we were supposed to be descended from. A marriage in Connecticut that violated everything I knew about the customs at the time. A migration path that was just so very unlikely for the time.

So I turned to a tool I knew could give us the answer: DNA.

Lots of the descendants of my Baker ancestors had already tested. The Baker men who descended from the last Baker we could be sure of — Thomas Baker of Culpeper County, Virginia — all had the same distinct DNA pattern. What we needed was someone we knew descended from Alexander.

I posted messages far and wide on the Internet asking for any male Baker who was a documented descendant of Alexander Baker to step forward, and I’d pay for his DNA test.

And we waited.

And we waited.

Finally, one day some years back, I got a message from a lovely lady in California, Lisa Baker, who said her husband Tony fit the bill. His paper trail back to Alexander was excellent. And he was willing to test.

We got the test all set up, Tony sent in his sample, and we waited again. And waited. And waited.

And when the results came in…

No match.

Not even close. We’re so far removed from the YDNA markers of Alexander Baker that any common ancestors might be named Adam and Eve.

Now you know what my Baker cousins said about that, right? They said Tony’s paper trail must be wrong. Except that he had a paper trail, and we didn’t.

But as a good genealogist, I didn’t want to rest on a single piece of evidence, so I kept looking and, not too long thereafter, we found a second well-documented descendant of Alexander Baker of Boston.

He agreed to be tested, we sent in the kit and…

He matched Tony. He didn’t match us.

We got the results just before a Baker reunion at Decoration Day at the Old Town Cemetery in Bakersville, North Carolina. My cousin Charles Baker from Texas was driving me to the reunion and asked me if I was going to tell all the Bakers about the DNA test. I said I was.

“They’re going to lynch you,” he said.

“I’ve got it covered, Charles,” was my reply.

“I don’t like blood,” he told me.

“Don’t worry,” I assured him.

My assurances didn’t stop him from backing the car into the parking spot so we could make a quick getaway.

When it was my turn to speak, I told all those Bakers who believed themselves to be Alexander Baker descendants about DNA and what it could do and how it sometimes produced unexpected results — and sometimes great results.

Charles rolled his eyes.

The unexpected result, I said, was that it turned out we were not descended from Alexander Baker of Boston.

Faces began to fall all around the crowd, and Charles started reaching for the car keys.

The great results, I continued, was that we now had proof positive that (and I paused for a long moment as Charles began inching towards the parking lot)…

We were not descended from a Yankee.

The crowd burst into applause.

So what does this all have to do with Tony Baker and serendipity?

Yesterday, as I was telling the story to all those thousands of people at RootsTech about how we found out we were not descended from Alexander Baker… Tony’s wife Lisa was sitting in the audience, listening. She brought Tony over later and I got to meet him in person.

I got to say thank you to my cousin-who-isn’t Tony, for being willing to test, to help my family — and his — learn the truth.

Serendipity. Gotta love it.

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33 Responses to The cousin who isn’t

  1. Best. Story. Ever. I literally laughed out loud. Thank you so much for sharing this experience – marvelous – just marvelous!!!

  2. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Judy, if I ever have to tell a whole group of Tom’s Perry family members that it’s very unlikely that they are related to Oliver Hazard Perry, I’ll need a “good news” tag! Can’t use yours because the whole cartload of them ARE yankees! Maybe I can reverse it. It really is amazing that, of all of the probably untrue stories in the family, every one of them is devoted to this one more than any other!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s always that one story people don’t want to give up, Mary Ann! The Alexander Baker story sure had its “hooks” in my Bakers — which is why Charles was so worried!

  3. K.C. Perilloux says:

    OMG I literally LOL’d at this! Great post!

  4. Really. love. it!
    I’ve heard so many family stories (of course it is true, Barbara!) and rumours and piece by piece I put some of them apart.
    But this one tops it all ;)

  5. Shirley Ann Rankin says:

    Talk about making lemonade out of a lemon! Nicely done.

  6. Carolyn Lea says:

    This story made me laugh and cry. Wonderful post and so glad you got to meet Tony and Lisa.

  7. Celia Lewis says:

    Wish you could have been reading the Tweets from those of us following you live on the live-stream, Judy.
    First were all the groans about – wow, she has such an incredible family tree/history/early movers and shakers in US history, etc. Oh, yes, we envied you your wonderful tree up there on the screen.
    And then you started poking holes in it, eliminating those Bakers, those Winslows, and left you with -? Oh yes, it left you with a family tree based on proof.
    Oh my, you’re a great teacher, Judy. The best. Lots of OMGs and LOLs on Twitter. Lots of excited talk about “genealogical standards” and “proof” and “DNA connections”. Great story. Keep it up.
    My Terwilliger line (Dutch/New Amsterdam) ended in my grandmother who was such a drama queen, that I couldn’t trust any of her stories. Ah yes. Got to love family stories, eh? My elderly first cousin loves to talk about our Irish grandparents and their love of telling/making up stories.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks so very much for the kind words, Celia! Yeah, a family tree based on proof may not be anywhere near as filled with movers and shakers… but it’s real, at least!!

  8. Phil Grass says:

    Great Post Judy,

    It’s interesting to see how people wishes get in the way of the facts. Observing from a distance, as a British genealogist, it seems that quite a few Americans seem to have a wish to be descended from the “Founding Fathers” of the nation, or have Native American blood. Would you agree ?

    I just wish I could figure out my own in-built biases…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Just as so many of your countrymen wish to believe they’re descended from royalty, Phil, so many of mine want to be descended from our own version of it — our founding fathers. And Native American descent is considered cool, too. Me, I’d settle for a pirate. Or a witch!

      • Lois Johnson says:

        And I am descended from a couple who were jailed as witches. I found them while searching for proof about a family story. The tale was that an ancestress and her British soldier lover shoved her husband down a well. They were found out when the water went bad. She was pregnant by the soldier and hung after the baby was born. Unfortunately, the truth was that she was hung before the baby was born. However, she did live in the same town as my witches, so a nice outcome, even if a family story turned out to be just that.

  9. Phil Grass says:

    Did I mention my grandmother was a Stewart …

    Actually the worst thing about all us Brits with royal connections are that we continue to fight the battles of yesteryear, e.g. the uproar over the reburial of Yorkist Richard the 3rd.

  10. Bonnie B. says:

    It’s so true about family stories and it seems that there was major embellishment around 1900 when genealogy was a big thing. My family favorite is that we are kin of Thomas Paine (except he had no children)and Lord Swanson & Gov. Swanson & also Gloria Swanson (not true). However, we ARE related to the explorer Charlie Brower who personally populated Barrow, Alaska and there’s a Salem witch in there as well. So enjoy your story-telling and throwing those twists in.

  11. Hi Judy,
    What I didn’t mention that day is I wanted to stand up in the Keynote address at Rootstech and shout that’s my husband Tony that’s our family!!! I was jumping up and down inside. It was so great to meet you and hear more about the Southern Bakers. Until we meet again your Yankee un-cousins Tony and Lisa Baker

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It would have been a hoot and a half if you HAD stood up and hollered, Lisa! My big regret is that I didn’t think about getting a picture of all of us. Maybe next time!

      • Dang it a picture would have been great!, maybe next year or if we come out your way on a trip we will have to get together! Lisa

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          You’d think somebody who’s as much of a photographer as I am would have thought of it — and if Tony had feathers and flew, it’s a sure thing I’d have gotten a picture. But next time for sure! (I will be in California in June for Jamboree in Burbank and again in San Mateo in November… just sayin’…)

  12. Betty-Lu Baker Burton says:

    Hi I am Tony’s younger sister. Enjoyed your story and Your keynote address. I watched it on streaming video. Correct me if I am wrong but was not there 2 Alexander Bakers? And the DNA test helped straighten out which one Tony’s line came through.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hi, Betty, my other not-cousin-darn-it! The problem with the two Alexander Bakers came even earlier than the Alexander of Boston. People kept attributing the Alexander of Boston to a father Alexander who had been a King’s official in England. That was disproved by the record evidence: the Alexander who came to Boston and the Alexander-son-of-Alexander in England couldn’t have been the same man as shown by the records of Westminster Abbey in London. So the DNA really was to (a) distinguish the Alexander of Boston descendants from my Thomas Baker descendants and (b) to establish the “signature” for the Alexander of Boston folks. To the best of my knowledge, no descendants of Alexander-son-of-Alexander in England have tested.

  13. Judy and Betty-Lu, If I am correct in reading the record of the Alexander Baker of London and later of New Windsor, he only left 2 daughters and no sons, so his male line died out with him, however, going back 1 generation he did have several brothers who potentially could have sons who have current day descendants, someone would need to follow their genealogy down to current day to find a male Baker to test. Lisa

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