Your ‘DNA Relative Finder’ Found a Distant Cousin. Yay! Now What?


And where did that gold nugget come from?

By Eric Peterschmidt

Who shares your DNA? For around $100, people, by the millions, are finding out.

There are many reasons why people might want to do this. For those of us with a passion for researching and building out our family’s history, one of the huge benefits is finding distant cousins with whom you share great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and on and on.

So, you had your DNA tested. With that, you opted to find out who some of these cousins might be. As 23andMe calls it, you used their “DNA Relative Finder” where you “opt-in to connect and message with people who share DNA with you.” And Bingo!! A distant cousin is found! You message her, she messages back, and have a great moment as you share things about each other and what perhaps is known about your common ancestors.

That is a wonderful thing to do. In fact, it is incredibly amazing that such a thing can be done. Never before in human history could that be done so easily and affordably. But, if you are fortunate enough to have some matches and you make the connection, what next? After you share some pleasantries and get to know each other a bit, what can you do to keep the relationship going? Or, if you are like me and hungry for information about your ancestors, what can you do to learn more about your people?

Recently, a first cousin of mine went through this DNA process. She too had opted in for the “DNA Relative Finder”, and out of it came the name of a distant cousin. The last name was one that, while known to us as an ancestor, our side of the family had completely lost contact with that branch nearly 75 years ago.

A new relative – found!

This was of particular interest to me. I had grown up hearing about one of my dad’s granduncles from that family – Uncle Max (or, as my dad and other family pronounced it – Mox). Max was a brother to my great-grandmother. He was an amazing man – one of legendary status in the family. He left Iowa as a young man, made his way through what are now the Dakotas and Montana, and eventually – after several years – ended up in the Alaskan Klondike with a stake in a gold mine. While he did come back and visit once or twice, he lived out his years there. Never married. Never really wealthy, though apparently made enough to keep on going.

Many stories exist about him – some true, and some undoubtedly legends. His reputation had such an impact on me that, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, since we both like the name “Max”, we wanted to name him after my great-uncle, with his surname as my son’s middle name. However, before we did, I wanted to know for sure if this man was a good man. I had a talk with my dad about what we were thinking and when I asked him, he replied “yes, Max was a very honorable man”.

The other reason this interested me, was because I had inherited 2 photo albums from the late 1800s. Nearly 100 photos, and there are only the names of a couple people written down. In addition, there are probably another 100 or so loose photos I have from the early 1900s. They are all from this family – in fact there are a couple of Max as a younger man.

But who are they? My parents died in the late 1980s, and my surviving aunts and uncles do not know who those other people are. Some of the photos are incredible family portraits and it just drives me crazy knowing that they are likely related to me, but I have no idea if or how.

So, over 30 years later, my first cousin informs me about her DNA test and introduces me to our newfound distant cousin, Mary. Mary and I had a very nice initial chat. It went the way I described at the beginning of this story. Cordial, fun and gave us a chance to get to know each other. I mentioned my son Max and who he was named after, and she knew immediately who I was talking about. “Maximillian” is how they referred to him and she knew of his story.

In fact, as we talked, I was amazed at the detail of various aspects of that family’s history that she knew. And then, it came out. Ding! Ding! Ding!!! She is a genealogist!! How incredible is that? Actually, probably not all that incredible as I would not be surprised if many who had their DNA done were people who, if not genealogists, were at least very interested in their family’s history. So, here is Mary, with the entire side of that family tree filled out going back several generations prior to Max.

Here at TightKnit, we have a couple of sayings that we live by

“Everybody has something, but nobody has everything”, and “Everybody knows something, but nobody knows everything”. During that conversation with Mary, I saw both of these statements come true. While she had photos, by far the majority of the ones I had she had never seen (in fact I still have over 100 that I have yet to share). What she has is the knowledge of who they are!

So, Mary built a story album for photos she had and created a new family “virtual kitchen table” in TightKnit, inviting my family members to join in with hers. I added a story album about Max, and two additional for each of the photo albums I had. Imagine that!! This big virtual table with all of these distant relatives sitting with each other, looking at photos and sharing memories and stories, in a way that they are documented for future generations.

That is when things took off. Mary has so much knowledge of the family that she was able to start inferring things from the little information that was in my photo albums. She quickly began to piece things together. For those of us who enjoy this kind of thing, it was like a game!  A challenge. Who is who? Where did they live? What did they do? What was their story?

Suddenly these photos started to come to life

We learned how brave and driven my ancestors had been – to pack up and leave their German homeland. To come to America and be some of the first European settlers in Iowa. Along with that were some amazing back-stories that Mary had uncovered in her research about the hardships of life on the farm, and the risks they took as well.

One such story was about an ancestor named Maurice and an accident he had. It was a story I had never heard before. Here is a write-up of the accident from the local newspaper (first names only used here):

Maurice, a cabinet maker and furniture dealer, went to the timber to get a walnut log. Frank going along to drive the team and help load the timber. They got the log up on the wagon and Maurice held one end of it there with a rope. While Frank was prying up the other end, the rope broke or slipped from the end of the log, and it came crashing down toward the two men. Frank escaped by jumping to one side. Maurice attempted to get out of reach, but tripped and fell flat on his back, the log rolling with crushing weight over his limbs and about one-third way over his body. He called out to be released from his terrible burden, but Frank, although a powerful man, could not move it, and there was no help near. So, he hitched the team to the log and dragged it off the unfortunate man. He raised Maurice up and sat him beside a tree and ran for assistance. In a few minutes he returned with the two brothers (Maurice’s nephews) but Maurice was dead.

One of the brothers was 18-year-old Max, a young man, before he left home to go west. No telling what an event like this did to shape him.

Max’s stories continued. Mary told me that legend had it that Max had a gold nugget tie pin that he sent home to Iowa. However, she said it seemed to have disappeared. She remembers her aunts talking about it and wondering what happened to it – even blaming each other for losing it! I surprised Mary by telling her that, yes indeed, the gold nugget tie pin did exist.

My uncle Mark had inherited it from my dad’s parents. When we named my son after Max, he knew where the tie pin needed to be, and gave it to our son. Max wore it on his wedding day last year.

Magic can happen when you connect with family like this. But you don’t have to take DNA tests and find distant relatives to get the benefit. Memories, artifacts and stories are in the possession of all of your relatives – siblings, parents and on and on. If you find yourself asking “So now what?” Well, this is “What”! Use the collective possessions and knowledge of your family, gathered around a virtual kitchen table, where you can build your family story together.

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