05 June 2014

George Wins the DNA Lottery

From time to time, I post DNA success stories on my blog.  While speaking in John Day, Oregon a few weeks ago, I met George Larson who agreed to share his story with all of us.  Thank you George!

Winning the DNA lottery

Back in February, I got an email from a cousin who just got her results back from 23andMe. She was quite excited, and strongly recommended that I take the test.

I had been intending to take some DNA test for quite a while, but was still undecided about which company, and which test to take first. I had read up on the subject only lightly; I wanted to make a good decision, but was feeling no great sense of urgency. There was only one pressing question in my mind that I thought DNA testing might resolve.

One of my biggest closet skeletons involves my great-grandfather’s birth in 1841, in Oslo prison. His mother was doing time for stealing potatoes and other food during a famine in Norway. The facts are these: Ole Larson was born 7-1/2 month into his mother’s 8-month sentence. At his baptism in the prison chapel, his father was named as Lars Paulsen (his mother’s husband and father of Ole’s six siblings). Maybe I should have left it at that; after all, I had primary-source evidence in the minister’s own hand.

But a nagging doubt remained. The mother, Anne Larsdatter, was initially charged more than ten months before she entered Kristiania prison on April 24, 1841. In the interim, her case went through two unsuccessful appeals, in two courts located in Oslo (Kristiania). Anne’s home was in Gudbrandsdalen, over 150 miles from the capital city. If Ole’s baptism record was correct, she must have been at home with her husband six weeks or less before she entered prison. Some further evidence of this would be reassuring.

Keep in mind that there were no railroads or any mechanized transport at that time. From Anne’s home to Kristiana would in itself have been a journey of two weeks or more, traveling (as she must have) on foot, or in an oxcart or wagon, under military guard in at all times. As for the conditions endured by prisoners, I’m sure they were not unlike those described in fiction by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo: terrifying to anyone, let alone a 40-year-old country woman going through pregnancy and childbirth. It is sad to imagine what my ancestor must have gone through, even more devastating to think that her son may have been conceived in an act of violence.

But I digress. My lineage in question is all male, suggesting a Y-DNA test might be the best option. But, could I find a potential relative who had taken or would be willing to take the test? It would be at a distance of fifth cousin, probably in Norway, and would need to be in an “all-male” lineage. If I could even find a willing candidate, I would probably have to pay for his test myself. So at my cousin’s urging, even though it was not my most desired type of test, I took the plunge with an autosomal DNA test instead, with 23andMe, since that was the company my cousin used.

My results came back, and - what are the odds? – The very first “DNA relative” I made contact with gave me the corroborating evidence I needed -- before I even asked!

The initial report listed over 400 such “DNA relatives,” other members whose test results show a certain level of matching DNA segments. On my list, it ranges from 12.8% with my first cousin, to 0.15% for predicted “3rd to distant cousins” In the three months since my test, the list has grown to almost a thousand predicted cousins.

I can’t view most of the names (they were kept private by the users), but of the hundred or so “public matches” (made their names visible to all members), I didn’t recognize a single one. That surprised me a bit, since I know the names of all or nearly all first and second cousins, and a good many third (especially on the Norwegian side). The 23andMe website supports sending messages to any members, even those whose names are private.

One of the “public” names, though, did catch my eye: Joanne Lillevold, a U.S. resident with origins in Oppland, Norway, among other places, was estimated to be my third to fifth cousin. Lillevold is obviously a Norwegian farm name, although I had never heard it before. I knew it was not related to the farm name Lillegard, which is important in the Larson family story, but even so, the similarity prompted me to make Joanne Lillevold the first of my new “DNA relatives” that I attempted to contact.

What luck that she turns out to be 1) a documented cousin, 2) an avid family historian, and 3) a prompt and generous correspondent. I sent Joanne a message, inviting her to view my family tree website, and asking about her background, in particular the Norway connection. Within a day, she replied that she had identified our common ancestors, namely Svend Poulsen Lillegard (1702-1756) and his wife, Marit Poulsdatter Harildstad. Since those two are my fourth great-grandparents and Joanne’s fifth, she correctly calculated that she and I are fifth cousins, once removed. More important than the precise relationship, our connection provides crucial supporting evidence in an area where I was still disturbingly uncertain. With lots of help, I had already proved by documentary evidence that my second great-grandfather (according to the baptism record), Lars Poulsen, b. Flaate (c. 1794-1855), was a grandson of Svend Poulsen Lillegard. Lars Poulsen married Anne Larsdatter Skurdal, and they raised their family as tenant farmers of Skurdal. But his father was born at Lillegard, son of the same Svend Poulsen, and brother of Joanne’s ancestor. All this in spite of the unrelated but similar-sounding farm name.

My nagging doubts about the paternity of my great-grandfather are now laid to rest. With DNA evidence to corroborate the baptism record, there can no longer be any doubt that Lars Paulsen was the biological father of Ole Larson. Tusen takk (a thousand thanks) to my DNA-discovered cousin, Joanne Lillevold of Fergus Falls, MN!

George Larson as a wonderful blog entitled Ole's Blog.


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