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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 26.

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Week 26 – Identity.

The longest-standing mystery in my family history is the identity of my paternal great-grandfather, which remains unknown to this date. None of the family knew anything definite about him, my grandfather never mentioned him, and family photos show great-gran alone or with one or both of her children.

Obviously the first line of approach was the “paper trail” of official records, which quickly revealed a problem: great-gran gave a different name for her husband on each of her children’s birth registration and a third at their joint baptism.

  • Grandfather’s birth James Jones – ship’s steward

  • Great-aunt’s birth William Henry James – mercantile clerk

  • Joint baptism Joseph William James – clerk

My grandfather and his sister added further variations on his marriage record and her registration of great-gran’s death.

  • Grandfather’s marriage Stephen James – ship’s steward

  • Great-gran’s death John James – ship’s steward

No man is present in the household on any census return, and (unsurprisingly!) there is no trace of a marriage between great-gran and any of the men named – or with anyone else, for that matter. She called herself a widow on census returns, while her mother’s will refers to her as a spinster.

It seemed fairly obvious that great-gran never married the father(s) of her children, but could any of the names given be relied on?

Great-gran’s birth was registered in the name of Helen Jones Dowding, but from infancy she was known as Helen James – the surname adopted by her unmarried mother Harriet Louisa Jones for the sake of respectability. The recurrent James-Jones surnames for Helen's “husband” might just have been a coincidence – after all, neither name is uncommon – but I was more than a little skeptical.

However, I duly searched GRO and census records as well as contemporary street directories and electoral rolls for the part of Manchester where the family lived, but the results were less than conclusive. I found a James Jones listed as a householder in the area in 1883 and 1886, but he was impossible to identify with certitude on census returns. At least one man named William Henry James lived locally, but none was apparently employed as a clerk. Joseph James was equally elusive, and although I couldn’t state categorically that none of the men named was my missing great-grandfather, my overall impression was that it was highly unlikely.

I had no further leads, and for a long time could only hope that perhaps making contact with an unknown distant relation might add some information. However, with the advent of genealogical DNA testing, a new avenue opened up.

Although DNA testing isn’t a magical way of instantly identifying unknown ancestors it can be a powerful additional tool, particularly as the number of people tested continues to grow. I had some modest success using DNA matches combined with traditional research methods to extend my Nesbitt and Potts families in Antrim, but my unknown great-grandfather posed more of a challenge.

The first thing to do was to identify which of my DNA matches were potentially linked to his branch of the family. One of the few close family members who had taken a DNA test was a first cousin on my mother’s side, so I could set aside any matches I had in common with her. (My parents were not related to each other.) Shortly after I started looking into the remaining matches a first cousin once removed on my father’s side took a test, so I could now concentrate on the matches we had in common, ignoring those known to be linked to my paternal grandmother’s Potts-Nesbitt ancestors.

I divided our remaining matches into groups whose members were related to each other as well as to us. (I initially used the colour-coding facility on Ancestry before moving to a modified version of the Leeds method using an Excel spreadsheet which I found better for visualising groups and sub-groups.) Within each group I could then use “triangulation” to attempt to identify shared ancestors – basically this means tracing back the ancestors of two or more distant cousin matches until their lines join up: depending how far back this is, the ancestors they have in common are very likely to be mine too.

Disappointingly the closest potential DNA matches for my great-grandfather’s family all fell in the 4th-6th cousin range, which meant that the most recent ancestors we were likely to share were his parents or grandparents, and it could be even further back. I soon found that a high proportion of the matches had families which could be traced back to Scotland, and specifically to Aberdeenshire, which was in line with my ethnicity estimate on two separate testing sites, but which begs the question of how and why my own line ended up in Manchester!

To cut a long story short, I still haven’t identified my great-grandfather, but I am reasonably confident that I have identified some of his ancestors. Among others:

1. My cousin and I have DNA matches to descendants of two of the children of William Bisset (born 1722 in Rathen, Aberdeenshire) and his wife Mary Cruickshank (born 1741 in Longside, Aberdeenshire). This is far enough back for me to think that the couple are almost certainly my direct ancestors.

2. We have DNA matches to descendants of two of the children of James Robb (born 1779 in Strichen, Aberdeenshire) and his wife Grace Johnston, whom he married in 1812. It’s highly likely that this couple are my direct ancestors.

3. We have DNA matches to descendants of each of the three known children of William Stephen and his wife Barbara Mitchell: the children were born in Tyrie, Aberdeenshire between 1775-1783. Again, it’s very likely that William and Barbara are my direct ancestors.

4. We have DNA matches to multiple descendants of John Tait (born 1786 in Rathen, Aberdeenshire) and his wife Ann Buchan (born about 1791 in Rathen). The dates make it likely that this couple are my direct ancestors.

5. We have DNA matches to descendants of two of the children of William Third (born 1809 in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire) and his wife Martha Buchan (born 1811 in Rathen, Aberdeenshire). This couple are possibly my direct ancestors, but the point of junction with my own line could be one or two generations earlier.

My grandfather was born in 1882 and his mother in 1852, so based on the dates of birth of the couples named above and the amount of DNA I share with their descendants, most are potentially my unknown great-grandfather’s grandparents or great-grandparents. In theory, if I could find a marriage between descendants of two of these couples, I would be a step closer to identifying him, but to date I am still searching.

So, no great flash of illumination, but a reasonable assumption that my mystery ancestor not only had Scottish roots, but that at least part of his family originally came from a fairly precise area of Aberdeenshire. I continue to search, and hope that as more relations take DNA tests in the future, I may finally be able to identify who James William Henry Joseph Stephen John Jones-James really was!


I have simplified slightly some aspects of DNA matching, but for anyone with an interest in learning more I recommend the International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki.

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