• Mel Hulbert

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks - #7 ‘Favourite Discovery’

‘Favourite Discovery’ is the prompt for week seven.

My Grandfather Quest

Since I was quite young I have known that my Mum was fostered out as a baby and while she knew who her mother was, had never known anything about her father other than he was young (around her mother’s age), had likely served in the military and may have been American. When I became interested in family history, I traced Mum’s maternal line and investigated every resource I could that may provide a clue to her father, all without success. That was until DNA came along.

I discussed the option of testing with Mum and she agreed to test with Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and we eagerly awaited to results. The results came back with matches but it was hard to know if these matches were on her maternal or paternal side and many were at the 2nd-4th cousin level (more likely 3rd or 4th cousins) and without any closer matches it was hard to make any progress though everyone we contacted were very helpful.

A few years later I was at Rootstech and after listening to many DNA talks, I decided that Ancestry would be a good company to test with as they had, at the time, predominantly American testers and the largest database of testers, providing Mum was happy to do the test, which she was.

Mum’s results came back a few weeks early and apart from a recently found niece (and sister, which is another story for another day) there were two other matches in the first cousin category. A quick check to see if they matched Mum’s niece who was on her maternal side – no they didn’t so they had to be on Mum’s paternal line!

One of the matches also had a large public tree of over 9,000 people which was good news and was really the other key (apart from not matching Mum’s niece) to solving this mystery.

I knew from the high total shared centimorgans (800cM) that this match and Mum must have shared grandparents and so I looked at both grandparent’s lines on the tree and then set about finding other matches with trees that I could use to confirm the grandparents. This proved surprisingly easy, simply as we were fortunate that many of the matches on Mum’s paternal line had large trees and I wasn’t searching that far back in time. Thanks to second, third and fourth cousin matches I had soon isolated the grandparents to Ervin Mealer/Meeler and Caroline Johnson. They had seven children of which I could eliminate four as three were female and one son had sadly died in infancy. This left three brothers, William, Ivan and Vernon. I was able to rule out William as he was 10 years older than Ivan and 12 years older than Vernon (so a little bit too old) and from his service record, never served near Australia. This left Ivan and Vernon.

A friend with a world Ancestry subscription kindly looked up the two brother’s records and sent them through. One was interesting, Vernon had been posted to the ‘Phillippine Department’ [1] however more research was required. I was visiting the USA, a few weeks after Mum’s results came back and had fortuitously decided to stop off in Salt Lake City for a few days of research and the American section was now top of my list! The LDS Family History Library is an enormous facility with wonderful staff who are more than willing to help and I was directed to the relevant WWII military records. I searched through many records and could still only place Vernon near Australia. It was suggested that I discuss my research with one of the professional researchers they have and this was extremely helpful. The researcher listened while I explained what I was trying to find out, my research and conclusions. She asked key questions and agreed with what I had discovered. However, she did say the only way to know for sure would be to reach out and make contact.

I pondered this for the rest of my trip as there are many variables to consider, though most importantly how would someone react to being contacted about a potential unknown child in the family? There is no one definitive way to contact someone in this situation with each being different. Vernon had married however there were no children listed on the trees however I knew that this didn’t mean there were not children. I decided the best way was to approach and say my Mum looked like a close cousin match and would they be interested in working out the connection. I heard back immediately from Carlene who was keen to help. After a couple of emails and sharing my private tree with Carlene (it has more detail than the public tree) and no names in common, I replied saying that my Mum was fostered and didn’t know her father or his line and could we perhaps be related in this way? I also mentioned that from looking at her tree, Vernon would seem the most likely. Carlene then sent a reply asking if I could see some other matches to Mum which I could. She immediately replied back saying it seemed certain that Vernon was Mum’s father as he was the only one of the family that had been in Australia at the correct time. She then went on to explain that their family knew he had an Australian girlfriend at the time and that her mother (Vernon’s sister) had exchanged letters with Vernon’s girlfriend. This was the last piece of the puzzle and at this point I gathered the family around to read this email. Needless to say, Mum was surprised and excited by the find.

Subsequent emails revealed that Vernon had not had any other children. Carlene was thrilled at the Australian connection and said that she would love to meet us but supposed this would be unlikely given the distance between us all. I think it was almost an instant and unanimous decision to hop on a plane and visit so in October last year Mum, Dad and I boarded a plane to the USA. We went to visit Carlene in North Carolina and also met her daughter Karen and granddaughters Jayde and Tasha. We were made very welcome and chatted for many hours and Carlene shared not only stories but also some photos with us.

We then headed Texas to visit the grave of Mum’s father Vernon Oscar ‘Bob’ Mealer who had passed away in 1992 [2, 3]. Our final stop was Arkansas where we met Carlene’s brother David, Barbara who was also a first cousin and her husband Jerry. We met at a petrol station in Morrilton, perhaps not where you imagine a family reunion to take place, but it was close to our destination that day, the Old Liberty Cemetery. This cemetery is where Mum’s grandparents, great grandparents and 2x great grandparents are all buried. In fact, Barbara explained that we were related to almost everyone in this this cemetery in some way. I spent a lot of time, with Jerry’s help, wandering around taking photographs of nearly all the headstones, knowing that my time here was short and that I could figure out the relationships later.

Afterwards over lunch, Jerry shared that he knew who Mum was the second they drove up. He said she looked a lot like her father and that even her mannerisms were the same as his had been. This was very special to hear and made our connection with the family feel so much stronger.

Jerry’s words also reminded me of the first time I saw a photo of Vernon. It was when I first started looking at Carlene’s online tree and my immediate reaction upon seeing it was ‘that’s him’. The logical part of me said hang on a minute a lot more research is required so don’t go jumping to conclusions, but I do wonder now if perhaps I had recognised my Mum in Vernon and hence my reaction.

We returned to David’s for a family dinner and met his wife Pauline and Vicki, Mum’s second cousin. David then presented Mum with a photo album full of photos of her father and many of the ancestors’ whose graves we had visited earlier in the day. Needless to say these are treasured and have pride and place at home.

We all feel very lucky that our experience was so wonderful. We were made to feel so very welcome and a part of the family by everyone we met. We are all still in contact via email sharing family stories and photos and with hopes to meet up again in the not too distant future.

I also found out that after the war Vernon worked as a handwriting and forensics expert in Austin, Texas [4] and I like to think he would be a little chuffed that his granddaughter found him using DNA.

References:

[1] U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 (database on-line), Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com.au/ :downloaded September 2017), Original data: National Archives and Records Administration. Electronic Army Senal Number Merged File, 1938-1946

[Archival Database]; ARC: 1263923

[2] U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010 (database on-line), Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com.au/ :downloaded February 2018), Original data: Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[3] U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current (database on-line), Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com.au/ :downloaded February 2018), Original data: Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi.

[4] The Eagle (Bryan, Texas), Wednesday 27 March 1963, page 1, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/images/48617272 : downloaded 17 August 2017)





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