Many people choose to get their DNA tested on a whim, or a vague desire to know more about their ethnic heritage (oof, the accuracy of this is so suspect – but that’s a topic for another day). But it’s often difficult to know where to go after that. What good does it do to have a list of usernames of people who share tiny bits of DNA strands with you?

1822 birth of John Krier

The most useful information I have ever gotten from DNA was a confirmation of a particular ancestral line. All the written and physical evidence of birth for my ancestor John Krier contains two conflicting narratives, and I have long wondered if perhaps there were two men named John Krier who were being conflated. This year, I got my answer.

I have a civil record for John showing his birth on February 15, 1822, in Bertrange, Luxembourg, born to Michel Krier and Jeanne Wester.

The wedding certificate for his first marriage (in Bertrange) reflects this same date of birth in 1822.

Wedding certificate of John Krier & Margaret Kemp
John Krier headstone showing 1820 birth

Yet, the headstone for his grave shows not only an alternate year (let’s be honest, it’s not uncommon for years to be a little off), but an entirely different date! And not only that, but the date is Christmas Day. How on Earth could someone get a date like that wrong, and be confident enough to literally carve it into stone?

Since John immigrated to the United States, it was always a possibility in my mind that perhaps my ancestor buried in Wisconsin (born on Christmas Day) was a different John Krier than the one born in 1822. It is very difficult to maintain any chain of evidence for immigrants in cases like these.

Further complicating the question are the census records. In 1860, John told the census he was born around 1826, and in 1870, he aged miraculously and reported his birth in 1805. It was the 1900 census where things started to get interesting, however. That was the first U.S. census to ask for a birth month, instead of just a current age, leading to a far more accurate collection of data than in previous years. His son Nicholas told the census-taker that John was born in December of 1820. It seems oddly specific for an incorrect guess on Nicholas’ part.

But when I checked the December 1820 birth records for Bertrange (and surrounding months), I found no evidence of a John Krier or similar name.

The death certificate for John also shows the Christmas Day date … but the script appears to be written in multiple different pens at multiple times (by multiple people?). It also features a different set of parents. It’s natural for a man to share his father’s name … but the “mother” listed here has the same initials and surname as John’s wife, Mary Catherine Mans. If the person filling out the certificate got this wrong, perhaps they also got the birth date wrong? Or was there really a John Krier born Christmas day to a John Krier and M.C. Mans, somewhere not in Bertrange?

I reached out to every researcher I knew working with this line, and no one had any more answers. Was my John the one born to Michel Krier and Jeanne Wester or not?! I felt like I had reached a dead end … until someone offhandedly suggested checking DNA.

DNA surname groups sample

Brilliant! I had already been carefully identifying and tagging all the DNA matches that I could confirm in my tree. In fact, I am blessed to have DNA results for my great-grandmother’s sister, Clarice, who is still with us in 2022! (let us give thanks for enormous Catholic families whose children span generations) So the data is much richer than my own in this area.

Over the last year, I have developed my own strategy for analyzing DNA matches on Ancestry. I created a rubric of surnames in my tree, identified with prefixes that indicate their branch. So Clarice’s father’s father’s name (shown to the right) is Schmidt. Her father’s father’s father’s mother’s name (f.f.f.m.) was Knabe. And (jumping down the list) her mother’s father’s name was Krier. I color coded them so all the paternal matches had cool colors, and all the maternal ones had warm (this was before Ancestry did that split for you!)

Then for each match that I could identify (either through the automated Common Ancestor function, or through my own analysis of the match’s tree), I tagged them with the corresponding surnames. These are the various family lines flowing in their blood, not just the actual name on their birth certificates.

Example DNA match with groups added

The names are sorted in this order so I could quickly select applicable ones. That is, if I know they are a Kruse in my line, then I automatically know that they are also a Hamer, a Koll, a Naeve, and a Mohr, because those were the ancestors of my Kruse ancestor (I originally had the names alphabetized, and it was a nightmare in practice).

Where this gets interesting is in the more distant cousins. This example match, Thomas, is not very helpful, because he shares a lot of different lines with Clarice.

But if I find someone who is a 7th or 8th cousin to her, they might only share a couple of these family lines at most. And here were the magic two matches that finally gave me what I needed to know – “J.W.” and “Elton”.

Literally the only family line they share with Clarice is that of the Westers (tagged in gold). There is no other way they could be related to her, because they have no Krier connections at all. This is not the case for “D.P.”, because they share both Krier (burgundy) and Wester (gold) DNA. So Clarice must be a Wester.

Portrait of John Krier

The only Wester in Clarice’s (and my) tree is the mother of 1822 John. If there were two different John Kriers being conflated, meaning that the 1822 John was not my John, then there would be no Wester matches.

Therefore … we got him! This is my man. Why and how did his headstone end up like that? No one knows. Maybe he just really liked Christmas, and he wanted to be two years older, so he started declaring it to be the case. Or maybe Nicholas heard it wrong, and he was the one providing information for the death record.

In any case, DNA testing allowed me to finally lay this question to rest, when the paper (and stone) trail could not. Go science!

If you are looking for help interpreting your own DNA results, I offer hourly consulting! My method has also been used to track down birth families and identify DNA matches who are not responding to messages. Contact me now!